Books

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

Susan Balee
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

There's history, adventure, wit, and suspense. It's no surprise that the book won Britain's Costa Book of the Year in 2006.


The Tenderness of Wolves

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781416540748
Author: Stef Penney
Price: $25.00
Length: 384
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-07
Amazon

Cold and refreshing, this murder-mystery-cum-historical novel will transport you from Indian summer in Philadelphia to a snowy winter in the Canadian wilderness.

Time: Late fall, 1867. Place: Dove River, a tiny settlement on the northern shore of Georgian Bay. Precipitating event: Laurent Jammet, a French trapper and voyageur for the Hudson Bay Company, has been brutally murdered -- scalped, in fact -- and his killer is unknown. Collateral event: Francis Ross, a handsome but troubled 17-year-old neighbor of Jammet's, has also disappeared.

Whodunit? No one knows -- yet -- but Mrs. Ross, Francis' adoptive mother, wants to find her son and prove him innocent. Andrew Knox, the town magistrate, is baffled. The murder summons memories of the last disaster the community suffered: the disappearance 15 years previously of two girls, presumably eaten by wolves, as no trace of them was ever recovered.

Other characters include William Parker, a half-Indian trapper who is taken into custody as a suspect -- he was seen in Jammet's cabin after the event; Angus Ross, Francis' taciturn father, who doesn't seem too sorry the boy is gone; Donald Moody, a recently emigrated Scotsman working for the Company; Thomas Sturrock, a former tracker who searched for the missing girls years ago, and Knox's daughters, Susannah and Maria.

Stef Penney lets us see into the minds of almost all of her characters in a third-person, limited narrative. Only one gets something more: Mrs. Ross tells her story in the first person and is the guiding spirit of the tale.

Mrs. Ross, we learn, has her own secret history. She spent years in an insane asylum in Edinburgh, where she became addicted to laudanum and was subject to treatments ranging from cold buckets of water poured on her head to gourmet meals and weekly sex with the asylum superintendent.

Her experiences as victim and inmate have made Mrs. Ross a very good observer of other people. Of one small-minded neighbor, she thinks: "She considers herself a well-traveled woman, and from each place she has brought away a prejudice as a souvenir."

As is only fitting for a novel whose presiding inspiration is obviously the 19th century Canadian diarist Susannah Moodie ("Roughing It in the Bush"), the frigid landscape is expertly described. The settlers carve out a community in a harsh environment, but what surrounds them is harsher still: wilderness. The vast forests and treacherous plains are not benign places; they are deadly. Wolves and other predators abound, and even seasoned travelers can get lost.

Mrs. Ross, knowing she will try to follow Francis' trail through the woods and find him, thinks, "Sometimes, you find yourself looking at the forest in a different way. Sometimes it's no more than the trees that provide houses and warmth, and hide the earth's nakedness, and you're glad of it. And then sometimes, like tonight, it is a vast dark presence that you can never see the end of; it might, for all you know, have not just length and breadth to lose yourself in, but also an immeasurable depth, or something else altogether."

Mrs. Ross, Parker, and Moody travel together through the wilderness and the deepening winter weather searching for her son. The hardships they endure are compelling -- especially since we readers only experience them vicariously. Paths begin to cross, and we discover that the old searcher Sturrock knows Andrew Knox and that Knox, in fact, is the uncle of the two girls who disappeared into the woods years ago. An interesting subplot involves a piece of bone or ivory carved with enigmatic figures stolen from the murdered man -- Sturrock is searching for this; it may be a key to American Indian history.

Another subplot treats a Norwegian religious community located deep in the north where several major characters converge. The novel works itself up to a blizzard of a climax wherein most of the mysteries -- murderous, romantic, filial and sexual -- are solved. There's history, adventure, wit, and suspense. It's no surprise that The Tenderness of Wolves won Britain's Costa Book of the Year in 2006.

Americans should also love this book. It exudes a sense of manifest destiny. As Mrs. Ross muses, "I wondered, how often are we aware of irreversible forces at work while they are in operation?" Of course we rarely are, though all of our lives and the best-plotted novels result from them.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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