reviews

Review: One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (Doubleday Canada) is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel offering feminist adaptations of folk tales wrapped in an epic-feeling love story. Greenberg’s newest book uses the same mythology presented in her earlier graphic novel, The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth, and explores storytelling as an essential element of what makes us human.

The unwilling subject of a bet between her thick-witted husband and his friend, Cherry and her girlfriend Hero find themselves in hot water as the friend vows to seduce the seemingly chaste and loyal Cherry. Scheherazade-style, Hero devises a plan to keep the foolish suitor at bay, telling nightly stories of strong women who defied cultural norms for (often female) love. Retelling fairy tales like the Twelve Dancing Princesses and the Two Sisters, in addition to original narratives, Hero gives the women in the stories fresh agency to choose their lives and lovers. I particularly enjoyed the stories framed by the League of Secret Storytellers, a matriarchal group of women who live outside the authority of men.

Layered storytelling cautioning the evils of men give this book a satisfying feminist twist on familiar fairy tales, and provides a sharp commentary on misogyny and the women who must bloom under its confines. Female relationships, literacy and oral history are portrayed as the antidote to the poison of a patriarchal society. Greenberg’s simple lines and stark colouring add to the tension and moody beauty of the stories; I especially loved the use of colour in her many moonlit scenes.

There are many things to love about this collection, but my favourite is how Greenberg skilfully interweaves her stories and characters to create a rich apotheosis to female relationships.

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This review first appeared in Geist 104.

reviews

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua (Pantheon; also available at sydneypadua.com) asks the question: what would the world be like if mathematician Ada Lovelace and inventor Charles Babbage had succeeded in creating the first Victorian computer? The answer is that they would use it to fight crime, of course.

Explored in a steampunk pocket universe, Lovelace and Babbage invent the first spellchecker, avert a revolution of mathematicians, and mingle with our favourite Victorian figures such as George Eliot, George Boole, and Queen Victoria herself. Told through exciting comic panels, contemporary sources, and wry footnotes, Padua explains the historical and social contexts of the duo’s mathematical discoveries, in a way that makes the development of the analogue computer entertaining and accessible.

Even a Victorian enthusiast like myself learned new things about the era’s culture and science, and Padua’s clear passion for the grumpy Babbage and his grand ideas made the book a pleasure to read. I especially enjoyed the literary references sprinkled throughout the comic: in one scene, poetry-hating Lovelace is the infamous Person from Porlock who interrupts Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s composition of Kubla Khan; in another section, the Analytical Engine is drawn as Wonderland, and Lovelace is the Alice who must make sense of it all.

The Thrilling Adventures is, above all, a humorous reimagining of two characters formulating a technology that changes the world. I loved the peek into a universe where the computer reigned a hundred years early, and wish the magic of the functional Analytical Engine could bleed a little more into our own reality.

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This review first appeared in Geist 103.

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Reading Year in Review: 2016

Another year is through and it’s time to look back on the books I read in 2016. In a surprising turn of events, I think I actually almost achieved my reading challenges for the year?! I guess that’s what happens when you set reasonable goals and actively work towards them throughout the year. Who knew?

50 Book Pledge

This is where I fell short this year: I only read 46 books (up from 43 in 2015), aided greatly by a late-year last-minute reread of A Series of Unfortunate Events. But since I improved on the previous year’s number, read more widely than in previous years, and continued to read non-book material at a high rate (when can I start counting novel-length fanfics as books? Serious question), I’m giving myself a pass. You can see what I read here. Did we read any of the same books? Let’s talk!

Reading Bingo

Penguin Random House Canada’s Reading Bingo card was less specific than last year’s CanLit version, and as a result I did pretty well: two lines filled and only seven squares missed! Some of the missed squares I’m tentative about: I almost certainly read a book with a character with a disability, but none came to mind when I was filling out the card, a sure sign that I need to step up my game in this arena. I’m also pretty sure I read a book from #weneeddiversebooks but a glance through their social media didn’t yield a match – another thing I can improve on next year. You can see which books applied to which squares here.

Books by Women

The goal here was to read 75% books by women in 2016. I didn’t do quite as well as I hoped, according to the numbers: only 57% if you count my speed reread of Lemony Snicket. If you take that series out, I’m at 73%. I was very mindful throughout the year of this goal so I’m disappointed I didn’t achieve it outright. However, I’ve really shifted to consuming a majority of female-created or women-run media (podcasts, websites, fanfics, books) and I’ve been conscious about finding more diverse voices to listen to other than just white men. I can do better with this goal next year.

The Great Tolkien Reread of 2016

It happened!!! I have a half-written post about it in my drafts but in the spring I managed to read all three Lord of the Rings books using a strict reading regimen of 100 pages per week – but somehow I managed to finish it in just eight! It was definitely less of a slog than I was expecting: there are a lot of small moments of humour, and the writing is less dense than I remembered. I didn’t manage to read the appendices (I needed to move on) but I really enjoyed it and my reread didn’t diminish my memories of the series.

Nonfiction Challenge

I read eight nonfiction books this year, mostly biographies/memoirs, up from six the previous year. While my New Year’s Resolutions kind of fizzled out (#relatable), I did manage to complete this goal for three topics – hockey, art and feminism. I read The Game by Ken Dryden and saw AHL, World Cup and NHL games; I read In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and The Birth of Modernist Art by Sue Roe, and saw many excellent works of art in Canadian, Danish and Parisian museums; and I read Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett and joined a women in tech group at work. I’d like to note that while I didn’t fully meet this goal for all topics I set it for, I did grow and learn in each area, either by finding a supplemental source of information about the idea (eg. podcasts, online video) or doing the “practical” aspect of the topic (eg. attended opera performances). I am satisfied with my progress in this goal and am already planning which topics to tackle next year.

Top Books of the Year

Okay okay I know this is really what you wanted to know: with all those reading goals, which books did I actually enjoy the most?

  • Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (see my Mid-Year Reading Recap for my thoughts!)
  • What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, for the strength of the leading story alone
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a wonderfully interwoven generational story of a family split between oceans
  • The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua (review coming soon!)

Ok, that’s a wrap on 2016! Let me know what your favourite book of the year was, and if you met your reading goals!

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eReader Review: Kobo Aura One

Last month, I was lucky enough to get a new Kobo Aura One eReader, Kobo’s newest device that was engineered start to finish with the help of their customers. Sold out in many places until next year, the Kobo Aura One is Kobo’s new flagship eInk device that has been called “the greatest eReader of all time.”

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The Kobo Aura One in its natural habitat.

In addition to standard details like a high-definition screen resolution, access to articles saved from Pocket, and accessibility features like adjustable font faces and sizes, the Aura One boasts a number of new reader-first features, like a bigger screen that mimics the size of a print book,  a red-shift screen light, and a waterproof design. You can also natively borrow library books from public libraries and Overdrive (no more sideloading!). In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that while this is not a sponsored post, I do work at Kobo and this device was a gift from the company.

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Comparison of the Aura One (left) and Glo (right) in size and tone of light.

Before the Aura One, my go-to eReader was the first-generation Kobo Glo, which features a six-inch eInk screen with a one-setting front light. I have always enjoyed reading on my Glo and have purchased several as gifts for friends and family. I’ve also done some reading on the Kobo iOS app on my phone, and on a Kobo Touch (my first device), and a Kobo Arc tablet. Of these different platforms, I’ve always preferred the Glo. I liked that I could turn pages with one hand on the bus; I liked that the light didn’t hurt my eyes after a long reading session like a computer screen did; and I liked that I could throw one device filled with dozens (hundreds!) of books into my bag and never be without something to read while vacationing or in a waiting room.

Now that I’ve read several books on the Aura One, I can say that the reading experience exceeds my expectations after being a Glo devotee. Reading on the 7.8 inch touchscreen feels more like reading a real book, and the page turns feel faster. I like being able to adjust the warmth of the reading light and that you can set it to shift tones based on time of day, although I haven’t tried reading with the full red shift at night yet. You can also set the device to go to sleep or turn off after a set period of time, to help conserve the battery; as a person who has been surprised more than once with an uncharged eReader after she left it asleep for a couple weeks, this is a welcome addition. The screen resolution is sharper, and the device responds to my touch more more quickly than the Glo. And! The new sleepcover has this clever magnetic panel that lets you prop up the Aura One, so you can read hands-free (I believe this brilliant idea was invented by one of Kobo’s own employees). This is perhaps my favourite feature, as it makes reading over meals much more enjoyable. I am wholly converted and I don’t think I could go back to my Touch now.

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It stands!

The only complaints I have about the Aura One is that this is much more of a two-handed device for me; as a tiny-handed person, it’s more difficult to hold the device in one hand and flip the pages. It also takes up more room in a purse and I am pretty sure you would be hard pressed to fit this one into a pocket at all. The brightness of the light is also a little finicky – I was expecting a button to control the light, as on the Glo, but on the Aura One there’s a very sensitive on-screen slider that gives you too many options for screen brightness. These are my only grievances about the Aura One so far but they’re not enough to turn me away from this device.

As a person who reads print and eBooks about equally, I have felt more excited about reading digitally on the Aura One than reading a paper book since I got the device. I’ve also found myself reading more and in longer sessions, and enjoying my reading experience more. If you can get your hands on an Aura One, I think you’ll find that your reading habits are changed for the better too.

Do you read digitally at all? Tell me how you do it and your favourite places to eRead!

reviews

Review: A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam

9781487000264A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam (House of Anansi) contemplates the ordinary object of the pillow as the buffer between internal and external life. Inspired by Sei Shōnagon’s famous Pillow Book, Buffam creates her own series of short reflections of daily life with her husband and young daughter, lists of thematic or alphabetical things (my favourites include Moustaches A to Z, Altered Proverbs and Things That Make My Heart Beat Faster), and odes to the sleep that eludes her.

Weaving through each passage is a pillow: historical pillows, insomnia or dreams spent on pillows, pillows sat on in Japanese restaurants, and the items she finds underneath her daughter’s pillow. Each new pillow marks the text’s restlessness, moving between lists, forms and genres as Buffam observes the muted passing of time; however, instead of measuring out her life in coffee spoons, Buffam counts the pillows that mark her days. Not quite essays, not quite poetry, Buffam’s prose is a quiet and lyrical celebration of the anxieties of life and motherhood.

What I liked most about this book was the struggle of form and content, the internal insomnia of the text that explores the liminal space of the pillow, where the privacy of sleep meets the demands of family life. I’ve returned to this book several times for Buffam’s humorous lists, and expect I’ll be back again for her dreamy stories.

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This review first appeared in Geist 102.

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Kobo Emerging Writer Prize Winners: 2016 Edition

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Michael Tamblyn announces the winners of the Prize. Can you spot me in the crowd? Picture via Kobo’s Facebook.

Earlier this week, the winners of the second annual Kobo Emerging Writer Prize were announced in Toronto.

As with last year, I was on the internal shortlisting committee, sifting through submissions and organizing the Kobo team to pick the shortlist before turning it over to the panel of author judges, this year Camilla Gibb, Lynsay Sands, and Gail Anderson-Dargatz. There were a lot of titles dear to me on the shortlist this year; I particularly loved Pillow, Debris, Specimen, Born to Walk, and That Lonely Section of Hell. This year’s genre category was romance, and though I didn’t read any of the shortlisted titles, it’s exciting to see these books ranked alongside the more prominent categories.

The announcement event, held at Terroni on Adelaide St., was a lovely, sophisticated affair with many of the nominees in attendance. It was a delight to chat with Andrew Battershill, Wab Kinew, Irina Kovalyova, and many members of the Toronto publishing industry as well. I’m so excited to see what our winners have in store next.

specimenFiction Winner: Specimen by Irina Kovalyova

Of this winners, Specimen is the only one I’ve read, and I enjoyed it immensely. Kovalyova’s stories are sharp and witty; each one is influenced by her science background. The one that stuck with me the longest was “The Blood Keeper,” a novella-length story about a student and her father who go, separately, to North Korea for research.

Non-Fiction Winner: The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinewwab

Immediately following the announcement of The Reason You Walk on the shortlist, Wab Kinew was elected as an NDP constituent in Winnipeg. Related? Perhaps not, but it was exciting to have such a high profile nominee. This book is a heartfelt story of reconciliation between father and son; I’m interested to read it.

Genre Winner: Fury’s Kiss by Nicola R. White

furyI’m so excited that Fury’s Kiss won in this category because it’s a self-published book. In a time where more authors are turning to self publishing as a means of releasing their work, it’s wonderful to see self-published books legitimized and celebrated. And Fury’s Kiss sounds fascinating, with a Greek-mythology twist. I can’t wait to see more of White’s work!

The winners each receive $10 000 and marketing and promotion support from Kobo for the year. Are you planning to read any of this year’s nominees?

reviews

Mid-Year Reading Recap

2016 has reached its midpoint and I thought I’d pop in and chat about what I’ve been reading lately. I was in a bit of a slow period for reading books in the spring, but summer’s almost here and I’m picking up speed; there’s hope for my reading challenges yet. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

boringgirlsBoring Girls by Sara Taylor

How To Build A Girl meets The Basic Eight in this debut novel about Rachel, an angry teen who forms a metal band with her best friend Fern, and uses their success to take revenge on misogyny in the music industry to violent ends. This book has all the components I love in a book – bloodthirsty teens, mysterious best friends, feminism, murder – but it fell a little flat for me; Rachel was underdeveloped and the characters’ emotions and motivations were not as nuanced as I would have liked. Spectacular cover, though.

In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art by Sue Roemontmartre

I picked up this book as a part of my 2016 Nonfiction Challenge, and it was a lovely change to delve into the mid-century art scene in Paris. Art history becomes accessible in this enjoyable portrait of the birth of modern art in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. I really liked how the author framed the artists’ famous works and stylistic breakthroughs by providing context for the political and cultural developments that influenced the modernist art movement, like telephones, cinemas, and industrialization, while also crafting an emotional narrative centring around the artists in Paris’ famous bohemian neighbourhood. The analyses of the artists’ major works is accessible and ties together the social and emotional influences highlighted by the author. I read this book as prep for a trip to Paris, where I planned to visit friends, eat pastries and see as much art as I could. This book really enhanced my experience of all the modernist art I saw.

modernloversModern Lovers by Emma Straub

I’ve long loved Emma Straub – in fact, her first book was one of the first I ever reviewed for print – and you may remember that I first became aware of her as a merchandiser for The Magnetic Fields. Her new novel is a charming and witty portrait of old friends who are struggling with their marriages, their children, and the shadow of their famous and dead former bandmate. This was a quick and fun read with characters that feel human and smart writing. Straub really knows how to write relatable characters – her teenagers are particularly sharp – and I enjoyed the warmth and humour she uses to tackle old wounds, first love and the stress of long-buried secrets.

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Emma Straub and her Modern Lovers muumuu

I was lucky to see Emma Straub in Toronto just this past week, in conversation with Sue Carter Flynn at the Toronto Reference library. She wore one of her fantastic Modern Lovers-print muumuus and talked about her past as a poet, her family, and how many Magnetic Fields secrets are in this book (none, although she did tell me a few!). She was an utter delight and I wouldn’t mind being her best friend, if she’s taking applications.

Dad Magazine by Jaya Saxena and Matt Lubchansky

dadmagAs one of my favourite columns on The Toast (RIP), I looked forward to a new “issue” of Dad Magazine every month, and the heartwarming dad stories in the comments. The book is a full issue of Dad Magazine, reporting on hard-hitting issues like how every sport has been ruined these days, what’s going on in the neighbour’s yard, and how to talk to your son about growing a beard. My favourite part were all the hilarious dad ads (“(d)ads,” if you will) advertising things like complete sets of state quarters, the local paper shredder emporium, and yarn-spinner’s workshops for dad storytelling – make sure you read the fine print for extra puns. Maybe it’s because I’m not a dad, but the full issue felt like a it was a little too much. I’m hoping for one more column on the Toast as a send-off.

Now Reading: Not Working by Lisa Owennotworking

I’ve only just started it, but so far Not Working has been a fun Bridget-Jones-esque exploration of a young woman’s struggle to find a job as her life comes undone. The writing is funny and sharp, and Claire feels almost a little too familiar as she scrambles to find a place in the world. I’m looking forward to reading more.

That’s what I’ve been reading lately! What’s your favourite book you’ve read in 2016 so far?

reviews

Review: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

In The High Mountains of Portugal (Knopf), Yann Martel returns to magic realism in three interwoven stories about lost love and journeys taken to reclaim the past.

martelIn 1904, Tomas, grieving for his dead lover and son, sets out in a car he doesn’t know how to drive to find a long-lost religious artefact in rural Portugal. Three decades later, a woman from the same rural village brings her husband’s corpse to a pathologist in the middle of the night, where his autopsy reveals a surprising answer to how the man lived. Fifty years after that, Canadian Senator Peter adopts a chimpanzee and moves to the Portuguese mountains after the death of his wife.

In each of these stories, grief manifests in the loss of language: Tomas struggles to learn the mechanical tongue of the automobile; Dr. Lozora fails to communicate the medical procedure of the autopsy, and Peter faces the double language barrier of Portuguese and Odo the chimpanzee. All three must turn away from the past to discover a new way of life. As in his previous novels, Martel uses animals to ponder larger topics, this time Christianity, where the chimpanzee alternatively represents a crucified Christ, rebirth, and God itself.

I enjoyed this novel more than I was expecting (I, too, was wary after Beatrice and Virgil), and the elements of magic realism are used well, most memorably in the story of Dr. Lozora. While there were stronger religious metaphors present in this book, my favourite had to be the extended comparison of Jesus’s life to an Agatha Christie murder mystery. This novel is one that has grown in my mind since I’ve finished it, walking its way backwards into the peaks of my thoughts.

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This review first appeared in Geist 100.

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7 Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2016

The publishing industry has moved to a two-season model, where Fall books are pegged to be the big (Christmas & prizeable) hits, and where Spring/Summer titles sort of end up being everything else. Over the last couple years, my taste in books has shifted to the “everything else” category, with the result that there’s always a lot of books pubbing in the first half of a year that I can’t wait for. Here’s what’s got me counting down til Tuesdays in 2016:

Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It by Grace Helbig (Simon & Schuster, February 2 2016). This is cheating a little, because I have already purchased and devoured this book. It came out two weeks ago! Grace is one of my favourite Youtubers, and her first book was refreshingly candid. I thought Grace & Style had fewer sincere moments and useful advice than Grace’s Guide, but I still enjoyed it.

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The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Penguin Random House, February 2, 2016). Ok, I have already read this one too, thanks to an advance copy I received at work before Christmas, but the important thing is that after (what some might call) the misstep of Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel’s new book manages to refigure out the right combination of magic realism + animals to be captivating, if a little heavy-handed on the religious pondering. Favourite part: the comparison of Jesus’s life to an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

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What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead Books, March 8 2016). I am cheating a little here, too, because I was again very fortunate to get an ARC from work and am currently devouring it. Boy Snow Bird is one of my favourite books, and Oyeyemi’s writing is simultaneously delicate and sharp. Her new collection of stories is mixed for me, so far: nothing has yet surpassed the first story, “Books and Roses”, in heart. Recurring characters, themes (keys!) and elements of magic realism (guys. I love magic realism) run through the stories, and I have high hopes for the stories that remain.

Dad Magazine by Jaya Saxena and Matt Lubchansky (Quirk Books, April 26 2016). (Finally, you say, a book that she hasn’t read yet and is actually looking forward to). Inspired by one of my favourite columns on The ToastDad Magazine is a satirical look at the modern dad and his interests.If you read any of the Toast articles, be sure to read the comments: that’s where the real heart of the series is, readers’ stories and jokes about their own dads. I can only hope this book is as good as the column. Anecdote: last year at TCAF I met Jaya and Matt and was so excited to meet Toast columnists that I forgot to thank them for the gift that is Dad Magazine. That’s #1 on my list if they’re back this year.

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Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (Riverhead Books, May 31 2016). My interest in Emma Straub began when she was documenting The Magnetic Fields’ tours and selling merch way back in 2008 or so  (sidenote: my brother is in this tour photo of Emma’s; I am standing hidden beside him. I forgot about this until just now!). Admittedly, it wasn’t a very literary interest, but I liked her previous book and look forward to her new novel – coincidentally also following an aging NYC college band. I’m hoping to spot a few parallels.

Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North (Riverhead Books, June 7 2016). A follow-up to North’s To Be or Not To BeRomeo and/or Juliet is a choose-your-own adventure book with Shakespeare’s most tragic pair, coupled with character designs from my darling Kate Beaton, and illustrations from a host of the best comic artists around, including my favourites Noelle Stevenson and Emily Carroll.

Romeo-and-or-JulietHunger by Roxane Gay (HarperCollins, June 14 2016). After reading her essays on the complicated nature of feminism in Bad Feminist, I’m looking forward to more of Gay’s candour and insight in her new memoir about her relationship with her body. This might be the most important book I read all year.

That does it for books I’m counting down for in the first half of 2016, but I’ve already got my eye out on the second half:

  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child scripts, Parts I & II (Pottermore, July 31 2016). This goes without saying, right?
  • Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (FSG, September 6 2016)
  • Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh (Simon & Schuster, October 25 2016). This title has been delayed by a year already, so my fingers are crossed it makes its pub date this time.
  • The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg (Macmillan, date unknown but I am hoping for Fall 2016). 

It doesn’t escape my notice that many of these titles are second and third books of authors I already like; I tend to play it safe with authors I know and love, but I’m excited to see if there’s any books that come out of left field and steal my heart unexpectedly. I’ll read my way through this list until then. Are there any books you’ve got your eye on this year?

reviews

Review: Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton

Kate Beaton returns with her signature wit and style in Step Aside, Pops (Drawn & Quarterly), her newest collection of comics that takes on topics in history, literature, pop culture and feminism.

"Look what came early! Clear my schedule, I know what I'm doing tonight!" (via twitter)
“Look what came early! Clear my schedule, I know what I’m doing tonight!” (via twitter)

Beaton’s follow-up to Hark! A Vagrant, her first collection and webcomic of the same name, presents a smart mix of new comics and old favourites, such as the Strong Female Characters, Nemesis, and Napoleon. Beaton can find fresh jokes in even the most hackneyed of subjects.

One of my favourites is her Pride and Prejudice / X-Files crossover, where a delightfully grumpy Dana Scully takes the place of Mr. Darcy at the Meryton ball (NB: this was our group Halloween costume at work). Other highlights include Beaton’s takes on Edward Gorey and Nancy Drew book covers, and comics on notable women and Canadian figures like Ida B. Wells and Tom Longboat. Janet Jackson even makes a cameo in a comic critiquing the idea of the oppression of men.

Emily M. Keeler interviews Kate Beaton at the book launch in Toronto. (via)
Emily M. Keeler interviews Kate Beaton at the book launch in Toronto. (via)

Step Aside, Pops delivers Beaton’s sharp wit and knack for pinpointing humorous situations in history and culture through simple and expressive comics that are charming and hilarious.