Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Ok, so after I read Battle Royale, I knew I couldn’t just not read the other famous “teenagers in a death game” book. So despite not being in the demographic, despite having little interest in it when it first came out, and despite so much else, I read through Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

What’s interesting is that it’s flawed in the exact opposite way of Battle Royale. That was too broad, focusing on the adventures of countless doomed students away from the main characters. This is too narrow, focused entirely on a first-person narrative from protagonist Katniss.

Especially because, to be frank, she comes across as a dullard. The kind of person who’d be bland trailer trash in anything but the post-apocalyptic semi-sci fi setting she’s written in. I’ve long thought that first person is one of the hardest perspectives to write action novels in, and this did not exactly convince me otherwise.

I don’t want to be too hard on this, since I’m obviously not really the target audience. It’s written well for what it is, but it’s an orange read by someone who likes apples.

Review: Punk’s Fight

Punk’s Fight

Former F-14 RIO Ward Caroll’s Punk’s Fight is actually the third book in his series starring an F-14 pilot (write what you know, I guess). I nonetheless chose it as my starting point because it takes place during the beginnings of Enduring Freedom and I was fresh off reading about the Afghan air wars. Maybe the first two books were better. Because this one was not very good.

Do you want Herman Melville’s Overdescriptive F-14 Ride followed by a contrived way to get his main character to the ground war and lots of self-aggrandizing? If so, then this is the book for you. To be fair, its technical realism is an arguable selling point, but it squanders it on unlikeable and axe-grinding characters, mixed with the protagonist’s not-exactly-ideal adventure on the ground when his Tomcat goes down.

I can see why some people would like this book and series, but I didn’t.

Review: By Order of the President

By Order Of The President

Despite being one of the most prolific and successful military fiction writers, it’s taken me a very long time to read W. E. B. Griffin. I started with By Order of the President. And well, I sure hope the rest of his books aren’t like it. The story of the search for a stolen Boeing 727 and the sinister plot behind it, it doesn’t exactly fly through the skies gracefully.

Although to be fair it does seem like the wrong genre for its author’s writing style. Viewed one way, it’s just a stylistic misfit. All the detail, the flashbacks to the past, and the grounded way of writing all feel much more fit for historical fiction (which most of Griffin’s famous work is) than a contemporary thriller (which this is). As for the parade of meetings and travel that makes up nearly all of the book, it arguably fits into the “too realistic for its own good” category. At the very least, it’s an orange read by someone who prefers apples. But I could all this the benefit of the doubt…

…If the main character was someone other than a half rich German, half rich Texan (Griffin famously said outright that “rich people are more interesting than poor people”) super-agent who hit my suspension of disbelief hard. Or if the story, regardless of realism or style, was better paced. As it stands, it just clunks along and then rushes when it’s near its conclusion.

Finally, I got the impression that this was aimed for the people for whom reading about something is interesting in and of itself. The technical descriptions and organizational procedures made it seem that way. It’s either a flaw or another orange compared to my favored apples.

I can still see Griffin’s appeal, and he was successful and famous for a reason. This isn’t something inexplicably popular and published like William W. Johnstone. But I still see him striking out at the first at-bat I noticed.

A Thousand Words: Snakes On A Plane

Snakes On A Plane

One of the first “internet meme movies”, the Samuel L. Jackson epic Snakes On A Plane has a title that, like The Death Of Stalin, describes the movie perfectly. As part of a convoluted scheme to eliminate a murder witness, a crate full of crazed snakes are set loose in a 747 flying from Hawaii to Los Angeles. And that’s basically the entire plot of the movie. This is not a character drama or deep film.

Thankfully, it is an enjoyable one. It’s actually an heir to the 1970s disaster movies more than anything else, which got plenty ridiculous by themselves. Embracing the ridiculousness, it serves as a wonderfully stupid and crazy spectacle. You’re not watching this for the sake of a good movie. You’re watching this for the sake of a fun one. And it’s very, very fun.

Review: Confrontation

Confrontation: The War With Indonesia 1962-1966

Peter van der Bijl’s Confrontation is a military history of the four-year small war known as the Konfrontasi. It goes into extremely military detail. What’s not to like? The answer is, surprisingly, a lot. This isn’t really a bad book, but it is a flawed one.

The first flaw comes from the nature of the war: It really wasn’t much of one. It was more a political stunt by Sukarno than anything else, and the actual service chiefs did the bare minimum to support it. This isn’t the author’s fault, but his priorities are. There’s less of the politics (though they’re still present) and more of firefights in the jungle that blend together (almost always ending with “better-trained Commonwealth troops get the better of worse Indonesians”).

The second comes from the author’s biases. There are a lot of rants about journalists, especially journalists covering the Troubles, which feel kind of out of place. Worse is the absolute fawning hagiography of the British and Commonwealth armies. This is accurate in terms of specifics vis a vis the Indonesians, but still gets annoying, as does the very British slant of “unlike you knuckle-dragging Yanks, we won our jungle war” without noticing the very different context of Malaya. Finally, there’s no real attempt to explore escalation counterfactuals beyond just “The Indonesian air force and navy wasn’t very good”.

This ultimately comes across as just a series of jungle warfare vignettes. It’s not the worst book about its conflict, but it’s not the best and could be much more.

Review: The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

David Putnam’s The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog is one of the weirdest alternate history novels I’ve read. And yes, I have read every single Kirov novel. None comes close to this… thing. Really, to talk about it in conventional literary terms is almost beside the point. It’s middling in terms of quality and is a little too bloated, but why talk about that when you have such a befuddling premise?

See, in the 1890s, protagonist David Banner (no relation to the Hulk) has the Judeo-Christian God appear in a dream from His home in the black hole in the center of the Milky Way. A nightmare scenario (aka actual history) awaits if the last of the classic English Bulldogs (always capitalized in the book) goes extinct. There’s exposition where World War I, II, and even III is shown, with animal cruelty activists being portrayed as the equals of history’s worst monsters.

Also, apparently the divine value of a nation comes from the kind of dog that it has. Yes, it’s a weird book. Anyway, man and dog alike uplift the world, fight a very different Boer War, and continue to battle in an ahead-of-its-time World War I. We get loving depictions of bulldogs ripping men and animals to pieces. In fact, most of it is basically just bulldogs in “action”. The question remains: How do you even judge this book? My answer is simple. You can’t. It is not a novel so much as a very bizarre artifact.

Review: On Nuclear Terrorism

On Nuclear Terrorism

Michael Levi’s On Nuclear Terrorism has been the best book I’ve read in some time. In fact, of all the books and papers I’ve read on this topic, it’s arguably the greatest. Levi takes a holistic approach, using the analogy of a sports team where trying to judge each component in isolation falls short. Although he uses baseball when football is a much better analogy. Oh well.

The decision to look at the big picture as well as noting the issues that alarmist worst-case analysis brings are relevant to much more than countering nuclear terrorism. He also turns “the terrorists only have to succeed once” statement on its head by pointing out that while true, it can also be said that “they have to succeed every step of the way, while their opponents only have to succeed at one”. This sort of reasoning is welcome whatever the subject.

Not that this is a brief overview-it goes into a lot of detail on things like the uses and limitations of scanning detectors and does a lot of detail on gun-type weapons (implosion ones get less effort, because given the issues states have had, non-state actors going for them is arguably pushing it). And he even goes into psychology as well, which is important for the goals of irregular groups.

The impression I’ve gotten from this and other sources is that nuclear terrorism can be compared to Y2K. Y2K was mistakenly perceived as an overblown panic when in reality it was a legitimate issue largely solved by a massive effort when the new millennium rolled around. Similarly, while the threat of even a radioactive Beirut/Tianjin/Port Chicago-level blast (to say nothing of even a Little Boy-level bomb) is a legitimately frightening one, the similarly massive efforts to work against it have (to date of course) deterred even attempted nuclear terror attacks. The Aum Shinrinkyo cult marked the only known attempt at a substantive irregular nuclear program, and it failed despite numerous factors in its favor (lots of money, able to operate openly pre-chemical attacks, and access to Russia at the depths of its 1990s desperation).

Bad sports analogies and occasional clunkiness aside, this is an excellent book.

Review: Africa Burning

Africa Burning

Back when I was young, I made a horrendously negative review of Gavin Parmar’s Africa Burning, talking about how little sense the tale of a giant army of T-90s and M113s (really) appearing in the Chadian desert to charge up into the modernized, reformed, opened Libya made. (Boy did that “prediction”, made pre-2011, about the direction of the country, age poorly).

Now, well, I have a soft spot for this amateur Ian Slater/technothriller/shoot the terrorist-wannabe novel. It reads like someone acting out their action hero fantasies after seeing and reading a lot of relevant fiction, and the earnest, genuine quality of it has made me smile. I may not recommend actually reading it, but at least I don’t have a bad feeling towards it anymore.

A Thousand Words: Postal 2

Postal 2

Running With Scissors’ 2000s “masterpiece”, Postal 2 is a game about a man in a small Arizona town whose goal is just to complete mundane errands. However, a lot of stuff gets in the way. This game is infamous for its tasteless dumb humor, its gore, and the ability to use cats as silencers.

The humor is either dated, unfunny, or both. It’s very much in the style of the shock-the-oldies Dennis Rodman meets Bart Simpson style of the time. The actual gameplay, especially in the plot missions, combines two of the worst elements of turn-of-the-millenium FPSes: A post-hitscan, pre-regen system where combat is a deterministic exercise in power ups, and wandering through very similar hallways.

And yet, there’s stuff that’s genuinely good about it. Part of it is that, off the beaten path, it provides the opportunity for silly spectacle. This is helped by the open-world element being genuinely good. Almost all buildings are enterable, there are locations that have nothing to do with the main missions, there’s plenty of easter eggs, and a silver lining of the combat is that there’s often legitimate power ups (and hence reasons to explore) in the nooks and crannies. Another small part is that there’s just a hint of slyness in just wanting to do chores but getting confronted by everyone from creepy mascots to Gary Coleman.

This is a stupid, clunky, awkward game. And it’s fun.

Review: The Bear And The Dragon

The Bear And The Dragon

Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon is not just the greatest technothriller of all time, but also one of the greatest novels of all time. With its accuracy and evenhanded portrayal of various cultures, it transcends the shackles of genre fiction to create a new class of literature. Not since Vasily Grossman has a writer truly understood and shown the effects of war in its entirety-

-AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

-Just kidding, by all accounts it’s even worse than Executive Orders. April Fools!