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.

Friday
Aug022019

The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books on June 4, 2019

Dominic Smith invented most of the characters who populate The Electric Hotel, as well as the silent film that shares the novel’s title, but the book reads as if it were the retelling of a key moment in cinematic history. The story features a character who was, in his youth, a pioneer of filmmaking. Now he is old and the subject of an interview by a young man who is pursuing a doctorate in film studies. The filmmaker has survived war and heartbreak, but since the end of World War I, “the ruins of the past had presided over his life …. For half a century, he’d been reckless in his caution, drunk on it.” While fundamentally a story of the creative process, The Electric Hotel is also a story of how the abuses of love and war can defeat even the most lively minds.

Claude Ballard is 85 in 1962, living in Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel. A young film student named Martin Embry wants to interview him about his silent film, The Electric Hotel, apparently lost but regarded as a masterpiece. Martin discovers that Claude has kept the reels of the film in his room. They are deteriorating, as is Claude.

Claude remembers his sense of marvel when he attended a demonstration of a new invention by the Lumiere brothers, a camera that made pictures move. Accepting employment as their agent, Claude began to film anything that might interest an audience, including his sister’s death. In New York, he met the French stage actress Sabine Montrose. Claude films Sabine taking a bath, falls in love, and begins a life that will overwhelm him with excitement and disappointment

Beginning with the bathing scene, Claude slowly conceives the idea of making movies, as opposed to filming things that he happens to come across. Eventually he conceives of a horror film called The Electric Hotel. He wants Sabine to star in the film, hoping that her death at the film’s end will be the symbolic death of his love.

Sabine is a diva. She has no use for love except for her love of herself, but she finds Claude to be useful and therefore uses him for her own ends. Among the novel’s touching scenes, one off the best involves Sabine’s interview with a refined woman who is dying of consumption (as Sabine will be in The Electric Hotel). That scene allows the reader to see a softer, more empathic side of Sabine, a side that she rarely reveals to others.

Other key characters include a theater owner named Bender who invests borrowed money and his future in The Electric Hotel, and a fellow named Chip who earns a living by setting himself on fire and diving into the sea. Chip is called upon to do just that as the movie’s climax is filmed, making him the first cinematic stunt man. The description of Chip’s preparation for and execution of the scene is tense, as is a surprising scene involving an untamed tiger.

The initial story is built on the travails of filming the first lengthy, plotted movie. It then imagines a legal conflict between Thomas Edison (who “would patent human breath itself if he could find the legal precedent”) and Claude, who allegedly infringed Edison’s patent on film and cameras. Edison makes threats designed to ruin a competitor, regardless of their legal merit — a technique that the business world subsequently perfected. This is the second novel I’ve read that portrays Edison as a litigious asshole and I am inclined to believe that the portrayals are accurate.

The Electric Hotel imagines that the film, an act of creation, results in the destruction of Claude, Sabine, and their relationship. The story arc traces the long road to that destruction and its aftermath, including Claude’s capture by Germans while filming World War I and his clever plan to undermine Germany’s insistence that he make propaganda films for the Kaiser. The closing chapters give a brief picture of Claude’s life after the war and explain why he has chosen to live as a recluse.

Dominic Smith tells the story in such detail that The Electric Hotel reads as a well-crafted biography. His graceful prose enlivens his characters, conveying all the tragedy that attends artistic creation, business, and love. The book captures the marvel of creativity in its infancy while reminding readers that after the act of creation is finished, the brutal world can destroy even the most gifted creators.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul312019

Gettysburg by Kevin Morris

Published by Grove Atlantic on July 2, 2019

Gettysburg might be viewed as the story of a midlife crisis, but near the end, two characters talk about engaging in a search for the profound. That conversation more accurately captures the theme of Gettysburg — the search for meaning that often happens in middle age, the search for a story to embrace that gives context to all our other stories. Perhaps it is the search for a way to escape a life of quiet desperation, a way to become one of those few people who make a difference in the way history will unfold. Or perhaps the search is for a way to accept the inevitability of death.

When John Reynolds Stanhope was a child, his family lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Stanhope (who goes by “Reynolds”) lived next to the Civil War battlefield, where he worked as a tour guide. Now he lives in Malibu and makes crazy money working for a famous television writer/producer named Norman Daley. Reynolds’ wife Stella has become a wealthy producer of spy movies. His daughter Bella is in college.

Reynolds recently invested in a Civil War costume and musket and signed up for a recreation of the Gettysburg battle that is being held in California, not the most authentic location, but a perfect place to act out a fantasy. His neighbor warns him against it because being perceived as one of “those guys” will stick with him forever. Yet Reynolds views the battle reenactment, strangely enough, as “an escape from the horror.” Given the nature of his work in Hollywood, participating in a fake war is his way to be authentic.

In the meantime, Reynolds has been pitched the idea of producing a reality TV show starring a former Playmate of the Year and a former Miss Universe from Spain, both in their 50s, who are best friends. They follow a self-help program called The Secret. They hope the reality show will empower women by revealing their depth, of which they have little, as well as their sexiness, with which they are loaded. The women are charming and funny, perfectly suited for reality TV. But is that really the kind of show that Reynolds wants to produce?

Reynolds’ drunken decision to attend the Gettysburg reenactment with the two women sparks most of the novel’s action. I love the women’s perspective on the “bunch of big old weird guys playin’ dress up,” which captures Civil War reenactments in a nutshell. Stella, Bella, and Norman eventually join the party, along with Bella’s friend Heather and the sons of the reality TV wannabes.

All of the characters, even those who are shallow but charming, are created in satisfying depth. Stella is less than understanding about Reynolds’ disappearance (particularly after she sees the former Playmate’s boobs), although she does want to understand Reynolds. Since Reynolds doesn’t understand himself, he can only quarrel in reaction to Stella’s criticisms rather than providing reassuring answers. How Reynolds’ decision to reenact the Civil War will affect their marriage creates most of the story’s dramatic tension.

The story offers explicit lessons, most of which are drawn from the Civil War. One is that no battle was ever won by quitting. Another is that Americans who whine about their lives don’t have it so bad, compared to men who marched barefoot for ten days, only to be slaughtered after arriving at the battlefield. Reynolds, like most people, is so obsessed with his own sense of dissatisfaction that he might need the Battle of Gettysburg to remind him of everything he has and to teach him what loss really means.

The Civil War came about because of a divided America. That division is a constant in contemporary life. Reynolds makes a speech near the novel’s end urging Civil War reenactors to remember, when they watch “these stupid cable channels and all the people that want to scare you into fighting the other side,” that the Civil War caused the deaths of 2 percent of the American population and caused wounds that still have not healed.

While that lesson is important, the book has a more subtle take on how Civil War enactments perpetuate the division of the country. Reenactors who wear blue feel a self-righteous sense of entitlement. They know they will win and are smug about protecting the Union. Reenactors who wear gray feel resentment that the rebels will not prevail. They don’t see themselves as perpetuating slavery but as protecting states’ rights. They fight for honor despite the knowledge that they will be vanquished. Reynolds believes that fighting for the Confederacy in a reenactment is about southern revenge that also plays out in country music and Fox News.

Gettysburg has a number of funny moments. While it is more of a family drama than a comedy, it is also a novel that defies characterization. Gettysburg raises more questions than it answers. The story unfolds over the course of a weekend, but very little is resolved. What Reynolds actually learns from his experience isn’t entirely clear, even to Reynolds. This might not be the right novel for a reader who can’t tolerate ambiguity. Readers who will appreciate a novel of ideas populated by characters who are both entertaining and thoughtful might want to put Gettysburg on their reading lists.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul292019

Game of Snipers by Stephen Hunter

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on July 30, 2019

This is the fourth novel that Stephen Hunter has written with the word Sniper in the title, although I suspect that all of the eleven Bob Lee Swagger novels remind the reader that Swagger was a Marine sniper and is still handy with a gun. As obsessions go, being obsessed with snipers is more concerning that most, making Swagger novels a sort of guilty pleasure for those of us who do not think Craig Harrison deserves the veneration that Hunter and other sniper fans give him because he managed to kill Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan from a distance of 1.5 miles.

Swagger is thinking about guns and snipers (I’m not sure he ever thinks about anything else) when he is visited by the mother of an American sniper who was killed by a sniper in Baghdad. The mother wants revenge for her son’s death in 2003 because she believes that when America invades a country, the enemy isn’t supposed to fight back. It is admitttedly unsettling for the enemy to make disgusting YouTube videos, as Juba the Sniper is credited with doing, and it is apparentnly Juba's fame that motivates the mother to ask the 72-year-old Swagger to find Jubba and take him out. At least she’s not ageist.

The mother has rather improbably traced the sniper to Syria. Swagger sensibly declines to do the deed but he agrees to ask a contact in Mossad for an assist. After Mossad is satisfied that Swagger is a legitimate gun nut, Mossad assigns Swagger to track down Juba — which should be no problem for a 72-year-old white guy in Syria. Why does Mossad think an old American from Arkansas is more skilled than Mossad at finding terrorists in Syria? You just have to roll with it if you want to enjoy the novel.

A reader will need to accept other unlikely events, including IDF’s willingness to bring Swagger along (and to arm him, no less) when they raid a location where the sniper might be practicing. That’s fine with Swagger, because as he admits, he loves war and really loves shooting people. Swagger is probably not a good candidate for a nursing home.

Of course, when Swagger uncovers evidence that Juba plans to shoot a high value target in the US, the FBI welcomes not only a Mossad agent but Swagger to help them catch the sniper. At various other points, the police are happy to bring this septuagenarian civilian along on raids and to loan him weapons to boot. In what world would that happen?

To prove what an awful terrorist he is, we are told that Juba once shot a bunch of children on a bus in Israel while telling himself Praise Be to Allah. Being a terrorist isn’t bad enough; the guy has to be a demonically evil terrorist or sniper fans who admire “hard men” might come to like him as much as they like Swagger.

Other red meat dishes are on a menu that is meant for a particular kind of reader. A strong woman is described as having “butch aggression.” A Mossad guy frets that Americans are not sufficient committed to fighting terror because we don’t torture suspects and insist on legal niceties like trials. Law enforcement characters complain that restrictions on FISA warrants are based on “a party game called Don’t Make Anybody Mad” as opposed to a rational fear that giving law enforcement the unlimited right to spy on Americans is the recipe for a police state. Stephen Hunter compares the “busy beauty of Christian religious ambience” to the “severity and simplicity of Islam,” apparently having never seen the busy beauty of the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul or the stark simplicity of most monasteries. Marines are worshipped because “they are shooters” just as Mossad is worshipped for its ruthlessness. For good measure, a character opines that a Mexican cartel leader is responsible for all of America’s drug woes because drug cartels are part of a diabolical plot to undermine white America. That’s why “Mexicans, they make their living in tunnels” (apparently there are no doctors or farmers in Mexico, although there are plenty of puta and to care about their deaths is “gringo madness”). My eyes began to tire from rolling so often.

At the same time, characters occasionally recognize that the adoration of guns is a path to craziness. I particularly enjoyed the comparison of gun cultists who buy accessories for their weapons to little girls who obsessively collect Pretty Ponies. A few characters also understand that “fake news” doesn’t come from mainstream media outlets, but from bloggers and fringe media outlets that present fiction as fact to further their agenda.

The plot? Well, the terrorist sniper prepares to shoot his target, kills some other people, and manages to stay a step ahead of our heroes while Swagger does his own heroic thing. The reader is asked to guess at the target and, like the characters, will probably be surprised. The terrorist’s motivation is plausible, given that most enemies of America these days, like the president, see their job as making Americans even more divided. The action ending is wild, but plausibility is not the key to enjoying an action hero story, particularly when the action hero is a senior citizen.

Game of Snipers is just outlandish enough to be entertaining, in part because of Hunter’s skill at making the outlandish seem real. His eloquence in describing the mechanics of sniping and the comparative advantage of various rifles, scopes, bullets, and loaders keeps the lengthy descriptions from becoming tedious (although describing a well-crafted bullet as “sublime” is a bit over the top). Devotees of gun porn will love it. But while most gun porn contents itself with listing the model numbers and specifications associated with favorite weapons, Hunter actually takes time to explain the factors that might influence a sniper’s decision to use a particular gun, ammunition, and associated paraphernalia. This is, at least, educational gun porn.

A good many people hold red meat opinions that are similar to those expressed by characters in Game of Sniper. I don’t hold it against a writer for portraying characters who might live in the real world, even if I disagree with them, provided the writer does not propagandize in favor of a repulsive worldview. Hunter occasionally comes close to crossing that line but I am willing to cut him some slack and to recommend Game of Snipers because the novel delivers the excitement that an action thriller should.

RECOMMENDED

Saturday
Jul272019

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré

Published in the UK and by Scribner in the US in 2008

There is no more observant student of human nature than John le Carré. He explores the spaces between what people say and what they leave unsaid. He examines motivations, which are so often failings: an aging man’s irrational devotion to a young woman; an aging woman’s loyalty to a bond that never existed; bureaucracies at war with each other and bureaucrats at war with their souls. His protagonists are keenly aware of their shortcomings and often think of how their lives could have, or should have, turned out differently. So it is with Tommy Brue.

Brue is a private banker in Hamburg, having inherited and then moved the bank he inherited from his father. Brue also inherited some questionable accounts that his father created to hold wealth smuggled from the collapsing Soviet Union.

A lovely and lively young lawyer for a charitable organization gives Brue an account number that was given to her by Issa, who got it from his father, who got it from Brue’s father. Issa is from Chechnya and has spent time in a Turkish prison. He managed a harrowing journey to Hamburg despite being wanted by law enforcement agencies in several countries.

To determine whether Issa is entitled to funds that Brue would prefer his father had never accepted, Brue must delve into Issa’s identity and history. John le Carré develops not just Issa’s story, but the story of Chechnya — the home of Issa’s mother, who was raped at fifteen by Issa’s Russian father. Issa looks to Brue for protection rather than money, but Brue is not in the protection business. Brue is in the uncomfortable position of addressing moral questions rather than banking questions. If (unlike his father) Brue insists that legal formalities be followed, Issa will likely be deported and then will certainly be tortured, by Turks or Russians or others.

Brue is typical of John le Carré protagonists, particularly in his later work. Brue suspects his wife is cheating on him but doesn’t want to know. He runs from difficulties, preferring avoidance to confrontation. His social behavior is proper but he is incapable of expressing true feelings. He behaves prudently during an uneventful life until the time comes to choose between cautious behavior and meaningful but dangerous action. When he makes the choice, he isn’t entirely sure why. He is energized by a young woman who ignites, if not lust exactly, an opportunity for self-examination.

Issa’s lawyer, Annabel Richter, is also typical of le Carré in that her character is complex and conflicted. She views Issa as “her tutor in unbearable pain and hope.” She has learned from failure — hers as a lawyer, or the legal system’s — that a time would come when she would break all the rules for a client. Issa is that client.

The other key character, apart from Issa, is Gunther Bachman, a German intelligence officer stationed in Hamburg as punishment for his sins. One of his people sees that Sweden has identified Issa as an escaped prisoner from Turkey who gave the slip to Swedish authorities. Bachman works out that Issa may be coming to Hamburg. He then finds himself in a bureaucratic nightmare as British intelligence, the CIA, and his German superiors engage in a turf war.

Issa is far from a terrorist. He wants nothing to do with violence or his father’s wealth, which he regards as ill-gotten and thus in violation of Islamic law. He wants only to pursue a career in medicine. The plot focuses on how the fighters in the war on terror are at war with humanity in their willingness to sacrifice the innocent, all to make doubtful gains in their efforts to thwart terror. Some readers might see the novel as cynical; I viewed it as honest. As always, John le Carré tells a good story and creates characters who stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul262019

Atmosphæra Incognita by Neal Stephenson

First published in 2013; published by Subterranean Press on July 31, 2019

Atmosphæra Incognita first appeared in Starship Century, a 2013 anthology devoted to interstellar travel edited by James and Gregory Benford. Neal Stephenson uses the term “Atmosphæra Incognita” to describe a place “that, hidden from earthlings’ view by thunderheads, stretches like an electrified shoal between us and the deep ocean of the cosmos.” It is, he imagines, a dangerous place to dwell.

The narrator of this novella is a commercial real estate agent who is tasked with finding property for her wealthy friend Carl. He wants to build a steel tower, 20 km high. Most of the story addresses the logistics of building a tower that reaches into the stratosphere. The story is reasonably interesting even to those of us who don’t have engineering degrees.

Stephenson gives the narrator the rudiments of a personality. Her description of Carl suggests that he might have more personality than she does, but this isn’t a character-driven story. The most dramatic moment concerns an atmospherically endangered human near the story’s end. Most of the story’s drama, however, resides in the creation of a seemingly impossible-to-build structure and the creative solutions that designers devise to keep the tower standing in the face of menacing winds and upward traveling lightning strikes known as superbolts.

I’m not an engineering geek, but I thought Atmosphæra Incognita was surprisingly interesting. That’s a tribute to Stephenson, who took a break from writing science fiction epics to pen this novella. It is now available to readers who don’t want to track down Starship Century.

RECOMMENDED

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