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.


Steal the Stars by Nat Cassidy

Published by Tor Books on November 7, 2017

Steal the Stars is a science fiction thriller that is considerably more creative than most science fiction thrillers. It is based on a podcast. I haven’t listened to the podcast, but I enjoyed the novel on its own merit.

Dak, short for Dakota Prentiss, is the security chief for a research lab owned by defense contractors called Quill Marine. She introduces new employee Matt Salem to the alien they call Moss, inside a ship that looks like a walnut, deep under the ground where it crashed eleven years earlier. The thing they assume to be the engine (they call it the Harp because it looks like a harp) powers up every 100 hours but the ship doesn’t move. Neither does Moss, who shows no sign of being alive except for his body heat. If he’s alive, he might be dying, given that the green stuff covering his body (it looks like moss) is slowly but steadily receding.

Quill Marine is thinking of exhibiting Moss (there might still be money to be made in carnival attractions), but it’s more interested in marketing the Harp as a weapon, since it pretty much sucks the energy out of everything (and everyone) nearby when it powers up. Dak doesn’t much care what Quill Marine’s loathsome CEO decides to do with Moss or the Harp as long as she keeps her job. But when she violates policy by having an affair with a subordinate — a work rule violation that will get her sent to a private prison — she starts thinking about a way to get herself out of a ticklish situation. Of course, her solution is even riskier than the affair.

Most of Steal the Stars is a smart action story with an underlying love story. Not a trashy romance story, but a realistic love story. The kind where sex drives the love and obsessions are stupid and dangerous but a recognizable part of life. The kind where love has unfortunately consequences. The realism of the love story is a nice balance against the unreal premise of the alien encounter story.

It isn’t actually the alien that’s difficult to accept, but the story’s background isn’t well developed, and the temptation to ask too many questions (how can employees be sent to a harsh prison for violating an employment contract by kissing?) must be resisted to enjoy the story. Fortunately, the story is sufficiently captivating that I found it easy to suppress those questions.

Quite a lot of Steal the Stars is a setup for a big reveal that the reader knows is coming. Part of the fun is wondering exactly what will be revealed. As the novel neared the end, I began to worry that there wouldn’t be a reveal, that the story’s central mystery would not be answered. The surprise comes in the last pages, and it is worth the wait. Perhaps it isn’t entirely a surprise, because the reader will probably expect part of what happens to happen, but the aftermath of the thing that happens is surprising and satisfying.

Along the way to the story’s big moment, the novel creates strong characters, delivers tension that ramps up considerably in the novel’s second half, and asks some pertinent questions about human nature. How much of that is attributable to the author of the novel (Nat Cassidy) as opposed to the author of the podcast (Mac Rogers) I can’t say, but I assume they both deserve credit for telling a story that is clever, creative, and captivating.



Dark Echoes of the Past by Ramón Díaz Eterovic

First published in Chile in 2008; published in translation by AmazonCrossing on December 1, 2017

Dark Echoes of the Past takes place in Santiago. The Pinochet dictatorship has ended, but as the book’s title suggests, it has not been forgotten. Or perhaps too many people have forgotten it too quickly.

Heredia is a private investigator. He rarely has clients so he earns a meager living reviewing books about politics or economics. His girlfriend’s former math teacher wants him to investigate her brother’s death. Her brother, Germán Reyes, was shot in the street, but his money was left untouched, suggesting that the police are wrong in believing the crime was an ordinary robbery.

Reyes was tortured during the Pinochet dictatorship, but that was long ago, so why should he now be murdered? The only clue from a search of the dead man’s apartment is a flyer that mentions Werner Ginelli, a doctor. Many years earlier, a “performance art” group outed Ginelli for his role as a torturer, but again, what does that have to do with the murder?

When one of Reyes’ co-workers starts asking questions about him, the co-worker also dies, giving Heredia another line of investigation. The mystery, of course, leads to the past, and to torturers who have avoided justice. The story reveals the ways in which military governments, like civil wars, pit family members against each other as they choose sides in a national conflict. It also discusses the role that Chilean military officers played in making international black market arms deals. And it makes the point, relevant in every time and nation, that: “Sometimes truth and justice move in opposite directions.”

Heredia spends more time philosophizing than detecting. He also carries on conversations with his sarcastic cat. Sometimes the cat is wiser than Heredia. Sometimes Heredia comes across as a bit pretentious; other times, he has something to say (particularly about people who support authoritarian government) that is worth the reader’s time. Like many South American intellectuals, Heredia makes a point of telling other characters that he keeps South American poetry alive by reading it. My impression is that he likes to talk about reading it more than he likes to read it.

Heredia’s personality is also too determinedly noir. He comes across as someone who wants to model himself after Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. That isn’t a bad model, but Heredia struck me as a self-satisfied poser, not as a true noir character. I recognize, however, that my feelings might be different if I knew more about the norms of Chilean culture.

Fortunately, I liked the story more than I liked Heredia or his philosopher cat. The mystery branches in several directions before the reader learns the full truth. The truth sheds light on Chile’s dark past, but also on human nature. All of that easily overcomes the annoying nature of the central character.



The Master Key by Masako Togawa

First published in Japan in 1962; published in translation in 1985; published by Pushkin Vertigo on March 27, 2018

The first chapter of The Master Key establishes a central mystery. The novel then tells a series of interlocking stories about apartment building residents, revolving around nosy neighbors and the secrets they uncover about other residents. The plot is intriguing and suitably mysterious, but the characters (aging women who are driven by loneliness to spy on each other) make this novel special.

The story begins when a man dressed as a woman, wearing a red scarf on a snowy day, is killed in a traffic accident. The woman who was awaiting his return continued to wait. That story dovetails with the kidnapping of a four-year-old child and the burial of a small corpse in the basement of an apartment building.

But before any explanation begins to emerge, the novel introduces some of the residents who occupy the 150 apartments in the ladies’ apartment building where almost all of the story take place. One of those residents has spent years preparing a manuscript of her husband’s academic writings — a manuscript that contains surprising content discovered by a nosey receptionist. Another resident sneaks about at night in search of the heads and bones of fish.

Playing a central role is an elderly violin teacher and the story of a violin that was stolen in 1933. One of the saddest stories involves a former teacher who finds a sense of purpose by writing to each of her former students, giving her an opportunity to reflect on the educational reforms and social changes that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II. The reply she receives from a former student whose son was kidnapped years earlier causes the retired teacher to embark on an investigation of her own, one that involves another retired teacher who lives in the same building.

By stealing the master key to all the rooms, Noriko Tamura learns the secrets of some of the building’s residents. And by stealing it again, Yoneko Kimura learns more secrets. But a priest from the spiritualist Three Spirit Faith sect purports to discover even more secrets (not to mention healing persons and property) through séances that become increasingly popular with the residents.

A wrap-up chapter at the end provides a solution to most of the novel’s mysteries. It ties together the various storylines, leaving no loose ends. The cleverness of the plot construction can’t be fully appreciated until that chapter unlocks nearly all the puzzles — except for the final mystery, which awaits resolution in an epilogue. Suffice it to say that events that seem to be improbable coincidences while the story unfolds are neither improbable nor coincidental by the novel’s end.

As much as I enjoyed the plot, the novel’s real pleasure is the window it offers into the lives of aging women in Japan after World War II. They are nearly prisoners in an apartment building that prides itself on maintaining high moral standards. Many of the central characters rarely leave their rooms; most of those are suffering from what would now be recognized as severe depression. Their nosiness drives the story, but it also creates sympathy for characters who are bored and lonely and wasting away in a society where they are not valued. The novel’s insights into the role of women in post-war Japan adds meaning to the story, making The Master Key more compelling than an ordinary mystery.



The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson

Published by Random House on January 16, 2018

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a collection of short stories by Denis Johnson, who died last year. Many of the stories continue Johnson’s exploration of the underbelly of life. Every story has a personal feel, as if the author lived the story. Perhaps he did. The collection stands as a testament to American literature’s loss of an outstanding writer.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a series of linked vignettes that describe moments in an advertising executive’s life. He drinks with other businessmen and visits a chiropractor for his bad back. He apologizes to his dying first or second wife for his marital crimes (he’s not sure which one called him but his crimes in each marriage were the same). He hears a story from a friend who interviewed a death row inmate and then interviewed the inmate’s widow in a peep show booth. He attends a small gathering of people to commemorate a dead friend and discovers that none of them really knew anything about him. He’s propositioned in a men’s room. He visits a diner during a Manhattan blizzard. And finally, he introduces himself and tells us about his work. I don’t know that the story tells the reader anything profound, but Johnson’s glimpses of an ordinary life remind us that no life is ordinary, that every experience has meaning.

While the first story isn’t as gritty as I expect from Denis Johnson, there’s plenty of grit in “The Starlight on Idaho.” A guy in rehab writes letters, mostly unsent, to family members and friends and rehab staff and God and Satan, talking about the way he wasted his last four years, putting on paper his hopes, regrets, and fears. Every word rings true. It’s funny and sad and a testament to the spirit of a guy who has good intentions and knows that isn’t enough.

“Strangler Bob” is an inmate in a story told by a scrawny inmate who earned the nickname “Dink.” Strangler Bob tells Dink that the story making the rounds about how Strangler Bob ate his wife for lunch is “a false exaggeration.” The story is amusing to the extent that it finds humor in the loss of freedom, but it’s also a sad exploration of the extent to which humans demean themselves when they fail to make a serious effort at living.

“Triumph Over the Grave” initially seems like a rambling story, but Johnson has it under his perfect control at all times. A writer talks about his friendship, as a young writer, with an older writer who wrote one great novel, now out of print and all but forgotten, like the writer himself. The story touches on other friendships, dementia and the cruelty of aging, and the courage to go on living and to be with the living when they die. This is a moving story that’s plainly written from the heart.

“Doppelgänger Poltergeist” is the story of a “spiritual felony” told from the perspective of an academic poet.. The story is about another academic poet, an itinerant visiting professor whose work is regarded as important by the small segment of society that follows contemporary poetry. The poet is of interest not for his poetry, but for his dedication to uncovering the truth about the death of Elvis, which he connects to a story about the ghost of Elvis who frequently visited a married couple (particularly the wife) while Elvis was in the Army. In the end, this is a story about obsession with conspiracy, which makes it timely — and it probably always will be timely, since unending numbers of people prefer conspiracy theories to objective reality. Yet the story suggests that there may be value in obsessions, if only because they make life bearable. More importantly, perhaps, there is value in lasting friendships with people who choose to share their secret obsessions, who elect to treat each other as blood relatives, laying bare their defining truths.



Machine Learning by Hugh Howey

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner Books on October 3, 2017

Machine Learning is a wonderful collection of (mostly) science fiction stories by Hugh Howey. In addition to consistently taking a new approach to old themes, many of the stories are gut-wrenching. This is one of the best single-author sf story collections I've encountered in years.

The first stories address aliens and alien worlds. “The Walk Up Nameless Ridge” imagines climbing the highest mountain on an alien world, technology augmenting the human desire to persevere, all to be lost when the dream of conquering the mountain is finally realized.

“Second Suicide” is a standout story about an alien invasion of Earth, told from the alien’s perspective. The story is amusing until the fighting starts, and then Howey pulls off a surprise ending that really is surprising, and even a bit sad.

Another group of stories deal with Artificial Intelligence. In that group, “Machine Learning” is another standout. Many stories have been written about the consequences to humans that might result from humanizing machines, but this story imagines the consequences to robots of programming them to feel pain and fear (for their own self-protection) and then treating them as machines, without regard to their pain and fear.

In “The Box,” a machine becomes self-aware. The man who illegally caused that to happen wants something from the machine, which wants the same thing from the man: continued existence. Another self-awareness story, “Glitch,” asks whether emerging self-awareness might be perceived as a glitch, causing programmers to reboot the machine. “Executable” is a funny story about antivirus programmers who unwittingly unleash a virus that infects smart appliances, turning Roombas against humanity.

Three “Silo Stories” begin with twelve billion deaths caused by nanotechnology, and includes a warning that eventually any madman will have a good shot at ending the world. Maybe the politicians will kill us, but only if they beat your tech-savvy neighbor to the punch. By in the end, it won’t matter, because people who weren’t meant to survive will find a way to get revenge. Some characters return from Howey’s Wool trilogy.

A series of three poignant stories make up “Algorithms of Love and Hate.” For all the people who argued that gay marriage would lead to android marriage, Howey brings you “The Automated Ones.” Even some of the androids object, because “you can’t be hated without learning to hate back.” “Mouth Breathers” is about an Earth boy who meets a Martian girl and finally makes a commitment to fit in with Martians. The android in “The Automated Ones” returns in “WHILE (u > i) i- -;”. He’s taken up cutting, along with other forms of self-abuse, and his wife has become the opposite of what she once was. The point of these stories (Howey explains in an afterword), is that no matter how much progress we make toward recognizing the worth of others and their entitlement to equal rights, there’s always more progress to be made. It’s an argument that should be taken to heart.

The protagonist of “The Plagiarist,” the first story of two stories about virtual worlds, has a chatroom girlfriend he’s never met, but he prefers the company of his virtual girlfriend, who has the advantage of not being real. He also publishes books written by the simulated people who live in virtual worlds, which is good work if you can memorize the pages before returning to your own world. The clever idea in this story is that discovering literature has replaced creating literature, much to the consternation of writers who still do it the old-fashioned way. And the topper is that, if virtual worlds can create their own virtual worlds, all populated by sims who believe they are real, who is to say that we are not sims ourselves?

In the second virtual worlds story, “Select Character,” a woman befuddles her husband by playing a combat video game with the objective, not of scoring points, but of staying alive without killing anyone. The story is about pursuing peace and tranquility instead of conflict, and it’s just awesome.

“Peace in Amber” combines a tribute to Slaughterhouse-5 (including two characters and a planet from Vonnegut’s novel) with a story about 9/11. The parallels work well enough, but it is the 9/11 story, largely autobiographical, that knocked me out. The story is moving and melancholic, in the way that any heartfelt 9/11 story must be.

Lesser but enjoyable entries include a jockey who sacrifices her body to win races, a farm kid who ponders an imminent alien invasion, an Indian fighter who experiences an alien invasion by staring into the sun, a beast who teaches a lesson about catching beasts, the imprisonment of the god of light (who writes a letter that sounds like a Nigerian email scam), and a non-sf story about a man who cuts a romantic lock off a bridge in London.


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