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.


4 by Pelevin by Victor Pelevin

Published by New Directions in September 2001

The four stories in this short collection are perceptive, fiercely imaginative, and wildly funny. My favorite, "The Life and Adventures of Shed Number XII," is told from the viewpoint of a storage shed that dreams of being the bicycle it stores, then loses the dream when a barrel of cucumbers replaces the bicycle, before finally recapturing its memory of the freedom it yearns to achieve. Similarly, "Hermit and Six Toes" concerns two chickens who want something better than the fate that awaits them on a production line. While those two allegorical tales stand out, I also enjoyed the two stories about people, particularly the story of a woman whose job as a men's room attendant is transformed by perestroika when the men's room becomes a shopping outlet--albeit one that retains its memory of sewage. That story and the final one (a satirical look at leadership in the USSR) would probably be even more enjoyable for those who have a more intimate knowledge of recent Russian history. That sort of background isn't necessary, however, to appreciate Pelevin's unique vision. Any fan of strong, inventive writing infused with sharp humor should enjoy this small collection.



The Dramatist by Ken Bruen

First published in 2004

The Dramatist is the fourth in a series of novels that chronicle the struggles of Jack Taylor, adding depth to Bruen's well drawn character, a fired cop and recovering alcoholic turned half-hearted private investigator in Galway. The prose style established in the companion novels continues here: clean, concise, and forceful. The plot includes a literary twist: Taylor's former (now imprisoned) drug dealer asks him to investigate the death of a college student found with a broken neck, a copy of The Playboy of the Western World under her body.

Like the other Jack Taylor novels, the plot is secondary to the drama that unfolds in Taylor's life, and there's plenty of it here, involving his mother, who lives in a dilapidated nursing home, his ex-wife, whose jealous new husband gives Taylor a beating, and the bartender who is one of his only true friends until that relationship sours. Along the way Taylor is suspected of murder, experiences violence at the hands of an extremist group called the Pikemen, and engages in a bit of violence himself while struggling to maintain his precarious sobriety. Then, just when you think nothing worse could happen to poor Jack, there's a sudden, shocking ending that would seem manipulative or forced in the hands of a lesser talent.

The novel moves at such a furious pace you might find yourself stopping now and then to catch your breath. Those breaks provide time to wonder just how much pain Jack can endure -- and whether he'll ever make for himself the life of peace and decency he craves. I can't help cheering for him and at the same time wondering what he'll encounter in the next novel.



Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys

First published in 1960

Rogue Moon is based on a strong premise: to explore a newly discovered construct on the moon -- a thing that keeps killing those who enter it -- scientists make a duplicate human who is kept on Earth while the original enters the construct. The original and duplicate stay in a sort of telepathic contact until the original's death, so the duplicate can chart the course up to the moment of death. The duplicate then becomes the new original, is duplicated again, and the new original makes his way a bit further before dying. In this way, a map through the construct can be created.

The execution is less satisfying than the concept. The lead scientist (Hawks), with the help of a rather disreputable personnel guy, finds a daredevil (Barker) who is capable of withstanding the psychological trauma of dying repeatedly. I wish the novel had focused more on that trauma, but the burden of dying over and over, as well as the mystery of the construct's purpose, receive little attention. The well written story instead focuses on the relationships between Hawks, the personnel guy, and Barker's girlfriend. There's nothing wrong with writing about relationships -- indeed, successful novels are about people, not just about ideas -- but I never got a good feel for Barker, for what it would be like to die again and again and again. That disappointed me a bit.

While Rogue Moon is intriguing and well worth reading, I think it is less developed than Budrys' other work, particularly Michaelmas and WHO?, both of which do a better job of combining well developed characters with intriguing ideas.



Spy Hook by Len Deighton


Published by Alfred A. Knopf on December 3, 1988

This is the first novel of a trilogy that follows the Game, Set and Match trilogy (in which British agent Bernard Samson's wife Fiona defects). Spy Hook begins with the beleaguered Samson asking former agent Jim Pettyman, now working for an American corporation, to return to England to answer questions in the investigation of missing agency funds. After considerable intrigue involving (among other characters), a Hungarian known as Dodo, Samson learns something he isn't supposed to know about Bret Rensselaer, an agent who played an important role (and died) in the Game, Set and Match trilogy. To the consternation of his bosses, Samson keeps nosing into the missing money, following his suspicion that Fiona set up the account. Eventually Samson comes under suspicion (could he be working with his treasonous wife?) and as the noose begins to tighten, we come to a cliffhanger ending.

The sheer number of characters involved in the story can make it a bit confusing, but that complexity is just a reason to pay attention, to look back from time to time, or to take notes, not to dislike the book. The story is fast paced, intriguing, tightly plotted and well written with sharply defined characters. Samson's growing confusion as he defies orders and investigates matters he's supposed to leave alone makes him an appealing, sympathetic character. The supporting characters are often recognizable components of bureaucratic institutions -- the ones who get ahead by knowing the right people and stay there by creatively doing nothing, taking credit for the hard work of their subordinates.  All told, Spy Hook is an excellent beginning to the trilogy, topped only by Spy Line,  the second installment.



Eater by Gregory Benford

Published by Eos on May 2, 2000

A mechanism constructed around a black hole billions of years ago has been traveling across the universe gathering and banking digitized versions of intelligent life. As it approaches Earth, it demands that several thousand humans be sacrificed to its library of knowledge, including specific individuals (Hillary Clinton among them). To encourage compliance, it uses magnetic energy to pummel D.C. and to visit lightning storms upon military or scientific bases while it gobbles up satellites. Working furiously, and often at odds with the military and political figures who try to control the operation, a team of astronomers searches for a way to chase the mechanism away.

While some readers complain that the novel's central thesis isn't fresh, that didn't particularly bother me. I enjoyed Eater for a couple of reasons. First, the key characters are flawed, human, and multidimensional. They made this a more interesting story than I usually expect from hard sf--and I do mean hard, given that the discussion of astrophysics was far beyond my grasp.

Second, while science fiction written by scientists typically portrays scientists as the saviors of the human race, Benford offered insightful views of how scientists compete against each other even while working together. He shows them indulging in professional jealousies, often a bit petty, and demonstrates how scientists can engage in politics even while claiming to despise politicians.

The story's emphasis on people--their follies and foibles, their complicated relationships, their cooperation and competition--makes this novel stand out. Hard sf too often focuses on ideas and places secondary (if any) emphasis on characters. Maybe that makes good reading for people of a scientific bent, but for those of us who don't have degrees in astrophysics, it's nice to encounter a novel of hard sf in which people matter.