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 nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream 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
Apr282017

A Single Spy by William Christie

Published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books on April 25, 2017

“We gather information by many means, but a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.” With that encouragement, a 17-year-old Russian boy named Alexsi is sent to Germany, where it is envisioned that he will spend years rising to a position that will allow him to uncover great secrets for the benefit of the Soviet Union.

A Single Spy begins as Alexsi, struggling to survive, joins a group of Shahsavan tribesmen, nomads who roamed between Iran and Azerbaijan until the Soviet army began to do serious border patrol. Escaping a Soviet ambush in 1936, Alexsi, at the age of sixteen, is again on his own. Alexsi speaks Russian, German, and Farsi, among other languages, and is improbably literate, which makes him attractive to the NKVD. Like it or not, Alexsi becomes a spy.

Alexsi’s first task is to infiltrate a group that opposes Stalin. To do that, he must take advantage of a girl he knew in the orphanage where he spent part of his youth. That gives William Christie an opportunity to write scenes that flash back to the corrupt and inhumane setting of a Soviet orphanage. Other flashbacks illustrate Alexsi’s pre-orphanage years and explain how Alexsi later came to be living with Shahsavan tribesmen.

In the present, Alexsi serves the Soviets while pretending to serve the Germans in Berlin and Tehran, eventually stumbling onto a plot that may indeed change the course of history. While the plot might be a bit farfetched, that’s not unusual in modern thrillers, and Christie sold me on the story’s credibility.

Alexsi isn’t a complex character and some of the other characters are little more than stereotypes, but that’s common in a thriller that depends on plot more than characterization. The plot earns points for departing from the mold for most spy stories. It also earns points for being smart. Not brilliant, but smart.

The focus on a Russian from the Middle East who infiltrates the Germans during World War II is something I haven’t seen before, and I’m always happy to find a spy novel that isn’t just a variation of stories that the masters of espionage novels have already told. The story moves quickly, particularly in the action scenes that bring the novel to its finish. The themes of betrayal on which all spy fiction depends are sharply developed. Shortcomings of characterization notwithstanding, A Single Spy is a winning contribution to the genre of spy fiction.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr262017

The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan

Published by St. Martin's Press on February 14, 2017

The Weight of Him takes on two social issues: teen suicide and obesity. It doesn’t quite do justice to either of them, but the effort is sincere and well intended.

Billy and Tricia Brennan recently lost their 17-year-old son Michael to suicide. As Billy drifts through his days, awash in memories, he feels he is killing himself — “not nearly as swiftly or brutally as Michael, but killing himself just the same.”

Billy is morbidly obese (just topping 400 pounds) and finally feels a need to get serious about losing weight. More than that, he wants to turn his diet into a fundraiser and couple it with a march to call attention to the problem of teenage suicide. He wants people to sponsor his weight loss so he can donate the proceeds to a teen suicide hotline.

Tricia feels that a small Irish village is no place for a march (that’s just not the way they do things) and she doesn’t want the attention. Their three surviving children are split — their daughter fancies the idea, their rebellious son opposes it, and their other son is characteristically indifferent. Billy’s parents are against it — they think he’s glorifying obesity and suicide, when both should be a source of shame — as is the father of another teen suicide victim who doesn’t want to be reminded of his loss. Billy’s sister opposes the plan for the more practical reason that rapid weight loss (Billy wants to drop 200 pounds) isn’t healthy.

The silence that surrounds teen suicide (at least in Ireland), the refusal to engage the problem, is the novel’s strongest theme. The novel’s weakness is that it tries to do too much, loading several different family issues on top of the suicide and weight loss themes. The novel loses momentum when it veers away from Billy’s quest and addresses his mother’s illness or the swimming lessons he gives his son. Billy’s constant battle with self-doubt could also have been handled with more subtlety.

Parts of the novel are touching, as a reader would expect from a novel about loss. Ethel Rohan’s portrayal of the family’s emotions, particularly as they attend a coroner’s inquest, is convincing. Tricia is unsupportive to the point of cruelty, but that’s also convincing, given that most marriages don’t survive the loss of a child.

The novel suffers from redundancy (Billy, in particular, voices the same thoughts over and over, in much the same way) and it’s too determinedly “feel good” for my taste, although readers searching for a feel-good story will find one here. Teen suicide and obesity are both complex issues, but the story is a bit shallow. The Weight of Him earns my recommendation because the story’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and because it has something important to say, but I wouldn’t recommend the novel for anyone seeking a deep understanding of the issues it addresses.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr242017

The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

Published in Great Britain in 2016; published by Orbit on April 4, 2017

The Last Days of Jack Sparks is a fictional-presented-as-real exploration of the supernatural from the perspective of a skeptic (Jack Sparks), but it’s grounded in the philosophy of belief systems. A “combat magician” talks to Sparks about Robert Anton Wilson’s notion that people should neither believe nor disbelieve, whether the subject under consideration is science or religion or the supernatural, because belief destroys intelligence. The notion that it is arrogant to profess belief (or disbelief) in any version of reality when there is so much about the universe we don’t understand appeals to me, as does the novel.

Having made a career of writing about himself as he does things that are interesting, self-destructive, or both, Jack Sparks embarked on his fourth book, Jack Sparks and the Supernatural. A foreword by his brother reveals that it is his last book because Jack is dead. And it is the dead Jack Sparks’ book that is presented to the reader, along with his brother’s edits.

Having decided to write about the supernatural, Jack attends an exorcism in Italy. It’s spooky, but not as spooky as the video that suddenly shows up on his YouTube channel, even though he didn’t post it. The video, shot in a Blair Witch Project style, purports to show an aggressive, ghost-like being. There are also three demonic names spoken on the video … or are there?

The priest who performs the exorcism gives Jack a book that purports to describe Jack’s death, but Jack doesn’t read it because it seems like too much information. After a trip to Hong Kong to watch a couple of ghostbusters rid a houseboat of spirits, even more creepy things begin to happen to Jack. Much of the novel centers upon Jack’s transformation from skeptic to believer, although what he believes in and why are questions that the reader will ponder until the “truth” is revealed.

Editorial additions to the text, inserted by Jack’s brother, provide a counterpoint to Jack’s depiction of himself. To others, Jack was arrogant, self-indulgent, and more interested in keeping abreast of his social media presence than in having an actual conversation with a physically present person. At the same time, Jack’s obsession with YouTube and other social media outlets highlights the growing difficulty of distinguishing the real from the fake when nobody acts as a filter to authenticate news stories or videos.

I like the way the novel balances ambiguity with the conventions of horror. Is Jack really experiencing paranormal phenomena? Is there a rational explanation for the manifestations he witnesses? Or is Jack having ‘shroom flashbacks, hallucinations that might be related to the drugs he consumed while writing his last book? All of those explanations occur to Jack, but they don’t detract from the truly spooky descriptions of his encounters with ghosts or demons or psychic manifestations or whatever they might be.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks blends a horror story with a psychological thriller. The story’s theme, I think, is that there is a thin line between being possessed and self-possessed. There may always be demons within us that need to be exorcised, including our uncontrolled egos, our vanities and narcissistic tendencies.

Jack’s self-absorption is so extreme that it detracts from the story’s pleasure — although admittedly, you only need to watch the news to be deluged with stories that feature extremely self-absorbed people who, like Jack, believe they are above criticism. Still, the plot is carefully constructed, muddling together different theories of the paranormal in a way that leads to surprising revelations that resolve the story in a sensible way while leaving room for ambiguity and alternate explanations (such as those drawn by Jack’s brother). And the book does have its scary moments, which is really all a reader can ask from a horror novel.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Apr212017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Published by Random House on February 14, 2017

The dead want nothing so much as to be loved. At least, that’s what we are told by the dead characters in Lincoln in the Bardo.

Much of the novel, in fact, consists of conversations held by dead characters. They watch, and comment upon, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, who soon joins them.

That death and the circumstances surrounding it also the subject of scholarly commentary and contemporaneous documents (often less than scholarly) that are liberally quoted, snippets woven together to make chapters of their own. The same technique is used to construct chapters about the Civil War dead, displeasure with Lincoln’s presidency, and criticism of Lincoln’s parenting style.

The dead turn to Willie for inspiration as he tries to remain in the material world, hoping to see his father once more. Some of the (dead) characters, however, believe that Willie needs to move on, although they have not done so themselves. In fact, their inability to accept death, to accept their own deaths, just as Lincoln struggled to accept his son’s death, seems to be the point of the story. Acceptance of anything that holds us back is liberating.

Parts of the novel, particularly the dialog of spirits who criticize and backbite each other, are quite funny. In a random assembly of the deceased, sins are confessed, grievances are aired, secrets are revealed. The dead have been silent too long, and Willie’s appearance, his ability to communicate with his father, albeit briefly, gives them a chance to be heard. Or so they hope. Mostly they want one more chance to talk about themselves, just as they did before they died.

Parts of the novel, particularly Lincoln’s thoughts of his lost son, are quite moving. And parts, suggesting that bigotry and pettiness survive death, would be depressing if they were not lightened by the humor that pervades the story.

I give George Saunders credit for inventiveness. I’ve never read a work of fiction quite like Lincoln in the Bardo. The story has a worthy message about the burden of suffering that we all carry in varying degrees, and our responsibility to lighten the load of others when we can. I can’t say I was entirely captivated by the story Saunders tells, but it made me laugh, and it made me think. Any novel that consistently does those things merits a recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr192017

The Book of Mirrors by E.O. Chirovici

Published in Great Britain in January 2017; published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on February 21, 2017

A literary agent, Peter Katz, receives a partial manuscript of a nonfiction work describing the author’s experiences at Princeton in 1987. The manuscript concerns a young man named Richard Flynn who wants to be a writer and whose new roommate, an attractive young woman named Laura Baines, is studying psychology. Laura is apparently working on a secret project with Professor Joseph Wieder. Flynn gets a job cataloguing the professor’s library and promptly falls in love with Laura, but things take an odd turn when, shortly after Laura seems to pull away from both Wieder and Flynn, Wieder is murdered.

Katz is intrigued by the opening chapters and wants to read the entire manuscript, but contacting Flynn proves to be difficult, and it seems like a story to which Katz will never learn the ending. From the reader’s perspective, however, the story is just beginning. It continues with the introduction of John Keller, an unemployed writer/reporter who agrees to investigate Flynn’s story and to write a new version of the book if the original manuscript can’t be found.

Keller interviews sources and hears conflicting accounts of pretty much every fact that pertains to Flynn, Baines, Wieder, and various others who were involved with their lives. The stories are so dramatically different that Keller and the reader are challenged to determine who (if anyone) is telling the truth, what motivations they might have for lying, and (most importantly) who actually murdered Wieder.

The story is told from four perspectives: Katz, Flynn (who speaks through his partial manuscript), Keller, and Roy Freeman, a retired detective who worked on the unsolved murder. While each perspective is written in the same voice, the consistent voice arguably supports the continuity of the story. More importantly, the changing perspectives on the investigation keep the story fresh as the plot advances.

The plot has enough complexity to keep the reader guessing but never becomes convoluted. I like the way important aspects of the mystery are resolved while the reader is left wondering about others. The elusive nature of truth is the novel’s theme, and the plot illuminate the theme in clever ways.

The story does not bog down with unnecessary detail and the pace is appropriate to a literary mystery … quick enough to keep the reader interested, slow enough to give the reader time to chew on the conflicting versions of the facts. Characters have carefully defined personalities and E.O. Chirovici’s writing style is smooth. A Book of Mirrors is a solid mystery and the beginning of a promising career.

RECOMMENDED