Quest for Black Beach
Wood Dragon Books / 10 May 2024

Quest for Black Beachby Neil ChildPublished by Wood Dragon BooksReview by Toby A. Welch  $17.99 ISBN 9781990863288 This quick read takes a riveting look into the future for those with an interest in fantastical worlds and times.  I call a book like this a pocket read. It’s small enough that you can slip it into a pocket and finish it within a day or two. Visiting a futuristic place for a brief time is a pleasure.  One thing I love about books that take place in the future is that they are as varied as an author’s mind allows. Thanks to writers with limitless imagination, readers can get pulled into whole new worlds that are intriguing places to visit. And this is what happens in Quest for Black Beach – we take a journey into an extraordinary time.  Quest for Black Beach takes place 89 years from now, just far enough that we can only guess what life will be like. (Do you think anyone in 1934 could even remotely have guessed the realities of the world we are living in today? I don’t think so either!) You’ll find four groups roaming the planet, many of them created when ‘blasts’ occurred. …

Beech Forest, The
Thistledown Press / 10 May 2024

The Beech Forestby Marlis WesselerPublished by Thistledown PressReview by Brandon Fick$24.95 ISBN 9781771872546 The Beech Forest by Marlis Wesseler is a novel that combines day-to-day life in rural Saskatchewan with a gradual reckoning with the Holocaust on the part of its protagonist, Lisa Braun. Lisa is a middle-aged retiree, a wife and a mother – with all the attendant regrets and worries – who is mostly separate from her German husband, Gerhardt, throughout the course of the novel. This causes her to reflect upon her marriage and far-flung children, induces general restlessness, and transforms a semi-detached understanding of the Holocaust into a morbid, all-consuming fascination. The latter is incited by meeting Ben Meisner, an elderly Jewish man who was interned at Buchenwald. Meisner’s harrowing recollection of life under Nazi Germany, coming at the novel’s midpoint, is the hinge that pulls all the story’s disparate threads together. Wesseler’s writing is clear and understated. Much like the pristine German beech forest Lisa walks through in the opening scene, there is no “excess of any kind.” But while there are no rhetorical fireworks, secrets and ironies – familial, cultural, interpersonal – abound. The largest irony being that Buchenwald means “beech forest” in German….

Jawbone
Radiant Press / 25 January 2024

Jawboneby Meghan GreeleyPublished by Radiant PressReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$20.00 ISBN 9781998926008 Original. Startling. Candid. Jawbone is a quick-read novella by Newfoundland writer, performer and director Meghan Greeley that encompasses the inherent joy and terror of being alive and being in love. It’s outrageous that a book this polished is the author’s debut title. I initially wondered what I was getting into. Greeley writes: “I was wired shut, and then a man put his latex fingers in my mouth and cut out the wires with gardening shears”. What? Plotwise, the narrator—a concertina-playing actor—is recuperating in a small cabin (she told the Airbnb owner that she was “looking for the loneliest place in the world”) after an accident left her both physically and emotionally shattered. We know her boyfriend had moved to California months earlier, and his letters are scattered throughout the text. The red-haired costumer designer the actor’d been sharing an apartment with was tantalizingly bizarre, ie: they created a list of tasks that take approximately a minute to complete, like “Microwaving a small portion of leftovers”. And the roommate—she of the “smoothest skin”—is difficult to read. Just friends? More than friends? Then there’s the climactic aquarium incident, among a…

Haunted
7 Springs Books / 13 December 2023

Hauntedby Ruth ChorneyPublished by 7SpringsBooksReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$25.00 ISBN 9780993975790 Ruth Chorney’s Saskatchewan-set novel, Haunted, transports readers to interesting places—geographical and otherwise—and it’s just the kind of book that makes me wish more Saskatchewan people would read the good literature that’s being produced within their own province. This engaging story’s set in the rural community of “Deer Creek, population 1242” in the northeastern part of the province, where moose roam, a hoodie is called a “bunnyhug,” and the local Co-op’s where you’ll meet neighbours, friends and the resident hermit/bootlegger. It’s a book about starting over, and accepting the kindness of neighbours. It’s also about generations of family, guilt, and doing what needs to be done. And it’s Saskatchewan, so the weather also gets its share of ink. There are elements of the supernatural in this mostly realistic story, and like that other writer (Stephen King) who also combines realism and the supernatural to great effect, Chorney scores the right balance between making her characters and situations appear credible—ie: protagonist Marny’s husband needs work, so it’s off to the potash mine he goes—and also preparing us for the suspension of disbelief that’s required when Marny’s four-year-old sees auras and entities,…

Half-Wild and Other Stories of Encounter
Thistledown Press / 14 November 2023

Half-Wild and Other Stories of Encounterby Emily PaskevicsPublished by Thistledown PressReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$24.95 ISBN 9781771872485 It’s entirely rare that a first book packs a punch like Emily Paskevics’ Half-Wild and Other Stories of Encounter. The Ontario writer’s auspicious debut is multi-layered, engrossing, and technically well-wrought (Paskevics is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers), and it credibly features the no-nonsense, hunting-and-fishing folks who populate Ontario’s hardy wilderness communities. If you love gothic literature, you’ll devour these dozen stories. Think taxidermy. Animal fetuses in jars. Hitting a strange creature with your car on a dark, lonely road. Think “mobile home with its porch light swinging … The blue painted door is all scratched up from when a bear tried to get in”. Often characters are fleeing, or someone close to them has recently died, and the remote landscapes—rife with bears, wolves, coyotes, harsh climate and dangerous waters—brilliantly parallel the characters’ dire situations, their psychological turmoil, and the endangered ecosystem. “Bear Bones” is set in Sadowa, where “deer-crossing signs [are] half-battered with buckshot,” a snowstorm’s afoot, and Louisa’s gone missing in a “man’s oilskin coat”. There’s a touch of magic realism at play, but the next story—also featuring loner…

Three Heirs, The
Wood Dragon Books / 9 November 2023

The Three Heirsby Monique DesrosiersPublished by Wood Dragon BooksReview by Toby A. Welch$26.99 ISBN 9781990863219 Over a year ago I read an amazing book by Monique Desrosiers, The Cartwright Men Marry. I devoured the book and wanted more from Desrosiers. I was disappointed to find that the book I had just finished was her first novel; there were no others in her repertoire to enjoy. I was bummed but such is life. But recently I learned about The Three Heirs – Monique Desrosiers finally published her second novel! My universe tilted back into alignment. I couldn’t wait to dive back into a world created by Desrosiers’ imagination.  This is the story of a woman who dies and brings three strangers together for the reading of her will. None of them know the recently deceased Delilah but they are all connected. What takes place leading up to the will reveal as well as the fallout afterward will keep you rapidly turning the pages.  The Three Heirs will be a hit with readers of period fiction. The book starts in the 1860s before flashing back to the 1790s and then covers the seven decades in between. Desrosiers clearly researched those decades as she does a great job of making…

School of The Haunted River, The
Endless Sky Books / 1 September 2023

The School of the Haunted River by Colleen GerwingPublished by Endless Sky BooksReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$24.99 ISBN 9781989398869 What a surprise. It’s poetic, actually. During my Saskatoon years, each time I’d launch a book, an affable but unassuming woman I knew only by sight would attend and we’d make minimal small talk while she had her copy signed. I moved. Several years passed. I never thought of her again. Last week a newly-released autobiographical novel arrived in the mail. The School of the Haunted River concerns outdoorswoman Jay, who takes her college-aged niece, Dilly, on a two-week snowshoeing and camping trip in northern Saskatchewan. I flipped to the author bio and photo before beginning the novel, and there she was, Colleen Gerwing, the woman who’d attended all of my Saskatoon launches. I never even knew she was writing. And I certainly never knew she’d died in 2021; this sad fact made reading her fine stories-within-a-story even more bittersweet. In her “real” life, Gerwing, I learned, grew up on a farm near Lake Lenore, SK, and her love of adventure was evident from childhood. In 1977 she hitchhiked to the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, and later worked for…

Economy of Sparrows, The
Thistledown Press / 11 August 2023

The Economy of Sparrowsby Trevor HerriotPublished by Thistledown PressReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$24.95 ISBN 9781771872461 I’m considering what I enjoyed most about award-winning Regina writer, grassland conservationist, and naturalist Trevor Herriot’s first foray into fiction. His debut novel, The Economy of Sparrows, conveys the story of pensioner Nell Rowan, a Saskatchewan-born birder and researcher who—after earning a biology degree at Carleton and working for two decades as a night janitor cleaning “the bathrooms and hallways of the National Museum of Nature’s research and collections facility”—returns to her family’s southern Saskatchewan farmstead and remains dedicated to learning everything possible about “long-dead bird collector” William Spreadborough, and the other early naturalists and collectors she read about on her work breaks. Is there some connection between Spreadborough and her own family? This multi-layered book succeeds on every level. Firstly, the plot: Nell’s obsession with Spreadborough drives the story, but there’s also a mother who walked into winter and was never found; a teenaged foster child with a knack for communicating with animals; interesting rural neighbours; and Nell’s passion for documenting the birds in her area … her “bird survey stuff”. Nell tries to remain optimistic, but her faith in policy-makers re: reports, surveys…

Elemental Eve
Wild Sage Press / 11 August 2023

Elemental EveWritten by Barbara Kahan, Illustrations by Wendy WinterPublished by Wild Sage PressReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$29.95 ISBN 9780988122994 The front and back cover images on Saskatoon writer Barbara Kahan’s complex multi-generational novel, Elemental Eve, depict two magnificent, multi-coloured watercolour paintings of women—one young, one old—set against snow-white backgrounds. Before reading even the first word, I paused to appreciate Wendy Winter’s cover illustrations: this is one of the most attractive books I’ve seen in a long time. Metaphorically speaking, Elemental Eve is a labyrinthine river with numerous tributaries, flood plains and wetlands. The plot concerns four different “Eves”. There’s Millennium Eve, a revered artist who lives in Regina. She’s the great- grandmother of Future Eve (Evie), a young New Zealander and self-professed “wanna-be artist with no talent” who travels to Canada to speak with a third woman, Solloway, a close friend of Millennium Eve’s. Soloway grew up in Regina, worked in Toronto for many years, and retired to a cabin in northern Saskatchewan. Two other Eves—Biblical Eve (she has intellectual conversations with the Serpent) and Prime Eve (who “climbed out of the briny sea billions of years ago”)—appear less frequently in this heavily-populated novel that spans the length of history…

Elephant on Karlův Bridge”
Thistledown Press / 11 August 2023

The Elephant on Karlův Bridgeby Thomas TrofimukPublished by Thistledown PressReview by Toby A. Welch$24.95 ISBN 9781771872331 Holy cannoli – what did I just finish devouring?!! This amazing fiction read will be on my Top Three Books of 2023 list.  Considering how much I loved The Elephant on Karlův Bridge, I am horrified to admit that I was skeptical at first. The premise seemed ridiculous. The novel is narrated by a bridge in Prague – what the heck? The story centres around an elephant named Sál that escapes from the Prague Zoo, detailing the people she encounters as she navigates her freedom. How can that be entertaining? But I jumped in as I have been a huge Trofimuk fan since 2002 when I read the award-winning The 52nd Poem, his first published novel.  My life changed the moment I cracked The Elephant on Karlův Bridge open. That sounds dramatic but it’s true. This book will linger long in my consciousness. Under Trofimuk’s expert hand, the five-ton elephant took on human characteristics. Crazy, I know! Another bonus is the joy of being submerged into the beautiful and alive city of Prague; if readers close their eyes and focus, they can feel like they are actually there.  As enthralling as Sál…