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

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Bookends: A series of very unfortunate events

By Dan Davidson

November 15, 2017

– 1014 words –

 

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts

Unexpected Life

By Avi

Algonquin Young Readers

Workman Publishing

314 pages

$16.95

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bookends: Murder in Prince Edward County January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Murder in Prince Edward County

By Dan Davidson

September 6, 2016

sowing-poison– 739 words –

 

Sowing Poison: A Thaddeus Lewis Mystery

By Janet Kellough

Dundurn Press

369 pages

$11.39

Thaddeus Lewis is a former Methodist circuit rider, an itinerant preacher who moves from town to town, holding services where ever there is the chance of a congregation in need of his services. This has been his career for many years, but as we meet him in this book, the health of his wife and their sudden acquisition of a granddaughter (following their daughter’s murder) has forced the little family to settle down.

It’s the 1840s in Ontario, just a few years after the 1837 uprisings in both Upper and Lower Canada, and things are still unsettled. Thaddeus and Betsy have settled down with young Martha in Wellington, trading service in the Temperance Hotel run by his sister and her husband, for the use of a cottage adjacent to the hotel property. Betsy is not always well, but dos what she can, while Thaddeus has adjusted to the role of general handyman and occasional server.

The story begin with the disappearance of Nathan Elliot, who has returned home from the States to help his brother tend to their ailing and aged (and cantankerous) father. Brother Reuban rushed for help when Nathan had an accident in the woods, but when the rescue party arrived, there was no sign of him.

Shortly after that, a woman claiming to be his wife arrives. Clementine Elliot and her young son, Horatio, take up residence at the Temperance, and much to the dismay of Thaddeus, she immediately sets up shop as a medium and starts holding séances in her rooms.

It’s not Thaddeus’ hotel, so he really can’t put a stop to this practice, which he is convinced is fraudulent and not some sort of supernatural evil. Still, that doesn’t stop him from trying to figure out just how she is rooking the locals who have suffered the loss of a loved one. It turns out that she’s a great “cold reader” and also makes free use of the town gossip, but there is also a bit of 19th century technology involved, somewhat in the line of what has been on display in this summer’s “Houdini & Doyle” television series.

According to the author’s notes, Thaddeus Lewis is based on a real person of that name who left behind an 1865 autobiography which is the source material for some of this series. It began with On the Head of a Pin, to which references are made in this second book, Sowing Poison, and continues with 47 Sorrows, The Burying Ground, and Wishful Seeing.

In the first book, Thaddeus tracked down a serial killer, one of whose victims had been his daughter. In this book, as several mysteries seem to arise in the town, he is inspired by reading “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, one of a series of early mysteries written by Edgar Allan Poe. He makes a conscious effort to apply the observational techniques used by Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin in this story.

While the mystery of Nathan’s disappearance looms large in this book, there are other problems. Members of the Orange Order attempt harm to a Roman Catholic family. A strange little man who turns out to be a detective investigating the activities of Mrs. Elliot vanishes suddenly. The two children discover the presence of a very ugly young man out on the sand marshes and t eventually turns out that this hare lipped wild child, all alone since the death of his parents, has been harvesting whatever meat he can find, including the bodies of individuals who have met their deaths by other means.

While there is a strong focus on the various mysteries that attract Thaddeus’ attention, this is also a tale about life in the 1840s, and it has threads of romance and domesticity woven around the mysteries.

I found a very pleasant way to pass the time while flying across the country recently. The only thing that left me a bit puzzled is the title.. There is murder, deception, cannibalism, mob violence and lots of activity in this story, but there is nary a hint of poison that I can see, unless it is an oblique reference to such moral poisons as greed and fraudulent practices.

That said, I’m certainly encouraged to look for more from this author.

 

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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 –

 

CuriousityCuriosity

By Joan Thomas

McClelland & Stewart

416 pages

$15.99

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.

 

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Bookends: A wild time in the old west February 7, 2016

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Bookends: A wild time in the old west

By Dan Davidson

October 21, 2015

– 982 words

 

The Sisters Brother

By Patrick DeWittSisters

House of Anansi Press

344 pages

$17.96

KOBO e-book $9.99

 

Eli Sisters is not a happy man. Dominated by his brother, Charlie, he’s on his way down the west coast of the United States from Oregon to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm on behalf of their boss, the Commodore. El doesn’t like being a killer for hire, but it seems to be all he’s good at. This bothers him. He has dreams of settling down and becoming a store keeper, but Charlie thinks that’s foolish.

It’s 1851 and the California Gold Rush is in full swing. The mission on which the brothers, who have achieved some notoriety in their profession, have been dispatched, has some connection to the rush, but they don’t know what.

This story is very much Eli’s, told in a nearly mournful, sometimes matter of fact, sometimes poetic, first person style that reveals almost as much as the words themselves.

He worries about everything: about the black rage that rises up to consume him when it’s time to draw his gun; about his weight; about his lack of success with women; about his brother’s constant drinking; about his sad, sad horse, which seems nearly dead on its feet half the time.

Charlie has always been the dominant one, but he is also the one who slows their journey down, drinking himself into a stupor from which it takes him a day to recover on more than one occasion. It is his abandoning of Eli in what they think is a witch’s house, that ends with Eli having to shoot the bear that attacked his horse, Tub, outside the house. Ultimately that assault leads to the horse’s death, but not before it has many more trials.

Eli’s experience with a self-taught frontier dentist is just one of the laconically funny bits in the book. The use the two brothers finally make of the anaesthetic liquid used during the tooth extraction is hilarious.

Equally funny is Eli’s conversion to the use of a toothbrush and minty tooth powder, Charles thinks it’s silly to begin with, but Eli, for once, ignores his brother’s scorn and Charlie ultimately takes up the habit himself.

They run into trouble in regular towns and in Mayfield, the town named after the hotel owner who had struck it rich in the goldfields. There are casual slaughters along the way, related as if they are ordinary, every day events, and not to be concerned about. In Mayfield there is at least the excuse that the men they killed were planning to kill them, but that hardly excuses the cold bloodedness of it all.

And yet, the narrative persuades us to like these men, or Eli, at least, and feel sorry for Charlie when tragedy overtakes him.

Arriving at last in San Francisco they find that the Commodore’s other agent, a man named Morris, has changed allegiances and gone off in search of gold with Warm.

Reading Morris’ journal they learn that Warm, who has an interesting backstory, has discovered a way of distilling a liquid that will reveal the presence of gold in any river or stream and enable a prospector to scoop it up with a minimum of effort.

Warm had, at one point, tried to interest the Commodore in his discovery, but that man simply tried to force the recipe from him and Warm just managed to escape with his life. This story meant that Warm was not the thief the brothers had been led to believe him to be, and caused them to begin to re-evaluate their association with their boss.

When they finally track down Warm and Morris they still haven’t really decided what to do with them, but they have decided to play out this adventure, return home, kill their boss and leave this life of murder and mayhem. Sadly for them, it doesn’t quire work out that way.

The special liquid works, works well, but it is very toxic, and wading in the water while it is working to reveal the gold has had an extremely deleterious effect on the legs of both Warm and Morris, who have been at it for some time before the brothers arrive on the scene. Ultimately, an accidental spill of the undiluted stuff onto Charlie’s hand results in such damage that the hand and part of his arm have to be amputated.

In the end, the brother’s quest for one final stake before quitting the killer’s life fails. Warm and Morris die of the toxicity. Indians (this is 1851 – you can still say that) relieve them of all the gold. They barely make it back to Oregon City, broke and damaged.

Along the way Eli stops to dispatch their former boss and they end up at their mother’s home. The book ends on one of those meditative notes that pop up throughout the narrative, with Eli lying on a mattress on the floor, listening to Charles taking a bath in the next room, hearing the movement of the water.

“It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors. And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

This is a multi-award winning book, having scooped up the Governor General’s Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the 2012 Stephen Leacock Medal (for humour), as well as the award for Best Fiction at the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Awards and the 2012 Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction.

It was shortlisted for several other awards, and has already been optioned for filming as a movie.

 

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Bookends: Murder and the Black Death February 7, 2016

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Bookends: Murder and the Black Death

By Dan Davidson

October 14, 2015

– 837 words –

 

PlaguePlague

By C.C. Humphreys

Doubleday Canada

362 pages

$24.95

 

When C.C. Humphreys was mentoring at last spring’s Young Authors’ Conference in Whitehorse, he was energized on the second day by the news that Plague, his recently published historical mystery/thriller novel, had been nominated for the 2015 Arthur Ellis Awards best novel prize. The long list for the 2015 award, which is offered by the Crime Writers of Canada, was pretty extensive, comprising some six dozen books by Canadian authors. I was only familiar with the work of maybe six or eight of them, but it seemed that Chris was in good company.

Plague was one of the books I took with me on our recent vacation trip. Well, now it emerges that he has topped the list and won the best novel prize. This may have been announced earlier, but I just decided to check the website today, when it was this book’s turn to arrive in Bookends.

Humphreys has a love of historical fiction, and his novels, whether adult or young adult, often have historical settings. He writes fantasies, time shift novels and plain old historical fiction, but Plague really does fall into the mystery/thriller category.

There are several central characters, and not all of them are males. We first meet a highwayman, a former soldier who goes by the nom-de-guerre of Captain Cock, which is just way too close to his actual name: William Coke. He’s kind of a Robin Hood character, though the deserving poor tend to be restricted to himself and his young assistant. What he finds in the coach he sets out to rob leaves him retching in the roadway.

Hard on his heels is a thief-taker (think bounty hunter) by the name of Pitman, also a former soldier. We’re at the tail end of the dynastic wars in England, and Charles II has been the restored Stewart king for about six years. There are a lot of ex-soldiers, who might have fought on either side during the civil war. Pitman is also a part time constable, and he has a growing family to feed. Because he thinks that Coke is responsible for the awful slaughter in that coach, he seeks him with more that usual diligence.

The other central character is Sarah Chalker, an actress whose fate eventually binds the two men together in a search for the man who murdered her actor husband. It is the details of this death, so strikingly similar to those in the coach, that convince Pitman Coke is not his man.

Sarah fends off the advances of a nobleman who wants her, and she mourns the loss of her husband when he ignores her cautioning, sets out to defend her honour, and is killed. But she has fought to gain her place in the theatre, where women have only just been allowed to be players, and she uses all her skills to protect herself when more danger comes her way. In a very real sense, she rescues herself in the end, before her two champions can find her.

As is often the case in this type of mystery, we also spend some time in the head of the villain himself. We actually spend more time than we think we do, but that doesn’t beome clear until later in the story. Through his point of view we get a good sense of the religious fanaticism that is fueled by the certainty, among some folk, that the plague is the judgment of God on the hedonistic lifestyle that Charles’ reign ushered in after the strict Puritanism of Cromwell’s regime. For them the Second Coming of Christ is imminent. We see how such deluded reasoning can be used to justify all manner of evil, and have the perpetrators still believe in their own righteousness.

Humphreys is very good at setting scenes. Whether we are in the country, in crowded tenements, at the theatre, near the court, in the squalor of the bad parts of London, or in Newgate Prison, we feel that we are there. We catch the flavour of the era (London, 1665) and feel the passage of time.

We understand the fear of the Black Death and suffer with Pitman when he returns from an unsuccessful pursuit to discover that the house in which his family lives has been marked for quarantine.

I found it particularly interesting how two men who were set to be adversaries as the book began found a common greater cause to unite them and did their best to work together to that end, overcoming all the many obstacles that the time and society placed in their way.

After a rousing opening sequence Plague slowed down a bit in the first third, but it really picked up after all the various points of view were set in motion, and held my attention to the end. Seems like a lot of other people liked it too.

 

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Bookends: Murder and Intrigue in the Deep South February 7, 2016

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Bookends: Murder and Intrigue in the Deep South

By Dan Davidson

September 23, 2015

– 923 words-

 

Natchez BurningNatchez Burning

By Greg Iles

Harper

865 pages

$12.50

 

When he’s not hanging out with Stephen King and playing garage band rock and roll as part of the Rock Bottom Remainders (they’re all writers) Greg Iles is busy turning his home town of Natchez, a small city of about 16,000 souls, into a place with as much mystery and intrigue as King’s beloved state of Maine.

Iles doesn’t play the supernatural card very often, though he did earlier in his career, but he does believe in the power of evil and is well aware of the ambivalence with which even good men sometimes find their way through the world.

Penn Cage, former prosecuting attorney, best-selling novelist, and currently (in the 2005 world of this book) the mayor of Natchez, is one of those men. He means well, but sometimes choses to let the end justify the means, and that doesn’t always work out for him.

While much of this book does take place in 2005, just after Hurricane Katrina savaged New Orleans, its roots are in 1963, when racial bigotry caused the death of a fine old man who only wanted to run his music store and help some down and out young men find a career fixing and playing instruments.

One of those young men had the temerity to have an affair with the white girl, the daughter of a powerful white man connected to the Double Eagles, one of the more violent offshoots of the Ku Klux Klan. Albert Norris tried to hide that boy from Brody Royal’s vengeance and died a fiery death in payment.

That death, and a number of other race related murders, sit at the back of much of what goes on in this novel, and we’re never allowed to forget it for very long.

Cage’s immediate problem, however, is that his father, Dr. Tom, is being accused of having murdered the woman who was his faithful nurse for many years back in the 1960s, around the time of Norris’ murder. Viola, dying of cancer, had come back to Natchez from Chicago to ask her former boss (and we knew almost immediately that they must once have been lovers) to help her come to a more peaceful end.

Penn Cage has no qualms about euthanasia, He’s quite sure that his father eased his own wife’s passage to peace when the cancer was killing her, and he’s always been grateful for that, even if it left him a single parent for some years. Since then he has found a new love in Caitlin, the wealthy publisher of a local newspaper, and they are planning marriage, much to the delight of his pre-teen daughter.

But Viola did not go gentle into that good night. She died hard, and her final moments were caught on video tape. It’s 2005 and assisted suicide is still a crime in Natchez, Mississippi, but this is worse. It looks like murder, and Viola’s son, who might just also be Tom’s son, has come down from Chicago breathing fire and looking for several varieties of revenge. He says Tom murdered Viola.

To one side of all of this is Henry Sexton, a reporter at a smaller town’s paper. He was a young man mesmerized by Norris’ daughter in the 1960s, and he has always wanted to solve the spate of murders and disappearances that took place around that same time and bring the villains to justice.

Penn Cage is at the centre of this story, and his chapters are given to us in the first person and present tense. Iles uses a limited third person past tense narrative style to take us into the minds of his other central characters: Henry, Caitlin, Tom Cage, and various of the villains. It’s an effective strategy for broadening the reach of the storyteller, and Iles uses it well.

When I’m flying I need something to take my mind of the fact that I’m 30,000 odd feet in the air and that those bumps are not the wheels of my truck on a Yukon Highway. Sometimes the in-flight video system will do it for me. Sometimes writing a story on my iPad works the magic. But there’s nothing quite like a good book. With a really good book I can go to a place where a bit of turbulence is an annoyance because it keeps me from focusing on the page rather than causing me to get the chills.

Natchez Burning was one of those books. Over the course of half a dozen takeoffs and landings during my month away from home, Greg Iles deviously plotted legal thriller kept me company and helped to pass the time. I’d finished all but about 150 pages of its 865 by the time we got back home.

There have been several novels featuring Penn Cage, and others in which he is a peripheral character, since Iles stopped sight-seeing around the world and the nation and focussed his sights on his home town. This book has a lot of loose plot threads and is the beginning of a trilogy. Book two, The Bone Tree, is already out in hardcover. His website reports the third book nearly finished and that this book has been optioned for a cable TV series. While the 2005 portions of the book take place in less than a week, it would take a dozen or so episodes to do it justice.

 

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Bookends – Exploring one family’s life after the Ocean Ranger disaster January 28, 2016

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Bookends – Exploring one family’s life after the Ocean Ranger disaster

By Dan Davidson

July 2, 2015

– 730 words –

February

February

by Lisa Moore

House of Anansi Press

320 pages

$14.50

Kobo e-book edition

$4.99

The Ocean Ranger drilling platform sank off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982, caught by a Valentine’s Day storm and doomed by the inadequate training of her crew of 84. In Lisa Moore’s fictionalized retelling of the events, Cal O’Mara is one of the crew who died that day, leaving behind Helen and several children.

This is not a story told to us in chronological sequence. Indeed, it begins with a domestic scene in 2008, as Helen watches a man sharpening her grandson’s skates. We are told “She is the mother of one son and three girls and there are two grandchildren.”

We will spend most of our narrative time with either Helen or Johnny, the one son. When the girls’ stories are told it will be mostly through Helen’s eyes.

Moore has chosen to use entries from 2008 and 2009 as bookends to a story that jumps around quite a bit in time and location. Helen pretty much stays put in the 25 years following Cal’s death. She has four children to raise, one of whom was just on the way at the time, and life’s not easy.

Bouncing around through moments in her life we see how she and Cal met, experience their courting and wedding, and see how they lived up to the time he took the job on the oil platform.

We can’t experience the actual disaster, but Helen has read about it and spends quite a bit of time brooding on what she thinks Cal and the others may have had to experience. The loss and its consequences dominate her life, and it is only years later, after the children have grown up, that she even considers entering the dating pool again. We are given one disastrous example of an attempt at online dating that leaves her crushed.

Her son, Johnny, assumes the burden of being the man of the house when his father dies, even though he is still just a boy at the time. Ironically, he grows up to be involved in the safety side of the oil business, travelling the world and having temporary flings with women along the way. So it is a shock for him, in 2008, when Jane, who he met in Iceland, phones him to say she is expecting.

Jane also has her own narrative section in the book, as she works out what to do with her quite pregnant self, finds that her father has no sympathy, and finally decides to contact Johnny, who she has not seen since those wonderful days in Iceland.

Johnny contacts Helen, who has already gone through this unexpected baby adventure, first in her own life and then with one of her daughters. We know enough about Johnny by then to expect that he will attempt to do some version of the right thing as he sees it, but he has a few false starts before he comes to that conclusion.

In her mid-fifties Helen finds love again in the form of Barry, the contractor she has hired to do some repairs on the house, which she has been thinking of selling. Her daughters persuade her to get the work done. It’s a long process and she and Barry get used to each other as it progresses. We can see it coming from almost the first day in 2008, but it’s interesting to watch this pair fumbling towards intimacy.

I’m not bothered by the fact that Moore moves between present tense (for 2008 and later) and past tense (everything else) narratives in the book, but I have to admit I am put off by the lack of quotation marks for peoples’ dialogue. To me, this robs the characters’ speeches of their individuality and makes their conversation seem like a second hand account paraphrased by the author.

That aside, I enjoyed the book a great deal and appreciate how Moore used the events of the platform’s disaster as the emotional center of her character’s lives.

February was the Winner of Canada Reads 2013 and was and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize when it came out in 2009. Moore was a mentor author at the annual Young Authors’ Conference in 2010.

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Bookends: A Lost Mine holds many deadly secrets November 5, 2015

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Bookends: A Lost Mine holds many deadly secrets

By Dan Davidson

May 26, 2015

– 898 words –

 

The Lost Mine Murders: A Klondike Era MysteryLost Mine Murders

by Sharon Rowse

Three Cedars Press

293 pages

Kindle Edition

$5.99

Sharon Rowse’s “Klondike Era Mystery” series is just a tad deceptive in terms of its marketing strategy. John Lansdowne Granville and his partner, Sam Scott, actually live in Goldrush era Vancouver, having settled there after their adventures in the Klondike. In the first book, The Silk Train Murders, Granville rescued himself from the down at the heels life he had fallen into after his time in the Yukon when Scott was falsely arrested for murder and nearly hung.

Granville, ne’er do well son of the British aristocracy, transformed himself into a private detective in order to save his former mining partner, and that led the pair into the new partnership which is well established by the time this story occurs.

It’s December 30, 1899, when the pair sit down with Marty Cole, a grimy old miner who spins them the tale of a lost mine in the southern BC wilderness, near a place called Pitt Lake. His claim is that he wants to find the mine and turn it over to a descendant of the man who made the partial map he shows the partners. He promises them a share of the profit from the working mine if they will help him find it.

Granville and Scott are still on the trail of a missing infant, but that trail has gone cold while they wait for more information from the USA, so they decide to take this on while they wait.

It’s not a job that’s supposed to take very long. They decide to take Trent Davis, their young apprentice, with them. It’s a good choice, as it turns out, for while the pair are experienced in the wilderness, Trent actually grew up in the bush, and turns out to be even more of an asset than they would have thought.

Side plots abound. In the first book Granville became acquainted with a young woman named Emily Turner, who turned out to be a fountain of information on that first case. Emily’s family is as Victorian upper middle class as can be, and the only way the pair of them can manage to consult with each other is for them to pretend to be engaged. This is actually a condition which would please them both if it were real, but they spend much of their time dancing around the potential relationship, both pretending it’s all very much business-like.

Emily has, in fact, enrolled in a business school, to learn typewriting, the very sort of school my mother and her sisters would sign up for in the late 1930s, when computers were still a glimmer in Alan Turing’s eye. Her family is not happy with such a working class decision, but Emily plugs away at it, even though she really has to struggle with the machine.

The other thing impeding her progress is that she keeps getting involved in both of Granville’s cases, snooping around the city with her friend, Clara, whose interest is certainly enhanced by the involvement of the young reporter, Tim O’Hearn.

While they pursue their line of investigation, Granville’s party is ambushed in the woods and their client is killed, while Scott is badly injured. They are assisted in nursing him back to health by an Indian (this is 1899 after all) healer of the Katzie (Salish) tribe, and in the process meet an amateur anthropologist who is studying the local customs and is a fount of knowledge.

In due time Granville and his team make their way to Denver, still searching for the missing child. They are ambushed there as well, though they come out of it without being injured at all. In the end they break up a baby farm and find Sarah, the missing child.

Back home, there is still a lot of tidying up to do. Mostly it’s a question of locating Mary Pearson, who seems to be the rightful heir of Cole’s map. Emily’s work on this side of the story is crucial to their success. Wrapping up this mystery and the murders associated with it move the story along to a rather surprising conclusion..

I found this second book an improvement on the first, with more development of the two central characters, Granville and Emily. The narrative follows their points of view, which does end to make the supporting cast seem a bit like set decoration, but that’s not uncommon in this type of mystery.

Rowse has recently released a third volume in this series, The Missing Heir Murders, and seems to be alternating these books with a series set in modern times and featuring a female sleuth named Barbara O’Grady.

I’ve been reading Rowse’s mysteries in e-book form and I do hope the next one is converted a bit better. It’s disconcerting to see a word printed in italics and then find (italics) right after it as if someone messed up the formatting.

In terms of historical accuracy, I haven’t really noticed any howlers in these books, but Rowse’s website (http://www.sharonrowse.com/historical-research/) invites you to check, with a listing of books she consulted in order to create her settings, as well as references about the Salish people and their healing practices.

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Bookends: International intrigue comes to the Klondike October 12, 2015

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Bookends: International intrigue comes to the Klondike

By Dan DavidsonGold Web

January 14, 2015

– 776 words –

 

Gold Web

By Vicki Delany

Dundurn

322 pages

$17.99

1898 was an exceptionally busy year in the Klondike. In fact, it was an exceptionally busy spring and summer, for that has been the time frame for all four of the Klondike Mystery series novels. While Dawson may have been free of any murders at all in real life, Fiona MacGillivray and her immediate circle of associates have had to deal with a dead dancer, an attempt on our heroine’s life and a kidnapping into the bush in search of a mythical motherlode.

This one begins with a bloody murder in the alley behind Fiona’s Savoy Saloon and Dance Hall.

“The last thing he saw in this world was world was my shocked face.”

Why did the murdered man breathe out her name with his next to last breath, and why did he use the last one to say “Culloden”? And in telling the NWMP all that she knew of the man’s last moments, why did she omit that last bit of information?

There are generally three narrative strands in these books. We get Fiona in the first person. Angus, her 12 year old son, gets the third person treatment, as does Corporal Richard Sterling, the man who may one day become her significant other. The interweaving of these points of view means that we very occasionally view the same scene from more than one perspective.

Of Fiona, we know that she was born to a servant family in Scotland, but got a first class education by virtue of being befriended by the local laird’s daughter, gaining a refined English accent in the process. At a young age tragedy befell her family and she was cast upon her own resources, living for a time with a group of gypsies, and leaving them when the potential for harm at the hands of one of the young men became too great.

This continuing development of her backstory comes to us courtesy of events in the present triggering memories of the past.

In this book’s flashback sequences we learn that she spent a number of years as a street beggar under the tutelage of a Fagin-like character who ran a kiddie crime family as well as a brothel. Good looks and refinement would eventually gain her entry to the homes of the well to do, where she was a successful thief, keeping a step ahead of discovery by moving on.

She moved on to Toronto where she and Angus (we have yet to learn of his origin) lived for a time before deciding to try out the Gold Rush in 1897. A short stay in Skagway convinced her that it was no place for her and Angus. Along the way north she formed a business partnership with Ray Walker, and together they founded the Savoy in Dawson.

There are a number of ongoing plot strands that began in the earlier volumes and weave their way through this book. Fiona has a continuing feud with one of the local madams on Paradise Alley, and that leads to an attempt on her life. The arrival of a lady photographer, Ellen Jennings, leads to Angus taking on a second summer job and appears to drive a wedge between Fiona and Sterling, who have been inching closer together during the months they have known each other.

As Sterling works to solve the murder mystery, other plots are swirling around the town. What is one to make of Count Nicky, the Russian, who seems intent of a hair brained scheme to wrest the Yukon from Canada and make of it and Alaska a new Russia, to escape from the tyranny of the Czar? Then there’s a group of warmed over Fenians, still bent on punishing Britain for all it has done to the Irish by somehow causing a revolution in Canada.

So, while there is a murder at the beginning of the book, much of the thriller action is provided by the presence of spies, both foreign and domestic, and agent provocateurs intent on mischief that go far beyond the confines of peaceful Dawson City.

Delany keeps busy producing books at the rate of about one a year. Aside from the four Klondike books, there are six in the Constable Molly Smith series, set in a town modeled after Nelson, BC, three standalone suspense novels, a book for reluctant readers and, most recently an entry, under the pen name of Eva Gates, in the mystery genre known as the “cozy” style, with the title of By Book or By Crook.

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Bookends: How they saved the world one Victorian Hallowe’en February 18, 2015

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Bookends: How they saved the world one Victorian Hallowe’enLonesome October

By Dan Davidson

November 5, 2014

– 780 words –

 

A Night in the Lonesome October

By Roger Zelazny

Illustrations by Gahan Wilson

Chicago Review Press

280 pages

$18.95

 

Apparently Jack the Ripper had a reason for all those grisly murders. He needed those body parts as his contribution to a ritual that had to be enacted on All Hallows Eve in order to keep the Great Old Ones from entering our reality and snuffing out all life on the Earth from which they had been banished millennia earlier.

Jack is one of the Closers who strive against the Openers, those who would open an interdimensional gateway at one of the thin places on the planet and let the Great Evil Ones in. This can only happen (and it never has – but it could) when there is a full moon on Hallowe’en, which only occurs every few decades.

That’s the story that Jack’s dog, Snuff, would like us to believe, at any rate, and since he’s the narrator of this, Roger Zelazny’s final novel, we’ll just have to decide if he’s reliable. Oh – wait – Cthulhu has not risen, and we have not come to the sad end shown to us in the recent movie, The Cabin in the Woods, which draws on the same source material, so perhaps Snuff was right.

Anyway, isn’t it appropriate that Jack the Ripper’s dog should be named Snuff?

Snuff is a dog of near human intelligence who can actually speak to his human master in English during certain hours of the day. The rest of the time he can only speak to the various animals who are the familiars of the other players in what they all call the Great Game. Some of these players are Dracula, Victor Frankenstein, Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man), the Great Detective (you know who), a Mad Monk, a Satanic Clergyman, a Witch and a number of others. Each has a mentally enhanced creature that works with him or her: a snake, an owl, a cat, etc. This applies to all of the players except Talbot, whose dual nature allows him to be his own familiar, except during full moon periods, when the potions he uses to control his condition fail to suppress the wolf mentality.

The book has 32 chapters, one for each day in October and one introductory chapter in which we learn about Snuff and Jack and the fact that they are the keepers of a number of strange and deadly creatures they have imprisoned in their house. One of Snuff’s jobs is to ride herd on these critters and keep them from escaping into the world. At one point the creatures manage to get out, aided by one of the Closers. Snuff and Jack have a terrible time getting them back under control.

The book is made up of the present tense entries in Snuff’s journal. Since Snuff would always know exactly what the Game is all about and has no need to record exposition for its own sake, we only learn about the Game in disjointed bits and pieces as he interacts and chats with the familiars of the other Players.

You couldn’t say that the Players represent good and evil, since both groups engage in what would have to be called criminal activities in pursuit of their goals. On the other hand, you’ve certainly got to root for the people who are doing things intended to keep the real monsters from taking over the world.

I mentioned the film Cabin in the Woods, in which a group of sleazy scientists (so it appears) put a group of young people through every horror cliché imaginable. You hate them and root for the young people, only to find out they are doing it to keep the monsters from breaking through. Zelazny used the same “necessary sacrifices” idea in this book two decades ago.

Zelazny was in the vanguard of the second wave of great SF writers in the mid-1960s, famous for his poetic use of language (he also published books of poetry) and his linking of SF and Fantasy by reinterpretations of classic myths and legends. During his career he picked up six Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards and two Locus Awards, among others.

This was his last book, first published in 1993. It was a Nebula nominee for that year. This edition is a reissue from Chicago Review Press, which specializes in high quality paperback editions in its “rediscovered classics series”.

Gahan Wilson is one of the great cartoonists of the grotesque, and his 33 full page illustrations certainly add to the flavour of the book.

 

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