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.

Monday
Aug252014

Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Published by Tor Books on August 26, 2014

Echopraxia takes place after Blindsight. Transhuman Bicamerals (hive-minded faith-based scientists who speak in tongues), engineered versions of zombies, and not-quite-human but controlled and confined vampires are among the many background characters. Don't grind your teeth -- this is not another dumb zombie/vampire novel.

The central character is baseline human Dan Brüks, a biologist and tenured professor who resists all the wiring and implants that most people take for granted. As Exchopraxia begins, Brüks is in the desert where he finds Bicamerals threatened by a not-so-controlled-or-confined vampire and her zombie helpers. Soon the Bicams and the vampire join forces (more or less) because they appear to have a common but unidentified enemy. An attack from an unknown source sends Brüks and the Bicams and the vampire and a baseline military officer and some other characters scrambling to a spaceship that is itself chased and attacked by the unknown enemy. Figuring out who (or what) is engineering the high tech attacks is one of the plot's three mysteries. The second involves a mysterious something -- the "Angels of the Asteroids" is the roughly translated name bestowed by the Bicams -- and its association with Icarus, a space station that acts as a conduit of unlimited solar energy. The third involves the abrupt disappearance of the Theseus, a spaceship that investigated mystery number two, on which the military officer's son was serving.

Peter Watts has a better than average prose style. I like the way he renders dialog in a character for whom language is too slow to keep pace with thought. Characters have carefully designed personalities. Brüks and the military officer are both carrying a bundle of guilt, a byproduct of being baseline humans who can't jettison inconvenient emotions. The plot moves quickly, particularly in the novel's second half, but it does not short-change character development or the refinement of themes (including the benefits and disadvantages of being human rather than transhuman) that are central to the story.

The novel's background is filled with ideas, some familiar and others fresh. Watts doesn't assume that readers are stupid and need their hands held. Concepts that don't seem to make much sense initially (like "smart paint") are eventually made clear, usually through context rather than direct explanation. Watts scores points with me for avoiding needless exposition.

While Echopraxia is science-heavy science fiction, Watts also scores points for recognizing and engaging the limits of science -- which is not to say that the novel prefers a religious approach to understanding phenomena, despite the importance of transhuman monks to the story. Watts understands that too many people have blind faith in the ability of either science or religion to supply correct answers to all questions when, given our relatively primitive evolutionary state, we don't even know what questions to ask. Watts provides an antidote to arrogance, a reminder that it is wrong to belittle others because their understanding of the universe (or of our tiny part of our single universe) differs from our own. Echopraxia makes a strong argument for the importance of keeping an open mind about ... well, everything ... because the odds are good that whatever we believe to be true is fundamentally wrong.

Apart from being intellectually engaging, Echopraxia tells an entertaining story. The combination of an intelligent background, a fun plot, important themes, and strong characters make Echopraxia a rewarding read.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug182014

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

Published by Tor Books on July 1, 2014

Hurricane Fever starts with two improbably named characters -- Zee and Roo -- and engulfs them in a familiar plot that is nevertheless fun. Zachariah "Zee" Barlow steals a virus from a biotech lab and then injects himself with it. This seems like a bad idea since the virus kills him as he is on the phone to CDC. The virus is intended as a targeted weapon, a commonplace theme in technothrillers, but Zee's decision to infect himself with it isn't entirely believable. In any event, that plot thread fades into the background as the first two-thirds of the novel unfolds.

The novel follows Prudence "Roo" Jones, who should be outrunning bad weather on his catamaran with his nephew Delroy. Instead he drops everything to respond to a message he receives from the now-dead Zee. Roo and Zee were members of the Caribbean Intelligence Group back in the day. Roo picks up a flash drive that Zee mailed him and wonders what the weather data on the drive has to do with Zee's death. The reason for Zee's death also concerns Zee's mysterious sister -- mysterious because Zee never mentioned her to Roo.

Much of Hurricane Fever features the kind of chase-and-attempt-to-kill scenes that are customary in thrillers, along with some better scenes illustrating the dangers of hurricanes if you happen to live on a boat. The near-future plot plays with some high-tech gadgetry that would make 007's Q envious. Nearing the midway point, a turning point in the novel gives more depth to Roo than I expected to find. The plot, on the other hand, has little depth, as the reason the bad guy wants the virus turns out to be standard and unimaginative thriller fare.

The purpose of the virus becomes clear with about a third of the novel remaining. The pages that follow are filled with shootouts, chases, explosions, silly stunts, and predictable mayhem -- good fun that would probably look great on a movie screen, but nothing special on the screen of my imagination -- while the role played by the mysterious female eventually gives the novel an extra spark.

Hurricane Fever is a good beach read that mostly takes place on windy Caribbean beaches that are ever-threatened by hurricanes. While I wouldn't put this high on my list of recommended thrillers, it works well as fast-moving escapist fiction.

RECOMMENDED

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