House of the White Elephant
Burton House Books / 18 February 2016

House of the White Elephant by Byrna Barclay Published by Burton House Books Review by Tanya Foster ISBN 9780994866905 $20.00 In Byrna Barclay’s most recent novel House of the White Elephant, the character Lewis Hutchinson says to his young daughter, Jesse Emma: “You cannot replace one person with another”. Yet, the compulsion to replace his first wife drives Lewis and, at first, it secures his posterity but, ultimately, alienates his children. Not only is Lewis impassioned about having an Elizabeth in his life, he is equally obsessed with compensating for his dark skin and questionable parentage. These compulsions are the metaphorical rivers that dominate the lives of the characters in the novel: at times, the rivers are life-giving and freeing, but mostly they are frozen rivers that keep the characters from moving on. In this historical novel, Barclay extends the river metaphor across continents and generations to reveal the steady-flowing influence of ancestry, history, and ethnicity on subsequent generations. The opening line of the novel—“The ice on the river is breaking up”—establishes the river metaphor that flows throughout the novel. The river of this novel is not a literal river, not the Ganges, not the Thames, not the North Saskatchewan;…

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…

Year at River Mountain, A
Thistledown Press / 21 August 2015

A Year at River Mountain by Michael Kenyon Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $19.95 ISBN 978-1-927068-04-5 Sometimes a book is a river, drawing us in. Such is A Year at River Mountain, by heralded BC writer Michael Kenyon. The enigmatic 68-year-old narrator of Kenyon’s introspective novel is, like most of us, trying to make sense of his life. The former stage and screen actor’s removed himself from the manic “engine,” “blue-green anger” and “loneliness” of the western world to seek harmony and practice acupressure in a Chinese monastery. He writes: “I am at River Mountain because I have turned my back on my family, history, country.” His former world included an estranged wife and son and his professional roles; stark contrast to the valley, mountains, temples, plum trees, bamboo forest and fellow monks that surround him now. It sounds pacific, but there are memories to wrestle with, and desire, and near the river beneath the monastery, nomadic tribes spar over boundaries and hungry children go missing. The nameless monk’s past and present converge; he has traded “monks for players, master for director” as he goes about his daily routines of prayers, meditation, chores (ie: sweeping leaves…

Wiseman’s Wager
Coteau Books / 18 December 2014

Wiseman’s Wager by Dave Margoshes Published by Coteau Books Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $21.95 ISBN 978-1-55050-601-3 Winter’s an especially wonderful time to settle in with a thick and thought-provoking novel, and Coteau Books provides one that fits the bill nicely. Wiseman’s Wager is by the prolific and award-winning Dave Margoshes, who has been entertaining readers with his novels, short story collections, poetry, and nonfiction (a biography of Tommy Douglas) for decades. The Saskatchewan-based writer has now spun a 382-page tale about two Jewish-Canadian brothers, both in their 80s, and their often tumultuous lives. There’s a gun, and prison time. There are multiple marriages, Yiddish, and the Communist Party. There are counselling sessions with a desirable female psychologist, and there’s a wife in a 12-year coma. This dialogue-driven novel is less about plot, however, and more about the relationship between the brothers-and the family they’ve lost-and how memory kicks in and out, seemingly of its own volition, like a weak signal on an ancient radio. Zan, the intellectual protagonist, wrote a novel (“The Wise Men of Chelm”) that was a failure when published in 1932, but re-released 30 years later to great acclaim. Throughout the story feisty Zan mourns his…

The Rawhide Homesteader
Benchmark Press / 6 November 2014

The Rawhide Homesteader by Scott Henders Published by Benchmark Press Review by Justin Dittrick ISBN 978192735218 $19.95 Scott Henders’ The Rawhide Homesteader offers readers an engrossing narrative engemmed with wisdom about the human condition within boundaries of the natural order. It is a novel most remarkable for its true-as-life characters, all of whom are intelligently moulded by the institutions of social life demarcating society, yet show the strains in traditional ways, under pressures of family, religion, nature, and changing socio-economic conditions at the turn of the 20th Century. Several characters are twice born, once into what must be endured, and once into what must be done to live well for themselves and their loved ones. The novel also offers rich insight into the spiritual life as a means of learning respect for forces of man and nature that can expand, yet will just as likely devastate, the soul. It is a novel about the inescapable needs that pulsate in the human psyche, the ties of society within and across cultural lines, and the inborn patterns of nature that provide the logic in which human beings must progress toward self-understanding and enlightened acceptance. At the heart of this narrative is Josh…

Swedes’ Ferry
Coteau Books / 14 May 2014

Swedes’ Ferry by Allan Safarik Published by Coteau Books Review by Keith Foster $19.95 ISBN 978-1-55050-561-0 Swedes’ Ferry is a double-barrelled adventure tale, and author Allan Safarik lets loose with both barrels blazing. His novel has a cast of colourful characters, some based on actual historical people like North-West Mounted Police Commissioner Lawrence Herchmer, others fictional but very much imbued with the breath of life. The search for a tall man who robbed a bank in Bismarck, North Dakota, killed the manager, and galloped away on a stolen powerhouse of a horse leads two Pinkerton detectives to Regina in 1894. There they try to enlist the aid of the imperious Herchmer, who proves unco-operative. Their break in the case comes from two attractive “spies” operating in a brothel above a Chinese restaurant. The tall man is aided by Bud Quigley, an astute horse trader, who brokers the deal of a lifetime with James J. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway and owner of the First National Bank that was robbed. A ferry, operated by two Swedish brothers, plays a pivotal role in the tall man’s attempt to retrieve his hidden stash of $44,000. With a background as a poet,…

Dollybird
Coteau Books / 20 December 2013

Dollybird by Anne Lazurko Published by Coteau Books Reviewed by Jackie Blakely $19.95 ISBN 978-1-55050-563-4 Dollybird, by Anne Lazurko, is a hopeful tale of love and loss on the Canadian prairies in the early 1900’s. Written in first person narrative, Lazurko brings to life the stories of Dillan, an Irish immigrant from Cape Breton, fleeing memories of a dead wife and poverty, and Moira from Halifax, pregnant and sent to Saskatchewan by her parents until the baby is born and adopted. Lazurko weaves their tales, chapter by chapter, as the two strangers struggle to come to terms with loss and change while making a new life for themselves in Ibsen, Saskatchewan. Beautifully set in the backdrop of the Canadian prairie wilderness, Dollybird is a remembrance of hardship and new frontiers. While Dillan tries desperately to get over the death of his wife shortly after childbirth, Moira struggles with being abandoned by her lover and her parents, forced to live in the middle of an unsettled land until her child is born and she can resume her dream of becoming a doctor. When Moira takes a job as Dillan’s housekeeper – his dollybird – she finds herself becoming more accustomed to…

The Path to Ardroe
Thistledown Press / 25 October 2013

The Path to Ardroe by John Lent Published by Thistledown Press Review by Justin Dittrick ISBN 978-1-927068-01-4 John Lent’s novel, The Path to Ardroe, offers a sustained, polymorphous meditation on understanding and accepting oneself, as seen in the shared memories, thoughts, and experiences of several Canadians. It offers a tapestry consisting of four strands of narrative, including those of three characters approaching mid-life, which are told in the first-person, and one of a young woman in her early twenties, which is told in the third-person. Lent’s approach in this terrain is balanced and focused, each character’s situation being sufficiently engrossing to make the experience effortlessly contemplative, highly observant, and satisfyingly rich with detail and personal insight. It is not only an enjoyable novel to read, but to sustain in the mind, as each perspective differs in its orientation to the landscape, the present, and the past, making the strands of selves form the parts of a distinct chord, the hum of the chord being unique and enjoyable, in itself. The Path to Ardroe is a novel of the themes that recur and reverberate across lives and generations, showing their tendency to enter and enrich the texture of human thought and…

Given
Thistledown Press / 7 February 2013

Given by Susan Musgrave Published by Thistledown Press Review by Hannah Muhajarine $19.95 ISBN 978-1-927068-02-1 Susan Musgrave has created a story that is both beautiful and heart-wrenching. Given continues where Cargo of Orchids, Musgrave’s previous novel, left off, but it is as welcoming to new readers as it is to old. Indeed, those who discover Given will no doubt be pleased to find that in Cargo, they can learn the full story of the narrator’s intriguing past. The narrator, who remains unnamed, escapes from prison at the beginning of the novel and travels back to her home on an island in B.C. In this small community there are many protestors, a Christian vegetable salesman, a ‘Church of the Holy Brew’, and a café that serves a ‘Philosophical Chicken special’. There is humour, but the majority of it is dark, suitable for the novel’s themes of poverty, addiction, and grief. The narrator is haunted, literally, by the ghosts of her two friends from Death Row. Although they are dead, Frenchy and Rainy are incredibly vibrant. They speak in a witty and inventive slang, speaking disturbing truth using many original turns of phrase. The journey is very much an inner, emotional one,…