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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.


Happy Thanksgiving!


Pawn Shop by Joey Esposito

Published by Z2 Comics on November 26, 2015

A lot of books have been written about New York City and what it means to the people who reside there. Pawn Shop touches on a handful of lives, isolated people surrounded by other isolated people, who manage in ways that are large and small to make connections with other New Yorkers.

Pawn Shop is a graphic novel told in four chapters that read like linked stories. To a greater or lesser extent, each chapter revolves around a pawn shop. The first is narrated by an elderly man who can’t leave the city behind. He moved to Long Island after his wife died but he keeps coming back, despite his feeling that the city has moved on without him. Moving on is something he can’t do, as evidenced by his daily excursions to the city where his memories linger. One of his memories is symbolized by an object that represents more than the object itself. The story is a touching examination of loss and of moving on.

The second chapter is told from the point of view of a regular visitor at the pawn shop who is comforted by the safety of his daily routine. Part of that routine involves a minor character in the first story. But routines are limiting. The young man wonders whether he will find the courage to put his life on a different path.

Near the end of the second chapter, the young man encounters a young woman on a train who is the focus of the third chapter, which circles back to the old man in the first chapter and to the events that bring him to the pawn shop. A woman who appears tangentially in the first two chapters narrates the last one. Along with the old man in the first chapter, she has the kind of karmic experience that turns a big city into a small place.

Each of the four central characters is undergoing (or deciding whether to undergo) a life-changing transition. Each closes a door, but that creates the possibility of another door opening, a door to a less suffocating life. Each character benefits from connections to the other characters, often in ways that they will never understand. New Yorkers might feel isolated, but Pawn Shop tells us that they are never alone. Maybe the novel’s two karmic moments are hokey, maybe the message is a little obvious, but in the end, I didn’t care. This short graphic novel is emotionally honest and more moving than most of the 400 page novels I’ve read.



Fate of the Union by Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens

Published by Thomas & Mercer on November 10, 2015

Max Allen Collins is a prolific, dependable writer. Prolific writers often depend on a formula and Collins (with the help of hsi co-author) used a reliable formula to construct Fate of the Union. The novel follows Supreme Justice as the second to costar security specialist Joe Reeder and FBI Agent Patti Rogers.

Fate of the Union takes place about a decade or two from now, perhaps for the sake of inventing fictional past and current presidents. An old colleague of Joe Reeder on the Secret Service who, like Reeder, retired and began working privately, apparently commits suicide. Reeder doesn’t believe it, in part because he doesn’t believe a guy who carried a gun all his life would hang himself. Reeder’s investigation takes him into an investigation that his friend was conducting, which apparently has something to do with a series of murders, or executions, of apparently unrelated people of different genders, races, ages, incomes, neighborhoods, and sexual identities who were all killed with two bullets in the back of the head. Were they victims of a serial killer? A contract killer? What ties them together and what did Reeder’s friend learn about the killings?

A related story line has Reeder befriending a billionaire who is planning to run for president as a centrist outsider, promising to free the country from the grip of special interest groups. There’s also a rather mild romantic subplot, not that Reeder has much time for that sort of thing.

Reeder is a body language expert, not exactly a profiler but close enough, which is the sort of silly gimmick that usually turns me off. Fortunately, Reeder’s ability to read “micro-expressions” (a phrase that pops up too often) doesn’t overshadow the story.

The plot -- which involves a conspiracy that is standard fare in the world of thrillers -- moves swiftly, but it suffers from a lack of originality. The climactic moment seems too easy for Reeder. It made me wonder “Why did the bad guy do that?” The answer, I think, is that if the bad guy had behaved sensibly, the novel’s ending would not have pleased readers.

The last chapter resolves the conspiracy in a way that is enjoyable but unsurprising. On the whole, Fate of the Union feels like a novel I’ve read many times before. That doesn’t make it a bad novel -- it is well-executed -- but it isn’t special.



I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories by Clifford D. Simak

Published by Open Road Media on October 20, 2015

Collecting stories that span four decades, this volume offers a worthy introduction to Clifford Simak’s short fiction. The stories are representative of the subjects that animated much of Simak’s fiction during his long career, including robots, mutants, and time travel. The real treat for Simak fans, however, is the previously unpublished “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air,” a story that Simak wrote for inclusion in Harlan Ellison’s never-to-be-published The Last Dangerous Visions. Of course, the story’s title makes a playful allusion to Ellison’s own work. The story is about a prideful man who discovers and lays claim to a planet, only to be remade in the image of … something other than a man. Simak’s dark take on what it means to be human is one of the volume’s highlights.

Robots are the central characters in “I Am Crying All Inside,” which draws a distinction between folk (who drink moonshine and stand in the shade when it’s hot) and people (who don’t). Those with wealth and power have gone into space, leaving behind the obsolete folk and people. The story plays with the theme of human dependence on robots which, in science fiction, always leads to a bad end. (Personally, sitting around and drinking moonshine while robots do all the work seems like a pretty good life to me.) If it had included dogs, the story could easily have been wedged into City, the novel that Simak formed from a series of related stories.

Intergalactic traders (a mixture of humans and robots) plan to cash in on a contract for tubers from which an important drug can be extracted, but the natives on the planet where the tubers are grow have become unexpectedly reluctant to part with their crops. Could the drunken alien they found picnicking on the planet have something to do with their reticence? In the tradition of science fiction tales that extoll the virtues of competition, “Installment Plan” suggests that the competitive nature of humans will always give them an edge, even when their alien competitors cheat.

Robots also appear in “Ogre” (in the form of an annoyingly meticulous bookkeeper), but the story is about alien plant life and the addictive music made by trees. Like “Installment Plan,” “Ogre” involves greedy humans underestimating insidious aliens.

“All the Traps of Earth” is about a robot who has been in operation for longer than the law allows (another subject Simak wove into the City stories). It addresses several of Simak’s favorite themes: the right to be yourself, to define your own identity (albeit in the context of a robot); the nature of justice; whether a robot can have a soul; and the benefits of living a simple, useful life, meeting the needs of others while satisfying the need for companionship. Like many robot stories, “All the Traps of Earth” can easily be understood as a metaphor for intolerance of anyone who is different from the norm. But the story also involves evolution, another of Simak’s recurring topics, this time in the form of evolving robots. It is my favorite story in the volume.

“Small Deer” is a time travel story that explains the extinction of the dinosaur -- a fate that might soon be visited upon smaller inhabitants of Earth. A longer time travel story, “Gleaners,” provides a lighthearted view of the bureaucratic turmoil involved in visiting the past.

“Madness from Mars,” a story about the discovery of intelligent life on Mars, is more dated and less successful than the other stories, but it remains an interesting take on the choices (and excuses) humans will make to cover up a disaster.

“The Call from Beyond” mixes science fiction (primarily space travel and gene manipulation) with horror. A mutant flees to Pluto to escape persecution and discovers that Earth is not the only dangerous place to live. The story echoes some of the themes Simak explored in Ring Around the Sun.

For a change of pace and a seemingly odd choice for the volume, “Gunsmoke Interlude” is a western, one of many (according to the editorial notes) that Simak wrote during the middle years of the twentieth century. A good story is a good story, regardless of genre, and this one, about a gunslinger who makes a hard decision, is one of the better stories in the anthology.



Quicksand by Steve Toltz

First published in Australia in 2015; published by Simon & Schuster on September 15, 2015

Liam Wilder is a writer. At least, that’s his ambition. Aldo Benjamin, fresh out of prison, is Liam’s unwilling muse. Liam thinks that a book about Aldo will be a best-seller as well as a needed eye-opener for Aldo.

To help the reader understand all of this, Liam flashes back to discuss his life, his marriage, his failures, his career in law enforcement, Aldo’s life, Aldo’s failures (which are many), Aldo’s mental health issues (also many), Aldo’s ideas and opinions and theories (which spew forth in energetic bursts), Aldo’s marriage to Stella, Aldo’s unfortunate reaction to an unfortunate situation involving Stella, Aldo’s relationship with his mother Leila (who suffers the sins of her son), and more. Much more.

Aldo has a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, a gift he exercises throughout the course of the novel, inevitably leading to misfortunes of his own making. He might be better off dead but that, too, is something he can’t quite manage to get right. At the same time, the novel is a testament to perseverance, most clearly expressed in Aldo’s attempts to surf when he is physically incapable of doing so.

I would complain that the plot goes off track early and often if the plot actually followed a track. This is an episodic novel, each episode representing a highlight (or lowlight) of Aldo’s life. One portion of the novel is presented in the form of a police interrogation, with Liam questioning Aldo about a crime he possibly committed. Another portion consists of a transcript of Aldo’s trial. The story is engaging but overwhelming, to the extent that I was only able to absorb it in small doses.

Readers looking for likable characters might be put off by Quicksand. Aldo isn’t necessarily unlikable, but he’s far from admirable. Liam has identified himself as a tragic failure (certainly a failure as a novelist and not much of a cop) which isn’t an attractive quality. Startling prose, offbeat humor, and meaningful (if underdeveloped) themes are reasons to spend time with fictional characters you wouldn’t invite to a party.

The comedy is dark but amusing. I’m not sure why anyone would put up with Aldo (and most people don’t), but his enduring and unlikely friendship with Liam is probably the story’s point. Liam sees something of value in Aldo that the reader occasionally glimpses -- something more than sharp wit -- that allows their friendship to survive. Aldo might be a walking catastrophe, but even a catastrophe deserves a friend. Anyone who has maintained a friendship with someone who has been rejected by the vast bulk of humanity will likely appreciate Quicksand.