Category Archives: Judy LeBlanc

Axiatrix can’t escape genre

Blackbirds, 225 pages, $19.95

Blackbirds Two, 226 pages, $19.95

By Garry Ryan

NeWest Press

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

Garry Ryan has eight novels to his name, a following for his Detective Lane series, a Lambda award and a great premise in Blackbirds and Blackbirds Two. In these first two of the trilogy he draws attention to women pilots in the Second World War, and unearths little known historical facts such as the eleven black POWs who were tortured and murdered by the SS in Wereth, Belgium.

Sharon Lacey, a young Canadian who goes to England in 1940 to fly for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), is also looking for her estranged father and soon becomes entangled in sordid family dynamics. Much happens to her in the first book, including brawls with Messerschmitts and discovering she has a half brother. Blackbird Two follows her through war, where she evolves into a hard-nosed senior commander with a passion for social justice. Like all fictional war heroes, she kills, suffers moral conflict, and amidst the carnage performs good deeds. Sharon is a woman tucked squarely into the war story canon. The ATA, not typically engaged in combat, served without fighting– a dichotomy that might be explored in a more literary book. However, such story telling would require a nuance that is not demonstrated in these books.

Not hours before reading myself into the cockpit of a spitfire with Sharon, I raced across the Nevada salt flats with a female motorcyclist in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Though both books involve women engaged in high-speed atypical behavior, the irresistible comparison settles more on genre than gender. Ryan’s books are about an aviatrix while Kushner’s is not about a female motorcyclist, though on that bike, you get how “nothing mattered except the milliseconds of life at that speed.” There are no lines so fine in the Blackbird trilogy, and this makes The Flamethrowers a work of literary fiction while the two Blackbirds are fair to middling plot-gobblers.

Graduate school teaches that it matters less what a book is about than how it is written. The formula is simple: there is good writing and bad writing, and plot-driven writing is bad. Furthermore, one should avoid the “expected.” I see little in Blackbirds that is unexpected other than gender and a sprinkling of historical facts.

When I think of the genre wars I want to lie down, and though I’m over MFA school, I grow even more weary when, while happily fantasizing myself into the character of a Second World War pilot, I encounter yet another head of  “slicked back” hair, or I’m meant to feel the character’s “tingling thrill.” This ejects me out of my fictional dream.

And yet, there were brief moments while reading Ryan’s books when I was able to slide into the cockpit of a spitfire face to face with the firmament and nothing stopping me, neither gender nor Nazi plane. Maybe at the end of the genre wars there’s only this, the simple pleasure of an image.

Judy LeBlanc is a writer who lives in Fanny Bay and organizes the Fat Oyster Reading Series.

Novel connects Budapest and Toronto

Under Budapest
By Alisa Kay
Goose Lane, 256 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

Like ghosts surfacing from Budapest’s fabled subterranean regions, lives from the 1956 Hungarian uprising breathe anew in post-soviet times. Alisa Kay’s debut novel raises many questions about history. Is there really a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the city, once used as both prisons and storehouses for Soviet loot? No one knows for sure, Kay seems to suggest.

In Under Budapest’s densely woven plot, as serpentine as these tunnels, a myriad of characters confront their past. The present is 2010 in a right-winged Hungary, a time of fomenting nationalism spurred on by hatred for Jews and Romas. Within the large cast of characters, the fast-talking hoods, an historical intellectual revolutionary and his passionate youthful lover are a little too stock for my liking, though they make for a page-turning read.

Instead, bland historian, Tibor Roland, his mother Agnes and her memory of her mother, give this novel its psychological complexity, taking it beyond the genre of a decent crime thriller. Tibor, reeling from an affair ended largely because of a deception on his part–deception is a recurring motif throughout the book–signs up for a conference in Budapest. His mother, born and raised there, fled to Canada after the uprising. Recently she has learned that her missing sister may have escaped through the mythical tunnels. During their visits, mother and son separately encounter acts of violence and deceit that ultimately intersect in a tangle of past and present. Agnes’s mother, in 1956 Budapest thinks, “But no change has ever held. It always turns back, turns bad.”

In clean, often insightful prose, Kay’s narrative moves seamlessly between past and present. While her sister embraces the fervour of the uprising, Agnes runs away, repulsed by the violence. After witnessing a horrific murder in Budapest, Tibor, fearful he will be framed by the corrupt police force, also flees.

Watching TV back in Toronto, Agnes and Tibor are decidedly unheroic, which is possibly what lends this novel its greatest interest. They are safe, reflecting a choice many immigrants to this country made. In spite of his reluctance to revisit the horrific event he witnessed, Tibor agrees to meet with the dead boy’s Canadian father. It’s as if his experience in Budapest has enabled him to see beyond violence as merely academic, as simply a subject of study, and to accept it as near at hand: in his mother’s history, in his own life.

In contemporary Canadian literature, there is a preponderance of stories unearthed from the past by a generation of writers distanced from the heat of revolution and yet wrestling with its residual effects. In the end, Agnes shares her personal history with Tibor, and he thinks, “He was a child of these circumscribed facts, of all she’d left behind. And he felt, well, he felt it added something to him.”

Judy LeBlanc has her MFA from UVIC and writes fiction from her home in Fanny Bay.

Quirky characters take to the road

South of Elfrida
By Holley Rubinsky
Brindle & Glass, 231 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

The characters in Holley Rubinsky’s fourth book (and second collection of short stories) are simultaneously ordinary and quirky, predatory and loving. If you’ve ever been squished between motor homes in a roadside campground heading south, you’ve maybe shared a drink with them and surprised yourself with how much you’ve revealed about your life, while doves and grackles cavort nearby and small pets slink between your legs. In these stories, misfits and the wounded, often in the guise of aging independent single women unshackled from a lifetime’s worth of loss, haul their homes on trailer hitches and live temporarily in RV parks and rented apartments, usually in Arizona.

In the collection’s most touching story,“ Desert Dreams,” Nina, grieving her husband’s death and facing her mother’s imminent passing, takes to the road with a camper trailer. “The burden of being followed everywhere by her own home is an inescapable preoccupation too; for long moments she hurts less about Frank.”

Though her concerns may rest with matters of the heart, Rubinsky’s stories are unsentimental, edged with farce and sprinkled with capricious detail: an electric palm tree and a Chihuahua with his own sequined director’s chair. In “The Compact,” Sally, idling in a RV park for six months of the year, cherishes the tiny and not so tiny secrets she keeps from her boorish flag-waving, bigoted husband: her second glass of wine, the spit in the meatloaf, the compact in which she hides the ashes from the black baby she aborted in the early days of their marriage. Even Rubinsky’s darker humour does not so much horrify as hearten; I am left believing in the redemptive power of life’s odd miscalculated moments.

An undercurrent of tension in these stories suggests that unmoored from the safety of the familiar we are vulnerable to the predator, not just in the natures of others but also in our own. This is particularly evident in the first three stories, the strongest in the collection. In a chilling irony, a child molester encloses baby turtles for their safety, a woman walks willingly into a pen of frenzied emus and in the title story the “hawk man . . .bags the birds, each one a bride. She recognizes the intensity in him, the coldness.”

In a literary world where clever verbiage and narrative sleight-of-hand is too often celebrated over substance, Rubinsky’s voice is wise and straight-up. In uncomplicated prose with a depth that knows in the end we are all travellers, she explores the impermanence of things: the ethereal quality of desert light, the elusive nature of time and reality. Barb, who has run into trouble at the border thinks, “people camping a night here, a week there, don’t care about accuracy or truth.” In “Desert Dreams” a dying Miriam comforts herself and her peers by pretending she has seen “the special spark at the end, a flash of green as the sun disappears over the horizon.”


Judy LeBlanc writes fiction and has recently completed her MFA at the University of Victoria.

Immigrant narrator packs punch

By Aga Maksimowska
Pedlar Press, 211 pages, $22

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

Reading Giant, Aga Maksimowska’s debut novel, I quickly found myself immersed in a world similar to the one inhabited by David Bezmozgis’ boy narrator in Natasha. Both books are infused with an Eastern European allure complete with culinary details, snippets of best-loved phrases in the native tongue, religious iconography and ritual, and a fraught political/ historical backdrop from which emerges the immigrant’s raw and courageous efforts to adapt to a new culture.

While Bezmozgis’s narrator is a Jewish Latvian male, Maksimowksa’s is an eleven-year old Polish girl named Gosia from a family divided by divorce. At age eleven, Gosia lives with her sister, her outspoken cognac-guzzling grandmother and communist grandfather in Gdansk, Poland during the 1980s while the solidarity movement simmers in the background. The sister’s teacher-mother (the only one in the family with a university degree) has emigrated to Canada two years before. Their hard-drinking father works on a container ship and appears sporadically bearing cheap gifts from Asia. The first half of the book chronicles life in Gdansk complete with pubescent angst and the usual firsts: bra, period, sexual encounter, all coloured by Gosia’s relationship with her grandmother and longing for her mother. If it weren’t for tragic-comic scenes like the one where a portrait of the pope and the black Madonna look down on a violent argument between the grandparents or another where a monstrous carp swims in the bathtub awaiting grandmother’s cleaver, I might feel trapped in an early teen book. Sometimes the voice – first person present – rings with an implausible maturity and language, generally plain and unsentimental, is peppered with too many flat, over-used expressions.

These problems are resolved in the second half of the book when I felt finally that I joined Gosia and her sister in their new life in Toronto with their strong-willed mother. Here, the story unfolds as the immigrant story does: the love/hate relationship with the adopted culture and its new language, menial work and the everlasting struggle to make ends meet, prejudice and ignorance. One of Gosia’s classmates carves a swastika into a bench where she sits. “It’s tiny but the grooves of its lines are deep.” Gosia’s loathing of her overlarge body, while emphasized to excess in the early part of the book is now symbolic of her general social awkwardness. Ultimately, it is the women in this story who triumph. Their strength is most evident in a memorable scene where Gosia and sister with mother and her Polish women friends celebrate the election of Walesa, heralding a new era of freedom. It is evident again when Grandmother urges Gosia’s mother to “stop waffling” and choose between Poland and Canada. On a personal level, the women in Giant, like Poland, choose freedom, complete with its confusions and pitfalls. These women have depth, gusto, and deep affection for one another, so much so that their presence lingered with me long after I had finished the book.


Judy LeBlanc is a fiction writer and a recent grad of UVIC’s MFA program.

Monk’s personal commentary not the journey promised

A Year at River Mountain
by Michael Kenyon
Thistledown Press, 271 pages, $19.95.

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

The diary form in fiction invites us into the deepest chambers of the human psyche, a terrain to which I am drawn. However, it is not a form preferred by writers for good reason; it takes a compelling narrator to hold you that up close and personal for the length of a book. Cloister that narrator in a spiritual context in a faraway country and before I turn the first page, I am excited about the premise and what most certainly will be a serious grapple with metaphysical questions, insight into the human condition, a sprinkling of ah-ha moments.

In A Year at River Mountain seasoned author, Michael Kenyon (five novels, three books of poetry) takes the reader into the world of an aging actor turned monk from Vancouver who has spent the past twelve years sequestered in a monastery in China. A visit from an actress the year before and her anticipated return forms the skeletal backdrop of the narrative. The beguiling actress named Imogen–of Shakespearean allusion–serves as a ghostly representation of the life from which he has fled and drives the narrator into musings on desire, his childhood and failed marriage, an estranged son. Kenyon strikes a tone of melancholy and timelessness as he describes the changing seasons and the monastic routines: sweeping leaves from the path to the temple, laying out nests, meditation. Nature is imbued with the narrator’s emotions: “Like the weather with its succession of storms, each ripping then drenching the forest, stirring the river into a brown, hissing snake wider every day, I am unsettled.” A sense of disturbance to the old order is heightened by the eruption of images, stark and vividly drawn: a vulture perched on the body of a drowned child as he drifts down the river, a bear nosing the old master’s corpse, a rape scene. A threat of violence lurks just beyond the monastery where unrest in the village culminates in war.

Though the seasons provide a gauge for the passage of time, the plot is more kaleidoscopic than linear. Brief and often disparate episodes drive the story forward and contribute to the character’s increasing feeling of dislocation. It is unfortunate that Kenyon didn’t allow his talent for evocative imagery to carry the weight of the story. An excess of sentence fragments evince poetic pretension. Rhetorical questions are left to hang like so many hollow pieces of laundry. Too many cryptic assertions trip me out of what might otherwise be an absorbing panorama of this man’s psychic struggle. The narrator describes his own commentary: “The massive abstractions and universalities and anonymous figures arrive anyway . . .” It is as if the author, himself, is aware of his inclination to strain toward profundity, and in the end, to fail to deliver.

This book promised a journey through a challenging terrain with the reward of a wider view. Instead, I am left with the feeling that I have scrambled through underbrush and arrived not far enough from my point of departure.


Judy LeBlanc is a fiction writer and a recent grad of UVIC’s MFA program.

A Celebration of Myrna Kostash’s Prodigal Daughter: A Journey To Byzantium

Open Space Gallery,
510 Fort Street, Victoria
January 20, 2011
Reviewed by Judy Leblanc

Since I am not usually a follower of non-fiction, I wasn’t sure how I’d respond to an evening with Myrna Kostash at Open Space. The Edmonton author is known for the intellectual rigour she has applied to a body of award-winning non-fiction books, numerous articles, radio documentaries and playscripts. The evening unfolded in the way she describes her book, Prodigal Daughter (published by The University of Alberta Press) as, “part this, part that.” Her readings, interspersed with commentary, swept me along on a journey that was as much intellectual and spiritual as it was personal. I found myself wondering what icons I might pursue were I so inclined.

To write the book, Kostash pursued the legend of a third-century saint named Demetrius. She made two trips through the Balkan countries of the former Byzantium Empire. Her research culminated in Thessalonica, where Demetrius, killed during a period of Christian persecution, was martyred 200 years later.

A hushed audience of just 11 people, the airy gallery and the topic for the evening made for a vaguely hallowed atmosphere. Kostash applied a light touch to what could have been some heavy slogging. The audience laughed when she said that in the seventies she had the  “big fat attitude” that preceded the New Journalism. At one point, she stepped aside from the podium, pointed to the image of Demetrius on the cover of her book, and asked if we knew who it was. Apparently, none of us did.

“Have you heard of Thessalonia?” she asked eagerly, pleased to get some nods.

The ease and accessibility of her verbal delivery was evident in her selected readings. Kostash, the co-founder and past-president of the Creative Nonfiction Collective, has long been a champion of creative non-fiction. She described Prodigal Daughter as “part memoir and part reportage.” The narrative is rife with personal anecdotes. Her attention to detail, common in fiction, drew me into the story. She read from the first page of her book: “I was nine years old, sitting at a worn wooden desk, in a handsome brick school…”  Kostash has thoroughly assimilated her research; that’s a blessing because the book’s bibliography is 15 pages long.

Demetrius employed miracles to defend his beloved Thessalonica from barbarians, essentially the Slavic peoples: Kostash’s people. Kostash, from Edmonton, is of Ukrainian descent. In spite of the Slavs status as barbarians, centuries ago they adopted the Orthodox Church, complete with Demetrius. This curious fact was the impetus for her book. However, the story’s vision shifted into something unexpected.  Kostash reminded us that creative non-fiction often has two levels: “apparent subject,” and the story below, that which is “driving all this.”  She went on to relate a conversation she had with Saskatchewan writer, Trevor Herriot. She had asked him how she might persuade people to care about her book. He challenged her with the question, “Why do you care?”  He suggested that the writing of the book expressed a “yearning for the divine.”

Ever a researcher, Kostash’s recent return to the Greek Orthodox Church of her childhood came from wanting to understand who Saint Demetrius is to people who have faith. She confessed to having some “issues” with the church. Later, an acquaintance of hers told me that Myrna is “shaking things up” in her church. I don’t doubt it and more power to her. Institutions of all kind, not only churches, need thinkers like Kostash in their midst.

Prodigal Daughter, with its esoteric concerns and scholarly background, may not have a large commercial appeal. However, its intelligence and its author’s passion for her subject set this book clearly above the current glut of facile spiritual-journey accounts.