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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

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LOCO Zero Waste: Bring Your Own Container

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woman World by Aminder Daliwahl

Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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YA: Speak No Evil by Liana Gardner

Cover courtesy of Vesuvian Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Courage of Elfina by André Jacob

Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser

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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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