Book Review: The Gate Keeper

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


The Gate Keeper, by the mother/son team known as Charles Todd, is a mystery with a huge ending twist.  Fans of this series will see Scotland Yard Detective Ian Rutledge having to solve a case from a different point of view. He is not only the investigator, but is the first person on the scene so he has become a witness as well.

Because this is a different type of mystery, The Todds wanted to make sure readers understand that it is not a puzzle where “there is a race between the writer and the reader as to who figures it out first. This novel has Rutledge pursuing the truth and finding a solution.  He has a dogged determination to keep tracking the killer.”

Having left his sister’s wedding in a distraught mood Rutledge decides to take a car trip. He encounters on a deserted road a woman standing next to a murder victim.  She reports how a stranger stepped in front of the car and without warning fired a shot killing Stephen Wentworth immediately.  With a list of persons of interest piling up Rutledge must sort through the many different aspects of the case.  He is helped along by a voice in his head, Corporal Hamish MacLeod, the ghost of the Scottish officer he had executed for cowardice, who comments persistently inside this detective's weary ear. Rutledge always listens, and appears to have given Hamish a life that was taken away. Hamish is real to Rutledge, sometimes antagonistic, sometimes supportive, sometimes part of his unconscious perception, an inner-self.

An interesting piece to the storyline is the similarities between the victim, Stephen, and the detective, Rutledge.  They both had someone close to them killed in the war, although Rutledge played more of a role.  They were also both jilted by the woman they loved.”  The Todds noted, “Stephen is the ultra ego of Rutledge in some ways, and that is probably one of the reasons why he wanted to follow through and find the killer. They both developed levels of coping skills and were solitary people.  Neither became involved in a relationship after their engagement was broken.  Yet, Ian came from a loving family, and Stephen from a dysfunctional one.” 

One of the secondary characters can best be described as an early 20th Century “Mommy Dearest.”  The mother of Stephen is vicious, spoiled, and uncaring who tried to thwart any happiness her son might achieve.  “We wanted to write a character where the mother hated her son all his life. She sees him as a monster, an ugly duckling.  She has no redeeming qualities. She enjoys painting him in a dim light.  Basically, just a terrible person who is bitter and self-centered.”

Because World War I play such an important role in the storyline, readers get a glimpse into the emotional wounds of many of the men, including Rutledge. “We wanted to humanize those who have served.  Our goal as writers is to show how they were ordinary people and then were trained to be warriors.  When they come back they must learn to trust again and to relate to those outside of their unit, the band of brothers. They can talk amongst their peers because they know there is a sense of understanding. Having experienced horrors first hand they cannot just shut out what they saw on the battlefield.”

The Gate Keeper by Charles Todd is a ‘who done it’ type of mystery.  Readers will enjoy the investigative process Ian Rutledge must go through to find the culprit.

Book Review: Second Strike

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


Second Strike by Peter Kirsanow has Special Operator Michael Garin returning to save the day again. This Superman quote applies, Garin “fights the unending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” He will once again face off against his nemesis, Russian Special Operator Taras Bor in this action-packed thriller.

Mike Garin was not written as an anti-hero.  “I wrote him as someone who is sure about the righteousness of his cause. He sleeps very well at night.  Never apologetic for defending America.  I wanted him to be a Gary Cooper type, the old-fashioned gun slinger who is on the side of right.  I met many operators and my brother-in-law used to be one.  They believe in America and understand what must be done to keep it as the greatest country in the world. Garin was inspired in part by a couple of operators I’ve known, but he’s chiefly a combination of the attributes of my brother-in-law and my late father, one of the world’s great badasses. In fact, Nikolai “Pop” Garin is my father. The existential struggle between Garin and his nemesis Taras Bor is a metaphor between the existential struggle of America and its chief enemies. In future books readers will find out something about Bor that will surprise them and put some things in perspective.” 

At the center of the plot is the ongoing geopolitical tension between Russia and America.  Just weeks after thwarting an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack by the Russians and Iranians, Garin and company realize that Russia is planning something else, a massive cyber-attack using ISIS wannabes. It is a warning of sorts that hammers the point home, America does not have a response doctrine to a massive attack of either magnitude.  Without government support, Garin turns to three people for help: Congo Knox, a former Delta Force sniper; Dan Dwyer, the head of a sprawling military contracting firm; and Olivia Perry, an aide to the national security advisor. As the tension mounts up Garin must stop the attack or millions will die.

Kirsanow commented, “Because of my job I am at a lot of committee hearings. The first book, Target Omega, was inspired by a 2010 hearing on EMP.  For this book, I happened on a committee meeting regarding cyber-attacks.  It was shortly after that where China hacked the Office of Personal Management.  My assistant on the Committee of Civil Rights had her file hacked.  It affected so many people I know.  The administration at the time did nothing to protect those individuals.  The opening scene in this book refers to how previous administrations let problems fester. If we do not have plans to deal with these dangers it amounts to ‘defense malpractice.’”

This story has never ending action.  Readers will be on the edge of their chairs as they quickly turn the pages to see how Garin thwarts Bor and the Russians.

Book Review A Steep Price

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


A Steep Priceby Robert Dugoni perfectly balances the character’s professional and personal lives.  This sixth book in the series continues with Seattle Violent Crimes homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite and her fellow A-Team colleagues.  Although the two cases to solve are not related, Dugoni is able to show how a real precinct works.

The first crime has Vic Fazzio (Faz) and his partner investigating the murder of a community activist who stood up to the realities of drug dealing, sex escorts, and gangs. Faz’s determination to nail the obvious suspect leads him to a South Park housing project. He searches for evidence against the menacing Cartel Surano, which is led by Little Jimmy.  They are a powerful local gang, dealing in drugs and terrorizing the local community, ensuring that they do not cooperate with the police. Because his partner injured his back Vic is now paired with the newbie, Andrea Gonzalez. Complicating everything is the shooting of the key witness.  His and Gonzalez’s account do not mesh and it appears she is trying to frame him over the fatal shot.

The other crime has Tracy Crosswhite helping on a missing person’s case. Besides the investigation Dugoni explores many social issues including “sugar dating,” and the different cultural expectations of East Indian women versus the ramifications in contemporary society. After the body turns up in an abandoned well, Tracy wonders if anyone in the victim’s estranged family is responsible. Kavita Mukherjee balked at an arranged marriage and had plans to attend medical school, but her dreams have now been cut short. She was resolute to make it on her own and raised money by having a “sugar daddy” on the side. With people of interest mounting up Tracy is determined to find Kavita’s killer.

Dugoni explained, “I got into a UBER with a young guy in the car.  We got to talking and he told me he had just been married. I asked if he had dated for a long time and the response, ‘no, it was an arranged marriage.’ He was Eastern Indian and told me he met her twice before the marriage.  His parents were the product of an arranged marriage and have been together for thirty years.  I was told by him arranged marriages have a lot less divorces.  As he was talking I took notes in my head and then started the research.”

To help solve the crime Tracy uses a technological angle.  Cell phones play an important role and they almost appear to be a secondary character. The important keys include the phone’s location history, the Find My iPhone app that can be shared between phones, and text messages with parental safeguards. It is a subtle warning how technology contributes to less privacy for the individual.

Another issue explored is maternity leave. Tracy is pregnant and worries that a new hire, Andrea Gonzalez, is being groomed to take her place. A book quote explains her thinking, “It would be much more difficult for her to argue discrimination if Nolasco (her Captain) replaced her with another woman-especially a minority woman.”

“I wrote Tracy as a tough cookie.  When on the job she is all business.  Her problem is she must deal with a sexist pig, Captain Johnny Nolasco. Her concern is that he brought in a Hispanic woman, Andrea Gonzalez. If a team has an urgent need they can bring in somebody.  She can have her job back, but not necessarily with the A Team.  She will have to be put back in a position of a detective on a violent crimes team.  Yet, she can become the fifth wheel or go to another team. It will be difficult for her to argue she was demoted because of sexism.  I think in other circumstances she and Gonzalez would probably have been close instead of clashing as they are now.” 

The dedication of the book, “To all the women who have suffered from breast cancer and have fought the good fight.  Hopefully, someday, research will break through and we finally will have a cure.” In this story, a few of the characters are suffering from breast cancer, Vera included. “I wrote those scenes because some in my family have it. My mother is a breast-cancer survivor of twenty-five years. She went through it when I was younger.  I have a sister-in-law who is currently going through this.  We lost my cousin’s wife from breast cancer.  It really impacts families. It really impacted me.  It is very difficult.” 

These fast-moving plot lines intertwined with some social issues creates a gripping story. Dugoni’s ability to tell a riveting action-packed plot while exploring the topics of arranged marriages, returning to work after a pregnancy, a cancer diagnosis, sex escorts, and drug dealers within a community, makes for a riveting suspense novel.

Book Review: A Dying Note

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


A Dying Noteby Ann Parker brings to life San Francisco during the late 1800s. As a co-owner of the Silver Queen Saloon the main character, Inez Stannert, had a stake in an upscale brothel. This sixth book of the series has a change of venue from Leadville Colorado to San Francisco California.  Besides the change of setting there is a change of professions for Inez and her ward, Antonia Gizzi.

Parker noted she changed the setting because “I live in the Bay area.  This is a new setting for me because the past five books were placed in Leadville Colorado. Also, it was a hot bed for labor activity with the Waterfront and printer organizations.  This allowed me to write in about a possible musicians’ labor union.  I think at some level I was going to have her leave, as Inez says that Leadville was just a stop along the way and that she and her ward were supposed to go to San Francisco.”

Inez is content to settle into her new life until the body of a musician washes ashore upon the banks of San Francisco’s Mission Creek Bay.  She recognizes the victim, someone who came to her for piano lessons. As Inez begins her investigation, she is confronted by her shady past in the form of Leadville silver baron Harry Gallagher. He gives her one-week to discover the murderer, or he will expose her past associations and threatens to ruin her socially/financially. Time grows short as Inez uncovers long-hidden secrets and unsettled scores that affect lives and reputations.

Inez is a strong woman protagonist.  “I spoke with and learned from Women Writing The West who influenced me to set my story in the historical West.  Inezis a woman with a mysterious past, a complicated present, and an uncertain future. I based her name on my paternal grandmother’s maiden name.  My family actually thought she would have got a kick out of it.  What the fictional and real women had in common is a will of iron, strong women.  They powered through from their difficulties. She was a woman of her times. Women who came to the West made a life for themselves. They tended to be pretty strong willed emotionally, spiritually, and physically.” 

Realizing the death might have something to do with union organizers, Inez is not content to sit back and do nothing.  The victim, Jamie Monroe, wanted to establish unions, including one geared for musicians. He was also working to secure enough money to marry Carmella Donato, the daughter of Nick Donato. He is the partner of Inez, as well as a well-respected businessman, and an accomplished musician who tries to find employment for musicians who frequent his establishment.

Throughout the story readers get tidbits of information about San Francisco.  They will visit the eloquent Palace Hotel, and the dangerous areas of the Barbary Coast and Chinatown. 

Besides a good mystery, information about places, clothing, businesses, transportation, and education makes the story interesting.

Book Review: Jar of Hearts

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


Jar of Heartsby Jennifer Hillier blends a murder, cover-up, and twisted relationships.  Through manipulated lives, prison hardships, abuse, friendship, and wrecked futures readers understand how someone’s life can go so wrong.

The story came from an article Hillier read, “about the wife of a serial killer that was released from prison and re-invented her life. Karla Homolka was the wife of Paul Bernardo, a serial killer that murdered three young women back in the ’90s in Toronto. Karla testified against her husband in exchange for twelve years, which turned out to be a very lenient sentence once it was discovered what an instrumental role she played in helping Bernardo find his victims. Her sentence was not harsh because she claimed he was abusive and she became a victim of his as well.  After serving her time she re-married, had children of her own, and became a PTA mom. For me this is just mind blowing.”

The story centers on Georgina (Geo) Shaw, someone who had to deal with the grief of losing her mother and two best friends.  But it appeared she overcame it, becoming a successful, thirty-year-old self-made executive at a Seattle pharmaceutical company.  That is until she was arrested at a board meeting and charged with being an accomplice in Angela Wong’s murder, her high school best friend. She makes a plea deal, to testify against her former abusive boyfriend and the actual killer, Sweetbay Strangler, Calvin James.  Not only did he choke Angela to death, but also killed three others. Georgina is sentenced to five years in prison for her role.  After she is released from prison, new killings of mothers and their children start piling up, and Geo, unable to escape her past, is suspected of knowing something about the new murders.

The author commented, “I want readers to be unsure if they liked, disliked, or are somewhere in between with Geo.  After all she was only sixteen when her friend was murdered and she was scared of Calvin and scared about going to prison with a feeling that her life would be ruined. Because Angela was already dead she felt it would not matter if she came forward. As days went by it became harder and harder for her to get out of the lies.  The secrets just pile up.  How do you go back and undue all of that? Since no one specifically asked her she was hoping it would just go away.  She basically learned how to compartmentalize.  I do think she felt if someone had asked her that she would have told them and confessed.  She became entrapped by her own secrets.  Her moral code shut down and her survival mode took over. She did not think of the other consequences, that more women could die and Angela’s family would never have closure. I hope readers think what would they do if they were put in that position? I would have probably gone to the police.”

Each character has a connection in this psychological thriller. A book quote shows how almost all of them are unsympathetic, “In every story there is a hero and a villain, but sometimes one person can be both.”  The only exception would be detective Kaiser Brody who strives to get justice. He, Angela, and Geo were considered the Three Musketeers in high school. What they all had in common was an obsession for each other: Calvin desiring Geo all for himself, Geo wanting to be Angela’s constant sidekick, Kaiser’s unrequited love for Geo through the years, and Angela the “mean girl.”

This dark novel exemplifies how easy it is to make bad decisions that can never be taken back. Fourteen years ago, Geo was complicit in her friend’s death. She watched her boyfriend, Calvin, kill and bury Angela, keeping the dark secret from the police, her friends, and her family.  Because of this Geo went to prison where she suffered unbearable hardships.

“I wrote Geo’s prison experience and was influenced by a number of sources. For years I was obsessed with the TV show Lock Up. I spent a day taking a tour of a correction facility for women outside Seattle to see how they lived and interacted.  It has its own world that can be very bleak and monotonous. I think I would be like Geo and adapt to the situation because we are both scrappy. Just as she did I would make friends with the right people.  I also talked with someone who used to work in corrections.  She told me how manipulative inmates are, many deviate and evil.  Given the right circumstances it could bring out the worst in people.” 

It is a riveting story that readers will not want to put down. Just when people think they have the plot figured out Hillier throws a curve ball with an even more sinister and darker plot. Murder, lies, grief, obsession, guilt, friendship, and distorted love add up to make a gripping story.

Book Review: A Rebel Heart

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


A Rebel Heartby Beth White brings to light the Reconstruction Era with a gripping story. It is a valuable tale of love and forgiveness between the characters and as a nation. Readers will be sympathetic not to the brutal plantation slave owner, but to those who became collateral damage.  White shows that during this time period nothing is black and white, but much more is grey.Three sisters, Selah, Joelle, and Aurora Daughtry try to save their Mississippi home after the Civil War. With the help of a Yankee, Levi Riggins, a retired Union officer, now a Pinkerton agent, they agree to convert the plantation to a hotel.

White noted, “I thought to make the main heroine an improvised Southern belle who grew up on a plantation and now years after the war’s end has a lot to lose.  I wanted to add tension to the story by making the hero a retired Union Officer who served in Mississippi. I also had the southern family depend on their freed slaves to help them survive.” 

An early scene has drunk Union soldiers beating and raping a Southern woman, the mother of the Daughtery daughters. White has readers realize that many Southerners also suffered during and after the Civil War. She presents both sides of the story, the rebel father who is prejudiced and resents how his way of life has been destroyed, the daughters, Selah, Joelle, and Aurora, who want a roof over their head and food in their stomachs, and the freed slaves who attempt to use their skills to make a living. 

The ruthless scene was based on the memoirs of Benjamin Grierson.  “When I read about him I knew I had to write in this scene. He commanded a cavalry brigade, raiding many Confederate railroad and military facilities throughout Mississippi. Grant used this to divert attention while he took Vicksburg. Throughout the memoir he wrote what his men did, some of it was very brutal.” 

The mystery comes into play with Levi’s investigation into several train robberies and explosions. He wears two hats in this story. Someone seeking the perpetrators who have slipped away near the plantation, and a hotel management agent. His cover allows him to remain close to Selah, able to investigate the plantation and his initial suspicions of her, while pursuing his attraction to her. The Southern and Northern gap is bridged with the chemistry that exists between the Union officer, Levi, and the Southern belle, Selah. She agrees to his plan to develop the run-down estate into a glamorous hotel, completely unaware that Levi only proposed the idea as a way to keep his cover as he continues to search for the robbers.


Readers will learn about the exploration of the economic and social devastation in the south. Each character had a different way of trying to rebuild their society and life, striving to create a better future with the help of a Yankee no less.  With a plot full of action and intrigue and many likeable characters this novel becomes a must read.

Book Review: Dreams of Falling

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


Dreams of Fallingby Karen White once again proves why readers have fallen in love with her books. Blending together friendships, betrayal, loyalty, and forgiveness over three generations makes for a gripping plot. At the heart of the mystery are the secrets each character is hiding.

The story can be considered anti-Cinderella.  White explains, “I wanted to have it realistic where dreams do not always come true.  I wanted to show it is not the end of the world if they don’t.  Another door will open, and that everyone should have a Plan B. I had the Tree of Dreams, a moss-draped oak on the banks of the North Santee River. The three girls, Ceecee, Margaret, and Bitty, wrote their dreams on ribbons and placed it into the tree's trunk, including the most important one: ‘Friends forever, come what may.’ I personally have had really bizarre dreams, which my daughter tries to interpret.  My imagination and the desire to learn more about dreams is why I decided to put this in.  But the story is not about nocturnal dreams, but the dreams of the three girls, what they hoped for the future.”

This is a story about three generations of women and is told from the perspective of Ceecee, Ivy, and Larkin. The main story goes from the present day (2010) to 1951 flashbacks. Set in Georgetown, South Carolina, the story begins as Larkin returns home to help locate her missing mother, Ivy, and realizes there is a dark secret centering around the death of one of Ceecee’s best friends from high school. Margaret, Ceecee, and Bitty have just graduated from high school in 1951 with all their dreams ahead of them.  But they are shattered when Margaret finds she is an unwed mother who lost her fiancé while fighting in the Korean War. Years later her daughter Ivy has a similar experience when she loses her recently married husband who fought in Vietnam.  Now the third generation, Larkin, must piece together what happened during those turbulent years.

The mystery comes into play as the fifty-year secrets are slowly unveiled. “I wrote how each character had a different reason for keeping them.  It presented the family and friend dynamics.  Maybe they were used to save a friendship or to protect those they loved.  I do not think people who keep secrets always have bad intentions.  The mystery is what happened between the friends. To emphasize this point I put in the quote, ‘It’s easy to be kind and giving and loyal when you have everything.  But the mark of a true friend is when everything is taken away and you’re still kind, giving, and loyal.’”

White masterfully crafts a story that has deep emotion, a riveting mystery, and surprising twists. Readers will keep the pages turning to find out what happens to all the characters.

Book Review: Justice Betrayed

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.

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Justice Betrayedby Patricia Bradley is the third book in the Memphis Cold Case series. Any series set in Memphis must eventually delve into its famous resident, Elvis Presley.  Bradley combines a riveting mystery with some fun facts about the Elvis Week that includes a tribute contest.

Homicide detective Rachel Sloan must endure interviewing an Elvis impersonator, Vic Vegas, who wants her to look into the death of his friend, another impersonator that happened years ago.  He entices her by claiming that his death is related to her mother’s murder, which has never been solved.  After Vic turns up dead she and her supervisor, Lieutenant Boone Callahan join forces to find out who killed Vic and if there are any ties to the past cases. What they discover places all of them, particularly Rachel, in harm's way. 

This is not the first time they have worked together.  In the previous book, Justice Buried, they joined forces, she a burglary detective, while he was a homicide detective. Their relationship went beyond professional when they dated for a few weeks. Now that she has switched to homicide, with Boone as her supervisor, any relationship between them is prohibited. Even though they still seem to have a chemistry between them their painful past history must be sorted out before they have any chance at reconciliation.

Each character must deal with the guilt they felt, blaming themselves for a loved ones’ death.  Bradley noted, “I based that guilt on me.  When I was in sixth grade I had a friend, whose father murdered her and her mother.  I was supposed to have a sleepover that night, but cancelled.  I always felt if I had gone maybe I could have done something. In the story Rachel felt that way also. Maybe if she was home she could have prevented her mother from being murdered.”

Boone struggles with the death of a comrade that he fought alongside in the Iraqi War.  Bradley wants to give a shout out to all veterans, “I have a friend who has had three tours of duty in Afghanistan.  I also knew the book was going to come out about a week after Memorial Day.  We call it Decoration Day in the South.  Many go to the graves and place flowers after cleaning up the graveyard for those who paid the ultimate price.  I think many of us take our soldiers for granted.  They have given up and sacrificed so much for us. My friend who is serving told me that he must leave his family for a year without seeing them. I think many of us do not understand how the soldiers are away from their loved ones, as civilians we have no idea. Many times, we fail to let them know how we appreciate their service.” 

This book has it all: well-developed characters, a chilling mystery, and the re-emergence of Elvis. 

Book Review: They Grey Ghost

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


The Gray Ghost by Clive Cussler and Robin Burcell takes readers on a thrilling car ride as they race to find a valuable antique car before the bad guys find it.  Amateur sleuths Sam and Remi Fargo, smart and philanthropic self-made multimillionaires, find adventure at every turn.

Burcell describes the two characters, “People have referred to them as a modern Nick and Nora Charles from the “Thin Man Series.”  For me, I think they are more like the couple that was in the “Hart to Hart” TV shows.  I think the Fargos are the vehicle for the plot.  They are able to be sleuths because of their background.  Sam is a CIA type who knows hand-to-hand combat, while Remi is a linguist and an expert marksman.  Together they are a forced to be reckoned with.”

The authors brilliantly explain the backstory through a journal, that becomes almost a secondary character.  The back and forth between 1906 and the current time makes the story even more riveting.  A distant relative of theirs seeks their help in finding a rare 1906 Rolls Royce prototype, The Gray Ghost to clear his uncle’s name.  In the course of their investigation they find that it might contain a rare treasure of money stolen in a train robbery more than a century ago. Much to their detriment they find others are also looking for the car, and are willing to do whatever it takes to recover the car and the treasure. The body count mounts up as Sam and Remi search for the auto, while trying to avoid getting killed.

Because Clive Cussler is such a fan of antique cars Burcell told of how the story came about, “He actually has a museum in Colorado full of his collector cars.  I saw him bid on two different cars including the Ahrens-Fox fire-engine, the one written about in this story. While watching him bidding on it I thought it would be cool if we wrote it into the plot. As I was doing the research the idea of writing a plot around something that has been lost was formulated.  We decided on having the artifact a prototype to the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.  This story takes real history, tweeks it, and has a ‘what if’ aspect: what if it is about a car that never made it to the car show.”

Clive Cussler fans have fun spotting him in the story.  It should remind people of what Alfred Hitchcock did in his movies.  He will come in and help the protagonist with the investigation.  In this book there are two references, one where his name is mentioned outright and one with a cameo appearance where readers have to figure out by the description. 

This is a fun story.  Besides the banter between the characters readers learn some interesting facts about cars.  What the authors have done is maintain a balance between what is interesting with what is necessary for the story, creating an exciting mystery.

Book Review: Coffin Corner Boys

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


Coffin Corner Boysby Carole Avriett is a compelling read about a B-17 crew that escaped from Nazi-occupied France after their plane was shot down.  This book is a reminder of the Greatest Generation’s spirit, bravery, and patriotism. 

Those flying the B-17 suffered numerous casualties. Readers learn the harrowing dangers the crewmen faced from the time they jumped out of their burning plane to attempting to survive and avoid being captured.  They were assigned the vulnerable position of the mission’s configuration called the Coffin Corner.  Having to fly low squadron, low group, flying #6 in the bomber box formation they were exposed to hostile fire.

Avriett recounts how “on March 16th, 1944 the ten-member crew had to bail out of their plane after it was shot down. It was not a done deal that they would even land safely.  Think about it.  They were not trained to parachute out of planes, and never practiced it.  They had to jump out of it while it flew in excess of 250 mph into subzero temperatures.  One of the guys had his back cracked when the force of the chute shot upward after being opened.  The pilot, Captain George W. Starks, landed so hard his foot broke.  Then there were the German fighter pilots that tried to shoot them in mid-sky or maneuvered close so the parachute’s air would be sucked out, leaving the airman to plummet to his death.”

Each crewmember had to endure the severe cold, wetness, hunger, and exhaustion.  Irv Baum and Ted Badder had the misfortune of landing by two Frenchmen who turned them into the Nazis for two thousand francs.  Baum who was Jewish tried denying that he was “A Hebrew. I was told ‘you’re lying,’ and at the same moment was backhanded across the face hard enough to break open the corner of my left eye.  We were sent to a processing camp near Frankfurt where they questioned us about the names of our crew.  I kept saying it was a crew I didn’t usually fly with, so I didn’t know any of them.  About midnight, about five of us were taken outside.  Then six or seven guards came out with rifles, lined us up and the officer yelled ‘Ready. Aim. Fire.’ But nothing happened.  They put us back into our cells and I spent a sleepless night.”

Many people know of the Japanese Bataan Death March of Filipinos and American POWS, but the Germans also had one, the Black Death March. In February 1945 crew member Dick Morse told how the Germans starved the 6000 POWS and marched them in the cold winter weather.  Those lagging behind would be ‘gun-butted’ by the guards and sometimes a German would drop back and take one of them into the bushes or woods.  “We would hear a shot-then the guard would return alone.”  They were provided very little food and had to drink from streams that gave them dysentery. They suffered pneumonia, diphtheria, typhus, trench foot, tuberculosis, blisters, abscesses, and frostbite.  They were marched for three months, traveling six hundred miles until rescued on May 2nd, 1945 with only 20% surviving.  

Thankfully for some of the other crew members, they were never captured.  Many of the French civilians risked everything to help them.  Captain Starks told of how he was given “a share of whatever meager food they had. Anyone who helped me did so at terrible risk to themselves.  Any French civilian caught helping a downed Allied airman was summarily taken out of his house by the Germans and shot: man, woman, child, it made no difference.”

There were even some humanitarians among the German soldiers.  While Baum was being processed as a POW in March 1944 he had to fill out a form that included his religion.  A young German enlisted soldier took the pencil away from Baum and wrote “Protestant” on the form. 

This is an inspirational book that recounts how these men went on an adventure of bravery and courage and were able to come home thanks to their grit and the willingness of others to help.  As Avriett noted, “We are losing our WWII veterans every day.  These stories need to be told, heard, and preserved for prosperity.” 


The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.



Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman Deluxe Edition shows the evolution of the character created in 1933 by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. They sold Superman to Detective Comics, the future DC Comics, in 1938. This book shows why Superman has maintained his appeal from generation to generation.

The book features over 19 stories and essays including a forward by Paul Levitz, an introduction by Laura Siegel Larson (Jerry Siegel’s daughter) and other pieces by Jules Feiffer, Tom DeHaven, Marv Wolfman, David Hajdu, Larry Tye and Gene Luen Yang. There is also a section with cover highlights and full biographies at the end.

The comic stories include the first comic, “The Mystery of The Freight Train Robberies” to “The Super-Duel In Space,” and ending with “The Game” written in April 2018. There are also stories that explore the relationship between Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Superman as well as some cameo appearances by some famous figures including President John F. Kennedy. Readers are treated to comics that explore the origins of Supergirl, Brainiac, the Fortress of Solitude, as well as a previously unpublished 1940s Superman tale believed to be written by Jerry Siegel with art by the Joe Shuster studio, salvaged fifty years ago and hidden away. Along with this book, people can also purchase the 1000thedition, making Superman the first comic book to reach that highlight.

Below is an interview with Larry Tye who wrote the essay in the book, Endurance.He is a journalist and author of many biographies including Bobby Kennedy, Satchel Paige, and the Man of Steel, entitled The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero.

Elise Cooper: How has Superman changed over the years regarding his appearance and the enemies he has faced, which includes politicians?

Larry Tye: Superman has evolved more than the fruit fly. In the 1930s he was just the crime fighter we needed to take on Al Capone and the robber barons. In the forties, he defended the home front while brave GIs battled overseas. Early in the Cold War he stood up taller than ever for his adopted country, while in its waning days he tried singlehandedly to eliminate nuclear stockpiles. For each era, he zeroed in on the threats that scared us most, using powers that grew or diminished depending on the need. So did his spectacles, hair style, even his job title. Each generation had the Superman it needed and deserved. Each change offered a Rorschach test of the pulse of that time and its dreams. Superman, always a beacon of light, was a work in progress.

EC:  What influences has Superman been on comics, movies, and TV shows?

LT: Over the years comics have been transformed – from childhood entertainment to art form to mythology – and Superman helped drive that transformation. The comic book and its leading man could only have taken root in America. What could be more U.S.A. than an orphaned outsider who arrives in this land of immigrants, reinvents himself, and reminds us that we can reach for the sky?Yet today this flying Uncle Sam is both global and multi-media in his reach, having written himself into the national folklore from Beirut to Buenos Aires. It is that constancy and purity – knowing that he is not merely the oldest of our superheroes, but the most transcendent – that has reeled back aging devotees like me and drawn in new ones like my daughter. It is what makes the Man of Tomorrow timeless as well as ageless.

EC: Do you think the aviation's golden age influenced having Superman fly?

LT: I think it has less to do with what was happening in the real world of aviation than in the heads of his creators. Superman was a man of the world, perennially on call and needing to dash to wherever Lois Lane and others required his help. Flying would have made that easier and would become his trademark, but it did not happen overnight in the comic books or strips. The most he could manage in 1938 was leaping an eighth of a mile and outracing an express train. Two years later, after what must have been intense training, he could vault into and beyond the stratosphere, outrace an airplane, and run a mile in a scant second. By 1942 he could run at the speed of light and outpace an electric current. But still no take-off. There were hints it was coming in a single frame of a story in May 1943, when his jump looked like he might be taking flight, and he did, finally and irrefutably, that October in Action Comics’ “Million-Dollar Marathon” story. “Let’s see ya fly!” adoring boys at Children’s Hospital yelled to Superman, and so he did, telling them, “I’ll be back for a real visit pretty soon! Up – up – and away!”

EC:  I noticed in the first Superman issue there was a comment, "You're not fighting a woman," and in the comic “Superman and The Teen Titans,” Wonder Girl says to him, "Nowadays us liberated ladies don't take much to being called inferior by a man." Do you think women's issues also played a role?  

LT: Yes, and that was especially apparent with the launch of a comic that let women and girls see a Superman-like character created in their own image. The fellow Kryptonian who gave Superman the greatest joy, and the most sleepless nights, was his cousin Kara Zor-El, known on Earth as Supergirl. It took until 1959 to launch her as a character, when we quickly got the full story. The Maid of Steel, who would get her own comic book, gave Superman a blood relative and fellow outsider with whom he could let down his defenses. If youths of all stripes embraced Superboy, now girls had a heroine made in their own special image. And if H.G. Wells’s War of the Worldshad given aliens a bad name, Supergirl and Superman polished the image of the interplanetary interloper.

EC:  Can you summarize Supergirl’s story?

LT:  She and all of Argo City had been hurled into the cosmos when the rest of Krypton exploded. Later, when the orbiting Argo itself was threatened, Kara’s father launched the child in a space ship headed for Earth. Save for gender, her story mirrored her famous cousin’s: she assumed the secret identity of the pigtailed Linda Lee, she had adoptive parents named Fred and Edna Danvers, she shunned her male admirers, and she had superpowers that she used to help humankind.

EC:  What about Lois Lane as a role model? 

LT: Lois Lane was a fixture from the very start, although at first, she was mainly a foil for Superman to rescue and Clark to pine over. Action 1 set the pattern: kidnapped by three thugs, Lois was quickly whisked to safety by Superman then laughed at by her editor who, hearing her recount her unlikely adventure, inquired, “Are you sure it wasn’t pink elephants you saw?” Over time she became a role model for millions of women of all ages, and especially the thousands of young women attracted to the no-nonsense world of journalism by the no-nonsense reporter Lois, who always beat Clark to the story, even if she never quite got his quick-change alter ego.

EC: What do you think was Superman’s ethnicity?

LT: With his perfect pug nose, electric blue eyes, and a boyish spit curl that suggested Anglo as well as Saxon. No hint in his sleek movie-star name, Clark Kent, which could belong only to a gentile and probably one with a lifelong membership at the country club. His social circle didn’t give it away either: Lois Lane, George Taylor, and even Lex Luthor were, like him, more Midwest mainstream than East Coast ethnic.

EC:  Do you think Superman represented the immigrant population of the time?

LT: Superman had even stronger cultural ties to the faith of his founders. He was the ultimate foreigner, escaping to America from his intergalactic shtetl (a small Jewish town or village in eastern Europe)and shedding his Jewish name for Clark Kent, a pseudonym as transparently WASPish as the ones Jerry had chosen for himself. Clark and Jerry had something else in common: both were classic nebbishes. Clark and Superman lived life the way most newly-arrived Jews did, torn between their Old and New World identities and their mild exteriors and rock-solid cores. That split personality was the only way he could survive, yet it gave him perpetual angst. Jules Feiffer, an authority on cartoons and Jews, said the Last Son of Krypton was born not on Krypton but on “the planet Poland, from Lodz maybe, possibly Crakow, maybe Vilna.” The alien superhero was, more than anything, “the striving Jewish boy’s goyishe American dream.”

EC:  Interesting that JFK appeared to be a part of a Superman comic-why do you think that happened?

LT: By the 1960s, as the age of peaceniks and flower children gained steam, Superman’s influence had risen to the point where even the White House was laying out the red carpet. The Kennedy administration wanted the hero’s help spreading the word about its campaign to close the “muscle gap.” Superman creative director Mort Weisinger put two of his best writers on the story, which he called “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy.” The Champion of Democracy flew across America pushing young runners to run harder, hurdlers to jump higher, and flabby journalists at the Daily Planet to do fifteen minutes a day of calisthenics. When the New York Times got wind of the preparations it scooped the comic book with an article headlined, “Superman Meets Kennedy on Vigor.”  The comic story, all set to run, was pulled back when the president was assassinated in November of 1963. Shortly afterwards, Weisinger got a call from President Lyndon Johnson saying, “We’re waiting for the story. When’s it coming out?” Mort explained his worry that running it might be in bad taste, at which point, as he recalled the tale, Johnson interrupted: “Horsefeathers. You can run it with a posthumous foreword, explaining that Iordered it!” Mort did.

EC:  Was Kennedy in any other comics?

LT: This was not the first time President Kennedy had teamed up with Superman. In 1962, when Superman was ready to introduce his cousin Supergirl to the world he brought her to the White House to meet the President. High drama, indeed: the Camelot President on the same stage with the Sir Lancelot of comic-book heroes. Two years later Superman took Kennedy into his confidence, sharing his dual identity as Clark Kent. “If I can’t trust the President of the United States,” Superman asked, “who can I trust?” There was one other time when the name Jack Kennedy had turned up in Superman’s comic books. It was in the very first of the Superman series, in July 1939. A character named Kennedy was murdered and the newly minted Man of Steel saved a wrongly-accused man from being executed.



Book Review: The Lost Pilots

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.

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The Lost Pilots by Corey Mead combines an adventure story, a tragic love story, and a crime story into one narrative.  It has it all: a fascinating look back into the early days of aviation, a love triangle, bringing back to prominence Jessie Keith-Miller, a female pioneer pilot, and a murder trial.

The story begins in 1927, when World War I pilot, Captain William Lancaster and Jessie Keith-Miller take off from London, aspiring to complete a record-breaking flight to Australia, the first in a light plane. Although they were basically strangers, they bonded over their desire for adventure, fame, and escape from unhappy marriages. There are many scenes that underscore the dangers of flying during those early days.  Having crashed numerous times it became obvious that weather was a character, an enemy with its slashing rain and battering crosswinds, sleet, and fog that could easily bring down these light planes.

After successfully completing the flight, they found they were international celebrities, but also deeply in love.  The spotlight takes them from Australia to New York to Hollywood. Their celebrity status is exploited, yet as lovers they must fall under the radar since both are still married.  Making matters worse the crash of 1929 causes them financial problems. 

Their lives were influenced by the era, having lived through World War I, the Roaring 20s, and the Great Depression. Mead believes the effect of “WWI taught that generation how to cheat death.  They became free-spirits, wanting to escape the Victorian upbringing.  I also wanted to show how there was huge bias against female flyers.  Jessie was probably a better pilot than Lancaster. But living in the Roaring Twenties also helped her because it was a time where women became more independent and started to enter the male-dominated world.”

Since the depression dried up any commercial flying possibilities, Jessie participates in the Women’s Air Derby, rooming with Amelia Earhart, while Lancaster seeks other flying adventures. Still in need of money Jessie decides to write her autobiography with Haden Clark as her ghostwriter.  Having been granted a divorce she accepts Clark’s marriage proposal.  After returning to Miami where Jessie and Clark lived, Lancaster became devastated when told of the couple’s plans. That night Clark is found dead of a gunshot wound. Was it murder or suicide?  A riveting and scandalous trial ensues that ultimately costs Jessie her fame as she stands by Lancaster. 

Mead noted, “The entire court room case was presented verbatim in the Miami newspapers.  It covered not only the trial but also Jessie’s and Lancaster’s background. I was able to draw a pretty complete picture of their lives from the newspapers at the time, their diaries/writings, and talking with his great nephew. What I discovered was that it was similar to today’s sensational court cases where tragedy and misfortune are exploited for entertainment as the public’s hunger is fed.”

This book combines the daring days of the early aviators with a passionate love story.  A true story of adventure, forbidden love, fame, fortune, tragedy, scandal, and loyalty.

Book Review: Gale Force

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


Gale Forceby Owen Laukkanen is a realistic story where readers take the journey with the characters as they board the ship, and feel the splash of the waves. It is an attest to the author’s writing style he is able to make an intense adventure story of a maritime salvage operation.

The author based the story on “The wreck at the center of the tale is based on the real-life saga of the Cougar Ace, which did in fact capsize near the Aleutian Islands. You’re so isolated on the water, and at the mercy of very powerful forces of nature. The potential for conflict and action is always there. It’s just such a different environment from anything any of us is really used to, in particular in really remote places like the Aleutian Islands or the Arctic Ocean.”

The plot has McKenna Rhodes inheriting the Gale Force, a salvage boat, after her father died in violent weather on the open seas. Hearing about a salvage operation, she and the crew decide to attempt a rescue of a freighter, the Pacific Lion, which has turned over on its side during a horrific storm. A stowaway who has stolen fifty million in bonds from a Japanese gangster hampers them along with other salvage tugs.  After finally getting a contract from the insurance company McKenna and crew can earn $30 million for saving the ship and its property. 

She is smart, brave, beautiful, and wants to prove that she is able to navigate this male-dominated world. He describes her, “I wanted to write a character that is daunted by the magnitude and responsibility of being a captain.  I based her insecurities on a lot of people I met that worked on the water and are aware that if a mistake is made people’s lives are at stake; thus, constant worriers. Also, when I was on a train going from Seattle to Los Angeles I met this single mother from Idaho.  In order to feed her four children, she started a trucking company.  I thought she would make a good character for a story since trucking like tugboats is a male dominated boys club.  She told me how she struggled with men who tried breaking contracts because they objected to a woman trying to make inroads.  I wanted to show how McKenna also struggles with this. Both were seen as a small fish in a big pond.”

Another character in the book is the ocean the alternates between playing an antagonist and a protagonist. “I wanted to write it as an ever-present threat. Every second the crew spends on the ship they must realize that the ocean could suddenly turn on them.  The main characters love the ocean and feel at home around it.  They are attracted to it; yet, at any moment it could destroy them.  One day the ocean is beautiful and calm, while the next day a storm can pick up, showing the ocean’s anger, basically eating someone alive. The environment is as unpredictable as any human character in the book.” 

The first in a new series starts out with a splash, not a drizzle.  It is a riveting and intense action-filled story with very well-developed characters.


Book Review: Alex and Eliza, Love & War

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


Alex and Elizahas taken the world by storm.  Whether the play by Lin-Manuel Miranda or the novels by Melissa De La Cruz, people are craving for more information about the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza Schuyler. The first in the series, Alex and Eliza, and its sequel,Love & War,emphasize the romance more than the historical, as the author brings to life the love story of these two Revolutionary figures. 

Melissa wants to emphasize, “Alex is a creation based on an historical figure.  I consider him someone I made up from the real person. These are characters. They may be historical figures, but they are also characters of my imagination. I think that Alexander Hamilton never went by the name ‘Alex.’ There is no way Eliza would call him ‘Alex’, and more likely called him Mr. Hamilton till the day he died.” 

In the first book, Alex and Eliza,the plot spans the years from when they first met in 1777 to their marriage in 1780.  Because there is not much information about Eliza, the author had to take liberties to construct a story that was somewhat accurate, weaving together fact and fiction.

Hamilton is seen as a smitten dashing knight who sweeps the princess, Eliza, off her feet. But it is also a Prince and the Pauper story since Hamilton was an orphan who did not have a name or financial means. The bright, ambitious, but penniless Hamilton is drawn to practical Eliza, falling deeply in love.  His prestige comes from being the aide-de-camp to General George Washington.

Eliza is seen as a strong-willed, sharp-tongued, sarcastic, and intelligent woman. She wants to marry for love, not prestige and wealth, but will not go against her parent’s wishes. A book quote shows how powerless women were during those times, “It is a cliff, a drop into some unfathomably deep and foggy abyss… a shipwreck.”  Yet, in the end, love wins out, and her parents accept Hamilton as a suitable husband. 

She wanted to write it as a perfect American fairy tale.  "Elizabeth (Eliza) was the princess coming from one of the most prestigious and richest New York families.  Then there was Alexander Hamilton, a handsome, brilliant, brave, and charming war hero who had no name and no money.  I thought about how someone like him could marry someone like her.” 

Readers will get a glimpse of the time period: how they dress, eat, and live are described in great detail.  For example, a scene in the book has Eliza helping to inoculate Washington’s troops with a smallpox vaccine. Fiction, Eliza did not have a hand in it, while, the truth is that the soldiers were inoculated.  Another factual scene has a description of Eliza’s dress, with “skirt, underskirt, petticoat, slip, and ankle-length, form-fitting pantaloons.”

Melissa, “I am fascinated with the time period including the architecture, dress, and what they ate. What I wanted to do is find the facts and then incorporate them into scenes of the books. I myself tried to understand who they were, how they lived, and how they partied.  I enjoyed finding the details that helps to bring this story to life.”

The second book in the series, Love & War, by Melissa De La Cruz has the Revolutionary War still prominent, although it is coming to an end.  This story shows the struggles of early married life as Alexander Hamilton is trying to make a name for himself to prove himself worthy, while Eliza is trying to make her way into high society. 

The story delves into the same problem many young couples face, even today, how Alexander Hamilton has a burning ambition, and Eliza is trying to find her place in this world.  At first, he was off to war, leaving his newly wed bride with her family, and then at the war’s conclusion he starts up his law practice, spending long hours, and basically neglecting his wife. 

Unlike the first book, this one does have more of a balance between romance and history. It delves into the topics of unemployment, financial crises, and the political divide. As a lawyer, he took on many loyalist clients, arguing for reconciliation and challenged the laws that penalized them. The story touches on the three views of political thought for this young nation:  Hamilton believes in a strong central government; Jefferson’s belief is a middle ground of limited government except for national security, and those like Governor George Clinton who wants each state to have absolute control.  With a quote that is relevant today, the author shows the divide among Americans, “We will only stand if we learn to accept and even embrace each other’s differences rather than allow them to divide us.”

The case he argues is based on many similar cases.  "I found out he became known after the Revolution as someone who defended those loyal to the Crown.  After the War, many wanted to take the Loyalists’ property and position.  He had the foresight to know that to be the United States of America everyone had to be a part of this country.”

Readers get a glimpse into the real personality of Eliza.  How Hamilton is growing to depend on her as his psychological anchor, where she views his enemies as hers.  There is a fictional scene in the book where she calls out Governor Clinton as she defends her husband, “This man whose hand I hold and whose ring I share put his life on the line for this country over and over…” This is a very similar tone to what actually happened when she told former President James Monroe, “If you come to tell me you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders and the stories you circulated against my dear husband…”

The dialogue in this novel creates an atmosphere that fluctuates between joy and anger whether between husband and wife, or between the three Schuyler sisters.  It delves into how each must face their trials and tribulations.

Because the play implies an attraction between the oldest sister Angelica and Hamilton, “I wanted to write my own vision. I have a sister and thought ‘no way would she like him in a romantic way.’  They were sisters who loved one another.  Angelica adored Eliza.  In this story, I do not have Angelica and Hamilton attracted to each other in that way.  I remember telling people that Lin-Manuel is not a girl with a sister or he would know it just would not happen.  I do not think Angelica would ever do that because she took the role of older sister seriously. Of course, he was close to the sisters, but in a brotherly sort of way.”

These books are charming and interesting.  The two characters have a voice and a personality that are engaging.  Hopefully, people will be drawn to find out more about the early history of this great nation.

Someone you should know: five men earned the Medal of Honor on May 8

On this date in 1942, Lt. John J. Powers tells his fellow dive bombers as they prepare to climb into their planes to attack the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku during the Battle of the Coral Sea, “Remember, the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it on their flight deck.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt will tell the nation during one of his fireside chats in September that Powers flew “through a wall of bursting anti-aircraft shells and swarms of enemy planes. He dived almost to the very deck of the enemy carrier, and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit.”

“He was last seen attempting recovery from his dive at the extremely low altitude of two hundred feet,” said the president, “amid a terrific barrage of shell and bomb fragments, and smoke and flame and debris from the stricken vessel. His own plane was destroyed by the explosion of his own bomb. But he had made good his promise to ‘lay it on the flight deck.'”

SBD Dauntless scout pilot Lt. (junior grade) William E. Hall attacks and destroys three enemy warplanes during the Battle of the Coral Sea and is wounded during the dogfight. The previous day, Hall assisted in the sinking of the Japanese carrier Shoho.

Meanwhile aboard USS Yorktown (CV-5), Lt. Milton E. Ricketts (who graduated alongside Lt. Jones from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1935) is leading a damage control party while Japanese pilots target the aircraft carrier. An enemy bomb falls right next to Ricketts and his men, exploding one deck below them. The blast kills and wounds several of Ricketts’ team and although mortally wounded himself, Ricketts charges a fire fighting hose and works to extinguish the blaze until he perishes.

On this date in 1945, acting squad leader Private First Class Anthony L. Krotiak and his soldiers are engaged in a firefight on Luzon Island’s Balete Pass. When Krotiak spots an enemy grenade thrown into their trench, he knocks his squad mates out of the way, jams the grenade into the ground with the butt of his rifle, then shields them from the blast with his body. Krotiak will die within moments.

When Lance Corporal Miguel Keith‘s outnumbered platoon was engaged in South Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province during an early morning attack in 1970, the already-wounded Marine charged into heavy fire, raining down fire that downed three and chased off the remaining two enemy soldiers in their failed attempt to rush the American command post. An enemy grenade wounds him again, but he ignores his serious wounds and charges once more at a force of 25 men, killing several more with his machine gun and breaking off the attack. Keith is hit again after his second charge, this time fatally.

Book Review: The Agency

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


The Agency by Australian author James Phelan is making a big splash here in the United States. Anyone who likes the action continuing at a harrowing pace will enjoy this story. There is also enough fun dialogue between the characters to put a smile on readers’ faces. This prequel introduces Jed Walker, a former Lt. Colonel in the Air Force who has decided to join the CIA. 

The reason for a prequel, “I wanted to challenge myself since this is the first prequel I have ever written.  I think it is more of a suspense novel than a thriller.  I hope to show how Jed is personally driven, wanting to hunt down the bad targets. This gave me the opportunity to explain why Jed decided to move from the military to the CIA. All the Jed Walker books written to date will be released this year. They were tied up for awhile with my previous publishers who had first right of refusal. They dragged their feet and held things up for a couple of years.  Now we have the rights back. Although it is the fifth book in the series, Americans will be able to read them in order.I am working on the sixth book currently.”

Set in 2005, after completing his rigorous training with the CIA’s Special Activities Division in Virginia, Walker’s assigned mission is to exchange code phrases with a male contact.  But just as the meeting is to occur, a British intelligence agent, Steph Mensch warns him of a set-up.  After neutralizing the threat, he and Steph join forces to find a secret weapon that the Russians are looking to buy for hundreds of millions of dollars from a Blackwater-like private security firm.  They must go off mission, operating in New Orleans, instead of overseas. Besides all the bad guys to contend with they must also deal with the hurricane that is barreling down. 

Interestingly, Steph is introduced in the prequel, but does not appear in the other four books.  “I will definitely have her back in another book. I think she is intelligent, funny, and very persuasive.  I based her on an actress in the British series, Luther.  She has red hair and this is how I picture Steph.  The other person I based her on is Stella Rimington, the first female director of MI5, the British FBI who is also a thriller writer.  She worked her way up as an officer.  I used my friend Stella as a model for Steph’s career.  The book out in 2019 takes place about ten years from when this one took place. I am thinking of having Steph and Jed team up again if not this book, maybe the next one.  It might be interesting to have them back together since the last of the five books already written, Dark Heart, has Jed back with his wife Eve, a family man living on a Texas ranch with a baby on the way.”

The hurricane plays a strong role because it made such an impression on Phelan.  “I have family in the US where we have visited since 1980.  I remember when we had a family trip in 1989 across the US. We were chased by Hurricane Hugo. I have vivid memories of how we drove in the car and couldn’t see out of the windshield, even with the wipers on at full whack.  As we drove, we saw how the rivers swelled over.” 

An intense story where the action never stops. Readers are able to get a good grip on what makes Jed Walker tick by reading all five books in order.