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Book Reviews Review: Jade Colbert looks at new books by Michel Basilières, Debra Komar, and Don McLellan

A Free Man

By Michel Basilières, ECW, 216 pages, $18.95

Michel Basilières's long-awaited sophomore novel – 12 years after Black Bird was published to wide acclaim – sadly does not live up to expectations. It combines two of the author's literary interests, sci-fi and Beat writing, which sounds fun. Here's the problem: Stories of drug-fuelled spiritual awakening and robot-propelled time travel can both be exhilarating, but they can also be boring, each in their own way. A Free Man opens with Basilières finding at his door Skid Roe, an old friend with a crazy story about chasing a girl way out of his league and then meeting a robot from the future. Basilières is chewing an interesting problem: Skid faces constraints at every turn, so does he really have free will? The novel unfortunately gets mired in tedium: an uncompelling story of unrequited horniness with tacked-on futurism bogged down by the physics of time travel. Great premise, flawed execution.

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The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson's Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin Jr.

By Debra Komar, Goose Lane, 288 pages, $19.95

This is a book about a murder, but more importantly it's an indictment of corporate misrule and a history of the fur trade (and therefore this country) like you probably haven't read. Forensic anthropologist Debra Komar's third book in a series on historic crimes in Canada opens the file on the murder of John McLoughlin Jr, who was shot dead by one of his own men one night in April, 1842. McLoughlin was the chief trader at Fort Stikine, a remote outpost of the Hudson's Bay Company, where the "honourable company" sent the known criminals in its employ. By the evening of McLoughlin's murder, it had devolved into a cesspool of paranoia, violence and conspiracy. HBC, fearful of public opinion, held a private investigation to cover up any scandal – the murderer was never tried. Thoroughly researched and in dramatic, evocative prose, Komar gives McLoughlin and HBC the trial they so justly deserved.

Brunch with the Jackals

By Don McLellan, Thistledown, 160 pages, $18.95

Once, at a billionaire's party, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut were chatting about their host. "I've got something he can never have," Heller joked. "Enough." In his introduction to this collection, Don McLellan asserts his characters "are linked by the same concern: None of them feel they have enough." You can interpret the stories here to make that statement true, but it's more true of some, about addicts or gangsters, for example, than others. Most of McLellan's characters do exist near the bottom of some ladder, are grasping for more and will do anything to get it. That dark, neo-noir element is evident in the concluding title story, which runs to near-novella length. But there's a twist: What menace lurks once you think you have it all? McLellan is a master of the ironic turn and the story-within-a-story that unfolds to reveal the unexpected. That's what really unites this collection.

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