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.

Friday
Apr202018

The Cutting Edge by Jeffery Deaver

Published by Grand Central Publishing on April 10, 2018

The Cutting Edge begins with a robbery and murder at the office of a Manhattan diamond cutter. The robbery is interrupted by the diamond cutter’s young assistant, Vimal Lahori, who barely avoids being murdered itself. The killing is the kind of crime that the city doesn’t want to publicize, for fear that it will bring more crime to the rundown part of Midtown that diamond merchants populate. In the hope of getting a quick resolution, the police turn to Lincoln Rhyme.

Rhyme and Amelia Sachs soon discover that the murder is linked to other diamond-related killings that seem bizarrely  motivated. The case becomes even stranger when the presumptive killer is seen lurking about a geothermal drilling site. Rare New York earthquakes are attributed to the drilling, but Rhyme and his team wonder whether the geothermal company is being falsely blamed by environmental protestors, or by a competing fossil fuel company, or perhaps by someone else.

The actual motivation for the murder (and for several that follow) is a bit of a stretch, but I forgive Jeffery Deaver because the plot is original and clever. While the nuts-and-bolts of the forensic work undertaken by Rhyme’s team becomes a bit tedious (how many times do we need to be told that crime scene analysts need to “walk the grid”?), the detailed discussions of diamonds and earthquakes and geothermal drilling are interesting. An extended explanation of cryptic crosswords suggests that Deaver is a fan, but it comes across as filler.

Character development is always a strength in a Deaver novel, and while nothing much is added to the lives of the Rhyme or his supporting cast, the characters who are unique to this novel, including Vimal and a couple of bad guys, are rich in texture.

In a subplot, Rhyme crosses to the “dark side” (or so his colleagues believe) by working for a Mexican drug lord to investigate a claim that the feds fabricated evidence against him. Rhyme enlists the help of Ron Pulaski to uncover the truth, putting both Pulaski and Rhyme at risk of prison sentences when vengeful federal prosecutors decide that Rhyme and Pulaski should be arrested for obstructing justice and a litany of other federal crimes. In fact, they seem to think that working for a defendant is itself a crime, an attitude that is entirely consistent with that of many (but not all) career prosecutors who believe they have a monopoly on the truth. Unfortunately, by the time the subplot is completed, Rhyme still hasn’t recognized the prosecutors as the sleazebags they prove themselves to be (because their view of whether Rhyme and Pulaski broke the law depends on which side he’s helping, not on the facts). The subplot, it seems to me, is a major disappointment.

A much better subplot involves Vimal’s relationship with his parents and his desire to live his own life, not the life his father has chosen for him. The subplot is predictable, but Deaver handles it well. While not everything about The Cutting Edge appealed to me, that’s often the case with Lincoln Rhyme novels. I keep reading them because Deaver does so things well that I can easily overlook their faults.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr182018

The Terminal List by Jack Carr

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on March 6, 2018

If you’re a fan of gun porn, where shootings of human beings are described with religious reverence and guns, scopes, and ammunition are treated as sacred objects, you might like The Terminal List. Of course, you’ll have to endure the protagonist’s complaints about California’s “crazy gun laws” that restrict your right to drive around with a box of weapons in the back of your pickup truck. The protagonist is so devoted to his guns that he hates walking around the Naval Special Warfare Command without one and has convinced himself that “the enemy” will attack the naval base because personnel aren’t allowed to carry handguns when they visit their superiors. Paranoid much?

James Reece has a bug up his bum. When he was still a Lieutenant Commander and Navy SEAL, his team was ambushed in Afghanistan, giving Jack Carr a chance to write a clichéd “my war buddy died in my arms” scene. After the mission goes tits up, he’s investigated for subversive activities, including an email he wrote that advocated an illegal assassination scheme. To Reece, thinking outside the box is a sign of good soldiering, even if that means thinking about illegal assassination schemes, but the Secretary of Defense has ordered a cover-up of the ambush and can’t have Reece being treated as a hero. Plus, Reece has a brain tumor, as did two of his men, a coincidence that can’t really be a coincidence. Another of his men committed suicide, but Reece believes he was murdered because the guy would have used his favorite gun if he wanted to off himself. All of this sets up a truly bizarre conspiracy plot that wouldn’t be credible even if it made sense.

Carr sets Reece up as a devoted husband and father with an adoring wife and a young daughter who worships him. Of course, the police find his family dead just as he arrives home from war. They were murdered by four guys with machineguns because that’s supposed to make the murders look like a gang killing. Seriously? Because gangbangers invade houses in nice neighborhoods and kill everyone inside with machineguns? In what fantasy world would the police believe that? The real intent was to kill Reece, but he wasn’t home and the hired killers were apparently too stupid to notice his absence before launching their killing spree.

No longer in the military, Reece is after revenge. I just read in a better novel that “revenge is the core of evil.” Reece has not reached that level of evolution. He believes he was spared so that he can carry out the divine purpose of killing people. Nor is Reece as introspective as Mack Bolan of the Executioner series that started the “highly trained soldier commences a personal war of vengeance after his family is killed” genre. Reece doesn’t think about much of anything that doesn’t involve his beloved guns.

Killing and torture seem to be Reece’s only skills, and while he’s insufferably proud of his superiority to other males, his one-dimensional alpha nature makes Reece a dull boy. But he loves his mama, so I guess readers are supposed to love Reece. The guy is so full of himself that he’s difficult to stomach, and his simple-minded view of the world does not make him an appealing character. Nor does his willingness to kill innocent women (Mexican hookers, of course) if they might wake up and “compromise his mission,” which at that point involves murdering a home’s occupants. Reece’s attempt to position himself as a protector of American values is repugnant. Psychopathic vigilante killers are far removed from American values.

Carr leaves most of his political commentary to secondary characters, like a reporter who was harassed by the government because she “exposed” Benghazi and his spy friend who thinks Snowden did “incalculable damage” to national security by leaking secrets (even the NSA doesn’t believe that), although Reece does manage to condemn the “liberal political leanings” of an Admiral who only holds his position because of a “far-left Democratic president.” Has the U.S. ever had one of those? The words “Deep State” don’t appear in the novel, but they lurk just beneath the surface.

Radicalized American Muslims are among the novel’s cartoon villains (one of them, of course, is a cab driver, because no stereotypes is left unwritten in The Terminal List). Other villains include “bad hombres from Mexico” who live in a Tijuana “shithole.” They aren’t necessary to the plot, but they’re red meat for Carr’s target audience.

Carr’s prose isn’t the worst I’ve encountered, but his dialog is stilted and his style is uninspired: “It was time for Reece to do what he did best. It was time to start killing.”  Carr reserves his most eloquent writing to describe the hand-loaded ammunition that Reece’s father gave him as a birthday present. If there is anything at all to like about The Terminal List, I couldn’t find it, although people who have never read a thriller before might appreciate the glossary at the end.

Atria has published some wonderful books, but they really scraped the bottom for this one. Still, Guns & Ammo and the Washington Times gave it good reviews, so I guess there's a market for simple-minded gun porn.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr162018

Caribbean Rim by Randy Wayne White

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on March 13, 2018

Doc Ford novels are always a fun way to pass time. The tropical settings open the door to light-hearted plots (the kind that invite the reader to have a tropical drink and smoke a joint after reading a chapter), but unlike modern thrillers that often take themselves too seriously, the plots are rarely implausible.

Archeologist Leonard Nickleby and his former student, Lydia Johnson, have a plan to make a bunch of money. Leonard stole a log book from a treasure hunter. Lydia has some inside information about the treasure that she’s kept hidden from Leonard. Now Doc Ford is trying to track them down in the Bahamas — not a difficult task after Leonard becomes a local legend by (as he tells it) saving two kids from a shark attack. The question is whether Doc will find Leonard and Lydia before a “crazy-ass killer” who seems to be chasing them.

Doc’s stoner friend Tomlinson, always good for comic relief, plays a leading role in the novel — he probably gets more print time than Doc, who is offstage for much of the novel — dispensing philosophy and trading Bible quotations with a local preacher and fellow Mason in the Bahamas. A more nefarious role is played by a former Hollywood producer (blacklisted after a sex scandal) who may or may not be holding a woman captive, but in any event is up to no good on an isolated island that local authorities are trying to ignore.

Sharks seem to have learned new behaviors near the islands. Since Doc is a marine biologist when he isn’t doing favors for clandestine government agencies, studying the sharks gives Doc something to do — in addition to chasing Leonard. Along the way he encounters the usual assortment of offbeat characters who populate a Doc Ford novel. Randy Wayne Smith also uses Doc and some local characters to teach the reader about Caribbean history and marine biology. Doc even manages to deal with a life-changing event in his usual laid-back style. Caribbean Rim isn’t Smith’s best work, but it is a good beach read in a series that delivers consistent entertainment.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Apr132018

American Histories by John Edgar Wideman

Published by Scribner on March 20, 2018

American Histories is John Edgar Wideman’s new story collection. The four stories I’ll first mention here are masterful. The others are quite good, and the volume as a whole is another tribute to an important American writer who crafted a style that is uniquely his own. In a couple of the stories, Wideman describes his writing as unimportant, as compared to the things that smarter people do. I hope Wideman understands that his work is not just important: it’s vital.

“Williamsburg Bridge” is narrated by a man standing on the bridge where Sonny Rollins used to play his sax. The improvisational nature of jazz, its controlled chaos, fuels this story. The man has shed nearly all of his clothes and is preparing to jump, or not. He equates death with freedom, although he wonders if the bridge cops might shoot him before he has a chance to kill himself, taking away his freedom to choose, as freedom has so often been taken from people of color. He catalogs the many reasons he might want to commit suicide, but none are his motivation. It isn’t clear whether he even understands why he might choose to die, or to live. He hears “that question — why? —drum-drum drumming in my eardrums, the only evidence of my sanity I was able to produce.” He asks the reader whether you’re grateful that it’s his turn, not yours, at the edge. The story plays with images of color, from skin color to whitespace to colors in the East River ranging “from impenetrable oily sludge to purest glimmer.” (Edges and color are among several recurring themes in these stories.)

“Maps and Ledgers” is about families and hard times, the family histories that people don’t talk about — the father who killed a man, the son sentenced to life in prison, the grandmother with serial husbands. Bad things happen and the only thing you can count on is that life will get worse. Black and white families live apart, interacting but not really. The narrator speaks white English to whites and black English at home in his segregated neighborhood, in a society divided by laws and power that serves itself. “Don’t let the ugly take you down” the narrator’s mother says, and that’s the story’s lesson, but the lesson is easier to say than to live.

“JB & FD” are John Brown and Frederick Douglas, two men who tried to free America from the oppression of slavery. Told as an imagined conversation or correspondence over time, the story is about their fundamental agreements and disagreements, their differing strategic approaches to abolishing slavery. Douglas wishes to offer his life, not his death, to his people. Brown is convinced that an armed raid on Harper’s Ferry will spark a slave rebellion that makes the risk of death worth taking. Both men believe that change must come. The story ends with the rambling narrative of another John Brown, the son of Jim Daniels, who was rescued from slavery by John Brown and named his son after the man who gave him freedom. Wideman’s story reminds us that freedom is too precious to waste.

“Nat Turner’s Confession” takes on the controversial “confession” that Thomas Gray claimed to have received from Nat Turner. Most of Wideman’s story, like William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, is told in the first person from Turner’s perspective (“I am called Nat Turner, a name made up for the convenience of sellers and purchasers of me”), providing an alternative to the “confession” that Gray likely fabricated, at least in part. But other voices intrude in Wideman’s story, including Turner’s mother (representing the tribulations of all enslaved women) and a confession by Nate Parker (who made a movie about Nat Turner several years after being acquitted of rape). Wideman imagines Turner having a love/hate relationship with white people, a fear that he will miss them if he kills them all, a belief that “until they are gone, we will not truly cleanse ourselves of the belief that we are nothing without them.” Like many of Wideman’s stories, this one overflows with the joy of language and its rhythms.

Most of Wideman’s stories are deeply personal. “New Start” uses an aging couple watching Downtown Abbey to ask whether all our lives are performance, whether we need an audience of at least one to make them real. Our lives are stories, true stories “until we tumble out of them and then they are different and true again,” the ending unwritten and feared. In “Examination,” a visit to the doctor’s office triggers a riff on edges and democracy and social constructs and death, real and imagined. “The Writing Teacher” is about a professor, very much like Wideman, who tries to help students understand that their stories won’t appeal to every reader and that their fiction probably won’t change an intransigent and unfair world, admirable though it is to want to topple empires or to expose naked emperors. (Empires are another recurring theme.)

“Dark Matter” is about the things people discuss over dinner, but more importantly, it’s about the fact that friends go out to dinner and discuss things. “Shape the World Is In” is a monologue by a guy who is thinking about life as he sits on the toilet. “Yellow Sea” is about the evil in the world that keeps the narrator awake at night.

“My Dead” is more a contemplation of Wideman’s dead relatives than a story, but it is also a contemplation of mortality, of the impudence of life and the arbitrariness of death, of the recognition that only after people die do we really begin to give their lives the full consideration they deserve. “Bonds” is a sweet story about a woman who struggles not to give birth on an unlucky day to a child who will have enough bad luck being born into poverty and prejudice.

A few of the stories are sketches or vignettes. They discuss lines and names and death, the way things change and don’t, the divisions of people within an empire, the whiteness of snow. All of them are interesting, although I would classify some as essays rather than stories. A longer essay in the form of fiction imagines conversations between Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the end, it doesn’t matter how these pieces are categorized, because good writing has value for its own sake, and American Histories is a collection of very good writing.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr112018

Time Was by Ian McDonald

Published by Tor.com on April 24, 2018

Time Was begins with a bookseller’s discovery of a letter in an old book of poetry. The bookseller, Emmett Leigh, is intrigued by the letter from Tom Chappell to his lover Ben Seligman, who has gone off to fight the war. Leigh feels compelled to research the story of Tom and Ben. To that end, he tracks down people in the present who can give him clues about the past. His investigation leads him to the diaries that Reverend Anson kept of his chaplaincy in 1940s Egypt. Anson, whose diary describes Tom as “gay” in the old-fashioned sense of the word, is apparently oblivious to the nature of Tom's relationship with Ben.

Although Tom introduced Ben to Anson as being in photoreconnaissance, Leigh can find no record of a Ben Seligman occupying that position in Egypt during the war. Hence a mystery arises that the bookseller feels the need to solve. Anson’s granddaughter provides photographs and an archivist identifies two men of the same name and appearance in her voluminous records of war. The two men, however, served in an earlier war: World War I. A witness described them as part of a battalion that vanished in Turkey while assaulting entrenched Ottoman soldiers — a battalion known as the Lost Sandringhams. As the witness described it, the two men vanished into a cloud of smoke. Were they deserters? Were they taken prisoner and executed? Were they abducted by aliens?

But the bigger mystery is why, twenty-four years later, Tom and Ben were photographed standing in front of the Sphinx, having not aged a day. The deeper Leigh digs, the more questions arise. He finds more copies of the book of poetry and more letters. Time Was contains some surprising twists, culminating in a final surprise that requires the reader to rethink the events that took place up to that point. I love stories like that.

I also love Ian McDonald’s prose. McDonald composes masterful phrases (Tom pushes a bike “under a sky the color of judgment”) and sentences (“All written art is an attempt to communicate what it is to feel, to ask the terrifying question: Is what I experience in my heart the same as what you experience?”). Time Was is a novella, exactly the right length for the poignant story it tells, and it tells that story in exquisite prose. Readers who enjoy serious literature while generally shying away from science fiction will be well rewarded by spending some time with Time Was.

RECOMMENDED