Review: Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee

Jeff Zentner
Penguin Teen, 2019

40645629There’s a line on page 87 of this book that Josie, the romantic lead, voices: “I’ve had boyfriends who were nothing but irony and sarcasm, and it grated after a while.” For me, this sentence sums up this book.

Josie and sidekick Delia are intensely self-absorbed high school seniors. One is plagued by too much choice, too much that comes easily to her. The other is plagued by loss and lack. Their joy is making public access TV together while dressed as smart-talking vampires. If you like your realism lashed with snark, this book is a great pick. It would make a strong screenplay, and I suspect a movie is what the author is after.

The novel warms up considerably in the last few pages, once the core story is resolved. There are multiple passages of Delia reflecting on her resilience, alongside numerous authorial sentiments about the importance of friendship and secure love. In many ways, these chapters form a coda to the larger plot; they are very different in pace and tone. Readers may notice, in fact, that the last third of the book feels incongruous and uncomfortably pasted together. Although Josie dominates the main plot, these last few chapters underline that the book is really about Delia. At this point the alternating-narrators structure collapses as a device and reveals a failed writing experiment.

Written as a tribute to the average teen, this novel will feel relatable and identifiable for many readers. Expect them to question why Delia and Josie sound interchangeable, though, and to feel manipulated by the unknitting of the narrative structure at the book’s conclusion.

 

This review was originally published on LibraryThing on April 28, 2019.

 

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Review: Poetree

Caroline Pignat
Illustrated by François Thisdale
Red Deer Press, 2018

A tree is so much more than “just” a tree. In Poetree, Caroline Pignat sets a tree as the central object around which a calendar year, four seasons, and an ecosystem turns. Through season-by-season couplets and clever acrostics that draw attention to many features of the natural world, the book offers engaging forms both for kids just beginning to read and spell and for writers discovering and trying poetry for themselves.

It is the illustrations in this book that really stand out for me, however. They are sumptuous, featuring a captivating palette that evolves through the year depicted by the poems. There’s richness here for both readers and pre-readers. Wow!

A book that is enjoyable on many levels, Poetree will make a fine addition to classroom libraries (especially for language arts and science teachers) and a thoughtful gift for any reader who enjoys language and writing.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

 

 

Review: Too Young to Escape

Van Ho and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Pajama Press, 2018

On a May morning, four-year-old Van wakes up to discover her family is gone — a nightmare for any child. But this is a nightmare from which Van cannot awake. After a day of confusion and misdirection, she learns the truth: her mother and siblings have followed her father and her sister to Canada to escape from the Communist government in Vietnam. Because Van is so young, she has been left behind, in care of her grandmother, until the family can afford to send for both of them.

From this terrifying moment, the story unfolds chronologically. Van is a guest in her aunt and uncle’s home and must work every day before and after school to help keep the household solvent. She is harassed by a bullying boy whose father is a member of the military police. She is ill and must take medicine regularly, but medicine is costly and so Van often has little to eat and no new clothes. All she can do is wait until she is old enough to leave the country and rejoin her family — and if that day ever comes, will she be able to forgive her mother for leaving her behind?

Too Young to Escape is a compelling story about the aftermath of war for children. Van is not the only child abandoned by her family, she discovers, nor is she the only one who has suffered. The fact that this book is memoir, not fiction, leaves tantalizing gaps in the story, only partly filled by interviews with Van Ho’s mother and father in the back matter. (The pictures of Van and her family will add immediacy to the reading experience.) Sensitive readers will be moved, and possibly shocked, by the challenges Van faces — but also reassured by her resilience and compassion.

Too Young to Escape offers a piercing firsthand account of the conflict in Vietnam, which continues to resonate in popular culture decades later. The book’s plucky young protagonist adds a diverse voice to a literature that continues, regrettably, to be necessary for today’s readers.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2018.

 

Review: Paths to the Stars

Edward Willett
Shadowpaw Press, 2018

Many students get their start as serious readers of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) in junior high or early senior high. Often they read the classics in the genre without ever realizing that SFF authors are alive and producing right here in Canada. Paths to the Stars offers readers a sly and good-humoured introduction to the work of Saskatchewan-based, award-winning writer Edward Willett, best known for his novels Marseguro and Terra Insegura. The twenty-two short stories in this collection, compiled from two decades of writing and publishing, feature prairie characters and landscapes, comical scenarios, thought-provoking moral conundrums, and more — situating imaginative writing with a clear sense of place.

With their compression and light literary touches, these stories may nudge readers into reading more short fiction in SFF — and what a bounty is available today! They may also be a sneaky way to encourage less avid readers to explore the structure and features of literary short stories in a more palatable and accessible form. Paths to the Stars should have broad appeal and would make an excellent addition to a classroom library and a fine recommendation from a trusted reader. I really enjoyed this book.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2018.

 

Review: Yipee’s Gold Mountain

Raquel Rivera
Red Deer Press, 2017

Yipee (a corruption of Yip Yee) and Na-Tio meet under unlikely circumstances. She (dressed as a boy) is searching for ranch work, and he is running from shame after disobeying his father. They decide to travel together, and with their combined resources they find work and come of age in the American West at a pivotal moment in history.

Yipee’s Gold Mountain is historical fiction intended for struggling readers, but its layered issues will also reward strong, contemplative readers. The story unfolds through alternating chapters, Yipee’s told in first person, Na-Tio’s told in third person. But there’s a lot going on narratively besides the plot. The story raises complex questions about what it means to be an American, how people give and receive care over our lives, and how gender and perceptions shape our experiences and the way others value us. The novel is likely to generate substantial conversation and could work well in a small classroom or teen book group (the author offers her own perspectives on some of these questions in the back matter).

I kept thinking about the story, the characters, and the questions the novel raised long after I closed Yipee’s Gold Mountain; for me, that’s the mark of a thoughtful book. As Canadians try to recognize and unpack settler culture and to understand Indigenous concerns, books like this can help readers appreciate nuances of history that may otherwise be lost.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

 

 

Review: Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

Jonathan Auxier
Puffin, 2018

Nan Sparrow is tough: the strongest, nimblest, and luckiest of London’s climbers. She is also nursing private grief. She has lost the Sweep, the kind-hearted man who raised her from infancy, and she is locked in a bitter contest with a boy for the coveted apprenticeship with master chimney sweep Wilkie Crudd. When Nan appears to die in a chimney fire, she finds Charlie, who turns out to be a golem. She also meets Miss Bloom, a teacher at a girls’ school who befriends Nan and supports her new independence. But what will it cost Nan to leave the dangers of the street?

Sweep is a historical fantasy set in Victorian England. The novel is organized in part around William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and portrays the hard life of a chimney sweep, labour that for decades was performed by children tiny enough to fit inside chimneys. The presence of Charlie lends an element of magical realism and underscores the importance of friendship, loyalty, and nurturing in a nasty, brutish world.

Beyond its sprinkling of literary references (after Blake, Miss Bloom presses Nan to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and later Nan and Charlie read The Water-Babies together), the novel tackles big topics: poverty, religion, justice, and death. (The author’s Historical Note points readers to resources for further reading.) Through Nan’s eyes readers see how quickly one’s circumstances can turn upside down and how one may respond to both kindness and cruelty. Well-paced scenes and deft narration hold the telling back from becoming didactic, though. Ultimately, the novel stakes a claim for compassion, its key motif being “We are saved by saving others,” a potent sentiment in our culture that so often puts the self first.

Sweep is a long novel with robust vocabulary for its age group, but the compelling story is sure to be gobbled up by strong readers. The novel would also make an excellent selection for teachers to read aloud in class. It is tenderly written, punctuated by moments of comedy and terror, and its bittersweet ending will stay with readers for a long time. Impressive.

 

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

 

 

Review: I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust

Edward Willett
Your Nickel’s Worth, 2018

In April 2016, Saskatchewan’s then–poet laureate Gerald Hill sent members of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild two lines of poetry each day and challenged the recipients “to create new work either inspired by or incorporating those lines.” Edward Willett took up the challenge and added his own twist: his poems would not only incorporate the distributed lines but also present a brief science fiction or fantasy narrative. He succeeded brilliantly at the challenge, yielding a book of poems that will delight and intrigue anyone who enjoys poetry — and that may win over readers who think they don’t, too.

I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust is a startlingly good book of poetry for teens. Its twenty-one free verse poems are by turns funny, moody, thought-provoking, and dazzling. Some offer a social critique with obvious contemporary resonance, such as “He Really Should Have Written” (in which a mother laments her son who has been lost to a gang of galactic vampires) or “The Telling” (in which a mob is shaken from the complacency of “the Single Narrative”). There are numerous local flashes, such as the references to Fort Qu’Appelle and Prince Albert in “Saint Billy” and the “CBC pundits” in “Facing the Silence”; and there are allusions — light and sly — in “This Is the Way the World Ends” and “Dammit, I’m a Doctor, Not an Entrée.” Younger students are sure to enjoy the gruff, bouncy rhythms of “The Tale of Old Bill from the Ship Cactus Hills,” a quirky revisiting of the frontier epic told with tongue firmly in cheek.

The poems are finely complemented by Wendi Nordell’s black-and-white illustrations, which are intriguing in their own right. This presentation style is tailor-made for senior high Language Arts assignments, both creative and critical. I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust will make a versatile addition to classroom libraries — and as a bonus, readers may be encouraged to seek out the poets whose lines have inspired these poems and perhaps in turn create poetry of their own. This creative collection is a gem!

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.