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
Aug262015

The State We're In by Ann Beattie

Published by Scribner on August 11, 2015

The stories in The State We're In are snapshots of women at different stages of life. Nearly all of the action takes place in New England (mostly in Maine) although some memories and peripheral events occur in California and New York. Several of the stories are linked by characters or events. Each can be read without reference to any other story, but reading them together gives them additional weight.

Some stories are about young girls who are unraveling the mysteries of life. The first entry delves into the mind of Jocelyn, a high school student who can't quite wrap her mind around the future, isn't terribly engaged with the present, and doesn't know what to make of magical realism. "What Magical Realism Would Be" is one of my favorites in the collection. Jocelyn is still wondering about magical realism in "Endless Rain into a Paper Cup" but the perspective shifts to third person and the story -- more eventful than the first -- broadens to include her ill mother, the kindly uncle and batty aunt who are taking care of her, and a friend who tried who commit suicide. Jocelyn also narrates the last story, "The Repurposed Barn." She still can't pull a "B" on her English essays (punctuation puzzles her) and her aunt is upset that Jocelyn's mother, freshly out of the hospital, is dating a recovering addict, but Jocelyn has an epiphany that helps her make a connection between life and literature while she watches Elvis lamps being sold at an auction.

Other portraits of youth involve a girl who ponders what to do about a baby bird that fell from its nest ("The Fledgling") and a girl who learns that life is "a rocky road to death" from an aunt who attends Gatsby-like parties and wears the wire baskets that hold champagne corks in place under her bra to enhance her nipples ("Aunt Sophie Renaldo Brown").

Two of my favorites deal with older women. In "Yancey," a 77-year-old poet discusses poetry, her annoying family, and her aging dog with an IRS agent. The 74-year-old writer in "Missed Calls" has a gossipy lunch with a young writer who interviews her about her brief encounters with Truman Capote, but the woman's glimpse of the young man's anguish over his goddaughter's odd behavior provides the story's drama, showcasing the difference between a woman starting adulthood and a woman nearing the end of hers.

The narrator of "Duff's Done Enough" is an author who explains the pinprick of inspiration after her landlady, a woman of 74, introduces her to a story-filled neighbor of 82 who just changed his name from Chip to Duff. The narrator of "Elvis Ahead of Us" ponders the life of the neighbor who moved away after putting his house on the market, leaving behind his collection of ... you guessed it ... Elvis lamps.

Some stories are about the power of memories. A woman reflects upon the summer she turned 21, finding symbolism in a pair of deliberately overturned Adirondack chairs ("Adirondack Chairs"). Another woman looks back at a summer in her younger life and the casual friendship she had with her male roommate ("Major Maybe").

"Silent Prayer," a sweet story told in the third person, is largely a coded conversation between a husband and wife -- the kind married couples have that only make sense to them. Another strong story, consisting almost entirely of dialog, is a bedroom conversation by aging parents who are glad that their children do not visit too often ("The Stroke").

Rounding out the collection are two stories that felt less substantial. In "Road Movie," a woman who checks into a motel with a man who is cheating on his girlfriend can't get the man to talk about their relationship and, on the telephone, can't get her mother to stop talking about it. "The Little Hutchinsons" introduces a woman who feels guilt when her refusal to do an odd favor for a friend has unintended consequences.

None of these stories are duds and the best of them are masterful. Exquisite prose and startling observations make the entire collection worth reading.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug242015

Woman of the Dead by Bernhard Aichner

First published in Germany in 2014; published in translation by Scribner on August 25, 2015

The adopted daughter of a funeral director, Blum has been groomed for the family business. As Woman of the Dead opens, she is getting revenge not just for the lack of love with which she was raised, but for the abuse she experienced from the time she was seven.

Eight years later, Blum has two children with Mark, the police officer who responded to her call for help when her parents disappeared. But this is a thriller, so Blum's idyllic life lasts for only a chapter before Mark is gone and the real story begins.

The real story involves an undocumented Moldavian woman named Dunya who paid to be smuggled into Austria. Dunya tells Blum that Mark was investigating her escape from five masked men who repeatedly raped and tortured her. Blum learns that Dunya was skeptical of Mark's willingness to assist her and that Mark's partner was skeptical of Dunya's truthfulness. As a shield against her own pain, Blum becomes obsessed with Dunya's story of abduction, confinement, and inhuman treatment.

When Mark can no longer pursue the truth, Blum takes up the cause. The men she pursues might be innocent or guilty or something in between. Whether Blum is heroic or a psychopath, whether the men do or do not deserve vigilante "justice," and whether justice is what they receive are the questions that drive's the novel's early suspense. Unfortunately, Bernhard Aichner fails to sustain that suspense despite telling the story in an engaging style.

Aichner provides atmosphere but never burdens the narrative with unnecessary detail. Descriptions of Dunya's torture are not graphic so sensitive readers should be able to read Woman of the Dead without discomfort. While violence pervades the novel, it is understated.

The disturbed nature of certain characters is taken as a given but never explored. The motivations of particularly monstrous (but outwardly charming) characters are left unexplained. I view that as a shortcoming in a novel that is more a psychological drama than a thriller.

One of my primary complaints about Woman of the Dead is that Blum accomplishes much of her mission too easily. People do things she asks (or compels) them to do without putting up much of a struggle. That struck me as unrealistic. The ease with which Blum acts also deprives the story of the dramatic tension that readers expect in this kind of novel. My other complaint is that two supposedly shocking revelations -- one at the end, one near the end -- are much too predictable to come as a shock. That also drained the novel of its potential drama.

Woman of the Dead is moderately entertaining despite its flaws. Prose that is spare and graceful allows the story to move quickly. The novel's structure -- short scenes that sometimes jumble time -- is interesting. I liked the way the story is told more than I liked the story, but I would recommend it subject to those reservations.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Aug212015

Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellision

First published in 1975; published digitally and in trade paperback by Open Road Media on June 3, 2014

I read Deathbird Stories in paperback in the late 1970s. At that time, I did not think it was one of Harlan Ellison's stronger collections. Rereading it after its recent re-release in digital form, I revised my opinion. Some of the stories are powerful -- you expect that from Ellison -- but others are subtle. I think I missed the subtlety the first time. Maybe I ignored Ellison's advice and read them all at once. This time I read one each day and that may have enhanced my appreciation of the collection as a whole.

The stories generally revolve around a central theme. The god(s) once worshiped have been replaced by more malevolent forces. The new gods are rage, greed, sadism, narcissism, alienation, selfishness, and similar characteristics that good people try not to nurture. The new gods are slot machines, guns, drugs, advertising, and anything that can be conspicuously consumed. Ellison's point seems to be that modern life has made it difficult to distinguish the angels from the demons.

Each story is preceded by an introductory sentence or two. "Paingod" is preceded by "If God is good, why does He send us pain and misery?" The answer that this excellent story delivers seems to be: because we deserve it. Maybe we even need it.

In the standout story "Ernest and the Machine God," a manipulative woman learns that God might be a lunatic but He protects the innocent. Also riffing on the notion of God's madness is "Deathbird," which suggests that the serpent might be more trustworthy than God or that man, in the end, might be more powerful than God. My favorite portion of "Deathbird" is Ellison's moving tribute to the dog that inspired "A Boy and His Dog."

The most powerful story was inspired by the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese, a murder that several New Yorkers watched without trying to intervene. "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" tells of a woman who encounters a city grown malicious after she watches a woman being murdered and does nothing to help. Like the movie Taxi Driver, the story is about the changes that the "insane asylum of steel and stone" we call a city forces upon its inhabitants.

In another powerful story, a man who desperately wants to die searches for his lost soul and is surprised by what he finds. A touching story about wasted lives, "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans" might be my favorite in the collection.

One of the best of the subtle stories is "Corpse," a meditation on abandoned vehicles and down-trending gods. Another quietly impressive story, "On the Downhill Side," introduces a man and a woman (and a unicorn) who spend a night in conversation, their one chance to end their ghostly punishment for mistakes of love.

Other stories I admired are:

"Along the Scenic Route" - Drivers vent their road rage via government-sanctioned duels.

"O Ye of Little Faith" - A man who denies love, who self-indulgently isolates himself, who believes in nothing, discovers the truth about himself when no one believes in him.

"The Basilisk" - A captured soldier, in an unnamed war that is clearly Vietnam with the addition of biblical beasts, betrays his country under torture and is, in turn, betrayed by his family, friends, and the town in which he grew up.

"Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" - A loser puts his last silver dollar in a slot machine and wins -- and wins again and again -- but he isn't the first person to be sucked into the machine.

"The Place With No Name" - A pimp, fleeing from the scene of a murder and chased by the police, is offered an escape -- and a chance to meet Prometheus, and maybe even to wear a crown of thorns.

"Rock God" - A shady developer falls prey to an awakening rock god (the Stonehenge variety, not Eddie Van Halen).

Rounding out the collection are stories I enjoyed less, but none of them are bad:

"Neon" - A man whose life is saved is given odd surgical enhancements (a neon coil, a metal finger, and a glowing red eye) finds himself haunted by messages of love.

"Shattered Like a Glass Goblin" - In a story that seems more dated than the others, residents of a drug house turn into monsters.

"Delusion for a Dragon Slayer" - Given the chance to prove his fitness for entrance into Heaven, a man is defeated by his own vanity.

"The Face of Helene Bournouw" - A beautiful woman is actually a succubus, programmed by demons.

"Bleeding Stones" - Gargoyles on a St. Patrick's Cathedral come to life and ravish nuns.

"At the Mouse Circus" - Dreams don't always work out in the way you expect.

None of Ellison's very best stories are found in this volume, but even second-tier Ellison is better than the first-tier work of most writers.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug192015

The Total Emasculation of the White Man by David Valentine Bernard

Published by Strebor Books on August 4, 2015

During the course of the novel, a character happens upon a book entitled The Total Emasculation of the White Man and can't decide whether the bombastic title is utterly brilliant or ridiculous. I'm going with utterly ridiculous as a descriptor not just of the title, but of the novel as a whole. While the book might be intended as making fun of racism and sexism, it wallows in both without managing to produce humor that would appeal to anyone older than 14.

Edward Binkowski wanted to be a writer but placated his mother by enrolling in the only medical school that would accept him. He fills notebooks with unfinished stories about a talking penis. When Edward meets a woman who claims to be his conscience, he wonders whether his ex-girlfriend has engineered an elaborate joke. Soon he's having penis hallucinations. Then his roommate, Cletus Jones, has an encounter with a hillbilly that leads to a sexual encounter with a senior citizen ... unless he imagined it.

A third man, who wakes up in a car suffering from amnesia, meets a woman in the road and finds a letter telling him that he is Felix Higginbottom, that he on a mission from God, and that the woman is Cassiopeia, an angel sent to assist him. For no particular reason, Higginbottom becomes obsessed by a racist tome that eventually infects other characters with its descriptions of white superiority. A fourth, math professor Arlo Rasmussen, is trying to take care of a baby. He has his own encounter with Cassiopeia after receiving his own letter from God.

David Valentine Bernard doesn't write the kind of prose that wins literary awards. It isn't awful, but it is awfully amateurish. Bernard is addicted to adverbs and is particularly fond of "confusedly." His sentence structure is too often awkward, he relies on clichés, and some of his sentences "confusedly" trail along with dashes and ellipses that reveal an inability to string thoughts together with care and coherence. Unfortunately, he likes to begin sentences with the word "unfortunately." However, he sometimes changes up by beginning sentences with the word "however." A little of that is fine but when a reader starts to notice the same transitional words being used over and over it becomes grating.

I imagine the story is meant to be hilarious. Much of it is childish. Bernard has a middle-school boy's fascination with prostitutes, vaginas, penis size, "huge breasts" that "flop out" of bikini tops, "full firm breasts" that seem ready to "spring from" halter tops, and with "gyrating" butts that might "explode from too much friction." Male characters are constantly having erections and are amazed by them. Eventually some of the idiots in the novel attain enlightenment, but that just makes them enlightened idiots. They hardly seem worth writing about.

Every now and then, Bernard writes an amusing scene, but the humor is far from original. To the extent that things happen to the characters, I suppose the novel has a plot, but it seems the result of haphazard narration rather than coherent planning. I'm surprised that a publisher found any merit in a novel that is best described as stupid.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug172015

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer

Published by St. Martin's Press on August 4, 2015

Fishbowl is "a glimpse into the box" that is called the Seville on Roxy. The box contains "the perpetual presence of life itself."

We are told in chapter 2 that Ian the goldfish will plunge from a 27th floor balcony in chapter 54. We are also told that Troy the snail, who stays safely in the bowl, lives the kind of uneventful life that usually assures dull longevity, while Ian is an adventurer who has always yearned to go beyond the limits of his fishbowl. Is it better to die as "an old fish without one adventure had"? Of course not. Ian is no snail.

The story's main characters are people, which is fortunate since Ian, while a pleasant goldfish, doesn't have much personality. Katie is Connor Radley's girlfriend. Katie falls in love quickly and often, usually with the wrong men. Connor clearly falls into the "bad boyfriend" category, as most of his multiple sex partners understand, but maybe he has unmined depths. Or maybe not.

Conner lives in the Seville, as do the other main characters: Jiminez the super, Petunia Delilah the pregnant woman who is about to give birth, Garth the construction worker who can't wait to transform himself with the contents of a mysterious package, Claire the "aggressively introverted" (not to say agoraphobic) shut-in who gets paid for phone sex, and Homeschooled Herman who suffers from blackouts that he regards as proof of teleportation and time travel.

The main characters are tied together not just by their residence in Seville but by the failure of both elevators to function properly for the half hour during which the story takes place. In a series of short chapters, the narrative jumps from character to character (including, occasionally, Ian). As Ian falls, we are treated to brief descriptions of the lives of apartment dwellers (main characters and others) as he plunges past their windows.

The Seville is a building full of lonely people who, in different ways, don't quite know how to connect with the world. Some of them become a little less lonely by the novel's end. Others become a little lonelier but they learn about themselves in the process. Some learn that overcoming loneliness requires "an uncomfortable exposure to let oneself be true in the presence of another."

The characters are all struggling to give definition to their lives. They want to be happy. They aren't certain how to accomplish that end but they know that things need to change. To a large extent, Fishbowl is about finding the courage to change a life, to find yourself while finding the freedom to be yourself.

The story is very funny but it is also sweet and occasionally touching in ways that are both genuine and original. It is also a smart and insightful look at how people can have multiple identities at the same time, each of them real, all of them assembling into a complicated and contradictory whole. Fishbowl is a wonderful novel of birth and death and everything in between, all revealed in a thirty minute glimpse into a box that "fills up with infinitely thin layers of experience," layers so thin that there will always be room for the box to hold an infinity of new and eventful experiences as its residents live their separate lives together.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED