Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Review: The Hunted by James Reasoner

A few months ago, I bought and read James Reasoner's long-lost, but recently e-published novel Diamondback.  I will review that book here shortly, but suffice to say that it was good enough and piqued my interest enough in Reasoner's work that I went out and bought his 1997 novel The Hunted for the Kindle.  It was actually the first book I read on my new Kindle, and while I'll have a short article soon about my impressions of the device, I will say that it was a pleasure to use.

The Hunted follows the adventures of Evan Littleton, a Confederate soldier who has spent two years in a Yankee prison camp until the end of the Civil War, at which point he is turned loose and walks all the way back to his home in Texas.  Or what used to be his home - he discovers that a lot has changed in the four years since he has been gone, and now Evan must range across much of West Texas in order to find his children and bring them together again.

Trouble seems to rear its head wherever Evan goes, and the former soldier finds himself pitted against the Texas State Police, squatting carpetbaggers, outlaws and bandits, marauding Indians, Mexican renegades - a whole rogue's gallery of ne'er do wells and scoundrels.  At the same time, however, Evan also meets and befriends a number of honest, compassionate people who help him in his quest.  The story shows you the best and the worst of human nature and how Evan handles both extremes is both entertaining and heart-warming.

While I have seen my fair share of western films, I haven't read many novels.  These days, the Western is a mostly forgotten genre (and according to John Locke in his kindle publishing "how to" book, the western is the worst-selling fiction genre on Amazon).  But it wasn't too long ago that many of our culture's most profound and engaging stories emanated from westerns fiction.  There is something so perfectly archetypal about a Wild West tale that you can't help but be pulled into these stories, and yet, not all of it is fiction; there were gunfighters, marauders, bandits, noble farmers, drunkards and whores, fortunes made and fortunes lost.  The Hunted isn't an epic story, but in a way - sure it is!  You can see a touch of The Odyssey deep down in there, mixed in with a number of other classic "quest" stories.

As an aside, coming from a background of almost twenty years playing pen-and-paper tabletop role-playing games, I find it curious that while the Wild West is the archetype frontier environment upon which Dungeons and Dragons was built, there have only been a tiny handful of Western-themed role-playing games, and none of them have really been extraordinarily popular.  I guess it is a credit to the genre that so many of its themes are, instead, ported to other places - fantasy worlds, science fiction and post-apocalyptic settings - where the themes work just as well.

So if you're looking for a fast, fun, easy read, and you've been intrigued by the western genre but haven't yet dipped your toe, give The Hunted a try.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hatchet Force Journal #1 Receives Warm Reception

My new action-adventure e-zine, Hatchet Force Journal, went live on a week ago.  I've been averaging a few sales a day, enough so I know it's not just a handful of loyal readers who're always commenting on this site.  It's an exciting but nerve-wracking feeling to know that people you've probably never even corresponded with are now buying your product, but that's what happens when you take the Big Leap and click "Save and Publish".

So far the responses I've gotten have been great.  Jim Cobb over at Survival Weekly declares that HFJ is "...awesome drenched in win".  Jim makes an especially insightful comment about my essay, The Children of Vietnam, noting how I discuss "...the interesting dichotomy of being part of a generation who grew out of the hippy and counter-culture movements, yet became fascinated with violent movies, gory books, and really what should be considered to be the early days of torture porn."

Adventure and westerns author James Reasoner writes over at Rough Edges that HFJ is "...a fine piece of work".  James was, as best as I can figure, the second person to purchase the Journal, and he was kind enough to give me a lot of good advice in private about what can be done to make it better.  I'm currently reading one of James' e-book westerns, The Hunted, and it's a lot of fun.

Special Forces veteran and weapons expert Jack Murphy, who can now add "Self-Published Badass" to his resume, gave a review of HFJ over at Reflexive Fire, noting "Overall, Issue One is a solid effort and much more worthy of a periodical reader’s time than what is frequently available on physical news stands".   Jack's new paramilitary action novel Reflexive Fire  went on sale the same day as the Journal, and if you're a fan of action, intrigue, and conspiracy, you need to check it out.

Paul Bishop over at his super-cool blog Bish's Beat put up a promotional post, and over at Amazon he was kind enough to give me a concise and almost embarrassingly good review.  Bish says HFJ "...kicks off a whole new world, not only for Men's Action and Adventure novels, but for the whole concept of fan-type zines for niche interests. That said, The Hatchet Force Journals is one of the most professional entries in the field. Good articles, great interviews, and strong reviews".  Bish has just re-released a couple of his own book as e-books, namely Hot Pursuit and Deep Water.  Do the man a solid and check 'em out.

I've received a number of other positive responses, both public and private, and they have all been very encouraging.  I've requested from a number of professionals that they give me an "extraordinarily blunt" critique of the first issue, and even when there were a number of suggestions for improvement, as well as praises for what definitely worked, all have said they thoroughly enjoyed the Journal's debut.

With Issue #1 barely out the door, I'm already planning #2.  From here on in, every issue is going to  have a featured theme, plus a number of regular columns focusing in various topics.  The theme for Issue 2 is going to be "21st Century Action & Adventure" and will focus on movies, books, and other adventure media from the last 10 years.  I'm aiming for a release date some time in the second half of August.

Thank you all again for your support!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Book Review: THE DEAD MAN #4 The Dead Woman

Fourth in the DEAD MAN series of short action-adventure stories published by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin, The Dead Woman is written by David McAfee, who has a number of titles in both print and eBook editions up on Amazon.  McAfee drops our (un?)dead hero Matthew Cahill in the small town of Crawford, Tennessee.  Of course, as luck would have it, there's been a serial killer on the loose in town, and pretty quickly Matt gets himself embroiled in the local drama.  Offering to aid Abbey, a young woman trying to close up her mother's antiques shop, Matt runs afoul of Abbey's ex-husband, Dale, one of the town's police officers.  Killers, cops, and beautiful young ladies, oh my...

I won't ruin the plot by giving much else away, but Matt winds up discovering that he is not the only person to possess his gift of seeing the evil within a person's soul manifested as rot and decay eating away at their bodies.  There is also more conflict with Mr. Dark, the ancient and demonic entity who torments Matt on his adventures.  We are given glimpses of more layers beneath other layers; the plots of the DEAD MAN stories continue to shed light on something much more elaborate, perhaps even epic, taking place with Matt caught in the middle having far more questions than answers.

The DEAD MAN series has gone on for some months now, with several more books on the way, and it is in no danger of growing stale.  In fact, with each new author comes a new perspective, a new lens through which we are viewing this twisted world.  While The Dead Woman doesn't have the jaw-dropping gratuity of Ring of Knives or the brutal violence of Hell in Heaven, there is found in The Dead Woman one of the more well-developed and interesting secondary characters thus far, and I hope this isn't the last time Matt runs into this character again.  Maintaining each of the DEAD MAN stories as its own complete episode, while at the same time drawing out an overarching plot that pulls us along, this series has legs enough to carry us through for many more installments to come.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hatchet Force Cover Gets A Pro Makeover

What do I find upon waking up this morning? A couple of e-mails from Christopher Mills, a fellow whose blogs I've been following for several years now.

And what does Sir Christopher have for me in said e-mails?  Why, a professionally re-designed cover for HFJ#1, of course:

When I originally designed the Hatchet Force cover, I drew heavily from the old vintage paperback covers (the font I picked is as close as I could get to the font used for the Phoenix Force books) as well as old 70's and 80's Soldier of Fortune magazine covers. 

But it's not 1981 anymore, and Christopher saw that my cover needed a little modern pop! to give it some bite.  I couldn't be happier with the results.

I'm taking on Christopher as my cover layout and design artist from here on out, and will be sure to offer up my firstborn to a god or godling of his choice as a sign of my appreciation for his support.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jack Murphy's Reflexive Fire Coming This Week

Former US Army Special Forces Sergeant Jack Murphy's debut novel, Reflexive Fire, will be hitting Amazon's Kindle store this week.  I've read Reflexive Fire, and it is one of the coolest, hardest-hitting military action thrillers I've read in a long while.  Think a mix of 80's anti-terror commando novels a la Phoenix Force or Able Team, mixed with some Tom Clancy techno-thriller (only fun to read) and sprinkle on a little bit of the computer game Deus Ex, and you'll come close to what Jack has achieved with this novel.

Books like Reflexive Fire are what independent e-publishing is all about.  This isn't "Amazon Spam", or "The Drivel of the Masses", this is a solid, well-written novel that is a true pleasure to read, and it's going to be published without any gatekeepers, without any ivory towers, and with the majority of the profits going into Jack's worthy hands.  Exactly as it should be in this day and age.

This is the action-adventure renaissance I am championing with the release of Hatchet Force Journal.  I uploaded the file to Amazon last night; the Journal is "in review" and should be available in the next day or so.  As soon as it's up and ready for business, you'll all be the first to know.

Congratulations to Jack Murphy for his debut novel - I'm hoping to see many more to come.

Friday, June 17, 2011

My Decision to Price Hatchet Force at $2.99

When I originally decided to put together and sell an eJournal built around my interest in action-adventure fiction, my gut reaction was to make it as cheap as commercially possible.  You can't sell anything on Amazon cheaper than $0.99, so that was going to be my initial price point.

But in reading a lot about independent e-publishing and pricing, I have seen a number of people making solid arguments against pricing your wares "as low as you can go".  For one, the buyer will look at the price of the product as a reflection of the creator's value of their own work.  You sell something too cheap, the buyer is wondering if there's a reason you feel it is of such little value.  Selling something at $2.99 helps say "I think this is worth more than the absolute lowest price I can charge". 

Another, more personal argument is that giving the product a more respectable price means I am taking the project more seriously.  I've been promoting action-adventure fiction for ten years now, and what first started as simply a preference in reading and a desire to talk to other fans has now become a commercial venture for me.  Giving this product a serious price tag helps solidify in my mind that this is a serious undertaking, and I have been investing a lot of time and effort into learning as much as I can about e-publishing, contacting and communicating with contributors, and promoting the work as best I can. 

Also, I hate to say it, but $2.99 makes this venture much more profitable.  I've seen arguments for the theory that pricing a book at $0.99 means you'll get more sales and make up for the lower profits, but the arguments against this idea look much stronger.  The way Amazon sets the royalties for independent publishing, a product sold at $2.99 gives 70% of the profit to the author, while $0.99 only gives 30%.  This means pricing at the lower value, I'd have to sell more than six times the number of copies at the lower price to make the same royalties as a $2.99 product.  Many authors have actually seen sales figures (not profits, but actual numbers of sales) go up with the higher price; I think that is a solid argument for my first point above; that the higher price gives the buyer more confidence in a better product.

Finally, I don't really think for a niche product like HFJ a price difference between $0.99 and $2.99 is going to sway a purchase one way or another; either you think this is a product worth investing a few bucks to buy, or you're not the sort of person who'd probably read the Journal in the first place.  For those fence-sitters out there who'd actually reconsider - hey, skip the three dollar iced coffee, and invest in some quality reading material instead!

I'm still aiming for a June 20th release date, hoping to put the Journal up on Amazon Sunday night, but it may take 24-48 hours for it to process through and be available for purchase.  As soon as it is available, I'll be sure to let everyone know.

Thank you all again for your support - I literally couldn't do this without you.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hatchet Force Journal #1 On Deck For Next Week

After what has been a relatively short but incredibly encouraging journey, Hatchet Force Journal #1 is almost ready to land on Amazon's Kindle bookstore.  All the material is in hand, layout is mostly complete, and I hope to have the final editing finished by this weekend.  My hope is that the Journal will go on sale Monday morning.

As a little bit of a sneak peek, here is the cover for Issue #1:

Do I sound like a jerk if I say I'm really excited that this is coming together?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Trailers for Bronson's Death Wish and The Mechanic

This past weekend I finally finished the rough draft of my revenge thriller, Killer Instincts.  It took me about a year of irregular writing and editing and pecking at the project when I could work up the courage, but it's finally there, all ~100,000 words.

When people ask me what the story is about, in typical former film student fashion, I fall back on the stereotypical Hollywood "This story is X meets Y" method of explaining a plot, so I tell people "The book is Bronson's Death Wish meets his movie The Mechanic".  One part vigilante crusade, one part contract killer origin story.

With that in mind, I provide trailers to both films.  The second trailer is newer than the theatrical release; I'm guessing it was included in a DVD of some sort.  It does, however, show the dynamic between Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent's characters a lot better.

If you've never seen either of these movies, I urge you to check them out - both are great 70's action thrillers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Black Gate Article on Serialized Fiction

Jack Murphy passed along to me this article from the fantasy literature website Black Gate.  It is a discussion of the nature of "serial fiction", and it is pretty thought-provoking.

My biggest quibble with the article is that, like so many literary theorists and critics, the author spends what seems to me like an inordinate amount of time trying to pin down exactly what should be considered "serial fiction", but in the process, he seems to step on his own toes a few too many times.  Apparently short mini-series comics aren't serials, and perpetual titles like Spider Man aren't serials, but the 75-issue Sandman series is, as is the 300-issue Cerberus. I guess his definition of a serial is that it has to have a definite beginning and an end, with a story arc that encompasses the whole, but with individual arcs that make up the installments.

To me, this makes sense, but I think it should be a little more open to interpretation.  Was The X-Files a serial television show?  It had an arc of sorts that it was trying to tell, but many episodes (the "creature features") had nothing to do with that overall arc.  The original Star Trek could also be considered a serial, as the crew of the Enterprise was on a "five-year mission", but almost no episodes of the show weave together into any kind of over-arching plotline.  Is the old 1930's Buster Crabb Flash Gordon a serial?  It certainly seems like it should be.  I think the sci-fi spy series Alias and the newer series Lost are excellent examples of modern serial stories on television, but what about shows like The Wire?  Each season has an arc, and the seasons interconnect in various ways, but I'm not sure that story could ever "end" like a serial should.

And what about historical fiction?  Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe novels, set in the Napoleonic War, by default have a beginning and an end - the Napoleonic War itself.  But Cornwell then expanded the series with prequels and at least one "sequel", so does that change the original Peninsular Campaign novels from "serial fiction" to something else?  Likewise, what about Patrick O'Brian's naval adventures?  You could write a series of novels about a historical event knowing that the event does, eventually, come to an end - is that the "end" of the arc, or is the arc something more abstract?  Is it the journey the character goes through, such as in stories like HBO's Band of Brothers or The Pacific?  Each of those has a historic start and end, but also follows arcs in the development of the people involved.

I refer to book series like The Executioner and The Death Merchant as "serial action adventure fiction" because they are simply a series of interconnected novels.  You could say Pendleton's original 38 "War Against the Mafia" novels are a "serial fiction" story, but then the later 300+ novels are just barely related episodic stories.  In my mind, any series of novels written from the beginning with a numbering scheme feels to me in some way as "serial fiction"; after all, don't these books have "serial numbers" on them?

Anyway, much food for thought.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review: Phoenix Force #3 Atlantic Scramble

Truth be told, I think Atlantic Scramble would have made a far, far better first book than Argentine Deadline.  There is an excellent introductory chapter, where we see all five men in their "native habitats"; Gary in the Manning in the Canadian wilderness, McCarter gambling and womanizing in Vegas, Encizo in bed with a woman, Ohara meditating, and Katz admiring Starry Night in the MoMA with a female companion of his own (which amuses me, as I was recently at the MoMA and was introduced to that very same painting by a female friend of mine - but I don't wear a beret...).

This chapter is all the introduction we would ever need for the five men of Phoenix Force, and could have easily kicked off the series, with a few mentions of how the team had been recently formed but had yet to go into battle together, yadda yadda yadda.  It would have meant less wasted paper and would have given us more action, while still telling us everything we needed to know about our heroes for the first novel.  Instead, we were subjected to a rather boring " were picked by a computer from six thousand candidates..." speech, something which utterly killed any forward momentum Argentine Deadline might have had.  Instead, we see in this book each of the men raring and ready to go into battle, their "civilian" lives a boring cover story for their "real" lives as Mack Bolan's "Foreign Legion", which I think is the best description of Phoenix Force I've ever read.

Did I say action?  Oh yes, there is action - quite a lot of action, in fact.  There are four solid action sequences in the book, each of them has a pretty substantial body count, and each of them takes place with a different scenario.  In fact, there is probably twice as much combat in Atlantic Scramble as there is in the first two books combined, and it is handled quite well; lots of chattering Uzis and Ak-47s, M-16s and CAR-15s blazing away.  Grenades are thrown, demolition charges are set and blon up, and lots (I mean lots) of bad guys are killed, some in pretty nasty ways. 

In fact, if there is one criticism about this book, it is that it can be a tad bit too nasty.  Thomas Ramirez, although I feel he saved the series from a rather boring death, also seems to have taken a few too many pages out of the Joseph Rosenberger school of writing about your enemies.  The Libyan terrorists are spoken of in terms that border on racially derogatory and often come across as just uncomfortable to my bashfully sensitive 21st century sensibilities.  Their swarthy features are repeatedly pointed out ("...brown as a donkey's ass..." gets used at one point) as well as needlessly remarking on one Libyan's "Levantine nose".  Rafael and a couple other Hispanic characters in the book also banter around some "beaner" humor; maybe Ramirez, presumably of some kind of Hispanic descent himself, was going with the old "I can make fun of my own people if I want to" excuse when he wrote these jokes in, and as this book was written almost 30 years ago times have indeed changed, but I do find it a little awkward, especially since although the Gold Eagle titles are merciless on the various hero's enemies, they don't often lean towards racially-oriented slurs unless it is part of a character's dialogue.

That having been said, though, the book is overall much better written, in my mind, than the first two Phoenix Force titles, with some rather amusing turns of phrase thrown in here and there.  Manning's Ferrari takes off down a curving wilderness road " a fuck-starved jackrabbit", which I found hilarious, and a Libyan terrorist gets "...sent to Allah-bye Land" by one of the team.  If I didn't know better, I would almost think that "Thomas Ramirez" was a pen name for Joseph Rosenberger himself, as his Death Merchant books are filled with this sort of humor.  Indeed, the "super-weapon" stolen by the Libyans, the Dessler Laser Submachine Gun, is a weapon that shows up in only one other place than I can find; a Death Merchant novel (I have read it, but the number escapes me at the moment).  Whoever Ramirez is or was, I think there is no doubt he was a big fan of the Death Merchant series, which was about a decade old by the time Atlantic Scramble was published.

From Atlantic Scramble onward, the Phoenix Force titles become much more readable, and I hope to keep passing these reviews along for some time to come.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Summer Action Adventure Movie: Super 8 (2011)

Children are not stupid.  A child or adolescent is an information processing machine that is unmatched by any adult - their brains are assimilating data at an amazing rate, their body chemistry is designed to help them learn and develop quickly, and they have yet to fall into dangerously predictable patterns of thinking.  A child can make intuitive leaps of logic and imaginative reasoning that would never occur to an adult, and because of this, we often underestimate a child's ability to figure out problems and find solutions.  Wisdom does often come from the mouths of babes.

All that having been said, I think children today are a lot worse off than children from my generation and older.  Yes, I'm going to say it -  back in my day, which let's be fair, wasn't that long ago - we had to learn a lot of stuff on our own.  There was no Wikipedia or Google or Ask Jeeves; there were school books and libraries and the home edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Learning was a more painstaking, time-consuming process, and there was a lot less information to cram into our young minds.  We weren't distracted by Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or internet porn or IMs and texting; there were distractions, but there weren't so many and they weren't so in your face, all the time.

I was a bookworm as a kid, and something of an introvert, but I still spent time outside, countless days running around in the woods capping imaginary terrorists and Soviets with a Crossman scoped air rifle and an imitation Colt Python CO2 revolver.  I also played with friends, thank you very much, and all sorts of normal childhood activities that got me out of the house and into the world around me.  I made stuff with my hands, found problems and came up with solutions.  I got hurt, I got better, and I learned from my mistakes.  I read about geology and history and mechanical engineering, what made a jet fly faster than the speed of sound or what kept the moon circling the earth.  I think a lot of us forget that at that time in our lives, we were in many ways more learned than our parents, who'd forgotten so many things and fell into focusing on the singular tasks of their job, raising their family, and putting food on the table.  Every child was a Renaissance Man (or Woman).  Think about that for a moment.

So what does any of the last three paragraphs have to do with the dang movie, you might ask?  It's just this; Super 8 is the direct descendant of all those movies I grew up with as a kid, movies that showed kids not only holding their own against the world, but finding ways to come out on top.  Movies like E.T., War Games, Goonies, Cloak & Dagger, and even Red Dawn.  Movies where the kids figured out problems and found solutions before the grownups, who were usually too unwilling to face the situation or believe there was another solution besides their own.  I don't know if these movies were a reflection of Generation X's anti-authoritarian streak, or if they helped nurture it, but these kinds of movies influenced young kids such as myself, reminded us that grownups didn't always have the answers, to believe in ourselves and trust that we were smart, capable, and when need be, heroic.

This is the heart of Super 8; it is a movie that reminds us that back when we were young, we weren't stupid kids who didn't know anything and couldn't do anything.  We were bright, creative beings who could take what life threw at us and climb right over, then come at you swinging.  We could make movies, we could find clues, we could solve mysteries, and we could show that sometimes, adults didn't always have the answers, and there was always another solution to a problem.

If you want to remind yourself of that time in your life, you should go see this film.

Book Review: Phoenix Force #2 Guerilla Games

This time around, Phoenix Force is sent back into South America again, this time to rescue more kidnapped Americans - but with a twist.  Apparently these Americans had been held hostage ninety-four days before their company had ransomed them...and then captured by another group of Paraguayan terrorists.  Talk about bum luck, eh?  I was never clear while reading the book if the kidnappers and the other set of terrorists were related; this premise, like in Argentine Deadline, is a little wobbly.  Kidnapped along with the American businessmen are the pilot and co-pilot of the plane flying them out, which was forced down by a military aircraft (never explained).

But wait - there's more.  One of the hostages is actually an American intelligence operative whose been working hidden in the corporation for a while now, monitoring its international activities.  Why more of an effort wasn't made to get this operative (who is Phoenix Force's primary mission goal) during the previous ninety-four days of captivity, we aren't exactly sure.  Regardless, in goes Phoenix Force, back to South America.

The good news with Guerilla Games is that the group, by and large, spends the whole book working in teams of some fashion, so there's plenty of inter-character interaction and development.  Manning and McCarter work together along with a French ex-pat arms dealer named Sweetie Pie Sazerac, probably the coolest secondary character name in a Gold Eagle title I've ever come across.  Meanwhile Keio, Katz, and Rafael work together to acquire transportation out of the jungle once the hostages are located.  The banter in this book is much, much smoother, and you really begin to see how the characters relate to one another; Manning thinks McCarter is a bit of a rabid dog, while Keio and Rafael work very hard to not embarass themselves in front of Katz, who the whole team holds in an almost worshipful regard.

The biggest problem with this book is that there is almost nothing action-oriented until the last few pages.  So much time is taken getting through the jungle, finding the hostages, arranging transportation, and interacting with secondary characters that the book as a whole becomes very anti-climactic.  There is a very brief firefight at the end but beyond that, Phoenix Force doesn't fire a single shot.  I can give the writer and Gold Eagle the benefit of the doubt and presume this was done intentionally, to show that Phoenix Force can solve problems without gunfire, but given the rather anemic action quota of the first book, having your second book come off as even more tame seems a weak strategy in my opinion.

Overall I consider this a better-written book than Argentine Deadline, but it is still a weak offering, especially compared to Able Team #2, The Hostaged Island.  Fortunately for Phoenix Force fans, book #3, Atlantic Scramble, makes up for the deficiencies of the first to books - in a BIG way.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Summer Action Adventure Movie: We Were Soldiers (2002)

I saw this movie when it came out in theaters, and a few years after that, I read the book.  In 2002, Mel Gibson wasn't quite as notorious a Hollywood figure as he is today, and watching the movie again today I must admit knowing his predilections and prejudices sours the film a little for me.  Like a number of Hollywood personalities, we have a hard time separating our feelings about them as people from how we feel about their performances or their directed / written / produced works.  I know there a number of people in the industry who I consider rather abominable people, but find their bodies of work to be quite solid. C'est la vie.

We Were Soldiers is a film adaptation of the book We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by Lt. General Hal Moore and Joe Galloway.  The book and the film cover the multi-day battle for the Ia Drang Valley between the US Army's Air Cavalry and the NVA.  It was the first major engagement between these two bodies and one of the few major "set piece" battles during the war.  Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and both sides claimed victory.  The battle did, among other things, give validity to the air cavalry operational model, which would become the hallmark of almost all operations during the Vietnam War (our first "Helicopter War").

In a way, the battle for Ia Drang Valley is a miniature version of the entire war for Vietnam.  US forces engage the NVA or VC, we bloody their noses badly before they inevitably fall back although we take substantial casualties ourselves, and then we almost immediately fall back after the battle is declared "won", giving the ground up to the NVA or VC who move back in and re-claim the battlefield. This is a cycle we will repeat for the next seven years.  Whether or not the US military and the government could foresee this cycle at the end of 1965 is still, I feel, up for debate.  That the American people did not foresee this cycle is, I feel, without question.

Still and all, I think We Were Soldiers is a pretty solid movie.  There is a lot of melodrama in it that can be tear-jerking and / or teeth-grinding depending on your disposition, but be forewarned that it is there.  Probably the most solid and enjoyable aspect of the film is Sam Elliot's portrayal of Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley.  Sam Elliot is one tough ol' sumbitch, and he puts every ounce of that mettle into his performance.  No one makes five combat drops in two wars and then goes on to fight through a third, and is still kickin' at the age of 91, without having balls of solid, stone-polished brass.

Here's an alternate trailer for the film, without the "Daddy, what is a war?" crap in the beginning that makes me throw up in my mouth a little.  I wish I could find other, better clips from this film, but they are rather scarce, of have spoilers I don't want to reveal.  Pay special attention to Sgt. Plumley's opinion of Armstrong Custer - it's classic.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Book Review: Phoenix Force #1 Argentine Deadline

I recently got in a bunch of old Phoenix Force and Able Team titles, and I've slowly been chewing through them.  These Gold Eagle books are extremely fast reads; you could probably get through a PF or AT title in a lazy weekend afternoon or a week's worth of lunch hours with little trouble at all.  If you have an interest in these older titles, you can often find them through Amazon via third-party vendors (see the link near the end of the review).

I was never as much a fan of Phoenix Force as I was of Able Team in my youth.  There wasn't any one thing in particular to put my finger on, but that's just the way it was.  I read more Able titles, and maybe the greater exposure helped.  Either way, I wanted to start from the beginning in each series and begin reading them to see how each progressed and developed.  So, I thought I'd start with Phoenix Force.  My review of Able Team #1: Tower of Terror will appear in the inaugural issue of Hatchet Force Journal later this month.

Unlike the members of Able Team, who all came into association with each other through Don Pendleton's Executioner stories, Phoenix Force meets for the very first time in chapter 4 of Argentine Deadline.  Following the usual pattern for Gold Eagle titles, both PF and AT, the crisis develops in the first couple of chapters, and then the main characters become involved.  Although that's usually okay when you know who they are going to be, doing this for the first PF title, when we've never met the characters before as we had with Able Team, seems a little weird to me.

This is coupled with the way the team is introduced.  There's about two dozen pages of "You're all the best, and we want you to do all this secret stuff.  If you don't want to, bye.  Oh, and even though you JUST met, there are people who need saving in just a couple of days or they are all dead, and it's entirely up to you.  No pressure or nothin'".

I know we need to get the story moving along, but having Phoenix Force go from never having met each other before to working together in the field twenty-four hours later just doesn't work for me.  No real-world anti-terrorist organization would throw together a team of five different men from five different countries, two of whom get into a brawl five minutes into their introductions, without weeks if not months of training and acclimation to each other's methods and abilities.

What further drags the book down is that, in order to give each individual some spotlight time, each member of the team immediately splits off once in-country, so we can dedicate a chapter or two to their abilities and point of view.  A noble effort, but it also wastes the entire middle third of the book, and most of the "action" is at most a paragraph or two.  Two of the characters also immediately get their asses kicked, which further complicates the plot, as one needs to be rescued and the other spends a whole chapter dealing with a bad blow to the head.  It's an enormous waste of paper in my opinion, and having them alone and not interacting with each other means less inter-character devlopment, which is so critical to these sorts of "kill team" type books.

To further frustrate matters, I found the plot of this book needlessly complicated, and just kind of boring.  Some Americans get kidnapped while on an "academic retreat" - who takes an academic retreat to Argentina?  Apparently their last retreat was in NYC; maybe they should have gone to Vegas instead.  It's also pointed out that none of them have any money or collatoral to be ransomed with, something the kidnappers screwed up on (they were mistaken for "wealthy American business people").  Apparently this bunch of academic paupers could still find the cash to fly down to another continent to have their meeting.

All in all, this book is a little weak for a "#1".  However, it's worth reading if you are a fan of the Gold Eagle titles, as it's the first in its series and helps lay the ground work and backstory for the other characters.  I still definitely think it could have been handled better.  I'm reading the first Able Team book now, and the quality is considerably higher - it helps tremendously that Pendleton had already fleshed out the characters and established their working dynamics before the series began.

You can probably pick up Argentine Deadline for a few bucks off of an Amazon retailer.  If you're interested in these titles, pass on the next iced mocha, and spend the cabbage on  a couple of these instead.  They make for great back-pocket summer reading.

Buy Argentine Deadline Phoenix Force #1 Through Amazon Here. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Summer Action Adventure Movie: The Longest Day (1962)

I know I wrote an article about this movie not too long ago, but as it's June 6th - D Day - I feel it's important to bring the film up again.  While there have been other movies that involved the momentous Normandy Invasion (Saving Private Ryan, the Band of Brothers miniseries), The Longest Day is somewhat unique in that it is an epic, multi-faceted film that covers many of the aspects of the day, both from the Allied and the German side.

(As a side note, there are a number of posters out there for this film, but I'm not a fan of the more modern DVD box posters - I prefer vintage posters like this one.)

The most expensive black-and-white movie ever made at that point, The Longest Day was an immense undertaking.  Thousands of extras were used for the Normandy invasion sequence, and while excavating along the Normandy beach for the making of the film, an intact Allied tank was discovered, buried in the sand.  The tank was excavated, repaired, and used in the film - quite the feat of engineering and restoration!

One of the most interesting things about this film is that so many of the people involved with, or consulted on the making of the film were actually involved in the D-Day invasion, and not just British or American troops, but Germans and Frenchmen as well.  The film was truly an international undertaking, with American, German, and British film-makers filming the sequences involving their respective nationalities.

There is so much trivia involved in this film, I won't go on here any longer.  You can view the film's entry on IMDb as well as its Wikipedia article for more information.

Here's the trailer for The Longest Day.  There are other portions of it on Youtube, but sadly it hasn't had as much of a presence there as other war films.  I wish I could find a sequence for the assault on Pegasus Bridge, but I don't see it out there anywhere - if someone has better luck, please post a link in the comments section!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review: Get Tough! by William Fairbairn

My parents, it must be said, were pretty cool.  No parental helicoptering for me - they largely left me to my own devices, and not pressuring me one way or another beyond making sure I wasn't going to get into too much trouble.

One cool thing my parents did was offer to pay for and get me to and from martial arts classes.  My dad learned of a jujitsu instructor in a nearby town, and so for a couple of years, we went once a week.  While I didn't progress very far in terms of rankings (and besides, I was only in junior high at the time), I learned many of the fundamentals of unarmed self defense; understanding stance, balance, the application of force and angles and using an opponent's balance and posture against them.  We learned falls, throws, locks, escapes, strikes, kicks, holds - all sorts of fun stuff.

A lot of "modern" self-defense experts pooh-pooh "martial arts" techniques as being too formalized and not realistic enough, but I think the important thing to take away from it all was not the indivdual moves but the holistic methodologies involved.  Whether you're learning jujitsu, karate, tai chi, kung fu, or some back alley MMA technique, the human body hasn't changed, nor have the ways to destabilize, topple, wrench, tear, and break that body.

This is the essence of William E. Fairbairn's approach to unarmed combat. Serving as a police officer in one of the nastiest, roughest ports in the world during the 20's and 30's - Shanghai, China - Fairbairn, who looks more like an accountant than a whirlwind of hand-to-hand destruction, learned from the School of Hard Knocks how to take on and defeat all manner of armed and unarmed bad guys.

So when some bad guys called Nazis came along in the late 30's, Fairbairn was enlisted to train British Commandos and SOE agents in the ways of kicking butt.  He created a series of simple, brutal, and effective moves that boiled down the art of close combat to something any fir and motivated individual could learn in a relatively short amount of time.  These techniques were then codified into an instruction manual, and Get Tough! was born.

The book itself doesn't seem like much.  A slim volume filled with short paragraphs of text and simple line illustrations showing strikes, throws, holds, and so forth.  But this is the key to the volume's effectiveness; I read it cover-to-cover in about an hour, it is easily understandable and very to the point; this isn't a book about "self defense", this is a book about kicking ass.  Or, more accurately, kicking balls, since over half the maneuvers in the book include a grab, kick, or punch to the junk at some point or another.  There's also a lot of palm strikes to the chin (favored by Fairbairn over a punch to the face since it won't wreck your hand in the process), finger rakes to the eyes, shin strikes, knee-breaks, and lots of other fun moves that can leave someone permanently crippled or dead. 

Along with the unarmed combat techniques, there are short segments showing the use of a chair, a short stick or cane (which would work very well with a carbine or Sten gun), the use of a fighting knife (this is a particularly gruesome segment, and leaves no doubt that this is NOT a "self defense" manual), and last but not least, the use of the Smatchet, a weapon devised by the Fairbairn for extremely direct hand to hand combat, particularly sentry removal.  Allow me to quote two of the best sentences in the book:

"The psychological reaction of any man, when he first takes the smatchet in his hand, is full justification for its recommendation as a fighting weapon.  He will immediately register all the essential qualities of a good soldier - confidence, determination, and aggressiveness."

If you have an interest in the history of military unarmed combat, I definitely recommend this book.  I would not recommend this book as a "self defense manual" because claiming in a court of law that you stopped a mugger using the same techniques taught to British Commandos for the purposes of killing Nazis will probably not help your case very much.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My Reading For Vacation Week Has Arrived

And there's more on the way. At least four other Able Team titles and another Sergeant book. I won't be going through all of them next week, but I'm going to put a damn big dentin the pile, that's for sure.

Hopefully somewhere along the way I'll finish my manuscript and get the first draft of Hatchet Force put together for scrutiny.

And then there's Paintball this weekend, and some vacation sightseeing, and graduate school, and...I'm going to need more vacation days...

I was a little surprised I could find "Get Tough!" so easily, but it's been reprinted many times over the years, and it looks like a fun read.  And by "fun read", I mean it is of course serious research for my World War Two adventure stories...yeah that's it...

Book Review: With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge

It seemed strangely fitting that I finished With the Old Breed while hunkered down through one of the worst summer storms I've seen in a long time. The driving wind and rain, coupled with the continuous barrage of lightning ripping down out of the sky and the never-ending boom and rumble of thunder, reminded me of nothing other than a heavy artillery bombardment during a Pacific tropical storm.

Yet even though I couldn't help but make the analogy, I felt guilty at the same time. The indescribable hell that the Marines and Army troops went through during the Pacific campaign is heroic, heart-breaking, and incredibly humbling in equal measures. I was loaned HBO's The Pacific last month and after watching it ("experiencing it" might be more appropriate), I was determined to read Sledge's memoir of his experiences in the war. If anything, his book is more vivid and brutal than the television series, and after reading chapters before bed, I'd often find myself tossing and turning, the terrible images conjured up by his narrative finding their way into my dreams.

War is always a terrible thing, and World War Two was one of the most terrible, if not the most terrible conflict in human history. Out of that war, after having read about the battles for such hellholes as Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, I feel that if I was ever sucked back in time and given a choice as to where I'd want to be dumped, the last place I'd ever want to wind up is on one of the Pacific islands fought over by the Japanese and the Marines.

If you have an interest in war memoirs, in particular World War Two, you really must read With the Old Breed. It's not overly long, extremely well-written, and provides an incredibly visceral, human, and honest account of those terrible battles. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Gold Eagle Books Collection Grows

I've spoken often about the influences Gold Eagle's Able Team and Phoenix Force books had on me as an impressionable youth. Sadly, many of those books I read in junior high were borrowed from other sources and I only owned a meager handful of Gold Eagle titles myself.

For a few years, I was able to purchase a title here or there from used bookstores in the Boston area, but the pickings were fairly slim. In the last few weeks, however, with the idea of releasing HATCHET FORCE JOURNAL and the return to my roots that project provides, I've been making an effort to expand my collection of Gold Eagle titles.

Over the last two weeks, I've received Able Team #'s 2, 3, 7, and 8, and Phoenix Force #1. I hope to get a review of PF #1 up here soon. I've got Able Team #'s 1, 4, 5, and 6 and Phoenix Force #'s 2, 3, 6, and 8 on their way. It's going to be my goal to get at least one Gold Eagle title reviewed and posted every week, and I hope to have a review of AT #1 in the first issue of HFJ.

Oh, and if you're wondering, the knife is a CRKT First Strike. That is one badass piece of cutlery, just sayin'.