Friday, December 18, 2015

Crossfire Christmas

The title: Crossfire Christmas
The author: Julie Miller
Publication: Harlequin, 2014
Got it from: Overdrive

December is one of those periods I just don't have the time or energy to read anything really heavy.  I want something light and fast-paced, preferably a romance with a winter setting.  Crossfire Christmas was a perfectly serviceable book in that regard.  It didn't really stand out for me, but it was a nice distraction.  It's part of the "Kansas City Precinct" series that I haven't read but apparently involves a lot of characters who are cops.  Both the hero and heroine appeared as characters earlier in the series.  The hero, Charlie Nash, is a DEA agent whose cover has been blown inside a big-time drug cartel.  Wounded and on the run, he stumbles across  Teresa Rodriguez, a nurse, who he basically kidnaps to keep himself alive.

I'm not sure why this book was just okay for me.  It had some elements I liked, but neither the hero or heroine really grabbed me.  They weren't annoying, but they didn't sparkle with personality either.  It also had some road trip elements, which I like, but they never really left Kansas City so that sort of fizzled out.  I also really enjoy the hurt/comfort trope, but I never really believed Nash was in any danger of dying.  And maybe that is the source of my lukewarm reaction: there were no edge-of-my seat moments where I felt the main characters were in any serious danger.   It was overall a paint-by-numbers pleasant experience. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015


The title: Dietland
The author: Sarai Walker
Publication: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks

I actually finished listening to this book on audiobook a few weeks ago, and it has been running through my mind ever since.  It's not the usual sort of book I read, but then again I don't think there's another book like it.  I would never have picked it up except something about it piqued my interest from the reviews.  That something is, "shadowy feminist group takes revenge against scumbag men."

But to say "that's what it's about" is to do a disservice to this book, because it's much more complicated than that.  If I were to sum it up as succinctly as possible, I'd say it's about a self-loathing, obese twentysomething woman who goes on a journey of self-acceptance and opens her eyes to the reality of the world around her.  If you read the reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere, you'll see this book has divided a lot of readers due to its strong feminist perspective.

I can imagine that if you're not already a hardcore feminist (as I am), some of the book's revelations about the way men treat women might seem shocking.  But when you're talking about a scenario where women are kidnapping men who brutally rape a young woman (for example), and then dropping them on a freeway, the idea isn't supposed to be "is this right or wrong?"  It's to take a look at the millions and millions of instances of injustices women have faced, and think, "what would it actually be like if even a tiny fraction of violence men do to us were turned on them?"

Men's rights activists can breath easy: that's not likely to happen any time soon.  Even the novel's heroine, Plum, is shocked and horrified by the actions of the secret feminist action group, known as "Jennifer" (after a name on a piece of paper stuffed in a victim's mouth.)  Well, she is at first - when she's a downtrodden, miserable hermit with a crappy dead-end job.  If people take nothing else from this book, they will remember its depiction of the various ways Plum suffers because of her weight.

And it's brutal. I mean really, really brutal. This book holds nothing back in highlighting the shameful, disgraceful way our society, and particularly men, treat women who are overweight.  Plum's journey is heartbreaking, from her unhappy childhood to her teenage suffering on an awful diet plan to her current life as the faceless agony aunt behind the "Dear Kitty" letters in a teen magazine. Seeing the various ways Plum gets rejected, harassed and even beaten by men who are complete strangers simply for being overweight is painful.  No wonder she's desperate to have gastric bypass surgery and unleash the thinner "Alicia" she thinks is inside her.

The book takes a turn for the better when she gets taken in by a group of outcast activist women, led by Verena Baptist, the daughter of Plum's one-time weight-loss guru.  Fans of mythic tropes will recognize many aspects of the hero's quest in the way Plum must undergo a series of challenges to transform herself (at first for money, later purely for her own benefit).  Eventually, Plum is reborn.  I won't spoil it for you, except to say that her eventual self-acceptance is long, painful and triumphant.

As for Jennifer?  It didn't bother me.  Some of the stunts they pulled were actually pretty funny: my favourite was when they blackmailed a British tabloid to replace the page three girl with naked men. Eventually England is covered in images of buff men and women flock from all over the world  to see it.

I'm not even sure this book is actually condoning the violence, although these particular men largely deserve it.  Instead, it's flipped the violence around in a way we're not used to seeing.  As the main character in the wonderful movie Suffragette says, "We break windows, be burn things, because war is the only thing men listen to."

Sometimes in books, things get ugly.  They show the world as it is, not as we want it to be.  I hope it will be a revelation to any woman reading this novel that we should live our lives to please ourselves first.  As one of my favourite Oscar Wilde sayings goes, "to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Poles Apart

The title: Poles Apart
The author: Terry Fallis
Publication: McClelland & Stewart, 2015
Got it from: The library

I really enjoyed Terry Fallis's political books, The Best Laid Plans and The High Road, which poked gentle fun at Canadian politics with a healthy dose of liberal idealism thrown in (that's big "L" and little"l" liberal.)  Surely Angus McLintock, the grizzled feminist engineering professor/MP at the heart of these novels, would approve of our new PM.  Wait, did I say feminist engineering professor?  You mean an actual male writer has a feminist character in a mainstream novel?  That's just one of the many delightful touches in Fallis's stories that elevate them to must-reads, at least in this feminist's eyes.

So imagine how excited I was that a male feminist was going to be the main character of Fallis's new book, Poles Apart.  The title is a double entendre, as the hero lives (by accident) above a strip club.  Everett Kane is a freelance writer who's drifting in life.  The only time he ever felt enthusiastic about something was in his university days, when he worked as a crusader for women's equality.  His dad is an old-school misogynist, his mom a high-powered businesswoman (they're divorced).  Everett moves to Florida after his father suffers a stroke.  At the rehab centre he meets Beverley Tanner, a feminist from the heyday of second-wave feminism and an idol of Everett's.  Beverley inspires him to write passionately about feminism, which he does on his new blog, Eve of Equality (which uses both the phrase "on the eve of equality" and Everett's name).

In true Fallis fashion, the blog goes viral and everyone is trying to figure out the author's identity.  Everett is desperate to keep it secret, as he wants the message and not himself to be the focus of attention.  Matters get worse when the owner of a nation-wide strip club he lambastes on his blog ends up moving his strip club below Everett's apartment.

Strip clubs?  Ugggh.  I hate that tired trope, but at least here's it's used ironically (a feminist living above a strip club?  Say what?).  Naturally, Everett befriends the hooker with a heart of gold one of the strippers, but thankfully that doesn't go the way I expected it to.  Along on the friend train is a gentle giant of a bouncer and the strip club owner's young and attractive lawyer.

Naturally everything gets wrapped up in a neat package at the end but I like that don't tell anyone.  I could have done with a lot less of the macho dad, although he does undergo a conversion of sorts.  I would have loved to actually read Eve of Equality's blog posts but the book doesn't even give us so much as a paragraph.  But all that pales in my excitement about a mainstream, funny book about feminism.  Like the hero, I also think that humour and feminism go hand in hand, and that men can and should get involved.  Now if only Fallis would write a book from the actual perspective of the badass older women in his novels, that would be amazing.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Absolutely Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery

The title: Absolutely Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery
The author: Heather Vogel Frederick
Publication: Simon & Schuster, 2014
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks

Exciting news for fans of the Mother-Daughter Book Club series: after writing what was supposed to be the final book in the series back in 2012, author Heather Vogel Frederick has announced another installment due next spring.  In the meantime, I've been listening to the audiobook of her new chapter book for younger readers.

Truly Lovejoy is 13 and her family has just moved to Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire from Texas after her father sustained an injury fighting overseas.  Truly's family is concerned about the change in their father, who has become more stern and withdrawn.  Taking over the family bookstore might be what he needs to get back on his feet.  Meanwhile, Truly has to deal with the awkwardness of moving to a new town and adolescence in general.

At first I was skeptical.  These weren't my beloved Mother-Daughter Book Club characters, and Truly seemed like a bit of a whiny brat.  But as with the MDBC series, I began to warm to the story and the charming small-town characters.  The book doesn't really start getting good until Truly starts solving the mystery.  As with the girls of the MDBC, Truly leads a busy life that involves dancing lessons, swimming, birding and algebra lessons that she has to squeeze the mystery around.  The mystery involves a series of clues found in a first edition of Charlotte's Web.  (I totally figured out who the letters were for early on.)  As an added bonus, a familiar character from the Mother-Daughter Book Club universe makes a hilarious cameo.

Hooray for Pumpkin Falls and what will hopefully be the first of many in a new mystery series.

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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

John Doe on Her Doorstep

The title: John Doe on Her Doorstep
The author: Debra Webb
Publication: Harlequin Intrigue, 2005
Got it from: Library e-book

A year ago I read the second book in this series, Executive Bodyguard, now I have gone back and am reading the first.  For those who don't remember my previous review, the Enforcers are part of a secret organization known as the Collective, who funnel money from the government to create high-tech military weapons, including the Enforcers themselves.  Enforcers are genetically bred to be superior both physically and intellectually.  One of their prime creators is Dr. Archer, who is something of a father to the Enforcers.  When he is murdered by mysterious enemies, one of the Enforcers, Adam, is sent to eliminate the suspected traitors, which includes his daughter Dr. Dani Archer.

En route to his mission, Adam is ambushed by thugs who mug him, beat him and leave him for dead.  If he was an ordinary human he would be dead, but because he is an Enforcer he survives, albeit without his memory.  He literally stumbles into Dani's house, who's there wrapping up loose ends after her father's death.  Since he doesn't remember who he is, much less that he's supposed to kill her, he lets Dani, a medical doctor, take care of him.  Dani doesn't go to the police as she has a good reason not to trust them.  She's intrigued by Adam, who heals impossibly quickly, and also because he's hella sexxay on account of being a genetic superhunk.  There's some funny scenes as Adam has to be taught how to do everything from eating to showering.  Also look for the trademark patented Debra Webb spooning scene, which appears in every one of her novels I've read so far - not that I mind.

What I liked about this book: The whole idea of the Enforcers is intriguing.  Dani is a strong female character and I thought her relationship with Adam was believable and hot.  The action was fairly fast-paced and exciting.

What I didn't like about this book: It felt too short, but I guess it had to fit into the required category length.  If I hadn't read the second book in the series, I probably would have rushed out to do so, as it helps flesh out the story.  Also, the ending was something of a letdown.  It had the same ending as the other book I reviewed today, and it was too predictable and unoriginal.  I would have preferred a "happy for now" rather than a "happily ever after forever and ever" ending.

Hmm...Debra Webb seems to be becoming my go-to author for romantic suspense. 

Royal Wedding

The title: Royal Wedding
The author: Meg Cabot
Publication: HarperCollins, 2015
Got it from: The library

Remember all the way back in 2009 when I was binge-reading the Princess Diaries series and I thought it was all over?  Well, it turns out that Mia's back! 

I was as excited as the next fan to spend time with all the characters again.  Neurotic Mia is now 26 and dividing her time between being Princess of Genovia and running a youth centre in NYC.  I don't want to spoil any other revelations, but we get an update on all her high school friends too.  Michael, who still suffers from being styrofoam bland, whisks Mia away for an island vacation where he proposes.  Mia's dad, the Crown Prince of Genovia, is suffering from a midlife crisis and still hasn't gotten over Mia's mom, who was recently widowed.  (Gee, I wonder where this is going?)  Meanwhile, a shocking family secret threatens to shake the family to its core.  Or maybe introduce the main character for Cabot's new kid series.

Don't get me wrong, I still like Cabot's writing.  The pop culture references are fun - who doesn't love a book that mentions Sex Sent Me to the ER?  But I have been reading all the glowing reviews and thinking, what am I missing?  This book would have been a less-than-average addition to the original series.  And the cliched ending was a huge letdown.  I would have liked to see Mia grown more mature, intelligent and forging her own path, rather than the same tired old ending.  I guess when you're writing about princesses, you're not going to be breaking any feminist ground. 

Rating: 2.5 tiaras out of 5.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

The title: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
The author: Sydney Padua
Publication: Pantheon, 2015
Got it from: The library

Ah, Ada Lovelace.  Daughter of Lord Byron, the original Queen of Steampunk, arguably the world's first computer programmer.  Is there anything she can't do?  Sydney Padua doesn't think so, as she sets out to prove in this graphic novel/alternate history/adventure/science and math lesson.  Yes, it's all over the place, as hard to pin down as Charles Babbage's never-finished Analytical Engine.  This graphic novel is really a series of vignettes of "what might have been" if the computer had actually been built and was used to solve crime and various economical woes.  Interspersed are a whole lot of background notes (seriously, at one point I was in the footnote of a footnote of a footnote).  Various Victorian personages drop in and out, including Queen Victoria (apparently the world's first fan of LOLCats), George Eliot and of course the Romantics. 

It's all a lot of silliness, of course, but oh my goodness is there a lot of math and science.  I encountered terms I haven't heard since school and didn't know I even remembered.  After reading detail after detail of how the Analytical Engine was designed, I think I may actually have a slight grasp of how computers work.  Don't worry, it's not all dry mathematics, there's actually some pretty great historical humour in here that Victorianists will appreciate.  I particularly love a scene where actual computers (people who did computations) try to wreck the machine Luddite-style and Babbage sits them down to tea to reason with them.  Both Babbage and Lovelace were fascinating characters who make excellent heroes this quirky and fun book.

Saturday, June 6, 2015


The title: Indigo
The author: Beverly Jenkins
Publication: Avon, 1996
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks

I wish - I really, really wish - that there were more romances featuring minorities.  And I wish there were more historicals.  And I wish they were as good as Indigo.

But there aren't, so I will have to rejoice in how much I enjoyed Indigo.  It felt like a breath of fresh air.  There was a lot going on in this book that I loved.  First of all, it is set in Michigan in the 1850s, a time and place I know almost nothing about.  The Civil War is looming in the distance, and slavery is still very much a thing.  Hester Wyatt is a former slave who has made a life for herself in the free north.  Since the death of her beloved aunt, she has had to survive on her own.  What I liked about her is how fiercely independent she is, but still shows cracks of vulnerability.  Hester knows her life as a free woman is precarious: slave catchers have been kidnapping freed slaves and sending them back south.  Hester could give in to despair, but she doesn't.  She has worked hard, scrimped and saved, and denied herself every luxury to remain independent in her own house.  Nor has she turned her back on those less fortunate.  Her home is part of the Underground Railroad, and this is how she encounters the hero, Galen Vachon.

Galen is from a wealthy New Orleans family, members of a group known as the free people of color.  Here again I learned about something I was entirely ignorant of.  Galen's family occupies a unique position in their society: they are wealthy and privileged, but because of the color of their skin, they are looked down on by whites.  But because of their distinction, they are not really accepted as being true members of "the race" that Hester and other African-Americans identify with.

Galen reminds me a lot of the Scarlet Pimpernel, because he has used his wealth and privilege to help others escape capture.  He works for the Underground Railroad and has earned the nickname "The Black Daniel" because of his heroic rescues and legendary derring-do.  When the story opens, he has been betrayed and is caught and badly beaten.  Luckily he is found and taken to Hester's safe house for recovery.

Of course in true romantic fashion, he's a surly patient and she's a stubborn nurse.  But they gradually come to respect one another for the lives both have built.  Naturally, there's romantic tension, but Hester immediately senses that she won't be welcome in Galen's aristocratic family.  She knows her hands, dyed indigo from her years spent  picking dye plants, will forever mark her as a former slave. 

I love novels that involve politics, and this one has it in abundance.   It was wonderful to see it from the perspective of the African-American community of her time.  Some of Hester's friends, including Hester herself, prefer to take a course of direct action by helping runaway slaves make a new life for themselves in the north.  Other people in Hester's circle are more involved in the intellectual side of the movement, taking part in debates and reading and writing for abolitionist papers.  And some of course do both.  But this novel doesn't always dwell on this serious subject, even though there's some pretty heavy stuff going on (including a slave catcher who's stalking Hester).  There's also some more lighthearted moments, such as carriages breaking down, making mud pies, shopping trips and fairs.  As Hester and Galen's relationship grows, they become more playful and fun together, bringing comfort to each other amidst dark and troubling events.  And the ending?  I was in tears.

It may be a touch old-school (it was written almost 20 years ago), but there's nothing in here for anyone to object to.  It's a fascinating history lesson, a tender love story and an exciting adventure rolled into one.  What's not to love?

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: Barnes and Noble, 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 Turner 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.