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
Apr212014

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

Published by Tor Books on April 22, 2014

Afterparty begins with a parable, which seems appropriate for a book that is about the intersection of science and God. Daryl Gregory's characters offer a variety of viewpoints about the nature of religious belief -- some have faith, some don't -- but the novel is intended to entertain, not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular viewpoint. The entertainment level is high -- humor is easy to mine from the subject matter, the plot offers the twists of a low-key thriller with a bit of near-future technology, and the characters are pleasant company -- while the underlying themes permit open minds to interpret the novel's serious side in different ways.

Afterparty's protagonist is Lyda Rose, who begins the novel as a patient in a mental health institution. Lyda's issues include a history of drug abuse, unresolved grief for her dead wife, and an invisible companion. A teenage girl is admitted to the institution who had been living rough on the street until she found God, a discovery that followed her ingestion of a piece of paper that Pastor Rudy called Numinous. Lyda holds herself responsible for Numinous and she holds Numinous responsible for a very bad moment in her life, although her memory of that moment is incomplete.

Numinous was created by Little Sprout, a research company that Lyda and her friends founded to develop a drug that would spur the brain's production of neurotrophins with the goal of correcting the conditions that cause schizophrenia. A side effect of the drug makes the user believe in some version of God. It also makes the user feel God's presence, often accompanied by a visual image -- in Lyda's case, an angel. Overdose, as Lyda did, and the visual image never goes away. Since Lyda is an atheist, a drug that induces a belief in God is supremely annoying to her, as is the sarcastic and quarrelsome angel. Tellingly, a child born to a character who used Numinous while pregnant experiences manifestations that have little to do with religion.

The engaging story requires Lyda to reestablish contact with her partners in Little Sprout. With the help of a paranoid schizophrenic (and former intelligence officer) named Olivia who befriended Lyda in the mental institution, Lyda tries to track down the drug's manufacturer. A mysterious and dangerous man in a cowboy hat named the Vincent also has an interest in Numinous. Of course, the explanation for the reappearance of Numinous is not as simple as it appears to be. Neither is the explanation of the mysterious event from Lyda's past. All the plot threads eventually weave together to create a fun, fast-moving story.

Despite its lighthearted nature, Afterparty considers serious questions. Is free will an illusion? Moral judgment aside, are we responsible for our actions? Do religions demand a belief in illusions? Is it possible for the imaginary to be real? Are illusions useful? Is religion (as Marx suggested) a metaphorical drug? Gregory allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions to questions that are not easily answered. Among its other lessons, Afterparty makes the point that the mind is capable of conjuring all sorts of realities and that we often lack the ability to decide which are objectively real, or even to understand whether objective reality exists. Perhaps the novel's most important lesson is that it is possible to disagree about profound issues -- even about religion -- without being rude.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Apr182014

The Shadow Protocol by Andy McDermott

First published in the UK in 2013; published by Dell on January 28, 2014

A well trained secret agent without much personality can't recall his past. No, I'm not talking about Jason Bourne. The Shadow Protocol is about a guy named Adam who uses a machine to transfer the memories of other people into his own mind. I think the same machine showed up in an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. about fifty years ago. Perhaps that was one influence upon a novel that seems to have assembled from outtakes of various thriller/spy novels, movies, and television shows.

With the help of the memory transfer machine, Adam gains the memories of assorted good guys and bad guys. This allows him to fly airplanes, to reveal the secrets of terrorist networks, and to recognize nuclear devices, depending on the knowledge he has most recently attained. Adam takes on a number of personalities as the novel progresses, which is good because he doesn't have one of his own. Why that is true becomes the story's central mystery. Adam's past has been hidden from him and so, like Jason Bourne, he must find it. And, of course, the people responsible for hiding the truth want to kill Adam before he recovers his memories.

Adam sometimes has difficulty separating his own persona from the other personas he absorbs. That conflict is the most interesting part of the novel. Rather than using it to greater advantage, however, The Shadow Protocol devolves into an ordinary action thriller. It isn't a bad action novel but it is exceedingly familiar. Andy McDermott makes action scenes easy to visualize, in part because they are standard movie fare -- running across rooftops, jumping out of a moving car, climbing down the outside of a hotel, the obligatory car chases (one of which seems to last forever). There is also a classic Bond movie scene -- the hero risking it all in a high stakes poker game against a Russian arms dealer and winning.

Supporting characters are likable and no more shallow that is typical in action novels. A woman from England who reluctantly (and for reasons that don't withstand scrutiny) takes over the job of running the memory transfer machine has a more nuanced view of national security and terrorist threats and the ethics of "black ops" than thriller characters commonly possess. She provides the novel's moral center.

The novel's key revelations are not as surprising as McDermott probably intended, despite some attempts at misdirection. Many of the events near the novel's end are particularly preposterous. Still, the novel moves quickly and McDermott's writing style is suited to the genre. The Shadow Protocol is a capably assembled novel of familiar fun but it doesn't stand apart from other action thrillers that have explored similar themes.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Apr162014

What We've Lost Is Nothing by Rachel Louise Snyder

Published by Scribner on January 21, 2014

What We've Lost Is Nothing is marketed as a suspense novel. Since the story fails to generate suspense, if I were evaluating it as a suspense novel, I would call it a failure. But marketing aside, What We've Lost Is Nothing tells a good story that features interesting and (for the most part) credible characters, and it has something worthy to say about contemporary urban issues. If you ignore the marketing claims, it is a novel that merits attention.

Mary Elizabeth McPherson, having skipped school to do Ecstasy with her friend, doesn't notice that her house is being burglarized. The house of Sophea's Cambodian parents has also been burglarized, as have the houses of a French chef named Étienne, an elderly man named Arthur who is losing his vision, a newlywed of questionable mental soundness named Alicia, and other homeowners on the block. The houses are on Ilios Lane in Oak Park, Illinois, and the community's history of encouraging diversity among homeowners (perhaps coupled with gentrification of a troubled neighborhood) plays a conspicuous role in the novel.

What have the residents of Ilios Lane lost? Mary's dad, Michael, happy that his daughter was unharmed, tells the press they've lost nothing, while secretly believing he's lost something (his manhood?) that he can't quite define. His comment is refuted by a blogger who suggests that neighborhood residents have lost their sense of security. The Cambodians lost the sense that they were safe in America from the wrathful spirits of their homeland. Arthur lost notebooks that contained years of work and might be in danger of losing his independence. Alicia and her husband were on vacation but what they lost might be their marriage. Étienne lost his carefully cultivated illusions, including the façade that he has built for himself. By the end of the novel, the reader wonders whether Michael and some other characters have lost their minds.

The novel's best moments are found in the contrasting perspectives and lifestyles of the neighborhood residents. The Cambodians (invited for the first time into a neighbor's house) are puzzled by the lack of formality in the family pictures. When Mary reads to Arthur, the books that remind him of his past seem like ancient history to her. Nobody likes Étienne, who seems overly French for his neighbors' taste. Nearly all of them fear young people from outside the neighborhood, who are unfairly regarded as thugs and criminals.

The occasional appearance of overwrought posts by a semi-literate Oak Park blogger and entries in the Oak Park Moms Listserv add a nice comic touch to the story. The Moms are very concerned about "outsiders" in their neighborhood, despite the absence of any evidence that outsiders burglarized the Ilios Lane homes. Many of them are openly hostile to the "diversity" that was at one point the neighborhood's proudly defining characteristic. A more intelligent blogger, capable of subtle thought (and who loses her job because of her blog posts), points out that diversity is more than a question of who lives where; it is also a question of how people live and whether they are treated equally. The perceived conflict between diversity and security is the novel's best theme.

For the most part, the characters are developed with subtlety, although there are so many of them that a few central characters seem superficial. Michael is a jerk but he's kind of a crazy jerk and his craziness is not well explained. Arthur is underdeveloped and a neighborhood resident named Paja Coen, who pops up to act as a peacemaker from time to time, isn't developed at all. The other significant characters are strong and believable.

While I was reading What We've Lost is Nothing, I kept wondering where the story was going. It eventually leads to two key events involving Michael, Mary, and Susan, both more artificial than the story that precedes them. They seem displaced, as if they belong to an entirely different novel. Still, so much of this story is compelling that I recommend it despite my disappointment with the resolution.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr142014

Duke City Split by Max Austin

Published by Random House/Alibi in April 8, 2014

If you like to root for the good guys or identify with the hero when you read a crime novel, you might want to give Duke City Split a pass. Good guys are in short supply and there is a distinct shortage of heroism. On the other hand, if you enjoy reading crime novels that focus on crime and criminals, Duke City Split is a fast moving, captivating story about a crime's unforeseen consequences.

Johnny Muller tells Mick Wyman about an armored car that delivers money from a casino to a small branch bank in strip mall just outside of Albuquerque. Mick tells his partner, Bud Knox. It seems like an easy score, although Bud prefers not to commit crimes near his Duke City home. Bud is married with children and (except for robbing banks) has settled down. Mick has less to lose. Mick and Bud have never involved a third person before but Johnny wants to participate and they need an extra set of hands to carry all the money. Complications ensue and by the end of the novel, a fair amount of blood has been shed.

In addition to Mick, Bud, and Johnny, the primary characters include a crooked security guard and his crooked wife, a Chicago mobster, and two losers who are briefly mistaken for the actual bank robbers. All of them would like at least a piece of the stolen money, if not the entire score. The only significant characters not motivated by greed are two ineffectual FBI agents, but until the story's end they are relegated to a less significant role, mostly coming on the scene after various acts of mayhem have already been completed.

Duke City Split works because the story is believable and it is told without a wasted word. While the key characters are criminals, at least one of them is portrayed in a sympathetic way. A reader might not root for him, but Max Austin (a pen name of crime novelist Steve Brewer) makes it easy to understand and empathize with him. In the end, like many criminals, he's just a regular guy who makes poor choices. It's trickier to put a reader inside the heads of the bad guys than it is to make a reader cheer for the good guys. Austin does it well.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Apr112014

When It's a Jar by Tom Holt

Published by Orbit on December 17, 2013

When It's a Jar pushes the multiverse theory to absurd limits ... except, when you think about it (as Tom Holt clearly has), it's impossible to do that because a popular version of the theory assumes that absurd events (indeed, all events) actually occur in some part of the multiverse. There is no limit to absurdity because, in the multiverse, there are no limits at all. Hence Holt's formula for fun.

When is a door not a door? When it could be anything, including a portal between dimensions. In Doughnut, Holt explored interdimensional travel through a donut hole using something called YouSpace. The doughnuts are present in When It's a Jar, but Holt has added the notion of a "constant object," something that stays the same no matter what dimension it occupies. Rather than spoiling the surprise of what the constant object happens to be, I'll just say that once it's revealed, parts of the novel that seemed to make no sense at all gain meaning while other parts gain new meaning. And that's just cool. Almost as cool, in fact, as the guy living in a jar who manages by a process of reasoning to figure out pretty much everything there is to know until his memories get wiped out, forcing him to start all over ... again and again and again.

The key character in When It's a Jar is hapless Maurice, who (after seeing a levitating doughnut and realizing that physics is whack) has dedicated himself to being an unhappy slacker, a profession that his degree in media studies encourages. Maurice's unwanted destiny is to be a hero (or so he is told, often by complete strangers). Poor Maurice feels displaced, which makes sense given his uncertainty as to his place in the multiverse, an uncertainty that grows as he visits different universes. In the universe he likes best -- the best of all possible worlds -- he is a genius physicist billionaire who married the woman he loves. In the one he inhabits during most of the novel, the woman he loves is shagging his old schoolmate. The heroic act that is expected of Maurice involves Max (last seen in Doughnut) who is also stuck in the wrong part of the multiverse. Max needs Maurice to rescue him and then to save Max's brother, Theo Bernstein (last seen in Doughnut) who is stuck in -- you guessed it -- a jar. Theo, by the way, is also God (sort of -- just read Doughnut).

Holt has an astonishing ability to surround cleverness with goofiness. Some scenes are just wickedly funny, including one in which Katz is drugged and made to tell the truth during a job interview. Some (like an elf's explanation of the reason newspapers endure) are thought-provoking. Yes, there are elves and goblins and dragons, because they have to exist somewhere in the multiverse, but no need to worry -- this isn't a traditional fantasy, and goblins occupy only a small but very funny part of the novel.

You could probably read, understand, and enjoy When It's a Jar without first reading Doughnut, but given the overlapping storylines and the fact that Doughnut is also a very funny book, it's better to read them both. While the two novels share characters and concepts, When It's a Jar moves the story into new dimensions of weirdness. Taken together, they represent a unique, witty, and intelligent take on the multiverse theory.

RECOMMENDED