Book Review: The Escape Artists by Neal Bascomb

The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War by Neal Bascomb

The Blurb:

In the winter trenches and flak-filled skies of World War I, soldiers and pilots alike might avoid death, only to find themselves imprisoned in Germany’s archipelago of POW camps, often in abominable conditions. The most infamous was Holzminden, a land-locked Alcatraz of sorts that housed the most troublesome, escape-prone prisoners. Its commandant was a boorish, hate-filled tyrant named Karl Niemeyer who swore that none should ever leave.

Desperate to break out of “Hellminden” and return to the fight, a group of Allied prisoners led by ace pilot (and former Army sapper) David Gray hatch an elaborate escape plan. Their plot demands a risky feat of engineering as well as a bevy of disguises, forged documents, fake walls, and steely resolve. Once beyond the watch towers and round-the-clock patrols, Gray and almost a dozen of his half-starved fellow prisoners must then make a heroic 150 mile dash through enemy-occupied territory towards free Holland.

Drawing on never-before-seen memoirs and letters, Neal Bascomb brings this narrative to cinematic life, amid the twilight of the British Empire and the darkest, most savage hours of the fight against Germany. At turns tragic, funny, inspirational, and nail-biting suspenseful, this is the little-known story of the biggest POW breakout of the Great War.

So have you seen The Great Escape? The 1963 film is a virtual who’s-who of ’60s movie stardom (including Steve McQueen (yay!), James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner). The movie is a dramatization of a real-life mass prison break from a Nazi prison camp during World War II. The Escape Artists tells the story of the men who laid the foundations of such escapes.

World War I brought warfare into a brutal, modern era. The trenches, the gas, the aerial dogfights were new and terrible realities of battle. In addition, the imprisonment of enemy soldiers occurred at a rate previously unheard of. The systems surrounding these mass incarcerations, and the rules of engagement between prisoner and jailer were new and largely untested.

It was drilled into British soldiers and officers that their duty, if captures, was to escape and rejoin the fighting force as soon as possible. Beyond bringing experienced fight men back into the fold, even unsuccessful escape attempts diverted critical enemy resources from the front lines.

Bascomb has given us a lively, riveting history of some truly remarkable men. The sheer ingenuity of their escape attempts (which were many) is something to behold. These men displayed bravery under pressure, creativity in the face of hardship, and an unflagging determination to escape from their captors. When WWII began, the most successful of these escape artists would go on to tutor a whole new generation of soldiers in the art of prison break.

This is a history book for military buffs, but also for anyone who enjoys a good adventure story. The fact that all this really happened only makes it that much more enthralling.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Who is to Blame by Jane Marlow

Who Is to Blame by Jane Marlow

This book follows the paths of two families–one noble and one serf over two and a half decades in mid 1800s Russia. Elizaveta is an intelligent and hardworking peasant girl who wants nothing more than to marry her true love (and fellow serf), Feodor. Unfortunately, societal and religious factors conspire to keep them apart. Ten we have Count Maximov, who owns the land Elizaveta’s and Feodor’s families work. We see Maximov trying to balance his family life with the modernization of Russia and the changes in the interactions between nobility and serfs.

This is a deeply-researched work of historical fiction. Russian history is a very interesting topic to me (and I would guess, many here in the west). It is always wonderful to find a historical fiction set in Russia, especially one as richly realize as this one. This is a book along the lines of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, a complex and believable work of fiction that lets the reader feel as though they are looking in on the lives of real people.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Buried Symbol by Jeffery L. Kohanek

The Buried Symbol by Jeffery L. Kohanek

At birth, every child in the empire is branded with a rune, which determines the path their life will take. The chosen follow their assigned path and thrive in their life’s calling. Then there are the unchosen, those who, at birth, are not favored by the gods. These are the equivalent of an untouchable caste, occupying the lowest rungs of society. They have no prospects, and no hope to improve their lot in life. Brock is one of these unfortunates, but he is determined to be more than his birthright dictates. Obtaining a counterfeit rune, he sets off to become one of the Empire’s ruling class. At the academy, he uncovers a lost form of magic, and secrets that could bring the Empire itself to its knees.

This book has a lot of potential. As a debut offering, there are fantastic bones to this story. The magic and caste systems are original and nicely developed, the protagonist is interesting and sympathetic, and the world is fleshed out and full of wonder and danger. The writing and pacing are a bit rough, but the underlying talent is there. With a book or two more of experience under his belt, Kohanek could make quite a name for himself in the fantasy genre.

The book is certainly designed to appeal more to young adult audiences, but older readers enthusiastic about fantasy will probably enjoy themselves as well.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena

Carlos Magdalena is a botanist at Kew Botanical Gardens in London with an eye towards resurrecting endangered and extinct plants. This book is a memoir of Magdalena’s life and a look at the plants he holds most dear. From tiny islands off the coast of Madagascar, to the Australian outback, to the jungles and arid mountain deserts of South America, Magdalena introduces us to plants, endangered or outright extinct in their natural habitats, some only still surviving through one or two specimens kept in institutions like Kew.

This is a fascinating book. Magdalena’s passion for his subject shines through in every line. And he doesn’t limit himself to environmental concerns, either. The thorny questions about ownership and repatriation in a post-colonial world are also addressed, and highlight just how difficult it can be to save and propagate some of these species. How do you balance local concerns with scientific study? If a native plant is found to have medicinal or commercial uses, who owns the rights to said plant? What about those plants which were “collected” by naturalists during the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of colonialism, do they still belong to their native people?

Any one with interest in botany, plant life, conservation, and/or environmentalism will enjoy this book. In The Plant Messiah, Carlos Magdalena reminds us multiple times that our very existence is dependent on the health of the flora around us. It behooves us to treat them as essential parts of life on Earth.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

This is a love story to a once-great city, told by a native son. Maraniss here chooses to focus his attention to 1962-1963, banner years for auto capital Detroit. Ford was on top of its game and looking to revolutionize the American sports car with the Mustang; Motown was hot and setting off a string of number one hits by artists who would become legends; the struggles of the civil rights movement were bolstered by a forward-looking local government and strong black community. Everything seemed poised to keep Detroit on top for decades to come.

Of course, today we know the realities of its current incarnation. But Maraniss here delivers us a loving, lingering look at a city that was a beacon for many across the country. Maraniss’ tales weaves in and out of politics, industry, music, religion, civil rights, law and order, and crime, we see how the biggest and smallest players of Detroit lived their intermingled lives, how small connections and deep alliances helped to shape the city of Detroit. This book is all the more fascinating considering the depth of the city’s fall from grace. Seeing such a vivid portrait of the city in its heyday makes it all the more obvious what has been lost.

This book is great for both history buffs and for those interested in current events. There is quite a bit in this book which echoes modern day issues and struggles. This book makes you want to root for Detroit, to hope that it’s future could hold even a fraction of the vivacity of its past.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove


The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove

At some unknown point in time, The Great Disruption fractured the world, sending different areas into different time periods. In the hundred years since, explorers have traveled the globe, trying to map the new world and make sense of this new reality. This story brings us to the New Occident, which roughly corresponds (geographically) to the original thirteen American colonies, in 1891. The government is run in a parliamentary system, where the right to speak can be purchased by the second. Our protagonist, Sophia Tims, comes from a long, distinguished line of explorers and mapmakers. Her uncle, Shadrack, is the preeminent cartologer in the world. When he is kidnapped, Sophia finds herself torn from her comfortable life in Boston as she sets off to rescue her uncle, travelling across countries and across times. But her uncle’s kidnappers are after something legendary, a map that can change the face–and fate–of the world.

This was, simply put, a fantastic YA adventure. It’s one of those stories at crosses age boundaries and can be enjoyed by just about anyone. Sophia is a great character, one who is able to grow and evolve as her world changes around her. Grove also provides us with a number of wonderful supporting characters and villains to flesh out the story. 

Importantly, the world these characters inhabit feels fully formed. The concept of different continents existing in different times is very fun, and Grove makes it work, to ing us insight into the relations between times, their politics, and their religions. 

The Glass Sentence is an adventure story along the lines of The Golden Compass. Anyone looking for a new YA series to try should add this book to their TBR.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: The Man Upon the Stair by Gary Inbinder

The Man Upon the Stair by Gary Inbinder

This is the third book in Inbinder’s Inspector Lefebvre series. There’s probably going to be spoilers for the first two books here. The good news is that while it is definitely better to read the books as a series, you could probably read this book as a standalone without too much trouble.


Achille Lefebvre has just been promoted to Chief Inspector following his successful foiling of an anarchist plot to assassinate a high ranking foreign offical with a new type of bomb. When the bomber meets his fate at the guillotine, Lefebvre is told that his compatriots have targeted him for revenge. In the midst of this, a high ranking member of the aristocracy, Baron de Livet has gone missing. Trying to uncover the Baron’s fate, Lefebvre uncovers easy connections between his missing person and the Russian government. As the conspiracy grows deeper, Lefebvre must use all his considerable intelligence and skills to safeguard himself and his family, and to prevent an international incident.

I received all three Inspector Lefebvre books as a bundle, and powered through the series in a matter of days. These books are entertaining historical mysteries, featuring an intelligent, forward-looking detective, intelligent women (good and evil), fascinating historical detail, and cameos by famous (real) historical figures. Inbinder provides us with enticing mysteries, and a cast of characters to root for and against. I loved how carefully Inbinder used historical details to firmly plant his stories in realistic ground.

The Man Upon the Stair combines historical mystery with political thriller. International intrigue and good old fashioned murder combine to set teetering a nation (and continent) already on the brink of war. The story is richly detailed and beautifully woven. Inbinder is clearly passionate about his subject and that enthusiasm shows through in his stories.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane by Colin Falconer

The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane by Colin Falconer

At the turn of the twentieth century, Kitty O’Kane grows up poor in the slums of Dublin, Ireland, enduring beatings from her drunken father and dreaming of a better life. She gets herself out of her old life and into service with the prestigious White Star line. She is able to secure a position as a stewardess on the line’s newest and largest ship: the Titanic. And so starts the saga of the Unkillable Kitty O’Kane. After becoming romantically involved with a firebrand journalist, Kitty dives into the fight for the poor, the disenfranchised, and for women’s sufferage. She bears witness to the some of the most calamitous and tumultuos events of the early twentieth century. Through Kitty’s eyes we experience the sinking of the Lusitania, the Russian Revolution, and the start of The Troubles in Ireland.

Kitty spends much of the book lamending her past. She ties herself early on to the increasingly erratic reporter, and pines for Tom Doyle, a young boy from her childhood in Dublin who has since grown into a handsome young doctor in London. And this is the crux of the problem for the book. Romance and love triangles are all well and good, but Kitty’s relationship with the men in her life completely takes over any true agency she might have had.

Yes, she witnesses the October Revolution in Russia, but she is only there because the journalist, Lincoln, has dragged her there. She wants to be a journalist herself, but lacks the courage to write in her own words, and rather follows Lincoln’s lead in all her writing. She eschews becoming a wife and mother in favor of adventure and activist (a decision I applaud) yet will not picture a life with her “true love” Tom Doyle that does not adhere to traditional relationships. She may be The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane, survivor of two shipwrecks, Russian snipers, and British armaments, but she is only that by accident, or by someone else’s agency. She is on a quest to better the lives of women in the world, but the author doesn’t let her make an attempt except by the side of a man.

So, the historical aspects of this book were lovely, and Kitty’s insertion into actual historical events, and her meeting with real historical people is well done. But I found Kitty’s lack of agency, and her dependence on an increasingly erratic Lincoln to be frustrating, and runs counter to the plot of a book that emphasized the personal strength and growth of a woman born with nothing who makes something of herself.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Life and Death in the Andes by Kim McQuarrie

Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries by Kim McQuarrie
The Andes mountain range in South America runs down the west coast of the continent. The stories and histories of the place are as varied as the peaks themselves. In Life and Death in the Andes, Kim McQuarrie gives us a travelogue and a history book, a sweeping epic and an intimate portrait. 

From the cities of Columbia to southernmost Chile and Argentina, McQuarrie brings us stories of druglords and mummies, weavers and bandits, natives and revolutionaries. Mixing history seamlessly with his own travels, Life and Death in the Andes gives us a unique perspective of life in the Andes mountains. 

History buffs, world travelers, and the curious will find a lot to like in McQuarrie’s easy conversational style. Anyone who wants to go a bit off the beaten trail will enjoy the stories McQuarrie has to tell us.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: This Side of Murder by Anna Lee Huber

this side of murder

This Side of Murder by Anna Lee Huber

After the end of World War I, Verity Kent is on her way to a house party celebrating the engagement of one of her late husband’s friends. Normally Verity prefers to be alone in her grief, but a mysterious message arrives, alleging that her husband, who died in battle on the fields of France, was actually a traitor to Great Britain. The letter hints that answers will be found at the party, and so Verity, who worked for the Secret Service during the war, sets off to find out the truth of her husband’s death. Once on isolated Umbersea Island, however, Verity finds that most of the party guests are potential suspects. When several guests are die mysteriously, it seems that someone will go to any lengths to keep the facts secret, and Verity must race against time to uncover the murderer’s identity before she is targeted next.

This was a great little period mystery. Verity Kent is an intelligent, determined, traumatized woman, who despite her losses in the war, is determined to continue to live her own life and defend the reputation of her dead husband. The isolated island provides a nice little “locked room” aspect to the mystery, ensuring that those on the island are unable to get help, and are indeed trapped with a murderer. Huber does a wonderful job with Verity, and the interactions between her characters are top notch. There are the requisite twists, turns, and red herrings, but I have to say that I did not anticipate how the book would end.

Fans of period mysteries, such as the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Windspear, and classical mysteries like Agatha Christie‘s novels should find a lot to love in this new mystery series. Huber has delivered up a classically intriguing story, and a fantastic new heroine.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.