Saturday, November 30, 2019

Three New Reviews: "Critters: Underdark" by Allan Dotson; “Raymond Raindrop" and "Swings & Things” by Eileen Munro; and "Finding Fortune" by L.A. Belmontéz

"Critters: Underdark"

by Allan Dotson
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783437
How best to describe Regina writer, artist and teacher Allan Dotson's monster-inspired graphic novel, Critters: Underdark … a 153-page, 10-years-in-the-making labour of love, and black and white demonstration of great talent? An equally touching and humorous allegory for our socially-fractured and racially- divisive times? A textual and artistic tour de force? Each of the above applies, but at the heart of this fantasy's success is the creator's unique imagination, his skill at storytelling, and his deft ability to create individuated "monsters" - both visually and literarily - that readers of all ages will quickly care about.

It's easy to suspend disbelief and get wrapped up in the train-wrecked world of innocent Eddy - a pincered "ettercap" who looks like a louse - and his first friend, the snaggle-toothed monster Sally, who tells also-caged Eddy: "You're not alone. We're all scared." Eddy's toddler-like diction is adorable, ie: "Is we all getting' stuffs? Like weppins?" and "O nos! Thems gonna git us!" Many things are "skeery".

In the first few pages we learn that these creatures, captured along with several others by the dwarves at the bidding of the medusa queen, Dread Lady Linnorm, both miss their mothers. The train's taking a variety of critters "to the north to the wizards' market" where they'll be sold to humans. Lady Linnorm's daughter, Lena, is watering the imprisoned critters when the train crashes and releases Eddy, Sally, and monsters of all kinds. The pair bond with strong Gronk - part cat, part dragon - and journey toward "freedom," battling opponents and gathering comrades along the way, including spidery Uriel, who's in the habit of saying "Heehee," and ascertains that Lena, who's travelling with them, can be both "slaver" and "one of [them]".

The mother-child relationship is explored through Eddy, Sally and Lena. Sally's mother is a kindly swamp hag who taught her daughter "how to cook and stuff". Lena's powerful mother is desperate to find her. Eddy's mother will break your heart.

Dotson uses diction - and spectacular images; even caves have character - for humour and to create individuality. Lady Linnorm's minions speak with a Scottish brogue: "Thar be sum more o' tha wee beasties!" Evil, elephant-trunked Slithirgaddy is amassing an army to "follow [their] unsuspecting quarry deep into the stygian gloom of the endless underdark". Lena and sharp-toothed Sally exchange barbs, ie: Sally's superpower is the ability to turn invisible. Lena says: "That's great, Sally, then we won't have to look at you."

Dotson teaches science and art at an elementary school, and I can see how this novel would enthrall students and educators: he's made it user-friendly for classrooms via a teachers' guide, available online.

A longtime comic afficionado, sci-fi and fantasy fan, and founding member of Regina's Valuable Comics collective, Dotson also designs and publishes role-playing games. Critters: Underdark is his first novel, and the first volume in his Critters Saga. Readers can next look forward to Wandering Monsters. I wonder if foes Sally and Lena will become friends?


"Raymond Raindrop" and "Swings & Things”
Written and illustrated by Eileen Munro
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 9-781988-783444 

I was introduced to the fun-filled illustrations and down-home text of Saskatchewan artist Eileen Munro in 2014 via her rural-themed alphabet book, ABC’s Down on the Farm. Now, five years later, she's followed up with another picture book, this time featuring two educational stories: Raymond Raindrop and Swings & Things. Munro's cover advertises "Facts and fun - 2 Books in 1" - it's a double treat for young readers and story listeners, and an ingenious way for a writer using YNWP's excellent publishing services to get the most bang for her buck.

As the title reveals, Raymond is a raindrop, which Munro visually presents somewhat like a grey Hershey's Kiss with simple facial features, three-fingered white hands and two black ovaline feet. Raymond's character, however, is far from simple. "Shy and a little bit proud," he "stayed by himself" while his fellow raindrops "bounced and bubbled" together. Our watery protagonist notes that the people on the land below him look worried re: the lack of rain for their crops.

The story is about the importance of working together. The prairie spirit of cooperation is equally as important among the raindrops as it is has traditionally been among farming communities. On each pair of facing pages Munro provides one fact about rain, ie: "Every second, about 16 million tons of water evaporates from the Earth's surface and falls back to the ground in the form of raindrops." It's a creative way to teach youngsters, and as these facts are visually separated from the story proper via a light blue text box, there's no confusing the two.

Swings & Things is subtitled Everyday Pendulums and Pivots, and it features ponytailed Henrietta, who "likes to swing," and "to find other things that swing too". As with the first story, this short tale also includes interesting and eclectic facts - about pendulums, spiders, monkeys, and more - presented in textboxes.

We discover that Henrietta loves to see the acrobats swing at the circus, and she aspires to become an acrobat one day. On this page I learned that the stretchy leotard gymnasts - and others - wear was named after the "French gymnast Jules Léotard, who developed the art of trapeze". It's the kind of trivia you could slip into a conversation at the next dinner party you attend, and then you can gift your host or hostess with a copy of this delightful, colourful and well-produced book, because we all have someone in our life who can use a small, happy story.

Congratulations to Munro, who "came from a family of storytellers who told tales that wove a path through her imagination," for putting her own storytelling talents onto the page for others to enjoy. Raymond Raindrop. Henrietta, in her red pinafore, who loves things that swing. Two "simple stories for small scientists," as is stated on the back cover. I wonder what kinds of characters will spill from Munro's imagination in her next book, and what readers will learn along the way.

"Finding Fortune"

by L.A. Belmontéz
Published by QueenPin Books, an imprint of Garnet House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$25.00  ISBN 9-781999-567606

It's astounding how frequently completely disparate parts of one's life intersect. I recently booked a flight to Colombia for early 2020, and recently received a review copy of L.A. Belmontéz's telenovela-type novel, Finding Fortune, which is set, in part, in Colombia. While reading I paid close attention to what I might learn about Cartagena through the former prairie resident and debut-novelist's 399-page debut title.

The book's main character, Las Vegas resident Valerie Verlane, has authored a book titled The Princess Problem: From the Pea to Prosperity. Verlane comes from money and much attention is given to clothing brands, vehicles, and other luxury-material matters. She has her nose and breasts "done," and is the type who "had never taken a bus and she never would". Verlane's told her daughter that the girl's father is dead, and for all Verlane knows, Dmitri - the worldly young lawyer-in-training who'd waltzed into her 24-year-old life in Los Angeles - has in fact died.

The Canadian-born protagonist was working in a high-end furniture store in Santa Monica when playboy Dmitri swept her off her stilettos. After a few passionate dates, Dmitri, who was supposedly going to Ecuador to surf with friends, went MIA. Though pregnant with Dmitri's baby, Verlane foolishly wed Pedro, a Mexican con who stole her family's inheritance.  She "had punished herself all those years after losing Dmitri by staying with Pedro," and in that time "all ideas of self-identity has been erased through marriage and motherhood".

After Verlane's lawyer manages to reinstate the inheritance, the California-prep schooled Verlane - her privileged education taught her things like never "to do anything that is considered the maid's job" - becomes determined to "show [Dmitri] what he'd been missing" in the troubled nine years that've passed. Verlane finds Dmitri as easily as you can say "Google Search" … he's registered for the "Third Annual Caribbean Master's Golf Tournament in Cartagena".  But first, she must return to her former glory, and rebuild her self-esteem. How? Via shopping. "One day I will have my yacht," she thinks. "Today I only want clothes." She "put fear aside" and "handed over her [credit] card, buying back as much self-esteem as she could carry".

Belmontéz is great at transitions, which is something new writers often struggle with, and she proves her writing chops with descriptions like this one, of a kitchen: " … almost smelling like a home with the aroma of cocoa taking shape, gathering itself like a ghost before dissipating into the rest of the house and out the windows."

I won't be seeing the same upscale locations in Cartagena as Verlane - no resorts for me - but I do look forward to seeing, from the plane, "the peninsula of Bocagrande curl up around the city like a serpent's tale," and "churches casting long shadows over cobblestone plazas in the late-day sun."

Finding Fortune is a thick soap-opera in text, and the kind of sun-soaked romp you just might be looking for in the heart of winter.



Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Three New Reviews: Lost Boys by Darci Bysouth, The Eater of Dreams by Kat Cameron, and Baxter and the Blue Bunny, written by Lorraine Johnson; illustrated by Wendi Nordell

“Lost Boys”
Written by Darci Bysouth
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-175-4

Lost Boys is a short story collection with three-way heft: physical (eighteen stories), technical (diverse voices and plots; excellent characterizations; realism and magic realism are each employed to great effect), and emotional (wow). Effective art makes us think and feel, and in this, her first book, BC writer Darci Bysouth has mastered the tricky business of making the world seem both smaller and larger, and she's made this reader's heart turn over.

Innate talent? I expect so, but Bysouth also honed her craft at the University of British Columbia and the University of Edinburgh, and her work's appeared in respected literary journals and anthologies; these facts tell me that she paid her literary dues before breaking into the ISBN world with this fist-to-gut collection.

I could speak of the equally convincing male and female narrators; the recurring themes of sibling relationships, poverty, addictions, and mental illness; or of  settings that range from the "sheep and potholes" of Scotland to dark Canadian forests. I could write about the double entendre, the details, the poetic language, ie: "The water was such a long way below that it looked like some other thing," or how many of Bysouth's stories lead us inside lives that would make most of us squirm, ie: the girl who was a cutter: "My art is the razor notches on my thighs, oh God, daddy how I love those little mouths chafing against my jeans." There are so many "I coulds," but I want to concentrate on two stories I consider masterpieces: "Petey" and "Sacrifice".
Like most of the stories here, "Petey" is told in First Person, but it's told by an unreliable narrator - unreliable, because he's a drunk. He's a drunk because his wife left him with their daughter "before Lily had said her first word;" there's been an accident; and he's on leave from work and expects to be fired. Seven-year-old Lily brings home an injured bird and we follow this whisky-soaked father down a rabbit hole of fantastic destruction until the story's last impactful line, which carries so much gravity it compels one to reread the story, immediately.  

"Sacrifice" is written through the perspective of Rachel: a single, aging, childless social worker in an office where everyone else has dependents/loved ones and rich lives outside of work. Rachel's the employee who brings cupcakes to work because "there may be children visiting the office". She "always admires the accomplishments of other people's children." Because this story is so credible, when it moves from one nightmare to the next, any reader with a heart will feel theirs drop at what unfolds. Extremely well set-up, full circle story. 

The stories here do tend toward darkness. In other words, they reflect the world as it is experienced by many. I admire Bysouth's bravery and skill in writing about what hurts, and Thistledown Press for bringing her insightful stories to the world. Again, wow. I was so moved, I needed to sit and be still after reading these phenomenal stories.


“The Eater of Dreams”

Written by Kat Cameron
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-184-6

Kat Cameron, a Swift Current-born poet, fiction writer, and English Literature prof at Edmonton's Concordia University, has penned a place-specific collection of sometimes-linked stories with an intriguing title: The Eater of Dreams, and the 67-page eponymous story is a fascinating read, complete with a 100-year-old ghost, a grieving and disillusioned English teacher in Japan, and so many sensory-rich glimpses into Japanese culture - albeit from an outsider's perspective - readers might almost believe they are there.

The opening stories are Edmonton-based, and as a former resident of that city I enjoyed tagging along with the female protagonists to the Muttart Conservatory, Whyte Ave, and Jubilee Auditorium, even if these gals were not in the happiest moods. One was not having any fun being the sole woman in a trio at the Muttart Conservatory without a toddler, then she lost her friend's little girl among the poinsettas. Zoe lives in a university-area garret that's so cold her "breath fogged the air while she watched late-night TV, huddling under three comforters," and she's terrified an abusive ex will reappear. In a linked story, Zoe accompanies her new boyfriend to a family funeral in Calgary, and not only does she get put on the spot by being asked to sing "Amazing Grace," she forgets the words; a snowstorm forces them to turn around on the highway at the end of the miserable day; and she contends that her "problems trailed after her like plumes of car exhaust on a winter night".

Some of the descriptions really stand out, ie: in another Zoe story, her brother "has a small goatee, like a line of dirt extending down from his sideburns". In "Searching for Spock," Kalla's grandfather "smelled of peppermints, mothballs and wool" and her grandmother's early-morning baking filled the kitchen with smells of "crystallized brown sugar and yeast with a bitter overlay of smoke".

The sensory details are strongest in the effective title story. The protagonist, Elaine, is lonely and grieving the death of her fiancé while teaching at a Japanese high school. This is good: "The air smells of gasoline, hot tar, spilled beer, overlaid with a whiff of freesias and roses. The rain starts, a few sprinkles, then falls in thick, warm ropes" and it "drums on the iron stairs". See, smell, hear.

Elaine's estranged from her parents and apart from a connection with one kind student, her "longest conversations have been crank phone calls," ie: students calling to giggle and ask "Do you li-ku sex-u?". Elaine begins to appreciate the company of Lafcadio, a former writer and present ghost who frequently materializes as a misty shape in the teacher's cockroach-infested apartment. When the details take shape - "His hair is white and springs back from his forehead with a Mark Twain folksiness," - she thinks "If I had to attract a ghost, couldn't he be thirty-something and look like Laurence Fishburne". 

Sporadic humour, cultural insights, and the wisdom the narrator gains from intensive self-study make this long story a terrific accomplishment.   

"Baxter and the Blue Bunny"
Written by Lorraine Johnson, Illustrated by Wendi Nordell
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 9-781988-783413

Baxter and the Blue Bunny is the debut children's book by Yorkton writer Lorraine Johnson, and the story flows so smoothly along one would think it was penned by a veteran. Complemented by Alberta illustrator Wendi Nordell's colourful and "just right" illustrations of the canine character Baxter and his home and family, this simple, well-told story hits a surprisingly deep emotional chord.

The story, told in Baxter's voice, begins at a pet shelter, with "mom and dad, and two brothers" choosing the black and white Shih Tzu-looking dog. "I am looking for them … and they are looking for me," Baxter says, "each of us wanting to find someone special to love, to look after, and to grow up with." It's easy to read this story as an allegory, for isn't that what most of us humans want in life, too?

Through the text and Nordell's inviting scenes we experience the days in the life of a happy, well-loved dog: he plays tug-o'-war with the boys, hike-and-seek with the adults, and Grandma brings a "stuffed blue bunny" which "soon becomes [Baxter's] shadow". The dog loves - and even sleeps with - the bunny … until the day Blue Bunny goes missing. "Where could he be? Will I ever see him again?"

Baxter uses his nose to search for his beloved stuffed friend, but time and again, "there is no blue bunny" and life just isn't the same for our shaggy hero. Yes, he can chase birds and roll in the freshly-cut grass, but nothing is ever as much fun without his companion.

This softcover book is beautifully produced, with black, easy-to-read text against a white background, and full-bleed illustrations featuring Baxter inside the house or outdoors on each opposing page. To her credit, Johnson presents a dog that enjoys activities we might not consider "dog-like," ie: watching Blue Bunny spin in the dryer, and standing before the oven while cookies bake. Cookies mean treats, but - and this is the refrain once the bunny bestie disappears - "there is no Blue Bunny" to enjoy them with. 

In Johnson's bio notes we learn that she was raised on a farm near Stockholm, SK, and when her family was young they did indeed find "a four-legged furry friend named Baxter to grow up with". With children's books, I've frequently found that the story often does reflect a real-life experience. Art imitates life. And why not?

Nordell's notes reveal that she's been a lifelong artist, and as such, she "claims never to have been bored as long as she had a pen and pencil and blank surface to draw on".

It could be that I'm putting my own filter on this story as I equate it with the human need for companionship, and the profound grief one experiences when a relationship's "lost," but even without that comparison, Baxter and the Blue Bunny is recommendable. A touching story in a sweet package; I hope it finds its way into many hands, large and small.


Monday, August 26, 2019

Three New Reviews: Sadie McCarney's "Live Ones," J.C. Paulson's "Broken Through," and Helen Knott's "In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience"

“Live Ones”
by Sadie McCarney
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-776500
I've reviewed hundreds of books over the decades, and have developed a kind of ritual before I read a single word of the text proper. Today Charlottetown poet Sadie McCarney's first book, Live Ones, is under inspection.

A book is a reverent thing. Firstly, I turn it in my hands, and study the front and back covers. McCarney's slim cream-coloured volume is adorned with a small purple graphic, Winged Skull / Memento Mori, by artist Susan Crawford. What does this image suggest about the poems? There will be sorrow - quite possibly death - addressed within these pages. I flip to the back, read the publisher's blurb, any other blurbs (usually provided by accomplished writers), and biographical notes about the author. Here I learn that McCarney's book "grapples with mourning, coming of age, and queer identity against the backdrop of rural and small-town Atlantic Canada." First books often cast a wide net.

Next I check the author's birth year (just curious), if available; her Acknowledgments (where these poems previously appeared - impressive); and finally, I scan the individual titles in the Contents. Titles interest me. They can provide insight into general themes, style, and mood. Three titles leap out: "Answer and Be Entered to Win," (first poem); "$90K Victorian, Sold As Is;" and "Fairy Tale in the Supermarket." But I don't leap to these pages: writers and editors specifically order the poems, and I respect that they should be read as presented.

The opening poem is a "found poem culled from dating site questionnaires," and it's a lark in couplets. Each line asks a ridiculous question, ie: "Do you ever/
masturbate to spelling mistakes?" and "In the right light, wouldn't primates be/sexy?" I expect that this (hopefully) hyperbolic take on online dating questionnaires is making a statement on modern day relationships, and the title, "Answer and Be Entered to Win," comments on the gamble - and ridiculousness - inherent in online dating. It's a fun piece.

"Early Adopters," imagines female partners queueing for a baby at a "Black Friday sale," after "the once-fertile town's life-sap/dried up and took the yearly/births along with it." Clever!

Some of the slice-of-life poems, like a cancer-riddled aunt's trip to a beach with family, are the strongest: "By now her innards are carved up/by the cancer, metastasized every/way like the night's last firework." "Steeltown Songs," is a longer poem about adolescence and growing up where "Sometimes we skipped our chalked-in court/our tire swing's welt of spit-out gum".     

The book's saturated with fabulous images, ie: "the shimmer of smashed beer bottles/like low-rent stardust," "her hair a Celtic knot of grease" (from "$90K Victorian, Sold As Is"), and Costa Rican dogs who "luxuriated in their harems/of flies."  In "Fairy Tale in the Supermarket," lobsters "wear rubber bands/as funeral corsages."

Houses, families, small towns, youth, illness, "A teacup of ticks" and "A foundered rowboat full of rain." The 1992-born author of these unflinching poems - varied in style and content - should be proud of her first book.

“Broken Through”

by J.C. Paulson
Published by Joanne Paulson
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00ftenace and her feisty  loving  ISBN 9-780995-975620

Broken Through is former Saskatoon journalist J.C. Paulson's follow-up to her first genre-blending novel, Adam's Witness, and the author's only getting better. In the new book, heroine Grace Rampling - a Saskatoon StarPhoenix reporter - digs into another gritty story after a friend's neighbour's dog is shot on the same day there's been a fatal hit-and-run in Saskatoon. Then: the neighbor, a young dental hygienist who recently kicked a drinking problem, is found brutally murdered in her home. And - spoiler alert - she was pregnant. The father? The philandering dentist she worked for.

That's hardly all: Rampling's romantic partner, Detective Sergeant Adam Davis (from the earlier book), is investigating the murder, and the handsome and capable cop quickly connects this crime with others committed against petite, long-haired brunettes in Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Can you say serial killer?

The novel definitely earns the moniker of a mystery, but one could also call it a romance. New lovers Rampling and Davis are extremely passionate about one another, but both are also being careful. Davis suffers from PTSD, which manifests in violent nightmares. "I feel like a piece of glass, sometimes; the tiniest chip makes me shatter," he tells Rampling. With their complementary careers, the lines between personal and professional sometimes get blurred for this love-struck couple.

This isn't literary fiction, so you won't find overly poetic passages that would slow the racing plot, except, on occasion, when the lovers are regarding one another. Here's Adam, upon seeing Grace after he's been in California for a conference: "His body was paralyzed, but his eyes couldn't look at her hard enough. With her tumbled, wild dark-auburn hair, her magnolia skin, and in her flowing dress, she reminded him of a crazy, beautiful, windblown wildflower." You will find taut and believable dialogue, cliffhangers that'll have you flipping pages as fast as you can, and a story that has more bends than the South Saskatchewan River.  

Davis and Police Chief McIvor are culturally-sensitive characters, and as three of the five victims are Métis or First Nations women, deep into the novel Davis consults Elder Eileen Bear at the women's low-security prison for "a clearer understanding of what women, particularly Indigenous women, are facing, in terms of violence, domestically and otherwise." There's a reference to BC's "Highway of Tears," and Bear says the prairie assaults are "our River of Tears". Later, during a police press conference, Davis explains that the Saskatoon police force is "going to find and train and hire more Indigenous police officers as detectives, who will bring cultural understanding to our investigations." They will also "meet with Elders, particularly women Elders, on a regular basis."

In her notes, Paulson writes that whether one reads this "as a murder mystery, a love story, a morality tale or a fury, [she supposes] it was intended to be all of those." Mission accomplished.

In the final two chapters of this satisfying story, Paulson opens the door for further adventures for her crime-fighting duo. I'll be waiting.  


“In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience”
by Helen Knott
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-780889-776449

When a novice author earns the praise of writers like Maria Campbell and Richard Van Camp, it's like a promise: readers are in for a powerful experience. But Helen Knott's In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience, also comes with a warning: the content is "related to addiction and sexual violence. It is sometimes graphic and can be triggering for readers." The author suggests that any readers who are triggered "be gentle with [themselves]." She opens her story by acknowledging other women's painful memories, and stating that she "gives this in hopes that [they] remember that [they] are worth a thousand horses." I am already wowed.

As suggested, I'm not alone. Eden Robinson's written the memoir's foreword, and says Knott - a Dane Zaa, Nehiyaw, and mixed Euro-descent writer in Northeastern BC - is "one of the most powerful voices of her generation." Knott's introduction to the compact hardcover reveals her raison d'être for the book: "I summoned these words and the healing that comes with them to lighten the loads of shame, addiction, and struggle" for Indigenous women.

Each of these curses - shame, addiction, struggle - is apparent from the book's outset. The author and mother to a son is detoxing from drugs and alcohol on a mattress (not a bed) in Edmonton. Home is Fort St. John. She's come to the city to "erase" herself. "My detoxing body had me contracting into a tight ball one minute and expanding like a starfish the next." So visual. Even poetic. Yet the author also speaks the vernacular, ie: a year after she, her grandmother ("Asu"), and young son move into her parents' "bitter cold" home, Knott writes that she "was fucking up six ways until Sunday and then skipped Sunday and added six more sins."

Via three dramatic sections, Knott ably demonstrates how "sideways shit went down" and her "adolescence was riddled with turmoil and shaky soil." Abused from an early age by an uncle with "pretty severe fetal alcohol syndrome and schizophrenia," Knott used cocaine (beginning at age thirteen), alcohol and other drugs to subdue the demons of perpetual sexual abuse, rape - including a gang rape in which her attackers cut her and she was found bleeding and naked in a ditch - colonialism, and racism. The brutal gang attack had the then Grade 9 student begging her mother to let her move. After six months in Prince George, Knott returned to find her "mom had disappeared" and "an angry drunken woman [was] living in her skin."

Disappearance is almost a theme in this riveting first book. Knott writes: "Us Native women know how to disappear. It's an art, really - we can disappear even when we are right in front of your face." Fortunately, through much hard work and disparate therapies - from reading and rehab to writing and embracing traditional healing practices - this admirable young writer, mother, presenter, and social worker "reappeared"/healed, and is using her experience to help others on difficult journeys.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

New Book Review: Rue Des Rosiers (Rhea Tregebov)

“Rue Des Rosiers”
by Rhea Tregebov
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-781550-506990

Rue Des Rosiers by Vancouverite Rhea Tregebov is not just an exemplary novel, it's also an important book that examines anti-Semitism and empathetically puts faces on the victims and aggressors, and my hope is that the novel receives the major attention it warrants. In this richly-layered story, multi-genre author Tregebov introduces us to 1980s Toronto and Paris, and the life of 25-year-old Jewish protagonist Sarah - intelligent, questioning, and floundering - who feels the aftershocks of the generations-earlier Holocaust and suffers nightmares she can't explain.

Readers can expect credibility and precise craft on every page as Sarah, the youngest of three daughters raised in Winnipeg, wrestles with a long-ago abortion, sibling dynamics, career choices, an emotionally-wrenching Holocaust history class, and her relationship with upwardly-mobile Michael, a lawyer who invites her to join him in Paris. Sarah despises the word "Jewess," and even dislikes the word "Jew": "I always hear the slur," she says. "Hear all this weight behind the world: history, the war." She makes almost every yes-no decision with the turn of a lucky penny.

This is also the story of Laila, who's come to Paris from war-battered Palestine with a man who lives for revenge against the Jews. Both Laila and Sarah are trying to ascertain their raison d'être, and attempting to learn - within very different circumstances - how one can live meaningfully in a world shadowed with fear, guilt, and expectation. Laila considers herself "a weed in the crack in the sidewalk" and desperately desires not "to be nothing."

Tregebov wields an uncanny knack for expressing much - whether about an individual's emotional state or the sad truth about what some social workers feel re: their efficacy - in just a line or two. "He was all she saw," for example, is a phrase used with great effect.

If an award for effective writing about sisterly connections was given, Tregebov could claim it for the scene in which Sarah's being soothed by her sister Rose, post-abortion. Rose is beside morose Sarah on her bed: "Rose's body was an edge to her own, a dam, so she wouldn't spill over. A container, so even if her body wasn't a solid, she wouldn't dissolve." Sarah's sister is "The only thing holding her on the earth."

Paris is exceptionally well-evoked; I felt I was exploring the lanes, patisseries, bridges, gardens, and metro stations right beside Sarah. She finds Luxembourg Gardens especially serene.

I believe Sarah when she's empathizing with Holocaust victims. I believe her when she's drunk with friends in Paris. I believe her when she's grief-stricken about her abortion and her sister Rose's suicide attempt; or examining Impressionist paintings at the Jeu de Paume gallery; or sitting alone in a Paris traiteur chinois ordering "honey garlic ribs and beef with broccoli in black bean sauce." (The book's saturated with delicious descriptions of food.) I believe Sarah, also, when in the midst of unspeakable horror, she does something "unequivocally good." You will believe her - and Laila - too.


Monday, July 15, 2019

Four New Book Review: Rescue in the Rockies (Rita Feutl); Murder at the St. Alice (Becky Citra); A Walk in Wascana (Stephanie Vance, illus. Wendi Nordell; David G Grade 3 (David Robert Loblaw)

“A Rescue in the Rockies”
by Rita Feutl
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 9-781550-509489

I'm both surprised and saddened that until reading A Rescue in the Rockies, I was unfamiliar with Edmonton writer Rita Feutl's titles for children and young adults. Surprised, because this is a writer at the top of her game, and saddened, because had I known how good she is, I would've been recommending her books long before now.

Her latest book - a fast-paced Banff-set novel which sees its 14-year-old heroine through several historical time travel adventures with Stoney Nakoda characters (and detainees in a WW2 internment camp ) - was gripping, credible, well-researched, political (espousing Canadian First Nations' history and human trafficking in Europe), and fun, and that's just the plot - the writing itself was topnotch.

Feutl uses a familiar situation to get the ball rolling: the protagonist, Janey, is forced to be somewhere she doesn't want to be (though as places go, The Banff Springs Hotel's not too shabby) with people she'd rather not be with: her grandma; grandma's boyfriend, who's been hired by the hotel to play Santa; and the boyfriend's 16-year-old Austrian grandson, Max, who just happens to have "the bluest eyes". It's almost Christmas, and the author presents wintery Banff well, with "the smell of exhaust from the tour buses idling in the cold, the flurry of tourists taking selfies". Janey wants to be with her parents, but they're in Cambodia ("Mum" works for an international aid organization), and we learn that Max would love nothing more than to be with his father, wherever he may be.

I applaud Feutl's ability to seamlessly impart, in a page two paragraph, that Janey's experienced earlier time travels (Rescue at Fort Edmonton is the prequel to this book), and also how easily she "transports" Janey - and Max - between present and past. Their galloping adventures are made realistic by Feutl's attention to language and cultural sensitivity. When Janey meets Mary (a Stoney Nakoda girl) in the past, Mary tells her that "Wasiju" is what the Nakoda call white men - it means "takers of the fat". Mary explains: "When we hunt and kill an animal, we use all of it. But your people take only the fat and the meat. The rest is left behind." Without giving too much away, Janey's warning to the Nakoda about residential schools is significant, and it's nothing short of brilliant how Feutl ties all the subplots together in a powerful conclusion.  

Yes, there's a strong anti-racism element here. Even Granny, who was "born in northern Alberta," is on board: "I think [racism's] all about fear, kiddo."

Serious topics aside, this is 100% a book that young readers will love because Janey is relatable, ie: she's squeamish about Granny's love life: "This wasn't a single-car fender-bender kind of accident, Janey thought. This was one of those huge, 10-car pileups with sirens wailing and lights flashing. She forced herself to look away …".

Simultaneously knowledgeable, brave, self-deprecating, and generous, Janey's an ideal heroine, and I wish her many more "Rescues" to come.  

“Murder at the St. Alice”

by Becky Sitra
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 9-781550-509625

Do you know a teen who would enjoy British Columbia-based historical fiction and a mystery in the same book? Then the novel Murder at the St. Alice by prolific YA writer Becky Citra is worth a look. BC's Citra has written more than twenty books, including her well-received The Griffin of Darkwood, and a time travel series. In her latest novel she takes readers back to 1908, where "almost sixteen"-year-old Charlotte O'Dell has just been hired as a dining room waitress at the swank St. Alice Hotel, "a jewel in the wilderness, nestled on the shores of beautiful Harrison Lake".

Charlotte's home is in Victoria, where she lives with Great Aunt Ginny, who's taught the girl about medicinal plants and inspired Charlotte's desire to one day become a pharmacist. First, however, Charlotte must earn money for school, and this brings her under the scrutiny of Mrs. Bannerman, St. Alice's stern housekeeper. Mrs. Bannerman informs Charlotte that "The annex behind the hotel, where the young men live, is strictly out of bounds," and "there is to be no fraternizing with the guests". (One can guess where this is going!)

When I'm wearing my editorial hat, I frequently encourage writers to add more physical details to their manuscripts, as even the description of one's clothing can reveal hints about his or her character. Sitra imparts much re: Mrs. Bannerman with a few select words: "She wore a black dress, closed tightly at the neck with a cameo."

As with many mysteries, the first several chapters introduce us to numerous colourful characters. There's Charlotte's fellow waitress and new friend, Lizzie, with whom she shares a room; Mop, who assists the gardener and aspires to one day be Head Gardener at Butchart Gardens; Abigail, a trouser-wearing English suffragette and card-carrying member of "The Women's Freedom League;" and kind Mr. Doyle, who harbours secrets and invites Charlotte to play chess with him.

The books unfolds in numerous short chapters, which may be more inviting for young readers than lengthy sections of text. The writing about the staff's waitressing duties and the patrons' specific demands contains an air of realism. The first thing a patron (91-year-old Mr. Paisley, who lives at the hotel) utters to inexperienced Charlotte is: "Where have you been all my life, gorgeous?"  

The hotel sits beside a hot sulphur spring - a "Sure Cure" for a variety of maladies, from Syphilis to ladies' complexion issues - and the Bath House, where "Guests in white bathrobes strolled past [Charlotte] in the sunshine," is minded by an Ethiopian. We read that Charlotte "had already been to the Bath House a few times and had gotten used to his black skin". (Issues of racism and women's rights are both addressed in this intriguing story.)

Readers familiar with Victoria will recognize landmarks including Beacon Hill Park; the Empress Hotel; and Fan Tan Alley, in Chinatown, where the air "[smells] of cooking meat, burning joss sticks and wet bamboo".

And last but not least? There's a murder.

“A Walk in Wascana!”
Written by Stephanie Vance, Ilustrated by Wendi Nordell
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 978-1-988783-40-6

Saskatchewan resident Stephanie Vance clearly loves Regina, the city she grew up in, as she's made it the subject of her first book. A Walk In Wascana is an homage to Saskatchewan's capital and specifically picturesque Wascana Park, with its natural beauty; various winged and four-legged creatures; and also diverse manmade features, including fountains, a boathouse, and the Kwakiutl Nation Totem Pole (a gift, she explains, that is from British Columbia). Vance has teamed with Alberta artist Wendi Nordell to create a delightful softcover homage to the park. The rhyming text and bold, full-colour illustrations on each page are exactly what young ears and eyes enjoy at "storytime," though the book could also be a pleasant memento for anyone who has lived in or visited Regina.  

The story sees a young blond boy exploring the expansive park. A playful bunny seemingly beckons the child to follow it through the paths and "grand green trees." Readers will recognize the variety of birds and waterfowl on the lake, including sparrows, pelicans and mallards, and adults can make a game of having children point out all the Saskatchewan images, ie: the provincial flag flying above the Saskatchewan Legislative Building, and the Western red lily - Saskatchewan's provincial flower.

There are also references to one of the provinces greatest features: it's "living skies," and the artist is to be commended for her depictions of clouds that billow above the backdrop of mixed trees. A partial map of Wascana Centre is included, as is a note on how Regina, "once prime bison-hunting territory for Indigenous peoples," got its Cree name, oskana kâ-asastêki, or, as  its more commonly known, Pile O'Bones.

What interests me most about this story is how it demonstrates that just walking in nature-without any other humans-can be an entirely wonderful experience. The child is fascinated with a muskrat and "trilling songbirds." As he sits beside the water "where all these beings thrive," he discovers that "[his] heart and senses come alive" and he learns that "nature makes [him] calm inside." This is the message the book successfully imparts, and in our fast-paced, high-tech world-where even children suffer greatly from anxiety-it's a message worth sharing in many formats. The boy is completely happy on the grass "just being [himself]/under a leaf-lush canopy."

Another message that shines through is that diversity is a positive. "From many peoples' strength we grow,/as surely as the wind will blow." (Saskatchewan's provincial motto is Multis e gentibus vires-from many peoples, strength.)  

Interestingly, the artist has chosen not to show the boy's facial features. She presents him in slight profile images (from a back perspective), and once standing far away on a bridge, so his features are undefined. Why? Perhaps because "place" is the focus of the story, not the boy.

Parents, grandparents, older sibling or guardians could share this book with youngsters and follow it up with a walk outdoors, encouraging the children to really experience where they are, and to discover how it feels to be there.

“David G Grade 3: The Tragicomic Memoir of a Reluctant Atheist"

by David Robert Loblaw
Published by Cameron House Media
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-0-9959495-0-8

Regina writer David Robert Loblaw - he legally changed his name from David G in his early twenties to eradicate any connection to his mother's husband, "Maurice-the-piece of-shit" - has published his first book in a series of memoirs, and it's quite the romp. Over an easy-to-read 207 pages, Loblaw introduces us to his family, including his hard-working single mother, a staunch Roman Catholic; his half-sister sister Yvette, whom he adores; and two half-brothers, whom he does not adore. Other portions of the book concern school misadventures, Loblaw's passion for the Apollo moon missions, and his experiences with the church, including his love for the Bible's "great stories of adventure". He's such a good child he has to make up a sin ("'I beat up a kid'") during his first Confession - and thus he commits the sin of lying while in his very first Confession. There's rich fodder here. As he says, "How can you now love a religion that has human asterisks behind every God-given rule?"   

The book's dedicated thus: "For the two women who created me. My mom and my sister," and though Loblaw frequently credits his sister for her comedic prowess - whereas his mother was "staid" - I got a laugh right off the hop when he shares that upon telling his mother that he wanted to be a baseball player when he grows up, she responded: "David, the closest you'll ever get to professional baseball is to get Lou Gehrig's Disease". I get that humour's highly subjective, but to me, this is funny stuff.

But did she really say that? Even the author's unsure, and such is the nature of memoir: dialogue's invented, blanks are creatively filled in, and the result is a dynamic text. Loblaw: "All dialogue is, of course, a reconstruction from memory as my mom was too cheap to buy me the spy microphone that I wanted."

A memoir is only as interesting as its characters, and Loblaw's family has - well, character! Yvette, a kleptomaniac whose tongue is a "hilarious moral machete," has young David read the most scintillating bits of the Bible aloud to her laughing friends. Loblaw, who's ventured into stand-up comedy, writes that his sister's "clinical dissection of people [ie: nuns] is an art form".

Brother Louis ventured from Regina to Vancouver during the heart of the hippy years, and devolved into the life of alcoholism and drug addiction that killed him at age 54. Brother "Ape" is so called because he's born "the world's hairiest baby". "Ape is shaving before he leaves elementary school," Loblaw writes of this "hostile" sibling, who takes after "deadbeat drunk" Maurice. "Mom runs out of paintings and pictures to cover the punch-holes in the walls of our house."

This book's worth reading for the hilarious inside cracks on Catholicism alone, ie: "Limbo is like that cool artsy little neighbourhood that is in the bad area of your town." You're a funny man, David Robert Loblaw. And not a bad writer, either.


Monday, May 27, 2019

Three New Book Reviews: Wide Open (D.M. Ditson), When We Had Sled Dogs: A Story from the Trapline (Ida Tremblay and Miriam Korner), and The Happy Horse (Carolyn Williams and illustrator L.E. Stevens)

“Wide Open”
by D, M. Ditson
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95 ISBN 9-781550-509663

Sure it's a cliché, but I had a hard time putting this book down. Welcome to the literary world, D.M. Ditson, with your intimate, hard-hitting, and honest portrayal of matters that are not easy to share. First book? Could have fooled me.

Sexual abuse, Fundamentalist Christianity, mental health issues, black-out drinking, and a dysfunctional family are the collaborative demons in Ditson's memoir, Wide Open, and though the subjects are difficult, Ditson's fresh style, pacing, and ­example - of how to live through the pain - are the reasons I'm recommending this book both publicly and privately.

The former Regina journalist and government communications consultant is "obsessed with telling the truth". She relays her story in the way you want someone to tell a story when it's really interesting: the book moves. Like a pinball game. And I applaud the structure, with shifts in time ("Now," "Youth," "Childhood," etc.) clearly indicated.

After a riveting prologue, the book swerves to Ditson's return from Belize where she'd gone to let the jungle heal her. Back in Regina she meets Ian, whom she's loathe to introduce to her parents: "It's going to go badly the second one of them mentions God, science, TV, politics or practically anything else," she writes. A few pages later she's in a "Childhood" section, and the voice is convincing: "The butterflies dance like fancy figure-skater ladies in their sparkly dresses but don't come close."      

Before meeting Ian, Ditson, at eighteen, was raped by a forty-year-old, and years later she makes it her mission to find this man and have him charged. But there are other perpetrators, too. I've read many books on sexual abuse and its lifelong repercussions, but Ditson's is the first that opened my eyes to the apparently not uncommon practice of abused women who - after an initial, forced sexual act - try to be in a relationship with their attacker. The need to be loved is so profound.  

The author provides numerous examples of her parents' distorted beliefs, and to quote another cliché, my jaw dropped. Her sister says "Holy smoke," while playing Barbies and has her mouth washed out with soap, because "Only God is holy". The writer's father is in Promise Keepers. The daughters wear chastity rings. On a mission trip to Timbuktu, Ditson befriends Raja. They share the same "twin fires burning for God," but can't hug for more than three seconds: "it's against the rules." Ditson's mother believes there are pimps at the mall and kidnappers at the fireworks' display. No books allowed unless they're from a Christian bookstore. ("Rapture Survival Guides" abound.) Dad says he's been "struggling with pornography" because he's "been addicted to the Sears catalogue".

And here's the crux: these Christian parents frequently have audible sex when their family's in the same tent or hotel room. Holy. Ditson begs her father to stop this.

Even into her thirties, Ditson's still being told to "honour [her] father". Thank god there's an epiphany in this fascinating story: wait for it.

 “When We Had Sled Dogs: A Story from the Trapline”

by Ida Tremblay and Miriam Körner
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-988783-39-0
Searching for a book that's educational, Woodland Cree/English bilingual, and specifically Saskatchewan? If you'd also appreciate that the story be packaged in a beautifully-illustrated hardcover, then When We Had Sled Dogs: A Story from the Trapline, should fill your desires.

This upbeat and colourful book was inspired by the life of La Ronge, SK Elder Ida Tremblay, who shared her memories of "growing up following the seasonal cycle of trapline life" with Miriam Körner. Körner - also from La Ronge - wrote and illustrated the book, which, sadly, Tremblay never got to see, as she died shortly before it was published.

During the summer, while Tremblay's father worked as a fishing guide, the rest of the family camped at McKenzie End, close to La Ronge. Before winter froze the lake, Ida's family would canoe for five or six days to their cabin on the Churchill River and tend the trapline until spring.

Körner's had the privilege of accompanying Tremblay "up north and back to the past," and thus veracity is maintained through first-hand observation - at least of place - as well as through Tremblay's reminiscences. The reliance on sled dogs, which "summer" on Dog Island and are retrieved in canoe as the family paddles across immense Lac La Ronge to the cabin, is a critical element. Imagine these canoes loaded with excited children, anxious dogs, and staples like "flour, sugar and tea".

When the Tremblay's arrived after the labour-intensive journey, the first order of business was to portage - and not just once. Then there was "wood to be cut, cranberries to be picked, rabbits to be snared," and cabin repairs. Körner's young characters don't complain; they also find time to play with the numerous Husky-looking puppies. We see Tremblay's father - in his fringed and beaded buckskin coat and fur-trimmed mittens and mukluks - load the dogs and sled with needlepoint Christmas gifts for family, and furs to trade for food back in town.

Körner's adept at the small, authentic details in her lively, watercolour illustrations. Each page warrants a long look, and children will enjoy the dogs featured throughout. Can they count all the dogs in the book? What other animals do they recognize? Adults might also ask a young audience how the artist demonstrates that the seasons are changing, discuss then and now differences, and point out culturally significant experiences, ie: for Christmas, Ida's sister receives a sewing kit. Sewing would've been seen as an integral skill within a culture where creating one's own warm clothing could be a matter of survival.

As we speed toward ever more advanced technologies and transportation systems, to urban centers, and into lives lived at breakneck speed, it's important that these records of traditional ways be preserved. Congratulations to writer-illustrator Miriam Körner for once again spotlighting a critical part of Saskatchewan's history and people. (Another of her titles is L’il Shadd: A Story of Ujima, also by YNWP.) And thank you Ida Tremblay, for the vivid memories and beautiful teachings.
“The Happy Horse"
Written by Carolyn Williams, Illustrated by L.E. Stevens
Published by Ghostmountain Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-9994737-0-9

There's so much adoration and delight - both in and between the lines - of  Carolyn Williams' slim, illustrated softcover, The Happy Horse, I'm reminded of a movie opening where it's all blue skies and butterflies … which portends a forthcoming turn into darkness.

Williams, a "transplanted Englishwoman living life (and loving it) out in the wilds of the great Canadian prairies" has teamed with Ohio illustrator L.E. Stevens to produce a book about the sweet life of a never-officially-named-in-the-story horse (I glean it's "Snoop" from the dedication) that the writer actually owned - his photo appears above the book's dedication - and clearly admired, as the book's an homage to that extraordinarily ambitious animal. You could say that this is a book about a horse with a life well-lived. A happy horse with a life well-lived!

Williams employs repetition of the phrase "He was a Happy Horse" as the last line in the first thirteen pages of this thirty-two page text - each facing page features a line-drawn illustration of the horse and its activities - and alters that phrase slightly near the end. Using repetition helps beginning readers to learn; it's a device often used in children's literature.

The story begins with the horse's birth, "Late at night, [w]hen the stars were bright," and we're told that both the horse's mother and the horse's "human" loved him. We see the horse "playing" with friends, and learn that both he - and his human - loved it when his coat was brushed. The horse learns how to play with a ball, to ride quietly in a trailer ("So that he could go to different places [w]ith his human," and to play chase. Eventually he transitions into a racehorse, a cow horse, and a participant in a "Cow Horse Competition". That's quite a horse!

But what he loves best is being at home with his human.

This story demonstrates how even quiet stories can be effective, and in fact, an homage to a loved one - or a loved animal - is as worthy of being printed as a story that includes a grand plot.

Illustrator Stevens' cartoon-styled illustrations, surrounded by ample white space, are a good match for the minimal text, and the cover features the smiling horse on a background of denim blue. Stevens' bio states: "His dogs love him and his beautiful wife tolerates him".

I knew what was coming, of course. It had to. All I'll say is that the only colour within the story proper occurs in the symbolic rainbow at the end of the story. Gulp.

On the back cover the writer - who's also passionate about dogs - explains that her horse "taught [her] how to love life again," and other important lessons, including to "HAVE FUN" every day. The dog-human connection is often remarked upon and written about; perhaps less so the horse-human connection, but clearly the bond is remarkable. That comes across. Indeed, for Williams the connection's been life changing.