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
Sep152017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Published by Scribner on June 13, 2017

It isn’t surprising that books are central to Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. In addition to the bookstore, a library plays a role in the novel, as does a character who maintains his own library of books nobody wants, a home full of crowded shelves where books go to die. The plot features a way to communicate via books, a communication of messages that is more intimate those communicated by the books themselves.

Joey hung himself in the history section of the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Lydia finds Joey’s dangling body near midnight, at closing time. She also finds a picture of herself, taken in her childhood, poking out of Joey’s pocket. It is a picture she had never seen before, taken at her birthday party 20 years earlier.

Joey was one of the store’s BookFrogs, the anonymous men who roam the aisles or sit in the chairs, reading or staring, perhaps homeless or seeking respite from home. Joey had a criminal history but a (mostly) gentle soul. Joey was inevitably accompanied by his friend and mentor Lyle, but Lyle was not present at Joey’s death. Joey left everything he owned, consisting primarily of books, to Lydia.

A deepening mystery surrounds the books. Seemingly random holes are cut from the pages; price tag labels have been swapped with other books. With the help of her friends Raj (who still holds a childhood crush on Lydia) and David (her boyfriend), Lydia tries to make sense of the holes in the books, as well as the holes in her life.

Lydia’s backstory involves an unsolved murder, leaving the reader to wonder how it will fit into Lydia’s present. It quickly becomes evident that Lydia, like some of the BookFrogs, is concealing herself in the bookstore, using it as a place to hide from life. In that regard, she may be replicating a traumatic moment from her childhood, one that the mystery of Joey’s death forces her to reexamine. The mystery also forces Lydia to reconsider her voluntary estrangement from her father.

The plot initially struck me as being a bit contrived, but mysteries are often based on contrivances and I found it easy to suspend disbelief given the novel’s other virtues. In fact, by the novel’s end, the central events in the story were so carefully woven together that the plot didn’t seem contrived at all.

The novel is, in part, a tribute to the power of books. It’s also about making connections with people who are isolated, about caring for people nobody else cares about. Lydia is almost saintly in her kindness to the unfortunate, but her compassion is credible and it makes her a very likable character.

Sympathizing and empathizing with the characters is easy because Matthew Sullivan pushes the right emotional buttons. He does that honestly, not in an overtly manipulative way but because the story is naturally full of emotional triggers. The novel starts out telling a light and amusing story, then gradually becomes a dark and tragic story. Humor and tragedy are skillfully balanced. The is a good novel for crime story fans, but its emphasis of books makes it an easy novel for any book lover to enjoy.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Sep132017

A Promise to Kill by Erik Storey

Published by Scribner on August 15, 2017

Clyde Barr is a philosophical tough guy. His philosophical musings tend to revolve around what a harsh place the world is and how sad it is that he lives in a world that so often forces him to kill people. Barr tells us that he doesn’t “coexist well with people who like to hurt others,” yet he seems to seek those people out expressly so that he can hurt them. I guess the difference is that he doesn’t like hurting them, although that’s difficult to believe since hurting bad guys seems to be his mission.

In A Promise to Kill, the bad guys are bikers who are terrorizing a town on a reservation. The tribal cop won’t do anything about it so it’s up to Clyde. I’ve known a lot of reservation residents over the years, and they’re pretty good at looking after their own. The idea that heavily-armed residents of the rez would let a biker gang walk all over them and need to be rescued by a tough white guy strikes me as fanciful.

It also struck me as unlikely that biker gangs would ally themselves with Middle Eastern terrorists who are intent on attacking the United States and killing millions of people (presumably including bikers) with weapons the bikers are improbably able to hijack. I mean, bikers might rob a liquor store, although brawling is a more typical biker crime, but enabling a terrorist attack on their own country? Treason isn’t high on the list of crimes that biker gangs commit. But heck, people don’t like biker gangs and they don’t like terrorists, so team them up and we’ve got a thriller, right?

As in the first Barr novel, Barr finds himself rescuing women who have been taken hostage. Last time he rescued his sister. This time the bikers have taken a couple of local women, but that’s secondary to the terrorist plot that they are attempting to carry out. Naturally, Barr also has to rescue himself, but only after surviving some beatings to bolster his tough guy credentials with the reader.

Of course, the simplest thing to do would be to call Homeland Security or the Army after Barr discovers the threat, either of which would move massively to stop the terrorists, but nobody does that because … no cell reception? Ah, drive an hour dudes, it really isn’t hard to make a telephone call, even in Utah. The locals are stymied by a couple of bikers who set up road blocks? Seriously? Barr’s plan takes a lot longer to execute than it would have taken to bypass the bikers and call the cops. But if anyone had done that, Barr wouldn’t get to play hero and we wouldn’t have a thriller.

Barr is the prototypical tough guy, a man of few words but many thoughts, always about himself, typically about the many tough guy battles he’s fought. When he does say something, it’s usually a tough guy cliché (“failure is not an option”). He grunts and sighs quite a bit (tough guy language), but he can ride a horse and drive a semi and take guns apart, so his tough guy credentials are clear.

He’s also good at fighting, as he tells us during a number of lengthy fight scenes, a skill he regrets having to use so often despite devoting his life to putting himself in situations that require him to fight. About a dozen times, Barr is ready to surrender to fatigue, but he sees something or thinks about something that motivates him to keep fighting. When a character draws on inner strength once or twice, it’s fine. When a character reaches deep on every other page, the writer is clearly running out of ideas.

I’ve enjoyed many tough guy novels over the years, but as Erik Storey proved in the first Barr novel, Barr just isn’t a very interesting tough guy. Nor is A Promise to Kill a very interesting book. The prose flows smoothly and the story moves quickly, but the plot isn’t particularly innovative or believable and Barr has no substance beneath his tough guy persona.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Monday
Sep112017

Acadie by Erik Hutchinson

Published by Tor.com on September 5, 2017

Acadie is a novella. It is exactly the length it needs to be, written without padding. I wish more authors would do that, although I understand the economic incentive to pad and the resulting pressure from publishers to do so.

Duke is the reluctant president of the Colony, elected because he didn’t campaign and, in fact, was off-world during the election. His first crisis involves a probe which a mining ship has fired upon and disabled, much to Duke’s consternation. The probe, one of many dispatched by the Bureau of Colonisation, is likely searching for the Colony. How the probe got past the Colony’s satellites is a mystery but, more to the point, if it sent a message back to the Bureau before the mining ship cooked it, the Colony will need to find a new place to hang out. That mess falls into Duke’s lap.

After the development of Duke’s backstory (he was a lawyer for the Bureau before his messy resignation and escape to the Colony), we learn about the Colony and its inhabitants, including the reigning Queen of genetic manipulation, who fled Earth with her graduate students and hijacked a ship full of colonists to pursue her experiments in a place where she could avoid being arrested again. You get to be who you want to be on the Colony — elf, Klingon, the Roadrunner, whatever — thanks to the ability to rewrite genes.

The guts of the story involve the Colony’s reaction to its potential discovery and Duke’s role in the last line of defense. The story is interesting and quirky, with a background of cool technology and a foreground of an even cooler Mexican standoff that forces Duke (and the reader) to consider whether the assumptions that have controlled the story until that point are all wrong. Challenging assumptions is something that science fiction does well, and this story does that in a surprising way. I like Acadie because it doesn’t try to do too much, and what it does try to do, it does well.

RECOMMENDED

Saturday
Sep092017

Ancient Heavens by Robert E. Vardeman

First published in 1989; published digitally by Venture Press on March 26, 2017

Ancient Heavens begins in 2055. A Shi’ite Empire dominates Eurasia, systematically wiping out followers of all other faiths. A resistance group, the Church of Lost Eden, plans a journey to the stars where they can found a new Eden and practice their pacifist religion without fear of oppression. The plan calls for terraforming a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, giving half the planet to the corporation that will do the terraforming.

Things don’t work out quite as planned for the religious folk, causing them to need the planet before it is ready to inhabit. In the grand tradition of science fiction, the story becomes one of scientists concocting brainy schemes to save the bacon of nonscientists. There is a fair amount of hard science in Ancient Heavens and, not being a scientist, about all I can say is that it sounded plausible to me. I assume that real scientists will appreciate the cleverness of the fictional scientists more than I did, but I followed the basic concepts well enough to appreciate that the solutions are, in fact, clever.

Richard Drake is in charge of the terraforming. He’s consumed by the immensity of the task, which causes his pregnant wife to become more than a little dramatic. She wants a successful husband but she doesn’t want to deal with the demands of the career that made him a success. Relationship drama aside, the novel’s value lies in the appreciation it instills of how technically difficult it would be and how long it would take to make an uninhabitable planet inhabitable to humans.

By 2138, the plot takes on even more qualities of a soap opera. Richard has been frozen and thawed and his life on or near the terraformed Nerth has moved in unexpected directions, as has the Church of Lost Eden. The suggestion is that churches manipulate their followers, but they can also be manipulated by their leaders. The novel also illustrates the tendency of religions to condemn and oppress everyone who follows a different religion, or none at all. The pacifist religion, having been oppressed, has become an oppressive religion, again illlustrating a reality that is all too common in the real world.

In 2189, near the end of the novel, Richard learns what transpired on Earth after his departure. It isn’t pretty, but it is an imaginative projection from trends that existed when the novel was written. One of those trends is that corporations continue to gain rights and power, as if they are the equivalent of (or superior to) living organisms.

The family drama is sometimes difficult to believe, but it allows the plot to evolve its themes of power and treachery. The novel ends with a tale of corporate evil that threatens to wipe out human life on Nerth. The novel follows the science fiction tradition of demonstrating how resilient humans — scientists, in particular — can overcome all barriers, whether they are posed by the forces of nature and physics or by other humans. While I didn’t quite buy all of the relationship drama, some of which seemed unduly contrived, I enjoyed the novel as a whole.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Sep082017

The Memory Agent by Matthew B.J. Delaney

Published by 47North on July 18, 2017

The Memory Agent is entertaining, but it struggles to find its identity. The novel starts as an adventure story with an Indiana Jones feel, then it becomes a science fiction prison break novel, then a section has a post-apocalyptic Mad Max feel, and yes, there is sort of a zombie story, because if you’re going to mash up a bunch of subgenres, why not include zombies? And then there’s a killer minotaur, so I guess The Memory Agent is also a horror novel. The writing is sufficiently strong to sustain interest as the story meanders, provided the reader has an even greater willingness to suspend disbelief than science fiction usually requires.

In Cairo 1933, an expedition is formed to find a lost city, supposedly discovered by a tribesman who produces a journal by one of Napoleon’s soldiers describing a lost city of glass and steel, as well as a copy of the New York Times from 2017. The expedition does, in fact, find the mysterious city, thanks to a subway that takes the members there as they flee from an angry mob. The future Manhattan is empty (mostly), although it conveys the impression of a lingering presence.

Eventually, after the novel jumps around a few times, the reader learns the secret to the (mostly) empty city. And eventually the reader learns the whole truth, in a series of surprising revelations as the novel nears its end. Some of the revelations seem contrived, or perhaps it is their cumulative weight that makes them all seem contrived, but they also seem fitting given the story that precedes them.

Some nice moments of humor contribute to the story’s fun factor. I like the effect the song “Thriller” has on the quasi-zombies. On the whole, though, there’s a bit too much going on in this confusion of genres. I got the impression that Matthew Delaney had an idea for a novel but wasn’t sure how to flesh it out, so he made seemingly random choices to fill the pages. Again, the prose is good and the story is usually interesting, although I had trouble staying motivated after the Minotaur showed up. A sharper focus would have improved the presentation. The Memory Agent might have worked better as a novella, perhaps turning a couple of other sections into short stories. But on the whole, the entertainment factor is strong enough to earn my recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

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