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Update  August, 2019


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Book Review
 

Novel re-imagines US-Soviet space race

Kendal Weaver

“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 be opened.

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

Jeff Ayers

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)


Update

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Novel re-imagines US-Soviet space race


'The Escape Room' looks at the dark side of ambition

Baldacci's latest novel doesn't disappoint


 



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