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The Last Pilot: A Novel by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot: A Novel

by Benjamin Johncock

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Benjamin Johncock's debut historical novel takes place during 1947 through 1968 and follows Jim Harrison as he attempts to make the first flights at the speed of sound and then delves into the Space Race. The book is a nice snapshot of America during this time, not really delving deep into too many technical details in plane or space flight or the famous people who were involved in that, so I don't think readers looking for extensive knowledge in those areas should be looking for that here. The book is also a portrait of Jim's marriage and some tragedies that went along with that. Your heart can only break for Grace and Jim. Jim says he would love to be up in the atmosphere all of the time, but that is just the sort of pilot Jim is. The book is filled with some characters from history, including some pilots and astronauts... and quite the character from reality Pancho Barnes, a female pilot and restaurant/bar owner in the Mojave Desert. This book is mostly dialogue without quotation marks. I usually don't like missing quotation marks but there would have been so much CLUTTER with the quotation marks since there is so MUCH dialogue. The dialogue runs smoothly though - it usually isn't difficult to tell which person is speaking. I'm not sure ALL of the dialogue needed to be there though... as well as the many mentions of cigarettes and alcohol but it was the time of the cigarette, I suppose. Overall, this is a sweet yet heartbreaking story about a marriage and the early days of the Space Race. ( )
  booklove2 | Jul 18, 2016 |
The story of test pilot Jim Harrison and his wife, Grace, plays out against the backdrop of the early X-plane test flights and the beginnings of the American space program. Compelling and suspenseful, the story focuses on relationship, expectation, loss, and grief. Both Jim and Grace are flawed, realistic characters fitting perfectly into the backdrop of the history that defines the narrative.

Depicting events from the perspective of both the men and their wives gives the story an added complexity and highlights the intricacies of relationships in the day-to-day lives of families. Snappy dialogue and realistic dynamics between characters adds another dimension of believability.

The seamless interplay of the fictional Jim Harrison with the courageous test pilots who flew over the dry lake beds in the Mojave and with the first groups of astronauts gives the story strong credibility. And the inclusion of accounts of true events such as Yeager’s use of the broom handle to fit into the door handle to close the cockpit door provides even greater authenticity as it pulls the reader into the narrative.

Well-crafted and beautifully drawn, this is a story readers will be hard-pressed to set aside before turning the final page.

Highly recommended. ( )
  jfe16 | Feb 26, 2016 |
How could I not read this? A test pilot at Muroc Air Force Base (later renamed Edwards) in the late 1940s becomes an astronaut in the Apollo programme. This is exactly the same ground I covered in All That Outer Space Allows, although I did it from the wife’s point of view. And my take is a lot more technical. As far as I can determine, Johncock’s Jim Harrison takes the place of Dave Scott (Apollo 15 commander), although Scott does actually appear toward the end of the book. Also, while many aspects of Harrison’s persona life are invented, many incidents assigned to Harrison actually happened to others. Harrison is there when Yeager breaks the Sound Barrier in 1947, he gets assigned to the X-15 program and then to the X-20 program, before eventually joining NASA and becoming an Apollo astronaut. Also like All That Outer Space Allows, The Last Pilot focuses on its protagonist’s marriage. Although Harrison and his wife try for children for years, they’re not successful – but then, against all odds, as is usually the case in fiction, they have a girl. But she sickens and dies of cancer at the age of ten, and her death slowly tears the marriage apart from within. If lit fic is unfairly characterised as fiction about middle-class marriages disintegrating, then The Last Pilot is lit fic – albeit with a test pilot/astronaut as its protagonist. It is well-researched, well-written, and Johncock cleverly covers plenty of ground by assigning so many documented incidents to his protagonist. But – and I can actually say this: it’s not the book I would have written. And my own novel coloured my reading of Johncock’s – almost certainly unfairly. It’s a good piece of work, certainly – but I would have preferred something a little more interesting as the plot’s engine… And lots more technical detail. ( )
  iansales | Feb 3, 2016 |
This was a little different than what I expected. I thought I would get a fast-paced thrill-ride centering around the space program and astronauts, or maybe the excitement of Apollo 13, but rather than an adventure based on the pilots, the newly emerging space program, and the race to the moon, the novel uses the space program as a backdrop to the powerful story of test pilot Jim’s friends and family, and a realistic look at life.

As a youngster I can remember eagerly following the space program and found the inclusion of real life pilots and astronauts such as Chuck Yeager, Jim Lovell, John Glenn, and Gus Grissom, an enjoyable addition to Jim’s story. But even for those who are not interested in the history of the space race – yes, there is detail on the subject – the interesting, well-developed characters plus a nostalgic ride back to more innocent, hopeful times, make this a book worth experiencing.

Interesting note: The background information on the space program is so well-researched and the story felt so authentic that I didn’t realize the book wasn’t written by an American. The author is British.

Audio production:
Narrated by Donald Corren. Good pacing and a smooth voice make this a pleasant listen. Experienced listeners will have not trouble engaging and following the story. ( )
  UnderMyAppleTree | Jan 15, 2016 |
A wonderful look back at a time when the men-who-were-men shot for the stars - and made it, even as their individual lives threatened to buckle under the strain. The same thrill I felt as a kid watching Apollo 11, I felt reading The Last Pilot - it captures the spirit of the time and the complexities of being human in any time rather beautifully. The book is not without its flaws here and there - time begins to leap forward without much acknowledgement as the book nears the end, leaving the reader a bit unmoored if you don't know exactly when this or that flight went up (I don't even recall hearing about Kennedy's death, just suddenly the Daisy Girl tv ad), and the lack of quotation marks will always be a pet peeve of mine, even with Cormac McCarthy. But the novel transcends any little issues with its expansive, joyous look at the possibility of humanity - even in the face of tragedy. It's a reminder that all we need to do, to find hope, is look at the stars and say, "Next? There."

More soon at RB: ( )
  drewsof | Sep 30, 2015 |
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Jim Harrison is a test pilot in the United States Air Force, one of the exalted few. He spends his days cheating death in the skies above the Mojave Desert and his nights at his friend Pancho’s bar, often with his wife, Grace. She and Harrison are secretly desperate for a child, and when, unexpectedly, Grace learns that she is pregnant, the two are overjoyed. America becomes swept up in the fervor of the Space Race, while Harrison turns his attention home to welcome his daughter, Florence, into the world. But as he and Grace confront thrills and challenges of parenthood, they are met with sudden tragedy.

The aftermath will haunt the Harrisons and strain their marriage, as Jim struggles to make life-and-death decisions under circumstances that are altogether new. Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock is the mesmerizing story of a couple’s crisis of faith―in themselves, and in each another―and the limits they test to rediscover it. Amazon
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