Category: General Fiction

“The Vain Conversation” by Anthony Grooms Review

Vain conversation

The Vain Conversation

Author:  Anthony Grooms

Published:  2018

I ain’t the one to tell you to go or not to go. You the only one can do that. But I can tell you this. It ain’t so easy as you might think to kill a man… If you go, even if you don’t so much as throw a pebble, you are in it as much as the man who ties the noose. You might just be a bystander, but nobody is innocent, son.

In 1946, two black couples were lynched in Georgia. The Vain Conversation by Anthony Grooms is inspired by those events but is also an entirely original story. Told through the perspective of three characters, Grooms is able to to focus a tragic story into three compelling narratives from very different perspectives. For those worried about the potentially graphic content, the actual murder of the four individuals is more of an ominous event in either that past or present of the three character’s story arcs.

The first character spotlighted is Lonnie, a young boy whose father has just returned from World War II. The second is Bertrand, a teacher who also has returned from a tour of duty and befriends Lonnie’s father. The third is Jacks, a man that Bertrand trusts but his mother does not. I won’t spoil their roles in the killing of four people. I went into reading this without knowing anything ahead of time and it made for a very tense experience trying to speculate how things would escalate and who would die when they did.

The book is also broken up into four parts. The first three are about one of each of the characters listed above, and the fourth is revisiting two of them decades later. The first and third sections (about Lonnie and Jacks respectively) drew me in instantly and had me very invested in the characters. The second section got a bit more bogged down by a long philosophical discussion between Bertrand and his wife, however it ended in the most tense pages in the entire book.

I was reminded a bit of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing while reading this, as both books jumped around with character perspectives and timelines and dealt prominently with racial issues. I enjoyed this book even more than Homegoingthough as the characters were more fully developed. Insightful commentary on heavy issues (often through common sense dialogue like the quote at the top of this review) is for the most part handled in a way that feels organic. Even when it drifts beyond that, I could forgive it for how thoughtful it was.

Much like the Best Picture Winner Moonlight from a few years back, the last time jump didn’t entirely work for me. The vendetta that young Lonnie has developed over the years did not feel entirely earned and the final few pages ended so abruptly that I had to reread them just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. The result is a near miss from a five star book. Still, for fans of historical fiction, race relations, or thrilling Rashomon style storytelling, The Vain Conversation is a great book and well worth checking out.

4-star

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“Nether Isle” by Nicoline Evans

Nether Isle

Nether Isle

Author:  Nicoline Evans

Published:  2015

I picked up a copy of Nether Isle by Nicoline Evans at C2E2 last month. Ms. Evans had an entire booth promoting the multiple books she had written which was the most impressive independent author set up I’d seen at a comic convention. Her books all featured very beautiful cover artwork and fantastical plot elements that also drew my attention. As a big fan of buying books directly from authors I talked to her for a bit and settled on Nether Isle, which she described as a supernatural story that was also her dad’s favorite book that she’d written to this point. As I was pushing my son around in a stroller at the time, I thought “ah, that’s the one for me.”

More broadly, Nether Isle tells the story of a remote village off the coast of Maine where it seems things are just a bit more depressing and anti-social than normal. The reason for this is quickly revealed, but honestly my favorite part of the book was the reveal so I’m not going to get into it here. The protagonist of the book is Theodore, a teenage boy who recently moved to the neighborhood with his drunken abusive father. Theodore is a loner, never staying anywhere long enough to feel connected to other people. At his new school, he is an outcast until a new student named Bianca arrives. Bianca befriends Theodore and the two immediately begin to get close. Everybody else at school though seems to hate Bianca for no reason, and even adults close to Theodore warn him not to get close to her.

Again, the reveal for what’s wrong with the town and basically everything else happens pretty early on. My favorite parts of the book were Theodore’s discovery of the town’s secret, followed by the progression of his relationship with Bianca. Once Theodore has finally chosen sides about halfway through the book, the remaining story did not maintain the same momentum. The mystery of the early chapters is replaced primarily by training/gathering of allies. While Evans was trying to likely trying to increase the stakes of the story, the opposite effect resulted. The more new characters that were introduced, the less I ended up caring when a terrible fate would befall one of them.

Evans was completely successful however in creating a very memorable and interesting world for the characters to live in. There is an excellent balance of rules of magic for what is going on, and mystery for what becomes of the village’s special residents when they leave. The things I’ll most remember about this book are the distinct settings: the lighthouse, the fish market, the small school. The result was a timeless quality that could exist both before or after the invention of smart phones and the internet. A few other random notes:

  • Cadence, Bianca’s little sister, flipped between one of my favorite characters and one of the most frustrating. It’s hard to imagine how somebody her age and life experiences would act, but the switch between strong willed and victim had be invested and frustrated at the same time.
  • Evans touched on some difficult issues in introducing characters affiliated with tragic events from human history but did a nice job of avoiding their purpose just being shock value.
  • The spell that involves a blessing bothered me when it was introduced. It seemed a bit too flippant to wait until so late in the game to inform Theodore about this alternative, and then the ethics of using it seemed to be given minimal thought. (I suppose you could explain this away by saying the mystery of where its recipient was sent makes it rather pointless, but obviously some of the casters believed it very much mattered.)
  • I got a bookmark for another book by Evans about a man made of stone, and after seeing it every day while reading this book I’ve decided I should track that one down to. Free bookmarks are awesome people!

Overall this was a quick read, even at 463 pages . I would recommend taking some time on the first half of the book and letting the mood and mystery linger before marathon-ing the end. I give this one 3 ½ stars, which I haven’t created barrel artwork for, so I’m forced to make the tough call. There was enough here that I really enjoyed however, that I am definitely down for reading more of Ms. Evans’ books in the future.

3 star

“Rogue Lawyer” by John Grisham Review

Rogue Lawyer

Rogue Lawyer

Author:  John Grisham

Released:  2015

I was loaned this book by another attorney, and I’ve already given him a hard time for overlooking some of the problems I had with this book. Rogue Lawyer is about a defense attorney named Sebastian Rudd who works out of a van because his office has been firebombed. Who firebombed his office? Who knows. Rudd has so many enemies it could have been an angry client, and the cops don’t seem too interested in solving it because maybe they did it themselves? Why is Rudd so hated?

Well, he’s a defense attorney, and that’s enough reason for some of us. (I kid.) In particular though, he’s a defense attorney that specializes in getting his guilty guys off by any means necessary, and exposing the corrupt practices of police officers. Over the course of this book, he’ll represent individuals in several high profile cases. Included among those is an obviously innocent goth druggie accused of murdering two children, an obviously innocent man whose wife was killed when Swat officers raid the wrong house (he is charged for firing a gun back in self defense), and an obviously guilty guy who snaps after losing a cage fight and who beats the referee to death.

In addition to the legal cases, there is also extensive drama in the form of Rudd’s ex-wife who is now a lesbian with a beautiful girlfriend intent on terminating Rudd’s parental rights, a mob boss on the run after escaping death row, and a mystery surrounding a high ranking officer’s pregnant daughter who was abducted from a parking garage. Grisham keeps multiple plot threads going throughout the book, giving a payoff for each one though not necessarily tying them all together. My favorite of the storylines was the case involving the wrongdoing by the SWAT team as it was the sort of event that dealt accurately with the law and was definitely cribbed from real life tragedies. It also lacked most of the problems that I had with the other stories, in that Rudd could actually do something good as a character and help his client out. The attorney on the other side was also handled somewhat sympathetically. (I didn’t think it was realistic that the man would be brought to trial in this case, but if it were brought to trial I thought it was handled realistically.)

By contrast, the criminal case that opened the book had me ready to chuck this in the garbage and I never totally recovered based on that. In a small county, two children die and law enforcement picks up the first creepy guy they can and coerce lies and false evidence to rig a confession. Rudd is forced to smuggle DNA from who the real (obvious) killer is to get his guy off, because law enforcement and the judge had all been unwilling to run any DNA test due to expenses and time. Ok, so I’ve worked in small counties (and in a large one), and one thing I can say definitely is that when a huge case comes through in a small county it is handled extremely cautiously. Small counties don’t deal with a lot of murders, so when they get one they make sure every base is covered so the case doesn’t blow up in their face in the media. The judges are even more likely to be cautious, granting continuances for defense attorneys seeking evidence, as they don’t want to bungle a major case and have it come back on appeal. The only realistic aspect of this part of the book was the fact that the jurors all knew about the case and probably had their mind made up.

So needless to say I had a lot of problem with how Grisham treated the honorable profession of prosecutors in this book. Even Rudd though can’t escape Grisham’s antics of being a dishonorable, despicable character. **Spoilers follow** Late in the book, there’s a confluence of events where a terrible human being gives Rudd information that could save dozens of girls lives. Rudd makes it clear that there it no attorney client privilege in this situation. What does he do? He conditions revealing this information to law enforcement on them giving a deal to his client that is 100% guilty of murder that would basically be a slap on the wrist. I guess the readers are not supposed to care about the good person that was murdered by Rudd’s client or about the many women whose lives are being ruined in captivity, because hey, look at Rudd work his magic. Things don’t work out the way he thinks however, so maybe that’s Grisham’s way of not rewarding all of Rudd’s bad behavior. **End of spoilers**

I tend not to watch legal shows or read legal fiction because the inaccuracies end up driving me up the wall. Odds are a different reader will enjoy this book much more than I did. This was a very fast paced book with plenty of snappy dialogue and slimy characters that will fascinate readers. Just not this one.

2-star

“The Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy Review

Lords of Discipline

The Lords of Discipline

Author:  Pat Conroy

Released:  1980

I was loaned The Lords of Discipline by a friend that attended the Citadel about 40+ years after this book take place. He told me that the book was written by an author that went to the Citadel, and the book (which takes place at a Carolina Military Institute) was somewhat based on the author’s time at the school and revealed all sorts of hidden details that the school and alumni were upset about afterwards. In addition to that, the author was essentially banned from the university for decades. As I learned all this, I thought “I’m probably not going to care much about this book because I didn’t go to the Citadel and didn’t even know it was South Carolina until that same conversation.” Still, never one to turn away from a book recommendation, I went ahead and read the damn thing.

I’m glad I did, because this ended up being one of the best books I’ve read this year. The story is told through first person narrative by Will McLean, an Irish American cadet at the Carolina Military Institute in the 1960’s. He is roommates with Tradd St. Croix, an effeminate aristocrat from Charleston and two Italian Americans named Dante “Pig” Pignetti and Mark Santoro. I included their ethnicities, because a big part of this book is the language that these young men all use with each other, which reminded me of the barbershop scene in “Gran Torino” when every comment made was an insult about somebody’s heritage.  If the language in that scene bothered you, you will probably hate this book.  In the book, the language is often meant to be endearing, but other times it is certainly meant to hurt the recipient.

Will is a senior when the book begins, and most of the book takes place chronologically in that year except for a section that flashes back to his Plebe (freshman) year at school. The school is famous for being hard on the incoming cadets, to the point that out of 700 incoming students only 400 will stay with it through their first year. Conroy details the types of hazing done in that first Hell Night, the rest of Hell Week and the treatment somebody who had been separated from the rest of the class would endure. Unlike seemingly the rest of the upperclassmen, Will is against the hazing rituals and prefers to offer solace for cadets in need. Because of this characteristic, he is asked by Colonel “Bear” Berrineau (an analog for real life figure Colonel Thomas “The Boo” Courvoisie) to make sure that the first ever black cadet is not run out of the school due to extreme targeting.

Although that is the central plot of the book and where much of the conflict comes from, it is also absent from much of the book as Conroy fills in McLean’s world with other coming of age events. Much of that is time spent among the four roommates bonding in the room or taking part in shenanigans. There is also a significant through plot about Will’s courting of a Charleston girl named Annie Kate who has been hidden from the world by her parents for what is certainly the most predictable reason a woman in the 1960’s would be hid from her social circle. Will also plays on his college basketball team, and there is an extended chapter about a game that also was drawn directly from true events in Conroy’s life. Finally, it seems throughout much of the book the individual Will is closest to is Abigail, Tradd’s mother. The two of them have a surrogate mother/confidant relationship.

Despite reading as autobiographical and often humorous, I found much of this book to be very suspenseful. The stress that the cadets go through is palpable, and that even extends to characters that are not part of the core cast. The consequences for making a mistake ranged from physical violence or psychological damage to an excommunication ritual that seemed like the end of the world for those it was imposed on. The antagonists in this book were often mysterious unknown figures. The possibility of a secret group pulling the strings made it difficult for the reader to trust anybody Will confided to.

Oddly, despite the book being suspenseful it was also somewhat predictable. **Vague spoilers follow** From the moment a phone call alerts several dangerous individuals to Will’s nearby presence, it is clear that not only is there a traitor but who in particular it is. Likewise, out of the three main army officers at the school, one of them is never in doubt as not being on Will’s side and it’s hard to believe Will would fall for a trick that makes him discredit another. Finally, Will’s ace in the hole at the end is easy to spot coming based on a character that served no other purpose in the book aside from providing a lot of information about a peculiar hobby. **End of vague spoilers**

However, the predictability did not bother me as it also made sense within the world that was established. Rather than create a twist ending that makes you question everything that took place before, Will experiences a shocking twist that we have predicted based on what information he has shared through that point. The additional twist involving Will’s girlfriend earlier in the book felt like an unnecessary one, however by that point the book had built up enough goodwill that I was willing to overlook it. The end result was a book that was humorous, suspenseful and touching throughout with very memorable characters.

5-star

“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand Review

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged

Author:  Ayn Rand

Released:  1957

Full disclosure: I listened to the audio book of this. It was 63 hours long.

Late in this book, there’s a moment where one of the heroes takes over the radio waves to make a speech about why the great men in this society have all abandoned the masses. It’s an essay on the values of those men, versus the values of the rest of society. The men are tired of having their work, their ideas, and their money taken away from them by individuals who do not work, don’t have ideas, and don’t produce their own wages. It’s the central thesis of the book, and for the most part it is eloquently stated. After the speech, the government panics. More great men join the movement. The government decides that the man that made the speech must be made the dictator of the economy as only he can fix these issues. The man refuses to help, stating the reason why he refuses was laid out in his three hour speech. Sorry Ayn Rand. I just had the speech delivered to me, and it actually took SIX HOURS to listen to.

That’s how the whole book felt. Some very thought provoking arguments were delivered, every good guy was qualified to give a thirty minute statement on the value of the individual, and every conversation felt completely phony and at least twice as long as it should be. Every piece of dialogue in this book felt like that speech. It’s people droning on and on, uninterrupted, while they all fall on one of two sides with no gray area characters in between. All characters are on one of side of the moral absolute or the other. It’s an interesting idea for a book. In execution, I found this to be incredibly tedious.

The plot of Atlas Shrugged (great title) centers on Dagny Taggart, the Vice-President in Charge of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental railways, who is one of the most efficient individuals in the industry. The man in charge of the railroad is her brother James, a worthless inheritor of a company who actively does things that undermine the company. Why would he do that? James has fallen in with several other powerful lobbyist and legislators who actively seek to regulate the industry of the country to 1) preserve the current powerful corporations from their upstart competitors and 2) make sure that revenues also go to those in need and not just that that produce. The novel is also populated by remarkable men® who want to have sex with Dagny, including copper magnate Francisco d’Anconia, steel tycoon Hank Rearden, Dagny’s right hand man Eddie Willers, and the mysterious reputations of Ragnar Danneskjold and John Galt.

Each man (and Dagny) in the previous paragraph (except for her brother James) is the exact same man, with the exact same ideals, just at different points in the same chronological storyline. The prodigy becomes the millionaire becomes the rebel becomes the revolutionary. The antagonists in the book are all interchangeable as well. Each villain is a individual confident making laws that take things away from successful people, but who literally panic or freeze if somebody challenges their ideology. If I were reading a paper copy of this book, I would have started highlighting each time somebody said “Don’t say that! We shouldn’t even think that!” in response to somebody challenging the ‘take from the doers and give to the need’ers’ philosophy. If you’ve ever read through the comments section on a political article and seen somebody refer to another as a Libtard, you have a good idea of what Rand’s view of the opponents of her philosophy are portrayed as.

It’s a shame really, because provocative art is normally right up my alley. I’ll go to bat for just about anything Spike Lee or Larry Clark, and Steinbeck’s political writing is among my all time favorite. I agree with a lot of what Rand wrote, and I really loved The Fountainhead. But this entire book felt phonier than a Wes Anderson movie house with zero of the charm. There’s a scene where a young man never previously introduced in the book is shot during a labor dispute. As he lays there dying in Hank Rearden’s arms he give a 30 minute diatribe about what the meaning of ownership. At a cocktail party, Francisco d’Anconia gives a two hour speech on the same material every other good guy is espousing and everybody present sits silently listening with no rebuke afterward. The America of Atlas Shrugged is populated by business men who all give lengthy speeches and sniveling hangers-on who can not form a cogent argument against them or perform any job of productive value. The ratio of civilians seems to be about 100 of the sniveling whiners to one remarkable man. Throughout all 1100+ pages, there are numerous sections on people losing the will to work, or businesses going under because no quality men are available to hire.

The plot has some fun elements to it but they get buried in the lengthy discussions, a dull protagonist, and a really stupid ending. How stupid is the ending? **Spoilers follow** Imagine the government has the number one enemy of the state in custody. They take him to a remote military installation under lockdown with 14 personally chosen soldiers to watch him. Now imagine that group of soldiers getting the crap kicked out of them by 3 business men and a business lady. When one soldier gets shot, he asks “who shot me?” and the man in the suit responds, “Ragnar Danneskjold.” It only makes sense in this world the business men with strong values and self worth would also be better at soldierly work than the weak men with no individuality who would rather be shot than make decisions (but it doesn’t make it read any less ridiculous).

Equally problematic is the entire character arc of protagonist Dagny Taggart. Hank Rearden gets a lot of crap from Francisco for being the biggest culprit at enabling the corrupt system to thrive, however Dagny is basically allowed to just be reactive throughout the entire book and not be held accountable by the rest of her peers. Her biggest character arc is that she trades up her dream man whenever she meets a better version of him. Luckily for her all of the men don’t seem to mind, as they all love each other (platonically) and in the entire book there is only one other woman who meets the standard to be welcome into the men’s world, and she’s a retired actress and current cafeteria worker. The love scenes between Dagny and Hank are as creepy as you would expect, with Hank being a very demanding lover who insists on replacing foreplay with monologues on his values.

Go read The Fountainhead for a much more entertaining book that gets into the same ideas but doesn’t feel like getting a hole drilled into your head.

1-star

“Spandau Phoenix” by Greg Iles Review

Spandau Phoenix

Spandau Phoenix

Author:  Greg Iles

Released:  1991

In 1941, Hitler’s top officer Rudolph Hess flew in a secret mission to Britain. What the purpose of that mission was has always been a great mystery. Some even believe that the man who landed in Britain was not the real Rudolph Hess, but was instead a double, and the man who has been sitting in Spandau prison for four decades is Hess’s double, and the American, English, German and Russian governments all may know the truth and have reasons to want it suppressed. Spandau Phoenix tells the story of the chain of events that occurs when the prisoner in Spandau Prison dies, and a German police officer discovers a diary written by him revealing part of the mystery.

This is a book with a ton of characters with different motivations who all get sucked into the intrigue. Just off the top of my head, there are:
– Hans – a German officer who discovers the book.
– Ilse – his wife who is aware of the mystery and later used as a bargaining chip.
– Professor Natterman – the couple’s grandparent who believes in the important of revealing the contents of the papers.
– Hauer – Hans’s father, a senior officer and former military sniper
– Jonas Stern – An Israeli intelligence officer who is the closest thing this book has to Liam Neeson
– 4 other Israeli soldiers who are assisting Stern
– Alfred Horn – The mysterious South African man with unlimited resources and henchmen
– Pieter Smuts – Horn’s South African head of security
– Luhr – The evil German police officer who loves torturing people
– Schneider – The German detective who gets roped into working with the Americans and reminded me of The Rock.
– Colonel Rose – The American officer who manipulates the situation to use Germans to pursue his goals.
– Neville Shaw – England’s head intelligence officer
– The Sparrow – A middle aged woman who is an assassin with a vendetta against Stern
– Colonel Karami – A Libyan with unlimited henchman doing business with Horn
– Richardson – An American who is kidnapped and taken to East Berlin by the Russians
– Several Russians who kidnap Richardson and are attempting to retrieve the Spandau papers
– Boromir – A Russian intelligence officer willing to cross any line
– Benton – An expatriated soldier doing wetworks for England
– Diaz – A Cuban mercenary and airplane pilot
– General Steyn – The South African in charge of relations at the Embassy, who has history with Stern
– Steyn’s top two officers, one whom is loyal to him and another who definitely is not

There’s probably three times as many characters throughout the book, but those are the main ones I can think of. Besides the individual character motivations, almost all of them are are also motivated by the impact of their country by the release of the Spandau secrets. England, Germany, Russia, America, Israel, Libya and South Africa are the main countries here, and a decent knowledge of global politics and World War II history will add to your enjoyment of this book.

This is the second book chronologically (first in publication order) by Greg Iles dealing with World War II. Spandau Phoenix is much more ambitious that Black Cross but less enjoyable overall. While Black Cross primarily stayed confined to three characters (Jonas Stern, an American aiding him on a mission and a woman in a concentration camp), the stakes felt higher for all of them than for anybody in this book. In fact, if I hadn’t read Black Cross previously I don’t know that I would have cared about Jonas Stern as much as I did, and he is certainly one of the book’s main characters.

The only characters whose arcs were compelling to me throughout where Ilse and Hauer. Ilse started off making a really foolish decision, but did a nice job thinking on her feet afterward. Hauer was the most convincing of the eight action movie style characters (Hauer, Stern, Schneider, Smuts, Richardson, Sparrow, Benton, Boromir), and blended a nice pragmatist philosophy with some Schwarzenegger in Commando parenting skills. Conversely, his son Hans was the worst character in the book, present to create bad situations for Hauer to get him out of.

The rest of the characters certainly made sense in this global historical fiction tale, however as a reader all of the jumping around made it so I didn’t feel invested in 80% of the cast. The larger problem was that the central conceit of why all of these countries were willing to kill and cover up everything in pursuit of the Spandau papers was pretty much dismissed by Hauer toward the end of the book in terms of how much the general population would care about their contents. I definitely feel like a learned about Cold War era Berlin, the abdication of Prince Edward VIII and the relationship of Israel to other world powers, and the mystery of Rudolph Hess’s flight kept me more involved than if I had just perused his Wikipedia entry (which I just did). However, the overall story was stretched out and inflated more than I would have liked and I suspect others may feel the same way.

3 star

“Black Cross” by Greg Iles Review

Black Cross

Black Cross

Author:  Greg Iles

Published:  1995

This was another book I was loaned by a fellow reader I work with. I’ve only read a few war books in the last few years, but it’s a genre I tend to enjoy (one of my favorite books in particular is The Hunters by James Salter). The story is set in 1944, and the Germans are at war with the English and Russians. With an allied invasion seemingly imminent, Nazi scientists have put more focus on developing chemical weapons as a means to devastate the opposing forces. Because they are Nazis and this is during the holocaust, much of the chemical weapon testing is being done at concentration camps. After the allies become aware of the newest poison gases, they develop a plan to prevent the Nazis from using them. Two non-British subjects will sneak into the concentration camp producing the deadly gas, and complete a mission that wipes out everybody in the camp. The two men include an American pacifist chemist, and a German Jewish Israeli resistance fighter.

I enjoyed this book, but the further into it I got the more it reminded me of the 1996 film “The Rock.” In that film, a non-threat scientist and a total badass have to go rescue hostages from armed forces that possess deadly chemical gas. If you take that movie and put it in a Nazi German concentration camp setting, you’d got a pretty good idea of most of the plot beats in this book. You know the pacifist scientist will have to be contribute to the survival effort by the end of it, just like you have a pretty good idea of what outcome the insurance bombing run will have if their mission goes down to the wire. Likewise it’s not a spoiler to say that the two main characters, McConnell the scientist and Stern the muscle, will initially not like each other and come to a deep respect for one another.

While I enjoyed a lot of the main story, overall its predictability in character notes would have me giving this book a three overall. However, the book also has a separate subplot running through it from the perspective of a woman stuck in the concentration camp. When we first encounter Rachel, her husband is being shot and she and her two children under the age of 4 are stuck in a camp where children’s purpose is as test subjects for dangerous medical testing and women’s purpose seems to be as pawns for the Nazi soldiers to use as they see fit. I’ve found that since I’ve become a father a few years ago that stories involving children have a much stronger impact on me than they did before I had rugrats. Here the story of a woman doing anything possible to keep her two children safe in one of the deadliest situations in world history really got to me.

Also in the concentration camp are interesting figures like the Shoemaker and Ariel Weitz. The Shoemaker is one of the longest surviving prisoners at the camp, a man able to stay alive by blending in when needed, and fixing shoes for the soldiers on the side. Ariel Weitz is the Jewish prisoner willing to do anything the Nazis ask, even pulling the switch on the gas chambers and then prying gold teeth from the deceased, in exchange for more freedom throughout the camp. Iles does a great job of taking these two characters in surprising directions, making the stakes of Stern and McConnell’s mission feel much higher because of the stories within the camp.

There’s a saying that Nazis make the best movie villains, and here they are as evil as anything imaginable. The atrocities described in this book are such that there’s no person that could read them and sympathize with their actions and not be a monster his or her self. The main Nazi bad guys are a one eyed officer and a jealous sergeant who have a rivalry with each other for power within the camp. As the officer has an interest in Rachel, the sergeant uses her as his method for tormenting the officer. The top ranking official, a scientist named Brandt, is practically a ghost in the story just showing up as somebody that does terrible things to little children.

If you’re a reader that finds depictions of violent or deadly acts to women and children difficult to read, this is not the book for you. Although Iles doesn’t linger on any descriptions for too long, there are still dozens of scenes of despicable acts that occur or are remembered throughout the plot. The subject matter of the book seems to require it, and besides making me emotional a few times I thought if anything it added to the impact of the book. I was also loaned Iles other WWII book, which I’ll probably check out next, so that’s as good an indicator as any that I enjoyed this as 1200 pages in a row by any author is usually not my style.

4-star