Review: Firepower

Firepower: A History of the American Heavy Tank

R. P. Hunnicutt was the dean of American tank history, and in Firepower he turned his attention away from the famous Shermans, Pattons, and Abrams’ to something more obscure-heavy tanks. Due to the issues needed to ship them across the oceans, the American military was never the fondest of heavy tanks (a similar issue with being able to travel on bad roads and be easily shipped across the Eurasian landmass has always constrained the size of Soviet/Russian tanks). Excluding the Pershings considered “heavies” while operating alongside lighter Shermans, the only heavy tanks actually produced were a handful of M103s.

But their doctrine was heavily (no pun intended) spelled out and there were, as this reference book shows, a lot of interesting designs. These range from the produced M103 to the World War II boondoggle that was the M6 to the French-esque autoloaded Cold War heavies that languished in obscurity until the World of Tanks computer game. And of course, there’s the monstrous, monomaniacal T28.

This is a dry reference book that reads like a dry reference book. Yet its subject matter is obscure and fascinating, and I highly recommend it to tank enthusiasts and people who like “what-ifs”.

Review: Third World War: The Untold Story

Third World War: The Untold Story

It’s very hard for lightning to strike twice. And in Third World War: The Untold Story, John Hackett tried. He did not really succeed. The problem was that much of the appeal of the original came from being the first out of the gate, whereas by 1982 the zeitgeist had clearly shifted. (An obscure and amusing example comes from the line “World War III is drawing near” in the XTC song Generals and Majors, released in 1980).

While possibly unfair to list the earliest instance of a genre as not having held up well over time, I do believe that Hackett’s work has aged the worst of all the few “big-name” conventional WW3 books. It’s earliest, and it’s clearly meant as an explicit lobbying document in a way that the (still-slanted) other works of that nature did not. And this applies far more to a modestly repackaged version released four years after the original. Because that’s what it is.

This is the book equivalent of one of those “remastered special edition” movie DVD releases. There’s a reason why those, even if the underlying film is sound, do not generate nearly as much enthusiasm as the first, novel release.

Review: Sins of the Fathers

Sins of the Fathers

My love of books of all kinds has led me to Susan Howatch’s Sins of the Fathers. This tale of intrigue in a Wall Street tycoon family puts the “block” in “blockbuster”, both in terms of the whole book and individual paragraphs. It’s not an easy book to get through. Characters talk and monologue in giant, close to unreadable segments. And nearly every one of the characters is unlikable. I get that you’re not supposed to truly “like” them, but they’re unpleasant in a bad rather than a good way.

It’s just a chore to get through yet another man with more money than morals complaining about the “plastic society”, or yet another pregnancy drama. Howatch doesn’t even succeed in making the stakes seem that high. You could take away nearly all of everyone’s assets and make it about store owners in a small town plaza and it wouldn’t feel any different. There’s never the impression, beyond a few luxuries, that these are people who hold the financial world in their hands.

It’s a shame because I love the concept of a giant family saga, an internal struggle of the titans that mixes the personal with the societal. It’s just this is not it. In fact, this might be one of the worst books I’ve read in some time.

A Thousand Words: Unmasking The Idol

Unmasking The Idol

The film Unmasking the Idol may be the most 1980s action movie ever. And one of the most ridiculous, whatever the decade. The film has ninjas, a trained baboon, “homages” to nearly every popular film of the time, a super-lair, and, as the icing on the cake, a flying pickup truck that looks as “majestic” as it sounds. And an incredibly 80s soundtrack, but you could have probably guessed that already.

Besides being very dumb fun in its own right, this movie has special resonance for this blog. It illustrates how by this point, visual media could provide cheap thrills just as well as, if not better than, any book. Stuff like this was the “Tecmo Bowl” compared to the “electric football” of men’s adventure novels. And the “Madden” was yet to come.

A Thousand Words: Super Mario Land

Super Mario Land

I remember playing Super Mario Land when young and being extremely unimpressed. Of course, this was after I played the (well-done) port of the original Super Mario Bros on the Game Boy Color. So a part of me goes “of course a launch title for a very low-powered console is going to be bad in hindsight”. But another part of me wants to judge it by the standards of the time, when having Mario in a portable form at all was an amazing feat. Certainly the game wasn’t objectively bad enough to be a flop-it was an amazing seller.

And yet with full hindsight, it’s little more than a downscaled Super Mario Bros with weirder backgrounds that feels jerky and unsatisfying. The most obvious example is the physics-fireball, but the rest doesn’t feel as charming as the console games. This isn’t the fault of the weird aesthetic, which I don’t have any issues with. It’s just aged badly.

Review: The Ninja

The Ninja

Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja is a very fascinating book. On one hand, it played a big role in the 1980s “Western Ninja” craze. On the other, the book itself is… bad. To put it very mildly.

The actual substance of the first Nicholas Linnear novel consists of little more than sleaze, padding, and ridiculously purple prose. I mean, it makes Kenneth Bulmer at his worst look like a field manual in comparison. That’s how bad it is. What’s interesting is how it was successful.

While literary tastes can be very different, this still feels strange that what got a subgenre going was something like this. It’s as if The Hunt For Red October was a thousand-page impenetrable mess where the protagonists effortlessly sink the Northern Fleet. Or if War Against The Mafia was full of exclamation points! in weird spots and couldn’t even keep its main character’s name consistent. It’s something, but it’s not exactly something I’d recommend.

Review: Dance of the Vampires

Dance of the Vampires

The ebook Dance of the Vampires is a behind-the-scenes look at the wargaming Larry Bond used for what would become Red Storm Rising. It’s fascinating to see how this battle was conducted. For someone who’s worked on Command, seeing this comparably ancient system is like looking at one of Naismith’s original basketball games.

Most of the book is composed of after action reports and figures detailing the games. Besides the ones that play out similarly to the actual book, there’s a short summary of the “Keflavik Turkey Shoot”, a scenario where the Soviets attempted to force the GIUK Gap with heavy bombers and got crushed (despite legitimately clever play on their side). This was what required them to take Iceland in Red Storm Rising proper. The smaller-than-I-thought presence of that country in World War III fiction started here.

This is in many ways a book about struggles, because they were on unfamiliar ground, and not just about rivet-counting specifics. When something like this hadn’t been done in this way before, there’s bound to be issues. And there were. But the results were still impressive, and so is this chronicle of the wargames. For those interested in this kind of history, I can recommend this book.

A Thousand Words: Final Justice

A Joe Don Baker story about a trip to Malta where mobsters are (supposedly) fought, Final Justice is a terrible movie. It is a movie so bad that not even the Mystery Science Theater 3000 team could make it bearable. It’s certainly down there on my list of worst movies ever, although it inevitably faces some tough competition.

Still, this is a very bad movie consisting almost entirely of the main character walking around Malta and repeatedly getting berated by the Maltese police chief. It’s like someone did a faithful adaptation of one of those horrendous “action novels without action” paperbacks. And the acting is as “good” as you’d expect. But really, this is a terrible film. A terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible film.

Review: Starmageddon

Starmageddon

In 1986’s Starmageddon, Richard Rohmer struck again. By this time, The Hunt For Red October had been out for some time and Red Storm Rising was soon to come. One of my comments about Tom Clancy has been that his success and popularity was more due to being able to tap the trends of the time than any directly superlative writing skill. Well, for Rohmer, that kind of trend-chasing, mixed with inertia, was the sole reason for him being as successful as he was.

I’m reluctant to call anything the “worst ever”. But in terms of the worst World War III book written, Starmageddon is at least up there. Especially in the category of “worst World War III book by a big name author/publisher”. So what is this book?

Basically, take the hot-button issues and events of the day, in this case the KAL007 shootdown, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and trade concerns with Japan and South Korea. It’s okay to wonder what the third has to do with the first two, and that’s because it’s part there to set up the “plot” (which in turn cycles back to just reasons for showing those topics) and more there for just padding.

Shove them into a barely fictionalized form. In Starmageddon’s case, toss it into a lame, low-effort “future” where everything besides one superweapon is still at present-day technology levels. Add in what feels like the outline for a military/technothriller, and tell it completely in the form of conference rooms and scenes so flat they might as well be in conference rooms. Jumble them into an only slightly coherent plot. End on a “cliffhanger”.

This is nothing new for Rohmer, although he has regressed at least a little from the very small “height” of Periscope Red. Combining his writing “quality” with a World War III subject matter (no matter how halfhearted) automatically makes this book one of the worst ever in the small subgenre. This is especially so given the context. By this time, other authors were doing similar themes with far more skill, leaving Rohmer well behind.

Review: Assault Into Libya

Assault Into Libya

With this post, I will have reviewed every book in the Cody’s Army series on Fuldapocalypse. How does the second, Assault into Libya, hold up compared to the others? Well, it does what a men’s adventure novel is supposed to. Like some of the other entries, it’s a 51% book in a 51% series. Beyond the basics, it only really stands out in being a little more willing than some when it comes to killing off supporting characters.

For the series as a whole, it’s ideal for showing off the most single representative example of what 1980s men’s adventure was like. Teams of secret agents pursue terrorists through headline-ripped locations (this particular book has Libya, the crown jewel then). There’s lots of at least moderately effective action. And yet this book has the same issue that all Cody’s Army entries save for the truly engaging Hellfire in Haiti share-they’re mostly interchangeable and there’s no reason to pick them ahead of better examples in the same genre.