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.

Friday
May102019

The Break Line by James Brabazon

Published by Berkley on January 29, 2019

Max McLean has the usual tough guy credentials — he’s seen “Syrian torture chambers” and “Columbian cartels’ killing rooms.” He’s killed a lot of people. McLean was identified in the military as a legally sane psychopath, someone who would follow orders to kill without questioning them, regardless of the circumstances. A couple of decades later, McLean has developed an ethic, if not a conscience. His failure to follow an order stirs up a commotion, but he is given a chance to redeem himself with a new assignment.

McLean is an off-the-books asset of the British government, a civilian assassin who, as part of “the Unknown,” does not officially exist. His new assignment, opposed by the more sensible heads on the team of decisionmakers, is to terminate the command and control of a group of rebels in Sierra Leone who are considered an imminent threat to the British government’s interests. The rebel force is believed to be ruthless and Russian-backed. The last guy the Brits sent on that mission returned without his sanity, although he might not have had much sanity to lose.

McLean’s first inkling of the trouble he’ll face comes when he encounters victims of gruesome killings who, in addition to being beheaded and disemboweled, seem to have been chewed upon by human teeth. The descriptions are quite graphic, although I imagine that sensitive readers who might be particularly disturbed by them do not read tough guy novels. Still, take this as a warning.

The underlying story — the mystery McLean uncovers in Sierra Leone — is not particularly original. That doesn’t make it a bad story (most thrillers aren’t particularly original) but don’t expect to encounter a “wow” factor.

The plot does offer one big surprise that plays into the developing characterization of McLean prior to the big reveal. The surprise might be a bit contrived but contrived surprises are common in modern thrillers, and this one is no more contrived than most. It also adds an interesting wrinkle to the story, which makes it forgivable.

McLean spends too much time telling us that he feels empty inside. Emptiness is standard characterization for a tough guy protagonist who has seen the horrors of war, but when it comes across as whining, readers lose empathy for the character. McLean’s abandonment issues are too heavy-handed to generate empathy, but at least they integrate well with the plot. And given that most action heroes are self-righteous nitwits, it is always a relief to find one who doesn’t consider himself the savior of the limited population groups he deems worthy of salvation.

Some of the story borders on the ridiculous. James Brabazon crosses the border by the novel’s end when the terrible evil is unleashed. The Break Line features some strong action scenes, although when one guy with a handgun took out six guys with assault rifles, I had to take a brief break from reading to roll my eyes. McLean dodges mortar rounds and RPGs and machine guns and takes on fighters who have the equivalent of superpowers. The story becomes more outlandish and less believable as it moves forward, but it is exciting in the way that video games can be fun without being plausible. And the ending, which reverts in some ways to a traditional spy thriller, is quite good.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
May082019

Buckskin by Robert Knott

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on May 7, 2019

More Cole/Hitch westerns have been written by Robert Knott than by Robert B. Parker, who originated the characters. Parker is long dead but his name still appears more prominently on the cover of Buckskin than Knott’s. Go figure. The full title of the novel is Robert B. Parker’s Buckskin, but it really isn’t Robert B. Parker’s. In any event, I don’t know that Parker would be happy to have his name attached to Buckskin.

A dispute between the McCormick brothers and the Baptiste Group over gold mining rights brings Marshal Virgil Cole and Deputy Marshal Everett Hitch to the hills outside of Appaloosa. The McCormicks bought land from Baptiste and discovered gold, leading to the suspicion that the McCormicks knew about the gold before they bought the land. Baptiste finds gold on his adjacent land and both sides are working claims when a hand hired by the McCormicks disappears. Cole investigates but he’s more interested in keeping the lid on a potential feud than in the fate of expendable workers.

Eventually someone with money dies and Cole and Hitch become involved in a murder mystery, a task for which they are not well suited. The story is heavy on dialog along the lines of “You don’t scare me none” and “I aim to make things right.” Some of the dialog, like “Do not make a move or I will drop you,” is stilted; most of it is just clichéd. Quite a bit of the dialog is unimportant drivel that stretches out the story without adding substance to it. None of it leaves the impression that Cole and Hitch have enough collective brainpower to light a candle, much less solve a murder.

A parallel story tells of a murderous young man who is on his way to Appaloosa to find his mother. Along the way he encounters a woman whose husband doesn’t mind her interest in sleeping with him. That story has a vaguely supernatural feel (the woman apparently sees things that other people don’t, including things that have not yet happened) and she gets the young man high on various mind-altering drugs so she can steer him on a journey that will serve her purposes. Since the subplot’s destination is not apparent from the beginning, it holds more interest than the main plot, which essentially has Cole and Hitch shooting bad guys until they shoot the right one.

Hitch and Cole might be the two most boring heroes in the history of westerns. One of them comments about something obvious and the other one invariably agrees. A book that consists largely of dull conversations isn’t what fans expect from westerns. The reveal of the murderer is less than surprising. While the story of the young killer in search of his mother and his manipulation by the woman who drugs him is more interesting, its ending is predictable. Neither story creates tension, a flaw that is deadly in a western.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Monday
May062019

Black Mountain by Laird Barron

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on May 7, 2019

Isiah Coleridge, the retired Maori hitman who made his debut in Blood Standard, returns in Black Mountain. An underworld acquaintance asks Coleridge to look into the gruesome murder of Henry Lee, who collected debts for loan sharks. Coleridge’s investigation causes him to suspect that the murder was committed by a legendary and particularly evil mob hitman, now a septuagenarian, who may have spent his retirement years as a serial killer. Except that the police believe the hitman, known to the world as the Croatoan, died in an explosion many years earlier. So is there a new hit man, is the Croatoan still hitting, or is there another answer to the puzzle? The answer is satisfyingly grim and the novel’s ending is satisfying gruesome.

Coleridge enlists the help of his buddy Lionel and begins a search for Lee’s killer. In a subplot, he also helps (or at least annoys) a young woman named Aubrey who is being stalked by the ex-girlfriend of her current boyfriend. (Aubrey’s grandfather has a gym where Coleridge polishes his boxing skills; hence Coleridge’s involvement.)

Coleridge’s primary investigation leads to corporate shenanigans fostered by the greedy family that controls the corporation (perhaps modeled on the Sackett family, although there are plenty of other real-world examples). The shenanigans date back to a bogus scientific expedition in the Catskills. Nearly all of the scientists and students who participated have met with an unfortunate end. The investigation branches in other interesting directions, as well, providing ample opportunities for confrontations, threats, fights, shootings, and the generalized mayhem that Coleridge seems to attract.

“Contract killers have feelings. Fewer than most, but feelings nonetheless.” Coleridge isn’t what you’d call a sensitive guy but he doesn’t like being judged. He has his own moral code and a strong sense that evil is a force from which he stands apart, even when he feels its influence. It’s hard not to like him, his propensity for violence notwithstanding.

Apart from strong characterization, the two Coleridge novels benefit from smarter and sharper prose than is typical of crime novels. Coupled with entertaining plots, I can find little to criticize about this unique series.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
May052019

A Voice in the Night by Jack McDevitt

Published by Subterranean Press on August 31, 2018

Jack McDevitt is at his best with space opera. His novels about explorers or traders roaming the galaxy always convey a sense of realism that is missing from military science fiction and Star Wars clones. As this short story collection shows, McDevitt has a wider science fiction range, but I still like his space opera more than his other efforts. My favorite McDevitt novels star Alex Benedict. I was therefore happy to read “A Voice in the Night,” which introduces Benedict as a teenager who persuades his archeologist uncle to track down the radio waves of the final broadcast of a comedian who died in space.

McDevitt’s other major series of novels (the Academy series) features Priscilla Hutchins. “Maiden Voyage” is a prequel to his Hutchins novels. The story balances the wonders and perils of discovery as Priscilla takes a qualification flight to get her pilot’s license. Another story about Priscilla’s training (“Waiting at the Altar”) involves a distress signal and a first contact that has been lost to history.

In “Oculus,” another character from the Academy series, Kellie Collier, finds herself and her passenger in a pickle when their ship loses power while trying to remove an ancient civilization’s books from the moon where they were stored. The story (one of my favorites in the collection) asks in a rather thrilling way whether a dedication to knowledge can at some point become foolish.

One of the more substantial stories in the volume, “Lucy,” imagines that a space ship has gone missing. Characters debate whether to send a rescue ship operated by the same latest-generation AI, or one operated by the previous generation AI that has a proven track record. The AIs, of course, have their own opinions. The story incorporates old themes (whether there is a political will for space travel, whether AIs are capable of developing emotions), but the story has a new take on the concept of technological obsolescence and how sentient technology might respond to it.

“Blinker” is another good story. Two people who are trapped in a moon base use their ingenuity to survive. As they debate whether robots should take the risk of space travel rather than humans, they realize that humans have a survival instinct and cleverness that robots lack. In one of the most interesting and well-written stories (“Friends in High Places”), God changes history to save Jesus from being crucified.

In a twist on the science fiction cautionary tale, “Good Intentions” imagines a game played by a “solve the mystery club” in which the mystery is crafted by a science fiction writer who wants the participants to resolve, not just a mystery, but a pair of ethical dilemmas. As a good mystery should, the story takes a surprising twist at the end. “Molly’s Kids” is another surprising story about people at NASA who try to trick an AI into doing something it doesn’t want to do.

“Searching for Oz” is a first contact story about aliens who enjoy Jack Benny’s radio show. “Listen Up, Nitwits” is a first contact story in which contact is made by a lonely AI. Another story in which first contact is made by an AI, “The Pegasus Project,” suggesting an interesting way in which aliens and humans might prove to be similar. “Ships in the Night” is a story of contact between a dull human and an alien who (from the human’s perspective) might be even more dull, making them kindred spirits whose lives intersect in brief but important moments.

“The Law of Gravity Isn’t Working on Rainbow Bridge” is told from the perspective of a television news reporters who witnesses the effects of a time bubble. “Midnight Clear” is about displaying a Christmas tree on a planet that aliens no longer inhabit.

Sherlock Holmes investigates a dead physicist’s discovery of relativity two years before Einstein in “The Lost Equation.” In “The Adventure of the Southsea Trunk,” a literary critic is murdered after receiving an autographed copy of the latest Sherlock Holmes novel — autographed by a modern writer, not by Conan Doyle, who is celebrated for his other works.

“Combinations” asks whether dead people can be recreated digitally, and explores the question with a couple of petulant chess players and William Jennings Bryan. Two guys consider changing their lives by taking a long voyage in “It’s a Long Way to Alpha Centauri.” In “The Play’s the Thing,” an AI version of Shakespeare writes modern plays that might bring false fame of the sort that Shakespeare would have abhorred.

In “The Last Dance,” software brings back a nonphysical replica of a widower’s wife, something like a hologram that purports to have her memories and emotions. Easing the pain of moving on turns out to be a bad idea for people who can’t let go.

There are only three stories in the collection that didn’t work for me. “Blood Will Tell” is kind of a nothing time travel story about the origin of a business plan. “Cathedral” reads like a Ben Bova lament about how NASA never gets all the funding it deserves. The plot involves a NASA employee who decides to do something about the perceived problem. “Excalibur” is a nothing story about NASA doing nothing when it finds evidence of an alien artifact.

The collection mixes stories from the last three decades. It isn’t a “best of” book. Given the number of stories in this collection, it isn’t surprising that some are stronger than others. There are a couple of “best of” McDevitt collections but I think the last one was published in 2009. A Voice in the Night gives his fans a chance to catch up on his more recent short fiction. And if a retrospective “best of” collection is published, several of the stories in this volume are likely to be included.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
May032019

How Are You Going to Save Yourself? by JM Holmes

Published by Little, Brown and Company on August 21, 2018

Taken collectively, the stories in How Are You Going to Save Yourself explore the lives of young black men growing up. A character named Gio, whose high school years are spent in Pawtucket, narrates many of the stories. Others spotlight his friends, Rolls, Dub, and Rye.

Gio’s father played in the NFL, but he left Gio’s mother and lived a less successful life by the time Gio was in high school. In “The Legend of Lonnie Lion,” Gio’s father advises him never to marry a white girl (presumably because that’s what his father did). The story offers a glimpse of Gio’s broken home, his troubled relationship with his father, and his ill-fated relationship with a Jewish girlfriend. “What’s Wrong With You? What’s Wrong With Me?” is a dialog-heavy story that consists of a conversation among Gio and his friends that keeps circling back to interracial sex. The heart of the story concerns their attempt to understand why a kid is turned on by racially offensive language that should offend him.

That conversation appears in the collection’s first story and is echoed in “Cookouts,” the final story. We learn in “Cookouts” that Gio did not take his father’s advice. The story focuses on Gio’s post-high school relationship with a white girl named Maddie, who comes from a prosperous family and lives in a world that is much different than Gio’s. The relationship changes in seconds when Gio introduces race into their sexual relationship in a way that understandably shocks Maddie, but race has always been a lurking subtext in their relationship. At least in Gio’s mind, the relationship was haunted by ghosts that Maddie never met.

In “Kinfolk,” Gio collects modest life insurance proceeds from his father’s death and watches the dollars disappear as he parties with his friends. In “Tacoma,” Gio struggles to understand whether anything still binds him to him to his stepmother and stepsister after his father’s death. He wonders whether he will lose his mother and stepsister because he is too much like his father.

 “Be Good to Me” describes a girl’s first blowjob, one she was encouraged to give by a hand at the back of her head. The story then shifts to Rolls, who is trying (or not) to reconcile what he has learned (or not) in college with his self-serving beliefs about women. His attempt to apply what he learned about Kant’s philosophy of moral behavior to his life results only in confusion, as does his inability to separate his emotions from his lust. What happens next points to the ambiguity of so many unplanned sexual encounters, as neither the boy nor the girl are certain that they have any control over the situation, and both feel a sense of guilt. The story is a powerful look at what happens when people of both sexes act because they feel pressured, when they resist their own knowledge of the difference between right and wrong.

“Dress Code” explores the relationship of Dub, whose telemarketing job is going nowhere, and Simone, who hopes to improve her life when she accepts an offer to pose as an artist’s subject. This is one of my favorite stories in the volume, largely because of the tension it makes a reader feel as Dub and Simone both struggle with their self-esteem and as their lives move in different directions.

“Toll for the Passengers” is about a traffic accident that turns into extortion. But in the end, it’s about realizing that your life doesn’t need to be filled with drama, that your skin color doesn’t force you into needless confrontations. “Everything Is Flammable” demonstrates the tension between being street and being straight, the choice between a life of freedom that leads to prison or a life that is imprisoned by employment. The story suggests that every choice leads to risk.

It is the honesty in these stories, the unvarnished self-reflection, that makes them special. The stories span a period of years — long enough that when Gio goes back to the barbershop he frequented as a high school student, nobody remembers him — during which Gio and his friends change and mature, or don’t. The book’s title encapsulates its central theme: What changes can the characters make to save themselves in a changing world?

JM Holmes’ stories capture the confusion of coming of age, of choices made and friendships abandoned, of changing relationships with family members and lovers, and of changing times. He does that with striking prose: “I looked at the table legs, Serena Williams thick.” He tackles large social issues (like the conflict between Black Lives Matter and the police) through personal squabbles among family and friends. By telling small stories, Holmes brilliantly illuminates larger questions that continue to divide the country. Some of the stories make for brutal reading, but they are all the more vital because of that.

RECOMMENDED