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
Feb082016

The Art of War by Stephen Coonts

Published by St. Martin's Press on February 2, 2016

As he has often done, Stephen Coonts teams series hero Jake Grafton with series hero Tommy Carmellini in The Art of War. The strength of those characters and a couple of powerful moments sold me on the novel. The plot is standard for a modern thriller, meaning it approaches the outlandish. Fortunately, the book races from scene to scene with so much energy that it leaves little time to think about the story's improbability.

The Chinese navy is the bad guy in The Art of War. Chinese naval commanders want to control the South China Sea, but worry that Americans might interfere with their grand design. They take steps to keep that from happening. Big steps, on several fronts, calculated to disrupt America’s various intelligence agencies and, for that matter, the government and the entire country.

Coonts pushes the Chinese shenanigans rather far, to a point that nearly exceeded my generous willingness to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story. Fortunately, The Art of War never became so ridiculously improbable that I lost interest in it. To his credit, Coonts recognizes and addresses some of the reasons that his imagined scenario is largely divorced from political and economic reality.

The good guys in The Art of War are in the CIA. One is Grafton, who takes over as the agency’s acting director early in the novel. His contribution to the story is told from a third person perspective. Carmellini, an all-purpose spook who is usually tasked with planting bugs in foreign embassies, is the novel’s action hero. He tells his part of the story in the first person.

Some of Coonts’ characters have obvious political biases but, unlike some thriller writers, Coonts doesn’t let them overwhelm the story. I appreciate that, since I read fiction to be entertained, not indoctrinated. At the same time, Coonts isn’t afraid to show the ugly side of America -- an “us versus them” ugliness that too many people eagerly embrace when they use race or ancestry to define “real Americans.” That’s refreshing, and it gives the story a realistic sense of balance.

The Art of War blends action with drama. As is typical of thrillers, the action dominates at the end, but unlike many thrillers, it isn’t mindless action. Engaging characters, a certain slyness of wit in the storytelling, and a satisfying conclusion make this a fun novel.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Feb072016

We Install and Other Stories by Harry Turtledove

Published by Open Road Media on August 25, 2015

I have a mixed, but generally positive, reaction to this collection. Harry Turtledove is known for his alternative histories but this volume showcases his range as a science fiction writer. Readers expecting alternative histories might be disappointed, since none of those are represented here, although history does play a role in a couple of the stories.

Sort of the flip side of alternate history, “Drang von Osten” is a story of the future, told from a German soldier’s point of view as his army (combined with various Scandanavian forces) fights a campaign against Soviet Russians. If you’ve read any of the books that Turtledove has set in a time of war, this story is fairly typical in terms of content and style. The ending comes as something of a surprise, perhaps because it is jarringly out-of-the-blue.

In “Hoxbomb,” humans and an alien race who are grudgingly sharing a world find the need to conduct a joint criminal investigation. The aliens are truly alien, cleverly so. They are different from humans in most significant ways but with enough similarities to make productive interaction possible.

The longest and best story, “Down in the Bottomlands,” is a fun blend of the mystery and spy genres with modest elements of science fiction. A tour guide who shows tourists the sea bottom of a long-dry seabed finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to reignite a war between the various political divisions on his world.

“Father of the Groom” is about a mad scientist who literally turns a bride into Bridezilla. “We Install” is about a salesman who installs solar systems (as opposed to solar power systems). Both stories are cute but trivial.

“Under St. Peter’s” explains the resurrection of Jesus in a clever way that people of a religious bent might find sacrilegious. I thought it was amusing. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine” imagines domesticating humans in the way that Balyaev domesticated foxes. I liked the story but the style is a little too author-intrusive for my taste.

Turtledove’s attempt at something that isn’t science fiction, “Logan’s Law” (“the good ones are already taken”) is a bland story about a guy who is happy because he got laid …. duh. “Birdwitching” is about a witch who goes birding. Not my kind of story.

A few nonfiction pieces add to the page count, but not to the quality of the volume. In short, while the stories are uneven, the best of the bunch are quite good, and they make the collection worth reading.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Feb052016

Lord of the Swallows by Gérard de Villiers

First published in France in 2011; published in translation by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on February 9, 2016.

If Ian Fleming wrote porn novels, Lord of the Swallows would be the result. The title, in fact, might be taken to have a double meaning.

Lord of the Swallows is one of a series of French spy novels starring Malko Linge. The author, Gérard de Villiers, died in 2013.

When Malko Linge isn’t having his way with women, the Austrian prince works as a CIA agent. While attending a fund-raising gala in Monte Carlo with his lovely fiancé Alexandra, Malko meets the flirtatious but less attractive Zhana Khrenkov, the wife of Alexei Khrenkov, a corrupt Moscow millionaire.

Zhana is jealous because Alexei is having an affair with a beautiful dentist. Malko’s fiancé is jealous (or at least annoyed) because Malko seems to be interested in both the dentist and Zhana. Zhana doesn’t quite meet his standards but Malko is willing to lower his standards for the sake of … national security? Ah, the sacrifices one must make for duty.

International intrigue erupts when Alexei’s wife and mistress are independently observed in the company of Malko, to the dismay of the Russian spymaster who trusts Alexei to run a secret network of agents. Fearing Alexei might be compromised, the spymaster takes drastic steps, forcing Malko to respond. The novel follows Malko's various responses, both in and out of bed (or elevators or other convenient locations to enjoy a sexual encounter).

The plot and characters are shallow but the story moves quickly and has some mild entertainment value, apart from its prurient interest. Readers with an aversion to graphic sexual scenes that might be considered misogynistic should probably avoid this book. If you don’t mind a little rough sex mixed in your spy story, however, Lord of the Swallows has some fun moments, although it doesn't compare to better examples of the spy genre.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Feb032016

Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne

Published in Great Britain in 2015; published by Crown Publishing/Hogarth on January 12, 2016

Hunters in the dark are hunting for happiness or advantage. They are in the dark because they don’t know exactly what they are hunting.

Robert Grieve, a British teacher on his summer vacation, crosses the border from Thailand to Cambodia and has a run of luck in a casino. His luck changes when he meets an American named Simon Beauchamp. Robert ignores his driver’s warning to decline Simon’s invitation to stay at his home. Suffice it to say that Robert experiences a life-changing event, or at least he chooses to respond to the event by changing his life.

After making his way to Phnom Penh, Robert takes a job tutoring a physician’s daughter in English. To get the gig, he adopts a new identity and tells a series of elaborate lies. The temptation to disappear into a new life, at least for a while, seems impossible to resist. Thus Robert becomes a hunter in the dark.

People who drift through life often drift into trouble, or at least that’s a standard message that thrillers deliver. The plot follows Robert as he drifts from one problem to another, ultimately caused by identity confusion that he brings upon himself. Unlike the reader, he usually seems oblivious to lurking dangers. His only goal is to live an unexamined life. The reader experiences tension on Robert’s behalf as events begin to shape a future that looks bleak for the aimless teacher.

Additional characters are slowly introduced during the first half, each experiencing or contributing to the novel’s undercurrent of misfortune. Acts of violence and corruption tie the story threads together. Characters generally have a believable balance of good and bad. Like real people, some are mostly good, others are mostly bad, but none are purely one or the other.

The descriptions of Phnom Penh, with its varied Asian foods, motodops and tuk tuks, give the novel a rich atmosphere. Cambodian characters provide the reader with snippets of the country’s history which, like all histories, has its share of ugly moments. I love the perspectives of the Cambodian characters who have little use for crusading westerners (particularly Hollywood actresses who pose for the cameras while making impassioned speeches about child slavery before returning to their yachts). However well-intentioned they might be, they have little understanding of the culture and zero opportunity to influence it by a few days of posturing, a comfortable break from the extravagance of their western lives.

Hunters in the Dark is ultimately a story of karma. Although “what goes around, comes around” for many of the characters, the plot is not predictable. It is easy to believe despite its improbability, and Robert, although clueless, is easy to care about.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Feb012016

Supernotes by Agent Kasper and Luigi Carletti

Published in Italy in 2014; published in translation by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on January 12, 2016

Since Supernotes is based on a true story, it doesn’t have all the twists and turns and action and suspense that a traditional spy novel delivers. Real life just isn’t as exciting as fiction. On the other hand, if the story is more-or-less true, an intriguing series of events can be a good substitute for an action-packed plot. Unfortunately, Supernotes delivers too little intrigue while telling a story that isn’t entirely convincing.

Kasper is an Italian, although his father was born in Memphis and much of his family lives in St. Louis. He is a former member of Italy’s national police who became an airline pilot and did some shady consulting work for the national police. The work involved playing an undercover role in large drug deals and money laundering operations. According to the Italian government, he has “a right-wing past and dangerous friends.” In Cambodia, he owned a bar with a former CIA agent and engaged in vaguely-described contract espionage.

We learn of Kasper’s history in flashbacks. The story begins with a Cambodian official warning Kasper and the former CIA agent to leave Phnom Penh. Kasper makes it as far as the Thai border, where he is arrested.

The story focuses on Kasper’s detention. Americans who identify themselves as Homeland Security and FBI agents play a dark role. Kasper’s mother and girlfriend have enlisted the help of Italian lawyer named Barbara Belli, who tries to win Kasper’s release. A variety of other people also drop in on the imprisoned Kasper, who is apparently being kept alive only because his mother pays bribes on his behalf.

One problem with writing a novel from a single character’s perspective, at least when the book is based on that character’s real world experience, is the question of credibility. The reader must believe that Kasper is telling the truth and, if he is, that his perception of reality is accurate. Kasper isn’t the kind of person I would trust under the best of circumstances, and given the temptation to use this book to repair his reputation, I have little reason to believe that it is entirely honest.

Even if Kasper is telling his story in good faith, I suspect that other players would have quite a different perspective on the events that Kasper describes. Supernotes would probably be a fascinating work of nonfiction if written by an objective outsider who interviewed, not just Kasper, but all the relevant people in his life. As it stands, we have only Kasper’s word that he was “disavowed” while acting as an undercover agent for the Italian police, that Americans offered to secure his release from prison for nefarious reasons, and that he was acting in anyone’s interest other than his own when he tried to get his hands on more than a hundred million dollars in supernotes.

The story bobs and weaves around the topic of supernotes -- the book’s title and presumably its intended theme -- but only as it nears its end do supernotes play any significant role in the plot. Maybe China and North Korea really are flooding Asia with undetectable counterfeit American currency. Maybe Kasper’s theory about who is really backing the counterfeit money machine (a doubtful conspiracy theory that has been around for several years) is correct. But Kasper’s assertion that he was imprisoned because he “knew too much” about supernotes strikes me as being just a little too convenient.

This is a work of fiction so the story doesn’t need to be true, but it does need to be believable. Some of the book -- the brutality in Prey Sar prison, political corruption in Cambodia, the money extorted from Kasper’s family -- is easy to believe. It is Kasper, casting himself in a heroic role, I doubted. Fictional characters are credible when they show their warts, but the character of Kasper is ambiguous. We are told that Kasper was “investigated” for certain crimes, but did he commit them? We are told that as a young man, he sympathized with fascism, but did he sympathize with right wing terrorists? Kasper isn’t telling. Kasper blames his problems on a host of people other than himself, but are they really to blame? Kasper rejects his portrayal as a radical “loose cannon” by the press, but maybe the press got it right and Kasper is using the book to rewrite his legacy. Who knows?

Some parts of the novel -- primarily flashbacks that take place outside of the prison setting -- are quite good. A scene in Zurich evokes the kind of tension that a spy novel fan expects. Most of the story, however, is less than riveting. The final chapters make an obvious but unsuccessful attempt to create suspense. Again, I might excuse those failings that if the story had the feel of reality, but Supernotes didn’t persuade me to view Kasper as either a hero or a victim, despite his intense desire to play both roles.

NOT RECOMMENDED