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.


House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Published by Scribner on May 9, 2017

House of Names is a retelling of a Greek myth surrounding Agamemnon, Iphigenia, Elektra, Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Cassandra. You can’t beat Greek mythology for good stories that teach powerful lessons. That’s why the myths endure. Colm Tóibín adds characterization and detail to this powerful story of the ultimate dysfunctional family as a father plots against a daughter, a wife against her husband, and children against their mother.

The first section is narrated by Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon, who desires revenge because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to placate the goddess Artemis. Tóibín portrays Clytemnestra as a woman who understands politics (she is, after all, the wife of a king), a strong woman in a male-dominated world who manipulates people and power to attain her vengeful ends.

The next section follows her son Orestes after he has been taken by the soldiers who formerly served Agamemnon. Years and a number of adventures later, Orestes is on his way home, and the focus shifts to Elektra, who has clearly learned the art of manipulation from the mother she despises. Later the perspective shifts among the three key characters.

The story addresses a number of themes, including pretense (refuse to acknowledge your crimes, and it’s like you didn’t commit them); female subjugation and empowerment; the madness that comes with power and from being abused by power; the whispers and secrets that define a government; the impossibility of trust in a family that is built on betrayal; the cruelty of expectations; the consequences of revenge; how love blossoms from need; the burden of being a father’s son; and the evil that people do in the name of serving their god(s).

The gods, in fact, have had their day by the novel’s end. Leander, who becomes Orestes’ friend and later a conqueror of sorts, announces, in reference to the gods, that “we will get nothing more from them. Their time is over.” Shedding blood to satisfy deities is in the past, Leander thinks, but killing and maiming in the name of a deity is, sadly enough, still with us. I wonder if that might have been one of the points Tóibín intended the reader to think about.

Tóibín does justice to the myth in this embroidered retelling of a classic story. It is a new version of an old tale, and some details are clearly of Tóibín’s invention. Working from the strong foundation built by the likes of Euripides and Sophocles, Tóibín relates the story in graceful language that should appeal to a modern audience. By preserving a sense of detachment, he also avoids the melodrama that could so easily mar a story of such intensity. By any standard, House of Names is a compelling work of fiction by a masterful storyteller, backed by masterful storytellers from ancient times.



Control by Andy Diggle

Published by Dynamite Entertainment on March 28, 2017

Control is a graphic novel with a modern noir feel. The artists are Angela Cruickshank and Andrea Mutti.

Control feels like the storyboards from an episode of a television cop show. It combines action with a mystery, develops typical police characters who squabble with each other, and touches on the kind of themes that are familiar to cop show fans, including a vast conspiracy to control wealth and power.

Kate Burnham of Metro PD stars in Control. Her partner dies in the early pages as he and Kate are investigating a murder, so of course she wants to find his killer. She soon encounters a senator and a sex scandal. Naturally enough, her bosses order her to leave the senator out of her investigation. Naturally enough, her bosses also order her not to talk to anyone in the media. And naturally enough, Kate ignores those orders and does what needs to be done, because that’s how cop shows work.

The senator has been pushing a privacy bill, and the reader will quickly understand that his political efforts have something to do with the murder mystery. So Control gives us political intrigue, media intrigue, bickering-police-detectives intrigue, and other conventions that will be easily recognizable to cop show audiences.

The story takes Kate into some bad neighborhoods where she meets good and bad people. As one would expect from a cop show, the bad ones try to kill her and the good ones reluctantly do the right thing. Eventually she stumbles onto a plot that’s just a little over-the-top, but that’s also something viewers expect from cop shows. Cop shows like to have cops investigating crimes and conspiracies of powerful people that rarely happen because it would be too politically risky to focus on the crimes and conspiracies of powerful people that happen all the time.

Of course, Control is a graphic novel, not a cop show. The art is pleasant but uninspired. The story is almost all told in words rather than art, which is a waste of the graphic novel format. Given the limited amount of text and dialog that can be squeezed into a graphic novel, art needs to pick up the slack, conveying nuance that a reader would get from the extra words in a novel or story or from the expressions/gestures/backgrounds in a teleplay or film script. The art doesn’t do enough in Control to supplement a story that never transcends the ordinary.

Control isn’t badly done, but it doesnt do enough that's fresh or new. Familiarity, in this case, breeds indifference.



The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on April 18, 2017

“Evil does not betray you” is the theme of The Good Assassin. Like all good spy novels, betrayal is at the novel’s heart. Betrayals pop up at regular intervals as the story moves forward, taking many forms.

The Good Assassin takes place five years after An Honorable Man. George Mueller, now retired from the CIA, is sent to Cuba in 1958 as an “outsider” to take a reading on Toby Graham, a CIA agent with whom Mueller is acquainted. It is feared that Graham might be unduly sympathetic to Castro’s revolution (as opposed to the Batista dictatorship that the CIA clandestinely supports), and that Graham might be funneling weapons provided by the CIA to Castro rather than Batista.

Mueller is met and instantly disliked by the FBI’s man in Havana, Frank Pryce. He’s also disliked by Graham, with whom he has a dark history that includes a woman who is also a key character.

Cuba in 1958 is not a safe place to be unless you’re Ernest Hemmingway. The story places Mueller in jeopardy from Castro’s rebels and Batista’s troops, but danger may also be lurking closer to home. Mueller has plenty of things to worry about in this relatively brief but captivating story.

Is Graham a traitor? Or is he simply a realist who follows orders but complains about the hypocrites who issue them? Graham is clearly tired of “the persistent contemplation of evil,” an occupational hazard that “weakens the soul.” If he is a traitor, what should be his fate? In the game of espionage, the novel suggests, it is impossible to separate the white hats and the black hats. There are only shades of gray. There are no innocents, no souls untainted by corruption.

Paul Vidich handles those themes adeptly, as he did in An Honorable Man. The apparent simplicity of the story masks its depth. The novel ends in ambiguity, and while that’s how most things end, readers who like stories to wrap up neatly might be affronted by the lack of clear answers. I think the ending fits the story and its themes.

I am drawn to spy fiction in part because of the moral questions that characters so often confront, at least when the themes are deeper than “patriotic Americans kill bad people.” Vidich confronts moral issue in a thoughtful way. The Good Assassin is not as surprising as An Honorable Man, but Mueller continues to be a surprising, morally complex character.



Little White Lies by Ace Atkins

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on May 2, 2017

The official title of this book is apparently Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies, but Parker has been dead for six years. Adding the names of dead authors to titles of books they didn't write is a questionable marketing gimmick and not one that reviewers need to promote.

Ace Atkins is a seasoned writer with a biting sense of humor. Little White Lies is his sixth Spenser novel, after the forty that Robert B. Parker wrote. Atkins captures Parker’s voice, which I think of as a more sophisticated Mickey Spillane.

A right-wing pundit who passes himself off to cable “news” programs as a former CIA agent has swindled Spenser’s latest client in a land deal. The client happens to be a patient of Spenser’s girlfriend. Spenser’s effort to track down the swindler leads him to an equally unsavory owner of a gun range. The two men seem to be working together to sell shady investments, while one or both of them may be making illegal sales of a different kind.

Spenser’s inability to abide a liar puts him at odds with the con man, and his effort to expose the scam takes up the first half of the novel. By the second half, he’s in Atlanta, dealing with gun nuts and a megachurch preacher, all of whom are engaged in swindles or worse. Of course, Spenser’s buddy Hawk has his back, often playing the straight man for Spenser’s sarcastic remarks as they explore Atlanta’s underbelly. Another buddy, Tedy Sapp, plays a similar role while adding some sexual orientation diversity to the cast of good guys.

Little White Lies is a classic detective story, with a few murders sprinkled among the other crimes that Spenser investigates. Between lunatics who think that Jesus carried an AR-15 and the cynical “preachers” who exploit their fears and prejudices, Spenser has his hands full.

Little White Lies isn’t particularly surprising or memorable, but those are not qualities I would expect to find in a franchise that has lasted this long. Little White Lies is a fun, quick read, an entertaining visit with familiar characters. It easily lives up to, but does not surpass, expectations.



City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett 

Published by Broadway Books on May 2, 2017

Epic fantasy almost always follows a well-established path. A heroic figure embarks on a quest to overcome a force of evil. I don’t read much modern epic fantasy because so much of it is predictable and boring. But whatever genre Robert Jackson Bennett chooses (he often straddles fantasy and science fiction), I read his work with great anticipation because he is never predictable.

City of Miracles is the third novel in an excellent trilogy. It seemed to me that the first novel was so good, there was no need for a second. I enjoyed it but I felt a bit let down because the characters and setting were no longer fresh and startling. Still, as soon as I started reading City of Miracles, I was swept up in the sense of wonder that enveloped me as I read City of Stairs. Part of that stems from the novel’s focus on Sigrud, one of Robert Bennett Jackson’s most complex characters and by far my favorite in the trilogy.

Shara Komayd has not been prime minister for ten years, but she still has enemies. City of Miracles opens with her assassination — the first of many surprising elements in story — the news of which deeply disturbs Sigrud. Naturally, he vows to find the killer. That leads him back into the quest established in the first novel and advanced in the second: to overcome the divine entities that pose a threat to humanity’s future.

There shouldn’t be many divine entities left after the first two novels, but it turns out that the divinities had children, and there are any number of those, although the most powerful of them wants to wipe out the rest and absorb their power, strengthening his ability to expand his realm (nighttime itself) until nothing is left that is warm and light and, well, alive.

Along the way, Sigrud fights the requisite battles that an epic hero must face, but the interesting thing about Sigrud is how he changes over the course of the trilogy. In part, the change is physical — something happened earlier in his life that (as the reader will have noticed in the last book) gives Sigrud an improbable ability to overcome divine obstacles — but he also changes emotionally as he struggles with his past, his pain, his dark nature, the death of his daughter, the death of Shara, his sense that he has never been free to define his own identity, and his uncertainty about the identity he would want to define if given a choice. Sigrud describes himself as “a man whose moments are little more than slit throats, and sorrow, and skulking in the dark.” He is an unlikely epic hero, but he is also selfless and duty-bound, a man whose means are at war with his ends. Bennett always creates strong characters, but the conflicted Sigrud is one of his best.

City of Miracles is an excellent action/adventure novel. On another level, it can be read as an allegory about the isolation of abandoned or abused or orphaned children, about the consequences of failing to provide them with stability and guidance. And it is a novel of epic themes:  the need to let go of grievances before they become all-consuming; the difference between justice and vengeance; the eternal struggle of the privileged few to control the masses; the desire to defeat time; the meaning of freedom and happiness; the remarkable ability of humans (and deities) to destroy just about anything that’s good.

By removing the story from the political quarrels that impair clarity of thought, science fiction and fantasy can use a world (or time) that is not our own to shed light on the failings and virtues of the world (or time) that is our own.  Bennett uses that opportunity to say something important about our world and our lives by directing our attention to a fictional world that is very different from, but significantly similar to, the world that humans are always trying so hard to destroy.

The first book in the trilogy was so good that I was almost sorry to see it continue. Having read the third book, I’m sorry to see it end.


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