Wind Leaves Absence
Thistledown Press / 26 May 2016

Wind Leaves Absence by Mary Maxwell Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $17.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-100-6 I read Saskatoon poet (and nurse) Mary Maxwell’s first book, Wind Leaves Absence, with interest and no small amount of admiration. Many first books of what’s often called confessional poetry-I prefer the word intimate-are a compendium of high\low events experienced over the writer’s lifetime, and what results is a wildly disparate package. While diversity can make for a lively read, we often see more seasoned writers tackle exclusive subjects, examining from multiple angles and probing more deeply to illuminate, better understand, and process. Maxwell daringly takes on the landscape of grief, specifically the pain experienced upon the deaths of her father, two brothers (who died in car accidents two years apart), friends, and patients. Religion–in particular the Catholicism she grew up with and appears to wrestle with (“miserable prayers”)–is also front and centre in this collection. In the first few poems the writer establishes mood with phrases that emotionally thrum, like bells in a deserted monastery: “the wilderness between words,” “Trousers fall from hangers\collapse on the floor,” and “Pushing his walker through wet matted leaves.” She does a spot-on job of portraying…

Questions for Wolf
Thistledown Press / 3 May 2016

Questions for Wolf by Shannon Quinn Published by Thistledown Press Review by Allison Kydd $12.95; ISBN 978-1-77187-058-0 Questions for Wolf is a collection of poetry in Thistledown Press’s New Leaf Series. In these haunting, often savage lines, Shannon Quinn evokes not only those who have been exploited, silenced and murdered, but all women. The images are so delicate, yet complex, it is best they speak for themselves. First there are the children: “younger girls fly by/lost in the magical history/of secondhand bikes/all tassels and pigtails . . .” and close by there’s “. . . a circle of girls too young to be with boys who drive cars. . .”. Then come the evils of “sparse expectations,” “a list/of inner-city mortifications/that comes with being poor and a girl”. Quinn knows the drive for something better and the desire for love and attention: “Boys see you for the first time/They see you they see you they see you/gliding mid-flight/Can’t touch you/Can almost touch you”. Such vulnerability leads to ruin, and yet: “I don’t want to be gentle/or wear the comfortable footwear/of common goals/or join the queue/to pull a ticket to collect on insufficient blessings”. Addiction too begins with the promise of…

Corvus
Thistledown Press / 19 April 2016

Corvus by Harold Johnson Published by Thistledown Press Review by Allison Kydd $19.95; ISBN 978-1-77187-051-1 Corvus is a novel that repays the reader’s persistence. Its setting is eighty years in the future, during a time of uneasy peace after a period of war, caused in turn by ecological disasters that have moved populations north, which causes overcrowding. The wars, therefore, are primarily to protect territory and the technological bubble enjoyed by the wealthy. This futuristic setting may initially discourage some, but ultimate rewards make it worth reading on. The fact the novel is set in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, and involves a First Nations community might also give one pause. Fortunately, it is not overly derivative nor an obvious political agenda thinly disguised as fiction. The theme does remind one of Thomas King’s The Back of a Turtle, which also features the tragic destruction of First Nations communities by corporate greed. As a rule, such corporations are represented by whites/“Europeans” or (in the case of King’s protagonist) by First Nations descendants who have lost touch with their origins. At first, Corvus seems to justify reservations. First the raven appears, a familiar totem for the First Nations psyche, suggesting the book will…

Little Washer of Sorrows, The
Thistledown Press / 2 February 2016

The Little Washer of Sorrows by Katherine Fawcett Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $18.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-049-8 This fall I heard a new writer present at the Whistler Writers Festival and I was so enchanted by her story I requested the book (The Little Washer of Sorrows) for review. I expected I’d be in for an entertaining read, but I couldn’t have guessed what a veritable fun house this short story collection would prove to be. You dive in and at first things seem normal. Characters are realistically portrayed, their situations fathomable, then metaphorical distorting mirrors kick in. Sometimes you laugh out loud, sometimes you recoil as the lines between fantasy and reality are cleverly blurred. Welcome to the estimable fictional world of Pemberton BC writer Katherine Fawcett. She’s an original, beginning with her comic dedication to her parents, who “did not ruin [her] life after all”. And here’s the first line of the book (from “Captcha”): “The day I discovered my true nature began like any other day: I woke up, gave Pete a blowjob, and went downstairs to fry up a pan of bacon.” Who is not going to want to continue? It’s Fawcett’s playful…

Size of a Fist
Thistledown Press / 22 January 2016

Size of a Fist by Tara Gereaux Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $12.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-059-7 I recognized the anonymous town in first-time author Tara Gereaux’s teen novella, Size of a Fist. The mill’s closed, there are “many boarded-up shops,” and abandoned homes. I know this town because I was raised in a number of small towns that echo it and I’m familiar with many more, and because I could relate not only to the physical aspects of the town’s decline, but also to the disreputable activities of the youth who inhabit it – including Addy, the protagonist of this New Leaf Editions’ book – and the tangible desire to get away. Drinking, drugs, driving while impaired, “colourful” language, bullying, adolescent sex, and generations of familial dysfunction: this is no Disney story, but Gereaux does shed light on the underbelly of small-town life that some might argue is the norm, rather than the exception. There’s value in holding up that mirror: it presents a truth. The Regina writer portrays a community where the only chance of upward mobility is to be outward bound. This book is more documentary than commentary, and I like that, too: there’s no…

Mahihkan Lake
Thistledown Press / 22 January 2016

Mahihkan Lake by Rod MacIntyre Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $19.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-053-5 Veteran writer Rod MacIntyre has combined his talents in scoring authentic and witty dialogue, evoking place to the point where you can actually smell it, and building both personal and physical drama in his seventh book, Mahihkan Lake. Well-known for his YA novels and story collections, now MacIntyre’s characters are all grown up and about to collide – with dark secrets and personal demons in tow – at a mouse-infested cabin beside a northern Saskatchewan lake. Cue gun shots, “a Jesus big storm,” and the cremains of a brother in a “strawberry-faced” cookie jar. Cue wolf (“‘Mahihkan’ – or a word like it – is Cree for wolf”), a gravel truck driver named Harold (with a man’s “boot in his brake hose”), and a mysterious letter. Cue a 1968 Martin guitar, a Road King motorcycle, and chaos. Drama aside, this novel’s an existential story about self and an intimate exploration of family composed via equal shots of humour and pathos. If the book had a subtitle, it could be How Did We Get Here? MacIntyre’s also a playwright and screenwriter, and there’s a…

Yes, and Back Again
Thistledown Press / 21 January 2016

Yes, and Back Again by Sandy Marie Bonny Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $19.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-052-8 I didn’t know Yes, and Back Again was going to be that kind of book. I picked it up in the evening, intending to read only the first ten pages or so, then planned to devote the following day to it. Well, I finally put it down on page 110, and only because it was hours past my bedtime. This novel swept me up like the roaring South Saskatchewan River snatches debris off banks in the springtime. Saskatoon writer, artist, and educator Sandy Marie Bonny has crafted an ambitious story that melds history and the present, addresses cultures (specifically the Métis), and makes friends of wildly disparate people. There’s also a strong Tim Horton’s presence, text messaging, online police bulletins, and Facebook: talk about keeping it real. Bonny unrolls two parallel stories: one concerns a young high school math and Life Skills teacher, Neil, and his writer\researcher wife, Tanis. They’re tired but excited. They’ve just purchased an old home on Saskatoon’s west side (Avenue L), and their daily life includes making the former rental house livable (ie: removing the wheelchair…

Queen of the Godforsaken
Thistledown Press / 21 January 2016

Queen of the Godforsaken by Mix Hart Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $14.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-063-4 I took a plethora of notes while reading Mix Hart’s SK-based young adult novel, Queen of the Godforsaken, because there’s a lot going on across the 293 pages it encompasses. The fictional driver of this story, Lydia, is a veritable storm-cloud of teenage hormones – part girl who still plays with Barbies, part woman who feels responsible for her entire family’s welfare – and she might do or say just about anything. Feisty Lydia; her year-younger and equally sarcastic sister, Victoria (Lydia alternately considers Victoria her best and only friend and also gives her the moniker “Prissy Tits”); their pot-smoking and under-employed professor father; and their dangerously-depressed mother move from Vancouver to the paternal homestead on the Carlton Trail near Batoche, and the adjustment’s hard on everyone. First, there’s the weather. Hart ably details the brutal prairie winters, where eyelids have to be pried apart, snowstorms make prisons of homes, and even the family dog tries to avoid being outdoors. The physical cold parallels Lydia’s temperament as she navigates trials at home and school in nearby “Hicksville”. Lydia, the “ice queen,”…

Love Is Not Anonymous
Thistledown Press / 5 November 2015

Love is Not Anonymous by Jan Wood Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $12.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-056-6 It’s a happy coincidence when a poet’s name reflects one of his or her subjects. As I read Love is Not Anonymous, one of four books released as part of Thistledown Press’s 12th New Leaf Editions Series, I discovered that Jan Wood is an example of this synergy. Wood calls Big River SK home–anyone who knows this heavily-treed area will understand the name\leitmotif connection-and while the book’s back cover blurb addresses the poet’s handling of love, relationships and spirituality, I keep returning to the poems that indirectly honour the natural world. Among these is “Awakening,” where the narrator’s night-driving on a rain-slick road, and “at the edge of the swamp-spruce” a bull moose appears. Though the poet tries to capture a decent photograph where “the Northern Saskatchewan forest\intertwines with moose, muskeg and sky,” her “Details of the night are\a thousand apertures and nothing”. She becomes philosophical in the final stanza, and it’s this layering-the real world of a bridge and rain and headlights juxtaposed against what it may all mean in the big picture-that marks this poem a success. Clumsily human,…

Exile on a Grid Road
Thistledown Press / 3 November 2015

Exile on a Grid Road by Shelley Banks Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $12.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-057-3 Robins, grackles, gulls, airport snow geese, a Great Horned Owl, iconic chick-a-dees that eat peanuts from the palm of a hand, pigeons, Ruby-throated hummingbirds in bougainvillea. Birds flutter in and out of Exile on a Grid Road by longtime Regina writer and photographer Shelley Banks. In her inaugural poetry collection, the multi-genre scribe demonstrates that she’s also paid attention to dogs and cats, insects, rain, the myriad plants (“natives and exotics”) that grow alongside gravel roads, and, of course, to the human heart. Why is this all important? Because life whizzes by, and most of us don’t take the time to stop and consider how a grasshopper resembles a twig on a patio gate, or how-on a grave or anywhere else in a certain season-“lumps of clay jut\through the snow”. This is the very stuff of life; it counterbalances the tedium of work-a-day lives, the horrors of cancer and chemotherapy, the shadows that deaths leave behind. It’s good and necessary to celebrate what goes on beneath the glossy surface of life, and that’s what poets like Banks do so well….