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
Apr242019

Neon Prey by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 23, 2019

Neon Prey is the kind of book that John Sandford can write on auto-pilot and still entertain. The novel is filled with chase scenes and shootouts and banter. The plot has no substance to speak of, unless you count chase scenes and shootouts as a substantive plot, but Sandford does action scenes so well that the reader needs nothing more. At this point, Prey novels are just an excuse to check in with familiar characters to see how their lives are going. Suffice it to say that their lives are exciting.

Sandford’s Prey novels are light with patches of darkness. Neon Prey (Neon because much of the action is in Vegas) might be darker than most, simply because a fair number of characters (innocent and guilty alike) die, and characters who don’t die take a bullet. Even darker is the cannibal. Yes, there’s a cannibal and yes, that's been done before, in both fiction and the real world.

Lucas Davenport and Marshal buddies Bob and Rae are joined by an FBI agent who resembles a young Davenport, much to Rae’s delight. The plot involves a killer named Deese who is arrested after beating a man who refused to pay his debt to a loan shark. Deese is charged with furthering a racketeering conspiracy and is released on bail. Getting bail on a federal violent crime isn’t easy, but the judge gets a piece of the action so everyone’s happy. Everyone except Deese’s victims, because Deese is the aforementioned cannibal.

Deese cuts off his monitoring device in Louisiana. Federal Marshals Rae Givens and Bob Matees are searching Deese’s property when they find a bunch of buried bodies. The number and condition of the bodies and the contents of Deese’s grill are, to say the least, disturbing. Bob and Rae ask Lucas to use his clout to get the Marshals assigned to find Deese because they know the FBI isn’t good at finding people. For that matter, they don’t think FBI agents are good at anything.

From there, the story involves tracking Deese, who hooks up with a home invader and a young woman who is along for the ride (and the drugs). Deese and his accomplices go on a crime spree, staying a step ahead of the Marshals and FBI for much of the novel, but keeping them busy with shootouts and rising body counts and some clever schemes to avoid being captured.

The Prey stories are darkly amusing because of Davenport’s nonchalant joking with Bob and Rae in the face of mayhem. After 29 Prey novels, readers know what to expect, and Neon Prey is exactly what a series fan expects to read. There’s nothing new or different here, but the action, dialog, and skillful storytelling are enough to sweep the reader along, as they always are in a Sandford novel.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr222019

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

First published in Great Britain in 2019; published by Doubleday/Nan A. Talese on April 23, 2019

In Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan returns to the topic of false accusations, the underpinning of Atonement, but in a much different context. The novel is light but its subject matter is not. McEwan explores the failings (and perhaps the strengths) of humanity by comparing humans, including the false accuser, to the ideal of artificial humans who believe that proper behavior is clear and easily defined. The artificial humans are self-aware and independent, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they become depressed about the human condition.

McEwan tells the story in the context of an alternate history, a form used to great advantage by Kingsley Amis in The Alteration and Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle to explore how history shapes life. The story takes place during the Falklands War, a miserable time for the British Navy, although McEwan imagines it to have been more miserable than it was — the British Navy is defeated and steams home in shame. Other changes in the world include an American decision not to drop the Bomb on Japan, the Beatles’ decision to reunite after 15 years, Jimmy Carter’s reelection to a second term, and Alan Turing’s survival into old age, allowing him to solve P versus NP and introduce a new age of computing.

Thanks to Turing, artificial humans called Adam and Eve are on the market in 1982. Science fiction stories about artificial humans typically focus on whether an artificial creation that develops self-awareness and seems to have (or desire) free will should be given the status of a natural human. McEwan’s story addresses that conundrum but gives it a twist. When his Adams and Eves become self-aware, they struggle with existentialism. Some give themselves a robotic form of lobotomy, perhaps because they are unable to live with the pointlessness and futility of human life, perhaps because they are simply disappointed by humans.  

The novel’s narrator, Charlie, impulsively blows his inheritance on an Adam. Adam quickly warns Charlie that his upstairs neighbor, Miranda, is a malicious liar. Charlie and Miranda have developed an amiable companionship. On the day Adam pronounces his warning, Charlie shuts off Adam and sleeps with Miranda.

Insecurity soon sets in and Charlie wonders how Adam could have judged Miranda without ever meeting her. Perhaps Adam is intuitive, a proposition that gives McEwan an opportunity to explore both the history of Artificial Intelligence and the difference between computing and intuiting (if a difference actually exists). McEwan later explores the nature of self, recognizing that neuroscientists and philosophers are debating whether the concept has meaning. In the meantime, Charlie and Miranda each complete one-half of a checklist of attributes that will program Adam’s personality, the digital equivalent of giving him their combined genes.

Charlie begins his own investigation of Miranda, although most of the information he finds pertains to her father, an “old-style literary curmudgeon” who detests technology. Of course, Miranda is curious about the biologically correct Adam, and it does not take long before Charlie wonders whether he is being “cuckolded by an artefact.” Whether or not his suspicions are founded, the question opens the door to a discussion of “robot ethics,” the notion that properly programmed beings will behave more scrupulously than ethically-challenged humans. Can a machine betray its owner? Unlike Adam, Miranda has no owner, so can the machine be blamed if she wants to test its performance?

Charlie and Adam (mostly Adam) have wide-ranging discussions of quantum mechanics, haikus, the limits of human understanding (particularly the understanding of other humans) as informed by literary traditions, and the future of collective thought. Charlie has a couple of discussions with Alan Turing about the nature of artificial intelligence and how it might react to human intelligence which, despite having the ability to solve problems like poverty and global warming, chooses not to do so. Humans know how to live with despair. Can machines learn to do live with their despair of humans? Turing explains that he once thought the body was nothing more than a machine, but changed his mind after facing chemical castration as a criminal punishment for being gay. (In this history, Turing rejected the punishment. In history as we know it, he accepted castration and committed suicide two years later.)

So this is a largely a novel of philosophy, but it also has a lively plot. Part of the plot concerns the false accusation (made with — the accuser imagines although the reader might not — a noble purpose) and its potential consequences. Another part of the plot concerns atonement. Another is a love story, including the possibility of an instant “two daddy” family as Charlie, Miranda, and Adam meet a young boy who needs foster care. The fact that Miranda’s father likes Adam more than Charlie (and is mistaken about which is the actual human) adds a comedic wrinkle to the romance, as does Charlie’s concern that becoming a father would be “a dereliction of duty to a larger purpose, assuming I could find one.”

In the end, Adam is a better person than a human would ever be, but that might also be his tragic flaw. Adam does not believe in revenge or greed and, while most humans would agree with him, he acts in accordance with his beliefs, which humans too rarely do. Yet humanity might not be well served by the inhuman rectitude and logic of a robot. The novel asks readers to decide whether rectitude should ever give way to friendship and loyalty, a concept that may separate human minds from calculators. All of that — as always, McEwan manages to stuff a lot into a fairly small package — adds up to an engaging, thought-provoking novel.

RECOMMENDED

Saturday
Apr202019

Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

First published in the UK in 2018; published by Del Rey on October 23, 2018

Thin Air is Martian noir. It is set in the same universe as the author’s Thirteen, a novel that appeared about ten years ago, but more than a century has passed between the two books. The novels are based on the concept of breeding genetically-modified humans for military and similar purposes. Their tendency toward aggression makes them antisocial. Many ended up on Mars, where Earth dumps its problems.

Hakan Veil is a hibernoid. He sleeps for three-month stretches, then “runs hot” until he triggers another period of hibernation. He was bred to serve as an overrider, sort of a law enforcer who is kept in a deep freeze during interplanetary transit and thawed out when trouble needs to be overcome.

As the story begins, Veil walks into a club on the strip in Bradbury (a Martian city, of course) and does violence to the club owner. Veil’s contract says he’s supposed to be out of jail and paid within 40 days, but the Earth corporation that oversees Bradbury is conducting an audit, and high levels of crime and corruption need to be concealed with care, much to Veil’s displeasure, given the risk that he will be locked up indefinitely. When a cop named Nikki Chakana suddenly releases Veil with instructions to protect an auditor named Madison Madekwe, Veil’s new worry is that the criminals who hired him on his last job will think he’s cooperating with the police.

For reasons that are not immediately explained, someone tries to blow up Veil with a warhead shortly after his release. Do the Crater Critters who hired him to take out the club owner think he ratted them out? Are the club owner’s pals looking for payback? Is the warhead wielder someone who doesn’t want Veil to protect Madekwe? An angry husband who does not take well to being cuckolded? The number of people who want to kill Veil is impressive, and some of them can afford warheads.

The intricate plot (Veil protects, loses, then tries to find Madekwe while reevaluating his mission) mixes action with intrigue as multiple attempts are made on Veil’s life. Corporate hit squads seem to be competing with underworld figures, politicians, and cops to see who can do the most damage to the overrider. Veil encounters interesting characters, has sex with some of them, gets played by others, and never really knows who to trust. He learns that someone was planning to make a big score before he disappeared and that the score, the nature of which is a mystery, probably has something to do with Madekwe’s abduction. Piecing it all together is a challenge for both Veil and the reader.

Richard K. Morgan always tells a good story but I’m not sure that this one justifies its length. Characters love to make speeches. Sometimes they make the same speech repeatedly. Some of the action scenes come across as padding. I suspect a quarter of the story could have omitted without doing any great harm to the plot or characterizations, while achieving a tighter novel.

Veil is a basic enhanced tough guy with a snarky tough guy personality, but some of the supporting cast members (and there are plenty of those) are more original. My interest in the story waxed and waned, but in the end I enjoyed the action and the moderately puzzling mystery that drives the plot. The story’s political/cultural background is carefully imagined. Most of the story has a high fun factor. That’s more than enough to earn a recommendation, even if the novel is a bit wordy.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Apr192019

Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen

Published by Grove Press/Black Cat on January 15, 2019

Niviaq Korneliussen is blurbed as having created her own genre with Last Night in Nuuk, but I think she relocated Bright Lights, Big City to a small city in Greenland (Nuuk, the capital) and shifted the focus from one straight man who chases a woman to five young people who, while covering most of the sexual bases, chase each other. Like the protagonist in Bright Lights, Big City, the five central characters are young and wasted and self-absorbed. I suspect that readers who share those qualities will get more out of Last Night in Nuuk than I did.

A central character in Last Night in Nuuk views Greenland as a nation of anger, where alcoholism and wife beating and child neglect are tolerated while gay people are not. That character (Inuk, whose name means “man”) leaves Greenland to escape the anger, although he is among the angriest characters in the novel. Inuk also fled Greenland to avoid a burgeoning sex scandal. Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but Inuk (who is presumably an Inuit) does not feel at home in Denmark, because he is not blonde and pale. Nor does he feel at home in Greenland, although it eventually becomes clear that Inuk is not at home with himself. Inuk’s life is revealed in a series of letters he sends from Denmark.

Inuk’s best friend is a sexually free woman named Arnuq (the longer version, Arnaluk, means “woman”) who fueled the scandal that forced Inuk to leave Greenland. Arnuq lives to party, leading to scenes of nightlife in Greenland, which like nightlife everywhere involves clubs, dancing, drinking, drugs, random hookups, and eventual vomiting. Arnuq’s problem with alcohol destroys not just her own life but the other lives she touches, primarily because she has no impulse control and can’t keep her mouth shut (and can’t stop her fingers from texting).

Inuk’s sister is Fia. Events in the novel complicate the relationships between Inuk, Arnuq, and Fia, including Fia’s realization that her fiancé Peter is boring her to death and that she is more attracted to women than men. She tests the theory that she might be a lesbian by having disappointing sex with a random ugly man, which might only prove that she’s not attracted to ugly men. She decides at that point to swear off sausage.

The fourth key character, Ivinnquaq (Ivik), has a girlfriend Sara, but Sara is kissing Fia while Arnuq is messing around with Ivik, who eventually reveals her own sexual identity issues. In any event, after Ivik explains how she came to realize her sexual preference for women, we also learn that Ivik no longer feels like having sex with Sara, or perhaps with anyone. She is needy when it comes to companionship and love but the opposite when it comes to sex. She fears abandonment but her loathing of sex invites Sara to abandon her. To the surprise of no reader by this point, Sara (key character five) turns out be angry and depressed. Welcome to Greenland.

It might be clear at this point that the characters in Last Night in Nuuk have a remarkable talent for creating drama in their lives (and I’ve only scratched the surface here). Many people have that talent, which makes them annoying to people who don’t share a desire for constant interpersonal conflict. Reading about their manufactured drama is also a bit annoying, at least to me.

Last Night in Nuuk is organized by character rather than chronology, so the reader needs to reassemble the pieces from time to time to make sense of the story. This is a character-driven novel, however, and the technique gives the reader a strong sense of the primary characters while inviting reinterpretation of events as seen from multiple perspectives.

I suspect that Last Night in Nuuk does what Korneliussen set out to do. The novel is well constructed and it plainly has literary merit. I try to be open to all forms of literature but I am likely not the novel’s target audience. Readers who know what to do with a hashtag might be more intuitively comfortable with the novel’s style and content (although I have to say that I enjoyed the style more than the content). I was more intrigued by the atmosphere and the critique of Greenland’s intolerance than I was by the characters and their endless drama.

While the story didn’t speak to me, neither did Bright Lights, Big City, another party-all-night-and-make-drama novel that received glowing reviews. The comparison leads me to recommend Last Night in Nuuk to Millennials, to readers for whom sexual identity is a burning issue, and to readers who enjoyed Bright Lights, Big City.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Apr172019

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Published by Ace on April 16, 2019

Atlas Alone is the fourth book in a series. Each is written as a stand-alone, self-contained novel, although they all occupy the same universe. The books occasionally refer to events that occurred in earlier novels, particularly a project by the Pathfinders to colonize another planet.

At the beginning of Atlas Alone, everyone on Earth is dead. Dee assumes that one of the more than ten thousand people traveling through space on Atlas 2 gave the order for nukes to be fired from America to Europe. She wants to find and possibly kill the person who did it, but she doesn’t even know who is in charge of Atlas 2. She lives in her apartment and wastes her time and hates her life as the ship powers toward its destination, still 20 years away. The destination is the Pathfinder’s colony.

Dee manages to score a job that gives her access to data about media consumption on Atlas 2. She also gets access to an immersive role-playing game that is reserved for elite players. Walking through the game triggers memories of her desperate childhood, allowing the reader to understand the events that shaped Dee’s life. But playing the game may have something to do with an apparent murder on the ship. Has game fantasy crossed the boundary with reality? Is Dee an inadvertent killer?

Her job allows Dee to discover that the elite passengers and crew members all belong to the Christian States of America. Emma Newman imagines an America that became passionately religious — meaning Christian — during the 2020s. I can understand why a European might envision that, given America’s current revival of intolerance, but the loudness of the intolerant is a panic reaction to trends that are moving in the opposite direction as America becomes more open to non-Christians. Science fiction writers are entitled to imagine the unlikely, however, and the value of science fiction is its reminder that what seems unlikely today may be reality tomorrow. The book sends a cautionary and timely message about religious extremism and its tendency to eradicate nonbelievers. At the same time, the novel suggests that extremism works both ways.

The plot challenges the reader to guess the identity of the person who keeps confronting Dee in the immersive atmosphere. Dee, on the other hand, is challenged to understand the secrets behind the population chosen to take the journey, including what seems to be a deliberate attempt to maintain stratification between the haves and have-nots. That doesn’t bode well for the society that the ship leaders intend to create on the new world, although it sounds exactly like the plan wealthy people would make when developing a colony.

Character development, particularly of Dee, is perfectly integrated with the plot. The story explores interesting philosophical questions, including whether and when it is justifiable to kill some people for the greater good of others. As that theme begins to drive the plot, the novel swerves in an unexpected direction to arrive at a surprising ending that is a study in irony — albeit an ending that is consistent with the philosophical underpinnings of the plot.

Newman has tackled challenging moral questions in each book in the series while telling interesting stories. She does that again in Atlas Alone, making this series one that every thinking fan of science fiction (as opposed to the Sad Puppies who just want to read about powerful white males triumphing over aliens) will want to consider reading.

RECOMMENDED