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Reading Diary for 2015

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"The Defining Moment"
by Jonathan Alter
The Defining MomentOften fawning, and generally uncritical of its subject, Jonathan Alter's sideways bio of Franklin Delano Roosevelt nevertheless offers some insightful peeks inside the famously private FDR's inner circle. Ostensibly a look at his first 100 days in office, the book immediately abandons that straitjacket as it looks at FDR's early life, his courtship of Eleanor, his philandering, and his role in Woodrow Wilson's administration – and then his bout with polio, which forever changed his arc. The book is built on the premise – unsupported by anything other than the author's invoking of it – that without FDR's expansion of the social contract, the United States would have slid into fascism or worse. This working premise gives the entire book the air of a salvation story, which can make for some tough reading for nonbelievers. But Alter is a gifted writer, and he has stitched together a fabric woven from private corresponsance, the official record, and others' reminiscences for a unique look at one of our most defining presidents.

"The Spies of Warsaw"
by Alan Furst
The Spies of WarsawContaining all the action and psychological tension of the best spy thrillers (think Ludlum, Deighton, Le Carré), combined with the literary attention to small details of an Anita Brookner, Alan Furst's "The Spies of Warsaw" is a warm yet taut period spy novel set in Central Europe in the years before the Second World War. A French military attaché assigned to the Polish capital has to balance the feelings of an ally with the cold-headed need to gain, by any means necessary, information on the Nazis' intentions toward France. Along the way are love affairs, small betrayals, a few violent confrontations, and a very untidy ending. Absolutely splendid.

by Cherie Priest
jacarandaChanneling her inner Stephen King, Cherie Priest gave fans this novella coda to The Clockwork Century series – although, outside the appearance of Ranger Korman (from "Dreadnought" and "Ganymede"), it has very little to do with the other books in the series, either in content or style. Set in Galveston some years after the rest of the books in the series, the story concerns a haunted hotel – and the efforts of a Catholic nun to rid it of its evil. Father Juan Miguel Quintero Rios has his own sordid past to atone for, but he can hear things others can't – and maybe that will be enough to bring things to a close as a hurricane sweeps over the island.

by Cherie Priest
FiddleheadA rousing finale to Priest's Clockwork Century series (at least for now), with a still-living (though grievously wounded) Abraham Lincoln aiding his successor, President Ulysses Grant, in trying to end the decades-old Civil War. Maria Isabella Boyd ("Clementine") is back in the mix, still working for Pinkerton, along with piratical airship captain Croggon Hainey – and one of her best characters from the series, the enigmatic Kirby Troost (from "Ganymede"). Bringing them all together in common cause is The Fiddlehead, an early electromechanical computer that predicts both Union and Confederacy are far more threatened by the growing zombie hordes than they are each other. The zombies are, of course, brought on by the cheap availability of sap, the living-death-inducing drug distilled from the blight gas unleashed in Old Seattle by the original boneshaker machine that started the series off. Former slave Gideon Bardsley built the Fiddlehead under Lincoln's patronage, and now war profiteers who want the conflict to continue padding their profits are out to get him and all who protect him lest their warnings be heeded – and if sap addiction isn't creating zombines fast enough, perhaps a secret weapon can. It's a worthy wrap to a great series.

"The Inexplicables"
by Cherie Priest
The InexplicablesTaking us back to the same poisoned, ruined Seattle of the alternate-reality Clockwork Century world she first took us to in "Boneshaker," Cherie Priest updates readers on favorite characters like Zeke Wilkes and his mom, Briar; the bartending Lucy O'Gunning; Swakhammer and his daughter, Mercy; and Princess Angeline. But all of them are updated through the eyes of young Rector Sherman – the wayward orphan who helped sneak Zeke into Old Seattle in the first novel. While performing menial observation duty to earn his keep, Rector discovers an outside plot – and must decide whether to stay and fight. The tautest entry in the series to date, "The Inexplicables" sets the table for the apparently final two novels in the Clockwork Century.

"The Disappearance of Emily H."
by Barrie Summy
The Disappearance of Emily H.A truly superb YA mystery with wonderfully drawn out dramatic tension, and a touch of magic that seems wholly organic. When Raine's mom breaks up with yet another loser boyfriend and relocates them from Detroit to upstate New York, Raine once again finds herself facing off against the mean girl clique at yet another junior high. But she makes new friends, too – and discovers that a girl her own age disappeared from the very house they are renting. As Raine learns more about the kids at her school, she realizes that the mean girls may know more about the girl who disappeared than they are letting on.

by Eric Blehm
LegendThe should-have-been-told-decades-ago story of Roy Benavidez, a Green Beret who voluntarily tagged along on a rescue mission during the Vietnam War – and saved the lives of eight American and South Vietnamese warriors, nearly at the cost of his own life. When a SOG infiltration team was discovered and attacked during a mission to document enemy violation of treaties regarding Laos and Cambodia, the rescue choppers trying to pull them out were shot up so badly they had to fly back to base to repair and refuel so they could try again. In Eric Blehm's skilled telling of this story, the reader is there for the fateful battle – from the insertion to Benavidez's impromptu decision to accompany one of the rescue crews, to his incredible acts of bravery to keep his men alive and get them home. The first half of the book introduces us to Benavidez through his hardscrabble upbringing, his troubled teens, and his decision to join the Army. We see his introduction to Special Forces, his own opportunity to apply for the Green Berets, and his initial tour of duty in Vietnam during which he is grievously wounded. After a tough rehab, he returned to active duty – and Vietnam for a second tour, where the above mission took place. The battle itself is only about a quarter of the book, but is some of Blehm's most intense writing – and given that he is author of "Fearless" and "The Only Thing Worth Dying For," that's fairly impressive. During the firefight, a dozen or so Americans and allied Vietnamese lost their lives – but their training, discipline and courage extracted a much higher price from the enemy – perhaps a thousand or more KIA as Benavidez and the others called in air strikes against hostile positions while awaiting rescue. Blehm then wraps up the book with the political battle to have Benavidez' actions properly recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor during a time that the so-called "Secret War" in Laos and Cambodia was not being acknowledged by our government. Small in scope, confined to one battle in one campaign, this is nevertheless one of the best books about Vietnam yet written.

by Cherie Priest
GanymedeAs Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series moves forward, Andan Cly – whom we first met in passing in "Boneshaker" – gets a curious invitation from the swamps of New Orleans. He find himself far from the familiar surroundings of alternate-history Seattle and back in the midst of the decades-long Civil War, wondering if he bit off more than he and his crew can handle. Another great tale in this all-too-believable steampunk universe, with wonderful plot twists and fully drawn characters. The series just keeps getting better and better.

by Cherie Priest
DreadnoughtFollowing the events of "Boneshaker" and "Clementine," the grown daughter of one the characters from "Boneshaker" heads west to meet her dying father in the wastelands of Seattle. Along the way, she encounters the ongoing Civil War, dirigibles, zombies – and an armored Union train carrying a secret weapon.

by Cherie Priest
ClementinePicks up where Boneshaker left off, following the subsequent adventure of a minor character from the first book. Shorter in length than the first in this Clockwork Century series, it is every bit as full in characters and adventure. An escaped slave sees his pirated dirigible stolen from him – and sets out across the late 19th Century American landscape to retrieve it, running across a former Confederate spy on the way.

by Cherie Priest
BoneshakerA fresh steampunk spin on the classic adventure tale, "Boneshaker" is about a young man searching for answers about his father, and his mother trying to protect him from the truth. Set in Civil War-era Seattle 14 years after a terrible disaster has unleashed noxious gases from deep in the Earth's mantle, creating a class of zombies infected by the gas, the story has dirigibles and Civil War veterans, anti-heroes and a wonderfully visceral setting. Mostly, though, it works so well because Cherie Priest is a gifted storyteller who deftly combines edge-of-your-seat action with meaningful character development.

"The Seafarers: The Windjammers"
by Oliver E. Allen
The WindjammersPart of Time-Life's "The Seafarers" series, this entry picks up where "The Clipper Ships" left off – providing a nice coda to the Age of Sail. With metal hulls replacing wood, the windjammers set speed records that steamships would take decades to overcome. But dependant on wind, even the best technology for sail couldn't provide the reliability that coal- and oil-powered ships could. (Those in San Diego can visit one of the last examples of a windjammer in The Star of India, down on the waterfront.)

"The Seafarers: The Clipper Ships"
by A.B. Whipple
The Clipper ShipsThe Clipper Ships were, until the metal-hulled Windjammers came along, the fastest merchant ships ever powered by sail. Centuries of shipbuilding development had led to advances that allowed ships to sail into the wind, to put out more canvas than ever to capture every breath of wind, and to deliver perishable goods halfway around the world – helping create the very notion of international commerce. England's tea habit could only be fixed with the speed that Clipper ships provided. Beautifully illustrated (the hallmark of all the Time-Life series), with lots of charts and break-outs, it's an easy, informative, fun read.

"The Dime Museum Murders"
by Daniel Stashower
The Dime Museum MurdersThe first in Daniel Stashower's fun Harry Houdini Mysteries series, but my second read in the series (I stumbled across "The Houdini Specter" first). Here, Stashower introduces us to his alternate-history Harry Houdini – a young, struggling magician whose expertise in sleight of hand and illusion causes a New York Police detective to call in Harry as a kind of expert consultant. As told by Houdini's brother, Dash, the story's pace is brisk, the setup polished, the conclusion leaves the reader satisfied.

"The Floating Lady Murder"
by Daniel Stashower
The Floating Lady MurderStruggling magician Harry Houdini and his brother Dash find themselves enmeshed in another murder mystery when they are hired on to perform with the traveling show of the great magician Kellar. When an acrobatic act goes horribly wrong, the brothers have to figure out who committed the vile deed. Another well-crafted entry in The Harry Houdini Mysteries that leaves the reader hoping Mr. Stashower adds more to the three volumes in this series.

"The Seafarers: The U-Boats"
by Douglas Botting
The U-BoatsSolid, even-handed history of Germany's submarine forces in the two world wars. The author presents both the West's proclaimed outrage, but also hypocrisy in running its own submarine forces – and the reality in the boats for the crew, who were simply military men trying to do their best for their country. For those on the merchant ships being stalked, of course, the terror was all too real.

"The Seafarers: The Frigates"
by Henry E. Gruppe
The FrigatesA nice history of the smaller, faster but less heavily armed warships used by the United States to counter the British men of war. This is a really detailed look at the whole development and deployment of the frigate class – the reasons the Americans preferred them, how they were used in battle against the larger, more powerful men of war, what led their eventual replacement. Highly recommended to naval history fans.

"The Seafarers: The Men-of-War"
by David Howart
The Men-of-WarThe British heavy ships of the line get the Time-Life history treatment, with a beautifully illustrated edition that lays out the history of the most heavily armed sailing ships in history.