Friday, November 26, 2021

Five Reviews: The Beautiful Place by Lee Gowan; Only If We’re Caught by Theressa Slind; Don’t They KICK When You Do That? Stories of a Prairie Veterinarian by Dr. Gary Hoium; Grandpa’s Garage by Amber Antymniuk; and Stories from the Churchill by Ric Driediger, with Illustrations by Paul Mason

“The Beautiful Place”

Written by Lee Gowan

Published by Thistledown Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$24.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-208-9

  

Saskatchewan born-and-raised writer Lee Gowan has penned a thick new novel—The Beautiful Place—and it’s a beautiful thing. Gowan’s three previous novels have garnered much attention (Make Believe Love was shortlisted for Ontario’s Trillium Award), and his screenplay, Paris or Somewhere, was nominated for a Gemini Award. Currently the Program Director of the Creative Writing and Business Communications department at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, this award-winning author’s giving readers something completely different with The Beautiful Place, which delves into the sci-fi world of cryonics; the realistic world of failed marriages, 21st Century parenting, and dementia; and the ever-precarious world of art and art-making.  

What Gowan’s done here is ingenious: he’s imagined an ongoing life for Philip Bentley, Sinclair Ross’s protagonist in As for Me and My House. Gowan’s tri-provincial sequel to that prairie classic’s told from the perspective of the minister-turned-artist’s grandson, also known as Bentley. The younger Bentley—a fired, semi-suicidal cryonics salesman, writer, and father of two daughters from different wives—is approached by a beguiling woman named Mary Abraham who “met Jesus in a dream and walked with him to a desert well” and “met Buddha under a tree by a river.”

Abraham’s also dreamed about the younger Bentley, and she’s on a mission: as he’s one of few who know where the cryonics company, Argyle, keeps the frozen bodies of the deceased, he must reveal this location so that she can extract her late husband’s disembodied head, because he posthumously told her that he “wished to be buried and that it was [her] duty to get him underground.” The younger Bentley must also try to appease his wise-cracking ex-wife and finance their rebellious 23-year-old daughter’s New York art school, plus figure out his own place in the world as the grandson of a famous painter (whose body’s also in The Beautiful Place). Bentley himself doesn’t believe in cryonics—“a longshot gamble at eternal life”—even though he was Argyle’s sales manager.

It’s complicated, as they say, but, Gowan adeptly directs this cast of disparate characters with their strange plights, and the often witty dialogue reveals why he’s such a revered writer. Upon the birth of a daughter, Bentley’s wife says: “She looks like a live roast.” Another character says “urologists always have such lovely personalities.” Speaking of his wife’s TV-star ex, the protagonist says: “He wishes he were indigenous; he wishes he were gay.” And it’s a hoot to read that Philip Bentley lived beyond Ross’s novel and became an artist with “pictures hanging in the Vancouver Art Gallery next to Emily Carr.”

This book is a complex weaving of the real and the impossible, of hope and grief, and of dreams and hard realities. Though the protagonist believes that “The point of existence … was to vanish with as little trace as possible. Stay out of the frame,” this shimmering and beautifully-organized novel will ensure that its author, Lee Gowan, will not disappear within the lexicon of Canadian literary writers.

 

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“Only If We’re Caught”

Written by Theressa Slind

Published by Thistledown Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$25.95  ISBN 9-781771-872119

 

In the opening paragraph of Only If We’re Caught, the debut short story collection by Saskatoon writer (and children’s librarian) Theressa Slind, readers are viscerally transported to Aspen Grove, a seniors’ residence—where the hallway “is painted the colour of cookie dough”—and into the mind of Parkinson’s-afflicted protagonist Margaret, who can no longer speak. We soon learn that Margaret’s not just any ninety-three-year-old nursing home resident with a “porous-boned spine curling in on itself” … she’s also telepathically communicating with a visiting child.

This bizarre circumstance is typical of the tales in Slind’s collection of fifteen stories, some of which previously appeared in literary journals. The borders of normalcy are blurred, and that’s what makes this collection stand out. Perhaps the finest example of this is “Amygdule,” about a funeral director, Ben, who “commune[s] with ghosts.” Ben has a crush on his employee, Alice, who delivers a fountain of black humour. She “arrives in an eddy of formaldehyde,” and says things like “I like my men ripe” and “Back to work. Mrs. Chan isn’t going to embalm herself.” This story is also about a treasure hunt, geology, a fatal accident, and loneliness.    

The common thread between Slind’s characters is that they all have crosses to bear. Pregnant teen Natalie had wanted to go to medical school: “But by the time she’d raised the kid and Andy, well, did they even let you into medical school past thirty?” And Toba, a children’s librarian whose only child “climbed a neighbour’s two-storey aluminum ladder, fell, and died.” After the tragedy, guilt-and grief-ridden Toba takes to hiding behind a hare mask (“This is no Easter Bunny”), both inside the library and out. When she’s asked to do a TV interview on a sexual health information fair­—titled “Sex in the Library”—the now semi-famous (thanks to her Twitter account, “@Hareofthefields,” and Youtube) librarian wears the mask. The interviewer metaphorically traps her with his question: “Tell me, Bunny, what’s with the mask? Let’s get to the bottom of this. What are you hiding?”

Readers cannot guess which direction Slind’s going to take them in this original short story collection, and that’s a good thing. Some of the situations made this reader squirm, like realtor and father Martin Woodrow’s uncomfortable reality in the story “Family Style”. Woodrow and his wife are about to have dinner with their daughter Amanda and her fiancé in a Calgary restaurant … and the fiancé is Martin’s former colleague, Bob, “who’d driven Amanda home from play dates with his own daughter, Brandi”. We really get the sense of Martin’s despair: a testament to Slind’s skill.

The author also slings several comical similes and metaphors, ie: Ruth “smelled like scented maxi-pads,” and grieving parents Alex and Trudy, Canadians travelling in Europe: “packed their grief, carry-on and oversized, and it bumps along behind them over the old cobblestones.”         

These edgy, slick and diverse short stories feature characters in life-changing moments. Slind’s is a welcome new voice on the map of Saskatchewan literature.  


THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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"Don’t They KICK When You Do That? Stories of a Prairie Veterinarian"\

Written by Dr. Gary Hoium

Published by DriverWorks Ink

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95  ISBN 9-781927-570746

 

While conducting author visits in schools over the decades, I’d often ask students what they wanted to be when they grew up, and, invariably, veterinarian was a top response. I understand that. Who doesn’t love animals? Interestingly, Dr. Gary Hoium—veterinarian and author of Don’t They KICK When You Do That? Stories of a Prairie Veterinarian—never intended to become a vet.  It was “never a goal or an ambition of mine while I was growing up in rural Saskatchewan,” he explains in his just-published collection of experiences as a mixed-animal veterinarian and clinic owner in Weyburn. Instead, Dr. Hoium had his hopes set on an NHL career, but when that and medical school admission attempts failed, he applied to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and was soon on his way to becoming a vet for the next 36 years.   

His conversational stories about animal patients (and their humans) are shared over 41 short chapters, many of them humourous. The cover image of this conversationally-toned book shows a smiling Dr. Hoium at work: left hand holding up a cow’s tail while his right arm’s disappeared “up the south end” of the animal. This in-the-field photo—and that impish grin—set the book’s light tenor.  

A few weeks after graduating from the WCVM, Dr. Hoium was already working for a Weyburn veterinary practice, and one of the first calls was to treat a sick snake: Dr. Houim’s not a fan of snakes. Another early call concerned the delivery of twin calves. An emergency C-section was performed, and Dr. Hoium and a fellow vet discovered that the calves were conjoined at their sternums. He writes: “ … it sure made for an unceremonious welcome to the real world for this neophyte veterinarian.”  

The author’s often self-deprecating: he alludes to some of his miscues as well as his successes, like the time he thought he was spaying a cat and “spent the better part of two minutes fishing with [his] special surgical spay hook in the abdominal cavity” before he learned the cat was male.

This witty vet is highly entertaining, and I imagine he’s been sharing these tales with receptive audiences for years. The disparate anecdotes provide a close inspection of a rural veterinary practice and some smalltown characters, like nefarious Terry, the bouvier des Flandres’ dog-owner who had “sticky fingers,” was frequently drunk, and referred to Dr. Hoium as “bro”.

There are strange situations aplenty. A cat that’s gorged on grasshopper parts; a farmer who kept a calf whose feet had frozen and fell off (“because she seemed so healthy, we decided to keep her”); untangling a clump of tail-tied grey fox squirrels in a Weyburn parking lot; a $25,000 ostrich with a mangled leg; a cat with “a thistle in his pistol”; and the vet’s unforgettable electric fence jolts … and I’m not even going to get into the sheltie collie’s rectal issue.

But back to that cover image. Do they kick? Read the book, and you’ll find out.  

 

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“Grandpa’s Garage”

Written by Amber Antymniuk

Published by Blow Creative Arts

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$22.00   ISBN 9-781999-546212


I’ve noticed that an increasing number of children’s authors—and particularly new writers—are opting to self-publish. Alternately, they could wait for months to hear back from a trade publisher regarding whether a book will be accepted for publication, then wait for up to several years (I’m speaking from experience: I had a book accepted in 2010 and released in 2020) for that book to hit the shelves. When one possesses artistic talent as well as literary talent, it makes especially good sense to self-publish, and that’s precisely what Saskatchewan creator and Arts Education teacher Amber Antymniuk did with Grandpa’s Garage.  

Antymniuk’s second book for young readers (or listeners) explores the wonderfully diverse items that appear in “Grandpa’s Garage,” and each page features rhyming text in a large font, an appealing watercolour illustration, and enough white space to make the words and images pop. Antymniuk mostly makes it personal, describing things that I expect actually do reside in a relative’s garage, like “farm cats,” “An old radio tuned to the local station” and “a stack of manuals and a bent fishing fly,” but near the end she writes “Whether Grandpa’s Garage is a shop or a shed. Or a room beneath the stairs nearly bumping your head.” This transition away from the personal makes the story inclusive: anyone who has a grandfather (or grandfather-figure) in their life with a specific place where items are stored and repaired can imagine the interior of their own special person’s shop, shed or garage, and experience the warmth and love within that relationship.   

 In describing the precise items in “Grandpa’s Garage,” readers are able to glean not only a fine sense of the place, but also something of Grandpa’s character and hobbies. We learn that his “big red toolbox sits organized and neat,” so we can guess that he, too, is organized. The slightly tatty-looking stools beside the toolbox are there to welcome guests: Grandpa likes company. Bent nails and “some rusty old pails” demonstrate a frugal handyman. The colourful image of a fishing fly shows us that Grandpa’s an angler, and an old, handmade slingshot—one of the “small treasures that grandpa holds dear”—indicates that he’s nostalgic about his youth. The all-important cover image—a muddy pair of small, red rubber boots sitting next to a pair of equally muddy men’s work boots—suggests a warm, generational bond.

I appreciate how Antymniuk used the often gentle and tender medium of watercolour to portray items some might not consider paint-worthy, ie: the business end of a hammer, the rusty pail, a “hanging trouble light” and a power drill. Lovely contrast.

Antymniuk grew up near Tisdale, SK, and now lives and parents in Saskatoon. Her publishing moniker, Blow Creative Arts, is an homage to her grandparents and their children, all of whom “have had a lasting impact on the community.” As the author publishes under her married name, she’s chosen to honour her first family in this unique and lovely way. See www.blowcreativearts.ca .    

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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"Stories from the Churchill”

Written by Ric Driediger, with Illustrations by Paul Mason

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$24.95  ISBN 9-781988-783727

 

Ric Driediger’s positively reverent when he writes about the beauty and challenges inherent in canoeing Saskatchewan’s vast northern waterways. The owner/operator of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in Missinipe, SK may already be known to readers—and fellow canoeists—through his first book, Paddling Northern Saskatchewan: A Guide to 80 Canoe Routes. Now this knowledgeable paddler has penned Stories from the Churchill, and he describes it as “the book [he] wanted to write” whereas the earlier book was the one he “needed” to write. There’s a difference. What comes through the page is that Driediger’s doing exactly what he was meant to, both professionally and personally, and he knows just how fortunate he is.  

Even if you never intend to canoe across a morning-calm lake, brave big-lake wind and river rapids, portage through “swampy muskeg,” lose yourself in the boreal wilderness, “go solo” (“a spiritual experience”), or winter camp, this book will inform and entertain you. It’s well-written in a conversational tone, and includes anecdotes from Driediger’s own adventures and stories from his clients’ and staff’s experiences, too.

Driediger’s a natural storyteller, and in this softcover with 20 stand-alone chapters—and occasional cartoon illustrations by another canoeing aficionado, the author’s longtime friend, Paul Mason—readers are privy to a canoe-seat view through what the author describes as the best canoe routes in the world, but this is more than a book about canoeing: Dreidiger also shares his “philosophy of life” and his “understanding of the importance of experiencing wilderness.”

His introduction to canoeing began in 1972, just after high school graduation. He and his cousin joined a group of young adults who got a “crash course in canoeing and canoe tripping” from farmer/canoe instructor LaVerne Jantz, and in one day they went “from never having paddled to running rapids.” During that initial trip on the Churchill, Driediger “absolutely fell in love with the rock shoreline, with the complexity of the lakes, with the moss in the forest, with the knowledge that just over the hill another lake waited.”

One intriguing chapter concerns the writer’s preparations for and experiences with winter camping on the Churchill River. He awoke one morning—it was -54 degrees Celsius—unable to put his pants on: they were “flat, frozen solid.” He and his companions used their axe “to chop pieces of peanut butter, jam, honey, and chocolate,” and they “ate as [they] walked” because it was too cold to stop.

In another chapter, Driediger’s created a fictional story to explain the discovery of a sewing machine in the depths of a lake. He demonstrates how canoeing teaches humility and canoe groups form lifelong bonds. There also harrowing anecdotes about being stuck in a rapidly-filling culvert; 140 km hour winds and 1.5 metre waves; fatal lightning strikes; and drownings. Still: “Driving on the highway is far more dangerous.”

Canoeing romances, cross-continent adventurers, respect for First Nations’ neighbours and the land, and the history of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters … Driediger’s book is a compendium of captivating stories.


THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

 

 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Three Reviews: Pitchblende, by Elise Marcella Godfrey; Bread & Water, by dee Hobsbawn-Smith; and Girl running, by Diana Hope Tegenkamp

“Pitchblende”

By Elise Marcella Godfrey

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-778405

 

I didn’t know what pitchblende was before I read Elise Marcella Godfrey’s same-named poetry collection, but I certainly do now. To shortcut, merriam-webster.com describes pitchblende as “a brown to black mineral that consists of massive uraninite, has a distinctive luster, contains radium, and is the chief ore-mineral source of uranium”. It’s a measure of the poet how Godfrey takes this radioactive by-product of uranium ore—and the capitalist/colonialist/mostly male culture surrounding its extraction and usage—and transforms it into a finely-tuned collection of political, environmental, and investigative poetry.

Godfrey writes from “the traditional and unceded land of the QayQayt First Nation” on Vancouver Island, and this well-researched, multi-voiced collection exhibits a deep caring for the earth and its peoples. Her cry is clear: “the neocolonical machine … promotes profit and industry at the expense of community and sustainability.”

Pitchblende does not read like a first book. Godfrey’s a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan and her work’s appeared in journals and anthologies: she’s put in the literary leg work, and it shows. These poems are saturated with internal and off-rhymes rhymes—ie: “Mine and refinery,” “Throwing off gamma rays, errant vibrations/that penetrate in waves,” and “Ancient dust from dying stars. Excision sites, scars”—and the precise language of mining and the boreal world, ie: “Blueberry, cloudberry, bearberry, mossberry./Juniper. Currant. Indigo/milk caps, morels, chanterelles. Wild rice. Lichens.” I appreciate the mouth-watering language of science, too: “Fungus forms/mycological rhizomes,/foliose, fruticose, squamulose/lobes and crustose structures.” Ironic how what sounds so pretty—"milky green water, as if golden moonglow lichen/crushed and glittered into it”—illustrates such ecological devastation.

The poems appear in various forms but most notable are the erasure poems. Godfrey wrote the collection “after reading testimonies given at public hearings held throughout Saskatchewan in 1993 on the territories of Treaties 4, 6, 8 and 10.” These hearings’ transcripts—from mining industry representatives; biologists; a male-exclusive, federally-appointed panel; Indigenous Elders; and “a united group of women (who were white settlers)” are archived, and Godfrey “adapted sections of testimony, while also writing poems triggered by their content and related research.” The erasure poems spotlight distinct words which graphically explode across the page, often with just one or two words on a line, and much space around them. There’s abundant alliteration throughout, and even onomatopoeia (“Read the radiograph,/its staccato syntax scrambled”).

 Several poems are written in a speaker’s voice, ie: “Elder’s Testimony” at Hatchet Lake: “Caribou still come south/but the government tells us we can’t eat the kidneys/heavy with metals: cadmium, polonium, cesium, lead./The government says it’s okay to eat the liver.” A Black Lake Elder’s concerns—“We’re worried uranium will ruin our water”—are contrasted against Uraneco’s response—“If anything, the region will be cleaner after we leave.” Call-and-response; it’s highly effective.

This daring poet puts a finger on the pulse of a hurting earth, where humans “crack the ancient world’s ribs/for one last gasp” and “Our sun is set to swallow us.” Powerful, and true.  

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“Bread and Water”

By dee Hobsbawn-Smith

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$26.95  ISBN 9-780889-778115

   

I know dee Hobsbawn-Smith as a multi-genre writer, chef, yogi, runner, mother, and yes, as a friend. She and husband Dave Margoshes hosted me for a reading at their ancestral rural home (“The Dogpatch”) near Saskatoon years ago, and when dee was touring a poetry collection on Vancouver Island, I welcomed her at my place. “I’ll cook for you,” she said, “using whatever you have in the house.” I’m was embarrassed by my uninspired inventory, yet she whipped a brilliant meal together with my mundane larder. One doesn’t forget that.

So yes, I know this dexterous writer, and expected a great read in her essay collection, Bread & Water. The text behind the gorgeously apropos cover photograph—a chunk of homemade bread and a glass of water—is wide-ranging, provocative, and, like that heel of bread, hearty. What I didn’t expect was how much I’d admire these lyrical essays which took me back to the Dogpatch, but also to Vancouver, Comox, and the waters off Vancouver Island; to dee’s Calgary home, restaurants, and the 2013 flood in that city; to Fernie; and to France, where the author trained to be a chef. (Her upbringing in an RCAF family—“part of a gypsy air force brood”—prepared her for frequent moves in adulthood.)

And yes, these essays concern food, food culture, the restaurant industry, locavorism, gardens, farmers’ markets, preserving, and even the import of using appropriate knives, but I’d argue they give equal space to Hobsbawn-Smith’s observance of and appreciation for the wondrous natural world.  

The Dogpatch and surrounding property deserve mention, as where we write  influences the what and how. When Hobsbawn-Smith arrived from Alberta, leaving her career as a chef and food writer behind in favour of literary endeavours, she found “Every building and field [was] crammed with broken and corroding evidence of three generations.” She wondered: “How does a writer find what lies within when the roof leaks?” Yet when she looked out her window, she saw “The red sun rising. Three deer scudding across the south pasture through the hay bales” and “Chickadees, snug in their little black bonnets. Words that sort themselves into a resonant voice.” The land flooded and a spontaneous lake appeared. She writes: “A large part of my enjoyment is the auditory experience of life beside a lake: the thrumming of frogs; the lilting melody of chickadees and meadowlarks; the hummingbirds’ whirring wings” and “the geese honking as they arrive and leave like metronomes each spring and fall; coyotes carolling each evening.”

Here’s wisdom: “Food and cooking are complicated snapshots of our culture.” The author demonstrates this. And praises spring vegetables: “Asparagus was hope made tangible, spears spun from fragile ferns and sunshine after winter’s absolutist mineral-fed root vegetables.” She “carried home a bunch of living watercress like a bouquet.”

“In cooking, we express our deepest feelings about the nature of the universe, our deepest faith and connection to all that is primal and irresistible.” I’ll tell you what’s irresistible—this delicious book.    

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“Girl running”

By Diana Hope Tegenkamp

Published by Thistledown Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$24.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-214-0

 

When a veteran multi-disciplinary artist pens a poetry collection, it’s likely that the influence of her other art practices will seep into the pages and make for an original read. This is evidenced in the case of Diana Hope Tegenkamp, a Saskatoon-based poet who also works with film, photography, visual and performance art, sound and music. In her debut poetry book, Girl running, Tegenkamp’s 23-page poem incorporates various fonts, strike-outs, quotations, footnotes, and superimposed text across a “mountain-like shape” which is “an outline of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic,” and the entire long poem is a conversational response to an 1809 textbook (Letters on Ancient History, by Anne Wilson). So interesting, and so are the questions it poses about history and subjectivity. “History, a whirlpool,32/sucking in obscure circumstances/with a frightful noise.33”  

Tegenkamp also eludes to sculpture, novels, paintings and films, ie: director Jane Campion’s adaptation of “Portrait of a Lady,” and there’s a poetic close-up of a poignant scene from “Boys Don’t Cry,” the 1999 Academy Award-winning movie concerning the tragic, real-life story about murdered trans man Brandon Teena in Nebraska.

The poems in this book appear in various shapes and forms, from couplets and tercets to the three, page-long “Loop” poems, which are dreamy, yummy, stream-of-consciousness prose poems inspired by Canadian poet Nicole Brossard’s work. Lines from Tegenkamp’s first “Loop” demonstrate her keen ear and eye, with special attention paid to the wind, colour, ordinary domestic scenes, the natural world, and philosophic leaps: “The rise and fall of piano notes, computer’s hum, and backroads where the wind blows clean through. Pattern of pink blossoms on my living room chair and the animal nature of letters, forming, begetting, coupling tactile experience and supple thinking.”

 As a prairie poet, light, wind and winter feature greatly. As a visual artist, these poems are deliberately seeped in colour, from a father’s “green Pontiac” to “white zinnias” and “cormorants/blue ghosts on the telephone wire.” I love the space this artist allows around several lines in her poems. This affords readers time to contemplate lyrical lines like this: “What about so much light/the mind goes white?”

 These poems often examine seeing and being seen. The tender first poem ends with “the ongoingness of I see you”. From “Clouds”: “Touch the tree trunks and tell the clouds:/I see you.” The writer observes “dark pines rise from the mollusk dawn” (“The Return”), and she includes a sublime description of winter and a beloved mother’s failing vision: through “her left eye,/morning seen through/snow granules.” (“Little Winters”). These are also poems about metaphorical vision, ie: “the feast of geranium petals, red swoon/across the lawn”.

Tegenkamp’s debut book is luminous, partly because she juxtaposes the everyday—Mom pours coffee, puts cream and sugar/on the counter. Wipes the wink with a towel”—with insightful assertions—“Time, she says, does not flow in even measures,” but mostly because Tegenkamp’s just a damn fine writer. Several of the poems salute her mother (d. 2018), but these chiseled poems should resonate with anyone.   

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

 

 

 

  

Monday, October 4, 2021

Three Reviews: The 1-Dogpower Garden Team by Alison Lohans, illustrated by Gretchen Ehrsam; Adventures on the Circle Star Ranch by Jackie Cameron, illustrated by Wendi Nordell; and Baby Rollercoaster: The Unspoken Secret Sorrow of Infertility by Janice Colven

 

“The 1-Dogpower Garden Team”

Written by Alison Lohans, Illustrated by Gretchen Ehrsam

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783710

 

The 1-Dogpower Garden Team—the latest book by multi-genre author Alison Lohans—is a collaborative effort, and well worth the read. I’ve not read every book in this talented Regina writer’s veritable library of titles—28 books, which include YA and adult novels and illustrated children’s books—but the several I have read demonstrate that this is a veteran writer who pays close attention to craft and delivers meaningful, heart-filled literature each time she puts her pen to page. Now Lohans has teamed with illustrator Gretchen Ehrsam on a unique illustrated children’s story about a girl (Sophie) and her hole-digging dog (Max), and how a common canine problem transitions into a child’s brilliant solution.

What strikes me first and foremost is how different this story is—Lohans’ innovative use of language and humour and Ehrsam’s detailed, black and white prints (surrounded by a moss green border) coalesce so effectively, after I’d read the book the first time I immediately wanted to read—and admire—it again.

Upon my second reading, I deduced that part of the magic is Lohans’ use of both simple sentences, which one might expect in a children’s book—the book begins with “Sophie loved her dog, Max.”—and surprises within the text, ie: “ … the weeds grew fast, and her family didn’t have a rototiller.” A rototiller? Mentioned on the first page of a children’s story? I say Bravo!

And it’s not just the diction here that deserves mention; the realistic characterizations, including that of credible secondary characters, ie: “Sophie’s dad loved motors and boats, and watching sports on TV” also merit praise. Dad finds an ad for a “90-horsepower motorboat”— a “good deal”—in the newspaper, and Sophie’s garden-loving mom responds that they need a “90-horsepower rototiller.” The family’s laughter sets the tone: this is a happy home.

The tone’s replicated via the accomplished illustrations. The books on the coffee table before Dad are titled Calculus for Fun and Philately Today. The neighbour, Mrs. Magruther—awoken by Sophie and Max in the garden late at night—is shown with a babushka-type-deal on her head. “What’s going on over there?” she asks. I also noted a heart on several pages: on Sophie’s clothing, in heart-shaped leaves, on her teddy bear, and hanging on the kitchen wall. And the portrayal of Max going through his repertoire of tricks “without even being told” warmed my dog-loving heart.

 On the facing third and fourth pages we find Max in Mom’s garden, inadvertently digging up beans where he sniffs out a buried bone, and thus begins the conflict that drives the plot: a good dog has a bad habit, and Sophie must solve the problem.

 This delightful book celebrates teamwork, ingenuity, and the bond between a girl and her dog. (Good boy, Max!) I expect that Lohans and Ehrsam—who are cousins—had an especially good time working on this story together: that inherently comes across. If you wish to read more of the award-winning author’s work, see alisonlohans.wordpress.com.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“Adventures on the Circle Star Ranch”

Written by Jackie Cameron, Illustrated by Wendi Nordell

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783703

 

As a resident of Vancouver Island, it was a strange synchronicity that I happened to be on the TransCanada near Swift Current as I finished reading the final chapters of Adventures on the Circle Star Ranch. This lively illustrated novel for young readers is set in that very area, and writer Jackie Cameron—whose  family “had horses and raised beef cattle”—also lives nearby.  While I shared the adventures of Ben (nine), Sarah (eleven) and their “fearless dog, Scruffy” aloud, my partner steered us between golden pastures, where the deer and antelope were indeed playing, and “dusty country road[s]”and “sagebrush” were plentiful. So cool.   

This 60-page ranch-family story is divided into short chapters, and the age-appropriate language— Cameron’s a retired librarian/school division resource professional-turned-author­—ensures that juvenile readers won’t struggle as the realistic plot (including a cattle rustling mystery) unfolds. The siblings argue as siblings do, ie: Sarah says, “Mom, make him stop!” after Ben threatens to tell the story about Sarah learning to play the bagpipes:  when she played the cows came running toward the house because, as Dad deduced, “when the cows heard Sarah playing the bagpipes, they thought it was the sound of a calf in trouble.”

 The entertaining book is full of details and anecdotes that this reader guesses are lifted from “real life”. The kids do chores, like ensuring the calves “don’t get too far behind” when the herd’s being moved to the summer pasture; a friend’s dad got caught “between a barbwire fence and some cows rushing toward the creek” and earned twenty stitches; and Mom hands Sarah “an old cellphone” before the brother and sister are about to ride off on their horses (with two Girl Guide cookies each), and tells her daughter “I just put ten dollars of time on this phone, so take it with you in case you have to phone me.” Adults “talk about boring things like the need for more rain, how cool most of the summer has been so far, and the high prices of gas.”

There are several food descriptions, ie: picnic lunches, and the cattle drive lunch, which includes “Grandpa Joe’s gluten-free sandwiches” and “Carrots and red pepper sticks, apples and grapes, cookies and granola bars”. It’s easy to imagine the “huge thermoses of coffee and tea set on the tailgate” as Scruffy—the abandoned dog found while the brother and sister are out on their horses with “Dad” (who is “[riding] … around the pastures to see if any fences need fixing”)— darts between the characters and calves.   

Wendi Nordell’s detailed black and white drawings—one or two per chapter—enhance Cameron’s text and tell stories of their own ie: cowboy-hatted adults sit around a campfire while the children split into small groups, and a horse checks out the action from beyond the barn. Kids could have fun colouring the illustrations with pencil crayons.   

And what about those cattle rustlers? Ah, you’ll just have to read this endearing “wild west” book to learn more.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“Baby Rollercoaster: The Unspoken Secret Sorrow of Infertility”

By Janice Colven

Published by Wood Dragon Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.99   ISBN 9-781989-078587

 

I’ve just had the pleasure of reading the well-written, beautifully designed, highly personal and informative book by teacher/ranch wife/writer Janice Colven about her lifelong yearning to be a mother and her seven-year journey on the rollercoaster that is infertility. Throughout the candid, 207-page story, Colven uses the extended metaphor of a rollercoaster to parallel the ups and downs she and her husband experienced during this painful time, and the book’s title—Baby Rollercoaster: The Unspoken Secret Sorrow of Infertility—reflects their hopeful highs and heart-breaking lows.

Colven writes that she’s always dreamed of becoming a mother. As a child she “loved baby dolls and everything that went with them,” and her “loving and nurturing spirit” even extended to the prairie girl wrapping a dead gopher “in a soft, pink blanket” and strolling it as one would a baby. Later she practised her maternal skills on younger siblings. “We buy the map to motherhood and have the trip planned down to the smallest detail,” she writes.

In her introduction Colven shares that she wrote this “for the women who are walking the same infertility path,” and “to provide insight” for those women who “love and support us through infertility”. Infertility’s a prevalent problem: “one in six women” struggle with it.

The story includes anecdotes about Colven’s first teaching job—“in a one-tumbleweed town”—and it details how she met her husband; her initial suspicions about infertility (“After one year of spinach eating, laying with my legs in the air, ovulation tracking, and college-level trying”); and her preposterous interactions with a local doctor (“Dr. Mustache”). (Colven gives her medical professionals funny, fictitious names, including Dr. Straight Shooter and Dr. Lucky Strike.) We learn about her diagnosis of endometriosis and a seven-hour surgery to remove uterine tumours, and later her unfruitful and expensive dance with in vitro fertilization (IVF), but the medically-themed chapters are interspersed with chapters about growing up on a farm, where the author and her brother had to rogue (walk “arm length to arm length through a field of flowering mustard plants” to uncover “defective or inferior plants”); teaching; and the writer’s relationship with her much more adventurous younger sister, Rhonda, who becomes her egg donor.

The book is seamlessly organized, and includes many sentences that are zingers, ie: “My marriage was in trouble” and “Fertility is a business, and it preys on childless women when we are most vulnerable” .

When grasping at hope, signs like a single apple on a previously “barren” tree carried huge meaning for the writer. She writes about her tremendous guilt at not being able to conceive, and frequently offers support to others. A section on what not to say to a woman or couple without children is most helpful, and readers will appreciate the nod toward other empowering books.

American psychologist Carl Roger’s said “the most personal is the most universal,” and that’s why we need books like Baby Rollercoaster. They connect us with humanity. They let us know we’re not alone.     

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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Friday, September 10, 2021

Two Children's Book Reviews: Wake up, Jacob! by Neil Sawatzky, and Flowman and the Magic Mullet, written by Konn and Emily Hawkes, Illustrated by Emily Hawkes

“Wake Up, Jacob!”

By Neil Sawatzky

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783451

 

I’m a huge fan of collaborating with family members on creative projects, thus was delighted to read that Neil Sawatzky—the author of the new illustrated children’s book Wake Up, Jacob!—is the father of Heather Nickel, who owns and operates Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing, and is responsible for bringing hundreds of books into the world. This father-daughter team has produced a heartfelt softcover that “parallel[s] the daily activities of a young boy and his grandfather,” and to even further extend the familial connection, Sawatzky’s dedicated the book to his own father, and a photograph of the author and his two grandchildren reading a book together appears inside the back cover.

 

Here's the truth: I had a lump in my throat after reading just two pages of this brightly-sketched story. On page one we find young Jacob’s mother rousting him from sleep in his bed, and on the opposite page, a healthcare aide in a seniors’ facility is similarly waking the same-named elder. Child Jacob—in green pajamas, and with his wide-eyed teddy bear nearby—stretches simultaneously with his white-moustached grandpa on the facing page. The story continues as the pair greet the day with their own similar routines, ie: as Jacob and his teddy bear sit on the rug to watch morning cartoons on TV, Jacob senior sits on a couch to watch the morning news, and while little Jacob “Downward Dogs” on a yoga mat beside his mother, Grandpa lifts hand-weights in a chair.

 

There’s little text in this book, and little’s required. The colourful illustrations spread across most of each page tell much of the story. Easy-to-read black print against a white background appears at the bottom. As with poetry, less words are more here, ie: beneath an illustration of young Jacob napping, the text reads simply “Nap time.” On the corresponding page, Grandpa Jacob’s fallen asleep while reading in his chair—did I mention the realism here?—and the text beneath this image is: “Just resting your eyes?” Perfect.    

 

Both the author and publisher live in Regina, and there are hints of Saskatchewan here, ie: the green S on the cap of the friend Grandpa’s playing checkers with is a nod to the Roughriders. The younger Jacob paints an elevator on his easel while his grandfather paints the finishing touches on an elevator-shaped birdhouse.

 

I appreciate several things about this story, including the fact that Grandpa continues to live a full and happy life while in care (a welcome contradiction re: the negative stereoptypes often associated with longterm care facilities). The close emotional bond between the two Jacobs melts my heart. As a bonus, at the book’s conclusion Sawatzky’s included a list of ten items for young readers to find within the story.

 

As someone who has frequently worked in seniors’ facilities (providing musical entertainment for residents), and as a daughter whose own father moved out of his own home and into care just two weeks ago, this inter-generational, fact-of-life story deeply resonated, wheelchair and all.  

 

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“Flowman and the Magic Mullet”

Written by Konn and Emily Hawkes, Illustrated by Emily Hawkes

Published by Emily Hawkes

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$23.95 (Hardcover)  ISBN 9-781777-641726

 

Flowman and the Magic Mullet: the title’s enough to signal readers that this is going to be a gas. Who doesn’t chuckle at the mention of a mullet? And the long-flowing locks, large eyes and toothy smile of the slapshot-shooting hockey player on the cover make me curious … what kind of hijinks is this mullet-rocking athlete going to get up to?  

 

This illustrated children’s book is the entertaining result of a team effort between Watrous, SK farmer and hockey player Konn Hawkes and his artistic wife, Emily. The tale concerns superstar hockey player Greg “The Hair” Flowman and his famous mullet—“His teammates loved it, his fans adored it”—and what happens when “his magic mullet suddenly disappears overnight.”

 

The story begins with our athletic, comically-drawn protagonist “Scoring point after point” in his blue, #21 hockey sweater and matching blue helmet. The text rhymes or off-rhymes, and I’m pleased at the outset to read an original simile: “He moves on the ice like a cheetah on skates.” As the story progresses, we learn that Flowman’s the captain of his Calgary team, and the humour keeps building: “His lettuce is fresh and the ladies they all stare. His name is Greg Flowman … they call him, “The Hair.”” But one person is not a fan of Greg’s mullet: his mother. “She’s tried to cut Greg’s hair countless times in the past. He always runs away. That kid is shifty, and he’s fast.”

 

The illustrator shows Flowman primping his long locks in the colourful bathroom, “with mousse and gel and other products. He looked in the mirror and said, “What a fox!”” I look at the details in the illustration: the yellow dots in the window that represent a starry night; the brush with “Hockey Hair” inscribed on it; the mess of hair product sliding over the bowl of the sink. Discovering these supplemental visual details really adds to the pleasure of reading this comical story, ie: in the garage, where Flowman shoots pucks against the wall “as he watched in the mirror,” we also see tools nicely organized on a pegboard, and note that bowling, football and basketball are also popular among this family. I see that one of Flowman’s teammates is (realistically) missing an important tooth!

 

It's not giving away too much to say that Flowman’s mother does manage to snip off his locks, and though he fears he’s lost his scoring mojo because of this, he grows his hair back even longer than before. Then, just when he’s at the top of his game—“His speed was supersonic; his skills were so sick”—something unexpected happens. You’ll have to read the book to find out what brings Flowman down, and who sets him straight on his skates—and in his life—again.

 

This satisfying story follows the main character from childhood through to adulthood, and there’s a hilarious, hair-related twist on the last page. Readers—hockey fans or not—will get a kick out of this high-scoring story.

 

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

 

 


 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Five Reviews: Let's Fly! A Dragon's Quest in Saskatoon by Kathie Cram, Illus. Kas Rea; Ride, Gabe, Ride by Wilfred Burton, Ilus. Lucille Scott; The Day I Discovered a Diinosaur Bone?! by M Larson, Illus. R Ghosh; Bee A Friend by Kerry Sather, Illus. David Mark; I Will Never Break by Jesse A. Murray

Five Reviews: Let's Fly! A Dragon's Quest in Saskatoon by Kathie Cram, Illus. Kas Rea; Ride, Gabe, Ride by Wilfred Burton, Ilus. Lucille Scott; The Day I Discovered a Diinosaur Bone?! by M Larson, Illus. R Ghosh; Bee A Friend by Kerry Sather, Illus. David Mark; I Will Never Break by Jesse A. Murray
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Let’s Fly!: A Dragon’s Quest in Saskatoon

Written by Kathie Cram, Illustrated by Kas Rea

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783697

 

Writer Kathie Cram and her illustrator Kas Rea have crafted a new book that celebrates Saskatoon through the adventures of two unlikely - and likeable - new friends, an inquisitive chickadee and a hopeful baby dinosaur. From the first page I surmised that the playful language in this book – “a very small bird found a very strange egg. Suddenly, it jiggled and wiggled and crackled and cracked” – would appeal to young ears. Cram’s a multi-genre Saskatoon writer who’s previously published adult fantasy and nonfiction, and she’s now working on a novel. Rea also lives in Saskatoon, where she’s a Bachelor of Fine Arts student at the University of Saskatchewan.

Using the tried-and-true children’s text formula of repetition, Cram has her friendly pair meeting other creatures as Red, the dinosaur, searches with Little Bird for the former’s family. The flying dinosaur soars above Saskatoon with the bird on her back, and the two make stops at popular Saskatoon landmarks, like Wanuskewin Heritage Park. The first landing’s bumpy. “‘Sorry. I am new to flying,’” Red tells the terrified Little Bird, who knows the area well and explains that Wanuskewin Heritage Park “‘is a gathering place that tells the story of the land and its first people, who have come here for thousands of years. There are exhibits to explore and trails to travel. There is lots to learn about Indigenous culture, and about the plants and animals who live here.’”

The two address a bison, and, because it possesses pointy horns like the purple-winged green dinosaur, the young dinosaur wonders if the animal is her brother. The pattern’s thus set for the introduction of more single-characteristic sameness between Red and other creatures. Could Red be related to the smoke-blowing “very large, very old steam engine” at the Western Development Museum? To the “flickering flames” in the “long glass cage” at the Remai Modern art museum, or the lizard – a bearded dragon – at the Forestry Farm Park and Zoo? (“‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ growled the lizard … I have rough scales and scratchy claws and a long tail like you. But I don’t have flappy wings and, actually, I’m scared of heights. I am not your grandma.’” Or will Red find her kin at the children’s museum called the Nutrien Wonderhub? Each creature thinks he/she knows of someone else who might be Red’s family member, and each time it’s Little Bird who peeps “‘I know. I know!’” and leads Red to the fresh suggestion with a “‘Come on, Red. Let’s fly!’”

Children anywhere should enjoy having this book read to them – or reading it on their own – but children familiar with Saskatoon will likely connect with it even more so. It would be fun to read the story with one’s children or grandchildren, then, over several days, explore the various destinations described in the book together.

Let’s Fly!: A Dragon’s Quest in Saskatoon has also been produced in a virtual format, read by the author and available on Youtube. A play is forthcoming, too!

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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Ride, Gabe, Ride

Written by Wilfred Burton, Illustrated by Lucille Scott

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783680

 

Got to love it when a writer takes a compelling historical event and transforms it into an illustrated children’s book that will both educate and entertain young readers. That’s exactly what Saskatchewan Métis author, storyteller, and fiddler Wilfred Burton has done – along with illustrator, Lucille Scott – in Ride, Gabe, Ride, a new softcover published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing that tells the story of legendary Métis leader Gabriel Dumont and a particularly amazing buffalo hunt.

The tale begins with a brief biography, explaining that Dumont (b. 1837) “fought for Métis rights in two resistances,” and “could negotiate in seven languages, was a superb buffalo hunter, and even performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.” The anecdote that inspired this book is based on “an incredible hunting story” Dumont relayed to Archie Brown, who wrote about it in his 1927 memoir.

There’s much to recommend in this rhyming adaptation. Firstly, there’s adventure: Dumont and “the people of Bois de Fleche” prepare for the dangerous hunt – a blessing from “the black-robed priest” is included – and with horses and Red River carts, they follow Dumont across the prairie landscape and set up camp. When a herd’s spotted near the river, Dumont “thunder[s] toward the stampeding horde of countless buffalo, heart as fast as hoofbeats, into the fleeing flow”. But things don’t go as expected when Dumont dismounts and straddles the buffalo with his knife: “up sprang the bull with Gabe astride and raced off across the land!”.

Eventually, the racing buffalo collapses, and “Gabe jump[s] off the heap of muscle, unsteady but in one piece”. Writer and illustrator have not shied away from portraying even the skinning of the fallen animal: “They carved him up to share with all, their next meal set aside. They dried the meat, then pounded it, and mixed it with chokecherries: pemmican for them to eat and to sell across the prairies.” The story demonstrates that though the Métis worked hard to survive – I noted via the illustrations that the women were very much a part of the operation, too - they also enjoyed many good times after they “marched back to their winter base, where they sang and danced and settled down to a gentler, slower pace.”   

I commend the book’s designer in using bold but not distracting colours behind the pages that include text, and colourful, full-bleed illustrations on the opposing pages. We see Hudson’s Bay blanket-inspired jackets, moccasins, flour sacks, and red-striped Métis sashes. There’s a crow on nearly every page (fun for kids to spot them).

On four of the twenty-eight pages a stanza of text is italicized, and these lines could be put to a simple melody and sung for extra enjoyment. The book concludes with a glossary where we learn more about Métis culture, and the Michif words for “wife/woman” (lii faam), “old person” or Elder (li vyeu), and children (lii zaanfaan).  

If you’re looking for a children’s book that celebrates Métis heritage and the Métis hero, Gabriel Dumont, you’ve found it.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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The Day I Discovered a Dinosaur Bone?! (Adventures of the Barnyard Boys)

Written by M Larson, Illustrated by R Ghosh

Published by M Larson Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$12.99  ISBN 978-1-9992683-0-5

 

Many children of a certain age go through a “dinosaur phase” – a period when they’re passionate about the magnificent creatures that roamed the earth 70 million years ago. I remember taking my own children to Drumheller’s Tyrell Museum when they were young. In Saskatchewan, dinosaur afficionados can visit the T.rex Discovery Centre in Eastend or The Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina to learn about all-things-dinosaur, and meet Scotty, the life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex models. They could also pick up a copy of Melanie Larson’s latest illustrated children’s book, The Day I Discovered a Dinosaur Bone?! (Adventures of the Barnyard Boys), and tag along with brothers Finn, Owen and Dez as they search for – and find – something interesting in the Saskatchewan hillsides.

After watching their “favourite dinosaur movie,” six-year-old Finn and his brothers are inspired to unearth fossils too. “I bet we have a short-necked plesiosaur right in our own backyard!” Finn says. The boys go to work, but unfortunately their digging only results in the discovery of “an old, broken toy truck”. Undaunted, the trio also search the beach – no luck there - then their grandparents’ ranch, where Finn digs up a “bone” that is “so big that it would not fit inside [the] van!” The family decides to take the discovery – strapped to the van’s roof – to the dinosaur museum. What has Finn found? (No spoilers!)

 As with her earlier title, The Day I Lost My Bear in Cypress Hills, Larson again includes many “Fun facts” in this cheery book. Among other interesting trivia, readers learn about dinosaur discoveries near Herschel, Ponteix, and Carrot River, SK, and that “In 1874, the first dinosaur fossil was found in Grasslands National Park” by geologist George Dawson. Children will also have fun locating the twelve bird, animal and insect images at the end of the book within the previous pages. Did you know that “the official word for dinosaur poop” is coprolite? Me neither!

The story’s filled with dinosaur names - always fun to say - like Triceratops, Mosasaurus, Troodon and Ankylosaurus. I enjoyed the humour in the book, as well. When the museum’s paleontologist tells the boy’s that what they’ve found may be “more than 65 million years old,” Finn says: “It’s as old as Grandpa!”

There’s book-to-book continuity regarding the playful illustrations, which feature lots of colour, big-eyed characters, and a few details that demonstrate the prairie flora and fauna, ie: prairie lilies. I appreciated the bold, easy-to-read black font against white pages, and the book’s quality production will hold up well against small hands and smudges.

 Larson lives in Simmie, south of Swift Current, and works as an Environmental Consultant. Another of her five titles is Count Them! 50 Tractor Troubles, and I expect we’ll continue to see her brand - fun, educational stories featuring these three adventurous brothers and their family – in future books, as well. This tale’s sure to bring joy to any budding little archeologists in your life. For more information, visit the author’s website at mlarsonbooks.com.

 

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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Bee a Friend

Written by Kerry Sather, Illustrated by David Mark

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783673

 

Saskatchewan’s seen a veritable hive of activity in children’s book publishing this summer – I’ve reviewed four titles - and one fun-filled book that’s joined the shelves is the illustrated hardcover Bee A Friend, penned by Kerry Sather and illustrated by David Mark, both of Nokomis. Ten years ago Sather released the award-winning Bee Yourself, which focused on self-esteem, and this new release “investigates the meaning of friendship” through a successful confluence of simple words and stylish illustrations.

Dedicated to the author’s grandchildren and other “little friends,” this rhyming, will-you-be-my-friend? tale features green-dominant illustrations with cartoon-style creatures – the narrator is a gregarious bumblebee – and four lines of text on each page. There’s also a tiny, witty fly flitting across the pages: its cryptic lines – ie: “This is too much!” – deliver an amusing commentary on the Bee’s persistent search for new pals in the garden once “The snow has melted and spring is here”.  

The expressive bee’s first potential friend is a red ant, comically portrayed in an army helmet. (The fly’s two bits: “Sir, yes, sir!”) The bumblebee considers how “These army buddies dig deep to build their home. They always work together, they’re never alone.” A caterpillar’s the next contender; then a “dull grey slimy thing, catching a little breeze on the rock where he clings;” a “slithering snake;” a “chubby” mole (in jeans and suspenders, of course!); a “big fat cat;” a “silly old dog;” and a bespeckled and smiling human gardener. As with many children’s books, there’s a refrain in this story: “I am a bumblebee … would you like to be friends with me?” which even toddlers can say along with the reader.

I studied the illustrations and I found that rural Saskatchewan life is well-represented via objects including grain bins, a wind turbine, a water barrel, a pitchfork, hills of potatoes, and a barbed wire fence. The famed prairie sky is portrayed in tri-colour blues and the occasional cumulous cloud, and even the daisies and trees appear cheerful in this feel-good story.

Illustrator David Mark moved to Nokomis from Winnipeg, “where he spent countless hours as a kid drawing pictures and dreaming of building a drafting table under the stairs,” and perhaps one of the reasons the words and illustrations “marry” so well here is because Mark and Sather are close friends. (In my trade publishing experience, often illustrators are contracted directly by the publisher and the writer doesn’t know them … I didn’t even see a sketch before my own two children’s books were published.)

Sather’s biography states that “She is always thinking up the next journey a little bee might take readers on,” so I expect we’ll be following Bee’s story in the future.

Once again, Heather Nickel – the force behind Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing – has designed and produced a quality book that feels good in the hands and delights ears and eyes. The message: even though we have differences, we can still be friends, and the search for new friends is downright fun.


THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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 I Will Never Break

By Jesse A. Murray

Published by Off the Field Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$14.99  ISBN 9-781775-194637

 

As a writing instructor, mentor, and literary contest judge, I’ve spent countless hours reading the introspective work of novice writers and have found there are a few common themes, ie: failed romance, uncertainty about one’s purpose in life, and alienation. Putting pen to page is an act of bravery in and of itself; sharing one’s personal thoughts, fears, and dreams with others in a self-published collection is top-shelf courageous, and – with a heavy concentration on the above themes - that’s exactly what writer and secondary school teacher Jesse A. Murray has done.

In I Will Never Break, Murray’s debut poetry book – he previously published two baseball-themed novels – the Saskatchewan-based writer has collected poems written on “scraps of paper” and in journals between 2007 and 2010 and bound them in a book with a gorgeous cover: a winter tree in silhouette against a blue-grey sky. Note: Murray was between the ages of 18 and 22 when these poems were written, and this is not a typical, contemporary poetry collection. “This poetry collection was collected unchanged and displayed in chronological order, and as a result, a natural story unfolds,” he states on his website (jesseamurray.com).

There is much diversity in the structure of the poems, ie: quatrains, prose poems, stanza-less, couplets, but all are centred on the page and almost every one rhymes. “It’s amazing to me that I actually have enough material to fill a poetry collection, without me actually realizing how much I actually wrote at that time,” he writes in the introduction. He adds that more poetry collections are forthcoming.

Murray’s indeed been prolific: at 161 pages, this is a hefty poetry collection. Some of the poems offer blanket encouragement to readers – “Be who you are and live for today,/Never give up and do it exactly your way./Believe in yourself and live entirely in the moment,/Hold on to every second, it’s yours, you own it” -  while others examine the poet’s personal fears (including fear of death and not leaving a legacy) and desires, reflect a faith in God, and illustrate a season of unhappiness with titles like “One Single Tear,” “Followed the Tears I Cried,” and “A Struggle”. He writes: “I never let others in, no matter how hard they tried,/The fact is no one could survive, such a rough ride.”    

What frequently shines through the poems is Murray’s passion for writing. In his piece “Writing (A Part of My Life),” he begins: “My whole life I’ve been writing, word after word,/And now I don’t want to be forgotten,/I want to be heard.” Another poem, “Author of My Life,” also addresses this compulsion: “The pen is my mind,/and the page is my life./Whatever happens for me,/It all depends on what I write.”

FOMO is a trendy acronym. It means Fear of Missing Out, and though Murray writes “I’m afraid of missing out on so much,/Because I was afraid to try,” what he’s certainly not missed is the opportunity to honestly express both the darkness and light within himself.

 

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM