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Bookends: Tales from Along the Highways February 18, 2017

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Bookends: Tales from Along the Highways

By Dan Davidson

December 19, 2016

– 684 words –alaska-or-bust

 

Alaska or Bust & Other Stories

By Erma Odrach

Crimson Cloak Publishing

379 pages

$25.50 in hardcover

also available in paperback and e-book formats

 

It’s almost a truism that anyone with even a smattering of literary DNA in t

heir genes will probably end up writing about the Yukon if they’ve lived here for a while and then moved away. That’s why there are so many memoirs about the Gold Rush. That’s why Service and London and Berton all wrote about the place throughout their entire careers even when they were in other places, even, as in the case of the first two writers, when they never came back.

So we come to Erma Odrach, who is mining her memories of a three or four year residence in the north. She sent me this book some months back and we struck up a little bit of a correspondence as a result. She was here from 1979-82, living in Whitehorse and a few places along the Alaska Highway, travelling in the territory and in Alaska, living part of the time in a Squatter’s Row cabin, and ending her stay while holding down a job, fittingly enough, at Mac’s Fireweed.

There’s a generational angle as well, sine her daughter apparently lived in Dawson in the summer of 2015 (if have that right) and volunteered at the Dawson City Music Festival.

The thing about Yukon memories, after 30 years or so, is they suffer a little bit of factual drift. Just how much it’s never easy to say, but all those people who met Jack Lon
on here after he was gone, and all those who travelled over the Chilkoot with Robert Service in 1898 are proof of the type of drift I mean.

So there may be things in the 25 stories that make up this collection that don’t sound quite right, but most of them feel pretty good as far as I can tell. Oh, you can’t drive from Skagway to Haines without doubling back through Haines Junction, (see “Chuck Goes to Haines, Alaska, on the Fourth of July”) but that’s a small problem, a
nd one that won’t exist in subsequent printings of the book, or in the email editions.

The stories range all over the areas that can be reached by the major highways in the territory and the state. Some of them overlap a bit in terms of characters, or refer to events in other unconnected stories. There’s an amusing trilogy about the Three French Guys, and “The Runaways” (about kids in a foster home) has a sort of sequel in “Bush Baby Gets Married”. Quite a few of the stories are quite humorous, but there are also a number that deal with abuse, creeping insanity and hard times.

I’ve been reading this book on and off since October. The stories were good for when I just had a short time to sit and I found them quite satisfactory.

 

Train

trainCreated by Mike Vago
Illustrated Matt Rockefeller

Workman

14 pages

$32.95

 

This is an interesting concept book. It is constructed so that the attached small train can be driven around the landscape o each double page spread (seacoast, d
esert, prairie, mountains, small town, large city, and station). The edge of each segment allows you to drive the train around the edge and into the next landscape until you reach the spot at the back of the book that allows you to shut it again. Or, you can drive the train through the tunnel that take you back to the front of the book to do it all again

Should the train slip out of the grooves that are its track, it’s easy to put it back and carry on.

The book seems sturdy enough, It’s hardcover with a cloth backing inside the spine holding the double page signatures in place. There are directions for proper use on the back cover. Even so, it looks like something that you would to keep an eye on while young reader were playing with/reading it.

 

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February 18, 2017

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Bookends: The Adventures of a Young Lois Lane

By Dan Davidson

December 14, 2016fallout

– 668 words –

 

Fallout

By Gwenda Bond

Switch Press

303 pages

$10.77

e-book edition $8.49

 

There’s been lot of character juggling going on in the DC universe over the last few years. When the corporation re-booted its entire line in an experiment called “the new 52”the world in which Lois Lane and Clark Kent had been married for over a decade vanished. The younger, less experienced versions of both characters remained friends and competitive colleagues, but the romance was gone. Other relationships took its place and eventually the new Superman lost most of his powers, and finally regained them long enough to fight a final battle before dying (again).

All this is simply to say that people have been playing with these characters in many ways for many years, and that within the DC multiverse, with at least 52 permutations, there may be a universe like the one Gwenda Bond is writing about.

Most current variations on the theme of Lois and Clark have the pair not meeting until they are both adults, when Clark is just beginning using his alter ego after having spent some time travelling around the world after high school, but Bond has decided that they have a link that begins online while they are teenagers.

Lois Lane, troublesome army brat, has recently moved to Metropolis with her family, there to get a new start on life, preferably one where she makes some normal friends, doesn’t get expelled from school, and generally keeps a low profile.

Fat chance, right? That just not Lois.

Her new high school has a group of students who call themselves the Warheads, and they seem determined to recruit or destroy other students to their group, a group which dresses alike, sounds somewhat alike and can actually complete each others’ sentences.

Lois befriends a girl who is being bullied by this group. It gets complicated. Some of the students – the Warheads, to be exact – have been enrolled in a secret extra-credit study group which meets under the auspices of a organization called Advanced Research Laboratories

In another strand of the story, she signs on for a student internship at the Daily Planet, and becomes part of her own group of would-be cub reporters, who have been assigned by Perry White the task of finding something really worthwhile to investigate.

While there is no stated connection to the tales of Superman, there are strong hints of plots that might require the big guy’s attention later on, and Lois’ extensive email correspondence with the friend she knows only as SmallvilleGuy is, of course, a major clue.

A portion of the climactic action in the story takes place in a virtual reality in which avatars battle for points. ARL has been using virtual reality scenarios and some augmented psychic abilities to create a cadre of perfectly obedient, focussed fighters. Lois has to take her investigation into that realm and find some way to disrupt the broadcast signals that control the Warheads.

SmallvilleGuy, with the help of a tech savvy friend, does manage to be of some help in this endeavor, joining in the VR experience even he is never there in person.

Fallout first appeared at a time when the New 52’s Lois was in need of a little TLC, having outed her world’s Superman as Clark Kent and started him on what would become a downward spiral to his ultimate end. Fortunately, through the magical of a company wide event called the Convergence, which led to something else called the Rebirth, the original Lois and Clark are back (with a son now) and the Lois in this YA series could perhaps become the one currently in the comics.

This is a YA level novel that has a feeling similar to television shows like Veronica Mars and iZombie. It’s the beginning of a series of which there are two books at the moment, with another due out this coming May.

 

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Bookends: LeCarré performs true to form February 17, 2017

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Bookends: LeCarré performs true to form

By Dan Davidson

December 7, 2016

our-kind– 780 words –

 

Our Kind of Traitor

By John LeCarré

Penguin Books

429 pages

$13.50

 

I admit to being a few books behind on the work of David John Moore Cornwell, better known as John LeCarré. When I was using The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in my English classes, I made a point of always reading his latest novel as soon as it came out in paperback. As a result, I’ve actually had this one for a few years and, for some reason, just wasn’t getting to it. In this case, a review of the book that I read somewhere, put me off. I should have known better.

I was motivated to pluck it off the shelf by the news that there was a movie with a rather impressive cast that seems to have preserved all the most important characters. I can see Ewan McGregor as Perry, the disillusioned Oxford don, and Damian Lewis and Mark Gatiss as the British agents who play games with his life.

Not unlike The Spy, and several other novels, this book involves an attempt by someone, a Russian mafia oligarch named Dima, to break away from a personal situation that has become intolerable. He approaches Perry and Gail, an unmarried couple who are on vacation in Antigua (changed to Morocco in the movie for some reason) and strikes up an acquaintance with them. This eventually leads to him proposing that they assist him and his extended family in escaping to England.

Dima is a gifted money launderer, a financial wizard and, after the murder of his protégé and his wife, he is convince that he is marked for death as part of the schemes of another mob boss known as the Prince. His offer is to turn over everything he knows about the Russian mob’s finances in return for sanctuary.

Perry and Gail take his offer back to London, where they meet with agents Hector, Luke and Ollie, and it is during the scenes where they are being questioned by British agents, where the narrative flits back and forth between these Q&A sessions and the original events, that the book begins to get good.

The basic idea of the plot is thin, but the meat of the book is all about relationships. Just when I thought we were going to spend most of the story with Perry, Gail, Dima and his family, playing tennis and dancing around spy-like intrigue, the focus shifted and I found myself charting relationships within the agency that LeCarré has called the Circus in the half dozen books that feature George Smiley.

This isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s an agency under severe scrutiny by both its political masters and other agencies. Indeed, this is a rather small group; it almost seems to be something that has gone rogue and is struggling to justify its own existence.

Relationships are everything in this story, Perry and Gail are working out the dynamics of their commitment to each other. Both of them have bonded to a certain extent to their Russian “friends”, Perry to Dima, and Gail to his teenaged daughter, who has gotten herself into “trouble”.

Luke has a roving eye, which has him in trouble on the home front. We never meet his family, but he thinks about them a lot, and we know he suffers from the fear of losing them. Hector has been in and out of the agency, and while he was out he managed to save his family’s fortune against a corporate raid instigated by the man he now must report to as his superior. Tricky.

The narrative style is an odd mixture of things. Sometimes we seem to be within the viewpoint of a particular character, but then the author’s voice steps out to deliver a commentary and let you know who’s in charge.

LeCarre’s escape novels generally work one of two ways. In The Spy (1963) the liberated Alec Lemas is killed trying to escape East Germany. In the The Russia House (1989), nearly 30 years later, “Barley” Blair manages to get a woman named Katya out of Moscow to safety at some personal cost, but he survives the adventure.

I’m not going to tell you how this one works out.

LeCarré has a knack for misdirection, perhaps an inheritance from his con man father, or perhaps a hold over from some of his years as an actual intelligence officer, and can manage to tell stories that have certain similarities without being boring or exactly repeating himself. This book is an excellent read. The other reviewer must have been having a bad day.

LeCarré has recently published a memoir. The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, under his real name. I look forward to finding a copy.

 

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Bookends – Getting Ready for Another National Birthday Celebration February 17, 2017

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Bookends – Getting Ready for Another National Birthday Celebration

By Dan Davidson

November 30, 2016canada-history

– 815 words –

 

Canada – An Illustrated History

By Derek Hayes

Douglas and McIntyre

296 pages

$36.95

 

With Canada’s 150th birthday coming up, it might just be a good time to dip into this highly readable short history of our nation. This is a “revised and expanded” edition of a work that originally came out in hardbound copy in 2004. Apparently the final chapter, “The Third Millennium”, contains the bulk of the new material. The publisher indicates there weren’t that many more changes, and the increased page count seems to fit with that addition.

The book is a lovely package, a well-bound paperback with over 450 illustrations, ranging from photographs to historical paintings and maps, as well as posters, stamps, cartoons, stained glass and tapestries. In the section on Louisbourg one of the paintings was a wall mural that I saw on display there last summer. There is full colour throughout and not a single page without some type of illustration – though there are some pages that have no words.

The publishers’ notes indicate: “The book covers the events, the newsmakers, and the ordinary folk that shaped the Canadian experience. Here are tales of the famous, the infamous, the popular, and the unknown: the natives, the nation-builders, the separatists, and the statesmen; the soldiers, the settlers, the rebels, and the refugees; the artists, the astronauts, the invaders, and the inventors; the motorists, the mail carriers, the fur traders, and the photographers—a myriad of individuals who shaped our country.”

Don’t let that generic list or the table of contents fool you. While they read like a standard history of Canada, marching on from First Nations habitation through the Vikings, French, English, wars, rebellions, Confederation, and on to the present day, there are a lot of sidebars on specific issues or trends that stand out from the main text by having a different background colour and a different type of content. Some are single page segments, but most are two page spreads.

These are the pages where the book gets away from the military and political themes that used to dominate historical writing and begins to deal with social issues. There are sections on the plague ships that led to quarantine islands, the 19th century’s discovery of oil, the Underground Railway, the development of the railway, the evolution of law and punishment, the development of the telephone and Standard Time, photography, fire fighting, bicycles, the Klondike Gold Rush, catalogue shopping, the postal service, and many other topics. The one problem I have with it relates to the glossy paper and the 91/2 by 113/4 inch size. It’s a somewhat cumbersome book and it’s hard to find a position where light isn’t reflecting off the pages. It turned out that it was easiest to read while sitting at the kitchen table.

Derek Hayes , a geographer by training, has a passion for old maps and what they can reveal about the past. He is the author of the bestselling Historical Atlas Series, which includes the Historical Atlas of Canada , Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley , Historical Atlas of the Arctic, Historical Atlas of Toronto and Historical Atlas of the United States . His website lists 15 books on a variety of geographical and historical topics.

The book provides a lot of material for trivial pursuit fans. For instance, did you know that:

  • Germans landed in Canada during the Second World War
  • Canada was valued at a billion dollars in 1872
  • a new boat was demonstrated in Toronto in 1897 that rolled over the
  • waves
  • up to 1930, Norway claimed a vast territory in Canada’s North
  • the first automobile crossed the Canadian Rockies in 1904 – by driving
  • on the rails of the Canadian Pacific
  • Canada once issued a 25 cent bill – and a $50,000 bill
  • Canada nearly had a flag with three maple leaves, not one
  • it was not until 1949 that all of Canada drove on the right
  • a major Canadian bridge collapsed not once but twice
  • the first transatlantic phone call was made in 1927 by radio
  • the first Canadian railway began running in 1836
  • the original “Red Indians” lived in Newfoundland
  • during the War of 1812 a cannon made in 1657 was used to defend
  • Toronto against the Americans
  • it took only a hour for French Canada to fall to the British
  • Canada’s first newspaper was the Halifax Gazette, published in 1752. It
  • was a single sheet of paper
  • one of the principal French forts is today a traffic island
  • France imported women into Canada, and then passed a law requiring men to marry them
  • Samuel de Champlain expected to find China at the western end of the Great Lakes
  • part of Canada is named after a brand of gin, and another after a beer

 

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Bookends: Why it was a dark and stormy day February 17, 2017

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Bookends: Why it was a dark and stormy day

By Dan Davidson

November 23, 2016tricksters-tale

– 733 words –

 

The Unbelievable FIB: The Trickster’s Tale

By Adam Shaughnessy

Algonquin Books

263 pages

$10.82

 

“The envelopes arrived during the uncertain hours of Thursday morning – those dark, early hours between tomorrow and yesterday, between not-quite-yet and nevermore. It’s a time when the day is still young, still taking shape, and still open to possibility.”

The envelopes were a kind of lure, a kind of invitation. Every house got one, or more than one, slipped under bedroom doors, but most people could not see them. Prudence Potts, generally known hereafter as Pru, did more than see her envelope; she opened and read the message: “Be grave in your search, and avoid having stones in your head.” And on the back of the card in the envelope, WHAT IS THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB?

Pru, who is still suffering the grief and anger of losing her detective father, has entered that stage of youngsterhood where she questions everything and accepts almost nothing at face value. She’s not having a good time at school – mostly because it’s boring and too easy, and because she keeps challengin authority. She has few friends, and it’s almost odd when she findds herself liking ABE (short for Aloysius Bartholomew Evans), the new boy, who is just as isolated by his newness as she is by her temperament.

They’re assigned to be project partners by Pru’s least favorite teacher, but that turns out to be something to be grateful for in the end.

For reasons that eventually become clear, the weather arouind Middletown had gone all dark and stormy lately, and it’s that way every day.

The kids’ adventures really begin during a school trip to the local mansion, Old Man Grimnir’s Winterhaven House. The founders of the town were of Viking ancestry and the mansion was full of Norse artifacts. Pru and ABE manage to get themselves into a bit of trouble there. This is also where they meet the man in the gray cloak who calls himself Mr. Fox and have their first encounter with a talking squirrel.

Later, they get chased by someone or something really large, while visiting the graveyard where Pru’s father is buried, and are somehow rescued by Mr. Fox, though they never get a really good look at the thing. At least not in this reality.

As events become more complex, Fox takes them to his secret home, which he calls the Henhouse. This makes sense when we learn that Fox is somehow connected to the Slavic myths about Baba Yoga and much of the strangeness currently infecting Middletown has to do with characters out of Norse myth.

Because they are able to see the supernatural elements that most people cannot, Fox recruits them as agents of his Fantasy Investigation Bureau and asks for their help in figuring out jus what Loki, the Norse mischief maker is up to. It has something to do with the one-eyed Old Man Grimnir, who is actually Odin, just as the bad weather is the by-product of a geas that has been laid upon Thor by his father.

Enough myths are retold in this book to allow the 8-12 reading group it’s intended for to pick up the clues and figure out what Loki is after, how he might be foiled, and why that would be important.

Magic, it turns out, is quite real and the fib that most people have accepted is that it is not. But the practice of magic and travelling to other worlds (dimensions, realms, what have you) is best left to people whose minds are not too firmly settled as to what is real and what is not. To have firm beliefs about much of anything gets in the way, which is why Pru and ABE are particularly good at sensing otherworldly things.

There are touches of a lot of other young adult series in this book, which is the first of two out so far. If you enjoyed the Percy Jackson books, there’s a bit of that here, as well as Anthony Horowitz’s Gatekeepers series. Mr. Fox, of course, is a bit of a mystical Dr. Who, with his enigmatic ways and his “bigger on the inside” travelling abode.

This would be a lot of fun to read to pre-teens, and the older kids can read for themselves.

 

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Bookends: Advice on Writing from a Master February 17, 2017

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Bookends: Advice on Writing from a Master

By Dan Davidson

November 16, 2016

– 730 words –

 

Startle and Illuminate: startle-and-illuminate on Writing

Edited by Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini

Random House Canada

204 pages

$29.95

 

“I’ve never been able to separate my reading and my writing life.” Carol Shields wrote in an essay entitled “Writers are Readers First”. I think that’s something that has been true of every writer I’ve had the opportunity to interview over the last 35 years or so. Over 70 scribblers of various genres and disciplines have passed through Berton House since it opened, and there have been 120 or so as part of my long association with the Department of Education’s annual Young Authors Conference.

One thing always comes up. You can’t write if you don’t read.

I met Carol Shields on the printed page rather than in person, joining the conversation that one has with the author of any piece of writing during her last three or four novels.

Some authors do make an attempt to write about the process, maybe in fiction or in essay form, in much the same way as bands seem to inevitably write songs about performance or about life on the road.

Pierre Berton wrote a book on writing late in his career, dissecting the process by which he had produced volume after volume of entertaining historical writing.

Stephen King tackled the issue in a couple or three novels about the lives of writers, but also in a valuable memoir on the craft.

This compilation by Carol Shields, collected together by her daughter and her grandson, is not quite that kind of book, and is perhaps not something that she had intended to issue herself, though the essays and letters of which it is comprised work the same way.

The concept was Anne’s, but much of the legwork, the digging into the material in the archived papers, was done by Nicholas, who notes that he learned a lot about the woman he had previously related to mostly as “grandmother” along the way.

With Anne it was a little different. She was also a novelist and she and Carol had traded ideas back and forth and given each other bits of advice over the years, This was part of how Anne was sure that there was a treasure trove of material out there, if it could just be pulled together.

Shields was a teacher of writing as well as a writer, and the last chapter of the book is taken directly from snippets of letters that she wrote to critique and advise students on what they were doing right or wrong with their submissions to her. These are kind of repetitive, comments about tightening up or expanding certain passages, getting the pacing of scenes right, what to say outright and what to imply, and an often repeated comment that “writing lives and dies at the sentence level.”

In one of the complete essays, the one I quoted at the beginning, she also notes of herself, “I saw that I could become a writer is I paid attention, if I was careful, if I observed the rules, and then, just as carefully, broke them.”

The 14 complete essays that make up the bulk of this book each concentrate on a particular area of writing. There is some overlap, as there is bound to be, but Shields spends time dismissing the myths that keep people from writing, the myths (as she sees them) about writing, talks about organizational structures to help move the work along, advises about raiding the work of others or of one’s own life, for ideas, discusses about what personal things need to be protected, and what may be exposed safely.

Each chapter is followed by a point form summary of its main points, as an “in brief” section, and sometimes as a list of writing assignments.

This is not a quick read. Both of the books I mentioned earlier had a degree of narrative flow to them that made them easy to follow. This is a more academic sounding work, good in a different way. I read it over a period of a few weeks, a chapter at a sitting, with some time in between to reflect on what she had to say. It was very worthwhile, but it did require one to pay attention.

 

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Bookends – Another kind of Remembrance is also important February 17, 2017

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Bookends – Another kind of Remembrance is also important

By Dan Davidson

November 8, 2016

– 640 words –

 

the-holocaustThe Holocaust: The Origins, Events and Remarkable Tales of Survival
By Philip Steele

Scholastic Books

96 pages

$15.00 in paperback edition

 

The Holocaust, the deliberate murder of six million Jews and some five million Slavic people, as well as Roma (Gypsies), is the Nazi policy that justifies the role of the Allied Nations in the carnage that was World War II.

There isn’t really a passable excuse for the extended family feud that was World War I, but the Second World War does have a palpable evil that needed to be fought against, stopped, and defeated. Nothing demonstrates that better than a close look at the Holocaust.

Philip Steele’s book provides just that in a version that has something to say to all ages, though it is primarily aimed at younger readers.

The book is set up a bit like a museum between covers. There are hundreds of images, maps and documents, each of them identified with descriptions and explanations, set in a variety of typefaces, that look like museum cards and tags.

An introductory section provides a framework within which to understand what the message of the book will be.

The Coming Storm provides a history of the Jewish people in Europe, from the time of the initial diaspora from the original homeland. It shows how these people became embedded in countries all over Europe, and the long history of anti-Semitism, running through the Middle Ages and up to the 20th century.

It also chronicles the contributions the Jews made in the realms of philosophy, science and culture.

There is a brief section on the First World War, and then Steele develops the post-war background that leads to the growth of the Nazi party in Germany as a result of the Treaty of Versailles and failure of the Weimar Republic. There are large panorama shots of Nazi rallies and the images showing the beginnings of the propaganda that created the national will to accept the obvious persecution of an entire race of people.

Just how much the general public in Germany knew about the euphemistically termed Final Solution has never been entirely certain, but there were certainly thousands of soldiers and SS members who were involved in the process and who knew exactly what they were doing.

The book chronicles the ways in which many Jews were enabled to escape Germany before the worst came, though those who only managed to escape to countries that were overrun by the German armies after 1939 were often scooped up later.

To the immense shame of much of the rest of the world, relatively little was done to help these people flee Europe entirely, though one two-page spread is dedicated to those who, like Oskar Schindler, did what they could.

Part II: From War to Genocide, goes into detail about life in the camps and the procedures that were carried out there: the dehumanizing daily routines, the forced labour, death by starvation, overwork and gas chambers.

Part III: Freedom and Remembrance, covers the end of the war, the problem of displaced persons, the trials at Nuremberg and the founding of the state of Israel. It concludes with a section about the various memorials and special events by which the Holocaust is remembered. This is not because people want to wallow in miserable memories, but because it is too easy in this world for such things to happen again if the memory grows too dim.

There is so much evidence in just this one slim volume that it is incredible to thing that there is an underground industry of Holocaust deniers who would have us believe that none of this ever happened. It is because of such people that books like this are very important.

 

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Bookends: Kids’ books used to teach lessons February 17, 2017

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Bookends: Kids’ books used to teach lessons

By Dan Davidson123

November 2, 2016

– 620 words –

 

A,B.C Animals

1,2,3 Sea Creatures

illustrated by Yoko Hosoya

Flowerpot Press

36 pages
each

$21.99

abc
Alphabet and number books are popular items for the very young. It’s no too often that two such books by the same creator are published in a matched set at the same time, but the work of this artist – a combination of drawing and collage – is quite appealing.

The A,B,C book is the simplest of the two, with a selection of animals to go with the letters of the alphabet. The creatures are drawn, while the letters and backgrounds appear to be clipped from various fabrics or printed papers. The animals are simply named. There are some story possibilities, like, why is that raccoon holding a trumpet?, or why is the turtle carrying a pocket watch? but it’s basically straightforward.

The 1,2,3 book is more complicated. The art uses the same eye catching approach, but there’s a more extended caption for each of the sea creatures, and the actual number is connected to something they are wearing or holding. The swordfish has three donuts speared on its sword, for instance.

The book gets considerably more complex after the number 10, jumping to counting by tens up to 100, having several pages where the reader is challenged to find a up to five creatures they have seen earlier, counting 1 to 30 and naming all the creatures that have been used in the book.

Each of the two books comes with a colourful poster which could either stay in the pocket at the back of the book, or be taken out to become a wall decoration.

do-not-open

Do Not Open the Box

By Timothy Young

Schiffer Publishing

32 pages

$16.99

 

It’s kind of unusual for books for really young readers to be written in the first person singular, or to switch viewpoints, but that is the case with this book.

Benny finds a big cardboard box in the middle of what we assume is a room. We have to assume it, because all the pages of this book have the same “paper bag brown” textured background colour. This sort of matches the box, while only cartoon style Benny is at all colourful.

The box has a label taped to it that says “DO NOT OPEN” in capital letters. For adult readers this is the classic Pandora set-up, and we all know how that turned out.

For Benny, it’s an opportunity to ponder what might in the box, and what he should do about it.

Is it full of his father’s paperwork, cookies that his mother has baked, a big robot for his coming birthday, a bunch of puppies that he really ought to let out of there, or snakes, or dangerous wild animals, or a slimy monster?

Maybe it’s the portal to another world that might suck him in if he were to take off the lid.

Whatever it might be, it would probably be very hard to get it all back into the box if he let it out –and then everyone would know he’d ignored the sign.

So, after all that wild imagining, he decides not to open it, much to the disappointment of his sister, who was waiting inside to scare him when he lifted the lid.

This is a clever little book. The artistic choice not to use backgrounds works very well in this case, encouraging a reader to imagine the rest and focus on Benny and the fantastic contents of the box. In the end, Benny probably has more fun not breaking the rules than he would have had if he’d opened the box.

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Bookends: Fascinating Stories about Canadian Writers February 17, 2017

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Bookends: Fascinating Stories about Canadian Writers

By Dan Davidson

October 19, 2016

– 833 words –

 

 

storytellersStories about Storytellers

By Douglas Gibson

ECW Press

435 pages

$19.95

 

Douglas Gibson visited Dawson and Whitehorse last January, and his one man show, Stories About Storytellers: An Evening with Doug Gibson and Many Famous Canadian Authors, made a very favourable impression on me, so I picked up the book on which the 90 minute presentation was based the next time I had an opportunity.

It’s a browser of a book, and can be read in short bursts, so it has lived for most of the last six months or so in my bathroom, fairly often making it as far as the bed when I just couldn’t find a good place to leave the bookmark.

To recap Gibson’s career as an editor at Doubleday Canada (now owned by German media giant, Bertelsmann) , and eventually publisher at both Macmillan of Canada (which no longer exists) and McClelland & Stewart (also now owned by Bertelsmann), would take up most of the rest of the space I have here.

A life in books was a natural progression for a man who was moved to immigrate to Canada from Scotland after falling madly in literary love with the work of Stephen Leacock when he was a wee lad.

He never got to meet the great Canadian humorist, but did have the joy of editing what he considers to have been the definitive biography of the man written by David Legate.

Now, this book begins with Gibson’s reflections on Leacock, but quickly proves to be just as informative an article about Legate and the process of putting the book together. Gibson worked with hundreds of writers during his career, and when one of them has an opinion about the subject of a particular chapter, it is rare that he will not take a side trip to give us that, as well.

The subjects of this book begin with Leacock and then move on to Hugh MacLennan, R.D. Symons, Harold Horwood, Barry Broadfoot, Morley Callaghan, W.O. Mitchell, Robertson Davies, Jack Hodgins, James Houston, Charles Ritchie, Pierre Trudeau, Mavis Gallant, Peter C. Newman, Brian Mulroney, Robert Hunter, Alistair MacLeod, Paul Martin, Peter Gzowski, Val Ross, Terry Fallis and Alice Munro.

Typically, the chapters relate how he became involved with the author in question, and relate some serious and some humorous anecdotes about the publisher/editor – author interaction. As noted, he doesn’t always stick to the subject, although the digressions are of interest.

The chapter on Jack Hodgins, for example, contains diverting tales about Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Ken Dryden, Margaret Atwood, Don Harron, Farley Mowat, John Irving, and L.R Wright, all inspired by Hodgins’ dislike of promotional tours.

His chapter on Pierre Trudeau veers off into accounts of his work with the various other people who wrote biographies of the man. He refers to this activity as being part of “The Trudeau Industry”.

Gibson appears to have been fond of most of his clients and authors, spending time visiting them, attending them during illnesses and at their funerals (because several of them have passed on), shepherding them through the publication process and sometimes (as with Trudeau, and Mitchell) prodding them to do better work than what they had written at first.

Mitchell, a noted procrastinator, actually turned in a poor final chapter to one book just to shut Gibson up, and ended up rewriting it when he got caught out. Trudeau was persuaded to change the format and order of his narrative. MacLeod, who was notoriously slow to finish things, had to be bullied into completing his only novel. Each of these events is related with good humour and a sense of real affection.

I think it’s fair to say that he admired Peter C. Newman’s work ethic but did not like the man and found some of his other ethics questionable. He takes some delight in telling the story of how Newman’ trademark Greek fisherman’s hat caught on fire during a dinner at the Royal York Hotel.

He is immensely fond of Alice Munro, and has not a single harsh word in that chapter. In fact, as he is the editor who persuaded her to forget about writing novels, he says he is sure that convincing her to stick to writing short stories was probably the one thing in his life that would guarantee his entry into Heaven.

The main portion of the book concludes with a hilarious essay “What Happens After My Book is Published?” which is guaranteed to keep any writer from getting too full of him or her self. There follows a ten page section of thank yous and acknowledgements (which is worth reading for a change), and then, in this edition, a 40 page readers’ discussion guide to five of the major works touched upon in the main text. Whether the invitation to take up the questions and send off your responses to his website still stands, I could not say.

 

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