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 Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys by Chris Fuhrman

First published in 1994

This coming of age novel has been compared (for its style and bravado) to A Confederacy of Dunces. Unfortunately, Fuhrman's novel takes few chances, offers few insights, and reflects none of Toole's caustic wit. An altar boy named Francis and his friends get in trouble at his Catholic school for drawing an explicit comic book. Francis and his friends devise a plan to capture a bobcat and set it loose in the school to make the principal forget about punishing them. Along the way, Francis makes faltering attempts to have a relationship with a girl who seems to like him. In the end, Francis grows up a bit. Yawn.

To be fair, this is a novel that has appealed to many, particularly to younger readers. Even though it's the sort of book I generally enjoy (and one I looked forward to reading), it just wasn't the novel for me. The story neither moved nor entertained me. Through most of the novel, nothing happened that seemed to be of any consequence. The humor seemed childish. I will grant that the last few pages are quite good but the journey to get there was tedious. Fuhrman's prose style is adequate but unexceptional. This novel did nothing for me and I can't recommend it, but again, your mileage may vary.



The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein

First published in 1951

"Aliens take over human minds" was the plot of more than one Star Trek episode -- and of nearly every episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea -- but the concept was still fresh when Heinlein wrote The Puppet Masters. Rarely has it been employed more successfully. Heinlein was a steadfast believer in the rugged individualist's desire and ability to fight for freedom, a feeling he captured brilliantly in The Puppet Masters.

Published in 1951, during the time Heinlein was busy turning out juvenile novels, The Puppet Masters is very much an adult novel. The hero (using the cover name "Sam") openly lusts after a fellow agent, comments upon her physical attributes, considers calling an escort agency, and takes pills to wake up or to sharpen his wits or to extend his sense of time (and enjoys the high). Heinlein had some fun with the obvious way to make sure your neighbor isn't hosting an alien on his back: by presidential order, nudity becomes the required fashion. Daring stuff for 1951!

The story moves quickly, Sam's reluctantly heroic actions are plausible, and Heinlein invests Sam with a full personality -- and an opinionated one, as one expects from a Heinlein hero. The Puppet Masters has more of a thriller feel than some of Heinlein's more cerebral novels. Ignoring the fact that Russia seems less a threat now than it did six decades ago, the novel has aged well, and should retain its appeal to the modern reader.



A Killing in Moscow by Clive Egleton

First published in 1994

Clive Egleton's second Peter Ashton novel is better than his first (Hostile Intent). Ashton is given a stronger personality (the polite British version of abrasive) and he begins to have a life outside the office. The plot is a bit less far-fetched and a bit more interesting than the story in Hostile Intent in that A Killing in Moscow explores the relationship between the KGB and organized crime in post-Soviet Russia, arguing (through Ashton) that it doesn't matter whether the people on the other side are motivated by politics or greed if their actions jeopardize national security.

The novel begins with the execution of British businessman Colin Joyner and the prostitute he was entertaining in his Moscow hotel room. Peter Ashton, not quite trusted or simply disliked by those in power at SIS as a result of his actions in Hostile Intent, has been assigned to run Security and Technical Services where his access to top secret information is limited. Ashton, in Moscow to conduct a security audit, is sent by the British Embassy to assist the local police in the investigation of Joyner's death. This straight-forward task becomes more complicated when Ashton learns that a Russian woman employed as an Embassy secretary has been spying on the British Embassy official who monitors commercial transactions, and has been passing information to the prostitute who was found dead in Joyner's room. The novel follows Ashton as he puzzles out the relationship between the spy and Joyner. As in Hostile Intent, Ashton makes it his responsibility to keep the spy alive, creating the opportunity for some fast moving action scenes.

The pace in A Killing in Moscow is intense and Egleton's prose is more fluid than it was in Hostile Intent. The combination of intellectual intrigue and well written action scenes makes this a fun reading experience, and the ending is just wild.



Station Gehenna by Andrew Weiner

Published by Worldwide Library on November 1, 1988

Six people work at the terraforming station on Gehenna before the leisure officer exits the station without an atmosphere suit. He leaves behind a note that complains of his inability to tolerate his dreams. The Spooner Interplanetary Development Corporation sends Victor Lewin, a psychologist masquerading as a replacement leisure officer, to investigate station morale after the suicide. Lewin quickly learns that safety devices should have prevented an unprotected person from opening the airlock to Gehenna's atmosphere. There is no evidence that the devices failed. Was the leisure officer murdered? If so, who killed him and how was it done?

Trying to solve the mystery, Lewin begins to have dreams of his own. And when he takes his first trip outside the station, he thinks he sees a terrifying sight .... And then there's another death. Is a saboteur trying to destroy the terraforming project? Are the crew members sharing a delusion? Or is something out there?

Station Gehenna is a science fiction novel wrapped in a mystery and lightly flavored with a horror story. While all the elements of a traditional mystery are present -- any of several suspects might be the killer -- the story raises the possibility that something outside the station, some alien force, is responsible. Told in 48 relatively brief chapters, the plot-driven story moves along at a rapid pace. The resolution, while dependent on science fiction notions that are far from innovative, is logical and satisfying. This is quick, light reading, unexceptional but well crafted and fun.



Sidewall by David Graham

Published by Pan in 1983

Sidewall is a surprisingly good science fiction thriller that's more thriller than science fiction. This 1982 novel is set in 1993. Most of David Graham's predictions about life in the '90's turned out to be pretty far off the mark (although he did manage to predict the Gulf War). You have to make a mental adjustment to set the novel a bit farther into the future, but after that's accomplished, the story seems quite plausible -- and in any event, it's terrifically exciting.

The British are building a sidewall -- a marine hovercraft -- that seats two thousand passengers and makes the trip from England to New York in about eight hours. Although it's being developed in secret (in cooperation with the British military), the chief executives of the world's airlines have found out about it and are determined to put a stop to it, lest they lose their transatlantic fares to competition from this new form of transportation. In addition, someone has leaked plans for the vessel to the Soviet Union (substitute Russia, since Graham failed to predict the Soviet Union's demise) which is building its own militarized version of the craft.

The main characters in Sidewall are engaging, particularly the unfortunately named Don Savage, chief of security for the company developing the sidewall, who struggles with a mysterious illness and a hellish marriage as he tries to save the company from Russian spies and airline CEO's. Action scenes are vividly written and once it begins, the action is relentless -- all the way through to the last page -- as imaginative attacks are launched against the sidewall.

David Graham's most popular novel was Down to a Sunless Sea. In addition to Sidewall, he wrote three others, two under the name Wilbur Wright. It's a shame he didn't write more, and it's a shame Sidewall is out of print. Seek out a used copy if you enjoy fast moving thrillers.