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.


NK3 by Michael Tolkin

Published by Grove Atlantic on February 7, 2017

NK3 is a post-apocalyptic story, albeit one that emphasizes the lighter size of catastrophe. North Korea releases nanobacteria into the air. They are targeting South Korea, but things get out of hand. Eventually the United States is affected by NK3, which induces a sense of elation before wiping out memory. The usual apocalyptic events occur: electricity is lost, planes crash, fires rage. But government officials had a chance to counteract the effects of NK3 in a limited portion of the population. They saved people with technical skills who were able to generate electricity and do other useful things, and of course they saved their buddies.

Center Camp, stretching out from Beverly Hills, is surrounded by a fence and controlled by a small number of people who are striving to keep civilization alive while drinking expensive wine and living in really nice houses. They are among the early First Wavers who were able to obtain rehabilitative treatment before the system was overwhelmed. Most people (especially people like writers and millionaires who had no practical skills) died or became Drifters and Driftettes. They aren’t zombies, but they shamble and don’t have much to say. Driftettes like to sweep and dance around naked. Second Wavers received belated treatment and are somewhere between the First Wavers and Drifters.

Some late First Wavers have a Silent Voice that guides them. Usually the Silent Voice — “the alienated echo of who you were” — tells them to lie about everything.

Erin is among the early First Wavers at Center Camp who use the DMV database to help match Drifters with their identities. When they verify that people once had skills that the community needs, the Drifters can join the community inside the fence and stop living like scavengers. The community then brands them and endeavors to restore their skills.

Seth Kaplan is a late First Waver who joins Center Camp after Erin verifies that he was once a doctor. And then there’s a young woman who was once a famous pop singer. She gets to join because, well, she’s a celebrity even if nobody remembers her.

Another faction controls the airport and hopes to find a pilot so they can go to a better place, if one exists. Outside of both areas is Hopper, who has been sent on a mysterious mission by someone he calls the Teacher.

Several other characters have taken new names (having forgotten their old ones), including AutoZone, Frank Sinatra, Go Bruins, and Pippi Longstocking. Some people are still around who weren’t affected by NK3, but they really aren’t welcome in the new world order. After all, they’re the ones who caused the problem. Killing them for being normal is the default option.

NK3’s carefully constructed future is full of interesting details, from the clothes that people wear to the mythology that explains an unremembered past. The plot … well, the story is so meandering that discovering a plot is a challenge. The novel is more a collection of amusing subplots that sort of come together, in the way that golden retriever puppies crash into each other randomly when they’re not running off in their own directions.

NK3 makes fun of committee meetings, the snobbery of privilege, the ephemeral nature of popular culture, religions and their various gods, the arrogance and shallowness of power, and people who believe a society should be organized by class membership. Oh, and fences. NK3 definitely mocks people who think building a fence to keep outsiders out is a smart idea.

The story of the pop singer gets a little strange as it nears the end (not that the story isn’t strange before that), as does Hopper’s story. The novel seems to be racing toward a profound resolution that it doesn’t quite achieve. While some of the plot threads disappear in a way that leaves the story feeling incomplete, others manage to come together by the end. A mystery is solved and the story never loses coherence. NK3 isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it is consistently amusing and worth reading for that reason, and the notion that we are living our own mythologies (which is my takeaway from the novel) gives the book some modest literary heft.



Death Penalty by William Coughlin

First published in 1992

Charley Sloan was a successful lawyer until his desire for bourbon overcame his desire to win cases. He’s back in court after selling shoes during a one-year suspension of his license. Taking a year off would be a professional death penalty for most lawyers, but Charley opened a scaled-down practice in a small town near Detroit and, after a headline-making victory, is starting to rebuild his flow of clients. After three failed marriages, he also needs to rebuild his life.

Death Penalty
follows Charley’s attempts to help a series of clients in civil and criminal cases, including his representation of Doctor Death (always an unfortunate name for a physician), but the plot’s focus is on the appeal of a multi-million-dollar product liability verdict he has been hired to handle. He will get a percentage of the trial lawyer’s fee if he wins, providing a cushion he needs to restore his financial health. The trial lawyer has heard rumors that some judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals are open to bribes and thinks that would be the best way to assure success. Charley assures the lawyer that the rumors are untrue -- until he is approached by an intermediary who suggests otherwise.

Charley is easy to like. He’s smart, compassionate, funny, and humble. William Coughlin adds human drama to courtroom drama with Charley’s baby-step efforts to restore his life and dignity, including his tentative approaches to romance with a couple of different women. The small town atmosphere adds local color to the story and allows Charley to introduce a variety of likable supporting characters to the cast. Their lighthearted banter adds humor to the story.

Most legal thrillers milk the drama of trials. This one is unusual in its reliance on an appeal. An appellate argument doesn’t rely on theatrics, as do the best trials, but they can be just as intense. Coughlin conveys that effectively. Trials are more fun, however, and when Dr. Death gets charged with another murder, Charley handles the case in a small county where criminal trials are viewed as a sporting event.

Coughlin also conveys the criminal defense lawyer’s instinctive disdain for informants -- criminals who are supposedly helping the police when, in fact, they are only interested in helping themselves avoid full punishment for their own crimes. Informants reveal a remarkable disloyalty to former friends that makes everything they say or do suspect. Charley’s unwillingness to act as one, even at risk of being arrested, reflects the humanity that he nurtures in his heart. He knows, at the same time, that people who refuse to sacrifice their honor are usually sacrificed by the system -- by powerful people who (as the novel illustrates) take care of each other.

Death Penalty does not end with the kind of clever twist I always hope for in a legal thriller. I like the way the Dr. Death story resolves, but the conspiracy plot coasts to an easy conclusion that lacks suspense. That’s my only complaint about Death Penalty, and it is overshadowed by the novel’s merits.

Describing the courthouse where he spent most of his career, Charley says “It wasn’t the kind of place that inspired nostalgia any more than a rectal thermometer evoked happy memories for an overworked nurse.” Sentences like that provide more than adequate reason to recommend Death Penalty. A fun story and a likable main character make Death Penalty a good choice for fans of legal thrillers.



A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

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

A Divided Spy is the final book in the Thomas Kell trilogy. It builds on the death of Kell’s girlfriend, Rachel Wallinger, and makes occasional reference other to key events in the earlier novels, but it can easily be read as a standalone. However, the reader will likely appreciate the depth of the characters more fully with the benefit of insights provided by the first two novels.

At 46, Thomas Kell has left behind his dangerous days as a spy. Since Rachel’s murder in Istanbul, Kell has gone out of his way to avoid former colleagues at MI6. Kell would like to seek vengeance against Alexander Minasian, the man he holds responsible for Rachel’s assassination, but he has almost resigned himself to injustice. Or at least, he is resigned to it until he learns that Minasian has been spotted at a resort in Egypt.

Kell’s first step is to befriend Bernhard Riedle in Brussels. Riedle is Minasian’s jilted lover. Perhaps Kell can use Riedle to set up Minasian … but who is setting up whom? As is common in spy novels, trust is easily misplaced, leaving the reader to puzzle out the intrigue.

The other plot development involves Shahid Khan, who is returning to England (his birthplace and a land he now views as evil) to carry out a mission. Kell learns, indirectly and incompletely, that a terrorist plot against London might be afoot, and that soon becomes the focus of Kell’s investigation — to the limited extent that his boss, who doubts the authenticity of Kell’s source, will allow him to do anything at all. Of course, the spy who ignores his boss in order to do what he believes to be right is a time-honored theme of spy fiction, and Kell fits within that mold.

Modern spy novels often feature ISIS terrorists while Cold War spy novels reliably focused on Russians. It’s unusual to find a novel that includes both, but Charles Cumming manages to merge them deftly.

Much of the tension in A Divided Spy comes from uncertainty as to whether Kell is being played and, if so, by whom. The battle of wits between Kell and Minasian never quite enters Le Carré territory, but it is both convincing and engaging. The novel’s strength, in fact, is its portrayal of two spies who, while separated by ideology, are fundamentally similar people — a theme Le Carré executed to perfection and that Cumming handles with aplomb.

Cumming’s exploration of the mentality of a spy is really an exploration of anyone who deceives. Telling a constant stream of lies, whether for personal gain or to advance a government’s interests, changes a person’s nature, prevents him from being true to himself. People who care about the truth (people who are not sociopaths) may be destroyed by living a lie, and that is seen to different degrees in both of the novel’s central characters.

At the same time, living with ambiguity, never knowing whether a source (or even a colleague) can be trusted, makes it hard to maintain a moral center. Trust can get you killed; an inability to trust can do the same. The moral conflicts that characterize the best spy fiction are particularly strong in the concluding chapters of A Divided Spy. The novel is a fine end to a series that, taken as a whole, is probably Cumming’s best work.



Guilty Minds by Joseph Finder

Published by Dutton on July 19, 2016

Nick Heller is a private intelligence operative. A prominent insider lawyer contacts him because a story is scheduled to run on a gossip website that accuses the Chief Justice of maintaining a relationship with a prostitute. Even worse, the relationship was paid for by a casino owner who had a case before the Supreme Court. Heller’s job is to prove that the accusations are false.

The most interesting aspect of Guilty Minds, I think, is its discussion of gossip-mongering websites like TMZ and The Drudge Report and Perez Hilton that often operate like the modern version of yellow journalism. While much of the reported content isn’t political (in fact, most people find movie star gossip more interesting than smears of a senator whose name they don’t recognize), gossip mongers are easily manipulated for the sake of headlines (or internet rankings) in ways that serve political purposes. Of course, some (like Drudge) are overtly political and prefer muckraking to anything resembling journalism.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Heller is able to do something to help the Chief Justice, but the story is only beginning at that point. The rest of the novel ramps up the action as Heller tracks down the bigger mystery of why he was asked to solve the problem.

Action scenes keep the story moving in the second half. They are all reasonably credible, except for a “rescue” scene near the end, where Heller has a surprisingly easy time. That’s better, in my view, than the ridiculous thriller scenes in which one heroic guy manages to take out fifty security professionals in order to pull off a daring rescue.

Characters are not deep but they are sufficiently developed to make them interesting. Joseph Finder always writes prose that flows smoothly. Guilty Minds doesn’t have the intrigue of his best novels, but it’s a fun summer read. (Never mind that I read it in February -- it is always summer on Tzer Island.)



The Prisoner by Alex Berenson

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on January 31, 2017

I read the first couple of books in this series when they came out and wasn’t impressed. The Prisoner makes me think I should go back and read the ones I missed. Compared to the early novels, Alex Berenson has sharpened his prose, honed his storytelling ability, and strengthened his characters.

John Wells is no longer running around the mountains of Afghanistan. Now he’s wandering around the woods in Montana, at least until he learns he has a baby. That motivates him to wander around the woods in New Hampshire. Wells’ former boss, a power-mad CIA director, has just won the presidency by declaring war on the press. Wells plans to ignore it all and stay retired until he gets a phone call from Bulgaria. Then he’s back in the game.

In the grand tradition of spy novels, Wells is told that a mole is leaking information to Islamic State. The evidence is convincing but the president doesn’t want to believe it could be one of his top guys. The intel comes from overheard comments made by a terrorist in a Bulgarian prison that the US uses to hold high-value prisoners. To root out the mole, Wells decides to infiltrate the prison, posing as a captured terrorist trying to get the source to give up the mole’s name. Nobody expects that to happen, but the hope is that the mole will expose himself while trying to shut down Wells.

The novel has three plot threads. The first focuses on Wells, as he infiltrates the Bulgarian prison. The second follows a terrorist who is producing sarin gas for the Islamic State. The third is the mole, whose identity the reader learns long before the good guys discover it. The three threads come together as terrorists prepare to release the sarin gas at a location that will serve the Islamic State’s goal of spreading terror that is both real and symbolic.

I admire the vivid and painful truths that Alex Berenson illustrates about recent history, primarily through a character who misuses those truths to justify his betrayal. I appreciate the fact that Wells, unlike too many thriller heroes, has a conscience and doesn’t shrug off killing bad guys with “he had it coming” and innocents with “collateral damage.”

At the same time, quite a bit of the traitor’s character development comes in a lengthy expository narrative that slows the novel’s pace. Most of the novel, however, particularly when it focuses on Wells and in scenes that follow the terrorists, moves briskly. This is an action novel rather than a novel of intrigue, but the action is credible. Wells solves most problems with his brain, not with the superhuman fighting ability that most thriller heroes seem to possess. The “race against the clock to thwart a terrorist attack” plot nevertheless generates a fair amount of action, and Wells is certainly capable of defending himself. All of that makes The Prisoner an engaging thriller.