Monday, November 17, 2014

On Sale Now: COMMANDO Operation Dervish (Book 4)
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North Africa, November 1941. Days before the British launch Operation Crusader, Corporal Lynch and the other Commandos are given the task of accompanying a makeshift strike force of British tanks and armoured cars deep into the Libyan Desert.
Their mission: carry out a series of lightning-fast raids against Axis bases, creating a diversion to confuse the enemy commanders in the critical hours before the British Eighth Army pours over the border into Libya.

Meanwhile, Afrika Korps Captain Karl Steiner guides a squadron of German panzers into the deep desert in order to provide warning against any British advances. The two forces, German and British, are on a collision course than can only end in blood and flames, littering the desert sands with slaughtered men and shattered tanks.

Operation Dervish is the fourth book in a series of military action - adventure novels written in the spirit of classic war movies and wartime adventure pulp fiction. 

I managed to get the ebook version of Operation Dervish out a little earlier than expected. I hope to have the trade paperback version out the first week of December at the latest. This book was a ton of fun to research and write, and features, if I may say so myself, some kick-ass action scenes. The big challenge of writing a series like this is keeping the stories fresh, and I think Operation Dervish pulls that off quite handily.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: TRENCH RAIDERS by Sean McLachlan
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TRENCH RAIDERS is a well-written historical war adventure story, short but tightly-paced and full of engaging characters and gripping action. Author Sean McLachlan has a lot of experience in writing historical reference materials for companies like Osprey Publishing, and he knows how to research a topic and bring it to life.

This novel starts out in the first few months of World War One. It is evident to anyone who has at least passing familiarity with the war that so many of its iconic images have yet to be developed. For instance, the trenches that give this series its name are only just being dug in temporary fashion as both sides come under heavy artillery and machine gun fire. Steel helmets aren't worn by either side yet, and the usual "charge across an open field and get shot to pieces" tactics are in full swing. Several well-placed hints by the author indicate how various developments are going to come about in the months and years to come, little "Easter eggs" for knowledgeable readers.

The story also features a good cast of characters, from the roguish shirker who'd rather be plundering farm houses than stand sentry duty, but who is still the man you want with you in a fight, to the stuffy officers eating their lunch with porcelain and silver while shells drop all about, to young educated gentlemen suddenly thrust nose-first into the horrors of 20th century warfare. I also liked how the story involved some of the French colonial troops, and showed the various socio-political relationships between them, the British, the Germans, and their French masters.

Overall, I think this is an excellent introduction to a series that has the potential for many volumes to come. The war has years to go and many, many battles yet to be fought before the end of 1918. I hope the author sticks to his guns, so to speak, and continues the journey his characters have started.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Movie Review: FURY (2014)

It's been two days, and I'm still processing my feelings about this movie. It was grim, brutal, intensely graphic, and both heroic and depressing at the same time. I walked out of the theater emotionally drained, and the three others I saw the movie with all seemed to feel the same way. If you are looking for an uplifting war movie (is there even such a thing?), walk away, because this ain't it.

The movie is set in April, 1945. For those of you who don't know, these are the last days of WW2 in Europe. The Americans and British are closing in on Berlin from the West, the Russians from the East. Victory for the Allies is utterly inevitable, and the only question is, how far will the Germans go in fighting to the last man, woman, and child before the war ends? At the time, Hitler was ordering the mobilization of the entire national population, forming barely-trained militia units armed with a hodge-podge of weapons, as well as a lot of reserve soldiers who'd previously been wounded or otherwise considered unfit for front-line service. Some of these "Volks" units were tenaciously fanatical, while some couldn't wait to encounter Americans or Brits so they could surrender, and were just happy they weren't facing the Russians!

On the Allied side, you have grim-faced veterans (such as the crew of the tank FURY), who've been fighting the Germans since late 1942 (or much earlier, if you weren't American). However, three years of hard fighting had resulted in considerable casualties, and a steady stream of fresh-faced recruits - many of whom were poorly trained - are heading to the front from "repple depples" or replacement depots. Many of these men are unfamiliar with the tasks and units they are assigned to, and the units they join react poorly to these new men, many of whom are taking the place of old comrades the veterans viewed as brothers. This strategy was one no one liked, and it was viewed, both during and after the war, as ultimately a bad decision on the part of military high command.

Also, particularly relevant to the film, and mentioned briefly in text at the beginning of the film, there was something of a disparity in combat performance between the American Sherman tank and the German panzers, particularly the mid-to-late war Panther, Tiger, and Tiger II tanks. I'm not going to dive headlong into a treatise on American and German tank doctrine and development during the war (although this article over at World of Tanks goes into it in some good detail). There were a lot of factors in play, and it was a much more involved issue than simply "Sherman tanks suck, Panzers kick ass". For one, while the Tiger tank had a much better gun and heavier armor, there were far fewer Tigers than Shermans, and they were slower, drank fuel faster, and were more mechanically unreliable than Allied tanks. Many Tigers were "lost" in the war simply because they ran out of gas, broke down, or bogged down and couldn't get unstuck, and were therefore abandoned by their crews. In addition, by the time of the movie, the Allies dominated the skies over Germany, and attack aircraft were always on the lookout for panzers in the open. Moving a German tank out from hiding during the daytime meant there was a good chance you'd be spotted and destroyed from the air.

With all that in mind, back to the movie. FURY is a tank crewed by Sergeant Collier, nicknamed "Wardaddy". Wardaddy's crew has fought for three years, from Africa to Germany. At the beginning of the movie we find the crew has just survived a big battle, and their tank was the only one to make it out of their platoon. "Red", the tank's assistant driver and bow machine gunner (Shermans had a .30 caliber machine gun mounted in the front of the hull), was messily killed in the battle, the only member of the tank crew to be killed in the three years they'd been fighting. FURY makes it back to HQ, and Wardaddy is immediately assigned Norman, a private who'd been in the army for just eight weeks, and who had been trained as a typist (think the scrawny little guy from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN who gets brought along because he speaks German). Norman has never even been inside a tank before, but because of the way the Replacement Depots work, and the desperate need for fresh bodies to fill gaps left by casualties, Wardaddy has no choice but to take Norman into his crew.

And what a crew they are. The three other men who live and fight with FURY are a salty lot, to be sure. Three years of hard fighting has driven these men right to the brink of sanity, and probably a bit beyond that brink. They're all filthy, the way only men who've been fighting in the front lines for so long can be filthy, and they all show signs of injuries old and new. And, while Wardaddy might be a callous, hard-bitten bastard, he seems to be the most held-together of the four crewmen, because the others act more like escaped mental patients than soldiers. As a way of introducing him to his new job, the crew have Norman clean the blood and gore left behind from his predecessor, a scene that also gives the viewer a very graphic look at how this movie will not pull any visual punches.

I don't want to give away too many good moments and plot points, so I'll just sketch out the rest. FURY joins up in several actions, and Norman gets a "hands on" taste for the real face of War, especially the "total war" Hitler has decreed against all sanity surrounding the circumstances of the war at this point. We see young teenage boys fighting and dying for the Fatherland in what are essentially suicide actions, and how the SS are killing Germans who refuse to fight against the Allies. For those who aren't well steeped in WW2 lore, we're shown that the SS are the biggest scumbags of the German army, and Norman is told to always kill them, no matter what, because they're the real fanatics. This notion actually comes back around in the final minutes of the movie in an unexpected way, and undermines Wardaddy's point somewhat, adding a needed layer of complexity to the usual notion of "Allies = Good, Axis = Evil".

There is also a short interlude involving the FURY crew and a pair of German women inside their apartment. It is just about the most emotionally intense scene of the movie, and that's saying something. After the film, we walked out and all agreed that the scene was done so well that we really had no idea which way it would go until it was over, a definite credit to the script, the acting, and the direction. Even halfway through the film, you are not so sure of these guys that you really have any idea what they'll do in a given situation. Also, there is a really disturbing monologue by Gordo, the driver, about the horrors of the Falaise Pocket (where a retreating German army was virtually annihilated by the Allies late in the summer of 1944). The speech really gives insight into the psychological damage these men have suffered over the course of the war.

Eventually, FURY and three other tanks are sent on a mission to hold down a crossroads and defend it against advancing German forces moving to intercept a supply train, which also includes a bunch of rear-echelon troops who'd get slaughtered if the Germans encounter them. Unfortunately, the tank platoon runs into a Tiger tank waiting for just such an opportunity, and the most talked-about scene of the movie unfolds. At first blush I wasn't as pleased with it as I could have been, but after thinking about it, I've come to feel it was done pretty damn well, certainly one of the best tank-vs-tank fights I've ever seen on film. The Tiger used in the battle is, by the way, Tiger 131, the only surviving - and fully operational - Tiger tank in existence. That the filmmakers were willing to bring this tank into the film - the only time a real Tiger has been used in a movie - speaks volumes for the degree of realism they wanted to achieve in the film's appearance.

Needless to say, FURY is the only survivor of the tank battle, and after a mine blows off one of the tank's tracks, they are stuck defending the crossroads alone, in a bad defensive position. Rather than running away, Wardaddy refuses to abandon FURY - his home - and tells the rest of the crew to escape while they can. Everyone is ready to run, but Norman, whose heart has hardened considerably in the last 24 hours, and who probably feels he's not going to make it through the war anyway, decides to stay. The remaining vets are still ready to leave, except that Boyd (played by Shia LaBeouf, in a surprisingly powerful performance throughout the film) stands fast and also agrees to remain. The rest of the crew reluctantly accept their fate, and the five men prepare to take on the several hundred men of an SS infantry battalion closing in on them.

The film's final fight is, to be fair, also the most unrealistic, but I think by this time, we've bought into the movie already, and it's what we want to see - five men in a steel fortress standing fast against wave after wave of fanatical enemies. If this is the scene that causes you to break faith with the film, then I feel like you didn't buy into the movie to begin with. FURY isn't meant to be realistic in the sense that "this might actually have happened", it is more of a war ballad, a story which focuses on the spiritual and emotional war between both sides, less than showing the true history of Unit A fighting Unit B at this place on that date. I suppose in some ways, that makes this movie a complement to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, another movie that focuses more on the heart and fighting spirit of the men and less on re-creating a historical narrative. Comparing the two, the overall uplifting nature of SPR in the first days of the Normandy invasion ("we're here to do a job and protect the world from evil" etc. etc.) is counter-balanced by FURY and the American fighting men ten months later, drained of all emotion save perhaps a sense of detached horror at "what a man can do to another man".

In the end, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie to anyone who can get through some really, really rough and brutal violence. People die in pretty nasty ways, and no punches are pulled. But I think it is worth seeing. WW2 nerds are going to be at it hammer and tongs for years over this film, both for it and against, but ultimately, this is a solid war picture that is going to stand tall for a long, long while.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: TAKE THESE MEN by Cyril Joly
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While re-reading BRAZEN CHARIOTS, Robert Crisp's memoir of serving in a tank regiment during Operation Crusader (you can read my review of Crisp's book here), I noticed a passage where he mentioned a comrade at the time, Cyril Joly, who went on after the war to write a novel about their experiences. Going to Amazon (of course) and doing a search for Joly, I found his novel - TAKE THESE MEN - and immediately ordered myself a copy.

This is one of the best war novels I've ever read. TAKE THESE MEN is a massive, epic story that takes the reader across the breadth of the North African desert, over more than three long years of war. The British first fight and defeat the Italians, only to face - and be initially defeated - by the Afrika Korps, followed by several years of nearly Trench War-like back and forth, contesting the same expanses of desert over and over again, fighting in amongst the wreckage of previous battles.

While both Crisp's and Joly's works are equally enjoyable, TAKE THESE MEN is much longer, probably three times as long, and much, much vaster in scope. While Crisp's memoir covers the battle one day at a time, Joly's work can often pass through weeks or months in a single chapter, but that in no way diminishes the intensity of its narrative. It is also worth noting for the technically-inclined tread-heads reading this, that Joly's main character fights in no less than four different tanks over the course of the war: the A9 Cruiser, a captured Italian M13/40, an M3 "Honey" Stuart, and finally, an M3 Grant medium tank. Joly does an excellent job of depicting combat with all four tanks, and how they each stacked up against the German panzers and anti-tank guns.

If you have any interest in the Desert Campaign of WW2, this book is a must-read. Although it is out of print, it does appear that you can acquire used copies here and there, and one hopes it'll eventually cycle back into print some time soon. If you can locate a copy, it is definitely worth adding it to your to-read pile, and if you're a student of WW2, this should be required reading.

Monday, September 22, 2014

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This was a surprisingly solid novel. I was dubious about the premise of a Die Hard-like story set in a Disney World analogue, but Rucka pulls it off with aplomb. The crafting of Wilsonville, from its history to the mythology behind the characters and the way in which they interact, was very well done - I think I'd rather vacation there than DW any day (well, except the day of the attack...).

Jad Bell is an interesting character, competent but at least moderately realistic in the sense that while he's your typical "Tier One" type, there are a number of little details that give him a surprising degree of humanity. The choice of making his teenage daughter deaf, and weaving in chapters written from her perspective, gives this story a very unique feel. I also appreciated the complexity of the sleeper agent, his relations with the other terrorists and his superior, and the chain of planning and events leading up to the attack. The door is definitely left wide open for more books in the series.

I have been a fan of Rucka's since he wrote the excellent spy comic QUEEN AND COUNTRY, and I read his Wolverine titles as well. He's written some Punisher too, although I haven't checked it out yet, but after reading ALPHA, I think I need to make it a priority. This novel is highly recommended, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player's Handbook - First Impressions

After all the waiting and anticipation of a new Dungeons and Dragons edition coming out, I'd completely forgotten that yesterday was the official release date. I'd intended to pick it up via Amazon for 40% off the cover price next month, but found myself near the local hobby store, and made the impulse decision to pick up the book at full price.

I'd only intended to give the book a cursory look last night, but I sat down with it about 6:30 or so, and didn't put it down until after 11:00.

I'm pretty impressed with the production values overall. I like the color of the paper, finding it a lot easier to read than the stark white of 4E, and not as dark (although I have to check) as 3E. The font is nice and readable even for me, and I like the use of Serif and Sans Serif fonts in certain places. A lot of thought was put into the overall typography and layout of the book, and it shows.

It took a bit, but I'm now completely sold on the artwork. I was never a fan of the 3E/4E art direction, finding it way too cartoonish and/or comic-bookish. There's nothing wrong with that on its own, but for a game that's supposed to be highly universal in the tones and settings it is applied towards, I think the overall look was too specific. The new art, on the other hand, does a good job of looking ahistorical, while at the same time, grounded in a "fantastical reality" - people actually look like people, creatures like actual creatures, and so forth. Art is terribly subjective and many will disagree with me, but I think it fits a perfect balance of the fantastical and the realistic, reminding me of some of the better 1E and 2E color art from back in the day (which, nostalgia aside, varied WIDELY in quality). Also, it was really great to see a lack of cheesecake art - no chain-mail bikinis or exaggerated "boob-plate" armor. All depictions of the female form were tasteful and again, grounded in a balance of fantasy and reality. This was a big win for me, as I feel it gives a very positive view of female PCs as something other than Black Widow-esque sexy femme fatales or nearly nude magical pixie maidens.

After a single skim through the whole rulebook, I spent most of my time reading the character creation material. I like the balance of the races and classes, some minor quibbles aside. Halflings are now much disengaged from their Hobbit origins, which is I suppose smart, but may alienate some purists. The Dragonborn and Tiefling races don't interest me at all, but since they are carry-overs from more recent editions, and I suppose were middilingly popular, I have no strong feelings either way. I suppose after 40 years, there's room for some original races! I also like that there's a lot of callbacks to how different D&D settings handled differences in the races, as well as discussions on how each race sees itself and other races interacting within the generic campaign setting framework.

As for classes, it was interesting to see how many and to how much of a degree characters have access to spells. Three different "arcane" classes, as well as Bards, Paladins, and Rangers getting much beefier spellcasting abilities (at least, as compared to what I remember). I might go so far as to say the pendulum has swung too far in giving too much access to spellcasting, but as so many multiclass combinations had to do with adding magic to a class, I suppose it makes sense.

I do feel as if the career paths start a little early at 3rd level, but in earlier editions by that point players already had a pretty firm grasp of what they wanted for their character. For the most part, I feel the paths are most reminiscent of 2E class kits, and while some of those back in the day were a little lame, others were really colorful and added a lot to the build. I've seen people complain that the paths are too binding, i.e., "Why can't I play just a plain old vanilla Fighter?", and I'm going to go out on a limb and guess the answers for this question - and many more - are to be found in the DMG.

There's a bunch more to comment on, but overall I'm definitely liking what I see. I felt 3E was too crunchy and bean-county for "Dungeons & Dragons", although I liked the move to a unified mechanic and a more modern (for the time) RPG design approach. I had little love for 4E, finding its attempt to make a tabletop RPG into a weird board game / video game just unappealing to my own personal sensibilities. 5E actually feels a lot like a blend of Castles & Crusades and Pathfinder, two games that were very well received, and I think overall that was a smart design choice. This game FEELS like "Dungeons & Dragons" should feel to me, after 40 years of game evolution.

Monday, August 4, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I'm not a huge comic book fan. Not because I dislike the medium - I think comics can tell some amazing stories - but because they can hook you into an obligation to buy more and more as your understanding and interest in the universe grows. Marvel has a huge line of comic titles stretching back decades, and it is really easy to lose track of what is going on with your favorite characters.

Because of this, I think Marvel Studios took a calculated risk when they decided on Guardians of the Galaxy to be their grand introduction to the greater, off-Terra setting that is the Marvel (Cinematic) Universe (aka, the MCU). Would the non-geeks understand what was going on? Would they have interest in the characters? Would it tie together with the previous movies in a meaningful way? Would audiences accept a talking raccoon with a machine gun and a walking plant-man as heroes?

Thankfully, I think the answer to all of the above is a resounding "Yes!".

This was an extremely well-crafted film, carefully designed to ease an unfamiliar audience into the vast, epic scale of the MCU. Starting on Earth in 1988, we meet the young Peter Quill on the night his mother dies of cancer, and Peter is abducted by aliens. We then fast-forward 26 years, to a dead planet, where we find Quill, now an artifact-hunting thief who (unsuccessfully) goes by the moniker of "Starlord". Smartly, the filmmakers tie the young boy to the man he's now become with one simple connection - the Walkman he had with him when he was abducted. Even if you were completely oblivious to the pre-screening promotions and knew nothing about Quill, the simple act of him putting on the headphones ties us back to that young boy on Earth, and we know just what's going on.

As an aside, the Walkman also serves as the instrument through which one of the movie's best features is presented - the soundtrack. For the last 26 years, Quill has been listening to "Awesome Mix Vol. 1", the cassette in the Walkman when he was abducted. It's full of great music and these tracks are used perfectly throughout the film, also providing a diegetic source for the soundtrack (a trick I usually really enjoy when done in a clever manner).

The plot of the story is actually pretty simple. Quill steals The Orb from the dead planet, and it turns out Ronan (the Big Bad Guy) wants it to do Bad Stuff. Ronan chases Quill and his ragtag band of unexpected allies across the galaxy. Will the Guardians figure out how to stop Ronan before he blows up the planet Xandar? Take a guess, hotshot. But while the plot is very basic, I think it serves as a good means of introducing the vastness of the MCU. You don't have to worry much about following a twisty-turny plot with complex character arcs, in addition to trying to figure out what the Kree Empire is, or who the Ravagers are. The information is delivered in succinct, bite-sized pieces, easily digestible by folks such as myself who couldn't tell you the difference between the Kree Empire and the Nova Empire if we tried.

This is probably a good time to mention another really strong aspect of this film - its great sense of humor. There are funny moments in all of the Marvel films, but GotG is the first to come across as a borderline comedy. There are moments which are laugh-out-loud funny, mostly orchestrated by Chris Pratt in his role as Peter Quill, but also Rocket Raccoon, the all-too-literal responses from Drax, and even the straight-man comments from many of the other characters. I don't think any of the other Marvel movies would have been able to get away with dropping "turd blossom" in the middle of a deadly serious moment and have it work, but GotG pulls it off in a way that feels natural to the spirit of the film; it is a rollicking adventure ride through space, filled with gun battles, spaceship fights, fisticuffs, madcap hijinks, and more than anything else, a great sense of fun. I've seen every film in the MCU lineup multiple times now, and Guardians of the Galaxy is easily the most "fun" film of the lot. I think that was a deliberate choice by Marvel (given a film with a trigger-happy raccoon, this makes sense), but it would have been all too easy for the fun-factor to come off gimmicky or forced.Thankfully here, that is not the case at all.

In conclusion, if you like fun, fast-paced sci-fi adventures, and/or you're a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think you'll enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy.