Saturday, September 3, 2016

Three Book Reviews: Silverthorne, Cripps,Shklanka

by Judith Silverthorne
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95  ISBN 9-781550-506525
I've now read enough of Judith Silverthorne's numerous books to know that anything she writes will be a worthy read, and my belief was confirmed again with her latest, the historical novel Convictions. This time the multi-award-winning Regina writer (and Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild) has penned an action-packed, fact-based tale about 14-year-old Jennie, a British lass sentenced to serve seven years in a penal colony in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania, Australia) after she was ungenerously convicted of theft. First however, Jennie must survive the four or five months of sailing on a convict ship with 234 other women and children, and a crew that includes more than a few letches. It's cramped, filthy, and there's precious little food or medical aid. Before long Jennie finds herself stitching up a fellow convict, Lizzie, a "doxie" who's been flogged almost to death by the evil guard Red Bull. 

I'm in awe of how Silverthorne pulls it all together: the historical and sailing details, the adventures (including fistfights, a hurricane, and a shipwreck of Titanic proportions), and even the first sparks of a romance between Jennie and the ship's youngest guard, Nate. This is extremely competent writing, and what's more, it's a story that's hard to put down.

It's 1842. Jennie's doomed to the faraway penal colony because she stole "a mouldy sack of oats" from a garbage bin to feed her starving family. Silverthorne brings the story to life in paragraph one via sensory details, including "sun-baked cobblestones" that burn Jennie's bare feet, and the "sudden cloying stench of dead fish, rotting wood and slime." As with an establishing shot in cinema, the author immediately transports readers into the story's time and place. In the next paragraph she introduces conflict. A guard yanks Jennie, and she "winced as he cuffed her wrists behind her back. A second guard snapped shackles on her ankles". Soon after, the veteran writer includes a scene: we hear the rough voices of other convicts and guards, plus bystanders' comments, and this dialogue smartly provides background information while also increasing the story's plausibility.

The convicts get little time on deck, but when they do Jennie notes "no sign of a coastline in any direction; only the never-ending grey sea mirrored by the dreary mackerel sky. The desolate sounds of the wind, the water and the odd call of a seabird." Red Bull and other guards are constant threats, and the women's nights are spent "fending off vermin and nightmares." Prisoners are threatened with a flogging frame, and there are "punishment balls and torture irons strapped to the wheelhouse."

This is no pleasure cruise. Jennie's smart, resourceful, and strong, but when she finds herself having conversations with herself, she worries she'll end up like "Crazy Mary". Fortunately there are a few warm hearts on board, including matronly Sarah and young Alice, who become Jennie's closest friends during the life or death journey.

Will they survive? The answer's in the book. I highly recommend you discover it.   



“Sibling Shenanigans”
by Marjorie Cripps, illustrated by Val Lawton
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 9-781927-75706

I can't imagine a better title for first-time author Marjorie Cripps' collection of stories for young readers than what she's chosen, Sibling Shenanigans. This fun and ably-written series of short tales features likeable siblings Amanda and Mitchell, who get along exceptionally well with each other, their parents, and their beloved Grandma. The senior's a central character (and sometimes accomplice) in several of the ten pieces. Saskatchewan-born Cripps is a retired school librarian whose love of quilting is evident in many of the stories.

Using different styles - some stories are written in First Person, others in Third Person; some are realistic, others fantastic - and an upbeat tone, Cripps welcomes us into the active lives of young Amanda and Mitchell, beginning with the latter's spectacular adventure in a "runaway stroller". Cripps shares anecdotes about sleepovers, birthdays, Christmases, pet dogs, camping, and a family move from one side of Vancouver to the other.

I appreciated how easily the author's pen swung between real life and fantasy, making both feel credible. In "Barkley on Wheels," we learn that Grandma is living in a seniors' complex, Summitcrest Lodge. "'This new hip is not nearly as good as my old one,'" she says. Barkley is her dog, but the Jack Russell terrier has gone to live with Amanda and Mitchell's family now. When the family takes him to the cottage, the dog zips around as happy dogs do, and a few days later the leash-free dog is struck by a car. There's an interesting synchronicity between Grandma's use of a walker and the dog's new harness and two-wheeled cart that support its hindquarters. "'If Barkley can keep rolling, so can I!'" Grandma says.   

Anyone with a doll phobia might find the next story somewhat creepy. In "Magic Moonlight Dance," Amanda sleeps over at Gram's doll-filled house, and during the night the dolls – from Gram's favourite, Celeste (circa 1890s) to Barbie and Ken, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, 1960s Chatty Cathy, and wooden Pinocchio  - come alive to dance and play with the unfrightened girl.  

Then it's back to reality, with Gram taking the kids tenting: the thin foam mattress gives her bones a devil of a time, and it's a three-store chore to find a better mattress in town. Rings true!

The final story concerns the imaginative children flying across Canada on Grandma's magic quilt. They touch various squares on the quilt and voila: away they zoom. They spy a humpback whale in the Pacific, and "… the quilt dropped low enough for them to salute the Mountie in front of the Parliament Buildings." At one point a lobster even attaches itself to the quilt.   

The book is minimally illustrated with black and white drawings by veteran book illustrator Val Lawton, from Calgary. Once a child has graduated from picture books, this would be a great early reader – with or without a parent or grandparent snuggled up to listen. The author can be proud of her first title. Hopefully there are more to come.

“Ceremony of Touching”
by Karen Shklanka
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95  ISBN 9-781550-506679

It's gratifying to possess some knowledge of where, both literally and metaphorically, a poet is writing from. The first piece in BC poet/doctor/dancer Karen Shklanka's second book of poetry – which originated as her master's thesis – is a touchstone. It introduces us to "the wounded soul of a doctor" who finds repose on Salt Spring Island among the "scent of salted forest, wrap of humidity/from logs returning to earth, and reassurance/from thickets of salal flowers cupped in prayer." It's a strong, unique, and elemental premise.

In many ways I feel this seven-sectioned book is not unlike one long prayer, or at least a meditation: upon one's profession, personal relationships, nature and human nature, how "everything is connected," and upon the atrocity of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The section that recounts the historical event (from a fictional tailgunner's perspective; I'm thankful for the poet's extensive notes on the poems) is titled "Flight Log," and it's no small deal that it was long-listed for the CBC Poetry Prize. More interesting to me, however, are the numerous poems in which one can almost feel the poet's personal grappling about the here and now. 

Shklanka is an empathetic physician with many drug-addicted patients. Some of their sad lives, like that of patient S, are recounted in narratives that expose their desperation: "Hospitalization is a home away from homeless," the author writes. She recognizes that given the pressures on time, doctors sometimes "default to efficiency and having less compassion than a pig."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, hands often appear in the book. In a poem that nods toward the collection's gorgeous cover image – a bleeding pomegranate – Shklanka writes: "Hands are pale bloody parentheses."  In a poem about a self-harming patient, we read "There's too much on my hands. My hands are empty." 
In the poem "Indiferencia," she writes: "the doctor's fingers/march the cold bell of a stethoscope across/a chest," and in a Japanese-set poem, there are "Nervous fingers of rain/on the roof of the temple."

I applaud the poet's one-stanza poem that describes a hike up Mount Robson ("the summer before/our wedding") and does not overtly mention marital discord except via the title: "Neither of Us Wants to Keep the Photographs," and well-chosen, ambiguous words like "stumble," "hunger" and "sharp descent." Perhaps all readers also appreciate those lines in which they recognize their own innocuous folly, ie: "I've been looking into the wrong end/of the binoculars."  
Shklanka makes excellent poetry of her personal life and her profession, and she doesn't shirk from the stereotype of doctors as gods: "We have important things to do/and we will fit them into time's tight dresses." Wow.

I especially admire the last poem. Written in couplets, "Behind the Cabin at D'Arcy" melds natural details (ie: "rose hips left by the bears"), the calming rhythms of ceremony (achieved partly via word repetition), practical elements (ie: "the wood stove"), and a spectacular image of a love-making couple "superimposed, faintly, on the mountains." The poem leaves the reader with a sense of healing calm.


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