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
Aug042017

New Super-Man: Made in China by Gene Luen Yang

Published by DC Comics on June 27, 2017

And now for something completely different ....

New Super-Man is a new title from DC Comics. Volume 1, "Made in China," collects the first five issues and recounts the origin of the Chinese version of Superman. I have been a Superman fan for more than half a century and I still follow the icon of truth, justice, and the American way. New Super-Man, however, is a new take on the character, one that blends Superman's classic virtues with a quiet commentary on the need for truth and justice in modern China.

Kong Kenan is bullying a fat kid when Shanghai supervillain Blue X shows up. Kong throws a soda can at him, an impulsive act that stems from Kong’s general lack of smarts. Thanks to a viral video, Kong is an instant celebrity. The Ministry of Self-Reliance, a shadow government group that conspiracy buffs love, wants to give Kong superpowers -- Superman’s powers, to be precise. But he’s still sort of a selfish brat, so it’s up to the Chinse Batman and the Chinese Wonder Woman to contain him. Yes, there’s a Justice League of China, although the Chinese Batman is a little chubby.

They eventually encounter the Freedom Fighters of China, with names like Human Firecracker and Sunbeam, who claim to be fighting for truth, justice, and democracy, three values that are scarce in China. Presumably the Freedom Fighters represent Chinese dissidents, but are they heroes or villains? And what about the original Chinese superheroes, the Great Ten? Good guys or bad guys? You need to read the story to find out.

Kenan has some family drama that turns into superhero/supervillain drama. The family angle evolves through the first four issues and takes center stage in issue 5. The plotting is surprisingly clever.

New Super-Man had me chuckling consistently. It’s a commentary on China and on America, but it’s true value lies in its ability to demonstrate that people all over the world are the same … boorish, vain, shallow, self-involved, but occasionally capable of rising above their faults and doing the right thing. It’s one of the better attempts at DC to do something different without departing from the strengths that made the company a success.

Viktor Bogdanovic's art is perfectly suited to the story, but it’s the sharp writing that earned my applause. I suspect that any Superman fan will be pleased with the new Chinese version.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug022017

Brave Deeds by David Abrams

Published by Grove Press Black Cat on August 1, 2017

Brave Deeds is a flawed novel, but I liked it more than Fobbit, David Abrams’ previous literary effort. The plot follows six soldiers who steal a truck so they can attend the memorial service of a beloved Sergeant after being told that an unpopular lieutenant and the company commander will attend the service on their behalf so that the rest of the company can pull Quick Reaction Force duty. Thanks to a broken drive shaft and a forgotten radio, the six soldiers find themselves on foot in Baghdad without a map, hoping they can make their way to the Forward Operating Base without getting killed. Good luck with that.

Like all soldiers, the six have definite opinions about the stupidity of their superior officers. It is clear, however that the soldiers are not all that bright themselves. Nor do they distinguish themselves as representatives of the United States. Apart from stealing a Humvee (not smart) and abandoning the Humvee and the equipment it contains to whomever finds it (really not smart), a soldier named Fish clubs a civilian female with his rifle for no reason other than his psychopathic desire to kill and maim. I give Abrams credit for not shying away from the fact that some soldiers do not deserve to be thanked for their service, but I found little reason to care about these guys.

The story of the stroll is frequently interrupted to tell background stories about the individual soldiers or the dead sergeant, or to relate dreams or snippets of seemingly random thought. An unfortunate percentage of the interruptions come across as filler rather than purposeful contributions to the story. Some of the stories humanize the soldiers (one cheated on his wife while she was delivering his baby, one can’t stop thinking about male genitals that are not his own) but for the most part, the characters suffer from a lack of development.

Putting aside the interruptions, the plot is: soldiers who have no way to communicate (having stupidly left their radio in their abandoned Humvee) walk through Baghdad and things happen to them. They come across cellphones on their journey but apparently their training didn’t include how to make a phone call, or perhaps they don’t know the Army’s phone number. The first eventful thing occurs beyond the midway point, when an Iraqi offers to show the soldiers where is cousin is making bombs. After that, the story suffers from fewer interruptions and becomes progressively more interesting, if not particularly deep.

The attitudes reflected in Brave Deeds (“get out of our way or our big American boots will stomp you”) illustrate why the American occupation failed to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Again, I commend Abrams for not whitewashing that. The story has merit and the second half has some entertainment value, so I recommend Brave Deeds, but I can’t regard it as a significant contribution to the literature of war.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul312017

Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin

Published by Bloomsbury USA on June 6, 2017

Marcus is ten when his mother dies in an accident. He is sent to live with his great aunt Charlotte, a woman he has never met. Charlotte lives in a beach cottage on a South Carolina island and makes a living painting island landscapes. One of her most popular paintings is of Grief Cottage at the far end of the beach. Before it was partially destroyed in a fire, the cottage was occupied for the summer by a young boy and his parents. The parents died in a storm while searching for the boy, whose body was never found.

Charlotte is reclusive and not particularly interested in, or capable of, raising a ten-year-old boy. Marcus knows he is intruding on her privacy, and while Charlotte does not intend to make Marcus feel unwelcome in her home, Marcus has reason to believe that he is a burden, no matter how helpful he tries to be. Mostly, he tries to stay away so Charlotte can enjoy her solitude. Long walks on the beach to Grief Cottage are a logical way to spend his time.

Gail Godwin’s cover blurb warns the reader that Grief Cottage is a ghost story, but it is primarily the story of Marcus’ struggle to understand his life. Marcus was uprooted once, while his mother was still alive, after he inflicted a savage beating on a friend. This new change in his life, following his mother’s death, might in some ways be welcome as a new beginning.

Is Grief Cottage haunted? Marcus sees the ghost of a boy at the ruins of the cottage, but perhaps he is seeing the manifestation of his own grief. The ghost makes only rare appearances, creating a frame for the rest of Marcus’ experiences on the island.

The reader encounters quite a few digressions in Grief Cottage, from biographical snippets about Alec Guinness (who, like Marcus, did not know his father’s identity) to details of the invented island and its history. Some of the digressions help build setting and flesh out characters, but after a point, they impede the story’s development. On the other hand, information about erosion of the beach and (sometimes futile) efforts to preserve historic places establish the themes of change and resistance to change by hanging onto the past that pervade the novel.

Some aspects of Grief Cottage, particularly certain characters, are a wee bit too pretentious. For example, Marcus spends time with an aging bedridden woman who is engaged in a self-absorbed archeology of herself and has a good cry when she realizes that no self can ever share their entire being with another self. Similar wisdom imparted by other island inhabitants is difficult to endure, simply because it is unrelenting.

Aunt Charlotte often tells Marcus that he is too good to be true. I shared that sentiment. Too good, too thoughtful, too helpful, too courteous. Godwin makes clear that his goodness is motivated by fear of rejection (and by being raised by a caring mother), but his goodness also makes Marcus dull, despite the drama he has endured.

Other aspects of Grief Cottage just didn’t work for me. After spending the novel being a tortured model of goodness, Marcus is inhabited by an imaginary gremlin who coaxes him to do something mildly bad and then punishes him with a self-destructive impulse. The gremlin, unlike the ghost, struck me as a plot device rather than a mental construct that Marcus would actually devise. And since Marcus’ voice, or at least his internal voice, is that of adult with an Ivy League education, I couldn’t accept it as belonging to a middle school boy. In fact, everyone in the novel speaks in the same voice, which seems false given their varying backgrounds.

Still, there is no doubt that Gail Godwin is among the most elegant writers in current literature, and the novel bears reading simply for its graceful language. Despite my reservations about Marcus, I appreciated Godwin’s insights into the island and the people who inhabit it.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul282017

The Fallen by Ace Atkins

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on July 18, 2017

Ace Atkins always makes me laugh. He brings intelligence and fair-minded wit to his portrayal of a South that cloaks bigotry and hypocrisy in the language of “old-fashioned values” and “a Christian way of life.” Atkins doesn’t paint all residents of rural Mississippi with the same brush, but he isn’t afraid to expose persistent ugliness. Of course, readers who think that bigotry is a Christian value will probably dislike this novel, but there are plenty of "values" novels by lesser authors with which they can entertain themselves.

Values aside, Atkins always tells a good story, mixing strong characters with a convincing plot. He does all that again in The Fallen, his latest Quinn Colson novel.

In true southern tradition, the residents of Tibbehah County blamed acting Sheriff Lillie Virgil for arresting a coach who was molesting kids (rather than blaming the coach), paving the way for a reluctant Quinn Colson to win his old position as sheriff. Now the county supervisors want to take Tibbehah back to its godly roots. To do that, they want to enforce an ordinance constraining activities at the local titty bar by proclaiming their adherence to wholesome southern values, notwithstanding the county’s long tradition of prostitution, moonshine, and support for the Klan — but their concerns have more to do with greed than morality.

Apart from the normal problems caused by rednecks at the local titty bar, the crime that occupies Quinn in The Fallen is a bank robbery. The robbers are three veterans who haven’t adjusted to civilian life and enjoy the thrill of robbing small town banks. A subplot involves two teenage girls (last seen in The Innocents) who have gone missing.

All of those storylines intertwine. Apart from the bank robberies, the storylines are a continuation of events developed in earlier novels. While novels in some series can be read in any order, that’s not true of the Quinn Colson series. To follow the story, it’s best to start at the beginning and watch the characters and their situations evolve over time. It might be possible to read The Fallen as a stand-alone, but the novel assumes a familiarity with the series. It doesn’t summarize past events in any detail, which might leave new readers wondering what’s going on with some of the characters.

Reliable supporting characters in the series return in The Fallen. In addition to Lillie, other returning characters include Boom Kimbrough, Quinn’s sister Caddie and mother Jean, and titty bar owner Fannie Hathcock. Some aspects of the story are sad, reflecting the reality that life doesn’t always come with a happy ending and that bad guys don’t always get their just deserts. That might turn off readers who are looking for a happier world in their fiction, but the redeeming qualities of the Quinn Colson series are found in Quinn, Lillie, Caddie, and Boom, who are never afraid to stand for what’s right, and who know that what’s right has to do with how people treat each other, as opposed to hypocritical posturing about “old-fashioned values."

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul262017

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories by Clifford D. Simak

Published by Open Road Media on July 4, 2017

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories is volume 10 in the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak. It doesn’t include Simak’s best stories, but all of the stories are good, making it one of the best volumes in the series.

In “The Money Tree,” money does grow on trees. Rich people have them, which is why they have walls and fences surrounding their property. But as Chuck Doyle learns, stealing from a money tree isn’t easy when it is protected by an alien. This is a light and amusing story and, like many Simak stories, it comes with a moral. It is also one of Simak’s many stories about kind aliens who are better than the Earth deserves.

“Shotgun Cure” is typical Simak in its focus on small towns and simple lives. A “one-horse doctor in a one-horse town” is approached by an alien who gives him the cure for all disease. Soon the entire planet is vaccinated, but it turns out that the cure comes with a price.

“Paradise” is one of the stories that comprises City. This is the story in which Fowler returns to human form to spread a utopian message about humanity’s future that is suppressed for fear that people will listen to it.

“The Gravestone Rebels Ride by Night!” might be the longest of Simak’s westerns. The hero is a frontier lawyer.

“How-2” imagines a future in which “how to” kits supply instructions and materials for everything from home dentistry to making a robotic dog. A fellow named Knight plans to build a dog but he gets a kit for a robotic person by mistake. Lawyers also play a role in this story, although they are robot lawyers who bring much needed logic and reason to the law. The courtroom scene echoes themes from some of Asimov’s robot stories, but with a unique spin. A moral of many Simak stories, including this one, is that honest hard work is a good thing, and that trying to avoid it will only lead to trouble. Too much leisure may even take the value out of life. This story was new to me, but it is on my growing list of favorite Simak stories.

“The Shipshape Miracle” tells of a lawless man who needs a miracle to leave the isolated planet on which he is stranded. The miracle comes in the form of a ship that has merged with a human (an early example of transhumanism in science fiction), but all miracles come with a price. The story has the sort of ironic ending that would have made a good Twilight Zone episode.

“Rim of the Deep” is one of Simak’s early stories, and for that reason is written in a pulp style that he largely abandoned in his later years. The story is sort of an underwater western with a gangster element and a Venusian.

Simak hinged more than one story on the relationship between immortality (or longevity) and the need to find a place to put all the people who haven’t died. Like other Simak stories that explore the theme, “Eternity Lost” (a story about a corrupt politician’s attempt to gain another life extension) asks whether longevity is a blessing or a curse and suggests that people only appreciate life because they know it has a relatively short span. Simak often gave his stories a twist ending, and is one of the better twists.

The future of an evolving mankind was another frequent Simak theme. In “Immigrant,” Seldon Bishop visits Kimon, a world that only welcomes the smartest immigrants from Earth and that has eschewed foreign trade or diplomatic relationships with other planets. Earth’s government hopes that Bishop will explain why that’s true, although no other emigrant to Kimon has chosen to do so. While aliens in Simak’s stories are usually kinder and wiser than humans, the aliens on Kimon are smug and condescending, perhaps an inevitable trait of a highly-evolved race. But the story is about the human qualities of vanity and pride, as well as the human capacity to set those qualities aside in order to gain knowledge and wisdom.

RECOMMENDED