the last pilot

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot by Benjamin JohncockThe Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock
Published by Picador on July 7th 2015
Source: Publisher
Pages: 320
Buy from IndieBound


When World War II comes to an end, Jim Harrison stays in the Air Force as a test pilot, pushing the sound barrier in the Mojave Desert. After struggling for years to have children, Jim and his wife Grace are thrilled by the birth of their daughter and happily embrace the changes she brings to their lives. But just as the Space Race begins and the country turns its attention to pilots like Jim, a tragedy strikes the Harrison family and drastically alters the future course.

“You know, she said, we went to this party, the year before, I think, old friend of mine; she’d moved east, New York, after the war. She was a journalist, worked at Time and a bunch of other places, then managed to get a job copywriting for one of those big advertising agencies on Madison Avenue. She spent the whole evening telling me how ruthless it was, how cutthroat and dog-eat-dog. I asked her how many of those men would still go into a meeting if there was a one-in-four-chance of them not making it out alive. We lost sixty-two men over a thirty-six-week stretch once. That’s nearly two a week. I had to buy another black dress; I couldn’t get the one I had clean and dried in time. So I had two, on rotation.”

It sounds like a straightforward, even familiar story, but The Last Pilot has incredible surprises hiding between its pages. In the middle of a testosterone-fueled desert, Johncock brings several extremely real, multi-dimensional female characters to life, though they could have easily been pushed aside to make room for another famous pilot. Along with Grace, we meet Pancho Barnes, a fiercely plucky pilot and bar owner with a wicked mouth who isn’t afraid to show love when it’s most needed. Even the Harrison’s daughter, Florence, is a little fireball of precocious energy with a sweet, curious spirit.

And we come to know these characters not in pages-long descriptions, but through conversations and even the silences between them. The absence of quotation marks takes adjusting, but the stylistic choice makes sense in a dialogue-heavy novel. Johncock’s words soon play out like the script for a film so deftly written that the expressions of actors seem unnecessary. The Last Pilot will certainly be compared to books like The Right Stuff, which is one of several titles listed as a resource, but despite Johncock’s incredible research, this is not a book about the Space Race or even the pilots themselves. It’s a story about love and loss, and the all-consuming fears capable of changing our lives.


  • This sounds like a keeper, Shannon; I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  • I have this one waiting for me, and now I’m even more excited to get to it. Hoping that #24in48 gets me through a bunch of books with deadlines coming up so I have time to read some of these other books accumulating on my stacks this month…

    By the way, site redesign? (I’m way behind on blog reading, but I’m also having major deja vu on this conversation…) Looks great!

    • Oh, I hope you get a chance to read it soon, I’d love to hear what more people think about it.

      And yeah, it was a bit of a mistake – I was testing out the theme (didn’t mean to apply it quite yet) and couldn’t get the other one back right, so I had to do some fast reorganizing. But it worked out!

  • So many good books coming out this summer, I just can’t keep up! This is one I really hope to get to, just now sure when!

  • Oh boy. I think my TBR stack just fell over. You’ve definitely talked me into this one.

  • Sounds like one I’d like to read. Adding to the list.

  • Ti Reed

    I have 10% left of this one on my Kindle and I can’t say enough good things about it. It reminds me of a few books in tone, but I love the simple story and the well developed characters.

  • I read another review of this earlier this week and immediately thought of The Right Stuff (which wasn’t mentioned in the review, but I loved it!) and added it to my TBR list. I love the quote you shared (boom, ad execs, you’re a bunch of weenies!) and thanks for the warning about the lack of quotes.

    • It definitely parallels the timeline of other books and movies (like Apollo 13), but there’s a story there there that has so much heart – it makes it much different.

  • Lindsey Stefan

    This sounds great, but our review is the first time I’ve seen it!

    I really like your new header, by the way!!

    • I was hoping to see it a little more, since I enjoyed it so much. Maybe a few others will pop up!
      And thanks!

  • Yes to everything you wrote! This book is so affecting, and that’s what surprised me the most, I think.

  • This isn’t one that would normally catch my eye, but it looks really good! I’m adding it to my list!

  • The subject matter isn’t necessarily something that would hold my attention, but the cover is gorgeous enough for me to give it a second look.

  • Agghh this sounds so good!

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