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Moms by Yeon-shin Ma

Yeong-shin Ma has penned nine books in his native Korean, but Moms is his first to be published in English. The cartoonist is a self-described late bloomer, living at home until he was almost thirty, when he was told to move out by his mother, a divorced cleaner and mother of two other adult children. Ma was a member of what is known in South Korea as the kangaroo tribes, the many adult children who live with their parents to save money until they get married.

According to the book’s afterword, the cartoonist found doing his own household tasks a frustrating and difficult ordeal, and while performing some mundane chore, he reflected on his mother’s life and developed a newfound appreciation for her. He thought it would be fun to create a book with his mother as the main character. Curious about her life, he gave her a notebook and asked her to write honestly about herself and her friends.

Within a month, his mother had returned with a notebook filled with the unfiltered details of her day-to-day life and musings. The cartoonist has stated that he knew that his mother could be daring, but was surprised by just how intense the sex lives of middle-aged women could be. He turned his mother’s notebook into the hilarious Moms, a 372-page graphic novel with black-and-white illustrations and etchings to create shading and texture.


Yeong-shin Ma

Translated by Janet Hong

Drawn & Quarterly

$34.95, paper, 372pp


The graphic novel follows the cartoonist’s mother, the plucky, fifty-something Soyeon, and her female friends. Soyeon’s current boyfriend is the handsome Jongseok, a man ten years her junior. Although Soyeon claims that she has “high standards,” she spends her time dithering about what to do with Jongseok, a waiter with a serious drinking problem. He is two-timing Soyeon with a much wealthier florist and plays one woman off the other until there is an altercation. Soyeon’s three friends do not fare much better, frequenting sordid nightclubs, all the while hoping to find “the one.” Predictably, they end up with equally desperate men who seem to make off with a lot of their cash.

But the drama does not end there. Soyeon works for a cleaning company. The manager, a handsy predator, tracks his employees’ every move with cameras and times their breaks. A former employee and victim pickets the building with a sign explaining what the manager did to her until she is approached by a reporter. The manager is later replaced, but Soyeon is let go for trying to form a union and speaking out about the working conditions and manager on a radio show.

Moms is a refreshing look at the lives of a group of gutsy middle-aged women who, in the face of adversity, hold fast to their hopes and dreams. The character of Soyeon is an enjoyable straight shooter who has no patience for other people’s bluster. Some of her brash replies are so direct and unexpected that I laughed out loud. Just as hilarious are the comments she makes to herself when others are speaking. There is something genuinely cathartic about women who refuse to mince their words for the sake of politeness. Readers will definitely warm to these fun women, who, like everyone else, are just looking for love. My only criticism was the book’s length: it would have been more impactful if it were shorter.

Unsurprisingly, when Moms was published in South Korea in 2015, people were in shock. This depiction was very much at odds with how middle-aged women were viewed. Apparently, older women are rarely if ever the main protagonists in pop culture narratives. Instead, they are relegated to the role of doting, nameless mothers. Let’s hope that we will soon see more entertaining books about this demographic of women, who appear to be just as invisible in South Korea as they are in the West.

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

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YA: My Body in Pieces by Marie-Noëlle Hébert

If you want to understand what is going on in someone's mind who is struggling with body image then I highly recommend that you pre-order this book. Release: April 2021

My Body in Pieces is Marie-Noëlle Hébert’s first graphic memoir of her personal journey coming to terms with her own body. From childhood to a woman in her twenties, this moving autobiography goes well beyond clothes not fitting and fat-shaming. It delves into how bullying and unsolicited comments only further fuel the deep sentiments of self-loathing that no amount of exercise or dieting can overcome. Of particular note is the fact that these profound feelings are conveyed mainly through the author’s accomplished drawings rather than the story’s text.

Marie-Noëlle’s story opens when she is in her twenties living in her own apartment. She feels a heavy weight on her chest, anxiety, which is beyond remedy. She calls her mother to ease the pain, but her mother only asks her if she has had enough water to drink. No one seems to be able to help Marie-Noëlle assuage her pain. After she is friend-zoned by a love interest, she holes up in her apartment, refusing to see friends to hide her rejection.

Marie-Noëlle was a beautiful baby and a cute little girl who loved Barbies and princesses. The panels of her carefree childhood are heart-warming and among my favourite in My Body in Pieces. She also takes dance lessons, which she loves, but gives up when the costumes she is given are too small. As a pre-teen, she has to shop in the women’s department to find clothes that fit.

Along the way, she receives a lot of advice on how to negotiate her presence in the world. She is advised to wear dark colours, never horizontal stripes or anything tight. And of course, she is repeatedly told to pull in her stomach. At a very young age, Marie-Noëlle internalizes the message that what people see, her body, and not her, the person, is what counts.

My Body in Pieces
Marie-Noëlle Hébert
Translated by Shelley Tanaka
Groundwood Books, House of Anansi
$19.95, paper, 105 pp

Life intensifies in high school when appearances are everything. Her parents sign her up for soccer. She trains hard and loses weight, which she is commended for. But the unsustainable grueling exercise and regimented eating mean that Marie-Noëlle puts even more pressure on herself to maintain her weight, which ultimately leads to further guilt, anxiety and self-loathing.

If that weren’t enough for a teenage woman to handle, there’s the bullying at school and her father’s vicious remarks at home. All of this casts further doubt in her mind that she is worthy of love. Fortunately, she has many friends. In fact, it is her friend Matilda whom Marie-Noëlle is finally able to confide in about her negative feelings about her body. Matilda tells Marie‑Noëlle to seek help, which she does after teetering on the brink of suicide.

With a graphite pencil to tell her story, Hébert uses realistic drawings that evoke the lightness and darkness of her thoughts. Her panels resemble black and white photographs, which work perfectly with the flashbacks she uses throughout her story. Many panels are intentionally blurred, reflecting a vague memory or a feeling of discomfort. The book itself is well-crafted with Hébert skillfully drawing the reader’s attention to important details.

Marie-Noëlle’s story offers keen insight into what it is like to live in a body that does not conform to society’s unrelenting beauty standards. It also shows that even people with good intentions, such as Marie-Noëlle’s aunt offering a book on dieting, can ultimately undermine how someone feels about themselves. But more than anything, My Body in Pieces offers a glance at what lies below the surface of someone struggling with their body image. There is nothing sugar-coated in this story. It is heartbreakingly honest, and every teacher, guidance counselor and psychologist should have it in their library.

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

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Year of the Rabbit by Tian Vesna

Author and cartoonist Tian Veasna was born in 1975, three days after the fall of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. His parents and the rest of his extended family were evacuated by the victorious Khmer Rouge amid rumors that the city was going to be bombed by American forces. As the new regime’s tanks roll into the city, his parents and extended family narrowly escape random checks by over-exuberant soldiers. Veasna’s family are members of the business and professional class—the sworn enemy of the Khmer Rouge, who are mainly peasant farmers.

Outside the city, the family, like many others, has a route set out to leave the country. On their way, Khmer Rouge soldiers usher them aboard a boat to cross the lake. A family acquaintance steps in at the last moment and stops them. Veasna’s family later learns that every day the boat, loaded with bureaucrats and intellectuals, returns bloodstained and empty to port.

Further on their route, the family is captured and taken to forced labor camps for re-education. Year of the Rabbit is the story of their treacherous journey.

Under the Khmer Rouge reign of terror some 2 million Cambodians, or 21% of the population, perished between 1975 and 1979. Minor transgressions often resulted in death. The Khmer Rouge lived by the principles of Angkar to transform the new republic into an agrarian power house. Under this bizarre re-education system, families were separated.

The Khmer Rouge took charge of school age children to cultivate their revolutionary spirit and used them to spy on adults and report back. In one segment, a father is forced to his knees to apologize to his young son because the father had disciplined him. Under the new regime, children had the upper hand. Unmarried men and women were put to work on mobile brigades, while married couples toiled in rice paddies and farm fields in exchange for thin rice gruel. Seniors were required to look after young children, but enjoyed an extra serving of food.

The author and cartoonist should be commended for undertaking something as complex as Year of the Rabbit, with such apparent ease. One of the most interesting aspects of the book are the inserts at the beginning of each chapter, such as the maps of the family’s route out of Cambodia, which help to better situate the reader. There is also an insert on how to appear as a hidden enemy of Angkar, which includes hesitating when asked about your former job, appearing elegant or distinguished, criticizing Angkar’s methods or practising your religion. All of the inserts add important details that may have been overlooked by the reader or were difficult for the author to include in the storyline, but they add a wealth of engaging information.

The cartoonist’s panels lack a certain depth, which is part of Veasna’s style. In addition to beautiful tropical-colored illustrations, the cartoonist serves up highly detailed art. In fact, there are so many details that readers might enjoy reading this book a second time just to make sure they haven’t missed anything. In my second reading, a lot of new information and details came to light, and I enjoyed the book even more.

Year of the Rabbit

by Tian Veasna

Drawn & Quarterly

ISBN 978-1-77046-376-9

Veasna’s extended family includes nine aunts and uncles, grandparents and other in-laws. The efforts of the Khmer Rouge to destroy families wrought havoc on his family’s unity, which was their intention. Family members were separated into the various work brigades, sometimes miles away from one another, for long periods of time. Veasna doggedly chronicles their experiences and suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. However, the author’s attempt at telling the stories of such a large cast is unwieldy at times, which results in some confusion as to the fate of some characters. But confusion has a place in this story, as it also typifies the highly chaotic reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Although most readers will have heard of the horrors of the Cambodian killing fields, Veasna gives us a much more personal view, a close-up of everyday family life, under the cruel and simple-minded Khmer Rouge. Veasna’s material comes from interviews with his surviving family members who today live in France, Switzerland and Canada. Even though they were reluctant to talk about their horrific past experiences in Cambodia and some could not bring themselves to read the book, the cartoonist and author has nevertheless created a heartrending, detailed story for future generations.

This review has been crossposted at the Comics Journal.

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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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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.

Other things you might like:

Woman World by Aminder Daliwahl

Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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