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.


Spy Line by Len Deighton

Published by Alfred A. Knopf on November 25, 1989

Spy Line -- the middle installment in the Hook, Line, and Sinker trilogy -- picks up where Spy Hook left off. Samson's loyalty is questioned, he isn't getting answers to his own questions about his wife's defection, people are dying, and people who seemed to die in the past aren't staying dead. More I cannot say without spoiling the intricate plot.

Spy Line has more action than the previous novel. Samson proves himself an adept field agent even after years behind a desk. But he isn't a James Bond type superhero; he's a dedicated public servant who wants to uncover the truth even if his superiors would prefer that the truth be kept secret. The minor characters in Spy Line really shine: they bumble, they seduce, they act shamefully or unselfishly -- in short, they behave as inconsistently and unpredictably as real people, and real people is what they feel like. Deighton does a masterful job of bringing every character to life in this book. He also does a remarkable job of establishing a sense of place -- the reader feels present in (what was then) East Germany, feels the repression, the fear, the history. And he does a satisfying job of tying together the loose threads, of resolving all the outstanding plot lines.

The story is compelling (even shocking) but this novel stands out for Deighton's portrayal of Samson as a man torn apart by his love for a treasonous wife, for his live-in girlfriend, and for his country (which doesn't treat him well at all). This novel is nearly as good as John Le Carre at his best.



Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

First published in 1987

The first of Iain Banks' Culture novels follows Horza, a Changer, as he is rescued from Culture captivity by the Idirans, who want to send him to Schar’s World (one of the Planets of the Dead guarded by the Dra’Azon) to find a Mind (a controller of Culture ships) that has taken refuge there.  In the midst of another battle, Horza leaves the Idirans and takes up with the ragtag crew of a scavenger ship, the Clean Air Turbulence, leading to a series of adventures as he finds himself fighting both the Culture and the Idirans.

Pluses:  A well-imagined universe that, for once, doesn't mention or depend upon Earth.  An interstellar conflict between (principally) two races that is being fought for a reason -- or a series of reasons -- other than the need to have a war to advance the plot.  Action scenes that generate real excitement.  Comic relief that works.  Avoidance of a happy ending that the writer inserted just to please readers who like happy endings.

Minuses:  While Horza has some facets of a complex personality, his two love interests and the other characters in general are one-dimensional.  A couple of scenes (one that takes place on what amounts to a desert island) seem out of place, as if they were added to fill space, and do little to advance the plot.  After Horza finally arrives on Schar's World, the pace begins to drag a bit, although it picks up again toward the end.



Prey by Michael Crichton

Published by HarperCollins on November 25, 2002

People are taken over by nanobots. Then it's up to the hero to outwit the nanobots (which shouldn't be difficult since they blow away in a stiff breeze). And that's about it, folks.

The plot of Prey is recycled from the endless "people are taken over by aliens" stories that have been around forever -- a plot device that Robert Heinlein used more effectively a half century before Crichton adopted it. The characters are stock: Crichton doesn't bring them alive, and if they were alive, you wouldn't want to know them because they're so dull. A couple of action scenes -- characters battling swarms of nanobots -- are lively, but the rest of the prose is flat. Crichton had some interesting ideas about nanobots but lacked the originality to do sufficiently interesting things with them to make the story worthwhile. The novel might be okay -- just okay -- as a fast beach read, but there are better options.



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.