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 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.

Friday
Aug182017

Elle by Philippe Djian

First published in France in 2012; published in translation by Other Press on May 23, 2017

Michèle lives in fear, sometimes in a state of panic. She believes in signs and portents that she sees everywhere. She receives anonymous texts that might be perceived as threatening, and she assumes they came from her rapist. Michèle treats the rape as a fact of life, in much the same way as she regards less significant events in her life.

The forces that shaped Michèle quickly become apparent. Michèle’s father has served thirty years in prison for a monstrous crime that occurred during Michèle's childhood. Her mother is paying young men for sex. Michèle isn’t pleased that her mother wants her to visit and forgive her father.

Michèle’s job is to evaluate screenplays. She doesn’t like Richard’s, a subject she danced around during the years they were married. Michèle left Richard before he learned about her affair with Robert, husband of her best friend Anna. Her son Vincent has been rude to her ever since the divorce. Vincent’s girlfriend Josie is pregnant by another man.

All of this we piece together in the first thirty pages of a novel that is largely based on Michèle’s fragmented thoughts. She is surprised when a rivalry develops between Richard and her married neighbor Patrick, with whom she’s thinking of having an affair, although she’s also thinking of ending her affair with Robert. As the novel moves forward, Michèle makes some decisions, defers others, and allows some decisions to be made for her. In other words, her life proceeds as lives do, although hers is more dramatic than most.

Michèle is a woman of moods. She wants to sleep with Patrick and then she doesn’t and then she does and so on. She hates her mother and then loves her and then hates her and so son. Sometimes she thinks she should change her ways; other time she looks forward to having more “unusual adventures” (i.e., sleeping with married men). Eventually (and I write this as a warning to sensitive readers) she indulges in rape fantasies that become realities.

There were several times when I thought (as I suspect many readers will), “Why is she doing this?” But it’s clear that Michèle doesn’t always know why she behaves as she does. The closest she comes to an answer is, “sometimes people would do just about anything to feel a tiny bit better.” And “just about anything” can include behavior that might seem rewarding in the moment even if, viewed later with a more rational mind, the behavior is self-destructive. As she tells her cat, “It’s a little complicated to explain,” probably because we can’t explain what we don’t understand.

To her credit, even when the circumstances of her life have victimized her, Michèle does not play the role of victim. She uses adversity to learn truths about herself, not all of which are pleasant. She moves forward, and whether those moves are healthy or not, they are preferable to wallowing in self-pity. Michèle might not be an exemplary person, but she isn't a bad person. Her character is a reminder that people respond to difficult childhoods in many different ways. It would be easy to judge Michèle, but she doesn’t deserve to be judged. All of that makes her a strong literary character.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug162017

Moskva by Jack Grimwood

Published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books on July 11, 2017

Tom Fox is a British major who spent some time in Northern Ireland working with military intelligence. His bosses have sent him to Moscow to keep him away from a Parliamentary committee that wants him to testify. His ostensible purpose in Moscow involves writing a report about religion in the Soviet Union for the Foreign Office. While he’s safely hidden out of the way, he expects his bosses to decide his fate.

Soon after his arrival, Fox attends a party given by Sir Edward Masterson, the British ambassador. His wife is Anna Masterson and his rebellious teenage stepdaughter is Alex. Shortly after the party, Alex disappears and Masterson enlists Fox’s help to find her.

Fox’s daughter died in an unexplained car crash, a death for which Fox blames himself. His daughter’s death motivates his agreement to help the ambassador. Fox’s search for answers quickly entangles him with the KGB, with a Russian crime boss, with a Party boss, and with dangers connected to the past that are less easy to identify, but he views his task as one of redemption. Only by saving Alex can he save himself. He knows he is being arrogant and messianic, and perhaps suicidal, but he doesn’t care.

The story occasionally travels back to 1945, when the Russians were taking Berlin and wanted to assure that a German physicist would travel to Moscow, where he would serve the Russian government. Certain characters who play key roles in the present story have their roots in sins of the past. Solving the mystery of Alex therefore requires Fox to solve brutal crimes from the war years.

The story holds some poignant surprises, including the true identity of an elderly woman, seemingly a bit unhinged, who is known as Wax Angel. Fox’s background is convincingly tragic, but Jack Grimwood paints him in subdued colors, not in the garish hues of melodrama. His troubled relationship with his wife evolves as the novel progresses, and Fox changes a bit, to the extent that he is capable of altering the shape of his life. The Russian mobster, dealing with the death of one son and the disappearance of another, is also a convincing character. Additional moral ambiguity fleshes out the man who, in addition to becoming Fox’s drinking companion, becomes a key to the mystery. The broken men (and a couple of damaged women) give the novel its heart.

Some aspects of the story are a bit fanciful, but Grimwood’s prose is sharp, the characters have a fair amount of depth, and the story moves quickly. All of those factors, joined with the detailed background, make Moskva a good Russian crime story. Moskva isn’t on the same level as a Martin Cruz Smith novel, but it’s only about one level down, which makes it easy to recommend.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug142017

Hoodoo Harry by Joe R. Lansdale

First published in 2016; published digitally by MysteriousPress.com/Open Road on August 1, 2017

Hoodoo Harry is Joe R. Lansdale’s contribution to the Bibliomysteries series of stand-alone mystery stories by popular crime writers in which books, bookstores, libraries, or manuscripts play a central role.

Hap and Leonard are run off the road by a bookmobile bus in a part of the country that is still fighting the Civil War. The bookmobile disappeared fifteen years earlier, along with its driver, Harriet Hoodalay, who was known after her disappearance as Hoodoo Harry.

A 12-year-old kid whose unfortunate life is cut short was driving the bus. Of course, Hap and Leonard make it their business to find out why. They engage in their usual wisecracks and make their customary observations about how “neighborliness” in East Texas now consists of shooting anyone who comes too close to a home or business after dark … or maybe even in daylight.

The story blossoms into a murder investigation with multiple victims. Like most of the Hap and Leonard series, this isn’t as powerful as Lansdale’s best work. Hoodoo Harry is an average Hap and Leonard story, which means it entertains. That’s all it’s meant to do, and since it succeeds, I recommend it.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Aug112017

Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma

First published in Great Britain in 2017; published by Scribner on June 20, 2017

Flesh and Bone and Water tells a big story in a small way. The novel is a family drama, focusing on one family member and the harm he inadvertently does to his family and future by falling in love.

André Cabral receives a letter from Luana in Brazil. Now living alone in a London flat after separating from his wife, André has not seen Luana in 30 years. He cannot remember her last name, but the letter prompts memories of his Brazilian childhood.

Luana was the daughter of his family’s black maid/nanny. Most of the novel is told in memory: André and his brother Thiago growing up in Rio; their mother’s death; a family visit to Belém, accompanied by Luana; André’s introduction to Esther, his eventual wife, as he attends medical school in London; the deterioration of their marriage as “time rubs away the shine” of love.

Most of the backstory involves André’s forbidden infatuation. Luana is the daughter of a servant and not a fit mate for a boy who will one day become a doctor. But Luana is wrong for André for additional reasons that he does not understand at the time. Eventually, as more letters arrive, André learns a devastating truth about his past.

The story is told in quiet, straightforward prose. There is no melodrama in André’s account of a dramatic moment in his childhood and a dramatic revelation in the present. Much of the novel’s dramatic tension comes from André’s decision to confront the past that he fled when, to his father’s dismay, he settled down in London. There is no going back for André, even when eventually returns to Brazil with his daughter to make an attempt to atone. Like the rest of us, the best André can do is to feel his way forward as he works to reconcile has past and his present. The story's strength lies in its ability to convey a universal message in a personal way.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug092017

Bad Boy by Elliot Wake

First published by Atria on December 6, 2016; published in paperback by Atria on August 22, 2017

Bad Boy is a twist on the “oppressed women get revenge against abusive men” school of fiction that has recently become popular. The twist is that the key characters are part of the LGBT community.

Bad Boy begins with Ren’s video journal (without the video). Ren is 19, a young woman who feels like a little boy. She’s starting to take testosterone. She is profoundly sad and feels a strong need to change her sexual identity. She isn’t confident that she is making the right change, but she is certain she cannot make her life worse.

Soon we’re in the present as Ren and her crew engage in "justice porn," trolling the trolls in search of vengeance. Ren is the muscle. Ellis is the tech genius. Blyth is the charmer. Laney is the leader. Armin, who owns the club where they hang out, is the profiler. Together, they are Black Iris.

Ren still vlogs and has achieved a certain YouTube fame, but she’s still not happy, largely because she still feels like an outsider who isn’t accepted by the larger world. One meaning of the book’s title is that Ren fears she’s bad at being a boy. But Ren also has a self-destructive streak that her friends recognize and that she can’t acknowledge.

Ren experiences a series of revelations — not everyone who loves her as a girl will also love her as a boy; you can’t change who you are on the outside without changing who you are on the inside — that make this a sort of transgender coming of age novel. It’s more that than the revenge novel it starts out to be, but the nature of the personal drama will probably be more meaningful to readers who relate to it.

The themes of “men exist only to hurt women” and “straight men are toxic” become a bit heavy-handed at times. There is, in fact, a fair amount of sexist stereotyping of men throughout the novel, but perhaps that’s fair payback for all the sexist stereotyping of women for which men are responsible. And the book is fair to the extent that it acknowledges that (some) women use men, although not necessarily in the same ways that (some) men use women. It also recognizes that some people, regardless of gender or sexual identity, make false accusations of sexual abuse and that the victims of false accusations suffer nearly as much as the victims of abuse.

Unlike some “women get revenge” books, the characters in this one at least think about whether vengeance makes the world better or worse. Some characters recognize that women are more likely to be protected by empowerment than vengeance — and that vengeance and empowerment are two different things — a point that less thoughtful novels never consider. And as the novel expressly notes, people of every gender and gender identity are oppressed and victimized for a variety of reasons.

Ren is filled with rage and, at least initially, doesn’t want to hear those messages — she just wants to hurt men — raising the point that the oppressed, once empowered, often become oppressors. At the same time, she wants to hurt herself, to rid herself of the empathy induced by estrogen so she can wallow in the violence induced by testosterone. One of the novel’s strongest points is that no gender has it easy, although transgenders have a rougher time than most.

The novel’s weakest point is the plot, which requires Ren to figure out who is a friend and who is a foe. The revenge plot eventually focuses on a fellow named Adam who hurt Ren when she was younger and (she believes) has found a new way to hurt her. The plot is only advanced intermittently. Most of the story involves relationship anxiety that, after a time, becomes a bit wearing.

Quite a bit of Bad Boy reads like a soap opera (jealousy among current and former lovers, former lovers trying to remain friends, etc.), albeit a soap opera geared to the particular relationship difficulties that arise in the LGBT community. Ren is a bundle of woes and hurts and anxieties that become a bit oppressive as the novel unfolds. I’m not a soap opera fan and those aspects of the book would have worked better for me if they had been toned down. Other readers might think they are the best part of the story.

So, a mixed review. The story is insightful but unfocused. And as I suggested, the novel might be more meaningful to readers who are part of the world it describes.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS