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Bookends: Don’t judge this book by its cover January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Don’t judge this book by its cover

By Dan Davidson

September 9, 2015

– 927 words –


You’re In Canada Now ….Musgrave A Memoir of Sorts

by Susan Musgrave

256 pages

Thistledown Press


e-book available on several platforms

approx. $10.00


When I interviewed her back in March and again in April, when she was touring the Yukon, Susan Musgrave made a point of complaining about her relationship with technology. I expect that she would find it fitting that the e-book conversion of this collection of essays and columns was less than perfect. Most of the pieces made the transition fairly well, but several of them have real problems with apostrophes and quotation marks, rendering them as a series of nonsense symbols, &$@ something like this &$@. It’s disconcerting and distracting, having to pause to figure out just what is being represented this time.


That said, you figure it out and plough on through, because the material is interesting, thoughtful and often quite amusing.


For amusing, we might as well start with the title. There’s the one that’s on public display on the front cover of the book, and then there’s the one on the inside title page, where you find out what the ellipses are substituting for. It’s a naughty word that the publisher clearly felt would chase people away from the back in 2005.


Musgrave’s dedication is to her mother, of whom she has spoken and written in terms of her difficult childhood. After all, her parents did have her committed to an institution as a teenager. But what parent hasn’t felt like dong that at some point? The dedication reads, “If you’ve read this far, this is to say thank you … for everything you’ve taught me, including never judge a book by its cover.”


That might well be a humorous warning to the reader as well, The title of the book and the title of the essay from which it springs is not merely a case of Musgrave living up to her reputation as a one-time enfant terrible (or “rakish”, as the publisher’s notes put it) of poetry and prose. After all, the woman is my age, and would have been 54 when this kook first appeared a decade ago. No, that bit of dialogue, with its full-on use of the “m” word, is what the Mountie said to the drug smuggler on the beach when that fellow protested that his American civil rights were being violated by the police dog. In that context, it doesn’t seem to be gratuitous.


There are 58 pieces of varying lengths in this, her third collection of prose essays. Having only read her poetry prior to this year, I was surprised by the range of interests on display here. The material is organized into six main categories, ranging from the general to the particular and to the very personal. So there’s material about her travels, interactions with other writers, her family, sex (one piece being guilty of straying into “too much information” territory” for my taste), and the difficulties of a long distance relationship when the distance is increased by a set of prison bars.


While many of the pieces are set either on Haida Gwaii, where she mostly lives, and where she owns and manages Copper Beech Guest House as well as teaching poetry in UBC’s Optional Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program. She also spends some time on Vancouver Island. She still gets around, on vacations, to do readings (as in her trip to the Yukon in the spring), trips to seek out her roots in Ireland, memories of youthful excursions to various parts of Central and South America. The latter took place during one of her first two marriages, this one to a fellow who turned out to be a drug smuggler.


In March she told me that she never knows, when she starts writing, just exactly where the piece is going to go. Most lives are a bit like that; perhaps hers has been a bit more so than others.


While I enjoyed nearly every piece in the book, the ones that seem to be sticking right now are the ones I’ve read in the last week or two, those being her observations of her life with Stephen Reid, the one-time leader of the Stopwatch Gang of bank robbers. We get some of the love story, which began when she was asked to look at the manuscript for his novel, Jackrabbit Parole. We get a peek at their marriage and then watch the drug dependency which led to his second, short=lived and very un-stop-watch-like life of crime and incarceration. There are reflections on life in prison, family visits, and the regular indignities that go with all of that.


Near the end are eulogies to three Canadian writers, two of whom I have been privileged to meet in the Yukon, and a sort of daily journal for the month of August, 2004, which references a number of things that have been covered elsewhere in the book, ties up some loose ends, and gives some insight into the daily life of the writer.


I’ve been reading this book on and off for the last several months, opening it up on three separate devices. It’s convenient, but it does keep a person from getting a feel for the book as an object. Given the length of many of the essays, it was a handy book to have on hand when I had just a short space to pass while marking time for an appointment or waiting for a plane.




Bookends: Mark Twain Builds a Boat on the Riverworld January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Mark Twain Builds a Boat on the Riverworld

By Dan Davidson

August 30, 2015

– 862 words –


The Fabulous Riverboat

By Philip Jose Farmer

RiverboatRecorded Books

Narrated by Paul Hecht

9 hrs and 2 mins



In the second volume of Farmer’s Riverworld saga, we follow the adventures of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, better known to us all as Mark Twain. Along with billions of other humans and pre-humans, Clemens has been resurrected in a cloned body on a planet dominated by a massive river that winds millions of miles around the planet from pole to pole. Just why that should be is a mystery Clemens intends to solve.

Living conditions within a set distance from the river banks is controlled by the existence of massive mountain ranges too high for there to be enough air to allow people to climb over to adjacent valleys, so travel is effectively restricted to the river valleys.

Over decades it has been learned that there is a stone tower at the northernmost end of the river, where it may be possible to learn the reasons why humanity has been brought to this place following the destruction of the earth by alien beings.

On Riverworld, all the basic physical needs of life are provided by the grail stones along the river. These can be accessed three times daily using individual grail containers owned by each person. Through some sort of matter transference technology they are provided with assorted foodstuffs from an every changing menu, as well as tobacco products, wine, spirits, and towels that can be adapted as clothing.

An individual cannot die. If the body is killed, the person will awaken the next day at some other point along the river, in one of the many small nations that have evolved in the time that people have been there.

This provides a difficult conundrum for many of the people who have religious backgrounds, but it’s not terribly long before a new faith, the Church of the Second Chance, begins to take root at various points along the river. One of its chief missionaries is Hermann Göring.

With all of humanity to play with, Farmer has chosen an interesting cast for the second book. Along with Clemens we have Joe, a pre-human titanthrop of tremendous physical strength and size, and no small intelligence, too. Much to Sam’s discomfort, his earthly wife, Livy, turns up in the same region where he is living, accompanied by her Riverworld spouse, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Sam’s plan, as per the title, is to build a riverboat to sail to the far north and uncover the secret of the alien Ethicals who have masterminded this world. In this, he is assisted by a renegade Ethical known as the Mysterious Stranger. He has recruited twelve humans, including Cyrano and Odysseus, to uncover the alien plot and thwart it. Humanity, it seems, is being used for some sort of sociological experiment, and when that has run its course, the plan includes exterminating all the lab rats.

Riverworld is short on metals, at least in the areas that humans can actually get to, and so the Stranger has diverted a meteor to land near where Clements and the band of Norsemen he is with are sailing when the novel begins. This means that the first few chapters of the book have a major disaster to deal with, along with lots of (temporary) death and destruction.

Much of the rest of the book is tied up with the development of the industrial wasteland needed to build the boat and various other devices more modern than most small nations on the planet could manage: a kind of mobile tank, two different types of aircraft, a smaller boat, several types of pistols, steel swords, etc. The projects take years to work through and during those years there are numerous problems to be sorted out with neighbouring nation-states, as well as internal friction within the boat building partners.

The rather predictable villain of the story is the former King John (or John Lackland) of Magna Carta fame, who is as devious in his second life as he was in his first. The aircraft are developed by Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of the Red Baron. Since there are also engineers and scientists from the very last century or so of life on Earth, they manage come up with quite a few ways to work around the lack of materials on the Riverworld planet.

In fact, they manage to find a way to store the excess energy from the matter transference that powers the grail stones, and so the boat, when finished, is powered by electricity.

While this book is rooted in one spot more than the first, there’s a lot going on here. Political intrigue, several invasions, and a lot of skullduggery keep the story moving along.

Paul Hecht does a decent job of reading the book, but he could stand to be a bit more lively in his rendering of different voices.

This was our travelling companion on a couple of Yukon road trips and for the first part of our vacation in Nova Scotia. It was good company.



Bookends: Jack Reacher Gets Personal January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Jack Reacher Gets Personal

By Dan Davidson

August 26, 2015

– 840 words –



(with bonus short story “Not a Drill”)

By Lee Child

Dell Books

544 pages


Kindle Edition: $11.90


The Jack Reacher novels defy the usual conventions of series’ story telling in that they are given to us in two distinctly different voices. If memory serves, most of the books are third person narratives, but some of them aren’t. Some are written in the first person, and with a title like Personal, I guess that fits for this, the nineteenth book in the series.

The other unusual thing about this series is that it jumps all over the place in terms of chronological sequence. The first book to appear was Killing Floor, back in 1997, but a suggested reading order (yet to be amended) on Wikipedia, tells us that the first novel in the series was The Enemy, published in 2004, and that Killing Floor is two books later in time.

On top of that disjunction, there are a number of short stories that predate the first novel, tales of Reacher’s military service and one reaching back to when he was a boy. These stories seem to appear mostly in the e-book editions of the novels, and perhaps their addition to these explains why the virtual version of Personal is more expensive than the physical paperback.

The story here is personal in a number of very important ways. General Tom O’Day wants Reacher to work for him on an international case. Reacher is a rootless wanderer, so O’Day uses a rather clever method of finding him, and the story begins with that.

Shortly, we discover that someone has taken a shot at the president of France, who was only saved by a special type of bulletproof glass. It was a very long range shot, which only an extreme marksman could have made. There are four possibilities, and one of them is John Kott, a military killer that Reacher had put away during his military police days, but who is now released.

We learn that Kott has an obsessive hatred of Reacher, which leaves our hero feeling he is being drawn into this case as potential bait, but he feels responsible, so he takes it on in spite of his distaste for O’Day and his methods.

His assigned CIA partner on this case is a young CIA agent with the improbable (and very Ian Flemingish) name of Casey Nice. Since there is usually a temporary romance in a Reacher novel, we expect one here, but instead Reacher treats her as a protégé, becoming a mentor to her ingénue role. This shows us a side of Reacher that we have seen before, but not very often.

The first person narrative style demands that the writer give us the internal workings of a man’s mind and heart, and not merely his actions. In the third person narratives, Reacher often comes across as a force of nature, his size, strength and endurance being key factors in his success. Analysis and the application of intelligence somehow seem to be secondary factors. In this book, as in the other first person narratives, the order is reversed, and we learn that he has thought through as many angles of a situation as he can before he acts, most of the time anyway.

Reacher and Nice are off to Paris first, where the sniper strikes again, this time missing Reacher by inches. They move on to England, where the intelligence analysts believe the shooter has been hired to kill someone at the next G8 Summit, which will be held in London.

In a very brief time the pair find themselves accosted by two different local criminal gangs who seem to have banded together to assist the sniper. They are sort of working with a British SAS agent named Bennett, as they are there unofficially and have to fly under the radar. As the story develops it becomes clear that Reacher has figured out that things are not what they have been portrayed to be, but I don’t think most readers will figure out exactly why that is until they hit the twist at the end of the story, long after we expect the tale to have been completed.

The bonus short story at the end of this e-book was “Not a Drill”. It’s set sometime before the novel and, as it is a third person narrative, really points up those differences I mentioned at the top of this review. Reacher is hiking near the New Brunswick border when he get involved with a trio of Canadian tourists and a mysterious military quarantine of the hiking trail they wanted to travel. Again, the title is pretty much a clue as to how the story will turn out. Things are not what they seem, and there’s another double twist in the very short plot. Lots of fun though.

This was great airplane reading. It almost let me ignore the rough spots in the ride to Calgary last week.





Bookends: All good fables must come to an end January 28, 2016

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Bookends: All good fables must come to an end

By Dan Davidson

August 16, 2015

– 843 words –

Fables 150: FarewellFables 150

written by Bill Willingham

art by Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, Dan Green and 26 others


160 pages



Fables, the comic book series, began with a mystery. Issues 1 to 5 were collected in book form as Legends in Exile, and developed the idea that a vast number of the characters who inspired our legends and folktales have been living, for some time, in a New York enclave that they call Fabletown. Only the human seeming fables could live there, and we later learned that there was an upstate Animal Farm where non-human fables resided.

Through 150 issues, published individually and in 22 collected volumes since 2002, the fables have been dealing with the problems created by a number of fearsome foes, as well as internal issues.

They had been driven from their homelands, which can be found in other dimensions, by a world conquering tyrant known as the Adversary. He intended to extend his conquest to Earth, known to the Fables as the Mundy (for Mundane) World. Roughly the first half of the series involves the story arc in which the problem of the Adversary is slowly revealed and brought to a resolution.

The next big problem comes from the fact that a very evil being called Mr. Dark, who had been captured by the Adversary during his conquests, is freed from his imprisonment and is able to wreak a considerable amount of havoc through many worlds before coming to Earth and affecting Fabletown.

As each problem’s solution tends to create a newer problem, so the resolution of the Dark threat exacerbates what have always been issues between the sisters Snow White and Rose Red, and the series moves towards its end by examining their family history and how those issues might be resolved.

Working with public domain characters, Willingham has felt free to reinterpret and put his own spin on their lives. Jack, for instance, is an avatar of all the fables named Jack, and his story became complicated enough to spin off into its own 50 issue series, also collected in a set of volumes.

Jack, like all the fables, is more or less immortal, his lifespan and general health determined by the number of people who have read about him and enjoyed his adventures. When Goldilocks becomes a psychotic anarchist and raises a revolt at the Farm, it becomes impossible to kill her because her story is so well known.

The first Sheriff of Fabletown is a fellow named Bigby (which is short for Big Bad), who is actually the Big Bad Wolf of many legends. Turns out he is a shapeshifter and can assume human form. He has reformed, largely due to having fallen in love with Snow White, and they eventually marry and have a litter of shapeshifting kids. Snow is the administrator of Fabletown working under King Cole, who is the elected mayor, until he is defeated by a certain Prince Charming, who has, at some point, been involved with most of the major fable females in a number of stories.

Willingham decided that these fables princesses had interesting stories that could be told, and that developed into another series called The Fairest. Other writers have been called in to flesh out these stories.

Willingham has used a wide range of story types to spin out this series. It began with a noir style detective story, and moved on to explore various genre types, including the conspiracy thriller and the caper story. It came to include romances, high fantasy, war stories, adventure tales and sheer comedy. There are long story arcs that run for five or six issues and then there are short items, perhaps not more than a page or two, that deal with small incidents and tie off some loose plot threads. Finally, of course there is this one, single, 160 page issue which devotes about half its space to wrapping up the Snow vs. Rose conflict.

The rest of the book is a series of “The Last…” stories, vignettes tying off the story arcs of some of the lesser characters in the list. This is where those 26 other artists that I mentioned come into play. Apparently a lot of creative folks wanted to contribute to this final volume, which culminates in a family gathering set in the Bigby/Snow compound (called Wolfholm, of course) about 1000 years in the future.

As we near the end of the series, we learn that the nearly everything we’ve read has actually been written by Ambrose, one of Bigby and Snow’s children.

Fables has been a positive pleasure for the last 13 years, and I shall miss it. It’s one of the few comics that I continued to buy (in collected editions) in hard copy format after I largely moved over to reading digital editions (I know – but it solved a storage problem). Fortunately, I can still read the whole series again, at my leisure.










Bookends: A two part Martian Odyssey January 28, 2016

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Bookends: A two part Martian Odyssey

By Dan Davidson

August 12, 2015

– 955 words –

Red ThunderRed Thunder

By John Varley

Ace Books

411 pages



Red Lightning

By John Varley

Ace BooksRed Lightning

355 pages



The two books in this week’s column are part of John Varley’s four part tribute to the young adult novels of Robert A. Heinlein. There are some who would suggest that Varley’s entire career tends in that direction, but the Thunder and Lightning books clearly fall into that category.

They are first person narratives, told by relatively young people. They are full of adventure and optimism, and yet they deal with some pretty harrowing situations. They also deal with some pretty space happy pseudo-science.

While each of the books has a definite narrator, it’s safe to say that the central character is a socially autistic genius named Jubal. Jubal lives with his cousin, a former astronaut named Travis Broussard. Due to problems in his past, Travis has a serious drinking problem and the four young people who change his life meet him one night when they are joy riding on the Florida beach and nearly run him over.

It is Manny Garcia, our narrator, who notices that Jubal has created something strange while they are visiting Travis’ ranch. The bubble Manny picks up turns out to be a small force field created by Jubal’s device that he calls a squeezer.

The squeezer can surround and compress whatever matter is enclosed by it and then release the generated energy in a controlled or uncontrolled burst, depending on whether you want a bomb or power for an engine.

It can also be used to simply generate electrical power, or to power any sort of engine.

Travis and the four young people (Dak, Alicia and Kelly, along with Manny) decide to use it to build a spaceship out of surplus tanker cars, and use that to become the first humans to go to Mars.

There are two reasons for this. One is to beat the Chinese ship already on the way, but the more important one is that Jubal has calculated the American ship also heading there will meet with an accident because its drive is faulty. Using squeezer power, Jubal calculates the ship the kids and Travis are building can make the trip in four days, rather that the months the conventionally propelled ships have taken to do it.

First, however, they have to build their ship, which takes them about a year, and about a million dollars. They call it Red Thunder. You might not think that chapters spent planning and building a spaceship in an abandoned warehouse could be interesting, but you’d be wrong. Varley spins a plausible sounding yarn and makes us believe it as the gang plans, tests plans, builds and refines their craft.

They get there, beat the Chinese, save most of the American astronauts when the Ares Seven breaks up during its trip and return as heroes. (Yeah – spoilers; but you knew I was going to write about a sequel, so hat did you expect?)

Part of the plan here was to arrange things so that no one nation on Earth ever gets control of the squeezer device, for its potential as a weapon is so far beyond anything ever created that Travis and the gang are sworn to prevent it happening.

They succeed at this, and all goes pretty well for the next couple of decades, which is when the sequel picks up the story. This one is narrated by Manny and Kelly’s son, Ray Garcia-Strickland, who has been raised on a Mars which squeezer propelled ships has made a pretty popular tourist destination.

On Earth, something terrible has happened. Something like a large rock has impacted the Atlantic Ocean at near light speed velocity, causing a tidal wave that has devastated most of the habitable east coast of the USA. Ray’s family boards a ship to go back to Earth and try to rescue his grandmother. About half of the book is about this trip and the terrible conditions they find in Florida when they get there.

Varley says this scenario was inspired by two actual events: the 9-11 terrorist attacks and tsunami in the Indian Ocean that did so much damage there. His original draft was going to drop the rock into just that area, but the tsunami hit while he as writing the book and he relocated it out of sympathy to the real disaster.

The other half is about what happened when Jubal, who has been living a secluded life under heavy guard, dreaming his dreams and overseeing the supply of squeezer devices for the entire world, disappears.

It’s assumed the family on Mars will know where he is, and various militant Earth factions take turns invading the domed settlements on the Red Planet in search of the man who made free energy possible.

If some of this sounds a bit like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I revisited here earlier in the summer, it’s surely not an accident. The action is a little more wide ranging than that – including some torture, a space chase and another example of just how deadly Jubal’s device can be – and Varley avoids a lot of the philosophical chit-chat that sometimes cluttered RAH’s later books, but it is clearly cut from that same bolt of optimistic cloth.

There are two more books in this series, each set another couple of decades on in time. One of them even has a heroine whose name echoes that of Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, so I’m sure that there will be more of that flavour when I get around to them.





Bookends: This caper depends on following the money January 28, 2016

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Bookends: This caper depends on following the money

By Dan Davidson

August 5, 2015

– 880 words –


King and Maxwell

By David BaldacciKing and Maxwell

576 pagesGrand Central Publishing

Hachette Audio edition

Unabridged reading

Narrated By Ron McLarty and Orlagn Cassidy Orlagn Cassidy

12 hrs and 56 mins



This is number six in Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series, yet it is, oddly enough, the first to have only that as the book title. Perhaps this is a result of the short-lived television series that put faces on the characters. In the introduction, the author says he felt those actors really captured the characters as he had imagined them.

Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are both former Secret Service agents who have set up a private detectives. King is the older of the two by a few years, has been married before and is a bit of a neatness freak.

Maxwell is messy. Her desk is a disaster and the back seat of her crew cab truck is a landfill. Frequent references are made to the disparity between the two of them. They the odd couple of the detective world.

King, who is also a former lawyer, is a meticulous planner, thinks on both sides of all issues and acts when he feels he has as much as possible figured out.

Maxwell is impetuous, acts before thinking, drives like a NASCAR racer. She’s also a former Olympian athlete and much more physical than her partner. She was gravely injured during their last case, and is still in recovery.

They are immensely fond of each other, in love probably, but they tiptoe around the line between business and friendship. They did cross it once, apparently, and have never felt right about it since.

And yet. Maxwell shows all the signs of being a jealous lover when this case causes them to cross paths with King’s ex-wife, Dana, who is a walking man trap. She just can’t believe that King’s only interest in her at this point in professional.

Perhaps it isn’t entirely. King feels a keen sense of personal responsibility when Dana is shot and nearly killed while using her connections in the military (her second husband is a general) to get some information for the detectives.

There are a couple of distinct narratives going on here. We actually start in the Middle East, where a soldier named Sam Wingo is hauling a very precious cargo to a carefully planned destination. His operation goes sideways when he is met by men claiming to work for the CIA, who tell him the plans have been changed. He escapes from them, but loses the cargo, which is a whole lot of money in Euro bills. Back home he is held responsible for it, and has to go to ground to try and find out what really happened. His adventures while getting back to the States form interludes in the main story.

When his high school age son, Tyler, is told that his father is dead, missing in action, he is devastated and runs off into the night, which is where our detectives almost run him over in the middle of a pounding rainstorm.

It turns out, just a bit later on, that Tyler has received a coded email message from his father with a time and date stamp well after the day he was supposed to have died. Tyler decides to hire King and Maxwell to find out what is really going on.

Almost as soon as they take the case, weird things start happening. Homeland Security comes down on them like a ton of bricks. The FBI suddenly takes an interest in their doings. They start spending time in interrogation rooms being questioned and threatened, but no charges are ever laid.

Aside from officialdom, they find themselves the targets of a hit squad made up of former military types who do not hesitate to unload on them in a mall food court, killing a mall cop, and wounding another, along with King’s ex, who was meeting with them at the time.

In a third strand of the narrative, we spend time with the mysterious mastermind behind all this, who has very personal reasons and goals what has nevertheless become an operation with international ramifications.

There are many twists and turns in this tale, a number of shoot-outs and no end of complex skullduggery.

The use of two readers is a nice touch. Ron McLarty handles the main narration and all the male voices, of course. There are a good half dozen of those, from older military types all the way back to Tyler Wingo. There is also a former client of theirs named Edgar Roy, whose computer and code breaking skills are instrumental in solving the case.

Orlagn Cassidy provides the voices for all the women. Again, this ranges from the hard edged Maxwell to lascivious Dana, several other wives, Tyler’s stepmother and his high school sweetheart.

As there is a lot of conversation in this book, having two readers was a good plan and both of them have a lot of work to do.

This was a great book to listen to on a recent road trip. I had read several of Baldacci’s Camel Club mysteries, but this series has a different flavour.



Bookends: Globe trotting in order to follow the money January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Globe trotting in order to follow the money

By Dan Davidson

July 29, 2015

– 787 words –

 The Water Rat Of Wanchai and The Dragon Head Of Hong Kong

By Ian HamiltonWater Rat

584 pages



Kindle edition- $9.99

I don’t suppose it actually matters what order you read these stories in. The Water Rat Of Wanchai was actually the first of the Ava Lee mysteries to be written, and it won the Arthur Ellis Award for best first crime novel. The Dragon Head Of Hong Kong is actually a novella, but it is set 10 years earlier and tells the story of how Ava Lee met the Hong Kong patron and partner who is generally referred to as Uncle in the books. While he does appear in the pages in person from time to time, he’s sort of Charlie to her one-woman Angel.

Ava Lee is a 115 pound Chinese-Canadian lesbian forensic accountant. She is the product of an odd (to Canadians) family arrangement in which her father (who lives in Hong Kong) has several wives and multiple families which he maintains in great comfort at different points around the globe. Lee happens to live in Toronto, but her job as a financial recovery expert takes her all over the world.

In this, the 69 year old Hamilton, a Welsh born Canadian, takes advantage of his earlier careers in journalism, the federal and provincial civil services and private enterprise, careers which have caused him to travel to and work in 30 different countries. As a result, Lee travels all over the world as part of the collection service she runs with Uncle.

In that first book she travels first to the Far East and then to Guyana in search of some misappropriated funds that a seafood company owes to her client. Lee’s method is to track the money and then find some way to persuade the crook or crooks to return it. She may simply steal it back electronically (since there is very little physical currency involved) or she may force the culprit to do it for her.

Sine she happens to be petite and gorgeous, men (and women) tend to underestimate her. “Though she be but little, she is fierce” as was said of Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the course of this adventure she runs up against the bullying brother of Captain Robbins, the corrupt police official who runs Guyana, and when that brother tries to strong-arm her she totally incapacitates him using a very lethal form of martial arts.

Robbins is not the target of her recovery scheme, but she needs to use him to get to the man who is, and when the Captain decides to get his own slice of the financial pie he tries to turn the tables on her.

Outsmarting Robbins, a formidable adversary indeed, turns out to be more difficult than she had thought it would be, but she does accomplish it and recovers the missing money in the end.

With The Water Rat, readers were asked to jump right in the deep end with a character unlike most of those they may have met. Some reviews compare her to Stieg Larson’s Lisbeth Salandar, but aside from her skill with computers, her size and physical prowess, there’s not much similarity. Lee is a well adjusted individual who knows who she is and has no difficulty dealing with people.

After he had produced seven books in the series (about two a year – he says writing is just his favourite thing ever) Hamilton backed up and wrote the novella which has been bundled with this reissue of the Water Rat. The Dragon Head Of Hong Kong takes us back to Lee’s first venture in financial repo work. At that point she is a trained forensic accountant who has found that she can’t stand working within the confines of an agency, so she strikes out on her own, handling mostly minor accountancy clients, but at least setting her own rules, even if the clientele is mostly referrals from friends of the family.

One of her clients, Hedrick Lo, has been swindled out of more than a million dollars by a Chinese importer named Johnny Kung, so she travels to Hong Kong to try to retrieve it. It emerges that Kung has also fallen afoul of the Uncle, and the two end up collaborating on a scheme to get him to cough up his ill-gotten gains. This, as Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Raines in Casablanca, turns out to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I’ll be looking for more of these, and I’ve already given my wife an omnibus edition (KOBO this time) for her birthday.


Bookends: Why we need to change how we do things January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Why we need to change how we do things

By Dan Davidson

July 22, 2015

– 948 words –

 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

By Naomi KleinThis changes everything

Vintage Canada

576 pages


Kindle edition



Say what you may about Naomi Klein, it was impossible not to take notice when she was invited by Pope Francis to join a top level environmental conference at the Vatican recently. Self-described as a “secular Jewish feminist”, Klein is not exactly the sort of public intellectual that one might expect to answer such a call. On the other hand, a number of the Pope’s statements coming out of that conference sounded very much like he had read her book and taken notes.

Klein is, after all, the person who made “branding” a household word with her first book, No Logo. Likewise, the ideas that fuelled her second big book, The Shock Doctrine, have been very much in play recently as we have watched the economic struggles going on between Greece and the rest of the Eurozone.

It would be hard to deny (though the federal government does) that it made effective use of the shock doctrine after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau attacked Parliament Hill and Martin Couture-Rouleau attacked the two soldiers in Quebec, killing one of them.

These isolated events, carried out by two unconnected and disturbed individuals, were made to be the spur for panic and the enactment of Bill C-51, or the Anti-Terrorism Bill, as it is now known.

Klein’s main thesis is spelled out in the title of the book. The world’s economic system was birthed when James Watt created the steam engine, and freed engine driven enterprises from dependence on water power.

We began burning fossil fuels at an expanding rate: first wood, then coal, and finally, the various products that come from the petroleum industry. She calls the process extractivism and says that, hand in hand with our current practices of capitalism, it is waging war on the planet.

It is not simply capitalism which is at fault; Klein points to the economies of the old Soviet Union and Communist China as being just as much parts of the problem. They have followed an extractivist model just as closely as the capitalist world.

Aside from a dedicated search for improved and reliable sources of non-polluting energy – solar, wind and hydro, in spite of the latter’s problems – Klein doesn’t offer a lot in the way of solutions, but she does a good job of eviscerating most of the capitalist based models that have been proposed so far.

A lot of the major environmental organizations have, she says, been sucked into the capitalist dreams of not doing anything unless it can make tons of money. A number of them get their major funding from the oil industry and one even has an oil well on property that it controls.

Carbon capture, as well as cap and trade systems, all come under fire because they fail to address the basic problem as she defines it: we need to stop burning carbon based products. Going further, any carbon that is still in the ground needs to stay there.

Global trade and the proliferation of “free trade” agreements come up for criticism in a big way. These have enabled corporations to move their work around, take advantage of cheap labour, dodge the regulations wherever they might actually be working, and take various levels of government to court when they attempt to do things to deal with the climate change problem.

She gives several examples of this type of action, as well as others. One of the reasons the book is as long at it is, is the inclusion of many anecdotes and examples to enliven the statistics and arguments she puts forward.

Never content to simply make a statement of fact or advance a proposition, Klein is a belt and suspenders type of intellectual who reinforces every point she makes.

On the personal side of things, she informs us about her cancer scare and all the difficulties she and Avi Lewis had while attempting to conceive a child, including several false starts. She doesn’t underline this too much, but it’s certainly no accident that success came after they put less faith in medicines and more in nature.

Moving from the negatives into the positives in the latter sections of the book, she gives a number of examples of things that seem to be working. Citizens must, she says, get control of their governments, wresting this back from the industrial classes that now dominate the field.

Blockadia is not a county, but a word she coins to describe the resistance to fossil fuel exploitation wherever it is happening in the world. Blockades are part of this reclamation, but so were the Occupy Movement and Idle No More. Indigenous values have a lot to say about what needs to be done, she feels.

The change that needs to come does mean that everyone will have to do with a little bit less – have to downsize somewhat – until adjustments can be made. Continuous growth never was sustainable, and we need to admit it. That there must be “limits to growth” was known as early as 1972, when the Club of Rome commissioned a study with just that name.

It studied five variables: population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. Klein touches most of these in her book, but several of them are subsumed in one additional problem that really wasn’t on most peoples’ radar in 1972: climate change.

Klein won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for this 2014 book. It takes a while to read, but it’s worth the time.


Bookends: Short form Books are exploding January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Short form Books are exploding

By Dan Davidson

July 15, 2015

– 867 words –
While we have about 16 bookcases (not shelves – bookCASES) at Chateau Davidson, most of them organized by genre and filled to the brim, we also enjoy e-books, especially for light reading that we don’t necessarily want to find shelf room for.

One of the advantages of the e-book format is that it allows works by a particular author, or in a particular series, to remain “in print” (so to speak) due to the “just in time and as needed” nature of e-publishing.

Mystery writer Dana Stabenow (the Kate Shugak series) told me recently that the only way to get the first half-dozen volumes in her series these days is in e-book form. With many other writers this is also true.

Aside from that, e-books make possible the publication of volumes that are not quite long enough to be actual books, unless they happen to be published by specialty

The novella (or short novel) used to be a popular form, and such classic works as Animal Farm, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Time Machine and The Pearl are all examples of this type. These have all been published many times over in book form, but most novels these days seem to be well over 300 pages in length and many simple genre works run even longer.


Jacaranda: A Novella of the Clockwork Century

By Cherie PriestJacaranda

Subterranean Press

181 pages



Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series about an alternate America where history is quite different and the supernatural is a real element of everyday life, has a number of novels connected to it. Jacaranda is set in this world, but it is short and has previously been available only in the above referenced high quality press edition for really serious fans, put out by Subterranean Press.

This is a dense and fairly complicated haunted hotel story in which the central character is a former robber and gunslinger turned priest. There’s a hurricane, ghosts, guilty secrets (a slight touch of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians) and enough tension to go around.

I hadn’t read anything by Priest prior to picking up this volume during one of the Humble Bundle promotions, but I think I will be looking for more.


Another advantage of the e-book is the promotion of long form journalism outside the boundaries of the newspapers or magazines in which the pieces first appeared. This week I’ll mention the memoirs of two writers who have been Berton House writers-in-residence.


Blindsided: How Twenty Years of Writing About Booze, Drugs and Sex Ended in the Blink of an Eye

By Russell Smith


Kindle Edition

21 pages



Russell Smith was our first resident, nearly twenty years ago now, and has gone on to write a number of novels and short story collections. These drew upon his experiences and the adventures he had during his day job as a lifestyle columnist for the Globe and Mail and contributor to a number of national magazines.

The full title of Blindsided, narrated in Smith’s usual somewhat ironic style, gives you the notion, justified in the story, that his sampling of the various substances imbibed as part of his regular “research” led to the loss of sight in first one eye and then the other.

Smith isn’t moralizing in this book, but he makes no excuses for what he ultimately describes as self-destructive, and somewhat dumb, behaviour. Even after the first eye went, he hardly slowed down his pace. It took the near loss of the second eye to make him change his lifestyle.


My Never-Ending Acid Trip: Why I Still Hallucinate Years After Taking LSDNever-ending acid trip

By Jacob Scheier

Toronto Star e-book

About 56 pages, with photographs


Jacob Scheier was this year’s early spring Berton House resident. He is best known as a Governor General’s Award winning poet, but he has lately taken to developing the prose side of his talents.

This long form memoir began as an exercise at a writers’ workshop retreat and developed into a series published in the Toronto Star.

Scheier is completely candid about the fact that his experimentation with drugs during his teenage and young adult years – he specifies 200 hits of acid and more than 60 tablets of ecstasy – opened some relays in his brain that interacted with medication he was taking five years later for depression and anxiety.

He began to have intense visual hallucinations, thought he was going mad, and eventually checked himself into a psych ward, where things got worse. The profession’s reliance on an array of pharmacological interventions did nothing for him.

Interestingly, it was the out of fashion “talking cure”, the same experienced by another Berton House alumnus, James FitzGerald (What Disturbs our Blood). that eventually gave him some relief and enabled him to develop his award winning craft.


As noted above, none of these three books would have been available unless I had either paid the high price for the specialty volume, or had seen the memoirs in the magazine and newspapers where they were originally printed.

That’s enough to make a good case of the usefulness of e-books to the devotee of the printed word.



Bookends: Living with the Consequences of Disaster January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Living with the Consequences of Disaster

By Dan Davidson

Back of the TurtleJuly 8, 2015

– 895 words –


The Back of the Turtle

By Thomas King


518 pages


Thomas King’s latest novel begins one day at first light, a portentous day in which one man would try to kill himself, watched by two individuals as he headed for the beach and the rock formation where he hoped to be engulfed by the tide.

Watching him are a man named Nicholas Crisp and a dog which will acquire a number of names as the story progresses. Crisp is a man of indeterminate age who speaks in a strangely antique tongue and is a catalytic figure during his interactions with the others on this British Columbia coastline. This part of the book takes place near a deserted town that used to be known as the Smoke River Reserve, but is more commonly known now as The Ruin.

The man who is trying to physically drown himself is Gabriel Quinn, a brilliant scientist of First Nations lineage who is drowning in guilt. For some time now he has been conflicted about the work he has done for the Domidion company, particularly in the area of defoliants. He has been making lists of environmental disasters and the realization that his own chemical, called Greensweep. has, in fact, devastated the place where he grew up, has pushed him over the edge.

Quite by accident, he ends up saving the lives of some boat people on that very night, and his plan is postponed until at least the next high tide. He is still determined to do himself in as a penance, but meeting Mara causes him to delay his plans.

Mara is a Native woman who also grew up in Smoke River, and was living elsewhere when the Ruin destroyed the place, killing all the wildlife, the turtles which used to lay their eggs on the beach and, ultimately, most of the people who lived there. She has returned to try to reclaim some of her old life.

She and Quinn come into contact with each other, and with Crisp and the dog. The old man spends a lot of time trying to get the two of them to see possibilities in life, rather than just digging themselves deeper in sorrow. A lot of this involves retellings of the Turtle Island legend.

There are two other strands to the story, and they are sort of commentary and comic relief.

At the beach there is Sonny, a mentally unstable young man whose favorite pastime is hitting things (wham-wham!) with a hammer. He has deluded himself into thinking that he is looking after a derelict hotel with his father, who is, in fact, not there at all. His antics are often humorous, but we never quite figure out why he is the way he is.

In Toronto we spend some equally confusing time with Domidion CEO Dorian Asher, an extremely narcissistic man whose main concerns in life seen to be shopping, pleasing himself, and making sure that his company is never held responsible for any harm it might cause to the world.

It was a Domidion error – using many times too much of the chemical – that caused the Ruin. They have managed to cover that up so far. But Domidion is involved in the Athabasca Oil/Tar Sands mining in Alberta, and one of their settling ponds has just breached its dam. Others are about to follow.

As we follow Asher, it is clear that all of this is, to him, primarily an exercise in public relations. As long as they can stay ahead of the story, he can continue dining out, buying new watches and suits, moving to a bigger condo and puzzling over why his wife could possibly want to leave him.

He and his minions also puzzle over the whereabouts of one of the firms chief scientists, a fellow named Quinn. They can’t find any trace of him.

Asher’s portions of the book are perhaps the weakest parts. The other characters have developmental arcs – even Sonny to some degree – but I kept wishing that a safe would fall on the head of this cartoon character who seems to be totally devoid of any serious adult empathy for others. Maybe that was what King was aiming for.

It’s interesting that literary online accounts of this excellent 2014 book refer to it as the first novel King had produced after a 15 year detour into non-fiction. Since that detour produced a book of connected essays, The Truth about Stories, in 2003 (the Massey Lectures for that year, by the way), and two award winning books about the experience of First Nations people in Canadian history – A Short History of Indians in Canada (McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award in 2006) and The Inconvenient Indian (the RBC Taylor Prize in 2014) – I would say it was a worthwhile detour.

What puzzles me more though, is the total disregard for his foray into the mystery genre, the two books he published under the pen name of Hartley Goodweather. Dreadful Water Shows Up (2002) and The Red Power Murders: A DreadfulWater Mystery (2006) may not have quite the same Governor General’s Award winning cachet as The Back of the Turtle, but they are undoubtedly enjoyable novels and don’t deserve to be ignored.