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Bookends: An Atheist grapples with matters of the spirit October 20, 2015

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Bookends: An Atheist grapples with matters of the spirit

By Dan Davidson

April 29, 2015

– 807 words –

The DemonologistDemonologist

By Andrew Pyper

Simon & Schuster

337 pages

$9.99

Andrew Pyper has accomplished something I didn’t think possible. He’s made me want to reread John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem I haven’t really cracked since I was in university. It is a famous work of literature of course, and between it and Dante’s Divine Comedy we can account for nearly all the tropes about heaven, hell, the afterlife and the names of angels and demons that are currently cluttering up the television channels.

Milton and Dante gave us way more demonic lore than anything you can find in the Bible, and it’s kind of sad that some people have taken what is essentially fiction for Biblical fact.

I think that’s a statement that Professor David Ullman would probably agree with when we meet him at the beginning of his story. He is a top Milton scholar and a devout (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) atheist. Like Houdini, who knew so much about the tricks of the trade that he could never believe in the paranormal, Ullman knows his literature so well that he is unable or unwilling, to believe in God.

As a scholar he is at the top of his game, and his studies have made him the master of all sorts of demonic lore and literature, so much so that some see him as an academic demonologist, even though he does not himself believe in such things.

Not at the beginning anyway.

Ullman suffers from what Churchill called the Black Dog, a nameless depression, that may spring from events in his childhood – the death of his brother and his father’s suicide. His daughter Tess, seems to have inherited the tendency from him, although some of what’s bothering her could be the state of her parent’s marriage.

As with many driven individuals, Ullman’s personal life is a mess (Pyper seems to like this sort of protagonist). His wife has been having an affair for some time now and wants a divorce. Ullman has been having what is almost an affair of his own with a colleague named Elaine O’Brien. It’s purely platonic. They get together to chat, have a beer and watch Rangers games. They have regular “dates”. And yet, while they are absolutely essential to each other, they have never crossed the line into sex.

When Ullman is approached by the Thin Woman to go to Venice to witness a “phenomenon” and interpret it in the light of his specialty, he decides to go and take his daughter along for the trip. What he sees there is absolutely terrifying, and seems to be nothing less than a case of demonic possession. The victim, he realizes later, is another Milton scholar, someone he has met.

That’s not all, however. Some force takes possession of Tess, takes her to the top of their hotel and drops her in the canal. They never find her body.

Eventually Ullman has to return, alone, to New York, haunted by the feeling that Tess is somehow still alive and that he has to find her. Various cryptic clues come his way, sending him on a road trip that moves him across half the United States and finally up into his native Canada. Accompanied by O’Brien, who joins him part way through the quest even though she is dying of cancer, he evades the pursuit of a hit man, encounters ghosts and demon possessed mortals and has his view of the world completely shaken.

Many of the clues relate to passages in Paradise Lost, and are references that only an expert could possibly recognize. The only other consistent references are to the Hitchcock film, North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant plays an innocent who is caught up in events against his will and has to rearrange his view of the world in order to survive.

The book’s ending is somewhat low key and I had to go back over that last chapter a couple of times to decide that it really was an ending. Ullman has a particular goal throughout his quest, and he achieves it, even though other things are left unresolved. Life’s like that a lot of the time.

Pyper, who was a Berton House writer-in-residence back in 1997, and a mentor author at the Young Authors Conference a few years later, has a backlist that includes a lot of haunted protagonists. His novels always have an element of the thriller/mystery in them. This was, I think, his first foray into the distinctly supernatural, though he has certainly borrowed some tricks of the horror trade in some of his earlier books.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning, he made me want to reread Paradise Lost.

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Bookends: Chaos and Woe are misdirections in this mystery October 20, 2015

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Bookends: Chaos and Woe are misdirections in this mystery

By Dan DavidsonBrutal telling

April 20, 2015

– 896 words –

 

The Brutal Telling

By Louise Penny

Headline Publishing

374 pages

$24.95

Louise Penny’s work falls slightly to one side of the sub-genre called “cozy mysteries”. For the most part the actual murder will occur off stage and there will be a minimal amount of gore. Most of the novels take place in a Quebec village called Three Pines. Over the course of the novels we haven’t really met that many of the inhabitants of the village, which include the owners of a B&B bistro, an antiques dealer, a retired psychologist who runs a used book store, a artist couple and a Gov. General’s Award winning poet who has a pet duck. Other characters emerge as we need to know them, and there a few new ones introduced in this story.

The book has a bit of a preamble, in which Olivier Brulé, the antiques dealer, meets with an old man we are left to call the Hermit. Olivier and the Hermit have been meeting for years, for reasons that we will find out later, and have been sharing very mythic and scary stories of “the great and grim army with Chaos looming and leading the Furies. Inexorable. Unstoppable. Close.”

Snippets of this story will reappear in various chapters as the story progresses. They are descriptions of intricately made wooden carvings.

The two part that night for Olivier to make his 20 minute walk back to Three Pines and the bistro. The last words between them are “Chaos is here, old son.” It’s not quite clear who says it.

Imagine Olivier’s surprise when he finds his fortnightly companion sprawled in front of one of the fireplaces in the bistro the next morning, dead, with his head smashed in. Well, murders happen, but Olivier knows full well who this man is, and when Inspector Gamache and his team arrive from Montreal, Olivier tells them nothing about the man, the cabin in the woods, or anything about his connection with corpse. Why? What is that he is hiding even from his lover, Gabri, the man with whom he lives and runs the B&B?

The investigation is hampered for some time by this lack of identity, lack of crime scene – for he certainly wasn’t murdered where he was found – and therefor lack of any discernible motive.

As always in Three Pines there’s more going on, some of it connected to events in previous books. These are introduced without going into excruciating detail. The male artist is having a dry spell, while his wife’s star seems to be on the ascendant. The poet is more irascible than ever, and has everyone over for what must be one of the most awkward soirees ever.

The house on the hill that was the scene of two horrible murders a few years back has been purchased and is being transformed into the sort of rural spa that may just drive the B&B out of business. But the owners, new to Three Pines, are a troubled family, and the arrival of the long estranged husband and father, whom the son had long thought to be dead, further complicates their lives.

As part of their development plan they have been brushing out the old paths in the forest, hoping to make them clear enough for walking trails and perhaps even horse riding trails. This activity comes close to exposing the cabin in the woods, which turns out to be the scene of the crime.

When they enter, Gamache and his team are shocked to discover not only the evidence of the murder, but a woodland cabin patterned after those built on Haida Gwaii, clear across the country, a cabin stuffed with priceless antiquities, dishes, lamps, priceless first editions of books, all being horded by a man who has so much loose cash floating around that he has been using it to stuff cracks in the walls to keep out the drafts in winter. A lot of the artwork seems to date back to items that went missing during World War II.

The cabin and some verbal clues end up sending Gamache well out of his comfort zone to Haida Gwaii, where he does pick up some clues as to the murdered man’s identity. There’s an Emily Carr connection, as might be expected in a book with this title. Carr referred to her father’s explanation of the facts of life with that phrase, and the solution to this particular murder is another sort of brutal telling all its own.

I did not expect the ending of this novel. I understand it and it makes sense, but I was disappointed by the identity of the killer.

Louise Penny is on a roll. Each of the ten novels in her Inspector Gamache series has either won or been nominated for at least one prestigious mystery genre award. She’s won two Canadian Arthur Ellis Awards, four Anthony (Boucher) Awards, five Agatha (Christie) Awards and the Nero (Wolfe) Award. Aside from those she’s been nominated for a slew of other awards.

This present book, the fifth, which came out in 2009, won the Agatha and the Anthony. At the time winning a third Agatha was unprecedented, but she’s scored twice more since then and the 2014 award season hasn’t reported yet.

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Bookends: What happens when the future intrudes on the past October 20, 2015

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Bookends: What happens when the future intrudes on the past

By Dan Davidson

April 15, 2015

– 886 words –

 

The Chronolithschronoliths

By Robert Charles Wilson

TOR Books,

315 pages

$9.99

This novel begins in the early part of the 21st century, in 2021. Scott Warden and his family, wife Janice and daughter Kaitlin, are at lose ends in Thailand, Scott’s job having ended, when the first monolith, later to be called the first of the chronoliths, materializes.

Scott and his friend, Hitch, ride off to see what has happened, not knowing that Kaitlin is about to come down with a raging fever and that his extended absence will be the straw that breaks the back of his marriage. Mind you, getting arrested as if he somehow had something to do with the appearance of a 200 foot tall spire made of an apparently indestructible substance, did delay his getting home long enough for wife and child to be medevaced and for her to return to the USA and begin divorce proceedings.

The Chumphon Chronolith was a message from the future, created and sent back in time to celebrate the conquest and surrender of southern Thailand and Malaysia to the massed armies of someone named “Kuin”. The date of the battle was December 21, 2041, 20 years in the future.

Over the next decade or so, more chronoliths materialize, each one celebrating the latest of Kuin’s victories. When they arrive, they destroy everything in the area they occupy, and the combination of massive energy discharges in the form of intense light and heat and atmospheric displacement do damage on the order of a non-radioactive atomic bomb.

At first they appear only in the East, but eventually they spread westward. Scott, an ace programmer, is recruited by Dr. Sue Chopra, his former university professor, and the world’s foremost expert on time displacement effects, to be part of her team. They are present when a chronolith arrives in Jerusalem, by which time it is clear that these things will eventually occupy space on every continent, in every nation. It’s just a matter of time.

As seems to be common in Wilson’s books, quite a bit of time passes, and Scott spends a lot of it of it salvaging a relationship with his daughter, finding a new life partner, and observing events. The first person narrators of Wilson’s novels are often on the edge of events, observers of the actions and reactions of those people around them, people who are probably more important to the overall flow of the narrative.

It is also not unusual for Wilson to examine the social impacts of the high tech events that drive the stories. The chronoliths seem to be designed as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy device, something to soften up the hearts and minds of the people of the present day, to make the coming of Kuin, whoever or whatever that may be, seem inevitable.

Indeed, that seems to work, and we watch the founding and evolution of several different forms of reaction to the chronoliths. Various Kuin related cults emerge and some of them almost develop as if the chronoliths were intended to be a retroactive recruiting drive, for certainly many disaffected young people, living in a world that is not coping well with climate change, climb on the Kuin bandwagon, and become armed devotees of Kuin’s future success.

This development is rather startlingly similar to the numbers of young people, world wide, who have been heading off to the Middle East to join the ranks of ISIS (ISIL).

For Scott this becomes very personal when his daughter joins one the cult groups and disappears into Mexico, to an encampment that has sprung up near to where the next chronolith (as predicted by Chopra’s work) is scheduled to appear. Scott and some friends mount a rescue mission and manage to extract her from the area before the chronolith can arrive.

By this time, some years later, Chopra’s theoretical work has come up with a way to destroy an arriving chronolith by destabilizing it during its arrival. The social side of her theory is that actually managing to destroy one of them will also destroy the sense of inevitability that surrounds them.

Kuinists, aware of her work, surround the arrival site in Wyoming where the first chronolith to materialize in the USA is slated to arrive and there is a climactic showdown between their forces and the science team.

When a story is being told in the first person it’s fairly obvious that the narrator survived, so this next bit isn’t really a spoiler. The final chapter is told from the vantage point of a 70ish Scott, years later, reflecting on how the attack from the future actually helped to improve the present. By that point he has reached the year from which the original chronolith was launched and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of anyone or anything called Kuin anywhere. There is an implied paradox here, but there always is in time travel stories of any type. Just ask Doctor Who.

Wilson is a Canadian science fiction writer who lives near Toronto. He has won one Hugo Award, has been nominated for several other awards, and picked up the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for this novel.

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Bookends: Tales from the Maritimes and one from the woods October 20, 2015

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Bookends: Tales from the Maritimes and one from the woods

By Dan Davidson

April 8, 2015

– 697 words –

High Water Mark

High Water Mark

The Porcupines’ Quill

151 pages

$18.95

Nicole Dixon is a teacher, librarian, data organizer and website designer, She lives in Cape Breton and recently spent the winter at Berton House in Dawson as the writer-in-residence. When she’s not working at her day jobs, she likes to write short stories. High Water Mark was her first published collection of stories, though most of the individual items had appeared previously in such magazines as Grain, The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes and Queries.

Her stories are mostly set in rural places and have a touch of the Maritimes about them. Several occur in an imaginary fishing town called Refugee Cove, a setting cobbled together from a number of Nova Scotian towns where Dixon has worked.

These are stories about relationships and people of various ages. Two of them feature Mona, a teacher who may be a central character in another round of stories Dixon is working on. One of them is about the members in an all-girl (or perhaps grrl) band. A couple of them deal with breakups and their aftermaths. Another is about a pair of city mice who move to the country, have a child, and experience some difficulties in dealing with both changes in their joint life. In another a young teenager has to cope with the cracks in her parents’ marriage, while another deals with the impact of deaths in the family on the life of a teenage girl.

These are not all happy stories, but most of them do have a bit of humour in them to leaven the tense relationships, and they don’t all end badly. Some have people coming to their senses just before they go over the cliff. Others have people realizing more about who they are and what they need to do.

This book was short listed for an Atlantic Book Award, a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year award and a CBC Bookie Award. Dixon has previously been the winner of the Bronwyn Wallace Award for Short Fiction.

Sugar white snow

Sugar White Snow and Evergreens

A Winter Wonderland of Color

Poem by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky

Illustrations by Susan Swan

Albert Whitman and Company

32 pages

$16.99

Some instructional books are quite boring, even if they serve a purpose. This isn’t one of those. As you might guess from the title, it deals with colour (the spelling in the title betrays its American origins). But it does so by telling us a clever little story about an outing in the winter.

Each two page spread features a rhyming quatrain (or part of one) in which one word is printed in the colour that dominates the palette of the illustration.

It begins “The morning sky was steely gray / and hungry as two bears / we sniffed downstairs but couldn’t find / our breakfast anywhere.”

Outside the world looks grey and there are quite a few grey touches in the kitchen.

As the golden sun comes up the family is off on a trip to the woods, where they will seek golden maple syrup.

And so the book carries on, taking us through he activities that they take part in as the day progresses and they make their way to Mr. Sweet’s Famous Sugar Maple Farm. The story poem is clever and comes trippingly off the tongue, made to be read aloud. I found only one line that seemed to need an couple of extra syllables, and I actually added them before I realized they weren’t there.

The artwork is a bit angular, but realistic in a cartoony sort of way, and it really does suit the fun that is inherent in the story. It’s dynamic and active, and the colour choices go well with the words. Some books tell you how the artist works. This one didn’t, but Swan’s website describes her work as digital cut paper and mixed media and, browsing through her portfolios gave me a better sense of why the pictures in this book look quite the way they do.

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Bookends: Tales of two prisoners with different endings October 16, 2015

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Bookends: Tales of two prisoners with different endings

By Dan DavidsonBreaking Lorca

March 30, 2015

– 831 words –

 

Breaking Lorca

By Giles Blunt

Vintage Canada

258 pages

$19.95

In this total departure from his John Cardinal mystery series, Giles Blunt takes us on a trip to El Salvador, during the era when the country was “governed” by an alphabet soup jumble of guerilla groups and death squads, some of which were financed and equipped by clandestine cadres in the CIA in order to prevent the leftist groups from assembling a working government.

In this novel we enter the life of Victor Peña, a bookish young man whose family connections doom him into being drafted by the squad his uncle, Captain Peña, leads. He wanted nothing more than to study, read books and perhaps grow up to work in some job where he could help people. Instead, he is forced by his uncle to visit unspeakable tortures on poor souls who have been identified as agents of the enemy.

He knows he is doomed.

“Sooner of later the other soldiers in the squad were going to kill him. It was only a matter of time. Victor had never done anything to antagonize the brutes he worked with, but he was sure they hated him, or soon would.”

The worst thing he is forced (do this or die) to do is participate in the breaking of Lorca, a proud and noble young woman caught in the act of helping people by providing them with food. There is water-boarding, shock treatment with the General (a GE generator), beatings, countless rapes and indignities.

At the end of her ordeal, Victor is forced to kill her, and he only misses in the attempt by an accident that goes unnoticed by his superiors. It is this cowardly act that gains him the right to be chosen for further training in America.

Once there, he disappears, changes his name, gets a low paying job and tries to reform his life. Wouldn’t you just know that the act of helping another countryman brings him into contact with Lorca, who has managed to escape to New York and is living in seclusion there with a relative.

She has no idea who Victor is, because she was blindfolded through most of her ordeal, which has left her broken and suffering from PTSD. Ironically he and she become involved with a group that wants them to testify about American involvement in El Salvador. As the story works out, it’s not clear if this was an honest committee, or just a way to smoke out possible whistleblowers.

At any rate, it doesn’t go well. In the end, however, Victor finds s degree of personal redemption in sacrificing himself to save Lorca when they are ambushed near the Washington Zoo on the night before the hearings.

Ivan: The Remarkable Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla

Story by Katherine ApplegateIvan

Illustrations by G. Brian Karas

Clarion Books

40 pages

$22.99

Applegate and Karas have brought is the true story of Ivan, a Congo born gorilla who sent most of his life as the main attraction in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. Born in 1962, he was captured at the age of six months, and after he arrived in the United States he spent several years living with a family who ran a pet store at the B&I Circus Store. When he was about five, and was too big to keep at home any longer, he became the resident of a three metre by three metre steel and cement display room.

He lived there for the next 27 years, with his main recreations being finger painting watching television, and interacting with the crowds. During those three decades public perceptions of what was proper treatment for captured wild animals evolved to the point where a 1990 National Geographic documentary, “The Urban Gorilla”, began to spark agitation to move Ivan to a more natural surrounding.

It took a few years for the movement to gather enough steam to accomplish its goal, but Ivan was relocated to Zoo Atlanta, where he finally got to live with other gorillas in a 1.5 acre natural habitat area. It took some time for him to get used to others of his kind, but he did make the adjustment and it is said that the last decade of his life was spent in contentment. He died in 2012 at the age of 50.

Ivan’s story is told in simple text and pictures in the first 36 pages of the book. The remainder provides us with a more sophisticated account, as well as some actual photographs of Ivan and a sample of one of his finger paintings. There is also a moving afterword by one of the keepers who cared for him in his final home.

Applegate and Karas are donating a portion of the proceeds from this book to a couple of organizations that look out for the welfare of gorillas.

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Bookends: A reclusive author surfaces in e-book format October 15, 2015

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Bookends: A reclusive author surfaces in e-book format

By Dan Davidson

March 18, 2015

– 831 words –

Vineland 

Vineland

By Thomas Pynchon

Kindle Edition

668 KB file siz
402 pages in paper

Penguin Press

$19.00

I recently ran across an article about Thomas Pynchon, who has sometimes been compared the J.D. Salinger in terms of his reclusiveness. It’s not quite like that, the article said. After all, he did lend his voice to the Simpsons and he has continued to produce novels.

As it happens, I read Pynchon’s first three books some decades ago, and might have read some more except that they never seem to make it to the mass paperback stage any more. They get reviewed, critiqued, praised and panned, but don’t turn up in our local bookstores. I was intrigued by the article, so I went hunting and found Vineland, which was his next novel, available as an e-book. Apparently this is a recent development.

I think it would have read better on paper. Not that it was a bad read, but the story line was convoluted enough (which I should have known after V and Gravity’s Rainbow) that it’s one of those books where you want to be able to flip back and forth to check on names and details. That’s harder to do with e-books.

It’s a story that covers two decades or so in the lives of a group of sixties survivors. We begin with Zoyd Wheeler in 1984 (probably a significant date). Zoyd has to do something a little crazy every year on a certain date in order to keep his relief cheques coming. It’s not just that he’s a slacker milking the system, but that’s something we don’t find out until three quarters or more of the way through the book. Not long after the opening sequence we leave Zoyd and start bouncing around through the lives of his circle of acquaintances, including his ex-wife, her parents and her best friend, his daughter, a Japanese millionaire, various members of the death worshipping Thanatoid sect (which may be a ringer for Scientology), a number of drug pushers, surfers and band members and the inhabitants of a convent.

Where it gets confusing is that we follow one character for a time, meet another one and suddenly find ourselves dropping back in time to sample the life of the newcomer. So, although most of the action takes place from 1960 to 1984, we do find ourselves spending some time in World War II territory as well.

A lot of the story is about how a corrupt and out of control government agent named Brock Vond is controlling the lives of most of the people we meet, particularly Zoyd’s ex-wife, Frenesi, with whom he is infatuated. Lots of what’s going on in this book revolves around various peoples’ reactions to Frenesi.

Vond is responsible for most of the mayhem in the book and it seems that very little of it is actually sanctioned by those who are ostensibly his superiors.

Frenes’s daughter (and Zoyd’s) is named Prairie, and her story of teenage rebellion and personal compromise is one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Vineland has a mixed reputation. Some call it his weakest novel; some go the other way. Now that it is more widely available, it may get a new assessment. Pynchon’s style, at any rate, has been highly influential. I’ve read a number of recently published books that have tis same scattershot, recursive narrative style. It would have been much more startling when the book first came out in 1990.

The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie

By Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BooksSweetie Pie

32 pages

$24.99

Sweetie Pie is a hamster. When we meet him he is waiting to be purchased in a pert store, thinking that life anywhere has to be better than this. It turns out that he is mistaken. Oh, the little girl who first has him as a pet loves him well enough- until she gets a computer to play with.

The boy who gets him next might have been okay – except for the dog. Then there was the little girl, whose facial expression tells you right away will be a problem owner. She manages to lose him completely in one of those plastic roller balls.

The next boy has a mother who doesn’t like “rats” but it’s when the boy forgets Sweetie Pie outside in his cage that things get really interesting.

You see, a couple of squirrels have already noticed him in the cage and have figured out how to open the door. So when the boy forgets to take him home, he doesn’t freeze to death in the snow, but ends up adopted by the squirrel family and gets to live free.

Van Allsburg is a great illustrator, and his decision to render all his watercolour, pen and ink and coloured pencil drawings from the perspective of the hamster was a really clever choice.

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Bookends: A science fiction novel about redemption and second chances October 15, 2015

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Bookends: A science fiction novel about redemption and second chances

By Dan DavidsonTo Your Scattered Bodies Go

March 25, 2015

– 807 words –

 

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Riverworld Saga, Book 1

By Philip Jose Farmer

Narrated by Paul Hecht

Recorded Books

7 hours and 42 minutes

$30.53

My favorite title for this book is the one that graced the novelette that I read in Galaxy magazine back in my teens. “The Suicide Express” was catchy and captured the urgency with which Richard Francis Burton (the 19th century explorer) and Hermann Goering (yes, him) approached their resurrected lives on the planet they would come to call Riverworld.

Philip Farmer postulated a planet on which the entire human, and even near human, population of planet Earth has been resurrected for reasons known only to the alien beings who engineered the deed. The total number of beings, prior to the planet’s destruction by another alien race, was 36 billion people, everyone who had ever lived.

They are miraculously reconstituted on a planet dominated by a massive river system that winds around and between mountain ranges too high to be climbed, snaking around the planet from south pole to north. It is estimated to be some 10 million miles in length.

The population is provided with devices they come to refer to as grails, covered buckets that can be inserted into receptacles on devices that are scattered, along with the people, in clusters all over the planet. These act rather like Star Trek’s replicators, and provide food, drink, and even material that can be used to make simple clothing. There’s even a drug – dream gum – that can be recreational in small quantities, but desperately dangerous if one becomes addicted to it.

The setting and situation gave Farmer the opportunity to explore how people from different backgrounds, cultures and time periods would mingle and adjust to each other’s presences. Burton, for instance, meets Goering who, for him, has none of the associations that people from later periods in history would have. And since all the dead are restored to young adulthood (except children, who age until they reach that point and then stop aging) the Goering he meets is the robust airman from the Great War.

He also meets Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and a number of other people, including one Peter Jairus Frigate, a writer, who is the fictional personification of PJF himself.

Burton, inveterately curious, needs to know why they are where they are. What is the purpose of this adventure? He is one of a very few people who actually had a period of consciousness in the resurrection chambers before materializing near one of the grail stones, so he is aware of a scientific process behind what most of the resurrected take to be a miracle, depending on their cultural and religious backgrounds.

The other peculiar fact about Riverworld is that death is no longer a finality. Most of the societies that develop from the population clusters are rather violent and people get killed regularly – and then they reappear somewhere else along the river, restored to health, provided with a new grail, and given another chance. The process appears to be random.

So it is that when Burton discovers he is being tracked by the beings who have masterminded this place, he determines that his best chance to evade them, and perhaps rematerialize closer to the rumoured tower that some have seen near the northern pole, is to ride the suicide express.

Later books (there are four other novels and a short story collection) follow the adventures of Burton and his good friend, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), as they attempt to sail the River in Twain’s fabulous riverboat. Later on, there were also two shared world anthologies, with other writers being invited to tell stories using this setting. There has also been a computer role playing game and at least one Masters’ thesis written on the idea of redemption as used in the series. You can read it on PJF’s website.

Two attempts to create television series from this material have been made (in 2003 and 2010), and the pilot episodes released as rather poor t.v. movies and mini-series. They missed the mark by a wide margin, abandoning the central characters as used by Farmer for American lightweights and skimming the surface of the Riverworld’s complexities. So if you’ve seen either of those, don’t judge the books by these cover versions.

The books are currently available in print, as e-books and in these well-narrated audio books. I hadn’t read this book since sometime in the 1980s, so it was a treat to re-experience it once again. The 19th edition reprint from 1981 is in my library. The book won the best novel Hugo Award in 1971 and has been continuously in print ever since.

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Bookends: Children’s Books with a lot of variety October 15, 2015

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Bookends: Children’s Books with a lot of variety

By Dan Davidson

March 4, 2015

– 669 words –

This column features a trio of quite different children’s books. The only introduction I need to make is that the falling Loonie has meant a shift in the prices of these books, and the publishers have chosen not to be specific. The prices listed are in American dollars. Beside that number, each of the books bears the notation “Higher in Canada.”

 

Bats in the Band

Written and illustrated by Brian Lies

Houghton Mifflin HarcourtBats in the Band

32 pages

$17.99

Brian Lies has produced a series of books on the recreational activities of bats, donating a portion of the sales proceeds to Bat Conservation International. Don’t let that scare you away. This is the fourth story since 2006 and he seems to be having a lot of fun with the concept of how the bats might spend their nights.

So far they’ve been to a ballgame, the beach and the library. This time they’re assembling in a vacant barn to play music, all kinds on music.

Appropriately, this is the rhyming story of how the bats find a place to gather and what they do when they get there.

“We sing together as one voice / It seems the very walls rejoice! / All together, rafters ringing … / it’s as though are souls are singing.”

The painted illustrations are both realistic and fantastic, catching the spirit of an amazing evening’s experience. It’s a lot of fun.

Madame Martine

Written and illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen

Albert Whiteman and Company

32 pages

$16.99Madame Martine

Madame Martine lives an ordinary repetitive, solitary life in Paris, so used to the amazing sights all around her that she does not notice them. The Eiffel Tower can be seen from her window and she has never bothered to climb it.

“Eh. It’s a tourist thing,” she says, echoing an attitude I sometimes hear here in Dawson.

Her life is like that until one day she takes in a stray dog, which she names Max. Max has ideas about doing new things, one of which is to lure her up to the top of the tower, where she has the most amazing view of the city.

Max brightens her life – even causes her to change the drab clothes she always wears for more vibrant colours. After that, while much of her weekly routine remains the same, “Every Saturday they tried something new.”

This is an easy to read text with watercolour illustrations that reflect the change in Martine’s life very nicely.

Fall LeavesFall leaves

Story by Loretta Holland

Illustrated by Elly MacKay

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

$21.99

Holland and MacKay have produced what is probably the most complicated of the three books. The two words of the title appear in various combinations, with other words that fit the season, in large letters on each left hand page: FALL ARRIVES, BIRDS LEAVE, LEAVES TWIST, RAIN FALLS and so on.

This part of the text plays with the different meanings these two words may have as homonyms and as different parts of speech. So that’s the simplest way to read the book.

Beneath those large colourful words is a descriptive text in simple, but scientifically accurate, language, dealing, in this example, with different kinds of leaves and why they fall, what causes them to be green in the summer and why they change in the autumn.

The right page of each double page entry is an illustration created with ink, yupo paper, light and photography. They are saturated with the colours of autumn and early winter, with a sharp focus on at least one figure in the pictures, while everything else is ever so slightly out of focus. This gives the flat page a kind of depth that it might not have otherwise.

The final page is a set of instructions for making leaf prints.

This is a very nice package with all sorts of possibilities for having a great parent-child reading session.

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Bookends: Legal matters and creature features October 15, 2015

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Bookends: Legal matters and creature features

By Dan Davidson

March 11, 2015

– 743 words –APRIL FOOL

April Fool

by William Deverell

McClelland & Stewart

448 pages

Kindle edition

$8.99

When I met William Deverell some years ago at one of the Young Authors Conferences, I commented on the range of mystery/thriller tales I had enjoyed by him and he told me he didn’t like to repeat himself. With April Fool, he found a way to repeat the use of a earlier character and setting while telling a different kind of story, so I suppose, lawyer that he is, he managed to find a loophole. Both of these books won the Arthur Ellis Award for best Crime Novel in the year they appeared and that’s a high recommendation without me saying anything.

Arthur Beauchamp (say Beechum) was introduced to us in Trial of Passion back in 1997. It would be six years (2003) before Deverell visited him again. By then Beauchamp had retired from his legal practice and has married Margaret Blake, organic farmer and environmental activist. They live on Garibaldi Island, where the former legal eagle has taken up farming as a retirement hobby.

When Margaret literally goes up a tree to protest a developer’s plans for some local forest land, Arthur finds himself pressed into service to assist the local environmental group in protecting the planet.

At the same time, he is approached on behalf of a former client, the defendant in one of the few cases he ever lost, who has been accused of murdering a woman in very cold blood. Arthur was still convinced that Mick “the Owl” Faloon (who is an excellent thief, but not at all violent) was railroaded on his sexual assault conviction years earlier and feels he owes him a second chance, so he takes on that case as well.

Beauchamp is full of doubts about both parts of his life at this point. With Margaret 50 feet up in a tree platform with other men for weeks on end, will his marriage survive the separation? Has he been away from the courtroom too long to be able to function at his best in either case? What is he to do when Faloon manages to escape custody and embarks on a crime spree overseas?

It is a while before Arthur hits his stride, assisted by a spunky young woman law student (a former actress) and another young lawyer who happens to be blind. They make an interesting team.

The book is like a head-on collision between Perry Mason and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (Deverell has been shortlisted for the Leacock Award a couple of times). There’s courtroom drama, hotel hi-jinx, moments of dead seriousness and others of slapstick comedy. Most of the time we are looking at the world through Arthur’s eyes, but we spend some time with Faloon as well – comic relief in the midst of travail.

Deverell apparently found himself with a rich vein of stories in the career of Arthur Beauchamp, and has gone on to produce three more novels using the character since this one: Kill All the Judges, Snow Job, I’ll See You in My Dreams and Sing a Worried Song.

I haven’t read any of them, but probably will now that Arthur and I are reacquainted.

Creature Features

By Steve Jenkins and Robin PageCreature Features

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

32 pages

$22.99

The husband and wife team of Jenkins and Page have come up with an interesting idea in this book. They’ve picked 25 animals with odd facial features and presented us with their faces, using a method called cut and torn paper collage, which exaggerates the oddities somewhat.

The text asks each creature a question about why it looks that way and then provides a response from the creature.

“Dear Egyptian vulture” Why no feathers on your face?

“Are you sure you really want to know? Really? Okay, I’ll tell you. I stick my nose into the bodies of dead animals that I eat, and feathers would get pretty messy …”

Not all the responses are that gross, but that is the Q&A tone of the text.

At the end of the book there is a two page graphic section showing the relative sizes of the creatures as compared to humans, where they can be found in the world, and what they eat.

It’s an informative little book and one that should appeal to its target age group.

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Bookends: The teenage years of an urban vigilante. October 12, 2015

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By Dan Davidson

February 25, 2015

– 950 words –

Repairman Jack (no last name) is the central character in a series of about 15 novels and a batch of short stories. He is a self-styled urban vigilante who uses his wits and considerable (but not unnatural) physical abilities to solve other peoples’ problems. He lives off the grid, having no regular employment, no social security number, no official presence in the world. He deals entirely in cash transactions, some of which he has accumulated as a result of his problem solving activities.

Many of his fixes deal with mundane issues, but there is an increasing supernatural ed
ge as the series moves on. Jack himself has no supernatural abilities.

Most of the books have been about the adult Jack, the full grown Repairman, but creator F. Paul Wilson has recently provided a couple of trilogies dealing with his back story and origins, while still avoiding any last name. The Jack trilogy takes us back to several months in the life of high school aged Jack, the summer and fall of his 14th year, where we meet some of the people who have been mentioned in the later stories.

The teenage Jack novels are less violent and less sexy, with a less harsh vocabulary than the adult books. These Tor Teen volumes are clearly aimed at teenage readers, but the stories are engaging enough that I wasn’t at all disappointed.

 

Jack: Secret HistoriesSecret Histories

By F. Paul Wilson

Tor Teen

320 pages

$9.49

The first book introduces the New Jersey town where Jack grew up, and we meet his friends Weezy (Louise) and her brother, Eddie, as well as the eerie vastness of the Pine Barrens on the edge of town. Exploring when they have been warned constantly not to go there, they find a rotting corpse, which eventually turns out to be a member of an influential fraternal group in the town called the Lodge. Soon several other people connected to this group die mysteriously and the kids have some digging to do.

Weezy is 14 year old Jack’s best friend and a girl with some strange tastes and abilities. She “knows things’ though it’s hard to say just how. She introduces Jack to the idea that there is a Secret History of the World, a theme that will run through his adventures for the rest of his life.

In trying to solve the mystery while at the same time helping his friend Steve, whose home situation has become ugly, Jack pioneers the kind of working behind the scenes technique that will become his trademark, causing things to happen without being seen to do so himself.

 

Jack: Secret CirclesSecret Circles

By F. Paul Wilson

Tor Teen

288 pages

$9.49

Weeks later Jack and his friends get involved in the mystery of a missing boy. Jack feels he may have been one of the last people to see his five year old neighbour, Cody, before he disappeared, and is therefor somehow responsible for finding him.

While searching in the Barrens he and his chums stumble across a mysterious pyramidal structure that looks as if it might have been a cage of some sort. What might it have held? And what does it have to do with the subterranean structures that they find underneath the Lodge when Jack finally finagles a way to break in and search the place.

More importantly, what does all this have to do with Cody and with the lost man who stumbled out of the Barrens after having been chased all night by … something. Could it be there really is a Jersey Devil?

Jack: Secret Vengeance

Secret Vengeance

By F. Paul Wilson

Tor Teen

304 pages

$9.99

Summer is over and school has begun again when Weezy, who has been immune to most of the obsessions of teenage girls, suddenly starts going all girly over Carson Toliver, the captain and quarterback of the football team, heartthrob of South Burlington County Regional High. This causes Jack’s world to take a spin in a weird direction. He himself has just begun to notice that Weezy is a girl, so there are some odd feelings involved.

But when Weezy comes to him to say that Carson has taken her on a date and tried to sexually assault her, and when the rumour mill at the school starts putting out an entirely reversed version of that incident, labeling her as “Easy Weezy”, Jack knows he has to figure out some way to expose the real Carson and clear his friend’s reputation. He needs to come up with a way to create the secret vengeance of the book’s title.

This book also introduces the reclusive local residents known as the Pineys, families that live near the Barrens and are generally looked down on by the rest of the people in Jack’s small city. They have secrets of their own and Jack ends up forging a tentative alliance with one of them named Levi in order to carry out his plans.

As it turns out, Levi is working on his own secret vengeance, on behalf of Marcie Kurek, a girl who had been murdered some time earlier. They solve that mystery as well.

Throughout the three books Wilson introduces a number of characters with strange abilities. There is the drugged Viet Name veteran who has the ability to heal others. There is the mysterious Mrs. C. who appears to know all sorts of strange things and seemingly has the power to appear out of thin air. She’s said to be a witch, but teenage Jack doesn’t believe in witches. He will come to revise that opinion as he gets older.

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