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
Jun022017

I Am Death by Chris Carter

First published in Great Britain in 2015; published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on May 30, 2017

The serial killer who becomes Robert Hunter’s nemesis in I Am Death is a well-dressed con man who has the ability to set people at ease before he kills them. Fortunately for the real world, serial killers are extremely rare, but thriller writers love to invent them. And of course, the victims are all the sort of people readers like, although they aren’t given much substance beyond “young, attractive, good person.”

In other words, if you read thrillers regularly, you’ve read this one before. Brilliant serial killer leaves tantalizing clues, eventually directing one at the investigating detective. Unfortunately, Hunter misses the meaning of a fairly obvious clue for quite a long time, which is inconsistent with what we are told about his remarkable intelligence. But as we expect of our crime novel heroes, he redeems himself later.

Hunter’s investigation begins with a dead babysitter who was clearly tortured for several days before her body was found. It continues by following the formula of serial killer thrillers: the killer taunts the cops as he keeps killing, leaves clues because he considers himself smarter than the cops, and eventually … well, you know the rest.

There isn’t much subtlety in I Am Death. Bad parents are the worst parents imaginable. Torture killings involve exceptionally brutal torture (sensitive readers may not be able to handle some of the scenes in this book). And while bad people are really, really bad, good people are really, really good. In other words, they are boring and empty.

I don’t have a problem with Chris Carter’s prose. The story moves quickly because it’s written using the formula that some thriller writers love (short chapters, short paragraphs, the kind of book that readers consider a page-turner only because there is so little content on each page). I suppose I should give the ending credit for not being entirely predictable, but Carter only managed that by making the ending entirely contrived. I just didn’t believe much of anything about this novel, which is pretty typical of the serial killer novels that modern crime writers produce so obsessively. I Am Death is far from an awful novel, but it will entertain fans of fast-moving, unchallenging formula fiction more than it will appeal to readers looking for credible plots and substantial characters.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
May312017

Shadow Man by Alan Drew

Published by Random House on May 23, 2017

Shadow Man is a crime novel, but like all good novels, its focus is on how people respond to the forces that shape their lives. Two plot threads intersect. One involves a serial killer, the reliable fall guy of crime fiction, but the killer is only a prop to keep the story moving as Alan Drew deals with the deeper human drama of broken relationships, parenthood, and child abuse. The other plot involves a school’s swim coach who has a history of sexually abusing vulnerable members of the swim team.

Most novels about serial killers and sexual abusers are superficial and melodramatic. They exploit the subject matter to induce outrage, but they rely on stereotypes rather than nuance. Shadow Man is more insightful in its grasp of human nature than most crime stories that address sexual abuse. In fact, it is more insightful than most crime novels, period. Shadow Man won’t appeal to readers looking for a dumbed-down, fast-moving thriller with a tough guy protagonist who fights eight men at a time, lovingly describes his guns, and has never entertained an unconventional thought or a moment of self-doubt. I enjoy books like that if they’re well written, but I always prefer to read a novel that takes the time to establish setting, atmosphere, and characters. Shadow Man does all of that while still delivering an engaging, multifaceted plot.

Ben Wade enforces the law in a planned community called Rancho Santa Elena, where in the mid-1980s, serious crime is virtually nonexistent. Ben lives at the edge of town with (sometimes) his daughter, in the cowboy ranch where he grew up, having returned after a stint with LAPD. Ben has a troubled relationship with his ex-wife and nearly everyone else in his life. He’s having difficulty adjusting to the fact that his daughter is growing up. Ben is a complex character who spends the novel wrestling with demons from his past as he tries to decide whether the time has come to reveal the secrets that have shaped his adulthood.

Ben is asked to assist with a body in nearby Mission Viejo, a death by strangulation, perhaps the latest victim of a serial killer. Before long, he’s investigating more deaths, some of which match the serial killer’s signature, although the death of a teenage boy, the son of migrant workers, is quite different. That one takes Ben back to his high school years, reawakening memories of a small town that is intolerant of anyone who doesn’t fit the bigoted standards of the community.

Shadow Man doesn’t deliver the artificial thrills of car chases and shootouts, but it does develop and hold a steady level of tension. The story moves quickly but not so quickly that important elements of atmosphere and characterization are neglected. Ben’s observations about rural California’s transition in the 1980s from cowboy country to gated communities contributes to a strong sense of time and place. The story stands out, however, for its portrayal of Ben’s troubled childhood and how those troubles have shaped the fears that plague him as an adult. Even minor characters wear their pain realistically as they struggle to cope with uncomfortable truths. The serial killer is almost a minor character, which I found refreshing, and he is developed in a way that avoids the common serial killer stereotypes. Not many writers do literary crime fiction well, but with Shadow Man, Alan Drew positions himself in that select group.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
May292017

Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

Published by Del Rey on April 11, 2017

Cold Welcome isn’t much of a science fiction novel. It’s more of a conspiracy / survivalist / adventure novel that happens to be set on another world. Parts of the story are plodding. Some of it shows promise, only to disappoint with its failure to move in an interesting direction.

A family crisis forces Grand Admiral Ky Vatta to return to Slotter’s Key, where her great aunt is the Rector of Defense. The Vatta family is under attack, and Ky becomes wrapped up in the family drama when the shuttle she is taking to the surface of Slotter’s Key is sabotaged.

Ky leads the crash survivors to an inhospitable continent and eventually to a structure that seems to have been built by aliens (the kind of convenient aliens that make things humans can use) but more recently occupied by Vatta family enemies. The enemies account for the conspiracy theme, and Ky’s haphazard attempts to save the others from hypothermia and starvation account for the survivalist theme. The adventure theme … well, there’s not much to it.

We are frequently told that Ky is a capable leader, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the story. Ky is always talking about how much they need to do while never seeming to do anything. Her people are huddled in something like a shed, wondering when their food will run out, while two other structures are within easy walking distance, and Ky’s attitude is “we’ll have to investigate those next week, but right now we’re too busy making up sleeping schedules and melting snow for water.” Like they can’t take a look at the structures while the snow is melting? Ky struck me as being too inept to lead a Girl Scout troop, much less a space fleet.

In more than 200 days on the continent, almost nothing happens despite Ky’s whining about how busy everyone is. A moment of betrayal adds momentary interest, and pages addressing the lackluster attempts to locate Ky chew up a number of pages, but for the most part this is a novel of characters searching for something to do. And since the characters aren’t very interesting, neither is the novel.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Friday
May262017

The Language of Solitude by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Published by Atria / 37 INK on May 2, 2017

Two intertwined stories are told in The Language of Solitude. One is political and the other is not. Both are romantic but in different ways.

In its setting, mood, and emphasis on romance, The Language of Solitude is similar to Jan-Philipp Sendker’s popular The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. I think the political story in The Lanuage of Solitude is more successful than the straightforward romance in the nonpolitical story. The romance in the political  story struck me as being deeper and more meaningful, and its depiction of oppression and corruption in China stand as a lesson about the need for vigilance in maintaining an open and ethical government in the United States.

As in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, The Language of Solitude is set in Hong Kong and the main character is an idealized male who suffers deeply yet opens himself to love. Paul Leibovitz lives in relative isolation on the island of Lamma. He lost his son and, at 53, is afraid to father another. Before she boards a ferry to a neighboring island, his current lover, Christine, tells Paul that he is hungry for love. That may be Paul’s defining characteristic, although Sendker makes clear that Paul is also compassionate, sensitive, empathic, perfectly attuned to his lover’s needs and moods, and full of emotional depth (in short, the kind of men who are easier to find in fiction than in the real world).

Paul has learned to distrust the illusion of the future, to be suspicious of happiness, to take nothing for granted. Christine Wu, on the other hand, is a dreamer, a woman who places her trust in fate. Christine wonders if Paul is living on the island of Lamma to place himself in exile, but Paul is remarkably dependent on others for someone who has gone into exile. If he doesn’t hear from Christine for a couple of days, he drives himself mad worrying that their relationship is imperiled. So, Paul is ideal but also annoyingly needy, although some readers may find that neediness appealing if it taken as a sign of his love for Christine.

In fact, the relationship is imperiled because, having received unwelcome news of the future from an astrologer, Christine is afraid of the relationship, for Paul’s sake. To placate Christine, Paul also visits the astrologer, and some of the nonpolitical love story is driven by the astrologer’s forecast of his future.

The political story begins when Christine’s brother, Da Long, after being absent and presumed dead during Christine’s lifetime, suddenly resurfaces with a mysterious request. That situation takes Paul and Christine to mainland China where Christine learns the surprising reason why she was summoned to the place of her birth after so many years.

Da Long’s story, which involves his romance with Min Fang during the Cultural Revolution, is more interesting than that of Paul and Christine, if only because it is steeped in a dramatic history. Paul eventually pursues the cause of Min Fang’s current illness, creating conflict with her son, Xiao Hu, and her daughter, Yin-Yin. The conflict illuminates cultural differences between traditional Chinese (who tend to accept things as fate if they feel powerless to change them) and westerners (who often look for ways to change things they do not want to accept).

“A loving heart never gives up” says a character in The Language of Solitude. The story advances that the theme, as well as the need for, and difficulty of achieving, reconciliation and forgiveness. The political themes have to do with the corruption that follows when a  government and businesses become too chummy, the false reliance on “national security” to cover up wrongdoing, the importance of environmental regulations, and the power of the internet.

I thought some of the romantic scenes involving Paul and Christine were a bit sappy. I recognize that some readers will take that as a warning and others will deem it a reason to read the book.

While the other characters all seem credible, I had trouble accepting Paul as a real person. For someone who has lived in or near China for 30 years, Paul is remarkably ignorant of Mainland China’s repressive politics and corrupt government. Or perhaps he’s unreasonably optimistic, which seems inconsistent with everything we learn about him. Maybe he needs to be ignorant to advance the story, but his naivete is not well explained.

The novel’s ending is a bit forced, perhaps to make it fit within an astrologer’s prediction about Paul’s future in a way that will not displease readers. Of course, people who believe in fortune telling are always forcing random events to fit their interpretations of a prediction, but I think the use of astrology in the novel, no matter how important it is in Chinese culture, could have been handled with more subtlety.

On balance, I liked the political story and the romance involving Da Long and his wife. I was less interested in Paul and his romance with Christine. As always, I admired Sendker’s graceful prose. The Language of Solitude is worth a reader’s time, but like other Sendker novels, only parts of this one left me feeling satisfied.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
May242017

Testimony by Scott Turow

Published by Grand Central Publishing on May 16, 2017

Testimony is the first legal thriller I’ve read that focuses on the International Criminal Court. It is primarily fiction that is only based on fact at the edges of the story, including the ill-considered diversion of arms from Bosnia to Iraq that probably ended up in the hands of terrorists. The guts of the story, however, are pure fiction, written to Scott Turow’s usual standard of detail and deception.

Bill “Boom” Ten Boom has resigned from his Kindle County law firm and left his family behind to prosecute war crimes. In 2004, a group of soldiers allegedly wiped out a village inhabited by 400 Roma in Bosnia. The nearest soldiers happened to be Americans, and the massacre is rumored to have been an act of retaliation for the deaths of American soldiers in a failed attempt to capture a Serbian leader named Kajevic, a war criminal on the order of Slobodan Milošević.

In 2015, a friend of Boom who works for one of America’s spy agencies invites Boom to prosecute the case, which (in the spy’s view) means proving that the killers were not Americans. The thought is that having an American lead the investigation will prevent “some yahoo in Congress” from triggering an international crisis because the ICC is investigating a crime in which American soldiers are the suspected culprits.

Who killed the Roma? A furtive group working for Kajevic? American soldiers? Or, as some insist, did the massacre never happen? Boom’s investigation takes him from the Hague to Washington to Bosnia, placing him in danger while challenging the reader to figure out who is threatening Boom and what really happened to the Roma. Of course, as is common in Scott Turow’s work, the answer requires the careful dismantling of a cover-up.

Boom becomes involved in relationships with a couple of women during the course of the novel. The relationship drama is integral to the story while never threatening to overwhelm the legal drama. While he’s in Holland, Boom also learns something dramatic about his roots, another layer that interweaves with but doesn’t overwhelm the central story.

There are political overtones to the story, but they transcend party politics to ask fundamental questions about the nature of political and military leadership. The novel touches on the colossal political blunder that America made in invading Iraq, and the series of military and political blunders that followed. It also illustrates the debate between those who believe that America should not be subject to international law (among other reasons, because they perceive American soldiers as a likely target of persecution) and those who believe that America should avoid the double standard of judging other countries while being unwilling to be judged by them. The rule of law, after all, should apply equally to everyone, including Americans.

Those issues aside, this is fundamentally a legal thriller rather than a political story. Turow follows Boom and the other characters as they interview, investigate, excavate, and examine the evidence to see where it leads. The book is a model of how all criminal investigations should proceed, as investigators strive to find the truth, not to prove that their pet theory is accurate.

Turow’s characters, as always, have depth and substance. The story moves quickly without glossing over the fact that complex criminal investigations are painstaking affairs. The original plot and the strong characters make this one of the better novels that Turow has written in recent years.

RECOMMENDED