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.


Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Published by Random House on February 3, 2015

There's something a little out of whack about the worlds in which Kelly Link's characters live. Babies are born without shadows or with an extra shadow. Superheroes have useless powers like the ability to know the correct time without looking at a clock. Strangeness is the background but never the focus of Link's stories. Well, almost never. Instead, Link's characters are strange in perfectly normal ways. They are motivated by the same jealousies and insecurities and resentments as people who live in more familiar environments.

The genre-bending stories collected in Get in Trouble are wildly inventive. They are invariably witty. Link's economical language has deeper meaning than is apparent on the surface although some observations, like telling us there is there is "a fine line between being cuddled and squeezed like a juice box," are just funny.

"When he wasn't getting right with God, Fran's daddy got up to all kinds of trouble." Fran has her own trouble as she carries on the family tradition of serving "The Summer People," my favorite story in the collection.

Lame superheroes lurk in the background of two stories. In "Secret Identity," the author of a letter to someone she met in an online game tries to explain why she is not the person she appears to be. The story's moral is that you can learn a lot about yourself by pretending to be someone else, but you can learn even more by being yourself. "Origin Story" is apparently set in the same universe as "Secret Identity," but I found "Origin Story to be less appealing.

Ghosts provide the theme for two stories. "Two Houses" is a ghost story about astronauts on a spaceship who tell ghost stories. "I Can See Right Through You" is about the lives of two actors who once kissed in a popular vampire movie. The kiss, portending a real-life relationship, is the male actor's defining moment -- unless you count the sex tape or a version of Ghost Hunters that searches for a lost nudist colony. This is my second favorite, thanks to a neat twist at the end that forces the reader to reinterpret much of what has gone before.

Is it better to have something that is perfect but fake or imperfect but real? A girl in "The New Boyfriend" gets a fake boyfriend for her birthday -- a ghost vampire boyfriend that has been recalled by the manufacturer. But what happens when her friend falls in love with her fake boyfriend? Just like having a fake identity can help you learn about yourself, it seems that having a fake boyfriend can help you learn about real relationships.

Mummies, pyramids, pool parties, Raves on the moon, and Faces programmed to replace children so parents can avoid public embarrassment all appear in "Valley of the Girls," a tragic love story that might be a futuristic version of Romeo & Juliet if Shakespeare had been dropping acid. Even stranger is the background of "Light" -- pocket universes, warehouses full of sleeping people -- a domestic drama about a woman, her missing husband, and her gay brother. "Light" is my least favorite in the collection, primarily because I don't know what to make of it, but none of the entries in this odd collection of light-but-serious fantasy stories are bad.



All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Published by Minotaur Books on March 10, 2015

All the Old Knives tells a compelling story. It is a simpler story than the plots found in many spy novels. The central idea is the traditional fare of spy novels -- a mole in the CIA has given information to the enemy and the reader is challenged to discover the mole's identity -- but the focus of this relatively short novel is on just two characters engaged in an intricate dance, probing each other over a quiet dinner. Having cut away the complexity of plot that often attends such stories, Olen Steinhauer is free to focus on the complexity of two primary characters, each of whom is haunted by the past.

Information received from a Gitmo prisoner in 2012 suggests that a traitor within the American embassy assisted a terrorist attack at the Vienna airport six years earlier. The improbable accusation sends Henry Pelham scurrying off to interview people who might have relevant information, including Celia Favreau, a former lover who left the CIA and is now married with children. Pelham meets her in Carmel, "a perfect place to live if you want to be someone other than you once were." Pelham is prepared to end her life, if necessary.

This sounds like a plot that's been done before but Steinhauer makes it seem fresh. The theme of betrayal is common to books about espionage but the best ones use betrayal to teach a lesson. The lesson here is that betrayal, whether by individuals or governments, will almost always come back around to bite you in the backside. Steinhauer illustrates that lesson in a story that is tight, tense, and convincing. All the Old Knives doesn't have the breadth of the best spy fiction and the ending is a bit weak, but it is nevertheless a worthy read.



Unbreakable by W.C. Bauers

Published by Tor Books on January 13, 2015

After she lost her parents, Promise Paen left the planet Montana to join the Republican Marines. The Marines send her back to Montana to act as a liaison between the planet's government and an Admiral who is trying to gain the planet's trust. The Republic is at odds with the Lusitanian Empire which has designs on Montana. Against all odds, Paen and the Marines she commands, along with a ragtag local militia, eventually defend Montana from the Empire's incursion.

As is common (and unoriginal) in military science fiction, flashbacks tell us about Promise's enlistment and training. Those obligatory scenes are not as lengthy or familiar as in some novels, but their inclusion makes Unbreakable read like formula fiction. Which, in fact, it is.

Like many military novels (not just sf), Unbreakable includes a scene in which a grizzled officer quotes from All Quiet on the Western Front and admonishes younger soldiers that they should never glorify war. The remaining scenes, of course, glorify war while pretending to do the opposite. Stories of that nature can be fun but they are rarely deep. Unbreakable isn't All Quiet on the Western Front. It is a moderately enjoyable novel that can be quickly read and forgotten. Phrases like "the weapon belched fire" and "give the [enemy] a one-way ticket to hell" and "grenades rained death" are best forgotten quickly.

Like the story, characters are superficial. The ghost of Promise's mother shows up regularly to offer unsolicited advice. That's a clumsy literary device that I could have done without. Promise's relationship insecurity ("I'm not good with men and I don't feel pretty") is more suited to a trashy romance novel than military sf. So are the scenes in which "Promise's insides turned to goo" because her dance partner touches her back. My brain turns to goo when I read sentences like that.

The last long stretch of the novel is a battle to save Montana from the Empire. It is filled with the usual chest-thumping Marine bromides about duty and loyalty and bravery and semper fidelis. Promise gets to make stirring speeches that make her ghost mother proud. Nothing in this section is fresh. Readers who enjoy reading this sort of thing over and over will be happy to experience standard battle scenes fought by standard soldiers with standard high tech weaponry. Readers looking for original thought will come away disappointed. Unbreakable is no worse than average military sf but it is certainly no better than average.



A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

Published by Picador on January 6, 2015

William Heming is one of the most unusual protagonists I've encountered in a crime novel. He's likable enough if you overlook his penchant for killing people when it makes his life more convenient. He has some other odd habits that, in a real person, would be a bit frightening. At the same time, A Pleasure and a Calling is so well written that I was happy to get to know Heming as a fictional character, even if I wouldn't want to be his neighbor.

The Cooksons return from vacation to find a week-old dead body in their garden. Heming is their estate agent. About two-thirds of the way into the novel, we learn how the corpse arrived at its destination. We work our way there in a story that moves with a deliberate pace as Phil Hogan devotes attention to characters, setting, and dark humor.

Since he was a young boy, Heming has been a snoop. Early chapters in the novel recount his life-long obsession with stealing keys, entering homes and offices, learning people's secrets, and occasionally taking a souvenir (a ball of rubber bands, for instance). A career in real estate, where keys are simply handed to him, is a perfect calling. Heming is not a thief in the conventional sense. He steals the privacy of his victims, solely to satisfy his own curiosity. That makes him creepy but mostly harmless -- until his hobby gets the better of him.

Back in the present, Heming has a mild confrontation with a man named Douglas Sharp whose dog left an unwelcome deposit on a walking path. The intensely curious Heming makes it his business to learn about Sharp. He becomes convinced that Sharp is having an affair with a librarian named Abigail and, having taken an instant dislike to the man, decides to meddle in his life. In the course of meddling, William becomes unaccountably besotted with Abigail.

The consequences of Heming's prying and meddling occupy the last two-thirds of the book. Most of the consequences result from Heming's frequently mistaken certainty that something nefarious is afoot. He sets in motion a chain of events that are perfectly logical and highly entertaining. In fact, the logic of the story sets it apart from most modern crime novels. Events build upon one another in a way that makes an improbable story seem perfectly natural.

Heming is an engaging character although, in real life, he would justly be regarded as sinister and well deserving of incarceration. He is a bit of a rogue, using women and leaving them, although he leaves to protect himself from falling in love and the pain of love's inevitable loss. He's charming and polite and never dishonest about his intentions, so the women don't seem to mind being used. Firm in the belief that the only constant in life is change, William prefers "the intimacy of serial love" to the illusion of lasting love.

A Pleasure and a Calling is a leisurely novel of elegant prose. Hogan develops tension at appropriate moments but this is more a character-based novel than a thriller. It took me some time to invest in the story but Hogan's prose pulled me forward until I became hooked on the characters and the unusual plot. I'm not sure the story lends itself to a sequel, but if Hogan decides to revisit the character, I'd be happy to read more about his peculiar obsession.



Aquarium by David Vann

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on March 3, 2015

Aquarium is one of the most intense novels I've ever read. It isn't about fish, but it is, to the extent that fish teach us about people. In part, Aquarium is a coming of age story, the story of a girl named Caitlin who discovers her own identity and comes to accept harsh truths about her mother Sheri.

Aquarium is also about the possibility of change. The waspfish lives fifty feet underwater where light barely penetrates. Rise a few feet and the waspfish might experience a small change "as something enormous." So too might people who step outside the "narrow range" in which they live their lives. You cannot change the past, but it might be possible to change how your react to the past. Sheri hates her father but her father has changed. Can Sheri?

At 32, Caitlin Thompson looks back to the time when, at age 12, she visited an aquarium in Seattle every day after school before walking home. She likes the way the fish are protected from predators, unlike the real world, where people face all the risks of fish in the ocean. Every day, Caitlin runs into an old man at the aquarium who makes a point of talking to her. The encounters appear to be innocent but the situation is ominous. Is he a lonely old man or a child molester?

The leafy seadragon does nothing but hide. As the story progresses, Caitlin keeps parts of her life hidden but can't imagine living that way. "There has to be more than just hiding," the old man tells Caitlin, but hiding keeps the leafy seadragon safe. Caitlin values safety, enjoys being home with her mother even when Sheri is so wrapped up in her new boyfriend that Caitlin becomes invisible to her. Sheri is scraping by on the salary she earns unloading containers from cargo ships. The aquarium is her after-school babysitter. Sheri used to take Caitlin to work during overtime shifts until a customs inspector threatened to call social services. Caitlin's greatest fear is not of the old man but of social workers taking her away from her mother, particularly after the police correctly suspect that Sheri slapped her.

What Caitlin sees of adult life is unbearably sad. People are trapped by their lives. Sheri resents working a job "that meant nothing and would lead nowhere." Hatred inspired by the father who abandoned her to a hellacious existence consumes Sheri's memories. Sheri has good reason to feel angry but she is so consumed that she pollutes Caitlin with her rage and resentment. When Sheri lets the past control her, even Caitlin's home does not feel safe. The reader cringes at some of Sheri's behavior with Caitlin, but it is hard to blame Sheri for being the person she has become. At the same time, it is easy to be concerned about Caitlin. Many of the adults in the novel feel like they are living lives filled with dents that can never be repaired; they are Caitlin's role models.

I won't discuss what happens in Aquarium beyond the setup. The powerful story moves in unanticipated directions. Sensitive readers might find it too disturbing. It is often raw and painful, the kind of story that makes the reader want to scream at a character to make her understand how wrong she is. David Vann is able to spark that reaction by creating characters that are utterly convincing. Aquarium is not a sunny story of forgiveness, but it is a realistic story of redemption that reflects both the difficulty and the possibility of change.

Even if you do not read this extraordinary book, you should page through it to look at the pictures of fish. They are just as gorgeous as Vann's elegant prose.