All posts by Steven Buechler

About Steven Buechler

While I have a media background, I love the concept of reading - especially books - and the quiet forms of discourse it brings. Any reviews I do on here I do on my own time and not-for-profit. My followers - mainly fellow book lovers - tell me that they love the way I show segments of books that I review (and no copyright infringement is intended) I am truly grateful for any advance reading copies of books that I receive and in those cases will not post segments of those books before there publication date. One day soon I hope to actually have a 'library of tranquility' when time and resources allow.

A Lyrical Literary Work | Review of “Deer Life: A Fairy Tale” (2017) Dundurn

Deer

We often confuse ‘being lyrical’ with the creation of song lyrics. But the term should be used for any sort of narrative that flows together in a enthusiastic manner. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that when a song writer and performer like Ron Sexsmith pens a fairy tale, it will flow together like his many songs. Hence his book, Deer Life, is quite an enjoyable read.

Page 11-12

They’d only been walking a few hours when they saw the light of an inn just up ahead. Their  shadows were practically there. Eleanoir and her dog, Jupiter, had found the last town to be a tad unfriendly, even more so than the town before and the town before that – although at first glance, it would be hard to imagine how anyone could take a dislike to either one of them. Eleanoir, for example, was strangely beautiful. (Well, in a frozen lake sort of way, I suppose.) And in keeping with this metaphor, there was never any way of knowing the cold thoughts that swam beneath the surface of her eyes, but then she liked it that way.

As for Jupiter? He was a hybrid, to say the least. Part wolf, part husky, with eyes like frosted windows through which a vague sense of helplessness and other humanlike emotions struggled to see out of. Though at a glance he appeared as loyal as the day or his were long. And as far as anyone could tell, this coldly attractive woman was quite possibly his best and only friend. For when you`re a dog, one friend is oft times all you get. . .

It was  fun to suspend belief from the drudgery of the real world and enter the world of forest, fields, taverns and towns that Sexsmith has created here. And while we have a story filled with witches whose eyes glow a hypnotic purple and boys who are transformed into animals, we are also given a tale of bullying, revenge, hope and dreams. In short there are mystical and magical parts to this story, but there is also some important moral lessons being parted as well.

Page 47

As you can imagine, the events of the last day had taken our young Hedlight completely by surprise. He had hoped the hunting trip would change him somehow for the better, but this was an entirely different animal. A deer, to be precise! He would spend most of the first morning checking himself out in various puddles and streams while exploring the limits and potential advantages of his new found anatomy. The shock of his current reality was matched only by his sudden desire to nibble on twigs, fallen leaves, and other bits of shrubbery that a day earlier would not have appealed to him in the least. When he wasn’t busy doing that, he passed the time mostly worrying about his mother. For how was she to know what became of him? Not knowing would surely break her heart. He thought a great deal about the witch, too, for obvious reasons. He heard all the stories as a boy but never believed for a second they could even remotely be true. He wondered, also, if this spell was something he might just snap out of someday. But whenever he thought of that poor dog, it made him think, perhaps, he had got just what he deserved.

While this book is a small volume, it is certainly a unique one on very many levels. Its wording was simple, magical and entrancing. It was exactly like slipping away from our world for a short while and engaging in a more interesting place. I wouldn’t want to be reading stories like this all the time, but it was a pleasure to engage in at this time in my life.

Page 52

After a long day’s journey, it came as a welcome sight to happen upon The Willow Tree just as nightfall descended. Maggie and her two travelling companions (whose names, incidentally, were Griff and Gruff) had plenty of time to get acquainted as they searched in vain for any sign of Deryn. And because the twins were men of few words and possibly even fewer thoughts, Maggie wound up doing most of the talking, which was completely agreeable to her. “Oh, I know this place!” she said, smiling upward at the faded sign. “My husband once stayed here on his way home from Hixenbaugh! If I’m not mistaken, he’d come from visiting a friend there who’d opened a bookshop. At least I think it was a bookshop,” she concluded, before floating on the river of precious memories.”

Ron Sexsmith has certainly given an interesting and unique fairy tale with Deer Life. It is refreshing to see lyrical skills from a musical artist being used in a literary form. Hopefully this won’t be his last attempt at the written word.

*****

Link to Dundurn Press’s website for Deer Life

Link to Ron Sexsmith’s website

The Search for Truth can be a Difficult One | Review of “In Case I Go” by Angie Abdou (2017) Arsenal Pulp Press

978-1-55152-703-1_incaseigo

We all try to find out truths in our travels through life. Be it historical truths, truths in our relationships and our desires, or even the truths behind our names. But the thing is that when we gain understanding of those truths, they may not be the beautiful or enlightening elements that we thought they may be. That is the main theme that I felt was in Angie Abdou’s book In Case I Go.

Chapter One Page 15

We quit the city to save our lives.

Mama says, “The city quit us, and that made leaving easy.” But that’s silly. Cities don’t care who goes or who stays. This new town, though, it cares. Here, the very ground we live on cares.

Mama quits many things – coffee, sugar, wheat. Late at night, when she thinks I’m sleeping, her finger tracing a half moon around my ear, her warm toothpaste-breath against my forehead, she says, “I want to be a better person, Elijah. For you.”

I’m only Elijah in the dark. By day, I’m Eli. It’s a nickname I like when she says it to rhyme with sly, but not when she makes it rhyme with belly. Elly Belly. That’s a baby name, and Lucy claims I’ve never been a baby. Not really.

“You were born knowing everything, Elly Belly. You came out of that incubator like it was your first year of college.”

I can’t help but feel that Angie has empty many bits of her soul to give us this book. The story of Eli and his parents returning to their family home is a familiar one for many of us. Yet as in many cases, that return isn’t as calming and restorative as the family had hoped. And as young Eli friends Mary, a young Ktunaxa girl, spirits begin to haunt him, making him question the past actions of his family and the longings and desires of the present-day adults around him.

Chapter Seven Page 93

Sometimes, if I try, I can hold onto a dream for a long time after the sun rises. One time I dreamt of Lucy and Nicholas and me planning a road trip, but we couldn’t actually decide what way to go.

“Kiboshed by our own indecision before we even get out of the driveway,” Nicholas said. I remembered that –kiboshed. I liked that word. Lucy must have liked it too because she laughed and laughed, her hand on Nicholas’s bare thigh in a way that made me a bit embarrassed, even in the dream.

“Well,” the dream-me said, trying not to show how bad I wanted this road trip. “We’ve come this far wet. We might as well keep going that way.”

I held onto that dream for days. I told Lucy if we could somehow dial up dreams on Netflix, I would like to watch my Road Trip Dream forever to see where we ended up and if we stayed that happy. But it slid away, like almost all dreams do.

While I have been a big fan of Abdou’s earlier writings, this is a book that touched me like no other cultural artifact has for a long time. She has captured so much of the angst,  fears and concerns of our time here – questions about identity, family, heritage, relations with Indigenous people, and so forth – all in the thoughts, dreams and possessed visions that young Eli has. This is crafted, well thought-out and deeply emotional writing that deserves to be considered literature and read by all.

Pages 218-219

I put my hand out and touch Lucy’s forearm. She doesn’t look my way, and I won’t check to see if she has tears. I run my hand up and down her arm and squeeze. I’m not mad anymore – not about the way she feels about Sam, not about what she’s done to Nicholas, not about the twisting and squishing in my stomach when I saw Sam’s hand on Lucy’s hip in the museum. I understand.

She loves two.

Or maybe it’s not that. Not the same. There are different kinds of love. We want to simplify love and desire – squeeze them into easy words – so we can pretend to understand. We want there to be a right way and a wrong way to live. Right and wrong should be easy. Lucy loves Nicholas, she knows Nicholas, but she wants Sam. She only wants Sam. She wants only Sam. Her life, though belongs to Nicholas. Tamara might not understand that pull, the war between belonging and wanting, but I understand. I squeeze Lucy’s forearm one more time and then lean my forehead against it. She puts her forehead on the back of my head, and her hand on the back of my neck, gentle and full of love. I relax into it.

This love is the simple kind.

Angie Abdou has not only given readers what I consider one of the best books of 2017 with In Case I Go, but one of the most touching books I have read in a long time. I am eagerly waiting to get this book signed and then giving it a treasured spot on my shelf.

*****

Link to Arsenal Pulp Press’s website for In Case I Go

Link to Angie Abdou’s website

Link to my Q&A with Angie Abdou | “With this 2017 novel, I went in a different direction, writing many scenes in the early 1900s and including a fantastical element, something I’ve never before experimented with.”

 

 

 

The Continuing Lessons of Amanda Doucette | Review of “The Trickster’s Lullaby” by Barbara Fradkin (2017) Dundurn

trickster

Fans of Barbara Fradkin cannot say enough good things about her works. Her books do hold enough of suspense to keep any reader reading, but she also uses just the right amount of details of issues that face society to both enlighten and entertain any type of reader. And that is certainly true of her latest work The Trickster’s Lullaby.

Chapter One  – Page 8

The stranger who hammered on the door made no apologies or introductions. She stood in the doorway, braced against the cold, her breath swirling in the frosty air.

“Amanda Doucette?” she demanded.

At her tone, Amanda stepped back warily. Dressed in a frayed navy park with a red cloche hat and matching mittens, the woman looked harmless enough, but her tone held an edge of desperation. From her years in international aid work, Amanda knew desperation could make people dangerous. She was alone, and even in this quiet country cottage in the backwoods of Quebec, trouble could still find her.

“Are you Amanda Doucette?” the woman repeated, even more sharply this time. A faint Québécois inflection was now audible in her speech.

Amanda glanced at the small Honda parked in the snowy drive. The car had once been white, but layers of salt and rust gave it a mottled look. One headlight was broken and the fender was dented. Like its owner, it looked battered by time. She softened.

This is the second installment of where Barbara Fradkin has sent out her protagonist Amanda Doucette into danger and given readers  a suspenseful tale. (Link to my review of the first Amanda Doucette novel Fire in the Stars) Here, Doucette has organized a winter camping trip for a group of inner-city youth but things turn bitterly wrong when two of the students disappear and a local farmer is found dead. As the search frantically continues, the suggestion of a terrorism arises, bringing Doucette and her group of associates into a bigger realm of danger.

Page 106-107

Sebastien had wanted to return to the base camp to monitor his sat phone for calls from the police, but Amanda had persuaded him that he could answer the phone just as easily from toboggan hill. He flung himself into the spirit, but as evening approached, Amanda grew increasingly restless. She hated being out of the loop. She had made the missing persons report to the police station in Rawdon hours ago but had sensed from their doubtful questions that they suspected Luc was just sic of winter camping. There had been no follow-up call or news about the body. No call from Sebastien’s police friend Danny or from the officer in charge of the death investigation. And now – damn him – no call from Matthew Goderich, who had promised to call her back with more news on Luc’s mother and an update on his sleuthing.

Even while enjoying the fun, Amanda kept a watchful eye on the group. It seemed unlikely they knew anything about the mystery body, but she was less sure about their innocence when it came to Luc. Had he and Hassan really been arguing the night he disappeared? Did Zidane, who’d been so quick to dismiss any concern, know something he was keeping secret? But of all the students, it was Yasmina who seemed distracted and unpredictable, laughing wildly when the toboggan crashed and staring off into space halfway back up the hill.

They were strapping on their skis in preparation for the trip back to camp when Amanda heard the dim ringing of a phone. She snapped her head up and watched Sebastien’s face as he answered. She saw his disappointment and his glance in her direction before he held out the phone to her.

 

Fradkin’s experience as a psychologist has no doubt given her insight to the darkness of humanity and it shows in her writing. But she also adds day-to-day concerns and fears that we all have (i.e. Am I sacrificing to much for my career? What about my love life?etc.) that gives a careful reader pause to consider in their own lives. And Fradkin has a nice clear style of writing that makes this book truly enjoyable, especially at the end of long, busy day that we all seem to suffer from.

Page 228

Freaked out by the bloody knife and the clear evidence of danger, Sylvie wanted to go back to town immediately, but Amanda persuaded her to let her assess the situation first. After wrapping the knife in a scarf for safekeeping, she put Kaylee on a leash and examined the bloodstained snow.

Among the trampled footprints, she found more blood kicked under in the scuffle, creating pink washes in the snow. It looked as if a fight had taken place, but the area was so churned up that it was difficult to say how many people were involved. However, on the periphery, a single set of snowshoes led away northward into the bush.

Kaylee was straining at the leash, trying to pull her along the lone snowshoe trail. Amanda followed carefully, studying the ground. At first there was nothing, but about twenty feet out, another small pink wash marred the snow. Then more, larger and more frequent. The heavy clothing must have absorbed the blood at first, but now it was leaking out faster.

Her adrenaline spiked. It was what she feared. This lone snowshoer was injured and had fled into the bush, perhaps without a plan or a direction in mind.

Barbara Fradkin has certainly given us readers not only a suspenseful novel with The Trickster’s Lullaby but one that is enlightening as well. Well and simply written, it is truly a great read.

*****

Link to Dundurn’s website for The Trickster’s Lullaby

Link to Barbara Fradkin’s website

Link to my Q&A with Barbara Fradkin about The Trickster’s Lullaby |“What amateur sleuth does not go off half-cocked? It’s one of the big challenges of writing about a character who has no business investigating murder in the first place.”

A Product to Ponder and Reflect Upon | Review of “Some Theories” by Kathryn Mockler and David Poolman (2017) Some Theories Press

sometheories

It easy enough to ignore a lot of the phrases and images that swirl around us in this day in age. Our media-rich lives are bombarded with words and phrases that we ignore most items that come our why. So it takes a person with a well-honed talent to make most people notice their product. And the small volume called Some Theories by Kathryn Mockler and David Poolman is such an excellent example of a product for willing readers to notice and ponder upon.

Theories (Page 2)

People with children do not want to listen to you theories about the end of the world. Ghosts do not want to hear from the living. People without swimming pools do not want to know that people with swimming pools had a good swim.

Mockler has been a writer who has always made me question my reality in a round-about way and this book certainly does that. (Check out her Instagram feed where she posts interesting and poetic comments under the hashtag #thisisntaconversation (Link here)) Mockler’s phrases sound absurd at first until a reader considers the statement. We realize that the world is absurd and Mockler has made an observation showing that in a bold and frank way.

LET’S PLAY OIL SLICK (Page 10)

CHARACTERS

BOY

GIRL

BOY: Let’s play oil slick.

GIRL: I get to be the bird, and you can be the rescuer.

BOY: I want to be the bird. Now wash my hair.

GIRL: You wash my hair. You were the bird last time.

BOY: I’m not playing unless I get to play the character I want.

GIRL: Why don’t you be the bird, and I’ll be the sea otter?

BOY:  Who will rescue us?

Girl: Nobody.

END

Poolman’s illustrations are just as illuminating as Mockler’s phrase. They appear simple and somewhat puzzling yet as one ponders the image, they are complex messages about items we hold dear in our lives.

 

this
Scanned image from Page 41 of “Some Theories.” Illustration by David Poolman.

Some Theories by Kathryn  Mockler and David Poolman is certainly a unique read. If a reader takes the time to look at it beyond a simple volume and thinks about the images and words, they will note the unique perspectives this book brings forward.

*****

Link to Kathryn Mockler’s website

Link to a website about David Poolman

theories

 

 

The Detailed Views from this Forest |Review of “The Celery Forest” by Catherine Graham (2017) Buckrider Books/Wolsak and Wynn Publishing

9781928088417

Constantly I hear that we need to make time to ponder our reality and at least consider the state of the world we are in. But to find the time to sit and reflect is at a premium. Then something occurs in our lives that forces ourselves into a state of shock to dwell on ‘the meaning of life.’ Catherine Graham has been a writer I have enjoyed for years. And I knew for months on had that she had a work coming out with the imagery-rich title  The Celery Forest. So I gleefully purchased my copy of her book when I saw it and raced over to meet her to get her to sign it for me. But when I walked away from that signing session and read the phrase on the back of book “this is the topsy-turvy world she found herself in after learning she had breast cancer,” I knew this was a volume that I needed to find time to carefully read with deep consideration. So I waited impatiently to enter Graham’s Celery Forest until I had the time to reflect on the sights and sounds I would witness there. And the journey in there was truly an enlightening one.

Interrogation in the Celery Forest (Page 1)

We shoulder it onto the slab.

It squirms. Water. Electric-white

 

Raindrops fast into absence.

No bridge as believable as all this.

 

Pliers were used. And absence.

A heart – skewered through skeins

 

of red nets and milk from some aimless

animal on the drowning cloth.

 

Now, intruder, bird`s-eye, pip,

you must answer.

Cancer seems to vaulting us into states of shock all the time. It afflicts friends and loved ones and we really never seem to be prepared to deal with it.  And while there may be a technical definition to the disease, truly understanding what people go through when it hits them only really can be understood through the works of literature. Graham has given insight to her experience with cancer by creating this ‘forest’ and allowing us to witness the sights and sounds there. There is a hodgepodge of images and emotions which require careful reading (I admit to mouthing certain phrases to truly understanding their meanings) but by documenting her thoughts here, Graham has given us something to at least ‘get a grip’ when cancer throws us into a reflective state.

Owl in the Celery Forest (Page 24)

Owl, you never asked to be wise

or a companion to the witch.

 

Fly in for the scurry – vole, field mouse,

creatures with eyes scuttling through grass,

 

Then pluck the tumour out of my breast

with you sharp, curved talons –

 

let the only thing that spreads be your wings.

There is a collection of opposites in Graham’s forest. There is angst but there is joy. There is some darkness but there is some light. There is urgency but there are moments to enjoy nature. There is some ugliness but there is also much beauty. We adults may have matured beyond the understanding that our stories don’t close with a ‘happy-ever-after’ ending but Graham does show some enchantment of life with it’s  continued existence.

Fireflies (Page 49)

Little green fires that do not burn,

yet blink and float

outside the cottage window

stringing night

into Christmas trees.

When you returned

as a firefly, I heard

what happened –

your winking battery

broken because you merely

grew in size.

Jealous of Dad`s sighting,

not knowing you would appear

decades later as pure

waves the moment I broke

free from anaesthesia’s grip.

After reading Catherine Graham’s The Celery Forest, I realized my act of getting her to sign my copy of her book was not a flippant act, but one of my craving for a enlightened understanding of the human condition. Graham’s bold and detailed exploration of ‘the forest’ certainly enlightened me. And this book will hold a special place in my library.

*****

Link to Catherine Graham’s website

Link to Wolsak & Wynn’s website for The Celery Forest

forest

 

Giving Readers Much More than a Classic Read | Review of “Take Us To Your Chief” by Drew Hayden Taylor (2013) Douglas & McIntyre

Take-Us-to-Your-Chief

We tend to compartmentalize both people and works of fiction into different areas. People tend to come from a certain social group and books tend to belong to a specific genre that follow a certain stylistic guideline. But when those rules are broken – people enlighten us about their society and write in a genre that break the norms  that make up that collection of fiction –  there is a certain element of enlightenment that occurs within the readers of that work. Drew Hayden Taylor may have been thinking what would classic science-fiction themes be like through the eyes of the Indigenous community members but he has added some thought to the greater discussions of the human condition with his collection of short stories called Take Us to Your Chief.

Page 14  – A Culturally Inappropriate Armageddon

“But you never go on the air!”

“I do when Earth is welcoming aliens from . . .” The news crawl at the bottom of the television screen revealed the ship had come from the direction of the Pleiades cluster. “Pleiades . . . Where the hell is that? Sounds Greek. Besides our news announcer hasn’t shown up today. He’s probably at home watching this. I guess he’d prefer to watch history rather than be a part of it. And where is Pat? I need him to write me up some copy.”

Emily was on fire now. There had been rumblings from the board about the station taking a new direction, exploring different options. Emily knew this was just board-speak for getting a new station manager. She had rolled with all the new technologies over the years that had transformed the once small and humble radio station into a slightly larger organization, one of the only independent broadcasters left in the province. After twenty-seven years with her at the helm, maybe those fine listeners who owned the smoke shacks, gas stations and an arts and crafts store felt the pot known as C-RES needed to be stirred a bit. Emily was desperate to keep this job she loved and hated at the same time. This just might be the way.

“Come on, work with me. Can we give this thing an Aboriginal spin?”

This book does something more profound that give us a collection of sci-fi stories.  The stories have the classic element of any science-fiction story (Aliens, possessed toys, artificial intelligence, governmental control mechanisms) but by adding Indigenous themes to these stories, there are some new truths and ideas that come forward to us non-Indigenous readers. These may be simple stories but they do what great literature should do.

Page 44 I am . . . I am

Chambers and King were not close friends; they seldom socialized outside the office. Instead, they found their professional relationship quite suitable. Respect was perhaps the best word to describe the affiliation. Still, he was not particularly happy to see her in his office confessing something he had theorized less than a week ago. Such a rapid turnaround in beliefs was difficult to deal with.

Chambers took a deep breath. “Yeah, I did the SDDPP isn’t the only one that can grow and learn from its mistakes. ”

“The AI . . . how is it depressed?”

Putting her elbows on her knees, Chambers leaned forward to do her best to explain the situation. “It’s depressed over the desolation and destruction of Indigenous people all across the world.” It took a moment for her statement to sink in. She could see the furrows in King’s brow developing. “I think it wanted to be Native. And it didn’t like how the story ended.”

The style of the book is direct and to-the-point. There is no flowery prose or excess descriptive wording. The plot moves to it’s climax – either unwelcoming or shocking or unassuming – and it is down. A new reality exists for the protagonists – simple and shocking. But in getting to that point there are a lot of idea that thoughts to consider, and empathy comes easily for many characters by any reader.

Pages vii-viii Forward by Drew Hayden Taylor

A million years ago when I was a child, I was always fascinated by what could be. I think this was primarily because I was surrounded by what is what was. As a Native person, I was constantly and importantly made aware of our heritage, our culture, everything from the past that made us unique and special. Also I was conscious of the fact that, technologically speaking, we were at a bit of a disadvantage compared to those who showed up one day for dinner and never left.  I clearly remember the first time I was television, played with a computer, got an electric toothbrush, etc. Darn clever, those white people Native people constantly wonder at the clever innovations and devices the dominant culture feels the need to create – everything from vibrators to nuclear bombs.

Admittedly, First Nations and science fiction don’t usually go together. In fact, they could be considered rather unusual topics to mention in the same sentence, much like fish and bicycles. As genre fiction goes. they are practically strangers, except for maybe the occasional parallel universe story. Many would argue that Native people are not known for their space-travelling abilities. Nor their mastery and innovation of that aforementioned modern and world-altering technology. We may have known what to do with every part of a buffalo, but how to cannibalize and utilize the parts from an Apple laptop to make a pair of moccasins . . .  the less said the better.

Drew Hayden Taylor has done certainly something unique and brilliant with his collection of science fiction short stories called Take Us To Your Chief. He has given an interesting insight to the human condition by exploring Native perspective to classical science fiction themes. In short, he has given us all a great piece of literature for all of us to ponder over.

*****

Link to Drew Hayden Taylor’s website

Link to Douglas & McIntyre’s website for Take Us To Your Chief

Exploring the Elements of the Canadian Roads in a Literary Fashion | Review of “Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road” (2009) Key Porter Books

surface

Words put together in a carefully crafted manner have more than a lyrical feel to them. There is something mystical the way a phrase speaks to a reader who is in a quiet corner discovering a new truth about an element of the universe. The spark it creates in the mind of a lonely individual is divine, which may cause a reader to take an action of some sort. Lately I have been finding this quality of writing in fiction but I was excited to find a work of non-fiction that excites me. Peter Unwin’s book Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road, has me considering take a road trip of mine own, even if it is to find another one of his books.

Pages 11-12 Introduction

Since it first wound its way through the Canadian landscape, the road has been represented as a symbol of hope, leading all those who travel on it into a brighter future and a better life. The comforting language of unity and nation building is never far off and at times a spiritual dimension creeps in. Canadian road – “Highways of Hope,” “Pavements of Prosperity,” or “Dream Roads,” as they have been called – are routinely associated with growth, nationhood, and the betterment of the individual. It is assumed almost without question that the road will provide us with an escape route from poverty, from the past, and from the class consciousness of old Europe in particular.  It will also guarantee national unity, protect us from the enemy, and provide us with a lot of fabulous scenery along the way.

This is a lot to ask of the road, which, in its most basic aspect, remains what it always was: a way of getting somewhere, a long, narrow, diffuse piece of technology, a machine really, a democratizing machine perhaps, and one that facilitates movement by itself remaining still. But the road is very much a body of beliefs, a secular religion that worships freedom and individuality. It pays tribute to the primary human urge to be in motion and allows us to create a story about ourselves, even requires that we do so: the story of who we are, a summation of all the roads we have travelled, of the turnoffs we’ve missed, of all the songs we have ever sung, and an inventory of all the people we have travelled with – in short of our lives.

The inclination of the road is inclusive, leading away from the exclusionary etiquettes of the railway or the brittleness of Old World class divisions. Unlike the rail, the road requires no blind obedience to a rigid schedule set by someone else or the purchase of a ticket from a man in a serge suit who’s a slave to his timepiece. We don’t stand in line to take it. Like an idea or a sudden passion, the road can be embraced on a whim. A man, a woman, their children, and the pet parrot can pile into the wagon or the car, tie the conjugal mattress to the roof, and at any moment undertake a new life. From Newfoundland to Newfoundout, from Fort McMurray to Hope, British Columbia, the road leads somewhere else – somewhere better.

I gave up a full-time career in media because writing in a expressive and emotional style wasn’t “profitable” for a lot of publishers anymore. But Unwin has captured that desire in me to “scribble” at least here again with this book. The prose is certainly poignant and  – at times – witty. But there is always a no-holds-barred look at the reality of the history and roads in Canada which is not only unique and truthful.

Pages 50-51 Breaking the Trail: “Adequate for Horsemen, but Unsuitable for Women”

The first road to be built in maritime Canada were crude trails hacked from the dense bush for the simple and even exemplary purpose of delivering mail. This means that some of the first cargo of the Canadian road included, along with the expected cannon and gunpowder, billet-doux, letters home, missives written in the face of loneliness. The mailman appears as one of the first travellers on the road, pushing his lonely way through the deer paths, the tote roads, and finally the road itself, specifically built to accommodate him. In the seventeenth century, one Nova Scotia mailman covered a seventy-two-mile (115 kilometre) route for three months without meeting another human being.

While this raises the question of who exactly the mail was being delivered to, the original Canadian road is here presented in its first and long-lasting spiritual aspect” a conduit for verse, for the gossip that makes communication worthwhile in the first place, and for dark letters that announce the death of a loved one. The story also reveals the original Canadian mailman as a mute pioneer troubadour lugging a canvas bag through an almost primordial forest, whistling to remind himself that he’s there and to warn the bears of his presence. Joseph Howe describes an old postie named Stewart who worked the route from Pictou to Halifax and carried the mail in his jacket pocket, along with a gun to shoot any partridge that he might encounter. The partridge he sold to his customers as he went along.

Unwin has used a combination of wit and seriousness with his prose here to make readers ponder about something we take for granted – that path that is under our feet or under our tires. This is one of those books that should be taken to a quiet corner and meditated over. The ‘ah-hah’ and ‘really’ and ‘how-true’ moments that come from Unwin’s observations are numerous.

Page 143 – Virgin Territory

I unload a barrage of  questions, and he at once drops the tourist board gimcrack and comes clean. “Nobody comes here,” he says softly. “You`re the first.” The young people are getting out of here as fast as they can. “Calgary,” he says. An almost mystical light shines in his face. Calgary.

Next door stands the prominently mounted street sign that announces Yonge Street. In front of it is the official blue information sign, pleased to explain that Rainy River is connected by this road to the humming frenzy of Toronto, 1,915 kilometres away. This, then, is Main Street: main street Rainy River, main street Toronto – what Sinclair Lewis, in his novel of the same name, sneeringly calls “the climax of civilization.” Smart-alecky, quick-talking VJs are forever zipping up here to film this sign for television programs that will be called “Road Trip” or “On the Road.” And yet Toronto exerts no pull here. In this hidden corner of Ontario, sometimes called the Northwest Angle, the tug is tangibly westward. The roads lead there, the rivers lead there, the culture leads there, the fur trappers went there before us, breaking the routes that the highways would follow. The young people are going there too. They follow the road. West

Peter Unwin has given a well-crafted voice to the unsung elements of the road in Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road. It is an enlightening and entertaining read and definitely a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Peter Unwin`s LinkedIn Profile

A Book about the Wilderness to be Savoured | Review of “Me and You and the Red Canoe” Written by Jean E. Pendziwol and “Pictures” by Phil. (2017) Groundwood Books

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The beauty of the wilderness has been often described as wonderful and lyrical. And while a many a book has been written about the wilderness, it takes a gifted team to bring the magic truly together. So it is truly wonderful to flip through Me and You and the Red Canoe, written by Jean E. Pendziwol with pictures by Phil.

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After savouring this book for a little while, it is obvious that these duo not only have spent time in the outdoors but enjoy doing so. Their combination of words and images create a texture of what spending length of time out relaxing out near a lake. This book may appear to be a simple read at first, but for anyone – young or old – who takes the time to look carefully at the detail of both the words and the artwork here, gains a great appreciation of a simple canoe trip.

(Excerpt)

We paused,

silent,

drifting in our red canoe,

and watching a moose

on long gangly legs

pluck cattails from the shallows

for his breakfast.

 

I dropped my line

into the blue-green depths,

my lure

spinning,

twirling,

dancing.

 

You paddled.

 

We waited.

Pendziwol told me in a Q&A (link here) that place is important in her writing. And readers certainly get that feeling with this book. Readers easily gain empathy with the protagonist of this story who is out enjoying a day in a canoe. She shares the tranquility and relaxation that comes with someone out in nature, away from the hurly-burly of the modern electronic world we encase ourselves in.

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There is a certain mystic about “Phil” who is listed as having done the ‘pictures’ for this book. The images are detailed and vibrant which adds to the enjoyment of the book. We learn about “Phil’s” educational background and where he lives now from his blurb on the back of the book but not more.  A small website on the publisher’s page (Link here) lists a bit more of his background and tells us the ‘pictures’ are rendered on wood panels, which give the images a classic and time-honoured feel to them. But nothing more. The mystic about this talented artist certainly gives the book a bit more pleasure to it.

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Me and You and the Red Canoe, written by Jean E. Pendziwol and “pictures” by Phil, is certainly a charming and tranquil read to be savoured. The duo certainly breed empathy for the outdoors through their well-crafted work.

*****

Link to Groundwood Books’ website for Me and You and the Red Canoe

Link to Jean E. Pendziwol’s website

A Gritty Book and a Great Piece of Literature | Review of “Debris” by Kevin Hardcastle (2015) Biblioasis

Kevin Hardcastle will be appearing at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street festival

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There is a beauty in the way a writer can capture a series of lives that are bitter and downtrodden. To use language that is direct and frank takes not only a certain skill but also requires a writer to a have an awareness to a segment of society that isn’t pretty or polite for most of the time. Kevin Hardcastle has certainly captured a ‘gritty’ reality of a series of people with his collection of short stories called simply Debris. And it is certainly a unique read.

Pages 28-29 The Rope

She got undressed with the door open and it didn’t seem to bother her. When she had her regular clothes on she came back through the house sat at the kitchen table. She smoked there at the little table and Matthew sat across from her in his dress pants and undershirt.

“Okay, ma?” he said.

Maryanna nodded and smiled funny.

“How d’you feel now?”

“Not very good. Not very good at all.”

Matthew studied her long he felt like getting up and walking the room but he didn’t.

“You been havin’ bad thoughts?”

“Sometimes.”

“Like what kind?”

“Its the stress of it all.”

She stubbed out and sand back with her hands in her lap.

“You don’t got a plan, do you?” Matthew said.

“I’ve got a rope.”

“Where?”

“In the bedroom drawer.”

Matthew stayed still but his heart beat way up in his ears. He took heavy breaths and it was hard for him to keep them in check for he’d a bone-broken nose that let air in poorly by the one nostril.

Maryanna reached over and took his hand in the both of hers. She seemed to have woke up all of sudden and she scooted her chair in close to him.

“Don’t worry about me,” she said. “I’m not gonna do that.”

This book is one of those reads that any English teacher in high school would have cringed at if it came up as a read. The language is frank, bold, violent and vulgar. But it reflects a gritty reality that exist. Hardcastle documents lives of people who are desperate and bitter yet know no other means of escaping their existence either with the intake of substances or the use of violence. This book may not be a comfortable read with a lot of the cultural elites but it is a good piece of literature.

Pages 68-69 To Have To Wait

Matthew wouldn’t stop shaking his head. When they had long since cut through the township he still had a troubled look on his face. Paul knew his brother wasn’t  fretting that hard about the ramshackle zoo. He waited soon enough Matthew spoke up.

“How has she been without him there?” he said.

Paul held the wheel in one hand and ran the other through his hair. He wiped a palmful of sweat on his shirtsleeve.

“You know, you take for granted the kind of feelings they got for each other, forget they been through shit that would kill most folks,” Paul said. “Then you see one of them without the other . . . Shit.~

“Yeah.”

Paul bit at his nails, then put his free hand back on the wheel.

“She goes to work and she fusses around the house and gets on with it, but there’s nothing behind it. All those old routines don’t mean shit anymore. They just past the time.”

“What about when he was home?”

“Before, when  he was there between the treatments, he wasn’t really himself. They put you under and hit you with that juice and it saps the life right outta you. He came home worn out. Couldn’t remember a lot of things. It was weird. So this last time he asked just to stay in there until it was done.”

Hardcastle’s descriptions – especially on those telling about locations and emotions – are simple, direct and vivid. No excess flowery prose or over-used psychoanalytical terms are used. Just direct and to the point. And the voices he gives his characters sound like they are conversations that occur today. Again, no excess phrases or the use of ‘proper’ grammar or restraint of use of obscenities.

Pages 118-119 One We Could Stand to Lose

In the early morning Arthur heard two drunks screaming at each other through the plaster walls. One woman called another woman a cocksucker. He turned his radio on and sat on his mattress. The bed linens were clean because Arthur bought them long ago and laundered them himself. He had torn up his carpeting near the turn of the century and carted it down to the alleyway dumpster piece by piece. When Arthur got up to piss at night he walked barefoot on creaky hardwood, and he often sat in his chair barefoot and read late with his feet on the cedar planking.

He’d not slept long when someone knocked his door. By the clock it was eleven a.m. Arthur got up and went over to see by the peephole. He opened up on a frantic clerk who worked the morning shift. The man was near dancing on the hallway carpet. Eyes agog and his face gone red.

“What is it, Tim?”

“It’s goddam chaos down there. They come in through the front door and then came some more and they just started goin’ at it”

“Who did?”

“Most of `em ran. But the dude from two-six-teen is face-down in the lobby with all kinds of stuff comin’ outta him.”

Kevin Hardcastle has certainly documented elements of gritty and downtrodden lifestyles well in his collection of short-stories called Debris. Simply written yet expressive, it is a read that is a great piece of literature. And no doubt a writer who`s future writings are worth looking into.

*****

Kevin Hardcastle’s next book is entitled In The Cage. Link about it here

Ljnk to Biblioasis’s website for Debris.

Link to Kevin Hardcastle’s WordPress site

 

Learning that a “Place” shapes our Identity as well |Review of “The Lightkeeper’s Daughters (2017) Harper Avenue

Jean E. Pendziwol will be appearing at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

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‘Place’ plays an important element in our identities. Where we are from and how we were raised in those surroundings play important parts to our personalities. Yet sometimes we forget where we came from and wonder why we feel so ‘lost’ in our modern-day lives. And that is the theme that Jean E. Pendziwol explores in her novel The Lightkeeper’s Daughters.

Page 10-11 Morgan

“All right.” Ms. Campbell sighs, extending the folder in her hand. “You’re Morgan Fletcher,” she removes her glasses and places them on the desk. “I see.”

I know what she sees. She sees what she wants to. She sees my straight black hair, dyed so that it shines like midnight. She sees dark kohl circling my gray eyes, my tight jeans and high black boots and the row of silver studs along my earlobes. She sees my pale face that I’ve made even paler, and my bright red lips. She doesn’t see that I am, maybe just a little scared. I won’t let her see that.

I slouch back into the chair, and cross my legs. So that’s how it’s going to be. Fine.

Ms. Campbell opens the folder. “Well, Morgan, community hours, is it? I says here that you have agreed to clean up the graffiti and assist with further maintenance work under the direction of our maintenance supervisor.” She looks at me again. “You’ll be here every Tuesday and Thursday right after school for the next four weeks.”

“Yup.” I tap my toe against the front of the desk and look at my fingernails. They are painted red, like my lips. Blood red.

“I see,” she says. Again. Ms. Campbell pauses for a moment, and I can tell that she is studying me. I know what’s in that folder. I don’t want her judgement. Worse, I don’t want her pity. I shift my gaze to a spider plant on the top of the filing cabinet. She sighs again. “Well, then I guess we`d better get you introduce to Marty.” She leaves the folder containing my past on her desk, and I have no choice; I follow her down the hall.

This is Pendziwol’s first novel and has become one of my favourite’s of the 2017 publishing season. She does two things in a work of fiction that I enjoy  – uses a lyrical style that helps the plot flow AND documents an element of a human condition that conveys a feeling we all endure; wondering who we are and where we come from. The plot weaves between two main characters. Morgan, who is a teenage, angst-ridden, and confused young woman and Elizabeth, a blind, elderly resident of a nursing room. As the two meet and converse, they find out they both have a common history descending from a family who were lighthouse keepers on a series of islands in Lake Superior. Each chapter is told through one of the two women as they slowly learn elements of their common family history.

Pages 76-77 Elizabeth

They stay only about half an hour, and then the nuggets find a resting place in the garbage pail beside the sofa, the latest toy is dropped into the Hello Kitty backpack, and Mr. Androsky is wheeled back to his room, slurping up the last few sips of milk shake. It is a ritual I dismissingly tolerate, but secretly envy.

I have no family to come visit me. No weekly offerings of barely digestible fast food, no cards on my birthday, no one asking if I am well that week or need anything. It is only when I hover on the periphery of Mr. Androsky`s life that it occurs to me that I am missing something. Emily was my life. Yes, there was Charlie, too, for a time. But I could not bring myself to reach out to him. I could not forgive his misguided actions or contemplate an apology from him, should he even wanted to provide one. And I could not be sorry for those things that he would not forgive. So we lived in mutual exile from each other.  He was never acknowledged, never present, but always a shadow that hovered just beyond our existence. We had been so close, the three of us; he our champion and we his adoring followers. But darkness swallowed us, and when I had to choose,  I chose Emily.

This is one of those books I would recommend a person takes a few minutes at the end of a busy day to sit down with and ponder over. While it is a lyrical read, the prose is also simple and elegant. Pendziwol is also able to capture the speech patterns of each of her protagonists here perfectly. A reader can clearly grasp both what young Morgan or elderly Elizabeth are thinking and desiring. Empathy comes easily with the well-crafted phrases Pendziwol uses here.

Page 274 Elizabeth

I stand beneath the shower, hands gripping the chrome bars fastened to the tile walls. Water rains down, trickling like a thousand streams across my body. I close my eyes and lift my head, allowing the drops to flood my face and mold my hair until it hangs, sleek and thick, a snowy river dripping puddles that collect at my feet and disappear down the drain in the floor. I can feel the wolf, prowling. He is becoming more persistent, visiting almost daily now. He is patient. He sits, watching, waiting. I wipe my eyes, but they fill as quickly, and I don’t bother clearing them again. I reach out a hand, exploring the wall until I find the tap and turn it fully it fully to the right. I gasp when the cold water stabs at me, as cold as the Lake. My eyes flash open at the shock, but still they see nothing. My skin prickles. My pulse quickens.

The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol is certainly one of my favourite reads of the 2017 season. It is emotional and lyrical and enlightening. Certainly a great piece of literature and hopefully not one of the last of novels from this author.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada page for The Lightkeeper’s Daughters

Link to Jean E. Pendziwol`s website

Link to my Q&A with Jean E. Pendziwol – “Place plays an important role in most of my work and I like to bring my readers here, to my home, through my words.”