Review: The Rules of The Game

The Rules of The Game: Jutland And British Naval Command

In the seventh game of the 2001 World Series, Mariano Rivera faced Tony Womack, giving up a game-tying hit and setting the stage for Luis Gonzalez to win the series for the Diamondbacks. In that plate appearance, Womack triumphed. In the rest of their careers, it was quite potentially the greatest relief pitcher ever (Rivera) against a poor hitter whose sole virtue was speed in baserunning (Womack). A sample size of one doesn’t lead to good results.

Unfortunately, this is what Andrew Gordon tries to do in The Rules Of The Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, a history epic that is equal parts awe-inspiring and frustrating. When younger, I hung on this book’s every word. Now, it comes across highly erratic. See, the writing quality is still amazing. The research and attention to detail is excellent as well. In terms of historiography, Gordon stands out.

It’s just a shame that in terms of slant, he stands out as well.

Gordon is one of the few historians who stands with David Beatty over John Jellicoe, and his defense is weird. In the actual book, Gordon points out Beatty’s flaws -he put the slower but most-armored Queen Elizabeth battleships in the back of his formation, he didn’t coordinate more, he was a ‘difficult’, arrogant person that nobody liked, and so on. And yet he still supports the BCF commander on “his heart was in the right place” grounds. You know, he was scrappy, and he had that clutch spirit.

With a bias towards a decisive victory that never truly needed to happen, the book comes across as not what it could have been. Gordon takes that sample size of one (hey, remember the time a relief pitcher with only two career plate appearances managed a double off of Randy Johnson? The time Muggsy Bogues blocked a shot from Patrick Ewing?) and seems to just miss the forest for the trees-or if he doesn’t, he barely dwells on it.

This book is still a huge accomplishment and one very much worth reading. It just needs to be understood that it’s not exactly the most neutral in tone.

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: Sins of the Fathers

Sins of the Fathers

My love of books of all kinds has led me to Susan Howatch’s Sins of the Fathers. This tale of intrigue in a Wall Street tycoon family puts the “block” in “blockbuster”, both in terms of the whole book and individual paragraphs. It’s not an easy book to get through. Characters talk and monologue in giant, close to unreadable segments. And nearly every one of the characters is unlikable. I get that you’re not supposed to truly “like” them, but they’re unpleasant in a bad rather than a good way.

It’s just a chore to get through yet another man with more money than morals complaining about the “plastic society”, or yet another pregnancy drama. Howatch doesn’t even succeed in making the stakes seem that high. You could take away nearly all of everyone’s assets and make it about store owners in a small town plaza and it wouldn’t feel any different. There’s never the impression, beyond a few luxuries, that these are people who hold the financial world in their hands.

It’s a shame because I love the concept of a giant family saga, an internal struggle of the titans that mixes the personal with the societal. It’s just this is not it. In fact, this might be one of the worst books I’ve read in some time.

Review: Manhounds of Antares

Manhounds of Antares

Having read the first arc of the Dray Prescot series, I had anticipated what I was in for when I started Manhounds of Antares. I expected horrendously purple prose, a first-person narrative of constant action, and a plot driven by cosmic contrivances. How accurate were my predictions?

For the first, the prose is a teeny-tiny bit better than in the Delian Cycle, but it’s still very, very, purple and overly blocky. For the second, it was pretty much exactly what I’d expected. For the third, it was somehow slightly worse than before, as Prescot is teleported around multiple times by the Plot Star Lords in ways that feel especially forced and jarring. Another returning element is Bulmer’s broad but shallow worldbuilding. consisting entirely of creating pseudo-wondrous names and species.

And yet I’ll readily admit this book served its purpose for me as a light read with a tone and prose style considerably different than the “contemporary action” books I’ve been reading. I’m just not sure I’d recommend it to others.

Review: Strategy

Strategy

B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy will always be a book I remember, although not necessarily for good reasons. It was one of the first history books where I’d become well-read enough to reasonably question its thesis. While Liddell Hart’s life and career has no shortage of controversy around it, I want to focus this review purely on this specific book.

Liddell Hart talks up the “indirect approach” big time, listing a huge number of historical examples. Unfortunately, the history is a cherry-picked list of questionable ones. Even when much younger, I remembered Liddell Hart skipping over several attempted indirect approaches in the American Civil War that failed and brushing off the battle of Guadalcanal (while falsely saying it was a project of MacArthur. It wasn’t.)

As for the theory, well, this kind of “maneuver warfare” talk is the kind of thing that’s uncontroversial in general principles yet doesn’t always translate to specific goals. Sometimes a “direct” approach is desireable. Many more times it’s necessary, for better or worse. What one can see Liddell Hart going for is wishful thinking, where fancy footwork alone can break an enemy without the need for any kind of attritional phase. This is utopian.

Is this book totally bad? No. I’d say it’s useful if you know the context. With that in mind, it’s useful for looking at how one school of thought approaches history and doctrine. But it shouldn’t be anyone’s first book on the subject.

Review: British Battleships

British Battleships

Oscar Parkes’ 1957 British Battleships: Warrior to Vanguard is exactly what it says: A gigantic encyclopedia on every large armored warship the Royal Navy operated from 1860 to the then-present. This has been one of the oldest, rarest, biggest, and most expensive books I’ve owned, and it’s amazing. This is a big, comprehensive look at British capital ships, from the famous ones of the World Wars to weird 19th Century contraptions.

The mid/late 1800s are the most interesting time period as battleship design zigzagged around, but every part of the book is effective. There are numerous cutaway drawings, and they’re well done. The writing is descriptive and engaging as well.

Yes, being made in the 1950s means a lot of it is dated now. Yes, it’s a little more broad than it is deep, a consequence of having to cover so much ground. But it is still an amazing, incredible history book. When published, the age of the battleship had just ended, making this book a fitting tribute.

Review: Magestic Book 1

Magestic Book 1

Geoff Wolack’s Magestic (the spelling is deliberate-it’s a code phrase in universe) is a gargantuan work about a time traveler going back to hopefully change his own apocalyptic time. The first entry is split into 18 volumes, which is still enormous by normal standards, but looks a little less so to someone who’s read a 27 and 54 (and counting) volume series.

Anyway, this is extremely ambitious in concept but less effective in execution, at least as of now. The actual writing is a little crude and jumpy, but I’m willing to let it slide for the time being. The bigger problem is how it handles time travel. The main character keeps predicting events and benefiting from them without any butterflies as of yet. Thus it comes across as bland.

The concept-which reminds me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation- is good enough and the core writing adequate enough for me to continue with the series. If disruptions and challenges do emerge, it’ll look much better. But as of now, the series doesn’t feel like it started on a good note.

Review: Trigger Point

Trigger Point

The first book in the Gabriel Wolfe series of thrillers, Trigger Point is a novel saved from “51%” mush by its bizarre plot. The title character is a conventional cheap thriller protagonist to a fault. Of course he’s an SAS veteran. Of course he’s haunted by the man he had to leave behind. Thankfully, this is the genre where it isn’t that much of an issue.

That being said, the bigger problem is the execution, with the action scenes and prose coming across as subpar. Another huge problem is that the plot takes a weird turn, with the antagonist being an ultra-connected billionaire plotting to take over Britain in a coup-and yet he has to rely on pathetic American hicks for the weapons-and mundane weapons at that in the form of heavy machine guns in use for a very long time. It’s this weird zigzagging between too big and too small.

Still, in an incredibly crowded genre, there’s just better books out there.

Review: The Bear Marches West

The Bear Marches West

A short, small, and simple compilation, Russell Phillips’ The Bear Marches West is a list of prospective wargame scenarios made out of the three most iconic 1980s conventional World War III novels: Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, and Red Army.

The book itself is basic: You get a listing of forces, a listing of the situation, and that’s essentially it. This is so that it doesn’t get tied to any one rules system. For enabling reenactments of scenes in the classics, this book works well enough, although anyone who knows 198X WWIII wargaming (not exactly an underused or underexplored area) should likely be able to do something similar with just a bit of knowledge. Still, it’s an inexpensive novelty, and it would be interesting to see what ruleset generates results closest to what actually transpired in the original novels.

Review: The Eleventh Commandment

The Eleventh Commandment

It’s time for Fuldapocalypse to turn to another author of high sales but low reputation, British writer, politician, and convicted criminal Jeffrey Archer. Even though a lot of Archer’s books, from their descriptions, come across as the type of work I call the “pop epic” (ie, Sidney Sheldon), CIA thriller The Eleventh Commandment looked like a grocery store cheap thriller. In fact, it looked so much like a grocery store cheap thriller that I felt a bit of trepidation-would this be nothing but a Marine Force One with a more well-known author’s name on the cover, forgettable mush?

The answer is “kind of.” Its realism, or lack thereof, comes from simply adopting a different baseline. It wants to be a serious cloak and dagger story, which makes every inaccuracy and contrivance more glaring. Furthermore, the prose is very blocky, the pacing slow, and despite seemingly high stakes on paper, it doesn’t feel that way in practice. At least it’s not too long, but it’s just dry and clunky.

The result is something that feels like it has all the weaknesses of a cliche cheap thriller, but few to none of the strengths. Whatever Archer could write, this kind of novel is not it.