Book Review: What Echo Heard

13000539Fernie, British Columbia. Do you know where to locate that on the map? I will freely admit that I did not know. Now however,  I’m all about this little city nestled in the Rockies of British Columbia. I need to go there! Fernie is home to Oolichan Books. They contacted us wishing to send us a book from their catalogue, would we be interested? Oolichan Books…now that’s an interesting name isn’t it? Here’s what it means (taken from their website):

Our name is taken from the small fish, once plentiful in West Coast waters and a staple in the diet of First Nations people to whom it was sacred. The oolichan, often referred to as the candlefish, is believed to possess healing powers and guarantee longevity. Continue reading

Book Review: The Hundred Hearts

heartsMany thanks to Thomas Allen & Sons Ltd. for sending this book to us for review. I loved it. I was very surprised at my reaction and feeling to it, as I had just finished a somewhat similar “war” book (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena) and was wondering if I would be engaged enough to read another one. While each book is definitely different, I found I really, really enjoyed The Hundred Hearts more soIt’s on its way over to Jackie now because I think she’ll really like this one too.

Here is Kowalski’s description of The Hundred Hearts, taken from his website:

My fifth novel, The Hundred Hearts, will be published by Thomas Allen Publishers in May of 2013. It’s too soon to say much about the book yet, but it’s never too soon to show off a beautiful cover like this. I am exceptionally happy with it. It was designed by Michel Vrana, who went out of his way to spend time talking with me about my vision and did his best to incorporate it in the final design.

Michel’s job is a hard one. He must find something to please the sales and marketing team, the editor, the author, and the potential reader, while still maintaining his integrity as an artist. I think he pulled it off.

Each heart will be individually stenciled with spray paint, and will therefore be distinct in some small way from the other ninety-nine. This is the kind of craftsmanship you don’t see much of these days, especially in book cover design.

The story is about a young American soldier who returns home after being gravely wounded in Afghanistan. He tries to re-adjust to life at home at the same time as he deals with his F’d up family. I should have an “official” description of the book soon, but that’s basically it.

Mr. Kowalski has hit upon two things above. First, his brief description about his book is bang on. It’s really basically that, it’s about Jeremy returning from Afghanistan and attempting to regain a life that is no longer memorable to him, but also the time spent in Afghanistan poses difficulty as well, as he is no longer that person either. Throw in a messed up, very dysfunctional family and you have The Hundred Hearts.

Secondly he mentions the quality of the cover design, but I want to mention the quality of the book itself as well. Every time I’ve picked up a Thomas Allen publication I am incredibly impressed at the quality. The softcover always has a flap with heavy cover stock, the pages are so sharp, crisp, white and simply beautiful to touch. And honestly, even the smell of the book is distinct! I absolutely love holding, reading and feeling Thomas Allen publications. The Hundred Hearts was a book that I couldn’t stop touching, holding and flipping through, but mostly I couldn’t put it down because of what was contained in the pages.

Last year’s buzz book about our generation of war was Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain. We read that one for our Wink 3 book club, and I have to tell you, The Hundred Hearts is far superior, in my opinion. It really deserves a wide readership and I hope I am convincing enough to get you to read this one, especially if you did read Billy Lynn. To me there was no comparison. Kowalski gifted the reader with characters so vivid and real, the story is so sharp, far more coherent, dosed with heavy hits of humour and holds a huge amount of heart. The people in this book will take a firm hold on your heart. The writing will keep you glued to the pages.

One perspective I really enjoyed was Jeremy’s grandfather Al. Everyone has an Al in their family. That acerbic, grouchy, “it’s not how it used to be” kind of grandfather. But Al also still suffers deeply from the demons he brought home from Vietnam. Al is the way he is, and his relationship with his wife, children and grandchildren are all formed based the man he was when he returned from Vietnam. I loved that Kowalski brought attention to it, to show the similarities found in the men returning home from Afghanistan. Al later gives up information about his actions and part taken in the atrocities, or war crimes, in that war, which Al wholeheartedly defends.

Jeremy returns home broken in so many ways other than his physical trauma and struggles to regain an identity all the while navigating the mess that his family. The situation with Grandpa Al, and the parts where he takes care of his mentally challenged cousin Henry are all filled with great humour and I found myself laughing out loud many times.  The Hundred Hearts deserves a far and wide readership and I do encourage you to read this one, Jeremy, Al and Henry are three men you won’t forget about for some time. 5-stars for this superbly written book full of heart and humour.

Book Review: Anna From Away

Anna from Away is a book  you need to take your time with and savour the words in it. You need to slowly mull the words and thoughts over and become entranced in the sorrow of Anna and Murdock’s life (most especially Murdock). Also, the cold, spare and harsh landscape of Cape Breton seemingly force you to slow your reading as well. I found it was best read in front of a cozy, crackling fire.

It’s a novel of great sorrow and aching loss, but redemptive and new love and forgiveness as well.

Anna has fled California to the austere Cape to immerse and find herself in her art, following the confession from her husband that he is leaving her for a younger woman. Anna chooses Cape Breton based on a simple search and seeing pictures of the island. Alas, she has picked a bitter, cold, dark winter season to arrive and wonders when ever will spring arrive? Anna rents a house from a family that has long left the Cape, but also from this family with remaining members still inhabiting the island.

Red Murdock’s grandmother lived in the house at the end of his lane that Anna is now living in. Murdock is constantly aware of Anna’s presence and watches her wander and sketch on the beach.  However, Murdoch is struggling and is losing himself deeper and deeper and cannot overcome the sorrow and loss of his one true and great love Rosaire. Murdock is a man that so beautifully and achingly reflects on Rosaire, and with such pain and love, that I’m certain I fell in a love a little bit with him.

Could anyone describe the kind of absence he felt? It hollowed him out, a cavernous space, every day he teetered on the edge.

Tentatively, he begins to approach Anna, he is drawn to her. And Anna, as she struggles with the loneliness and heart ache over her husband’s betrayal, is slowly drawn to Murdoch.

All is not what it seems to be on the island however, and suspicious and violent activity begin to happen on and off. Anna comes upon a large bundle of pot which she hides in her rented house. When she experiences strange occurrences that she cannot brush aside, she enlists the help of Murdoch. Together they begin to slowly shed the darkness enveloping them, let go of their pasts and slowly open themselves up to each other.

When he’d last come upon Anna, suddenly around the turn of shore, he felt strongly the simple pleasure of her looks, complicated by an old desire, the thought of touching her. It had sneaked into him. Here, on this familiar beach, where everything had said Rosaire. He had let the feeling pass – it was not one he could keep, should keep. She was from away and would always be from away.

Anna from Away was a quiet and enjoyable read. MacDonald’s prose was quite lyrical at times and his shaping of the character of Murdoch was well worth the time spent reading. If you’re looking for a quiet, melancholy sort of read, stoke up a fire and settle in with Anna from Away, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Review: Mennonites Don’t Dance

Ever since reading The Divinity Gene, I cannot get enough of short stories! And does it seem only to me that Canadians are at the forefront of producing excellent, high-quality short fiction? Admittedly, I’ve only been reading Canadian short fiction, but with each collection completed, I feel they keep getting better and better!

What originally drew me to Mennonites Don’t Dance is this haunting and beautiful cover. But the moment I began reading, I just could not put it down! The Globe and Mail review says it is “arresting, mesmerizing, authentic, stunning”. Yes, yes, yes and yes!

I do believe this is my favourite collection so far. Again, as the G&M says, the characters and stories are so authentic. I couldn’t agree more with that word – authentic. Because every character written in this collection is genuine and well, yes, authentic. Each person is perfectly portrayed in a perfectly described setting or situation.

Elizabeth and I were planning a combined “Thistledown Press books review”, as she has the short story collection, The Maladjusted, sent to us by the author, Derek Hayes, but I couldn’t hold out! And perhaps both these collections are deserving of their own moment anyway.

Luna, is the first and the longest in the collection. Jonah is the farmer’s son realizing that people and life aren’t as what his father feels they are,  “You’re wrong you know, Jonah says quietly to his father, you’re wrong about people.”

Beautiful, knowing phrases like, ” At barely fifty,Jonah’s father wasn’t old enough to have been busy dying for so many years.” do stun you into stopping for a few moments and pondering their meaning. Right before Jonah feels himself falling in mannerisms and jaded thoughts too similar to his father, something happens to set him back on the right path again. A moving story.

Ashes, a story of a newlywed couple living with his mother. It brilliantly relates all the hidden jealousies and misunderstandings between a mother-in-law and her new, naive, not good enough daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law just doesn’t understand, if she only knew, if she were only stronger. The mother-in-law that is sour, jealous and bland. And then, in the end, comes complete understanding and love. It is written with such great subtlety and just absolute authenticity in the two women. Loved it.

Ice House is another story I really enjoyed, the punch at the ending too was superb. It focuses Ani, returning to her home that she shared with her mother and step-father and through flashbacks to those first years of coping with a step-father that isn’t all he was originally cracked up to be. It is the ending where Ani realizes that her mother perhaps made the biggest sacrifices and they were done all for Ani, that really gives this story its great ending.

Perhaps the most moving and possibly my favourite in this collection was Little Lamb. For one, she doesn’t paint that Mennonite father in a favourable light (or the Mennonite upbringing)! But Henry just broke my heart. Henry is the one people think may be stupid, but he’s just soft and sensitive, something that is extremely distasteful to his father. The ending of this story still haunts my thoughts.

Mennonites Don’t Dance is the second longest story. It is full of emotion. Emotions of sibling love and inability to recover from loss of a favourite brother, embarrassment of the family’s beliefs, and desperation to be an independent woman. But in the end, you cannot escape where you come from, or that need for your family and for Lizbeth, the absolute need for her mother’s love.

A few stories later we come to Magpie. I really enjoyed this one as it is a continuation of sorts from Mennonites Don’t Dance. Magda is Lizbeth’s daughter and we now experience her coming of age as we glimpsed Lizbeth’s.

Dandelion Wine and Loft each deal with siblings and their often uncertain relationship with their mothers. Each story perfectly captures the coming-of-age and awkward moments between daughters and mothers.

Undone Hero is another gem. Alec is caring for his father in his old age, his sister Cassie left town years before and will never be back, his mother dead years before. Alec is reflecting on what kind of father he and Cassie had, the good, the bad, the ugly, the Mennonite and some of the events when he and Cassie were younger. It’s a heartfelt story written in a very familiar manner for those caring for an elderly parent, whether they wish to be or not.

Nella Pea is the final story in the collection and filled with sadness. Nella Pea is what Penelope’s mother, Ada called her. We’re listening to Penelope’s story through her (never named) daughter. Penelope has died, and the daughter has returned to the house to clear out her personal items and read Penelope’s journal. It’s a story of growing up with a mother suffering from severe depression. And that depression has passed from one mother (Ada), down to her daughter (Penelope), so that now Penelope’s daughter too must remember her upbringing in a home filled with ever-present sadness.

I don’t think there was one in this collection that I did not care for. I did not feel that any of them ended abruptly or left me confused or wanting for more. Each story provides a perspective of family, many of what it is to come from a Mennonite family. Each story is a realization – the realization that you are a product of your family, you are forever shaped by and forever tied to that family. Your family is at the core of everything you do and are.  If you wish to foray in to short stories, may I suggest this collection to start with? I was so impressed and she has such great talent,  I hope a full length novel is in store for our reading pleasure in the future? Or, really, more short stories would be fine too!

That Globe and Mail Review I’ve mentioned can be found Here

You can find Darcie’s website here and she’s also on Facebook.

Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack was shortlisted for the 2011 Danuta Gleed Award and 2011 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for First Book, Canada and Caribbean Region. It was also shortlisted for the OLA Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Fiction.