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: The Last Great Death Stunt

The Last Great Death Stunt

Clark Howard’s The Last Great Death Stunt is perhaps the strangest and most bizarre book about a man deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge imaginable. Written in the 1970s, it’s basically to Evel Knievel-style feats what the movie Rollerball was to football and other physical sports. It’s a future where the world is so peaceful that conventional sports with winners and losers are so boring and out of focus, they’ve gone under.

Instead, the public’s eye is on ever-crazier “Death Stunts”. However, there is a backlash against even this, and the book begins with the government planning to outlaw them. Before they do, legendary Death Stuntman Nick Bell aims to do one mega-stunt on the final day of legality-leap off the Golden Gate Bridge and survive! The book centers around him, rival Jerry Fallon, and the authorities trying to stop the stunt from taking place.

The execution is only adequate, with prose and plotting worthy of a 51% cheap thriller. There are sleazy secenes you’d expect from a 1970s mass market novel. There are a few too many padding infodumps in a short book.

But the concept, taken completely seriously, is so great that adequate execution still makes for an excellent, if weird book. But I like weird. So I loved The Last Great Death Stunt.

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.

Review: Crimson Star

Crimson Star

The third Maelstrom Rising book, Peter Nealen’s Crimson Star takes the action to the American west. With the collapse into anarchy and invasion underway, the Triarii have their hands full. Having read this, I feel like it is both a lot better and a lot worse than the first two books.

First, the good. It’s written in third person, which is so much more suitable for a work of this nature. So much. Granted, the viewpoints are a little too restricted (try telling pre-Fuldapocalypse me that I’d think that), but it’s still a huge step that makes it so much better to read. And of course the action takes advantage of the larger scope, with lots of vehicle units and large forces. It is as good as anything else Nealen has done.

Now, the bad. The annoying slobbering over the Mary Sue protagonists reaches new heights. Any alternative to them is viewed as a completely incompetent obstacle. The narration does everything but say that their training was a combination of “SEAL, Ranger, Special Forces, and gutter fighting.” It got irritating, and it would be even more so if I hadn’t adjusted my expectations. After all, it sold itself as Larry Bond. By now, it’s actually Jerry Ahern’s The Defender updated to the present with more realistic battle scenes.

Do they balance each other out? My answer is: I still want to read the next book in the series. Make of that what you will.

A Thousand Words: Airport

Airport: The Movie

I was not exactly the fondest of the original novel Airport. So what did I think about the Burt Lancaster movie, which basically created the disaster genre? It was mixed, but I’m willing to give it a break based on its limitations. Having read the book first was not the best way to appreciate the movie, especially as it tracks the plot well. Too well.

First off, the cinematography is dated and clunky. This isn’t the movie’s fault, but it was one of the last “old fluffy Hollywood” movies, and it was made just before movies got more dynamic and more of an edge (the low body count in this compared to later disaster films is something.) But that’s not really its fault.

What I do think is its fault is trying to cram too many subplots from the book into an inherently shorter movie. A looser adaptation would have been preferable, especially because the book is not very movie friendly. It has too much overhang of “look inside an airport” and less focus on the main “a plane is in danger” plot.

Thankfully, the cast and crew are undeniably talented, and they do the best within these limitations. It’s easy to see why it made so many imitators, and at the time, it would have been seen rightfully as a giant spectacle.

Review: The Rich and the Righteous

The Rich and the Righteous

I’d already known why Sidney Sheldon had the appeal that he did. One of his strengths that appealed to a lot of readers (including me), was a very simple, easy, and smooth-flowing writing style. The virtues of this writing become far more apparent when you read another “pop epic” that doesn’t have that advantage. Helen Van Slyke’s The Rich and the Righteous is one such book.

The story of a struggle for corporate control, this is like a specific type of airplane. It has an excellent shape regarding aerodynamics. It has excellent sensors and a cockpit layout. There’s just one small problem: Its engine can’t get it off the ground. Likewise, Van Slyke is one of the blockiest, clunkiest authors I’ve read, and thus what should be interesting just sort of taxis down the runway and then falls into a ditch. Ouch.

Which is a shame. But oh well.

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: The Machine That Changed The World

The Machine That Changed The World

The product of a large MIT study of the auto industry, The Machine That Changed The World attempts to tell the story of “lean production”. The two other production types of motor vehicles mentioned in the book are obvious: Handmade/custom “craft production”, only used for a handful of low-unit firms, and classic assembly line “mass production”. But what is “lean production”? This was and still is a hard question to answer. But in its attempt, the book is an excellent study of the car industry.

One hand, this is a masterpiece in many ways. It’s a very technical but also very accessible study. It shows the difference between the older and newer ways of auto production very clearly. And its anecdotes are good in and of themselves.

But it also has some pretty serious flaws. This book is not only dated, but also was released at the absolute peak of the Japanese market bubble. So its veneration of Japanese production when the industry had a huge tailwind and was yet to experience a massive stress test needs to be taken with a large quantity of salt.

That being said, while not the most definitive book on auto production, it’s still a great historical resource.