Review | The Astronaut and the Star, by Jen Comfort

TheAstronautCoverThe Astronaut and the Star is an opposites-attract, forced-proximity romance between a driven astronaut and a happy-go-lucky actor who get together when Reggie Hayes has to train Jon Leo on a desert space camp to prepare him for a movie role. I’m a huge space nerd and sci fi buff, and I love nerdy romances, so I had high hopes for this one. Plus, the cover is gorgeous!

The story did pick up part-way through, but I got off on a slow start for me. Part of it is the character of Reggie herself. I’m all for super ambitious and driven heroines, and I’m a major sucker for emotionally complex main characters, but I just found it really hard to root for her either professionally or personally.

First, I get she’s a brilliant astronaut, and I like the development of her character arc, from someone who wants to do everything herself to someone who recognizes she needs help from time to time. The author also did a good job showing the toxicity of her family situation, and it’s believable that someone with those experiences would be so prickly. And I do like that her major life goal is to be the first woman on the moon. But her individualistic attitude isn’t just a character quirk to overcome on a personal level; it would legit be a major liability in space, where refusing to let other people do their jobs might literally get people killed. So the whole time she was working to prove herself ready to go to the moon, I couldn’t get behind it at all. Honestly, I felt bad for the other astronaut who’d been originally booked to train Jon Leo, who seemed legit excited about the opportunity until Reggie strong-armed him and threw around her mom’s name to get the job instead.

And then there’s her dynamic with Jon. Jon is the sweetest golden retriever puppy kind of a guy. A bit clumsy, and a bit disorganized, but overall, from the very beginning, he seemed like a great guy. And Reggie’s job was literally to train him in collecting soil samples and stuff so he can use that knowledge for his movie. So when she instead gives him busy-work, purportedly to keep him out of trouble, it really pissed me off. Especially since the entire exercise was a simulation in the first place — the rocks they collected didn’t matter for space science, and they weren’t actually researching astronaut stuff in the desert. The entire purpose of the exercise was to teach Jon Leo how to do it like a real astronaut. So Reggie had no data integrity to worry about protecting, and by giving Jon useless busy-work, she was downright failing at the very job she had bullied her way into getting in the first place.

And the way she treated Jon was just really mean. She’d catch herself and apologize, but some of the stuff she said was just mean-spirited, and totally undeserved. So it was forever before I could even buy into their relationship. Particularly since Jon was such a sweetheart throughout, Reggie’s barbs at times just felt more like bullying than sexy banter.

The story did improve for me around the halfway mark, once Reggie started opening up to Jon, and actually letting him do the tasks she was hired to teach him to do in the first place. I loved the Christmas scenes, how these showed the differences in their respective family dynamics, and how they responded to each other’s families. And by the end of the novel, I was on-board with their happily-ever-after.

I just wish it didn’t have to take so long for me to get to that point.

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Thanks to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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.