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October 2018

Book Review: The Heart Of 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.

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The Heart of War by Kathleen McInnis combines political drama with political satire.  Using her extensive inside knowledge she is able to create a realistic look on how the military machinery works while at the same time having well-developed characters.

There are many tidbits about the Pentagon. In the beginning of the book, it was if the reader was taking a journey through the halls of the building, including the “Flag of Faces,” an off-kilter American flag that is actually a quilt where each square has a picture of those who died there on September 11th.   

“I wanted to allow the readers to understand what it is like, the little details that provide a sense of awe. The Pentagon is full of people who are doing their damnedest to ensure that the President is given the best options. It is actually a very human place, filled with people that work every day with imperfect information, each with their own personal and professional struggles.”

McInnis has worked in the Pentagon and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic. With a PhD in War Studies she now works for the US Congress, helping to analyze international security and defense issues. But she is also a self-imposed “base brat” whose father worked extensively with national security issues.

What the main character, Dr. Heather Riley, and the author have in common is their PhD’s and their professional experience of working at the Pentagon. McInnis stated, “All the characters reflect some part of the writer. Heather’s wide-eyed experience getting into the Pentagon and observing the obscurities are very real. We also have the same motivations, supporting the men and women serving and their families. Sometimes military force is necessary and Heather and I want to make sure we give those in the military what they need for the best chance of success including the right strategy. As a woman, you need an air of authority and confidence.”

However, the rest of the story deviates from the real-life of McInnis since Heather had a brother, Jon, killed in Afghanistan by the Taliban. She goes to Washington hoping to save those serving with a plan to make sure the Warlords and terrorists did not gain the upper hand, and to have someone like her as the guardian angel to those fighting terrorists overseas.  A powerful quote, “What if a Pentagon bureaucrat was more concerned with buying multibillion-dollar aircraft than finding ways to make Jon’s body armor grenade-proof.”

“My story is very different because I was not a “peace-nik,” as Heather was originally. I’ve never had the kind of visceral discomfort with the military or the broader national security community, probably because I was raised around military bases.  These aren’t evil warmongers.  They are just people trying to protect our country.  They are the people least likely to recommend going to war because they don’t want to see their friends and colleagues suffer.”

On Heather’s first day her position is eliminated and she’s shuffled to a war-fighting office focused on combating Russian aggression. Unfortunately, she knows little about Russia and has deep moral reservations about war. Making matters worse, she’s also working for Ariane Fletcher, someone who loves to deflect the blame and wants constant perfection. Yet, Heather learns to navigate the Pentagon’s insane bureaucracy and petty power struggles to become a “go to analyst,” someone who can be depended on for well thought out opinions.

Fletcher is called the “Wicked Witch of the Pentagon.” She is considered a terror, “someone I wrote who had to swim through a sea of the male dominated military. The DOD has masculine traits to it. She is inspired by a composite of several different female leaders in the national security community that either I or friends have been exposed to.  Although I found some amazing sisters who believed in mentoring other women, there are some women I interacted with who were vicious to each other. In the book Colonel Voight refers to Fletcher as ‘pink on pink violence.’ She adopted a more aggressive, cut-throat behavior.”

This is a smart, funny, and an informative story. Anyone who wants to understand the workings of the Pentagon should read this novel.


Book Review: September 1918 War, Plague, And The World Series 

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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September 1918 War, Plague, And The World Series by Skip Desjardin links together WWI, the Spanish flu epidemic, and the 1918 World Series by using Boston as an common thread. He also references politics, economics, science and their impact on the three important events of 1918.

Desjardin noted, “I happened to read a novel, The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane that was set in Boston in 1919. In that novel Lehane refers to the events of the previous year: The Spanish Flu and the World Series.  I came up with a lot of questions.  The more I researched these connections the more I thought there is a story here.  I wanted to finish the book before the 100thAnniversary of WWI’s end.”

Leading the first American fighting force in France was a division of Massachusetts militia volunteers.  At precisely the same time the Spanish Flu erupted in Boston and its suburbs, bringing death first to military facilities and then to the civilian population. Amidst the surrounding ravages of death at home and overseas, a young pitcher named Babe Ruth rallied the sport’s most dominant team, the Boston Red Sox, to a World Series victory.

During the month of September, the flu became rampant. Naval personnel became ill less than ten days after the first influenza cases appeared on the receiving ship. Camp Devens served as a training camp for the 76th National Army Division. The camp was overwhelmed as the influenza attacked approximately 10,000 soldiers. The deadly virus symptoms included severe headache, weakness, general malaise and pains of varying severity in the muscles and joints, especially in the back. The author put everything in perspective, “700,000 people were killed from that epidemic, while last year 80,000 died from the flu. In 1918 our population was only a fraction of the size it is now.”

Overseas the American forces faced devastating attacks by the Germans.  Having to contend with the constant shelling, they also dealt with the fumes from the shells that rendered many sick, vomiting, and gasping.  But worst of all were the chemical weapons used against the allied forces.  Men came home with respiratory problems, loss of eyesight, and blistering skin. 

“I wrote about the veterans who became disfigured and had emotional problems. The effects were horrendous and lifelong for those who survived. It was horrible. For many it was confusing and devastating because they did not understand how to handle chemical weapons.  This led the world to ban chemical weapons.”

Desjardin writes how the baseball team rosters were decimated after America entered WWI. One-Third of all the players from the previous season of 1917 was serving in the military. During the 1918 World Series attendance was down and those spectators that were in the stands gave an unenthusiastic response to the Red Sox winning the World Series, possibly because everyone was facing the stark reality of war.  One such example written about in the book was Cubs’ President Charlie Weeghman who registered at the Boston draft board.

“I wanted to show how the war pervaded every aspect of the American life. The government had issued a work or fight edict, which caused the World Series to be played in September instead of October.  Every man in America between the ages of 21 to 30 had three choices: enlist, register for the draft, or get a job in a war related industry.  The job had to be connected to directly supporting the war effort. Since all the games played were day games only those outside of that age group had the time and money to buy tickets.”

Even more compelling was the anger at the obvious greed of the players. While men were being sent overseas to fight, those playing in the World Series, the Cubs versus the Red Sox, argued about receiving the same share regardless of how long they had played with the team during the season.

Desjardin explained, “There were bad feelings that these perfectly healthy young men playing baseball were paid three, four, and five times the average salary of most Americans, while other young healthy men were dying or wounded in the French trenches.”

Patriotism was at a high point.  As Desjardin recounts, Karl Muck, a conductor of the Boston Symphony was born in Germany and became a Swiss citizen. Although he was willing to play the “Star-Spangled Banner,” it was decided that it would not be played.  Theodore Roosevelt responded, “Any man who refuses to play ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ in this time of national crisis should be forced to pack up and return to the country he came from.” It was during this time, the National Anthem became a symbol for supporting veterans and those attempting to keep Americans safe.

This book is an interesting look how sports connected with those fighting in the Great War.  By intertwining stories Desjardin shows how September 1918 was an important moment in history, weaving together politics, sports, and science.


Book Review: Tear Me Apart

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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Tear Me Apart by J.T. Ellison is a “why done it,” instead of a “who done it.” She explores how one lie can build upon another as the resulting betrayal rips two families apart.

Originally known for her two series she has now switched to writing stand-alones. One series main character is Lt. Taylor Jackson a Nashville homicide detective who hunts down serial killers. The other series featured Dr. Samantha Owen, a medical examiner who came into prominence as the conscience of the Taylor Jackson series, and eventually morphed into her own series. Ellison noted, “Currently I will continue writing the stand-alones because the publisher loves them and they are doing better.  With that said, I have already started the Samantha book and will eventually get to it. But for now, I will continue to write these psychological thrillers.”

While writing the series books, Ellison actually had an idea for this plot, back in 2011. “I had a guy at the funeral of his wife and baby. He dreamed of this little girl who became a professional ice skater.  I then added layers including to have a story about committing suicide. I also had the letters originally as AOL chats, but after my mom read it, I changed the correspondence to letters.  She did not know what an AOL chat was and I realized I would have a bunch of readers, both young and older, who would not know.  Another change I made was to have Mindy as a professional skier, not skater. I based her on Lindsey Vonn, someone who had made multiple comebacks from injuries. I think of her as an incredible hero.”


This story begins with an Olympic downhill skier, Mindy Wright, crashing and severely breaking her leg.  During the surgery, it’s discovered she has leukemia and will eventually need a stem cell transplant. In need of a bone marrow transplant both her parents are tested, where it is discovered that they are not a genetic match to Mindy. Questions arise as to what happened:  was she switched at birth, or was there something more sinister, such as a baby farm? Her mother Lauren is hiding secrets, while her aunt Juliet is determined to find answers and a match to save Mindy’s life. As the story unravels so does Lauren’s life and mental state.  She will go to almost any length to prevent people from knowing the truth about what happened.

Mindy is strong, determined, driven, and unemotional. “I wanted to write her as someone who takes control of every aspect of her life and mind. She is the 1% of the 1% of the 1%.  She will do anything to achieve her goal, training very hard.”

Her mother Lauren is someone who created a life for herself.  Once she became a mother she made a loving life for her daughter Mindy.  She is the direct opposite of her sister, Juliet. While growing up, Lauren was her mother’s favorite, Juliet was the outsider. These siblings are eleven years apart, but were thick as thieves. Although both are devastated by the diagnosis, Ellison explores how a parent would react in that situation, seeing a child suffer and unable to fix it.  “I wanted to write the essence of what a parent does, trying to make everything better.”

The plot examines the relationships between mothers and daughters as well as sisters. It sheds light on mental health problems and the terrible consequences that result when the emotional balance is neglected.


Book Review: Emma In The Night

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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Emma In The Night by Wendy Walker is a psychological thriller about two sisters. This dysfunctional family adds a whole new meaning to this word.

Judy Martin always used her beauty and charm to manipulate her family, requiring her daughters to flatter her to win her affection. Threatening her fragile ego are her daughters’ looks. Now the family’s life has been in limbo since the two daughters have been missing for three years. Cass, then 15, and her 17-year-old sister Emma disappeared in the night. Only one sister resurfaces randomly, with an outlandish story and a plea to help find her sister.According to Cass a couple took them from a Connecticut beach on Long Island Sound to a remote island off the coast of Maine. The couple kept the sisters’ captive and after finding out Emma was pregnant, took the baby away from her. Assigned to investigate the disappearance three years ago are FBI forensic psychologist Abby Winter, who also grew up with a narcissistic mother, and her partner Agent Leo Strauss.Upon Cass’ return, Winter and Strauss must try to coax out of her details necessary to find Emma. Abby Winter and her male partner are desperate to find out what happened and to find Emma before it’s too late.

This narcissistic personality disorder, the kinds of chronic behaviors exhibited by Judy (who Cass, tellingly, thinks of only as Mrs. Martin) damage relationships, pit sisters against one another, and result in nearly unimaginable levels of family dysfunction and betrayal.

The author explained, “I had in the beginning of the book, a description of the Greek myth about Narcissus, a hunter who was exceptionally beautiful and proud.  He was so proud that he rejected anyone who tried to love him.  This eventually killed him after he fell madly in love with himself and stared at his reflection until he died. I then thought how narcissisticmothers build the façade of protection to protect themselves emotionally. I wanted to show how they lack empathy of others. They don’t care about meeting their child’s needs.  It is only about what they want to project to the outside world.  They give their children inconsistent messaging. The mother in this story did not have a moral conscience, but lies and manipulates.”

Walker noted, “Cass sees bits of pieces of her mother in Emma.  Emma deviated from being vulnerable and ruthless, to desperate and tortured. A narcissistic parent usually chooses one sibling as the target, withdrawing of affection from the other child. The other siblings must deal with neglect parenting. In fact, Cass relied on Emma for parenting, looking up to her and hiding behind her. She had to grow up pretty fast. I would classify her as a survivor. I wrote her as flat, having feelings but unable to express them. This story shows what huge influences parents have on their children.”

By exploring narcissism Wendy Walker delved into the intricacies of family and community and the secrets and lies that surround it. There are many twists and surprises, especially the ending that will spin readers’ head.