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.


Nelly's Version by Eva Figes

First published in 1977

A woman arrives at a country inn, checks into a room under (she tells us) an assumed name, and finds a large sum of money in her suitcase as she unpacks. She does not remember her identity, does not know the reason she has taken up residence in an inn, but believes that someone will come for her to make her mission clear. As the days slowly unfold, she explores the town and has curious experiences. Cases of mistaken identity abound. She befriends strangers who may actually be friends or family members. When she is finally persuaded to move out of the inn and into a house, she wonders whether the house is hers and about the identity of a mysterious occupant.

I enjoyed puzzling about just how unreliable the narrator was, what was real and what wasn't. Is she suffering from amnesia, from paranoia (she's suspicious of everyone, sees conspiracies everywhere), from delusional thinking? The novel bears rereading in an effort to grasp its meaning. The mysteries aren't neatly resolved so if you can't abide a novel that leaves loose ends dangling, you might want to give this one a pass. I thought the ambiguity was delicious, given that the point of view is that of a disturbed mind.

Figes writes in a quiet but penetrating voice that moves a compelling story along with wit and wry charm.  This is the best of the Figes novels I've read.



The Sisters by Robert Littell

First published in 1986

The Sisters is one of the best of Robert Littell's novels, and the best of the four fictional accounts of a certain real world event I've read. The plot is byzantine without being confusing; the complexity is lovely and the pace at which events unfold is perfect. Unlike some of Littell's earlier works, the characters on display in The Sisters are fully realized.  A synopsis would spoil the fun, so my description of the novel's contents will be brief.

The sisters Dark and Night (a line from a Whitman poem) are two odd duck CIA agents whose job is to plot.  They are wonderfully quirky and so Machiavellian by nature the CIA seems a perfect place for them to roost.  They’ve cooked up a conspiracy they believe to be authorized, albeit silently, by the CIA Director, and they keep it to themselves when they set it in motion.  Figuring out who is working for whom (and who is betraying whom) is the novel's challenge, but the novel is worth reading for its characters, not just its intrigue.  The story's portrayal of the political workings of the CIA (which might as well be the CYA) seem perfectly credible; in any event, it's a fun addition. A satisfying display of karma at the novel's end left me grinning.

The Sisters is a masterful work, a treat not just for fans of espionage novels but for any reader who enjoys good writing.



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.