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.


The Whispers by Lisa Unger

Published digitally by Pocket Star on October 27, 2014

"The Whispers" is a short story (not nearly long enough to be called a novella), the first of a trio that are intended to promote Lisa Unger's new novel. An excerpt from that novel comes with the story. This review is of the story, not the excerpt.

Eloise is a stay-at-home mom; her husband teaches algebra at Hollows High; one of her daughters is in a goth phase. Eloise survives a family tragedy and is still in a grieving period when a girl, or an apparition, appears in her living room and asks for help. When Eloise sees a picture of the missing child on television, she knows she must help her ... but how? The rest of the story follows Eloise as she exercises what appears to be a newfound psychic talent for "seeing" missing or endangered children and for hearing the whispers from beyond that guide her.

In a novel, Lisa Unger has room to overcome her excesses. She does not do that here. Unger crowds the story with trite observations ("The river of life kept flowing; and one must swim or drown" and "Life is not fair. We just do our best. We have each other"). Clichéd expressions can be buried in a novel but they stand out in a short story, particularly when they come three-in-a-row.

Too much of Unger's prose in "The Whispers" is overwrought ("She would never be whole again"), including a hallucinated/dreamed/imagined "saying goodbye" scene that is meant to be gut-wrenching but, like a couple of other scenes, comes across as sappy. This kind of writing plays well with many readers and if you are one of those, you'll be happy to have your heart strings tugged. But Unger doesn't just tug; she yanks. I prefer a style of writing that is more subtle and original than Unger displays in this story.

The story makes good points about the need to release anger, to forgive others their faults even when those faults cause harm, to avoid sitting in judgment of people whose lives we have not lived. Unfortunately, the plot is insubstantial and covers ground that has been well plowed by bad television shows. I wouldn't necessarily call this a bad story but I would call it forgettable.



Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk

Published by Doubleday on October 21, 2014

"I love you because you're so average" is not the nicest compliment Penny Harrigan has ever heard, but since Linus Maxwell, the world's richest man, is only describing her "textbook" genitalia, she can live with it. Having satisfied supermodels and the first female American president, Maxwell knows something about female parts. He is developing a new product line called Beautiful You that might render men obsolete. The products are designed to enhance female erotic pleasure and Penny is the latest in a long line of test subjects, each of whom has been dismissed from the project after 136 blissful days.

Penny rejects both the "women must go to law school" and the "women must stay at home and raise the kids" model but is struggling to find a third way. She would also like to be less lonely. The pleasure provided by the Beautiful You gadgetry is welcome but it is not a substitute for love ... or is it?

Whether Penny will ever get love from Maxwell is a mystery to which Palahniuk provides conflicting clues through much of the novel. Maxwell wears a lab coat during his sexual encounters. When he participates more actively, he scribbles in his notebook (without breaking stride) and studies readouts of pulse rate and blood pressure. Still, he seems to have genuine feelings for Penny. All of this is funny but it also makes a telling point about the clinical and emotional elements of sex. Either element alone (thrilling sex without love or loving sex without thrills) can be rewarding but the combination is a powerful form of witchcraft.

Beautiful You suggests that women pay the price for male inventiveness. The desire of men to control women and the empowerment of women to resist that control is a related theme, one that is advanced here with a conspiracy to enslave women for an insidious (albeit nonsexual) purpose. Beautiful You also explores the changing role of women in society and advances near-future technology as the latest weapon in the battle of the sexes, all from the satirical perspective that Chuck Palahniuk often adopts.

There is not a surfeit of substance in Beautiful You -- most of the satirical points it makes are obvious ("personal fulfillment" can be a selfish desire) and its targets (consumerism, Promise Keepers, corrupt politicians, greedy lawyers, controlling men, trendy women) are easy and familiar -- but the argument it makes in favor of a balance between deep love and astonishing sex is sound. The graphic nature of some scenes and the opening rape might offend sensitive readers but none of the descriptive text is crude or (from my perspective, at least) offensive. Its bawdy nature may be too much for some readers, its silliness too silly for others, but for me, both of those factors added to the humor, some of which is deceptively clever. I particularly enjoyed the way all the plot elements tie together at the end.

On the downside, Palahniuk's prose occasionally has a rushed, unedited feel and I found the over-the-top storyline, while amusing, to be too over-the-top to provoke many belly laughs. Beautiful You is not one of Palahniuk's best literary efforts, but it is sufficiently entertaining to earn my recommendation.



Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura

Published in Japan in 2013; published in translation by Soho Press on October 21, 2014

The crime novels of Fuminori Nakamura explore the psychology of the criminal mind while making the point that the criminal mind is difficult to distinguish from the noncriminal mind. Guilt is often a fluid and ambiguous concept, easily shared and spread, not always understood by those who refuse to look beyond the superficial.

Yudai Kiharazaka, a photographer, has been sentenced to death for the murders of two women who were incinerated in separate fires. The narrator of Last Winter, We Parted has been commissioned to write a book about the murderer. Some people the narrator interviews speculate that Kiharazaka burned the women so that he could photograph them in flames, thus replaying a version of the climactic scene in a classic Japanese short story called "Hell Screen."

The narrator begins his project after becoming fixated on a photograph Kiharazaka took of black butterflies obscuring a figure that might be a woman. He is also drawn to Kiharazaka's obsession with lifelike silicon dolls that are patterned on real women, an obsession shared by a group known as K2.

Some chapters of Last Winter, We Parted consist of Kiharazaka's letters to the narrator and to his sister. Some chapters relate the narrator's interviews with people who knew Kihirazaka, each adding insight to his life while prompting the reader to question what really happened. Some chapters follow the narrator's introspective life as he decides what to do about Yukie, his girlfriend. The narrator becomes uncomfortably involved with both Kiharazaka and his sister while coming to understand their true nature ... and his own.

Last Winter, We Parted is a short but complex novel. The truth about the two deaths is surprising and complicity is found in unexpected places. This is the kind of novel that needs to be read in its entirety before all of the parts can be understood and integrated. Some chapters require reinterpretation by the story's end, while the ending gives the reader a new understanding of the entire book, including the dedication. The novel's brevity and tight construction make all of that possible without placing an undue burden on the reader.

Last Winter, We Parted also considers the relationship of art to the living and the dead, as well as the reality that the art of fiction can inspire. This is a work of philosophy and psychology as much as it is a crime novel, yet the mystery that unfolds is riveting. Near the end, a character asks "Just what does it all mean? This world we live in." Nukamura provides no answer, but he offers the reader fruitful opportunities to think about the question.



Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler

Published by Open Road Media on June 24, 2014

Until her death in 2006, Octavia Butler was one of the jewels of science fiction. She was primarily a novelist. This volume collects two early works of her short fiction, although the first one is long enough to categorize as a novella. The important themes she explores in these excellent stories are representative of those she tackled in her longer work.

"A Necessary Being" imagines a caste-based alien society divided among hunters, judges, fighters, artisans, and other groups. The color-changing aliens are particularly adept at camouflage. Their empire has splintered into tribes. The leader of each tribe is a Hao, an individual of superior strength and abilities. Since the Hao are rare, tribes sometimes kidnap a Hao from another tribe with the hope that the Hao will eventually be assimilated into their tribal society. Against that intricate backdrop, a young Hao and the judge and hunter who accompany him face a dangerous encounter with another tribe. The story is in some ways a clever allegory of racial differences, where skin tone determines value in society, and of slavery and the forced assimilation that follows from it. It is also an insightful story about war and diplomacy as conflicting solutions to political conflict.

Shorter and slightly less compelling, "Childfinder" is told from the point of view of Barbara, a black woman who has the ability to detect nascent psionic ability in children. She has left the Organization to help black kids develop their psi talents in ways and for reasons the Organization doesn't appreciate. This is a story about how race divides society and how thoughts that should have the potential to unify are suppressed by oppressors who want to hold onto power.

Neither story has been previously published. "Childfinder" was purchased for The Last Dangerous Visions, the legendary Harlan Ellison anthology that never made it to publication. It's good to see these stories finding the audience they deserve.



A Vision of Fire by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin

Published by Simon & Schuster on October 7, 2014

Like many other geekish guys, I had a thing for Gillian Anderson during her X-Files days -- or more precisely, for Scully, a woman of intellect and understated sexiness who easily made it onto my laminated list of Favorite Fantasies. I feared that her attempt to write fiction might produce another awful clone of Twilight, but as a committed Gillian groupie, I set aside my anxiety and took the literary plunge into A Vision of Fire.

After witnessing an assassination attempt on India’s ambassador to the UN, the ambassador’s daughter, Maanik Pawar, enters a disturbed mental state that includes periodic trancelike states, speaking what seems to be gibberish, and moving her arms in peculiar ways. Dr. Caitlin O’Hara is asked to assist. O’Hara is an adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in solving the problems of children around the world.

Meanwhile, in Tehran, a boy sets fire to himself. In Haiti, a girl is drowning without going near the water. Badly behaving birds and swarming rats also figure into the story. O’Hara’s task is to find the connection between the various events. Her willingness to fly off to Iran and Haiti to do so struck me as unlikely and foolish, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of Gillian Anderson.

The novel’s backdrop is an escalating military conflict between India and Pakistan. O’Hara’s hypersensitive friend, Benjamin Moss, not only persuades O’Hara to intervene with Maanik but is the first person contacted by a UN peacekeeper when hostilities break out. Those both seem like improbable roles for a UN translator to play -- he’s really in the novel to give O’Hara the opportunity for love or lust -- but again, I suspended by disbelief. (Oh, Gillian, the things you make me do ….)

The novel’s final element concerns the Group, which collects (or steals) artifacts from the southern polar seas. The artifacts come from the distant past, a time of crisis, and as one expects from artifacts in a novel like this, they hold power that endangers the present. That plot thread fizzles out until the end, when it returns to set up the sequel.

The plot of A Vision of Fire is reasonably smart. It has the feel of an average X-Files episode (I attribute that to Gillian). The writing style is smooth (I attribute that to Jeff Rovin). The love interest subplot seems forced but the political background gives the novel some heft. Unfortunately, the story is less suspenseful, less creepy, than I want from this kind of novel. Doing my best to remain uninfluenced by my swoony feelings for Gillian/Scully, I’m giving A Vision of Fire a modest recommendation. I don’t know if I would read the next book in the series without the Scully connection, but as a besotted fan, I’m sure I will.