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The Last Pilot: A Novel Hardcover – July 7, 2015
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The Amazon Book Review
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An Amazon Best Book of July 2015: The Last Pilot is filled with fast planes, wide desert, skies larger than the land, and characters whose aches and pains, hopes and dreams quickly become your own. Jim Harrison is an Air Force test pilot in the 1950s – he flies planes at Mach-speed in the name of science, speed and as the years go by, to beat the Soviets – and returns home in between flights to a wife he loves and a bar with a cast of characters that is as devoted to flight as he is. Harrison and his wife, Grace, have been hoping desperately for a child, and when she finally gives birth all seems right in the world. But after two years of life, their daughter passes away: it is heart-pounding and tragic. As his wife retreats, he throws himself at work, becoming one of the first astronauts selected to go to the moon, but his daughter’s death has affected him far more than he realizes. Tightly told with searing uncomplicated prose, The Last Pilot is as engaging for its emotional gravitas as it is for its enthralling story of the race to space – I couldn’t put it down. --Al Woodworth
“Although he's a young writer in England, Johncock re-creates the early days of the U.S. space program like someone who lived through them....Flying through these pages, you'll recall that dynamic era when a mix of physical science and political anxiety propelled the United States to unprecedented speeds....But if these guys have the right stuff, they also have personal lives that burn as dangerously, and that tension makes The Last Pilot hypnotic....The effect is supercharged Hemingway at 70,000 feet.” ―Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“A remarkable achievement... [readers] will surely find comfort in these pages, lit by the fire of 1960s adventure, and also by the blazing beauty of a new literary star.” ―The Boston Globe
“[The Last Pilot] transports readers to a time of Scotch-soaked bars, Walter Cronkite on the news, and astronauts as superheroes...Ingeniously plotted, deftly written, and engrossing.” ―People, Best New Books
“[A] spare gem of a novel...Johncock is superb at crafting suspenseful scenes. The pioneering astronaut days, and Cold War moments like the Cuban missile crisis, offer a suitable backdrop for his dramatic tale.” ―Jane Ciabattari, BBC.com (Ten Books to Read in July)
“Johncock writes spare sentences, each diamond-like, free of any cloudiness caused by extra words. The prose is beautiful...It takes a confident writer to cover material that Tom Wolfe defined as his own in The Right Stuff. Benjamin Johncock proves that he has the chops to put his own spin on the matter in The Last Pilot.” ―Salon
“The story is well paced and chock full of an array of inspirational characters, but the London-based writer's greatest attribute is the exuberant life beaming from the gorgeous prose....The seemingly simplistic exchanges, that reveal plenty with few words, are reminiscent of the great Cormac McCarthy...Benjamin Johncock has written one of the most American novels of the year.” ―The Huffington Post
“Debut novelist Benjamin Johncock evokes the years of America's ramp-up to the space program so skillfully, a reader can almost feel the sandblasted landing strips...He's earned his 'right stuff' merit badge.” ―Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Reading Johncock one is reminded of Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and especially of James Salter's The Hunters.... his mastery of the American idiom is perfect. This is a first-rate novel by a major new talent.” ―The Spectator (UK)
“A test pilot pushing the sound barrier. A husband consoling his childless wife. An astronaut training for the impossible...In Benjamin Johncock's debut novel, protagonist Jim Harrison is all of those men. Spanning the aftermath of World War II to the '60s, The Last Pilot offers a heart-wrenching tale of loss and discovery during the infamous Space Race.” ―Paste Magazine, Best New Book of the Month
“With great skill (and some nerve), Benjamin Johncock has inserted his fiction into the true history of the Mercury and Gemini space programs of the 50s and 6os....and it's almost impossible to see the join.” ―The Guardian (London)
“The Last Pilot may be Benjamin Johncock's first book, but it reads like he's a seasoned pro, with descriptions and dialogue so rich that it's impossible not to get invested in the book's characters...You may cry, but this story is worth every tear.” ―Metro
“His descriptive writing has a clean grace that recalls Cormac McCarthy...Benjamin Johncock's story and characters take flight: this is a very promising debut.” ―Erica Wagner, New Statesman
“Whether or not you’re a space exploration enthusiast, you’ll likely find much to admire in Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel, The Last Pilot. It’s one of those terrific reads that deliver a compelling story against an interesting historical backdrop, in this case, the Space Race and the origins of the American space program…Congratulations to Mr. Johncock on having crafted a stellar debut that very much deserves a wide audience.” ―Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“[A] marvellous book...Johncock seamlessly blends history and fiction, science and intimacy.” ―The Sunday Express (UK)
“A taut domestic drama whose stringent prose evokes the emotional and physical landscape of a time and a place, this is a remarkably accomplished debut.” ―The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday
“Written in sparse, quick prose that balances sadness and action, The Last Pilot is a stunning debut that is as engrossing and profound as it is entertaining.” ―Jarret Middleton, Shelf Awareness
“[An] impressive debut...Jim's story is fascinating, and the author writes with a strong ear for dialogue, which rattles the pages with intensity. A marvelous, emotionally powerful novel.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred + boxed review
“While realistically describing the struggles Harrison faces in finding the courage to transcend a personal tragedy in the service of his country, Johncock also draws on true-life historical details to tell, in beautifully measured prose, a riveting good yarn.” ―Booklist
“A quick read with punchy, spare dialogue that makes the action pop. Johncock strikes just the right balance, marrying facts and real life people with fictitious characters...A contemplative book that will spark many a conversation.” ―The Missourian
“[Johncock's] narrative sucks the reader in...A powerful story of courage and redemption.” ―Edge Media Network
“This first novel is engaging and believable, and it's compelling to revisit the events of the space program.” ―Library Journal
“The dialogue is clean and smooth, and Johncock's spare prose gallops along at a fair pace.” ―Herald Scotland
“An ideal read for history buffs and Space Race enthusiasts.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“I read The Last Pilot in a single sitting, drawn into this story of a couple's journey through love and grief as it unfolds during the tense early days of the Space Race. Told in language as beautifully spare-and unsparing-as a desert or a moonscape, The Last Pilot reminds us in powerful ways that the real unknown frontier still lies within the mysteries of the human heart.” ―Kim Edwards, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lake of Dreams and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
“This is by far the best debut novel I've read in years. You can read about the plot elsewhere, but for me, the beauty of this novel is in the balance of the dialogue; the sustained emotion that runs through the whole; the haiku-like simplicity of the prose (and trust me, it takes a long, long time to create that sense of effortlessness). Like so many of America's stories, this is a Western in disguise; a quiet, limpid Western, where the action mostly takes place in the air and in the chambers of the heart. To me, it reads like the reclusive disciple of Cormac McCarthy and de Saint-Exupéry.” ―Joanne Harris, New York Times bestselling author
“Benjamin Johncock is a writer of great craft and integrity. His dialogue is desert-dry, and his sentences crackle with the energy of things unsaid. With The Last Pilot, he has done something remarkable: In a novel about the achievements of the Space Race, he has shown us that true heroism lies in doing the right thing behind the closed doors of home. Wonderful stuff.” ―Jon McGregor, author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
“A confident, engrossing debut novel with great warmth and a real sense of time and place.” ―A.L. Kennedy, author of The Blue Book and All the Rage
“Carver is the obvious influence, but this is no mere imitation. The writing is machine-cut and spare, understated and taciturn, and like the pilots at this story's center, Johncock has dared to reach for the stars.” ―D.W. Wilson, author of Ballistics and Once You Break a Knuckle
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Top customer reviews
I was glad that I didn’t know much about the book, and I waited to read the cover flap until after I finished the last page. Discovery and pacing are intricately tied to the suspense, and going into it blind rouses intensity for the reader. I’m going to avoid talking about much content and primarily share impressions. Jim Harrison is fearless, instinctive, brave, and equipped to handle all the dangers of his job; each day he flies, he confronts mortal hazards. But what happens when he can’t confront the pitfalls in his personal life? He is unafraid in the skies but timorous on the ground. How does this dissonance play out in a marriage? Grace is supportive and forbearing, and, at times, emotionally fragile. Empathy for both characters ripples from the narrative. The dialogue between them (and other characters) is superlative, without any clichés often present in a dialogue-heavy book. There are no quotation marks—the aesthetics are twofold--which in this book works well, as it generates intimacy, underscores the understated, and prevents messy-looking type.
In a lesser author, the sections of physics, engineering, plane and rocket-craft would cause me to glaze over, and unhinge me from the story at hand. However, from Johncock, it lends a cred to the story without adding pretense. He ties in celebrated figures of the space program—Jim Lovell, John Glenn, Chuck Yeager, and many more, and the Happy Bottom Riders Club bar and legendary owner, Pancho Barnes, a tenderly mouthy and accomplished pilot in her own right. And this is the time in history that the race for space heralded operatic platitudes: “It’s a battle for the heavens. It’s good versus evil and we’re on the front line.” That was how it was then. However, it’s Jim’s family story that provides the aching nuance, often words as weapons, or talk left unsaid, a Cold War on a microcosmic level.
My only complaint is the brisk ending, or it seemed that way after the sustained mental and emotional weight of the story. Small potatoes, though, as Johncock had me at the takeoff.
Jim Harrison is a test-pilot at Muroc base in California's Mojave Desert as part of the X-1 program, along with Chuck Yaeger. He was one of the first to break the sound-barrier as part of the team. Harrison's a pilot's pilot. Rough hewn and quiet, he's a doer, not a thinker. He and his wife, Grace, are part of the "family" at Muroc, which centered around - during the off-hours - "Pancho" Barnes's "Happy Bottom Riding Club". Jim Harrison works hard and Grace is part of the community of other wives waiting for their pilot husbands to come home at night. "Augering in" - crashing - was an ever-present danger for the test pilots, and the wives lived in fear of seeing the base brass or a priest walking up to their front door.
Grace, after years of infertility, finds herself pregnant and the baby - named "Florence" for Pancho Barnes - was adored by both her parents. Her early death hits her parents hard and both learn to cope with their loss in different ways. Jim retreats into his work and Grace is left a wreck, visiting the cemetery every day. Their marriage becomes an empty shell as Jim is offered a job as one of the "second set" of US astronauts, and they flee Muroc and their memories to Houston and the space program.
Benjamin Johncock writes a book of feelings and emotions that left unsaid can ruin a life. He places his characters in the middle of the space program - a job and life that keeps an astronaut-in-training Jim as busy as can be, leaving him little time to contemplate his losses. Grace is alone in her misery. How Johncock brings his characters together is a thing of beauty, told in a minimalist style. Most of the book is dialog, but without quotation marks. (If you don't like that style of writing, avoid this book).
I cannot stress strongly enough how beautifully written this book is, on all levels. And I'm still amazed that a British writer can capture the nuances of both US politics and the space program. This is a book to read and treasure.