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 weekends.  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.

Wednesday
May222019

Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman

Published by Simon & Schuster on May 21, 2019

As Monty Python used to say, And now for something completely different:

The unnamed narrator of Riots I Have Known is in prison, reporting on a riot that started in A Block while hoping that his lover/rapist/protegee is safe. He edits the prison literary magazine (The Holding Pen) and has barricaded himself inside the Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts where he is following the riot on television news, HuffPost, and Instagram while reporting on events as they happen. The editor tells us that rioting by the Latin Kings and Muslim Brothers is the sort of thing that inspired Sean Hannity’s Million Concealed Weapons March. The prison’s media center, by the way, is named for its wealthy donors to “honor their twin passions for rehabilitation and computer solitaire.”

Anticipating his death and dismemberment, the editor promises to provide the definitive account of The Holding Pen in what he believes will be his final Editor’s Letter. The magazine was the warden’s idea, a journal of the arts showcasing the reform-minded prison where its editor is incarcerated. Far from relating a definitive history of anything, the editor rambles distractedly (as one might do in a riot), telling us about his life in Sri Lanka, including the formative years he spent scouting for landmines and facilitating the bribes paid by the Hilton Hotels advance man, and his later work as a hotel doorman in Manhattan. It is the latter job that earned him his nine consecutive life sentences, for reasons at which he only hints.

The editor is a self-educated man (and an erudite prisoner, as his rich vocabulary and literary/cultural references demonstrate), his education allegedly and absurdly having resulted from devouring the prison library’s editions of Kafka and cast-off paperbacks. The Holding Pen is eventually noticed by the literary world, sparking a discussion of “post-penal lit,” and reaches respectable levels of site traffic after a Republican senator condemns the journal in a speech about “the bloated welfare state.”

Riots I Have Known is a very funny sendup of trendiness in the arts and snobbishness in art criticism, including the obsession with discovering “underrepresented voices,” ketamine addicts among them. While the humor is often focused on the contrast between inmates who contribute poetry, fiction, and art to the journal and the outside world that makes a fetish of the prisoners, Ryan Chapman has fun with relationship humor, corporate corruption, and prison violence (not typically something to laugh at, but Chapman makes it work, even when he’s being stabbed with a substandard shiv). Much of the humor succeeds; some is discomforting, perhaps intentionally so.

The novel is blessedly short, so the reader is not forced to dwell for long in the narrator’s unresolved hell. I’m not entirely certain of the point Chapman intended to make, but if he only intended to make funny references to condescension by the arbiters of culture, he succeeded more often than he failed. Chapman’s approach seems to have been: Scatter your jokes with a machine gun, then get off the stage and let the audience check for blood.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
May202019

Vessel by Lisa A. Nichols

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on May 21, 2019

Vessel is a pedestrian family drama about a woman who survives an ordeal that ends her marriage and places her at risk — the kind of story that is often described as being worthy of a Lifetime movie — dressed up in the trappings of science fiction. The family drama is insipid and the science fiction elements, seemingly cobbled together from bad sf movies, are laughable.

Catherine Wells left Earth on the Sagittarius with five other crew members. All were presumed dead when their life support signals stopped transmitting. Six years later, the Sagittarius pops through a wormhole, carrying only Catherine. She doesn’t remember what happened to the other crew members or the year-and-a-half that she spent on an alien planet. She does remember some things that happened before the ship landed but she doesn’t want to share those with NASA.

The story makes multiple grabs at the reader's heartstrings. On the Sagittarius, Catherine misses her daughter Aimee soooooo much. During her long absence, Catherine’s husband David has fallen in love with Catherine’s friend Maggie. Catherine’s mother has Alzheimer’s. Shallow mother-daughter bonding/fretting/fighting scenes pervade the novel. Could the story be any more obviously manipulative? Readers who enjoy a domestic weepfest might be Vessel’s target audience. I’m not sure how many of those readers gravitate to science fiction, but not to worry, this isn’t a serious attempt at science fiction.

As domestic dramas go, Catherine is not a particularly sympathetic character. She had her own affair while she was away from the planet and, unlike David (who thought she was dead), she had no excuse. Yet David is a supportive husband despite his resentment that Catherine completed mission training while David washed out. In flashbacks, the guy with whom Catherine has a one-night stand confesses that he has loved her since they met and goes into a lasting funk when she tells him she won’t screw him again. No soap opera scenario is left unexplored in Vessel.

The story shows signs of becoming interesting when, back on Earth, Catherine starts blacking out for periods of time. Instead of focusing on plot development, however, the focus is on Catherine’s anxiety each time she has a blackout. Character development is important, but page after page of hand wringing adds little to the story. Too much of the character development focuses on Catherine’s difficulty accepting that David moved on after she was assumed to be dead (the guy is frankly a saint for ending that relationship and taking Catherine back, given what a whiner she turns out to be). Maybe other readers will identify with Catherine. I just wanted to finish the book so I could get away from her.

But back to the plot. The concept (which I won’t reveal for the sake of avoiding spoilers) is so stale that serious sf writers stay away from it unless they can bring a fresh twist. There is nothing fresh about the plot in Vessel. Nearly all of the sf elements struck me as unlikely. Catherine tries to steer their spaceship into the side of a wormhole to see what will happen. Seriously? Before NASA sent a crewed mission to a previously unexplored planet, it wisely sent “probes” but the “probes” failed to detect the presence of water or plant life, both of which can be seen from orbit. Why? Only one of the six crew members on the Sagittarius is a scientist. So there’s a pilot, a scientist, a mission commander, and three astronauts who have no science training? Really? Might as well suit up the Village People.

The first mission through the wormhole involved one astronaut, not even trained as a pilot, in an automated ship. Never in history has NASA done anything that stupid, nor would it. And even though the astronaut returned from the first mission with serious memory impairments and delusional thinking, NASA sent a second mission, from which only Catherine returned alive. Now NASA is eager to send a third crewed mission through the wormhole before learning what caused the first and second missions to fail. Again, seriously? The notion that postponing the mission would be a public relations disaster is ludicrous, given that the first two missions should themselves have been public relations disasters. Nothing could be worse for public relations than sending more astronauts to their deaths.

But this is meant to be a Lifetime plot. Don’t expect to find competent science fiction here. When the opportunity arises for an unexpected romance — unexpected by Catherine but not by readers who know that Lifetime plots taste better when the author adds some cheese — that relationship results in a predictable outcome. Naturally, the happy couple-to-be engages in silly getting-to-know-you banter while deciding how to deal with a threat to the existence of the human race.

I could go on, but it is enough to say that the story is simplistic, predictable, unbelievable, and dull. The mother-daughter bonding/fighting/rebonding scenes are formulaic and the ending is just ridiculous. Maybe Lifetime viewers will enjoy Vessel, but I can’t recommend it to science fiction fans.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Friday
May172019

The Execution of Justice by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

First published in Switzerland in 1985; published in translation by Pushkin Vertigo on April 2, 2019

The Execution of Justice reminds readers that there are “cases where the justice system made no sense, became mere farce.” At the very least, the justice system often flounders when it tries to discover the truth in a world where nothing is certain. Friedrich Dürrenmatt explores that concept in an engaging crime novel that indicts not just the Swiss justice system, but Switzerland itself, and perhaps all of humanity.

Dr.h.c. Isaak Kohler, former canton deputy, strolls into a restaurant, amiably greets Professor Adolf Winter, then pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. Or did he? The police commandant looks up from his meal in time to see his friend Kohler strolling away from the victim. The public prosecutor, Jammerlin, insists upon using the full force of the police to find Kohler, which turns out to be unnecessary when Kohler strolls into the concert Jammerlin is attending, sits down next to the prosecutor, and enjoys the music until the police arrest him after politely waiting for the performance of Brahms to end.

Kohler puts up no defense, readily admits the crime (or does he?), but insists he had no motive. Nor can any motive be discovered. Thus he is condemned as a killer who kills for the joy of killing and is given the hefty (by Swiss standards) sentence of 20 years.

The novel is narrated by a low-rent lawyer, Herr Spät, who specializes in representing whores. Spät gets a letter from Kohler and visits the penitentiary to meet with him. The warden can’t understand why Kohler is so happy; it defies his faith in realism. Kohler asks Spät to reinvestigate his case on the assumption that he is not the murderer — another blow to realism and seemingly pointless, but Spät needs the money. Later, for much the same motivation, Spät sells himself again, but in a different way.

It is easy enough for Spät to figure out how Kohler rid himself of the murder weapon, but it is altogether more difficult to make a case for Kohler’s innocence. At Kohler’s request, he engages the services of a private investigator named Fredi Lienhard. His investigation brings him to a woman who calls herself Monica Steiermann, the boyfriend who beats Monica (Dr. Benno), and the Prince von Cuxhafen, a Formula I racer who also beats her. The convoluted “lives, loves, guzzles, swindles, scrambles and fusses” he encounters lead him at any given moment closer to or farther from the object of his investigation: “the truth behind the truth.” A truth that, in the end, “seems hardly more than a bizarre and evil fairy tale.”

The story is immensely clever. If Kohler had no motive, it soon becomes clear that someone else did. People begin to wonder, against all odds, whether the person with the motive is actually guilty, and the reader begins to wonder whether actual guilt has anything to do with justice. Innocence and guilt are both theories; nobody knows the truth. Spät, in the meantime, becomes involved in a surprising mystery of his own, one that seems to give the plot its final twist. The main story ends inconclusively, with Spät resolved to take a certain retributive action that he might or might not carry out. An “editor’s note” follows, completing the story with yet another twist.

A rambling section near the novel’s end is narrated by a drunken Spät, who indicts the justice system not as corrupt but as a lie, a false image of impartiality when everything about the police and lawyers and judges is biased in one way or another. Justice in such a system is an illusion, or at best a happy accident. Of course, those sorts of musings inspire people to administer their own brand of justice, a temptation that causes one of the characters to advise against revenge. “What had happened was unimportant, because it happened. You had to shake off the things that happened to you, anyone who was unable to forget was simply throwing himself in the path of time and would be crushed.”

Dürrenmatt describes his country and its post-war history in prose that is both lush and scathing. Spät tells us that he has been raised “according to the principles of the pedagogues and psychiatrists that our nation has produced along with precision watches, psychopharmaceuticals, secret bank accounts, and eternal neutrality.”

The story sometimes resembles a carnival in the way it assaults the reader with colorful and freakish characters. Strong prose, captivating characters, philosophical depth, and a plot that manages to be both byzantine and clear make me recommend The Execution of Justice as a classic example of a crime novel that rises above the genre.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
May152019

The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

Published by Tor.com on October 30, 2018

I’m not really into stories about vampires and demons, but Charles Stross is such a good writer that I make an exception for his Laundry Files novels. And while I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy, I have to admit I couldn’t wrap my head around Stross’ Accelerando or Glasshouse, two novels that are acclaimed for their ideas, which are plentiful, although plot and characterization are largely sacrificed for the sake of stuffing the books full of Stross’ notions of what the future might hold. The universe in which the Laundry Files series is set is rich and layered, but Stross also devotes some effort to creating action-adventure plots that are always entertaining.

The novels imagine a British spy agency (the Laundry) that protects the nation from occult threats. Magic is both a weapon and a defense, although the magic is equation-based. The American counterpart (the OPA), sometimes known as the Black Chamber, is not well liked by Laundry operatives (American Postal Inspectors of the occult are more welcome). Early books focused on a character named Bob Howard, but more recent books tend to have ensemble casts. The occult threats grow in number and power with each new novel. The protagonists tend to be vampires who are (sort of) under the British government’s control. At this point, however, the British government is under the control of a dark and sinister power. The Prime Minister has been replaced by an incarnation of the Black Pharaoh, as The Delirium Brief explains in detail. Even darker powers are on the horizon.

The vampire protagonist in The Labyrinth Index is Mhari Murphy. Murphy is working as an executioner for the British government, among her other duties as a highly placed official in New Management. Executions are a necessity because vampires need a blood supply. For dire reasons that earlier novels explain, the Laundry has been officially disbanded but Murphy performs chores as assigned by the new PM.

The PM is convinced (and he might be right) that nonhuman entities are taking over America’s Executive Branch. He assigns Murphy to build a team that will infiltrate the USA and gather intelligence, since the president is no longer answering the phone. He also tasks her with rescuing (e.g., kidnapping) the president, if he is still sufficiently human to be worth the bother. Finding him is complicated by the fact that Americans have blissfully forgotten that they even have a president, creating a void that the forces of evil plan to fill by waking a sleeping god, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. Murphy does her best with the assistance of other characters, although the PM may have had an ulterior motive for sending her on her mission.

Stross’ smart, tongue-in-cheek prose and the vivid universe he has created are the primary reasons to read these novels. It’s impossible to take this kind of story seriously and Stross wisely relies on humor and action to keep the reader entertained. Murphy telling a demon’s assistant that she demands diplomatic immunity is priceless. Despite all the mayhem, vampire bites, and general nastiness, the ending delivers a sweet little love story. There’s something for everyone in The Labyrinth Index. If you like the series, you’ll probably like this entry.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
May132019

The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on May 14, 2019

It isn’t often that thriller writers come up with a fresh premise. I don’t know if The Never Game is based on an original concept, but it’s new to me. A role-playing video game called The Whispering Man requires players to escape their captivity. They are initially given five objects to help them escape; they then search for more objects, trade with other players, or kill other players, depending on their strategy. In the real world, someone is kidnapping people, apparently at random, and supplying them with five objects. The involuntary players either escape and survive or not. The victims are left in places that correspond to different levels of the game. As improbable criminal schemes go, this one is fresher and more entertaining than most. The idea of forcing someone to play a game isn’t new, but forcing people into the real-world version of a video role-playing game is something I haven’t seen before.

The protagonist of this new series, Colter Shaw, travels around in his RV collecting rewards. The Never Game begins with a confrontation between Shaw and a fellow with a Molotov cocktail, but soon shifts to Shaw’s agreement to find information leading to the location of a missing girl named Phoebe, for which her father will pay $10,000. She was last seen riding her bicycle in Santa Clara County, California, where Shaw begins his hunt.

Phoebe’s kidnapping is eventually followed by another, leading Shaw (with the assistance of people who know more than he does about video games) to conclude that the kidnapper is following the progression of The Whispering Man. Shaw spends some of his time learning (and thus educating the reader) about the world of gaming and different perspectives on the players who inhabit it. One of his teachers is an attractive young woman named Maddie, adding a bit of sexual tension (or just sex) to the plot.

Shaw is the kind of restless loner who is familiar to thriller fans. He grew up on a large compound adjacent to forested public lands. Only the strangest of people live in compounds, but Shaw is only moderately damaged by his childhood. His father taught him many rules, all of which begin with “Never.” Shaw also learned how to track, a skill that led to his current occupation as a finder. Shaw’s backstory is developed intermittently as the novel progresses. Suffice it to say that he learned how to handle himself in the wilderness, armed or unarmed, and that he is still unraveling a mystery concerning his father. Shaw doesn’t pretend to be a skilled fighter, which makes him a refreshing thriller protagonist.

A clever and timely twist at the end has Shaw and the reader rethinking the killer’s motivation. I’m not always a fan of Deaver’s novels — I like his Lincoln Rhyme books more than the Kathryn Dance series — but he pushes all the right buttons in The Never Game. The story is smart, it moves quickly without devolving into mindless action, and the protagonist has a bit of depth.

Shaw’s backstory gives him reason to investigate a formative incident from his past, while various encounters during the novel set up a mystery that could unfold over the course of several books. The concept of collecting rewards for finding missing persons gives Deaver room to take this series in any number of directions, and the last chapter sets up alternative scenarios for Shaw’s next mission. If The Never Game is any indication, crime novel fans who like to follow a protagonist throgh a series of books should consider adding Shaw novels to their book-buying lists.

RECOMMENDED