Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Book Review of The Talking Spade, Laughter in the Shadows & The Power of Pulses

The Talking Spade: Garden Lore from North Slocan Elders by Anne Champagne 978-0-9950700-0-4 (Healthy Community Society of the North Slocan Valley, New Denver, B.C.) 2016

Laughter in the Shadows: Stories of Courage from 11 Zambian Women by Marianne Stamm 978-0-9867821-5-2 (Marerob Press, Calgary/Switzerland) 2015
                                          Laughter in the Shadows: Stories of Courage from 11 Zambian Women
  The Power of Pulses by Dan Jason, Hilary Malone and Alison Malone Eathorne 978-1-77162-102-1(Douglas & McIntyre (2013) Ltd., Madeira Park, B.C.) 2016
                                           Image result for "The Power of Pulses Jason"                                      

November. Sigh. Possibly the grimmest month of the year, predominantly grey and dull brown with a skimpy bit of snow if you’re lucky. Nothing for gardeners to do except finish cleaning up soggy leaves and other debris and sharpening and oiling tools, or waiting, in my case, for a West Coast cold snap to dash out and prune the David Austen rose outside my kitchen window so the poor thing will not lose any more bark-skin being thrashed around by the storms coming at us.

January. Yay! The garden catalogues begin to show up in our mailboxes. Life! Greenery! Glorious colour! Hope!

Meanwhile, what to do with November and December? Hang on to your dreams by reading interesting and beautiful books about gardening, is what I’d advise. From the early spring greenhouse starts of old faithfuls and new plant adventures to late fall harvests, I tend to head directly to my garden problem-solving, bugs and mildew I.D. sorts of books but to get me through the gloom prior to those extra minutes of sunlight commencing with the December Solstice, I need the wisdom, truth and beauty of good garden books like these three. What a treat, each and every one of them, and they underline how deeply ingrained the word ‘culture’ is in agriculture, whether it is practiced by elders from diverse backgrounds in a green mountain valley in British Columbia’s southeastern corner, by stalwart no-nonsense women in Zambia, Africa, or by a pioneering heritage seed company founder from Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, ably assisted by two fabulous young foodie sisters.

The Talking Spade began with one inspired teacher and an enthusiastic parent aka project manager, shepherding a combined class of Grade 4, 5 & 6 students from New Denver’s K-12 Lucerne Elementary Secondary School. New Denver is a village of less than six hundred souls but it has a community school, a hospital and extended care facility on the shores of Slocan Lake, lovely public garden spaces including the Japanese-inspired aesthetics of the Kohan Friendship Garden beside the sweet little village campground and much, much more. It is one of those magical places in the West Kootenay region which is, as long-time resident and writer Anne Champagne describes, “known for its profusion of artists, self-sufficient progressives, organic growers and yes, colourful personalities.”

The children went out to learn about gardening from twenty-nine elders, to ask questions during and after their tours of compost tea barrels and bins which exemplify “Gardener’s alchemy: turning dross into  gold”. They examined a range of endeavours during two years, from companion planting to backyard chicken flocks to harvesting wild plants. They swooned over lilacs and dozens of rose varieties, wandered into root cellars and around greenhouses, admired stupendous vegetable patches and sampled luscious fruit from vines, shrubs and trees.

There is an abundance of choice garden advice and philosophy throughout which applies to gardeners anywhere in the world as well as stunningly beautiful and inspiring photographs by Valley-born and raised artist Chillia Zoll, with several guest contributions, on every page, and a simply gorgeous book design by Theresa Tremaine. Saving seeds, savoury, sour and sweet recipes, paying daily attention to what is going on with plants, watering methods and devices, seasonal tips for planting, not to mention planting for climate change, and dancing with deer…all this in an eloquent tribute to the sharing between old and new cultures (Doukhobor, Japanese, European, Canadian and American back-to-the-landers) and between the generations. It is truly an eloquent and lovely gem of garden lore and a primer for other energetic teachers and involved parents to emulate in schools elsewhere. Most of all, it is beautifully written in a self-effacing manner so that the personalities of each of the gardeners shines through in their own speech patterns with lovingly portrayed descriptions of the lined faces and hands of the elders. The gentle humour is absolutely charming, as with the scene of the children returning from a garden visit who “parade up main street with massive leaves (of rhubarb) bobbing overhead like umbrellas”.

This book is available in New Denver at Raven’s Nest (, 250 358-2178), the Valley Voice office (, 250 358-7218), and through Anne Champagne (, and in Nakusp at Spiritwood (, 250-265-0083). It costs $25 plus shipping.

Another take on agriculture ten thousand miles away from the north Slocan Valley is provided by Marianne Stamm, herself the daughter of Swiss homesteaders in northern B.C., and, with her husband, agricultural specialists in Zambia. Marianne’s first book, Laughter in the Shadows, came to being after eight years of work, volunteering and friendship with eleven amazing women. 85% of Zambians work in some form of agriculture and the rest are directly or indirectly involved in copper mining.

As a mzungu, or white foreigner, she had misgivings about writing about something as overwhelming as Africa but her friends themselves asked her to tell their stories so other women in Zambia as well as women in Europe and North America would know the truth of their struggles and the rewards of their knowledge and hard work. This the author has done in a respectful, open-minded yet intimate way and likewise, there are pensive, sombre or joyful photographic portraits of each woman featured which add immense appeal to the book.

In a country where the relatives of a recently-deceased husband can and do descend on his household to strip it of every pot and pan and table-cloth, leaving the wife or wives, destitute along with their children, this is no small thing, to bravely speak up. But these are stories of women with great courage and hard-won wisdom.  One woman wants her story to help others who are HIV-positive. Yet another wants to share the information about agriculture she is learning with others, to help improve their lives as well. Another is very interested in learning more about nutrition and keeps trying new crops, like soybeans. Bonus, unlike the tall stalks of maize (corn), thieves cannot hide in the short bean crop and steal from it. Most of the women want food security and better educations for their children, to be able to provide enough food to survive no matter what befalls them. The advice of one wise woman is always to start small. “Plant a small amount of something new. Do it well. Then increase the acreage only when you know you can manage.” 3000 tomato plants later she has a thriving market business.

One widow worked full-time as a nurse, which does not pay well but which comes with a small house. She travelled on the jam-packed public buses after her work shift to buy beans near the Tanzania border, where they were cheaper, and brought them back to the market at home to sell them there. She cultivated a large garden and raised chickens, bringing them into the house every night so they would not be stolen. Another walks miles to a separate plot to cultivate food crops to sell. The sheer amount of tenacity and labour and extra hours these determined women work is staggering.

The kindness and helpfulness of Marianne is rarely in the forefront but it is obvious to me that she is beloved and trusted for her support and friendship as she manoeuvred through bureaucracies in order to send women to an agriculture course, for example. Her lively descriptions are as vivid as the head scarves and smiles in the portraits and we feel, much like the author, invited into the living rooms to listen to the life stories of these remarkable women. The perfect gift for that special young or retired person in your family who wants to put their own education and life experience to good use in the bigger world where the need is greatest. That too, takes courage and this well-written book will inspire them.

A handy glossary of African and agricultural words and cultural terms is provided. This book is available on Kindle ($9.99 approx) and online at Amazon and in Canada at the Cecil Lake Store in BC (250-785-4001)  and in select Alberta locations as well as by contacting the author at for more information.

If you want to try growing food to cope with rising costs and climate change, you would do well to consult The Power of Pulses: Saving the World with Peas, Beans, Chickpeas, Favas & Lentils. This is another gorgeous full-colour book to savour in November and to earmark garden beds and begin seed ordering in January too. This book has it all from veteran seed grower Dan Jason, and by all I mean, information on why pulses are better for our own and the planet’s health (high protein, low carbon footprint, heart healthy for starters), growing your own and harvesting, fresh or dried. To top it all off, there are fifty scrumptious recipes for breakfast, appetizers, spreads, pickles, salads, main and side dishes and desserts from Hilary Malone and Alison Malone Eathorne who have already won me over with their superb cookbook, Sea Salt: Recipes from the West Coast Galley.

Here are some pertinent facts:
-Canada is the world’s largest exporter of dried peas and beans et al, known as pulses, but we consume less than 10% of them at home
-pulses are gluten-free, high in Vitamin B and fibre and very low on the glycemic index for those with diabetes or heart disease
-pulses use half the non-renewable (fossil fuel) energy of other crops like grains to cultivate and are so, so easy to grow, even for amateur gardeners
-pulses need no refrigeration, can be bought in bulk and are easy to grow organically unlike soybeans which are grown in mono-crops and with heavy pesticides unless you seek out organic beans
-lentils and other bulk beans grown in Canada are not expensive to buy
-the delicious recipes in this beautifully designed book will inspire you to go far beyond Meatless Monday. Another tip from me, check out Saskatchewan lentil and pulse growers where you might also enjoy subscribing to their free online newsletter for extra motivation to incorporate pulses into your family menus by visiting and signing up at and .

Did I mention that this book is beautiful to look at as well with amazing photographs of things like pea flowers and dishes like Crispy Chickpea Power Bowl with Tahini Dressing? It’s enough to make me charge out into the rain and plant something. Or head for the kitchen to make a better lunch than usual!

The book is available in paperback in the US and Canada ($24.95) from full service bookstores and from the usual suspects online where it is also available as an e-book. A terrific gift for the keen gardener with more than a roof-top or a balcony to work with and for the home cook who wants to jazz up a healthy menu.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Book Review of Code Blue by Marissa Slaven

Review of Code Blue by Marissa Slaven
Published by Moon Willow Press
Distributed by Ingram

Reviewed from an advance galley (manuscript-in-progress).  Code Blue will be available as an e-book and in trade paperback format in early 2018 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble & elsewhere online and on shelves where good books are sold. Remember— surprising numbers of readers still don’t know this— if your favourite independent bookstore does not carry it as a paperback, you can place a special-order request for it at no extra cost or in this case, an advance order so you can get it hot off the proverbial press. When we operated the Motherlode Bookstore in New Denver, B.C. for seven years, at least 1/4 of our sales were special orders because like other bookstores, large or small, we could not physically carry every book in the world in our wee shoppe along with the toys, board games, kites, wind chimes and funny cards… and we delighted in finding our customers their books as fast as possible.

About five years ago, the prevailing wisdom of some in the publishing industry held that dystopian fiction was done, the trend was over and The Hunger Games had cleaned up on the shelves. But the shelves kept overflowing with the Matched trilogy, Divergent trilogy, Southern Reach trilogy, Silo trilogy, Maddaddam trilogy (there’s Atwood again) and Chaos Walking trilogy, and a large and fervent readership ensued as well. Still the publishing insiders declared writers should move on to something new, whatever that might be, but preferably highly saleable.

But steadily rising above well-worn plot and character cliches were these well-written speculative fiction books  in such sub-genres of fantasy or science fiction as steampunk, solar punk, dystopian, and neo-utopian which attracted many new readers. The ‘evergreen’ trend may have had much to do with the wildfires in Tasmania, Australia, the U.S.A. and Canada as well as the news on the night of the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and ever since. The U.S. reneging on the Paris Climate Accord and the sabre-rattling of nuclear weapons between North Korea and the U.S. is the kind of irresponsible puerile behaviour that makes most fiction writers throw up their hands and say ‘we can’t make this stuff up.’

If all else fails, blame the spookily prescient and super-smart Margaret Atwood, who wrote Payback just before the economic crash of 2008 and whose classic 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, reinvented as a mini-series during this golden age of TV, keeps gathering awards and viewers the world over. Never mind that the handmaids were up against A.I. cowboys in the American science fiction Western thriller, Westwood, first conceived by novelist Michael Crichton in 1973 as a film, and which, with a stellar cast in the reinvented television series beginning in 2016, is yet another huge success for HBO, setting records for viewership. Among readers and viewers, there is an undeniable taste for ‘futuristic’ tales which are well-researched and plausible if not firmly based in present-day facts.

This reviewer maintains that when the intrinsic quality of the writing and the intellectual scope and vitality of the storytelling keeps engaging us, readers who do not deny we are living in frightening, challenging times, will reach for books like Station 11, Ship Breakers, The Pesthouse, The Road, The Dead Lands, Lighthouse Island and Code Blue.

Intended for a young adult audience, this novel begins at the edge of New England where the former coastline has been obliterated by the rising ocean, a familiar trope but it’s based, as much of the book is, on scientific fact. The descriptions of flooded malls far out to sea are very intriguing and believable. The teen characters—Tic, Lee, Tatum, Asker, Phish—are likeable and easy to relate to as characters, all suffering the stigma of being ‘the smart one’, ‘the weird brain’ or in one case, also belonging to a super-rich family and rebelling against it and its ill-gotten gains. Families of all descriptions are convincingly portrayed here, which is another relief for those of us fed-up with ineffectual fathers being one I.Q. point removed from Homer Simpson and chilly corporate mothers being slaves to the job and the gym.

The structure of the novel is ingenious, with each chapter heading consisting of an entrance exam question for those applying to the Academy, the place where all the smart ones finally have a peer group. This question, beginning with the first chapter’s How Long is the United States coastline? is deftly integrated into the following content so that the world-building is ongoing. It is not a dead-end. This is, I believe, important for this genre of writing, even when there is no paradise to lose.  Holding out hope for humanity is especially important for books meant for this readership. The condition of the world in Code Blue, as you would imagine if you know your hospital codes or have gleaned well from Grey’s Anatomy, is dire as in critical cardiac arrest but, an important but, it is not a terminal diagnosis.  This then is the state of Tic’s world, independent, stubborn, resourceful and bright young woman that she is.

The momentum of the plot pulls the reader along inexorably and the author, a palliative (hospice) care doctor and mother, as well as a talented writer, does not pull punches in this deeply imagined and well-crafted novel. There are corporate capitalists aligned to make big money off the spoils caused by climate change. There are religious zealots who welcome The End because they believe they are the Chosen Few so… bring it on. There are also embedded history lessons, which I applaud, about people like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber who killed 168 people, 19 of them children. A home-grown terrorist, born and raised, lest we forget. The final discovery, which I will not spoil, at first seemed to strain plausibility but given current events, it just may turn out to be prophetic and entirely credible. It certainly served the plot well. There’s just enough realistic romance and physical danger to keep readers flapping the pages as well, as all good storytelling seems to do. There is a small amount of salty street language but it is not gratuitously applied. Only an untrained puritanical librarian would have a hissy fit. Never mind, I would advise, you can't begin to buy publicity like a clumsy attempt at censorship will arouse! 

Best of all, I, for one, want to know more about this world and these people so hope the author is hard at work on a Code Orange or Grey… or Aqua… Highly recommended for ages 14-18 and adults who enjoy a well-written and intriguing story set in a future that seems eerily familiar.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Book Review of The Defiant Mind: Living Inside a Stroke by Ron Smith

This is a superbly-written book about the experience of a stroke, a "carpet bombing of the brain", and its psychological, physical and emotional aftermath, including early warning symptoms, the hospital experience, and returning to home life. It is such a remarkable contribution to our understanding of many things in this world, hence my tagging of it with "wisdom" as well as psychology and stroke recovery. The author typed the manuscript using the index finger of his left (non-dominant) hand, which, at over 300 pages is a testament to his determination, lucidity, and the rock-solid love and support of his wife in particular.

The only other book I've read about being trapped "inside" a stroke is the devastating "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who dictated his slim masterpiece by blinking one eye while his editorial assistant showed him letters of the alphabet. Imagine that. Take your time. Ron Smith (full disclosure) edited one of my novels in 2010 during his busy life as a publisher, editor, and university English professor. He is also the author of books of poems, short stories and a major biography. His work has been translated and he has served as a visiting professor of English in several other countries. Which is to say, his fine mind, before and after the "brain attack", and his love of reading and books propelled him through the rubble of the ischemic stroke, the attack on his brain stem. Writing this book, claiming his memories especially, became a necessary part of his therapy, as vital as learning how to roll over in bed, to walk after learning how to wheel a chair, to sort out the tangle of his thick, disobedient tongue and sagging mouth muscles to speak to his beloved family.

There is humour here too, alongside its earthly cousin, despair, amid the analyses of how stroke survivors are treated. The essential point is: all strokes are different and all are experienced differently and furthermore, each survivor needs to be heard. Most of the therapists, doctors, nurses and hospital staff, including a perfectly lovely man who cleaned the wards, are generously portrayed as skilled, empathetic, and very caring but of course, there are always a few negative-thinking individuals who have chosen the wrong occupation. We learn about an older man in his eighties who could not speak after his stroke but who tapped the side of his hospital bed with his able hand. He seemed frustrated when family and staff treated his tapping as some sort of uncontrollable spasm until finally somebody realized he had used Morse code in WW2 and he was using it again, trying to communicate with them. The quest to communicate is so intense with locked-in afflictions of all kinds because the loneliness and depression is just as intense of course. We are privy to this subjective experience, rarely explored, thanks to this book.

Highly recommended to anyone who works in any capacity in hospitals, rehabilitative medicine, community nursing, and to families where a member has been felled by a stroke. But also, like Jean-Dominque Bauby's book, this brilliant book deserves a wide international audience because it is so beautifully written, so compelling and so hopeful, ultimately, about new medical techniques and the wonders we are still discovering about how the brain heals and creates new pathways. It's also a book about the importance of love and emotional support, about a healing connection to nature and the serendipity of the right healers coming into his life at just the right time. Ron Smith is a lucky man, despite the stroke, and his strength of character and sheer determination to communicate has contributed an outstanding book.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Interview with Joseph Planta for The Commentary

This is one of the most laid-back and genuine radio interviews I've ever been lucky enough to have! It was supposed to be 15 minutes but turned out to be 27 minutes plus. Thank you, Joseph!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Interview with Sean Arthur Joyce from Chameleon Fire & Valley Voice

Caroline Woodward re-releases Alaska Highway Two-Step

It’s not often these days a novel gets a second chance at life. Author Caroline Woodward’s first novel, Alaska Highway Two-Step, will get just that, with a new edition being released this month by Harbour Publishing.
Woodward’s novel tells the story of a freelance journalist, a young woman living in the Kootenays, who accepts an assignment to write a series of articles about life along the Alaska Highway. To those of us who know Caroline it’s clear her main character, Mercy Brown, is based at least partly on her own personality. But with a twist: Brown has the uncanny gift of precognition, the ability to foresee real life events in dreams. The novel weaves three narrative strands into the plot: Brown’s road trip north, her disturbing premonitions, and excerpts from journals she inherited from a deceased aunt – a ballet dancer and choreographer in the early decades of the 20th century. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of the lives of two different generations of professional women. Expect to be surprised: this story focuses more on grain and texture than on following the plot points of a typical mystery novel. Caroline agreed to be interviewed about the new edition of her novel.
The beautiful new cover for Alaska Highway Two-Step from Harbour Publishing.
Is the new edition substantially different than the original novel? Did you decide to do any rewriting or major editing? If so, why? It is relatively unchanged except for a few deft nips and tucks in the main character’s sea and road journey. A good part of the road trip takes place on the Alaska Highway, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2017. The most significant change I made was to rename the ill-fated Queen of the North ferry. In my book it is now the Queen of Hartley Bay, to honour the First Nations villagers who got into their large and small fishing boats and did a Dunkirk flotilla style of rescue of all but two of the passengers and crew when it sank in the middle of the night. They deserved to have a B.C. ferry named in their honour and one of the great things about writing fiction is that I get to make it so.
I don’t recall the book being promoted as a mystery when it originally came out in 1993. What genre description best fits the book for you? It is indeed a mystery novel for adults and was nominated by the Crime Writers of Canada for the Arthur Ellis (Canada’s last hangman) Best First Mystery Novel Award. Margaret Cannon, who still writes a weekly mystery reviews column for the Globe & Mail and does regular broadcasts for CBC Radio, picked it for the Globe & Mail Editor’s Pick of Top 100 Books in 1993. I was also invited to the 1994 Bouchercon International Mystery Convention in Seattle in 1994 to be part of a panel and to give a reading. It’s just not a typical blood and gore formula murder mystery.
How much of the novel is based on your own experience? We know you are a northern BC gal and have family ties to the Peace River region so how did that inform the writing of the novel? Absolutely none of this novel is based on my own experience except for the idyllic cottage at Five Mile on Kootenay Lake and my dear, departed dog, Sadie Brown whose ashes are now in an urn beneath my writing desk. Certainly my upbringing in the north Peace region, going to school and living in a dormitory for ‘bush kids’ in Fort St. John and later, as an adult, working with First Nations teens informs this novel. The havoc wreaked on the remote village of Fort Ware when Williston Lake, created by the first dam on the Peace River in the 1960s, flooded much of their village and other eyewitness accounts of the drowning of wild animals and nesting birds, and the suicides of trappers and others who lived in the flooded valley are real events and I have included some of them. I invented the Canadian Bureau of Premonitions, as I explain in the Foreword, and made my main character a reluctant psychic. I incorporated the practice of lucid, or more like focused, dreaming, before a crucial hunting trip and other life challenges, including dying, as practiced by people regarded as prophets among the Dane-Zaa people in the Peace and studied by anthropologist Dr. Robin Ridington, author of at least three major books on this subject, his life’s work.
Caroline Woodward
Why did you include the subplot of the aunt who was a dancer? When I had a precious full month with a studio at Banff while writing the first version of Alaska Highway Two-Step back in 1992, I discovered a book by American dancer Ruth St. Denis, a contemporary of Isadora Duncan and I wondered who might an unknown Canadian choreographer and dancer be when audiences for classical ballets were shocked by modern dancers in bare feet and others bringing monkeys and elephants onto the stage, rather like forerunners to Cirque de Soleil. That’s how Ginger Brown came to life and so I had great fun writing her ‘diaries’ and eventually I had to send her up to entertain the troops building the Alaska Highway. Ditto for dreaming up a way to stop the environmental and financial boondoggle that is the Site C Dam, which we with Peace River roots have had to fight against four separate times over the last 50 years.
If there’s a novelist whose work you most admire, who would it be? (Can be more than one of course!) And why? Are there ways you find yourself absorbing that (or those) novelist’s techniques? I admire, and read, so many novelists that I honestly cannot pick just one so a random off-the-top list would include Louise Erdrich, Michael Ondaatje, Anne DeGrace, Bodil Bredsdorff, Patrick DeWitt and Anthony Doerr. But Paulette Jiles came to mind immediately, author of novels like Enemy Women, The Colour of Lightning, Lighthouse Island and the most recent gem, News of the World, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016. Paulette’s advice to me early in my career, which I freely pass on to students and writer friends wherever I go, was: Write how you talk. Do not write like a Victorian governess unless you are one. I interpreted this further to mean: listen well to how other people talk. Absorb their rhythms and hesitations, their choice of vocabulary, the words they say and their silences.
What method did you develop to achieve this realism of voice in your stories? Nearly ten years before I met Paulette at David Thompson University Centre in Nelson where I earned a diploma in Creative Writing, I earned my B.A. and Teacher’s Certificate at UBC. For several fourth year courses, I began tape-recording pioneers in the Peace River country: a Red Cross Outpost Hospital nurse, river freighter, immigrant farmers, radio operator in Watson Lake, school teachers, war brides on homesteads and small town radio founders. These tapes are now held in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria and in the North Peace Museum in Fort St. John but they resonated with me when I did the recordings, older people sharing some of the most profound moments of their lives with me and I heard some of those voices when I wrote poetry and again when I heard Paulette’s sage advice. So don’t imitate other writers. Read them to love their stories, their voices, but learn to write in your own authentic voice. It also helps me to have worked in theatre and to have written for radio and stage pieces as that’s all about voice, about someone on a stage or a disembodied voice from the radio or from within a book, a voice calling out to you all by yourself, late at night saying, get comfy, I have a really good story I have to tell you.
Alaska Highway Two-Step will be available through all the usual outlets.