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.


How the World Was: A California Childhood by Emmanuel Guibert

Published by First Second on July 15, 2014

This is an English translation of a work first published in French. Unlike a typical graphic novel that uses dialog balloons, How the World Was is more of an illustrated short story. Sometimes text appears in the same panel as an image; sometimes blocks of text take up panels or pages that alternate with panels or pages consisting only of images. Some of the images depict the scene described in the text while others add background. They tend to be studies in contrasts: quiet streets of the 1930s versus modern freeways, unspoiled nature versus the urbanization that replaced it. The pictures serve as pauses between the short blocks of text, creating the feel of a documentary.

The first person narration tells the childhood tale of a boy born in 1925 as he grew up in Southern California -- a simpler California than the one that exists today. His quiet memories are occasionally updated to let the reader know what happened to friends and relatives (mostly, they died "in poverty and in sorrow"). Some of the images are drawings of family photographs and in many ways, the story is the narration of a family album.

The story is told in a gentle, honest voice that accentuates its depth of feeling. Reading How the World Was is like listening to a beloved grandfather explain the joys and hardships of his family's life and his own awe of the ever-changing world. The narrator has learned to live with grief but the grief lives on in his memory. He cannot change the hard times -- that's how the world was -- but they have taught him to appreciate life. When he quotes Rodin's belief that artists experience pain as well as "the bitter joy of being able to comprehend and express it," Emmanuel Guibert is clearly talking about the effort he devoted to this volume. How the World Was is a surprisingly moving story and a remarkably effective feat of graphic storytelling.



Personal by Lee Child

Published by Delacorte Press on September 2, 2014

I would put Personal in the bottom half of the stack of Reacher novels. Although it is far from the strongest entry in the series, it has merit. Fans of the series will find that Personal adds nothing significant to Reacher's character, but that would be difficult to do in a series that has run for nineteen novels.

John Kott, a man Reacher arrested as an MP sixteen years earlier, is one of a handful of suspects who may have taken a shot at the president of France. The British and Americans are worried that Kott (and/or other assassins) will try to kill the British Prime Minister and other world leaders during an EU meeting in London. Reacher is tasked with investigating Kott but his real mission is to act as bait. Accompanying him on his mission is a CIA liaison to the State Department named Casey Nice. Occasionally Reacher is helped or hindered by a British agent named Bennett.

The plot of Personal takes Reacher to France and England as he searches for Kott. In furtherance of that mission, he needs to figure out whether Kott has actually been hired as an assassin and, if so, where and how he will attempt to fire his next fatal shot. That quest allows Reacher to mix it up with some thugs in the English underworld, providing ample opportunity for the hand-to-hand fight scenes that Child writes so well. That plot, in itself, would be too easy, and so hidden agendas come into play that give the story some added intrigue, although they don't really materialize until the final chapter.

As always, Child's secondary characters are interesting and convincing. Still, an attempt to portray Nice as weak and potentially unreliable because of her dependence on anti-anxiety medication struck me as unnecessary and condescending. The novel tells a conventional story that is in most (but not all) respects predictable, but it is executed with the skill a reader would expect from Child. The story moves quickly and the questions that puzzle Reacher are answered cleverly. That's barely enough to earn a recommendation, but Personal left me wondering if Child is running out of gas.



Ryder by Nick Pengelley

Published digitally by Alibi/Random House on September 30, 2014

Sir Evelyn Montagu has been murdered. The police turn to Montague's former lover, Ayesha Ryder, for help. A message in Arabic written in Montague's blood and translated by Ryder suggests that the killing had something to do with the Palestinian struggle for a homeland. Montague's mangled corpse stirs memories of Ryder's childhood in Gaza and the torture she endured. Given the bloody message and the fact that Montagu was a prominent Jewish intellectual, the police are inclined to blame Palestinian terrorists for his death. Ryder has her own theories but her investigation is impeded by the British government and nearly everyone else.

Ryder is a "conspiracy hidden by history" story. The conspiracy dates back to T.E. Lawrence and the early days of the Nazi rise to power. It builds upon existing conspiracy theories surrounding Lawrence's death. Lawrence has left behind an improbable coded message and even more improbably (and rather too easily), Ryder decodes it, setting the bulk of the story in motion. While the death of Lawrence conceals two events from the 1930s, Nick Pangelly delves farther into the past by adding the Knights Templar and the biblical Ark to the mix. Those aspects of the plot are puzzling as they add little to the story's development.

To solve the mystery, Ryder needs to follow a number of obscure clues that Lawrence planted -- so obscure, in fact, that I didn't buy Ryder's ability to solve them. Nor did I buy Ryder's repeated escapes from death. Those are common in modern thrillers but Ryder's escapes are too common. On the other hand, the story moves quickly and it always held my interest.

Ryder might not appeal to readers who have strong feelings about the politics of the Middle East. I think the novel takes an evenhanded approach, recognizing that both Palestinians and Israelis have a history of needless violence, but readers who are more passionate about politics than fiction might take a different view. In any event, I enjoy a good story even when I disagree with its political viewpoint, and Ryder tells a reasonably good story. Some of the novel's events are a bit farfetched and the ending is completely implausible, but farfetched plots are standard fare in modern thrillers. The story engaged me sufficiently to trigger my willingness to suspend my disbelief and to earn a modest recommendation.



The Marco Effect by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Published by Dutton on September 9, 2014

The Marco Effect begins with a murder in the jungle of Cameroon. René Eriksen, who heads the Development Assistance office for the government of Denmark, has been conspiring with a corrupt banker to misappropriate development funds. Their fear of exposure leads to more murders.

A second plotline centers on Marco Jameson, one of many children who beg for or steal money on the streets of Denmark for an unscrupulous man named Zola. Unlike the other kids, Marco is bright and rebellious. To avoid a disabling confrontation with Zola, Marco runs, but in the act of running stumbles upon a secret that further endangers his life.

The third plotline finally brings Carl Mørck and the other members of Department Q into the story. Carl's subordinate Rose Knudsen has little interest in the department's current case (she could solve that one in her sleep) but takes an interest in a poster that seeks information about a man who disappeared two years earlier. The same poster is of interest to Marco, providing the first link that connects the stories. Soon enough, all three storylines have woven into a cohesive whole.

Characters are the strength of the Department Q series, particularly Rose and Hafez el-Assad, the insubordinate detectives who nominally work for Carl while following their own instincts and using their own unorthodox methods to solve cases. Assad remains my favorite character in the series. He is the most perceptive, the funniest, and the most dangerous of the three, while his mysterious background adds another layer of intrigue to the novels. Carl's personal life, established as a mess in earlier novels, is even muddier in this one as he encounters new troubles with his old girlfriend and the possibility of a new girlfriend (or at least a one night shag).

Marco, betrayed by everyone he ever cared about, might be the most sympathetic character Jussi Adler-Olsen has created in the series. Much of the novel's excitement and pace comes from Marco's efforts to avoid capture. The sections of the novel that follow the conspirators and their double-crossing behavior sometimes drag, giving the impression of a novel that might be a hundred pages longer than it needed to be. For the most part, however, the pace is suitable for a police procedural that depends on characterization and sleuthing more than action to sustain the reader's interest.



Convicted by Jan Burke

Published by Pocket Star on July 14, 2014

I was unfamiliar with Jan Burke's work so this collection of four short stories served as an introduction. The stories are more breezy than substantial, but I enjoyed them.

"The Anchorwoman" is a young woman named Cokie who spies out her window and reports neighborhood gossip to her friends. She enlists the help of the story's narrator (a new fan of Sherlock Holmes) in solving a mystery about a moving van full of singing clowns. The story is cute and clever, if not quite in the same league as Arthur Conan Doyle.

"Revised Endings" features a mystery writer who plots to do away with her demanding editor. This is again a cute story, even if it seems like a frustrated writer's revenge fantasy.

The lead character in "Devotion," forensic anthropologist Ben Sheridan, apparently appears in at least one Jan Burke novel (Kidnapped). Sheridan uses his devoted dogs to track a boy who is missing from the house in which the body of a murdered man is found. The story is a smart whodunit with a strong message about the devoted friendships that people form with each other (and with their dogs).

The longest story, "The Muse," is about a young man who is trying to be a writer. A chance encounter with a woman who drives a Rolls Royce leads to a relationship and an end to writer's block. Their mutual love of Hitchcock movies plays a key role when the woman's sister interferes with their relationship. There isn't much of a mystery here (and no Hitchcockian suspense) but the story is pleasant.

None of the stories build tension, while character development is limited by their brevity. I'm not sure this story collection persuaded me to check out Burke's novels but it certainly didn't dissuade me from doing so.