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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 nonexlusive focus is on literary/mainsteam 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
Jun222016

Angels of Detroit by Christopehr Hebert

Published by Bloomsbury USA on July 5, 2016

Angels of Detroit is the kind of novel that relates the stories of several different people who turn out to be connected in some way. It takes some time to find the binding threads. One of the threads is Detroit itself, a symbol of industrial power that has been supplanted by decay and neglect. It also takes some time to find the point. I’m not sure I ever did.

HSI, a military contractor that makes consumer products in addition to weapons, is Detroit’s last remaining large employer. The company divides Detroit because the city depends on it for jobs, while protesters view it as a symbol of the military-industrial complex.

After devoting years to ineffectual protest, a young woman named McGee hatches a plan to expose the nefarious deeds of HSI. Her friend Myles plays along, but only because he is smitten with McGee. Ruth Freeman is an HSI executive who worked her way up from the bottom and views herself as the conscience of the corporation.

Darius is married to Sylvia and having an affair with Violet. His friend Michael Boni, a cabinetmaker, is working off his guilt about neglecting his crabby grandmother, whose house he inherited, by helping a crabby neighbor named Constance with her gardening.

Constance has a granddaughter named Clementine. Clementine is a loner who doesn’t have much use for most of her family members. She intersects with Dobbs when she notices that he’s occupying a formerly empty house in the neighborhood. Dobbs has been sent to Detroit to facilitate the arrival of illegal cargo from Mexico, but its arrival is continuously delayed, leaving Dobbs with dwindling funds and no clear idea of how to pass the time.

Much of the story revolves around protest. McGee’s initial plan to expose corporate wrongdoing sort of fizzles out, so she resorts to blowing up HSI properties. That plot thread (like most of the others) fizzles out, but it does serve to tie some of the characters together.

Many of the episodes in this episodic novel -- such as Boni’s attempts to raise birds and an epilog set in a remote Mexican village -- struck me as contributing little value to the story. Darius and Freeman both play ambiguous roles in the story, leaving me to wonder whether any character in the novel would contribute something meaningful to the plot. Most of them are left hanging, seemingly abandoned, by the novel’s end. Constance at least brings a resolution to one of the plot threads. She also displays a strength of character that most of the others lack, but her role in the story is quite limited.

Christopher Hebert’s elegant prose makes the novel easy to read. He highlights the humanity of his characters, making them easy to like. Many of the plot threads are interesting, although they aren’t all equally interesting. I’m just not sure of the novel’s purpose.

Detroit (as a symbol of industrial cities) is, I suppose, the novel’s point. The various characters have their own ideas about how to save the city. McGee would destroy it to facilitate rebirth. Freeman places her faith in HSI. Constance grows lettuce. Darius doesn’t know what to think. Christopher Hebert eventually draws a parallel between an abandoned resort development in Mexico and the abandonment of Detroit. All of that is moderately interesting but the ambitious story left me wondering exactly what Hebert was trying to say. On the theory that I missed it while more astute readers might get it, I will recommend the novel, but more for its sharp characters, detailed landscape, and pleasing prose than for its plot.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun202016

Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John

Published in Nigeria in 2015; published by Grove Atlantic/Black Cat on May 3, 2016

Born on a Tuesday follows young Ahmad Dantala, an Islamic Nigerian, as he is swept up by violence and corruption, runs from bullets, finds refuge in a mosque, and tries to fight the temptations that make teenage boys tremble in the night. In the mosque, Dantala struggles with English and friendship, both of which he shares with an abused boy named Jabril. As is common in novels of this nature, he questions some of the harsher interpretations of Islamic law. He becomes deputy to a Sheikh who guides his lessons. He also discovers that there is corruption in Nigeria. Who knew?

Dantala’s struggle eventually puts him in the middle of competing religious and governmental factions. Born on a Tuesday positions Dantala as a symbolic representative of peaceful people everywhere who become the victims of power struggles spawned by zealots.

Much of the novel’s background concerns the struggle between two opposing views of Islam, one that wants to separate itself from the Nigerian government and oppose it violently, and one that wants to work within the Nigerian government to influence institutions and bring about change. The conflict makes Dantala wonder how Muslims can respond to people fighting them all over the world when they are constantly fighting among themselves. The conflict spills into Dantala’s life in many ways, particularly in the effect it has on his friend Jabril. Another religious struggle that the book touches upon (although not too deeply) involves the conflict between Sunni and Shia within Nigeria. The primary background element involves the Nigerian Army’s massacre of the Shia.

Since this is a coming-of-age novel, Dantala does the things that boys do, including having sex with a prostitute and touching himself, actions that his religion forbids. His interactions with women, as is typically true of young men in coming-of-age novels, are awkward. Religious strife leads to violence -- a mixture of killings by individuals, police, and soldiers -- that Dantala feels powerless to address.

Born on a Tuesday conveys the political and religious conflict that surround Dantala, but Elnathan John never made me feel Dantala’s emotional responses. Perhaps the prose is a bit too clinical. Although John makes clear that Dantala’s experiences (including torture) are horrifying, the experiences are not emotionally convincing. Dantala told me about his pain but didn’t make me feel it. The religious rituals in which Dantala engages (such as daily prayer and washing the body of his dead friend) are common to novels about Muslims, but the novel is disappointing in its failure to explore Dantala's connection to his religion in greater depth.

As an account of an oppressed religious minority in Nigeria, however, Born on a Tuesday has value. It also has value as the account of a young man trying to make sense of a world that too often makes no sense at all. A more seasoned novelist might have written a more moving story, but Born on a Tuesday has the great virtue of honesty.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun172016

A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

Published by Random House on February 16, 2016

The first third of A Doubter’s Almanac tells the story of Milo Adret. The rest of the novel is a father-son story. The middle bounces around in time a bit, but it focuses on a key summer in Hans Andret’s early teen years, the last summer he will spend with his father. Hans is an adult with a family of his own in the last third. The heart of the novel involves the drama of being in the family of a broken genius, a man who cannot conform, who cannot stop dreaming, who cannot put his family’s needs ahead of his own. The significant question is whether the son is destined to follow the father’s path.

Milo has an unnaturally strong spatial sense (sort of a built-in GPS) and a natural affinity for math. As a child, Milo carves a chain out of wood just to prove that he can. With mediocre grades in humanities and social sciences, Milo ekes out a college degree and finds a career pumping gas before he is lured into graduate school at UC-Berkeley. With the help of a mentor, but primarily due to a drive he cannot define, he tackles one of the toughest problems in mathematics and wins a Fields Medal.

Everything Milo gains -- prestige, a professorship at Princeton, a family -- he will eventually place at risk, because he is a slave to his addictions and compulsions. There is always another challenge, and eventually one will come along that cannot be solved, or that a competitor will solve first. As Milo sums it up, mathematicians are defined by their understanding of their own ignorance. “Ignorance and wounded shrieking.” Whether Milo will be destroyed by his shrieking obsession to overcome ignorance is a question that the reader asks from the novel’s first page.

Hans and his sister Paulette inherit Milo’s spatial skills and intuitive understanding of mathematics. Hans uses that skill as one of the first mathematicians to revolutionize hedge fund trading. Hans also seems to inherit some of his father’s weaknesses. Like father like son? One of the most absorbing questions that faces the reader is whether and how Milo can break his father’s mold.

Every now and then a revelation comes along that requires the reader to rethink one of the characters. And every now and then characters pause to reevaluate themselves, to question their decisions and the direction of their lives, as most thinking people do. Like Milo, we ask ourselves what really matters. Probably we’ll never know, but those who spend their lives obsessing about a goal (whether it’s wealth or professional achievement or the solution to a mathematical puzzle) are likely to conclude in the end that they failed to pursue the things that matter.

An explosive scene -- a scene in which the family explodes -- about two-thirds of the way into the novel captures every family dynamic that underlies the story: love and hate; self-loathing projected to other family members; communication that vacillates between ineffective and all-too-effective; confrontation and avoidance; acceptance and rejection. It is an intense, gut-wrenching moment in a family’s life. And yet its aftermath is just as telling. The four members of this family may not understand each other at all, but in many ways, they understand each other perfectly.

Late in the novel a doctor says, “We never rightly understand the existence of another, do we?” I think that is the central point of A Doubter’s Almanac. The mind is a mystery and we are nothing but our minds. Whether we can comprehend our own existence is doubtful; truly understanding another person is beyond us. At best, we can accept and appreciate others. But the impossibility of complete knowledge does not stop us from learning more about others, about ourselves, about the world. We “grow wise in increments.”

Ethan Canin’s prose is elegant. He writes lovingly of the indefinable nature of time. He conveys the beauty of math to those of us who fought a losing battle with trigonometry. But it is the beauty of the mind, each so different from every other -- the beauty even (perhaps especially) of minds with eccentric wiring, even of the wasted ones -- that he captures so perfectly. “Beauty prefers truth,” Milo says. Canin quotes Descartes’ adage that a seeker of truth must doubt all things. A Doubter’s Almanac is rich with beauty and truth.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun152016

Amp'd by Ken Pisani

Published by St. Martin's Press on May 10, 2016

Amp’d isn’t an inspirational story about overcoming adversity. The protagonist isn’t Franklin Roosevelt or Stephen Hawking. When Aaron lost his left arm, he realized that people who have the ability to overcome the worst imaginable circumstances just make everyone else look bad. He’s constantly being told that he should learn from adversity, but he’s learned that what doesn’t kill you ruins you instead. Whether Aaron is realistic or self-pitying or both is for the reader to decide.

A traffic accident sends the middle-age, newly one-armed teacher home to live with his father. Although he would prefer to remain there, relieving pain with medical marijuana and Vicodin, he eventually gets a job counting endangered fish, which only requires one arm (or maybe none) if you can do it without counting on your fingers. The point of the job is to prove that the fish are not being harmed by a dam, whether or not that is true.

Aaron often tries to be funny and occasionally succeeds. After he gets drunk and finds himself with a tattoo the next morning, he comments on “the pretension of Chinese characters, which I’m pretty sure never mean what the tattoo artist says they mean but universally represent poor judgment.” His descriptions of Army Corps of Engineer silliness are also pretty funny. Other attempts at humor (a lot of puns and lists) are inconsistently amusing.

When a kid with cancer makes an appearance, I worried that the book was going to become weepy. Instead, that’s when the book’s humor begins to hit its stride. Aaron can’t feel quite so sorry for himself when he’s with Cancer Kid, who doesn’t feel sorry for himself at all unless grownups are making a big deal about his disease instead of treating him like a normal bratty kid.

Amp’d strings together some reasonably funny sentences and has some poignant moments, but it is a story about characters who are in search of a plot. To the extent that an actual story emerges, it has something to do with the anger that Aaron’s friend (another amputee) apparently feels toward the dam. Unfortunately, the novel is nearly over before the plot arrives and it fizzles out before the ending. Family drama also keeps the story moving forward, but it all feels a bit underdeveloped. There's nothing wrong with a novel being character-driven rather than plot-driven, but Amp'd feels like a novel that is trying to be both, wiith only limited success.

The "feel good" nature of the ending -- sweet but not too sugary -- suits the story, although encountering a predictable ending to an unpredictable story is bit disappointing. Still, I liked the evolution of Aaron’s character and I enjoyed the novel’s better moments enough to recommend it. Amp’d does just enough to overcome its flaws.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun132016

The Searcher by Christopher Morgan Jones

Published by Penguin Press on March 22, 2016

Despite his name, Ike Hammer isn’t a classic tough guy who solves problems with his fists. Not that he wouldn’t like to, but the goons he encounters have guns and he knows better than to bring a fist to a gunfight. I like that element of realism in The Searcher.

Ike Hammer isn’t as famous as Mike Hammer but he’s in the same business. He is a private investigator who runs a respectable agency. His former partner, Ben Webster, is a crusader who wants results and doesn’t mind paying some bad guys to do bad things if they can help him achieve those results. The clash of business philosophies explains why Webster is a former partner.

The police suspect that Hammer did something in the course of business that should send him to prison. Hammer suspects that Webster did the thing for which Hammer is being blamed. Webster is missing, having traveled to the country of Georgia to attend a journalist’s funeral ... or at least that’s what he told his wife. Now Hammer needs to find him. When Hammer flies to Tbilisi to find Webster, Hammer is beaten by a mob and arrested for the crime of being an American. And so the story begins.

Hammer is in a tough position. He can rat out Webster or he can go to prison, unless a third option presents itself in Georgia. And so he goes on a quest that takes him into the mountains and across the Russian border. He meets some very good people, living simple and honorable lives in the mountains, and he meets some very bad people. He also forms a love interest because thriller heroes always have time to go to bed with beautiful women.

Hammer apparently didn’t go to thriller hero school, where unarmed thriller heroes learn how to disarm three or four heavily armed soldiers without breaking a sweat. Hammer is in good shape and not easily intimidated, but he knows he’s no match for someone who is holding a gun. Instead, Hammer spends most of the novel trying to bribe people, with a surprising lack of success. I appreciated the fact that Hammer spends most of the novel feeling helpless, even as he battles steep odds in his effort to save Webster.

Christopher Morgan Jones’ writing style sets The Searcher apart from thrillers that create the illusion of speed by using short paragraphs and short chapters. The pace is steady but the novel doesn’t race to a conclusion while neglecting character development or atmosphere. There are enough action scenes to generate excitement without bogging the story down in mindless fights and shootouts. Jones didn’t make me invest in any of the characters and the plot holds few surprises, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story. For its realism and strong writing, I give The Searcher an unqualified recommendation.

RECOMMENDED