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
Dec122014

The Ice Cream Man by Katri Lipson

Published in Finland in 2012; published in translation by AmazonCrossing on October 7, 2014

The Ice Cream Man won the European Prize for Literature. I assume it is a stunning novel that simply went over my head since I often found myself trying to understand it. Nearly every character seems to be living someone else's life. The novel is a brief generational saga of sorts, beginning shortly after World War II and continuing until shortly after Jan Palach, a Czech student, set fire to himself in 1969 as an act of political protest. That act motivates a character in the novel named Jan Vorszda to buy a jerry can ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The novel begins with a director filming a movie called The Ice Cream Man. He has no script. He tells the actors almost nothing except the names, ages, and nationalities (Czech) of the characters they will be playing. The movie is largely improvised as it is filmed. To an extent, the novel has the same feel, but I assume that is deliberate. Part of the novel's early intrigue is the difficulty of separating what happens in the movie from what "really" happens while sorting out the "true" lives of the actors from the fictional roles they play.

The lead actor and actress take a furtive journey together, pretending to be a married couple. A bridge is blown up, Germans are everywhere, and the travelers are forced to take a room in a boarding house. The man goes away and something eventful happens to him that requires him to be portrayed by another actor. Whether the characters are living their real lives or their shadow lives, whether there is a meaningful difference between the two, is a question they discuss but do not resolve.

The story that the director films is, he claims, so common that people identify with it, particularly women who see themselves as the woman in the film. One such woman is, according to the director, part of a "shadow theater." Whether the woman is a shadow of a character in the film or whether the film is a shadow of real life is never quite clear. Thus we have actors playing the roles of characters who are playing invented roles, and in one case an actor being replaced by a different actor, raising all sorts of identity questions that would probably be profound and meaningful if I understood the point.

Later (and abruptly) the story shifts to a young man named Jan whose mother once took him to see The Ice Cream Man, a movie that he barely recalls and that relates to his father in a way he does not understand (although the reader does, eventually). The student is self-absorbed, rude, and dull. He's apparently a political dissident although he's more of a nothing. He eventually makes his way to Sweden where he becomes the plaything of a group of young women who like the fact that he's from Prague. Jan Vorszda evidently identifies with Jan Palach in another of the novel's many confusions of identity. His daughter completes the circle by visiting Poland, where she pretends to be the woman whose former apartment she is occupying.

The accolades for this prize-winning story call it "playful and charming." I thought it was puzzling and obscure. It isn't dull and it has the virtue of brevity. The prose is commendable. The Ice Cream Man might appeal to a more intellectually gifted reader. I just didn't get it.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Dec102014

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

Published by Doubleday on September 16, 2014

Love Me Back, title notwithstanding, is not a trashy romance novel. It is quite the opposite. The narrator is Marie Young. When the novel begins, Marie is a 22-year-old waitress who has frequent unsatisfying sex with the doctors who visit her upscale steakhouse ... and with the owners, managers, cooks, busboys, and other servers who work with her. She has "that broken sooty piece of something lodged inside you making you veer left" instead of continuing on a straight and narrow path. She has always known that a "normal" life of wife and mother could never be her reality.

Marie is clearly smarter than the life she is living, although it is late in the novel before we learn just how smart she is and how much potential she has wasted. She takes us through her history -- a teenage pregnancy followed by marriage, uncertain parenting skills, lousy temp and waitressing jobs, serial infidelity, drug abuse -- before the story returns to the present. Now she's scarred and living in Dallas, working at the most lucrative waitressing job she's ever had. She has changed her location but little has changed about her life. She loves her five-year-old daughter but rarely sees her. The men she stays with tend to be hateful but they don't stay long since she always cheats on them.

Merritt Tierce's prose is fiercely eloquent, well suited to a story that is raw in its honesty. Readers who dislike explicit language or promiscuous characters would probably want to avoid this book. None of the language is gratuitous, however; its use is consistent with the characters who use it. Nor are the sex scenes unnecessary, given the nature of Marie's life. Certainly they are not meant to titillate.

For all its familiarity, Love Me Back is a compelling account of a young woman's pain. As Marie struggles to understand her behavior, the reader gains insight into how she (and others in her position) uses sex as a shield against grief and loss, or degradation as the punishment they feel they deserve. The question is whether it is possible to kill the pain without killing yourself. Tierce gives the reader no answer to that question, which is the novel's only flaw. The story has an unfinished feel because Marie's life is unfinished, but it is disappointing that this snapshot of her life offers few clues as to where her life will take her.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Dec082014

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín 

Published by Scribner on October 7, 2014

Nora Webster is coping with the recent death of her husband. She has two boys at home, a daughter at school, and decisions to make. After neighbors and friends stop calling, after things settle down, she has to work out a new way to live. Should she sell the summer cottage? Return to work? Dye her hair? Move to Dublin? With the death of her spouse, Nora feels trapped. She does not want to surrender her quiet life, the satisfaction of having daylight hours to herself and comfortable evenings with her husband, but she has no choice.

Nora Webster's story is that of a worried widow. She worries about money, about whether she is raising her children properly, about riots in Derry, about attempts to unionize her workplace, about her politically active daughter in a troubled country. She worries about the stammer her son acquired after his father died and about his silences. She worries about what people think of her. The reader cannot help but worry about Nora and her shattered life. At the same time, Nora is not painted as a perfect person. Her pride interferes with her good sense. She hides from people instead of seeking their help. Her attempts to communicate meaningfully are faltering if she makes any attempt at all. These traits contribute to the difficulties she must try to overcome.

Colm Tóibín emphasizes the judgment that surrounds Nora, the eager condemnation that meets every decision she makes. Nora lives in a town of traditions that are enforced by gossip. A widow's decision to remove the gray from her hair is scandalous. Her aunt blames Nora for leaving her children with the aunt while their father was dying. Nora is afraid of being ridiculed if she sings in public, of being criticized if she spends too much money on a dress or a stereo.

In some ways, Nora's stammering son Donal is the most interesting character. He is obsessed with photography but he takes pictures that are deliberately unfocused, often nearly blank. He photographs the television screen as the news shows rioting in Belfast, but he refuses to take pictures of the people in his life.

Tóibín builds the novel's background from the things that divide people -- social class, religion, politics, geography -- and the resentments they inspire. As always, Tóibín writes with great subtlety. Characters use language that is pregnant with meanings that are either implied or unintended. The simple issues are often the most confounding. Should Nora loan her daughter money? Should she insist that her sullen son join the rest of the family at the beach? Tóibín illustrates the difficulty of making even the most mundane decisions when the spouse who shared that responsibility is no longer present.

The possibility -- indeed, the inevitability -- of change is the novel's theme. As Nora drifts, she rediscovers an interest from her past that transforms her, that takes her to a place she could not occupy with her husband. She gains strength in small increments and in unexpected ways. The reader roots for Nora to become a more determined person, less willing to be defined by the expectations of others, and to overcome her fears and weaknesses. (To learn what progress she makes, if any, you'll just need to read the book.)

In some novels, Tóibín writes about extraordinary people. In Nora Webster, he manages to find the extraordinary in an ordinary life. The clarifying light that Tóibín shines on the small details of Nora's life distinguishes Nora Webster from an ordinary novel.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Dec052014

Mr. Tall by Tony Earley

Published by Little, Brown and Company on August 26, 2014

Generally set in Appalachia (primarily in Tennessee and North Carolina), the stories collected in Mr. Tall are surprising, funny, and moving. Protagonists have rich personalities while eccentric background characters contribute to the sense of realism that each story (except the last) conveys.

My favorite in the collection, "Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands," is a sly domestic drama. Daryl is no longer tolerant of his wife and doesn't understand why his sweet clingy daughter, now in college, is no longer sweet or clingy. I particularly enjoyed Daryl's contemplation of his marital duties: "Find me a Hardee's. Find me a room. Stay with me until I die. It was all the same thing, really." Daryl's wife, on the other hand, makes it clear during the couple's weekend away that her first husband was infinitely superior to Daryl. The story is both an amusing and a biting look at a marriage gone sour that invites an obvious question: How do couples stay together when the only glue that binds them is mutual animosity? The answer turns out to be unexpectedly practical.

"Mr. Tall" is a wit-driven story about a young woman who bears the guilt of abandoning her family when she allows the only boy who ever chased her to catch her. Her introduction to marriage, sex, mules, and hillbilly living is hilarious. Even funnier is her adventure with her neighbor, Mr. Tall, although the humor is ultimately overtaken by an intense scene that explains why Mr. Tall is a recluse.

The background characters in "The Cryptozoologist" are a fugitive who bombed an abortion clinic and a skunk ape (a version of Bigfoot) but the protagonist is a woman who only begins to understand her husband years after he dies. The poignant story illuminates the importance of appreciating one's life partner as a unique person, rather than appreciating a shared lifestyle.

"Yard Art" is an achingly heartfelt story about the importance of the ordinary -- because what is ordinary to everyone else can be extraordinary to one person. "Have You Seen the Stolen Girl," a good story that is nevertheless weaker than the others, tells of an aging woman's reaction to news that a girl disappeared on her block.

"Just Married" consists of four compact descriptions of aging, sometimes damaged people who are or once were married, and of the memories they carry of their younger lives. The last of the four ties the first three together, neatly and sweetly.

The final story is quite different from the others. The Jack in "Jack and the Mad Dog" is the Appalachian version of the once-famed Giant Killer, but his best days are behind him. He fears he has come to the end of his final story, "his mind free from the embarrassment of exposition, the regret of flashback, the dread of foreshadow." He's in pretty much the same boat (albeit a magic boat) as his rival, Tom Dooley, who also lacks cultural currency. After so many stories mired in self-indulgence with no regard for the farmer's daughters who surround him, can Jack develop a new narrative? The story is a contemplation of the slow death of Appalachian storytelling and a reminder of the power stories have to teach us about life (and death). We are, after all, characters in our own stories, just like Jack ... at least until the book is closed.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Dec032014

The Shiro Project by David Khara

Published in France in 2011; published in translation by Le French Book on November 18, 2014

The Shiro Project begins with the release of a weaponized virus in a Maryland laboratory in 1957, then jumps to the Czech Republic in 2011 where the residents of a village are all dead. After that we go to the Israeli Embassy in Brussels to learn the story of Eytan Morg, a genetically modified Mossad agent who made his debut in The Bleiberg Project. Eytan spent most of his life capturing or killing escaped Nazis, but since there is not much point in chasing octogenarians, he has more recently devoted himself to a secret society called Consortium. The group is dedicated to creating a master race of superior beings who might even be superior to Eytan. To his surprise, Eytan he finds himself coerced into working with Consortium against a common enemy.

Flashback chapters fill us in on Eytan's past while chapters set in the present team Eytan with a Consortium agent named Elena who is Eytan's genetically-enhanced counterpart. When Elena isn't trying to kill Eytan, she admires and even wants to bed him. Such is the nature of the fickle heart.

The evildoers that occupy Eytan and Elena have their genesis in Unit 731, a covert agency of the Japanese government that experimented with chemical and biological warfare in China before and during World War II. Nefarious Pentagon conspirators also play a role.

The story is intelligent, drawing upon history to create credible villains, although the villains seem dated. The story is also a bit wooden, a description that applies equally to the protagonist. Eytan's egocentric attitude (people "believe in nothing" because they do not share his passion for his cause) is occasionally overbearing, but most of the time he's a reasonably likeable hero. We are told that Eytan "saw the value in each life he took." As sensitive killers go, Eytan is stuffy, more likely to deliver lectures than violence. His genetic programming apparently did not include a sense of humor.

Fortunately, the novel is more fun than Eytan. It delivers a satisfying amount of action, moves at a brisk pace, and leads to a pleasing (albeit predictable) resolution.

RECOMMENDED