Review: The Mongol

The Mongol

The final Casca book credited to Barry Sadler (regardless of its actual authorship-according to some stories I’ve heard, it was a manuscript found after his death), The Mongol is a 51% book in a 51% series. The “which period of history should we put Casca in a theme park version of” wheel stopped at “Genghis Khan” this time.

The good news is that compared to previous flops like The Trench Soldier and The Samurai, this book is significantly better. The bad news is that, like every other Casca book, it’s still melodramatic pulp historical fiction that does almost nothing with its supernatural premise. For a quick read, one could do a lot worse. Yet there isn’t really anything to recommend it ahead of the first two Cascas either.

Thus it’s perhaps fitting that a middling series ended (for a time) on such a middling note.

Review: Altered States

Altered States

The ninth Kirov book, Altered States, is where the series really starts to hit its stride. By Schettler’s own admission, the response to the question of “should I write about the missile cruiser’s later adventures or an alternate World War II where the German surface fleet was bigger?” was “Yes.” And he was glad to oblige, combining the cruiser soap opera with a huge naval battle in a location I haven’t seen in a while-the GIUK gap.

(There’s a Kirov, but there’s not any Backfires or Aegis cruisers or F-14s. It’s like my original vision of Fuldapocalypse mixed with what the blog later became)

This sets the stage for the giant wargame sandbox/time travel soap opera that the rest of the series would become. Not quickly or even the most effectively, but it still does. I’ll admit that the “alternate sandbox” approach is my own favorite way of wargaming, which is why I’ve grown fonder of the series. I’ve found later, similar installments in a series hard to review, and this is one of them. But still, this is where it really clicks into place.

Fuldapocalypse Second Anniversary

Today is the second anniversary of Fuldapocalypse’s first post. It’s been a great experience, even as it’s long since outgrown its original goal. An inherently diverse blog is a lot easier to write for than an inherently restrictive one.

Sometimes I wonder just how far I could have gone if I’d stayed with my original goal and just pressed on reading and narrowly analyzing as many conventional World War III tales as I could handle. But that would have been far more forced and far less pleasant than what the blog ended up becoming.

Review: Neptune Island

Neptune Island

The first in the “Lincoln Monk” series (how’s that for a protagonist name) by Tony Reed, Neptune Island is a delight to read. One of the biggest problems with trying to find good cheap thrillers is that the cover and even the blurb alone can’t easily tell whether a book is going to be good or bad.

That being said, this book of a Cheap Thriller Protagonist (capital-that’s how blatant it is), a supervillain billionaire, a superweapon, a beautiful biathelete, and a giant mutant crab is the most fun I’ve had reading a thriller in some time. It’s the kind of book that tosses every sort of “restraint” and “realism” aside in favor of ridiculous spectacle, and it’s great fun, especially after a period of more serious and sedate works.

It’s amazing, and is the kind of book that’s a delight to find. Sure it’s “implausible” and there’s a lot of contrivances, but those are small potatoes. The action is great, the setup is great, it manages to have very good buildup (which I’ve found is surprisingly rare among cheap thrillers), and the whole thing is just incredibly goofy-and really, really fun.

Review: The Natural

The Natural

Sports fiction strangely suffers from the exact same problem that political fiction does. Because there’s so much available in the true world, both past and present, fiction has to be either an obviously forced and exaggerated version or often come across as feeling simply redundant. While success is not impossible, it’s an uphill climb.

One of the classic sports novels is Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, famous for its enduring reputation and movie version that sits alongside Starship Troopers in the field of “movies completely different from the book”. Having read the original book, I have to say: I don’t like it.

There’s one big problem with this book about baseball, which is that Malamud didn’t know that much about the sport. While others have gone into more detail, I’ll say this. There’s some errors like talk of a past World Series between the A’s and White Sox (two AL teams), but the bigger issue is simple. Hobbs comes across as what someone who doesn’t know that much about baseball would think a great player is.

Hobbs is good (unless the plot calls for him not to be) and good in a very boring way, simply hitting and hitting and hitting, not even rising to the level of classic Paul Bunyan baseball stories like how Cool Papa Bell supposedly got hit in the back by his own line drive simply because he ran so fast. Nope, it’s just four home runs in a game and “wondrous averages”. This isn’t a John Rourke or Blaine McCracken of the diamond, it’s a guy skilled in the baseball equivalent of “Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting”.

Without that frame of reference, a lot of it is just references to various baseball legends-Babe Ruth, in the form of the Whammer. Fred Merkle’s baserunning fail, in the form of Fisher’s Flop, the Black Sox (in the form of the ending), and so much more (as the Gerry O’Connor article points out). A modern version would incorporate versions of Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, and the 2004 lunar eclipse, to give you an idea of how blatant it all is to anyone who knows the slightest bit about early 20th century baseball.

So why am I suddenly so hard on realism and accuracy, when I’m clearly not when it comes to other books? Because the book is self-serious, for one. It’s like trying to write a literary novel about the life of a man who was a soldier, making the battle scenes right out of a stereotypical John Wayne movie, and sometimes descending to Ian Slater levels of technical inaccuracy. Would that interfere with the tone? Definitely.

Especially since, with the benefit of hindsight, this just looks like an exaggerated version (remember the introduction) of the Capital N Narrative approach to sportswriting, the clumsy and inaccurate reduction of a game into a tale of personal morality and internal struggle, applied constantly to real games by sportswriters of dubious quality (sometimes with extra crass humor).

Finally, the prose simply isn’t very good. It’s blocky, incredibly “lush”, and everything is either overdescribed or underdescribed. None of the characters are particularly interesting. And to be honest, in many ways the book feels just as shallow as the movie, only with a different morality. Give me saccharine goo that knows it’s saccharine goo over pretentiousness that doesn’t know its own subject any time.

Review: Air-Mech Strike

Air-Mech Strike

The book Air-Mech Strike holds the origin of the infamous “Gavin” nickname for the M113. It’s also extremely dated and, for the most part, badly written. This is a very 1990s book, despite being published in the early 2000s.

The “Gavin” name is a little more forgivable in this context because it’s meant to refer to a heavily modified and upgraded M113 instead of just the stock vehicle itself. The problem is that the authors want to have their cake and eat it too-they want an existing vehicle to fill the “medium motorized” infantry role out of legitimate concern that a big procurement wouldn’t happen in the post-USSR budget crunch, but also want a lavishly upgraded one. Yes, they give supposed cost figures, but I’m still skeptical (to put it mildly).

There are huge lists of TO&Es, to the point where I could probably just say “read the book itself” if I was doing a Weird Wargaming on the “air mech strike force”. There are piles and piles of 1990s NETWORK SMART WEAPON BUZZWORDS. There’s a utopianism that goes far beyond the reasonable arguments to mechanize existing airborne forces.

This is only backed by lopsided and unconvincing hypothetical case studies with absolutely no effort to “stress-test” the proposal. There’s a cakewalk in Central Asia against ragtag (conventional) opposition, a Kosovo intervention with pushover Serbs that might have been understandable before the actual war, but which feels like it would turn into the next Market Garden with the knowledge of their abilities gained after it, a Second Korean War where a risky deep attack is brushed aside as succeeding in one paragraph, and a Kuwait defense scenario that rightfully argues it’d be better than a footbound “speedbump”, but doesn’t examine how much better.

Ultimately, it just comes across as being enthralled by a certain type of theoretically possible toy. This is the land warfare equivalent of arguing for an air doctrine built around flying aircraft carriers, a naval doctrine built around submarines of various sizes, or any other gimmicky weapon that could be technically buildable.

Review: The Eleventh Commandment

The Eleventh Commandment

It’s time for Fuldapocalypse to turn to another author of high sales but low reputation, British writer, politician, and convicted criminal Jeffrey Archer. Even though a lot of Archer’s books, from their descriptions, come across as the type of work I call the “pop epic” (ie, Sidney Sheldon), CIA thriller The Eleventh Commandment looked like a grocery store cheap thriller. In fact, it looked so much like a grocery store cheap thriller that I felt a bit of trepidation-would this be nothing but a Marine Force One with a more well-known author’s name on the cover, forgettable mush?

The answer is “kind of.” Its realism, or lack thereof, comes from simply adopting a different baseline. It wants to be a serious cloak and dagger story, which makes every inaccuracy and contrivance more glaring. Furthermore, the prose is very blocky, the pacing slow, and despite seemingly high stakes on paper, it doesn’t feel that way in practice. At least it’s not too long, but it’s just dry and clunky.

The result is something that feels like it has all the weaknesses of a cliche cheap thriller, but few to none of the strengths. Whatever Archer could write, this kind of novel is not it.

Review: Seven Up

Seven Up

It kind of goes without saying that I’m not in author Janet Evanovich’s target audience, and neither is a Stephanie Plum novel the kind of book I was expecting to review at the beginning of this blog. But Seven Up itself and the story behind how I read it is worth it.

Though the seventh book in the series, this was the first tale of the wacky New Jersey bounty hunter that I read. When I read the back cover blurb, the implication was of a thriller. This was wrong. When I started reading the actual book, it felt like it was going to be a duller one about family drama. This was also wrong. I got one of the biggest pleasant surprises I’d ever read.

When I finished the book, it turned to be a hilarious, fast-moving, laugh-out-loud goofy novel of pure fun. Really, despite its initially slow start, I had a great time with it. To be honest, it reminded me of The Simpsons at its height, which is always something that humorous fiction should aspire to. While I’ve heard the series has grown stale since then, Seven Up itself is extremely fresh and enjoyable.

The Worst Book?

While looking for bad books, I came to this post in the Imaginary Museum blog by Dr. Jack Ross. An excellent piece of writing (even if I didn’t know who frequently mentioned David Lodge was), this paragraph in particular rang extremely true for me:

“Ever since I started writing novels myself, I guess I’ve been a bit more chary of parlour games such as this. There is, however, no accounting for tastes, and it can come as a shock that something you mildly enjoyed yourself can be right up there on someone else’s hitlist. A lukewarm response is the worst fate any book can receive, in any case, so I don’t think being on a list of world’s worst novels is likely to do lasting harm to any of the books (or authors) mentioned above.”

Being a writer and knowing the effort it requires dampening a lot of the previous snark? Check. (I’ll put it this way-I don’t think being a critic has helped me with being a better writer, but I think being a writer has helped me with being a better critic). Tastes differ? Check. (I learned of Jon Land from a massively negative review of one of his books). A mediocre reaction is the worst? Often very true, especially for reviewing as opposed to simply reading.

Onto the main subject, Ross sets out very good criteria for “worst book”, something I’ve used very cavalierly in the past (to my dismay now).

You can’t pick a novel you didn’t manage to finish

You can’t pick a novel by an author you entirely despise

There’s no point in selecting something completely obscure

Since I’ve had a tendency (although it’s waned somewhat now-I’m dropping books I find dull at rates I haven’t in the past) to finish books, the first isn’t an issue. The “obscure” part is, however. I don’t want to get dragged into a fandom war or pick a too-easy target, so I’ll go with “did it appear in mainstream bookstores.” While William W. Johnstone had that honor, the second rule strikes him out.

Thankfully, I’ve long had an answer. Not surprisingly, it is…

Ready for it…

Executive Orders by Tom Clancy. It’s one of the most successful authors ever, so I feel no guilt about slamming it. It’s an exceedingly bad book that almost certainly could never have been published by a first author. And while I’ve been critical of Clancy’s entire catalog, his earlier books were significantly better. It all “clicks” into being my choice of the worst.

(And yes, I’ve heard The Bear And The Dragon is even worse, but I haven’t read that and have no desire to-remember the rules)

If I had to give a second choice, it would probably be Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight. That’s another literary big name, I finished it, and it comes across as significantly worse than his later novels after reading them. Those at least can do the “gilded cheap thriller soap opera” better and have lots of out-there set pieces. All Midnight has is just romance novel stereotypes (that I could instantly tell despite barely knowing the genre) stumbling around for the entire book.

Review: Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

So now it’s time to do a formal review of an OPFOR document. While an unusual choice, this one I believe is the most interesting, as it’s both a description and a sort of prediction. A 1990s British document made available via their version of the FOIA law fairly recently, the Mobile Forces is my favorite OPFOR publication, and not just due to its massive size.

First, I have to say the obvious thing quickly: This is a field manual written in field-manualese, not anything that’s meant to be any kind of literary work. That being said, its comprehensiveness is something.

Like most OPFORs, it’s an idealized Soviet-style opponent. Unlike most OPFORs, especially the American Heavy OPFOR, it doesn’t just present that (even with post-1991 hindsight/sources) but also tries to look ahead, in this case towards a “hybrid” model that Russia at the time tried and, for obvious reasons, largely failed to actually adopt until decades later. A two-tier force exists, the “Basic” and “Mobile” forces.

The Basic Forces are arranged in traditional Soviet style, only with some differences-special premade forward detachments, a few other organizational changes, and, most importantly, many divisions having only three rather than four regiments at paper strength. The Mobile Forces, meant to be the cream of the crop, use the same “Brigade-Corps” organization that the Soviet tank forces in World War II used.

The Mobile Forces have permanent combined-arms battalions (while still eager to make ad hoc task forces if need be). Their brigades have a large number of battalions under their command. The document goes into massive detail as to how these two types of forces are meant to fight and work together.

There’s also a few changes.

  • The intended rate of advance slows down. Whether this is because of better artillery/enemy mobility/etc… or because the original rates were too optimistic is a good question, but it’s there.
  • Tactical use of nuclear and chemical weapons, while obviously not removed, is de-emphasized, simply because “conventional” weapons have gotten better.

As one of the best OPFOR pieces, this is well worth a read to enthusiasts, wargamers, and the like as a study of a “futuristic” yet still recognizably Soviet force. I’ll admit I’ve taken more than a little inspiration from it for my own writing, simply because of the effective, distinctive, two-tier military it portrays.