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.


Brush Back by Sara Paretsky

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on July 28, 2015

"Romeo would have vanished without a single metaphor if Juliet had appeared on her balcony looking like this." Sentences like that keep me coming back to Sara Paretsky. So do good stories and believable characters. Brush Back is a strong entry in a strong series.

In a story that focuses on Chicago politics, Chicago cops, Chicago's south side neighborhoods, and Chicago sports (Cubs and Blackhawks), Peretsky celebrates and derides the Windy City with love and honesty. The city's history of corruption -- its commingling of crime with politics and law enforcement -- is never whitewashed, yet it's clear that V.I. Warshawski loves no view more than Chicago's skyline as seen from the shores of Lake Michigan.

A high school boyfriend from Chicago's south side wants Warshawski to help his mother, Stella Guzzo, who has just finished a 20 year sentence for killing her daughter Annie. Given that Stella called Warshawski's mother a whore at the mother's funeral, Warshawski has no desire to help Stella. Inevitably, Warshawski returns to South Chicago and pokes her nose into Annie's death. Her investigation quickly changes course after Stella accuses Warshawski's cousin, long-deceased hockey star "Boom Boom" Warshawski, of committing the murder.

Stella was defended twenty years earlier by an easily manipulated young lawyer of marginal competence, but why did he take the case? What secrets is he keeping? Warshawski's investigation takes her to various law offices, to old acquaintances of Stella's lawyer, to Wrigley Field, to a trucking company, to a priest, to a retired judge, and to the police department (involuntarily) when a character who seemed to be on the periphery of the story suddenly turns up dead. That death begins a second murder mystery. There are a handful of suspects who may have killed Annie (including Stella) and maybe a dozen who might have killed the more recent victim. Eventually we learn of a missing person and another murder. Of course, Warshawski's job (and the reader's) is to tie the mysteries together and figure out who did what and why.

The most engaging subplot involves a teenage relative who is staying with Warshawski and who makes her feel old. Plot complications and twists abound but the story is always easy to follow, thanks in part to internal summaries that fit naturally into the narrative.

Paretsky generates credible tension with a good bit of action toward the end. One of the final action scenes pushes the bounds of credibility, but less so than most modern thrillers. Warshawski is a familiar character and she doesn't change significantly in this novel, but not every series entry needs to involve character evolution. Brush Back does, however, shed some new light on Warshawski's past. The solid plot, the clever resolution of the mysteries, and Paretsky's winning prose are easily enough to make me recommend Brush Back.



China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Published by Doubleday on June 16, 2015

The ordinary rich have a few hundred million. The China rich have billions. China Rich Girlfriend skewers the China rich as well as ordinary Asian multimillionaires. Like most novels that skewer frivolous and empty people, it is ultimately frivolous and empty, lacking insight beyond "look at how absurd and pretentious these people are." Still, the novel is tons of fun and Kevin Kwan's snappy prose kept me engaged.

With the help of a spreadsheet and some Venn diagrams, you might be able to keep track of the relationships between the characters who appear in China Rich Girlfriend. One connecting thread is Carlton Bao, who crashes his Ferrari into a Jimmy Choo after a night of London club hopping. Carlton's father is both a politician and the owner of one of China's biggest drug companies. His mother pampers him but so does his casual lover Colette Bing, the daughter of one of China's five richest men who contrives through Twitter, a publicist, and careful grooming of the Chinese paparazzi to maintain her celebrity status. She's sort of the Paris Hilton of China.

Also central to the story is Eleanor Young's son Nick, who is a professor at NYU. He is newly engaged to Rachel Chu but tries to keep that a secret from Eleanor, who despises Rachel (largely because Nick's grandmother plans to disinherit him if he marries Rachel) until she learns who Rachel's father really is.

And then there's Mrs. Bernard Tai, formerly the soap opera star Kitty Pong, who married well and wants the world to know it. Her ostentatious display of wealth (which falls just short of China rich) assures that she will be denied social acceptance in the upper classes unless she benefits from the services provided by social coach Corinna Ko-Tung.

Apart from providing an introductory tour of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore, China Rich Girlfriend can be read as a wealthy outsider's guide to how one might fit into the Asian upper class -- how to dress, where to eat, what to eat, where to shop, what to drive, how to behave, what to say -- although a non-Asian outsider would never find social acceptance no matter how closely the rules are followed. The Asian hierarchy -- Filipinos and Malaysians are always outsiders although sufficient wealth might allow them to join the right dining club or church -- also plays a role. Amusing footnotes translate colorful Chinese phrases and explain the bewildering variety of noodles, dumplings, and buns upon which the characters feast.

To the extent that there is a plot here, the storylines wrap into one big soap opera, which isn't my kind of story. I was nevertheless so amused by the characters and their pretensions, and so taken with Kwan's ability to turn a phrase and to create vivid backgrounds, that I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, notwithstanding its shallow content.



Scents and Sensibility by Spencer Quinn

Published by Atria Books on July 14, 2015

A saguaro cactus in the yard of Bernie Little's elderly neighbor, Daniel Parsons, brings the cactus police. Chet, who enjoys marking the cactus, is always happy to see Parsons' dog, Iggy. Chet, of course, is Bernie's dog and a partner in the Little Detective Agency.

The cactus cop has a puppy named Shooter. The puppy (not yet named) appeared in an earlier Chet and Bernie novel. He bears a suspicious resemblance to Chet and has some of Chet's mannerisms. If Chet has a secret, he isn't telling. Actually, he's probably forgotten. Chet forgets almost everything except interesting smells, people he likes (a rather large collection), and favorite foods (an even larger collection that begins with Slim Jims).

The stolen cactus was a gift from Parson's son, who is perhaps not the most honest person in California. Wanting to keep his neighbor out of trouble, Bernie begins a cactus investigation that soon turns into a murder investigation. Of course, he works for free, Chet being the only one on the team who worries about money -- although Chet never worries for long, being easily distracted by chew toys and sandwiches.

With Iggy and/or Shooter so often in the picture, Chet is a bit jealous, although he doesn't think of it that way. Like all dogs, he has no desire to share affection and contrives to nudge the smaller dogs out of the way if Bernie tries to scratch their ears. Chet's running commentary on the mysterious things that humans say and do is the reason these novels are never disappointing.

As to the plot -- Chet has harrowing adventures that are more worrisome than is common in a Chet and Bernie novel. It's funny how when someone threatens Bernie or bashes him on the head I don't much care, but I always worry about Chet. Fortunately, Chet can take care of himself, and Shooter is a chip off the old Chet.

I noticed some puzzling reviews on Amazon that complain about the darkness of this novel. This is a thriller, after all, but most of the story is written with Spencer Quinn's usual good humor and light touch. There are certainly no graphic descriptions of animal abuse. Things are a little rough for Chet and Bernie and the cliffhanger ending departs from other Chet and Bernie novels, but life isn't always sunny and I think it is fair for fiction to reflect that. Scents and Sensibility allows readers to escape to a happier world even if the ending forces them to stay in touch with reality. In fact, I think it's one of the better books in the series.



Hard Rain by Peter Abrahams

First published in 1988; published digitally by Open Road Media on July 28, 2015

Peter Abrahams writes the terrifically amusing Chet and Bernie novels using the penname Spencer Quinn. First published in 1988, Hard Rain is a more traditional thriller. It moves quickly and features a likable protagonist and a quirky supporting cast. I think Abrahams hit his stride with the Chet and Bernie series, but Hard Rain proves that he is a writer with range.

Jessie Rodney expects Pat, her ex-husband, to drop off their daughter, Kate, but neither Pat nor Kate can be found. Jessie finds Kate's favorite shoes and the book Kate was reading in Pat's house. Some words are written on a blackboard in a language Jessie does not recognize. When she visits the house again, the words have been erased. It soon becomes clear that Jessie's life is at risk, although why that is true is not so clear.

Jessie's search for her daughter takes her back to Pat's younger days, when he lived in a commune and played in a band with a senator's son who went MIA in Vietnam. There she meets a number of societal dropouts, some of whom knew Pat back in his commune days (although none of them can imagine Pat in the role of husband or father). Eventually some villains appear.

Also appearing is a member of the intelligence community named Ivan Zyzmchuk, who is too old for field work but unsuited to an office environment. He is nevertheless assigned to an investigation -- probably his last before a forced retirement and an opportunity to get him out of the office -- that will (for reasons not immediately made clear) bring him into contact with Jessie.

Much about Hard Rain is not immediately made clear, which is why it tells such an intriguing story. The plot that eventually emerges, like the solution to the various mysteries that Jessie and Zymchuk encounter, is plausible, although a bit too contrived. Notwithstanding that it is fairly easy to guess the central truth (or at least part of it) before it is revealed, the resolution of a collateral mystery at the end surprised me -- probably because I lost track of it. Abrahams packed a lot of plot into this novel and did it without wasting words, which I appreciate. While I enjoyed Hard Rain for its colorful characters more than its plot, the story always held my interest.



Orders is Orders by L. Ron Hubbard

First published in Argosy in 1937; published in trade paperback by Galaxy Press on March 16, 2009 as part of its Stories From the Golden Age series

L. Ron Hubbard wrote stories in a variety of genres before he invented a religion that, despite being founded by aliens, came to be embraced by an uncertain number of people (estimates range from 30,000 to 10 million). Hubbard was a good storyteller and religions are all about stories, so it was a natural fit.

Orders is Orders is written in the typical style of 1937 pulp fiction -- which makes sense, since that's when this story first appeared. It is one of the early stories in Hubbard's writing career.

The Japanese are laying waste to China, the United States is neutral, and members of the American Consulate in Shunkien need money and medicine in order to make it out alive. A Navy ship has money and medicine but Shunkien is 200 miles inland. The captain decides to send two expendable Marines because the deaths of more would risk an incident. During their trek, the two men manage to encounter a feisty American woman who accompanies them on their mission.

Hubbard gives reasonable depth to his characters, particularly the leader of the mission, who has a serious drinking problem (will it jeopardize his mission?) and a problem dealing with his past, including the 15 years he spent being raised by his missionary father in China. The story moves quickly and resolves in a way that is satisfying, albeit predictable.