Author Archives: grutter

A whole book from a glass of water

Michelle Mulder’s new book Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home, was recently published by Orca Books of Victoria, which creates a variety of top-notch books for young readers.  Mulder grew up in Port Moody, B.C.,  and can be seen pedalling her bicycle around Victoria, where she now lives with her husband and child. She’s a lifelong reader and a world traveller. She and Coastal Spectator editor Lynne Van Luven  had an e-mail chat about her work and publications.

Michelle, Every Last Drop is your third book in the Orca Footprints series.  Can you talk a bit about the first book in the series, Pedal It!, and how you got involved writing these sorts  of educational non-fiction books with this Victoria publisher?

I never imagined becoming a non-fiction writer. My passion has always been novels, both as a reader and a writer.

Another one of my passions is bicycles. I ride my bike every day, and whenever I travel, I notice other people’s bikes. One time, I was sitting in my inlaws’ living room in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when I heard a strange sound outside. I went to the window to investigate and saw a man pedaling slowly down the street, blowing into a whistle. Suddenly, across the street, a door flung open, and a woman came charging at him with a knife in her hand … and a big smile on her face. The man stopped his bike, propped it up on a kickstand, took the knife, jumped back on the bike and started pedaling, setting in motion a sharpening stone set on the handlebars.

All at once I realized that I’d underestimated the humble bicycle. I began researching bicycles and their uses around the world, and the more I researched, the more excited I got. But three years passed before I worked up the courage to approach Orca Book Publishers with a proposal for Pedal It! I chose Orca because they’d published two of my novels, and I love the relationships they establish with their authors. I knew they published non-fiction, but I didn’t know how they’d respond to my book idea. As it turned out, their answer was a question: would I be willing to write not only this book, but two more in a brand new series about ecological issues?

I took a deep breath, signed a contract, and started researching like mad. Last fall, my book Brilliant! Shining a Light on Sustainable Energy hit the shelves, and this spring, Orca released Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home. Every book has been an exciting adventure, and I love all the learning I do as part of my writing process.

 What sorts of books did you like to read when you were a kid?

I loved novels. I devoured Beverly Clearly’s books and then Judy Blume’s. In particular, I remember reading and rereading Judy Blume’s Deenie. It was the first book I’d read about a kid who felt like she didn’t belong, and for me it was a revelation. Although I never worn a brace for scoliosis like Deenie did, I’d always felt socially awkward, and this book showed me that I wasn’t the only one in the world who felt this way. Even though I had very little in common with the main character, reading her story somehow made it okay to be me.

As a teenager, I stopped hanging out in the children’s section of the library and headed for the adult books. I read everything from pot-boilers to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and I loved them all for different reasons. The books that I read as a young person have stayed with me all my life. I may not always remember the titles or the names of the authors, but each story is like a separate life experience, and by the time I hit university, I felt like I’d lived several lives already!

 Once in a while, I meet someone who (erroneously) thinks that writing for kids is much easier than writing for adults.  Can you talk a little about your philosophy of writing for young readers?

Whether I’m writing for kids or adults, I want to write honestly and clearly, in a way that engages the reader. This can be challenging when I’m writing non-fiction for young people because my research materials are all written for adults. Sometimes I can’t even understand my sources myself!

That’s when I seek out experts. I write to them with many questions, and they’ve all been extremely patient in answering. When at last I feel like I could chat knowledgably about every aspect of my topic, I begin to write. I believe a good children’s writer can explain absolutely anything in a simple, thorough way that both engages and empowers the reader. For me, that takes a lot of research and revision. And then a lot of polishing to make it all look effortless.

Every Last Drop reminded me how much Canadians take water for granted, and how much we waste.  What has been young readers’ response to this book when you visit them in schools or at readings?

I think they’re surprised that someone can write a whole book about a glass of water! Funnily enough, though, I found it challenging to make the book so short. The first chapter is about how humans have collected drinking water since the dawn of time. (How do you tell that story in ten pages or less?) The second chapter discusses where our water comes from, where it goes once we’ve used it, and how climate change affects the water cycle. The last two chapters explore how people get and conserve water in countries around the world.

I’m fascinated that I can turn on a tap and fill my glass with a healthy, danger-free, life-giving liquid. I hope that, by the end of the book, young readers will share my fascination.

Can you discuss what your next book will be about — or is that an impertinent question?

Rubbish! That’s what the book is about. A few years ago, I read Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin 2009). I was horrified to learn that, in North America, one third of all our food gets thrown away as garbage—tossed out of farmers’ fields, or into grocery store dumpsters, or into garbage cans in homes. I wondered if anyone had written about this for kids, and I began my research. I read both about what we throw away as a society and people who live off of the garbage of others. Then I read Zero Waste Home, by Bea Johnson. It completely transformed the way I thought about waste (not to mention how I shop)! We got rid of our garbage can, and I wrote a proposal for Trash Talk! Moving Toward a Zero-Waste World. It’ll be on shelves in Spring 2015.

Learn more about Michelle Mulder’s world at

Playwrights Guild of Canada focuses on gender

By Joy Fisher

The Playwrights Guild of Canada at its annual general meeting in Montreal recently turned its focus to redressing the chronic underrepresentation of women in key creative positions in Canadian theatre.

The Equity in Theatre (EIT) initiative will call on the theatre community as a whole to respond to gender inequities in the industry, according to Rebecca Burton, PGC’s Membership and Contracts Manager, who is coordinating the initiative.

“Although approximately 70 per cent of theatre audiences are women, and women make up 50 per cent of PGC’s membership, only 22 per cent of plays produced in Canadian Theatres in 2013/14 were by women playwrights,” Burton said. PGC’s Theatre Production Survey revealed that percentage varied by province, with Manitoba scoring highest at 44 percent and British Columbia dragging the bottom with only 18 percent of produced plays by women.

The percentage of productions by women playwrights reached a record high between 2000 and 2005 when 28 per cent of productions were plays by women according to an Equity Study published in 2006. “The figures demonstrate an actual regression since then,” Burton noted.

A key component of the initiative will be a symposium to be held in Toronto in April 2015 facilitated by an equity and diversity consultant funded by Canada Council’s Leadership and Change program. Participants will include partners from industry organizations such as Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, Canadian Actors Equity Association, Associated Designers of Canada, and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas as well as associations of the underrepresented, such as Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario, the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance and Artists Driving Holistic Organization Change. The end result will be the development of a first draft of a strategic plan for improved equity in the theatre industry as a whole.

In the year following the symposium, a series of monthly play reading events will be held across Canada in partnership with Play Development Centres and other organizations. Other events and community actions will also be developed. Women patrons, for example, could exercise their consumer power by demanding more plays by women (reflective of their own reality and age demographics) from the theatres they support.

A research project will seek to identify successes in the industry and to establish best practices. A website will be created as an informational hub to facilitate meet-up groups and provide advice on how to create social actions. It will also house a searchable database of Canadian women artists, including playwrights, to serve as a resource to communities.

The desired outcome is to see representation rates rise to 50 percent, which would not only provide increased opportunities for women but would also produce a more balanced and inclusive vision of Canadian society for audiences to enjoy. “We’ve studied this problem for years,” Burton said. “Now it’s time to act.”

The official public launch of the initiative will be in September 2014.

The link below offers the PGC website and Valerie Sing Turner’s lyrical and compelling article Redefining Normal: A Challenge to Canadian Theatres & Artists which explores equality and redefining the norm in Canadian theatre.

Joy Fisher is a UVIC writing graduate and a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. 

Rewilding could reinvent our world

The forward-thinking proposition of restoring our planet to its more natural state– of “rewilding” it– lies at the heart of J.B. MacKinnon’s latest book, The Once and Future World.  His first work of creative nonfiction, Dead Man in Paradise won the RBC Taylor Prize. His second book, The 100-Mile Diet, co-authored with Alisa Smith, became a bestseller. The Bloomsbury Literary Review and Comic Book Resources called his third work, I Live Here, a “groundbreaking ‘paper documentary.’”  MacKinnon has also been published in many magazines and is a past senior contributing editor of Explore, Canada’s outdoor magazine.  In short, he knows a thing or two about great creative nonfiction, and how humans interact with our natural world.  Adam Hayman recently had the opportunity to question MacKinnon about his work and ideas.

To say you’ve had your finger on the pulse of the environmental scene for a number of years would be an understatement. What about last year made it the right time to publish this book?

Writers are lucky: our role in society today is to dig deep in a culture that constantly encourages people to stay on the surface. A few years ago I sensed that traditional conservation had lost its edge—it had become the depressing art of hanging on to the last wild places and fading species, what one scientist called “managed extinction.” People were beginning to talk about the need for a newer, bigger vision: not just fighting for what was left, but rebuilding what’s been lost—rewilding the world. That inspired me, and obviously it inspired several other writers at the same time, in different ways, such as George Monbiot in the U.K., and Jon Mooallem, Miles Olson and Emma Marris in the U.S. Suddenly, rewilding has its own bookshelf.

You mentioned during an interview that the reading of captains’ logs and explorers’ journals was, for you, an interesting part of the research for this book, but you also had to research and report on some gruesome stuff, like live auks thrown onto fires as fuel; living tortoises being stacked like barrels in the hulls of ships for a year at a time with no food or water. The list is long, and in such a comprehensive book it certainly is necessary, so how was the research process for you on a whole?

The challenge with writing about emerging ideas is that the pieces of the puzzle haven’t yet been put together, and you have to do that work yourself. It feels risky—you’re constantly asking yourself what gives you the right to say these things. So, out of a sheer lack of self-confidence, I researched everything to death.  I spent two weeks just reading about whale shit for what ends up being a page or two in the book. At the end of that, I was probably one of the world’s leading experts in whale shit.

What I’m always looking for in my research, though, are those little details that bring information to life—a scientist’s poetic reference to whale feces as “flocculent plumes,” or a pioneering scuba diver’s memories of sea bass rising from the depths, singing their spawning chant. Who knew that fish made noises? Not me. It’s these little discoveries that can make 12 hours in the rare books section of the library feel like an adventure.

The question “which nature?” stayed in my mind after finishing this book. Which nature do I want to live in? I thought it was very honest and realistic question to ask, and something that environmental skeptics and supporters should ruminate on. If you had the chance to ask two people this question who would they be?

First, I have to say that we can’t ask ourselves that question without first knowing what our options are. Much of what I try to explain in The Once and Future World is that nature as we know it today is a skeletal version of what it was in the past. In other words, our choice of which nature is much broader than almost anyone imagines: we can live with astounding natural richness and diversity, or in a grossly simplified and degraded version of nature, or somewhere in between. But we at least need to be honest about what our choices really are.

So, assuming everyone on earth has read my book — ha! — I would want to ask the which nature question of someone with real power: the president of the United States, say, or the CEO of the world’s largest corporation. Just out of curiosity. My other choice would be the next stranger I meet, because this is a question I feel we all need to think about, and one that I hope will infiltrate our culture.

You’ve mentioned the efforts of building nature into the cities we inhabit, which is a great step for those looking to add a bit of rewilding to their city lives. Hearing about the “bee boles” and other past and present “Habitecture” was fascinating.  Have you seen or heard any advancements since the release of this book?

I’m constantly hearing new examples. In my hometown of Vancouver, there’s Habitat Island, an artificial island park that became the city’s first herring spawning ground in decades and may have helped bring whales and dolphins back to urban waters. I recently learned that some First Nations in Eastern Canada traditionally built shelters on raised platforms to house pine martens in their communities. Dark-sky cities, where constraints are put on artificial light, are a form of habitecture, as many species depend on darkness and the stars in various ways. Digital technology is making it possible to imagine fenceless fields, which could revive the incredible long-range herd animal migration routes that used to criss-cross the continents. Then there’s “daylighting,” or bringing streams buried by development back to the surface—Seoul, South Korea, tore up a freeway to bring a river back to the heart of the city. And all of this is just the beginning.

As a pop-culture lover I smiled when I saw you used an Arcade Fire lyric as a quote, and I couldn’t help but assume, (even if the reference was unintended) that the section on the hypothetical “Lost Island” – an interesting section where you try and introduce humans onto an untouched island without losing the island’s biodiversity – was a reference to the TV show Lost. My question is, have you seen rewilding grow into pop culture since this book came out the same way the 100-mile diet did?

It’s definitely moving in that direction. I find it amazing how quickly people embrace the word “rewilding”: I gave a talk to a group of architects, and by the end they were talking about rewilding as if it had been part of their lexicon for 20 years. People are giving the term their own meanings: for some people, it’s about rewilding the landscape, and for others, it’s about rewilding themselves or their families—getting back in touch with nature. And sure, it’s showing up in pop culture, too, from Adbusters magazine to NPR’s Radiolab to interviews with Shailene Woodley, the star of Divergent.

What was most exciting about the 100-mile diet was the way it blossomed into a million different experiments, some personal and some community-based, that ultimately showed that a different food system was not only possible, but could offer us all a better quality of life. I hope something similar happens with rewilding. Thinking and talking about an idea are important, especially in the beginning, but it’s when ideas are lived out loud that we truly reinvent our world.


Puzzling over Current Swell

Current Swell

Ulysses, 2014 

Review by Emmett Robinson Smith

Current Swell is looking for something. The Victoria band’s fourth album, Ulysses, is jam-packed with ideas of desire, some attainable, some not. On the album-opening title track, Scott Stanton sings, “I want to go / where every man’s gone”. In contrast, on the following track, “Keys to the Kingdom”, we find Stanton longing for just those: the keys to the kingdom. Stanton fantasizes about bringing “the king down to his knees” to “give him a piece of my mind”. The desires described on Ulysses range from humble to fantastical, but are all sung with such conviction that it’s hard to know what Stanton truly wants.

These two tracks, “Ulysses” and “Keys to the Kingdom”, are prime examples of not only the lyrical, but musical contradictions that exist on Current Swell’s latest effort. The song “Ulysses” features a southern-style romp, complete with a stomping bass drum and folk-country vocal melodies. This sound can be seen to occupy the same musical realm as a band such as Blitzen Trapper, known for the warmth and delicacy in their songs. Current Swell has recreated these qualities with authenticity, and the band comes out on top for it. “Keys to the Kingdom” begins with spacey vocal harmonies straight out of the band Fleet Foxes’ book. However, “Kingdom” soon turns into an electric, sauntering groove more reminiscent of the White Stripes. The transition is smooth, but it leaves the listener somewhat confused as to the particular sound that Current Swell is aiming for. This confusion is stepped amplified on the third track, “Rollin’”. It’s a song fit for cruising down the highway, utilizing a swung meter, hand claps, and grimy guitar riffs. Taken individually, each of these tracks is genuine and effective. However, in the larger context of the album, this opening batch of songs renders Current Swell sounding restless and unfocussed.

Fortunately, the album becomes more consistent as it progresses. The standout track “Who’s With Us” hits its stride with rich lyrics and musical intricacy. “She said that dreams are just what you make them / High hanging fruit, the risk that you take them” Stanton profoundly cries. After the second chorus, things reach the most instrumentally intriguing point on the album: A nearly two minute agitated, stuttering guitar solo builds and builds, helped along by a stammering snare drum. The guitar tracks become layered and the soundscape gets more and more tense. The song climaxes as the second verse repeats, but this time with the gush of blazing power chords, unrelenting hi-hat, and an anxious-sounding lead guitar track.

The final consignment of tracks is varied, and, at times, unsatisfying. “Desire” lurches back and forth between normal-tempo and half-tempo. The song’s lyrics sum up Current Swell’s predicament: “Don’t know what to desire”, Stanton admits. (Apparently they don’t know which tempo to desire either, which, for better or worse, plays to that line.) The final track, “Flesh and Bone”, is a vulnerable, honest tune which functions as a satisfying closer. As with most of the songs on Ulysses, its strength lies in its lyrics: “Could a flower wake you up and tell you no one is the same as you?” David Lang asks. “Nothin’ like love, nothin’ like pain” is repeated as the song dies out. It’s a simple thought, but it’s so honestly stated that the words carry significant weight.

It’s evident throughout Ulysses that Current Swell plays with honesty and conviction, especially in their vocals. Their lyrics are ultimately what shine through here, and it’s a shame that their clashing musical choices couldn’t better complement their lyrical gifts. When Current Swell hits, it’s enormously satisfying, but when they miss, it’s puzzling.

Find more from Current Swell at

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music reviewer and student. 

Routley internationally recognized for LGBT lit

Andrea Routley, an alumna of the University of Victoria, has recently published her debut short story collection, Jane and the Whales through Caitlin Press. The collection is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, an international English-language award for LGBT literature. Previously, Routley’s work  has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including the Malahat Review and Room Magazine. In 2008, she was shortlisted for the Rona Murray Prize for Literature. She is the founder and editor of Plenitude Magazine, Canada’s queer literary magazine. She also edited Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women (Caitlin Press, 2010). Recently, Coastal Spectator Managing Editor Nadia Grutter discussed Jane and the Whales with Routley via email.

Andrea, I was delighted to read a series of short stories that skims so close reality. Your stories—particularly “The Gone Batty Interpretation”—challenged and moved me emotionally. Would you mind describing the emotional journey you went through writing this book?

Well, each story is its own journey. I didn’t begin writing the first story with an over-arching concept for a collection, but, like any writer, your obsessions begin to reveal themselves in your writing patterns. That particular story, “The Gone Batty Interpretation,” I wrote about six months after the suicide of a high school friend, so it is not a humorous story or an intellectual story at all. Suicide is something that comes up in several stories. So many of us are touched by this, but I most often hear it talked about in medical terms, as a treatable disease, and it’s not that simple. “The Sign,” on the other hand, deals with the same subject but in a way that (I think) is humorous. It looks at choices like that from a more logical perspective.

Your writing is powerful in its restraint—both in its brief form and concise content. Is this something you learned to cultivate through, say, workshops during your time at UVic or has your writing style always been so distilled? Basically, how did you learn to write the way you do?

When I first started writing stories, I’d often get the question, “Is this the beginning of a novel or a short story?” At first I felt proud of this question, like looking like a novel meant it was a big, fat, interesting story and this was a good thing. Then I realized this just meant I had a lot of superfluous detail or was alluding to potential plot twists that were never going to happen. You definitely learn to pare down the more you write. (And yes, I learned this while at UVic with the fantastic instructors!) I think this is in part because your writing becomes less precious to you, simply as a result of quantity. I’ve axed characters from some of these stories who I’d thought were critical in early drafts. For example, there was a kid like a wild animal who likes to stalk around in the sage by the clay cliffs and hisses at people, but eats his wiener like it’s corn on the cob. Maybe he’ll come up in another story, and if not, that’s okay too–it was fun to write the scenes with him. It’s not about publishing everything you write. It’s imperative to just enjoy writing, too (or just feel compelled to do it).

Your stories are very diverse content-wise. How did the stories inform each other in the writing process? Was there one core story that sparked a sort of leap-frog of ideas into the other stories?

Every story explore in some way humans’ and animals’ relationships with the world around them, that search for a place. “Habitat” certainly carried over into “The Gone Batty Interpretation” with the protagonists both coping with grief and expressing their sadness through empathy for an animal, among other things. Many of the stories have characters trying to make sense of the past through their unreliable memories — or the way we discover just how unreliable our memories are when something surprising happens to a person we thought we understood.

The conclusions to your stories strike a careful balance between inevitable and surprising. What did the process of rounding out an individual story look like for you?  

I’m glad to hear the conclusions feel that way. I try to write a “satisfying” ending to stories. Sometimes stories end so abruptly and the satisfaction is really delayed; it only comes later when you’ve had time to unlock its meaning. I can appreciate those endings, but I don’t really “enjoy” them. I try to write something that will feel concluded and satisfying, but give enough to leave you with something to chew on. For some of these stories, the rounding out involves the editor’s feedback, deleting one line too many, or adding one more beat. (Sometimes more than that, of course, like going back and rewriting a scene that obviously was not doing its job of setting up the ending and things like that).

Are you working on any projects aside from Plenitude at the moment?  

I have some crazy, daunting, stupid idea of writing another book, one of linked short stories of exclusively queer characters, across decades. I have read at a couple queer events and it was incredibly rewarding to read a queer story for such an engaged, lively, appreciative crowd. I want to make more of those characters that we are obviously in need of — “we” includes me. The queer past is full of diverse and wonderful people and experiences, and there are not enough of us in story. If anyone would like some ideas on new queer books to read, though, I have an ever-growing list of new queer Canadian titles at

For more on new queer Canadian titles, visit

Poet tackles life’s uncertainty

The Fleece Era

Joanna Lilley

Brick Books

105 pages, $20

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

Joanna Lilley’s The Fleece Era is the discovery of Brick Books’ spring season, a first poetry collection with a subtle, shifting vision of ecological and human connection. Lilley is a transplant, raised in England and now living in the Yukon. Because of her northerly coordinates, I thought first of snow clouds and then of sheep when I read fleece. In fact, the title poem refers to that fuzzy synthetic fabric so symbolic of current environmental questions. The narrator, a lost hiker, talks to the man who’s given her a ride: “Big deal, he said, we can make / sweaters out of plastic pop / bottles, yet there are places / where it’s illegal to hang your / washing out to dry.” This question of relationship—between strangers and family members, between individuals and culture, between human beings and nature—drives the collection.

The Fleece Era is divided into four parts. Each gathers variations on the theme of relationship, which modulates from section to section. The first part, “A Riddle,” concerns family and distance—both emotional and geographical. The narrator of “Overheard” imagines herself “shouting from the shore / of my mother’s Atlantic teacup.” The next section, “Emotional Expenditure,” considers the intricately interwoven social and bodily alienation experienced by its female narrator. In complement, the third part, “At Each Exhale,” examines the latent violence of intimate connections like marriage. “Scientist” narrates a painful disconnect between partners, enacted while skiing: “How is it I’m lost / yet you’re not, although / we’re on the same blank trail.” The troubled relationships of The Fleece Era remain open-ended.

The final section, “Nobody Else Dies,” takes up the vexed relationship of human minds to the natural world. “Ten Thousand Trees” is stark about the destructive drives of even ethically committed human beings: “I didn’t know the flash / of a forest gash could mesmerize, that there could even be a lust / to witnessing the first road ever forced on feral land.” In “Earth Twin,” the collection’s closing poem, Lilley writes wryly of a scientist who theorizes that “there might be planets even more / suitable for human life than ours.” She recognizes this as a dangerous fantasy: “It takes / a day or so for me to comprehend / he was talking about Heaven.”

Across the four sections, key relationships, characters, and themes create a world that feels consistent. There is a mother and a father, sisters and a brother, a husband. Yet there is a perceptual wobble, or say a parallax, built into the language that describes the central figure of these poems. This figure is sometimes an “I,” sometimes a “she,” and sometimes a “you.” This unstable centre, surrounded by more static figures, builds a sense of self-alienation across the collection. It seems an appropriate choice given the ecological position of contemporary Canadians, whether in the Yukon or Victoria. As Lilley queries in “Earth Crack,” “What if the piece of the world / I’m on tears off?”

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet and essayist.

YA novel confronts life on Vancouver streets

Rabbit Ears

By Maggie De Vries

Harper Trophy Canada

232 pages, $14.99

Reviewed by Kyla Shauer

Every young adult novel I’ve ever read has concluded with some sort of bow-tied happy resolution. Usually the hero/heroine procures the love of someone dear, defeats their inner and/or outer demons and makes the world better. This is not that kind of novel. This novel discusses real problems from the streets of Vancouver. While it does not feature a brooding love interest, its complex characters give faces, voices and life to stories we normally hear as news statistics. Rabbit Ears shows that every story and person matters.

Many readers will remember De Vries from her compelling memoir, Missing Sarah, which focused on the author’s sister, who was one of the young women who went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the Robert Pickton case. A former editor at Orca Books, De Vries teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, focusing on children’s writing. She has written eight previous books for children.

Rabbit Ears follows sisters Kaya and Beth as they navigate Kaya’s inner problems that lead her to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in late 1990s.

At 13, Kaya starts high school already at issue with her identity. Kaya collides with the return of a former friend Diana, whose presence at her new school pushes Kaya to run from her secret past. On one of her trips she meets Sarah, a prostitute and heroin addict, who tries to protect Kaya by shoving her onto the bus home. Soon Kaya returns and searches for Sarah but finds heroin instead.

De Vries utilizes the viewpoints of both sisters to tell the story from the perspective of the family and the runaway herself. Unusually, Kaya’s character is presented in the second-person point of view: “It feels weird being outside in the city so late all by yourself. You can feel the eyes on you. And the danger. You think briefly about your bed. Warm. Dry. Safe. Then you shake that off and march down the sidewalk.”

By contrast, the first-person point of view focuses on the emotional conflict that affects Beth and her mother as they search the streets for Kaya. “I’m on my way back downtown when I see her, standing right there on the corner, teetering on her high-heeled boots.”

The transitions between the sisters can be jarring, especially between multiple shifts within a few pages. De Vries evidently chooses the viewpoints to engage the reader by looking at teenage runaways, drug use and prostitution from different sides.

Rabbit Ears is a rewarding read for anyone wanting to understand what could make a person choose the streets when she had other options. This novel does not shy away from brutal reality but neither does it dwell on the violence or abuse. De Vries modeled the character, Sarah, on her sister and gave Sarah to Kaya as a guide and defender in honour of Sarah’s memory. I would recommend Rabbit Ears for later teens and adults.

Kyla Shauer is a Creative Writing student at UVic and a Communications Assistant at TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics.

An Informative Journey Beyond Down Syndrome

Writing With Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome

By Judy McFarlane

Douglas & McIntyre  2013

205 pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Janet Ralph

      Vancouver writer Judy McFarlane uses a personal and conversational style to invite readers into her experience mentoring Grace Chen, a young woman with Down Syndrome, who has a dream of becoming a famous writer. McFarlane is initially uncertain about the task but, after doing research into Down Syndrome and confronting her own fear and prejudice, she decides to work with Grace. 

       Hopes and dreams form the essence of the story— the most delightful being Grace’s retelling of the Cinderella tale, which includes Grace as the heroine, Ronald, a boy she likes, their honeymoon, an emergency helicopter rescue off the Titanic, three babies and a future career of espionage. In her next story, Grace plans to send the duo into space.

       McFarlane includes many other dreams in her book, including her own neglected childhood dream of becoming a writer, and her daughter’s dream of a career in theatre. She also looks at the hopes and dreams of adults with Down Syndrome for acceptance in schools, jobs, friendships, love and safe places to live their lives – in short, their basic human needs.

      Woven into the stories are quotes from Jean Vanier’s book Becoming Human, Robert Murphy’s The Body Silent and Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam. All offer insights into life with handicaps and prejudice towards people with disabilities. McFarlane refers to David Wright’s book Downs: The History of Disability to summarize the tragic treatment of people with intellectual disabilities in the past.

      Writing With Grace has a mosaic structure with six parts, each made up of short sections of stories and research. Although the title suggests otherwise, the author’s experience writing with Grace actually takes a back seat to McFarlane’s own life: her pursuit of a writing career, her parents, brothers, husband and children. 

            Sometimes abrupt story shifts disrupt connections between stories, resulting in some connections feeling contrived. McFarlane’s writing flows well when exploring research on high-functioning individuals with Down Syndrome. However, the discussion of Down Syndrome would be more complete if she had included information about the lives of families who are dealing with lower-functioning people with Down Syndrome as well.

     In the end, Grace’s venture into writing is a success. She is recognized in her community in British Columbia and in her birthplace of Taiwan. Her family bond is strengthened by a visit with her grandfather who finally accepts her as she is. Even better, at the World Down Syndrome Congress, Grace promotes her book and meets others who share her abilities and interests.

            The Jean Vanier epigram McFarlane chooses is apt for every human story: “Is it not the life undertaking of all of us . . . to become human? It can be a long and sometimes painful process. It involves a growth to freedom, an opening up of our hearts to others, no longer hiding behind masks or behind walls of fear or prejudice. It means discovering our common humanity.” 

Janet Ralph is a Victoria reader and writer.     

Farrant fearlessly paints life’s details

The World Afloat

By M.A.C. Farrant


96 pages, $12.95

 Reviewed by Marjorie Doyle

I’ve been taken on a wild ride, with reflective stops along the way.  I wasn’t scared.  I trusted the driver.

Reading through M.A.C. Farrant’s stories is like taking a tour through the psychedelic album covers of the 1970s – simultaneously laughing and probing for meaning.  These 75 “miniatures” invite us to loosen up a little, see the world through a freshly cut lens.  Many readers will know the Vancouver Island writer for her 11 previous books, especially wonderful 2004 memoir, My Turquoise Years.

Miniatures, yes.  Or if we see Farrant’s new collection like a painting, like a wide comprehensive Bosch-like canvas, these are details, lifted from the whole and magnified, allowing us to look more closely.  We never fear we will go adrift in this world afloat because the narrator is anchored.

Characters roaming this canvas include the teen who talks “outside of humans like a poet.” The couple “speaking to each other in Vain, an old, old language. He said, she said, neither one of them listening.” A man named Mark: “Short, rugged, lovable, and not unhandsome.” The person who arranges a busload of Japanese schoolgirls in a Zen garden: “one schoolgirl to every ten thousand pebbles.” And Muses who “have gone mad and are living as lady golfers in Palm Springs California.”

The distinctive voice is breezy and energetic.  Farrant is playful but never frivolous.  She’s a humorist (that rare breed!), but as with all good humour there is a point.  You can sober up quickly in the middle of a guffaw.

Some pieces are complete stories, but short. Others are teasers or hints or scenes.  And some are small works of genius – laugh out loud funny or thoughtful.  She has perfected this technique – nay, it is an art.

Consider the story “Our Spiritual Lives.”  It opens: “We’ve seen stains on tea towels that look like Jesus Christ’s face so we know he exists.” We then meet a woman who lost all her money to fiscal fraud, “So we pray to the banking industry not to do the same thing to us,” and a man who doesn’t pray.  He’d “rather trust the presence of hamburgers in his life to render it benign.”  The story moves along to composite pictures tacked on telephone poles.  Then:

“It’s Jesus Christ again.  The pictures are meant to show what he’d look like if he were alive today and sixty-nine years old and lost. Like practically everyone we know.”

“Along the Way” satirizes the funeral industry.  As we’re half laughing at embalmed corpses sitting in rocking chairs, we are gently towed into a thoughtful reflection on life and mortality – in a few hundred words.

As with most good art, some pieces eluded me, but who gets everything on one visit to a gallery?  I must, and will return.

 Marjorie Doyle is a writer in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  Her latest book is A Doyle Reader:  Writings from Home and Away. 

Genuine heart animates Real Ponchos

Real Ponchos, Since I Let You Go (May 6th, 2014)
Produced by Jesse Gander and Real Ponchos
Catch Real Ponchos at Logan’s Pub on June 13th.

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak

Real Ponchos’ debut full-length, Since I Let You Go, is refreshingly honest, optimistic and devoid of the clichés that often muddle country and roots music. Real Ponchos describe themselves as “psychedelic alt-country soul,” and from the first track, “Aged in Oak,” this Vancouver band demonstrate their capacity to deliver goosebumps up the spine. The opener is a heavy, open highway, big-sky victory of a song, with an earworm electric guitar riff and swelling pedal steel and organ, all under Emile Scott’s unique, honeyed voice.

Real Ponchos boasts two vocalists, and the following track, “Outta This Place,” features the gruff Ben Arsenault, who sounds like he’s come from a sunny southern state. Arsenault and Scott trade songwriting and main vocal duties throughout the record, a successful trick that reminds me of Conor Oberst’s Outer South, on which his Mystic Valley Band members contributed songwriting and lead vocals. Speaking of Oberst, Real Ponchos are alike, but far lighter and clearer – again, it’s refreshing. Some other positive comparisons include early Randy Travis (Storms Of Life, No Holdin’ Back), early Wilco and Victoria’s The Wicks. A thread of real authenticity and genuine heart carries through all of the above, and Real Ponchos follow in that lineage.

The rest of Since I Let You Go is a satisfying listen. Co-produced with Vancouver’s Jesse Gander (Japandroids, Pack AD, Corbin Murdoch), the sonic atmosphere and mix is crisp and welcoming. Juxtaposed with the exceedingly popular electronic music of today, with its quantized rhythms and saccharin synth glitch, Since is packed full of human warmth. Rhythm section Michael Wagler (upright bass) and Emlyn Scherk (drums) are absolutely solid in their tempo and rhythm, never cluttering, always adding nuances that reveal themselves after multiple listens.

Real Ponchos show their Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers’ likenesses on the back half of Since, with extended jams “Along The Way,” and “Take Me Back Home.” They ride the jam-band edge carefully though, keeping the movement and story of each song progressing tastefully, while demonstrating their instrumental skill at creating contemplative atmospheres reminiscent of their country roots.

One of the most interesting aspects of the overall production on Since is the now-rare quality of delivering deep emotion – nostalgia, hurt, longing – in a strong, masculine way. The record’s big heartbreaker is the song, “Just Like A Slow Burn,” which builds to Scott’s beautiful vocal testimony, singing long and with longing over sweet, glimmering guitars and dark-chocolate piano chords.

Emotional and sonic depth animate the success of Since I Let You Go. It’s a strong debut from inspired, talented young men on an honest mission to make their best music. ($7 Digital / $12 Hard)

Noah Cebuliak is a Montreal poet, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. He leads a lyrical jazz-pop conspiracy called Ghost Lights.