A Map in My Blood
Thistledown Press / 9 June 2016

A Map in my Blood by Carla Braidek Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $17.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-096-2 Saskatchewan writer Carla Braidek’s most recent poetry demonstrates deep gratitude for the boreal forest in which she lives and the enviable life she’s made there, but, like anyone with the gift of imagination and the fancy of a dreamer, her emotional pendulum can’t help but swing toward “What if?”. Even the book’s title, A Map in my Blood, hints at the restlessness that currents beneath poems that celebrate the natural world and its creatures, family, food, the work of the land, childhood innocence, and rural living. The opening poem, “Where Do I Begin,” sets the bar high. “Beginning” here can refer to the book itself or the spinning of a life’s tale. It’s also a phrase commonly used to express exasperation. I admire how the Big River poet begins with ordinary details-a broken ankle, helping fix a deck-then she takes an existential leap and asks: “how do we know where a moment begins?” This questioning ferries readers to a deeper level. A spark fires, we’re engaged, and committed to asking ourselves the same question about the details of our own…

Shift
Thistledown Press / 2 June 2016

Shift by Kelly Shepherd Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $17.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-104-4 I was looking for “shifts” in Kelly Shepherd’s poetry collection, and I found them. Shepherd lives and teaches in Edmonton, and his gritty book, Shift, is testament to the fact that his hands have worked more than a pen. The author’s been part of the multitude that migrated to Fort McMurray for work, and he shows us many sides of that “orange-hardhat” dynamic, from workers “loading into buses before dawn, getting paid to build something\we don’t understand for someone we don’t know” to the “endless crumpled sky” and a “landscape\painting on the lunchroom wall” that is “of another place, not here”. Shift, then, refers in part to shift work, or a work-shift. I also found it in poems like “Honing,” about cement grinding\smoothing. The shift here comes when the narrator recognizes that the “ugly, utilitarian, dusty” cement “[opens] itself up and\the stones glimmer like stars”. There are dramatic shifts in weather during all-day drives, that moment “when the steering wheel started to bloom” and “the windshield blinked in the sun”. In the title poem, the shift concerns a diving grebe and a duck’s lift…

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,”…