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.

Entries in Recent Release (454)

Monday
Mar242014

All I Have in this World by Michael Parker

Published by Algonquin Books on March 25, 2014

The literary device that binds the characters in All I Have in this World is a Buick Electra. The reader first encounters it at an assembly plant in 1983. A year later, the first black car salesman hired by a Cleveland dealership sells it to a math teacher. Subsequent owners include a doctor in Kansas whose son drives it to Austin and a rancher's widow. Slices from the life of each car owner (as well as an assembly plant worker and the used car dealer who sells it last) are dispersed throughout the novel. The book's structure -- the use of the Buick to tie together lives of disparate people who share universal traits -- is part of its appeal.

Twenty years after it drives off the Cleveland lot, the Buick ends up in Pinto Canyon, Texas, where it brings together Maria and Marcus, the novel's principle characters, each of whom is embroiled in a family drama. Although the novel bounces around in time, it begins in 1994, when 17-year-old Maria enters adulthood in the wake of a tragic experience (for which she is unfairly blamed) that solidifies her desire to leave Pinto Canyon. She does not come back for her father's funeral but returns to Pinto Canyon in 2004. Her mother, with whom she has rarely had contact, has inherited a motel and claims she is too tired to run it by herself -- a claim that Maria credits, given that her mother took care of her dying husband and her dying lover before finding herself alone.

Marcus, having discovered that there is no profit in founding a nonprofit educational center dedicated to flytraps and having lost the land he owned jointly with his sister, packs everything he owns into a pickup truck and drives until he reaches Pinto Canyon, where his truck is stolen while he's hiking near the Mexican border. From then on he is (Maria thinks) trying to find "a way to live his life with somewhat less shame."

In part, All I Have in this World is about people who try to get back the things they once had -- love, family, self-respect -- but never the Buick, although it does help Marcus and Maria recover some things they were missing. In part, the story is about the need to put the past in the past, and the difficulty of reconciling the past with the present. Maria knows she did the right thing at seventeen but still has trouble living with it, while Marcus, knowing he did the wrong thing in his recent past, has the same problem. In part, the novel is about the difficulty of forgiveness (choosing not to forgive makes the world smaller and easier to understand) and of learning to live without it. And in part, the novel is about the difficulty of sharing (a car, a life, a lover).

As you might expect, the novel's larger theme is reflected in its title. Nearly everything Marcus owned is lost. Maria's losses are less tangible but just as real. All they have in the world isn't much. But the point of All I Have in this World, as seen in the story of Maria and Marcus and in some of the lives of the Buick owners, is that making a list of your losses is not the best way to measure what you have in this world. That isn't a new idea but it is illustrated here in an engaging story that avoids moving in an obvious direction. The story combines subtle humor with low-key drama and treats the reader to a convincing portrayal of damaged characters who are looking for a way to live with less shame.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Mar192014

Missing You by Harlan Coben

Published by Dutton on March 18, 2014

Detective Katarina (Kat) Donovan's friend Stacey signs Kat up for an online dating service and who should come up as the perfect match but Kat's former fiancé Jeff Raynes, who is now a widower and raising a child. Well, after all, it's been 18 years since Jeff left her and disappeared so it's not surprising that his life has changed. It is surprising (and ultimately farfetched) that Jeff's picture surfaces during Kat's search, but I can accept one farfetched coincidence for the sake of a good story. Kat experiences considerable anguish over the course of the novel for having a foolish heart (she just can't get over Jeff's tender kisses), a trait that defines Kat's personality and makes her the least interesting character in the novel. Fortunately, Harlan Coben builds greater interest into the bad guys and some of the collateral characters, including Kat's cross-dressing homeless yoga instructor and a female victim who (unlike Kat) doesn't depend upon old boyfriends or an NYPD badge when she needs to muster strength.

The missing boyfriend storyline soon merges with the story of a missing mother. The young man who asks Kat to find his mother has rather improbably located her through her dating profile after concluding that Jeff Raynes is responsible for his mother's disappearance. That setup leads to the twinned mysteries that drive the plot: what happened to the missing mother and where has Raynes been for the last 18 years?

As if that isn't enough drama for one thriller, hit man Monte Leburne is dying of cancer and still refuses to tell Kat who hired him to murder her father. The truth about her father's death (and life) is a secondary mystery that provides occasional diversions from the primary plot. Both the primary and secondary storylines are clever, twisting familiar themes (the danger of online dating, a child's discovery of a parent's hidden past) to make them seem reasonably fresh. The revelation concerning Kat's father's secret is plausible if a bit contrived (I can imagine Coben thinking "What do I need to do to shock my readers?") but is written with sensitivity and compassion.

To the extent that Missing You tries to work as a romance involving the torch that Kat has carried for Raynes, I didn't buy it, in part because that aspect of the story is notable for its cheesiness. In the end, the cheesy romance is tolerable because the rest of the novel works quite well. The pace is suitably brisk and the villains are suitably villainous without becoming over-the-top caricatures of evil. Coben creates satisfying tension near the novel's end that builds to an exciting climax. The mystery surrounding the person responsible for Kat's father's murder reaches a satisfying resolution. In short, while I wasn't thrilled with every aspect of this thriller, it engaged me, surprised me, and made me care about the characters.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Mar172014

The Janson Option by Paul Garrison

Published by Grand Central Publishing on March 18, 2014

The largest name on the cover of The Janson Option is Jason Bourne even though this is not a Bourne novel. The second largest name is Robert Ludlum even though Ludlum has been dead for more than a decade. The Ludlum factory continues to churn out novels, however, and by the time we reach the bottom of the cover, we learn that Paul Garrison wrote this one. He did a capable job. Unlike recent Bourne novels, The Janson Option does not seem like a hastily written factory-produced thriller.

The Janson Option follows The Janson Directive, which was published a year after Ludlum's death. Paul Janson is a former clandestine government assassin who founded something called Phoenix, which is sort of a rehab center for former government killers. Janson funds Phoenix by handling corporate security assignments. The Janson Option begins with Paul Janson and Jessica Kincaid smuggling the son of a dictator out of his country in North Africa. A year later, Kingsman Helms, who runs the oil division of a ruthless and powerful global corporation, hires Janson to rescue his wife from Somali pirates. Helms needs some rescuing himself after Camorra hit men start shooting at him. The explanation for that apparent coincidence is more credible than the explanations thrillers typically muster.

In fact, The Janson Option as a whole is more believable than many thrillers, including some of Ludlum's. It is carefully plotted without becoming convoluted and it contains at least one satisfying surprise. While Janson and his partner/lover Kincaid are standard thriller heroes, their adversaries (American corporate executives and warring Somalis) are more interesting than typical thriller villains. The international settings have an authentic feel. There is enough action to enliven the story without becoming a mindless novel of shootouts and fistfight. While there is nothing truly exceptional about The Janson Option, it is a fun and fast-moving escapist thriller.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Mar102014

Red Now and Laters by Marcus J. Guillory

Published by Atria Books on March 11, 2014

From the first sentence ("God's tears were brown."), the prose in Red Now and Laters screams for attention. Sometimes the screams hurt the reader's ears but it is always lively and much of it is innovative. The novel opens in 1977 as a flood in the Houston neighborhood of South Park forces John Boudreaux Jr. ("John Frenchy") to carry his son, Ti' John, to safety across the rising brown waters. "John Frenchy" is a star on the black rodeo circuit. His family is Creole and he is a transplant from Louisiana, as are many black families in South Park.

The story resumes three years later, when Ti' John is eight. The reader jumps into Ti' John's life again at various ages from 12 to 17 as he encounters random death, has difficulty and success in different schools, seeks acceptance on Ricky Street (home to kids with tough reputations), serves as an undistinguished altar boy, learns to fight, grasps as much as he can about the mysterious ways of girls, and comes to terms with his family. Ti' John is an imaginative child trying to understand the workings of the adult world. In many respects, he is a memorable character. Along the way Ti' John and other characters riff on topics of interest and amusement, including the relationship between gospel music and blues (both "testaments to the human spirit and personal realizations"), the relationship between luck and race, breasts, sex, hospital waiting rooms, and the difference between Cajun and Creole.

Interludes take place in Opelousas a generation earlier, where John Frenchy and his future wife Patrice are growing up. Eventually the story retreats to 1870 where Jules Saint-Pierre Sonnier (whose biological father was a Boudreaux) arrives in Louisiana from Haiti. Sonnier is a practitioner of voodoo and his story is freakish. Others in the Sonnier line (who generally share freakishness as a family trait) play roles in the story, sometimes after they have died. Footnotes scattered through the novel translate French phrases and enlighten the reader about (among other topics) Creole history and the rules of dice.

Issues of skin color form one of the novel's themes. Patrice wants to be lighter so she will be accepted by the lighter members of her extended family; Ti' John wants to be darker so he won't be beaten by the darker kids on Ricky Street. The role of religion in the black community and of superstition in the Creole community is another theme, as is the relationship between religion and superstition. To an extent, this is a "black man coming of age in a white society" story, a theme that has been done many times, but the novel makes a strong point about the difficulty (but not necessarily impossibility) of escaping what seems to be a preprogrammed life, and does so in an original way. The novel's moral is: whether or not fate exists, whether or not we can escape our fate, "we continue into the unknown with delusions of certainty as a safety blanket and we hope the next day will be kinder than the last."

There is a supernatural element to the story, both in the healing powers that John Frenchy and Ti' John display and in the occasional appearances of a dead Sonnier in their lives. Given the role that superstition has played in Creole culture, that aspect of the story is not out of place, but I can't say that it entirely worked for me. Ti' John's connection to the supernatural is underplayed for most of the novel, making it a bit jarring when it gains a more prominent role late in the story. I suspect that the witchcraft is intended as a metaphor but this might have been a better novel without it.

While Marcus Guillory's writing is strong, occasional passages try too hard to be startling and succeed only at being awkward. Sometimes the story seems a bit scattered but the story's energy and power overcome its structural problems. In the end, Red Now and Laters isn't a perfect novel, but it is well worth reading.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Mar052014

The Chase by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Published by Bantam on February 25, 2014

Marketing this novel as a thriller (or even a romantic thriller) is seriously misleading. The Chase is too cute for its own good -- certainly too cute for readers who are looking for a plausible story.  The Chase is so over-the-top that I was unable to buy into the plot or the characters. The cheesy banter between Kate and Nicolas, meant to be witty and suggestively sexual, seems designed to appeal to preteens. The Chase is intended as light reading -- a cross between romantic comedy and a thriller -- but it's so fluffy and insubstantial I felt like I was reading a cloud.

Special Agent Kate O'Hare is chasing the dreamy Nicolas Fox and not just because she would like to cuddle up against his lean and firm body. Fox seems to have robbed a bank but, as O'Hare knows, he has stolen from a safe deposit box at the FBI's direction to obtain evidence because the FBI is apparently unwilling or unable to get a warrant to search for it. The crime (the details of which are left unexplained) is ridiculous and O'Hare should go to prison for having any part in it. How she manages to reconcile her profound sense of law-and-order with her willingness to subvert the Constitution while being a party to a bank robbery is something Evanovich doesn't explain. I always have difficulty cheering for a hypocrite and O'Hare's self-righteous justification for breaking the law (repeatedly) doesn't endear me to her.

Now the FBI needs O'Hare to commit a crime that's even more preposterous: stealing a bronze rooster from the highly placed man who bought it from the thief who stole it from the Smithsonian. The man is so highly placed (think Karl Rove) that the FBI doesn't want to "embarrass" the country by arresting him. Eventually yet another theft needs to be orchestrated and the novel turns into a low-budget version of Ocean's Eleven. Unfortunately, the method used to commit the crime is far from innovative and not even remotely credible.

Evanovich works so hard to make O'Hare "tough but feminine" and Fox "devious but charming" that both characters seem inauthentic. They fit nicely into their stereotyped boxes but they lack believable personalities. O'Hare's "I just got stabbed and killed my assailant -- let's have champagne!" attitude wears thin quickly. The chemistry between the smitten FBI agent and the rakish conman with "lightly tousled" hair is utterly predictable and, for that reason, uninteresting. The villain is about as deep as Snidely Whiplash.

The parts of the novel that are meant to be funny failed to amuse me, but I often chuckled at parts that were not intended to provoke laughter (O'Hare's superdad carries hand grenades in his golf bag and the Karl Rove character, no longer in government, can instantly launch a predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles within the United States by making a phone call). Much of the novel is just too easy for O'Hare and Fox ("oh, don't worry, the secret door won't be guarded") and too many things that shouldn't be easy (like stealing from safe deposit boxes) are glossed over without explanation. Part of the novel takes place in China but it might as well be Kansas City. The local color sounds like it was cribbed from a tourism website. Evanovich does better when she describes the high-end outlet mall in Camarillo, California, a place she has apparently been. The ending is even sillier than the story that precedes it. The story moves quickly and parts of it are fun, but there are not enough of those parts to recommend the novel as a whole.

NOT RECOMMENDED