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: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester is a Harlem native who understands the uselessness of a black man working hard for a good wage in New York City. Unlike his bricklayer father, who’s body is broken and wallet empty from long hours of backbreaking work for meager pay. Tommy prefers to hustle for his money, the mystique of a carefully chosen suit and an old guitar doing a good portion of the legwork for him. If he sometimes gets involved with the arcane and the occult, at least he’s making a loving sufficient to support himself and his aging father. But after an encounter with a sorceress in Queens, events begin to spiral out of control. Tommy has attracted he attention of dangerous beings, and he, New York, and reality itself are in grave danger.

I’m a huge fan of HP Lovecraft’s stories, though the man’s personal beliefs are frankly odious. I love the concept of unknowable cosmic horrors, of elder gods so ancient and vast that human beings (always so full of ourselves) are essentially bacteria in comparison. However, Lovecraft’s blatant racism shouldn’t be ignored, and the best modern Lovecraft derivatives take this into account rather than trying to smooth over it.

This is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s famous short stories, but the narrative takes us along the flip side of the original. This is a story about race and arcane magic, of injustice and revenge, of the dark, foreign, and “lesser” discovering beings who make their oppressors less than nothing.

Thus may be a book about elder gods and magic, but it is also a brutal and and all-to-relevant story of those pushed out to the margins, and what happens when they are pushed too far.

Book Review: City of Ink by Elsa Hart

City of Ink by Elsa Hart

This is the third book in Elsa Hart’s Li Du series, so this review may have some spoilers for the first two books.


Li Du has returned to Beijing (however reluctantly) after earning his pardon. Making the most of the bustling and confining capital city, Li Du sets out to discover the truth behind his mentor’s crimes (and the cause of his exile). To that end, he takes up a post as a lowly clerk in an unimportant government office, so much the better to remain invisible in the city. When a double murder occurs in his district, it seems like a straightforward case of marital infidelity and jealousy. But as Li Du and his supervisor conduct their investigation, the seemingly simple case becomes more and more complex. Soon, Li Du finds his cherished anonymity in jeopardy and enemies at every turn.

I vastly enjoyed the previous book in this series, The White Mirror. Hart’s historical locations seem to live and breathe. She has clearly done an extensive amount of research for her stories, and her attention to detail and skill with words allow the reader to fully immerse themselves into 18th century China.

Like The White Mirror, this mystery is complex and subtle, with many threads weaving in and out of the main narrative. Hart builds the tension of her story slowly, allowing the reader to stop and reason along with the clever Li Du.

Fans of historical mysteries can do little better than this wonderful series.

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

Book Review: Scandal Above Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

Scandal Above Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

This is the second book in the Kat Halloway Mystery series, so this review may contain spoilers for the first book. You can always check out my review for Death Below Stairs here.


Kat Halloway has settled into her role as cook for a wealthy London family after several months of murder, mystery, and fenian plots. When a friend of Kat’s employer is accused by her husband of stealing priceless artwork, Kat finds herself drawn into the scandals and betrayals of the above stairs world. When the rash of thefts spreads to neighboring houses and the British Museum, it seems Kat has her work cut out for her. Balancing her demanding work life, prickly new assistant, devotion to her daughter, and unofficial detective duties is hard, but cooks are very good at multitasking.

This is a strong second entry into the mystery series. Kat Halloway is quite a good protagonist, smart, quick-witted, and relatable. So many Victorian-era mysteries focus on upperclass women solving mysteries, it’s nice to see the belowstairs folks get their day in the sun. Ashley has also provided us a strong secondary character in the form of Tess, Kat’s sharp-tongued new assistant. While it would have been easy to leave Tess as a surly young woman (with or without a heart of gold) Ashley takes the time to flesh her out beyond the basics and make her someone the reader wants to root for.

This is a great series for folks who dig historical mysteries. If you’ve read and liked The Gaslight Mysteries by Victoria Thompson, or the Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn, this is a great next stop for you!

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

Book Review: The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

Nolan Moore is, for better or for worse, that “ALIENS” guy. A former Hollywood screenwriter and renaissance man, he now hosts a popular web series The Anomaly Files, where he seeks out evidence in support of theories not supported my mainstream science. For their latest episode (and a make-or-break moment for the show) Nolan and the Anomaly Files crew head to the Grand Canyon, where a Smithsonian expedition in 1909 is rumored to have discovered a hidden cave filled with wonderful and terrible things. When, with a bit of luck they do discover the cave, they find that what it contains is far more dangerous and horrifying than they could ever have guessed.

This was a fantastic book, the story somewhere between science fiction and horror. The giants of this particular genre– Michael Crichton, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child deliver stories that are out here, couldn’t possibly be true…but while reading, some small part of our lizard brain whispers “maybe.” The Anomaly treads along that fine line, with occasional lateral movements into Lovecraftian territory.

Perhaps my favorite part of this story is its self-awareness. Nolan makes a living trying to prove the conspiracy theorists right, but isn’t truly a believer himself. When confronted by a situation that represents both his life’s ambition and most primal nightmare, he has no roadmap for how to react to the situation.

If you like your genetics with a side of dinosaurs, or your rainforests with a touch of retroviral monsters, then dive into a story that gives us archaeology sandwiched between survival horror and an unknowable, unsympathetic force.

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

Book Review: The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

This is Holmberg’s fourth entry into her Paper Magician universe. This is not a direct sequel, rather The Plastic Magician explores new themes and magics within the same universe as the Paper Magician Trilogy. This means you can read this book as a standalone without having read the others. But I’m going to say right now that if you haven’t read the original trilogy, then you are seriously missing out.

In this story, we leave magicians Ceony Twill and Emery Thane behind and instead follow Alvie Brechenmacher, an American girl with German parents who desperately wants to be a polymaker, that is- a magician who works with plastic. As polymaking is the newest and least understood magic, there is an entire world waiting for discovery, and Alvie, naturally brilliant and creative, wants to make her mark on the world. When she manages to apprentice to the world’s foremost polymaker, all of Alvie’s dreams seem to be coming true. But when she and her mentor develop a groundbreaking new invention, old rivalries emerge and Alvie learns that the world of magician can be a dangerous one.

This was a great addition to the Paper Magician world. Alvie is a fantastic protagonist–unapologetically brilliant, kind, creative, and more than a little socially awkward. I also enjoyed how, despite the book’s historical setting, everyone seems to take Alvie’s intellect as a given, and as an asset. Alvie occupies the brilliant inventor trope that is so often the territory of male characters, and she does it well. I always love a female protagonist who is comfortable with their own intelligence.

In fact, my biggest complaint would be that the antagonist of this book, while amoral and devious, exists more as a witless foil than a true challenge. While he certainly succeeds in disrupting things in the book (as he must), once his master plan was revealed, I felt a bit let down (really guy, that was your plan? And then what?!).

In all, this is a fun YA book that will appeal to a wide age range. Fans of the previous books will enjoy this one, and anyone who thinks this book looks good should check out the Paper Magician, like, yesterday.

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

Book Review: Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

In 1888, young Egyptologist Romulous Hardy is offered a vast sum of money by a reclusive millionaire to search for ancient tombs in Egypt. Hardy jumps at the chance to get out of the library and into the field, but soon finds himself dealing with things no one could have forseen. After tragedy befalls his expedition, Hardy is charged with bringing the mummies he recovered (six in all, though one sarcophagus is twice as big as any normal human) back to LA. When his train is waylaid in the Arizona desert, he learns that his cargo may be more dangerous than he ever suspected, and that cursed mummies are only the tip of the iceberg.

This was a fun, entertaining, and wild ride. Told in the style of old weird fiction stories, Sidor brings quite a bit of HP Lovecraft and The Mummy to the table. The latter half of the book, which takes place in Arizona and Mexico is evocative of Weird West stories. There are monsters and mummies and cultists and vampires. There are cowboys and banditos and Pinkertons and train heists. There’s cannibalism and curses and ancient legends. This book is a mashup of everything that makes weird fiction fun.

In fact, my biggest complaint is that in including everything, the story loses focus in places and drifts along, detached. Sometimes the actions runs along at breakneck pace, and sometimes it stutters to a halt to gaze for a while at the supernatural scenery.

Still, anyone who is looking for a good time with some good, old-fashioned pulp will probably enjoy this book. I mean, just look at that epic cover art! If the cover sings to you, then more than likely the book will as well.

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