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 Prisoner by Carlos J. Cortes

Published by Spectra on October 27, 2009

In 2049, prisons have been replaced by facilities that house prisoners in hibernation tanks.  The private corporation that runs them has hidden some tanks in the middle of each facility that are used to house Russian mafia types and political prisoners who never receive a trial.  Why these folks aren’t just killed rather than hidden away (presumably forever) is never satisfactorily explained.  Even more far-fetched is the plot:  a senator’s son who became a political activist is one of the occupants of the hidden tanks (for patently absurd reasons that, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won't reveal) and three lawyers (yes, lawyers, not former special forces types who might be trained to do this sort of thing, but lawyers) are recruited to bust the activist out of the hibernation tank.

Putting aside the ridiculous plot, most of the novel reads like a well written thriller, as powerful but relatively incompetent agents of Homeland Security chase the lawyers and the thawed activist through the D.C. sewer system.  The characters suffer from the single dimensionality that is common enough in thrillers, but the action sustains the novel until the novel reaches it's stunningly bad (but oh-so-happy) ending.

Tempted though I am to steer readers away from this novel, I must admit that I enjoyed reading much of it.  The writing is polished, the story is action-filled (as befits a thriller), and the pace is furious (which makes it possible to read without thinking much about the plot holes).  The last few pages, however, are rather dull polemic, in contrast to the lively writing that precedes them.  It's a shame that so much good writing was wasted on such a silly plot, but readers looking for an exciting science fiction thriller might want to take a look at this one.  Just check your common sense at the door if you want to enjoy it.



The Last Goodbye by Reed Arvin

First published in 2004

I picked this up at an airport, knowing nothing about the author, on the basis of cover blurbs that promised an absorbing plot. I wasn't expecting much, but the novel kept me engrossed during a four hour flight.

Jack Hammond is fired from his job at a law firm for having sex with a client, then hangs out a shingle and survives on the court appointments he gets from his buddy, who is a clerk in a judge’s office.  One of Hammond’s clients dies, and in cleaning out the client’s apartment, Hammond learns that the client was a hacker who was obsessed with an opera singer named Michele Sonnier.  Sonnier is married to a wealthy man who is about to become ultra-wealthy when the IPO for his drug company is launched.  Hammond doesn’t believe his client injected himself with an overdose, and while investigating the death, he falls in love with Sonnier, who enlists him to help find her daughter, taken from her when she was a wayward kid in the Atlanta projects.  All of these plot threads eventually weave into a smart story.

I recommend the novel for a couple of reasons. The plot, while wildly improbable, is fast paced and interesting. It follows the typical arc of a thriller and does it well: the protagonist (Jack Hammond) stumbles onto a mystery, starts poking into it, is repeatedly foiled in his attempts to unravel it, and finds that he's put his life in jeopardy. The ending is satisfying and in some respects uplifting. The novel's resolution is quite clever.

Arvin does a fine job of bringing his characters to life. Hammond is a bit seedy, bordering on down-and-out, but finds a way to redeem himself, as does his love interest, opera singer Michele Sonnier, whose guilt about her lost daughter is the plot's driving force. As a way to pass the time on an airplane, you could do much worse than to pick up The Last Goodbye.



The Forge of God by Greg Bear

First published in 1987

Visiting aliens deliver conflicting messages.  An alien emerging from a newly formed mountain in the United States warns that invaders are about to destroy the earth with a process that will harvest raw materials to build ships that will go on to destroy other worlds.  Robots emerging from a newly formed boulder in Australia claim that they are benevolent deliverers of new technologies from which the Earth will benefit.  Scientists attempt to puzzle out the truth, although their efforts soon prove to be unnecessary as the danger to the planet becomes apparent.

I found it interesting to read a novel that departs from a standard science fiction formula: quick thinking humans outsmart nasty aliens who invade or attempt to destroy the Earth. The Forge of God acknowledges that alien technology may well be superior to ours, and that humans may be powerless to stop aliens who are determined to destroy planets.

The technical aspects surrounding the planet's destruction and attempts to evacuate were well done. The story held my interest, but given the drama surrounding the planet's end, I thought the story was less engaging than it could have been. The key human characters (geologists, an astronomer and his family, the president and a Bible thumper) are fairly one dimensional while the aliens (good and bad) are given no characterization at all.

The story's fast pace makes it a quick and easy read. The novel was sufficiently entertaining to earn a recommendation, but there's nothing stellar about this story of interstellar invasion.



Catch a Falling Spy by Len Deighton

First published in 1976

Catch a Falling Spy (also published under the title Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy) is a well crafted spy thriller that incorporates elements of dark comedy with gritty action, suspense, and a noir atmosphere. The characters lack the depth of Bernard Sampson, the star of many of Deighton's later novels, but they are nonetheless convincing.

British agent Harry Palmer teams with CIA agent Mickey Mann to help Bekuv, a Russian scientist, defect.   Their mission leads them to a dangerous encounter in the Sahara Desert.  Once they finally have him in a place of safety, Bekuv refuses to cooperate unless his beautiful young wife, Katerina, joins him.  An assassination attempt and the emergence of a secret society of Ruyssian scientists contribute to the intrigue.  Added to the ever growing list of characters who may or may not be traitors are a U.S. senator, the senator's aide, and Harry Dean, a washed up CIA operative who is found with an embarrassing amount of cash in his private stash.  Is anyone to be trusted?  Only by reading to the conclusion of this exciting story can the reader answer that question.

Deighton mixes credible, fast-moving action scenes with psychological drama in a novel that takes the reader on a wild journey.  While not as complex as Deighton's later work, Catch a Falling Spy offers an early example of this fine spy novelist's talent.



Bitter Angels by C.L. Anderson

Published by Spectra on August 25, 2009

Terese Drajeske, a former guardian of the saints, is called back to active duty.  The saints do good works on the planets comprising the United World Government. The guardians endeavor to keep the peace without killing anyone (usually by gluing people to walls).  Drajeske goes to the Erasmus System to circumvent an attack upon certain of its planets.  She brings along Siri (who hooks into a communications network) and Vijay, who works undercover.  Other principles are a cop on Erasmus, Amerand, who is working to find his enslaved mother (he arranged for his enslaved father to work for him), and a doctor, Emiliya.

Bitter Angels tells its story from shifting points of view.  That technique can be difficult to execute but Anderson handled it nicely, merging the different perspectives into a seamless storyline.  The concept of a guardian force that keeps peace without killing is a nice departure from plots that rely on violence for an easy (if unimaginative) injection of excitement.  The twisty plot, while a bit Byzantine, builds suspense with a mix of political intrigue and fast action. Terese is a fully developed example of the reluctant hero--and for that reason is a more interesting character than is standard fare in fast-action sf novels.

If C.L. Anderson (the pen name of Sara Zettel) writes a sequel to Bitter Angels, I'll buy it.