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
Nov222017

The Whispering Room by Dean Koontz

Published by Bantam on November 21, 2017

Anything that Dean Koontz writes is entertaining by definition, but the Jane Hawk series is far from his best work. The mind-control conspiracy premise is overdone and not particularly convincing.

The Whispering Room gives shape to the “maniacal conspiracy of utopian totalitarians” that Jane Hawk began to uncover in The Silent Corner. As we learned in that novel, the masters of the universe are using nanotechnology to infiltrate brains and force people to kill themselves for the betterment of society (at least as the totalitarian conspirators see it). In this novel, sweet elderly teachers are committing terrorist acts for the same reason. Why sweet elderly teachers are seen as a threat to world supremacy is explained only by the assurance that they were selected by a computer. Presumably the computer had its reasons. Again, I'm not convinced.

The bad guys are “elitists” with Ivy League educations who belittle individuals with “third tier” college educations, which may give the story some populist appeal. Koontz more than once writes about the “foolishness of the elites,” using the kind of divisive political buzzword that stokes fury in certain societal groups but doesn’t really mean anything. That’s unusual and surprising coming from Koontz, who typically embraces unity.

A new addition to the cast is a local law enforcement officer, Luther Tillman, who investigates the murder of a governor, a crime the feds seem surprisingly unmotivated to investigate. Luther stumbles across some journals that refer to a spider building a web in the killer’s brain, and uncovers evidence pointing him to a conference that the sweet killer attended — a conference that seems to have changed her, and perhaps others who were invited so that their brains could be captured.

Another new addition is a kid named Harley who knows that all the adults in his town have taken the Stepford treatment. Luther is a good character but Harley is a bit corny, the kind of brave and adorable kid that has become a stock Hollywood character. I expect more than that from Koontz. I appreciate, however, the minor characters who commit random acts of decency, the sort of people Koontz often scatters through novels to suggest that the human race is not universally awful.

Meanwhile, Jane roars through the novel like a force of nature, moving forward in her investigation from bad guy to bad guy while staying a step ahead of all the bad guys who want to kill her. And since this is a mind-control conspiracy, pretty much everyone wants to kill her. That gives the novel energy and motivates the reader to continue turning pages. And there’s a bizarre fight scene near the end involving nonhuman foes that I enjoyed simply because it is outside the norm of thriller fare. Not entirely believable, but fun.

That is, in fact, my reaction to both novels. I’m just not buying much of what happens, but I’ve enjoyed reading both books. Despite characters who aren’t as meaty as Koontz’s best, an unoriginal premise, and too many unconvincing scenes, Koontz’s ability to hold a reader’s attention makes the novels an easy read. Just don’t expect the books to go where no author has gone before.

The story does not end in The Whispering Room (I'm not sure how many novels in this series Koontz intends to write) but the ending is not a cliffhanger, which I appreciate. The first two novels have enough merit that I'll read the next one without being manipulated by a cliffhanger, but they don't have enough merit to earn wild praise.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Nov202017

Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux/MCD on December 5, 2017

Ultraluminous is narrated by a prostitute who buys heroin with designer labels. She describes her life and thoughts in snippets. She comments upon bars and sex and getting high and her memories of the Sheikh who paid her for sex in Dubai, starting her on the road of upscale prostitution.

The narrator comments upon the five regular men in her life, designated by descriptions (the junk-bond guy, the calf’s brain guy, the art guy, the ex-Ranger, the guy who buys her things) rather than names, presumably because their names aren’t worth remembering. She comments upon the art of prostitution (holding a man’s attention requires a prostitute to be sad but not too sad, unlike strippers who must appear to be happy). And she comments upon her sparse nonsexual interactions with the world, which primarily involve women at her nail salon, a Polish diner, Duane Reade, and her yoga class. Women judge her and she judges them for different reasons.

The snippets slowly build a picture of a bright, observant woman who is living a pointless and unsatisfying life. The title refers to an astronomical X-ray that shows the universe being ripped apart, which the narrator sees as a metaphor for her life. When asked how she can have sex with men for money, she answers “Heroin. Cocaine is for stripping.” Given the sexual tastes of the guys she describes, heroin does seem like a job requirement. But she thinks it’s blindness, the inability to see what’s coming, that keeps us alive. That might not be enough.

For much of the novel, I was wondering whether the snippets would add up to a story. It does reach a climax (pardon the pun), but before that point, the snippets add up to a life. The protagonist is unabashedly crude, but she has valuable insights into the men who either abuse or reject her (or both). Her life isn’t safe and she doesn’t seem to care. Accepting abuse is a choice she has made, a tradeoff that’s preferable to perils she might otherwise face. As she tells the junk-bond guy, “terrible things happen every day, not just to you.” Refreshingly, she doesn’t paint herself as a victim (she’s moved beyond wallowing) and spends little time telling the reader how she came to live the life she inhabits. She is who she is.

Ultraluminous might be seen as a commentary on the masters of the universe who act as if the ordinary rules of behavior don’t apply to them, who treat beautiful young men as fantasies and abuse them because they can afford to pay for the women’s acquiescence, who leave the women “on the floor of a hotel room when they got bored like anything else they once had to possess.” But more illuminating is the narrator’s ability to understand and manipulate the men, to let them control her as a way of controlling them, to take advantage of their self-delusions, to allow her body to be rented while refusing to be owned.

Ultraluminous is a powerful novel, not just in its ending (which is foreshadowed and not entirely unexpected), but in the way the snippets gain a cumulative force. What seems like a frivolous story about a frivolous person morphs into a convincing account of a damaged woman whose attempts to cope with pain — brief and infrequent moments of pure joy (not counting the heroin) — cannot undo the life into which she has fallen. There’s something exquisite about the way this story is told, and something horrifying about what it reveals.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Nov172017

Bubba and the Cosmic Blood Suckers by Joe Lansdale

Published by Subterranean on October 31, 2017

Joe Lansdale is a versatile writer. He’s churned out westerns, horror novels, science fiction, and a ton of crime novels. Some of his books approach the subject matter seriously, many are written as comedy, and some are a blend. He never fails to entertain, but occasional efforts, including this one, seem dashed off. Lansdale wrote the story as a prequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, a novella that was made into a movie several years ago, so maybe he was kicking the idea around for a while and felt the need to jot it down.

One of my favorite horror novels is Lansdale’s The Bottoms, a truly frightening story. As you might guess from the title, Bubba and the Cosmic Blood Suckers plays with the horror genre but the story’s tongue-in-cheek nature makes it more funny than scary. Still, the creatures Lansdale describes in the opening chapter (written as a straight horror story) demonstrate how capably Lansdale can scare the pants off his readers. Had he written this as a straight horror story, I might have wet the bed.

So perhaps it's fortunate that Lansdale quickly introduces Elvis and his team of monster fighters, led by his manager, Colonel Parker. Already, I’m sure, you can see the potential for humor. This is a jaded Elvis, at the peak of his career and starting to lose control of his weight. He still has his charisma (and still has a lot of sex), but the charisma is attracting a dark force from another dimension. The “cosmic blood suckers” in the novel’s title actually feed on charisma more than blood, which makes Elvis a prime target.

Johnny Smack, who tells some of the story in the form of journal entries, is one of Elvis’ bodyguards. He is also part of the Hidden Agenda, a group that for centuries has battled monsters. After bodies are discovered of unidentified people who have had their innards sucked out, Richard Nixon sends Hidden Agenda on a mission to tame the responsible monsters. The Colonel, Johnny Smack, John Henry, a charismatic singer named Jenny, a wizard named Jack, and a fellow called the Blind Man join Elvis on the Hidden Agenda team.

The concept is goofy enough to be funny, and Lansdale adds characteristic bits of humor in nearly every paragraph. One of my favorites is a barrier to keep ghouls away that is made from ashes from incinerated corpses mixed with nun pee, but there are too many examples to count. One of the funniest passages involves Elvis’ sexual encounter with a ghost. Well, it’s Elvis, so he really can’t refuse.

I can’t say I laughed out loud at much of the goofiness, but I was consistently amused and entertained. Lansdale can do that without even trying, but the story does give the impression that he didn’t try very hard. I look forward to Lansdale returning to meatier work, but in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with being amused.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Nov152017

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Published by Little, Brown and Company on October 10, 2017

The Power is a story told in the far future about a transformative time that is very near to our present. In the far future, men are docile and nurturing, while women (scientists assume) have evolved to be aggressive and violent so they can protect their babies. But the story told in The Power is an attempt to reconstruct history by a historian who wrote a fictional account of a world run by men. The historian had to write his account as fiction because no one in the future was prepared to accept patriarchy as a plausible state of affairs. The historian views the Cataclysm (an apocalyptic conflict that everyone agrees occurred) as a gender war. The novel-within-a-novel explains how the Cataclysm might have happened.

The Power imagines that women suddenly develop an “electrostatic” power that men lack — essentially, the power to transmit a controlled burst of electricity. Men resent (and fear) a power that they lack. The initial message, of course, is “welcome to the world of women” or “how does it feel when the tables are turned?” The message might put off the vocal minority of science fiction fans who think sf should have frozen its themes in the patriarchal 1950s, but since science fiction has long appealed to open-minded readers, I suspect that most readers will judge this novel on its merits.

The story follows a number of characters, including Roxy Monke (the daughter of a crime family) and Allie (who lives in foster care). Roxy is 14 when, defending her mother from an attack, she discovers her power. Unfortunately, the power doesn’t save her mother from their assailants.

Like Roxy, 16-year-old Allie has had her fill of abusive men when she finds her power, changes her name to Eve, and hitchhikes across the country. She eventually becomes known as Mother Eve, a cult figure who helps found a mother-centric religion, premised on the belief that the power is divinely inspired.

As girls discover and master their power, they learn how to awaken it in older women. Men feel threatened; two girls in Riyadh are killed for practicing their deviltry (i.e., making sparks fly between their hands). Women in Moldova create a new country as a refuge for formerly sex-trafficked women. A male journalist named Tunde Edo tries to act as a witness to all of this and to document it when he can.

The last two noteworthy characters are a woman named Margot, who conceals her power for a time to further her political career, and her daughter Jocelyn, whose power doesn’t function well (at least until she has a religious moment with Mother Eve).

The government’s initial reaction the power reflects the natural resistance of oppressors to change: isolate the girls, don’t let them reproduce, develop a vaccine to remove the power. Preachers denounce the power as the work of Satan. Do men feel threatened because they fear the women, or do they feel threatened because women no longer fear men? That’s one of the many questions that make The Power such an interesting novel.

The Power is not a simplistic story in which women are good and men are bad. Eve is a charlatan, barely a step above a fraudulent faith healer. Margot is Machiavellian in her approach to political power; she quickly understands the relationship between governmental power and industrial power. She develops her own private army of empowered women and is far from the first person to learn that conflict can be profitable.

Power corrupts, and when women rise to power, they are as easily corrupted as men, and just as vicious when they stifle dissent. As history demonstrate, the oppressed too often become oppressors when they gain the upper hand.

The characters are credible, but so is the reaction of society, which is drawn from current events. As women become used to their powers, a male supremacist movement arises, supported by angry bloggers, which spawns extremist groups of women, some of whom think that the final solution is to get rid of all but the most subservient men, who need to be spared for procreative uses. The movement members on both sides are irrational, but they reflect the blogger-driven supremacy movements that have gained such a loud voice during the last year. Extremism begets extremism, and extremists on either side of a social issue can be inhuman, a point the novel illustrates convincingly.

The Power is smart, biting, nuanced in its exploration of gender roles and perceptive in its understanding that history is written by the victor (or at least by those who are currently empowered). It’s also a good story that uses intelligent characters to raise serious questions about the role of gender in societies across the world.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Nov132017

Artemis by Andy Weir

Published by Crown on November 14, 2017

Artemis follows the same formula Andy Weir used in The Martian. Protagonist encounters a problem. Protagonist uses science to solve it. Protagonist encounters another problem. Protagonist uses science to solve it. The solution unwittingly creates an even bigger problem. Protagonist uses science to solve it. And so on. The formula worked in The Martian and, while the science lectures are a bit overdone in Artemis, the story is lively enough to be entertaining.

Jazz Bashara is a Saudi citizen, but she grew up in Artemis, a domed complex on the moon. She lives in low-rent housing deep underground. Jazz would like to get a job leading tourists on excursions outside the domes, but she can’t afford a decent spacesuit. In the meantime, she works as a porter, although she supplements her income with a bit of smuggling. Soon she has a chance to earn a larger supplement by engaging in a bit of industrial sabotage. That leads to troublesome encounters with a crime syndicate that, by the novel’s end, have resolved just a bit too neatly. But the point of the story is to solve problems with science, so the human issues will be secondary to many readers.

Science and engineering geeks will probably like Artemis because of the formula: identify the a problem, explain the science that underlies the problem, and then dream up a solution that is consistent with the science. I thought the explanations were generally interesting, even though I’m not a science or engineering geek (my own geekishness lies in different areas). If it bothers you to read that sort of thing, you probably don’t like science fiction, at least the kind of science fiction that makes science a plot element. Some science fiction writers overdo the technincal aspects of science, as if they expect their readers to have a doctorate in astrophysics, but Weir breaks down concepts into easily digestible morsels. There are, however, a whole lot of morsels, and some of the digressions get in the way of the plot's momentum.

Science fiction that offers imaginative engineering solutions to futuristic problems (like dissipating heat in a vacuum) runs the risk of making a plot secondary to the problem-solving. Weir’s The Martian succeeded by making problem-solving integral to the plot (an astronaut’s survival depended on using science to find ways to stay alive). He doesn’t do that quite as well in Artemis (much of the science is integral to the background but not essential to the plot). The novel creates a convincing sense of what it might be like to live on a moon colony, but it does that by explaining how this works and how that works, which overloads the story with exposition. But as I said, it’s interesting exposition.

The larger question is whether Weir tells a story that has value apart from the science lectures. I think he does. The story creates an engagin protagonist, a precocious and sexually active teenage girl (every male geek's fantasy) who manages to solve a lot of problems with science. Weir imbues Jazz with a sense of humor (or at least a sense of irony) and enough personality to make her likeable. Secondary characters have enough personality to make them credible, and the plot moves quickly enough when it isn't being interrupted by science lectures. I’m not sure the plot is entirely plausible (given what’s at stake, I think the criminals would have made a more forceful effort than a brainy teenager would be able to overcome), and the ending is a bit forced, but Artemis is entertaining as well as educational, so I’m recommending it to science fiction fans.

RECOMMENDED