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
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

Wednesday
Sep122018

John Woman by Walter Mosley

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on September 4, 2018

In John Woman, Walter Mosley again proves why his inclusion in my list of three favorite modern crime writers is not just laminated, but anchored in cement. John Woman is a crime novel in the way that Native Son and Crime and Punishment are crime novels. The books combines a crime plot with philosophy, psychology, and Tolstoy’s view that historical truth is elusive if not impossible to discover. It is fresh and original and a masterpiece in concept and execution.

Cornelius “CC” Jones lived with his father, Herman Jones, but he learned about life from his mother’s stories about the gangsters she dated. Herman reveres the English language, suggesting he might be modeled after Mosley, whose love of language is revealed in the lovely language he uses to tell his tales. But Herman is losing his words and finds himself living in the past, robbed of the present by the creeping onset of dementia.

Herman is hospitalized when the novel begins and bedridden for the next several years. CC secretly takes over Herman’s job as a projectionist so that the paychecks will keep coming. In 1955, when CC is 16, he commits a murder and is later seduced by a female cop who (unaware of the murder) enjoys dominating him. His mother has disappeared, apparently having accompanied a mobster who fled from the law.

When the novel shifts ahead to 1974, CC had adopted the identity of John Woman to protect himself from arrest for a murder he knows will eventually be discovered. He is a professor of history at a university founded and operated by members of a new age religion, a subgroup of which is known as the Platinum Path. He teaches his students that historical truth is a mirage shaped by the political, religious, and cultural biases of historians — a view that other faculty members view as undermining history and historians.

John Woman is rooted in a murder, but it is primarily a story of decent people who treat each other decently, people who value life and who understand the importance of generosity, forgiveness, and acceptance. Their decency transcends race or religion. History is full of heroes who spend time shaping a legacy, but life is full of heroes who will never be studied by historians — the friends who sacrifice to help us get through tough times, the strangers who make an effort to be kind to another stranger, the ordinary folk who make a difference in unseen ways that nevertheless change the world.

John Woman reminds us that what we don’t know about the people society regards as historically important vastly exceeds what we do know. We know even less about all the equally important people who shaped but have been lost to history. Making that point in a lecture to the faculty nearly costs Woman his job. His freedom (and thus his life) is at risk because his history as a murderer might be discovered — but it is a history he shares with many murderers, and yet another example of undiscovered historical knowledge.

The novel’s multiple themes include: bringing courage and dignity to death, the importance of understanding history to understanding life, casting off the chains of childhood to become an adult, rejection of false certainties in favor of intellectual inquiry, the nature of fate and destiny (“our purposes are not necessarily our intentions”), the need to shape the future rather than obsessing about the unchangeable past, the possibility of rising above the limited role that society might assign to people of a particular race or origin, the empowering recognition that oppressors are victims of their own oppression, the myth of white identity, the notion that denying someone else’s past (pretending, for example, that people of an oppressed group were never oppressed) is a form of murder, the drive people feel to judge each other and how little right they have to do it. And this: “There’s no value in persecuting someone for overcoming their history in an attempt to forge a better future.”

John Woman is a surprising character — he never does the expected, and is capable of both great empathy and cold calculation, able at any moment to make either the most or the least moral choice. He likens himself to the coyote of mythology, the cunning trickster. The plot of John Woman is also surprising. For all the novel’s surprises, however, it always maintains credibility; none of the plot twists are forced.. The intersection of John’s life with the Platinum Path adds suspense, as does the question of whether John will go to prison (and perhaps be transformed into predator or prey) for the crime he committed almost two decades earlier. Still, this is a novel of ideas (“the most dangerous products of humankind”) rather than thrills, of complex moral choices rather than fights and shootouts. It might be Mosley’s best work.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED