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.


When It's a Jar by Tom Holt

Published by Orbit on December 17, 2013

When It's a Jar pushes the multiverse theory to absurd limits ... except, when you think about it (as Tom Holt clearly has), it's impossible to do that because a popular version of the theory assumes that absurd events (indeed, all events) actually occur in some part of the multiverse. There is no limit to absurdity because, in the multiverse, there are no limits at all. Hence Holt's formula for fun.

When is a door not a door? When it could be anything, including a portal between dimensions. In Doughnut, Holt explored interdimensional travel through a donut hole using something called YouSpace. The doughnuts are present in When It's a Jar, but Holt has added the notion of a "constant object," something that stays the same no matter what dimension it occupies. Rather than spoiling the surprise of what the constant object happens to be, I'll just say that once it's revealed, parts of the novel that seemed to make no sense at all gain meaning while other parts gain new meaning. And that's just cool. Almost as cool, in fact, as the guy living in a jar who manages by a process of reasoning to figure out pretty much everything there is to know until his memories get wiped out, forcing him to start all over ... again and again and again.

The key character in When It's a Jar is hapless Maurice, who (after seeing a levitating doughnut and realizing that physics is whack) has dedicated himself to being an unhappy slacker, a profession that his degree in media studies encourages. Maurice's unwanted destiny is to be a hero (or so he is told, often by complete strangers). Poor Maurice feels displaced, which makes sense given his uncertainty as to his place in the multiverse, an uncertainty that grows as he visits different universes. In the universe he likes best -- the best of all possible worlds -- he is a genius physicist billionaire who married the woman he loves. In the one he inhabits during most of the novel, the woman he loves is shagging his old schoolmate. The heroic act that is expected of Maurice involves Max (last seen in Doughnut) who is also stuck in the wrong part of the multiverse. Max needs Maurice to rescue him and then to save Max's brother, Theo Bernstein (last seen in Doughnut) who is stuck in -- you guessed it -- a jar. Theo, by the way, is also God (sort of -- just read Doughnut).

Holt has an astonishing ability to surround cleverness with goofiness. Some scenes are just wickedly funny, including one in which Katz is drugged and made to tell the truth during a job interview. Some (like an elf's explanation of the reason newspapers endure) are thought-provoking. Yes, there are elves and goblins and dragons, because they have to exist somewhere in the multiverse, but no need to worry -- this isn't a traditional fantasy, and goblins occupy only a small but very funny part of the novel.

You could probably read, understand, and enjoy When It's a Jar without first reading Doughnut, but given the overlapping storylines and the fact that Doughnut is also a very funny book, it's better to read them both. While the two novels share characters and concepts, When It's a Jar moves the story into new dimensions of weirdness. Taken together, they represent a unique, witty, and intelligent take on the multiverse theory.



American Romantic by Ward Just

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 1, 2014

Ward Just is skilled at conveying emotions, at making the readers feel what his characters feel, and that is the greatest strength of American Romantic. It tells of the long life of Harry Sanders, in all its fullness as well as its thinness, and allows the reader to feel the highs and lows alongside Harry.

Harry starts the novel as an American mid-level bureaucrat in the Foreign Service on a tour of duty in Vietnam during the early 1960s. The war is smoldering and American-funded clinics are burning to the ground. Writing reports about wasted foreign aid is Harry's day job; nights he spends in temporary respite with Sieglinde, an x-ray technician serving on a German hospital ship until its sudden departure. When an opportunity arises for secret (and officially deniable) peace talks, the Ambassador gives Harry the leading role. Harry is smart and ambitious but sufficiently "under the radar" to take on the assignment without causing eyebrows to be raised. The harrowing mission leads to a moment of consequence in Harry's life.

Later, the story shifts to Sieglinde who, having fled her "doomed love affair" with Harry, travels without a destination. Her story (less interesting than Harry's) is abandoned midway through the novel when the story jumps to the present. Harry is now in genteel retirement in the south of France. The reader catches up on his life through his memories, sometimes focusing (again with less interest) on people who are part of Harry's life, particularly his wife. After another moment of consequence, for which Harry is again unprepared, the story returns to Harry's present.

Some themes of American Romantic -- the unwelcome American on foreign soil, the ambiguity of male-female relationships, the sense of unavoidable destiny, the struggle to reconcile religion with the harsh reality of daily living -- echo Graham Greene. Like the stories told around Harry's father's table when he was young, the point of American Romantic is often revealed indirectly. The stories told at his father's table by important political figures stopped short of their ending, requiring the listener to read between the lines because the storyteller, lost in memory, was unable to state aloud the story's "missing piece." The same can be said of American Romantic. There are often hidden meanings in stray remarks, unfinished stories, and half-buried memories.

What to make of the title? Sieglinde tells Harry that he is an American romantic because he believes an invisible hand is shaping events and issuing warnings that he does not understand. An ambassador tells Harry that "in diplomacy you are the master of your own fate as long as you keep your eyes open," yet Harry thinks "of diplomacy as Sisyphus thought of his wretched stone." Whether Harry shapes his own fate or is guided by an invisible hand is left for the reader to decide. By the time he retires, perhaps Harry is a romantic in a different sense. He looks back on a life that, but for its two moments of consequence, took place in the blink of an eye, and he understands that "failure is more commanding than success." On the other hand, failures alone do not define a life, as we realize upon reaching the book's predictable but satisfying conclusion, which can only be described as ... romantic.



The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson

First published in Australia in 2011; published by Soho Press on February 25, 2014

Manalargena, the chief of an Aboriginal clan in Tasmania, knowing his clan must fight to survive, recruits Black Bill to join them. Bill declines on the ground that he follows the direction of a white man, John Batman. Bill fails to mention that Batman, intending to collect on a contract from the governor, has already engaged him to hunt Manalargena and his clan, earning a bounty for each one killed or captured. Yet Manalargena, a witch who "has a meanness even God won't forgive," is believed to be (and believes himself to be) protected by a demon. He is not an easy man to kill.

Bill joins the roving party, nine men (including four convicts and two free blacks) following John Batman's lead. They are hard, rough men, cruel men who have been treated cruelly. They fight each other as often as they fight the tribesman they hunt. They regard the Aborigines as uncivilized savages but they are hardly exemplars of civil behavior. Bill, the toughest of them, stands above the fray, but as "a black man raised white" he finds little acceptance among the other members of the roving party. Bill is earning a share of the bounty to hunt his own people, a decision that even Batman's white employees cannot respect. Katherine, Bill's pregnant wife, does not approve of his decision to follow Batman, despite the food his employment puts on the table.

The Roving Party is a fast moving story of violence, but much of the dramatic tension comes from Bill's internal conflict, the doubt that gnaws at him despite his best efforts to ignore his conscience. Although raised and educated by a white family, Bill knows himself to be rooted in those he has been assigned to capture and kill. After the hunt ends, its impact on Bill -- misfortune that he attributes to Manalargena's witchcraft -- continues to drive the story to its powerful conclusion. This is, in a sense, an unconventional story of redemption. It is also a story of a man's struggle to find himself.

The men in the roving party are not academically inclined, but they consider weighty philosophical issues as they hunt their fellow man. Why are the clansmen more deserving of death than the hunters? How do men of any race learn to suffer life with dignity? Do wretched men who commit heinous crimes deserve to have their lives ended by a rope around the neck, their sentences pronounced by judges who "never get their hands dirty with men's blood"? Toward the novel's end, Bill ponders the relationship between strength and sorrow and the uncertain nature of justice.

Rohan Wilson paints the Tasmanian landscape in vivid brushstrokes. From tribesmen to slave traders to prisoners, Wilson's minor characters -- often described with just a few choice words -- are infused with authenticity. There are hints of Hemingway in the stark eloquence of Wilson's prose and in the masculinity that defines the story, yet the novel's strongest characters are women. The Roving Party tells a brutal story but it is a brutality tempered with tenderness and wisdom. It deserves the acclaim it has earned since its 2011 publication in Australia.



Chance by Kem Nunn

Published by Scribner on February 18, 2014

Eldon Chance is a forensic neuropsychiatrist who makes his living serving as an expert witness in civil or criminal cases involving brain injuries. Despite a healthy income he is bleeding money, in part because his wife is divorcing him, in part because he owes a huge debt in unpaid taxes. Chance is forced to sell his ridiculously expensive antique desk but gets more money than the desk is worth by having restoration work completed in a manner akin to art forgery, which sets up a relationship with the restoration forger, a big guy named D who is there to help when you need a big guy to solve your problems. Or, more likely, to make your problem worse.

Chance is pretentious and self-impressed. It's easy to understand why Chance's wife left him. His ethical breaches during the novel range from sleeping with a patient (who maybe isn't technically a patient, but close enough) to chatting with everyone he meets about the various patients he's treated or evaluated. He makes poor judgments throughout the novel (listening to D is the biggest one) and seems incapable of learning from his mistakes, which makes it difficult to get behind him as a character. He sort of deserves all the misfortune that comes his way. For much of the novel I wondered why Kem Nunn had chosen to write about such an unlikable character, but it all makes sense by the end.

Chance becomes obsessed with Jaclyn Blackstone, or at least with one of her multiple personalities. Despite her paranoia, Chance comes to believe that Jaclyn is being abused by her husband, who happens to be a cop. When the cop becomes aware of Chance's interest in his wife, bad things start happening to Chance and his family. Chance turns to D, a well-rounded criminal who is more literate than most, for help. The guts of the novel concern Chance's investigation of Jaclyn's past and her relationship to her husband, as well as the threats that someone has made to expose Chance's own past and to set him up for crimes he has not committed. The plot is interesting, as you would expect of a story that gives prominent attention to Tijuana hookers, San Francisco massage parlors, random acts of violence, and crazy people. After a slow start, the story builds intrigue as it moves toward its conclusion.

There are times when Nunn's prose is cold, detached, and pedantic. There is a formality to the style (not always present but often enough) that sometimes gives the novel a nineteenth century feel. That put me off for about half the novel. Nunn strives for an elegant prose style and often achieves it, but at other times his writing comes across as stuffy. I might understand that if the novel had been written in the first person (as are some of Chance's reports, quoted liberally at various times in the novel) because Chance is stuffy, but it seems an odd stylistic choice for a third-person voice. In any event, after the story started to grab me, I either became accustomed to the prose style or ignored it in favor of appreciating an engaging story. I particularly like the delightfully ambiguous and twisted ending and the opportunity it gives Chance to come to terms with his life. While it took me awhile to appreciate this novel, I was a fan by the time I reached the conclusion.



Saucer: Savage Planet by Stephen Coonts

Published by St. Martin's Griffin on April 1, 2014

Stephen Coonts wrote two novels in the Saucer series, the last one about ten years ago, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Flying saucers shaped like saucers are found on Earth, weaponized with "anti-matter beams." As everyone knows, the Air Force kept one of the saucers hidden in Area 51. That one was stolen by a Frenchman, only to be shot down over the Atlantic in the last novel by a second saucer that our hero, Rip Cantrell, dug out of the Saharan sands. The current novel begins a few months after the last one ends. Don't read it if you are looking for a serious work of science fiction. As the title implies, Saucer: Savage Planet is pulp fiction with a wink ... although it does advance a clever idea. While that payoff is small, the novel is a quick and undemanding read, the kind of book you might pick up if you are in the mood for a mindless diversion.

Savage Planet opens with the CEO of a pharmaceutical company salvaging the saucer that crashed in the last novel because he believes the ship's computers contain a formula for an anti-aging drug that will make him billions of dollars. The CEO has been sold on that premise by Adam Solo, who needs the CEO to salvage the saucer so that Solo can steal it. In the meantime, the media get wind of the anti-aging drug and the ensuing news stories convince the president that his party will control the government forever if only he can make the drug available to the public.

The story features an actual alien, who seems pretty much human apart from his telepathic abilities. The title Savage Planet refers to Earth as the alien sees it. Having survived a good bit of human history (including a stint with the Vikings), he has good reason to see it that way.

Savage Planet is more silly than funny, making this a novel I might recommend to younger readers. Its targets (primarily politicians, media "babes," and greedy capitalists) are familiar and easy to lampoon. A couple of things about the novel made me smile, including the president's continuing reliance on the advice he gets from a Chief Petty Officer (who, not being a politician, is the only person in Washington who bases advice on common sense), but none of the humor produced a belly laugh. The story has an oft-repeated moral -- life on this savage planet "is a grand adventure" and should be lived to its fullest -- but this isn't a philosophical novel and anyway, most of us don't have a chance to ride around in flying saucers. Ultimately, Savage Planet is a straightforward, moderately entertaining adventure story with a hokey ending that is occasionally amusing. When I was twelve, I would have loved it.