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.

Monday
Aug222016

The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke

Published by Simon & Schuster on August 30, 2016

The Jealous Kind is a crime story, but it’s also the story of a teenage boy who is learning to understand himself, who is creating an identity he can carry into adulthood. The novel is also about friendship -- the difficulty of separating true friends from false friends, of deciding whether a friendship is real and when it should end. And it’s about the difficulty of being a decent person in an indecent world.

Aaron Broussard is a high school student in Texas from a working class background. His interest in a girl sparks conflict with a bully. Before long, Aaron and his friend Saber Bledsoe are suspected of torching a car near the area where a Mexican girl’s body is found. On top of that, one of his teachers, a man who is suspected of sexually abusing children, is deeply antagonistic to Broussard and Bledsoe. And on top of that, various characters have mob connections, making them doubly dangerous. And to top it all off, Aaron interacts with police officers who belong “to the huge army of people who believed that authority over others was an achievement and that violence was proof of a man’s bravery" -- although one police detective is a better example of humanity than the others.

As the plot unfolds, various acts of mayhem and murder occur. Aaron and/or Saber are suspected of involvement in most of them. The challenge for the reader is to figure out who did what. With an assortment of mobsters, gang members, and potentially violent people to choose from -- people whose motivations might be protective or destructive -- the challenge is enough to hold the reader’s steadfast interest.

Aaron’s father might be the novel’s most interesting character. He has an old-fashioned kind of southern honor. He’s well educated and knows that those of lesser “breeding” might mistake his sense of civility and manners for weakness. He believes in turning the other cheek, a value he labors to instill in Aaron.

Aaron’s father served in World War I, an experience he doesn’t like to discuss. World War II is looming, but the theme of war in The Jealous Kind is broader than international conflict. Class warfare and a hint of race wars are background themes through which the story must be viewed.

James Lee Burke builds tension chapter by chapter. It seems inevitable that Aaron will confront a life-changing moment. Whether he will survive, not just physically but emotionally, becomes the novel’s gripping question. The story is about courage, with which Aaron is plentifully supplied, but it is also about having the wisdom and maturity to make good choices -- to understand that violence is a last resort, even in a violent world. These are lessons taught by his father that Aaron will need to learn if he hopes to survive without ruining his life.

The Jealous Kind is one of Burke’s most powerful novels. In addition to Aaron, key characters engage in small acts of heroism, defying evil, standing up for principles despite overwhelming opposition. The point of The Jealous Kind, I think, is that it’s possible to find the courage and the will to confront evil without becoming evil. And sometimes courage is collective, as when friends have each other’s backs. There are always lessons to be learned from Burke’s novels and from that standpoint (as well as memorable characters, remarkable prose, and a compelling story), The Jealous Kind is one of his best.

RECOMMENDED

Saturday
Aug202016

Arson Plus and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett

Published digitally by MysteriousPress.com/Open Road on June 14, 2016

This volume collects three of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, originally published in Black Mask during the early 1920s. It also includes a couple of introductions, apparently taken from The Continental Op: The Complete Case Files, one of which details the history of the Continental Op stories.

Since prices change frequently, I generally don’t take them into account when reviewing books. I will say that there are only three stories in this collection, and that readers might want to ask whether they would get more value for their money by purchasing The Complete Case Files or some other collection that includes more stories.

The three stories aren’t bad, but they are not up to the level of Hammett’s later work. Many later stories in the series were better. I’ve always been a bigger fan of Hammett’s novels, which are justly praised by fans of noir.

The stories:

In “Arson Plus,” the Continental Op helps the police solve a murder. A man dies in a fire. Suspects include housekeepers and a niece, but the solution is trickier than it first appears. This is the best story of the three.

In “Crooked Souls,” the Continental Op is hired after a wealthy man’s daughter is kidnapped. The plot is familiar, but it might have been fresh when the story was first published.

“Slippery Fingers” turns on finding the suspect who left bloody fingerprints on a gun. The story seemed to me to turn on an unlikely premise, but I’m hardly an expert on the state of fingerprint technology in 1923.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Aug192016

The Dark Side by Anthony O'Neill

Published by Simon & Schuster on June 28, 2016

The dark side of the moon is sort of like the legendary Old West: lawless, wild, and free, a haven for criminals and outcasts. It even has a town named Purgatory, which isn’t too far from Sin. Its newest resident is Justus, a lawman who has been forced to abandon Earth because he ruffled the wrong feathers. So there’s a new Sheriff in town, but is he willing to take on the moon’s leading developer, Fletcher Brass?

Bass, with the help of QT, his daughter, runs the town of Purgatory on the dark side of the moon. Justus’ first case involves the assassination of Bass’ advisor, Otto Decker. Of course, Fletcher and QT are both suspects, but so are nearly all the other inhabitants of Purgatory.

The moon also has an experimental program to house dangerous prisoners. A robot is wandering from hut to hut, engaging the prisoners in a way that does not contribute to their health. The robot, who frequently tells people that he is traveling to Oz, seems to be a bit demented. An ordinary guy, with not much to lose, decides to stop him. How that storyline relates to Justus’ attempt to solve a murder is not apparent until a good bit of the story has unfolded.

Three words that start with O best describe The Dark Side: odd, offbeat, and original. It’s sort of a tongue-in-cheek mystery novel in a western setting, but it should appeal to fans of action-oriented science fiction. The protagonist is likable, but so is the mad robot who manages to kill a few dozen people before the novel’s end. Well, none of us are responsible for our programming, aren’t we?

To its credit, the story isn’t even slightly predictable, and it’s consistently amusing. If you’re looking for serious sf, look elsewhere, but if you just want to have a good time with an old fashioned western married to a goofy sf novel, The Dark Side is a fun choice.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug172016

Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis C. Chen

Published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books on June 21, 2016

A spy has the code name Kangaroo because has a pouch. After he makes the pouch materialize, he can reach inside and connect to another universe, which gives him a lot of storage space. Not many people have that accessory. Why Kangaroo can open a portal to a pocket universe is something of a mystery to science, to Kangaroo, and to the reader. Probably it is best not to think about it too deeply. Whatever the reason, the ability makes him a good smuggler. It would certainly come in handy to avoid paying fees for checking excess luggage on airplanes. I'm envious.

Kangaroo works for an espionage agency. His smuggling capability makes him a useful courier. He was once in the military, fighting against the Mars uprising, but he was pulled out of harm’s way because his pouch was too valuable to place at risk.

Kangaroo’s boss sends him on a vacation on a cruise ship to Mars, which is promptly hijacked and turned into a weapon that could reignite the Mars-Earth war. What follows is essentially an action novel in which Kangaroo finds ways to use his pouch to save himself and thwart evildoers. Along the way he has some moments of romance which, fortunately, do not overshadow the story as a whole.

Don’t expect deep characterization or intricate plotting from Waypoint Kangaroo. This is an action story with a few clever twists that are dictated by its premise. At the same time, it moves quickly, the prose is polished, and it is fun to read. The ending seems to set up a sequel. While it isn’t the kind of book I would pre-order, I have to think that a sequel to Waypoint Kangaroo might be worth reading.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug152016

A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl

Published by Viking on June 28, 2016

A Hundred Thousand Worlds takes place inside the comic book industry. That doesn’t make this novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, gushing blurbs notwithstanding, but it is nevertheless an interesting setting.

Valerie Torrey is an actress who once starred in a time travel series. She lives with her son, Alex, in New York, where she acts in off-Broadway plays when she gets a chance. Alex’s father is an actor in a current television show that Alex is probably too young to watch, but Valerie can’t bear to stop him. He was also Valerie’s co-star in the time travel show.

Valerie earns pocket money by appearing at comic book conventions. At a convention in Cleveland, she meets Gail Pope, who has achieved token popularity as the only female writer for a major publisher. Part of the novel deals with the difficulty of being a female writer in a medium that is dominated by males. The story also addresses Gail’s professional jealousy as another writer is selected to revive an iconic title that has gone unpublished for 20 years. Similar jealousies afflict an independent artist (Brett) and writer (Fred) who work as a team until their professional relationship is threatened.

Comic book fans will appreciate the critical examination the industry. Gail and other writers discuss the relative merits of the various companies (a thinly disguised DC has embraced change for the sake of change, even when the changes are bad; a thinly disguised Marvel is incapable of change because it has sold the movie rights to its characters). Women who attend conventions dressed as female comic book characters add humor to the story.

But the world of comics is only the background for Alex’s story. Growing up with an absent father, Alex befriends Brett, who draws the stories that Alex narrates. When Alex’s father comes back into his life, Valerie frets about whether it would be wise to allow Alex to live with him in LA. She also frets about her own future if Alex goes to live with his father. Alex, on the other hand, is more mature than any adult in the story. His resilience allows him to handle change even if he doesn’t look forward to any disturbance of a life he loves. As Alex makes up his own comic book story, the reader quickly understands that it is the story of the life Alex wants to have.

While the story and its background are interesting, I’m not sure the twin plot threads (one involving Alex and his parents, the other involving comic book writers and artists) mesh together very well. Alex’s story resolves a bit predictably, while the other thread fizzles out.

Alex might be the sweetest kid who ever lived, which makes his character difficult to believe. Much of the story is a family drama, but it generates little dramatic tension. Notwithstanding those observations, I was consistently entertained by A Hundred Thousand Worlds. Bob Proehl’s prose is lively, the setting is colorful, and the gentle humor sprinkled through the story kept me smiling.

RECOMMENDED