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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.

Other reviews of YA fiction

The Courage of Elfina by André Jacob

Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser

The Trouble with Marlene by Billy Livingston

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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Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal

Aminder Dhaliwal’s web comic Woman World has made her an Instagram sensation. The comic artist has over 148,000 followers, with her biweekly serialized comic strip garnering an average of 25,000 likes. In this collection of both previously published and new Woman World comics, Dhaliwal serves up slice-of-life anecdotes of a village of women many years after the male species has died out and the planet has been ravaged by a series of natural disasters. Although this post-apocalyptic theme may come across as dark, most of the strips are light and hilarious, addressing issues such as identity, solitude, love, and anxiety, with some occasional angst about the survival of the species.

Woman World was reportedly in part inspired by the LA Women’s March in 2017, an empowering day for Aminder Dhaliwal, when the comic artist met many wonderful people. Dhaliwal apparently started to imagine what the world might be like if it were only inhabited by women. Her collection features a recurring cast of characters, with a handful catching a large part of the limelight. Grandma Ulaana is the only one who remembers the world when there were men, and Emiko is a young girl who believes that men look like Kevin James after she finds a DVD of the Paul Blart: Mall Cop movie. There is also Yumi the blacksmith, Lara the carpenter, Uma the record keeper, Ina the artist, and Doctor.

The village in this all-female society is led by Mayor Gaia, who leads naked, not as a statement, but so she can feel the cool breeze on her underboob. As all great societies keep records, the Mayor gives the order to start an archive, but first the village needs an official name. Mayor Gaia already has a name in mind, but then, so does everyone else. Lady Land, Female Federation, Dame District, Matriarch Macrocosm, Queens Quay, and Gal Globe are other names that are thrown into the ring. But the Mayor prevails and the village is called Woman World, and their first major project is to build a hospital.

Dhaliwal draws her characters in dramatic poses, and their facial expressions convey a wide range of
emotions. There is a spirited line to her black and white drawings with grey shading, but there are bursts of warm colour every few pages. Although I did not find all the strips equally entertaining, Dhaliwal strikes a nice balance between the funny and the thoughtful, and the comic artist has a genuine talent for timing. What I liked the most about the collection was that it served up a world that accurately reflects how women interact in everyday life that is at odds with our mass media offerings.

My favourite strips involve the discovery of strange objects in the ruins that litter the countryside. In one instance, a little girl finds a pair of stilettos and decides that they are a type of construction boot made to create tiny holes. In another, on a medical supply run, Doctor discovers a male android manufacturing plant, but the plant only got as far as making the mechanical male genitalia. Grandma Ulaana has to explain to Doctor that what she really discovered was a dildo factory.

Aminder Dhaliwal is recent newcomer to the comic world, but we will definitely be hearing much more about this native of Brampton, Ontario. Woman World has already been nominated for the 2018 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Online Comic. An animation graduate of Sheridan College, Aminder Dhaliwal has worked on several animated television series, including Sanjay and Craig, and is currently a director at Disney Television Animation.

Woman World
Aminder Dhaliwal
Drawn & Quarterly
$29.95, paper, 256pp

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

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Almost Summer 3 by Sophie Bédard

The third volume of Almost Summer follows the ups and downs of a gang of teens who are about to graduate from high school. With CEGEP just around the corner, the stakes are high. Emily’s mother wants her to study science, while her sidekick Michelle fails math, but shrugs it off. It doesn’t matter because she’s going to study early childhood education anyway. Anthony thinks he’ll study social science to keep his options open, while Max hasn’t got a clue. He refuses to put on a mortarboard for his graduation photo because it would involve removing his beanie and who knows what lies below! This year, Max is more interested in Noémie who’s creating a wall-sized mandala and waffling over studying art.

The release of this third volume of Almost Summer follows on the heels of volumes 1 and 2 published in 2017. The Almost Summer series is the work of comic artist Sophie Bédard, who at the age of 19 did the unimaginable. Just a year after graduating from CEGEP, she published not one but two volumes of the very popular Glorieux printemps [Almost Summer].

I asked Bédard why the change in seasons in the English translation. She said, “I didn’t like the ring of Glorious Spring in English. I liked Almost Summer because it evoked waiting, and during our teens, we sometimes have the impression that our life is on hold. Nothing moves very fast. We have plenty of interests and aspirations, but we’re hemmed in by the fact that we’re still just kids.”
The first two volumes of the French-language series went on to be nominated for a Bédélys and a Bédéis Causa award, two prominent prizes for Quebec comic artists.

The series is set where Bédard grew up in La Prairie on Montreal’s South Shore. In fact, Emily, Michelle, Anthony and Max all go to the same high school as the author attended, La Magdeleine. Don’t be surprised when you pick up a copy and recognize places like the Dix30 on the pages of volume 3. As for the inspiration for her characters, Bédard said that they are composites of herself and some people she went to high school with. In the author’s words, “They’re a happy blend of both.” But if she had to pick the character who most resembled her as a teen, it would be Emily in her everyday life. However, Bédard becomes Michelle when she goes out with friends and has a few drinks.

In the Almost Summer series, the two main characters couldn’t be more different. Emily is a serious student with a strict mother, “No phone calls after 7:30 pm,” while Michelle (aka Mimi) is impulsive, melodramatic and silly, just like your average teen! Michelle has a series of crushes, but decides she’s met her “soulmate” when she sees him playing soccer, and it’s his calves she finds most attractive. Emily has a secret crush that she entrusts only to her diary, which Michelle has no qualms about reading and shamelessly reporting to anyone willing to listen. Nevertheless, the characters of Emily and Michelle complement each other. Emily needs Michelle to bring some fun into her life, while Michelle needs Emily to keep her in line and do some studying. Anthony lives with his grandmother, and he actively pursues Emily, regardless of how many times she bluntly rebuffs him. He’s been friend-zoned. They both work part-time at the same flower shop, which adds further hilarious annoyances for Emily. Then there’s Max who has a wandering eye. He can’t decide which girl he likes. It all depends on which girl he sees first.

Unlike volumes 1 and 2, some seriousness and maturity creep into the characters in Volume 3. Anthony asks Emily to go for a walk with him to visit his mother’s grave, while Max finally removes his beanie and buys some much-needed shampoo. Emily begins to think for herself and about her future rather than just obeying her mother, and Michelle finally has a chance with her “soulmate.” The dialogue is perhaps the best feature of the Almost Summer series, and volume 3 in particular. It’s funny and accurately depicts how teens talk to each other, with Emily and Michelle delivering the best quips. The teen reader will find the characters’ situations and reactions both realistic and entertaining.

Although there is little for the gang to do in their suburb, there is still plenty of action, and the story moves forward at a brisk pace. Bédard’s drawings are compelling and have a strong clean line throughout. What is more, one cannot help noticing that the characters’ expressions, especially Michelle’s, have a strong manga feel.

I asked Bédard about her influences in terms of story and drawing styles. She said that she was inspired by manga authors Ai Yazawa, Kyoko Okazaki and Kiriko Nananan, particularly in terms of their pacing, and their focus on the feelings and silent moments of their characters.

Bédard’s interest in making comics intensified when she was studying Graphic Arts at the CEGEP du Vieux Montréal. As a teen, she’d had a webcomic about her everyday life, her friends and school. “I published comics on a blog so that my friends could see them and comment on them,” said Bédard. Incidentally, the author has also twice been nominated for the Joe Shuster Award “Best Webcomic Creator.”

It was through her webcomic that she came across work of other Quebec comic artists. Then, while at CEGEP, when she was just 17, Bédard signed up for a comics workshop given by two well-known Quebec bédéists, Jimmy Beaulieu and David Turgeon. As part of the workshop collective, Bédard published a few strips and then concentrated on longer stories. Once CEGEP was over, in addition to working as an illustrator, she began work on what would become Almost Summer, which was picked up by Pow Pow before Bédard had even finished inking it.

Although a date has yet to be set for the release of the final volume of Almost Summer, Bédard explained the story focuses on Emily’s and Anthony’s family issues, growing up in less than perfect circumstances and learning how to stand up to their parents. Bédard said that it was important for Anthony to remain in Emily’s friend zone. The author believes that friendship between young men and women should be celebrated. Since it is also the final volume, the gang bids adieu to high school and expands their horizons to Montreal, where a number of scenes unfold.

Sophie Bédard has recently finished a university degree in sexology. She hopes one day to be able to combine comics and her field of study. How she will do this still remains a question. The comic artist is currently working on her fifth book, a graphic novel about young adult women, which will also be published by Pow Pow. Ideally, she hopes to complete this book some time in the fall. Until then, all her other projects are on hold. Finally, it would not be overstepping to say that Bédard has had quite a successful run. Now bear in mind that she has yet to celebrate her 27th birthday.

Almost Summer 3
Sophie Bédard
Translated by Helge Dascher and Robin Lang
Pow Pow Press

This feature is cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books (mRb).

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Review of a History of Quebec Comics

BDQ: Essays and Interviews on Quebec Comics
Conundrum Press
Edited by Andy Brown
As editor Andy Brown sets out in the foreword of this collection, BDQ refers to Quebec comics or bande dessinée québécoise, just as manga refers to comics from Japan. Unsurprisingly Quebec is unique in terms of its comics culture, which draws heavily on the Franco-Belgian tradition due to the shared language and is also strongly influenced by North American trends, in particular the US underground comix movement of the 1960s and zines in the 1990s. Brown, also the publisher at Conundrum, acknowledges that the collection is only “a smattering” of what is available on Quebec comics. But obviously the featured artists, images and essays, in his view, reflect important moments in BDQ history. The collection is divided into four time periods with the longest section devoted to The Nineties, evidently an ebullient period for sequential art, particularly in Montreal.

“The Early Years” focuses on Quebec comics that were published in newspapers with little or no text. The strips published between 1904 and 1909 were intended for adults and mirrored the social concerns of the day, such as urbanization, the woes of the working poor and the arrival of new Canadians. There is a particularly interesting essay on the style, technique and influences of Albert Chartier in his well-known strip Onésime.

“The Middle Years” takes us to the 1980s and introduces us to artists who include Réal Godbout, the creator of Red Ketchup, and Jimmy Beaulieu, a principled creator who refuses to turn his back on Quebec comics. One of the most interesting pieces in this section is a never before published letter from Julie Delporte to Sylvie Rancourt about the feminist significance of Rancourt’s Mélody and the sensitive intelligence of her work.

The party really gets started in “The Nineties,” and the two reigning stars of this section are underground superhero Henriette Valium and internationally acclaimed comic artist Julie Doucet. But the BDQ community apparently had its cultural clashes. In response to an article penned by Marc Tessier, “The Montreal Comix Scene,” published in a 2005 special edition of The Comics Journal, a group of people took issue with Tessier’s portrayal and let him know, point by point, in Letters to the Editor of The Comics Journal #274 (February 2006). In a previously unpublished essay on Fish Piss, Andy Brown refers to the zine that ran from 1996 to 2006 as truly bilingual. Its comics, essays, poems and stories were published in French and English without translation since its audience was as bilingual as its editor, Louis Rastelli.

The final section, “Modern Times,” introduces comic artists who have had some recent commercial success. It features interviews with the late Geneviève Castrée, Michel Rabagliati, Zviane, and Diane Obomsawin, in addition to essays on the creator of Mile End, Michel Hellman, and the collaborative work of Zviane and Iris in L’hostie d’chat.

This collection is a great primer for anyone interested in graphic novels or sequential art from Quebec. Among the essays, I preferred those that touched on the artist’s approach to stories and their work methods. Editor Brown also did a commendable job of focusing on comics created by women when the BDQ scene has long been dominated by men.

Personally, I found the interview with Henriette Valium unreadable, but I’m nevertheless interested in seeing more work by this apparent iconoclast. Another unsatisfying read was the Roundtable on 1990s Quebec Comics. Although some interesting points were made, the number of participants made it hard to follow. My final criticism was the collection’s very small print.

As the publisher at Conundrum, Brown has a vested interest in the success of BDQ, but it’s also apparent from this collection that he has made an almost selfless commitment to the vibrancy of this community. Conundrum has translated many high-profile Quebec bédéistes, including Michel Rabagliati and his seminal work The Song of Roland, for the English-speaking world to discover. With support like this, we might soon see comics finally recognized as a true art form in Canada.

The review has been cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books.
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Review: Baking With Kafka by Tom Gauld

https://www.amazon.ca/Baking-Kafka-Tom-Gauld/dp/1770462961/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1509805343&sr=8-1&keywords=baking+with+kafkaBaking With Kafka
By Tom Gauld
Drawn & Quarterly

British cartoonist and illustrator, Tom Gauld is the author of the graphic novels Goliath, Mooncop and You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. Baking with Kafka is his recent collection of short comics, many of which have already been published in The Guardian, New Scientist and The New York Times. Gauld’s drawings are simple, yet perfectly executed, without any superfluous detail. His short strips (1 to 8 panels) are usually funny, but above all, they’re smart and insightful.

The high-brow mention of Kafka in the title might seem ironic to more than a few people, particularly when it’s combined with baking, and the fact that only three strips in the collection relate to the Czech author. The Kafka reference may have to do with Gauld’s reliance on absurdity to get a laugh. Just imagine a comic strip in which two books are lamenting about their adaptations. One book confesses that his book was made into a German TV movie starring David Hasselhoff. Not to be outdone, the other book declares that his adaptation is far worse—the film, the review states, is a masterpiece and surpasses the source material.

The dominant theme throughout Baking with Kafka is books, not just the nerve-racking writing process, or a writer’s doomed attempt at creating something truly original, but also what happens once the book has been written. In one strip, Gauld serves up aptly named authors’ cocktails: the Rejected Manuscript, the Meddling Publisher, the Dreadful Review, and finally, the Disappointing Sales Figures. Gauld also reconstructs classics, adding forgotten chapters to Jane Austen’s Emma and unveiling previously unknown final chapters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There’s also his classic literature with added science: Lady Chatterley’s Lepidopterist, and Sense and Seismology.

Among my favourite strips in this collection are when Gauld combines literary creation with new technology. Consider some of these murder methods for modern mystery writers: run over by a self-driving car, an exploding e-cigarette, strangled with a smartphone charger cable or pushed off a cliff while instagramming. Gauld also delivers a few keyboard shortcuts for novelists that include combinations to find and fill plot holes, remove boring bits, make a protagonist more likeable and add sexual tension. There are also new formats for novels that include a drone book, a holographic information crystal, an odourless glass and a T-shirt.

But Gauld also pokes fun at science, pop culture and the human condition in this collection, bringing to light more than a few uncomfortable truths that will have readers shifting in their seats. In "Revolution!" a rabble-rouser encourages a crowd to smash the system, bring down the government, and march on Parliament demanding change. The crowd, however, wants change but is only willing to sign a petition. "Pass the pen!" Most of us are guilty of signing at least one e-petition on social media for the sake of change. Sadly, there are many more armchair activists than we care to admit.

This collection is one sly, witty, sarcastic comic after another, and the humour is refreshingly British. Brimming with creativity, this book demonstrates how entertaining thinking outside the box can be. The reader might only be cautioned not to read this in public transit, as I did. There are plenty of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. Minimalist stick men and women may remind us of our elementary school days, but these strips are very much for the thinking adult.

This review has been cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books.
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A Fall Read: The Memento by Christy Ann Conlin

It's fall and we all want to curl up with something satisfying to read. I have just the book for you: The Memento by Christy Ann Conlin.

The Memento was a great accompaniment to my trip to beautiful Nova Scotia last summer.  As some of you know, I'm a big fan of Conlin's work, and if you enjoy this then I suggest you read her first novel Heave, one of my all-time favourites, especially if you love the recklessness of youth (with an explanation, of course).

Christy Ann was kind enough to answer three of my questions about The Memento. Here's part of our conversation (my question is in bold):

HL: The Memento is your second adult novel since your bestseller Heave (for my review, scroll to the bottom of this page). Although both are set in rural Nova Scotia on the Bay of Fundy, they are very different novels. Heave moves pretty fast, while Memento is more of a slow burn, an old-time novel with plenty of twists and turns, some elements of a ghost story and a suspense novel, but I wouldn’t put it in either category.

At the centre is Fancy Mosher. The reader meets Fancy on her birthday at school, just before summer vacation. The 12-year-old is going to work in service with her friend Art at Petal’s End, a large estate owned by the wealthy Parkers. As a reader, Fancy had all my sympathies. Marilyn arrives unexpectedly at the school in a lamentable state:

“… the rusty door flies open and out she lunges. She’s done up for the weather in a tight summer dress with a black bra hanging out, and she comes strutting over in her high heels with long hair piled fantastically high, dark Mosher eyes all lined, big long lashes, red lips, a line of sunset cutting through her cheeks. Fifty-seven years old. Seeing her from a distance, it does seem that time screeched to a stop for her.”

We caught an earlier glimpse of the Moshers in Heave. I remember a conversation with you a few years ago on social media about your next book, and you said it would centre on Fancy Mosher and the island. That wild island with its crashing waves and ragged cliffs certainly figures prominently in this story. I wanted to know about the genesis of this book. How did it all come together?

Christy Ann Conlin: Ah, yes, the island.  I grew up in a region (and a family) steeped in storytelling, where there are stories for the unexplainable. My family has always had a fascination for historic buildings and antiques.  And we grew up looking out over the legendary Bay of Fundy at a mysterious island which would loom out of the fog. There is no doubt that my creative landscape has been shaped by this.

And yes, The Memento is a book which defies categorization, ha ha. It reads like a historical novel and yet it is not. It is both coming of age story, and a life reckoning story. And it has elements of magic realism. There were a number of factors which drove the creation of the book. First, it was totally character driven, by Fancy Mosher, who appeared in Heave as a minor character. She fascinated me, the youngest of twelve children, growing up in a poor family immersed in an old world tradition which persisted in modern times. There is a scene in Heave where Fancy tells a ghost story that takes place out in the bay on a mysterious island. It was that moment, when I realized Fancy Mosher had a secret. Despite her poverty and tumultuous childhood, she had humour and insight, and an uncanny ability to see the truth.

The other driving element behind the development of the book was working stylistically to create a world, structure and story which embraced the stages of life and memory.  How we create memory when we are young, and how memory changes  and takes on an intensity as we age. And of course, the distortion created in memory with the passage of time, and with the onset of dementia. It’s very much an individual and a collective history, a shared memory colliding with personal memory. And herein arises the element of haunting, when unresolved moments and incidents from the past refuse to fade away, and begin to follow us, trailing behind and demanding acknowledgement and resolution, the past shaping the present, the beginning reaching forward and wrapping its hands around the end…

HL: The Moshers' and the Parkers' lives are intertwined, the extent of which is unknown until the very end. Fancy is at the bottom of the pecking order while she works in service at Petal’s End. She is the recipient of some stinging comments and hurtful actions by both other staff and some of the Parkers. In many ways, she cannot escape the actions of her mother, Marilyn. Yet, Fancy assumes her rung on the social ladder, possibly because she has no choice.

I found your portrayal of class differences in The Memento both subtle and very realistic. I was wondering where you found your source(s) of inspiration for these class differences?

Christy Ann: Both class and gender restrictions/expectations are invincible powers restricting and shaping female lives. Even when you want to flee the abuse, take shelter and find something new, you often find yourself in a labyrinth which just leads you back to where you began.

My early introduction to delineated class society was from reading novels, from English authors like Jane Austen, the Brontes and EM Forster to the society novels of Edith Wharton and the short fiction of Katherine Mansfield. And later watching DVDs of Upstairs Downstairs.
And, of course, my mother took me to visit the grand old Nova Scotia estate museums of Mount Uniacke, Prescott House and Haliburton House. In those museums, we could see where the servants lived, and just how much work was involved to keep the homes running. And of course, back then, without transportation, servants were essentially trapped on the estates.

Fancy is born into a working poor reality. Her family’s past is considered her past. She inherits a low social standing and she also inherits a macabre family ability.
Although she lives in modern times, she’s still bound by poverty and living rurally. The Memento looks at what we are born into and our response to it. It takes a very strong person to question and ultimately overcome a prescribed role.

And it’s not just class, but gender. Fancy has very few opportunities not just because she’s poor, but because she’s a poor female. Poor women have historically had to work, and often in the same jobs that their mothers have worked in.
Jenny Parker, the youngest daughter of the aristocratic Parker family, is also bound by severe class and gender expectations. She is disabled, unattractive and lacks charisma. She’s a throw away person in society. And yet Jenny also subverts the rules and expectations placed on her in a most unexpected way. Pomeline, Jenny’s older, beautiful and privileged sister, is not so lucky. The expectations on her are her undoing.
I grew up in a very rural and economically depressed area. It was also very racist and sexist, traditional and segregated. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in North America was, obviously, very different from living on an English country estate either as a lady or a lady's maid, or a scullery maid, as I no doubt would have been.

But there is an invisible class system at play here, one I only fully began to comprehend when I was in high school.The opportunities for a girl were so much more limited. There was a lot of pressure to do a “pink collar” job – to be a nurse or a teacher or be a secretary, to work with children.

We didn’t have a lot and there were hard times as a result. And when you don’t have a lot, you get a part-time job, if you actually have a way of getting to the job. This is always an issue when you live rurally. It’s too far to bike or walk. I remember being so envious of friends who lived in towns, or who got cars when they were sixteen.

I also did have a few domestic jobs working for some very wealthy people, both in Canada and in Europe. It was amazing how much drama unfolded in front of “the help.”

HL: Your next project, I gather, will be quite different. Rather than the classic slow-burn type of read, this next book will have more suspense. What can you tell us about your upcoming project?

Christy Ann:The book I’m working on now is very distilled. It’s a literary mystery! It explores the friendship, estrangement and reunion between two women who first met many summers ago in a seaside town and uncovered a horrible truth behind a forgotten family death which binds them together in a web of betrayal, beauty and violence.

HL: Can't wait. Could you maybe send me the galley?...

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NYC Flash Fiction: Tree Warriors

In the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, I was given the genre action/adventure, and since the vast majority of stories of this kind feature men, I opted for teenage girls. I had to use a helipad as a location and a fishing net as the object that had to appear in the story. Anyway, I came up with the following 1,000-word action story.

Tree Warriors

It’s early evening and 16-year-old Liza sees nothing from the look-out atop the hospital helipad, part of the only block left standing after the hospital was bombed. “Nothing will happen,” she tells herself, but deep down she wants something to happen to prove herself. Four girls, ranging in ages from 12 to 15, are standing on branches in the dense forest below, watching the entrance of the tunnel to their home, where seven younger girls are sleeping. Liza drags her hand through her black brush-cut pondering all her responsibilities. She became the new head of security after Luna, her predecessor, was killed by a sniper. The four eldest girls are out foraging for food and trading valuables at the night market.

Liza sees movement in the west field. “It might be nothing,” she says to herself. She reaches into the pocket of her hospital blanket cape and pulls out her night-vision goggles. Three men are coming. Long black points bob behind their shoulders—weapons. One man is carrying a bulky sack over his shoulder. Now’s her test. She reaches down and shakes a large leafy branch to warn the other four sentries of intruders.

She quickly rappels down the hospital wall to a thick branch and onto the network of tree branch walkways that the girls have built to see passersby below, usually government soldiers or religious fanatics, both equally as dangerous. Liza knows that the fate of girls is bleak in this holy war. The lucky ones are traded as child brides, while the less fortunate are trafficked.

Liza’s heart pounds as she moves through the trees to the other sentries, telling herself to follow instructions. The thick callouses on her feet help her to approach swiftly and silently. Within a few minutes she establishes eye-contact with the four sentries, their eyes wide with fear. Liza flashes three fingers to show them the number of intruders. She instructs them to pull out their blowguns and tranquilizing darts, made from clay, bits of glass and ground tranquilizers that were found amid the hospital rubble. One of the older girls had killed a man who had attacked her on her way home through the woods with just five quick tranquillizer darts. His silent death provided the group with some cash and a bowie knife, which Liza now carries on her belt.

According to instructions, passersby were not to be attacked unless they discovered the tunnel to their home. Liza waits, her heart in her throat, but ready. She hears the men’s footsteps approaching. She points to the direction they’re coming in. She motions to the other girls to step around so that when the men walk through, the girls will see their backs.

Liza brings her index finger to her lips, an order for silence and stillness. She freezes as the adrenaline pumps in her veins. The men’s voices are deep like a rumbling car. The one carrying the sack is the last one through. He calls to the others, “Hey, I need to rest,” placing the sack on the ground at the foot of the tree below Liza. A high-pitched cry comes from the sack. The man whacks it with his large hand. “Shut it or I’ll shoot you, bitch,” he says. The other two men plod back. A warm pungent smell of filth and perspiration permeates the cool night air.

One man steps close to the tunnel entrance and pulls out a camouflage branch covering the tunnel door. “Hey, what’s this?” he says leaning down. “Check this out,” he says to the others. He bends over and pulls branches out of the cast net used to keep them in place and conceal the tunnel door. “You’re right,” says the other kneeling down and pulling out branches. “Man, I think we’ve found a cache.”

Liza looks around at the sentries and puts three darts in her mouth and points to the man sitting below them, next to the sack. She aims for the back of his neck, and the other girls follow suit. He yelps in pain as he is bombarded with tranquilizer darts. By the time one of his buddies looks over, he is slumped over. “Hey, what’s up with him,” he says stepping over to see his unconscious friend. As he steps out, he hears a rustle in the trees above. He looks up and his eyes meet Liza’s. She blows another fast round of darts. The other girls fire as the man tries to shield his face with his bare arm. He collapses like a folding chair.

Liza spits before she leaps to the ground and hides behind a tree. She’s feeling slightly woozy from swallowing some of the tranquilizer. Bits of glass have cut the inside of her mouth. There’s a metallic taste of blood mixed with fear. She needs to kill the last man standing.

The third man steps away from the tunnel entrance to see what is going on. He looks up and sees the four sentries with their blowguns poised to fire. In a split second, he pulls his rifle into position and aims. Liza takes one, two, three steps, climbs the last man’s back and slits his throat with her bowie knife before he can shoot. He staggers and falls to the ground.

Two hours later when the eldest girls return with food and supplies, Liza is back at the helipad look-out, pacing and replaying the events of the evening over in her mind. The four exhausted sentries are still at their posts. Inside the tunnel, seven-year-old Aida, the little girl being carried in the sack, is curled up asleep with the others after she was reassured that the big, bad men were all dead. Their bodies were dragged to the dump along with the other recent dart fatality. But their belongings, two knives and three rifles, will keep all the girls safe for awhile.

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An Adventure in Frustration

Go on! Step On Me!
In my writing class, we were recently instructed to write for 20 minutes about an emotion to see what we came up with. We were told that we would inevitably come up with a story beginning, middle and end. My husband found my foray into frustration amusing, and for anyone, who has forgotten their wallet after ordering food, you will understand my predicament. Please bear in mind that this experience was also replete with embarrassment, but that was not the subject.

Frustration happens so fast, rising to the surface when your expectations don’t pan out. Depending on the day, that surge of irritation can easily be exacerbated by a little noise, a misplaced word or a thoughtless gesture that any other time might go unnoticed. Anyone who does not give full reign to their frustration, particularly in public, should be commended with a pat on the back, an Atta girl or You showed’em.

I would have appreciated any one of those gestures just a day earlier.

I’d decided to have sushi for lunch, eat in Jarry Park and saunter home 45 minutes later to return to work. I picked up my phone, grabbed my purse, checked for my bank card and keys, and headed out the door. After ordering my sushi, which was made in front of me, I reached for my bank card, but couldn’t find it. I offered a credit card, but no. "Just cash or debit," said the man at the counter in his crisp white apron and hideous hairnet, not the owner who knew me, but his unsmiling cousin.

I rifled through my purse. No money of course. And then decided to go home and look for my card. "Could you hold that for me," I said. "I just have to run home and grab my bank card." Slightly miffed, I pushed the door to leave and was immediately struck by glaring sunlight. I walked home slightly embarrassed, but reminded myself that at least I was getting some fresh air. At home, I searched for the bank card only to find it in my back pocket with my phone. I scratched my head. I had no recollection of putting it there. Then I went to wash my hands. I’d been out the previous evening and had heard numerous stories of bouts of flu, vomiting, and its related aches and pains.

I stepped out the door again heading back, thinking of fresh sushi with a squeeze of lime and a cold glass of mineral water. As the man at the counter handed me my lunch I reached into my purse, but yet again my bank card was not there. To make matters worse, the man at the counter sucked on the toothpick between his teeth as he waited, not once but three times. Each tslll ratcheted my annoyance up to full blown frustration. "Fuck," I said looking through my purse for the second time. Then I heard a snigger from the kitchen worker. As a regular customer, the owner would have said, "Drop by later and pay me" but the cousin with his Ruth Buzzi hairnet was not feeling particularly generous. He just sucked again, tslll. My irritation gathered momentum forcing its way up to my shoulders and immobilizing my jaw. My sushi lunch was not to be.

"I guess I won’t be having it today after all," I offered forcing a smile before running out the door.

I walked home with my face in a knot, but relieved that I didn’t have to hear El Sucko one more fucking time. My bank card was on the counter in the bathroom. I made a salad and told myself that the Interact terminal at the sushi shop was probably crawling with influenza germs multiplying by the second, and fortunately, I hadn’t come into contact with it, saving me and my family from a weekend of misery.

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