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
Jun262017

Feral by James DeMonaco and B.K. Evenson

Published by Anchor on April 4, 2017

Feral isn’t marketed as a young adult novel, but it has all the trappings: an adolescent female who has little experience with boys, although a definite interest in them, finds herself in a dangerous situation and has to survive by her wits while learning about herself and, in the process, finding a boy who makes her feel special. It isn’t a formula I seek out because I’m not a young adult and novels of that ilk too often devolve into trashy romance fiction, but readers in the appropriate market might like Feral more than I did. I can only say that this is not what I expected from co-author B.K. Evenson, who is a fine writer of adult fiction.

Feral begins in a way that suggests the beginning of a zombie novel. A fire at a place that does genetic manipulation has made something like a virus airborne, making males at Allie Hilt’s school behave aggressively. Eventually all males treat females as prey. Fortunately, Allie is athletic and pretty aggressive even without the virus that turns men into feral killers. And fortunately, the feral killers aren’t zombies, although they aren’t far removed from zombies.

The story that follows is post-apocalyptic. Three years have passed. The only goal men have is to kill women. Women have banded together in camps to protect themselves. This seems likely to be the last generation of human life, since normal reproduction is, under the circumstances, out of the question. Allie and her sister are the scouts for one of the camps. Dr. Zeman, who once worked at the company that manufactured the virus, is experimenting on captive feral men to see if she can neutralize the virus before the human race ends.

Point of view shifts from Allie to her sister to Dr. Zeman to a foul-mouthed woman named Jacky. Allie, however, is clearly the main character. And of course, this wouldn’t be a YA novel unless Allie met an uninfected boy who soon says “it was like I knew you” when he talks about seeing her for the first time. You know it’s a YA novel when the authors feel compelled to add a cheesy romance between two dreamy young people. And you really know it’s YA when, after they have sex, everyone wonders why the young woman is glowing. After that, of course, she becomes jealous, as if she’s entitled to his exclusive attention when he’s the only normal male in a world full of fertile women. The gak factor in this book repeatedly caused a bit of bile to rise in my throat.

Feral isn’t all bad, by any means. The story reminds us of the small things that distinguish humans from each other (the things humans lose when they become feral), and in that sense the story has poignant moments. But some of it is a bit silly and all of it is disappointingly predictable.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun232017

Defectors by Joseph Kanon

Published by Atria Books on June 6, 2017

Simon Weeks is running a publishing company, having been forced out of the State Department after his brother Frank, a CIA agent, defected. Now, in the Khrushchev years, Simon has the chance to publish Frank’s “tell all” book. But first, he needs to meet Frank, for the first time in years. To that end, Simon travels to Moscow.

There is tension between the brothers that goes beyond Frank’s defection. Some of it involves Frank’s wife, who traveled with Frank to Moscow. But the tension mounts when Simon learns that Frank wants to defect … again … this time betraying the Soviets by returning to the US.

In the best tradition of spy novels, the reader wonders what sort of treachery is really afoot as the novel progresses. Joseph Kanon keeps the reader guessing as Simon second-guesses then third-guesses everything he is told. Suspense elevates when things get sticky, but it isn’t always clear for whom the reader is supposed to root.

The novel’s background accounts for the plural title. Guy Burgess and an assorted crew of spies spend their nights drinking and moaning about the boring lives they’ve settled into, quite a change from the exciting lives of deception they once lived. Some of the defectors and their wives play key roles as the story unfolds. Some are conflicted, prone to second-guessing the decisions that defined their lives, while others seem quietly resigned to the isolated lives that Soviet heroes live when they are never quite trusted by the Soviet government. Only Frank, an active officer in the KGB, seems to have gained the trust of his superiors, but as he well knows, nobody is trusted, and perhaps nobody deserves to be trusted.

The surprising plot ends with two tight twists. That is reason enough to recommend Defectors, but the novel’s emotional resonance comes from the complexity of its characters and their shifting relationships. Everyone seems to be betraying everyone in Defectors. Everyone is playing a role, some unwillingly, some for the love of the game. The shifting and uncertain relationship between the two brothers, in particular, is masterful.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun212017

Skitter by Ezekiel Boone

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on May 2, 2017

I read Skitter without realizing that it is the second novel in a series, following on the heels of The Hatching. Maybe I should pay more attention to book descriptions, but Skitter is quite easy to follow, even without reading the first novel. It cannot be read as a stand-alone novel, however, because it ends in mid-action, leaving the plot entirely unresolved.

Skitter starts as an amusing “the apocalypse is coming” story and morphs into an amusing “the apocalypse is here” story. The apocalypse involves an invasion of man-eating spiders. This is the kind of apocalyptic novel in which people respond to a crisis by engaging in ridiculous behavior. In other words, it seems realistic.

The president, Stephanie Pilgrim, needs to make some hard decisions about the spread of the spiders, but she has the support of presidential adviser Manny Walchuck, with whom she is cheating on her husband. She has less support from the military, with its inevitable “nuke ‘em” advice, but there are no easy choices.

At the NIH, Melanie Gruyer has become the most important woman in the world. She knows a lot about how spiders move, although she doesn’t know why millions of them have started eating people. Melanie is the novel’s touchstone of normalcy.

In quarantined Los Angeles, Bobby Higgs has set himself up as a prophet, ranting against the government and enforcing order with an army of thugs. Of course, his true agenda is to get out of LA before he’s eaten by spiders.

Mike Rich is an FBI agent in Minneapolis until the FBI abandons Minneapolis. He frets about keeping his daughter safe in an unsafe world. The spiders have made that more difficult.

A group of intelligent misfits think they have a solution to the spiders. Their idea needs some refinement, to say the least.

There are a bunch … and I mean a bunch … of other characters. Some die. Some survive, presumably to reappear in the next novel. One or two survive but probably wish they hadn’t … or they would if they were still capable of thinking like a human. Most of the action takes place in a decimated America but spiders are also a problem in Japan, Peru, Berlin, Oslo, and other places the reader at least briefly visits. Me, I’d grab a parka and head to Alaska in the hope that the spiders will become dormant in the permafrost.

There are some very funny background moments in Skitter, such as the description of a truck stop that is emblematic of Midwestern fast food Americana. But like many amusing novels, Skitter makes a serious point. The excrement may well hit the fan (the world seems to be moving in that direction, doesn’t it?), but it won’t be the nutty survivalists and preppers who save us, because (1) they only care about saving themselves and (2) you can’t plan for everything. Rational thought and a willingness to work together offer the best hope for enduring a crisis. Arming yourself with shotguns and nutrition bars and retreating to a shack in the woods won’t stop the spiders.

Since apocalyptic fiction is seriously overdone, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Skitter. The story isn’t particularly deep, but it isn’t shallow. It is populated by lively characters and it features a number of unexpected moments. It also left me wanting to read the first and the next book, all of which is enough to earn a recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun192017

Cruel Mercy by David Mark

Published by Penguin Random House / Blue Rider Press on February 7, 2017

Irish priests have always been popular characters in fiction. Father Jimmy Whelan, a priest in Galway who was raised in the Bronx, figures prominently in the latest Aector McAvoy novel. Where there are priests there are sinners, and several of those appear in Cruel Mercy, perhaps including Father Whelan. An undeniable sinner is known as the Penitent, although he fancies himself to have been transformed from sinner to redeemer. Any reasonable deity would think otherwise.

Sergeant McAvoy travels to New York because Brishen Ayres, dubbed the Miracle Man by the press, survived being shot in the head, although he is in a coma. Ayres, a boxing coach, brought a young man to America from Ireland to explore the lad’s prospects for a professional boxing career. The boxer is killed in the assault that Ayres survives. Additional mayhem ensues during the incident that takes the boxer’s life.

McAvoy’s boss, Trish Pharaoh, sends McAvoy to investigate, in part because of McAvoy’s family connection to a Traveler who apparently followed the boxer (also a Traveler) to New York. The concern is that the Travelers are involved in a family feud and that Ayres was caught in the middle, although McAvoy isn’t so sure.

In addition to the Travelers, the priest, and the Penitent, a Mafia enforcer named Claudio, a few other Mafia members, and a group of Chechen criminals join the cast in Cruel Mercy. McAvoy, of course, is caught in the middle of all of them. Most creepy fictional villains are too contrived to be anything but ridiculous, but David Mark invents a couple of creepy villains in Cruel Mercy who seem chillingly real.

The plot weaves layers of complexity without becoming muddy. Cruel Mercy isn’t for readers with a short attention span (plenty of modern thriller writers cater to that audience), but for those readers who persevere, the surprising payoff is rewarding. There are no loose ends in this carefully woven story.

Given the novel’s religious characters, it isn’t surprising to learn that the nature of sin and absolution are among the novel’s themes. The novel asks whether confession and forgiveness of sins are seen as a “get out of Hell free” card by people who only repent until the time comes to sin again. Characters have different ideas about how and whether their actions will affect their afterlives, but the best model is McAvoy, who doesn’t know what to believe and isn’t particularly religious, preferring to live as honestly and helpfully as he can because it is the right thing to do, not because he expects to be rewarded for his efforts after death.

Cruel Mercy is just as enjoyable as other entries in the McAvoy series. McAvoy’s fundamental decency makes him sympathetic but he never becomes sanctimonious. It is such a pleasure to spend time with him that I’m surprised the McAvoy series doesn’t have more followers.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun162017

Some Rise by Sin by Philip Caputo

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on May 9, 2017

With its invocation of a flawed priest struggling with moral choices in a harsh land, Some Rise by Sin channels Graham Greene and Umberto Eco. Priests make interesting characters because their failings and hypocrisies are sharpened by the pious and virtuous lives to which they aspire. They also face particular challenges as they try to balance religious and secular law and moral imperatives that might be at odds with their faith. Philip Caputo does justice to those themes.

Father Riordan feels his faith is being put to the test in Mexico. He is saying too many funeral masses for young people he should be marrying. Mexico’s cartels and gangs have splintered, but the war between crime and the state continues, except when the criminals and the corrupt government are working together. Riordan’s village has armed itself in self-defense, prompting the army’s efforts to disarm them, sometimes with results that are fatal to unarmed villagers who demonstrate against the army.

Father Riordan would like to end the death of innocents but an army captain, supported by the federales, has a different plan. He wants Riordan to violate the sanctity of the confessional, to become an informant against villagers who help the criminals (usually because they face death if they refuse).

Ultimately, Riordan must make a choice. If he does not reveal what he learned in a confession, innocent people will surely die. If he does break the seal of the confession, he sends a bad message about the trustworthiness of the church and the value of the sacrament.

It is that choice that gives Some Rise by Sin much of its dramatic tension. Similar issues provide insight into Riordan’s character. How can Riordan help a young girl move on with her life when he must tell her that it would be sinful to abort the fetus that was conceived by rape?

Riordan feels powerless trying to do good while surrounded by bandits and drug dealers who kill easily and without remorse. And he feels ineffectual when he hears confessions from young men who will not change their behavior, because they cannot change without forfeiting their lives. All of that makes Riordan an interesting character, and Philip Caputo has the strong writing ability that is required to convey those moral dilemmas in convincing terms without resorting to melodrama.

Some Rise by Sin asks us to chew upon the notion that “the devil’s minions are numerous … they roam the world, seeking the ruin of souls.” Some people (perhaps not Riordan) believe that to be literally true, but as a metaphor for evil and temptation, there is little doubt that the notion is valid. Can evil be exorcised as a demon might? Perhaps, if you believe (as a priest suggests) that evil is irrational and cannot be “overcome by reason.” On the other hand, reason might be the best and only weapon that saves us from irrational evil.

The other characters are also an interesting mix. They include gangsters, cops (mostly corrupt), parishioners, a female assassin, and a couple of American lesbians. Lisette is a doctor who has founded a small clinic in Riordan’s remote village, and her bipolar partner is an artist named Pamela. Their relationship drama involves Lisette’s uncertainty about the role in which Pamela has cast her.

At some point, the spotlight shifts from Riordan to Lisette, their stories tied together by the police and drug gangs. The story is less compelling when it drifts away from Riordan, but by the end, the focus is back on the story’s most interesting character. All of the characters are strong and the novel raises challenging moral and political questions, including whether Mexico can overcome its tradition of retribution, the need for blood to compensate blood. While Some Rise by Sin might not appeal to readers who are looking for a thriller (although it does have some tense, but nicely unstated, moments), it should appeal to readers who will appreciate a literary glimpse at a troubled country.

RECOMMENDED