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 weekends.  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.

Saturday
Jun292019

The Blieberg Project by David Khara

First published in France in 2010; published in translation by Le French Book on July 15, 2014

The Bleiberg Project is the first novel of the Consortium series. Wall Street trader Jeremy Novacek is wealthy but empty of heart. He carries the guilt of a reckless and irresponsible moment that could have destroyed his life, had his employer not rescued him. While generally wallowing in self-pity, Jeremy is cheered to learn that his father, from whom he has been estranged for a quarter century, has died. When he conveys the news to his hospitalized mother, she gives him a locket that contains a small key embossed with a swastika. The key opens the door to secrets about Jeremy’s past and to a more meaningful future.

When The Bleiberg Project isn’t following Jeremy, it tracks events that occurred during World War II or focuses on the present day scheming of ruthless Mossad agent Eytan Mog, who has taken an interest in knowledge that Jeremy’s father acquired while working for the CIA. But what is that knowledge and what does it have to do with the contents of the box to which Jeremy now has the key? Jeremy intends to find out. He’s accompanied in that journey by a CIA agent who, being female, is of course beautiful.

I would rate The Bleiberg Project as a no-worse-but-not-much-better-than-average Nazi conspiracy thriller. Apart from some expository information dumps, the story moves smoothly and quickly, but it covers ground that has been well plowed by other writers. The Übermensch theme is too familiar to be compelling, and while David Khara adds a fresh touch here and there, nothing about the novel is particularly exciting. Khara’s prose is snappy but his characters, while adequate, never quite come to life. If Nazi Übermensch stories are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy The Bleiberg Project. If you think you’ve read enough novels about ongoing Nazi plots to create a superior race, there’s no need for you to add this to your reading list. Or you can opt for the graphic novel, which trims away the fat and is, I thought, superior to the origial prose version.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Jun282019

The Eighth Sister by Robert Dugoni 

Published by Thomas & Mercer April 9, 2019

The Eighth Sister starts as a spy novel and turns into a lawyer novel. Two of my favorite genres rolled into a single book. I’m happy to report that the result will appeal to fans of both espionage thrillers and courtroom thrillers.

Seven Russian women, known as the Seven Sisters, were trained as American agents during the Cold War. Now that Putin is in charge, three have been killed. Former CIA agent Charles Jenkins, who runs a security service with cash flow problems, is recruited to travel to Moscow and identify the eighth sister, a Russian operative who is trying to ferret out the identities of the remaining four. Once Jenkins identifies her, someone else will kill her.

Jenkins is recruited by the man who used to be his station chief in Mexico City. For that reason, Jenkins believes that the CIA has authorized his mission. I suspect that most fans of spy fiction will wonder from the start whether that is true, and will wonder why Jenkins doesn’t do more to confirm that he is actually serving his government. But he’s getting paid handsomely, so maybe he doesn’t care.

Jenkins has a 9-year-old son at home and another baby on the way. He is 64 years old, 6’5” and black, so he stands out a bit in Moscow. The plot includes some good chase scenes in Russia when the mission goes south. It also introduces collateral characters who are self-sacrificing, adding a feel-good element to the story that never seems manipulative.

Every good spy novel contains at least one double-cross while challenging the reader to guess whether certain characters are good guys or bad guys. After the double-cross occurs, Jenkins is accused of being a traitor, a charge that never sits well with jurors or hanging judges.

The story offers a realistic view of the lengths to which the federal government will go to poison the public’s mind when it makes arrests, doing everything it can — from perp walks to press releases — to make a suspect guilty in the public mind until proven innocent. And convincing witnesses to tell the government’s version of the truth, even if it isn’t objectively true, is a specialty of federal prosecutors.

Jenkins is defended by David Sloane, a seasoned lawyer who has appeared in other Robert Dugoni novels. The plot depends on the government bringing Jenkins to trial while withholding evidence of his innocence — something no ethical prosecutor would do, but not every federal prosecutor is ethical. In our imperfect world, however, prosecutors (and particularly federal prosecutors) know their odds of being disciplined for ethical lapses are virtually nonexistent. I also found it doubtful that a majority of the Ninth Circuit would go along with a charade that prevents a defendant from presenting compelling evidence of innocence (some other circuits, yes, but the Constitution is still in effect on the West Coast). Still, it is easy to roll with the court’s ruling to keep the story moving.

The courtroom scenes generate the kind of drama that legal thrillers should create. The Eighth Sister effectively bridges the spy and legal genres, telling two very different stories but telling them both well. I don’t recall another novel that combines the genres in quite this way, so bravo to Dugoni for doing something new and clever — and for doing it so ably.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun262019

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada

Published in Japan in 1982; published in translation by Pushkin Vertigo on June 25, 2019

Murder in the Crooked House is a locked room murder mystery that Soji Shimada divided into acts and scenes. A locked room murder in the first act is followed by another in the second. The novel challenges the reader not just to identify the killer but to figure out how the murders were committed. The latter is the more difficult challenge.

Kozaburo Hamamoto constructed the Crooked House, an isolated Western-style house next to a leaning glass tower, at the tip of Japan’s northernmost island. Hamamoto is a reclusive millionaire. He invites a few elite businessmen and their glamorous wives to a Christmas party at his Crooked House, as well as a couple of students. The chef, chauffeur, and maid are also present.

The students both have an interest in marrying Hamamoto’s daughter Eiko. Hamamoto puts a puzzle to them, offering his daughter’s hand (if she so wishes) to the winner. The challenge is to determine the significance of the flowerbed at the base of the tower. The significance will be revealed at the novel’s end.

Later that night, a female guest sees the face of a monster in her window — seemingly impossible since her room is on the third floor. The next morning, the chauffeur is found dead in his room with a knife protruding from his chest. The only door is locked from the inside. An art object, sort of like a large puppet or mannequin, is found in the snow outside his room. This turns out to be part of Hamamoto’s impressive collection of wind-up toys and other figures. He calls it a golem.

DI Okuma, DCI Ushikoshi, and DS Ozaki lead the police investigation. They take note of the house’s unusual design, which makes it difficult to move from room to room. A guest might need to climb down one staircase, walk the length of the house, and climb up a different staircase to access an adjacent room. The house is built on a slant and there are gaps between walls and the floor. The intricacies are difficult to follow, but Shimada provides helpful diagrams and maps of the house and murder scene.

Murder in the Crooked House is a classic locked room mystery. Several people were staying in the crooked house, all had gone to bed, most of them had their own room and no alibi, and none had an obvious motive to murder the chauffeur. The second murder is of a lecherous old man. This time, the only guests who had a motive were in the company of a police officer at the time the killing occurred.

The detectives are frustrated and, by the end of Act Two, they are wishing they had the assistance of a Japanese Sherlock Holmes. Enter Kiyoshi Mitarai, the star of Act Three. Mitarai’s role in the story is narrated by his own version of Watson, Kazumi Ishioka. Prior to the final act, the reader is assured that all the clues are in place and is challenged to solve the mystery.

And it’s true, the clues are there, but only a reader with some esoteric knowledge of Japan (and perhaps the ability to speak Japanese) will be able to unlock all of them. Most of the clues, however, would allow a reader to piece together how the murders were committed. To do so, the reader would need to be more astute than I am. Guessing the killer’s identity is somewhat easier.

The plot provides readers with an entertaining murder mystery, but the story is fascinating in its glimpse of certain aspects of traditional Japanese culture. A wife complains that her husband, a salaryman, is sycophantic in his relationship with a business owner, but bullying and bossy when he is at home. An older businessman is sleeping with his much younger secretary but hiding his conduct for the sake of appearances. The detectives are more worried about saving face than catching the killer. The murderer’s motivation for one of the killings is related to Japanese history. When the murderer is revealed, the unfailingly polite detectives fall over themselves to compliment the killer on an ingenious plan. And, of course, the polite murderer praises the investigator who solves the crime. What a nice place Japan must be to live (if you can avoid being murdered).

Mitarai isn’t quite Sherlock, but he brings a theatrical flair to his detecting style. An epilog gives the story a final twist. Murder in the Crooked House is a good choice for fans of Japanese crime fiction and a really good choice for fans of locked room murder mysteries.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun242019

Cygnet by Season Butler

Published by Harper on June 25, 2019

The unnamed narrator of Cygnet complains that she is “marooned on a secluded island with no parents and instead of getting to do whatever I want I’ve got a zillion old grand-dorks bossing me around.” Her perspective as the only teen on an island of seniors is the source of the novel's sharp humor.

The narrator was sent to live on Swan Island with her grandmother. Social Services took her from her parents, making Swan Island a slightly better choice than juvenile prison. It is also a good place for the narrator to come of age as she confronts, more pressingly than most teens must, the choices that will determine her future.

The island itself is something of a prison, a place where elderly people isolate themselves from (and are passively hostile to) anyone who isn’t elderly. Most of the island’s inhabitants call the 17-year-old narrator Kid. She calls them Wrinklies. The Kid is from the Mainland, which everyone on Swan calls the Bad Place. The island is rapidly eroding; Kid awaits the day when her grandmother’s home washes into the sea. A nearby island is exploding because of improperly buried waste. Whether the mainland or the islands merit the term “Bad Place” is a matter of perspective.

After her grandmother dies, the Kid stays in her grandmother’s house, waiting for her parents to pick her up — every day, she convinces herself that their arrival is imminent — while working for a wealthy islander who has hired her to digitize the woman’s family history, editing as she goes to make it better. The Kid has amusing takes on her employer’s edited life, including the enlargement of her breasts in family photos and movies to match the results of the woman’s boob job. The woman reviews the Kid’s work long enough to replace her real memories with the better ones that the Kid has created.

In her free time, the Kid visits a woman who had a stroke, imagining herself as the woman’s lost mind. She has monthly sex with a boy named Jason she regards as her imaginary boyfriend. Jason comes to Swan to supply drugs to the Wrinklies (weed for glaucoma, acid for nostalgia). The Kid is in denial about her feelings, including her teenage jealousy, just as she is in denial about the parents who have effectively abandoned her.

The Kid’s mind is a maze of contradictory thoughts. I love the way her consciousness streams when she’s talking to Wrinklies. They take so long to express a thought that Kid has a dozen thoughts of her own before they finish a sentence. Some of her thoughts are hilarious; the rest, as thoughts tend to be, are on a spectrum from mundane to profound.

In the tradition of coming-of-age novels, the end of Cygnet is the beginning of a life. It might be a hard life, but the Kid gains strength and self-awareness from living on the eroding island, interacting with aging people who have gathered together to die. It might take them another decade or two before their lives end, but the Kid has scores of decades to live before she will be begin to live in decline. The island will be gone before she is ready to live there because everything erodes, everything changes. That’s the one unchangeable fact about life.

Cygnet mixes humor with touching moments in the lives of both the Kid and the seniors who tolerate (or resent) her presence. Season Butler creates a strong sense of place in Swan Island. She gives the Kid a full personality, slowing revealing facts about her childhood that help the reader understand her fears and insecurities, as well as her dreams and fantasies.

Growing up, Cygnet suggests, is about putting aside illusions of safety and embracing uncertainty. The Kid does that with such endearing anxiety that the reader can only cheer for her as she takes her first steps toward an unpredictable future.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Jun232019

Blast vol. 1: Dead Weight by Manu Larcenet

First published in France in 2010; published in translation by Europe Comics on Oct. 7, 2015

The central character in Blast, Polza Mancini, is a morbidly obese writer who resembles a snowman with a carrot nose. Most of the characters have noses that could pass for vegetables, or fingers, or bird beaks. The art seems to send the message that people are grotesque. Mancini is more grotesque than most. But Blast also makes the point that “the legitimacy of disgust as a reaction to deformity is a universal principle,” a natural law that causes abnormality to be a defining characteristic rather than one part of a complex individual. And how can someone like Mancini not hate himself when it is so natural for others to hate him?

The graphic novel Blast is Mancini’s story, as told to the police during an interrogation. But Mancini tells his story in own way, slowly relating the entire story of his life as the police impatiently wait for him to confess his crime. The key event, as Mancini tells it, is his exposure to the blast. He felt the blast at a low point in his life. In fact, the story of his life until that point is in black and white (mostly black, representing a dark life), but with his description of the blast, color appears. It is a transcendent, transformative experience. Then it ends, and the world is dark again. Dark and spooky, with massive blotches of black and trembling shapes in gray.

Mancini has a history of entering and leaving psychiatric hospitals, but in a story like this, the reader is asked to decide whether his perspective of life is any less valid than any other. Mancini maintains that society has no problem with individual decisions to alter bodies, sometimes painfully, with surgery and tattoos and piercings, but when people decide to change spiritually “through delicious intoxication,” they are seen as contemptible and unbalanced. A police officer say that Mancini is giving himself “poetic excuses” for being an irresponsible and destructive drunk.

Mancini has (he tells the cops) experienced life, lived without boundaries. He abandoned his wife and his job as a food editor to live the life of a bum, not necessarily choosing to be a bum, but choosing solitude.

Yet solitude is not so easy to find. In the woods, he encounters a group who live apart from society, a self-proclaimed Republic that wants him to join their community. That isn’t the life for Mancini. Yet it is in the woods, joined by a member of the Republic who appears whenever Mancini opens a bottle, that Mancini experiences a second, colorful blast. He perceives all; his awareness is complete. “I heard the inaudible, saw the invisible. There was nothing left to hold me down.” And so he begins to float.

At one point, Mancini muses that silence, like solitude, is a poetic invention. Living in nature is both terrifying and comforting. “There’s a mystery in nature … something you can’t force. It’s revealed only if you know how to wait, perfectly still, and it cannot be shared.” A good many panels are silent, in the sense that they are wordless, but they carry the story along as Mancini travels, observing the world in all its detail — the stray dog lifting its leg, the crumbling wall, the beetles on the forest floor.

When the police provide more facts about Mancini’s past, the reader is challenged to decide whether the police are correct in their view of Mancini, or whether there is any truth in Mancini’s perspective. Has he adopted a self-serving philosophy to avoid remorse or has he discovered a way to live with himself, a philosophy that might benefit others? Blast leaves it to the reader to decide, but since this is the first of four lengthy volumes, there is much more to this original and inventive graphic story. Fans of graphic storytelling, of philosophy, and of the macabre will all find something to admire in Blast.

RECOMMENDED