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.

Friday
Aug152014

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Published by The Dial Press on June 10, 2014

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers features wonderfully eccentric characters, but this character-driven novel has the added virtue of telling a multi-layered story that combines humor with intrigue while exploring the mysteries that come from knowing (and depending upon) other people. The characters have, to varying degrees, invented their lives and hidden their pasts, or settled on histories that suit them in the moment, sometimes because they do not know the full truth, other times because they want to conceal it.

In 2011, when the novel opens, Tooley Zylberberg has settled down, having purchased a small used bookshop in a small Welch village. It is a quirky shop, the sort that every booklover wants to find, but it earns no income, forcing Tooley to pay her sole employee, Fogg, from her meager savings. Although she is marching toward insolvency, Tooley keeps the place because it makes her feel rooted after living a rootless life. She avoids friendships because friendships require a past ("your past only mattered if others sought to know it") and she would prefer not to have one. Or so she tries to tell herself until an urgent Facebook message sends her flying across the ocean to meet someone in New York, only to cross it again to visit another person from her past in Italy. Her travels prompt her to reinterpret her life and to develop new understandings of the friends who were once part of it.

We learn about Tooley's past (as she understood it at the time) when the novel begins to jump to earlier decades. In 1999, at the age of 20, Tooley's exploration of New York City leads her to a law student named Duncan McGrory. He becomes the new presence in her life, an addition to her current traveling companions: an elderly man with a Russian accent named Humphrey who blames his misfortune on "the Moron Problem" and an affable itinerant Canadian con artist named Venn.

The novel's third time frame begins in 1988 as Tooley leaves Australia and travels to Bangkok with Paul, a contractor who installs modems in small American embassies. There she encounters flighty Sarah, who afterwards continues to drift in and out of her life. The significance of Tooley's time with Paul and Sarah only becomes clear in the novel's last half. In fact, it is only in the closing chapters that Tooley puts the pieces together and begins to understand her life from a new perspective.

The novel's fragmented structure allows intrigue to build as the reader watches and anticipates the reconstruction of Tooley's life. By emphasizing the relative nature of time, the novel suggests that memory is a form of time travel and raises the possibility that we change the past whenever we visit it. In a related passage that I loved, the novel argues that readers keep their books because they contain our past, "the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time, each volume a piece of one's intellect."

Apart from its thoughts about time and memory, The Rise & Fall is largely about the fictions that people make of their lives and the difficulty of piercing the fictions of others. As Humphrey says: "Nothing, not even dictionaries, can tell you what anything means. The reality of things is just sad, for the most part." And if reality is sad, inventing a happier version of your life is a way to cope. Yet when memories, in their retelling, "chip loose from the events themselves," detaching the present from the reality of the past, isolation can be the consequence of dishonesty. And while it may be impossible to penetrate the fictions of others, the novel wisely suggests that the key to understanding people lies is accepting "that to be surprised or disappointed or even betrayed [is] not a catastrophe." All of that is nutritious fruit to chew upon.

The opinionated characters in The Rise & Fall cover vast ground in their amusing conversations, from political systems to the myth of meritocracy, from the benefits of having faith in human beings to the advantages of living apart from them, from the perils to the joy of nonconformity. Some chats are silly, others are profound, all contribute to the eager turning of pages. Graceful prose, unpredictable characters, startling humor and rich insights into human nature make The Rise & Fall of Great Powers a true pleasure to read.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug132014

Patton's Spaceship by John Barnes

First published in 1997 ; published digitally by Open Road Media on July 8, 2014

Patton's Spaceship is the first book in John Barnes' Timeline Wars series. It did not motivate me to read the others.

A new terrorist organization called Blade of the Most Merciful apparently has no purpose or goal other than to inflict terror. Mark Strang's father has been writing a book about Blade but the bombing of his publisher puts that endeavor on hold. After a bomb inflicts severe damage on his family, Mark mopes for awhile and then becomes a bodyguard. An academic named Harry Skena is convinced that Blade has rebranded from terrorism to organized crime and is out to get him. Skena wants Mark's protection. The extended shootout/chase scene that follows, commonplace in action thrillers, seems to mark this as a pretty ordinary novel.

After reading the opening of Patton's Spaceship, I said to myself, "I thought this was a science fiction novel. Guess I was mistaken." But then Mark and Harry are whisked to an orbiting space station and we learn that the Blade terrorists are being manipulated by Closers from another timeline. Closers are so named because they visit timelines and close off all possible branches that do not lead to totalitarianism with a view to taking control of the totalitarian world they create. Since societies are inclined to choose totalitarianism as an alternative to anarchy, the Closers use groups like Blade to create mayhem, making totalitarianism more attractive. Given the course of world history, that makes a certain amount of short-term sense although it hardly seems efficient.

Opposing the Closers are Crux Ops working for the Allied Timelines for Nondeterminism who need Mark's help. So what started as a Good Guy Shoots Terrorists novel turns into a Good Guy Shoots Science Fictiony Terrorists Using Science Fictiony Weapons novel. A number of middle chapters are filled with shootouts using smart bullets and uninspired prose like "there were explosions and bursts of fire everywhere."

Eventually Mark ends up in a timeline where the Nazis have just ended their occupation of the United States. There he encounters an information dump that doesn't make for good literature but is nonetheless a fairly interesting exploration of a plausible alternative history in which Roosevelt is assassinated, the Japanese are too overextended to bomb Pearl Harbor, isolationists control the American government, and the plucky British hold out for awhile with help from Howard Hughes. Some American war heroes and scientists from the timeline we know turn out to be heroic and smart in the alternate timeline, but it's up to Mark to help them turn things around.

Patton's Spaceship varies the "intrepid hero tries to save the world" formula by making this an "intrepid hero tries to save the timeline" story, but the plot is less inspired than the alternate history Barnes fashioned. I enjoyed reading the information dumps considerably more than I enjoyed the conventional story of a hero shooting down Nazi planes with his ray gun. There's a bit more too it than that, but not much and the story doesn't go anywhere special.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Aug112014

The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb by Nicholas Rinaldi

Published by Scribner on August 12, 2014

Charlie Stratton reached 25 inches and then stopped growing for several years. Needing money, his parents agreed to let their five-year-old become a circus attraction. P.T. Barnum changed Charlie's name to Tom Thumb and made him famous. During the next two years, while Tom wooed royalty and wowed the crowds in London and Paris, his parents, feeling left out, did not handle his success well. Barnum became Charlie's surrogate father, his God and his Devil, all rolled into one.

After this brief introduction to Tom Thumb, the heart of The Remarkable Courtship begins at the cusp of the Civil War, when Tom has reached 23 years and 32 inches. Convinced the war will be over quickly, Barnum takes Charlie to Manassas. The first battle of Bull Run is about to start and Barnum, like the reporters, congressmen, bankers, and parlor women who line the road, is eager to get a good seat. Contrary to Barnum's expectations, the battle does not bring an end to the war, and so the novel moves on.

Charlie narrates most the novel from his first-person perspective. In many respects, Charlie's life is about what a reader would expect his life to be. He craves normalcy. He wants a wife or lover. Charlie is a lonely dwarf. Smitten with the 8-foot-tall Ann Swan, he experiences "the lust of the tiniest shrub wanting to sink its root into the flank of a mountain." Having been created as an oddity, Charlie believes he is entitled to the "uncommon and unimaginable," including his dreams and desires, but the uncommon life he lives is not the one he wants. Nicholas Rinaldi conveys that convincingly but unsurprisingly. If there is a formula for structuring the life of a little person, this novel follows it.

Eventually Barnum hires a dwarf named Lavinia (Charlie is smitten again) and the novel shifts to her point-of-view as we learn her backstory. Her life is also about what a reader would expect, or perhaps less interesting than a reader would want. Her narrative voice is not distinct from Charlie's. But for letters Lavinia receives from her brother, the Civil War all but fades into the background. Fortunately, it returns to the foreground at the novel's midway point and from time to time thereafter.

The novel does a good job of depicting the Civil War's impact on those who fought and on those who did not, including those who opposed conscription and the class warfare that the Union created by permitting the wealthy to buy their way out of the draft. A similar problem troubles the Confederacy, exemplified by a deserter who explains how he repeatedly collected a bounty for volunteering as a replacement soldier for wealthy landowners, only to desert and collect additional bounties in other towns.

Lincoln briefly appears as a minor character, one of the better characters in the book. Ulysses S. Grant, Walt Whitman, and John Wilkes Booth are among the other figures from history who make brief appearances while adding little to the story. They are dropped names more than contributing characters. As for the major characters, most of whom seem needlessly petulent, I never found myself caring much about them. Rinaldi did not inspire my sympathy or empathy for characters who, in real life, probably deserved both.

The Remarkable Courtship's best attributes are its descriptions of civilian life during the Civil War and of the war itself, as seen from a (diminutive) civilian's perspective. For all the interest generated by the story's background, I was too rarely engaged by the story itself, despite its occasional tense moments. Most of the story's mild intrigue comes from a villainous man who bears malice toward Charles and whose identity we only learn at the end. Rinaldi's attempts at humor generally fall flat. While Rinaldi's writing is fluid and occasionally elegant, it is not the kind of soaring prose that can overcome a novel's deficiencies. My mixed feelings about The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb are based on the sense that this is a decent novel that could have been much better.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Aug082014

Jack Strong: A Story of Life after Life by Walter Mosley

Published digitally by Open Road Media on July 29, 2014

"Jack Strong" is a short story that is available for purchase in a digital version. This blog usually reviews books, but is making an exception for this story because (A) it is written as if it is the first in a series and (B) the blog is a fan of Walter Mosley.

As a general rule, I like Walter Mosley's crime fiction more than his science fiction, but anything he writes is certain to be literate and thought-provoking. The short story "Jack Strong" is no exception.

A man awakens in Las Vegas with conflicting memories. He recalls being a male pit boss, a female stripper, an old man at a bus stop, an obese woman playing slot machines. He notices that he has white male hands except for one black finger and one young woman's finger. He looks in a mirror and sees that he is a patchwork of skin tones, with different eye colors and varying colors of hair on different parts of his body. He is, figuratively and perhaps literally, Everyman -- and Everywoman, penis notwithstanding -- "an agglomeration of potentials on one side and personalities on the other." His driver's license says he is Jack Strong.

Momentarily settling into the personality of Lance Richards, Strong finds Richards' past catching up with him when he enters the casino Richards once managed. Fortunately, Strong is strong and at least one of his personalities is a skilled fighter. The violence that follows triggers a vigorous debate among his various selves -- some virtuous, some shady, some religious, some hedonistic -- about the morality and the consequences of his actions.

While all of the people residing in Strong's head are dead, they are capable of learning and changing. Working together, considering issues jointly, they make Strong a better person than some of his more nefarious identities would be if left to their own devices. Perhaps Mosley's point is that we are all influenced by many people over the course of our lives, and that we benefit from listening to their collective wisdom. Or perhaps his point is that we are all a complex swirl of good and bad and that we need to make choices that overcome our darker impulses.

The concept of multiple identities inhabiting a single individual has been done before and nothing much here is new. How Jack Strong came to exist is never explained, which I count as a mild weakness in the story. "Jack Strong" lacks the depth and emotional resonance of Mosley's best work, but you'd expect that in a short story. I still prefer the complexity of Mosley's crime fiction, but the characters are appealing and the plot, while a bit thin, is enjoyable.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug062014

The Good Suicides by Antonio Hill

Published in Spain in 2012; published in translation by Crown on June 17, 2014

Is pleasant deception preferable to ugly truth? A character in The Good Suicides is told that "honesty is an overrated concept," a value less worthy than loyalty. That theme plays out in Antonio Hill's second Hector Salgado novel.

Inspector Hector Salgado, an Argentinian by birth who now lives in Barcelona, is seeing a therapist to help him come to terms with the disappearance of Ruth Valldaura, the ex-wife who left him for a woman. Salgado believes that premature mourning of Ruth would be a betrayal despite his fear that she is dead. He wants to heed the therapist's reminder that life consists of what we have, not what is missing, but he cannot stop blaming himself. The only lead suggests that Ruth disappeared due to a curse cast by a witch doctor who was severely beaten by Salgado after Salgado broke up his profitable prostitution ring (an event that apparently happened in The Summer of Dead Toys).

Having been removed from the investigation of Ruth's disappearance, Salgado is assigned to investigate the suicide of Sarah Mahler, who apparently jumped in front of a subway train after reading the only message on her cellphone: the text "Never Forget" accompanied by a photograph of three hanged dogs. Sarah was employed by Alemany Cosmetics, where another employee recently killed himself, but only after he also killed his wife and child. It soon becomes clear that the two were among eight individuals at Alemany Cosmetics who attended a team-building retreat and are now keeping a dark secret, the nature of which remains a mystery for much of the novel.

The novel's other key character is Leire Castro, Salgado's subordinate. Leire can't abide the thought of spending the last six weeks of unplanned pregnancy alone in her new apartment. She foregoes her maternity leave to spend her time investigating Ruth's disappearance.

Understated and tasteful subplots involving a character's attraction to his fiancé's daughter and a woman's submission to her dominant partner add spice to the story. Other storylines of domestic drama involve Leire's uncertain relationship with her baby's daddy, Salgado's struggle to raise his sullen teenage son, and tension between two Alemany siblings. Those aspects of the story give flesh to the characters without resorting to melodrama.

The first of the novel's two mysteries -- why are employees of Alemany Cosmetics dying and what's up with the dead dogs? -- resolves straightforwardly. Still, I was not convinced of the characters' motivations for acting as they did, both initially and (in some cases) after the initial event takes place. As for the second mystery -- the disappearance of Ruth -- I have to admit I found the final pages baffling. I'm not sure they do anything more than set up the next novel. That's disappointing, but effective if the point is to make readers buy more books. I'll probably read the next novel, if only because I liked the intimate psychological portraits of the key characters in this one. I have the sense, however, that I should have started reading this series with the first novel rather than the second.

RECOMMENDED