Sunday, September 29, 2013

Little Blog on the Prairie

The title: Little Blog on the Prairie
The author: Cathleen Davitt Bell
Publication: Bloomsbury, 2010
Got it from:  The library

Gen is just an ordinary 13-year-old when her mom signs her family up for a summer at "Camp Frontier," where the participants all have to live 1880's-style.  Like any modern teenager would, Gen hates it at first.  Forget the cuddly version of prairie life, with Melissa Gilbert running through a sunny field.  The real frontier was non-stop labour and no modern comforts.  Gen's only respite is the phone she snuck into camp, which she uses to text her friends back home.  Unbeknownst to her, her texts are turned into a blog that goes viral.  

The author clearly, clearly used the PBS show Frontier House as an inspiration (right down to the preparedness contest, the starving dad and the little boy crying over killing chickens).  I watched that show this summer, and I couldn't help making comparisons - more so than to the actual Little House on the Prairie series.  If anything, this book drives home just how much frontier life would have sucked.  Hard.  I doubt I could have lasted a month there.  And there's no sugar-coating it for Gen: everything - from the nastiness of the outhouse to near-starvation to the mind-numbing hard work of hand washing laundry to the cramped, primitive living space - sounds like a slightly sunnier Soviet Labour Camp.  No wonder Gen practically passes out in ecstasy when she discovers a secret "electricity shack" complete with Internet and Diet Coke.

Then there's the relationship between Gen's family and the three other families living in Camp Frontier.  There's a love interest for Gen - a boy named Caleb, who at times is a little too good to be true for a teenage boy.  There''s good times, like a kick-the-can game that brings the kids together having fun.  But mostly what the families battle with is jealousy and resentment of one another's accomplishments and living conditions.  There's clearly a "holier-than-thou" attitude that drives a wedge between all the families and that Gen's family in particular resents, having the least experience with frontier living.  A sociologist would be fascinated by the way modern societal niceties break down under primitive living conditions.

There's also a "Nellie Oleson" character, the daughter of the camp's owners, who is over-the-top mean to Gen because of her raging jealousy over Gen's normal life.  One can't help but read a warning into the dangers of parents isolating their children with their own warped ideas about what reality should be.

As a YA novel, I enjoyed this one much more than Going Vintage, a novel with a similar theme, mainly because the main character immerses herself so much more completely in the past.  Even though the story went on a bit too long at the end and Gen sometimes seemed too mature for her age, she was very likeable character and this was a pleasant, fun read.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Quick reviews: Sex, Pirates and Mr. Darcy

I didn't want to go into full reviews for any of these books so I'm introducing quick reviews!

The title: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
The author: Gideon Defoe
Publication: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2004
Got it from:  The library

Ridiculous is not too strong a word to describe this silliness.  A whopping 135 pages long (with comprehension exercise and words to know included), the joke of this whole book revolves around how absurd pirates are.  The Pirate Captain and his crew live in a strange 19th century/modern world hybrid where people are dispatched in various gruesome ways and their love of ham is a running joke. Sprinkled throughout are factual footnotes on historical personages appearing in the book - or, indeed, anything.  Most of the humour is groan-worthy bad, but there are some genuinely funny moments such as when The Pirate with a Scarf and Erasmus Darwin play a game of Animal, Vegetable or Mineral while meeting their doom strapped to the cogs of Big Ben.  Special note should be made of the fact that the chapter titles (Battling the Octopus!, etc), while appropriate to most pirate adventures, have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the respective chapter.  Teenage boys and pirate fanatics will love this, everyone else can skip to the cute Aardman movie released last year based on the book.

The title: Mr. Darcy's Guide to Courtship
The author:  Emily Brand
Publication: Old House, 2013
Got it from:  AG, B-day 2013

Speaking of foolishness, we have this book, written as if it had been dictated by a pre-Lizzie Mr. Darcy.  "The Secrets of Seduction from Jane Austen's Most Eligible Bachelor" reads like a one-note joke - he's a jerk!  Ha ha!  It stretches the limits of credulity to suppose that a man who could fall for Elizabeth Bennet would ever advise women to not be opinionated and lively.  But no matter how tongue in cheek this book is meant to be, there is simply no excuse for paragraphs like this: "Ladies, if you have failed to secure a husband by the age of thirty - at which point the bloom of youth will fade most desperately - admit defeat and harden yourself to the idea of not being worth looking at.  A single woman of nine and twenty ought not to expect to feel or inspire real affection again."  Here's some advice of my own: "Young women of six and twenty should not attempt to imitate the wit and genius of Jane Austen.  Wait a few more years until you have something better in you in than this unfunny, tiresome book."

The title: The Read Deal
The author: Debbi Rawlins
Publication: Harlequin, 2010
Got it from:  MC, B-day 2012

I enjoyed this book much, much more than I thought I would.  Emily Carter is hoping to break out of her stay-at-home rut so she signs up for a sightseeing adventure in New York City over Thanksgiving.  On an impulse, she buys a copy of Erotic New York and accidentally ends up leaving it behind in the cab she's sharing with a good-looking guy.  The guy turns out to be Nick Corrigan, a star baseball player.  I don't normally go in for sports-themed romance but this one worked for me as it takes place in the off-season.  It dealt a lot more with the realities of sports fame than the game itself.  What really worked for me is how darn likeable the characters were.  The romance was definitely pure fantasy, but the warm-and-fuzzy kind that felt so feel-good and satisfying.  And I love holiday getaway romance, especially the cold-weather kind.  Total thumbs up.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Full Frontal T.O.: Exploring Toronto's Architectural Vernacular

The title: Full Frontal T.O.: Exploring Toronto's Architectural Vernacular
The author: Patrick Cummins and Shawn Micallef
Publication: Coach House Books, 2012
Got it from:  Oakville PL

I'm completely in love with Full Frontal T.O. and I want to share this book with everyone.  Photographer Patrick Cummins has spent more than thirty years documenting Toronto and in this book he shows (along with text by Shawn Micallef) photos of the same building over the course of decades.  I find this kind of thing absolutely fascinating and I spent hours pouring over tiny details in each photo.  Many of the houses and stores show the marked changes in the 80's, 90's and 2000's.  For instance, a furrier in 1988 becomes a Money Mart in 2001.  Some neighbourhoods slowly decay over time, others become gentrified and old buildings get a facelift.  Old labelscars are revealed anew thanks to Cummins's time lens.  

Perhaps this book strikes a particular chord with me since it's a city I visit several times a year and it covers my entire lifetime (early 80's-present).  I love how he captures both ugly and beautiful stores and buildings and somehow manages to make them all fascinating.  Every picture on every page tells a story and then some - I found myself wondering about the lives of the people who lived and worked in these spaces.  

Some great examples from the book can be found here.  If you want to lose several hours of your life in a good way almost all of his photos are stored here

Monday, September 2, 2013

Going Vintage

The title: Going Vintage
The author: Lindsey Leavitt
Publication: Bloomsbury, 2013
Got it from:  The library

The plot:  16-year-old Mallory has just found out her boyfriend Jeremy has been cheating on her via an online game called Authentic Life and leaves him an angry message on Friendspace.  The next day, while going through her grandmother's basement, she uncovers a list her grandmother made when she was 16 in 1962: sew a dress for homecoming, run for pep-squad secretary, etc.  Still hurt and angry, Mallory decides to swear off all technology and complete her grandmother's list.  

My thoughts: Wow, it's been awhile since I did a contemporary YA review - apparently my last one was Little Miss Red back in May 2010.  Ever since Meg Cabot finished off the Princess Diaries series that same year I haven't found a YA book that's caught my eye.  This one looked like it had an interesting premise.

I have mixed feelings about the book.  At first I thought Mallory was pretty shallow and her commitment to actually living like it was 1962 seemed fairly weak.  But I did feel that she grew as a character, particularly as she learns to see Jeremy for what he really was and her decision that it's okay to go alone to her homecoming dance.  She also learns some pretty valuable lessons about taking off her rose-coloured nostalgia glasses as she uncovers truths about her grandmother's past.  I liked her growing relationship with Jeremy's cousin Oliver, who is a genuinely nice guy despite being a hipster, a species of male considered extremely unattractive by a panel of me.  

My biggest concern with the book is how uninterested Mallory is in her schoolwork.  How often in pop culture do we see teens blowing off their studies and considering school to be boring?  That is outside of my experience.  Sure, some classes could be tedious but I also found a lot of it fascinating as I was encountering it for the first time.  Would it have been too much to have Mallory show an interest in at least one subject?  The most troubling part of the story comes when Mallory essentially plagiarizes a paper on the Industrial Revolution and is never caught out for it.  There is no indication that she is aware of how wrong this is, only an acknowledgment that researching in books is "hard" compared to copying and pasting from the Internet.

Although this was an enjoyable read and did remind me of Meg Cabot, and Mallory does grow some over the course of the book, I would probably rate it a B- because of my conflicted reaction.