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.

Monday
Jul282014

The November Man by Bill Granger

First published in 1986; published digitally by Grand Central Publishing on July 29, 2014

A good spy novel should have intrigue and suspense and characters who wrestle with internal conflicts. It should recognize the moral ambiguity inherent in espionage. Most importantly, it should hold a reader's rapt attention from the first scene to the last. The November Man does all that. First published in 1986 and the first in a series, a digital edition of The November Man is being re-released to coincide with the release of a movie of the same name.

Alexa, a KGB assassin, has been ordered to kill the agent known as November despite his offer to defect to the Soviet Union. November, whose real name is Devereaux, thinks he is safe because he left the trade, erased himself from the world, and is living a nondescript life in Switzerland with the woman he loves and a boy he rescued. Whether Devereaux will be forced to return to the trade, and what that will mean to his relationship with Rita, is a question that alternately torments and intrigues him.

Hanley, director of operations for the Section that employed November, has apparently suffered a breakdown. Contrary to regulations, Hanley has been calling November over unsecured lines, babbling about "Nutcracker" and saying "there are no spies" over and over. Hanley's meaning is unclear (even to November), but Hanley's boss eavesdrops, pronounces Hanley a threat to national security, and sends him to an institution for wayward government employees where heavy medication and electric fences assure his docile silence. Hanley's loyal colleague, Lydia Neumann, seems to be the only person who takes his side.

Who is November and why do so many people want him dead? How do the Russians know so much about him? Has he been betrayed by his former employer? For the first half of the novel, all we know with certainty is that November used to be a spy, one of the last of a vanishing breed. The novel introduces us to several others in and on the periphery of the spy game, all of whom are strong characters.

A part (but only a part) of "there are no spies" refers to the replacement of human operatives with signals intelligence, satellite surveillance, and other forms of spying that do not involve sending humans into the field. One of the novel's themes is the argument that humans interacting with humans can learn critical information that satellites cannot, and can give meaning and context to electronically gathered information that would otherwise be lost.

The spare elegance of Granger's prose and the emotional truth he gives to his characters makes The November Man stand out in the world of espionage fiction. If the plot is not as twisty and complex as some other spy novels might produce, it has the virtue of being tight, credible, and meaningful.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul252014

Blacklist by Jerry Ludwig

Published by Forge Books on June 10, 2014

Teddy Weaver, a Hollywood writer hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee, flees the country to avoid betraying friends who once supported the Communist Party. Teddy's long-time friend and writing partner, Leo Vardian, makes a different choice: he names names, although he has always maintained that he refused to name Teddy. Leo goes on to direct films while Teddy writes in anonymous exile. The two meet again but never manage to reconcile before Teddy's death.

While Teddy and Leo provide the background to Blacklist, most of the story takes place several years after HUAC has abandoned its search for Hollywood communists. Teddy's son David, who eventually replaced Leo as Teddy's writing partner, returns to Hollywood from Paris after his father's death. He reconnects with Jana, Leo's daughter and David's childhood friend, but has difficulty making peace with Leo. The novel's early drama centers on David's conflicted relationships with Leo and Jana.

David has an anger management problem that makes him lash out at authority figures, including the FBI agent, Brian McKenna, who tormented his father and is now the liaison between the FBI and Hollywood studios. When a homicide occurs midway through the novel, David (who was seen punching out the victim not long before the homicide occurred) becomes a logical suspect. McKenna and the local police are even more inclined to suspect David when they realize that two recent homicides are connected by the same thread: both victims were informers who caused Hollywood writers and directors to be blacklisted. With J. Edgar Hoover pressing McKenna for results, the second half of the novel is aptly subtitled "The Hunt for the Blacklist Killer" -- at least until a murder occurs that don't fit the pattern.

Blacklist offers a useful reminder of a shameful period in American history, and does so with a nuanced view. It is easy to condemn people who avoided the blacklist by accusing others of Communist affiliations, but it is also easy to understand why someone who needs an income to pay for a spouse's medicine or a child's education might do so. Leo's decision to cooperate has ramifications that go well beyond the lost careers to which he may have contributed. Is the enormous guilt he carries sufficient punishment for the betrayals he committed? Everybody targeted by HUAC lost something -- those who stood up to the government lost their jobs, those who did not lost friends and self-respect. The people most deserving of blame are Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and others in government who orchestrated or carried out the un-American witch-hunt.

Unfortunately, the story's setting is better than the story. The first half is slow moving. The murder mystery in the second half is enlivened by the attempt to frame David, but the killer's identity comes as no surprise. The theme of betrayal runs through the novel as the reader wonders whether Jana will betray David (just as her father betrayed his father) but that subplot fizzles away. The story is too contrived to be truly engaging.

Each chapter is titled with the name of the character who narrates it. The names are helpful because the narrative voice is always the same. Without the chapter titles, it would be difficult to guess which character is speaking. While the novel is written in capable prose, it never soars. The characters are unremarkable, but the characters we are given reason to dislike are at least fashioned with a degree of complexity. None of the characters grabbed me. David is remarkably dull. McKenna is the most realistic character but he is also the least likable. In short, I liked the subject matter more than I liked the book or its characters.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Jul232014

Vengeance Is Mine by Reavis Z. Wortham

Published by Poisoned Pen Press on July 1, 2014

The first Red River mystery, a haunting and powerful tale, remains the best of this series. In Vengeance Is Mine, Reavis Wortham again tells a story that doesn't live up to the promise of the initial novel, but the characters and setting are strong and the lively plot is fast and fun.

A Vegas hit man, deciding to retire after his conscience prevents him from fulfilling a mission, steals the Mob boss' safe as severance pay. A beautiful woman he meets as he's leaving Vegas joins him. They end up in Lamar County, Texas -- a place Cody Parker once described to the hit man -- bringing more trouble to a small rural community that has seen more than its share of violence.

Coincidentally (and the coincidence is huge), the hit man not only Cody in Vegas, but also the sheriff who has become the nemesis of Ned Parker. As we know from past novels, Sheriff Griffin is crooked, and his errant ways cause him to fear the hit man who unexpectedly appears in his little patch of Texas.

Following the formula he crafted for this series, Wortham moves the plot forward with chapters written in the third person while occasionally adding a chapter from Top's youthful perspective. As always, Top and his foul-mouthed cousin Pepper manage to be in the center of trouble whenever it arises.

The men in the Red River novels "live in a world of hurt and fact." They say what they mean and they don't sugar coat it. The men make an effort to avoid displaying their emotions but Wortham conveys their emotions effectively. Over the course of the series, Wortham has fashioned primary and secondary characters who seem as real as your neighbors (at least if your neighbors live in northeast Texas).

Wortham has a keen ear for regional dialect. His characters continue to explore themes raised in earlier novels -- changing times, rising crime, the loss of neighborly ways. Pepper is almost the sole advocate for change -- she's tired of the farm and the smell of manure -- while Top is afraid of change, particularly the changes that are occurring in Pepper's body.

While Vengeance Is Mine fails to match the captivating suspense of The Rock Hole, it is a worthy addition to the series. I liked it about as much as Burrows, but I suspect that a new reader's appreciation of this novel will be enhanced by reading at least the first two before tackling this one.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul212014

The Butcher by Jennifer Hiller

Published by Gallery Books on July 15, 2014

In 1985, Rufus Wedge, believed to be the Beacon Hill Butcher, is gunned down by four police officers, including Captain Edward Shank of the Seattle Police. In the present day, Shank is moving to a retirement home at the age of 80. In a standard serial killer novel, we would learn at the end that Shank is the real serial killer and that he executed an innocent man to cover his tracks. In a twist on the standard plot, Jennifer Hillier tells us up front that Shank is the killer.

Shank's grandson Matt, owns a successful restaurant in Seattle and is about to get his own reality TV show. When Matt moves into Shank's house, he discovers evidence of his grandfather's hobby. Coincidentally -- and it's a huge coincidence -- Matt's girlfriend Sam is writing a book about the Butcher. She has come to believe that the Butcher killed her mother notwithstanding the fact that (1) her mother was killed two years after Wedge died, and (2) the Butcher always cut off his victim's left hand while her mother's hand was still attached. Why Sam is convinced that Wedge was not the Butcher is never adequately explained. Another coincidence, even more difficult to believe, unites Sam with a friend of Sam's mother who also believes that Sam's mother was killed by the Butcher.

All of this happens early in the novel, leaving the reader to wonder how the plot will unfold. I appreciated the unusual track the story follows. While the improbable plot fails to build suspense, it always held my interest -- at least when it didn't get sidetracked by melodramatic romance, which happened too frequently for my taste. In addition, key story elements feel contrived and Hillier didn't sell me on the characters, none of whom gave me the impression of being real people.

The oversexed octogenarian serial killer is a lively presence, but he's more a caricature than a fully drawn character. Still, he at least has a crotchety attitude that makes him sort of an endearing killer. Samantha, who spends most of her time fretting and feeling sorry for herself, has zero personality. Matt might be the most realistic character but he's a jerk. Jerks can make great characters but Matt is a dull jerk. An unbelievably sensitive ex-Seahawks quarterback who happens to be both Samantha's platonic best friend and Matt's former college roommate is too flawless to be convincing. In fact, my impression is that Hillier intended Matt to be the prototype of the "bad boyfriend" and the quarterback to the prototype of the "perfect man." Lacking the complexity of real people, prototypes rarely make interesting characters.

If you take out the bad characters and the romantic subplot and the contrivances (including the eye-rolling ending), the little that is left makes for at least part of a decent story. The swift pace makes The Butcher a quick-to-read time killer, but too much of it struck me as silly to earn a recommendation.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul182014

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki

Published by First Second on May 6, 2014

A graphic novel as good as This One Summer is hard to find. The story revolves around a single summer in the life of a girl who is on the cusp of adolescence. Everything is formative at that age. Events big and small all add up to shape a future that the child is only beginning to imagine. This is a story about the perils of family, the difficulty of growing up, and the process of learning to cope with life's complexity.

Rose and her parents go to their summer cottage on the beach where Rose hangs out with her friend Windy. They talk about boys (of course) and sex (of course), two topics about which they know little. They swim and watch scary movies and bond. They're surrounded by adult drama that they often don't quite understand. Rose's mother is unhappy and is doing her best to make her unhappiness known to the world, creating tension in Rose's summer, particularly after her father returns to the city. Rose takes a keen interest in a scruffy 18-year-old boy from the corner store although she doesn't know how to deal with her curiosity about him. Fortunately, she hasn't entered the raging hormone teenage years. The boy has, of course, and his raging hormones have gotten him into a messy situation.

I love Rose's attitude. Here's her take on Sex and the City: "Like, so they're 40 and they're having sex. Who cares?" Rose is always trying to puzzle out the meaning of adult behavior, even the behaviors of those who are only a few years older. Mariko Tamiko captures that uncertainty perfectly.

I also love the way Jillian Tamaki's art nearly always conveys a sense of action, even if it's just a bird in flight or a blowing leaf. As they should be in a graphic novel, many panels are free of words. The art (all sketched in blue) creates just the right atmosphere for the story.

The story is low-key, told at a relaxed summer pace, and is utterly convincing. It's also surprisingly captivating and brutally honest without ever becoming melodramatic. It captures a stage of life better than most text-based literary novels can manage. Fans of serious graphic novels -- and any fan of good story-telling -- should consider spending time with This One Summer.

RECOMMENDED