Sunday, May 24, 2015

Ella Minnow Pea

The title: Ella Minnow Pea
The author: Mark Dunn
Publication: Anchor Books, 2001
Got it from: The library

Word play is at the heart of this delightful little novel written entirely in letters (one of my favourite kinds).  The heroine, Ella Minnow Pea (get it?), lives with her parents Amos and Gwenette Minnow Pea on an island off the coast of South Carolina.  The citizens of the island revere language and one of their founding fathers, Nevin Nollop, the man who invented the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."  The island has been isolated to the point where the citizens are trapped in a Victorianesque society that shuns technology.  As the story opens, 18-year-old Ella writes to her cousin on another part of the island to tell her the letters of Nollop's famous pangram have started to fall off a memorial plaque in the town square.  Their fall has been interpreted by the sinister High Council as a sign from the dead Nollop that the letters should be banished from the island.  Use of the letters in either writing or spoken word result in the stock, a public flogging or even banishment.

As the first letter (Z) is made illegal, the word disappears from the letters and hence, the novel.  As they begin to drop one by one, the citizens try to band together to help one another.  Meanwhile they have to become more and more creative in their writing to avoid the "illegabeticals".  It gets particularly comical toward the end of the novel when Ella and a local university student try to conduct a romance using just a handful of letters (he refers to himself as her "amigomate.")  I was also amused when two of the villagers changes their names from Buzz and Zeke to L'il Tristan and Prince Valiant-the-Comely. 

Lurking behind the silliness and clever word tricks is a greater theme about the blind adherence to religious cult.  There is also more than a smidgeon of similarity to totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany, where everyone lives in fear, neighbours turn on neighbours , and people are banished or disappear under a brutal police force.  But read it how you will, this is one for us logophiles.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


The title: Hot
The author: Julia Harper (aka Elizabeth Hoyt)
Publication: Hachette, 2008
Got it from: Borders, Buffalo, April 2015

Quick review: the cover and title of this book are stupid.  They tell you nothing about the real content of the book and imply it's some sort of chick-lit summer romance.  It's actually a reissue of a contemporary of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth Hoyt. Now that she's made it big in the historical realm I guess they want to cash in.  It worked - I definitely picked it up because the author's name is in big letters and because it's about a librarian who's being chased by an FBI agent.  Except the fact that she's a librarian doesn't really have much to do with the story.  The heroine is Turning Hastings and she's out to clear her deceased uncle's name, and she's willing to sacrifice anything to do so - even taking advantage of a bank robbery to do a little heist on her own.  Turner and the hero, John MacKinnon, play cat and mouse and don't actually meet until over 200 pages in - their relationship develops via cell phone as she's being chased.  For the most part this book was entertaining but it often teetered on the edge of "annoying quirky cutesy"* (Would a 31-year-old really eat nothing but pickled herring?  Really?) You can definitely tell it's by an early Elizabeth Hoyt who was just finding her voice.  Even though it's no Maiden Lane series, I want to read the sequel, so that tells you something.

Rating: 3.5 pickled herrings out of 5.

*See authors I dislike for this trope: Phillips, Susan Elizabeth.  Cruisie, Jennifer.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Double review: Further Chronicles of Avonlea and The Story Girl

The title: Further Chronicles of Avonlea
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: L.C. Page & Company, 1920 (My edition: Seal Books 1987)
Got it from: N.B. c.1993

While I was in the middle of reading one L.M. Montgomery book and listening to another on audio, Anne fandom was hit with a huge blow this past weekend with the death of Jonathan Crombie who played Gilbert in the classic Sullivan films.  Two weeks ago at Easter when I reviewed Cool Japan Guide I went down the rabbit hole and started researching the Japanese obsession with Anne, and somehow ended up finding this interview with Crombie. Even though Gilbert of the books will always be my favourite, Gilbert of the movies was everything he should be.  A generation of Anne fans will mourn him deeply.

Anne and Gilbert don't make make too many appearances in this follow-up to Chronicles of Avonlea, although Anne does narrate one of the stories.  What makes these two collections interesting is that they were written to be published as a whole from the beginning, rather than compiled together from various stories like many of the Montgomery collections that began appearing in the 1990s.  The fact that it's set in Avonlea is almost non-essential.  Except for a few mentions of peripheral Anne characters, these stories could be set anywhere in Montgomery's beloved turn-of-the-century P.E.I.  As always, her stories are full of warmth, humour and the follies of human nature, and I enjoyed them with a few serious caveats.

On the whole the first few stories felt stronger than the last handful and overall I thought Chronicles of Avonlea was stronger than its sequel.  Fans of the TV show Road to Avonlea will recognize the story "The Materializing of Cecil," about a spinster who makes up a beau from her past only to have a man with the same name show up in town.  "Her Father's Daughter" was a nice story about a girl who reunites with her estranged father on her wedding day.  "The Brother Who Failed" shows Montgomery's Victorian sentimentality with her It's a Wonderful Life plot: a brother who feels like a failure is proved to be everyone's hero.  "The Son of His Mother" showed Montgomery's near-obsession with sons (she had two herself and was unapologetic in her bias).  This story features a mother so obsessed with her son it borders on mental illness. 

Each story is worth discussing, but I want to focus on a couple of things that rubbed me the wrong way as a modern reader.  "The Education of Betty" has a man raising the daughter of a woman who refused him, and he ends up romantically with the daughter in the end.  Yuck.  I find May-December romances incredibly creepy, especially when it's the man who's older.  Even though the girl in this was 19, I just found the whole concept gross, especially as the "lover" was her father figure growing up. 

The other aspect of these stories I can't forgive is their casual racism, even though it was perfectly acceptable at the time.  As much as I love Montgomery, holy crap was she racist.  She basically looks down on anyone who isn't a white well-to-do Protestant, but it's even more pronounced here.  There's a throwaway line at the end of "The Materializing of Cecil" disparaging the Chinese, but you could write a thesis on last story, "Tannis of the Flats," and its depictions of First Nations people.  I'm not going to repeat the slurs here but suffice it to say the whole story is based on racist stereotypes and ethnic insults abound.  Modern readers will be horrified.

The title: The Story Girl
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: L.C. Page & Company, 1911
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks, read by Grace Conlin, 2006

Less racist (although still classist) was my audiobook listen of The Story Girl, which along with its sequel and the Chronicles of Avonlea formed the basis of Road to Avonlea.  This is the only one of Montgomery's books that I didn't remember a thing about from having read as a child, except for the scene where the children pay someone for a picture of God. Montgomery has said it was an autobiographical story.  It features a summer in the life of a group of clannish cousins, along with their mischievous hired boy Peter and a wet blanket of a friend named Sara Ray.  It's narrated by one of the boy cousins, but the true protagonist of the story is Sara Stanley, the narrator's cousin.  Although she's not as beautiful as their conceited cousin Felicity, Sara is more beloved for her imagination and her ability to tell marvelous stories.  Her tales form many stories-within-stories that often reflect events in the children's lives.  Grace Conlin reads beautifully and the oral storytelling in the book makes for a perfect audiobook experience.  I expect to follow up with the sequel The Golden Road in the near future.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Cool Japan Guide

The title:  Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen
The author: Abby Denson
Publication: Tuttle, 2014
Got it from: The library

Abby Denson is a graphic novel writer and huge manga fan who has spent over a decade travelling back and forth to Japan.  In Cool Japan Guide,  she presents a super fun and cute comic guide to the country based on her own experiences.  This is definitely not the kind of book I normally read.  I  tend not to like comics.  But I loved this one.  For one thing, given how bright and colourful a country Japan is, it actually lends itself well to the comic format.  Abby herself is like the experienced friend you would love to have guide you through confusing cultural differences and take you straight to Japan's best spots.

Reading this reminded me of all the things I love about Japanese culture.  The politeness and introversion.  The cleanliness and efficiency.  The tranquil gardens and exciting cities.  The elaborate tea ceremonies (I got to see a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at a tea festival this year, and it was fascinating).  And the food - oh my god, the food.  There is a whole chapter devoted to Japanese cuisine worth the price of the book alone.  I am already obsessed with sushi and ramen and bento boxes and tempura, but I learned about so many more delicious things.  Do not read this book hungry. I almost drooled on the pages. 

Even if you don't know much about Japan I would recommend this book.  I was definitely ready to pack my bags and go by the end of it.  Here's hoping that the comic book travel guide becomes a big thing soon.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Map of the Sky

The title:  The Map of the Sky
The author: Felix J. Palma
Publication: Atria Books, 2012
Got it from: The library

Well, here it is: my first review in a long time that is going to be less than glowing.  Most of the time, I won't even bother picking up a book if I don't think I'm going to enjoy it. (Book club books excepted: I just had the dubious pleasure of slogging through another tedious Alice Munro book.  Blech.)  To be fair, I loved the first book in this trilogy, The Map of Time, but when I read the excerpt for this book in the back of that one, I went, "Nope.  Not for me." 

I thought that was the end of it, until a friend who also loved The Map of Time assured me that I absolutely had to read Sky, that I would love it.  Confession: I almost never take reading recommendations from other people, because 95% of the time I end up hating the book and resenting the time I wasted reading it.  However, I figured someone who loved a niche book like Time as much as I did could be on to something.  

I wish I hadn't bothered.

The Map of Time was based on H.G. Wells's The Time Machine and in Sky, it's based on The War of the Worlds.  As in Time, Sky is structured into three different acts.  The first one is a straight-up horror novel.  It concerns an early 19th century exploration ship that gets trapped in the Antarctic ice.  An alien ship crashes into the ice nearby and begins brutally murdering the crew members in extremely gruesome ways and taking over their bodies.  The second act concerns a character from the first novel, a crafty entrepreneur who falls in love.  To prove his love, he has to recreate the Martian invasion of The War of the Worlds, but things go awry when real aliens invade London.  Again, there is devastation and carnage.  In the third act, we see the mind-numbingly horrific dystopian future of mankind as they are reduced to slaves for the aliens and doomed to extinction.  There is a way for H.G. Wells to save the day, but the ending is so bleak and lonely, it's hardly the emotional uplift necessary to pull us out of this depressing mess.

I'm so sad that I read this.  I like Palma's voice as an author and his quasi-Victorian tone.  However, there was just too much wrong with this book for me.  First of all, it was too damn long.  At close to 600 pages, it could have easily been cut in half and the narrative would have held.  Second, I just really, really dislike horror and dystopias.  But all of this could have been saved had I liked the main characters and cared about them.  But I didn't.  Wells himself comes across as a self-centred, fussy little man incapable of love.  The two lovers from the second act were both annoying.  I liked Montgomery Gilmore in his alter ego from the first novel, but as a besotted lover he wasn't believable.  His love interest, Emma Harlow, was so selfish, spoiled and cruel that one wonders how her supposed beauty could make up for what a bitch she was.  Yet their so-called love is played straight, as if we are supposed to believe their messed-up "romance" is the greatest love story of all time.  

There were just two parts of the novel I liked.  The first is a brief section involving one of the aliens who has been living as a priest amongst humans his whole life.  When the Envoy arrives signalling the beginning of the invasion, he and the priest sit down to tea to discuss the future.  The priest has already assimilated into human culture.  He has become a gentle soul, caring for the plants, animals and people at his church.  As he tries to hide his sorrow at the impending massacre of the world, I couldn't help but think of the irony that he was the most human character in the novel.  I wish he had played a bigger role.  

The other redeeming part of the story involves the lovers from The Map of Time, reduced here to peripheral characters.  Claire and Captain Shackleton's love story in the first book is what I adore most about the whole series so far.  In Sky we see them as a happy married couple, and subsequent events in the novel show their deep and abiding love for each other in a way that actually retroactively strengthens their initial story.  I kept wishing that the main lovers would just hurry up and die so we could get back to Claire and Shackleton.

Actually, everything about Sky compares poorly to Time in my mind, not just the love story.  The intricacies and brain exercises of time travel are just so much more interesting and compelling and subtle than the senseless slaughter of horror.  And the twists and revelations in Time were a genuinely delightful surprise.  There was nothing delightful or surprising in Sky.  

I hope, hope, hope that the next one in the series, due in June and based on The Invisible Man, brings a return to everything I loved about the first novel.  I could do with some compensation for a month spent on books I didn't enjoy.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Duke of Midnight

The title: Duke of Midnight
The author: Elizabeth Hoyt
Publication: Hachette, 2013
Got it from:  Amazon

There are very few authors I would consider automatically reading everything they wrote, but Elizabeth Hoyt is becoming one of them.

After reading the wonderful, unusual Thief of Shadows (#4 in the Maiden Lane trilogy) and the pirate- lovin’ that was Scandalous Desires(#3), I jumped ahead to #6, Duke of Midnight.  And I may just have to go read the rest of them.  They’re that good.

There are two familiar legends/mythologies that run throughout this book.  One is made explicit in story; the other will be instantly recognizable to modern audiences.  The former concerns the heroine, Artemis Greaves, who is a lady’s companion to her rich, silly cousin Penelope.  Based on her name, it’s fairly easy to guess that the legend of the huntress Artemis plays a part, especially given the forest green motif on the cover.  And yes, she does know archery.  The other concerns the hero, Maximus Batten, the Duke of Wakefield.  I’ll give you a few hints as to which story the author is referencing:

-the hero became the Duke after his parents’ tragic murder when he was a child 
-which he witnessed in a dark alley
-after they left a theatre
-and after which he swore revenge on their killer
-and went to train to become a fighter
-and thereafter disguised his identity to stalk the streets at night
-where he returns each morning to train in his underground lair under the watchful eye of his sardonic butler


Doesn’t ring a bell?

Maximus is just one of three men who has become the Ghost of St. Giles (one of the others being Winter Makepeace from Thief of Shadows).  Maximus is less concerned with fighting crime than he is finding his parents’ killer, although he does have a mission to rid St. Giles of gin.  He will occasionally intervene to stop a wrongdoing, as he does in the opening scene where he rescues Artemis and Penelope from ruffians. 

Artemis has her own problems, being a poor relation nobody seems to care about, with a brother locked up in Bedlam after the supposed murder of three friends.  (He gets to be the hero in the next book).  The Duke is supposed to be courting her cousin Penelope, but he ends up being more intrigued by the braver, more intelligent Artemis.  When Artemis inevitably discovers Maximus’s secret identity, she blackmails him into helping her brother escape.

I definitely enjoyed this book, as I do with almost all “masked crimefighter” plots.  However, I think I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t read Thief of Shadows first. I know I said the same thing when I reviewed Scandalous Desires, but I just absolutely loved Isabel and Winter as characters and the role-reversal with her as the experienced rogue and him as the shy virgin.  It was hard not to compare the two sets of lovers, and Maximus and Artemis suffered in comparison.  They seemed almost too perfect and slightly remote. 

Nevertheless, Duke of Midnight was extremely well-written. The action was exciting, the tension enjoyable and the sex suitably steamy.  Not to mention that I’m still loving the 18th century setting, a little more wild than the staid Victorian era.  Even the excerpt at the back of the book from the first in the series piqued my interest, despite my initial disinterest in the plot.   Hoyt is just wonderful at writing great characters with snappy dialogue and an evocative setting.  Her voice as a writer is unique and interesting, making her a standout for me in the rest of the ho-hum romance aisle.

Little House in the Big Woods

The title: Little House in the Big Woods
The author: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Publication: HarperTrophy, 1932
Got it from: Hannelore's, 2015

For some time now, after having read Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, I have been meaning to re-read the Little House series.  This winter I happened to spy the boxed set in the window of a local used book store, and managed to score the mint-condition set for a great price.  Naturally I am starting with the first one.  

I was quite young when I read this series over twenty years ago.  I never liked Little House quite as much as other classics.  Maybe it was because books like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women seemed closer to my own East Coast childhood.  The prairies were foreign to me, as was the backbreaking labour depicted in Wilder’s books.

Re-reading Little House in the Big Woods in my thirties, I am surprised how much I remembered and how much my initial impressions of the book still hold.  The scenes I loved the most, like the sugar snow and the dance at Grandpa’s, were still my favourites.  I used to get easily bored by the descriptions of how chores were done but now I read them with a historian’s interest.  On the other hand, I never noticed how much hunting there was when I was a child.  As an adult animal lover, I cringed even as I understood how it was needed for survival.  

When I was young, I also read Laura’s narrative as a literal account of her life.  After reading McClure’s book, I now know that it is more a distillation of several years and events to arrive at something like the essence of Laura’s life.  And that’s okay.  It is a window into a lost world post-Civil War when the white folks were starting to settle the west.  

I suspect that few Americans now live so self-sufficiently, and for children the Little House books must seem like a foreign country.  I am sure many are bewildered by how hard-working Laura and her sisters are, and how strictly they are raised.  There are learning moments in the way Laura enjoys the simple pleasures (an orange at Christmas!), revels in the natural world and learns not to be wasteful.  There’s a comforting simplicity to all of the Little House books which makes them enduring classics.

3 corn husk dolls out of 4.