Monday, October 12, 2015

Step Aside, Pops

The title: Step Aside, Pops
The author: Kate Beaton
Publication: Drawn & Quarterly, 2015
Got it from: Amazon

Happy Thanksgiving!  

I'm late with this review and I'm just realizing I never reviewed Kate Beaton's first comic collection, Hark! a Vagrant back in 2011.  Which is a crime, considering it is one of my go-to books when I am in need of a good laugh.  If you haven't heard of Kate Beaton or Hark! A Vagrant, the website that houses her cartoons, here's what you need to know: she's a Maritimer (like me).  She loves history (like me).  And she draws cartoons that feature the absurdity of a lot of things in history.  They're sometimes Canadian-based, sometimes not, and they often feature badass historical women, but sometimes not.  (The sassy cover model for this collection was taken from a Victorian-era cartoon about the horrors of women cyclists.  In Beaton's interpretation, the woman quips, "You see me rollin up pops you step aside," as she nearly bowls over an outraged gentleman.  He later grumbles, "bloody unbelievable," as another woman cyclist goes strutting by carrying a blaring phonograph.)

There's a goldmine of humour here if you're a general history and literature buff, and the few references I didn't get I ended up researching.  I didn't know a thing, for instance, about Ida B. Wells, but Beaton does a great job at exploring the frustrations of being a black feminist in 19th century America while still being genuinely funny.  She's also at her biting best during her extended "Wuthering Heights" saga and definitely nails all the issues I had with the book back when I was an undergrad.  Even when she's skewering you can tell Beaton genuinely loves the subjects she's writing about.

It's hard to say what my favourite cartoon in this book is.  She's unbelievably funny when she's drawing her own interpretations of classic Nancy Drew and Edward Gorey covers.  (My husband and I are obsessed with one featuring a simple scene of a woman feeding a pigeon bread crumbs.  "Aw yiss," struts Beaton's pigeon excitedly.  "Motha. Fuckin. Bread crumbs."  That's the extent of the joke.)  The prize might go to the multi-arc "Founding Fathers (In a Mall)" and "Founding Fathers (Stuck in an Amusement Park)", which features Washington, Jefferson, Franklin et al inexplicably hitting up modern locations a la Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.  If you love Revolutionary history as much as I do, prepare to be seriously amused.  "Here is a chain of carriages that will take us home!" Madison says, pointing to a roller coaster.  "Nay," disagrees another of the Fathers.  "It is merely a circle of violence, and then you retch."  I could read a whole book featuring the Founding Fathers in the 21st century.

At the outset, the cartoons seem silly, filled with sometimes crude humour.  But look beyond and you'll see how expressively the characters are drawn, how brilliant the jokes are, how deftly she skewers familiar tropes.  I know I'll return to this collection again and again.

Monday, September 28, 2015

For the Love of Pete

The title: For the Love of Pete
The author:  Julia Harper (aka Elizabeth Hoyt)
Publication: Hachette, 2008
Got it from: Barnes and Noble, Buffalo, September 2015

Elizabeth Hoyt once again proves she can write like magic with this just-what-I-needed sequel to Hot.  Special Agent Dante Torelli, last seen as the hero's partner in the previous book, is on assignment in Chicago.  His job is to protect a witness testifying against a mob kingpin.  Unfortunately something goes terribly wrong.  His partners are killed and a hitman takes off with the witness's baby girl, Petronella, or Pete for short.  Pete's aunt Zoey happens to be outside when the baby is taken - she's living in the same apartment building as her rough-around-the-edges sister and brother-in-law.  She's also one furiously protective aunt and insists on accompanying Dante as they chase after the hitman and her niece.  This being Elizabeth Hoyt, things get a little crazy when two little old Indian ladies being blackmailed by the mob accidentally end up snatching Pete from the hitman.

As in Hot, the author manages to just skirt the edges of a too-crazy plot to make it believable, satisfying and fun.  I love a road-trip romance story and this one has one in winter - even better!  The story really shines in the middle, when Dante and Zoey are arguing and learning about one another and fighting their mutual attraction (as you do in a romance novel road trip).  The action was fast-paced and sometimes too violent, but it really held my attention, which isn't easy for a book to accomplish these days when my life has gotten crazy and stressful.  As much as I love Hoyt's Maiden Lane series, I wish she would write more contemporaries if they're all as good as this.

A Tangled Web

The title: A Tangled Web 
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: Seal, 1988 (originally 1931)
Got it from: PEI, early 1990's

I've been slowly re-reading a lot of Montgomery's works for the first time since childhood, and my recent foray was with one of her few adult-oriented novels, A Tangled Web.  This story focuses on a tight-knit community ruled by two proud families, the Darks and Penhallows, who have fought and married each other for years.  Yes, they're incestuous, but it was pretty common back then.  As the story opens, family matriarch and queen bitch Aunt Becky is dying and is about to announce who is going to receive her legendary heirloom jug.  Every member of the family is dying to have it, but Becky, who can't resist being awful even as she's dying, makes them wait a year and dance to her tune before they can find out who gets it.

In typical Montgomery fashion the book is very character driven.  Each family member has his or her own back story that has to get resolved before the end of the year.  It's not exactly a secret who the "good" and "bad" characters are.  Montgomery is pretty clearly on the side of the romantic, old-fashioned Victorian folk, she has no patience for the moderns.  Consider one of the heroines, Gay (her name is Gay, people!), a throwback Gibson Girl and professional romantic whose fiancee is stolen by her cousin Nan, a boyish flapper who oozes nastiness from her pores.  There's also the tragic story of Hugh and Joscelyn, separated on their wedding night ten years ago. Joscelyn's growth as a character comes from her realization of her true love for her traditional husband and his old-fashioned farm.  But even if she's hard on the non-homebodies, some of them still get their happy endings.  Peter Penhallow, the family's globe-trotting explorer, is a moron, but manages to win his true love in the end (although it should be noted that his and Donna's story is the most underdeveloped and fizzles out at the end).  

There's little touches of humour sprinkled throughout the book, especially in the scenes involving Big Sam, a wee fussy man, and the gigantic Little Sam, roommates who fall out over a naked goddess statue.  Overall though, this book feels more tragic than what I'm used to from Montgomery.  It was written in during the early stages of the Depression when the author's own life wasn't going so well, and it shows.  It isn't one of my favourites of hers, but I liked it pretty well.  That is, until the very last paragraph, when she trots out something so racist I did a double-take.  You were so close, Maud!  You almost made it.  It's too bad the ending had to leave such a bad taste in my mouth, but then again it's not the first time she's done this to me.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Town That Drowned


The title: The Town that Drowned 
The author: Riel Nason
Publication: Goose Lane, 2011
Got it from: SC, Xmas 2014

The Town That Drowned is a difficult book for me to pin down except to say that I enjoyed it.  I tend to find most Maritime lit to be too weird and depressing for my taste, and despite the fact that this book had a little bit of both, it was still very good.  It's told from the perspective of 15-year-old Ruby Carson and based on the real-life building of the Mactaquac Dam in the 1960s.  Ruby's village of Haventon is being appropriated by the government because it's in the flood plain.  In the book and in real life, the town is literally drowned.  How the townspeople cope with the loss of everything they know is the focus of the story.

I spent my early childhood (and some my adulthood) in a similar village along the Saint John River valley, so this story felt very real to me.  I have driven by that area of the river dozens of times in my life but never knew the story, nor that many of the houses at King's Landing Historical Settlement were from the lost towns.  Even though it's sad, it's also fascinating.  I loved the characters in Ruby's town because they felt so much like neighbours I've grown up with.  Everything felt so familiar to me, including the log cabins, the bonfires, the legion, the farms and of course the river itself.  

Being from the perspective of a teenager, this book had a strong YA flavour.  It is the kind of book I would have loved when I was about 12 or 13, but I love it now in a different way.  The writing never seemed to drag and there was even a romance or two thrown in to make things interesting.  I liked the way the story delved into the different ways people coped psychologically with their impending loss - everything from complete denial to opportunistic adavancement. You definitely don't have to be from NB to enjoy this book, but it sure helps.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

We Don't Need Roads: the Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy,204,203,200_.jpg 

The title: We Don't Need Roads: the Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy
The author: Caseen Gaines
Publication: Penguin, 2015
Got it from:  Amazon

How much do I love the Back to the Future trilogy?  You don't want to know.  They are hands-down, by a long shot, far and away my favourite movies.  I have watched them dozens of times since the early 1990s and practically know them line for line.  I've often pondered why I love them so much.  Is it the incredibly written scripts, where every scene has purpose and meaning?  Is it 80s nostalgia?  Is it that the characters are so great I want to visit and revisit them constantly?  Maybe it's all of those and more.  There is also of course my deep and abiding love of time travel.  Chicken and egg question: did my love of time travel spring from these movies or did I love them because they had time travel?  I was so young the first time I saw them.  I doubt I'll ever be able untangle that conundrum.

And honestly, who cares?  It's enough to just love them.  Every time I see them I notice something new.  It doesn't matter that I know exactly how they end, I still find them thrilling.  (My personal opinion: the train scene at the end of Part III is the most exciting action sequence in cinematic history).  They are somehow childhood comfort and adult appreciation at the same time.  Another paradox, just like the films love to mention. 

I could go on pretty much forever dissecting these films.  No, really, I could.  Don't get me started down that path.  Suffice to say, when I found out there was going to be a 30th anniversary retrospective book, I said, "shut up and take my money."  Because let's be honest, there's a pretty slim chance I wasn't going to enjoy this book.  

Now, as a disclaimer, I'm going to admit that you should probably be a fan before you read this book.  The author doesn't describe the plot in a huge amount of detail.  You're going to have to know what "the lightning scene" or the "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance are, for example (as in "this was what happened when they filmed that scene.")  But who the heck even reads a making of book without having seen the movies first anyway?  Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I can say that if you are a big BTTF fan, you'll love it.  It's not entirely gossip, but there are some pretty juicy details, like just what Crispin Glover asked for that prevented him from being in the sequels and what really happened with Eric Stoltz.  I like that they interviewed some of the smaller memorable characters too, like Marvin Barry and the Wallet Guy, to get their perspective on what it was like to be in these iconic films.  I also have a new appreciation for just how much work Robert Zemeckis (aka Bob Z) and Bob Gale had to put in to make these films so perfect.  Overall, I really like the way the author framed the narrative.  I was impressed with how he kept the story flowing and made it interesting. I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about these movies but I was wrong. 

Verdict:  Set your De Lorean time circuits and get the flux capacitor fluxing.  October 21, 2015, the day Doc and Marty travel to the future, will be here in just two months.  While you're waiting, I suggest reading We Don't Need Roads to get your BTTF fix.

Dearest Rogue

The title: Dearest Rogue
The author: Elizabeth Hoyt
Publication: Hachette, 2015
Got it from:  The library

It's book #8 in the Maiden Lane series!  (Previously reviewed: #3, #4 and #6.)  The couple in this one were featured characters in Duke of Midnight and I looked forward to reading their story.  Lady Phoebe Batten is the younger sister of the hero in Duke of Midnight, Maximus Batten.  Normally I haaaaaaate ingenue romances with a passion (she's only 21) but she is forgiven by me because - in an unusual-for-romance twist - she has slowly gone blind.  Her disability, which in the early eighteenth century was even more difficult to live with, makes her older and wiser for her age.  But she's still very young and vivacious, and she chafes at the restrictions her brother places on her because of her status and disability.  

Phoebe is a  target for kidnappers, which is why Maximus hires James Trevillion, former dragoon captain, as her bodyguard.  Trevillion is the sort of no-nonsense hero who's a perfect foil for Phoebe's lightheartedness.  He also has a disability of his own.  In Duke of Midnight his horse fell on him while he was helping the Ghost of St. Giles (Maximus) chase a criminal.  Ever since he's had a permanent limp and has to walk with a cane.

It goes without saying that for me the Maiden Lane series is just so darn good.  The couples from the other books in the series always play a role in later books so the that area of London is starting to feel like one big friend reunion to me.  (I do love books about communities).  This book is the perfect blend of character development, action, historical detail and humour.  There is never a dull moment and much to reward an intelligent reader.  For instance, there's the fact that the hero and heroine both have disabilities that are particularly irksome to them.  Trevillion, as a man of action, has the bad leg, while Phoebe who has a love of beautiful things, particularly flowers, can't see.  They could have been given any number of disabilities, but having the two most frustrating ones for each of their characters makes the story that more interesting.  It's that kind of care Hoyt puts into her stories that makes them worth reading.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines

The title: America's Women
The author: Gail Collins
Publication: HarperCollins, 2003
Got it from: Christmas 2014

Last fall when I bought Gail Collins' When Everything Changed at the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Musuem I enjoyed it so much I asked for her other women's history book for Christmas.  Where Changed focused on the 1960s to present, this one covers over 400 years of history.  And let me tell you, it did not disappoint.  One reviewer called it "as readable as any Harry Potter adventure," and they aren't kidding.  

I am in absolute awe of the way Collins writes.  The depth of her research and knowledge is astonishing, but it's the way she can pinpoint the remarkable women of history and make their lives exciting that's really impressive.  Each chapter covers a different era in American history from the Pilgrims to the Women's Lib movement and honestly, each one could have been a whole book.  I'd find myself caught up in a mini-biography of some fascinating, forgotten woman of history and be disappointed when her section ended, only to find myself riveted in the next part by details of how ordinary women lived their day-to-day lives.  Of course she touches on the greats (Anthony, Tubman, Roosevelt, etc.) in a way that makes them accessible, but it's the way that she manages to make you feel as if you were a woman living that era that's truly remarkable.  

It's hard to say which era I enjoyed reading about the most.  The section on the Salem Witch trials was interesting, given the mythic proportions to which the event has been inflated - though the truth, as usual, is far more interesting.  Reading about the Underground Railroad and first person testimony from former women slaves was probably the most enlightening of the whole book.  And after reading about the hardships endured by the women pioneers in the West, I have to say thanks but no thanks.  If I had to pick an era to live in as a woman (other than today), I'd have to go with 1920s New York, which was a pretty exciting time for us gals, what with the dispensing of corsets and getting to drink and party and wear your hair short for the first time.  

Overall, this book does an outstanding job of filling the women-shaped hole in American history.  I thought I knew these stories already, but I was wrong.