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.


The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark


First published in 1940

Some readers dislike The Ox-Bow Incident because they expect to find the elements of a traditional western -- morally pure heroes defeating evil outlaws in gunfights -- and are disappointed by their absence. The Ox-Bow Incident does not follow that formula. It is a novel about good (and not so good) men who do an evil thing, men who succumb to a mob mentality, who (in today's language) fear being seen as "soft on crime" and take the law into their collective hands to assure "justice." The novel is in large part a condemnation of vigilantism that, while set in the past, remains relevant to the modern world.

One of the characters in The Ox-Bow Incident complains that "law, as the books have it, is slow and full of holes." The current version of that complaint holds that "criminals have all the rights." People who utter those words forget that those rights protect the innocent from undeserved punishment. The Ox-Bow Incident reminds us that the rights conferred by law do not hinder justice; they are an indispensible component of justice. The men (and one woman) in The Ox-Bow Incident who arrogantly or blindly decide to dispense with the law because "it is slow and full of holes" learn that the law, while imperfect, is more capable of achieving justice than men handing out punishments on their own authority.

Yet The Ox-Bow Incident is more than a condemnation of vigilantism. It's also a psychological study. A reviewer here complained that the plot was too obvious, but this isn't a whodunit or a mystery. The novel isn't so much about what the men do as why they do it. Clark reveals the minds of characters who are afraid to show emotion, who connect with others only in very superficial ways. Most of the characters are constantly worrying about how they look to their peers, always ready to start a fight to defend their honor against the slightest affront to their manhood. They live in dread of their own feelings and are afraid to speak out against injustice if doing so might make them seem weak. 

While some readers find them boring, the novel's philosophical discussions are its strength. Clark didn't settle for a simplistic view of the Wild West that pits good men against evil-doers. The characters are a mixture of good and bad; even when they are basically good, they commit "sins of omission" by failing to stand up for their beliefs. One of the characters likens the posse to a wolf pack, none of its members willing to think independently for fear of being perceived as a lesser man than the rest. Other characters debate the nature of justice. One talks about how much easier it is to have physical courage than moral courage. The narrator (Croft) and another character (Sparks) wonder whether vengeance is God's work or man's.

The Ox-Bow Incident asks compelling and fundamental questions about the individual's role in society. On top of that, it's a well written story. Look elsewhere if you want to read a traditional western, but pick up The Ox-Bow Incident if you want to read an entertaining and thought-provoking novel that has something important to say about human nature.



The Moscow Club by Joseph Finder

Published by Viking on February 1, 1991

The Moscow Club is Joseph Finder's first novel. It is the work of a writer who hasn't yet mastered his craft. Finder's writing style too often depends on clichéd expressions: a house of cards falls, a character knows something like the back of his hand, and secrecy is for the birds. Chase scenes read like descriptions of the chases in bad television shows. Sex scenes are sophomoric. When those flaws aren't cropping up, however, Finder's style is fluid, making the novel easy to read.

The plot resembles a generic Ludlum conspiracy: the good guy learns something he isn't supposed to know, the bad guys try to kill him, and as the good guy works to save himself by learning the whole truth, everyone who helps him dies. The characters are undistinguished, lacking in personality; Finder spends little time trying to make them interesting. For the most part, the story is credible, although the main character pulls off some James Bond style gymnastics that don't fit well with the novel's general identity, as if Finder is trying to be Ludlum and Fleming and Le Carre all at once.

Setting aside those criticisms, I recommend The Moscow Club to fans of espionage thrillers. The intricate plot is logically consistent, the pace (while a bit erratic) gains velocity as the novel progresses, and the interweaving of Russian and Soviet history adds interest to the story. While much of the plot is predictable, the novel is never boring and Finder rewards the diligent reader with a nice surprise at the end. The Moscow Club is an uneven but worthy first effort by a writer who sharpened his skills in later novels.



Stable Strategies and Others by Eileen Gunn

Published by Tachyon Publications on September 1, 2004

I found Stable Strategies and Others after reading the story "Contact" in the anthology Proteus: Voices for the 80's. The story was so superior to the others in the collection that I decided to look for other works by Eileen Gunn. Stable Strategies and Others is what I found, and all that I found in book form. She does have some other stories, available to read at no charge, on her website.

Stable Strategies and Others collects Gunn's stories through the date of the book's publication in 2004. It also includes a short introduction by Gunn's friend and fellow sf writer William Gibson; a short poetic ode to Gunn by Michael Swanwick; and an afterward by Howard Waldrop. Gunn follows each story with a brief description of its origin.

Gunn shows her amazing range in these stories. Some are wildly funny. The Hugo-nominated "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" is reminiscent of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" with a comic twist: the narrator wakes up with certain attributes of an insect courtesy of a bioengineering experiment designed to make employees into "a more useful corporate organism." In the alternate history described in "Fellow Americans," Richard Nixon is a game show host, Geraldo is "a respected PBS commentator," and former President Goldwater ... well, you can guess how that turned out. Gunn's uncanny ability to write in Nixon's voice is spooky. To find humor in a bleak future where children grow up to have very close relationships with computer networks or don't grow up at all, Gunn wrote the Hugo-nominated "Computer Friendly" from the perspective of a precocious child. In Gunn's first commercially published story, "What Are Friends For?," alien invaders investigate porn.

Two stories are deeply moving. "Coming to Terms" examines death through the post-it notes the deceased left behind. "Contact" is a beautiful story about first contact with a bird-like alien who is preparing to die.

Two stories are co-authored. "Nirvana High," written with Leslie What, is a funny yet poignant look at the paranormal students attending the Kurt Cobain Magnet School. Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and computer whiz Grace Hopper all star (L. Sprague de Camp appears in a cameo role) in "Green Fire," written with Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy, and Michael Swanwick. The story begins as an alternate history taking place aboard a naval vessel during World War II before morphing into a tale of time/space/dimensional travel that brings the crew face to face with Quetzalcoatl. That story alone is worth the price of the book.

Gunn's other stories are harder to categorize. "The Sock Story" is "the story of a woman who lost her sock at the laundromat and discovered it contained part of her soul." A girl named Lichen learns how to change a world that has been altered by carp-eyed creatures in "Lichen and Rock." The least successful story, "Spring Conditions," is a horror story that might make you think twice about cross-country skiing. Gunn also included a deconstructed, politically correct recipe for fruit crisp; it's not sf and not a story so I'm not sure what to make of it, but it's amusing.

This is a first-rate collection by one of sf's masters of the short story. I recommend it not only to sf fans, but to fans of quality writing.



The Weight by Andrew Vachss

Published by Pantheon on November 9, 2010

Sugar is a professional. He's a thief, he's good at his job, and he's proud of his adherence to the rules of the game. Sugar has just finished a jewelry store heist planned by his friend Solly when he's picked up for a rape. He couldn't have committed the rape but he can't give the cops an alibi without admitting that he was stealing jewels when the rape was committed. Eventually he takes a deal, doing time for a sexual assault but skating on the jewelry store job. When he gets out of prison, Solly gives him his cut but sends him to Florida to tie up some loose ends. The bulk of the novel focuses on Sugar's actions in Florida, his attempt to puzzle out what Solly really wants, and his relationship with the woman Solly sends him to meet.

Getting into the heads of society's outcasts is one of Vachss' greatest talents. Few writers match his ability to create authentic criminal characters. Sugar is a big guy, bulging with muscle mass acquired from lifting weights -- and weight (or wait) becomes an important metaphor in the novel (hence the title). Sugar learned an early lesson about the life of a thief: it isn't how much weight you can lift, it's how much weight you can take. Sugar has a reputation as a stand-up guy, an exception to the axiom that there's no honor among thieves. He could have saved himself from prison time and sex offender registration by giving up the planner and the rest of the crew on the burglary, but he elects instead to keep his mouth shut and do his time.

Some readers don't like novels unless the hero is morally stalwart or the novel delivers a morally uplifting message. I admired Sugar's integrity -- his refusal to be a rat -- but a thief's integrity (and Sugar's reluctant use of violence to secure his safety) won't appeal to some readers. Those readers might want to avoid The Weight. I give Vachss credit for creating a sympathetic character who plays by the rules, even if the rules that govern his world contravene society's rules. Readers who can appreciate a thoughtful examination of the criminal mind will probably enjoy The Weight as much as I did.

The Weight isn't as tightly plotted as Vachss' best work. Sugar spends a lot of time thinking out loud or engaging in meaningless arguments, particularly with the woman in Florida. He also seems oddly sensitive to perceived slights. The strongest parts of the novel come from Sugar's prison experiences. Vachss writes with an authentic voice; he obviously understands how prisons work and how inmates survive in a dehumanizing environment. The main storyline is unfortunately written with less intensity. Still, the plot works well enough and it comes to a satisfying resolution. It isn't as good as Vachss' best non-Burke novel (the chilling Shella) but it's still a fun read.



Kingfisher by Gerald Seymour

First published in 1977

To make a political statement about the plight of Ukrainian Jews, four individuals conspire to murder a police officer in Kiev. Moses Albyov, chosen by lot to pull the trigger, botches the killing, leaving the wounded officer alive to describe him. After his arrest, the remaining cell members, David, Isaac, and Rebecca, fearful that Moses will identify them, decide to hijack a plane and flee to Israel. Charlie Webster, an analyst for the SIS who tracks Soviet dissidents, plays a central role in communicating with the hijackers.

What does the kingfisher have to do with any of this? "She is fast and swift, and she holds the initiative in her world. None can catch her, few even see her, she is devastating in her attack." That description of the kingfisher comes from the old soldier who provides arms to David for use in the hijacking. David, a naive young man who pictures himself as heroic until doubt and his conscience begin to trouble him, announces on the plane's radio that he is a Jewish Resistance Commando and names the flight "the Kingfisher."

Kingfisher is a solid thriller. Through much of the novel, the perspective is that of the hijackers, who justify their actions (at least initially) as a necessary response to oppression. At other times the reader sees the hijacking through different eyes: the passengers, European and Israeli politicians, German veterans who watch the plane overfly the Hanover airport, European Jews who once lived in Russia, and Webster are among those who contribute opinions about the hijackers. Kingfisher makes the point that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter -- an observation that may have been clichéd even when the novel was published in 1977, but that nonetheless remains salient. In any event, the shifting perspectives add complexity and interest to the story.

Readers who prefer novels that feature morally pure heroes defeating cartoonishly evil bad guys will probably dislike Kingfisher. Gerald Seymour's strength is his ability to dramatize moral ambiguity. In Kingfisher, the reader understands and sympathizes with the hijackers despite their repellent actions. Similarly, the reader sympathizes with Webster, who is forced to make a difficult moral choice at the end of the novel. The difference between right and wrong is rarely clear in Seymour's novels. I like that reflection of reality, but readers who prefer the kind of escapist fiction that draws a distinct line between good and evil should probably avoid Seymour.

A minor quibble: the dialog spoken by Americans sounds very British. Other than that, Seymour's writing is strong, his characters are believable, and the pace is perfect. Seymour is an under-appreciated writer whose novels deserve a wider audience. Although Kingfisher is a bit dated (the hijacking described in the novel probably couldn't happen today, even in Kiev), the reader will quickly be drawn into the story, captivated by the mounting tension and the evolving personalities of the hijackers.