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

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

By Dan Davidson

November 15, 2017

– 1014 words –


The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts

Unexpected Life

By Avi

Algonquin Young Readers

Workman Publishing

314 pages



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




February 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Whitehorse Star, Young Adult.
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Bookends: A Troubled Life in Three Acts

By Dan Davidson

August 2, 2017

– 755 words –

Cut Off 

Cut Off

By Jamie Bastedo

Red Deer Press

338 pages


Kindle edition: $7.99


“I was born into a family of aliens, and not one of us was from the same planet.”

So writes Indio McCracken to begin part one of his three part journey through some painful teen years. This part of the book picks up his story at the age of 14, with some background filled in before those years.

A prologue at the beginning tells us a bit more, with imagery that hints at what is to come.

“Looking back at seventeen, the memories pour through me like currents in a wild river.”

We will get to the river, but first we find him growing up in Guatemala, the son of a native born K’iche’ woman (a Mayan) and a Scottish-born miner from Calgary, the owner/operator of a gold mine that is bringing both employment and harm to the local people of Xela.

Edgar McCracken is an ambitious man, a hard man, and when he discovers that Indio, even at the age of four, has a talent for playing the guitar, he decides to make him into the next Andre Segovia. He creates a practice room for the boy, gets him lessons, actually locks him in the room for hours each day.

Then, at a special concert, his father records a video of him playing “Flight of the Bumblebee “at eight times its normal speed, and then releases it to the Internet, where it goes viral and make Indio a teen classical guitar sensation. When Indio combines his playing with his surreptitious discovery of blogging, he begins to fumble his way down a path that will lead to a serious cyber addiction.

His comfortable world falls apart as he begins to realize how much harm his dad’s mine is doing. When there’s a serious mine accident and the locals attack the McCracken house compound, the family relocates to Calgary, where mixed blood Indio really doesn’t fit in at all, Harassed by certain bullies at school, he take the more Scottish name of Ian, but he falls into a deep depression.

His mother, meaning well, presents him with an iPhone. Combing that with access to a laptop, Indio dives deeper into cyber-withdrawal. He does create some marvellous musical videos, but his obsession gets him into trouble. One would have to say it results in the death of his beloved dog in a street accident, and puts him in the hospital in serious condition when he texts while driving his father’s car.

Physical recovery is one thing, but his parents decide he needs more than that, and they ship him off to Camp Lifeboat, on the Annie Lake Road, part way to Carcross, where total cyber-isolation and a nature cure are supposed to change his ways.

Bastedo read from this part of the book during his sessions in Whitehorse during the Yukon Writers’ Festival and Young Authors Conference in April. He did field work in that area back in the 1980s, and parlayed those studies into a career writing non-fiction nature books, with such titles as Falling for Snow: A Naturalist’s Journey into the World of Winter, Shield Country: The Life and Times of the Oldest Piece of the Planet, Reaching North: A Celebration of the Subarctic and Blue Lake and Rocky Shores.

As he told me back in April, that focus came to a stop when his children protested.

“When our two daughters were adolescents, they told me, ‘No more books, Daddy, until you write a kids’ book’ That request sparked another shift in my writing, from adult non-fiction (natural history, river guides, hiking guides) into fiction for young readers – and I’ve never looked back!”

Since then, he’s produced Tracking Triple Seven, On Thin Ice, Nighthawk! and, of course, Cut Off.

Aside from being an adventure novel, Cut Off deals with a lot of issues: parental abuse, bullying, racism, international exploitation, various types of addictions, personal responsibility, dysfunctional families, and issues related to the public and private use of electronic devices.

As much as we’d like to sympathize with everything that Indio is gong through, it’s hard to escape realizing that he brings a lot of it on himself.

I don’t know about the paperback version of the book but the Kindle edition has an extensive Q&A session with the author that reveals quite a bit about what inspired the various events in the book.