13 Hours

13 Hours13 Hours

by Mitchell Zuckoff

13 Hours is the true story of the terrorist attack on the U.S. State Department Special Mission Compound and the Annex, a nearby CIA station, in Benghazi, Libya.  On September 11, 2012, a team of six American security operators fought for thirteen hours to drive away the attackers, risking everything to protect the Americans there.  13 Hours is the story as told by the operators themselves, replete with first-hand knowledge of the events and details that can be found nowhere else.

Several years ago, I watched the movie 13 Hours and sat riveted to the television screen the whole time.  I was at least equally engrossed by the book.  The insight from the operators stationed in Benghazi provides immeasurable value to the story, and Zuckoff does well in weaving a story that personalizes the operators while also highlighting how well they worked together as a team and how vital that relationship was that fateful night.  Zuckoff provides a brief account of each operator’s personal background and includes details throughout the book that develop each character, ensuring that readers are able to sympathize with the operators and thus have a greater interest in the story.

13 Hours is a fast-paced page turner; it was difficult to put down especially once the attack began.  Zuckoff includes many details as the action progresses, from the expression on a character’s face to the seemingly unimportant comment made by one of the operators.  Rather than bogging down the flow of the story, the details serve instead to make the events more real, bringing sharp, clear images to the reader’s mind.  In addition, despite the seriousness of the subject, Zuckoff is able to incorporate light, sparse humor without it seeming out of place.

This book does not seem political in any way.  The story is centered around the experience of the operators, and there is no speculation about possible motives behind the slow response to the request for reinforcements.  Readers can enjoy the book and learn from the first-hand account without worrying about thinly veiled political accusations or biased storytelling that paints one political party or figure in an unfavorable light.  I believe the author and the operators were truly interested only in telling the truth of what happened that night in Libya.

I would highly recommend this book for older readers as well as mature younger readers.  There is some profanity as well as details of violence that may not be appropriate for younger readers.  Other than giving me knowledge of a significant episode of American history, reading this book reminded me of the very different lifestyle of GRS (Global Response Staff) operators and the important security role they play in the intelligence community.  I was left with a greater appreciation for the risks many of the operators take to serve this country as well as the sacrifices made by their families.

The Devotion of Suspect X

The Devotion of Suspect XThe Devotion of Suspect X

by Keigo Higashino

Yasuko Hanaoka, a divorced single mother, believes she has finally left her abusive ex-husband behind her.  But one day he shows up at her door, and the situation quickly spirals out of control until he ends up dead on her apartment floor.  Her neighbor, the genius math teacher Ishigami, quickly steps in and offers to help them establish an alibi on the condition that they must follow his instructions to the letter.  After the discovery of a brutal murder, the Tokyo Police taps the detective Kusanagi to solve the case.  Presented with a series of strange clues, Kusanagi enlists the help of his friend Manabu Yukawa, a respected physics professor and former classmate of Ishigami’s.  What follows is an intense battle between two brilliant minds, each move bringing them closer to the truth.

In this book, the author Higashino masterfully spins the story and had me guessing at the truth until the very end.  Ishigami clearly has special feelings for Yasuko, his reason for helping her cover up the murder in the first place.  He is also clearly of exceptional intelligence, and many of his actions throughout the book are rather mysterious, and some even had me suspecting his motive.  Each clue revealed is even stranger than the last, leading to the inevitable, shocking truth.  I especially liked how Higashino used the professor Yukawa and his conversations with the detective to help his readers understand Ishigami better.  While the story is not pure suspense from beginning to end – there are plenty of more relaxing scenes that involve character building – it moves along fast enough that I always wanted to push ahead to reach the end and discover the truth.

One unfortunate aspect is that the book was translated from Japanese, resulting in a sometimes awkward sentence structure.  At times, the narrative is not quite smooth, a hitch here and there breaking the flow of words.  In addition, some of the dialogue sounds like the characters are speaking a second language; while correct with respect to grammar, it sometimes sounds a bit stilted and unnatural.  However, this did not detract much from the story itself, and the translation in general was good, especially considering how difficult it is to capture all the nuances of the Japanese version.   On the flip side, you could look at the translation as a positive – like listening to a narrator with slightly accented English, which gives the story an exotic charm.

I would recommend this book for both younger and older readers.  While it is about a murder, and while the relationship between Yasuko and Ishigami is a bit complex, I did not find the way it was written to be disturbing.  In addition, there is no profanity or other strong language.  The Devotion of Suspect X is great if you are looking for an entertaining read, and it will brighten (or darken, however you wish to look at it) your day while also working your detective skills.

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White CityThe Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago, an accomplishment that secured America’s place in the world.  The Devil in the White City tells the story of the mastermind behind the fair, Daniel Burnham, and the many other architects that worked together to design it.  Struggling with politics, unions, and a ridiculous time constraint among other things, they strove to create a fair that would exceed the expectations of all watching and also surpass the greatness of the 1889 world’s fair in Paris.  Yet lurking near the fair was a serial killer, a young man with the face of an angel and the manner of a saint, who used the fair to lure many young women to their deaths.

Reading this book really gave me an appreciation for how much effort goes into planning, designing, and constructing a building complex.  Larson included architectural details in the book that I would normally find tedious, yet he laid them out elegantly and placed them in the broader context of the fair itself, making them intriguing to read about.  The number of different elements that come into play when designing a fair is almost overwhelming to think about and demands great respect for those who planned the fair.

Larson provides a great level detail overall, from his descriptions of landscapes to the mannerisms of the characters.  The author often quotes from letters written by the characters, thus revealing their thoughts and state of mind.  This serves to breathe life into characters that would otherwise be simple historical figures remembered only by their accomplishments.  By making it easier for his audience to relate to the characters, Larson has made this story that much more enjoyable.

Although the final outcome of the fair is known as history, Larson tells the story in a way that had me guessing as to the what would happen next in the sequence of events and wincing in expectation of the next disaster.  I thought Larson also recreated the character of H. H. Holmes, the young serial killer, particularly well.  Reading about Holmes was like reading about a cold-blooded murderer of a novel, with his charming outward appearance and sadistic joy in killing.

All in all, The Devil in the White City is a great read, both entertaining and educational.  I would recommend this book for older readers or very mature younger readers, given its subject matter.  Aside from a few mild four-letter words, there are several short but vivid descriptions of the murder victims’ bodies, as well as a few descriptions of the murders themselves, although the murder methods described are not violent or bloody.  Reading this book will not only expand your knowledge of a significant event in American history but also give you a better understanding and appreciation for architecture and the challenges it presents.

City of Thieves

City of ThievesCity of Thieves

by David Benioff

During the Nazi siege of Leningrad, Jewish Lev Beniov is arrested for looting a dead German’s body and thrown into prison, where he meets Kolya, a deserter with perfect Aryan looks.  Expecting to be executed, they are surprised to be met instead with a peculiar command from a powerful Soviet colonel – find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.  If they succeed, they will regain their freedom and access to rations.  And so Lev and Kolya set out to find eggs, in a city where everyone knows eggs no longer exist, in a time when it is every man for himself.

Lev and Kolya make for an amusing pair.  Lev is cautious and sometimes sullen.  Kolya is witty, confident, and seemingly without a care in the world.  This mismatch of personalities creates a chemistry between the two that is highly entertaining, although Lev clearly often finds Kolya utterly unamusing.  Benioff capitalizes on this relationship and uses it to make the book hard to put down even when the characters are doing something as mundane as walking through the woods.  This was perhaps the best aspect of the story.

I found it admirable that Benioff was able to create a quite engrossing story from such a simple starting point – finding a dozen eggs for a colonel.  It turns out finding eggs in a city under siege is far from simple, and Lev and Kolya are forced to employ a plethora of different ideas in a desperate attempt to complete their task.  The lengths to which they go to find eggs makes the whole story comical in a way, but the real content – the growing bond between Lev and Kolya – gives the story more meaning than a simple comedy.

City of Thieves contains quite a bit of material that is sexually very inappropriate, sometimes bordering on vulgar.  This takes the form not of explicit descriptions of intimacy but rather through the characters’ lustful thoughts and spoken references and jokes.  While I understand some of this may be necessary in order to demonstrate the personality of the characters and the times in which they lived, the sheer amount of it in the book detracted from my enjoyment of the story.  I thought Benioff could have portrayed his characters’ personality without so much sexual material.

Aside from this, there is a good amount of profanity as well as several bloody and possibly disturbing scenes.  Given these elements, I would recommend this book for older readers.  City of Thieves is a good story but may be difficult to read for some.  If you have a good stomach, this would be a great book to read while curled up by the fireplace on a wintry night.

The Spy and the Traitor

The Spy and the TraitorThe Spy and the Traitor

by Ben Macintyre

Oleg Gordievsky was the model of a perfect KGB officer.  Born into a KGB family, he possessed a deep intellect and graduated from the “Russian Harvard”.  But eventually he recognized the lies and tyranny of the Soviet regime for what they were, and as he worked his way up to the highest post in the KGB’s London station, he began acting as a double agent for MI6, the British intelligence service.  With the Cold War reaching new heights, Gordievsky provided the British with information on Soviet spies, plots, and internal mechanisms.  And as he worked to bring down the very regime that sought to control him, he lived always with the risk that he would be discovered, that he would be betrayed, that his family would be used against him.

The Spy and the Traitor describes true events that unfolded during the twentieth century.  Perhaps most instrumental in making this book so riveting was the extraordinary amount of detail the author presented, from Gordievsky’s small mannerisms to every single step of an operation.  This detail allowed Macintyre to paint a fuller image of Gordievsky.  In most other true historical books that I have read, the lack of fine detail kept me from really understanding the characters and getting a complete picture of their personalities.  However, in The Spy and the Traitor, I felt as if I actually knew Gordievsky and could therefore better identify with him.  In addition, I gained a greater appreciation for the amount of planning and precision needed for intelligence operations.

The suspense Macintyre was able to create was impressive.  At times I was on the edge of my seat, anxious for the outcome, and it was as if I were reading a thriller.  Again, I believe it is the detail that allowed the author to do this.  Without these little details, the narration of events would pass too quickly for any suspense to build.

The Spy and the Traitor illustrates the extreme stress that a spy comes under, how the uncertainty can wear a man down both physically and mentally.  It emphasizes the importance of intelligence, courage, and the ability to think quickly, elements that are needed to operate in the field.  Most of all, it reveals how one man, born in a controlling and oppressive system, managed to defy that system and fight for a cause he believed was right.

I would recommend this book for older readers and young adults.  It contains a few sexual references and uses of profanity, and the subject may be slightly difficult for younger readers to grasp.  The Spy and the Traitor is an engrossing read, at once exhilarating and edifying, and I can think of no better way to spend your summer evening.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

At the age of thirty-six, just months away from finishing his years of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  In an instant, Kalanithi’s imagined future with his wife was gone, replaced by pain and uncertainty.  Where he had been the doctor before, he was now the patient, struggling to live and find the path that had once been so clear.  He had chosen to be a neurosurgeon with the belief that through his work, he could reach an understanding of identity, meaning, and death.  Suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, Kalanithi described the experience of facing his own mortality as “disorienting” and “dislocating”.  Once again, he was left searching for answers.  What is the meaning of life?  How do you assess your life when faced with death?  How do you forge a new identity while death looms near?  When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s attempt to answer these questions and more, striving to reach a conclusion before time runs out.

What I liked most about this book was the author’s writing style.  Kalanithi has the kind of eloquent writing style that makes it a pleasure to read any story.  He articulated his thoughts clearly and gracefully, despite their sometimes abstract nature, and addressed some of the most difficult questions of life with poise.  Throughout the book, he showed that he was compassionate, yet capable of reasoning without the clouding of emotion.

It was particularly inspiring for me to see how Kalanithi became so successful.  Through a combination of intelligence, diligence, and ambitious parents, he excelled in academics and in his training as a neurosurgeon.  His studies in English as well as his interest in philosophy gave him a unique – and I would argue more well-rounded and open-minded – perspective on his line of work.

It was fascinating to watch Kalanithi’s philosophical journey.  He began as an eager student, confident he would find the answers he was looking for in his work.  After all, how much closer could one get to understanding individual identity than studying the brain?  As a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi would be able to see life and death up close; he believed this would help him better understand both.  Facing the probability of his own death shattered Kalanithi’s certainty and caused him to reevaluate his most important values, principles, and beliefs.  Because of my Christian faith, I disagreed with how he approached the subject of life, death, and meaning.  However, I agreed with many of his assertions and found his opinions to be valuable for provoking a thorough examination of one’s own beliefs.

I would recommend this book for older readers.  There are a few instances where profanity is used, but the real issue for younger readers is the subject matter.  Kalanithi focuses primarily on how the choices we make give our lives meaning and how those choices change when we are faced with death.  This may be a bit abstract for younger readers; however, a particularly mature young reader might be able to understand and appreciate this book, with parental guidance given as needed.  When Breath Becomes Air is a beautifully written, deeply moving memoir that will speak to all of its readers.

The Winter Sea

51gMZ3KRoMLThe Winter Sea

by Susanna Kearsley

In the spring of 1708, a Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers anchored off the coast of Scotland and nearly succeeded in reclaiming the throne of England for exiled James Stewart.  Bestselling author Carrie McClelland intends to use this historical event as the backdrop for her next novel.  She rents a small cottage near Slains Castle in Scotland and begins to write, taking the name of one of her ancestors for her heroine.  But as she weaves her story, she realizes that many of her ideas correspond perfectly to real historical records, leading her to suspect that her book may not be the fiction she thought it was.  As she grapples with this strange ancestral memory, Carrie is pulled along by her own story.  Soon she will be the only one that knows exactly what happened all those years ago.

I must admit that when I first began reading this book, I had no idea it was a romance.  This was a disappointing discovery for me, as romance is my least favorite genre, but I was still able to enjoy the book because of the author’s writing.  Kearsley has a graceful way of writing that is pleasing to read and helps the story flow; she doesn’t use big words or flowery language, but rather weaves simple words into elegant sentences.  In addition, while I generally do not like romance, I did find it rather amusing to watch Carrie tangle herself in a love triangle where one man was completely oblivious to the fact that the woman he found himself so attracted to was not reciprocating.  The Winter Sea also follows the story of Sophia, Carrie’s heroine, whose life mirrors Carrie’s in some ways.

One character I particularly liked – although she doesn’t appear very often – was Carrie’s agent Jane, a sharp, quick-witted woman with top-notch negotiating skills and a head for organization.  She is Carrie’s opposite in many ways.  This makes for rather entertaining interactions between the two, what with Carrie’s attempts to hide her love life from Jane and Jane’s hawk-like eye and perceptive mind.  Carrie forever has her head in the clouds of her novel while Jane is down to earth and all about practicality.

While I did enjoy the book, I found it to be rather predictable in some ways.  I was able to guess a future turn of events far in advance of when it actually occurred, and this took a little away from the story.  When Kearsley revealed to her readers the reason behind Carrie’s ancestral memory, it felt anticlimactic and unrealistic.  I also thought Kearsley could have saved this revelation for later in the book to keep her audience guessing a little longer.

I would recommend this book for older readers.  There are several intimate scenes, although most have almost no detail at all, and one mild four-letter word.  Mature young adults with an understanding of intimate relationships and their effects could also read this book.  The Winter Sea is a good pick for those who enjoy not-too-cheesy romance and are eager to learn from Kearsley’s eloquent writing.

In a Sunburned Country

24In a Sunburned Country

by Bill Bryson

Once again, Bill Bryson steps out the door and into his favorite activity – travel.  This time, it is Australia, where he will brave the scorching heat, the many miles of barren desert land, and, of course, the many ways one could die.  There are the spiders, the snakes, the crocodiles, the jellyfish, the sharks, and a whole host of other dangers.  Yet despite this multitude of hazards, Australia is a country filled with sunshine, and Bryson plans to have a blast.

No matter which book of Bryson’s you crack open, you are bound to have a good laugh.  Bryson has a remarkable talent for making the most ordinary things funny.  He makes caricatures of people and situations whenever he can and engages frequently in hyperbole.  If you are ever in need of cheering up, simply pick up one of Bryson’s books and begin reading.  Within a matter of seconds, you will be in a considerably cheerier mood.

Bryson states towards the beginning of the book that he loves Australia.  Even if he hadn’t explicitly said so, it would have been clear from the generous praises he lavishes upon the country.  He writes with fondness of the vast emptiness of Australia that is at once daunting and charming; the numerous poisonous insects, reptiles, and mammals waiting to strike; and the never-ending cheerfulness of the Aussies themselves.  His criticisms are few and far between, again highlighting how pleasing he finds Australia.  One such criticism was of Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, a commercial establishment in Glenrowan, Victoria, that memorializes the outlaw’s capture.  Bryson describes the exhibition as “so wonderfully, so delightfully, so monumentally bad” that it was worth every penny they paid and more.  If you wanted, you could call that a compliment.

Throughout the book, Bryson interweaves tidbits of Australian history, which I found particularly helpful.  Reading In a Sunburned Country was a bit like touring a museum with a very knowledgeable tour guide.  I am not well-versed in Australia’s history, and reading this book was a pleasant and amusing way of educating myself.

I would recommend this book for young adults and older readers, with some reservations.  Bryson occasionally uses profanity and makes sexual jokes and references.  However, In a Sunburned Country was both an edifying and entertaining read, filled with Bryson’s colorful and hilarious descriptions.  I’ve packed my bags and am ready to take off for Australia now.

Skyward

Skyward 2Skyward

by Brandon Sanderson

Since Spensa was a child, she dreamed of becoming a pilot, a hero that defended her world from the Krell.  But she has been branded coward’s daughter since the day her father broke rank and fled from the enemy.  Her chances of becoming a pilot are almost zero.  And as Spensa strives to become the warrior she had always envisioned, she begins to unearth old secrets, secrets that may better have remained hidden.

Brandon Sanderson has a knack for writing stories in unique settings with novel concepts, as shown in the Mistborn Trilogy and the Reckoners series, among many others.  With Skyward, the setting isn’t quite as original, but there are still many new elements.  Sanderson explains each scientific phenomenon in a way that is easy to understand so that the reader isn’t left with glazed eyes and a need to read the passage again.

Each character has a distinct and intriguing personality.  From the insufferably arrogant Jorgen, to the beautifully serene FM, to the endlessly cheerful Kimmalyn, Sanderson makes every person come alive, first painting each with broad, colorful strokes, then following up with finer techniques.  Once I became familiar with each character’s unique mannerisms, I began to more fully enjoy the dialogues.  Reading each exchange was like watching a picture form, each character adding a detail.  With Kimmalyn, it was usually a ridiculous quip delivered with all sincerity; with Arturo, a full-blown lecture designed to show off his treasure trove of knowledge.

In addition to his diverse cast of characters, Sanderson also works some humor into the story.  With so many different personalities at play, they are bound to interact in interesting ways.  Having grown up entertaining herself with extravagant daydreams, Spensa is prone to spouting passionate lines from her mental storybook, liberally strewn with vivid adjectives.  These outbursts never fail to momentarily silence everyone within earshot and often result in exchanged looks of incredulity.  Spensa, of course, fervently despises Jorgen, who, in addition to being completely full of himself, happens to be right most of the time.  Kimmalyn, with her unfailing ebullience and hesitancy to offend others is always a bright addition to any conversation.  Add to this all the individual quirks of the other characters and the fact that most of the cadets in Spensa’s flight team are naturally aggressive, and you have a delightfully comical dynamic – not the laugh-out-loud kind, but the kind that makes the corners of your mouth curl ever so slightly upwards.

I would recommend this book for both younger and older readers.  With its fair balance of action and relationship building, it makes for an engrossing read.  It does contain a made-up four-letter word used frequently throughout the book, but this word has no meaning in the real world.  Skyward offers mostly entertainment, but readers can learn much in the way of tasteful humor from Sanderson’s skillful pen.

Before We Were Yours

32148570Before We Were Yours

by Lisa Wingate

It is 1939, and twelve-year-old Rill Foss lives with her four younger siblings on the Arcadia, her family’s Mississippi River shantyboat.  For Rill, it is the perfect life – magical, free, and filled with adventures.  Until one night, when her father must rush her mother to the hospital, leaving Rill in charge.  With both parents gone, strange men arrive at the boat and drag them away to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, where they are met by the cruel director who seems determined to tear them from each other at every opportunity.

It is the present day in Aiken, South Carolina.  Born into a wealthy family, Avery Stafford is the daughter of a well-known senator, leads a successful life as a federal prosecutor, and is engaged to a dashing young man.  When she returns home to help her father as he struggles with his health, an accidental meeting with a seemingly batty elderly lady sends Avery delving deep into her family’s buried history, threatening to unearth dangerous and potentially devastating secrets.

The Tennessee Children’s Home Society was a real orphanage – if it can be called that.  The Memphis branch was run by Georgia Tann in the first half of the twentieth century.  In “A Note from the Author” at the end of the book, Wingate observes that while many children were legitimately rescued or accepted by the orphanage, many were also taken fraudulently from their parents.  To the public, Tann was a generous woman with a good heart who simply wanted what was best for the children.  In reality, Tann profited enormously by engaging in out-of-state adoptions with wealthy families.  In 1945, forty to fifty children in the orphanage died due to a dysentery outbreak and poor care, but Tann insisted that it had only been two children.  Some estimates of the number of children that disappeared at the Memphis facility are as high as five hundred.  Georgia Tann died of uterine cancer in 1950.  For a more complete perspective of the Memphis orphanage, I suggest you read the author’s note at the end of the book.

When I read mystery books, the best part for me is the suspense.  Before We Were Yours could be suspenseful at times, but overall I think it could have used a bit more of that element.  Perhaps Wingate could have revealed the Stafford family’s history a little more slowly so that the reader did not already know in advance what Avery did not.  The author did, however, keep me guessing as to the identity of Avery’s grandmother.

Wingate drops the occasional humorous tidbit, often a line from a dialogue perfectly worded to elicit a laugh from the reader.  Most of this humor occurs in the storyline following Avery, but as a southerner, Rill does sometimes have a colorful way of putting things.  Wingate draws a sharp contrast between Rill’s dark and frightening ordeal and Avery’s comparatively low-stress and luxurious life.

I would recommend this book for young adults and older readers.  While the plot may require a more mature mind and there is a strongly implied rape, there is no strong language and only a bit of innocent romance.  In addition, Before We Were Yours sports some unique similes and metaphors that can be filed away in your mental book of writing techniques.  I am not sure how closely the Foss siblings’ experience resembles that of the real children, but reading this book will give you an idea of the cruelty and corruption of Georgia Tann and the amount of strength and courage the children needed to persevere.