Sunday, October 23, 2016

Four Book Reviews: Pamela Roth, Deana J. Driver, Janice Howden, Trina Markusson/James Hearne

“Deadmonton: Crime Stories from Canada's Murder City”
by Pamela Roth
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95  ISBN 9-780889-774261
In 2011 I lived in a notorious Edmonton neighbourhood where I wouldn't walk the length of a block alone at night. That same year Edmonton was deemed the "Murder Capital of Canada." Journalist Pamela Roth was also living in the city at that time, and the court and crime reporter has now published a collection of true stories about several of the cops, the criminals, the victims and their families who made headlines in "Deadmonton," both in 2011 and across the decades.

The book's title, shadowy cover image, and back cover copy all prepare readers for the disturbing content inside. "These stories are not for the faint of heart," Roth writes in her introduction, and adds that what the murdered and/or missing victims' families have in common is "the need for closure, no matter how much time has passed."

There's been no closure for eleven-year-old victim Karen Ewanciw's friend, Shelley Campbell, who was ten when she and her best friend were exploring the river valley by Edmonton's McNally High School, and, after finding an upside down cross, Ewanciw "walked off in a trance." Within two days the girl's body was discovered in the ravine: she'd been sexually assaulted and killed by blunt force trauma. "The blow was so fierce that an imprint of Karen's face was left in the soft earth where she came to a final rest." The killer was never found, and in the aftermath, Campbell's suffered decades of grief and survivor guilt. "It would have been a lot easier to have died with Karen," she said. Ewanciw's father-who claims to know who the now-deceased killer was-"regrets not taking care of the killer himself while he had the chance."

A desire for vigilante justice was also expressed by Michelle Shegelski's widower. Shegelski was one of three murdered in the University of Alberta's HUB mall case (2012). All three were armoured car guards, as was their killer and coworker, Travis Baumgartner. "I think [Baumgartner] should just be taken out behind the shed and put down," Shegelski's widower said. Roth recounts the night's tragic events, victim biographies, and how the shooter-described by a former schoolmate as "a quiet kid who got bullied a lot"-was apprehended at the Canada/US border.

Several stories involve innocent victims, like six-year-old Corinne "Punky" Gustavson (1992), baby Robin Thorn (1997), the St. Albert seniors Lyle and Marie McCann (2010), and those who died during "robberies gone wrong." Other victims lived high-risk lifestyles. The police who investigate these crimes are victims as well: of anguish due to the horrors they encounter, and of frustration when murders go unsolved.            

Any light here comes via the organizations and support groups that've evolved from tragedy. Young Tania Murrell's disappearance (1983) "sparked the formation of the Missing Children Society of Canada." Cathy Greeve's 1988 death-she was murdered in an Edmonton LRT station-resulted in her father helping to found the Victims of Homicide Support Society.

Although definitely not for the faint of heart, Deadmonton tells compelling stories. Roth now lives in Victoria.



 “Fun on the Farm … True Tales of Farm Life"
Compiled and edited by Deana J. Driver
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-192757030-2

Even if they've never lived on a farm, I'm going to take the bull by the horns and suggest that most readers will get a chuckle (and perhaps a nostalgic lump in the throat) from Fun on the Farm … True Tales of Farm Life!, a light-hearted anthology concerning the trials, tribulations, and tricks (including many practical jokes) inherent in farm living. DriverWorks Ink publisher, editor, and writer, Deana J. Driver asked for submissions of "stories, poems, and memories," and two dozen folks responded-including published writers Bryce Burnett, Jean F. Fahlman, Mary Harelkin Bishop, Ed Olfert, and Marion Mutala-to recount the good old days back on the farm. Other writers I'm unfamiliar with also made generous contributions: Peter Foster (Craven, SK) has four accounts, Regina's Keith Foster's work is found six times, and Laurie Lynn Muirhead, from Shellbrook, appears seven times. 

Many of the writers shared shenanigans in which they did something foolish, innocently or otherwise. Jean Tiefenbach and her brother thought it a wise idea to tip the outhouse over and wash it for their mom on Mother's Day. Eleanor Sinclair was showing off her (underaged) pickup driving skills to a friend and sunk the truck up to its running boards in the mud of a slough bottom while a threshing crew looked on. Leo Moline was adept at playing practical jokes on the threshers who came to his farm, and they got even by nailing him to the granary. "They nailed my wristband through my shirt and stretched me out spread-eagle on the west side of the granary wall, in the sun and dust."

Cow pies, machinery mishaps, animal high-jinks, and outhouses are common threads, the latter I suppose because they are particularly unforgettable. In his poem, "Cat in the Can," Keith Foster admits that "We were terrible kids," but fortunately the cat in question survived the outhouse adventure. Muirhead shares an outhouse story via poetry: "we girls stuck it out together/through nightmares and thunderstorms," she writes. In her comical prose piece, "You Waved, My Lord," Fahlman also gets poetic: "One of the prettiest sights on earth is watching the sun go down in a red blaze, harvest dust hanging in the air, shimmering, as twilight settles over the field."

Clearly most of these stories concern decades-old experiences, and that's one of the values of a book like this. We're reminded of the hard work, large families, and the ingenious thriftiness of our rural friends, ie: manure banking around a home's foundation to help keep drafts out. And then there are the characters, like Mrs. Anderson, an independent elderly woman who lived in a refurbished granary. She "canned" her pony after he'd done the summer work of hauling firewood out of the grove.

The book's contributors seem to agree with Marlene Hunter, who writes that the farm "was a wonderful place to grow up." As one who grew up in town, it's also pretty wonderful to read about how the kids who took the bus made their fun.

by Janice Howden
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$13.95  ISBN 978-192757031-9

Before reading Rescued-Saskatoon writer Janice Howden's touching story for young readers about a dog's journey from a puppy mill into the arms of a loving "forever home" family-I'd never heard of Tibetan Terriers. As their name implies, these shaggy-coated dogs originated in the Himalayas, and their "big round feet act like snowshoes in the deep snow." They're intelligent, determined, and affectionate, and, as Howden proves in this hybrid story-part non-fiction, part fancy (as told by the canine protagonist)-they can be inspirational.

Howden's combined her passion for promoting pet adoptions from animal rescues, her love for the puppy Hawkeye (later renamed Rahj) she adopted from the Saskatoon SPCA, and her writing skills into a story that works well between the genres of fiction and nonfiction. After an italicized introduction into what lead to Hawkeye's adoption, she switches to storytelling mode. Here Hawkeye takes over the narration, and this little guy's feisty. He says the story thus far is "being told rather badly by the human," and he goes on to share how he and his meek brother, Freddie, were evicted from the kennel (aka puppy mill) they'd been born into because a new litter was coming and the owners had to make room for younger and more easily-adoptable dogs.

Hawkeye's the thinker of the siblings, and he resents it. As they scavenge for food and navigate through dangers that include a "huge, angry dog," alley cats, traffic, and cruel boys, Hawkeye says "Good grief … How come I have to do all the thinking?" They find temporary shelter in a park, but soon Freddie's caught by animal protection officers, and Hawkeye's capture follows shortly after.

Howden establishes a strong and humorous voice for the lead dog using tricks like understatement. While wandering free in the park, Hawkeye muses "So far, it had not been too bad-if you didn't mind sleeping in the cold, eating from garbage cans and being chased by mean boys." Later in the book, after another italicized, "human" section, the dog responds to his inability to play fetch by saying, "Really, who thinks fetching a sock sounds like fun?" He's also quite the dramatic dog. Three different times he says "This was the worst day of my life!" Fortunately, he also has the opportunity to later exclaim about "the happiest time" in his life.

Rescued is about acceptance (ie: Rahj must win over Howden's husband), generosity, and the bond between humans and pets. The book contains black and white illustrations and several photos (so you can see Rahj in the flesh, er, fur), and would be suitable for juvenile readers, or as a story read to younger children, but be warned: reading this might result in a trip to your local shelter and the addition of a four-legged family member.

Howden's on the board of the Saskatchewan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and promotes "compassion and respect for animals" through education. Buy her book, and a portion of the sale's donated to animal welfare organizations.

"Good Morning, Sunshine! (A Story of Mindfulness)"                                                          
by Trina Markusson, illustrated by James Hearne
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$15.95  ISBN 9-781927-756775
There's much talk these days about mindfulness, and truth be told, this reviewer has signed up for a class on that very topic. I'm also starting to hear that mindfulness-or "living in the moment"-is being taught in some schools, and I can only imagine how much this will benefit students who adopt the practice into their daily lives. Perhaps you remember some of the worries you had as a child, or you recall how stressful teenage years can be. Maybe you have a son or daughter who is fearful or anxious, and you don't know how to help them. Let me introduce you to Good Morning, Sunshine! (A Story of Mindfulness), a gently-told (and sweetly-illustrated) children's book by Regina teacher, speaker, and writer, Trina Markusson. 

Drawing from her youngest son's experience, as well as her own, Markusson, has penned a sensitive story about Zachary-a boy old enough to play football but young enough to enjoy the company of a teddy bear-that demonstrates how hanging on to the past or worrying about the future prevents us from enjoying the present, and can even manifest in physical ailments. Speaking of the "what-ifs" (future thoughts) her son's experiencing, ie: doing poorly on a spelling test, public speaking in class, missing his bus, his mother says "Most of the time, the what-ifs never come true, but we spend so much time worrying and it makes our bodies worry too! We might get a tummy-ache, feel panicky or even make our hearts beat faster."

Fortunately, the family keeps a shoebox with mindfulness tools (six simply- illustrated cards that symbolize keys to practicing mindfulness) on hand to help Zachary focus. As the worrying boy goes through each of the cards, he practices the steps, ie: when he draws the Five Senses card, he feels his pillow, listens to the chirping birds, and smells "the coffee Dad was making in the kitchen." The Gratitude card reminds him to name three things he's grateful for, including his brothers and "the blue-sky day!"

The book ends with an encouraging note to caregivers and teachers re: the benefits of practising mindfulness, and encourages these adults to "model the use of these tools," as children learn most via observation. Child-geared language, ie: "His eyebrows squinched together" and "His tummy flippity-flopped" help keep the message fun, and the repetition of the phrase "Everything was all right in this moment" helps underscore the story's upbeat message.

Calgary illustrator James Hearne has created a series of colourful and darling images for the story. The little bear appears on each illustrated page, and his expressions match the child's: nice visual touch. And even big people (like yours truly) will appreciate the six, punch-out-able cards at the back of the book … to help keep us peacefully present.        

This book would fit well into the library of any child, and any adult who cares about a child's lifelong well-being and happiness … parents and grandparents, counsellors, teachers, etc. For more information about the author, see


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review: Line Dance: An Anthology of Poetry, selected and edited by Gerald Hill

“Line Dance”
An anthology of poetry, selected and edited by Gerald Hill
published by Burton House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 9-780994-866912

Before I say anything else about Line Dance - the cool new poetry anthology driven by SK Poet Laureate Gerald Hill's "First Lines" project - a disclaimer: two lines from one of my poems appear within it. Apart from that, I had zilch to do with this book that handily demonstrates the wealth of poetic voices in the homeland, the range of human imagination, and how art inspires art.

Each weekday during Poetry Month in April, Hill e-mailed SK Writers' Guild members a pair of first lines he'd selected from SK poetry books and invited folks to respond with poems of their own. Some, like professionals Brenda Schmidt and Ed Willett, sent poems every day. In the end, almost 500 pieces were submitted, and SK writing veteran-turned publisher, Byrna Barclay, bound what editor Hill deemed the best into a handsome package, featuring Saskatchewanian David Thauberger's art on the cover. 

If you already read homegrown poetry, you'll recognize several names here. The quoted include Dave Margoshes, Judith Krause, Paul Wilson, Gary Hyland, Elizabeth Philips, Bruce Rice, Louise Halfe, and Robert Currie. Their quotes spawned poems by the likes of Katherine Lawrence, dee Hobsbawn-Smith, Lynda Monahan, Sharon MacFarlane, and Jim McLean. The book also introduces newer writers, like Lumsden's Karen Nye, who incorporated something from all the selected quotes for the book's opening act.   

Although the poems appear in the order the quotes were e-mailed, the book proper begins and ends with strong pieces – as books generally do - by multi-genre writer Dave Margoshes. A few pages later, in a poem that blooms with prairie imagery, Laurie Muirhead delivers the beautiful line "a mirage of tiger lilies". Dee Hobsbawn-Smith deserves a bow for her phrase "the mud of missing you," and for the emotional depth of her dog-related poems in this collection. (Five stars for the "November-coloured dog" in her graphic piece "Hunting".) Similarly, Lynda Monahan packs a punch with her powerful and heartfelt pieces. In "Saying the Unsayable Things" she writes of "the white heart of your suffering" and how "nothing I write anymore matters/in the face of it".    

Ed Willett's penned sci-fi/fantasy poems and showcases his sense of humour ("Please don’t think we're prejudiced/against vampires" and "my husband hasn’t held a steady job/since he became a werewolf"), as does the ever-clever and perceptive Brenda Schmidt, ie: "I've always known the backroad/is the road less graveled". Ruth Chorney wrote a terrific piece inspired by Brenda Niskala's humdinger line: "The man at the door with a gun is our son./We think he's after our money." Robert Currie puts his voice to fine use in story-poems.

This is Saskatchewan. From Fort Qu'Appelle to Prince Albert, SaskPower to the Co-op. From "little sandwiches and bowls of bitter pickles" (Schmidt) in halls to "the bellering heifer/helpless in the chute" (Bonnie Dunlop). Congratulations and thanks to the poets, to Gerry Hill, to the SWG (for their hand in the project), and to Byrna Barclay for making Line Dance Burton House Book's inaugural poetry title. Reading this book was like being in a room with several of my favourite Saskatchewan folks. In other words, great dance!