Review and Author Q&A | Waffles and Pancake: Planetary YUM, by Drew Brockington

WafflesAndPancakeWaffles and Pancake: Planetary YUM is an adorably nerdy graphic novel for children (ages 6+), that takes us back in time to when Waffles, the brave-but-hungry pilot from Drew Brockington’s Catstronauts series, was a kitten. In Planetary YUM, Dad-Cat takes Waffles and his sister Pancake to the big city science museum, where they learn about dino-cats, constellations, and the science behind hairballs. But then the kittens get separated from Dad-Cat, and face the possibility: what if they’re stuck in the museum… forever?

I love cats, space, and museums, so this graphic novel just straight-up made me happy. The illustrations are adorable, and I love how excited the kittens got over the tuna melt and star tots at the museum cafeteria. The museum visit includes fun highlights — the 4D hairball display was hilarious, the section on constellations was both educational and adorable, and, knowing that Waffles grows up to become a catstronaut, the part where they learn about Neil Pawstrong’s moon landing was especially exciting. How many kids will read this book and realize how much they want to work in space, or at a museum? Lots, I hope!

I also love how casually the book mentions Cat-Dad and Cat-Mom being separated. I’m old enough to remember how big a deal it felt seeing divorce represented as no big deal in The Baby-Sitters Club, so I’m glad that even younger readers can now see it in books such as this.

Author Q&A

Even more awesome is how much the author’s love of space shines through! Drew has flown a Space Shuttle, repaired the International Space Station, and served in Mission Control; all during a week at Space Camp.

White man with brown hair and glasses in a white space suit with red collar.

Drew Brockington, Photo by Joanne Brockington

  • Did a museum visit inspire your career in space? If so, can you tell us about it? If not, what did inspire you to work in space?

I love space so much, but I don’t actually work in the space field.  My brother, however, excelled in the sciences and went on to become an actual rocket scientist. I don’t get to see him much, but when I do, we often swap knowledge about what is happening in the fast changing world of space.  As an adult, he took me on a tour of the Smithsonian Annex museum where Space Shuttle Discovery is housed. That was probably the most amazing tour I’ve ever been on.

 
  • If you could spend the night at a museum, which museum would it be, and why?
Tough question. I would sleep over at the Intrepid Air and Space museum in New York.  It was the Enterprise Space Shuttle, a Mercury Capsule, and so many great aviation pieces. Also, the museum is a decommissioned Aircraft Carrier, so not only do I get to sleep in a museum, but I also get to sleep on a giant ship. Bonus!
 
  • Do you have a favorite constellation? What is it and why?
My favorite constellation is Ursa Minor! Finding Ursa Major is so easy, but I still have to struggle to find Ursa Minor in the night sky. When I finally find it, I get so excited.  I’m really trying to learn more constellations for star gazing.  So far, I only can identify about 5, but hopefully I’ll be able to add more to that.  Knowing your constellations helps make the night sky seem less enormous. There’s a comfort in always knowing that they’re there.
 
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Thank you to the publisher for an e-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Missed Connections: A Memoir in Letters Never Sent, by Brian Francis

MissedConnectionsMissed Connections is a sweet and heartwarming memoir, told in the form of letters. In 1992, as a university student, Brian Francis placed a personals ad in the local paper. Almost 30 years later, he comes across 13 responses to his ad that he never answered, and decides to pen the answers to them from the perspective of his older, more experienced self. The result is a moving coming-of-age story, about a young man in the process of coming out as gay, dealing with the effects of his conservative small town upbringing, and his earnest and wholehearted search for love.

I’m a huge fan of Francis’ novels, and it was a nice jolt of recognition to see some of the themes and events from his fiction explored as fact here. A letter that talks about his struggles with body image and the social stigma from being overweight is a nice call-back to his young adult novel Fruit; there’s even a passing reference in the letter to imagining his nipples being able to talk, which, of course, is the entire premise behind Fruit. Some of the letters detail his complicated relationship with his mom — a letter reveals how she made his coming out all about her in rather dramatic fashion, and yet a later letter talks about how they reconnected before she died, in that highly emotional, complex way that isn’t quite a happy ending, yet still brims with love. Long-time readers of Francis will recognize shades of his Stone Angel-like novel Natural Order, and its captivating, complicated protagonist, Joyce. Francis has always demonstrated a gift for writing multilayered, textured, practically living and breathing human beings in his fiction, and seeing some of the elements from those stories from the perspective of the author himself recounting his life, adds even more layers of nuance and emotional depth.

Francis also creates an intriguing cast of characters through the letter exchanges. While the original 13 letters form the basis for the book, the author clarifies in the afterword that he has fictionalized aspects of the letters, removing identifying details and making the text his own, while still trying to be true to the personalities and styles of the letter writers. (To be honest, this made me feel better, because I was somewhat uncomfortable with publishing the original letters as-is, without the writers’ consent, no matter how unlikely it would be to actually identify any of them.) Possibly as a result of Francis’ hand, the letter writers all come across as earnest as he does.

The letters, then, are less one-way responses than dialogues, and while each letter-response pairing is its own self-contained vignette, there’s a central theme of uncertainty and raw vulnerability that runs throughout. We get a sense, not just of the author himself navigating the complex world of dating as a gay man in the 90s, before same-sex marriage was legalized, and in a small town where homosexuality still made people uncomfortable, but also of the 13 other gay men navigating that world alongside him. There’s a letter writer who asks not for a response, but rather for a meet-up in a public place within a five minute window on a particular date. Within the strict confines of that letter writer’s request is a very real desire for plausible deniability, and very careful planning to create means of escape at the slightest hint that things won’t go as planned. Another letter writer provides the author with a code, requesting that Francis post a new ad with his phone number written in that code. Again, the desire for secrecy, and the lengths to which this writer goes to try to guarantee his safety, are telling. Such letters colour the readings of even the more lighthearted letters, and as the letters gradually build on each other, they form an increasingly more complex picture.

Perhaps most telling are the letters that prompt Francis to reveal his own vulnerabilities. In response to an early letter from a man who jokes about being good-looking, Francis admits he’s actually seen the writer on campus, and the writer is indeed as handsome as he promises. Unfortunately, the writer’s good looks trigger Francis’ insecurities about his own, and as Francis explains why he never quite gathered the courage to respond to this letter, you can feel the regret and the compassion he feels for his younger self, and it all just makes you want to give his younger self a hug.

I first heard of Missed Connections when it was a stage show called Box 4901 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in early 2020. I remember wanting to watch it then, partly because I’m a fan of Francis’ writing, and also partly because I’m a fan of some of the performers reading the letters (Jeff Ho, who had a one-man play Trace at Factory Theatre, and who played Ophelia in Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet; and Colin Asuncion, who competed in The Great Canadian Baking Show). I never quite got to see the stage show, so I’m beyond glad that McClelland and Stewart published the book version. It’s a beautiful memoir, and one that prompts us to reflect: given the chance, what would we say to our younger selves?

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Unholy Murder (Tennison # 7), by Lydia La Plante

UnholyMurderCoverDS Jane Tennison and her partner, DC Simon Boon, are called to a building site to examine a coffin. Inside is the body of a young nun, and the investigation soon reveals that the building site used to be a convent and a school, where abuse happened and wrongdoings were covered up.

I’m a huge fan of mysteries that involve nuns, and Unholy Murder intrigued me with its behind-the-scenes look at convent life and Church politics. The first half of the book was a bit of a slog — it was slow-moving, and I almost DNF’d because I got bored — but fortunately, the story picked up in the second half. I like Jane and Boon’s partnership, and I like how their investigation digs into politics within the Catholic Church, and how this affects politics in municipalities and the police force as well.

I especially love how this mystery delves into the broader conversations around the Church’s history of abuse and cover-ups. The former convent has a troubling history, and the investigation leads Jane and Boon to former students and former nuns who have their own memories and experiences of trauma at the hands of those in leadership. That being said, I also like how the priests and nuns were presented, if not necessarily sympathetically, at least as humans, with all the flaws that implies. I have little sympathy for the Mother Superior who took out her anger on the students, but I appreciate how her descent to cruelty was explained somewhat with the external pressures she faced in her career.

Jane’s boss, DCS Barnes, also has his own history with the Church, which has led to him renouncing the faith. This colours his approach to the investigation and some of the suspects, and ultimately in consequences to his career. I thought this added a nicely personal touch to the mystery, and I like how he finds a way to share his truth at the end.

I learned midway through the book that this series is actually a prequel to the BBC Show Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as an older Jane Tennison. I remember enjoying that series, and finding Mirren’s character iconic — “Don’t call me ma’am. I’m not the bloody Queen.” So this younger verison of Jane was a bit of a disappointment. She’s fine, but nowhere near as iconic as she grows up to be. On the flip side, I developed a soft spot for Boon, and the scene where he uses Handel’s Messiah to tease out clues from someone with dementia was just beautifully done.

There were a couple of romantic subplots — between Jane and Nick, and Boon and Becky — which were honestly pretty meh. It was clear the characters were attracted to each other, but I didn’t really feel much of the chemistry. And Nick in particular turned out to be quite a man child; his immaturity in the latter half of the book was such a turnoff. The young and handsome priest, Father Chris, seemed more appealing as a love interest, but even acknowledging the barrier of his vows, that hint of a relationship barely fizzed. And as a Catholic, I found his breaking of the seal of confession a terrible breach of trust — granted, the person who confessed is dead, and the confession does end up tying some important loose ends, but still, the fact that he did that at all rubbed me the wrong way.

Overall, a bit too much of a slow burn for me, and the characters didn’t really grab me enough to make me want to read more in the series. But it did rekindle my interest in the BBC show, and I may check it out again.

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Thank you to the publisher for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.