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
Oct302017

Darke by Rick Gekoski

Published in Great Britain in 2017; published by Canongate Books on November 21, 2017

Darke is the kind of novel that starts out being one thing and ends up being something quite different. The ending puts the beginning in perspective by casting the protagonist in a penetrating light that removes him from the shadows and illuminates his interior.

James Darke is a former schoolmaster. Now he has arranged his life so that he will never need to leave his home. He can no longer bear the presence of other people, “even to dismiss them.” He has no use for their opinions or jokes. He is intolerant of any preference that diverges from his own (the notion that some people might prefer green tea to coffee is proof of their stupidity and perhaps their Green Party membership). James has had enough and is ready to say no mas to the world like a defeated fighter. The novel is his journal, the thoughts of a recluse who explains how he came to reject humanity.

James does not limit his disdain to ordinary people. In some of my favorite moments, he savages T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Yeats, “that blubbery piss-artist” Dylan Thomas, “that dreadful gasbag” Kahlil Gibran, and Philip Roth, whose characters “speechify” for paragraphs at a time while always sounding like Philip Roth. James has spent years trying to write a monograph about Dickens, a writer he decides is “slobbery” by the novel’s end. Yet as a teacher, James encouraged his students to read literature with an open mind, to consider multiple viewpoints with humility, to “allow them gracious entrance however strident or discordant some of them may sound,” so that “each of these voices will become a constituent part of who you become, an atom of growing being.” Good advice, but James has come to reject his own counsel, having decided that “nothing assuages the pain of being.” In fact, he hates wisdom, and is engaged in the British project of searching for its antidote.

As much as he fears admitting it, James also suffers from loneliness in his self-imposed isolation. Thus he finds himself discussing Dickens with Bronya, his Bulgarian cleaner, who startles him with insights that had never occurred to him. It seems the old dog is capable of learning new ideas, even if he would prefer not to. But will he repair his self-imposed exile from a pained and loving daughter?

How did James Darke become so dark? Much of his journal recounts his past, introducing the reader to the highs and (mostly) lows of his life. The reason for his morose withdrawal from society eventually becomes clear, and the description of the events leading to that point are intense and painful to read. Knowing how his past has shaped his present allows the reader to understand the emotional overload that underlies James’ escape from the world of the living.

Darke is deft in its transition from light comedy to dark comedy to tragedy. Some of James’ humor might be described as socially incorrect; his rant about female tennis players who grunt when they serve is priceless. James also has strong opinions about what a novel should be; he skips past descriptions of trees and searches for “human content,” characters who are passionate or ironic. Which is very much a description of Darke. This is a novel that closely observes people, not the quality of sunsets or the shimmer of a rainy sky.

The novel’s ending, which explains and addresses James’ rejection of his daughter, is powerful. Rick Gekoski sets aside the jokes in favor of a gut-wrenchingly honest examination of a man who was forced to make an impossible decision and then to find a way to live with its consequences. The ending makes it possible for the reader to reinterpret James. He still might not be likable, but he’s sympathetic, a flawed but caring human who is doing his best to confront adversity even if, in his own words, his best isn’t very good.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Oct272017

Head Games by Craig McDonald and Kevin Singles

Published by First Second on October 24, 2017

This version of Head Games is a graphic adaptation of Craig McDonald’s debut novel. Published in 2007, Head Games was nominated for an Edgar as best first novel. McDonald has written nine more novels in the Hector Lassiter series in addition to a few other books.

Head Games is set in 1957. The premise is that Yale’s Skull & Bones, clubhouse to America’s elite, collects the skulls of famous persons. It wants to acquire Pancho Villa’s skull, which falls into the hands of Hector Lassiter and prompts a shootout with Mexican police.

Rumors link the skull to a map that leads to Villa’s hidden stash of gold. Lassiter is soon teamed with a young poet and a Mexican woman who apparently has a thing for older men. Young women who fall for an aging hard-boiled detective is part of the noir tradition, but McDonald twisted that tradition by making Lassiter a hard-boiled writer.

Lassiter and his entourage (plus Pancho’s skull) travel from Mexico to Hollywood, where Lassiter has a meeting with Orson Welles about a film script he’s writing. The trip also gives him a chance to cash in on the skull. Once there, Marlene Dietrich asks Lassiter to patch up his feud with Ernest Hemmingway. Yeah, there’s a lot of name dropping in this book, but the names belong to interesting people.

A bunch of people want to kill Lassiter, including (possibly) Pancho Villa’s buddy, who really shouldn’t still be alive, and maybe even Prescott Bush. Yes, that Bush. The CIA (always a friend of Skull & Bones) is interested in the skull, and the FBI is interested because J. Edgar Hoover has a bug up his bun about the CIA, which is spying on the FBI.

Despite all the people trying to kill Lassiter, it seems more probable that he’ll kill himself. Diabetes is messing up his vision and throwing off his aim. He’s getting old and often feels like he’s on the verge of having a stroke. And having sex with the beautiful young woman is likely to give him a heart attack. In short, Lassiter is a good noir character.

The name dropping is pretty outrageous but so is the plot. The story is different, more imaginative than most modern noir, and it even seems plausible. The main story is followed by two more, almost like dual epilogs, that carry the plot forward by a couple of decades. The story has a timely message about hubris and leadership, but message or not, the story entertains.

The art in this graphic adaptation is distinctive and consistent. Some of the story drawn in black and white (adding to the noir feel), but it is often supplemented with gold, which both suggests the gold that is central to the plot and adds sort of a sepia tone that is consistent with a story set in the past. More importantly, the art often carries the story. Too many graphic adaptations of novels try to cram too many words into each frame, but Head Games translates the words into drawings, and we all know how many words a picture is worth.

I haven’t read the original novel, but an author’s note at the end explains that this version expands the original, adding characters and events from other novels in the series. Whatever changes might have been made, the graphic novel tells a good story.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Oct252017

Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam

Published by Random House on July 4, 2017

Who is Rich? is narrated by Rich Fisher, a cartoonist locked in a middle-age crisis who teaches an annual “semibiographical comics” workshop at a summer arts conference. The other teachers range from nobodies a Pulitzer winner. Based on his one published book six years earlier, Fisher ranks himself among the has-beens. He has two children and a vanishing sex life.

Rich loves his wife, although they have the kind of biting conversations that couples with children often thrive upon. The conference gives Rich an annual opportunity to escape from his middle-aged responsibilities, much to his wife’s consternation. It also gives him an opportunity to pursue an affair, to find “a potential alliance in this war against morbidity and death.” One of his flings, with a woman named Amy, has gone on for some time and she continues to occupy his thoughts. Amy, in turn, views Rich as preserving her sanity, although she does not intend to leave her cold but wealthy husband despite her litany of complaints about feeling ignored and lonely.

Rich’s confrontations with his wife are uncomfortable to read, which is a tribute to their realism. Robin, Rich’s wife, is a less-than-ideal parent and Rich doesn’t know how to cope with her anger. Flashbacks take the reader through their courtship and marriage, demonstrating that Robin is high-maintenance and that Rich isn’t emotionally equipped to maintain her. Flashbacks also make clear that Rich sacrificed friendships and harmed his relationship with Robin by depicting the people in his life as unpleasant or foolish characters in his comic.

Who is Rich? Rich is a complete mess, a scattered man who is pulling himself in so many different directions he seems likely to be torn apart at the seams. He makes impulsive decisions that he immediately regrets. His encounters with Amy are the high point of his existence because they demand no responsibility. “I’d never have her, I’d never lose her. It wasn’t real, it didn’t matter, would never sour, never fail.” Of course, the reader knows that none of that is true. One of the things that Rich learns from a rival cartoonist, and that he experiences on his own, is that getting what you want is never as good as you expect it to be. But in most middle-age crisis novels, the protagonist learns a good bit more, and it isn’t clear that Rich is capable of internalizing any of the many lessons he should be learning.

The plot elements are typical of those of a family drama with the feel of a soap opera. The novel touches on familiar issues: dementia in an aging parent; the impact on parents of babies who don’t sleep through the night; the impact of quarreling children on parents; a man who cycles between the belief that he would never harm the family he cherishes and the belief that he needs a completely different life; marriage partners feeling lonely because they aren’t getting whatever they think they need. All of this has been done many times, but some of the details of Rich’s crisis-driven life, both interior and exterior, give the storya measure of freshness despite its familiarity.

Rich is intensely introspective and, at times, I found my attention wandering because he cared about his life much more than I did. That’s natural enough, but the writer’s job is to make the reader care, or at least to be absorbed in the narrative, and I was sometimes absorbed but other times not so much. A strong ending might have made a difference in my overall reaction, but the story fizzles out more than it ends. Stories about writers are often self-indulgent, and this one indulges a bit too much. The novel’s admirable strengths roughly balance its weaknesses, making it hard to recommend. Because it does have its virtues, however, I am recommending Who Is Rich? for readers who are prepared to accept its faults.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Oct232017

The Ghosts of Galway by Ken Bruen

Published by Mysterious Press on November 14, 2017

The Ghosts of Galway has several meanings in Ken Bruen’s novel of the same name, including Jack Taylor’s many departed friends, the Galwegians whose death he has caused or for which he blames himself, and a social protest movement that identifies itself by that name. The story’s local color includes the hated water tax and some dead swans, but Jack’s running commentary touches upon American politics, as well. He’s more interested, however, in American television, although politics is just another form of televised entertainment.

Jack is more concerned about his old demons than any new ghosts, but life never lets him take the back seat he so fervently hopes to occupy. Worried about his mortality after receiving an ambiguous diagnosis, Jack would like to patch up some friendships, but his old friends are having none of it. That leaves him with Emily, who in recent novels has been a dangerous friend. She’s even more dangerous in this one.

Jack is recruited to obtain The Red Book, purportedly written as a counterargument to The Book of Kells in about 800 A.D., if it exists at all. Jack loves to read but he doesn’t want his life to be the plot of a Dan Brown novel, so he decides to pass on the job until the paycheck convinces him otherwise.

The job should be easy since the book is for sale in Galway, having been pilfered from the Vatican library by a rogue priest. Of course, nothing is easy for Jack. Nor for his friends (although he has few), who have a tendency to die. Even former friends suffer death by association. In fact, everyone and everything Jack cares about dies. That tendency plagues Jack again in this novel. Each new death adds another layer of grief and guilt to his life, sending him deeper into the bottle, even as he tries to cope by pursuing his own form of makeshift justice. I don’t know if there’s another protagonist in crime fiction who has such a good heart and such an awful life as Jack Taylor.

Jack is in love not just with books but with language, and is fond of mocking young people who have (in his view) corrupted it with words like “basically,” an all-purpose single-word answer to any question. Bruen uses Taylor to spew forth a running commentary on popular culture, including writers and films and television shows he admires and those he could do without. My favorite moment in this book comes when Jack tries to pick up a woman in a bar by discussing the merits of an Irish writer and, when the woman says “I don’t read,” responds “What the f--- is wrong with you?” Of course, the woman walks away. Story of Jack’s life.

The Ghosts of Galway might best be viewed as an interlude. Bruen cleans up some plotlines that have dangled in the last two or three novels, presumably paving the way for something new. I’m glad Bruen did that, but as a cleanup novel, The Ghosts of Galway is less satisfying than some of his other work. Which isn’t to say that the novel can't be enjoyed for the reasons that every Bruen novel is enjoyable:  the pop culture references, the dry wit, the laconic writing style. Bruen’s novels are known for their brutal endings, and this one has two. Jack is not the victim of the first, but then another, less obvious brutal moment arrives, another downer to plague Jack’s life, and all is right with the world.

I wouldn’t recommend The Ghosts of Galway to anyone who hasn’t read other Jack Taylor novels, because it probably won’t seem to go anywhere. To the extent that the plot deals with The Red Book, it kind of fizzles out. I would, however, recommend reading the series in order from the beginning, because the full arc of Jack’s life is what the series is ultimately about. I don’t know where the next novel will go, since Jack has almost no friends (or even enemies) left in his life, but as always, I look forward to reading it.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Oct202017

Target Omega by Peter Kirsanow

Published by Dutton on May 16, 2017

So many characters in Target Omega are familiar that I kept picturing the character actors who were playing them as the novel progressed. The plot also follows a predictable path, although it does make the reader guess about a the identity of a mole. Readers should be warned that key plot points are left unresolved, presumably as a means of encouraging the purchase of the next book in the series.

Mike Garin is one of the elite, ultra-competent tough guy superheroic killing machines who populate Thrillerworld. If he touches a knife, he kills someone with it. If he touches a gun, he tells gun-porn addicts exactly what kind of gun he is fondling. Like most superheroic killing machines, he’s been so busy learning how to kill that he hasn’t developed anything approaching a personality. Garin is really too dull to care much about. But he's big and handsome and so the ladies love him.

With the help of his Omega team, Garin starts the novel by taking out an Iranian assault force that is attempting to snatch nuclear weapons in Pakistan. Omega is a strike force that takes direct action to prevent the proliferation of WMDs. Garin soon learns from Clint Laws, his former boss and the founder of Omega, that U.S. intelligence and special ops services have been “compromised at the highest level.” Of course, it’s up to Garin to plug the leaks, which means plugging the leaker. So far, this is a standard and unimaginative thriller plot.

Laws warns Garin that an unknown enemy will soon begin targeting Omega. Even as he speaks, Omega members are being assassinated, leaving all but Garin dead. Fortunately for the plot, the killers take a smart approach to killing the other team members but are inexplicably inept when they try to kill Garin. Of course, they had to be or the story would end in stillbirth. Peter Kirsanow explains that Garin’s assassination was assigned to less competent killers for reasons that make little sense, but Kirsanow needed to keep Garin alive or the book would end prematurely, so I swallowed my disbelief and kept reading.

Garin soon learns that a plot has been hatched to attack the US with an EMP strike. Throughout the novel we’re told that Iran can’t hit the United States and Russia knows better, so the question is how the attack will be carried out. The answer is moderately clever. The reader is also expected to wonder which high-level character is a traitor. Unfortunately, the answer is not revealed before the book ends. The true nature of the scheme against America, which is carefully concealed, has also been saved for a future volume. Both of those elements are sufficiently intriguing that I’ll probably read the next installment.

The novel is replete with simplistic political dogma that I could have lived without. The United States and Israel are always right, no matter what, and anyone who disagrees must be a liberal traitor. Characters are one-dimensional, either really really good or really really bad. Parts of the story are wholly unrealistic (in addition to Garin’s unrealistic ability to be a one-man death squad). A character makes the kind of disparaging anatomical references during Senate testimony that people just don’t make during Senate testimony (nor should they, since disparaging the size of a man’s equipment because you disagree with his political analysis is infantile). A mother tells Garin not to worry about the six men he just killed in front of her children because kids are resilient and watching someone’s head explode really won’t bother them by next week. Wow, what a great mom. The message that “real men fondle nurses” struck me as childish, although a shocking number of men do seem to think that fondling women without their consent is proof of their manhood. The last chapters seem designed to foster the idea that designer wars are a good idea and the world would be a better place if the United States orchestrated more of them, which struck me as hopelessly naïve. But it did give Kirsanow an opportunity to describe America's arsenal in salivating detail.

Kirsanow’s prose is muscular and the story zips along at a pace that makes Target Omega easy to read. Readers who want a fast-moving thriller and aren’t looking for depth or originality might enjoy Target Omega, particularly if they agree with its simplistic political viewpoint. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy because it does push many of the right thriller buttons, but the novel has too many eye-rolling aspects to warrant a heartfelt recommendation.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

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