Search Tzer Island

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.


Ghosts of War by Brad Taylor

Published by Dutton on June 28, 2016

In the wake of the events described in the last Taskforce novel (during which a Taskforce member pursued a personal vendetta), an investigation threatens to reveal and shut down the Taskforce, an organization that has always operated illegally. A government official’s death has made the Oversight Council skittish (none of the members want to go to prison) so Taskforce missions have been placed on hold. What, then, is there for Brad Taylor to write about?

Well, there’s a fabled Nazi ghost train buried in a tunnel in Poland, although that plot thread is just a setup. He also writes about Putin and his plan to take over Belarus with the help of a motorcycle gang known as the Night Wolves. And then he imagines a Russian named Simon who, having been put in charge of orchestrating a coup in Belarus, decides that orchestrating Putin’s removal from office would enhance his life expectancy. To cap it off, the plan involves starting World War III. In other words, just another day for Pike Logan and his Taskforce pals.

Aaron and Shoshana, who have turned into series regulars, play a central role in Ghosts of War. They need Pike and Jennifer to help them recover a Torah that was stolen from the ghost train -- and to grab it before it is stolen again. Of course, the mission doesn’t go as planned, giving Pike and the gang a chance to get mixed up in the competing shenanigans of Putin and Simon.

About a third of the way into the novel, an unlikely world-changing event occurs. I got the impression that Taylor succumbed to the thriller writer’s temptation to make the events in each new novel a little more outrageous than the last one, as if readers won’t continue with the series otherwise. When a series like this one depends on credibility, I think that’s a bad choice. Fortunately, the stories are still fun.

Ghosts of War also seems a bit off. It lacks the consistent narrative voice that characterizes the other Taskforce novels. It also has the feeling of being rushed, which hasn’t been true of Taylor’s past efforts despite the speed with which he churns out new novels. More polishing of the prose would have turned this into a better novel.

As usual, Taylor has a more subtle understanding of world affairs than most authors who write thrillers of this nature. He lampoons military commanders who think that the United States should respond to every provocation with war. He makes clear that even a show of military strength is likely to begin a needless war. Of course, the real world doesn’t have Pike Logan jetting around to solve problems, but Taylor nevertheless makes a persuasive case against saber rattling as a primary instrument of foreign policy.

The crisis resolves more easily than I expect from Taskforce novels. The level of tension that Taylor creates in most of his other books is absent in this one. While I enjoy this series and had fun reading the book, I regard Ghosts of War as a weaker installment than most of the earlier novels in the series.



Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits by Mark Binelli

Published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books on May 3, 2016

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits is a biography in novel form. The subject is Jalacy Hawkins (1929-2000), a singer/musician whose use of macabre/occult imagery and a “shock rock” style was (he later claimed) either the inspiration for, or ripped off by, performers as diverse as Kiss, Little Richard, Melvin Van Peebles, and the horror film Blackula. “I Put a Spell on You” is his best known song, although many listeners are more familiar with the covers than Hawkins’ original.

Hawkins’ mother left him on an orphanage doorstep in 1929. The priests decided to offer the “colored” child to a Native American couple who wanted to adopt. Growing up in Cleveland, Hawkins attended a music conservatory before enlisting as an underage soldier in 1943. Hawkins reenlisted in the Air Force, did some boxing, drifted to Atlantic City where he worked as a chauffeur for a jazz musician, played the role of Blackula in a jazz band, and had his way with women. Lots of women, including a lady wrestler and a girl who was barely in her teens (he went to prison for that one, unlike Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis). Hawkins had scores of extramarital offspring, making for an interesting family reunion of complete strangers. (News coverage of the reunion is available online.)

All of this and a whole lot more takes place in a short novel that is rich with detail. The last chapter, wrapping up the bulk of Hawkins’ life, reads like a magazine article. How much of the novel is fiction and how much fact I cannot say, but this is a novel so it doesn’t need to be factual. Still, the book might have been better as nonfiction, given the difficulty of discerning which bits are invented and which are straightforward biography.

Mark Binelli depicts racial tension as an integral part of Hawkins’ life, and I suspect that is closer to fact than fiction. Hawkins is portrayed as abrasive and petulant, which he may have had a right to be. Tellingly, in his middle-aged years, Hawkins is quoted as saying “I wish I could be who I was before I became me.”

If there is a difference between Hawkins’ persona and his deeper essence, the novel does not explore it. In that regard, the novel might be criticized as shallow, but it does convey a good sense of the artist’s tumultuous life, if not of the artist himself. I enjoyed reading it, which is about all I ask of any novel, but it left me wanting more.



Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Published by Scribner on June 14, 2016

Barkskins is a generational saga that covers ground from 1693 to the present. The key characters are descended from René Sel or Charles Duquet. The story focuses on a family lumber business that begins with woodcutters and grows into a multifaceted corporation. The novel is as big and sprawling as the “new world” history that inspires it. Like a settlement, it begins with a few people and slowly expands as new generations claim new territory.

René Sel is a French settler indentured to M. Trépagny. Sel’s job is to help the unlikable Trépagny clear land near Kébec in New France. Sel is eventually given a Native wife he did not choose and the chance to work land of his own.

The focus then shifts to Charles Duquet, another Frenchman indentured to Trépagny. Duquet has fled his servitude and intends to find his own path to success. He does so by pursuing a trade empire involving lumber and fur. The greatest profit lies in trade with China, a country Annie Proulx depicts as vividly as she does the new worlds that have been colonized by England and France.

The story follows descendants of Sel and Duquet through the centuries. Much of his story concerns the politics of timber as rough entrepreneurs eventually give way to more sophisticated businessmen -- and, late in the story, businesswomen. The Duquet name is eventually “Americanized” to Duke when family members begin Duke & Sons, a lumber business that family members in later generations struggle to control.

The novel draws a clear picture of the evolving logging and timber business. Lumber barons shared the opinion that it was their destiny to chop down every tree in sight, as if the forests were “infinite and permanent.” The Duke family sneers at early notions of forest management. Arguments in favor of reforestation are rebuffed with the company’s forest management policy: find virgin forests and “cut ‘em down.”

One of the story’s most interesting aspects is its illustration of the problems encountered by people who live in two racial worlds.
Intermarriage between Natives and Europeans produces children who feel like outsiders, belonging neither to the Native people or to the white settlers. Sel’s children, for example, are half-French and half-Native. His Canadian grandchildren encounter the worst of both worlds as they face the English, who are killing Natives and overwhelming French settlers.

The novel’s strongest theme is the loss of identity that the Native people experience when they are uprooted by white settlers, or when the forests and animals that they depend upon disappear, usurped by European colonists. With the displacement of Native peoples comes a slow death of traditions that parallels the destruction of the wilderness.

Characters are varied in their personalities. Some are gentle and others violent, some are lustful and others chaste, some are vulgar and others refined. As do real people, they often behave in surprising ways. Proulx follows each long enough to give the reader a sense of who they are, but with so many characters coming and going, it is difficult to form an attachment to any of them.

Male characters dominate early in the novel, although a few strong women play key roles in family life. There is also a hint of early feminism as a young woman insists on joining the family business rather than attending finishing school and selecting a proper upper-class husband. Reflecting history, women play a greater role in the economic world in later years.

My only serious complaint about Barkskins is that it is longer than it needs to be. Some of the scenes of hunting and logging and sea travel seem repetitive. The high quality of Proulx’s prose and her detailed descriptions makes the reading consistently pleasant, but the atmosphere, having been well established, doesn’t need all of the embellishments that Proulx gives it. The novel is never dull, but some chapters are more interesting than others.

The story is told in manageable episodes, although it’s all a bit of a whirlwind toward the end. The ending gives the book a nice balance, however, adding an academic understanding to issues that are important to the story, including population growth and deforestation. I’m not a big fan of generational sagas, but Barkskins is a book I enjoyed.



The House of Secrets by Brad Meltzer and Tod Goldberg

Published by Grand Central Publishing on June 7, 2016

Hazel Nash grew up with a famous father who had a television show -- The House of Secrets -- that appealed to the gullible, particularly those who believe in Sasquatch and implausible conspiracies. Her brother, Skip, was also on the show and is also famous. Hazel is not famous. At the age of 35, she is an anthropology professor who studies death rituals. She manages to escape her own death in an accident that scrambles her brain. Hazel now finds herself at the center of her own conspiracy, one that involves a dead man who had a bible sewn into his chest.

Hazel’s accident has caused her to lose her emotional memories, her attachments to people and things. She doesn’t recognize or remember having relationships with the people in her past. At the same time, she doesn’t remember the kind of person she used to be -- perhaps for the better, since she might have been something of a sociopath before the accident. She doesn’t remember all the details of her old life, but she remembers how to be dangerously violent.

Someone called The Bear has taken an interest in Hazel and Skip. So has an FBI agent named Trevor Rabkin, who thinks Hazel’s father was up to no good. All of this ties in to people who are turning up dead in foreign countries while wearing Revolutionary War uniforms (American side). It also turns into a search for Benedict Arnold’s bible -- something that Hazel’s father spent the clandestine part of his career trying to find. Why? You need to read the book to find out. No spoilers here.

I’m not fond of the contrived “lost memory” device, which writers use as a convenient way to conceal important facts from the reader in the hope of building suspense. Unfortunately, The House of Secrets isn’t very suspenseful. Hazel and Skip are reasonably sympathetic but not fully rounded. The House of Secrets certainly isn’t a character-driven novel, so the question is whether the plot makes it worth reading.

At best, I would answer that question with a qualified maybe. The story holds a few surprises, including the nature of Benedict Arnold’s bible, but it is needlessly convoluted. Occasional action scenes keep the story lurching forward but when she isn’t fighting or fleeing, Hazel engages in a lot of hand-wringing and pointless speculating. Information dumps at the end finally explain the plot, but I’m not sure they are worth waiting for. This could have been a much tighter novel, and by the time the truth about the bibles is revealed, it isanti-climactic and a little too goofy.



Admiral by Sean Danker

Published by Roc (Berkley Group) on May 3, 2016

Four people wake up in the sleeping pods on a ship. The ship has crashed on a creepy planet. One of the survivors is wearing an Admiral’s uniform. He claims to be an honorary admiral but the others are suspicious. The ship’s only two crew members have burned to death in an airlock.

A harrowing escape from a perilous situation is followed by a series of harrowing escapes. In between escapes the four characters get to know each other.

Characterization isn’t bad, but Admiral is ultimately a “humans chased around by alien monsters” novel. I’ve read enough novels (and seen enough movies) with that plot to last a lifetime. The intriguing background (which involves a couple of recently warring groups) is more interesting than the action story that follows the setup.

I liked parts of the novel but was indifferent to most of it, so my recommendation is filled with reservations. The most interesting part of the story -- the Admiral’s identity and mission -- is too far removed from the alien monster story. Unfortunately, by the time the story reveals which side the Admiral is on, I no longer cared. Had the novel’s focus been on the backstory that is told in the last pages rather than alien monsters, Admiral might have been more engaging.