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.


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.



Forever Free by Joe Haldeman

First published in 1999; published digitally by Open Road Media on September 27, 2016

Forever Free, unlike Forever Peace, is a direct sequel to The Forever War. It isn’t as poignant as The Forever War, but few books are. While it has a smattering of powerful moments, it is nothing like its predecessor.

After the Forever War ended, veterans and others went to Middle Finger where they were allowed to live as insurance against the possible failure of cloned perfection, an experiment called Man that has produced billions of humans, all communing with a group mind. William Mandella, a natural human who starred in The Forever War, is now 1,168 in Earth years, but still in his 30s physically thanks to relativity and all the interstellar traveling he did as a soldier.

Mandella and his wife Marygay think of themselves as prisoners, preserved as part of a natural genepool but given no authority on an arctic planet that is effectively ruled by Man. They decide their best option is to gather a bunch of humans and take a five-year trip to the stars, then turn around and (thanks to relativity) return 40,000 years later. They are surprised to learn that Man is only too happy to get rid of them. The trip will keep the genepool intact while assuring that the troublesome humans don’t bother them for 40,000 years.

Before the trip can begin, Charlie receives an ominous warning from an unidentified Tauran (the alien enemy humans fought in the Forever War). From that point on, strange things happen, disappearances of matter (and then people) that seem to defy the laws of physics. Not all of the events strike me as being logically consistent, but logic turns out to have little to do with the story.

Forever Free
isn’t military science fiction. It isn’t space opera. It’s sort of a first contact story, but not really. For a while, it is sort of a survivalist story, although it isn’t the kind of modern survivalist story in which paranoid whackos lovingly describe their guns and bugout bags while eagerly waiting to shoot their neighbors after a mass disaster. This could have been a decent story about survivors working cooperatively to rebuild a society (cooperation being a concept that never occurs to the whackos who sleep next to their bugout bags), but that plot thread, like all the other interesting subplots in the novel, dies out before it develops.

At its heart, Forever Peace is a science fiction mystery, the mystery being, what’s going on with all the disappearances? The answer to the mystery … well, I was disappointed. Readers of a different philosophical persuasion might find it satisfying but, judging from Amazon reviews, readers who are hostile to religious belief systems consider Forever Peace one of the worst sf books ever written. That’s consistent with many Amazon reviews I’ve read by sf readers who are viciously intolerant of any belief system to which they do not adhere. Intolerance, to me, seems antithetical to the idea of science fiction, which should teach readers to be open minded. I have no religious beliefs and therefore do not share the belief system that drives the novel’s ending, but the book isn’t as bad as many one-star Amazon reviews make it out to be. Other sf authors, however, have covered the same territory more creatively, including Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke and even Isaac Asimov.

In the end, Forever Peace tosses out too many ideas and tries to be too many things, preventing it from developing any one theme successfully. The ending is a little too easy, almost lazy in its execution. Other aspects of the story are interesting, but it doesn’t work well enough as a whole to merit my recommendation, making this the only Joe Haldeman novel I can’t recommend.



The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák

Published by Scribner on January 24, 2017

The Signal Flame begins in 1972 with the death of Bohumír Konar’s grandfather, an event that comes a few months after Bo’s brother Sam was reported missing in action in Vietnam. Sam has left behind a pregnant fiancé, Ruth Younger, whose father killed Sam’s father in a hunting accident. Sam and Bo are living with a legacy of shame, their father having been labeled a deserter in World War II.

The story backtracks to 1941, the year of Bo’s birth, when his father, Bexhet Konar, goes off to war, and quickly jumps to 1948, when Bo and his father are reunited, and jumps forward again to his father’s death. The story then follows Bo during his young life in Pennsylvania and Maryland as he makes choices about his life, choices that are shaped by love and tragedy. Eventually the narrative returns to 1972.

The harshness of life and the difficulty of forgiveness are dominant themes in The Signal Flame. The classic literary conflicts — man against man, against nature, and against himself — all contribute to the novel’s dramatic moments.

When it returns to 1972, the drama concerns Sam’s mother, who won’t forgive Ruth’s father and won’t accept Sam’s baby into her life, Bo’s entreaties to forgive notwithstanding. Ruth and Sam’s mother and brother are all coping with Sam’s MIA status, each trying to find a way to process their new lives.

Andrew Krivák evokes a strong sense of time and place to tell a small, intensely personal story of two neighboring families making their lives on a wooded mountain. Parts of The Signal Flame are remarkably sad — not in ways the reader might expect — and it is a tribute to Krivák’s prose style and sense of pace that the reader can take time with those moments without having them overwhelm the story as a whole.

The Signal Flame is a story about sadness, but it is also a story about how people endure sadness and find new ways to give their lives meaning. Different readers will find different lessons in this book. In addition to forgiveness, the story’s themes include loss as a force of bonding, the absence of closure as a source of both hope and pain, the difficulty of determining when to leave the past in the past and move into the future, the power of family memories, and the role that nature and animals play in a fulfilling life. The quiet intensity of this novel is sometimes unsettling, and those unsettling moments reflect the difficult emotional experiences that are common to every life.



Coco Butternut by Joe R. Lansdale

Published by Subterranean Press on January 31, 2017

Coco Butternut is a novella-length story. It isn’t the funniest Hap & Leonard story I’ve read but it has its moments. More than enough moments, in fact, to earn a recommendation, at least for readers who are familiar with the characters.

Hap and Leonard are called upon to deliver money to a blackmailer in exchange for the disinterred body of a mummified dachshund named Coco Butternut. The job seems simple, but nothing is ever simple for Hap and Leonard.

As usual when Hap and Leonard get involved in a case, dead bodies appear. Human bodies, not just the mummified dog. And as usual, getting paid doesn’t work out quite as they planned.

Hap’s daughter Chance plays a supporting role in the story, as well as his partner/lover Brett. Adding to the banter is their primary role, but it’s hard to top the banter that Hap and (especially) Leonard provide as they point out each other’s faults.

Coco Butternut doesn’t advance the characters, but it tells an amusing story that fans will appreciate. I suspect that newcomers will benefit from reading earlier installments in the series before turning their attention to this one.

Joe Lansdale has written excellent novels and stories across a variety of genres. I enjoy Hap and Leonard and I’m glad Lansdale is achieving financial success with those characters, but I hope he finds time to diversify his current output. Not that it matters much, because I enjoy everything he writes. He’s a fine storyteller and his irreverent sense of humor matches my own, but I'm an even bigger fan of his not so funny but exceptionally chilling horror novels.