Novel re-imagines US-Soviet space race
“First Cosmic Velocity” is a
cleverly conceived and beautifully delivered novel that looks at the
struggle for space supremacy from the Soviet side of the Cold War.
As the U.S.-USSR battle unfolds in
the book, a tug of war also ensues between the Soviet cosmonauts brought
to the program and the strict propaganda demands of their communist
state. Two key figures picked to fly, Leonid and Nadya, embody this
conflict, as deadly failures in Soviet rocketry put the lives of space
pioneers in danger.
Actually, there are two Leonids and
two Nadyas. As imagined by Zach Powers in this debut novel, the degree
of secrecy in the Soviet space program is so great that identical twins
are chosen in their youth to become cosmonauts — and given the same
name. That way, if one dies in space, the catastrophe can be concealed
and the living twin can make appearances to receive public accolades as
if nothing bad happened.
This fictional twist is brought off
convincingly by Powers. He plays with actual Soviet foibles of the space
era, including the USSR’s refusal to make public the name of the
director of the country’s space program. As the Soviets did, Powers
simply calls him the Chief Designer.
A humorous element appears when
Premier Nikita Khrushchev — unaware of the use of twins — wants his
little pet dog to be the first canine in orbit, a four-legged hero of
the Soviet Union. There is no arguing with the premier, and a search for
a lookalike dog ensues. But in the end, this is no laughing matter.
The space program drama is set in
1964, when the Americans and Soviets each had achieved various “firsts”
in the race to claim territorial rights in the heavens and big political
points on Earth. Instead of pride and uplift among the program’s key
players, however, there is an overarching somberness to the narrative,
an edge of anxiety over the prospect of lethal failures in the Soviet
path to the stars.
Powers also describes the grim
lives of the twins in their Ukrainian village in 1950, when poverty,
desperate hunger and Stalinist-era brutality destroyed friends and
families all around them.
The darkness and gravity of the
narrative is mixed with stirring prose and dialogue that make “First
Cosmic Velocity” a novel of ideas from the Cold War era. As one of the
cosmonauts’ colleagues says, the Soviet state rid its people of religion
and their faith in a god. “And now,” she says, “we fly our cosmonauts to
the front door of heaven, knock, and find it vacant.” (AP)
'The Escape Room' looks at the dark side of ambition
Oline H. Cogdill
Team building exercises meant to foster
cooperation, loyalty and critical thinking are often just an irritating
waste of time that causes resentment, backbiting and gossip. At least
that's the experience of four investment bankers who work for the Wall
Street firm of Stanhope and Sons in Megan Goldin's claustrophobically
tense debut, "The Escape Room," which looks at the dark side of ambition
when work is all-consuming.
Vincent, Jules, Sylvie and Sam work long hours,
sacrificing personal time and relationships for their jobs. They are
committed to a "long, heady love affair with greed," even if it kills
them, and it's fitting that the last names of these three men and one
woman are seldom mentioned in the novel.
Despite that "love affair," they are perturbed at
being summoned on a Friday night to a compulsory team-building session.
They will participate in an escape-room challenge in a remote office
high-rise building in the final stages of construction in the South
Bronx. At best, they hate each other and are consumed by the stress of
looming layoffs after losing two major accounts. They are plunged into
darkness as the elevator zooms and stalls at the 70th floor, unable to
As clues for an escape appear and disappear on the
electronic board, each character's ruthless personality and amorality
take center stage. These are cruel people who are not above violence to
achieve what they want. As the claustrophobic elevator becomes more
intense, "The Escape Room" alternates to the story of Sara Hall, the
firm's brilliant new hire whose career didn't end well and who hadn't
earned the others' respect.
"The Escape Room" works as the ultimate locked-room
mystery. The darkness, except for the flashlights on dying cellphones,
ramps up the suspense and the brutality. But, as one character says,
"How much trouble could four investment bankers get into in a locked
elevator?" As it turns out, plenty.
Goldin excels at illustrating the pressures of a
Wall Street career that includes an expensive lifestyle to keep up the
illusion of success, deals made at strip clubs that reinforce the sexism
in the industry and a general lack of trust. The oppressive elevator
delivers a metaphor for their careers. (AP)
Baldacci's latest novel doesn't disappoint
Aloysius Archer fought in Europe for the Allies, and
shortly after making his way back home, he found himself imprisoned for a
crime he didn't commit. He's released early for good behavior and makes his
way to the small town of Poca City, where he's required to routinely check
in with his parole officer.
Archer meets Hank Pittleman, who offers him a chance to
earn some money. Lucas Tuttle borrowed a substantial amount of money from
Pittleman, and Archer is asked to take possession of Tuttle's Cadillac,
which was used for collateral. After verifying the loan by seeing the
paperwork, Archer goes to meet Tuttle to ask why he hasn't paid Pittleman
back. The answer Archer receives surprises him — and puts the offer in an
entirely new light.
Archer wants to do the right thing, and stay away from
violating the rules he needs to follow as a man recently incarcerated. His
parole officer is stern and a stickler for making sure everything he does is
on the straight and narrow. When he gets entangled in a mess with what seems
like a simple loan, chaos and mystery will have him once again trying to
prove his innocence.
Author David Baldacci is a master storyteller, and in
"One Good Deed" he invokes the classic feel of the post-war 1940s evident in
the timeless literature and film of that time. A sympathetic hero and a cast
of mysterious citizens in a small town summon familiar themes one expects in
a Baldacci novel, and he once again doesn't disappoint. (AP)
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