Category: Recommended by Other People

“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

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“Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny” by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger Review

Andrew JAckson Battle

Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans:  The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny

Authors:  Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Published:  2017

I’d read a biography on Andrew Jackson last year (Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands), but was given this one as a recommendation by another reader, who gave the glowing recommendation that it was interesting and could be finished in two nights. As a result, I already had a pretty good knowledge of most of what was in this book prior to reading it. Overall though this was still an interesting read because Andrew Jackson’s early exploits are fascinating enough to visit twice.

Although the title of this book makes it sound as though it’s entirely about the Battle of New Orleans, out of the 230ish pages I’d say just about half or less focuses on the actual battle (buildup, battle and immediate aftermath). The rest of the book gives some good background on Jackson’s early years, the other key figures in New Orleans during the battle, and some political background to make the context of the war understandable. This is a very quick read though, and a book I’d recommend for somebody that just wants the exciting parts of Jackson’s pre-presidential biography.

More than any other president (at least through Lincoln… I’m still working my way up from him), Jackson came from nothing and had exciting moments throughout his life. From the early encounter with the British (and loss of his entire family), to duels with future powerful politicians and battles with Native Americans, Jackson lived the type of life that created a frontier folk hero. Having read several biographies of presidents after Jackson, I enjoyed the refresher on how important moments occurred with guys like Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton, who obviously both went on to have massive political careers of their own.

The description of what occurred in the Battle of New Orleans was what you’d hope for in a book like this, providing drama that reminds me of the stuff I find in Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic War books. The stories of dying Generals and ships unable to escape cannon fire provided both memorable moments and emotional resonance usually lacking in biographical material. More than any other moment, I’ll remember the heartbreaking story of a man trying to warn the Americans about the arrival of the British and his loyal dog that followed him along the way. Because I prefer my biographies more complete and detailed than this, it definitely doesn’t crack my favorites, but I think this is a book many fans of history could really enjoy.

4-star

“The Terranauts” by T.C. Boyle Review

Terranauts

The Terranauts

Author:  T.C. Boyle

Released:  2016

The Terranauts was the final book I received from by Brilliant Books Book of the Month Club membership. This was a story taking place in the early 1990’s where 8 people have volunteered to be confined in a biodome for two years as part of an experiment, four men and four women. The book follows three people: Dawn, a woman inside the dome, Ramsay, a man inside the dome, and Linda, a woman who missed the cut and must watch from outside in hopes of getting in two years later. The story starts out as the eight finalists are selected for entering the Ecosphere (E2 as the Terranauts call it), and primarily takes place during those two years, with a few pages dedicated to the transition after the two year period.

In addition to the three main characters, there are a few supporting characters that help populate the book. Inside the dome are characters likes Gyro (the nerdy guy obsessed with Dawn), Gretchen (the awkward woman attracted to Ramsay, Richard (the doctor who has to deal with the repercussions of other Terranauts situations), and Stevie (the attractive but shallow marine biologist). Outside the dome there’s Johnny (Dawn’s boyfriend at the time she enters the biodome), Jeremiah (aka God the Creator, the man who invented E2), Judy (or Judith a woman who is romantically involved with both Ramsay and G2).

The people inside the dome are celebrities in this book because of their groundbreaking experiment, and the repercussions of all of their decisions on the other Terranauts and the mission overall amplify the importance of all their actions. The 1990’s setting didn’t add a lot to the book except for some fun pop culture references throughout. I imagine it was set in a pre-internet/cell phone era in order to amp up the isolation of the Terranauts as well as how groundbreaking an experiment like this is.

I enjoyed the characters in this book, as Dawn and Ramsay reminded me of the actors Isla Fisher and Jake Johnson and I had fun picturing them as I read the story. Linda reminded me of Charlene Yi, and provided at times a jealous antagonist and at others a sympathetic protagonist. This felt like a book I should love, and although I really did enjoy it I also think the author foreshadowed a momentous and violent ending but ended up telling a much more grounded story. On it’s own that’d be fine, but with each point of view character telling the story from the future the ending felt out of line with what had been set up earlier. That complaint aside though this was an enjoyable book that I’m glad I read.

Overall I’d rate the 6 books I received from the Book of the month club (it was a bi-monthly membership) as follows:

1. The Risen by David Anthony Durham
2. The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle
3. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
4. The Fortress at the End of Time by J.M. McDermott
5. Age of Assasins by R.J. Barker
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

4-star

“The Late Show” by Michael Connelly Review

Late Show

The Late Show

Author:  Michael Connelly

Released:  2017

I was loaned this book by a coworker who knows I’m a big reader. I’ve previously read one book by Michael Connelly and remember it was OK, but don’t remember anything else about it except that I read it before I used Goodreads to track my reading. I’ve generally stayed away from writers that I think of as supermarket specialists (the writers whose books I can find for sale in my local grocery store), and Connelly comes to mind in that group along with guys like James Patterson or Jodi Picoult. But, I’m also a person who never turns down a free book (or an opportunity to talk about it afterwards) so here I go.

First, on the positive side this was a very quick read and had plenty of cliffhangers at the end of chapters to get you turning the page. The book is about a late shift detective and follows her investigating three separate cases that she responds to on one evening. The book takes place over a few days, and she respond to some other calls later on, but primarily all the forward moment of the plot goes back to those first three dispatches: a woman reports her home as been burglarized; a transgender prostitute is beaten nearly to death; and a shooting at a club leaves 5 dead.

Of the three mysteries, the latter two take up the bulk of the plot. Renee Ballard is a former journalist and relentless worker and two of the mysteries don’t even take a lot of work to solve. (When I say relentless, I mean over the course of about a week, I can think of her not working on five occasions: twice by sleeping, twice by surfing and once for a family dinner.) Besides the mysteries Ballard throws herself into, there is also some drama in the former of a corrupt Lieutenant that Ballard shares history with with she was sexually harassed by him and then demoted as a result of reporting the incident.

As a page turning action story this book completely succeeded in keeping my attention and making me want to keep reading. As a mystery story this was a letdown however. I figured out the main mystery as soon as the suspect was introduced as a character, and the two smaller cases Ballard is working are solved by her by running records checks and are never something the reader can figure out. (Those are more realistic than most mystery stories but they also take a lot of the fun out of the genre.) The biggest mystery for me even went unsolved (how a certain villain knew Ballard was on to her and how to take advantage… I suspected the predictable secret villain was behind it but it was never answered one way or another. Possibly coming in a sequel?). I’ll judge the book more on what it delivered than what I expected prior to reading it, so overall I enjoyed it.

4-star

“We Are the Ants” by Shaun David Hutchinson Review

We Are the Ants

We Are the Ants

Author:  Shaun David Hutchinson

Released: 2016

This is another book I read based on a year end recommendation of best books read by a Goodreads reviewer. The reviewer in this instance was the always entertaining Emily May, who picked this as her best science fiction read from last year (I went out in early January and bought a stack of books that reviewers picked as their favorites from the prior year… I think I’ve got 1 or 2 left that I’ll hopefully finish before the Best of 2017 lists start).

We Are the Ants is a young adult story about a teenage boy who is heartbroken because he no longer has a romantic partner, and slowly falls in love with the mysterious new transfer student. In its simplest terms, that’s a basic/familar story. The Killers have just released a new song called “Have All the Songs Been Written,” and sometimes I feel like that’s a common enough worry with books, films, music, etc. that every idea has been explored at this point. It’s wrong of course. Hutchinson shows how even a common idea for a story arc can be explored in very unique ways.

What makes this book so different? For starters, the protagonist (Henry) has some interesting problems beyond the typical young adult lead. Right off the bat, we learn that he is frequently abducted by aliens who keep him for various lengths of time before releasing him back to his home town in different locations with little or no clothing on. His lost love died via suicide. His home includes a sadist brother, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, and a mom that seems to be hanging on by a thread.

The protagonist is also gay in this book. I say it as kind of an afterthought, because it’s not really an issue for him but it certainly stands out in terms of the normal lead characters in the genre. For all of the reasons that Henry is abused by his classmates and brother, his sexuality is not one of them. There are a few closeted characters in the novel, but even they don’t seem motivated in their actions by any worry about what other people will think about them being gay. The end result is a nice accomplishment in terms of “why can’t I see this type of person represented in this type of story.” I would describe this book as a story with science fiction elements that primarily deals with grief that happens to have a gay protagonist.

Overall I really enjoyed this book, but I also groaned several times because of the defeatist attitude of the protagonist. Henry is a character that will look for any chance to find a reason to be sad. His former boyfriend, Jesse, is deceased when the book begins but is probably the second most frequently discussed character, easily rivaling Diego, Henry’s possible new love interest. I get that so much of this book is about how questions go unanswered (Henry frequently tries to understand why Jesse killed himself and why his dad left their family), but it was difficult to root for a character that sees himself as a doormat. Henry has people that obviously care about him to varying degrees (his best friend Audrey, new friend Diego, his mom, brother, his brother’s girlfriend Zooey, his teacher Ms. Feraci, even the sadistic bully Marcus), but rather than talk to any of them about how to improve his situation he either wants to discuss how awful it is that Jesse’s gone or internalize his grief into reasons he wants the world to end.

The world ending and the alien abduction technically make this a science fiction story, but if you are coming to this book wanting a science fiction story you’ll probably be disappointed. However, if you settle in for a tale about grief and teenage drama, there’s an engrossing story and a quick read that’s pretty rewarding.

“Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters Review

Underground Airlines

Underground Airlines

Author:  Ben H. Winters

Published:  2016

I got this book as part of my Brilliant Books “Book of the Month Club.” For the first time, I’ve received a book I’d actually been aware of by reputation, as this book has been mentioned in several publications as a point of reference for discussing an in development HBO show also about an alternative history where slavery was never abolished. That show is causing many to voice their opinions on the merits of fiction focusing on alternate histories that White Supremacists might enjoy.

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I’m firmly against censorship of thought, so as a rule I think any story can be worth telling. I understand the concerns that certain viewers/readers will take away the wrong things from certain controversial subject matter, but I think in most cases the authorial intent and execution are the only worthwhile basis for criticizing artwork, not what some a-holes make of it afterwards. That being the case, I went into this book open minded and hopeful that it would be an enjoyable story.

As for the book itself, it mostly delivered but also felt like a missed opportunity. This was a quick read and features about 2/3 of the book in the free state of Indiana and the other 1/3 in a southern slave state, all told through the first person perspective. The main character is an escaped slave who is caught and given the choice to be killed or sold back into slavery or to work for the U.S. Marshalls catching other escaped slaves. The book focuses on his assignment to catch a recent escapee named Jackdaw who has made it to Indiana using the famous “Underground Airlines” although early on the protagonist begins noticing things that don’t add up in his investigation. Along the way there is also a subplot with a white woman and her mixed race son who have their own adjacent mission and secrets.

I called this book a missed opportunity because it reads like a mystery novella but consistently feels like a story that would benefit from a more extensive examination. On the micro level, the mystery is solved fairly quickly, but the bigger issue is Victor (the main character who goes by many names) is not developed as somebody that all these racist white people would need to solve their problems. How did he become the only man for such an important/sensitive mission. There are some flashbacks included in this story, but all they do is provide reasons why Victor would not be trusted for this. These issues are probably fair to complain about, as it’s the story Winters wants to tell and I was left with doubts and questions at its conclusion.

Less fair to complain about are the details on the macro level, but I’ll do it anyway. Winters details some variations in U.S. history (Lincoln’s assassination prior to taking office, a compromise that allowed for continued Slavery) but basically leaves the period between 1860 and present day a mystery with a few exceptions (some references to still bombing Japan in WWII, another war for Texas independence, and several famous African Americans now living in Canada). While Winters decided to keep this an intimate story about one man’s internal conflict and mission, as a reader I was left with a million questions I would have rather had answered regarding what happened to famous people/events during this fictional timeline.

The ending of this book provided a few twists that were not easy to see coming, though it was mainly due to very little time being spent with the characters that provide them. Still, this is definitely a book that was memorable enough and different enough from other stories that I’m glad I read it. It made me think of American history and how I would expect things to diverge compared to the author’s version, and it also lined up nicely with the James Buchanan biography I was finishing at the same time which dealt with the exact diverging time period. However, my biggest takeaway was that of a missed opportunity to do so much more with a very interesting subject than what was actually delivered.

**Note – I gained some additional enjoyment of this book from it taking place in Indianapolis and mentioning landmarks that I’ve seen or traveled on. Non-Hoosiers may find it less interesting by comparison.**

3-star

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi Review

Homegoing

Homegoing

Author:  Yaa Gyasi

Published:  2016

This is a tough book to review, which makes sense because it was also a difficult book to read. The story is similar to the short story collections by Alice Munro or Sherman Alexie where the chapters are very separate stories but they all connect to a central narrative. Here the book begins at two half sisters in the same area of Africa and follows each line of the family by focusing on one family member from each generation. The two initial chapters are about a girl whose family is part of the slave trade and a girl who is sent to America as a slave. The other chapters primarily alternate between Africa and America with a little crossover towards the end.

As an idea for a novel, it is very original and certainly memorable. I have a feeling many readers will find this an easy book to walk away from at times as the chapters are so unconnected that you lose a lot of the thrill of a page-turner novel. The endings of chapters aren’t cliffhangers, and there is never total resolution at the end of a chapter. If you want a book that leaves you constantly needing to know what’s on the next page, that’s not what you’re getting here.

The structure also leads to another inevitable problem, namely that the setting and characters in each story are so different that the reader will certainly be more invested in some stories than others. For the most part the only recurring themes are the unfairness of life and the sins of the past still harming the present. This isn’t a book that uplifts the reader either, as the vast majority of the chapters reveal the sad demise of the prior protagonist. One of the most sympathetic characters in the book is a lady that burns her two young daughters to death; it’s that sort of novel.

Despite all that, this is definitely a book that will appeal to some readers. For one, it’s an excellent version of the “family saga” genre of books. Instead of following the typical three generations, it follows about 7, via two separate trees. The unique style and setting also standout in the reading landscape. Gyasi brings a unique perspective to her work and already has a strong sense of narrative, quickly making characters that feel distinct from the ones you’ve already read. I’m giving the book four stars, but it’s a book that I enjoyed as much as a three star one while reading it but will likely remember better than some 5 star books a year from now.

**Note, I read this book based on a year end best of list by Goodreads super reviewer Emily May**

4-star