05/12/15

The Organ Takers

The Organ Takers

OrganTakers

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Richard Van Anderson paces the narrative so well, the reader’s pulse rises and falls with the action…

I just finished reading THE ORGAN TAKERS by Richard Van Anderson. This is a very good novel, a surgical thriller as the author terms it. It’s a suspenseful tale of good surgeons gone bad while trafficking in the illicit sale of human organs. This is a long review, with several points to make, and most of you probably won’t read the whole thing so I’ll give it away right here: READ THIS BOOK. You won’t regret it and there’s a better than even chance you will have found a new author to add to your must read list.

This is a story that, well told, could contain a great deal of human drama (read that as moral dilemmas, edge-of-your-seat personal conflicts, life and death decisions, heart-breaking loss, and old fashioned revenge-seeking). Anderson is more than up to the task. At every opportunity he ups the ante, whether it be a surgeon making an incision in the bowels of an illicit OR (with his spell-binding narative—not boring and easily understandable to lay folks) or a man on the run from the cops, the Russian mafia, and the homeboys—all at once. Indeed, his realization of these many and desparate individuals is so believable one wonders how much time he spent in the hood, or homeless on the streets of New York, or riding around with the Russian mob.

Anderson is himself a surgeon and his insights on surgical technique and medical knowledge are thus not surprising. What is surprising is his ability to work this knowledge seamlessly into a scene. As a surgeon myself, and a fiction writer as well, I’ve read—or more truthfully attempted to read—a great many “novels” written by physicians. Physicians are, almost to a person, bright folks, and many, if not most, have a story to tell. Unfortunately most don’t have the abilty to tell it themselves, which doesn’t seem to stop them from trying. It’s as if they believe writing is as easy as picking up a pen and laying some ink on the page. Well folks, it ain’t.

A digression: Two folks are at a party. One, a surgeon, asks the other what he does for a living.

“I’m a novelist,” the second fellow says.

“Wow,” says the surgeon, “what a coincidence. When I retire, I intend to write a novel.”

“Oh,” says the novelist, “that is a coincidence, because when I retire I intend to practice surgery.”

Preposterous you say? Yeah, probably. But the thing is, it’s just as preposterous in the other direction. There’s no way the average doc, who has devoted his or her waking time over the years to the myriad intracacies of medicine, can suddenly begin to write with any authority or competency.

To do so, one has to spend hours at the keyboard—hours summing to months and years in the long run. One million words plus on the page. Short stories, novels half written, novels thrown in the drawer that will never see the light of day. Long nights and longer early mornings cooped up alone with just you and your keyboard or yellow legal pad to pass the hours. And enough rejections—this from personal experience—to wallpaper a moderate sized home office (all four walls). This requires a dedication most people in general—and most physicians in particular—don’t possess. A bright individual does not a writer make. Only time and talent and persistence do.

Anderson has an MFA in creative writing, which of course isn’t necessary to be a published author. But it does indicate more than a passing commitment to the cause, a dedication to the written word if you will. A suggestion he might just be worth a read. So I picked him up and I’m very happy I did.

He’s the real thing all right.

In THE ORGAN TAKERS, as well as his previous short story THE FINAL PUSH, Anderson aptly demonstrates he knows how to tell a story. He doesn’t just recount a scene, he paces the narrative so well the reader’s pulse rises and falls with the action. His descriptions are so spot on the reader never doubts their veracity (as if any of us have ever run down a dark subway tunnel or stood in a lab surrounded on all sides by human organs pulsing and writhing in artificial baths). He evokes human emotions the way a surgeon parts the layers of a wound: with finese and certainty. This is writing folks. This is talent with the written word. This is the real thing.

He’s a little rough in the first one hundred pages, until the story reaches a critical mass or finds its own level if you like (picture water spilling over a cofferdam—it’s unstoppable). There were a few passages that suggest he hasn’t quite found the right mix of medical jargon and lay description, but these are few and never detracted from the story, never took me—the reader—out of the moment. But I’m a surgeon and others will have to decide this for themselves. I’m betting it won’t be a problem. 

As a bonus, there is a glossary of medical terms up at his website. It isn’t necessary for reading the novel, but it’s well worth reading if you’ve ever had any interest in things surgical.

My overall sense of this book was John Grisham meets Robin Cook. It was a bit formulaic in places, and I did get tired of being told what the main character’s goal was at any given moment—the two reasons I give it four stars instead of five. But the sense of drama was fabulous just the same, and the suspense never wavered down to the last paragraph.

I highly recommend this novel. I will read his next work and await it with high expectations. For a first novel, this read a helluva lot like a fifth novel—which is high praise in my book.

05/17/14

The Colony by F. G. Cottam

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A Ghost Story
in the Finest Sense. Awesome.

This is a ghost story in the finest sense. From the first moments of this fine story, one realizes there will be no going back should they continue into its depths. I cannot recommend this book enough.

The story is atmospheric and the writer utilizes all of the five senses—sight, sound, hearing, touch, and smell—to very great effect throughout. I loved the opening scene, wherein an old movie is uncovered and its viewing described in visceral and lurid detail. It is one of the better opening hooks I have read. And it’s all germane to what comes later.

The author’s use of period vocabulary is spot on. Technically, the novel is extraordinarily well written. The author never misses an opportunity to up the ante—and shiver your bones. The ghosts are real here, and not at all cliche. There is a real price to be paid for crossing these apparitions. Some have criticized Cottam for too much internal dialogue, but it works here spectacularly well. Every facet of the story is explained, but the explanations are interesting and kept within the story arc. I did not find anything that took me out of the moment. A good story, especially a ghost story, must pull the reader into the moment and keep him or her there. It must make them suspend belief. The best stories accomplish this with seeming ease, without the reader ever knowing what’s happening behind the scenes. This takes considerable talent to achieve on the scale of a novel. Cottam excels at it.

Indeed, one of the things that makes THE COLONY such a compelling read is how easily one is pulled into the story. The characters are interesting and drawn so well you can’t help but see them in both their failings and their strengths. No cardboard cut-outs here. Even the ghosts have motivations, though they may make your skin crawl when you discover them.

Which brings me to another point. Cottam doesn’t hesitate to pull back the shroud and unveil the evils men do. He doesn’t dwell on them, he puts them out there at just the right moment and with just the right sort of lighting. He is a master at such stagecraft, as any master storyteller must be.

This is a fun read, effortless, and once captured the reader is rewarded with a growing sense of these people in the very midst of a crisis they apparently realize is coming but cannot avoid, largely because of their own avariciousness. This is a delicious thing to behold, like flies under the swatter who feel the rush of the wind and are powerless against it. And of course when the crisis does come—and believe me, it comes—the suspense is unremitting up to the last moment.

Five stars ***** fairly won. This is a book you will want to read more than once. I would recommend doing so by the flickering light of a wood fire burning in a Rumsford fireplace on a blustery winter night, when the wind is howling across the moors and the rain is pelting at the glass. On such a night, the spirits of yesterday can not be far from any of us.

You have to love it when a good book comes together. This, my friends, is a good book. And a great ghost story.