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.


Livia Lone by Barry Eisler

Published by Thomas & Mercer on October 25, 2016

Livia Lone follows a current trend in “vigilante justice” novels. A woman who suffered horrific abuse as a child becomes a hardened killer as an adult who avenges crime victims by killing their victimizers. My favorite of those is Taylor Stevens’ Vanessa Michael Munroe. Livia Lone struck me as an attempt to blend Munroe with Barry Eisler's professional killer, John Rain. Unfortunately, Lone isn’t as interesting as either Munroe or Rain. In fact, Livia Lone (speaking of either the character or the book) is predictable, too often boring, and way over-the-top.

Livia Lone is a cop, but in her off-duty time she murders rapists. That hobby lets her kill time while she waits for her true prey to be released from prison. Timothy Tyler was once her captor, and she wants him to tell her what happened to her sister after they were both trafficked as children from Thailand. Livia’s backstory is told in chapters that alternate with the present day.

The chapters set in the past explain how Livia came to be the person she is. Barry Eisler describes (in scenes that deliberately avoid being too graphic) sexual abuse by her captors and then by the influential American who adopts her. Contrasted with the evil adults who abused Livia are good adults who are kind to Livia. Livia’s backstory comes across as manipulative rather than honest, and characters from her past seem to exist only to make the reader cheer or boo.

In the present, Livia is a police detective specializing in sex crimes, particularly those involving children. Livia is on a crusade. That’s a bad quality in a real cop because crusades impair objectivity, but it’s also a bad quality in a fictional cop because crusaders do not tend to have multi-faceted personalities. That’s the novel’s biggest problem.

Nothing about Livia is surprising. Her life follows a blueprint. She is the icon of an abused child who overcomes her past by empowering herself. The only thing unique or interesting about Livia is that she conflates killing bad people with sexual bliss.

Other characters suffer from the same one-dimensionality. Livia’s classmate, his father, and a cop who eventually becomes involved in her life are such exemplars of good they should be wearing halos. Villainous characters are exemplars of pure evil. That’s common in thrillers (many readers seem to like a clear dichotomy between good and evil) but the failure to reflect the real world keeps me from recommending the novel to readers who are looking for something that might make them think.

With the exception of a few good people, every male Livia knows is a rapist or a child molester. Other than Livia, nearly every female is a victim, and they all agree that murdering victimizers is the best kind of justice. It’s enough to make me give up on the human race.

To give the story some action, Eisler has Lone confronting an attacker from time to time, but the scenes are so contrived that they do nothing to change the story’s predictable nature. Some of the abuse visited upon victims (but not Livia, because readers wouldn’t like that) is taken so far over-the-top that I just couldn’t believe any of it.

As I mentioned, the only interesting aspect of Livia is her kinky sexuality, even though I didn’t believe a moment of it. Oddly, Livia needs to get rough with a guy before she can enjoy sex with him. Of course, if a guy needs to get rough with her in order to enjoy sex, she kills him (which in itself is a kind of a sexual experience for her). The double standard would be an interesting character trait if it were acknowledged and explored, but like anything else that might give complexity to the story, it’s just ignored. Still, Livia’s kink is the only interesting aspect of her personality. People who feel justified about being a serial killer should be interesting, but Livia isn’t.

I’m disappointed that Livia Lone isn’t a better, deeper book. It is written in prose that flows smoothly and, while it could have been much tighter, the story moves at a reasonable pace. Many of Eisler’s fans will like this new series despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of nuance. I have no problem with that, but I don’t plan to read another one in this series and I can’t recommend this one. It gets a big ho-hum from me.



A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

First published in Germany in 2014; published in translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 13, 2016

“Death is the Cold Lady,” says Horned Hannes as Andreas Egger carries him on his back from the goatherd he was tending. Hannes was near death when Egger found him, but on the way to the village, Hannes suddenly separates himself from Egger and begins to run back up the mountain. “Stop, you stupid fool!” Egger calls. “No one has ever outrun death.”

That scene begins A Whole Life. As the title suggests, the novel is the story of Egger’s life. It is not an easy life. Egger encounters death, and nearly meets his own, more than once. He lives on a mountain that is prone to avalanches. He works for a cable car company, risking his life while dangling in the air to keep the cables clean and oiled. In 1942, he goes to war, having been conscripted by the Wehrmacht. In the Caucasus and as a POW, he observes more death. Later his abusive step-father, in a chance encounter after years of separation, reminds him that “Death misses no one.” A funeral procession interrupts when he wants to enjoy a child’s laughter. When he meets a couple who are lost in the mountains, the husband was preparing to “lay down and die.” And so on.

Despite all the imagery of death, Robert Seethaler reminds us that other images can be life-affirming. Andreas doesn’t have a television but two televised events stand out in his memory -- seeing Grace Kelly waving to reporters and watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Some images spark a sense of awe that can never set aside.

Egger’s life is a series of transitions, from job to career, war to peace, husband to widower. A Whole Life is not so much the story of a man who is struggling to find himself as it is the story of a man who stumbles forward, taking what comes his way. It is the story of a solitary life, for as Egger tells a tourist, “Every one of us limps alone.” Where other novels celebrate the importance of love and friendship, A Whole Life celebrates solitude. Joy, for Egger, does not come from social interaction; it comes from being alive.

Perhaps Egger is deluding himself when he extols his pleasure in being left alone. Perhaps Egger saw so much of death that he feared forming attachments with friends and lovers who would inevitably die. Those are questions for each reader to decide. Arguably of greater importance is that Egger lived a simple life, did not succumb to temptation, caused no harm, never had a reason to experience guilt, and felt no regret. Perhaps being able to look at the mystery of life “with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement” is enough to make a life whole. I admire A Whole Life for its refreshing and unexpected perspective.



Will Eisner's The Spirit: Who Killed The Spirit? by Matt Wagner and Dan Schkade

Published by Dynamite Entertainment on October 25, 2016

Will Eisner was the most accomplished graphic storyteller of his generation. He is best known for The Spirit, a series that ran from 1940 to 1952. His multi-page stories, published in Sunday newspapers, came to be known as “the Spirit section.”

Eisner’s innovative approach to the series set him apart from other cartoonists of the time. He wrote adult fiction with mature themes (subject to the constraints of his time and audience), putting a mask on his detective only to accommodate publishers who wanted a costumed hero. He gave his detective a rumpled look and used shadows to convey a gritty, noir sense of the city he served. His detailed backgrounds often showed derelicts, clotheslines, and the detritus of urban decay. His perspective was cinematic, constantly changing, showing the scene from a variety of angles and distances. He gave new shapes to the standard square panels that defined comic art. He even transformed The Spirit logo with each story, making it a part of the background (the letters spelled out in blowing bits of paper, appearing on a billboard, or squeezed together to form a towering building).

Eisner’s stories were deeply humanistic. He often used humor to expose greed and corruption. Clearly influenced by his experience of anti-Semitism, Eisner depicted the struggles of ordinary people, sometimes making them the story’s focus while relegating the Spirit to a background role.

Written by Matt Wagner and drawn by Dan Schkade (with covers contributed by several other artists), Who Killed the Spirit? is intended as a 75th anniversary celebration of Eisner’s series. If it isn’t quite Eisner in the depth of its storytelling, that’s to be expected. Nobody is Eisner. The volume is nevertheless a worthy tribute to Will Eisner’s iconic hero.

The Spirit is dead … or is he? Dolan thinks Denny Colt has been dead and buried for two years (really dead, this time) until he gets a return visit from the Spirit. Meanwhile, detectives Sammy Strunk and Ebony White (redrawn to avoid Eisner’s racial stereotyping) decide to find out why the Spirit has disappeared.

The Spirit himself explains why he disappeared, although it’s all kind of a mystery to him ... and mysteries, of course, need to be solved. He begins with an overheard name, Mikado Vaas. From his underworld interrogations, he learns that Vaas is something like Keyser Söze -- more myth than man. And then there’s the mysterious woman who occasionally appeared to gaze at him in his captivity.

Along the way, The Spirit encounters familiar enemies like the Octopus and woos Dolan’s shapely daughter as Dolan decides whether he really wants to retire, turning the police commissioner’s job over to a politically connected boob. The story is long, unlike traditional Spirit stories, but it has all the elements of a Will Eisner story. It is consistently entertaining.

In fact, from the standpoint of writing and particularly the art, this homage to The Spirit channels Eisner faithfully. It almost feels like a story Eisner could have done, and that’s high praise.



The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

Published by Simon & Schuster on October 18, 2016

The Girl from Venice is a standalone novel. I love Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series and I wish he had dished out another Renko novel (if only because I prefer his crime stories to his war stories), but I nevertheless enjoyed this story of an Italian fisherman who must deal with his love for his dead wife, his unwanted commitment to his dead brother’s wife, his animosity toward his living brother, and his unexpected attachment to a younger woman.

Innocenzo Vianello (known to friends as Cenzo) has taken up the family tradition of earning a living from the sea. World War II is coming to an end and Cenzo, who finds it confusing for a nation to change sides in the middle of a war, has no use for the Germans, the Americans, the partisans, or the Italian government. The war claimed the life of his wife and one of his two brothers. Cenzo’s mother wants him to marry his dead brother’s beautiful widow (it’s customary in his village), but Cenzo feels no desire for her. Before she died, his wife left him for his living brother (an actor who manages propaganda for Mussolini) and, even if Cenzo had a taste for a new relationship, his dead brother’s widow bores him.

While fishing one night, Cenzo encounters a young woman named Giulia who is being hunted by Nazis. For reasons he does not quite understand, Cenzo hides Giulia in his fishing shack. Giulia is from a prosperous Jewish family in Venice. Cenzo is from Pellestrina, “which was like saying they were not only from opposite sides of the lagoon but from different worlds.” Giulia’s father was working to end the war, but he was the victim of treachery. The man responsible for her father’s death cannot rest safely unless Giulia dies, as well.

The Girl from Venice is a love story and a war story, but as you would expect from Smith, it is more than that. Circumstances converge to roil Cenzo’s life at the end of the war, forcing him to make difficult choices when he wants nothing more than to be left alone. Although a veteran of the Italian army, Cenzo is far from heroic. He makes sarcastic remarks about Mussolini (particularly when he’s drunk) but he isn’t about to take an active role in resisting the fascists. His goal is to survive the war in peace, yet he risks his life early in the novel by acting with uncharacteristic violence.

Smith gives authenticity to the characters and to the story with an impressive display of fishing lore. I like the contrasts Smith draws -- between brothers, between the different worlds of city life and village life, between the knowledge acquired in school and the knowledge acquired by a lifetime of fishing, between a world that seems small to a traveler and a lagoon that seems big to someone who has always lived next to it. I also like Cenzo’s view of Italy as a crab pot, its occupants “climbing over each other and shedding our own shells, Fascists one moment, Reds the next.”

The story is less suspenseful than a Renko novel. It didn’t trigger the same emotional response that I expect from a Renko story. Its ending is broadly predictable, although the details are unexpected. Still, The Girl from Venice tells an intriguing story about a likable man who needs to put the past in the past and find a way to move forward.



A Gambler's Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem

Published by Doubleday on October 18, 2016

A Gambler’s Anatomy might be read as a political novel in disguise, a story that pits capitalism against anarchy. Or it might be read as a more personal struggle against oppression, the story of a man who is oppressed, not by a political system, but by his own thoughts and behaviors.

Bruno is a gambler. He plays backgammon in private matches against wealthy opponents. In backgammon, a “blot” is an “unprotected checker, sitting singly on a point,” but Bruno has his own blot. It may just be an eye floater, but it has been growing, obscuring his ability to see directly, forcing him to cock his head and view the world peripherally. The blot may also be impairing Bruno’s ability to read minds (more precisely, to see the world through another person’s eyes), which is a useful trait for a gambler but an unpleasant way to live. On the other hand, another character tells him he might be “the least telepathic creature stalking the earth,” and the reader, like that character, might wonder whether Bruno’s belief in telepathy isn’t a symptom of a deeper emotional problem.

Bruno had a streak of bad luck in Singapore. He hopes to reverse his fortune in Berlin, but a nosebleed and more alarming symptoms send him to Germany’s health care system where Bruno learns that the “blot” is caused by a growth that can only be removed by opening his face, as if it were on a hinge.

A Gambler’s Anatomy
is worth reading for the imagery alone. For example, the hospital in which Bruno is treated is located within a former plague asylum. The buildings and streets are named after former Nazi doctors. Red footprints, painted on the floors, show the seriously ill where they should go in the event of an unspecified catastrophe, yet the footprints lead to nowhere. With true German efficiency, yellow footprints lead to a different nowhere for those who suffer from minor conditions.

Some of Bruno’s ties to his past unravel after Singapore and Berlin, but his new circumstances ironically send him to San Francisco, where his past awaits him in Berkeley. After blot-removing surgery, Bruno begins a journey of self-discovery while living life behind a mask, repaying a debt to a childhood chum who is now his malicious benefactor, surrounded by engaging misfits. Those countercultural characters and the Machiavellian friend provide another reason to read A Gambler’s Anatomy.

A Gambler’s Anatomy works because for much of the novel, the reader is never quite sure whether Bruno really can see through the eyes of others. He might just be a little crazy. His attachment to the blot might be one of necessity or, as his doctor believes, he might be suffering from a marvelous delusion. The only thing that’s clear is that Bruno is a different person at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning.

Lively prose and an unpredictable plot add to the list of reasons that make A Gambler’s Anatomy a worthwhile read. I didn’t form a strong attachment to the characters, although as Bruno moves from one bizarre setting to another, it is at least easy to sympathize with him. The opening of Bruno’s face might be a metaphor for opening Bruno so the reader can see inside the man, but I’m not sure that Jonathan Lethem delivered much insight into what makes Bruno tick. I got the sense that Lethem was trying to make a larger point in A Gambler's Anatomy but I confess that it eluded me. Other readers might have better luck finding it. Those shortcomings are easy to set aside in the joy of exploring Bruno’s strange life and the strange people who occupy it, but in the end I was left scratching my head and wondering what I missed.