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
Jun142017

Wolf on a String by Benjamin Black

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on June 6, 2017

When John Banville turns from literary fiction to literary crime fiction, he writes under the name Benjamin Black. Wolf on a String is a medieval crime novel. Benjamin Black’s customary literary prose style is on display, and the story he tells is interesting, although he doesn’t play by the rules that readers might expect a whodunit to follow.

Late on a winter night in 1599, Christian Stern finds the body of a young woman on the streets of Prague. The woman, he soon learns, was the daughter of Dr. Kroll, the emperor’s physician. The young woman was also the Emperor’s mistress. Of course, Stern is assumed to be the murderer.

Stern’s fortunes are reversed after Emperor Rudolf, through his Chamberlain, takes an interest in Stern, who has studied natural philosophy and who, thanks to a dream the Emperor had, is regarded as heaven-sent. With the help of a dwarf, Stern investigates the murder.

So who committed the foul deed? Was it the Emperor’s jealous concubine? Was it the Emperor’s jealous Chamberlain? Was it the dwarf? It falls to Stern to solve the murder … or risk the Emperor’s wrath.

The story is one of medieval conspiracy, as various players plot against the Emperor or each other. The plot is intricate but not unduly confusing. The whodunit is not one the reader will likely solve, however, as key information is revealed from out of the blue (or out of the soot) only at the novel’s end. That might be a drawback for readers who hope to solve the mystery ahead of its resolution. The story is entertaining, however, as much for the setting and characters as for the plot.

As one would expect from a Benjamin Black novel, Stern is a full character occupying a rich world. His chance interaction with Kepler reminds the reader of the difficulty that scientists faced in a world that was intent on clinging to its assumptions (a difficulty that has never been overcome and is particularly relevant today, given the hostility that some politicians feel toward scientists who voice unhappy truths).

Stern also reveals the strengths and frailties of human nature as he deals with attraction/seduction involving a couple of women, including the Emperor’s mistress. As Stern is warned more than once but can’t quite process, he treads on dangerous ground as he pursues both a killer and his own desires.

Other characters are less developed, but this isn’t a long novel, and they have enough personality to bring them to life. The medieval setting seems realistic enough, although the details of Prague and of the lives of its inhabitants at the end of the sixteenth century are a bit hazy. Still, the novel isn’t meant to be an historical treatise. It works well enough as a medieval crime and conspiracy story to warrant my recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun122017

The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

Published by Subterranean Press on May 31, 2017

A dispatcher attends high-risk surgeries and, when it appears that a patient is about to die, steps in and uses a device to kill the patient. The body then disappears and the patient almost always wakes up in his or her home. Insurance companies love this. The patient still needs surgery, but maybe the do-over will be successful.

The device has nothing to do with the resurrection, which happens to all murder victims … but only to murder victims. Everyone else who dies is staying dead. Why the laws of nature have decided to make an exception for murder victims is a mystery to everyone.

It is such a mystery, in fact, that its defiance of reason or even religious dogma (you can believe in resurrection if you want, but why only murder victims?) sends the story into the realm of fantasy. But that’s the premise, and you need to suspend disbelief if you want to enjoy the story.

Tony Valdez is a dispatcher. He’s substituting for another dispatcher in a hospital. After performing a dispatch, the police tell him that the other dispatcher has disappeared and that Valdez seems to be the last person who spoke to him. At that point, the story becomes a mystery (although presumably not a murder mystery since the dispatcher has not resurrected) as Tony is enlisted by a police detective to help find the missing dispatcher.

The plot is reasonably clever and, given the brevity of the story, the characters are sufficiently developed. I wouldn’t shelve it with John Scalzi’s best works, but I can recommend it as a fun diversion … assuming you can buy into the premise.

Note: I review without regard to price because prices fluctuate and books can often be purchased at a reduced price as remainders or from stores that sell used books. They can also be borrowed from libraries or friends. The Dispatcher is available in a "deluxe" hardcover edition that, at the time of this review, is selling on Amazon for about $24. That's a lot of money for a 128 page book, but it may be sufficiently deluxe to appeal to collectors and fantatic Scalzi fans. The Kindle edition, on the other hand, is $5.99 at this writing. I have only seen the text (which doesn't seem like it would easily fill 128 pages) in an ePub review copy, and I cannot comment upon what makes the hardcover edition "deluxe."

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun092017

Ararat by Christopher Golden

Published by St. Martin's Press on April 18, 2017

An avalanche on Mount Ararat has opened a previously hidden cavern. Adventure writers Adam Holzer and Meryam Karga put off planning their wedding to travel to Turkey in the hope that exploring the cavern will lead to the discovery of Noah’s Ark, which would cap their writing careers and give them a television series to boot.

A Catholic priest who doubles as a scholar of biblical times tells us that one interpretation of ancient texts suggests that Noah had a demon on board the ark along with the world’s critters. Noah might have wanted to hire a security guard to keep intruding demons out, but his lapse serves as the shaky foundation for Ararat.

Adam and Meryam find a structure that seems to be an ark, improbably high on the mountain to have been deposited by a flood, but of even greater interest is the apparent demon in the coffin, improbably well preserved if it’s been there since biblical times. But really, who knows how quickly a demon’s body rots? An international team soon arrives on the scene, including the scholarly priest and a fellow named Ben Walker who has been sent by DARPA under the guise of representing the NSF. Because DARPA, it seems, takes a great interest in demons. Who knew?

Of course, all the researchers who camp in the ark begin to experience anxiety and nightmares (understandable when sharing quarters with a dead demon) and creepy events soon occur. Fortunately, the researchers include expendable grad students who can be counted on to disappear without explanation. But is it the demon who is making them disappear, or does a murderer lurk among the ark’s new residents?

The characters have about as much depth (i.e., not much) as is common in a thriller, but they have enough substance to seem real. Adam is Jewish and Meryam was a Muslim before she became an atheist. I suppose that’s supposed to make them an interesting match, but Christopher Golden doesn’t do anything with their backgrounds after revealing them, other than having a bitter Turkish guide yell at them both.

Nor does he do anything new with a plot that basically combines a lost ark story with a demonic possession story — one of those demons who jumps from person to person like a hot potato. When the demon starts playing musical bodies, the story becomes too ridiculous to be frightening, and too predictable to be interesting. The novel tries to be insightful about the evil that lurks inside all of us (except, apparently, Walker) but the self-realizations that the characters stumble upon are too banal to be rewarding.

Ararat moves quickly. It is easy, light reading and it has some entertaining moments. It simply does not do enough with those moments to overcome its weaknesses.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun072017

Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa

Published in Japan in 2003; published in translation by Pushkin Press on June 6, 2017

Slow Boat is a novella-length story of three loves, told by a man who recalls his past. Each love represents (at least in his mind) a failed attempt to leave Tokyo, either physically or metaphorically.

Slow Boat is almost existential in its depiction of a man who feels hopeless, powerless, and trapped in a heartless Tokyo. Three times, he has tried and failed to leave Tokyo. The first time he was in grade school, chasing after his girlfriend, whose parents were taking her away. The second time he was planning to join his new girlfriend at the airport. Both attempts ended violently. The third time he decided to leave metaphorically, leading to another new girlfriend and another disaster.

I’m not sure what to make of Slow Boat. It’s sort of a commentary on Japan over the course of the last few decades, but it’s also personal, a commentary on Japan as seen from the standpoint of a man (or boy) at various stages of his life, looking for a way out. Not a way out of Japan, necessarily, but a way out of the life for which he seems destined. Perhaps the narrator is simply coming to terms with his life, coming to accept that he is on a slow boat to nowhere. Or perhaps he is about to challenge fate. Part of the novel suggests that simply doing the best we can with what we have toward the people we love will have positive if unforseeable consequences, even if we do not stay with those people forever.

Fortunately, Hideo Furakawa includes an explanation of the book, which he calls a remix of Haruki Murakami’s story, “Slow Boat to China.” Familiarity with that story might help a reader appreciate Hideo Furakawa’s remix, but I haven’t read it so I can’t comment on that. I did appreciate the explanation of the novel’s surrealistic nature, which I found interesting but puzzling. Readers with a greater background in Japanese literature might get more out of Slow Boat than I did, but I liked it well enough to recommend it to readers who are up for a challenge.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun052017

The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz

Published by Bantam on June 20, 2017

The first thing to know about The Silent Corner is that Dean Koontz doesn’t finish the story he begins. Fortunately, the story does not end with a cliffhanger, but the plot is not resolved. More Jane Hawk novels are on the horizon.

The second thing to know is that The Silent Corner, unlike many Koontz novels, has no supernatural element. It’s less a horror novel than a “vast evil conspiracy” novel of the sort that Ludlum used to write. Still, The Silent Corner feels like a Koontz thriller, not an imitation of a Ludlum thriller.

Jane Hawk is the recent widow of a Marine officer who killed himself. The suicide rate, like the murder rate, has been increasing, but without an apparent pattern. On leave from the FBI and off the grid, Jane is searching for a thread that connects the suicides. Jane is off the grid because she’s being chased by an unknown but well-financed enemy. Her life is complicated by the knowledge that she’s hidden her only son with a friend and cannot see him often, because the conspiratorial forces that want her to cease her inquiries have threatened them both.

The note that Hawk’s husband left implies that he felt a compulsion to die. Notes left by other unlikely suiciders suggest that they heard voices or suddenly envisioned a path to a better life despite having no religious beliefs. Hawk suspects that some outside force is compelling thousands of people to commit suicide.

Hawk enlists help in her search for the truth, including a famous actor and an aging veteran who runs a soup kitchen. She tangles with the ultra-rich who indulge their nefarious and demented fantasies. As a reader would expect of Koontz, all of those characters seem real.

Several parts of The Silent Corner don’t pass credibility scrutiny. Why is an FBI agent (as opposed to, for instance, the CDC) the lone person who seems to have noticed that people are committing suicide for no reason? Why do the conspirators think anyone will listen to her? Why is an exclusive and extremely illegal club for rich deviants designed in a way that all but ignores security? How does a conspiracy involving a stunning technological breakthrough have such an extensive reach while still remaining hidden? And why are such resourceful conspirators unable to find Jane’s kid, given the obvious place she picked to hide him? Suspension of disbelief is the key to enjoying a conspiracy thriller, but Koontz challenged my ability to do that.

The background of The Silent Corner pictures a nation that has grown increasingly angry, a nation in which assholes feel an entitlement to engage in rude behavior. Sounds depressingly like the real world, doesn't it? Yet Koontz always manages to portray the decency of those who have been dealt a losing hand. Characters who are poor, homeless, disabled, or victimized are kinder and more respectful of others than the humorless and self-impressed people who wield power, although a couple of wealthy characters are also good people.

The story moves quickly and the plot, while fanciful, never becomes convoluted. The Silent Corner doesn’t have the depth of Dean Koontz’ best work, but it left me looking forward to the next in the series, which is enough to make me recommend it.

RECOMMENDED