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
Dec102018

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

First published in Great Britain in 2018; published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on December 11, 2018

Conflict among cultures is not the Clash of Civilizations that hysteria-fueled commentators anxiously await, but there is little doubt that people holding different worldviews sometimes view each other with hostility rather than understanding. In Our Mad and Furious City examines those divides and the bridges that cross them in a story that covers the lives of a few diverse characters in London over a short period of time.

The London of In Our Mad and Furious City is divided in many ways, including the division between those who live off-Estate and those who don’t. “What makes me off-Estate is where I live,” Selvon says, “but truthfully what makes me off-Estate is more than that, ennet.”

The lives of several characters are simultaneously revealed in the novel. Some live in Stones Estate, others do not, but all perceive boundaries that are not easily crossed.

Nelson, once homesick for the West Indies, now worries about his son as he rolls his wheelchair past the Estate. Nelson still remembers the first time he saw KBW (“Keep Britain White”) graffiti. “Was an ugliness in this Britain, I feel it then. But I had not learn it yet. … To see it there, writ across the brick, it have me numb and leave me feeling a sorta deep-down shame. Sorta shame the Lord give you when you love a wretched thing. Was how it feel like when I realize that this Britain here did not love me back, no matter how much I feel for it.”

The tension has expanded since Nelson came to London, driven by divisions not just of color but of religion. Guy Gunaratne explores those divisions from the perspectives of his diverse characters, none of whom particularly want to be divided. As Nelson learned in his youth, hate breeds hate, turning good people bad unless good people can find a way to resist.

Nelson’s son Selvon plays football in the Estate with his friends Yusuf and Ardan. Selvon is smart and plans to go to university. Whether he has a future will depend in part on how he lives his life and in part on fate. Selvon and all the other characters are living in a dangerous world.

Yusuf lives in the Estate. He keeps his head down, avoiding both the imams and the anti-Muslim marches. To Yusuf, the Estate is a world away from Pakistan, but Pakistan is a world to which he might be forced to return.

Ardan, a lover of rap in any language, sits on the West Block rooftop to write music. If Ardan has a future beyond minimum wage, it is in music, but to reach that future he’ll need to overcome his fear. Ardan’s father has disappeared. His mother Caroline, a Belfast transplant who had a complicated relationship alcohol as well as history, lives with him in West Block. She has disturbing memories of the Troubles that, in some ways, parallel her current life in London. She is certain that violence follows her and that God doesn’t care.

In Our Mad and Furious City raises enduring questions about the awful things people do in the name of religion or because of another person’s religion. If religion is so often perceived as a vehicle that justifies hatred and violence, would the world be better off without it? The same questions, seemingly relevant to every time and place, relate to violence based on race and ethnicity. The riots that Nelson experienced in the West Indies, that Caroline feared in Northern Ireland, and that affect the lives of the characters as the novel nears its end all echo the same lunacy. At the same time, the story suggests that cause and effect can be more complex issues than observers might assume.

Characters speak in dialects that may require the reader to guess at word meanings (or, when all else fails, to Google). Most of the characters are young and they share the common language of youth. The dialects add to the story’s authenticity and give the book a nice rhythm.

The plot is eventful in an understated way. Gunaratne could have taken the plot over the top but he allowed himself only one large moment of drama. It is dramatic in a way that seems inevitable given the story that precede it. For the most part, the story is very personal, told from the perspectives of people who want to come together, to avoid the senseless divisions that seem to require them to take a side. The story’s sadness is balanced by hope, the possibility that the world can become a better place, one human at a time

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Dec072018

The Mansion by Ezekiel Boone

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on December 4, 2018

The Mansion is a horror novel that faintly echoes The Shining, in that the action takes place in an older multiple-room building occupied in its winter months by a husband and wife that, come spring, will be placed in the service of guests. The story is also similar in that the protagonist struggles with his sanity — perhaps he was a bit unhinged before beginning his stay; perhaps his perceptions are altered by the environment in which he dwells. In most respects, however, The Mansion and The Shining are quite different.

Billy Stafford and Shawn Eagle developed a new kind of smartphone operating system by working intensely in a cabin near a dilapidated mansion in the woods for 23 months. A third fellow who joined them, Takata, they try not to think about. Billy didn’t think about much of anything except drugs and booze after Shawn stole the company from him. Billy won Emily, the woman they both wanted, but Shawn became one of the richest men in the world, leaving Billy with a small amount of stock that he sold to support his addictions.

Years earlier, Shawn’s parents died in a fire on the property where the mansion sat. It has always had a reputation for being haunted. Shawn is rennovating to create a retreat for the ultra-wealthy, but construction accidents have only added to the legend of the haunted mansion.

Shawn has equipped the mansion with a program called Nellie that he and Billy imagined but never made a reality. Billy wrote most of the code; Shawn’s engineers tried to plug the gaps. Nellie is not quite an Artificial Intelligence, but it is meant to anticipate needs and to take action, without being prompted, to make its users happy. Shawn wants Nellie to run the mansion but there’s a ghost in the machine and Shawn needs Billy to perform an exorcism. Nellie, it seems, has a temper.

The final plot element involves Emily’s sister Beth, her husband Rothko, and their spooky twin daughters. That’s the only plot element that didn’t work for me. At some point, enough is enough and more is too much. The twins play a significant role in the story but they don’t fit snugly into the concept and their presence is just too convenient. Eziekiel Boone could have told the story without them and their omission would have improved the novel’s focus. The science fiction rule that it's fine to imagine one, but only one, impossible thing should also bind horror writers.

Despite my sense that The Mansion is an inspired amalgamation of two or three Stephen King plots, it stands comfortably on its own merits. Horror succeeds when it’s convincing. Apart from the bewitched twins, Boone does a masterful job of placing real people in real danger. Even if the danger is combination of supernatural forces and a computer gone mad, Boone does what good horror writers do — he makes the reader forget how divorced from reality the story’s premise might be so that the reader can worry about Billy and Emily and experience vicarious fear. The novel has a good pace, develops sympathetic characters in a reasonable amount of detail, and works its way to a satisfying climax.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Dec052018

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

Published by Crown Publishing/Hogarth on November 13, 2018

A Ladder to the Sky is a novel about writers, some real but most imagined, which means it is a book about people with frail egos who spend much of their time sniping at each other. I enjoyed that. The story raises issues of karma and justice, and I liked that even more than the sniping.

A word of caution, however, to readers who do not like novels unless the characters are likable. The protagonist, Maurice Swift, is a talented wordsmith but is incapable of contriving plots, a deficiency he overcomes by stealing them. Even worse, while Maurice is charming and clever, he is also despicable: an ambitious, narcissistic sociopath who advances his career without regard to how he harms the people in his life. He is, in fact, one of the vilest characters ever to play a starring role in a literary novel.

Many of the other characters are writers and while they are typically portrayed as self-involved and somewhat pitiable, none approach Maurice’s malevolence. I enjoyed being appalled by Maurice. Evil characters tend to be more interesting than icons of virtue and Maurice is a fascinating train wreck of a person. Other readers might not be able to stomach an unlikable protagonist.

Point of view shifts throughout the novel. The story is only sometimes narrated by Maurice. As the novel begins, Maurice appears to be a secondary character, a young man worming his way into the life of Erich Ackerman, a literature professor at Cambridge who left his home in Germany at the war’s end, and who hoped to leave his secrets in the Fatherland. Ackerman achieved literary recognition at the age of 66 with the publication of his sixth novel. Ackerman meets Maurice in Berlin on a book tour, then makes Maurice the sole member of his entourage. Ackerman is gay and feels an unspoken yearning for Maurice, who claims not to have given his sexuality much thought.

Maurice longs for literary fame of his own. Ackerman, acting as his mentor, honestly appraises Maurice as an excellent technician who fails to tell compelling stories. Maurice finds his way to literary fame by betraying Ackerman in a way that will put an end to his mentor’s literary career. Perhaps Ackerman deserves that fate — whether Ackerman merits harsh judgment is one of the book’s important questions — but Ackerman has balanced his youthful misdeeds with an adult life that is exemplary. Many readers will feel sympathy for Ackerman, although other readers probably won’t.

Maurice uses another gay writer, Dash Hardy, in much the same way, leading to an intriguing literary interval involving an acerbic but perceptive Gore Vidal before the book moves to Maurice’s marriage and the next stage of his life. One dramatic section of the book involves Maurice’s wife; another involves his son, although the nature of the latter dramatic episode is hidden until the story nears its end. Under other circumstances, a reader would feel compassion for Maurice given the pain an ordinary person would endure in a tragic life, but Maurice is no ordinary person.

Maurice meets a young man near the novel’s end who reminds him of his lost son and their interaction suggests that Maurice may be capable of feeling well-deserved guilt, if only at a subconscious level. While many of the characters are distasteful, Boyne balances the pack with a few sympathetic characters, including Maurice’s wife, who play key roles. In any event, karma makes the novel likable even if the protagonist is not.

A Ladder to the Sky is a compelling novel, not because it creates empathy for its protagonist (John Boyne does quite the opposite) but because the story is absorbing and truth-telling. The novel’s theme is that some talented people cannot be happy with success on its own terms but wish to rise above their peers, to be seen as the best, even if they must tear down their peers to achieve that end. The story advances the quotation that is generally attributed to Gore Vidal (and that Vidal attributed to himself): “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Stated differently, the notion is that ambition is a pointless waste of energy, like setting a ladder to the sky. The book is honest and provocative. It is also immensely satisfying.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Dec032018

Blood Feud by Mike Lupica

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on November 27, 2018

Mike Lupica wrote Robert B. Parker’s Blood Feud so it really isn’t Robert B. Parker’s, although Parker created the key characters before he died. The Robert B. Parker factory has assembled a bunch of novels this year. Lupika is a capable techniian, but Blood Feud comes across as an assembly line product.

Someone shot Richie Burke, Sunny Randall’s separated-with-benefits husband. The shooter apparently wanted to send a message to Richie’s mobster father. Sunny has been brooding about her need for a distraction from loneliness and the attempted murder gives her something to do, so she spends a few chapters talking to her cop father and dangerous friends about Boston’s colorful gangsters.

Eventually Richie’s other relatives are attacked. Is this an escalation of a gang war involving Richie’s father or something more personal? Sunny considers the possibilities over martinis with her friend Spike, shots of Jameson with Richie, and coffee with the cops. Eventually the murders are solved and there is a mild twist at the end. In other words, the factory followed the formula for a crime novel with all the parts welded together just a little too neatly.

Blood Feud is entertaining because of the characters that Parker created and the snappy dialog that Lupica gives them. The plot is a pleasant vehicle to contain the characters but it offers little in the way of drama and builds no tension. Maybe that isn’t required in a book that is probably meant to keep characters alive without altering them in ways that a series fan might dislike. The novel has no glaring faults, but it is also devoid of obvious strengths, such as a compelling plot or an insightful examination of challenges that characters must overcome. It has the feel of a novel assembled by a writer who didn’t really have his heart in it.

Reader reviews of Blood Feud will inevitably appear on Amazon complaining that some of the characters have a negative opinion of Donald Trump and that Sunny isn’t in love with guns (although Sunny carries a gun and her only gripe is that unregistered guns end up in the hand of criminals and nutcases). If you can’t stomach characters who disagree with your political views, and if you are pro-Trump, you might want to give Blood Feud and a good many other books a pass. Most readers, I suspect, will be undisturbed by the small amount of political commentary in which characters indulge.

Politics aside, you might want to give Blood Feud a pass unless you are a fan of the series and miss the characters. It is a lightweight, easy-to-read thriller, but there are better crime novels to stack up on your nightstand. There is just too little reason to choose this one over all it competitors.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Nov302018

Halcyon by Rio Youers

Published by St. Martin's Press on July 10, 2018

Martin and Laura Lovegrove have two daughters, Shirley (15) and Edith (10). Edith used to suffer from night terrors, but a therapist helped her put that in her past. Until now, when she has a vision — a premonition — that she somehow projects to her sister, of an explosion that kills hundreds of people. Three days later, a young man who has apparently been brainwashed drives a homemade bomb into a nightclub, causing the scene that Edith saw. A woman who suffers from the same affliction, psychic signals crossing over into the realm of perception, teaches Edith to cope.

Martin is recruited to join Halcyon, which Nolan, the recruiter, defines as a better and safer America, a self-sustaining community with no crime, no poverty, no discrimination, no tech, and no clocks. Its founder, Mother Moon, is its spiritual leader, but Nolan denies that the community is a religious group, a cult, or a hippy commune (although it sounds like a combination of all those). Halcyon is on an island and, for reasons I won’t reveal, what happens in Halcyon stays in Halcyon. It’s like Hotel California: you can check out, but you can never leave. Except for Mother Moon, who apparently spends some of her time at a mysterious place called Glam Moon, which may or may not be an imaginary world.

Mother Moon is Valerie Kemp, who sold her body for drugs in Manhattan until she found the Society of Pain. The Society teaches that pain is the path to enlightenment, although its members prefer to witness the pain of others than to experience their own.

Eventually this all ties together but I cannot say that the connections are seamless. The novel feels like it was compiled from three related stories, each of which are more interesting than the story they create when assembled. That’s partly because it just takes too long for Halcyon to get where it’s going. Halcyon’s The novel’s pace too often lags. Perhaps a less ambitious story would have been tighter and more compelling.

Halcyon benefits from moments of strong writing, particularly when Edith discovers that she can’t suppress or hide from a nightmare premonition. The story has supernatural elements, or at least psychic themes and the suggestion of a hellacious afterlife, but it isn’t sufficiently frightening to be classified as a horror novel. It’s just a little too strange to be scary, unless readers are frightened by malicious roosters.

Nor is Halcyon sufficiently thrilling to be classified as a thriller, although it does feature elements of crime and mystery. The story addresses terrorism in an abstract way that divorces terrorism from its political roots, which divorces the story from the realm of terrorism-based thrillers. I’m not so anal that I need to classify every novel — some of my favorite books defy classification — but it is difficult to know just what to make of Halcyon.

Notwithstanding its faults, Halcyon introduces the reader to sympathetic characters and occasionally builds tension by placing those characters at risk. School shootings and other acts of mass violence are an early theme of Halcyon, but they are not sensationalized. The story is not pro-gun or anti-gun; it is pro-empathy for families touched by violence. While Halcyon might be predominantly a horror story, the novel recognizes that there is plenty of horror in the earthbound world, and that horror must be balanced with compassion. The story struggles to follow a consistent theme as it moves from cults to sadists to mass killings to domestic drama to interdimensional portals, but it has something worthwhile to say about how victims can become monsters. That earns Halcyon a guarded recommendation.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

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