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Bookends: Another Gem from the Berton House residency program May 12, 2019

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Bookends: Another Gem from the Berton House residency program

by Dan Davidson

July 11, 2018

– 885 words –

 

All of Us In Our Own Lives

by Manjushree ThapaAll of Us in Our Own Lives

Freehand Books

322 pages

$21.95

 

All of Us In Our Own Lives is a novel about the personal growth of four individuals. Two of them are related, but have quite different life experiences. The other two eventually connect through their work, but it takes some time for all this to happen.

It is also a book that is told from multiple points of view. Sometimes the shifts of POV are a bit abrupt and you have to wait for someone to use a person’s name to figure out just who you’re following now.

Some of this is due to the book’s layout. The version I read was supplied by the author and ran to 213 pages. You’ll note that the version referenced at the head of this column, which won’t be available in Canada until September, is 100+ pages longer. I suspect it has somewhat larger print and perhaps something other that ALL CAPPS IN the first two or three words to indicate chapter divisions.

Ava Berriden, a Canadian lawyer, was the easiest character for me to relate to. She was born in Nepal, and in an orphanage as an infant before being adopted by a Canadian family and raised here. She has quit her job and moved to Nepal, partly in search of her roots, and partly out of an altruistic need to help others. She is the prototypical stranger in a strange land, but she has a good heart, and when she finally connects with the others, she does a lot to help each of them.

Ava is working for an international aid agency, and it is through this work that she becomes acquainted with Indira Sharma, who has ambitions of becoming the first Nepali woman director of a non-governmental organization. She specializes in working to improve the gender balance in society and within the world of NGOs, most of which seem to be run by domineering men.

The book does not give a very flattering view of such NGOs. They seem to be floundering and appear to have a lot of trouble thinking outside the cultural boxes in which they are trapped. They mean well, but are not as effective as they should be. Thapa’s bio indicates that she did work for some NGOs in the past, and this may be a gentle critique. Certainly, she has Ava cutting through some of the assumptions and causing changes to occur.

The two other central characters are a brother and sister, Gyanu and Sapana.

If this were just his story, it would be about having come home from his job in Dubai to settle the family’s affairs and set things up so that his sister can prosper and he can return to his foreign job and get married to his sweetheart. He means well, but often manages to convince himself that his sister’s path to independence is also the one that works out best for him. For him, not staying in Nepal is a priority.

Sapana, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily want what her brother is trying to provide for her. She is hedged about by both a patriarchy and a matriarchy, with elders of both genders trying to define her life’s choices. Hers is the least settled of any of the outcomes; aspirations rather than a clear direction.

This was a tricky book to read, and there were times when I set it aside for lighter, or just different, material. Part of the difficulty was simply my lack of familiarity with Nepali names and social conventions. There were times when I wished for clarifying footnotes.

By about halfway through the book some of the more puzzling things began to become clear, and that was probably the way the author intended it to happen. Up to that point, when the lives of the major characters finally began to intersect, I had been dipping in and out of the book for a couple of months, trying to integrate what seemed to be several disconnected stories, After that, it moved more quickly.

Manjushree Thapa has been quite prolific, producing one previous novel and two volumes of short stories, as well as four non-fiction books, mostly set in Nepal. She has produced three translations of Nepali literature.

In addition she has had articles and essays in the New York Times, London Review of Books, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, Walrus, Globe and Mail, Outlook, Hindustan Times, Tehelka, Nepali Times, The Kathmandu Post, Himal Southasian, Himal, Studies in Nepali History and Society and elsewhere.

Manju, as we came to know her in Dawson, has a lot of personal background that feeds into this story. She was born in Kathmandu, and raised in Nepal, Canada and the United States. Her family also lived in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Switzerland and India at various periods. She now lives in Toronto, but visits Nepal frequently.

She was writer-in-residence at Berton House for part of 2011 and completed the initial draft of this novel, the first that she has completed since relocating to Canada, while she was here. She and her partner, Daniel Lak, have returned to the Klondike several times since then.

 

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Bookends: Finding the Plot Behind the Pink Nightmare May 9, 2019

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Bookends: Finding the Plot Behind the Pink Nightmare

By Dan Davidson

The Whitehorse Star

June 13, 2018Nightmare in Pink

– 946 words –

 

Nightmare in Pink

By John D. MacDonald

Narrated by Robert Petkoff

Audible Studios

5 hrs and 42 mins

$14.99

 

Paperback reprint

224 pages

Random House Trade Paperbacks;

$18.80

Original copyright 1964

 

Back in the late 1960s, when I spent my high school summers working in a pulp mill, one of the perks of an otherwise terrible, back-breaking job was the opportunity to paw through the bales of discarded front coverless paperbacks that were destined for the very scary blades in the pulping vat that I sometimes had to clean out. That’s where I found my first Travis McGee novels and developed a taste for them.

The early ones had some pretty lurid and suggestive covers, so I was just as happy not to have to explain those to my mother. Mind you, the same thing was true of those quite conservative Perry Mason mysteries that I was reading about the same time.

It was only much later that I discovered how influential John D. MacDonald was in the mystery/thriller genre world. The first four McGee novels, of which Nightmare in Pinkis the second, appeared in 1964. There would be another 17 in all before The Lonely Silver Rainin 1985 brought down the curtain. In addition there were 43 other standalone thriller/mysteries, three science fiction novels, and several collections of short stories.

There could have been many short story collections, since MacDonald got his start writing for the pulp magazines before he was one of the first to cash in on the paperback original boom. He churned out 500 short stories for detective, mystery, adventure, sports, western, and science fiction magazines, using a variety of pen names, including Peter Reed, John Farrell (sometimes John Wade Farrell), Scott O’Hara, Robert Henry, Harry Reiser, and John Lane.

He was a full time writer from 1945 until he died in 1986. The last McGee book came out the year before, and there was one additional novel in that final year. He was a good friend of the comic Dan Rowan, of Laugh In fame, and a volume of their letters to each other, called A Friendship, also came out then.

Unlike nearly all the other books in the series, most of this one takes place in and around New York City, and we only get back to the his base on the Busted Flushin Florida when Travis and Nina are recuperating from the mess they found in New York.

Travis has a friend named Mike, a very badly damaged war vet who he visits at least once a year because he credits him with having saved his life when they were both enlisted and fighting for their country. Mike has a sister whose fiancée was recently killed in a botched mugging. She’s not coping with it well, especially since she found stash of cash – $10,000 was a lot of money in1964 – while she was clearing his things out of her closets.

Why did he have it? Where did it come from? Did it mean that he had not been the man she had thought he was?

Mike asks Travis of find out. Now Travis isn’t exactly a detective. He describes himself as a freelance recovery agent. If you’ve lost something and he can find it for you, he’ll charge you half of its value, and since you wouldn’t have it back except that he found it for you, you consider that fair.

This case, however, is pro bono, a good deed for an old friend. It turns out to be a pretty raw deal, but it’s likely that, even if he had known about the pink nightmare, Travis would still have taken it on.

Nina comes across as a hard case at first.

“The fabulous Travis McGee,” she says. “Fabulous means something about fables. I don’t need any fables. Thank you so much.”

Travis is dubious about helping her.

“I didn’t want to be within fifteen hundred miles of this ‘darling girl’. I didn’t want to be in this October city. I wanted to be back aboard my Busted Flushmoored in Slip F‑18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale, my 52 feet of custom houseboat…

“But Miss Nina looked at me out of her brother Mike’s true blue eyes, and he had never asked me for anything else.”

It turns out that Nina’s Howard had been on to something; that there was something terribly wrong with his employer; that the $10,000 was important; and that Travis was going to find out way more than he ever wanted to know about the pink nightmare before the story was over.

It’s quite a story; a bit dated after all these years, but significant enough to have been reprinted lately and for best selling author Lee Child to have written a lovely essay about MacDonald for the 2013 trade paperback reissue editions. I found those 12 pages at Amazon.ca while doing some research. They weren’t included in the audio book version, but I recommend that anyway. It kept me alert on a recent trip from Dawson to Whitehorse.

Lee Child wonders about what made MacDonald decide on the writing life.

“Why? Why did a middle-class Harvard MBA with extensive corporate connections and a gold-plated recommendation from the army (he finished as a Lieut. Colonel) turn his back on everything apparently predestined, to sit at a battered table and type, with an anxious wife at his side? No one knows. He never explained. It’s a mystery.”

He concludes that we can’t possibly know, but that he, and writers as varied as Spider Robinson, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Lawrence Block, Carl Hiaasen, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard, are all on the record as being glad that he did.

Listening to Robert Petkoff’s excellent narration, I found myself catching little stylistic hints that reminded me of a number of other writers I enjoy reading.

 

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Bookends: Adventures with the Alphabet May 9, 2019

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Childen's, Klondike Sun, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Adventures with the Alphabet

By Dan Davidson

May 30, 2018

717 words –

 

There are lots of alphabet books out there, but I do believe that the two I’m looking at this week have come up with something different in terms of their presentation of the material.

 

Yesterday I Found an A

Written by Maggie Blossom

Illustrated by Marco Furlotti

Yesterday I found an A

Flowerpot Press

32 pages

$22.82

 

In this book, our nameless narrator, a small androgynous person, is all alone at home when he or she hears a strange noise somewhere in the house.

“I went to my closet and opened it wide, / curious to see what was hiding inside.”

What was inside was a letter A, and with it rolled out some “apples, an accordion, and airplane zipping by … zoom!”

“And that made me nervous that things might go wrong./ What if the rest of the letters had all tagged along?

That “what if” is the clue to how the rest of the book is going to go. Those A items were pretty normal things that might roll out of a closet. Just about everything else our narrator imagines, running from B through to Z, is the product of an overheated imagination.

By the end we are left to imagine that our small person has simply emptied every toy from every cupboard and storage place in the room, though it certainly didn’t look that way while it was happening.

The explanation given when someone else pokes a head in the door later on is that “they made a great big mess in here and it had nothing to do with me!”

The rhyming text is a bit uneven, but that adds to the idea that this is a child talking. The story is sheer nonsense, but that works well. The art is delightfully busy and cheerfully cartoonish. Our narrator may have expressed some trepidation at the beginning, but nothing bad is happening here.

 

How I Did It!How I did it

Story by Linda Ragsdale

Illustrated by Anoosha Syed

Flowerpot Press

32 pages

$21.99

 

The I in this story is actually the letter I, and we meet it when it’s still trapped on the page with the other 25 letters, bound in an open book which is sitting on a classroom desk.

I’d have to say that it would be important never to lose the cover of this book, because the story actually begins on the opening flap. It will be interesting to see how they solve this problem if there is ever a paperback edition.

“One day I had an idea. So I took that idea and turned it into an adventure. I tried new things, I went new places, and I saw the world with a new point of view. And here’s how I did it!”

“I” looked to left and right, and noticed that with a bit of twisting it could manage to look like an H or a J. It twisted and wrangled so much that it popped right out of its spot on the page and began to wander around. This action prompted a lot of letter appropriate comments and actions from the letters that had remained in their proper places, and each had something to say about the situation.

“I” got more adventurous and managed to stand up. At this point it had left the page and was wandering around on the top of the desk. Not realizing that its freedom had limits, it walked off the edge and ended up a crumpled letter on the floor, feeling, for a few moments, like nothing but a scribble. It curled up in a ball, thinking that its days or adventuring were done, period. And then it realized that periods were well-rounded, that it could straighten itself out and see what else it might manage to accomplish.

And it didn’t have to do all that by itself. There was another letter, “U” that was also full of possibilities if it could just get free of its place between the lines on the page. In fact, it appears that “I” has been talking to “U” all along.

The characters in this story are all somewhat anthropomorphic letter forms with googiy, expressive eyes. Backgrounds are very basic, but the whole effect is bright and lively.

 

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Bookends: One Night of the Innkeeper’s Tale December 31, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, fantasy, Klondike Sun, Uncategorized, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: One Night of the Innkeeper’s Tale

By Dan Davidson

May 16, 2018

– 950 words –

 

The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the WindDAW Books

722 pages

$11.99

 

“My name is Kvothe.” (pronounced like “quoth)

“I have stolen princesses back from the sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

“You may have heard of me.”

Indeed, the man called the Chronicler has heard of Kvothe, and has been trying to track him down to make some sense of the many and conflicting stories that are told about the man.

The last place he expected to find him, though some obscure signs did point him in that direction, was as the owner and barkeeper at the Waystone Inn, hiding in plain sight under the name of Kote.

We begin this tale at the inn, where locals are sitting around listening to the tales told by old men. Kote does his duty and seems unremarkable.

We move then to the road that leads to the village where the Chronicler has been set upon by thieves, who have robbed him of most of his worldly goods and his horse, thus making his journey more difficult. Not long after, one of those thieves, horribly mangled, staggers into the Waystone, followed by a type of metallic spider monster that needs killing and burning.

Later, Kote dispatches a number of these creatures out in the forest, saving the Chronicler in the process and more or less revealing himself to be something more than an innkeeper.

When the Chronicler, who seeks refuge at the inn, finally works up the nerve to demand his story, Kote, somewhat encouraged by his assistant, who turns out to be a alien, regardless of how he may appear, agrees to tell it to him. He stipulates that it must take three days, that the Chronicler must record it exactly as he speaks it, and nothing must be added or subtracted.

This book is the part of the tale that was told on the first day.

Kvothe was born to a troupe of travelling players, actors and musicians, and his life as such is recalled as being idyllic until the day that everyone except him is slaughtered by a group of beings called the Chandrian, about whom his father has made the mistake of collecting lore and weaving it into a song. During those early years Kvothe was tutored by a magician who instilled in him the desire to learn more of the arcane ways of the world, to attend the University, and to do things like learning the name of the wind.

Following the slaughter, Kvothe managed to stay alive, living first as a scavenger in the forest, and later in the city of Tarbean where he was one of the begging, thieving classes of children. In both cases, he acquired skills that would later serve him well.

Years passed, and he managed, by one means and another, to put together enough money to get him to Imre, the city where the University was. Here, his life moved from being one of Dickensian squalor to the narrative of a young man at magic school. It’s still a tough life, but nothing like his years living on the streets, and he has a series of small triumphs, not the least of which was bluffing his way into the University in the first place, displaying a breadth of knowledge and wit that he looked too young – was too young – to have acquired.

He made friends; he made some enemies; he pursued clandestine research into the nature of the beings who had killed his parents and extended family. He found the love of his life (that part, any way) and had an unusual relationship with her, one that eventually led to an adventure far from the University where, no matter how bad he felt about doing it, he had to kill a dragon.

Kvothe is not yet out of his teens at this point in the telling, and there is much left to be said, but the book does leave us in a comfortable place, anticipating more, but willing to wait.

The whole thing will be called The Kingkiller Chronicles, and the main narrative is supposed to take three books, one for each day of the telling.

Book one, the title of which refers to a type of magic, appeared in 2007 and is already considered special enough to have a deluxe, illustrated, 10 year anniversary edition. Book two, The Wise Man’s Fear, appeared in 2011. A small volume about one of the secondary characters, under 200 pages in length, called The Slow Regard of Silent Things, appeared in 2014. So far there’s no word on the progress of the third day’s narrative.

I have Day 2, but I’m reluctant to read it and then have to wait for the finale. George R.R. Martin has made us all reluctant to have to delay our gratification.

There is certainly an underlying base of fantasy in Rothfuss’ work, but it reminds me somewhat more of the writing of Guy Gavriel Kay, in which the fantasy elements are implied more often than they are explicit.

Rothfuss is, at any rate, the best new voice I have encountered for this sort of work in some time, and I look forward to reading more of his stories.

 

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Bookends: The many ways to look at revival December 31, 2018

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Bookends: The many ways to look at revival

By Dan Davidson

May 23, 2018

– 959 words –

 

Revival

By Stephen KingRevival

480 pages

Pocket Books

$9.99

Kindle e-book

$7.98

 

Some of Stephen King’s novels take place in a matter of hours; some span years. Revivalcovers the best part of a life, beginning when our narrator, Jamie Morton, is just a small boy, on the day that he first meets the Reverend Charles Jacobs, whose shadow falls over him for the first time while he is playing with toy soldiers in the dirt

This is the beginning of the novel, and the first phase of two lives that will ebb and flow around each other for decades. Jamie refers to Jacobs as his Fifth Business, a reference to the novel of that name by Robertson Davies, a writer King has praised in his own work. I believe it was The Tommyknockerswhere he devoted what must have been five or six pages to what amounted to an enthusiastic review of one of Davies’ novels.

It’s a theatrical term, defined by Davies as “Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Businessin drama and opera companies …”

It’s uncertain just how to classify Charles Daniel Jacobs. If his wife and son had not been killed in that horrible accident at the end of the first part of the novel would he have continued to be the deeply religious man, with a bit of an obsessive interest in electricity, that he seemed to be in those early chapters. Or, was there always something about him that would have led him down what became a very dark path.

Fairly early in the book, Jacob cures Jamie’s brother, Con, from the inexplicable loss of his voice that follows a skiing accident. It is only after that, that the minister suffers the loss his family and his faith, and delivers the Terrible Sermon that sends him on his way to another life.

Life goes on for Jamie as well. There’s a delightful first love story that takes him all the way through high school while, at the same time, he falls in love with rock and roll and takes the first steps towards the life of a travelling musician. That turns sour after his own accident introduces him to the life of a drug addict, and it is only after he has hit rock bottom playing for country band that he meets Jacobs again.

By this time, Jacobs has revived himself as a carny act, and has furthered his interest in the “secret electricity”, which he uses to cure Jamie of both his pain and his addiction. So far he still seems to be a good Samaritan, if a bit of a con man.

Thanks to him, Jamie scores a job with the owner of a recording studio and revives (notice how much use King has made of his title?) his own life as a successful producer and sometime session player.

Jacobs’ next revival is as a faith healer, using his secret method, along with some placebo carny tricks, to build up a tent ministry and social media following, through which he becomes wealthy. But something’s wrong. Jamie has experienced some minor side effects from his cure and, while most of the cures seem to work out well, a bit of research proves to him that this is not always the case. Some have been disasters.

This is where what has seemed to be a mundane but interesting novel about a life begins to go dark, leading to a terrifying conclusion which is the result of Jacobs’ experiments, the side effects of his cures, and the Lovecraftian horrors to which he almost manages to open the dimensional doors. He wanted to find out what was in store for people after they died.The answer, if it really is the answer, is not at all satisfactory.

Stephen King often works bits of his own life into his work. After his confessions in his book about writing, he has often included the theme of addiction. Since the hit and run incident that nearly left him crippled, a number of his characters have suffered injuries as a result of accidents.

That said, I think that Revivalis the first time that he’s made use of his love of music to this extent. He has, at various times over a two decade period, been a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a group of writers who also like to dabble in classic rock and roll. Their name is a bookstore pun. Its members have included Dave Barry, Amy TanCynthia HeimelSam BarryRidley PearsonScott TurowJoel SelvinJames McBrideMitch AlbomRoy Blount, Jr.Barbara KingsolverRobert FulghumMatt Groening, Tad Bartimus, Greg Iles. They’ve played a lot of charity gigs and have been joined on stage by such real musicians as Al Cooper, Roger McGuinn, Warren Zevon and Bruce Springsteen.

As far as Wikipedia knows, the group’s last performance was in 2015. Where Revivalgets kind of personal is when Jamie Morton tells us about the set lists that his various cover bands tend to follow. It contains a lot of the material that the Remainders use. Jamie himself is a fair to middlin’ rhythm guitarist, which has been King’s position in the band.

I did not like the ending of this book. Revival’speek into the afterlife is even more bleak and nasty than the one Philip Pullman gave us in the His Dark Materials trilogy, Despite that, I enjoyed the book as a whole and can recommend it.

 

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Bookends: A Protégé of Sherlock Strikes Out on his Own December 31, 2018

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Bookends: A Protégé of Sherlock Strikes Out on his Own

By Dan Davidson

May 9, 2018

–  886 words –

The Irregular

The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy

By H.B Lyle

Kindle Edition

$15.49

Print Length: 301 pages

Hodder & Stoughton

 

Sherlock Homes remains one of the most durable literary creation of the 19th century, his continuing popularity evidenced by what seems to be the annual appearance of yet another collection of pastiche short stories by dozens of different authors and a list of novels and collections that ran to several pages the last time I tried to pin it down.

Then, of course, there is the BBC series of TV mini-movies featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and set in our time. How odd that in both the original and the upgrade it is still possible for Doctor Watson to have received his war wound in Afghanistan.

Then there are the fairly bohemian period piece films featuring Robert Downie Junior, of which there is to be a third; and the television show Elementary (now in its sixth season) which has brought a fellow named Holmes into the 21st century and moved him to New York.

Continuing the character is one way to work with the formula. Pitting Holmes against the Invisible Man, Mr., Hyde, Dracula, the Martian Invasion and other tricks have been tried. He was even teamed up with Tarzan in one pastiche novel.

Another way is to take secondary characters from the Holmes canon and work with them. The late John Gardener wrote several novels from the point of view of Professor Moriarity, Holmes’ great enemy.

H.B. Lyle has begun a series using yet another secondary character, one who was first introduced to us in the very first novel, when there is a thundering of many footsteps on the stairs leading up to the apartment at 221-B Baker Street. Watson announces his bewilderment.

“’What on earth is this?’ I cried, for at this moment there came the pattering of many steps in the hall and on the stairs, accompanied by audible expressions of disgust upon the part of our landlady.

“’It’s the Baker Street division of the detective police force,’ said my companion gravely; and as he spoke there rushed into the room half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs that ever I clapped eyes on.” From A Study in Scarletby Arthur Conan Doyle.

Their leader is the oldest one of them, a young teenager named Wiggins. Both he and others, most of whom are nameless, appear in several other stories and novels, and the device has been considered worthy of inclusion in some version in each of the current media incarnations of Holmes. They are called the Baker Street Irregulars, or just the Irregulars.

And now you know why Lyle’s novel has that title.

It’s 1909 and Wiggins is in his 30s, having grown up and spent a long stint in the army, a very basic career choice for lower class young men as the 19th century drew to a close. Britain pretty much dominates the world at this point, but there are revolutionary winds blowing in Russia; there’s an arms race with Germany; and the world is beginning to lurch towards that conflict which will initially be called The Great War.

Lower class Wiggins hasn’t been able to do well for himself since being demobbed. He’s been reduced to being a collection agent for a loan shark, which pretty much means strong-arming  and shaking down people who haven’t made their payments, people with who he would naturally be in sympathy.

He is approached by a friend of Holmes named Vernon Kell, who wants to set up a secret service to help protect the Empire. He needs men (mostly) who are smart, capable of fighting, and who can blend in with the lower classes. Holmes, who appears only briefly in this book, has recommended Wiggins as a prime candidate.

Kell is anxious to prove to his arrogant political masters that such a force is actually needed. They can’t begin to see why there could possibly be any threat to the Empire. He needs capable people who can establish that such threats exist.

Wiggins turns down the job at first, saying he “don’t do official”, but when a policeman friend of his is murdered by Russian anarchists, leaving that man’s family destitute, Wiggins signs up as a way to work on finding his friend’s killers. While his official assignment has him working undercover at a munitions factory that seems to be leaking information to the Germans, he is able to use his position to build up a string of informants and allies that help him to solve more than just his official case.

He’s an irregular sort of agent who creates his own group of irregulars, following in the footsteps, and using the methods of, his mentor, the Great Detective. Not that he doesn’t have all sorts of problems with his upper class superiors, but he does get the job done.

Interviews with Lyle indicate that he used quite a few real people (Kell being one) in the book and did a lot of research to get the period right. There’s a second book under way and the first has been optioned to be produced as a mini-series.

 

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Bookends: a fantastical collection of material December 29, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, fantasy, Klondike Sun, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: a fantastical collection of material

By Dan Davidson

April 11, 2018

Dreadful Young Ladies

– 615 words –

 

Dreadful Young Ladies and other stories

By Kelly Barnhill

Algonquin Books

304 pages

$34.95

 

Kelly Barnhill ended this collection of eight short stories and one novella (115 pages) with an acknowledgements section that had one of the most heartfelt appreciations of the act of reading that I have seen in a long time.  Here it is.

“It should be noted that I am, always and forever, in a state of awe and gratitude for the fact that there are readers in the world. There is, at its center, something immutably miraculous about the substance and process of reading stories. We read because we hunger to know, to empathize, to feel, to connect, to laugh, to fear, to wonder, and to become, with each page, more than ourselves. To become creatures with souls.

“We read because it allows us, through force of mind, to hold hands, touch lives, speak as another speaks, listen as another listens, and feel as another feels. We read because we wish to journey forth together. There is, despite everything, a place for empathy and compassion and rumination, and just knowing that fact, for me, is an occasion for joy.

“That we still, in this frenetic and bombastic and self-centered age, have legions of people who can and do return to the quietness of the page, opening their minds and hearts, again and again, to the wild world and stuff of life, pinned into scenes and characters, sharp images and pretty sentences – well. It sure feels like a miracle doesn’t it? I thank you, readers, and I salute you. With an open heart and a curious mind, I, too, return to the page. Let us hold hands and journey forth.”

Barnhill, who is a past winner of the World Fantasy Award (for The Unlicensed Magician, the long piece in this collection) and the Newbery Medal for The Girl Who Drank the Moon). is probably better known for her books for younger readers. On her website she posts she is “a former teacher, former bartender, former waitress, former activist, former park ranger, former secretary, former janitor and former church-guitar-player.”

A lot of the stories in this collection are about relationships. There’s the widow who marries a sasquatch; a series of letters linking a narrative about a failed marriage; the story of a girl who fell in love with poetry; a tale of four dreadful young ladies; an adventure in taxidermy; an elegy to a persecuted and marvellous young woman; a fractured fairy tale with transformations; a debate between two scientists, neither of them quite normal; finally, the story of the magical girl that almost no one can see.

These are an odd bunch of stories. I’m left with the impression that the writer is playing with forms of story telling and trying different things to see how they work out. I found the longer works the most satisfying and liked the novella best of all.

Various reviewers have compared her work to that of Neil Gaiman and, reaching quite a ways back, to the late Ray Bradbury. I think both references are apt, as both writers, in their times and in different ways, tinker with the stuff of fantasy and faerie and make it their own, as she does. She doesn’t make references to any particular source material, but it lurks under the surface of all these works.

Her website, https://kellybarnhill.wordpress.com, is full of interesting musings not unlike the bit that I quoted so extensively at the beginning of this essay. Browsing among her blog posts makes me want to read more of her books, so I probably will.

 

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Bookends: A Shapeshifting Love Story December 29, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, fantasy, Klondike Sun, Whitehorse Star, Young Adult.
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Bookends: A Shapeshifting Love Story

By Dan Davidson

March 27, 2018Medicine Road

– 836 words –

 

Medicine Road

By Charles de Lint

Illustrations by Charles Vess

Tachyon Publications

186 pages

$21.95

 

Since Ottawa based de Lint is himself a poet, songwriter, performer and folklorist as well as being the author of over 65 books, and the winner of the World Fantasy Award (among others), it’s no surprise that two of the central characters in this fantasy novel would be travelling musicians.

The Dillard twin sisters, Laurel and Bess, were introduced to readers in a book called Seven Wild Sisters, which, being a de Lint book, is not at all what the title sounds like it might be. It happens that this was their introduction to the world of faerie, so when some strange things happen in the present book, they’re not totally in shock, even though this series of events is quite different.

The story actually begins with two unhappy Native American spirits, Jim Changing Dog and Alice Corn Hair, who were originally a red dog and a jackalope. In some versions of Native mythology individuals can have both human and animal characteristics, with the ability to shift back and forth between forms.

Red Dog and Jackalope do not have this ability until it is granted to them by Coyote Woman (whose human, or “five fingered” form, is known as Corinna). She gives them a 100-year deadline to find their true loves, or have their shapeshifting ability revoked.

For Alice, this is not a problem. Years ago she found a human artist named Thomas and they have had a fine life together, though there is the strain of knowing that he is subject to mortal aging while she is not.

Jim, on the other hand, has never had a problem connecting with females. It’s just that nothing ever hit him like a ton of bricks until he met Laurel, and he only has a couple of weeks to establish a relationship, tell her who (or what) he really is, and see if she can accept him on those terms.

We already know, from the experience of a snake/woman named Ramona, that such acceptance can be difficult, and perhaps disappointing. Ramona, embittered by that failed relationship in her life, does her best to spoil the bonding between Jim and Laurel. But there are actually are no villains in this novel, which is essentially a love story; it’s just that sometimes people (and other beings) make mistakes and don’t behave as well as they should. Ideally, they learn better.

De Lint has used a lot of these ideas before, most especially in his urban fantasy books set in the city of Newford (which is a North American city that bears some resemblance to Ottawa). It’s also pretty common for him to move characters around from book to book, and some of the Newford people are referenced here, even though they don’t appear.

The Dillard sisters originate in the northern part of Appalachia but here they are touring as a bluegrass/traditional folk duo, doing a series of small pub and home routes style concert gigs in the American southwest. It is during one of these that they meet Jim, Alice and Corinna, and strange things begin to happen.

De Lint likes to use multiple points of view in his work. Bess’s and Laurel’s chapter segments are given to us as first person narratives, while all the other major characters (Alice, Jim and Ramona) are given to us in the third person. We see Corinna only though the eyes of the others.

In de Lint’s mystical cosmography there is a closer association between the various orders of creation than we are perhaps used to. Animals have a touch of humanity and people have links to the animals. It is Corinna’s special gift to be able to enhance that connection if there are certain qualities and a willingness to find that link in the individual.

A century ago she had seen that Red Dog and Jackalope could be more than predator and prey. With the Dillard twins she senses a connection to another form that would certainly never be revealed by checking Ancestry.com, or any of those DNA testing services. There is a need to bring out the deer in the girls if she is to be able to play cupid the way she intends to.

Accessing these changes involves a bit of interdimensional travel. There are realities beyond ours that shape shifters can visit, and various parts of this book take place in two of those higher planes.

In addition to the amount of detailed description in this book, it is graced with 16 illustrations by World Fantasy and Eisner Award winning artist Charles Vess.

Earlier editions of the author’s book bios mention that he spent some of his time in the Yukon when he was very young, as his father worked for a survey firm and they moved around a lot. More current versions just refer to Western Canada.

 

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Bookends:  A Tale with two timelines December 29, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, Whitehorse Star, Young Adult.
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Bookends:  A Tale with two timelines

By Dan Davidson

March 21, 2018

– 785 words –

 

The Emperor of Any PlaceEmperor of any place

By Tim Wynne-Jones

Kindle Edition

$9.02

Candlewick Press

336 pages

$23.99

 

The story begins trapped in memory.

“Evan stands at the door to his father’s study. There is a sign at eye level: THE DOCKYARD. It was a present he gave to his father at Christmas, made of cork so that if the house sank, at least the sign would still float. Their little joke.

“He raises his hand to knock— a habit he can begin to unlearn. So much of grief is unlearning. He opens the door, steps inside, and takes a shallow breath, afraid of what might be lingering on the air. But there are only the old familiar smells: Royal Lime aftershave, glue, sawdust.

“This is where he found him.”

His father had died, suddenly, unexpectedly, 14 days earlier, leaving teenage Evan an orphan, and more than a little adrift in the world, living in the home to which they had given the name Any Place.

His father was reading a hand-bound yellow book when he died. It’s the diary of a Japanese soldier who was stranded on a small Pacific island during World War II. Soon, Evan is immersed so deeply in this book that it feels to him as if he has been transported there.

In fact, that’s just what the novel does, moves us into the translated first person narrative of Isamu Ōshiro’slife, written as if it is a letter to the wife he left to go to war for the Emperor. He is the only survivor of a fierce assault on a nearby island and washes up on his refuge quite by accident.

Later, he is joined there by an American named Derwood Kraft, the only survivor of a downed troop supply plane. Eventually they meet each other, two Robinson Crusoes who reach a kind of accommodation in spite of being on opposite sides of the war. It is Kraft who has had possession of the journal for all these years, has translated it, and has added his own chapters to help the reader make sense of what is going on.

In the present day, Evan spends much of his time mourning the death of his father, and trying to cope with the conflict inherent in the arrival of his grandfather, retired soldier, Griff. The two have never met, since Clifford E. Griffin III and Clifford E. Griffin II have been estranged his entire life. Evan has grown up in Canada, where he father went to avoid America’s military culture. They are oil and water, and seem to have no way of communicating. Each is mourning in his own way.

Compared to what is happening on the island, the present day story is rather bland. The island, you see, has ghosts. Well, not exactly. There are two kinds. Some seem to be the spirits of those who have not yet been born and they are protective and kind. This becomes crucial later on, in several important ways.

There are a lot of dead bodies on the island, and Ōshiro, inspired by a kindness he saw an American GI perform during the assault on the other island, has set himself the task of giving them all proper burials. That’s when he discovers what he first thinks of as carnivorous spirits picking away at the corpses. He eventually calls these “jikininki” and thinks of them as zombies. If takes him awhile to understand that what they are after is the remnants of human memory that exists for awhile in the brains of the dead.

On top of that, there is some kind of creature roaming the jungle which threatens the safety of the two men. Part of their uneasy bonding is the need to develop some protection against this tengu (a type of demon in Buddhist mythology).

This is an odd book to experience, shifting back and forth in time as it does, with each of the two narratives ending in cliff-hangers that keep you wanting to get to the next segment of that particular story.

One review that I read suggested that there are two books struggling to coexist between these covers, and that the historical narrative overpowers the present day one. I think I’d have to agree with that assessment.

But they are stitched together as the book reaches its conclusion, and I wasn’t as disappointed with the ending as the reviewer in Quill and Quireseems to have been. Wynne-Jones wanted to have Evan and his grandfather reconcile and find a way to move forward as the book ends, and I think he managed to do that.

 

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Bookends: This detective has a ghostly companion December 28, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, mystery, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: This detective has a ghostly companion

By Dan Davidson

February 13, 2018

– 612 words –

 

A test of Wills

A Test of Wills

By Charles Todd

Kindle Edition

Print Length 323 pages

Publisher:William Morrow

 

Detectives frequently have a side-kick, someone who follows them about and occasionally contributes a gem of insight by thinking outside the normal boxes. No partnership is quite so intense as that between Inspector Ian Rutledge and Corporal Hamish MacLeod. MacLeod, you see, is dead, and is merely a voice in Rutledge’s shell-shocked head.

The Corporal served under Rutledge during the Great War, and the detective feels himself to be entirely responsible for the man’s death at the Battle of the Somme, for reasons that are partly explained in this first book. Subsequent to his mental and emotional breakdown after his discharge, Rutledge found himself with a constant companion, one who was likely to offer his own thoughts on situations unprompted, in his distinctly Scottish tones.

Hamish always seems to be looking over Ian’s shoulder, In fact when he is driving, Hamish cane be heard from the back seat.

Post-war Rutledge has lost some of his ability to interact with people, this exacerbated by his fiancée’s inability to adjust to his changes. Jean’s desertion further undermines his confidence in his ability to deal with others. Interestingly, Hamish’s voice turns out to be a keen observer of other people and often manages to contribute to Rutledge’s deficiencies in this area.

Rutledge was some months recovering sufficiently to return to his duties at Scotland Yard after the war, but there he has a mixed reception. As a bona fide war hero with medals to his credit, there are some at the Yard who look on him favourably. His immediate supervisor, Chief Superintendent Bowles,is not one of those. He is aware of Rutledge’s medical issues, sees only his deficiencies, is jealous of his reputation as a hero, and schemes to assign him to cases where he might fail, hoping that he will, and becoming more antagonistic when he succeeds.

This first novel in the series, which was nominated for a number of mystery awards, sees Rutledge assigned to investigate the murder of an army colonel, with a young captain as the prime suspect. Part of sending him out of London to Warwickshire is that Bowles knows he will be out of his comfort zone there.

Then, the main suspect has ties to the Royal Family, which makes this a very tricky case, and the only witness to events is hardly a credible fellow; a drunken ex-soldier suffering from his own version of shell shock.

The local villagers think very little of the man, and have a low opinion of military men in general. Rutledge has been dropped into a hostile environment and instructed to solve a difficult case as quickly as possible.

Charles Todd is an interesting nom de plumefor a mother and son partnership between Charles and Caroline Todd, who live, as so many of these writers of British mysteries seem to, in the United States. They visit the United Kingdom frequently, as many of these writers appear to do. They have produced twenty books in this series, which they began in 1996.  According to their website, the novels follow a timeline which begins in June, 1919, and continues, month by month, from there on.

The volume I’m reading from happens to be a four book e-book omnibus. It appeared to be the first four books in the series, but now that I’ve looked further into the writers’ website, it turns out that it’s not. I’ve enjoyed the first three mysteries in this collection, and I’ll write up the others sometime in the future.

 

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