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Reflections on The Mermaid’s Tale by Den Valdron

The Mermaid’s Tale
by Den Valdron

This is both a review of Den Valdron’s book The Mermaid’s Tale and a reflection of sorts. Because The Mermaid’s Tale is a thought-provoking book. I mean that literally—it has provoked many thoughts. But before I get into those thoughts, a few disclosures. I share a publisher with Den, Five River’s Publishing, and I’m a tiny bit acquainted with him, virtually at least. We’re both members of SF Canada, Canada’s National Association of SF professionals. And editor Robert Runte edited both our books when he was Senior Editor of Five Rivers. I don’t believe any of those factors has influenced my opinion of The Mermaid’s Tale.

I’ve been curious about this book for a while because there is some buzz about it. People are talking about it, writing about it. I first heard about it the weekend Robert Runte signed me to Five Rivers. He didn’t mention the name of the book, but during our conversations that weekend he mentioned that he’d signed another book that he was quite excited about, that he thought was challenging, and now I’m fairly certain that he was talking about The Mermaid’s Tale.

After The Mermaid’s Tale came out, I read comments by others that suggested this book was a cut above. On Goodreads and in emails. On the SF Canada Listserve over the years I’ve read emails by Den in which he has proven himself to be eminently readable. When Den writes an email on a list-serve you generally read it. He’s thoughtful and considered. Smart. Reflective. Only natural to expect those qualities in a book written by him. So I went into this book with high hopes. I wanted to like it. I wasn’t disappointed.

I have many writer friends. Some are professional, at the top of their game, successful. Others struggling, or just starting out. I have bought books from many of these folks over the years. Some of the books are good, some not my cup of tea. If I don’t like a book, I won’t finish it and I won’t review it. If I like it, I’ll finish it. Usually, I’ll rate it on Goodreads. Sometimes I’ll write a review as well. If I know the writer, I try not to give a book less than a four or five star review. This is because I know how hard it is to write and sell books, and I know that a three star review won’t help sell books. If you’re reading this and thinking, wait, I gave one of Joe’s books a three star rating, don’t feel bad. It’s okay. I want you to be honest. I’m just explaining how I operate, not how you should operate.

Sometimes when I give a book a five star rating it’s not because I think it’s the best book ever written. Sometimes I’m employing other criteria. Maybe I think it’s a five star book for that author, or there’s some other quality about the book that elevates it to five star status. You may not agree with this approach. I don’t care—it’s my approach, refined over time. Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that in this case I’m giving The Mermaid’s Tale five stars because I think it actually deserves five stars. I think it’s a five star book.

A confession based on a fragment of memory. Years ago, when I was working in a certain capacity for CBC Radio, somebody sent me some chapbooks. I think they were about zombies, and I think it was Den who sent them. I might be misremembering. I got sent a lot of books at that time because of the projects and shows I was involved with. I didn’t have time to read all the books I was sent. The CBC gets sent a lot of stuff. When I worked on the show Q we had a table that we called “The Table of Shit.” It wasn’t all shit. It was just stuff we got sent that we set out so that people could pick through it. Eventually a lot of this stuff winds up lining the shelves along the atrium. I hung onto the chapbooks for a while, then, like much of the rest of what I was sent, they made their way to those shelves. I never read the chapbooks. They were snatched up pretty quickly by someone else. I hope they found a good home. Now I wish I’d read them, because if they were in fact from Den, I’m pretty sure they were worth reading.

Even if they weren’t from Den they’re worth mentioning because like I said, if I recall correctly, they were about zombies. The Mermaid’s Tale has nothing to do with zombies, but it’s all part of the same continuum. The Mermaid’s Tale is about orcs and dwarves and goblins and hobgoblins and vampires and giants and trolls. Now, I love science fiction and fantasy, and I’m not generally a snob, but even I, when confronted by books and chapbooks about zombies and the like, become instantly suspicious. I suspect that what is before me is probably not very good. It’s probably poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly edited, shallow. In other words, I’m prejudiced against the subject matter. Whoever wrote those chapbooks about zombies produced them before zombies hit the mainstream. I saw zombies and pretty much dismissed them. A few years later, Walking Dead hit comic book stores and the airwaves and zombies became huge. Mainstream. I saw that stories about zombies could be compelling. Yeah—I wish I still had those chapbooks.

Now here we are with mermaids, orcs, trolls etc. I already knew this wasn’t going to be your usual mermaid, orc, troll story because it’s Den and because of the buzz around the book. This book contains these sorts of fantasy/horror cliché characters, and that might make it sound juvenile, but I assure you it’s not. One of the many strengths of the book is the spin it puts on all of that. These aren’t the mermaids, orcs and trolls we grew up with. They serve a purpose. They have much more depth. We feel for them. Boy do we feel for them.

The book is from a small independent publisher. Like I said earlier, it’s one that I share with Den. A publisher like this can’t afford to publicize its books the way a large publisher can. It’s print-on-demand so individual print copies are a bit more expensive than we’re used to. (I actually bought this book twice: first the inexpensive e-book version, then, because I realized I don’t like reading e-books, the print version. I’m glad I did. The print copy looks and feels great and was a pleasure to read.) Some people might be inclined to look down their noses at independent publishers. I have had people in the industry smile indulgently, somewhat patronizingly when I told them I was published by one. But thank God for the existence of such a publisher, because they find and publish quality books like The Mermaid’s Tale. Look up Five Rivers back catalogue. They have published many fine books by many fine authors. And they must be doing something right because they continue to do so.

You might be asking yourself: who is Den Valdron? This is a bit of a problem for Den and authors like him. When you’re not a name author, few are going out of their way to find books by you. So who is Den? He’s an aboriginal rights lawyer originally from the Maritimes in Canada. A man who’d probably rather spend most of his time writing but can’t because you can’t make a living writing these days, with rare exceptions. So he can’t pump out as much material as required to make an impression. He could be a Stephen King but he’s not as prolific and hasn’t pulled off a Carrie yet. But he might—just give him time.

Den won’t break out with this book, I expect. It’s special, all right, but it’s got a jaw-dropping act of violence near the beginning that I suspect some people won’t be able to get past. I can imagine it would be pretty triggering for some. It reminded me of a scene in one of Stephen R. Donaldson’s books, Lord Foul’s Bane, that I first read when I was about seventeen, and that almost made me stop reading that book, I was so outraged. The scene in Den’s book did not make me stop reading it, but I wondered about it. I wanted to understand its place in the book. It’s not random, it’s not gratuitous, it’s ugly and horrible. It’s integral to the plot, to the characters, to the theme. It would not be the same book without it. It’s referenced later in the book. It speaks directly to the characters’ pain. It’s tragic and awful and something that happens in the real world and therefore merits inclusion. How do we deal with such violence if we simply bury it, refuse to acknowledge its existence, and don’t talk about it in our art?

The Mermaid’s Tale deals directly with such violence. This is a story about characters who live in a violent world. It’s a story about the impact of that violence on them. It’s a story about characters who must live with the knowledge that they are reviled by everyone around them. Everyone, even themselves. It’s a story about the corrosive impact of that terrible knowledge upon them. But this isn’t just fantasy; all of that violence and hatred exists in our own world too. This is a reflection of that, and forces us to reflect upon that fact.

I should probably also mention that it’s a murder mystery, but, although important and well executed, and it’s the mystery that provides the scaffolding, that aspect is almost incidental. It’s the story, but not what the story’s actually about. The Mermaid’s Tale is greater than the sum of its parts.

We live in a world saturated with art and entertainment. It’s a golden age for television. A century’s worth of films to choose from. Hundreds of thousands of books published every single year. Much of this art and entertainment is very good, some of it sublime, created by gifted people know what they’re doing. We can’t possibly sample even a fraction of it. Like the unnamed protagonist in The Mermaid’s Tale who doesn’t stand much of a chance in her world, a violent book about an orc by an unknown author from a small publisher may not stand much a chance in this world.

And that’s a shame, because a book of this calibre deserves to be much more widely read.

Anne of Green Gables

One of my daughters was reading Anne of Green Gables and left it sitting around, so I picked it up and read a couple of pages and somewhat to my surprise I was instantly hooked.

Now you have to understand that I grew up in Prince Edward Island and have been surrounded by Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anne of Green Gables pretty much all my life. I’ve seen the stage production at the Charlottetown Festival at least three times. I’ve seen a spoof of the official version a couple of blocks over called “Annekenstein” (it was pretty good). As a media student, I was privileged to sit in on an audio mixing session of the original Kevin Sullivan movie version (spoiler alert: that day they happened to be mixing the scene a certain beloved character died). I’ve seen the Sullivan movie a couple of times, and I recently watched and enjoyed the first season of Anne with an E.

So I thought pretty much knew Anne of Green Gables.

But I didn’t. Not until I read the book, which I finished yesterday. Somehow, even after being exposed to so much of Anne throughout my life, I had not met her face to face. No disrespect to Kevin Sullivan and Anne With an E showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett and all the rest, all of whom I think came as close as they could to authentic takes on Anne of Green Gables, but the fact is, to really get to the heart and soul of the story you have to go directly to the source material.

The actual book was a revelation. The writing is sublime on so many levels: vocabulary, dialogue, story structure. It’s so funny… despite knowing what was coming, I still laughed aloud at the pickles Anne got herself in. And the character of Anne herself: she just pops off the page, living and breathing as authentically as any of our favourite literary characters. As do Matthew and Marilla. Especially Marilla, my favourite character, through whom (more than any other character, I think) we come to love Anne.

If there is one tiny flaw, it’s a flaw in Anne herself, acknowledged frequently by Marilla (and, consequently, Montgomery). Anne does go on. But that may just be a question of personal preference, a feature, not a bug, for true fans of Anne.

I was rather astonished to learn that Anne of Green Gables was Montgomery’s first published novel. I’d always imagined it was, say, her twelfth novel, the work of a mature, accomplished professional who’d learned a trick or two over the years. Nope. It’s the work of someone with story and character in her blood, with a natural flair for humour, and a deep understanding of human nature.

I do think I’ll be reading more of Montgomery’s work. About time.

Portrait of Amy Beth McNulty as Anne With an E
by Erin M.

The Great Bookshelf Tour: Fifth Stop

Stop Five on the Great Bookshelf Tour: Third Shelf from the top, left hand side

Today’s tour starts with Robert J. Sawyer‘s Red Planet Blues. What a terrific title. To paraphrase the great Orson Welles,* with a title that good, forget the book, just release the title! Fortunately for us, Sawyer released both.

Sawyer no doubt requires no introduction to readers of this blog. Carol Birch, on the other hand , probably does. An English writer of (at last count) 12 books, she’s the author of the next novel on this section of the shelf, Jamrach’s Menagerie. What a tale this is, with plot elements lifted from the real life story of the whaling ship Essex. If you don’t know anything about what happened to the Essex, great! Don’t go looking. I’m not even going to link to it. Read Jamrach’s Menagerie first, and only then look up the true story. A haunting, unforgettable, riveting tale that will stick with you, and probably dissuade you forever from a career in whaling.

Almost hidden behind that cute little bear up there is The Moon Panther by local Whitby author Jason Shannon, a book I have not read yet. Since writing my own books, I have attended a number of book fairs, and met a lot of other indie authors like me, and if I like them, I generally purchase at least one of their books. This has resulted in a lot of books to read! And I feel tremendously guilty not having read them all yet. This is why, whenever anyone purchases one of my books, I always give them at least ten years to read it, and I’m very good about extensions. But I do very much like to support local indie authors, and I would encourage you all to do the same.

Alongside Jason’s book is Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, with an introduction by Neil Gaimon, as though Rudyard Kipling requires an introduction. This book was given to me by my youngest sister and her husband back when I broke my ankle to give me something to do, as I guess they figured I’d have a lot of time on my hands. As luck would have it, thanks to technology and the nature of my job, I just wound up working from home, so I didn’t have as much time on my hands as expected. Just the same I managed to read many of the stories within, and appreciated the chance to catch up on my Kipling.

I found this copy of I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy along the atrium in the CBC Toronto Broadcasting Centre. It looked interesting, so I picked it up, but haven’t read it yet.

Last year, at CANCON, a writer’s convention in Ottawa, I was about to purchase a book in the dealer’s room when I spotted the author of that book. It’s a friendly conference so I thought, oh, I’ll just introduce myself to the author and tell them I’m about to buy their book and maybe they’ll sign it for me and then I’ll have fond memories of our brief encounter while I’m reading the book and forever more. I did so. After informing the author that I was about to purchase their book, my impression was that they could not wait to get away from me. We did not chat and they did not offer to sign their book. So I put the book back and did not purchase it.

Immediately afterward I met the author C. L. Polk, who was as friendly as could be, so I bought her book instead, and she signed it for me. As an author myself, if somebody told me they were about to buy my book, they would have my full and undivided attention, not to mention gratitude. Now, I get that everyone is fighting their own battle, and maybe this other author was having a bad day, or was in a huge rush, maybe really had to pee or something, but… too bad. I bought C.L. Polk’s book instead, and it’s C. L. Polk’s book Witchmark that I’m reading RIGHT NOW instead of theirs. (Well, not exactly right now… when I finish writing this blog post.)

The Knowledge: How to rebuild our World From Scratch, by Lewis Dartnell is the book you want in your hands when civilization finally crumbles, which, from the looks of it, could happen any day now. I bought it thinking it would be handy writing a post-apocalyptic novel, which I’ve always wanted to do. Now I’m thinking it might come in handy in a month or two. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flip about our collective possible fate. I’ll just add that to the growing list of other things I shouldn’t do either, such as walk in the house with my boots on. Shh! Don’t tell my wife.)

Legend by David Gemmell is just a terrific book, one I’ve read several times. Thoughtful action/adventure in the sword & sorcery vein, and a treatise on heroism. Highly recommended.

Dune, by Frank Herbert. An SF classic; enuff said. Well, maybe not enough… apparently they’re making another film version of it. Here’s hoping it’s better than past versions.

Stephen King, a couple of books in the Dark Tower series. Gradually working my way through this one. I was lukewarm on the first book, but quite liked The Drawing of the Three, another clever title, I realized, once I completed the book.

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. Another absolute classic. If you haven’t read this book already hie thee to a book store immediately (or, um, as soon as the pandemic is over) and pick this one up. You won’t regret it. I’ll take this opportunity to recommend another, lesser known Haldeman book as well: Camouflage, which won the Nebula Award in 2005. Just a great read.

Flesh and Gold, by Canadian author and poet Phyllis Gotlieb. I really enjoyed this book, which I suspect has flown under the radar of SF fans.

Born Standing Up is an autobiography by comedian Steve Martin. This is also a great read, really interesting insight into the man himself, the nature of comedy, and his somewhat sad relationship with his father.

An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson. Haven’t read this one yet, but looking forward to it. Some day, when I have the time. Maybe after I retire!

And finally, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, a neat little SF tale, with a tragic story at its core, that I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

Happy reading!

*Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovitch told Orson Welles he was thinking of changing the title of his film adaptation of the novel “Addie Pray” to “Paper Moon,” but wasn’t sure whether the new title worked. Orson allegedly told him, “With a title that good forget the film, just release the title!”

Thrice Burned Review

(Reposting this review after noticing the formatting of the original was kinda messed up. We can’t have that!)

Thrice Burned
Thrice Burned

As with the first book in the series (Jewel of the Thames), Thrice Burned consists of three casebooks, or mysteries, each told in the first person by Portia herself. Each casebook concerns itself with at least one mystery, each one carefully crafted. The clues are tantalizingly distributed, drawing the reader in, allowing them just as much fun as Portia herself has in trying to solve the mysteries. But there is much more on offer here than mere riddles. There are elements of historical fiction too, as each casebook is set in nineteen-thirties era London, England, featuring Scotland Yard Constables and street urchins and reporters and clergy men and plenty of other skillfully drawn characters, right down to their authentic clothing choices and distinctive accents.

Thrice Burned is the second book in an ongoing series of mysteries featuring the brilliant young consulting detective Portia Adams, who comesby her gifts honestly as the granddaughter of not only the great Sherlock Holmes, but Holmes’ friend and chronicler Watson as well. It is a nifty conceit for a series, and author Angela Misri makes the most of it. Portia Adams is utterly believable as the direct descendent of the iconic detective and his sidekick, inheriting every ounce of Holmes’ gifts for observation and deductive reasoning, but leavened with Watson’s humanity.

Each casebook features a stand-alone storyline and a neatly resolved ending, but Misri is not satisfied to let it go at that. Like many a modern era television series, each episode builds upon the last, throughout both this book and its predecessor, from casebook to casebook. As in real life, Portia and her friends continue to mature and develop. Relationships are never straightforward. Portia herself, although gifted, is no superhero, suffering from the same feelings and emotional frailties as many young women her age. Misri delves into Portia’s inner life just enough to make her real, but not at the expense of the adventures and mysteries that are the real appeal of this excellent series.

Already top-notch from the get-go, Misri’s plotting and characterization improve with each casebook, increasing in complexity and depth. This bodes well for future books in the series.

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