A wonkish but rousing fantasia.

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THE EMPRESS OF THE CLOUDS

A female airship pilot battles an evil industrialist, a Prussian militarist, and a sexist society in this debut steampunk adventure.

In 1896, after Heinz Amstel, a German engineer and businessman in Joplin, Missouri, turns up dead—electrocuted and torn apart by coyotes—his widow, Evaline, known as “Evvy,” is left with a mountain of debt; custody of young Bettina, Heinz’s daughter by another woman; and the bankrupt remnants of Heinz’s airship company, which offers paying customers the best airborne experience that money can buy. She duly learns to fly the dirigibles herself, and she becomes famous when she pilots a group of Baptists and a newspaperman through a tornado to a safe landing. Unfortunately, Evvy is shadowed by minions of Prussian Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who claims that his stolen designs were the basis for the superairship that Heinz was secretly building, The Empress of the Clouds. She’s also stalked by Georgia tycoon Erasmus Marchand, who’s planning to fit Empress with a death ray and overthrow the government by zapping President William McKinley’s inauguration from the sky; his new regime, he says, will simultaneously reinstitute slavery and establish a Jewish national homeland in the United States. Evvy’s quest to thwart the various plots, assisted by chivalrous deputy Sean McTavish, leads her into ever more dangerous scrapes, all heading toward a rare dirigible dogfight. Ultican’s period fantasy is all about the newfangled gear. Evvy is a STEM-focused heroine who’s endlessly inquisitive about horseless carriages, electric dynamos, fluorescent goggles, and other marvels, forever flummoxing patronizing men with her knowledge and skill. The narrative sometimes drifts like a giant balloon, and the characters’ schemes and motivations aren’t always plausible. But Ultican’s straightforward prose makes the science and engineering interesting and the action scenes gripping: “The girders twisted and snapped, emitting unearthly high-pitched tones as heavy bolts and metal beams hurtled through the atmosphere, scattering the terrified onlookers who now desperately sought to escape.” Readers who love derring-do with charismatic, old-school technology will find this a diverting read.

A wonkish but rousing fantasia.

Pub Date: Jan. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-65525-866-4

Page Count: 365

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: March 23, 2020

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Archer will be a great series character for fans of crime fiction. Let’s hope the cigarettes don’t kill him.

ONE GOOD DEED

Thriller writer Baldacci (A Minute to Midnight, 2019, etc.) launches a new detective series starring World War II combat vet Aloysius Archer.

In 1949, Archer is paroled from Carderock Prison (he was innocent) and must report regularly to his parole officer, Ernestine Crabtree (she’s “damn fine-looking”). Parole terms forbid his visiting bars or loose women, which could become a problem. Trouble starts when businessman Hank Pittleman offers Archer $100 to recover a ’47 Cadillac that’s collateral for a debt owed by Lucas Tuttle, who readily agrees he owes the money. But Tuttle wants his daughter Jackie back—she’s Pittleman’s girlfriend, and she won’t return to Daddy. Archer finds the car, but it’s been torched. With no collateral to collect, he may have to return his hundred bucks. Meanwhile, Crabtree gets Archer the only job available, butchering hogs at the slaughterhouse. He’d killed plenty of men in combat, and now he needs peace. The Pittleman job doesn’t provide that peace, but at least it doesn’t involve bashing hogs’ brains in. People wind up dead and Archer becomes a suspect. So he noses around and shows that he might have the chops to be a good private investigator, a shamus. This is an era when gals have gams, guys say dang and keep extra Lucky Strikes in their hatbands, and a Lady Liberty half-dollar buys a good meal. The dialogue has a '40s noir feel: “And don’t trust nobody.…I don’t care how damn pretty they are.” There’s adult entertainment at the Cat’s Meow, cheap grub at the Checkered Past, and just enough clichés to prove that no one’s highfalutin. Readers will like Archer. He’s a talented man who enjoys detective stories, won’t keep ill-gotten gains, and respects women. All signs suggest a sequel where he hangs out a shamus shingle.

Archer will be a great series character for fans of crime fiction. Let’s hope the cigarettes don’t kill him.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5387-5056-8

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2019

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To use the parlance of the period, a highly relevant retrospective.

SUMMER OF '69

Nantucket, not Woodstock, is the main attraction in Hilderbrand’s (Winter in Paradise, 2018, etc.) bittersweet nostalgia piece about the summer of 1969.

As is typical with Hilderbrand’s fiction, several members of a family have their says. Here, that family is the “stitched together” Foley-Levin clan, ruled over by the appropriately named matriarch, Exalta, aka Nonny, mother of Kate Levin. Exalta’s Nantucket house, All’s Fair, also appropriately named, is the main setting. Kate’s three older children, Blair, 24, Kirby, 20, and Tiger, 19, are products of her first marriage, to Wilder Foley, a war veteran, who shot himself. Second husband David Levin is the father of Jessie, who’s just turned 13. Tiger has been drafted and sends dispatches to Jessie from Vietnam. Kirby has been arrested twice while protesting the war in Boston. (Don’t tell Nonny!) Blair is married and pregnant; her MIT astrophysicist husband, Angus, is depressive, controlling, and deceitful—the unmelodramatic way Angus’ faults sneak up on both Blair and the reader is only one example of Hilderbrand’s firm grasp on real life. Many plot elements are specific to the year. Kirby is further rebelling by forgoing Nantucket for rival island Martha’s Vineyard—and a hotel job close to Chappaquiddick. Angus will be working at Mission Control for the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Kirby has difficult romantic encounters, first with her arresting officer, then with a black Harvard student whose mother has another reason, besides Kirby’s whiteness, to distrust her. Pick, grandson of Exalta’s caretaker, is planning to search for his hippie mother at Woodstock. Other complications seem very up-to-date: a country club tennis coach is a predator and pedophile. Anti-Semitism lurks beneath the club’s genteel veneer. Kate’s drinking has accelerated since Tiger’s deployment overseas. Exalta’s toughness is seemingly untempered by grandmotherly love. As always, Hilderbrand’s characters are utterly convincing and immediately draw us into their problems, from petty to grave. Sometimes, her densely packed tales seem to unravel toward the end. This is not one of those times.

To use the parlance of the period, a highly relevant retrospective.

Pub Date: June 18, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-42001-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

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