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.

Totally Biased Review of BattleTech: Kell Hounds Ascendant by Michael Stackpole

Kell

I know it’s hard to believe, but I am not just a writer of BattleTech, I’m a fan.  So when these three novellas came out in a compendium, I got a copy.  I wasn’t disappointed.  These are tales of the Kell brothers in the formation of the infamous Kell Hounds mercenary unit.

This takes place during the Third Succession War, back when we could conquer a planet with a company of BattleMechs.  Boy, those were the days. Rumors of lostech prevail, pirate raids are a reality, and you had to make every missile count.  ‘Mechs were patched and cobbled together with binder-twine and a prayer.  Politics was less about what the Archon or Chancellor were thinking, but what happened on a local planet-level.  I miss a lot of that era as a fan because it was so simple and fun.  Mike has done an outstanding job of taking us back to those heady days of yesteryear with these stories.  It is as if he adopted a writing style he used back-in-the-day.  The pacing is brisk with subtle twists and turns.

When I was at the writer’s meeting two months ago I spoke with him about the stories and told him what I really liked best was the dialogue between Morgan and Patrick Kell.  The quips, the intricately crafted barbs, they were fun to read.  Mike pointed out to me that before these novellas, fans had never really seen and heard the brothers together.  For long-time fans, it is a special treat.

Each story stands alone and I won’t spoil any plots here.  I love the characters we get air-time with…Prince Ian Davion, Archon Katrina Steiner…and some of the foundational characters in the Kell Hounds.   It’s the little bits I enjoyed, like baby Melissa Steiner crying in the background of a scene.  These materials are perfect if you are going to run the new MechWarrior RPG because they give you some of the intrigue and challenges of starting up a mercenary unit from scratch.

Personally, I liked the first and third stories the best.  The second one deals with religion, and while masterfully done, I always lean away from religion in BattleTech.  Too many years of ComStar do that to you. Too much, “Hocus Pocus HPG Focus…” makes you shy away from true religious-based stories – though Mike does a great job with his.

This is not one of the spine novels, something universe shattering.  Instead these fill wonderful and entertaining gaps in BattleTech history.  They become more important with some of the events yet to come – so go out and buy this compendium!

Book Review: The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

Greatest Knight

When I picked this book up it was on a whim…best whim ever!  This is a historical book but I recommend it to anyone running a fantasy RPG campaign. The book connected with me on a lot of different levels and I was deeply impressed with not only the biography of William Marshal but the masterful way that the author provides the context for the story, without miring the reader down with pointless details.  As an author, I am going to use this book as a guide for my own future writing of non-fiction.

William Marshal served five kings during the medieval era, including Richard the Lionhearted.  He had a role in the Magna Carta and was a behind-the-scenes character throughout that era.  No, that isn’t right.  He was often at the forefront of many changes of power in England and France, but somehow has remained hidden in history.

The opening of the book reminded me of Flashman, starting with an obscure manuscript surfacing at an auction that led to the telling of his tale.  I was hooked in the first three pages!  Marshal is the antithesis of Flashman though, a truly honorable man.  He is the perfect template for a Paladin in D&D.  He moves through history with the ease of Forrest Gump in some respects, having a knack for being at the right place at the right time.  The political waters he somehow managed to navigate were deadly and ever changing, yet he managed to do so with honor and a certain dignity that comes through in the book.

In some respects, it reminded me of Katherine Kurtz’s Camber of Culdi series, which has become the metaphorical basis for my own D&D campaign.  I consider this series of books some of the best fantasy I have read over the years, and The Greatest Knight reminded me to go back and re-read those books.

I found the book captivating because the author did such a great job of giving you the foundation for events in Marshal’s life.  The section on tournaments, for example, really debunks the myth of jousting and is something I could see being incorporated into fantasy RPG’s with ease.  This book has forced me to purchase other books on the historical figures mentioned in it, a testimony as to well it is written. In other words, The Greatest Knight is a gateway drug to an addition to non-fiction history.

I give this five out of five stars.  It is an outstanding piece of literature that has saved Marshal from the dustbin of history!

Review of The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert Massie

Romanov

When I was a kid my mom took me to see the movie Nicholas and Alexandra at the Bijou Theater in Battle Creek, MI.  She knew my love of history and the story fascinated her, especially Rasputin and Anastasia.  At the end of the movie she covered my eyes when the royal family was shot.  For some reason that has always stuck in my head.

Robert Massie is, well, a giant in terms of historical writers.  I actually wore out my copy of Castles of Steel, it is that good. This book falls somewhere between a history book and a true crime saga.  After all, the Romanov family was never tried for crimes, they were brutally murdered.  When I saw this book on my Amazon feed, I knew I had to pick it up.

It starts with the crime itself, which pulls you in.  The strange, if not bizarre treatment of the bodies was compelling as well.  Massie is masterful at giving you the historical context that is do desperately needed to understand the events.

Slowly what emerges is how the bodies were eventually found and recovered, and the impact of the Cold War and petty academics that played a part in identifying the remains.  This was a story that the public knew very little about.

Suddenly the book takes a hard turn into the rumors of the survivors, namely Anastasia.  I was surprised to learn that one woman claiming to be the princess lived out her years near me, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The courtroom battles over her DNA were long, but entirely necessary.  Having read Massie’s other books, I knew that he was taking me as a reader on a long journey – and that parts of it were convoluted.  I was surprised that there were so many members of the Romanov family that were spared the violence of the Red Revolution.

As a true crime book, this is pretty intriguing to read but you may find the parts on “Anastasia” lacking, since it feels her only crime was lying about who she was.  As a history book, it is outstanding.  This book is solidly researched and well worth picking up.  Five out of five stars.

Now I need to go to the Netflix series, The Last Czars.  Curse you Robert Massie – you are making me explore this more.

Review of The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father . . . and Finding the Zodiac Killer, by Gary Stewart and Susan Mustafa

dangerous

I am a true crime author and write about cold cases.  Often times I won’t write reviews about true crime books I don’t like because I respect the work that went into them, even if I disagree with their conclusions.  In the last few years we have had a rash of books where people claim family members are DB Cooper or the Zodiac or some other famous case. A part of me always fears that this is people capitalizing on famous cases for a quick buck.

I went into this book hoping to read a theory of a truly viable suspect in the heinous Zodiac murders.  In reality, the Zodiac portion of this book is about 1/4 of the content – and even there, it offers nothing substantially new.  The author added in his father’s name, attributing him to being the Zodiac.

This is more of the story of the author who tracks down his birth father, who is a low-life character.  This is more than validated. He claims his father was a big fan of the Mikado, potentially into devil worship, liked cyphers, and had access to the same style shoe as Zodiac.  I do not doubt that his researched unearthed these bits of his father’s personality. His birth father also lived in the area and had a reason to have a grudge against Paul Avery at the San Francisco Chronicle.  Digging through the cyphers, he found his father’s name…but much like a game of Scrabble, a number of names can be created from letters found there.  Again, kudos to the author on his research, but I cringe at the conclusions.

Circumstantially it seems like he might, stress might, be a candidate for consideration as a suspect.  I, however, needed more than this, and in The Most Dangerous Animal, it just isn’t there.  There is no smoking gun, no tangible piece of evidence that links his estranged father to these crimes.  Coincidences, yes – absolutely.  Speculation doesn’t make it so.

The parts of the book where the Zodiac is covered, he has written his father into the role of the killer. I struggled with these chapters of the book most of all.  It just feels like a huge leap.  That, and the dialogue he attributes to his father throughout his life seems contrived.  There is no way for him to have reconstructed that dialogue, even from witnesses, all of these decades later.  It feels highly speculative, if not, utterly fictitious. The book has an agenda and attempts to dovetail the evidence to fit that agenda.

What the author does provide us with is a potential suspect that has not been on our collective radar.  I applaud that effort, but let’s not make this more than what it is.

The book is well written and organized, which made me read all of it, despite the flaws in the research.  The author’s story of what he found out about his father is compelling on its own and does not need a flimsy Zodiac connection to resonate with readers.

If you are purchasing this book because you have tracked the Zodiac case, I advise caution. While this is a gripping story of a man searching for his roots and discovering dark secrets – he fails to make a case that his father is the Zodiac killer.  If you are a Zodiac reader, you will pick this up regardless of my words.

A Review of Killing Season – The Unsolved Case of New England’s Deadliest Serial Killer by Carlton Smith

Killing Season

As most of you know, I am an author of cold case true crime books so this one caught my attention. With cold cases there are two things that get the reader engaged. First is the crimes. Second, is, “Why did this case end up not getting solved?” It is in this second topic area that this book soars.
Starting in 1988 a serial killer struck in the town of New Bedford MA, killing wantonly and dumping bodies along a highway. The town itself is a character in this book, you get a feel for the grit and the drug culture that makes you feel like you want to take a shower after you read some sections.
This is not about the serial killer as much as a story of a prosecutor gone wild. It is about individuals that may have been (likely) wrongly targeted and a search for facts to back that up, rather than the pursuit of the murderer. If you ever wanted to read a book to learn why most cold cases don’t get resolved – this is the book for you! The author takes a very complicated story of grand juries, bumbled investigations, and outright wrongful prosecution and weaves it into a dark tapestry of lies, deceit, and hollow justice.
Carlton Smith has done a masterful job of guiding the reader to form their own opinions; though we will all end up at the same place…it is just a matter of when and how we get there. It is not a riveting book, but one that infuriates you that the justice system has failed these victims so completely and utterly.  Any book that can make you furious is one worth reading.
I highly recommend this true crime tale that has me marking off New Bedford as a city I never wish to visit. I need to look at what other true crime books this author has to offer.

Review of The Case Files of the East Area Rapist / Golden State Killer by Kat Winters and Keith Komos

East Area

 

When I was at CrimeCon 18 I saw this book and purchased the Kindle edition when I got home.  I notice today it is not up on Amazon, but that could be either a bug with Amazon.com or the authors working on a new edition.  I would hope they would keep this one in print because it is useful.

As a true crime author, I wanted some details on this case and this book is all about the details.  It covers every single crime related to the Golden State Killer.  Some of this was clearly compiled from police reports, while other incidents seem a little lighter, perhaps from media sources.

This is not a casual read…there is a LOT of material here.  My hates off to Kat Winters and Keith Komos for the staggering amount of research they did for this.  I wanted this level of detail in a book.  As a true crime author my level of curosity is at the nuts and bolts level and here, this book doesn’t disappoint.  If you want an overview level of the cases, there are some great books out there.  This one takes you through every single crime.

What was strange was that after I read it (nightly for four weeks – it’s that big) I started to blur the cases together in my head.  Perfect.  That meant there was a very distinct pattern that you see emerge with these crimes.  It is incredible how the murderer (suspect Joseph DeAngelo) followed a pattern of how to approach the target homes, entry, things he said to the victims, his methods of immobilizing them, etc.  I knew this going into the book, but not on the incredible volume of cases.  What you are led through, chronologically, is the evolution of madness this rapist/killer went through.  You can read clearly how he honed his horrific skills.  The amount of work that went into this book is something I respect as a researcher and author.

We knew that the Golden State Killer called his victims, but I was surprised at how much he tracked and called them.  He used the phone to stake out when the houses were empty and when certain people were at home.  This kind of stuff is golden (no pun intended) for a true crime fan like me.

The book has a conversational tone in some areas where the authors ask the readers questions about what they see.  I’m not a huge fan of that, but it didn’t ruin the book for me.  It is a style of writing and you don’t have to be a fan of every style.  There were some editing mistakes, but I’m in no position to cast stones on that front.  Sidebar:  That stuff happens and the people that make a big deal about it are often would-be writers themselves who believe the English language is composed of hard and fast rules that cannot be pushed or broken.  There hasn’t been a book I’ve read in the last decade that hasn’t had some minor hiccup when it comes to grammar.  Let it go people.  End Sidebar

There is remarkably little about the investigation.  This is, per the title, the “case files.”  For some true crime fans that is going to be something they will struggle over.  There is no narrative that weaves all of this together.  It reminds me of Dragnet’s infamous line, “Just the facts ma’am.”

With DeAngelo’s case front and center with the media, this is a great go-to book in the coming years.  Everytime something has come up on TV about the case, I’ve done a search on my Kindle copy to check references.

I give this 4 out of 5 stars for the casual true crime reader.  For someone wanting to know each and every case, it is 5 out of 5 stars.

 

 

Review of Zodiac, The Case of the Zodiac Killer, by Michael Morford and Michael Ferguson

ZodiacKiller_KindleCover_2-22-2018_v1


Zodiac.  Just the mention of it to true crime fans elicits reaction, be it because of the books or the motion picture, the History Channel series, or the rumors and innuendo about the case. Like many people, I got sucked in by Robert Graysmith’s big yellow covered book on Zodiac years ago.  I even listed it on my compilation of best true crime books.  Blaine’s List of True Crime Books  It isn’t perfect, as a true crime author I understand that.  Let’s face it, that book was a gateway drug for all of us into this case.

Zodiac, as a killer, compels us…taunts us.  He was one of those rare serial killers that communicated to the public and toyed with the investigators.  He dared the police to catch him, and thus far, they have failed.  The new DNA sampling techniques and use of hereditary DNA sites may yet net this murderer…but until then, he remains elusive.

One of my publishers (full disclosure here) recently published a book on Zodiac, The Case of the Zodiac Killer – The Complete Transcript and With Additional Commentary, Photographs, and Documents.

I wasn’t sure if I would even like the book because it is the transcripts of a very popular podcast, Criminology.   Would transcripts of a podcast make for a readable book?  I went in with a healthy dose of skepticism. Some podcasts out there would not be able to pull this off, the back and forth banter would make it a train wreck in print.  Not so with Criminology.  The flow of the book is conversational, entertaining, and enough to keep you drawn in.  In fact, this is one of my favorite books on Zodiac in a while (though I have another two on my Amazon wish list.)

Why did I enjoy it?  Quite simply, there are new tid bits and details that the podcasters/authors explored.  I love getting this stuff.  I also liked the fact that the publisher/authors included other audio transcripts to augment this material.  You may think that having a 1960’s reporter’s interview transcribed in a book is meaningless, but in some cases it puts you right there with the investigators at the scenes.  Moreover, this is new data.  In a case as frigid as Zodiac, any new insights or perspectives are appreciated.

The book is not your typical true crime fare.  This is a transcription of a podcast.  It is done well, and Wild Blue Press has broken new ground doing this – creating a new sub-genre or true crime.  I really came to appreciate and enjoy the podcaster’s logic, inquisitiveness, and attention to detail.  It made me want to go back and listen to their podcasts.  Morford and Ferguson have upped the bar for the dozens of other podcasters out there with their depth of research.  This book is innovative and different, with a lot of variation.

Some people are not going to enjoy the conversational format, and that is okay.  Not every true crime book is for the masses.  This book does fill a niche and is well deserving of space on your true crime bookshelf.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.  If you are hooked on the Zodiac case, this is worth picking up.