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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.


Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Published by Tor Books on May 10, 2016

Only at the end of this relatively long book did I discover that the story extends to a second book. I suspect that after reading the second one, I will conclude that the entire story could have been told in a much tightened single volume. But I will read the next one because there is so much in this one to admire, despite the novel’s meandering nature.

Set a few hundred years in the future, the story in Too Like the Lightning is narrated by Mycroft Canner, a man who is notorious for reasons that are not made clear until after the novel’s midway point. The book is presented as a work of history. The history that Canner explains is strikingly imaginative. In a genre that is too often filled with derivative works that don’t even try to place a fresh spin on old themes, Too Like the Lightning stands out.

Following a catastrophe that had something to do with religious conflict, the Earth’s people have chosen to organize themselves by shared philosophies rather than national boundaries. Individuals belong to one of seven hives (Humanists, Utopians, Masons, etc.) or they are Hiveless. For the most part, hives determine their own laws. Only a few basic laws apply to the Hiveless. Within a hive, people are grouped by membership in a chosen family known as a bash’; bash’mates may or may not be related by blood.

In this politically correct future, people use gender-neutral pronouns and the practice of proselytizing religion has been banned. To preclude the development of cults, the law forbids groups of more than two from having an unchaperoned theological discussion. The chaperone is a Sensayer who, without proselytizing, helps people find their own answers.

Carlyle Foster is a Sensayer who has been assigned to the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’. One bash’ member, a kid named Bridger, apparently works miracles. Carlyle isn’t permitted to express personal opinions about miracles, but he privately regards Bridger’s power as both revealing and disturbing. Bridger is an innocent kid with a sweet nature, but he’s in danger for surprising reasons that Mycroft Canner reveals quite slowly as he narrates the story.

When it isn’t following Bridger, the plot focuses on the theft of a seven-ten list, an annual ranking of the world’s most powerful or influential people. This sounds like something that should be in People magazine but the lists are taken quite seriously.

A subplot (not fully developed here but perhaps that will come later) involves the status of set-sets. A set-set grows up wired to a computer, swimming in raw data, optimized and trained for a particular purpose, like keeping automated cars from crashing.

Another plot thread reveals a key theme -- whether people can change. Mycroft Canner, once the embodiment of evil, claims to have changed. Bridger believes him, but Bridger has good reason to believe in miracles. Carlyle doesn’t believe in the miracle of change, at least as applied to Mycroft Canner. Again, the reader must suspend judgment as the story twists its way to an answer that, unfortunately, this volume does not fully reveal.

A second key theme -- although it does not develop until late in the novel -- is an old philosophical question concerning the utility of murder. Is it acceptable to kill one person to save ten? And if so, who should be entitled to make that judgment?

Keeping track of all the characters and the complexities of the world that Ada Palmer built is challenging. I attribute my struggle to concentration lapses rather than any fault of the writing, which is consistently strong. Some of it is quite amusing, including a reimagining of Marquis de Sade’s pornographic blend of religion and sex.

The complex plot of Too Like the Lightning is less compelling than the novel’s intricate background. The plot too often seems directionless, or maybe the entire novel is just too ambitious. There’s so much going on that the plot does not come into focus until near the novel’s end. That’s a fault that I suspect could have been cured by writing a tighter single novel rather than an extended story spread over two volumes, although the political and cultural detail that animates this inventive future certainly justifies a long book.

The ending, like the story’s background, is intriguing. One of the novel’s key revelations comes right at the end -- not exactly a cliffhanger, but something to ponder as a key to unlocking the conspiratorial plot. Combined with high quality prose, those features of this sometimes bewildering novel whetted my interest in reading the next one.



Hostile Intent by Clive Egleton

This is a repost of a review posted on Tzer Island in 2010. The book was first published in 1993. It has been out of print for some time, but has been published digitally by Endeavour Press as of June 19, 2016.

Hostile Intent is an old-fashioned spy story, Clive Egleton's first to feature SIS agent Peter Ashton. The well-paced novel begins with the assassination of Bob Whittle, a member of the British Army's Intelligence Corps, shortly after his meeting in Dresden with Galina Kutuzova, a GRU officer who reports to the KGB. Galina has been selling information to Whittle, while her partner, Yuri Rostovsky, has been peddling it to the Americans. Together they have profited by selling classified information to the French. Ashton is called in to to investigate Whittle's murder -- a task that proves difficult given the unwillingness of the Foreign Office to blame the Russians for anything in light of the Cold War's demise. The KGB kills Rostovsky and Galina flees to avoid attempts on her life while Ashton, trying to spook a GRU officer into contacting Moscow about Galina, pretends to be a double agent, risking his credibility with his own superiors. Egleton ratchets up tension as Ashton tries to find Galina before the KGB can locate and kill her.

Although Hostile Intent is carefully plotted, there are times when the story becomes difficult to believe. It was particularly hard to understand the continuing desire of the Foreign Office to ignore the true cause of Whittle's murder and to treat Galina as unimportant, given fairly obvious evidence that Galina and Rostovsky were selling highly classified material and that Galina still had information that would benefit the British. The nature of the information she finally reveals is also a bit over the top. A separate problem with Hostile Intent is that Egleton's writing style, while competent, needed improvement: Hostile Intent includes too many awkward sentences and Egleton too often resorted to cliche. Apart from those quibbles, Hostile Intent is a novel I would recommend to fans of espionage fiction. Ashton isn't quite in a league with George Smiley or Bernard Samson, but Egleton spins an entertaining story and peppers it with enough action to keep the pages turning.



Burn What Will Burn by C.B. McKenzie

Published by Minotaur Books on June 21, 2016

Burn What Will Burn is the kind of crime novel I admire. The prose is vivid but the story is compact. The plot unfolds without a wasted word. The story is intricate without becoming labored or farfetched.

Far off the path of Arkansas Scenic Highway 7, Bob Reynolds finds a dead body in a muddy creek where he goes to fish. Maybe the dead man slipped and drowned but in the absence of a wallet or car, that seems unlikely. Also tourists don’t fish where there are insects and alligators.

Reynolds is a financially independent poet with a tragic history who chooses to live like he’s dirt poor, even though he has shrewdly invested his inheritance (dead father) and insurance payout (dead wife). What Reynolds wants, money can’t buy, so he doesn’t bother to spend any.

An unfriendly Sheriff seems unsurprised when there’s no body where Reynolds last saw it. Even if the Sheriff doesn’t want to solve the crime, Reynolds is convinced that self-preservation requires him to pursue it. After all, Reynolds might be blamed for the murder, or maybe for more than one. The reader eventually learns why Reynolds holds that belief.

In addition to the Sheriff, several interesting characters surround Reynolds, including a special needs child named Malcolm, Malcolm’s no-good father and judgmental grandfather, a cellmate who is the walking definition of trailer trash, an auto mechanic named Tammy Fay who is the object of his (and most everyone’s) lust, a collection of bar hounds (both educated and not), and the town doctor. Reynolds is the outsider, having not grown up in the town.

Nearly everyone in the town is corrupt, if not murderous. Characters are motivated by realistic obsessions that add to their credibility. Reynolds is no paragon of virtue, but his enigmatic nature and concealed past force the reader to make guesses about just how bad he might be. Compared to the rest of the town, any evil tendencies he might have certainly don’t stand out.

All of the characters are sketched convincingly. We learn just enough to understand them, but the story doesn’t bog down with needless background. Authentic dialog contributes dark humor to the story. I had never heard of C.B. McKenzie before reading this novel, so I didn't know what to expect from him. I was more than pleasantly surprised.



Angels of Detroit by Christopher Hebert

Published by Bloomsbury USA on July 5, 2016

Angels of Detroit is the kind of novel that relates the stories of several different people who turn out to be connected in some way. It takes some time to find the binding threads. One of the threads is Detroit itself, a symbol of industrial power that has been supplanted by decay and neglect. It also takes some time to find the point. I’m not sure I ever did.

HSI, a military contractor that makes consumer products in addition to weapons, is Detroit’s last remaining large employer. The company divides Detroit because the city depends on it for jobs, while protesters view it as a symbol of the military-industrial complex.

After devoting years to ineffectual protest, a young woman named McGee hatches a plan to expose the nefarious deeds of HSI. Her friend Myles plays along, but only because he is smitten with McGee. Ruth Freeman is an HSI executive who worked her way up from the bottom and views herself as the conscience of the corporation.

Darius is married to Sylvia and having an affair with Violet. His friend Michael Boni, a cabinetmaker, is working off his guilt about neglecting his crabby grandmother, whose house he inherited, by helping a crabby neighbor named Constance with her gardening.

Constance has a granddaughter named Clementine. Clementine is a loner who doesn’t have much use for most of her family members. She intersects with Dobbs when she notices that he’s occupying a formerly empty house in the neighborhood. Dobbs has been sent to Detroit to facilitate the arrival of illegal cargo from Mexico, but its arrival is continuously delayed, leaving Dobbs with dwindling funds and no clear idea of how to pass the time.

Much of the story revolves around protest. McGee’s initial plan to expose corporate wrongdoing sort of fizzles out, so she resorts to blowing up HSI properties. That plot thread (like most of the others) fizzles out, but it does serve to tie some of the characters together.

Many of the episodes in this episodic novel -- such as Boni’s attempts to raise birds and an epilog set in a remote Mexican village -- struck me as contributing little value to the story. Darius and Freeman both play ambiguous roles in the story, leaving me to wonder whether any character in the novel would contribute something meaningful to the plot. Most of them are left hanging, seemingly abandoned, by the novel’s end. Constance at least brings a resolution to one of the plot threads. She also displays a strength of character that most of the others lack, but her role in the story is quite limited.

Christopher Hebert’s elegant prose makes the novel easy to read. He highlights the humanity of his characters, making them easy to like. Many of the plot threads are interesting, although they aren’t all equally interesting. I’m just not sure of the novel’s purpose.

Detroit (as a symbol of industrial cities) is, I suppose, the novel’s point. The various characters have their own ideas about how to save the city. McGee would destroy it to facilitate rebirth. Freeman places her faith in HSI. Constance grows lettuce. Darius doesn’t know what to think. Christopher Hebert eventually draws a parallel between an abandoned resort development in Mexico and the abandonment of Detroit. All of that is moderately interesting but the ambitious story left me wondering exactly what Hebert was trying to say. On the theory that I missed it while more astute readers might get it, I will recommend the novel, but more for its sharp characters, detailed landscape, and pleasing prose than for its plot.



Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John

Published in Nigeria in 2015; published by Grove Atlantic/Black Cat on May 3, 2016

Born on a Tuesday follows young Ahmad Dantala, an Islamic Nigerian, as he is swept up by violence and corruption, runs from bullets, finds refuge in a mosque, and tries to fight the temptations that make teenage boys tremble in the night. In the mosque, Dantala struggles with English and friendship, both of which he shares with an abused boy named Jabril. As is common in novels of this nature, he questions some of the harsher interpretations of Islamic law. He becomes deputy to a Sheikh who guides his lessons. He also discovers that there is corruption in Nigeria. Who knew?

Dantala’s struggle eventually puts him in the middle of competing religious and governmental factions. Born on a Tuesday positions Dantala as a symbolic representative of peaceful people everywhere who become the victims of power struggles spawned by zealots.

Much of the novel’s background concerns the struggle between two opposing views of Islam, one that wants to separate itself from the Nigerian government and oppose it violently, and one that wants to work within the Nigerian government to influence institutions and bring about change. The conflict makes Dantala wonder how Muslims can respond to people fighting them all over the world when they are constantly fighting among themselves. The conflict spills into Dantala’s life in many ways, particularly in the effect it has on his friend Jabril. Another religious struggle that the book touches upon (although not too deeply) involves the conflict between Sunni and Shia within Nigeria. The primary background element involves the Nigerian Army’s massacre of the Shia.

Since this is a coming-of-age novel, Dantala does the things that boys do, including having sex with a prostitute and touching himself, actions that his religion forbids. His interactions with women, as is typically true of young men in coming-of-age novels, are awkward. Religious strife leads to violence -- a mixture of killings by individuals, police, and soldiers -- that Dantala feels powerless to address.

Born on a Tuesday conveys the political and religious conflict that surround Dantala, but Elnathan John never made me feel Dantala’s emotional responses. Perhaps the prose is a bit too clinical. Although John makes clear that Dantala’s experiences (including torture) are horrifying, the experiences are not emotionally convincing. Dantala told me about his pain but didn’t make me feel it. The religious rituals in which Dantala engages (such as daily prayer and washing the body of his dead friend) are common to novels about Muslims, but the novel is disappointing in its failure to explore Dantala's connection to his religion in greater depth.

As an account of an oppressed religious minority in Nigeria, however, Born on a Tuesday has value. It also has value as the account of a young man trying to make sense of a world that too often makes no sense at all. A more seasoned novelist might have written a more moving story, but Born on a Tuesday has the great virtue of honesty.