Review: Gaming The Game

Gaming The Game

Sean Patrick Griffin’s Gaming the Game is about the gambling scandal centered around NBA referee Tim Donaghy. Its main “character” is now former pro gambler Jimmy Battista, who handled the actual betting side of things (oversimplified of course). I generally don’t like true crime books, but heard good things about this and the subject matter of sports betting was a naturally interesting one to me.

This is one of the best true crime books I’ve read.

The narrative (most of which centers around Battista, not Donaghy), is well-written and soundly researched at the same time. It really helped fill a gap in a part of the sports betting world I hadn’t really had to look up before-genuine sharps. (Touts are mentioned once dismissively, as they should be). You get to read about a lot of people, some of whom I could guess who their true identities were (Griffin rightfully uses pseudonyms).

The icing on the cake is an appendix where Griffin delves into line movements to see what effect the Donaghy actions -regardless of the man’s claims- had on the games he reffed and bet on. By giving it its own section, he can be extremely detailed and technical while not interfering with the flow of the rest of the book. The analysis could easily be a book unto itself.

If you have the slightest interest in sports betting or sleaze, get this book.

Review: Will To Fight

Will To Fight

In the Will To Fight study/book, RAND analysts tried to take a look at one of the most important yet hard to study parts of war-the will of the soldiers to fight. It’s a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s sincere in trying to tackle something essential, and its detail is excellent.

On the other, it’s centered around a chart that resembles what you see in the dreaded DoD Powerpoints of Doom. This is not the most surprising thing, but it is still a little too awkward. And beyond the well done simulations and descriptions of games with morale factors and how they affect outcomes, it still has the feeling to trying to directly quantify what’s admitted in the study itself as not directly quantifiable.

Nonetheless, the topic is well-cited and well handled, and is important enough that “mixed” quality still makes it well worth a read.

Review: Holding Action

Holding Action

Peter Nealen’s second installment in the Maelstorm Rising series, Holding Action is an attempt at a bigger-scope war than the small-unit ones that make up a lot of his other books. Here it’s a clash in Poland in a campaign very clearly inspired by Larry Bond’s Cauldron (which was reviewed by the author and read for inspiration). And I’m sad to say I found it somewhat lacking.

The first and biggest problem is that the book is both written in first person perspective and clearly wants to be a big-scope tale. This square peg and round hole do not exactly align properly. And it’s not like the reader gets an excellent character study from it: The biggest trait I remembered in the main character was him being Catholic.

The second is that the Triarii, the “military NGO” that the protagonists serve in, feel like Mary Sues in ways that Brannigan’s Blackhearts never did. The Blackhearts are a bunch of expendable, disposable people doing underground dirty work. These are propped up as the centerpiece of fighting, more so than the bumbling regular American army. And listening to the narrator extol their awesomeness and the regular army’s weakness doesn’t exactly help matters either. The third and least important is that the setting tries to walk a tightrope between “plausible” and “distinct” and doesn’t really stay balanced.

That being said, the actual nuts and bolts action is as good as always, and I don’t fault Nealen at all for trying something very ambitious. It’s just that when you aim high, there’s a greater risk of falling short. This is a definite “uneven 51%” book. And there are worse things I could have called it. Besides, it’s fun to review an actual conventional World War III novel and go back to the blog’s roots.

Review: Where The Crawdads Sing

Where The Crawdads Sing

One of the least Fuldapocalyptic and most mainstream novels I’ve recently reviewed, Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing is a historical novel in the marsh of North Carolina. It follows the life of Catherine “Kya” Clark as she grows up in a shack, falls in love, gets smarter, gets successful, and gets accused of murder.

The prose is beautifully written and deserves all its accolades. The ping-ponging of scenes from the time of the murder to the time of Kya’s youth that eventually get closer and closer starts off somewhat awkwardly, but smooths itself out by the end. The plot works fine for moving the story along.

The biggest problem I had was Kya’s development as a character. Her transformation from illiterate bumpkin to intelligent scientist/philosopher felt too fast and not credible enough for me. But that’s not enough to break the book. This is a bestseller that deserves to be a bestseller.

Review: PROMIS

PROMIS

Jack Murphy’s PROMIS series tells the story of wandering mercenary Sean Deckard as he makes his way around Cold War battlefields. A collection of short, action-packed novellas, it kind of reminded me of, well, Barry Sadler’s Casca of all things. Just replace the immortality curse with a super-prediction computer equation thingy in the background (the titular PROMIS system) and you have these books-kind of.

It’s like Casca in that it was created and written by a genuine special forces veteran, and like Casca in that it sets out a justification to plop the main character in action set pieces. The three published locations are Vietnam, Rhodesia, and South Africa. Not that it’s much worse than any other cheap thriller in practice, but I’d prefer a slightly less iffy location than both of those two. Even Central America would be better…

…Especially because, unlike Casca, there’s no real attempt at creating the surrounding scene outside of action sequences at all. While Casca had theme parks and parades of famous historical figures, this doesn’t even have that. Even by cheap thriller standards the characterization is really, really, really bare. The action is at least decent, even if it has the “try to have its cake and eat it too by trying to be both semi-grounded and spectacular” problem. But that’s not enough to raise the series to even a “51%” level.

Thankfully, I know that Murphy can do a lot better. Go read the far superior and awesomely titled Gray Matter Splatter instead of these.

Review: Shadow Strike

Shadow Strike

In true Israeli fashion, the country’s leadership stayed publicly mum when a building in eastern Syria mysteriously exploded on September 6, 2007. Ten years later, they announced what everyone already knew-they had bombed and destroyed a Syrian reactor building. Yaakov Katz proceeded to write Shadow Strike, the story of the operation and its lead-up.

Previously, I had regarded the operation purely in terms of its anticlimactic execution. Like so many other times since 1948, the Israelis came, they bombed, they conquered. For the sake of secrecy, the site of the North Korean-supplied reactor had no defenses around it. But Katz tells the story of how a combination of flukes (getting a Syrian official’s laptop that showed very well what it was), politics (in Jerusalem and Washington), and urgency (the reactor had to be destroyed before it went critical) and in the process, makes it far more intriguing then the tip of the iceberg.

The reactor, unlike Osirak, was optimized to produce plutonium for weapons, and getting it operational would have cleared the biggest bottleneck to nuclear warheads. While no reprocessing or warhead assembly buildings were found, those are significantly easier to hide.

This has to rank as one of the lucky fates of history. I do not think Assad would have launched a first strike-his family did not survive by being foolhardy. And even with the bottleneck cleared, there were still more obstacles to actually making a bomb. But knowing that the Syrian Civil War beckoned, having a hot reactor running during it-and one of a more rickety design than the heavily shielded ones at Enerhodar, is a nightmare that was averted.

Review: US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism

US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism Since 9/11

Because of my current “itch” for material involving nuclear weapons, I knew I had to read Liverpool University professor David Seed’s US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism Since 9/11. In spite of its title, this covers material written long before 2001. As I love highbrow analyses of lowbrow fiction, I dug deep into this book.

Doing more than just digging into stuff like The Sum of All Fears, Seed in fact wades through the Augean Stables of fiction that makes up what I’ve dubbed the “shoot the terrorist” subgenre. To have read so many books of that nature seems astounding even to me, who loves cheap thrillers. Some are books that I’ve read from big names like Tom Clancy and Mario Puzo (Fears and The Fourth K). Some are from series that I’ve heard of (like SEAL Team Seven). Others are extremely obscure and unknown to me prior to seeing Seed’s compilation.

This isn’t perfect. At times the book gets a little too stereotypically “academicese” in it writing, and there are the occasional typos here and there. And while it sounds like a clickbait video, I’d have loved to see someone with more technical knowledge critique the plausibility of many of these scenarios. Seed tries and often does a good job, but an actual nuclear expert could probably do better.

But it’s something very near and dear to my heart, and as a review of thriller fiction, I remain in awe of this smooth narrative. Where else could I hear of books like Thomas Fillinger’s Chameleon’s Shadow, where Seed mentions the following plot point in a deadpan fashion:

“Detroit is destroyed when a nuclear bomb detonates by accident, but this proves to be a sideshow from the main search for the leader of the conspirators, who are all depicted as stereotyped fanatics.

It’s plots like that that make me love my reviews. And this brave struggle of a book has warmed my heart. I mean, even I probably couldn’t make it through that many “shoot the terrorist” novels without gaining an insatiable urge to lick the Chernobyl Elephant’s Foot. It’s not Seed’s fault, but so many plot elements repeat throughout his summaries: Warheads stolen by/sold to the antagonists and the dreaded “suitcase nukes” are two of the most common. Granted, this comes with the cheap thriller territory, and these kind of books succeed or fail more on execution than concept, but still.

There are definitely a lot more terrorist nuke books than conventional WW3 books, and this does a great job covering them and (however accidentally) showing the different subgenres of thrillers.

A Thousand Words: Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura

One of many indie platformers, Camera Obscura is the story of a photographer-woman trying to climb to the top of an ancient clockwork tower. The big gameplay gimmick is that you can take photos, and the “afterimages” will move for a bit before freezing. This creates temporary platforms.

A (mostly) slow-paced puzzle game, this is not an easy finish. The excellent (I’d recommend the game for the soundtrack alone) original music kind of fits with each area. The story, which is a combination of exposition about the tower builders and a really pretentious, almost stereotypical love story plot involving the photographer, doesn’t really do so. But it’s a small part.

As far as indie games go, you could do a lot worse. Did I mention the music is amazing?

Review: Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire

Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire

Infamous nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky recently passed away. Fans of online alternate history know him as the main character of a timeline-turned-ebook called Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire. In it, Yeltsin is killed during the August Coup and Zhirinovsky ends up in control of the USSR-turned-“Union of Independent States”, with the 1990s going from mostly peaceful to mostly not peaceful.

What this does right is actually using the “snippets of fake newspapers” formats very well. There are elements of drama that are well done, and the whole thing seems like a way to tell a story rather than a way to avoid writing a narrative. However, the biggest issue is the tone, which can go from too serious to too goofy and back at the drop of a hat.

Furthermore, while it’s not intended to be the most “plausible” alternate history, there were more than a few times when my suspension of disbelief didn’t hold up. Zhirinovsky is portrayed as a wild man who barely wins even with dirty tricks, yet he somehow has the political pull to wrestle something as powerful as the Russian arms industry into a 180 degree shift in policy (a so-called “billion Kalashnikovs and one nuke approach). And of course, him getting to power is ultra-contrived to begin with.

But by the standards of online alternate history, this is a good story. It has a proper beginning and end, and is better paced.

Review: Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Apartheid South Africa built a handful of nuclear bombs before the ANC government dismantled them. As a result of that revelation and transparency, it provided an interesting look into a a field that is understandably quite opaque otherwise. David Albright and Andrea Stricker’s Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program show it in depth.

Altough this is a technical nonfiction book, Albright and Stricker nonetheless write well, and it’s quite accessible to non-nuclear physicists. The creation, developmental struggles, warhead production, and removal of South Africa’s nuclear weapons is all covered, and there are several interestingly unique factors about it that the book provides.

The first is a technical tidbit. South Africa went with a conceptually simpler gun-type device in the style of Little Boy. However, their device was small enough to fit on a Raptor glide bomb carried by a Blackburn Buccaneer, and there were (preliminary) plans to boost it to around a hundred kilotons using a special pellet. As most powers have used implosion devices, South Africa’s experience shows how far the basic gun-type can be pushed.

The second is that, unlike other nuclear programs, South Africa’s was comparably well run and efficient. The pragmatic choice of a gun-type was one of the good decisions that it made. And it still took several years in peacetime while running into bottlenecks-most notably the enriching of uranium.

For those interested in the relevant subjects, this book is thus a good read.