The Yearly Blog Year In Review Post

So 2020 happened. The worth of this blog in getting me through a lot of stress this year cannot be overstated. It’s been an amazing experience. What’s also been an amazing experience is seeing just how me becoming more broad-minded about fiction has manifested. What might have been exactly the sort of thing I would dismiss with a firebreathing sneer. Now I read and enjoyed it. I’ve been reading and reviewing far more alternate history than I had in the past as well.

I also feel comfortable with how I stopped the Creative Corner. That blog was becoming nothing but filler posts for the sake of a perceived obligation, and I found that once I made the conclusion post, it just felt right to concentrate entirely here.

There’s two book series I read this year that really stand out. The first is John Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave series, which happened at the right time. I was having what I call the “D-Day Effect” where something big and covered you’ve previously dismissed becomes novel simply because you haven’t experienced it. This has happened to me and “grocery store books”, and this series was proof that some mainstream successes are deserved.

Of course, the second and much bigger series is Kirov. This is weird. Not just in its “three mediocre Final Countdown/Axis of Time knockoffs turning into a combination of wargame lets play and time travel soap opera” content, but in how I enjoy it without necessarily recommending it for others to read. But I enjoy it nonetheless, and love how I took so much to a series with a ton of jumping Steel Panthers Characters, wargaming lets plays, and World War IIIs (plural). Knowing that I embraced a series that, before the beginning of this blog, I would have done nothing but sneer at has warmed my heart.

However, there’s also been a bittersweet side to this blog, and that’s in seeing a lot the distant vistas close. Seeing the conventional World War III subgenre at its limits and piecing together what happened to the “Men’s Adventure” fiction that seemingly disappeared after 1990 can be fun, but it can also evoke a feeling of “that’s it”? Then there’s also seeing that some pieces of fiction are just easier and more interesting to actually review than others, even if they’re both equally fun to read. If the blog goes in the direction of those, so be it, but I feel obligated to bring that up. While I obviously haven’t completely dropped them, a “51%” thriller just isn’t as good to review or analyze as an ambitious, conceptually interesting work.

This brings me to the announcement. My answer to “what do you do if you’ve seen all there is of conventional World War III?” is “Write your own take on it.” So I’ve started writing my own supernatural/weird-tinged conventional 1980s World War III novel.

This concludes my 2020 posts on Fuldapocalypse.

Review: Target Response

Target Response

Somehow my mind said “you know what you really need to read next? Another ‘William W. Johnstone’s’ book.” And thus I decided to try and roll the boulder up the hill yet again with Target Response. I mean, maybe it could be a serviceable cheap thriller? Maybe one of the anonymous, carefully-hidden authors behind what’s become a house name worked well this time?

Or not. But really, what did I expect?

There’s two barely connected plots that only stay together by virtue of sharing a common villain and “theme” of the Dog Team assassins being targeted for death by said villains. The first is a paint-by-numbers set piece in Nigeria that takes up the opening act. This at least doesn’t have very far to sink. But the second is another Dog Team member back home having to fight off a literal family of assassins, and it’s something that a better thriller writer could have done just so much better. The potential is lost and it falls flat, like the writing.

The writing style is extremely sparse and flat. It’s meant as a basic reading thriller, but comes across as just rote and artificial-which makes sense given what the series is. And yet I couldn’t help but think that in some ways this was actually, at least in context, better than many of the “rival” later Gold Eagles. The weapon descriptions aren’t quite as blocky and overstuffed. And while the plot is just as erratic and wrapped-up too quickly, there’s less outright obvious padding.

Now, there are so many more deserving books by both big and small name authors that I’d recommend over these literary clunkers. They still share the same basic and deep flaws. And as I said in the last Dog Team book review, going from “distinctively, memorably bad” to “forgettably mediocre” in many ways works against it. So this is kind of like saying one old-design, tiny cheap subcompact car is “better” than another old, cheap subcompact car. But I still need to give a bit of credit where it’s due.

Review: Magic Ops

Magic Ops

The book Magic Ops by T.R. Cameron, Michael Anderle, and Martha Carr is a secret agent urban fantasy action thriller. If this sounds like a big jumble, it is. And it’s a lightweight book even by cheap thriller standards. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

The action works surprisingly well. There’s a few wince-inducing moments like agents “shooting to subdue”, but other than that it feels good and manages to integrate the supernatural elements in a non-jarring way. The non-action parts of this still flow well also.

This is sort of a “51%” book, but it’s a good kind of 51% book. It’s never really slow or dull, and even if it rarely goes above “adequate”, it also more importantly never goes below it either. This and how it succeeds at bringing its different genres together when it could have failed makes me recommend it.

Review: The Thran

The Thran

J. Robert King’s The Thran is meant as a backstory novel in the setting of Magic: The Gathering. It tells the story of the ancient civilization that only existed in ruins by the time of The Brothers War, and the rise to power of Yawgmoth and Phyrexia. This setting, with its fusion of magic and technology (of course there are airships), and especially the twisted technomagical nightmare of Phyrexia itself, is my favorite part of Magic.

The setting and premise is good, as is its antagonist’s/evil main character’s portrayal, but this book desperately needed a better author. Lynn Abbey did Phyrexia’s nightmare justice in Planeswalker. King does not. Not only is the depiction of the human Yawgmoth merging with the plane done in a very “straightforward” manner, but he even “unplugs” and returns to being normal throughout the book afterward, as if the author didn’t feel like writing cosmic-level fantasy.

Which is a shame because not only is the setting good, but the alternate possibilities are there too. The Thran Empire was not exactly a paradise, and Glacian, the withering master technologist, comes across as someone who’d make for a great blue mana-themed villain in his own right, obsessed with building the better mousetrap at any cost. It’s potential that King simply couldn’t realize. So this feels like something only lore completionists would really like, which I feel was probably always the case.

A Fascination With Alternate History

I’ll admit that to me, alternate history is fascinating in ways that go beyond the quality of individual works. It’s fun to critique, study, and write about in ways that even very good pieces of “normal” fiction aren’t. This is why I’ve been writing about it on this blog so (comparably) much.

I’ve always liked the “what-if” concept. And I also like strange and obscure divergences. So this makes alternate history, and the way it’s developed, something that very easily appeals to me. And I’ve seen how the genre has developed, because I’ve been following alternate history for a very long time.

Review: Enemy Of My Enemy

Enemy Of My Enemy

It’s been a long wait, but Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts have finally returned in Enemy Of My Enemy, the latest installment in the series. The crew heads down into the Caucasus on a mission that’s dubious and ultra-risky even by their standards, and the result is a typically solid thriller. By now I know the structure used in the series, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

What’s interesting is that I’ve read this series so long that my tastes have shifted against its trends multiple times. When it was doing a giant multi-book arc, I’d gotten a little annoyed that it had abandoned light, easy standalone pieces. Now that it’s back to standalone books, I’ve gotten a little annoyed that it’s moved past big, ambitious arcs. But these are only small annoyances. They’re understandable and the works underneath are still excellent.

Review: Captain Beefheart

Captain Beefheart

One of my favorite strange musicians is Don “Captain Beefheart” Van Vliet, so I knew I had to get Mike Barnes’ biography of him. Barnes goes into great detail on the eccentric musician and his works. One thing that’s made clear is that his persona was not an act-van Vliet was truly eccentric and difficult to deal with, to the point where it’s quite understandable why he left music and spent the rest of his life as an artist, where he had much more complete financial and creative control.

Everything from Beefheart’s struggles with the labels to struggles with the various “Magic Bands” to his lifelong on-and-off friendship with Frank Zappa is covered here and covered well. Also covered is the very origin of the nickname, coming from a bizarre film project known as “Captain Beefheart vs. The Grunt People”.

The book is strangely at its weakest when it gets to the music itself. In part this is because any description in text of Beefheart’s music fails to do its” quirkiness” justice, but Barnes makes it seem particularly dull, which it is definitely is not. For instance, the description of “Kandy Korn”, my favorite Beefheart song because it manages to mix his weirdness with genuine melody, is long, pretentious, and doesn’t give a good impression of the music. That being said, this book isn’t bad as far as musical biographies go.

Review: The Betsy

The Betsy

Harold Robbins was an author with a…. “reputation”. As successful as he was sleazy, Robbins turned to the car industry in The Betsy. The number of fictional novels centered specifically around the automobile industry is tiny-it makes conventional World War IIIs look like Harlequins in comparison.

It’s a story of sleaze, the struggles of Ford-esque Bethlehem Motors, and more sleaze. Oh, and bureaucracy as well. There’s a lot of that too. Robbins’ writing “style” can be determined right from the very start, as the first-person narrator appraises his nurse.

However, the rest of the book is a bizarre jumble. There’s the ridiculous exaggerated sleaze that everyone knows him for along with countless meetings about cars and the titular car in particular. It has the personalities of Ford, but the market share of one of the struggling “independents” like AMC, the “auto side isn’t profitable while the non-auto side is, so we want to leave the auto business” situation that characterized Studebaker, and oh yeah, the actual car companies of the past still exist as well alongside this upstart.

The impression is one of knowing the basics but not the whole. The Betsy is supposed to be powered by a turbine, making it the car version of the T-80 tank. Compared to its rivals with conventional engines, it would probably, like that tracked vehicle, offer a little more (theoretical) performance, regardless of raw power, at a lot more expense. Chrysler’s turbine car program failed. A struggling, close-to-stopping car company likely wouldn’t/couldn’t have funded it. The impending gas crisis or any fuel price increase would probably stop it, and it’s unlikely even a initial success would…

…Yeah, I’m probably overthinking things. It’s just I’ve read so much about the actual history of the actual auto industry that it feels like I’m obligated to critique it that way. But I do think Robbins threw down the gauntlet by including so many meetings and so many details.

Anyway, there’s meetings, weird sex scenes, more meetings, car scenes, even more meetings, even more weird sex scenes, flashbacks, and did I mention meetings? This unfocused narrative isn’t helped by the perspective shifting from first to third person at various intervals. While the prose is decent when not having to describe anything either tasteless or dull, the plotting is horrendous.

The obvious comparison is to Sidney Sheldon, who relished in “gilded sleaze”. But Sheldon was far more coherent in his writing and, as weird as it sounds to say it, actually more tasteful as well. Go read Sheldon instead of Robbins if you want “sleaze in high places” done better.

In Memoriam, Stuart Slade

Analyst and author Stuart Slade just passed away.

His The Big One books were some of the first “niche” AH (as in, not stuff that you could see in normal booksellers like Harry Turtledove) that I read. For all my criticism of them, they played an undeniable role in getting me into, for lack of a better word, “weird alternate history”. They were among the first pieces of alternate history I read that weren’t from mainstream authors like Turtledove. I liked the weirder gimmicks inside them.

RIP.