Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

How Deep is the Lake – a book review

June 7, 2017

How Deep is the Lake: A Century at Chilliwack Lake, by Shelley O’Callaghan (Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2017).

Author Shelley O’Callaghan shares stories about four generations of family life at her summer cottage on Chilliwack Lake, a two-hour drive east of Vancouver–but she also delivers much more. A retired environmental lawyer and first time author, her descriptions of summers spent fishing, swimming, and hiking at the turquoise-colored lake set among mountains, include profiles of other settlers and Indigenous people who have populated the area over time. Researching many hours at the Chilliwack archives, reading extensively about local First Nations people and reaching out to interview others with ties to the lake, she achieves a multi-layered memoir.

So begins my review of this book, published in the Summer 2017 issue of BC History.

Fire Walkers – a review

April 25, 2017

by Janet Nicol

Fire Walkers, a memoir by Bethlehem Terrefe Gebreyohannes. Mawenzi House Publishers, Toronto, 2016.

Fire Walkers, a memoir by Bethlehem (“Beth”) Gebreyohannes, provides a valuable female viewpoint of an Ethiopian-Canadian’s refugee experience. The author recounts fifteen months of her life in vivid and heart-felt detail, beginning in 1980 when she was 14 years old. Beth’s father and step-mother reluctantly organized their family’s secret escape out of war-ridden Addis Ababa and across the Ethiopian border to the port city of Djibouti. Realizing they were not on a family holiday, Beth and her two older brothers, Yared and Asrat expressed shock, confusion and anger at their parents. Still, the family remained united as they endured several days traversing the Danakil Desert on foot, wary of roving soldiers, scattered land mines and unpredictable terrain.

Dangers and hardships also included long days enduring the hottest desert in the world. Beth’s step-mother Meskeram, especially agonized over temporarily leaving her baby daughter behind in the care of others. The family encountered strangers who were both unscrupulous and amazingly generous. They coped with theft, sickness, sexual predators and separation, underscoring their vulnerability—and stoicism.

The landscape and people of the east African region are otherworldly, as the author depicts: “The camels’ gurgling sound woke me up from the sheet of sand I slept on,” and on another morning: “….I saw that everything blended together in the desert—the camels, the shrubs, and even the sky.”

Beth’s family were Christians, descended from Ethiopian royalty but encountered diverse peoples, including Somalians, nomadic Afar tribesmen and Djiboutians who spoke French, Afar, Somali and Arabic. Men chewed the stimulant known as qat, one of the author’s many fascinating observations. She shares many other cultural experiences ranging from dining on sweet tea and goat stew in the desert to the joy of swimming in Djibouti’s Red Sea.

When Beth and her brother initially arrived at a refugee camp in Dikhil ahead of other family members, the reader glimpses the harsh life and prejudices refugees experience. Beth’s family however, found sanctuary for several months in a home offered by a woman who worked in the home a wealthy man. As the author noted: “The kindness we received from strangers had made all the troubles, wars, homelessness, statelessness, and hunger more bearable.”

Family bonds were valued above all else. When Beth is reunited with her father—for whom she dedicates this memoir—she writes, “I fell into his arms, smelt the scent of his cigarette on his white shirt. If only I could be around my father all the time.”

In the afterward and acknowledgements the reader learns the fate of Beth and other family members since re-settlement in Canada. Many individuals and writers’ classes inspired the author to tell her powerful story, resulting in this vividly written and insightful contribution to memoir literature.

Canadian fiction reviews – short stories & a psychological thriller

April 4, 2017

The Old World and Other Stories by Cary Fagan

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Inspired by discarded photographs from the past, prolific Toronto-based author Cary Fagan has crafted a remarkable collection of “snapshots,”—that is to say, very short stories. Prepare for a roller coaster ride of intuitively grasped portraits and unpredictable plots ranging from the sublime to the grotesque, based on 35 “orphaned” images.

The full review is available on-line at the Canadian Maple Tree Literary Supplement.

The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan

An intriguing sixth novel from Toronto-based writer Nicole Lundrigan, this psychological thriller will resonate with readers long after the last page is read. Two plot lines unfold in alternating chapters, one told by an anonymous narrator, the other from the point of view of substitute teacher Warren Botts. The reader can safely assume the unnamed narrator is an adolescent, otherwise the identity and connection to Warren’s story is unknown until the final chapter.

The full review is available on line at the Canadian Maple Tree Literary Supplement.

Link at –

Book reviews – Ootsa Lake pioneers & Mazie Baker

March 2, 2017

by Janet Nicol

Ootsa Lake Odyssey: George and Else Seel—A Pioneer Life on the Headwaters of the Nechako Watershed, by Jay Sherwood. Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay, 2016.

This biographical account of the Seels, a German-Canadian family who lived in BC’s central interior, offers fascinating details about pioneer life, settlers’ interactions with First Nations people and resource-based development. Maps, photographs and most remarkably, the poetry and diary entries of Else Seel, compliment the narrative.

The full review is available in the spring, 2017 issue of BC History.


The Amazing Mazie Baker: The Squamish Nation’s Warrior Elder,
by Kay Johnston. Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay, BC, 2016.

Moses and Sarah Antone named their daughter “Velma Doreen” when she was born in 1931 at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, but everyone called her ‘Mazie.’ A strong advocate for First Nations people, Mazie spent her early childhood on the Capilano Reserve in North Vancouver. Her family was part of the Squamish Nation and their shoreline home was on land where the Lion’s Gate Bridge and Park Royal Shopping Mall stand today. Mazie was an elder when she agreed to share her remarkable life story to author Kay Johnston. The result is an important and revealing biography of an aboriginal woman’s life and fight for justice—made more powerful and intimate by several paragraphs throughout the account in Mazie’s own words.

The full review is available in the spring, 2017 issue of BC History.


The Life and Art of Mary Filer – a book review

December 1, 2016

by Janet Mary Nicol

A pioneer in glass art, Mary Filer was born in Edmonton in 1920 and passed away earlier this year in Vancouver, aged 95. The subject of the ninth book in Mother Tongue’s invaluable “Unheralded Artists of British Columbia” series, Christina Johnson-Dean reveals Filer as a remarkable Canadian artist
whose glass sculptures were original, bold, and inspirational.

Johnson-Dean was given full access to Filer’s personal papers by the artist’s nephew, providing a crucial source for this rich visual and biographical account.


The full review is published on line in BC Booklook/The Orbsby Review at –

#54 Breaking the glass ceiling

BC history book reviews

August 9, 2016

by Janet Nicol

I review two books for BC History magazine, Fall 2016.  Here’s an excerpt from each:


Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle. Edited by the Graphic History Collective with Paul Buhle. (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016) $29.95

Conveying history through a blend of graphics and narrative—-also known as “comics”—-has the ability to bring a wider level of audience engagement to Canada’s past. This is certainly the aim of the Graphic History Collective, a group of writers and artists sharing a passion for untold histories of working people. Drawn to Change presents nine such stories, five of them are set wholly or partially in British Columbia.

Among them is the story of Bill Williamson.  He knew all about riots, strikes and worker struggles. His life story as a hobo, on-to-Ottawa trekker, Spanish Civil War veteran and photographer is a fascinating journey through the hardships and brutalities of several decades of the twentieth century. Born in Winnipeg, Williamson was well-travelled by 1935 when he helped organize relief camp workers in Vancouver. Thousands hoisted themselves on to trains heading for Ottawa, where they planned to bring their grievances to the Prime Minister. Williamson’s later story— along with other Canadians fighting fascism in Spain—is another fascinating tale. Williamson not only survived warfare, but also managed to live a long life. Photographs taken by him during the Spanish Civil War and housed in the National Archives of Canada, along with his letters and interviews, inform this riveting graphic biographical account.



The Native Voice: The Story
of How Maisie Hurley and Canada’s First Aboriginal Newspaper Changed a Nation. By Eric Jamieson. (Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2016) $24.95

The Native Voice was a unique newspaper founded in post-WW II Vancouver by Maisie Hurley—-at the behest of Haida elder Alfred Adams—-to advocate for aboriginal people. This monthly newspaper was the official organ of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia.  Articles written within its pages by First Nations activists became a powerful means of connecting to others. The NativVoice also offered a rare perspective
for Vancouver residents who would not have been exposed to aboriginal issues in the city’s mainstream press. In this study of the newspaper, popular historian Eric Jamieson entwines Hurley’s lively biography with that of several First Nations’ leaders and establishes a well-researched historical context for their political struggles.

For more information about BC History magazine, go to their website -

Canadian fiction reviews

August 9, 2016

by Janet Nicol

I review three Canadian novels in the latest issue of Maple Tree Literary Supplement #21, an on-line journal. Here are brief excerpts –


The Motorcyclist,
by George Elliott Clarke.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2016
288 pp; $16.99

George Elliott Clarke, an accomplished poet, playwright and essayist, turns his considerable talent to writing a novel offering a protagonist infrequently portrayed in Canadian literature. The Motorcyclist depicts a year in to the life of Carl Black, a young black man in post-war Halifax. Told with energetic and lyrical prose, the author, a Toronto-based writer born and raised in Windsor, Nova Scotia, was inspired by the motorcycle diary of his father. Clarke creates a character who is neither hero nor anti-hero, but rather one man attempting to negotiate his way within an environment that is limiting, laden with ‘British’ culture and potent with hostility. A ‘player’ in the dating world, Carl juggles dates with several females at a time as the novel progresses, aiming for conquest without entanglement. His pre-occupation with sexual gratification drives the plot, though not the novel’s ultimate message.

Thirteen Shells
by Nadia Bozak
Toronto, ON: House of Anansi, 2016
320 pp, $19.95

Thirteen Shells is a coming of age novel about Shell, the only child of bohemian parents living in a small community outside Toronto in the late seventies and eighties. This is Nadia Bozak’s third novel and “parts of this book are adapted from childhood memories,” she tells readers, but “it is fundamentally a work of fiction.”

Today I Learned It Was You
by Edward Riche
Toronto, ON: House of Anansi, 2016
280 pp $19.95

Out of Newfoundland comes delicious contemporary satire from one of its “home-grown” authors, Edward Riche. A versatile writer of stage and screen too, in this fourth novel, “Today I learned It Was You,” Riche plots the imagined happenings of people in St. John’s with a wit and wisdom we come to expect from Newfoundlanders. The reader is transported beyond the charming veneer of ‘candied colored’ houses rising from the city’s shoreline, to witness the goings-on of ‘real’ people living messy, chaotic lives.

For the full reviews go to -

Soviet Princeton & Cold Case Vancouver

March 24, 2016


Soviet Princeton: Slim Evans and the 1932-33 Miners’ Strike, by
Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat, New Star Books, Vancouver, 2015

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Authors Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat were inspired to write this local history after discovering an old photograph and two songs about a Princeton-based coal mining strike in 1932-33. The couple, both folk singers and former teachers residing in Princeton, decided to explore further. They realized the depression-era labour dispute still stirred up emotions among town residents with long-time family roots. And so the couple avoided gathering oral histories, confining their research to public documents. “We suspect that there will be memories which will be dislodged when reading this book,” the authors explain in the preface,”and perhaps these memories will not be pleasant ones.”
The trade union strike that divided a town revolves as much around Vancouver-based labour activist Arthur “Slim” Evans as the people of Princeton.

For the full book review, check out BC History magazine, Spring 2016.


Cold Case Vancouver: The City’s most Baffling Unsolved Murders, Eve Lazarus Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2015

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Eve Lazarus, author of four books on Vancouver and Victoria’s past, was initially interested in the history of homes. Now this North Vancouver freelancer employs her accumulated research skills to examine unsolved murders. The result is her most compelling book to date.

“Cold Case Vancouver” provides 19 true crimes still baffling the police today, beginning with a case in 1944. Her final story, much to the readers’ relief, is a solved crime. Most victims are female and most perpetrators are assumed to be male. Every aspect of the cold cases are chilling, from the details about how the evil deed occurred to the fact the perpetrator got away with murder. Also woven in to the crime descriptions are the reactions of the victim’s family, police, media and members of the public. Cases unfolding over the decades up to the 1990s, give the reader a window into Vancouver residents’ attitudes and lifestyles. The author seamlessly moves from describing the past to providing contemporary perceptions of the crime by including interviews with experts.

For the full review, check out BC History magazine, Spring, 2016.

Amor de Cosmos & history of Jervis Inlet – book reviews

November 15, 2015


The De Cosmos Enigma, by Gordon Hawkins. Ronsdale Press, Vancouver, 2015. $17.95 (paperback) 151 pages

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Amor De Cosmos, an early British Columbia politician, is the subject of an intriguing biography by Gordon Hawkins. Building on an earlier work by George Woodcock, the author has literally re-traced De Cosmos’ steps, travelling from Nova Scotia to California as well as digging in to the archives in Victoria, BC. Despite this extensive research, Hawkins is unable to fully unlock all the complexities of De Cosmos’ personality—thus the book’s title. Still, it is a portrait which helps us understand both the roots of our province and one man’s contributions.

Check out the full review in BC History, Winter, 2015.


The Royal Fjord: Memories of Jervis Inlet, by Ray Phillips, Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, BC, 2015. $22.95

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Jervis Inlet, a breathtaking fjord cutting 60 kilometres deep into the Coast Mountains north of Vancouver, is the subject of a collection of histories by Ray Phillips. Conversational in writing style, the author describes interesting people who populated the area over the past century, including original homesteaders and their descendants. The reader learns of ordinary men who worked the land as loggers, fishers, miners, hunters and much later, tourist resort owners. Women ventured into these wilds too, supporting their husband’s work and raising children in isolated communities up and down the jagged coastline and on small islands.

Check out the full review in BC History, winter 2015 issue.

Book reviews – A novel, a memoir, love letters and a history mystery

October 9, 2015

Only a website away are four books I have reviewed  for Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Issue #20.  The reviews are:

Where the nights are twice as long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets, 1883-2014 edited by David Eso and Jeanette Lynes
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2015, 432 pp, $22.95


Will Starling (a novel)
by Ian Weir. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2014, 483 pp, $32.95

….as well as a memoir about growing up Jewish in South Africa –

White Schooldays: Coming-of-Age In Apartheid South Africa
by Isme Bennie. South Carolina, USA: CreateSpace, 2014 166 pp, $26.00

and Komar’s third “history mystery”  –

The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin, Jr.
by Debra Komar, Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2015 288 pages, $19.95

All reviews available at  –