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.