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.