Thursday, December 3, 2020

Review of Lush by Anne-Marie Yerks

Lush by Anne-Marie Yerks


Review of Lush 
By Anne-Marie Yerks
Published by Odyssey Books
Available as a trade paperback or ebook

“I was forced by birth to live in the past, but I was more excited by the future and longed to shape mine in many different ways.” So thinks 17 year old Isla Kiehl in 2151 as she works at a spinning wheel. It’s Saturday in a Heritage Mennonite farm and Isla is chatting about the old ways circa 1856 with busloads of Citizen tourists “in pastel pinks, yellows and blues—the standard shades for retirees.”

This time and place in the environmentally ravaged future is rich with possibility, for Isla’s life ahead of her and for us, as readers. Runaways and revolutions come to mind immediately. Isla narrates the novel and her voice is immediately engaging and trustworthy. What she wants, with her 18th birthday mere days away, is not to be married off to Archie Pimm, her only suitor to date. But there is another outlet for bright young women and Isla and her best friend, Esme are more than curious about it.

The Center for Research on Ecological and Intellectual Advancement or CREIA is rumoured to have a legendary library and state of the art research laboratories. It’s also the place where women who want to be teachers can be selected for training there. Or at least, this is the glossy promotion offered by a glamorous speaker at their high school. It would seem to be a respectable escape from life as a living museum exhibit in Cherish Our Past and especially from a suitor with an egg-shaped head and unfortunate eyebrows.

Another young man Isla has eyes for, a mutual crush, warns her about her charismatic teacher and CREIA and Isla’s brilliant brother is uneasy about his little sister leaving the safety of their farm and their father. They’ve already  lost their mother to cancer and their elder sister ran away from home and was found dead in mysterious circumstances. But Isla is young and spirited and she wants to see and experience life beyond the derelict houses and trailers near their farm. Off to CREIA she goes with her best friend in a car driven by their teacher despite some last-minute misgivings.

There is a constant undercurrent of fear and menace in the highly stratified colony where they have been taken. The writing throughout is a brilliant example of ‘show, don’t tell— and trust your readers.’ Those of us who are fans of adventurous stories where female characters thrive because they are strong and ingenious and determined when confronted with challenges will bring our reading history to Lush. We will experience a delicious sense of anticipation mixed with dread as we read about the colony where some will teach, some will serve, some will garden and some will have their fertile eggs harvested to contribute to ‘composites’. Did you just shiver involuntarily?

The pacing,  meaning the rate at which we learn about this new yet strangely familiar world, is perfectly maintained as well. There are great disparities in food and potable water and housing and power and footwear, things great and relatively small. Like the best dystopian world-building, there is just enough ordinary evidence of civilization to scare the bejeepers out of anyone when Isla has to evade a hologram spider the size of a rabid house-cat. Every character, major or minor, is distinctive and decaying urban streets and rural landscapes are fully imagined, endowed with crucial details— the bare feet, the rope belt holding up frayed jeans, the dignified man on a park bench reading a newspaper, one of the UnSaved. Or the cargo ship heading downriver with a cargo of prisoners which makes me think of the Mississippi or even the Thames. Will the toxic world be restored by working with science or nature, or both? Will Isla succumb to an assigned role in society for the sake of good food and clean water? What price freedom? How can the goodness of humanity prevail over the power-mongers and their allies? What keeps the human quest for hope alive? All these questions and more are deftly and intelligently explored in lyrical language that is never heavy-handed which it could be in less accomplished hands.

The author lives in Detroit, Michigan and the publisher is based in Wellington, New Zealand. Kudos to a creative partnering of Northern and Southern hemisphere denizens!

Highly recommended for readers 12-18 especially but as with all good writing, this book is for any reader of any age who loves a ripping good plot, interesting characters and very good writing guaranteed to keep you reading far later into the night than you should.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Review of The Parkour Club by Arooj Hayat & Pam Withers

The Parkour Club
Several years ago I was on a sightseeing bus in Paris, the kind one can hop on and off, day pass in hand, to explore neighbourhoods. I turned my head at just the right moment to see three agile young people leaping along stairs and walls beside a tall apartment building before the bus whisked us -and them- out of sight. I couldn't quite believe what I'd seen. Had I imagined it? Now, after reading this action-packed and well-plotted novel, I remembered those faraway figures and I finally know that who I was seeing were traceurs, and possibly one traceuse, practicing parkour, an intensely athletic cross between gymnastics and running and jujitsu while navigating obstacles which first originated in France. It is now a popular sport in many other countries.

Publisher Pam Withers is well-known for her ability to write about sports of all kinds and her own background as an athlete has led to books, like this one, where the reader is transported into the (much more accomplished and fearless) bodies of the athletes within. In this interesting collaboration with Canadian Muslim youth leader and co-author Arooj Hayat, the setting is a fictional Richland, Washington, USA where a student from Yemen, the only member of his immediate family to survive a disastrously overloaded boat making an ocean crossing in the Mediterranean, shows up at the local high school. 

An unhappy young white American student is back home again as well because her mother would not stay in Egypt, much less move to Yemen along with her war correspondent husband. Bronte, the daughter, is furious with her mother for taking her away from Egypt where she was learning parkour and Arabic and especially because she had a secret Egyptian boyfriend. Bronte also misses her Dad and competes with her mother for his attention and affection. She is not a perfect or especially nice young woman but she is an honestly portrayed teenager. She has temper tantrums and there is no evidence of her being helpful with chores at home, in short, Bronte is a privileged, pretty blonde, but also intelligent and fed-up with being seen as "the cheerleader type", as if there is a type, just one of the lazy-minded generalizations this book tackles very adeptly. The predatory world of Isis recruiters seems to have reached the pleasant boulevards of middle-class America though and rebellious ex-cheerleaders and present-day parkour athletes are targets. Possibly. This novel has more twists and turns than a parkour troupe heading down the bridges and embankments along the Seine. Parkour is, I realized belatedly, the perfect metaphor for teenagers navigating one of life's two most stressful stages, filled with obstacles (the other is being very elderly, in failing health, and being powerless, which on the surface is the exact opposite of being a teen except for feeling powerless of course).

This novel offers readers authentic insights about the refugee experience and religious intolerance and understanding. It also reminds older readers like myself how awful teenage girls can be to their rigid and overly-anxious mothers! The author 'tested' the novel in a high school class with students from diverse backgrounds. More than a few had harrowing experiences en route to North America as well, so reading this book was a validating experience for them. There is a reader's guide and a wonderful list of resources so people can see parkour athletes in action and learn the facts about Muslim beliefs and practices, like wearing a hijab, among other things. This is an energetic, thoughtful and deeply satisfying read at so many levels and I learned a great deal about many things along the way. Kudos to the authors and I hope, in these troubled times around the world, that this novel finds its way into many languages and into the receptive hands of many readers.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Review of Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles


A fictional exploration of the upheaval in lives and society right after the American Civil War in Texas after a disastrous and unnecessary battle in the last days of it, perpetrated on battle-weary soldiers by a glory-seeking officer. Also a love story wherein dispossessed young people triumph over poverty, indentured servitude, an in-house predator, not to mention much time and distance spent apart. Bonus, this is a tribute to musicians and the authenticity of the tunes they played and the instruments they had on hand is a treat to behold. It begs for a soundtrack. An audio recording of this book would be a huge hit!

A “victory” aka end of hostilities banquet is organized after the quick and bloody battle, and former soldiers known or suspected of being musicians are rounded up to form a 'scratch band' from both sides of the conflict. They’ve been wandering around since the battle, trying not to starve or bleed to death or catch yellow fever or be asked for their discharge papers by the Union soldiers. One such soldier is a slight youth known as Simon the Fiddler, already an accomplished musician whose biggest concern is the safety of his violin in its case. Simon has a temper and a chip on his shoulder because his father’s whereabouts are unknown and parentage in that society is a major concern. “Who are your people?” meaning what sort of upstanding citizens or worthless batch of landless ne’er-do-wells do you hail from? Simon wants land and to this end he plans to save the money he can make playing music. To this he has added winning the hand of Doris Aherne, the Irish indentured servant of the vainglorious and predatory officer who caused this last unnecessary battle. Simon is a goal-oriented fellow, you might say, an officially fatherless and desperate young man with a mighty will to succeed.

Here, as always within the novels written by award-winning writer Paulette Jiles, are truly marvelous characters, depicted in writing so engaging, so embedded in that particular time and place, another masterful combination of eye and ear and language. The descriptions of the odours alone are so apt you will walk the resinous rough-lumbered docks of Galveston and avoid the pungent fellows being tossed out of the bars in Houston. Spanish music and food and language mix with new world English alike. We can feel the desperation as these starving musicians scrabble to find more work and to find the doctor “on his exhausted horse” with pain-killers to ease their afflicted friend’s painful departure. The dialogue and the action are laced with deadpan humour as in the early example where Simon is hidden from army conscripts in an ice-house, covered with sawdust and left to ‘chill’ for hours.

The plot roars and simmers with yearning and menace. The chapter with the musicians journeying out to a notorious bandit’s family wedding is a nail-biter because the musicians know they could end up being what we’d call collateral damage should hostilities break out but Simon wants the lucrative pay promised to them. Meanwhile Doris, his beloved, on whom he has fixed his hopes for matrimony, is cleverly using the small arsenal of weapons available to her to fend off the predatory officer. The lot of indentured servants is only one step away from actual slavery and not nearly as much is written about it. They are at the mercy of a family and Doris is not placed with a happy family. The modern-day parallel would be nannies, hoping for permanent citizenship. The only time Doris can leave this bleak house is to accompany her only friend to the market to shop for food and to go to houses to teach piano lessons or accompany travelling musicians for a concert. I think you can see where this might lead…

A rip-roaring historical romance written by a brilliant storyteller and apparently a veteran penny whistle player in a ‘browngrass band’ in Texas!

Review of Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father by Brian Harvey

Review of Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father by Brian Harvey

Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father

This is my choice for Father's Day this year, the perfect gift for a lighthouse keeper who loves boats, also the former owner of a sailboat, who appreciates fine writing, shares a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour with the author and whose own father was a lawyer. It's also going into the birthday stack for our son, who has sailed the VanIsle Race, the circumnavigation of Vancouver Island twice on Icon, and who worked as a sail-maker and boat rigger for seven years. He also raced sailboats, mono and double-hulls, in Canada, Europe and the US, before getting his mechanical engineering degree to add to his diploma and has now secured his dream job with a naval architect! So if doctors, lawyers, engine mechanics, sports or commercial fishing experience and sailboats figure large in your life, consider this father and son gift recommendation.

This is not to say the book, which is so well-written it was nominated for Canada's Governor-General's Award for non-fiction in 2019, is an adventurous larky sort of boat story. Far from it. It is a heart-breaker for those many sons who grew up with perfectionist, proud, fiercely intelligent fathers, the kind of fellow who thinks he's naturally topnotch at everything else in life, like sailing, because he's a neurosurgeon. Relationships come second to patients. Nurses are told what to do. Truth and justice will prevail in a legal suit which is delivered to the neurosurgeon's door ten years after he retired...and this is the legal case which the author is reading, in alternating chapters as he sails a boat called Vera around Vancouver Island with his long-suffering (there is no other kind of wife for a sailor, so perhaps I'm hearing the author's voice in my head, chiding me for being redundant) but feisty and armed with as much navigational knowledge as her husband. He seems to make the final decisions, based on "sailing all his life", about tackling potential horror shows like Dodds Narrows and the Nawhitti Bar and rounding Cape Scott and the much-feared Brooks Peninsula, not to mention the shoaling waters off Estevan Point. Thankfully, there is much love and respect for the patience and skill and hard work shared by the couple and their invincible schnauzer dog on board and the humour is absolutely wonderful, leavening the tragedy which is unfolding as the trial transcripts and other supporting evidence is revealed. The father refused to speak about any of this with his son while alive but deftly written and for this reading, convincing conversations do occur on board...

A brilliant book which deserves to join the pantheon of great sea-going books. Kudos to ECW Press for a handsome cover and design for this original trade paperback. I feel like a bookseller or publisher's sales rep again when I read a great book like this, somewhat evangelical, but there are good reads and there are great, outstanding reads and this is one of the latter, hence the five stars.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Review of Milkman by Anna Burns


This book is why I read fiction. It's a challenging read but stick with it if you are interested in learning how individuals respond psychologically to an essentially insane environment like Belfast in the 1970's at the height of the 'Troubles'. The narrator escapes as best she can by reading only 17th, 18th and 19th century novels and is stubborn about doing her reading while walking to and from her courses and her job, head down, desperate to be oblivious and unnoticed. But this odd behaviour puts her "beyond the pale" which is the term applied not to Jewish farming settlements behind palings (fences) in Russia. Here it means she has joined other mentally ill suspects in the hard-scrabble Catholic neighbourhood who cannot be persuaded to stop their obsessive activities. And who decides what's normal when people (and family pets, erstwhile watch-dogs, which was particularly heart-rending to animal lovers like me) are being blown up and shot and otherwise murdered by the dozens every year?

The rosary-clacking under-educated pious women of course, colossal gossips, the lot of them, who watch everyone else, speculate as to motives and judge mightily, whose own pinched and constrained lives inevitably lead to malicious envy should another girl or woman shine (shining being the term for people who persist in believing in the beauty of sunsets, in being kind and helpful and brave as well in the face of the self-appointed renouncers and the paramilitary). Burns' great gift is to gabble away in that interior monologue which is so particularly Irish, with that over-the-top wonderful use of the English language, to reel us in and get us onside, fuming along with her about the curse of the gossips and then to show us these same women, fed-up with the deadly forays of the renouncers and the enemy paramilitary both murdering unarmed bystanders and taking to the streets beating the lids of pots and pans with kitchen spoons, shaming them outside their clubhouses or their guard posts.

The feeling of being trapped in this neighbourhood, of being watched and evaluated, of sibling rivalry and maternal disapproval, of being associated with your family for good and for ill, is exacerbated for our narrator when she attracts the unwelcome attentions of a man in a white van, the titular Milkman who is not the real milkman at all. This stalker is determined to make her, an 18 year old, his girlfriend. He knows almost everything about her daily activities and makes sure she knows he knows. The tension ratchets up to almost unbearable levels. Her response to this additional insanity in her life is to numb herself, to become expressionless. She guards her facial expressions as much as she guards her private thoughts from the intrusive watchers in her world, but they have immediately noticed the Milkman and begin fabricating a whole new life for her. It never stops, the gossip, which changes how others treat her but she is desperate to keep this persistent suitor at bay.

The insights of this terrified teenager, her often humorous observations of people's behaviour (gift-wrapping potatoes for a beau), despite the bleak political situation, and the brilliant use of language, structure and pacing makes this book an incredibly rewarding reading experience. She takes big risks with her writing strategies, eg. to eschew names for all her characters except one near-mythic beautiful woman who joined the nunnery, and to assign them roles instead (almost-boyfriend, real milkman, the wee sisters, tablet girl) which will predictably trigger a chorus of wails from those readers whose heads hurt if things are too different, too unpredictable. But for everyone who loves truly original writing, with enough menace to keep the pages flapping, this book is hugely rewarding.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Review of The Cut-Out Girl (Random House: 2018) by Caroline Woodward


This book opened my eyes to the horrific experience of Jews, and especially Jewish children, in World War II Holland. We have all read The Diary of Anne Frank but this book puts the context of Occupied Holland into place, the big picture, the role of the churches, the police, informers, and the resistance.

The very fact that 80% of Holland's Jews were murdered, more than any other European country including Germany and Austria, is staggering. The vulnerability and loneliness of children whose parents had to do the hardest possible thing, give them away to save their lives because they knew they'd likely lose their own lives sooner than later, is in some ways, even worse than the stories of Barnardo children, many of whom were orphans living in poverty, not a loving extended and immediate family. Most of these children were ripped from loving homes and hidden in claustrophobic attics and cellars and rooms which were glorified cupboards. They were taken away by incredibly courageous Dutch people who relied on their trusted networks of fellow university students or Dutch Socialist Party (somewhat like the Labour Party in the UK or the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner to the New Democratic Party in Canada) members or their professional associations to help with transportation and hiding places. Informers were everywhere and were being paid the princely sum of 7.50 guilders per Jewish person to bring them to the attention of the Dutch police.

The story is beautifully written by a professor of English literature at Oxford, Dutch by birth, whose own family hid Jewish children and adults during the war, as many farmers did. Farmers could grow food and could manage to feed people even as their supplies were regularly ransacked by the German army. The structure of the book may challenge people who need a straightforward linear sort of book but for me, it greatly enriched the story. I learned about Lien, a beautiful and bright child, who was spirited away when she was eight years old. Her education is interrupted, her hiding places and friendships and personal growth stop and start and block and blossom. She learned to numb herself after crying many, many tears because she missed her mother and father so much. The book follows Lien's journey, from catching tadpoles in the stream with another little boy to being over-worked and underfed by an awful family and even worse. The ending is hard-won and happy, I can say without it being a spoiler, because this is not escapist fare. Keep reading!

Lien's chapters are interspersed with chapters about the author's method of conducting research, going to all the buildings and all the villages where Lien was hidden. Other chapters detail the role of the "blindly co-operative Jewish Council" who handed over their register of all Dutch Jews and their addresses to the Nazis and of the Dutch Reformed Church who sat on their hands and were utterly complicit with the Nazis whereas the Catholic Church made a public statement to all their church-goers decrying the rounding up and transportation of Dutch Jews including many who were actually among the congregations as they'd switched over a century earlier. So, history, research and Lien's story are woven together to create this book and it is hard reading (my mother was Dutch) but the humanity shines through. Lien becomes a wonderful human being, despite it all, a lesson to us all.

Mountain Blues (NeWest: 2018) by Sean Arthur Joyce

Mountain Blues by Sean Arthur Joyce

“Well, I’m a reporter just new in town. Looking for work.”

So begins Roy Breen’s introduction to life in a small village in the West Kootenays, to the love of his life, to witnessing inspired community resistance to centralized decision-making and, fortuitously for them all, his new employer. While covering stories of all descriptions for the Mountain Echo, Roy Breen recovers from a hectic fifteen years as a Vancouver reporter. He’d paid his journalistic dues there only to be shunted away from a City Hall beat promotion by a lesser-paid cub reporter, no thanks to a change in ownership in the leaner, meaner millennium. Fed-up with this corporate treatment, Breen quits and heads to the British Columbia Interior where he was born and raised.

He and his cat spend some quality camping time roaming through four of B.C.’s six mountain chains before ending up in an old silver-mining village beside a glacier-fed lake, remarkably resembling New Denver merged with Silverton. The lyrical valley and village descriptions will make many readers want to quit their own stuffy, city-trapped jobs and move there themselves.

The Mountain Echo, moreover, still pays its writers and actually employs a proofreader and fact checker, which along with reference librarians, have been dismissed by metro dailies in Vancouver and elsewhere. But then the odds of running into the main antagonists at the previous evening’s meeting en route to the village Post Office is much higher in El Dorado as well and the new reporter in town has to tread carefully and tactfully.

The first major issue is the shocking announcement that the El Dorado Hospital will be shut down within weeks. Vans arrive, in a startling display of efficiency from the centralized health authority, to remove vital X-ray equipment. But the villagers are resourceful veterans of blockade lines and have organized a telephone tree which loops around the communities dependent on the emergency ward, the doctors, the extended care wing for bedridden elders and volunteers arrive by the dozens and stay there round the clock.

We are introduced to the many and varied forms of peaceful resistance from individual hunger strikes to protest “crawls”, yes, not walks but crawls which are more commonplace in religious approaches by supplicants near cathedrals in South America, on their knees as they cross stony plazas. We go behind the scenes to understand how difficult it is for a level-headed co-ordinator to deal with highly individualistic types who threaten violence and sabotage and would thereby threaten the credibility of the entire protest. We also understand more about the conflict and ethical considerations of our reporter-narrator who has always tilted to the side of the underdogs and been reprimanded for it in the big city daily. But here he puts a writerly foot wrong once and is hollered at most profanely by the normally level-headed organizer herself, a statuesque beauty who is a natural leader in the community. We also get to meet the public relations bureaucrat from the regional health authority who must deliver the bad news about the hospital closure and he, as you might suspect, gets his comeuppance soon enough.

Throughout it all, Sean Arthur Joyce uses a light, deft touch for topics that could be heavily righteous slogging. His characters are completely 3-D and his dialogue is a delight to ‘hear’ as it is so realistic in its rhythms, which sets each distinct character apart from the next, no easy feat. The humour is gentle and tolerant and reminds us that when we live in a small community, the most sound advice would be: Let your words be gentle in case they come back to bite you. For a journalist, this means striving for fairness, depth and objectivity and not ‘piling on’ the blame in this era of rushing to often-violent judgement, propelled by self-serving, vindictive and ultimately irresponsible tweets.

The love story which unfolds is also a delight and we readers cheer on the middle-aged lonely hearts who are instantly attracted and find each other to be excellent company in the midst of the strife afflicting the villagers. The cafes in El Dorado serve great coffee, even if the wait-staff tend to editorialize the hapless new reporter’s latest efforts, and the mountain water is sublimely pure, the basis for all great coffee, lest we forget. Pack your bags and head for the West Kootenay mountains, especially the Valhalla Range, a copy of the big-hearted Mountain Blues nearby, best read aloud by kindred spirits en route, especially those in need of that special blend of glorious wilderness and resolutely alive, no-nonsense, ‘stand up to protect it or lose it forever’, community that beckons within its pages.