Review: No Going Back, Sawyer Brooks #3 (T. R. Ragan)

No Going Back is the third, and final(?) book in the Sawyer Brooks series. I’ve read one of the two preceding books – while this does work as a standalone, readers would do better to read one or both of the books that came before this one, if only to understand the emergence of The Black Wigs and how their actions have change over time.

The Black Wigs is a group of female vigilantes, meting out justice to (male) sexual predators. Previously, they only worked to embarrass such men, but here, in this book, things have taken a decidedly more macabre turn, and the group is engaging in outright torture and murder. While their reasons for doing so make sense, in the context of the world they inhabit in their heads in this book, it isn’t an easy task to take a life. However, at least one of the women in the group is psychopath who sticks to their plans without deviation, and it’s a bit disturbing that the other women, who express some hesitance in the case of one man who did indeed turn himself around and do good things to atone for his previous behavior, do next to nothing to stop his victim from killing him. There’s a lack of humanity floating in the pool at some points here, and there should probably be a trigger/content warning somewhere before the book begins.

This book identifies all of the members of the group, and we get chapters from the viewpoint of several of them – their day to day lives, their failing marriages, their thinking on the nature of the crimes they are committing, and how they’re planning the next snatch and kill. There are also a few chapters from the viewpoint of the victims – but not victims of The Black Wigs. This time, there’s a copycat engaging in their own level of justice, and impersonating The Black Wigs. As the story goes along, it becomes clear that one of the targets is in the crosshairs of both the copycat and the actual group.

Sawyer Brooks, last found being completely unaware that one of her sisters is in The Black Wigs, is now investigating the group, following leads wherever they can be found. She’s also convinced that some of the murders are not being done by the group, but by a copycat. Her sister Aria, also somehow unaware that their sister is part of The Black Wigs, assists Sawyer when she can.

Teaming up with Sawyer on the journalistic investigation is Lexi, a stunningly beautiful (of course) hard nosed reporter who has about as much use for Sawyer and Sawyer does for her – not much. Their differing styles are drawn very well, and each has their own strengths and weaknesses. The scenes where they are together are very well done, from the simmering resentment of Sawyer and the initial dismissal of her by Lexi to their eventual is not friendliness, at least respect for each others methods.

The ending comes together as both the police and Sawyer race to get to the final victim before the copycat and/or The Black Wigs do, and various loose ends are tied down.

There are a couple of false notes rung here and there (especially in one particular item in the finale, which I won’t go into for spoiler reasons) but these do not detract from the story and are not sufficient or jolting enough to take the reader out of the story.

A solid four out of five. Hopefully, this is not the last we see of Sawyer Brooks.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Girl Who Died (Ragnar Jonasson)

How could you go wrong with something that starts “Teacher needed for the edge of the world”? That sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Alas, although I am a fan of Ragnar Jonasson otherwise, The Girl Who Died just does not live up to his other books.

The teacher is Una, the edge of the world is the remote village of Skalar (population:10), and there are two girls who die, one in this time, and one in a previous time. There is – remarkably – even a hunky guy for Una to crush on, which is a good respite from the weirdos who otherwise populate the town. Her charges are two girls, and that’s the extent of her classroom. We don’t get a lot of lookins on lessons: just enough to know that one girl is outgoing, can sing, and is the swan, the other is introverted, can’t carry a tune, and is probably an embarrassment to her mother and her lech of a father, who hits on Una when she meets him.

The best thing about this book is the setting – and more specifically, the outdoor setting. The bleak and barren landscape is described with a suitable creepiness, and may as well be on the dark side of the moon on the remoteness scale.

The plot moves along – Una sees ghost her first day in town, which told me right off I[‘d chosen poorly in this instance. I’m just not a fan of ghost stories, and while Una’s feelings while in house, alone, were well-described, at times she seemed on the edge of the hysteria abyss, about to fall in.

There’s a random subplot that suddenly pops up about 3/4 of the way through, which just dissolves into nothing, and there is a death that was intended for someone else.

The end just fizzled for me, as it was terribly anticlimactic. Una may be part of the town now, but to me, she belongs back in the city.

Two stars out of five. I’m treating this as a one-off and look forward to Jonasson’s next book.

Thanks to St Martin’s and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

Review: Levi’s War, Horowitz #3 (Julie Thomas)

I’m of two minds about Levi’s War, the closing chapter of the Horowitz trilogy. I wanted to like it much more than I did, and I wanted it to be able to stand on its own, and it doesn’t. I wouldn’t say it’s a crushing disappointment, as it is not, but neither is it a rip-roaring tale of a fictional Jew (the Levi of the title) trained as a spy and assassin (more on this later), who by sheer happenstance lands in Hitler’s inner circle during WWII.

I get that historical fiction, and especially historical spy/thriller tales, need a lot of suspension of disbelief and a big helping of coincidence, but this really strained my willingness to remain in the book. But, as my power cut off during a storm, and remained off for over two hours, and having already read the other books on my Netgalley shelf, I didn’t have much else to do.

As might be clear from the above, it’s an easy enough, although rather pedestrian, read, and I did complete it during the outage. It is the third book in a trilogy, and this time, I’d say that reading the first two would have been a huge help to keep track of who everyone was, and who was related to whom. Completely denoting it as a third book in that way would have saved Ms Thomas the need to insert explanatory passages from the first two books, and would have saved us having to read them – multiple times throughout. While I know some people minded how the story was told – a young, 1945 Levi tells his story to a camera, the film is found during archival digitizing, and the immediate, extended, and descendant family watching that film – but this was fine with me. I didn’t care for just how dry – almost clinically dry – it was.

If you’re coming to this book and its weighty subject expecting to find a deeply emotional, resonant work set during one of the most shameful eras of human existence, you won’t find it here. There isn’t anyone in this book who seemed to be passionate about anything at all, except for Levi when playing the piano. His relationship with a childhood friend and a young Luftwaffe officer was mundane, and it wasn’t love that occupied Levi’s thoughts, but textbook dry, junior high muddling. Since homosexuality was criminalized, I’d have expected much more about how Levi and Erik evaded detection, since it’s clear Levi spends many nights – consecutive nights – at Erik’s place, something that surely would have generated gossip.

Beyond that, the book is a rather straightforward account of what Levi did during the war. He leaves Berlin, bound for London via Sweden, but gets held up by a Nazi at a checkpoint. Now, Levi at this point if just Levi, the musician. In this scene, he may as well be James Bond: the Nazi’s Ruger jams not once, but twice when he tries to shoot Levi. Levi needs only to step into the Nazi as the latter is about to pistol whip him and throw what amounts to one punch, which slams the man against a wall an knocks him out. Then Levi picks up the gun and flees with his belongings into the woods, magically making it to London despite having no military or survival training.

All the right doors open for Levi when they need to, and all the right people appear for him when the plot needs it. He works as a banker until total war breaks out, at which point he is placed in a camp with other refugees. He’s eventually tapped by the British to be a spy – and not just any spy: a spy whose purpose is to get into the circle of high level Nazis in order to send information back to the Allies. The British train him in less than a year, and he’s off to Berlin, to work in Goebbels’ office, translating English newspaper articles. He’s tapped to play piano at a party, eventually making it up the Nazi food chain until hes sent to play or Hitler himself. In doing so, he manages to send back quite a it of material, because the Nazis apparently don’t keep their mouths shut about organizational issues and/or chitchat when junior officers are present.

Levi eventually leaves Germany with Erik, who has recently been snuck out of Dachau worse for wear. They decide that Italy is where they should go, to fight with the partisans there, and that’s just what they do, traveling at night and hiding out during the day – something Levi does again later, on his own, and in neither instance is there any threat to being discovered. There’s no tension on those pages or many others in this book.

The Allies win, Levi is debriefed, and off he goes to live his life, with his relatives only finding out the story all those years later, watching the film. The ending sputters out a little, with a genealogy search that says flat out the circle of the Horowitz tale is over, instead of using a more metaphorical image to end on.

It’s decent enough if you’re casting around for something to read and have a few hours to do so. But if you haven’t read the first two books, just a warning that you’ll see the same information presented over and over because you weren’t there for the first two.

Two and half stars, rounded to three, and that only because the story, in its own framework, held itself together to the end.

Thanks to Harper360 and NetGalley for the review copy.

Hunting the Hangman (Howard Linskey)

An engrossing, novelized version of the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the so-called “final solution” envisioned by Nazi Germany, by Czech partisans trained by the British.

Knowing their survival after the assassination attempt – regardless of whether said assassination attempt was successful or not – was unlikely, the two Czechs go forward with their training and the attempt in any case, as the sacrifice of their lives may save many, many others.

The training sequences are the weakest, but only because the other events in the book – including glimpses of the Hangman’s family life – are much more fascinating. This is not a detraction from the book, however, which is a great fictional rendition of factual events read for anyone interested in WWII, the Holocaust, or Nazi Germany.

Solid five out of five read.

Thanks to Kensington Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Dirty Gold (Jay Weaver, Nicholas Nehamas, Jim Wyss, Kyra Gurney)

Dirty Gold explores illegal (wildcat) mining (mainly) in Peru, and the dubious ways gold brokers – such as those detailed in this book – manage to sell or obtain that gold to be recycled and sold to other entities or made into consumer goods.

I’ll say this right off the bat: writers of narrative nonfiction could use this as a textbook. It is intelligently laid out, the cast of characters not only denoted before the book begins, but named and described in the text in a way that does not require constant flipping to the beginning to see who is who, the history of illegal mining given (but not in an overwhelming way) along with the sociological, economic, corruption, and political ties to it, and how the various schemes worked to get the gold out of South America. It’s masterful.

At its base, this book is about three men in Miami – Juan Pablo Granda, Samer Barrage, and Renato Rodriguez, dubbed the three amigos – working on behalf of a larger company, manage to bring an astonishing $3,6 billion worth of mainly Peruvian gold to their company. In doing so, both they, and their primary local buyer in Peru, go to a great number of steps to obscure the actual origin of the gold. Those steps include the creation of fake/shell companies, smuggling Peruvian gold to other countries in order to export it to the US, and failed or too-loose vetting of the supposed exporting companies in Peru that declared the gold obtained in a legal manner.

If you’re interested in anything related to gold, money laundering, smuggling, political and law enforcement corruption, sociological, ecological, and health impacts of illegal mining, and the utter chasm between those riding high on the backs of those in abject poverty, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Absolutely a five out of five star read. I’d also recommend “A Most Wicked Conspiracy”, about the Alaskan gold rush, another five star read.

Thanks to Public Affairs and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

REVIEW: The Ravine (Wendy Lower)

In 2009, Wendy Lower (author of Hitler’s Furies , another worthy book to add to your TBR list) comes across a photo from Miropol, Ukraine: a woman, toddler in her arms, baby at her feet, being shot by a Ukrainian collaborator during operations in that country during WWII. The title refers to the ravine into which people fell after being executed for no reason other than they were not part of the so-called “master race”.

What follows is an excellent, although horrifying read, of Lower’s investigation into this photo. This entails records retrieved in various countries – the US, Ukraine, Germany, and Israel – talking with people and/or potential witnesses, and eventually spans ten years to finally identify the doomed family as well as the Slovakian photographer who was not supposed to be taking pictures of these operations.

If you’re at all interested in the Holocaust or the European Theater of Operations during WWII, you’ll likely be as engrossed in this book as I was, even given – or especially because of the book’s subject, something no one should ever forget.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the review copy.

REVIEW: The Darkest Evening, DCI Vera Stanhope #9 (Ann Cleeves)

I love Vera Stanhope, cranky old broad and DCI.

In her latest outing, Vera drives home while a blizzard rages. After taking the wrong turn – that happens to be the road to her ancestral home – she comes across a car blocking the road, mired in the snow. The driver’s door is open, and there’s a baby in a carseat in the back, but the driver is missing. As the snow continues to fall, Vera takes the child into her car, leaves a note on the car, and carries on to said ancestral home, knocking on the door to seek harbor from the storm, and in the process seeing relatives she hasn’t seen in quite a long time.

When a young woman’s body is found on the property, it’s clear the woman is likely the mother of the child, and that the people in the house (both er relatives and the dinner guests they are hosting) probably know more about the woman than they let on.

The investigation is then off, with no shortage of suspects and Vera and her team wringing information out of people and chasing down leads and connections, no matter how slim they may appear.

We get more background on Harold, Vera’s father and black sheep of the Stanhope family, and more insight into how Vera views the familial tree (spoiler: she’s not into having to put on the facade of genteel landowner, benificent landlord). I believe these short interludes were both worthy of inclusion to the story and not disruptive to the narrative. Well done on that.

As Vera and her team put together the puzzle of circumstances, the perpetrator becomes more violent and aggressive, and the final showdown is a lulu.

Highly recommended. Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for the review copy (which was approved after I’d already bought it ).

 

Review: The Nine (Gwen Strauss)

Full title:

The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany

How do people withstand the most horrific abuses performed by a nation led by a madman?

There are many books about soldiers surviving what were basically death camps when they were taken prisoner, about well planned and executed escapes, about spies hanging on, in hiding, while an entire militarized police force look for them.

The Nine has all of that, and more. It’s the story of nine women, resistance fighters in WWII, captured and interrogated by French police before being sent off to Germany for interrogation by the Gestapo and ultimately imprisoned at a work camp.

The primary focus is on the author’s great aunt Hélène Podliasky, who ultimately became the de facto leader of the group as they met one another in their journey from freedom to prison and back to freedom again.

Where this book shines comes after all of that – after the beatings, the torture, the forced work, and all manner of atrocities. As Germany was facing defeat, some of the camps, including the one housing The Nine, were sent on forced marches, to move prisoners from outlying areas about to be overrun, to prisons closer to what was left in German hands. During their march, they took a chance and fled the march, running into the forest, heading for France.

This journey, free of guards and the wire of prisons, wasn’t any easier than that. Along the way, they found both people willing to help them, and people who had no interest in doing so, preferring to turn them in. They also found those who wanted to use them for their own ends – soldiers, for instance, who thought the Allies would look more favorably on them if they were found assisting a group of former prisoners.

The author is a poet, and it shows. It’s a fantastic piece of narrative nonfiction, although I would say that if you’re just dipping your toes into the water of the cruelest parts of WWII, or if you’re just learning about it, you might want to start with a broader history first, to understand the whole of the war, then narrow to the final days of the European theater before reading this. Doing so will better inform the reader about that particular point in the war, and how the engineered system developed by the German leadership was breaking down.

Much like Night (Elie Wiesel, another must-read), The Nine captures the sense of how it was to live with daily atrocities, and how people came through them.

Highly recommended – a five star read.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy

Pub date: May 4, 2021

Review: Heroes of the RNLI (Martyn R Beardsley)

Almost 200 years ago, Sir William Hillary was key in forming the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – an organized rescue service made up of people fearless (or scared but willing to do it anyway) enough to head out into gales and storms and anything else the sea could throw at boats and ships to rescue anyone who could be rescued. In his time, of course, those rescue attempts were often just people oaring their way out into the sea. These days, the rescues are more high tech, but no less hair-raising at times.

This book is not so much just a history of the service, but a book of many of the more exciting/dramatic/history-making rescues, with the history of the service woven in here and there as the summaries of those rescues move forward in time. Some of them (Grace Darling) are more well known outside the UK than others – most others, I would say. They all, however, encapsulate quite well the deeds of people willing to risk their own lives to save others.

If you like real life rescue stories, and derring-do on the sea, you’ll likely enjoy this collection of stories and the history sailing underneath them.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization (Roland Ennos)

I’m a sucker for a single-item “history of” books. The best books of this nature, I’ve found, are those that are telling a *story* of the history versus those that are simply a history. Books like Salt (Mark Kulansky) or Longitude (Dava Sobel) are terrific examples of the narrative nonfiction that will pull the reader in to the world of the subject, riding along like a time traveler following a single strand of history.

There were instances where I felt that same tug from The Age of Wood, but unfortunately, I found them to be rare. The book is still quite interesting, chasing down the use of wood over the centuries and to the current day, assuming you’re interested in a rather dry overall tone.

Those with an acute interest in wood, or people just looking to learn something on the subject will likely be more willing to get through an almost textbook-like reading than the casual reader, and it’s worth it, in my opinion. It’s relatively short, which brought to my mind the question of whether the storytelling was not enough to push it to a longer page count and more relaxed narrative, or whether the publisher or author decided about 300 pages was all they were willing to venture into the subject. Either way, the book suffers for it.

There are numerous discussions of things built with wood versus metal, and a somewhat questionable (to me) passage about Amazonian deforestation, and into the modern time period, quite a bit of page count given over to metal – not what I was here for.

Overall, it isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, for a book about a resource indispensable to humans ancient and modern, which I’d think is a fascinating topic.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the review copy.

Reflections on gardening, cooking, and life