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Bookends – Death in a literary vein February 19, 2015

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Bookends – Death in a literary veinThe Silkworm

By Dan Davidson

December 29, 2014

– 948 words –

 

The Silkworm

By Robert Galbraith

AKA

Mulholland Books

464 pages

$19.44

 

Since Cormoran Strike solved the mystery of supermodel Lucy Landry’s murder, a death that everyone else was convinced was a suicide, the one-legged private investigator’s career has been on the rise. He’s made enough money that he can afford to rent a flat in the same building as his office is in. It’s not a great flat, but it beats sleeping on a camp cot in his office. If he didn’t still have a lot of debts to pay off, he wouldn’t be doing too badly. Of course, there is the matter of the amputated leg, a legacy from his stint in Afghanistan.

The leg is almost a major character in the book. PI work means a lot of walking and standing, sometimes running and maybe a bit of rough and tumble. None of this is easy going for a man wearing a prosthesis, a proud man who hates like hell to sometimes being reduced to using crutches.

Strike is the bastard son of Jonny Rokeby, a very famous British pop star. Rokeby had two kids with Strike’s mother, and Lucy is Strike’s full sister on his mother’s side. They have an odd relationship in which she acts a bit like a surrogate mother.

Rokeby had other legitimate children and in this novel we meet Alexander, who is apparently the only one Strike knows. Al likes his half-brother and plays a significant role in this mystery, helping Strike gain access to a number of places where he might not have been welcome.

The second viewpoint character is Strike’s secretary/assistant, Robin Ellacott. She arrived as a temp in the first book (The Cukoo’s Calling) as a somewhat starry-eyed fan of the private investigator’s life, but has evolved into a necessary part of the business. This is a bit confusing for Strike, who doesn’t want to put her in any danger. It is way more confusing, and contentious, for her fiancée, Matthew Cunliffe, who would prefer her not to be working at all, but certainly not with Strike.

Robin has decided she definitely wants to be trained as an investigator and this creates some communication problems for her and Strike, not to mention with Matthew.

Galbraith/Rowling seems to want to have Strike operate in areas where his working class background will clash with the people he is working for or investigating. In the first book it was the world of the fashionistas. In this one it’s the world of the publishing industry, which, one concludes, might be a world where the author has had a few problems over the years.

Perhaps not as many problems as Owen Quine, a would-be literary superstar who has produced a number of steadily less successful avant garde novels after what was seen as a terrific debut effort. His latest is Bombyx Mori, which no one wants to publish, probably because it is both badly written and stuffed with scandalous parody versions of people in the literary world, rather the way that Dante took on everyone he didn’t like in The Inferno.

Bombyx mori, by the way, is the fancy name for the silkworm, that is, the larva or caterpillar of the domesticated silk moth, hence the title of the book.

Quine has vanished, something he has been prone to do from time to time, but on this occasion he is well overdue reporting home after a visit with one of his mistresses. Since he is in the habit of disappearing, the police aren’t terribly responsive, and his wife decides to hire Strike to find him. Missing husbands and straying spouses are a good deal of the firm’s business, so this seems likely to be a fairly routine case. Following up some fairly vague clues, Strike tracks Quine down to a house that he owns in common with another writer – they don’t get along at all, and the house has been deserted and unused for years – and finds him eviscerated in an extremely gruesome manner in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

Not only is it ritualistic in a brutal way, but it is set up exactly like the death scene in Quine’s unpublished novel. That means it has to have been done by someone who has read the manuscript. While that should have been a very small circle of folks in the publishing industry, it turns out that the circle in a lot larger than Quine’s agent and few potential publishers.

There’s lot of atmospheric description in this book. One reviewer complained about it, but he was an English reviewer and we aren’t all familiar with London, so I find the word pictures useful, as I do in novels by Rankin, Robinson, Penny and Blunt.

There is also a large cast of characters in this story, some of them connected with Strike and Ellacott, many of them potential suspects. The author deals with them well, dragging a large number of red herrings across the clues and the narrative as the page count grows. While her hero is clearly influenced by the “damaged goods” trope that is so common to British detective novels, her handling of Robin Ellacott makes me think more of Christie and Sayers.

We already know that J.K. Rowling can do a convincing bit of world building. Her first non-Potter book under her own name, A Casual Vacancy, showed a good grasp of the mundane world. As Galbraith, she comes across as a writer who has done her homework and likes the genre world she is writing in. I look forward to more in this series.

 

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Bookends: A Pair of Canadian mysteries February 19, 2015

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Bookends: A Pair of Canadian mysteries

By Dan Davidson

December 17, 2014

– 838 words –

 

Cut to the BoneCut to the Bone

By Joan Boswell

Dundurn

300 pages

$17.99

 

Cut to the Bone is the fourth of the Hollis Grant mysteries, though it is the first I’ve seen. So far, all of them have had the word “cut” in the title. Hollis has been a community college teacher and is currently an aspiring artist, though she is making a living and keeping the wolf from the door by being the superintendent at an apartment building when we catch up with her this time. It’s an eight story building that has recently been renovated and at least one floor of the building has tenants that work for an escort (with benefits) service. When one of her tenants is murdered, Hollis once again finds herself in the middle of a homicide investigation.

She’s not alone. In the previous novels she has developed something of a love/hate relationship with Rhona Simpson, a rather tall detective with a mixed blood aboriginal heritage. Rhona complains a lot about Hollis being underfoot, but does acknowledge to her homicide partner, Ian Gilchrist, that the pesky amateur has proven useful from time to time.

Hollis’s life is complicated by the fact that she is fostering a young native girl named Jay. The custody arrangement stipulates that Jay’s father only gets to see her under certain conditions and he keeps trying to stretch that envelope, which creates some problems for Hollis.

When the woman who was sharing the apartment with the murder victim disappears, Hollis gets a voice mail message asking her to care for Crystal, her niece, until she can return. There’s no real clue as to why she’s chosen to vanish and this complicates matters. While a woman named Sabrina was the victim, it is possible that the murderer was really after someone else.

At the station, Rhona has been assigned the task of looking into all the cold cases involving aboriginal women. While she may be a good fit for that assignment, she’s concerned that it’s mainly public relations because of her ethnicity, and isn’t any happier when she and Ian are given the case in Hollis’ building.

There are a lot of threads to follow in this story. We spend most of the narrative following Hollis, but Rhona gets her share too. Some of Hollis’ activity has nothing to do with the murder, but does connect to larger themes about missing aboriginal women and other social issues.

While some of the solution is due to the work of the gifted amateur, there’s a fair bit of credit that has to go to the police procedural routines as well, which gives the story a nice balance.

Joan Boswell lives in Toronto and her novels are set there.

 

 

A Grave WaitingA Grave Waiting

By Jill Downie

Dundurn

362 pages

$11.99

 

Jill Downie is also an Ontario based writer, living in Ancaster (a part of the city of Hamilton), but she has lived in a number of other places and has chosen one of them, the island of  (a British possession just off the coast of Normandy), as the setting for her mystery series. The lead characters are Detective Inspector Ed Moretti and his partner, Detective Sergeant Liz Falla, and the narrative alternates back and forth between their points of view. Both of them have lives outside of the force, though this is mainly expressed through their musicianship. Moretti plays piano in a jazz trio and Falla plays guitar and sings in some sort of folk group. In this book, at least, we spend more musical time with Moretti, and the three sections of the novel are named as if they are directions for a jazz arrangement.

The pair is called in to investigate the death of Bernard Masterson, an arms dealer who has been killed on his yacht in the St. Peter Port Harbour. Masterson was shot in his posh bedroom by persons unknown. Several members of his crew and entourage are suspicious characters, to say the least, but there doesn’t seem to have been any motive for them to have done the deed. Given his web of illegal business ventures, there are all kinds of potential motives for his murder, but none of them seem to connect to the people around him. Why had he come there in the first place?

The investigation leads the detectives to look into the activities of a number of locals that they already know. Moretti finds himself attracted to one of the new ladies recently moved to the island and that becomes tricky. The actual solution to the murder turns out to be way more James Bondish than I expected it to be.

As in a lot of mysteries, the locale is almost a character in itself. I’ve never been to Guernsey, but I feel like I’ve had a taste of it. This is the second of the Moretti and Falla mysteries. The series looks like it might have legs.

 

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Bookends: Why do we keep fighting in foreign lands? February 19, 2015

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Bookends: Why do we keep fighting in foreign lands?Great Power Game

By Dan Davidson

December 10, 2014

– 945 words –

 

Canada in the Great Power Game, 1914-2014

By Gwynne Dyer

Random House Canada.

423 pages

$34.95

 

I started reading this book about a week before Remembrance Day, that annual memorial to the people who fought to maintain our freedoms and way of life. By that time I had already listened to the Canadian War Museum’s Dr. Dean Oliver deliver an interesting lecture on the causes behind World War One and the various versions of our involvement in that conflict.

The soundtrack to either the lecture or the book might be repeated variations on Gershwins’ classic “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.

The constant theme running through Dyer’s book is that Canada is, in fact, fighting other peoples’ wars and nearly all the time there has been no actual threat to our land, liberty or way of life. We have been engaged in what the British Imperialists used to call the Great Game, spending most of our national existence up to the end of the Second World War working along with the British, and much of the time since in sync with the Americans.

Some people may find this offensive. In fact, the Canadian military establishment found this thesis downright scary back in the mid 1980s, when Dyer and his producer partner Tina Viljoen, put together a three part television series called The Defence of Canada for the CBC.

It was well received by the public, as was his series called War earlier, but persons in authority made sure that it was not aired a second time, a rare thing for an expensively made Canadian documentary. Indeed, a chap named Alan Bonner revealed to Dyer many years later that his entire public relations career with the military was spent doing things to counter the Dyer thesis, which was considered rather dire (sorry – couldn’t help myself) in military circles.

Dyer sets his argument within the context of war in general, which he insists is pretty much the way that major nations have always dealt with each other, reshuffling the power and influence deck about every half century by having a real good donnybrook. After that, it was business as usual, with no one accused of being more responsible than anyone else, until the next go round.

By his count, the First World War would actually have been the fifth such round of conflicts where nation-states that had overseas empires to be involved were set against each other. Our own much ballyhooed War of 1812-14 was a mere sideshow in the Napoleonic mess over in Europe, for instance.

The Great War, as it was originally called, changed all that. Suddenly war was no longer the province of professional soldiers, war was no longer quickly done, and war was now total. War suddenly demanded so much of a national effort that it was necessary to demonize the other side and elevate the moral outrage in order to, first, get volunteers and later, justify conscription.

By that time Canada had already be tricked into sending troops to that nasty bit of imperial bullying called the Boer War, but Sir Wilfrid Laurier had limited our participation to financing any volunteers who wanted to go.

In the subsequent wars, numbers One and Two, both Prime Minister Borden and Prime Minister MacKenzie King would have liked to have been able to do the same, but the stakes were raised too high. In between those conflicts, in 1922, Canada turned down an invitation to participate in the Chanak Affair, in which Britain wanted help from the Empire in a little matter of putting Turkey in its place.

A good third of the book deals with WWI and its implications, but ties it in well with what came later and it is true that WWII is pretty much WWI Part Two, while the Korean War was essentially a failure and helped to create the North Korea we all know and love today.

In structure this book contains Dyer’s observations – which are more about why we war than how – interrupted by what he calls “excurisons” into “what if” territory, and buttressed by scads of quotations from diaries, journals, newspaper reports and documents. These personalize the narrative and the argument and go well beyond the sort of material that we are used to seeing.

Our national leaders are not consistent in dealing with the issues of war. He lays some of the blame for the failure of the League of Nations on a Canadian amendment to the charter, though the absence of the United States was probably a greater factor. Likewise the creation and militarization of NATO and other alliances with the Americans related to the Cold War helped to keep the United Nations from becoming as effective as it might have been. Certainly our participation in NORAD mainly served to ensure that, if those Soviet ICBMs ever came over the North Pole, the American anti-missiles would have exploded them to devastating effect over the Prairies.

The book skimps a bit when it reaches the turn of the 21st century, covered briefly in the final chapter, “Going with the Flow”, but Dyer produced three or four insightful collections of his newspaper columns on the events that followed the 9-11 attacks on America, so you can read about that it detail elsewhere.

This book only has one photo insert, but if you want to see an illustrated version of part of the text, the three parts of The Defence of Canada are available on You Tube. Titled ‘A Long Way from Home,” “Keeping the Elephants Away” and “The Space Between”, they are worth a listen.

 

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Bookends: Two books about the North for your winter reading February 19, 2015

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Bookends: Two books about the North for your winter reading

By Dan Davidson

December 3, 2014

– 764 words –

 

One of the perks of writing this column since 1977 is that I’ve had the chance to sample a lot of books I might not necessarily have picked up on my own. In addition, it’s offered me the opportunity to meet, at least by way of interviews, quite a few interesting people who have contributed to my knowledge and understanding of the territory.

In the case of the following two books I interviewed the writers and prepared profiles of them for the Star this past fall.

 

A Rock Fell on the Moon:

Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore HeistA Rock Fell

By Alicia Priest

Lost Moose

251 pages

$32.95

 

Alicia Priest spent her early years living in Elsa, leaving there as a result of her father’s part in the silver theft referenced in the subtitle. His crimes caught up with the family after they moved to Vancouver and had a tremendous impact on their lives after that.

This delightful book works on a number of levels. It is a memoir about growing up in rural Yukon. For all the pain and stigma that Gerry Priest inflicted on his family, the parts of the book about life in Elsa are full of joy and happiness and bring to life the late 1950s and early 1960s in a very real way.

Driving through the gated ghost town a few years ago didn’t give me nearly the sense of the place that I got from this book.

It is also a mystery story, as Priest, the journalist, tries to piece together the somewhat fragmentary evidence and figure out just how her father and his partner in crime pulled it off. They were caught almost by accident and, as she says, the methods that were used to catch them, as well as the way in which the evidence vanished, would probably have made it impossible to convict them if the same thing were to have happened a few years later.

Priest was pushed to finish this book, on which she had already been working for a year, when she was diagnosed with ALS, By the time of the book launch in Whitehorse last fall she was no longer able to speak and her husband, Ben, had to handle all the public chores.

 

Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the NorthPolar Winds

By Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail

Dundurn

224 pages

$28.99

 

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail doesn’t fly herself, but she’s a self-described airplane nut. So much so that her first book, a history of Laurentian Air Services, had For the Love of Flying as its main title. She is active in the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, and has served as its president.

I met Metcalfe-Chenail during her stint as writer-in-residence at Berton House, where she had come with the express purpose of researching this book. Many writers come to Dawson with a specific project in mind. Some of them get completed; some get pushed to the side as the Klondike takes hold of the writers and inspires new ideas.

This didn’t happen to Metcalfe-Chenail. Along with the residency she had scored an unrelated Canada Council grant, and the combination of the two gave her the luxury to use Dawson as a home base from which to travel all over the Yukon in search of materials for what she believes is the first detailed history of flying in the Canadian North.

There are lots of books about flying in the North, but most seem to focus on bush pilots or the life of a particular individual. Metcalfe-Chenail went well beyond that, fleshing out the military and police experiences, telling a few of he harrowing stories of the North and also giving a glimpse at what could be the very routine life of a pilot.

There are business stories, personal stories and a birds’ eye overview of the industry. As much as the book is about flying, it is also about the impact that the fliers had on the places they visited and how they knit the North together.

She set out to produce a Northern book. “Everything I was reading that had been written was from a southern point of view and I really wanted to get at what northerners were feeling about what was happening in the air and on the ground.

Polar Winds is not exclusively about Yukon aviation, but since so much of the early recorded history begins with the Gold Rush, there’s quite a bit of Dawson and Whitehorse in its pages.

It’s a very readable history.

 

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Bookends – How the tales of Tommy Taylor began February 18, 2015

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Bookends – How the tales of Tommy Taylor beganUnwritten - Ship

By Dan Davidson

November 26, 2014

– 938 words –

 

The Unwritten:

Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice

Story by Mike Carey

Art layouts by Peter Gross

Finishes and colours by various artists

 

160 pages

$12.30

 

There have been 10 volumes collecting the ongoing story Carey and Gross have created in the Unwritten. If Thomas King is correct in his assertion that “all we are is stories” this series is the graphic adventure that deals with that concept directly. Volumes 1 to 9 collected the first 54 issues of the book, and a new sequence began with volume 10, containing the next five issues.

Tom Taylor is the real life son of Wilson Taylor, who has created and published 14 volumes in the saga of the boy wizard Tommy Taylor. The real Tom has Christopher Robin’s problem in relation to his fictional alter-ego. Like Christopher Milne, Tom grows up to hate the connection between himself and the fictional Tommy.

What we have been slowly coming to understand is that the connection in stronger than anyone might readily believe. Wilson was once an agent of a nameless cabal that attempts, quite successfully, to influence the way of the world by promoting the stories that influence how we, the public, think about things. This is all accomplished through the manipulation of something the cabal calls the Grid.

As Wilson became more aware of how the Grid worked he became repulsed by their machinations and decided to fight back. To that end he deliberately linked his son to a fictional creation and wrote a series of adventures which promoted belief in the character in ways that make “Frodo Lives” graffiti and earth-bound Quidditch matches seem quite tame by comparison.

He also programmed his son, using all manner of learning styles, including listening to stories while in a sensory deprivation tank, to be linked to the power of stories, so that the power of the Grid could be harnessed by him and focused to manifest itself as magic. Tom was unaware of this until years later, after his father had disappeared, leaving everyone waiting for the next installment of the Tommy books. It hasn’t been said yet, but one expects that this anticipation was part of Wilson’s grand plan.

Just after the break provided at the end of volume 9, Carey and Gross decided to provide us with a two strand graphic novel that did not appear as part of the regular monthly book. One strand of the story is the tale of how Wilson planned and wrote the first of the Tommy Taylor books, Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice. The other strand is a graphic novel presentation of that book.

In the Wilson sections we get a close look at his creative process, showing early drafts of the first book’s opening as he picks his way through the various fantasy tropes and decides which ones to use. At the same time we get a look at his domestic life; how Tom was conceived, how Wilson timed his release of the first book to coincide with Tom’s birth; how an entirely fictional mother was grafted into his life’s story while his real mother was cut out.

In Tommy’s story we learn of an orphan boy whose parents were two of the most powerful wizards in all the land, and of how they sacrificed their lives in order to keep a great evil from coming back into the world. This sacrifice also entailed taking from their baby son the legacy of the spark, his naturally inherited ability to channel magic, for they needed more power than the two of them had to stop the vampiric Count Ambrosio from returning to the mundane world. They did manage to save Tom’s life by causing him to be cast ashore when they deliberately scuttled the ship they were travelling on.

Tom is raised as an anonymous orphan child at a magic academy, his true identity known only to its headmaster, Professor Tulkinghorn, who keeps that secret until Tom is about to become a teenager. Tom, though sparkless, is an excellent student with a retentive memory, learns much of the lore taught at the academy, can call more of it to mind than most of the other students and, lacking power, is forced to develop his wits.

The problem comes when the ill informed and arrogant members of the Conclave, the magical governing body, decide to raise the sunken ship, thinking that it contains the ancient magicks of Lyonesse, which the Taylors had sailed to that mythic land to obtain. It does, but it also contains the ancient evil of Ambrosio, and that is unleashed on the land, corrupting most of the people of Eastbrooke in preparation for an assault on the rest of the world.

Bouncing back and forth as we do, we can see the struggle in the book as a mirror of Wilson’s struggle against the cabal. The blending of the two is complete when one of Wilson’s creations crosses over into our world while Tom is still just a toddler. Tom forgets this as he grows up, passing through his rebellious teems and nearly wasted youth but, as we have seen, it all comes together and has been revealing itself monthly since 2010.

This book ties up a lot of loose ends and makes a number of things clearer. I do hope the creators do this again with another of the Tommy books, taking us through another phase of Wilson’s planning. This was a lot of fun.

 

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Bookends: More British Mysteries for the Road February 18, 2015

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Bookends: More British Mysteries for the Road

By Dan Davidson

November 19, 2014

– 835 words –

 

On road trips it’s nice to have audio books that pretty much finish when the trip does. I’ve moved from tapes to CDs and on to digital downloads over the years. These two items, from Audible.com (affiliated with Amazon) run to around $19 each and make the drive back and forth from Dawson to Whitehorse seem shorter.

 

Inspector West Leaves TownWest Leaves town

Written by John Creasey

Narrated by Tim Bentinck

Audible Studios

6 hrs and 47 mins

 

In the second of the 43 Inspector West mysteries that John Creasey penned between 1942 and 1978, Roger West is near collapse from over work and, after being mugged and tossed into the Thames River, is sent to the country for a rest cure, along with his wife, Janet.

As he is out of service for part of the book, his amateur friend, Mark Lessing, who actually had rescued him from the river, takes up some of the slack in this odd case. Both West and Lessing have run afoul of a particularly nasty master crook who styles himself “the Count”. He is an physically and psychologically imposing individual who seems to come and go at will, his arrival and departure often signaled by a snatch of classical music played on a harmonica.

The Count appears to have co-opted a wide range of significant persons in various high places in the military and public broadcasting, and seems to have some sort of very high powered scheme going that involves the kidnapping and forcible addiction of the wives and daughters of other important people.

What seems at first to be a mystery about kidnapping and extortion turns out to be more about international espionage, spiced even more by multiple murders and a couple of climactic showdowns that keep you guessing. It’s rather prescient for a mystery written in 1943 to have a plot involving atomic scientists, but Creasey pulled it off quite well.

There are things about the story that are dated, and it’s certainly a period piece after seven decades, but you soon forget the years and Tim Bentinck does a very nice job of reading the book.

 

The DangerThe Danger

Written by Dick Francis

Narrated by Tony Britton

9 hrs and 57 mins

AudioGo

 

The Dick Francis family franchise produced dozens of books while Richard Francis was alive and has continued to since under the pen of his son, Felix. It was apparently an open secret in the publishing world that Richard came up with the stories and wrote the first drafts, while wife Mary polished them to their final form, often with research help from other family members and, in Richard’s final years, open collaborations with his son.

The Danger first appeared in 1983, about half way through Francis’ book a year writing list, and varied his usual themes a bit in that the connection with horse racing is fairly tangential and there’s not much time spent at the track.

The book is really about the pursuit and capture of a kidnapper who specializes in taking his victims from among the racing community. The protagonist and narrator is Andrew Douglas, a former military man and an employee of Liberty Market, a fairly secretive private agency, which specializes in handling kidnapping cases.

Where this is different than what the authorities might do is that Liberty Market’s primary focus is the successful recovery of the victims, by whatever means: perhaps by finding and freeing them, but certainly by negotiating and paying the ransom if that’s what it takes. Capturing the villains is way down on the agency’s priority list.

Where this begins to change, for Douglas at least, is when he finds himself facing the same adversary three times running, a deduction based on the similar patterns in all three cases. The book begins with the liberation of a young female jockey, a case that is almost bolloxed by some inept Italian police work.

Douglas goes beyond his assignment in helping Alessia Pucinelli get back her bearings and her nerve, and the two fall in love, a gradual process that takes most of the book.

In the meantime, a case in England involves a young boy and the English Jockey Club. Douglas and a colleague at the agency handle this one rather differently, with the cooperation of the local constabulary, and manage to rescue the boy, as well as arranging the apprehension of the mastermind’s henchmen.

Exposed in Europe and the United Kingdom, the leader moves his operations to America, recruits a new gang of locals (a key part of his pattern) and takes the head of the British Jockey Club, who is visiting Washington, captive. By accident, Douglas’ role in his two previous failures becomes known to him and he manages to capture the man he has come to think of as his nemesis.

Tony Britton gives an excellent reading of this book and really captures the feeling of the story.

 

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Bookends: Ayed provides an incisive look at the Middle East February 18, 2015

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Bookends: Ayed provides an incisive look at the Middle EastA thousand farewells

By Dan Davidson

November 12, 2014

– 872 words –

 

A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring

By Nahlah Ayed

Penguin Canada

376 pages

$18.00

 

Nahlah Ayed didn’t start out in a refugee camp. Her parents had escaped the grinding conditions of Palestine and made a solid life in Canada. She was born and spent her early years in Winnipeg, growing up Canadian.

This proved to be an issue for her parents, who, having decided that the whole family needed an immersion course in Palestinian culture, left everything, and moved back there. They experienced the poverty and squalor of a refugee camp for some years, though they did eventually work their way out of that and into better circumstances. Her father actually had to go back to Winnipeg in order to make enough money to support the cultural experience of being “refugees by design”, and they gave up on it altogether after seven years, returning to Winnipeg and starting over.

While she didn’t see it as a good thing at the time, the immersion experience gave her two things that most reporters on the Middle Eastern situation never get: an understanding of what it is like to actually live there, and the ability to speak Arabic, as well as recognize some of its variations.

With degrees in both the Arts and Sciences, Ayed didn’t set out to be a journalist, but fell into the career while working on the university’s student paper. This led her to a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Carleton University and eventually to a position with the Canadian Press as a Parliamentary Reporter.

She was recruited to the CBC in 2002 and was stationed in Beirut until 2009, covering the entire region from there, including major conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon.

Her writing about transitions is interesting. She lost more than a few steps in her command of English during her time as a child in Palestine, and when she returned there as a reporter, she faced the same situation in the other direction. She is a determined individual, who strives to overcome whatever challenges she is faced with and this included staying in dangerous places far longer than she should have.

After more than one encounter with individuals who didn’t like reporters, or Westerners, or women; after having a nearby bomb shatter the windows in her apartment; she began to suffer symptoms that could only have been a type of PTSD, and ignored them until they stole her sleep and sometimes caused fainting spells.

“I knew from the start,” she writes, “that working in the Middle East meant total commitment. I had no choice but to immerse myself in every aspect, read every word, jump into every conflict. It is true that I overstayed, to the point of exhaustion, but choices always existed, and I could have left at any moment, with out without the CBC.

“I chose to stay, and while the unpredictability of life in the region partly determined how my life unfolded, I, too, was culpable, a willing participant whose only goal, always, was to deepen my understanding.”

As a culturally embedded reporter she saw the beginnings of what would eventually become the Arab Spring long before most observers, and warned her superiors to watch for events in Egypt as early as 2010, while she was stationed in London as a respite posting. The chapter titled “Revolution” chronicles the events of 2011 that the Western world placed such hope in, and yet were the gestation of the barbarous movement that would call itself ISIS/ISIL just a few years later.

Ayed writes that her book merely provides snapshots of a story that is far more complex than can ever be made clear in three minute segments in a newscast.

“It is not so much a political examination as a glimpse into the Arab condition, focused on how people became the product of their challenging environment – and on the civilians of the region who have long been mischaracterized and misunderstood.”

One of the richest things about this book is that it provides glimpses of ordinary life amid the context of the chaos that has infected the region for decades.

Ayed has won several broadcast awards for her reportage from the Middle East, and she is one of those reporters who always provides a solid story when one of her reports appears on the National. This book was short-listed for a number of prestigious awards.

What seems to be missing from Ayed’s story is much of a personal life. From what we read here, she is the job, and very focused on her interpretation of how that should work.

The book stops just short of things beginning to fall apart again, and readers might be best advised to pick up the second edition, which has some updated material in it. The same thing has happened to Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now, which I reviewed here about a year ago. Such books are always being overtaken by the march of events, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable as roadmaps to understanding the world a little better.

 

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Bookends: How they saved the world one Victorian Hallowe’en February 18, 2015

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Bookends: How they saved the world one Victorian Hallowe’enLonesome October

By Dan Davidson

November 5, 2014

– 780 words –

 

A Night in the Lonesome October

By Roger Zelazny

Illustrations by Gahan Wilson

Chicago Review Press

280 pages

$18.95

 

Apparently Jack the Ripper had a reason for all those grisly murders. He needed those body parts as his contribution to a ritual that had to be enacted on All Hallows Eve in order to keep the Great Old Ones from entering our reality and snuffing out all life on the Earth from which they had been banished millennia earlier.

Jack is one of the Closers who strive against the Openers, those who would open an interdimensional gateway at one of the thin places on the planet and let the Great Evil Ones in. This can only happen (and it never has – but it could) when there is a full moon on Hallowe’en, which only occurs every few decades.

That’s the story that Jack’s dog, Snuff, would like us to believe, at any rate, and since he’s the narrator of this, Roger Zelazny’s final novel, we’ll just have to decide if he’s reliable. Oh – wait – Cthulhu has not risen, and we have not come to the sad end shown to us in the recent movie, The Cabin in the Woods, which draws on the same source material, so perhaps Snuff was right.

Anyway, isn’t it appropriate that Jack the Ripper’s dog should be named Snuff?

Snuff is a dog of near human intelligence who can actually speak to his human master in English during certain hours of the day. The rest of the time he can only speak to the various animals who are the familiars of the other players in what they all call the Great Game. Some of these players are Dracula, Victor Frankenstein, Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man), the Great Detective (you know who), a Mad Monk, a Satanic Clergyman, a Witch and a number of others. Each has a mentally enhanced creature that works with him or her: a snake, an owl, a cat, etc. This applies to all of the players except Talbot, whose dual nature allows him to be his own familiar, except during full moon periods, when the potions he uses to control his condition fail to suppress the wolf mentality.

The book has 32 chapters, one for each day in October and one introductory chapter in which we learn about Snuff and Jack and the fact that they are the keepers of a number of strange and deadly creatures they have imprisoned in their house. One of Snuff’s jobs is to ride herd on these critters and keep them from escaping into the world. At one point the creatures manage to get out, aided by one of the Closers. Snuff and Jack have a terrible time getting them back under control.

The book is made up of the present tense entries in Snuff’s journal. Since Snuff would always know exactly what the Game is all about and has no need to record exposition for its own sake, we only learn about the Game in disjointed bits and pieces as he interacts and chats with the familiars of the other Players.

You couldn’t say that the Players represent good and evil, since both groups engage in what would have to be called criminal activities in pursuit of their goals. On the other hand, you’ve certainly got to root for the people who are doing things intended to keep the real monsters from taking over the world.

I mentioned the film Cabin in the Woods, in which a group of sleazy scientists (so it appears) put a group of young people through every horror cliché imaginable. You hate them and root for the young people, only to find out they are doing it to keep the monsters from breaking through. Zelazny used the same “necessary sacrifices” idea in this book two decades ago.

Zelazny was in the vanguard of the second wave of great SF writers in the mid-1960s, famous for his poetic use of language (he also published books of poetry) and his linking of SF and Fantasy by reinterpretations of classic myths and legends. During his career he picked up six Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards and two Locus Awards, among others.

This was his last book, first published in 1993. It was a Nebula nominee for that year. This edition is a reissue from Chicago Review Press, which specializes in high quality paperback editions in its “rediscovered classics series”.

Gahan Wilson is one of the great cartoonists of the grotesque, and his 33 full page illustrations certainly add to the flavour of the book.

 

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Bookends: A little free reading from the past February 18, 2015

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Bookends: A little free reading from the past

By Dan Davidson

October 22, 2014

– 862 words –

 

The Thirty-Nine StepsThe Thirty-nine Steps

By John Buchan

in many formats, real and digital

 

John Buchan, First Baron Tweedsmuir, was Canada’s fifteenth Governor General, but long before that he wrote literally dozens of novels, non-fiction books, biographies and even poetry.

The 39 Steps was his fifth novel, produced in 1915, and the first of seven to feature its hero, Richard Hannay. A truncated version of the story is familiar to most people through the film Alfred Hitchcock directed in 1935 or one of the three others over the years (1959, 1978 and 2008). I’ve seen two of the films but had never actually read the book until last week.

At around 100 pages in most editions, it is available in 168 different formats and all the major e-reader services offer it as a free book, so I’m not even listing publishing information on this one. My downloads were from two different sources, including the easy to access Project Gutenburg (on my Blackberry Playbook tablet) and FreeBooks.com on my Apple devices. All of the Hannay books can also be had in very cheap omnibus e-book editions from Kindle or Kobo.

We meet Hannay in London a few months before the beginning of the Great War. He’s an expatriate Scot who has been working as a mining engineer in Rhodesia, and has come back home to Britain to find that it rather bores him.

That doesn’t last. He’s approached by a chap named Scudder, a freelance spy who has stumbled onto an international conspiracy to start a war. Hannay’s only half convinced by Scudder’s tale, but allows him to seek safety from people he says are after him in his flat. He becomes fully convinced when he returns home one day to find Scudder dead.

He heads out on the run for two reasons. The first is that he expects to be the chief suspect in Scudder’s murder, and the second is that he feels responsible for finishing what the obsessive little man had begun.

The plot becomes a series of encounters with various people he meets along his trail to the Scottish highlands, where he decides to hide out. He has with him Scudder’s coded notebook, which he manages to decipher. At one point he actually meets the scoundrel who is masterminding the plot, is captured and locked up. But who locks a mining engineer in a storeroom full of the materials with which he can blast his way out?

Escaping, he eventually is found by the authorities, who have already figured out he’s not a villain, and is able to assist them in tracking down the nasty Germans and foiling their nefarious plot – even though this only delays the start of the war by a few months.

Hitchcock shortened the story by deleting some of the road stories, but changed the whole meaning of the title for some reason. The 1978 version restored the original meaning of the title, but added an impressive but weirdly inserted scene with Big Ben.

Once you’ve read a Buchan “shocker”, as he called them, you can immediately see the influence they had on people like Ian Fleming and others of the early spy novel writers.

 

A Plague of Demons and other storiesA Plague of Demons

By Keith Laumer

Baen Books

576 pages

$10.79

 

The lead short novel in this omnibus volume is still on my shelves from when I read it back in the 1960s. Keith Laumer was a favorite of mine in those days. The former US Air Force officer and diplomat had a successful career as a straightforward adventure science fiction writer and was also capable of turning out some hilarious material. His Retief series drew on his diplomatic background and was a sort of a cross between James Bond and Get Smart, with his hero as the straight man in a crazy galaxy.

This book contains the title novel and a batch of shorter material, ranging in length from short story to novella. What they all have in common is that they involve encounters between humanity and a variety of alien races. In most of them the ingenuity of humanity wins out over the aliens. In several of them the protagonist is enabled to develop mental abilities that make it possible for him to succeed against overwhelming odds, but in one case this newfound power leads to corruption.

Plague is also noteworthy for introducing the concept of the Bolo war machines, mechanized engines of destruction – super tanks – controlled by living brains. Laumer’s Bolo concept proved so appealing that it became a shared universe for other writers to play in. There was a Bolo anthology series that ran to seven volumes after Laumer died in 1993, and a whole new series of novels by a variety of authors began at the turn of this century and ran until about four years ago.

Baen Books has a program of repackaging some successful older writers, organizing their work by theme and providing little essays analyzing their work. Eric Flint, a Laumer fan, has been in charge of this set of books, many of which have been available through the Baen Free Library, a collection of digital downloads. While this can be bought as a physical book, the BFL is where I got this one.

 

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Bookends: The early education of a urban mercenary February 18, 2015

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Bookends: The early education of a urban mercenary

By Dan DavidsonCold City

October 29, 2014

– 713 words –

 

Cold City- A Repairman Jack Novel

By F. Paul Wilson

TOR Books

481 pages

$9.99

 

Repairman Jack (no last name) is the subject of more than a dozen novels by Wilson. Some of which cross over into his occult themed “Adversary” series. Jack is a Manhattan based urban mercenary who fixes other peoples’ problems. He takes on cases of people who are downtrodden and being victimized. Jack lives off the grid, though he has some aliases that actually have paperwork behind them.

He appeared first as one character in the supernatural thriller The Tomb in 1988 and popped up in a number of Wilson’s other Adversary books. These deal, in Wilson’s own words, “with a history of the world that remains undiscovered, unexplored and unknown to most of humanity.”

The Jack we meet in those books is fully formed and super competent, though he has no special powers. He’s a bit McGyver-like in some of the books that show him as an adult, but he had to learn all that somewhere didn’t he?

Wilson has produced a trilogy of young adult books that feature Jack in high school, but Cold City is set during an intermediate stage of his life, after he has moved to the big city and is just starting to turn into the Repairman.

Jack is on the run and off the grid because he’s killed someone. His mother was killed when a young hoodlum dropped a concrete block off an overpass and it went through the window of her car. Jack was sitting beside her at the time and it was a formative moment for him. He tracked the prankster down and hung him foot first from same overpass, low enough for the semis to make contact. He was not found out, but he expects to be.

Jack has anger management problems, which he fights to control. He is working for a landscaper when one of his co-workers pushes him past his limit and he puts the man in the hospital. Needing another job, he becomes a driver for a cigarette smuggler, and that goes well until he is forced into a situation where he has to save another man’s life by driving for a group of human traffickers.

He encounters a pair of urban vigilantes who assist him in saving the girls, but this gains him the enmity of a mysterious group dedicated to creating chaos in the world.

There’s also something of a love story in this volume. Though he tries to avoid contact with anyone who knew him in his earlier life, he runs into Cristin, who had been the BFF of his high school sweetheart a few years earlier. She’s interested in being Jack’s “best friend with benefits” and the offer is impossible to resist for a young man who’s been alone too long.

So, the young Jack acquires a fake identity, a lot of money, driving skills, a working knowledge of several types of firearms, and some shady acquaintances who could be something like mentors to a young man just forming his adult identity. He even takes on a charity case when he comes to the aid of a local merchant who is being shaken down.

This book is set in 1990 and contains hints of things that will be happening in our real world; specifically, the World Trade Centre bombing that took place in 1993 and should occur within the time frame covered by the three books in this arc.

The book also sets up a lot of subplots that Wilson will no doubt wrap up in Dark City (already in print) and Fear City (forthcoming this year). The secret cabal knows that someone has interfered with their plans and is looking for him. A lower level villain named Reggie, who Jack had chosen to seriously damage rather than kill during that human trafficking affair, is out for revenge, and has already staged one attempt on Jack’s life.

What this book doesn’t have is even a whiff of the supernatural element that turns up in books set later along Jack’s timeline. This adventure is pure, down to earth thriller stuff, and a good page-turner.

 

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