Friday, September 26, 2014

Another quintet of book reviews.

“Leaving Mr. Humphries”

by Alison Lohans

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$12.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-07-2

     There are some writers you can always depend on to turn out a good book, regardless of the genre. I first knew Regina author Alison Lohans as a short story writer for young adults. She’s also impressed me with her novels and children’s books. The ability to genre-hop and keep the literary standards at high-bar are Lohans’ trademarks, so I’m not surprised that Leaving Mr. Humphries, her tender story about a child reluctant to let go of his stuffed blue teddy bear, Mr. Humphries, also delivers a read that simultaneously entertains and plucks at the heart-strings.

     This book is the result of a familial collaboration: it’s illustrated by Gretchen Ehrsam, Lohans’ American cousin, who-like the author-enjoyed childhood vacations at the family’s cottage in Dorset ON.

     What first impressed was how quickly I was engaged. With kids’ books, writers don’t have the luxury to slowly beguile readers, and Lohans instantly gets us into the main character’s head and heart-space.

     Josh is the protagonist. His mother is off to “a conference in the city,” and he’ll

have to stay with Grandpa and Aunt Judy at their cottage. “My insides have a lonely, hurting feeling. I hold on tight to Mr. Humphries,” we read on page one. The story unfolds in clear, short sentences-the kind a child might “think” in-and images are credibly presented in the same way: “[Aunt Judy] helps me into a fat orange life jacket.”

     As three generations enjoy a motorboat ride, outdoor meals (“Bugs bang into the screens but they can’t get us”), pie baking, and exploring, Lohans does a superb job of keeping the story in Josh’s young voice. She also believably demonstrates his anxiety re: sleeping in the attic, where “bats flap and squeak,” and using the outdoor toilet in the dark, raccoon-filled night. As long as Josh has the security of Mr. Humphries, he manages well.

     A secondary theme in this book is aging. Josh frequently notes his grandfather’s advanced age. “Mr. Humphries and I wade in the lake while Grandpa sits in a chair,” Lohans writes. The boy sees his grandfather as “old and shaky,” and his hands shake when he works on a jigsaw puzzle. His daughter warns him not to take the boat out alone.

     Lohans is also a musician, and her use of sound in this book stands out. She writes: “On the lake, a loon makes lonely sounds,” “feet clang on the metal steps,” and “Hummingbirds whir at the feeder.” Josh notes how “The bottom of the boat scrunches on sand” and “Water slurps and splashes.”

     There are no notes on the accompanying full-page illustrations, but they look like woodcut prints and perfectly mirror the story’s subject and tone.   

     Regardless of their intended audience, children’s book have to first pass muster with the wallet-holders. Free copies are generally part of the payment for book reviewers, so I asked myself this: were I not reviewing Leaving Mr. Humphries, would middle-aged me buy this book? You bet your blue teddy bear I would.    



“Red River Raging”

by Penny Draper

Published by Coteau Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$10.95  ISBN 9-781550-505849


     It’s a dull, wet day and I’ve nowhere to be but home-hurray!-because today I’ve had the distinct pleasure of reading Penny Draper’s novel Red River Raging cover-to-cover, and it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

     Coteau Books published Red River Raging as part of its Disaster Strikes! Series, which includes six other Draper titles. After reading this latest book, I certainly see why Coteau keeps Draper on its publication roster: this “Juvenile Fiction” is a terrific story, skillfully told, and I’m happy to sing its praises to readers of any age.

      The back cover copy whet my appetite for this gripping Manitoba-flood-based, coming-of-age story. Thirteen-year-old Finn is the only child of Vancouver scientists, and while his parents are off to Russia, their reluctant son’s exiled to the rural, St. Agathe MB home of his cookie-baking grandmother and crusty-but mysterious-great grandfather.   

     Finn quickly makes friends at school, including Clara, who becomes his girlfriend (and has an interesting side-story herself); and Aaron, who “got run over by a bale of hay” and is in a wheelchair. When a major flood threatens, Finn initially feels “It’s about as exciting as reading a murder mystery when you already know who the murderer is and when he’s going to strike,” but he soon learns how real and devastating it will be when the Red River becomes the Red Sea. He rallies classmates to create a sandbag-filling “Flood Club,” the military helps out, and even Peter Mansbridge arrives: “everybody’s saying that his being here officially makes this a disaster. Now we can panic.”

     One of Draper’s greatest achievements is how she seamlessly unrolls the plot of this adventure story-about the 1997 Red River flood disaster-and also spins out a very credible character story. I became completely entranced by the likeable and humorous narrator, Finn, but the author also does a bang-up job of developing secondary characters, like Aaron, and the young geography teacher, Ned; they seem like real people, not just “extras”.

     Finn tries to figure out his 94-year-old great grandfather, who goes by his surname, Armstrong, and “kind of looks like a garden gnome, only mean.” The boy is perceptive. He says “I’ll use my wiles to break into Armstrong’s mind,” and eventually the pair begin bonding over that great game, cribbage. Finn recognizes that when he’s with his parents on global assignments, his anthropologist father hires a grad student “supposedly to be my babysitter. But I’m actually bait. The grad student’s real job is to write a paper about how the local kids live. So they need me to get out there and play with all the kids.”

     We witness Finn transform from city boy to country boy, from a child to a young man who loves “to see the walls of white bags grow around somebody’s life and know that I’m helping them protect what they love the most.”

     There is an exceptional, other-worldly sub-plot that I don’t want to give away: please buy this eminently satisfying book, and discover it. Wow, wow, wow.    


“Every Happy Family”

by Dede Crane

Published by Coteau Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95  ISBN 978-1-55050-548-1

     After finishing Every Happy Family, by Victoria-based Dede Crane, I felt the warmth of being included in a family that truly loves and cares for each other, despite divergent interests and personalities. In short, I felt this family’s embrace.

      Crane’s novel is a realistic study of family and the complex relationships that develop between generations, between husbands and wives, and between siblings. Readers are privy to the private thoughts, fears and hopes of various members of the Wright family over a period of five dynamic years.

     The story is told through the perspectives of each of the Wrights. Introspective Jill is an “itinerant linguistics scholar”. Words matter to this woman. Her Sandwich Generation responsibilities involve caring for her increasingly eccentric mother (the older woman spontaneously invites two men and a woman-“we need a fourth for bridge”-to live with her), and parenting three teenaged children: studious Quinn; athletic Beau; and adopted Tibetan daughter, Pema. The familial roster also includes Jill’s husband, Les, and her artsy sister-in-law, Annie.      

      Crane’s taken on a large cast and she’s successfully created completely individual identities for each member. It was interesting to watch this family grow and change as life dealt it some heavy hands. One of the most intriguing story- lines concerns Pema, a “hormone soup” when we first meet her at age 14. At the outset, a letter’s arrived from Pema’s birth mother, and although Les is supportive of a reconnection, Jill can’t emotionally process it. A few years later Pema travels to Jampaling to meet and live with her biological family. When she’s sharing a bed-“a grass-stuffed mattress on top of two wool carpets”-with her step-sisters, she remembers back to when “Her biggest concern in life [was] matching the colour of her highlights to her shoes.”

     Quinn becomes an architecture student who eventually connects with a woman his educated mother will look down upon. One of his endearing idiosyncrasies is his habit of thinking of people as the buildings he feels would best represent them. His girlfriend, Holly, is the architectural equivalent of “an old-style cement water tower on a smooth expanse of prairie.”  

      As in real life, these characters are sometimes delightfully bizarre. Creative Auntie Annie makes leather cumberbunds and flapper tops from plastic straws. She has “a collection of nineteen house keys stolen from lovers.”

      Illness plays a roll with two characters, and when one is dealing with cancer, he credibly states: “It’s like having someone sit on your shoulder and whisper ‘you’re sick, you’re sick, you’re sick’ in your ear while you’re trying to think about something else.”

       Families are not static, as Crane ably demonstrates. Late in the book we read “How well can we know anyone?” Even when living beneath one roof, it’s difficult for family members to truly know each other. Then the kids grow up, move on, and life spins beyond anyone’s control. By the time you reach the novel’s final scene, you’ll feel like you’re right in the room. Crane delivers a heart-rending experience.     

“Fog of the Outport”
by Robin Durnford, artwork and design by Meagan Musseau
Published by JackPine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$30.00  ISBN 978-1-927035-07-8
     JackPine Press is well-known for publishing artsy chapbooks. I was prepared for the unconventional, but admit I didn’t know how to approach Fog of the Outport. The textless, off-white cover and grey, hand-stitched spine offered no clues as to what might be inside, thus genre, creators, and even the title awaited discovery.
     I opened the book and was delighted to find a dramatic landscape reflected in silkscreen prints; a design that merges with the unfoldable back cover to create an innovative, three-paneled panorama.
      This limited-edition chapbook, written by Robin Durnford, and illustrated\ designed by Meagan Musseau-Newfoundlanders both-is a gorgeous collaboration featuring prose poems named for each month of the year-“february” to “february”. It’s a memorial to the life of the poet’s father, whose own father died when he was five, and it’s an homage to Durnford’s widowed grandmother, left with nine children to care and provide for on “the exposed bone-belly” of Francois NFLD, an isolated, south coast outport.
     There is story here, and art, and language that made my mouth water. In the first “february” piece, one does not so much read as she does listen to the words:
     “this story begins in the rock-slide sea-bowl of one lost harbor, secreted amongst the gull-ridden shady rows of hills and cliffs stoic and reaching toward Miquelon. a parallel universe stuffed with the stink of fish guts and salt, tipping houses, thick with paint, falling slowly into persevering cliffs, slippery and wild, ice-crusted in winter, blooming in summer with the brambleberries and beach rocks, black flies and stouts …”
     I was so taken by the musical, alliterative phrases, like “we slipped lovely and lonely into the living again,” that I didn’t realize until the end of the second poem that the poet was cleverly inserting rhyme into her stanzas, ie: “the mom in the kitchen, clutching arms to her chest, nine boiled potatoes on nine plates for the rest.” Hunger’s both depicted and symbolically represented in the hard-consonants and uncapitalized, long-sentenced, prose poem form.
     This could be a handbook for what it’s like to grow up in Newfoundland. We have “red-bottomed rubbers,” “sprayed shellfish and sticky dories,” “black waves and dips, reaching for savagely granite-stacked cliffs.” There are mummers, described as “snowstorm-hurled gargoyles” who scare the child with their “shape-shifting in kitchens.”
     In the hard year that followed her grandfather’s death, the poet’s dad failed Grade One, explored a shipwreck, and “sprouted and frolicked, choked on lobster and Pollock.” The chapbook is rife with hyphenated words that really hit the mark: “sea-urchin throat,” “blood-bogs,” “fuzz-bearded tuckamore” and “stink-sinking marsh” are among my favourites.
     This rich language is balanced against digital reproductions of Musseau’s delicate ink and watercolour paintings, which suggest landscapes rather than mirror them.
     Fog of the Outport will satisfy those poetry-lovers who mourn the absence of rhyme in contemporary poetry, and it will sate aficionados of free-verse\prose-poetry. Google” Fog of the Outport CBC” for an excellent televised feature (“Land and Sea”) on the creators and story behind this book.
“Stepping Out from the Shadows: A Guide to Understanding & Healing from Addictions”
by Allan Kehler
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-12-6
     Unhealthy addictions are prevalent in contemporary society, and if you visit any bookstore, you’ll note that books about addictions also fill the shelves. When one who’s experienced the wrath of addiction puts pen to paper, it tends to add weight to the words. Allan Kehler is a Saskatchewan author, addictions counsellor, educator, and presenter, and he’s also struggled with both addictions and mental illness. His book Stepping Out from the Shadows: A Guide to Understanding & Healing from Addictions, is an easy-to-read guide for those struggling with addictions, and for those who love and support them.
     Kehler names some of the reasons why one might become addicted to a substance or behavior (like compulsive gambling or over-eating). These include a lack of love and nurturing within the home environment, mental illness, peer pressure, or some specific trauma which resulted in suppressed emotions. “The person takes comfort knowing that something exists that will bring them out of their painful reality.” As use escalates, however, a habit that was once a “want” evolves into a “need.”
     The author also addresses “the face of addiction.” Society may stereotype addicts, as the author confesses he once did. His preconceived notion of an addict-“an older man dressed in torn and dirty clothes … wild and tangled hair … fingers wrapped tightly around a bottle, or a needle protruding from his arm”-made it hard to identify himself as an addict. That notion, he explains, is no longer valid: addiction does not heed age or social status.
     Kehler backs his text up with statistics. He writes that a U of A psychiatrist and addictions expert discovered “that while seven out of 10 [addicts] continue to be employed, less than 10 percent are actually identified as having addictions.”     
      He also talks about responsibility, and says that while “the disease of addiction isn’t a choice … the behavior is.” “It is the addict who initially chose to pick up the bottle the pill, the joint, the cards, the food, etc.” The compulsion to continue the destructive behaviour is so strong, he explains, that when one is told to stop “this can sound like being told to stop breathing.” That’s powerful stuff, and it really puts into perspective the vice-grip hold addictions can have on an individual. Kehler asserts that talking and letting people in are key to recovery. 
     In Stepping Out from the Shadows I learned that “Addicts tend to avoid mirrors like the plague because they don’t want to see what they’ve become,” and that addictions may pause emotional growth, so if young people begin drinking heavily at age 15, their emotional age may remain at that age, “even if they stop drinking at 30.” What a frightening thought!
     This book is well-written, organized, and researched. It offers strong hope for addicts and their loved ones, and the fact that the author has battled and beat his own demons should be highly inspiring to those who feel they will never be happy, healthy and whole again.    

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