Review of Captain America – The Ultimate Guide to the First Avenger by Matt Forbeck

Cap
Eat Vibranium 

I’m a big fan of Captain America, I have the entire collection on DVD-ROM and have read them (no minor task mind you) so when I saw that DK was publishing a definitive guide to Cap, I put it immediately on my wish list.  Even better, it was written by Matt Forbeck, a fellow gaming author and comrade in arms.

DK has published some awesome books covering comic books. Their encyclopedias for DC and Marvel are must-haves if you are running a superhero RPG or are just a fan.  This book falls in the same category, concentrating on Captain America starting with the WWII era books up to the present.  I hope that DK is planning more of these hero-cetric books having read this one cover-to-cover.

The very early material interested me the most – the pre-Marvel days when Captain America was punching out Adolph Hitler. There was some material there I was not familiar with (these early works are not in my collection).  Matt did an awesome job of bringing this forward for a new generation.

As you read this book you come to grips that Captain America, Bucky, and Red Skull have been rebooted more times than the James Bond franchise.  A lot of people have picked up the shield over the years and I had forgotten that until I dove into this book.  Forbeck does an outstanding job of walking you through all of the incarnations of this fantastic hero.  I love the summery write-ups of key issues as well.

From a writer’s perspective, I have to applaud Matt’s work here.  For those of you that have never written a book like this, with lead articles and a number of sidebars, it is a lot of logistical work.  Been there – done that.  Forbeck’s prose is tight and there’s a lot of consistency here which I’ll attribute to him (though I’m sure his editor played a role).  Writing a tome like this is not an easy undertaking and keeping it organized had to be a big chore.  Of course we all benefited from it.

I purchased it as a hard copy book so my grandson Trenton could enjoy it.  He took two nights of reading time to flip through every richly illustrated page.  It passed his muster and mine from a reading perspective.  There’s a lot of material here and the stories are all very interesting.  We get all of Cap’s allies and enemies detailed out, as well as how they have morphed over the decades.

I give this five out of five stars if you are a Cap fan.  If not, this will get you up to speed pretty quick.  Pick it up and enjoy!

Doc Savage

Doc Savage
Coming to a screen soon!

When I was in high school a classmate, Scott English, got me to read a Doc Savage paperback and I became hooked.  The books, reprinted in the 1970’s-80’s were reprints of the pulp magazine stories from the 1930’s – yet oddly they seemed to be entertaining to me.  The books were fast and easy to consume and noir settings and cast of characters made them really stand out.

If you don’t know who Doc Savage is; I’m not surprised.  The character was a super-human character that came into being in 1933.  Clark Savage Jr. was the pinnacle of human development, with a brilliant mind and a team of comrades that followed him on world-saving adventures.  The mix of characters that he had with him included an archeologist, a chemist, an electrical engineer, a lawyer, and a construction engineer – all exciting and expanding fields in the 1930’s.  Doc’s team were not some cardboard group of characters.  Some of them didn’t get along with each other (Ham and Monk sparred verbally often – with Monk have a pet pig named after “Ham” Brooks). Thomas “Long Tom” Roberts was an electrical engineer that was the equivalent of a tech-geek today.  They stood out on their own, yet were better when working together.

Savage and his “Fabulous Five” thwarted bad guys that were somewhere between old-school Lex Luthor and Scooby-Doo adversaries.  The evil plans were insidious yet believable in context.  There were fantastic sci-fi technology weapons and tools intertwined into the books, many of which were precursors to technology that would eventually be developed in the real world.  The books were thin paperbacks because they were reprinted pulp stories, really they were novellas in length.

I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Doc Savage (Clark) bore a lot of resemblance to Superman who also emerged later in 1933.  They had above average strength.  Savage had a Fortress of Solitude long before the Man of Steel.  Where Superman was alone, what made Doc Savage work was that he had a team – a Justice League before there was a Justice League.  One must wonder how much of Clark Kent was lifted from Clark Savage Jr.

Doc lived on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, at the time the tallest building in the world.  He used an autogyro, a zeppelin, and a Batmobile-like car to get around.  He was fabulously wealthy and had a hot cousin, Pat Savage, who also became part of the mix of characters.  Doc was a pulp superhero before all of that existed.

There were a ton of books, pulp magazines, radio shows, comic books, and even a movie made about Doc Savage in 1975 that is best left forgotten.  A new Doc Savage comic books is out now too, so the legend continues.

Ironically, Lester Dent (under the name Kenneth Robeson), who penned most of the stories about Doc and his team considered his work anything but enduring.  For him it was just something he made money at.  Oddly enough, his was some of the only pulp fiction to continue on in book format reprinted decades later.

I saw this week that Dwayne Johnson has been cast to play Doc Savage in an upcoming film adaptation of the Man of Bronze (Doc’s nickname thanks to his George Hamilton tan).  I have to say I’m a little bit excited.  Doc Savage consumed a chunk of my allowance as a kid.  Yes, the stories were as formulaic as a Dukes of Hazzard episode, but there was always a twist or two that caught you off guard.  What made the books work was the mix of distinct characters which Lester Dent combined and shuffled to make for unique adventures.   Doc Savage is part Indiana Jones, part superhero, and a touch of pre-war nostalgia all wrapped in one neat bundle.

In fairness, I haven’t gone back to the books to see if the stories still captivate me the way they did back in my youth.  A part of me doesn’t want to know.  I have the memories and that is enough for me.

I have always been surprised that no one published a Doc Savage RPG.  The wealth of source material out there would make it a natural.

I know the naysayers out there will blast the project before the ink is dry on the script.  Most will decry that Doc doesn’t have a place in our fast-paced world – that he is too cartoony for us to enjoy.  The one thing the internet has done is made us a nation of bitter cynics who delight in tearing things apart even if we haven’t seen it.  I have no illusions that Dwayne Johnson is some academy award winning actor – but that doesn’t mean he can’t and won’t capture some the essence of the character.  I know one thing, I will be going to catch the film when it opens and I am sure it will conjure up some fantastic memories.

When I heard the movie was coming, the first thing I said was, “I’ll be superamalgamated,” one of Doc’s team (William Harper “Johnny” Littlejohn’s) favorite sayings.  Yeah, I’m geeky and I’m comfortable with that.  Bring your A Game Dwayne Johnson, those of us that like Doc Savage are expecting a lot.

Progress on my new BattleTech novel

Exodus Road
A trip down memory lane (note, this is not a hint about the new book…or is it, quineg?) 

I started two weeks ago on a NEW BattleTech novel and it is starting to gain momentum.  It hit the 16k word count out of at least 90k for the entire book.  Not bad given that I do my writing at night (after my day job) and on weekend.  I stress “new” because a lot of my older novels are going back into reprint under the BattleTech Legends banner.  (And yes, I have convinced myself that the “Legends” refers to us authors, not the stories.)

This wasn’t the first story I proposed.  The editor and I worked out a cool idea at GenCon last year for a neat book set in the Jihad (the WHOLE Jihad).  That idea didn’t get shot down, but it was clearly going to take a lot to rework the storyline.  As such my editor, John Helfers, asked “do you have any other ideas?”

Yes, yes I did.  A whopper.  One that crossed multiple eras and tied together some loose ends in the BattleTech universe.  One that had some powerful and neat characters to boot.

First and foremost was getting the story approved and tweaked.  I got feedback from the good folks at Catalyst about some incredibly minor changes – which I either accepted or adjusted to make work.  With the story in hand, you would think that this is simply a matter of sitting down to write it – right?  I mean, I’ve written 11-ish BattleTech novels, heavy on the “ish,” so it should be old hat for me. *

Wrong.

BattleTech novel writing is complex.  This is like writing a doctoral thesis.  There are time you almost want to put in the footnotes.  There is a LOT of material out there in the BattleTech universe that I have to factor in.  I’ve been keeping up (boy that Jihad dragged on) but now, after years of being away from BattleTech, I need to write a book that most of the fans out there will devour.  I’m not saying that I’m rusty, but if you don’t do something for a long time, it can take a while to get back in the saddle again.

You have to remember, I’m a fan of BattleTech as well as being an author.

To do that, I have to re-read no less than six books, some of which I wrote.  BattleTech fans are fact-checkers with attitudes, so I needed to get things lined up properly in my own head.  I had to crawl back into the belly of the beast and relearn BattleTech again.  I broke out the rules books and did some research to make sure that, for the most part, I adhered to the game functions.  I admit I do fudge some of the battle scenes now and then because the fiction gives you a lot more freedom than the rules offer.

It has been a long time since I sat down and read one of my own books.  You would think all of that stuff would still be stored in my brain in active memory.  Wrong.  First off, some of these books were written almost two decades ago (some much sooner).  Second, I write a lot of stuff, so the things that are in my memory get a little fuzzy.

Some things I learned, my writing style has changed over time.  I think it’s better, but that’s not for me to say – that’s for the readers.  I embraced some of my old characters again with new perceptions about them. The new novel will be told through the eyes of two primary characters (and one other minor one) that I needed to develop character arcs for – the larger uber-story of the journey of these characters.   Since these characters will be familiar to readers already I think it’s important to see them evolve and change.

This book also covers a lot of territory time-wise.  So it’s not just a matter of boning up on the Clans, I have to also rekindle the memories of The Dark Age.

Perhaps the most challenging is dovetailing all of this into existing canon and novels.  I like to think I’ve pulled that off.  There are some scenes where quite literally, I recreated the scene out of a Mike Stackpole or Tom Gressman novel, but from another character’s point of view.

I just finished a big battle chapter which was a lot of fun.  Clan combat nuances and language can be tricky, not to mention combat Trials.  I’m also dealing with some Clans that haven’t gotten a lot of fiction exposure in the past, which means I’m digging through old source material to make sure I get their feel right.

The best news – I’ve been asked to start thinking about the cover art.  In the past, I was asked to submit a couple of possible chapters and the art director went off and the magic somehow happened and I was surprised as hell when the book came out.  Catalyst is actually asking for my input on the cover.  While my artistic skill is rated at zero (stick people are complicated for me) I’m actually excited to work with the Art Director Brent Evans on coming up with an awesome cover.  (Brent and I know each other VERY well, but we rarely do BattleTech stuff together.)

Oh, I should have included that I am including a few select players names in the book.  I’m kind of doing that at random.  The characters are not based on these individuals.  I wanted to give some of the fanboys out there a chance to be IN a BattleTech novel.  Hopefully they will help spread the word once it is out.

So, that’s the update.  A sea of planetary maps, a barrage of “quiaffs?” and the smell of ozone from a near miss of a particle projection cannon…just a typical day writing in the bunker.   You know what they say, “No Guts – No Galaxy.”

* I performed the extensive re-write of Star Lord back in the day.  Don’t ask…

Review of Amerika – Alternate History by Paul Lally

Amerika
Nazi’s, A-Bombs, and General Patton.  What could go wrong?

Spoilers below!  This was a novel that seemed to have a lot of potential but seemed to fail on delivery for me.  It’s a “Nazi’s got the A-bomb” book, with some neat twists.  The Germans attacked on the day after Pearl Harbor, nuking Washington DC and New York.  America goes all neutral on Germany’s ass.  The German’s press the war on, nuking other capital cities around the globe but get bogged down in a war deep in Russia.

The story centers on a pilot of a rundown flying boat living under the heels of Nazi dominated neutrality.  America however is not entirely on the ropes.  General George S. Patton and the Sons of Liberty are planning to send the Nazi’s reeling with a diabolical plan of their own involving using a captured German nuke on our own reactors to prevent the Nazi’s from getting our plutonium – since they have exhausted their own supply.

Hilarity ensues.

Generally I am all over a book with Patton in it.  I’m a sucker for Patton, having read many of his biographies.  Patton’s role in the book proved to be fairly limited however.

I had two issues with the book.  One, it seemed to waste a lot of text on flying airplanes.  It was buried in pointless technical dialogue that didn’t help the story along.

Second, the plot itself was clumsy.  Why bomb our own source of plutonium production?  America is a big place and hiding our stash would have been easier and faster than nuking t.  It just felt forced to me, and a bit unnecessary.  Also, we have Nazi troops landing in Washington and Louisiana, clearly violating our neutrality, but it never even seems to make the press or airwaves in the book.

The one thing I did love about the plot is it’s like watching a 1940’s film akin to Casablanca.  The dialogue is good (when it’s not about flying a plane) and it has that 1940’s spy film feel to it.  The characters come right out of central casting and each has a good arc in the story.  Paul Lally made me like some characters and hate the bad guys.

The writing is solid too. Mr. Lally is clearly talented and his prose are crisp.  He weaves in dialogue from the 1940’s masterfully.  I only wish I had subscribed to his plot more than I did.  I give this book three and a half stars out of five.  It’s fair, if you want to read another Nazi bomb story.

The Flash – My theory as to who is in the iron mask…

As crazy as it sounds – I think these things are all related!

This week the Flash totally redeemed last week’s quasi-controlled-cluster-fu*k and delivered one of their best episodes.  This set the stage for two more speedsters – Wally and Jessie; and gave us some good classic Zoom villain moments.  I also think there was a lot more going on…

We got the see Barry’s dad – which I don’t think was a fluke.  These writers are comic book guys, they don’t just have scenes for no reason.  He’s been absent this season, but he’s back, and we learned his mother’s maiden name was Garrick.  Significant?  Yes.   Hear me out…I think I’ve pieced together the secret of the man in the mask!

My theory is that the man that Zoom is keeping in the iron mask is actually the real Jay Garrick – which will be Barry’s father from an alternate Earth.  Think about it.  Zoom has only hinted at who is there but refuses to tell Barry.  Why hide it?  Why even hold a prisoner unless he is of some use to you?  Barry’s dad has a link to the name.  This Jay wouldn’t necessarily be Barry’s dad per se, but at least the actor playing him.   Most likely it woulds be a version of Barry’s dad from Earth 2, who we haven’t seen yet.  I like to think that the writers still want to give us the doughboy-helmet-wearing Jay Garrick; merely with a different actor playing him – in this case John Wesley Shipp.  My theory is that when they do crack open that mask, we will see Shipp in the role of Jay Garrick.

The writers have already have demonstrated a fondness for the original Flash TV series, bringing back Mark Hamill as the Trickster – twice.  The producers and writers are pretty good at playing up to the comic book fan base.

Best of all, we as Flash fans would get to see the 1980’s Flash recast in a role as the Golden Age Flash.  Not only that, we will probably get one of those awesome villain scenes with Zoom holding (essentially) Barry’s dad by the scruff of neck, threatening the hero.   Otherwise, why would Zoom keep a prisoner if not as an ace up his sleeve to hold the Flash in check.

Frankly, I hope the writer’s do go down this path.  One, it’s cool.  Two, it’s a treat for those of us that remember John Wesley Shipp playing the role of a Flash, even if it is the Golden Age speedster.

Alright pundits, tear this theory apart!

 

It has never been a better time to be a geek

TL and the dragon
Perhaps you’d like a squeaky ball to play with?

It hit me last night as I watched Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley, that this is the best time in mankind’s history for geeks.  Those of us dubbed nerds or dorks in high school have had to wait almost five decades for us to be the cool kids.  Even Hollywood is crashing the White House Press awards now.  For once, we rule.

First off, there’s a ton of entertainment out there for us – and it’s good stuff.  Supergirl, the Flash, GoT, Silicon Valley, Daredevil, The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, Big Bang Theory, Agents of Shield…and that’s just on TV.  Starting in December of last year we will get two Star Wars movies, a Star Trek film, Batman v. Superman (ugh!), Marvel Civil War, Doctor Strange, Suicide Squad, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Hollywood and the world has learned that the things we were mocked for as children are big bucks.  Putting out a superhero or Star Wars movie is like printing money at this point.

Moreover our tastes are being accepted by the masses.  I have to admit, it was kind of cool when it was just us geeks watching and reading this stuff.  Now that the cool kids are into it, it does take a little bit away from it.  At the same time, we get to say, “we were here first!” and not risk getting a swirly.

I can honestly remember having to hide my comic books at school to dodge ridicule and the random (and painful) Purple Nurple.   For years it was hard to find tee-shirts with geek culture on them.  You were hard pressed to find a Superman shirt.  Now freaking Under Armour makes athletic super hero gear.  Most of my wardrobe consists of super hero and TV shirts (much to my wife’s patient chagrin.)  I was in the gym the other day and saw two other guys wearing Captain America shirts – one even complimented mine.  If it was 1979 I would have gotten an Indian Burn for daring to show up with that kind of shirt on.

This Thursday I’m taking my hot wife to see Captain America Civil War and I know in line there will be dozens of kids decked out in the latest gear.  There will be some in costume too.  My wife, she will try and pretend none of this is happening.  Deep down she knows she actually ended up marrying one of the cool kids.  It just took decades for that to be known.  (Actually she would kill at the chance to purge my wardrobe and make me purchase “adult appropriate” clothing…but I digress.)

Geek culture has never been so popular and accepted – for which I am thankful.  Because it is so mainstream, the quality of the entertainment is fantastic too.  As I dive into writing a new BattleTech novel, I realize that we dorks are now the ones pulling the strings on entertainment and culture.  We are setting the tone and pace of what is in and what isn’t.

It’s a good time to be alive and geek!

 

Book Review – Storm Front – Alternate History

Storm Front
Not your typical “Nazi’s win WWII” alternate history – which is refreshing on its own. 

Storm Front (Book I of the Twilight of the Gods) is set in 1985 in a world where Germany was not destroyed as a result of WWII.  I phrased that carefully.  This isn’t your typical alternate history fare, where Germany won the war.  Yes, they defeated Russia and France, but they entered a Cold War era with Britain and the US.  On the whole, that makes for a fascinating set of perspectives of what life would be like in 1985 in the Reich.

Many books in the genre use war as the tapestry to tell the story.  Storm Front doesn’t do that, not directly anyway. There’s a war, in South Africa, a mirror to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, but we are not sucked into it as part of the storytelling – something I was surprised by (in a positive way).  Storm Front takes a higher road, going along the route of Man in a High Castle.

Ultimately this is the story of characters who become unlikely catalysts in a revolution.  The analogy to Poland is interesting but the differences are only on the surface.  Author Christopher Nuttall isn’t afraid to draw connections to real world events but often takes them in his own creative direction.  Some of the characters are intricate in terms of their motivations – which I like.

This was my first taste of his writing and I have to admit, I’m going to dive into the second book when it comes out.  He plays homage to Harry Turtledove in the book, which seemed a little corny while at the same time was perfectly acceptable.  Even as a historian, I struggle with the the German ranks, but his only other choice was to do a Hogan’s Heroes approach to the dialogue and that would have sucked.  Kudos for making the right call Mr. Nuttall.

What was nice was that this first book had a logical ending point – without leaving me hanging without some degree of closure on key plot lines.  At the same time Nuttall has done a great job of setting up the next book in the series.

I give Storm Front 4.5 stars…not your typical fare for alternate history, which gives it some refreshing appeal.

Review of Bombs Away – Harry Turtledove – Alternate History

BA2

I was intrigued with the premise of this alternate history novel.  In the Korea War, General MacArthur convinces President Truman to allow him to use nuclear bombs against the Chinese surging into the Korean peninsula.  I knew one thing, the Godfather of the genre, Harry Turtledove, was going to take us on a ride.

BA
“Harry, I have an idea.  Let’s toast a few hundred thousand Chinese…”

It is a neat period of history and Turtledove’s twist of history was going to be a good combination I felt and I wasn’t let down.  The Russians respond to the use of nuclear weapons by using some of their own.  Rather than a horrific holocaust in a blinding few minutes, this is a bomber war and both sides sparingly use their weapons of mass destruction.  It is a slow, almost ponderous and grinding war of attrition – one that is entirely plausible.

Turtledove has his usual ensemble of characters to tell us the story, right down to his traditional Jewish character.  When it comes to Turtledove, this is expected and somewhat anticipated.  The book felt like a well worn glove that fit on my hand just right.

I had no idea that this was the first book of a series, which I have to admit, left me a little bit hanging.  So you’re not left with a strong conclusion in this book, instead you’re left set up for the next book in the series.  That was a little bit disappointing but that was the only thing I didn’t enjoy.

This book is old-school Turtledove at his best.  The characters really stand out and the plot takes us on a very intricate war.  The battle of Fulda Gap, which we all anticipated in the 1980’s, is fascinating in the 1950’s.  I love T34’s tangling with contemporary American armor.

I give this book a five out of five stars.  I devoured it in a weekend and now have to twiddle my thumbs until the next book comes out in April.

Review – Germanica – Robert Conroy’s Alternate History

Germanica
What if the war continued after Hitler’s death?

We lost Robert Conroy a while back and his voice in the alternate history genre is missed.  The story concept is fairly intriguing – what if Germany fell back to the mythical Alpine Redoubt (Germanica) in WWII rather than surrender.  On its own, that is interesting.  You have the last bits of the Third Reich hunkering down and waging a war of attrition against the Allies, which is a good premise to build off of.  It is a good piece of alternate history, not stunningly great, but not bad.

This is an ensemble story with a cast of characters to give you a lot of perspective as to the conflict.  We have a seasoned officer, a grizzled sergeant, a pilot turned OSS spy, a holocaust survivor and a few others designed to round out views of this extended war.  There’s a few that stand out.  The military characters were the strongest of the mix.  You find yourself unsympathetic to the grizzled German troopers that are fleeing into Germanica which I think is a missed opportunity.

In this history, Joseph Goebbels leads the rag-tag remains of the Germany military into the alpine state dubbed Germanica.  With him are the German scientists working on the atomic bomb, because everyone writing an alternate history on Germany can’t resist the concept of a Nazi A-Bomb.  Fortunately Conroy doesn’t fall back on this as his key lever to the plot.  In fact, I found his insertion of it rather refreshing since other authors have covered this ground already.

President Truman struggles with an America that is weary of the war which is just what the Germans are hoping for.  I found that less-than-plausible, though Conroy introduces some throwaway characters to justify it.  The Swiss are less-than-neutral in this effort, indirectly aiding the Nazi’s.

The only main supporting player I struggled with was Dulles, the spymaster of the OSS in Switzerland.  I wrote about the OSS in my book, Lost Eagles.  Having researched Dulles at the National Archives II, I can say the way he was portrayed, personally staging missions, just didn’t seem right.

The ending was okay, but it could have been a much more powerful with the proper set-up.  I found myself wanting something more dramatic at the end, payout for my reading.

Germanica is a good read.  It’s not Conroy’s best, but it was incredibly pleasing to finally pick this book up and devour it.  It served to remind me just how much we’ve lost in the alternate writing community of authors.  I give it three-and-a-half stars out of five.  A solid read – worth adding to your list.

BattleTech Article in SciFiNow

IMG_0917
The cover of the new issue…

The latest issue of SciFiNow has an article on the BattleTech franchise…one that I wrote.  I like the piece but that’s me. When you work on something like this it is challenging, there’s a LOT that make up the IP (Intellectual Property) of BattleTech.

The editor wanted a Top Ten products list.  That was challenging since BattleTech crosses multiple mediums.  What I did to help narrow this down was to use social media, Facebook, to let actual fans make suggestions.  I ended up with a list of 23 potentials, and I took it upon myself to narrow that list down to the Top Ten.

btech
Mmm…BattleMechs…

I also did the Top Ten novels/series.  Also not an easy task.  This one I relied more on my own gut feel than anything else.

What was really fun was reengaging with folks like Sam Lewis for quotes.  I forgot how much I enjoyed Sam over the years.

I’m sure this will spawn debate and ridicule – but in the end, it’s good for the game to get it back out there in a major magazine.  It was published in the UK last month and is just now available in the US (so far I’ve only found it at Barnes and Noble bookstores).  I suggest picking it up!