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.