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
Apr122019

The Current by Tim Johnston

Published by Algonquin Books on January 22, 2019

The lives of two young women, separated by more than a decade, intersect in The Current. One drowned in a river, but may have the victim of a crime before entering the water. Years later, the other woman nearly drowned in the same river. The second woman was a child when she saw the scene of the first woman’s death. Those fateful connections form the backbone of The Current, a literary crime novel that explores the impact of grief and resentment on characters who have little success coping with their losses.

Audrey Sutter (from Minnesota) and Caroline Price (from Georgia) are in their sophomore year at a Georgia college. Audrey needs to return home after learning her father, retired Sheriff Tom Sutter, is ill. Caroline impulsively decides to escape the magnified dramas of her life by driving Audrey home. Audrey is attacked in Iowa but Caroline rescues her from a probable sexual assault. Audrey and Caroline flee and are almost in Minnesota before ambiguous circumstances send the car into a river.

Gordon Burke’s daughter drowned in the same river years earlier. Burke has always carried a hatred for Sheriff Sutter for failing to arrest Danny Young, who was suspected of causing her death. That possibility ends Gordon’s relationship with Rachel Young (the widow of Gordon’s former business partner) and ends his friendship with Danny’s developmentally disabled brother Markey.

Much of the drama in the novel’s first half centers on Gordon, Tom, and Audrey. As the novel nears its midpoint, the focus shifts to Danny, who comes home to a town that does not welcome his return. Not even his old friend Jeff Goss, who appears to know more about the death of Gordon’s daughter than anyone except Danny, and who does not want Danny’s return to stir up the truth.

Palpable drama flows from a series of revelations as characters come to grip with new evidence of events that took place years earlier, as well as events surrounding the attack on Audrey. Characters are true to their midwestern small town roots, often struggling with emotions and frustrated by their sense of helplessness. Through dialog alone, without needless exposition, Tim Johnston conveys how difficult it is for Gordon to express himself.

As for the plot . . . I hate to use clichés like “riveting,” but I can’t think of a better word. The story is absolutely riveting, in part because the characters are so true-to-life and the description of their actions is so convincing. It’s a sad story but it’s sad because it rings true. It is a story of small town lives ruined by small men, men who “run all over the world like rats,” men who behave horridly and men who don’t speak up and put a stop to it.

Tension builds with such urgency in the second half that the book feels like a heavy weight pressing against the reader’s chest. The tension is created in part because of the story’s ambiguity. A man who might have attacked Audrey in Iowa faces extra-judicial punishment, but is he the guilty man? Another character is clearly guilty of certain crimes but is he responsible for Caroline’s death? Characters develop theories, they think they know what might have happened, but as is often true in life, nobody is really sure. They might convince themselves that they know, but in moments of honest reflection, they don’t know who is guilty and who is innocent. The story’s ambiguity reflects the real world, where so many crimes go unsolved and so many innocent people are falsely accused.

Ultimately, the story is about maintaining empathy in an uncertain world. Audrey feels the heart of Gordon’s daughter beating in her chest. Gordon once wished harm upon Audrey so her father would know the pain he felt, but when he gets to know Audrey, he understands how wrong he was to wish harm upon the innocent. The Current teaches the valuable lesson that justice and punishment are less important than understanding and healing.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr102019

The Falconer by Dana Czapnik

Published by Atria Books on January 29, 2019

When she’s not taking one hundred shots a day as a form of meditation, Lucy Adler plays pickup basketball on the street courts of Manhattan. She’s played one-on-one against Percy Abney all her life. They both attend private prep schools but their street smarts help them survive on the courts. Lucy has a thing for Percy, but he loves her as a friend and does not share her romantic desire. Percy is popular because he’s a baller and will inherit a fortune, but he is careless with the feelings of the women he beds. His obnoxious brother Brent is popular because he buys friendship. Lucy is not popular. The students at her school assume she’s a lesbian because she’s tall and athletic. Other girls don’t like her because she doesn’t want to talk about diets.

For that matter, Lucy doesn’t really like herself. She judges herself based on how she believes others perceive her. She isn’t doing the right things to get into a top college. She isn’t beautiful. She lacks effervescence. She doesn’t wear the right clothes. She feels unloved and expects that will never change.

Like most people, Lucy and her friends are self-absorbed. I was initially put off by Lucy’s teenage angst, although her random internal musings are entertaining. Abstract thoughts spin from concrete observations. When she babysits, she contemplates the belongings of her neighbors as she rifles through their drawers. She thinks about poultry and the nature of beauty and whether an American flag made out of dildos has artistic value.

As the novel moves forward, either Lucy’s thoughts deepen or I began to empathize with her agony. Maybe both are true. Lucy has something to say when she considers the collective experiences that define a generation and the difficulty of defining oneself as an individual in the face of pressure to conform. She ponders gravity and risk after watching the Challenger explode. She looks at a boot print in the snow and thinks about how things change in minutes. She considers the value of loneliness because it reminds her of the importance of other people. She makes a good argument that naked female bodies, unlike male bodies, carry “the weight of history.” Maybe those aren’t profound thoughts (although maybe some are), but they are deeper than the thoughts she has about why boys don’t like her.

On the other hand, some of the deep thoughts shared by a friend with an alcoholic mother were expressed in a way that struck me as contrived, and her friend Violet’s attempt to instill a feminist education in Lucy amounts to little more than bromides. Fortunately, Lucy has a talk with her mother (who has a Ph.D. and clearly qualifies as a feminist despite quitting a professorship to raise Lucy) that helps her gain a more practical view of life from someone who has actually lived one.

A sex scene that takes place while a hockey game is blaring away on television is without doubt one of the best literary descriptions of lost virginity I’ve read. Not because the sex is titillating (far from it) but because Lucy is so unprepared to have sex that is divorced from intimacy. The juxtaposition of lust and anxiety and hockey commentary is unique and amazing.

Near the end, the story becomes a love/hate letter to New York City (a place that is easy to love and hate) and then to the world, which Lucy thinks “is so beautiful, even when it’s hideous.” Lucy isn’t quite sure if she is an existentialist, an idealist, or just a lonely woman whose friends betray her. Lucy contains multitudes. Her desire is to see the world for what it is, in all its complexity and contradictions. That should be a universal goal, but as Lucy discovers, most people only want to see what they already believe to be true.

The Falconer is a strong coming-of-age novel. Lucy’s perspective (or variety of perspectives, given that she is constantly at war with herself) is unusual and all the more worthwhile because hers is not a common point of view in coming-of-age literature. Coming of age ultimately means deciding what kind of person you want to be. Lucy’s decision might serve as an inspiration, not just to high school girls who play basketball, but to everyone who is coming of age, no matter what age they might be.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr082019

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on April 9, 2019

There was a movie-based television show called Fame in the 1980s about students who attended a performing arts high school. The first half of Trust Exercise reads like a novelization of Fame, except that the characters have more sex. The best scenes are about the tensions and insecurities of performance. The most dismal scenes (and there are too many of them for my taste) reflect the melodrama of sexually charged teenage life. Fame was mildly entertaining because of the students’ performances, as opposed to their melodrama. Since a novel must describe (for example) a singing performance rather than allowing a reader to hear the song, I was underwhelmed by the novel’s first half. But then the novel became something different, an adult story of substance.

Sarah is 14 in 1982, attending a theatre arts school in the South, where she is mentored by Mr. Kingsley until he seems to lose interest in her. She gets it on with a boy named David and subjects her other friends to teen drama because that’s what teenage girls do. Other characters have drama that is peripheral to Sarah’s, including some visiting British students who stage a production of Candide that strikes the community as scandalous. Sometimes Sarah makes the lives of other students worse because, well, she’s a teenager.

By the end of the novel’s first half, Sarah is 16 and filled with turmoil. The second half twists the story in a way that gives the title a new meaning — as in, reading is an exercise of trust in the author that might be misplaced. The second half jumps forward 14 years and focuses a character who is called “Karen” in quotation marks because (she tells us) women named Karen are bland and nondescript. Karen Wurtzel is a seemingly minor character in the novel’s first half who is notable for having a relationship with an adult British teacher named Martin who accompanied the British acting students.

We learn in the second half that Karen abandoned acting and singing after graduating high school, studied modern dance in college, and became an accountant, a bland career for a bland person. Having returned to the town where she went to high school, Karen is again in contact with David. She eventually renews her acquaintance with Sarah when she gets Sarah’s autograph on a book that Sarah has written.

Karen’s references to her own name in quotation marks and to “the person we’re calling Mr. Kingsley” give the reader a clue that something is amiss in the telling of the novel’s first half. Karen seems to be fascinated by words and their potential or unintended meanings, which is fascinating for readers who love words. Words have the potential to mislead and the reader begins to suspect that a good many words in the novel have been misleading in some way. As the novel’s second half dissects the first half, the true nature of the first half becomes clear. A final, relatively short section focuses on a new character who adds an unexpected twist to the story.

A central theme in Trust Exercise is that acting requires true emotions to be felt in false circumstances — but how do we know that an emotion is true? The novel is clever in its construction and perceptive in its characterizations, while reminding us that characters are, in fact, just characters. They are what the author wants us to see, just as real people portray themselves as they want others to see them. The novel demonstrates, in fact, how people — not just actors — play a part, and how difficult it is for individuals to set aside their masks and be real. That’s more insight than you’ll get from watching the entire five-year run of Fame, although a reader will need to make it through the first half to reach the good stuff.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Apr052019

Women Talking by Miriam Toews 

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on April 2, 2019

Women Talking is set in the imaginary Molotschna Colony in Bolivia, but the story is based on the real Manitoba Colony, where Mennonite women were drugged and raped over a period of years, their stories of waking up in pain dismissed as female fantasies or believed to be the work of demons who punished the women for their sins. The actual demons were several men in the colony, some of whom were related to the women they raped.

The novel posits that three hundred women were sprayed with an anesthetic used on farm animals and raped by eight men. A woman named Salome tried to kill them with a scythe, prompting the elders to have the men arrested for their own safety. Their families posted bail and they will now be returned, but what will the women do when they come back?

When the crimes were discovered, the perpetrators are jailed for their own safety, lest the women hack them to pieces with a scythe. As the men in the colony set about raising bail money for eight rapists, the women hold a meeting. The (male) elders have given the women the option of forgiving the men, thus assuring their place in Heaven, or leaving the colony and entering a world about which they know nothing, a prospect made more difficult by their illiteracy and unfamiliarity with any language except that spoken exclusively by Mennonites.

The women make their choice during a two-day discussion. The minutes are taken by August Epps, who gained an education after his family was excommunicated. Epps later returned and is seen by some as having his uses, although his lack of farming skills renders him useless in the eyes of most colonists.

The novel imagines how the women would discuss their difficult choice. They consider whether forgiveness is possible and whether there might be some sins so weighty that only God, and certainly not the victims, can be expected to forgive them. The women are expected to be obedient to their husbands, but since they have not been taught to read the Bible, they are no longer certain that obedience is actually something their faith commands. Perhaps the religion emphasizes love rather than obedience; they can’t be sure.

Most of the women have rejected the forgiveness option, and are now deciding whether they should leave or stay to fight their oppressors. But fighting — if the fight involves physical violence — would require them to violate the pacifist beliefs that are central to their religion. Still, a fight for gender equality need not be violent; the revolution could be bloodless.

If the women decide to leave, what impact will that decision have on the colony’s men, who might not all be inherently evil despite the “pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of their hearts and minds.” Some suggest that they take the younger boys with them and teach them not to be rapists.

The story generates drama and suspense as, on the second day, the reader wonders whether the women will actually abandon the colony and their older children and go forward into a world they are ill-equipped to understand. There is also tension in Epps’ personal story. Perhaps listening to brave women discuss their futures will have an impact on Epps’ fate.

These are heavy discussions but Miriam Toews lightens the mood with digressions and gossip and personality clashes. Women Talking is smart, sad, funny, completely engaging, and remarkably original.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr032019

American Heroin by Melissa Scrivner Love

Published by Crown on February 19, 2019

American Heroin is a sequel to Lola. You might want to read Lola because it’s a good book, and you should definitely read it before American Heroin to give context to some offhand comments that Lola Vazquez makes about her eventful past.

Lola is something of a criminal feminist, fighting to hold power as a gang leader in a profession that is dominated by men. To do that, she must be as tough and merciless as male gang leaders. Yet she brings a certain sensitivity to her work, an affinity for abused women and children, a conscience that does not let her live easily with the consequences of her violence.

Lola lives in Huntington Park in Los Angeles County, where she controls the heroin trade on certain street corners in partnership with a Machiavellian prosecutor named Andrea. Their partnership is uneasy, and Lola is not quite sure whether Andrea ever acts in anyone’s interest but her own. Lola, at least, takes care of her gang and her neighborhood, which she rules over like a benevolent but ruthless queen.

In the novel’s early stages, Lola is tricked into ordering the killing of man she doesn’t know. She also learns that a new cartel is taking the place of the one she helped bring down in Lola. Those two events turn out to be related in a way that puts Lola’s career and life at risk. What Lola does not immediately realize is that she has started a war that will also put her younger brother’s life at risk.

American Heroin introduces Louisa Mae, another victim of a violent childhood, a girl who learned in desperation to resort to violence herself. A cartel wants her dead because she is her father’s daughter. Louisa Mae’s story is interspersed with Lola’s. The reader eventually learns how those lives are connected. The connection is surprising.

Lola inhabits a world where, unlike white middle-class neighbors not far from hers, a child might catch a stray bullet at any moment. Lola’s adopted (sort of) daughter Lucy accepts the normalcy of that life, but Lola is adjusting to parental fears. The story’s best dramatic moments come not from Lola’s role as a gang leader, but from her insecurities as a mother. Multiple family dramas unfold as American Heroin steams to its conclusion.

Lola is a victim of her circumstances but she has learned to control those circumstances to the extent that control is possible. As Lola ponders the possibility of making a different kind of life, one in a safe neighborhood that isn’t associated with crime and violence, she wonders whether she would have a chance of being accepted in a white, upper-middle-class world, and whether she would want to be. A trip to Texas highlights the subtle racism that Latinas encounter in white-dominated environments.

Lola has more substance than a typical action hero, but when the time comes to fight, Lola can bring it. Like the last novel, this one includes a kick-in-the-gut moment that proves Lola’s ability to make tough decisions, substituting the ethics of a gang leader for the heart of a family leader. That Lola is a balance of good and evil may put off readers who always want to cheer for a protagonist, but I always prefer novels that recognize the war that so often rages in even the kindest hearts.

My most significant gripe about this series is that much of Lola’s substance is revealed through redundant monologues about what Lola is thinking or remembering. There are only so many times that Melissa Scrivner Love needs to tell the same story about Lola’s past or to share Lola’s present anxieties and doubts. There were times when I wanted to say “move on, we know this” except saying it would have been futile since Love wasn’t here to listen to my complaint. I also tend to be annoyed with novels that are written in the present tense (“Lola sets out to find Andrea”), but that might just be a personal quirk that won’t bother other readers.

As a thoughtful but fast-moving thriller with an unusual protagonist, American Heroin stands out from conventional crime novels. Lola might be an anti-hero, but she’s a hero to those who depend on her, just as Don Corleone was valued by those to whom he granted favors — until he came to collect a favor in return. I have enjoyed the character development in the two Lola books and I hope there are more on the horizon.

RECOMMENDED