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.


Descent by Tim Johnston

Published by Algonquin on January 6, 2015;reprinted in paperback on December 1, 2015

Descent is a suspense novel with uncommon literary quality. The plot -- a teenage girl goes missing, leaving frantic parents to worry about her fate -- might be overused, but the story has rarely been told with the kind of quality prose that Tim Johnston wields. In any event, “girl goes missing” is only a backdrop for a story that moves in unexpected directions.

Caitlin, a runner, is with her parents in the Rockies, where she is training for collegiate competition. She goes off one morning with her younger brother, Sean, who follows her on his trail bike. Her brother ends up in the hospital, the apparent victim of a biking accident. Caitlin is missing.

The novel bounces around in time. In what might be called “the present,” Caitlin’s father (Grant) is helping out an old widower in Colorado in exchange for a place to stay. His wife and son have both left him to his misery. Caitlin’s mother (Angela) has gone back to Wisconsin where she carries on inner conversations with her long-dead twin. Sean is trying to live with the shame of not doing more to help Caitlin.

Caitlin’s story unfolds intermittently in short, italicized chapters. Sean has dark adventures of his own, collateral to the main plot but worthy of inclusion in a thriller. Grant deals with family drama in a family that is not his own. Although the troubles that Sean and Grant experience are not directly caused by Caitlin’s disappearance, they would not have happened but for that critical event. Tim Johnston seems to be illustrating how misfortunes compound, how one tragedy can give birth to a chain reaction of unforeseeable consequences. By the end, the story seems to be about how the smallest change of circumstances -- arriving 5 minutes later, taking a different path -- can dictate the course of a life.

Descent is intense and powerful, peppered with surprising moments of drama. It is a work of fiction, but everything about the story seem real -- not just events but emotions, reactions, regrets ... all the things people think and do and feel that define their lives.

Writers are often admonished to show, not tell. Johnston shows the grief the family endures through countless small scenes that recount their actions, their distractions, their quarrels, their memories. Angela’s exploration of an empty house, a house that is haunted by Caitlin’s absence, is heartbreaking. Sean’s drifting and Grant’s drinking, two different approaches to isolation, tell the reader more than pages of exposition possibly good.

Much of Descent is about the impact that a missing child has on the rest of the family, but the story is multifaceted. Descent is about a father trying to reconnect with his son. It’s about deceptive appearances -- people who hide their evil behind a friendly façade but, more importantly, people who are better than they know themselves to be. It’s about the confusion of coincidence and fate, of destiny and free will. It is about the true nature of heroism. Descent is a fascinating exploration of themes that give the novel substantially greater depth than a typical thriller without sacrificing the pace and suspense that thriller readers crave.



The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Published by W. W. Norton & Company on January 25, 2016

The key nations in The Illegal are creations of fiction but they could stand for any number of lands in which one group oppresses another, in which the “haves” lack compassion for the “have nots,” in which people who believe in racial or national purity wish to keep others from sharing in their nation’s prosperity.

Zantoroland is an island in the Indian Ocean. It was colonized by a succession of European nations that imported African slaves. The population, largely black, is divided into two primary ethnic groups. The majority group, currently in power, is oppressing (and often murdering) the minority population.

The black natives of Zantoroland were once enslaved by the residents of Freedom State, a larger nearby island that is now one of the wealthiest nations in the world. When Freedom State abolished slavery, it also deported most blacks to Zantoroland. The political party that currently controls the government in Freedom State wants to be seen as making good on a campaign promise to crack down on illegal immigrants, including political refugees who fled Zantoroland to avoid being arrested and killed.

Keita Ali is 15 when the novel gets rolling and in his twenties when most of the story takes place. His father, a freelance journalist, is treated as an enemy of the state. Keita is clearly fated for death. He cannot get help from his sister in the United States because she seems to have disappeared.

Keita is a promising marathon runner. After gaining the opportunity to train in Freedom State, Keita decides to go into hiding, knowing that his return to Zantoroland would eventually cost him his life. Soon he finds himself running, literally and figuratively, in order to save himself and his sister.

That background provides the framework for the story that follows. It is driven by a political scandal that ties together key characters, all of whom are developed in convincing detail. In addition to Keita, a key character is a disabled sports reporter named Viola Hill who would prefer to be covering the immigration crisis. Another important character is Ivernia Beech, an 85-year-old white woman who is in danger of losing her right to live independently because she committed the twin offenses of getting old and befriending an undocumented immigrant.

A third central character is John, an impoverished ninth-grader on an academic scholarship at a school for the gifted. As a school project, John is making a documentary. What he films, quite by accident, puts his life at risk. Other significant characters include a police officer who befriends Kieta, an immigration official who is caught up in a scandal of his own, a woman who has established herself as the “queen” of the slum that harbors much of Freedom Land’s black population, and various principles in the marathon world who either support or want to exploit Keita.

There are clear parallels between the story told in The Illegal and the ongoing American debate about immigration, although the emphasis is on political refugees rather than undocumented immigrants who cross borders for economic reasons. The issue is complex (despite the simplistic ways in which many people try to define it) and, while that complexity is recognized in The Illegal, the story is fairly simple. The story is justly sympathetic to individuals who are in desperate situations while recognizing that decent people can oppose illegal immigration without joining the rude or racist contingent that makes political debate so ugly. The novel represents various points of view fairly and honestly, although it does not disguise the ugliness of opinions that are motivated by hatred or racism.

Keita is such a nice guy that he’s a bit one-dimensional. Lack of depth keeps The Illegal from becoming a stellar novel. It is a feel-good novel, which makes it predictable and unsurprising. Still, there’s nothing wrong with feeling good now and then. The Illegal left me with a warm feeling about several of its characters. That is enough motivation for me to recommend the novel.



The Art of War by Stephen Coonts

Published by St. Martin's Press on February 2, 2016

As he has often done, Stephen Coonts teams series hero Jake Grafton with series hero Tommy Carmellini in The Art of War. The strength of those characters and a couple of powerful moments sold me on the novel. The plot is standard for a modern thriller, meaning it approaches the outlandish. Fortunately, the book races from scene to scene with so much energy that it leaves little time to think about the story's improbability.

The Chinese navy is the bad guy in The Art of War. Chinese naval commanders want to control the South China Sea, but worry that Americans might interfere with their grand design. They take steps to keep that from happening. Big steps, on several fronts, calculated to disrupt America’s various intelligence agencies and, for that matter, the government and the entire country.

Coonts pushes the Chinese shenanigans rather far, to a point that nearly exceeded my generous willingness to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story. Fortunately, The Art of War never became so ridiculously improbable that I lost interest in it. To his credit, Coonts recognizes and addresses some of the reasons that his imagined scenario is largely divorced from political and economic reality.

The good guys in The Art of War are in the CIA. One is Grafton, who takes over as the agency’s acting director early in the novel. His contribution to the story is told from a third person perspective. Carmellini, an all-purpose spook who is usually tasked with planting bugs in foreign embassies, is the novel’s action hero. He tells his part of the story in the first person.

Some of Coonts’ characters have obvious political biases but, unlike some thriller writers, Coonts doesn’t let them overwhelm the story. I appreciate that, since I read fiction to be entertained, not indoctrinated. At the same time, Coonts isn’t afraid to show the ugly side of America -- an “us versus them” ugliness that too many people eagerly embrace when they use race or ancestry to define “real Americans.” That’s refreshing, and it gives the story a realistic sense of balance.

The Art of War blends action with drama. As is typical of thrillers, the action dominates at the end, but unlike many thrillers, it isn’t mindless action. Engaging characters, a certain slyness of wit in the storytelling, and a satisfying conclusion make this a fun novel.



We Install and Other Stories by Harry Turtledove

Published by Open Road Media on August 25, 2015

I have a mixed, but generally positive, reaction to this collection. Harry Turtledove is known for his alternative histories but this volume showcases his range as a science fiction writer. Readers expecting alternative histories might be disappointed, since none of those are represented here, although history does play a role in a couple of the stories.

Sort of the flip side of alternate history, “Drang von Osten” is a story of the future, told from a German soldier’s point of view as his army (combined with various Scandanavian forces) fights a campaign against Soviet Russians. If you’ve read any of the books that Turtledove has set in a time of war, this story is fairly typical in terms of content and style. The ending comes as something of a surprise, perhaps because it is jarringly out-of-the-blue.

In “Hoxbomb,” humans and an alien race who are grudgingly sharing a world find the need to conduct a joint criminal investigation. The aliens are truly alien, cleverly so. They are different from humans in most significant ways but with enough similarities to make productive interaction possible.

The longest and best story, “Down in the Bottomlands,” is a fun blend of the mystery and spy genres with modest elements of science fiction. A tour guide who shows tourists the sea bottom of a long-dry seabed finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to reignite a war between the various political divisions on his world.

“Father of the Groom” is about a mad scientist who literally turns a bride into Bridezilla. “We Install” is about a salesman who installs solar systems (as opposed to solar power systems). Both stories are cute but trivial.

“Under St. Peter’s” explains the resurrection of Jesus in a clever way that people of a religious bent might find sacrilegious. I thought it was amusing. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine” imagines domesticating humans in the way that Balyaev domesticated foxes. I liked the story but the style is a little too author-intrusive for my taste.

Turtledove’s attempt at something that isn’t science fiction, “Logan’s Law” (“the good ones are already taken”) is a bland story about a guy who is happy because he got laid …. duh. “Birdwitching” is about a witch who goes birding. Not my kind of story.

A few nonfiction pieces add to the page count, but not to the quality of the volume. In short, while the stories are uneven, the best of the bunch are quite good, and they make the collection worth reading.



Lord of the Swallows by Gérard de Villiers

First published in France in 2011; published in translation by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on February 9, 2016.

If Ian Fleming wrote porn novels, Lord of the Swallows would be the result. The title, in fact, might be taken to have a double meaning.

Lord of the Swallows is one of a series of French spy novels starring Malko Linge. The author, Gérard de Villiers, died in 2013.

When Malko Linge isn’t having his way with women, the Austrian prince works as a CIA agent. While attending a fund-raising gala in Monte Carlo with his lovely fiancé Alexandra, Malko meets the flirtatious but less attractive Zhana Khrenkov, the wife of Alexei Khrenkov, a corrupt Moscow millionaire.

Zhana is jealous because Alexei is having an affair with a beautiful dentist. Malko’s fiancé is jealous (or at least annoyed) because Malko seems to be interested in both the dentist and Zhana. Zhana doesn’t quite meet his standards but Malko is willing to lower his standards for the sake of … national security? Ah, the sacrifices one must make for duty.

International intrigue erupts when Alexei’s wife and mistress are independently observed in the company of Malko, to the dismay of the Russian spymaster who trusts Alexei to run a secret network of agents. Fearing Alexei might be compromised, the spymaster takes drastic steps, forcing Malko to respond. The novel follows Malko's various responses, both in and out of bed (or elevators or other convenient locations to enjoy a sexual encounter).

The plot and characters are shallow but the story moves quickly and has some mild entertainment value, apart from its prurient interest. Readers with an aversion to graphic sexual scenes that might be considered misogynistic should probably avoid this book. If you don’t mind a little rough sex mixed in your spy story, however, Lord of the Swallows has some fun moments, although it doesn't compare to better examples of the spy genre.