Review: Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean

leaving orbit by margaret lazarus deanFormat read: paperback provided by the publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: nonfiction
Length: 240 pages
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Date Released: May 19, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In the 1960s, humans took their first steps away from Earth, and for a time our possibilities in space seemed endless. But in a time of austerity and in the wake of high-profile disasters like Challenger, that dream has ended. In early 2011, Margaret Lazarus Dean traveled to Cape Canaveral for NASA’s last three space shuttle launches in order to bear witness to the end of an era. With Dean as our guide to Florida’s Space Coast and to the history of NASA, Leaving Orbit takes the measure of what American spaceflight has achieved while reckoning with its earlier witnesses, such as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Oriana Fallaci. Along the way, Dean meets NASA workers, astronauts, and space fans, gathering possible answers to the question: What does it mean that a spacefaring nation won’t be going to space anymore?

My Review:

There’s a comment often made about sad posts on Facebook or Twitter, that there is “dust in the post” that made the reader’s eyes water. For this reader, there was dust, perhaps space dust, in this entire book.

But then, I’m at least a borderline member of the group that the author refers to as “space people”. I wish I had been there. I wish I had been able to go. I envy the author her chance to see the last shuttle launches in person, and I wish with all my heart that they had not been the last, as I wrote in my own post at the end of the Shuttle Program, Dreams of Space.

Like the author of Leaving Orbit, I also cried while touring the Kennedy Space Center. It wasn’t until I had nearly finished the tour that I figured out that my tears were for me, because I would never get to take that big ride for myself.

I think a lot of us who were raised on Star Trek probably had some of those same dreams.

But this book, Leaving Orbit, is the author’s personal journey of witnessing the end of the Shuttle program, and trying to figure out what it means, not just for herself, but also for America, that we no longer have a space transport where we can send our astronauts to continue our exploration of space.

We stop at the International Space Station, and we get there on other countries’ ships. We were the first and only country to land on the moon, but we no longer have the infrastructure to go back. And if we’re planning to go to Mars or anywhere else, those plans are still space dust in dreamers’ eyes.

interstellar age by jim bellIn Jim Bell’s The Interstellar Age (review), he writes of the current space robot program, and there is joy and enthusiasm in his work, and the work of everyone in the program. People have “gotten aboard” the journeys of these cute, seemingly plucky, and fortunately for NASA relatively cheap, robots. And they do good science.

But it is not the same as watching a human, someone you could be, someone you could imagine working beside, go out into space and look back at Earth.

I’m having a difficult time reviewing this book as a book. As I read it, the story felt very personal to the author. While she was witnessing the events surrounding the final three shuttle launches, her feelings of triumph at the successful launches and grief that they were over was very much in evidence.

She is very conscious of bearing witness to events that mark an ending of the dreams of so many people, including herself. I felt her sadness, and it echoed my own. She finds herself caught between two extremes, giddy excitement that she gets to walk in the footsteps of so many authors who have written about the space program, that she gets to see so many places that very few people get to see, and at the same time her continual sorrow that this is the last time that these places will be used for the purpose for which they were built.

Because this was such a personal journey for her, it became a personal one for me, too.

Reality Rating A-: The author does a great job of interspersing a condensed history of American space flight with her observations of its end. By the time we finish, we see where we came from, how we got here, and also the author’s observations of why it hurts so much.

Some readers will think that the author injects an awful lot of herself into this book that purports to be about the Shuttle program. I found it gratifying that her personal feelings echoed so much of what I feel, and what I would have felt had I stood beside her.

The question that the author keeps asking herself and others, “What does it mean that we went to space for fifty years and then decided not to anymore?” is one that is never completely answered. It only produces more questions.

One of those questions is about future programs that are still on the drawing board. While those nascent plans to revive the program do exist, they are contingent on funding by future congresses and future administrations, and NASA’s track record in such cases is that the funding is scaled back or never appears at all. Apollo was unique, and unless those circumstances arise again, the dreams of space remain curtailed and under- or un-funded.

But in conclusion, the author writes that “The story of American spaceflight is a story with many endings.” This ending feels final and it’s the one that sticks in the heart. Or at least, in my heart.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 7-19-15

Sunday Post

You’ve probably noticed by now – well I certainly hope you’ve noticed by now. Reading Reality has a new look! The new design was created by the marvelous Parajunkee, and I love it. I asked for something using the colors in Hubble Space Telescope pictures, and some geeky, nerdy, sci-fi type references, and she created a marvel. I utterly adore Mr. Bear. He’s the cybernetic descendant of my original mascot, and he’s especially engineered for sweetness. I love the new blog design, and Parajunkee is terrific to work with.

reading reality bear
The original Mr. Bear

Now I just have to propagate the goodness to all my social media. She gave me fantastic skins for everything. I just need to find the appropriate bribe for my handsome techie to take care of everything this weekend.

In the comments, please let me know what you think of the new design!

This week’s books were a mixed bag. I’ll admit that as much as I enjoyed Armada, it was disappointing compared to Ready Player One. Last First Snow, on the other hand, definitely lived up to its series.

The book that blew me away was Battle Lines. I wanted a Civil War book because I was interested in looking back at the origins of the Rebel Flag and the controversy surrounding it. I may live in Atlanta, but I’m still a Yankee. Battle Lines did provide plenty of background, but some of the individual stories utterly blew me away.

last first snow by max gladstoneBlog Recap:

B Review: Armada by Ernest Cline
A Review: Last First Snow by Max Gladstone
B Review: Space Cowboys & Indians by Lisa Medley
B- Review: The Widow’s Son by Thomas Shawver
A- Review: Battle Lines by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman
Stacking the Shelves (144)




mechanical by ian tregillisComing Next Week:

Ether & Elephants by Cindy Spencer Pape (review)
The Best Kind of Trouble by Lauren Dane (review)
Wings in the Dark by Michael Murphy (blog tour review)
The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis (review)
Liesmith by Alis Franklin (review)

Review: Battle Lines by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman

battle lines by keller and fetter vormFormat read: hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover
Genre: history, graphic novels
Length: 224 pages
Publisher: Hill and Wang
Date Released: May 5, 2015
Purchasing Info: Ari Kelman’s Website, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

The first graphic history to capture the full scope of the Civil War, gorgeously drawn and expertly told

The graphic novelist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and the award-winning historian Ari Kelman team up to create a unique portrait of a brutal and defining event in American history: the Civil War. The result is Battle Lines, a monumental graphic history—rendered in Fetter-Vorm’s sweeping full-color panoramas, and grounded in Kelman’s nuanced understanding of the period—offering a series of wholly new perspectives on the conflict that turned this nation against itself.

Each chapter in Battle Lines begins with an object; each object tells its own story. A tattered flag, lowered in defeat at Fort Sumter. A set of chains, locked to the ankles of a slave as he scrambles toward freedom. A bullet, launched from the bore of a terrifying new rifle. A brick, hurled from a crowd of ration-starved rioters. With these objects and others, both iconic and commonplace, Battle Lines traces a broad and ambitious narrative from the early rumblings of secession to the dark years of Reconstruction. Richly detailed and wildly inventive, its stories propel the reader to all manner of unlikely vantages as only the graphic form can: from the malaria-filled gut of a mosquito to the faded ink of a soldier’s pen, and from the barren farms of the home front to the front lines of an infantry charge.

Beautiful, uncompromising, poignant, and utterly original, Battle Lines is a daring vision of the war that nearly tore America apart.

My Review:

Note that the subtitle for this is “a Graphic History of the Civil War” and not anything like “the Complete History” or “the Comprehensive History”, because it isn’t either of those.

Instead, Battle Lines is the history of the Civil War told in a series of snapshots. Each chapter illustrates the history of one found and commonplace item, as seen through a short graphic story of what the thing is and how it got to be part of the history of the Civil War.

The snapshots usually show the story of someone equally commonplace, or someone who would be commonplace except for their intersection with the War. These are stories of regular people who are in uncommon and usually unpleasant situations. It is a refreshing change from all of the histories of the war as it appeared to generals and statesmen, or even to upper and upper middle class observers.

These objects and these individuals tell the story of the war as it felt on the ground. It brings the tragedy of the war down to a human level, and the graphics make the reader feel. The thinking comes later – but it certainly does come.

The graphic stories relate things and incidents that are known, but are generally seen at a more strategic and less visceral level.

The chapter on Andersonville Prison is stunning and heart-breaking. We all know from reading even a cursory history of the Civil War that conditions at the POW camp were brutal and degrading. In this graphic history, we see it from the prisoner’s side, as a diary is passed from one prisoner to another, as each one goes through the cycle of initial internment through grinding hunger and despair to sinking into oblivion and death, only for the diary to be found and continued by the next inmate/victim.

Although the Andersonville chapter sorrowed me deeply, the one that gave me the biggest chills was the one about the draft riots in New York City in July of 1863, 152 years ago this month. The draft could be avoided by paying a fee, and many, but not all, rich people paid to stay out. So the draft affected the immigrant population, who took out their frustrations on a readily available target – the free blacks who lived in NYC, as well as federal institutions. The scenes of death and destruction, and of mob violence aimed at non-threatening targets out of hate and fear, are utterly chilling. This chapter is told from three perspectives: the immigrants participating in the riot, the rich family who act as if it is none of their business, and the black families trying to protect their children from the mob.

The story in Battle Lines starts from an attempt to show the flash points that caused the Civil War, both from the direct military standpoint at Fort Sumter, and the court cases and laws that built the cause of abolition. The denser history is conveyed through short but compelling and accurate newspaper article type pages that tell a lot of history with succinct exposition. For the background history, it helps to already know at least the outline of the causes of the War, but then, most Americans have had this in school, probably multiple times.

The narrative ends with a chapter about Reconstruction and the rise of the KKK and the white supremacists in the post-Reconstruction South. Just because the official battles were over, it did not mean that hostilities had in any way, ceased.

Have they yet?

Reality Rating A-: Anyone who is looking for an accessible history of the Civil War will want to read this book. It is not comprehensive, but the graphic stories make the reader feel the War. It is not a view from 1,000 feet. Instead, it is a view from the muddy, bloody ground. For a war that still inspires so much passion, it helps the understanding to experience, even vicariously, some scintilla of what the participants might have felt. Even through the glass darkly.

While the format makes it difficult to convey large pieces of complicated history, such as the parts about the causes of the war, when it reaches for one single illuminating article, it works incredibly well. These stories and these pictures feel true, even though they are made up of amalgams of personal accounts and histories rather than simply illustrating a single one.

And we know what the Civil War looked like because there are so many photographs. One of the chapters of the book shows the creation of one such photograph, and it feels like we are there.

If you need to tell someone what the Civil War was, and most importantly, why it still matters, hand them this book.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 7-12-15

Sunday Post

I didn’t give anything away this week. I need to fix that. Maybe next week.

SFRQ website buttonThis was a fun week. Lots of lovely speculative fiction, a bit of fantasy, a bit of paranormal, and some of my favorite sci-fi romance. Speaking of sci-fi romance, in case you missed it, I’m going to give another shout-out to the latest issue of Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly, which just came out on July 5. As usual, it is awesome, especially if you love SFR as I do. The opinion column on this year’s Hugo kerfuffle, and how the Hugo awards treat romance in general, was an interesting take on the ongoing controversy. It also made me wonder something – is SFRQ itself eligible for a Hugo next year, in one of the Fan Writing categories?

Next week I’ve got two books that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. First is Armada, the second book by Ernest Cline, the author of Ready Player One. Is Armada as awesome as RPO (squeed over, ahem, reviewed here)? And Last First Snow, the fourth book in Max Gladstone’s totally awesome Craft Sequence.

minion adorableSo far, it’s a lovely summer! Because…Minions!

Winner Announcements:

The winner of A New Hope by Robyn Carr is Maranda H.
The winner of the $10 Gift Card or Book in the Freedom to Read Giveaway Hop is Summer H.

inherit the stars by laurie a greenBlog Recap:

A- Review: The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
B+ Review: Ink and Shadows by Rhys Ford
A- Review: Among Galactic Ruins by Anna Hackett
B+ Review: Video Game Storytelling by Evan Skolnick
A+ Review: Inherit the Stars by Laurie A. Green
Stacking the Shelves (143)



armada by ernest clineComing Next Week:

Armada by Ernest Cline (review)
Last First Snow by Max Gladstone (review)
Space Cowboys & Indians by Lisa Medley (blog tour review)
The Widow’s Son by Thomas Shawver (blog tour review)
Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman (review)

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 6-21-15

Sunday Post

For those of you wondering who won some of the recent giveaways, I was able to catch up now that I’m back home.

ALA san francisco 2015Next week I’ll be at the American Library Association Annual Conference. This year, ALA has done something sensible for a change. We’ll be back in San Francisco. Because San Francisco is generally cool, or cool-ish in the summer, it’s a perfect place to have to be dressed up and running around, unlike last summer in Las Vegas. Or next summer in OMG Orlando. If ALA decided to have every Midwinter Conference in San Diego or San Antonio, and every summer in San Francisco (with the occasional break for Chicago) that would be just fine with me. But c’est la vie.

For anyone who loves fantasy, and has not yet read The Goblin Emperor, go forth and get a copy post-haste. I have seen it described as manner-porn, which is a term I’d never heard before. The Goblin Emperor is set in a world where manners don’t just make the man (or elf, or goblin) but they also keep him alive in the midst of his enemies. It certainly runs counter to the recent spate of grimdark fantasy. And it is simply awesome.

There are still a couple of days left to get in on the Favorite Heroines Giveaway Hop. Just tell us who your favorite heroine is for a chance at either a $10 Gift Card of a $10 Book of your choice.

Current Giveaways:

favorite heroinesFlirt and Loveswept mugs + ebook copies of Rock It by Jennifer Chance, After Midnight by Kathy Clark, Alex by Sawyer Bennett, Wild on You by Tina Wainscott, Plain Jayne by Laura Drewry, and Accidental Cowgirl by Maggie McGinnis from Loveswept
$10 Gift Card or book in the Favorite Heroines Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of her choice of title in Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series is Kristia M.
The winner of The Marriage Season by Linda Lael Miller is Maria S.
The winner of Let Me Die in his Footsteps by Lori Roy is Brandi D.

goblin emperor by katherine addisonBlog Recap:

A+ Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
B- Review: Zack by Sawyer Bennett + Giveaway
Favorite Heroines Giveaway Hop
A- Review: Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell
B Review: The Sage of Waterloo by Leona Francombe
Stacking the Shelves (140)




valentine by heather grothausComing Next Week:

Dissident by Cecilia London (review)
Ruthless by John Rector (blog tour review)
Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell (review)
Valentine by Heather Grothaus (blog tour review)
On a Cyborg Planet by Anna Hackett (review)

Review: Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell

waterloo by bernard cornwellFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: military history
Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper
Date Released: May 5, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

On the 18th June, 1815 the armies of France, Britain and Prussia descended upon a quiet valley south of Brussels. In the previous three days the French army had beaten the British at Quatre-Bras and the Prussians at Ligny. The Allies were in retreat. The blood-soaked battle of Waterloo would become a landmark in European history, to be examined over and again, not least because until the evening of the 18th, the French army was close to prevailing on the battlefield.
Now, brought to life by the celebrated novelist Bernard Cornwell, this is the chronicle of the four days leading up to the actual battle and a thrilling hour-by-hour account of that fateful day. In his first work of non-fiction, Cornwell combines his storytelling skills with a meticulously researched history to give a riveting account of every dramatic moment, from Napoleon’s escape from Elba to the smoke and gore of the battlefields. Through letters and diaries he also sheds new light on the private thoughts of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, as well as the ordinary officers and soldiers. Published ahead of the upcoming bicentenary in 2015, Waterloo is a tense and gripping story of heroism and tragedy – and of the final battle that determined the fate of Europe.

My Review:

To meet one’s Waterloo, has become almost a cliché, a byword for meeting one’s final or ultimate defeat.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812

The term, as well as all of the cities and towns named Waterloo, come from one singular battle – the place where Napoleon Bonaparte met his own personal and political Waterloo at the hands of the Duke of Wellington.

Today, June 18, is the 200th anniversary of that battle. While a cannon’s weight of books have been published this year to commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, I wanted to pick just a couple to hopefully expand my understanding of what happened that day.

It is a difficult thing for an author, any author, to build excitement and anticipation into a story where we already know how it ends. Wellington won, Napoleon was finally and ultimately defeated.

The story of the Battle of Waterloo, at least as told by Bernard Cornwell, is a story where we know the ending, more or less, but it is the middle that is obscured, both at the time and even 200 years later.

Or perhaps especially 200 years later, as there has been plenty of time for myths, legends, obfuscations and half-truths to find their own little corner of that field.

As the battle was taking place, a lot of the confusion can be blamed on the fog of war. In that battle, and in that era, it was at least partially a real fog, the smoke from the hundreds of cannons and howitzers, and from the tens of thousands of muskets, all seemingly firing at once at obscuring the participants’ view of anything not immediately next to them.

What we all know is that Napoleon escaped from his exile on the Island of Elba, was declared Emperor again, and marched on Brussels. He intended to retake Belgium, which had been severed from the French Empire after his earlier defeat.

The Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Painted in 1814, a few months before the Battle of Waterloo.
The Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Painted in 1814, a few months before the Battle of Waterloo.

Wellington met him at Waterloo, and eventually defeated Napoleon after three days of bloody battle. Napoleon retreated, and finally surrendered to the British, who promptly exiled him to Saint Helena, where he remained until his death.

This book of Waterloo is an attempt to bring coherence to all of the various eyewitness and survivor accounts of what was a long, hard-fought and ultimately confusing battle fought on multiple fronts by multiple armies over a lot of churned up and muddy ground.

Everything was important, from the drenching rain and mud, to the stone farmhouses and barns that dotted the region, to the tempers of the commanders and the trust (or lack thereof) between the armies.

Even the style of the various commands – where Napoleon led from the rear and delegated everything and Wellington, who seems to have led from everywhere at once and delegated nothing to Blücher, the Prussian general who came to Wellington’s aid, who fought while wounded and at the age of 73, pressing ever forwards in the midst of his men.

The personal accounts are often humorous, in the sense of gallows humor that war brings out in both fact and fiction. Some of the survivor’s’ accounts contradict each other, as they each only saw or heard one tiny sliver of a massive campaign.

Cornwell brings the disparate sources into a coherent whole, and gives even someone with only an extremely casual interest in military history and tactics a sense of what happened and why it happened.

Even though I knew how it ended, finding out how they got there was fascinating.

Escape Rating A-: Waterloo is a battle that was such a turning point in history that we all know how it ended. One of the things that this book does well is to make the reader see how easily it could have gone the other way. Actually, several other ways.

One has the feeling that the contest turned out to be between Napoleon’s overconfidence and Wellington’s ability to pick his ground and utilize it to the fullest extent. Wellington found a place that he could defend, and then settled his troops in to defend it.

Blücher as he appeared (ca. 1815–1819)
Blücher as he appeared (ca. 1815–1819)

We also see the fruits of the trust between Wellington and the Prussian General Blücher, which may have been unlikely (and one of Blücher’s aides hated Wellington) but saved the day.

The descriptions of the way that artillery worked and how it did what it did give the reader an awful sense of just how deadly they were, even if they were damnably difficult to aim. I also finally understand the different infantry formations for the first time.

The author describes the calculus of warfare as a deadly game of rock, paper, scissors, and the analogy works very well.

This is not the only book this author has written titled Waterloo. In his Sharpe’s series, there is a fictional book about the battle and Sharpe’s participation in it. The Napoleonic Wars, including the Battle of Waterloo, have been used as a backdrop in fiction in virtually every genre.

You may have read about the Napoleonic Wars and Waterloo without even realizing it.

In science fiction, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is the Napoleonic Wars as fought between star empires. In Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, the Napoleonic Wars are fought with dragons. In C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series, the titular character finds himself aiding the police as a way of dealing with his own PTSD after Waterloo. Stephanie Laurens’ Bastion Club features a group of men who were English spies in France during the Wars, and now that the war is over, have discovered that one of their greatest foes is operating in England.

Last, but certainly not least, the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian details a naval officer’s career during the heady years of the Napoleonic Wars.

So for even an inveterate fiction reader, Waterloo and the Wars that it ended have a tremendous influence on so many works that came after. Reading so many things that are set in or influenced by the era, it is easy to think that we know all we need to know.

Bernard Cornwell’s non-fiction account of Waterloo shows us just how much depth there is to explore.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 6-14-15

Sunday Post

We are on the road again, so I’ll have to let everyone, including the winners, know who won what of last week’s giveaways next week.

And I’m not just writing this early, but I’m writing in the middle of a thunderstorm. I’m wondering when we’ll lose either power or ‘net. Or both. The fweeping sound the UPS (uninterruptable power supplies) make drives the cats absolutely bonkers.

Or at least more bonkers than they are normally.

One of the things about being on the road is that while I may get plenty of time to read, time and space (and quiet) to write in can be hard to come by. Some people are multi-taskers – Galen can write and even code in the living room with the TV on. Me – I need surround-silence, as opposed to surround-sound.

On that other hand, when I’m reading, the world could go to hell in a handbasket right next to me, and I wouldn’t hear a thing. I’m not there. I’m in Middle-Earth, or wherever the book takes me.

Current Giveaways:

Hot Cowboy Nights book bundle by Victoria Vane
$25 Gift Card + ebook copy of The Rhyme of the Magpie by Marty Wingate
5 copies of Night of the Highland Dragon by Isabel Cooper

night of the highland dragon by isabel cooperBlog Recap:

A- Review: Rock with Wings by Anne Hillerman
B- Review: Sharp Shootin’ Cowboy by Victoria Vane
Guest Post by Victoria Vane on Art Imitating Life + Giveaway
B+ Review: The Rhyme of the Magpie by Marty Wingate + Giveaway
A Review: Night of the Highland Dragon by Isabel Cooper
Guest Post by Isabel Cooper on her Favorite Author + Giveaway
A- Review: Sinner’s Gin by Rhys Ford
Stacking the Shelves (139)

favorite heroinesComing Next Week:

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (review)
Zack by Sawyer Bennett (blog tour review)
Favorite Heroines Giveaway Hop
Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell (review)
Inherit the Stars by Laurie A. Green (review)

Review: Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

dead wake by erik larsonFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genre: history
Length: 430 pages
Publisher: Crown
Date Released: March 10, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love.

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.

My Review:

Today is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Lusitania. While the name “Lusitania” is one that we all know, sometimes we’re pressed to remember why it is memorable. 100 years is a long enough time for memory to fade and significance to be lost.

And the story of the Lusitania is one where the significance did not quite add up to what it was supposed to have been, for good or ill.

That lessened significance is embodied in the title of this book. A “dead wake” is a trail of fading disturbance in the water, usually after a boat (or a torpedo) has cut through that water. The moving body generates a wave, and then a white trail in the water, and then…nothing.

According to the book, the sinking of the Lusitania was supposed to pull the United States into World War I almost two years before we finally entered in 1917. The analysis behind that particular chain of events (or non-events) is a fascinating part of the story.

Lusitania in 1907
Lusitania in 1907

The story of the Lusitania’s final voyage is as big as the ship itself. It takes place on multiple continents, and takes into account the perspectives of a number of different groups – the passengers, the company, British Naval intelligence, the German U-boat captain, the German High Command and Woodrow Wilson, then President of the U.S.

At the time of the Lusitania’s sailing, the war had been going on in Europe for almost a year. The German U-boats, which had originally been thought of as a minor tactic, turned out to give the Germans an incredible advantage. When they worked, they were unbelievably deadly. Their ability to travel under the water, and under the keels of ships that might ram and sink them, gave them a stealth capability that made them incredibly difficult to catch. The boats themselves were fairly easy to destroy, but the problem was finding them first in order to wreak that destruction.

The success of the U-boats fueled the development of sonar, with its submarine detecting capabilities. Sonar was not deployed on ships until 1920, after the war was over.

The Lusitania sailed on May 1, 1915, with nearly 2000 people aboard, including nearly 200 Americans. At this point in the war, the U.S. was militantly neutral (if that is not a contradiction in terms) but the British were in the thick of the war, and the Lusitania was a British-flagged ship. As a passenger ship, it should have been safe, but it was also carrying arms for the British Army, so its non-combatant status was a bit iffy. Which didn’t matter in the end, because the German U-boats by this point were firing on anything that looked like a juicy target, no matter whose flag it was flying. Or even if it was flying the Red Cross.

The official warning issued by the Imperial German Embassy about travelling on Lusitania.
The official warning issued by the Imperial German Embassy about travelling on Lusitania.

In Dead Wake, the accounts of the passengers, provided by survivors and surviving letters and diaries of those who didn’t make it – reads as though it might have come from the Titanic, with a difference. Everyone knew about the war, unlike the icebergs. The Imperial German Embassy had posted an official warning in the newspaper before the Lusitania sailed, warning all passengers that the ship would be considered a target once it reached British waters. While onboard, the progress of the war in broad outlines at least, was publicized in the shipboard newspaper.

But like the Titanic, everyone believed that the Lusitania was unsinkable, even if it was attacked. It was considered too big to sink. Also, everyone believed that British warships would be on convoy duty once the ship reached their waters. They believed they were safe.

However, none of those assumptions turned out to be true. The Lusitania was a named target, and the British sent nothing and no one to protect her or even to warn her captain properly. To add to the upcoming clusterfuck, the U-boat got slightly lucky with her torpedo strike, and the Lusitania went down incredibly fast. That as many people survived as did was also a stroke of luck. It was a warm sunny day, and she sunk close enough to the Irish coast for fishing boats to reach her in three hours. An absolutely deadly and grueling three hours for the survivors.

As much of a tragedy as the sinking of the Lusitania was, it is a story where we already know how it ended. The tale of the political machinations both before and after is less well known, and even more chilling than the harrowing survival tales.

It is entirely possible, even likely according to the experts consulted by the author, that the British Navy deliberately left the Lusitania unwarned and unguarded in the hopes that a disaster of this magnitude would bring the U.S. into the war. For this reader, the story echoes the World War II bombing of Coventry, complete with Winston Churchill as one of the major players in the drama.

Reality Rating A: The human cost of the sinking of the Lusitania is an incredible and enthralling tale, all the more riveting, and disturbing, for being true. The survivors’ stories, how quickly celebration turned to tragedy, are enough to bring any reader totally into the account and its aftermath. Whatever the political ramifications, for those who lived through it, it was a life-altering or life-ending tragedy.

Unlike the Titanic, this one was preventable, but no one who could have stopped it seems to have had an interest in stopping it. Which made the result even more chilling.

The story of the Lusitania is also the story of a world that has gone and will not come again. The world of opulence and exuberance that existed before World War I ended with the war. The lights went out, and when some of them came back on, the world had irretrievably changed. So the passenger stories onboard tell us of the way things were. It was unbelievably lush and indulgent, for those who could afford it. The author, using their diaries, letters and post-sinking accounts, has breathed life into this group of people that never saw disaster coming, but still lived each day as though it were their last. In many cases, it was.

While the author does a terrific job of detailing the difficulties of the U-boat captains and their crews, and just how chancy and dangerous serving in a U-boat was, it hit this reader hard that the U-boat campaign was a deliberate and unrestricted war on commercial shipping, regardless of country of origin. It seemed to people at the time that this was unfair to non combatant countries, and looked certain to drag those countries into the war sooner or later. That the German High Command seems to have underestimated the ability of the U.S. to strike hard and fast once engaged seems foolish in retrospect.

The difficult read is of the case that the British set up the circumstances of the Lusitania sinking somewhat deliberately. While they did not exactly aim U-boat 20 at the Lusitania, the case that they knew about the probable destination of the U-boat, that the Lusitania was heading right for it, that there were plenty of British warships available to convoy the Lusitania but were deliberately left in port or even sent in opposite directions, seems as if it comes to a solid conclusion about British motivations in this fiasco. That the U.S. remained neutral for two more years makes the tragedy seem even worse. Would the war have ended earlier if the U.S. had come in sooner? We’ll never know.

As absorbing as this book is, I do not recommend reading it just before bed. The sinking of the Lusitania is definitely the stuff of which real-life nightmares are made.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 5-3-15

Sunday Post

There’s nothing more embarrassing for a book blogger than to discover that she forgot to download one of her upcoming books that’s upcoming really, really soon. On the other hand, that may be what Amazon is for.

There are all sorts of reading emergencies, after all.


Current Giveaways:

1 $50 Amazon Gift Card and 2 $15 Amazon Gift Cards from Suzanne Johnson
$25 Gift Card from Brooke Johnson

black water rising by attica lockeBlog Recap:

B Review: Chaos Broken by Rebekah Turner
A- Review: Diamond Head by Cecily Wong
A Review: Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
B Review: The Brass Giant by Brooke Johnson
Guest Post by Author Brooke Johnson: More Steampunk + Giveaway
A- Review: Pirate’s Alley by Suzanne Johnson
Guest Post by Suzanne Johnson on Pirate Love + Giveaway
Stacking the Shelves (133)


spring fling giveaway hopComing Next Week:

Spring Fling Giveaway Hop
Speak Now by Kenji Yoshino (review)
Pleasantville by Attica Locke (blog tour review)
The Dismantling by Brian DeLeeuw (blog tour review)
Dead Wake by Erik Larson (review)
The Deepest Poison by Beth Cato (review)

Stacking the Shelves (131)

Stacking the Shelves

This probably tells anyone anything they might want to know about what I think about the current chaotic state of this year’s Hugo Awards. Marko Kloos withdrew his nomination because his eligible book, Lines of Departure, was on the Puppy ballots. His full statement is on his blog, The Munchkin Wrangler, but the very short paraphrase is that he felt that his book only made it because it was on a Puppy slate, and he couldn’t accept an award nomination that wasn’t earned by the quality of the work. He also disassociated himself from the Puppies.

I’m probably not the only person who had this response, but when I read his withdrawal, I bought his first two books, Terms of Enlistment and Lines of Departure, and grabbed a review copy of the third, Angles of Attack, from NetGalley. I enjoy military SF and the reviews of the first two books are pretty stellar. so I’m looking forward to these.

For Review:
Angles of Attack (Frontlines #3) by Marko Kloos
The Brass Giant (Chroniker City #1) by Brooke Johnson
Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin
Knight’s Shadow (Greatcoats #2) by Sebastien de Castell
Murder and Mayhem (Murder and Mayhem #1) by Rhys Ford
A Pattern of Lies (Bess Crawford #7) by Charles Todd
Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran
The Story by Judith Miller
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
Waterloo: the True Story of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell
Zer0es (Zer0es #1) by Chuck Wendig

Purchased from Amazon:
Lines of Departure (Frontlines #2) by Marko Kloos
Lowcountry Boil (Liz Talbot #1) by Susan M. Boyer
Lowcountry Bombshell (Liz Talbot #2) by Susan M. Boyer
Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines #1) by Marko Kloos