Review of Nueces Reprise by Mark Greathouse

I have been reading westerns recently because their stories transcend the genre.  A western tale easily can be migrated to a science fiction or other setting.  I snagged a copy of this at the Rally Against Censorship recently and it finally worked its way to the top of my reading pile.  It is the second book of the Tumbleweed Saga, the emerging legend of Luke Dunn, Texas Ranger. 

The book is a wonderful read, picking up almost immediately after the events of the first novel. I won’t spoil the story other than to say that the plot thickens.  Many of the characters that you are introduced to in Nueces Justice are back, with more depth added to their backstories.  Some seemingly minor characters in the first novel, emerge and stand on their own.  The ensemble cast is part of the mystique of this series. Everyone has a motive, many of which conflict with the others – which is where the conflicts arise…and there are a lot of conflicts in this book – true to the western genre.

Some authors chop off the heads of characters as if they were George R. R. Martin. Mark is not above killing characters, including those that have redeemed themselves. In fact, their redemption makes their deaths all the more poignant. He’s not a butcher like some writers, but puts a notch in his author’s pistol only when necessary and impactful.   

As with the first novel, Greathouse is a master of crafting a plot that is far from obvious. Just when you think you know what is going on and then you find yourself in a new, unexpected place. That is the mark of a good storyteller.  Handling ensembles of characters and complex plots requires a firm yet artistic hand, one that Greathouse possesses.

The author does his research, right down to the idiosyncrasies of the firearms being used. He stays true to the western genre, weaving in bits of real history with his fictional characters. His heroes are far from perfect, as demonstrated at the end of this novel – which I really found myself enjoying. 

Nueces Reprise doesn’t stand alone – you need to read the precursor novel.  Fortunately both are a good investment of time.    

Review of The Blueprint of Liberty: Why And How We Could Restructure The United States In a Way That Pleases Everyone And Preserves Freedom by Alu Axelman

I try and avoid political non-fiction, but having had a phone call with the author, his premise caught my attention.  This is a short book making it a fast non-fiction read – but the topic is anything other than light. What Axelman does with this book is layout a detailed case for secession in the United States.  As a historian, I found the concept intriguing enough to pick up the book and managed to finish it off in just a few evenings of reading.

To be clear, I don’t personally support the premise.  That doesn’t mean that Axelman doesn’t do an admirable job of making his case.  There were a few times where I found myself in such agreement with the case he presents that I was actually challenging what I thought; which is what good writing can and should do.

He does a remarkable job of highlighting the philosophical and cultural differences that exist between the left and the right in America. Rather than resolve these, he contends that resolution may not be possible.  Thus, the solution, is a division of the United States.  He goes so far is to present a new Constitution, which is more Libertarian than traditionally conservative (at least in my opinion). 

His case for secession is seductive, because it allows both sides to rule in the manner they desire.  He even tackles the roles of the military in such a split, as well as how basic services would be administered. 

The author makes his case solidly with prose like:  “The United States is becoming increasingly divided and polarized. This polarization is augmented by federal laws that prohibit States from governing themselves. With each passing year, the laws that govern all 300+ million people in the US are becoming more similar, while ignoring how unique we actually are. As time passes, it will become increasingly evident to progressives as well as conservatives that a peaceful dissolution of the union – and independence for each State – is the only way to truly satisfy the dramatically different populations which comprise the union. Consider the avoidance of a violent civil war to be a bonus benefit of secession. If you don’t want to secede, at least give conservatives the nudge they need in order to leave the union.”

Powerful and thought provoking stuff to say the least!

I found myself agreeing with much of the early part of the book, but less with the solution. It didn’t feel right…yet.  I stress the ‘yet’ in this. Sometimes this kind of work is dependent on the historical context and current events.  While the present-day events don’t necessarily push for the solution that the author presents, that doesn’t mean he is wrong.  Having started a book titled Texit, about Texas splitting off as its own nation again, forces me to concede that this line of thinking may very well gain momentum in the politically charged environment that we find ourselves in. If that is the case, then Axelman is a visionary.  Only time will tell. 

If you have had thoughts along the lines of, “Maybe we should just pack up our stuff and form our own country, with our values,” then this is a book I highly recommend.  It is not a piece of fantasy, as evidenced by the extensive footnotes of support.  This book grabs you hard, shakes you, forces you to reflect on the world around you, and lays a possible foundation for a roadway to political sanity.

Review of Alter Road by James Mark

Detroit ablaze!

I purchased this novel on an impulse.  It is published by one of my publishers (Defiance Press) and since it was set in Detroit, a city I lived in the suburbs of and know all too well, I thought it might be interesting to read. Besides, I think authors should support their colleagues. 

This is a story about a big corporation shutting down the power to a city and the riots that followed. It’s not that farfetched, especially when you consider Enron’s role in the rolling brownouts in California decades ago. 

The novel has an ensemble cast, something I have become personally fond reading in recent years. It lets authors explore a situation from different character perspectives and James Mark does this masterfully. It is a mix of alternate history and political thriller, with a lot of military action in the later portion of the novel. In other words, there is something here for everyone.

What I particularly enjoyed was how it demonstrated how protests can and do get out of hand. The sections on the Michigan militia group were fascinating to read as well.  The battle for Detroit was not just complex, but fascinating to read. 

Mark has set this up perfectly for a sequel, which I sincerely hope that he is writing. His descriptions of Detroit show that he has first-hand experience with that locale.  For me, it was easy to picture the streets, buildings, and intersections where he had artfully placed his characters. This novel has tales of strife, daring, a dash of terrorism, and a good old fashioned insurrection. 

The twist in the last 3% of the book with the Middle East really caught me off guard.  Well done! A solid five out of five stars.  There’s still some time for some summer reading – so pick this one up.

Spoiler Free Review of Jason Schmetzer’s Blood Will Tell

Even the cover art rocks

BattleTech fans love their House Liao jokes and for many years, much of that was well earned. Mad Max and Romano Liao both made the faction easy to be a punching bag and a source of memes. For many years, if not decades, Loren Coleman has been one of the few writers that can easily tackle House Liao with the dignity they deserve. The Capellans are a BattleTech faction that are tricky to write. It’s not just the politics that makes it difficult, it is a very unique and closed culture. There are language nuances as well.   

Then came Jason Schmetzer with Blood Will Tell. Well Loren is no longer alone in the mastery of House Liao’s quirkiness and resolve.  Schmetzer is in the house!

I won’t ruin the story for you.  This is set just before the ilClan era and focuses on the Chancellor’s daughter, Danai Liao-Centrella.  For the first time in many ages, House Liao is ruled by a solid leader, Daoshen.  Danai has been a wonderful character for being feet on the ground, a warrior, piloting a legendary Centurion.

This story is Danai’s emergence as an in-depth character.  She chaffs at the demands of court and the Confederation.  She wants to fight the enemies of her realm. More is expected of her than fighting a war against what is left of the Republic of the Sphere. 

Jason masterfully presents some great characters, supporting and otherwise.  His development of Danai and the crafting of her character arc is done humbly and with the utmost respect to the franchise. Jason is further solidifying himself as a top-notch BattleTech author with this novel. This is not faint praise, but genuine admiration. 

I loved this book.  There was one point where I was stunned.  What was more shocking was that for the first time in years, I found myself actually rooting for the Capellan Confederation. I can’t wait for his next book!  

Review of Nueces Justice by Mark Greathouse

The perfect early summer diversion

This is a book by one of my new publishers, Defiance Press.  I support my fellow authors as best I can.  If I’m not a fan of someone’s book, chances are I won’t review it, just so they are not damaged in any way by my opinion.  I don’t ask them to do the same for me, there is no quid pro quo here nor did the publisher provide me with a free copy.

You may be wondering why I would be reading a western, given that I write a lot of military science fiction, political thrillers, true crime, and military history. The reason is simple, I often read in genres I don’t write in to get different perspectives.  Westerns are something that is purely American, and some I have read have inspired some science fiction stories (Like Waylon’s War, which I wrote for Shrapnel.) This genre really can go far beyond its perceived reach.  Remember Firefly?

Westerns often have the elements of a cry for justice, a love interest, the gritty reality of life in the wild, and a dose of Indians.  This book hits all of these elements well.  In other words, there’s something for everyone. 

I have read about five westerns in my life, so I came in with not a lot of preconceived notions.  At first, I thought that this was going to be a pursuit book.  It is, and it isn’t.  This is more of a book that is true to its title, Nueces Justice.  Justice comes in many forms and flavors.  I was pleased that the author didn’t get too sucked into the sometimes overplayed, ‘everything has to be resolved with gunfire.” 

The author does a fantastic job in providing the setting for the stories, though it is far and wide at times. I love Texas and its people, so it was easy to get drawn in.  This is not a simple linear story of a good guy after a bad guy.  There are numerous twists and turns.  There is a neat cast of characters here, each with their own story to tell.  They are all intertwined around the lead character, Luke Dunn, a Texas Ranger. 

Right up to the end, I wasn’t sure where the numerous plot lines were going to end up.  I was pleased with the resolution and now find myself compelled to jump into the next book in the series. I recommend this book if you like the western genre.  Mark Greathouse clearly knows the terrain he writes about, the cultures, and his history…making for a solid and entertaining read and a romping intriguing set of tales.   

Review: Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy by Andy Ngo

An eye-opener

I rarely read contemporary non-fiction but this book caught my attention.  I follow Andy Ngo on Twitter and have seen his videos of the ongoing rioting that is still happening in Portland.  He often covers riots and violence that I never see on TV.  I also saw how Antifa went after him on social media which actually added to his credibility with me. I am working on some fiction where insights into Antifa might be useful, so I picked this book up.  Besides, as a true crime author, I thought it might be something worth exploring. 

I know there are bound to be a few of you that will claim, “Antifa is a movement – it’s not an organization. They didn’t riot this summer, the riots were all caused by right wing extremists.” I won’t wade into that debate because nothing I write is going to change your perspective. Let me share a true story from this spring. A friend of mine was elected to a position in a rural Virginia county’s Republican Committee. Three days after the announcement of his position in the newspaper, someone shoved a handwritten note in his mailbox.  It opened with “Greetings from Antifa” and went on to say that they were “a direct antifacist group” and he had been declared to be a fascist. It was signed with the group’s three arrows stabbing downward. I have a photo of the note I keep on my phone – I’m not sharing it because I don’t want to jeopardize any criminal investigation that may be underway. 

The note was a threat. If any of us had received it, we would have felt threatened. It was shoved in a mailbox in the middle of the night by cowards.  It was a message – ‘we know where you live,’ a form of doxing, which I later learned is an Antifa trademark tactic. So while you may say that the group doesn’t exist or that it is just an idea – let me say that they receive funds, legal assistance and I have seen their tactics in-use…even in rural Virginia.

Andy Ngo’s book, Unmasked, is a disturbing read, mostly because it is well documented and rings true. These anarchist cells are a dangerous threat to our nation, if not the world.  Mr. Ngo has been on the front lines from their most recent incidents of violence and has done a very good job of organizing the book to cover not only the history of these movements, but their dangerous tactics. 

I particularly liked his no-nonsense reporting of the media cover-up of Antifa’s violence. The sympathetic press and half of the politicians of our nation refuse to acknowledge the role Antifa has clearly played in incidents – all of which are confirmed and footnoted in Ngo’s book.  I found it truly amazing that while I was reading it, on The View, Joy Behar said Antifa, “…doesn’t even exist.” Her position on this was so well written about in Ngo’s book, it was almost creepy to hear her words. (God no, I don’t watch The View – but I did see a link to her comment on Facebook.) 

Extremists on both sides are horrible – be they right or left. This book focuses on one organization but also does not pull punches with the right wing groups out there.  Antifa is a danger because they want to take down the United States and do away with capitalism…period. They believe that the ends justifies the means – so violence is perfectly acceptable to them. They are dangerous– having nearly killed the author of Unmasked at one point in their attacks. Others have died by their actions as well, as you can read about in this book.

My criticism of the book is mostly in the history chapter. I would have expected a little more there, such as the 1920’s anarchist movements and bombings in the US and around the globe.  It was covered, but only lightly.  I would have liked to have seen more about other radical groups such as the Weather Underground or the Symbionese Liberation Army.  Then again, I’m a historian – so that is what I would have liked to have read more about. 

What I found probably most disturbing was how politicians had responded to Antifa in terms of dismissing charges against them or cowering to them in other ways. In some ways, I feel they are courting the devil by not taking a stand against the Antifa threat. 

I think Unmasked is an important book because it bypasses the mainstream media’s ignoring the Antifa threat or even reporting on it. It is well footnoted and supported.  Ngo’s writing style is crisp.  I like the structure of the book.  I didn’t want to read his origin story first, and he didn’t disappoint – he put me, as the reader, in the thick of the action from the start.  I encourage people to pick this book up and read it if you want the inside story of this domestic threat to our nation’s stability. 

Non-Spoiler Review of Icons of War – By Craig A. Reed Jr.

Pew Pew Pew! You missed me, you missed me!

I was honored to have read several drafts of this book and am excited for its release. Icons of War is a book primarily set in the Wars of Reaving, a series of events that has not had a lot of fiction coverage for BattleTech fans. It has made me like the Wars of Reaving much more than I used to. To be honest, I tuned out at Clan Stone Lion.

The story covers a LONG period of time. Craig Reed is emerging as a pretty damn good BattleTech author, and this book cements it. His characters are solid, which is something I really focus on. I think he did a good job of weaving in the myriad of events taking place during the Wars of Reaving without letting that stuff bog down his story. Things like that are tricky in our universe. Some authors struggle with it, Reed does not.

As you can see by the cover, this isn’t your usual fare. This has space and ground battles. And not just a space battle, a VERY cool space battle with a true BattleTech icon. I’m a big believer that certain ships are more than their tonnage and firepower. They are characters themselves. HMS Victory and the USS New Jersey are good examples. Ever watch Star Trek? Duh. The USS Enterprise is a character every bit as much as Captain Kirk. Remember when they blew it up, it hurt like hell.

BattleTech fans have one such ship – McKenna’s Pride. Craig puts his hands on a vessel I got to once, and took the helm like a seasoned author. Space battles are hard to write, but he does so with grace and skill.

This is not retcon, this tells a story that has never been told before.

The ending of this book is fantastic. I won’t ruin it for you, but it is my favorite part of the story. Five out of five stars, easily. Lots of action, a dollop of politics, and space battles…how can you resist?

Review of BattleTech – Shell Games by Jason Schmetzer

Shell Games

This is the story of The Republic of the Sphere launching a military offensive against the Draconis Combine – striking first at Dieron.  As with most novallas, there is a lot packed into a relatively small package.  Jason Schmetzer does an admirable job of giving us the fight for Dieron far above and beyond what was published in the Shattered Fortress sourcebook.

For a decade or more, the Republic has hidden behind Fortress Republic.  Suddenly they reappear mounting a dagger-thrust into the Draconis Combine.  That alone is enough to make you want to pick this novella up.

Sourcebooks tend to be like the bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation.  Stories like Shell Games put some meat on these and tell the kind of in-depth coverage of battle that fans have come to love.  In this, Schmetzer does a great job of taking two paragraphs of sourcebook and turning them into a story of characters, strategy, and honorable struggle.

Most folks have written off The Republic of the Sphere.  Let’s face it, they have suffered defeat-after-defeat throughout the Dark Ages.  Now they strike at the Combine led by Paladin Max Ergen.  Ergen goes after the Combine with the precision of a surgeon, carving up his enemies with a calm that is a mix of confidence and a dollop of arrogance.  Using the secrets that Devlin Stone possesses to outmaneuver the Combine defenders; this is a story of someone manipulating his enemies and them attempting to not play his game.  We learn a lot about Ergen without him saying very much in the story – testimony to Schmetzer’s writing skills.

One thing I liked about this story is that it emphasized that the Republic is not a push-over – they can and will strike and strike hard.  More importantly the paragraphs on Stone inheriting the secrets of the Word of Blake were fantastic.  You get a creepy vibe from these two paragraphs about Devlin Stone, without him saying a word. The phrase that came to my mind was: That when you inherit the secrets of your enemy, you become the enemy.

Novellas are tricky.  You have limited runway to develop characters. Schmetzer works well in this format.  We learn a great deal about the characters through their actions and dialogue.  I loved his one word from a Combine officer when they realize they are being invaded. That one word told me a lot about the character without forcing me to read a lot of sentences.  That one word was powerful and perfect writing – a trademark of Schmetzer’s style.

This is a fight where you find sympathies with the junior officers and front line troopers more than the leaders.  This is their story after all.  True, we get an epic fight between Max Ergen and Tai-shu Kambei Okamoto, Warlord of Dieron, but that is not what this story is about.

I enjoyed the story because the focus was less on the BattleMech battles than it was the execution of a strategy.  I like characters that outthink their foes.  On this front, Schmetzer delivers.  Overall, I give this a five out of five stars for me – enjoyable with some memorable characters.

I couldn’t find this on Amazon – but you can get it from the Catalyst Game Labs store.

Review of the True Crime Book – Blood & Money: The Classic True Story of Murder, Passion, and Power by Thomas Thompson

Blood-Money
This is not a book, it is a journey

Okay, this is an older book but I just got around to reading it.  Thomas Thompson did a masterful job of taking me down roads with so many twists and turns that I was unsure of where I was going to end up.  Just when I thought I was on top of what was happening, I was blindsided with a surprise twist.

Set in the 1960’s, this begins with the murder of Joan Robinson Hill.  Adopted child of a rich Houston oil and land tycoon, you are drawn into the story of Ash Robinson, her father, and of her husband, Dr. John Hill.  Honestly, I can’t tell you much more beyond this without ruining the book.  Suffice it to say, halfway through the book, I was stunned with a twist that Hollywood could not have conceived.

Thompson takes us into the lives of unsavory assassins, prostitutes, the rich, and the demented. It is an American story of power, justice, justice-denied, and startling bravery.  I came away drained, knowing more about Houston of the 1960’s than I could have imagined – a mix of Peyton Place and the TV show Dallas.

This book has easily become one of my favorite true crime books and sets a bar in terms of investigative journalism.  I was enthralled with the book, but it took a long time to get there.  This book is a journey and one that is well-worth the trip.  Easily five-out-of-five stars for me.

Review of: Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment by Cory M. Pfarr

Longstreet

People forget sometimes that I am a military historian on top of writing in other more popular genres.  This book has been nagging me for weeks to read it, so I did and it was not quite what I expected, but proved to be more.  This is an unsolicited review.

Like many people, I have read a lot of books on Gettysburg over the years.  In many there has been an undercurrent of sorts, taking jabs, sometimes less than gentle, at General James Longstreet.  Some historians have laid the failure at Gettysburg at his feet.  I knew the stories all too well.  Longstreet was a Republican and after the war took an active role in the Federal Government.  In his post-war assessments and writings he was candid about Gettysburg and less-than-artfully pointed the finger for some of the blame on General Robert E. Lee.  To many in the south, this was akin to sacrilege.

After the war the mythos of the Lost Cause emerged.  In this, Southerners attempted to deflect that the war had to do with slavery, shifting more to the narrative that it was really about states rights.  There is plenty of foundation for that thinking and I won’t turn this into a states-rights vs. slavery debate because it gives even me a headache at times.  At the same time they tended to iconize the Southern leaders, placing them on pedestals.  They railed against Reconstruction, the Republican Party, and the north.  When I wrote about Bert Hall’s father (In my book, The Bad Boy), I had to study the Confederates that migrated to Mexico to attempt to reform the Confederacy there – so prevalent was this determination to remain sovereign on their part.  There was a certain dignity to it, that the South had been fighting what was a doomed lost cause from the beginning but did so nobly and with honor.

Highest on those pillars of untouchable Southern leaders is Robert E. Lee.  So when Longstreet even hinted that Lee was to blame for the defeat at Gettysburg, he became a pariah amongst his own people.  Former generals lined up to contort history as much as possible to make it look like he was the reason that the Confederacy lost that battle.  Historians that followed often used these heavily slanted accounts to further besmirch Longstreet’s leadership.

Which brings me to this book.  Mr. Pfarr has written something of a unique book on Gettysburg.  Rather than retell the battle minute-by-minute, he raises the critiques of Longstreet by various former officers and historians, and compares them to facts and a cold dose of reality.  Being a true crime author, I love it when someone compares conflicting accounts of events, sometimes from the same person, to show how the telling of events is corrupted and twisted over time.

This is a good solid book, but it is aimed more at scholarly researchers rather than casual readers.  I really enjoyed the opening chapters where you see Longstreet in his later years.  Once you get into the battle itself you don’t get the entire picture of Gettysburg, but rather the points of contention around Longstreet.  Believe me, there was plenty of blame to go around for the failure there, not just with Lee but with other subordinates.

I think Mr. Pfarr, much like a well-organized lawyer, has made a compelling case in support of Longstreet.  He does not claim that the general is perfect by any stretch, but he casts enough doubt to make you want to reconsider Longstreet’s true role and contribution in the battle.  My only real critique about the book is what isn’t there, which is a chapter that really delves into the Lost Cause mythology. I don’t subscribe to the Lost Cause, but there is a lot of fertile ground that would have been great to explore for context.

So, if you like more academic works of military history, this is a must for Civil War reader.  I anxiously await Mr. Pfarr’s next book.