Multiple-Mini-Review: Doc’s Tale of Two Knigi


Image may contain: one or more people and textIt was the best of books, it was the worst of books. Well, that’s not quite fair – the Strugatsky boys are a couple of authors I really enjoy reading, but this time around, all characters and no plot. I got through the halfway point and bailed. I can’t see waiting around for two hundred pages, waiting for something compelling to happen. I’m the opposite when it comes to watching slow movies, not sure why I don’t have the patience when it comes to reading.  As such, Doc’s really unable to offer a grade for this one.

The Scalzi book, on the other hand, hits the ground running. It’s more a novella than a novel, at only 130 pages. It reads quick, and it’s a very entertaining story. The cover art is a bit of a disappointment, I will admit – it gives the overall package a vanity press feel, which doesn’t seem right, since Scalzi is fairly prolific and has done well for himself.  The writing is tight and muscular, and the plot is pretty fantastic.  A quick and dirty “A-” for this effort.

If you’ve read “Monday…” and love it, convince me to give it another shot.

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Doc Reviews “The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn

Image may contain: textLiterature it ain’t, but if you’re a fan of the psychological suspense/thriller genre, you might enjoy this. Borrowing heavily from Hitchcock (and more or less acknowledging as much through the plot), we have a novel in which Anna, living alone, suffering from agoraphobia, sees her new neighbor and friend Jane stabbed to death in the house across the street. Battling her anxiety disorder and the bottle or so of wine she had drunk that day, Anna tries to make her way to the house to help the neighbor – she awakens in the hospital the next day, having passed out from the alcohol and the anxiety, and being told that her neighbor is alive and well. When Anna insists on her version of events, the neighbor comes in to show herself to be alive and well. But it’s an impostor – – it’s definitely not Jane. What the hell’s going on?

The author, A.J. Finn, leaves a handful of breadcrumbs and very few red herrings; on the way to the finale, I had solved almost all of the subplot mysteries to help me draw my own conclusion of what was going on, but in the end, I think Finn had either left out details or simply obscured them so well that I got a nice surprise. Events were tidily explained, and at the end of the day, we have a satisfying read. Probably just another book in the “The Woman…” titles (“…in Cabin 10,” “…on the Train,” “…Who Wrote Another Book to be Unfairly Yet Unavoidably Compared to ‘Gone Girl'”), but a fun read regardless. On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc would offer a good old “B+” on this one.

Doc Reviews “The Frozen Woman” by Jon Michelet

rfs1Finally finished this one. It’s not a massive book – quite slim, in fact, at 256 pages. In what may be a case of mistaken identity, a woman is murdered and dumped in the garden of a shady lawyer. We’re given a fairly decent bundle of clues as to who did it, but the why remains to be seen.
 
The book starts off with a bang, but bogs down after the first handful of chapters. Only once the reader is aware that the book may be reaching its climax does the pace pick up again. Another obstacle for me was the introduction of so many key figures throughout the book, and frankly, trying to juggle the two dozen Norwegian names was a task for me. I don’t recall having this issue with other Norwegian thrillers, but for some reason, in this one, I had a hard time keeping the characters straight in my head.
 
I will also fault the translator in somewhat, because the translator’s job is to do more than translate: there were a few jokes that probably fell flat because the wordplay didn’t bridge the languages. A good editor would have made suggestions to correct this.
 
Overall, an entertaining read, but at times it felt like a chore. On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s going to be kind and throw this one a B-. There’s a reason it’s not gotten any 5-star reviews on Amazon.

Doc Reviews “Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi

Image result for children of blood and boneWell, this was an amazing book, an amazing first book, and an amazing first book in a fantasy series. It’s been three days since I completed it, and it’s taken me that long to gather my thoughts and try to put them down in a coherent fashion. And I can’t.
 
In a land not unlike the African continent, the people of Orïsha are represented mostly by the maji and kosidán – the former, endowed with magical qualities across the elements, depending on the individual, and the latter endowed with the royal heritage that allows them to rule the land. Twelve years before the action of this novel takes place, out of fear for his family’s life, the ruler of Orïsha has somehow devised a plan to rid the land of magic of any kind, causing those of maji blood to lose their ability to defend themselves and provide for themselves; they are, in essence, systematically oppressed by the kosidán. In the sweep to ensure that the magic stays dead, efforts are made to kill the leaders of the maji community, including the mother of our book’s hero, Zélie.
 
We are provided a number of glimpses into the cultures of both the maji and the kosidán through the narration of four of the main characters – a son and daughter living among the maji, and the son and daughter of the King of Orïsha. When it becomes apparent that some of the relics from the period of magic are somehow popping up, and the promise of using them to return magic to the maji people, both sides of Orïsha are anxious, for obviously different reasons. There’s definitely an axe or two to grind from both sides, and it looks like neither is interested in getting along.
 
A series of misadventures brings the four narrators together; each of the four carries with him or her the ultimate goal of trying to build a just and fair Orïsha, but each has his or her own definition of what that means, and how to go about achieving it. The writing here is muscular and violent at times, but not without purpose. The author, Tomi Adeyemi, has pulled a JK Rowling in offering a first novel of what I hope will be many, richly layered with a fresh voice on what it means to be a human among humans, rather than a member of a class or race pitted against others.
 
Image result for Tomi AdeyemiAs good as the book is, I found the Author’s Note at the end to be the pièce de résistance. If I tell you what she offers, I fear it will be as much a spoiler as anything I could reveal about the book. But it made me set the book down and view everything I read in an entirely different light. It will definitely not be to everyone’s taste – you’ll know why when you read it – and for this reason, the book has suffered a bit in the “reader’s reviews” section of any of your favorite online booksellers. But I say give this marvelous book a chance. It is an absolute winner. Staple your socks to your calves, because otherwise they may be knocked clean off. On a scale of 1 to 100, Doc give this book a solid old-fashioned “A”.

Doc Reviews Sophie Hannah’s “The Orphan Choir”

Image result for orphan choir bookDoc just finished this one up. I liked what the author did here, but it will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s as if she had two rough ideas for a novel, but didn’t have a way to 1) start one, and 2) finish the other. It’s an interesting exercise, and for me, it worked.
 
The first half of the book involves Louise, a mum living in Cambridge with her husband and 7-year-old son, who attends boarding school and is a promising young chorister. Louise is having serious problems with her next-door-neighbor, whom she calls “Mister Fahrenheit” because of his insistence on playing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and any number of other loud tunes well into the night. The book thus far reads like a piece of fluffy humorous fiction as she plots to somehow get Mr. F. to tone it down or face her wrath. The mood of the book changes quite dramatically at about the halfway point, however, when we slowly come to realize that some of what Louise is hearing might very well be hallucinations, brought about by her drifting into what appear to be psychotic episodes.
 
It’s not a book I’d hang onto, so a library copy will do the trick. It’s got me interested in Ms. Hannah’s other works, however. It’s nice to bump into a work that challenges our perception of reliability in a narrator, a narrator we’ve come to trust, but only for so long.
Seems like a lot of the reading community are quite torn on whether they like or dislike this one – I’m not sure why; no one is being fooled here, we know (hopefully) what we’re getting into when picking it up, but the starkness of the switch from humor to despair is very real.  Doc likes it, and on a scale of 1 to 100, I’m busting out a “B” for this’n.

Doc Reviews Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Dark Destroyers”

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Let’s get this out of the way right now.  Two things, really.  First, is Manly Wade Wellman the best name for a pulp science fiction author you’ve ever heard in your life?  I’ll save you the trouble of actually having to think:  Yes, it is.  Good lord, if you say it quickly enough, you bark out “manly-made well man!” and people stare at you for what seems like hours.

Second: Is this the most ridiculous cover of a pulp science fiction book you’ve ever seen?  Again, yes, yes it is.  Look closely.  What must be the protagonist appears to be under attack by a giant cartoon hen with steel-cable tentacles spraying out where the beak should be.  It’s nothing short of brilliant.  Who’s NOT going to want to grab this thing?

Image result for manly wade wellmanWith “The Dark Destroyers,” Manly Wade Wellman does everything he appears to set out to do.  Entertain the reader.  The story starts out with an explanation that the appropriately-nicknamed “Cold People” (they can only live in the extreme cold) invaded Earth some 50 years before the action in this novel.  No one seems to know why they came – no efforts were made to communicate with the inhabitants of the blue planet they set down on – but they appear hell-bent on exterminating all of humanity.  It was soon understood that these invaders could not withstand the temperatures of Earth’s hottest areas; soon, bands of survivors made their way closer to the equator in order to establish a semblance of rule, and try to determine a way to kill the Cold People and claim the Earth for Earthlings once again.

The “present day” of this novel begins with five chiefs of their own tribes around a council fire near the Orinoco river, investigating the possibility of creating an alliance from the other rogue tribes in hopes of consolidating smarts and weapons to crush the Cold People once and for all.  Sitting not far from the council fire is upstart Mark Darragh, who does his best to talk sense into the men before him.  Mark convinces the others that if they just give him enough time to study the creatures, he can gain an understanding of their weaknesses beyond the climate, and determine a way to intelligently defeat the enemy, rather than once again throwing manpower and steel at them, only to have all takers killed.

The book pushes ahead from there, finding Mark among the Cold People, eventually learning (through ridiculous happenstance) how they fly their aircraft.  Cocky Mark finds himself in peril after peril, eventually finding himself a prisoner of these creatures.  Rather than killing him, though, the aliens drop him among what appears to be a habitation of regular Earthlings who live in a type of zoo for the creatures to study.  Tending to his wounds is Brenda Thompson, the love interest of the story; the banter between these two is some of the corniest dialogue this side of a 1940s B-western.

Before Mark’s had a chance to fully heal from the wounds he’s suffered from his capture, he’s spotted the perfect Deus ex Machina in the village that will aid in not only his own escape, but give liberation to the others in this makeshift zoo.  The leader of the community, however, is Orrin Lyle, who’s had his own eye on Brenda for some time.  He argues that the community isn’t ready to act, that they have spent 50 years studying the aliens, and need more time before taking action.  Mark’s plan is foolproof, and time’s a-wasting.  Orrin’s just not having it; Mark’s facing a tough decision – override Orrin and run the risk of having untold numbers of community members try to take him down, or try to convince the entire community, Orrin be damned, that there is little time left to act.

The book is a ripping read; for all its weaknesses (there aren’t many), it is solidly written by the prolific Wellman, who has a nice turn of phrase for the era in which he wrote.  There are some eye-rolling moments, not least of which is the awkward scene in which Mark forces himself on Brenda in a manner that would get him arrested today, and perseveres in spite of her violent protests, only to find the tide turned almost immediately, because Brenda can’t say no to those boyish charms.  Still, knowing that we’ve seen the same sort of stuff in old black and white films and recent presidential campaigns, we can move on without giving it too much thought.

I found the ending to be about what I’d expect it to be, the sort that you can more or less figure out from about a mile away.  But that doesn’t make the book less satisfying.  A solid effort, breezy and quick, something to cleanse the palate between something a bit meatier.  On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s got to give this one a B-minus.

Project Gutenberg currently offers two of Wellman’s stories for free, and there’s a few handsome ones through Archive.org; however, “The Dark Destroyers” doesn’t seem to be available for free legally, so no links, but keep your eyes peeled.  It’s worth grabbinga  library copy, but I’m not sure I’d pay a lot of money for it.

Image result for russian film symposiumDon’t forget – Doc’s Cavalcade of Russian Film Reviews kicks off on May 1st as he attends the Russian Film Symposium.  He’ll be reviewing each of the four hundred or so films being screened that week in lovely Pittsburgh, PA.  Not quite four hundred films, but I’m padding now in order to allow the logo off to the right not look so lonesome by surrounding it with playful text.  But seriously – each movie will be reviewed.  Mark your calendars!  Watch this space!

Doc Reviews “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero

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I can tell you one thing: You need to read this book.

This was a very good book. “Ready Player One” (for the 70s and 80s vibe) meets HP Lovecraft (for the Lovecraft vibe). It’s NOT, as the cover and title might lead you to believe, got anything to do with Scooby Doo. The plot DOES sound familiar, though.  There are four teens and a dog, who solve a series of “mysteries” that usually end up with the unmasking of some greedy profiteer, sheep rustler, or erstwhile lawyer who had been trying to scare off the locals in an effort to hoodwink the town out of prime development land.  Or something along those lines.  Although I’m not sure I used the word “erstwhile” correctly.  But bear with me.  The action in the book takes place 13 years after the gang solves The Mystery of the Sleepy Lake Monster, where they seem to get their true notoriety as teenage supersleuths.

Fast forward 13 years, and our heroes – Andy (Andrea), Kerri, Peter and Nate – well, most of them – are getting the band back together, so to speak.  Peter, the leader, is there in spirit – he died a few years back, and only Nate is able to see and hear him.  And Tim, the dog – actually the great-grandson of Sean, the weimaraner who helped solve the case back in Blyton Hills so many years ago.  The problem?  The case may not have ever really been solved.  There have been reports of some mysterious – possibly even supernatural – events over the past few years.  On top of that, memories of scenes from that harrowing case involving scenes far too elaborate to have been staged by a money-grubbing yokel, have been nagging at the gang.  The three surviving members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club, sprung forward from their own interesting new backgrounds, are compelled to investigate once again.

The book was brilliantly penned by Edgar Cantaro, who is not only an offensively gifted writer, but also a cartoonist as well.  An example of his work, showcasing his image of the characters: medkids

This was masterfully written with sparklingly cheeky dialogue and humor running the spectrum from comatose-subtle to slap-nuts hilarious. Very few dry spells throughout, not all that many twists or “aha!” moments. Worth picking up if you enjoy reading. And I know you do.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s gonna throw a bone to this one: A.

Doc Reviews “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by JK Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

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This review is 98% spoiler-free!
Doc finished reading this snappy read about an hour ago. I haven’t really read any reviews of it, other than some of taglines like “So many twists!” There are no more twists to this story than any other Potter story. Perhaps the cruelest twist, then, is in expecting readers who have never read a play to hope it reaches them as emotionally as the first seven stories did.
Without the narrative and inner voice to accompany what is little more than dialogue and stage direction, the authors are forced into weaving slight contrivances into the dialogue to help shepherd the reader into understanding the motivation behind any given character in any given scene. In the end, it works, but I wonder how many readers get that far without becoming frustrated.
ccThe story centers around Albus Severus Potter – remember reading that name in ‘Deathly Hallows’ and almost being moved to tears at the significance behind it?  It seems that Albus isn’t all that interested in what made mom and dad name him that; in fact, his priority appears to be in coming to grips with being the son of Harry Potter.  Another of the main characters is a kid named Scorpius Malfoy – who also seems to be having issues living up to his own father’s best wishes.  Through a series of encounters, and early on in the story, we learn that Albus and Scorpius, who somehow have found themselves to be kindred spirits, are contriving to step back into the past with a Time Turner to right a wrong and make the world a better place.  It wouldn’t be much of a story if they succeeded in doing just that, so there’s all sorts of misunderstood actions and missteps along the way.  You don’t have to read too many books on time travel to know that sometimes things can really go wrong with the slightest of actions.  A temporal butterfly effect.
In true Rowling fashion, things get off to a bang, and there’s loss of life at stake (on a massive scale) depending on whether or not the Potter and Malfoy progeny can undo what’s been done.  Of course they can’t, not on their own.  And even then…
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There are some minor complaints about the writing – at times, it seems as though this is a story wrapped up in a Trivial Pursuit game; many names from the past are re-introduced, as can be expected in any series that has run this long, but often we are met with obscure names that may have been mentioned once in an early chapter of an even earlier story in the set – and that’s the only mention. Are the authors offering a nod to the true Potter geek? I didn’t consider these moments as roadblocks, but they were certainly distracting and seemed to be shoe-horned into the text in as unwieldy a manner as could be expected.
The story was very good, everything a true Potter fan could have hoped for. Among the best-written parts in the play are the redemption and acknowledgment of past courageous acts for a number of well-known characters; this seemed to also be a nod to true devotees who may have felt certain characters’ sacrifices, both known and assumed, went unappreciated for too long. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll leave that up to your imagination as to whom I’m writing about. Regardless, these passages could have been written in a ridiculously syrupy manner, and perhaps if this were a traditional novel, that would have been the case, but the stage is too swollen with action for characters or audience to dwell too much on them. The authors are, to paraphrase one exchange, planting acorns for the ride home and for the weeks to come.
One thing that stands out to the even mildly observant reader is that trying to stage this play as written would be a courageous endeavour. There are seemingly hundreds of scenes scattered through the acts, and the magic is deeply ingrained throughout – how certain actions could be translated to the stage are beyond me, but that’s happily not my job. It does make me want to see the play in person, however.
What would be even more interesting would be to see how it could be brought to the cinema screen. It would be interesting to see it happen, but it would have to occur with at least one major change in the cast – Alan Rickman’s passing would demand someone that could handle Snape’s lines – not much of a spoiler, since it’s already been revealed that the play involves a good deal of time travel.
So anyway, a good read, almost a must-read for the true Potter fans, with a gentle warning to approach with caution – remember it’s not a novel, there is a good deal of reading between the lines required in order to follow along without getting too frustrated.
On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s giving this one a solid A-.  Worth the purchase if you’ve already got the other books.  I hope this puts a nice final ribbon on the series.
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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 “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” by Stephen King

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Cover copyright by Scribner

 

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+.