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
Oct162017

Love Like Blood by Mark Billingham

First published in Great Britain in 2017; published by Grove Atlantic on June 20, 2017

Love Like Blood is set in today’s England, where violent crimes against minorities are on the increase after Brexit, which some saw as mandate to be vicious. Honor crimes are the specific theme — crimes typically committed against women who have “dishonored” a family by, for instance, having sex — and the low priority that the police give to those crimes.

The second plotline involves the murder of Susan Best, the lover of DI Nicola Tanner. Although Tanner cannot officially investigate her lover’s murder, she enlists the help of Tom Thorne to do just that. Tanner met Thorne in Die of Shame.

Tanner has been investigating a series of honor killings carried out by a pair of hit men. She thinks those hit men were paid to kill her, to end the investigation, but they bungled the job and killed Susan Best by mistake. Of course, she carries the burden of guilt since she assumes her job got her lover killed.

The two hit men, an Irishman and a Pakistani, are developed with enough depth to make them credible. The killers actually have more personality than Thorne or Tanner, both of whom are rather bland.

The investigation of the killings is interesting for a time, and then it becomes a bit tedious as the investigators cover the same ground again and again. Billingham seems to be in love with his own prose. The prose is just fine, but there’s too much of it. In this case (as was true in Die in Shame), a tighter novel would have been a better novel.

The most revealing chapter of Love Like Blood comes near the end, when a culprit explains why honor killings promote “family values” that communities have a right to protect when the government refuses to see things through the lens of their religion. The speech applies equally to members of every religion who believe that their “family values” should outweigh laws that protect all of society. The novel makes the telling point that too many people believe any antisocial behavior, from discrimination to murder, can be justified if it is hidden behind the cloak of religion. Civil law protects all of us from religious law when members of a religion inflict their values on others by engaging in unlawful behavior.

The police manage to solve the honor killings and, at the very end, Susan Best’s killing. The solution to Best’s killing is forced and hard to swallow. The story has enough good moments to make the novel a modest success, but shining a light on honor killings (which have apparently been increasing in the UK) gives this book its value.

RECOMMENDED

Saturday
Oct142017

Eon by Greg Bear

First published in 1985; republished as part of The Eon Series by Open Road Media on May 16, 2017

Eon is the middle novel of a trilogy, although the first to be written. The others are its prequel and sequel. It is an ambitious, challenging novel that many consider to be Greg Bear’s finest work.

The sighting of the Stone, which turns out to be an asteroid containing seven chambers, raises some interest, as it was preceded by the sighting of a supernova in the same line of sight. It soon becomes apparent that there was no supernova. The Russians have also spotted the Stone but they call it the Potato. Humans of all nations eventually wonder whether the Stone Potato is an alien artifact. They investigate, only to determine that the asteroid is familiar, even if its contents are not, and that it seems to have been hollowed out by humans.

Patricia Vasquez is sent to the Stone because she is the world’s leading (and perhaps only) authority on non-gravity bent geodesics. Perhaps she can explain the tunnel that seems to stretch a vast distance from the seventh chamber — a much longer distance than the Stone itself. But more pressing than the puzzle of physics is the puzzle presented by the library, which contains a printed volume from the future recounting a past that seems to coincide with Earth’s present. The scientists are pretty sure the history relates to a different universe, but if it is parallel to Earth’s own, the Earth’s nations will soon annihilate nearly all life on the planet.

Also on the Stone, although unknown to the humans who traveled from Earth to study it, is someone named Olmy who traveled a much longer distance to return to the place he lived as a boy. Some of the novel’s characters meet Olmy on a journey of their own.

A good bit of the novel focuses on political conflict between the United States and Russia, which not only threatens the Earth’s destruction but the Stone’s when Russia decides to invade and occupy it. The conflict becomes a compelling subplot when Russians and Americans realize they don’t have much to fight about any longer, and when some of the mysteries of the Stone are revealed to them. At that point, a rather more complex political struggle emerges, one that doesn’t much involve Americans or Russians, although it will be of great consequence to them.

Politics is also at the heart of the novel’s imagined (alternate) future, in which Ralph Nader became sort of an icon who sparked a movement that coexists, largely in conflict, with other political groups. The humans in the (alternate) future developed a language that relies in part on graphic symbols, suggesting that Bear anticipated the widespread use of emoticons before they became popular. Other notable aspects of the future humans are their ability to download memories and personalities into a central computer, where they enjoy indefinite “life” after using the two natural lifespans in a human body to which they are legally entitled. Most new humans, however, are not created in the customary (fun) way, but by merging personalities in the computer banks and assigning the result to an artificially created body. Again, Bear was a bit ahead of his time, if not a pioneer, in envisioning the role of transhumanism or posthumanism in science fiction.

And I haven’t even mentioned the aliens and the role they play in the (alternate) future political conflicts. The downside of including so many themes and ideas (I’ve only touched on some of the most important) in a single novel is that some of them seem dashed off or thrown away. The novel’s other fault is that Bear’s description of things and events are difficult to visualize while political structures, although central to the novel, are underdeveloped. The science is jargon-heavy, which resolute fans of hard sf seem to appreciate, but members of a general audience who (like me) have academic training in areas other than science might find some of his more esoteric concepts a bit baffling. The story in this lengthy and almost unmanageable novel sometimes bogs down, simply because the universe in which it is set almost becomes overwhelming. Still, Eon is an impressive work, and a testament to Bear’s creativity.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Oct132017

Blame by Jeff Abbott

Published by Grand Central Publishing on July 18, 2017

Blame is often assigned as a way to avoid the powerless feeling that comes from accepting that tragic events are usually beyond our control. Bad things happen, but the pain of living with that reality is displaced by anger if we can blame someone for the tragedy. That, at least, is one theory of blame advanced in a novel that explores blame from several perspectives.

Jane Norton was in a car accident when she was seventeen. Two years later, she has no memory of the crash or of much of her life during the three years before the crash. David Hall died in the same accident. David’s mother and most of his friends blame Jane for his death because of a note that was found at the crash scene. Someone using the name Liv Danger has hacked Jane’s social media site and is threatening to reveal the truth about her role in David’s death — a truth Jane does not herself know. The words ALL WILL PAY appear in Liv Danger’s message. It’s also chalked on David’s gravestone on the anniversary of his death.

Jane is soon caught in a web of deceit as individuals (some of whom she trusts) appear to be withholding information or lying to her, including her mother, a girl who claims to have been her best friend before the accident, a couple of boys who may or may not have been her boyfriend before the accident, a private detective who investigated the accident, and a psychology student.

This is the kind of novel where a number of violent crimes are committed and each time, suspicion falls on the protagonist. The reader, like Jane, is challenged to figure out who is responsible for the mayhem, why it is taking place, which of the characters are telling Jane the truth, which characters are lying, and why the liars are deceiving her.

Jeff Abbott handles all of that with skill. A reader might guess some aspects of the novel’s resolution but I doubt that most readers will figure out the roles played by all the characters before Abbott reveals them. Abbott didn’t quite sell me on the motivations of certain characters, but stretching credulity for the sake of delivering a surprising story is a common feature of modern thrillers and, at least in this case, not one that greatly diminished my reading pleasure.

The plot is intricate and it generally held my interest, although the story is a bit drawn out, creating an uneven pace that builds suspense but lets it dissipate. I suspect this novel could have been 50 to 100 pages shorter without omitting anything crucial. The ending also leans toward melodrama. Everything resolves too neatly, delivering a form of justice to the characters who deserved it in a way that seems too convenient.

Blame has value beyond the plot. The real target of Blame is small town pettiness, the gossipy judgment that is viral in cloistered communities, as residents take secret (or open) delight in the embarrassment of others. Abbott also targets “confessional” bloggers who make celebrities of their family members (as does the writer of a mommy blog) without considering how that exposure will affect the child. I enjoyed reading Blame for those background themes almost as much as I enjoyed the plot ... maybe more.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Oct112017

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

Published by Random House/Delacorte Press on Nov. 7, 2017

The Midnight Line is the best Reacher novel I’ve read in quite some time. Lee Child always stands out in the crowd of “tough guy” fiction authors, but The Midnight Line stands out because the “tough guy” aspect of the story is underplayed. Instead, Child focuses the story on a serious real-world issue: soldiers who suffer serious injuries in the line of duty, who become addicted to powerful pain medications, and who are then all but abandoned by the government that gave them their problem. Lee illustrates that issue by focusing on one woman’s struggle to make it through each day, which amounts to a struggle to find the opioids she needs to maintain a life she can handle.

Jack Reacher stumbles upon a ring in a pawn shop that was once owned by a female West Point graduate. The pawned ring suggests that the woman encountered some sort of trouble, so Reacher, being Reacher, decides to find her. His first step involves fighting a motorcycle gang. He is, after all, a tough guy, and it is a rule of tough guy novels that tough guy heroes must establish their tough guy credentials at the beginning of every story. Authors of lesser novels do nothing else, but the best writers search for a more compelling storyline than “tough guys are really tough.” Child usually comes through in that regard, although some of his books do it more successfully than others.

Reacher’s next step takes him to Rapid City and to a fellow named Shapiro who is suspected of all sorts of criminal activities by the local police. A private detective from Chicago who specializes in finding missing persons is also keeping an eye on Shapiro. It isn't hard to figure out which missing person the detective is trying to find. Eventually Reacher teams up with the private detective and the missing woman’s sister to look for the woman who belongs to the ring.

Reacher novels are compulsively readable, and this one is no exception. The pace is steady, calm and assured, exactly what a reader should expect from a confident writer. There is action from time to time, but after the fight with the motorcycle gang, this is a novel of anticipation more than action. I like that. With so many mindless tough guy novels on the market, a tough guy who doesn’t feel a constant need to prove his superiority to other tough guys is a welcome change.

The Midnight Line is a compassionate novel. The story is a little sad because for many people, life gets to be a little sad. Life goes where life takes us, and that isn’t always where we want our lives to go, but sad or not, life goes on until it stops. Reacher accepts that, and Child wants the reader to accept it, without all the hokey “make your own destiny” bromides that are so popular in novels and self-help books. When life doesn’t go well, you cope, and if you’re lucky, you cope without being judged and other people still respect your dignity and give you the decent treatment that should come with being human. We could use more of that sort of understanding.

The novel’s only flaw is that a police detective and her computer guy engage in some police work that struck me as fanciful. The method by which they figured out the phone number of a telephone sold by a convenience store and the phone company’s willingness to give the police a voicemail left on that number without a subpoena or warrant both struck me as implausible. But those are minor complaints about a novel that isn’t about police work so much as it is about a person dealing with a problem that she has in common with thousands of others. Child encourages the reader to understand her, and to understand and feel compassion for people like her (not just veterans). Kudos to Child for writing a tough guy novel that displays so much compassion and sensitivity — values that are in short supply, not just in tough guy novels, but in life.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Oct092017

The Shape of Bones by Daniel Galera

First published in Brazil in 2006; published in translation by Penguin Press on August 15, 2017

The Shape of Bones reads like a collection of related stories that follow a group of characters in Brazil, but the stories eventually shape themselves into a novel. Each episode/chapter has a title and most can be read as a discrete story. Each is narrated by Hermano. The developing story in the present interweaves with memories of Hermano’s past.

The episodes in the past are set in Esplanada, a city in Northeast Brazil. They give shape to Hermano’s life. For example, “The Urban Cyclist” is Hermano as a ten-year-old boy who rides his bicycle at high speeds on the tricky pavements of suburban streets. The story tells of Hermano’s encounter with an old woman who explains the blood that is spilling from his knee after a tumble. Other cycling stories make clear that Hermano craves attention and is jealous of friends who receive more accolades than he can manage. The memories serve to establish Hermano’s character and to fix the city of Esplanada firmly in the reader’s mind.

Hermano’s memories of the past involve the people he hung with, the ones he liked and those he regarded as threats. The first story that features Bonobo is about a collision and its dangerous repercussions on a soccer field. In later memories, Bonobo becomes an important (but not well liked) figure in Hermano’s life, someone Hermano envies for the wrong reasons. Bonobo is eventually involved in the key dramatic moment that defines Hermano’s past, a moment that changes to suit Hermano as he retells it.

Other episodes reveal additional stages of Hermano’s life. In one, we see Hermano’s high school insecurity as he attends a girl’s birthday party, unsure whether he wants to dance, hesitant to make eye contact with girls, unable to intervene when another boy at the party is giving a girl a hard time. Cowardice is a recurring theme.

In the present, we discover that Hermano is a cosmetic surgeon, married with child, the completion of a goal-driven life. Most of the episodes set in the present take place minutes apart from each other. They tell of Hermano’s plan to join his friend Renan on an expedition to climb a mountain that has never been climbed. Each episode is titled with a time (such as “6:08 a.m.”) and each is told in long paragraph, which I imagine is meant to give them a sense of onrushing immediacy. That doesn’t work very well, since the content is often too contemplative to justify the form.

How are we to understand Hermano? I’m not sure we can, because Hermano does not understand why he has suddenly chosen to become “a solitary renegade deserting all ties to his life to seek something in his origins.” He has made a sudden, fateful and impulsive decision that will change his life for no obvious purpose. He is a quixotic character, perhaps in the grip of self-delusion. He briefly fancies himself a hero although he’s really kind of a dick. But maybe he’s just changing in a belated reaction to the dramatic moment that took place fifteen years earlier. The past always catches up to the present no matter how quickly we try to run from it, and that might be the ultimate point of The Shape of Bones.

RECOMMENDED