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: 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 Fashion Committee

Susan Juby
Penguin Teen, 2018

 I enjoyed The Fashion Committee so much! It has angst and moments of social realism, but also moments of wry humour and a quirky premise. Charlie and John are high school students pitted against each other, and several of their classmates, to win a highly desirable scholarship to a school of art and design. Charlie is fashion crazy: it’s where she puts the vigilance and anxiety that living with an addict causes. John couldn’t care less about fashion but yearns to go to art school; but coming from a home with a fixed income, he simply can’t afford such dreams. For a while Charlie and John operate on parallel tracks, but we know they’re destined to collide.

Several reviews of this novel point out some improbable plot points, and while I recognize these concerns, I’m not convinced fiction has to operate as a perfect mirror of this world. Similarly, some readers are likely to notice that the “journal” structure of the novel doesn’t hold consistently, but it’s still narratively satisfying. I was pleased that Juby didn’t pair Charlie and John romantically — which would have been an easy choice — and I felt the resolution of the scholarship plot was fittingly balanced.

The Fashion Committee offers readers something like watching a John Hughes movie — but without the saccharine aftertaste or the 1980s attitudes. It’s a strong, smart novel by a novelist who understands her craft and her audience well.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on July 15, 2018.

 

Review: Slip Jig Summer

by Elizabeth J.M. Walker
Orca Books Publishers, 2018

Natalie usually studies ballet with Amber and Yumi, but summer vacation pulls the girls apart. Given the chance to join her cousins’ dance class, Natalie can either turn up her nose or take part to maintain her fitness and skills. But when her best friends seem not to miss her — even seem to be glad she’s away — Natalie’s confidence collapses. Can Natalie be a dancer if she’s not practising ballet?

Slip Jig Summer offers a fun twist on the fish-out-of-water story by putting a ballerina in an Irish dance class. It’s a short book with a fast-moving plot, so there’s limited space for character development. Natalie reads as a somewhat flat character, and the stakes in her conflict don’t feel terribly high. Similarly, Amber’s turn to “frenemy” seems unmotivated and is predictably resolved. That said, familiar interpersonal issues, portrayed in an accessible storyline, will help lower-literacy readers move through the text easily.

Slip Jig Summer is a new volume in Orca’s Limelights series for students interested in the performing arts. I enjoyed the fresh focus on dance and predict the novel will lead its readers to other dance novels (of which there are many). It’s an energetic selection for high/low readers.

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

 

Review: Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines

by Angela Hovak Johnston
Inhabit Media, 2017

Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines describes the process a group of women in the Canadian Arctic followed to revive the tradition of women’s tattoos. Historically, Inuit women wore tattoos on their hands, arms, and faces to represent a range of personal and social messages. After contact with European missionaries, women stopped being tattooed and the cultural knowledge of traditional tattooing was nearly lost. Thanks to Angela Hovak Johnson, however, the practice is being reclaimed with striking results.

This resolutely woman-positive project turns on its photography. The photos present both the tattooing process and a portfolio of an emerging generation of tattooed women, from teens to elders. The editorial photography is clear and straightforward, accompanied by explanatory text and the women’s individual stories of their tattoos’ meanings. The portrait photography captures the women in strong poses as they display their tattoos, often in northern landscapes. For non-Inuit readers, the book offers a powerful (and sometimes playful) way to understand elements of Inuit culture. For Inuit readers, the book represents the pride and resilience of women and culture.

I would underscore, however, the book’s stern warning that these tattoos, no matter how appealing they may be for non-Inuit women and men, are the cultural property of Inuit women, who are struggling to retain and reclaim their traditional knowledge and practices. Non-Inuit should emphatically not consider seeking similar tattoos but rather learn to appreciate the beauty and significance of these tattoos for the women who wear them today.

Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines is a glorious book that documents important work of cultural reclamation. It belongs in libraries across Canada, and I hope it will find a broad audience. It is a proud declaration of women’s strength and beauty and a profound testament to cultural recovery.

 

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

 

Review: Racing Manhattan

by Terence Blacker
Candlewick, 2018

Racing Manhattan offers a fresh twist on the fish-out-of-water trope. Jay loves horses and has been riding successfully in “unofficial” (that is, illegal) pony races when her situation changes abruptly. She finds herself in Newmarket working as a “lad” for a stable that’s down on its luck. There she meets Manhattan, a moody mare who has reached her last chance. When Jay connects with Manhattan, their fortunes seem to change. But there’s not much room in racing for a young female jockey, and Jay’s rivals are only too happy to squeeze her out. Can Jay save Manhattan — and her own future?

I was not a girl who adored books about horses when I was growing up, so I am happily surprised by Racing Manhattan. This novel features great storytelling that kept me reading eagerly. Some of the characters around Jay are thinly drawn, but Jay herself is well developed and intriguing — I wanted to know who she would grow up to be. Some of Jay’s male antagonists are thoroughly menacing, and the novel moves briskly between well-told passages of Jay’s work with Manhattan and the obstacles Jay must overcome to reach her goals.

Racing Manhattan won’t suit every taste, but I can see it working well with athletic teens and readers who identify as “square pegs.” It’s a long book for YA, but it’s nicely paced and rewarding. I recommend this book enthusiastically.

Originally published on LibraryThing on January 7, 2018.