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.

Wednesday
Apr152015

Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker

[IMAGE TO FOLLOW]

First published in German in 2007; published in translation by Atria on April 14, 2015

I liked The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, although I had reservations about the novel's late stages. Readers who loved that 2002  novel will probably like Jan-Philipp Sendker's 2007 novel less. While both books explore the intersection of the East and West, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is fundamentally a love story. Whispering Shadows is more a novel of international intrigue, although a love story lurks within its pages. I think Whispering Shadows is a superior novel, but readers looking for another Art of Hearing Heartbeats might be disappointed.

Paul Leibovitz is the son of a Jewish father and a German mother, but only in Asia does he feel at home. The death of his son in Hong Kong turns Paul into a hermit. Three years after that death, Paul, now divorced, has an ambiguous interest in a woman named Christine but he resists the notion of having a girlfriend or, for that matter, a life. He prefers to brood for fear that moving on will cause him to lose his memories of his son.

On a rare trip from his home on Lamma Island to the island of Hong Kong, Paul meets Elizabeth Owen. Paul has little interest in her problems but when she tells him that her adult son has disappeared in China, he agrees to contact a friend named Zhang in the Shenzhen police who might be able to help. Christine, who has a deep distrust of Chinese officials based on a family tragedy, urges Paul not to become involved. The discovery of a violent death in Shenzhen sucks Paul into a quagmire. He doesn't want to get involved, but destiny or karma intercedes when Zhang asks for his help ... or perhaps Paul realizes that the time has come to start making choices.

Eventually the novel shifts to the perspectives of other characters. One is Victor Tang, a Chinese entrepreneur who has benefitted from the intersection of criminality and capitalism. Another is Richard Owen, who objected on grounds of patriotism to his son's plan to close the family's manufacturing plant in Wisconsin in favor of manufacturing in China. The final primary character is Zhang. He is a familiar character in fiction, the honest cop who opposes corruption, although as a Buddhist in China he doesn't fit the "cop novel" stereotype.

All of the characters are realistic, in part because their behavior is often less than ideal. To a degree, they are all selfish and self-absorbed. For good reason, Zhang is fearful to the point of paralysis. Having rejected the childhood lies his country told him about the benefits of shared sacrifice, Tang craves power. Richard is jealous of his son. Christine is controlling while Paul has walled himself off from emotion and human contact. They are all wrestling with their pasts and, in the case of the Chinese characters, with the impact of Mao's China on their pasts. Part of the novel's intrigue comes from wondering whether the characters will overcome those issues.

America's progression from Buy American to Fire Americans, and the notion that the American Dream is now (in altered form) the Chinese Dream, are among the novel's most interesting themes. Another important theme is the inability of people who grow up in a free nation to understand how oppression and the hunger for freedom shapes behavior. Still another is whether truth exists as an objective fact or whether truth is what people with power decide it should be. The cousin of truth is trust. Can we trust those who conceal the truth? Does the answer depend on the reason for hiding the truth? Finally, the novel explores the theme of bravery. Doing the right in the face of risk is an act of bravery, but is it also an act of stupidity if it will destroy your life without preventing evil from being done?

As he did in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Jan-Philipp Sendker writes of passion with honesty and intensity, from physical and emotional perspectives. He gives key characters a variety of interesting conflicts. Whispering Shadows fails to generate much suspense and the plot did not grab me on an emotional level, but the interaction of the characters creates dramatic tension. The story moves forward at a comfortable pace and reaches a satisfying conclusion.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr132015

Losing Faith by Adam Mitzner

Published by Gallery Books on April 14, 2015

Aaron Littman heads a high powered New York law firm. He is surprised when he is asked to take on the criminal defense of Nicolai Garkov, who is charged with securities and bank fraud and suspected of terrorism. Garkov's trial, just a month away, has been reassigned to Judge Faith Nichols. Neither Littman nor Nichols want anything to do with Garkov's case, but Garkov knows how to get what he wants. Littman finds himself with a Hobson's choice: refuse Garkov and lose his career or do Garkov's bidding and risk losing much more.

What begins as a simple blackmail story takes an ominous turn about a third of the way through the novel and an even sharper turn at the midway point. Losing Faith addresses a murder accusation, the usual focus of courtroom dramas, and challenges the reader to guess who committed the murder. It does those things quite well.

Losing Faith paints a bleak but accurate picture of life for lawyers in large corporate firms ... if you can call it a life. Adam Mitzner is spot on about the willingness (indeed, eagerness) of large corporate law firms to put profits ahead of principles. The novel's political dynamics (Faith has a shot at a Supreme Court nomination but only if Garkov is convicted and sentenced to the max) reflect a jaded view, but it is also a realistic view of how the career path of a judge is influenced by politics and grandstanding more than the judge's fidelity to the law.

The novel also offers bleak but accurate insights into how the criminal justice system railroads innocent people. It includes a fair amount of the "inside baseball" that makes a courtroom drama credible, all of it presented from a knowledgeable perspective. It accurately depicts how prosecutors can use the immense power of the government to coerce witnesses into giving testimony that will help secure a conviction. Not that, by the novel's end, the defense lawyers come across as any more ethical than the prosecutors. Most courtroom dramas paint either prosecutors or defense attorneys as knights in shining armor, but Losing Faith exposes the ugly truth that in many instances, both sides care only about winning and are willing to sacrifice their integrity to achieve that goal.

The courtroom scenes are riveting and the underlying mystery is a good one. My only significant objection is that the murder accusation is based on evidence that is not only circumstantial but weak -- so weak that I doubt a prosecutor would have based an indictment on it. While the story depends upon readers believing the government had a strong case, the prosecution's case seemed quite doubtful to me. That's a small complaint, however, and one that did not impair my overall enjoyment of the story.

If the reveal of the murderer at the novel's end is not entirely unexpected, Losing Faith has the virtue of being a novel that never overreaches. Too many courtroom dramas (and mysteries in general) rely on preposterous endings to achieve the element of surprise, but Losing Faith never produces an eye-rolling moment. While not quite on the level of Presumed Innocent (still the gold standard of courtroom dramas), Losing Faith tells a credible, satisfying, attention-grabbing story with flawed (and thus realistic) characters who are nevertheless sympathetic.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Apr102015

Mystery, Inc. by Joyce Carol Oates

Published by MysteriousPress.com on April 7, 2015

"Mystery, Inc." is Joyce Carol Oates' contribution to the Bibliomysteries series from Mysterious Press. Each short story is the creation of a crime writer. The stories are blurbed as "short tales about deadly books" but they more broadly address deadly authors, deadly bookstores, deadly libraries, and other deadly aspects of the literary world.

The owner of several mystery bookstores would love to acquire Mystery, Inc. in Seabrook, New Hampshire, the finest example of a mystery bookstore he has ever seen. To obtain the store at a good price, however, the current owner will have to die. How unfortunate.

"Mystery Inc." is as much an homage to mystery bookstores and mystery booksellers as it is a mystery story. Atmosphere is everything in a narrative that takes us for a loving stroll past cabinets filled with first editions of Poe and Doyle, pulp magazines filled with Hammett and Chandler, and a variety of art and memorabilia relating to death and crime.

Oates also delves into the philosophy of the mystery story and its relationship to the mystery of life. Mystery books, a character opines, allow us to see the many mysteries of life more clearly, from perspectives that are not our own.

Of course, a reader expects to encounter murderous perspectives in a murder mystery. Oates does not disappoint; the bookstore has a dark history. And of course, good mysteries deliver plot twists. Oates does that, and if the twist is not unexpected, it is nevertheless satisfying. "Mystery Inc." lacks the depth of Oates' best work but her stories never fail to entertain.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr082015

Intrusion by Reece Hirsch

Published by Thomas & Mercer on December 9, 2014

Trying to make Intellectual Property law interesting is, well, just plain impossible. Trying to make an IP lawyer into an action hero is, well, just plain silly. Reece Hirsch gave it a good try but, at least in this novel, didn't make it work.

Someone has stolen the search algorithms of Zapper (a thinly disguised Google), causing Zapper's CEO to assemble a Dream Team of hackers and security specialists. The culprits appear to be in China, perhaps even working for the Chinese government. Zapper's IP lawyer, Chris Bruen, improbably decides to go to China to track down the thieves himself ... because IP lawyers are so well-equipped to take on the People's Liberation Army. Bruen specializes in safeguarding the privacy of clients but he takes a more hands-on offensive against hackers than the traditional "sue them into oblivion" approach. He is assisted by a former hacker who now runs the law firm's forensics lab.

Bruen's exploits in China are the conventional stuff of thrillers but they seem all-too-easy. A section of the novel that explains the making of a Chinese hit man is equally unconvincing. After Bruen returns to the US, he spends most of his time dodging the hit man. His actions are predictable and dull. He later comes running to the rescue of another character in San Francisco instead of waiting for the police to respond to his request for assistance. Seriously? Some of the novel's dialog fails to ring true although the prose in general is passable if unmemorable.

To be fair, there is an element of mystery to the plot. The kind of misdirection that is common in a mystery worked on me, although when the mystery was resolved I didn't buy the resolution (I can't say why without spoiling the mystery). Since the plots of most modern thrillers are founded on the implausible, however, I can't fault Hirsch for following that trend. More troublesome is that, once again, Bruen's ability to expose the wrongdoing is just a little too easy. Thrillers need to build tension and this one doesn't.

Intrusion does contain some interesting discussions about the ethics of hacking and the desire to set information free. Hirsch obviously understands the implications of data mining and the uses (some good, some nefarious) to which they can be put -- whether by the Chinese government, the American government, or a corporation like Google. That makes the novel interesting rather than exciting. The basics of a good thriller are here, but the thrills are largely missing and the characters are dull.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr062015

Fox Is Framed by Lachlan Smith

Published by Mysterious Press on April 7, 2015

The family saga that began in Bear Is Broken and Lion Plays Rough continues in Fox Is Framed. We learned in the first two novels that Lawrence Maxwell was wrongfully convicted of killing the mother of his two sons. He may or may not be guilty but the prosecution concealed evidence that might have created a reasonable doubt about his guilt.

Like Lawrence, Leo and Ted Maxwell are both lawyers. At the beginning of Fox is Framed, they win the release of their father on bail. Ted is convinced of his father's innocence but a head wound that Ted received in an earlier novel has shattered his career. Leo continues to feel conflicted about his father even though his father's prison inmate connections may provide a steady supply of clients. In any event, the prosecution decides to take Lawrence to trial again and a new lawyer is appointed to represent him.

When a prosecution witness dies, Lawrence becomes a suspect in that murder, as well. The reader's challenge (and Leo's) is to figure out whether Lawrence had anything to do with the new murder and, if not, to discover the true culprit. Leo knows that proving Lawrence's innocence of the second murder might be the key to an acquittal on the first murder charge, since the prosecution's other evidence of his guilt is scant. Like Leo, however, the reader wonders whether Leo's father might have been the killer in both instances.

Lachlan Smith is at his best when the scenes turn to courtroom drama. He deftly conveys the tension and unpredictability of criminal trials, the risks and rewards of cross-examination, the gambling on strategies that either work or backfire. The novel loses some of its punch when it turns from courtroom drama to family drama but it never descends into melodrama. The novel's ending sets up more family drama in the future, which is unfortunate. I'd like to see this series move in a new direction. Apart from that, the ending leaves certain questions unresolved, which is a cheap setup to force curious readers to continue with the series. That's something I would have done anyway, given my admiration of Smith's ability to craft strong courtroom scenes.

RECOMMENDED