About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Bill's Best of 2014 Fiction

With the end of 2014 tonight I look back on a year in which I read just over 50 books which is about average for me. Over the past 15 years I have read 797 books.

My choices for the Best Fiction I have read in 2014 cover 4 very different books. As with other years my selections are not limited to books published in 2014.

Bill’s Best of 2014 Fiction are:

1.) Silver Totem of Shame by R.J. Harlick – For the second year in a row my top fiction read of the year was a Canadian mystery. Last year it was The Gifted by Gail Bowen. This year’s choice stays in Western Canada but is set in British Columbia.

There were several reasons I loved Silver Totem of Shame:

          a.) Setting – Being set in Canada is a plus for me;

b.) Personal connection – The murder took place in the Totem Pole carving shed on Granville Island, a location I have visited on many trips to Vancouver. I could see the murder in my mind from that familiarity;

c.) Strong characters – Sleuth, Meg Harris, and her husband, Eric Odjik, are both interesting people with a good relationship;

d.) Place, people and history – The mystery effectively integrates its setting, the residents of the area and their history to create a story that could only have taken place among the Haida people and their islands of Haida Gwaii; and,

e.) Social issues – Beyond being a good mystery the story looks at a current issue involving indigenous Canadians - the adoption of indigenous children by white Canadian families.

2.) An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris – It takes exceptional writing skill to take a well known real life story, the persecution and vindication of Alfred Dreyfus, and create a great work of fiction.

Harris achieves that feat by focusing on Georges Picquart, the French Army officer, who refused to let an injustice be perpetuated. Harris, by focusing on Picquart has a hero rather than a victim, Dreyfus, at the heart of the story.

It was inspiring to read of a man of integrity and moral courage who was ostracized, prosecuted and dismissed from the French Army but ultimately prevailed in having Dreyfus exonerated and personally being raised up to become Minister of War. 

3.) The Ascendant by Drew Chapman – While murder mysteries are usually my favourites The Ascendant reached the Best of 2014 list as a modern thriller. I have modest hopes that it will inspire more contemporary thrillers that do not dull the reader with an excessive body count.

For some reason I had never thought of cyber-warfare being real until I read the book. The technological attacks and counter-attacks between China and the United States were riveting. Not a physical bullet is fired but the virtual offensives are just as destructive. How many heroes of 21st Centuries thrillers rely on intellect rather physical violence? Unlike most current thrillers it was exciting and real rather than comic book.  How real was emphasized by the cyber attack on Sony over the movie, The Interview, and the subsequent downing of North Korea’s internet. (As an aside I watched The Interview with my family. It was partly curiosity and partly a personal protest against censorship that led me to watch the movie. It is often crude and never subtle. I did find The Interview entertaining. It is the opposite of The Ascendant in its plot being highly unreal.)

3.) Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller – I would never have expected that my favourite hero of the year would be an 82 year old American, Sheldon Horowitz, living in Norway.

Horowitz, a former marine and retired jeweller, struggling with issues of the elderly does not hesitate when a woman and a boy are in danger. He acts to protect a boy with whom he does not even share a language.

My appreciation of the book was summed up in the following paragraph:

The book is a modern epic that happens to be a mystery. Great themes of bravery, honour and loyalty share space with moments of absurdity. Horowitz displays improvisational skills on his journey that left me full of admiration.

It has been a good year of reading and my next post will feature my personal Best of category that I call Most Interesting.
Happy New Year readers and fellow bloggers!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bodie Island Lighthouse and By Book or By Crook

Reading the first Lighthouse Library Mystery, By Book or By Crook, set in the Bodie Island Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina I had to find out about the actual lighthouse. The cover image on the book accurately shows the lighthouse.

Eva (Vicki) has a lovely explanation in her author’s note of how the lighthouse inspired her:

The lighthouse setting and grounds are as wonderful as described. It is not however, a library. Nor is it large enough to house a collection of books, offices, staff rooms, two staircases or even an apartment.

But it is large enough to accommodate my imagination. And I hope the readers’ also.
The website outerbanks.com explains the current lighthouse is the third upon the site:

Luckily, the old adage "third time's a charm" proved true, and a third lighthouse was planned and began construction in 1871. This lighthouse was moved further North and further inland to a 15 acre site, and was nearly double the height of its predecessors. A lighthouse keepers' duplex was constructed at about the same time, and by 1872, the lighthouse was in operation, providing a beacon to passing ships with a First Order Fresnel Lens. In 1932, the Bodie Island Lighthouse became automated, and by 1953 it had been transferred into the care of the National Park Service.

The National Park website describes the climb inside the lighthouse:

The Bodie Island Lighthouse has just over 200 steps from the ground to the top, equal to climbing a 10-story building. The narrow stairs have a handrail only on one side, one-way traffic, and 9 landings.

While there is no library in the lighthouse it remains a striking landmark on the Outer Banks.

Trip Advisor has it rated the 2nd of 8 attractions in the area of Nag’s Head. Reviewers have rated it at 4.5 out of 5 stars.
I hope our family travels will one day take us to the Outer Banks so I can visit the lighthouse.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

By Book or By Crook by Eva Gates

By Book or By Crook by Eva Gates – The author is actually Canadian author, Vicki Delany, writing a new series, The Lighthouse Library Mysteries, under the name of Eva Gates. The cozy series is set in the Bodie Island Lighthouse Library on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Lucy Richardson, a professionally trained librarian has been working at Harvard. She has achieved a credible education and a suitable job. She has a stifling life in Boston. Her well-to-do family led by her formidable mother has mapped out her life. Family friend, Richard Eric Lewiston III, known as Ricky, an associate in the law firm in which her father and his father are partners, has been designated her spouse-to-be in a modern form of arranged marriage. She has glided into her 30’s vaguely dissatisfied but hardly rebellious. Then Ricky proposes. Unwilling to be “trapped into a life of social expectations” Lucy rejects Ricky and decides to change her life.

She resigns her job and heads south to the Outer Banks to spend some time with Aunt Ellen and Uncle Amos. Shortly after arrival she is offered the position of assistant librarian at the Bodie Island Lighthouse Library and the chance to live in the small apartment located on the 4th floor of the lighthouse. She is glad to accept.
The library is in a whirl as she arrives as an exhibit of first editions of Jane Austen’s six books is about to open. Lucy describes holding the 1811edition of Sense and Sensibility

I closed my eyes again and breathed. The scent was of old paper and aging leather, carrying with it memories of the foggy streets of London, the sound of horse’s hooves rattling across the cobblestones, the gentle rustle of skirts and petticoats, and the cackle of fire.

The night before the opening of the exhibit the staff, Library board and local dignitaries gather at the Library to celebrate. Wine and beer are flowing freely and emotions are clashing. Marital discord and local rivalries within the library are unleashed.

Lucy is pleasantly diverted by Mayor Connor McNeil and Officer Butch Greenblatt. The handsome Mayor had been the first boy a teenage Lucy had kissed. The equally good looking Greenblatt invites Lucy to supper.

A scream suspends the festivities. Library Board Chair, Jonathan Uppiton, has been found dead in the rare books room beside the Austen exhibit.

Suspicion falls upon the Head Librarian, Bertie, who had a nasty exchange with Uppiton just before he was killed.

Still actual evidence is sparse and anyone from the party could have slipped upstairs and killed Uppiton.

Lucy is permitted to stay in her small apartment while the investigation continues into the murder. She brings Charles, the Library’s Himalayan cat, up to stay with her.

The exhibit opens the next day and is a great success despite the murder. Local and distant lovers of Jane Austen flock to the library.

Lucy starts giving lectures about Austen to sell out audiences. Bertie reassures Lucy that she need not have in depth knowledge of Austen’s life and work. She realizes Bertie is correct after answering several queries on where Austen lived in North Carolina.

The Library’s world is turned upside down again when Sense and Sensibility is stolen. Already in jeopardy Bertie’s future is even more uncertain.

While Lucy’s dinner with Butch is canceled the Mayor invites her out. Personally Lucy dresses carefully for her date with the Mayor:

It was unadorned, cut without much shape, but made of excellent linen. If I wore it with the black leather belt that had come with the yellow dress, it would give me some much-needed curves. But stark black seemed so ….. Boston. I eyed a three-quarter-sleeved yellow sweater, cropped at the waist that I’d bought for something to throw on over shorts if a summer evening turned cool. The sweater would give the outfit a pop of color.


Though ghost stories abound about the Lighthouse Lucy is determined to stay and clear Bertie.

The book flows smoothly. It is an interesting mystery and a fascinating setting. The mix of history and sea and shore has me wanting to visit the Outer Banks. It is an excellent cozy. As I know little more about Jane Austen beyond she never lived in North Carolina I cannot comment on the Austen element. I expect readers who love Austen would find the book even more enjoyable. The book will be released on February 3, 2015.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Canadian Corporate Spirit of Christmas

As I am in Calgay which is the home of WestJet it seemed fitting to provide a video of their annual Spirit of Giving. This year involved a village in the Dominican Republic.

The video made me a little prouder of Canada. More information is available on the company blog at http://blog.westjet.com/christmas-miracle-spirit-of-giving/.

I am with my sons and their partners in Calgary. We are going to Midnight Mass at the cathedral tonight and will enjoy Christmas Day together.

All the best to blogging friends and readers around the world!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Great Sandhills and Standing Rock

My last post was a review of Cool Water by Dianne Warren in the form of a letter to the young man who had given me the book a few weeks ago. In the book Warren wrote about the landscape of southwestern Saskatchewan where the story was set.

On her website the author has a post about inspirations for her in writing the book which include landscape photos - http://www.diannewarrenauthor.com/book-inspiration/

The book opened with a 100 mile horse race from pioneer days much of which took place in the Great Sandhills. The same sandhills were in the contemporary part of the book.

Tourism Saskatchewan describes them:

The Great Sandhills of southwestern Saskatchewan are a unique 1900 sq km area of active desert-like sand dunes. Native grasses and small clumps of trees such as aspen, willow, and sagebrush flank the dune formations. Mule deer and antelope frequent the area.

Some dunes reach 15 – 20 metres in height.

In addition to wildlife several thousand cattle are pastured in the hills for several months of the year.

Oil and gas exploration takes place in the hills.

About 20 years ago our family had a summer trip around the province which included a stop in the Great Sandhills. Used to either bush or prairie it was an unusual experience to climb up the pure white sand hills and feel we were in a desert.

Warren’s photos above capture those hills which often have grass and/or trees at the base of the dunes.

A huge rock is further featured in the book. Buffalo and now cattle rub up against the rock. While rocks are not special in much of the world they are a rarity in the prairie.

Warren provides a photo of Standing Rock, a large rock on the prairie near Hazlet, Saskatchewan. It is a glacial erratic and stands out in a plain. In fact, it was used as a landmark by settlers of the area. It is 3.35 meters high and 9.14 meters long.

I have been to Hazlet to play Twilite baseball but I have not seen the rock.

I admire how Warren effectively incorporated geographic features of our province into Cool Water.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cool Water by Dianne Warren


Thank you for giving me Cool Water by Dianne Warren. I started reading it early in the week. I was caught up in the story and read all Friday evening finishing the book just before midnight. This letter will be my review for my blog instead of a conventional book review.

Did the characters resonate as deeply with you as they did with me? While I am a generation removed from living on the farm at Meskanaw I knew people who could have inspired characters for the book.

I can see the quiet bachelor Willard, living with his sister-in-law Marian, so shy he can barely talk to Marian let alone express his feelings for her. We had an equally soft spoken gentle neighbour, John, who surprised and delighted the community at 50 by finding and marrying a fine lady.

I expect you had farm neighbours like Blaine and Vicki and their six kids, a family who worked hard but could not make a go of it on the farm. I have seen the frustration and hurt in men who saw their farms gradually taken away no matter how hard they worked.

Equally in my youth the town banker, Norval in the book, was respected as an important man in the community. His decisions on credit were critical. Still, as in the book, bankers were not so much feared as worried about by farmers.

Did you personally identify with Lee, the young farmer in his mid-20’s, who forwent the opportunity to go to university on scholarship to stay with his family and farm? I saw Lee as the man I could have become had I decided not to go to university and eventually become a lawyer. You also chose a life journey from the farm that took you to university and law.

The characters spoke to me as Saskatchewan voices. I find there is generally an understated tone to rural Saskatchewan people. We have emotions but restrain them in speech.

I appreciated the occasional humour in the book. Lee, making up a solemn formal description of a local cultural past-time in imitation of old books describing foreign cultures says:

The dunes provide a handy place for local teenagers to drink their ritual beer away from the watchful eyes of adults.

The book depicted for me what it feels like to live on a Saskatchewan farm. There is nothing in town life to compare with the sense of isolation and vastness of our province than to step outside a farm house deep in a summer night with the wind blowing strongly. You feel alone in the universe.

The book depicted the loneliness of living on a farm with the nearest neighbour a half mile or more away. At the same time Cool Water set out how close you become to neighbours when they are few in number. The bonds with my farm neighbours when I was growing up were stronger than I have experienced living in town.

Cool Water was very convincing to me in its portrayal of the land on the edge of the Great Sand Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan. I would be interested in your thoughts on the description of the area for you grew up far closer to those Hills. I have visited them but once in my life. I found them impressive as they rolled across the landscape, the steady wind of Saskatchewan constantly shifting the dunes.

I appreciated that Warren was content to have drama created by the characters dealing with genuine personal challenges, some from family relationships, others related to the harsh climate of Saskatchewan. Will it ever rain?

Warren connected the history of the land with the present.

The epic 100 mile horse race to open the book from pioneer days between two cowboys drew me into the book.

The huge buffalo rock that millions of buffalo would have rubbed against before the province was settled is now rubbed by cattle.

In real life, on my home quarter we looked back in history through the arrowheads my Dad found over the years when he was cultivating the summerfallow in the northeast corner where there had been an Indian campsite.

I was moved by how Warren created separate conclusions for all the characters that were so believable. I was fully involved in the lives of people of the fictional Juiliet and amazed how Warren told their stories in the context of a single day.

I have not read a work of fiction about Saskatchewan to compare with Cool Water since I read Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell decades ago. Each book has a lyrical quality to the writing. While I love Who Has Seen the Wind it was set in the 1930’s before I was born. Cool Water has characters and a setting of our generation.

It was a deserving winner of the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction in 2010. I will remember Cool Water.

Best wishes.

Cody is a good friend of my sons who grew up on his family's farm near Eatonia, (population 449 which is slightly smaller than Juliet’s 1,011) and now lives in Vancouver.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gray Mountain and Real Life Legal Aid

John Grisham, in Gray Mountain, features a young New York City lawyer, Samantha Kofer, engaged in legal aid law in rural Virginia.

In the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic the lawyers do no criminal law. The clinic is privately funded through donations and some grants.

In Saskatchewan our provincial government funds a legal aid plan that provides legal assistance to the poor with regard to criminal matters and family law. The plan does not fund for representation in many of the areas of the Mountain clinic.

As a young lawyer I often handled legal aid cases. They were an opportunity to gain experience in court. In Saskatchewan they involved criminal law. When staff lawyers faced a conflict of interest with regard to a case or had too many files they could assign a case to a private lawyer. Members of my firm still do legal aid work. Because the payment schedule is low I now rarely handle a legal aid case.

Grisham evoked well the desperate situation of the poverty stricken with major legal problems. Without resources to hire a lawyer it is daunting to put forward a defence to a criminal charge or pursue a divorce. Legal Aid in Saskatchewan gives them a chance to be well represented.

Often it is hard for a lawyer doing legal aid as the lawyer can see their client has multiple problems. Solving the legal issue does not solve their life. It may be that there are American legal aid clinics, like Mountain, where lawyers also effectively function as social workers dealing with problems such as housing, employment and childcare. In Canada legal aid lawyers stay lawyers and would not venture into those other legal issues.

Grisham touched upon the challenges legal aid lawyers face in the daily influx of new cases or complications in ongoing cases. Probably because it would make the book too complex he did not truly delve into the daily life of a legal aid lawyer.

In Saskatchewan a legal aid lawyer would be glad to only have to deal with 1-3 new cases a day coming through the door. Here a legal aid lawyer at docket in Saskatchewan will have 6 or more new files to deal with each court day. They cannot give the extended time of the legal aid lawyers of Gray Mountain to every client.
The demands of constantly dealing with the influx of cases is far more stressful than in Gray Mountain. Sam feels the pressure of individual clients but is not really coping with the number of files real life Legal Aid lawyers must deal with in their offices.

Legal Aid lawyers I know empathsize with their clients but do not go beyond their professional boundaries to try to solve the crises of personal lives.

Grisham chose not to have Sam working on child protection cases. Among the most challenging of legal aid cases is the representation of parents from whom the government wants to take children. In Saskatchewan, the government where abuse and/or neglect is alleged, may seek with regard to children orders of supervision or a temporary committal to the government or permanent committal. I can recall many hours crafting arguments about what is the minimal acceptable level of parenting to keep children with their parents.

Grisham does express well the gratitude of many legal aid clients. They truly appreciate the efforts of their lawyer. Unlike business executives who can change lawyers on a whim legal aid clients are grateful to just have a lawyer. Often they have never had someone fight for them. They know but for their lawyer they would have no one to stand with them against the power of government.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

Gray Mountain by John Grisham – My annual Grisham legal mystery flowed just as smoothly as the previous 21 books. I started the book Friday morning and was done Sunday evening. The book is a variation on a theme Grisham has used in other books. A lawyer in a big city big time law firm leaves the soulless mega firm for a different life in the law.

Unlike many of his contemporary mysteries Grisham goes back to 2008 for Gray Mountain. After a privileged upbringing in Washington D.C., Samantha Kofer has been diligently toiling away in New York City in corporate real estate for Scully and Pershing, the world’s largest law firm with 2,000 lawyers in various offices around the globe.

After 3 years of hard work - she billed 3,000 hours in her previous year - she has a financially comfortable lifestyle, chronic sleep deprivation and six souvenir models of skyscraper projects upon which she has worked.

However, the financial meltdown after the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market has left the huge firms in chaos as major clients collapse and the flow of money becomes a trickle. With little future work and uncertainty whether the world is in recession or depression drastic cuts are made.

At Scully and Pershing Samantha (Sam to her parents and close friends, Samantha at work and Sammie to no one) is furloughed for a year. She will receive no pay for 12 months though her health benefits will continue and, if she works for a non-profit rather than with a private law firm, she will be re-hired if economic circumstances are more favourable.

Turned down by 10 non-profits who have a surplus of New York lawyers applying for positions Samantha travels to the small town of Brady, Virginia for an interview with the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic.

Deep in the mountains of Appalachia the Mountain Clinic is an unconventional legal aid office in that it handles no criminal law. Privately and modestly funded it provides free representation for the poor in a variety of areas of civil law.

Big City Sam is alternately charmed and appalled by Brady and its inhabitants. She accepts, maybe even likes, being called Miss Sam but she is depressed by the deep and pervasive poverty.

Coal dominates the economy. The former underground mining has been replaced by surface mining, a euphemism for slicing the tops of mountains to extract the coal. The massive amounts of waste soil and rock are dumped into the surrounding valleys.

Black lung disease, formerly associated with underground mining, is surging as miners breathe in coal dust from the mining and the washing and the transportation of the coal. Safety regulations mean little to the big coal companies.

Sam meets Donovan Gray, a charismatic trial lawyer tilting at the coal companies in 5 different states for their dangerous practices. He is also young, handsome, charming and separated. Donovan is an aggressive trial lawyer with a handgun mounted on his dashboard as he is followed by the thugs of Big Coal.

At the Clinic Sam is swiftly caught up in the challenges faced by the poor, especially in economically depressed areas.

Phoebe Fanning has been beaten by her husband, player in the local meth industry and a heavy user of crystal meth. Fearful for her life a restraining order is sought. Sam joins Annette Brevard from the clinic in court fighting to protect Phoebe.

Mrs. Francine Clump, 80 and ailing, asks for a new will as she does not want her children, who care little for her, to have her 80 acres. She does not want the land sold to Big Coal and then ravaged.

Pamela Booker has been fired because of the bookkeeping hassle to her employer from Pamela being garnisheed for a credit card debt she did not realize still existed. She is living out of her car with her two young children.

Sam finds life on the front lines of human legal representation more intriguing than the dull days and nights of document review high above the streets and people of Manhattan.

It is an interesting, not great Grisham book, until ……….. To say more would spoil the book. I did not see the twist coming. Grisham does not often insert a dramatic change. It works brilliantly in Gray Mountain.

Big coal and poor people make for uneven fights unless the poor have a good lawyer. Does Sam want to join the fight?

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Golden Spruce

The giant trees of the West Coast are the defining feature of Haida Gwaii. In Silver Totem of Shame, the author, R.J. Harlick provides a vivid description:

This was my first up-close look at Haida Gwaii’s famed rainforests and I was overwhelmed. Since old growth white pine grow on Three Deer Point, I was used to the size of tree Mother Earth can produce when left to her own devices, but never in my wanderings in the forests of Eastern Canada had I encountered such monsters. With diameters in excess of five to seven meters, the heights of these red cedars were in back arching territory seventy to eighty meters. According to Becky, these were babies, only a few hundred years old. The six or seven-hundred-year grandmothers were twice the size, but were only found in the inaccessible reaches of the archipelago where loggers had never tread.

For centuries a special Sitka Spruce was honoured by the Haida. It was also of great interest to the white people of the West Coast. The story of the Golden Spruce shall wind up my series of posts involving the Haida of British Columbia  and the mystery, Silver Totem of Shame:

31. - 397.) The Golden Spruce by John Vallant – In the Queen Charlotte Islands a golden Sitka spruce tree started growing about
A bench at the end of the Golden Spruce Trail overlooking the
Yakoun River where the original tree stood.
1700. Its needles were a luminous gold rather than green. In Haida mythology a small boy fleeing disaster with his grandfather looked back after he was told to only look ahead and was turned into the tree. The book explores how the giant trees of the Pacific Northwest grow over the centuries. In the last century the vast old growth forests of B.C. have been cut down. Grant Hadwin, a classic loner, worked in the logging industry. Like many loggers he loved nature. His life is transformed when he has a vision – a mystical calling from the Divine if he had been religious. He militantly turns against the logging industry. In a shocking self-indulgent protest against the logging industry he cuts down the Golden Spruce. He succeeds only in uniting the world against him. Hadwin disappears while on a quixotic sea kayak journey from Prince Rupert to the Queen Charlottes in mid-winter to attend court. It was fascinating to read the attempts made to save the legacy of the Golden Spruce by clone or graft. The results are yet uncertain. I read the book in 2 days. The book provides insight into the life changing experiences of those called by God and feel compelled to respond. (Aug. 8/07) (Best non-fiction of 2007)

A walking trail, the Golden Spruce Trail, was established in the area the tree had grown. More information on the trail  is available at http://www.gohaidagwaii.ca/blog/the-golden-spruce-trail-port-clements.

While the Golden Spruce was felled in 1997 efforts, as set out in my review above, were made to have the tree live again. A
Vancouver Sun newspaper article 2012 sets out how cuttings taken from the tree before and after it was cut down have fared. With regard to cuttings from after the tree went down the article states:

After the original tree came down, the top was sent to the Cowichan Lake Research Station. About 100 cuttings were grafted onto Sitka spruce samples and of those, 60 survived, said station manager Mark Griffin. Twenty have been planted on the property, after spending years in a greenhouse.

Some of the cuttings were given to the Haida Nation.
One was planted in Port Clements, about 10 kilometers from where the original tree stood. The photo below is of that tree. I pray that the tree thrives and grows and future generations can appreciate the majesty of the Golden Spruce.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Totem Pole Raising and Button Blankets

My last two posts have been about the totem carving shed on Granville Island and a review of Silver Totem of Shame. Tonight’s post is about Haida culture, celebrations and button blankets.

Women have a special place in Haida culture. Women from prominent members of clans have great status as matriarchs.

At the website ancientworlds.net it states:

The Haida are a matriarchal society. Property, titles, names, crests, masks, performance, even songs, are among the hereditary privileges. These are passed from one generation through the mother’s side. A chief usually inherits his title from his mother’s brother (maternal uncle). A group of related families, descending from a common ancestor forms a lineage, sharing crests, names and songs.

All families are divided into Eagle and Raven subgroups or moieties. Every Haida is either Eagle or Raven, following from the mother. If one is born Raven, he or she must marry Eagle. In ancient times, marriages were often arranged when the children were still young.

In Silver Totem of Shame Louise has been the lead matriarch in her clan. With a member of another family in the clan hosting a potlatch and raising his own totem she is about to be supplanted by Rose, the mother of the new chief.

It had been a long time since there has been a traditional chief. It is very expensive. At potlatches the chief provides gifts to the hundreds in attendance. New totem poles cost $6,500 per meter.

In real life in 2013 for the first time in 130 years a new totem pole, 40 feet tall, was erected on Haida Gwaii in honour of the agreement made 20 years earlier with the Federal Government to establish the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. The photos of the totem pole in this post are from that event. More information is available at http://cpaws.org/blog/haida-poles.

At ceremonies traditional garb includes button blankets and cone cedar hats to shed the rain that is constantly falling in Haida Gwaii.

Harlick describes Louise at the celebration:

Louise was wearing a black ankle-length blanket with a wide bright red border. Flowing creatures in red appliqué cavorted across the back. I recognized the bold eyes and sharp beak of an eagle and the long pointed beak of a hummingbird. The border and designs were edged with shimmering white buttons, hence the term “button blanket”. Her broad face beamed from under a high, flat-topped cedar hat with a similar design painted in red and black on the woven bark.

With the drama of raising totem poles and the richness of the celebrations and clothing I could see Silver Totem of Shame being well suited to being made into a movie.
My next post will conclude my quartet of posts inspired by Silver Totem of Shame with a review of a non-fiction book on the most famous giant spruce of Haida Gwaai.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Silver Totem of Shame by R.J. Harlick

Silver Totem of Shame by R.J. Harlick – As set out in my last post a young Haida totem pole carver is slain in the carving shed at Granville Island in Vancouver. Visiting the city are Meg Harris and her new husband, Eric Odjik. Both a former NHL hockey player and Ojibway Chief in Ontario, Eric is politicking amongst the Chiefs of British Columbia as he readies himself for the coming campaign for Grand Chief of the Grand Council of First Nations.  

Meg and Eric are staying in a houseboat moored on the edge of the island that is owned by a former hockey teammate of Eric. Meg, walking past the site of the murder, sees a distraught middle aged woman, verbally accuse a prominent carver of killing her son.

That night there is a feast for the Indian leaders gathered in Vancouver. Meg attends the banquet where they share “potlatch platters”:

The one in front of us overflowed with plump fried oysters of the giant variety and bright pink spot prawns, both unique to the cold seas off the West Coast. A large side of barbecued salmon filled another platter. Farther down the table, a third contained a haunch of venison smothered in a juniper berry sauce, while another was piled high with contributions from Eastern Canada, wild rice and fiddleheads. It was going to be quite the feast.

Meg and Eric learn the young carver was Allistair, a Haida who had been adopted by a white family in Vancouver.

As they are walking to the houseboat that night Eric is startled to recognize a woman in the window of a Granville Island condo. It is his stepsister, Cloe. Meg in turn is surprised because she is the distressed woman she had seen that morning.

Eric had been taken from his reserve in Quebec because his father had abandoned his mother before he was born and his mother killed in a car accident when he was two years old. Government authorities took him from his grandparents. He was adopted and raised in Calgary. Eric resented not being raised with an understanding of his Indian heritage.

Cloe, his white stepsister, had adopted Alistair when his mother, known only as Mary, had died after being stabbed when she was 8 months pregnant. The baby was saved but Mary died from her wounds.

The book touches but does not dwell upon the thorny issue of white families adopting Indian children and raising them as they did their white children. The adopted children are often frustrated as they are neither really part of Indian nor white culture. At the same time had Eric stayed on the reserve it is unlikely he would have had the opportunities and education to become the leader of his people.

Cloe and Eric have been estranged for decades. As they re-connect each struggles with the past grievances that are inevitable in troubled families.

At the same time the unnamed Haida carver suspected of the murder has stolen the log and managed to have it taken back to Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) north of Vancouver. He plans to carve a totem pole that will tell the story of his clan since the “shame” of the Old Chief.

Cloe is determined to take some of the ashes of Alastair to spread at Haida Gwaii. Feeling guilty at never seeking out his family Cloe decides to try to find his family on the islands and re-unite Allastair with his family.

Louise O’Brien, a Haida elder, has also invited Eric and Meg to come north to Skidegate for a potlatch and totem pole raising by a new Clan Chief of the Greenstone Eagles Haida.

The Haida rituals they experience are moving. My next post will be about aspects of traditional Haida culture and ceremonies and their spectacular button blankets.

In Haida Gwaii of the 21st century, life is a challenge with the fishing industry in decline and controversy over logging a continuing issue.

The book becomes a special Canadian mystery on Haida Gwaii. Harlick takes the reader into the history, geography and peoples of the islands. Great historic and cultural themes are integrated into the book.

Harlick skilfully uses the unnamed totem pole carver to introduce Haida history into the mystery.

The motivations for murder are very much from the lives of the Haida people on Haida Gwaii. I was reminded of how Stan Jones equally makes Inuit themes an important part of his Nathan Active series on the northwest coast of Alaska.

The Silver Totem of Shame in Haida Gwaii is on the edge of Canada. Beyond the islands the Pacific stretches to Asia. The islands are wild, beautiful, forbidding and fascinating.

In An Arctic Blue Death which took Meg to the northern reaches of Canada I found the ending contrived. The Silver Totem of Shame has a much better conclusion. It is a brilliant book rich in images and story. I am heading back to the bookstore for more Meg Harris mysteries.

I expect the book to be on the shortlist for best mystery for the 2015 Arthur Ellis Awards of the Crime Writers of Canada.
Silver Totem of Shame is my 9th book of 13 for the 8th Canadian Book Challenge at the Book Mine Set blog.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Totem Carving Shed on Granville Island

Usually if I am writing an extra post about a book I put up the post after the review. Tonight’s post will precede my review of Silver Totem of Shame by R.J. Harlick.

The book opens in the totem carving shed on Granville Island in Vancouver long into the night where a young Indian is carving a cedar log into a totem pole:

He breathed in the rich scent of the cedar. He imagined this is what it smelled like on Haida Gwaii, a place he’d never visited, despite it being the home of his people. Only in his dreams did he walk amongst the giant cedar and Sitka spruce that covered every inch of the mountainous islands. Someday, when he had the money, he would go.

Someday will never come for he is murdered in the shed.

As I read the opening pages I realized reading fate had made the timing of the book perfect for I was on my way to Vancouver last week for the Grey Cup Game, the Canadian Football League Championship.

From past visits I could already visualize the setting of the crime. On every trip to Vancouver I go to Granville Island. It is a special place tucked underneath one of the massive bridges over False Creek.

Last Saturday morning I visited the island.

Between a building housing shops, including a store featuring indigenous arts, and the cement yard is the carving shed.

Open at the front and sides the shed contains massive portions of cedar logs for carving into totem poles. As portrayed on the photo to the left beautifully carved salmon are mounted on logs at the entrance.

As you stand outside the shed the wonderful scent of the cedar logs flows around you.

Looking inside the shed you can see the poles in various stages of completion. Another photo below shows an example. Most of the time there is no one actually carving during the day.

I stood outside the shed for a few minutes thinking of the vivid images being carved into the logs and the powerful presence created when the poles are erected. Each totem pole tells a story in the figures carved upon the pole.

The book came alive through my visit to the Island.

After leaving the shed I walked through the Public Market which is filled with vendors selling fresh fish, meat, vegetables, fruits and flowers. I enjoyed a plate of lovely French country fare (roast chicken, small potatoes in their skins, red beets and green salad with homemade dressing) from a trio of young French men. (The cost was but $12.50.)

I found a Christmas present for Sharon, a translucent deep red with persimmon coloured flowers silk jacket, in a small boutique. The jacket was designed within the store and made upon the island. The shops at Granville are individual rather than chain stores.

Later we gathered at the Granville Island Brewing Company taproom for a tasting quartet of their beers that cost but $7.00.

Earlier I mentioned a cement yard. Part of the charm of the island is its mixture of shops, restaurants, playhouse and industry. Brightly coloured tanks are in the cement yard adjacent to the shops.

Every reader of Silver Totem of Shame will never see the carving shed without thinking of the book.

Each visitor to Vancouver should go down to Granville Island. Give yourself at least half a day. I predict you will be entranced.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Email Exchange with Michael Redhill on A Door in the River (Part I)

Recently I wrote a review of A Door in the River by Michael Redhill. It was an unfavourable review of the third book in a series I have enjoyed. Links to my review and my post on other reviewers is contained later in this post. I decided to follow up by writing to Michael. Our exchange of emails follows.
I rarely write to a writer after posting a negative review as I do not want the author to feel I am trying to be provocative. I decided to write to you with regard to A Door in the River as I had greatly enjoyed the earlier books with Hazel Micallef.
I wanted to ask you a few questions to give you a chance to respond with regard to issues I had with the book:

1.) I set out in my review my conclusion that the second half of the book moved from being a mystery to a modern thriller. Do you agree that the second half of the book is sharply different from the first half and earlier books in the series? If so, why did you move in a new direction?

2.) I regret to say I did not find the setting of the second half credible. Was it intended to be a real or an allegorical place?

3.) Hazel’s actions as the book reached its conclusions were shocking to me and so different from the character I had come to know in the series. Do you consider you changed her character for the ending? If you did I would be interested in why.

I was also interested in what other reviewers said about A Door in the River and put up a further post with excerpts from a number of different reviews.

If you would like to reply and have your answers posted I will post them with this email.
I appreciated our past exchange of emails when you responded to my questions on becoming public that you were Inger Ash Wolfe.

Bill Selnes
Hi Bill,

Thanks for the courtesy of your letter. I'm very glad that there are people taking these books seriously, and I appreciate your reviewing them and generating discussion about them. I would agree with you that Door is not the strongest entry in the series, and that the setting was too far-fetched. The setting in the novel replaced another one that I eventually decided wasn't interesting enough. I may have gone for more or too interesting. I think the crime is horrifying, but I don't agree that the second half of the book changes genre.

I'm not sure what specifically you mean about the change in Hazel's character. Do you mean the fact that she lets her quarry go? I'd be interested to know how my female readers felt about that. Hazel is both a mother and a daughter and if you are referring to that climactic scene in the forest, I think a great deal is at play there. But maybe you can be more specific. 

I'm sorry you didn't love the book. The next one in the series will be out next fall I believe, and I think you'll like it more ...

I have sent a further email to Michael and he advised he intends to reply when he has time. I will put up that exchange when complete.