The Last Pilot follows the life of Jim Harrison, who doesn’t just fly planes – he tests them (to destruction). Jim is working in a famous test pilot school in the Californian Desert when he is picked to join the Astronaut corps. This, however, is during the time of the early space programme, when being an astronaut really meant you had to have “the right stuff”. Emotional weakness meant that at best you’d wash out of the programme and at worst the distraction could kill you. Jim is about to be tested to his limits.

I knew this book was coming - the author Benjamin Johncock wrote it in the library where I work. We’d met, chatted, and discussed the book in advance of its release and I was haunting the Net Galley website* daily looking for the chance to read an advance copy. I was worried that this much expectation would only result in disappointment...

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I am a space nerd. I’m not hugely into the technology and the big rockets but I love the human stories. I’ve read numerous biographies, autobiographies and history books about the early manned space programme and I’ve been privileged enough to meet, listen, and talk with these personal heroes. They were brave men (women didn’t join the programme until 1978) and they were foolhardy. They were also flawed, despite being presented as infallible heroes to the public.

The Last Pilot conveys all of this, and despite being fiction I was constantly convinced that Jim was one of the original astronauts from the era. The details were all so much in tune with what I’ve read and heard that as I was reading the book, I was walking in the same places and ‘seeing’ the action unfurl. I’ve read other novels set around the space race and they’ve either missed the feel completely or read like a history book – The Last Pilot was just a gripping read, and one that you can enjoy without being a space nerd like me (I can prove this as I lent my copy to a non-space-enthusiast family member and they read the book in just two sittings).

An incredible reconstruction of the heady early space program.

If you wonder if all of the elements in this book could happen—and there are some events that I thought did stretch credibility a touch—further reading and watching assured me that such scenarios could and do take place. This book is an incredible reconstruction of the heady early space program.

The astronauts from this era are all in their late 70's and older now but they do still travel to the UK, along with men and women from later missions. If you’d like to hear them speak then I recommend looking at the Science Museum events page, the National Space Centre in Leicester and also the wonderful team who run Space Lectures who really take the motto ‘Failure is not an option’ to heart!

Borrow The Last Pilot from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries or Suffolk Libraries.

Benjamin Johncock launched Brave New Reads in Norwich with Colette Snowden (author of The Secret to Not Drowning). Listen to a podcast of the event:

*NetGalley is a site where book reviewers and other professional readers can read books before they are published, in e-galley or digital galley form.


About Sarah Salmon

Brave New Reads Readers' Circle member, librarian and guest reviewer. She is an an avid reader and self-professed space nerd who will travel silly distances to meet space pioneers. One of her proudest moments is having a tweet liked by astronaut Tim Peake while he was serving on the ISS.

When not reading about the space program Sarah can often be found at the theatre, or out and about with her camera trying to capture photos of barn owls. Despite the love of all things space and astronomy she has no wish to actually travel in space.

Sarah read over 200 books in 2015.

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