Soapbox Stories Presents: Second Cousin Once Removed – A Book Review

“Second Cousin Once Removed”
by Bryna Barclay
Published by Burton House Books
Reviewed by Ben Charles
C$20.00
ISBN: 9780994866943

“Second Cousin Once Removed”, written by Byrna Barclay and published by Burton House Books is an incredibly graceful read and a testament to the pure talent of this Saskatchewan author. The novel is a sequel to “House of the White Elephant”, which in itself was a critically acclaimed novel and the winner of the Whistler/Tidewater Award for Best Fiction in 2016. My estimate is that the sequel will draw equal acclaim, as it is a masterfully written historical fiction brimming with Saskatchewan culture, driven by an intelligent plot and an engrossing narrative.

The story follows Jesse Emma Burtonwood, a woman of East Indian descent living in Prince Albert, SK, and is in the midst of mourning the loss of her husband. The story begins in 1953 and follows Jesse as she traverses life in Canada, and forms a relationship with John George Diefenbaker during this tumultuous time in both her life and in Canadian politics. Much of the story also follows Jesse’s granddaughter, Annika Robin, a woman living in Saskatoon, SK. Throughout the story, Barclay masterfully crafts both of these characters in such a way that is wonderfully unique, yet easy to follow. As Jesse and Annika face challenges such as prejudices commonly held in Canada during the time period and constrictive traditions for women living in a new era, the reader can vividly feel their frustrations, emotions, and insecurities in a tangible way. That is not to say that Barclay’s novel is doom and gloom, as the book has a rather eccentric tone, it reminded me of “Still Life with Woodpecker” by Tom Robbins in some places.  At other times, it felt as if I were reading soulful poetry or song lyrics during the course of this novel. This held especially true in my mind during the segments in which Annika and her distant lover exchange letters, not only were the letters exquisitely written, but the narratives that unfold from them tell a story within themselves.

Not only is this novel a perfect guide to how descriptive writing should be done but is also a total time capsule of the period that it is set in. If you or someone that you know is a fan of Saskatchewan history or culture, I would argue that this book is worth the read just for that aspect alone. Everything from the locations and careers of the characters to the brands and even some of the slang are used naturally in this novel. The references all feel like they belong in the plot, and not as if they are shoehorned in just for the sake of having them.

In conclusion, Bryna Barclay proves once again why she is the acclaimed Saskatchewan author that she is. Jesse Emma and Annika Robin are complete delights as characters, crafted in the rarity that is such a unique story built in a familiar setting. This novel is truly a work of art.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

Lena’s Story: The D-Day Landings (A Book Review)

“Lena’s Story: The D-Day Landings”
by Patricia Sinclair
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Reviewed by Ben Charles
C$12.95 ISBN: 9781927570463

 

“Lena’s Story: The D-Day Landings”, written by Patricia Sinclair, illustrated by Wendi Nordell, and published by DriverWorks Ink is a fantastic work of historical literature for young readers that is both beautifully crafted and exceptionally informative. The book cleverly educates the reader about the D-Day landings and World War II through a narrative of a young girl speaking with an elderly neighbor named Lena, who is about to move away. Like many real Canadians, the young girl in this story learns about the battle of D-Day and the history of World War II from elderly people in the community that either fought directly in the war or were alive during that time period. As I am writing this, Remembrance Day is approaching, and I cannot help but be reminded through this story that World War II and all of its horrors really did not happen a long time ago.

Lena tells the girl, and through a frame narrative the reader about what she remembers of that fateful day, June 5th, 1944, as Lena learns about the battle so does the reader. During Lena’s story, the reader will notice that some of the terms that she uses are in bold, this provides a neat method to teach the young readers new vocabulary and terminology about the war and the military. It is not just the terminology that is informative, but the entire book. As an adult reader, this book introduced me to new vocabulary and facts about the battle that I did not previously know. Upon finishing the book, I was impressed by the sheer attention to detail and the adherence to research that went into the information found in the story, and it gave me more confidence that what I had just read was truly legitimate. There is something for everyone to learn in this novel.

The simplistic yet powerful descriptions of the battle written by Sinclair are also brilliantly matched in tone and imagery by Nordell’s illustrations. The pencil sketches in the book give impact to the words, and the style is mature enough that a young reader would not feel as if they are reading a “baby book”. The writing found within this novel would also act as a great introduction to literary devices such as metaphors, similes, onomatopoeias, and the aforementioned frame narrative for young readers.

In conclusion, Sinclair’s novel is a fitting read in this season of Remembrance. As if the content of “Lena’s Story: The D-Day Landings” was not a respectful tribute to Canadian veterans on its own, a donation of the book’s sales is made to the Royal Canadian Legion. I cannot recommend this book enough both as a tribute to our veterans and as the perfect gift for the budding history buff in your family.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

Forgive Me, Father

FORGIVE ME, FATHER

by Ben R. Charles

The two teenage boys shifted and stirred uncomfortably in the dated classroom chairs that they had found their asses in. Every slight movement caused the rusted metal legs and the cracked plastic seats to moan and creak. At the moment, every one of these minor infractions of the peace was louder than the last. The boys had been in trouble before, but never quite like this.
Across from them was seated Father Riley, a relatively new priest who had been with the church for a decade even though he was just passed the age of thirty. To Robert and Mitch, he might as well have been in his sixties. To be fair to the boys, he looked the part of a sexagenarian; his genetic lottery had blessed him with a prematurely receding hairline and a salt-n-pepper barrage of greys on the thick black hair that he had left. His stern expression added to his authority as he seemed to have stared into both of the boys’ eyes at once. The only distractions from his gaze in the small church office included the humming of the lights, that distinctive church-smell, and those damned creaky chairs. The fulcrum of the tension in the room was between the boys and the Father; it rested silently on the Father’s desk and was yet stuck out like a sore thumb. It also seemed to be the only thing in the room unaware of the tension, as Vida Guerra’s peppy, smiling face looked up at the church ceiling. Her dark, barely-clothed body was covered only by a black laced thong and her long, brunette hair cloaked the title Playboy.
The Father hummed and slid back into his chair, finding relief in the soft velvet of its lining. He removed his grain-farmer glasses to reveal his crows feet and his tired eyes. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger.
“Your parents have already been called and you’ve already been caught. There’s no point in lying anymore, boys. I’m only going to ask you this one more time: where did you find the magazine?”
“We already told you!” Robert said, his voice quivering from frustration. “It was laying there just behind the church by the crick. Me and Mitch go down there just to fu- mess around and we just found it under some tall grass. It’s the truth! Tell ‘em, Mitch!” Robert glanced over to his friend, his eyes begging for reassurance.
“Yeah,” Mitch said softly. “We was gonna throw it away, I promise. It wasn’t ours, we just picked it up. We knows we shouldn’t have, we wasn’t thinkin’.”
“No, you were not thinking,” Father Riley replied sharply. “What made you believe that reading this filth was acceptable? Did you boys listen to none of my sermons over the past year? Do you not care for your own sanctity? Have you no respect for yourselves?”
“Yes, Father, we do,” Robert replied. “We weren’t gonna keep it. We just wanted to show our friends and have a laugh. You know, we thought it would make us cool. And you gotta admit, she is pretty hot. You woulda picked it up, too. Whoever it belonged to had good taste.” He laughed nervously.
Robert’s explanation did not impress Fr. Riley. It seemed to have annoyed the exhausted priest even more. He leered at the boys. Robert slunk into his chair and began playing with the strings on his sweater.
Father Riley raised his eyebrows and lowered his voice. “You thought it would make you ‘cool’? Tell me, how? How would it make you ‘cool’, my son?” The Father knew that he had to maintain a stern composure, but he could not help himself from chuckling on the inside in anticipation of hearing the fourteen-year old’s explanation.
Robert bit his lip and cleared his throat to no avail, his voice cracked anyway.
“Well. It’s like- um- yeah, I guess it is kind of stupid. Forgive me, Father.”
“It is kind of stupid, and I know that you boys know better,” the Father replied calmly, partially disappointed in the safe response but relieved by it at the same time. “Now, go in peace. We will deal with this further with your parents next Sunday after mass. You two will be staying here all day to help Mrs. Kovach clean the church top-to-bottom. There’s a whole day’s worth of grass cutting and weeding that you will be doing, too. I will be speaking to the bishop about this,  and you better believe that we will find out where this smut came from.”
The boys moaned and sheepishly walked out of the priest’s office, leaving the door slightly open. Fr. Riley could hear the sounds of muffled footsteps and a shushed argument as the boys left the church.
Father Riley dipped his head into hands and ran his palms over his forehead. A pool of sweat gathered from his head and into the heels of his hands. He ritualistically wiped the moisture onto his lycra dress pants as he had done thousands of times since the church moved him from the East and into the dry prairie heat. The heat and his hectic schedule had made him more tired than he usually was. First of all, he had the bishop on his case about ordaining a new deacon. It would not be such a difficult job if the bishop wasn’t such an arrogant, self-serving prick- not that Riley would ever say that out loud. Secondly, Riley had two funerals, a wedding, three confirmations and a baptism booked in this week alone. Every priest expects summertime to be busy but this had just been absurd, especially for a small Saskatchewan town. Riley had much bigger fish to fry than dealing with a couple of kids who had found a magazine in the bushes. Is looking at a few dirty pictures really that bad, anyway? It’s natural for kids that age to start getting curious about that kind of thing. Big deal.
Fr. Riley sighed, and then stood up into a long stretch. He walked over to his office window, he had always enjoyed the birch and the oaks that surrounded the church and crept into the crick, and the way that the birds would sing outside of his window. Even the bishop, as much of a hard case as he is, loved the beauty of the trees at this church and would often go out for hiking and prayer excursions in the small forest nearly every time he visited. Fr. Riley took a moment to soak in the heat of the afternoon and the chattering of the sparrows. He took in a few deep breaths and he smiled.
Upon regaining his tranquility, the priest knew that he was thinking rashly. It was true that, yes, it is natural for boys to become curious. However, the word of God and a mature perspective are necessary to guide these young minds away from the seduction of pornography and into healthy relationships with their partners and families. To normalize pornography and to cheapen love at such a young age is harmful, dangerous even, for a young mind. Too many times the Father had seen good men fall victim to pursuing lust and too many times had he seen those men lead empty, lonely, and hollow lives. The men of tomorrow need guidance to lead richer lives. If that cannot be provided by a man of God, than by whom?
The sunshine parted through the clouds and into the Father’s office. He became blinded by the bright rays and turned himself to escape the irritation. He shifted his gaze away from the sun, down to his desk, and straight to Vida. Her radiant, brown eyes stared right back at him, and her luscious hair draped over her bare back. She may have been just a model on a magazine cover, but she might as well have been right in the room with him, whispering in his ear. The room became quieter than it was just a few moments ago before he began lecturing the boys. Fr. Riley reminded himself that his next meeting was not to start for another two hours, and he had no expected visitors today. He began to think that maybe he should see for himself what it was that he was giving the boys so much trouble over. It might be best to know his enemy if he wants to continue preaching the word of God in the future, after all. The young priest had successfully kept his vow of both poverty and celibacy for over a decade. Surely taking a quick peek at a magazine wouldn’t hurt, right?
The priest sighed and slid into his chair, caressing the wooden armrests and listening intently to anything that could break the silence in the church before he fully relaxed. Once he was convinced the coast was clear he placed his outstretched palm over Vida’s face and pulled the glossy magazine across his desk and into his hands. He slowly picked the magazine up and examined the covers it carefully, as if expecting it to trigger an alarm. He revealed the back cover to himself, which was nothing more than an advertisement featuring an ecstatic golfer, his female caddy, empty promises of male enhancement in a pill, and some bad puns about “club sizes” and “making a hole in one”. He flipped the magazine back into the reading position, cradling the smut under his desk and on his right arm as if holding Vida, herself. He licked his left thumb and began leafing through the slightly soiled pages.
While glancing through the first few pages the priest had thought to himself how easy it would be for someone to mistake this for a lifestyle magazine. There appeared to be nothing except for advertisements for luxury cars and watches, fitness advice, and even some surprisingly well-written editorials. This would not last long, as the priest had found what he was secretly hoping for. Right there in the center of the magazine and now permanently embedded into the holy man’s mind was Vida’s centerfold. Fr. Riley couldn’t remember the last time he had seen something like this or felt something like this. It felt so aggressively wrong, he knew that he had to stop now and put the magazine away. He knew that, but he was powerless to stop staring at Vida’s completely nude body, her dark curves contorting and contrasting over ivory satin sheets. His mouth hung open and his fingers gently traced over the silhouette of the woman. He thought of his high school crush, Becky Wilson, for some strange reason. He felt a flush of ecstasy invade his Garden of Eden; he began adjusting his robes over his lap to hide his rising Moses and the parting of the seams.
“Those robes can be quite an itch to scratch in the summer, can they not, young Father Riley?” A hoarse voice rattled from above.
“Jesu- Jiminy Cricket!” Riley exclaimed as he almost fell completely backward in his chair. “The Most Reverend Joseph Bolen, I was not expecting you for another few hours! Please, have a seat.”
The young priest hurriedly folded his robes back to his sides and placed the magazine face down on the desk.
The old classroom chair released a metallic moan as the bishop lowered his ancient frame into the seat. The bishop crossed his legs much closer together than any man Riley had ever seen, it was almost impressive. The Father was tempted to make a comment on the bishop’s flexibility to break the tension but thought that it was probably for the best not to, considering the circumstances.
The bishop glared knives at Father Riley for what felt like an eternity. He began to question if he had actually died and that this was all some sort of sick Purgatory punishment.
Finally, the bishop spoke. “That is an interesting choice of reading material for a man of the cloth, wouldn’t you agree, young Father Riley?”
The priest immediately lifted his palms towards the bishop and pumped the air twice, as if pushing away the old man’s implications.
“Whoa, whoa. Ok. This is not what it looks like!” Father Riley exclaimed. “Two boys from my parish had found this down behind the church in the trees, I had actually just sent them home. I will be discussing this with their parents and punishing them in a few days. I had just decided to take a brief look at it to see what I am up against. Nothing more, I swear.”
Father Riley had started to sweat heavily, the beads now pouring down his neck and soaking his shirt. Bishop Bolen is not a forgiving man, he had caught Riley red-handed, and he has fired priests for far less. Riley gulped; he knew that this may very well be the end of his priesthood. The magazine advertisement’s dopey grin of Smilin’ John and his ridiculous golf outfit would be the last thing Riley would see as a man of God, he thought to himself.
“What do you take me for, young Father Riley, a fool?” The bishop asked through his teeth. “Do you see me as the blind man from John, 9:1-12?” The bishop became more irate with every word.
Father Riley kept his palms in the air and said, “no, it’s just- I…”
“Shut up,” the bishop snarled. “Close that fly-catcher of yours before you embarrass yourself and The Lord any more. How dare you even think about practicing such a shameful act in The House of The Lord? Have you no shame, young Father Riley, have you no respect?” The saliva and vitriol from the bishop’s mouth were now spraying Riley’s face.
“I do- if you’d just listen…”
“You’re suspended- for three months- without pay. This will be placed on your permanent record, as well. I am being more than merciful, more than fair; I should fire you right now. It’s not like you care about being a priest, anyway.”
Father Riley lowered his face into his hands; he fought back the hot tears welling up in his eyes. This was not right; he had been a devoted priest for ten years. He did care. The bishop had just happened to catch him at the worst possible moment.
As if it were not enough injury the bishop began to berate him some more. “Only you would think that indulging in such perverted acts was even close to acceptable here,” the old man sneered. “It’s bad enough that you brought this… this, harlot into our church, one who does not even have enough dignity than to cover herself with more than a black shoestring.”
Father Riley’s head snapped back up from his hands and his eyes pierced the bishop, no longer sad and defeated, but rather inquisitive and sharp. They flitted down for Riley to see Smilin’ John and his male enhancement advertisement. The magazine was face down.
“What did you just say?” He asked.
“N-nothing!” The bishop stammered. “It hardly matters, you are to be suspended effective immediately. Take your things and get out of my sight. Leave this filth here to be disposed of by a real man of God.”
The priest stood and began to collect his books and knick-knacks from the office. He knew exactly what was going on. He never understood why the bishop needed the hikes and the solitary prayers down by the crick; no other priest, let alone a bishop ever did that. It was all starting to make sense. He collected his items in an office box, taking his time as he lumbered towards the door. He turned to the bishop one last time.
“So, you want me to leave your magazine here, then?”
“Yes.”
The bishop immediately recoiled at what he had just said. He stuttered and bellowed every excuse on God’s green earth. His face became the most violent shade of red that Riley had ever seen. The bishop ceased his fit, he knew that resistance was fruitless. He lowered his head and raised his eyes to Riley’s unconvinced expression.
“No one needs to know about this,” The bishop whispered sheepishly. “Your suspension is lifted, and this little incident will not go on your record. Please, forgive me, Father. Is there anything that I can do to make this right, to make sure that this stays between us?”
Father Riley lowered his box to the ground and smiled.
“You know what? There is. Mrs. Kovach is going to need some help all day next Sunday to give our church a much-needed cleaning and grass cutting. We got weeds growing all around this old building that needs pluckin’, too. And I think that you’re just the right man for the job.”

 

The Spoon Asylum: A Book Review

“The Spoon Asylum”
by Caroline Misner
Published by Thistledown Press
Reviewed by Ben Charles
C$15.95 ISBN: 9781771871556

The Spoon Asylum, written by Caroline Misner and published by Thistledown Press is a fun and thoughtful piece of historical fiction that lets the reader laugh, while also reflecting on the ugly parts of Canada’s past that modern Canadians do not like to think about.

Set in the 1930s at the peak of the Great Depression in the small Ontario town of Davisville, The Spoon Asylum follows the story of young Haven Cattrell, a precocious seventeen-year-old boy who is struggling find his identity and is hungry to prove his worth as a man to his family and to the world. While working as a farmhand on his grandmother’s farm, Haven comes across a vagrant who is looking for work in exchange for some food and shelter, although the man is met with downright hostility by his grandmother, Haven cannot help but be enthralled by the man, and even more so by his harmonica and the sweet music that he plays through it. This exchange with the mysterious vagrant inspires Haven to go into town in search of work, himself. Perhaps this decision was the product of youthful pride, or perhaps to allow Haven to enter a piece of his father’s world, who like many Canadians at the time was also a desperate drifter in search of employment.

Haven’s noble journey is soon sidetracked by the brash, soaring melodies of a trumpet. It is here that Haven meets Wetherby Moss, an African-American jazz musician working as a cook with his son Jude, who is also a musician, for a prestigious girl’s camp near Haven’s home. The camp is run by Miss Nokomis, a “real Ojibwa priestess” who oversees the camp with a stern grasp and is not all that she appears to be.

The novel continues to follow Haven’s summer working with the musicians and learning to play and love jazz music with the help of his two new, dear friends. It is not just of jazz that Haven learns at this camp, but also of the sad, unjust treatment that African Americans of his time suffered. Haven, being the naïve boy that he is, does not understand how his friends could be subject to such treatment. As Haven learns of the implications of racism, he also traverses the uncertainty and pain of love and heartbreak as the reader watches him develop into a young man.

Misner crafts this story with dialogue that is chock-full of wit and intellect. Despite its heavy topics, it was a book that made me laugh out loud on several occasions. In addition to this, I found it to be quite a light read, with perfect pacing and a coherent storyline never bogged down by unnecessary details or pedantic writing. It is a book that both the twelve-year-old and the sixty-year-old in your family can both enjoy equally. In conclusion, The Spoon Asylum is Canadian historical fiction at its finest and a beautifully crafted story from start to finish.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM