Friday, May 3, 2019

Two New Book Reviews: Mary Ann Loewen's anthology "Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Daughters" and Marny Duncan-Cary (and illustrator Val Moker's) "Rockstar"

"Finding Father: Stories From Mennonite Daughters"

Edited by Mary Ann Loewen

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$21.95  ISBN 9-780889-775909

What do you get when you take fifteen literary daughters writing essays 

about their Mennonite fathers and combine them in one anthology? You 

get Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Daughters-a comprehensive, 

compassionate, and well-written portrayal of men who were loved for all 

they were, and forgiven for what they couldn't be. You get frequent 

mentions of generosity; the immigrant experience (the journey and the 

politics that led to it, poverty, language challenges, large families, 

stoicism); great but often quiet faith; ample encouragement (particularly 

re: academic aspirations … Mennonites are "people of the book"); music; 

leadership; eventual illness which led to death; and, frequently, the wish 

for a more emotionally intimate and physically demonstrative 

relationship. You also get the personal memories-best delivered through

imagistic snapshots-that make each father-daughter relationship unique.

Vulnerability is at the heart of memoir, and the talented contributors

candidly share both what pleased and pained them in their relationships 

with their fathers, but as authors and subjects are both Mennonite, 

"cultural artifacts"-particularly religion, whether the family adhered to the 

Mennonite Brethren denomination or another-play a key position in the 

dynamics. Many of the writers mentioned praying on one's knees.

Though the men featured contain numerous similarities in their 

experience and personalities, the essays also underscore how 

misguided it would be to make generalizations. Ontario's Rebecca Plett, 

cultural anthropologist, writes about coming out to her parents, and her 

father's unexpected, wordless response: "My father, usually so reticent to 

touch, without hesitation rose from his chair across from me, moved 

around the table, and put his arms around me." She credits him for an 

ability to "access a language of meaning and feeling beyond words".

Governor General Award finalist Carrie Snyder's opening essay details a 

father who taught Peace and Conflict Studies, "yet his divorce from [her] 

mom, after thirty-four years of marriage, was marked by extreme 

atrimony," and Ruth Loewen, in "Requiem in Three Voices"-an essay 

with contributions from three sisters, including Winnipeg's Mary Ann 

Loewen, the book's editor-writes that after her father's stroke, "virtually 

[their] entire relationship was wiped out, literally overnight." Mary Ann 

comments upon how this stroke actually improved her father's "spiritual 

vision" and gave him the ability to "love and accept all kinds of people".

Though "love" between each of these father-daughter duos is never in 

question, it's telling how dearly many of these writers desired more 

physical affection from their dads. Vancouver's Elsie K. Neufeld recalls 

her father shaking her hand as he wished her "Gute Nacht," and admits 

that she would "feign sleep" in order to be carried by her father from car 

to bed.

This fine collection follows Loewen's Sons and Mothers: Stories from 

Mennonite Men. Both books are recommended for anyone who 

appreciates thoughtful nonfiction that increases understanding of one's 



by Marny Duncan-Cary, illustrated by Val Moker
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-78383
Southern Saskatchewan musician and writer Marny Duncan-Cary has capitalized on her complementary talents: she's taken the lyrics from a song she wrote in 2002 and has used them as the text for an illustrated book in 2019. It's a formula she's successfully employed before (ie: her book/song Who's That Man? earned a silver medal in the Moonbeam Children's Book Awards in 2010). This time the four-time Saskatchewan Country Music Award winner has transformed her song "Rockstar," and along with vividly-colourful, full-bleed illustrations by artist Val Moker, Duncan-Cary has produced a lively song readers can hold in their hands.

When one is both a dedicated artist (in any genre) who works from home and a devoted mother, juggling the necessary "me" time and family time can be a serious challenge. (I've been there myself; my own answer was to carve a week or two out of every year to "retreat" and work on my writing while my children were young.) In her softcover book "Rockstar," Duncan-Cary exposes the everyday demands of children, like "Mom, can you get me some juice?" and "Mom, what are we going to do today?" and Moker brings these ordinary days to life with bold images. We see the mother/artist protagonist with pen and paper in hand, black musical notes floating through the pages while expressive children put on socks, play the piano, ask for Mom's help at the computer, and, in one of my favourite illustrations, eat snacks in a plant and flower-surrounded conservatory.

In short, this is real life. Even the family's black cat cameos in the illustrations, and as the story progresses-we see Mom in a pink boa and studded "Rockstar" jacket before a dressing room mirror, stepping from a limousine, and performing on stage-the musical notes have themselves become small whimsical characters, colouring on the walls and climbing the kitchen cupboards. It's domestic chaos, but where there's a will there's a way, and life inspires art.

There's a nod in the text to the music industry's penchant for the "Young and firm," to which the author writes "for now they'll hafta wait for me 'cause I ain't got the time!" Professional and personality responsibilities are managed in tandem, and one must read the story to get to the "bottom" of why the young characters shout "Mom, I'm done!"

Duncan-Cary, who lives on an acreage near Lumsden, and Regina's Moker are both artists (with education degrees) who love and write about where they live: Duncan-Cary's "Music and words convey the heart of her life in southern Saskatchewan," and Moker's specialty is western art. I "Googled" the artists and quickly found what I was after: a video of Duncan-Cary performing the song
that inspired the story. An endearing performance of a slightly bluesy tune.

Congratulations to the creators for this fun, relatable, and tangible song, and to Your Nickel's Worth Publishing and designer Heather Nickel for the bright new package. Thumps up, as well, to Creative Saskatchewan, who made the production of this text possible.


Monday, December 24, 2018

Two New Book Reviews: J.C. Paulson's "Adam's Witness," and Jeanne Martinson and Laurelie Martinson's "Change Management Lessons from Downtown Abbey"

“Adam's Witness”
by J. C. Paulson
Published by Joanne Paulson
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$18ftenace and her feisty  loving .99 ISBN 9-780995-975606

Adam's Witness is longtime Saskatoon StarPhoenix journalist Joanne Paulson's first foray into fiction, and the part mystery, part romance novel set in Saskatoon is sure to gain her many fans.

The fast-paced story begins with diligent StarPhoenix reporter Grace Rampling receiving a phone call from Pride Chorus member Bruce, who's upset that his  choir's next-day concert at St. Eligius Catholic Church was suddenly and inexplicably cancelled. Rampling crosses the alley to the nearby cathedral to learn why, and in the dark sanctuary she stumbles upon "a man in clerical clothing right at her feet" who is "bleeding copiously from the head". The bishop's been murdered, and all hell breaks loose. Could the perpetrator be a bitter choir member? A parishioner? Someone within the church? We learn that "the monstrance is missing," and this large sacred vessel (it contains the Host) could, ironically, be the murder weapon.  

What makes this book work so well is Paulson's smart handling of diverse, well-drawn characters, and a two-pronged plot: not only is mid-twenties Grace the key witness (she'll also come under vicious attack), the ambitious reporter also quickly falls for the crime's lead investigator, Detective Sergeant Adam Davis, and he's awfully sweet on her, as well; he replays her taped testimony just to hear her voice.

The pacing is taut. Setting, too, is well-handled. If you know Saskatoon - especially Saskatoon in winter - it's easy to envision the Spadina Avenue cathedral as Paulson's drawn it: "Mist swirling up from the half-frozen river cloaked the beautiful brick cathedral with gothic mystery". Much of the action's set downtown. Rampling meets Bruce at Divas, Saskatoon's long-running gay nightclub, and questions him about the choir members. "They'e angry. It's so offensive. The chorus is a professional group - I mean, most of us are professionals. We don't show up for concerts dressed in drag, for Christ's sake."        

I appreciated the insight into how a news story is filled while reporters wait for more hard facts, and the numerous small details that add realism, ie: when Adam and Grace coincidentally meet at the Second Avenue Starbucks, they discuss "the relative merits of Starbucks over Tim Hortons". The exchanges between Grace and her feisty sister, Hope, are credible and also often humourous, ie: after Grace confesses that she kissed Adam, Hope says she would have, too. "'You would not,'" Grace says, and Hope responds: "'No, I wouldn't. I'm just trying to calm you down'". There is, in fact, a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek lightness to this murder mystery, right down to the omniscient narrator's tone. Chapter Twelve, for example, begins thus: "The forensic pathologist was measuring something on the smashed-in skull of the Bishop of Saskatoon when Adam Davis walked into the reeking but antiseptic room".    

In the book's end notes Paulson explains that the story was inspired by an actual case. "In 2004, Saskatoon's Anglican cathedral cancelled a performance by the local gay choir". (The church later about-faced.) Some fact, much fiction. Adam's Witness will keep you reading.


 “Change Management Lessons from Downton Abbey”

By Jeanne Martinson and Laurelie Martinson
Published by Wood Dragon Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$22.00   ISBN 9-781989-078013

Writers Jeanne Martinson and Laurelie Martinson have leveraged their interests in management communications, leadership, the popular British TV series "Downton Abbey," and writing to inform business and organization leaders in the nonfiction title Change Management Lessons from Downtown Abbey. This latest volume is one of a series of "Downton Abbey"-inspired books the pair have collaborated on; they believe the show "provided lessons that can be applied to our world today," and they cite specific examples from the series to introduce how contemporary workplace challenges - specifically change - can be effectively managed.

The cast on "Downton Abbey" (show circa WW1) had much societal change to contend with, including the incorporation of the first basic technologies, like telephones. How did they cope, and what can we learn from their experiences?

Recognizing that change can be difficult for organizations, Laurelie Martinson - a communications and behavior specialist who consults with leaders and introduces change management tools - brought her 25 years of experience in helping facilitate change to the page. Jeanne Martinson is a professional speaker who's been operating MARTRAIN Corporate and Personal Development presentations and workshops in the public and private sectors since 1993. She has also authored 11 books. The two-woman team, both well-educated and well-experienced in assisting leaders with change, diversity, and communications, suggest that part of the corporate change process is also personal: "Change initiatives will only be successful if every person involved manages the change within the organization and within themselves," and that using an "ARC model" - Awareness, Responsibility, and Choice - will aid the transformation.

Each chapter of the well-formatted book begins with a quote from the series. Mrs. Patmore, the cook, is quoted thus: "But Daisy mustn't find out that I don't know how to work it … because it makes her part of the future and leaves me stuck in the past". "It" is an electric mixer. Assistant Daisy embraces the mixer, and Mrs. Patmore fears it. The authors use this example to illustrate how individuals "respond to change differently," and they advise leaders to be cognizant of "the different emotional responses to change". They parallel Lord Grantham's initial reluctance to embrace the telephone with modern day employee reluctance to adapt to new software applications.

An effective organization is like a manor "'house in order'". Roles change with the times, and positions are sometimes eliminated, ie: footman Molesley recognizes that "Service is ending for most of us," and thus he becomes a teacher. Elevator operators and milkmen are history, and today travel agents, for example, may have to specialize in order to stay relevant. Looking toward the future is critical, ie: many people now work from home, so a company's large office space and parking spots are no longer necessary. McDonalds, the fast-food leader, hires several immigrants and it manages the language barrier "by distancing their customers from their employees" via self-serve kiosks and mobile phone orders.

There's much interesting material here, for both leaders and laypeople. Intrigued? See WoodDragonBooks.Com to learn more.  


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Two New Book Reviews: See Me (by H.R. Hobbs) and Hear Me (by H.R. Hobbs). Two middle years' novels concerning school bullying.

“See Me” (Breaking the Rules Series)
by H.R. Hobbs
Published by H.R. Hobbs
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
ISBN 9-780995-344808

Retired teacher Heather Hobbs has turned her lifelong passion for books into a new profession. In 2015 she picked up the pen and started writing realistic, contemporary page-turners for middle years' students, and rather than wait years for a publisher to consider, potentially accept her manuscript, and release her books, Assiniboia-based Hobbs took matters into her own hands and published her own work under the pen name H.R. Hobbs. With almost thirty years of classroom experience to her credit, the teacher-turned writer's depiction of middle grades' school culture results in an interesting and credible story.   

See Me, the first in her Breaking the Rules Series, looks just like a trade published book. The cover features a close-up of an eye, and the interior type is easy to read. The story's narrator is 13-year-old Hannah, an only child who was traumatized on her very first day of kindergarten after a classmate, Brady, noticed the "ugly" burn scars on her legs and called her "Scar-legs". The ostracizing and bullying that began that day has followed her all the way into Grade Seven, and her nemesis, Brady, is still a classmate. All Hannah wants is "to be invisible in school," and for the most part, she is.

Hannah, the quiet loner, also seems to hover beneath the radar at home, and that's exactly where she like to exist. After she'd angered her farther during an early childhood incident, she vowed to always follow the rules and never upset her father - "a man of few words, he would come home from work, grab a bottle from the cupboard over the fridge, and poor the golden liquid in a glass" - again. Hannah says that by age five "the need to please [her] parents had become an obsession". It doesn't sound like a very healthy childhood. Hannah's only outlet is her journal. Full of her private thoughts and poems, the journal is "the only place that [she] let [her] true self out". She never shares it with anyone. 
Enter new student, Chip, with his "Star Wars" T-shirts, his habit of engaging reticent Hannah in conversation, and his I-don't-care-what-anyone-else-thinks attitude. Hannah eventually warms to him. Unfortunately, Brady and his cohorts make Chip a target, too.

Young readers will relate to the contemporary language and references, ie: Chip says "Meh" and Hannah watches "The Hunger Games" - for the fourth time.

As I write this there's another national case of school bullying in the news. This issue is not going away, but books like "See Me" can help youth who suffer understand that they are not alone, and that speaking up, though difficult, is often the first step toward a solution.

As compelling as the school story is, it's the relationship between Hannah and her ambulance attendant father that I look forward to learning more about in Hobbs' sequel, Hear Me. What's going on there? 
A Kindle version of this book can be ordered via For more about the writer and this series, see

 “Hear Me” (Breaking the Rules Series)

by H.R. Hobbs
Published by H.R. Hobbs
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
ISBN 9-780995-344815

In Hear Me, Assiniboia, SK teacher-turned-writer H.R. Hobbs' follow-up to her middle years' novel See Me, Grade Eight protagonist Hannah evolves from a reclusive and bullied girl who tries to remain invisible into an assertive gal who leads the charge for justice when friends are victimized. Through realistic scenes that move between home and school settings in fictional "Acadia," Hobbs' readers witness the ins and outs of Hannah's troubled adolescent life, and learn how speaking up against bullying makes a tremendous difference, even if the-powers-that-be aren't eager to hear the message.    

Readers of the first in this series of novels know that journal-writing Hannah's set strict "rules" for herself: "1. Don't make anyone mad. 2. If I'm invisible, no one can hurt me. 3. Keep my problems to myself. 4. No one sees my writing!" In the past, Hannah's angered her father and been hurt by classmates. Unlike her easy-going - but also bullied - friend, Chip, Hannah's very sensitive to these attacks, and she's determined to do something about them.

In this new novel she acquires a few more friends, and, as in See Me, she experiences how powerful the written word can be, both as a therapeutic activity and as a way to find one's voice and use it for the greater good. It's satisfying to see a character grow like this, and it would be affirming for young readers who also struggle with bullying and poor self-confidence to read about Hannah's progress.

Hobbs has done an especially sound job of characterizing Hannah, whose desire to remain invisible extends to her clothing. She attends a Hallowe'en dance dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi from "Star Wars", with an "infinity scarf" covering her head. Even her friend, cheerleader Trudy, recognizes that the old, insecure Hannah sometimes lurks just beneath the surface. "Hannah, why are you still hiding?" she asks. I remembered my own junior high dances when Trudy says: "Why does the student council even bother with dances? This is basically just the lunchroom with costumes." And in descriptions of school hallways, ie: "I had to fight my way against the tide of students going to class," one can almost hear those locker doors being slammed and feel the body-jostling.

It was encouraging to read that Hannah's English teacher invited a spoken word poet into the classroom for a workshop; writers in schools are a win-win for both the students and the often severely economically-challenged writers. In this scene the poet shares a poetry slam video featuring Canadian Shane Koyczon's performance of "Troll," a piece about internet bullying. (As soon as I finish writing this, I'll be checking that out.) I also appreciated that the invited poet reminded Hannah and her classmates that "poetry is art for the listener" … " while it means something to the poet, once it has left the poet's mouth it belongs to the listeners to interpret for themselves". Superb advice.

Hannah's story feels far from over. See Me. Hear Me. Where will Hobbs take her next?  


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Three New Book Reviews: For the Changing Moon (Anna Marie Sewell), Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky), and The Musician's Compass: A 12-step Programme (by Del Suelo)

"For the Changing Moon"

by Anna Marie Sewell

Published by Thistledown Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-168-6

I'd been looking forward to multi-disciplinary artist Anna Marie Sewell's second poetry collection, For the Changing Moon. She'd impressed with her debut, Fifth World Drum, and in her capacity as Edmonton's poet laureate, I once observed her deliver an outstanding performance poem she'd created on the spot, based on a few words provided by the audience. It was a kind of magic few possess.  

In Sewell's newly-released collection of poems (and songs) we again find an assured and original voice, and the kind of literary abracadabra (ie: superb use of linebreaks) only a skilled writer can pull off. "We are in large part composed of slanting/sun" she writes in "The Mortal Summer". Sometimes playful, sometimes prayerful, sometimes angry, sometimes tinged with grief (particularly for lost family members and for injustices suffered by First Peoples and the impoverished) or inspired by legend, these eclectic pieces prove that Sewell knows her way around language, the map, and the moon.

Each of the book's five sections contains a kind of moon, ie: "Moon of Wolves," and among my favourite poems is "Kinds of Moon," in which Sewell introduces us to moons not usually (or ever?) considered, ie: "the moon of marching activists," the "moon of skin diseases," and the "insipid little moon of tailored grass". What fun to read.

Of the several poems honouring the memories of loved ones, including the poet's sister, this homage to a mother stands out: "She is tiny now, my mother/and jokes in the morning, when/her teeth aren't in, how she whistles/like a little bird". Inspiration also comes from disparate people and places, ie: Sewell's poem "Start Making Sense" provides a twist on David Byrne's "Stop Making Sense," and the gorgeous lines "so much turns on the breath of fog/falling over a broad green stream" - from her piece "One Moon, Many Faces" - echo William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow".

There's much clever internal rhyme and plays on words, ie: "Streets of Seoul, Sewell seule," and there's even a musicality in how these poems were ordered. For example, in "Bush-whacking," the riverside-hiking children "pipe and flutter, unconsciously magpie" and later they "shriek and whimper". The next poem is delectably quiet: it's based on how light falls upon six small cups on a windowsill. Holy dynamics. I also see this louder/quieter pairing in the neighbouring poems "She Sang" (about a wounded, musical sister) and "Light on the Wings," which, among other things, praises red ash berries.  

The multi-lingual inclusions (ie: Spanish and Anishinaabemowin) and named communities (ie: Edmonton, Lake Chapala, Kyoto) revere the places and people the Alberta poet's connected to, both spiritually and ancestrally.

This fine collection deserves close reading. It's a haven for all those who, like the poet, wander and wonder beneath the chameleon moon on "Turtle Island". There are no answers re: the big why-of-it-all, but the poet/lyricist has "built a room/safe for the moon/to come home to" and "it has to be enough". I say it is enough. It is very enough indeed.


“Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis"
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-775633

Not many writers get their books blurbed by Margaret Atwood, but BC writers and scholars Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky earned that honour with their small and powerful hat-trick of essays, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. These "Truth-filled mediations about grace in the face of mortality" (Atwood) are well-researched, highly educational, and eminently thought-provoking warnings about the fate of our world and species.

Bringhurst authored the first essay, "The Mind of the Wild". He maintains that there's much we should - but have not - learned from "the wild," which "is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination". What's this wild he speaks of? "Everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control," or, more succinctly, "earth living its life to the full". Bringhurst argues that humans are essentially committing suicide with our attempts to ""tame" the already "sane" natural world.

What makes this essay so remarkable is the combination of exceptional writing, science (ie: the role cyanobacteria played in changing earth's atmosphere) and statistics, and Bringhurst's ability to bring it all home with his use of concrete examples, ie: when the sun's diameter expands to epic proportions, a couple of billion years from now, "Your books, your bones, your lichen-covered headstones, and your dreams will be a plasma of broken atoms". He advocates "letting the facts form a poem in your mind" (a quote from physicist Michael Faraday, 1858) and getting into the wild, all on your lonesome, to "calibrate your mind". As one who regularly practices "forest breathing," this makes clear sense to me.

Zwicky's cerebral contribution, "A Ship from Delos," is dedicated to virtue and the good example set by Socrates. (Like that famous Athenian, Zwicky is a philosopher, and she believes that her hero - who was "condemned to death for crimes against the state," - was innocent, and has much to teach us.) On this eve of "Catastrophic global ecological collapse," she decries that politicians and policy-makers are not acting quickly enough. Nor are we regular humans of the first-world who "live comfortable air-conditioned lives, surrounded by a vast array of plastics and energy-consuming conveniences, who drive SUVS, have several children, eat a lot of meat, and travel frequently by air". Despite the grim ecological forecast, "industrialized humans are not destroying everything. Being will be here. Beauty will be here". She suggests that a cocktail of awareness, humility, courage, self-control, compassion, justice, contemplative practice, and a sense of humour is what the world needs now. Buying thrift-store clothing, eating locally, and walking rather than driving are just a few of the ways we can practice self-control in the 21st century.

The final piece, a collaboration between the authors, focuses on Harvard's Dr. Steven Pinker's overly sunny view and his habit of "[bending] the facts" re: Homo sapiens' fate.  

Bringhurst encourages us to "[think] like an ecosystem". Yes. Only then can we "go down singing". 
“The Musician's Compass: A 12-Step Programme”
by Del Suelo
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783321

Regina writer and Juno Award-winning musician (with band The Dead South) Erik Mehlsen - who writes under the pseudonym "Del Suelo" - explains in the author's note for his second book, The Musician's Compass: A 12-Step Programme, that he wrote this text because "the music industry is an environment that fosters mental illness, and [he] had no idea how to talk about it". That said, and first person voice aside, he maintains that this isn't a memoir. What it is: 131 gritty fictional pages about a band.

For many in the arts, what begins as a passion can become terribly hard and unsexy work. Suelo presents a grueling day-in-the-life of a young (and at times extremely juvenile) four-piece Canadian rock band on tour in Germany. He peels back the lid on the rock and roll road trip, and it's a bleak, barely-holding-it-together experience, complete with a groupie who overdoses on cocaine, band in-fighting, severe sleep deprivation, excessive drinking and marijuana imbibing, reeking clothes, and a narrator (Dev) who’s almost ready to pack in his bass-playing days, yet when he steps on the stage he's "a god, creating thunder".

Suelo has a gift for physical description and turning out some strong and original similes. The admirable writing starts with this description of drummer Mikey's hair: "an unkempt lawn shrub the colour of a rusting El Camino". A nickname "spread like scabies in a hippie commune". An untuned guitar sounds like the musician's playing "a homemade cigar-box guitar inside a tin can". 

The band, "North By Choice" - named after a "particularly dank BC sativa strain" band member Rat's been "growing in his basement" - is in Berlin when the story begins. I sat up when I read that one young female fan "has curves like a freshly poured skatepark". Post-show, the protagonist connects with German fan Marleen and the band and their entourage go clubbing. There's non-stop beer and chaos, and after doing a line of coke with Marleen, Dev follows her "into a room of roaring black punctuated only by the blinding flash of a strobe light." Moments later the pair are "in the centre of a dense, moist, multi-human organism". 

The author's abilities with description extends to his detailing of rooms, cities, and even the interior of the band's rented van: "The aroma of rotting cheese and stale wine wafts out. There are cracker crumbs and gummy candies all over the floor". (And the driver, Dev, has scraped the hell out of the rental.) 

The band members say things like "Can I borrow your lightski?", but on occasion, disillusioned Dev comes up with something quite profound, ie: "Sundays only seem cozy if you live somewhere and know people".

If you've ever desired a microscopic look at the ins and outs of a rock and roll band - from sound checks to merch table to finding a band poster in which someone's "drawn a moustache and swastika" - on a face, read this. Über dark, screamingly loud, and scathingly real.   





Thursday, August 30, 2018

Two New Book Reviews: Jessica Willams(w/ illustrator Mateya Ark), and Paulette Dubé

“Mama's Cloud”
Written by Jessica Williams, Illustrations by Mateya Ark
Published by All Write Here Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$22.50  ISBN 978-1-7753456-1-9

There's no rule that says children's books must feature "feel good" stories, and I applaud those writers who do tackle the serious or sensitive subjects - like illness, bullying, or poverty - and find a way to create stories that children will find interesting and entertaining. Saskatchewan writer Jessica Williams has just done this. In Mama's Cloud she's teamed with Bulgarian illustrator Mateya Ark to deliver an engaging story about a woman who suffers from depression (or at least the blues), and the ways in which her imaginative young daughter attempts to cheer her.

Williams begins by presenting readers with an idyllic mother-daughter relationship. The child-narrator says "When Mama smiles, her eyes twinkle like a thousand fireflies. Her hair is soft and smells like purple lilacs in spring. Mama is Magical …" The pair play games of "Fairies and Wizards and Superheroes," and in both text and illustration "Mama" is portrayed as smiling and affectionate. But "Sometimes a dark cloud drifts into the room and settles over her". And thus begins the child's mission to restore "Mama's magic".

This book succeeds on several levels. Firstly, Williams maintains a light hand, using poetic language with each of the daughter's ideas, ie: "I will float into the room on a warm breeze smelling of sunshine and lemonade". Were she to stop at "sunshine," this would still be an effective line, but the addition of "lemonade" boosts it into the realm of delightful. Repetition is a major device used in books for young children, and Williams embraces it. On another page the girl says "I will build a machine with gadgets and levers and pulleys and springs. At the push of a button the machine will whirl into action and the spinning fan blades will blast Mamas cloud out of the house". As a unicorn (unicorns are currently a trendy birthday party theme, I've noticed), the child says she "will close [her] eyes and lay [her] white muzzle on Mama's lap". However, after presenting each of these ideas, the young narrator admits that she is not a unicorn or a wizard or anything else - she is just a concerned daughter, and maybe there's enough magic in just being her warm and regular self - in "sweatshirt and slippers" - to make a difference. It's a realistic and encouraging message for a wide audience.

Ark's full-bleed illustrations are note-worthy for their whimsy and limited pallet. Using mostly blues for the "cloud" pages, and shades of yellow for illustrations featuring the child and her ideas, these soft images and colours emulate the theme of being gentle with oneself, and with others.       
At, Williams says "Books with engaging stories and exceptional artwork can ignite a child's enthusiasm for reading, build imagination and encourage children to dream and become". Mama's Cloud is a prime example of this. While not all experience a recurring "cloud," like Mama, surely everyone has the occasional down day, and this empowering story could help lift hearts - of all sizes.  


Written by Paulette Dubé
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-156-3
Autant, the highly-original novel by Albertan Paulette Dubé, begins with a confession - in the Catholic sense - and a directory of the multiple characters who populate this 144-page tale set in small fictional Autant, Alberta. The inter-generational story unfolds between two years - 1952 and 2012 - and it's big on superstition, angels, sibling dynamics, and bees.

At the centre of the bustling "hive" is the Franco-Albertan Garance family, headed by Edgar and Lucille. The youngest of their daughters, perceptive Bella, is prone to bleeding and headaches, and as Lucille's offspring she comes by her superstitions honestly. Lucille paints her kitchen door blue "so that angels would recognize the house as a safe place," and as a child she found a stone that "gave her dreams of a tall ship, a beautiful woman with blue eyes, long red hair, and, then, a small boat on dark water". Young Bella also has an affinity for stones. She leaves them for her mother as gifts "inside shoes, beside the bed, under the pillow. It was her way of saying I love you, goodbye, and I took four biscuits." These quotes aptly demonstrate the way in which this novel moves between moments of magic realism and the every day (ie: "biscuits"). The book also paints a realistic picture of the laborious and sometimes bloody work that is a fact of rural life, ie: butchering livestock.   

Interspersed between the familial storylines are short comedic episodes in which God and the angel Ruel are in a bar "nursing warm beers," while discussing the latter's return to and mission in the mortal world. (Coyote and Lily, an otherworldy gal - who "blows a perfect square" with her cigarette - also feature here). Bella is nonplussed by her visits from Ruel, with the ever-changing eyes. He tells her an anecdote about God using His ear wax to create ten bees to gather stories about "the goings on of the world," and indeed, bees feature in this novel in myriad ways, from honey recipes and its medicinal uses to, naturally, stings. "Straight honey on a boil" is said to "[shrink] that ugly blot to nothing in about two days". Could honey be Autant's "gold mine," or might bees portend doom?

Dubé has previously published five poetry collections, and though this book is predominantly told in dialogue - and most people don't "speak" in poetry - the Westlock-born writer does occasionally sweeten her prose with honey-like phrases, ie: "Summer was buttoned with roses".

This short novel's most interesting characters, like Lucille, tread between devout Christianity and superstition. The woman who tells her daughter that she needs to "Pray [her] braid" as she plaits her daughter's locks - "Each twist of hair, each over-under connection, was blessed" - is also the woman who transfers stories to bees through her skin. Dubé's assuredly created a world where one might confuse ash, "so delicate silver-white," with moth wings. Complex, daring, imaginative, and beautifully-produced, this new Thistledown Press release hums with energy.   


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Three New Book Reviews: A.B. Dillon, Leila J. Olfert, and Sharon Butala


by A.B. Dillon
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-153-2 

"Life had not taught you that you were a girl yet."

" … my brain crawled with biting ants of recrimination."

"I am many diaries, and I know where all my keys are, except a few."


Rarely does a first book make me question: what is this magic? I need to know the who and how. When done exceptionally well, poetry, especially, can stir a cell-and-bone dance like no other genre.

It's just happened. Calgary poet A.B. Dillon's Matronalia slices into the depths of what it is to mother a daughter, and to be mothered by a woman whose ideologies differ greatly from her own. Dillon illuminates what most keep hidden: the fear, the disasters, the terrible responsibility, the drowning in overwhelmedness, the non-understanding, the guilt (on page 78, "Forgive me" is the sole text). "You have wandered into my ward/and infected me" she writes of a young daughter. She later admits that "it becomes impossible to breathe".

While alternating between poems addressed to "you" (presumably the daughter to whom the book's dedicated) and poems about being quite differently daughtered herself, Dillon weaves a frequently relatable I-can't-believe-she-said-that story. Lives unfold chronologically, the plot deepening with each fresh revelation. Ah, a lost baby. Ah, a broken partnership. And so it goes. Connected but not-like the generations of women revealed in these pieces-these untitled poems are deeply-affecting and honest.  

Interspersed: atypical advice (from "Be a spear" to "sleep in the middle of/your bed") and confessions from a non-conformist mother ("I never organized a mommy's group or participated in one. I/never discussed potty training or time-outs or brand names" and "I don't recall what your first word was;/I didn't chronicle your every victory").

Interspersed: words that draw a dictionary near ("exsanguinated," "mendicant"), and creative language-making ("fadedly," "heavingly").

Interspersed, cryptic lines … they just drop off. What daring.      

Interspersed: realism, madness, depression, Catholic fall-out ("We had to tell the priests, or risk/being unclean") and great love: "When you were very little, I pulled your hair through my/fingers/to make French braids/as if doing calligraphy".

One gorgeous poem pays homage to simplicity, paying attention to "a single pink/peony in a brown glass jar," while another advises a daughter to "Remember who you are,/especially while standing at the bus stop,/or in a bar, near a church/or in the line up at Walmart". With extraordinary skill, Dillon spins the prosaic into the profound.  

As a writer and a mother, I'll savour this thoughtful and intelligent book. It gets the sentiment just right, like this: "Maybe I was looking out/the window in that way that mothers do, wondering how it/was I came to be standing there at all". There are so many quotable lines in Matronalia my note-taking hand tired from recording them.

This is motherhood, as true and valid as the victories and all the little joys, and this new Thistledown Press title is as welcome to the poetry scene as a much-longed-for daughter. If you're a mother: read this. If you're not a mother: read this.

"You Can Count on the Prairies!"
Text and photos by Leila J. Olfert

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 978-1-988783-11-6

I've been reviewing books in various genres for the last few decades, and I can say without reservation that You Can Count on the Prairies, the hot-off-the-press illustrated, children's counting book by Leila J. Olfert, has been my quickest read yet. What can one say about a twenty-nine page book that contains only seventeen words, and sixteen numbers? Well, as it turns out, rather a lot.

Olfert, a former preschool teacher and avid textile artist and photographer, has taken a prairie icon - the grain storage bin - and used it as the central image in this finely-produced SK-based book for youngsters. Beginning with zero, the first page features a close-up photograph of golden grain stalks against a blurred field and sky backdrop. The next page reveals a single grain bin, as perfectly round and centred on the page as the field surrounding it is flat. Four birds are perched at the top, where an auger would pour the grain in.

As the numbers on each page climb, so do the number of grain bins in each of the photographic illustrations. Winter scenes reveal sculptured snow, the pale blue sky almost mirrored in the snow. While grain bins - across the seasons - are the vocal point on each page, we see how each image also tells a little story. On the page for number four, tall Westeel bins behind a barbed-wire fence are reflected in a spring ditch. Another image reveals wooden bins painted with colourful Pacman-like images (or big-eyed ghosts). Westor, Twister, Westeel-Rosco - there's a wide representation of bins here, including some that have seen better days!

This book feels like an homage to grain bins yes, but also to Saskatchewan's rural landscape where field and sky loom large, and one can see, as the song goes, for miles and miles. Fence posts, telephone poles and lines, stately grain bins, leafless winter trees … there's a haunting beauty to these people-less images which adults, especially, may appreciate.

But this is also a counting book, meant for the youngest of children. I can imagine  a small finger pointing to the shining fifteen bins featured on page fifteen, and even hear a little voice: "One … two … three …" as that finger moves across the page.

Many children's books I've read contain a surprise on the final page, and You Can Count on the Prairies follows that tradition. I won't specifically reveal it - you'll have to read the book yourself - but I will say that whenever I pass a scene like that on the prairie, I say "That is a big operation!" to whomever I'm with.

On the bio page we learn that Olfert, a Saskatoon resident, previously "handmade several copies of this book for the children of friends". Obviously her efforts were well-received, as the story's been "diversified" into this beautifully-bound Your Nickel's Worth Publishing edition - and you can pick up a fresh copy for the price of a few good loaves of bread.   



“Zara's Dead”
Written by Sharon Butala
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95 ISBN 9-781550-509472

She's penned multiple novels, short fiction collections, plays, and non-fiction, including the highly popular The Perfection of the Morning (a Governor General's Award finalist), and Sharon Butala's showing no signs of slowing down. If anything, the longtime Saskatchewan author (who now lives in Calgary) is, in fact, stretching her literary chops: her latest title, Zara's Dead, is a mystery.

A new genre for this household-name writer, but the subject-the unsolved rape and murder of a beautiful young woman in the 1960s-is one the talented author's previously explored. Butala's readers will recall her non-fiction book The Girl in Saskatoon-about the murder of her high school friend, Alexandra Wiwcharuk- and there are several parallels between that real-life tragedy and the compelling plot of Zara's Dead. Like Wiwcharuk, fictional Zara is a lovely and vivacious young woman enjoying life in a prairie city, and when she's murdered the killer's never found. 

The narrator in Butala's mystery-Fiona Lychenko, a newspaper columnist who published a book about Zara's decades-old death and the clouds of mystery still surrounding it-was friends with the victim. Now seventy, widowed, and living restlessly in a Calgary condo after years of country living, Fiona's still bothered by the inconclusive investigation. " … she would pause in whatever she was doing, and ask herself how she could live knowing what she now knew about evil". Was there a cover-up? Were the police involved? Perhaps high-ranking government officials? Possibly, even, Fiona's husband?

When an envelope is slipped beneath her condo door (with what appears to be a file number pasted in magazine-cutout figures inside), Fiona delves back into the murky past. Once she starts stirring up dirt in the upper echelons of prairie society, she must watch her own back, too, but the dangerous investigation gives the recently melancholic, self-doubting, and childless widow a renewed raison d'être. "I have zero currency: "I'm old, neither beautiful nor rich, I don't have an important position" she thinks at an event where her best friend's receiving an award. Ah, but Fiona has a sharp mind, always "tacking back and forth". The unlikely sleuth decides to write a new book on Zara's death. "I've been trying for years to save Zara, maybe now she will save me".

Zara "came from some backwater, her family were nobodies". In short, she was easily disposable. A strong feminist current runs through this book: "only men had been involved in the investigation," Fiona recalls. She was fired from her newspaper for writing a column titled "Farm Women are Still Second Class Citizens". Female friendship is cherished. Deep into the story, when Fiona's recalling her second investigation, she muses "I did it for women".   

This page-turner has much to say about wealth, corruption, malaise, aging, beauty (narrator Fiona is hyper-aware of physical appearance), relationships that are not what they seem to be, grief, and loneliness. Likewise, it ably demonstrates Fiona's fierce determination, pluck, wisdom, intuition, and bravery in her quest for justice for Zara, the ghost who would not let her rest.