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.

Wednesday
Jul192017

Tomorrow's Kin by Nancy Kress

Published by Tor Books on July 11, 2017

Irrational hatred of aliens is common enough in America. An irrational hatred of space aliens fuels Tomorrow’s Kin, a first contact novel that has Americans and most of world’s population blaming aliens for problems they did not cause. Although the aliens are of human origin, Nancy Kress’ point (I assume) is that irrational hatred of the “other,” stoked by politicians, may be inevitable in a country that prefers bumpkin logic to rational thought.

The other important theme in Tomorrow’s Kin is the fragility of an ecosystem. The sudden removal of one species from the Earth may have a devastating impact on the world economy, for reasons that Kress illustrates convincingly.

The novel’s central character is Marianne Jenner, who has published a paper outlining her discovery of a new haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA. Her publication party is interrupted by FBI agents who want to escort her to the president, something that regularly happens in science fiction novels and thrillers when a scientist’s knowledge is urgently needed, particularly when space aliens are involved. The aliens are in orbit, but they build a floating embassy, surrounded by an energy shield, in New York Harbor. The aliens, known to Earth folk as the Deneb, want to meet Marianne. Hence the urgent need for government agents to summon her.

Marianne’s son Noah is dependent on sugarcane, a drug that gives him confidence in his personality, although the personality differs every time he takes it. Her daughter Liz is an isolationist who has bought into “America first” propaganda, which suits her role as an overzealous border patrol officer. Her son Ryan works for a wildlife organization and argues with Liz about the benefits of globalization. The offspring play varying roles of importance as the novel progresses, and at least two of them will presumably play some role in later volumes.

We quickly learn that the Deneb are descendants of Earth, members of the haplogroup Marianne discovered. And we quickly learn that they’ve come to Earth to save it, much to the consternation of isolationist Liz (who views them as illegal aliens) and ecologist Ryan (who views them as an invasive species). The threat to Earth comes from a cloud of spores that is drifting toward Earth. The Deneb hope to find a way to save Earth because the same cloud will swarm their own planet a couple of decades later.

To avoid spoilers, I won’t say much more about the plot, apart from the fact that it is set up by the Deneb visit but otherwise doesn’t have much to do with the Deneb. In fact, the story loses some of its steam once the Deneb depart, although it does set up short-term and long-term threats to the Earth (mostly from stupid humans). Ensuing volumes will no doubt follow characters into space, which is something I will look forward to seeing.

There is a certain amount of family drama, followed by relationship drama, in Marianne’s life, but it contributes to the story without overwhelming it. There are also a bunch of children who are learning to cope with … skills? disabilities? … that have been genetically unlocked in their minds. That aspect of the story is more interesting than a conspiracy involving a rich guy, which has some good moments but is too much like other conspiracy stories to generate much excitement.

Some storylines are left dangling, and not all of the plot threads cohere, so I wouldn’t recommend this as a stand-alone, although the ending isn’t a cliffhanger. I suspect the entire trilogy will be a more satisfying reading experience than Tomorrow’s Kin standing alone. I may need to revise my opinion after reading the rest of the trilogy, but I can guardedly recommend Tomorrow’s Kin as a moderately interesting beginning to a story that, I hope, will become even more interesting as it develops.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul172017

Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love

Published by Crown on March 21, 2017

Novels that focus on gangs and inner city crime are trendy, but Lola stands apart from the crowd by focusing on a 26-year-old woman who sees the gang from a female perspective. The woman, of course, is the titular Lola. She has a secret that is revealed in a surprising moment about 50 pages into the story. Without spoiling the secret, I can say that it causes the reader to rethink the nature of the central character.

Garcia belonged to Kim before, but now he’s Lola’s man. Garcia is regarded as the top man in the Crenshaw Six. Lola used to date Kim’s older brother, back when he was the top man, but she moved on to Garcia after Kim’s brother was murdered. Lola understands that playing a subordinate role is the key for a woman to survive in the world of gangs, but she’s too smart to be content.

Garcia is offered an opportunity to move the Crenshaw Six to a considerably higher place in the gang hierarchy, but at considerable risk, particularly to Lola, whose life (according to the enforcer who offers the job) will be taken as retribution if the gang screws up. It is when the mission doesn’t go well that we learn Lola’s secret.

After that, the story is about Lola’s quest to score the $4 million she needs to save her life, and about a series of unfortunate encounters with rival drug gangs, a powerful drug cartel, the police, neighborhood nuisances, and Lola’s mother. Each event in a sequence of unfortunate events places Lola in an even more precarious position. Balanced against that plot is Lola’s confrontation with the expectations of affluent white society as she tries to rescue a neighborhood girl from a life of abuse.

A key character is Lola’s brother Hector, who has been having sex with a girl whose brother is in a rival gang. Hector has a decency that some of the other gangbangers lack, and while he is Lola’s brother, it is Lola’s job to enforce order when that decency prevents Hector from doing his job. The complexity of the family and gang relationships is one factor that sets this novel apart from most gang stories.

Police officers in Lola are generally portrayed as decent people, not as stereotyped heroes or villains, although a couple of bent cops add new twists to the plot. Even rich white people, for whom Lola has little sympathy, are portrayed sympathetically. Lola perceives “every stranger as a fatal struggle” but is often surprised by their lack of malicious intent.

The novel is written in the third person, but generally allows the reader to see the world from Lola’s perspective. Lola’s past is tragic, her environment is horrifying, but it is the only life and environment that Lola has, and while she shows no inclination to leave it, she is determined to conquer it. She is smart, cunning, and resourceful. Lola’s insight into the gang members and men in general contributes to her efforts to control them.

Parts of the novel, primarily the parts that discuss child abuse, are sad, but the sadness contributes to the novel’s power. The discussions are never graphic, but they are not hidden from view, so particularly sensitive readers might not be a good fit for the novel.

The narrative tends to overdo statements like “Lola wonders whether she will be alive tomorrow” or “Lola wonders whether she will ever eat another pizza.” Occasional references to Lola’s concern about her future are fine, but we don’t need to be reminded on every page that Lola’s future is precarious. Lola also tends to overdo her fretting about her position in the world. Still, those are my only complaints about a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The surprising complexity of shifting relationships gives the story greater depth than it appears to have on its surface. By most standards, Lola is not a good person, and some readers will dislike the novel for that reason. By the standards that define her existence in “a world that doesn’t want her,” Lola might be a better person than most. Readers who are open to that distinction will probably like Lola as a person and as a novel.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul142017

The Switch by Joseph Finder

Published by Dutton on June 13, 2017

The Switch is a fairly typical conspiracy novel, the kind where people do bad things to keep secrets a secret, either in the name of national security or job security. The plot follows the Hitchcock/Ludlum formula: Ordinary guy who stumbles upon a secret relies on resourcefulness and luck to stay a step ahead of the evil forces that want to capture or kill him. The evil forces our hero must elude include the NSA, a Senate staffer, private enforcers, the mob, and a Russian spy. The formula is reliable and Joseph Finder is a good storyteller who creates believable characters, but he can’t disguise the story’s familiarity.

Michael Tanner runs a company that distributes high-end coffee. His business is in trouble and his girlfriend left him. One his way home to Boston from an LA sales meeting, he inadvertently picks up the wrong laptop while going through airport security. The laptop belongs to a senator. Its contents, easily accessed via the password she wrote on a post-it affixed to the laptop, would be disastrous for the senator if they were made public. After all, she’s not supposed to have classified information on her personal laptop. The classified information is disastrous for the public, since it describes one of those ubiquitous government programs that lets the NSA spy on innocent Americans.

Tanner is searching the laptop for information about its owner when he finds top secret documents about the NSA project. He naturally discusses the information with a reporter who warns him that his life is in danger. Meanwhile, Will Abbott, the senator’s staffer, contacts various outside forces in an attempt to get the laptop back before taking the matter into his own hands. The NSA promptly learns that Tanner has the classified information, but doesn’t know how it got leaked. Will is therefore racing against the NSA to see who can recover the laptop first.

Some of The Switch is predictable, including the lecture about how we’ve sacrificed our privacy for convenience. True enough, but a common thriller theme. And yes, we live in a police state, at least when the police claim they are enforcing laws related to national security, and yes, we live in a post-truth era, but those lectures only have educational value for readers who live with their heads buried in the sand. Much of the rest of the story is also standard thriller fare, as Tanner tries to stay ahead of the various parties who want the information on the Senator’s laptop.

I give credit to Finder for resisting the urge to go over the top. The story seems plausible because Tanner never does anything that requires the skills of Jason Bourne. He doesn’t want to be a hero; he just wants to survive. He’s a believable character, as is Will, the other character who benefits from significant personality development. I'm not sure the ending is entirely plausible (in the real world, ordinary people who get caught passing classified information to reporters go to prison) but happy endings are also standard fare in conspiracy thrillers.

I like the coffee business angle to the story (financial thrillers are really Finder’s strength), but that’s a small component of a novel that doesn’t impart a new twist to an old plot. I can recommend The Switch because it moves quickly and it always held my interest, but I would have given it a stronger recommendation if Finder had found a way to surprise me.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul122017

The Sound of the World by Heart by Giacomo Bevilacqua

Published by Lion Forge on May 23, 2017

The Sound of the World by Heart is sort of a tribute to New York City as seen through the lens of chaos theory. The story is about making connections, or choosing not to make connections and thus to avoid pain, in a city that is famous for people who bump elbows but never notice each other. There’s magic in the city, in its art, its library, its streets, its people … and some of that magic (or maybe it's just randomness) underlies the story that Giacomo Bevilacqua tells.

Sam is a photographer. He counts numbers in his head because he doesn’t want to think. He listens to the same song over and over. His memories are like digital pictures. Memories that don’t turn out well, he deletes.

Sam is on a New York adventure, living for two months without speaking to another human being. He plans to write a photo essay about his adventure and to publish it in the magazine he co-founded. The other co-founder helped Sam devise this challenge as a way to get over the pain of a loss.

Sam has taken 400 photos and somehow the same girl has ended up in dozens of them. Who is she? How did that happen? Part of Sam’s challenge is that his habit of deleting memories is coming back to haunt him. Of course, getting answers isn’t easy when you aren’t allowed to ask questions out loud.

Many of the scenes show the mystery woman and Sam in the same area, often oblivious to each other’s presence. One point of the story, I think, is its illustration of the notion that we need to open our eyes, to look outside of ourselves, if we don’t want to miss the things that might truly be important.

Bevilacqua writes in a minimalist, poetic style, letting the pictures tell most of the story, as good graphic novels should. I like the way the art tells one story while the text tells another, both working to make the story whole. The technique allows the reader to see relationships that would not be evident by reading the text or looking at the art alone.

Sam’s musings articulate an appealing, if unfinished, philosophy of life, parts of which might usefully blend into the reader’s own unfinished philosophy of life. Some of the story is about finding a preferred rhythm of life, and perhaps finding a place, or a person, whose rhythm matches your own.

The element of magic I mentioned might be real or it might be in Sam’s head. Is Sam entirely sane? Maybe not. Is anybody? But some connections have their own kind of magic — even when we don’t see the connections, don’t know they exist — and I think that’s the point the story is making. The story doesn’t try to be deeply philosophical, and maybe it stretches a bit to make its points, maybe it even borders on being overly sentimental, but the story is narrated in a voice that feels true, and I have to give it credit for being so well done.

I love the art, particularly the cityscapes. They’re almost impressionistic but they capture the reality of the city.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul102017

Extraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace

Published by St. Martin's Press on May 30, 2017

Extraordinary Adventures is a romantic comedy that focuses on a social misfit. In that sense, it channels The Rosie Project, although the plot and characters are quite different. The novel is a light, pleasant beach read. It isn’t belly-laugh funny but it made me smile often enough to earn an easy recommendation.

Edsel Bronfman, at 34, has never had a social life. He isn’t sure whether he’s a virgin. Bronfman “wins” a weekend at a Florida condo, which he will be pressured to purchase if he says yes. The catch is that he must bring a companion, because couples are more likely to buy than singles. Unfortunately for Bronfman, he has no companion and not much hope of finding one before the offer expires. His best bet as a travel buddy might be the receptionist in the office building where Bronfman works — she actually had a brief conversation with him one day — but she’s a temp and has disappeared before he works up the courage to ask her on a date.

Bronfman believes he suffers from a condition that prevents him from doing anything to improve his position in the world. He is, in his mother’s words, “a second guesser of second-guesses.” But Bronfman’s mother also told him, during his childhood, that his future was “a disappointment waiting to happen,” so it is easy to understand why Bronfman turned out the way he did.

Bronfman nevertheless sees the weekend in Florida as a motivation to change his life. Bit by bit, Bronfman tries to become a part of world. He discovers that when you become part of the world, the world gives you things to do, which can be kind of a pain, but he takes it as a learning experience. His encounters leave him on the periphery while giving him the illusion of being on the inside and of bonding with the insiders who, in truth, barely notice him. But they also, bit by bit, allow Bronfman to let go of the past and to define himself in the present. As the novel nears its end, someone asks Bronfman “What do you want?” and Bronfman realizes it is a question he has never asked himself. His answer is encouraging.

The characters in Extraordinary Adventures are amusing and quirky. His co-workers are typical of cube-dwellers who are diligent in their efforts to pursue interests at work that do not include work. His neighbor is a drug dealer who probably stole all of Bronfman’s possessions (except for his promotional pen collection). Bronfman’s mother is now old and a bit addled, unless she’s just seeing the world in a different way. She’s convinced her caretaker is stealing from her and breaking things. Her kindly caretaker is justifiably convinced that Bronfman’s mother is off her rocker.

Sheila, the receptionist, is a bit of an enigma whose stories about her past and present might not be entirely reliable. A police woman named Serena might be a dating prospect, but Bronfman isn’t sure about dating a woman who carries a gun. The drug dealer’s female friend is also on Bronfman’s short list of travel companions. In their own ways, all three women appeal to Bronfman, simply because they have noticed his existence.

The ending is predictable but satisfying. In fact, a romantic comedy would probably be unsatisfying if it did not end in a predictable way. The choice Bronfman makes might not be entirely unexpected, but I suspect that most readers will simply want him to make a choice, to move his life forward. Extraordinary Adventures succeeds because Bronfman succeeds in opening himself to the world of possibility, even if his success is exactly what the reader anticipates.

RECOMMENDED