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: 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.

 

 

Review: The Land of Yesterday

K.A. Reynolds
Harper, 2018

In children’s books, one of the most frightening plot points is the loss of family. In The Land of Yesterday, Cecelia loses her brother, Celadon, in a freak accident. Her heartbroken mother follows Celadon to the Land of Yesterday, and then Cecelia’s father is cruelly imprisoned. Cecelia determines to rescue them all and restore her family — and at the same time works through her grief.

The Land of Yesterday is a horror-tinged fantasy novel. It is also a deeply symbol-laden book about death. Almost every image, almost every action in the book is symbolic; at times I wondered what middle-grade readers would make of the profusion of patterns, symbols, and foreshadowing (I found it a little heavy handed, personally). Readers who like ghost stories and children’s horror may enjoy this novel (particularly the character of Widdendream, the loving home that becomes a monster), but its greater value is in demonstrating a path through mourning and one’s ability to come through loss without losing oneself. In this respect The Land of Yesterday could be a valuable resource for teaching emotional resilience. Relatively early in the book, one of the characters offers Cecelia a piece of advice: “The only way to leave the Sea of Tears is to truly want to be in Today. Focus on where you wish to go, picture it clearly in your mind, and when you’re ready to leave, trust the sea to show you the way.” Late in the novel, Cecelia reiterates this wisdom: “All we can do is our best, learn from our mistakes and also from those we love. Then, when we’re ready, we can finally move beyond Yesterday and return to living in today.” Whether a reader is dealing with grief, another trauma, or just the everyday bumps and bruises of living, the lessons of Cecelia’s quest are vital, and a book can provide a gentle, unobtrusive way to learn them.

The Land of Yesterday is a quirky novel with much to offer a range of readers. It’s certainly not for every taste, but many readers will be rapt by its blue-haired protagonist and her complicated adventure.

 

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