Doc Reviews “Career of Evil” by Robert Galbraith

ceIn what must certainly be the literary world’s worst-kept secret, JK Rowling has made a name for herself writing thrilling crime fiction. And that name is Robert Galbraith. The magnificent “Harry Potter” author, under the Galbraith pseudonym, has penned three (and counting) books in the popular “Cormoran Strike” series of novels, and just like the Potter books, they keep getting better with every new release.

Here’s a bit of a primer if you’re new to the series. The protagonist, Cormoran Strike, is a private investigator who relies on common sense, intuition, and his training as a former Special Investigation Branch investigator with the Royal Military Police. To add to the mix, Strike is missing a leg due to an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is the illegitimate son of a famous aging rock-star father, and has set out to collect the horcruxes to finally put Voldemort away for good. Except for that last bit. That’s another series.

The book is told mostly from the point of view of Strike’s secretary-then-partner, a blonde-ginger named Robin Ellacott, who (at the time of the action of this novel) has been in Strike’s employ for one year. Robin’s equal to Strike in intuition and investigative savvy, but she’s also mastered the art of awareness, and appears happy to take a back seat to Strike’s ego.

Flash forward to this novel – Robin has started to receive shocking parcels and threatening letters, sometimes attached to human body parts – as small as a lip, as big as a leg. It’s obvious from the bad guy’s POV chapters that he’s got a grudge against Strike, and is doing his level best to eventually kill Robin, and have the police believe Strike was the culprit. In the meantime, our unidentified baddy roams the seedier streets of London, making every effort to top himself in the gruesome category when it comes to snuffing young ladies. Two things go without saying (but Doc’ll say them anyway) – one, this can make for some grim reading, and two, Ms Rowling’s a bit of a master with the pen; you’ll actually hear machete cutting through bone when you hit some of these passages. Yeesh.

For those who have read the first two books in the series, this volume offers a great deal of backstory on both Strike and Robin. We learn a lot about Strike’s relationship with his mother, a former flat-mate, and his unpleasant father. We also are introduced to rather disturbing information about Robin and her fiancé, Matthew; all of this information serves not just as juicy subplot, but are also excellent devices for moving the story along and offering the motivation for some of what could otherwise be written off as erratic behavior on the part of the characters.

Because Rowling is behind the wheel, we’re treated to a marvelously fleshed-out (sorry) laundry list of likely suspects, each more foul than the previous one. Needless to say, as the story progresses, Strike is accused of interfering in police work and runs the risk of being tossed into a cell. And because the press had a field day with the first of the grisly packages addressed to Robin, his clientele has shrunk, making the bank accounts quite tight. Forced to accept jobs of stalking ne’er-do-wells and cheating spouses, Strike often feels as though he’s letting real opportunities to catch the killer slip through his fingers.

cdRowling is nothing short of a gem. She has once again delivered the goods to a hungry reading public, with a masterful plot and perfectly good and evil characters, along with some iffy ones to boot. She also tackles some incredible issues here, such as rape, pedophilia, partner abuse, and incest, and delivers them unadorned. At one point, Strike is faced with evidence that a young girl may very well be directly exposed to a known child rapist, and appears to be reluctant to act. Robin is faced with the dilemma of going against her boss’s stated instructions to stay out of it, risking being fired, as well as irreparably damaging a police investigation, in order to act on behalf of the young girl. It’s a very touching scene, and (of course) directly impacts the book’s final chapters.

Another special treat for Doc was Rowling’s description of Yorkshire, particularly a visit to Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate. It’s such a tiny, tiny detail that most readers would glaze over to get to the murdery bits, but since Doc lived in Harrogate a number of years ago, and has actually been to Betty’s, it was like coming across an old friend. Thanks, Jo, that was special.

Let’s not fool around here. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a leg sent to your office, and 10 being roses and chocolates, Doc gives this book a solid A. Read the series if you haven’t; if you have, grab hold of this book.

I’m really looking forward to the BBC production of the first two books, but at the end of the day, I still miss Dobby.

Doc Reviews “I Was a Cold War Penguin” by Dafydd Manton

ce.jpgA friend from my dark past, when I was working for the US Air Force alongside a number of RAF counterparts in the town once known as West Berlin, alerted me to the existence of a freshly penned book titled “I Was a Cold War Penguin.” The author was an acquaintance of my DPF (dark past friend) and we appeared to have shared a good number of similar experiences growing up (I almost wrote “maturing”) through our enlistment and training to work with languages in the armed forces of our respective lands.

There is so much that I could offer about this book, but I will try to narrow my fondness for it down to a few paragraphs. First, it is brilliantly and hilariously written. If Tom Sharpe and HP Lovecraft had a baby, that would be scientifically ponderous, but would have nothing to do with this book. But I digress.

Dafydd Manton (for the author is he) was our eponymous Cold War Penguin, serving in the RAF from the early 1970s, doing his part to keep an ear on the Soviets in their effort to rule the world. Manton artfully describes his life in the RAF during the Cold War, always with a style of humor that can leave the reader rolling the eyes, shaking the head, or laughing out (the) loud. Because our paths had crossed, just not at the same time, I found myself bumping in to friends throughout the book – Manton drops names like pygmy goats drop chocolate marbles – anywhere and everywhere, and with little warning. My poor wife would have to sit and put up with me cackling with laughter, then barking out names from my past that I had somehow forgotten. Part of my delight was reading some of the horrifyingly hilarious stories that went on a good decade before I started working with what I thought were clean-cut hard-working men and women. Well, they were, indeed, all that and (obviously) quite a bit more.

Manton is, if nothing else, an honorable gent when it comes to retelling some of these stories. He offers proper attribution when it comes to recognizing those who made contributions, providing entire anecdotes of their own as well as filling in some of the darker recesses of memory. He also withholds the names of those who, for any of a number of reasons, would not love for their families to tie them to some of the hijinks we are greeted with.

Along with a few groan-inducing shaggy dog stories here as well, all told this is a wonderfully packaged glimpse at a life not often described anywhere else. Men and women in similar careers from my side of the Atlantic will immediately find themselves at home with this book, and anyone who has lived through the Cold War – or for that matter, are simply curious as to some of the goings-on behind the scenes – will find this a great book.

The proceeds from the book go to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, a very worthy cause, whose charity provides financial, practical and emotional support to serving and former members of the RAF – regardless of rank – as well as their partners and dependents. The book is available through the usual online commercial services, in the standard formats – epub, mobi, lrf, pdf, html; if you’d like to take a sneak peek, you can head over to Smashwords.com and read (I believe) the first chapter. But do yourself (and the recipients of the RAF Benevolent Fund’s services) a good deed, and buy this book today. You’ll not be sorry.

As an aside, I had promised that I would write this review as soon as I had finished reading it. It took me longer than usual for a book this size, not because of the complexity of the language, but because it is written in a number of bite-sized chunks, making it very much like the lead singer for the Velvet Underground – a great loo read.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being amazingly woohoo, and 1 being why-oh-why boohoo, Doc gives this book a solid A.

 

Doc Reviews “This Census-Taker” by China Miéville

ccLet’s imagine a world in which Virginia Woolf and Neil Gaiman had a baby that they taught to write like Kafka. That baby, at least this go-around, is the blazingly brilliant China Miéville. Mr. Miéville presents us with a slim story about a boy who lives in a surreal land that is sparsely detailed but richly embodied, a boy who may or may not have witnessed his father murdering his mother. The authorities from the town in whose outskirts the boy lives are outraged, having apparently had bad dealings with Father before – but there is hesitation to arrest Father for two reasons – no body, and (possibly more importantly) Father is a local key-maker. The keys Father makes are not the sort to unlock doors, but are based on emotions, dreams, and desires; he crafts these into metal fetishes which he then sells to the citizens to satisfy their desire for love, a good crop, a healthy milk-cow, or revenge. He is eyed by the townfolk with suspicion, but no one wants to have this craft turned against them. The boy is sent back to live with his father.

The story is covered in a dream-like gauze, with more than one suggestion that our narrator (the boy) is not the most reliable reporter of the goings-on in and around home. But Mother is most decidedly missing.

Miéville has always had a knack for drawing me into a story; like Gaiman, he introduces a child-like voice that insists on being heard, and that begs to be protected. He also fiddles a lot with time and a seeming stream-of-conscious storytelling, presenting the narrator in first, second, and third person throughout the book. This is a book with puzzle pieces scattered at the entrance and all over the hallway, clear through to the exit. The climax is satisfying with a single read, but the volume is slim enough that it is worth your while to go back through that passage and look for all of the puzzle pieces a second time through. It’s definitely one to keep on the bookshelf for revisiting, over and over.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a punch in the nose by a surly drunk, and 10 being a gentle massage with a nearby snifter of tawny port, Doc gives this fine read a solid A.

Doc Reviews “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup

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Let’s jump to the chase: This is an excellent, important book. It is the memoir of Solomon Northup, the son of a freed slave, and a landowner in Hebron, New York, who spent his time as husband and father, farmer and professional violin player. In 1841, at the age of 34, was offered an opportunity as a professional traveling musician with a circus; seizing the opportunity to make what would amount to relatively easy money, he traveled to Washington DC with his new associates. Shortly after arriving in Washington, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Along with a large group of other slaves marketed with him in Washington, he was shipped on a steamer to Louisiana and sold to a plantation owner.

The book is Northup’s recounting of his entire frightening journey, from his decision to take the job with the circus as a violinist, through the unsettling feeling of something not quite right upon his arrival in Washington, to his awakening from a drugged stupor to find himself in shackles, his journey to Louisiana, and the subsequent twelve years at the hands of various owners at varying levels of humanity. Northup’s descriptions of life as a slave on the plantation are mixed with the various elements of running a plantation that are fascinating, to say the least. But his accounts of the torture at the hands of unscrupulous and inhumane owners go beyond fascinating – they are written without dipping the quill into what could easily (and understandably) be an emotion-filled retelling; rather, they are clinically narrated in such a way that makes the horrors that much stronger. One can consider that a whipping of one hundred lashes can be a horrifying experience; Northup seemingly walks you through every lash, refusing to hold your hand for comfort.

At one point, Northup is able to bring us down a cozy path where he tells of a late summer party-like atmosphere of singing and dancing among the slaves, well into the early hours of the morning, and for a change the reader relaxes with that image, until Northup reminds us that the slaves are dancing and singing and making music at the demands of a drunken master, and rather than feeling the any of the joy they were expressing, they were only too well aware of the late hour, as it fell shortly after they had returned from the fields and had enough time to have their very sparse meals – and that after the music is finally allowed to finish, they will only be two or three hours before having to take to the fields again, for another 18 hours of non-stop grueling work. It is not a party, but a nightmare.

Northup’s eventual rescue with the help of an abolitionist from Canada (who happened to be passing through) is long in its arrival, but like the bird in the oven on Thanksgiving, the fact that the reader knows it’s coming makes it all the more delicious. The description of the efforts to bring the initial kidnappers to justice is agonizing in its racial unfairness, but not all that unexpected. Northup’s final scene of being reunited with his family is written in such a way that the heart fairly swoons.

It’s interesting to do a little reading on what Northup did for the rest of his life; I highly recommend giving the Wikipedia entry on Northup’s life a read. By now, the basic details of his story are already pretty well known (you get the entire gist of the book through the title itself), but it’s also well worth your while to grab the book and devour it as well. The good news is that it’s in the public domain, and can be downloaded, courtesy of the good folks at the Gutenberg Project, by clicking on this couple of words here. Hell, that’s almost like magic, isn’t it?

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being little more than toilet paper and 10 being the best thing since sliced bread, Doc gives this book a solid “A”. Don’t forget to grab your free digital copy today.