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.

Monday
Sep242018

Paris in the Dark by Robert Olen Butler

Published by Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press on Sept. 4, 2018

Christopher Marlowe “Kit” Cobb is a war correspondent in France in 1915. He is also an American spy. As a journalist, he is doing a story on American ambulance drivers with the hope that tales of American courage will prod Wilson to enter the war. As a spy, Cobb is asked to contact a German informant in Paris who knows something about the recent bombing of a hotel, presumably a German tactic to spread fear in Paris. He learns that a dangerous man has entered France using the name Franz Staub and posing as a refugee. Cobb’s mission is to kill Staub — assuming that Lang’s information is accurate.

Cobb finds and follows Staub, but he also finds a nurse. When he delays his mission to spend amorous time with the nurse, he finds reason to condemn his departure from duty. But it’s Paris, so Cobb can hardly be blamed.

In the meantime, Cobb is riding along with an American ambulance driver in France as part of his journalistic cover. Cyrus Parsons is a farm boy turned bookworm who seems to be concealing greater depth than he can easily reveal to a reporter. Another driver, John Barrington Lacey, strikes Cobb the wrong way, perhaps because of Lacey’s Harvard hauteur, perhaps because Lacey has designs on the nurse.

The plot of Paris in the Dark (Cobb's assignment is more challenging than it first appears) is not particularly surprising, but the story is engaging, fast-moving, and convincing. Robert Olen Butler builds suspense by placing Cobb in a series of tense moments that lead to the novel’s final dramatic encounter. Butler includes enough action to make the story fit the conventions of a thriller, but the novel's focus is on the characters whose lives have shaped their differing perspectives on the value of anarchy.

Butler has had a versatile career as an author, dancing between literary and genre fiction, but he invariably brings a literary flair to his storytelling when he chooses to write thrillers. He creates atmosphere and develops believable characters without relying on unnecessary detail. His prose is gritty but graceful. There’s an appealing simplicity to Paris in the Dark — Butler doesn’t make the mistake of overreaching — but unlike some of Butler’s other work, the story does not stand out as a commentary on the human condition. Butler isn’t going to win another Pulitzer for Paris in the Dark, but the book should entertain fans of historical thrillers.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Sep212018

Sirens by Joseph Knox

First published in Great Britain in 2017; published by Crown on February 20, 2018

The third strike against Detective Constable Aidan Waits sent him to undercover work. None of the strikes are legitimate, but the world is unfair. Newspapers refer to Waits as disgraced, but David Rossiter doesn’t believe what the papers say. Rossiter is a Member of Parliament whose 17-year-old daughter Isabelle is mixed up with a drug dealer named Zain Carver. Waits has been surveilling Carver; Rossiter wants him to keep an eye on Isabelle while he’s playing his undercover role as a suspended dirty cop.

Waits cozies up to Carver by revealing inside information that Carver’s own informants within the police don’t have. He is able to cozy up to Isabelle because Isabelle likes that Waits is unlikable. She’s tired of “backpacking round a cultural wasteland with people my own age” so she’s trying out a different wasteland. But Waits suspects that she’s become involved in Carver’s nefarious dealings, and he is not inclined to babysit her when more age-appropriate women, including Sarah Jane and Catherine, are also hanging around Carver’s party house.

The suspense in Sirens comes from Waits’ unfailing ability to dig himself into a hole and then to dig it deeper as he tries to escape from it. The central question is whether someone will kill him before the police arrest him for his misdeeds, both real and perceived. People who want to kill him are not in short supply. He’s in the middle of a war between Carver and rival drug dealers, including the nefarious Sheldon White, while Carver’s inside sources in the police department might sleep more easily if Waits were laid to rest.

Joseph Knox presents Waits as terrifyingly alone in the world, partly as a result of his upbringing, partly by choice. He ignores efforts of his estranged sister to reach out to him. He is a less than ideal boyfriend. His dark and alienated personality might serve him well as he tries to understand the criminals he chases, but he is barely a step removed from them. He does, however, have a conscience, and that’s the difference that makes it possible to feel empathy for him.

Waits’ miserable life brings him into contact with all sorts of characters, from crooked cops to feuding drug dealers, from drag performers to aristocrats. Knox gives every significant character a strong personality that fits the character’s past without turning the character into a caricature.

The plot maintains tension by placing a number of characters at constant risk, while maintaining interest by layering one mystery on top of another. The labyrinthine plot never loses credibility, and for all the story’s complexity, Knox manages to tie up every loose end. For all its darkness, the story allows a ray of hope to filter through in the end, a chance for new beginnings. Sirens isn’t the right story for fans of sunny and optimistic literature, but if you like your noir extra dark, Sirens is a good choice.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Sep192018

A Double Life by Flynn Berry

Published by Viking on July 31, 2018

The police have been looking for Colin Spenser for 26 years. He is wanted for the murder of his wife’s nanny, Emma. The police theorize that he mistook Emma for his wife Faye, who survived a subsequent attack and was able to identify Colin as her assailant.

The case made headlines because Colin Spenser was Lord Spenser, an earl. His brother and sister helped him flee and then told the press that his wife hired someone to kill the nanny so that Colin would be blamed. The family has enough money to mount an effective smear campaign and the British press laps it up, because smears are so much more interesting than the truth.

Colin’s daughter Claire has changed her name but lives in unlikely fear of her father’s return, concealing pepper spray in various locations inside her home. Claire’s other worry is her brother Robbie, whose drug addiction causes seizures and other problems.

A Double Life gives the reader a glimpse of Colin’s courtship of Faye, their honeymoon and separation and short-lived reconciliation. Sometimes the backstory is told from Claire’s childhood perspective and sometimes in the third person, focusing on Faye. Other flashbacks acquaint the reader with Claire’s perspective of the night that Colin committed murder. On occasion we get some insight into Robbie’s life, although he is largely a secondary character.

The main plot follows Claire’s clandestine search for answers about the role various people played to conceal her father’s guilt and current whereabouts. During the course of her stalking and still disguising her true identity, she befriends the daughter of her father’s brother, who has not seen Claire since childhood. She meets other family members, considers rumors about their actions on the night that her father killed the nanny, and plots a course of action after learning where he might be living.

I admire the fluid style in which A Double Life is written and the careful attention Flynn Berry pays to the details of Claire’s strained life. Berry does a fine job of depicting British aristocracy in the unflattering light that the story requires without turning them into stereotypes. While it is easy to sympathize with Claire and to understand her obsession with her father, Berry does not make a convincing case for her continued fear of him a quarter century after he disappeared.

The buildup to the climax generates a modest level of suspense, but the climax is underwhelming. The plot resolves with a couple of twists, but the story’s construction creates the anticipation of a more surprising ending than the one Berry delivered.

Colin is loosely based on Lord Lucan, who is suspected of murdering his wife’s nanny before disappearing. I suspect that the true story is more interesting than Berry’s fictionalized version. While much of the story is strong, the ending dampened my enthusiasm for the novel as a whole.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Sep172018

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran

Published by Atria Books on September 18, 2018

The title of this novel is not Claire DeWitt and the Case of the Infinite Blacktop, but it is a Claire DeWitt novel, notwithstanding the departure from the tradition Sara Gran established when she titled the first two Clare DeWitt novels. Claire DeWitt novels are noir with some bright splashes of paint that occasionally relieve the darkness, but there is still plenty of bleakness for noir fans. The title, for example: “Experience was just a long, infinite, blacktop of things you’d regret not enjoying later.” Or: “There is no escape from the pain of other people. They would ruin you and you would ruin them.” That’s dark.

The novel begins with Claire on the ground and bleeding, the victim of an attempted murder by car. Everyone in LA, Claire is told, suffers a death by car. Now she only needs to figure out who tried to kill her and why. She also needs to survive the killer’s next attempt.

The story alternates the past with the present. The past is 1999, when Claire was investigating the unsolved mystery of an artist’s death. Yes, he died in a car accident — but was it an accident? The 1999 story takes Claire into the art world, where the road to success requires artists to become commercial, while the road to respect (from other serious artists, at least) dooms an artist to poverty. The immensely talented dead artist, Merritt, was the friend of a less talented but successful artist, Ann, who is also dead (yes, she died in a car accident — but). Claire noses around LA artists (an interesting if sometimes appalling group) and digs up facts about the fates of both artists, all in an effort to log enough hours to earn her California PI license.

The present is 2011. Claire is trying to figure out who tried to run her down with a car. The answer, of course, ties into the 1999 mystery. It also ties into a “girl detective” magazine that, like an obscure book about crime investigation by a French detective, influenced her life.

Good fiction is often a self-help book with a plot. Claire is going through some difficult emotional times in 1999 and another character gives her some comforting words about accepting the inevitability of change and pain — comforting not because the thoughts are particularly original, but because they are expressed in an original way. But advice is one thing and internalizing it is another, so Claire is still a bit of a mess. That’s what makes her real.

Speaking of plots — The Infinite Blacktop tells a strange story, but its strangeness is part of its appeal. Some of the story is told indirectly in the final unpublished girl detective story, a story that encourages the girl detective to solve the biggest mystery of all: Who am I?

During most of The Infinite Blacktop I was wondering “Where is this going?” but by the end, I didn’t care. Plausibility isn’t a factor in a story like this; it’s enough that the plot hangs together and gives the characters a platform for exorcising their demons, or at least a chance to learn that they are made of more than the demons who have been driving their lives. This is a serious story about being afraid to die and afraid to live, even if some plot elements can’t quite be taken seriously, but it is also an entertaining story. Of the always-odd Sara Gran novels I’ve read, The Infinite Blacktop is my favorite.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Sep142018

Colorblind by Reed Farrel Coleman

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on September 11, 2018

The Robert B. Parker factory produced Colorblind (excuse me, Robert B. Parker’s Colorblind). The seventeenth Jesse Stone novel was assembled by Reed Farrel Coleman, who took over the factory job from Michael Brandman. Parker managed to write nine Jesse Stone books before he died and the factory took over. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with factory novels (I like the Spenser novels that Ace Atkins writes), but wouldn’t it be nice to see Coleman’s name in a font that is as large as Parker’s?

The victim of the first murder in Paradise after Stone became Chief of Police was a woman. The word “slut” was written on her body. Now, in a town near Paradise, another murder has followed that pattern, except that the victim is black. Early chapters that focus on a white supremacist neo-Nazi create the impression that the latest murder, at least, is racially motivated.

An outbreak of attacks on interracial couples also has Stone worried about trouble in Paradise, as well as flyers from the “Saviors of Society” that bash liberals, gays, nonwhites, feminists, atheists, and people who want to regulate guns. A character called the Colonel, the leader of the Saviors, tries to make America great again by causing trouble for Stone and his African-American officer, Alisha Davis, who is accused of shooting an unarmed suspect. The resolution of the Davis plot line is beyond implausible.

I appreciate the sentiment underlying the novel’s depiction of right-wing lunatics, but Coleman is so heavy-handed in that portrayal that it didn’t quite ring true. As villains go, the Colonel is completely over the top.

Jesse’s battle with alcoholism and his reliance on AA to resist using alcohol as a stress reliever is a fairly common device to add interest to characters in cop novels. Unfortunately, Jesse’s rather ordinary demons are not enough to make him compelling. Jesse was edgy in his original conception; now he's just dull. The frequent references to his ability to stay strong and avoid the bottle come across as a substitute for deeper character development, as is the portrayal of Jesse as a stalwart, incorruptible, by-the-book cop (unless he’s beating someone up because he decides they deserve it).

There’s a difference between being admirable and interesting, and Jesse is too boring to be interesting. The attempt to humanize him by changing his personal life at the novel’s end feels forced. The supporting characters are more like shadows than people; Coleman makes no serious effort to give them depth.

The story moves quickly, thanks to Coleman’s dialog-heavy writing style. The plot lacks surprises and the heroic ending is a bit silly. I have no strong feelings, positive or negative, about Colorblind. I’m recommending it primarily to fans of the series, but there are so many thrillers that are better than this one, I can’t recommend it to readers who are looking for something special, or even something that’s above average.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS