Inside Alcatraz

Inside Alcatraz: My Time on the Rock, by Jim Quillen

Random House (2015), Hardcover, 384 pages

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I do love prison books, and this one is a cracker, right up there with Papillon and Six Against The Rock, two of my favourites. The title is somewhat misleading, only about half the book is devoted to Jim Quillen’s time as a prisoner of America’s most notorious prison. This really the life story of a career criminal, from his difficult childhood with an alcoholic mother and indifferent father, to his early, minor criminal exploits, graduating to more serious crimes leading to a long sentence in San Quentin. Compulsively driven to escape, Quillen was eventually able to abscond from a work camp with two other inmates and go on a crime spree throughout the western US. Upon his recapture, Quillen learnt that he had breached Federal law during his rampage, and as a result was sentenced to 45 years in Federal prison. Because of his escape record, it was decided to send him to the most escape-proof prison in America – Alcatraz. While there, Quillen continued his attempts to escape, but his efforts were ultimately stymied by the bloodiest attempted breakout in the Rock’s history, the so-called Battle of Alcatraz in May 1946. Quillen was an unwitting eyewitness to this deadly confrontation, which left 3 prisoners and 2 guards dead, while sheltering with other prisoners as a firestorm was directed upon the prison by guards, police, the Marines and even the Navy. But this horror was be a turning point for Quillen, at his lowest point after the battle, he was found by a kindly priest who guided to God, and a realization that he wanted a new life, free, law-abiding and loved. From there on the book is an inspiring, often touching record of a man’s efforts to rehabilitate himself, reconciling with his estranged family, working towards earning parole, first from Alcatraz, then San Quentin, building a career as an X-ray technician, and eventually love, marriage and fatherhood. This is an entrancing book, fast-moving, graphic and exceptionally well-written. Quillen is very Papillonesque as he details his early life, his desperation for freedom, and his desire to rehabilitate himself if given a chance. I highly recommend this book, it’s a great and inspiring read.

8.5/10

The Marathon Conspiracy

The Marathon Conspiracy, by Gary Corby

SoHo Crime (2015), Paperback, 368 pages

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The fourth in this series set in 5th century BC Athens, and the best by far. A really entertaining page-turner, full of drama, interesting characters, a liberal dash of humour and a genuinely intriguing plot. In this episode, Nico, the budding private eye, is distracted from preparations for his forthcoming wedding to the nubile priestess Diotima when a skull is found in a cave near Athens. No sooner has the skull been identified as that of the hated former Athenian tyrant turned traitor Hippias, thought dead in Persia for 30 years, than news is received that one of the two girls who found it has been brutally killed, and the other is missing. Nico and Diotima journey to Brauron, the temple cum girls’ school which the two girls attended, tasked by Athenian statesman Pericles with finding the missing girl and solving the mystery of Hippias’ fate. As before, at various times Nico is accompanied by his bratty, but brilliant brother Socrates (yes, that Socrates), who produces several blinding flashes of logic to assist Nico when he has reached an impasse. I must say the Socrates angle is the weakest part of the story, although the young Socrates at least is far less annoying here than in the earlier books. This is more than made up for, however, by the byplay between Nico and Diotima, which has developed well over course of the books and continues to impress here. They work well together as a pair of gumshoes, this is developing into a fine, nuanced partnership, and it will be interesting to see whether married life changes the dynamic between them. The supporting characters are also very good, particularly noteworthy is the playwright Aeschylus playing the tough old veteran of the Persian Wars. The scene where Aeschylus and an equally ancient Persian soldier fight back to back to ward off a swarm of mercenaries is one of the most moving in the book. This is a great read, a book that’s genuinely hard to put down. The story, based on genuine historical events, is thoroughly absorbing.  I enjoyed the earlier books, but this one has really vaulted to another level entirely. I can hardly wait to see where it goes from here.

9.5/10

Potsdam

Potsdam: the End of World War II and the Remaking  of Europe, by Daniel Neiberg

Basic books, (2015), Hardcover, 336 pages

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A solid and earnest work, falling somewhere in the grey area between popular history and serious academic substance, neither entertaining enough for the former, nor comprehensive enough for the latter. For all that, it is very readable, a work of just the right pace. Heavily informed by the disastrous Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the victorious Big Three of Truman, Stalin and Churchill (until the latter was replaced by Atlee after losing the General Election) gathered in the wealthy and largely untouched Berlin superb of Potsdam in July 1945 determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1919. At stake was the future of Germany, the borders of eastern Europe, Poland in particular, reparations, war crimes, the United Nations and the refashioning of Europe into some sort of viable, peaceful entity. Each party came with their own agendas and more or less definite goals, and the conference came down to much horse-trading, largely between the US and the Soviet Union, as a bankrupt Britain found itself increasingly marginalized. In the end the Russians got pretty much what they wanted, the US largely happy with the outcome, and Britain embittered and fading. While not exactly an entertaining read, Neiberg throws in enough personal vignettes of the leaders’ personalities and interactions to break up the ponderous descriptions of the dealing and keep the attention. The portraits of the leaders are all arresting, Churchill morose and erratic, drinking heavily and looked down upon by both Truman and Stalin, Truman, earnest and folksy, on a steep learning curve after having been completely kept in the dark by Roosevelt, and Stalin as Stalin always was, suspicious, amoral, calculating, but very well-informed about the strengths and weaknesses of his partners. There is even humour in some of the interactions, such as Churchill edging his seat closer to Truman’s so they might appear to be bosom buddies, and Truman  in turn, irritated, moving his seat closer to Stalin, or Truman, while hosting a  dinner, ordering Chopin to be played because he knew Churchill disliked the composer. It all makes for a very worthwhile read, informative if unexciting and a very good introduction to a small piece of history which has been largely forgotten in the grand scheme of things.

8.5/10

The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man, by P.N. Elrod

Tor Books (2015), Kindle Edition, 334 pages

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A really fun read that never takes itself too seriously. Elrod, an author mainly known for vampire stories, has invented an alternative Victorian London where women have been emancipated and given the vote by the mid 19th century, air travel is viable, and the existence of psychic powers is not only accepted but they are used to fight crime. Miss Alex Pendlebury is a Reader with the Psychic Service, tasked with visiting the sites of violent death to “read” the psychic emanations surrounding the victim. When she is called out on Christmas morning to the body of a man found hanged in his bedroom, Alex has little idea that the seemingly routine suicide will lead her into a monstrous and dark conspiracy that threatens to overturn the established order in England. Her own life will be threatened many times as she careers through London dodging faceless assassins and a “ghost” killer who leaves no psychic emanations whatsoever, but along the way she discovers a potential love interest, with which happy note the book ends in a cliffhanger, paving the way for the romance to develop further in later books. Alex is a very likeable heroine, outwardly the model of a virginal, prim and proper Victorian spinster, but revealing herself to be brave, feisty and not overly fond of being told what to do. Being set in gaslit London, there is obvious potential for Elrod to slyly work in some Holmesian references and she does (Alex lives in Baker Street, one of her key allies is a Colonel Sebastian Mourne, like Doyle’s Sebastian Moran, he is a crack shot). In fact, the relationship between Alex and her main offsider, the tall, handsome, but not overly bright Lieutenant Brooks, is very much a Holmes and Watson type partnership, excepting the fact that Alex eventually finds herself falling in love with her partner, an interesting twist on the traditional trope. I really loved this book, its a rewarding, rollicking, easy-reading adventure, not overly credible but a real page-turner. I look forward to the next installment in Alex’s saga with great anticipation.

9/10