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.

Thursday
Dec092010

Paris Trout by Pete Dexter

First published in 1988

Paris Trout runs a general store in Cottonwood Point, Georgia.  He's a racist but, more than that, he's violently paranoid and increasingly obsessed with his own fingernail clippings and urine. When a young black man buys a car from him on credit, supposedly purchasing insurance with it, and gets into an accident, Trout won't repair the car and won't let him off the hook for payments, telling him he didn't buy that kind of insurance. This leads to blood, but the victims are female members of the young man's family. Trout feels entirely justified in his actions and more than a few townspeople see things his way -- after all, a man has a right to collect his debts.

The novel follows Harry Seagraves, the best lawyer in town, as he prepares Trout's defense and during the trial and its aftermath. Seagraves takes a particular (not entirely professional) interest in Trout's wife, who is rather horrifically abused by Trout. Other notable characters include a young lawyer, Carl Bonner, the youngest Eagle Scout in Cottonwood Point's history, who tries to help Trout's wife; and Bonner's wife, who is frustrated that her husband has become such a stick-in-the-mud.

The dark humor in this novel alternates with a chilling depiction of southern racism and Trout's madness, and the characters are unforgettable. This isn't a simple-minded examination of contrived racism as some of the reviews at this site might suggest. The complex relationship between Trout and the townspeople -- they don't want to be associated with racism that's quite so overt, yet they don't want to upset such a wealthy and powerful (not to mention violent) citizen -- is deftly portrayed. Except for the clearly innocent victims, nobody gets off easily as Dexter examines the town's dynamic. This is a chilling and powerful work by a careful, evocative writer.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Dec082010

Gilpin's Space by Reginald Bretnor

Published by Ace on June 1, 1986

Part One of Gilpin's Space originally appeared as a story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It is told from the point of view of Geoffrey Cormac, general manager of a shipyard owned by Laure Endicott. A shipyard employee, Saul Gilpin, has invented a new drive that permits travel through the universe at unlimited speeds via "Gilpin's Space," a sort of ghostly version of real space where the laws of physics don't apply. The drives are installed in three of the shipyard's submarines, turning them into spaceships. The totalitarian government would like to take control of the drive technology, a desire that Endicott and Cormac resist. In Part Two, told from the point of view of Geoffrey's wife Janet, one of the submarine spaceships travels to the far reaches of space, in search of a planet where the crew can escape from the government bad guys. The point of view returns to Geoffrey in Part Three, as he and some others return to an Earth that has grown more chaotic during their absence.

Minor gripes: No attempt is made to explain the technology that enables the drive (which apparently is rather easy to build from off-the-shelf parts) -- not that I would understand it if the attempt had been made, but some sort of explanation would have added credibility to the story. I'm not sure why Bretnor decided to change the point of view in Part Two -- all parts are written in the same voice, and it was difficult to distinguish Geoffrey from Jane as narrators. The story of space exploration and planetary colonization that comprises Part Two is nicely written but a little dull and has been done many times before, often more successfully.

Gripes aside, Gilpin's Space is an interesting story that (at least in Parts One and Three) has the pace and tension of a thriller. The characters, drawn from a variety of cultures and philosophies, display virtues of loyalty and self-sacrifice. It's easy to cheer for their success as they encounter adversity, both alien and home-grown. Gilpin's Space isn't a terribly original novel, but it's well done.

RECOMMENDED

Tuesday
Dec072010

Hostile Intent by Clive Egleton

First published in 1993

Hostile Intent is an old-fashioned spy story, Clive Egleton's first to feature SIS agent Peter Ashton. The well-paced novel begins with the assassination of Bob Whittle, a member of the British Army's Intelligence Corps, shortly after his meeting in Dresden with Galina Kutuzova, a GRU officer who reports to the KGB. Galina has been selling information to Whittle, while her partner, Yuri Rostovsky, has been peddling it to the Americans. Together they have profited by selling classified information to the French. Ashton is called in to to investigate Whittle's murder -- a task that proves difficult given the unwillingness of the Foreign Office to blame the Russians for anything in light of the Cold War's demise. The KGB kills Rostovsky and Galina flees to avoid attempts on her life while Ashton, trying to spook a GRU officer into contacting Moscow about Galina, pretends to be a double agent, risking his credibility with his own superiors. Egleton ratchets up tension as Ashton tries to find Galina before the KGB can locate and kill her.

Although Hostile Intent is carefully plotted, there are times when the story becomes difficult to believe. It was particularly hard to understand the continuing desire of the Foreign Office to ignore the true cause of Whittle's murder and to treat Galina as unimportant, given fairly obvious evidence that Galina and Rostovsky were selling highly classified material and that Galina still had information that would benefit the British. The nature of the information she finally reveals is also a bit over the top. A separate problem with Hostile Intent is that Egleton's writing style, while competent, needed improvement: Hostile Intent includes too many awkward sentences and Egleton too often resorted to cliche. Apart from those quibbles, Hostile Intent is a novel I would recommend to fans of espionage fiction. Ashton isn't quite in a league with George Smiley or Bernard Samson, but Egleton spins an entertaining story and peppers it with enough action to keep the pages turning.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Dec062010

The Lost Daughter of Happiness by Geling Yan

First published in 2001

The Lost Daughter of Happiness is a remarkable novel, a love story unlike any I've read. It unfolds in alternating points of view. Writing in the second person, as if she were speaking to Fusang, looking back at Fusang's life from the present day, the narrator's language is factual, unemotional, sometimes bordering on contemptuous: You are a prostitute, she says, brought to California from China, one who didn't die during the long voyage, who didn't succumb to disease or beatings after being sold into slavery. "I certainly won't let people confuse you with any of the other three thousand whores from China." Occasionally the narrator quotes histories of the California Gold Rush from which she draws her account of Fusang. Occasionally she tells Fusang tidbits about her own life as a recent Chinese immigrant, about her own perplexity understanding the ways of white people, including her husband.

The other point of view is third person, telling the story of Fusang in its own time, sometimes shifting to the lives of others, particularly Chris, the white teenager who quietly worships Fusang's beauty, whose life changes because of her. The other central character is Fusang's Chinese warlord-like kidnapper. Both men love Fusang, and to some extent hate her, in their own warped ways. Fusang, in turn, has special feelings for both men--as distinguished from the hordes of undifferentiated men who want to sleep with her, whose names she's incapable of remembering.

Whether she's describing a battle between Chinese clans (of which Fusang is the indirect cause) or the culture shock and isolation experienced by Chinese immigrants past and present, Geling writes with a fluid grace. Geling avoids sympathetic language, yet her stark portrayal of Fusang's plight is incredibly moving. Still, Geling paints Fusang as largely unaffected by pain or trauma. Fusang may just be simple-minded, but she evinces a knowingness that the other slave girls lack. She understands how to steal pleasure from pain, how to find freedom in enslavement. Unlike the other prostitutes, she's content with a diet of fish heads. There is something zen-like about her simplicity.

Geling writes powerfully about race riots in San Francisco more than a century ago and about present day skinheads who profess their racial hatred on talk shows. She writes about rape and redemption. This short but wide-ranging novel is filled with tension and ugliness while maintaining a soft, quiet tone, but it is also filled with hope and beauty. It is a stunning performance. The Lost Daughter of Happiness deserves a much larger audience.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Dec052010

Flight of Honor by Richard S. McEnroe

First published in 1984

Flight of Honor is the second novel in the short-lived "Far Stars and Future Times" series. Its predecessor, The Shattered Stars, is a space opera in the classic vein. Flight of Honor is a more ambitious undertaking, a novel of political intrigue and alien culture that is reminiscent of C.J. Cherryh's work. The two novels are so different, in fact, it wouldn't be clear that they are part of the same Future History if the banner on the cover didn't tell us so.

The Galatian hold-lord is dead, and his first born, Cianna Canbhei, has ascended to that title. Her brother, second born Cian, feeling he can make no meaningful contribution to the family in his current role, decides to join the Consortium Mercantile. On his journey to the Consortium Enclave, Cian encounters the one-armed outcast Oin Ceiragh, who formerly served the Consortium and makes it his business to dissuade others from following that path. Oin (a Galatian who seems to resemble a cross between a Hobbit and The Incredible Hulk) tells Cian his story -- a story of joining the Terran Dani Yuen as an assassin for the Guild of Resolution, self-appointed protectors of the Earth, destroyers of those who oppress it, from polluting industrialists to religious zealots. A journalist who has been critical of the Guild's methods becomes Oin's target.

The novel deals with serious and timeless themes of honor, betrayal, duty, and fear. The two Galatians each believe the other has made choices based on fear rather than honor, while the Terran's involvement with Oin leads her to question her own commitment to the Guild. While McEnroe's story raises interesting questions about situational ethics and moral dilemmas that cannot easily be resolved, the novel never bogs down in heavy philosophical discussions. Plentiful action scenes and a brisk pace make this short novel a quick read, while its larger themes make it a satisfying one.

RECOMMENDED