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.

A Thousand Words: Mighty No. 9

Mighty No. 9

Judged on its own without any other context, Mighty No. 9 would resemble a mediocre Mega Man-style game. There have been dozens of those, including more than a few in the official series itself. To study it there would not be the most interesting. About the only things I can say for the game itself are that it copied the cheapest difficulty elements (why?) and in everything from plot to aesthetics simply tried to be “as close to classic Mega Man as possible without lawsuits”.

But what is interesting is the ridiculous amount of hype that came around its crowdfunding. Occuring in the “irrational exuberance” phase of Kickstarter and spearheaded by ex-Mega Man head Keiji Inafune, this was one of those “the gaming king came down to make a dream” experiences. This prompted emotion that successful MM-esques like Azure Striker Gunvolt (made conventionally by a firm that had experience on the official games) and 20XX (crowdfunded yet made by an unknown) couldn’t bring.

The result was a ton of stretch goals “met”, feature creep, the project getting out of hand, the mood turning from hopeful to laughable, and then the game itself sinking like a stone when it was finally released. Whether it could have been better or if the expectations were just too great is an open question. What is not is that this was one of the biggest crowdfunding embarrassments.

A Thousand Words: The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin

For May Day, I figured I should do something Soviet. And what more “appropriate” than this movie? Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a blisteringly dark satire which uses the events surrounding the titular event as the basis for twisted humor. It’s not exactly the most accurate historically, but it has many good actors and good scenes.

Steve Buscemi steals the show as eventual victor Khrushchev. He slides into the role with the perfect mix of earnestness, sleaze, and silliness. Likewise, even though his entire character is ahistorical (at this point IRL, Zhukov was kicked upstairs to command a district in the middle of nowhere) Jason Isaacs does a similarly excellent job as the head general. The casting isn’t perfect, though. Jeffrey Tambor’s one-note portrayal of spineless wimp Malenkov is grating and mostly not funny.

Still, this is a funny, entertaining and now relevant movie.

Review: Redux

Redux

The second book in Steven Konkoly’s Black Flagged series of thrillers, Redux sadly doesn’t live up to either its predecessor Alpha or the later Deep Sleep. Granted, it took me a while to read it because of too close things-first, it involved killer diseases, second, it involved Russia, but I finally got around to it. It’s still not exactly the worst thriller ever, but it’s not the author’s best, unfortunately.

While the action isn’t exactly bad per se, the book still bounces around too much from character to character and place to place. This combined with the frequent exact spelling out of every weapon and accessory makes it look like a Gold Eagle book-and not in a good way. Even the best players can swing and miss, and this is a miss.