Book Reviews

J.C. Sulzenko’s South Shore Suite: poetry to celebrate

37 Tunney March 2018 a3.Cover.19 Sept 2017review by Deborah Tunney

J.C. Sulzenko tells us in the introduction to her soulful and varied poetry collection, South Shore Suite … POEMS, that the inspiration to gather her poems together from the past four decades was Canada’s sesquicentennial celebration. These poems not only celebrate this Canadian milestone but also one Canadian woman’s life, her appreciation of nature, her empathetic recording of other lives and her awareness of time’s passing.

To do this, she divides the collection into four segments, the first and second being a meditation on the role of nature in a life spent in observation and appreciation, the third illustrates her keen observation of character in a segment appropriately entitled “Cameo Appearances,” and in the fourth she looks at aspects of time, creating a sense of closure for the collection as a whole.

Sulzenko sees in nature and in particular the landscape of Prince Edward County, the symmetry and wide, overarching beauty that defines and limits our lives. Many of her poems are inspired by the quiet certainty of haiku, by its ability to slow life to an image that points to the miraculous and capture the frozen essence of a moment. Her touch here is gentle and fine, and perfect for the intent of poem:

it’s alright, okay
to become much like the sand:
water-weary, sun-bleached
reduced to grains that glimmer
as waves advance and waves withdraw.

 One of the longer poems of the first section gives us the demise of a man in the very nature that the poet has glorified. His death stills the beauty – this place where he can “find no wonder” so that by morning he is reduced to “an object to recover with a boat and body bag.” The language here shifts from the wonder of nature to the blunt and painful reality of death, and it is this shift that stops readers and makes them, with a renewed reverence, appreciate the encompassment of nature, holding both life and death.

Although the poet’s approach in “Cameo Appearances” is to give us unique personalities, the underlying questions and concerns are the same as in the rest of the collection: the meaning, appreciation and mystery of life. Listen to the economy of this poem as it paints with quick, deft strokes a portrait of a doctor:

Coat off, computer on, patients
questions, examination, diagnosis, injections

Prescription, referrals, reports
No excuse if she runs late

These are the moments that occupy a life, give it its shape and resonance. In the poem “Light on Bay,” Sulzenko gives us an empty lighthouse, bereft of keepers, as a soulless entity: “those lighthouses, empty now, still shine/a safe course for ships, but without a soul”. This poem is an exploration of the family that lived there, of the era that allowed that life choice and both are strikingly eulogized in the calm sadness captured by those closing words.

One of the most poignant poems in the last section chronicles the loss, through euthanasia, of a beloved pet. It describes in almost clinical terms what the vet must do, but ends with the human need for comfort. “He returns to the living room/Places his hand on the spot/where she died/Still warm.” It is here that Sulzenko is at her strongest. She leads us with fine, careful but stripped-down language to a place where we must contemplate the savage, uncompromising emptiness that remains.

The poems in the first section and half of the second are not titled or numbered and the resulting sense of flow and inclusion will either make the reader feel the unity of the work or be annoyed by its formlessness. I found it on first reading a bit disorienting, a feeling that lessened with each reading as I came to appreciate how each poem leads to the next and leans on its neighbouring poem for increased poignancy. However, a small quibble with the book production: the font was a sans serif, which I did not enjoy, and the kerning for certain words seemed clumsy.

This is a collection that rewards the reader with its careful, precise and often-beautiful rendition of those elements in life that enclose us: nature, other people and the progress of time. As she writes: “when it falls to death, the line between/what’s real and what you hope for/breaks you.”

As readers we thank Sulzenko for honouring Canada’s 150th by gathering her poems into this enlightening collection and for her clear-sighted vision of our human condition.

Deborah-Anne Tunney is a former communication officer and a writer of both prose and poetry whose work has appeared in many literary journals.

South Shore Suite … POEMS,
by JC Sulzenko
Milford, Ont., 
Point Petre Publishing, 2017.
Available at Octopus Books (116 Third Ave.), Singing Pebble Books (206 Main St), Books on Beechwood (35 Beechwood), Perfect Books (258 Elgin), from the publisher and Dog Who Cried Snake


The Dog who Cried Snake
The Dog Who Cried Snake,
by Larry McCloskey.
Ottawa, Dog-Eared Books, 2017.
Available from AMAZON or from

The Dog Who Cried Snake

by Larry McCloskey

review by JC Sulzenko

The Dog Who Cried Snake, local writer Larry McCloskey’s most recent novel for young adults, embraces the world of street folk in Ottawa’s Byward Market.

While at first blush themes of homelessness, belonging and greed may not seem a comfortable “fit” for a story aimed at this age group, McCloskey works his magic to lend insight into such issues by giving the job of narrator to a dog.

Max, a Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix, is plucky, scrappy and very vocal. The same age (in dog years) as his human partner, 75-year–old Mickey, Max talks and talks back to her. She alone can understand what he says. Their dialogue, Max’s down-home philosophical musings about humans’ habits, along with Mickey’s principles and street savvy, give the book much of its character.

The action takes place on sidewalks and inside buildings familiar to anyone living in Ottawa. Shelters, a basilica, a shopping mall, a bridge, an underground garage and back alleys all give the story a real feel. I will see these locales differently after reading the book.

With Mickey and Max at the centre of the action, the good-guy core cast of street folk includes lovable, vulnerable Bigster, dancing Jimson and Frankie, whose death provides the catalyst for what is both a social commentary and a murder mystery.

The novel took me into the world of people living on the streets, without romanticizing about how tough their life choices are and how they manage to survive with so little. Max at one point observes that street people remind “humans who have too much they should share with those who have too little.”

I welcome such a reminder as I am often in a quandary as to how to behave when I am offered goods or asked for money on one corner or another. What The Dog Who Cried Snake does well is illustrate how each street person has a story worthy of respect. That’s no mean feat.

It’s an eye-opener to spend days and nights with the characters in this setting. Where to sleep, how and what to eat, whom to trust or fear colour their every hour. Readers learn how some of them came to the streets, while all we know of Mickey is that she lost her family somewhere along the way and will not speak of it. The uniqueness and humanity of these street folk shine. I was rooting for them from page 1.

Of course, there are bad guys, including violent Snake of the title with his gang of thugs, and an organization seeking to rid downtown of  “undesirables” so that the town can seek the Most Beautiful City title. Drugs and crime and the indifference (at best) of authorities enter the mix as well.

Several chapters contain skirmishes and adventures where Max’s nervy sleuthing uncovers vital information. They pale in comparison to the climax confrontation and the denouement, both of which are most satisfying.

I will resist my urge to give away more of the plotline here. I do not want to deprive potential readers of pleasure in discovering for themselves what happens within the novel’s 113 pages.

Larry McCloskey cofounded Dog-Eared Books. Judging from this second offering from him under that imprint, I’m hoping for more.

JC Sulzenko is a Glebe writer and poet whose poetry collection, South Shore Suite…Poems, was published by Point Petre Publishing in November 2017. Her award-winning centos appeared in The Banister anthologies (2016, 2013). She curates the “Poetry Quarter” for this paper and sits on the selection board for Bywords.



by Susan Townley

This year’s March Break theme at the library was Tune In/Branche-toi, a program exploring the wonders of sound and music through books, films and performances. Here is a selection of new picture books that celebrate music and sound that are available at Sunnyside, your local library branch.

la-la-laLa, La, La is the captivating work of renowned children’s author Kate Dicamillo, and Jamie Kim’s luminous nighttime scenes convey the emotions of the story with watercolour and ink illustrations. An exploration of friendship, loneliness and love, this is a picture book for all ages, adults included. The story follows a singing girl’s search for a friend in her world until one night her song is finally heard by the moon. With only one word, this almost wordless picture book is one that even the youngest reader can understand. It is a reminder of how powerful we can be when we reach out to one another.

9780545722889_mresThe power of the voice is the theme of another new picture book, The Rooster who would not be Quiet, by Carmen Agra Deedy. Set in the noisy village of La Paz where the cacophony is so loud that mayor Don Pepe decrees, “No loud singing in public.” Soon his laws cause the town to become as silent as a tomb. Not for long though, for soon a cocksure rooster enters the scene and refuses to be quiet. Despite the mayor’s threats of imprisonment and death, the rooster continues to sing, encouraging the villagers to follow suit and eventually driving the unhappy mayor out of town.

Coco-Miguel-and-the-Grand-Harmony-e1506492335473Music is the narrator of the beautifully illustrated Miguel and the Grand Harmony by Newbery Medal winner Matt de la Peña. Music is everywhere in the town of Santa Cecilia and when she comes across young Miguel, she instantly recognizes the longing in his heart. She knows that she must find a way to bring music into his life. The vivid and colourful illustrations by Ana Ramirez capture the mood of the story, be it joy or sadness in Miguel’s life and music.

d4b8e2d926533b77a98c09532a350c4fEvery Bunnydance, written and illustrated by Ellie Sandall, is bound to set everyone’s toes tapping. The story opens with bunnies clapping, twirling, dancing and generally having a rip-roaring good time until suddenly a fox appears. Every bunny must run and hide! When they peek out they find that the fox is dancing, flipping and playing a clarinet! However, when his song is finished he is sad and lonely…no one has joined him. When the curious bunnies emerge, a new friendship is born. The unlikely friendship is a refreshing twist on the usual “evil fox” plot. The muted rainbow illustrations are charming and the rhyming text is a fun read-aloud.

imagesSay Zoop! is a fun interactive read for adults and children and the latest picture book from Herve Tullet, the well-known author of Press Here, Mix It Up and Let’s Play. This time Tullet’s focus is on sounds and patterns. A great lap-time book that is useful for introducing musical concepts such as volume, pitch and tone as well as mathematical concepts such as patterns, sets and counting. Tullet artfully uses simple shapes with white space, letting the rhythm of the story evoke the joyful energy in the illustrations.

9781250127709Lastly, a book to celebrate the new spring weather that is surely on the way: Singing in the Rain is based on the song by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. The illustrator, Tim Hopwood, continues his collection of picture books based on song lyrics that he began with What a Wonderful World and Winter Wonderland. Happy singing children dance, splash and sing their way through a dark cityscape that pops with colour. The city transitions to the rainforest as the children continue their rainy-day adventures with rainforest animals, waterfalls and jungle vegetation. As the book ends, they return to the city as the sky lightens in the distance. Hopwood’s energetic watercolour illustrations are a perfect mix with this well-known song.

Hope to see you soon at Sunnyside Branch!

Susan Townley loves to sing, dance and have fun every day in the Children’s Department at the Sunnyside Branch Library.

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