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Bookends: The bizarre case of the babynappers November 27, 2014

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Bookends: The bizarre case of the babynappers

By Dan Davidson

June 25, 2014

– 783 words –


Body Double: A Rizzoli & Isles NovelBody Double


Ballantine Books

512 pages



It never ceases to surprise me how little the television version of a successful book series will take from the source material. Take Rizzoli & Isles, a series airing on Showtime, and one that we watch and enjoy here.

Aside from the names and occupations of the main characters and the fact that the show is set in Boston (although they don’t film it there) there isn’t a great deal of similarity.

TV’s Jane Rizzoli is far better looking and way more self-confident than the one in the books. Gerritsen’s character has been obsessed with making it as a woman in the man’s world of the police force, but the TV version seems to do this flawlessly. Oh, and in the books (this being the fourth in the series) Rizzoli is married to an FBI agent and eight months pregnant.

Maura Isles is an odd combination of brilliant and socially awkward in the show. She was adopted into a wealthy family and is clearly a social class above her BPD peers. Sometime last season we learned her birth father was a mobster. This season we learned her mother gave her up at birth, but they have reconnected. Gerritsen’s character was also adopted, but had a twin sister she never knew about and is the offspring of a – oh, I can’t tell you that yet. You have to read the book.

Pregnant ladies are definitely a factor in this book, but so is Isles’ personal history. She arrives back from a conference in Europe to find her driveway full of squad cars and everybody doing double takes when she walks from her cab to the house. A car parked in her driveway contains the body of a woman who is her spitting image, and everyone thought she had been murdered until she walked into her yard.

Forensic examination reveals that they are sisters. As things develop it emerges that this other woman, Anna Leoni, had apparently had the same curiosity about her origins that Maura has always had and has been digging into her past. Clearly, she had got far enough to discover that Maura existed. She also had an abusive husband she was trying to hide from.

Was it the husband that killed her, or did her digging unearth secrets that someone wanted to keep hidden? It’s something Isles needs to know, and so she begins to investigate the life of her dead sister, retracing her footsteps until the trail leads her to the house where their mother must have lived as a child and to the beginnings of finding out where she and Anna came from.

Their mother, Amalthea Lank, is still serving time for the brutal murder of two women. Lank appears to everyone to be hopelessly insane, schizophrenic to the extent that she has lost contact with the world.

While all this is going on, Jane and the other detectives in the homicide squad are investigating a series of bizarre murders in which pregnant woman have been kidnapped quite far along in their pregnancies, kept until they came to term and then murdered by Caesarian section, with the babies being sold.

For Jane, well along in her pregnancy, this is a particularly difficult case to deal with, and every lead they track down seems to presage a new and gruesome murder, as the perpetrators do their best to snuff anything that might lead the authorities to them.

What I haven’t mentioned so far is the ticking clock aspect of this mystery. The killers’ latest victim is Mattie Purvis, taken in chapter five. She spends most of the story in a box, underground, kept alive on a ration of junk food and water, revisited every few chapters by the kidnapper, who wants to know if she’s alright. What does he want from her? It doesn’t make her feel any better when she suddenly figures it out, but it does make her determined.

The book is fairly evenly divided between the two main characters, who are not nearly as chummy on paper as they are on the small screen. There is a relationship building there and a lot of mutual respect, but they each have too many buried emotions to be really comfortable sharing to the degree that their television counterparts do.

If you pick up one of these books looking for the same sort of ensemble cast you’ve seen on television, you won’t find that. You will find some pretty good mysteries with characters that are developing as the series progresses.




Bookends: Climate change thriller turns up the Arctic heat November 27, 2014

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Bookends: Climate change thriller turns up the Arctic heat

By Dan Davidson

June 11, 2014

– 832 words –


Arctic DriftArctic Drift

By Clive and Dirk Cussler

Berkley Books

593 pages



It’s been a few years since I read one of Cussler’s Dirk Pitt thrillers, so when this one turned up with a plot set on Canada’s west and northern coasts, I decided to give it a try.

There have been some changes made. Dirk’s married. His wife, Loreen, is a US Senator. His former boss is now the vice-president of the USA and Dirk’s now the head of (National Underwater and Marine Agency). Dirk had children with another woman somewhere along the way and the young man is named after his father. This means that the younger man gets to be called Dirk throughout the book, while his father is called Pitt.

That’s the only really confusing part of the story, other than that the whole thing has to be taking place in some other dimension that just happens to be pretty much identical with our planet, because the degree to which tensions heat up between Canada and the USA in this story is definitely out of this world.

It doesn’t start there through. It starts with the Franklin Expedition back in 1848. On the two frozen in ships one crew has gone mad for some reason. The remaining sane crew members flee the Erebus and make for the Terror and some degree of safety. Eventually, as we know, they all die on the ice, but the mystery of the madness remains unsolved for the next 160 years.

Later on, off the coast of British Columbia, near Kitimat, the crew of a pleasure cruiser is overtaken at sea by a ghastly white mist and die in agony in mere minutes.

Later Dirk and sister Summer find the boat and report the tragedy, leading them to explore more around the area of Terra Green’s new carbon dioxide sequestration plant. Later they will find that all is not what it seems there.

In the Arctic Ocean a Canadian Coast Guard ship is rammed by what seems to be a large freighter towing a barge. It doesn’t sink, but the outrage appears to have been perpetrated by a ship flying American colours.

Off the coast of Vancouver Island a Canadian Senator stops to help a man who appears to have swamped his small boat and is in distress. But he’s not, and he pulls her into the water and drowns her.

Still later, an Arctic science exploration crew living on the ice pack is rammed by another boat that appears to be an American military vessel. All but a handful of the scientists die as their floes break up. The survivors are picked up by the NUMA ship, the Narwhal.

Finally, in Washington, a scientist comes up with a process to create artificial photosynthesis, a process that will, by itself, cut down and eliminate much of the CO2 that is being pumped into the air and contributing to whatever natural processes are already triggering climate change. Her lab blows up and she is badly injured. This gets the elder Pitt involved in the search for the rare mineral she needs to make the process work. There might have been some on one of Franklin’s ships.

Those are all the plot threads that you need to have to realize that this is a multilayered thriller with a lot of connections to some of our current problems. It’s a bit of wishful thinking to propose that anyone could find what amounts to a kill-switch for climate change, but it’s not hard to believe that some unscrupulous one per center wouldn’t find a way to make money out of the problem with a murderous scam that really just makes it worse.

There’s lots of action for the teams in this story. Young Dirk and Summer face danger off the west coast, while Pitt senior is nearly killed in an ambush in Northern Ontario. In a bit of meta-fiction, he is rescued by a gent named Clive Cussler who is touring in a nautically tricked out RV motorhome.

For the climax we move to the Arctic Ocean and some action at sea, under the sea, on Arctic islands and on the frozen hulk of the Erebus itself. If Mr. Cussler will just tell the Canadian government where he found it, we can stop looking for it. Remember, he did write the book Raise the Titanic some years before the actual wreck was found.

As I said at the beginning, a book that almost has the Canadian government declaring war on the USA has to be set on some other planet. There are a lot of coincidences in this story and I had to smile at some of the events, but it was a cracking good yearn and it moved right along.

Cussler hasn’t had any luck getting his books translated into movies, or I’d suggest this one.



Bookends: The book that launched the Travis McGee series is a great beginning November 27, 2014

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Bookends: The book that launched the Travis McGee series is a great beginning

By Dan Davidson

June 4, 2014

– 938 words –


The Deep Blue Good-ByDeep Blue Goodbye

By John D. MacDonald

Random House Trade Paperbacks

240 pages



Brilliance Audio Unabridged reading

Narrated by Robert Petkoff

6 hrs


First published in 1964, The Deep Blue Good-by is the first of what would grow to be 21 novels telling the tales of Travis McGee. They would come to be known as the “colour novels”, as each one featured a colour in the title and in the garish, paperback covers of the original Fawcett editions. They span 20 years, the last one appearing in 1984, two years before MacDonald died at the age of 70.

MacDonald is revered by other writers as one of the greats. He is praised by writers of horror, science fiction, thriller and mystery fiction. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark, Jonathan Kellerman, Donald Westlake, Robert B. Parker, Spider Robinson, Karl Hiaasen, Ed McBain, and Kurt Vonnegut are among those who have sung his praises.

The McGee books are not exactly mysteries, though they sound like noir detective stories, with their somewhat cynical first person narration. They are more like thrillers. McGee would eventually come to call himself a salvage consultant, perhaps taking the idea from the fact that he lived on a 52 foot barge style houseboat which was usually to be found moored at Slip F-18 at Bahia Mar Marina, Fort Lauderdale.

He called his home The Busted Flush, because he won it in a poker game that featured that hand of cards. I knew this from the later books (I have eight of them) but I had never heard the story first hand.

McGee works when he needs money and when his attention is caught by a client’s story. His deal is that he will recover whatever it is the client has lost, will take his expenses off the top of the value and split the recovery 50/50 with the client. The price is steep because he is the agent of last resort for this sort of thing and the only hope the client has of every seeing any value.

When not on a case McGee says he is taking his retirement in installments. He is in the midst of one of those when a dancer (Chookie McCall) with whom he is friendly introduces him to one of her girls, Catherine Kerr, a woman who has been bilked by a man named Junior Allen. He has stolen all the illegally gotten gems that her father managed to accumulate during the Second World War while serving in the Far East.

A good portion of the story is the detective work of tracking down people connected to his client’s father and piecing together enough different stories to figure out just what it is he needs to find. While much of the book is set in Florida, there are side trips to New York and Texas.

Allen turns out to be the nastiest of individuals, one who will ruin good people just because he can. He has an uncanny animalistic power over women and uses it to degrade them. Once he has money he moves in on a wealthy divorcee, Lois Atkinson, and nearly destroys her. McGee learns of this during the latter stages of his initial investigation. He finds the woman in a pitiable state, physically, mentally and emotionally and nurses her back to health.

While he is absolutely the whitest of knights during this whole process, the pair of them do eventually fall for each other. It seems to be something more than transference and counter-transference.

By that time his original reason for getting involved in this affair is nearly forgotten, only to be rejuvenated when Allen happens upon his original client and puts her in the hospital.

From that point, McGee begins to develop a fairly complicated plot to insinuate himself into Allen’s latest circle of friends and seek an opportunity to find and recover the swag. While he intends to do this without having an actual physical confrontation with the villain, the plan goes awry and McGee ends up involved in a high seas battle off the Florida coast, with the lives of two women at stake and his own in peril.

McGee has an active and observant mind, and blesses us with all sorts of observations about the people he meets and the social settings in which he finds them. A lot of this has a sort of noir poetry to it. Some commentators don’t enjoy this aspect of McDonald’s style, but I like it.

McGee can be cruel and vicious in his pursuit of information, and there’s a detailed description of an interrogation using a nasty technique in a shower. While he is athletic and powerful, as is shown several times in the story, he is not unbeatable, and the gorilla-like power of Junior Allen defeats him more than once as the story moves to the climax.

There’s certainly no question that McGee is sexist by today’s standards, but this story takes place in 1964. He values women as individuals and they respond to that in him. When you compare him to the James Bond novels that were being written around the same time, he’s practically a feminist.

I listened to Robert Petkoff’s excellent reading of this book on my way to the recent North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway and found a few other MacDonald fans to discuss it with while I was there. I will definitely pick up the next in the series for some other long drive.








Bookends: Two dead men in a life raft pose a prickly problem November 27, 2014

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Bookends: Two dead men in a life raft pose a prickly problem

By Dan Davidson

May 28, 2014

– 840 words –


The Dogs of Riga: A Kurt Wallander MysteryThe Dogs of Riga

By Henning Mankell


336 pages



If the first Kurt Wallander mystery was pretty standard police procedural fare, except for the creation of Wallander himself, the second is rather a different animal. Wallander is in the midst of an existential crisis, still disturbed by the events of the double murder in the first book and morosely missing his mentor and confidant, Rydberg, who had died of cancer about a month earlier.

Rydberg had possessed a calm intellect and keen observational skills that Wallander had envied, though not in a negative way. He had simply counted on his comrade to provide the skills he felt he lacked, and now that Rydberg was gone he found himself approaching cases thinking about how his friend would deal with them.

The case of the well-dressed dead men in the life raft was one for the books. We know, from the opening chapter, how they ended up in the ocean near Ystad, but it is a complete puzzle to the policemen called out to deal with the case. Here they are, dressed in bespoke suits, shot to death after being tortured, and someone bothered to put their suit coats back on after killing them.

What clues there are, point to them being of Latvian origin. It’s 1991 in that bleak state. The police there identify the men and send an officer to Sweden to consult on the case. It goes nowhere, except that the raft is stolen from the evidence room, suggesting that there had been something in it. Drugs, most likely. Major Liepa goes back to Riga and is promptly murdered himself, setting in motion a chain of events that plays out like a combination of a detective story and a spy thriller.

Wallander is sent to Latvia, just crawling out from under the shadow of the Iron Curtain in that decade, to assist in the Liepa case, but it seems that no real progress can be made. He is contacted by a group of reformers, one of whom is Liepa’s widow. When one of the conspirators, a man named Uptis, is arrested for Liepa’s murder, Wallander knows it is not right, but is forced to leave the country.

Privately, he vows to go back, and with the help of the Latvian underground he is smuggled circuitously back into the country.

Wallander is pretty much out of his depth through most of this story, striving to make sense of the inexplicable, trying to approach the case the way Rydberg would have, and not doing a very good job of it.

While at home he has been trying to spend more quality time with his ailing father, a painter who is in the early stages of dementia. He has some success there, though it is mixed. He has given up hoping for any reconciliation with his wife, but is trying to strengthen his ties to his young adult daughter. He’s not feeling like he’s making much progress either professionally or personally, and has been thinking about chucking over his career and going to work for a security company.

The whole Riga situation just seems primed to drive him further over the edge. To compound his confusion, he finds himself falling in love with Baiba Lieba, and more that half the reason he goes back to Riga clandestinely is that attraction he feels for her. That, and the fact that she implored him to return, saying that she is certain only he can solve her husband’s murder.

The “dogs” of the title are the members of the Latvian police, particularly the two Colonels (the Latvians use military ranks in their force) with whom he is forced to work during his first visit to Riga. At that time it is as if the dogs are trying to throw him off the scent. When he returns it is as if the dogs are trying to get his scent.

This is a dark mystery, full of Scandinavian angst and Slavic melancholy, and could very well drive away readers looking for something less gloomy. It’s a credit to Mankell’s skill with a story, and to the translator (the award winning Laurie Thompson in this case) who put the story into English, that this does not happen.

In one of his interviews, Mankell said, “A good crime story is not only about a crime that is to be solved. It should be a psychological examination of the culture it reflects.”

That certainly seems to be what he did in these books.

Mankell wrote 10 Wallander mysteries between 1991 and 2009. I got onto them after seeing the English television versions in which Kenneth Branagh played the title role, backed up by Trevor Hiddleston, who has since become famous for portraying the character of Loki in the first Thor movie that Branagh directed, as well as in two films that followed.




Bookends: Book Three of A Song of Ice and Fire has some shocking developments November 27, 2014

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Bookends: Book Three of A Song of Ice and Fire has some shocking developments

By Dan Davidson

May 20, 2014

– 995 words –


A Storm of Swords:Storm of Swords

: Book Three

George R.R. Martin

Bantam Books

1216 pages



Now matter how well he may be telling the story in A Song of Fire and Ice, it cannot be denied that George R.R. Martin is one of those fantasy writers who has let his subject matter run away with him.

Tad Williams writes really long books, but manages to restrict himself to two, three or four volumes per saga. Terry Brooks’ Shannara series may go on forever, but he provides the installments in three to four novel segments, complete in themselves. Terry Goodkind’s individual novels in the Sword of Truth series are quite long, but so far the ones I’ve read seem to stand as individual stories. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books grew as the series progressed, but he had a definite end in sight, and when he died Brandon Sanderson was able to finish the story in three large volumes.

A Song of Fire and Ice was supposed to have been a trilogy. The first two books were substantial, at 720 (A Game of Thrones) and 784 (in A Clash of King) pages, but this third volume, as you can see, left them in the dust with 1216. The next two books, which I have yet to read, both top 1000 pages and, while Martin has a definite conclusion in mind (and has shared it with the folks at HBO in case they get there before he does) it’s still some way off.

Speaking of the HBO series, it’s a classic case of what happens when cable television gets a hold of a property and wants to make sure that the adult rating draws in the viewers. Martin’s books refer to lots of sex and violence and even go into detail with some of it, but nowhere near the extent that the HBO series has. In particular the gratuitous T&A quotient in this series, including lots of rape scenes in “loving” detail, leave me wondering if anyone ever stops to ask if this is necessary or if they just go, “what the hell, it’s cable.”

I’ve only watched the first season. I want to read the books first. The series is well done, in spite of these lapses, but I like having the words conjure the images for me.

Viewers were apparently shocked to pieces to view the Red Wedding mass murder scene in season three and the death of the Boy King in season four. These are both included in A Storm of Swords, along with the deaths an apparent deaths of a number of key individuals that the earlier books had suggested were in the story for the long haul. The series isn’t exactly following the books scene for scene; in fact the third season would have needed to be twice its length to deal with this book.

What one can say about potential deaths in this series, is that the viewpoint characters tend to survive while those who are going to die are mostly those who are viewed by other people? That’s not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to apply most of the time so far.

Martin’s imaginary world is not Earth, which is one of the things that distinguish it from a lot of other fantasy series. The planet must have an irregular orbit, as its seasons are measured in multiple years. Winter is coming; this phrase is often repeated. Somewhere above a great ice wall in the north near to the now ruined kingdom of Winterfell there are strange creatures waiting for winter. These Others can animate the bodies of the dead and seem bent on storming the human lands. There are people, Wildlings they are called, who live beyond the Wall, and who want to get through it to relative safety, as the Others seem to be awakening with the turning of the seasons.

Jon Snow, the bastard son of the late Eddard Stark, is a member of the Night’s Watch, the black-cloaked guardians of the Wall. His chapters are among my favorites in this volume.

Martin’s narrative device is to take us on round robin tour of his major characters. The action is not necessarily sequential and sometimes people come within a hair of encountering each other, but don’t quite.

We follow Daenarys, who has three growing dragons and hopes to reclaim the land for her family line, which was deposed in a coup when she was young. She has to learn the difference between being a conqueror and being a ruler.

We follow Jon and his sisters Arya and Sansa, each of whom have their trials to undergo. Arya is quite the tomboy and on the run from the people who killed her father. Sansa, who was such a naïve pain in the first two volumes, gains some substance in this book, especially after her marriage to Tyrion Lannister, the dwarfish member of the ruling clan. Tyrion, in spite of his moral limitations, is one of the best people in the series, intelligent and possessed of his own honour code.

Catelyn Stark continues to try to hold what she can of her family together, as long as she can. New to the point of view list in Jaime Lannister, who had been seen chiefly as a villain in the earlier books, but now turns out to have some redeeming qualities. His relationship with the ugly warrior woman Brienne is quite intriguing.

There is such a large cast in this series that it is well Martin has provided appendices with each of the books, but an even more useful tool can be found online at http://awoiaf.westeros.org. This site contains character descriptions, summaries and lots of practical information for readers getting lost in the mass of material.


Bookends: Spenser’s new writer has read the Parker Cliff Notes well November 26, 2014

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Bookends: Spenser’s new writer has read the Parker Cliff Notes well

By Dan Davidson

May 14, 2014

– 837 words –


Robert B. Parker’s LullabyLullaby

By Ace Atkins

Berkley Books

381 pages



What happens when a best selling author with a popular book series dies? Quite often the publisher would like to keep the sure thing going and will find someone to carry the torch. Sometimes, as with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, the end of a long saga has been plotted, but not written, and so the successor writer, Brandon Sanderson in that case, has the way mapped out for him. Other times, like V.C. Andrews and Robert Ludlum, the successor writers follow the general pattern of the creator’s work and branch off in new directions.

The late Dr. Parker probably wouldn’t mind what’s being done with three of his series. After all, he tackled the job of finishing one of Raymond Chandler’s unfinished novels and wrote an original Marlowe himself.

My first impression of Ace Atkins’ work is that he has studied the cliff notes for Parker very well. There will be snappy dialogue, with Spenser poking fun at people who think they are more important than they are. There will be suggestions that he and Susan are about to have hot sex, but that will happen behind bedroom doors closed to everyone except maybe Pearl the wonder dog. There will be other scenes with Susan where they discuss the case he is involved in and take a few swings at the meaning of life. There will be several scenes during which Spenser whips up some fabulous sounding concoction in his kitchen. There will be scenes during which he exercises – maybe a run or a session at the gym with the bags. There will be scenes that involve fisticuffs and gunplay.

Atkins has checked off all these boxes, giving us the feel of a genuine Parker for the most part.

There are some things that don’t quite come off though. Spenser’s trademark snappiness was almost too much in evidence, as if he were trying too hard. A lot of his barbs are directed more at other people and in this book there seemed to be a bit too much of it in the internal monologue.

The presentation of Hawk doesn’t quite work. The man is a blend of street tough and educated bon vivant, and his dialogue has generally bounced back and forth between hip patois and college diction. In this book he dresses and acts the part, but doesn’t speak it.

The final thing is something I noticed more because I half read and half listened to this book. When I’m reading and the dialogue gets rough I find I often glide over the words I don’t like to hear and move on with the story. I can’t do that when I’m hearing the book.

Joe Mantegna did a great job of reading the book, but there was a lot more blue language in it than I am used to finding in Spenser novels and, while I’m okay with using language that is appropriate to the setting and the people talking, I didn’t see where all of this helped the story the way it should. Certainly I know it affected my wife’s enjoyment of the book as we drove home a week ago.

Storywise, this is good Spenser territory. A 14 year old girl turns up in his office looking to hire him to find out who killed her mother four years earlier. There’s a guy doing time for the murder, and he probably deserves to be there for a number of other reasons, but she’s convinced this isn’t one of them.

Spenser is reminded of Paul, the boy he rescued and more or less fostered years ago, and he’s certain that Mattie Sullivan needs saving in another way. She’s a difficult client, living and raising her little sisters without much help from her alcoholic grandmother. She’s determined to see this through and it soon becomes clear that she has already raised enough dust by poking at things (a very Spenser-like approach) to put her life in danger.

Spenser takes the case and soon finds that he has attracted the attention of some old mob enemies, a very unsavory killer, and a hard nosed FBI type named Connor who is determined to make his name by taking down some of the same people Spenser is bothering. At one point, Connor actually has Spenser arrested and attempts to frame him in a drug deal. We can see that jousting with this guy will be a part of whatever future Atkins has in store for our hero.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book, and I can see myself picking up another one at some point. Atkins has already produced two more Spenser books over the last three years but, as he has three series out there under his own name, we may not see them as often as we did when Parker was in charge.







Bookends: Many things tilt this teenager’s world November 25, 2014

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Bookends: Many things tilt this teenager’s world

By Dan Davidson

April 22, 2014

– 800 words –




Groundwood Books

271 pages



There comes a time in the life of a young person when the whole world seems to tilt. There may be many such times, in fact. For Stan Dart the first one was when his father, Ron, packed up and left with Kelly-Ann, abandoning Stan, Lily and their mother, Isabelle.

With Mom there has been a succession of failed relationships since then, and each of them has tilted Stan’s world a little. The current one, with Gary, seems to be working out, and he’s not at all sure how he feels about that.

It’s been five years since he has had to worry about a permanent other male presence, and he’s kind of got used to picking up the pieces of their lives that his mom seems to drop from time to time.

Not that he doesn’t love his mom. There’s a rather sweet conversation that they have about halfway into the book and no son who didn’t love his mother would have been able to stick around for the whole thing.

What’s been rocking Stan’s world the most lately is the new girl, Janine Igwash. She’s constantly on his mind and when she asks him to go to a dance with her, he’s totally flabbergasted. Even though his friends warn him the buzz is that she’s “tilted” (read – into girls) he can’t give up the idea of spending time with her.

It’s a really awkward relationship, on both their parts. Stan’s never been on a date, as such, and Janine has never actually been interested in a guy before, so they circle around each other quite uncertainly for much of the book, running towards and away from each other while they make up their minds.

In his less frantic moments, Stan is trying hard to make the school’s basketball team, and the proper ways to make different types of basketball shots become metaphors for all kinds of other activity as the story moves along.

A final big tilt comes Stan’s way when his birth father turns up with the half-brother he’s produced with Kelly-Ann. We’re not sure what’s happened here. Did she kick him out or did he just leave her? Do the garbled words coming from Feldon, Stan’s new half-brother, mean that Kelly-Ann is having an affair with someone else and that they’ve taken off to Montego Bay – or is all of this completely out to lunch?

What does Ron want? How does Stan feel about Feldon? How does Lilly feel about him? What scenes will develop when Gary and Ron are at the house at the same time?

As it turns out Gary seems to improve by comparison with Ron. In fact most of Stan’s residual good feelings about Ron pretty much melt away the night he finds his dad preparing to take off again with Feldon in order to avoid getting caught there by Kelly-Ann.

Stan talks him out of taking Feldon and watches as Ron “shuffled his old gray self in to the back of (the taxi) and said something to the driver. Bus station? Train station? Somewhere on the edge of the highway? Stan didn’t want to know.”

That seems to be the point where he becomes determined not to be the man he has seen his father become, and so he is rather distressed when he and Janine give in to teenage desire while he feels they ought to be looking after Feldon (who has fallen asleep in the downstairs closet).

When she says, “I’d love to see your room” it’s pretty much all over for Stan, and the next few pages are likely to get this book some sort of age rating, even though it’s all very poetic. Later, he’s terrified that he’s become a father, but it turns out she had this all pretty well planned for.

At its core, this is a book about relationships and desire. Some of the relationships work out and some don’t. It appears that some of the characters learn important lessons – and that some just blunder on heedlessly.

There’s lots of tension in this story and yet it’s quite funny in a number of ways. We spend it inside Stan’s head, and I’m not sure he’s an entirely reliable narrator, but he means well and he wants to get things right, so we like him and we cheer for him.

The story has several happy endings, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that, because they’re not exactly what you may be thinking they are.

Alan Cumyn is the current writer-in-residence at Berton House and was one of the four mentor authors at this week’s Young Authors’ Conference.




Bookends: Remembering the 1970 Dempster Patrol November 25, 2014

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The Last PatrolBookends: Remembering the 1970 Dempster Patrol

By Dan Davidson

April 29, 2014

– 735 words –


The Last Patrol:

Following the Trail of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police’s Legendary Lost Patrol

By Keith Billington

Caitlin Press

192 pages



There seems to have been a fondness for new books related to the Lost Patrol over the last year or so. Back in February I reviewed Kerry Karram’s Death Wins in the Arctic, an informative book that mentioned a few of the commemorative runs that have been made along the Dempster over the years since Inspector Fitzgerald’s ill-fated patrol.

One run that she did not mention was the one that is the subject of this book, the 1970 expedition from Fort McPherson to Dawson City.

Keith Billington, the instigator of this adventure, spent several years as a nurse posted in Fort McPherson, and was spurred to activity by an initiative launched by the NWT government in 1969 to look “for projects that would typify life in the Territories in order to celebrate their centennial the following year.”

Billington sent off a proposal to the government for a patrol reenactment that “should honour the Gwich’in men who had worked as guides and special constables for the RNWMP (Royal Northwest Mounted Police) patrol system and provided much of the skill that was required for the members of the force to survive long trips in adverse weather and inhospitable terrain.”

The project was approved and Billington recruited ten local men to join him in the long trek by dog team to Dawson. Things got a little complicated by the fact that Billington, his wife, Muriel, and their family had finished their six year stint in the NWT and were being relocated by the federal department which controlled most northern health posts at this time, to a new post in northern British Columbia. Still, he managed to keep the project on track and selected a group of men who ranged in age from young men to elders.

Billington has told part of this story previously in his 2008 memoir House Calls by Dogsled, which I reviewed here some years ago. Subsequently I learned a bit more about the adventure from the late Archdeacon Ken Snider, who was the parish priest at St. Paul’s Anglican Church at that time, and one of the folks on this end of the adventure who helped to make it happen.

Billington has assumed that some readers might not be familiar with the original account as recorded by the late Dick North and some other scribes, whose books I recommend if you want that whole story. You’ll get enough here to whet your appetite for more.

After spending the first 66 pages providing details of the background and planning for what came to be called the Dempster Patrol, including sketches of the participants, he falls into a pattern of alternating chapters. Short chapters, usually only 2 to 4 pages, indicated by a thumbnail photo of the Inspector, retell an abbreviated version of the 1910 debacle, while longer chapters tell the first person story of the 500 kilometre Dempster Patrol.

The commemorative patrol was difficult enough, but it was larger as well as much better provisioned and equipped than the original. It had everything it needed to live off the land, as well as several supply caches stashed along the way. Most importantly – and everyone agrees that this is what killed the 1910 patrol – the 1970 trek had experienced First Nation locals who knew the trails and knew how to survive in the bush.

Meals on the Dempster Patrol may have become predictable after a time, but never got down to the “dog meat and tea” that was recorded so often in Fitzgerald’s increasingly sparse journal.

There are lots of Dawson names in this account, including the mayor of the day, Fabien Salois, Percy and Joe Henry, Chester Henderson, Ken Snider, Barb and Henry Hanulik and Richard Martin. It’s a fascinating and lively account, sprinkled with enough pictures to give a good sense of what the trip was like.

The Billingtons ended up in Prince George, from whence they venture forth to cross country ski and travel by snowmobile in the winter and double sea kayak in the summer. This is the fourth book Keith has mined from their time in the north. At this writing he is one of two surviving members of the Dempster Patrol.




Bookends: On the dogsled trail to Dawson in the 1970s November 25, 2014

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It’s only fair to say that the author hated this review and, in my own defence, a couple of people who read the book told me I was too kind.



Bookends: On the dogsled trail to Dawson in the 1970s

By Dan Davidson

May 7, 2014

– 735 words –


Dog Team to Dawson: A Quest for the Cosmic Bannock and other Yukon Stories

By Bruce T. BatchelorDog Team to Dawson

Agio Publishing House

267 pages



Bruce Batchelor was still a bachelor when most of the stories in the collection of Yukon memories took place. For those who may have read his earlier book about wilderness life in the Pelly area, Nine Dog Winter, the stories in this book come before that one.

The bulk of this book is the story referenced in the subtitle: “The Quest for the Cosmic Bannock”. I’m not entirely sure why is has that title, other than that it sounds like a very 70s sort of existential way to think about the experience. Both Batchelor and his mushing partner, Jan Prenty, consumed lots of bannock on the trail from Pelly Crossing to Dawson City, but there wasn’t anything particularly cosmic about it.

That part of the book takes up the first 193 pages, the remaining three stories being short pieces. Two of these are personal essays about experiences in the Yukon and the other is a short version of the Mad Trapper’s tale.

Batchelor and Prenty met quite by accident in a bar in Whitehorse where he was speculating about the joys of a long trek in the later part of the winter with dogs and a sled. Since he didn’t have enough dogs or a sled or anyone to make the trip with him, it was all hot air at that point. And then Prenty allowed she thought it was a good idea and she’d like to go along.

There was no romance involved here. They’d barely met when she said, “I want you to take me winter camping.”

The idea seemed to take wing among their friends and associates as quickly as an Internet meme does today, and soon the pair were being offered dogs, a sled (a toboggan, actually), supplies and all sorts of encouragement. The blue-sky dream had become a reality.

They planned to embark from the Pelly Farm, after visiting with the Bradley family. After some consultation and debate they decided to use as much as they could of the Dawson Overland Trail, which you can still see along the banks of the Yukon River. Before getting to that, they followed a trail made by Peter Isaac and made their way to Fort Selkirk, where they spent some time with Danny and Abby Roberts.

It was a difficult trek. They had planned to make the run in eight to ten days, finishing up on the Yukon River ice on the final run to Dawson. The dogs had never worked together before, so that was tough. There was ice and slush and overflow water to contend with. Their traces wore out, or were chewed through, and the trail abraded the wood of the toboggan until it actually wore through. If they hadn’t been able to borrow a proper sled from Roger Mendelssohn later on, they would not have been able to finish the trip.

While there was much tension and difficulty along the way, there were a lot of good moments as well. For both of them one of these was when they found a pill canister full of placer gold nuggets in a long abandoned miner’s cabin.

Other names were dropped along the way. They spent a bit of time with the Burian family and Alan Nordling was one of the other people they encountered on their trip, along with John Tapsell and Brian MacDonald.

Despite all the problems, the trip did something for them. Prenty married a trapper and raised a family on a trap line. Batchelor went on to have his Nine Dog Winter marry Marsha, his partner on that later adventure. They now live in Victoria and he works in the publishing trade, while doing a bit of writing.

The second story in the book, “Cost Plus” is about some misadventures in the oil exploration trade up near Eagle Plains, while the final piece, “Love Story for Lucy”, is about the relationship between a man and his best friend, a dog. “Trapping the Mad Trapper” is a short version of that story, enlivened by quotations from a journal kept by Mrs. Helen Thronthwaite, a registered nurse who talked to some of the First Nations men who participated in the hunt for Albert Johnson.



Bookends: It’s a wild ride across the Atlantic Ocean November 25, 2014

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Bookends: It’s a wild ride across the Atlantic Ocean

By Dan Davidson

April 14, 2014

– 848 words –


Little Ship of Fools

By Charles WilkinsLittle Ship

Greystone Books

305 pages



I met Charlie Wilkins in 2005, when he spent part of a chilly winter at Berton House as writer-in-residence. Charlie writes several different kinds of books and articles, one of the ones I’ve read since I met him was The Wild Ride: a History of the North West Mounted Police 1873-1904. It didn’t occur to me at the time that he’d chosen to write about the really early years, stopping at the point where the word Royal was first added to the NWMP name.

Charlie has also produced a book about the summer he spent working in a graveyard (In the Land of Long Fingernails), but what he does most is take strange travel adventures and write about those.

Walk to New York kind of describes itself; so does Paddle to the Amazon. The Circus at the Edge of the Earth chronicles his time with the Great Wallenda Circus.

In 2012, at the age of 63, Charlie decided to paddle across the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados. He’d heard about this possibility from some friends and had decided it would make a really neat book.

He wasn’t going alone and the boat wasn’t any old craft. As the subtitle for the book says: 16 rowers, 1 improbable boat; 7 tumultuous weeks on the Atlantic”.

Charlie’s a healthy fellow by my estimation. He hiked all around Dawson when he was here, and just look at those trips he’s taken. He has, on the other hand, what might called an ectomorphic body type: thin muscles, low body fat storage. He writes that he trained for a year and a half to get ready for this trip – lifting weights, eating to put on weight, working out for hours each day on a rowing machine – and that by the end of the trip he had lost one-fifth of his body mass and was told by other people that he looked fragile and haunted.

When he arrives in Dawson this week to do a reading from his book and show the film that one of his crewmates made from the trip, I expect I’ll still recognize him, but he will probably be somewhat changed from the fellow I’ve spoken with and interviewed in the past.

Charlie’s going to be one of the mentors at next week’s Young Authors’ Conference (my profile of him for that event has either been in print or will soon be).

Little Ship of Fools is a very engaging travel narrative. We learn about the trip itself, with all its high and low points. We learn the history of the voyage and some of the lore of trans-oceanic rowing. We learn about the good and not so good points of each of the crew members, and of the inevitable frictions that must develop among 16 individuals trapped in uncomfortably close quarters with no hope of getting any respite from each other, rowing in shifts two hours or and two off in all kinds of weather.

Big Blue, as their craft was called, was a remarkable craft, constructed catamaran-style with two sets of rowing stations separated by a cabin amidships and a little bit of deck space on either side of the cabin. The photos in the book give some idea of the layout, but the colour shots on Charlie’s website do it more justice.

The crew’s intention as to row down the coast of Africa from Agadir an out into the Atlantic until they could catch the Trade Winds, which would help to speed them on their way. They had a lot of trouble finding the Trades in the first place, and when they did, it was nowhere near the smooth ride they thought it would be. There were waves. There was rain. There was blazing sun. There was first the monotony and then the shortage of food, as the trip took substantially longer than what they had provisioned for.

There was the constant annoyance of loosing irreplaceable things overboard with no way to get them – coupled with the eventual realization that if one of them were to fall overboard, none of their retrieval options would work worth a damn.

You’ve got to wonder about writing this kind of a book. How personally will your subjects take your observations when it’s done? If they decide, part way, that they want out of the deal, what’s to stop them from pitched your notes overboard (and what did happen to all those pens anyway?)?

The only thing you can do is to be as hard on yourself as on everyone else, and even that may not be enough. I think Charlie pretty much did that. Any time he records a negative about any member of the crew, he backs it with something positive and he is merciless on his own failings as a member of the crew.

It’s a fascinating read and I’m looking forward to seeing the film.