Review | Egg Island, by Sara Flemington

EggIslandEgg Island is a picaresque, coming-of-age novel about two teenagers on the road towards a mythical place called Egg Island, where reportedly, there’s a hole in the ozone. Julia believes her absentee father is on that island; Colt, whom she meets at a gas station, seems mostly along for the ride. Along the way, they meet random characters who spout bits of wisdom and a turtle they half-jokingly adopt as their child. They also eat cans of beans and tell random stories that seem imbued with layers of meaning about life and existence.

In short, Egg Island is the kind of novel I can imagine English classes mining for lots of rich material for discussion, and book clubs with a more literary bent having long, complex conversations over. Many readers will likely enjoy it. It’s not quite my kind of thing, but I can imagine finding it profound when I was in university, and it’s an engaging enough read that I finished the novel.

But it’s definitely the kind of story that will appeal to certain types of readers. I personally found Julia and Colt somewhat pretentious, but like in a Dawson’s Creek kind of way, in that I was likely just as pretentious when I was their age, and thought myself deep and profound. There’s that kind of youthful existentialism in both Julia and Colt. Julia goes through an entire dream sequence where she grows up, grows old, and dies, and the main takeaway is that she had died without ever having learned the meaning of life. In turn, Colt tells a whole complicated story about a man losing his grip on reality, only to later reveal it was an odd story involving his family.

The novel ends with a fitting sense of open-ended resolution. Whatever change Julia and Colt have experienced is subtle, but their impact on each other seems profound.

Overall, I found it okay. It’s not quite absurd enough to really push the envelope, not quite heartfelt enough to really tug at the heartstrings, not quite funny enough to be truly entertaining, and not quite clever enough to really stand out in terms of literary form. It’s quiet with just enough of an edge that you know the tone the author meant to set. Like I said, I think some readers will find it brilliant, and will find lots of things to talk about in their reading of it. I’m just not one of them.

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Dad Bod, by Cian Cruise

DadBodIn Dad Bod, Cian Cruise dives deep into various social notions of fatherhood by examining tropes and archetypes in pop culture father figures (the titular ‘dad bods’). His essays are all framed within the experiences of being a new father himself, which adds a lovely sense of personal stakes to his ideas.

When for example he complains about the bumbling sitcom dad trope (Homer Simpson from The Simpsons, Al Bundy from Married…with Children), his language may be somewhat detached, a professional arts critic commentating on an artistic trend. But his concern isn’t just academic, it’s personal. His perspective is that of a new father trying to figure out how to be a good father to his own son, and frustrated by the dearth of good role models in popular media.

Thus, it’s fitting that for each trope Cruise critiques, he also includes a character he considers an exemplar of that archetype. A bumbling sitcom dad, for example, or an adventure dad, who embodies all the core traits of that persona while still demonstrating how to be a good — never perfect, but good — parent to their kids. I find that these examples helped me tremendously in understanding how a sometimes-harmful trope about dads can actually become aspirational.

For example, Cruise posits Johnny Rose from Schitt’s Creek is an example of who the bumbling sitcom dad could be. Like Homer Simpson or Al Bundy, Johnny often gets things wrong. His good intentions often land him and his family in hilarious predicaments. Yet unlike Homer Simpson or Al Bundy, Johnny isn’t a total incompetent man child whom his wife has to care for; rather, he’s a complex, textured individual who genuinely cares for his family, tries his very best to care for them, and, most importantly, actually succeeds as often as he fails. In other words, he’s a real person, and his character shows how one can be hapless without being helpless. As Cruise describes Johnny Rose, it’s easy to imagine Cruise, and fathers like him who read his book, feeling solace in Johnny’s character, in knowing they can often feel totally out of their depth, yet still pull through for their loved ones when it matters.

There have been so many think pieces about the limitations of the bumbling sitcom dad trope, that I’m glad to see Cruise explore many other tropes in this book. I hadn’t really considered the implications of The Distant Driven Dad (think Indiana Jones’ father), or The Dads of Destiny (think Gandalf and Obi Wan Kenobi). I was also unfamiliar with some of the references Cruise used, and I loved reading Cruise’s thoughts about the archetypes they represented. One example is the character of Pappas, whose story, told in the prologue of the video game Dragon Quest V, is heartbreaking in its impact on the main character. On one hand, it’s a fairly standard vengeance story arc, but on the other hand, I love how Cruise shows how Pappas’ story turns the main character’s story full circle, from being a child who sees his father Pappas as larger than life, to a father himself, growing to be larger-than-life for his own children. I also love learning about Bandit, the father character in the children’s show Bluey, and how he goes all in when playing imaginative games with his children.

Dad Bod is a quick, interesting read, and, I imagine, a comforting one for many parents out there. It doesn’t quite show a road map of how to be a good parent, but it does give some examples of good parenting one may want to emulate. And particularly for new fathers, it gives some fictional role models they may want to view themselves on media. Whether readers see themselves as an adventuring dad, a driven dad, or a playful dad, Cruise has a pop culture character for you, and some thoughts of how to channel your own interests towards being a good parent.

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | If You Could See the Sun, by Ann Liang

IfYouCouldThis book has an interesting premise. Alice’s power of invisibility is a fitting metaphor for her feeling unseen by her peers. (I feel like Buffy did an episode around this too, so it’s definitely a relatable theme for teens.)

I like the class struggle stuff, and how much Alice’s ambition and anti-heroic actions are tied to the unfortunate reality that she’s just starting with a lot less than her classmates and has to do a million times more work just to keep up. There’s a great moment where she remembers getting second place to Henry in a contest and cried, coz she’d worked really hard to win the RMB500 prize while Henry just entered the contest last-minute on a whim. The win also didn’t mean as much to him, and he barely even remembered the contest at all. I like how Henry always viewed their rivalry as friendly while Alice saw it as much more serious, because she had so much more at stake with winning.

There’s some sadly realistic scenes depicting racism, mostly from a white teacher at the school. In one scene, she calls Alice by another student’s name, even though they look nothing alike.

The concept of Beijing Ghost is compelling. The author did a good job of showing the escalation of the tasks students hired Alice to do, from rather sordid but standard spy jobs that gradually intensify towards outright criminal acts.

The romance between Alice and Henry is sweet, but mostly meh. Alice never really seemed too much into Henry at all, so the random flirty scenes didn’t really do much for me. I do like how Alice’s developing friendships with Henry and Chanel helped her integrate a bit more deeply into the school social life. The author does a good job in showing just how much privilege wealthy students with powerful parents can have.

The book falls short for me on two fronts:

First, the task that eventually leads to the novel’s climax and denouement requires Alice to perform a criminal act. I sympathize with her desperation to earn enough money to stay in school, and I agree that any penalties should be meted out fairly. But the fallout from her actions did not at all feel satisfactory. I expected there to be more consequence, or at least more character development as a result of this experience. Instead, the main message seems to be that her actions were totally understandable and justifiable, and the blame really lies within the classist school system. Which is far too simplistic and totally overlooks Alice’s complicity in her own actions.

The big confrontation was a total non-event. The other party involved, the ‘evil mastermind’, so to speak, was barely even a force to be reckoned with. Alice’s big gesture to reclaim power didn’t seem anywhere near as much a death blow as the scene made it seem, and the way ‘good’ characters just seemed to get off unscathed bothered me. As terrible as the ‘evil mastermind’ was, I actually found myself wishing he got off as lightly as the main characters did, because the whole resolution just felt too neat and perfect.

The other big snag for me was that Alice’s invisibility was a convenient tool yet never quite fully delved into. And on one hand, that’s fine — I like magical realism as much as the next person, and think magical elements should exist in fiction without being explained to death. But there was a scene with Alice’s aunt that made me think the aunt had personal knowledge of Alice’s superpower, like maybe invisibility or various superpowers ran in their family under certain circumstances. That thread intrigued me, yet it was dropped completely. Even a bit of added insight from the aunt would have helped enrich the mythos of Alice’s invisibility; instead, it exists mostly as just a convenient plot tool.

Overall, this is a good book. The beginning was slow, and the book never really super hooked me. But I like the class stuff tackled in the story, and I just wish the ending had packed a bit more punch.

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Thanks to Inkyard Press for an e-galley of the book in exchange for an honest review.