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.

Monday
May022016

The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady

First published in Ireland in 2013; published by Minotaur Books on March 15, 2016

Decades after the Famine, the owners of large estates in Ireland have agreed (or been forced) to sell their land to the government, part of a plan to give Ireland back to the Irish. Corruption in that process provides one of the plot threads in The Eloquence of the Dead.

The story begins in 1887 with the murder of Ambrose Pollock, a pawnbroker in Dublin. The police, eager to avoid any actual investigatory work, are quick to blame the pawnbroker’s sister, Phoebe Pollock, who has gone missing. The question soon arises whether she is missing or dead.

DS Joseph Swallow investigates Ambrose’s murder and Phoebe’s disappearance. His investigation requires him to consider a robbery, the origin of rare coins that are turning up in Dublin, and a land fraud scheme. The interweaving of these plot elements is sufficiently complex to hold the reader’s interest without becoming convoluted. The story works its way to a conclusion that is satisfying if not particularly surprising.

Certain that his Catholicism will prevent him from rising above his current rank, Swallow wonders whether he should pursue another profession as he chases down a variety of criminals. Swallow is typical of a crime fiction police protagonist in that he has difficulties with relationships, grievances about being underappreciated, and complaints about cops who are more committed to making themselves look good than to catching criminals.

A number of other characters, including detectives and criminals, are given about as much characterization as they need in a murder mystery. One of the stronger characters is Margaret Gessel who, having sold the family land, traveled from Ireland to London, only to be disappointed that her cousin, a prominent politician, is barely acknowledging her existence.

The politics of the time and place add an extra layer of interest to The Eloquence of the Dead. The novel illustrates that some things never change. Power protects power, whether in England and Ireland of the 1880s, or any other place at any other time.

Conor Brady’s prose is above average for a mystery, although about average for Irish crime writers, and well above the prose wielded by American crime novelists (featuring single sentence paragraphs and single page chapters) who too often dominate the market. The writing, characters, and plot make Brady’s second Joe Swallow novel an entertaining read, although I wouldn’t shelve it with the best examples of Irish crime fiction.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Apr292016

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Published by Scribner on May 3, 2016

Is life anything more than the absence of death? The question is at the heart of Zero K, a novel about life and death. What else would a Don DeLillo novel be about?

DeLillo tells us that death is coming. It may claim an individual (cancer, heart failure) or a large population (terrorism, pandemic, global warming). The odds are good an extinction event will eventually wipe out humanity. “Catastrophe is our bedtime story.” Yet even as life becomes more fragile, humans find the possibility of death increasingly unacceptable.

Jeffrey Lockhart’s wealthy father has taken Artis, his current wife, to an underground facility in a remote part of the world where she will be placed into cryogenic suspension, followed by emergence “in cyberhuman form into a universe that will speak to us in a very different way.” The facility’s approach to death avoidance, unlike Jeffrey, is deeply philosophical, blending science with a variety of new age perspectives, some of which DeLillo presents with tongue-in-cheek.

The first section of the novel takes place at the facility, to which Jeffrey has traveled at his father’s request so he can be present when Artis dies. Jeffrey engages with his father and with Artis as she prepares for death, preservation, or transition (whatever that fate might turn out to be)). He also engages with contemplative individuals who serve ambiguous purposes within the facility. While Jeffrey’s engagement is more an act of observation than interaction (he prefers to invent names for people rather than learning their actual names), one of the monks me meets is even less interactive. Perhaps being surrounded by death has that effect.

DeLillo may have intended Jeffrey to represent what life has become in the 21st century, as acts of atrocity and terror bombard us from screens that isolate us from the horror those scenes should inspire while impairing the ability to form true connections with others. Jeffrey sees a fair share of horror on screens (horror as art) during the novel, including one particularly jarring incident to which he should have a personal connection, but it isn’t clear that he processes what he sees on a human level, not in the way he experienced his own mother’s lingering death when he was a child. Perhaps the point is that 24-hour news coverage has inured us to death, has made death impersonal even when it should be very personal.

In the novel’s second part, the emphasis shifts from death to life. Jeffrey’s life involves a woman named Emma and her adopted Ukranian son. According to his father, Jeffrey has drifted through his life without having lived it. Later in the novel, Jeffrey acknowledges that he has made wasting time a life pursuit. Yet he inspects every minute in his life, counts his strides as he walks. He lives in the moment, as self-help gurus urge us to do, but is that enough? Jeffrey observes the homeless but he cannot image their lives. He interviews for jobs he will never accept. The reader is prompted to wonder whether, in Jeffrey’s case, the difference between life and death is significant. In the grand scheme of things, will Jeffrey’s life (or anyone’s) matter?

Depressing thoughts, yes, but DeLillo always adds humor to his darkness. Zero K is in part a playful novel about the power of language. Jeffrey sees the world in relationship to the words that define it. As a child, he was obsessed with precise definitions, often concocting his own, giving substance not just to the word but to the thing the word symbolizes. Like inventing his own names for people, concocting his own definitions is a habit he never lost.

The themes of language and death come together as a character suggests that “we have language to guide us out of dire times.” Perhaps we can defeat death by talking about it. Or perhaps we can assure that our consciousness will persist after our bodies die if we “follow our words bodily into the future tense.” As a novelist, it may be DeLillo’s hope that words live on even after the body dies.

The new universe that Artis will enter (Jeffrey is told) will have its own language, the language of truth, free from metaphor and ambiguity, something akin to the language of mathematics. Yet as she approaches or enters death, Artis is a being “made of words.” She does not know what the words mean but she feels they are important. What is time? What is now? What is place? “What does it mean to be who I am?” That is life’s fundamental question and, if it is unanswerable, DeLillo at least has fun exploring it.

Zero K doesn’t cohere as well as I might have liked, but neither does life. I have admired other DeLillo novels more than this one, but I suspect that this is a novel that improves with a second reading. Maybe I'll give it one if I live long enough.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr272016

Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on January 26, 2016

Robert Hendricks is a London psychiatrist. Despite all the people he has met in more than 60 years of life, he feels utterly alone. He has denied himself both passion and love since the end of the war. His latest failed relationship is ending, as is the marriage of the woman he was seeing.

To take a break from his life, Hendricks accepts an invitation to visit an elderly man who lives on an island off the coast of France. Dr. Pereira is a retired neurologist/psychiatrist who knew Hendricks’ father during World War I. Having admired a book that Hendricks wrote, Pereira hopes to tell Hendricks about his father while enlisting Hendricks as the executor of his literary estate. Sensing that Hendricks is troubled, Pereira encourages Hendricks to talk about his involvement in World War II. Touched by Pereira’s concern, Hendricks opens up about experiences that he has always kept to himself.

What follows is a war story as Hendricks recalls his uncertain leadership on the Italian front. Some of the story is conventional, relating the familiar scenes that a reader encounters in stories of the Second World War. Some of the story is powerful, in the way that strong war stories tend to be. Hendricks’ memories of the war include an Italian love story, a story about love’s destructive power that shapes much of the rest of his life. All of it those sections are well crafted and the most intense scenes capture all the fears and frailties and courage and confusion of men at war. Hendricks’ recollections of the war are the best part of the novel.

Interspersed with unfolding episodes of the war story are intelligent conversations between Pereira and Hendricks that explore mental health and the meaning of life. Hendricks argues that man is “a failed species, a disastrous mutation,” while the old psychiatrist hopes to expose the root of those thoughts in a first step toward healing.

The conversation spurs Hendricks to reconnect with his past. He begins to do that at about the novel’s midway point. He tells the reader about his medical career, his research into the treatment of delusional patients, and his experiences in a foreign city where he wrote a book about treating the mentally ill. During his visits to Pereira, Hendricks also makes a new but odd connection to the present, in the form of a young woman named Céline who “inhabits no reality that [Hendricks] can understand.” All of that is moderately interesting, although less so than the novel’s first half, and Sebastian Faulks’ smooth prose makes the reading time pass quickly.

I think the point of the novel (which Faulks expressly states at some point) is that “you can only be happy if you are open to your past.” Every new experience is made richer by memories of similar experiences. “But if your mind is somehow blocked -- if it grips the present moment too hard -- then your soul is not porous; the past can’t seep through you, healing and deepening; and you have lived in vain.”

Where My Heart Used to Beat is thus a journey of self-discovery that depends upon Hendricks’ ability to become open to his past. With Pereira’s help, Hendricks makes his most important discovery at the novel’s end. It comes as a bit of an anti-climax. Another component of the novel’s ending, concerning one of the women in Hendricks’ life, struck me as predictable, while revelations about Céline seem a bit contrived. Although the concluding chapters are slightly disappointing, perhaps Faulks was trying to show the reader that life is sometimes disappointing, that in its final years, life often lacks the drama or resolution we might hope for. Despite the absence of an emotional kick, the novel as a whole is a thoughtful meditation on the mind and memory, and an interesting examination of theories of mental health that prevailed in the early-to-middle years of the twentieth century.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr252016

Extreme Prey by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 26, 2016

Marlys Purdy is a middle-aged woman who wouldn’t strike casual observers as a likely murderer -- unless they happen to catch her displaying her rage. Having lost a farm and a husband, and facing a new financial disaster after recovering from the first one, Marlys has grievances. She also has mental health issues. Marlys’ son Cole inherited the family tendency toward paranoia, and his service in Iraq only contributed to his disordered thinking.

Marlys wants to kill Michaela Bowden, the probable Democratic presidential candidate, who will soon be in Iowa campaigning in advance of the caucus. Marlys is equally disdainful of the Republican candidates, who (in Marlys’ view) favor bankers rather than little people. Marlys thinks that removing Bowden from the Democratic race would pave the way for the governor of Minnesota, a self-made millionaire whose Democratic primary campaign is based on his claim to be on the side of common folk.

The governor does not think he could win the general election but believes he can wrangle his way into a vice presidential candidacy if Bowden wins the nomination. When the governor hears remarks suggesting that Bowden’s life might be threatened, he turns to Lucas Davenport, who no longer works in law enforcement. Instead, Lucas does whatever needs doing whenever the governor needs it done, provided he gets paid.  The governor wants Davenport to identify and to stop the threat to Bowden's life. And with that setup, a new novel in the Prey series is born.

Extreme Prey is essentially an investigative procedural. Davenport investigates some wacky Iowans as well as some Iowans who used to be active in alternative politics but have mellowed with age. John Sandford makes it easy for the reader to understand why political issues, coupled with the government’s approach to homeland security, sometimes feeds the delusions of people who are certain that  the government is out to get them and that government officials are eavesdropping on their telephone calls.

I haven’t read every book in the Prey series but I’ve enjoyed the ones that I’ve read. This one moves quickly, with an occasional action scene providing a break from the ongoing investigation. The novel doesn’t create much tension or excitement, however, until the final fifty pages, when Sandford unloads with an intense, extended scene that speeds the story to its conclusion. And while much of the plot seems predictable, the assassination scheme is quite clever. Compared to other Prey novels I’ve read, Extreme Prey is no worse than average, which makes it pretty good.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Apr242016

Poorly Drawn Lines by Reza Farazmand

Published by Plume on October 6, 2015

Poorly Drawn Lines started as an internet comic strip. The book mixes new material with strips that were previously published on the web. Four panels per page is a typical strip, although they range from one panel jokes to strips that spread across two or three pages. Occasionally, a few lines of text appear on a page without art. The whole thing can be read pretty quickly, or you can keep it in the bathroom and read it a bit at a time.

The book is divided into chapters covering such topics as the natural world, the future, and big ideas. There are quite a few talking animals (birds and bears in particular) and an occasional monster. Many of the strips deal with the meaning of life, or death, or cheese. People (and animals) tend to be filled with existential angst, which might explain why most of them aren’t very nice, particularly the animals, who are usually giving humans (and other animals) the finger.

My favorite jokes include a chameleon that hides its emotions and a drawing of a rabbit with a bandaged foot wearing a rabbit’s foot around its neck, captioned “Fluffy has made his own luck.” Another favorite: a guy who says “use your hands in conversation to help project confidence” slaps the next person who talks to him. Maybe you need a dark sense to humor to appreciate the collection.

I didn’t have many LOL moments while reading through this collection, but I did smile regularly. Smiling is good. Any book that makes me smile is, in my judgment, a good book.

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