Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chester Brown's Louis Riel

When it comes to Canadian history, sometimes we need to dig a little deeper to find the charismatic, bold personalities that permeate American history.  With their intrepid pioneers and revered founding fathers, it's hard not to be a bit jealous.  If one cares to look, though, we have our share of interesting characters.  One of the more colourful actors on the stage of Canadian history has got to be the incendiary Louis Riel.  His Red River Rebellion is chronicled in Chester Brown's graphic novel, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. 

At the heart of this novel is the conflict between the Metis of the Red River Valley and the Canadian government who wished to expand westward and complete a national railroad.  Without consulting the local population about what it wanted, the Canadian government sent in surveyors and carved up the land that the Metis had settled for generations.  Riel led a group of Metis who opposed the Canadian government's high-handed approach and demanded that residents of Manitoba have some say in whether or not they wish to join Canada or form their own country.  Things went downhill from there.  Without giving anything away (though Manitoba is part of Canada so you can't be totally unaware of what happens) there are some skirmishes between the Canadian troops and the Metis.  

The ending is pretty obvious, but Louis Riel's personal story makes it a lot more interesting.  Brown does a great job in outlining the foibles of this leader while telling the story of the rebellion.  Riel is plagued by a single-minded determination to provide his people with representation and delusions of grandeur.  He considers himself to be a prophet and the Metis cause to be his holy crusade.  Between his various stints in mental institutions, he hid from those who persecuted him across Canada and the northern United States.  The story of Louis Riel is somewhat difficult for any writer of skill to screw up, with the constant conflict between various factions and Riel's demons.  However, Brown's drawing style and writing do nothing to detract from the plot.  What really excites me about this book is the fact that it might be a good way for a lot of people who wouldn't normally pick up a book about a Canadian historical figure.  And that is miracle in an of itself. 


Monday, May 2, 2011

Once Bitten

I have a hard time with some forms of escapist fiction and thus am not familiar with the Twilight series of books, or those that have sprung up to try to emulate their success.  When my sister recommended the book Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, I was quite skeptical.  Luckily for both of us, I recognize her gift for choosing great books and submitted myself to her better judgement. My big issue with fiction that requires me to suspend my disbelief, is that it rarely manages to turn off my internal b.s. meter.  I want to immerse myself in the story without thinking about the plausibility of the plot or the fantastical nature of the characters.  For the most part, unless they are of the more trashy variety, I am able to do this while reading romance novels.  Perhaps this is not a fair comparison, because I read such books with the specific intention of bidding farewell to the rational part of my brain. 

Though I approached Bitten with a certain amount of trepidation and I considered this type of book to be a relic of my teenage past, I found myself sucked in.  The plot of the novel revolves around Elena, a werewolf that tries her best to maintain a "normal" human existence.  She finds herself drawn back into her old Pack when she is contacted out of the blue.  Dropping everything she leaves her home and boyfriend to find out more about this mysterious threat to her adoptive family.  While investigating the deaths of innocent people around Pack territory, Elena reunites with her former lover and fellow werewolf, Clay.  Their troubled relationship and her kinship with her werewolf brethren cause her to question her dream of assimilation into human society.  This is one of those plots that is somewhat generic in that monsters usually struggle with their identities and often display internal conflicts about the acts that they commit.  One of the best examples of this is Anne Rice's character, Louis, from Interview with a Vampire.  Another such example is that of Pinocchio, who just wants to be a real boy.  

What differentiates this book from so many others is Armstrong's strong understanding of the genre and her plucky heroine.  Elena embodies a lot of the qualities that women strive for, she has an almost unthinking belief in her ability to take on challenges.  She takes on scary situations with the aggression and rebelliousness one would expect from a young woman with superhuman strength.  The other aspect of the book that I enjoyed, is the self-effacing jokes that Armstrong makes throughout the novel that shows the reader that she has a sense of humour about her work and the genre she employs.  Overall I was pleasantly surprised by how well-paced the plot was, with almost non-stop action and some steamy love scenes.  I am still going to be a bit selective about the escapist fiction I read, but if I can find more of it that is as good as Bitten, I might have to reconsider my position.