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 Exes’ Revenge by Jo Jakeman

The Exes’ Revenge by Jo Jakeman

The Blurb:

A wickedly dark debut thriller about three women who’ve all been involved with the same man and realize the one thing they have in common is that they all want revenge against him…

Divorces are often messy, and Imogen’s is no exception. Phillip Rochester is controlling, abusive, and determined to make things as difficult as possible. When he shows up without warning demanding that Imogen move out of their house by the end of the month or he’ll sue for sole custody of their young son, Imogen is ready to snap.

In a moment of madness, Imogen does something unthinkable–something that puts her in control for the first time in years. She’s desperate to protect her son and to claim authority over her own life.

But she wasn’t expecting both Phillip’s ex-wife and new girlfriend to get tangled up in her plans. These three very different women–and unlikely allies–reluctantly team up to take revenge against a man who has wronged them all.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. About a quarter of the way in, I was ready to give up, chalk it up to another psychological thriller looking to hit the same buttons as countless other ones before. Then, the plot takes a hard left-hand turn and I found myself no longer in the gray muck of psychological thrillerville, but in the sparkly, colorful, oversaturated world of a pulp revenge story.

After a manner of speaking. The Exes’ Revenge lacks the gratuitous violence of the best pulp, but it is nonetheless a fast-paced story of revenge and unexpected consequences. The story follows the strengths and weaknesses of three very different women. They all have the same problem, but all have different priorities and goals, and all will go about wreaking revenge in their own way. There is something supremely satisfying in seeing a justly deserved revenge story play out.

So psychological thriller lovers will find getting into this story easy as falling down the stairs. But even those who aren’t thrilled with the genre (ha) can enjoy this book. Revenge is sweet, after all.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley 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: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Hanna is nearly perfect, at least according to her daddy. So what if she still isn’t speaking at age seven? She’s clearly very intelligent, and more than capable of communicating in her own way. Those schools she’s been expelled from? They just didn’t understand her. Suzette, Hanna’s mother suspects something is wrong. Her precocious child is displaying worrying tendencies towards manipulation and violence. While her husband remains blind to Hanna’s problems, Suzette begins to suspect she may be the target of Hanna’s wrath.

Let me say at the start that my interpretation of the book may be a bit different from most. I am emphatically childfree, don’t really care for children in any case, and tend to regard most of them as tiny little psychopaths until they reach their midtwenties. Am I justified in this point of view? Probably not. But that’s the mindset I’m coming from when reading this book.

And it was nightmarish. The book is great, don’t get me wrong. It is tightly written, and the alternating points of view between Suzette and Hanna let us truly get to know the central characters. I had to take a break from the book about 100 pages in because it was keeping me up at night. The utter despair and hopelessness of Suzette’s situation is wrenching. She is trying (though imperfectly) to do right by her daughter, though years of abnormal and worrying behavior from Hanna have made her a bit ambivalent about motherhood. Compound this with her husband’s need to see only the perfect, upper-middle class family he desires, and Suzette is entirely alone to deal with her daughter. This I find terrifying: when dealing with mental and behavioral abnormalities in childhood, it is generally left to the mother to wonder where she went wrong, and what she could have done differently. And in all cases, motherhood is a condition with no escape. Someone may regret bringing a child into the world, but there are few socially acceptable ways to divorce oneself from parenthood, especially when being “a good mother” is considered the epitome of female (and especially middle class) success.

Well, enough ranting. I did, obviously, pick the book back up (and finished the remainder in one sitting). In the interests of keeping this review spoiler-free, I’m going to say little about the latter part of the book, but I will say that I was surprised by the direction the story took.

In sum, this book is a nuanced look at motherhood and psychopathy, at the loneliness of being a stay at home mother, and the frustration of being an atypical child. This book intimately describes the horror of finding out that, rather than the sweet, beautiful child you may have dreamed about, you have given birth to a monster, and are now tethered to its side.

I’d be curious to see what more maternally-minded people thought of his book? We’re their sympathies (like mine) fully with Suzette? Or do they see something redeeming in Hanna? Do they feel the horror as “that could have been me”? Or does the horror lie in “Suzette should have done x,y,z”? I would love to hear your thoughts, feel free to leave me a comment or two!

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.