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 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.

Wednesday
Aug162017

Moskva by Jack Grimwood

Published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books on July 11, 2017

Tom Fox is a British major who spent some time in Northern Ireland working with military intelligence. His bosses have sent him to Moscow to keep him away from a Parliamentary committee that wants him to testify. His ostensible purpose in Moscow involves writing a report about religion in the Soviet Union for the Foreign Office. While he’s safely hidden out of the way, he expects his bosses to decide his fate.

Soon after his arrival, Fox attends a party given by Sir Edward Masterson, the British ambassador. His wife is Anna Masterson and his rebellious teenage stepdaughter is Alex. Shortly after the party, Alex disappears and Masterson enlists Fox’s help to find her.

Fox’s daughter died in an unexplained car crash, a death for which Fox blames himself. His daughter’s death motivates his agreement to help the ambassador. Fox’s search for answers quickly entangles him with the KGB, with a Russian crime boss, with a Party boss, and with dangers connected to the past that are less easy to identify, but he views his task as one of redemption. Only by saving Alex can he save himself. He knows he is being arrogant and messianic, and perhaps suicidal, but he doesn’t care.

The story occasionally travels back to 1945, when the Russians were taking Berlin and wanted to assure that a German physicist would travel to Moscow, where he would serve the Russian government. Certain characters who play key roles in the present story have their roots in sins of the past. Solving the mystery of Alex therefore requires Fox to solve brutal crimes from the war years.

The story holds some poignant surprises, including the true identity of an elderly woman, seemingly a bit unhinged, who is known as Wax Angel. Fox’s background is convincingly tragic, but Jack Grimwood paints him in subdued colors, not in the garish hues of melodrama. His troubled relationship with his wife evolves as the novel progresses, and Fox changes a bit, to the extent that he is capable of altering the shape of his life. The Russian mobster, dealing with the death of one son and the disappearance of another, is also a convincing character. Additional moral ambiguity fleshes out the man who, in addition to becoming Fox’s drinking companion, becomes a key to the mystery. The broken men (and a couple of damaged women) give the novel its heart.

Some aspects of the story are a bit fanciful, but Grimwood’s prose is sharp, the characters have a fair amount of depth, and the story moves quickly. All of those factors, joined with the detailed background, make Moskva a good Russian crime story. Moskva isn’t on the same level as a Martin Cruz Smith novel, but it’s only about one level down, which makes it easy to recommend.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug142017

Hoodoo Harry by Joe R. Lansdale

First published in 2016; published digitally by MysteriousPress.com/Open Road on August 1, 2017

Hoodoo Harry is Joe R. Lansdale’s contribution to the Bibliomysteries series of stand-alone mystery stories by popular crime writers in which books, bookstores, libraries, or manuscripts play a central role.

Hap and Leonard are run off the road by a bookmobile bus in a part of the country that is still fighting the Civil War. The bookmobile disappeared fifteen years earlier, along with its driver, Harriet Hoodalay, who was known after her disappearance as Hoodoo Harry.

A 12-year-old kid whose unfortunate life is cut short was driving the bus. Of course, Hap and Leonard make it their business to find out why. They engage in their usual wisecracks and make their customary observations about how “neighborliness” in East Texas now consists of shooting anyone who comes too close to a home or business after dark … or maybe even in daylight.

The story blossoms into a murder investigation with multiple victims. Like most of the Hap and Leonard series, this isn’t as powerful as Lansdale’s best work. Hoodoo Harry is an average Hap and Leonard story, which means it entertains. That’s all it’s meant to do, and since it succeeds, I recommend it.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Aug112017

Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma

First published in Great Britain in 2017; published by Scribner on June 20, 2017

Flesh and Bone and Water tells a big story in a small way. The novel is a family drama, focusing on one family member and the harm he inadvertently does to his family and future by falling in love.

André Cabral receives a letter from Luana in Brazil. Now living alone in a London flat after separating from his wife, André has not seen Luana in 30 years. He cannot remember her last name, but the letter prompts memories of his Brazilian childhood.

Luana was the daughter of his family’s black maid/nanny. Most of the novel is told in memory: André and his brother Thiago growing up in Rio; their mother’s death; a family visit to Belém, accompanied by Luana; André’s introduction to Esther, his eventual wife, as he attends medical school in London; the deterioration of their marriage as “time rubs away the shine” of love.

Most of the backstory involves André’s forbidden infatuation. Luana is the daughter of a servant and not a fit mate for a boy who will one day become a doctor. But Luana is wrong for André for additional reasons that he does not understand at the time. Eventually, as more letters arrive, André learns a devastating truth about his past.

The story is told in quiet, straightforward prose. There is no melodrama in André’s account of a dramatic moment in his childhood and a dramatic revelation in the present. Much of the novel’s dramatic tension comes from André’s decision to confront the past that he fled when, to his father’s dismay, he settled down in London. There is no going back for André, even when eventually returns to Brazil with his daughter to make an attempt to atone. Like the rest of us, the best André can do is to feel his way forward as he works to reconcile has past and his present. The story's strength lies in its ability to convey a universal message in a personal way.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug092017

Bad Boy by Elliot Wake

First published by Atria on December 6, 2016; published in paperback by Atria on August 22, 2017

Bad Boy is a twist on the “oppressed women get revenge against abusive men” school of fiction that has recently become popular. The twist is that the key characters are part of the LGBT community.

Bad Boy begins with Ren’s video journal (without the video). Ren is 19, a young woman who feels like a little boy. She’s starting to take testosterone. She is profoundly sad and feels a strong need to change her sexual identity. She isn’t confident that she is making the right change, but she is certain she cannot make her life worse.

Soon we’re in the present as Ren and her crew engage in "justice porn," trolling the trolls in search of vengeance. Ren is the muscle. Ellis is the tech genius. Blyth is the charmer. Laney is the leader. Armin, who owns the club where they hang out, is the profiler. Together, they are Black Iris.

Ren still vlogs and has achieved a certain YouTube fame, but she’s still not happy, largely because she still feels like an outsider who isn’t accepted by the larger world. One meaning of the book’s title is that Ren fears she’s bad at being a boy. But Ren also has a self-destructive streak that her friends recognize and that she can’t acknowledge.

Ren experiences a series of revelations — not everyone who loves her as a girl will also love her as a boy; you can’t change who you are on the outside without changing who you are on the inside — that make this a sort of transgender coming of age novel. It’s more that than the revenge novel it starts out to be, but the nature of the personal drama will probably be more meaningful to readers who relate to it.

The themes of “men exist only to hurt women” and “straight men are toxic” become a bit heavy-handed at times. There is, in fact, a fair amount of sexist stereotyping of men throughout the novel, but perhaps that’s fair payback for all the sexist stereotyping of women for which men are responsible. And the book is fair to the extent that it acknowledges that (some) women use men, although not necessarily in the same ways that (some) men use women. It also recognizes that some people, regardless of gender or sexual identity, make false accusations of sexual abuse and that the victims of false accusations suffer nearly as much as the victims of abuse.

Unlike some “women get revenge” books, the characters in this one at least think about whether vengeance makes the world better or worse. Some characters recognize that women are more likely to be protected by empowerment than vengeance — and that vengeance and empowerment are two different things — a point that less thoughtful novels never consider. And as the novel expressly notes, people of every gender and gender identity are oppressed and victimized for a variety of reasons.

Ren is filled with rage and, at least initially, doesn’t want to hear those messages — she just wants to hurt men — raising the point that the oppressed, once empowered, often become oppressors. At the same time, she wants to hurt herself, to rid herself of the empathy induced by estrogen so she can wallow in the violence induced by testosterone. One of the novel’s strongest points is that no gender has it easy, although transgenders have a rougher time than most.

The novel’s weakest point is the plot, which requires Ren to figure out who is a friend and who is a foe. The revenge plot eventually focuses on a fellow named Adam who hurt Ren when she was younger and (she believes) has found a new way to hurt her. The plot is only advanced intermittently. Most of the story involves relationship anxiety that, after a time, becomes a bit wearing.

Quite a bit of Bad Boy reads like a soap opera (jealousy among current and former lovers, former lovers trying to remain friends, etc.), albeit a soap opera geared to the particular relationship difficulties that arise in the LGBT community. Ren is a bundle of woes and hurts and anxieties that become a bit oppressive as the novel unfolds. I’m not a soap opera fan and those aspects of the book would have worked better for me if they had been toned down. Other readers might think they are the best part of the story.

So, a mixed review. The story is insightful but unfocused. And as I suggested, the novel might be more meaningful to readers who are part of the world it describes.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Aug072017

Change Agent by Daniel Suarez

Published by Dutton on April 18, 2017

Daniel Saurez envisions an anti-science American future in which stupidity has overtaken reason. Sadly, that doesn’t take a great deal of imagination, since the future is now.

Most people in Saurez’ near future don’t believe in evolution, advances in synthetic biology are blocked because “every cluster of human cells” is viewed as a baby, and opinions spread on social media carry more weight than peer-reviewed research. As a result, real science moves offshore and the American economy crumbles in competition with economies in places like Singapore that take science seriously.

Kenneth Durand is in Singapore, gathering intelligence for the Genetic Crime Division, which tries to shut down labs that provide illegal genetic enhancements that allow parents to breed superior babies. But the trendy thriller crime at the moment is human trafficking, so Change Agent posits that human trafficking gangs are harvesting genetic material from the refugees they traffic and selling the data to a genediting cartel that, in turn, operates a cloud computing service that embryo mills rely upon for genetic modeling. The cartel is building a global genetic database, which it seems to me they could more easily do by acquiring saliva from a large number of people, but as I said, trafficking is trendy, so there you have it. But since gathering spit from trafficking victims doesn’t seem like anything to get excited about, Saurez throws in “illicit baby labs” to provoke the reader’s outrage.

The story becomes more interesting when Durand is administered a “change agent” that changes him (in terms of appearance and DNA) into a wanted criminal. Durand spends most of remainder of this action novel trying to get changed back. He travels around Asia, bypassing immigration authorities, in a series of adventures that will lead him to the criminal whose shape he has taken.

There are some cool ideas in Change Agent. Crowd-sourced policing, the intersection of molecular printing and designer drug abuse, new ways of exploiting refugees, cities in international waters made from the hulks of decommissioned ships, engineered famines that force tribal people to accept corporate land development, the need for legal protection of one’s own genetic data (to prevent hundreds of Scarlett Johanssons, for instance, from competing with the original), ownership of gene sequences as a form of slavery, the legal complexity of prosecuting someone for a crime who is no longer (genetically speaking) the person who committed the crime, and the nature of a post-identity world are among the interesting concepts in Saurez’ imagined future.

The story also illustrates some of the ethical issues involved with in vitro genetic manipulation. Children of the rich, already advantaged by wealth, are the most likely to be advantaged by genetic enhancements, leaving the poor even farther behind. But it’s just as easy to create docile children with a low IQ who contentedly perform manual labor and don’t demand higher wages. Or soldiers with enhanced fighting skills but without compassion or empathy.

The story is stronger in background and ideas than in plot (which is a fairly typical action story) and characterization (which is about average for genre fiction). The book could probably benefit from a 100-page trim, but for its vision of the future and a couple of entertaining action scenes in Asian jungles, Change Agent is worth reading.

RECOMMENDED