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.

Entries in Australia (11)

Monday
May272019

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

Published in Australia by Text Publishing on May 28, 2019

The Rosie Result takes place about ten years after The Rosie Effect. Don Tillman is content, as is Rosie. They have a healthy and happy child named Hudson. At least, he’s happy until Rosie is offered a job in Australia that she wants to accept. Hudson does not accept changes in routine any more readily than Don. In fact, Hudson is sort of a Don Jr. in his lack of social skills, his love of predictable schedules, and his preference for math to sports. Child-raising not being a skill that comes naturally to Don, it is time to embark on a new project: the Hudson Project.

Don is the same quirky character readers loved in the earlier novels. He refers to a stroller as a “baby vehicle.” He has little tact, although he has generally learned to recognize  and avoid potentially tactless statements.

Don has little difficulty finding a position as a professor of genetics in Melbourne. His tactlessness causes an uproar when he chooses an arguably insensitive exercise to convey a lesson about genetics and race to his students, a professional stumble that is heightened by a student’s decision to broadcast it on Twitter. The video is taken out of context, but no university wants to be seen as employing a racist.

When a colleague suggests that he might gain some protection by being diagnosed with autism (making his social blunders more acceptable in the world of academic politics), Don has understandable reservations about playing a disability card. He resists being labeled as autistic despite his secret fear that the label might be accurate.

And then there’s the elementary school that is trying to pin the same label on Hudson. Given that Don’s greatest skill is problem solving, he embarks on an effort to help Hudson gain the acceptance of school administrators and classmates. He also wants to maximize Rosie’s career options and to solve his friend Dave’s obesity and marital problems by reprising a career that he developed in one of the earlier novels.

The Rosie Result is quite different from the first Rosie books, but quite wonderful in its own way. The first book was hilarious in its portrayal of two completely different individuals who fall in love and make it work. The second book features humor in a similar vein with the addition of a pregnancy. By the third novel, the reader knows what to expect from Don, whose insistent embrace of reason over emotion drives the humor in the first two books. The Rosie Result has many light moments, but the story tackles autism more directly than the first two novels and does so in a serious way.

The novel presents a stark contrast between two competing perspectives on children with autism, or if you prefer, autistic children. Those who use the phrase “children with autism” believe the children have a disorder that needs to be treated, but the disorder should not define the children. Those who say “autistic children” believe that autistic behavior is a defining charateristic of who they are, and other people should either accept them or learn to deal with them. Don approaches the issue from the standpoint of rationality, as should everyone. But the most revealing perspectives come not from Don and Rosie, or from the psychologists and teachers and advocates who express their views, but from kids (including Hudson) who resist being defined by others and who demonstrate that stereotypes about autism — the autistic have no empathy, the autistic are dangerous, the autistic can’t make friends, the autistic don’t understand humor — reveal the limits of people who think in terms of labels and stereotypes rather than looking at each child as an individual.

For all of that, The Rosie Result is a warm-hearted novel. The Rosie Project works because Don overcomes limitations imposed by his character traits and grows as a person, and because Rosie sees past those character traits and accepts Don for the person he is. The Rosie Result works because Don learns to become comfortable with character traits that are not “neurotypical,” demonstrating a different kind of growth. And he come to accept that not all problems can be solved, at least when the problems involve people. Sometimes you just have to “muddle through” (although muddling through, according to Don’s research, is also a problem-solving technique).

All three novels use humor to encourage the reader to like and accept Don because he is a good person, even if he doesn’t respond to situations requiring human interaction in the way that “neurotypical” people expect. By focusing on their autistic child, The Rosie Result drives home the need to accept people like Don wiith more substance than the first two novels, but does so without sacrificing the sweetness that makes the first two novels succeed.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Oct152018

Shell by Kristina Olsson

First published in Australia in 2018; published by Atria Books on October 9, 2018

Shell is about finding the shapes of the world. Pearl Keogh learned from her father to see the world as a triangle, the privileged residing at the apex, the masses providing the support that allows the privileged to stay on top. Axel Lindquist is searching to find the shapes that will express the identify of Sydney, Australia by examining its history, geography, and litter.

In 1965, Australia is about to start drafting soldiers to fight in Vietnam. Because she joined a protest against the draft, the newspaper that employs Pearl questioned her objectivity and relegated her to the women’s section.

Pearl’s younger brothers are draft age, but they ran away from the nuns that were minding them after their mother died. Now Pearl wants to find them, to protect them from the war. She does not think of them as missing. It is her old self that has gone missing, hidden behind “a veneer to protect herself, a shell she could slip beneath, to hide from the predatory world.” That’s one of several instances in which the novel’s title is used as a metaphor.

Kristina Olsson develops Pearl’s pain-filled backstory in detail, making clear her need for a purpose in a life that has closed all doors to opportunity. Pearl doesn’t realize that in the years since she last saw her brothers, they might have developed opinions about how to live their lives that she does not share.

Pearl’s story alternates with that of Axel, a glassmaker from Sweden who has been commissioned to make a piece for the foyer of Sydney’s controversial opera house. The architect who designed the opera house, Jørn Utzon, is a Dane who apparently became acquainted with Axel’s parents two decades earlier when Utzon helped smuggle Jews out of Denmark. Axel explains to Pearl that his father went missing in those years. That Pearl and Axel will get to know each other intimately is inevitable.

The story of conflict over Vietnam, turning neighbors against each other and causing pro-government Australians to spy on resisters, parallels the story of America, both during Vietnam and in our current climate of division. So does the story of art’s intersection with politics, as many come to view the opera house as a waste of money because conservative politicians oppose public art, preferring to fund bombs instead than beauty.

Other pervasive themes include the role of women in Australia’s male-dominated professions (particularly news media) during the 1960s; the way cultures sit atop each other, the new burying the old; the way architecture that “aspires to myth and dream” creates a “spirit of inquiry” that confronts or threatens residents who cling to parochial perspectives of their city; the way men and women around the world toil “without choice and little reward” while gaining strength and dignity from labor; the heavy weight of the past; and how intense experiences influence the creative process.

Olsson uses evocative prose to paint Sydney during the 1960s as a city divided by age and politics, while stressing the Australian quality of “mateness” that binds together its male residents. The resistance to Utzon’s design of the opera house is fascinating. My only criticism of Shell is that the story is too often dull. Pearl and Axel both live largely inside their sedate heads, and despite its attempt to make gain mileage from a late-blossoming plot twist, the novel builds no tension until its final pages. Still, the ending is dramatic, and for the ideas the story conveys, as well as the language that conveys them, Shell is worthy of a reader’s time.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jan272017

Foreign Soil and Other Stories by Maxine Beneba Clarke

First published in Australia in 2014; published by Atria / 37 INK on January 3, 2017

Maxine Beneba Clarke demonstrates remarkable range in Foreign Soil. The stories shift between Australia and less developed countries, as Clarke explores triumphs and tragedies that connect lives in cultures that are quite different from each other.

“David” tells the story of two Sudanese women in Australia. One fled from her village with two sons and memories of a third. The younger woman faces the older woman’s disapproval because she wears her hair short, dresses in jeans, has abandoned religion, and rides a bicycle. Yet it is ultimately the bicycle rather than Sudanese tradition that binds the two women in this touching, sad story. It’s easily my favorite in the collection.

“Harlem Jones” is a young man whose parents moved to London from Trinidad. He establishes his individual identity by joining a group protest against the police killing of a black man. The story is honest in its refusal to paint a more uplifting picture of forsaken lives.

“Hope” is about a girl from the mountains who goes to Kingston to find her place in the world and instead learns hard lessons about love. It’s a sweet “slice of life” story that should please fans of romance (as opposed to fans of romance fiction).

“Foreign Soil” tells the story of Angela, who falls in love with Mukasa and leaves Australia behind when he takes her to Uganda. In his own world, however, Mukasa seems like a different person. The story is bleak and troublingly unfinished.

“Shu Yi” is the name of the new kid in school. The story’s narrator, a brown-skinned girl named Ava, is relieved that someone has replaced her as the target of bullies in their white suburban Australian neighborhood. When Ava’s mother forces her to be Shu Yi’s friend, the outcome is surprising. This is my third-favorite story in the collection.

“Railton Road” is the Brixton headquarters of young black rebels who are assembling to express their growing discontent. The story highlights characters who take different approaches to black empowerment while sniping at each other and treating women as slaves.

“Gaps in the Hickory” is a story of poverty, prejudice, and pride. Poverty should transcend race as a unifying force, but some characters in the Mississippi setting of this story are blinded by bigotry as they rage against people of different races and sexual identities. The themes are particularly relevant today, as bigots cling to an imagined past that never existed. This story, like some others in the collection, is masterful in its use of dialect. Its combination of an ugly present and a hopeful future make it my second-favorite story in the volume.

“Big Islan” is about the restlessness of life in Jamaica. The story is again notable for its use of dialect.

“The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa” tells the story of Ansanka, a boy soldier who fled from Sri Lanka and is now being detained in Australia. The story alternates between Ansanka’s harrowing young life and the unsatisfying life of the lawyer who interviews him in a detention facility. I love the story’s contrast between people who think they have problems and people who really have problems.

A girl who gets stuck hanging upside down symbolizes life’s deeper problems in “The Sukiyaki Book Club.” The writer enters the story to explain that she doesn’t know how to rescue the girl. Parental fear -- the writer’s need to assure that her own kids are safe and well adjusted (or at least safe) -- is the story’s focus. I’m not fond of stories in which writers intrude into the narrative, so this was my least favorite.

In “Aviation,” a woman whose husband was killed on 9/11 is asked to become an emergency caregiver for a Middle Eastern child no family will take. The story is a brief but powerful look at misdirected prejudice.

None of the stories in Foreign Soil are bad, most are quite good, and a handful are excellent. I appreciate the attention to important themes that are overlooked by modern authors who so often devote themselves to the trivial.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Dec182015

Ivory by Tony Park

First published in Australia in 2009; published by St. Martin's Press on November 17, 2015

Alex Tremain is a good looking pirate, a kind-hearted rogue with a sad background, making him the kind of bad boy that seems destined to star in a trashy romance novel. Unsurprisingly, the key female character, Jane, is attracted to him, even after his pirate gang hijacks the cargo ship that is bringing her to Johannesburg and kidnaps her in the belief that she is holding valuable treasure. Jane doesn’t know the nature of the treasure, but she has a hunch it belongs to her wealthy employer, with whom she is having an affair.

Naturally, Alex’s good nature is at odds with a more evil pirate in his crew, the kind of pirate who thinks that Jane should be tortured in predictable ways. And naturally, as a kind-hearted rogue, Alex would rather con women than torture them, leading to a predictable conflict with the evil pirate who turns into one of the novel’s chief villains.

Alex is too contrived to be a believable character. He is a socially and ecologically conscious pirate who won’t smuggle people or drugs or timber or wildlife. In fact, he secretly reports illegal fishing vessels to the police, because illegal fishing is much worse than boarding vessels and stealing from everyone on board. His desire to “start afresh as an honest man” doesn’t ring true because Alex is too honest and decent to have gone into the piracy business in the first place. I’ve enjoyed many novels in which the protagonist is a thief or other brand of criminal, but they are usually lighter fare, not meant to be taken seriously. Tony Park never convinced me that Alex was anything other than the stereotypical (and mythical) “bad boy” of romance fiction, the kind that women can feel safe about loving since they know he won’t actually hurt anyone. Or, at least, he’ll only hurt people who deserve it. Is there a bigger cliché in fiction?

Jane is also a stereotype. She’s in love with her married boss, one of those hopeless situations that can only be resolved by falling in love with a dashing pirate. She feels “a jolt of electricity” when Alex brushes his fingers against her arm and “her heart was pounding fast” after Alex tells her “I only have eyes for you.” Too many cheesy lines like that are a disappointment in a novel that is otherwise capably written.

The cheesy parts of Ivory are too predictably cheesy. Alex sees in Jane a reason to “redeem his wasted life.” Everything that happens between them is so predictable, and described in such torrid detail, that I had to check to see if I had chosen to read a “new adult romance” by mistake. Ivory isn’t marketed that way, but it is more a tawdry romance novel than it is a thriller.

I liked the descriptions of Mozambique and South Africa. The novel works relatively well when it sticks to action scenes, although even then Park takes a series of missteps. The biggest involves an elephant hunt that has Alex encountering an elephant he remembers from his childhood, all so that we can see once more what a great guy Alex is. Seriously?

The valuable treasure that Alex is pursuing from Jane borders on the ridiculous, but it is in keeping with the plot as a whole. That “surprise” was the final straw that kept me from recommending this novel, at least to thriller fans. I suspect that romance fiction fans will like it, but I can’t recommend it to anyone else with any enthusiasm.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Dec092015

Crucifixion Creek by Barry Maitland

Published in Australia in 2014; published by Minotaur Books on November 10, 2015

This 2014 Australian novel, recently published in the United States, is my first exposure to Barry Maitland. I like the book’s atmosphere. The characters have plausible depth for a fast-moving thriller. The plot has a satisfying number of twists, but the novel doesn’t stand out as an original or exceptional contribution to the “cop turns avenger” genre.

Harry Belltree’s father was the first Aboriginal judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court. Harry is a police detective. His parents died in a traffic accident and Harry is obsessed with the belief that they were the victims of a murder or, at least, a hit-and-run. Part of the novel concerns Harry’s pursuit of those suspicions.

For a time, Harry is investigating murders in a Sydney neighborhood with an unfortunate history that is known as Crucifixion Creek. He is a witness to the first murder. The second victim is his brother-in-law. Also dead are an elderly husband and wife who committed suicide together for reasons that reporter Kelly Pool finds mysterious.

It soon becomes apparent that related, nefarious activity by a biker gang has a political connection. More brutality follows, the body count rises, and Harry, assisted by his blind wife, finds the violence coming uncomfortably close to home -- as does Kelly Pool.

Much of the story will be familiar to thriller readers. As a cop, Harry is told to back off, and so of course he doesn’t. As a man with a sense of justice, Harry doesn’t always play by the rules that the police should follow. Harry isn’t quite Dirty Harry but he does take the law into his own hands, making him about the billionth law enforcement officer in crime fiction to do so. Kelly is the typical intrepid reporter who puts herself at risk while following her nose for a story. The reason underlying the murder turns out to be a crime scheme that thriller writers rely upon too often. None of that is particularly imaginative. The ending, on the other hand, comes as something of a shock, although the shock is weakened in the final paragraphs.

Still, the Sydney setting is a nice departure for American readers who are looking for something different, and there are enough twists here to add intrigue to a familiar plot. Maitland’s prose is crisp and the pace is appropriate for a crime thriller. Unanswered questions set up the next book. While I might hope for more creativity in the second novel, this one made me want to read it.

RECOMMENDED