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 Tim Johnston (2)


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.



Descent by Tim Johnston

Published by Algonquin on January 6, 2015;reprinted in paperback on December 1, 2015

Descent is a suspense novel with uncommon literary quality. The plot -- a teenage girl goes missing, leaving frantic parents to worry about her fate -- might be overused, but the story has rarely been told with the kind of quality prose that Tim Johnston wields. In any event, “girl goes missing” is only a backdrop for a story that moves in unexpected directions.

Caitlin, a runner, is with her parents in the Rockies, where she is training for collegiate competition. She goes off one morning with her younger brother, Sean, who follows her on his trail bike. Her brother ends up in the hospital, the apparent victim of a biking accident. Caitlin is missing.

The novel bounces around in time. In what might be called “the present,” Caitlin’s father (Grant) is helping out an old widower in Colorado in exchange for a place to stay. His wife and son have both left him to his misery. Caitlin’s mother (Angela) has gone back to Wisconsin where she carries on inner conversations with her long-dead twin. Sean is trying to live with the shame of not doing more to help Caitlin.

Caitlin’s story unfolds intermittently in short, italicized chapters. Sean has dark adventures of his own, collateral to the main plot but worthy of inclusion in a thriller. Grant deals with family drama in a family that is not his own. Although the troubles that Sean and Grant experience are not directly caused by Caitlin’s disappearance, they would not have happened but for that critical event. Tim Johnston seems to be illustrating how misfortunes compound, how one tragedy can give birth to a chain reaction of unforeseeable consequences. By the end, the story seems to be about how the smallest change of circumstances -- arriving 5 minutes later, taking a different path -- can dictate the course of a life.

Descent is intense and powerful, peppered with surprising moments of drama. It is a work of fiction, but everything about the story seem real -- not just events but emotions, reactions, regrets ... all the things people think and do and feel that define their lives.

Writers are often admonished to show, not tell. Johnston shows the grief the family endures through countless small scenes that recount their actions, their distractions, their quarrels, their memories. Angela’s exploration of an empty house, a house that is haunted by Caitlin’s absence, is heartbreaking. Sean’s drifting and Grant’s drinking, two different approaches to isolation, tell the reader more than pages of exposition possibly good.

Much of Descent is about the impact that a missing child has on the rest of the family, but the story is multifaceted. Descent is about a father trying to reconnect with his son. It’s about deceptive appearances -- people who hide their evil behind a friendly façade but, more importantly, people who are better than they know themselves to be. It’s about the confusion of coincidence and fate, of destiny and free will. It is about the true nature of heroism. Descent is a fascinating exploration of themes that give the novel substantially greater depth than a typical thriller without sacrificing the pace and suspense that thriller readers crave.