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
Mar282011

Equations of Life by Simon Morden

Published by Orbit on March 29, 2011

Simon Morden’s Equations of Life, the first book of a trilogy set in a post-Armageddon future, is an engaging, action-filled novel that has the feel of an intelligently written comic book. Samuil Petrovitch, a radiation-damaged Russian, left his criminal past behind and came to London in 2021 on a physics scholarship.  In the novel’s opening pages, Petrovich saves a young woman named Sanja from being kidnapped.  He escapes death with an assist from an armed nun named Sister Madeleine.  Sanja turns out to be the daughter of Oshicora, the boss of a yakuza-style corporate entity that is rapidly becoming the dominant criminal organization in the Metrozone. Oshicora’s real passion, however, is the creation of a virtual Japan (the physical Japan having fallen into the ocean during the Armageddon).  Sanja’s kidnappers were employed by Marchenkho, a Russian mob boss who, having been foiled in his plot to snatch Sanja, is unhappy with Petrovitch.  Petrovich is soon dodging Russian and Japanese mobsters while worrying that a police officer named Harry Chain will discover his sordid past.  Petrovich’s problems (not the least of which is a propensity for heart attacks) multiply when something called the New Machine Jihad mounts an attack on all of the Metrozone’s computer systems and manipulates Petrovich into doing its bidding.

Equations of Life tells a fun story that obviously isn’t meant to be taken seriously (that, at least, is the inference I draw from the armed nun and wisecracking antihero).  We learn little about the supporting characters, but Morden infuses Petrovich with enough personality to make him interesting.  The characters have appeared in earlier stories that Morden set in the same post-Armageddon future; I haven’t read them so I don’t know whether they give the supporting characters more context.  Exactly what happened to cause the Armageddon is also unrevealed in the novel; perhaps those facts are made known in the stories or in the remaining books in the trilogy.

While the narrative has the feel of a novel hastily written (the word “literary” will never be used in its description), the story roars along with such speed that Morden’s stylistic lapses are easily overlooked.  Sometimes the plot is a bit over-the-top (an easily won battle against a horde of zombie-like bums is the novel’s epitome of silliness) and it never feels entirely original; bits and pieces seem cobbled together from stories already told.  Yet Morden reassembles the familiar into something unique and surprising (although the ending is a bit predictable).  On the whole, Equations of Life is a satisfying novel that left me sufficiently interested in Petrovich to make me want to read the next installment.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Mar272011

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on August 19, 2008

August Brill, age 72, lives with his daughter and granddaughter. Brill is a temporary invalid, having crushed his leg in a car accident. Brill recently lost his wife; his daughter's husband left her; his granddaughter's boyfriend was recently murdered. Brill and his granddaughter spend their days watching Netflix movies (she's a film student); Brill spends his sleepless nights inventing stories. The story he invents during the course of the novel centers on a man who has been abducted from his life, transplanted to an alternative Earth where 9/11 never happened, where a civil war is claiming millions of lives. The civil war is happening because a writer (Brill) is writing about it; the abducted man is tasked with killing Brill.

As one would expect from a Paul Auster novel, Man in the Dark is elegantly written. Like most of Auster's characters, Brill is isolated, and not only (or primarily) because of his limited mobility is limited by a recent traffic accident. He has difficulty connecting with both his daughter and granddaughter; the reader suspects he had the same problem with his wife before her death. The main characters are all working their way through pain. The story Brill creates to combat his insomnia is telling: Brill seems to want to cast himself as the abducted man (relatively young, happily married) who is charged with killing the old, destructive man Brill imagines himself to have become. Ultimately he confides something of his life to his granddaughter, who is also unable to sleep, and by doing so perhaps starts coming to terms with the person he has become.

All of this is heavy stuff and yet, at the end, I was left with an "is that all there is?" feeling. I was hoping for a bit more substance to emerge from this thin novel. Still, I found it worth reading just for the enjoyment of Auster's prose: the writing is sharp and poignant. For that I can recommend it, but readers shouldn't expect the depth of Auster's best work.

RECOMMENDED

Saturday
Mar262011

The Paperbark Shoe by Goldie Goldbloom

Published by Picador on March 29, 2011

I knew Gin Toad was a character I would like when, newly arrived in Wyalkatchem, she meets a woman who pats her shoulder, telling her that it's good luck to touch an albino, and Gin responds by tapping the woman and saying "Maybe it's good luck to touch an idiot." Gin doesn't often give voice to her sharp humor but she's nobody's fool, despite being committed to an institution before Toad married her. Toad can barely look at Gin and rarely touches her. Although they feel no passion for each other, she bears his children (losing one to diphtheria) while wondering whether Toad views her as just one more sheep to be bred.

Gin and Toad live on a remote farm in Western Australia. Their hard lives are made more difficult by the shortages created by World War II. Toad is ugly, coarse, uncommunicative, lacking education and refinement, yet he is fundamentally decent, possessed of a hidden depth and secrets that, like Gin's, are deeply buried. Both characters are isolated not just in their location but in their personalities. Both yearn for something they cannot have and dare not dream about.

Gin's stultifying life is transformed by two Italian prisoners of war, placed in Toad's custody as farmhands. The boisterous nature of the Italians is in sharp contrast to the withdrawn silence and studied indifference that defined Toad before their arrival, and it is inevitable that one of them awakens urges in Gin that have long been buried. At one point in the novel the Italian Antonio has to remind Gin that he is a prisoner, but he seems less a prisoner than Gin, who is imprisoned by her appearance and her past, caged by the expectations and perceptions of others. Gin's albino eyes are nearly blind in bright sunlight, but her emotional blindness is a greater disability.

The Paperbark Shoe is a remarkable novel, a multifaceted story of love and desire, war and prejudice. Townspeople are cruel to Toad because of his appearance and unschooled behavior, to Gin because of her albinism, to the Italians because of their heritage. Moments of unexpected humor keep the story's heartbreaking sorrow from becoming overwhelming. Goldbloom's sentences flow in an exquisite rhythm. Her word choice is impeccable. Each character speaks with a distinctive voice. It was clear as the novel progressed that the Italians would change the lives of Gin and Toad, but even knowing that, their lives changed in ways I didn't see coming. Although I didn't want the novel to end, the powerful ending is satisfying, rich with feeling, offering the hope of redemption as a respite from despair. Because of the story it tells, the characters it brings to life, and the beauty of its prose, this is a book I highly recommend. It apparently did well in Australia; it deserves a worldwide audience. 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Friday
Mar252011

Embedded by Dan Abnett

Published by Angry Robot on March 29, 2011

I don’t go out of my way to read military science fiction because it is so often unimaginative.  John Scalzi is an admirable exception to that rule, an inventive storyteller who gives complete personalities to credible characters.  Like Scalzi, Dan Abnett has a loyal following so I thought I would try one of his novels.  Perhaps I picked the wrong one.

Lex Falk is a journalist who describes himself as an arrogant jerk (“jerk” being a euphemism because I’m writing this for a family audience).  He’s on a world known by its number (86) covering an armed dispute.  The planet is being developed for mineral extraction.  The most productive settlements on 86 belong to the “United Status” (a little too cute, that) which wants to add 86 as a new state.  The official story -- the one Falk is investigating -- is that “anti-corporate paramilitary forces are staging armed resistance” to US activities on 86.  The truth is more complicated and appears to pit the US against the Bloc (whose soldiers speak Russian).  The Settlement Office Military Directorate (sort of the United Nations of interplanetary land claims) has been charged with containing the dispute.  Falk is embedded with the SOMD to gain a reporter’s view of the conflict, but the SOMD prevents him from seeing anything worthwhile.  Fortunately for Falk (and for the plot), a public relations consultant employed by a corporate entity with a vested interest in the dispute decides Falk should know what’s really happening.  At that point Falk is embedded by means of a virtual connection to a soldier (he sees what the soldier sees) and the action finally begins.

And quite a lot of action there is.  Once it starts, the action is nonstop and some of the combat scenes create real tension.  Although Abnett’s writing too often seems designed to titillate preteens, the plot has some entertainment value once he gets the story in gear.  As a result of the embedding, Falk finds himself wrestling with a moral dilemma that is well conceived.  Some of the story is quite funny, although I doubt that the humor is always intentional.  A few of Abnett’s ideas about life on frontier worlds are innovative.  The timeless conflict between the governmental desire for secrecy and the media’s desire to expose those secrets is an effective storyline that provides a reasonable excuse for all the descriptions of battle, although the mystery of the cause for all the fighting turns out to be anti-climactic.

Abnett relies heavily on dialog to carry the story but the dialog sounds a bit too 2011-hip to be credible.  He tries hard to be gritty but it’s like listening to a one-note song.  While I am a big fan of the F-word when it’s employed effectively, its frequent use in Embedded seems contrived, an easy way to demonstrate that the characters are rough and tough.  When nearly every character drops an F-bomb in nearly every sentence, it becomes difficult to distinguish one character from another.  (They make equally opportunistic use of nearly all the other words that can’t be uttered on network television; readers who frown on foul language will want to stay far away from this novel.)  I did think the use of “freeking” as a “sponsored expletive” was clever; when characters who are likely to be televised use the F-word a “ling patch” converts the word to “freek” as they utter it, thus promoting a soft drink called NoCal Freek.  If Embedded had demonstrated that level of originality more frequently, I would be more enthused about it.

In short, Embedded isn’t a bad effort, but it’s far from the finest example of military science fiction.  I suspect that Abnett devotees and true military sf junkies will appreciate this novel more than I did, but I would hesitate to recommend it to the average sf fan.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Thursday
Mar242011

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming

Published by St. Martin's Press on March 15, 2011

Of all the Charles Cumming novels, my favorite remains The Hidden Man, a novel that -- like a Hitchcock movie -- generates suspense by placing unwitting individuals in unforeseen peril.  Cumming tries to do that again in The Trinity Six by sending Professor Sam Gaddis on a quest to identify the sixth and final member of the Cambridge spy ring that included the infamous Kim Philby.  While The Trinity Six is an enjoyable novel, it fails to create the same atmosphere of danger that makes The Hidden Man Cumming’s reigning masterpiece.

The identity of the sixth spy is never in doubt; Cumming reveals it on the first page.  Gaddis learns of it after a journalist friend asks him to co-author a book based on a story she plans to write that will reveal the spy’s name to the public.  The journalist dies soon after that conversation, leaving Gaddis to pursue the truth on his own.  His investigation leads him to an elderly man named Thomas Neame who provides either valuable information or calculated disinformation.  For much of the novel, Gaddis remains credibly clueless as he is played by one intelligence agency and stalked by another.  Eventually his search takes him country hopping and, as is typical in espionage thrillers, when he unearths individuals who can bring him closer to the truth they tend to die.

As he does in his other novels, Cumming derives excitement from intellectual challenge rather than shootouts and chases.  The difficult task of separating truth from falsehood animates the story.  That technique worked well in Cumming’s last Alec Milius novel, The Spanish Game, but it is less successful here.  The palpable tension and riveting suspense that characterizes Cumming’s best work never materializes in The Trinity Six.  This is not to say that the story is dull or not well told; Cumming is a fine writer with a literary style that sets him apart from typical espionage novelists.  Gaddis and the supporting cast are interesting characters and the plot unfolds at a steady but unrushed pace.  Ultimately, however, the novel lacks the heft of Cumming’s most enjoyable novels.  I recommend The Trinity Six to fans of espionage fiction, but with the warning that they might be disappointed if they expect it to live up to the standard Cumming set in some of his earlier novels.

RECOMMENDED