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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.


Black Widow by Christopher Brookmyre

First published in Great Britain in 2016; published by Atlantic Monthly Press on November 1, 2016

Jack Parlabane is an investigative journalist who, as series readers will recall, is not always on good terms with the government. Or, for that matter, with newspaper editors. He’s looking to get back in the game when Peter Elphinstone’s sister asks him to investigate Peter’s presumed death. Also investigating is PC Ali Kazmi. Making an occasional cameo is DS Catherine McLeod, who stars in another series of books by Scottish novelist Christopher Brookmyre.

Peter’s car went off the road and into a river. Perhaps Peter had an accident, but if he was murdered, the prime suspect is his wife, Diane Jager. Diane is a surgeon who, for a time, blogged about sexism in the medical profession. She blogged anonymously until her blog was hacked and her identity exposed. She experienced blowback due to unfortunate things she said about her colleagues, who were easily identified once her identity was made known.

Jager blamed the fiasco on her employer’s IT technicians, who failed to protect her from hackers. Yet she married Peter, an IT tech, a few years later. Peter was estranged from his father, who happens to be a wealthy and politically connected man from whom Peter was destined to inherit nothing.

Brookmyre does a nice job of showing both Diana’s perspective on her marriage (in the first person) and her husband’s perspective (as filtered through people who knew him). The clever ways in which Brookmyre presents and withholds information make the reader sympathize with one spouse and then the other, without really knowing whether either of them are worth the sympathy. That continues throughout the novel and is, I think, the key to the story’s success. Readers who like clear-cut heroes and villains might dislike Black Widow for that reason, but the ambiguity contributed to my unwavering interest in the story.

Satisfying twists at the end confirm that the journey is worth taking. Some aspects of the ending I managed to guess, but key details came as a true surprise. Whether it was entirely believable is another question, but the story never goes so far over the top as to become outrageously implausible.

Although this is a Parlabane novel, Parlabane is almost a secondary character for most of the story. Early chapters focus on Diane and Peter and their acquaintances. There isn’t as much drama in Parlabane’s life in this novel as in the last one, although he endures a bit of personal drama before the story is over. Parlabane regains center stage toward the end, but Brookmyre’s decision to underplay his role gives the other characters a chance to develop. Brookmyre is a masterful crime writer and Black Widow is a deft performance, both in plot development and in convincing characterizations.



The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is the last of five "Vintage Shorts" that Tzer Island received for review. Other essays in the series were reviewed this week (on Tuesday) and last week (on Tuesday) and two weeks ago (on Tuesday and Thursday).

Published by Vintage on November 15, 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri begins this essay (originally delivered as a lecture) by describing school uniforms as providing students with both an identity and anonymity. She envied her uniformed cousins in Calcutta because, as an Indian student in America, she did not share a group identity and could not blend in with her surroundings. Asserting individuality with clothing was a vexing problem. Clothing therefore carries a special meaning for her, even into adulthood, and it is the clothing of her books, more commonly known as dust jackets or paperback covers, that is the subject of her essay.

“If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening.” The jacket is a marketing tool. Lahiri frets that the jacket reflects how its designers see the book (which is rarely the way Lahiri sees it), although I suspect the reality is that most art departments don’t read the book before designing the jacket. Lahiri has a particularly visceral reaction to jackets and covers, because just as “the right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel through the world,” the wrong one is “cumbersome, suffocating.” Given that she was born in America and lives in Italy, Lahiri particularly disfavors stereotyped covers that depict elephants and scenes from India. That’s understandable.

The most interesting aspect of the essay is the observation that covers may create false expectations (particularly if a gullible reader believes the blurbs). A naked book conveys no expectations at all and may therefore allow the reader to approach the content with a more open mind. Lahiri hates blurbs for the simple reason that she wants readers to read her own words, not the words of a blurb writer or an editor who wrote the synopsis on the inside flaps of the dust jacket. I can’t blame her for that, particularly when the synopsis and blurbs are so often disconnected from the content of the book.

The Clothing of Books is a well-written essay but not a particularly enlightening one. It’s fairly well known that authors usually have little control over covers and dust jackets and often dislike the choices made by their publishers. Lahiri recognizes that the purpose of a cover is to sell books, not to please the author (although a cover that successfully sells books should please the author for reasons that are financial, if not aesthetic). Still, the essay seems a bit too self-absorbed and self-satisfied as Lahiri laments the inability of book covers to reflect what is truly special about her words.

I am, however, taken with Lahiri’s observation that European publishing houses are more likely to use similar covers on books by different authors, giving those books a sense of being part of the same family, while American book covers (unless reprinting a series of classics) reflect the diversity and individuality that characterize the country (school uniforms not being favored by American students).

Devoted readers will read pretty much anything that is related to the process of writing, however tangentially. To those readers (and I count myself among them), I give this essay a guarded recommendation.



The Secret Trilogy by John Gardner

Published digitally by Endeavour Press on October 6, 2016

The three volumes in this trilogy — The Secret Generations, The Secret Houses, and The Secret Families — chronicle the devious machinations of the Railton family in the twentieth century world of espionage. In the first novel, Charles Railton becomes one of the first members of MI5 (then known as MO5). His Uncle Giles is what would now be called an intelligence analyst. Giles pimps out his daughter to spy on a German military officer and pimps out his son’s wife to spy on the Irish. Giles’ nephew John serves in Parliament and is appointed to the Cabinet so that he can bolster Giles’ work. John’s son James wants to be an aviator in the belief that these new-fangled flying machines might have some military reconnaissance value -- a plan that Giles fully supports.

While the first novel addresses the intrigue of World War I, the second novel moves to the Second World War. The Railtons are supporting the French resistance — Caspar Railton is running his own network — again using family members as undercover agents. The Railtons are working alongside, and intermingling with, the American Farthing family, which is perhaps even more devious than the Railtons. A traitor threatens the organization — but could the traitor possibly be a Railton? It’s up to Caspar’s nephew Naldo to figure it all out.

The third novel pits the Railtons against the Russians, this time asking whether Caspar Railton has actually been working as a Russian double agent for decades. Naldo investigates the rumor with the help of a Farthing, who has some family loyalty issues of his own. The final novel brings the series, and perhaps the Railton family’s usefulness to British intelligence, to a close.

Taken collectively, the three volumes offer an excellent history lesson and a wealth of realistic detail about the evolution of twentieth century espionage. The story is also a multigenerational family saga involving two families that intermarry (families that spy together, stay together). There are times when John Gardner’s prose is a bit too dry for my liking, and I think the espionage works better than the family drama, but the plotting is quite good and characters are strong. The Secret Trilogy showcases Gardner as a serious espionage writer, something his James Bond novels (as the most prolific successor to Ian Fleming) failed to do.



To Be Black in America Is to Walk with Fury by Nathan McCall

Published digitally by Vintage as a "Vintage Short" on February 23, 2016

Nathan McCall’s essay on “America’s contempt and utter disregard for black life” is timely, given the recent election's reminder that white supremacy is still advocated by a good many of the Angry White Men who are hostile to racial harmony and equal rights for all. Reflections on racism will always be timely as long as racism exists, but the Black Lives Matter movement and the bitter climate of Trump's election make McCall’s observations resonate.

Twenty years ago, McCall wrote Makes Me Wanna Holler, describing his transition from prison inmate to journalist. A part of the essay updates readers of Makes Me Wanna Holler about how McCall’s life turned out. I suspect that part will be of greater value to those who read his book than those who did not. I’m in the latter group.

McCall maintains that little has changed in the intervening decades, in that many white Americans continue to believe that the United States belongs to white people and “are willfully blinded to the depth and breadth of its racial pathology.” Those are the whites who are “America’s greatest racial tormenters and, at the same time, the most tortured victims of their own propaganda.” There is certainly truth in those statements, even if they are a bit too sweeping.

Of course, America has changed, as the election of a black president reflects, a monumental event that McCall does not acknowledge in the first two-thirds of his essay. When he does, he says, “Even when a black man reaches the very pinnacle of power, he’s still considered a nigger.” By some, yes, but if that were universally true, Obama would never have been elected and reelected. I understand McCall’s howl of pain, but I don’t think it excuses blanket statements that distort reality.

I also don’t buy McCall’s subtext. Part of McCall’s anger comes from his struggle to overcome a past that includes felony convictions for crimes he readily admits he committed. The subtext is that racism caused him to commit those crimes. Well, maybe, but an awful lot of black people manage to confront or cope with racism without committing robberies and assaults.

There is nevertheless much of value in this essay, thoughts that merit attention, even if McCall’s observations aren’t new or novel. McCall touches upon the myth of American meritocracy, crime as a leveling force that provides a route to economic equality, the enduring stain of racism even among educated whites, the disconnect between white and black perceptions of racial realities, the failure of history classes to convey the horror of black oppression, and the disproportionate imprisonment of black men to feed a prison system that gives disproportionate employment to white workers. He also discusses lessons he learned in South Africa that apply to racial experience in America. All of those issues, which a brief essay can only touch upon, are compelling, making the essay as a whole a worthwhile read.



Rise the Dark by Michael Koryta

Published by Little, Brown and Company on August 16, 2016

Rise the Dark is a thriller that sometimes reads like a horror story. It’s more thriller than horror, but elements of the supernatural make occasional appearances, and then play a more significant role near the novel’s end. The novel follows (and refers to) the events that took place in Last Words, but it can easily be read without reading the first novel in the series.

Garland Webb bragged to Markus Novak about killing Novak’s wife, a crime for which he was never arrested, despite Markus’ efforts to find evidence of his guilt. In Rise the Dead, Markus wants to settle the score.

While Markus is looking for Webb, Webb is busy kidnapping Sabrina Baldwin for Eli Pate, who intends to use Sabrina as leverage to get help from her husband. Pate plans to spread panic and Jay Baldwin’s knowledge of high voltage power lines can help him with that task. Jay is an interesting character because his brother was electrocuted while working with transmission lines, leaving Jay with haunting memories that he has never been able to overcome.

Also figuring into the story are a deadly electrical engineer named Janell Cole and a woman named Lynn Deschaine who has been pursuing Pate. Since Lynn is an attractive female, she might rekindle Markus’ interest in women, which has been dormant since his wife died.

The plot revolves around Pate’s evil scheme. He is spreading threats across the internet in a variety of languages, expecting the more paranoid elements of American society (particularly survivalists) to squabble amongst themselves as they blame one of many perceived enemies, foreign and domestic, for the threatening event. That’s a fairly original spin on a standard thriller plot, and the detailed description of how Pate’s scheme will be executed is convincing.

Ghosts and clairvoyants and psychics all play a role in the novel. After Markus visits a creepy house, a strange kid who lives in the neighborhood gives him some information that he learned from his dead friend. That’s not quite as strange as the goofy belief that Eli gets his instructions from nature, or more precisely, from the mountains of Wyoming.

The plot hangs together reasonably well, thanks to Michael Koryta’s ability to provide convincing explanations for events (such as Markus’ return to his home town as he tracks Webb) that initially seem like implausible coincidences. Markus is the product of a dysfunctional family, a common background in thrillers, but Koryta makes better use of Markus’ past than most thriller writers manage.

Rise the Dark is also smarter than most thrillers. Koryta understands that the terrorism that most threatens America is homegrown. That gives the novel a sense of realism that standard thrillers pitting heroic Americans against evil Muslims lack. The novel isn’t as emotionally involving as I want a thriller to be, but it’s stimulating and suspenseful. That makes it an easy book to recommend.