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.


The Levanter by Eric Ambler

First published in 1972; published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on December 11, 2012; published digitally by Agora Books on August 23, 2015

Eric Ambler is one of the fathers of the modern thriller. The Levanter was published near the end of his writing career. The novel won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award.

Lewis Prescott is a foreign correspondent based in Paris. On a trip to Lebanon, he is offered the opportunity to interview a Palestinian leader named Salah Ghaled. The invitation comes from Melanie Hammad, who met Prescott and his wife in Paris. Ghaled leads a splinter group that has been condemned by the PLO, the PFLP, and the governments of Jordan and Lebanon. Prescott worries that profiling him will elevate the stature of a man who is unrepresentative of the Palestinian guerrilla movement, but his editor is curious to know how Ghaled’s group is being financed.

As the interview is being conducted, Michael Howell is in Syria, dealing with his family business, a wide-ranging enterprise that deals in agriculture, shipping and international trade. Howell’s Syrian assets have been frozen. He makes a number of business deals with the Syrians in an effort to recoup his losses. I don’t have a head for business but I enjoyed reading about Howell’s strategies. Ambler adds credibility to the story with details about mundane topics such as ceramic production, the differences between dry and wet batteries, and how to clean barnacles from a large schooner. How Ambler managed to make all of that interesting I can’t explain, but he does.

Howell eventually discovers that his difficulty earning a profit is the least of his problems. Circumstances beyond his control place Howell and one of his factories under the control of terrorist Ghaled. Howell soon finds himself in the middle of a plot against Israel. Whether he cooperates or not, his future does not look bright. The novel’s tension builds with Howell’s frustration as people who should show an interest in helping him appear to be indifferent to whether he lives or dies.

Most of the novel is focused on Howell, a character who finds himself caught in an impossible situation. Prescott’s contribution to the story is to offer an objective view of Howell’s actions, given that Howell’s primary concern (apart from staying alive) is the future of his family business.

The plot is not overtly political but it does take a pointed view of how nations and groups seek to blame each other, and to seek reprisals against nations, for private actions taken by individuals that are not sanctioned by any government. That isn’t fair to anybody and it isn’t useful, but it is how the world worked when The Levanter was written and it remains an accurate view of how the world works today.

The novel’s pace increases steadily as it moves from a story of thought to one of action. I enjoyed The Levanter for its wealth of detail and for its conflicted characters, while the plot stands up nicely given the continuing relevance of stories about terrorism.



Sins as Scarlet by Nicolás Obregón

First published in Great Britain in 2018; published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books  on December 18, 2018

Crime novelists who set stories in LA automatically reach for noir because, for all the hopes it offers, LA is “a city of despair, a city that never tired of rejecting those within it, a city of unclaimed dead.” I admired the evocative prose Nicolás Obregón uses to describe Skid Row and other dark environs in the City of Angels, but I was particularly impressed by Obregón’s ability to paint Mexico and the American border in the same dark detail. The desert opens the reader’s mind to a different kind of noir: “In the desert, there was no cooperation with any kind of force beyond death.” Sins as Scarlet, the second novel to feature Kosuke Iwata, is noir at its best.

Obregón introduced Kosuke Itawa in Blue Light Yokohama. The Tokyo homicide detective who graduated from the LAPD Academy has returned to LA in search of a new life as a private investigator. He has reunited with his mother but has not forgiven her for abandoning him as a child. The story eventually forces Kosuke to understand his mother’s actions and to deal with those feelings, while the reader is given added insight into Kosuke's mother in flashbacks to the mother’s life while she was still young.

Kosuke’s American wife Cleo had been in a persistent vegetative state when he left Japan. She died two years later. There’s more to that horrific story, and Iwata blames himself for his wife’s fate. Now Kosuke is having an affair with a married woman because being with her is his only chance to say something real to someone.

When Cleo’s mother insists that he investigate the murder of her other child, Iwata feels he has no choice. Charlotte Nichol’s son Julian transitioned and became Meredith before she was killed. Meredith had a pimp named Talky but Talky’s death strikes Iwata as being too convenient. He thinks Meredith was the victim of a serial killer, a suspicion that builds when he learns about other transgender homicide victims.

The plot takes Kosuke to Mexico, where he risks his life to piece together parts of the puzzle while meeting hopeful people who will end up “swallowed by the dream of a better life.” A scene that has Kosuke crossing the desert with a coyote and a group of undocumented immigrants is vivid and harrowing.

The crime that Kosuke eventually uncovers is too over-the-top to resonate as a realistic conspiracy, but that’s so common in modern thrillers that I was willing to accept it for the sake of enjoying a good story. And the story is very good. I particularly liked the way Obregón twists the plot to explain Meredith’s otherwise inexplicable murder.

Obregón made an old plot seem new by adding a fresh protagonist and intertwining the LA story with flashbacks to Kosuke’s life in Tokyo. Kosuke was sick of himself in Tokyo and he’s sick of himself in LA. He’s a perfect noir detective, the kind of damaged protagonist who struggles to be decent in an indecent world. Some scenes, including a depiction of Japanese death rituals, are quite touching. The novel moves quickly when it should, but lingers when the reader needs a break to think about the story and what it teaches. Sins as Scarlet is easily one of the finest examples of noir to appear in recent years.



Yard Dog by A.G. Pasquella

Published in Canada by Dundurn on November 24, 2018

In the tradition of The Sopranos, Yard Dog is propelled by violence but fueled by characterization. Jack Palace is out of jail. A gangster named Tommy wants to get him back into the life, going on routes with his men as they collect debts. In the tradition of stories about aging gangsters, Jack is tired of the life. He’s at war with his sense of fatalism. Another character calls him delusional for believing that he’s not a gangster. He probably is delusional but his attempt to discern a faint line between right and wrong makes him an interesting guy.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to improve the way Tommy does business, but problems arise when Tommy wants Jack to collect debts that are owed to Tommy’s father, particularly a debt owed by a hit man who isn’t inclined to recognize Tommy’s authority to collect on his father’s behalf. A struggle for power dictated by mob politics threatens Tommy’s position as dueling mobsters wait for Tommy’s hospitalized father to draw his last breath.

One thing leads to another in this fast-moving story, and before the novel’s midway point mobsters are at war with other mobsters — or at least they’re at war with Jack, who can do more damage with a bag full of knives than most platoons can do with serious weaponry. Jack prefers knives because they’re clean and accurate; innocent people don’t get killed in the crossfire.

The plot in Yard Dog isn’t complex — lots of people want to kill Jack and he needs to solve that problem, sometimes by killing his assailants — but the point of a crime novel like Yard Dog is to raise the reader’s adrenalin level without making the reader leave the couch. The story easily accomplishes that goal. The ending is satisfying if not entirely unexpected.

Yard Dog isn’t a comedy but it has some very funny moments, at least for readers who aren’t disturbed by the humor of psychopaths. Some of the creative rants in which gangsters indulge made me laugh out loud. The story is also written with some heart. The fact that people find themselves in positions that require a certain amount of killing doesn’t necessarily make them incapable of feeling emotions or of following an ethical code. A.G. Pasquella imagines stone cold killers who have a sensitive side, killers who pursue revenge killings not from a sense of tradition but because they loved the people for whom they exact revenge. That doesn’t make revenge a morally sound choice, but it humanizes the characters who decide to pursue it. On the other hand, some of the characters are just being true to their violent natures.

Yard Dog features a few brief but graphic sex scenes. Readers who are disturbed by the thought of other people enjoying sex might want to find something else to read. Readers who are disturbed by violence probably won’t want to pick up a crime novel, much less this one. On the other hand, readers who enjoy an intelligent take on gangster fiction might want to give Yard Dog a try.



The New Inheritors by Kent Wascom

Published by Grove Press on July 10, 2018

The New Inheritors combines a love story with a family drama that focuses on a couple of decades in the lives of people who are family by blood or marriage. It is the third in a series of connected novels, but the story is self-contained. Some of the story is a tale of sibling rivalry, or at least siblings who have homicidal intent. Another aspect of the story addresses an outsider who joins the family but is never part of it. The novel echoes Dickens in its juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, of innocence and those who prey on the innocent, but The New Inheritors is far from a melodrama.

A child named Isaac is born in a New Orleans tenement. His mother, caught up in religious fervor, takes him to Tallahassee in 1891 to await the end of the world. They are accompanied by a woman who loves Isaac’s mother but, because she loves Isaac more, rescues him from the clutches of a religious cult. Fate separates them and, at age four, Isaac encounters religion again, this time at a Baptist school where charity is accompanied by the belief “that behind each life was a sin-steeped story ending in either redemption or damnation — more often, the latter.”

A bit later in the story, having been adopted by the Pattersons, Isaac is back in New Orleans. Thanks to a capsized sailboat, he finds himself on the private island of the Woolsacks, a rich family consisting of a Prussian husband, his Cuban wife, and their three children. Much of the story’s drama centers on the Woolsack family.

By 1914, Isaac is getting involved with Kemper Woolsack, who is a bit of a mess, like many rebellious children of wealthy and judgmental parents. With a bit of help, Isaac is able to study art. He shows promise until World War I when the zealots in Biloxi who take note of Isaac’s refusal to register for the draft delay any hope that Isaac might have for a better life. The bulk of the story finishes in 1919, although the novel ends with glimpse of the characters’ futures.

Key characters in addition to Isaac and Kemper include Angel Woolsack, who hides his secrets by reinventing himself; Rule Chandler, who is smarter than a black man in the South is allowed to be at the end of World War I; and Red Woolsack, whose resentment that his sister Kemper controls part of the family fortune becomes a driving force toward the novel’s end.

The New Inheritors is a solid novel, but it never quite soars in the imagination. Its evocative prose captures the spirit of the early twentieth century and its characters are convincing, but the wandering plot at times seems lost. The story appears to be headed toward a powerful moment that, upon arrival, is surprisingly subdued. Kent Wascom’s robust prose and strong characterization is a sufficient reason to admire The New Inheritors, but the prose masks a detachment from the story’s potential power. None of that dissuades me from recommending The New Inheritors to readers who admire the beauty of language for its own sake.



The Red House by Derek Lambert

First published in Great Britain in 1972; published by HarperCollins Crime Club on November 2, 2017

The Red House is a novel of cold war intrigue, published at a time when the cold war was still raging. It isn’t a traditional spy novel, although the KGB and CIA play important roles in the story. Rather, The Red House is the story of a Russian’s disillusionment with the Soviet system and a young American’s disillusionment with a government (and father) who want him to put patriotism ahead of love.

Diplomat Vladimir Zhukov arrives in United States in 1968, newly appointed as the Soviet Union’s second secretary. Two KGB minders are determined to keep Zhukov from enjoying the decadent American pleasures that might tempt him to defect. The Soviet ambassador, on the other hand, is a bit more trusting — but not so trusting that he forgets how the game is played.

Zhukov is asked to spy on anyone of interest, while the Americans ask a Brit named Massingham to cozy up to Zhukov. Massingham’s bored wife wants to cozy up to Zhukov for reasons of her own. Her taste for seduction has served Massingham well in the past.

Meanwhile, Zhukov’s daughter Natasha is trying to adjust to her time in decadent D.C., including the unexpected attention of the dashing Charlie Hardin, who is doing a favor for his father, an FBI agent. Natasha appreciates the freedom the US offers, despite her reservations about American politics and poverty. Feelings traditionally get in the way of duty in spy novels that feature a spy who becomes sexually involved with a target, and that theme eventually animates the novel’s plot.

The novel reflects the hawk/dove division of 1968, the fear that southeast Asian governments will fall to communism like dominos in the absence of an American presence in Vietnam versus rejection of such a dubious theory as justification for so many pointless American deaths. The hawk/dove division is also represented by the justifiable concern that the Soviet Union would use military force to suppress dissenters in Czechoslovakia. Those issues contribute to the respective moral dilemmas that Charlie and Zhukov experience as the novel gains steam.

The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, in fact, gives Zhukov reason to question his patriotism as he watches tanks roll into Prague on televisions in various New York bars, seeing hope in the faces of young men standing up for change. The novel makes the point that in a city like New York, a city built by the labor of immigrants, a Russian can sit in a certain kind of bar with Germans and Americans and Australians and enjoy the alcohol-fueled fellowship of humanity, a fellowship that is unimpaired by the political differences of their nations’ rulers. In a different kind of bar, however, political philosophies mix less easily, as Zhukov discovers in one of the plot’s turning points.

The Red House is about nationalism and loyalty, political conflict and conflicts of the heart. The novel moves at a deliberate pace — too deliberate in the first half, as the story meanders while establishing the characters in an abundance of detail. Yet tension begins to mount in the last third of the novel as Zhukov finds himself cornered both by his reaction to world events and by a moment of poor judgment. Derek Lambert avoids tugging at the reader’s heartstrings, but there is both sadness and satisfaction in an ending that allows the power of love and the ugliness of politics to coexist.


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