June 2022: Fallen by T.J. Newman

Falling by T. J. Newman

It’s June – many of us like quick, feel-good beach reads for the summer.  While a fairly fast read, Fallen by T.J. Newman is NOT your typical summer fare.  However, if you are looking for a gripping, on-the-edge-of-your-seat, make-me-think read, then this is just the book for you!  In her debut thriller, this former air attendant hooks you in the first few pages, and then reels you into a story of suspense and intrigue, people put in impossible situations having to make unthinkable choices, and then deal with the possible consequences of bad decisions.

Pilot Bill Hoffman lifts off from Los Angeles International for a six-hour flight to New York only to learn that 30 minutes before his jet took to the air, his family was kidnapped.  The kidnapper’s demand – for Bill to keep his family safe, he must crash his plane taking 143 passengers to their deaths.  If he makes any move to alert authorities or tell anyone, the kidnapper will know because there is an accomplice on the plane.  What to do when faced with one of the worst scenarios a pilot can imagine?  Bill has always viewed the passengers as souls entrusted to his care while in the air, and now he must choose between them and his wife and children.  The kidnapper communicates through Bill’s laptop, orders him to use ear buds so the co-pilot is kept in the dark, and shows him live video of his wife and son with mouths duct-taped and wearing explosive vests.

Bill’s mind is running in circles.  Who can he trust?  Two of the attendants are co-workers of long standing.  Can he somehow alert one of them and have them observe the passengers?  Is there any way to keep to his normal in-flight routine and still get a call for help out somehow?  Is the kidnapper going to order him to crash into a certain target?  In this post 9/11 world, is this another jihad?  And, dear God, how can he get the authorities to go to his house and rescue his family?

The kidnapper feeds Bill details piecemeal, escalating the tension, letting him know that there was a plan to gas the passengers if Bill didn’t cooperate.   As Bill struggles with the weight of his decisions, some of our readers wondered how they might react if faced with such a choice.  Specifically, in this day of horrendous mass shootings and armed intruders in schools, how does a teacher with a classroom of children to protect separate fear for them from fear for his/her own children in other classrooms?

Time seems to stand still and yet be speeding by as Bill manages to share the news with Jo, his lead flight attendant.  The author’s experience and expertise with what happens during a flight from the pilot’s and attendant’s perspectives make this novel very realistic in its details.   The post-9/11 security changes play a part in the plot.  And the availability of internet during the flight both helps Bill’s and Jo’s efforts to alert authorities and hurts the kidnappers’ secrecy demands as a passenger’s video of oxygen masks goes viral.  As our readers noted, the speed of social media can quickly make situations uncontrollable for police.

As the jet inexorably nears the east coast, the FBI in Los Angeles closes in on Bill’s house when an explosion rocks the neighborhood.  But was his family there?  Will another explosion happen on the opposite coast as the jetliner crashes?  And where?  Not in D.C., not at JFK, but the World Series is being played in Yankee Stadium. . . could that be it?

The tension climbs on the ground and in the air.  At this point, a few readers felt the book veered from its believable foundation.  Could the FBI agent survive three different accidents and still function so well?  A pilot in this day and age would know morse code?  And, maybe most of all, as pandemonium reigns at Yankee Stadium and exits are blocked by bodies, the ballplayers decide to continue playing a game as they await obliteration?  It felt, perhaps, like a book written with an eye toward movie rights.  However, in a thriller you need a hero, and a hero by definition has to be heroic, overcoming what would normally sideline the average person.  This book had heroes, people who rose to their highest performance in a time of challenge.

But it also made a dramatic point with an important message that resonated with some of our readers.  The kidnappers’ motive was grounded in loss, a personal loss directly caused by a betrayal.  An old adage proclaims that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.  It’s equally true that politics makes strange bedfellows.  At least twice in the last 40 years, the U.S. has allied itself with Kurdish fighters, once in the 1970s to fight against Saddam Hussein and Iraq and more recently to fight ISIS.  In each case, the United States, due to political deals, withdrew its support for the Kurdish people.  This resulted in heavy civilian casualties.  Our geography protects the U.S. from the effects of constant fighting unlike other areas of the world where conquerors come and go.  The kidnappers in our novel lost their entire family.  Now they want citizens of the U.S. to feel that same helplessness and loss.  It is the powerless getting even with the powerful as one reader noted.  Has the U.S. abandoned any moral high ground in its pursuit of the military-industrial complex of which former President Dwight Eisenhower warned over fifty years ago?  As a country, are we morally bankrupt?  It is big business to make weapons of destruction, but how do you justify the sale of those weapons systems while sitting in a church pew every Sunday?   And how do we speak up to right a wrong?  Are our votes our voices?  What is our moral obligation?  And, do novelists give terrorists ideas in books such as these?

This is a thriller that doesn’t mind having serious stuff in it.  It is also a page-turner that moves fast.  After all, the entire book took place in six hours.  Which might be part of the reason many of our readers couldn’t put it down until they finished the book.  Granted, six hours doesn’t give an author much time for character development.  But in a crisis, the burdens of leadership make important character traits rise to the surface.  And decisions carry heavy consequences.  If you are flying this summer, this story may make you a bit uncomfortable.   However, as thought-provoking, suspenseful, engaging reading, you can’t beat it.  Seven of our readers gave it one thumb up, and two gave it two thumbs up.  We now break for the summer – happy reading!