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.


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.



A Call to Duty by David Weber and Timothy Zahn

Published by Baen on October 7, 2014

The formula for military science fiction follows a predictable arc. The typical story tracks a young man or woman from recruitment to training to war to an ultimate act of heroism. A Call to Duty departs from the formula in some respects by glossing over recruitment and training and focusing instead on the impact of politics on the novel's protagonist. That twist on the formula makes A Call to Duty more interesting than conventional military sf.

Travis "Stickler" Long joins the Royal Manticoran Navy to put discipline into a life that has none. He is called "Stickler" because of his adamant insistence on following military rules. Much of the story's interest comes from the ethical dilemmas he encounters as his desire to obey rules conflicts with friendships and with the pragmatic need to carry out his duty when strict adherence to rules would hinder his ability to succeed.

When the story isn't following Travis, it focuses on the political conflict between Manticore's military and something that is more akin to a spacefaring Coast Guard, tasked with the protection and rescue of merchant ships close to home. Travis' half-brother, Gavin Winterfall, a minor Baron, is recruited by his political betters to support a project to convert old battleships into new, smaller corvettes that will be no longer belong to the Navy. This leads to a political competition that provides much of the story's meat.

The novel's other political element concerns a trade convention on the planet Haven, a leading supplier of military ships. Representatives of various worlds attend the meeting, including poor worlds that can't quite afford warships but still want to protect their merchant ships from piracy. Yet Haven has a hidden agenda, as do the people who want to crash the party so that they can steal a couple of Haven's ships.

A Call to Duty is plot-driven science fiction. It tells a good story while giving only modest attention to character development. That's a common and not particularly troubling problem -- a good story might be enough to ask for in genre fiction -- but the novel would have been better if the characters had been vested with more complex personalities. The last part of the novel is filled with the kind of action that characterizes military sf. It is a little too predictable but reasonably exciting. This is a better political novel than it is an action novel, but the two forms blend nicely.



How the World Was: A California Childhood by Emmanuel Guibert

Published by First Second on July 15, 2014

This is an English translation of a work first published in French. Unlike a typical graphic novel that uses dialog balloons, How the World Was is more of an illustrated short story. Sometimes text appears in the same panel as an image; sometimes blocks of text take up panels or pages that alternate with panels or pages consisting only of images. Some of the images depict the scene described in the text while others add background. They tend to be studies in contrasts: quiet streets of the 1930s versus modern freeways, unspoiled nature versus the urbanization that replaced it. The pictures serve as pauses between the short blocks of text, creating the feel of a documentary.

The first person narration tells the childhood tale of a boy born in 1925 as he grew up in Southern California -- a simpler California than the one that exists today. His quiet memories are occasionally updated to let the reader know what happened to friends and relatives (mostly, they died "in poverty and in sorrow"). Some of the images are drawings of family photographs and in many ways, the story is the narration of a family album.

The story is told in a gentle, honest voice that accentuates its depth of feeling. Reading How the World Was is like listening to a beloved grandfather explain the joys and hardships of his family's life and his own awe of the ever-changing world. The narrator has learned to live with grief but the grief lives on in his memory. He cannot change the hard times -- that's how the world was -- but they have taught him to appreciate life. When he quotes Rodin's belief that artists experience pain as well as "the bitter joy of being able to comprehend and express it," Emmanuel Guibert is clearly talking about the effort he devoted to this volume. How the World Was is a surprisingly moving story and a remarkably effective feat of graphic storytelling.