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
May252018

One Way by S.J. Morden

Published by Orbit on April 10, 2018

Like The Martian, One Way is about an effort to survive on Mars when things go wrong. Unlike The Martian, all but one of the people on Mars in One Way are prisoners. They have practical skills apart from crime, but they aren’t engineers so they can’t “science the shit” out of their problems. And unlike The Martian, there are several of them, so some characters can die on Mars and the story can continue. S.J. Morden also throws in a mystery plot that takes off at about the novel’s midway point, making One Way something more than a survival novel.

An inmate named Frank Kittridge, serving a sentence too long to survive, is given the option to take his construction skills to Mars. With several other prisoners, he’s trained and rocketed off to space to build a habitat that will be occupied by astronauts and scientists who will arrive later. California has privatized some of its prisons, and the corporation that has the building contract on Mars also owns a private prison, so prison labor is pretty easy to find.

Despite all the cheerleading for the privatization of space exploration, Morden imagines that profit-motivated enterprises will work as they always have, cutting corners and maximizing profits at the expense of human safety. That’s particularly true, Morden posits, when the human workers are prisoners and thus disposable.

The private contractors hired by NASA to build a base on Mars have not been entirely forthright with NASA about the their cost-saving strategies. When Frank and the gang reach Mars, they discover that things haven’t gone according to plan (at least as they understood the plan), because the layers of redundancy that NASA would use to assure safety were deemed too costly by the corporation that sent the prisoners to Mars. And anyway, the corporation has its own employee supervising the prisoners who intends to sort things out for the corporation’s benefit before the astronauts arrive.

During the first two thirds of One Way, the prisoners train and travel to Mars and deal with adversity as they assemble a habitat and worry about producing food and water and oxygen and heat. In its later stages, the plot evolves from a Martian survival story to a Martian mystery novel. Frank learns that someone is driving the buggies at night. Then he learns that containers have been dropped on Mars that the prisoners weren’t told about. Then prisoners begin to die in ways that may or may not be accidental. It falls to Frank to find the clues and solve the mystery.

Morden tells a smart, lively story in One Way, although the story holds few surprises, which diminishes its value as a mystery. Characters have enough personality to distinguish them from each other, and important characters have enough personality to make them seem real. The scenes that take place on Mars seem credible and are vividly described. While I thought the story was working its way to a predictable ending, I was surpised to find that the story isn’t resolved. The ending isn’t exactly a cliffhanger, but there is at least one more novel on the way, and readers who want to know how the story concludes will need to read it. I enjoyed One Way (as a science fiction adventure story more than a science fiction mystery) so I have no objection to reading the next novel, but potential readers should know that One Way does not stand alone.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
May232018

Give-a-Damn Jones by Bill Pronzini

Published by Tor/Forge Books on May 8, 2018

As much as I love the lyrical descriptions of setting and the complex characterizations found in literary fiction, there is a special place in my heart for storytellers who confront memorable characters with compelling conflicts and resolve their plots without placing an unnecessary word on the page. Not many storytellers have that gift, but the prolific Bill Pronzini is one of them. While Pronzini primarily writes crime fiction, he’s authored a number of westerns, including his most recent, Give-a-Damn Jones.

Owen Hazard, who narrates the first and last chapters in Give-a-Damn Jones, meets Artemas Jones in Butte, where Hazard hopes to find temporary employment as a typesetter before resuming his roaming. Hazard is awestruck; Jones is something of a legend among itinerant typesetters.

When Jones moves on to Box Elder, the story moves with him. Various chapters are narrated by: a ramrod who works for a cantankerous rancher named Elijah Greathouse; the town’s newspaper owner and his son; the town marshal and his deputy; a farmer; a bartender; a saddle maker who is waiting to die at the hand of a newly released prisoner who vowed to kill him; the released prisoner, who is innocent of the crime for which he served time; a painless dentist who sells an elixir and has his own version of a traveling medicine show; and the dentist’s banjo-playing sidekick. And then there’s Greathouse’s daughter, who loves the released prisoner, despite Greathouse’s efforts to keep them apart. Greathouse — who wants to keep all the ranch land in eastern Montana for himself and is trying to drive off settlers and itinerant farmers who have every right to be there — is the novel’s primary villain, although the saddle maker is a close second.

With so many characters, the plot zigs and zags to interesting places before it settles on an ending. Part of the story addresses the conflict between Greathouse and the released prisoner while another involves the conflict between the released prisoner and the saddle maker. Greathouse schemes against the newspaper owner, whose animosity toward Greathouse is evident in frequent editorials. Still another subplot introduces a conflict between the painless dentist and a mean-spirit blacksmith who doesn’t think his tooth extraction was as painless as advertised. Jones stays in the background for much of the story, although he wanders into the plot at opportune moments.

Prozinski doesn’t use his carefully chosen words to describe the big Montana sky or how characters feel about their childhood, but he crafts easily visualized settings and gives each character a distinct personality. Most of his workmanlike prose is used to move the story along its winding path. I always enjoy Prozinski’s novels for exactly that reason: he puts the story first, without neglecting characterization or atmosphere.

Traditional westerns are known for confronting issues of justice and injustice in stark terms, for separating the white hats from the black hats, and Prozinksi furthers that tradition here. While Give-a-Damn Jones isn’t a story of moral ambiguity, and while Jones has the classic humility of a western loner hero, the novel has elements of realism (Greathouse’s daughter isn’t chaste; Jones carouses in bordellos and hates riding horses) that distinguish it from the Westerns of the 1950s. In the end, Give-a-Damn Jones gets my recommendation because Pronzini, as he always does, tells a good story.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
May212018

Old Black Magic by Ace Atkins

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on May 1, 2018

Technically, the title of this book is Robert B. Parker’s Old Black Magic, but since Parker (1932-2010) is dead and buried, it isn’t really his, even if it continues the Spenser stories that Parker created. At least G.P. Putnam’s Sons put Ace Atkins’ name on the cover shown above in a font that is noticeable, although not as large as the font used for Parker’s name. (Another version of the cover rather shamefully puts Atkins' name in much smaller font.) Read the Amazon reviews in a couple of months and I assure you that some readers will have purchased this book in the belief that Parker wrote it.

Spenser is hired to find an El Greco that was stolen from the Winthrop twenty years ago, along with a Picasso sketch and another painting. He makes inquiries among his aging connections in the police as well as the Boston underworld, and dutifully accompanies the woman who hired him as she prepares to pay a ransom for the return of the Picasso. One thing leads to another before Spenser is fired by the snooty museum Board and replaced by a snooty British investigator who specializes in art theft.

Of course, being fired won’t deter Spenser. His continued investigation leads him into old underworld feuds, including a closed case involving a mob murder that may or may not be related to the art theft. The El Greco seems to have changed hands more than once, making Spenser feel like he’s playing a game of “Mafia musical chairs.” More murders ensue, giving Spenser reason to wonder who will try to kill him next.

Atkins captures the banter and wisecracks that Parker employed to make Spenser a popular character, even if the series was getting a bit stale by the time of Parker’s death. I don’t know that Atkins has refreshed it — taking the series in a new direction would probably violate his contract, since books about beloved characters whose creators have died are meant to give readers more of the same — but he certainly hasn’t harmed the franchise. Spenser’s girlfriend Susan, his dog Pearl, and a variety of cops and mobsters have the opportunity to listen to Spenser’s irreverent wit. Nor has Atkins diminished Spenser’s love of good food (that he prepares in his kitchen or orders in restaurants) and pastries (that he buys from Boston bakeries or bums from his cop buddies).

The plot of Old Black Magic is more believable than is common in most modern crime novels. It makes enough detours to keep Spenser (and the story) moving, including a visit to Memphis, where the BBQ ribs are hard to beat. Meeting all the shady characters who might have some knowledge of the painting is enjoyable, and if the plot isn’t particularly exciting, it has the virtue of making sense — something that can’t always be said about modern crime novels. And there’s a shootout near the end of the story, proving that Spenser is in capable hands with Atkins.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
May182018

Head On by John Scalzi

Published by Tor Books on April 17, 2018

Head On is the second novel set in the “locked in” universe that John Scalzi created in Lock In. A virus called Haden’s Syndrome has caused a small percentage of the population to be “locked” inside their bodies. They can think but they can’t move or communicate in normal ways. Those people are called Hadens. Technology, in the form of a neural network, has made it possible for them to inhabit robots called threeps. The government has funded threeps as a health care benefit for Hadens but the funding is going dry.

Head On is a science fiction mystery featuring FBI agent Chris Shane, who happens to be a Haden. Shane has as much personality as soggy tofu; his edgier partner Vann is a better character. Thanks to his wealthy parents who are considering an investment in a Hilketa team, Shane (inhabiting a threep) is in a luxury box when a Hilketa player named Duane Chapman dies.

Hilketa is played on the field by threeps that are controlled by players who are off the field. The object of the game is to cut off the head of a designated opposing player and to score a goal by carrying, throwing, or punting the head over the goalposts. Threeps are usually operated by Hadens because their neural networks give them a reaction time advantage.

The players controlling the threeps aren’t supposed to be injured by their threep’s decapitation, but Chapman dies after his threep’s head is ripped off for the third time in the game. Shane is therefore front and center in a death investigation which arguably falls within the FBI’s jurisdiction because of the interstate nature of Hilketa, whose players are generally in a different state than the venue in which the game is played.

Hadens shouldn’t die from contact with their threeps, so establishing the cause of death is the first problem. Did Chapman’s use of a nutritional supplement that he didn’t endorse have anything to do with his death? Is the league covering something up?

As a science fiction murder mystery, Head On is about average. I enjoyed the science fiction setting more than the actual mystery, which has Shane watching a number of deaths pile up as he tries to piece together clues about how and why Chapman died and how the other deaths are related. The plot is reasonably complex but not wholly engaging, in part because Shane is just a dull guy. Still, Scalzi incorporates enough amusing background details (including vague suggestions about Hadens use threeps to have sex with other Hadens) to make the overall story more interesting than the mystery at its center.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
May162018

Quietus by Tristan Palmgren

Published by Angry Robot on March 6, 2018

Quietus is a novel of big ideas. Like many good books about big ideas, the story focuses on small people, the kind of people who seem insufficiently consequential to drive big ideas. In the end, Quietus reminds us, we are all consequential, even if we seem insignificant in the vastness of the multiverse.

The two central characters in Quietus are Niccoluccio, an Italian monk who is questioning his faith during the plague years, and Dr. Habidah Shen, who doesn’t understand Niccoluccio’s need “to forever be watched and judged” by a higher being. Perhaps Habidah doesn’t understand because she is not from Earth. She is from Caldera, a member plane of the Unity, one of countless planes in the multiverse.

Habidah is working for the amalgamates, who emerged from the AI wars as the most powerful minds in the multiverse (or so they believe). They assured their supremacy by developing “neutered” AIs who could not develop beyond a fixed level. Finding humans to be more useful than other sentients, the amalgamates maintain an empire of human civilizations from many universes. From their residences in core worlds and planarships, the amalgamates protect the Unity from threats, including rival transplanar empires, rogue AIs, invasive species, and nonhuman xenophobes.

Habidah is a researcher who leads a team that is studying how humans on Earth are coping with the plague. The research is important because the Unity is suffering its own plague, one that only appears to infect the demiorganics that make it possible to receive datastreams from machine entities. It also only affects transplaner civilizations — those that have the ability to move across the multiverse. Having defeated disease, the Unity no longer knows how to address it. By studying survival strategies adopted by more primitive societies, the Unity hopes to preserve its existence.

Niccolucio’s crisis of faith comes as he buries his Brothers before abandoning the Monastery and returning to his home in Florence, which for political reasons is even more disheartening than the monastery. Niccolucio and Habidah meet before Niccolucio goes to Florence and meet again after he leaves. At some point, they both discover that the amalgamates’ notion of protecting the empire will require the subjugation of a good many human planets.

The novel takes an unexpected turn when about three-quarters of the story has been told. At that point, the stories of Niccolucio and Habidah are joined as Niccolucio’s beliefs about the nature of the universe evolve to something that is beyond his former religious understanding, while Habidah’s beliefs evolve beyond a science-based understanding of how things work.

The story raises philosophical questions about existence while offering alternatives to traditional religious explanations for being. Just as Star Wars fans can choose to think of the Force in religious terms or not, Quietus imagines the existence of a purposeful and powerful intelligence, a “primal force of the cosmos” that might or might not be understood in a religious sense. It lives between the planes, a place that (to Habidah’s understanding) does not and cannot exist. To someone of Niccolucio’s religious background, that force might seem to be a divine power. To someone of Habidah’s scientific background, the force appears to be an entity of vast power that purports to protect the infinite diversity of the planes from undesirable interplanar contact. But if the power between the planes is the cure for the amalgamates’ ambition, the cure might be worse than the disease — at least from the standpoint of the inhabitants who populate the countless worlds that comprise the Unity.

Quietus touches on fundamental issues of individuality and free will. It asks whether death is a meaningful concept if each of us exists in infinite universes, an infinite number of whom will not die when we die, an infinite number of whom have not yet been born. It asks whether it is possible to believe in an unseen, all-powerful being without worshiping it. In some sense, Quietus asks the reader whether it is necessary to rethink the history of philosophy in light of the multiverse theory. Those are the kinds of questions that make science fiction not just fun, but meaningful.

I admire the sophistication and complexity of thought that underlies Quietus, as well as the depth of the characters. I love the message it delivers — the ultimate purpose of a civilization is not to gain power over other civilizations — yet the novel recognizes that the message is one that the powerful do not willingly accept.

On a more superficial level, I enjoyed the story. A good story is an essential component of fiction, and Quietus tells a story that makes humans from Earth and humans from elsewhere both allies and enemies, while asking whether machine intelligence will be the enemy that finally unites human intelligence or the friend that helps humans reach their full potential. Quietus is ultimately a story about manufacturing miracles — not the miracles made by supernatural powers, but the miracles we must devise for ourselves if we are to survive as a species.

RECOMMENDED