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.

Monday
Dec042017

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

First published in Japan in 2013 (in a literary journal) and in 2014 (as part of a novel); published in translation by Pushkin Press on January 23, 2018

Ms. Ice Sandwich is the name bestowed upon a sandwich seller with large eyes and a damaged face by the novel’s young narrator. The narrator is fascinated by Ms. Ice Sandwich; he has a crush or the first experience of love from afar. He sketches her endlessly but never speaks to her except to order a sandwich.

Other kids, and some adults, view Ms. Ice Sandwich as a monster or a freak. She is apparently a victim of surgical malpractice, but whatever the cause of her unusual appearance, the young narrator feels saddened by the meanness that surrounds her. At the same time, when other kids question his obsession with the woman, he stops seeing her, a solution that saddens him until his new friend Tutti gives him some worldly advice that she figured out in the first grade. I won’t spoil the advice, but it is the kind of wisdom that is easily forgotten and from which everyone would benefit.

The novella offers the narrator’s amusing insights into his fourth-grade life as he reacts to a world he is trying to comprehend. His grandmother is dying. He isn’t sure what to make of concepts like aging and death. Girls and adults are mysterious, but Ms. Ice Sandwich is the most mysterious of all.

The story is obviously about growing up, but it is also about friendship. The narrator’s blossoming friendship with Tutti contrasts with the infatuation he feels for Ms. Ice Sandwich. Part of growing up is learning the value of genuine friendship, as is learning that physical appearance is not the standard that should be used to select friends — a lesson that comes late in life to many, if it comes at all.

Ms Ice Sandwich brilliantly captures the wonder and puzzlement of childhood, the burning desire to figure things out and the sense of loss when reality replaces imagination. Learning to say goodbye and coping with loss, real and imagined, is another important part of growing up, one that Mieko Kawakami illustrates in a variety of contexts. But for every loss there is a gain; for every goodbye, there is a hello. That’s another lesson that comes as we experience life, and one that the narrator’s experience will eventually cause him to recognize.

Ms Ice Sandwich is a story of emotions and feelings more than events. The novel’s limitations are also its strengths. The novella uses no more words than it needs. It does not pretend to be epic. Its focus is narrow, but the small world that the narrator inhabits is rich with the kind of details that children notice and that adults take for granted, like the sensation of falling snowflakes. The story is small but the novella’s lessons are large. That’s quite an achievement.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Dec012017

Immortal Life by Stanley Bing

Published by Simon & Schuster on December 5, 2017

Immortality has been a dream since legends of the Fountain of Youth appeared in fifth century BC, and probably earlier. Modern dreamers focus on science rather than myth, including the possibility of downloading the contents of a mind for transference into a new body. That concept raises a number of intriguing questions, some of which receive tongue-in-cheek attention in Immortal Life.

Arthur Vogel is looking for a solution to the problem of death. Body parts can be replaced if you can afford the technology. The Mighty Vog invented a switch that makes Artificial Intelligence possible and became the richest man in the solar system.

Meanwhile, a fellow named Gene wakes up with no real recollection of his life. He does, however, have a huge supply of facts. A doctor named Bob knows more about Gene than Gene, as does a woman named Bronwyn, but they give him little insight into his background or why he has an implant in his finger. The reader quickly understands, even if Gene doesn’t, that Gene has no memories because has been rebooted. Again.

Gene was made to fill a role, but when Gene realizes the nature of that role, he balks. That’s considered a flaw, as is the fact that Gene yearns for a woman named Livia despite having no memory of her. The glitches need to be fixed but the project is already overbudget and Gene keeps going off on a frolic of his own. The problem with artificial humans is that they behave like humans. You really can't trust them.

But more importantly, you can’t trust mega-size corporations. One of the serious questions the novel asks is whether the privatization of the Cloud will eventually result in its control by one company, or perhaps one person. Another question is: If life extension allows the powerful to remain in power longer, forcing the younger generations to remain in the cheap seats, will immortality impose a glass ceiling on the ambitions of the young?

Serious questions aside, Immortal Life pokes fun at the present by lampooning an imagined future that is based on present trends (infotainment, synthesized food, life extension technologies, a Civil War between red and blue states, the radioactive wasteland that used to be Korea, Amazon’s desire to own everything, and Alexa’s continuing inability to get anything right).

Immortal Life delivers an amusing series of goofy moments. Robots and humans alike are exposed as victims of imperfect programming. But when the story isn’t being funny (and even when it is), characters make some well-stated points about how the Singularity anticipated by science fiction writers might be the “tragic conclusion to the great pageant of human history,” not the next step in human evolution so much as a repudiation of what it means to be human. As Gene says, “that would be a bummer.”

As a comedy, the story can get by with underdeveloped and somewhat stereotypical characters. Some of the humor might be a bit shallow (yes, we know our wireless devices have made us dependent and lazy, but we’ve known that for some time now), and a couple of paragraphs won’t appeal to supporters of the current presidential administration, but the story’s silliness made me laugh often enough to win my recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Nov292017

Places in the Darkness by Christopher Brookmyre

Published by Orbit on November 7, 2017

I’ve generally enjoyed Chris Brookmyre’s crime fiction. Judging from Places in the Darkness, his science fiction version of crime fiction doesn’t have the same depth. Still, the story if fun, even if it lacks originality.

Alice Blake travels to Ciudad de Cielo on behalf of the Federation of National Governments to begin her tenure as Principal of the Security Oversight Executive. While ascending the space elevator, she blacks out. When she regains consciousness, she’s a little fuzzy on the details of her trip.

Alice isn’t on the job long before trouble breaks loose. The orbiting colony has its first (reported) murder as cargo from an inbound ship is being hijacked. Former LAPD homicide detective Nikki “Fixx” Freeman is assigned to investigate it, shadowed by Alice in an undercover identity. Rumor has it that Nikki is corrupt and Alice would like to determine whether the rumor is true. It is immediately apparent to the reader that Nikki, for all her virtues as a detective, is involved in a protection and shakedown racket and perhaps some other shady activities.

The juxtaposition of those two characters contributes to the novel’s interest. Alice is morally binary; she has the virtue of refusing to be corrupted, even when her scruples limit her effectiveness. Nikki is morally flexible; her corruption gives her access to information that makes it possible for her to enforce the laws that she deems important, while ignoring or benefiting from violations (like black markets) that arguably make life easier for the colony’s residents. But by the novel’s end, neither character is quite what we expect them to be (one of them even worries that she might not be human). Having said that, neither character is given enough fullness to make think of them as real people.

The story revolves around the familiar transhuman theme of brains interfacing with computer software, and the implications of that technology. One of the questions the novel asks is whether a character should be held accountable for actions that are motivated by false memories, which parallels the current debate about whether individuals should be held accountable for actions that might be traced to damaged or underdeveloped brains. The philosophical implications that drive the story could have been explored more deeply, but Places in the Dark is more about action and solving mysteries than an exploration of free will. In that regard, the novel earns points for its steady pace and smooth flow. The story isn’t shockingly original, but it takes enough unexpected turns to keep the reader guessing for much of the novel.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Nov272017

The Wanted by Robert Crais

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on December 26, 2017

Elvis Cole is hired by a concerned mother to figure out why her son Tyler has so much money. It doesn’t take Elvis long to figure out that Tyler and his two friends have been committing burglaries. Mom isn’t pleased, but before she has a chance to kill her son, two thugs named Stems and Harvey are trying to find him so they can kill him first.

Stems and Harvey are using police credentials to search for a stolen laptop. They have a surveillance picture that shows the face of one of the thieves, but they tend to kill the people who see the picture. Stems and Harvey are leaving a trail of dead bodies and, the reader assumes, that trail will soon lead them to Tyler.

The plot involves Elvis’ effort to keep Tyler alive while discovering the reason the bad guys are trying to kill him. Series regular Joe Pike returns to lend a hand ... a very strong hand, usually shaped into a fist.

As always, Robert Crais populates the story with engaging characters. Comic relief comes from Tyler’s girlfriend Amber, who is an equal balance of endearing and crazy. Stems and Harvey exchange entertaining banter when they aren’t killing people. Pike is Pike (he doesn’t say much). Amber’s dysfunctional mother, Tyler’s caring mother, and the bad guy who lurks behind the scenes for much of the novel are the other key characters.

Crais always keeps the story moving, making The Wanted a quick read. It can easily be read as a stand-alone novel by readers who are unfamiliar with the series. Elvis Cole fans, on the other hand, will appreciate Cole’s reunion with Ben, the son of Cole’s former girlfriend. Elvis Cole novels are always infused with warmth when bodies aren’t dropping, but not to the extent of sappiness. The Wanted doesn’t stand out as compared to other novels in the series, but it delivers the kind of easy entertainment that Crais’ fans expect.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Nov242017

Old Scores by Will Thomas

Published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books on October 3, 2017

After showing his garden to the Japanese ambassador, Cyrus Barker disappears for a few hours. Thomas Llewellyn searches for him and is promptly arrested. He discovers that Barker was arrested earlier for shooting the ambassador through an open window at the embassy. Llewellyn, having committed no provable crime, is released, but Special Branch thinks it has a case against Barker. It turns out that Barker does, in fact, have a motive, if he were the type to settle old scores with a pistol.

Barker’s ward, a young Chinese woman who has married a man with questionable business enterprises, is also peripherally involved with the ambassador’s death. There is no shortage of other suspects, including the Ambassador’s bodyguards (who were selected by the Japanese military), local Chinese criminals, and officials of the British Foreign Office. Identifying the true killer becomes the reader’s mission.

Old Scores delves into Barker’s past, revealing secrets about the time he spent in Japan (hint: there is a reason Barker knows so much about traditions of the samurai). The novel starts as a mystery but by the end, it is Barker’s story. The philosophical question Will Thomas poses is whether it is better to settle old scores or to promote the healing of old wounds by understanding the motivations of those who have wronged us.

The story has some poignant moments. As usual, Will Thomas mixes action and humor into the plot (the humor primarily stems from Llewellyn’s ongoing frustration with Barker), but the glimpse into Barker’s past gives Old Scores more depth than some other entries in a series that has always been surprisingly entertaining. I’m not generally a fan of Sherlock Holmes clones, but Will Thomas tells his stories in a distinctive voice that I have grown to appreciate.

RECOMMENDED