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
Jul202018

Before Mars by Emma Newman

Published by Ace on April 17, 2018

Before Mars is the third book in Emma Newman’s Planetfall series, but it can easily be read as a standalone. The series adopts the common science fiction background of governments that have merged with large corporations (gov-corps), a logical extension of our current reality. Citizen-employees are assigned jobs and living quarters by a gov-corp. On a positive note, the gov-corps have dialed back some of the religious right’s influence on government, because (as the gov-corps see it) narrow-mindedness does nothing to advance profits. On the other hand, such human rights as people have are guaranteed only by their employment contracts.

Anna Kubrin is a geologist but she is also an artist. One of the gov-corps, GaborCorp, has exclusive rights to Mars, where it films a popular television show. Gabor thinks Martian landscapes will be a good investment, so it sends Anna to Mars.

Anna doesn’t much mind going, although it means leaving behind her husband and daughter. Anna’s husband was never right for her, so she isn’t likely to miss him. Anna is ashamed to admit to herself that babies are frightening, small children are boring, and she is too selfish to be a fully involved mother. So she might miss her daughter a bit, but she knows that when she returns to Earth, she’ll give her daughter a hug before moving on to something more intellectually stimulating. I’m glad my mother wasn’t like Anna, but I appreciate her honesty. And I appreciate Newman’s development of a complex character who might not be particularly likable, but whose introspection and self-criticism allow the reader to understand her and perhaps to sympathize with her situation.

Some of the other scientists (slash television stars) on Mars are less sympathetic than Anna. In particular, Arnolfi, the GaborCorp neurophysiologist and psychiatrist who assesses her, believes she is suffering from a form of psychosis that is triggered by the immersions (virtual realities) in which people live as they make the long journey to Mars. When Anna arrives and unpacks, she finds a note that tells her not to trust Arnolfi, but the reader feels that distrust instinctively.

Anna recognizes the painted note as her own style, but she doesn’t recall painting it. Then she notices that some of the art supplies she packed didn’t make it to Mars, and that the wedding ring she packed is missing the engraving it once had. Later she finds a footprint in a part of Mars where nobody has ever walked (or so the AI tells her). Perhaps her brain implant is messing with her. As Anna and science fiction fans know, a brain implant should never be trusted. Another other option is that she’s gone mad, which is part of her family history and therefore Anna’s greatest fear. About a third of the way through the novel, as Anna is playing an immersion, she discovers that she is not alone in thinking that something is very wrong on GaborCorp’s Mars.

Before Mars is a science fiction mystery that asks the reader to join Anna in getting to the bottom of an apparent conspiracy, perhaps orchestrated by the AI, to keep Anna in the dark about certain events that are happening, or previously happened, on Mars. The plot is carefully structured, internally consistent, and intelligent. The ending ties together all the clues in a way that is credible and poignant. Before Mars offers a careful balance of plot and characterization. I don’t know if Anna will return in a future Planetfall installment, but I would like to know what happens to her next — and caring about what will happen to a character is a good sign that the novel in which she appears made an emotional impact.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul182018

The Throwaway by Michael Moreci

Published by Tor/Forge Books on June 19, 2018

Late in The Throwaway, Mark Strain tells another character about how, as a child, he stood up every day for a weakling who was being beaten by bullies and how he was beaten every day in exchange for his trouble, just because it was the right thing to do. I didn’t believe the story, having read some version of the same self-serving boast too many times in thrillers, but I didn’t believe much of anything about The Throwaway.

The novel begins as Strain, an American, is unwillingly exchanged in a spy swap, handed over to Russian agents after being deported without a hearing. A lawyer and K Street lobbyist, Strain has a pregnant wife back in D.C., which didn’t stop him from flirting with a med student named Alice, who turned out to be a Russian spy named Ania.

Strain was lobbying for a firm that bid on a cybersecurity contract with the Pentagon. The contract involves software called Verge, in which the Russians have a great interest. Some of Strain’s methods to secure the contract were aggressive; others were illegal. A Texas Congressman who doesn’t take kindly to extortion plays a role in Strain’s downfall, as do others whose identities become known to Strain toward the end of the story. The identity of the key conspirator will be obvious to thriller fans, who will find little of interest in a novel that holds no surprises, apart from the convenient help he receives from two characters who have no credible reason to help him.

To clear his name, Strain must escape from his Russian captors, and from Russia, so that the can return to D.C. to save his wife and unborn child, as well as America. Impossible? Nothing is impossible in a modern thriller. Unfortunately, Michael Moreci failed to provide the kind of entertainment value that encourages a reader to suspend disbelief in an implausible plot.

The novel makes an attempt to explain how Strain might be deported without a hearing, but it’s the kind of explanation that would only make sense if nobody in America knew what was happening. Strain is vilified on national news. Talking heads on Fox News are even talking about sending Strain’s unborn baby to Russia, which only strikes me as credible because I doubt that any talking head on Fox has ever read the Constitution beyond the Second Amendment. But given that the entire nation knows that Strain is being sent “back to Russia” (from which he didn’t come), surely a good many people would have pointed out that American citizens are entitled to some sort of due process before they are deported, even by the lax standards of Homeland Security and ICE. Deporting an American citizen to a country where he’s never lived, and doing it full view of the media, just isn’t something that even the most nefarious conspirator in the imaginary Deep State could orchestrate.

In any event, Strain is sent to Russia along with real spies, including Ania. In Russia he is treated as a hero and a celebrity, which he uses to his advantage while escaping, despite not knowing a word of Russian. That didn’t strike me as plausible. Nor did NSA’s decision to send an assassin to Russia to take him out. It’s the kind of decision that is made to further the plot, not because it makes any sense. Deciding to kill the pregnant wife is equally senseless.

With all that going against the intrepid Strain, he must make his way home, which (spoiler alert) he does with remarkable ease. Actually, it isn’t possible to spoil the plot, because it is so easy to see what’s coming. It just isn’t easy to believe (or care) about any of it.

More examples that elevated my incredulity level: Strain’s wife bluffs her way into a secure area housing the Pentagon’s mainframe computer, not because anyone at the Pentagon would fall for the bluff, but because she needs to get inside to move the plot forward. As is common in thrillers, she brings along a computer nerd who was apparently born knowing just where in the mainframe to find the particular data she needs and to understand what the machine language is doing just by glancing at it. Of course, Strain also manages to get into the Pentagon, despite being known to the world as a Russian spy who has been deported, because he also needs to do that to move the plot forward. Does the Pentagon really have no security besides a guy standing at the back door?

Apart from dialog that is too often forced, Moreci’s prose style is serviceable. His characterization is about average for a thriller. The Throwaway isn’t an awful novel, but the plot is preposterous and the ease with which Strain overcomes adversity deprives this thriller of any thrills.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul162018

OK, Mr. Field by Katharine Kilalea

First published in Great Britain in 2018; published by Crown/Tim Duggan Books on July 17, 2018

Mr. Field is a pianist who can no longer perform, having injured his left wrist in a train crash. He uses his injury settlement to buy a house he saw in a newspaper article. The house is owned by Hannah Kallenbach, the widow of the architect who designed it.

The House for the Study of Water is built on an incline, supported by stilts, and can only be reached by climbing a staircase. It is a replica of the Villa Savoye, but it has a view of the sea near Cape Town rather than a view of rural French landscape. The House seems to be in a constant struggle with wind and decay. Perhaps it is a struggle with the outside world. The narrative frequently asks the reader to consider the relationship between people and houses, between people and water, between houses and water. The coastline is eroding, a common metaphor in recent novels for unstoppable change that is an inevitable part of life.

Mr. Field’s lover, Mim, joins him in the house for a time, although she clearly thinks he is a fool for buying it. Mim’s sudden disappearance from the story, leaving her computer and notebooks behind, is something of a mystery. She has driven somewhere, and Mr. Field misses her sometimes, but not quite enough to call her or to search for her.

The story is one of isolation and loneliness, despite the companionship Mr. Field conjures from Hannah Kallenbach, whose continued residence in the house he imagines, as if “the house had ingested some aspect of her presence.” In a dream, Hannah discusses Mr. Field as if performing an autopsy, saying that little is known of the pianist’s heart, except that “once he felt differently” but “these days, he mostly feels the same.” In another dream, a bird describes him as “part of the unhappiness that’s come apart from the total mass of unhappiness.”

Mr. Field sits alone every day, listening to construction sounds and trying to imagine what might make them (e.g., “stones being cleaned in a large washing machine”). He plays the piano, noting that his right hand misses the way his injured left hand used to play. He watches the sea and engages his memories of his first piano teacher, of his mother listening to Chopin, of Mim. He takes in a stray dog who seems to have an unexplained connection to Hannah. He takes evening drives, sometimes passing Hannah’s current house, often sneaking into her yard and sitting outside a window, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Sometimes he eavesdrops on mysterious conversations she has with a man who visits her frequently.

The reader might ask whether Mr. Field’s obsession with Hannah is unhealthy, or whether the obsession instead gives him a reason to continue living. Mr. Field feels a pang whenever he sees her, “like young love or immature love or new love, love but with a tragic aspect.” Yet Mr. Field makes no attempt to interact with Hannah, perhaps because that would be a step toward losing her, just as he fears losing the newly-acquired dog. (All books are made better by the inclusion of a dog, and this one is no exception. Dogs always have lessons to teach if only humans would learn them.)

What to make of OK, Mr. Field? The story is in some respects difficult to understand. The meaning of a surreal story told by Hannah’s visitor at the end of the novel escaped me (it involves a confusion of identity that can be interpreted in multiple ways), and whether the reader should take other parts of the story literally is not always clear. That makes OK, Mr. Field a challenging book, but like most challenges, this one is not without rewards.

While the story is sad, Katharine Kilalea’s evocative prose is rich with detail and atmosphere. Kilalea makes it possible to empathize with Mr. Field, to understand what it must feel like to live without friends and in a state of depression that makes the anticipation of new friendships impossible. Mr. Field’s interior life is presented in great depth, to the near exclusion of other characters, only two of whom (Hannah and a contractor working nearby) play any role at all in the story Kilalea tells.

This is not a novel for readers who are looking for a happy, life-affirming story, although it is not entirely dreary. It isn’t pleasant to read about depression and loneliness, but the novel is too short to become oppressive in its portrait of despair. Yet readers who make it to the novel’s end will find a bit of comfort in the knowledge that a feeling of emptiness can be recast in a positive light, as a body that has space to store new things. That single revelation makes all the bleakness worthwhile.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul132018

The Price You Pay by Aidan Truhen

First published in Great Britain in 2018; published by Knopf on July 10, 2018

Jack Price is badass. He’s about as badass as a character can be and still be a character a reader will enjoy encountering — in fiction, because I wouldn’t want to know him in person. A Japanese police detective refers to Jack Price as a “spectacularly awful person” before wishing him luck (and promising to have him run over with a delivery truck if he ever visits Japan). That’s pretty much my reaction to Price. He’s a deplorable sociopath, but it’s impossible not to cheer for him, if only because his survival means that he’ll keep narrating the story.

Price narrates The Price You Pay in a distinctive voice. It’s hard-boiled and slangy and profane, uninfluenced by conventional rules of punctuation and sentence construction. I loved the voice. The voice gives Price instant personality while making it clear that he’s intelligent and funny and someone no sane person would want to have as a neighbor.

Price is an upscale cocaine dealer, although he outsources the actual deliveries. An elderly woman named Didi is murdered in his building. Price hated Didi but he asks questions about the murder because he doesn’t think people should be getting murdered where he lives. The killing and Price’s inquiries set in motion a wild chain of events. A contract is put out on his life which is accepted by the celebrity assassins known as the Seven Demons, marking the best day of Price’s life because all restraints are off and he’s free to do as he pleases. Seven world-class assassins versus Jack Price. It’s a pretty even match.

The story’s tongue-in-cheek nature allows it some over-the-top moments. Aidan Truhen doesn’t overdose the reader with those. Humor pervades the story, and while it is sometimes violent humor, the story’s goofiness makes it easy to like Price without worrying that he’s a sociopath. It’s hard to be squeamish about decapitation when you’re laughing out loud. It’s also easier to like a guy who is totally honest about being an asshole than it is to like an asshole who styles himself as an heroic patriot whose moral purity and sense of duty outshines everyone else (i.e., today’s typical stalwart thriller hero).

While Price behaves like a sociopath, there are signs that he might actually have a heart. There are also plenty of signs suggesting just the opposite. One of the characters even tells him that he isn’t a sociopath because “you experience the world like a normal person but there is no limit on your behavior.” In other words, he is capable of liking people and dogs but doesn’t let casual friendship stand in the way of creating mayhem to achieve his goals. And when the people he likes end up dead, he doesn’t shed many tears; he’s too busy planning the next round of mayhem. As another character tells him, Price just wants “to do appalling things and sass people and get laid.” That doesn’t sound like it should be endearing, but it is. Kudos to Truhen for making me like Jack Price.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul112018

The Shades by Evgenia Citkowitz

Published by W. W. Norton & Co. on June 19, 2018

Catherine and Michael Francis have been clinging to each other “out of fear and habit,” but the habit is no longer enough; “once the wrecking ball was in motion it was near impossible to stop.” It is difficult for a marriage to survive the death of a child, and there was “a remoteness that created a space between them” even before their daughter Rachel died in a car accident. Michael is living in London to be near his work; Catherine has moved to their country home to be near their son Rowan’s school.

Catherine has grieved the death primarily by blaming herself for bad parenting. She is trying to return to normal by losing herself in the management of the art gallery she owns. Michael is embracing a spiritual approch to coping with death. Rowan apparently repressed his feelings and ran from grief, which is why he wanted to attend a school outside of London, but his therapists agreed that he was taking charge of his emotions in a time of helplessness. Rowan believes he is the only family member who wants to remember Rachel honestly, and the only one who understands that the point of death is to reinforce the urgency of life. But Rowan also blames himself for Rachel’s death, for turning his back on the role she had assigned him as her protector.

It isn’t easy for the reader to decide whether Catherine’s sudden grievances about her husband and friends are legitimate, prompted by a closer examination of her life in the wake of a profound loss, or if Catherine has simply become dissatisfied with everything and everyone (but especially herself) as a result of that loss. Additional family drama comes from Rowan, whose choices about his future are not what Michael expects (or at least wants) them to be. Whether Rowan’s choices are good or bad is unclear, as is often the case when children make choices that their parents oppose.

The characters in The Shades are stronger than the novel's plot. Its focal point is a young woman named Kiera who comes into Catherine’s life about a year after Rachel’s death. Kiera tells Catherine that she once lived in the old house that Catherine now occupies. Catherine relishes the idea of Kiera joining her in her home, occupying the room that was once Rachel’s. Rowan and Michael are less sure that Catherine is making a wise choice. The reader is encouraged to wonder whether Kiera is being entirely candid with Catherine, and whether Catherine’s obvious desire to have Kiera act as a surrogate for Rachel is healthy.

The Shades (a term that refers to souls of the dead, at least in the opera L’Orfeo) illustrates how difficult it is for parents to be kind to each other when faced with the loss of a child, a time when love and kindness matter most. Michael’s awakening “to the holiness of existence” is a bit much, but it provides a nice contrast to the very different interior world that Catherine inhabits. The characterizations and Evgenia Citkowitz’s precision with language are more impressive than the plot, which culminates in a strange, out-of-the-blue climax that is meant to cause the reader to reinterpret some of the rest of the story. I generally like endings of that nature, but this one seemed artificial, as if Citkowitz needed to create a stopping point and hit upon a clever way to end the story. Still, The Shades succeeds as a character-driven novel, even if it doesn’t succeed on every level.

RECOMMENDED