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.
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.
The book Air-Mech Strike holds the origin of the infamous “Gavin” nickname for the M113. It’s also extremely dated and, for the most part, badly written. This is a very 1990s book, despite being published in the early 2000s.
The “Gavin” name is a little more forgivable in this context because it’s meant to refer to a heavily modified and upgraded M113 instead of just the stock vehicle itself. The problem is that the authors want to have their cake and eat it too-they want an existing vehicle to fill the “medium motorized” infantry role out of legitimate concern that a big procurement wouldn’t happen in the post-USSR budget crunch, but also want a lavishly upgraded one. Yes, they give supposed cost figures, but I’m still skeptical (to put it mildly).
There are huge lists of TO&Es, to the point where I could probably just say “read the book itself” if I was doing a Weird Wargaming on the “air mech strike force”. There are piles and piles of 1990s NETWORK SMART WEAPON BUZZWORDS. There’s a utopianism that goes far beyond the reasonable arguments to mechanize existing airborne forces.
This is only backed by lopsided and unconvincing hypothetical case studies with absolutely no effort to “stress-test” the proposal. There’s a cakewalk in Central Asia against ragtag (conventional) opposition, a Kosovo intervention with pushover Serbs that might have been understandable before the actual war, but which feels like it would turn into the next Market Garden with the knowledge of their abilities gained after it, a Second Korean War where a risky deep attack is brushed aside as succeeding in one paragraph, and a Kuwait defense scenario that rightfully argues it’d be better than a footbound “speedbump”, but doesn’t examine how much better.
Ultimately, it just comes across as being enthralled by a certain type of theoretically possible toy. This is the land warfare equivalent of arguing for an air doctrine built around flying aircraft carriers, a naval doctrine built around submarines of various sizes, or any other gimmicky weapon that could be technically buildable.
It kind of goes without saying that I’m not in author Janet Evanovich’s target audience, and neither is a Stephanie Plum novel the kind of book I was expecting to review at the beginning of this blog. But Seven Up itself and the story behind how I read it is worth it.
Though the seventh book in the series, this was the first tale of the wacky New Jersey bounty hunter that I read. When I read the back cover blurb, the implication was of a thriller. This was wrong. When I started reading the actual book, it felt like it was going to be a duller one about family drama. This was also wrong. I got one of the biggest pleasant surprises I’d ever read.
When I finished the book, it turned to be a hilarious, fast-moving, laugh-out-loud goofy novel of pure fun. Really, despite its initially slow start, I had a great time with it. To be honest, it reminded me of The Simpsons at its height, which is always something that humorous fiction should aspire to. While I’ve heard the series has grown stale since then, Seven Up itself is extremely fresh and enjoyable.
The first book in the Home Team series of thrillers, Undeclared War boasts another one of those amazing cheap thriller hero names. In this case, it’s Ted Reaper, SEAL turned vigilante out to stop a -ready for this?- terrorist. Unfortunately, the main character’s name is the only distinguishing feature about it.
This is one of the most generic “shoot the terrorist” books there is. It wants to have its cake and eat it too concerning realism, which leads to a bizarre situation where the preparations are handled in realistically drudgerous detail, yet the actual action manages to somehow be both out-there and dull. The whole “we’re scrounging vigilantes but hey, we get rare and exotic weapons from our convenient connections” contradiction doesn’t help either.
The lists of weapon descriptions get excessive even by the standards of the genre. I don’t know what I should have expected from a mid-2000s thriller, but this deserves a pass.
The Keith DeCandido novelization of Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars was widely denounced upon release. I was there on Spacebattles, and I saw the critiques. I read it, and I agreed.
If the book itself was in an original setting, it would be forgettable and bland, a spacesuit commando Marine Force One with a Mary Sue protagonist. The only real quibble would be extremely rapid procurement of new rifles. But as it stands, it doesn’t gel well with the Command and Conquer game. At all.
There might be a mitigating factor in that I’ve also heard that DeCandido got background material for “Tiberium”, the cancelled C&C FPS project and based the book of of that, which would explain some things like the abundance of rifles. However, whatever the circumstances, this is a book to avoid.
A 2000s SuperBolan, Lethal Tribute tells the story of the Executioner as he fights a group of Hindu cultists with cloaking devices and their stolen nuclear weapons. By this point, Mack Bolan plots had long since devolved into “cheap thriller mad libs”. With the books being published at such a fast pace, it’s hard to imagine how they couldn’t have ended up that way.
That being said, this book is one of the better ones, by later Bolan standards-which may not be saying much. It still amounts to little but an overstuffed jumble of action scenes and very much feels (understandably) rushed. It still has the issue of its plot being so shallow (even by cheap thriller standards) that it needs filler. It still has the strange generic feeling that managed to last across different authors in the series. And it still manages to be both over-descriptive of weapons and sometimes inaccurate, listing two different calibers for the same helicopter gun on one page.
But the premise here is at least more out-there than just a plain “shoot the terrorist” novel. Some of the set pieces, from tank attacks to hallucinations, get crazier than usual, a silver lining of a weird “cheap thriller mad libs” result. The filler isn’t quite as obvious or clumsy as it’s been in some other Mack Bolans. Finally and most importantly, the Executioner himself is portrayed as a lot more vulnerable than he is in some other installments. The Gold Eagle Bolans are not what I’d recommend to action readers-they’re very smooth, disposable, mass-produced, measured and forgettable artificial thrillers from the Harlequin assembly line. But in comparison to some of the others, Lethal Tribute still looks just a little better.
One of my theories about Harry Turtledove is that, for all times he’s been labeled “the master of alternate history”, he never had the most enthusiasm for the genre. It goes like this: Turtledove wanted to write Byzantine/Eastern Roman-themed fantasy, but after Guns of The South, alternate history became the money-making niche that he was stuck in. Turtledove would be neither the first nor last writer to have their most successful fiction be considerably different from the type they actually wanted to write.
Or maybe he did have enthusiasm for the genre, but didn’t have the mindset needed to really take advantage of it. Or maybe the nature of alternate history and needing to appeal to a generalist audience who doesn’t have the most knowledge of history forced him into a corner. Whatever the reason, The Man With The Iron Heart symbolizes the weaknesses of his style vividly.
The plot is simple. Reinhard Heydrich survives, gets the Werwolf resistance movement up and running, and launches a horrifically hamfisted/anachronistic Iraq War analogy. In reality, the German populace at large had no stomach for continued resistance, and the Allies, who came close to turning Germany into a giant farm, were prepared to crack the whip. The Werwolf plan was doomed from the get-go by the scarce resources and infighting that was baked into the Nazi regime from day one.
The execution of the book is done just as clumsily and clunkily as the setup. Much of Turtledove’s writing has the problem of what I frequently call the “technothriller without technology or thrills”, and this is no exception. It uses the “alternate history as a genre format” where there’s a big-picture, broad-viewpoint look at the situation and changed world. However, if the changed world is nothing but an unrealistic and worse, uninteresting analogy, that format is the worst possible.
Alternate history is a very divided genre. There are a lot of reasons for this, from the vague nature of what it even is to the different desires of different fandoms to how it’s frequently not considered advantageous to label a work as such. But that the “mainstream” end often consists of books like this doesn’t help.
Maybe there’d be more overlap if someone really did extensive research, made it more character focused, and kept it feeling substantially different while providing still noticeable but far more subtle commentary. Instead, Turtledove wrote this book, which I do not recommend.
Stephen Kinloch Pichat’s A UN ‘Legion’: Between Utopia and Reality is a very inconsistent book. This may be due to its subject matter, which involves the various proposals for a UN standing army, proposals made since before the formal United Nations Organization even existed.
About half the book, at least figuratively, is written in a particularly bad form of “academic-ese”. I had trouble getting through it and I read long dissertations for fun (seriously). Even if unintentional, the problem is that the political obstacles to such a force are so obvious and so easily explained that any long statement will become unfulfilling.
That being said, the other half of the book is a concise, well-written, and well-sourced example of various proposals. They come in two categories. The first is a gigantic “World Army”. The earliest proposals, made during World War II, fit this category, with numbers that seem big to a modern reader but weren’t back then. “World Armies” frequently were capped by a standing high-readiness force (think the 18th Airborne Corps or maybe the USMC/VDV).
The second is a smaller and more theoretically practical “UN Army”, a comparably small force designed for specific contingencies. One of the most detailed examples, which Pinchat describes, is the ‘Vital Force’/’UN Legion’ proposal amounting to several brigades of light to medium troops. Others amount to similar versions of the same thing-something that can conduct most normal peacekeeping missions, but without the ad hoc nature of existing setups.
I’m a little reluctant to recommend a book that sinks to such lows, but it’s still a good resource. It’s just a bit of a shame it’s not better laid out, but this is an academic history and the text is still good when it counts.
James Rollins’ Sigma Force series begins with Sandstorm.
I might have a little bit of “hype backlash” because of the way this series has been praised so much. I might also be used to ridiculous thrillers because of the way I’ve actively sought them out, so what seems utterly crazy to a less prolific reader might not be that way to me.
That being said, this was a very good, very out-there cheap thriller. I’d describe it as a more tacticool version of Clive Cussler. The ridiculous technobabble and ancient puzzle-solving is there, but the action (which is both incredibly frequent and often janky) is more conventional and, for lack of a better word, “tactical”, save for an amazing scene where someone dual-wields pistols on horseback. While I like it, it’s not the best ever in my eyes.