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.


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. 



The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

First published in 1962

Arthur Simpson--petty thief, unemployed journalist, and occasional tourist guide--is one of Eric Ambler's finest creations. The son of an Egyptian mother and British father, Simpson is embittered by the unwillingness of either nation to claim him as one of its own.

When caught in the act of burglarizing a hotel room in Athens, Simpson is blackmailed into driving a Lincoln to Istanbul. Of course, the plan does not go well for Simpson, who soon finds himself caught between the schemers who induced him to make the trip and the Turkish police, who want to use him for their own ends. This well-paced thriller is sprinkled with moments of levity, nicely balancing the darkness that enshrouds Simpson as he becomes embroiled in a criminal plot. While the criminal characters are not as fully developed as Simpson, the novel works because Ambler makes the reader see the world through Simpson's eyes and feel his mounting sense of dread as events unfold.

Ambler creates an effective atmosphere.  Even when there seems to be little action, Ambler keeps the story in motion -- there's always something happening that holds the reader's attention.  There are elements of a mystery in the story as Simpson tries to discover the purpose of driving the Lincoln to Istanbul, but that secret is revealed well before the novel's end. At that point, suspense builds as Simpson finds himself caught between the desires of the police and the crooks. The suspense is palpable, and for that reason I recommend The Light of Day as a true thriller.



Red Planet by Robert Heinlein

First published in 1949

Jim Marlowe lives with his sister and parents on Mars.  Jim's life inside the colony and his Martian adventures beyond its borders are the subject of Robert Heinlein's Red Planet.

The 1949 novel is vintage Heinlein. Characters rant about bureaucracy, regulations, and limitations on personal freedom (the unfettered right to bear arms is sacred), themes that reappear often in Heinlein's later work. Although Red Planet is characterized as a "juvenile"--and although I was thoroughly entertained by it when I read it as a teenager--the story retains enormous appeal for adult fans of science fiction. While lacking the complexity of Heinlein's later work, the novel showcases Heinlein's vivid imagination and his stalwart belief in the ability of individuals to meet challenges posed both by hostile environments and by muddle-headed humans.  It has aged well.



Hit Man by Lawrence Block

Published by William Morrow on January 21, 1998

Hit Man is the first in a series of books starring J.P. Keller, a laid-back assassin who, save for his profession, is just like the rest of us:  he walks his dog, goes out on dates, wonders about the lives of strangers he passes on the street, and takes up stamp collecting to alleviate his boredom.  Hit Man isn't a conventional thriller; it's an unconventional portrayal of a remorseless killer as an ordinary guy.

Block started writing about Keller in short stories that mostly appeared in Playboy.  Hit Man collects many of those stories and adds more material, but it still reads like a series of related stories rather than the novel it purports to be. There is no central plot. Keller gets a call from Dot in White Plains, who works for the old man; Dot relays an assignment to Keller, or Keller gets it directly from the old man; and Keller travels to wherever and makes the hit. Along the way Keller philosophizes and muses about his life and the lives of others, whether clients, victims, or total strangers. Some hits are more difficult than others; some present Keller with ethical dilemmas, creating interesting situations for a man who operates outside the boundaries of ethical behavior.  Toward the end the old man becomes a bit dotty, forcing  Keller to decide whether he wants to continue working in his chosen profession.

The interplay between Dot and Keller is often hilarious. Keller is an affable killer; the stories are surprisingly lighthearted and amusing, given the subject matter.  Readers looking for a thriller or a mystery might be disappointed with Hit Man.  This isn't a mystery and it isn't exciting; it's a series of scenes from a man's life.  The man happens to be a killer.  On that basis, the book works.


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