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Two novels from different time periods and different parts of the world provide great reading and a great deal to think about. Both highlight a willingness to serve others as well as the soul-destroying greed that creates misery for the whole world.
WINTER SKY by Chris Stewart
Remember how the sky looks just before a massive storm? The clouds have a dark ominous appearance, the wind rips and tears across the landscape, and an air of expectant doom feels real enough to almost taste. Chris Stewart captures that foreboding feeling in the opening pages of his new novel, Winter Sky.
Polish soldiers, members of the underground rebels, are aboard a train in the closing days of World War II desperately fleeing two armies, the advancing Russian Bolsheviks and the retreating German Nazis. Poland is caught in the middle between the two violent war machines who have no sympathy for the decimated, starving civilian population which is mostly comprised of elderly men, women, and children. One of those rebels is suffering from a severe concussion. He doesn’t know his name, which village he came from, or if he has a family. Thinking the others in the group will have a better chance of survival without him and reaching the small village of Gorndask which they believe is the soldier’s village, they put him off the train in hopes family will claim and help him. Instead he wanders around, lost and confused.
The resistance fighter stumbles through the small town with only one possession to his name, a torn photograph of a couple he assumes are his parents. Little by little he regains snatches of memory and knows he must make his way to Warsaw. He is persuaded to take two small children with him even though he knows they will slow him down and he has a very short time to reach the river, cross it, and catch the last train out of Poland.
An SS officer has learned the rebel, Lucas, is in Gorndask and is determined to kill him. He mounts a search for him and the children when he learns from a desperate villager they are escaping toward another village a few days travel by foot away. Trapped between two armies and a freezing river, Lucas faces almost insurmountable obstacles.
Each character in this story has something to prove. Each has his or her inner core tested to verify who each really is. An eight year old child becomes the mother and protector of her five-year-old brother. An old man does what he thinks he must to feed his blind daughter and her small child. A man who sees his power coming to an end risks everything to get revenge. A man with one leg torn off in battle gives his life to buy time for villagers to escape. A man with no memory seeks his family and finds God is mindful of him. Stewart’s characters, whether they can be classified as good or bad, are deeply human. They make mistakes, they have weaknesses, and their backgrounds and prior experiences account for the people they’ve become. Those who have pushed past their hurts and losses to help or rescue others discover strengths beyond their natural abilities. Stewart stretches a very thin veil between the righteous, loving needs of those who trust in him and the world beyond this one.
The setting and background of Poland in the waning years of the war is realistic to the point of inviting tears for the plight of the Polish people of that time. The story starts with a dramatic battle scene and is a little confusing for the first few chapters as each chapter introduces a different segment and characters, before those factions meld together into one story. The ending is both exhilarating and emotionally satisfying with a spiritual twist. Above all it is a story of hope and compassion. Though the story is short for a novel, it packs a powerful punch and is the kind of book a reader wants to devour in one sitting and keep to read again.
Chris Stewart is well known as a Congressional Representative and for co-authoring My Story with Elizabeth Smart. He is also the author of the much loved The Great and Terrible series. He is a retired Air Force pilot and has received numerous medals for his service. He is married and splits his time between Utah and Washington, D.C.
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WINTER SKY by Chris Stewart, published by Shadow Mountain an imprint of Deseret Book, 192 pages, Hardcover $16.99. Also available for eReaders.
INFECTED by Gregg Luke
MOTHER NATURE: THE WORLD’S MOST INNOVATIVE KILLER . . . So begins Gregg Luke’s newest suspense thriller. Don’t even start reading this novel without a large junk of time because it’s almost impossible to put down. Two mycologists, Dr. Julia Fatheringham and Dr. Brandon Udy, are deep in the rainforest of Venezuela on a research trip to study native fungi. It’s an ordinary research trip until Dr. Udy begins acting strangely. A short time later he is dead, having suffered a horrible mind-altering death. Julia calls for help and begins examining her dead partner and the specimens he was working with, only to discover his death appears to be the result of an organism that has never before appeared in humans and shouldn’t even be possible unless the infection has jumped species. If it has jumped species it could wipe out all life on the planet.
Julia declares the research camp a quarantine zone and sets to work trying to find how the organism spread and make arrangements to get the body and herself out of the jungle. Unfortunately as she communicates with those whose help she needs, word leaks out concerning the tragedy and there are those who think they can profit from the disaster. The helicopter pilot who arrives to help her disappears and she is attacked by a stranger who steals the lump he severs from the dead scientist’s neck.
In a country where extreme poverty exists and superstition maintains a strangle hold on the native communities, it’s difficult to tell the good guys from the bad as desperate people do what they think they must to obtain food for their families, feed addictions, or satisfy those in power. Extremist environmentalists place saving the rain forests above all else including human life.
Julia is on her own to find help and recover the dangerous fungus the thief stole. Battered and bruised she makes the long journey to the nearest village where a child and his father have disappeared with a stinky plastic bag she suspects contains the specimen. With only a child for a guide, she makes her way to the next village where she encounters a strange mixture of superstition, modern greed and technology, and death.
In addition to believable characters, Luke creates a story that is all too plausible in this modern age of causes and indifference. Detailed research has gone into the rain forests of Venezuela, that country’s antagonistic government, and the greed that compels some people to exploit other people, the environment, and to put their own desires and prejudices above the needs of others. Above all he displays a keen understanding of the biological and medical science involved in the properties of fungus and the factors that can create an epidemic. This is a novel that captures the reader with the first sentence, keeps the tension high throughout, and delivers a resounding conclusion.
Gregg Luke has quickly become a favorite LDS author with his medical suspense novels. A pharmacist by profession, he has a clear understanding of the medical field and the literary ability to convey the intricacies of diseases and drugs to his readers. He was born in California, served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Wisconsin, then pursued the study of natural sciences at SBCC, UCSB, and BYU. He completed his schooling at the University of Utah, College of Pharmacy. He and his family live in Logan, Utah.
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INFECTED by Gregg Luke, published by Covenant Communications, 327 pages, softcover $16.99. Also available for eReaders and on CD.