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Bookends: How to Avert an Apocalypse February 7, 2016

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Bookends: How to Avert an Apocalypse

By Dan Davidson

September 29, 2015

– 745 words

 

The Unwritten, volume 11: Apocalypse

Story by Mike CareyApocalypse

Art by Peter Gross

Vertigo Books

176 pages

$19.99

 

Last weekend the Sunday Edition celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the first of two works about Alice written by Lewis Carroll. Inspired by Carroll’s friendship with young Alice Liddell, the book became a bit of a nightmare for her great-granddaughter, Vanessa Tait, who happened to look like Alice and was often forced to dress like her for photographs when she was a child.

Tait made her peace with the book when she got older, but her story is a bit like that of poor Christopher Robin, who grew up with people asking him what it was really like to grow up with Pooh Bear in the Hundred Acre Wood.

So it was with Tom Taylor, whose father, Wilson, made him, as “Tommy Taylor” the titular central character in a series of books that became known the world round. As Tom grew up he was determined not to be Tommy, but the 12 collected volumes of this series have made it quite clear that there were many ways in which he was just that.

Wilson had programmed his son and at least one of his companions, Lizzie, to be able to tap into the power of story, as personified by Leviathan, the mythical whale.

Wilson was once the agent of a mysterious Unwritten Cabal bent on ruling the world indirectly, by influencing what people think about and value through the medium of stories. Once he turned against them, he began the Tommy books as a way of fighting back and more importantly, of laying the groundwork for his real assault on the cabal, which would be launched through the person of his son.

Then, after making publishing history with 13 bestsellers, Wilson vanished, leaving Tom with little but doing appearances in memory of his father’s legacy to make a living with. There must have been money, but there’s no trace of it. Tom doesn’t even know who his mother was.

The series began with Lizzie Hexam standing up at a fantasy con and asking Tom who he was, because she says he’s a fake.

After that, through the next 11 volumes (and one prequel graphic novel) Tom and his two companions, one of whom turns out to be Lizzie, and the other an ambitious blogger, end up down more rabbit holes and into stranger adventures than Harry Potter or Alice ever dreamed of.

While the cabal takes the part of the central villain through much of this, Tom is haunted by their chief henchman, a man who calls himself Pullman, but whose real name is lost in prehistory. He became part of one of the first stories very early on in the way of the world, and his wooden artificial hand has the power to turn people into fiction, a terrifying power.

Tom has the ability to link himself to existing stories as if they were other dimensions, and as his quest to find out his own truth continues, he spends time in the story of Moby Dick, is companioned by Frankenstein’s Monster, and, in this final volume, lives through a fractured version of the Grail Quest from Arthurian legend.

In this volume, Tom and Tommy, along with their real life and fictional companions, join forces to combat Pullman and his allies, and Tom makes a discovery that leads to a surprising conclusion for him. He has won – sort of – but there’s a terrific cost.

In a bit of a coda, we learn how some of the secondary characters are getting on with their lives now that Tom has averted an apocalypse in which all manner of stories would have run roughshod over reality.

It is perhaps the end that Wilson trained him for, but that doesn’t make the old man feel any less guilty about the ways in which he had manipulated his son’s life. We leave Wilson descended the impossibly long stairway to the under realm, seeking to find Tom and try to make amends. As this is a comic book reality, there is always the chance that some other combination of writer and artist might take up the material – especially when it sells well and wins awards – but it feels very much as if Carey and Gross are finished, just as it says on the cover.

 

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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

$15.00

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.

 

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

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Bookends: Mark Twain Builds a Boat on the Riverworld

By Dan Davidson

August 30, 2015

– 862 words –

 

The Fabulous Riverboat

By Philip Jose Farmer

RiverboatRecorded Books

Narrated by Paul Hecht

9 hrs and 2 mins

$24.49

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bookends: A two part Martian Odyssey January 28, 2016

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Bookends: A two part Martian Odyssey

By Dan Davidson

August 12, 2015

– 955 words –

Red ThunderRed Thunder

By John Varley

Ace Books

411 pages

$10.99

 

Red Lightning

By John Varley

Ace BooksRed Lightning

355 pages

$10.99

 

The two books in this week’s column are part of John Varley’s four part tribute to the young adult novels of Robert A. Heinlein. There are some who would suggest that Varley’s entire career tends in that direction, but the Thunder and Lightning books clearly fall into that category.

They are first person narratives, told by relatively young people. They are full of adventure and optimism, and yet they deal with some pretty harrowing situations. They also deal with some pretty space happy pseudo-science.

While each of the books has a definite narrator, it’s safe to say that the central character is a socially autistic genius named Jubal. Jubal lives with his cousin, a former astronaut named Travis Broussard. Due to problems in his past, Travis has a serious drinking problem and the four young people who change his life meet him one night when they are joy riding on the Florida beach and nearly run him over.

It is Manny Garcia, our narrator, who notices that Jubal has created something strange while they are visiting Travis’ ranch. The bubble Manny picks up turns out to be a small force field created by Jubal’s device that he calls a squeezer.

The squeezer can surround and compress whatever matter is enclosed by it and then release the generated energy in a controlled or uncontrolled burst, depending on whether you want a bomb or power for an engine.

It can also be used to simply generate electrical power, or to power any sort of engine.

Travis and the four young people (Dak, Alicia and Kelly, along with Manny) decide to use it to build a spaceship out of surplus tanker cars, and use that to become the first humans to go to Mars.

There are two reasons for this. One is to beat the Chinese ship already on the way, but the more important one is that Jubal has calculated the American ship also heading there will meet with an accident because its drive is faulty. Using squeezer power, Jubal calculates the ship the kids and Travis are building can make the trip in four days, rather that the months the conventionally propelled ships have taken to do it.

First, however, they have to build their ship, which takes them about a year, and about a million dollars. They call it Red Thunder. You might not think that chapters spent planning and building a spaceship in an abandoned warehouse could be interesting, but you’d be wrong. Varley spins a plausible sounding yarn and makes us believe it as the gang plans, tests plans, builds and refines their craft.

They get there, beat the Chinese, save most of the American astronauts when the Ares Seven breaks up during its trip and return as heroes. (Yeah – spoilers; but you knew I was going to write about a sequel, so hat did you expect?)

Part of the plan here was to arrange things so that no one nation on Earth ever gets control of the squeezer device, for its potential as a weapon is so far beyond anything ever created that Travis and the gang are sworn to prevent it happening.

They succeed at this, and all goes pretty well for the next couple of decades, which is when the sequel picks up the story. This one is narrated by Manny and Kelly’s son, Ray Garcia-Strickland, who has been raised on a Mars which squeezer propelled ships has made a pretty popular tourist destination.

On Earth, something terrible has happened. Something like a large rock has impacted the Atlantic Ocean at near light speed velocity, causing a tidal wave that has devastated most of the habitable east coast of the USA. Ray’s family boards a ship to go back to Earth and try to rescue his grandmother. About half of the book is about this trip and the terrible conditions they find in Florida when they get there.

Varley says this scenario was inspired by two actual events: the 9-11 terrorist attacks and tsunami in the Indian Ocean that did so much damage there. His original draft was going to drop the rock into just that area, but the tsunami hit while he as writing the book and he relocated it out of sympathy to the real disaster.

The other half is about what happened when Jubal, who has been living a secluded life under heavy guard, dreaming his dreams and overseeing the supply of squeezer devices for the entire world, disappears.

It’s assumed the family on Mars will know where he is, and various militant Earth factions take turns invading the domed settlements on the Red Planet in search of the man who made free energy possible.

If some of this sounds a bit like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I revisited here earlier in the summer, it’s surely not an accident. The action is a little more wide ranging than that – including some torture, a space chase and another example of just how deadly Jubal’s device can be – and Varley avoids a lot of the philosophical chit-chat that sometimes cluttered RAH’s later books, but it is clearly cut from that same bolt of optimistic cloth.

There are two more books in this series, each set another couple of decades on in time. One of them even has a heroine whose name echoes that of Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, so I’m sure that there will be more of that flavour when I get around to them.

 

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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

$32.00

 

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

Blindsided

Kindle Edition

21 pages

$2.99

 

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

$2.99

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.

 

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Bookends: Two books about revolutionary change January 27, 2016

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Bookends: Two books about revolutionary change

By Dan

June 10, 2015

– 875 words -Davidson

 

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

By Robert HeinleinMoon is Harsh

Orb Books

384 pages

$13.71

 

Blackstone Audiobooks

Unabridged reading by Lloyd James

14 hours and 12 minute

$29.95

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Rupert’s Parchment: Story of Magna Carta

Story by Eileen Cameron

Illustrations by Doris EttlingerRupert's Parchment

Mascott Books

36 pages

$19.95

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bookends: What if the old souls come back? November 5, 2015

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Bookends: What if the old souls come back?

By Dan Davidson

May 30, 2015

– 822 words –

 

The IntrudersThe Intruders

By Michael Marshall Smith

HarperCollins e-books

394 pages

$9.99

The novel begins with the murder of a mother and son, on a night when they actually seem to be communicating for a change. The man at the door said he was from the FBI, but the gun, the lighter fluid and the flame said something else. “Where is it?” he kept asking, and poor Gina had no idea what he was talking about, other than that it must be connected to her husband, Bill, and he was not home.

The man who said he was from the FBI went by the name of Richard Shepherd, but his last name was really more of a job description. It defined his role within the organization known as Qui Revert. He was ruthless because it was his job, and if he did it well his superiors might, some day, reward him with the immortality they enjoyed.

About half of this story is told by Jack Whalen, an ex-cop from LA, who has become a successful writer following the events (which are never quite clear) that caused him to resign from the LAPD. He now lives nearer to Seattle, with his wife, Amy, who works in advertising and sometimes has to travel.

When Jack was in high school he knew a girl named Donna, a girl who killed herself and left behind a smudged note, a girl who never quite fit in, a girl who had desperately wanted to connect with Gary Fisher, the school’s alpha male.

Twenty years after that event and two weeks after Gina’s bad night, Gary turns up on Jack’s doorstep with a really weird story, and an assignment he wants Jack to take on.

Jack’s reluctant. The truth is the next book just isn’t coming along, and his wife has been acting strange lately, as if she’s not quite herself sometimes. When did she start secretly smoking and listening to big band jazz?

While Jack’s trying to decide what to do, a little girl named Madison goes missing not too far away. It happens after she meets Shepherd on the beach, but he doesn’t take her. He starts a process that takes her over, and she becomes the walking puppet for another consciousness, that of a very bad man named Marcus, a serial killer who vanished some years ago, just as the police were about to catch up with him. The book follows Madison/Marcus as she leaves home and runs off to the city, there to meet with other members of Qui Revert, who would much rather she/he didn’t still exist.

Well before the end of the book, we find we are dealing with a kind of reincarnation. The essence of a person, whatever you call it, is recycled into a new being, but sometimes, in some special places, like the old brownstone in the city that was built on what used to be a sacred place for the local natives, the walls between the here and the hereafter are thin, and the personality that used to own the essence survives and can be coaxed forth by certain talismans.

The Shepherds are in charge of this process. Madison is being shepherded to become Marcus, though the process has begun a decade too soon. Amy was approached when she was 18, and someone named Rose is taking up more and more of her mental and emotional space.

Some people can’t deal with the mental and emotional dissonance, and end up like Donna. Some people, like Amy, chose this kind of personality suicide because of some event in their present life that they can’t handle. Rose just has a stronger will than Amy, and is determined to bring back the essence of the jazz musician she loved in that earlier life.

Gary and Jack investigate on their separate tracks and eventually come together in a way that surprises Jack more than Gary. Jack actually stumbles onto much of what Gary has reasoned out when he goes looking for Amy, who has gone missing after a trip to Seattle that was only supposed to be a brief one.

I’m not going to say more than that. I picked this up because of the BBC America mini-series that ran last fall in eight episodes. I had a feeling there was more to the story. The Internet information on the series says it was cancelled after one season, but in truth it was simply a video novel in eight chapters and there was no reason for it to be continued beyond that somewhat open ending. There were a lot of changes between the book and the series, and the book has a lot more detail, but I would have to say that the series was quite faithful to the main plot lines and characters. I enjoyed both versions.

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Bookends: Adventures in the spy trade and in a bookstore November 5, 2015

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Bookends: Adventures in the spy trade and in a bookstore

By Dan DavidsonMorgue

May 6, 2015

– 792 words –

The Jennifer Morgue

By Charles Stross

Ace Books

401 pages

$9.99

Once there was a writer from Texas named Robert E. Howard. He specialized in a form of fantasy called sword and sorcery and, though he was far from the only writer in the genre, his tales of Conan the barbarian have probably rendered him the best known name of the tribe.

He was an associate of another genre writer named H.P. Lovecraft, whose tales of eldritch monsters from other dimensions, that used to rule the Earth, have inspired many a horror fantasy writer.

Then there was Ian Fleming, a one time spy, stockbroker, banker and foreign correspondent, who turned his wish-fulfillment dreams into James Bond and left that mark on the world. You can read more about him and his creation in the afterword to this novel, “The Golden Age of Spying.”

The book at hand is the second in Charles Stross’s tales of the Laundry, which is what he’s calling his magic driven version of the British secret service. Magic is a form of applied mathematics in this world, a compendium of useful spells at stored on PDAs for easy retrieval.

Bob Howard (the reference should be obvious from how I started this column) is a top agent of the Laundry, and his business is keeping mystical mishaps and alien incursions from happening.

In this reality we are sharing the planet with some rather nasty creatures, and there are various protocols in place that allow us to coexist without being wiped out by them. Some live deep in the Earth, so we must not tunnel too deeply. Fracking would be a no-no. others are in the deepest reaches of the oceans and so there are other boundaries we must observe.

Some of them are at war with each other and would be creating planetary havoc if not for certain fail safes that have been put in place.

A billionaire named Ellis Billington believes that by commandeering one of these, code named the Jennifer Morgue, he can achieve ultimate power in the human world. In order to do this he needs some unwitting agents to act out the basic patterns that can be found in the works of Ian Fleming. He arranges to impose a geas (compulsion spell) on Bob to cause him to assume the role of Bond, and lines up a suitable woman (sort of – it’s complicated) to play the part of the somewhat dubious female lead. Bound by this spell, and linked psychically in ways no Fleming couple ever could have been, they are to become the unwitting agents of his success.

It might have all worked as planned if Bob and Ramona hadn’t managed to work out just what was going on and managed to jam a few sticks through the bicycle wheels of his plot.

This is the second Laundry Files book, the first having been a collection of stories called The Atrocity Archives. The present book actually contains the mystical Fleming homage I’ve been describing, which is a full novel on its own. Then there is a short story that is more the usual sort of Laundry adventure, something involving computer role playing games. Finally there is the informative and entertaining essay about Fleming and his hero to which I referred you back in paragraph 3.

The whole package is full of adventure and no small amount of humour. Give it a try.

Curious George Goes to a BookstoreGeorge

Story by Julie M. Bartynski

Illustrations by Mary O’Keefe Young

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

32 pages

$17.95

Margret and H.A. Rey are no longer with us, but Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat live on. I don’t think the original books ever got quite the posh treatment that this one has received: hardcover, full colour, slick paper, end papers. This is a far cry from those Scholastic Press paperbacks that have filled the children’s sections of so many libraries.

This follows the standard outline. The Man (no longer capitalized for some reason) takes George somewhere. George wanders off and gets into a bit of mischief that doesn’t actually hurt anyone and is rescued from the situation by the man.

George meets his favourite author, had some banana bread, finds boxes full of the newest book in his favourite series of books, sets up an unauthorized but very inventive book display that everyone likes, and gets to meet his favourite author.

There’s a nice touch at the end, a page that gives a brief section on how to write a story and three story starters, which it invites young readers to try for themselves.

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Bookends: What happens when the future intrudes on the past October 20, 2015

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Bookends: What happens when the future intrudes on the past

By Dan Davidson

April 15, 2015

– 886 words –

 

The Chronolithschronoliths

By Robert Charles Wilson

TOR Books,

315 pages

$9.99

This novel begins in the early part of the 21st century, in 2021. Scott Warden and his family, wife Janice and daughter Kaitlin, are at lose ends in Thailand, Scott’s job having ended, when the first monolith, later to be called the first of the chronoliths, materializes.

Scott and his friend, Hitch, ride off to see what has happened, not knowing that Kaitlin is about to come down with a raging fever and that his extended absence will be the straw that breaks the back of his marriage. Mind you, getting arrested as if he somehow had something to do with the appearance of a 200 foot tall spire made of an apparently indestructible substance, did delay his getting home long enough for wife and child to be medevaced and for her to return to the USA and begin divorce proceedings.

The Chumphon Chronolith was a message from the future, created and sent back in time to celebrate the conquest and surrender of southern Thailand and Malaysia to the massed armies of someone named “Kuin”. The date of the battle was December 21, 2041, 20 years in the future.

Over the next decade or so, more chronoliths materialize, each one celebrating the latest of Kuin’s victories. When they arrive, they destroy everything in the area they occupy, and the combination of massive energy discharges in the form of intense light and heat and atmospheric displacement do damage on the order of a non-radioactive atomic bomb.

At first they appear only in the East, but eventually they spread westward. Scott, an ace programmer, is recruited by Dr. Sue Chopra, his former university professor, and the world’s foremost expert on time displacement effects, to be part of her team. They are present when a chronolith arrives in Jerusalem, by which time it is clear that these things will eventually occupy space on every continent, in every nation. It’s just a matter of time.

As seems to be common in Wilson’s books, quite a bit of time passes, and Scott spends a lot of it of it salvaging a relationship with his daughter, finding a new life partner, and observing events. The first person narrators of Wilson’s novels are often on the edge of events, observers of the actions and reactions of those people around them, people who are probably more important to the overall flow of the narrative.

It is also not unusual for Wilson to examine the social impacts of the high tech events that drive the stories. The chronoliths seem to be designed as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy device, something to soften up the hearts and minds of the people of the present day, to make the coming of Kuin, whoever or whatever that may be, seem inevitable.

Indeed, that seems to work, and we watch the founding and evolution of several different forms of reaction to the chronoliths. Various Kuin related cults emerge and some of them almost develop as if the chronoliths were intended to be a retroactive recruiting drive, for certainly many disaffected young people, living in a world that is not coping well with climate change, climb on the Kuin bandwagon, and become armed devotees of Kuin’s future success.

This development is rather startlingly similar to the numbers of young people, world wide, who have been heading off to the Middle East to join the ranks of ISIS (ISIL).

For Scott this becomes very personal when his daughter joins one the cult groups and disappears into Mexico, to an encampment that has sprung up near to where the next chronolith (as predicted by Chopra’s work) is scheduled to appear. Scott and some friends mount a rescue mission and manage to extract her from the area before the chronolith can arrive.

By this time, some years later, Chopra’s theoretical work has come up with a way to destroy an arriving chronolith by destabilizing it during its arrival. The social side of her theory is that actually managing to destroy one of them will also destroy the sense of inevitability that surrounds them.

Kuinists, aware of her work, surround the arrival site in Wyoming where the first chronolith to materialize in the USA is slated to arrive and there is a climactic showdown between their forces and the science team.

When a story is being told in the first person it’s fairly obvious that the narrator survived, so this next bit isn’t really a spoiler. The final chapter is told from the vantage point of a 70ish Scott, years later, reflecting on how the attack from the future actually helped to improve the present. By that point he has reached the year from which the original chronolith was launched and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of anyone or anything called Kuin anywhere. There is an implied paradox here, but there always is in time travel stories of any type. Just ask Doctor Who.

Wilson is a Canadian science fiction writer who lives near Toronto. He has won one Hugo Award, has been nominated for several other awards, and picked up the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for this novel.

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

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Bookends: A science fiction novel about redemption and second chances

By Dan DavidsonTo Your Scattered Bodies Go

March 25, 2015

– 807 words –

 

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Riverworld Saga, Book 1

By Philip Jose Farmer

Narrated by Paul Hecht

Recorded Books

7 hours and 42 minutes

$30.53

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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