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Agnes, Murderess by Sarah Leavitt

The 19th century Fraser Gold Rush attracted many gold hungry miners from California and the Pacific Northwest to Cariboo country in the colony of British Columbia. Comic artist Sarah Leavitt visited the area in 2007 and came across a brochure about Agnes McVee, an inn owner at 108 Mile House, located one hundred and eight miles north of Lilooet, mile zero of the much-travelled gold rush trail. Although Leavitt could not find any official records of Agnes McVee, legend has it that she was a murderess who, along with her husband and son-in-law, killed some 50 people. The comic artist claims that as she read about Agnes, she “felt surrounded by cold darkness, though the day was hot and sunny.” Leavitt had nightmares about Agnes and imagined the terror of her victims. Then Leavitt found herself researching 108 Mile House, filling sketch books with Agnes and reimagining her life and the source of her iniquity. The result is the hauntingly dark Agnes, Murderess, from the woman’s impoverished childhood on an isolated island in Scotland to her life as an innkeeper in a lawless land.

The first two thirds of the graphic novel is about Agnes’s life prior to her arrival at 108 Mile House. The book has the pace and makings of a 19th century gothic novel. Agnes has an upper class mother from London who dies when Agnes is a young child. Much to her family’s dismay, the mother married a common sailor from Scotland who took his pregnant wife to his childhood home and then sailed away. His mother, Gormul, houses his wife and daughter in a ramshackle croft. In the closest village, the people believe that Gormul is a witch with an evil eye, and they pay her any way they can to keep her away. Gormul teaches Agnes how to chop the heads off chickens as a young child, and Agnes like her grandmother is attracted to anything shiny, including knives. Her grandmother is a terrifying force, haunting Agnes throughout her life.

Agnes, Murderess

Sarah Leavitt

Freehand Books

ISBN 1988298474

Although a chilling character, Agnes is refreshingly complex and eschews the feminine frontier stereotypes. She is neither the kind-hearted sex worker nor the virtuous wife. Agnes is her own person, an entrepreneur who decides her own destiny. She only chooses to travel and partner with a man because it is safer and easier, and she makes this clear to her voyage companion. Agnes is most content when she is alone. In fact, it is the prospect of solitude and the absence of ghosts in the new world that draw Agnes to British Columbia’s interior, but it is her weakness for gold and the reign of lawlessness that give rise to most of her crimes. Unforgiving and prone to lashing out, Agnes is emotionally immature and devoid of compassion.

Leavitt uses slightly naïve, high contrast black and white drawings with occasional touches of grey to tell Agnes’s story. The starkness of the images inspires creepiness and leaves the reader with a sense of foreboding. Agnes’s stern disposition comes through in the panels. She is often frowning or on the verge of anger. The best panels and the most detailed are those depicting British Columbia’s rugged interior and landscapes.

Many years of research went into Agnes, Murderess. Leavitt convincingly captures the atmosphere of the gold rush in her portrayal of the miners who frequent the inn and the sex workers Agnes employs there. The comic artist also gives a plausible set of circumstances for how Agnes may have become a killer, from her upbringing in deprivation and isolation at the hand of a mean-spirited grandmother to living among ruthless and calculating goldminers. However, the best part of this story is the rich character of Agnes herself, and her single-minded independence. But rest assured, she is the type of person to be kept at a great distance. She is unpredictable and frightening, but that is the point.

In addition to Agnes, Murderess, Sarah Leavitt is the author of the graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me, which is in development as a feature-length animation. Leavitt teaches comics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

This review was previously posted at the Comics Journal.

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The Unknown by Anna Sommer

Born in Aarau, Switzerland, cartoonist Anna Sommer is the force behind The Unknown, translated from the German by Helge Dascher. The Unknown is Sommer’s fifth book, which was part of the 2018 Official Selection of Angoulême, France’s internationally renowned comics festival. This is no small feat, given that only five women cartoonists were among the forty-five bédéistes in the Official Selection.

Anna Sommer trained as a graphic artist and is known for her decoupage and illustrations, which have appeared in many European publications. The cartoonist presents her story in borderless black-and-white drawings without any texture or shading. The narrative alternates between the world of Helen and that of Wanda and Vicky. Sommer should be applauded for giving her women characters realistic body types.

The Unknown begins in the holiday season, with forty-something Helen discovering a newborn in her boutique dressing room. In the past, Helen and her husband had once considered adoption. Helen assumes the child’s mother will come back and keeps the newborn in her backroom, initially in a large cardboard box with clothing for blankets. She quickly becomes attached to the infant, whom she names Sylvester, but she keeps his existence a secret from everyone, including her husband Paul. When Helen raises the topic of adoption again, Paul tells her that they are too old for a baby. As a substitute, he gets Helen a dog. When he discovers Sylvester’s existence seven months later, he tells Helen that he wants the child gone. Heartbroken, Helen abandons the child in a food court.

Vicky and Wanda are boarding school roommates. Wanda convinces Vicky to turn tricks with her for extra money. The reader later learns that Vicky had an affair with their history teacher and is pregnant, something she attempts several times to sabotage but ultimately goes through with. Vicky binge-eats to put on weight so no one will suspect she is pregnant. Helen and Vicky are connected in more ways than one, which leads to pain and sorrow for both.

The Unknown By Anna Sommer

Conundrum Press

$17.00, paper, 104pp


Sommer makes her readers piece together Helen and Vicky’s connections. For readers who like puzzles, they will enjoy going through the book a number of times to check for clues. One of the first things the reader will do to make sense of the story is put together a timeline. However, the reader should be prepared for some distractions and ploys along the way. For starters, Sommer relies on the sensationalism of delivering of a baby in a change room, teen prostitution, and child abandonment and neglect as a distraction technique.

In terms of ploys, we know that Sylvester is found in Helen’s dressing room between Christmas and New Year’s, covered in afterbirth with his umbilical cord still attached. Yet, after receiving a Christmas present from her father, Vicky has the misfortune of having her water break in a park while a fountain is still running. In addition, when Helen abandons Sylvester at seven months, she is wearing boots, a coat, sunglasses, and a scarf on her head, the same scarf she wore throughout the winter, even though it is ostensibly July.

While The Unknown definitely has a satisfying “aha” moment, readers who have experience with newborns will be expected to suspend their belief to get through the story. As many new parents know, time can also be measured by a baby’s milestones. When Helen finds Sylvester in her dressing room, the newborn is already able to hold up his head, something that usually doesn’t happen until a baby is at least a month old. Most newborns also need to feed about eight to twelve times in twenty-four hours and rarely sleep more than a few hours at a time. Yet Helen leaves the newborn in a cardboard box, goes out for dinner and returns only once that night for a feeding. When Helen replaces the box with a crib, the baby is able to pull himself up, although that milestone doesn’t take place until about nine to twelve months. But, as we know, Helen abandons Sylvester at seven months. Sommer has possibly considered that most of her audience will not yet be parents or are only vaguely aware of these milestones.

Although Sommer has put in a lot of effort into cleverly devising her stratagem with time and other distractions, her story will not be appreciated by all. An audience familiar with the milestones of a baby may find that The Unknown boils down to a story that just can’t be believed.

This review has been crossposted at the Montreal Review of Books.

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Rat Time by Keiler Roberts

Fans of the Ignatz award-winning comic artist Keiler Roberts will not be disappointed by her latest autobiographical work, Rat Time. As in her other five books, the artist serves up a series of entertaining slice-of-life vignettes about the daily life of her family of three. Unlike her previous collection Chlorine Gardens, which addresses important milestones in Roberts’ life, Rat Time focuses on lighter subjects, such as pets, mementos, teaching and school moments, the author’s love of dolls, and some hilarious home mishaps. But there is an underlying tension throughout this volume—the struggle of someone coming to terms with health issues, while juggling multiple family and work-related responsibilities. Nevertheless, readers will still enjoy Roberts’ deadpan humor and wry wit mixed with a few poignant moments.

It will come as no surprise to fans that the animal-loving Roberts family has adopted a pair of rats, Mateo and Sammy. Afterdinner at the Roberts’ home has become “rat time” when Roberts and her daughter Xia play with their new pets. For Roberts, rat time is a type of alternative medicine. With new pets to love, she has something to feel optimistic about. It’s a way to forget about her recent multiple sclerosis diagnosis. When one of the rats dies, he is quickly replaced. Then the other dies, an untimely but slightly humorous reminder of illness and death that Roberts wants so much to avoid. The artist skips back in time to burying a beloved hamster under the outside doormat of her childhood home. But digging up the frozen earth proves too difficult, so her recently departed pet is only partially buried, leaving a conspicuous lump under the doormat, which is stepped on repeatedly by people coming and going. The humor turns darker when Xia informs her mother that the initial of Mateo and Sammy is “Ms.” like her teacher “Ms. Perkins.” Roberts then realizes that the initials also stand for multiple sclerosis.


Rat Time

Keiler Roberts

Yokama Press

ISBN 978-1-927668-70-2

Although the comic artist lets readers into her life, she is not one to overshare. Her husband is a regular character, but little about their personal relationship is ever disclosed. The same can be said about Roberts’ avowed bipolar diagnosis. While she does a funny series about the things that make her cry, (including nothing at all) followed by a visit to her psychologist, she sheds little light on her struggles with the disorder. In a vignette, she describes her hypomania to a counsellor as a time when she feels safe and content, which is at odds with what immediately comes to mind when most of us think of any type of mania. Roberts presents her universe in understated terms, devoid of high emotion. The comic artist moves seamlessly from one topic to another in much the same way as a conversation unfolds between two close friends, with tangents and natural segues between topics. Understatement also characterizes her approach to her art. She uses very simple thin lines and convincing proportions. Her drawings are at times ungainly, but still appealing, and she offers just enough realistic detail to draw the reader into the moment. This pared-down aesthetic appears to be an intentional choice rather than a lack of skill, as the reader sees in Roberts’ portrait of her dog Crooky, which is by far the most elaborate drawing in the entire volume.

In Rat Time, the comic artist reveals that she would like to write fiction. However, her character ends up looking a lot like her, “but with boobs.” Later in the series, she creates an exchange between two Barbies but laments that her fictional storylines always end up autobiographical. Fiction might be too artificial a construct for Roberts, who approaches her work with such honesty. She brings to light funny, ironic moments of everyday life that most of us overlook. The magic of her work is just how relatable those moments are, without any plotting or drama—two important components of fiction. Not only would her approach, wit and material not be as enjoyable written as fiction, but readers would not have that immediate access to her world through her art. Ultimately, Roberts’ work is best suited to comics.

This review has been crossposted at the Comics Journal.


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The Handbook to Lazy Parenting by Guy Delisle

Originally from Quebec City and a graduate of Sheridan College, Guy Delisle is a best-selling and award-winning cartoonist who lives with his wife and two children in France. Although his work is well-known in comics circles, he is better known in la Francophonie, where bédéistes are held in higher esteem than in the English-speaking world. Since 1996, he has published twenty-two books, eleven of which have been translated into English. The comic artist has a wide range of work from the objective, journalistic account of Hostage, Christophe André’s story of being kidnapped in Chechnya, to his highly acclaimed graphic travelogues, to his lighter, humorous comic strips on parenting. The cartoonist refers to the latter as his "Bad Dad" series. The Handbook to Lazy Parenting is the fourth and final instalment of the autobiographical series to be released in English.

In this collection of comic strips, as in the previous three, Delisle, a stay-at-home Dad, makes some questionable parenting decisions involving his children, Louis and Alice. In this final book, Delisle’s children are obviously older, and as life would have it, both children have developed their own interests. In the book’s opening strip, Delisle finds himself away in a dreary hotel room and calls his kids for company and to tell them that he has bought them a special treat. But Alice wants to talk to a friend and Louis is playing a video game. Feeling rebuffed, Dad grumbles and eats the treat himself.

Most adults would admit to using some form of flattery to get their children to do the things they are reluctant to do. But like most kids, Louis has picked up on this tactic and uses it to his advantage. Upon receiving a note for bad behaviour in his assignment book, he needs a parent’s signature and opts for the easy one—his father’s. When asking him to sign, Louis tells his father that the teacher is out to get him. Having had a similar teacher who hated his doodling, Delisle says that he can relate. Then, Louis strategically points out that Delisle won best comic at Angoulême, France’s premier comic award. Momentarily chuffed, Delisle dismisses the note and signs, but later must explain the signature to his wife.

The Handbook to Lazy Parenting
By Guy Delisle
Drawn & Quarterly

Good parenting is a virtue the world over, but at times our own competitive nature can get in the way of the child’s best interest. When Delisle goes on Alice’s school trip, he is unable to control his urge to answer the teacher’s questions. Although the teacher politely and repeatedly points out that the children are to answer, Delisle simply cannot resist. At the end of the day, he asks if there are any more trips. The teacher replies, "No, none."

My favourite strip in the series is Alice’s audition for the conservatory. Dad has the task of getting Alice ready for her audition and encourages her to stay calm. However, he thinks out loud and realizes that if she doesn’t get in, they would have to pay for private lessons and that would cost an arm and a leg. The realization sends Delisle into a tizzy. After a miscalculation of time, Dad is in a full blown panic attack, while Alice remains calm. Then in his final fatherly duty, he insists that she blow her nose. He holds a tissue and instructs her several times to blow harder. When the pair leaves, Dad tells Alice that first impressions count, unaware that snot that was meant for the tissue is now on the front of his sweater.

Delisle’s many years of cartooning experience comes through in this collection, particularly in the timing of his punchlines. He also skillfully makes his characters look active, and their expressions and body language correspond perfectly to what is being said in each frame. There is a pared-down quality to his art, but there is just enough detail in his panels to still draw the reader into the moment.

Although I prefer Delisle’s travelogues for their depth and story, this final instalment of the "Bad Dad" series will definitely appeal to anyone who likes the funnies section of the newspaper or needs some comic relief from parenting. Even though this instalment is not the funniest in the series, the heart-warming final strip more than makes up for it. Some warm fuzzies are guaranteed.

This review has been cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books.

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Review: Watermark by Christy Ann Conlin

Five or six years ago, I used to receive a lot of books in the mail for review on my blog. It led to stacks of books and plenty of good intentions until I just got overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that it involved. My book reviewing also subsided when my children got to an age where they didn't go to bed early anymore, reducing time for my hobby--reading.

My most recent reviews have all been paid, but then about a month ago I received Watermark by Christy Ann Conlin, her latest collection of short stories, along with a wonderful little surprise. As most of my readers know, I've been a fan of this writer ever since I read Heave, her first novel in 2002. Both Heave and The Memento, Conlin's second novel, are set in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, a place I visited about five years ago with my family just to get a view of the "Mountain," or mountains that flank the Valley, with its dark forestland and picturesque fields that unfold onto the shores of the Bay of Fundy.

In Heave and The Memento, Conlin sheds light on the seedy, writhing underside of Valley life, or the secrets, trauma and abuse that lie just below the surface. This style, Conlin's trademark, has been described as North Atlantic gothic, and readers of Watermark can expect another dark, bumpy ride through the Annapolis Valley.

In this collection, Serrie, the runaway bride from Heave, returns in "Beyond All Things is the Sea." When children hear a woman's scream, they are told that it was merely a screeching peacock from Petal's End, the creepy estate in The Memento. There are enough satisfying connections between the stories in Watermark and Conlin's previous work, through narrative strands and character relationships, to give this collection an eerie sense of community, with a few dollops of magic realism to further draw the reader in. But you don't need to have read Conlin's previous work to fully enjoy this collection of short stories.

Christy Ann Conlin
House of Anansi
ISBN 9781487003432

Most of the characters are likeable and all of them seem to be on a quest to assuage their past pains. Many of them escape the Valley to Vietnam, Germany and Canada's west coast and far north, but like the strong tide in the Bay of Fundy, there are forces pulling them back. In "Eyeball in Your Throat," adult daughter Dierdre wants to return home from Churchill, but her mother Lucy is not partial to the idea. Lucy resents the fact that her daughter is always off gallivanting and collecting boyfriends, while the daughters of her friends are all settled in respectable situations. The construct of pecking order and the lack of anonymity are at play here as they are in small towns around the world. While the reader may initially sympathize with Lucy, the mother's failure to love her free-spirited daughter and Lucy's somewhat claustrophobic view on life make her more of a tyrant than a mother who knows best. The last paragraph of this story is as beautiful as it is shocking.

Good visceral writing abounds in this collection. In the shortest story "Insomnis," a sleepless woman, although forewarned, wanders through a rough part of Halifax so that she will eventually find sleep. She hears a woman call her cat in the wee hours of the morning, and seeing someone she recognizes, the insomniac "waves as she steps from the curb and her toes poke warm fur."

The collection also contains some unsavoury characters like the greasy-haired recluse in "Full Bleed." Sweet Adam, a recent widower, agrees to take his late wife's grandmother Charlotte and Great Aunt Doris-the-Spinster on an annual fall drive. The sisters decide as "night looms down" to go visit the old homestead, which Adam begrudgingly agrees to. They encounter kin on the barely visible path, and his reaction is anything but welcoming.

My favourite in this entire collection is "Desire Lines," which are pathways worn down by people, often appearing next to perfectly good walkways. Narrator Eve studies desire lines in her PhD program in Civil Engineering. Out of the blue, her estranged father contacts her, even though she has not seen him in 30 years. Her father was a former hippie-cult leader of the Mists of Avalon, a name he created for their home on the North Mountain. Eve has a tough question for him about her sister Morgaine, who died as a result of his neglect at the commune. The themes of sinister pathways and mysterious crows are woven throughout this story to other worldly effect.

"The Flying Squirrel Sermon" is by far the richest story in this collection and could easily be expanded into a full length novel. Unsurprisingly, it comes at the end of the collection and it serves up a few tentacles leading to other earlier stories. As promised, Ondine returns to her grandmother's family home on Flying Squirrel Road on the Mountain to find out the truth about her family. Many women disappeared from this home, but it is unclear whether they were murdered or ran off to somewhere safer. I read this story three times to glean all the details, and the last page, deftly written, warrants many more. But that's the beauty of short stories, they can be read many times, and each time a new detail comes to light.

For fans of dark, preternatural literature, this is truly a must. There are plenty of innocuous circumstances that turn on a dime to the sordid and treacherous. I also challenge you to  figure out all the connections between the stories.

Along with this wonderful book, I was sent a surprise: an artisanal bar of soap, made from ingredients available from the Bay of Fundy area, or as the soap maker refers to it: "reminiscent of the Forest, Fundy and Field." The scent is decidedly fresh. Aptly called "Watermark," the soap can be found here at the Hen of the Wood's website.

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Chicken Rising by Dawn Boyd

LOCO Zero Waste

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LOCO Zero Waste: Bring Your Own Container

I've hung out in libraries, cafés, bars and parks, but my latest hangout is the Villeray LOCO, a zero waste green grocer. It sells a range of food, cleaning and personal care products, not to mention a range of products that can help you reduce future waste, like cloth shopping bags and cloth sandwich wraps for your kids' lunches. Half the fun is just looking at what they have and getting ideas for things you might want to make. My favourite is the health and beauty section because the sellers provide a list of ingredients.

I've given up on big name brands because of the chemicals manufacturers use. To see what I mean, check out my post on the Dirty Dozen in My Personal Care Products.>

When you walk in the store, you weigh the container you brought from home and record the weight on a tiny sticker and stick it to your container before filling it up. The weight of your container will be subtracted from the total weight at the cash so that you only pay for the actual weight of the product. This is particularly handy when refilling products like face cream. There are always a few grams of cream left in the bottom of the container that you have no way of retrieving. At Villeray LOCO, the weight of these few drops at the bottom will be counted in as part of weight of the container.

The other luxury of this store is that you can take just 100 grams of something to try it at home to see if you like it. I did this today with the store's peanut butter. This is a difficult household when it comes to peanut butter. We look for no sugar or palm oil added, which is not as easy to find as you might think.

Weight of my container: 73 grams
Overall, the face cream is a bargain, particularly given the quality. The peanut butter was more expensive. Even though the shampoo was slightly more expensive than a store-bought brand, we all feel better knowing that we won't be adding more empty plastic shampoo bottles to the landfill.

I walked past this store a number of times before walking in. I could never remember to bring my containers. Then I learned that customers leave behind clean containers on a shelf at the front. If hygiene of the latter is a concern to you, the store also sells fairly inexpensive containers. Now, I find myself there at least once a week. I have a friend who is sold on the environmentally friendly cleaning products in spite of them being more expensive. And we aren't alone. There is always a long line at the cash with a few kids asking their parents a lot of questions about zero waste.

Villeray LOCO
422 Jarry Est
Montréal, QC, H2P 1V3
(438) 386-7345
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Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, the award-winning author of Grass, is known for her work about the marginalized and for her manhwa, a South Korean comic style. Grass is a graphic work of non-fiction about a former comfort woman, Lee Ok-sun, during World War II. Gendry-Kim also appears as she coaxes Lee Ok-sun, now in her nineties, to talk about her life and tragic experiences. Painted in black ink, the story opens with a note on the controversial term “comfort women,” a Japanese euphemism that survivors say distorts victims’ experience. While acknowledging its many failings, the author uses the term, and it proves to be a clever way to make the horrors of sexual slavery easier to read.

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Drawn & Quarterly
$34.95, paper, 480pp

The Imperial Japanese Army forced an estimated 350,000 to 410,000 impoverished girls and women, mostly from Korea, China, and the Philippines, into sexual slavery. Many were lured with the promise of work in restaurants and factories, while some were simply abducted. At just fifteen years old, Lee Ok sun was kidnapped on her way back from running an errand for a tavern where she worked in exchange for room and board. She and many other girls were put on a freight train and sent to Longjing, China, to work at a comfort station, one of many brothels servicing Japanese soldiers throughout the Japanese-occupied territories.

Grass begins in the 1990s with Lee Ok-sun returning to her native Korea after spending 55 years in China. She was one of many former comfort women who were helped to return home by a South Korean television network, as part of a docudrama. As a child, Lee Ok-sun’s only wish was to go to school, but her family was too poor and could barely keep their children fed. In an attempt to wipe out Korean culture, the occupying forces made Koreans take Japanese names and speak only Japanese. Those who refused were sent to labour camps and mines, denied ration cards, and declined admission to schools.

Lee Ok-sun was raped before she was old enough to have her first period. She was repeatedly beaten while being forced to service dozens of Japanese soldiers, sometimes daily. She survived her years of incarceration in the comfort station by clinging to hope. When the war was over, Lee Ok-sun and a few other comfort women were left destitute, wandering from town to town, shunned for their past work.

The subject matter of Grass is indeed grim, but Gendry-Kim’s beautiful brushwork reduces some of this heaviness, making this book memorable. She skillfully paints mountains, fields, trees, and skies as reminders that life goes on, giving the reader some respite from some of the trying moments in Lee Ok-sun’s life. What is the most striking about Grass is Gendry-Kim’s thoughtful illustrations, which reflect the mood of each scene. The harsher the scene, the heavier the brushwork and the darker the panels. For instance, Lee Ok-sun’s rape as a teen is followed by twelve completely blacked-out panels that express the unfathomable depth of her trauma. It takes a special talent to make this tragic story into such compelling reading.

Although Gendry-Kim describes the three years of inking Grass as walking through a long, dark tunnel, Lee Ok-sun survived her many ordeals with her sense of humour reportedly intact. Today, the former comfort woman and activist continues her fight for compensation and an apology from the Japanese government for the many injustices she suffered. The title Grass also infuses the book with some much-needed lightness. The reason for the title is revealed at the very end, “grass springs up again, though knocked down by the wind, trampled and crushed by foot.” Grass is ultimately about the doggedness of the human spirit.

This review has been cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books.

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Woman World by Aminder Daliwahl

Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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YA: Speak No Evil by Liana Gardner

Cover courtesy of Vesuvian Books

Award-winning author, Liana Gardner is the brains behind such young adult hits as 7th Grade Revolution, the Journal of Angela Ashby and the Misfit McCabe series. Her latest, Speak No Evil, will be released on October 1, 2019.

Speak No Evil
Liana Gardner
Vesuvian Books
ISBN-10: 1944109366
ISBN-13: 978-1944109363.

Melody Fisher has been charged with stabbing a fellow high school student who is also a football star. But she is no criminal. Through her court-mandated therapy sessions, the reader discovers that Melody, a mixed race teen with a gift for song and a love of nature, has faced plenty of trauma in her life. After her mother dies and her father disappears, Melody lives through a series of horrible foster homes. None, however, is as treacherous as the last, at the home of the aptly named Hatchett family. The accumulated tragedy in her life has made Melody mute.

The author has used a psychiatrist, Dr. Kane, as a plot device to tease out Melody’s past trauma. Kane coaxes Melody to talk by having her play music from her MP3 player to reveal her feelings through the lyrics and music she selects. The music theme that runs throughout is quite enjoyable. As Melody makes progress, the psychiatrist has her sing her answers to his questions in order to bring her a step closer to speaking. His questions trigger first-person recollections taking the reader back to earlier times in Melody’s life. This device works relatively well for a good part of the book, but the constant back and forth in time later saps the story’s tension, and at times makes it difficult to determine the order of events.

Melody is a wonderful, convincing character. In addition to her beautiful singing voice, she is able to see a personified manifestation of death that follows people who will soon die. Quatie Raincrow, a foster mother who really cares for Melody, is also a seer. She helps Melody understand her gift and make sense of her feelings. The teen is also able to calm both people and things with her singing, snakes in particular. The author writes with compelling skill about snake attacks and snake handling that will captivate readers. The passages where Melody cares for a blistered snake are gruesome and well executed.

Speak No Evil is a very ambitious book with many minor characters, too many in fact, especially at the end. Readers could have done without James and Vince, a love interest and a friend who wants to be more to Melody. Neither is particularly memorable. There are really two books here: a pre-teen with special gifts who loses her parents and ends up in foster care and a story about a teen in foster care who negotiates daily life in the midst of lurking predators. In both scenarios, there is enough trauma to render someone mute and in need of a good therapist.

In the end, there is too much going on in this book, which detracts from its strengths: Melody’s character and gifts, the theme of music and the initial use of the psychiatrist plot device.

This review has been cross-posted at Cyn's Workshop.

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The Courage of Elfina by André Jacob

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Dead Time by Christy Ann Conlin

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The Courage of Elfina by André Jacob

http://www.lorimer.ca/childrens/Book/3084/The-Courage-of-Elfina.htmlThe Courage of Elfina is the captivating story of a teen who finds herself in a very adult situation. Elfina lives in the country on the banks of the Paraguay River. Her mother died in child birth, while her father is often away working on a large farm in neighbouring Brazil. Elfina attends the local school and lives with her grandmother. When Elfina turns twelve, her grandmother tells her that she will be going to the capital to live with the family of her father’s sister, Evoala. Her wealthy aunt has promised to enrol Elfina in a good school. But big surprises lie ahead. The family is not staying in Asunción, but moving to Montreal to operate a clothing import business. Aunt Evoala also changes Elfina’s name to Elfina Silva Rodriguez so that she will be like their daughter. But Elfina is never sent to school, nor is she treated like their daughter. Instead, she becomes their live-in maid and works around the clock, cooking and cleaning for the family of five. One day, fed up with the exhausting work and frightening home life, Elfina makes a run for it and succeeds in turning her life around.

The Courage of Elfina is a graphic novel intended for young adults aged twelve to eighteen who are interested in social issues. The thin, sixty-four-page graphic novel also comes with information and statistics on forced child labour and a list of resources and websites for further reading. The book is intended “for reluctant readers,” which is also the tagline of the publisher.

The author, illustrator, and translator of this story make up a stellar cast. Author André Jacob is a former UQAM professor and a guest lecturer on immigration, racism, and international development. Christine Delezenne is an award-winning children’s book illustrator, and Susan Ouriou is also an award-winning literary translator of more than forty works. However, it is the illustration work by Christine Delezenne that really takes the reader on Elfina’s journey. Delezenne skillfully uses a variety of panels to tell Elfina’s story and show the confines of her real and imaginary worlds in the daily toil of her life as a maid.

It is a shame that the illustrator, known for her drawings and their texture, used only high-contrast black and white illustrations with pale blue halftones for colour. From the huge mango tree in the Paraguayan countryside, to the city of Asunción and the red-brick turrets of the family’s Montreal home, this story begs for colour. A broader palette would have also given the reader some greater contrast between Elfina’s life in Paraguay and her experience in Montreal. Some additional hues could have been used to evoke the teen’s psychological state, like her brief moments of happiness in the grocery store when she sees the fruit and vegetable displays that remind her of home.

Elfina is a compelling character that young people should readily identify with. She is ambitious, and when her personal boundaries are crossed, she pushes back and rebels. However, even though this story was intended for reluctant readers, the text itself offers very few opportunities for the reader to truly enter Elfina’s experience, as in this sentence: “On the bus taking me to the capital, I felt lost and sad”; or “I let myself fall under the spell of my old fantasies.” Although the story is written in the first person, the reader knows little of the sounds, scents, textures, and tastes of Elfina’s world, which could have easily been done using simple language. In the end, the text feels more like an outline than a novel.

The Courage of Elfina is an engaging tale to teach young readers about forced child labour right here in Canada. However, this story could have a much greater impact if it were fleshed out and if a wider variety of colours were used in the illustrations. The story itself was gripping, and I hope that one day it will become a full-length novel or graphic novel.

The Courage of Elfina

André Jacob

Translated by Susan Ouriou

Illustrated by Christine Delezenne

James Lorimer and Company Ltd.

$24.95, cloth, 64pp


This review has been cross-posted on the Montreal Review of Books website (mRb).

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Chicken Rising by Dawn Boyd

Just a little note from me. I think anyone that pens a book this good on their first attempt deserves a pat on the back.

Creating a graphic memoir of your childhood is a daunting task, particularly if it was not picture perfect. In Chicken Rising, D. Boyd pens a series of vignettes that make up the early life of Dawn, D. Boyd’s younger self, in Saint John, New Brunswick in the 1970s. According to an interview with her publisher, the comic artist initially found the process of “reliving the past and bringing her parents back to life” an enjoyable experience. But Boyd was later alarmed by how many private details she’d divulged and felt guilty about how harshly she’d portrayed her mother, whom she wanted to show as “a complicated person, not a villain.” A self-described introvert, the comic artist said that, in the end, the process made her feel vulnerable and exposed, and gave rise to moments of panic.

When viewed through today’s lens, parenting in the 1970s requires some explanation. While more amusing seventies references like flower power, free love, and Woodstock lore abound, parenting at that time rarely reflected this kind of open-mindedness. Dawn’s parents, a war-vet who operates a fried chicken restaurant and a stay-at-home mom, are older and believe in “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Their wooden spoon, the instrument of choice for giving a lickin’, makes two appearances in the first fifty pages. Boyd also shows us the unglamorous yet highly realistic details of that decade, such as short, frizzy perms, beanbag ashtrays, the ubiquitous cigarette, and the late-night movie, which is one of the rare activities that Dawn and her mother enjoy together. The author also skillfully inserts many pop culture references that give the story an extra 1970s layer, which successfully reels the reader further into the story. Although not always an uplifting memoir, there is still a good dose of dark humour.

 Dawn is a sensitive child who is attracted to the arts. Yet, whenever she expresses her desire to be any type of artist, her mother is quick to discourage her, telling her that she’ll have a hard life. Dawn’s mother Sybil is very critical of her daughter, believing that she is preparing her for life ahead. Sybil scolds Dawn for getting ninety-nine percent on a test and making that one error. Her mother is also quick to take the teacher’s side of a school incident without giving Dawn a chance to explain.

Like many parents of her generation, Sybil sees listening to her child’s feelings and validating them as an indulgence, and an overindulged child is a spoiled child. After a boy punches Dawn in the stomach at school, Dawn reports to her parents that everyone at school is mean. Instead of asking her daughter to elaborate, Sybil responds, “You should be grateful to get an education.” Exasperated, Dawn explains that she was punched, to which her father responds, “Nobody ever got anywhere from being a crybaby.” This is indeed tough love, and life at school and in public is also pretty rough and tumble. But in the end, Dawn finds her people.

Although Chicken Rising makes for some sad reading at times, this debut graphic memoir is one of the most realistic graphic representations of the 1970s I’ve seen in a long time. Boyd also demonstrates that she has a keen ear for dialogue, using many sayings popular among adults in that decade. My parents had some of the same refrains and used the same curse words as Dawn’s parents. There were only a few instances of “Jeezly,” obviously a Maritime expression, which sounded foreign to my central Canadian ear.

At times, I found it hard to believe that this is Boyd’s first book. She already draws like a pro, adding plenty of detail to each frame and changing up the panel layout on every page, which plays with the story’s dynamic. I look forward to seeing more work by this comic artist.

Chicken Rising
D. Boyd
Conundrum Press
$18.00, paper, 152pp

This review was cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books (mRb).

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