Steel Fear, by Brandon Webb and John David Mann*****

Steel Fear is the first in a series by Brandon Webb and John David Mann. It’s billed as a “high-octane thriller,” and that’s what it is. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

Before starting the novel, I flipped to “About the Authors,” which is at the end of the book. Webb is a retired SEAL himself, boasting a list of awards as long as your flippers. He is a top level frog, which is a combat diver, and he not only is trained as a sniper, but has been in charge of training other snipers. Suffice to say, he is qualified to write a book like this and knows what he’s talking about. This thriller took ten years to see publication, and a good part of that delay was getting one aspect after another of his description of the aircraft carrier, The Abraham Lincoln, cleared by the Pentagon. Mann is not ex-military, but has an impressive list of achievements in the arts.

Our protagonist is Finn, a SEAL who’s being sent back to the states on The Abraham Lincoln. He doesn’t know why; nobody on the boat does, either; and he cannot reach anyone that can enlighten him. This keeps Finn off balance, the reader doesn’t know whether Finn is trustworthy, so that keeps the reader off balance, too. We meet him when Monica Halsey, a helicopter pilot who is also an important character, is sent to pick him up. Two men approach the helicopter, and they are described as a large man that looks like a mountain lion, and a little guy that looks like a marsupial. Finn is the marsupial, and when I learn that he is a funny-looking little guy, it endears him to me. When we see him disappear on board ship, blending in, seeing and hearing things he isn’t meant to, it’s all the more impressive. I still don’t know if I should like this guy, yet I do.

The crew is reeling from a horrible, unexplainable accident that took the lives of a helicopter crew; soon after, there is a suicide, and then another. Suicide, we learn, is at epidemic levels in the military, and so at first, most people don’t question it; but both suicides are a little too similar, and Halsey smells a rat. So does Finn.

At the outset, there’s a great deal of description of the aircraft carrier, and at first I feel impatient to get on with the story, but soon I can see that the setting is very important, and the description is necessary to understanding it. Webb does a fine job with it, and it’s a good thing, because when I ran a Google search for images, I got mostly air.

National security indeed.

The chapters are very short, and the point of view changes constantly, with Finn and Monica occupying more space than other crew members. Between the shifting viewpoints; Finn’s anxious attempts to find out where he’s going, what his status is, and why he’s being sent away; and Monica’s urgent need to know why her friends are dead, and if anyone else she cares about is next, I am kept on the edge of my seat. Still more deaths follow, and by the halfway mark, my heart is beating a little quicker, and I know better than to let myself read it at bedtime. Fortunately, despite the deaths, which continue of course, there isn’t a lot of gore, and I happily made this book my lunchtime companion. Once I got near the climax, there was no putting it down till the thing was done.

I tend to be leery of books written by military folks, because sometimes there’s a right-wing overtone to the prose that grates against my own values. This isn’t a problem here.  Instead, this is a rock solid opening to a promising new series, and I can’t wait to read the next one. Highly recommended to all that love the genre.

The Eagle’s Claw, by Jeff Shaara*****

Shaara is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted when I received an invitation to read and review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; this book is for sale now.

Like everyone else, I bring my own experiences and biases to this novel, and this one is a potential hot potato. I am married to a Japanese citizen, and my in-laws still reside in Japan. The implicit, and at times overt racism that many authors bring to this topic—the Pacific theater of World War II, between the U.S. and Japan—ruins my mood for days, and consequently, I won’t even go near most nonfiction or historical fiction that focuses on this aspect of American history. When Shaara published To Wake the Giant, I signed on to read and review with great trepidation; I was afraid that I would not only hate the book, but emerge from it unhappy enough to abandon the author entirely. Imagine my delight when I found the opposite was true.

Shaara’s signature format is to portray the events that unfold through the eyes of key participants, delivering staggered narratives that include admirals and pilots on both sides as well as a code breaker on the American side. Shaara sticks to the truth, and by now I know this, so I’m not distracted by the need to fact check information that is new to me. His research and attention to detail is matchless, and his capacity to develop characters on the page makes me feel I would know these men if I ran into them on the street. My review copy, sadly, did not have the maps added, merely noting on what pages they would later be added; however, I once more defer to this author’s track record. I would bet my last dollar that the maps are also excellent.

One aspect that is usually a deal breaker for me is the frequent use of the period’s predominant racist slur, when Americans mention the Japanese. There are three syllables in this word, and they should be used. For those that plead that the one syllable word is authentic to the time and place, I would invite them to imagine a similar tale featuring a hypothetical African enemy during the same time period. What would be the expected, authentic term by which Caucasian Americans would refer to such enemy combatants, and to the government from which they hail? For the obtuse, I’ll tell you, it would be the N word. So would you just go ahead and drop it in there for the sake of accuracy, or would you use greater sensitivity and explain the alteration in an author’s note? You’d do the latter. Of course you would. In fact, likely it would be the only way your novel would see the light of day, and rightly so.

But here as well, Shaara gets a pass from this reviewer despite his use of the term I abhor, and the reason is his candor, addressing the racism of the time period right up front. Though you might think it obvious, I have never seen a successful author of World War II historical fiction do this, and he is absolutely clear about it. In fact, I began highlighting the introduction—don’t skip it! And when it was done, I found I had highlighted nearly all of it.

Whether you are drawn to this book from a love of history and the desire to learn a few things painlessly, or for the escapist entertainment that great novels provide, you can’t go wrong here. This is a damn fine book. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour****

Darren leads a moderately successful life, in charge of a local Starbucks, and happy at home with his longtime girlfriend and his mama. But all of them know that he can do more with his talents, and so when a recruiter from Sumwun comes for Darren, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. But you know what they say; be careful what you wish for.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

When Darren changes jobs, he moves out of his familiar surroundings, comfortably populated with people of color, many of whom he has known all his life, to a corporation where he is the only Black man. He is demeaned and subjected to almost every possible stereotype and racist trope, but he perseveres, because this is a sales job, and the timid and weak stand no chance at all. He knows that the longer he stays there, the stronger he’ll get, and as far as that goes, it’s true. When a disaster befalls the company, it’s Darren that pulls it out of the water. And then again. And again. And yet, the crap thrown by others keeps hitting him.

The magic of good satire is the recognition it draws, the moans and the nods and the headshakes. The author tells us in his introduction that the book is written for Black people, and it doesn’t take long to see why Caucasian people may not relate as well. Even those of us living in mixed families can only glimpse the edges of what Black people put up with; even so, I do find myself groaning and chuckling as the story progresses.

This is a strong work of fiction and an impressive debut, and I recommend it to everyone that knows that Black Lives Matter, and especially to those that only suspect it’s true. I look forward to seeing what  Askaripour writes next.

Thief of Souls, by Brian Klingborg**-***

I was invited to read this mystery, and my thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. I am always looking for something a bit different, and this sounded like it would be. And it is, but it’s not.

Here’s what I mean. A woman has been murdered in a particularly ugly, grisly manner. A hot shot cop who’s been buried in a backwater where nothing ever happens gets the case. Because he is clever and ambitious, he digs more than most cops might, and voila! Turns out this could be the work of a serial killer! But there are higher-ups in the force that would rather have a quick solve than an accurate one. Obstacles! And next thing you know, the cop is in danger too.

Yawn.

Okay. Now, take this same tired thread and drop it in China. With resonant characters, compelling use of setting, and some word smithery, it might come alive, and in the hands of a master storyteller, we might not even notice that the story’s bones are nothing new. Instead, I came away disaffected and mildly depressed. I quit at the sixty percent mark and didn’t even go back to look at the ending, which for me is unheard of, particularly in this genre.

I am no fan of the Chinese government, but the steady flow of negativity wore me down, not to mention the lack of strong character development. We know right away that Lu is a rebel, and as the story progresses, we also know that Lu is a rebel. At the start, we sense that the government, both local and national, is corrupt; as we near the climax, we also know that the government is corrupt.

What, in this story, is worth saving?

I thought it would be fun to see how an investigation works in China, and what sort of rights—or lack thereof—form the contours of the legal system. I came away sensing that the author doesn’t know all that much, either. There’s no Bill of Rights there, surely, but I knew that much going in.

I don’t have to have lovable characters to enjoy a mystery, but there does, at least, have to be someone interesting. Give me a complex, well-developed villain, for example, and I’m a happy camper. But there’s none, and I’m not.

So there you have it. Thief of Souls is one more sad case of an intriguing book cover and title promising more than it can deliver. If you want this book now, it’s for sale, but I would advise you to get it cheap or free unless you have a big stack of money sitting around that you were thinking of burning in the backyard. Otherwise, maybe not.

The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan****

I enjoyed Ryan’s historical novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, and so I was thrilled when Ballantine Books and Net Galley offered me a review copy for this one. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in rural England during World War II. We have four protagonists, all of them women. Audrey Landon is a widow; her husband died in the war, leaving her with two boys to raise on her own. The old family home, which she inherited from her parents, is falling apart, and she has no means to repair it. In some places, the roof has caved in.

The second is Audrey’s sister, “Lady” Gwendoline. Gwen puts herself first at all times, since nobody else ever has. She married for wealth and convenience, and she lords her affluence over her sister and everyone else. But her husband is a cruel man, and her existence is a lonely one despite its material comfort.

Zelda was a top chef in London, but once her pregnancy became visible, she had to get gone. Her landlord calls her a “trollop,” and she knows she can’t stay there now, so she applies for wartime housing. The volunteer in charge of placing her is Lady Gwendoline, who snickers with amusement as she assigns her to live in Audrey’s house.

Nell is a chef’s assistant at Fenley Hall, the prestigious old pile where Lady Gwendoline and Sir Strickland hold court. The chef, Mrs. Quince, has taught her nearly everything she knows, and it’s a good thing, too; the old lady isn’t getting any younger.

All four women enter a cooking contest held by the Ministry of Food, a “wartime cooking challenge” to showcase recipes that use ordinary ingredients and work around rationing.  The winner will be the new announcer for The Kitchen Front, a wartime radio program—and this program existed in real life.

As in the last story, Ryan develops her four characters in a way I believe; the most benevolent have flaws, and the most unsympathetic, Lady Gwendoline, is complex and capable of change. It is Gwendoline that is most developed at the end, but all four are dynamic characters.

For a brief while, I use the audio version of this book, which I obtain from my local library. Jasmine Blackborow does a fine job as reader in most regards, but there is a side character that turns up in a couple of emotionally charged scenes, an Italian prisoner of war, and when she voices him, he sounds like Dracula, which ruins the magic. For this reason, I recommend sticking to the printed version.

The first half of this story is almost unputdownable, and for a time I nearly forget my other books. But as the climax approaches, things become predictable, almost formulaic, and the ending is a bit too tidy for my tastes. The scenes toward the end with Mrs. Quince are overwrought.  It’s not terrible, but because I am so far in love with the first half, I am disappointed by the denouement. Also, if recipes must be included, as apparently they must, the author should give them character by using the substituted ingredients in the instructions; the more desirable ingredients can be footnoted.

Ultimately I rate The Kitchen Front four stars; five for the first half, three for the second.

The Power Couple, by Alex Berenson****

Alex Berenson has done it again! I first read his work when I found a galley for The Prisoner, the eleventh in his John Wells series. When I saw that this stand alone thriller was available, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy.  The Power Couple is a fast read and a fun one, and I recommend it to you.

Rebecca (call her Becks) and Brian Unsworth are type A achievers, and both work for the federal government; she is a spy, and he is a hacker. But like so many couples, the similarities that brought them together are getting in their way now. With their children, Kira, who is nineteen, and Tony, who is younger, they take off for Europe to let off steam and spend quality time together. Maybe.

Early in the story, Kira is abducted, and from there forward, the pacing is perfect. Now and then Berenson pulls us back a bit as he shares sketches from their pasts that lead up to this event, but each reminiscence is brief, and the shift between points of view and time periods adds to the suspense. We see their lives through the perspectives of all except Tony, who is a minor character. In the end, Kira is the one we like best. (Trust me.) There’s not a lot of character development, but this isn’t that kind of novel.

I don’t want to give more away, because if I kill any surprises, you won’t enjoy the story as much; what I will say is that even if your own marriage is less than perfect, it is a shining beacon of integrity and affection when contrasted with that of the Unsworths.

This book is for sale now, and just right to take on vacation with you.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett***-****

This book wasn’t on my radar until it hit the best seller lists. The premise is a provocative one, and so I hopped online and ordered a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. It held my attention all the way through, but when it concluded, I felt a little cheated.

The chief protagonists are two girls, twins, raised in a tiny (fictional) town deep in the American South. The whole town is Black, and everyone—everyone—is light skinned. Sisters Stella and Desiree become restless as they come of age, and they conspire to run away to the big city. They pack a few things, gather what money they can, and head for New Orleans. The time is the mid-1900s. They arrive, find a place to stay, and get jobs. One day Desiree comes home from work, but Stella doesn’t. She’s gone. Enough of her things are missing to suggest that she hasn’t met with foul play, yet Desiree is her twin, and she is undone by Stella’s unexpected departure. Not even a note!

Stella is in the North; Stella is passing for Caucasian. But to do so, she has to cut all family ties. Her new husband has no idea.

The story progresses, and Desiree does the opposite, marrying a man who is very dark. Their daughter is what might be called blue-black. Now neither twin can comfortably return to Mallard, with one too Black, and one not Black at all, as far as anyone can tell.

The story progresses through various life changes, and eventually the focus is on the twins’ daughters, one each. Of course, the reader must wonder whether the sisters will ever be reunited, and if so, what will happen then.

When the book is over, I feel as if I am leaving the table before I’m full. There were so many opportunities here, and the author squandered all of them. The protagonists never develop to the point where I bond with any of them, and I cannot tell what the author’s purpose is here.

This book is for sale, but don’t break the bank to get it. Read it free or cheap, or give it a miss.

The Book of Two Ways, by Jodi Picoult***

I am generally a fan of Picoult’s writing, but my favorite part of this book is when I got to close it and put it away.  My thanks go, nevertheless, to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the review copy.

Dawn is the sole survivor of a plane wreck, and as it goes down, she is assaulted by regret about the road not taken.  (My apologies to Frost.) On land once again, she decides to go back to the life she abandoned when she married and had her daughter, to see what might have been; the life she was preparing for was that of an Egyptologist.

There have been times when a novel features some area of history or science that I’ve never studied, and I find it so mesmerizing that it becomes my new favorite area to explore. This was not one of those times. In fact, it took me four tries to get through this thing, and even then, I skimmed much of the story from the fifty to seventy percentiles.  I tried the audio version; no joy there, either. I grew bored and my mind wandered; then I didn’t understand what I was reading, so I had to go back over it to pick up the part I’d daydreamed through.

In my defense, however, I have to say that the organization and frequently shifting points of view and time periods is enough to confuse the best of us, or at least give us whiplash.

Picoult’s strength is creating strong, resonant female protagonists that are easy to bond with, but I didn’t ever warm up to Dawn. Let’s take, for example, the notion of simply walking away, not only from your husband that loves you and with whom, till now, you’ve had a loving and solid relationship; there’s the matter of walking away from a child, or considering doing so. No, no, no. No. NO.

But mostly, this story just bored the living snot out of me.

I have provided three stars, because some readers will enjoy the lessons in Egyptology; if you’ve always wanted to know more within this realm, perhaps this book will work for you. If you go there, though, get it free or cheap; don’t sink full cover price into this turkey.

The Recent East, by Thomas Grattan*****

The Recent East introduces novelist Thomas Grattan, and it’s an impressive debut. It follows a family of German-Americans from 1965, when the eldest emigrates from East Germany with her parents, to the present. I initially decide to read it because of the setting; it’s the first fiction I’ve read set in the former Soviet satellite country. However, it is the characters that keep me engaged to the last page.

My thanks go to Net Galley and McMillan for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

The story opens in 1965 as Beate and her parents are defecting:

Everyone talked about the West as if it were a secret. They leaned in to share stories of its grocery stores that carried fresh oranges, its cars with bult-in radios. Covered their mouths to mention a Dusseldorf boulevard that catered to movie stars and dictators, whole Eastern month’s salaries spent on face cream. There were entire, whispered conversations about its large houses and overstuffed stores, its borders crossed with a smile and a flick of one’s passport. Some talked about it as if it were the most boring thing. Others like it was an uppity friend. But everyone talked about it…

The first chapter makes me laugh out loud. Teenage Beate is mocked when she enrolls in school in Cologne, because her clothing is nowhere near as nice as what the kids in West Germany wear. Since her parents cannot afford to upgrade her wardrobe just yet, Beate comes up with the genius idea to alter the clothes she owns to make them look as Soviet as possible, and she “put on her Moscow face, worked on her Leningrad walk.” Sure enough, the kids at school are terrified of her now. She still doesn’t have friends, but she isn’t bullied anymore.

Morph forward in time. Beate is a mother now, living in upstate New York with her two adolescent children and unhappy husband. When the Berlin Wall falls, so does her marriage. Soon afterward, she is notified that her late parents’ house now belongs to her. She packs up her belongings and her children, then buys tickets to Germany.

Adela and Michael have always been close, but the move shakes their relationship. Their usual routines are shattered, and their mother, reeling from the divorce, becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative. What a terrible time to disengage from parenting! Both Michael and Adela roam the city of Kritzhagen at will, at all hours of the night. Michael is just 13 years old and gay; sometimes he doesn’t come home at all at night. I read these passages, written without obvious judgment or commentary, with horror. A new house, new city, new country, new continent, and it’s now that their mother forgets to set boundaries? I want to find this woman and slap her upside the head (though I guess that’s a different sort of boundary violation.) Half the houses in town stand empty, and since they have no furniture of their own and their mother is doing nothing to acquire it, Michael breaks into houses and steals furnishings. Look, Ma, I found us some chairs.

My jaw drops.

Adela goes in the other direction, becoming a conscientious student and social justice advocate. But their mother pays her no attention, either.

For the first half of this story, it seems like a four star novel to me; well written, competent, but nothing to merit great accolades. This changes in the second half, because all three of these characters are dynamic, and the changes in them are absolutely believable and deeply absorbing.

I have friends that do social work, and what they have told me is this: children that are forced to become the adults in the family, taking on responsibilities they’re too young for when a parent abdicates them, often appear to miraculously mature, competent beyond their years. Everything is organized. They may do the jobs as well as any adult, and sometimes better than most. How wonderful!

But because they aren’t developmentally ready for these things yet, what happens is that later, when they are grown, they fall apart and become breathtakingly immature, because they have to go back and live their adolescent years that were stolen from them. (As a teacher, I saw this in action a couple of times.)  And so I am awestruck by how consistently our Grattan’s characters follow this pattern.

As the second half progresses, I make a couple of predictions, one of which is sort of formulaic, but Grattan does other things, and they’re far better than what I’d guessed. We follow these characters for several decades, and at the end, we see the relationship that blooms between Beate and her grandson. When it’s over, I miss them.

Because Michael is gay and is one of our three protagonists, this novel is easily slotted into the LGTB genre, but it is much more than this. Instead, one should regard it as a well-written story in which one character is gay.

But whatever you choose to call this book, you should get it and read it if you love excellent fiction.

The Children’s Blizzard, by Melanie Benjamin****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version when I realized I was running behind. This book is for sale now.

I wanted to read this novel because it is different from everything else in my queue. I have a history degree and have taught American history, but I’d never heard of the Children’s Blizzard, which was real. The story is set mostly in and around “Godforsaken Omaha,” and I seldom see fiction set in Nebraska, so that is also interesting.

But once I had the book, I had second thoughts. Here we were, in the midst of this miserable, frightening pandemic, and for the first time ever, I wasn’t able to host my family for Christmas; I couldn’t see my grown children or tiny grandchildren in person…and I was going to read a book where small children froze to death in the snow? What exactly had I been thinking of, to request such a book? And so I shuffled it onto the back burner.

Then I saw that my online friends had liked it, and so with a deep breath, I pulled out my review copy, turned on the audio copy and began. And my friends were right; this is a good story.

The thing that makes the difference is that the blizzard is done before the story is even halfway over! I had envisioned slow, agonizing deaths that would take up the whole novel, and that isn’t what Benjamin does at all. While the deaths are indeed sad, she doesn’t draw them out gratuitously—and not everybody dies. Instead, the story is primarily about the aftermath, the way that these Scandinavian settlers respond to what has occurred, and the role of the ambitious reporter that covers the tragedy.

Benjamin does a fine job developing the characters, primarily the women involved, and I especially appreciate her unsentimental approach. Friends, if you ever find yourself feeling starry-eyed about the distant past, wishing things were simpler and done as they were long ago, this book will snap you out of it quickly. Believe it.

I recommend The Children’s Blizzard to those that enjoy historical fiction, and I especially recommend the audio book to you. The reader does a nice job of incorporating a Scandinavian accent without overdoing it, and it makes it easier to relate to the characters. I enjoyed it, and would happily read Benjamin’s work in the future.