Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Review: OPERATION KILL IKE by Charles Whiting

First, apologies for posting a review of the fourth book in a series of six - this just happened to be the first book in the Destroyers series to reach me via the various meandering routes these used books are taking to get to me. I am now reading the first book in the series, OPERATION AFRIKA, and I'll be reviewing it as soon as I finish it.

Charles Whiting is probably one of, if not *the* most prolific writer of WW2 fiction out there, having penned a number of series over the years under several different pen names (such as "Leo Kessler"). This series, the Destroyers, centers on a British army lieutenant, Richard Crooke, VC, who won that medal in the failed attempt to kill Rommel during Operation Flipper. Crooke was a colonel then, but gets busted back to second lieutenant for punching a general in the face when Crooke's request to return to North Africa is denied (all of this is laid out in the beginning of Operation Afrika, by the way).  The series, as best as can be determined, was originally titled "The Dirty Devils", a play off of "The Dirty Dozen" (written a decade before this series was penned) of course, but someone must have realized that wasn't actually a good thing, and renamed them the Destroyers, as the later books post-Afrika refer to them as such, although the "devils" term is still used a couple of times in KILL IKE.

EDIT: After some more digging, it appears that "The Destroyers" is the UK name for this series, and when it was brought over to the US, it was renamed "The Dirty Devils", no doubt to play off of the name recognition of The Dirty Dozen. 

Crooke leads a four-man team of scumbags, all of whom have been given prison sentences at one point or another, and they're basically let out of jail to go run amok against the German army on various "dirty" missions, sent on their way by one Mallory, a commander in British Naval Intelligence. The Destroyers are comprised of one Cockney Brit, one half-English, half-Egyptian thief, one Yank, and one defected German. I do like the idea that the unit is multi-national, although it does play into a lot of caricatures (a not-too-terrible problem with such pulpy fare).

In OPERATION KILL IKE, the Destroyers are sent to the front lines in the Ardennes Forest, famous for the Battle of the Bulge. They are to meet a German scientist who has a bottle of "heavy water" that Allied scientists need to analyze in order to determine how close the Germans are to building an atomic bomb. However, when they get to their rendezvous, the scientist is dead, although the bottle is intact, and the German offensive kicks off just as they're trying to make their way back to friendly lines. As they try to fall back, they encounter an American soldier named Weed, a very innocuous-seeming fellow, but it turns out that Weed is actually a German Abwehr agent, who's been sent behind the lines to - of all things - find and assassinate General Eisenhower. The Destroyers then enter into a cat-and-mouse game across France as they try to catch Weed before he completes his mission, which would throw the Allies into such a state of disarray that the Germans (might) have a chance of throwing back the Western front long enough to turn their full attention towards the Russians.

Overall, this was a pretty interesting read. There was a lot less combat than I expected, mostly because of the investigative nature of the mission, but there were a few short fights here and there, and a goodly amount of tension. Whiting as a writer doesn't focus that heavily on the "gun porn" aspects of the action, keeping things breezy and using typical slang like "tommy guns" and "schmeissers", which is again perfectly fine for writing like this. The book is also a very quick read, and easily finishable in either one long evening or over the course of a lazy weekend.

You can find these used paperbacks online (I found all of mine through various used booksellers on Amazon), and although they might be a bit on the pricey side, if this sort of pulp WW2 fare is your cup of tea, you're probably willing to pay for these vintage paperbacks. I still paid less than ten bucks apiece per book - still not cheap, but half of the cost was typically wrapped up in shipping, anyway.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Movie Review: MAD MAX - FURY ROAD

It has been many years - too long, really - since I've seen any of the original three Mad Max movies in their entirety. I know I've seen THE ROAD WARRIOR a couple of times, but it's probably been over 20 years since I've seen the first or third movies. Still I know I enjoyed them all, and I'm a big fan of post-apocalyptic movies like these, relying on desolation and desperation rather than a zombie outbreak as their main settings.

So when they announced FURY ROAD, and I saw the first pictures and the trailers, I knew I was going to be first in line for this new movie. Thankfully, through a connection with a couple of friends and podcasters over at Nerd Spastics, I was able to score early premiere tickets due to Boston Comic-Con's movie promotions. I saw this film last week, and I have to say, I was utterly floored by how much of an incredible spectacle it was.

The plot of the movie is pretty dead-simple. Mad Max is captured by the "War Boys" of Immortan Joe, a warlord living in a massive fortress carved into the side of a mesa. He controls water and food and commands an army of young, fearless men, who follow him without question because he's indoctrinated them all with a Viking-esque belief in Valhalla, where he will make sure they will go if they die gloriously in his service.

Given his relative good health and lack of mutation or disease, Max is set up as a blood donor for the War Boys, many of whom have diseases or tumors and need regular transfusions to live. When Imperator Furiosa, one of Joe's war-rig drivers, goes rogue and escapes with all of Joe's "brides" (aka, sex slave breeding stock), Joe sends out all of his Boys to hunt her down. Nux, one of the younger drivers, is getting a transfusion from Max, and to ensure he doesn't miss any of the action, brings Max along, chained to the front of his car while still transfusing blood via IV needle.

Thus begins a massive, insane chase across the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Australia, as Furiosa and her war-rig try to escape Immortan Joe's seemingly endless horde of other war-rigs, armored cars, and motorbikes. Along the way they run into several different factions in the wasteland, some of them allies of Joe's, some of them hostile to everyone. It doesn't really matter who they are, because in this hellscape, resources are thin, and everyone is a potential source of something you're willing to kill for - bullets, gasoline, food, whatever.

Overall, the movie is an amazing assault on the senses. The score is brutal and powerful and perfect for this kind of insane road-rage taken to its natural conclusion (one of Joe's war-rigs is a massive war-stereo on wheels, complete with war-dummers and a gimp-like madman guitarist thrashing away on a guitar that doubles as a flamethrower). On the big screen, the wanton destruction of men and machines, all moving at suicidally high speeds, looks just phenomenal. While I am sure aspects of the action sequences were augmented with CG effects, all the major action looks like it is (amazingly) practical, real-life carnage of cars smashed into other cars at high speed, with fire and smoke and flaming pieces of twisted metal spinning through the air. The whole effect, from the sound to the visuals, it utterly mesmerizing.

I have to give special props to the folks who handled the production design. Everything looks totally organic to the world in which they're living, from the rusty, beatup weapons to the improvised machinery, to the cobbled together vehicles and their own armor and weapons (like the bucket loader turned into some kind of anti-vehicle weapon, or the buzzsaw on the mechanical arm). Those of you who are fans of the Warhammer 40,000 universe will see how the Orks' love of high-speed mechanical death fits perfectly into this world (and was, indeed, influenced heavily by the Mad Max universe). It feels to me like that influence has reflected back, when you consider this Ork Battlewagon Model:

Or perhaps, one of the Ork Wartrukks:

This isn't a movie that's deep in any meaningful way, it is simply a story of a contest of wills, two forces pitted against each other in the middle of the desert. The Mad Max world has always, for me, been a mythology - a series of campfire tales, told generations after they'd taken place, perhaps to eventually make their way into history books when the world finally picked itself up and began to put itself back together again, centuries later. If you watch these movies with too literal an eye, they might begin to fall apart, but if you think of them like post-apocalyptic version of the Iliad or Odyssey, they make more sense in my opinion.

In conclusion, if you enjoyed the original movies, and if you're more a fan of post-apocalyptic stories that don't involve zombies or viruses or games of hunger, go and see this film. I highly recommend seeing this in the theater, because it simply won't have the same impact on your TV, or - god forbid - on your computer screen.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: MEKONG! by James R. Reeves

I first read this book when I was a wee lad, probably about 10 or 11 years old. I may have read it again some time in either junior high or high school, but either way, it'd probably been 25+ years since I'd read MEKONG! last. I had a few memories of the book, and remember it was violent and cool (for a kid obsessed with war fiction) and very dark and disturbing at the same time.

In recent months, I'd discussed with several people the idea of writing a story set in Vietnam. While Jamie Lynch (of KILLER INSTINCTS and HANGMAN) is a Vietnam vet, I wasn't sure if I was ready to tackle the war in anything but anecdotes and flashbacks, but it'd been a long time since I'd read any Vietnam war stories. A few years ago I read MATTERHORN, an excellent Vietnam novel, but it is a huge tale, and much more literary than I was expecting at the time. I wanted to get back to the older, slightly pulpier 'Nam stories of my youth.

So, I bought MEKONG! used via Amazon. It is interesting to see the reviews - four of them, evenly split between 5-star and 1-star. Those who gave five stars found it an engaging and well-written story, while those who give it one star condemn the book on the grounds of Stolen Valor. The author, James R. Reeves, claimed he wrote the book after interviewing the protagonist, a former Navy SEAL who'd served in Vietnam. Apparently, James C. Taylor never served in 'Nam, nor was he a SEAL - he was a Navy mechanic, stationed stateside.

Now, I have no idea what actually took place to bring this book together and get it published. It is apparently the author's first novel, and it was put out by Ballantine books, a major publisher. I'm skeptical of the notion that Reeves was able to go through the whole publishing process without anyone questioning if Taylor was the real deal, so either Reeves lied to Ballantine, Taylor fooled Reeves, or Ballantine worked with Reeves (and possibly Taylor) to pump up the "true life" aspect of the book. Any of the above could have happened in one fashion or another, and I doubt anyone involved cares one way or another at this point.

While I am disappointed that this isn't an actual novelization of someone's SEAL tour in Vietnam, as far as a war novel goes, it is pretty damn good. The characters of Tyler and Brewster, Chief and Poppa and Lieutenant Commander Grey all come to life and resonate well during the reading. There's a lot of action and reflection, a lot of anger and yet, some great laughs along the way. The story of the bar and the attack dog is great, as are a few of the other light moments. The story really does a solid job of depicting "guys in war", with all the good and bad that comes with that.

There's a lot of violence, too. There are multiple chapters with combat in them, from killing sentries to full-blown battles and firefights, to riverboat attacks and ambushes. There's a pretty graphic description of a sentry being garroted by a length of piano wire that'd stuck with me since the first time I'd read the book. There's also an ad-hoc post-mortem of a dead VC where the damage done by various weapons is broken down (the characters are rather distainful of the M-16's 5.56mm round, and Tyler acquires an M-14, which he carries for the rest of his tour). There are a few other scenes of graphic violence involving booby traps that are highly disturbing, as they should be, of course.

Overall, this is a pretty solid, entertaining war novel, especially as someone's rookie effort. Setting the problem of Stolen Valor aside, it does a good job of reading as a memoir as well as a novel, and I think probably comes pretty close to hitting the mark as to the attitudes and actions of Riverine sailors and SEALS in the ~1970 time frame, as the war turned more and more to "Vietnamization" of the war effort, training and handing duties over to the ARVNs. Paperbacks can be had for a song on Amazon, so if you've got an interest in the subject matter, check it out.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Cover for COMMANDO: Operation Archery

My cover artist for the COMMANDO series, Ander Plana, sent me the cover for the latest book, Operation Archery. The novel covers the Commando raid of Vaagso, Norway at the end of December, 1941. The Vaagso raid was the first large-scale Commando raid of the war, involving the whole of 3 Commando, as well as elements from Numbers 2, 4, and 6 Commando, along with a squad from the 1st Independent Norwegian Company, formed in exile in Britain. Along with the Commando forces, the Royal Navy sent along several warships to provide bombardment firepower, and the RAF sent a number of long-range fighters and light bombers. So, in addition to being the largest Commando raid thus far in the war, it was the first raid fully utilizing a "combined arms" approach, supporting the raiding infantry elements with naval and air power.

Writing Operation Archery will definitely be a challenge. While it is a very well-documented raid, this will be the first book in the series that fictionalizes a completely historical event, and I'll be weaving my fictional characters around historical figures and their exploits. This is a task that is always tricky, because while you want the fictional characters to shine in your story, you also don't want to detract from or diminish the actions of the historical figures, something that is often treated as a cardinal sin by fans of historical fiction.

Turning back to the cover of the latest book, I spent quite a while discussing with Ander the style and action on the cover. We agreed to flip the color scheme used in all previous covers and go with an all-white cover with black lettering, something that better fits the daytime winter environment of the raid. In addition, when deciding what the illustration on the cover would depict, we agreed that Ander would draw heavy inspiration from an actual photograph taken during the raid. I'm really happy with how this turned out, because I feel that anyone familiar with Operation Archery will recognize the inspiration behind my novel's cover, and I hope they'll appreciate the reference.

I hope to have Operation Archery out and on sale by mid-spring. As always, I'll make an announcement here, but if you want to receive word of the book's release, feel free to sign up for my mailing list.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

My 2015 Prospective Writing Projects

Whenever I have a book idea, one of the things I do for fun is to draft up a simple cover design that conveys the feel of the book. It is both a focusing and motivational technique for me, and although some of the covers will never result in stories - at least in 2015 - I thought I might share a few of them as a sort of "teaser" for the rest of the year. Keep in mind, these are just draft covers, and might change considerably before the titles (maybe, eventually) go to print. Any and all feedback is certainly welcome!

HANGMAN #2: Battle for the Blacktop. The next book in the HANGMAN series. Ex-Green Beret Sergeant Jamie Lynch is hired to provide protection for a long-haul trucking company when attacks by a gang of outlaw bikers threaten to ruin the business. Not only must Lynch take on a roaring pack of chain-swinging, gun-wielding, maniacs, he must figure out who is backing the outlaws and attempting to ruin the trucking company. It'll be death by bullet, blade, and bumper along the highways and back roads of southern California.

KANSAS KILLERS, the sequel to RENEGADE'S REVENGE. Paul and David Miller decide to leave Missouri and head west, but as they ride into Kansas, they find themselves dodging both U.S. Cavalry patrols and packs of roving Jayhawkers, many of whom are now little more than murderous, pillaging outlaws. When the Miller brothers save a young woman from death at the hands of a pair of Jayhawker bandits, they find themselves on the run from a dozen more, as the band's leader seeks revenge for the deaths of his men.

STREET SWEEPER, a vigilante cop novel set in Boston, 1985. Detective Nick Malone used to be a good cop, always playing by the rules. But when Malone makes a move against the Irish mob, the rules set free the gangsters who killed Malone's partner. Unable to find justice while working within the bounds of the law, Malone decides the rules don't just need to be bent, they need to be blown away. Maintaining the facade of a good cop by day, Malone cleans up the streets of Boston at night by sweeping away the filth with a loaded shotgun and a magnum revolver.

KRUEGER #1: Boston Bloodbath. Another Boston-based story, set in 1921. Krueger is a former German storm-trooper who'd fought in the trenches and no-man's land of the Great War for four bloody years. Wounded by bullet, blade, and bomb shell, Krueger survived and returned to the front again and again, a killing machine who just wouldn't die. Now a wandering soldier of fortune, Krueger is hired by a gang of bootleggers fighting to dominate the black-market liquor trade in Boston. But when you hire Krueger to fight your battles, you better be prepared for all-out war..

PANZER ACE: Crushing Poland. Cannons roar and tank treads grind men into pulp as the Blitzkrieg of the Third Reich rolls into Poland. Panzer commander Victor Krieger has no allegiance in his heart for Hitler and his gang of Nazi thugs, but he is a soldier born and bred, and the business of fighting is what he knows best, the razor's edge between life and death the only place he calls home. Krieger pits the armaments and armor of his Panzer against waves of stout-hearted Polish defenders, where quarter is neither asked, nor given. It is war at its ugliest and most savage, just the way Krieger likes it.

DOGFACES: A Day at the Beach. It'll be one hell of a summer's day for Private Jonathan "Jack" Russell and the other men of Dog Company. Along with Captain Collier, Lieutenant Shepherd, Sargent Barker, Corporal Basset, and all the rest, Russell finds himself bobbing around off the Normandy coastline, about to hit the bloody beaches of Fortress Europe and drive back the Germans one hard-fought step at a time. Unfortunately for the men of Dog Company, the same cosmic prankster that put them all together in the same outfit is going to make surviving their day at the beach tougher than a concrete pillbox.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 2014 Writing in Review

Two years ago, I wrote a piece called "In 2013, Always be Closing". The year after that, I laid down a 2014 Short Story Challenge. This year, I want to take a look at the past twelve months, where it has brought me, and where I'm going from here.

In 2014, I sold a little over 7,600 copies of my various works, roughly half of everything I've ever sold in the past 3 1/2 years, and 800 more than in 2013. That figure averages out to a little under 21 sales a day over the course of the year. Granted, in the third quarter of the year my daily averages dropped to significantly less than that, but I had a strong opening to the year with the release of Operation Cannibal around Thanksgiving of 2013, as well as a couple of really strong Kindle Countdown Sales during the first quarter. In addition, I'm finishing off the year with a very strong past six weeks, thanks to the release of Operation Dervish, which has sold over 460 copies so far.

I lay out all of the above so that people can decide for themselves how successful I am, and do some comparative analysis with their own and others' sales figures. I was glad to see overall sales increase substantially, and royalties increase as well (I made about a thousand dollars more this year than last year), but it certainly wasn't a bowl-me-over sales year. Let's break it down...

The COMMANDO series made up about 81 percent of my total sales this year, utterly dominating all my other titles. With four novels and a short story, that's certainly understandable, but it is important to point out how much my sales figures depend on this series. Without it, I wouldn't be breaking a hundred sales a month on average. In addition, while I used to sell at least twice as many copies in the UK as in the US every month, the ratio is now mostly even, and with my new title in the series so far, I'm selling far more US copies. There are probably a variety of factors at play here, from the much larger Amazon customer base in the US, to what might be a more saturated genre market in the UK (there are several UK-based WW2 series that aren't available as ebooks in the US), the dominance of the UK sales region is now firmly over.

RENEGADE'S REVENGE was a surprise hit for me this year. I sold a little over 700 copies of this title in eight months, accounting for roughly nine percent of my total sales this year. Since a significant number of these were Kindle Unlimited borrows, I actually made pretty good money off of this title, especially given that it was originally written as a project that failed to launch. For many years, publishers and critics considered the Western genre one of the worst-selling, but there seems to be a resurgence in the last few years, both in re-releasing old titles as ebooks, as well as original content. I fully intend to write a sequel to RR at some point in the next year, and maybe a few other standalone Westerns as time goes on - it is certainly a fun genre to write in, with a great blend of action, adventure, and history.

SPIDERS & FLIES was released at the beginning of the year, and has gone nowhere since. It sold 28 copies in 12 months, 18 of those in the first month of its release. The few reviews it received were positive, and people seemed to like the cover art, but the title simply doesn't sell, even when I have tried free giveaways. Considering its poor performance, and that of NANOK, while I'm glad I finally got around to finishing and publishing this piece, I think even if I can write decent fantasy stories, it isn't worth my time or energy. I doubt I'd even write a sequel to this title, but while I do have several NANOK stories in mind, that's where they're going to stay for the foreseeable future, until I have enough "legroom" to take a chance on writing them.

HANGMAN #1: SAN FRANCISCO SLAUGHTER was also well received by both beta readers and those who've written reviews. However, it did not take off like I'd hoped it would. I sold about 130 copies in the six months it's been out, better than S&F but terrible even compared to RR. I have a number of sequels in mind for this series, and perhaps with an additional couple of titles it'll have more appeal, but so far, I'm not that hopeful. Still, I really enjoyed writing the book, especially since it allowed me to ramp up the "mature content" compared to the COMMANDO titles. SFS contains a lot of swearing, a little sex, and some very cruel violence. It is definitely a darker work, and getting out of my morally-cleaner mindspace was definitely interesting.

KILLER INSTINCTS continues to perform terribly. More than a few people still feel my first novel is the best thing I've written, and I certainly believe it is a good, solid story. I did a cover change for the ebook mid-year, and a couple of promotions helped bring in more sales, but of the roughly 350 copies sold in 2014 (~4.5% of my total sales), at least half were during promotions, meaning I made nowhere near the money I could have with those numbers. Next year I would like to get the title into a BookBub promotion, which would be amazing, but I don't have high hopes. In a market choked with thrillers of all stripes, KI goes largely unnoticed. I would still love to write a sequel to this book, but at this point in time, I feel it would fail to thrive just as KI did, a pointless gesture.

In conclusion, I face some tough choices. It is clear that my niche genre titles (WW2 and Westerns) sell much more than my more mainstream genre works (thrillers, crime, fantasy). COMMANDO titles and RENEGADE'S REVENGE make up ninety percent of my sales this year. Clearly, this is where my focus should lie, but on the other hand, I don't want to limit myself in terms of what to write. Writing is not my full-time job, nor will it be for the foreseeable future, meaning I am not as much a slave to the market as I could be were it my only income. And, in addition, I might stumble upon another genre with a title that's more popular than I'd imagined. Certainly, when I wrote both the first COMMANDO title, as well as RR, I never anticipated their degree of success.

In a few days, I hope to follow this column with one discussing my hopes for 2015. Until then, Happy New Year!

Friday, December 19, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Gates of Hell - StuG Command '41

I was curious about a WW2 novel focusing not only on the Germans (of which there are many), but on the StuG assault gun - a fighting vehicle overshadowed by the mighty "Panzer" but just as, if not even more, important. I did notice the title received very mixed reviews, but the price was cheap and I took a chance.

Overall, I have to say this is a flawed book. The story of the siege of Brest-Litovsk is an interesting one, and there's certainly great opportunity for an incredible amount of action and drama. Unfortunately, the book immediately stifles any expectation of said action and drama by choking the reader with an overwhelming amount of exposition over the course of the first third of the book. In fact, the beginning of the invasion doesn't take place until literally 33% of the way through the novel. There are some brief discussions of past combats - especially during discussions of the characteristics of the Russian soldier - but they're not even delivered as flashbacks, just conversations about past events. Along with these are multiple grinding discussions of the various technical details of the StuG III, the Nebelwerfer rocket mortar, the protocols for air support and ground forces signalling to each other, and so forth.

Even once the book takes off and the real plot of the story begins, there are a number of areas where the story bogs down. One particularly irritating example was when a character gets sent back behind the lines for training in Morse signalling, and we are subjected to multiple lectures - yes, lectures - on Morse code and its usage. That Morse signals are tied into a small plot thread at the end of the book makes little difference, and making the reader suffer through so much nonsense, only for it to matter so little, proved doubly frustrating.

With all of the above, I felt justified in knocking a star off the rating. But in addition, the novel doesn't really even focus all that much on the "StuG Command" itself. Although the reader is stuck with the StuG "command" for most of the first third of the book, once the attack begins, the book shifts back and forth multiple times, and by the end, spends most of the action with a German Brandenburger who'd infiltrated the fortress. Since I bought the book largely to read about StuGs battling it out with the Russians at the kickoff to Barbarossa, I thought this book really missed the mark. It really should have been crafted/sold as the Siege of the Russian fortress of Brest-Litovsk, which was a long, bitter, horrible struggle anyway.

Also, I'm not sure what to make of the whole "Ritter Von Krauss" as the real author angle. According to the blurb at the end of the book, this title as well as the book "Tiger Command" and a host of other, unpublished works were originally penned by a German officer whose pen name was Ritter Von Krauss. There's a long "biography" about this German soldier-turned-author, but it smacks of nonsense, and some web searching reveals nothing. Surely there'd be a little more out there about this guy if he'd really written dozens of manuscripts for books after the war, so I feel like this is all made up to lend some hackneyed "authenticity" to the story, just as the book's subtitle calls it a "true" account.

All in all, for three bucks, it's not a bad read. Although the prose can be a little dense at times (and all those SS ranks get a little mind-numbing to read over and over again), it isn't badly written for what it is, and as a book about the opening moves of the German invasion of Russia, it's interesting. I do advise skimming over the first third of the book VERY quickly, though. Almost nothing you learn there plays much significant relevance to the rest of the story.