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.


The Deceivers by John Berenson

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on February 6, 2018

I didn’t think much of Alex Berenson’s first John Wells novel, but I’ve found his recent books to be surprisingly entertaining. The notion of a former Ranger who converted to Islam assures that the protagonist will stand out from the crowd of ex-Rangers who populate thrillers. The way the conversion came about is credible, and the character illustrates the truth that any religion can be used as a pretext for committing evil acts. A right-wing senator in The Deceivers who rails against Islam is uncomfortably familiar with his America First rhetoric, and just as much of a blowhard as all the ideologues who have kick-started their political careers by stirring up hatred and anger.

Gamal al-Masry has never done anything to suggest his interest in carrying out terrorist actions, other than to make Facebook comments that condemn America’s action in bombing his homeland. Gamal is radicalized by his cousin Shakir, a drug dealer who has little interest in politics or religion. Fearing that he is about to be sent to prison, Shakir agrees to set up Gamal in what he assumes will be an arrest prior to the execution of a bogus terrorist plot. The terrorist attack in Dallas that follows is not at all what Shakir expected.

Shakir isn’t the only person who is deceived. The villains in the story are not Islamic terrorists but manipulative Russians who are trying to divide America by stirring up hatred against Islam. That seems plausible in light of news stories about Russian deception and Russian attempts to sow chaos in American democracy that have dominated headlines over the past year. A Russian woman who pretends to love an unwanted veteran is instrumental in the second aspect of the Russian scheme. The veteran happens to be a skilled sniper.

Wells is tasked with getting to the bottom of the Dallas attack. To that end, he pursues leads to Ecuador, Columbia, and Mexico before he turns his attention to Montana and Texas. He’s joined by a CIA buddy and former Marine who made an appearance in The Prisoner. A certain amount of bureaucratic in-fighting involving Wells’ current and former CIA handlers adds another level of realism to the story.

The plot is clever and reasonably original. The Deceivers incorporates traditional spy novel intrigue into the plot, including an American mole who is passing valuable information to Russia, while adding intrigue in the Kremlin, taking the form of a power struggle. Russian President Fedin could easily be based on Putin. American President Duto, a former CIA agent, stands up to Russia, and is clearly not based on Trump. Berenson takes the time to create all of the important characters in full.

The story moves quickly, as a thriller should, but not mindlessly. Berenson brings enough depth to the subject matter to make The Deceivers a worthy entry in a series that keeps getting better.



The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa 

First published in Spain in 2016; published in translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 27, 2018

The Neighborhood is set in Peru during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori. Noted for corruption and human rights abuses (but also for improving the Peruvian economy and waging war on terror, which accounted for his popularity), Fujimori is a tangential character in The Neighborhood, lurking but never seen.

Two couples who are good friends occupy a good part of the story. Marisa is married to the engineer Enrique Cárdenas. Luciano, Enrique’s friend and lawyer, is married to Chabela.

A curfew forces Chabela to spend the night at Marisa’s house, prompting the onset of erotic sensations when Marisa feels Chabela’s ankle pressed against her own. The two women have a passionate encounter, but Chabela leaves in the morning as if nothing happened. Was it a dream? Marisa isn’t sure, but she’s delighted when Chabela invites her to spend three days with her in Miami.

The curfew is a result of terrorism in Peru that lurks in the novel’s background. The MRTA is kidnapping anyone who might be worth a ransom. Terror instigated by Shining Path has caused many businessmen to flee from Lima, but Enrique has stayed. He has successfully avoided adversity until a reporter delivers disturbing photographs to Enrique of an orgy arranged by a Central European businessman a couple of years earlier. Enrique figures prominently in the photographs.

The reporter, Rolando Garro, makes his living by ruining lives with gossipy tabloid journalism. One life he ruined belongs to an aging artist known as Juan Peineta, a professional reciter of poetry who took a lucrative job on television (the enemy of poetry) as one of the Three Jokers, only to be scorned by Garro. Peineta has vowed revenge.

The three intertwined stories — Chabela’s affair with Marisa, Enrique’s blackmail woes, and Peineta’s anger at Garro — unfold in alternating chapters. One point of the story, as applicable to the US as to Peru, is that people love gossip, particularly when the gossip brings down high society. By being the great destroyer, gossip is the great equalizer.

But the greater point of the story is that power corrupts, and that the powerful control the powerless in ways that are both direct and indirect. In Peru as in other countries, wealth can lead to a corruption of the media when the people who control news outlets use them to advance their own ends.

A chapter near the end brings all the stories together in paragraphs that jump from one story to the next, giving the impression of lives unfolding simultaneously. Fortunately, Mario Vargas Llosa structures the chapter in a way that avoids undue confusion.

Entertaining characters provide comic relief while a fair amount of sex lightens what is in essence a dark story about political corruption that (as one of the characters observes) threatens to turn Peru into a stereotypical banana republic. The ending is satisfying and to the extent that the novel is historically accurate, the ending is historically true.

Yet the lightness, the feel-good nature of the story, also makes The Neighborhood less substantial than its subject matter. Llosa seems to be trying to condemn tabloid journalism while milking sexual entanglements for entertainment value — exactly what the tabloids do. And while Llosa condemns political corruption, he doesn’t give the reader a full sense of just how awful Fujimori was. I enjoyed The Neighborhood, but it is far from Llosa’s best work, and not a book that will sit on the top shelf of South American fiction.



The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

Published by on January 23, 2018

The Only Harmless Great Thing reimagines the history of the Radium Girls, factory workers who suffered from radiation poisoning after painting watch dials with a luminous paint made from powdered radium. In Brooke Bolander’s alternative version of the story, U.S. Radium responded to litigation by enlisting elephants to do the painting. Thus, the Radium Girls become Radium Elephants. Part of the novella is, in fact, narrated by elephants.

The novel also borrows Topsy from history, the elephant who was electrocuted at Coney Island in a spectacle for invited guests. As a circus elephant, Topsy killed at least one person, no doubt with good reason. Both moments of history remind us of how incredibly cruel the human race can be. Factory owners are cruel to workers; hunters and showmen are cruel to elephants.

The Only Harmless Great Thing links those two extremes of wickedness in a fantasy that gives elephants the ability to communicate with sign language. Two humans are important to the story. Regan, a Radium Girl who taught Topsy to paint, is dying of cancer caused by radium in the paint brushes she was instructed to “point” with her lips. She’s waiting for the insurance settlement that will be her legacy to her family, although her dying mother probably won’t benefit from it. In the meantime, she comes up with a plan to avenge her death and Topsy’s execution.

In the present, Kat is dealing with the problem of nuclear waste. She has hit upon a scheme to use glowing elephants as permanent markers to warn people away from disposal sites. The elephants, not necessarily keen on the idea of exposing themselves to radioactivity (again), have their own agenda.

The elephants in the story have their own folklore, and the novella acquaints the reader with some of it. The Only Harmless Great Thing is in part a celebration of storytelling, as an elephant tale reminds the reader that stories are meant to be told, not hoarded. The story can also be viewed as an allegory of motherhood. Females outsmart males every time (at least if they’re elephants); mothers pass down such wisdom to daughters. Elephant folklore teaches that women can be just as strong and cunning as men, and much more patient, but while bull elephants fight each other, mothers use their strength for a purpose: to educate, to preserve a sense of community, so that future generations will remember the lessons of the past.

Describing prose as lyrical is almost a cliché, but in this case the description is apt. The story is strange, but it works, in part because it is so beautifully told, and in part because the lessons it imparts are both timely and timeless.



Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna

Published by Doubleday on January 9, 2018

Jamie Brandt leaves her two daughters, Kylie and Bailey, in the car while she runs into a K-Mart for a birthday present. When she comes out, the kids are gone. Yes, this is an “every parent’s nightmare” story. But it’s better than most child kidnapping stories, which tend to overdo scenes of hand-wringing and weepiness and too often feature self-righteous protagonists who make a point of telling the reader how deeply they care about children, unlike all the people who care less than they do.

As parents go, Jamie is kind of a wreck even before the kids disappear. She hires Alice Vega to recover her kids. Vega has made a reputation as someone who gets kids back by working harder than the police. In her own way, she’s just as screwed up as Jamie, but that doesn’t stop her from being competent. It also makes her interesting, as does the fact that she hates men, although to be fair, she seems to hate everyone. Vega cares about child victims, but she also cares about getting paid big bucks. She isn’t self-righteous about what she does, and that’s refreshing.

Max Caplan is another interesting character. A cop who retired in disgrace, Caplan now works as a private investigator. He’s also a bit of a wreck but, he isn’t self-pitying about it. In fact, he wrecked his life to help a friend, so he’s a decent guy. His daughter doesn’t live with him, but when they’re together, she’s his touchstone of moral authority.

Vega hires Caplan as her local source of information. They make a good pair of contrasting characters as the story moves forward. The novel succeeds as a character-driven story that pairs two broken people on a joint quest who gain strength from each other.

There are elements of a whodunit in the plot, but this isn’t the kind of mystery that makes it possible to guess the culprit’s identity. Two Girls Down is more a police procedural than a mystery — although the police and the FBI get in the way more than they help, so the novel might be more accurately described as a private investigator procedural. There’s even a hint of romance (opposites attract), but not enough to get in the way of the story.

While the plot emphasizes investigation over action, there is enough action to keep the story moving at the decent rate. The investigation creates a reasonable amount of suspense. The last pages combine action with suspense to generate the kind of tension a thriller should have. This is a strong debut, and one that could easily develop into an enjoyable series, which I have to assume is Louisa Luna’s plan.



Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz

Published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books on January 30, 2018

Hellbent is the third Orphan X novel. To appreciate it fully, you might want to read the first books in this series, Orphan X and The Nowhere Man. I haven't read Orphan X. I enjoyed The Nowhere Man, but I was a bit frustrated by it. Hellbent is better.

In addition to being Orphan X, Evan Smoak is the Nowhere Man. He helps people in need, as did Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel. But Paladin sometimes charged for his services and Smoak gives his killing skills gratis to those in need. He’s more like the Equalizer, the hero of an old television show (although not as old as Have Gun, Will Travel) who has recently been reincarnated in an undistinguished novel by the show’s creator. I didn’t like the Nowhere Man angle in the first Orphan X novel, and was pleased to see that the Nowhere Man subplot in Hellbent occupies a relatively small role.

Early events in Hellbent send Evan on a mission of personal vengeance. The mission is sidetracked when Evan finds himself looking after another government experiment gone awry — a part of the Orphan project, like himself, except this one is a teenage girl. They aren’t the easiest creatures to look after even when they aren’t trained to kill.

The girl, Joey, is sassy. She treats Evan like he’s an old man, which by comparison, he is. That makes her a fun character.

Evan is a more interesting character than most tough guys because he meditates and actually seems capable of learning. Lots of tough guy characters pretend to follow some sort of Zen philosophy that involves meditation before they start killing people (the Steven Segal school of being a tough guy), but unlike those characters, Evan is bright enough to integrate an actual philosophy of life (the one he learned from Jack) into his daily routine. Imparting that philosophy to a 16-year-old girl gives him the kind of challenge that most fictional tough guys never face. That’s one of the reasons I like the second Orphan X novel more than the first.

The other reason is that I bought into the action, which I couldn’t do in the first novel. Yes, there are a couple of moments when credulity is strained (shooting a bad guy through the scope of his rifle with a handgun from a distance), but for the most part, the over-the-top nature of Evan’s antics are dialed back sufficiently to make the story almost credible. Almost is good enough in an action novel.

Parts of Hellbent are midway between sappy and moving, but not so close to sappy that I felt manipulated. The character of Evan takes on greater substance in the second novel, and Gregg Hurwitz sets up an interesting premise for the next book(s) in the series. I’m looking forward to the next one more than I looked forward to this one.