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.


City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Published by Broadway Books on September 9, 2014

I always look forward to reading a Robert Jackson Bennett novel. City of Stairs has all the hallmarks of Bennett's work, including a fiercely imagined world, offbeat humor, a thoroughly enjoyable story, and characters who, despite being from a different world or universe, illuminate what means to be human.

As a background to the complex plot, Bennett has invented a mythology. In the world Bennett creates, gods (recast as Divinities) once existed; the miracles attributed to them actually occurred. Prior to the Great War, Bulikov was a city of miracles, protected by the Divinities who occupied the Continent. Saypur was a Continental colony across the sea until a Saypuri named Kaj killed the six Divinities ... or so history records. After that, the miracles were locked away and forgotten.

Seventy-five years after Great War, Saypur rules the Continent. The people who inhabit Bulikov hate their occupiers, in part because the Saypuri have outlawed their divine symbols and all works that mention or acknowledge their Divinities.

The novel begins with the murder of Efram Pangyui, a Saypuri who was studying the Divinities and trying to learn how Kaj managed to kill them. Saypur sends Pangyui's mentor, a woman named Shara, to investigate. Shara, who does not want the Continentals to know that she is the great-granddaughter of Kaj, pursues mysteries and conspiracies that go much deeper than Pangyui's murder. Her investigation is impeded both by an uncooperative superior in Saypur and by Continentals who miraculously vanish on Bulikov's streets.

In addition to Shara, the novel's strongest characters include Shara's former lover, now a wealthy Continental; Shara's aunt, who operates Saypur's Ministry of Foreign Affairs while serving her own hidden agenda; and a rough-and-tumble Saypuri woman who is charged with governing Bulikov. The best character is Shara's assistant, Sigrud, who might be described as a philosopher-barbarian. Each character has a fully formed, carefully considered personality.

In many ways, the novel is allegorical. It can be seen as an exploration of leadership, of ruling by fiat versus leading by example. It can also be seen as a critique of religion, particularly religions that micromanage diets, dress, and sex acts, enforcing prohibitions by visiting inhumane punishments upon transgressors. Religious edicts that deny the experience of joy deprive their followers of a part of their humanity, while blind adherence to arbitrary rules, even when made by deities, is antithetical to progress and enlightenment -- or so the novel suggests.

Another of the novel's themes is the tendency of the oppressed to become oppressors once they seize power. Another concerns the consequences that befall wealthy nations when they allow oppressed nations to wallow in poverty. Yet another is how we deal with history when the history we learned turns out to be a lie, and how easily we forget that we all share a common history. This novel isn't a political or ethical tome but it scores points for illustrating meaningful lessons, always within the context of the plot and without lecturing. It scores even more points for using exceptional characters to tell a fascinating story.



Neverhome by Laird Hunt

Published by Little, Brown and Co. on September 9, 2014

Leaving Bartholomew to take care of the farm in Indiana, Ash Thompson goes off to join the war, defending the Republic against the Rebels. Ash is a better shot, a braver soul, and the logical choice to go to war if (as Ash believes) one of them must. Ash has a secret, but Laird Hunt doesn't try very hard to keep it a secret from the reader. Ash's true nature becomes likely within a few pages and is confirmed by additional clues as the story moves forward but not expressly revealed until a quarter of the novel has passed.

Ash, alternately gallant and deadly, offers a unique perspective on the horrors of war. Battles are fierce but Ash more often describes (and more fully absorbs) the aftermath of war: bodies strewn in fields, broken wagons, abandoned bugles, charred towns. After a time, the point of the war is lost on those like Ash who bear its ugliness. Yet every war has tender moments and Ash is better positioned than most soldiers to notice and appreciate them.

Ash notes that in books written after the war, "women are saints and angels and men are courageous noble folk and everything they do gets done nice and quick and nothing smells like blood." The story Ash tells is a counterpoint to the glory of war. It is a story of humanity lost and found. It showcases the evil of which men and women are capable (not just in war), but the evil is offset by gentle people and by the resilience of the human spirit. People are damaged by war but some, Ash observes, find ways to cope with the damage.

The story is told in the first person. Hunt manages the difficult trick of telling the story in an uneducated but convincing dialect while creating striking images and remarkable paragraphs. Neverhome is a short but eventful novel. Perhaps the novel is too short -- time is so collapsed that many scenes would have benefited from additional flesh -- although it leads to a conclusion that is both powerful and unexpected. Still, the novel's greatest strength is its characterization of Ash, a person who is both ordinary and extraordinary, an "uncommon soldier" (to borrow the title of a reference work Hunt credits) who refuses to turn away from battle, whose greatest virtue is the ability to confront adversity -- in and out of war -- head-on.



Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland

Published by Blue Rider Press on April 3, 2014

Raymond Gunt, a cameraman of little distinction, reluctantly takes an assignment offered by his ex-wife that involves shooting footage for an American reality TV show in the remote island nation of Kiribati. It's the kind of show (Gunt is told) where people shag each other for a few weeks and then turn into cannibals. Recruiting a personal assistant from the cardboard box in which he dwells, Gunt begins his travels. The world tour of detention facilities is not what he had in mind, but he perseveres.

Douglas Coupland (via Gunt) pokes fun at Americans and our "ghastly" pseudonews channels and general dreadfulness, although he also belittles Mr. Bean and other British exports. He takes equal delight in skewering Peruvians, Mexicans, Chinese, Samoans, and pretty much everyone else on the planet. Some of his humor is less than politically correct (children who suffer from conditions that inhibit self-control, homeless people, and the obese are among his targets) but he doesn't cross boundaries in a way that most readers who have a sense of humor would find excessively offensive. After all, you can't expect enlightened sensitivity from the Worst. Person. Ever.

Some of Coupland's humor is too obvious (a product of choosing easy targets) and there are several comedic lulls during the course of the novel. Even so, Coupland has a gift for crafting funny sentences, many of which made me laugh out loud (although I admit that I'm a sucker for camel toe humor; it is possible that more mature readers will be less amused). In addition to Gunt's nonstop commentary on life (including conversations that routinely get Gunt and his assistant thrown out of vans and buses), the novel is peppered with fun factoids resembling Wikipedia entries that are about half fact and half clever invention.

The plot, to the extent that there is one, has little to do with the reality TV show. The novel's weakness is that there isn't much of a story here. Worst. Person. Ever. is amusing in a meandering way but it often seems to be searching for a purpose that it never finds. There is nothing wrong with humor for the sake of humor, but the novel's steadfast avoidance of meaning is disappointing. So is Gunt, who never quite lives up to the novel's title. Worst. Person. Ever. delivered enough laughs to earn my recommendation but did not deliver enough substance to earn unmitigated praise.



Payoff by Douglas Corleone

Published by Minotaur Books on August 19, 2014

A group of men kidnap Edgar Trenton's 15-year-old daughter, Olivia, despite the fruitless attempts of Edgar's wife to shoot the intruders. Edgar wires the $8.5 million ransom but his daughter remains missing. The talking heads on cable news immediately crucify Edgar, claiming he is hiding the money to keep it from the wife who planned to divorce him. That theory being their best chance of closing a case they cannot otherwise solve, the FBI arrests Edgar, but not before he calls in a favor owed by Simon Fisk, a former U.S. Marshal turned private investigator whose own daughter had been the victim of an unsolved kidnapping eleven years earlier. That crime was indirectly responsible for his wife's death. The resulting baggage is at the core of his Fisk's personality.

Fisk's search for Olivia takes him to the luxurious environs of Grand Cayman, to the slums of Costa Rica, to a drug lord in Columbia, and to Carnival on the streets of Caracas, all painted in colorful detail. The trail leads to dead ends and dead people, prompting the reader to wonder what sort of conspiracy is afoot. Clearly this is more than a simple kidnapping for ransom, but the reason for the kidnapping and the people involved in it come as a surprise -- or rather, a series of surprises.

Douglas Corleone has a realistic understanding of the horrendous failure the drug war has been, and the harm it has caused, in Columbia and elsewhere. This is not an overtly political novel -- it doesn't lecture -- but it is refreshingly honest in its portrayal of disastrous political policies that benefit monied interests while harming American taxpayers and nearly everyone except the drug producers in Columbia.

Fisk is a good character even if his tragic life is a little too tragic. It is a life concocted to manipulate the reader's emotions and to justify Fisk's obsession with finding abducted children. Fortunately, Fisk does not often become preachy or self-righteous, so that weakness in the novel is not particularly troubling.

The story moves at a suitable pace for an action thriller. Corleone's smooth prose never gets in the way of the story he tells. The plot is no less plausible than most modern thrillers (meaning it is barely plausible) but it is entertaining. Payoff is the kind of book that makes for diverting airplane reading on a long dull flight.



Don't Look Back by Gregg Hurwitz

Published by St. Martin's Press on August 19, 2014

After Eve Hardaway's husband leaves her for another woman before they can take their anniversary vacation to Oaxaca, Eve decides to go by herself. Eve is in the Mexican jungle with a half dozen American tourists, the camp owners, and a man she encounters while rafting in the jungle. The man is practicing throwing his machete at a human silhouette. When Eve finds a lost camera near the man's dwelling, she realizes that the woman who owned the camera was the previous occupant of the hut in which Eve is staying. The camera contains pictures of the jungle man behaving forcefully with an indigenous woman.

When Eve learns that the camera owner never made it home, the group feels threatened. Their fears are discouraged by the camp owners, who worry that publicizing the psycho in the jungle might be bad for business -- not to mention Oaxaca's aversion to having a Natalie Holloway story in the foreign media.

The campers, including Eve, are largely a group of whiners, making it difficult to care what happens to them. It's also disappointing that the man with the machete is such a conventional villain. A long expository chapter in the middle of the novel explains his improbable journey from Pakistan to the Mexican jungle, where he now fights the "holy struggle" by abusing native women. As villains go, this semi-retired jihadist is a cartoon.

Don't Look Back could have been a tighter novel. Too many scenes are repetitive. Characters have the same arguments about their predicament, tell each other how bad their situation is, and waste time when they should be running. The evil guy gives them plenty of time to waste, and ample opportunity to escape, when he could have devoted his energy to the simple task of killing them all. All of that makes the last third of the novel less interesting than the set-up.

The natural threats of the jungle (crocodiles and sweeper ants and deadly plants and flooding downpours) are more believable (and more menacing) than the jihadist with the machete. An extended chase scene through the jungle at the end of the novel is more interesting than a typical chase scene through city streets, but my interest waned as the chase went on and on. The story's path is predictable -- it is too easy to guess which characters will die and which will be unexpectedly resourceful. Although Don't Look Book has some strong moments and moves briskly, I cannot recommend it with any enthusiasm.