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.

Friday
Jan112019

Invisible by Andrew Grant

Published by Ballantine Books on January 8, 2019

Invisible is another human trafficking novel, the haven of thriller writers who can’t concoct a fresh plot. Paul McGrath is the kind of thriller hero who can’t stop telling us how great he is. He doesn’t overlook any injustice, he won’t tolerate people who dishonor a military uniform, yada yada. I just didn’t like the guy, making it difficult to build enthusiasm for the story he tells. Readers who like characters like McGrath will probably like the book, because parts of the story will push their thriller buttons.

McGrath is a working-class hero who calls himself The Janitor. He’s cleaning up the city’s streets — get it? The Janitor? McGrath starts the novel as part of Military Intelligence (and we know what George Carlin said about that!). He’s suspected of a crime, so he quits the military and returns to the States to make peace with his dad. Part of the conflict might have stemmed from McGrath’s father telling McGrath that he was a psychopath who should seek treatment (McGrath joined the Army instead).

McGrath’s good intentions are foiled when he learns that his father died right after an argument with a business partner who was defrauding the business. A nitwit prosecutor charged the business partner with  homicide on the theory that the stress of the quarrel caused a heart attack due to a previously undiagnosed health condition. Andrew Grant apparently believes that’s a valid homicide theory, but even the most zealous Manhattan prosecutor would be too overworked to pursue such a nonsensical charge.

The prosecutor’s fraud case against the business partner tanked when files containing the evidence went missing. (Although the evidence consists of documents, the prosecutor doesn’t think she can prove the case with copies, which again demonstrates that she is a nitwit or that Grant doesn’t understand much about evidence.) McGrath learns that evidence has also gone missing in other cases. He makes it his mission to learn why.

McGrath takes a job as a courthouse janitor so he’ll have access to places where files might have been stashed. Since people are searched on their way into a courthouse, not on their way out, there’s no reason to stash the files where they might be found as opposed to taking them to a distant location and burning them. Still, McGrath is convinced that playing janitor will solve the mystery. That plot thread is only partially resolved because Grant wanted to set up a sequel.

While snooping around the courthouse, McGrath stumbles upon evidence of other possible crimes that he reports to the police, making a nuisance of himself when they fail to prioritize his reports. Naturally, he takes it upon himself to solve the world’s problems, which is smart because searching the courthouse while sweeping floors would have made for a less-than-riveting plot.

Some of McGrath’s plans to solve problems are just preposterous, but the whole story is pretty silly. So is McGrath. Like most action-thriller heroes, McGrath has utter contempt for bosses who (like most action-thriller writers) have never spent “time in the field.” Grant coughs up other reliable clichés: McGrath doesn’t “play by the rules”; McGrath had a sensei; McGrath tells war stories that, in his view, impart profound lessons; McGrath defeated countless terrorists when he was a military spy; McGrath drinks regular coffee with “nothing foamy in it” because he’s a regular guy; thriller heroes hate New York slumlords and Russian gangsters; thriller heroes who served in the military (didn’t they all?) are superior to people who didn’t. McGrath also follows the mold of thriller heroes who are appallingly self-righteous. And he plays an action role alongside the police, even though he’s not a cop, which would never happen in the real world.

The second half of the novel contains quite a bit of backstory regarding the bad guys. Lacking the Janitor to bring down the plot, that section of the book is actually pretty good. Grant’s writing style is serviceable, so Invisible is not painful to read. Fans of clichéd action heroes might enjoy it. Other thriller fans can easily find better choices. Clearly Grant has another Janitor novel in mind, but I'll be skipping it.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Jan092019

Old Newgate Road by Keith Scribner

Published by Knopf on January 8, 2019

Cole remodels homes in the Pacific Northwest, often using chestnut from the east coast. After thirty years, Cole is back in Connecticut, where he plans to dismantle a tobacco barn. He grew up on Old Newgate Road in East Granby where his childhood was tragic. He’s kept it locked away, but an unexpected family reunion threatens to unlock the gates of memory. A true memory, not the version of the truth that he has carefully constructed and reshaped and lived with for so many years.

In the present, Cole is separated from an unfaithful wife who wants more steam in the bedroom than Cole can generate. He’s having issues with his rebellious son Daniel, who is in the custody of his wife back in Portland — rebellious because he commits misdemeanors to save the world from greedy corporations — but Cole’s trip to East Granby diverts his attention from pressing problems at home. The last Cole knew, his father was in prison. Now he’s back in the family home, suffering from dementia.

Cole’s idea is to bring Daniel to East Granby where he can work on a tobacco farm and help care for Cole’s father — in other words, teach Daniel discipline by making his life hell. Daniel is the novel’s voice of honesty, a voice that speaks unpleasant truths to his father as the story nears its end.

Meanwhile, Cole tries to run his business and salvage his marriage while he’s on a different coast, an effort that proves to be untenable. It doesn’t help that his wife has found a therapist to validate her infidelity.

Flashbacks acquaint the reader with Cole’s childhood, his brother and sister, the marathon-obsessed uncle and unhappy aunt with whom he lived for a while in high school, and the alcoholic grandmother with whom he stayed before moving to the west coast. All have been touched by the same tragedy; each has reacted in a different way.

“The past only has the meaning we give it in the present,” one of the characters observes. Letting go of the past — or not — is the novel’s main theme, coupled with the theme of forgiveness. Cole unpacks a room full of guilt during the novel while victims of his transgressions are astonished that he even remembers the things for which he blames himself.

At the same time, Cole wonders just how far the apple has fallen from the tree. He has difficulty letting go of rage, even at small insults he suffered long ago. Is he more like his father than he is willing to admit? Is he capable of forgiving his father? Should he? And how will Daniel turn out? Does he have his grandfather’s lack of self-control? The answer to the last question comes in a dramatic scene near the novel’s end that seems to reprise an incident from Cole’s past.

Old Newgate Road is a powerful family drama, but the story avoids the melodrama that afflicts so many books about dysfunctional families. Its power derives from its honest depiction of violence against women and from the impact of violence not just on its female victims but on male family members who witness it, whether they choose to confront or deny it.

The story also illustrates the perils of raising children without first resolving long-standing anxieties and issues of self-doubt. As much as Cole worries about how Daniel will grow up, by the end of the novel Cole understands that he’s the one who needs to mature. Sometimes fathers have more to learn from sons than sons can learn from fathers. That realization gives both Cole and the reader hope that it is never too late to put aside the past and to focus on the present.

A dramatic ending that follows the dramatic moments that precedeS it brings the story full circle while suggesting how the lives of the primary characters might turn out. Purposeful prose, convincing characters, and a strong story make Old Newgate Road a novel that will linger in the reader’s memory.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jan072019

The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke

Published by Simon & Schuster on January 8, 2019

“There are moments when you realize that our greatest vanity lies in the belief that we have control of our lives and that reason holds sway in human affairs.” Dave Robicheaux is prone to moments of darkness, an understandable reaction to the miseries he has faced. In The New Iberia Blues, his moments tend to be darker than we have seen in most Robicheaux novels, potentially imperiling his relationship with his daughter and everyone else he cares about. He is feeling his mortality and catching glimpses of whatever lies beyond. Yet he still retains the ability to notice “the leaves blowing along the sidewalks, the flowers blooming in the gardens, the massive live oaks spangled with light and shadow, all of these gifts set in juxtaposition to the violence and cruelty that had fallen upon us like a scourge.”

Dave finds a dead woman’s body nailed to a cross floating in the ocean, visible from the home of a Hollywood director Dave has known since they were both growing up in Louisiana. He wonders whether the director, Desmond Cormier, has anything to do with the woman’s death. Other suspects include a producer with a shady past who is staying with Cormier and another producer who is hanging out with Dave’s daughter.

More murders ensue. They might or might not have been committed by the same killer but they all seem to relate to tarot cards. Dave and the reader are tasked with deciding whether and how the killings are connected.

Dave’s newest partner, Bailey Ribbons, is smart and attractive, which in Dave’s world makes her a target for all the people who have an axe to grind with Dave. Chester Wimple, who smiled as he killed a bunch of people in the last Robicheaux novel, returns in this one. He’s one of James Lee Burke’s creepiest creations.

The New Iberia Blues includes a dead-on description of the Southern white trash who “glory in violence and cruelty and brag on their ignorance, and would have no problem manning the ovens at Auschwitz.” Race is not directly related to the crimes Dave Robicheaux investigates in The New Iberia Blues, but as one of the characters notes, everything in Louisiana is about race. Burke doesn’t back away from that ugly reality.

The novel also showcases the resentment that some people feel about “Hollywood types” who don’t share their narrow values, as well as the lack of sensitivity that Hollywood types have toward people who have less money and education and opportunity than society’s more privileged members. Robicheaux has examined what America has become and knows that it is pointless to “argue with those who are proud of their membership in the Herd,” but he also takes the time to understand why the herd mentality has become so prevalent.

Burke writes beautifully about the environmental and cultural devastation inflicted on Louisiana by industry and seedy politicians to the detriment of Cajuns and blacks and all of the state residents who live in poverty. He writes with dismay about the horror of war and “those people who love wars as long as they don’t have to participate in one.” He writes even more beautifully about the personal turmoil that afflicts Robicheaux and Purcell and even a psychopath like Wimple. When Robicheaux’s daughter tells him that he feels guilty about everything he loves, she nails a common problem — the inability to love without guilt.

Tension mounts as lurking threats give way to imminent danger in the novel’s last act. Burke provides several good suspects and a variety of motives for the multiple homicides. Trying to affix guilt or to maintain trust is as difficult for the reader as it is for Robicheaux and Purcell. The ending is just fantastic. And while the novel is very dark, Burke always reminds the reader that no matter how small a glimmer of hope might be, it can never be extinguished.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Jan062019

Other People by Joff Winterhart

Published by Simon & Schuster/Gallery 13 on September 4, 2018

Other People is a graphic novel that Joff Winterhart wrote as two separate but related stories. The stories take place in England. The first chronicles a summer in the life of a middle-aged woman named Sue and her teenage son Daniel, whose father has gone to live in America. Sue and Daniel argue quite a bit, to the family dog’s dismay. Daniel spends his time listening to heavy metal. Sue spends her time crying.

The first story is told from a third person perspective in snippets, a few panels per page encapsulating a slice of a day. The second story is told from Daniel’s perspective. The format is similar, although the story is longer and the panels that relate each snippet generally cover two pages.

The second story follows the first by about ten years. Daniel has cut his hair, moved back home, and dedicated himself to the uncertain task of finding something to do at which he will not fail. Apart from spending sleepless nights plagued by dread and regret, he gets a job with Keith Nutt. He hopes to use the job to find himself, maybe to spark a career, but his primary duties consist of listening to Keith’s stories and walking Keith’s dog. Even at those duties, Daniel does not excel, at least in Keith's view.

The illustrations are simple drawings (black ink in the first story, blue and brown in the second). The drawings capture the essence of the characters, portraying none of them in a flattering light. The simplicity of the art enhances the honesty of the story. There are no frills here, no illusions. What you see is all there is.

Other People is a close, nuanced look at ordinary people living drab lives. Daniel at least knows his life is empty. Keith and most of the other characters cover their hollowness with a façade of meaning that Daniel comes to appreciate. Daniel even finds himself appreciating Keith as he realizes that their fundamental similarities outweigh their vast differences. His job gives him little to do, but it opens his eyes to a world full of other people, all the people he never noticed before. At the same time, nearly everyone he encounters knows that Daniel can make more of his life than he will ever manage with Keith.

The stories immerse the reader in Daniel’s ennui and anxiety. They are, at times, a painful reading experience, particularly when Daniel’s relationship with his mother (in the first story) and with Keith (in the second) is at its worst. At the same time, the poignant stories encourage the reader to root not just for the primary characters but for all individuals who are searching for a way to give their lives purpose.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jan042019

Power Failure by Ben Bova

Published by Tor Books on October 9, 2018

Power Failure represents a failure of the imagination. Ben Bova is an old-school cheerleader for exploration of the solar system. Reflecting that obsession, Bova’s recent novels have been about overcoming political barriers to manned missions to Mars. Apparently having flogged that horse enough, he has set his sights on a closer goal: overcoming political barriers to colonizing the moon.

One of Bova’s recent Mars books focused on NASA and crewed missions to Mars; the other had private enterprise taking the initiative. In Power Failure, Bova images a private-public cooperative model in which NASA and private businesses share the mission of crewed space exploration. I have to assume that Bova intends the book as a blueprint for how government and the private sector should work together to get crewed space exploration moving forward. His characters certainly make enough speeches outlining the familiar benefits (jobs, technology spinoff) of investing in a future beyond our planetary boundaries. I agree with most of what those characters say, but speeches rarely translate into compelling fiction.

The novel also touches on some of Bova’s favorite rants, including the failure of schools to concentrate on STEM subjects that are likely to build interest in the space program (as opposed to teaching subjects that might build interest in things that are of less consequence to Bova). Bova seems to be convinced that kids will be excited about STEM subjects if they get a chance to meet a real astronaut, further evidence that Bova is stuck in the past. He is clueless and condescending when it comes to the challenges facing the nation’s schools. Bova sounds like a cranky old man when he takes shots at teachers who fail to get kids interested in aerospace engineering.

The plot focuses on Republican Senator Franklin Tomlinson who, in his second senate term, decides to run for president as a tribute to his dead father. He needs a campaign issue that will elevate him above the status of dark horse. Bova, being Bova, remains convinced that voters will become enthused about a candidate who focuses not on healthcare or immigration or the economy but on the space program. Seriously?

Bova’s suggestion that Russians will jump at the chance to cooperate with America in exploring space is a standard means of shilling for the space program, but it doesn’t reflect political reality. Modest cooperative efforts (like the space station) have done little to lessen tensions between the two countries. I’m a firm supporter of the space program, but it isn’t the panacea for international peace that Bova imagines it to be.

Bova moves from science fiction to fantasy when he posits that running on a science-based issue is how Tomlinson will energize voters in a Republican primary. Bova acknowledges that a substantial number of Republican voters want to stop stem cell research, are hostile to the science that explains global warming and evolution, think sex education should avoid teaching contraception, and believe that mining American coal is the road to energy independence. Given that so many Republican voters are hostile to science, it’s shocking that Bova fails to explain how basing a political campaign on science will reach a base of voters who take pride in their ignorance.

The driving force behind Tomlinson’s moon plan is Jake Ross, who had a fling with the senator’s wife before the senator married her. Jake is the senator’s science advisor and is now married to Tami. Bova dangles the possibility of hanky-panky to try to enliven the plot, but it’s clear that the politics behind the moon mission are all he really cares about. To the extent that Bova believes a nonexistent sex scandal involving Tomlinson’s wife (who — horrors! — had dinner with a man while her husband was out of town) can ruin a Republican’s chance of being elected president, he apparently doesn’t keep up with the news. Ross ends up dealing with that scandal why? Aren’t scandals the responsibility of the chief of staff? Or the media relations staffer? Bova’s belief that scandals still exist, like his belief that science advisors play a critical role in political campaigns, is further evidence that he continues to write science fiction that might have been published in the 1950s.

The turmoil of a gay character is probably supposed to add currency to the plot, but it still feels like a 1950s attitude about the difficulties experienced by gay men. He also tosses in a conflict between Jake, who wants to stay in DC as the president’s science advisor if Tomlinson wins, and his wife, who wants to be a news anchor in Fresno. Those scenes are least might have been written in the 1970s —until Jake’s wife [spoiler alert] decides to be dutiful by sacrificing her career to remain at her husband’s side. It’s Ozzie and Harriet all over again.

As a seasoned writer, Bova knows he needs to add some dramatic tension to the plot. He does that a couple of times by placing characters in life-endangering situations. Those were the only parts of the novel that made me feel I wasn’t attending a lecture delivered by a stuffy pedant. The novel feels so dated and has  little to say that hasn't already been said.

NOT RECOMMENDED