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Bookends: A series of very unfortunate events March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Whitehorse Star, Young Adult.
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Bookends: A series of very unfortunate events

By Dan Davidson

November 15, 2017

– 1014 words –

 

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts

Unexpected Life

By Avi

Algonquin Young Readers

Workman Publishing

314 pages

$16.95

 

This is a very old fashioned sort of book. Avi took the Victorian novel as his template when he decided to attempt longer books some years ago. As he tells the story on his website, his first such historical novel was called Beyond the Western Sea, and he intended it to be a doorstop of a book at Stephen King length, but his publisher foiled him by breaking it into two volumes.

I have a feeling the same thing has happened here, as this book ends with the dreaded words (To be continued in book two.).

This is a very deliberately old fashioned book, as the full title, not found on the cover, will tell you: The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts: Being an Absolutely Accurate Autobiographical Account of My Follies, Fortune, and Fate.

It has very Dickensian chapter titles, like “In Which I Introduce Myself after Which I Immediately Plunge in a Desperate Situation” or, later on in the book, “In Which I Engage with the Man with the Pistol.”

As you can tell, this story is narrated by Oliver himself, who is 12 years old at the time that the story begins. He lives in the English seaside town of Melcombe Regis in the year 1724. His mother died giving him life. He has been living with his father, Gabriel, who is a lawyer (and poor parent), and his older sister, Charity, who has recently left the family home to live with relatives in London, hoping there to find her fortune or perhaps, a husband.

We enter the story in the middle of a terrible storm, during which the wind, the rain and the swelling seas do immense damage to the house. Oliver is wakened by the wind and rain coming in through a hole in the roof of his third floor room. Making his way downstairs he finds more damage on the lower floors, and also discovers that his father is not at home.

The house is in sad shape; there is scarcely any food. Oliver doesn’t know what to do and heads out to find his father. At the local inn he discovers that Gabriel had left earlier in the evening on the coach to London. He doesn’t know that there’s a letter back home explaining this to him, but by the time he finds it later most of the ink has run and blotted and it is severely redacted.

Feeling abandoned,he wanders to the seaside, where he finds an overturned vessel. Within its rooms, he discovers a cache of shillings, and he takes enough of them to keep himself from being declared destitute and taken to the children’s poorhouse.

It doesn’t work out for him. His father has made enemies of many notable people in the town and they decide to take their revenge on Oliver by putting him in the poorhouse.

This is a deplorable place that makes the one described in Oliver Twist look good. Of course, the hero’s name is supposed to help us make that connection. Though much put upon, Oliver manages to spark a revolt among the other children and escapes from that durance vile, intending to find his way to London and the rest of his family, even if he must walk.

Quite by accident – because nothing turns out to be easy or convenient in this story – he falls in with a highwayman, is essentially kidnapped by another of the same breed, is taken to London and forced to work for a “thief-taker” as bait for catching pickpockets.

Little does he know that his boss, Jonathan Wild, is actually a criminal mastermind working both sides of the street. Things go from bad to worse when the first person he nearly apprehends turns out to be Charity, who has her own sad tale of woe to tell.

They manage to escape capture long enough to find their father in a drunken stupor but, in the end, all are taken by the law and tossed into prison, a terrible place where they are expected to pay their own way for room and board. Gabriel has managed to win a lot of money at backgammon (that and drinking are his main vices, though his enemies have branded him a cheat) and manages to pay for all three of them. He thinks he has also bought (for bribery is part of the system) their freedom, but he is wrong about that and the children end up being transported to become slaves in the colonies.

Worse still, Oliver and Charity were to have been sent to the same destination, but they are separated at the last moment.

“Then and there, even as I was being pulled away, I swore that I woiuld never be a slave. And more; in some way, in some fashion – no matter how long it took – I would restore our freedom.”

That, I assume, will be the story of volume two.

What may seem odd of me to say, considering the absolute disaster that is the life of the Pitts family, is that this book manages to be dismal and funny at the same time. Some of the humour is in Oliver’s naïve view of the world, but some is also in the accuracy of his often snide observations about people and events. All of this, along with Avi’s penchant for chapters that end in cliffhangers, made this a book that it was hard to put down.

Avi writes mostly for middle readers and has produced about 70 books. His awards list includes several Newberys and Boston Globe-Horn Books, among others.

This book seems to have taken place in just a few weeks in Oliver’s life. In an interview Avi mentions that he was commuted for seven years service. We’ll have to see if he manages to get out of this as neatly as he escaped the poorhouse.

 

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Bookends: Looking at the True Believers March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, current events, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Looking at the True Believers

By Dan Davidson

November 8, 2017

– 930 words

Among the TruthersAmong the Truthers: North America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground of 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Armageddonites, Vaccine Hysterics, Hollywood Know-Nothings and Internet Addicts

By Jonathan Kay

Harper Perennial

368 pages

$19.99

Kindle edition

$11.99

 

During the last week or so, events have combined to make this 2012 study of conspiracy theorists and other members of the lunatic fringe worth taking a look at.

One huge info-dump was the release of a vast tonnage of previously sequestered paperwork related to the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, an event which is often the starting point for those whose personal Road to Damascus leads them to join the conspiracy underground.

From what I’ve read of those papers, we didn’t learn much that was new, or that would cause anyone to accept or reject whatever version of those events that one might subscribe to. The “who killed JFK” movement is just one of many that Jonathan Kay discusses in this book, as you can easily tell from the very long title.

Then Governor General Julie Payette stepped up to the microphone at a science conference and said some things that were critical of people who don’t believe in climate change, and evolution, and who think that the world is 6,000 years old and that god (any god) won’t let anything too terminal happen to humanity.

Actually, of course, there are lots of people who subscribe to the idea that their concept of the divine being will, at some point, ring down the curtain on humanity and the world. Kay deals with them in a number of places in this book.

But his main concern is with those people who subscribe to a variety of conspiracy theories, and he uses one of them, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, as a base case for examining how these delusions work, how they inspire people, and how they are as predictable in their development as the “stages of grieving” often used by grief counsellors.

The Protocols have long been known to be an absolute fraud, written and promulgated in Russia by members of the Czar’s secret police as a way of justifying pogroms against the Jews. They outline the basics of a Jewish plot to dominate the world and are both detailed enough and vague enough to serve as the template for any number of imaginary plots.

Kay deals with them in chapter two, called “Warrant for Genocide, Blueprint for Paranoia” and shows that their historical development can serve as an outline for how conspiracy theories develop.

Some of his ideas come from The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn, a book that I recall fondly from my studies in Sociology at Acadia University, and one which I have often found useful in trying to understand extreme theories about events.

Some of what has happened to our cultural grasp on reality must be laid at the feet of Richard Nixon, If the JFK assassination (along with that of brother Bobby and Martin Luther King) did a lot to make people uneasy about the powers that be, Watergate drove a very big nail into the notion that our leaders have our best interests at heart.

The Fall of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 shattered America’s notion that it was above the kind of chaos that occurs in other places. Sure, there had been the attack on Pearl Harbour during WW II, but most of America’s wars had left no scars on the homeland. This did, and seemed to require some larger explanation than the two planes in New York, the one at the Pentagon, and the one the passengers brought down over Pennsylvania.

After that, everything seemed to be up for grabs. Obama had to be a fraud. There must have been something at Area 51. The United Nations must be planning to take over the world. And on, and on,

Kay spent two years digging into all the groups that were extant at the time and concluded that their adherents were subscribers to a kind of religious mania (Cohn would agree) that allowed them to enter one or more of these cult-like groups and refuse to acknowledge anything that might refute their beliefs.

He analyzes the psychology of such movements and tries to profile the kinds of people who are likely to be infected. I use that word because he concludes that these memes do constitute a kind of intellectual virus, These people are not stupid, They are often very bright, but something has caused them to see the world through conspiracy tinted glasses, and they treat things ideas that might best be seen as plot devices on programs like the X-Files, Stranger Things or Buffy the Vampire Slayer as if they were facts.

These kinds of ideas used to spread in small press books and mimeographed pamphlets and have relatively few followers, but the advent of the internet has changed all that. Conspiracy theories have gone viral. As a results, this stuff has become potentially quite dangerous.

One of Kay’s chapters deals with the Birther movement. Donald Trump, who cut his political teeth on this issue before he refocused on “Crooked Hilary”, doesn’t actually turn up in this book’s index. In the couple of years before 2012, when he was researching this topic, it never occurred to Kay that one of the chef promoters of a theory like this might become the President of the United States. But, a year later, we know how that turned out.

 

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Bookends: Fairy Tales Just might be the Truth in Disguise March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, D.J. McIntosh, thriller, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Fairy Tales Just might be the Truth in Disguise

By Dan Davidson

November 29, 2017

– 833 words –

 

The Book of Stolen Tales

Book of Stolen Tales

By D.J. Mcintosh

Kindle edition

$14.99

432 pages

Penguin Canada

$16.00

 

D.J. Mcintosh’s The Book of Stolen Tales is the second volume in what she calls The Mesopotamian Trilogy It owes something in its construction to the works of Dan Brown and James Rollins. The difference is that her protagonist, John Madison, is no specialist. Browns Robert Langdon is a symbologist and Rollins’ characters are from a team of specialists with military as well as academic backgrounds.

Madison, who tells us his own story, is basically flying by the seat of his pants. He’d built a career in dealing in antiquities by piggybacking on the work on his much older and better educated brother. Now that Samuel is dead, killed in that car accident for which John is still under suspicion, he’s had to change careers, dealing more now in old books and taking on commissions for other people.

This book begins, as those in this genre do, with events that took place some time earlier (during the Iraq War, in fact) and which have roots that go back even farther in time.

Madison’s part of the story begins with his arrival in London to bid on a rare 17th century book for a client. He accomplishes his task, but is accosted in his hotel room that night by a man who calls himself Alessio, who seems to have a strange mesmeric power, and the book is stolen from him. Not, however, before he had had a change to open the box which was supposed to contain a number of individually bound chapters, only to find that most of them are missing.

He reports the problem to the auction house, which disclaims any knowledge of the incomplete item.

Wandering the streets in despair and confusion, he encounters the stranger again, and once more falls victim to his power, but them the man falls in to the Thames and appears to drown. The man had claimed to be the author of this 370 year old book, which had been filled with strange text and incredible, but horrible, illustrations. Madison new he would somehow have to track down all the missing parts to get himself off the hook and satisfy his own curiosity.

This leads him to the partner of the man who had hired him, and to some details about their bookshop and their printing business. He learns more about the book, which purports to contain the original versions of may well known fairy tales and legends, versions that predate the renderings by the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault or Andrew Lang. From the printer he gains the knowledge that the tales are intended to be allegories and perhaps even formulae for telling about real events

Meanwhile – in the United States – a number of men who had been doing some archaeological research in Iraq, have come down with, and are dying from, an extremely virulent disease. Chapter 9 introduces us to this subplot and to the third person narrative through the eyes of Nick Shaheen, and agent of a covert US agency who has been tapped to find out what it was that those men had been exposed to that could have made them so ill.

We spend the next several chapters with Shaheen, whose inquiries eventually lead him to shadow Madison.

Madison tracks the book down to its original (in this century, at least) owner and becomes involved with a woman named Dina, who is apparently being held captive by this man, who feels that he in a legitimate heir to the throne of Italy. Dina, it emerges, has been stealing the chapters of the book and selling them in order to finance her escape from her captor, Mancini.

Shaheen and Madison eventual end up working together, Shaheen providing the more physical skills that Madison lacks, while it is Madison who unlocks the various puzzles that lead them to another of those mysterious underground tombs that are so prevalent in this type of book.

In the tomb there are artefacts which, it seems, contain items that were used to store a very old and very deadly contagion. Some people want them for their own nefarious purposes; Shaheen works for a agency that would like to both control and suppress it. He has other ideas.

There is an ongoing tension between the two men, with neither quite trusting the other, but that works to keep the book interesting.

I felt this second book worked better than the first, The Witch of Babylon. Madison was more focussed in this book and seemed to be less at the mercy of others. He’s less mercenary about his own motives and better able to cope with the situations in which he finds himself. He was a more likeable fellow, enough so that I will move on to the third book before to many months have passed.

 

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Bookends: An Affectionate Biography of Gordon Lightfoot March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in biography, Bookends, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: An Affectionate Biography of Gordon Lightfoot

By Dan Davidson

November 22, 2017

– 856 words –

 

Lightfoot 

Lightfoot

By Nicholas Jennings

336 pages

Viking

$36.00

Kindle edition

$15.99

Nicholas Jennings’ affectionate biography of Gordon Lightfoot begins with his subject at the top of his game, wealthy and successful beyond his boyhood’s wildest dreams, beyond what anyone in his hometown of Orillia ever thought he might achieve. In truth, most of the folks at home had thought him a bit nuts when he headed off to California to study music, and again when he relocated to Toronto.

In 2015 the town admitted it was wrong with a 4 metre tall bronze sculpture. Wikipedia describes it this way: “Golden Leaves – A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot” features Lightfoot sitting cross-legged, playing an acoustic guitar underneath an arch of golden maple leaves. Many of the leaves depict scenes from Lightfoot’s 1975 greatest hits album …”

Jennings shows us a Lightfoot who wanted a music career from an early age, who participated in school music festivals, sang in choirs and formed his first performing groups while he was still in high school.

Lightfoot sang tenor in barbershop quartets until his voice changed and then sang baritone in other barbershop groups, including one called the Teen Timers. He and another chum did Everly Brothers style performances as the Two Timers, and later as the Two Tones.

He dabbled in jazz as well as in standards; was part of the singer/dancer troupe on Country Hoedown. He worked at the CBC, making copies of music sheets for others to use. By 19, he had already written his first song.

It was actually as a songwriter that Lightfoot made his first serious money in the music industry. Early songs like “I’m Not Sayin”, “For Lovin’ Me” and “Early Morning Rain” were covered by a number of artists, both in the folk and country genres.

Lightfoot would tend to straddle those two types of music throughout his career, adding a bit of rock and a bit of jazz into the mix for songs like “Make Way for the Lady” and “Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald”.

I was surprised to learn that he was not happy with the success of his United Artist albums, the first four, which contain so many of those classic songs. When he would later re-record some of them for his Gord’s Gold collection, he was in the middle of going though a string section phase and, perhaps because I learned to play and sing them from the original recordings, I didn’t enjoy those as much.

Lightfoot comes across as a workaholic, a bit obsessed with both writing and performing. While an excellent performer most of the time, Jennings shows that he is less than a success at stage patter.

I only saw the man in concert once, and he stopped in the middle of a song to protest when the audience was singing along, saying we had come to hear him and the band. Jennings’ accounts of other concerts indicate this this was not something he always did.

Life on the road took its toll on him. He burned through two earlier marriages and several long term relationships.

There is more of his personal life in his songs than I realized when I first heard them. “If You Could Read My Mind” is about the breakup of his first marriage, while “Sundown” really is about the temptations of life on the road.

Like many performers of his era, Lightfoot has had substance abuse problems, particularly with alcohol. His drinking affected both his health and his performance at times, and his worst concerts were the result of too much booze. He eventually managed to quit.

He has had a couple of close calls in his life. Bell’s Palsy froze one side of this face for a while. He nearly died from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm in 2002, necessitating operations then and again in 2003. Nevertheless, he fought his way back to both recording and performing by 2004.

But in 2006 a minor stroke cost him the fine motor control of two fingers on his right hand. It took about a year for him to recover the use of his middle and ring fingers, both of which are needed for fingerpicking.

As with any performer who has a long career, Lightfoot has been in and out of fashion a few times, never entirely disappearing, but sometimes making stylistic choices that didn’t quite work as intended.

In 2010, he was the victim of one of those on-line death hoaxes that crop up from time to time. He had just left from the dentist’s office when he heard about it on the radio. He arranged for an interview at that station to clear up the confusion.

His songs have had a serious impact on our national image. He wrote The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” on commission, and researched it rigorously. Pierre Berton, who wrote a two volume history about the building of the Canadian Pacific, once told Lightfoot that his song did more to make people aware of the railroad than his books had.

 

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Bookends: Travelling in the Shadow Lands March 17, 2018

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Bookends: Travelling in the Shadow Lands

By Dan Davidson

November 1, 2017

– 969 words –

 

Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes 1

The Chronicles of Amber, Book 1

By Roger Zelazny

Narrated by Allessandro Juliani

Length: 5 hrs and 31 mins

Audible Studios

$23.10

Print length: 155 pages

Available in a Kindle edition

$7.19

 

The Guns of Avalon

Guns of Avalon

The Chronicles of Amber, Book 2

By Roger Zelazny

Narrated by Allessandro Juliani

Length: 6 hrs and 29 mins

Audible Studios

Print length: 179 pages

Available in a Kindle edition

$7.99

Last week I opened with a comment about there being two classic ways of moving the reader from our world to the world of the writer’s creation. In that column I showed Charles Stross using the “lost princess” gambit to set up the first two books of his Merchant Princes series.

At the end of that omnibus volume, Stross credited two earlier writers with giving him the inspiration to write about parallel dimensions and alternative timelines. His mentors in this area were H. Beam Piper and Roger Zelazny.

The Piper stories were almost certainly the ones about the Paratime Police, which are available in collected editions and as audio books.

The Zelazny contribution was certainly the 10 books in the Amber series. These come in two arcs, one dealing with the adventures of Corwin, son of Oberon, and the other five dealing with his son, Merlin. These can be had in either one or two volumes in hardcover of paperback.

For the Corwin saga, Zelazny used another popular trick. He gave his first person narrator amnesia and had him stumble around not quite knowing what he has gotten himself into for easily the first half of Nine Princes in Amber. Also, to throw us all off track, he chose a hardboiled narrative voice that owes more to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe that it does to a fantasy novel.

Corwin wakes up in a private hospital bed, over-sedated and clearly not intended to ever be leaving. He’s also healing very quickly from a car accident that should have laid him out for months. He escapes and finds his way to the woman who put him there. She turns out to be his sister. He manages to bluff his way into staying with her while he tries to assemble the random flashes of memory that he keeps having.

Then another sibling, aptly named Random, turns up, followed closely by some not quite human assailants, and all hell breaks loose.

Following Random’s lead, Corwin goes with him to a place called Amber, taking the strangest afternoon drive that anyone has ever taken. Along the way there’s an altercation with another brother, and they end up rescuing a sister that Corwin only partly remembers.

There are two devices in this series that clearly inspired Stross. One is the Pattern, a kind of energy labyrinth that Corwin has to walk to get his full memory back. This is a bit like the oddly patterned medallions that Stross uses in his books. Secondly, there is the more portable set of Tarot-like cards that each member of the family – there are nine males and about half that many women – can use to communicate with each other and translate (or teleport if you like) to the location of any other sibling.

Finally, of course, there is the fact that the ability to use any of these devices is a genetically inherited trait.

The driving force behind the plots of the first two novels, and the reason that Corwin had been stranded on our world since the time of the Black Death, is that Oberon, the ruler of Amber, has vanished, and there is an internecine struggle for the throne.

Amber, you see, is the most real place there is, the centre of the Order of the universe, the place which casts an infinite number of shadows (our world being one of them) to which members of the family may travel at will, adding and subtracting bits of the worlds through which they travel until they “reach the place of their desire.”

The various journeys gave Zelazny, who was known for his poetic stylings, a lot of range to play with as his characters travelled from one shadow to another.

There’s a lot of military material in these two books. In the first, Corwin teams up with another brother, Blaze, to launch an all out assault on Amber, where brother Erik holds the throne. They fail and Corwin is captured, forced assist in Erik’s coronation, blinded and imprisoned for nearly five years, during which time his eyes grow back, and he manages to escape.

During that time, during his convalescence, and, indeed, during the time that he is integrating two sets of post-amnesiac memories, Corwin begins his path to becoming a better person than he was before his exile, but he has a way to go.

In The Guns of Avalon, he finds a way to make firearms function in Amber – regular explosives won’t work there – realizes the damage he has caused to the shadow worlds and Amber with the death curse that he uttered when he thought Erik was going to kill him, and begins to work at dealing with the repercussions.

What proves that Corwin is improving as a person is that way he reacts to some of these situations and to people that he really doesn’t need to be nice to. Of course, not being quire as paranoid and nasty as he used to be has its downside as well, as he discovers by the end of the second book.

Each volume in this series is fairly well self-contained, but there are always unresolved plot lines. I read these as they appeared between 1970 and 1978, and it’s a pleasure to listen to them now, all these years later.

 

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Bookends: Adventures in Alternate Realities March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Adventures in Alternate Realities

By Dan Davidson

October 25, 2017

– 786 words –

 

The Bloodline Feud: A Merchant Princes Omnibus

Bloodline Feud

 

By Charles Stross

Tor Books

Kindle edition

$10.99

576 pages in book form

 

Miriam Beckstein was an up and coming tech journalist with an eye for a story on the day she and her research assistant stumbled on something they shouldn’t have and both got fired. It was while she was sorting out what to do with her life that her adopted mother gave her a box of family keepsakes and totally changed her life in another way.

n the box was a locket with a strange engraved pattern on it, and when Miriam stared at it she suddenly found herself and her home office chair in the middle of a forest in a very different place.

The combination of the pattern and her genetic heritage had unlocked her ability to travel to another world, physically like ours, but with a very different history and social structure, where it turned out that she was a related to an extended family, some of whom were not happy to see her.

In addition to all this, she has to figure out how to survive when it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill her.

Miriam is actually Countess Helge Thorold-Hjorth, missing since the disappearance of her mother, decades earlier. That she is not dead inconveniences a number of the members of her clan family, who are involved in what amounts to an interdimensional smuggling ring. Family members with the talent for world walking are able to flit back and forth between our world and the technologically and socially backward earth (think Medieval level) that is their home, and have enriched themselves in bot wealth and power by so doing.

Miriam has to learn a whole new social order and a new language, master the mechanics of her new position in life and try to survive attempts by two different groups to end her life. It is while accomplishing the latter task that she learns something no one else seems to know, that there is another group of travellers who originate on a third alternative earth, one that is sort of a 19th century version of North America called New Britain.

The six families of the Clan are the power behind the throne in Gruinmarkt, the world that Miriam was conceived in, but there is a seventh family, lost to the others sometime in the past, that is waging a clandestine war of revenge. They live in the third earth.

Miriam’s adventures take place in all three dimensions, and involve, unusually for a science fiction novel, a lot of discussion about how to run businesses and economies. I know how that sounds, but Stross makes it interesting. Further, his work of fictional economics is admired by no less than renowned economist Paul Krugman. I watched the two of them in discussion at a World Con in Montreal a few years back, and their mutual admiration was obvious.

This volume is a omnibus edition of The Family Trade (2004) and

The Hidden Family (2005). It’s been revised slightly with once necessary recaps and reviews removed and some material added. The new edition is seamless and I really couldn’t tell where the first book ended and the second began.

The “stranger in a strange land” story is one of the effective ways of easing a reader from the world we know into stranger places. This story begins as a kind of “lost princess” tale, and we identify with Miriam as she struggles to both adjust and get the upper hand in her new circumstances.

She is very much a 21st century woman, and in Gruinmarkt, which has a sort of Germanic/Dutch feel to it, the status of women is very low, their lives controlled by their fathers and husbands, or, in Miriam’s case, her uncle. The clan hierarchy have absolute power over the areas they control. They live in comparative luxury whole ordinary folks live like serfs in the Middle Ages. The gap between the 1% and the 99% is that incredible.

Miriam sets herself the task of transforming the societies of both alternate realities by importing old technology from the world she grew up in, and changing the business model of Gruinmarkt, which has devolved to profiting from interdimensional drug smuggling, to one based on trade in ideas.

It’s an uphill battle and one that’s just beginning as this book comes to an end.

In his author’s note at the end, Stross credits a couple of SF giants of the past with influencing some of his choices in this series. I’m going to deal with one of them next week.

 

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Bookends: Little Books about Feelings March 17, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Childen's, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Little Books about Feelings

By Dan Davidson

October 18, 2017

– 676 words –

 

Snow Friends 

Snow Friends

Story by M. Christina Butler

 

Illustrations by Tina Macnaughton

Skyhorse Publishing

18 pages

$9.99

 

As the first snow comes down to stay, it seems an appropriate time for this little board book.

Little Bear wakes up to find the world has been blanketed in snow. He plays in it for a while, doing all sorts of fun things you can do my yourself, but then he gets lonely, so he decides to make himself a friend, a snowman.

While he is making his snowman, he is joined by a young Otter and a Rabbit. Together they make the “best snowman ever” and then they spend the rest of the day playing together.

As evening comes on, they suddenly realize that once they go home their snowman will be all alone, so they make him a smaller snowman to be his friend.

They watch as the two snowmen turn silver in the moonlight and decide that it’s a good thing to have friends.

 

This is a clever little story with friendly feeling illustrations.

 

I Am (Not) Scared

I Am (Not) Scared

Story by Anna King

Illustrations by Christopher Weyant

Two Lions

32 pages

$17.99

I’m not quite sure what the two fuzzy looking critters in this book are. One is small and purple; the other is large and orange. The question that puzzles them both is whether or not they are scared. Just why they might be becomes clearer as you turn the pages. They are trying to decide if they will ride the Loop of Doom at the fair.

The topic of scaredness leads them to a discussion of things that are probably scarier than the rollercoaster: snakes, hairy spiders, hot lava, fried ants and green aliens. Just then, the roller coaster comes to a stop with a frazzled looking snake in one of the cars.

“Let’s be scared together,” says the orange critter, and so all three of them ride the loop, are well and truly scared, but come through it safely and decide to do it again.

They must have better inner ear balance and stronger stomachs than I have. I haven’t been on any rides like than since my kids were young, and don’t have any plans to. Still, the book is fun, and you can see why things might work out that way.

The creators of this book are a husband and wife team. There have been two other (Not) books with the same characters, and the first one received the Theodore Seuss Geisel Award.

 

Lucy Loves Sherman

Lucy Loves Sherman

Written by Catherine Bailey

Illustrated by Meg Waters

Sky Pony Press

32 pages

$16.99

Lucy and her Nana are visiting Flotsam’s Fish Market when Lucy met Sherman the Lobster, waiting to be sold in the big tank. Lucy falls in love immediately and begs Nana to buy him as a pet. Nothing doing, Nana says, no way.

It’s a little bit later when Lucy finds out that Sherman is destined to become a lobster dinner at a local restaurant. She is horrified and starts a one girl campaign to save his life. After all Sherman was an eighty year old specimen, weighing in at 18 pounds.

Her campaign becomes front page news and people flock to the store to see the famous lobster, which actually works out so well for Mr. Flotsam’s business that he gives in and lets Lucy take the lobster home.

She has a still better idea, and sets Sherman free in the ocean.

Apparently this story was inspired by some real life lobster rescue operation along the Atlantic coast of the USA. The book ends with a page of lobster facts, except for one rather crucial one.

.Sherman is depicted throughout the book as being red, which we all know is what happens to green, orange, blue, grey or yellow lobsters after they have been cooked. Apparently live red lobsters are one in thirty million. Maybe that was another reason Sherman was special, but the book doesn’t say that.

 

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Bookends: A trio of animal stories about good habits March 17, 2018

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Bookends: A trio of animal stories about good habits

By Dan Davidson

October 11, 2017

– 670 words –

                                                      

Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He’s the Favorite

Mr. Fuzzbuster

Story by Stacy McAnulty

Illustrations by Edward Hemingway

Two Lions

38 pages

$17.99

 

Mr. Fuzzbuster, the cat, was quite sure he was Lily’s favorite. She had told him so many times and “they’d been together since he fit in a teacup and she

 

fit in diapers.” They did many things together and their life together was perfect – until, with the passage of time, four more pets joined the household.

Now, Mr. Fuzzbuster had to share her with a goldfish, a bird, and a lizard, which wasn’t too bad, because they all lived in their habitats and couldn’t do they things he could. But there was also a puppy. And, each of the other animals claimed to be Lily’s favorite.

Mr. Fuzzbuster was so upset not to be her ABSOLUTE favorite that he almost ran away, but them he reconsidered and came to the conclusion that as long as he was her favorite cat it would be alright.

This is a clever little story about sharing; nicely told and humorously illustrated.

 

Gus’s Garage

Gus's Garage

 

By Leo Timmers

Gecko Press

28 pages

$24.27

 

Gus the Pig has a lot of things in his garage. You’d almost be tempted to call him a hoarder. But the difference is that Gus finds ways to help others with the things he has salvaged, and by the end of the book his garage is just about empty.

Various animals come to see Gus at his garage: a rhino on a motorcycle with a seat that’s too small; a giraffe in a convertible that needs an enclosed he

 

ating system; a walrus that needs some way to drive while being moisturized; a penguin whose car is just too hot; a rabbit whose truck is just too slow.

To each of them – and I have to say that while this repetition is a bit boring for adult readers, kids will probably like it – Gus chants the same refrain.

“Let’s see. I have some bits and bobs. This goes with that. There. Just the job.”

And he swiftly solves each problem, leaving only the need to design a way to clean himself up after all that dirty mechanical work. Of course, he solves that one too.

This book is all big, colourful double page spreads with just a bit of text along the bottom, What I quoted takes up two pages.

This is a translation of a book originally written in Flemish.

 

Benny Shark Goes to Friend School

Benny Shark

 

Story by Lynn Rowe Reed

Illustrations by Rhode Montijo

Two Lions

32 pages

$17.99

 

Benn Shark is a bully, the result of which is that he has no friends. He can’t even bully the other fish into having anything to do with him. Janice Jellyfish takes pity on him and tells him he needs to go to Friend School.

The following pages are about the lessons the school teaches, the five important rules.

Rule #1. A friend is a good listener.

Rule #2. A friend always tells the truth.

Rule #3. A friends shares.

Rule #4. A friend takes turns.

Rule #5. A friend is a good sport.

Each of the rules has a short little example to illustrate it, but the real payoff of the lessons comes during a race the young fish have at the end of the day. Benny has to chose between winning the race or helping Janice, who had, after all, helped him earlier.

Benny makes the right decision, losing the race, but winning the bigger prize. And in the end, he does something kind of embarrassing for a bull shark to do, but he had promised, and …

Rule #6: A friend always keeps a promise.

This is a clever little story, with some good teaching points for younger kids, though you do have to get past the idea that an actual shark would simply have eaten his classmates.

 

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Bookends: Four Seasons on Back Roads in the Deep South March 2, 2018

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Bookends: Four Seasons on Back Roads in the Deep South

By Dan Davidson

October 4, 2017

– 853 words –

 

Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads Deep South

By Paul Theroux

With photographs by Steve McCurry

Kindle edition

451 pages in print

Penguin Books

2015

 

Before the 2012 federal election in the USA, travel writer, novelist and essayist Paul Theroux decided to spend four seasons travelling in the Deep South of his country. It took him the better part of two years to complete all four trips. While he has written about traveling on nearly every continent and has set his fictions in many of them, he hadn’t written much about America, so he left home one fall day for the first of four extended journeys.

“I had driven from my home in New England, a three-day road trip to another world, the warm green states of the Deep South I had longed to visit, where ‘the past is never dead,’ so the man famously said. ‘It’s not even past.’ Later that month, a black barber snipping my hair in Greensboro, speaking of its racial turmoil today, laughed and said to me, in a sort of paraphrase of that writer whom he’d not heard of and never read, ‘History is alive and well here.’”

What history? How alive? What words can be used to describe it?

First of all, he was going to places where, as one of his many interviewees put it, “you gotta be going there to get there”, places you might never find otherwise.

Secondly, he was going places where certain words are still in use, and the first of several digressions, after he spends most of a chapter detailing the foibles of the history of travel writing, is about That Taboo Word that begins with “N”; 14 pages worth of discussion and variation.

Thirdly, he was going places where most of the people he met, unless they were also writers, had never heard of him and, balking at his last name, tended to introduce him to other people as “Mr. Paul from New England”.

Theroux was 26 when he published his first novel in 1967 and has produced 34 others (novels and short story collections), along with 19 volumes of non-fiction, including the travel writing for which he is perhaps best known, since then. He was an interesting, if somewhat pretentious, keynote speaker at the 2017 edition of the Northwards Writers’ Symposium in Skagway.

One is clearly left with the impression that he was surprised to be quite so anonymous during his four seasons of travel.

To no one’s surprise he finds that the memory of the Civil War and its aftermath is still very strong in the South, and he sees a number of those statues and flags, which have become such items of national debate and contention over the last six to eight months. In a book published in 2015 he did not see anything like Donald J, Trump on the horizon, but he did visit a number of gun trade shows and got a clear sense of how important gun culture is in that part of the nation.

Race relations are a big part of the book, and the winter trip is called “Ones Born Today Don’t Know How it Was” with just that topic in mind.

The next interlude is an 11 page critique of the life and work of William Faulkner. In between trips he did a lot of reading and re-reading of Southern literature, and the final 7 page interlude section is called “The Fantastications of Southern Fiction”.

To some extent, the reader is left feeling that the two things complement each other; his view of the South is informed by his reading, at the same time as his travels give him a new perspective on the writing.

While he had earlier derided the idea of the travel narrative as an analog for self-discovery, Theroux fond that this was so for him.

“It dawned on me slowly over months that to them (most of the people he interviewed) I was an old man, who didn’t really count for much, but who needed to be humoured or grudgingly respected.”

And finally, the world traveller, with so many miles under his belt, found himself faced with an odd epiphany: “Because the paradox of it all was that though I had come so far— miles more than I ever had in Africa or China— I had never left home.”

The book concludes with a selection of 26 colour photographs by Steve McCurray. The pair did not travel together and, while some of the pictures are of places and people mentioned in the book, others are simply representative of the same type of place. They are useful in setting the scene, but it might almost have been better if I had looked at them before I read the book.

If you’re reading this on a Kindle device, as I did, I’d recommend looking at the pictures using the Kindle software that’s available for either a Mac or a PC. They’re much more effective on a larger screen.

 

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Bookends: Tales of Bold Adventurers March 1, 2018

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Bookends: Tales of Bold Adventurers

By Dan Davidson

September 27, 2017

– 833 words –

This column is about two fairly similar characters, whose adventures shared some common elements and who appeared in print at close to the same time.

 

The Saint in New York

The Saint in New York copy

by: Leslie Charteris

Narrated by John Telfer

Length: 7 hrs and 48 mins

Unabridged Audiobook

Audible Studios

Print Length: 292 pages

Published in 1935

 

Leslie Charteris first gave us the character of Simon Templar, The Saint, in 1928, in a book originally called Meet the Tiger. Writing until 1963, he would produce about 100 books featuring the character, and would authorise its continued use by a number of other writers after that. The character was the lead item in a monthly magazine for decades and, of course, has been portrayed on screen by Roger Moore (his best role, in my opinion), Ian Ogilvie and Val Kilmer (probably the least successful version), as well as some lesser known older movies.

Most of the books, which I used to own in paperback editions, were short story or novella collections, three to eight stories in a book. There were a few novels, and The Saint in New York was probably the most famous.

In most of the stories, Templar is a good-hearted thief or con-man, usually carrying out his capers at the expense of “the ungodly”, as he often referred to the really bad people on whom the preyed.

This one’s a little different. He is hired by a very rich American to clean up New York as revenge for the killing of this man’s son. In this case, cleaning up actually refers to a series of targeted assassinations.

Charteris wrote the Saint as a larger than life individual, very savvy, very robust, almost a comic book character in terms of his stamina and ability to get out of scrapes and turn the tables on his foes.

This is a fast paced adventure with quite a few twists and turns as he pursues the “Big Fellow” who is the anonymous criminal kingpin, working his way through the pecking order and eliminating them one by one.

The police are baffled by this one man anti-gang war, and the one officer we spend narrative time with is sorely tempted to let it continue, though he is annoyed that he can’t have a hand in it, and actually does strike up a deal with the Saint part way through the story.

There are a couple of close calls in the book and Simon is saved at least twice by the intervention of the mysterious Fay Edwards, who has taken a shine to him, even though she is the Big Fellow’s mouthpiece.

John Telfer gives this one a good reading.

 

Versus the BaronVersus the Baron copy

Written by John Creasey as Anthony Morton

Narrated by: Philip Bird

Length: 4 hrs and 41 mins

Paperback: 162 pages

Unabridged Audiobook

Audible Studios

 

John Creasey gave us 44 books about John Mannering, The Baron, beginning in 1937. These were just some of the 600 plus books that he wrote, using 28 different pen-names. The Baron and The Toff were two characters that bore some resemblance to Simon Templar.

Mannering started out as more or less a cat burglar who left a calling card. Initially, he was a thief who preyed on the upper classes, those who could afford to lose jewels and other priceless objects, but as he built up a considerable fortune of his own, he parlayed his loot into honest cash and no longer needed to activate his alter-ego.

When he does so in this book, published in 1940, it’s because he, as Mannering, was almost suckered into being a receiver of stolen goods. When the man he was to have bought them from is murdered, he decides to come to the rescue of that man’s daughter and her fiancée.

He also cooperates with the police. Several members of the force are positive that he is the Baron, but they have never been able to tie him to anything, They make it very clear that he, as Mannering, can be involved in this case, but if any trace of the Baron shows up (not that he ever admits to that) they will be after him.

In the process of helping the girl he, as Mannering, is captured by the head of a criminal gang. This unsavoury individual also has the girl, and Mannering has a hard time staging an escape for both of them, after escaping once on his own and coming back for her later.

The Baron is less of a superman than the Saint, and has to work much harder at what he does, but they are cut from a similar pattern, one whose template I trace back to the character of A.J. Raffles, a fictional gentleman thief in a series of books by E. W. Hornung, written between 1898 and 1909, and therefore likely to have influenced both Charteris and Creasey.

Philip Bird gave this book a solid reading.

 

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