Review: Target Response

Target Response

Somehow my mind said “you know what you really need to read next? Another ‘William W. Johnstone’s’ book.” And thus I decided to try and roll the boulder up the hill yet again with Target Response. I mean, maybe it could be a serviceable cheap thriller? Maybe one of the anonymous, carefully-hidden authors behind what’s become a house name worked well this time?

Or not. But really, what did I expect?

There’s two barely connected plots that only stay together by virtue of sharing a common villain and “theme” of the Dog Team assassins being targeted for death by said villains. The first is a paint-by-numbers set piece in Nigeria that takes up the opening act. This at least doesn’t have very far to sink. But the second is another Dog Team member back home having to fight off a literal family of assassins, and it’s something that a better thriller writer could have done just so much better. The potential is lost and it falls flat, like the writing.

The writing style is extremely sparse and flat. It’s meant as a basic reading thriller, but comes across as just rote and artificial-which makes sense given what the series is. And yet I couldn’t help but think that in some ways this was actually, at least in context, better than many of the “rival” later Gold Eagles. The weapon descriptions aren’t quite as blocky and overstuffed. And while the plot is just as erratic and wrapped-up too quickly, there’s less outright obvious padding.

Now, there are so many more deserving books by both big and small name authors that I’d recommend over these literary clunkers. They still share the same basic and deep flaws. And as I said in the last Dog Team book review, going from “distinctively, memorably bad” to “forgettably mediocre” in many ways works against it. So this is kind of like saying one old-design, tiny cheap subcompact car is “better” than another old, cheap subcompact car. But I still need to give a bit of credit where it’s due.

Review: Magic Ops

Magic Ops

The book Magic Ops by T.R. Cameron, Michael Anderle, and Martha Carr is a secret agent urban fantasy action thriller. If this sounds like a big jumble, it is. And it’s a lightweight book even by cheap thriller standards. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

The action works surprisingly well. There’s a few wince-inducing moments like agents “shooting to subdue”, but other than that it feels good and manages to integrate the supernatural elements in a non-jarring way. The non-action parts of this still flow well also.

This is sort of a “51%” book, but it’s a good kind of 51% book. It’s never really slow or dull, and even if it rarely goes above “adequate”, it also more importantly never goes below it either. This and how it succeeds at bringing its different genres together when it could have failed makes me recommend it.

A Thousand Words: Metal Slug

Metal Slug

SNK’s classic series Metal Slug takes the Contra-type “side scrolling shooter” game and adds an unforgettable art style to it. The excuse plot is you controlling a member of the elite “Peregrine Falcons” against the “Rebel Army”-and more weird enemies.

The art, from the goofy yet legitimately detailed sprites to the lavish backgrounds to the smooth animations, is consistently amazing. The music isn’t as standout (with a few exceptions), but is always at least serviceable. As for the gameplay, it’s both very good and inherently limited.

The action, weapon combinations, and controls are all excellent with the exception of a few clumsy platforming sections. The issue is the games are very short and were originally for arcades. So it’s either “be good enough at this very hard game to avoid deaths or just brute-force your way through with credits”. This probably couldn’t have been avoided, but it’s still a little bitter. That being said, this series is a classic for a reason and the games are well worth playing.

Review: The Suriname Job

The Suriname Job

Vince Milam’s The Suriname Job is the first book in the Case Lee series of thrillers. In a very crowded field, it only stands out in a few ways. The first is its very format. This is told in a first-person, “hardboiled” narrative style. It’s different than a lot of cheap thrillers, but I’m not sure it’s for the better.

The second is a bigger issue, and that’s that the action isn’t very good. It’s basically flat, which isn’t what you want to feel when you read a cheap thriller. The third is that the plot is a little too mundane, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself but drags it down even more when combined with the poor action. With these issues in mind, I’m not exactly eager to read the later books in the series.

Review: Philippine Hardpunch

Philippine Hardpunch

Of all the books in the Cody’s Army series, Philippine Hardpunch may be the most middling. Given the nature of 1980s “men’s adventure” fiction, that’s very forgivable. It could easily have been something worse than “middling”, and can still succeed as a time-passer. John Cody and his “army” of three other people still fight, and the result is still a competent cheap thriller.

That being said, in hindsight it falls particularly short. The later Hellfire in Haiti takes its basic premise (associate of a recently ousted, headline-grabbing dictator tries to retake the country, the “army” opposes him) and has a spectacularly better execution. Thus, this becomes one of those books that I’d put in the “only for genre ultra-enthusiasts” category. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s in a genre where there’s just so much available that it has to be really good to stand out. And sadly, this isn’t.

Review: Supercell

Supercell

A tale of FBI agents hunting prisoners who escaped after a weather disaster, Douglas Dorow’s Supercell cannot be mistaken for anything except a light literary snack. And it’s not the “healthiest” literary snack, being a pure cheap thriller. But it is a tasty snack.

Independent publishing pretty much saved the “lightweight novella”. A long time ago, something like this could have been released by a large publisher, likely under a house name. Now, it’s the sort of thing that’s the purview of independent authors. And that enables works like this to flourish again.

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: Undeclared War

The Home Team: Undeclared War

The first book in the Home Team series of thrillers, Undeclared War boasts another one of those amazing cheap thriller hero names. In this case, it’s Ted Reaper, SEAL turned vigilante out to stop a -ready for this?- terrorist. Unfortunately, the main character’s name is the only distinguishing feature about it.

This is one of the most generic “shoot the terrorist” books there is. It wants to have its cake and eat it too concerning realism, which leads to a bizarre situation where the preparations are handled in realistically drudgerous detail, yet the actual action manages to somehow be both out-there and dull. The whole “we’re scrounging vigilantes but hey, we get rare and exotic weapons from our convenient connections” contradiction doesn’t help either.

The lists of weapon descriptions get excessive even by the standards of the genre. I don’t know what I should have expected from a mid-2000s thriller, but this deserves a pass.

Review: The Man With The Iron Heart

The Man With The Iron Heart

One of my theories about Harry Turtledove is that, for all times he’s been labeled “the master of alternate history”, he never had the most enthusiasm for the genre. It goes like this: Turtledove wanted to write Byzantine/Eastern Roman-themed fantasy, but after Guns of The South, alternate history became the money-making niche that he was stuck in. Turtledove would be neither the first nor last writer to have their most successful fiction be considerably different from the type they actually wanted to write.

Or maybe he did have enthusiasm for the genre, but didn’t have the mindset needed to really take advantage of it. Or maybe the nature of alternate history and needing to appeal to a generalist audience who doesn’t have the most knowledge of history forced him into a corner. Whatever the reason, The Man With The Iron Heart symbolizes the weaknesses of his style vividly.

The plot is simple. Reinhard Heydrich survives, gets the Werwolf resistance movement up and running, and launches a horrifically hamfisted/anachronistic Iraq War analogy. In reality, the German populace at large had no stomach for continued resistance, and the Allies, who came close to turning Germany into a giant farm, were prepared to crack the whip. The Werwolf plan was doomed from the get-go by the scarce resources and infighting that was baked into the Nazi regime from day one.

The execution of the book is done just as clumsily and clunkily as the setup. Much of Turtledove’s writing has the problem of what I frequently call the “technothriller without technology or thrills”, and this is no exception. It uses the “alternate history as a genre format” where there’s a big-picture, broad-viewpoint look at the situation and changed world. However, if the changed world is nothing but an unrealistic and worse, uninteresting analogy, that format is the worst possible.

Alternate history is a very divided genre. There are a lot of reasons for this, from the vague nature of what it even is to the different desires of different fandoms to how it’s frequently not considered advantageous to label a work as such. But that the “mainstream” end often consists of books like this doesn’t help.

Maybe there’d be more overlap if someone really did extensive research, made it more character focused, and kept it feeling substantially different while providing still noticeable but far more subtle commentary. Instead, Turtledove wrote this book, which I do not recommend.

Review: X-COM UFO Defense

X-COM UFO Defense

Video game novelizations do not have the best reputation. Keeping that in mind, how does Diane Duane’s work on the classic video game X-COM turn out?

The story of X-COM commander Jonelle Barrett running a base in Switzerland, Duane seems interested in making a huge effort to write about everything except fighting aliens. This by itself isn’t too bad. In terms of accuracy, X-COM, particularly the original, is as much about managing resources as it was battling the invaders. In terms of plausibility, no one’s going to be spending every waking moment shooting Sectoids. In terms of characterization, they shouldn’t be automaton spacesuit commandos.

And yet they basically are, for the book is about 95% pure padding. Descriptions of Swiss geography fill most of it, alongside what seems like an obligatory mention of every element in the game. The rest consists of half-hearted “she just looked at the names and wanted to get them over with” battles with redshirts that are every bit as expendable and forgettable as the actual minions one controls in the games. This is one of the most blatantly obvious “I did this for the money with no enthusiasm” books I’ve read.