Review: The Stars Shine Down

The Stars Shine Down

Sidney Sheldon’s The Stars Shine Down is the story of ruthless businesswoman Lara Cameron, her rise and fall as she builds a real estate empire and gets entangled with everyone from mob lawyers to piano players. It’s the type of gilded trash melodrama I know very well after reading so many of his books. This one, released later in his life, feels a little less than his at his best. It’s still a very readable book, and it’s still well ahead of The Other Side of Midnight. Yet there’s just so much that brings it down. And it’s not just the formula being familiar to me by now.

The plot is a little more scattershot than what Sheldon was capable of in some of his other books, and the ending feels a little rushed. There are a few weird choices like the decision to have all the Scottish character dialogue in clunky phonetic writing that subtracts more than it adds. Sheldon focuses too much on the nuts and bolts of Lara’s building development, something he doesn’t write well.

One legitimately good part is its main character, with Lara drawing both opposition and sympathy. As Sheldon at his worst wrote characters as either dumb, naive dopes or ruthless Machiavellian masterminds, having someone who can truly have elements of both strikes me as a solid achievement. The protagonist is arguably Sheldon’s best I’ve read so far. It’s just the book around her isn’t.

Review: Assault By Fire

Assault By Fire

Ripley Rawlings’ Assault By Fire is an invasion novel. It’s an invasion novel that features that common staple of video games-the Teleporting Russians. Yes, via some kind of supercomputer (that’s the explanation given), the Russians can conduct a successful amphibious invasion of the US. This is a “pulpy invasion” book. And it is very, very pulpy.

Everything from a main action in Appalachia to WWII weapons to a knockoff of Vasquez from Aliens is there. And it’s somehow amazing. The rational part of my brain could not comprehend or make sense of how the invasion progressed, with me asking such questions as “where are the stated MiGs staging from?”. The part of me that eagerly read every Survivalist loved every page of it.

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.

Review: The Clone Republic

The Clone Republic

A (comparably) long time ago, before the rise in self-publishing, I read a novel called The Clone Republic, the first in a series of military science fiction books by Steven L. Kent. And in hindsight, it seems kind of impressive in how it nailed a type of story that would later appear in much greater numbers. It’s a strange kind of impressiveness, but impressive nonetheless.

Even at the time, I never thought this story of a futuristic clone army was never more than a merely satisfactory cheap thriller. But it really fits the niche of what I’d call a “spacesuit commando” novel because of its “genericness”, limited technology, and weird touches. For instance, the clones don’t know they’re clones, believe themselves to be genuine orphans, and all but the main character biologically self-destruct (!) if told they’re a clone.

So this book and its series is in the “weird nostalgia segment” for me. Then it may have stood out a little by being so generic (!). Now it wouldn’t diverge from the considerably bigger pack. Still, I had fun with it.

Review: The Iron Dream

The Iron Dream

Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream is an alternate history satire of the er, “issues” in lowbrow fiction. In it, Adolph Hitler doesn’t go into politics, instead becoming a pulp science fiction author. The book primarily consists of an in-universe novel involving the manly men of Heldon triumphing over hideous mutants and their masters, the mind-controlling Dominators. Does this remind you of anything?

This book is not subtle in the slightest concerning its message of the er “dubious” parts of adventure fiction. I could feel a tone of “Ok, here’s a very obvious reference? Do you get it? Ok, here’s another one. Get it? And to make absolutely sure that you get it, I’ll have an in-universe epilogue that explains everything”. My own reaction was “I get it! All right, I get it. Seriously- I GET IT.”

Thankfully, it’s quite understandable why Spinrad is so forceful. The stories of people not getting it despite his best efforts speak as to why. But it’s also dated in some ways. First, the type of exact “thud and blunder” prose/story he was parodying is now long obsolete. Second, it’s interesting to see a huge example of something coming not that long after its publication that was both prominent and different from the tone-Star Wars. Star Wars features a multispecies alliance of often-ugly aliens fighting a human-dominated empire. It may be a single example, but it’s the biggest example.

Beyond that, I can still understand and sympathize with the message. It’s one of the reasons why, while not a deal breaker, I tend to not like science fiction that has alien species’ introduced purely to be antagonists. However, I’ll admit it also feels a little like punching down at a very easy and very obvious target.

Nonetheless, this type of satire is very hard to write well. I know this firsthand. Of all the parodies of conventional WW3s I’ve tried to write, all of them I’ve junked as being too inaccurate and/or mean spirited. So Spinrad probably succeeded as best as he could, and the biggest satirical part does come across as him knowing his source material well.

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.

A Thousand Words: Unmasking The Idol

Unmasking The Idol

The film Unmasking the Idol may be the most 1980s action movie ever. And one of the most ridiculous, whatever the decade. The film has ninjas, a trained baboon, “homages” to nearly every popular film of the time, a super-lair, and, as the icing on the cake, a flying pickup truck that looks as “majestic” as it sounds. And an incredibly 80s soundtrack, but you could have probably guessed that already.

Besides being very dumb fun in its own right, this movie has special resonance for this blog. It illustrates how by this point, visual media could provide cheap thrills just as well as, if not better than, any book. Stuff like this was the “Tecmo Bowl” compared to the “electric football” of men’s adventure novels. And the “Madden” was yet to come.

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: Armor Attacks

Armor Attacks

John Antal’s Armor Attacks is essentially a choose your own adventure book about a tank platoon. Created as a training tool, it was originally released shortly before the Gulf War. Thus it provides a window into Fuldapocalyptic tank battles.

The premise is that the Krasnovians (or, as they’re called in the book, the “Threat”-essentially a Soviet-style OPFOR) wants to seize the Middle East, and the Americans (and you) must stop them. While it shouldn’t be fair to criticize what’s clearly just a setup for the instructional vignettes he wants, I should still point out the Melville-esque prose clearly leaves something to be desired. Everyone talks in unrealistically robotic, exact terms. It’s understandable, but I still didn’t really like it in that sense.

At least this doesn’t do what Antal did in his first proper novel, Proud Legions, and try to make the reader’s unit the absolute conflict-defining centerpiece. The low, dirty place of the reader is emphasized, and rightfully so. Which is a good thing, as the actual vignettes/choices are well done.

I was “genre-savvy” enough to make some of the right decisions when I tried a run through of one of the scenarios. Tanks are more vulnerable to artillery than you might think, so don’t stay in one spot too long. Taking on a company of T-72s with a platoon of M1s is totally viable, even with 105mm M1s (I have the feeling that this would have been less intuitive pre-Gulf War). And so on.

However, and this may have been the legacy of The Henry Stickmin Collection and its “failure is just as good and entertaining as success” mindset at work, I also attacked up the middle. It didn’t go so well. In fact, I’d have loved for one of the scenarios to be a “Kobayashi Maru” one where you get wiped out no matter what you do.

The newest digital edition of this book does the orginal one better by showing the instructor’s material used. To me at least this was fascinating and interesting. For anyone interested in tanks of the period, I highly recommend this book.

Review: Dune

Dune

It’s finally here. The time has come to do a review of Dune, Frank Herbert’s legendary science fiction classic. Arrakis is a very long way from the Fulda Gap. This book is not the usual fare of this blog. Even beyond that, it’s pretty tricky to get a really solid opinion on, because it has two qualities that are both richly deserved.

On one hand, it deserves to be a classic. It’s one of those sci-fi books that has genuine depth, and you can see how enduring and influential its setting is, even little factors like me thinking that Jabba the Hutt had to be inspired by Vladimir Harkonnen. Compared to spacesuit commandos and Kenneth Bulmer making up five million words for “plot-creature”, this is the real deal.

Unfortunately, it’s also a novel that’s written in an overly long, overly flat manner. While it has the imagination to back it up, its prose is still over-descriptive. And while this obviously isn’t Herbert’s fault, Dune has been famous enough that seeing its world doesn’t bring about the sense of wonder it would have to a far more fresh reader.

Dune is both of those things, which makes it very hard to actually judge. But science fiction is richer for it having existed. It can be an apple that stands alongside the pulpier oranges.