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.

Wednesday
May012019

The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on February 12, 2019

The moral issues surrounding the development of atomic bombs in World War II are at the heart of The Cassandra. The central theme, however, is the way in which women’s lives were defined by men during the 1940s.

Mildred Groves has had visions of the future all her life. Since the visions are ugly, they made her unpopular and she learned to shut up about them. She is like Cassandra, a gifted prophet no one believed. Paradoxically, her gift makes her special but she wants nothing more than to be insignificant.

Mildred abandons her controlling mother and joins the Women’s Army Corps as a typist in 1944. Mildred’s mother hasn’t been well since Mildred pushed her into the river, but Mildred has had enough of her whining. Mildred leaves her small town in Central Washington to work at the Hanford Site, a newly constructed nuclear production facility. The work at the site is classified, so Mildred knows only that the workers are making an important contribution to the war effort.

Mildred’s visions become more powerful after she begins her work. She doesn’t connect the skulls and melting men in her visions to radiation, but she knows that she is seeing their future. Mildred has also started sleepwalking on perilous paths, but her new frenemy Beth is keeping an eye on her. The local doctor chalks it up to hysteria, which he regards as a common affliction of women. But how can anyone account for the coyote and rattlesnake and meadowlark who turn up to guide (or mislead) Mildred?

Mildred raises questions about soil contamination that her boss regards as impertinent for a woman to consider. He assures her that she will “go far for a woman” if she can “remain steady.” Mildred feels trivialized by everyone, even by women who work as scientists, even by Beth who seems to regard her as a puppy, adorable but simple-minded.

The Cassandra paints a sad picture of the 1940s, when women like Mildred were told they should want a husband followed by a house and children, and that employment was merely a pathway to that goal. Mildred doesn’t want the war to end, because her work gives her purpose and excitement that she never had at home.

While the story’s background is dark — women are second-class citizens, men are ravaging the environment while building a bomb that will kill millions — the plot is even darker. When Mildred becomes the victim of male violence, her experience has consequences that affect others in unexpected ways. Mildred learns the wrong lessons from her victimization — she learns to generalize her hatred — raising the question of whether Mildred will ever come to terms with her circumstances. Unfortunately, her ability to do so is complicated by the visions that haunt her. Yet the story’s ending suggests that women cannot improve their lives by becoming “vengeful, destructive, indiscriminate” — in other words, by acting like men — and that Mildred may be open to this lesson.

The story is built on ambiguities. Do Mildred's feelings for Beth include sexual attraction or simply a longing for affection? Are her visions real or is she mentally ill? While the visions seem to be real (Mildred sees future events that she probably isn’t capable of imagining), her actions near the end of the novel suggest that she has some serious mental health issues.

The story of Mildred’s job, of how she is changed by the experience of working and meeting men and living outside of her family home, and of how she responds to the knowledge that she has helped destroy millions of Japanese civilians, is compelling. The supernatural or mental health element — whatever the the conversations with a heron and rattlesnake are meant to be — detract more than they add to an otherwise strong story. To the extent that Mildred’s visions are a product of mental illness, however, it is easy to understand how she views her own violent victimization as punishment for the harm she unwittingly helped the government unleash in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The story also works as a reminder of how plutonium production at Hanford harmed the community with contaminated groundwater, rivers, and air. The site is still hazardous decades after serious cleanup efforts began. Cancers, sterility, miscarriages, and other injuries were largely ignored or denied by the government, or chalked up as the price of winning the war. The novel is dark but the darkness is appropriate to its subject matter. While I’m not sure The Cassandra is as disturbing or moving as it is meant to be, the novel illuminates important issues in the past that continue to have relevance today.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr292019

Seek and Destroy by Alan McDermott

Published by Thomas & Mercer on November 14, 2018

Seek and Destroy is the second novel in Alan McDermott’s Eva Driscoll series, which spins off from his Tom Gray series. The novel is self-contained and can be read as a stand-alone, although it assumes a familiarity with a conspiratorial organization called the ESO and with some of the characters, including Gray, who is “a hero to the right wing” but “a terrorist in the eyes of many.”

Eva Driscoll has been secretly pardoned from the prison sentence she earned by investigating the ESO and her brother’s murder. Her team members took new identities and escaped to presumptive safety, but in India, Farooq Naser has just received a “we found you” video. Eva is in Munich with her lover Carl Huff, but a message from Farooq sparks a reunion of Eva’s team in Europe.

Meanwhile, Henry Langton is on an uncharted island leading a group that is charged with eliminating Eva and her team. That’s not going well so he decides to attack Gray in the hope that Gray will contact Eva’s team for help. Then he plans to follow the team members as they lead him to Eva. The plan doesn’t seem particularly plausible but plausibility is never a strong point in thrillers of this nature.

Eliminating Eva isn’t easy because Eva, like most action heroes, is indestructible. In one scene, armed just with a handgun, she takes out eight armed men. Yes, she gets a boo-boo on her cheek, but there’s never a sense that Eva is actually at risk. The same is true when Gray, Eva, and some expendables assault Langston’s island. They easily take out more than twice their number of trained mercenaries and sure, a couple of expendables don’t make it, but the reader will not work up a sweat worrying about the central characters.

Whether Eva qualifies as an action “hero” depends, I suppose, on whether the reader thinks a vengeful killer who assassinates unarmed technicians because they assisted a bad guy is justified in her lawlessness. Not to be outdone, Gray puts some gratuitous bullets in an unarmed character who is bleeding to death because he figures death alone isn’t a sufficient punishment for his misbehavior. I didn’t care much for the self-righteous avenger attitudes of Driscoll and Gray but readers who confuse self-righteous anger with morality might like them.

The novel justifies its title with a good amount of travel and destruction, as Driscoll and her team make their way to Mexico to arm themselves so they can launch an underwater attack on Langston’s island to rescue Gray’s kid, where she is being held hostage. The island invasion is preposterous, but that’s the nature of modern action thrillers. The travel gives the novel the story a certain amount of atmosphere.

McDermott writes fluidly and the novel maintains the kind of pace that action thrillers need. He takes time to give Eva and Gray personalities, even if the personalities are fairly standard and not particularly admirable. The conspirators are playing the long game, infiltrating government and hoping to place one of their own in the American presidency, an overdone premise that has become tiresome. Nothing about Seek and Destroy allows it to rise near the top of the mountain of books just like it. Die-hard action novel fans and followers of the Tom Gray series might want to read it, but other thriller fans can find better books to occupy their time.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Apr262019

Last Looks by Howard Michael Gould

Published by Dutton on August 14, 2018

Charlie Waldo is one of the more interesting characters to appear in recent crime fiction. Waldo has adopted a minimalist approach to life. He wants to own no more than one hundred things. That’s instantly amusing because Waldo must struggle with profound questions, such as whether socks count as one thing or two, and what he will need to give up if he acquires a gun.

Waldo maintains a small carbon footprint by living without plumbing and electricity in a tiny dwelling at the edge of the woods on a mountain. He only travels by bicycle or public transportation. Waldo is retired from the LAPD and hasn’t shaved in three years (a razor not making his list of one hundred possessions), but his former girlfriend, Lorena Nascimento, wants him to help her private detective agency on a celebrity case. Waldo used to be something of a celebrity cop and Laura claims that his presence would help her lock down the client. Waldo stopped being a cop, however, when he took advantage of three-strike laws to coerce an incriminating statement that was used to convict an innocent man of murder. Hence Waldo’s sense of guilt, which has exploded into feeling guilty about everything, including existing.

The case Waldo is asked to investigate involves a locked room mystery and a hard-drinking British actor named Pinch who was found inside his locked home with his murdered wife. The police don’t think the case is much of a mystery. A dirty cop, on the other hand, thinks Lorena has stolen something and that Waldo knows where to find it. Those facts drive a subplot, while the main attraction initially involves Waldo’s unwillingness to help Pinch (who is responsible for more carbon emissions in one day than 500 Kenyans in a year) and later (after Waldo relents) focuses on the locked room mystery.

In the tradition of private eye novels, Waldo is beaten up, finds a dead body in his driveway, encounters hostile police officers, is accused of multiple murders, is beaten up again, is locked up, and engages in a chase that ends with another beating. Suffice it to say that Waldo has a series of bad days and questions his decision to come down from his mountain to rejoin society, even temporarily. Yet he also finds himself smitten with a woman, something that hasn’t happened in his life for quite a long time. Sadly for Waldo, the woman is involved in the murder mystery, adding another complication to the plot.

The mystery is a good one, involving the interplay of several characters and the kind of scandalous Hollywood behavior that helps gossip websites earn their profits. While the story moves at a decent pace, Howard Michael Gould takes time to develop his characters. The supporting characters are quirky, but none are quirkier than Waldo. Everyone who meets Waldo thinks he is damaged, and of course they are right. But to Waldo, living with strict rules that minimize his ability to harm other people or the planet is a way to repair damage. Perhaps, the story suggests, there are better ways to repair damage, but even by the novel’s end, Waldo remains loveably challenged by life.

The ending suggests that Waldo will have another adventure, which I believe will be published this summer. It took me some time to get around to reading Last Looks, but I will not wait so long to read its sequel.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr242019

Neon Prey by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 23, 2019

Neon Prey is the kind of book that John Sandford can write on auto-pilot and still entertain. The novel is filled with chase scenes and shootouts and banter. The plot has no substance to speak of, unless you count chase scenes and shootouts as a substantive plot, but Sandford does action scenes so well that the reader needs nothing more. At this point, Prey novels are just an excuse to check in with familiar characters to see how their lives are going. Suffice it to say that their lives are exciting.

Sandford’s Prey novels are light with patches of darkness. Neon Prey (Neon because much of the action is in Vegas) might be darker than most, simply because a fair number of characters (innocent and guilty alike) die, and characters who don’t die take a bullet. Even darker is the cannibal. Yes, there’s a cannibal and yes, that's been done before, in both fiction and the real world.

Lucas Davenport and Marshal buddies Bob and Rae are joined by an FBI agent who resembles a young Davenport, much to Rae’s delight. The plot involves a killer named Deese who is arrested after beating a man who refused to pay his debt to a loan shark. Deese is charged with furthering a racketeering conspiracy and is released on bail. Getting bail on a federal violent crime isn’t easy, but the judge gets a piece of the action so everyone’s happy. Everyone except Deese’s victims, because Deese is the aforementioned cannibal.

Deese cuts off his monitoring device in Louisiana. Federal Marshals Rae Givens and Bob Matees are searching Deese’s property when they find a bunch of buried bodies. The number and condition of the bodies and the contents of Deese’s grill are, to say the least, disturbing. Bob and Rae ask Lucas to use his clout to get the Marshals assigned to find Deese because they know the FBI isn’t good at finding people. For that matter, they don’t think FBI agents are good at anything.

From there, the story involves tracking Deese, who hooks up with a home invader and a young woman who is along for the ride (and the drugs). Deese and his accomplices go on a crime spree, staying a step ahead of the Marshals and FBI for much of the novel, but keeping them busy with shootouts and rising body counts and some clever schemes to avoid being captured.

The Prey stories are darkly amusing because of Davenport’s nonchalant joking with Bob and Rae in the face of mayhem. After 29 Prey novels, readers know what to expect, and Neon Prey is exactly what a series fan expects to read. There’s nothing new or different here, but the action, dialog, and skillful storytelling are enough to sweep the reader along, as they always are in a Sandford novel.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr222019

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

First published in Great Britain in 2019; published by Doubleday/Nan A. Talese on April 23, 2019

In Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan returns to the topic of false accusations, the underpinning of Atonement, but in a much different context. The novel is light but its subject matter is not. McEwan explores the failings (and perhaps the strengths) of humanity by comparing humans, including the false accuser, to the ideal of artificial humans who believe that proper behavior is clear and easily defined. The artificial humans are self-aware and independent, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they become depressed about the human condition.

McEwan tells the story in the context of an alternate history, a form used to great advantage by Kingsley Amis in The Alteration and Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle to explore how history shapes life. The story takes place during the Falklands War, a miserable time for the British Navy, although McEwan imagines it to have been more miserable than it was — the British Navy is defeated and steams home in shame. Other changes in the world include an American decision not to drop the Bomb on Japan, the Beatles’ decision to reunite after 15 years, Jimmy Carter’s reelection to a second term, and Alan Turing’s survival into old age, allowing him to solve P versus NP and introduce a new age of computing.

Thanks to Turing, artificial humans called Adam and Eve are on the market in 1982. Science fiction stories about artificial humans typically focus on whether an artificial creation that develops self-awareness and seems to have (or desire) free will should be given the status of a natural human. McEwan’s story addresses that conundrum but gives it a twist. When his Adams and Eves become self-aware, they struggle with existentialism. Some give themselves a robotic form of lobotomy, perhaps because they are unable to live with the pointlessness and futility of human life, perhaps because they are simply disappointed by humans.  

The novel’s narrator, Charlie, impulsively blows his inheritance on an Adam. Adam quickly warns Charlie that his upstairs neighbor, Miranda, is a malicious liar. Charlie and Miranda have developed an amiable companionship. On the day Adam pronounces his warning, Charlie shuts off Adam and sleeps with Miranda.

Insecurity soon sets in and Charlie wonders how Adam could have judged Miranda without ever meeting her. Perhaps Adam is intuitive, a proposition that gives McEwan an opportunity to explore both the history of Artificial Intelligence and the difference between computing and intuiting (if a difference actually exists). McEwan later explores the nature of self, recognizing that neuroscientists and philosophers are debating whether the concept has meaning. In the meantime, Charlie and Miranda each complete one-half of a checklist of attributes that will program Adam’s personality, the digital equivalent of giving him their combined genes.

Charlie begins his own investigation of Miranda, although most of the information he finds pertains to her father, an “old-style literary curmudgeon” who detests technology. Of course, Miranda is curious about the biologically correct Adam, and it does not take long before Charlie wonders whether he is being “cuckolded by an artefact.” Whether or not his suspicions are founded, the question opens the door to a discussion of “robot ethics,” the notion that properly programmed beings will behave more scrupulously than ethically-challenged humans. Can a machine betray its owner? Unlike Adam, Miranda has no owner, so can the machine be blamed if she wants to test its performance?

Charlie and Adam (mostly Adam) have wide-ranging discussions of quantum mechanics, haikus, the limits of human understanding (particularly the understanding of other humans) as informed by literary traditions, and the future of collective thought. Charlie has a couple of discussions with Alan Turing about the nature of artificial intelligence and how it might react to human intelligence which, despite having the ability to solve problems like poverty and global warming, chooses not to do so. Humans know how to live with despair. Can machines learn to do live with their despair of humans? Turing explains that he once thought the body was nothing more than a machine, but changed his mind after facing chemical castration as a criminal punishment for being gay. (In this history, Turing rejected the punishment. In history as we know it, he accepted castration and committed suicide two years later.)

So this is a largely a novel of philosophy, but it also has a lively plot. Part of the plot concerns the false accusation (made with — the accuser imagines although the reader might not — a noble purpose) and its potential consequences. Another part of the plot concerns atonement. Another is a love story, including the possibility of an instant “two daddy” family as Charlie, Miranda, and Adam meet a young boy who needs foster care. The fact that Miranda’s father likes Adam more than Charlie (and is mistaken about which is the actual human) adds a comedic wrinkle to the romance, as does Charlie’s concern that becoming a father would be “a dereliction of duty to a larger purpose, assuming I could find one.”

In the end, Adam is a better person than a human would ever be, but that might also be his tragic flaw. Adam does not believe in revenge or greed and, while most humans would agree with him, he acts in accordance with his beliefs, which humans too rarely do. Yet humanity might not be well served by the inhuman rectitude and logic of a robot. The novel asks readers to decide whether rectitude should ever give way to friendship and loyalty, a concept that may separate human minds from calculators. All of that — as always, McEwan manages to stuff a lot into a fairly small package — adds up to an engaging, thought-provoking novel.

RECOMMENDED