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 Spy Who Never Was by Tom Savage

Published by Random House/Alibi on January 9, 2018

Spy thrillers should be based on intrigue and suspense. They should never be dull. The Spy Who Never Was fails those tests. The novel might appeal to a fan of cozy mysteries, but I’ve never heard of a cozy spy novel. If you’re more interested in the heroine’s latest “sassy” hairstyle and footwear selection than international intrigue, this might be the right novel for you. Fans of traditional spy novels should avoid it.

The CIA has been spreading rumors that an agent named Chris Waverly has been conducting operations, thereby protecting the agents who actually conducted the operations. It’s doubtful that foreign agencies would fall for the ruse, but that’s the premise. It’s more believable than the rest of the story, which hinges on the delightful coincidence that the real Nora Baron looks just like the fictitious Chris Waverly.

Spy hobbyist Nora is told that blackmailers have tumbled to the fact that Waverly is fictitious and are threatening to reveal the truth, thus exposing real agents to harm, unless the CIA pays them. At the CIA’s direction, Nora takes a break from her busy life as the wife of a real spy, mother to a college student, and acting teacher to pretend to be Chris Waverly, thus flushing the blackmailers into the open.

It is clear to the reader that the CIA’s story isn’t making much sense, and that eventually becomes clear to Nora as well, although she’s a bit slow on the uptake. By the time she has finished her assigned mission, however, with more than half a novel to go and a trail of killed or missing agents, Nora realizes that she’s being played. She becomes convinced of that when the dreaded assassin The Falcon (because assassins always have cool names like The Falcon) visits her hotel room in the middle of the night. The story goes downhill from there.

Nora is the kind of spy who does her spying in tourist spots like Venice and London, making it easy for the author to provide local color. This time she goes to Paris, where the local color consists of popular restaurants and a river cruise along the Seine. Tom Savage offers an explanation for Nora’s tourism, but it seems contrived. The more likely explanation is that Savage has taken some European vacations to popular tourist destinations (including a river cruise along the Seine) and decided to turn them into material for spy novels. A description of Lucerne (another tourist destination) sounds like it came from a travel guide, although the bed-and-breakfast in which Nora stays (I’m not kidding) is described in loving detail.

Nora is also the kind of spy who beats up men twice her size who attack her, despite having no military training and minimal CIA training. But she has taken classes in jazz dance, which appears to be all the training anyone needs to defeat a stronger and more skillful fighter.

We’re told that the CIA is actively involved in breaking up Russian and African sex trafficking rings, which is not at all the CIA’s job and about which it could probably care less. Then we’re told that a spy has an important cellphone conversation at a bar with the bartender standing there, a remarkably sloppy performance by the spy but convenient for Nora when she chats up the bartender.

The characters in The Spy Who Never Was are all too cheery and freshly scrubbed (even the bad guys) to be convincing. They certainly aren’t interesting. The life story of the spy originally posing as Chris Waverly — avenging the assassinations of her assassin parents, falling in love with the Russian assassin who was tasked with killing her — borders on the preposterous. Her motivation for disappearing is equally implausible.

The big reveal (the true reason Nora was sent on her mission) is unoriginal and unbelievable. So we have dull characters and a farfetched plot, with occasional moments of underplayed violence that only add to the story’s overall dullness. It’s all very cozy, but if you’re looking for an actual spy novel, you’ll probably be disappointed.



The Night Market by Jonathan Moore

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on January 16, 2018

The Night Market is a near-future science fiction thriller. Many thrillers that are based on wide-scale conspiracies tax the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief, but readers are conditioned to suspend disbelief when they read science fiction, so the conspiracy seems plausible. In fact, given the rampant nature of consumerism and the ease with which corporations place profit over moral behavior, the conspiracy would be all too likely if the technology upon which it depends actually existed.

The near future in which the story is set is not a nice place. Big chunks of urban areas belong to vandals at night. Police brutality is unchecked. Isolation is a way of life. Consumerism is the new heroin.

Ross Carver is a police inspector in San Francisco. He and his partner, Cleveland Jenner, investigate a report that a blood-covered guy inside a house is beating a bedroom window. A few minutes after the report is made, the man had turned into a pile of cooked meat. By the time Carver and Jenner arrive, the dead man is a pile of moss. A few minutes later, the feds have Carver and Jenner in decontamination and are burning down the dead man’s house. And after that, they don’t remember a thing. In fact, they don’t remember responding to the call.

Before their memories disappeared, Carver and Jenner were investigating Patrick Wong, who has now disappeared. Jenner thinks he interviewed Wong, although he doesn’t recall the details. They wanted to talk to Patrick Wong so they could find Johnnie Wong, who may have murdered a singer named Hadley Hardgrave. The story eventually circles back to that murder.

Carver gets an assist from a neighbor named Mia who appears to be agoraphobic, but Carver, and thus the reader, doesn’t know whether anything about Mia can be trusted. Such is the nature of conspiracy novels. In fact, part of the fun of a conspiracy novel is guessing which characters are part of the conspiracy. In The Night Market, puzzling out how the conspiracy works is also part of the fun.

The ending of The Night Market is surprising. It’s also surprisingly creepy. The novel as a whole is sufficiently convincing to be chilling, while Jonathan Moore’s crisp prose style creates a dark blend of uncertainty and suspense. You don’t need to be a science fiction fan to enjoy this near-future thriller; it’s like a Ludlum novel with fewer words, stripped to its bare essentials.



Fade-Out by Patrick Tilley

First published in Great Britain in 1975; published by Bloomsbury Reader on December 14, 2017

Fade-Out was published in 1975, a simpler time when “the boys in the lab” solved the Earth’s problems while “the girls” were laying around getting “a nice suntan.” The novel has a dated feel that is enhanced by foreign policy debates about how the United States should handle the monolithic Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall came down only 14 years after Fade-Out was published. How quickly times change.

I’m not sure Fade-Out warrants Bloomsbury’s claim that it’s a “classic” that is “often copied by others.” In fact, the novel reprises First Contact themes have been an integral part of science fiction since at least the 1940s. At the same time, by the novel’s end, Fade-Out does have the feel of a classic, even if it’s a forgotten classic.

The book’s title refers to a “fade out” of radio wave reception that begins to afflict all parts of the Earth, albeit at different times. The boys in the lab figure out that something in orbit is causing the problem. They can’t see the thing, but they can detect it on radar. They are pretty sure it’s a ship and they surmise that the fade-out occurs when its propulsion system is activated. The boys in the White House reluctantly decide that the ship is of extraterrestrial origin, although they would prefer to blame the Russians.

The book’s initial chapters describe the political debate that surrounds the ET contact. Of course, the military wants to blow the ship out of the sky. More rational minds believe that starting an interstellar war would be unwise, but the conflict then revolves around the degree to which the United States should cooperate with Russia in addressing an alien presence. That debate intensifies when the fade-out continues after the ship buries itself in Montana.

Eventually we learn something about the ship (they name it Crusoe), and about the (apparently) big mechanical spider that exits from it (they name it Friday). Even the supposedly rational minds do precious little to communicate with the ET. They’re more intent on capturing Friday, or at least immobilizing it while they explore Crusoe. To that end, they do a number of things that would seriously piss off a human, apparently without considering that antagonizing an alien isn’t a smart approach to First Contact.

In any event, the humans who do manage to get inside Crusoe … well, I won’t give it away, but what they find isn’t what any of their team expected. Their close encounter of a very different kind sets the novel apart from others that have followed the same path.

The characters take occasional breaks to discuss philosophy (the nature and purpose of the universe, whether there’s an afterlife) and to debate scientific theories (the big bang versus the steady state theory, another aspect of the story that now feels dated). None of their musings add anything noteworthy to the story, except for the notion that lots of people don’t want to know the answers to the big questions, because the answers might unsettle their lives. One of the science-minded characters also accepts as fact some “scientific” theories about pyramids that have been debunked, and while that’s a small part of the story, it contributes to the novel’s dated feel.

I recommend the novel to fans of books (like The Martian) that feature scientists and engineers trying to puzzle out solutions to problems (like how to drop a bomb on a craft that disrupts electrical energy). Despite its dated feel, the story is reasonably convincing, and it ratchets up tension rather remarkably in the last 50 pages in a way that reminded me of the classic novel Fail-Safe. The ending is nicely ambiguous, which will bother readers who want everything spelled out for them. I was pleasantly surprised that the plot did not resolve in a more definitive way and that a couple of important loose ends were never explained. The rest of the book is good in sort of a predictable way, but to my mind the last chapter makes Fade-Out stand out. From the perspective of 2018, Fade-Out manages to be both dated and timeless.



How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

First published in Great Britain in 2017; published by Viking on February 6, 2018

How to Stop Time is a sneaky novel. It delivers an important message, but wraps it in such an engaging story that the message seems secondary until it begins to drive the story. The novel asks the reader to imagine living a very long life, and to think about whether the price required to stay safe is too great for the longevity it buys.

If you only age one year for every fifteen calendar years, maybe the secret is not to fall in love. Tom Hazard learned that the hard way. Tom was born in 1581. In his teens, having not visibly aged since the age of 13, his mother was accused of witchcraft. A few years later, he fell in love with a woman named Rose, but had to leave her (and their daughter) so that Rose would not be condemned for living with a boy who doesn’t look old enough to shave, but who never seems to age. Tom hasn’t been happy since.

Today Tom is a history teacher in London. He returned to London to search for his daughter Marian, who inherited the condition that slows aging. A fellow named Hendrich protects people with Tom’s condition by working to assure that their existence remains a secret. New people with the condition are discovered every year, just as people who might reveal their existence are killed every year. The killing is largely orchestrated by Hendrich, who values the lives of people with extended lifespans like his own over the ordinary people who might expose their existence.

Much of the story is set in 1599. Shakespeare enlivens the plot and adds the sort of wisdom about life that one expects from the Bard. During one of the 1599 chapters, a performing bear appears. Only the bear is not performing; it’s fighting to stay alive, despite being held in chains and tormented for the crowd’s amusement. In a book about longevity and its price, the bear becomes something of a metaphor for “the pointless will to survive,” no matter what cruelty and pain life has thrown in the bear’s direction. One of the serious questions raised by How to Stop Time is whether the quest for a longer life merely creates more opportunities for suffering and loss, whether the instinct for survival necessarily serves us well. Is life really so precious when suffering is the price for living?

One of Tom’s assignments for Hendrich leads to the novel’s tipping point, when Tom must decide whether longevity is more important than integrity and love and all the other things that make life worthwhile for people who live a normal lifespan, or less. The lessons that How to Stop Time teaches (primarily the importance of living in the moment, not in an unknowable future) are worthy if sometimes a bit obvious, and the story is entertaining despite its predictable resolution. Matt Haig’s fluid prose, solid characters, and convincing descriptions of historical settings all contribute to one of the better sf novels exploring the theme of longevity



The Honorable Traitors by John Lutz

Published by Pinnacle Books on January 30, 2018

Tillie North is about to pass something along to her granddaughter when she’s killed in an explosion. Washington breathes a sigh of relief, since Tillie has somehow managed to amass embarrassing secrets since the days of the Truman administration. Tillie’s granddaughter, Ava North, is present when she dies, as is a fellow who works for the Gray Outfit named Thomas Laker. The Gray Outfit is one of those ultra-secret Homeland Security organizations that are so prevalent in thrillers. So what was Tillie planning to give Ava?

The story tracks back to 1941, when Tillie was in Hawaii, gathering information for Naval Intelligence by using her feminine guile (and body) to gather information from a Japanese diplomat. By the time they part, Tillie has gathered more information than she expected to learn, and more than she is willing to reveal to her minders, for reasons that suggest the government’s faith in Tillie’s patriotism has been badly misplaced. But really, it’s faith in Tillie’s intelligence that has been misplaced, given that Tillie comes across as a ditz who scarcely deserves the reverence with which she is viewed by the novel’s central characters.

In the present, the story follows Ava and Laker as they pursue the meaning of a cryptic notebook that Tillie left behind. The notebook has something to do with Tillie’s work the war, but the phrases she jotted on its pages make little sense, and the entries suddenly stop. Why Tillie believed that the best way to impart a secret to her granddaughter was to send her on a scavenger hunt for information is beyond me. Whispering in her ear would have done the trick without risking Ava’s inability to piece together Tillie’s obscure clues.

To uncover the notebook’s meaning, Ava and Laker interview people in Hawaii and Washington who knew Tillie. That leads them to a series of adventures of the sort that are common in thrillers: chases and fights and shootouts and so on.

Opposing Ava and Laker is a ridiculous fellow known as the Shapeshifter, whose job is to discover secrets and kill people. The Shapeshifter has an improbable (and nearly supernatural) ability to ferret out information, but characters like that are common in thrillers, and I’m willing to roll with them as long as their exploits aren’t consistently eye-rolling. Unfortunately, as the Shapeshifter tracked down three men, each of whom had inexplicably been given one piece of essential information that unlocks the novel’s puzzle, my eyes began to roll like tumblers on a slot machine. The ability of Ava and Laker to track the Shapeshifter’s movements is almost as difficult to swallow.

When Tillie’s big secret is finally revealed, I had to wonder how Washington could possibly have kept it a secret for so many years, and why the combined might of the nation’s military and intelligence services hadn’t managed to uncover the truth. There are other scenes in the novel that are just as difficult to believe. A bad guy who needs a building permit gets one from New York City in just a couple of days. A character who has been tied up suddenly gets her foot free to kick another character at an opportune moment. I might have been more willing to suspend my disbelief if the characters had been more interesting, but Laker and Ava have too little flesh on their bones. The novel as a whole lacks credibility, interest, and energy.