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.

Friday
Oct182019

Starship Repo by Patrick S. Tomlinson

Published by Tor Books on May 21, 2019

As the title implies, Starship Repo falls into the category of science fiction stories that are intended to amuse the reader. It succeeds in that task by combining a basic science fiction action novel with some running jokes and imaginative aliens.

Firstname Lastname got her name from a mistaken data entry at a refugee center, but she goes by First during the novel. First has traveled far from home and is the only human most of the aliens she encounters have ever seen. Unfortunately for them, if they don’t keep a hand or tentacle on their wallet, she’ll probably take it.

First is in the process of stealing a car when the car steals her, depositing her in the penthouse of its owner. Since she has a knack for stealing cars, he blackmails her into joining his repo business. As the title suggests, he repossesses starships.

The plot follows First as the repo crew she joins uses a variety of schemes to take possession of various crafts, including a band’s spacefaring tour bus, a racer, a cruise ship, and a casino. Since First is the protagonist and since humans in sf novels are traditionally more clever than aliens, First devises most of the ploys to gain access to the ships and (in the case of the cruise ship and the casino) to evacuate passengers before seizing the vessel.

First’s exploits involve a fair amount of action, but since this is a comedy, there is little worry that any likeable characters will be irreparably injured. The plot is really just a mechanism for introducing imaginative aliens, including First’s best friend (who is something like a giant sloth that moves too slowly for any motion to be obvious) and the boss of the repo outfit, whose race assembles a variety of independently sentient components into an organic individual.

I appreciated the imagination that went into the development of the aliens and I chucked occasionally at the plot. First is a likeable if familiar protagonist, a plucky young woman who relies on her wits to get herself into and out of dangerous situations. I can’t rave about Starship Repo (there aren’t any ROFL moments and character development is minimal), but it works well enough as a diverting science fiction comedy to earn a recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Oct162019

The Art of Dying by Douglas Lindsay

Published digitally in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton/Mulholland Books on August 22, 2019

The Art of Dying is the third novel in a series set in Scotland, premised on the protagonist’s early retirement as a spy who now works as a homicide detective. Detective Inspector Westphall’s history as a man who has seen too much of the world’s ugliness positions him as a reliable noir character. He is haunted by people who have died, people he has hurt. His dreams may be portents of deaths to come.

Westphall begins the novel by investigating the beating death of a man at a football (soccer) game. The murder is witnessed by the victim’s stepson, who is clobbered while trying to intervene despite his belief that his stepdad is an asshole. The stepdad had challenged a racist comment that someone made about a member of the home team, making that unidentified fan the only initial suspect.

What appears to be a routine killing by a football hooligan turns into a complicated investigation when other suspects enter the picture. The victim was CEO of a rapidly expanding funeral business. He was despised by his sister but apparently loved by his wife. He regularly visited an infirm grandmother who squandered the family wealth on a painting. A Russian woman had an affair with him and then, acting on her father’s behalf, invested in his business. And so the list of suspects grows, even before a hedge fund guy who sits on the board of the victim’s business is disemboweled.

After another, and seemingly unrelated, disemboweled murder victim is found in a care home, Westphall has a mystery on his hands. The mystery compounds when another recent death in the care home is determined to have been caused by strangulation. And yes, this is the same care home where the grandmother who spent the family fortune on a gruesome painting of infanticide resides. She spends every day staring at the painting, oblivious to everything else in the world. The connection between art and death gives the novel its title.

Douglas Lindsay creates a strong noir atmosphere — rain and wind and the sea endlessly crashing against Scottish shores, a landscape that might drive anyone to commit murder. He also creates strong characters. The elderly residents of the care home have varying personalities. A blind man who plays chess against himself contributes a philosophical perspective that aids the investigation. The reason the grandmother stares at the painting without speaking a word, revealed only at the end, adds a poignant note to the story, as do the other seniors living isolated lives, surrounded by a beautiful landscape they never notice.

The mystery is resolved by one reveal after another until the final secret is uncovered. The story is built on intelligence rather than action. This is the kind of plot, complex but credible, that mystery lovers crave. Capping it off is Lindsay’s prose, graceful but not flashy, not a word out of place. Fans of British police procedurals (which are typically a good bit more interesting than their American counterparts) should seek out this series.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Oct142019

A Book of Bones by John Connolly

First published in the UK in 2019; published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on October 15, 2019

A Book of Bones brings an end to the story arc that has developed over the last five or six Charlie Parker novels. The arc involves the efforts of a long-lived man named Quayle and his freakish female friend named Mons to assemble a book called The Fractured Atlas, whose parts have been woven into other books and scattered across Europe and America. When Quayle finishes his reassembly of The Fractured Atlas, a demonic universe of old gods will rip up the fabric of the universe we know, bringing everything to an end.

In A Book of Bones, a fellow named Holmby kills Romana Moon and leaves her body in the moors of Northumbria. The crime troubles the police, but they are even more troubled by what he left inside her body. The killing took place at a site once used by Familists as a place of worship. The Familists were a religious sect that believed all things are ruled by nature rather than God. They have played a key role in the story arc and one of the few remaining Familists assures that Romana is only the first in a series of victims whose deaths will help fracture the universe.

I would find an apocryphal plot of this sort a bit eye-rolling in the hands of most writers, but John Connolly isn’t most writers. He almost had me believing in lost gods and evil beings trapped in church windows. Connolly has a knack for the creepy, but he also has a gift for characterization. Parker is a complex, tormented man whose heroism isn’t based on muscles or skill with a gun but on a steadfast belief that standing up to evil is the right thing to do. In contrast to the parade of tough guys who populate thrillers, Parker is surprisingly gentle and humane. Even his stone-cold killer friend Louis and his burglar friend Angel (who are partnered in a touching relationship) display unusual sidekick depth for the thriller genre.

I’m glad to see the story arc conclude because the supernatural really isn’t what I look for in thrillers. I nevertheless recommend the entire series without reservation because Connolly is one of the best prose stylists in thrillerdom. There is quite a bit of prose in A Book of Bones (it weighs in at nearly 700 pages) but the story is never padded, the plot never drags, and there is never a confusion of characters. I credit that to Connolly’s craftsmanship as a storyteller. Connolly apparently plans to return Parker to his detective roots in the next book, without making the supernatural a key plot element. That’s fine with me, but anything Connolly does is fine with me. He’s just a joy to read.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Oct132019

The Darkest Time of Night by Jeremy Finley

Published by St. Martin's Press on June 26, 2018

“The lights took him” is Brian’s explanation for his brother William’s disappearance. When she was a kid, Lynn Roseworth’s father warned her never to go into the woods. The same woods where William disappeared. Lynn is William’s grandmother. Lynn’s husband is a senator from Tennessee and a vice presidential candidate. It takes her some time to remember, but eventually Lynn understands what “the lights took him” means. William has been taken, just like the others. Lynn can’t talk about that without seeming crazy.

The Darkest Time of Night is reminiscent of an X-Files story. The truth is out there. But what is the truth? When Lynn was younger, she helped an astronomer research reports of alien abductions. Was William’s disappearance caused by an alien abduction? Or, as the senator fears, an abduction by suburban teen terrorists who were converted to jihadists by ISIS. (The senator is a bit paranoid.) Perhaps the FBI knows the truth, but Mulder and Scully aren’t part of the team. In this story, the FBI makes extreme efforts to conceal the truth.

All of this leads to a conspiracy (the novel wouldn’t be worthy of an X-Files comparison without one) and to a harrowing adventure involving two aging women. Lynn carries the novel, but her feisty, weed-growing, F-bombing 70-year-old friend Roxy is the most memorable character. Later in the novel, a couple of other senior citizens play important and heroic roles.

Lynn’s former relationship with the astronomer adds an element of domestic discord to the story, but the suspense arises from Lynn’s persistent efforts to find her grandson — and in so doing, to find the truth about her own childhood. The facts underlying the conspiracy are easy enough to accept — I mean space aliens, who knows what they might do, right? — but I found it harder to believe that the government managed to keep events under wraps for so long. The story invites readers to debate whether the government was right to keep the public in the dark, but the government’s ability to do so struck me as unlikely, given how easy it would be for significant numbers of people to observe the aliens doing their thing. The American government can’t keep anything secret (for which a free people should be grateful); the notion that a worldwide phenomenon could be hidden is a stretch.

But again, this is basically an X-Files story, and on that level (a level that allows for some suspension of disbelief) the novel succeeds. The key characters are likeable, they embody the kind of self-sacrificing decency that real people should emulate, and the story moves at a good pace to a satisfying conclusion. The conclusion, however, only wraps up part of the story. At the end of the novel, the truth is still out there. The story continues in the second book in the series, published this summer.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Oct112019

The Dregs of the Day by Máirtin Ó Cadhain

Published in Ireland in 1970; Alan Titley translation published by Yale University Press on September 24, 2019

The scholar who translated The Dregs of the Day from the original Irish tells us that Máirtin Ó Cadhain “is recognized as the foremost author in Irish of the twentieth century.” He primarily wrote short stories, but The Dregs of the Day is long enough to qualify as a novella.

The protagonist is identified only as N. He works in the civil service, although he has taken quite a bit of time off because of his wife’s illness. Now his wife has died and N. is flummoxed. Her lifeless body awaits attention. His wife’s sisters expect N. to make arrangements for someone to prepare the body and then transport it to a church for burial, but N. isn’t sure how to go about doing that and doesn’t really want to spend the money. He needs a nurse and an undertaker and a casket and a priest, but he’s not certain of the order in which he should acquire everything he needs. He stops in a pub for advice, and after a few drinks stops in a department store where there seem to be so many items on sale that he should buy. Sadly, a robber makes off with his wallet before he has a chance.

As N. decides whether to go home and face his wife’s corpse (not to mention his sisters-in-law), he has a number of diverting encounters. He has sex with a woman while pondering his indifference to both the sex and the fact that his dead wife awaits him at home. He chats with a security guard who is charged with beating up clerical students who try to sneak through the windows of a whorehouse. By dawn, he has been kicked out of the department store, kicked out of a charity, kicked out of the property where the security guard finds him snoozing, and kicked out of a church. N. can’t quite bring himself to return home and might not get his act together in time to attend his wife’s funeral, assuming his wife’s sisters arrange it in his absence. He wonders idly whether he might be endangering his civil service position, leading to a funny description of life in the civil service.

As the novel nears its end, N. makes his way to another pub with an American sailor who extolls the virtues of America, where everything is free, particularly for the Irish population of Boston. N. considers whether the life described by the sailor might be better than the one he is living, although it seems clear that N.’s problems do not arise from his country of residence but from his own ineptitude or indifference.

The Dregs of the Day is a dark comedy. The tragedy of death lurks in the background as N. lurches from one preposterous situation to another. N. is a sympathetic character if the reader can forgive him for being appalling. N. doesn’t have an evil heart, but he might not have any heart at all. He seems to have little regard for anyone, including himself, despite being entirely self-absorbed. He could solve his immediate problems rather easily just by going home (where surely his sisters-in-law would tell him how to solve the remaining problems, or simply take over and do it all themselves), but he cannot resist his impulses, none of which lead him in a sensible direction. He is seemingly blown by the winds of chance, unable or unwilling to resist the directions in which he is blown. The reader’s sympathy derives from the sense that N. is entirely lost, not because his wife has died but because he doesn’t know what to make of the world, what to care about, what to do with his purposeless life. We all know people like that (most of them drink too much), and Máirtin Ó Cadhain captured them brilliantly in the character of N.

RECOMMENDED