Review: A Pius Legacy

A Pius Legacy

If A Pius Man was weird, this is weirder. With the pope kidnapped and put on trial, a “thriller” ensues. This book suffers from a research failure comparable to that of a “Clive Cussler’s” novel where a random Brazilian spoke Spanish. Only that was a one-off not really central to the plot, and this concerns the main element. It has The Hague listed as being in Belgium. Repeatedly.

The same weird thriller elements continue in this installment. The political defenses of Catholicism turn into everything short of digging up the corpse of John XXIII for Cadaver Synod 2, Traditionalist Boogaloo. There are subplots reminding me of Lunnon-Wood’s Dark Rose where seemingly everyone both armed and Catholic turns into defenders of the Vatican.

This is a very quirky book. But I like quirky.

Review: Invasion Chronicles

Invasion: Chronicles

DC Alden’s “epic” ends with less than a bang in the last two installments, gathered with the previously reviewed two in the Chronicles omnibus. The politics do take an interesting turn, and that’s that the Evil Continental Caliphate is actually too feminist. It has women in its military in exactly the same places as its opponents (including such non-nurse/clerk roles as AWACS radar operator and explosives technician). And of course the evil collaborator ex-lawyer turned butcher governor (and not a figurehead one either) is a British woman. This all felt deliberate on the author’s part. It wasn’t a redeeming quality or the act of adapting something else. It made “sense” given how more of the vitriol was aimed at the “traitorious British” than the actual invaders, but adds to the creepiness of the books.

The last two entries, Frontline and Deliverance, have all the same issues of their predecessors. The camera is either jumping around various viewpoints or focusing on big arcs involving unsympathetic characters. Having to combine these together leads to plot contrivances clearly designed to make them tied when they shouldn’t have been. Sending a super-secret stealth aircraft to rescue several AWOL squaddies on an ill-conceived raid into Birmingham is the biggest example of this.

The conclusive battle involves a clumsy attempt at Fortress London that’s designed to try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Having to tie the high and low level parts together means it couldn’t just focus on individual danger, and having the previous war be so one-sided means a broad-scope view doesn’t work. There’s more contrived, artificial drama and a very strange series ending that’s at best a sappy dream sequence and at worst implying that the whole thing was just a nightmare (that would explain the military inaccuracies at least…)

So yes, having read this entire series, I can say that it deserves the infamy and scorn it’s gotten. Even accepting its premise as an invasion novel with all the inherent baggage, this could have been executed a lot better. As it stands, it was not.

Another Missing World War III Tale

There’s another type of story that seemingly just doesn’t appear in the conventional World War III niche (as far as I can tell): Stories centered around those with neither political or military capability. And by that I don’t mean the opponents in later Tom Clancy novels. The poor innocents caught up in the heat of war are often used in historical wartime fiction, but seem at best only in parts of conventional Fuldapocalypses (ie, Bannon’s wife in Team Yankee).

I think the biggest reason is well, no real incentive to do so. I don’t really have the best knowledge, but I can speculate that historical fiction writers don’t need to use an inherently contrived “Cold War hot but not that hot” setup to tell such a story. There’s plenty of historical conflicts that readers will understand better, and if a fictional one is needed/wanted, making it small, contemporary, or both can offer more of a hook.

So it’s a catch-22. The subgenre would benefit immensely from outsiders bringing their perspective. But most outsiders, even cheap thriller writers, don’t have much motive to write such a thing.

A Thousand Words: Tucker The Man And His Dream

Tucker: The Man And His Dream

Imagine a movie that depicted the infamous Juicero in a romantic and fluffy way. Why, its founders were plucky little upstarts who wanted to save the world and make a buck but they got ground down by the evil monolithic force of Big Juice Squeezer. You know, instead of being an obviously doomed-from-the-start project.

Replace “juice squeezers” with “cars” and you have the big problem with Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man And His Dream. A biopic about entrepreneur Preston Tucker and his attempt to start a car company, the actual movie is well-acted and well-made. Its just that it romanticizes an inevitable failure.

Henry Kaiser’s car company with far more resources only succeeded in the gargantuan seller’s market that was the immediate postwar period (when there was a ridiculous amount of pent-up demand). Then it became the second of four Jeep Zombies. And Kaiser knew a thing or two about supply chains, which let him take advantage of that boom. Meanwhile, Tucker’s project would have rammed right into a righted market and the Korean War-if it made it that far. It was less that suppliers and financiers were crushed by the Evil Establishment and more that they were rightfully reluctant to work with such a ramshackle operation.

No one said historical films had to be 100% accurate. But the message here is so whiny and maudlin, and Tucker’s saga so misinterpreted that it squanders the production. The Tucker Tiger, a would-be scout car in World War II, is mentioned as being rejected because “gosh, it was too fast”. The reality was that it had absolutely no off-road capability, a rather serious problem with a scout car.

Preston Tucker was not a martyr, and the film tries to make him one. The walls and furniture of this movie are good, but they can’t make up for a talc foundation.

Review: The Years of Rice And Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice And Salt is probably the most highbrow and audacious work of alternate history printed by a mainstream publisher and aimed at a wide audience. A sweeping magical realist epic, this starts with the question “what if there was no Europe?”

To achieve this, Robinson uses a plot disease to wipe out Europe’s population in the Middle Ages while leaving the rest of the world mostly unscathed. It’s basically the literary, sophisticated version of The Seventh Carrier’s haywire satellites knocking out every jet and rocket engine. While there are many contrivances and valid criticisms, it’s clear what the author is trying to do. Alternate history by English-speaking authors can understandably be kind of Eurocentric, something which he takes a chainsaw to with his divergence. Robinson tries to be different.

And he succeeds, going from character to character in a millennia-long saga, with excellent prose and a great sense of wonder. It manages to achieve the not-easy feat of being both broad and human at the same time. The writing style and structure helps a lot in this regard.

Unfortunately, even something as distinct as Rice and Salt can still fall victim to a common issue with alternate history: Getting worse as one gets farther away from the point of divergence. The last part of the book has both clunky historical parallels (like a giant decades-long World War I static conflict) and political soapboxing ramped up. But even this can’t harm the book too much.

Alternate history fans should read Rice and Salt. It’s a rare anomaly in an otherwise constricted genre.

Review: Invasion Uprising

Invasion: Uprising

DC Alden’s Invasion: Uprising follows the Anglo-American counterattack into occupied England, and manages to be (even?) worse than its predecessor in all that matters. The only real highlights are some middling amounts of mediocre cloak-and-dagger stuff and a few C-list infantry firefights, neither which can make up for the collapse elsewhere.

First, the big battles come across as something that could have been written by post-Sum of All Fears Tom Clancy. They involve Americans with supertech handily crushing their hapless opponents. Needless to say, they’re not very good. The weird and slapdash enemy arsenal is still there, as is the politics.

Criticizing an invasion novel for its politics is kind of like criticizing a professional wrestling match for its melodrama. But I feel obligated to note that the book seems to direct less of its anger towards the invaders themselves and more towards the British who enabled and allied with them, in a message that is not exactly subtle. From a series that started off iffily, this book has the “achievement” of sinking lower.

The Green Mess

In the 1905 World Series, Giants utilityman Sammy Strang had one plate appearance where he struck out. This entitled him to his complete share of the gate, the equivalent of around $33,000 today. Over a century later, another sportsman would only appear briefly yet cause a great amount of money to shift hands.

On January 9, 2022, in an otherwise undistinguished game between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, an injured Draymond Green made a ceremonial appearance at tipoff to be able to “start” with returning Klay Thompson before immediately fouling an opposing player and leaving. The result was that those who bet the under on his player props triumphed. However, this was not an issue of just him getting hurt quickly. His plan was announced shortly before the game, creating a window for people for hammer said unders.

It was an example of what Jason “Spreadapedia” Weingarten rightfully summed up as “One word: Greed”. And it demonstrates what I consider the odiousness at both sides of the sports betting industry. A big reason for the outsized losses is the presence of the “Single-game parlay”, where you can make parlay/accumulator bets (ie, you get a bigger payout, but they all have to win), on different elements of one game. Parlays are notoriously more profitable for the books overall, which is why they push them. However, the nightmare scenario is that all those blockbuster parlays (usually strings of giant favorites) actually hit. So yes, the books were playing with fire, and got burned.

However, I also have surprisingly little sympathy for the people who tried to take advantage of the error and got restricted for it. One of the secrets that a lot of casual observers don’t know are that many, if not most pro bettors (Protip: DO NOT BE A PRO SPORTS BETTOR) are people who pounce on slow/off/etc… lines instead of being super-handicappers. It’s why their complaints about being constantly restricted have fallen on deaf ears to me. And for something so obvious, I’m extra-uncaring about their “plight”.

Fatadin Mukhamedov

In one of those weird footnotes of aviation history, Mukhamedov, like Stavatti in the west, has been a maker of so-called “paper planes”. The company owes its existence to Fatadin Mukhamedov, a Soviet/Tajik engineer who had a successful career with the big bureaus (for instance, the Dushanbe center of Mikoyan) before striking out on his own. No actual aircraft were produced by the Mukhamedov bureau before Fatadin’s death in 2013, but the bulk had one specific shape.

Mukhamedov designed everything from fifth-generation fighters to gargantuan transports with the same distinctive circular inner wing. The most practical and achievable design was an advanced jet trainer/light strike aircraft for the competition eventually won by the Yak-130. Not coincidentally, the design may have found its way to Iran as the would-be HESA Shafaq. All of the other circular planes were just interesting and distinctive dreams.

But, in other timelines, dreams can come true….

Review: The German Aircraft Carriers

The German Aircraft Carriers

A book devoted to German aircraft carriers could have all the pages be blank and still be technically accurate. After all, the decision to not go ahead with them was one of the very, very few good ones the country made in World War II. But Simon Beerbaum’s work on them manages to show an excellent train of thought. For most of the actual writing and layout quality, what I said about the Russian carriers book applies just as well to this. What’s interesting is the content.

You might think that a compilation of never-built German designs would have a lot of weird ones as gargantuan as they were impractical. And you would be right. But there was a method to the madness of several. Intended as commerce interdictors, the carrier designs mostly had substantially large gun armament but smaller airwings. They resembled a pre-missile version of the Kiev “air carrying cruisers” in that regard. The book also covers postwar helicopter/VSTOL designs proposed by shipyards for export customers. It’s an interesting look at an interesting set of designs.

Review: The Thousand Dollar Touchdown

The Thousand Dollar Touchdown

Time to review another thriller with a main character that has a perfect thriller name: Colt Ryder. When I saw that the premise of The Thousand Dollar Touchdown involved sports and gambling, I knew I had to read it. Ryder, the wandering “thousand dollar man”, helps people for that amount. He also kills people in the process. This time his client is the wife of an NFL quarterback. Her brother-in law has died suspiciously, and she thinks he’s been throwing games.

This is very much a 51% book. None of the elements are really that bad, and it’s short and breezy. But it falls short of being genuinely good. A bit of this is the premise: Someone who’s studied the actual way that the sports leagues have been two-faced behind sports betting, the actual composition of their management, and the actual composition of the gambling underworld will notice the oversimplifications and inaccuracies. But since cheap thrillers do not have to be accurate per se, I can wave that off.

A bigger problem is the style. It’s written in this first-person classic hardboiled type that I don’t care the most for, and that style is not the best suited for an action-packed climax where the main character performs ridiculous feats. There’s also a bit of tonal clash. The main character’s approach involves Jack Bauer-ing his way to information by beating people up until they talk, but he’s kept alive in a Dr. Evil Deathtrap after being captured because of plot.

This is a 51% book, but it’s a more interesting to review “mean 51%” than a flat “median 51%”.