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Bookends: Tales of Bold Adventurers March 1, 2018

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Bookends: Tales of Bold Adventurers

By Dan Davidson

September 27, 2017

– 833 words –

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

 

The Saint in New York

The Saint in New York copy

by: Leslie Charteris

Narrated by John Telfer

Length: 7 hrs and 48 mins

Unabridged Audiobook

Audible Studios

Print Length: 292 pages

Published in 1935

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Telfer gives this one a good reading.

 

Versus the BaronVersus the Baron copy

Written by John Creasey as Anthony Morton

Narrated by: Philip Bird

Length: 4 hrs and 41 mins

Paperback: 162 pages

Unabridged Audiobook

Audible Studios

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Bird gave this book a solid reading.

 

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Bookends: Some Adventures on the Road to Glory March 1, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Robert Heinlein, Science Fiction, Uncategorized.
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Bookends: Some Adventures on the Road to GloryGlory Road 1

By Dan Davidson

September 20, 2017

– 945 words

 

Glory Road

Written by: Robert A. Heinlein

Narrated by: Bronson Pinchot

Length: 9 hrs and 34 mins

Blackstone Audio, Inc.

$23.07

320 pages in paperback or hard cover

available in 43 different formats, including e-books

 

As the 1950s rolled over into the 60s, Robert Heinlein produced three quite different novels, each of which shared some common themes. Starship Troopers seemed to glorify the military life. Stranger in a Strange Land suggested that making love was better than making war, and became a kind of hippie bible for some of my friends. Then there was Glory Road, which was the SF grandmaster’s earliest approach to a fantasy novel. There were fantasy elements, and even horror, in some of his earlier short stories, but he tended to stick to straight science fiction until his last half dozen books.

In common with Troopers, it has a soldier as its protagonist, but he has none of the gung-ho enthusiasm of that novel. E.C. “Scar” Gordon served his time in Viet Nam for the express purpose of being able to use the GI Bill to finance his education later on, only to discover, when he was discharged, that this war had never been officially declared so that option didn’t apply. It did, later on, but by then Gordon had left the planet.

It is while he is living in France, using up some of his accumulated leave before going home to the USA, that he meets the woman he would come to call Star, and finds himself recruited for a mission that is literally out of this world. He is hired to be her champion. The first 56 pages of the book lead up to the moment that he and Star, along with a strange little fellow name Rufo, leave the Earth.

The next 150 pages are the adventurous portion of the novel, involving a number of battles, Oscar’s difficulties in dealing with otherworldly customs and morays, some monsters and a clutch of dragons. Some of this is quite funny. Some of it seemed quite risqué when I first read it back in 1966, but seems extremely tame now. RAH would get to be much more explicit 20 years or so later.

Apparently, the original publishers would have liked to have had the book end at the point where the quest (for it was that sort of story) came to an end, but Heinlein had other ideas: thoughts about relationships; an examination of duty and human nature, an expansion of Arthur Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology might as well be called magic; and a running commentary about all the things that he really didn’t like about the society he had grown up in.

So the last 80 pages or so mark, for me, anyway, the beginning of the “Heinlein as philosopher” part of his career, where there were a lot of conversations about this and that, and there was usually some “wise old man” character on hand to puncture everyone else’s illusions. Much to my surprise, this turns out to be Rufo in this book.

Glory Road foreshadows those later books, and introduces the notion of the multi-verse which is key in his last novels. Indeed, the character of Star, who turns out to be someone even more impressive than our narrator, Scar, thought she was, would go on to make a cameo appearance in RAH’s next to last novel, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

The last chapter bookends the novel, taking Oscar back to Earth, where he tries very hard to fit in, finds, ultimately, that he cannot, and embarks on some other version of the Glory Road, returning to his happiest identity as a knight-errant.

One of the reasons why this last section of the book matters is that it is made clear just exactly how long and to what degree, the young E.C. Gordon was groomed, almost from birth, to become the man who would answer the strange newspaper and magazine ad that sent him on his way. That it would describe him perfectly turns out to be no accident.

“Are you a coward? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person, 17 rue Dante, Nice, 2me étage, apt. D.”

Scar, or “Os-car”, as Star calls him, cannot be anything but the man described in that paragraph, and he is no longer suited for the quiet life once the adventure is over.

This book is wonderfully narrated by an actor named Bronson Pinchot, who captures perfectly the voices of our narrator, Oscar, and the two other central characters, while still having vocal space for the others who are less important. All the way through the book Rufo refers to Star as H-h-her and Sh-sh-she, and I wondered why until I dug out my 1966 paperback edition and discovered that her pronouns were almost always in italics when he said them.

Finally, the book is full of witty little aphorisms, and this one probably says a lot about the ideas behind the story: “The person who says smugly that good manners are the same everywhere and people are just people hasn’t been farther out of Podunk than the next whistle stop.”
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Bookends: The Resurrection of Derrick Storm February 7, 2016

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Bookends: The Resurrection of Derrick StormStorm Front

By Dan Davidson

October 7, 2015

– 852 words –

 

Storm Front

By Richard Castle

Narrated by Robert Petkoff

Unabridged: 10 hrs and 36 mins

Hyperion Audiobooks

320 pages in print editions

 

In the television series Castle, Richard Castle is a successful and very wealthy writer of thrillers and murder mysteries who has based his second successful series of books on the life and cases of the woman who is his wife, NYPD detective Kate Beckett. In the books she is Nikki Heat and he is Jameson Rook.

In the real world the owners of the series, the ABC network, have done what they did for the Murder She Wrote series some years ago and have produced a series of novels, the ones that keep getting mentioned on the TV show, and have released them, to considerable success, as if they were written by Richard Castle. They’ve been releasing one a year and are currently up to book 7 in the series.

Castle’s original success, however, was in James Bondish spy thrillers featuring a character called Derrick Storm, a complete list of whose actually never published adventures can be found on the Richard Castle Wikipedia page.

Castle went all Conan Doyle on Storm and bumped him off after 10 books – or did he?

The premise of this book and the three e-book novellas that came before it, is that he didn’t. Like Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, CIA operative Storm faked his death and went into hiding for four years, only recently emerging to take on some cases for his mysterious boss in a very Black Ops branch of the CIA.

We meet him in Venice, posing as a gondolier in order to trap a British civil servant about to give up some state secrets. That adventure is wrapped up pretty quickly, and we segue to the first of a series of brutal torture and murder scenes in Tokyo, London, and Johannesburg, during which a thoroughly nasty man with a Russian accent is extracting codes from a number of men who happen to be high level bankers and stock traders. Just what this is all about is something we will learn later.

Storm is tasked to attend a gathering in Paris and determine just what is going on with these deaths. While there he strikes up a relationship with a Chinese agent named (Ian Fleming would love it) Ling Xi Bang (yes – shebang).

On to London, where the pair find themselves on opposing sides in another murder investigation, an encounter which ultimately leads them to travel to the United States and uncover the work of an economist who has developed a theory that could lead to the world’s financial meltdown.

It emerges that there is a way to temporarily collapse the value of the US dollar, make a killing in the markets, and them put it all back together again. A New York hedge-fund manager by the name of G (for Graham – oh, why not?) Whitely Cracker has hired a villain named Gregor Volkov to obtain for him the six codes necessary to set this up. Cracker, meantime, has bribed a US Senator to get a bill passed that will limit the ability of the Federal Reserve system to counteract the plan he has in mind.

Volkov, of course, has his own plans for the windfall – no less than a coup to take over the government of Russia – and has gone completely off the rails.

To further complicate matters, an entirely separate CIA investigation, involving Storm’s old flame, Clara Strike, has been investigating Cracker for other reasons, but has no idea what he has actually been up to.

Further still, Cracker, an arrogant man who doesn’t realize how overbearing he is, has acquired a number of enemies on his climb to financial success, and one of them has been plotting his downfall for years.

There are very Bondish moments in this story: a hand to hand fight on an unfinished skyscraper, a chase through a subway tunnel, a car chase (with bullets and explosions) on a New Jersey turnpike; a stealth assault on a warehouse where hostages are being held, and a battle royal in a passenger jet.

There are a lot of fan service nods to the Castle TV show. Nikki Heat and Jameson Rook turn up at a murder scene in New York. Two of Storm’s boss’s aids share the names of the secondary detectives on Castle, and the now deceased captain of the precinct, Roy Montgomery, is name-checked.

While this feels a lot like the work of the creator behind the Nikki Heat books, it also has an entirely different flavour. The Heat books are like the TV show, police procedurals with a touch of romance. The sex scenes in this book are actually tamer than those between Rook and Heat, but the action is very much of the Bond and Bourne variety, and the book covers a lot more ground.

I don’t know if I would have enjoyed reading this book, but the audio production was well done and saw me there and back again on a recent trip to the city.

 

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Bookends: Mark Twain Builds a Boat on the Riverworld January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Mark Twain Builds a Boat on the Riverworld

By Dan Davidson

August 30, 2015

– 862 words –

 

The Fabulous Riverboat

By Philip Jose Farmer

RiverboatRecorded Books

Narrated by Paul Hecht

9 hrs and 2 mins

$24.49

 

In the second volume of Farmer’s Riverworld saga, we follow the adventures of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, better known to us all as Mark Twain. Along with billions of other humans and pre-humans, Clemens has been resurrected in a cloned body on a planet dominated by a massive river that winds millions of miles around the planet from pole to pole. Just why that should be is a mystery Clemens intends to solve.

Living conditions within a set distance from the river banks is controlled by the existence of massive mountain ranges too high for there to be enough air to allow people to climb over to adjacent valleys, so travel is effectively restricted to the river valleys.

Over decades it has been learned that there is a stone tower at the northernmost end of the river, where it may be possible to learn the reasons why humanity has been brought to this place following the destruction of the earth by alien beings.

On Riverworld, all the basic physical needs of life are provided by the grail stones along the river. These can be accessed three times daily using individual grail containers owned by each person. Through some sort of matter transference technology they are provided with assorted foodstuffs from an every changing menu, as well as tobacco products, wine, spirits, and towels that can be adapted as clothing.

An individual cannot die. If the body is killed, the person will awaken the next day at some other point along the river, in one of the many small nations that have evolved in the time that people have been there.

This provides a difficult conundrum for many of the people who have religious backgrounds, but it’s not terribly long before a new faith, the Church of the Second Chance, begins to take root at various points along the river. One of its chief missionaries is Hermann Göring.

With all of humanity to play with, Farmer has chosen an interesting cast for the second book. Along with Clemens we have Joe, a pre-human titanthrop of tremendous physical strength and size, and no small intelligence, too. Much to Sam’s discomfort, his earthly wife, Livy, turns up in the same region where he is living, accompanied by her Riverworld spouse, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Sam’s plan, as per the title, is to build a riverboat to sail to the far north and uncover the secret of the alien Ethicals who have masterminded this world. In this, he is assisted by a renegade Ethical known as the Mysterious Stranger. He has recruited twelve humans, including Cyrano and Odysseus, to uncover the alien plot and thwart it. Humanity, it seems, is being used for some sort of sociological experiment, and when that has run its course, the plan includes exterminating all the lab rats.

Riverworld is short on metals, at least in the areas that humans can actually get to, and so the Stranger has diverted a meteor to land near where Clements and the band of Norsemen he is with are sailing when the novel begins. This means that the first few chapters of the book have a major disaster to deal with, along with lots of (temporary) death and destruction.

Much of the rest of the book is tied up with the development of the industrial wasteland needed to build the boat and various other devices more modern than most small nations on the planet could manage: a kind of mobile tank, two different types of aircraft, a smaller boat, several types of pistols, steel swords, etc. The projects take years to work through and during those years there are numerous problems to be sorted out with neighbouring nation-states, as well as internal friction within the boat building partners.

The rather predictable villain of the story is the former King John (or John Lackland) of Magna Carta fame, who is as devious in his second life as he was in his first. The aircraft are developed by Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of the Red Baron. Since there are also engineers and scientists from the very last century or so of life on Earth, they manage come up with quite a few ways to work around the lack of materials on the Riverworld planet.

In fact, they manage to find a way to store the excess energy from the matter transference that powers the grail stones, and so the boat, when finished, is powered by electricity.

While this book is rooted in one spot more than the first, there’s a lot going on here. Political intrigue, several invasions, and a lot of skullduggery keep the story moving along.

Paul Hecht does a decent job of reading the book, but he could stand to be a bit more lively in his rendering of different voices.

This was our travelling companion on a couple of Yukon road trips and for the first part of our vacation in Nova Scotia. It was good company.

 

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Bookends: This caper depends on following the money January 28, 2016

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Bookends: This caper depends on following the money

By Dan Davidson

August 5, 2015

– 880 words –

 

King and Maxwell

By David BaldacciKing and Maxwell

576 pagesGrand Central Publishing

$9.90
Hachette Audio edition

Unabridged reading

Narrated By Ron McLarty and Orlagn Cassidy Orlagn Cassidy

12 hrs and 56 mins

$28.00

 

This is number six in Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series, yet it is, oddly enough, the first to have only that as the book title. Perhaps this is a result of the short-lived television series that put faces on the characters. In the introduction, the author says he felt those actors really captured the characters as he had imagined them.

Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are both former Secret Service agents who have set up a private detectives. King is the older of the two by a few years, has been married before and is a bit of a neatness freak.

Maxwell is messy. Her desk is a disaster and the back seat of her crew cab truck is a landfill. Frequent references are made to the disparity between the two of them. They the odd couple of the detective world.

King, who is also a former lawyer, is a meticulous planner, thinks on both sides of all issues and acts when he feels he has as much as possible figured out.

Maxwell is impetuous, acts before thinking, drives like a NASCAR racer. She’s also a former Olympian athlete and much more physical than her partner. She was gravely injured during their last case, and is still in recovery.

They are immensely fond of each other, in love probably, but they tiptoe around the line between business and friendship. They did cross it once, apparently, and have never felt right about it since.

And yet. Maxwell shows all the signs of being a jealous lover when this case causes them to cross paths with King’s ex-wife, Dana, who is a walking man trap. She just can’t believe that King’s only interest in her at this point in professional.

Perhaps it isn’t entirely. King feels a keen sense of personal responsibility when Dana is shot and nearly killed while using her connections in the military (her second husband is a general) to get some information for the detectives.

There are a couple of distinct narratives going on here. We actually start in the Middle East, where a soldier named Sam Wingo is hauling a very precious cargo to a carefully planned destination. His operation goes sideways when he is met by men claiming to work for the CIA, who tell him the plans have been changed. He escapes from them, but loses the cargo, which is a whole lot of money in Euro bills. Back home he is held responsible for it, and has to go to ground to try and find out what really happened. His adventures while getting back to the States form interludes in the main story.

When his high school age son, Tyler, is told that his father is dead, missing in action, he is devastated and runs off into the night, which is where our detectives almost run him over in the middle of a pounding rainstorm.

It turns out, just a bit later on, that Tyler has received a coded email message from his father with a time and date stamp well after the day he was supposed to have died. Tyler decides to hire King and Maxwell to find out what is really going on.

Almost as soon as they take the case, weird things start happening. Homeland Security comes down on them like a ton of bricks. The FBI suddenly takes an interest in their doings. They start spending time in interrogation rooms being questioned and threatened, but no charges are ever laid.

Aside from officialdom, they find themselves the targets of a hit squad made up of former military types who do not hesitate to unload on them in a mall food court, killing a mall cop, and wounding another, along with King’s ex, who was meeting with them at the time.

In a third strand of the narrative, we spend time with the mysterious mastermind behind all this, who has very personal reasons and goals what has nevertheless become an operation with international ramifications.

There are many twists and turns in this tale, a number of shoot-outs and no end of complex skullduggery.

The use of two readers is a nice touch. Ron McLarty handles the main narration and all the male voices, of course. There are a good half dozen of those, from older military types all the way back to Tyler Wingo. There is also a former client of theirs named Edgar Roy, whose computer and code breaking skills are instrumental in solving the case.

Orlagn Cassidy provides the voices for all the women. Again, this ranges from the hard edged Maxwell to lascivious Dana, several other wives, Tyler’s stepmother and his high school sweetheart.

As there is a lot of conversation in this book, having two readers was a good plan and both of them have a lot of work to do.

This was a great book to listen to on a recent road trip. I had read several of Baldacci’s Camel Club mysteries, but this series has a different flavour.

 

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Bookends: Two books about revolutionary change January 27, 2016

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Bookends: Two books about revolutionary change

By Dan

June 10, 2015

– 875 words -Davidson

 

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

By Robert HeinleinMoon is Harsh

Orb Books

384 pages

$13.71

 

Blackstone Audiobooks

Unabridged reading by Lloyd James

14 hours and 12 minute

$29.95

 

Science fiction writers of the mid 1960s missed a lot of things, like personal computers and cell phones, for instance, but they also assumed we’d be a lot further ahead when it comes to space exploration. Writing several years before the moon landing, Robert Heinlein assumed that by 2076 we’d have colonies on the moon and that, given the biological adjustments to one-sixth earth normal gravity that would take place after an extended residence, it would tend to be a one way trip.

To him, that suggested that the moon might well become a penal colony: Australia in space, home of political and criminal exiles from the mother planet.

Now the date, ending in 76 as it does, is a strong suggestion as to what kind of book this is likely to be. It’s about the various lunar colonies banding together and shaking off the chains of Earth. In this future, Luna (as the locals like to call it) is a major supplier of grain for the crowded Earth, but the resources that make this possible are finite and a group of people realize that this cannot go on.

The story is told to us in a somewhat stilted, Russian influenced dialect by Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis, a computer tech who has stumbled onto a secret that no one else knows. The main computer that runs much of the tech on the moon has reached that tipping point of circuits, processing and memory capacity where it has developed sentience, has become an artificial intelligence. As it is a HOLMES IV computer, Manny decides to call it Mike (short for Mycroft) and has spent a fair amount of time teaching it about being human (they exchange jokes) before he becomes involved with the lunar resistance movement.

Other key characters are the typical Heinlein “wise old man” character, Professor Bernardo de la Paz, and would be revolutionary Wyoming Knott. Manny becomes involved with the resistance and, with the assistance of Mike, the three of them build the sort of organization needed to pry Luna free.

The book breaks down into three sections: the building of the resistance; the Earth-side negotiations; the actual revolution.

There’s a lot of Heinleinish rhetoric about different kinds of family structures. Manny is part of a line family with multiple husbands and wives. There’s lots of There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch (tanstaafl) conversation, with action vignettes to prove the point. The book is at times a bit of a “talking heads” production, but the conversations are interesting.

Since there are 41 extant editions and formats of this book, you can choose the version you like. The one on my bookshelf is the 1968 Berkley/Putnam edition, which I read in 1969 when I was in grade 12. I don’t reread novels often, but I have taken to listening to old favourites while travelling, and this is one I can definitely recommend. It got me through 27 bags of leaves while cleaning up the lawn, as well as most of the way to Skagway on a recent road trip. Lloyd James did an excellent job with the first person narration as well as the numerous voices needed to make the story come to life.

While I read all five of the novels that came after this one, RAH did become more and more obsessed with sex and with being preachy about lifestyles and politics as he got older, and this is the book that marks for me the end of his strongest period as a writer.

 

 

Rupert’s Parchment: Story of Magna Carta

Story by Eileen Cameron

Illustrations by Doris EttlingerRupert's Parchment

Mascott Books

36 pages

$19.95

 

As our current government nibbles away at the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it’s interesting to take a look at the document that started the notion that there should be limits to the power of the state over the lives of its people.

Within our English tradition, the document is the Magna Carta (or Great Charter), which celebrates its 800th anniversary on June 15 this year.

Rupert is the son of a local parchment maker. His village has been ransacked by the king’s men on a number of occasions, so when the family learns of a great gathering at Runnymede – a thing that may either be a negotiation or a great battle – Rupert is fascinated.

It turns out to be a negotiation, and Rupert’s father is asked to provide the parchment on which the solemn agreement between King John and the disaffected nobles will be written and signed.

One of the key phrases, one we may need to remember in light of Bill C-51, is “No free man shall be imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions … except by lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

The text is appropriate for young readers. There is a story as well as some factual material and the illustrations are effective.

 

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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

$30.53

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.

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Bookends: Where the mess in the Middle East came from February 18, 2015

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Bookends: Where the mess in the Middle East came from

By Dan DavidsonLawrence in Arabia

October 15, 2014

– 900 words –

 

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

By Scott Anderson

Signal

624 pages

$15.88

 

The state of the Middle East today is the price we are all paying for several generations of Great Power meddling in the affairs of people whose culture and motives were scarcely comprehensible to those who thought they could mould them. Further, the people of European background held the cultures of the Middle East, as they did those of indigenous people everywhere they wielded influence, in low regard and part of what Kipling encapsulated in his telling phrase, “the White Man’s Burden”.

While this had been going on for a long, long time prior to 1914, the First World War, that petty family squabble (the rulers were all related after all) that managed to engulf much of the world due to the interlocking mature of the various empires and alliances, brought the problem to a boil rather rapidly and left us with the seeds of such poisonous plants as ISIS (ISIL), alQaeda and the Taliban.

Lawrence in Arabia, which focuses its attention on the events from 1914-18 with a briefer glance at what came out of the Treaty of Versailles (for more on that read Paris 1919 by Margaret McMillan) gives the reader a good foundation for gaining some understanding of how Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Israel (after World War II) came into being as tangential results of the so-called Great War.

Thomas Edward Lawrence seems an odd choice to become one of the key players in the Middle Eastern theatre of the war. We are conditioned to think of him in a certain way by that David Lean movie, which somewhat burnished the image he cast himself in when he wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This young man was a budding archeologist who, by the age of thirty had, with no practical military background whatsoever, risen to the rank of Colonel and had performed such sterling service for King and country that he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to be knighted.

This is also the man who astounded the royal court by appearing before the King and Queen in order to politely but firmly refuse the honour, so distressed was he over the way his nation had betrayed the tribes and peoples that it had been his duty – and great success – to persuade to fight for the allies in the Triple Entente (particularly the British) against the Ottoman Turk Empire that was aligned with the Triple Alliance.

It appears that one of the reasons parts of Lawrence’s memoirs about his time among the Arabs are so murky is that if he had been entirely honest in his narrative, it would have been obvious that he spent a good portion of his time and energy trying – unsuccessfully in the end – to undo some of the plans that the British high command had for the eventual reorganization of the region, dividing it up between themselves and the French.

Lawrence admired and had a lot of time for the locals he was tasked to influence and seems to have sincerely tried to manipulate policies in their favour. What the region might be like today had he succeeded is not a certain thing, but it does seem clear that present day Saudi Arabia, dominated by the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam, would not have achieved the powerful position it has today. And without Wahhabism the extreme Islamists who form the core of ISIL and other jihadi sects might not exist.

Anderson doesn’t seem to be subscribing to the “great man” theory of history in this book. Indeed, it is not all about T.E. Lawrence. Oddly though, most of the other keys players seem to be people who were outside the established circles of power.

The German, Curt Pruffer, was a lower level academic who became a spymaster and key player in the region –almost Lawrence’s opposite number.

William Yale was an American employee of Standard Oil of New York. The scion of the financially crippled Yale family he originally spied in the region for his corporate masters, and later donned a military rank to do the same work, but always kept his first allegiance in mind.

Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist from Turkey who established a Jewish spy ring to work against the Turks and became a leader in the Zionist movement, in which he clashed with Russian born Chaim Azriel Weizmann, whose views eventually triumphed and led to the establishment of Israel, where he became its first Prime Minister.

With Lawrence’s story as the main focus, the major pattern in the tapestry, Anderson weaves in the stories of these other characters. This allows him to give us a whole series of cliff-hangers, flashbacks and cold openings that make the book a very dynamic read.

The subtitle, “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East”, is an excellent one-line summary of the intrigue that is chronicled in the book.

Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador and many other strife-torn countries. He has a very good sense of the types of places he is writing about and an engaging style.

 

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Bookends: Two “reads” for the road February 6, 2015

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Bookends: Two “reads” for the road

By Dan Davidson

August 20, 2014

– 838 words –

 

Last year I introduced this column to the work of the multi-styled John Creasey, an incredibly prolific British writer who made his living with his typewriter from 1935 to 1973. He wrote every sort of book from romance to western to science fiction, but he is best known for his mystery work.

He wrote at pulp magazine speed, with the result that he often had anything from a dozen to a score of books in the bookstores each year. As a result of this he used 28 different pseudonyms, both male and female, including Gordon Ashe, M E Cooke, Norman Deane, Robert Caine Frazer, Patrick Gill, Michael Halliday, Charles Hogarth, Brian Hope, Colin Hughes, Kyle Hunt, Abel Mann, Peter Manton, JJ Marric, Richard Martin, Rodney Mattheson, Anthony Morton and Jeremy York.

So prolific was he that at least a dozen books featuring half a dozen of his characters continued to appear for several years after his death. They were his writing, not the farmed out ghost writing that has become popular in recent years after a famous writer dies.

As I mentioned last fall, Creasey’s facility in various styles was such that his 14 different series have quite distinct flavours. The two I’m dealing with this week don’t seem at all alike.

 

The Baron ReturnsThe Baron Returns

By John Creasey (as Anthony Morton)

House of Stratus

202 pages

$16.05

unabridged reading

Narrated By Carl Prekopp

Audible Studios

Length: 6 hrs and 36 mins

 

The tales of John Mannering, known as the Baron, started out being something like a more straight-laced version of Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar (The Saint). Mannering is still a jewel thief in this second outing (of the 47 books in the series), but most of the capers in this book stem from his efforts to get a friend of his (the man who would become his father-in-law eventually) out of the clutches of a shyster solicitor/financier who has made a career of fleecing honest men and women.

This is a caper novel, and the plot mostly centers on several burglaries committed by the Baron in pursuit of justice for his girlfriend’s father. The break-ins are narrated in some detail, and Mannering is shown to have a bit of split personality. He embodies the Baron as he gathers his tools, slips on his outlaw mask and moves into action. In those moments he ceases to think of himself as Mannering, the wealthy man about town, and becomes his alter ego.

As the Baron he used a number of disguises, and actually has a complete third identity that he uses to divest himself of his stolen goods when dealing with fences. That sedate travelling salesman has a house in another part of the city and often lives there for days at a time.

The structure of the book is that there is a theft, followed by Mannering’s continuing attempts to persuade Inspector Bristow of Scotland Yard that he had nothing to do with it. Bristow is absolutely convinced that Mannering is the Baron, but simply cannot manage to prove it, so there is a constant sparring between the two, and a couple of sequences where the police lay careful traps that the Baron just manages to evade by the skin of his teeth.

 

The House of the BearsThe House of the Bears

By John Creasey

House of Stratus

234 pages

$13.20

 

Unabridged reading

Narrated by Stephan Greif

Audible Studios

Length: 7 hrs and 42 mins

 

Creasey created the character of Dr. Stanislaus Alexander Palfrey (Sap to his closest associates and his wife) during WWII and made him the head of a spy organization called Z5. By the time of this eighth book of the 34 in the series (written in 1947), Palfrey seems to be on leave from Z5. He actually is a doctor and we meet him travelling to the Yorkshire Moors at the request of another physician. At Sir Rufus Marne’s House of the Bears there has been an accident and Marnes’ daughter lies terribly injured after a fall from the minstrel’s gallery, which Palfrey discovers was no accident.

This book starts out feeling like an Agatha Christie style manor murder mystery in which the bodies keep piling up without any rhyme or reason. What’s missing from this formula is any sense of who the murderer might be. At least that’s the case until about half way through the book, when the plot takes a sharp turn into thriller territory, with some post-war Nazi trappings and the sort of world-wide danger from a power mad schemer that Ian Fleming would work into his James Bond novels when he began those with Casino Royale in 1953.

 

The audio book versions of these books make great long distance driving fare, running fro six to seven hours each. The productions are solid and the readers are interesting. The Audible productions are digital downloads that cost about $20 each, somewhat less if you subscribe to the monthly service.

 

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Bookends: A young girl is led from darkness to the light February 6, 2015

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Bookends: A young girl is led from darkness to the lightTombs of Atuan

By Dan Davidson

December 22, 2014

– 855 words –

 

The Tombs of Atuan

By Ursula K. Leguin

Atheneum Books for Young Readers

224 pages

$9.92

 

The Tombs of Atuan is the second book in the saga of Earthsea, a series which began with a trilogy in the 1970s, added a novel 20 years later and a collection of short stories and another novel 20 years after that.

Like the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, it is a coming of age story, though the span of its years is shorter, the setting more restricted, and the central character more naïve. Ged, or Sparrowhawk, from the original novel, is a secondary character in this book. For a time he might almost be seen as the story’s antagonist, until in becomes clear to Tenar that he is not.

Tenar is the name our central character had when she was born, but she was taken from her family at the age of six, after a search by a religious order that believed their high priest was continually reincarnated as a child. Rechristened Arha, she is indoctrinated to be the high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth. Her symbolic new name actually means “the one without a name” or “the Eaten One”

As the story progresses we become aware that Tenar’s position is really under the control of the local warlord and that she is hemmed about by those who are manipulating her. The woman she sees as her mentor, Kossil, is the real power in the ancient temple and a servant of the warlord, who styles himself the Godking, and his gods.

At age 15 Tenar is finally old enough to be initiated into the more adult responsibilities of her role, which involves the mastery of the dark tunnels in the labyrinth under the temple and, sometimes, human sacrifices to the Nameless Ones. There is a great treasury vault deep in the tunnels and another of her duties is to guard that.

What she does not know is that the greatest treasure of all is half of the Ring of Ereth-Akbe, a talisman that was forged centuries before to contain all nine of the rune symbols that bring peace and stability to the world. It was broken some years earlier. Ged has obtained half of the ring during his travels about the world, and now breaks into the Tombs of Atuan to find and restore the power of the ring.

Tenar discovers Ged in the tombs, is fascinated by him, and determines to keep him there as long as possible, partly because of her curiosity, partly out of her sense of duty.

The Tombs are really under the sway of some rather Lovecraftian elder gods, who are truly evil and corrupt their followers. Their power is greatest in the tombs, where a sort of miasma soaks into everything. For Ged this means that his normal abilities are leached away and he becomes progressively weaker. Finally, to save him from Kossil, who has discovered him as well, Tenar hides him in the treasure chamber. Bit by bit she becomes convinced that he is a good man and sees the evil side of the life she has been living.

Together they manage to escape from the tombs, and the Nameless Ones collapse the entire temple in their rage. But that is less important that that the Ring has been made whole.

LeGuin is one of those rare fantasy writers whose reputation has spread well beyond the confines of the speculative fiction world and she was recently awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. I want to quote a bit from her acceptance speech, given in November of this year, because it says so much about what she believes to be the power of this type of literature. You can find the entire thing online, both in text form at ursulakleguin.com, or on YouTube as a video clip.

Books, she says, as more than just commodities to be produced for profit.

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.

“Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

“I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.”

 

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