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+.

So this just happened.

Not sure how ol’ Doc’s gonna be able to sleep for the coming damned four and a half months.  I’m hoping (against hope) to get an advance copy to read of this particular book.  You’ll be the first to know if that’s the case.  But it won’t be.

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If you ain’t squealing like a baby piglet right about now, check your pulse.  This is huge.

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 “We” by Yevgeniy Zamyatin

cdIt’s not often that you can grab a book free (legally so) from the Information Superhighway that is famous for having influenced Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, Ursula K. LeGuin, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, and Kurt Vonnegut. But you can – the magnificent “We” by Yevgeniy Zamyatin, an early 20th century dystopian novel that seems to spell out the road to post-Soviet Russia. It’s a pretty great read.

The book differs greatly from “1984” and “Brave New World” because it addresses its topics with a rather wry sense of humor. I hope Zamyatin had a good time writing this novel and inserting his inside jokes and nodding winks to the readers in the know, because the novel very well may have led to his ruin. It certainly was the impetus for his downfall in Russian literary society and his subsequent deracination to Paris, with the gentle assistance of Maksim Gorky.

“We” takes place in a world ruled by OneState, a thousand years after that body conquered every country on the entire planet. Everyone is assigned an alphanumeric designator, rather than a name, and our narrator, D-503, matter-of-factly points out the differences between his world and what we have come to know as our own. He brings up his world’s history and its unique style of government not because he is writing for an audience in the past (us), but because he is providing his account for the future readers – his journal will accompany the spaceship Integral (which D-503 is helping to develop) to other planets, which OneState plans to conquer.

D-503’s girlfriend (for lack of a better term), O-90, has been assigned to him by OneState to serve as his lover. Sex nights are pre-assigned affairs, largely passionless events which are viewed for the most part as a citizen’s duty. D-503 shares O-90 with another OneState citizen, R-13, who is a poet. R-13 performs his verse at public executions. A charming trio, these three.

ccEnter the mysterious I-330. I-330 is a female who appears to work very hard at flirting with D-503. She also engages in illegal activities – smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and possibly worst of all, invading D-503’s dreams (dreams are viewed as a sign of mental inferiority, so for obvious reasons, D-503 is mum on that account). We soon learn that I-330 is actually recruiting, as she is part of a revolutionary group hoping to overthrow OneState and re-introduce passion and humanity to OneState’s citizens. She leads D-503 to a city outside the Green Wall, which surrounds OneState, and introduces him to her organization, the Mephi.

Things become hectic in the final act, with O-90’s desire to become pregnant with D-503’s baby (another illegal activity, as O-90 is deemed too short and, therefore, unfit to carry a new OneState citizen) is fulfilled. A frantic effort to remove O-90 to the Mephi is undertaken, with D-503 at odds with his conscience, which tells him that the protection of OneState is the single constant in his life that he can rely on. Does he turn his back on O-90 and I-330? Does he rat the Mephi out to OneState? I’m not going to spoil the fun by revealing that – it’s worth picking up the book yourself and giving it a go.

ceZamyatin seemed to be itching for a fight by writing this book. One would suppose that he felt the brand new Soviet Union’s leaders had a fanatic edge to them, hoping that they too could overthrow the rest of the world with their vision of a Metropolis-like worker state, but without the other side of Metropolis, the elite that are authorized access to the outside world. I enjoyed this book for a lot of reasons; in spite of its age, it seemed fresh (certainly, there are some rather clumsy translations out there that will sound awkward to the 21st century reader’s ear, but at times that can be part of the book’s charm).

Since Doc’s a translator himself, he would be remiss in not mentioning the translation of this work.  I read a recent translation (2011) by Grover Gardner, who does just an excellent job turning the dialogue and gritty descriptions in this book into something fresh and fun.  He explains in his preface that there are some serious differences between his choices of words and those of his predecessors who translated the book before him.  Of note is his decision to name the Big Brother-like government OneState, rather than what had been used up to this point – United State.  He felt that this was too close to United States (in fact, he rightly pointed out that, in reading the older versions, the mind fills in the last missing “s”), something that Gardner feels is not in keeping with the spirit of Zamyatin’s original text.  Mistaking the Big Brother for the United States, rather than the intended Soviet Union, would be a disservice to his memory.  There may be truth to this; all I know is that the book was translated with a level of grace and elegance that the book demanded.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a filthy diaper in a rest-stop parking lot, and 10 being a diamond tiara, Doc gives this awesome read a solid A-.

Here’s a link where you can grab your own free pdf of this book today.  It’s an older translation, but still an excellent read.

Doc Reviews “The Boy in the Suitcase” by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis

cdDoc’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”.