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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Assagai by Wilbur Smith

Whether he's on his game or not, Wilbur Smith is a novelist who tells a good adventure story nine times out of ten.

This one begins a few years prior to the outbreak of WWI and features early aviation, espionage, romance, and big game hunting in Africa.

Leon Courtney is a junior officer in the British Army in East Africa, with a lousy commanding officer. He makes a career change early on and finds himself on an epic hunting safari for Teddy Roosevelt and his son, Kermit. Ultimately he finds himself in a dangerous love triangle and some colonial chess-playing between the British and German empires prior to the opening guns of the First World War.

Smith's research is usually solid, but in this work he has some anachronisms--like German purpose-built bombers years before the war even began. (Even well after the war started, and bogged down into trench combat, planes were not used for fighting, but observation. The armies involved considered the military potential of "aeroplanes" dubious at best. Purpose-built combat aircraft didn't start rolling off the assembly lines for a while.)

Where Smith really shines is in his descriptions of Africa. In particular I appreciated his breakdown of the complex ecosystem which provides early warning (and hygiene) for elephants. And though I'm an unashamed carnivore, have enjoyed hunting in my day (and would again if it were feasible with my schedule, etc.), Smith's depictions of hunted animals are so poignant that I often can't help a pang of sadness when the humans prevail. This is true in a lot of his novels.

I couldn't help wondering if this novel is setting up what happens in The Power of the Sword which I read a year or two ago. Anyway, it's a pretty good read.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Switchblade Fiction: The Vandals by John A. Vikara

No offense to Nuyockas, but you couldn't pay me enough to live anywhere near youze guys. I've visited the Big Apple and enjoyed seeing it up close. I've read about it, watched documentaries on the city, and am fascinated by the history of it, etc. When I was younger and not nearly the cantankerous curmudgeon I am now, I even managed to sit through West Side Story--dance scenes and all.

Vikara's novel is the best book I've read so far about street gang turf wars, fiction or non-fiction.

It follows the episodic structure of The Wanderers, which has its pros and cons. On the plus side, it covers the rise and fall of the gang inside the decade in a cumulatively objective manner, getting inside the heads of a handful of the key members. It also allows for realism, while still moving the plot forward. On the negative side, the format is a bit jarring, abandoning some characters just as you're starting to root for them.

The author was a youth gang member himself, and I appreciate his insights. I've never lived in Gotham and was not alive to experience the era portrayed here. Still, I've developed a prejudice: I unconsciously assume all the turf wars took place in Brookyln, the Bronx or the rougher parts of Manhattan, and wouldn't ordinarily associate Queens with street gangs. Yet there it is, and the deaths are no less fatal because they occurred in Queens.

The story ends on a bittersweet note. You could call it a depressing note, but some Vandals and their friendships survive. There are a couple guys who die by a cruel twist of coincidence and fate, which has all the morbid hopelessness of a story from one of the horror comics read by some of the gang members. I didn't see the point of that, but the novel as a whole is still a good one and was impossible for me to put down.

At 99 cents for your Kindle, you can't go wrong.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Have You seen Your Mother, Baby, Hunting in the Shadows?

Sorry, but the title makes me want to modify and sing Rolling Stones lyrics. Like a good Patient Zero, I have spread this virus as far as I could, in hopes that it's contagious enough that others will be afflicted with this compulsion.

Peter Nealen is a former Recon Marine and a recently-debuted author of military fiction, starting with his Task Force Desperate, and now followed up by Hunting in the Shadows, about a private military company operating after the economic collapse in our near future.

In the paramilitary adventures being published now (including my own), I can't think of any protagonists I'd be comfortable calling "mercenaries," though technically that is what they are. Money is a secondary motive for these "soldiers of fortune." Bringing some semblance of justice to a given situation is the primary driving force, and there are interests they won't fight for (or take money from). Today we have the option of calling mercs "contractors" or "PMCs," thus outflanking the stigma associated with that dreaded M-word. So be it.

If there's anything that even remotely resembles a plot device in Nealen's military fiction, it is what Pentagon brass refer to as "mission creep." His novels unfold the same way unconventional warfare does. The mission parameters in effect yesterday may not be what you're guided by today. The roster on your side and the enemy's side keeps changing as guys die, just as in "normal" warfare, but nothing else is constant, either. Those who thrive in this kind of existence adapt quickly and often, constantly considering various contingencies, variables and caveats. We know this because, as in Task Force Desperate, the tale is told in first person--so we are right there inside Jeff's head as he navigates more dangerous turf and an intricate, complex (if not convoluted) political/military minefield in the Middle East.

Jeff is a Team Leader in Praetorian Security now. The shooters waxed in the last mission have been replaced, and Praetorian is on a headhunting crusade this time--taking out known terrorist leaders during a near-future conflict involving Iraqis, Kurds, Iranians...and a rogue's gallery of terror organizations (some of which you've heard of, others maybe not).

Nealen has ramped up the action from his debut novel, and it seems like Jeff and his buddies are a bit more comfortable with their roles in the chaotic new world they're wading through. And just as in his first book, the author knows enough to get the military/paramilitary details right without bogging the reader down in the minutia. Little phrases or sentences here and there triggered my muscle memory, like how you have to rock in and tilt back on the magazine of an M14/M1A (a superb MBR, in my opinion) to lock it in the well. And in one of the firefights he depicts...this is weird, but ears deadened and rang as I read it, remembering how small explosions sound like a dull thud after experiencing a bunch of large ones in quick succession. That's some savvy, zeroed-in prose right there.

For the last couple years the Clancy-esque millitary thrillers and techno-thrillers have acquired some competition in the form of a "second wave" of military fiction. In the Second Wave, authors (many of them veterans of Iraq and/or Afghanistan) are combining adrenalin-pumping action with a degree of authenticy sadly lacking in much of the First Wave. I'm glad to have been involved in this renaissance and I recommend Hunting in the Shadows as a fine representative of it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

D-Day Anniversary 2013

I neglected this anniversary last year. Can't remember why. June 6, 1944 was not only a turning point in world history, but it ultimately altered my life course forever, as well (when I learned about it). Few films have captured the carnage and desperate struggle for Omaha Beach like Saving Private Ryan, so enjoy these clips and remember that freedom isn't free.

And I may have shown this one before, but because of my Airborne heritage I'm showing it again: the jump into Normandy the night before the invasion, as depicted in Band of Brothers.

Finally, here's a scene from The Longest Day about the poor devils who were dropped over St. Mere Eglise right into the Germans' laps. I couldn't find an unedited clip--somebody superimposed snapshots of some of the real paratroopers from the time.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Drive Angry

Welcome to Schlock Theater 2013. Looks like Nicholas Cage signed up for a variation on Ghost Rider. Unfortunately there's no Eva Mendez this time, but the film makers compensated by replacing the flaming motorcycle with some (sometimes aflame) Detroit muscle.

The title comes from a license plate, BTW, not from what happens on the screen. Aside from a few burnouts there's no angry driving. For the highway shots, the cars usually move at a rip-snorting 40 mph.

There are some choices made by the film makers that I applaud, yet there's plenty of stupid crap to negate them. Best line in the movie: "I never disrobe before a gunfight."

Best watched with buddies while consuming mass quantities of beer.