The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Monday
Jun182018

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on June 19, 2018

At the age of 40, Jimmy is one of the youngest workers at the Duck House, a D.C. restaurant that he and his brother Johnny inherited from their father. Jimmy is known to his staff as “the little leader.” The restaurant manager is Nan, whose plan to spend more time with her son Pat by hiring him a dishwasher has been a disaster. Johnny is teaching a class in Hong Kong, taking a break from the restaurant business, but events force Johnny’s premature return to D.C., where he must listen to his mother’s remonstrations about what a bad son he has been.

Based on a brief internship in a fancy restaurant, Jimmy yearns to prepare gourmet fusion dishes of his own creation, not his father’s Americanized Chinese dishes that are so popular with his customers. Jimmy plans to open a new restaurant with the help of a real estate agent (and new lover) named Janine, an idea that initially had the support of Jimmy’s Uncle Pang, for whom Jimmy used to deal drugs. When Jimmy learns just what kind of shady help Pang has planned, Jimmy has second thoughts. But Pang is not so easily put off, and he soon ignites family turmoil in his scheme to undermine Jimmy.

Number One Chinese Restaurant is very much a family novel; if characters are not related by blood, they have become part of the family by virtue of working for decades at the Duck House. As is common in family novels, marriages are troubled, siblings are at odds, and children are rebellious. Family members form and dissolve alliances, plot against each other, and come together when it counts — unless they don’t.

A good bit of the novel is also a love story involving elderly Duck House waiter Ah-Jack, whose wife has found a younger man, and Nan, whose husband lives in California, and who worries that her friendship with Ah-Jack might jeopardize her friendship with Ah-Jack’s wife. The Ah-Jack love triangle offers the novel’s best insights into how married life evolves over time, how love might endure even if a marriage doesn’t. Some insights are serious and others are not. This is Ah-Jack on the secret of a long marriage: “A strong marriage came when the wedded stopped trying to plumb their partner’s depths. Life became easier when one passed the years with an amiable stranger and not a mirror that reflected back all of one’s flaws.” I put that one in the pile of serious insights, but other readers might disagree.

Finally, as the title implies, Number One Chinese Restaurant is a restaurant novel, one that spends a bit of time in the kitchen, explaining how a well-oiled restaurant prepares meals efficiently and flawlessly, how waiters serve them without crashing into each other, and how owners and managers woo important customers. I don’t spend much time in the kitchen but I like to eat, and I’m a fan of restaurants and of restaurant novels. The nuts-and-bolts of operating a restaurant is a small but essential part of the story.

The combination of geriatric love story, family drama, and restaurant novel is a tough balance, but Lillian Li mixes the elements with light and dark humor, combining sweetness with sadness, love with backbiting, honesty with evil schemes. Li’s light touch makes Number One Chinese Restaurant a fun and easy read, but the story offers serious life lessons as memorable characters make difficult choices and uneasy compromises, confronting problems that are common to every family, whether or not they operate a restaurant.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun152018

Blown by Mark Haskell Smith

Published by Grove Press/Black Cat on June 12, 2018

Bryan LeBlanc is a currency trader for an investment bank. Bryan has gone on vacation to the Dominican Republic, ditching his girlfriend and leaving his department manager, Seo-yun Kim, to handle the blowback when clients discover that money drawn on margin from their accounts has vanished into a bewildering network of transactions. Bryan has about $17 million to finance a comfortable lifestyle if he can avoid getting caught.

Neal Nathanson works for LeBlanc’s employer. Neal’s job is to track down investors who have skipped out on their margin calls. He’s been assigned to track down Bryan. Neal teams with Seo-yun to accomplish that mission. Seo-yun’s relationship with her irritating fiancé (he calls her forty times a day to discuss wedding plans) adds an additional layer of humor to this light crime story.

Bryan’s troubles compound as he makes his way to Grand Cayman, where his accomplice is holding his cash. His accomplice is untrustworthy, and a diminutive but well-endowed private detective from Curaçao named Piet Room has taken a break from seducing tourists to help Neal and Seo-yun track Bryan. Less scrupulous people on the scent of easy money, including a frustrated seascape painter, are also trying to find Bryan. When his situation becomes precarious, Bryan finds his personality changing in ways he doesn’t much like as he adapts to a dangerous lifestyle.

The novel actually begins at the end, with Neal adrift in a broken boat with no food or water until he’s rescued by Chlöe, who is sailing around the world solo to raise awareness of some disease she doesn’t care about. So what happened to Bryan and Seo-yun and the well-endowed Piet and the seascape painter who has stirred Neal’s erotic fantasies? It’s obvious from the beginning that something has gone wrong for someone. Maybe something has gone wrong for nearly everyone. The fun lies in following the well-paced plot until it catches up to the opening pages.

I would classify Blown as thriller light. It mixes comedy with suspense, and while the story is more chuckle-out-loud funny than belly-laugh funny, the comedy dominates. As thieves go, it is easy enough to like Bryan because he’s a decent guy despite his decision to gain freedom through larceny. It’s also easy to like Seo-yun and Neal, two wildly different characters who are both distracted by relationship problems as they chase after Bryan. All of the characters are flawed in ways that make them plausible human beings. With the exception of Neal, none are particularly virtuous — they tend to be enslaved by their temptations and then to be haunted by guilt — but that only enhances their amusement value. And a couple of the characters seem to be discovering themselves as the story moves forward. It’s nice to believe that it is never too late for that to happen.

Even though part of the ending is revealed at the novel’s beginning, the ending holds some surprises. Readers who want novels to reflect a better world than the one we inhabit might be disappointed in the novel’s outcomes, but the fates of the various characters come together in such unexpected and amusing ways that the story’s reminder that reality is frequently unjust doesn’t feel oppressive. At the same time, the ending suggests the possibility of redemption. Blown is a difficult balancing act, pitting good against evil and acknowledging all the gray area in between, but it finds a balance that is both satisfying and entertaining, all captured by the final line of dialog: “Everything is shit and everything is beautiful.”

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun132018

Sadness Is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Published by Atria Books on February 13, 2018

As the title suggests, Sadness is a White Bird tells a sad story. It is a powerful story that addresses a young man’s moral dilemma when he is asked to give loyalty to one family (Israel) while disregarding his membership in a much larger family (humanity). The story’s power comes from the impossible situation its protagonist confronts when he is asked to choose between his best friends, who are clearly not his enemy, and the demands of the IDF, which insists that unarmed Palestinian protestors are dangerous enemies of Israel.

Transplanted from Pennsylvania to Israel, Jonathan considered himself a “discerning soldier” when he patrolled Palestinian villages with the IDF, trying not to adopt the bigoted mindset that characterized many of his fellow soldiers. Some of the soldiers with whom he patrols call him a “bleeding heart.” They belittle him for treating Palestinians decently and for trying to help his fellow soldiers understand their point of view. His missions are not always what he expected when he began his conscription, as when he helps quash a demonstration of dissenting Jews (with tear gas, as opposed to the bullets and grenades that are reserved for Palestinians).

As a teenager in Israel, Jonathan’s best friends were two Palestinians, Laith and his sister Nimreen, who had lived in Ohio and therefore shared with Jonathan the experience of living as young Americans. The story provides flashbacks to those times, narrated by Jonathan as he tells his story to an absent Laith. Jonathan predictably falls in love with Nimreen, and the scenes of their evolving intimacy and teenage desire are a bit sappy — the only weakness in a strong novel. From the tone of the letters and certain events in his past, however, it is not clear whether Jonathan has stronger feelings for Nimreen or for Laith. That question comes into focus later in the novel.

Jonathan’s flashbacks also educate the reader about Jonathan’s experiences with anti-Semitism and childhood bullying in Pennsylvania, and his training in the Israeli paratroopers, which the bullying may have motivated. The flashbacks also provide insight into the family background of Laith and Nimreen, and of a visit Jonathan made to his grandfather in Greece. The novel’s power is rooted in the oppression that each family has endured.

That power gains full force in the present, when Jonathan’s service in the IDF showcases his conflict between his loyalty to the soldiers with whom he serves and his belief that Palestinians have cause to protest Israel’s resistance to their call for freedom. Not surprisingly, before he is drafted, conflict arises between Nimreen and Jonathan because he will not join draft resisters who refuse to help Israel oppress Palestinians. Returning to the United States would be an easy way to resolve the dilemma, but Jonathan struggles to understand whether that would be an honorable solution. Jonathan is young and he craves the approval of his family (both his immediate relatives and the larger family of Jewish Israelis), not just Nimreen’s.

The novel points to the ways in which people are the same (which are fundamental) and the ways in which they are different (which are shaped by history and experience). The story suggests that understanding individual and cultural differences without losing sight of our commonality is the key to overcoming the hostility and violence that are bred by fears and prejudices and by honest differences of political opinion.

At the same time, the novel tests the adage “love conquers all.” It is possible for Jonathan and Nimreen to love each other, but can that love survive when Jonathan joins the IDF? The novel doesn’t back away from the question or answer it with a Pollyannaish view of love.

The story builds toward a dramatic moment that might turn friend against friend, but it builds drama upon a foundation of honesty rather than melodrama. The reader expects that moment to arrive, but the story’s climax is no less powerful for that. It is easy to admire Jonathan’s courage when he stands up to IDF propaganda and insists that the truth about the dramatic moment be known, despite the government’s attempt to fix blame on Palestinians for Jonathan’s misstep and to shelter the IDF from well-deserved criticism. At the same time, it is easy to sympathize with Jonathan, a young man who has no desire to be courageous or to make moral choices, who just wants his life to return to a simpler time when love and friendship were not imperiled by political conflict. Readers who appreciate novels that opt for a realistic portrayal of difficult struggles rather than a simplistic "we're good, they're bad" perspective will find much to admire in Sadness Is a White Bird.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun112018

The Real Michael Swann by Bryan Reardon

Published by Dutton on June 12, 2018

Julia Swann watches her kids and drinks chardonnay with her neighbors while her husband Michael looks for work. As Michael waits for a train to take him home to Julia, a self-proclaimed patriot starts a brush fire near some train tracks, delaying train arrivals and forcing a crowd to form at Penn Station. When the crowd swells, a bomb detonates.

Michael regains consciousness as rescue workers help him to the surface streets. In his dazed condition, he remembers little, including his name, but notes that he is carrying a briefcase. Michael repeatedly walks away from medical attention in the chaos that surrounds the station. He wanders the city, clutching his briefcase, unable to think of a destination or to recall anything about his past.

In the meantime, Julia is panicking. The emotionally resonant scenes that describe her reaction to the news of the bombing and her instinctive reaction to drive into the city and find her husband are particularly compelling. So is her struggle to be both honest and comforting as she talks to her son, two goals that seem incompatible under the circumstances.

Interludes tell the story of Michael and Julia: their first date, their engagement, Julia’s work before she became an insecure stay-at-home mom who misses working, Michael’s fears about his job.

I enjoyed reading The Real Michael Swann, but I’m not sure why. The premise is contrived (as are most stories that are based on amnesia). Much of the novel describes a police manhunt for Michael, the police having decided that Michael detonated the bomb. Julia, who believes in her husband, also searches for him, aided by news reports that tell her where to look. I’m not entirely certain that a mother would leave her kids behind at the worst moment in their lives to search for a husband who is being hunted by the police after apparently committing mass murder. The police are utterly self-righteous and behave deplorably, and while that’s credible enough, the specific tactics they adopt at the novel’s end are unconvincing.

The question that compels the reader to turn the pages is whether Michael is innocent or guilty. The answer, like the premise, is just too contrived to be convincing, although it scores points for being surprising. The last chapters, after the climax, I would have done without. The scenes are forced and too weepy for my taste. The epilogue drags and its preachiness detracts from a story that makes the same points without force-feeding them to the reader.

One of the things I like about The Real Michael Swann is the decency that people exhibit to each other in times of crisis. While talking heads on television are busy stirring anger despite having no facts that would allow them to assess blame, friends and strangers alike are making sincere efforts to help Michael and Julia cope with their individual crises. I like to think there are still people like that in the world, people who are driven by compassion rather than anger.

Another point in the novel’s favor is that it tells a love story while avoiding most of the trappings of a romance novel. Julie doesn’t swoon over Michael’s tousled hair. Michael isn’t Adonis. Julie’s love is deep and sincere, but love doesn’t conquer all.

Finally, Bryan Reardon’s fluid prose keeps the story moving at a steady pace. This is one of those “I wonder how this could possibly end” novels that can’t easily be set aside, but it's also one of those novels that, after reading the last word, makes me think, "Well, that couldn't happen."

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Jun082018

Calypso by David Sedaris

Published by Little, Brown and Company on May 29, 2018

It’s difficult to say what any particular David Sedaris essay is about, since they meander delightfully, like a puppy in a garden filled with squeaky toys, until it becomes clear that the essay is simply about Being David Sedaris, a unique person living a unique life in a world he shares with billions of other unique people, each of them full of stories.

Sedaris writes about the perils of middle-age, the acquisition of guest rooms, and the fear of losing family members, as well as the regret of not asking questions about half-overheard conversations that pop up in memory years later. A couple of essays describe family gatherings before and after his sister’s suicide. One is about his strained relationship with his father and jazz, the real only connection they ever made; another addresses his father’s reluctance to move out of a home he can no longer maintain. A particularly poignant essay focuses on his relationship with his (long deceased) alcoholic mother. Sedaris is a humorist, but much of Calypso is touching and personal, not necessarily the stuff of humor.

Sedaris fans need not fret, however, because other essays showcase his quiet wit. He writes about being short, the discoveries he makes while walking (including the discovery that his Fitbit was ruling his life), his preference for feeding snapping turtles rather than attending family gatherings. He talks about gay marriage, which he favors in the abstract but opposes in his own life as mundane, like wearing Dockers to Olive Garden.

Other funny essays discuss words and phrases that should be banned (“awesome”), his arguments with his long-term lover Hugh about appropriate behavior and pets, family gossip and family quarrels, his attempt to feed his tumor to a snapping turtle, ghosts, psychics, the reasons he’s depressed (hint: Trump and Trump voters), his fear of crapping his pants, and phrases that people in various countries yell from their car windows when they are angry at another driver (he proclaims Romania the winner in the contest for most creative vulgarity). I think the essay about pants-crapping edged out the others for most laughs per page, although your mileage may vary.

I can’t say that I was enthralled by his descriptions of the odd clothing he purchases while shopping in Tokyo, but one essay that did nothing for me compared to twenty that provoked smiles or empathy isn’t a bad ratio. On the whole, the essays in Calypso are so insightful or amusing or both that I can forgive Sedaris for writing about his questionable taste in attire.

RECOMMENDED