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
Mar182019

Run Away by Harlan Coben

Published by Grand Central Publishing on March 19, 2019

Simon Greene, a wealth manager, learns that his estranged daughter Paige is playing a guitar for tips in Central Park. Paige is a junkie who has been missing for some time. Simon tries to rescue her, but her boyfriend, Aaron Corval, intervenes. Simon is arrested after punching Aaron and naturally, the video goes viral. A few months later, after Aaron is murdered, Simon and his wife go looking for Paige again.

While that’s happening, a private detective in Chicago named Elena Ramirez is looking for a young man named Henry Thorpe who has also gone missing. Digital messages suggest that Henry was in touch with Paige. Not much time passes before Simon and Elena are working together.

Meanwhile, two orphans named Dee Dee and Ash are roaming around the country doing contract killings. Dee Dee belongs to a cult and therefore claims to know the Truth. Ash loves her but thinks she’s crazy. Maybe she is, but Harlan Coben makes her quite rational as she explains her approach to religion. Dee Dee notes that every follower of a religion (whether or not it is branded as a cult) picks and chooses the religious doctrines they want to obey while rejecting parts of the same religion that seem inconvenient or wrong, and nearly every religion is a profitable business for its leadership. Dee Dee accepts the cult because she accepts those two propositions, following the teachings she likes in the hope that she will obtain a benefit.

Dee Dee is a killer, but she’s more pleasant than most fictional murderers. The plot invites the reader to wonder why Dee Dee and Ash are killing orphans and how Paige’s disappearance fits within the mystery that Simon and Elena are trying to solve.

I generally prefer Coben’s Myron Bolitar novels to his stand-alone books, and that holds true of Run Away. Coben is reliable in that he always writes with pace and creates believable characters. Simon and his family are believable but boring. Dee Dee and Ash are more interesting, but the novel’s best character is an older fellow named Cornelius, who believes that when the rare opportunity to be a hero arises, it is his duty to step up. Unfortunately, Cornelius plays only a limited role.

The story isn’t particularly original. Like some other Coben stand-alone novels, I had the sense that Coben phoned it in. The climactic scene relies on a character coming out of nowhere to save the day. The ending contains one big surprise but the final reveal isn’t surprising at all. Still, Coben’s storytelling skills allow him to phone in very readable novels. Run Away doesn’t tell a great story, but it has enough good moments to make it worth a reader’s time.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Mar152019

Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins

Published by Little, Brown and Company on March 12, 2019

Fall Back Down When I Die takes place in and near the Bull Mountains in Montana. It follows three primary characters who connect to each other in ways that become clear by the novel’s midpoint.

Vern is determined to live in the mountains as a free man after committing a crime. He tells his story in the form of a letter to his son. Most of Vern’s letters are rants about the perceived injustice that has been (or will be) done to him because of his insistence that he had the right to do as he pleased on his own land.

At some point after Wendell Newman becomes a young adult, his mother dies, leaving him a trailer and a mortgage on their mountain farmland. A social worker places a seven-year-old named Rowdy Burns with Wendell because Rowdy’s mother Lacy is Wendell’s cousin and was like a sister to him before she became a drug addict and then a prisoner. Rowdy was left alone in Lacy’s apartment for a week before social services took custody of him. Rowdy has developmental and behavioral issues that Wendell isn’t well equipped to handle, but he’s willing to do his best because he knows what it means to be neglected.

Gillian Houlton is a widow; her daughter Maddy is a high school senior. Gillian is an assistant principal in a town that consists of churches, saloons, and empty storefronts. She sees local kids growing up in rural poverty, living off rural welfare (farm programs, government grazing leases), joining self-proclaimed militias and White Identity movements, doing willfully stupid things that land them in jail or lead to an early death, proudly eschewing education and voting against their own interests. The principal, on the other hand, would rather sacrifice a kid than make redneck parents mad, because they might begin homeschooling and the school cannot sustain a significant loss of pupils.

Gillian’s husband, a game warden, was the victim of Bull Mountains violence a dozen years earlier. Gillian is sick of violent and ignorant men who believe they have the moral right to violate the law without considering the consequences to their families, to the environment, or to future generations. She sees eastern Montana (other than Billings) as “a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars, a sick sinkhole of environmental degradation, lack of education, liquor, methamphetamine, and broken families” while working Montanans who value education spend their time trying to clean up the mess. As a teacher, she’s frustrated with parents who condemn their children to a lifetime of ignorance and squalor. Anyone who gains an appreciation of the rest of world is condemned as “forgetting where they came from.”

Fall Back Down When I Die exposes the ignorant selfishness of people who think they are entitled by land ownership and mistaken notions of personal freedom to disregard laws that apply equally to every member of society. Yet the novel is not a political diatribe. Regardless of the merit that land use regulations have, they can make life for difficult for people whose businesses are affected by them, as the novel illustrates in the form of a very decent rancher who is just trying to make a good life for his family and employees.

The novel also has a lesson to teach regarding the peril of making assumptions about people because of how or where they live. Gillian has good reason to be angry with Montanans on the far right, but the story teaches that judging people based on stereotypes leads to misjudgments, no matter where the stereotypes fall on the political spectrum. Whether the hater is on the left or right, hate destroys.

Gillian and Wendell are constructed in satisfying depth, while characters who play significant but smaller roles are surprisingly complex. Perhaps the story’s message is a bit heavy-handed, but the message is important. The plot builds tension effectively until it reaches a surprising climax. The story is sad in the way that life is often sad, and hopeful in the way that life needs to be so that decent people don’t give up on humanity.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Mar132019

Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz

Published by Minotaur Books on January 29, 2019

Each Orphan X novel has impressed me more than the previous installment. Greg Hurwitz continues to humanize Evan Smoak, adding substance that most tough guy protagonists lack. I’m even getting used to the subplots, which involve Smoak’s sideline as a protector of the unfortunate. While Smoak’s apparent invincibility is still a little hard to swallow (assaulted by a dozen guys with machine guns? no problem), the action scenes are written with such detail that it is easy to set aside disbelief and get lost in the story.

Smoak’s new plan is to kill the president. This is a fictitious president, Jonathan Bennett, who rose to the presidency from a gig in the Department of Defense, where he sent Smoak, a/k/a Orphan X, on his first mission. The president wants to erase all the details of a 1997 assassination — an assassination that Smoak carried out at the not-so-tender age of 19 — by having Smoak killed. Bennett also had someone killed in a previous novel who was close to Smoak, so Smoak intends to return the favor. Why Smoak’s dirty deed in 1997 is important to Bennett is something Smoak does not immediately understand, but he makes it his mission to find out while he plots the president’s assassination.

Meanwhile, Judd Holt (a/k/a Orphan A) is biding his time in a supermax prison until he gets the chance to kill Smoak. The president releases him for just that purpose.

The subplot deals with Smoak’s Have Gun - Will Travel sideline as the Nowhere Man, a problem solver for those who need his muscular assistance (except that Smoak, unlike Paladin, does it for free). This time the call for help comes from a developmentally disabled (albeit high functioning) young man whose immediate family has been wiped out in retribution for the young man’s failure to follow orders issued by a drug cartel. So Smoak takes a break from killing the president and battling Orphan A to take on a drug cartel.

All in a day’s work.

Smoak’s plan to kill the president and then to escape is worthy of a Mission Impossible movie. Some scenes — Smoak appears in the mist, gives a speech, and when the person he’s talking to looks for him again, he has vanished — suggest that Smoak is Batman without the cape and cowl. There’s even a character who seems to be based on the X-Files’ Cancer Man. But it’s all fun, and even ideas that aren’t entirely original are assembled in original ways. The truth behind Smoak’s mysterious 1997 mission is so plausible it’s scary.

On the whole, this series has been getting better since its inception. The ending assures that the storyline will take a turn after Out of the Dark. I’m curious to see what the Nowhere Man does next.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Mar112019

Childhood: Two Novellas by Gerard Reve

First published in the Netherlands in 1949 and 1950; published in translation by Pushkin Press on March 12, 2019

Childhood collects two novellas that were published a few years after World War II. Both are told from a boy’s perspective.

“Werther Nieland” is the name of a “pale, sallow-skinned boy” who first meets Elmer at the home of Elmer’s developmentally disabled neighbor. Elmer narrates the story. He is also a boy, but unlike the neighbor boy and Werther, Elmer is bossy and cruel. Elmer creates clubs and appoints himself the president, but the clubs never have more than two or three members and all but Elmer are quickly expelled or quit due to Elmer’s testiness.

Elmer is a darkly imaginative child; Gerard Reve’s ability to recreate a child’s imagination is one of the story’s highlights. Elmer’s first club is dedicated to the creation of tombs and the cremation of dead (or nearly dead) birds. Elmer advises the other boys that the club has many enemies, and insists on blind obedience to the club president, who happens to be Elmer. The reader might wonder what kind of adult Elmer will turn out to be, but given the imminent Nazi invasion, it seems likely he will be drawn to the Germans.

The novella is notable for Werther’s home life. When Elmer visits Werther, Werther’s mother makes them stay inside so that she can pretend to be childlike. Werther’s father is obsessed with Esperanto; his mother seems to be obsessed with boys (or “young men” as she fondly if questionably labels them). The story’s “ick” factor begins with the mother’s ambiguously suggestive comments and is heightened when she playfully grabs Elmer’s crotch. Werther’s mother has an obvious mental illness, but Werther’s aunt attributes her behavior to a nervous condition brought on by fatigue. Perhaps that’s the way families in that place and time dealt with emotional illnesses.

“The Fall of the Boslowitz Family” is narrated by Simon, who is seven when the story begins. His parents introduce him to the Boslowitz family at a children’s party. Simon makes friendships within the family (he considers the adults to be his uncle and aunt) that last through Simon’s early teen years, when Germany invades the Netherlands. The adults talk of war, which Simon thinks will be cool to watch, but his exposure to combat is limited to watching airplanes fly overhead on their bombing runs.

The Boslowitz family is Jewish. Simon doesn’t understand and doesn’t pay much attention as Nazis begin to take Jews away, because the adult discussions he overhears do not resonate with his perspective as a child. He pays more attention when the members of the Boslowitz family are threatened. It is only the father’s paralysis that keeps him from being taken away; one of his sons is beaten on a pretext. The family is fearful of going outside and is eventually prohibited from leaving the city. They hope that the father’s physical disability and a son’s mental disability will inspire mercy. The way Simon relates those events makes clear that he is only beginning to understand what is happening.

The two novellas are very different, but they are connected by a child’s unease in a troubling world that the child cannot fully comprehend. Seeing the world from a child’s eyes reminds the reader of how children misinterpret the adult world, or try to frame it in terms they understand.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Mar082019

Tear It Down by Nick Petrie

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on January 15, 2019

I enjoyed Light It Up (the third Peter Ash novel but the first I read), in part because Ash is a tough guy who doesn’t act like a typical thriller tough guy. There were enough fight scenes to establish his tough guy credentials, but there’s more to Ash than the ability to throw punches. I liked him even more in Tear It Down. When a kid steals his truck, wallet, and phone, Ash lets it happen, in part because he doesn’t want to risk being shot, in part because he doesn’t want to hurt the kid. That’s a refreshing attitude for a thriller tough guy. His restraint doesn’t stop him from being an action hero when the need arises, but he doesn’t feel the urge to show off his skills just to prove his toughness. Of course, Ash wants his truck back, which adds an interesting subplot to a main story that is already more entertaining than most tough guy thrillers deliver.

A homeless boy named Ellison Bell listens as his three friends, none older than fifteen, cook up a plan to rob a jewelry store in a mall. Bell is the smart one so he does most of the planning. He’s reluctant to take the risk but against his better judgment, he does. Of course, the robbery does not end well, and Bell is hunted by one of the baddest bad guys in Memphis. That sets up the subplot.

Meanwhile, Ash is getting antsy. His broken bones have mended, and as much as he enjoys his time with his girlfriend June, he needs to be on the move. June sends him to Memphis, where her friend Wanda Wyatt, a black lesbian war photographer, is being harassed by a white supremacist.

The harassment consists of destroying her house — repeatedly, on one occasion by using a belt-loaded machine gun. That seems a bit extreme just to make a black lesbian leave the neighborhood, so Ash and the reader wonder what the real motivation might be. The answer is surprising. Surprises are always good in thriller plots.

Ash has been damaged by his experiences, making him more likable than thriller heroes who are merely self-righteous or filled with the wrath of justice (however they define it). He’s also empathic; he can relate to the damage in others. He has an affinity for Wanda, who has seen her share of carnage and might be even more damaged than Ash. Lewis, his tough guy buddy, isn’t as carefully developed, but he’s likely to grow a more detailed background in future novels.

Tear It Down offers some insight into why redneck racists blame everyone but themselves for their problems. It paints a convincing portrait of Memphis as a city that offers few opportunities to people who were not born into the privileges offered by a middle-class life. The story argues that violence is a way for the powerless to gain a feeling of power, regardless of their skin color. At the same time, it suggests that people of all races can change negative racial perceptions by being kind to each other. Maybe those aren’t original insights, but they give the novel more weight than a typical action thriller.

Still, this is ultimately a tough guy novel, which means fighting, chasing, and shooting, all unfolding in cinematic style. The plot is unusual, unpredictable, and fun. With the addition of strong characterization and a bit of philosophy, Tear It Down demonstrates that Peter Ash novels merit the attention of fans of tough (but smart) guy fiction.

RECOMMENDED