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.

Monday
Nov112019

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

Published by Doubleday on November 12, 2019

The Innocents tells a powerful story of a brother and sister, orphaned and young, alone together, who withstand the threats of nature while trying to make sense of a world they are ill-prepared to understand. The man-against-nature theme is coupled with the theme of innocence and the potential misfortune that accompanies ignorance.

A boy named Evered Best, his sister Ada, and their parents live alone on the Newfoundland coast. They capture seals and catch fish, trading their catch for supplies that are delivered by a ship that only appears once a year. Illness takes the mother one winter and the father soon follows, leaving the children alone in the world. They have rarely met another person. Mary Owen in Mockbeggar, a day away by rowboat, helped their mother deliver a baby named Martha who died in infancy. She was their only point of contact with the outside world.

When spring comes, their supplies are nearly gone and the children are not sure how to go about assuring their survival. They have never left home and have nothing but each other to rely upon. Evered wasn’t old enough to visit the supply ship so he doesn’t know what to expect when it next appears. The ship’s captain is a former church official who might be cheating the Bests — he claims they never trade enough fish to pay the debt they owe for supplies — but he doesn’t seem like a ruthless man. Yet Evered is “just a youngster playing at being a man” who fears that he might not have what it takes to follow in his father’s footsteps, even if the captain is generous in his extension of credit.

While all of the novel’s characters live the hard lives of workers who scrape out an existence, they are all fundamentally decent. The captain wants the children to survive, as do a couple of other helpful people who encounter the children during the course of the story. One of those is a traveler named John Warren, who shows kindness to both Evered and Ada, although Evered isn’t sure that Warren can be trusted with Ada. At the same time, he isn’t sure what not trusting a man with a woman might entail.

The story is one of hardship and hard work that children should scarcely be able to endure. Their discovery of a shipwreck and the horrors it contains frightens them even more than Ada’s first menstruation. A story that a sailor tells about an evil deed done by a man Evered suspects was his father introduces another element of uncertainty into their shifting world.

The story bases much of its drama on the innocence of the two children as they move from preteens to their teen years without learning anything about life beyond survival skills. As they huddle together for warmth at night in their unheated cabin, Evered and Ada both feel the unspoken shame of Evered’s erection. “Shame and pleasure,” Ada thinks, “were the world’s currencies.” They don’t understand the urges they feel — they have no concept of how babies are made — and the reader fears the potential consequences of their innocent ignorance.

The brother and sister would die for each other, yet they hardly know how to confide their fears. Evered’s suspicions about Warren seem to change him, Ada thinks; “she was beginning to suspect a person might not be one simple thing, uniform and constant.” Perhaps they are not enough for each other. “They had all their lives been the one thing the other looked to first and last, the one article needed to feel complete whatever else was taken from them or mislaid in the dark.” One of the key dramatic questions is whether they brother and sister will spend their entire lives together in their isolated cabin, or whether they might look for something more, perhaps in Mockbeggar or even the more distant places that they cannot begin to imagine.

Apart from the intensity of its characterizations, The Innocents is remarkable for its creation of a sense of place. The dangers of isolated living — the threat posed by bears, steel traps capable of breaking a hunter’s leg, unexpected storms that could sink a rowboat, ice that might give way while hunting seal — are illustrated in vivid detail. There is always some vague horror lurking on the horizon, but the greatest horror comes from what Evered and Ada, in their innocence, might do to each other. In that regard, The Innocents combines all the hallmarks of a literary novel with the tension that accompanies a thriller.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Friday
Nov082019

The Hard Stuff by David Gordon

Published by Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press on July 2, 2019

This is the second book to feature Joe Brody, following The Bouncer. The story begins with Joe helping his boss, Gio Caprisi, clean up a loose ends from the first novel, a cleaning job that leaves a trail of dead bodies (not Joe’s fault, really). That chapter recaps the first novel so The Hard Stuff can easily be read as a standalone. I nevertheless recommend reading The Bouncer first, because it is — like The Hard Stuff — a fun book.

Joe’s efforts in the early pages invite the attention of an attractive FBI agent named Donna, who can’t decide whether to arrest Joe or take him to bed. She was in the same quandary by the end of The Bouncer. Joe knows what he wants to do, but since a hookup seems unlikely, he instead goes to bed with his Russian friend Yalena, another returning character from the first book. Yalena cracks safes and, like Joe, has a talent for killing people. Odd, then, that they are both such likable characters.

The plot, as in the first novel, has Joe thwarting terrorists. He has to do something redemptive, after all, or readers might not want to give him their time. The terrorists have come to the US to sell a large quantity of drugs that they stole overseas. They want to be paid in diamonds. That doesn’t make much sense, but never mind. The book is fun; it doesn’t need to make sense.

Joe’s mission is to steal a bunch of diamonds, use them to buy the drugs, then steal back the diamonds, all to thwart the terrorists. It might be easier just to steal the drugs and/or kill the terrorists, but that wouldn’t be as entertaining.

Crime fans always enjoy a well-planned jewel heist. That caper is followed by various armed confrontations, chase scenes, fights, and light-hearted mayhem. Joe’s relationships with Yalena and Donna add a touch of sex and potential romance, while action and snappy dialog keep the story moving at a suitable pace. Collateral characters, including Joe’s mobbed-up mom and his cross-dressing boss, contribute to the fun. The two novels in this series push all the right buttons for crime fiction fans, making The Hard Stuff easy to recommend.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Nov062019

The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon

Published by Atria Books on November 5, 2019

The first two-thirds of The Accomplice seems like a well-written story with a mediocre plot. Then the plot takes off, producing the kind of tension and moral quandaries that are the strength of spy fiction.

The novel is set in 1962. Aaron Wiley is an American. His uncle is Max Weill. Max is an Auschwitz survivor. He lives in Hamburg, a location he uses as a base for tracking down Nazi war criminals. Max wants Aaron to take over the cause, but Aaron professes to be content with his work in America as an intelligence analyst.

While Max is pleading his case to Aaron in Hamburg, Max thinks he sees Otto Schramm and promptly has a heart attack. But everyone knows that Schramm died in Argentina. Maybe Max is getting old. And he doesn’t claim to recognize the face. It is the way the man was walking that convinced Max he was looking at Schramm. Max was a young doctor during the war. Schramm let him live, but Max will never forget the things that Schramm made him do at Auschwitz. He is confident that he will never forget Schramm's swagger.

Schramm’s body was identified by a person and by dental records, but all of that might have been faked. Perhaps Schramm felt the need to disappear (again) after Israeli agents kidnapped Eichmann from a street in Buenos Aires. But why would he risk a return to Hamburg? With the help of one of Max’s friends, Aaron discovers a possible answer.

The story takes Aaron to Buenos Aires, where Schramm’s daughter lives. Predictably, Aaron finds himself in a steamy relationship with the daughter, because the protagonist’s inability to keep it in his pants is nearly inevitable in a spy novel. He also meets anti-Semitic priests and diplomats who are well positioned in Argentina, the kind of people who might help Schramm begin his third life.

The plot seems like a mundane Nazi-hunter story until it takes an unexpected twist. At that point, Aaron must confront difficult moral questions. If Schramm is indeed hiding in Argentina, what should be done about it? Israel kidnapped Eichmann so that he could be tried and executed. Is it justifiable to violate international law and national sovereignty to capture a war criminal? If Schramm cannot be kidnapped and spirited out of Argentina  for a trial (a second offense that might not reflect well on Israel), is it morally acceptable to kill him? Is murder justice or vengeance? Does the fact that Schramm is a Nazi war criminal make a difference in how that question is answered? Does it matter that some of the people who directed Schramm's actions are still in Germany and are to powerful ever to answer for their crimes?

One of the characters asks whether a trial would make Israel any safer than a publicized killing. Another suggests that without a trial, the only definition of justice is: “Who has the gun?”  On the other hand, is there a moral distinction between a trial with a preordained outcome and a murder? Perhaps a trial in Germany rather than Israel might be perceived as more just (Schramm, after all, committed no crime in Israel), although the judicial bias in Germany might simply run in a different direction.

Does it matter that any action taken against Schramm will have a profound effect on his innocent daughter? Eichmann was displayed in a glass cage during his trial, a humiliation that Schramm’s daughter would feel deeply if Schramm meets the same fate.

And what if some other use might be made of Schramm? The US has a history of cozying up with notorious killers, including Klaus Barbie, if it serves someone’s concept of national security. Does justice always require death or imprisonment, or might it be better to find a use for a war criminal?

Joseph Kanon gives the reader a good bit to think about while telling a story that, by the end, has enough action and suspense to entertain readers who don’t care about the questions it inspires. Because Aaron struggles to do what he deems morally right, even if it means defying his employer, he is the kind of principled character who is easy to like — whether or not the reader agrees with his moral choices. The winning combination of action, characterization, and close examination of moral issues makes The Accomplice one of the year’s smartest thrillers.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Nov042019

The Siberian Dilemma by Martin Cruz Smith

Published by Simon & Schuster on November 5, 2019

The Siberian Dilemma feels like an interlude in Arkady Renko’s fateful life. He is still involved with Tatiana, a fiercely independent journalist in a dangerous occupation. Tatiana has gone to Siberia to cover the political campaign of an oligarch named Mikhail Kuznetsov. When she does not return to Moscow as expected, Renko worries that something bad might have happened to her. From Renko’s perspective, “something bad” might include a romantic attachment to Kuznetsov.

Renko is therefore pleased, more or less, when Zurin, his boss, sends him to Irkutsk to pick up a Chechen named Aba Makhmud and transport him to a transit prison before prosecuting him and assuring he receives a long sentence. Makhmud has already confessed to attempting to kill Zurin. Renko knows that confessions in Russia are worthless and promptly gets to the bottom of the crime. In the meanwhile, his trip to Irkutsk gives him an opportunity to look for Tatiana.

After dealing with Makhmud, Renko meets Tatiana, Kuznetsov, and Kuznetsov’s friend and business associate, Boris Benz, another oligarch in the oil business. Benz plans to inspect some oil rigs that have been sabotaged. He invites Renko to accompany him so they can hunt bear. As the reader might expect, bear are not the only hunter’s prey on the trip.

The story that Martin Cruz Smith tells in The Siberian Dilemma is a bit more sparse than is typical of his Renko novels. Smith keeps the story in motion and creates tension with vivid scenes in the frigid environs of Siberia, but after setting up a dramatic moment near the novel’s end, Smith resolves it with a fortuitous coincidence that departs from his customary realism. This might be the most contrived ending in the series. For that reason, it is less powerful than most of the other Renko novels.

My complaint about the ending doesn’t stop me from recommending the novel. As he has been developed over the course of nine novels, Arkady Renko is one of the most complex and sympathetic characters in crime fiction. Mild disappointment with the plot didn’t prevent me from enjoying Arkady’s most recent battle with Russian corruption or from cheering his reunion with Tatiana. I’m not sure that any crime fiction character is a more endearing representation of the struggle to overcome adversity than Arkady Renko. Smith always writes from the heart, making even a lesser Renko book a better choice than most crime fiction.

RECOMMENDED

Saturday
Nov022019

Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton

Published by Del Rey on September 4, 2018

There are so many moving parts in Salvation it is difficult to hold them all in memory, and this is only the first book in a trilogy. Part of the story takes place on Juloss in the distant future, a planet that humans have inhabited and mostly abandoned. Dellian and Yirella are training for combat against an enemy that destroys all life in its path. They are members of the first generation of binary humans to be born on the planet. Most humans have fled the galaxy on generation ships, making Juloss the last known planetary home to free humans. The plan is to biomodify the humans who stay behind so they can be sent off on a battleship to fight the enemy.

Juloss has benefitted from technology supplied by a Neána insertion ship, including pet-like biologics called muncs that help them fight. The humans on Juloss believe themselves to be protected by five saints. The five names will eventually become familiar to the reader from parts of the story that are set in the past (although still in the future from the reader’s perspective).

And who are the Neána? They help emerging sentients resist the aforementioned alien threat. As the book begins, they insert four artificially created humans on Earth.

Most of the story takes place about 200 years in the future. Humans have figured out how to take advantage of quantum entanglement, allowing instant travel to any place that has a portal, including other planets. The quantumly entangled portals are built, maintained, and controlled by a ridiculously wealthy company called Connexion, which provides a handy app to help people map a walking route from portal to portal until they reach their eventual destination. Cars, airplanes, and hotels are largely obsolete, at least on developed planets. Walking is the new flying.

Aliens called the Olyix are visiting Earth, having made a refueling stop on their journey to the end of the universe, where they expect to find a reborn God. The Olyix travel on an arkship called Salvation of Life. They trade technology in exchange for electricity that helps them make antimatter. The technology they supply the Earth includes Kcells, which are something like a cheap version of stem cells, enabling longer lifespans and possibly more (the “more” includes rumors of brain transplant technology).

Most of the novel is taken up in the creation of those future histories, particularly the one that takes place in the nearer future. The one that takes place on Juloss in the distant future is likely to be the focus of later novels.

The novel is episodic, reading as if a bunch of short stories set in the same universe were stitched together to make a novel. Some of the stories deal with renditions, which have replaced trials, at least for serious crimes and political dissidents. Renditions are rather arbitrarily imposed by Yuri Alster, the Connexion officer who runs security. Yuri gives an impassioned speech about the need for rendition that could have been penned by Dick Cheney.

Other episodes investigate a nonhuman starship that appears to have crashed on a planet that Connexion might want to terraform. Inside the starship are hibernation chambers holding humans who might have been kidnapping victims. Leading an ultra-secret team of the Earth’s wealthiest interests to investigate the starship is Feriton Kayne, deputy director of the security division of Connexion. Alster and Callum Hepburn are also part of the team.

There’s a lot going on here. Maybe too much is going on for the story to cohere. Some of the episodes, including a series that features a mercenary known as Cancer, might have worked better as short stories set in the same universe. The episodes come across as filler in a novel that has more than ample content without adding subplots that do little to advance the plot. Still, Peter Hamilton can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition.

Salvation is driven more by action and ideas than by characters, none of whom are developed in great depth. While the novel reads like a group of stories that are intended to set up future volumes in the trilogy, the detailed future that Hamilton imagines is intriguing. Readers will need to commit to reading all the books, as Salvation is not a self-contained story. Given the imaginative background that Hamilton created, that’s a commitment I will gladly make. The second book was recently released and I plan to review it soon.

RECOMMENDED