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
May152015

Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Published by Scribner on March 10, 2015

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs provide a different perspective on immigration. Many of the characters left Mexico to escape the country's problems, but they are not the impoverished workers sneaking over the border who dominate the news. Rather, the characters were doing well in Mexico -- some family members brought their servants with them when they came to the United States -- and they miss the relatives and friends and culture they left behind.

Having emigrated, the characters are generally not doing well. "Deer" is about two Mexican women who work at a McDonald's in Austin -- or they would be working, but for the bear that wandered in at breakfast time and began eating all the McMuffins. The woman narrating the story fears losing her job (and her ability to send money home to support her children) more than she fears the bear.

Two stories in the collection are excellent. "Origami Prunes" tells of two displaced Mexicans who begin an affair in an Austin laundromat. It is a story about the desire to escape, the pain of escaping, and the impossibility of escaping the past or the forward movement of time. Confrontation (or not) of fear and anxiety, by both children and adults, is the theme of "Okie." Bernardo feels isolated and out-of-place in his new home in California, but leaving Mexico was the only choice his parents could make.

The title story provides the connecting thread. It tells of Mexicans, now living in crowded quarters in Madrid, who moved after body parts of a kidnapping victim kept arriving in the mail. The narrator is challenged by caring for a baby and a vomiting dog in a strange land. Other stories also involve or touch upon the kidnapping, including one in which a woman needs to explain (or avoids explaining) to her son why her father has been absent for weeks. Another, "It Will Be Awesome Before Spring," is sort of a crime story, or a potential crime story, or a fear of crime story, told by a young woman who anticipates a visit to Italy without realizing that Mexico is no longer a place she can live. Much of the story is told with a curious detachment that causes it to lose its punch when it finally works its way around to a dramatic moment.

Some stories experiment with form, but not in a way that makes them inaccessible. One story, told entirely in dialog between a brother and sister staying in a shabby New York apartment, didn't work for me at all. Another story is a large block of text with no paragraphs. One is interrupted by single lines with phrases like WOW and WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME. One that I didn't particularly like is written from the perspective of a ghost. A key sequence in the title story might be a dream, but that isn't clear.

While the stories in Barefoot Dogs are uneven, they join together to form a larger story that exceeds the sum of its parts. The collection is worth reading for that reason, and for the unusual perspective it provides on expatriate Mexican life.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
May132015

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson

Published by Viking on May 12, 2015

A dispute over ownership rights to the bones of a T-Rex is complicated by the death of the landowner who accepted money from the High Plains Dinosaur Museum for the right to dig them up. The mess gets messier when the FBI intervenes, claiming that the bones are on public land and therefore belong to the United States government. The Cheyenne are also asserting a claim to the dinosaur remains. Walt Longmire would like the whole mess to go away but first he needs to solve the suspicious death of the landowner, which leads to a murder mystery with a half dozen suspects for the reader (and Walt, together with series regulars Lucian and Henry) to ponder.

Longmire is still having visions which, in the hands of most other writers, I would consider a cheesy gimmick, but the visions play only a minor role and they suit the offbeat stories that Craig Johnson tells. Longmire novels are always fun and this one is no exception. Walt's laconic wit and Craig Johnson's breezy style make the novels a joy to read. But, fun as it is, this Longmire novel is more moving than most. There is often family drama in a Longmire novel but Dry Bones introduces a family crisis that is sure to form the central plot in one of the upcoming novels. As always, I look forward to reading it.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
May112015

Solitude Creek by Jeffery Deaver

Published by Grand Central Publishing on May 12, 2015

I generally like Jeffery Deaver, but he didn't sell me on the plot in Solitude Creek. Even if had not been contrived and implausible, it would not have been interesting. Admittedly, I approached this book with reservations, given my sense that Kathryn Dance, the fictional "body language expert" who works for the California Bureau of Investigation, is Deaver's least interesting character. Stories based on pseudo-voodoo like profiling and body language are too gimmicky for my taste. I am more tolerant of gimmicks when they don't get in the way of a good crime story, but the story here lacks originality.

Dance is working on the "drugs and guns pipeline" between Oakland and Mexico when, after apparently being fooled by a High Machiavellian (i.e., a really good liar), she is demoted to civil investigations. The pipeline reenters the story from time to time and eventually reaches a formulaic outcome (although with a mild twist that holds the novel's only real surprise). Meanwhile, Dance is assigned to check out the insurance coverage for a Monterey roadhouse called Solitude Creek after a fire produces a deadly stampede. Dance quickly realizes that the circumstances of the fire are suspicious -- not in the sense of insurance fraud, but in the sense of a deliberate attempt to induce panic.

The bad guy Dance is chasing explains that he is exploiting fundamental fears (primarily confinement and claustrophobia) to satisfy a compulsion that he calls "the Get." There is little to distinguish him from thousands of other crime novel villains who are driven by compulsion. His obsession with the "brilliant" and "captivating" Kathryn Dance after glimpsing her from afar is hard to swallow. In fact, not much about the bad guy is believable. His second motive to commit the crimes (apart from enjoyment) is spectacularly silly.

A subplot involving racist graffiti also seems contrived and improbable -- contrived in the way it comes back to connect with Dance and improbable in the sense that CBI is unlikely to devote so much effort to a property crime (even one that is classified as a hate crime) when a crazy man is committing acts that maim and kill dozens of people at a time in Southern California. True, the graffiti victims own expensive houses and are therefore likely to command the attention of the state's top cops, but no law enforcement agency would misplace its priorities in the way that Deaver imagines.

Too much of Solitude Creek feels like unnecessary padding. Deaver is particularly fond of describing footwear. Historical references to incidents of mass panic are only slightly more interesting. Dance's personal dilemmas (should she pick Jon or Michael?) do little to enliven her dull personality. Dance is always nattering on about her ability to recognize that someone is lying (it turns out that pretty much everything you say or do is proof that you are telling a lie). The best character development is reserved for Dance's messed up son, although his plot thread resolves in a way that is just as unbelievable as the rest of the novel. Her daughter's issues are just dull.

I never have a problem with Deaver's prose or with his ability to keep readers involved in the story's progress, but Solitude Creek seems to have been written on auto-pilot. Most of the novel proceeds at a good pace but it drags at points. Solitude Creek is a disappointing effort from a strong writer.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Friday
May082015

Officer Elvis by Gary Gusick

Published by Alibi on April 21, 2015

When Tommy Reylander, better known as Officer Elvis, is blown up, Darla Cavannah of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation takes a break from hate crimes to investigate his murder. Darla was Reylander's partner in the Hinds County Sheriff's Department before Darla went to the MBI. Reylander stayed behind, comforted by his part-time gig as an Elvis impersonator. Maybe a Cadillac bomb seems like overkill, but if you're gonna kill Elvis, you gotta go big.

The search for Tommy's killer sends Darla to Tommy's girlfriend (a Priscilla Presley lookalike), his lawyer (an online poker enthusiast), a strip club owner, and a whole bunch of Elvis tribute artists (they don't like to be called impersonators).

The identity and motivation of the killer is clever. A little silly, maybe, but this is a fun story, not a serious crime novel, so the silliness works. Some added plot complications at the end make an attempt to turn this into a legitimate mystery novel. The complications depend heavily on a coincidence but they nevertheless add value to the story.

Gary Gusick pokes fun at southern manners, southern beauties, southern rednecks, southern moralists, and, of course, Elvis "tribute artists," a good many of whom (if the novel is to be believed) hail from Mississippi. Gusick parses the language and hypocrisies of the Deep South in a way that everyone who has visited but doesn't live there will recognize (whether Mississippi residents will appreciate the humor is a different question). I particularly like the tradition of following every bit of trashy gossip with "bless his heart" or "bless her pretty little heart." If you don't live in Mississippi or one of its neighboring states, or if you do but have a sense of humor about your environment, I suspect you'll enjoy Officer Elvis.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
May062015

The Worst Class Trip Every by Dave Barry

Published by Disney-Hyperion on May 5, 2015

The Worst Class Trip Ever is narrated by Wyatt Palmer, an eighth grader. I suspect that eighth graders are the target audience (this is a Disney book, after all) but hey, it's Dave Barry, so it has to be funny, even for adults (particularly those who, like me, have not matured much beyond their eighth grade years). The novel relies on fart humor, always a winner for eighth graders, and "short geeky boy has no chance with cool tall girl" humor, which works at any age.

The class trip that gives the book its title involves a flight to Washington. On the plane, Wyatt and his friend Matt believe they are foiling terrorists who want to attack the city, but they may be mistaken, or so the Air Marshal believes who nearly arrests them. Once in the city, Wyatt and Matt spend much of their tour time worrying about the strange men from the plane -- with good reason, given that Matt has stolen a suspicious object from their backpack. The strange men spend about half of the brief novel chasing the kids around the city in an effort to get it back. Hijinks ensue.

The Worst Class Trip Ever is a quick read. The story is cute, funny in a silly but predictable way (although perhaps not so predictable to an eighth grade audience). It made me chuckle, as Dave Barry always does, although not as much as he does when he gears his writing to a slightly older audience. Barry's language is simple and clean (unless you think fart is a bad word). I have no trouble recommending this to an age appropriate audience, which might range from 12 to 90. Maybe even a year or two younger or older.

RECOMMENDED