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.


Volk's Game by Brent Ghelfi

Publsihed by Henry Holt and Co. on June 12, 2007

Volk's Game is a fast paced thriller with an abundance of violence that would seem gratuitous were it not for the carefully drawn characters Brent Ghelfi created to drive the story. Colonel Volk lost his leg fighting Chechen separatists while his beautiful (and dangerous) young friend and lover Valya carries emotional scars from that same conflict. The backstory explains why both characters so readily resort to violence, but it is a tribute to Ghelfi's deft storytelling that, as the story unfolds (and continuing into the next book), they begin to question their own bitterness and wonder if some better life might be possible.

Volk works for "the General" in a clandestine role, while also managing his own small-scale criminal enterprise and trying to keep Maxim (a powerful crime boss) happy. Volk's current assignment involves the theft of an unknown Da Vinci masterpiece that has been hidden in an art gallery. During the course of events Volk is betrayed by nearly everyone.

Volk is a complex character: a criminal who works for himself, for other criminals and for the Russian Army (i.e., for his country, which he fiercely loves); a ruthless and (mostly) remorseless assassin who finds time to dispense charity to war veterans and their widows; a man who, despite questioning his capacity for love, displays the self-sacrifice that is love's greatest measure. The secondary characters are a bit one-dimensional and the plot, while tight, is more than a little improbable -- but improbable plot twists are standard in the thriller genre. The story's background seems to have been well researched. All told, I thought this was a fun, enjoyable read.



High Life by Matthew Stokoe

First published 2002; reprinted by Akashic Books in 2008

Jack lives in a seedy part of LA, works at Donut Haven, is married to a hooker named Karen, and dreams of being a celebrity.  It doesn’t surprise him when Karen disappears after selling her kidney for $30,000. Expecting her to be on a prolonged bender, Jack goes looking for Karen and instead finds the police, in a park, examining a gutted body.  Jack soon enters into uncomfortable relationships with a police detective named Ryan and a seductive surgeon named Bella.  His life is about to become much better -- or much worse -- than he ever imagined.

High Life is noir on steroids. It has the blunt and gory mixture of sex, drugs, and violence that animates American Psycho, but it almost makes that novel resemble Winnie the Pooh by comparison. If you're put off by scatology, necrophilia, incest, and gruesome descriptions of death, you might want to give High Life a pass. On the other hand, if you can stomach the violence and the bizarre sexual appetites of the principle characters, you'll be rewarded with a masterful piece of writing, as well as an insightful examination of the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and the craving that certain outcasts feel for the well publicized lives of wealthy celebrities.

Matthew Stokoe makes the novel's first person narrator into a likable sociopath--no small feat, and a tribute to his authorial abilities. The tightly plotted story is credible, the characters are fully realized, and the atmosphere is a rich mix of the darkness of noir and the superficial sunshine of Hollywood. High Life is hard to put down and hard to forget.



The Prisoner by Carlos J. Cortes

Published by Spectra on October 27, 2009

In 2049, prisons have been replaced by facilities that house prisoners in hibernation tanks.  The private corporation that runs them has hidden some tanks in the middle of each facility that are used to house Russian mafia types and political prisoners who never receive a trial.  Why these folks aren’t just killed rather than hidden away (presumably forever) is never satisfactorily explained.  Even more far-fetched is the plot:  a senator’s son who became a political activist is one of the occupants of the hidden tanks (for patently absurd reasons that, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won't reveal) and three lawyers (yes, lawyers, not former special forces types who might be trained to do this sort of thing, but lawyers) are recruited to bust the activist out of the hibernation tank.

Putting aside the ridiculous plot, most of the novel reads like a well written thriller, as powerful but relatively incompetent agents of Homeland Security chase the lawyers and the thawed activist through the D.C. sewer system.  The characters suffer from the single dimensionality that is common enough in thrillers, but the action sustains the novel until the novel reaches it's stunningly bad (but oh-so-happy) ending.

Tempted though I am to steer readers away from this novel, I must admit that I enjoyed reading much of it.  The writing is polished, the story is action-filled (as befits a thriller), and the pace is furious (which makes it possible to read without thinking much about the plot holes).  The last few pages, however, are rather dull polemic, in contrast to the lively writing that precedes them.  It's a shame that so much good writing was wasted on such a silly plot, but readers looking for an exciting science fiction thriller might want to take a look at this one.  Just check your common sense at the door if you want to enjoy it.



The Last Goodbye by Reed Arvin

First published in 2004

I picked this up at an airport, knowing nothing about the author, on the basis of cover blurbs that promised an absorbing plot. I wasn't expecting much, but the novel kept me engrossed during a four hour flight.

Jack Hammond is fired from his job at a law firm for having sex with a client, then hangs out a shingle and survives on the court appointments he gets from his buddy, who is a clerk in a judge’s office.  One of Hammond’s clients dies, and in cleaning out the client’s apartment, Hammond learns that the client was a hacker who was obsessed with an opera singer named Michele Sonnier.  Sonnier is married to a wealthy man who is about to become ultra-wealthy when the IPO for his drug company is launched.  Hammond doesn’t believe his client injected himself with an overdose, and while investigating the death, he falls in love with Sonnier, who enlists him to help find her daughter, taken from her when she was a wayward kid in the Atlanta projects.  All of these plot threads eventually weave into a smart story.

I recommend the novel for a couple of reasons. The plot, while wildly improbable, is fast paced and interesting. It follows the typical arc of a thriller and does it well: the protagonist (Jack Hammond) stumbles onto a mystery, starts poking into it, is repeatedly foiled in his attempts to unravel it, and finds that he's put his life in jeopardy. The ending is satisfying and in some respects uplifting. The novel's resolution is quite clever.

Arvin does a fine job of bringing his characters to life. Hammond is a bit seedy, bordering on down-and-out, but finds a way to redeem himself, as does his love interest, opera singer Michele Sonnier, whose guilt about her lost daughter is the plot's driving force. As a way to pass the time on an airplane, you could do much worse than to pick up The Last Goodbye.



The Forge of God by Greg Bear

First published in 1987

Visiting aliens deliver conflicting messages.  An alien emerging from a newly formed mountain in the United States warns that invaders are about to destroy the earth with a process that will harvest raw materials to build ships that will go on to destroy other worlds.  Robots emerging from a newly formed boulder in Australia claim that they are benevolent deliverers of new technologies from which the Earth will benefit.  Scientists attempt to puzzle out the truth, although their efforts soon prove to be unnecessary as the danger to the planet becomes apparent.

I found it interesting to read a novel that departs from a standard science fiction formula: quick thinking humans outsmart nasty aliens who invade or attempt to destroy the Earth. The Forge of God acknowledges that alien technology may well be superior to ours, and that humans may be powerless to stop aliens who are determined to destroy planets.

The technical aspects surrounding the planet's destruction and attempts to evacuate were well done. The story held my interest, but given the drama surrounding the planet's end, I thought the story was less engaging than it could have been. The key human characters (geologists, an astronomer and his family, the president and a Bible thumper) are fairly one dimensional while the aliens (good and bad) are given no characterization at all.

The story's fast pace makes it a quick and easy read. The novel was sufficiently entertaining to earn a recommendation, but there's nothing stellar about this story of interstellar invasion.