The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack





She’s Got the Guns by M.O. Mack

This is an unexpectedly good story about a woman on the run from her abusive law enforcement husband who stumbles into a job as a receptionist for a group of contract killers. Shortly after realizing what’s really going on, she decides to extricate herself from the situation but it turns out that is not an easy thing to do. This is a fast-moving fun story that manages to take a wild and unrealistic premise and turn it into a thoroughly enjoyable action adventure where the bad guys are often the good guys and the good guys stone cold bad.

Airliner Down by John Etzel

There’s something especially captivating about the damaged jet—filled with passengers—trying to make it safely to land again. It’s been the subject of several movies and of a number of excellent books and John Etzel has added a worthy story to that proud company. To make his novel even more exciting, roughly the first half of the book is told in a “countdown” mode working its way up to the “event” with the tension building all the way. In those pages, we meet the main characters, jump into Afghanistan where we learn that the entire motivation for the bombing (the murder of a village supposedly by Americans) is based on a lie, and watch events lead right up to the explosion of the bomb on the plane. Then we spend the rest of the novel watching the surviving passengers try and figure out how to land the aircraft.

This novel is brimming with tension helped along by two of the stupidest air marshals to ever be given a badge, a really crafty bomber, and a number of personal problems which greatly complicate the rescue of the airplane. We also get to see the people on the ground come to the realization that the bomb is on the plane and being unable to do anything because the jet is far out over the Pacific on its way to Hawaii. The technical aspects of the novel were also very credible (at least to a non-expert like myself) and helped build the excitement.

In the first few pages, however, I almost gave up on the book. The introduction of the hero as a guy having an affair with a married woman made me instantly dislike him, but Etzel coaxed me back onto the hero’s side and had me cheering for him through a flashback that greatly clarified what kind of man he was.

The ultimate solution to the crippled aircraft and its fuel problem also surprised and delighted me. It felt incredibly creative and also totally believable. There were also a number of touching scenes that just pushed this novel over the top for me.

If you enjoy cultivating your fear of flying, give Airliner Down a try.

Cade Rearden

State of Chaos by J.K. Franks

Sometimes you just get lucky. J.K. Franks’ novel, Midnight Zone, looks absolutely fascinating to me, but I decided to start with this first book in the series to make sure that I knew everything I was supposed to when I started the next book. Now, all I can say is, “WOW!” State of Chaos is an amazing ride that had me hooked from the very beginning straight through to the final page.

This book has everything a good thriller needs and a heck of a lot more. There’s a war between two rival AIs. There is first contact with an alien species. There’s a plot to create a coup within the U.S. government which will have the unavoidable side effect of killing many millions of people. And there are a few decent people dragged into the plots and conflicts that are trying desperately to keep Armageddon from happening.

On top of all of that, Franks has clearly thought very carefully about all the issues involved and pulled together a highly credible setting. These are events I could imagine happening in the modern U.S., which is quite an accomplishment since it involves two AIs, aliens, and a lot of high-tech break throughs.

The book is called a Cade Rearden Thriller, and frankly Cade, with his military training and multiple personalities is a great character, but there’s nothing in this first book to make you think he’s the only main character—i.e. the character the whole series will be built on. That’s because the rest of the cast from the friendly AI, Doris, to the teenagers she recruits to help her fight the war, to the handful of critical military personnel and scientists fighting to save humanity, are also great characters. I hope very much that they appear in the next book as well.

State of Chaos is an amazing experience. If you like high octane thrillers, strap on your seatbelt and give this novel a try.

I received this book for free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Midnight Zone by J. K. Franks

At the start of the Midnight Zone, the world is a more fragile place thanks to the AI war detailed in State of Chaos. America’s financial institutions have been damaged, confidence in government has been reduced, and the other nations of the world—enemies and allies alike—are moving to take advantage of America’s weakness. Unfortunately, those are only the obvious problems facing the United States as our heroes from the previous book become aware that the Janus AI from State of Chaos was only the opening gambit from a secret group of megalomaniacs determined to save the planet by reducing its population by a few billion people. And that’s not even the scary part!

These megalomaniacs have discovered that aliens—truly horrific monsters that inspired the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft—have visited our planet and they are trying to tap into the knowledge those creatures left behind to bring about their doomsday scenario. For most authors, that would be more than enough to drive his thriller, but J. K. Franks always takes his books to another level. He mixes modern science with Cthulhu and sends his teams to the remote corners of the world—the bottom of the Caribbean and the heart of Antarctica—to piece together the secret history of the planet’s first couple of billion years as his heroes try to understand how the monsters of the ancient past are returning to reek havoc today. Lots of authors have played with the Cthulhu mythos, but none that I am aware of have done anything like what Franks has pulled together in the Midnight Zone.

If you want a thriller that really pushes the boundaries of the imagination, get yourself a copy of the Midnight Zone.

Doc Savage

Doc Savage: Python Isle by Will Murray

These new Doc Savage novels have a nostalgic appeal to me. They are written in the pulp style of the original series and are true to the characterization of those early books with Doc and his five friends solving global problems through their brilliant intellects—at least, that’s what’s supposed to be happening. Unfortunately, the only person who shows any intelligence in this novel is Doc Savage, himself. His friends go out of their way to prove they are incapable of bringing their allegedly keen minds to bear on their problems in any rational manner. They always jump into every situation with their fists, failing to think or plan ahead repeatedly even after the villains of the story have bested them multiple times. On top of this their dialogue is extraordinarily bad. It’s clearly intended to add comic relief to the story, but it succeeded only in making me cringe.

The villains are also subpar when compared to the typical Doc Savage experience. I just never understood why they were causing Doc and his men any trouble at all. And the way they finally cease to be a problem was totally unsatisfactory. There was no victory over evil—or if there was, it wasn’t Doc and his men who won the victory.

So that’s the bad part of the story, but it’s actually an enjoyable tale despite these problems. The mystery at the root of the novel—a missing civilization with interesting biblical roots—was worthy of the Doc Savage series. And the great buildup to the pythons of the title was completely satisfying. Doc Savage’s action scenes are also well done—it’s just the scenes involving the supporting cast that aren’t up to standard.

I read this book in its audio format. Narrator Michael McConnohie does a superb job of bringing the cast to life in the story. He has a range of voices that become instantly recognizable as the cast of the tale. On top of that, there are interesting interviews with author Will Murray at the end of the book that shed a lot of light on how Doc Savage was created. If you like the Doc Savage series, you’ll enjoy this book.

Skull Island by Will Murray

It’s been about fifteen years since I borrowed a bunch of Doc Savage novels from my brother-in-law and read all about the Man of Bronze’s exploits. Since then I’ve also seen him in the comics but while I’ve always found the character interesting, I haven’t felt inspired to pick up any more of his novels—until now. The idea of putting Doc Savage and King Kong together intrigued me and I found myself happily reading Skull Island but with increasingly mixed reaction.

First the good: the basic idea, Doc Savage coming on to the scene right after King Kong had been shot down off the Empire State Building was great. Learning that the Man of Bronze had encountered Kong on Skull Island was even better. I was quite ready for the story. Having a tale of Doc Savage as a young man before he has fully become Doc Savage was also fascinating. I thought Murray dealt with him pretty well and I liked the jungle scenes and the slow building tension to Kong’s arrival and the great climatic conclusion worked well too. In addition, the chance to learn about Savage’s parents and grandfather also went well with me. But all of this wasn’t enough to fully overcome the weaknesses of the tale.

So now the bad: The first third of the novel is three times longer than it should have been. The sea journey is interminable and I wanted to give up reading. The only reason I didn’t give up was I wanted to see Kong. Add to that that I thoroughly disliked the depiction of Savage’s father (whom I had never encountered before) and hated every moment the character appeared on the page. He was a major distraction from the good things happening in the story. Calling him a horse’s rear end is being too kind, but I kept getting the impression that the author thought he was both cool and all around wonderful. (I could be wrong, but that was my impression.) Finally, the opening scenes indicate that Savage is going to take Kong’s body home to Skull Island, so when the story ends well before that happens, I felt disappointed. Murray could easily have cut a hundred pages from the earlier part of the story and brought the reader back for Kong’s “funeral” for want of a better word. And I think that also would have been the point to give the reader some reason to believe that Kong wasn’t actually the last of his kind, or that he could, in fact be revived in some way back in his native home. The whiff of hope would have made for a happier ending and promised future stories.

So in sum, I’m glad I read the book. There are lots of good characters and a problem worthy of Doc Savage’s and King Kong’s peculiar skill sets. But with some quality editing this could easily have been a far better novel.

The Executioner

Caribbean Kill by Don Pendleton

Mack Bolan is killing mafiosos again in this 1972 novel from the Executioner series. If you’ve read any of these early books you know that there is not a lot of deep thought required to enjoy them. The plot is always roughly the same. Mack Bolan arrives in an area where the mafia is and starts killing them. At some point in the story, innocent people will become involved and Bolan will risk life and limb to get them out of danger. Finally, things will look really dark before the dawn when Bolan walks away the last man standing.

The only real difference in Caribbean Kill is that Bolan is flying into a trap—a trap he seems amazingly unprepared for since he clearly believed it would be there. The opening chapters were a lot of fun as Bolan evades the initial efforts of the mob to bring him down, but after that the story begins to soften around the edges and blur into fairly mindless action. If you like the high-action low-thought formula, you’ll enjoy this novel, but it’s not one of the more memorable ones.

276 Leviathan by Don Pendleton (Gerald Montgomery)

For several years around the turn of the millennium, I read a large number of Executioner novels and the associated books like Stony Man and Super Bolan and ended up getting rid of almost all of them when I moved. Leviathan was one of two that I kept and it is the only one whose individual plot I remembered. That’s because it was an absolutely awesome idea—Mack Bolan goes head-to-head against Cthulhu.

The plot actually holds together very well. On the one hand, there is the Cult of Cthulhu who thinks their time has come now that an avatar of that elder god has appeared in the oceans of the world. On the other hand, the CIA in its ongoing quest to separate itself from Congressional oversight by developing dark sources of funding has gone into business with the mob to manufacture drugs on an abandoned oil platform in the Atlantic Ocean. The CIA also sees this as an opportunity to rid itself of Mack Bolan who has been a serious thorn in their side. So they set a trap for Bolan and entice him and two covert government agents out to their platform where they turn on him and attempt to torture, interrogate and kill him. Unfortunately for them, Cthulhu is making its move at the same time.

This is a fascinating mixture of action adventure and horror with a U.S. submarine thrown in for good measure. If you like the Executioner or you like Cthulhu, you’ll want to read this book.

The Spider

The Spider 1 The Spider Strikes by R. T. M. Scott

This is the first book in a series first published back in 1933. The Spider is the crime fighter alter ego of Richard Wentworth, a criminologist who lives on the adrenalin rush that comes from putting his life, his reputation, and his freedom in peril by pursuing criminals right under the noses of the police. This sort of series is fun if you don’t think about it too much and if you can overlook the 1930s attitudes. You do have to suspend a lot of disbelief. Wentworth always goes out as himself, interacts with people, and then suddenly kills one of the bad guys and puts his spider seal on the corpse’s forehead and yet—even though Wentworth is under suspicion of being the Spider—no one seems to make the connection. But it was still fun.

The Spider 2 The Wheel of Death by R.T.M. Scott

Richard Wentworth makes his second appearance as The Spider in this 1930s novel brought to audio life by narrator Nick Santa Maria. Wentworth is an adrenalin junkie who only feels alive when he is in great danger—not just mortal danger but the danger that comes from exposing his vigilante crime fighting activities. Because of this need for danger and his love of using his wits to get out of trouble, he is constantly taking rather absurd risks for the simple pleasure of forcing himself to find a way out of the resulting problems. Strangely, this need on his part succeeds in creating a fast moving and quite enjoyable adventure.

In this volume, Wentworth finds himself impulsively agreeing to help free a man on death row and in so doing discovers a blackmail scheme that has put New York City into the hands of a criminal mastermind. To make matters worse, a simple mistake early in the book allows the criminals to identify Wentworth as the Spider forcing him to use his cunning not only to expose their schemes, but to get back the evidence that can unmask him. It’s a lot of fun watching him dance his way out of trouble.

In Wheel of Death, author R.T.M. Scott goes to great length to praise the courage, loyalty and intelligence of Wentworth’s girlfriend and manservant from India, but they still come off as inferior to Wentworth specifically because they are female and Indian respectively. In this regard, the novel is very much a product of its time when the attitudes toward women and people of color can generate cringe worthy moments for the modern reader.

The Spider 3 Wings of the Black Death

Richard Wentworth, the adrenalin-junkie-turned-vigilante, returns once again to save New York City from its newest threat—the bubonic plague. A particularly insane criminal is blackmailing people with the threat of infecting them with the black death and he has correctly identified the Spider as the biggest danger to his nefarious scheme. So he murders a few police officers and frames the Spider for the crime. The basic plot is pretty solid. The tension of having the police get more and more enraged with the Spider and more and more determined to bring him to justice (i.e. murder him in retaliation for the deaths of their fellow officers) really ramps up the suspense in the novel, but there are a couple of problems that handicap the overall story.

First, the bad guys get the jump on Wentworth five or six times. He constantly walks into traps—suspecting the trap but deciding to trigger it anyway—and it always goes bad. It is enough to make you doubt Wentworth’s supposed genius-level intelligence. Similarly, the villain was very obvious in this book. The motivation for the villainy was weak, but is possibly the set up for future problems.

Secondary characters help save the story. Wentworth’s friend, Kirkpatrick, is well drawn and the dog, Apollo, is one of the stars of the novel. Finally, narrator, Nick Santa Maria, does a fabulous job of bringing this series to life. In addition to creating great voices to identify each character, he does an excellent job of setting the mood and keeping sometimes hokey prose from slipping into camp.

In Alpha Order by Author

Cut and Run by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker

I had mixed feelings regarding choosing this book as one of my two free picks from Audible this month. On the one hand, it sounded funny, but kidney thieves? Really? That sounded terrible. So I slept on what to pick and decided to give it a try. The results are mixed.

First off, this is a book filled with energy and snappy dialogue. It actually is amazingly humorous and the characters—all the characters—are likable even though many are involved in particularly dastardly professions. The action moves along at an admirable pace and I wondered the whole time how the cast was going to get out of the mess they were in.

On the other hand, this is more of an audio play then an audio book and the cast is large enough that I had trouble telling some of the characters apart based only on their voices. The production quality is high, but voice distinction is not my greatest strength. Without the normal cues in an Audiobook like “Kate said” I was often deep into a scene before I was certain who was talking.

If you’re looking for something a bit outside the normal (and let’s face it, how many books have you read about kidney thieves in love), then you’ll find a lot to like about Cut and Run.

Primordia by Greig Beck

There are three points that make this “Lost World” adventure stand out above the pack of the many hidden-lands-where-dinosaurs-still-roam stories that I’ve read over the years. First, author Greig Beck made a credible effort to connect his Lost World to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel by having an ancestor of his hero discover the land of dinosaurs and communicate his discovery to Doyle inspiring the classic novel. Second, the role of the comet, Primordia, in making the Lost World accessible added a massive and necessary element of credibility to the whole concept. And finally, and by far the most important, Beck’s Lost World doesn’t need dinosaurs to be scary. Even the insects will terrify you—and I never remember a Lost-World-style story that didn’t need the T-Rex or the velociraptors to drive home that the heroes aren’t in Kansas anymore.

As for the story…On the positive side, the action is very solid. The heroes are likeable. The villains, both human and otherwise, appropriately dastardly. I felt genuine horror as the 100-million-year-old jungle started killing the large cast off. Yet the book is not all good. To a certain extent, I felt that everyone involved in the venture was just a little bit stupid. They came to find dinosaurs but weren’t really prepared even for the Amazon jungle. And none of them brought cameras. I mean—think about it. You’re looking for the Lost World and you don’t bring the means to document the dinosaurs you hope to find? Yet the good greatly outweighed the bad in this one, and the ending, while mostly predictable, didn’t play out exactly as I had thought it would, and it’s always good when a novel is packed with surprises.

Attack of the Yetis by Eric Brown

Attack of the Yetis by Eric Brown is an all action adventure without much in the way of character development or evolving tension. The plot revolves around a secret military taskforce (with very few military personnel) who have snuck into Antarctica looking for aliens believed to have crashed there. What they find instead are yetis—presumably alien yetis—who attack on sight and apparently for no reason other than that they feel hostile. So humans and yetis kill each other in large numbers. Because the author didn’t take the time to introduce his cast before he started killing them off it is difficult to develop a lot of sympathy for the victims of this massacre.

Don’t Know Jack by Diane Capri

This book is founded on a great idea. Two FBI agents are given a secret mission to find Jack Reacher and the information they’re given to start their search with is the location of his first novel, The Killing Floor, which happened fifteen years earlier than the novel Don’t Know Jack. If you like Lee Child’s famous series, this would appear to be a wonderful chance to relive that first novel through the eyes of law enforcement. Unfortunately, nothing about the novel really works. These two FBI agents find dead bodies and leave them without reporting them. They shoot at people—and hit them—without reporting it. They basically violate the law and FBI regulations with incredible frequency and never suffer any consequences or even seem to worry that they are committing crimes. Oh, but they’re sure that Jack Reacher is a no-good violent individual whom they assume is abusing people right and left—maybe they should look in the mirror. I don’t understand why Lee Child approved this book, much less a whole series.

4 Rogue Wave by Christopher Cartwright

I’ve always been interested in rogue waves. They rise without warning and often sink vessels caught in their paths. So when I noticed that there was a Sam Reilly novel with this title I had to take a look. There are two mysteries here (in addition to the Dirk Pitt like historical mystery). On the one hand, who killed Sam’s old friend when he refused to sign onto a deal which would make him rich in exchange for burying his discovery of a new environmentally friendly energy source that could replace fossil fuels. The other is, how the bad guys were able to use a rogue wave as the murder weapon.

This is a fun novel. There’s a little bit of science fiction technology involved, but mostly it’s a tense and exciting adventure on (and beneath) the high seas. As Sam and his team come closer to the truth, it becomes apparent that a global catastrophe is about to occur and that a powerful figure in the U.S. government is responsible for the danger. There’s a sea full of tension in this one.

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

Omega Deep by Christopher Cartwright

Christopher Cartwright really knows how to put the “thrill” in “thriller”. This novel opens with a bang as we watch the submarine of the title get into a most unusual problem six weeks before the rest of the novel begins. My pulse was pounding by the end of the epilogue and I really wish the author would have taken us a few pages further into the action—but then, if he had, there really wouldn’t have been a mystery for us to work through for the rest of the book.

That mystery comes in the form of two different underwater wrecks—an airplane and a cargo ship that we, the reader, quickly come to think have to be connected. Cartwright presents a mixture of technical problems accessing the wrecks, good old fashioned mystery, and sudden pulse-pounding action. It’s a lot of fun to read and things only get more exciting as our heroes, Sam and Tom, get interested in locating the submarine that we followed into danger in the epilogue.

A lot of this novel is putting pieces in place that will clearly be important to later books in the series, but that didn’t take away from the excitement as I listened to this book for the first time. (I have not read any other works by this author.) When they finally figure out what happened to the Omega Deep and go after it, you’ll be on the edge of your seat trying to figure out how everyone will survive. If you like a fast-paced, action-packed adventure, you ought to give Omega Deep a try.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Hotel Megalodon by Rich Chesler

I got this book because the blurb reminded me of the old disaster movies—The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno—and I was right. Hotel Megalodon is a very fancy, one of a kind, underwater hotel built on a reef in Fiji. Unfortunately, the building of the hotel right on the edge of an extremely deep underwater chasm has attracted the attention of a sixty-foot beast that the world thought had died out sixty million years ago. What follows is a sort of Jaws on steroids. Chesler had me on the edge of my seat from the very beginning as the prehistoric shark begins making its first appearances and James White, the owner of the new hotel, refuses to believe that anything is going wrong with his grand opening.

White makes a great villain for this story—in many ways much better than the megalodon who is only a force of nature—not evil. Even as disaster strikes and people start to die, White is more interested in covering up the problem than in saving people’s lives. Worse, he has no problem trying to murder, Coco, our heroine to further his schemes. Every bit of the attempt to rescue the hotel guests is complicated by White’s sociopathic nature and it adds substantially to the stress.

Coco makes a great heroine. She’s intelligent and brave if sometimes more than a bit rash and foolish. It’s easy to care what happens to her because she cares what’s happening to everyone. In fact, she over cares at a couple of points and it is my major problem with the story. After nearly dying helping several people escape to the shore, Coco herself gets free and immediately goes back to the hotel to see if she can help anyone else. By this time the hotel is cut off and underwater, so returning wasn’t easy, but that’s not my problem with her move. She makes no effort to alert people to what’s happening. Yes, there have been some reports from the guests she rescued, but one would think that a marine biologist and employee of the hotel might be more successful in raising public attention to the danger the remaining guests and staff are facing. There is never any talk about getting naval help (even if it were to say, no ships could arrive for forty-eight hours) and not nearly enough attention given to the reporters who are on scene trying to understand what’s gone wrong.

That being said, this is action-packed adventure which gives 99% of its attention to the action. The ending was also not at all what I was expecting, but I liked it very much. If you think Jaws isn’t scary enough to keep you out of the water, you might want to book a room at Hotel Megalodon.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

Jack Reacher stumbles across a West Point ring in a pawn shop and decides to return it to the original owner. It’s one of those strange impulses he occasionally has that even he doesn’t fully understand, and, as so often happens in this series, his act of human kindness almost gets him killed.

This novel pulled me in two different ways. On the one hand, the problem is just fascinating and I was totally captivated by the mystery of who the former owner of the ring was. As we begin to learn little bits about her, the mystery becomes more and more intriguing as Reacher tries to uncover why she’s in the circumstances she’s in. I freely admit that I missed clues that Child fairly laid out on the table, but that only made the ultimate revelations all the more exciting.

The second way this novel caught me was in the slow building tension caused by people trying to stop Reacher from finding the woman who used to own the ring. There’s a lot of action here—but Reacher is not just a violent killing machine wandering around the northwest and watching him work situations so they don’t explode into violence was just as exciting as witnessing him win a fight.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it appeared to reach its end about two-thirds through. We had our answers, but Child wasn’t finished with us yet. Knowing what he’s learned, Reacher can’t just walk away and we get what felt to me like a bonus adventure to make things right again.

The Tuzla Run by Robert Davidson

I like a novel in which I feel like a learn a little something in addition to the plot, and the Tuzla Run is packed full of things to learn. First there’s the chaos of the war in the Balkans with multiple states and factions fighting against each other. Add to that, the IRA is active—something I’m sure I was aware of at the time, but there is a tendency to compartmentalize historical theaters and to forget that one can affect another. Finally there is the relief convoy that is the heart of this novel which really provides a look at the problems in the Balkans region that I was totally unfamiliar with.

The plot is solid even if it depends a lot on a couple of major coincidences. On the one hand, an IRA assassin and a British soldier whom he wounded both end up as drivers in the same convoy. At the same time, the relief convoy has been coopted by gun runners to move their contraband through the region. But look past those coincidences because this is an action-packed, frankly fascinating look at a nasty ethnic struggle that will keep you on the edge of your seat as you read it.

The Noise of War by Vincent B. Davis

The Noise of War is a very realistic portrayal of a dark time in Roman history when the Germanic Cimbri had just inflicted upon Rome one of the most significant defeats the Republic ever suffered—the loss of 90,000 legionnaires. Davis does an excellent job of portraying the fear this loss generates and the personal scorn that the survivors suffer for the loss. He also succeeds in creating a genuine sense of what makes the barbarians so distinctive.

It takes a long time to get to the battles in this novel and I wish I knew more about the accounts of the actual war because a couple of the “tricks” that are used didn’t feel credible to me. For example, if the legionnaires can stand on a hilltop looking down at barbarians relaxing in the river, you would think the barbarians could see them as well and might start scrambling to arm and armor themselves while Marius makes his speech. The cavalry trick also seemed unlikely to me, but the strange thing about reality is that sometimes it is the most unlikely tricks that win the day. The novel was obviously thoroughly researched, so on balance I tend to credit the author’s portrayal over my skepticism.

And that really is the great strength of this book. This novel is so well researched that it makes you feel like you are walking the streets of Rome 2100 years ago, and that really is an amazing accomplishment.

I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Red Metal by Mark Greaney and Hunter Ripley Rawlings

Greaney and Rawlings have tried to write a Red Storm Rising for today’s generation when there is only one superpower left on the planet. The set up is a Chinese move to take over Taiwan. While the U.S. moves substantial forces toward Taiwan to deter China, Russia decides to take advantage of America’s distraction to seize control of three rare earth metal mines in Kenya, but first they convince the U.S. that all of Europe is in danger by launching a strong feint through Poland and into Germany.

It’s an audacious plan and the action comes fast and furious throughout the phases of the attack. At first, surprised and disoriented NATO forces, reel under the Russian assault with a few heroic units rallying to the defense of the west. The European front really heats up when Russia tries to withdraw its feint and the Poles refuse to stand down and stop fighting against them.

While this is playing out in Europe, the invasion of Africa continues full force with quickly cobbled together forces trying to bleed the attacking Russians sufficiently to stop the assault. The action in both theaters is gripping and the range of military forces is quite broad—infantry, helicopters, tanks, fighter jets, and even a submarine take center stage at various times in this novel. So despite being a little slow to get started it ends with a blaze of glory.

Rated R by Mike Leon

From the book blurb I expected this novel to be something like a classic Arnold Schwarzenegger movie—Commando or Raw Deal—and nonstop action is pretty much what you get. There is nothing deep in these pages, but they are a tremendous amount of mindless fun. The story revolves around two teenagers: Sid—who’s been trained from birth to be a killing machine—and Lily—who’s trying to escape her mother’s truly horrifying ex. Throw in secret government programs and another super soldier and you have just enough plot to justify tons of actions. Lily is the only character with any depth, but honestly the plot doesn’t need much character development. Tons of fun.

Where Eagles Dare by Alister MacLean

It’s hard to read Where Eagles Dare without comparing it to the extraordinary 1968 movie starring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure (which I admittedly saw last a great many years ago). The book holds up well to the movie it gave birth to with one major exception that I will address later.

Where Eagles Dare is a high-tension action-fest set during World War II. American General George Carnaby has been shot down and captured by Nazi Germany and a thrown together crew of commandos must rescue him before the Germans wrest the secrets of the D-Day invasion from him—forcing it to be delayed at least a year. Parachuting in behind enemy lines, the rescue team must penetrate the heavily guarded Hohenwerfen Castle—accessible only by helicopter and cable car—liberate Carnaby and escape with him. It’s an impossible mission, except that what I’ve just described would be relatively easy compared to what the real mission proves to be.

With things going wrong from the moment they jump out of the plane, the hero, Major Smith, must maneuver his dwindling team of soldiers through a German town to get them up into that castle where only eagles would dare to travel. Mysterious deaths and unfortunate captures plague his team, but it’s only in the confrontation with German General Rosemeyer midway through the book that we really find out what’s going on—at least we think we do.

It’s nonstop action from that point forward—something very well suited for the movies but which MacLean pulls off just as well. In fact, the only thing I thought the movie did much better than the book was the roll of the American Schaffer. Eastwood plays him as his typically silent and deadly character, but MacLean put him forth as often whining and annoying figure. I prefer Eastwood, but that didn’t stop this from being a wonderful book.

Agent Zero in Jack Mars

Agent Zero is a spy thriller inspired by the Bourne Identity. Reid Lawson, a happy history professor with two daughters, is kidnapped and tortured by several Arabs who are convinced he’s some sort of super spy. Turns out they are right. When a memory suppressing chip is removed from Lawson’s head, he begins having scattered memories of a different life and continually discovers skills he didn’t know he had. He needs those skills, because as he tries to find out how he got where he is, just about everyone tries to kill him out of fear he already knows what they’re doing.

This is a fast-moving novel with tons of action and even more twists and turns. By any definition, it’s a lot of fun. If you like the spy thriller genre, this book has a lot to offer you.

Polar Vortex by Matthew Mather

This is both a strange and exciting thriller. A jetliner goes down in the arctic and more than a week later still hasn’t been found. The only clue to its whereabouts is a journal found a thousand-plus miles (and more than a week) from where everyone thinks the jet crashed. So the story is told on two levels—brief chapters involving the team examining the journal bookending much longer sections chronicling the journal-writer, Mitch, and his five year old daughter as they get on to the plane and eventually crash and struggle to survive.

This is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat style, adventure that anyone can empathize with because who wouldn’t do whatever they had to in order to make certain their five-year-old child survived. There are a lot of strange people on board—enough to make you think that even coincidence can’t account for all of this—and part of the genius of the story is that coincidence isn’t the answer. This is an extremely well thought out story which I totally enjoyed.

#murdertrending by Gretchen McNeil

My high-school-aged niece recommended this novel to me and it was a fun read from beginning to end even if it was not perfectly successful. McNeil ambitiously sets out to create a Hunger-Games-style-dystopian-kill-fest in modern day America. A reality TV star becomes president and decides to make justice profitable by creating a reality TV show in which people who have been condemned to death are put on Alcatraz 2.0 to be hunted down by flamboyant serial killers in a way reminiscent of The Running Man movie. There are occasional concerns raised by people about cruel and unusual punishment (all the convicted are tortured to death in horrific ways) but apparently neither Congress nor the Supreme Court shares those concerns. So—totally unbelievable premise, but if you put that aside, you are left with a fast-paced and entertaining story about some amazingly smart young adults who act in very dumb ways whenever the plot requires it.

We know from moment one that Dee, our heroine, is both innocent of the charge of killing her step sister and has been framed by someone involved in some way with the show. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that the mysterious Postman who runs the show has a special beef with Dee, but Dee has more steel in her spine than most contestants and quite a bit of luck. She survives the first attempt to kill her and will go on to transform the game on the island.

Yet, that little bit of unbelievable stupidity also rears its head in that very first scene. Prince Slycer, the dully appointed murderer of Dee, is known for his many knives, yet Dee and the other prisoner on the island who encounters her, don’t bother to take any and arm themselves. Later Dee will search frantically for weapons, and I have to assume that every single reader is annoyed she left her weapon behind. It’s not the only time this happens and it was totally unnecessary.

As McNeil doles out the clues to what is happening, people keep dying for the thrill of the television audience. I’m sorry to say that that actually felt plausible—people tuning in to see executions. It’s clear that not all people believe this is really happening, but everyone apparently watches. Dee tries to get the captives to start banding together to defend themselves and it also becomes increasingly obvious that many of the people on the island were framed for their crimes.

I don’t want to give away the ending. This novel is an enjoyable adventure story and there were two important twists that totally surprised me. Just don’t think too hard about things and you’ll enjoy the ride.

America Falls Books 1-3 by Scott Medbury

When a Chinese bioweapon kills almost every adult in America who does not have Chinese heritage, teenager Isaac Race finds himself leading a small group of not yet adults in search of a safe haven from the invading Chinese army. I enjoyed the story quite a lot. There’s plenty of action and some very good character development, but in the end there was not quite enough world building for me to give the series a top ranking.

So let’s start with the best part of the series, the protagonist, Isaac. A victim of tragedy even before the plague, Isaac is a very sympathetic character who is faced with believable moral quandaries as he tries to navigate his way through a world that has fallen apart. Like most real human beings, he has a hard time accepting that he now exists in a dog-eat-dog world and is reluctant to use force at all, much less lethal force. He also makes some bad decisions, but they are credible bad decisions, so they enrich the character rather than sour him for the reader. His supporting cast is also likable which makes Medbury’s willingness to kill them off as the series progresses all the more painful.

The action reminded me strongly of plots that would fit in well with The Walking Dead with the Chinese army substituting for the zombies. You only have to think about Lord of the Flies to realize that other survivors would have to be treated with caution as not everyone would be altruistic in this post-apocalyptic America. These conflicts added considerably to the tension of the story and added a lot to my enjoyment of the plot. It was only in the world building that I kept finding myself asking questions that I’m not certain are fair to ask.

The biggest of those questions is: if the Chinese did succeed in creating a highly contagious virus that killed off all adults who are not of Chinese ethnicity, that suggests that North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Australia (plus the populations of a heck of a lot of islands) would quickly be almost completely depopulated. The world economy would then crash—including the Chinese economy. Global industry would come to a halt and it seems likely that in short order China also would be in a state of industrial collapse. So I don’t know how realistic it is to expect the Chinese to be able to sustain a prolonged invasion of the entire United States—and I’m also not certain in these circumstances how important it would be for them to invade in the first place. After all, a bunch of teenagers—even with the support of Asian-Americans—just aren’t going to be able to save the modern industrial United States from sinking into utter barbarism. China is now the world’s only super power—at least until its own industry grinds to a halt. It could afford to wait to invade.

This is the kind of concern that the reader needs to bury deep and forget about it—and for the most part I was able to do that. After all, Isaac doesn’t really know what’s going on in the rest of the world. Maybe it is collapsing. I guess I’ll have to keep reading the series to find out.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Koreatown Blues by Mark Rogers

Let me start out by saying that this book was not what I expected and that’s probably a good thing. Wes is a hardworking guy who manages a car wash during the day and goes to sing karaoke at a Korean bar each night. Then the owner of the carwash he works at gives him the opportunity to buy the business. The only problem, Wes doesn’t have the money. That’s when he’s offered a highly unusual opportunity—the money he needs for the down payment in exchange for marrying a young Korean woman. He thinks she’s an illegal immigrant looking for a green card. The truth, however, is that she’s the victim of a three-hundred-year blood feud and her family’s enemies have killed the woman’s last five husbands.

With a setup like that, I was expecting an “Executioner” style bloodbath. I figured that Wes would turn out to be an Iraqi war vet and the bad guys would discover they had picked on the wrong man—but that is not what Mark Rogers rolls out. Our hero, Wes, like most Americans, doesn’t have a lot of experience with violence and is desperate to resolve the situation in a peaceable and civilized fashion. As you might guess, that isn’t an attitude shared by the bad guys. Wes’ solution was certainly an interesting one.

Bullet Rain by Robert Smartwood

If you enjoy fast-paced adventure stories with just enough mystery to keep you wondering, this is the novel for you. It opens with our hero, Nova, getting the tires shot out of his $100,000 sports car but not knowing anything has happened other than that he got two flat tires. He hikes back into town and gets himself into some trouble with the locals which he manages quite handily. It’s not until the next day when he tries to get his car towed that he begins to figure out something is wrong. His car has been stolen and he very quickly figures out that something in this extremely small desert town is very out of kilter. That’s when the action goes into high gear and it doesn’t stop until the very end of the story. There’s nothing deep in this book, but the plot holds together very well and I resented it every time life intervened and I had to stop reading. If you like a book ala the Executioner but with a much better plot and slightly more realistic action, give Bullet Rain a try.

Three Hour Tour by L.P. Snyder

I got this book for one simple reason—it really amused me to think of someone writing a darker take on Gilligan’s Island. And this is darker! Everyone does not come together in a happy spirit of cooperation to make life a paradise on the isolated island. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Three Hour Tour starts slow as the fairly large cast is introduced, but then picks up speed and charges away toward the last page once Snyder finally reaches the spot where he gets to turn his tourists into castaways. Once on the island, things fall apart quickly. The “important man” (think Thurston Hall with bodyguards and even less morals) takes over in what initially appears to be a reasonably democratic way but quickly becomes rule by force when people begin to disagree with him.

Our hero is something of a loner and slips away early on to explore the island and avoid the “bad guy”. To do this, he leaves his friends behind, but he doesn’t forget them. The island is beautifully drawn with waterfalls, caves, a lookout peak, and other exciting and totally believable features. There’s also two surprises on the island which leads to this reading a lot more like Treasure Island than Lord of the Flies.

The tension in the book boils down to a conflict between Dee (our hero) and the bad guy and his guards. Dee is not a violent sort of person, so his efforts are largely devoted to helping people who want to escape the bad guy do so, while trying to figure out how to help those who choose to stay behind.

Then the pirates arrive—yes, colorful pirates—and things turn much darker and more violent. By this point, Dee and his friends have also figured out that they must be very far off the normal sea lanes so these pirates also might represent their only hope of escape. The tension here is very real and the solution works pretty well.

My biggest problem in the book is with the circumstances leading to our castaways being stranded on the island. Snyder spends a lot of time building up a connection between the big bad guy and the captain of the cruise ship. I believed there to be some sort of corrupt deal there. This feeling was reinforced when the ship acts strange coming out of port and the crew starts lying to the passengers. Then there are mechanical difficulties which Dee convincingly points out can’t be what the passengers are being told they are. Then the passengers are put on small boats to be moved to another vessel (the three-hour tour of the title) where there are yet more mechanical problems which open them up to a rogue wave and storm. Snyder never explains what was really going on with the cruise ship and for me it was a major disappointment in the story. If there wasn’t something nefarious happening, he should have stuck with a simple, believable, mechanical problem. Since he didn’t do that, I feel like we were never given the full story.

Dead Ice by David Wood and Steven Saville

This book has all the hallmarks of a great thriller. A soviet submarine bearing some sort of break through weapon is trapped in the ice and an American team goes in to try and secure the weapon before Soviet special forces can arrive. Unfortunately, the novel never quite caught the adrenalin rush that normally accompanies such thrillers. The most interesting thing to happen was the discovery of some ice age animals thought to be extinct, but even this really didn’t get he pulse pounding. I suspect that if you’re fans of the series, just seeing your favored characters in action again will boost this novel considerably, but for those of us trying it for the first time it felt pretty tame—nothing terrible, but nothing wonderful either.

The Depths by Nick Thacker

I’ve always been a sucker for books about underwater habitats. There is something about the isolation deep beneath the ocean with the constant threat of the immense pressure of the sea water cracking the shelter that ramps up the excitement for me just about every time. Unfortunately, The Depths is the exception to the rule. It starts out okay with a kidnapped child and a parent desperately trying to locate him, but the story never quite finished grabbing my attention. There were too many irrational actors and many little details such as a lack of understanding of military protocol that really damaged my suspension of disbelief. Ultimately, the story just couldn’t hold my attention.