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
Jul102019

The Last Act by Brad Parks

Published by Dutton on March 12, 2019

Many works of fiction ask the reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying the story. Some ask more than others. The Last Act asks too much.

Having said that, I hasten to add that I liked the characters and enjoyed some of the story. I am tempted to recommend The Last Act for the introduction alone, which asks why the drug war has resulted in the lengthy incarceration of impoverished people for petty offenses while the money laundering offenses performed by Wachovia Bank, which enabled Mexican drug cartels to do business in the United States, resulted in no sentences at all. Another part of the books lambasts prosecutors who seek jail sentences for Medicaid fraud that is committed to obtain healthcare that would otherwise be unavailable. The book’s heart is in the right place.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell. Former child actor Tommy Jump is now 27, too big for child roles, too small to be a leading man. A high school buddy who is now in the FBI hires him to pose as a federal prisoner so he can cozy up to an incarcerated banker and learn where the banker has stashed documents that he’s hidden as insurance against reprisals by a cartel. The FBI agent tells him that the documents will let them bring down the cartel. Tommy’s wife is newly pregnant, he has no job, and the chance to earn a large chunk of cash seems too good to pass up. After all, it’s only six months in a federal prison. What could go wrong?

Before we get to what could go wrong, let’s examine what’s wrong with the premise. The reader will quickly suspect that things are not as they seem and will wonder why Tommy doesn’t realize that. But setting that aside, the scheme requires Tommy to go to court and plead guilty to a bank robbery that never happened. Nobody in the system — not the judge, not the Marshals (who would tend to know about bank robberies within their districts), not Pretrial Services — questions why nobody has ever heard of this bank robbery prior to Tommy’s confession. No grand jury testimony, no FBI reports, no victim, no evidence that any bank lost a penny. Our system is flawed, but federal judges do not send people to prison for bank robbery in the absence of evidence that a bank was actually robbed, notwithstanding the alleged bank robber’s confession. Granted, the story eventually explains why things are not as they appear, but the plot never explains how Tommy could be sent to prison in the absence of any evidence that a crime actually occurred.

And the notion that Tommy can’t get himself out of this mess just by hiring a halfway competent lawyer is preposterous. An affidavit from the bank manager explaining that the bank wasn't robbed would persuade even the most hardened judge to ask why the government sent Tommy to jail.

Anyway, Tommy goes off to prison, and of course the plan goes awry. Fortunately, he quickly learns how he can come and go at will. I think it is doubtful that an 8-year sentence for bank robbery would immediately be served in a minimum-security prison or that security would be quite as lax as the novel imagines, but I gave up on the premise long before Tommy got to prison. The ending also depends on the unlikely coincidence of a particular person being in the right place at the right time. It's all too much to swallow.

I liked Tommy. I liked his cellmate. I liked the banker. I didn’t accept the premise, but I liked the humanity with which the story is told. I admired the fluid prose and appreciated that the story moves quickly. Readers who are less troubled by the plot’s impossibility will find reasons to enjoy The Last Act. Readers who expect verisimilitude from storytellers will be disappointed.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Jul082019

The Shameless by Ace Atkins

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on July 9, 2019

Brandon Taylor came home from high school, went out deer hunting, and didn’t return. A week later, his body was found with a bullet in the skull. The sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi called it a suicide. Twenty-one years later, a podcasting reporter decides to investigate. The reporter wonders whether Brandon might have been killed by a young Quinn Colson.

Brandon happens to be the boy who took the virginity of Quinn’s new wife. Other sources are telling the reporter that Quinn was jealous of Brandon and that the sheriff, Quinn’s uncle, covered up Quinn’s involvement in Brandon’s death.

Series readers know that Quinn Colson is the current sheriff. Unlike many of the local politicians and other characters in the novel, Quinn is not a redneck homophobic racist. Quinn doesn’t hide behind his religion to conceal his moral faults, unlike politicians who want to build a 60-foot cross to hide the neon lights of the local titty bar. Southern politicians in the Quinn Colson novels are inevitably religious hypocrites, of the sort Roy Moore exemplifies.

In the Colson novels, southern hospitality is a mask that disguises the things nobody in Mississippi wants to talk about: poverty, corruption, bigotry, and the failure to fund schools — a point that Quinn’s sister makes to the reporter. Ace Atkins draws some not-so-subtle parallels between a redneck candidate for governor who relies on the support of white supremacists and a certain president, including the dismissal of attempts to expose the truth as “harassment” and a “witch hunt.” This is not a book that people on the far right are likely to enjoy.

The Shameless makes a deep dive into Quinn’s family history. Much of it, including his relationship with the shady “Uncle Hamp,” has been sketched out in earlier novels. The relationship adds complexity to Quinn’s character. He is loyal to the memory of his uncle (Hamp was a role model who taught Quinn to shoot) but is not blind to the corruption and crime that was allowed to infest the county under Hamp’s watch.

Other family members and friends add color to the story, including Quinn’s mother (perhaps the biggest Elvis fan in Mississippi), his sister Caddy (restoring herself after a troubled past by working to feed and clothe the poor), his friend Boom (whose own drinking problem has worsened since his beating by a man who plays a key role in the story), and his colleague Lillie Virgil, who worked with Quinn until she joined the U.S. Marshals.

Thriller fans generally want good to triumph over evil. Those triumphs are incremental in the Quinn Colson novels, but the reader can cheer for small victories. I enjoy the series because evil is broadly defined to include rednecks who want the South to return to its “traditions,” a code word that includes oppression of everyone who isn’t a straight white male. It will take generations for southern devotion to those abhorrent “traditions” to die, but the Quinn Colson novels provide comfort for those who believe that politicians who fuel prejudice can be overcome, one hypocrite at a time.

The more immediate question is how and why Brandon Taylor died. A team effort finds a satisfying solution to that mystery, but there is more to the story, setting up a continuing plot thread for future novels. Along the way, Atkins delivers entertaining action scenes and gunfights, but the story is centered on characters with personalities that make them seem like real people to fans of the series.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul052019

Prairie Fever by Michael Parker

Published by Algonquin Books on May 21, 2019

Prairie Fever begins in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma in 1917. Elise and Lorena had two brothers who died of typhoid, deaths their father blamed on prairie fever, a phrase Elise associates with life, not death: prairie dog villages; the way the prairie wind “makes everything slap and creak and whistle.” When the novel begins, Elise is 15 and Lorena is a year older. Both sisters are precocious and improbably eloquent, resulting in entertaining dialog as they try to one-up each other during the ride to school on a horse named Sandy. Elise seems to live in her imagination (she is certain that Sandy knows the way to all destinations and often travels along ocean beaches). Lorena purports to be reality based, although she doesn’t “believe that some things have to be real and that makes them not real.”

Each day when the sisters arrive at school, they are unpinned from their blanket by their teacher. Gus McQueen is 19, a new arrival in Lone Wolf. He was raised by his aunt in North Carolina and was recommended for the teaching job by his own teacher, thanks to McQueen’s talent for memorization.

Prairie Fever’s first dramatic moment occurs when Elise, in reaction to Lorena’s cruel comment, decides to leave class and ride Sandy to a neighboring town in a blizzard. Searching for Elise with Lorena clinging to his back, McQueen is transformed by a combination of love and desire, and perhaps a kind of spiritual awakening. Elise is also changed by the experience, losing some fingers and toes and part of her nose.

McQueen believes that his life repeatedly forces him to select “the lesser of two bad choices,” but sometimes he feels guided (in a literal sense) by his dead brother. McQueen’s choice between the Stewart sisters drives the novel’s plot. The girls are much alike but different in key aspects. Gus loves them both but realizes that he only hears the “true cry” of one sister.

Prairie Fever is not a modernized Lolita. Even today, the age of consent in Oklahoma is 16 and McQueen does not pursue either sister while she is still in school. He is only a few years older than the girls, and given the time frame in which the story unfolds, there is nothing creepy about his intentions. McQueen is, in fact, quite proper and something of a sweet bumbler in his courtship.

One sister eventually goes to Texas and the other to Wyoming, both described as dismal places albeit for different reasons. The novel’s second part consists of letters that the sisters write to each other while pretending to write to someone else. The letters are filled with subtle and (in Lorena’s case) biting humor, making them a joy to read.

The last part jumps ahead a couple of decades, allowing the reader to see what has become of Gus and the two sisters. The story’s drama initially concerns the triangular relationship among the sisters and Gus. After both sisters settle into life, the drama concerns the rift that develops between the sisters and whether they will be able to restore their bond. A story of that nature could easily become a soap opera, but there is no melodrama here. Prairie Fever is instead an honest portrayal of complex characters living simple but meaningful lives. Their approaches to a difficult (and perhaps impossible) reconciliation are based on a true understanding of the conflict between love and pride.

While the story is always interesting, it is the prose and the characters that captured by attention. The writing is of award-winning quality. McQueen is a decent man, as is a rancher who later enters the story as the husband of one of the sisters. Growing up with “prairie stretching to the horizon,” unbounded by conventions, has given the sisters the gift of free thought. Yet they both struggle with their imaginations as they question whether and when it is best to replace knowing with pretending.

Few books make me fall in love with characters, but the frankness, eloquence, and imaginations of both Lorena and Elise make the characters memorable. They are spirited and stubborn but mostly motivated by wisdom and kindness. I understand Gus’ dilemma in trying to decide which sister to wed. I loved them both.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul032019

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

Published by Tor.com on May 21, 2019

There seems to be a disturbing trend of science fiction publishers omitting the word “romance” when they market science fiction romances. Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water has the trappings of a “telepath revolution” story, but it’s the kind of novel that will appeal to fans of romance fiction more than fans of science fiction. The revolution, and even the telepathy, is undeveloped and very much in the background.

Chela and Bee are telepaths and (according to Chela) terrorists from Earth, although Bee doesn’t recall the mass destruction they caused and barely remembers Earth. The neck chip that blocks her powers seems to have damaged Bee’s memory, or so Chela theorizes. There was a war, Chela says. They used their powers and people died, Chela says. Now the two women climb through tunnels, battling bugs the size of flying rabbits, in search of the printed food their captors have left for them. Sometimes they stop to have sex. In fact, they have regular sex. Good for them. Sex is a pleasant way to pass time when you aren’t dodging insect rabbits.

It is clear enough, early on, that Chela is hiding something from Bee. Perhaps the truth will set Bee free. When Bee regains some of her memory, however, she does not know whether to believe that Chela is warning her of a threat or that Chela is the threat. Neither does the reader.

The story’s second half devolves into an anguished cry about how awful it is to be an oppressed telepath in love. Women remember the taste of each other’s bodies and the feel of swelling nipples. That shouldn’t be dull but my eyes glazed over at the unrequited yearning and the assurances that characters give each other that they are just so amazing and nothing is their fault. Perhaps I cannot identify with their “desperate need to be cherished.” I thought the flying insect rabbits were more interesting.

This is sort of a “power of love; love conquers all” story. The writing is fluid (pretentious title notwithstanding) but most of it is devoted to how much Bee loves her wife unless she’s thinking about how much she loves Chela, except for the moments when she considers how much she hates one or the other of them. The plot (which might make sense but maybe it doesn’t; I stopped trying to understand it after I lost interest) is secondary to the declarations of love and accusations of love betrayed.

The virtue of Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is that, as a novella, it is over quickly. I have no problem with romance but I am not drawn to cheesy romance fiction, and I am irked by romance fiction that is marketed as science fiction by science fiction publishers. I read this novella because it was blurbed by Ann Leckie and Nancy Kress, two sf writers I admire. They apparently found something worthwhile that I missed.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul012019

We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

Published by Random House on July 2, 2019

We Went to the Woods begins one year after “the accident.” It is narrated by a young woman named Makenzie who messed up her life and future, changed her name to Mack Johnston in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid notoriety, and started working as a part-time caterer. Mack meets Louisa, who introduces her to Chloe, Beau, and Jack. The five of them decide to create a sustainable, self-sufficient community of five in the woods as their own small contribution to creating a better world.

They live without electricity or plumbing in a farming co-op they call “the Homestead” on property owned by Louisa’s father. Mack discovers a diary that speaks to the utopian aspirations of a failed community that might or might not have existed on the same property. Using the diary as inspiration and given her educational background in anthropology, Mack decides to chronicle her experience with her four new friends, perhaps taking a larger view by making comparisons to the earlier commune.

Mack tells us that she joined the co-op to feed “that dark hungry part of me that needed purpose” and to assuage a “fear of purposelessness that left me panicking each night I spent alone.” The others have a mix of philosophical or political motivations for joining, some claiming they are following Thoreau or trying to learn how to live a better life. One is anti-capitalist, another pro-environment, but Mack tells them that individual motivations need not align to pursue common interests. A neighboring co-op member reminds them that they are “relatively well-off white kids,” not oppressed revolutionaries, a grounding message that some take to heart more than others.

Mack spends the first part of her joint living experience trying to figure out who is sleeping with whom. She only desires people who do not desire her, so sex seems unlikely, as much as she would like to partake. She notices tension between Chloe and Louisa, who sleep together when they aren’t taking turns sleeping with Beau. Women at other communes gather at the Farmer’s Market, where Beau seems to be a popular shopper, to the consternation of Louisa and Chloe and even Mack.

We Went to the Woods has a plot, but the story is driven by personalities. Jack is a mixture of “crotchetiness” and innocent joy. Beau’s mysterious absences are assumed to be a product of his devotion to bedding as many women as he can find. Chloe is a peacemaker while Louisa is abrasive and unsettled, always one spark short of conflagration. It is Louisa who wants to fight the neighboring landowner, who may be encroaching the co-op’s land with pesticides and nonorganic fertilizer.

Some of the novel’s intrigue results from the delayed revelation of just what Mack did while participating in a reality TV show, The Millennial Experiment, that screwed up her life and angered just about everyone. (It doesn’t seem that awful to me, but I’m not a Millennial.) The conflict with the nonorganic neighbor also contributes to the tension, although the novel avoids simplistic portrayals of farmers as good or evil depending on whether they use pesticides.

The plot begins to build steam in the second half, when it becomes clear that another collective, not far from Mack’s, is engaging in activism that includes property destruction. Mack is clueless about their conduct but begins to suspect that one or more of her co-op members might be participating in the activism, placing the rest of Mack's group at risk of reprisals. They are also at risk of felony arrests, given that prosecutors equate vandalism with terrorism when it is committed by activists.

Toward the novel’s end, Mack learns surprising information about the neighboring collective that helps her reinterpret events that take place early in the novel. The revelations also inspire the reader see key characters in a new light. By the end, the activism has placed some of Mack’s friends (and even Mack) in a dangerous position, largely because of their ineptness.

The novel invites readers to think about tradeoffs between the harm caused by fracking and unsustainable farming methods, on the one hand, and comfort, on the other. Living in the woods with no electricity and eating only locally grown foods is laudable but, as Mack comes to appreciate, difficult. Spending Christmas with her parents, on the other hand, is enough to make her yearn for a return to the woods. At the same time, the novel provokes thought about how activists can best confront fracking, groundwater pollution, and other socially harmful behavior that the law condones.

The story also asks readers to consider whether collectives are destined to fail, at least if they promote free love, because humans are wired to be possessive and jealous. Perhaps the story cheats a bit when it asks that question. One particular example is plainly destructive; not all communes are cults that are driven by charismatic but exploitive leaders. Yet the novel makes the valid point that utopian communities are less than utopian when members are sexually exploited or when they feel a “duty” to follow rules prescribed by community leaders about their sexual behavior. Whether a truly egalitarian community based on free love could thrive is an interesting question.

A few supporting characters might be dismissed as stereotypes, but the protagonist and a couple of other characters are complex. The philosophical questions the novel poses add meat to the stew. Where We Went to the Woods is going remains a mystery until the novel nears the end. Its unpredictability as suspense builds is its strongest virtue.

RECOMMENDED