Review: No Man’s Land

No Man’s Land

The 58th Kirov book, No Man’s Land takes the series to World War I. It has tanks and monsters, but not monstrous tanks. This installment isn’t quite as good as The Mission, and returns somewhat to the “excuse to show a bunch of battles” plot format. This isn’t unexpected from the series, but it is a little disappointing after seeing the previous one be a little more cohesive.

This is Kirov, for better or worse. It’s got all the weird elements and now it’s making them even weirder. This is not a bad thing. I still don’t think it’s really possible for the series to end gracefully by this point. It’s going to be some mushed-up variation of “destroy everything”, “reset everything”, and/or “just stop”. But I honestly don’t care.

Review: Firepower

Firepower: A History of the American Heavy Tank

R. P. Hunnicutt was the dean of American tank history, and in Firepower he turned his attention away from the famous Shermans, Pattons, and Abrams’ to something more obscure-heavy tanks. Due to the issues needed to ship them across the oceans, the American military was never the fondest of heavy tanks (a similar issue with being able to travel on bad roads and be easily shipped across the Eurasian landmass has always constrained the size of Soviet/Russian tanks). Excluding the Pershings considered “heavies” while operating alongside lighter Shermans, the only heavy tanks actually produced were a handful of M103s.

But their doctrine was heavily (no pun intended) spelled out and there were, as this reference book shows, a lot of interesting designs. These range from the produced M103 to the World War II boondoggle that was the M6 to the French-esque autoloaded Cold War heavies that languished in obscurity until the World of Tanks computer game. And of course, there’s the monstrous, monomaniacal T28.

This is a dry reference book that reads like a dry reference book. Yet its subject matter is obscure and fascinating, and I highly recommend it to tank enthusiasts and people who like “what-ifs”.

Review: The Mission

The Mission

The 57th Kirov book, The Mission is a delightful change of pace. For a start, the absolute basics are changed. It’s less of a long, big, every-tank-and-every-missile wargame lets play like the past two seasons. This alone makes it preferable to the formula that was wearing out its welcome after sixteen previous installments.

The setting is also different. And by different, I mean “a lot more awesome”. There’s not only a change of scenery back to the Russian Civil War and airship fights, but the ridiculous goofy time manipulation and mystical elements come back with a vengeance. It reminds me of the later Payday 2 metaplot, and I say this as a total compliment.

This book was a lot of fun, the most I’ve had with Kirov in a while.

Review: Dixie Curtain

Dixie Curtain

Mark Ciccone’s Dixie Curtain is an alternate history thriller set in a Confederate victory North-South Cold War.

The first important thing to note is that the worldbuilding is very much in the vein of “soft” alternate history, with a lot of obvious parallels and historical figures still in the same places and times well after the point of divergence. This is not a bad thing-mostly. At times it gets a little too much in terms of parallel historical figures used, but for the most part it works with the style it’s going for.

As for the actual book, it’s a a solid cloak and dagger thriller beyond its setting. The genre isn’t my favorite type of cheap thriller, but I still liked it. I recommend this to people who like spy dramas and/or alternate history.

Review: Morning Noon And Night

Morning, Noon, and Night

Sidney Sheldon’s Morning, Noon, and Night is one of his later books, beginning with a ruthless billionaire falling into the sea off of his yacht and dealing with the subsequent power struggle. It is also one of his worst. How so? First, the obvious needs to be stated. Like every single other one of Sheldon’s books, it’s “gilded sleaze” with simple, easy prose. However, this takes things in different directions. And they’re not good directions.

The prose seemed even more bare-bones than the norm for the author, going from a strength to a weakness. More importantly, the book tried to be an outright thriller at times instead of a “pop epic” chronicling a tawdry saga of wealth and romance. Sheldon’s writing style just isn’t suited for pure thrillers, and this exaggerated version of it was even worse.

Also, the stakes seemed petty (with the wealth of its centerpiece character told more by telling than showing), and the plot was confused with a lot of loose threads and super-quick wrap ups. Sheldon has written a lot better, so I don’t recommend this book.

Review: Soviet Military Operational Art

Soviet Military Operational Art: In Pursuit of Deep Battle

David Glantz is one of the most famous and prolific western Sovietologists. In his 1991 Soviet Military Operational Art, he took a big yet close look at their conduct of campaigns, from theory to practice, from the revolution to the then-present. As with everything he’s written, it’s dry history. But it’s excellent for what it is.

Special focus needs to be given to his looking at the more obscure and lesser-known periods of Soviet military history, such as the revolution and Russian Civil War itself, the interwar period, and the immediate post-WW2 one. These tend not to get as much attention as WWII itself and the 1980s hypothetical WW3s, but are just important historically and frequently very different tactically. Looking at the layout of a Russian Civil War division, so different from the formations I knew, I thought “this was like when baseball pitchers threw underhand”.

The book is still a little dated in some areas, and has a few issues. I think the most glaring one is Glantz overstating the effect of the Stalin purges. While they didn’t help the Red Army, looking at later Russian sources gives me the impression that its biggest problem was expanding too much too quickly and that the purges were just the icing on the cake. Khrushchev-era politics would give an obvious incentive to blame Stalin directly for as much as possible.

But this is a small issue and the book itself is still excellent.

Review: Forgotten Ruin

Forgotten Ruin

A lot of books are what I call “median 51%”, middle of the road stuff that’s perfectly fine to read but which can be hard to actually review well. Then there’s Jason Anspach and Nick Cole’s Forgotten Ruin. I can hardly think of a better example of a “Mean 51%” book. The means a work of fiction that does some things very well and others-not so much. This kind of book can both be disappointing and engaging, and perfect to critique.

Since its magic-vs-technology, fantasy-vs-firepower conflict is music to my ears, I knew I had to check it out. So how was it?

From the start, it’s written in first-person, which I consider suboptimal for thrillers. But this isn’t a deal-breaker. A lot of the characters are one-note stereotypes and the main narrator comes across as a macho ass. But that’s not a deal-breaker either.

The bigger dichotomy comes from the worldbuilding and action. To be frank, the worldbuilding doesn’t live up its potential. It puts its modern military heroes in a fantasy world, but then does nothing but stuff it full of generic fantasy creatures. And the contrivances needed to set it up range from “oh, this political reference is really hamfisted and likely will age quickly” to “OH COME ON!”. (What a coincidence the main character is a linguist who just happens to be able to speak all the right languages, which are variations of existing human ones!)

Then there’s the fighting, which is of course the centerpiece of this kind of book. I’m also of two minds on this. On one hand, at times it reminded me of artificial Payday 2 assault waves where masses of enemies just keep charging forward into superior firepower, which is not a good thing. But on the other, there were instances of cleverness and, more importantly, the setup was evenhanded. As I’ve seen way too much fiction where the “primitives” are just tomato cans for the “awesome modern armies”, this was a welcome change.

While I had mixed feelings about this, its premise is good enough and well executed enough to make me want to continue. And it’s the kind of book I really enjoyed thinking about and writing about. And that alone makes it worthwhile to me.

Review: Vati

Vati

R. M. Meluch’s Vati is a short story originally printed in the Alternate Generals anthology and since republished as a standalone ebook. It’s an alternate history with the divergence being Werner Moelders surviving and getting the wunderwaffe into service. Of course, the war still does not end well for Germany, with the Allies turning to something that makes a very, very big boom.

Although written before The Big One, and with likely no cross-pollination, I can’t help but think of Vati as “TBO done right”. Less rivet-counting technical accuracy to be sure, but a far more concise and far more literary way of illustrating the same point-“give the Germans their wunderplanes and see what good it truly does them.” Even without comparisons, this is well worth a read.

A Thousand Words: Two For The Money

Two For The Money

2005’s Two For The Money stars Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. It is one of the few movies about sports betting, and perhaps the only movie in recent history about sports betting “handicappers” who sell pick advice, or, as they’re known more derogatorily, “touts”. As someone writing my own fiction about touts, I knew I had to watch this film. What did I think about it?

First the plot. McConaughey is an injured college quarterback who goes from playing football games to predicting them. Pacino is a super-tout who values in his skill. The movie chronicles their rise and fall. It’s a classic, predictable narrative. Al Pacino does the stereotypical “Al Pacino Hamfisted Role”, but he does it well. His co-star is more erratic, and not in a good way.

Beyond that, the biggest issue I had was how it misrepresented touts. Now, I was fully expecting and prepared for sports-movie exaggeration (for instance, the way the main character’s picks zoom from great to poor so quickly and consistently). But this goes beyond that, treating the handicappers as sincerely trying to get the right pick and sincerely caring about the outcomes of the games. In reality, nearly all touts don’t.

They make referral deals with sportsbooks, meaning they have a vested interest in their customers losing. They will either cherry-pick or outright lie about their records to make them seem more impressive. And, most notably, they will pull the infamous “give half the callers one team and half the other” trick so that 50% will be ‘winners’. You get the idea. Honestly admitting to the inevitable losing periods doesn’t attract business. Neither does advertising the highest realistic win rate, which less knowledgeable people (ie, the people who’d fall for touts at all) would not consider impressive compared with “79% WIN RATE IN THIS CFB SEASON!”

The thing is, this movie could be equally dramatic, equally exaggerated, and equally able to pull off the “man’s descent into sleaze” plot if it treated its “handicapping” service in this way. There are a few times when it does get the image right, like its spot-on reenactment of over the top sports betting shows/infomercials. But far more often, Two For The Money misses when it didn’t have to. Which is a shame.

Review: The Night Stalker Rescue

The Night Stalker Rescue

Jason Kasper’s The Night Stalker Rescue is a prequel novella (to a series I haven’t yet read) featuring the mission of saving a downed helicopter pilot in an anti-terror operation in the Philippines gone wrong. Short and cheap, it’s the kind of book that works best as a “literary snack.” And that’s often fine.

This is a 51% snack, but it’s a fun 51% snack. About the only real quibble I had was having the book be written in first instead of third person. I think the latter is better for thrillers because you don’t have to either have a severely limited view or give the protagonist ridiculously good situational awareness. But this isn’t a deal breaker at all.

The fundamentals are sound and the story works. This is a solid “appetizer” that makes me want to read more from its author, and that’s always good news about a book.