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Bookends: Different Types of Books for kids January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Different Types of Books for kids

By Dan Davidson

October 12, 2016

– 523 words –


From Apple Trees to Cider, Please
Story by Felicia Sanzaro Chernesky

apple-treesPictures by Julia Patton

Albert Whiteman and Company

32 pages


This amusin
g little rhyming story is all about where apple cider comes from. The narrative is about a trip a mother and daughter take to an orchard, which also happens to be a cider mill. It’s one of those “U-Pick” places, and the pair wander through the trees, picking various types of apples as they go.

They end up in the mill and we are taken on an illustrated tour through the cider making process, along with a father and son from a different family. It looks very much like the apples they picked are turned into cider for them to take home
along with some unsqueezed apples, and a variety of baked goods that can be made with apples.

They get the other goods at a festival on the farm itself at the end of the tour, and everyone has an excellent time enjoying all things apple.

The artwork is cartoonish, but colourfully effective in telling this story, and each two page spread has a rhymed couplet to carry the characters along.


Crash! The Cat

crash-the-catBy David McPhail

Holiday House

32 pages


No one knows why Crash the cat is forever crashing into things, but he is, and most of this story is spent showing us the various disasters he creates by behaving this way. Toys are broken, paint is spilled, baking is ruined. It happens so often that the family eventually takes him to the vet to see if he has some kind of vision problem.

It turns out that he doesn’t, but he upsets the cl
ean laundry as soon as they get home.

A few pages are spent telling us why they love his cat in spite of his crashing ways, and then we get to the solution to the mystery. One night they find out what’s going on. It’s not that he can’t see. It’s that he’s been seeing something that the rest of them haven’t been seeing.

Whether this discovery will end his crashing ways or not is left unresolved at the conclusion of the story, but it does have a happy ending.

Big Berry: A Little Moral Story about Gratitude

Rainy Day: A Little Moral Story about Worry

Birthday Cake: A Little Moral Story about SharingHappyland.jpg
By Dan Yaccarino

Workman Publishing

18 pages

$5.95 each

The Happyland series of board books is exactly what the subtitles suggest, amusing little books that teach a lesson about a particular theme. The colourful illustrations do most of the work as each book has probably less that 30 words and even those have repeated phrases. Half the double page spreads have no words, inviting the reader and the listener to come up with their own interpretations of what’s happening and how the characters are feeling. The books are sturdily put together and should stand up to a lot of use by their target audience, which is listed as being “0 and up”.




Bookends: Living with the Curse of Total Recall January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Living with the Curse of Total Recall

By Dan Davidson

October 5, 2016memory-man-audio

– 828 words –


Memory Man

By David Baldacci

Narrated by Ron McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy

13 hrs ad 17 mins

Hachette Audio


Paperback edition


560 pages



“Amos Decker would forever remember all three of their violent deaths in the most paralyzing shade of blue.”

Quirky detectives are all the rage on television these days. Bones, Castle and Elementary have all carried on the pattern that you could find in earlier shows like Monk, Pretender and Profiler.

The Amos Decker series, of which this is the first book, has a similar idea behind its central character. Decker, who had been a pretty good high school and college football player, made it to the NFL and was sidelined by a critical brain injury in his first game.

It did two obvious things to his brain and a third thing that is less obvious. The obvious things are revealed in that opening sentence and in the book’s title. Decker has perfect total recall. His memory is described as being like a DVD that he can access by date at any time he likes.

The other effect is that events in the real world, and in his recorded memories, often take on colours. Some emotional states are also coloured and his sense of impending danger comes with some nasty black shadows.

The less obvious change is in his emotional life. He has trouble dealing with empathy, doesn’t play well with others, and is very much a loner, Even people who value the edge that he seems to have as an investigator have trouble dealing with him as a person.

He managed to cope with the world pretty well, even got married, and fathered a daughter. Within his family unit he managed to function as an almost normal person with a range of emotional responses that, though muted, were still far beyond what he could manage with other people.

Then someone broke into his house, killed his wife and daughter and his brother-in-law, planted clues that seemed to point to him, and left him to discover the horrible mess when he returned from a police stakeout. While investigation proved him innocent, there was no clue as to who had actually done the deed. Amos’ life fell apart without his family foundation.

A year later, the former athletic police detective is off the force, grossly overweight, and, after a time living homeless on the streets, is barely able to support himself as a private eye, doing piecemeal work and living in a cheap residential hotel.

Two things happen to shake up his life again. First, a man walks into the police station where he used to work and confesses to the Decker murders. While it can absolutely be proven that he did not do them, he insists that he did and that it was all because Decker had once insulted him in a local 7/11 store. Decker, who literally can’t forget anything, has no memory of this man.

Second, there is a horrible massacre at the local high school – the one Decker once attended. There seem to be no clues. Decker’s former boss, knowing that this is the kind of case his old colleague used to excel at, brings him onto the case as a consultant and pairs him with the woman who used to be his partner when he was on the force.

Baldacci, who is the keyboard behind six different ongoing series, totaling 24 novels at present, along with a string of 11 standalone thrillers, and five children’s books, is really good at taking what starts out as a simple enough sounding initial case and complicating it beyond anything that the reader might expect at the beginning.

The first half of this book comes across as a very detailed police procedural, enhanced only by Decker’s strange brain and his ability to see things that others don’t. In painstaking, and yet interesting, detail he builds up the geography of the school, reveals how the killer got in, did what he did and managed to stay completely hidden the entire time, except by those he killed.

Then he turns up the heat.

The other thing I really like about Baldacci’s work is his ability to write strong female characters and really make them matter. In the King and Maxwell books, as well as the John Puller series, he has done such as good job at this that the people producing his audio books feel the need to have male and female voices.

Ron McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy are teamed up again for this one. McLarty gets the male voices and the narration, but Cassidy voices two strong female characters and a number of others.

The Decker and Puller series seem to be the most recent books Baldacci is working on, based on their publication dates. They make great audio books, using the same team of narrators.



Bookends – There are no such things as vampires January 31, 2017

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Bookends – There are no such things as vampires

By Dan Davidson

September 28, 2016

rhesus-chart– 842 words –


The Rhesus Chart

By Charles Stross

Ace Books

372 pages



In the fifth installment of the Laundry Files, Charles Stross takes on the subject of vampires, giving the supernatural his usual twist.

The Laundry is a secret organization somewhat in the vein of the MIO (Military Intelligence Other) that was featured in the ITV Jekyll and Hyde series that CBC ran last year. Every country has a similar organization and they all deal with things from other dimensions that would like to spend some time in our world. To do that they may burst across dimensional walls, or they may infect (read: possess) some of this world’s inhabitants.

Magic, in Stross’s rendering (much like that of L. Sprague de Camp and Jack Chalker), is actually connected to mathematics, and it is mathematicians and philosophers who seem most likely to discover it; mostly, it seems, by accident.

Bob Howard was an IT specialist and computer nerd who stumbled onto a spell that might have done a lot of damage to the world, and so he was immediately recruited into the Laundry – it was that or die, basically. Most of the Laundry’s agents joined up the same way.

Old style magic used to record spells in grimoires, but times have changed. When we first met Bob in The Atrocity Archive he was storing his emergency spells on a Palm Zire. He’s since upgraded to a smart phone.

His life has upgraded as well. When I last read one of these, Bob was single, but now he’s married to Mo, who is also an agent, one who is paired with a particularly vicious creature that looks, to the normal eye, pretty much like violin. It’s a weapon of incredible power and Mo’s a really good fiddler, but if she plays till her fingers bleed, bad things can happen.

In the current adventure, a group of banking nerds accidentally finds a combination of spells, while working of an accounting program, that links them to some extra dimensional parasites that basically turn them into vampires. There’s a twist. While they need the occasional drink of human blood to keep their new parasites from consuming them, their dining links them to their victims in a psychic manner and the parasites drain their victims of life force, leaving husks behind.

When the Laundry becomes aware of a sudden spate of suspicious deaths, they trace it to the bank. When Bob is sent in to “manage” the problem, he finds himself face to face with a former girlfriend, someone who once worked in the Laundry’s human resources office and knows how to game the system. She gets herself and her mates signed on as agents, thus avoiding death. The new vampires are classified as PHANG – short for Photogolic Hemophagic Anagathic Neurotropic, and no one knows what the G is for, but it works – persons and are about to be put to work somehow, when they started getting murdered.

It turns out that a group of PHANGS is a very unusual thing. By nature, they are territorial and loners (“there can be only one”, as the Highlanders used to say), and tend to work hard to keep their own numbers small so that they won’t be detected. It appears that there are already some very old members of the species in the area and they don’t like the attention the newbies are attracting, so they are dealing with it.

Or, at least, that’s what appears to be happening. On the other hand, there has to be some reason why nearly all the members of an organization devoted to the study and taming of occult threats are so absolutely convinced that vampires don’t exist. Solving that mystery becomes a side issue in the case file with the amusing name Opera Cape, until it turns out that this may actually be the main event.

I’ve said enough. The book is fun. It has some actual mysteries in it and quite a few plot twists. Enjoy it.

As I read this book, references to previous stories made it clear that I had missed some installments since reading The Jennifer Morgue, which was the last one I had seen. It turns out there are two books I’ve missed, which explains why Bob’s power levels are higher than I recalled them being. The current issue of Locus magazine has a long interview with Stross in which I learned that there are also two books after this one that I haven’t seen yet, as well as two Hugo Award winning short stories using the same setting. I’m looking forward to all of them.

I met and chatted with Stross at the Montreal Science Fiction Worldcon a few years back. He’s an interesting fellow who writes in a number of different styles. The Laundry books are basically H.P. Lovecraft meets John LeCarré, but he writes regular science fiction as well and has a variety of series on the go.



Bookends: The Detective as Stranger in a Strange Land January 31, 2017

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Bookends: The Detective as Stranger in a Strange Land

By Dan Davidson

October 26, 2016

– 833 words –


The Bat

By Jo Nesbø

Vintage Canada

384 pages


E-book: $12.99


There are trends in publishing, and a breakout success by a particular author will often trigger a spate of interest in a particular kind of book. The massive popularly of J.K.
Rowling’s Harry Potter books resulted in a resurgence of interest in stories about young wizards. It was not a new genre. It had been done before, notably by Ursula K, Leguin in A Wizard of Earthsea, and its sequels, but that was a generation ago and trends often need to be rediscovered.

Dystopian futures featuring young people are not new. I used to teach John Wyndham’s lovely book, The Chrysalids in high school (partly because it was set in the North, in Labrador), and it went over well with my classes. John Christopher did a lot of this kind of work, especially in his Tripods YA series. So Suzanne Collins wasn’t really breaking new ground when she wrote The Hunger Games trilogy, but her success inspired library shelves full of new YA dystopian trilogies

Sometimes, older books will be rediscovered by this sort of process. Stieg Larsson’s “Girl Who…” trilogy (and its ghost written sequels) inspired a revived interest in Scandinavian mystery books. The last time I can recall this happening was with the work of Janwillem van de Wetering, whose Grijpstra and de Gier novels, set in Holland, were popular for about 25 years after the first one came out in 1975, an inspired an interest in other writers, including Henning Mankell, who work from Sweden overlapped van de Wetering’s later novels.

Larsson’s books began appearing in Swedish in 2005 and first came out in English translation in 2008. Nesbø’s Harry Hole series had begun in Norway in 1997 and translations I English began appearing in 2005. For some confusing reason the English versions don’t start at the beginning, with the book I’
reviewing this week, Flaggermusmannen, or The Bat (see, I’m finally getting to it) but with the fifth book in the series, The Devil’s Star. At least five other books, in no particular sequence, were translated before they got around to this one.

My theory is that the others are set in Norway, and this one isn’t, so the publisher wanted to establish the character in his normal setting of Oslo. For reasons known only to himself, Nesbø decided that Harry Hole would be introduced to the world with a case that took him way out of his comfort zone and dropped him down in Australia.

Not that the book doesn’t work, or wasn’t apprecia
ed when it appeared. It picked up the most prestigious crime writing award in Norway, The Riverton Prize (Rivertonprisen) 1997 for Best Norwegian Crime Novel of the Year, as well as the premier crime writing award in Scandinavia, The Glass Key (Glasnyckeln) 1998 for Best Nordic Crime Novel of the Year.

But these aren’t the Edgar, Agatha Christie, Macavity, Poirot, Shamus or Arthur Ellis awards, so they don’t mean as much to the English speaking mind.

Inspector Harry Hole is a troubled man. He doesn’t seem it at first, but we eventually get enough backstory to l
arn why he struggles with alcoholism and just how the mess this case becomes could drive him back to it. He’s been sent to Sydney to observe the progress on a case involving the murder of a 23 year old Norwegian woman who had been a minor celebrity back home. The local brass want to make sure he does nothing but observe, and it’s easy to see from the opening pages just how that will work out.

He’s mentored (not in method but in local culture) by one of the lead detectives on the case, and he becomes close to one of the witnesses. Events and his temperament lead him deeper into the case and he eventually uncovers what has not be noticed until then, that this case has echoes in various parts of the country. There is a serial killer at work.

Up to that point, the killings have adhered to a particular pattern, but as the investigation advances, the killer starts working on the people around Harry, and the strain of that drives him back to the bottle for quite a while. While the third narrative viewpoint is exclusively trough Harry’s eyes, we seem to pull back from him while he is in the state. The author doesn’t pass judgment, but we feel really let down by Harry’s inability to pull hi
mself out of the bottle. If he was able to do it once, he should have been able to do it againI’m having mixed feelings about Harry’s character flaws. He’s an engaging character and the final resolution to the case, though telegraphed earlier in the book, is both gruesome and satisfying. I think I’d recommend finding out the publication order and reading them that way.





Bookends: Body Shifting Suspects make for a Difficult Case January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Body Shifting Suspects make for a Difficult Case

By Dan Davidson

September 21, 2016        lock-in

– 870 words –

Lock In

By John Scalzi

TOR Books

336 pages



The science fiction field has a long history of crossing over into the mystery field. One of the earliest obvious practitioners of crossover writing was Isaac Asimov, whose three novels featuring the detective Elijah Bailey took the murder mystery to outer space in an obvious way. Outside the field Asimov produced six volumes of short stories about a mystery discussion group he called the Black Widowers.

Other SF writers frequently “ghosted” in well-known series. “Ellery Queen” was already a pen name for two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, and several SF writers – Theodore Sturgeon and Jack Vance, among others – wrote some of the later entries in the series.

John Scalzi seems determined to write every sort of SF related book that he possibly can, and has done an excellent job of following in that tradition, creating a future world shaped by a pernicious disease, and a murder mystery that has everything to do with that disease.

Some years from now a new, highly contagious virus appears. Like the zica virus, most people who catch it have just a few days of fever and misery, but it has other mysterious effects on some peoples’ brains. One per cent of its victims find themselves “locked in”, closed off from all voluntary motor functions and sensory inputs – fully awake but truly isolated from the world. They call it Haden’s Syndrome, mostly because the wife of President Haden is one of the victims.

Partly because of this connection, and because a good number of the victims come from wealth, an effort is made to find a way for these disconnected brains to access the world. The solution is to create robot surrogate bodies and implant in the brains hardware and software that allow people to interface with these bodies and “live” in the world again.

This is somewhat similar to the gimmick used in the Bruce Willis movie, “Surrogates”, except that most of the artificial bodies are not so cosmetically perfect.

One other, rare, side effect of the virus is that a very small percentage of Haden’s sufferers come out undamaged, but, with the installation of matching hardware and software in their craniums, are able to share their bodies with those who are locked in. They are called Integrators.

Chris Shane is Haden’s survivor from a wealthy family who has been locked in since he was a child. He was one of the first to use a surrogate, which are known as “threeps”, in honour of a very famous golden robot in an old movie. Tired of being the poster child for Haden-kind, he has taken up law enforcement as a career. He has been partnered with a difficult experienced cop named Leslie Vann, who has many secrets in her background.

Their first case together involves the murder of an Integrator, who may have been killed by another Integrator. The problem is that the apparent murderer doesn’t remember a thing about it. He was being “ridden”, as they call it, by someone else at the time, and while he’s supposed to be aware of everything his rider does, he has no memory of how he came to be in that hotel room with that dead man.

I spent some space on the social background of this story because it spoiled nothing to do that, and you need to understand that it’s entirely possible that some of the people you meet may not be who they seem to be at any given time in the book. All that is clear from the outset is that this is a Haden related crime, probably committed by a Haden person.

Means, motive and opportunity are much harder to pin down when your suspect might in any one of several threeps at any given time, or be integrated with another actual human some of the time.

In that sense the book reminded me very much of Asimov’s Bailey novels, in which the sociology and psychology of the places where the crimes occurred had so much to do with why and how they occurred.

Shane is the first person narrator of this story, and the fact that he is not moving about in a flesh and blood body didn’t come clear for me until I was a chapter or so into the story. There was certainly something odd about him, but I couldn’t pin it down until some of the expository dialogue made it clear. After that, I adjusted, and just sort of forgot about it, until he had an internal conversation with the caregiver looking after his body at home, or shifted bodies, or crossed the country in an eyeblink (more shifting) in order to follow up clues.

It’s not a simple mystery so it gives you lots to puzzle about and the future setting keeps you just off base enough to give the writer the edge in hiding some things from you along the way.

I continue to be impressed with Scalzi, who first came to my attention about six years ago and has yet to disappoint.







Bookends: Investigators baffled by what lies beneath January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Investigators baffled by what lies beneath

By Dan Davidsonfirewalk

December 28, 2016

– 847 words –



By Chris Roberson

Night Shade Books

348 pages



Zombies. They’re everywhere. The original horror flicks, back as far as the George Romero classic, were vague about what caused them, but the condition was infectious and the diet was human brains. I saw the original Night of the Living Dead back in college and have had no desire to see further renditions over the years.

The Resident Evil series introduced the idea that moved the plague away from the supernatural and made it into something humans might cause by means of evil science.

In other versions, the condition is caused by a virus or is some form of disease.

Stephen King’s Cell has the condition being triggered by a rogue cellphone signal that shuts down the brain’s higher functions.

Chris Roberson and artist Michael Allred created the comic book iZombie, in which an unfortunate combination of an energy drink and a designer drug triggers a zombie reaction. This can also be passed on by a bite or scratch. It can be controlled and the victims can only continue to function as normal humans by ingesting small quantities of human brain material. In zombie mode they possess unnatural strength and resilience.

After eating of another person’s brain they have access to that person’s memories and personality traits. The central character in the series, and in the television show now in its third season, is a victim named Olivia Moore (so, of course, Liv Moore). She is a former medical student who gets her require grey matter by working in the city morgue.

In Firewalk, Roberson, who writes fantasy novels as well as comic books, has come at the idea from a different angle, in what promises to be the first book in a new series. This is framed as a mystery/thriller, but it’s in familiar zombie territory and has echoes of iZombie.

Five years ago Izzie Lefevre, of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and Detective Patrick Tevake, on the Recondito Police Force, were instrumental in tracking down and ending the career of a serial killer, a scientist named Nicholas Fuller, who had left a dozen sword decapitated bodies in his wake before they cornered him.

What is unusual about both partners is that their family backgrounds, which they both try to ignore, have exposed them to lore and legend which allows them to see what might be supernatural significance in events which have begun to occur in the city again.

Izzie’s grandmother was a voodoo priestess. Patrick’s Polynesian great-uncle believed that there were special places on earth where the walls between worlds were thin.

There is a new street drug called Ink, so-called because prolonged use of it causes its addicts to break out in ink-like blotches on their skin. It also causes them to want to avoid sunlight and, when gathered in groups, to behave in a herd-like manner, as if being controlled by a single intelligence.

When violent individuals in the final stages of this addiction are killed by decapitation, autopsies reveal that there are large empty spots in their brains, much like what happens to victims of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, sometimes called Mad Cow Disease. The condition is identical to that found in the brains of Fuller’s victims from five years earlier. It is this coincidence that causes Tevake to request that Lefevre return to Recondito to compare notes with him.

The final straw for them both is the death of an Ink pusher who continues to rise from the ground and try to assault them after nearly every bone in his body has been broken by a fall and he has been shot enough times to take down a horse. Only after his neck has been broken so thoroughly that it is barely attached to his body, does he stop moving, and the Ink blotches fade from his skin.

They begin to wonder if Fuller hadn’t been killing the people he did for a specific, and perhaps very good, reason. His victims were all participants in a series of experiments that took place in an abandoned mine shaft, as part of a project called Undersight.

“Gravity leaks into other spaces, but doors swing both ways. They went down into the dark,” Fuller said of his victims before they died, “and the dark came back with them. Ridden. Passengers. I saw it, even if no one else did.”

He’d killed 12 people in horrible ways, but there was a number 13, someone he called the student, and five years later that man was continuing the work Fuller had tried to stop.

Before the book ends the two investigators, and a couple of other people who get roped into the case, find the true source of Ink, are chased by a zombie horde, find sanctuary in a light house, and realize they have a lot more work to do, The story will continue in the next book, Firewalkers. I’ll be looking for it. This one was fun.












Bookends: Murder in Prince Edward County January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Murder in Prince Edward County

By Dan Davidson

September 6, 2016

sowing-poison– 739 words –


Sowing Poison: A Thaddeus Lewis Mystery

By Janet Kellough

Dundurn Press

369 pages


Thaddeus Lewis is a former Methodist circuit rider, an itinerant preacher who moves from town to town, holding services where ever there is the chance of a congregation in need of his services. This has been his career for many years, but as we meet him in this book, the health of his wife and their sudden acquisition of a granddaughter (following their daughter’s murder) has forced the little family to settle down.

It’s the 1840s in Ontario, just a few years after the 1837 uprisings in both Upper and Lower Canada, and things are still unsettled. Thaddeus and Betsy have settled down with young Martha in Wellington, trading service in the Temperance Hotel run by his sister and her husband, for the use of a cottage adjacent to the hotel property. Betsy is not always well, but dos what she can, while Thaddeus has adjusted to the role of general handyman and occasional server.

The story begin with the disappearance of Nathan Elliot, who has returned home from the States to help his brother tend to their ailing and aged (and cantankerous) father. Brother Reuban rushed for help when Nathan had an accident in the woods, but when the rescue party arrived, there was no sign of him.

Shortly after that, a woman claiming to be his wife arrives. Clementine Elliot and her young son, Horatio, take up residence at the Temperance, and much to the dismay of Thaddeus, she immediately sets up shop as a medium and starts holding séances in her rooms.

It’s not Thaddeus’ hotel, so he really can’t put a stop to this practice, which he is convinced is fraudulent and not some sort of supernatural evil. Still, that doesn’t stop him from trying to figure out just how she is rooking the locals who have suffered the loss of a loved one. It turns out that she’s a great “cold reader” and also makes free use of the town gossip, but there is also a bit of 19th century technology involved, somewhat in the line of what has been on display in this summer’s “Houdini & Doyle” television series.

According to the author’s notes, Thaddeus Lewis is based on a real person of that name who left behind an 1865 autobiography which is the source material for some of this series. It began with On the Head of a Pin, to which references are made in this second book, Sowing Poison, and continues with 47 Sorrows, The Burying Ground, and Wishful Seeing.

In the first book, Thaddeus tracked down a serial killer, one of whose victims had been his daughter. In this book, as several mysteries seem to arise in the town, he is inspired by reading “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, one of a series of early mysteries written by Edgar Allan Poe. He makes a conscious effort to apply the observational techniques used by Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin in this story.

While the mystery of Nathan’s disappearance looms large in this book, there are other problems. Members of the Orange Order attempt harm to a Roman Catholic family. A strange little man who turns out to be a detective investigating the activities of Mrs. Elliot vanishes suddenly. The two children discover the presence of a very ugly young man out on the sand marshes and t eventually turns out that this hare lipped wild child, all alone since the death of his parents, has been harvesting whatever meat he can find, including the bodies of individuals who have met their deaths by other means.

While there is a strong focus on the various mysteries that attract Thaddeus’ attention, this is also a tale about life in the 1840s, and it has threads of romance and domesticity woven around the mysteries.

I found a very pleasant way to pass the time while flying across the country recently. The only thing that left me a bit puzzled is the title.. There is murder, deception, cannibalism, mob violence and lots of activity in this story, but there is nary a hint of poison that I can see, unless it is an oblique reference to such moral poisons as greed and fraudulent practices.

That said, I’m certainly encouraged to look for more from this author.



Bookends: A Black Family’s Occult Adventures in Nineteen-Fifties America January 31, 2017

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Bookends: A Black Family’s Occult Adventures in Nineteen-Fifties America

By Dan Davidson

lovecraft-couuntrySeptember 9, 2016

– 810 words –


Lovecraft Country

By Matt Ruff


384 pages


e-book editions: $15.99


Given that Lovecraft Country is unrelentingly about the African-American experience in the United States during the 1950s, it surprised me to discover that Matt Ruff is not a Black man. This does not mean that he has committed a misappropriation of culture, but rather that he has produced a careful reflection on the problems faced by another race, using the framework of the science-fiction /horror adventure tales to do the job.

Maybe I need to explain the title of the novel and the way it’s structured. Howard Phillips Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror story writers in the history of the genre. No one who works in this genre can avoid having been influenced by him or by one of his contemporaries: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E, Howard and, in some cases, Ray Bradbury.

“The Call of Cthulhu” introduced the idea that Earth was once ruled by demonic elder gods, who were somehow banished from the planet, but are just itching to find a way back. Lovecraft piled on the tension and the atmosphere in a manner similar to E. A. Poe, and was deliberately old fashioned in his use of language, at least when he wasn’t ghost-writing things for other people.

He was also a notorious racist and white supremacist in his personal views, and often worked those ideas into his stories in fictional form. So, “Lovecraft country” is a place where eldritch magic and racism come together, something that is made very clear in the first story/chapter in the book, when Atticus Turner is carded by a racist highway patrol officer while on his way home between Florida and Chicago.

I wrote “story/chapter” because of the way this book is set up. The cover resembles an old pulp magazine illustration, and it was common, once upon a time, for writers to tell a series of stories with a common protagonist, or background, and when they had enough of them to make up a book, they created what is called a “fix-up” novel, with some bridging material to string it all together. One of the most famous of these would be Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

Ruff has created a novel which resembles this pattern, but is actually much more tightly plotted that that. Atticus, his relatives, and other people who are connected to the family, are the central characters in nine independent short stories which are, nevertheless, a novel when taken together.

In the first story, Atticus, his father, his uncle George, the publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and a young woman named Letitia, are tricked into travelling to Ardham Lodge (a clear reference to Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham) where the membership of the Order of the Ancient Dawn intend to use him as the catalyst (and sacrifice) to open a dimensional door and let the Elder Gods come back. Their plan fails, due to the intervention of young Caleb Braithwhite, a powerful sorcerer who will turn up in several other stories before the novel reaches its conclusion. Just because he helps the Turners out few times does not make him a good man.

This is perhaps the most Lovecraftian part of the book. The other sections are generally written as homages to other pulp fiction horror/science fiction tropes. There’s a haunted house story, with a nice twist to it. There’s a kind of treasure hunt/caper story. There’s an adventure in another dark dimension, a distinctly different take on the ideas behind Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, a ghost story, a tale of demonic possession, a showdown that gathers all the plot threads together, and a tidy epilogue that gives us a time frame. The various events in the book take about a year to play out.

As I noted, much of this book is a homage to the works of various writers, many of whom are name-checked in the narratives, who were big names in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. What’s unusual about each of the stories is that the central character in each case is a black man or (even more unlikely at that time) a black woman. In each case this racial identity creates some problems that would not have been faced by the mostly white protagonists that populated the pulps during those years.

So, while Ruff has given us a fascinating series of adventure stories that add up to more than the sum of their parts, he has also given us a commentary on a specific era in American history. The combination is very effective. He discusses some of his intentions in several interviews that are worth a look on his website.



Bookends: Desperate People Hide out in the Yukon January 31, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, mystery, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Desperate People Hide out in the Yukon

By Dan Davidson

August 29, 2016

city-of-thr-lost– 767 words –


City of the Lost

By Kelly Armstrong

Random House of Canada




Every so often a writer will reach back into Charles Dickens’ bag of tricks and issue a novel in serial format. Stephen King did it with The Green Mile back in 1996, bringing it out in six thin paperbacks that were eventually republished in collected form about a year later.

It’s become easier to do this now that there’s a market for e-books. Canada’s Kelly Armstrong is best known for her novels featuring werewolves and witches, books with strong female characters. Even though there’s no supernatural element to this book, the latter description remains true.

Our narrator is Casey Duncan, a veteran detective with the special victims unit in a city that remains unnamed. Casey has a deep secret. 12 years earlier she was attacked while out walking with her boyfriend. He fled and she was both raped and badly injured. When she comes to, several weeks later, she seeks out Blaine, wanting an explanation for why he had abandoned her. She questions him at gunpoint, and at some point in the argument she kills him.

She gets away with it, but does penance by joining the police force.

During the ensuing twelve years she has become the protector of a young woman named Diana, who seems to have terminally bad judgement when it comes to men. Di is the only person who knows what Casey did, but Di has her own problems in the person of an abusive ex-husband who keeps coming back for more, and has nearly killed her at least once. Casey tried to scare him off, but it seems she only made him become more devious.

Recently Casey has been stepping out with a bartender named Kurt and one evening they are attacked and he is shot. The gunman gets away but his parting words tell her he was sent by Blaine’s father, a known gangster. Casey has been playing a weird sort of psychological Russian Roulette for some years, going to various therapists and confessing her murder to them, counting on the patient/doctor relationship to protect her. Apparently one of them finally talked.

That’s the set up for what follows. Di has learned of a place where people can go when they need to hide, and at this point they both need to. The interview to go to the City of the Lost doesn’t go well to begin with, but it emerges that this bush town, somewhere north of Dawson City, has need of a detective. It has a sheriff, Eric Dalton, but he’s no expert on murder, and there has been one. So despite his reservations about Casey, (he seems to know her secret) he agrees to take them both.

The town of Rockton is a full service bush community with an indeterminate number of residents. It is accessible only by air, from the Dawson airport. It is controlled by something called the Council, and the set-up is somewhat mysterious, but it is a hideaway for people who need to disappear, some for good reasons, some for bad.

The first murder, the one Casey was brought in to solve, was weird. There were body parts, and whole thing looks like it was done by an intelligent animal. Having read some of Armstrong’s other books that was sort of where I expected this to go, and subsequent murders have a touch of ritualism to them that increased this misleading impression.

The eventual solutions and motives are much more mundane than that, but there are more than enough twists and turns in the plot to keep up the interest and the suspense.

I picked up this series last year while travelling, mainly because the promotional material mentioned Dawson and the Yukon. There are a few scenes in the town itself, with a decent sense of the place without being too specific. The wilderness town of Rockton is a bit too manicured to be a really acceptable depiction of the Yukon wilderness, but then this story takes place in the summer, so Armstrong can get away with a lot.

In the end, it was a decent read. Some of the fans at Amazon are calling for a sequel, but, even though there are some loose ends in Casey’s life, I don’t really see where one would go. That said, Armstrong was signing books at Coles in Whitehorse on August 27, and her website says part of the trip was research for more books in this series



Bookends: Extreme Events can have long term consequences January 19, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, mystery, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Extreme Events can have long term consequences

By Dan Davidsonno-safe-house

August 24, 2016

– 916 words –


No Safe House

By Linwood Barclay

512 pages
Seal Books

e-book version $12.99


In the novel No Time for Goodbye we learned the details of the mystery behind the disappearance of Cynthia Archer’s birth family, which happened when she was a young girl. We met some of the cast of the present book, which takes place seven years after the events of that one, and we learned enough to understand why Cynthia is being a ferociously over reactive parent when it comes to raising her daughter, Grace.

Not that Grace isn’t a bit of a handful, but things have gotten so bad between them that Cynthia is taking a break from being mom, and has moved out of the house into an apartment until she can get her emotions under a bit more control.

Terry, her husband, doesn’t think this is a great idea, but it’s summer break time for this teacher, and he can cope as a single parent while his wife sorts things out. After what happened 7 years ago, he thinks he will survive this temporary estrangement.

Terry is the first person narrator of a large portion of the book, but Barclay shows us other narratives as well. The novel begins with a brutal double murder, and it’s quite some time before the various plot strands weave together enough to tell us what this might have to do with the Archer family.

Well before that, Grace goes joyriding with one of the bad boys from school, helps him in breaking into a house in order to filch the keys to that family’s Porsche, and ends up holding a gun that just may have gone off. She’s not sure, but nobody seems to know where Stuart has gone, and she’s afraid she might have shot him by accident when they were jumped by the other person who had broken into that house that night.

When she finally tells her father all about it, there seems to be only one place to go to get information. Seven years earlier the Archer family mystery involved them with a small time gangster named Vince Fleming. Vince is connected to Stuart’s father, so perhaps he will know something about the boy.

Vince has not been well since he was shot during the events of the earlier book, and he has been making changes in his criminal operations in order to compensate for the reduction in his personal physical stamina. There’s something particularly demeaning about having to ear a colostomy bag when you’re a tough guy. Those changes turn out to be the key to the meaning of the book’s title.

This is another track to the narrative that has already seen us following the killers, Grace and Stuart, and a police officer named Rona Wedmore. She’s covering a third murder, which eventually turns out to be connected to the two we saw happen in the prologue.

In some ways, this book provides us with a variation of the “what happens after happily ever after” theme that was in the book I reviewed last week. The Archer family went through Hell and came out the other side, but not without making a sort of deal with the devil, and not without acquiring a big load of post traumatic stress that isn’t finished with them yet. Cynthia’s inner demons and Grace’s rebellion against the rules of an overprotective parent all stem from those earlier events. Terry still has to face the reality that there are times he is willing to do things that he firmly believes are wrong in order to protect his loved ones.

The events of the next several days after Grace’s midnight adventure will test all of them in ways they would not ever have expected, even given their earlier troubles.

By a neat coincidence, I was ruminating about writing this column (while driving down New Brunswick’s French Shore) when who should turn up on CBC’s Candy Palmeter Show but Linwood Barclay himself, talking about his latest book, and his own theories about what makes a good thriller.

No Safe House is a thriller, rather than a mystery, because we know most of what is hidden about the bad guys pretty early on, and the main conflict in the story comes from other places. Barclay feels that the most important sources of tension come from things related to our families or to other people we love. When they are in jeopardy, that’s when the stakes are highest.

That’s certainly the case in this book. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot, but everyone, both Terry and Vince, when it comes right down to it, is driven to do what they eventually have to do by the need to protect their loved ones.

Barclay is a successful Canadian writer who had an earlier career in journalism and really hit his stride when he moved from the lighter comic mysteries of the Zack Walker books to the darker thrillers that he is currently producing at the rate of about one a year. Interestingly, he says his star didn’t begin to rise in Canada until his books had caught on in the British market, and it’s in France where they have made one of his books into a television mini-series. It’s odd how often our creative people have to seek approval elsewhere before we recognize them at home.