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.


The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

Published by Crown on January 9, 2018

The Chalk Man mixes elements of horror with a conventional thriller, including the ghost of a kid who just drowned showing up to give a message to the protagonist, who at that point is also a kid. The reader (and the protagonist) might think that’s a dream except that the ghost dissolves into a stick man drawn from chalk on the protagonist’s driveway that’s still there in the morning.

Half of The Chalk Man takes place in 2016. Ed is a teacher. His childhood friend Mickey is back in town, much to the displeasure of his childhood friend Gav who is in a wheelchair because of an accident that occurred while Mickey was driving. Mickey wants to write a book with a possible TV tie-in about a murder and dismemberment that happened 30 years earlier. Ed was at the center of that incident, having found parts of the body. Mickey claims to know the murderer’s identity and wants Ed’s help to renew relationships so that he can develop the story.

Alternating with scenes from 2016 are scenes from Ed’s past, beginning with the day he helped Mr. Halloran save a girl’s life after an amusement park accident. Ed was a kid and Halloran, an albino, was about to start teaching at his school. Halloran, who likes to make drawings in chalk, takes a strong interest in the girl whose life he saved.

Other events in the past revolve around Ed’s group of friends, including Metal Mickey, whose relationship with Ed is altered by the fate of Mickey’s bullying brother. Ed is attracted to a young girl, but her father is a preacher who encourages ugly protests against the town’s abortion clinic, where Ed’s mother happens to work. There are several other surprises associated with the scandalous events of 1986 that C.J. Tudor slowly reveals, culminating with the murder that Mickey wants to write about 30 years later. Stick men drawn from chalk are linked to the murder and to another crime, and of course, the reader wonders whether the obvious suspect is actually guilty.

Back in the present, new murders are occurring, and messages containing stick men are being sent to Ed and his surviving childhood friends. The novel builds tension by asking the reader to guess who will be the next victim. The novel’s mystery naturally centers on the killer’s identity and motivation.

Several characters, including Chloe, the mysterious girl who rents a room from Ed in the present, and Nicky, daughter of the preacher who hates Ed’s parents, help expose the hypocrisy of people who insist on telling others how to live while failing to follow their own advice. The key characters have enough personality to make them seem as real, and even minor characters come across as authentic.

I’m not sure the ending is quite as surprising as Tudor intended it to be. More troubling is that it requires a serious stretch of the reader’s imagination to accept that all the events in both time frames happen as the novel describes. Critical moments at the end of the novel, while adding some exhilaration to the story, seem impossibly contrived. Still, getting to that point is enjoyable, and I can’t say that I felt disappointed by the ending, given that the story as a whole is also a bit contrived, albeit entertaining. At the same time, some details at the end that I feared would be left dangling are wrapped up neatly. In fact, the final details are so creatively creepy that they redeem the novel’s faults.



Infinity Wars by Jonathan Strahan (ed.)

Published by Solaris on September 12, 2017

Infinity Wars collects a number of original science fiction stories about war, some of which are surprisingly good. The approaches are generally different from typical military science fiction.

The protagonist of Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Faceless Soldiers, Patchwork Ship” is sent on a mission to defeat a Borg-like enemy that uses a virus to assimilate parts of other races into a single organism. To do that, alien parts must be engrafted to her body so she appears to have already been assimilated. The story is made more interesting by a moral dilemma that the narrator must confront as she comes to understand the consequences of her mission.

Nancy Kress always has interesting ideas. In “Dear Sarah,” she imagines a young woman joining the Army to fight against the anti-alien terrorists who resent the loss of jobs that followed trade with the aliens who made clean energy available (at a price) to Earth. Her family condemns her as a traitor. I think the point of the story is that a percentage of Americans will always want to blame aliens for their problems, whether the aliens are terrestrial or ET, instead of blaming themselves for their own failures. A Waco situation develops and another point of the story might be that military solutions are never good solutions to a standoff. The story works because the protagonist needs to make a tough moral choice, and internal conflicts are at the heart of strong fiction.

“Oracle” by Dominica Phetteplace is an amusing story about a woman who uses software to manage the Pentagon’s “war-of-the-month club,” its success measured by the president’s approval ratings — until the war AI begins to think for itself. Also amusing is Garth Nix’s “Conversations with an Armory,” in which a group of disabled soldiers from the last war are trying to fight the new one, but can’t convince a sentient and rather bossy armory to open its doors.

“Weather Girl” by E.J. Swift is one of the most creative and powerful stories in the volume. It imagines weather as a weapon, not by controlling weather but by suppressing satellite and other information so that countries facing devastating storms receive no warning. The story gets its power from the personal cost that the weather war has on the woman who directs it. “Perfect Gun” by Elizabeth Bear tells the powerful story of a mercenary who doesn’t have a conscience and his relationship with a weapon that does.

A planet colonized by each of Earth’s two remaining warring factions is in a low-key conflict. Eleanor Arnason’s “Mines” imagines what it is like to live there, as told from the standpoint of an ex-soldier who has two jobs: searching for land minds with her giant poached rat, and spotting soldiers who are unfit (also with the help of her giant poached rat). This is another powerful story, providing a very personal view of how war messes people up — and how others might choose not to notice.

In Rich Larson’s “Heavies,” a soldier sent to a peaceful colony to look for signs of insurrection is startled when colonists suddenly engage in the mass murder of people from Earth. The fault, of course, rests with meddlesome Earth.

Less successful entries include David D. Levine’s “Command and Control,” a fairly ordinary battle story that uses teleportation technology as the key sf device, although the story is notable for featuring Tibetan characters in a war for liberation against the Chinese. In “The Last Broadcasts” by An Owomoyela, a woman named Daja who has ill-defined special abilities is hired to cover up the fact that a distant human colony has come under attack (and will soon be wiped out) by aliens. The story focuses on her moral dilemma, although not very deeply. I liked the setting and the premise more than the story itself. “The Evening of Their Span of Days” by Carrie Vaughn reads the like first chapter of a book told from the perspective of the person in charge of repairing docked ships at a space station. A war is coming and the station needs to gear up for it. If this were, in fact, the first chapter of a book, I would happily read the next chapter because the story and the main character are interesting. The fact that the story ends without a resolution, however, is disappointing.

Stories that didn’t work for me at all: “The Moon Is Not a Battlefield” by Indrapramit Das is a wordy conversation or interview involving Indian soldiers tasked with defending their patch of the moon. “Overburden” by Genevieve Valentine is about an incompetent colonel seeking a promotion. Peter Watts’ “ZeroS” is a fairly typical zombie soldier story.



The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indriðason

First published in Iceland in 2013; first published in translation in Great Britain in 2017; published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books on November 7, 2017

The Shadow District is the first installment in a series of crime novels by an Icelandic author, Arnaldur Indriðason, who is best known in English for his Detective Erlundson series. The Shadow District is constructed along familiar lines. It tells two parallel stories, one involving a crime investigation in the past, the other involving a renewed interest in the investigation in the present. Indriðason uses that framework to tell an intriguing story of a murder investigation gone wrong, a tragedy that destroys lives in both the past and present.

The story beings with a death of a 90-year-old man in his home in Reykjavik. He appears to have died of old age, but a police investigator isn’t so sure. She wonders why the old man had kept newspaper clippings about a 20-year-old woman whose dead body had been hidden in a pile of rubbish during World War II.

The investigator’s retired colleague, introduced only as Konrád, knows something about the 1944 murder because his con artist father was involved in a séance connected to the death that he remembers as being “disastrous.” The details of the séance are revealed slowly as the story progresses. The killing also makes Konrád think about his father’s unsolved murder.

The World War II story is told in flashbacks that reveal an interesting bit of Icelandic history. The murder victim’s body was discovered by a teenage girl who was secretly messing around with an American soldier, a circumstance so common that shocked Icelanders called it “the Situation” and formed a committee to do something about it. They apparently didn’t want pure Icelandic girls to be tainted by foul Americans. Many older Icelanders apparently viewed the United States (to quote our president) as a “shithole” country, while the younger generation of women were happy to meet men who seemed to offer more excitement than the local farm boys could muster.

Unfortunately for the girl who found the murder victim, her American suitor turned out to have a wife back home in Illinois. Suspicion soon focuses on whether an American might have killed the girl, but the investigation leads in many directions. The two investigators are an Icelandic detective named Flóvent and a Canadian military officer (who has Icelandic roots) named Thorson.

Icelandic folklore also plays an interesting role in the story. Flóvent and Thorson learn that the murder victim had been made pregnant by rape and that her rapist told her to blame the crime on the huldufólk, elves who live in the Icelandic woods. That causes the investigators to wonder whether the victim’s death might be related to the disappearance of another girl in a different part of the country three years earlier. After that woman was raped, she blamed her attack on the huldufólk.

As is common with police officers around the world, the two investigators build a theory on circumstantial evidence and at least one of them develops tunnel vision about proving the theory is correct. Many years later, in the novel’s present, that theory is questioned for reasons that bridge the present to the past.

Indriðason carefully weaves the investigations of the past and present deaths together, letting the reader piece together the clues and decide among the various suspects who may have killed the two women — assuming the huldufólk were not to blame. The story seems to build toward a logical conclusion, then takes a twist, something that all mystery fans appreciate.

Indriðason tells the story in clear prose and gives his characters enough personality to make them believable. The story’s use of Icelandic history and folklore also adds to its interest. But it’s the mystery and the challenge it presents to readers as they piece together clues that makes The Shadow District a promising start to this veteran writer’s new crime series.



Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward

First published in 2008; reprint edition published by Scribner on January 16, 2018

Where the Line Bleeds is Jesmyn Ward’s first novel, and the first of three that are set in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Like the generations before them, Joshua and Christophe DeLisle have grown up in Bois Sauvage. Their mother left her twins when they were five to search for a better life in Atlanta, but she shows up occasionally to add a dysfunctional element to the family story. The twins haven’t seen much of their drug-addicted father, but he’s released from prison and makes a sudden appearance midway through the novel. The twins still live with their grandmother, Ma-Mee, and they have no plan to leave the only place that feels like home.

Joshua and Christophe graduate in the summer of 2005 and begin to look for work, applying at fast food restaurants and Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly.  When Joshua gets a job at the docks and Christophe doesn’t, Christophe faces a difficult choice about his future.

Some of the novel’s dramatic tension comes from the relationship that the twins have with the father and mother, but most of the story’s interest results from uncertainty about the twins’ ability to remain close to each other as they confront their individual problems. Issues of conflict involve a woman who seems to take an interest in both brothers, and a well-meaning cousin who helps Christophe earn money in a way that displeases Joshua.

Issues of race lurk in the background (faded David Duke signs send a deliberate message to blacks about the racist intent of property owners), but the novel is not explicitly about race. It is about the strength of family ties as two young men struggle with hardship and other issues, some financial and others familial. Where the Line Bleeds is also about survival. Both Joshua and Christophe are challenged in many ways following their graduation. How they deal with those challenges will determine whether their lives move forward.

Dialect and atmospheric descriptions of food and music create a strong sense of culture and place. Jesmyn Ward’s prose is smooth and graceful, but not flashy. She avoids literary trickery and lets the story tell itself. The novel derives its power from its simplicity. The truth it tells about family as a counterweight to poverty and hate is timeless.



Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates

Published by Picador on January 9, 2018

In 1982, when Patrick is twelve years old, his friend Matthew ties a girl named Hannah to a tree and shoots her dozens of times with a BB gun. Patrick does nothing to stop it. One of the BBs enters her eye and, as far as the boys can tell, kills her. That afternoon shapes the rest of Patrick’s life.

In 2008, Patrick is unemployed. He spends his days testing and blogging recipes. He has violent fantasies about the man who fired him, and has in fact begun to stalk him. Patrick is being treated for anxiety but his condition cannot match his wife’s. Her nightmares are relentless; she needs therapy more than Patrick. Still, Patrick’s therapist asks him to write about his past, and it is from that writing that we learn about the events of Patrick’s childhood.

At some point, Patrick’s past and present intertwine and the reader wonders how Patrick will cope with the flood of stressors that confront him. After a third of the story has been told, the novel shifts to Hannah’s point of view as she tells her true crime story, deliberately mimicking the techniques of In Cold Blood — if Capote had been recalling his life as a twelve-year-old girl. That’s the least successful segment of the novel. Hannah’s voice never struck me as genuine.

The novel changes points of view and time frames several times before the reader hears from Matthew, whose perspective adds another layer to the reader’s evolving understanding of the events that shaped the characters. Pretty much every life in Grist Mill Road is touched by violence, most of it senseless. And pretty much everyone in the novel is keeping a secret, a couple of which involve murders. Of course, in fiction as in life, secrets will out, and their revelations inspire most of the novel’s drama. The danger in the approach is that the secrets, once revealed, will seem melodramatic or too coincidental to accept. Grist Mill Road approaches both of those lines but never crosses them. Christopher Yates keep control of his material at all times, producing a story that is reasonably convincing.

None of the central characters deserve what they get, but none of them deserve sainthood. Characterizations are strong and the plot takes surprising turns as it approaches an eventful ending, but the strength of Grist Mill Road is that the initial story seems simple, but with the addition of each new perspective, the seemly simple story gains weight and meaning. The story illustrates the limitations imposed by our own singular perspective — only by seeing the same events through the eyes of others can we approach a full understanding of those events. The way the different perspectives gradually reframe the story in the reader’s mind is my primary reason for recommending Grist Mill Road.


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