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.

Monday
May222017

The Only Child by Andrew Pyper

Published by Simon & Schuster on May 23, 2017

The Only Child is a horror novel, but it’s not the horror novel I expected. Is it a vampire novel? Not really, because the vampire genre has devolved into a branch of romance fiction thanks to Twilight and its trashy imposters. There’s only a bit of romantic blood lust in The Only Child, although the protagonist, a fellow named Michael, once wooed Mary Shelley.

Michael is a monster, a blend of Dracula and Frankenstein and Mr. Hyde, who has a taste for blood and nineteenth century horror writers. Give Andrew Pyper credit for drawing on the classics for inspiration.

Michael says he was created to be the prototype of a perfect soldier. Those plans never turn out quite as the mad scientist expects. But whether Michael is telling the truth about his origins is not entirely clear.

What is clear, perhaps, is that Lily Dominick is his daughter. And that Lily’s mother was torn apart by a bear when Lily was six. Except it might not have been a bear. And while Lily’s memories of that day might not be entirely reliable (did she really ride away from the crime scene on a white horse?), it doesn’t take much to convince her that she is a monster’s daughter.

Lily is now a forensic psychiatrist who assesses the mental health of individuals who, more often than not, have committed horrible crimes. The story begins with a man who tore the ears off a stranger so that he would be evaluated by Lily. At least, that’s what he tells her. The man is Michael, who claims to be over two hundred years old.

Michael manipulates Lily in ways that lead her to Eastern Europe and a variety of threatening encounters. Lily wants to learn the truth about the man, about her mother, and perhaps about herself, but separating truth from deception is difficult. The eventual question for Lily is whether she should make an alliance with Michael or with the people who are trying to kill him. It’s a tough question.

Pyper is an excellent storyteller and The Only Child is a truly creepy work of fiction. The plot moves in unexpected directions and the characters are so enigmatic that it’s impossible to decide who to like or dislike until the very end. In fact, the ending redefines the reader’s view of key characters. The Only Child is a well-crafted, surprising novel that plays with the traditions of horror fiction and manages to add something new.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
May192017

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones

Published by Tor.com on April 11, 2017

Proof of Concept begins with a chunk of expository writing that explains both the premise and the Earth’s current condition. The exposition feature too many exclamation points and graceless sentences like this one: “Things weren’t going too well for life on Earth, in the Population Crisis — once known as the Climate Change Crisis, but population pressures driven by climate change had long ago become the really obvious issue.” It’s really obvious that the sentence could have used a good trimming. Quite a few clichés (“a mystery wrapped around an enigma”) could also have been profitably excised from the introductory text. Sadly, this is the kind of writing that gives science fiction a bad name.

In any event, the story builds on the discovery of a vast cavern deep below the surface of the Earth, which is an ideal place for a Needle that will permit interstellar travel, or multiverse travel, or so its inventors hope. Kir, who has an AI implanted in her brain, is one of the residents living in a framework surrounding the Needle.

Kir seems less interested in the Needle than in having petty arguments with her virtual lover Bill (among others), and feeling petty slights when people do not see everything from her perspective. She is, in short, a drama queen.

There are nuggets in Proof of Concept that could have been fused into an interesing story, but Jones too often relies on science fiction buzzwords like Thought Crime (shades of Orwell!) and baby permits and VR sex and Information Space and Extreme Population Control and Hives (population clusters, not the skin disease) rather than developing something original. A good bit of what passes for a story strikes me as gibberish. Sadly, none of the rehashed concepts come together in a way that could be remotely described as interesting.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
May172017

Golden Prey by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 25, 2017

Lucas Davenport is adapting to his new gig as a deputy marshal. He doesn’t do the usual boring work that keeps deputy marshals busy — prisoner transport, courthouse security — and his ability to avoid mundane duties causes almost as much resentment as the fact that he drives a Porsche. Even his boss, the marshal in his district, resents Lucas because Lucas doesn’t answer to the marshal. He does help chase the occasional fugitive, but mostly he wants to make his own assignments. He managed this gig because he saved the life of a presidential candidate in the last Prey novel, a fact that apparently disturbed readers of an irrational political persuasion.

The first big job Davenport assigns himself is to track down Gavin Poole, an old-fashioned robber who goes after banks and armored cars and mail trucks. Poole has a lethal girlfriend named Pandora Box (Dora for short). The reader spends some of the novel following Poole and his associates.

Poole recently ripped off a major drug dealer from Honduras, which was not a wise thing to do. Two killers are after him, and the reader spends some of the novel following the killers. They’re quirky, which makes a certain amount of sense since normal people don’t torture and kill for a living, but giving the bad guys some amusing traits is also a John Sandford trademark.

Of course, the reader spends most of the novel following Davenport. For some of the novel he’s teamed with a couple of other deputy marshals. Sandford always give secondary characters believable personalities, and the marshals are a good addition to the cast. The ending hints that they might return in a future novel.

Sandford has a dry and droll sense of humor that infects most of the characters, good guys and bad guys alike. Some of the action takes Davenport to Texas and the southwest, far removed from his usual Minnesota environs. That gives Davenport a chance make wry comparisons of the states and their people.

The last quarter of the novel is essentially an extended chase scene that culminates in an extended shootout, but few writers manage those elements as well as Sandford. The action makes the story race forward, but not so quickly that the characters don’t have time to poke fun at each other. In short, this is a solid entry in a series that consistently entertains.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
May152017

Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child

Published by Doubleday on May 16, 2017

Fiction like the Jeremy Logan series demands (as do many horror stories) a willingness to suspend disbelief for the sake of being creeped out. Still, Lincoln Child never pushes the boundaries so much that an open-minded reader will become unwilling to accept the scenarios he creates. Child always makes events seem as if they could happen, even if they couldn’t.

Historian and paranormal investigator (“enigmalogist”) Jeremy Logan is asked to investigate the deaths of two hikers in the Adirondacks, where Logan happens to be staying. The unfortunate hikers were “savagely mauled to death” under a full moon at different times in roughly the same location. A killer who lives in the area after his release from a mental health commitment becomes a convenient suspect as new killings occur, but the reader knows that ordinary killers can’t tear people apart.

After a bit of investigation, Logan learns that the community considers the Blakeney clan, an inbred family of backwoods lunatics, to be a more likely culprit than a rogue bear. But are the Blakeneys just garden variety crazy, or are they werewolves? Rumors abound.

Of course, werewolves come out when there’s a full moon, and a scientist in Full Wolf Moon who happens to be studying the effect of the moon on small critters posits a reasonable theory as to why that could be true. At least it’s reasonable in the context of thrillers and horror fiction, which means it might be malarkey, but it sounds plausible. That’s really all the reader can ask in a story about a possible werewolf.

Child evokes some genuine emotion during the course of the story. Secondary characters have enough depth that the reader will care when they encounter misfortune. The book isn’t particularly frightening, but it creates a nice atmosphere of "things that go bump in the woods."

The story moves quickly and it’s entertaining, although the resolution is less surprising than Child must have intended. Full Wolf Moon is certainly better than most of the vampire stories, and nearly all of the zombie stories, that have flooded the market in recent years, making this werewolf story a good choice for horror readers who want to expand the range of monsters that keep them awake at night.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
May122017

Unraveled by Reavis Z. Wortham

Published by Poisoned Pen Press on October 4, 2016

Unraveled is another decent entry in a decent series. None of the subsequent Red River mysteries have been as good as the first one, which is truly a chilling thriller, but they all feature good characters, entertaining plots, and a realistic setting in a racially tense 1960s northeast Texas.

Reavis Wortham follows the formula he’s established in the earlier Red River mysteries. Some chapters are narrated by Top, a boy who has inherited a supernatural gift. In Top’s case, the gift manifests itself as dreams that foretell the future, unless they don’t. Top has a knack for getting into trouble, although his tomboy cousin Pepper just as often leads him into trouble. Top is just starting to notice that Pepper is a girl, although Pepper has understood her gender for some time and is ready to get it on with a young Indian who has more-or-less been adopted by Top’s grandfather, who is raising Top.

The plot involves a fellow who nonsensically calls himself the Wraith, a chilling name that doesn’t really match his personality. Wortham hasn’t managed to create a frightening villain since the first novel. This one is a fairly ordinary murderer who has a grudge about the past and is getting vengeance in the present. The most interesting thing about the Wraith is that he takes a carnival job as a clown, which creates some comic relief with a recurring secondary character named Isaac Reader, who is spooked by clowns.

The Wraith wants to get even with Cody Parker, Top’s uncle, who is now the sheriff. Much of the story builds toward a confrontation, but along the way there’s a feud between two families, which is sparked by an apparent car accident that killed a white man from one of the families and a black woman from the other. The story, like others in the series, gets mileage from the racism that pervades the time and place, while pointing out that race has nothing to do with how sensible people feel about each other.

The ending is a bit of an anti-climax, but the story has enough entertaining moments along the way to make it a worthy entry in the series. At this point, I read these books for the characters and setting more than the story, although I always hope that Wortham will find the magic again and come up with a story that rivals the first one in the series.

RECOMMENDED

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