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.


Chaos Quarter by David Welch

Published by 47North on December 9, 2014

Chaos Quarter is a surprisingly enjoyable space opera. The parts that are meant to be exciting serve their purpose fairly well. The parts that are meant to be funny made me chuckle. Characters have reasonably well developed personalities. As a classic space opera that doesn't require much thought, Chaos Quarter gets high marks for fun despite its adherence to genre conventions.

Rex Vahn is a Terran officer in the Commonwealth fleet who, having been "loaned" to the intelligence division, is sent to nose around the Chaos Quarter. Rex has cheesed off his superiors and their hope is that the mission will end with his death. Taking a souped-up freighter into the Chaos Quarter, Rex hires a Europan mercenary named Lucias to handle the ship's weapons, despite an ongoing war between the Free Terran Commonwealth and the Empire of Europa. Two unintended additions to the crew are a sympathetic hooker named Chakrika (who was still in Rex's bed when he made a sudden departure from a planet) and Lucias' illegitimate baby, whose unfortunate parentage explains the sudden departure. With that spirited start, Rex and his crew begin their trip through the Chaos Quarter.

Rex's adventure brings him into contact with the Perfected Hegemony, the rumored alien civilization he has been sent to spy upon. The aliens don't seem all that alien despite their aversion to technology (an aversion that explains their reliance on organic spaceships). The aliens nevertheless give David Welch an excuse to write some interstellar chase scenes and ship-to-ship battle scenes that are familiar but nevertheless lively and entertaining.

Chaos Quarter takes an occasional stab at deeper thought as characters discuss the Bible and whether Artificial Intelligence has a soul and free will and the nature of evolution, but the discussions are more distracting than enlightening. Depth is not the novel's strength. Themes like "slavery is bad" are not particularly profound but they give Rex an excuse for behaving heroically. The novel's strengths are its energy, the characters' likability, and a fun factor that comes from good storytelling. While Chaos Quarter didn't wow me, those factors might encourage me to read another novel with these characters if one comes along.



Until the Debt is Paid by Alexander Hartung

Published in Germany in 2013; published in translation by Amazon Crossing on November 4, 2014

Until the Debt is Paid opens with the brutal death of a judge in Berlin named George Holoch. We then cut to homicide detective Jan Tommen who wakes up with a hangover to find that he's lost a day and is a suspect in the investigation of Holoch's murder. Of course, Jan's blood is found at the crime scene, the judge's blood is found on his shirt, and Jan's fingerprints are all over the murder weapon. And, of course, his only alibi is a girlfriend who dies of an apparent suicide before she can clear his name. Another death follows and Jan is a suspect in that one, as well.

As is the convention in this well-traveled plot, Jan evades the police while trying to find the killer who framed him. Jan is assisted by capably crafted secondary characters, including a Rwandan bouncer named Chandu, a priest named Father Anberger, a computer hacker named Max, and a forensic scientist named Zoe.

Alexander Hartung moves the novel quickly but much of the ground it covers will be familiar to mystery readers. The framed detective relies on the computer hacker who is a social misfit and the medical examiner who believes in his innocence despite all the evidence to the contrary. Jan indulges in the obligatory prayer despite his questionable faith (although, to his credit, he doesn't pray for himself). Red herring suspects are planted to misdirect the reader. Seasoned readers will recognize them as red herrings because they are too obvious to be shocking.

Despite the novel's formulaic nature, the reveal surprised me. Surprising reveals are often forced but this one follows the logic of the story. That's the key to success in this formula and so, to that extent, the novel works. Characters are reasonably well developed and the Berlin setting, while less than vivid, gives the novel some added appeal. The ending sets up additional novels with some of the same characters. On the strength of this one, I'm willing to give the next one a shot, but I would hope that it is less formulaic and makes greater use of Berlin's noir atmosphere.



The Ice Cream Man by Katri Lipson

Published in Finland in 2012; published in translation by AmazonCrossing on October 7, 2014

The Ice Cream Man won the European Prize for Literature. I assume it is a stunning novel that simply went over my head since I often found myself trying to understand it. Nearly every character seems to be living someone else's life. The novel is a brief generational saga of sorts, beginning shortly after World War II and continuing until shortly after Jan Palach, a Czech student, set fire to himself in 1969 as an act of political protest. That act motivates a character in the novel named Jan Vorszda to buy a jerry can ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The novel begins with a director filming a movie called The Ice Cream Man. He has no script. He tells the actors almost nothing except the names, ages, and nationalities (Czech) of the characters they will be playing. The movie is largely improvised as it is filmed. To an extent, the novel has the same feel, but I assume that is deliberate. Part of the novel's early intrigue is the difficulty of separating what happens in the movie from what "really" happens while sorting out the "true" lives of the actors from the fictional roles they play.

The lead actor and actress take a furtive journey together, pretending to be a married couple. A bridge is blown up, Germans are everywhere, and the travelers are forced to take a room in a boarding house. The man goes away and something eventful happens to him that requires him to be portrayed by another actor. Whether the characters are living their real lives or their shadow lives, whether there is a meaningful difference between the two, is a question they discuss but do not resolve.

The story that the director films is, he claims, so common that people identify with it, particularly women who see themselves as the woman in the film. One such woman is, according to the director, part of a "shadow theater." Whether the woman is a shadow of a character in the film or whether the film is a shadow of real life is never quite clear. Thus we have actors playing the roles of characters who are playing invented roles, and in one case an actor being replaced by a different actor, raising all sorts of identity questions that would probably be profound and meaningful if I understood the point.

Later (and abruptly) the story shifts to a young man named Jan whose mother once took him to see The Ice Cream Man, a movie that he barely recalls and that relates to his father in a way he does not understand (although the reader does, eventually). The student is self-absorbed, rude, and dull. He's apparently a political dissident although he's more of a nothing. He eventually makes his way to Sweden where he becomes the plaything of a group of young women who like the fact that he's from Prague. Jan Vorszda evidently identifies with Jan Palach in another of the novel's many confusions of identity. His daughter completes the circle by visiting Poland, where she pretends to be the woman whose former apartment she is occupying.

The accolades for this prize-winning story call it "playful and charming." I thought it was puzzling and obscure. It isn't dull and it has the virtue of brevity. The prose is commendable. The Ice Cream Man might appeal to a more intellectually gifted reader. I just didn't get it.



Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

Published by Doubleday on September 16, 2014

Love Me Back, title notwithstanding, is not a trashy romance novel. It is quite the opposite. The narrator is Marie Young. When the novel begins, Marie is a 22-year-old waitress who has frequent unsatisfying sex with the doctors who visit her upscale steakhouse ... and with the owners, managers, cooks, busboys, and other servers who work with her. She has "that broken sooty piece of something lodged inside you making you veer left" instead of continuing on a straight and narrow path. She has always known that a "normal" life of wife and mother could never be her reality.

Marie is clearly smarter than the life she is living, although it is late in the novel before we learn just how smart she is and how much potential she has wasted. She takes us through her history -- a teenage pregnancy followed by marriage, uncertain parenting skills, lousy temp and waitressing jobs, serial infidelity, drug abuse -- before the story returns to the present. Now she's scarred and living in Dallas, working at the most lucrative waitressing job she's ever had. She has changed her location but little has changed about her life. She loves her five-year-old daughter but rarely sees her. The men she stays with tend to be hateful but they don't stay long since she always cheats on them.

Merritt Tierce's prose is fiercely eloquent, well suited to a story that is raw in its honesty. Readers who dislike explicit language or promiscuous characters would probably want to avoid this book. None of the language is gratuitous, however; its use is consistent with the characters who use it. Nor are the sex scenes unnecessary, given the nature of Marie's life. Certainly they are not meant to titillate.

For all its familiarity, Love Me Back is a compelling account of a young woman's pain. As Marie struggles to understand her behavior, the reader gains insight into how she (and others in her position) uses sex as a shield against grief and loss, or degradation as the punishment they feel they deserve. The question is whether it is possible to kill the pain without killing yourself. Tierce gives the reader no answer to that question, which is the novel's only flaw. The story has an unfinished feel because Marie's life is unfinished, but it is disappointing that this snapshot of her life offers few clues as to where her life will take her.



Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín 

Published by Scribner on October 7, 2014

Nora Webster is coping with the recent death of her husband. She has two boys at home, a daughter at school, and decisions to make. After neighbors and friends stop calling, after things settle down, she has to work out a new way to live. Should she sell the summer cottage? Return to work? Dye her hair? Move to Dublin? With the death of her spouse, Nora feels trapped. She does not want to surrender her quiet life, the satisfaction of having daylight hours to herself and comfortable evenings with her husband, but she has no choice.

Nora Webster's story is that of a worried widow. She worries about money, about whether she is raising her children properly, about riots in Derry, about attempts to unionize her workplace, about her politically active daughter in a troubled country. She worries about the stammer her son acquired after his father died and about his silences. She worries about what people think of her. The reader cannot help but worry about Nora and her shattered life. At the same time, Nora is not painted as a perfect person. Her pride interferes with her good sense. She hides from people instead of seeking their help. Her attempts to communicate meaningfully are faltering if she makes any attempt at all. These traits contribute to the difficulties she must try to overcome.

Colm Tóibín emphasizes the judgment that surrounds Nora, the eager condemnation that meets every decision she makes. Nora lives in a town of traditions that are enforced by gossip. A widow's decision to remove the gray from her hair is scandalous. Her aunt blames Nora for leaving her children with the aunt while their father was dying. Nora is afraid of being ridiculed if she sings in public, of being criticized if she spends too much money on a dress or a stereo.

In some ways, Nora's stammering son Donal is the most interesting character. He is obsessed with photography but he takes pictures that are deliberately unfocused, often nearly blank. He photographs the television screen as the news shows rioting in Belfast, but he refuses to take pictures of the people in his life.

Tóibín builds the novel's background from the things that divide people -- social class, religion, politics, geography -- and the resentments they inspire. As always, Tóibín writes with great subtlety. Characters use language that is pregnant with meanings that are either implied or unintended. The simple issues are often the most confounding. Should Nora loan her daughter money? Should she insist that her sullen son join the rest of the family at the beach? Tóibín illustrates the difficulty of making even the most mundane decisions when the spouse who shared that responsibility is no longer present.

The possibility -- indeed, the inevitability -- of change is the novel's theme. As Nora drifts, she rediscovers an interest from her past that transforms her, that takes her to a place she could not occupy with her husband. She gains strength in small increments and in unexpected ways. The reader roots for Nora to become a more determined person, less willing to be defined by the expectations of others, and to overcome her fears and weaknesses. (To learn what progress she makes, if any, you'll just need to read the book.)

In some novels, Tóibín writes about extraordinary people. In Nora Webster, he manages to find the extraordinary in an ordinary life. The clarifying light that Tóibín shines on the small details of Nora's life distinguishes Nora Webster from an ordinary novel.