Review: Drawing The Line

Drawing The Line

Peter Nealen’s Drawing The Line has been given out as a newsletter sign-up bonus. An American Praetorians story set on the southern American border, I wanted to see how it went. And it was what I basically expected it to be.

Now, the American Praetorians series as a whole is the least good of Nealen’s contemporary action. I say “least good” instead of “worst” because they’re still very good thrillers. It’s just two things get in their way. The first is the feeling of an author still finding his footing, which is less of a problem in this smaller, less ambitious work. The second is writing it in first person, which I don’t think is the best perspective for the genre.

Still, this is intended as a snack, and it’s a very good snack.

Review: High Desert Vengeance

High Desert Vengeance

The fifth Brannigan’s Blackhearts book, High Desert Vengeance has the feeling of a “breather book”. Not the action itself in the American Southwest, which is as good as always. But rather in the personal scope and comparably close-to-home and mundane opponents when compared to the settings of the ones that came before and after it. There’s a tiny bit of “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music” at work here.

But only a bit. This is still solid in all the ways that matter, and I think the different tone is actually welcome in this case. While I think the series has done better, I still quite recommend this. It does everything right that it needs to, and remains an entertaining thriller.

Review: Deception

Deception

Zach James’ Deception is a debut thriller by a debut author. While it has some roughness around the edges and is a little clunky plot-wise in terms of jumping around between times and places, it does enough right to make me forgive it. I’ll even forgive the description of “Hudson Bay” as being close to New York and not close to northern Canada.

Hopefully the announced and obviously set up sequel will improve the writing fundamentals. But this is still a good action read and a good enough cheap thriller. Welcome to the community of thriller writers, Zach James!

Review: Friendly Fire

Friendly Fire

After an uncomfortably sustained dip in quality, the Jonathan Grave series returns to form in Friendly Fire. While it has all of the contrivances and weaknesses of Gilstrap’s other fiction, it also has the strengths in the form of excellent action. And the latter is far more prominent. It’s a “shoot the terrorist” book, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if the execution is good.

And it is indeed good here, with Gilstrap leveraging the structure of the series to write powerful set pieces. It’s always a nice thing when a series returns to form after a swoon, and this book is definitely an example of that. It reminds me of the first few Jonathan Grave books, and as an introduction to the series, it’s as good as any.

Review: The Bodyguard Manual

The Bodyguard Manual

For those wondering why I seem to be reviewing so much about bodyguards/security contraptions, the answer is a combination of general curiosity and writing research. The first needs no explanation. The second is because I have a character in my WIPs who’s both extremely wealthy and extremely paranoid (beyond the totally justified concerns someone of wealth would have about security). I wanted to look at the excesses to see what they looked like. And Leroy Thompson’s The Bodyguard Manual is nothing if not excessive.

I can forgive some sensationalism. After all, a genuine manual on executive protection would have to be as long and detailed as a military field manual-and about as exciting to read. This does go into detail on the basics and the tactical templates. But there’s an impression that Thompson is just getting past the boring, realistic, “if it comes to force at all, you’ve already catastrophically failed” details before he goes to the good stuff. And boy is it good.

The general theme of much of the book is that if you are a bodyguard, you will have near-unlimited resources, and you will need them, because the principal [client] is being threatened by a Predator and an entire clan of techno-ninjas. Thompson talks about helicopters, tons of agents there, and exotic weapons that I’ll get to in a bit. If I was to give him the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that his stated experience in protecting military officers means that he’s used to dealing with military-grade threats where you do have lots of assets but also face much more capable threats. However, I have a hunch that the target audience for this book isn’t really aspiring protection officers.

There was an obsession with submachine guns. The biggest red flag I saw was a constant positive reference to drum magazines. Not only do they have a justified reputation for being clunky and jam-prone (see how the Thompson and PPSH both phased them out), but they go completely against the (accurate) stated info that bodyguards should be as low profile as possible. My favorite weird superweapon is his recommendation that, if you can’t get a Barrett .50 caliber rifle or equivalent for legal reasons, an elephant gun should be used to deter vehicles from attacking the principal’s estate.

After reading this, I can see where the “these guys aren’t like the people in action movies-they’re better” annoyance I’ve read in countless cheap thrillers comes from. One of the gun sections is basically “a badass bodyguard with a submachine gun scything down the villains-in controlled single-digit shot bursts”. It’s the definition of having ones cake and eating it too.

Is this a book I would recommend if I or anyone I knew sincerely wanted to be a bodyguard? No, definitely not. But is this a very fun book that can be very inspiring for cheap thriller authors? You bet it is. I had a lot of entertainment reading this book, and the review is the most fun I’ve had writing one in a while.

Review: The Modern Bodyguard

The Modern Bodyguard

Peter Costerdine’s The Modern Bodyguard is an excellent research resource for realistic “executive protection”. Written in a typically sharp, slightly sneery British style, it delivers the blunt realities of the job, especially for civilians who lack both financial and legal resources compared to government personnel. For instance, it points out that private security, especially traveling private security, will almost always be unarmed for legal/political reasons (at least as of the time of writing).

It’s not perfect, and it says something about the type of genre that even Costerdine goes into tirades about various types of firearms. But its positives outweigh the negatives substantially. If you’re curious about realistic, limited-resource protection, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Review: War To The Knife

The latest Brannigan’s Blackhearts novel is War To The Knife. This time Brannigan and his gang go on a romp through South America, in an adventure that Nealen admitted was inspired by the classic video game Jagged Alliance. As the ninth book in the series, it’s hard to get the feeling of awe-inspiring thrills that I got when I read the first and second books. But this is still a very solid entry in a very solid series.

One thing I’ve always liked about this series is how the Blackhearts enemies convincingly portrayed as having vastly different levels of skill and capabilities. The raw irregulars they fight in this book are nothing like the supermercs or a former Soviet army complete with AFVs they’ve encountered in the past. Yet they all come across as credible threats, whatever their qualities. This can be tough to do, but it works here.

If I had one small quibble, it’s actually for something I’ve previously pointed to as a strength of these books. The opening acts almost always feature the dirty business of getting a job, rallying the crew, and seeing their off-duty jobs that makes them more human and less action hero robot. Yet this time I felt it dragged on a little too much. I wouldn’t mind one installment where the “Team Yankee Model” of going straight to the action was used. Other than that, this is well worth a read.

Review: Enemy Of My Enemy

Enemy Of My Enemy

It’s been a long wait, but Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts have finally returned in Enemy Of My Enemy, the latest installment in the series. The crew heads down into the Caucasus on a mission that’s dubious and ultra-risky even by their standards, and the result is a typically solid thriller. By now I know the structure used in the series, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

What’s interesting is that I’ve read this series so long that my tastes have shifted against its trends multiple times. When it was doing a giant multi-book arc, I’d gotten a little annoyed that it had abandoned light, easy standalone pieces. Now that it’s back to standalone books, I’ve gotten a little annoyed that it’s moved past big, ambitious arcs. But these are only small annoyances. They’re understandable and the works underneath are still excellent.

Review: Agile Retrieval

Agile Retrieval

agileretrievalcover

The SOBs series (officially Soldiers of Barabbas, but like Doom’s Bio-Force-Gun, the real implication is obvious) was a Gold Eagle men’s adventure series of the 1980s. Peter Nealen has cited it as one of the biggest inspirations for Brannigan’s Blackhearts. Agile Retrieval is the eleventh book in the series but the first that I read. Though series house name “Jack Hild” is on the cover, the real author was Robin Hardy.

Having read the successors first, I was on guard for the “having seen those, the original doesn’t seem so original”. This didn’t manifest in a negative way. In part this was because a lot of the elements that were copied were positive ones. For instance, giving the main characters lives outside of the action (we see the wedding and family troubles of the protagonists in the entire first part) makes them more sympathetic and human, unlike the mobster/terrorist killing robots that make up a lot of action-adventure. And in part because this entry, a chase for Nazi Macguffins in Cold War Germany, is a little unconventional.

It’s not really unconventional in a good way, though. The flaws (in particular, the stock villains) are still there, while being a little less action-y and a little more cloak and dagger takes away from the strengths of the formula. The “big, vulnerable team” subgenre of action adventure is, in my opinion, the style that offers the most, and to pull back from it is giving up a lot and not really gaining anything in return. While the structure of the series has many strong points, the structure of this particular book does not. After the opening, it doesn’t manage a good climax and remains slapdash throughout. The pool of cheap thrillers of past and present is so big and vast that I cannot recommend this except for completionists.

 

Review: The Death Merchant

The Death Merchant

Joseph Rosenberger’s Death Merchant is one of the most notorious men’s adventure series of all time. Its reputation is such that I had to check it out, starting with the first volume.

The adventures of psychotic super-assassin Richard Camellion start off on a mixed note. Like the Destroyer series, the Death Merchant (for understandable business reasons) had to start off with a conventional “shoot the mobster” plot that has little in common with the crazed excesses the later books reached.

That being said, Rosenberger’s writing er, “eccentricities” are definitely on display en masse here. Long and weird descriptions of gore, over-detailed action scenes, and more, including an erratic prose style with lots of exclamation points, “grace” the pages of the book as Camellion slaughters his way through.

Rather than sink into the middle of the pack, the initial Death Merchant at least stands out due to its writing style. Whether or not it’s in a good or bad way depends on your tastes.