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 Boat People by Sharon Bala

Published by Doubleday on January 9, 2018

The Boat People explores the plight of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who have traveled to Canada on a freighter. Two key characters are Mahindan and his young son. Much of the novel’s drama is driven by their uncertain fate as they endure detention and admissibility hearings to determine whether they will stay in Canada or be deported to a country where they are likely to be killed. When news of the freighter’s arrival is reported, nationalists carrying “Go Home Terrorists” signs arrive to help make their lives a little more miserable. It seems that some people in Canada shares with their counterparts in the United States a lack of compassion for people born outside the nation’s borders.

The Boat People uses Mahindan to represent the hopes and fears of refugees. Mahindan has great hopes for Canada until he realizes that so much of the country views him as a cockroach. At the same time, scenes of home life in Sri Lanka show how nationalism and a demand for ethnic purity has given Mahindan no choice but to leave. How ironic it is to flee a nationalist movement in one country, only to be rejected by nationalists in a country that claims to be fair-minded.

The other two central characters are native Canadians whose ethnicity becomes an important plot point as the story develops. Priya Rajasekaran, a Canadian whose family came from Sri Lanka, is a third-year law student interning at a Canadian law firm. A senior partner recruits her to help the refugees, despite her lack of interest in refugee law (she prefers corporate mergers and acquisitions). The partner chose Priya because he incorrectly assumed that she speaks Tamil. Being forced to help people from her ancestral land forces Priya to reassess the kind of professional life she wants to live.

Grace Nakamura is a newly appointed adjudicator, transferred from a different government department as a favor to a cabinet minister. The cabinet minister shares an intelligence briefing with Grace, claiming that half the Tamil refugees are Tigers, members of the separatist group that the government regards as terrorists. He wants Grace to disabuse the world of the notion that Canada is “a soft touch.” Like some American politicians, the cabinet minister wants to blame all Canadian crime on immigrants and isn’t afraid to lobby an adjudicator whose job is to make neutral decisions that are uninfluenced by politics.

The cabinet minister and a prosecutor want all of the boat people gone and have no interest in separating Tamil terrorists (if there are any among the refugees) from victims of the Tigers, including Mahindan, who worked as a mechanic and was forced to repair vehicles for the Tigers. In the government’s view, he enabled terrorists. In Mahindan’s view, he was trying to survive so he could make a life for his son.

Grace is the granddaughter of a Japanese immigrant, a fact that occasionally gives her pause when she is told to keep immigrants out of Canada. Grace’s mother, who is seeking redress for her interment during World War II, also gives Grace reason to think that national origin should not determine how a government treats the people within its borders. Yet Grace is so determined to blend in with white Canada that she resents her grandmother telling her twins about the difficulties that the Japanese faced as Canadian immigrants. The war between Grace’s better instincts and the fear that the cabinet minister arouses with his poisonous rhetoric create a conflict that makes Grace an interesting character.

The Boat People makes the point — and it can’t be made too often — the terrorism often grows out of oppression. One way to end terrorism is to end the oppression that breeds it — and the best way to avoid terrorism in a country like Canada is to avoid oppressing the people within the country’s borders.

Several scenes in the story are moving, and they showcase the author’s best writing: a flashback to the birth of Mahindan’s son and the consequent death of his wife; the separation of Mahindan and his son in detention; the son’s trauma when he’s taken to foster care, his hatred of unfamiliar Canada and his longing for a home that has been bombed into oblivion; the story that Priya’s uncle tells of fleeing from the Sinhalese; the stories Grace’s mother tells about Japanese internment.

All of the central characters are multifaceted and conflicted. The plot leads to an unresolved ending, which might be disappointing for some readers, but I appreciated the opportunity to imagine my own ending. The Boat People is a timely novel about a sensitive social and political issue that should engage open-minded readerS who care about the larger world.



The Third Victim by Phillip Margolin

Published by St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books on March 6, 2018

A legal thriller should have thrills. The thrills don’t need to involve guns or fists. The best legal thrillers exploit the inherent drama in trials to create tension and suspense. The Third Victim is built on an interesting premise, but it has too little energy to thrill the reader.

The Third Victim starts with the discovery of a woman walking on a road in Oregon. She’s been tortured and, when she’s able to talk, explains that she was held captive and abused by a masked man. She leads the police to the cabin where she was held captive, which happens to be owned by a lawyer named Alex Mason (no relation to Perry). Mason’s DNA is on the duct tape that was used to bind the woman’s hands, so Mason is arrested.

The two key characters are Regina Barrister, Portland’s top criminal defense lawyer, and Robin Lockwood, who Regina recently hired away from a judicial clerkship. Regina seems to be suffering from the early onset of dementia, which is probably supposed to make her sympathetic. Unfortunately, I didn’t know or care enough about Regina to be moved by her dementia. Robin’s mixed martial arts background substitutes for an actual personality. Her fighting prowess nevertheless gives her the opportunity to beat up a client, which is a bit over the top, although it serves to create an interesting conflict of interest.

An abusive cop named Arnold Prater needs Regina’s services when he’s accused of murdering a pimp. The story eventually revolves around Prater and Mason, either or both of whom might be guilty of something, and a couple of women who may or may not be victims.

The most interesting aspect of the novel involves Robin’s role as a newbie lawyer who finds herself playing a key role in a murder trial, given Regina’s apparent dementia. I didn’t quite buy it (the only ethical act would have been to tell Regina she wasn’t capable of defending the case, and then to report her to the bar if she refused to step aside), but I suppose a newbie who just landed a plum job might not be positioned to make the right choice. Still, Regina later fails to recognize an obvious conflict of interest, and if Robin is as smart and capable as she appears to be, the need to intervene to protect a client from that conflict should have been clear to her. Yes, standing up to a prestigious boss is a lot to ask from a new associate, but that’s something that could have been milked for dramatic effect. Like all the other potentially dramatic moments in the novel, it just sort of slides away.

The dialog in The Third Victim is wooden and undifferentiated. Everyone talks like a lawyer, including police detectives who would view it is a sign of dementia if they talked like a lawyer. The characters lack substance and the story lacks pizazz. It moves quickly enough, but it moves like a quick sleepwalker. The plot doesn’t ring true, in part because two characters who seem quite ordinary end up being truly evil, and Phillip Margolin gives the reader no reason to believe that they would engage in the kind of behavior he describes. I liked the concept of a lawyer with dementia, but courtroom drama in The Third Victim is noticeably absent, and what passes for drama outside of the courtroom is unconvincing.



Black Star Renegades by Michael Moreci

Published by St. Martin's Press on January 2, 2018

Black Star Renegades is really bad. You could probably tell that from the title. I read it because I trust St. Martin's Press to publish quality work. In this instance, my trust was misplaced.

Cade and Tristan are afraid of Zero because their parents cost Zero a lot of money by attracting Praxis (the evil empire) to their planet. Fortunately, they are saved from a Zero attack by Ser Jorken, a Master Rai at the Well. The Well is suspiciously similar to the Jedi, although they fight with glowing bladed staffs rather than glowing lightsabers. Jorken has come to recruit Cade and Tristan to join the Well. Their mission will be to “keep peace and justice alive throughout the galaxy.” They have been chosen because Jorken believes one of them is “destined to save the galaxy.”

The idea here is that Tristan is the heroic brother and Cade is the tag-along brother. The brothers try to get their hands on a weapon called the Rokura that, legend has it, only the “chosen one” can wield (suspiciously similar to Excalibur, except it glows). Their assumption is that Tristan is destined to wield the weapon while Cade is destined to watch his brother be heroic. Of course, an evil guy with a Rai weapon who fights like a Rai (yes, he’s suspiciously like an agent of the dark side) just happens to be trying to get the weapon at the same time Tristan and Case find it. What a bummer of a coincidence! And you can kind of guess what happens next.

A less promising start to a science fiction novel be difficult to imagine. Reliable space opera clichés follow: the brash pilot (Cade) who walks away from a crash landing on a hostile planet; the android with an attitude (“Duke”); Tristan’s role as “the chosen one”; Cade’s role as the normal guy who is thrust into a position of heroism; the evil empire’s power-driven queen; a ship (sort of like the Death Star) that devastates solar systems (this one drains the energy from suns); the planet that has become a haven for space pirates and other criminals; Cade’s former friend who resents Cade’s membership in the Way; and the list goes on and on.

Apart from its derivative, unoriginal, and uninteresting plot, Black Star Renegade is written in the prose of mediocre fan fiction. The author has a limited literary vocabulary and a fondness for cliché. His dialog is stilted. Adults in positions of authority speak as if they were teenagers. I could continue trashing the book, but why bother? It’s been some time since I read a book this bad, and I hope I never repeat the experience.



Light It Up by Nick Petrie

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on January 16, 2018

Peter Ash has put his claustrophobia on hold long enough to do a short-term gig helping his friend Henry provide security while transporting cash from legal marijuana sales in Colorado. Nick Petrie conveys the essence of Peter and Henry in a couple of early chapters. He does it without wasting words, but he gives them depth by pulling the scabs off their lives.

A marijuana delivery goes bad and Peter finds himself in need of a lawyer. Of course, she’s beautiful, and of course, she wants to have sex with him on the night she first meets him (not entirely credible, given that sex with clients gets lawyers disbarred). But Peter has his heart set on a different woman, so readers are denied a juicy sex romp. Instead, we’re treated to some unusually entertaining action scenes as new players come on the scene, all intent on killing Peter.

The new players apparently have a connection to the state police. They also have a military connection, including Daniel Clay Dixon, a self-hating gay who spent 25 years in the Marines, a hatred that is encouraged by his church and by the southern “values” with which he was raised. Dixon is another character Petrie creates with sensitivity and perception.

Peter gets an assist from his friend Lewis, one of those good-hearted criminals who only steals from people who deserve it. There’s usually a buddy in a novel like this, and Lewis is a good one — a dark, mysterious loner who nevertheless plays the role of loyal friend.

One of the novel’s villains is a predatory businessman who makes money by purchasing companies in distress and then reselling them at a large profit. To enhance his opportunity to buy at a low cost, he causes (or enhances) the distress. That makes him a more interesting and realistic villain than the cartoon terrorists that obsess lesser thriller writers.

Did I mention the action scenes? A car chase across a golf course would be a great movie scene. Petrie manages to make it come alive in the reader’s imagination. The last few chapters are filled with nonstop shooting and stabbing and punching. I dismiss most action scenes in tough guy novels as being borderline ridiculous, but the ending of Light It Up is both exhilarating and convincing.

The plot travels in unexpected directions as it explores the legal marijuana business and the trouble it creates for key characters. And while I wouldn’t want to know most of the tough guys who dominate thrillers, Peter Ash is intelligent, troubled, and interesting — meaning he’s not a tough guy at all, despite his toughness. That makes Light It Up an appealing novel.



The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

Published by Little, Brown & Co./Lee Boudreaux Books on March 20, 2018

Life is full of improbable coincidences. So is The Fighter, a novel that depends on two or three huge coincidences of time and place and circumstance to bring the story together. Some readers might chalk those circumstances up to fate, particularly in light of the novel’s religious imagery and express references to angels, saviors, and prayer. I’m not much of a believer in fate, and I have criticized other novels for an overreliance on coincidence, but I’m giving The Fighter a pass. Why? Because I enjoyed the story, and in the end, that’s all that matters.

Jack Boucher is a cage fighter and a gambler. He owes money to Big Momma Sweet. That isn’t good. She puts men in the ground who don’t pay their debts. Jack also needs money to stop a foreclosure and to get a former foster mother out of a nursing home. She suffers from dementia but she’s the only person in his life he cares about, the only family he has. Jack might also be suffering from dementia, or some form brain damage that has robbed him of his memories, a likely consequence of being kicked in the head too many times.

Jack’s struggle to get out of debt, to get his life back on track, to do something for his foster mother before he dies, is sad because it seems so futile. In the story’s opening chapters, it seems clear that Jack, while well-intentioned, has little control over his life. Even if he can break out of the daze caused by his pain pills, it isn’t clear how he will overcome the cumulative impact of his bad choices before he loses his foster mother’s home to foreclosure. It isn’t even clear that he will outlive his foster mother, who may be entering her last days.

A former stripper named Annette enters the story while she’s traveling with a carnival, working as the tattooed girl. Annette’s life intersects with Jack’s in ways she doesn’t immediately understand. I won’t say much about Annette because revealing her story would spoil the coincidental surprises. I can say that, as a character, she has the right combination of damage and heart and toughness to make her appealing (although no fictional stripper has ever been created who wasn’t appealing). The same combination of damage and heart and toughness animates Jack, but he’s also appealing because he takes comfort in being who he is. He hasn’t lived a life most people would want, but he has lived the life he wanted.

The novel reveals secrets that Jack never suspected his foster mother was carrying. It builds tension as it moves toward a climax involving the possibility of one last fight, a fight that Jack might not survive. The ending could have gone in either direction, a fact that maintains suspense as the story reaches its climax. As was true of Michael Farris Smith’s Desperation Road, the humanity of the novel’s desperate and damaged characters shines through, conveyed by prose that manages to be both intense and understated.