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.
Published by Mariner Books on September 10, 2013
Every voice that ever made a sound still lingers, waiting to be heard if only you know how to listen. The patterns of flowing river waters make a sound that can unlock the mysteries of the universe. These, at least, are the insights and beliefs of certain characters in The River and Enoch O'Reilly, characters who may be gifted with special insights or cursed with mental illness. The blurry distinctions between truth and myth and madness are central to Peter Murphy's remarkable novel.
Murphy tells us that "a man is not defined by his death. Every man has his story, and his life is in the telling." This is the story of Enoch O'Reilly, and while it is also the story of other boys and men and women and the torments of life in southeastern Ireland, it is more fundamentally the story of Ireland's myths.
Over a period of two weeks in November 1984, with no logical explanation, nine people drown as the Rua overflows its banks, apparent victims of suicide although nobody will speak the word. The night before the flooding starts, Enoch O'Reilly fits the barrel of a shotgun into his mouth. The novel then resets, beginning Enoch's story at the beginning, as a boy who is shaped by Elvis Presley and Holy Ghost Radio, each imparting a lifelong sense of existential peril. He later attends a Christian Brothers school where he learns this: "Ambition does not always know its end, but its beginnings are palpably manifest in the guts of those who nurture it, and whom it nurtures." Feeling a calling to preach, Enoch enters a seminary because he understands that "mass is the opiate of the religious," but his atheism does not go over well with the Dean. What happens to Enoch next is, like much of the novel, open to interpretation. Suffice it to say that his life continues to be informed by Elvis and the Holy Ghost.
From time to time, Murphy shifts his attention to other characters, some momentarily, a few in greater depth. Among the latter are Enoch's father Frank, who spent much of his life trying to recover words lingering in the ether, spoken by people long dead, and Professor Charles Stafford, a psychiatrist who may have mental health issues of his own. We also glimpse some of those who drowned, people ill-treated by life who were drawn to the river, who heard its call.
Language is power, Enoch learns in seminary, and power is evident in the language that Murphy wields. There is a surrealistic quality to The River and Enoch O'Reilly that makes it difficult to separate the story from its symbols. The river is a connection to the past and future, a symbol of life but also of death and madness, a place for people who are "speaking in riverish, knowing only riverality, the sound of the river the sound of thought itself, the babble of water that ... erodes the stuff of sanity." Other oddities include preaching voices emanating from a radio tuned to the dead, the unlikely interruption of a brawl by protective herons, a machine that ticks off the countdown to a flood. According to one of Murphy's characters, the Irish prefer myths and legends to philosophy -- it is the Irish way to order the universe -- and that mythical ordering is reflected in this sometimes baffling but always beautifully told story.
Published by Strebor Books on November 26, 2013
Despite its surprising publication in the "Zane Presents" series, Little White Lies is not a tawdry romance novel. It is a story about young black men: their burdens and aspirations; their varying responses to a highly sexualized culture; the hostility they encounter when confronted by police officers who view them as hoodlums because of their skin color; the unfocused rage that permeates inner city communities. Racial struggles, defined by generational differences, furnish a theme that dominates the story. Class differences and their impact on criminal prosecutions furnish another theme, as does the intersection of race and politics. As is often true in good fiction, those large themes are illuminated in a smaller, personal story. To some extent, Little White Lies reads like a modern version of, or a tribute to, (an impression that is reinforced when Richard Wright is quoted toward the novel's end), but it's missing Wright's finesse.
Melvin is a high school basketball player in Brooklyn with athletic scholarship potential. His demanding father is a self-defined hustler. His mother is wise and well-meaning but frustrated. Melvin's brother Danny suffers from depression, an anxiety disorder, and drug abuse. Melvin's male friends tend to get shot, sometimes by thugs, sometimes by the police. The females in his class intimidate him with their aggressive sexuality and his girlfriend is a manipulative, self-centered tease. Thinking with the wrong head, Melvin makes a poor decision, then follows it with another, potentially life-destroying decision by putting himself in the wrong place with the wrong people. The novel's second half deals with Melvin's unfair treatment as he's chewed up by the criminal justice system and by a politician who wants to exploit Melvin to gain points with white voters.
Little White Lies is told from Melvin's perspective in a natural voice that is free from literary pretension. The story's depiction of inner-city policing is disturbingly realistic although trial scenes are not. Some of the characters, white and black, are a bit over-the-top in their stereotyped thinking and pronouncements, but so are some real people. Still, this isn't a nuanced story. The novel works best when Melvin is playing the role of Raskolnikov, wrestling with guilt, trying to understand his actions. The events that occur in the novel's second half aren't entirely believable and that lack of credibility mars the story, but I enjoyed it notwithstanding its substitution of simplistic melodrama for convincing plot development. While the story seems true at its core, too many scenes of Melvin's trial and its aftermath are exaggerated beyond belief. The character of Melvin makes Little White Lies worth reading, but Native Son this isn't, despite the strength of its main character.
Depictions of sexual conduct (and misconduct) are quite graphic, not lurid or pornographic and certainly true to the story, but timid readers should stand warned of the novel's R-rating.
Published by Vertigo on September 24, 2013
The Unwritten is an outgrowth of a comic book series of the same name. While it serves as an origin story for the comic book's protagonist, the reader need not be familiar with the comic book series to enjoy this volume as a stand-alone graphic novel.
This incarnation of The Unwritten is a story of creation or conception, of an author giving birth to a story. The story is about Tommy Taylor, the son of two powerful mages who, as a baby, floated away in a basket from the sinking ship on which his parents died. The baby is swallowed by a whale and delivered to a village where a wizard lives. The wizard names the baby Tommy and, for much of his young life, raises him in ignorance of his heritage. Tommy discovers the nature of his parents at about the time his parents’ enemy (a vampire, of course) discovers Tommy. The vampire wants whatever was on the ship. At the same time, he wants something from Tommy that Tommy doesn’t have … or does he?
Not coincidentally (or so he comes to believe), the author of Tommy’s story unexpectedly fathers a son of his own. Naturally, he names the baby Tommy, but as his wife descends into a well of depression, the author finds that he’s better at parenting a fictional child than a real one. But is there, in the end, any difference between the real and the fictional Tommy?
The Unwritten is an ambitious story that, after a slow start, grew on me until I became fully absorbed. That’s largely due to the quality of the storytelling. In addition to some swashbuckling fantasy, there are a couple of unconventional family dramas here, and a nice lesson about the possibility of being special even if you aren’t gifted. Although it’s possible to anticipate much of what happens to the fictional Tommy in the second half, the story is still satisfying, while the deeper story (involving the “real” Tommy) charts a more surprising course.
Published by Del Rey on September 24, 2013
As the final novel in the Dire Earth trilogy, The Plague Forge promised to solve the central mystery that animated the first and second books: Why did aliens build space elevators on Earth, turn most humans into subhumans (except for those protected an aura emitted by alien gadgetry), and scatter objects around the globe that were meant to be plugged into an alien spaceship like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle? The Plague Forge does indeed answer those questions -- apart from some annoying gaps in the explanation -- although the reader must wade through a lot of repetitive action scenes before an expository information dump in the final pages reveals the aliens' purpose. The answers are disappointing, and in some respects absurd, but most disappointing of all is that they seem to set up another series of books that will probably feature more mindless action scenes with little substantive content.
The characters are the strength of the series. They aren't particularly deep but they have well-defined personalities and undergo credible changes as the story develops. Although Skylar is the chief protagonist, several of the supporting characters are equally important, and in some respects are easier to care about. Some turn into unlikely heroes, furthering a theme that heroism is often a function of desperate circumstances. That's the aspect of The Plague Forge (and the series) that I liked best.
Post-apocalyptic political struggles are well conceived, giving rise to the kind of characters who are fun to despise. The seeds of political intrigue that were planted in the first two books bear fruit here. Some other interesting ideas underlie the series, but they are too often buried in scenes of people hitting and shooting each other. There are only so many times our heroes can do battle with subhumans or bad humans before the battles become tiresome. The entire series could (and should) have been whittled down to a single book, yet it would still be a book with a disappointing expository ending that isn't an ending at all. The Dire Earth novels have some merit, but if there are more to come, I doubt I'll devote any time to them.
RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS