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
Jun062018

Death Notice by Zhou Haohui 

First published in China in 2014; published in translation by Doubleday on June 5, 2018

The Chengdu police have formed a task force to investigate the murder of police sergeant Zheng Haoming. Eighteen years earlier, a task force investigated the murders of the vice commissioner of Chengdu’s criminal police and two police academy students. The killer prepared “death notices” announcing those executions in advance. Given the Chinese government’s culture of secrecy, the murders were never made public, nor were they solved. The unsolved murders are relevant because a death notice was also prepared for Zheng before his murder. The notices identify the executioner as Eumenides, one of the Furies of Greek mythology.

Ironically, Zheng had been a member of the task force examining the original murders eighteen years earlier. His journal reveals that he began to reinvestigate the murders. Soon after Zheng is killed, Eumenides apparently accomplishes several more murders under the collective noses of the Chengdu police.

The novel follows several officers who work to uncover the identity of Eumenides. The story primarily follows a police psychologist named Mu Jainyun, who uncovers a potential link between the original murders and a drug bust that occurred a month earlier. Meanwhile, the other officers are either accusing each other of keeping secrets or doing not much of anything.

Death Notice isn’t the kind of whodunit that invites the reader to piece together clues and catch the killer. It’s more of a Chinese police procedural. The political and bureaucratic concerns that impede a proper investigation are interesting but underplayed, perhaps to avoid censorship of a novel that might be seen as exposing the inefficiency or corruption of Chinese policing. It is a common theme in crime fiction that escaping justice is a privilege of wealth, and that theme is advanced in Death Notice, but in a way that seems watered down compared to western crime novels.

The novel’s big reveal comes out of the blue, with an explanation tacked on in an epilogue. Death Notice is the first book in a trilogy, however, so don’t expect the story to be fully resolved by the end of the novel.

Characters tend to be underdeveloped stereotypes. They might gain more weight later in the series. The prose is often trite. That might be the fault of the translator, or it might be that what has become trite in western crime fiction is considered fresh in China.

Tired themes from horror novels (a man burned beyond recognition wanders through the novel) mix with familiar themes of justice (unpunished crimes must be avenged), although whether people (horrific or not) who carry out acts of vengeance outside the law are actually dispensing justice is questionable. Perhaps later novels in the trilogy will explore that question in greater depth; this one ducks the issue, and did too little to persuade me to continue with the remaining novels in the trilogy. Death Notice is interesting, primarily for being set in Chengdu, but it is far from compelling.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Jun042018

Upstate by James Wood

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on June 5, 2018

Upstate is a family drama that focuses on a father’s sense of frustration because he feels unable to protect, or even to help, his two adult daughters, one of whom is particularly fragile. In the past, fathers passed the duty of protection to a daughter’s husband, but the fragile daughter’s boyfriend makes clear that he is not ready to accept that responsibility, nor is the paternalistic notion that women must be protected consistent with modern times. Where does that leave the father?

Alan Querry buys and develops properties in England. He gives the outward appearance of success, with a nice family home in Durham, but he’s having trouble paying his mother’s nursing home bills. He is 68 and the business to which he has devoted his life is in danger of failing.

Alan was a widower until he married Candace, who is ten years younger and not highly regarded by Alan’s two daughters. The fragile daughter, Vanessa, lives in Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, where bodies unclench at the end of winter (presumably a metaphor for welcoming a new phase of life). Alan is planning to visit Vanessa because her boyfriend Josh emailed her sister Helen to say that Vanessa was depressed, withdrawing, and perhaps capable of self-harm. Alan, knowing Vanessa’s history, agrees to visit her with Helen, who visits the US regularly as a music producer for Sony, a job she is hoping to leave.

Helen believes that Vanessa is simply giving another of her “performances,” a view that is too uncharitable for Alan to hold (“I’d like to think that I don’t have a daughter who throws herself down the stairs because she damn well feels like it”). But the conflicts that face the family are deeper than Vanessa’s apparent depression, which seems to vanish when Alan and Helen arrive. For example, Alan’s uncertain finances lead to conflict with Helen, whose plans for a business start-up would benefit from Alan’s support.

Other family issues surround Vanessa’s boyfriend Josh, who strikes Alan as being overly smug, while Helen regards him as untrustworthy. Vanessa’s good spirits seem to depend on Josh’s presence, yet Vanessa is uncertain of her future with Josh, not just because of his apparent unwillingness to live with her in England, for which she increasingly longs, but because of the “smiling, weak, wary look” he gets when she tries to discuss any sort of future with him. Josh and Alan have an honest chat late in the novel that amplifies Alan’s concerns about Vanessa’s future.

Upstate offers a detailed exploration of the Querry family, their relationships and anxieties, their strengths and weaknesses. Vanessa’s intrusive Christian neighbor thinks she needs to be saved, and Vanessa is something of a mess at home, but in her classroom, lecturing on ethics in philosophy, discussing the difference (if one exists) between thinking and living, she is in complete control. At the same time, philosopher that she is, wondering whether life has any meaning beyond a continuation of existence has taken a toll on her, although she might be susceptible to having existential thoughts even if she had not pursued philosophy as a career. Happiness might just be an innate quality that some people have and other lack. That, at least, is one of the questions the novel poses.

Josh lives resolutely in the present, a trait that Vanessa philosophically admires in the abstract, but the novel asks us to question whether the self-help admonition to “live in the now” is suited to the maintenance of a relationship. Vanessa wants her father and sister to rescue her, while Helen’s judgmental (perhaps selfish) nature and her desire to live her own life conflict with her desire to help Vanessa. On top of that, Helen has her own marital difficulties.

All of that leaves Alan wondering what, if anything, he can do for his children now they are no longer living under the protection of his roof. Upstate explores the parental anxiety that comes from watching adult children make decisions and confront problems over which the parent has no control. Parents can directly affect a young child’s happiness, but adult children, no longer dependent on parents for emotional wellbeing, present less predictable parenting challenges.

In elegant prose, the novel asks the reader to imagine what options Alan might have to improve not just his children’s lives, but his own. The novel also directs an observent eye to American customs as seen from the perspective of a traditionally reserved Englishman. There is not a misplaced word in this careful study of a small family's loss of the connections that might make it easier for them to cope with their individual problems.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun012018

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Published by Tachyon Publications on June 12, 2018

Everyone who has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey knows that it is unwise to put an Artificial Intelligence in charge of a spaceship. The time will eventually come when humans need to plot against the computer. The Freeze Frame Revolution asks how that might be done when humans are mostly in stasis, with only a few at a time awakened every few centuries to help the computer build gates across the galaxy, connecting wormholes so that future travelers will journey on interstellar freeways.

Thirty thousand explorers on a sizeable ship have been building those gates for 65 million years. They don’t know if Earth still exists. If it does, it isn’t the Earth they knew. Every now and then, a monster pops out of a gate they’ve built, perhaps trying to eat them, but they’re moving too fast to be devoured. So far, anyway.

Lian Wei is fed up with the monsters, but more than that, she’s fed up with her life. She knows that the explorers were engineered for longevity, to withstand thousands of years of sleep at a time, to be happy simulating the lives of humans long dead. She wants freedom in the form of self-determination. She wants her life experiences to be real. She thinks messing up the AI’s confidence algorithms, making it more dependent on its human crew, might give her what she wants. The ship has other ideas.

Lian confides in Sunday Ahzmundin, believing she might be of like mind. She’s not, at least initially. Thousands of years later, Sunday learns that other members of the crew have similar notions of freedom. Eventually feeling motivated to explore the vast ship, Sunday discovers a hidden chamber that leads to a revelation about the ship’s interaction with humans. Suddenly the question becomes: How does one plot a revolution against an AI that sees and hears everything, when the opportunity to interact with other humans only comes along once every few centuries, and when it’s unlikely that the same conspiring humans will be awakened at the same time? And more importantly (to Sunday, at least), how do you fight against the real enemy, mission planners who have been dead for scores of millions of years?

The Freeze Frame Revolution is hard science fiction, which I generally like, but maybe a little too hard for me, given that I’m not a scientist. I struggled with the nuts-and-bolts of the story, and while that’s my weakness, not the author’s, I had more fun reading Watts’ Echopraxia, which I found to be more accessible. In any event, the central plot doesn’t require a perfect understanding of the ship’s interaction with the universe or of the physics that underlie the crew’s conspiracy against the AI.

The plot moves the “evil AI” story in a new direction by assuming that an AI on a long-term mission won’t necessarily be all that smart, because machines are more likely to stay on track if they’re a bit limited and unimaginative (hence the need for a human crew). But even an Artificial Intelligence might turn out to be surprisingly intelligent, and as sf and mainstream writers alike have long noted, intelligence (artificial or otherwise) can’t be trusted.

As Sunday narrates the novel, she sometimes speaks directly to an audience. Guessing the identity of the audience she’s addressing is one of the novel’s many challenges.

Good science fiction, like all good literature, tells us something about the human condition. The Freeze Frame Revolution offers insights into how different personalities might respond to long but condensed lifespans spent under the watchful eye of a controlling computer, while at the same time asking how humanity might change when a cohort of humans, perhaps the last humans alive, are on a seemingly endless journey together.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
May302018

Pretend I'm Dead by Jen Beagin

First published by TriQuarterly Press (Northwestern U.) in 2015; published by Scribner on May 15, 2018

The wry, low-key humor in Pretend I’m Dead keeps Mona’s isolation and sadness from overwhelming the reader. Mona is 24 and living in Lowell, working as a cleaning lady and volunteering in a needle exchange program because her guardian, Sheila, impressed upon her the need for service. Mona sees dirt everywhere and loves to clean, presumably a metaphor for her desire to clean up her life. Mona’s need for a guardian can be traced to less than ideal parenting, the disturbing nature of which the novel eventually reveals.

Mona fantasizes about a 44-year-old junky she secretly names Mr. Disgusting, because his clothes are dirty. When they actually go out together, after he gets out of rehab, they develop an instant rapport. He has a gentle charm and an agile, well-informed mind. Mona becomes attached to Disgusting because: “Like cancer, he had a way of trivializing the other aspects of her life.”

Following Disgusting’s pre-relapse advice, Mona moves to Taos. Much of the novel’s humor after that point centers on the people she meets. The insufferably smug couple who live in an adjoining townhouse (she thinks of them as Yoko and Yoko) want to be Mona’s mentors, to teach her how to become her best self. They are walking self-help books with a zen slant. When Mona finally finds customers who need a cleaner, they have their own peculiarities. One collects angels; she suspects another of having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. One customer seems to have an asshole fixation; another is a psychic who can’t stop confessing to evil thoughts and deeds. Mona doesn’t know how to react to the surprises she encounters, and for the most part, doesn’t — a good choice, since when she does react, her reaction is inappropriate.

Mona’s behavior might be explained by her unconventional and somewhat disturbing childhood, memories of which are occasionally triggered by people in her present. Her memories, however, tend to merge into fantasies and may not be all that reliable. The fact that she thought her dolls were spying on her suggests that Mona’s mental health issues are longstanding. On the other hand, a spiritualist whose home Mona cleans either has psychic powers or makes very good guesses about Mona’s past. Ambiguity is one of the novel’s charms; Jen Beagin lets you believe what you want.

Mona’s sense of humor is askew, maybe to the point of being warped. She isn’t the kind of person, or character, everyone would like, but readers who relish the offbeat in characters and acquaintances might fall a little in love with Mona. Her story is alternately sad and very funny. She might be maladjusted, but who isn’t? Mona doesn’t connect with a lot of people (and given the people she meets, that’s not surprising), but she has cultivated the ability to trust people, even people who would be judged untrustworthy by others. She might sometimes pretend to be dead (at least 412 times, judging from the pictures she's taken), but she’s still living, and the novel offers the hope, easily shared by the reader, that her life might one day be better. If you’re looking for a novel that’s a little strange, a little sad, often funny, and ultimately life-affirming, you might want to give Pretend I’m Dead a try.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
May282018

They Come in All Colors by Malcolm Hansen

Published by Atria Books on May 29, 2018

They Come in All Colors is a story of southern racism and its less obvious northern counterpart, told from the perspective of a boy who is biracial, not white and not black and not accepted by anyone except his parents and a few friends. Most of the story is told in flashbacks to 1962 that acquaint the reader with the racist Georgia town in which Huey was born — so racist that the motel owner is forced to drain and clean the pool because a black kid swam in it. The civil rights struggle has reached the town as black activists from other states are arriving on busses to support the fight to eat at whites-only lunch counters. The flashbacks are told from Huey’s perspective as an eight-year-old — an eight-year-old who identifies as white, like his father, who believes his light-skinned mother is white, and who has no idea that he’s the reason the swimming pool has closed.

Huey’s father is a peanut farmer. He loves Huey, he loves his wife, and he isn’t as racist as most white people in his community, he is a product of his time. He has a complicated relationship with Toby Muncie, a black man who has worked for him for years. Toby, in turn, has a complicated relationship with Huey’s mother. Huey’s father has convinced himself that his wife is “a racial enigma,” that her race cannot be identified, but that neither she nor his son are “colored.” The rest of the town disagrees.

Toby is almost a part of Huey’s family and is widely respected as a knowledgeable farmer, but Toby is a passionate supporter of the Freedom Riders, a position that does not sit well with the town’s white residents. Huey is angry at blacks who protest for equal rights, but he becomes confused when school kids start calling him a mongrel and a nappy-haired love child. His true education begins when a black kid accuses him of acting white “just because he looks like a cracker.”

In the present, Huey’s mother is a nanny for a wealthy couple in New York City. Huey has been accepted at Claremont, an exclusive prep school, because he’s the kind of minority the school likes — different but not too different. His only friend is a math prodigy named Zukowski who is attending the school for the same reason. Yet Huey has no hope of fitting in. He worries about being embarrassed by his mother, who has embraced progressive values and opposes the Vietnam War, while Claremount kids understand that war is good for business and that imperialism and a ruling class are part of the world’s natural order. Eventually, Huey creates the kind of trouble that could follow him for the rest of his life.

They Come in All Colors can be understood as a coming of age story, in the sense that Huey begins to grow into an identity of his own and to see the world through adult eyes. As a child, Huey doesn’t know why his father will only take him to the lunch counter for ice cream in the only morning, before the place fills up. He hasn’t figured out racism and doesn’t know what people mean when they tell him to go back to Africa, given that he’s never left Georgia. Huey thinks a burning cross is a celebration of religion and readily accepts his parents’ assurance that the home of the town’s only black business owner burned down because of faulty wiring.

To a lesser degree, but only because she plays a lesser role, the novel is also a coming of age story for Huey’s mother. She grows into her own identity later in life than Huey does, but it’s never too late to grow.  She is the most eloquent speaker in the novel, and in some ways, she represents all the people who have been cheated by America's failure to live up to its promise of equal opportunity.

The novel raises important questions about racial identity in a time when race and identity have become a prominent part of the national conversation. According to Huey’s teacher in Georgia, the world is black and white: you’re one or the other. The lesson that Huey’s mother tries to teach him is that people come in all colors, and that race is not binary. Huey’s parents don’t try to teach him that color doesn’t matter because that lesson would be contrary to everything that Huey sees and hears, and in any event, Huey’s father doesn’t believe it. To Huey’s father, appearance determines race. The fact that Huey’s mom has tan skin, or that Huey has tightly curled hair, does not make them “colored.” That’s the only view of race that allows Huey’s father to keep his self-respect after falling in love with a black woman.

While They Come in All Colors raises important issues, it frames those issues from the perspective of a kid who is loquacious, imaginative, and funny. Huey’s inability to keep his mouth shut and his enjoyment of telling a tall tale eases the pain of reading about his experiences with racism. At the same time, by the time he reaches New York, Huey is living with a burning anger that will clearly take him years to understand. The story that the novel tells is important, but the story is captivating precisely because the reader so easily attaches to Huey as he works through his conflicts and begins to learn to be himself, even if he doesn’t fit inside the boxes that are constructed by the people he meets.

RECOMMENDED

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