Review: No Mercy

No Mercy

John Gilstrap’s debut in the Jonathan Grave series, No Mercy, is very much a “grocery store book”. In fact, I first learned of this series after seeing a later book by him in-a grocery store. That being said, not all grocery store books are bad.

This is, in fact, one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a while. Sure, the plot and characters are nothing out of the ordinary for thriller novels, but the execution of Jonathan Grave and his adventure is fantastic. From the opening rescue sequence, I was impressed by the quality of the action. It’s not perfect. The middle drags just a bit. But it’s fantastic nonetheless.

The action is so good that, even though I saw some of my usual quibbles, I brushed them aside effortlessly. From the opening to some unconventional-yet-effective scenes in the middle to a gigantic battle ending, this was a tour de force. No Mercy was the kind of opening act that deserved to bring about a large book series.

Review: Termination Orders

Termination Orders

Leo Maloney’s Termination Orders begins the Dan Morgan series of thrillers. The plot is basically cheap thriller boilerplate, as an action hero faces off against a super-conspiracy. Of course, cheap thrillers succeed and fail based on execution, not concept.

In that sense, the book works. Its action is competent and the pacing done fairly well, although there are a lot of flashbacks in weird places. The exception to the generic yet decent action is one set-piece involving lions that made me smile.

The conclusion I drew is that this book manages to go juuuuust above the middle of the very crowded pack. It’s not the most distinct or best cheap thriller. But it’s done well enough that I wouldn’t call it a mere “51%” book.

Review: Periscope Red

Periscope Red

Richard Rohmer’s Periscope Red is a novel ahead of its time in the worst ways. That its concept of a Soviet covert-to-overt campaign against the world’s oil tankers is interesting makes the flawed execution all the more disappointing. The presence of numerous conference rooms and technical infodumps without any substance or excitement to “balance” them leads to a mismatch. It’s the equivalent of watching a sporting event where quarterbacks throw tons of incomplete passes as rushers stay on the side, basketball players attempt and miss three pointers by the dozens, or where baseball hitters strike out en masse but have absolutely no power when they do make contact.

That the literary fundamentals are slightly improved from Ultimatum and Exxoneration in a way doesn’t help it. It’s still not good by any means, and this quality makes it slightly more generic. Going from “interestingly bad” to “un-interestingly bad” isn’t necessarily a good trade off.

Thus this book is somewhat more realistic than Rohmer’s “invasion of Canada” novels, but lacks their out-there premise. It’s somewhat smoother in its pacing than those, but lacks the weird “appeal” of seeing just how blatant the padding can get. By conventional literary standards, it’s still very, very, bad. The technothriller style would have to wait until better authors than Richard Rohmer came along to achieve mainstream prominence.

Review: Decisively Engaged

Decisively Engaged

It’s been some time since I read a nice, proper spacesuit commando novel. And C. J. Carella’s Decisively Engaged fits the bill. Because boy, is this of the biggest spacesuit commando books ever. It’s Space America vs. The Alien Hordes. Sure there’s a backstory, but all you really need to know is it being (literal) Space America vs. the Alien Hordes.

The military sci-fi cliches are present here in such massive qualities that they stop being annoying and start being oddly endearing. This and the fact that the action is actually decently written-not the best, but at least decently enough-is enough to make the book enjoyable for me. The worst part is overly jumpy perspective shifts, not helped a few clumsy flashback “interludes”.

This is the sort of pulpy cheap thriller that doesn’t feel like “good” would be the right word to describe it. Yet it’s enjoyable, and that’s ultimately what matters more.

Review: For Alert Force

For Alert Force: KLAXON KLAXON KLAXON

Having essentially run low on World War III books that both held interest to me and weren’t already read has been a slight issue for this blog. Thankfully, I found some newer ones. One of these was Jim Clonts’ FOR ALERT FORCE: KLAXON KLAXON KLAXON, an awkwardly-titled book telling the tale of SAC crews in World War III.

This is a near-immediate 1980s nuclear World War III with none of the contrivances to keep it conventional for any length of time that appear in other works. Clonts, a veteran of B-52s himself, tells their story of fighting in these apocalyptic conditions. The book is good for what it is, but tends to wobble a little.

It has the exact strengths and weaknesses of what something written by someone with personal experience brings. On one hand, it’s detailed and a lot of it is accurate (as far as I could tell). A lot of the scenes are tense and well-done. On the other, it has tons and tons of Herman Melville-grade explanations of everything minor and technical.

Still, it could have been a lot worse than it is, and works as an aviation thriller. It’s not the most pleasant, but as this is about nuclear war, that’s to be expected. A more focused Chieftains (albeit with airplanes instead of tanks) is not a bad thing.

Finally, I noticed that it openly declares itself an “alternate history” on the cover, something a lot of fiction, even the kind that could easily qualify as such, doesn’t do. This fits the description unambiguously. It takes place long before its writing time and has history-changing events. So it’s interesting that Clonts felt comfortable enough to label it as such.

In short, I didn’t regret reading this book.

Review: Day of Wrath

Day of Wrath

The time has come to review another Larry Bond book, 1998’s Day of Wrath. Now, I was a little reluctant to do it because of a small meme I have where I joke about how few Larry Bond novels I’ve actually covered on the blog. Oh well.

It’s one of the biggest examples of “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music”. The plot is simple enough, as Col. Peter Thorn and Agent Helen Gray take on a super-terrorist plot by a wealthy and fanatical Saudi prince. As far as cheap thrillers go, you could do worse. In total isolation, this would be a middling, slightly above-average thriller book.

But it comes in the context of Bond’s writing style. Day of Wrath has all the weaknesses of it I’d noticed in Bond’s other books. The biggest is an extremely long and extremely predictable opening act, something I noticed in Cauldron, Red Phoenix, and to a lesser extent in Bond-contributing Red Storm Rising as well. This, along with a bit of clunkiness and the dichotomy between “wants to be realistic-sounding” and “has the main characters doing ridiculous action hero feats”, drags it down slightly.

The real problem with this book isn’t that it has Bond’s weaknesses, or that the weaknesses are more prominent than his others. It’s that it doesn’t take advantage of his strengths. This is a “shoot the terrorist” thriller that could have easily been written by one of the many, many other writers in that genre. The plot centers around the not-exactly underused MacGuffin of nuclear bombs. Bond’s ability to write large conflicts is simply never used at all.

Given how rare that type of fiction is, having Bond make a “big war thriller” with the stereotypical Middle East Coalition opponent who used their oil money to fund the production and procurement of various super-prototypes would at least be more distinct. It would be something that a more knowledgeable wargamer could do legitimately better than a “normal” thriller author trying to do such an ambitious tale.

Instead, he ends up like the weird musician doing a standard pop song-not technically bad, but merging with the pack instead of standing out. Putting him against tougher competition, his weaknesses become more apparent. It’s like having Eddie Van Halen for a song and, for whatever reason, not having him do a guitar solo of any kind. Yes, it’s music and the talent is obviously there-but you know it could have been so much more memorable.

Review: The Last Panther

The Last Panther

The book The Last Panther is supposedly the memoir of Wolfgang Faust, a German tank crewman in World War II, in the bitter final part of the war. I say supposedly because, well, it’s pretty clear to anyone with any sort of actual knowledge that this book, like its predecessor Tiger Tracks, is a hoax. I could say it’s because the situational awareness is, well…

…There’s books in third person with no pretense towards realism that have less precision and detail than this supposed “memoir”. There’s how the exact number of tanks in every battle is described amazingly, where everything explodes in a way that takes paragraphs to describe. Then there’s how the the supposed narrator can’t remember anything about his own crew save for one nickname. So there’s that, and… yeah, the book is not a real memoir.

It also rivals Atlantisch Crusaders for the title of “most ‘Wehraboo’ modern book ever.” Perhaps the best example of this is when a Soviet soldier who climbs on the narrator’s tank is described in the book’s exact words as having “an Asiatic, Mongolian type face” (and that he somehow can remember!) The rest of the novel is only slightly less blatant in that regards, but-yeah.

This is an anachronistic throwback to German-starring WWII war pulp, which remains as over-the-top and dubious as its predecessors. It’s not a memoir, it’s not historically accurate save for depicting a real battle that happened (in that sense, it’s on the level of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor), and even leaving the Wehrabooism aside, it’s repetitive and a little too over-the-top for its own good, defining the word “tryhard” when used in a negative sense.

Review: Tales of World War III 1985

Tales of World War III: 1985

Looking back at the progression of this blog, I’m reminded a lot of the story of trying to make a cockpit design that could fit the “average pilot”, and then finding that no one actually met that criteria. I feel similarly when I look back at just how little anything actually met my stereotype.

Brad Smith’s Tales of World War III: 1985 series comes closest, edging out Larry Bond’s earlier work. It’s done by a wargame designer and thus features the wargame-friendly setting of 1985 Europe, with battles taking place in various parts of it. There’s a lot of technical description.

I don’t feel nearly as much negativity towards it as I would have and did in the past. Smith has sincerely tried to build characterization, even if the execution is still often clunky and the characters often Steel Panthers cameras in practice. And the wargaming at least takes the series above Ian Slater in terms of technical accuracy. But it’s still a 51% entry in a niche genre, the pilot who isn’t particularly good or bad but has the dimensions to actually fit well in the “average” cockpit.

Review: Fallen Soviet Generals

Fallen Soviet Generals

Aleksander A. Maslov’s Fallen Soviet Generals is a long, detailed, historical list of how general officers died in World War II. It’s a book I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but it deserves a full review of its own. Because the subject is interesting to me (for some reason), I enjoyed the book in spite of its obviously morbid topic.

This has the weakness of a dry history book. It’s not very lively or engaging for someone not into the subject matter, and it’s not helped by the book both being originally written in another language and being translated/edited by David Glantz, a legendary historian whose prose is nonetheless sometimes, er, flat. But it also has the strengths, meticulously categorizing how, where and when every single Soviet general died in the war.

The topic is interesting to me because, especially to an American (the US lost only twenty generals in World War II, less than a tenth the Soviet total) used to technology where they theoretically should be at less personal risk, the loss of a general officer seems like a strange aberration. Yet it clearly wasn’t, and there are many conflicts where it would be. Even for conflicts of a different technological type, Maslov’s book remains an excellent resource for how and why general officers could die in battle.

Review: Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction

Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction

Bradley Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction takes on the task of trying to catalogue many, many cheap thrillers. Mengel uses the term “serial vigilante” to describe what many call “men’s adventure”, and what would in many circumstances be labeled “action hero” on this blog. It’s an impressive feat.

Most of the book is lists and descriptions of various series’ in this subgenre. It’s a self-proclaimed encyclopedia, so its descriptions are broad and not deep. Interestingly, it provides page counts. Though a little dated thanks to to its 2009 publication date, this book has nonetheless been an invaluable resource for finding obscure series.