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.

Wednesday
Sep062017

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Published by Random House on September 5, 2017

Salman Rushdie explores multiple themes in The Golden House, including “the nature of goodness”. The concept is elusive, but he finds it in “unshakable love” and happiness, for as long as it exists until it is replaced by unhappiness. Goodness is always at war with its opposite, and Rushdie also explores the potential for both good and evil that resides in every person. Evil in the novel is most often represented by betrayal.

The nature of change, its inevitability and whether it is possible to change the soul, is another theme. An aristocratic man who calls himself Nero Golden has come to New York, leaving India and his Muslim heritage behind, because America is “the land of the self-made self” where it is possible “to move beyond memory and roots and language and race,” to “step away from yesterday and start tomorrow as if it isn’t part of the same week.” He has erased his part and started anew — or so he thinks. Eventually his sins of the past are revealed, as are their consequences.

Nero Golden’s story of entitlement is narrated by his young neighbor René, a Manhattan resident of Belgian heritage who fancies himself a filmmaker or at least a screenwriter. René’s parents are among the few who have discovered the true reason for Golden’s flight from India. René looks to Nero Golden for screenplay inspiration, as he looks to a woman named Suchitra for love.

Nero Golden has three sons, two (Petya and Apu) from the same woman and the third (D.) from another. Their familial ties might be strengthened when a new woman enters their father’s life, perhaps threatening their inheritance, but the children are divided in their response to Vasilisa Arsenyeva.

The first half of the novel sets up the characters and their relationships. The second half begins with René coming to live in the Golden household and all too wittingly getting caught up in a scheme that Vasilisa has hatched, a scheme that will cause him to betray his friend Nero and his lover Suchitra. In addition, Apu returns to India and discovers that the sins of the father are inherited by the son.

The story of “unshakable love” involves a woman named Riya Z and her improbable love for D (Suchitra’s love of René, on the other hand, gets a good shaking). Some early chapters are devoted to D’s gender identity issues, while some later chapters focus on Petya’s intolerance of those issues. Petya, a high-functioning autistic, is equally intolerant of Abu’s political beliefs, an animosity that Abu reciprocates, giving Rushdie an opportunity to present a microcosm of divided America. But betrayal is a pervasive theme in The Golden House, and one of the novel’s first betrayals occurs when Apu steals the affections of a beautiful Somali sculptor from Petya.

Divided America is, in fact, a recurring theme as, toward the novel’s end, the Joker defeats Batgirl in the presidential election. Some of Rushdie’s strongest writing dissects the belief (firmly held by voters who “brought the horror to power”) that “knowing things is elite and they hate elitists” so that “education, art, music, film, becomes a reason for being loathed.” Readers who might be scorned as “elitists” can find refuge in Rushdie’s pages, which presume a broad level of knowledge or at least enough intellectual curiosity to Google an unfamiliar name. Knowledge is not power, Rushdie writes; “knowledge is beauty.” And the only answer to the Joker, Rushdie tells us, is Humanity.

Rushdie packs so much into sentences that if they were water, a reader could walk on top of them. As is typical of Rushdie, the novel is packed with allusions and references to current affairs, history, politics, mythology, poetry, literature, film, and pop culture. Classics and the contemporary reside comfortably alongside each other, sometimes in the same sentence. This gives the book a cluttered feel, and while a book is supposed to be a messy house, it is difficult to journey through the rooms of The Golden House without tripping over the furniture. Still, even when he rambles, or especially when he rambles, Rushdie is interesting and enlightening.

As is also typical of Rushdie, the novel touches upon important social issues: the intersection of politics and religion; the tendency of oppressors to treat human life as expendable; “the modern obsession with identity” and its counterpart, the denial of racial heritage; the transformation of sexual identity; the gun culture; the ease with which a large percentage of the voting public can be conned, simply because they want to be conned; and the fact that an even larger percentage of the voting public care so little about their country that they don’t bother to vote. Well, look what that gets you.

Occasionally, amidst all the clutter and social observation, things happen, a plot develops, telling the tragic story of the Golden family. While generally relating that story in the first person from René’s perspective, Rushdie sometimes changes up the text with the techniques of screenplay writing and with a monologue imagined as a “collage” of conversations from which René has been edited out. As is often true in a Rushdie novel, there might be too much going on, as Rushdie’s mighty display of erudition sometimes gets in the way of telling a compelling story. But compelling or not, the story is fun and it offers enough moments of insight to make its reading a serious intellectual pleasure, although perhaps not a strong emotional pleasure.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Sep042017

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

Published by Simon & Schuster on September 19, 2017

Daniel Graham “Mac” MacCormick owns a charter boat in Key West. A fellow named Carlos wants to hire Mac to take him to Cuba for a government-sanctioned fishing tournament. There may be more to it than fishing, and while Mac likes to run a clean operation, the offer of $2 million for ten days’ work gets his attention.

The actual mission involves not fishing, but spiriting some of the past out of Cuba and into the United States. To that end, Mac goes to Cuba, accompanied by the lovely Sara Ortega. Of course, they wind up in bed, not only as part of their cover story, but because they enjoy it. Meanwhile, Mac’s first mate, Vietnam vet Jack Colby, keeps Mac’s fishing boat ready for a quick getaway . . . if Mac and Jack can find a way to get to the boat. I can’t say much else about the plot without spoiling the fun, so I will say only that the story takes some unexpected turns and provides the mix of adventure and suspense that Nelson DeMille consistently delivers.

DeMille’s protagonists always have a wry sense of humor. Mac’s pointed remarks about Cuba’s oppressive government would be funny if they weren’t so accurate. Mac is also a typical DeMille protagonist in that he is tough, capable, decent, unselfish, and skeptical. He isn’t politically correct, but he isn’t an in-your-face jerk about it. I don’t mind fictional characters (or real people, for that matter) having opinions that differ from mine, as long as they aren’t haters or just plain stupid, and Mac’s observations — sharp but never mean — might enhance the novel for readers who share his outlook. In any event, the ending is politically astute, regardless of where the reader falls on the political spectrum.

Mac also suffers from raging hormones. The novel’s love story struck me as unlikely, given the speed with which Mac moved from “I want to get laid” to “I love you,” but high-speed romance is standard in a thriller. The love story adds another complication to Mac’s life, particularly when a competing suitor arrives on the scene. That’s all part of the shifting plot that catches the reader off guard, if not the imperturbable Mac.

Apart from entertaining characters, atmosphere is the key to the novel’s success. This is a Cuba that appears to come from personal experience rather than a travel guide.

Despite the danger the characters face as the story moves along, The Cuban Affair is a little more laid back and a little less gripping than DeMille’s John Corey novels, but those novels set a pretty high standard. The Cuban Affair moves quickly and delivers credible action scenes, particularly when things heat up toward the novel’s end. This isn't DeMille's best work, but it's better than most thriller writers manage.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Sep012017

Spoils by Brian Van Reet

Published by Little, Brown & Co./Lee Boudreaux Books on April 18, 2017

Spoils tells a war story (Iraq 2003) from three intersecting points of view. Two narrators are Americans and the third is an Egyptian emir whose belief in jihad has taken him to Chechnya, Afghanistan, and (somewhat reluctantly) Iraq.

The emir, Abu al-Hool, is training jihadist volunteers in Afghanistan when he learns of Osama bin Laden’s success on 9/11. He is troubled because he does not believe that killing women and children is the right path. But he also knows that innocents die in war (Hiroshima being a profound example). Americans set the tone with the dismissive phrase “collateral damage," providing at least partial justification, he thinks, for the killing of non-combatants. He also belives that “great men tend to inhabit the extremes of thought, and that is one reason for their greatness.”

The most interesting chapters follow Abu al-Hool through his political struggles. He is astonished that Bush was so easily goaded to invade Iraq, playing into bin Laden’s hands. Having grown old, having lost his son in Chechnya, Abu al-Hool has no desire to take jihad to Iraq, but the choice is not his.

Abu al-Hool considers himself a freedom fighter, which is what Reagan called fighters in Afghanistan who resisted Soviet invaders, using the same techniques that now earns them the label “Islamofascists” and “terrorists.” Abu al-Hool still approves of the ancient and time-honored technique of beheading enemies, but he is no longer sure that his colleagues are employing the technique in a just way.

Other chapters follow Cassandra Wigheard, who starts the novel with mortars rain down on her Humvee. During the first half of the novel, the story jumps around in time, providing Cassandra’s background (from Kansas to Kuwait) as well as Abu al-Hool’s. Eventually she is in a position to fear becoming a propaganda tool for the jihadists.

A third point of view appears in the second half. After Wigheard and two other soldiers are taken prisoner, Sleed is among the soldiers assigned to look for them. He is also among the soldiers who, through dereliction of duty, is partially responsible for causing the problem.

Bad judgment is basically the story of America’s incursion into Iraq, along with killing innocent civilians. Those are both on display in a novel that makes no attempt to disguise the bleak reality of the environment in which the story is set. Bad judgment drives all sides of the conflict.

Spoils is notable for refusing to portray characters in a simplistic light. All people fall on a continuum of good to bad, often occupying shifting points along that continuum, and that is true of the characters in Spoils. A reader won’t necessarily sympathize with Abu al-Hool, but Brian van Reet makes it possible to understand his conflict, and to view him in a more positive light than terrorists who engage in jihad with no regard for the moral teachings of their religion. It is much easier to feel sympathy for other key characters, including a young boy who does the bidding of the jihadists and the American soldiers who, despite their imperfections, are fighting a senseless war not because they are evil, but because their president put them there.

The story is powerful, gritty, believable, and insightful. It establishes a vivid sense of place, portraying Iraq in multiple dimensions from a variety of senses. The voices that tell the story are genuine; the reader rarely  has the sense of an author lurking in the background, manipulating the scene or the characters. I haven’t seen any other novel that captures so well the swirling entanglement of good and bad in the American conflict with Iraq. As all war literature should do, Spoils illuminates that conflict in all its glorious idiocy.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug302017

The Saboteur by Andrew Gross

Published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books on August 22, 2017

Kurt Nordstrum is part of the Norwegian resistance, or what remains of it in 1942. He crosses Lake Tinnsjo from Tinnoset to Mael, near the place where he grew up, because he has been asked to accompany Einar Skinnarland on a mission to smuggle microfilm to a Norwegian scientist in London. The microfilm concerns details of atomic bomb research that the Germans are conducting in Norway.

Carrying out the mission requires the men to hijack a Norwegian steamer and make their way past the German coastal command. After that, Nordstrum's mission is to sabotage the plant that is manufacturing the raw materials Germany needs to make an atomic bomb. And after that, Nordstrum’s role in the war is to recruit more spies in Norway, until he is given a final mission that will change the course of the war.

All of that is interesting, but it should be harrowing. Andrew Gross’ writing style is matter-of-fact, and at least until the novel’s ending, a bit dry. Still, if the story isn’t as riveting as it could have been, it does convey a sense of how weather plays a critical role in war in places like Norway, where people who are familiar with adverse conditions can turn them to their own advantage.

A love story appears near the end of the novel, although the characters hardly know each other long enough to feel any semblance of love. The novel’s characters have about as much development as they need. Nordstrum has a generic war hero’s personality and the other characters play equally generic roles.

The novel’s ending is melodramatic, although it will appeal to fans of the movie Titanic. I enjoyed The Saboteur more for its atmosphere and its setting in history than for the way the story is told. The novel has value precisely because it is based on actual events — and I enjoyed reading it for that reason — but the truth of history is more compelling that the predictable and melodramatic way in which the story is fictionalized.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Aug282017

Savage Country by Robert Olmstead

Published by Algonquin Books on September 26, 2017

Everything about Savage Country is stark:  its landscape, its language, its characters. Biblical imagery abounds, from a plague of locusts to kids named after apostles. The novel has an Old Testament feel with its brutal justice and harsh injustices as characters struggle to overcome sinful thoughts in a moral wilderness. Savage Country is a story of ambition and hubris, and stories with Old Testament themes rarely go well for people whose ambition is the pursuit of worldly goods. But New Testament virtues are also on display in Savage Country as characters strive to find their better selves by caring about the less fortunate.

Michael Coughlin is a British citizen who fought for the South in the Civil War. He travels to Kansas in 1873 to pay his dead brother’s mortgage. The payment saves the land from Whitechurch, who held the mortgage and planned to seize the farm. If not for Michael’s stern resolve, Whitechurch might not have accepted the payment. But Whitechurch does not easily let go of his desires, and his need for vengeance is one of the story's themes.

Michael’s brother had intended to mount a hunt for buffalo but died before the hunt could start. His brother’s wife, Elizabeth, intends to follow through on that plan, using the proceeds of the hunt to repay Michael and to meet her living expenses. Michael feels no choice but to accompany her since he cannot dissuade her from entering the savage country where the last buffalo herd roams.

The story details conflicts with man (white men versus Native Americans, white men versus black men, white men versus women of all heritages, bad men versus good men), but the greater part of the plot is driven by conflicts with nature (fire and floods, snow and wind, locusts and drought, buffalo and wolves). While the white men think they are the only ones entitled to make a living and resent the employment of black men (some things, it seems, never change), the greatest conflict is with disease in an era before antibiotics were available to save lives. And while literature professors teach that the three literary conflicts all involve man, Savage Country teaches that nature against nature (wolf versus buffalo, water versus stone) is a larger part of our planet’s story.

Michael plays his part in the decimation of the last remaining buffalo herd, and he does so with regret, knowing that he is stealing from nature, taking something precious from the land. It is the same regret he feels when he kills people, always in the belief that he has no realistic alternative. His choices are dictated more by expedience than morality: the death of buffalo allows humans to survive and prosper; a man in the wilderness who contracts rabies needs to be put down so that he does not imperil the lives of the healthy. It falls to Michael to deal out death because he can.

Robert Olmstead’s research resulted in a detailed description of the work that goes into assembling the scallywags, oxen, mules, wagons, provisions, and supplies required to mount an expedition for buffalo. His description of the buffalo hunt and subsequent skinning and butchering, the smells and sounds and sights, has a visceral impact. His description of a desolate, unforgiving, and savage land is vivid.

Savage Country tells an intense, powerful story that lives up to its title. Yet a strong horse and a loyal dog can provide comfort even in a savage land. People can take care of each other by banding together and forgetting their differences. That may not be enough to assure survival, but the Olmstead seems to be telling the reader that it is the only way for decent people to live.

RECOMMENDED

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