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Saturday, November 13, 2010

New Podler Reviews Hell and Gone

At first, I was just gonna post a link to this review. But I want to have a copy of the full text saved somewhere, so this is one such place. I've been quoting from the best reviews on my home page, but the more I get, the more I have to trim them for length (which is a great problem for a writer to have, lemme tell ya!). I just went through and trimmed them a little more, so I can excerpt the Podler review, which itself will have to be abbreviated.

Veteran's Day was yesterday (Thank you to all who served). In light of that, Hell and Gone seemed like an appropriate book to review.

The plot is pretty straightforward: Muslim terrorists have a nuclear bomb. The CIA recruits a dirty baker's dozen of veterans and mercenaries to neutralize the threat. There are only a few questions: "Will they succeed?", "How high will the body count be?" and "Who's going home in a body bag?" Instead, Brown focuses his creative energy on the characters and the action scenes.

In an action thriller it would be very easy for the characters to resemble cardboard props waiting their turn to become cannon fodder, but Brown doesn't go that route. Each of his characters has a story and Brown gives each one the time to tell it, although with the sheer number present some get more time than others. And they're a diverse, fractious lot. Yes, they're all dark-skinned (Caucasians would be a dead giveaway in the Sudan, where the action takes place) ex-military or mercenaries loaded up with testosterone, but the similarities end there. They're distinct individuals with their own sets of skills and shortcomings. They're men, not superheroes. You'll hate Mai for his arrogance and bigotry, but you'll admire Scarred Wolf's ability to execute his bloody job with honor and integrity.

The villains in Hell and Gone are truly evil. I don't say that lightly. The manipulation that the Jihadist leader, Ali, and his Chinese consultant, Chin, put fifteen-year old Bassam through is nothing short of diabolical. The scary part is, none of it comes across as far-fetched.

Brown, a veteran himself, uses his characters to address a range of issues. He explores veteran alienation through several men. We get to see how each dealt with feeling disconnected from friends, family and country once they were “back in the World.” There's also the matter of American foreign policy. At his weakest point, Brown's characters sound like they're reading neocon talking points from the back of a cereal box. But at his best, he presents an intelligent examination of our relationship to Israel and the Middle East. You'll wish our leaders would have such a frank discussion with all the facts, rather than dishing out the rhetoric.

The battle scenes are meticulously detailed. It wouldn't surprise me if Brown built scale models of the locales in his basement so that he could properly choreograph each step and shot. He'll have vets and military aficionados nodding their heads as he relates the pros and cons of various weapons down to their milspecs. Meanwhile, civvies will run to Wikipedia to look up the old planes that have been out-of-service in the Western World for decades. But he doesn't do it to impress anyone, he does it to stay true to his characters and himself.

While the dialogue is great, I do have gripes though. For a bunch of leathernecks, they never curse! "Shit" doesn't appear until three quarters of the way through the book. "Damned" has been replaced by "doomed." Every variation of profanity involving "dick" has been replaced by "Richard." For example, "limp Richard" and "Richard head." And there isn't a single F-bomb. This behavior is never explained and strikes me as disingenuous.

As for the technicals, a few homophones slipped through the cracks. There are a few point-of-view shifts that might violate some rule somewhere, but honestly they don't disorient the reader at all. Towards the end of the final battle, the writing breaks down into short, choppy sentences, which impart the feel of a grocery list of action rather than a flowing narrative.

Overall, Hell and Gone is a military thriller that delivers the goods on the action, has vivid, realistic characters who interact with great dialogue, and presents some food for thought. If enough people chew on it, maybe the all too plausible scenario presented here will remain fiction, assuming it hasn't happened already.

This was the most detailed review yet. It's not five-stars, and they highlighted some unflattering details (all the editing I did and some homophones still survived???). Frankly, I'm surprised somebody hasn't complained about the lack of profanity earlier--it's something I've anticipated. And they're right--my characters are not nearly as foul-mouthed as real-life GIs--or even high-schoolers. I explain this a bit at the end of the jargon/glossary pages on my website, but even considering that... I sacrificed some realism to make the novel more palatable for a broader audience.

Reading neocon talking points from the back of a cereal box? At first, I couldn't make up my mind to laugh or be offended. But now I'm actually pleased. I'm not sure exactly what dialog struck them this way, but it reassures me that I kept my characterization consistent (most of them could, in fact, accurately be labeled neocons) and successfully kept my own more radical worldview from skewing their thoughts and speech.

Off to glean the tastiest morsels for my home page.


  1. I thought it was a pretty good review as well. It's cool to see criticism when it gets into specifics and becomes something you can think about and maybe use in the future. To add some detail about the NeoCon thing...I think he was mostly talking about Drezel's dialog, almost monologues in a few places, that yes, read like straight up propaganda. I used to have comparable views regarding Israel but not anymore. Without getting into the politics involved, I do think that the view point expressed was consistent and made sense for that character. Regardless of your personal opinion it makes for some interesting reading regarding our foreign policy in the middle east as the reviewer pointed out.

  2. Dreizil is a dude who sees things in black & white,for sure. Myopic in some ways, overbearing in his opinions, but could never be accused of being wishy-washy. Kinda' like a Jewish Kowalski (from Gran Torino).

    I dropped a line thanking Podler for this review. I'm grateful for them all, of course, but this one is in my top 3 favorites. The reviewer was up front about both their likes and dislikes, yet still counts it an overall positive experience. Podler may not have the clout that Midwest Book Reviews does, but I thought this one was more thoughtful and more fluently expressed than MBR's. They seemed to not only "get it," but the review on the whole will give readers a good feel for the book, too.

    You're right, and I'm stashing it away in my mental filing cabinet for future reference.

  3. Hey, you were true to his character at least. You also juxtaposed his views with that of the protagonist and his Mossad handler who plays the part of the cynical intelligence agent.

  4. You can rest assured Dreizil won't be in the sequel, if there is one. ;-)

    The other character that really got on some readers' nerves was Mai. One person hinted that I should dial him down because Mai had him grinding his teeth every time he opened his mouth. To which I said, "But he's SUPPOSED to do that."

    He actually started out as an amalgam character, but as I wrote further, he became one specific NCO I had the displeasure of knowing.

  5. Exactly, Mai is an example of the dark side of the Army. He's supposed to be despised by the reader. I think the characters were the strongest part of your novel, Dreizil just comes on so strong that you can't help but feel the author is really beating you over the head with a message. Still, it is your novel and you have every right to do that. I prefer to read something with a point of view (even if it isn't mine) than empty "entertainment" even if it is in the action genre.

  6. Thanks for your honesty. I certainly don't want to beat anyone over the head. Well, not my readers, anyway... :-)

    For the record, though, I don't consider the Israelis to be infallible saints. Their politicians are just as corrupt as ours, I'm sure. Their policies, both foreign and domestic, are sometimes wrong. There are Israelis at every level of society who do wrong--whether by mistake or because of evil intent. Including in the IDF which, from 1948-1973 at least, was a superb fighting organization.

    I see Dreizil as the kind of man who is more painfully aware of this than anybody...but he'd be reluctant to discuss it with foreigners. In mixed company his bone to pick would focus on the international press, the US State Department and the United Nazis.

  7. Dreizil was the true believer. He was probably as fanatical as the terrorists he was fighting. I thought he was interesting and multiple points of view were represented. The IDF...yeah, along with Mossad, they seem to have gone way down hill. Watching what they have gotten into over the last few years its difficult to imagine that these are the same organizations behind the hostage rescue at Entebbe, the Six Day War, and the kidnapping of Adolph Eichmann, all of which are impressive to say the least.

  8. Absolutely. Entebbe was a masterpiece of a SpecOps mission. The Six-Day War was probably their peak, but the way they turned the disaster around during the Yom Kippur War was almost as impressive. Not living in Israel and never serving in the IDF or Mossad, I could only speculate about why the decline. Complacency and moral decay, perhaps.

  9. There is a book called "Gideon's Spies" about the history of Mossad which was pretty interesting. They have a lot of the same issues our intelligence agencies have from what I gather.


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