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

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Bookends: Advice on Writing from a Master

By Dan Davidson

November 16, 2016

– 730 words –


Startle and Illuminate: startle-and-illuminate on Writing

Edited by Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini

Random House Canada

204 pages



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Bookends: Across the country in a dozen fun-filled days February 11, 2016

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Bookends: Across the country in a dozen fun-filled days

By Dan Davidson

December 21, 2015

– 706 words –


The Twelve Days of Christmas in Canada

Written by Ellen Warwick

Illustrated by 12 days

Sterling Children’s Books

36 pages



The notion behind this little book is that we are asked to see it as the diary of an English girl who is spending the 12 days of Christmas exploring a good deal of the lower slice of our country, mostly the part where the majority of the people live. She has been gifted this trip by her Canadian cousin, Theo. His letter to her opens the text portion of the book. He warns her to bring her woolies, the mittens and hat (on which they missed a bet by not calling it a toque) because Canada, aside from being cool, is also “c-c-c-cold at Christmastime”.

On her vacation trip she manages to hit all 10 provinces, but the territories just get what amounts to footnote glimpses.

Part of this omission is no doubt due to the page limitations of the standard children’s picture book. This one has 36 pages, and has managed to make full use of its end papers, bumping it up to 40. There’s a big map at the front showing the route of Juliette’s excursion and the various ways in which she travels: plane, boat, train, car.

She touches down in Charlottetown, St. John’s, Halifax, Peggy’s Cove, Saint John, Fredericton, Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Niagara Falls, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Drumheller, Vancouver, and Victoria. At each location she pens a letter to one of her parents. This takes up the left page, while the right is full of vibrant computer generated artwork.

The Victoria segment is followed by a double splash page, providing a visual summary of the events and sights in the book.

A three page “Canada: From Sea to Sea” section provides lists of interesting facts about the country: cities, people, inventions, records, landmarks, history and nature.

The back end-paper spread, “Canada from ‘Eh’ to Zed”, is a huge bulletin board covered with mementos of the trip, including a lot of references to places Juliette didn’t visit. As a brief glance at our territory, there’s a flier from the Northern Lights Centre and the Signpost Forest in Watson Lake, and a ticket stub from the Dawson City Music Festival. There are a couple of Inuksuk related items from Nunavut and a blue ribbon log-sawing prize that shouts out to the NWT.

Now a book with that title has to be referencing the original “12 Days of Christmas” and so this one has its own cumulative rhyme, beginning “On the first day of Christmas, my cousin gave to me … a loon in a maple tree.”

Now, you might wonder what a loon, called Maple, of course, is doing up in a tree instead of on a lake, but that crazy loon follows Juliette and her cousin, Theo, across the country and is an amusing part of their continuing adventures.

These involve 2 mummers’ masks, 3 lobsters, 4 fiddles wild, 5 golden bagels, 6 Mounties marching, 7 streetcars ringing, 8 bears a-swimming, 9 sled dogs howling, 10 players skating, 11 snowboards shredding and 12 orcas breaching.

All of this is a good bit of fun and quite exciting stuff, but I do have to register a few complaints.

There’s nothing for the North in here. The polar bears are in a zoo in Winnipeg, and the sled dogs are somewhere near Saskatoon. The bulletin board references really aren’t enough.

It’s pretty much customary these days to refer to Canada as stretching from sea to sea to sea rather than as headed in the text pages, but this book doesn’t go there.

Finally, the reference to a “ceilidh” (kay-lee), as a type of Acadian party, will be something of a shock to all those of Celtic background. I’m sure the Acadian French have a word that means much the same thing, but that word is Gaelic, not Gallic.

Those exceptions aside, this is a clever little book and one that i am sure its target audience will appreciate. Oh, and you can sing the poem. I gave it a try.


– 30 –

Bookends: A love of science brings two disparate lives together February 11, 2016

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Bookends: A love of science brings two disparate lives together

By Dan Davidson

December 9, 2015

– 865 words –



By Joan Thomas

McClelland & Stewart

416 pages


Kobo edition – $13.99


Curiosity is that odd species of historical novel, the one that begins with the lives of actual people, and explores what connections there might have been between them.

The cover I’ve picked to show you here just has the words “a novel” as a subtitle, but other editions make Thomas’ intention clear by using the words “a love story”.

This fictional biography of two mismatched people is set in early 19th century Britain, at a time when social class conventions were set pretty hard and fast, and the roles allowed to be played by women were just as fixed.

The real Mary Anning was the daughter of a poor family who, without much in the way of a formal education, transcended many boundaries to become one of the pioneers in the study of fossils.

Her first teacher is her father, who digs up fossils and sells them to rich collectors for more money that he can ever earn making cabinets and coffins. After his death, teenage Mary turns to the sale of these curiosities as a way of supporting her ailing mother and the other children.

A gifted paleontologist, Mary unearths from the sea cliffs of Lyme Regis, a coastal village in West Dorset, many of the finds for which the men to whom she sells them take credit in the scientific world. Only later in life is she recognized as the treasure that she is.

The other central character in this story is Henry de la Beche, who we first meet when he is running away from military college. Henry is the son of a plantation owner from Jamaica. His income derives from the slave-operated farm there. He is rooted in the poor upper classes, and has all sorts of expectations of life, many of which he must rely on the resources of others to attain. Henry means well much of the time, but he is as trapped by his station in life as is Mary.

The “love story” sub-title has two meanings. The obvious one, the romance, is something that both of them feel not long after they meet, but one which is mostly denied them by birth and station. They spend a lot of time together, but only once does this lead to a physical relationship. Mostly they talk and share their fascination for the new science of paleontology. Henry uses his artistic talents to render on paper the bones and fossils that she finds, as well as mapping the geology of the sea cliffs for her.

Henry is trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who seems to have set out to catch him at an early age and then regrets her choice. Their engagement, which begins in their teens, stretches on for what seems to be years and she is eventually unfaithful to him in ways that go far beyond the mostly platonic meetings he has with Mary.

There is much tragedy and hardship in both of their lives. Henry is held in disdain by most of the members of his family and his in-laws, tolerated rather than valued for the talents he has. He buries himself in the study of science to compensate for this.

Mary simply has a hard life, one of poverty from which she is occasionally rescued by well meaning upper class benefactors. In addition, in this age before Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species loosened up some of the preconceived notions of how creatures have developed, the kinds of creatures Mary is unearthing are held by many people to be evil in some way. This work is her calling and her only financial security, and yet she feels guilty about it.

The popular explanation for how the fossils got where they are being found is that they were creatures not rescued during Noah’s flood, and that their remains have been turned to stone as some sort of divine punishment.

Both Mary and Henry struggle with conflicting theories of how such creatures came to be, and why they no longer exist in the world.

The lives of these two are not always entwined. Henry travels while Mary does not. The alternating chapters of their lives are told is quite different voices, reflective of their differing personal styles, educational backgrounds and experiences.

Mary’s narrative is more matter of fact than Henry’s, while his shows a somewhat bookish and romanticized outlook on life.

One of the problems with e-books is that they don’t sit around reminding you that you haven’t read them yet. I picked up a Kobo edition of this one when Joan Thomas was a Berton House writer-in-residence here in 2012. It’s been sitting out in the “cloud”, not yet loaded onto any of the three devices that I have the Kobo (acronym for “book”) software on.

Published two years earlier, in 2010, the book was her second novel. It was named a Quill and Quire Book of the Year and was nominated for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize and the International IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award.






Bookends: Tales of two prisoners with different endings October 16, 2015

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Bookends: Tales of two prisoners with different endings

By Dan DavidsonBreaking Lorca

March 30, 2015

– 831 words –


Breaking Lorca

By Giles Blunt

Vintage Canada

258 pages


In this total departure from his John Cardinal mystery series, Giles Blunt takes us on a trip to El Salvador, during the era when the country was “governed” by an alphabet soup jumble of guerilla groups and death squads, some of which were financed and equipped by clandestine cadres in the CIA in order to prevent the leftist groups from assembling a working government.

In this novel we enter the life of Victor Peña, a bookish young man whose family connections doom him into being drafted by the squad his uncle, Captain Peña, leads. He wanted nothing more than to study, read books and perhaps grow up to work in some job where he could help people. Instead, he is forced by his uncle to visit unspeakable tortures on poor souls who have been identified as agents of the enemy.

He knows he is doomed.

“Sooner of later the other soldiers in the squad were going to kill him. It was only a matter of time. Victor had never done anything to antagonize the brutes he worked with, but he was sure they hated him, or soon would.”

The worst thing he is forced (do this or die) to do is participate in the breaking of Lorca, a proud and noble young woman caught in the act of helping people by providing them with food. There is water-boarding, shock treatment with the General (a GE generator), beatings, countless rapes and indignities.

At the end of her ordeal, Victor is forced to kill her, and he only misses in the attempt by an accident that goes unnoticed by his superiors. It is this cowardly act that gains him the right to be chosen for further training in America.

Once there, he disappears, changes his name, gets a low paying job and tries to reform his life. Wouldn’t you just know that the act of helping another countryman brings him into contact with Lorca, who has managed to escape to New York and is living in seclusion there with a relative.

She has no idea who Victor is, because she was blindfolded through most of her ordeal, which has left her broken and suffering from PTSD. Ironically he and she become involved with a group that wants them to testify about American involvement in El Salvador. As the story works out, it’s not clear if this was an honest committee, or just a way to smoke out possible whistleblowers.

At any rate, it doesn’t go well. In the end, however, Victor finds s degree of personal redemption in sacrificing himself to save Lorca when they are ambushed near the Washington Zoo on the night before the hearings.

Ivan: The Remarkable Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla

Story by Katherine ApplegateIvan

Illustrations by G. Brian Karas

Clarion Books

40 pages


Applegate and Karas have brought is the true story of Ivan, a Congo born gorilla who sent most of his life as the main attraction in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. Born in 1962, he was captured at the age of six months, and after he arrived in the United States he spent several years living with a family who ran a pet store at the B&I Circus Store. When he was about five, and was too big to keep at home any longer, he became the resident of a three metre by three metre steel and cement display room.

He lived there for the next 27 years, with his main recreations being finger painting watching television, and interacting with the crowds. During those three decades public perceptions of what was proper treatment for captured wild animals evolved to the point where a 1990 National Geographic documentary, “The Urban Gorilla”, began to spark agitation to move Ivan to a more natural surrounding.

It took a few years for the movement to gather enough steam to accomplish its goal, but Ivan was relocated to Zoo Atlanta, where he finally got to live with other gorillas in a 1.5 acre natural habitat area. It took some time for him to get used to others of his kind, but he did make the adjustment and it is said that the last decade of his life was spent in contentment. He died in 2012 at the age of 50.

Ivan’s story is told in simple text and pictures in the first 36 pages of the book. The remainder provides us with a more sophisticated account, as well as some actual photographs of Ivan and a sample of one of his finger paintings. There is also a moving afterword by one of the keepers who cared for him in his final home.

Applegate and Karas are donating a portion of the proceeds from this book to a couple of organizations that look out for the welfare of gorillas.


Bookends: A science fiction novel about redemption and second chances October 15, 2015

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Bookends: A science fiction novel about redemption and second chances

By Dan DavidsonTo Your Scattered Bodies Go

March 25, 2015

– 807 words –


To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Riverworld Saga, Book 1

By Philip Jose Farmer

Narrated by Paul Hecht

Recorded Books

7 hours and 42 minutes


My favorite title for this book is the one that graced the novelette that I read in Galaxy magazine back in my teens. “The Suicide Express” was catchy and captured the urgency with which Richard Francis Burton (the 19th century explorer) and Hermann Goering (yes, him) approached their resurrected lives on the planet they would come to call Riverworld.

Philip Farmer postulated a planet on which the entire human, and even near human, population of planet Earth has been resurrected for reasons known only to the alien beings who engineered the deed. The total number of beings, prior to the planet’s destruction by another alien race, was 36 billion people, everyone who had ever lived.

They are miraculously reconstituted on a planet dominated by a massive river system that winds around and between mountain ranges too high to be climbed, snaking around the planet from south pole to north. It is estimated to be some 10 million miles in length.

The population is provided with devices they come to refer to as grails, covered buckets that can be inserted into receptacles on devices that are scattered, along with the people, in clusters all over the planet. These act rather like Star Trek’s replicators, and provide food, drink, and even material that can be used to make simple clothing. There’s even a drug – dream gum – that can be recreational in small quantities, but desperately dangerous if one becomes addicted to it.

The setting and situation gave Farmer the opportunity to explore how people from different backgrounds, cultures and time periods would mingle and adjust to each other’s presences. Burton, for instance, meets Goering who, for him, has none of the associations that people from later periods in history would have. And since all the dead are restored to young adulthood (except children, who age until they reach that point and then stop aging) the Goering he meets is the robust airman from the Great War.

He also meets Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and a number of other people, including one Peter Jairus Frigate, a writer, who is the fictional personification of PJF himself.

Burton, inveterately curious, needs to know why they are where they are. What is the purpose of this adventure? He is one of a very few people who actually had a period of consciousness in the resurrection chambers before materializing near one of the grail stones, so he is aware of a scientific process behind what most of the resurrected take to be a miracle, depending on their cultural and religious backgrounds.

The other peculiar fact about Riverworld is that death is no longer a finality. Most of the societies that develop from the population clusters are rather violent and people get killed regularly – and then they reappear somewhere else along the river, restored to health, provided with a new grail, and given another chance. The process appears to be random.

So it is that when Burton discovers he is being tracked by the beings who have masterminded this place, he determines that his best chance to evade them, and perhaps rematerialize closer to the rumoured tower that some have seen near the northern pole, is to ride the suicide express.

Later books (there are four other novels and a short story collection) follow the adventures of Burton and his good friend, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), as they attempt to sail the River in Twain’s fabulous riverboat. Later on, there were also two shared world anthologies, with other writers being invited to tell stories using this setting. There has also been a computer role playing game and at least one Masters’ thesis written on the idea of redemption as used in the series. You can read it on PJF’s website.

Two attempts to create television series from this material have been made (in 2003 and 2010), and the pilot episodes released as rather poor t.v. movies and mini-series. They missed the mark by a wide margin, abandoning the central characters as used by Farmer for American lightweights and skimming the surface of the Riverworld’s complexities. So if you’ve seen either of those, don’t judge the books by these cover versions.

The books are currently available in print, as e-books and in these well-narrated audio books. I hadn’t read this book since sometime in the 1980s, so it was a treat to re-experience it once again. The 19th edition reprint from 1981 is in my library. The book won the best novel Hugo Award in 1971 and has been continuously in print ever since.


Bookends: Book Three of A Song of Ice and Fire has some shocking developments November 27, 2014

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Bookends: Book Three of A Song of Ice and Fire has some shocking developments

By Dan Davidson

May 20, 2014

– 995 words –


A Storm of Swords:Storm of Swords

: Book Three

George R.R. Martin

Bantam Books

1216 pages



Now matter how well he may be telling the story in A Song of Fire and Ice, it cannot be denied that George R.R. Martin is one of those fantasy writers who has let his subject matter run away with him.

Tad Williams writes really long books, but manages to restrict himself to two, three or four volumes per saga. Terry Brooks’ Shannara series may go on forever, but he provides the installments in three to four novel segments, complete in themselves. Terry Goodkind’s individual novels in the Sword of Truth series are quite long, but so far the ones I’ve read seem to stand as individual stories. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books grew as the series progressed, but he had a definite end in sight, and when he died Brandon Sanderson was able to finish the story in three large volumes.

A Song of Fire and Ice was supposed to have been a trilogy. The first two books were substantial, at 720 (A Game of Thrones) and 784 (in A Clash of King) pages, but this third volume, as you can see, left them in the dust with 1216. The next two books, which I have yet to read, both top 1000 pages and, while Martin has a definite conclusion in mind (and has shared it with the folks at HBO in case they get there before he does) it’s still some way off.

Speaking of the HBO series, it’s a classic case of what happens when cable television gets a hold of a property and wants to make sure that the adult rating draws in the viewers. Martin’s books refer to lots of sex and violence and even go into detail with some of it, but nowhere near the extent that the HBO series has. In particular the gratuitous T&A quotient in this series, including lots of rape scenes in “loving” detail, leave me wondering if anyone ever stops to ask if this is necessary or if they just go, “what the hell, it’s cable.”

I’ve only watched the first season. I want to read the books first. The series is well done, in spite of these lapses, but I like having the words conjure the images for me.

Viewers were apparently shocked to pieces to view the Red Wedding mass murder scene in season three and the death of the Boy King in season four. These are both included in A Storm of Swords, along with the deaths an apparent deaths of a number of key individuals that the earlier books had suggested were in the story for the long haul. The series isn’t exactly following the books scene for scene; in fact the third season would have needed to be twice its length to deal with this book.

What one can say about potential deaths in this series, is that the viewpoint characters tend to survive while those who are going to die are mostly those who are viewed by other people? That’s not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to apply most of the time so far.

Martin’s imaginary world is not Earth, which is one of the things that distinguish it from a lot of other fantasy series. The planet must have an irregular orbit, as its seasons are measured in multiple years. Winter is coming; this phrase is often repeated. Somewhere above a great ice wall in the north near to the now ruined kingdom of Winterfell there are strange creatures waiting for winter. These Others can animate the bodies of the dead and seem bent on storming the human lands. There are people, Wildlings they are called, who live beyond the Wall, and who want to get through it to relative safety, as the Others seem to be awakening with the turning of the seasons.

Jon Snow, the bastard son of the late Eddard Stark, is a member of the Night’s Watch, the black-cloaked guardians of the Wall. His chapters are among my favorites in this volume.

Martin’s narrative device is to take us on round robin tour of his major characters. The action is not necessarily sequential and sometimes people come within a hair of encountering each other, but don’t quite.

We follow Daenarys, who has three growing dragons and hopes to reclaim the land for her family line, which was deposed in a coup when she was young. She has to learn the difference between being a conqueror and being a ruler.

We follow Jon and his sisters Arya and Sansa, each of whom have their trials to undergo. Arya is quite the tomboy and on the run from the people who killed her father. Sansa, who was such a naïve pain in the first two volumes, gains some substance in this book, especially after her marriage to Tyrion Lannister, the dwarfish member of the ruling clan. Tyrion, in spite of his moral limitations, is one of the best people in the series, intelligent and possessed of his own honour code.

Catelyn Stark continues to try to hold what she can of her family together, as long as she can. New to the point of view list in Jaime Lannister, who had been seen chiefly as a villain in the earlier books, but now turns out to have some redeeming qualities. His relationship with the ugly warrior woman Brienne is quite intriguing.

There is such a large cast in this series that it is well Martin has provided appendices with each of the books, but an even more useful tool can be found online at http://awoiaf.westeros.org. This site contains character descriptions, summaries and lots of practical information for readers getting lost in the mass of material.


Bookends: Many things tilt this teenager’s world November 25, 2014

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Bookends: Many things tilt this teenager’s world

By Dan Davidson

April 22, 2014

– 800 words –




Groundwood Books

271 pages



There comes a time in the life of a young person when the whole world seems to tilt. There may be many such times, in fact. For Stan Dart the first one was when his father, Ron, packed up and left with Kelly-Ann, abandoning Stan, Lily and their mother, Isabelle.

With Mom there has been a succession of failed relationships since then, and each of them has tilted Stan’s world a little. The current one, with Gary, seems to be working out, and he’s not at all sure how he feels about that.

It’s been five years since he has had to worry about a permanent other male presence, and he’s kind of got used to picking up the pieces of their lives that his mom seems to drop from time to time.

Not that he doesn’t love his mom. There’s a rather sweet conversation that they have about halfway into the book and no son who didn’t love his mother would have been able to stick around for the whole thing.

What’s been rocking Stan’s world the most lately is the new girl, Janine Igwash. She’s constantly on his mind and when she asks him to go to a dance with her, he’s totally flabbergasted. Even though his friends warn him the buzz is that she’s “tilted” (read – into girls) he can’t give up the idea of spending time with her.

It’s a really awkward relationship, on both their parts. Stan’s never been on a date, as such, and Janine has never actually been interested in a guy before, so they circle around each other quite uncertainly for much of the book, running towards and away from each other while they make up their minds.

In his less frantic moments, Stan is trying hard to make the school’s basketball team, and the proper ways to make different types of basketball shots become metaphors for all kinds of other activity as the story moves along.

A final big tilt comes Stan’s way when his birth father turns up with the half-brother he’s produced with Kelly-Ann. We’re not sure what’s happened here. Did she kick him out or did he just leave her? Do the garbled words coming from Feldon, Stan’s new half-brother, mean that Kelly-Ann is having an affair with someone else and that they’ve taken off to Montego Bay – or is all of this completely out to lunch?

What does Ron want? How does Stan feel about Feldon? How does Lilly feel about him? What scenes will develop when Gary and Ron are at the house at the same time?

As it turns out Gary seems to improve by comparison with Ron. In fact most of Stan’s residual good feelings about Ron pretty much melt away the night he finds his dad preparing to take off again with Feldon in order to avoid getting caught there by Kelly-Ann.

Stan talks him out of taking Feldon and watches as Ron “shuffled his old gray self in to the back of (the taxi) and said something to the driver. Bus station? Train station? Somewhere on the edge of the highway? Stan didn’t want to know.”

That seems to be the point where he becomes determined not to be the man he has seen his father become, and so he is rather distressed when he and Janine give in to teenage desire while he feels they ought to be looking after Feldon (who has fallen asleep in the downstairs closet).

When she says, “I’d love to see your room” it’s pretty much all over for Stan, and the next few pages are likely to get this book some sort of age rating, even though it’s all very poetic. Later, he’s terrified that he’s become a father, but it turns out she had this all pretty well planned for.

At its core, this is a book about relationships and desire. Some of the relationships work out and some don’t. It appears that some of the characters learn important lessons – and that some just blunder on heedlessly.

There’s lots of tension in this story and yet it’s quite funny in a number of ways. We spend it inside Stan’s head, and I’m not sure he’s an entirely reliable narrator, but he means well and he wants to get things right, so we like him and we cheer for him.

The story has several happy endings, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that, because they’re not exactly what you may be thinking they are.

Alan Cumyn is the current writer-in-residence at Berton House and was one of the four mentor authors at this week’s Young Authors’ Conference.




Bookends: Teenagers face the menace of werewolves and actual wolves November 25, 2014

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Bookends: Teenagers face the menace of werewolves and actual wolves

By Dan Davidson

April 9, 2014

– 909 words –


The ReckoningThe Reckoning

By Kelly Armstrong

Doubleday Canada

400 pages



The Reckoning concludes the Darkest Powers Trilogy, in which three young people with supernatural abilities are on the run from a group that wants to either exploit them or terminate them.

Chloe, the narrator, is a necromancer, which in this version of magic is a person who has the power to communicate with spirits, animate corpses and cause the two to be reunited. She can also banish ghosts and send them to where ever they go next.

Simon is a minor spellcaster who is just beginning to master some of his abilities and really has to work at it, unlike Victoria, whose amped up abilities do not even require her to use spoken spells.

Derek is the final member of the group. As a human he is large for his age, but more importantly he is a werewolf approaching the first of his transformations, and concerned about what kind of beast he may become when he shapeshifts.

The four have been on the run from a special school run by the Edison Group, the organization responsible for the genetic experiments that have given three of the four of them enhanced abilities.

At the end of the second book they found sanctuary with a group consisting of former members of Edison who have come to feel that the group has gone too far in its breeding experiments. While the renegade group wants to help the teens at first, they eventually become scared of them and betray them to Edison.

Captive at Edison’s headquarters, it turns out to be Chloe’s abilities which are the most crucial in freeing them from captivity, though all the others play their parts. In this section of the book a whole new layer of supernatural creatures is dimly (but loudly) revealed, seemingly part of the Otherworld that Armstrong has used in her adult books about werewolves, witches and demonic plots.

A good portion of the trilogy has involved the relationship triangle of Chloe, Simon and Derek, and that is resolved in this final book. Actually the most dramatic character arc belongs, I think, to Tori, who grows from her origins as a spoiled, spiteful brat into a caring person who holds her own in the struggle against the forces of nastiness.


Devil’s PassDevil's Pass

By Sigmund Brouwer

Orca Book Publishers

237 pages



Devil’s Pass is a third book in “Seven, the Series”. Jim Webb is another of David McLean’s grandsons, one of seven, who has been left a task to perform, and the money to perform it, by his grandfather. The elder McLean lived a full life all over the world, but left items on his bucket list incomplete at the end of it. He planned a quest for each of the lads, something that would not only complete his unfinished business, but also provide them with a growth experience. He has also provided them with people who will assist then on their journeys, but the exact nature of their help is kept secret.

For Webb, who has been living on the streets in Toronto since his stepfather, Elliot, poisoned his formerly happy home and threatened to hurt his mother if he didn’t run away, this means a trip to the Norman Wells, NWT, and a long hike on the Canol Road. Jim, named for songwriter Jimmy Webb, carries with him his Gibson J-45 guitar, with which he has been earning a meager living busking for some months now.

The structure of this novel is different than the first two I read, though all the adventures take place in about the same time frame, so it doesn’t matter what order you read them in. They all have to contain the reading of the will and viewing of McLean’s video in the lawyer’s office, and they all have a series of letters that the grandfather has written to explain the task.

Webb is given minimal instructions, and this adventure is a bit more of a thriller than the first two I read. On his journey Webb has to deal with a man who is the image of his abusive stepdad, and with two German tourists who try to give him a hard time after he cleans up their messes along the trail. There is also a wolf.

In Norman Wells, he falls afoul of a nasty piece of work named Brent, who is abusing the woman he’s with. There are two confrontations with him in that town and then another out in the bush. All three work out badly for Brent, but the third one is a near thing for both of them.

Webb has been given directions to a specific location off the Canol trail, and there he finds the remains of a man who had been killed back in the 1940s when his grandfather was part of the US Military crew that worked on building the road.

Webb has a secondary task after his journey north, and that is to return to the family of the dead man and tell them what happened to him. They never knew. Then, with the help of some research McLean had done on Elliot, he is off to set things right with his mother. We are not told that story, but we have no trouble imagining how it will work out.



Bookends: International Conspiracies and Old Scores Fuel these Stories December 29, 2013

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Bookends: International Conspiracies and Old Scores Fuel these Stories

By Dan Davidson

August 19, 2013

– 845 words –


The Sinner: A Rizzoli & Isles NovelThe Sinner

Tess Gerritsen

384 pages

Ballantine Books



I got interested in Gerritsen’s series because of the TV show, but my caution would be that the show, with its ensemble cast and “odd couple” vibe between the two lead characters, doesn’t really resemble the books that much.

Jane Rizzoli is a detective, but rather than the tomboyish, assertive person with a quirky sense of humour she is insecure, uncertain about her looks and constantly under pressure (real or imagined) from her male colleagues. She is effective, smart and intuitive but feels out of place.

Maura Isles is a somewhat pedantic medical examiner, but not exactly the “rich girl fish out of water” that we see on the TV show. We don’t have a lot of her background yet because this, the third book in the series, is really the first which I could clearly call a “Rizzoli and Isle” mystery, the first in which the pair have an equal share in the story and in finding the solution to the mystery, the first in which they have an equal number of pages devoted to their individual points of view.

Isles was introduced in the The Apprentice, the second book in the series, but it apparently took a book for Gerritsen to decide just what to do with her.

The pair is called to a murder scene at Graystones Abbey, where two nuns are found. The younger of the two has been brutally murdered and older woman seriously injured, apparently while trying to help her younger colleague. The autopsy reveals that the younger nun had recently given birth to a baby that did not live, but which they find in an ornamental pond at the abbey. Somehow all this is tied to the murder of a homeless derelict whose face and extremities have been removed by the killer (was he taking trophies or was there some other reason?), a woman who is eventually found to have visited the abbey just shortly before the murders there.

Both Rizzoli and Isles are lapsed Catholics, but their residual feelings about the church make this a particularly difficult case for them to deal with.

The cases are eventually linked and tied to events that occurred some time before in India. That’s the murder side of the book.

Rizzoli has a different problem to deal with. In the last book she began a relationship with an FBI agent, Gabriel Dean. In this book, long after we know what must be happening, she discovers she is pregnant, and has to decide what to do about the baby and what to tell Dean, who is also assigned to this case once it becomes clear there are international ramifications.

Isles has a different sort of relationship problem in the reappearance of her ex-husband, Victor, a doctor with a humanitarian mission something like Doctors without Borders. Why has he turned up now? Is there some connection between his work and the murders?

This is an engaging murder mystery and, while I did see some of the solutions in advance of their revelation, it was fun watching the characters get there.


“L” is for LawlessL is for Lawless

by Sue Grafton

352 pages

St. Martin’s Paperbacks



Audiobook from Random House Audio

Narrated By Mary Peiffer

Length: 9 hrs and 8 mins


With this book we’re halfway through Grafton’s planned series of alphabet books and Kinsey Milhone really should have known better than to take on this pro bono job for one of the neighbours down the street, but her landlord, Henry, talked her into it. These rather unpleasant neighbours are convinced their recently deceased father is owed a proper military funeral by the feds, but they can’t seem to prove that his stories of having been in the armed forces were actually true. Turns out they weren’t, but by the time Kinsey figures that out, Johnny Lee’s former apartment over the garage has been broken into, another man has been assaulted and this simple little errand has gone sideways.

Kinsey ends up travelling across country to Texas and Kentucky with Johnny Lee’s former partner in bank robbing crime, Ray Rawson, and his messed up daughter, trying to stay one step ahead of a very bad man named Gilbert who is determined to find all the swag that Johnny hid nearly 40 years earlier.

Kinsey is almost more of an observer than a protagonist in this one, and spends a lot of her time just wishing she could get back to Santa Teresa in time for Henry’s brother’s wedding while watching Ray’s and Gilbert’s plans explode all around her. She doesn’t make a dime out of this caper and there are a lot of loose ends when she finally gets shed of these guys, but life’s like that sometimes, isn’t it?

Mary Peiffer does a fine job reading these books and the production quality is good. These are great mysteries for the road.




Uffish Thoughts: Why all the Omnibus Bills, Mr. Harper? November 25, 2012

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Uffish Thoughts: Why all the Omnibus Bills, Mr. Harper?

By Dan Davidson

October 20, 2012

–  768 words –

As much as I hate to repeat myself so soon, there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. I can, of course, say that Stephen Harper made me do it, though that seems to be a little too close in phrasing to that old cliché in which the devil is the subject of the sentence.

I really don’t see the Prime Minister as wearing a red union suit and brandishing a pitchfork, but putting himself at the center of most Conservative pronouncements does tend to paint a target on him.

I mean, nearly every press release or press advisory that appears in my in-box continues to contain the phrase “the Harper Government”, as if the nation had undergone a name change over the last half-decade and the notion of a Canadian Government or a federal government had become passé.

That being said, when the government does something one believes to be wrong, and continues to do it even after repeated admonitions by a whole lot of people, many of whom are not members of Her Majesty’ Loyal Opposition, one feels an obligation to protest.

The subject of the week is omnibus bills, and the question is why?

News reports indicate that we’re now looking at the second of these phone book sized monstrosities in six months. It’s thicker than the last one and, like the last one, it’s full of legislative amendments that have only the most tenuous of connections to the federal budget.

The standout item for the Yukon last time around was the gutting of Parks Canada, but it was also interesting that they altered the protection of fish habitat so substantially that, had this amendment been in place five years ago, Dawson could not have been found guilty of damaging the Yukon River with its waste effluent and there would have been no need to built our new wastewater treatment plant.

I’m sure there were many other items that might have been of interest, and I made an effort to locate a table of contents for the bill so that I could request information about them. I was told that there was no such thing. No table of contents? How is a person supposed to navigate his or her way through all that small print legalese without a finding aid?

This time around Mr. Harper seems out to cut the efficacy of regulations related to navigable waterways by striking most of the lakes and rivers off the list. Why? No one seems to have a clue. This time, at least, the Yukon River has been spared.

In a recent rant, Rick Mercer suggested that Mr. Harper’s approach to governance is like that of a grifter running a shell game or a card con. He is annoying us so much with how he is doing things that we are being distracted from what he is doing.

Certainly he is making a farce out of the very notions of transparent and accountable government. Omnibus bills, as Harper himself once said when he was in the Opposition benches, make a mockery of the democratic process. They derail the whole apparatus of checks and balances that our system is supposed to enable.

The Finance Minister may chide the Opposition for “not doing their homework” over the summer by not reading every small print page of the federal budget, but omnibus bills like these two, tied as the Minister and the PM claim, to the federal budget, mean that Conservative Party members don’t even have to read them.

Budget bills, omnibus or otherwise, are no-brainers for members of the governing party. Your leader and his cabinet hand it to you and you vote in favour of it, whether it’s good for your riding or not, because if you don’t, you get shown the door. And if you sometimes feel like a mushroom on the backbenches, imagine how it will be when you’re a banished independent.

I wonder if Mr. Harper isn’t using omnibus bills at least partly because he’s not sure of his caucus. After the strange voting patterns in that free vote on the definition of a human being last month, when he made it clear how everyone should be voting and even some cabinet members went their own way, perhaps he sees omnibus budget bills as a way to keep everyone in line.