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.


Symbiont by Mira Grant

Published by Orbit on November 25, 2014

As we learned in Parasite, Sal the Tapeworm is inhabiting the body of Sally Mitchell the Dead Girl. Her identity crisis continues in Symbiont. Sal is a chimera, a genetic mixture of human and tapeworm. Most others who are being taken over by tapeworms lose their cognitive abilities as their brains are eaten, but Sal is a special case. In fact, most humans who have been taken over by tapeworms shamble, a sure sign that they are zombies, even if they are known here as "sleepwalkers." A zombie by another name ... Another clue to the zombie-like nature of sleepwalkers is their drive to gnaw on people who are not being controlled by tapeworms. Again, Sal feels no such urge.

Although a zombie apocalypse is unfolding in the background, Symbiont, like Parasite, isn't really a zombie novel. Since the world has enough zombie novels, readers should be grateful for that, although it isn't clear that the reading public's desire for zombies is satiable. Parasite was more of a medical thriller than a zombie novel while Symbiont is a compilation of chase scenes, escape scenes, and "am I human or am I a tapeworm?" scenes.

Symbiont feels like a bridge between the first and last novels. Given the novel's length, surprisingly little of significance happens. The meaningful aspects of the novel could have been distilled to 50 pages and incorporated into the last novel or the upcoming one. Mira Grant admits she intended to write a duology but ended up writing a trilogy (perhaps because book buyers like trilogies, making them easier to market). Most of Symbiont gives me the impression of filler designed to turn two books into three.

Sal spends the first part of the novel bonding with her tapeworm family and with her uninfected boyfriend while reminding the reader of her automobile phobia (a theme that recurs with tiresome regularity). The conflict that Sal feels -- she knows she's a tapeworm, sympathizes with tapeworms (to a degree), and even thinks from a tapeworm's perspective (although the perspective is informed by human intelligence) -- makes Sally a more interesting zombie than most. Later in the novel she confronts her daddy issues, daddy being a military researcher of infectious diseases who views Sally as a lab rat rather than a daughter. This leads to some weepy feeling on Sally's part and several repetitive scenes that could have been productively excised from the novel.

The evil scientist who still thinks he can profit from the zombie apocalypse (apparently failing to realize that zombies have no buying power) is too daft to take seriously. Surviving consumers will be eager have tapeworms implanted in their bodies, knowing that tapeworm-infected people wiped out San Francisco? I don't see it.

There are, however, some clever moments in Symbiont. I particularly liked the notion of crows luring sleepwalkers to their deaths as they tumble from a bridge, where waiting sharks put an end to their miserable lives. I also like Sal's divided loyalty between humans and tapeworms. Grant's writing style is fluid and she avoids the worst excesses of zombie novels. Although I was indifferent to most of the novel, I'm looking forward to the final book's resolution of the mess that Sal's creators have made.



Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet

Published by Simon & Schuster on September 9, 2014

Akira Miura believes the Chinese Triad is after him because of a position he held with the Japanese government in the 1940s. A number of his colleagues have recently died. Miura's son insists that he seek the help of Jim Brodie, an American antiques dealer who doubles as a security consultant/private eye in Tokyo. Miura might be paranoid but that possibility seems less likely after his son is hacked to death, a signature of Triad assassins.

In the tradition of private eye noir, Brodie takes a few beatings as he searches for the killer. The beatings differ from most private eye fistfights in that Brodie is proficient at kendo. Unfortunately for Brodie, so are the people who fight him. After attacks on Brodie become more deadly, he meets an old Chinese guy who tells him about Chinese villages destroyed by the Japanese. Brodie then finds himself in the difficult position of working to correct injustices of the past.

The plot offers an interesting look at the intersection of Japanese and Chinese history. It leads to a surprising reveal. Character development is weak but the pace is swift. The story provides a convincing amount of local color in Tokyo, Miami, and Barbados. Swordplay at the novel's end is a welcome departure from the shootouts that provide the action in most thrillers. Tokyo Kill is also more believable than most modern thrillers. It's the kind of entertaining book that makes for good airplane reading but it's also the kind of book that is easily forgotten when the plane lands.



A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock

Published by 47North on September 24, 2013

What does it mean to live a "normal" life? Anne Charnock sheds light on human existence by looking at "normal" humans from the perspective of a genetically engineered human -- one who is designed to function without emotions or a sense of wonder.

Jayna is an analyst living in a near future England. She looks for correlations: crime and wind direction, a company's use of nautical metaphors and its stock performance, hydrogen consumption and anything. She is a biological simulant, more advanced than earlier models, more personable, more empathic, better able to fit in with organic workers. She studies stick insects as a hobby and spends her weekends in conversation (mostly about statistics) with the other simulants who share her segregated residential building.

In an effort to improve her analytic ability (as much a function of intuition as mathematics), Jayna decides to broaden her life experience by introducing random activities into her invariable daily routine. She must exercise caution because unpredictable behavior may cause the Constructors to reboot her. That happened to another simulant who decided to enter a new restaurant simply to taste the flavor of food he had not experienced. Even more shocking was the simulant who developed a sex drive. Jayna reasons that turning on the sense of smell in the new generation of simulants may be responsible for these undesirable traits.

By watching children at play and organic co-workers in their home environments, and by conducting small experiments, Jayna develops some theories about organic human behavior, although she has more questions than theories. Why do children incorporate stealing from each other into a game that involves negotiation and trading? How are children able to fight and then quickly become best friends again? Why do adults at a barbeque spend so much time talking about food? Why is vandalism so satisfying? Do humans evolve and devolve in a way that mimics stick insects?

A Calculated Life isn't necessarily a dystopian novel -- this is a future in which everyone has food and shelter and crime rates are low -- but the society it depicts is far from ideal. People are pigeonholed by a controlling government, channeled into careers they might find unsatisfying. Individuality is not valued, in organics or in simulants. Most organic humans have implants that make them behave sensibly, never losing their tempers, assuring a long productive life in middle management. It is this background, presented with a minimum of exposition, that makes A Calculated Life an intriguing novel.

The "robot yearning to be free" plot is conventional in science fiction but Charnock makes it seem fresh. A Calculated Life is a novel of observation rather than action, a quiet novel that leads to a contemplative resolution. Yet Charnock manages to build tension over the course of this short novel as Jayna experiences a growing sense of desperation while blossoming with the realization of human potential. There is a degree of elegance in the uncluttered prose that Charnock wields to introduce optimism into a pessimistic view of the future. The novel's message -- humans can be oppressed but human nature cannot be suppressed -- resonates in this skillfully told tale.



The Neon Lawyer by Victor Methos

Published by Thomas & Mercer on November 18, 2014

A young man named Brigham, transplanted to Utah despite his name, graduates from law school in a poor economy and can't find a job. After visiting every firm in Salt Lake City, he lucks out with a firm that displays a neon sign. It turns out to be a haven for misfit lawyers. The office is owned by a lawyer with a Russian accent named Tommy who pays the attorneys a percentage of the fees they collect.

Brigham's first case is a speeding trial. His second is a murder. His client, Amanda Pierce, shot and killed the man who molested and murdered her daughter. Brigham's ethically challenged boss gets the case on his public defender contract and hands it off to Brigham. Would any judge allow a brand new lawyer to represent a defendant in a death penalty case? Of course not. Nor should any virgin lawyer be stupid enough to take on a murder charge, much less one that carries the death penalty. While this novel purports to be based on a true story, it is a truly shocking story if Utah actually allowed a lawyer with no jury trial experience to handle a death penalty trial all by himself.

In any event, Brigham moves forward with the case and is shocked to learn that the judicial system favors the prosecution. Apparently Brigham wasn't paying attention when he interned in the public defender's office. His approach to the trial is baffling. For instance, he decides not to question prospective jurors because "if you want an unpredictable verdict, you need an unpredictable jury." It doesn't occur to Brigham that if you want to win, you need a favorable jury. Brigham's choice is absurd given that the jurors are being questioned (and the jury shaped) by the prosecutor. Most of Brigham's trial preparation consists of reading books about how to defend a client. His only witness is a psychologist who might or might not be willing to testify that his client was taking a break from reality when she gunned down her daughter's killer.

A good courtroom thriller creates tension and suspense. The Neon Lawyer creates none. The drama that is inherent in criminal trials is absent here. Victor Methos' depiction of the trial is straightforward and the action moves quickly, but there is little depth to the characters, most of whom are stereotypes. The story is very simple; too simple to be satisfying. Background events (like the fate of Brigham's employer) come and go so quickly that they seem like afterthoughts. Brigham's fast-developing relationship with another lawyer in his firm lacks emotion. So, for that matter, does Brigham, unless self-righteousness counts as an emotion.

The story's interest lies in the moral questions it raises. The client clearly committed murder, but should she be punished for it? If so, what punishment does she deserve? Methos could not have imagined a more sympathetic client for Brigham to defend. If the story's resolution is simplistic, it at least calls attention to serious issues. For that reason, The Neon Lawyer may be a useful teaching tool. If you're looking for a legal thriller, however, you won't find any thrills here.



ATLAS by Isaac Hooke

Self-published in 2013; published digitally by Amazon Digital Services on May 27, 2014

The opening chapters of ATLAS are promising. The novel is set in the near future. While the future is loaded with standard sf backdrops (robots, flying cars, glasses that function as wireless computers, embedded ID chips), Isaac Hooke sets the scene in meticulous and convincing detail. Unfortunately, all of that ends up being wasted.

Crossing the border to the United Countries (apparently the US and Canada) seems like a ticket to the good life, except for the catch: forced military service for immigrants. Anxious to put a dangerous and wasted life behind him, Rade Galaal enters the UC with his mentor Alejandro Mondego and new friend Taho Eaglehide. Rade wants to prove himself by joining the Navy's special operations division -- MOTH -- which is a space-faring version of the SEALs.

The story is narrated in a relaxed, unpretentious, first person voice. The writing style -- short sentences and a lot of single-sentence paragraphs -- follows a popular formula for fast-paced action novels. It works reasonably well, apart from occasional asides to explain a physics problem. The novel's problems have more to do with content than style.

Some scenes are much too familiar, to the point of being clichéd and trite. Basic training is filled with pushups and abusive drill instructors. MOTH training begins with the classic "Look to your left, look to your right, those people won't be here at the end." The story even has the "Ring the bell when you want to quit" scene from G.I. Jane. In fact, much of the first third of ATLAS seems like a prose version of G.I. Jane without the Demi Moore character (women being conspicuously absent from the MOTH ranks). You'd think an imaginative sf writer would imagine a future military that figured out a better way to train soldiers, but writers seem to enjoy regurgitating the twentieth century "abuse makes men tough" model. Fortunately the scenes move quickly.

Rade joins MOTH to see if he can "become a man." Becoming a man means you learn to endure a lot of abuse, to operate high tech weaponry, to clobber everyone you fight, and to bang a female when you get a chance. That's a fairly superficial mindset (although one that is popular with teenage boys) and I hoped that Rade would grow out of it before the novel ended. He doesn't.

Rade's dedication to the MOTHs also compels him to indulge in page after page of dumbed-down versions of the St. Crispin's Day speech. The "valiant brothers in arms" theme is way too heavy-handed. ATLAS is not a novel of subtle thought.

After we get through the familiar training scenes, the novel advances to familiar "the aliens just wouldn't stop coming" scenes. Many of those scenes reminded me of Armor, substituting crab aliens for ant aliens and skipping the depth of character that makes Armor a better book. Still, the novel improves considerably after the fighting starts. As a fast-moving action story, I enjoyed reading ATLAS and I plan to read the sequel. I hope the next one is less derivative and more mature.