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Bookends: A Pair of Pierres find danger in the bush January 17, 2017

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Bookends: A Pair of Pierres find danger in the bush

By Dan Davidson

March 22, 2016

– 964 words –


The Wail of the Wendigo

An Early Adventure of Pierre Trudeau

By Steve Pitt

Fireside Publishing House

227 pages



I should probably explain right off the top that the Leaders & Legacies series of young adult adventure books, of which this is the fifth volume, does not ask that you believe much of hat’s happening in any of the mysteries. The idea is to imagine what various of our Prime Ministers might have been like if they had been involved in Hardy Boys style adventures in their teen years. The series was created and is guided by Roderick Benns, who wrote the first two books.

So far there have been adventures featuring John Diefenbaker, John A. Macdonald, Paul Martin and Richard Bennett. Each of the books so far has featured a fairly realistic mystery and setting and has included all sorts of things that might be said to foreshadow what these lads would grow up to be.

The current book gets full marks for all sorts of clues to the future, but has moved into new territory with its inclusion of quite a few supernatural elements. It’s a bit of Hardy Boys meets Goosebumps.

It’s set in the year 1931, and while it begins with Pierre Trudeau and his father in Montreal, planning a trip to the Yukon to test out a gold claim, it doesn’t stay there long. Actually it begins firmly in Pierre’s head, where he is engrossed in reading a pulp fiction horror story in which one of Canada’s former Prime Ministers, transformed into a vampire after his death in England, is being pursued through the labyrinth of rooms in the Parliament Buildings. Pierre is on a paddle wheeler, heading for Dawson, and it’s towards the end of a the chapter before we flash back and find out how he ended up there, talking to a young deckhand named Art Fry.

Art Fry? Yes, the first of a number of other real life persons who make their way into this book. Art’s along for most of the ride from there on. Other real folk include Frank Berton, Wop May, Albert Johnson, Terohaute and, of course, the young Pierre Berton.

Along the way to Dawson, young Trudeau has a strange encounter with a boy that no one else can see, and receives the gift of a bear claw in exchange for a chocolate bar. This turns out to be very important later.

The pair of Pierres (a running gag in the book) do not take to each other at all in the beginning. Berton sees Trudeau (they end up using last names to avoid confusion) as a stuck-up city boy, and Trudeau sees Berton (bow tie and all) as an arrogant know-it-all who is forever taking notes on everything around him.

In a sort time the boys, their fathers and Art, are bundled into May’s plan and flown east to the Rat River district, where they set up camp near an abandoned (and strangely fortified) cabin and begin the process of testing the creeks for colours.

There’s something strange happening at night, weird sounds that have nothing to do with Trudeau’s overheated imagination. Later the boys will learn about the danger and why the cabin was so fortified.

In the meantime, they learn to hunt, courtesy of lessons from a native girl (because the term First Nations hadn’t been though of yet) named Henni. She and her parents have been living a traditional lifestyle in the woods ever since the authorities threatened to take her off to residential school.

She and her family know the secret behind the strange noises at night and are friends with the mysterious man named Albert Johnson, who claims to be the 141 year old survivor of one of the Franklin Expeditions. He and another man survived that disaster, but at a cost. Terohaute consumed the flesh of his companions, and fed it to some of the other stranded men, passing it off as game he had killed.

For this cannibalism, both he and Johnson were changed into Wendigos, driven to eat human flesh and shun the company of mankind. Franklin has been trying to cure himself of the curse, but Terohaute has embraced it.

Henni’s family and the boys come up with a plan to take away much of Terohaute’s power and send Albert, who is tired of his long life, in the next world.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about that.

There’s a lot of what film fans would call Easter Eggs in this book. Trudeau says things like “Just watch me” and is presented with a red rose to wear in his lapel as a charm against danger. Berton takes notes on everything and is outwardly full of himself, while inwardly unsure, as befits a boy whose growth spurt came to him late in his youth.

They meet again four years after the events of this story, after Wop May has had a hand in tracking down the Mad Trapper, who was operating out of that cabin on Rat River and displayed unnatural endurance while he was fleeing from the RCMP in the winter. Guess who?

After they have caught up with each other’s lives, Berton asks Trudeau if he has ever considered a life in politics.

“Yeah, sure,” Trudeau replies with a laugh. “The chance of me becoming prime minister is about as good as you becoming a best selling author.”

Happily, Pitt has provided eight pages of actual facts about his dramatis personae, so that the readers can separate the fact from the fiction. The two Pierres certainly met during their lives, but not in Dawson in 1931.




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

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Bookends: A love of science brings two disparate lives together

By Dan Davidson

December 9, 2015

– 865 words –



By Joan Thomas

McClelland & Stewart

416 pages


Kobo edition – $13.99


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Bookends: A young woman is forced to deal with a hairy situation February 7, 2016

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Bookends: A young woman is forced to deal with a hairy situation

By Dan Davidson

September 16, 2015

– 858 words –


Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl

by Emily Pohl-WearyWolfgirl

Published by Razorbill Canada

304 pages


eBook version, various platforms – $6.99


Sam Lee isn’t your normal 18 year old. She’s bi-racial and was raised by her feminist mom after her Chinese dad decamped. She’s really smart in a lot of ways, and is a talented lyricist and musician. She is the heart and soul of her wildly successful all-girl trio, the Cream Puffs. Jules may be the singer and front girl, and Malika may be a talented drummer, but the songs and the drive are Sam’s, worked out on Janis, her beloved bass guitar.

But, while she loves the music, the band and the performing, Sam doesn’t like the fame. She’s more of a loner by nature. She has what she calls a Clark Kent life that she tries to keep from being smothered by the fact of being a wealthy rock star. She has her own place, part of which she rents out to some folks that we don’t really meet, but we hear a lot about, and when she’s not on stage, she tends to avoid all the nonsense that could overwhelm her.

One of her joys is riding her bicycle on the paths in New York and it is on one of these night rides through the park that she is attacked by a couple of large dogs, one of which bites her.

If a lot of Young Adult fiction is about coping with bodily changes, Sam is soon in for a doozy of an adaptation. The title of the book had to tell you that she’s been bitten by a werewolf, so I’m not spoiling anything here.

Sam’s changes begin that night, as the vegetarian quickly develops an intense craving for meat, and when she actually has a chance to score with a guy she’s been crushing on for ages, she finds herself tempted to actually eat him up – and not in any good way.

There are dreams, odd things with canine overtones. There’s Marlon, who seems to know just what’s happening to her, but won’t come right out and tell her, until she actually sprouts hair and claws and makes part of the transition. There’s Owen, his brother, who seems to be something of a fan stalker, until it turns out that there’s more of a problem than that.

Marlon’s parents are wealthy and respected academics, and both of them are lycans. The curse, as they call it, began with Pierre Lebrun, and he gave it to his first son and his wife in the usual manner, during times when his inner wolf took control. Owen was born after Francoise had turned, so his case is a bit different, and he has a lot more control issues.

Owen has been looking for a mate for some time, and the only way he could get one was to turn a number of girls and hope one of them didn’t end up dead or deformed. Most females apparently don’t make the change well, something Pohl-Weary’s lycans share with those in Kelly Armstrong’s version of this mythology.

While there are more than a few tense moments in this book and no lack of physical tension, a good deal of it is about Sam trying to cope. The changes are triggered by emotion, particularly fear and anxiety, and she is full of that, not really wanting to have to deal with this new reality at all. At first, there are none of her old peers she can share her problems with, and that makes everything worse.

Her new senses and abilities alter her musical abilities to a degree as her reflexes amp up. There are issues with her bandmates at first. There are inquisitive fans, one of whom snaps pix of her gobbling down some chicken under a tree. There’s a video shoot that goes sideways and a torturous television interview.

But mostly there’s a battle for her attention between the Lebrun boys and the need, once she is aware of it, to do something about the mess that Owen has left in his furry wake all over the city.

For all the serious issues that come up, the book is very funny, with scenes like Sam scarfing down garlic ribs in the a stall in the women’s washroom at a restaurant, or the sophisticated Lebrun parents diving for the meat during a meal at their mansion.

Emily Pohl-Weary is the granddaughter of science fiction icons Frederik Pohl and Judith Merrill and won a Hugo Award herself for her biography of Merrill. Like her grandparents, she has been an editor, a novelist, with a bent towards the fantastic. She has also worked in writing groups with troubled youth in Toronto and at a First Nations, Metis and Inuit transition home there. She has written several YA novels, graphic novels and, most recently, Ghost Sick, a book of poetry inspired by tales of inner city violence.

She has just ended a summer residency at Berton House.





Bookends: Why we need to change how we do things January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Why we need to change how we do things

By Dan Davidson

July 22, 2015

– 948 words –

 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

By Naomi KleinThis changes everything

Vintage Canada

576 pages


Kindle edition



Say what you may about Naomi Klein, it was impossible not to take notice when she was invited by Pope Francis to join a top level environmental conference at the Vatican recently. Self-described as a “secular Jewish feminist”, Klein is not exactly the sort of public intellectual that one might expect to answer such a call. On the other hand, a number of the Pope’s statements coming out of that conference sounded very much like he had read her book and taken notes.

Klein is, after all, the person who made “branding” a household word with her first book, No Logo. Likewise, the ideas that fuelled her second big book, The Shock Doctrine, have been very much in play recently as we have watched the economic struggles going on between Greece and the rest of the Eurozone.

It would be hard to deny (though the federal government does) that it made effective use of the shock doctrine after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau attacked Parliament Hill and Martin Couture-Rouleau attacked the two soldiers in Quebec, killing one of them.

These isolated events, carried out by two unconnected and disturbed individuals, were made to be the spur for panic and the enactment of Bill C-51, or the Anti-Terrorism Bill, as it is now known.

Klein’s main thesis is spelled out in the title of the book. The world’s economic system was birthed when James Watt created the steam engine, and freed engine driven enterprises from dependence on water power.

We began burning fossil fuels at an expanding rate: first wood, then coal, and finally, the various products that come from the petroleum industry. She calls the process extractivism and says that, hand in hand with our current practices of capitalism, it is waging war on the planet.

It is not simply capitalism which is at fault; Klein points to the economies of the old Soviet Union and Communist China as being just as much parts of the problem. They have followed an extractivist model just as closely as the capitalist world.

Aside from a dedicated search for improved and reliable sources of non-polluting energy – solar, wind and hydro, in spite of the latter’s problems – Klein doesn’t offer a lot in the way of solutions, but she does a good job of eviscerating most of the capitalist based models that have been proposed so far.

A lot of the major environmental organizations have, she says, been sucked into the capitalist dreams of not doing anything unless it can make tons of money. A number of them get their major funding from the oil industry and one even has an oil well on property that it controls.

Carbon capture, as well as cap and trade systems, all come under fire because they fail to address the basic problem as she defines it: we need to stop burning carbon based products. Going further, any carbon that is still in the ground needs to stay there.

Global trade and the proliferation of “free trade” agreements come up for criticism in a big way. These have enabled corporations to move their work around, take advantage of cheap labour, dodge the regulations wherever they might actually be working, and take various levels of government to court when they attempt to do things to deal with the climate change problem.

She gives several examples of this type of action, as well as others. One of the reasons the book is as long at it is, is the inclusion of many anecdotes and examples to enliven the statistics and arguments she puts forward.

Never content to simply make a statement of fact or advance a proposition, Klein is a belt and suspenders type of intellectual who reinforces every point she makes.

On the personal side of things, she informs us about her cancer scare and all the difficulties she and Avi Lewis had while attempting to conceive a child, including several false starts. She doesn’t underline this too much, but it’s certainly no accident that success came after they put less faith in medicines and more in nature.

Moving from the negatives into the positives in the latter sections of the book, she gives a number of examples of things that seem to be working. Citizens must, she says, get control of their governments, wresting this back from the industrial classes that now dominate the field.

Blockadia is not a county, but a word she coins to describe the resistance to fossil fuel exploitation wherever it is happening in the world. Blockades are part of this reclamation, but so were the Occupy Movement and Idle No More. Indigenous values have a lot to say about what needs to be done, she feels.

The change that needs to come does mean that everyone will have to do with a little bit less – have to downsize somewhat – until adjustments can be made. Continuous growth never was sustainable, and we need to admit it. That there must be “limits to growth” was known as early as 1972, when the Club of Rome commissioned a study with just that name.

It studied five variables: population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. Klein touches most of these in her book, but several of them are subsumed in one additional problem that really wasn’t on most peoples’ radar in 1972: climate change.

Klein won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for this 2014 book. It takes a while to read, but it’s worth the time.


Bookends: Short form Books are exploding January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Short form Books are exploding

By Dan Davidson

July 15, 2015

– 867 words –
While we have about 16 bookcases (not shelves – bookCASES) at Chateau Davidson, most of them organized by genre and filled to the brim, we also enjoy e-books, especially for light reading that we don’t necessarily want to find shelf room for.

One of the advantages of the e-book format is that it allows works by a particular author, or in a particular series, to remain “in print” (so to speak) due to the “just in time and as needed” nature of e-publishing.

Mystery writer Dana Stabenow (the Kate Shugak series) told me recently that the only way to get the first half-dozen volumes in her series these days is in e-book form. With many other writers this is also true.

Aside from that, e-books make possible the publication of volumes that are not quite long enough to be actual books, unless they happen to be published by specialty

The novella (or short novel) used to be a popular form, and such classic works as Animal Farm, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Time Machine and The Pearl are all examples of this type. These have all been published many times over in book form, but most novels these days seem to be well over 300 pages in length and many simple genre works run even longer.


Jacaranda: A Novella of the Clockwork Century

By Cherie PriestJacaranda

Subterranean Press

181 pages



Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series about an alternate America where history is quite different and the supernatural is a real element of everyday life, has a number of novels connected to it. Jacaranda is set in this world, but it is short and has previously been available only in the above referenced high quality press edition for really serious fans, put out by Subterranean Press.

This is a dense and fairly complicated haunted hotel story in which the central character is a former robber and gunslinger turned priest. There’s a hurricane, ghosts, guilty secrets (a slight touch of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians) and enough tension to go around.

I hadn’t read anything by Priest prior to picking up this volume during one of the Humble Bundle promotions, but I think I will be looking for more.


Another advantage of the e-book is the promotion of long form journalism outside the boundaries of the newspapers or magazines in which the pieces first appeared. This week I’ll mention the memoirs of two writers who have been Berton House writers-in-residence.


Blindsided: How Twenty Years of Writing About Booze, Drugs and Sex Ended in the Blink of an Eye

By Russell Smith


Kindle Edition

21 pages



Russell Smith was our first resident, nearly twenty years ago now, and has gone on to write a number of novels and short story collections. These drew upon his experiences and the adventures he had during his day job as a lifestyle columnist for the Globe and Mail and contributor to a number of national magazines.

The full title of Blindsided, narrated in Smith’s usual somewhat ironic style, gives you the notion, justified in the story, that his sampling of the various substances imbibed as part of his regular “research” led to the loss of sight in first one eye and then the other.

Smith isn’t moralizing in this book, but he makes no excuses for what he ultimately describes as self-destructive, and somewhat dumb, behaviour. Even after the first eye went, he hardly slowed down his pace. It took the near loss of the second eye to make him change his lifestyle.


My Never-Ending Acid Trip: Why I Still Hallucinate Years After Taking LSDNever-ending acid trip

By Jacob Scheier

Toronto Star e-book

About 56 pages, with photographs


Jacob Scheier was this year’s early spring Berton House resident. He is best known as a Governor General’s Award winning poet, but he has lately taken to developing the prose side of his talents.

This long form memoir began as an exercise at a writers’ workshop retreat and developed into a series published in the Toronto Star.

Scheier is completely candid about the fact that his experimentation with drugs during his teenage and young adult years – he specifies 200 hits of acid and more than 60 tablets of ecstasy – opened some relays in his brain that interacted with medication he was taking five years later for depression and anxiety.

He began to have intense visual hallucinations, thought he was going mad, and eventually checked himself into a psych ward, where things got worse. The profession’s reliance on an array of pharmacological interventions did nothing for him.

Interestingly, it was the out of fashion “talking cure”, the same experienced by another Berton House alumnus, James FitzGerald (What Disturbs our Blood). that eventually gave him some relief and enabled him to develop his award winning craft.


As noted above, none of these three books would have been available unless I had either paid the high price for the specialty volume, or had seen the memoirs in the magazine and newspapers where they were originally printed.

That’s enough to make a good case of the usefulness of e-books to the devotee of the printed word.



Bookends: Living with the Consequences of Disaster January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Living with the Consequences of Disaster

By Dan Davidson

Back of the TurtleJuly 8, 2015

– 895 words –


The Back of the Turtle

By Thomas King


518 pages


Thomas King’s latest novel begins one day at first light, a portentous day in which one man would try to kill himself, watched by two individuals as he headed for the beach and the rock formation where he hoped to be engulfed by the tide.

Watching him are a man named Nicholas Crisp and a dog which will acquire a number of names as the story progresses. Crisp is a man of indeterminate age who speaks in a strangely antique tongue and is a catalytic figure during his interactions with the others on this British Columbia coastline. This part of the book takes place near a deserted town that used to be known as the Smoke River Reserve, but is more commonly known now as The Ruin.

The man who is trying to physically drown himself is Gabriel Quinn, a brilliant scientist of First Nations lineage who is drowning in guilt. For some time now he has been conflicted about the work he has done for the Domidion company, particularly in the area of defoliants. He has been making lists of environmental disasters and the realization that his own chemical, called Greensweep. has, in fact, devastated the place where he grew up, has pushed him over the edge.

Quite by accident, he ends up saving the lives of some boat people on that very night, and his plan is postponed until at least the next high tide. He is still determined to do himself in as a penance, but meeting Mara causes him to delay his plans.

Mara is a Native woman who also grew up in Smoke River, and was living elsewhere when the Ruin destroyed the place, killing all the wildlife, the turtles which used to lay their eggs on the beach and, ultimately, most of the people who lived there. She has returned to try to reclaim some of her old life.

She and Quinn come into contact with each other, and with Crisp and the dog. The old man spends a lot of time trying to get the two of them to see possibilities in life, rather than just digging themselves deeper in sorrow. A lot of this involves retellings of the Turtle Island legend.

There are two other strands to the story, and they are sort of commentary and comic relief.

At the beach there is Sonny, a mentally unstable young man whose favorite pastime is hitting things (wham-wham!) with a hammer. He has deluded himself into thinking that he is looking after a derelict hotel with his father, who is, in fact, not there at all. His antics are often humorous, but we never quite figure out why he is the way he is.

In Toronto we spend some equally confusing time with Domidion CEO Dorian Asher, an extremely narcissistic man whose main concerns in life seen to be shopping, pleasing himself, and making sure that his company is never held responsible for any harm it might cause to the world.

It was a Domidion error – using many times too much of the chemical – that caused the Ruin. They have managed to cover that up so far. But Domidion is involved in the Athabasca Oil/Tar Sands mining in Alberta, and one of their settling ponds has just breached its dam. Others are about to follow.

As we follow Asher, it is clear that all of this is, to him, primarily an exercise in public relations. As long as they can stay ahead of the story, he can continue dining out, buying new watches and suits, moving to a bigger condo and puzzling over why his wife could possibly want to leave him.

He and his minions also puzzle over the whereabouts of one of the firms chief scientists, a fellow named Quinn. They can’t find any trace of him.

Asher’s portions of the book are perhaps the weakest parts. The other characters have developmental arcs – even Sonny to some degree – but I kept wishing that a safe would fall on the head of this cartoon character who seems to be totally devoid of any serious adult empathy for others. Maybe that was what King was aiming for.

It’s interesting that literary online accounts of this excellent 2014 book refer to it as the first novel King had produced after a 15 year detour into non-fiction. Since that detour produced a book of connected essays, The Truth about Stories, in 2003 (the Massey Lectures for that year, by the way), and two award winning books about the experience of First Nations people in Canadian history – A Short History of Indians in Canada (McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award in 2006) and The Inconvenient Indian (the RBC Taylor Prize in 2014) – I would say it was a worthwhile detour.

What puzzles me more though, is the total disregard for his foray into the mystery genre, the two books he published under the pen name of Hartley Goodweather. Dreadful Water Shows Up (2002) and The Red Power Murders: A DreadfulWater Mystery (2006) may not have quite the same Governor General’s Award winning cachet as The Back of the Turtle, but they are undoubtedly enjoyable novels and don’t deserve to be ignored.



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

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Bookends: A science fiction novel about redemption and second chances

By Dan DavidsonTo Your Scattered Bodies Go

March 25, 2015

– 807 words –


To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Riverworld Saga, Book 1

By Philip Jose Farmer

Narrated by Paul Hecht

Recorded Books

7 hours and 42 minutes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bookends: All of Yukon Sport in one big package October 12, 2015

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Bookends: All of Yukon Sport in one big package

By Dan DavidsonYukon Sport

January 7, 2015

– 766 words –


Yukon Sport: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

By John Firth

Figure 1 Publishing

Distributed by Raincoast Books

352 pages


I’m kidding John Firth when I tell him that I’m getting my exercise in December by lifting and reading his new book, but he agrees with me immediately. It does, in fact, weigh in at about 2 ½ pounds on my bathroom scale. It’s what we call a coffee table book, and if you put legs under it, it could serve as an end table. It’s not the sort of volume that you hold in front of you in the air while reading it. A tabletop, or at least a lap, is required. When it comes to sheer heft, it’s not light reading.

I recall sitting down with John to discuss what little I know about Klondike sports in Riverwest Café on Front Street about a year and a half ago, wondering just how he would tackle this rather massive subject, and feeling a little odd to be on the other side of an interview. He had, of course, previously written a couple of interesting books about the Yukon Quest (Yukon Challenge) and the Yukon River Quest (River Time), as well as a book about Ramish Ferris’ quest to help wipe out polio (Better than a Cure) and the story of the Jamaican Doglsed Team (One Mush) but those were books about individuals or about a single sport. I reasoned that this was a vastly different project, requiring a different approach.

It also required a lot of interviews and research. Firth says he has been collecting stories, interviews and material for some three decades. In his introduction he credits Kathy Jones-Gates, my former co-editor at the Klondike Sun, with doing a lot of research as well.

The book is structured like an encyclopedia, with 97 entries, beginning with “Aboriginal Sport” and running through the alphabet to” Yukon Sport and Recreation”. Rather than being a general history of Yukon sports, it’s like 97 little histories, some of which overlap a bit. Each one offers up some of the bald facts of the activity, but many also contain little anecdotes, snippets from interviews and extracts from newspaper articles that were written at the time.

Most of them come with pictures but some, like the one pager on arm wrestling, are just text. The very next entry, “Athletics”, runs to seven pages and has seven photographs, one of which is in colour. The book doesn’t shy away from using colour, but a good number of the photos would have been taken back when colour pictures were less common, or when news photographers only used black and white film in the days before digital cameras, so the majority of them are black and white shots.

This is not a book to be read from beginning to end. It’s a browser, with items selected according to the reader’s interests. I can easily confess to not having read it all, and to bouncing back and forth as things I have some connection with caught my eye. Certainly I read the items that had anything to do with Dawson, and that’s a lot, because so many things start here.

Faro had an entry as well. Reading the memories of the late Tim Twardochleb not long after his passing was a bit of a wrench. I taught with Wes Sullivan in Faro, and one of my classrooms was not far away from where those weights were hitting the plywood in the hallway after school while I was marking papers during the early days of weightlifting in the Yukon.

Except for the mention of the first seasonal pool in Beaver Creek (they have a much better one now), all the entries mentioning our first Yukon home came from either before or after our three years there.

I should confess that I’m quoted three times in the book. The first one is about the revival of the Highland Games here in 2012 (not 2013, as I have since pointed out to John). The second one is how the popularity of slowpitch among high school students in the 1990s was one factor used to determine when the school year in Dawson City should begin and end. The third citation is in regards to the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race, which I have been writing about annually since 1986.

I enjoyed my time with this book and, coming from someone whose most regular approach to sport is just walking, that’s a glowing recommendation.


Bookends: Bruce Cockburn’s still kicking at the darkness October 12, 2015

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Bookends: Bruce Cockburn’s still kicking at the darkness
Rumours of Glory

By Dan Davidson

January 21, 2015

– 904 words –


Rumours Of Glory: a Memoir

By Bruce Cockburn

HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

544 pages



“This is not your standard rock and roll memoir. You won’t find me snorting coke with young Elton John or shooting smack with Keith Richards; dangling babies from hotel balconies or fleeing rehab; shooting guns or sleeping with someone else’s wife. Well … you will find me shooting guns and sleeping with someone else’s wife, and these are significant elements of my tale.”

So begins Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, the story of a mild mannered guitar player who seems to have spent his life trying to get outside himself, who has often been the author of his own misfortune (he says) when it comes to relationships, who was a long time getting to the place in his head and heart where he could actually like the audiences for whom he was playing, and who has a complicated relationship with Jesus Christ, whom he is sure has visited him in spirit at least twice.

Confession time. I have been a Cockburn fan since the early 1970s, which puts me pretty close to the beginning of his solo career. I have Bruce copied on cassette tapes borrowed from friends in those days. I have still more Bruce on vinyl, on legitimate cassettes, on CDs and even on mp3 downloads (just because it’s nice to have some of that stuff on my iPod). I’ve even managed to figure out how to perform covers of some of his material, though my guitar skills are barely up to the challenge.

Cockburn starts with the guitar. His devotion to the instrument is what launched him on the path he has followed throughout his career. Prior to going solo, he was in a number of groups, from rock to folk, and those influences have showed up in his playing all through his career.

His parents didn’t have this career in mind for him, but they also didn’t get in his way much when it became clear that nothing else would do. They did, however, insist that he take guitar lessons.

“I took my lessons. I learned some standard tunes and lot of basic guitar techniques. Hank (Sims) introduced me to the music of Chet Atkins and Les Paul. And though I waited until I thought my parents wouldn’t care anymore, in the fullness of time I acquired sideburns, and a leather jacket, and I played in a rock-and-roll band.”

Four themes – the music, relationships, Christianity and human rights – chase themselves back and forth through this book. There are quite a few song lyrics in the text, preceded by his accounts of where they came from and what he was attempting to do with them. If you don’t have the compleat Cockburn, the way I do, you can buy an 8 CD/DVD box set with the same name and containing all the songs referenced in the book.

If you don’t want to do that, but can’t quite recall the tune that goes with the lyrics, there’s a website (http://bc.hc.com) that contains one minute samples of all 117 songs. The links won’t work on your basic Kindle reader, but they work most of the time on an iPad mini and all the time if you access the site on a laptop.

Cockburn can play blistering leads, and has done so on albums from his middle period on, but his basic fingering style is something that he calls a collision between the fingering patterns of his right hand and the somewhat jazz oriented chords that he learned to love with his left hand during his incomplete stay at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which began when he as 19.

Relationships are a thorny subject for Cockburn. His first marriage lasted quite a few years and produced a child, referenced in “The Laugh” but it ended, and he blames himself for an inability to share deeply enough. In “What About the Bond?” he examined the pain of a man who truly believed in the marriage oath and yet could not cope.

It would be years before he would marry again, though he had a number of long term relationships (including that one with Madame X, the married woman) prior to finally marrying M.J. Hannett and embarking once more on parenthood. Some of the relationships he ended, others were ended for him as partners burned out bumping up against what he calls his own reclusiveness.

While Cockburn frequently declares himself to be disenchanted with organized religion, and organized Christianity (he was vaguely Anglican when he attended regularly) his lyrics, somewhat like Bono’s (of U2) are frequently leavened with references to the teachings of Christ, whom he continues to revere.

“When Jesus came into my life, in 1974, he also made it into the music. Since then our relationship, like most relationships, has ebbed and flowed. I have tried to keep Jesus the compassionate activist close to my heart, along with Jesus as portal to the cosmos, but I have long been leery of the dogma and doctrine that so many have attached to Christianity as well as to most other religions.”

About those guns. Cockburn took up shooting as a hobby sport after losing most of the sight in one eye. So it’s really got nothing to do with “If I had a Rocket Launcher”.




Bookends – Death in a literary vein February 19, 2015

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Bookends – Death in a literary veinThe Silkworm

By Dan Davidson

December 29, 2014

– 948 words –


The Silkworm

By Robert Galbraith


Mulholland Books

464 pages



Since Cormoran Strike solved the mystery of supermodel Lucy Landry’s murder, a death that everyone else was convinced was a suicide, the one-legged private investigator’s career has been on the rise. He’s made enough money that he can afford to rent a flat in the same building as his office is in. It’s not a great flat, but it beats sleeping on a camp cot in his office. If he didn’t still have a lot of debts to pay off, he wouldn’t be doing too badly. Of course, there is the matter of the amputated leg, a legacy from his stint in Afghanistan.

The leg is almost a major character in the book. PI work means a lot of walking and standing, sometimes running and maybe a bit of rough and tumble. None of this is easy going for a man wearing a prosthesis, a proud man who hates like hell to sometimes being reduced to using crutches.

Strike is the bastard son of Jonny Rokeby, a very famous British pop star. Rokeby had two kids with Strike’s mother, and Lucy is Strike’s full sister on his mother’s side. They have an odd relationship in which she acts a bit like a surrogate mother.

Rokeby had other legitimate children and in this novel we meet Alexander, who is apparently the only one Strike knows. Al likes his half-brother and plays a significant role in this mystery, helping Strike gain access to a number of places where he might not have been welcome.

The second viewpoint character is Strike’s secretary/assistant, Robin Ellacott. She arrived as a temp in the first book (The Cukoo’s Calling) as a somewhat starry-eyed fan of the private investigator’s life, but has evolved into a necessary part of the business. This is a bit confusing for Strike, who doesn’t want to put her in any danger. It is way more confusing, and contentious, for her fiancée, Matthew Cunliffe, who would prefer her not to be working at all, but certainly not with Strike.

Robin has decided she definitely wants to be trained as an investigator and this creates some communication problems for her and Strike, not to mention with Matthew.

Galbraith/Rowling seems to want to have Strike operate in areas where his working class background will clash with the people he is working for or investigating. In the first book it was the world of the fashionistas. In this one it’s the world of the publishing industry, which, one concludes, might be a world where the author has had a few problems over the years.

Perhaps not as many problems as Owen Quine, a would-be literary superstar who has produced a number of steadily less successful avant garde novels after what was seen as a terrific debut effort. His latest is Bombyx Mori, which no one wants to publish, probably because it is both badly written and stuffed with scandalous parody versions of people in the literary world, rather the way that Dante took on everyone he didn’t like in The Inferno.

Bombyx mori, by the way, is the fancy name for the silkworm, that is, the larva or caterpillar of the domesticated silk moth, hence the title of the book.

Quine has vanished, something he has been prone to do from time to time, but on this occasion he is well overdue reporting home after a visit with one of his mistresses. Since he is in the habit of disappearing, the police aren’t terribly responsive, and his wife decides to hire Strike to find him. Missing husbands and straying spouses are a good deal of the firm’s business, so this seems likely to be a fairly routine case. Following up some fairly vague clues, Strike tracks Quine down to a house that he owns in common with another writer – they don’t get along at all, and the house has been deserted and unused for years – and finds him eviscerated in an extremely gruesome manner in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

Not only is it ritualistic in a brutal way, but it is set up exactly like the death scene in Quine’s unpublished novel. That means it has to have been done by someone who has read the manuscript. While that should have been a very small circle of folks in the publishing industry, it turns out that the circle in a lot larger than Quine’s agent and few potential publishers.

There’s lot of atmospheric description in this book. One reviewer complained about it, but he was an English reviewer and we aren’t all familiar with London, so I find the word pictures useful, as I do in novels by Rankin, Robinson, Penny and Blunt.

There is also a large cast of characters in this story, some of them connected with Strike and Ellacott, many of them potential suspects. The author deals with them well, dragging a large number of red herrings across the clues and the narrative as the page count grows. While her hero is clearly influenced by the “damaged goods” trope that is so common to British detective novels, her handling of Robin Ellacott makes me think more of Christie and Sayers.

We already know that J.K. Rowling can do a convincing bit of world building. Her first non-Potter book under her own name, A Casual Vacancy, showed a good grasp of the mundane world. As Galbraith, she comes across as a writer who has done her homework and likes the genre world she is writing in. I look forward to more in this series.