Review: Persuader

Persuader

Lee Child’s Persuader was the first Jack Reacher novel I read. It was also one of the first real “action novels” that I read. This wasn’t an adventure novel, or a science fiction novel. No, this was contemporary red blooded action! Because of this, the book has a special place in my heart.

The actual book is still kind of “51%” in the full context-it doesn’t really stand out with hindsight after reading countless other books (including those following a similar formula). But I still think the success of it and the whole series is deserved. It promises action, and it delivers. Who knows how many people got into cheap thrillers after reading a Jack Reacher?

Review: Strong Enough To Die

Strong Enough To Die

The debut book in the Caitlin Strong series of thrillers, Strong Enough to Die is the first Jon Land book I’ve read in some time. How does she fare compared to Blaine McCracken? Well, it’s a tough question. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s still a little lacking compared to his earlier thrillers.

The plot has a lot of Land’s signature elements, and it’s not quite as jarringly mundane as Dead Simple was. By the standards of other thrillers, it’s a competent, somewhat out-there action novel. But by Land’s own high, past standards it’s not their equal. While the central MacGuffin fits, the action around it is more conventional than the craziness of the early McCrackens. The literary fundamentals being a little bit off compared to Land at his height doesn’t help either. The book just jumps around too much, and it’s too fragmented.

In isolation, I’d like this book. But its author has done better, and I’d recommend reading the Blaine McCrackens over this.

The Thriller Genre Is Bigger Than I Thought

The raw scope of the “cheap thriller” is just something I legitimately did not understand when I started this blog. It’s gotten to the point where I’m still astounded by it. As I’ve said before, the huge number of reviews here labeled “action hero” speak for themselves.

So does me not recognizing many author names. And I’m not talking about has-beens, obscure internet writers, or people in genres I don’t really follow. Take Barry Eisler, a hugely successful author whose books even earned a film adaption-and yet I only found out about him recently. And he’s probably not alone.

Of course, the huge number of reviews here labeled “action hero” also indicate my continued enjoyment of such books…

Review: Long Road To Mercy

Long Road To Mercy

In another one of those “big name authors that are nonetheless novel to me”, I turned my attention to David Baldacci. Long Road to Mercy is the first in his Atlee Pine series of thrillers starring the titular FBI agent. How is it?

The first thing that caught my eye was how dense and well, overdescriptive, for lack of a better word, the writing style is. It doesn’t feel like it’s the best for a thriller. The second was talking about how built-up and muscular the heroine was. This made me think “this is a justification for her being able to take on bigger men hand to hand”. I was right (although the action scenes are not gratuitous).

As the book progressed, it went from the smaller and more personal tale promised in the opening scene to a very, very rote cheap thriller plot. It even had a climax featuring the most stale “shocking” item in the genre, a nuclear bomb. About the only thing distinctive I can say is that instead of the opponents being TERRORISTS! they were instead part of a CONSPIRACY! Wow!

Of course, cheap thrillers don’t succeed or fail based on concept. They do so with their execution. And the way this is pulled off is-well, something. The words that came into my mind were “decaf thriller”. It’s like it ended up, either accidentally or deliberately, being the kind of book that checks all the thriller boxes, but without too much adrenaline.

So I can understand its appeal to a certain kind of reader, and thus its author’s success. But that nature, mixed with its huge amounts of descriptions that don’t even feel like they were intended as padding, isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Especially since it feels like the wrong kind of thriller for its writing style.

Review: Scorpion Strike

Scorpion Strike

The tenth Jonathan Grave book, I picked Scorpion Strike out of the pile because I thought its concept from the blurb-a Die Hard-esque story of the main character’s vacation interrupted by nefarious actors- was the most distinct and potentially entertaining. The bad news was that turned out not to be the case. The good news was that it’s still a good Gilstrap thriller.

After the initial (and, as always, well-done) setup, the supporting cast of the series returns in force. From there it becomes just another Jonathan Grave novel with all the same issues. The mixture of “too serious” and “too over the top”. The elements beginning to repeat too many times. The too-timid hewing to genre conventions (it reached the point where I groaned twice at how rote the MacGuffins were).

And yet it has the good parts as well. The action is still well handled, and here Gilstrap actually dares to kill off a heroic supporting character. If this had been my first Jonathan Grave novel, I think I’d have thought more highly of it, and it’s still a better-than-average cheap thriller.

Review: End Game

End Game

After five hits that ranged from “good” to “excellent”, the Jonathan Grave series finally gets a miss in End Game. Which is a shame, for it’s still an uncovered gem of a series. Now, five solid books is an excellent run, and even this on its own isn’t that bad. But it’s still weaker than what had come before.

Basically, the formula is there stronger than ever, which means that all the issues with it are also there and stronger than ever. What makes things far worse is a mundane plot and dull antagonists who just don’t seem fitting. That its super-protagonist gets involved at all feels off in a way that none of the previous other plots did. Those felt like challenges befitting someone of Grave’s abilities. Here, it feels weirdly like a 1990-2000s technothriller where the villains have to be propped up in a crude way. And the whole point of the small-unit action hero thriller is that it shouldn’t have to rely on such gimmicks.

So this is a disappointment. A readable disappointment, but still a definite disappointment. For authors who’ve proved their worth, the expectations often feel higher. And this didn’t meet them.

A Thousand Words: The Henry Stickmin Collection

The Henry Stickmin Collection

It’s fitting to ring in the new year with something that celebrates what Fuldapocalypse has become. Which is to say, a blog that relishes in reviewing the most goofy and out-there cheap thrillers imaginable. And I’ve recently been playing a game that epitomizes that.

Said game is The Henry Stickmin Collection, a remaster/remake of Newgrounds classics whose general type I knew fondly when I was younger. Since Flash has been officially abandoned by Adobe, this is a fitting tribute. Ok, maybe that sentence was weird. But so is this game, and I love it.

A combination of “choose your own adventure” and quicktime events, Henry Stickmin is exactly what you’d get if you had a teenager who played too many video games and Jon Land collaborate on an action-adventure story. In a combination of slapstick and really, really blatant video game references, you pull off daring capers-or fail miserably. A lot. So often. Thankfully you can just restart at the selection-event easily, which means there isn’t really any frustration in failure. In fact, I sometimes got disappointed when I actually succeeded on the first try.

As for the references themselves, most pass my personal test for references, which is to say that you could find them amusing even if you knew nothing of the setting they’re referencing. And there’s so many that even I didn’t get some of them. But there were many more that I did, and quite a few scenes that succeed in being funny even without any references whatsoever.

And there’s some parts of it that actually have a bit of real cleverness to them. Not just the gags, but the game structure. For instance, the final chapter has many different options that you can access based on the assumptions that you completed a certain set of paths beforehand. And every character, if you can right-click on them fast enough, has an accessible defined biography, which is a nice touch.

It’s been a while since I got a new video game that really grabbed me, but this did. It’s probably just a silly novelty, but it’s a very fun silly novelty. It feels almost tailored to my exact tastes. No wonder I’ve been playing a lot of it.

Review: Target Response

Target Response

Somehow my mind said “you know what you really need to read next? Another ‘William W. Johnstone’s’ book.” And thus I decided to try and roll the boulder up the hill yet again with Target Response. I mean, maybe it could be a serviceable cheap thriller? Maybe one of the anonymous, carefully-hidden authors behind what’s become a house name worked well this time?

Or not. But really, what did I expect?

There’s two barely connected plots that only stay together by virtue of sharing a common villain and “theme” of the Dog Team assassins being targeted for death by said villains. The first is a paint-by-numbers set piece in Nigeria that takes up the opening act. This at least doesn’t have very far to sink. But the second is another Dog Team member back home having to fight off a literal family of assassins, and it’s something that a better thriller writer could have done just so much better. The potential is lost and it falls flat, like the writing.

The writing style is extremely sparse and flat. It’s meant as a basic reading thriller, but comes across as just rote and artificial-which makes sense given what the series is. And yet I couldn’t help but think that in some ways this was actually, at least in context, better than many of the “rival” later Gold Eagles. The weapon descriptions aren’t quite as blocky and overstuffed. And while the plot is just as erratic and wrapped-up too quickly, there’s less outright obvious padding.

Now, there are so many more deserving books by both big and small name authors that I’d recommend over these literary clunkers. They still share the same basic and deep flaws. And as I said in the last Dog Team book review, going from “distinctively, memorably bad” to “forgettably mediocre” in many ways works against it. So this is kind of like saying one old-design, tiny cheap subcompact car is “better” than another old, cheap subcompact car. But I still need to give a bit of credit where it’s due.

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.

On Mack Bolan

So with the release of Blood Vortex, the Harlequin/Gold Eagle era of Mack Bolan concluded. After reviewing that book, I have a couple more thoughts.

The first is that there simply wasn’t much attention paid to it outside the existing fandom. Nader Elhefnawy has commented that in 2015, the rest of Gold Eagle, a once-big imprint, getting folded attracted literally no comment. Likewise for the end of Mack Bolan, and I can add to that by saying the responses to my Blood Vortex review amounted to “Wait they were still making Mack Bolans?” This isn’t surprising, as the series was an irrelevant shell for years and years.

What I find more interesting is how every Mack Bolan movie project has fallen through. Some of this could just be bad luck, but it implies that, for all the success of the books (at a time before visual media could match its visceral qualities), the character was, unlike his inspiration The Punisher, never truly that marketable.

Now for the biggest surprise I had when reading the later, non-Pendleton Bolans. What I’d expected was for the multiple authors to result in the books being extremely erratic in quality, ie comic books. Yet what I found, albeit based on a small sample size, was strangely the opposite. There was a bit of difference in quality, but there was a lot more similarity.

Whatever the author, the Gold Eagle Bolans I’ve read all have had the same issues with a consistency I haven’t seen among cheap thrillers made by different writers in different settings. Nearly all of them would go into ridiculous detail on the character weapons, but would make gigantic mistakes about anything vehicle-based or bigger that one glance at a Wikipedia page could have corrected. All of them felt filled with obvious padding in spite of their short-to-very-short length. All of them had, to one degree or another, stilted and clunky prose. And all of them were jumbled and had huge issues with their plots (even by cheap thriller standards).

I don’t know the reasons why this was the cause. Whether it was the editors pushing it, the authors just getting into a routine (especially given the undoubtedly tight release schedule), or something else, I don’t know. But it was there, and it was one of the things that made me less eager to read them.

It’s strange. The Executioner (which was originally intended as a one-off!) ended up with so many books and so many more it clearly influenced, including a popular Marvel character. Yet so much of it was also disposable throwaway literature, cheap even by the standards of cheap thrillers.