Book review: Island 731 delivers non-stop chills

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A 2014 bio-thriller

In Jeremy Robinson’s thriller Island 731, an ecological expedition in the Pacific runs aground on an unknown island.  A crewmate flees and Hawkins, a hero who earlier survived a grizzly bear attack, sets out to find him.  Hawkins and his love interest, the risk-taking Joliet, plunge inland despite initial signs of danger.

Why their geeky but likable crewmate Kam would have run away makes no sense at first.  Hawkins and Joliet speculate that Kam went into hiding after killing another crewmate:

“That’s my best theory.”

Joliet sagged.  “I came up with the same thing.  Do you really think Kam would run?  If it was an accident—”

The search is complicated as Hawkins and Joliet quickly learn that the island is teeming with dangerous lifeforms that are blends of more than one species.  The discovery of an island with previously undiscovered creatures makes this thriller reminiscent of The Land That Time Forgot.  And like Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic, the threats to the protagonists aren’t only from the island’s beasts, but from frictions within the marooned crew.

An island full of chimeras is exciting, foreboding, and mysterious.  It creates a great, dark atmosphere.  That being said, some of the chimeras have so many progenitors that they are difficult to visualize.  For example, one chimera has a face with features from a bat, goat, tiger, and crocodile.  Tough to picture.

The search leads the main characters into more danger and closer to the truth of the island.  Without giving any spoilers, Robinson’s work shows a broad familiarity with biology, history, and conspiracy theories.  Island 731 delivers plausibly on these themes.  There is some background and technical information that must be conveyed for the story to make sense, but Robinson handles those passages economically without retarding the action.

The characters are engaging.  Larger-than-life villains and bald faced evil make for an ambitious book, but Robinson pulls it together.  Hawkins’s jovial sidekick Bray is fun, and the romance between Hawkins and Joliett is well done.

Parts of the book are gruesome:  one character is crucified hanging from his own entrails.  “Patients” are dissected alive.  If you didn’t like the bloody, gross-out scenes of the movie “Saw,” this may not be the right book for you.

Some thrillers have great beginnings and the action falls apart toward the end or doesn’t pay off.  That’s not the case with Island 731.  The action builds throughout and the stakes get higher toward the end.  Robinson has a good sense for plot, pace, tension, and momentum.  The characters are always on the move and run into one obstacle after another.

For readers who are drawn to thrillers because they enjoy non-stop thrills and chills, look no further.  If you’ve got a dark streak, you’ll want to bring this apocalyptic island adventure on your next cruise.

USAA branch comes to Buckhead

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USAA Financial Service Center

USAA, the well-respected financial institution that serves members of the military, veterans, and dependents, is opening a service center in Atlanta.  The bank typically serves its customers only by phone or online.  This strategy has allowed USAA to offer high interest rates on savings and checking accounts, low fees, and low car insurance premiums.

At the new branch, customers will be able to buy car insurance, open an account, make deposits or withdrawals, and get help with financial planning and military transitions like changing duty stations, deploying, or retiring.

The Atlanta USAA Financial Center will open on March 28.  It will be located at the corner of Peachtree and West Paces Ferry in Two Buckhead Plaza (near Chops):

Two Buckhead Plaza
3050 Peachtree Road, Suite 150
Atlanta, GA 30305

I’ve been a USAA member for years but have never had the opportunity to meet with them face-to-face.  This will be a great service option for military families in the Atlanta area!

Lab seeks artificial womb for mammoths

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asian elephant calf in the womb

It would be too controversial to implant a woolly mammoth embryo in an endangered Asian elephant surrogate.  Therefore, an artificial mammoth womb must be created.  So says Dr. George Church, the Harvard biologist on a mission to resurrect the mammoths.

Scientific American reports that “editing, birthing and then raising mammoth-like elephants is a huge undertaking. Church says that it would be unethical to implant gene-edited embryos into endangered elephants as part of an experiment. So his lab is looking into ways to build an artificial womb; so far, no such device has ever been shown to work.”

The creation of a mammoth-like uterus would be quite the scientific accomplishment since scientists have yet to master that with existing animals…

Georgia honors 19 Vietnam combat Marines

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Viet Marines

This is part of a broader, overdue program to thank over 200,000 of Georgia’s Vietnam veterans for their service.  From the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer:

Georgia recognizes Vietnam vets who served in Marine Corps

  • 19 Marines from the Chattahoochee Valley were presented a State Certificate of Honor and lapel pin for service in Vietnam
  • The recognition is part of the state’s program to recognize 234,000 Georgia veterans who served in armed forces during Vietnam
  • Program started a year ago as part of the 50th anniversary of the war

Book Review: Breaking Creed breaks into a gallop

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Breaking Creed, a suspense novel by Alex Kava, opens with a girl swallowing condoms filled with cocaine.  Amanda is a drug mule seduced by an abusive Latin American kingpin.  Ryder Creed, who was a Marine and is now a dog handler, detects Amanda at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta with the help of Grace, a Jack Russell Terrier with a nose for mischief.

Rather than turning Amanda over to the authorities at Hartsfield or taking her the hospital, Creed drives her to his home—in Florida!  This was an extremely peculiar and implausible decision that distracted me for several chapters.  The shock of a grown man taking an underage girl across state lines alone gradually wore off as we learned that Creed operates a halfway house that can help Amanda.

The Creed storyline is intercut with scenes of Special Agent Maggie O’Dell, who is assigned with a homicide case of a “floater” pulled out of the Potomac.  The victim was killed and tortured while strapped to a mound of fire ants.  O’Dell travels to Alabama to investigate where the torture took place.  The investigation and the investigators themselves are targeted by an unknown assassin who uses lethal animals or insects to strike his victims.  It’s a chilling approach.

Creed helps out on the Alabama case, too.  Grace, his Jack Russell Terrier, isn’t just a drug dog or a rescue dog or cadaver dog, she’s an all-purpose crime-stopping dog.  Whenever Grace finds what Creed seeks, he rewards her with her favorite thing—a pink elephant chew toy.  I’m not sure how plausible it is that Grace has so many talents, but she is a fun dog character.  Grace isn’t just a prop or an object of affection in the book—she is a dog that actually affects the plot in several ways throughout the book.

The assassin’s methodology, dog scenes, and galloping pace of the plot make Breaking Creed a fun, quick read.

Less enjoyably, there are many coincidences and convenient turns of events that cause Creed and O’Dell to work together throughout the book.  Their separate investigations merge more than once.  The way Creed and O’Dell get excited to see each other but try to play it cool reminds me of romance novel tropes.  A lot of emotions are attributed to Creed and other male characters in an unconvincing way like romance novelists sometimes do.  There is definitely more action here than in a Nora Roberts book, but overall I would categorize Breaking Creed as a romantic suspense, not as a thriller or mystery as it has been classified by Goodreads and Amazon.

Another word of warning:  although the back cover book blurb makes it sound like the book is set in Atlanta, it isn’t.  Only a couple pages are.

Breaking Creed is the first of the “Creed” series by Alex Kava.

Book review: my verdict on The Verdict

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In Nick Stone’s The Verdict, a law clerk in Britain must defend an old enemy on charges of murdering a blonde in his hotel suite.  The clerk, Terry, decides to defend the suspect, VJ, as best as he can despite being burned by him 20 years earlier.  The defense team’s investigation takes Terry on a wild ride through the streets of London, dodging bullets and working with a colorful and sleazy investigator.

This is a well told story that keeps you guessing.  Is VJ’s story true or did he kill the blonde?  The investigation points in one direction, but will trial go the same way?  What were the reasons for Terry and VJ’s falling out and will they reconcile?  When will Terry’s law firm fire him?  The answers are expertly woven together throughout the course of the book.

In addition to the suspense, there are two other compelling aspects of the book.  First, the trial itself is engrossing.  Although we are familiar with the details of the investigation by the time the trial begins, Stone writes the lawyers’ opening statements, questions to the witnesses, and closing arguments in a way that keeps surprising us.

Secondly, Terry’s character is very well developed.  The book is told from his point of view.  Terry is very frank and personal with the readers about his own failings and past.  We learn more about him through the novel than his wife knows about him.  Because of that, you will feel closer to him than you may feel toward most protagonists in contemporary thrillers.

On the downside, the book is long.  It took me three times longer to read this compared to other thrillers I’ve read lately.  There were a few implausible scenes in Part III of the novel that didn’t work for me.  The trial does not begin until three-quarters of the way through the novel, so calling this a “courtroom drama” is misleading.  There is also a confusing B-story that related to the main story but didn’t add much to it.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it Grisham fans, speed readers, and Anglophiles.

Local Marines display 100 years of history

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Two Marine veterans are displaying their collection of historical military gear around schools in Henry, Spalding and other counties just south of the Atlanta area.  They will also come to your location if it’s not too far.  This seems like it would be a great opportunity for boy scout troops, ROTC programs, and history classes to take advantage of.

The two men assembled their collection from shops and flea markets.  I hope they accept donations–I’d rather give some of my old gear to them than leaving it on the curb!  The Henry Herald reports:

Veterans give military history lessons from personal collection

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Mar 4, 2016

McDONOUGH — Students marveled at the walkie-talkie — a stamped steel, two-way radio shaped like an 80s cellphone receiver, but twice as large.

The device stood atop a table of artifacts dating back 100 years, pieces of a personal collection owned by McDonough residents Lamar Scott and Buddy Simpson. It was part of their exhibit displayed this week in the Navy JROTC wing of Eagle’s Landing High School.

Scott, 68, and Simpson, 78, are veteran Marines who served during the Vietnam War-era and want that history to be told and memorialized.

Over the past decade, they have collected hundreds of pieces to display in visits to area schools, churches and senior centers. The exhibit covers military engagements from World War I to the Vietnam War.

“I’ve been collecting for about 11 years,” said Scott. “I started off with just a little bit of a collection. I went from a few shelves in the bedroom to a 6-by-12-foot trailer. And now we have an 8-by-20-foot trailer.”

Scott has managed to collect most of his items through flea market sprees in the North Georgia area, while Simpson has built his collection buying from shops across the Southeast.

“We do it to teach students about history,” he said. “If you forget your past, you have no hope for the future. We’re preserving history through wartime collection.”

He and Simpson have loyal friendships in Russ Vermillion and Terry McClure who volunteer their time helping show the historic pieces.

Both wartime veterans have a vested interest in the military histories. Vermillion served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1968 to 1970, and McClure served in the Army from 1972 to 1974.

Vermillion keeps the group lively during exhibits with intermittent jokes, breaking lulls of seriousness with jest.

On Thursday, a cloud of chatter filled the Navy JROTC wing of Eagles Landing High, where the men and a few JROTC cadets spent seven hours setting up cabinets, table displays and mannequins.

About 50 mannequins clad in antique uniforms dwarfed the men as they answered questions from students passing through.

“These mannequins represent men and women that died for our freedoms,” said Scott. “The best representation is Jesus Christ that died for all of us. But if I can get four or five of these kids on the right road, I’ve done my job.”

Simpson said he regularly receives donations from people who might otherwise toss the historic items in the trash…