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.


Beyond the Ice Limit by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Published by Grand Central Publishing on May 17, 2016

Beyond the Ice Limit is a sequel to The Ice Limit. It seems like the kind of book that is written for the purpose of selling movie rights. In fact, it would probably be an entertaining movie. It has a good amount of action and the kind of Earth-threatening alien monster that Hollywood producers adore. Books, on the other hand, give readers a chance to sit back and think about whether we’re willing to accept a ridiculous premise. I enjoyed Beyond the Ice Limit, but it really pushed the boundaries of my willingness to suspend disbelief.

Due to events described in The Ice Limit, a 25,000 ton alien seed sprouted on the ocean floor near Antarctica. The people who know of (and are partially responsible for) this event want to nuke the alien plant. They enlist Gideon Crew’s help because he’s an expert at nuking things.

The plot’s huge gap in logic (without revealing too much) involves how the alien propagates itself. To fulfill their destiny, the meteorite-size seeds need to sail aimlessly through space until they crash into a planet with an ocean (apparently any ocean will do). But the planet must be populated by creatures with compatible brains (human brains, for instance) and those brains must come into contact with the underwater seed that sprouts from the meteorite. Now how often is that going to happen? As a propagation strategy, this one seems unlikely to work even once.

Plot tidbits include a huge alien mouth capable of inhaling submarines, the voice of an apparently dead person transmitted underwater several seconds after the death occurs, perfectly preserved underwater corpses (except for the ones that are headless), whale songs in translation, and alien worms that take over human bodies. The “aliens take over humans” thing has been done so often that I was disappointed to see it recycled here. In fact, too much of Beyond the Ice Limit seems like an unoriginal reboot of half-century old Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episodes.

Having expressed my reservations, let me say that I enjoyed reading Beyond the Ice Limit despite its faults. It moves quickly, the action is reasonably exciting, and key characters are sympathetic. I particularly liked the epilogue, which displays more originality and depth than the rest of the novel. Because there are so many thrillers available that are better than this one, however, I can give Beyond the Ice Limit only a guarded recommendation.



Rain Down by Steve Anderson and The Lesson by Jesse Ball

The advent of digital publishing has made it possible for publishers to market individual short stories. Examples include Kindle Singles, Vintage Shorts, and the Bibliomysteries series. Although Tzer Island primarily reviews books, I occasionally review single stories, usually doubling up the reviews as an extra treat for readers.

"Rain Down" by Steve Anderson

Published as a Kindle Single by Endeavour Press on May 4, 2016

Rain Down is marketed as a thriller but I’d call it a noir-flavored mystery mixed with a story of self-discovery. Roughly one-fifth the length of an average novel, Rain Down might qualify as a short novella or a long short story. Regardless of its classification, Rain Down is the right length for the story Steve Anderson tells. No words are wasted here.

Rain Down is told from the perspective of a 37-year-old homeless man in Portland who works at day labor jobs with his friend Oscar Alvarez. At least he does until Oscar’s body is discovered -- dismembered parts, scattered by the train that hit it. The homeless man’s investigation of Oscar’s death causes him to have uncomfortable encounters with the man who often hired them as day laborers, with a couple of women who were connected to Oscar, and with a couple of cops.

The homeless man is odd but credible and therefore interesting. Initially homeless by circumstance, he now seems to prefer sleeping rough. He has an aversion to charity and bathing. He’s intelligent, cynical (or realistic, depending on how you view life), and caring. He’s philosophical but for much of the story, his is the philosophy of despair -- understandable, given his situation. But it’s a hopeful sort of despair, if that’s possible.

The mystery of Oscar’s death is sad but consistent with the story’s theme. The simple plot, however, is less important than the atmosphere and the characters. Anderson paints a convincing picture of life on the street. Rain Down offers a sympathetic glimpse of day laborers, although it is just a glimpse. The homeless man might not offer a perfect lesson in how to deal with adversity, but the real lesson is that everyone deals with adversity in his or her own way, and that there’s always reason to hope for a better tomorrow.



"The Lesson" by Jesse Ball

Published by Vintage on November 3, 2015

Ezra and Loring Wesley were chess masters. Five years after Ezra’s death, Loring accepts as a chess student a 5-year-old whose chess strategy reminds her of Ezra. The boy was, in fact, born at the very moment of her husband’s death. So you can guess where this is going.

Well, probably you can’t, because the story doesn’t go anywhere. It is a collection of odd events that add up to almost nothing. I can usually understand the point an author is trying to make, even when fiction is experimental, but with The Lesson, I am simply lost. Perhaps I am too dense to make sense of it, but from my dense perspective, I find little value in the story.

This is my first experience with Jesse Ball and I have to say that his writing style, at least in this story, is too precious for my taste. The story is written in the third person. The narrator is annoyingly intrusive. The narrator asks questions that are followed with “Who can say?” or tells of a character looking out a window, followed by “What she saw is not reported” or notes that a character went into the kitchen, followed by “Something stops us from following.” If there is a point to emphasizing the narrator’s non-omniscience, I couldn’t find it.

The narrator also offers little tidbits of wisdom like “of what we are capable, we seldom know” or “our personalities, our selves, border on the possible, and when the possible grows, well, so then do we.” A little of that is fine but I grew weary of Jesse Ball’s pop philosophy. I like a narrator to narrate and otherwise to stay out of the way. Granted, some writers are capable of chatting with the reader while telling a story, but Ball doesn’t seem to be one of them.

Many scenes are written in fine prose. Many would fit neatly into an absorbing story. Sadly, that is not the story that Ball wrote.



The Dig by John Preston

First published in Great Britain in 2007; published by Other Press on April 19, 2016

The Dig is a fictionalized retelling of a famed archeological dig in Suffolk during 1939. The story takes place on property owned by Edith Pretty. Point of view changes from time to time as different characters narrate parts of the story from their own perspectives.

The most interesting character is Basil Brown, the self-taught archeologist Mrs. Pretty hired to search the burial mounds on her property for treasure. The first half of the novel consists of Basil digging around and his eventual discovery of a buried ship -- a shockingly large ship, larger and older than any found before.

When it becomes clear that Brown has uncovered an Anglo-Saxon royal burial site that may be filled with priceless antiquities, word travels fast. The novel’s second half is largely political, as the Ipswich Museum and the British Museum vie for control of the project, as does everyone else who can think of an excuse to share in the glory of discovery.

There is an elegant subtlety to the characters -- Brown digs a bomb shelter, knowing England is on the brink of war, while doing his best not to think about its purpose -- but perhaps they are too subtle. None of the characters leap from the page as fully realized beings, although the passion for discovery that drives archeologists is evident in key characters. In that regard, a woman named Peggy Piggott (who turns out to be Preston’s aunt) stands out as a pioneer among women who cast aside traditional roles for the joy of digging in the dirt.

The Dig is fascinating, but it might have worked better as a work of nonfiction. For example, the novel explores the conflicting claims of buried treasure ownership (does it belong to the British government or to the property owner?), a question that was resolved by a jury after an inquest. As interesting as the political issues are, John Preston develops the intrigue with only a modest degree of dramatic tension.

The story also seems a bit cursory. That makes it a quick read, but a nonfiction account would likely have fleshed out the story with a wealth of detail that Preston omits. Still, the story captures the time, place, and sense of wonder associated with the key archeological discovery in twentieth century England, and that’s more than enough to make The Dig a satisfying read.



Unfinished Business by Conrad Williams

Published by Bloomsbury Reader on May 5, 2016

Unfinished Business is an industry novel, the kind that focuses with a jaundiced eye on the movie industry, the fashion industry, or similar businesses that manufacture or trade upon celebrity status. This one is about the book industry, told from the perspective of an agent. Books about a personal service business aren’t very interesting unless someone takes a Machiavellian approach to the business. Fortunately, a couple of agents in Unfinished Business go to war, which provides the novel with its greatest entertainment value.

Few of the characters are happy. Vince Savage, a once promising writer, senses that his writing career is imploding. His wife Madelin is concerned that her weakened ability to control Vince might require the wake-up call that only a good dose of infidelity can deliver. Their daughter Holly dials random numbers and calls the person who answers a “stupid idiot.” Vince and Frank Jones, a war reporter, have equal disrespect for the other’s profession. Mike de Vere, a literary agent, spends much of the novel questioning his purpose, self-worth, and place in the universe.

As the novel opens, Mike has just been canned by his most promising new author. To make the day worse, a sycophantic upstart in the office named Colin Templar wants to get rid of all the mid-list clients who don’t produce best-sellers (meaning most of the writers who have actual literary talent), in favor of writers like Dan Brown who are more marketable. Why look for potential Booker winners when the public would rather read supermodel memoirs?

Soon Mike is competing for clients and for love. While wondering if he is “hampered by romantic, old-fashioned character traits” in his quest for happiness, Mike understands that he is incapable of “strategic reinvention.” Mike does not want to abandon his B-list of literary writers, even though they no longer seem capable of producing anything worth reading. Naturally, his career takes a self-inflicted tumble and the novel’s dramatic tension, such as it is, centers on whether he will recover.

Characters engage in spirited but well-worn debates about the value of compelling literature that few people read versus bestsellers that are forgotten as the reader moves on to the next trendy book. One side argues that writers should “address the concerns of contemporary readership” (e.g., sex) while the other contends that “any kind of prescription in the arts leads to mediocrity.” I particularly liked the reference to “genre envy.” The notion that there is a place in the world both for serious literature and fun fiction (as well as the miraculous novel that satisfies both criteria) doesn’t seem to occur to any of the characters, although that might be Conrad Williams’ point.

Mike’s critique of Vince’s latest unsellable novel is my favorite part of the story. It describes the work of many literary authors who have mistaken success for a license to become self-indulgent. Clever wordplay becomes an end in itself, “the thrall of narrative” becomes a substitute for the truth that fiction should broadcast. Mike’s argument is really a criticism of “postmodern detachment” that illustrates the shallowness of modern life by telling an empty story about vapid people when readers crave depth of character and a plot that delivers profound insight into human nature.

How does Unfinished Business fare under Mike’s standard of a great novel? It’s more an entertaining soap opera than a novel of great emotional truth. It is only modestly insightful. A self-revelatory moment at the end about the difference between love and sex is banal. Stretches of the story are less than absorbing and the rest is more clever than smart. But clever is more than most writers accomplish and the parts of the novel that worked for me worked quite well. The tidy ending is conventional, the kind of ending that an agent might suggest to an author to maximize sales of a book. I suppose that’s consistent with the novel’s overall theme but it doesn’t have the ring of honesty. Still, Williams’ prose is strong and the novel delivers enough amusing moments to overcome its faults.



The Good Traitor by Ryan Quinn

Published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5, 2016

Even in the digital age, most novels marketed as being “ripped from the headlines” are stale by the time they are published. Several recent novels have borrowed from the Snowden controversy to build plots around (in the words of a character in The Good Traitor) “courageous people who leak information because ... it is in the public’s interest to know” and the government “cowards who bury their mistakes in secrecy and claims of patriotism.” The Good Traitor backs away from making any bold statements -- it is an action novel, rather than a political novel -- but it builds on some interesting ideas.

The Good Traitor imagines a journalism website -- called -- that writes itself. Computers search the web for information and use algorithms to draw inferences from that information. Other algorithms test the likelihood that the inferences are correct. Some sources contribute to directly but most sources unwittingly contribute information as scrapes data from the internet. When a certain threshold of veracity is reached, the computer labels its conclusions as facts. The computer then publishes the facts as news stories that the computer writes. The point of all this is to eliminate human error and bias from news reporting.

The government hates because it publishes accurate information that the government would like to keep secret. Apparently other people hate (or its reporting) because its unwitting sources contributed to a story about corruption in China. When three of those sources are suddenly murdered by the creative use of technology, the operators of call upon Kera Mersal to help them follow the story. Kera, like one of the founders, is running from the CIA, having been labeled as a traitor because she leaked classified information (which was classified to help the CIA avoid accountability for illegal acts).

The Good Traitor
is the kind of novel in which the bad guys can hack computers make airplanes crash and elevators fall. Readers need to suspend their skepticism to enjoy the story. I can do that but I rolled my eyes at a character known as BLACKFISH who roams around China getting into gun battles without being caught.

Other than, which is clever, the rest of the story has been done before -- conflict in the CIA hierarchy, various patriots being framed as traitors, computers turned into assassins. The plot fizzles as it reaches an ending that’s just too easy, given everything that precedes it. The story tries to straddle a line concerning the ethics of revealing improperly classified information, perhaps to avoid angering readers on either side of the debate, but that choice weakens the book. All of those issues make The Good Traitor an imperfect novel, but it’s still a reasonably fun novel. I'd shelve it low on the second tier of spy novels.