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.

Sunday
Jul022017

"Never Stop on the Motorway" and "It Can't Be October Already" by Jeffrey Archer

Some authors have started marketing short stories as ebooks. That practice sometimes makes me wonder whether the stories were turned down by magazine editors, but maybe direct marketing is the wave of the future for authors with substantial name recognition. In the case of the stories reviewed below, however, Jeffrey Archer is selling individul stories that have appeared in his earlier story collections.

Whether it makes sense to pay at least 99 cents for a short story, rather than buying a collection that includes the story, is something each reader will need to decide. With regard to the two stories reviewed here, I can only say that, while I enjoyed them, neither are so substantial that I would read them again. I would probably feel I was getting more value for my dollar if I purchased the collections in which these stories first appeared. On the other hand, the publisher provided me with free digital advance reading copies of the stories, so my concerns about value are only theoretical.

"Never Stop on the Motorway"

Published digitally by St. Martin's Press on July 3, 2017

"Never Stop on the Motorway" is included in at least two Jeffrey Archer story collections: The Collected Short Stories and Twelve Red Herrings.

Heavy traffic gives Diana time to think about her failed marriage, but when she can finally reach highway speed, her euphoria is unsettled by a thump after a small animal darts in front of her car. She stops and, soon thereafter, a vehicle begins to tailgate her. She can’t shake the driver and begins to fear that she will be the next victim of the killer who recently cut a woman’s throat on the same road, prompting police to warn motorists not to stop.

This is a fast-moving story with a mildly surprising ending. It creates tension in a predictable way and develops about as much characterization as could be expected in a relatively brief story. I was hoping for an ending that would be even more surprising, but the ending that Jeffrey Archer provides isn’t one I expected.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

"It Can't Be October Already"

Published digitally by St. Martin's Press on June 6, 2017.

"It Can't Be October Already" is included in Cat O'Nine Tales and Other Stories.

A fellow named Pat goes to jail every October. Pat is unfailingly polite to the various officers who arrest him, lock him up, and take him to court, all of whom are familiar with his annual ritual and see him as something of an old friend, or at least a harmless nuisance. Eventually the reader discovers what’s up with Pat, and Pat finally gets to finish telling the joke that everyone has already heard.

“It Can’t Be October Already” is a light, amusing short story. It isn’t particularly substantial, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Pat's joke is more interesting than the plot of the story itself, which leads to an obvious conclusion. I didn't get the impression that Archer put much effort into this one.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Jun302017

Lot and Lot's Daughter by Ward Moore

First published as short stories in 1953 & 1954; published by Open Road Media on June 6, 2017

Ward Moore was far from prolific, but some of the science fiction he generated has achieved classic status. The short story “Lot” (1953) and its sequel “Lot’s Daughter” (1954) certainly deserve to be enjoyed by each new generation of sf fans.

“Lot” is the perfect antidote to all of the loathsome prepper porn and self-published survivalist literature that has become so popular with a certain segment of society. Moore seems to have anticipated the genre and savaged it before it was born.

The Jimmon family, car packed full of essentials, no room for the dog, flees Malibu, along with countless others who are heading north from the LA area. David Jimmon is pretty pleased with himself because he put his own selfish interests ahead of those of his neighbors and, for that matter, his family by pushing ahead of the pack on the crowded highways. He views himself as a romantic hero, the individualist who survives while the docile masses perish. His family views him as a tyrant who has gone off the deep end.

David is enormously frustrated with his wife and kids, who (in his view) don’t understand the enormity of the war that has destroyed LA and Pittsburgh, inevitably leading (he believes) to primal battles among the survivors as they try to steal food, weapons, and women from each other. David’s family, on the other hand, is fed up with his “there is no law but the law of survival” attitude. When his son brightly asks if it is now okay to steal cars, only David's wife seems to understand that the breakdown of society is a choice, not an imperative.

The war, and the chance it gives him to show off his planning skills, is the only thing that has gone right in a life as a buttoned-down accountant that is primarily defined by David’s insecurity. But the story’s payoff comes in just how far David is willing to go to bring about his vision of a brighter survivalist future.

“Lot’s Daughter” takes place several years later. David is still awash in the constructs of his antisocial mind. His daughter, who believes that humans have an instinct for cooperation, clearly did not inherit her father’s craziness gene. All of David’s survivalist preparations reveal his ineptness at pretty much everything. He is much better at theorizing how to survive than at acquiring the practical skills that might allow him to thrive.

Both “Lot” and “Lot’s Daughter” involve a shock. In “Lot’s Daughter,” the shock arrives when it the reader realizes just what a hypocritical dirtbag David really is. Both stories excel at giving the reader just enough information to appreciate the themes while allowing the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps.

The quality of Moore’s prose and the depth of his thought set "Lot" and "Lot’s Daughter" apart from most modern post-apocalyptic fiction. The stories are small and personal but they hold up a mirror to an outsized, vocal segment of society that, I’m sure, would be just as useless in a crisis at David proves to be. The second story drips with irony, a perfect counterpart to the first, but both stories illustrate the consequences of a misguided philosophy, an eagerness to abandon civilization, that is just as prevalent today as it was when Moore created David Jimmon.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun282017

Binary Storm by Christopher Hinz

Published by Angry Robot on November 1, 2016

Binary Storm is a prequel to Liege-Killer. Binary Storm introduces the Jeek Elemental known as the liege-killer, but it sets up a good bit of background before reaching that point.

In 1995, Nick Guerra was nearly stabbed to death. One hundred years later (after napping from 2010 to 2086), Guerra is in the unsecured part of Philadelphia to meet Ektor Fang, a Paratwa assassin. Like all the Paratwa, Ektor occupies two bodies. From Ektor, Guerra learns that the Royal Caste, consisting of a special breed of genetically engineered binaries known as the Ash Ock, is scheming to create a world in which the Paratwa rule.

Guerra works with the nonprofit Ecostatic Technospheric Alliance (E-Tech), an organization dedicated to “putting the brakes on unfettered science and technology.” Christopher Hinz nevertheless envisions some cool futuristic tech that E-Tech hasn’t managed to suppress.

Guerra is trying to get intelligence information to the E-Tech leadership when the leadership changes. After that, his self-imposed mission is to go after the Paratwa. He hits upon a scheme to turn a Paratwa against other Paratwas. The rest of his scheme involves training a specialized team of four fighters in a special technique to defeat the Paratwa.

Binary Storm takes place on Earth, before humanity’s flight from Earth that precedes Liege-Killer. Hinz fleshes out the background that gives rise to his earlier, post-apocalyptic Paratwa novels. The ease and prevalence of gender change is one of the points he emphasizes, giving it an interesting twist with the notion of “gender vacations.”

Guerra brings with him the guarded optimism of the late twentieth century as he confronts the pessimistic sense of doom that dominates the late twenty-first, providing a philosophical spark that gives depth to the story. For the most part, however, this is an action story, and there is enough futuristic fighting to keep action fans happy. Hinz delivers the action in a fluid writing style that makes Binary Storm easy to read. Some aspects of the lengthy novel come across as filler, but Binary Storm is a strong introduction to the earlier Paratwa books, which are more intense and, for that reason, somewhat better.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun262017

Feral by James DeMonaco and B.K. Evenson

Published by Anchor on April 4, 2017

Feral isn’t marketed as a young adult novel, but it has all the trappings: an adolescent female who has little experience with boys, although a definite interest in them, finds herself in a dangerous situation and has to survive by her wits while learning about herself and, in the process, finding a boy who makes her feel special. It isn’t a formula I seek out because I’m not a young adult and novels of that ilk too often devolve into trashy romance fiction, but readers in the appropriate market might like Feral more than I did. I can only say that this is not what I expected from co-author B.K. Evenson, who is a fine writer of adult fiction.

Feral begins in a way that suggests the beginning of a zombie novel. A fire at a place that does genetic manipulation has made something like a virus airborne, making males at Allie Hilt’s school behave aggressively. Eventually all males treat females as prey. Fortunately, Allie is athletic and pretty aggressive even without the virus that turns men into feral killers. And fortunately, the feral killers aren’t zombies, although they aren’t far removed from zombies.

The story that follows is post-apocalyptic. Three years have passed. The only goal men have is to kill women. Women have banded together in camps to protect themselves. This seems likely to be the last generation of human life, since normal reproduction is, under the circumstances, out of the question. Allie and her sister are the scouts for one of the camps. Dr. Zeman, who once worked at the company that manufactured the virus, is experimenting on captive feral men to see if she can neutralize the virus before the human race ends.

Point of view shifts from Allie to her sister to Dr. Zeman to a foul-mouthed woman named Jacky. Allie, however, is clearly the main character. And of course, this wouldn’t be a YA novel unless Allie met an uninfected boy who soon says “it was like I knew you” when he talks about seeing her for the first time. You know it’s a YA novel when the authors feel compelled to add a cheesy romance between two dreamy young people. And you really know it’s YA when, after they have sex, everyone wonders why the young woman is glowing. After that, of course, she becomes jealous, as if she’s entitled to his exclusive attention when he’s the only normal male in a world full of fertile women. The gak factor in this book repeatedly caused a bit of bile to rise in my throat.

Feral isn’t all bad, by any means. The story reminds us of the small things that distinguish humans from each other (the things humans lose when they become feral), and in that sense the story has poignant moments. But some of it is a bit silly and all of it is disappointingly predictable.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun232017

Defectors by Joseph Kanon

Published by Atria Books on June 6, 2017

Simon Weeks is running a publishing company, having been forced out of the State Department after his brother Frank, a CIA agent, defected. Now, in the Khrushchev years, Simon has the chance to publish Frank’s “tell all” book. But first, he needs to meet Frank, for the first time in years. To that end, Simon travels to Moscow.

There is tension between the brothers that goes beyond Frank’s defection. Some of it involves Frank’s wife, who traveled with Frank to Moscow. But the tension mounts when Simon learns that Frank wants to defect … again … this time betraying the Soviets by returning to the US.

In the best tradition of spy novels, the reader wonders what sort of treachery is really afoot as the novel progresses. Joseph Kanon keeps the reader guessing as Simon second-guesses then third-guesses everything he is told. Suspense elevates when things get sticky, but it isn’t always clear for whom the reader is supposed to root.

The novel’s background accounts for the plural title. Guy Burgess and an assorted crew of spies spend their nights drinking and moaning about the boring lives they’ve settled into, quite a change from the exciting lives of deception they once lived. Some of the defectors and their wives play key roles as the story unfolds. Some are conflicted, prone to second-guessing the decisions that defined their lives, while others seem quietly resigned to the isolated lives that Soviet heroes live when they are never quite trusted by the Soviet government. Only Frank, an active officer in the KGB, seems to have gained the trust of his superiors, but as he well knows, nobody is trusted, and perhaps nobody deserves to be trusted.

The surprising plot ends with two tight twists. That is reason enough to recommend Defectors, but the novel’s emotional resonance comes from the complexity of its characters and their shifting relationships. Everyone seems to be betraying everyone in Defectors. Everyone is playing a role, some unwillingly, some for the love of the game. The shifting and uncertain relationship between the two brothers, in particular, is masterful.

RECOMMENDED