Book Review: The Last Bayonet by Steven Hildreth, Jr.

In his debut novel The First Bayonet, Steven Hildreth, Jr. tackles kinetic action head on. It’s an urgently paced action thriller that never lets up, sometimes to its detriment as a rugged, sassy read.

the-first-bayonet-steven-hildrethHildreth is an Army veteran who deployed to Iraq, and it shows. The novel’s rich with military hardware details down to the millimeter. Dialogue dives in to spec ops lingo and headset protocols. The attention to details gives the action heft and should please aficionados.

Central character Ben Williams is a retired special operations machine of a man who has turned to clandestine mercenary efforts. He’s hired to rescue Zaina, a fiery Egyptian intellectual and agitator, from an Egyptian prison and exfiltrate her from Mubarak’s oppressive state.

The novel’s set in 2006, well before recent tumultuous events in Egypt, which Hildreth leans on for whiffs of discontent and heavy-handed mukhabarat (secret police) activities. It is a tense, violent, and tough-as-nails book. Hildreth propels his hero from one impossible mission to another, and that hero shoots, punches, races, and chokes his way through each one, collecting an incredible body count along the way.

Williams is something of an intellectual himself, but unapologetic about his “direct action” approach. He doesn’t quite earn the warrior-poet mantle, but he’s no blunt instrument.

The book touches too briefly on much needed softer scenes as Williams and Zaina discuss politics and philosophy, cleverly bantering with one another through thoughtful references and a taste for cigarettes. Through Zaina, Williams almost reveals himself. But, readers are left with too much perfect action and too little insight into what makes Williams tick.

But, hard action waits for no man, especially not Colonel Agha. He’s the counterintelligence mastermind who pursues Williams throughout the novel, coolly directing his torture at particularly tough point of the book. Hildreth constructs a suitable villain for his man of action, and Agha’s progression from respectable spy-hunter to rage-blinded avenger is the best character writing in the novel.

When the dust settles and smoke clears, Hildreth accomplishes what he set out to do. It’s a hard-edged page turner that raises no questions or doubts about its too-accomplished hero. The result is a work this reader respects but wants to see a crack in that hero’s armor and a pause on that body count.

The First Bayonet by Steven Hildreth, Jr.: ★★★

Book Review: Hekura by Nate Granzow

In Hekura, author Nate Granzow has created a commentary on adventure fiction with a long tradition of rollicking paperbacks and horror-tinged thrillers. Here is homage to Crichton and Cussler with a new generation’s twist on action hero, beaten to a pulp.

hekura-by-nate-granzowHekura is a tale of science and corporate greed gone wrong, all in a soulless pharmaceutical company’s quest to capture rare Amazon plants to cure cancer. The titular creatures are nature’s revenge for its overreach. Deep in the Amazon jungle, researchers have transformed into brutish creatures who attack viciously at night like modern-day morlocks.

At the center of this mess is Austin Stewart. He’s a gun-running, drug running English flyboy who spouts English cliches and carries a distinctive Webley revolver. He smokes, drinks, swears, and turns on the charm for ladies. Granzow’s best character work is driving this stereotypical adventure story figure into a sympathetic sort who, through action, closes the tale with something to say about the genre and its importance beyond titillation.

Granzow paces chapters in staccato succession with tight, tense action interspersed with playful interaction, like Austin Stewart wooing divorcée Olivia, a smart scientist who seeks a fresh start. It makes for a grabbing, swift read and keeps interest.

The book is more than a monster mash in the jungle with its cast of troublesome characters, including a power-mad executive, her deadly mercenary contractor, a sadistic drug lord, and a sketchy group member who’s sabotaging the affair. Granzow puts the bad actors into a bestial blender and keeps the story moving.

The book stumbles at times with repetitive prose patterns that kept me recognizing the writer over the immersive action. It’s hardly an egregious flaw for the otherwise entertaining romp, but surfaces enough to itch.

The book regains its step with a satisfying string of closing surprises, including a fun cameo for any reader familiar with Granzow’s other books. And in those surprises, Granzow shares his vision for adventure — episodes of luck and daring in the face of indifference and injustice.

Hekura by Nate Granzow: ★★★★

Book Review: Resurrection: A Zombie Novel by Michael Totten

Like popular zombie comic and show The Walking Dead, Michael Totten’s Resurrection: A Zombie Novel is a character-driven suspense drama set amid a disease-ridden apocalypse.

Resurrection: A Zombie Novel by Michael TottenA  handful of survivors gather together in frenetic events as the entire world has collapsed to a viral plague that turns humans into wild-eyed, aggressive cannibals. These are zombies closer to popular World War Z than George Romero, and Totten uses that to heighten the realistic effect of this apocalypse escapism.

Totten jumps perspective among these characters, like Hughes, the herd-hearted protector and Kyle, the manipulative do-gooder, or Parker the self-centered alpha. These three struggle with leadership and outside tensions.

But, Annie is the novel’s pivot, as she carries a secret about the plague that will change everything for these survivors. Her secret is the crux of the book, and it’s a clever and interesting take that makes the book worth more than plain zombie “porn.”

As perspectives shift among these characters, the reader gets inside their heads and watches them change. The characters hope. They connive. They ache. They face hard truths about themselves and sometimes plot terrible plans for others.

The flaw in this approach is the sudden shifts without cue. Many shifts occur naturally with a break, others simply follow in paragraphs. It’s not hard to follow, but jars some, feeling a bit like the book needed a little more polish.

Wonderfully, the book improves considerably as pages turn. The zombie menace is real enough, but Totten doesn’t reveal their violent presence for many frustrating pages as the characters pace and argue.

But, then the zombies arrive again and again, and they’re dreadfully real.  Totten sets the book in the Pacific Northwest, an area he knows well. Well enough to make a couple key scenes terrifying. Parker’s race to a boat in darkness and rain is a fantastic passage that nudges the book from tense character drama to real horror work.

Resurrection: A Zombie Novel by Michael Totten: ★★★★

Book Review: A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons manages to do what its less exciting twin, A Feast for Crows, couldn’t — reignite my love for the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. MartinEvents are more exciting than those of A Feast of Crows, and Martin drops more than a few page-turning cliffhangers throughout the book as he builds the grand narrative back up to another climactic peak. But, it’s a ponderous build-up at times, with disappointingly empty chapters and side-plots and supporting characters that seem to veer nowhere.

The book has a better pedigree than its predecessor. It’s filled with Martin’s best and most beloved characters in Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Arya Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen. Martin throws into that mix some familiar faces like Theon “Reek” Greyjoy, who’s misery may top all of Westeros, which is saying much. And, one of my favorites, Davos Seaworth, appears early only to disappear for the remainder of the book in a puzzling absence.

For most of these favorites, things happen. Jon Snow deals with the hard (and sharp!) realities of being a leader of the Night’s Watch. Arya earns her mysterious stripes. Tyrion travels vast distances and sees many thing. But, Daenerys — ah, Daenerys is the trouble. Really, it’s her book and her transformation. But, like Cersei Lannister’s chapters in A Feast for Crows, her chapters plod on, one after another of off-stage events as she struggles to be queen. Her transformation is glorious, but getting there is a slog.

Then there are the new bloods — perspective characters like Quentyn Martell, Victarion Greyjoy, and Jon Connington. Martin seems to be playing with these new voices and events. His success wavers. Quentyn Martell feels superfluous, even irrelevant. Victarion more so, though he seems to have something major in store for Daenerys.

Given the death and destruction Martin inflicts on his characters, especially to the Stark family, there must be room for new voices like these. But, several thousand pages in, is Martin’s exploring a vast, wondrously dangerous playground or weaving one of the grandest fantasy narratives ever written? That question keeps me interested, but a little disappointed when these detours end abruptly. They drive home, painfully, his themes about ruthlessness and ambition, of fickle fates and violence, but test our trust that there is anything here worth rooting for, worth investing in.

Still, with A Dance with Dragons,  there is a sense that Martin is that good — that all my fellow readers and I suffering for our favorite characters will see some pay off, some day, and we’ll earn a grand and satisfying ending.

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin: ★★★★

Book Review: Crossers by Philip Caputo

Crossers, by Philip Caputo, puts main character Gil Castle at the locus of 9/11 fallout and the drug war on the Arizona border. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of new millennium violence, but leaves much unaddressed as the novel wanders amid a widower’s re-awakening and a crazed lady drug lord’s drive toward vengeance.

Crossers by Philip CaputoThe novel begins with Castle consumed by loss of his wife in Twin Towers on 9/11. He’s wealthy, numb, and grieving to the point of self-destruction. Castle gives up his East Coast life and heads to Arizona to spend time with distant rancher cousins on the Arizona border.

Castle is a captivating character who transforms through the novel. He’s believably noble, and on the mend. With him, the novel shines as he weaves from broken-hearted widower, to nascent romantic, and even protector of Mexican border crossers.

Elsewhere, the novel lacks. While the drug lord villains and their hangers on are despicable without being completely two-dimensional, they lack the movement of Castle and his inner workings.

Caputo intersperses the 21st modern day fiasco with interview accounts of Castle’s ancestors who get involved with border-crossing violence in early 20th century Mexico’s turbulent politics and blood feuds. While entertaining and larger than life, the episodes are thinly attached to the characters in the modern day.

Caputo seemed to be reaching for suspenseful connections and surprises to build tension between the Mexican drug lord family and Castle’s own extended clan. But, that suspense flags, in part due to Castle’s family being mostly ignorant of any feud.

What remains are the remarkably attractive guts of a novel that can’t quite deliver. To be sure, there’s solid writing, beautiful landscapes, and emotionally gripping characters and scenes. They feel partially assembled and unrealized, but at least they move and progress in ways that aren’t just tense gun-play and plots.

Crossers by Philip Caputo: ★ ★ ★