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 nonexlusive focus is on literary/mainsteam 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
Sep282016

The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson

Published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books on August 2, 2016

The More They Disappear is a surprisingly good debut literary thriller. The prose is smooth, the characters are complex, and the themes of corruption and family discord are strong. The story moves quickly enough but it doesn’t rush to a conclusion. Jesse Donaldson takes the time to establish a time and place (small town Kentucky, late 90s) and he avoids reliance on dominant thriller clichés about heroes and villains that fail to reflect the real world.

Sheriff Lew Mattock considered himself the president of Marathon, Kentucky. His assassination by Mary Jane Finley puT an end to his ambitions, while handing the job of Sheriff to his ill-equipped chief deputy, Harlan Dupee. Mary Jane isn’t a likely assassin, but she is insecure and easily manipulated by the promise of love.

So begins The More They Disappear. We soon learn about Mary Jane’s lover -- a drug dealer named Mark -- and Mark’s physician-father, who is also his drug supplier. We also learn about Lew’s financial problems and the debt he left his widow. And then we learn about some surprising relationships among key characters in a plot that becomes increasingly complex as the novel moves forward.

As if poor Harlan didn’t have enough problems, the doctor has persuaded Lew Mattock’s son to run for the vacant sheriff’s position. Like several other characters, the kid does what he’s told, but isn’t happy about it. He doesn’t think he has much choice, since he’s married to the doctor’s daughter.

Characters are imagined in greater depth than is common for a thriller, particularly Mary Jane, whose alienation and loneliness is rendered in convincing detail. Harlan is my kind of cop. He smokes dope to relax and drinks a beer while he’s driving home (Harlan is not a guy to sweat the small stuff), but he struggles to do the right thing, or to understand how justice is best served in a morally ambiguous world. He has his own demons to face but he tries to put them aside while focusing on the needs of others.

The More They Disappear
has something to say about the importance and difficulty of being who you want to be, even if your parents tried to shape you into a different person. But apart from its important themes (including small town poverty and loneliness and the lure of drugs), The More They Disappear is just an enjoyable reading experience. It isn’t a thriller that will appeal to people who are looking for rapidly building suspense and surprise endings delivered in lots of single sentence paragraphs. It is instead a book for readers who are looking for higher quality story telling than most modern crime fiction delivers. If he keeps writing books like this one, Donaldson will earn a devoted following.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Sep262016

The Homeplace by Kevin Wolf

Published by St. Martin's/Minotaur Books on September 6, 2016

Former high school basketball star (and eventual NBA player) Chase Ford is back in Brandon. He has issues with the family life he left behind, but his parents are dead and he hasn’t entered the family home for years. Most people are happy to see Chase, as small towns celebrate their rare celebrities, but Chase is ambivalent about meeting anyone from his past.

Birdie Hawkins is the game warden in the district that includes Brandon. Investigating a complaint of murdered buffalo, she comes across a murdered high school student. The crime is outside her jurisdiction so she ships the case to Sheriff Kendall, a man she despises. She nevertheless assists in the murder investigation. Soon a second investigation begins as someone close to the student is also killed. That victim happens to be one of the few people in Brandon Chase still regards as a friend.

When a third victim is discovered, the police are challenged to understand whether the murders are related and to discover the killer’s identity. The reader, of course, faces that same challenge. The plot moves in interesting and unexpected directions as it wends its way to a conclusion that an astute reader will probably anticipate.

A group of colorful characters round out the cast, including an ambitious television reporter, a small town gossip who invents most of the stories he tells, and a paranoid anti-government survivalist whacko. None of the characters have great depth, but they are more interesting than the characters that populate most modern crime novels.

The story’s “you can’t go home again” theme might be a little obvious, as are the demons that make it difficult for Chase to visit his homeplace. Chase is one of those relentlessly good literary heroes who insist on feeling bad about themselves, which is perhaps too trite for comfort. The feel-good nature of the ending will appeal to readers who like feel-good endings. It too determinedly feel-good for my taste, but none of the novel’s flaws impaired my overall enjoyment of the story and its entertaining cast of characters.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Sep252016

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

First published in 1966

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a great title. Is it a great book? I don’t think it is Heinlein’s best, but I enjoyed it when I read it in my teens, and probably enjoyed it more in a recent rereading. Fans of Heinlein’s libertarian philosophy will find much to admire here, while readers searching for a good story will have to tolerate the philosophy while waiting for the story to develop.

The novel is set on the moon, which houses a penal colony as well as people who are more-or-less free. The Authority is the moon’s governing body, created as sort of a United Nations agency to administer the moon on behalf of the Earth. Farmers on the moon grow wheat in caves. The farmers (and most other inhabitants) consider themselves to be exploited by Earth, which doesn’t return fair value for the wheat that is catapulted into Earth orbit. Led by a fellow named Manuel and a computer named Mike, a group of revolutionaries plot to win their independence.

Manuel spends much of the novel expounding on his political philosophy, which he calls rational anarchy. Libertarianism was one of Heinlein’s favorite themes … and it might actually be viable if everyone had the same sense of personal responsibility as Heinlein’s characters. A book review isn’t the place to debate the merits of Heinlein’s political thought, so I will only say that Heinlein’s philosophy plays a larger role in this novel than in many of his others. That will attract some readers and turn off others.

The novel also gives us a “how-to” manual in the art of revolution. Most of the steps would apply to any revolution, although this one is unique in that throwing containers of rocks at the Earth is the primary weapon. A character known as Prof has primary responsibility for planning the moon’s quest for freedom which, if not exactly bloodless, minimizes the consequences to Earth because killing people is not the way to win hearts and minds. Prof understands the art of propaganda and the strategies that must be followed to build support among the revolutionaries, to overthrow the local governance of the Authority, and to convince Earth’s nations that recognizing the Moon as an independent entity will be easier than trying to pacify a group of feisty rock-throwers.

The setup occupies about two-thirds of the novel. Those chapters also include discussions of alternative family arrangements (line families that feature multiple wives and husbands) that would have been considered revolutionary in the 1960s. Fortunately, Heinlein was first-and-foremost a storyteller, so lessons in libertarianism and revolution and family structure are interspersed with character development and action scenes, leading to a final third that ratchets up the excitement. Readers who don’t care much for the story’s intellectual merits will enjoy the scenes that actually implement the revolution. Manuel and Prof are memorable characters who are easy to like. I would recommend Stranger in a Strange Land or I Will Fear No Evil or Starship Troopers to readers who are new to Heinlein, but there’s no doubt that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was an important addition to the Heinlein canon.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Sep232016

The Wicked Go to Hell by Frédéric Dard

First published in France in 1956; published in translation by Pushkin Press on August 4, 2016

The Wicked Go to Hell is one of the oddest thrillers I’ve read. First published in France in 1956, it is one of more than 300 books authored by Frédéric Dard, who died in 2000. The novel is as much a male bonding story as it is a crime story. Of course, a woman comes between the two protagonists -- hey, Dard was French -- but ultimately the story is about two men who come to love each other in the way that only hardened killers can.

Frank and Hal enter prison at the same time. They are assigned to the same cell. They both sustained cuts and bruises that they attribute to being worked over by the police. The reader knows that one of the men is a spy who tried to steal secrets and, after being arrested, refused to reveal the organization that employs him. The other man is an undercover cop, assigned to get information from the spy. The reader does not know, however, which one is the spy and which is the informant. In the end, it may not matter, since the point of the story is that the line between law enforcer and law breaker is sometimes too thin to perceive.

Another point that the novel makes overtly is the notion that no man is truly bad. That’s true, but Frank and Hal come pretty close. The corollary might be that no man is truly good, even if he supposedly serves the cause of justice.

Much of the story is unbelievable, unless it’s acceptable in France for the police to murder innocent victims. Yet as difficult as it was to suspend my disbelief in large parts of the story, I found myself not caring whether the plot was credible. The key plot device -- the reader doesn’t know whether Frank or Hal is the good guy until the novel’s end -- is just brilliant. A wild closing scene makes up for some earlier scenes that border on melodrama. For all its faults, I was completely caught up in this brief, fast moving, story about two violent men who each discover something about their true natures after they become friends.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Sep212016

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on September 6, 2016

The Fortunes is less a novel than a series of four stories with a shared theme. Each story asks what it means to be a Chinese-American at a particular moment in history. The stories are loosely connected by places (the Pearl River), symbols (Charlie Chan), and circumstances (orphans), by references in later stories to characters or events in earlier stories, and by the suggestion that the character who narrates the final story may have written the first three.

While he is still a boy, Ling is sent to California, where he works in a laundry. The first story in The Fortunes, “Gold,” follows Ling as he seeks his fortune. He would like to mine for gold, he would like to win the heart of the prostitute who works in the laundry shop, but he ends up as the manservant for a railroad tycoon. Ling inspires the tycoon to use Chinese immigrants as cheap laborers, a development that eventually causes Ling to second-guess his loyalty to his white master.

Ling’s story is interesting and well-written, but it fizzles out. Replacing it is an episodic biography of Anna May Wong, born Wong Liu Tsong, the first Chinese-American movie star. This story, “Silver,” comes across as the sketch of a biography more than fiction.

The next story, “Jade,” is narrated by a friend of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American who was killed in a bar fight in 1982 (actually a strip club fight) after being mistaken for Japanese by a father and son who blamed the Japanese for the decline of the American auto industry. According to the narrator, the killing (and the sentence of probation imposed on the father and son, who beat Chin to death with a baseball bat) began a movement that united the Asian-American community. This section of the novel is an interesting lesson in sociopolitical history but the friend’s commentary does not make a compelling work of fiction. It would be a fantastic introspective essay on what it means to be a Chinese-American if it were not so scattered (its stream of consciousness style does not serve it well), but writing an essay and calling it fiction does not a novel make.

The last story, “Pearl,” is the best. A Chinese-American writer named John Smith and his white wife travel to China to adopt a baby. John feels incapable of choosing between China and America, wants both, and is at home in neither. Like the third story, “Pearl” is deeply introspective. Perhaps because the story is a pure work of contemporary fiction rather building on historical figures, it is the most personal, and moving, story in the book.

A degree of justifiable rage permeates the book, as the characters confront racism, stereotypes, and unintended insults. The entire novel is interesting in its depiction of an American culture that has impeded Chinese assimilation/acceptance, but the first three stories struck me as outlines or unfinished attempts to write a longer work. Still, the themes that tie the stories together are strong, as are the images of prejudice.

RECOMMENDED