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 weekends.  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.


Recursion by Blake Crouch

Published by Crown on June 11, 2019

Recursion begins with a phenomenon called False Memory Syndrome (FMS). People who are afflicted with FMS develop full memories of having lived a different life. Some falsely remembered lives are better and others are worse than the life the FMS sufferer has actually lived. The afflicted retain their actual memories, overlaid by months, years, or decades of finely detailed false memories. Medical researchers have not identified a cause and do not know whether FMS is contagious, although outbreaks have been concentrated in the Northeast. In many instances, people are linked by shared memories of events that never happened.

Later — and maybe this is a spoiler, although the premise is established fairly early in the novel [continue reading at your peril] — the plot begins to build on theories of time derived from quantum mechanics, which nobody understands, allowing a central character to assert that time is a meaningless function of our limited perceptions. The book posits that time travel can be facilitated by memory travel. Characters therefore come to experience multiple timelines by perceiving one, traveling back to an earlier memory, and creating a new timeline that follows that memory. In fact, the story makes the interesting point that Alzheimer’s is a form of time travel, casting sufferers adrift in time, tricking them into believing they are living in the past except for moments we define as “clarity” because they perceive the present as we do.

The story proceeds on two fronts. Barry Sutton is an NYPD detective. He is haunted by memories of his dead daughter. When he fails to prevent the suicide of a woman who suffers from FMS, he senses that there’s more to the story than an unexplained disease, and begins an investigation that takes him to the Hotel Memory. Like the Hotel California, it is easier to check in than to leave. Much of Barry’s story takes place in two timelines, one that starts in 2018 and one that seems to start over in 2007.

The second plot thread involves Helena Smith, a researcher who studies memory formation and storage. Her goal is not to prevent memory deterioration caused by dementia, but to preserve core memories that can then be accessed by patients. One of the world’s wealthiest tech wizards gives her a lab and unlimited funding for her research, which allows her to make rapid progress. Her financial benefactor, however, seems to have an agenda of his own that make Helena wonder whether an isolated laboratory on a converted oil rig in the ocean is the safest place to be.

The novel has a “do-over” theme that is popular in science fiction novels and movies (the story is vaguely reminiscent of the movie Edge of Tomorrow with a little bit of Minority Report; maybe Blake Crouch is a fan of Tom Cruise movies?) — if you could live your life again, with knowledge of how you screwed it up the first time, would you make something better of it on the second go-around? But this novel adds several twists to the time travel theme. What if, to return to an earlier point in your life, you need to die? What if, when you change your own life, you change everyone’s?

There is a love story in Recursion that is touching, in part because it deals with the reality of love rather than the gushiness that romance fans seem to crave. There is also an action story that keeps the plot moving, but the story stands out for the intelligent way it resolves the paradoxes that are inherent in time travel stories. Helena and Barry are sympathetic characters, and they are in conflict with an unlikable nemesis who fails to understand that any technology capable of changing reality will inevitably change it for the worse. The story builds suspense with every page. In the realm of time travel stories, Recursion is fairly regarded as an instant classic.



Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Published by Algonquin on January 8, 2019

Desperate people are still people. People who think of themselves as losers are still people. Those are among the lessons of Sugar Run, a novel of desperate people who seem destined to end up on the losing side of any conflict. For all the bad choices they make, the key characters in Sugar Run are the kind of people who would make good choices if they realized that they are not constrained by their pasts.

Jodi McCarty was a juvenile tried as an adult. After serving 18 years, she is unexpectedly released from a life sentence. Jodi hops on a Greyhound to southern Georgia to see Ricky Dulett. In the town where she thinks Ricky lives, Jodi meets Miranda Matheson, who has an on-and-off relationship with her baby’s daddy, Lee Golden, a redneck singer who performs at county fairs, having lost the rights to the songs that once gave him modest fame.

The plot involving Jodi, Miranda, and Ricky takes place in 2007. It alternates with scenes from 1988, when Jodi met a poker player named Paula, a woman who lives for a sweet run of cards, the sugar run that keeps gamblers coming back to the table. Their time together is a blur of drugs and highways — they have a Thelma and Louise approach to life — but Jodi and Paula promised to one day come back for Ricky, to take him away from the father who beats him. The reader eventually learns of Paula’s tragic past and her connection to Ricky.

In the 2007 story, we learn that Ricky has a dark side but is capable of surprising compassion, and that Jodi’s brother Dennis is a low-key drug dealer whose manipulative nature doesn’t stop him from occasionally behaving as a caring human being. Both characters create conflict in Jodi’s life, as does her desire to get back the family land that was auctioned to pay a tax debt while Jodi was in prison. Fracking is destroying the mountain around her, but fracking might be a metaphor for all the destruction that surrounds Jodi.

A number of subplots drive both stories forward, although the key question is whether Miranda and Jodi have a future together. They enjoy sleeping together, but hiding out with Miranda’s kids is stressful, and Jodi wonders whether Miranda still has a thing for Lee. She also wonders whether Miranda will lose her kids if the locals find out that she and Miranda are engaging in acts that the locals would regard as sinful.

Mesha Maren waits until near the novel’s end to reveal Jodi’s crime. That’s wise because, as in real life, after we come to like someone, it is difficult to unlike them because of a single bad act, at least if the act is directed at someone else.

To the extent that Sugar Run is a domestic drama, Jodi’s relationships are so unconventional that they never veer into soap opera territory. Local politics provides atmosphere, as environmentalists who oppose fracking are in conflict with people whose jobs depend on ruining water supplies.

Mesha Maren’s prose contributes the novel’s success. Here’s how she sets a scene: “Jodi couldn’t quite place their faces or remember specific names but she knew these women well. They’d always been there in the background with coffee and sticky, starchy foods. At the scene of every disaster and celebration they’d fill out the edges of the room with their pillowy housedresses and clouds of smoke. By the very generosity of their bodies they comforted the children and men.”

Sugar Run suggests that our lives have patterns and that, once made, an old pattern will easily shape a new life. Yet the story also suggests the possibility of gaining the strength and courage to break a bad pattern. There is always more to life if you make the effort to find it. Or perhaps the novel teaches that when you’ve hit bottom, there is nowhere to look but up. Regardless of what a reader might take from the novel, I suspect that most readers will find something worth taking.



The Club by Takis Würger 

First published in Germany in 2017; published in translation by Grove Atlantic on March 12, 2019

The Club is a story of privilege and of how the privileged come to believe that society’s rules do not apply to them. It might seem over-the-top if not for recent revelations about Swarthmore fraternities that used date-rape drugs and maintained a “rape attic.” The Club is also about the malleable nature of truth, “the stories we keep telling ourselves until we believe they’re the truth.”

The Club is told in the first person from the perspectives of several characters. The primary character is Hans. He was picked on when he was a kid, so his father took him to the gym for boxing lessons. Learning to fight taught him to tolerate other people.

Hans becomes an orphan shortly after the novel begins. Some of the story is narrated by Hans’ Aunt Alex from England, who becomes Hans’ guardian. Alex teaches art history at Cambridge. She considers herself mad, so she sends Hans to a Jesuit boarding school in Germany rather than dragging him into her abyss. Hans studies, works on his boxing with a monk, and tries to ignore his loneliness.

After a time, Alex invites Hans to become a student at Cambridge and to join the Pitt Club. The club is not dedicated to the admiration of Brad Pitt, but consists of a group of privileged students, some of whom box. Alex wants Hans to infiltrate the club and help her find out who committed a crime, the nature of which she refuses to identify. To that end, Alex meets a mysterious woman (a grad student of Alex’s) named Charlotte. Her father is Alex’s ticket to an invitation to join the Pitt Club.

The wealthy, upper-class students who belong to the Pitt Club are instantly unlikeable. One of those, Josh, occasionally narrates a section. He thinks of himself as a decent chap and has no clue what a prick he is, oblivious to the impact on others of his elitist attitude and his inability to manage his anger.

Charlotte’s wealthy father, Angus Farewell, also narrates some sections. Peter Wong, a foreign student who wants to join the Pitt Club, is one of the more interesting narrators, if only because he keeps a daily log of (among other things) his masturbation.

A couple of the characters are a bit clichéd — the gay victim of homophobia, the American who emphasizes his patriotism and his Christianity (which is apparently the way British writers see all Americans) — and the story has a contrived feel, relying on one coincidence too many. As an indictment of the sense of empowerment that comes naturally to the privileged, however, the story also feels real. Some of that reality comes from details that Takis Würger no doubt gleaned from his own brief membership in the Pitt Club.

The story moves at a steady pace. Its ending is easy to foresee, but the ending is satisfying. The novel might be faulted for simplifying complex social issues surrounding privilege and women’s rights, but Würger’s heart is in the right place and the story is timely.



The Undefeated by Una McCormack

Published by on May 14, 2019

The Undefeated is a novella that imagines a future form of slavery and its consequences to those who feel entitled to enslave others. The story is largely a character study that hints at, but fails to explore fully, a couple of larger issues.

Monica Greatorex, a woman of inherited means, has at the age of 60 decided to return to Sienna, the world where she was born. Most people are fleeing the periphery, hoping that the core worlds will remain secure in an impending war, but she finds a ship that will take her, along with her jenjer, Gale. The prevailing fear is that “the enemy” is coming soon, seeking justice.

What is a jenjer? Who is the enemy? The two questions are not immediately answered, but characters drop hints suggesting that the questions are related. In the beginning, we know only that Monica’s companion Gale is a jenjer, that Gale is “high functioning,” and that he requires medication, the details of which Monica has never bothered to learn. At about the midway point, the reader will begin to discern at least partial answers to the two key questions. The reader also learns why the jenjer need medication. Una McCormack leaves it to the reader to fill in a wealth of other details, which is a bit troubling in science fiction, given that details are  central to the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief.

The story flashes back to Monica’s childhood, when she saw a jenjer behaving as a free citizen — and the first time she saw how well an armed jenjer could defend herself. She also realizes for the first time “what it means to be alive because of another person’s whim” — a sensation with which jenjer live every day.

At some point after becoming an adult, Monica learns the truth about an incident that occurred in her childhood. The truth gives rise to realizations about larger truths concerning the desire for retribution that might be sparked by unfair treatment. Whether those lessons are good lessons — that is, whether retribution can really be equated with justice — is largely left unexplored.

The tone of The Undefeated is melancholy. Monica has seen a lot, was once famous for the reports she filed on the impact of the Commonwealth expansion on the poor and their children. In the beginning, it is not clear whether she will find a way off Sienna, now largely deserted, nor is it clear that she cares.

Monica is one of very few characters and the story is very personal, but as a lengthy character sketch, The Undefeated isn’t entirely satisfying. Monica is explored in some depth, but perhaps not in sufficient depth to make the reader care about the decision she makes as the story reaches its resolution.

The larger social issues surrounding that decision are underdeveloped. It is a bit late in the day to write science fiction with the theme of "slavery is bad" or "treating people unfairly will come back to bite you in the ass" unless those themes are developed in ways that readers haven't seen countless times. McCormack’s prose is polished and the novel’s background is interesting, but story would have benefitted from a stronger attempt at worldbuilding. I usually complain that writers should cut unnecessary words from their books, but this one would have been improved by adding enough words to give the story the substance it is missing.



This Is Not a Love Song by Brendan Mathews

Published by Little, Brown and Company on February 5, 2019

The stories in the collection differ in style, but they all have substance. In “Heroes of the Revolution,” a writer from Sarajevo tours Chicago with a group of Eastern European journalists. When their bubbly tour guide wants the writer to open up about her life, she is unprepared for the story she hears, yet it feels familiar to one of the journalists. The experiences that two characters associate with apple orchards illustrate the vast differences in people’s lives, differences that prevent them from bonding despite their commonalities.

“This Is Not a Love Song” is a lengthy character sketch of a singer named Kat who became a bit famous before she died, as sketched by her photographer, a former roommate and friend who seems to have been obsessed with her. “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer” is told from the perspective of a jealous circus clown who falls in love with a trapeze artist. The setting suggests a less serious story than the others, but the themes (working without a net as a metaphor for life) are just as somber as those advanced in the other entries.

“Salvage” describes a man who earns cash to tear apart buildings in the decaying Midwest to salvage treasure for his boss. Faced with a father who wants him to “man up,” a boss who abuses him, and the unattainability of his dreams, the man hits bottom before realizing that the treasure he needs to salvage is his life.

Many of the stories are about families and relationships. “How Long Does the First Part Last?” recounts a guy’s thoughts during a lengthy drive, memories of the past and glimpses of the future, all beginning when he hears “Can we not talk?” as the prelude to a long, silent trip. Another story set in a car, “The Drive,” is about the generation gap between dads and the girls they drive home.

Dan is sure the house has toxic mold, Jenna is sure it doesn’t. It is the marriage in “Airborne” that has become toxic. Told largely from Jenna’s perspective, the story is one of uncertainty and growing fears about choices she has made, all leading to an abrupt and entirely unexpected ending.

“Henry and His Brother” is told in alternating sections, one narrated by Harry and the other by his brother. The story is interesting for the differing perspectives of two brothers who love each other but need to find a way to accept each other. If they both agree on one thing, it is probably this: “It’s the years invested in loving another person, or trying to love them as best you can, that can turn your heart to stone and drag you down, deeper than you ever thought you could go.” As for the brothers, maybe “keeping each other close is the only way to keep pressure on the wound.”

“Dunn & Sons” closely examines three brothers and their father. The narrative voice belongs to the son of one of the brothers who is home from the Army but, feeling now like an outsider, isn’t likely to join the family business. The males in the family give ownership rights to a family story based on who tells it best, but they have never learned to talk to each other. The tension that builds during a family golf outing is palpable. The spotlight illuminating the difference between family stories and family communication makes “Dunn & Sons” my second favorite story in the volume.

Dugan is from Chicago but moved to Durham to further a romance that burned out.  While taking pictures for a photography class, Dugan accidentally burns down a black church. When another church burns, Dugan wonders whether he inadvertently inspired an arsonist, perhaps someone he knows. “Look at Everything,” my favorite story in the collection, explores Dugan’s sense of guilt as he asks himself why he took picture after picture as the church burned.


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