In 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.
Rowling 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.
This collection of short stories, most of which has already seen the light of day through being published in magazines or other media, is anything but rubbish. I told a colleague some years back that King appears to have hit his stride again. Yes, even for its ridiculous made-up-on-the-spot ending, even “Under the Dome” was a ripping read. “11.22.1963” was pretty awesome, “Doctor Sleep” likewise. So I walked up to the local library for my copy of “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” without any hint of trepidation, assuming that I would walk into territory that was not just familiar, but pleasantly so. For the most part, I was right.
The book seems to find its healthiest pulse-rate with two of the longer stories, “Mile 81,” about an evil car (beyond anything “Christine” could have hoped to do) and “Ur,” a happy little fantasy that King originally wrote to be exclusively available to the Amazon Kindle. Some of the writing is unashamedly predictable (“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” and “Bad Little Kid”) but the writing is tinged with just enough of King’s tell-tale dialogue (think Quentin Tarantino without the mustard) and apparent joy for the writing, that the pleasure is in the journey, and not the destination.
The one downer for me was “Blockade Billy,” which was a novella published in book form in 2010. I read it back then, and perhaps because I was soured on the notion of publishing a tiny book with a Big Boy price tag on it, I really didn’t care for the negative tone of the writing. Re-reading it didn’t do anything to improve the experience for me this time around. I’m sure King will get over it.
This is a nice little collection of shivery reads, something nice to have on the shelf and take down every now and then, rather than all at once like Doc did. More of a treat if you spread your 20 slices of cake out over an extended period of time, rather than chew them down all at once. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a rainy day on the street, and 10 being a sunny day at the beach, Doc gives this effort a solid B+.
A 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 finished reading “Against All Enemies” by Jeffrey M. Carney several nights ago, and have been trying to put into words enough thoughts on the book to make a somewhat coherent review. Doc’s struggle comes from the fact that the Carney is not only a convicted spy, but also someone with whom Doc worked and, at one point or another, may have had a beer or two. True story. So I finally gave up trying to be coherent in the review, and will simply offer my thoughts. It’s still a review, of sorts. You know how Doc can be.
Bottom line up front: This is a well-written piece of historical fiction. In the book, Carney writes down his version of his life, from his formative years growing up in Ohio and Florida, to his enlistment in the United States Air Force, through his decision to illegally cross the border into East Berlin and begin a career spying for the MfS (what most of us know as Stasi) in East Germany. He details his arrest (“kidnapping,” in his words), his trial, and life while incarcerated at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth. There’s also a very brief glimpse of life after Leavenworth.
Before getting into the details of the book, let me offer two observations that are apparent from the start. Jeff is a very good writer; I believe the book has not been ghostwritten – there is no indication in the book or by doing a thorough Internet scrub; I believe these really are his words, and he’s got a really good style for getting his writing to come off the page. This includes sprinkling his pages with some pretty dark but often brilliant humor. Describing one of the Special Agents from the USAF Office of Special Investigations during his trial, in which the SA appears to be rather full of himself and tries to project his importance by deepening his voice, Jeff describes the SA as reacting with surprise at how his voice sounds, comparing it to a dog hearing itself fart out loud for the first time. In the middle of a grim scene, this line just jumped out, and I laughed. There are comparable lines throughout.
Another observation is that this book was in desperate (and unrealized) need of a good editor. No, even a so-so editor would have done. Based on the lack of evidence of a publisher’s name on the copyright page, you can tell this isn’t even a “vanity press” publication – it’s self-published, and I am assuming that, back in the day, it was rushed to publication just a bit in order to cash in on the Manning and Snowden frenzy, which carried along with it the misguidedly gullible audience that believes these two people are somehow heroes. Perhaps I’m taking too great a leap. Regardless, the misspellings and awkward grammar can sometimes be forgiven, but punctuation errors gallop across the page like a gazelle with its ass on fire. You’re welcome for that visual.
For the most part, Jeff only uses first names and last name initials. Those who worked in Berlin during these years will no doubt recognize a lot of names and personalities. The dialogue Jeff provides, like narrative bubbles in a comic book, do not ring true, but that can be written off simply as poetic license. There are others (not co-workers) whose last names appear – I’m not sure why that decision was made, but it tended to slow me down, as I wondered if there was an agenda I was missing. No idea. For what it’s worth, Jeff has nothing overly negative to say about his Berlin or Goodfellow Air Force Base co-workers on an individual basis, at least for this publication.
A final observation on the publication before diving into the text: a number of sections, we are told, were redacted by intelligence agencies during the standard counterintelligence review to ensure no sensitive or classified information makes it to publication. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the redactions – Jeff leaves black spots where the cuts were made, and the majority of information represented by these spots are painfully obvious to those who worked with him. Cutting out the word “Tempelhof” or “TCA” or “Marienfelde” seems trivial and silly. I’ve seen this review process in action, and I don’t doubt that they honestly were the result of the review of a number of agencies, as Jeff says; these reviews rarely make much sense, and it’s not unusual to see the exact same information that had been redacted on page 122 to show up in all its glory on page 126. It can be distracting for the reader, but it can also be a bit of fun to try to figure out what puzzle piece goes in the blank.
Jeff’s account portrays him being raised by a sadistic bully of a father and a simpering victim of a mother, afraid to leave the brute she married for a number of reasons. Jeff eventually escapes after a series of episodes that, if true, are astonishingly tragic – even more so, since he is unable to rescue his two younger brothers from that nightmare of a household; he is able to enlist in the Air Force, and in short order finds himself enjoying the needed structure of basic training. Get used to that concept of “structure”. It pops up again and again throughout the book.
Once in the USAF, Jeff seems to settle into a regime. His modest German skills allow him to move ahead in his training, and his sharp observations on life during tech school (English class, target language training, and his arrival to Goodfellow for his final round of training before his first field assignment) bring back a lot of memories for Doc. His description of his arrival in Berlin is similarly well-handled and allowed me to reminisce.
There are a lot of inconsistencies between Jeff’s recollection of events in Berlin and how they actually went down, especially when it comes to timelines. We both got to Berlin around the same time (I arrived the day before he did), and while a lot of events aren’t exactly chiseled in the stone of my memory, I still have a good grasp on the timeline and the outcome of most of them. There is no point in Jeff having made stuff up with the events in question, I think he may have either a) a faulty memory or b) simply shifted things around to tell what he thought was a more compelling story. Either option is not what you look for, however, when you’re reading a non-fiction book in search of facts or, for that matter, motive when it comes to little things like espionage. Still, I will give him a pass on this.
Searching for real motives is a tricky effort with Jeff’s version of events. In his words, he wanted to make sure that neither side had the advantage over the other in the race to destroy the world and everyone living in it. His work as a linguist in a classified facility helped keep the Warsaw Pact at bay, and the only way he could make sure the playing field was level was to engage the other side. There’s also a lot of “I was always misunderstood” and “my work and efforts are unappreciated” (along with, by his own admission, too much beer and self-pity) that strengthened his walk through Checkpoint Charlie.
The “impact” of one of the more telling episodes that he relates is brought up a couple of times in the book. He points to an example of what, in actuality, was standard operating procedure back in the day on the part of both Soviet and American military border “showdowns,” as well as those Warsaw Pact and NATO forces. In Jeff’s version, this was a massive one-off exercise on the part of the American cowboys in the White House and DoD that he knew would very likely trigger nuclear war; his breathless account of how he spent the day after his mid shift (when he learned of the exercise) trying to alert his handler is entertaining reading, and perhaps it really did go down the way he described it, but I can’t help but wonder why his handler didn’t laugh in his face at the information.
There are a number of timelines in his story that I was looking forward to reading in the book, considering I only had my own point of view as a frame of reference. When I got to those sections, Jeff did not disappoint.
First, the way he went about his espionage activities while assigned to Marienfelde. A lot of rumor (and some interesting OSI briefings) pointed those of us who worked with Jeff in the right direction, but the level of detail he’s able to provide (even with redacted parts) was impressive. Someone in my position cannot help but feel at least a little anger when reading the casual way in which he got away with his activities, and the pride with which he details their accounts, but at some point the mature reader has to set aside personal emotions and look at it, if nothing else, from a counterintelligence aspect and use it as an exercise in “lessons learned”.
Along the same lines, his work for the MfS at Goodfellow was also well-documented, including trips to meet with his handlers. It was nice to read of some of his intelligence failures, as well – the effort to replicate highly classified documents on microfiche is one example. Along these lines, the section detailing his circle closing in on him at Goodfellow, along with his desertion and arrival back in East Germany, was worth reading as well – he doesn’t provide specifics that explain why the lead-up events in Texas occurred, but he lets the reader in on the fact that he had obviously been acting in a manner that had his supervisors so concerned that he had been scheduled for a battery of psychological evaluations.
Another section of the book I was looking forward to was the run-up of events which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the impact that those events (along with reunification) had on his life in East Germany. It was at this point that Jeff reveals that he felt almost as betrayed by his bosses as he himself had betrayed his co-workers and country years before. He conveys the true sense of panic he must have been feeling when he realized he was headed down a rabbit hole, that he needed to give up everything he had been working for with the MfS and find a new home, a new organization that could use his skills. But with freedom sweeping across Eastern Europe at the time, his options were obviously quite limited.
The events leading up to Jeff’s capture are not accurately told, but it’s probably the official version that Jeff was given; this keeps a lot of good people from having their names published. The true story of his discovery and capture are probably classified, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say, his capture and subsequent movement to the US, and inevitable incarceration, all make for an intriguing read. The structure provided by his incarceration, in very different ways at the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force levels, also helped him keep moving forward and helped him survive. The book’s afterword (a Berlin-based dialogue between him and his son, after his release from prison) appears to be a contrivance, but I suppose I’ll never know if that’s the case. Either way, it’s not a bad couple of pages of writing, and its purpose is to cement your understanding of Jeff’s desire for a world free from the threat of nuclear holocaust.
When I closed the cover, I thought back on what I might have learned from reading the book. What stood out to me more than anything was Jeff’s sense of self-worth. I don’t doubt that he was viewed as an important figure to the East Germans, but I got the feeling that he viewed himself as the sun, the moon, and the stars to their intelligence collection efforts. I suspect that is far from the case, for a number of reasons. In addition, whether intentional or not, Jeff portrays himself as pretty much a prick. He’s often the smartest guy in the room, no matter who else is there, and that his emotions carry a hair-trigger – he explodes in fury when his concerns are dismissed or when he feels he is not being treated properly or in accord with his imagined sense of self-worth.
I think Jeff expected a lot more attention from the publication of this book than I imagine he’s gotten here stateside. I can picture him waiting for interviews from the major news outlets (he’s been interviewed on German television, but I expect Wolf Blitzer hasn’t had a chance to return his calls), and that the American public, once they hear his side of events, would be understanding and actually consider him a bit of a hero for keeping the world safe from nuclear war – but, to be fair, the American public hasn’t heard ANY side of events, not so much because the government wanted to protect all the damage from revealing the stuff he sold, but because he’s really not that big of a rat in the lab of espionage. He is not Ames, Hansen, Walker, Manning, or Snowden, not by a country mile.
Finally, I think he realistically knew that his former co-workers would not be lining up to tell him “Whoa! Now I get it! All’s forgiven.” He alludes to this a number of times in the book. The true betrayal in all of this was to the folks who worked with him, and whom he never gave a true chance to be a part of. But in one of his prison interviews with the military’s counterintelligence folks, he offers that if someone, anyone, had just reached out and said “Hey, Jeff, is everything okay?” that could have been the turning point, and he wouldn’t have turned out the way he did. Maybe I’m cynical, but I think that’s a nice convenient cop-out. Laying the blame on co-workers, even partly, is not only disingenuous, it’s chicken-shit.
Doc would recommend this book be read with an open but sharply-focused eye. And Doc recommends finding a library or otherwise free copy, because Doc doesn’t condone funding the chest-thumping of spies.
On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being shabby, 10 being snappy, Doc awards this book a B-. It’s well-written, poorly-published claptrap disguised as non-fiction.
Doc’s never reviewed a book by someone with an ø in their name. Excuse me while I just soak that in for a minute.
Doc’s been a fan of Scandinavian thrillers for close to 15 years now. The first Nesbø I picked up knocked me for a loop (but never reviewed, hence the opening paragraph. Good try, dear reader). Mankell? Same story. There’s something dark, downright brooding about these novels; you find yourself soaking in the protagonist’s angst, and there’s always something in their personal lives that creep into the picture and make them a little more reflective than anything I’ve read from Lee Child, for example. Don’t fret, though, Lee – I still love your work.
“The Boy in the Suitcase” starts off like any other novel. Secretary to a wealthy son of a bitch jumps at his beck and call, fetches a suitcase full of naked drugged boy from a luggage locker in a Copenhagen train depot. Yawn. Nothing original here. Seriously, though, the action begins right on the first page, and never EVER lets up. Secretary freaks right on out, stuffs the suitcase back in the locker, and calls on our main protagonist, Nina Borg, to handle the situation. Nina is a Red Cross nurse and, by all appearances, can’t seem to let go of a mystery – she sees this through to the end, in spite of a lot of potential damage to herself, the boy, and her relationship with her children and husband.
The plot is simple – the three-year-old boy has been found, drugged, in a suitcase that had been planned for pickup by a wealthy cad in exchange for a large sum of money. When the exchange goes wrong (that is, when no money is left behind), the Lithuanian ogre who provided said child is less than pleased. Meanwhile, in addition to Nina, we’re also introduced to the mother of the child, who finds herself in a hospital, being tut-tutted by the staff for having obviously gone on a hell of a bender (blood alcohol level of 0.2+) in spite of the fact that she’s not a drinker, and hadn’t been drinking at all, and by the way, where’s her 3 year old son?
You and I know, dear reader, don’t we?
Through flashbacks, we slowly realize that there’s more than meets the eye to this case, and certainly something far more interesting than a simple episode of human trafficking. There’s a good deal of formulaic plot devices going on here, but there’s enough clever writing and twists to keep most of us wondering just what’s coming next. There are also nice touches of sympathetic communication with Denmark’s younger immigrant community forced into prostitution, which could easily have been foisted upon us as an unsavory touch of deus ex machina. Happily, everything fits snugly (but logically) into place as we proceed along toward a satisfying conclusion.
The book is not without its faults; there are simply some grossly illogical steps taken by a number of the actors, not least of which is our Red Cross nurse, Nina (who goes on to appear in at least two additional books after this one). For starters, we appreciate that one might not want to call the police to have the missing child whisked away back to a cold-blooded Russian or Ukrainian orphanage, but the child hasn’t been proven to be an orphan when this decision is made, nor has it shown to be from Russia or Ukraine (why these two countries were selected as the hotbed of child bartering is beyond me). When Nina finds her former friend bludgeoned to death because of her unfortunate proximity to the deal gone wrong, Nina just buckles down. No reason is offered, she just grits her teeth and says “Let’s do this.” Don’t let’s. It’s not realistic.
Then again, had she trotted off to the police, the book would not have been nearly as interesting, so we are to accept and appreciate Nina for all her flaws, as her beleaguered husband has by the end of the novel. A nicely wrapped present, with some crimps in the bow. We’ve read far worse.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a dumpster burger and 10 being filet mignon, Doc rates this chippy little thriller a solid “B”.
A beautiful thing has recently happened. A man has written a book to help preserve nature, to help save animals. What could be more pure?
The man is Ed Warner.His book, “Running with Rhinos,” is set to be published on 1 March 2016. Upon reading this delightful and engaging tome, you’ll learn that Ed is a conservationist, story-teller, smuggler, gun-runner, and philanthropist. A bit of a clown, and a hell of an author. On the road to telling us about his many years of involvement with rhino conservation, we learn a lot about the people he has grown to love, and who have embraced him into the family. Ed and his cohorts are real-life action heroes, people who honestly put their lives on the line every day to do the right thing for the gentle giants of Africa: they run real risks, from the possibility of being gored to working with an incredibly potent sedative, a single drop of which on human skin can lead to death. We learn of the trials and tribulations anyone working on this continent faces, from mind-boggling currency exchange rules (You’re an American? You have pricier regulations and tougher restrictions than the rest of the world) to feats of linguistic juggling when trying to carry on a conversation, weaving their tongues around English, French, Afrikaans, and a host of African dialects to do their work, gaining access to some of the most remote areas of the world.
Warner lays out his exploits that make us green with envy, but also happy to be reading the experiences from the comfort of a first world environment. We want to be his friend, travel with him in crowded, dusty, smelly helicopters spotting elephants from 300 meters, removing the wire snare from a baby rhino that has dug into its windpipe, recounting the day’s events with friends over roast goat and just the right amount of whiskey. But we also want no part of the discomforts and dangers often recklessly introduced by the so-called gangster governments which seem to be all the rage across the continent.
Warner is a bit of a wizard when it comes to describing the sights, sounds, and smells of the land he’s come to love. You get a feeling that you’re standing with him, watching a tired old truck make every effort to negotiate an impossible road, you get a sense of the flora, fauna, and rugged geology, and you come to appreciate the people who inhabit the land. As much as you hate to admit it, you even come to begrudgingly accept the wardens and their staffs at the various parks who admit to poaching, simply to make sure their families have food. No other book has made me want to book a flight to Africa as much as this one.
If I have anything negative to offer about the book, it is that I tended to get a little lost by trying to read it as a linear travelogue. It’s not that; Warner spells out his travels, but will be pulled away from the main path to speak about this person or that person in some depth – these sidebars are always engaging, often witty, but frequently require a trail of breadcrumbs to get us back on track of what the main story was. There’s nothing wrong with having a posse of characters who come fully loaded with so many awesome anecdotes, so while it’s a bit of a quibble on Doc’s part, I can’t fault Warner too much. It’s his book, and it’s great.
I’m hopeful this is going to be a popular book, for two reasons: Warner has stated he is donating the proceeds from it to rhino conservation efforts, including the Lowveld Rhino Trust. He offers two websites and points of contact for those who wish to send additional resources their way. I also want it to be popular because, while reading “Running with Rhinos,” I’ve grown to really admire Warner; he seems like a friend through his writing, and I’d like to invite him back into my home with a second or third book, maybe even more. Selfish, I know, but that’s Doc for you.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a sheer waste, and 10 being enough to bring tears of joy to your eyes, Doc gives this one a solid “A-”. This would make an outstanding gift for someone with a love of nature, travel, or conservation.
I’ve never read a Haruki Murakami novel I didn’t like. There seems to be a recipe Murakami uses for his work that he simply never throws away. Opening one of his books allows the ingredients to spill out, little by little. He will often include a nameless narrator, a cast of nameless (but far from anonymous) secondary characters, dismissive but intriguing descriptions of food preparation, missing or misshapen body parts, cats, suicide, dialogue that is quirky at best, a love of jazz and philosophy, alienation, loss, and loneliness, all wrapped up in plot lines that are oddly out of sync with reality.
As much a fan as I’ve always been, I’d never read his earliest works – the first two novels of what would come to be known as “The Rat Trilogy” (named for one of the (arguably) secondary characters). My opportunity to devour these two books, “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973” under a single cover came with the recent (August 2015) repackaging entitled “Wind/Pinball: Two Novels.”
The action in each is subdued. In fact, trying to find more than the bones of a plot would be somewhat difficult. It’s not the bones that you admire about Murakami’s stories, but the embroidered jackets and beautifully stitched trousers he uses to dress them up in. This time, there’s a hat thrown in, in the form of a preface that Murakami wrote specially for this publication, spelling out how and why he felt driven to write his first novel, and what took him further into his writing career. By itself, it’s a wonderful essay.
At first glance, the early-20s unnamed narrator in these two novels seems to be telling us about his relationships, either with women (in “Wind,” his relationships are awkward at best, deadly at worst, whereas in “Pinball” he spends much of his nocturnal hours with a pair of unnamed twins with whom he woke up one morning and who decided to not leave) or with his antisocial alcoholic friend, known as the Rat. But the novels reach far deeper than relationships; the women and friend serve nicely as the narrator’s sounding board for his philosophical banter, all wittily written and never as dry as Doc’s making it sound.
“Pinball” offers a semblance of a plot, the narrator’s desire to track down a beloved pinball machine that he whiled away the hours playing as a student. But as much as it is the primary plot, it is almost treated as a subplot to the narrator’s relationship with coworkers in his translation office and his relationship with the twins. Murakami even has a bit of fun with the absence of names for his characters – at one point, the narrator sees the identically-matching twins in nearly-matching cardigans which have the numbers 208 and 209 – he is happy to see he will finally be able to tell them apart, and refers to them as 208 and 209. When the women realize his ploy, they simply swap sweaters.
“Pinball” also offers us a better look into the Rat’s life in alternating chapters which reveal, from a third person point of view, Rat’s own failed attempts at forging a serious relationship, his seeming aloofness to a casual observer, and the true depths to which his yearning for affection strives, through dialogues with J., the Chinese bartender at the Rat’s favorite watering hole. At one point, I tried to convince myself that the Rat was actually the main character in this book, and that “Pinball” refers to him, glancing off of the bumpers of life like a pinball, being tossed back into the game by flippers controlled by an unknown force. That’s one of the problems with Murakami, though – I often try to figure out what it really means, instead of simply sitting back and bathing in the beauty of the writing. It’s really that good.
I can’t talk about a foreign language book (or pair of books) without acknowledging the translator. Professor Ted Goossen of York University, who at the time of this writing has yet to have his own Wikipedia page built, did a very nice job with this work. Always odd for me to be able to say something like that without knowing a thing about the source language, but I know a thing or two about translation, and when I can read what I believe is the author’s voice through the filter of a translator, I know I’m reading quality stuff. Doc offers a true tip of the hat to Prof. Goossen. I look forward to reading your other material, Prof.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being absolute crap, and 10 being the bee’s knees, Doc gives this nice re-issue a solid “A”.
Books which deal with autism in any of its forms are almost assuredly going to be compared, at some point, to Mark Haddon’s outstanding “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Doc’s recent read, “Best Boy” by Eli Gottlieb, was also thrown into that mix. The problem with making this type of comparison is that you set the reader up for unfortunate and misleading expectations. We poison the well for the reader. How many books were letdowns because of comparisons to “Gone Girl” in the past two years? If you must know, that number is 814. Sigh.
With that out of the way, let me offer that I took the comparison with a grain of salt, digitally cracked open this e-book’s cover, and began to enjoy it right away. At the age of eleven, the narrator, Todd Aaron, has been placed in a “therapeutic community” for his autistic tendencies (and his family’s inability to cope). Present-day Todd is now in his fifties, and looks back methodically at the events which brought him hundreds of miles from his real home, and we are given a glimpse into some of the abuses he faced from various members of his family because he is different. Through the opening pages of the book, we are also introduced to Todd’s way of life as he has come to know it at the Payton Living Center, now one of the “elders”.
The book’s promise continues when we are offered the first glimpses of conflict in Todd’s life – a roommate that is passively confrontational, if that’s a thing, and a new member of the Payton staff, to whom Todd takes an immediate dislike and distrust. We’re also eventually introduced to a new patient, Martine, to whom Todd takes an immediate shine. These three characters create the cocktail for what is sure to be a massive and heartwarming climax of retribution, restitution, and harmonious understanding between Todd and his remaining family.
Wrong. And that’s okay; I’m not reading to find a syrupy Hollywood ending to my books. I rather enjoy how this book ends up; it’s more than appropriate, it feels complete. But there are a number of problems I have with the novel, and which keep Doc’s grade a little lower than what some breathless critics are offering.
First, without giving anything away (that’s not Doc’s style), there are three or four important loose plot ends that are never convincingly tied up (in some instances, not addressed at all). The author has allowed Todd’s antagonists to leave unnecessary strands of thread dangling at the end of the book; the lack of resolution in some cases can be explained as separate plot devices, but in this case, it had the odor of simple incompletion. For me, anyway.
In addition, there appears to be a ton of additional details going on in the narrative that Todd, our narrator, would likely not be able to incorporate into the telling of his story. I might be over-analyzing, and that’s fine, but I tend to take the whole package into account when I’m reading. And when a narrator begins providing details that seem to go beyond his or her capabilities, I tend to regard that as a bit of a poetic crutch. I’m probably being unfair.
In all, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, Doc gives “Best Boy” a firm B+. Nothing wrong with this novel other than a few missing pieces and some extra narrative package that I just felt wasn’t true to the main character’s ken. Hope you enjoy it!
I was excited to see this 1960s series by Jack Vance get a facelift and be brought onto the market. I knew going in that it would carry that 1960s sci-fi feel, far different and distant from what we’re used to reading from books published in the last 15 years or so. So in that regard, I wasn’t disappointed. “City of the Chasch” is the first of a four-book series called “Tschai, Planet of Adventure” (each volume of which is far slimmer than what I’m used to reading, both in length and plot). Bare-bones plot details: a manned spaceship from Earth is dispatched to a star system 212 light years away to track down a mysterious signal (no particular reason is provided as to why it was deemed necessary to send six or so humans into space over that distance).
Upon arrival, the protagonist (Reith) and a colleague (no need to recall his name, he’s not around more than five pages) are sent in a scout ship to take a closer look at the planet where the signal may have originated. While descending toward the planet, the mother ship is destroyed by a weapon fired from the planet, killing the remaining crewmembers. Reith and the unnamed colleague, for reasons still not clear, decide to eject from their own ship, rather than try to land it on any of the numerous safe locations. Reith survives; the other is decapitated by a band of very human-looking individuals who have gathered at the crash site of the scout ship.
No need for a spoiler alert for the previous two paragraphs – that’s the first ten pages, in a nutshell. The rest of the book is all about Reith being enslaved, then teaching his captors all about technology and using his savvy wits to get him out of scrape after scrape, always outwitting the dull aliens. Think back to an America in 1968, and I think you get the idea of what Vance was drawing from.
I enjoyed reading Vance when I was younger; this less-than-sophisticated offering is probably something 12-year-old Doc would have gobbled up with a fork and spoon. It’s a painless affair to read, and not without its moments of excitement, but it’s been done before. It’s highly reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Mars” series – substitute John Carter with Reith, and toss in a little era-appropriate innuendo (still decades away from what we’re used to today), and you’ve got yourself a tetralogy. Months from now, I might think back on this book and tell myself that picking up the second, third, and fourth books in the series might be a worthwhile effort, but for now, there are far too many books on my to-read shelf to afford this collection any more attention.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, Doc gives it a solid C+. Doc may have graded on a curve, though – I like Vance, and I like the era this writing came from. If your exposure to 1960s science fiction is limited to writing from the likes of Harlan Ellison, you may be quite disappointed. Approach with care.