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.

Friday
Jul182014

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki

Published by First Second on May 6, 2014

A graphic novel as good as This One Summer is hard to find. The story revolves around a single summer in the life of a girl who is on the cusp of adolescence. Everything is formative at that age. Events big and small all add up to shape a future that the child is only beginning to imagine. This is a story about the perils of family, the difficulty of growing up, and the process of learning to cope with life's complexity.

Rose and her parents go to their summer cottage on the beach where Rose hangs out with her friend Windy. They talk about boys (of course) and sex (of course), two topics about which they know little. They swim and watch scary movies and bond. They're surrounded by adult drama that they often don't quite understand. Rose's mother is unhappy and is doing her best to make her unhappiness known to the world, creating tension in Rose's summer, particularly after her father returns to the city. Rose takes a keen interest in a scruffy 18-year-old boy from the corner store although she doesn't know how to deal with her curiosity about him. Fortunately, she hasn't entered the raging hormone teenage years. The boy has, of course, and his raging hormones have gotten him into a messy situation.

I love Rose's attitude. Here's her take on Sex and the City: "Like, so they're 40 and they're having sex. Who cares?" Rose is always trying to puzzle out the meaning of adult behavior, even the behaviors of those who are only a few years older. Mariko Tamiko captures that uncertainty perfectly.

I also love the way Jillian Tamaki's art nearly always conveys a sense of action, even if it's just a bird in flight or a blowing leaf. As they should be in a graphic novel, many panels are free of words. The art (all sketched in blue) creates just the right atmosphere for the story.

The story is low-key, told at a relaxed summer pace, and is utterly convincing. It's also surprisingly captivating and brutally honest without ever becoming melodramatic. It captures a stage of life better than most text-based literary novels can manage. Fans of serious graphic novels -- and any fan of good story-telling -- should consider spending time with This One Summer.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul162014

Any Other Name by Craig Johnson

Published by Viking on May 13, 2014

Like the first ten Walt Longmire novels, Any Other Name (the eleventh entry in the series) is a pleasure to read. The laid-back sheriff, his Cheyenne friend (Henry Standing Bear), his crusty former boss (Lucian Connally), his Undersheriff/lover (Victoria Moretti), his daughter (Cady) and his dog (Dog) all contribute to the fun. Actually, his daughter takes an off-stage role. She's in Philadelphia, about to give birth, and is insisting that Longmire solve the crime in time to catch a flight so he can be present when her baby is born. If you've followed the series, you know Longmire had best obey his daughter's commands.

Gerald Holman, a sheriff's detective in an adjacent county, apparently committed suicide in a locked room. Phyllis Holman thinks the true cause of her husband's death is being covered up. Longmire agrees to investigate Holman's death. He's soon poking his nose into unwelcome places. Shootouts ensue. Repeatedly.

Holman had been working on three cold cases, all of which involved young women who disappeared. The last woman to disappear was a stripper who worked for Tommi Sandburg, the sister of the county's sheriff. Tommi is a hoot, the kind of eccentric character Craig Johnson does so well. Tracking one of the missing women leads Longmire to an unfortunate but amusing encounter with a herd of buffalo and to a whacky sequence of events that has Longmire chasing a train in a blizzard. In the hands of most other authors, I would be rolling my eyes, but Johnson kept my eyes focused on the text. He makes me believe, makes me want to believe, no matter how unlikely the story becomes. That's the mark of a talented writer.

If Any Other Name has a weakness, it is the unoriginal explanation for the disappearance of the women, although the story does finish with a surprise. Still, I'm not sure the plot matters. Reading a Walt Longmire novel is like visiting with old friends. Walt is a good natured guy and the story's good natured violence sets the stage for the characters to exchange droll jokes. Walt is a model of dignity and kindness, a model that people in law enforcement, and everyone else, should emulate.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul142014

Days of Rage by Brad Taylor

Published by Dutton on July 15, 2014

Just when I thought Brad Taylor was running out of gas, telling a story that was too similar to other Taskforce novels, he decided to shake up the series. I won't say what happens, but it triggers the dark rage that Pike Logan thought his team member and lover Jennifer had tamed. The last half of the novel is intense.

Two storylines weave together. One involves Russia's FSB, which wants to send a Nigerian terrorist to execute a plan that is intended to damage the United States. The plan is farfetched but I guess I can accept that the FSB might believe it would work.  When the FSB creates problems for the Taskforce, Pike Logan and his usual team members travel to Bulgaria to learn what the Nigerian is planning.

The other storyline involves Russian intelligence secrets that Mossad is trying to buy. A flash drive holding those secrets contains information that might be embarrassing to the United States government. Pike's team is redirected to recover the flash drive before Mossad can get it. As usual, Pike has his own agenda.

Pike pursuing an unauthorized mission of his own is beginning to feel like a formula but, so far, it is a successful formula. And as noted above, Taylor shakes up the formula with a surprising plot twist that forces Pike to realize how much he depends on Jennifer for a sense of balance while forcing Jennifer to realize how living a violent life is changing her in ways she fears.

As always, Taylor has a realistic and nuanced view of his heroes and villains. Taylor understands that the Taskforce would be called the "secret police" in other nations. Days of Rage illustrates our "confusing new world" in which allies and enemies are often difficult to distinguish. The tension between the interests of Mossad and those of the United States, as well as a debate about whether endless cycles of killing actually keep people safe, provide some of the novel's most interesting moments. Taylor's point of view is a refreshing break from the simplistic worldviews offered by too many thriller writers. I also appreciate the moral center that Jennifer brings to the story. Of course, the high tech gadgetry, fistfights, and chases are fun too.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul112014

The Untold by Courtney Collins

First published in Australia in 2012; published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam on May 29, 2014

A mother named Jessie slices the throat of her prematurely born baby in what she regards as an act of mercy. From his grave, the baby narrates The Untold. The baby is surprisingly aware of events that occur before and after his death. He knows, for instance, that his mother bludgeoned his father to death on the eve of his birth, and that Fitz, his father, deserved it. He knows that his mother met Fitz after being released from a Sydney prison into Fitz' custody. He knows why his mother was sent to prison and he knows the unpleasant story of her childhood and of her difficult married life.

Jessie is the most important of three key characters. The second is a horse-and-cattle thief named Jack Brown, an Aborigine who, like Jessie, must serve Fitz to avoid imprisonment. After Jessie flees from the scene of her crime, Brown helps Andrew Barlow, a police sergeant who has taken an isolated rural posting to overcome his drug addiction, search for her. The story occasionally flashes back to 1903 and later years during Jessie's childhood (still narrated by her yet-to-be-conceived baby). The third key character and several others appear along the way, including circus performers and a gang of boys who rustle cattle. Jessie's past connects to her present in surprising ways.

The intersecting lives of Jessie and Jack set the stage for much of the novel's drama. Death is a pervasive theme, as is hope. The people who live in the valley in which The Untold is set live hard, violent lives. Life is even harder for women. They mitigate their suffering by helping each other. Jessie's life is extraordinarily hard but her spirit endures, buoyed by the fleeting connections she makes with the people she meets as she struggles to retain her freedom. "She imagines herself to be one of those creatures whose nature is not to run from death, but to run alongside it."

Sympathetic characters and a strong story contribute to an engrossing reading experience despite the novel's slow start. Courtney Collins' evocative prose captures the rugged landscape and the desolate hearts of the land's inhabitants. Each key character changes as a result of their coming together, not always for the better but in ways that seem inevitable. The ending satisfies. The only false note is the dead baby's narration. As literary devices go, this one was a poor and puzzling choice. Fortunately the baby's intrusive commentary does not appear often, making the flaw easy to overlook.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul092014

The Travel Writer by Jeff Soloway

Published digitallly by Random House/Alibi on June 3, 2014

Travel editor Hilary Pearson has gone missing during a trip to Bolivia and travel writers are blaming the resort that hosted her trip (which is like blaming Donald Trump if a guest at Trump Towers wanders off and never returns). Hotel publicist Pilar Rojas wants her former lover, travel writer Jacob Smalls, to come to Bolivia to search for Pearson. Smalls, who happily writes puff pieces about hotels and resorts in exchange for a few free nights of lodging and a complimentary bottle of wine, accepts the challenge.

Accompanied (for comic relief, apparently) by a guy named Kenny who had a strong crush on Hillary, Smalls anticipates spending an expense-paid week at a top resort with sexy Pilar. Instead he finds himself accosted by a variety of tough guys with divergent political leanings who question his agenda. Kenny's approach is to blurt out questions about Hillary at random, causing more trouble for Smalls, who becomes Kenny's protector.

Smalls' ability to get comped on hotel rooms and (less often) air fare is the most interesting part of The Travel Writer. Almost as interesting is the novel's exploration of politics and poverty in Bolivia. Whether the novel's political viewpoint (which seems rather one-sided) is accurate I can't say, but the political motivation for some of the novel's occurrences adds flavor to the story. I also liked the travel writing as Jeff Soloway describes the various hotels, markets, and sights that Smalls visits in La Paz before making his way to the mountain resort. Less interesting is a plodding set-up, including a long-winded account of Smalls' relationship with Pilar. Smalls' romantic pursuit of Pilar later in the novel is a banal addition to the story, although I give Soloway credit for not allowing it to follow a predictable path.

The Travel Writer
is meant to be a suspense novel but the suspense is lacking. I enjoyed reading some of it because there is a good measure of cleverness and wit in Smalls' first-person narration of the tale. The mystery of Hillary's disappearance turns out to be something less than a nail-biter but it is at least plausible. A bit of action at the end enlivens a story that is often more dull than a crime novel should be. On the whole, I'm not sure I liked this enough to read the next novel in the series, whenever that might appear.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS