Review: Blown Cover

Blown Cover

The fourth book in Mark Hewitt’s Hunter series, Blown Cover is a book where I did not want the crazy to stop. The crazy was the entire point of the series, and for it to become just another middling thriller would be taking the “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music” issue to extremes. Thankfully, the crazy becomes, if anything, even crazier.

There’s Amelia Earhart conspiracies, Hindenburg conspiracies, the same conspiracies in the last three books, and more. And this book even has a -shock- actually well written action set piece. There’s a genuinely effective action scene where the protagonist has to struggle his way to the cockpit in a depressurizing plane that’s truly well written. Yes, there’s hundreds of pages of clunky crazy surrounding it, but still.

So yes, I had genuine fun with this book. It might even be my favorite so far in the series, just because of how excessive it is. I like excessive cheap thrillers.

Review: The Eleven Days of Christmas

The Eleven Days of Christmas

For Christmas, I feel like I should review a Christmas book. A Christmas book that’s also a Fuldapocalyptic history book is Marshall Michel’s The Eleven Days of Christmas, about the final significant bombing campaign in the Vietnam War. Michel, himself an aviator veteran of the war, left no stone unturned to try and get the full story. To try and find the truth about Linebacker II, he went not only to American sources, but as many North Vietnamese ones as he could access, and even esoteric ones like the memoirs of Joan Baez (who was in Hanoi at the time).

The result is a masterpiece that illustrates Strategic Air Command as this clunky newbie that had sat out the war and then blundered into it. And also spun its clumsy, ineffective performance into a great victory. This is perhaps the biggest unintentional weakness of the book: The claim that Linebacker II was mixed at best and ineffective at worst is a lot less controversial now than it was at the time he wrote it.

Still, anyone interested in the Vietnam air war has to get this book. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

Review: No Need to Know

No Need to Know

The third in Hewitt’s Hunter series, No Need to Know is every bit as out-there as the first two (if not more). Once again, I’m in the somewhat unusual position of not recommending them for other people while having a blast reading them myself. The conspiracies don’t stop in this book, and neither do the set-pieces.

In fact, this is actually better paced if anything than the second and especially the first book. While it’s still overly long, it feels like it flows better and doesn’t have that many outright dull moments. Ok, except those involving the details of operation the YO-3 airplane, which is obsessed over throughout the series.)

That sounds like faint praise. And the inherent flaws of the first two are still there. But still it’s nice to see an author’s craft get genuinely better.

A Thousand Words: Electric Football

Electric Football

As Christmas approaches, it’s important to acknowledge a rite of passage every American child has faced. Getting an electric football set and only using it once. I remember getting an electric football set, thinking the players were actually programmable (ha!), watching them shake downfield once after turning the game on, and never touching it again.

The creation of Norman Sas and Tudor Games shortly after WWII, electric football involves a vibrating board to move its players. When the NFL expanded massively in popularity, electric football gained the official license, becoming the Madden of its day. If Madden was programmed in two days by people who couldn’t make the cut at Game Freak or Bethesda.

Now electric football is both technically improved and far less popular because, you know, video games exist. But it was and still is a thing.

Review: High Intensity Military Urban Combat

High Intensity Military Urban Combat

The book High Intensity Military Urban Combat focuses on exactly what the title says. It aims to teach in the very relevant task of high intensity war in built-up areas. To an extent (being adopted from an official use only instruction) it’s focused on a military audience and having them “unlearn” the circumstances of low-intensity urban war (superior resources, ability to do complex operations, rightful focus on collateral damage) compared to a slugfest in Seoul/Tallin/Taipei (or wherever. There are a lot of big cities!)

Focused on squad level operations, it’s well-illustrated and detailed. To a degree, it duplicates what’s in existing publications, although trading field manual-ese for clear text and good diagrams is a welcome tradeoff. I can’t say how helpful it’d be to a professional audience, but to an armchair observer like me it’s illuminating.

Review: Exile

The Last Roman: Exile

Starting The Last Roman: Exile, I was struck by the extreme similarity of the gimmick to the Casca series. Namely, a Roman gets splattered during the Crucifixion, becomes healed and unaging as a result. I’ll let it slide because they’re both based on the Longinus legend that long precedes them both. Yet that’s not the biggest difference between them. Marcus, the protagonist here, and Sadler’s titular hero could not be more apart.

Basically, the Casca series after the second book used the circumstances of its main character as just an excuse for the pop-historical setting of the week. That he was connected to Christianity meant nothing, his background meant nothing, and each story was just a 51% effort (at most) historical thriller. This book is still a cheap thriller through and through, but everything in it is done so much better.

There’s a lot of flashbacks and jumping between eras, but it’s done very smoothly and effectively. The contemporary cheap thriller setting features a MacGuffin and plan that would do Jon Land proud. There’s an energy to it that Casca completely lacks, and I’m always glad to see a premise with potential done right.

Review: Shoot Down

Shoot Down

The second of Mark Hewitt’s Hunter thrillers, Shoot Down is somewhat different from the first in terms of setup. Almost the entire W.E.B. Griffin style pop epic is gone in favor of just a then-contemporary cheap thriller. Unfortunately, this just means we get a thriller twice as long as it should be. And with all the issues and then some.

And yet, I have not just finished this book with its “shoot the terrorist” plot, I’ve even moved on to the third installment. Because this is flawed in an interesting way, and I want to see how uh, “interesting” it becomes. But I still don’t recommend this series for “normal” readers.

Review: Encore

Kirov: Encore

Like every good concert, the 64-book Kirov series has to have an encore at the end. And so it was made in a book creatively titled Encore. I mentioned in my review of the final proper installment, Journey’s End, that the overarching villains of the aliens and Ivan Volkov were dealt with in an anticlimactic, rushed manner. This hoped to give them proper closure in proper battles.

It did not exactly work. By this point there was no way for the series to conclude in anything but a screeching halt, and all the big set pieces here did was change their fates from “short and contrived” to “long and contrived.” Then again, “long and contrived” describes the whole series well, so (shrugs).

This is only for Kirov completionists.

Review: Little Girls In Pretty Boxes

Little Girls In Pretty Boxes

Joan Ryan’s gut-wrenching nonfiction book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes is a beautifully written book about a hideously ugly topic. That is gymnastics, one of the most horrifying and least cost-effective sports ever. One horror story after another comes out of it. Fatal crashes, eating disorders, and girls forced into horrendous discipline and generally ruined by something that almost all of them see absolutely no benefit from. The aging curve is so ridiculously steep that at 24 , Simone Biles was considered the equivalent of athletes with freakish longevity like Jamie Moyer or Frank Gore.

Ryan’s only “problem” is that she’s so good at telling something where stage parents leave their daughters in the hands of a Ceausescu-vintage slave driver (and, with recent revelations after the book’s publication, someone far, far, worse). Most sports involve the participants getting bigger and stronger. Gymnastics forces them to stay small and underdeveloped. There’s been understandable talk of banning American Football, but Ryan makes a much better case for gymnastics.

It’s a good book about a bad sport.

Review: Concrete Jungle

Concrete Jungle

Getting the latest Brannigan’s Blackhearts novel was about as easy a decision for me as a panda’s decision to eat bamboo. After devouring Concrete Jungle, where the Blackhearts go to Prague, what do I think? It’s very sad for me to say this given how much I absolutely adore the series, but I did feel this was lacking compared to past installments. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s still a decent 51% (or more?) cheap thriller. Everything I like about them is still there. And it’s very hard for any series to remain completely electrifying for twelve installments.

But I did feel that this is the (comparative) worst of the series to date. Most of the enemy gimmicks are either reused from earlier books or mundane. For instance, in the the bulk of the novel, the Blackhearts fight-Eastern European mobsters. Mobster-slaying is as 70s as disco and bad mustaches. And I felt that the lucky breaks/narrative contrivances the protagonists got this time were a little too obvious. Yes, they were always there, but they were concealed a lot better in earlier installments.

This series has been on a great run, and nothing can take that away. But still I hope it isn’t jumping the shark completely.