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Summer Reads- Trevor Cole, Zsuzsi Gartner, Susan Juby

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I have been lax in my reviewing duties. June was the month from hell  – report cards, Play Day and year end parties. Then I had to prepare for my UBC course with Joseph Boyden, which meant 3 pages of critiques for each of the seven other students in my workshop. Right after UBC, I went right into teaching at the Fernie Writers’ Conference. I’m back now and will do a few posts to catch up on some summer reads.

Trevor Cole – Practical Jean and Fearsome Particles

If you haven’t read Practical Jean or Fearsome Particles, you’re missing out. Practical Jean is the winner of the Leacock Medal for humour. And it’s funny – a sick, dark funny. Jean, a woman who, upon losing her mother to illness, decides to give her closest friends the wonderful gift of not having to die a long, painful, drawn out death. The gift of one last blast of fun and then bam! Quick and merciful is the way to go. As a good friend, Jean takes care of that. Does she ever.

When Jean starts taking care of business, you’ll laugh out loud. Then you’ll stop and realize that it’s the kind of hilarity that is a little bit off, the kind of giggling that happens at the most inappropriate moment. At a funeral, for example. Under the black humour lies more than one universal truth about how we treat our dying, our friends and our spouses. It’s sleight-of-hand. It’s standing solid on a carpet that you have no idea will be ripped out from underneath you. It’s original, fun and heartbreaking.

I picked up Cole’s second book Fearsome Particles on the strength of Practical Jean. There is humour here, but it is more muted, the overall tone more melancholy. The characters are exquisitely drawn in such a fresh way.  It’s the story of a family in crisis, but it turns out it’s a crisis that has permeated their existence for a long time. The description of Vicky’s toenails alone is worth picking this one up. The title refers to those minuscule particles that enter our homes and our bodies, infecting us, sickening us.

In both books, Cole is able to amplify common feelings to near-absurdity. He takes what we feel, be it anger and sadness at the death of a loved one, or the paranoia that comes with our fear of literal or figurative “infection” and gives it free rein. (As a writer, I found his use of symbolism in this book brilliant.)

Zsuzsi Gartner – Better Living through Plastic Explosives

I read this book early this summer, just before heading to BC where I had the chance to meet Zsuzsi and listen to her speak on a number of panels. She’s hilarious. She writes like no other I have ever read. Her stories are biting and satirical and sadly funny. (Not “sadly, funny.”) It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite from this collection, but there are two I tell people they must read: The Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion and Floating Like a Goat. Both stories hold us as members of today’s society up to a bright light. What is exposed isn’t pretty, but it’s recognizable.

This book deserves its own separate review, but all I really need to say is: Read it. Soon. Now.

Susan Juby – Nice Recovery

In the 80’s, the average attendee at a 12 step-program was male, in his 50’s and was addicted to alcohol. The average attendee these days is 24, can be male or female and is addicted to many different stimulants, some all at once. On average they start drinking at twelve. Susan Juby stopped drinking at twenty. It’s nice that as a YA author, she is able to bring some strong lessons and support forward for young alcoholics and addicts. The book will take you right back to the eighties, with references to Nick Rhodes and leg-warmers, but it’s very pertinent today, too. It’s funny, written in a slightly self-deprecating (my favourite!) tone. It’s a hopeful book. She addresses how absolutely attainable a good, sober life can be. And she’s been sober over twenty years, so she has credibility. This is a book I would totally recommend to anyone, teen or not, who is on that long journey to sobriety.

I think that with my school commitments, my reviews will get shorter, though I am hopeful I can still stay on top of them. Thanks for sticking around.

The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou

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Full disclosure: I have known Angie since 2007 when she was my instructor at the Fernie Writers’ Conference. Because of this, I have been in the unique position of hearing bits and pieces about The Canterbury Trail as Angie wrote it. She held her cards close, but every so often she would drop hints about this pilgrimage tale she was penning. 

The Canterbury Trail is loosely based on that old, dusty, high-school tome The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Remember how all the boys in class perked up and giggled during the Wife of Bath’s tale? If they thought the Wife of Bath was a lascivious lass, they should spend some time with The Canterbury Trail’s Alison, the gap-toothed, wine-swilling, sex-crazed reporter from out East.

If you do recall your Chaucer, you will no doubt recognize this and other references to his timeless work. I’m a bit of a lit geek, so I enjoyed the little in-jokes in The Canterbury Trail that I actually got. The ones I missed, well, I’ll never know the difference, will I? It says something about strength of narrative that you don’t need to know the original story in order to follow the travails of this group of travellers to their Camelot. Camelot in this case is a back-country cabin set in the mountains above the fictional town of Coalton.

The book opens with Heinz, the town hermit and former English teacher. He spends his time carving signs that name all the beauteous spots of nature that surround his home on the mountain. He curses the very people who he knows are already making plans to invade his tranquil world.

Then we are off! With boisterous abandon, the pilgrims from the town of Coalton begin their journey up Canterbury Trail to indulge in some back-country playtime.  Fresh snow spews from the heavens as the diverse groups make their way via various means of transportation to the coveted cabin. Along the way to paradise, the reader experiences snowmobile trips, a hilarious mushroom trip, skiing UP a mountain and, upon arrival, buckets and buckets of puke – without the buckets.

As these outdoor enthusiasts are forced together within the tight confines of Camelot, allegiances are made and broken. The stakes are raised again and again until people and relationships start to unravel and suddenly, things aren’t quite so funny anymore.

On the last morning, the pilgrims wake to perfect conditions on the mountain. But perfect for what? The tension amps up as we watch skier, snowboarder and snowmobiler race to get the face shots and highmarks they’ve come for.

Angie’s strengths as a writer shine through not only in her dialogue, but also in her descriptions. The characters are spot-on. I will only name a few: Janet, the pregnant wife; Cosmos, the hippy; F-Bomb (best name in the book and my favourite character) the First Nations skier with a heart of gold; Loco the local who knows the land better than anyone; Michael, the real estate developer who sees green in all that white. Angie purposely and purposefully takes her characters right up to the line of being stereotypes – she gives us exactly what we expect to see, always with the express intent of turning those very expectations on their heads as the story progresses.

Angie makes the outdoors and the experience of the outdoors tangible. I have never back-country skied, but after reading this book, I, Queen of the Green Run, found myself pontificating to my bored ski-mates on the type of snow beneath my ancient pair of former rental skis. “Ah yes, this would be cream cheese snow. And over there, on that difficult run beneath the Deer Chair, well, that is known as elephant snot.”

I no longer have to clench my teeth in an uncomprehending smile when someone says something about skin tracks. I now know they have nothing to do with heroin. I’m now able to properly eavesdrop on all those cool kids at the coffee shop in Fernie when they talk about “telemarking” and “transceivers” and “pot cookies.” Not that I’ve ever heard anything about pot cookies. No sir. Not ever.

As a card-carrying GORB — oh, read the book if you don’t know what that means — I may not seem like The Canterbury Trail’s ideal reader, but the trip up the C—t* was nothing short of a rocking, shocking good time.  (And if the C-word at the end of this review surprised you, that’s nothing compared to the end of the book. You’ll see.)

*Look, Ma! I wrote this whole review and only mentioned the C-word once. Which is about eighteen times less than it is spoken, mentioned and referenced in The Canterbury Trail. Stay tuned for Angie’s interview when she will discuss this very subject. 

Memoir of a Good Death – Anne Sorbie

Memoir of a Good Death is the first novel by Calgary author Anne Sorbie. The story is narrated alternately by real estate expert Rhegan and her mother Sarah, and details their struggles to come to terms with the death of Rhegan’s father and ultimately with their own fractured relationship.

The twist? We know from the opening pages that Rhegan is dead.

Sorbie follows in the grand tradition of Robert Kroetsch and Aritha van Herk and uses landscape to full effect in her story. In this case, we are treated to the sometimes calm, sometimes restless, sometimes downright violent Bow River. The action of the novel flows at times in tandem with the movement of the water, and at other times in opposition to it. Opportunities for metaphor abound in this novel and Sorbie employs them with surgical skill. She doesn’t push you fully clothed into the raging waters of her symbolism, but lets the seeping dampness advance a little at a time until you suddenly realize that you are awash in the beauty and sadness and strength and fury that colour the lives of her characters.

Rhegan sells property along the Bow River. To be in sales is to be ever concerned with the bottom line – black or red – and this is reflected in Rhegan’s strong personality. Her territory runs from mountain to canyon, through city and over prairie.  It floods. It recedes. Not unlike profits and losses. Like any good sales rep, Rhegan knows what she sells and she’s good at it. Unfortunately, she is not as skilled in her appraisals of those she loves.

Rhegan is somewhat hard to get to know even though she is forthright about the mistakes she’s made in her life. Her death has afforded her the chance to come to terms with the errors she’s made face the fact that she has hurt those she most loved. Her vulnerablility is revealed through her inability to dispose of one particular property in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood. She cannot bear to let it go, and as she explains why, we connect with her and are pulled into her tale.

Sarah, her mother, is distant. At first it seems it’s due to the untimely death of her husband, but soon it’s clear that Sarah was always a mother who held back and didn’t engage with her daughter.  Her sections are written in the second person, which is a little hard to get used to at first, but even though I’ve never really loved that POV, it actually suits her character. Sarah was unable to forge an outwardly loving connection with her daughter, so it makes sense that she would have a voice that forces you to keep a bit of distance.

Rhegan’s story is told in the first person POV. This is perfect for her character. After all, it’s really all about her, isn’t it? Her mother, her exes, her father – they are like river currents that move around the island that is Rhegan. She knows this though, and doesn’t flinch as she lets us in on her self-centredness. It would be unfair to give away the details of Rhegan’s death, but I will say I held my breath throughout the three pages that described the action. Brilliant.

There are not many books out there that feature Calgary, and very few that feature the city in such lovely and loving detail. Anne Sorbie has crafted an original book that defies expectation. It is evident in the minute details of her story that every element was chosen to highlight what goes on underneath what we usually see, whether beneath deceptive calm waters of a river, or the person sitting next to you at breakfast.


Snowdrift – Lisa McGonigle

In Snowdrift, Irish lass Lisa McGonigle takes her readers on a powder-packed ride through Fernie, New Zealand and Rossland with a few side trips to Calgary and La Belle Province.

Snowdrift delivers on its promise to share McGonigle’s journey from university student to Kootenay ski bum.  Her story begins the way many ski bum stories begin – with the wish to drop everything and run away.

Like so many others, McGonigle is hooked after one season of snowboarding in Fernie. She follows convention and returns to the UK to complete her Ph.D on a scholarship at Oxford. After one term, she knows she has to return to the mountains. On Christmas break, she heads back to B.C. with her ski gear and a few changes of clothing and never looks back.

Snowdrift carries us along on Lisa’s travels in Canada and New Zealand as she searches for that “something more” that drives many to abandon the daily grind and find life “out there.” The reader is able to experience the highs – freedom, friends, fun – and the lows – mundane minimum-wage jobs and injuries – without leaving home. She takes the risks for the reader.

Though touted as a ski-bum book, its strength is based on that moment where one looks down the narrowing pipe of the future and says “I want more” and then following through. More than just a tale of powder and peanut butter, Snowdrift touches on many different aspects of taking the leap into a new life: visas, maps, accommodation, plane tickets, ski gear (duct tape and all) and making new friends.

Any of those challenges is daunting on its own, but McGonigle perseveres where others might just give up and stay home.

Not often noted in reviews or interviews, are strong sections of the book where McGonigle details a season in Calgary and a trip to Quebec. She discusses her newfound love of running, and takes the reader up and down many different paths as she prepares for different races, culminating in a marathon back home in Dublin, right where her journey began.

Mennonites Don’t Dance-Darcie Friesen Hossack

Catch of the Day

Mennonites Don’t Dance is a finely-crafted collection of short stories by Darcie Friesen Hossack. Set in and around Swift Current (and Calgary) they are universal in that they deal with the expectations and hopes and disappointments and unkindnesses we’ve all experienced.

The stories are original and deep. Friesen Hossack can spin a fantastic yarn. What lifts her stories up and makes them so memorable are the characters and the rural and urban settings.

Mennonites Don’t Dance paints a vibrant, sweeping landscape of life on the prairies. Friesen Hossack has captured that déjà vu feeling that East Coast writers like Lisa Moore and Michael Crummey can evoke so well in their own books– I’ve been here before. The stories in this book, whether set in the past or present day, open a door to small-town Saskatchewan. Contrary to the wide-open-watch-your-dog-run-away-for-days stereotype of the prairies, Friesen Hossack captures very stiflingness of the place: the heat, the invisible fences and the ties that bind – to the land, to family. Never-ending cycles of seasons and planting and harvest. The constant wind. The fierce storms. That’s the Saskatchewan I know.

The characters that move through the pages of Mennonites Don’t Dance are unforgettable. Sometimes they are depicted in spare, broad-stroke lettering, and at other times in great cursive loops, embellished beautifully. The children stay with you. Wide-eyed and open-eared, they are the conduit through which many of the stories are told. But the loss of innocence, a recurring theme throughout this book, is not limited only to the very young.

Here, I think of my grandma. I recognize her father in Joseph, the absentee father in Poor Nella Pea. I see my grandfather in Jonah, the little boy who tries to find his place in the world in the haunting story Luna. And in the title story, there is Lizbeth, a young girl, breathless in the spin of a forbidden dance with a boy she likes. There, I find my grandma. Though my grandma never experienced the terrible tragedy Lizbeth faced, here is where the universality of the stories shines. Everyone has a tragedy. They just don’t speak of it. It’s a way of being enmeshed with life on the prairies.

Ashes is by far my favourite story. I was hooked by the lines:

“Tomatoes make Anke nervous. The way they become vulnerable to frost at the first hint of ripening.Their shameless read and soft flesh that yields to the slightest pressure, their gel-enveloped seeds.”

Those two lines to me, represent the whole story. You know something’s coming.

Yes, it is a story of the careful dance of a mother in law who must cope with a daughter-in-law who moves in and brings change to the “old ways.” But it is much, much more than that. This story will seep into the cracks of your being and you won’t be able to scrub the images clean.

Mental illness, a subject so taboo in society today, is forced into the open in more than one of these stories. Friesen Hossack is able to keep a delicate balance between a writerly respect and showing how people who suffer from depression and mental illness were and are treated with the very opposite of respect.

And the food. Let it be known – there is food. Lots of it. Homegrown food, the staples. Unpronounceable food. Food planted, grown and harvested by hand.

Mennonites Don’t Dance is Saskatchewan. From imagery you can almost touch to the stoic, soft-hearted characters, this book is will take you home, whether you’re Mennonite, or not. Whether you’re from the prairies, or not.

Beautiful Girl Thumb – Melissa Steele

Just the title of Melissa Steele’s short story collection leads a reader to expect something different and beguiling. Beautiful Girl Thumb is a collection of original and contemporary tales that will shock you, make you laugh, then, mid-giggle, will smack you upside the head with deep and true revelations. The writing itself is concise and direct, cracking open a world of strange but believable characters and situations.

Diplomacy is a tale of a teenaged boy, not-so-proud member of a group of adolescents who play war games and end up doing something terrible and utterly lacking in diplomacy.

Another notable tale, I’m Your Frankenstein, is a gem. It tells of the loss of friendship between “couple friends,” a sad story we think we’ve lived. Ha. Not with this almost literal rabbit-out-of-a-hat-ending!

We all know “that mom”, the Hilfiger mom who mows down anyone in her path to ensure HER child has a shot at the best after-school program, or the most sought-after music teacher. They Eat Their Young is a painful, yet accurate account of a mother who lines up overnight to ensure her child is registered in the best private school.Undoubtedly, many will also recognize the PTA mom depicted in this story.

The stories all deal with the same day-to-day crap that we all deal with — teenaged breakups, birth, block parties. Where Melissa Steele’s writing really shines is in taking her characters twisting them a quarter-turn into fascinating eccentrics. The people in these stories invite you in, make you part of their crazy, screwed up families. You can almost hear them sigh as they open the door. “Come on in,” they say.  “You asked for it.”

You won’t be disappointed. Enjoy the ride.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-Dawn of the Dreadfuls

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For something a little different…
I received an advance copy of Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith to review on Fresh Fish and Foolishness.  Scroll down, there is a link to a message board where you can post to enter you name to win some Zombie graft.

Billed as a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a mash-up version of Jane Austen’s PandP, Dawn of the Dreadfuls is a completely original novel, using a few of the characters created by Austen.

As an Austen fan, I wasn’t sure I was going to like having one of fiction’s most beloved characters become a warrior. I read on though, knowing from the first page that the author wrote it with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He hilariously skewers English Society, with a keen eye to poking fun at every last convention of the times. The Bennets’ reputation is destroyed the minute they stand against the “unmentionables”, to the dismay of their very proper and high-reaching mother. The young Bennet ladies do not do what is expected of them. Balls and Lords, matrons and maidens, warriors and cowards are all easy marks for our intrepid heroine, Elizabeth. Read the rest of this entry