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Bookends: What’s the matter with the book seller? April 17, 2018

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Bookends: What’s the matter with the book seller?

By Dan Davidson

December 28, 2017

– 806 words –

 

Bellvue SquareBellevue Square

By Michael Redhill

272 pages

Doubleday Canada

$32.00

 

Some time after he had achieved genre superstardom as a writer of thrillers and horror novels, Stephen King got out the drafts of his earlier unpublished novels, rewrote them, and issued them under the name of Richard Bachman. He’s not quite clear on why he used a pseudonym for these books, which sold only moderately well until some sharp-eyed reader outed him and then they sold much better.

Eventually he ended the career of his alter-ego, who had had his own author photo and fake biography on the back of each book, saying that he died of cancer of the pseudonym. He would later revisit the consequences of this action in the novel The Dark Halfand the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden”.

J.K. Rowling walked a similar path after the Harry Potter books, producing a series of detective novels under the name of Richard Galbraith. She was outed before the first one appeared, but has continued to use that name for her Cormoran Strike mysteries (four so far).

Trevor Ferguson has written some books in the Detective Emile Cinq-Mars series of mysteries (five so far) under the pen name of John Farrow, while pursuing literary fiction under his own name.

Michael Redhill has been productive in several genres as well. There are two plays, four volumes of poetry, four literary novels and four mysteries, the latter under the name Inger Ash Wolfe. The choice of name and gender reverses the more normal publication practice of women hiding behind men’s names.

The present book, which is a psychological thriller of the unreliable narrator variety, begins by introducing us to Jean Mason, an independent bookshop owner in Toronto, in an area near Kensington Market.

It begins, “My doppelganger problems began one afternoon in early April” and it continues to get much stranger after that. One of her regular customers tells her that he has just seen her in the nearby park, but that somehow she has managed to change her clothes and get a haircut in about 15 minutes.

Thus begins Jean’s obsessive quest to find this other woman, a quest which leads her to spend hours each day staking out the park and making the acquaintance of its denizens, many of whom are, to say the least, eccentric. So is she, as we slowly begin to realize.

That, however, is far from all in terms of plot twists, for it develops that almost everything we have learned about Jean and a number of the people around her, are not things that will pass the test of objective reality. And from that point in the book, we are left wondering just what parts of what comes next are real and which are parts of a delusional psychosis that sometimes has Jean institutionalized and sometimes has her moving about freely.

Is there a doppelganger or isn’t there? Does she look almost exactly like Jean? It that person named Inger Ash Wolfe, and has she been the author of four mystery novels? And if you’re beginning to sense something odd here, go back to the paragraph that begins with the words: “Michael Redhill has been productive in several genres as well.” and check out his pen name.

It’s a spooky story, and at the end of it, when the police sit down with Jean and ask her to give her full name, you’re going to be left wondering, as I was, just what she might have said in reply.

This book got a lot of press notice this year, Aside from being the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, it was a #1 National Bestseller, a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2017, a National Post Best Book of 2017, a Kobo Best Book of 2017 and a NOW Magazine Best Book of 2017.

I don’t know that I’d agree with everything the 2017 Giller Prize Jury  had to say about it, but it’s worth quoting as part of this review:

“To borrow a line from Michael Redhill’s beautiful Bellevue Square, ‘I do subtlety in other areas of my life.’ So let’s look past the complex literary wonders of this book, the doppelgangers and bifurcated brains and alternate selves, the explorations of family, community, mental health and literary life. Let’s stay straightforward and tell you that beyond the mysterious elements, this novel is warm, and funny, and smart. Let’s celebrate that it is, simply, a pleasure to read.”

I agree with the last sentence, but have to tell you that I was intrigued by Redhill’s other literary life, and picked up a copy of The Calling, the first of his Hazel Micallefmysteries. My next column will be about that book.

 

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Bookends: Three books with magical tales April 16, 2018

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Bookends: Three books with magical tales

By Dan Davidson

December 20, 2017

– 665 words –

 

Classic Storybook Fables

Classic Fables

Retold and Illustrated by Scott Gustafson

Artisan/Workman

84 pages

 

$19.95

 

This beautifully illustrated book is much larger that the average picture book and ha s much more complex text. In a note at the end, Gustafson cites the original sources for all eight of the tales he has chosen for this book, his fourth foray into this anthology style territory. In this case he read many versions of the stories and then retold them in his own style.

“The Ugly Duckling” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” were originally told by Hans Christian Andersen.

“Beauty and the Beast” was written by Gabrielle-Susanne Barbot de Villeneuve.

“The Crow and the Pitcher”, “The boy who Cried Wolf” and “The Mice in Council” are attributed to the storyteller we know as Aesop.

“The Little Red Hen” is said to be Russian in origin.

“The Boy Who Went to the North Wind” is from Scandinavia.

The fashion in children’s books these days is to be quire cartoony, and there’s nothing wring with that, but it’s nice to see a really well painted version once in awhile. Gustafson works in oils.

 

Magic in a Year

The Magic in a Year

Written by Frank Boylan

Illustrated by Sally Garland

Flowerpot Press

32 pages

 

$21.99

“Every year has months and seasons.

I love each for different reasons.

Turn the page and you will see

What makes each month special to me.”

Rhyming books are particularly fun for the 4 to 8 year olds that this book was written for, but can be fun for older kids as well.

 

Boylan’s rhymes take us through the year, with each double-page highlighting a new month. Garland’s illustrations, dome in a combination of acrylic paint and pencil, tweaked with a variety of digital tools, are lively and colourful, suited to the poems.

On the cover, Boylan credits Sara Coleridge for inspiration and her 1834 poe

m “The Garden Year” is reproduced on the final pages. Boylan has used the idea and the meter of the original poem in creating his text.

Ther author lives in Canada, though he was born in Ireland. The illustrator lives in Glasgow, making this book a very international creation.

 

Mr. Owliver’s Magic at the MuseumMr. Owliver copy

Written and illustrated by Carolyn Bracken

Schiffer Publishing Ltd.

32 pages

$21.90

Carolyn Bracken is perhaps best known for her artwork on the books in The Magic Schoolbus series of educational adventure books. Here, she undertakes the task of providing a children’s primer in art history.

Mr. Owliver is the night watchman at the Animaltown Art Museum and each night he wanders through the rooms, reacquainting himself with his “friends” the paintings. The fun of this is that all the paintings are animalized versions of real works, such as the “Mona Lizard” by Leonardo Da Vinci, “American Gothic” by Grant Woodchuck, and so on.

Sometimes it’s the name of the painting that has changed; sometimes it’s the name of the artist. At any rate, the person who used to be in the frame is now a different species.

The mystery in this little tale is that one night – the night of Mr. Owl’s birthday – all the characters in the paintings have vanished, and there is nothing left but their backdrops and settings.

I’ll leave it to you to learn where they eventually turn up, because I wasn’t to focus on the last four pages of the book, This is where Bracken credits all the works she has altered for her book, gives their names, who actually created them, and where they might be found. They are all staples in any standard art history book and, of course, could easily be found these days by typing their right names into a search engine.

Finally, the last two pages provide a basic art history timeline, from the 1500s to just before World War I.

It’s a great idea and it’s really well executed.

 

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Bookends: Tracking Reality back to the Source April 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, fantasy, Science Fiction, thriller, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Tracking Reality back to the Source

By Dan Davidson

December 13, 2017

– 718 words –

Savior's Game

By Sean Chercover

Thomas & Mercer

272 pages

$10.49

There are lots of disadvantages to coming in on the third volume of a trilogy. From the clues in this book, it appears that in The Trinity Game andThe Devil’s Game, Daniel Byrne, a former investigator for a secret Branch of the Vatican, in charge of authenticating miracles, has undergone a crisis of faith. After debunking 721 such events over a ten-year period, case number 722 turned out to be something different.

It involved Daniel’s uncle, an ecclesiastical con man named Tim Trinity who called himself a Reverend, and who suddenly began to manifest actual precognitive powers. Eventually these seem to be accounted for by a mysterious mental virus, which causes people to have visions and eventually become mad and catatonic. They call it the Plague.

This problem continues into book two, which introduces a couple of secret organizations. Daniel is recruited by the Foundation to work against the Council, which seems to have plans for world domination, but eventually decides to take matters into his own hands and eliminate the Council’s chief agent. Along the way, he began experiencing some of the symptoms of the Plague, beginning with what he believes to be auditory hallucinations.

Along with the doctor who had assisted him in the second book he drops out of sight, changes his name, and seeks to understand what might be happening to him. By the time we join the story in book three, he and his partner have had to separate to remain hidden, and Daniel has begun to have visions to go with the voices he has been hearing.

He learns, from his previous allies in the Foundation, that the Plague, which they have renamed AIT (Anomalous Information Transfer) is spreading, and that thousands have been infected, more each week.

Gaining some level of control over his visions, he finds himself able to visit what seems to be an alternate reality, one in which things seem to be more real than the reality he has always known. He meets the woman who goes with the voice he has been hearing and learns that this other place had been experiencing a population growth that matches the spread of AIT.

Visitors refer to the place as the Source. This used to be a friendly place, but lately it has come to be dominated by one individual, who has a vast amount of the “magical” energies (teleportation, other mental abilities, manifestation of objects and food, among other things) that every one seems to possess to some degree in this place.

This individual has used his abilities to create a massive tower, and seems to have enslaved most of the other visitors to the place, using their – I almost want to write “worship”, though that’s not quite the right term. They are in an addictive, meditative state.

This man has come to think of himself as a god-like being, and he intends to harness the power of AIT to extend his control from the Source into the real world, which he considers to be just a pale facsimile of the world he controls.

Daniel has to come up with ways to survive in both worlds, stop the AIT plague which threatens to overtake most of humanity, and stop a plot to plunge the world into a devastating conflict which will further the plans of the being who calls himself Noah.

From what I’ve written you’ll get the impression that this is an oddly shaped book, one which partakes of some features of the action thriller genre, while other parts seem more akin with something out of Dr. Strange. To some degree there’s a touch of the Matrix here, or that Christopher Nolan film, Inception.

From the Amazon.ca descriptions of the first two books (which I admit to mining for this review), I would venture that they have far less of the mumbo-jumbo/alternate reality flavour than does this final volume. If this whole story line intrigues you, might want to pick up used or Kindle editions of the first two books (available for around $2 each). I got enough out of book three to be content without doing that.

 

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Bookends: A Tale of Difficult Childhoods April 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Childen's, Klondike Sun, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: A Tale of Difficult ChildhoodsMeadowlark

By Dan Davidson

December 6, 2017

– 685 words –

Meadowlark 

by Wendi Stewart

250 pages

NeWest Press

$21.95

Childhood isn’t always easy; sometimes it’s nearly impossible. Even the best of families have their problems. The three families in this coming of age novel are worse than most, in so many ways.

Wendi Stewart’s first published novel – shortlisted for the KOBO Emerging Writer Prize – follows the growth of three children who live in difficult circumstances.

We begin with Rebecca, who starts out with an almost perfect family: a mother she adores, a father who loves his family, and a baby brother she’s not quite sure about yet, maybe a bit jealous of. She loses all of them when the family car goes through the lake ice on their way home from their wilderness cabin.

She is the only one her father, with her mother’s help, manages to save, and he is horribly damaged, both physically and emotionally, by the experience. Rebecca has to begin to run the family almost before she starts elementary school, and her responsibilities simply increase as she gets older.

At school she meets Chuck, the youngest (and not really wanted) son of a terribly dysfunctional family. He has an abusive father, and an emotionally absent mother. When his much older sisters still lived at home, they treated him badly. Only his Gran, who actually owns the farm they live on, is really there for him in terms of support and nurture.

He and Rebecca, both outsiders at school, form a strong bond. They like the woods; they like horses; they defend each other. Of the two, Rebecca is stronger and has the ability to stand up to and repel bullies.

Into their lives comes Lizzie, the adopted aboriginal daughter of a very white, prim and proper lady named Charlotte. There doesn’t seem to be any question about her love for Elizabeth (she refuses to use the nickname) but she is an oddly reclusive woman and, as the book moves on, it becomes clear that there is something wrong with her mind.

Lizzie has diabetes and Charlotte tends to overprotect her as a result of this, at least until her Alzheimer’s reduces her capabilities as a parent, and Lizzie has to deal with a reversal in their positions as she becomes a teenager.

We follow the kids from Rebecca’s pre-school years until they graduate high school. The early part of the book is almost entirely from Rebecca’s point of view. When the other two are introduced, we begin with a focus on each of them, but Rebecca comes into their lives and the focus moves back and forth.

It’s interesting to see her from their perspectives. She is the solid rock of their little trio, and yet their presence strengthens and changes her in many ways. Her father becomes less and less capable as the years advance, and she has to grow up so fast it’s almost painful to watch. Yet she succeeds, and it becomes clear that her friends are her real family.

Stewart comes to this book from a farming background in Ontario, and now owns a farm in rural Nova Scotia, so her use of the setting rings very true. When she was young she wanted to be a farmer, but her family insisted that she get an education and she ended up with a career in accounting, returning to her first desire later in life.

Some of the people in her life have had the problems she has grafted on to her characters.

The book comes to a natural conclusion, with the three of them surviving high school and making a plan their immediate future together. Stewart says that was all she originally intended to write about them, but many of her readers have pointed out that there’s lots of space for a sequel. She likes her three children a lot, and actually hated to finish writing the book, so she is giving it some thought.

Wendi Stewart is the current writer-in-residence at Berton House and will had home at the end of December.

 

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Bookends: A series of very unfortunate events March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Whitehorse Star, Young Adult.
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Bookends: A series of very unfortunate events

By Dan Davidson

November 15, 2017

– 1014 words –

 

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts

Unexpected Life

By Avi

Algonquin Young Readers

Workman Publishing

314 pages

$16.95

 

This is a very old fashioned sort of book. Avi took the Victorian novel as his template when he decided to attempt longer books some years ago. As he tells the story on his website, his first such historical novel was called Beyond the Western Sea, and he intended it to be a doorstop of a book at Stephen King length, but his publisher foiled him by breaking it into two volumes.

I have a feeling the same thing has happened here, as this book ends with the dreaded words (To be continued in book two.).

This is a very deliberately old fashioned book, as the full title, not found on the cover, will tell you: The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts: Being an Absolutely Accurate Autobiographical Account of My Follies, Fortune, and Fate.

It has very Dickensian chapter titles, like “In Which I Introduce Myself after Which I Immediately Plunge in a Desperate Situation” or, later on in the book, “In Which I Engage with the Man with the Pistol.”

As you can tell, this story is narrated by Oliver himself, who is 12 years old at the time that the story begins. He lives in the English seaside town of Melcombe Regis in the year 1724. His mother died giving him life. He has been living with his father, Gabriel, who is a lawyer (and poor parent), and his older sister, Charity, who has recently left the family home to live with relatives in London, hoping there to find her fortune or perhaps, a husband.

We enter the story in the middle of a terrible storm, during which the wind, the rain and the swelling seas do immense damage to the house. Oliver is wakened by the wind and rain coming in through a hole in the roof of his third floor room. Making his way downstairs he finds more damage on the lower floors, and also discovers that his father is not at home.

The house is in sad shape; there is scarcely any food. Oliver doesn’t know what to do and heads out to find his father. At the local inn he discovers that Gabriel had left earlier in the evening on the coach to London. He doesn’t know that there’s a letter back home explaining this to him, but by the time he finds it later most of the ink has run and blotted and it is severely redacted.

Feeling abandoned,he wanders to the seaside, where he finds an overturned vessel. Within its rooms, he discovers a cache of shillings, and he takes enough of them to keep himself from being declared destitute and taken to the children’s poorhouse.

It doesn’t work out for him. His father has made enemies of many notable people in the town and they decide to take their revenge on Oliver by putting him in the poorhouse.

This is a deplorable place that makes the one described in Oliver Twist look good. Of course, the hero’s name is supposed to help us make that connection. Though much put upon, Oliver manages to spark a revolt among the other children and escapes from that durance vile, intending to find his way to London and the rest of his family, even if he must walk.

Quite by accident – because nothing turns out to be easy or convenient in this story – he falls in with a highwayman, is essentially kidnapped by another of the same breed, is taken to London and forced to work for a “thief-taker” as bait for catching pickpockets.

Little does he know that his boss, Jonathan Wild, is actually a criminal mastermind working both sides of the street. Things go from bad to worse when the first person he nearly apprehends turns out to be Charity, who has her own sad tale of woe to tell.

They manage to escape capture long enough to find their father in a drunken stupor but, in the end, all are taken by the law and tossed into prison, a terrible place where they are expected to pay their own way for room and board. Gabriel has managed to win a lot of money at backgammon (that and drinking are his main vices, though his enemies have branded him a cheat) and manages to pay for all three of them. He thinks he has also bought (for bribery is part of the system) their freedom, but he is wrong about that and the children end up being transported to become slaves in the colonies.

Worse still, Oliver and Charity were to have been sent to the same destination, but they are separated at the last moment.

“Then and there, even as I was being pulled away, I swore that I woiuld never be a slave. And more; in some way, in some fashion – no matter how long it took – I would restore our freedom.”

That, I assume, will be the story of volume two.

What may seem odd of me to say, considering the absolute disaster that is the life of the Pitts family, is that this book manages to be dismal and funny at the same time. Some of the humour is in Oliver’s naïve view of the world, but some is also in the accuracy of his often snide observations about people and events. All of this, along with Avi’s penchant for chapters that end in cliffhangers, made this a book that it was hard to put down.

Avi writes mostly for middle readers and has produced about 70 books. His awards list includes several Newberys and Boston Globe-Horn Books, among others.

This book seems to have taken place in just a few weeks in Oliver’s life. In an interview Avi mentions that he was commuted for seven years service. We’ll have to see if he manages to get out of this as neatly as he escaped the poorhouse.

 

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Bookends: Looking at the True Believers March 17, 2018

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Bookends: Looking at the True Believers

By Dan Davidson

November 8, 2017

– 930 words

Among the TruthersAmong the Truthers: North America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground of 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Armageddonites, Vaccine Hysterics, Hollywood Know-Nothings and Internet Addicts

By Jonathan Kay

Harper Perennial

368 pages

$19.99

Kindle edition

$11.99

 

During the last week or so, events have combined to make this 2012 study of conspiracy theorists and other members of the lunatic fringe worth taking a look at.

One huge info-dump was the release of a vast tonnage of previously sequestered paperwork related to the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, an event which is often the starting point for those whose personal Road to Damascus leads them to join the conspiracy underground.

From what I’ve read of those papers, we didn’t learn much that was new, or that would cause anyone to accept or reject whatever version of those events that one might subscribe to. The “who killed JFK” movement is just one of many that Jonathan Kay discusses in this book, as you can easily tell from the very long title.

Then Governor General Julie Payette stepped up to the microphone at a science conference and said some things that were critical of people who don’t believe in climate change, and evolution, and who think that the world is 6,000 years old and that god (any god) won’t let anything too terminal happen to humanity.

Actually, of course, there are lots of people who subscribe to the idea that their concept of the divine being will, at some point, ring down the curtain on humanity and the world. Kay deals with them in a number of places in this book.

But his main concern is with those people who subscribe to a variety of conspiracy theories, and he uses one of them, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, as a base case for examining how these delusions work, how they inspire people, and how they are as predictable in their development as the “stages of grieving” often used by grief counsellors.

The Protocols have long been known to be an absolute fraud, written and promulgated in Russia by members of the Czar’s secret police as a way of justifying pogroms against the Jews. They outline the basics of a Jewish plot to dominate the world and are both detailed enough and vague enough to serve as the template for any number of imaginary plots.

Kay deals with them in chapter two, called “Warrant for Genocide, Blueprint for Paranoia” and shows that their historical development can serve as an outline for how conspiracy theories develop.

Some of his ideas come from The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn, a book that I recall fondly from my studies in Sociology at Acadia University, and one which I have often found useful in trying to understand extreme theories about events.

Some of what has happened to our cultural grasp on reality must be laid at the feet of Richard Nixon, If the JFK assassination (along with that of brother Bobby and Martin Luther King) did a lot to make people uneasy about the powers that be, Watergate drove a very big nail into the notion that our leaders have our best interests at heart.

The Fall of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 shattered America’s notion that it was above the kind of chaos that occurs in other places. Sure, there had been the attack on Pearl Harbour during WW II, but most of America’s wars had left no scars on the homeland. This did, and seemed to require some larger explanation than the two planes in New York, the one at the Pentagon, and the one the passengers brought down over Pennsylvania.

After that, everything seemed to be up for grabs. Obama had to be a fraud. There must have been something at Area 51. The United Nations must be planning to take over the world. And on, and on,

Kay spent two years digging into all the groups that were extant at the time and concluded that their adherents were subscribers to a kind of religious mania (Cohn would agree) that allowed them to enter one or more of these cult-like groups and refuse to acknowledge anything that might refute their beliefs.

He analyzes the psychology of such movements and tries to profile the kinds of people who are likely to be infected. I use that word because he concludes that these memes do constitute a kind of intellectual virus, These people are not stupid, They are often very bright, but something has caused them to see the world through conspiracy tinted glasses, and they treat things ideas that might best be seen as plot devices on programs like the X-Files, Stranger Things or Buffy the Vampire Slayer as if they were facts.

These kinds of ideas used to spread in small press books and mimeographed pamphlets and have relatively few followers, but the advent of the internet has changed all that. Conspiracy theories have gone viral. As a results, this stuff has become potentially quite dangerous.

One of Kay’s chapters deals with the Birther movement. Donald Trump, who cut his political teeth on this issue before he refocused on “Crooked Hilary”, doesn’t actually turn up in this book’s index. In the couple of years before 2012, when he was researching this topic, it never occurred to Kay that one of the chef promoters of a theory like this might become the President of the United States. But, a year later, we know how that turned out.

 

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Bookends: Fairy Tales Just might be the Truth in Disguise March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, D.J. McIntosh, thriller, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Fairy Tales Just might be the Truth in Disguise

By Dan Davidson

November 29, 2017

– 833 words –

 

The Book of Stolen Tales

Book of Stolen Tales

By D.J. Mcintosh

Kindle edition

$14.99

432 pages

Penguin Canada

$16.00

 

D.J. Mcintosh’s The Book of Stolen Tales is the second volume in what she calls The Mesopotamian Trilogy It owes something in its construction to the works of Dan Brown and James Rollins. The difference is that her protagonist, John Madison, is no specialist. Browns Robert Langdon is a symbologist and Rollins’ characters are from a team of specialists with military as well as academic backgrounds.

Madison, who tells us his own story, is basically flying by the seat of his pants. He’d built a career in dealing in antiquities by piggybacking on the work on his much older and better educated brother. Now that Samuel is dead, killed in that car accident for which John is still under suspicion, he’s had to change careers, dealing more now in old books and taking on commissions for other people.

This book begins, as those in this genre do, with events that took place some time earlier (during the Iraq War, in fact) and which have roots that go back even farther in time.

Madison’s part of the story begins with his arrival in London to bid on a rare 17th century book for a client. He accomplishes his task, but is accosted in his hotel room that night by a man who calls himself Alessio, who seems to have a strange mesmeric power, and the book is stolen from him. Not, however, before he had had a change to open the box which was supposed to contain a number of individually bound chapters, only to find that most of them are missing.

He reports the problem to the auction house, which disclaims any knowledge of the incomplete item.

Wandering the streets in despair and confusion, he encounters the stranger again, and once more falls victim to his power, but them the man falls in to the Thames and appears to drown. The man had claimed to be the author of this 370 year old book, which had been filled with strange text and incredible, but horrible, illustrations. Madison new he would somehow have to track down all the missing parts to get himself off the hook and satisfy his own curiosity.

This leads him to the partner of the man who had hired him, and to some details about their bookshop and their printing business. He learns more about the book, which purports to contain the original versions of may well known fairy tales and legends, versions that predate the renderings by the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault or Andrew Lang. From the printer he gains the knowledge that the tales are intended to be allegories and perhaps even formulae for telling about real events

Meanwhile – in the United States – a number of men who had been doing some archaeological research in Iraq, have come down with, and are dying from, an extremely virulent disease. Chapter 9 introduces us to this subplot and to the third person narrative through the eyes of Nick Shaheen, and agent of a covert US agency who has been tapped to find out what it was that those men had been exposed to that could have made them so ill.

We spend the next several chapters with Shaheen, whose inquiries eventually lead him to shadow Madison.

Madison tracks the book down to its original (in this century, at least) owner and becomes involved with a woman named Dina, who is apparently being held captive by this man, who feels that he in a legitimate heir to the throne of Italy. Dina, it emerges, has been stealing the chapters of the book and selling them in order to finance her escape from her captor, Mancini.

Shaheen and Madison eventual end up working together, Shaheen providing the more physical skills that Madison lacks, while it is Madison who unlocks the various puzzles that lead them to another of those mysterious underground tombs that are so prevalent in this type of book.

In the tomb there are artefacts which, it seems, contain items that were used to store a very old and very deadly contagion. Some people want them for their own nefarious purposes; Shaheen works for a agency that would like to both control and suppress it. He has other ideas.

There is an ongoing tension between the two men, with neither quite trusting the other, but that works to keep the book interesting.

I felt this second book worked better than the first, The Witch of Babylon. Madison was more focussed in this book and seemed to be less at the mercy of others. He’s less mercenary about his own motives and better able to cope with the situations in which he finds himself. He was a more likeable fellow, enough so that I will move on to the third book before to many months have passed.

 

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Bookends: An Affectionate Biography of Gordon Lightfoot March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in biography, Bookends, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: An Affectionate Biography of Gordon Lightfoot

By Dan Davidson

November 22, 2017

– 856 words –

 

Lightfoot 

Lightfoot

By Nicholas Jennings

336 pages

Viking

$36.00

Kindle edition

$15.99

Nicholas Jennings’ affectionate biography of Gordon Lightfoot begins with his subject at the top of his game, wealthy and successful beyond his boyhood’s wildest dreams, beyond what anyone in his hometown of Orillia ever thought he might achieve. In truth, most of the folks at home had thought him a bit nuts when he headed off to California to study music, and again when he relocated to Toronto.

In 2015 the town admitted it was wrong with a 4 metre tall bronze sculpture. Wikipedia describes it this way: “Golden Leaves – A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot” features Lightfoot sitting cross-legged, playing an acoustic guitar underneath an arch of golden maple leaves. Many of the leaves depict scenes from Lightfoot’s 1975 greatest hits album …”

Jennings shows us a Lightfoot who wanted a music career from an early age, who participated in school music festivals, sang in choirs and formed his first performing groups while he was still in high school.

Lightfoot sang tenor in barbershop quartets until his voice changed and then sang baritone in other barbershop groups, including one called the Teen Timers. He and another chum did Everly Brothers style performances as the Two Timers, and later as the Two Tones.

He dabbled in jazz as well as in standards; was part of the singer/dancer troupe on Country Hoedown. He worked at the CBC, making copies of music sheets for others to use. By 19, he had already written his first song.

It was actually as a songwriter that Lightfoot made his first serious money in the music industry. Early songs like “I’m Not Sayin”, “For Lovin’ Me” and “Early Morning Rain” were covered by a number of artists, both in the folk and country genres.

Lightfoot would tend to straddle those two types of music throughout his career, adding a bit of rock and a bit of jazz into the mix for songs like “Make Way for the Lady” and “Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald”.

I was surprised to learn that he was not happy with the success of his United Artist albums, the first four, which contain so many of those classic songs. When he would later re-record some of them for his Gord’s Gold collection, he was in the middle of going though a string section phase and, perhaps because I learned to play and sing them from the original recordings, I didn’t enjoy those as much.

Lightfoot comes across as a workaholic, a bit obsessed with both writing and performing. While an excellent performer most of the time, Jennings shows that he is less than a success at stage patter.

I only saw the man in concert once, and he stopped in the middle of a song to protest when the audience was singing along, saying we had come to hear him and the band. Jennings’ accounts of other concerts indicate this this was not something he always did.

Life on the road took its toll on him. He burned through two earlier marriages and several long term relationships.

There is more of his personal life in his songs than I realized when I first heard them. “If You Could Read My Mind” is about the breakup of his first marriage, while “Sundown” really is about the temptations of life on the road.

Like many performers of his era, Lightfoot has had substance abuse problems, particularly with alcohol. His drinking affected both his health and his performance at times, and his worst concerts were the result of too much booze. He eventually managed to quit.

He has had a couple of close calls in his life. Bell’s Palsy froze one side of this face for a while. He nearly died from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm in 2002, necessitating operations then and again in 2003. Nevertheless, he fought his way back to both recording and performing by 2004.

But in 2006 a minor stroke cost him the fine motor control of two fingers on his right hand. It took about a year for him to recover the use of his middle and ring fingers, both of which are needed for fingerpicking.

As with any performer who has a long career, Lightfoot has been in and out of fashion a few times, never entirely disappearing, but sometimes making stylistic choices that didn’t quite work as intended.

In 2010, he was the victim of one of those on-line death hoaxes that crop up from time to time. He had just left from the dentist’s office when he heard about it on the radio. He arranged for an interview at that station to clear up the confusion.

His songs have had a serious impact on our national image. He wrote The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” on commission, and researched it rigorously. Pierre Berton, who wrote a two volume history about the building of the Canadian Pacific, once told Lightfoot that his song did more to make people aware of the railroad than his books had.

 

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Bookends: Travelling in the Shadow Lands March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Travelling in the Shadow Lands

By Dan Davidson

November 1, 2017

– 969 words –

 

Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes 1

The Chronicles of Amber, Book 1

By Roger Zelazny

Narrated by Allessandro Juliani

Length: 5 hrs and 31 mins

Audible Studios

$23.10

Print length: 155 pages

Available in a Kindle edition

$7.19

 

The Guns of Avalon

Guns of Avalon

The Chronicles of Amber, Book 2

By Roger Zelazny

Narrated by Allessandro Juliani

Length: 6 hrs and 29 mins

Audible Studios

Print length: 179 pages

Available in a Kindle edition

$7.99

Last week I opened with a comment about there being two classic ways of moving the reader from our world to the world of the writer’s creation. In that column I showed Charles Stross using the “lost princess” gambit to set up the first two books of his Merchant Princes series.

At the end of that omnibus volume, Stross credited two earlier writers with giving him the inspiration to write about parallel dimensions and alternative timelines. His mentors in this area were H. Beam Piper and Roger Zelazny.

The Piper stories were almost certainly the ones about the Paratime Police, which are available in collected editions and as audio books.

The Zelazny contribution was certainly the 10 books in the Amber series. These come in two arcs, one dealing with the adventures of Corwin, son of Oberon, and the other five dealing with his son, Merlin. These can be had in either one or two volumes in hardcover of paperback.

For the Corwin saga, Zelazny used another popular trick. He gave his first person narrator amnesia and had him stumble around not quite knowing what he has gotten himself into for easily the first half of Nine Princes in Amber. Also, to throw us all off track, he chose a hardboiled narrative voice that owes more to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe that it does to a fantasy novel.

Corwin wakes up in a private hospital bed, over-sedated and clearly not intended to ever be leaving. He’s also healing very quickly from a car accident that should have laid him out for months. He escapes and finds his way to the woman who put him there. She turns out to be his sister. He manages to bluff his way into staying with her while he tries to assemble the random flashes of memory that he keeps having.

Then another sibling, aptly named Random, turns up, followed closely by some not quite human assailants, and all hell breaks loose.

Following Random’s lead, Corwin goes with him to a place called Amber, taking the strangest afternoon drive that anyone has ever taken. Along the way there’s an altercation with another brother, and they end up rescuing a sister that Corwin only partly remembers.

There are two devices in this series that clearly inspired Stross. One is the Pattern, a kind of energy labyrinth that Corwin has to walk to get his full memory back. This is a bit like the oddly patterned medallions that Stross uses in his books. Secondly, there is the more portable set of Tarot-like cards that each member of the family – there are nine males and about half that many women – can use to communicate with each other and translate (or teleport if you like) to the location of any other sibling.

Finally, of course, there is the fact that the ability to use any of these devices is a genetically inherited trait.

The driving force behind the plots of the first two novels, and the reason that Corwin had been stranded on our world since the time of the Black Death, is that Oberon, the ruler of Amber, has vanished, and there is an internecine struggle for the throne.

Amber, you see, is the most real place there is, the centre of the Order of the universe, the place which casts an infinite number of shadows (our world being one of them) to which members of the family may travel at will, adding and subtracting bits of the worlds through which they travel until they “reach the place of their desire.”

The various journeys gave Zelazny, who was known for his poetic stylings, a lot of range to play with as his characters travelled from one shadow to another.

There’s a lot of military material in these two books. In the first, Corwin teams up with another brother, Blaze, to launch an all out assault on Amber, where brother Erik holds the throne. They fail and Corwin is captured, forced assist in Erik’s coronation, blinded and imprisoned for nearly five years, during which time his eyes grow back, and he manages to escape.

During that time, during his convalescence, and, indeed, during the time that he is integrating two sets of post-amnesiac memories, Corwin begins his path to becoming a better person than he was before his exile, but he has a way to go.

In The Guns of Avalon, he finds a way to make firearms function in Amber – regular explosives won’t work there – realizes the damage he has caused to the shadow worlds and Amber with the death curse that he uttered when he thought Erik was going to kill him, and begins to work at dealing with the repercussions.

What proves that Corwin is improving as a person is that way he reacts to some of these situations and to people that he really doesn’t need to be nice to. Of course, not being quire as paranoid and nasty as he used to be has its downside as well, as he discovers by the end of the second book.

Each volume in this series is fairly well self-contained, but there are always unresolved plot lines. I read these as they appeared between 1970 and 1978, and it’s a pleasure to listen to them now, all these years later.

 

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Bookends: Adventures in Alternate Realities March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Adventures in Alternate Realities

By Dan Davidson

October 25, 2017

– 786 words –

 

The Bloodline Feud: A Merchant Princes Omnibus

Bloodline Feud

 

By Charles Stross

Tor Books

Kindle edition

$10.99

576 pages in book form

 

Miriam Beckstein was an up and coming tech journalist with an eye for a story on the day she and her research assistant stumbled on something they shouldn’t have and both got fired. It was while she was sorting out what to do with her life that her adopted mother gave her a box of family keepsakes and totally changed her life in another way.

n the box was a locket with a strange engraved pattern on it, and when Miriam stared at it she suddenly found herself and her home office chair in the middle of a forest in a very different place.

The combination of the pattern and her genetic heritage had unlocked her ability to travel to another world, physically like ours, but with a very different history and social structure, where it turned out that she was a related to an extended family, some of whom were not happy to see her.

In addition to all this, she has to figure out how to survive when it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill her.

Miriam is actually Countess Helge Thorold-Hjorth, missing since the disappearance of her mother, decades earlier. That she is not dead inconveniences a number of the members of her clan family, who are involved in what amounts to an interdimensional smuggling ring. Family members with the talent for world walking are able to flit back and forth between our world and the technologically and socially backward earth (think Medieval level) that is their home, and have enriched themselves in bot wealth and power by so doing.

Miriam has to learn a whole new social order and a new language, master the mechanics of her new position in life and try to survive attempts by two different groups to end her life. It is while accomplishing the latter task that she learns something no one else seems to know, that there is another group of travellers who originate on a third alternative earth, one that is sort of a 19th century version of North America called New Britain.

The six families of the Clan are the power behind the throne in Gruinmarkt, the world that Miriam was conceived in, but there is a seventh family, lost to the others sometime in the past, that is waging a clandestine war of revenge. They live in the third earth.

Miriam’s adventures take place in all three dimensions, and involve, unusually for a science fiction novel, a lot of discussion about how to run businesses and economies. I know how that sounds, but Stross makes it interesting. Further, his work of fictional economics is admired by no less than renowned economist Paul Krugman. I watched the two of them in discussion at a World Con in Montreal a few years back, and their mutual admiration was obvious.

This volume is a omnibus edition of The Family Trade (2004) and

The Hidden Family (2005). It’s been revised slightly with once necessary recaps and reviews removed and some material added. The new edition is seamless and I really couldn’t tell where the first book ended and the second began.

The “stranger in a strange land” story is one of the effective ways of easing a reader from the world we know into stranger places. This story begins as a kind of “lost princess” tale, and we identify with Miriam as she struggles to both adjust and get the upper hand in her new circumstances.

She is very much a 21st century woman, and in Gruinmarkt, which has a sort of Germanic/Dutch feel to it, the status of women is very low, their lives controlled by their fathers and husbands, or, in Miriam’s case, her uncle. The clan hierarchy have absolute power over the areas they control. They live in comparative luxury whole ordinary folks live like serfs in the Middle Ages. The gap between the 1% and the 99% is that incredible.

Miriam sets herself the task of transforming the societies of both alternate realities by importing old technology from the world she grew up in, and changing the business model of Gruinmarkt, which has devolved to profiting from interdimensional drug smuggling, to one based on trade in ideas.

It’s an uphill battle and one that’s just beginning as this book comes to an end.

In his author’s note at the end, Stross credits a couple of SF giants of the past with influencing some of his choices in this series. I’m going to deal with one of them next week.

 

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