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.


Scents and Sensibility by Spencer Quinn

Published by Atria Books on July 14, 2015

A saguaro cactus in the yard of Bernie Little's elderly neighbor, Daniel Parsons, brings the cactus police. Chet, who enjoys marking the cactus, is always happy to see Parsons' dog, Iggy. Chet, of course, is Bernie's dog and a partner in the Little Detective Agency.

The cactus cop has a puppy named Shooter. The puppy (not yet named) appeared in an earlier Chet and Bernie novel. He bears a suspicious resemblance to Chet and has some of Chet's mannerisms. If Chet has a secret, he isn't telling. Actually, he's probably forgotten. Chet forgets almost everything except interesting smells, people he likes (a rather large collection), and favorite foods (an even larger collection that begins with Slim Jims).

The stolen cactus was a gift from Parson's son, who is perhaps not the most honest person in California. Wanting to keep his neighbor out of trouble, Bernie begins a cactus investigation that soon turns into a murder investigation. Of course, he works for free, Chet being the only one on the team who worries about money -- although Chet never worries for long, being easily distracted by chew toys and sandwiches.

With Iggy and/or Shooter so often in the picture, Chet is a bit jealous, although he doesn't think of it that way. Like all dogs, he has no desire to share affection and contrives to nudge the smaller dogs out of the way if Bernie tries to scratch their ears. Chet's running commentary on the mysterious things that humans say and do is the reason these novels are never disappointing.

As to the plot -- Chet has harrowing adventures that are more worrisome than is common in a Chet and Bernie novel. It's funny how when someone threatens Bernie or bashes him on the head I don't much care, but I always worry about Chet. Fortunately, Chet can take care of himself, and Shooter is a chip off the old Chet.

I noticed some puzzling reviews on Amazon that complain about the darkness of this novel. This is a thriller, after all, but most of the story is written with Spencer Quinn's usual good humor and light touch. There are certainly no graphic descriptions of animal abuse. Things are a little rough for Chet and Bernie and the cliffhanger ending departs from other Chet and Bernie novels, but life isn't always sunny and I think it is fair for fiction to reflect that. Scents and Sensibility allows readers to escape to a happier world even if the ending forces them to stay in touch with reality. In fact, I think it's one of the better books in the series.



Hard Rain by Peter Abrahams

First published in 1988; published digitally by Open Road Media on July 28, 2015

Peter Abrahams writes the terrifically amusing Chet and Bernie novels using the penname Spencer Quinn. First published in 1988, Hard Rain is a more traditional thriller. It moves quickly and features a likable protagonist and a quirky supporting cast. I think Abrahams hit his stride with the Chet and Bernie series, but Hard Rain proves that he is a writer with range.

Jessie Rodney expects Pat, her ex-husband, to drop off their daughter, Kate, but neither Pat nor Kate can be found. Jessie finds Kate's favorite shoes and the book Kate was reading in Pat's house. Some words are written on a blackboard in a language Jessie does not recognize. When she visits the house again, the words have been erased. It soon becomes clear that Jessie's life is at risk, although why that is true is not so clear.

Jessie's search for her daughter takes her back to Pat's younger days, when he lived in a commune and played in a band with a senator's son who went MIA in Vietnam. There she meets a number of societal dropouts, some of whom knew Pat back in his commune days (although none of them can imagine Pat in the role of husband or father). Eventually some villains appear.

Also appearing is a member of the intelligence community named Ivan Zyzmchuk, who is too old for field work but unsuited to an office environment. He is nevertheless assigned to an investigation -- probably his last before a forced retirement and an opportunity to get him out of the office -- that will (for reasons not immediately made clear) bring him into contact with Jessie.

Much about Hard Rain is not immediately made clear, which is why it tells such an intriguing story. The plot that eventually emerges, like the solution to the various mysteries that Jessie and Zymchuk encounter, is plausible, although a bit too contrived. Notwithstanding that it is fairly easy to guess the central truth (or at least part of it) before it is revealed, the resolution of a collateral mystery at the end surprised me -- probably because I lost track of it. Abrahams packed a lot of plot into this novel and did it without wasting words, which I appreciate. While I enjoyed Hard Rain for its colorful characters more than its plot, the story always held my interest.



Orders is Orders by L. Ron Hubbard

First published in Argosy in 1937; published in trade paperback by Galaxy Press on March 16, 2009 as part of its Stories From the Golden Age series

L. Ron Hubbard wrote stories in a variety of genres before he invented a religion that, despite being founded by aliens, came to be embraced by an uncertain number of people (estimates range from 30,000 to 10 million). Hubbard was a good storyteller and religions are all about stories, so it was a natural fit.

Orders is Orders is written in the typical style of 1937 pulp fiction -- which makes sense, since that's when this story first appeared. It is one of the early stories in Hubbard's writing career.

The Japanese are laying waste to China, the United States is neutral, and members of the American Consulate in Shunkien need money and medicine in order to make it out alive. A Navy ship has money and medicine but Shunkien is 200 miles inland. The captain decides to send two expendable Marines because the deaths of more would risk an incident. During their trek, the two men manage to encounter a feisty American woman who accompanies them on their mission.

Hubbard gives reasonable depth to his characters, particularly the leader of the mission, who has a serious drinking problem (will it jeopardize his mission?) and a problem dealing with his past, including the 15 years he spent being raised by his missionary father in China. The story moves quickly and resolves in a way that is satisfying, albeit predictable.



I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers

Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on June 9, 2015

Coping with a sense of responsibility for an unintended death is a theme that I Saw a Man explores from three different perspectives. The theme is gloomy and so are the characters, but I can't fault the novel for exploring the pain and despair associated with guilt and loss. Life is sometimes gloomy and serious literature should reflect that.

Getting to know a neighboring family for the last seven months has been a healing, settling experience for Michael. Having moved back to London from Wales to make a new life after his wife's death, Michael fears the company of others. At a party hosted by his neighbors, Samantha and Josh, Michael feels himself "adrift, the only seeing witness in a room of the chattering blind."

Michael is haunted by the loss of his wife, whose fate we learn only after nearly half the novel has passed. So haunted that he believes he catches a glimpse of her in his neighbor's house. The story takes a shocking turn at the midway point when another event occurs that jars the lives of Michael and his neighbors.

The structure of I Saw a Man is odd. The novel begins as Michael enters his neighbors' house through an open back door to look for the screwdriver he loaned them. Halfway through the novel he is still looking, having made little progress while moving through the home. Most of the novel is filled with backstory, memories of Michael's past that are triggered by his benign trespass as well as the story of another man whose life is tragically linked to Michael's.

The other man is Daniel McCullen, a pilot who flies drones in Afghanistan from a base in Nevada. McCullen is dealing with his own kind of pain. McCullen's story begins to move to the forefront in the second half, then all but vanishes. At its best, McCullen's story raises profound and discomforting questions about the relationship between money and war and the death of innocents.

The plot is a bit thin, an improbable set of coincidences that allows Owen Sheers to reveal the inner workings of his brooding characters. Decisions that Michael makes at the novel's end struck me as particularly contrived. Daniel might be the most interesting character, making his disappearance from the story disappointing.

The novel's exploration of the impact that related tragedies have on different characters is insightful, but give that this is a relatively brief book, there are too many redundantly expository passages that begin with phrases like, "Months passed and Michael still felt ...." In other respects, Owen Sheers' prose is both subtle and elegant. I therefore have a mixed reaction toward I Saw a Man, but in the end I recommend it to readers who are not turned off by literary efforts that are less than cheery.



Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews

Published by Scribner on June 2, 2015

Dominika Egorova, last seen departing for Moscow in Red Sparrow, is again the focus of Palace of Treason. She continues to work as a mole for the CIA, motivated by some awful things she sees in the SVR, where she was trained in twin arts of espionage and seduction. Will she once again break all the rules by sleeping with her CIA handler, Nate Nash? Do you need to ask?

The preliminary story involves an Iranian nuclear engineer who is of interest to both the Russians and the Americans. That story gives Nate and Dominika the opportunity to reunite.

About a third of the way into the story, a new character, embittered by the American intelligence establishment's failure to feed both his ego and his bank account, decides to pass secrets to the Russians. One of those secrets might expose Dominika, leading to a series of chase scenes, fights, and other standard spy thriller fare.

If you liked Red Sparrow (which I did), you will probably like Palace of Treason, simply because it is a similar novel. It blends tradecraft and action with a reasonable degree of character building. Jason Matthews isn't John le Carré or Len Deighton, but he tells a story that is credible and reasonably suspenseful. Interestingly, his Russian villains are drawn with greater detail and complexity than his whitebread American characters.

Palace of Treason is a bit wordier than it needs to be. The novel's sex scenes (including a rather mild encounter with Putin) lack the mature touch of a seasoned author. I could live without Dominika seeing colorful auras around the people she encounters and I still don't understand the point of putting a recipe at the end of every chapter for some meal that appeared during the course of the chapter, a contrivance that forces his characters to eat constantly. Those reservations aside, I continue to enjoy the series. Matthews has a knack for storytelling. For a spy fiction fan, the tradecraft alone makes the novel worthwhile.