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
$10.00

     
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 amazon.ca. For more about the writer and this series, see hrhobbsbooks.com.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM
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 “Hear Me” (Breaking the Rules Series)

by H.R. Hobbs
Published by H.R. Hobbs
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
ISBN 9-780995-344815
$15.00

  
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?  
 

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

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.



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

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

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


 

 

 


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 allwriteherepublishing.ca, 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.  

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

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


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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


“Matronalia”

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."

"I/always/worry/about/the/horses."

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.

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

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

__________


“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.

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


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Three Book Reviews: Beth Goobie, Randy Lundy, and Dave Margoshes


“breathing at dusk”
Written by Beth Goobie
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95 ISBN 9-781550-509151

  
Beth Goobie, poet and fiction writer, is her own hard act to follow. With twenty-five books - including the Governor General-nominated young adult novel Mission Impossible - preceding her latest title, readers have come to expect work that sets the bar high in terms of both content and technique. In breathing at dusk, Goobie's 2017 poetry collection with Coteau Books, the Saskatoon writer again addresses some difficult themes - chiefly childhood sexual abuse - and delivers work that pours light on the darkness of her own Ontario childhood, while reconciling - often through music and nature - that it's possible to heal from the unthinkable.

I scan the Contents page and note three titles which might be considered taglines for Goobie's work, present and past: "the other face," "living with what remained," and "the mind coming home to itself".  In this and previous books she reveals that her Christian father - a piano teacher - prostituted her from an early age, and that incest, violence, being drugged, and participating in religious cult-like activities were her childhood norm. As with "talk therapy," writing about one's trauma is considered an emotionally health-making activity, and what Goobie manages to do is share just enough: she makes the unimaginable horrors imaginable - without gratuitous details or melodrama - and writing is, I expect, her process of "living with what remain(s)".

What remains are piecemeal memories, "like a child's puzzle," and a recognition that in order to survive, the author existed in different planes. In the poem "waking," we read "what i remember most/is waking on the edge of myself,/uncertain of what i was/and what i was not". The small "i" here is significant in these autobiographical poems.    

To understand just how good Goobie is, one must study her language. A bridge is described as a "concrete overture of one shore greeting its opposite". In the same poem, "your skin again feels spoken alive,/quilted with the sensation of come-and-go wind". At age fourteen Goobie was "watching/unfamiliar faces form like window frost/under [her] sketch pencil". And a terrific line like "the sun's warm footprint tracked the story of itself," deserves its own meditation. 

Though unthinkable evil existed in the drugged-and-passed-around nights of her youth, Goobie recalls some of the good magic of her childhood home and community, too, ie: "the scent of cut grass and lilac murmuring along the hall" and cicadas - "tiny prophets announcing the beginning/of their sun-winged world,/proclaiming their territory of light".

But the father, the father. With drugs and a kind of malevolent hypnosis - "when i call little turtle,'/you come out and do what i say," Goobie's father manipulated his eldest child "while the camera filmed all of it".

This writer's voice, whenever and however it is heard - whether through novels, short stories, or poetry - straddles the fine line between horror and hope. Although "sorrow is a fundamental luggage/that refuses to be left behind," Goobie is "a lark throating a delicate sky". A survivor. Long may she be heard.    


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

Written by Randy Lundy
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-775572

It's been a fair while since the poetry-reading public's heard from writer and University of Regina (Campion College) professor Randy Lundy, but the outstanding blurbs on his third poetry collection, Blackbird Song, will definitely whet the appetites of his fans, and they should draw several new readers to these spare, contemplative poems scored with birds, prairie memories, and the moon in many different incarnations. Top Canadian poets like Lorna Crozier ("Wow, I say again and again"), Patrick Lane (he includes Lundy among "the masters"), and Don McKay ("visionary") sing sweet praises, and Linda Hogan writes that these poems "are grounded constellations created of fire and ice". When senior poets' blurbs are poetry in and of themselves, you know you're doing something right.

And Lundy is certainly doing something right. Firstly, he's turning inward, and asking questions both of himself and the universe that may be unanswerable, ie: "are you waiting for the appearance of that something whose appearance/would be its own vanishing?". He's creating unique images and juxtaposing words in fresh ways. Some of these poems are brief and reminiscent of haiku. Many are odes: to lovers; to "bread fresh from the oven" and the hands that prepared it; to trees across the seasons, and to ancestors. The poet recalls the strong women in his family, including grandmothers "who skinned trapped animals, tanned hides; and cut the/throats of sheep to let them bleed out".

The book's divided into three sections, and as the title and elegant line art cover- image of a blackbird suggest, birds predominate. In the opening piece, "January," we read that the author's mother, "exists for me/the way the owl/perches/on black spruce". We find birds in similes ("Night comes swiftly like the wing of a blackbird") and metaphors, ie: a great grey owl is a "low-winter-snowcloud" - this is the kind of writing that's earned Lundy such brilliant kudos. I love his north-returning geese, "dragging their shadows".

These are also poems of place: the Cypress Hills, Buffalo Pound Lake, and the moon - yes, the moon, or "night sun," is perhaps Lundy's best-described domain. He treats us to a "hand-drum-full-moon," and the "Birchbark-silver peel of a waning/almost-gone-now moon". 

Reading these quiet (and sometimes self-deprecating) mediations is akin to hearing the poet think out loud - indeed, the words think or thinking appear in several of these poems; even the mountains are "thinking themselves into being./Thinking magma-flow, thinking/the liquid fire at the core of/everything," and a winter elm tree's engaged in "Deep thinking at the core". Readers should also engage in the thinking these poems inspire: read the pieces slowly, perhaps sit with them individually. Savour the images. Like the red-winged blackbird on the cover, these poems are most effective when given adequate space.

But take the poet's sage advice, too: "Try not to think. Try the meditation of heart-mind. If you listen/closely, you will hear the oxidized hinges on the doors of perception/squeak, opening and closing, swinging an inch or two, in the just-now rise of wind".

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM
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“A Calendar of Reckoning”
by Dave Margoshes
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95.95  ISBN 9-781550-509373


Readers can sometimes glean the foci of a book even before reading the first page. With A Calendar of Reckoning, the new poetry collection by multi-genre and widely-published writer Dave Margoshes, clues rise from the cover image - a dog facing a window (surely symbolic) and the opaqueness (clouds? Heaven?) beyond - and the title. Reckoning is a strong, old-fashioned word with Biblical overtones. It implies a measuring up ­­­- to God, perhaps, or to one's self. I expect time will be addressed ("Calendar"); the seasons, and possibly aging. And the dog? If I know Dave - and I do - there'll be at least one homage to a dog.

The Saskatoon-area writer's organized this latest impressive collection into four sections, and indeed the poems in each section are distinct. In the first, Margoshes delivers a chronological retrospective of his life from birth to "The Heart in its Dotage". Here we meet the thin, daydreaming boy: "Gradually, with the passage of time, the world I imagined/narrowed, and I put on weight, grew into myself". He includes several poems about family members and their ghosts; and other ghosts, like poets Gwendolyn MacEwen and Milton Acorn "strolling on the beach, hands clasped".

Aging and illness are addressed, but more than specific infirmaries it is the unknown that preoccupies this attentive poet. In "The Terrible Hour," he addresses it thus: "This is the hour of the uncertainties,/the vague distance. You are standing/on a corner in cold rain waiting for a streetcar,/a cigarette in your lips, the match too wet/to strike". So effective. And this is why Margoshes wins awards. Check out "Still Life".

The "Topsy-Turvy" section features poems that stretch logic and demonstrate a strong sense of play, including post-modern knocks at the act of writing, ie: "The poem mutters/under its breath, whines, sits on its haunches;" humour: "An egg/can't be too careful;" prayers: "This is a prayer made of dry leaves;" inspiration drawn from other writers; and square-dancing trees. Favourite: "Thirty-Nine Kinds of Light". Brilliant.
  
In the third section the story-telling Margoshes really kicks in, with different personas (including Adam) and narratives - one concerns a grammatically-challenged plant worker who sets out to write a book, and instead contemplates "what I done, what I didn't do". Reckoning, I reckon, as so many of the narrators here do, and often at windows: seven poems mention windows. (And yes, dogs appear throughout, most movingly in "After the Death of the Dog".)

Aside from "Three Songs of Dementia" (even Dracula succumbs) and a four-part personification piece ("The River"), section four's populated with philosophical one-stanza poems, which brings me round to this earlier gem: "There comes a time, finally,/when you see the world/for what it is: a memory". A thought to meditate on - perhaps by a window - and a sound reason to make our ride here worthwhile.

I'm grateful for the many books - including this latest - that Margoshes has ingeniously brought into this world, and made us all the richer for reading.
      

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






Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Three Book Reviews: Brenda Schmidt, Edward Willett, and Boris W. Kishchuk


“Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road”
Written by Brenda Schmidt
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-154-9

  
How interesting to watch a poet's repertoire grow and change over the years, and learn what's freshly inspiring him or her. For some it's nature, a new relationship, travel, or a loved one's passing. Trust Creighton, SK poet, visual artist, and naturalist Brenda Schmidt to eschew the usual … this former SK Poet Laureate has turned to the lowly culvert for inspiration in her latest title, Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road, and it's a romp.

This handsome collection begins with a short essay that introduces us to the kind of writer Schmidt's become. While she and her husband are driving down the Saskatchewan map, the poet blurts out questions some may consider inane. But, she writes: "Nothing I say surprises him anymore. He knows better than anyone how difficult writers can be to travel with, due in part, perhaps, to sensory overload, all these places flying by, all these junctions, private roads and keep-out signs, the mind filtering the 100 km/hr stream of information for connections …".

Indeed, connections are key in this book. Always fascinated with culverts, Schmidt's mined her own memory and discussed culverts with a variety of folks, incorporating their experiences into poems (written in various forms) that illuminate, surprise, and entertain. We learn that culverts are used for more than controlling water flow; they're also places to make love, drink wine, and play guitar (a culvert's "got great acoustics"). Cliff swallows nest in culverts, and thieves store stolen goods in them. Children, of course, race makeshift boats toward them in spring. Who doesn't remember "the official footwear" … rubber boots with "the top two inches/folded down"? Italicized quotes throughout the poems give the collection a story-telling flow.

All the good stuff of poetry is here. There's sound, ie: "The hazard lights click like heels," and a culvert "glugged like anything". The similes include "your hair falls/like a prayer plant". I admire the liberal use of personification, ie: "The Big Dipper handles breath/gently, turns and washes it," and "The stiff-lipped/culvert is the only one/whistling here". One of the many stand-out images: "your fists wet/commas at the end of your sleeves".

Schmidt's highly attuned to nature. These poems are alive with birds and bears, and they lead us across fields and ditches. Being Saskatchewan, there's also wind. And I love the clever play on former premier Lorne Calvert's name ("There's a little Lorne Culvert in all of us!").    

There's much more going on in most of these poems than the casual reader might notice. Internal rhymes, multi-purpose line breaks, and, in the longish four-sectioned poem "A Culvert Blown into Four Pieces," one story's told via the italicized first line of each tercet, and another - with more detail - when one reads each line chronologically.

In the superb piece "Elegy," Schmidt writes: "I'm not good at this./I'm not good at anything/that involves looking back/at the meltwater slowly/filling in my boot prints". Bull. This is a skilled poet having good fun, and inviting us all to join the party.   
  
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM
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"I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust"
Written by Edward Willett, Illustrated by Wendi Nordell
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783178

Prolific Regina writer Edward Willett took a great idea and ran with it, and the result is his first collection of poems, I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust, a collection of twenty-one fantastical poems with illustrations by his niece, Albertan Wendi Nordell. That initial great idea? It began with former SK Poet Laureate Gerald Hill's 2016 "first lines" project, in which he e-mailed the first two lines from poems by two SK writers each week day in April and invited all Saskatchewan Writers' Guild members to use them as springboards for new poems. Willett embraced the challenge, and the result is this creative, entertaining, and occasionally spine-tingling collection of poems that no one but Willett – well-known for authoring sixty books, including twenty science fiction and fantasy novels – could pull off.

Willett claims a life-long love affair with poetry, but admits he's not known as a poet. The man is a story-teller, through and through, thus it's not surprising that each of these poems tells a miniature story, many with an apocalyptic or space-based bent. The black and white illustrations contain figures or creatures that accentuate the often haunting work, which includes titles like "This is the Way the World Ends" and "The Labyrinth of Regret".

Despair and loneliness are major players here. Take the poem "Virtuality," partly inspired by Barbara Langhorst's line: "It wasn't the flu/the sad stones in my heart simply ran out of room". Willett takes this and gives us a melancholy character who "exchange[s]/the real life for the virtual" - hopefully his "second life" will be happier. In the piece "Facing the Silence," "Hope crumbles to dust" as a "tsunami of night" blackens out the world, and a couple, waiting for certain extinction, sit in a cabin "where normal still reigns:/the steam from our tea mugs,/the crackle of fire". This well-wrought poem and the accompanying illustration make a highly effective pairing.  

But it's not all darkness and foreboding: the book ends with a rollicking poem inspired in part by the lines - and cowboy poetry rhythm - of Ken Mitchell. In Willett's poem people live in "colonies out 'mongst the stars," and the protagonist, Old Bill, "was born in a starship" and rides a robotic horse. Willett's turned to lines from Stephen Scriver and Joanne Weber to inspire "Saint Billy," about a man whom God wants to saint so "he can talk to all them sinners" about things like "their drivin' after/drinkin' and their gamblin' and their/droppin' of the final g's on words".

The poet's written several of his own quotable lines, ie: "Now, please don't think we're prejudiced/against vampires," and I loved the small stanza he's made using the first two lines from a Sheri Benning Poem: "In the near dark,/when she's almost asleep/there are stories".

I've read about 90% of the books the quotes were drawn from – Willett's also used one of my lines in this collection – and it's fascinating to see how he's spun these lines into something fresh … and most unexpected. 

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM
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"Possessions: Their Role in Anger, Greed, Envy, Jealousy, and Death"
by Boris W. Kishchuk
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-927570-42-5


I love games: card, word, trivia, etc., and I've usually been fortunate to have someone in my circle who also enjoys a friendly but spirited competition. Why share that in a review of Saskatoon writer Boris W. Kishchuk's latest nonfiction title, Possessions: Their Role in Anger, Greed, Envy, Jealousy, and Death? Read on.

In the preface to this exquisitely-researched book Kishchuk writes that he's wondered "why people kill each other," and he wins my attention. This text examines "the psychology of possession". The author investigates our desire to possess from myriad angles, including religious and economic reasons, and presents numerous diverse examples of how the human penchant for possessing has led to crime, brutality, murder and war. At the end of this page-turner Kishchuk reveals that his original title idea was The Curse of Possessions. He could have called it Read This and Never Lose at "Jeopardy" Again!

Kishchuk's previous titles demonstrate his eclectic range of interests: Long Term Care in Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Crown Corporations, and Connecting with Ukraine. Possessions is "more reflective in nature," and I greatly appreciate the way this author reflects and how he's organized his fascinating stories/examples. The breadth of information presented is humbling, from religious beliefs regarding possession to biographies of those who used what they possessed – ie: wealth, knowledge, generosity, or power - for good, ie: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates, and Alexander Fleming.

Chapter 2 considers "Greed and Possessions," with examples of both personal and corporate greed. Regarding the former, the author includes stories about Bernard Madoff and Imelda Marcos – see what I mean about range? – and corporate avarice is represented by the likes of Bre-X and Nortel. 

You know those news-makers and historical Canadian or international events that you feel you should know more about, but never take the time to research? I have several on my list, and reading Possessions has filled many of those gaps. In succinct, interesting, and easy-to-read stories – rather like sound-bytes - I learned (or-relearned) about everything from the Columbine High School shootings to ethnic cleansing and genocide in Cambodia.  

Chapters 5 and 6 are phenomenal: the Crusades … The Troubles … the Islamic State … the Roman Empire … the Vikings … the Mongol Invasion of Europe … the British Empire … World Wars … The Aga Khan … Jim Crow … Putin … Ghandi … Mandela … Louis Pasteur … Robbie Burns, etc. Who knew that the Viking era only lasted for 300 years (780-1080), or that at one time the British Empire occupied or controlled "over 90 of the world's 203 countries," or that during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the southern US, "it was understood that white motorists always had the right of way at street intersections"? Boris W. Kishchuk. That's who.  

Possessions is a concise, fast-paced education. I feel enlightened. Now if I could commit all this information to memory, Wally - my partner in life and opponent in TV "Jeopardy" - would never beat me in a game again.  
 
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM