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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.


The Incarnations by Susan Barker

Published in Great Britain in 2014; published by Touchstone on August 18, 2015

Wang Jun’s mother tells him that “being born into this world is hell” and that he will be “crushed with countless millions all your life long.” His father tells him, “Like mother, like son.” Who is Wang Jun? Even Wang Jun doesn’t know the answer. He is the product of a horrific childhood and, perhaps, of difficult lives that he experienced in earlier incarnations.

When taxi driver Wang Jun finds a letter above the visor in his taxi from a person who claims to be his soulmate, he complains to the police about a stalker. Subsequent letters tell Wang about the soulmate’s past incarnations, all involving relationships with someone who is presumably Wang, although in past lives Wang was not always a male. In between letters, we learn about Wang’s marriage, his child and his childhood, his confinement in a mental health institution and the friend who caused him to question his sexual identity. We later watch Wang confront a moral crisis as he tries to understand his needs and desires.

The background is China just before the Olympic Games, when the longstanding practice of spitting on the sidewalk drew government fines and meager efforts were made to quash obvious corruption. The clash between a controlling government and out-of-control free enterprise is depicted in small details that create a convincing setting.

The stories from the past draw upon key moments in Chinese history from the seventh century to the twentieth. Some are the stuff of myth and legend. Others have a more realistic feel, although even those are infused with spirits and visions. They are all fascinating, but the segment that takes place during Mao’s Cultural Revolution is the most affecting. It is a captivating piece of writing.

Back in the present, much of the story is driven by Wang’s assumptions about the identity of the letter writer, the impact of the letters on Wang, and the unfortunate actions he takes in response to them. That gives the novel the flavor of a mystery or a story of psychological suspense. There are also stories of unconventional relationships scattered through the novel, although they involve tragic love more than giddy romance.

The letter writer’s actual identity (at least, the most recent one) is surprising to both the reader and to Wang. Its revelation forces a reinterpretation of the earlier letters. The novel’s ending is powerful and unexpected. The Incarnations is, in short, a skillful tale that combines tragedy and humor, history and modernity, revealing the darkness and richness of China and the enduring nature of the human spirit -- even when the human has no desire to endure.



Jury Town by Stephen W. Frey

Published by Thomas & Mercer on September 29, 2015

The notion of “professional jurors” has been floated from time to time, usually by insurance companies that think people who work full-time as jurors will award less compensation to injury victims than jurors who are randomly chosen from the community. It’s a bad idea that, for obvious reasons, never gains traction, but it forms the interesting (albeit unbelievable) premise upon which Stephen Frey built Jury Town.

Former Governor Victoria Lewis, who believes her father was once an innocent victim of a rigged jury, proposes to replace Virginia’s system of choosing jurors at random with a pool of 200 professional jurors who would decide all civil and criminal cases. That seems like a system that would be ripe for corruption but the system proposes to solve that problem by having the jurors listen to evidence on television while living in a compound, isolating them from potential bribes. Their impartiality would be guaranteed by cutting them off from contact with the outside world. They live in a remodeled prison but they’re paid a lot of money to do it.

Without internet access or news coverage, the professional jurors would be remarkably ignorant of current affairs, which hardly makes them ideal representatives of the community, which is what a jury is meant to be. In criminal cases, the system would probably be unconstitutional, but in Frey’s novel the Virginia Supreme Court has managed to railroad the project into existence. The process of selecting the jurors for their two year terms is a secret that the public isn’t entitled to know. None of this is remotely plausible but this is a work of fiction so I was willing to roll with the premise at least initially. Unfortunately, I lost my willingness to suspend disbelief well before the novel's end.

Against this background, the plot involves a group of people known as the Grays who operate a widespread jury tampering scheme, influencing verdicts for their own financial gain. The novel’s other key player is Angela Gaynor, a state senator who aspires to a U.S. Senate seat with the endorsement of her best friend, recently retired from the NBA. The Grays need Gaynor’s opponent to win reelection. There are also a couple of fellows who are trying to make a killing with online gaming software and a Chinese investor. Both of these collateral plotlines get tangled up in the main story in ways that are hard to believe, but they are no harder to believe than the main story.

Conspiracy thrillers have become increasingly outlandish over the years. Jury Town is hard to swallow on a number of levels. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of a good story but Jury Town challenged my ability to do that. Talking about all the things I didn’t buy would require revealing too much of the story, so I will only say that the Grays, Lewis, and other characters do a number of things that advance the plot while detracting from its credibility. And as evil characters go, the foot-stomping Grays (all predictably holding high level government positions) are too silly to take seriously.

I like Stephen Frey’s ability to move a story forward and to fashion protagonists that exhibit human flaws. He is particularly strong when he relies on his financial background. In Jury Town, however, he moved away from his strength and built a story on a weak premise that collapses under the weight of the implausible story it supports. Granted, Jury Town is an easy read with some fun moments. I suspect that readers who are able to buy into the premise will enjoy it more than I did.



Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

First published in 1958

Having recently reviewed the digital release of Brian Aldiss' Hothouse, I want to give a shout-out to Aldiss' first science fiction novel. Non-Stop was published in various paperback editions in the United States under the title Starship.

The plot of Non-Stop is ingenious: a generations ship travels on a seemingly non-stop journey through space, its mission long forgotten, carrying descendants of the original crew who now live in warring tribes, some foraging for food in the jungle that has overgrown the ship's aft corridors while guarding against those who live on the more organized "forward" decks. Legends tell them they are on a voyage through space, but lacking windows, they have no understanding of the meaning of space; they picture it as a darkness where distant lanterns burn. The concept of religion perseveres, but it is a religion based on the teachings of "Froyd": they pray for Consciousness to save them from the Subconscious and use "Expansion to your ego" as a ritualized greeting. Aldiss creates a clever and fully realized future for this lost ship: instead of saying "to hell with ...," for instance, inhabitants say "to the hull with ...."

The story follows a small band of explorers who make their way from the aft region known as Quarters to the Forwards, where they hope to learn the truth about their environment. Apart from some "why would they do that?" moments, the novel works not only as a well-written adventure story, but also as sort of a Lord of the Flies commentary on how easily civilization can descend into chaos and superstition.



Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

First published in 1962; published digitally by Open Road Media on May 19, 2015

Like Alan Dean Foster's novel Midworld (1975), Hothouse imagines a forested world in which humans inhabit a middle level, somewhere between the sky and the ground. Unlike Midworld, Brian Aldiss' world is the Earth of the far future. Hothouse is a global warming novel, but the warming (and increased radiation) resulted from the Earth having locked in rotation with a dying sun rather than the destruction of the ozone layer.

The far-future Earth is richly imagined. One side of the planet is always in sunlight, which explains why it is dominated by vegetation. Humans are among the last surviving animals. Human social structure collapsed as humans died from radiation sickness. Radiation-tolerant humans evolved over time (they are much smaller than the humans of our time), as did insects, aquatic animals, and reptiles, all adapting to the Earth's new environmental conditions. The difference between animal and vegetable has in many cases become obscure. Vegetative life mimics animal life, squids walk on land, and mushrooms are the most intelligent species. The strength of this novel is its background: the environment that Brian Aldiss creates and the variety of lifeforms that have adapted to the climactic changes.

The story is less interesting than the background. It begins with a group of humans, exploring the rituals that define their lives and help them to survive. In its early stages, Hothouse is much like Midworld. The novels depart when Aldiss changes his focus from the group of tree-dwelling humans to a young outcast named Gren.

The plot seems a bit random as Gren stumbles from adventure to adventure.  Aldiss doesn't establish Gren's character or personality, other than making him abrasive. I suspect that these problems are explained by the fact that Aldiss originally wrote a series of related stories that he later fixed up into a novel. That would account for the jarring changes in focus and for storylines that appear and then die out.

Some aspects of the story, particularly off-planet travel, are not well explained and are therefore difficult to accept. I like Hothouse more for its concept of far-future evolution (or devolution) than for the story it tells, but the novel's background is so detailed and imaginative that it makes the story worth reading.



The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Published in Canada in 2015; published by Nan A. Talese on September 29, 2015

The Heart Goes Last is both playful and subversive. It is satirical and allegorical. The story it tells can’t be taken seriously, but its targeting of people who behave like sheep, sacrificing freedom for comfort, of men who find new ways to oppress women, and of corporations that place profits ahead of … well, everything … is well taken. Margaret Atwood doesn’t beat the reader over the head with lectures about morality, but the background themes are never far from the reader’s thoughts.

The economy has tanked. Stan and Charmaine are living in a car. The rich are living offshore on tax-free floating platforms. Stan’s life is tied down by “tiny threads of petty cares and small concerns.” Joining his brother Conner in the criminal underclass may be Stan’s only hope. Charmaine, who works for tips in a bar, is tempted to turn tricks until she sees an even more tempting ad for the Positron Project.

Against Conner’s advice, Stan and Charmaine join the corporate/social experiment called Consilience/Positron. The experiment involves voluntary imprisonment in exchange for full employment. In alternating months, residents of the prison (Positron) swap places with residents of the village (Consilience), but even in the village they have no freedom, in that they are cut off from the outside world. They see only the news, television shows, and movies that are chosen for them. They work at the jobs the project gives them. They own what the project allows them to own. The project demands meek obedience to its rules; disruption has harsh consequences.

Against this background, the story begins to explore the relationship between Stan and Charmaine, their inability to connect with each other and their consequent misunderstanding about who the other person is and what the other person wants. As the plot moves forward, the characters must decide whether they are loyal to each other, to themselves, or to Consilience. Another plot thread compares complex relationships between humans to simpler interactions between humans and robots (or, more precisely, sexbots). Of course, some human relationships seem robotic, which is one of the points that Atwood’s novel makes.

The Heart Goes Last combines a serious story about the breakdown of society with satirical commentaries on the cozy relationship between government and big business, the not-so-cozy relationship that is often defined by marriage, and the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful (particularly, but not exclusively, the exploitation of women by men). It also makes the point that there will always be people who are willing to give up freedom, independence, and any ability they might possess to think for themselves in exchange for comfort and security. After all, life is just easier when other people make decisions for you. Of course, for every bit of freedom you choose to relinquish, the people in control will want you to give up just a bit more. Utopia comes at a price.

The Heart Goes Last stitches together a number of novellas that Atwood previously published in what science fiction writers of the 1940s and 1950s called a “fix-up” novel. It reads well, but the fixed-up nature of the work is apparent in some of the sharp turns the novel takes. Atwood takes the story a bit over the top with all the varieties of evil she concocts, but that’s the nature of satire, and when greed is being satirized, going over the top is forgivable. Some of the humor might be a little too easy (although making fun of Elvis impersonators never gets old) and the story provokes more smiles than outright laughter. Still, this is a fun book.