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.

Entries in Douglas Preston (6)

Monday
Aug192019

Old Bones by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Published by Grand Central Publishing on August 20, 2019

Dr. Nora Kelly is an archeologist who has appeared in the authors’ Pendergast novels. Clive Benton has studied the history of the Donner Party, whose ill-fated trip to the Sierra Nevada included cannibalism. After acquiring Tamzene Donner’s lost journal, Benton wants Nora to lead an expedition to find the Lost Camp, the only camp of stranded Donner Party members that was never found. Benton also hopes to find a large quantity of gold coins.

Corrine Swanson is a new FBI agent, although she is also in the Pendergast stable of characters. She’s assigned to investigate a murder at a Civil War graveyard on federal property. The victim was hired to dig up a grave and was killed by his employers after they stole half of the body he uncovered. Further investigation reveals that graves of other individuals of common ancestry have been disinterred, that a woman in that same genealogical line has gone missing, and that another person in that line, Albert Parkin, was part of the Donner Party.

Old Bones tells a familiar story of an archeological dig, conducted by Nora and a couple of archeology students, with Benton acting as an advisor. A few additional characters guide the archeologists into the mountains and help them set up camp. Eventually, someone disturbs the bones they find, some bones are stolen, someone dies, and Swanson rides in on horseback to investigate.

Also familiar is Swanson’s status as a plucky rookie who pieces together information about grave robbers and is certain she’s on the trail of a serious crime, while her jaded boss wants her to end the investigation and devote her time to provable crimes. The story takes a supernatural twist when a character claims to have seen a ghost, presumably the ghost of a child who was unhappy she didn’t receive a proper burial after her leg was eaten. The ghost (or at least a floating green light) helps out the characters on a couple of occasions. I guess readers who like ghosts will appreciate the spectral addition, but it seemed out of place to me.

The plot generates little suspense. The wrongdoer’s identity is fairly obvious. Preston and Child make a halfhearted attempt to mislead the reader as to the wrongdoer’s motivation, but the reader would have to ignore half the plot to fall for it. Old Bones does manage a couple of surprises near the end, although the eventual explanation for the disinterred bodies is too farfetched to take seriously.

I’ve enjoyed most of Preston & Child’s Pendergast novels (Pendergast makes a cameo in the epilog, and his brief appearance is the best part of the story). I’ve been less satisfied by their other offerings, most of which are weaker than the Pendergast series. They have a tendency in those novels to fuel formulaic stories with stock characters and stale ideas. Characters are made sympathetic in predictable ways (Carrie’s unfortunate childhood makes her reach out to another kid with an unfortunate childhood, an unimaginative way of encouraging the reader to feel good about her) but they suffer from a lack of multiple dimensions.

Still, character development isn’t terribly important in a thriller if the plot excites. This one doesn’t. Preston & Child wield the thriller formula with skill, so their novels are always easy to read. Dedicated Preston & Child fans might enjoy Old Bones, but there are better choices on the thriller market.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Aug032018

The Pharaoh Key by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Published by Grand Central Publishing on June 12, 2018

Gideon Crew, for reasons explained in earlier books in this series, has only two months to live. Gideon and his co-workers are fired from their operative-adventurer gigs for reasons that also relate to earlier books. Gideon is cleaning out his desk with co-worker Garza when a computer pings with the solution to a decoding problem it’s been working on for five years. After futzing around to figure out what the solution means, Gideon and Garza head to the Hala’ib Triangle in Egypt, one of the world’s most desolate spots, where the secret of the Phaistos Disk is hidden.

To get to the world’s most desolate spot, Gideon and Garza share camels with a British woman who may or may not be the geologist/anthropologist that she claims to be. The story then lurches from one adventure to another, as our dynamic duo plus one deal with water shortages, sandstorms, captivity, trials by fire, fistfights, knife fights, gun fights, tigers, fights with tigers, and other ordeals (including a tribal custom that involving wedding a teen virgin, which might not be an ordeal but isn’t on Garza’s bucket list).

There is a certain familiarity/predictability to the storyline. Preston and Child mention H. Rider Haggard, perhaps as a hat-tip for Haggard’s pioneering work in the Lost World genre, from which The Pharaoh Key heavily borrows. The novel is also like an Indiana Jones movie without the special effects: life-threatening situation, followed by narrow escape, followed by another life-threatening situation, followed by another narrow escape, and so on. The life-threatening situations give Gideon multiple opportunities to fret that he expected to die soon but not in quite the way he anticipates dying before the next narrow escape comes along, sparing him until a new threat causes him to fret about the way he is about to die.

The plot is like popcorn; each kernel is tasty but eating to the bottom of the bag isn’t filling or nutritious, in part because Preston and Child fail to bring much imagination to the pattern in which they plow the ground. The ending is not nearly as surprising as the authors intended; it seemed to be to the most likely outcome.

I did, however, like the way Preston and Child used the theoretical link between Pharaoh Akhenaten (one of the first adherents of a monotheistic religion) and Moses, who may have been inspired by Akhenaten to champion Israelite monotheism. And while the adventure story is ordinary, it does have entertaining moments. I can’t recommend The Pharaoh Key with enthusiasm, but Preston and Child fans will want to read it just to find out what happens next in the adventurous life of Gideon Crew.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Nov092016

The Obsidian Chamber by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Published by Grand Central Publishing on October 18, 2016

The last Pendergast novel ended with another cliffhanger, as Pendergast was swept out to sea. Since the series didn’t end, it isn’t a spoiler to suggest that Pendergast might still be alive, perhaps held captive by smugglers who pursue an improbable scheme to trade Pendergast for a prisoner in FBI custody. Of course, the smugglers don’t realize just how formidable Pendergast might be.

Much of the story focuses not on Pendergast, but on other characters. The Obsidian Chamber begins with the kidnapping of Constance Greene from Pendergast’s home. Characters in a Pendergast novel seem to have trouble staying dead, as evidenced by the character, presumed dead, who takes Constance. In the absence of Pendergast, it falls to his loyal servant Proctor to give chase.

And give chase he does, first by plane and then by Land Rover, using wits and a bag full of cash to stay, it seems, on the heels of Constance’s captor as he travels between and across continents. The fun factor triggered my willingness to suspend disbelief of the events described in those chapters. They are, in fact, by far the best chapters in the book. Unfortunately, when the chase peters out, Proctor disappears, leaving Constance to carry the story. That was a disappointing choice.

Pendergast, Constance, and Proctor are apparently the smartest and toughest people in the world. To a degree, they are intriguing because they are so far removed from common experience, and their knowledge of history and science and unusual meditative practices adds intellectual interest to the story. At the same time, Proctor is the only character I care about, and his role in the novels is limited. For that reason, while I generally enjoy the series, I lack the emotional investment in the Pendergast novels that I have made in other crime novels with recurring characters.

There is more melodrama in The Obsidian Chamber than I expect from a Pendergast novel. By the time the predictable ending rolls around, melodrama has overwhelmed the story. While The Obsidian Chamber doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, it does leave an issue unresolved that might tempt the authors to continue a disappointing storyline at some point in the future. I’d be happier if they killed Constance, cut out the family melodrama entirely, and returned Pendergast to a crime fighting role with an able assist from Proctor. I liked some of The Obsidian Chamber, but not enough to give it an enthusiastic recommendation. Preston and Child do marvelous research and fill their novels with interesting factoids, so I will keep reading them, but with the fond hope that the authors have put silly storylines behind them and are preparing to venture into more gripping territory.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
May232016

Beyond the Ice Limit by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Published by Grand Central Publishing on May 17, 2016

Beyond the Ice Limit is a sequel to The Ice Limit. It seems like the kind of book that is written for the purpose of selling movie rights. In fact, it would probably be an entertaining movie. It has a good amount of action and the kind of Earth-threatening alien monster that Hollywood producers adore. Books, on the other hand, give readers a chance to sit back and think about whether we’re willing to accept a ridiculous premise. I enjoyed Beyond the Ice Limit, but it really pushed the boundaries of my willingness to suspend disbelief.

Due to events described in The Ice Limit, a 25,000 ton alien seed sprouted on the ocean floor near Antarctica. The people who know of (and are partially responsible for) this event want to nuke the alien plant. They enlist Gideon Crew’s help because he’s an expert at nuking things.

The plot’s huge gap in logic (without revealing too much) involves how the alien propagates itself. To fulfill their destiny, the meteorite-size seeds need to sail aimlessly through space until they crash into a planet with an ocean (apparently any ocean will do). But the planet must be populated by creatures with compatible brains (human brains, for instance) and those brains must come into contact with the underwater seed that sprouts from the meteorite. Now how often is that going to happen? As a propagation strategy, this one seems unlikely to work even once.

Plot tidbits include a huge alien mouth capable of inhaling submarines, the voice of an apparently dead person transmitted underwater several seconds after the death occurs, perfectly preserved underwater corpses (except for the ones that are headless), whale songs in translation, and alien worms that take over human bodies. The “aliens take over humans” thing has been done so often that I was disappointed to see it recycled here. In fact, too much of Beyond the Ice Limit seems like an unoriginal reboot of half-century old Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episodes.

Having expressed my reservations, let me say that I enjoyed reading Beyond the Ice Limit despite its faults. It moves quickly, the action is reasonably exciting, and key characters are sympathetic. I particularly liked the epilogue, which displays more originality and depth than the rest of the novel. Because there are so many thrillers available that are better than this one, however, I can give Beyond the Ice Limit only a guarded recommendation.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Nov092015

Crimson Shore by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Published by Grand Central Publishing on November 10, 2015

New York has been depressingly free of serial murders, but a stolen wine collection in New England gets Pendergast’s attention -- or, rather, the opportunity to earn a rare bottle of wine as a fee gets his investigative juices flowing. Of course, the investigation quickly reveals a more serious crime, one that inspires allusions to Poe. And of course, murders and mutilated corpses soon follow, giving Pendergast the chance to probe the kind of weirdness he relishes.

Constance Greene plays Watson to Pendergast’s Sherlock. I’m not sure what Constance sees in Pendergast (perhaps she admires his ability to move “like a snake” with “feline grace,” “more nimble than any bullfighter,” and with the “uncanny ability to move without sound”), but her burgeoning desire for him plays a key role in the story.

Also playing a role is the dark history of Massachusetts. Shipwrecks, economic downturns in the whaling industry, troubled race relations, and the Salem witch trials are among the historical tidbits that contribute to the plot. Local legends of witchcraft and ghosts of sailors lost at sea add a supernatural element that is customary in Pendergast novels.

Pendergast’s investigation introduces him to several residents in a small New England town. Those characters are crafted with the authors’ usual deft touch. As always, the story moves at a good pace, occasionally enlivened by fights and other action scenes.

Pendergast is a pretentious sun-of-a-gun and therefore not always the most likable of protagonists, but in Crimson Shore his pretensions are less overbearing than usual. I always like the prose and the plot in these novels more than I like Pendergast, but touches of humor soften his disagreeable nature during the novel’s first half.

Pendergast takes advantage of his ability to see into the past, a superpower disguised as meditation that has always seemed a little odd in these novels, although it is certainly a convenient way to solve crime. Shouldn’t Pendergast’s Sherlockian deductive ability be enough to carry the plot?

The story seems to reach a conclusion with nearly a third of the book remaining. At that point it branches off in a new and, I thought, less satisfying direction. That was a bit disappointing to me (it pushed the boundaries of credibility almost as much as Pendergast’s ability to see the past) but other readers may well have a different reaction.

The ending is unresolved and is clearly meant to set up the next novel, which always strikes me as a cheap way to sell more books. On the whole, I liked the first two-thirds of the story and I always enjoy the authors’ prose, but Crimson Shore isn’t one of my favorite entries in the series.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS