Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - December Roundup (Sticky Post— Scroll down for most recent post)

How to add your link:
1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")

Friday, December 19, 2014

Reader's Day #1105- Jim Unger: Herman Classics, Vol. 3

According to Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), comics are "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer." As inclusive as that is (too inclusive according to some), it actually excludes the one panel cartoons that are often side by side with comics in the Sunday funny pages. Family Circle, the Far Side, Heathcliff, and Herman? One image can't be juxtaposed, can't be sequential, can't be a comic. Regardless, I think they're close enough to comics to be included in the Graphic and Novel Challenge (where host Nicola has promised not be the comics police), and the semantics are moot anyway, as there are a few genuine, undeniable comics here or there. Plus, as Jim Unger was a Canadian immigrant (originally from the U.K.), I'm also including it in the Canadian Book Challenge.

I remember reading and Herman cartoons as a boy and enjoying them, but little else. It's a bit of a risk trying to revisit an old interest. Sometimes they do, but often they don't hold up so well. As for Herman, I'm just lukewarm. Overall, I wasn't particularly impressed. I was mildly amused at most. The jokes typically involve someone without a lack of common sense. A "Driving School" car is in a lake, water has pooled around the driver and the passenger up to their necks, and the student turns to his teacher saying, "Shall I back up?" A prisoner, in conversation to another, says, "Let me know if you need a good defense lawyer." Smile-inducing, but not particularly my brand of humour any more. A few did manage to incite an actual chuckle.

As for the art, I suppose I can appreciate Unger's highly recognizable style, but there's not a lot of range. All the characters have large noses, tiny beady eyes or glasses, and are obese. Likewise the personalities are dry, and scenes usually involve a straight man who stares blankly at a dumb or unintentionally insensitive remark by another character. There are no recurring characters that particularly stand out (was there an actual Herman?) and the backdrops are minimalist, typical of daily strips in which there wasn't a lot of time for details. It got so I was appreciative for the occasional object— a TV set, a set of golf clubs, a bottle of wine which proved that Unger did indeed have artistic skill. Still, I could forgive all that had I found it funnier. I could make the same comments about the art of Larson's The Far Side, but I seem to recall those being much more amusing.

Reader's Diary #1104- Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses

The first time Salman Rushdie crossed my radar was way back when there was a fatwa (first time hearing of that word, as well) to kill Rushdie issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. He, and some others, felt that Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was being blasphemous towards Islam.

Finally, after reading it, I'm a bit envious of Khomeini for having gleaned some meaning from this book. Even if it was the wrong interpretation, at least he was able to form an interpretation. 

Rushdie may have also insulted librarians, fathers, and Newfoundlanders for all I could tell. I could make no sense of this book from beginning to end. And at 547 pages, this made for a long, painful experience. Not so painful that I'd issue a death threat, but painful nonetheless. If this is a book for intelligent folks, I'm clearly in Camp Stupid.

At first I was enjoying some of the rhythm and imagery and wordplay. So I wasn't grasping the plot, at least I could look at it and appreciate it as a long poem. Yeah, after a while that grew tedious, too. There's a plane crash, that I know. There's somebody that began to turn into a goat... I think. But it turned out to be a movie... I think. I also see, from Wikipedia (official sponsor of Camp Stupid, or so I'm told), that the Satanic Verses involves magic surrealism and many dream sequences. Oh.

It's checked off my list, for what that's worth.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Reader's Diary #1103- Andy Runton: Owly, The Way Home/ The Bittersweet Summer

The second wordless (actually, there are a few words here and there, often of the onomatopoeia variety) graphic novel in about a week, Owly is not as profound as Shaun Tan's The Arrival, but certainly the sweeter of the two, involving the improbable friendship between an owl, a worm, and in the 2nd novella, a couple of hummingbirds.

Runton's characters are simply drawn but very expressive (they reminded be of Ashley Spires Binky characters to some extent). The more realistic and beautifully coloured backdrops you see on the cover aren't representative of the book inside, where it's all black and white and the backdrops are as cartoony as the characters, but I still walked away with an appreciation for Runton's artistry. I especially enjoyed how he controlled the pacing (an important skill for a 160 book in which readers could devour in less than hour). One particularly well done moment, comes after Owly's friend-to-be Wormy nearly drowns after a rainstorm. To slow down the pace while Owly is shown waiting for Wormy to pull through, Owly is shown sitting by a candle. From panel to panel, the candle slowly gets smaller and the shadows getting bigger, Owly’s eyelids slowly close. Perhaps more importantly, each panel gets its own page, contrasted with most of the pages which typically follow a six-panel structure, really slowing a reader down. Next day, Wormy recovers.

Though adults could enjoy Owly as well (I did!), I think Owly would be a good book to introduce graphic novel literacy to younger children. Besides the aforementioned highly expressive characters and skilled pacing, Runton also does a lot with basic and familiar symbols (e.g., a horseshoe for good luck), which will come in handy for kids who wish to go further into the world of comics. The wordlessness will focus readers on the flow and story of the sequential images, without getting tangled in complicated vocab which might come later.

Reader's Diary #1102- Lynn Blaikie: Beyond the Northern Lights

Remember when Jenny asks Forrest Gump to pray with her? "Dear God, make me a bird. So I can fly far. Far, far away from here." Maybe it was the simplicity of Blaikie's poem in Beyond the Northern Lights, maybe it was the calls to a raven to "fly me into the northern lights," but it was hard to stop imaging Jenny as the voice behind this picture book.

Once I got the abused and troubled Jenny in my head, it was also hard not to feel that the book is melancholy at times. Asking a raven to dance with her is one thing, but asking it to take her to "where sorrow is forgotten" is quite another.

But the poem also shares a sentiment with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and there's hope as well, whether it's through the appreciation that imagination can always take us away (e.g., to the "cold and dark and magical" world beneath the sea) or of the moments when nature provides solace, or elders provide wisdom.

However, what I really appreciated about Blaikie's book was the artwork. Done in batik (not an art I was familiar with before) I thought it looked like cracked porcelain which lent a dated quality, working in the book's favour. The accompanying poem now felt timeless, like something that had been passed down. The colours, especially the outlining gold lines, reminded me of former Yellowknife artist Dawn Oman's work. You can check out some of Blaikie's art here, including some scenes taken directly from Beyond the Northern Lights.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Reader's Diary #1101- Darynda Jones: A Christmas Story


A few years ago I was greatly disappointed by Alan Bradley's I Am Half Sick of Shadows, a Christmas themed mystery. However, despite Jones' Callie Dunn, the protagonist of "A Christmas Story" (not related to the movie at all), bearing a striking resemblance to Bradley's Flavia de Luce, I actually enjoyed this one. Maybe I can only handle precociousness in small doses.

Jones, at 6, is younger than de Luce, and she has already ruled out the existence of Santa. Spotting a man in a red suit atop her roof, she shrugs it off as her father. That is, until she notices her father standing beside her in her room. Hang in there for the twist ending. Or is it a twist?

Brief as it is, "A Christmas Story" is engaging and amusing. 

R de décembre : l’échappée noëlle by dagring, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
   by  dagring 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Reader;s Diary #1100- Jacques Rob and Benjamin Legrand (writers), Jean-Marc Rochette (Art): Snowpiercer 1, 2, and 3

There are a lot of clarifications to be made before I get to my thoughts about Snowpiercer. First off, despite the covers shown here, there are 3 parts to this story (as I've indicated in the post title). The 2nd book is actually divided into part 2, The Explorers, and part 3, The Crossing. I think Titan (the publishers) made a mistake not letting readers know they'd be getting both sequels. Also, despite the post title, Jacques Rob didn't work with Benjamin Legrand on these books. Rob worked on part 1, first published in French in 1982 and died in 1990. Parts 2 and 3, written by Legrand, were not published until 1999 and 2000 respectively. Perhaps somewhat unusual, the artist was the constant across all 3, not the writers. (Though I suppose English translator Virginie Selavy was also consistent.)

Also, if you were thinking, as I was that the comics were Korean, since the movie that came out earlier this year was directed by a South Korean, they're actually French works. (But I suppose you've already figured out that Jacques, Legrand, and Jean-Marc aren't exactly Korean sounding names.)

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, it only bears the slightest resemblance to the movie. Some characters names are kept the same and it involves the last of the human race aboard an ever-moving train, but that's about it. The movie, starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris was excellent. The books? Not so much. First off, they're way more confusing; especially Legrand's convoluted sequels. There are interesting ideas, for sure (the engine-as-god religion was intriguing), but the plot had lulls and nothing really clicked together. Characters who started to be developed were inexplicably pushed to the background.

As for Rochette's art, it is very inconsistent. I'm not just talking about between the 1st and 2nd volumes either, in which you'd expect an artist to change his style and improve after a 17 year gap, but even within volumes. In the first, Rochette's drawings are most sketchy but realistic looking characters. Most often these are done well, but when they're bad, they're very bad. Characters who are smaller and in the background are sometimes left with very cartoony faces that leap out, unintentionally hilarious. Body shapes and sizes are usually believable but sometimes weirdly proportioned. Nothing is as bad as whatever the hell happened in these panels of the 3rd book:

What's up with these hands?! Did Rochette hold a contest where he let French school children design a couple of panels?

Thankfully, it wasn't always that bad. In the first book, the hatched and cross-hatched style lends the scenes a gritty quality that is appropriate for a post-apocalyptic story, and in the 2nd and 3rd books, additional gray scale inks give a bit more depth. I do wish though that the blueish tints of the covers had been incorporated inside as well. Those would have been perfect to capture the frozen landscape.

Despite it all, I'm glad they existed and that Joon-ho Bong found some seed of a good idea here to write a screenplay and direct an awesome movie. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it (though be prepared for high doses of violence). When you're finished, if you're, as I was, compelled to read the source material, be fair warned.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Reader's Diary #1099- Libby Whittall Catling (Writer) and Alison McCreesh (Illustrator): Twelve Days of Christmas in Fort Reliance

There were a more than a few precedents causing me some hesitation with this book. First off, I should say upfront that I am a big fan of Alison McCreesh's artwork. However, I wasn't sure we needed another parody self-published at that of the Twelve Days of Christmas. I had flashbacks to the poorly scanning, generally terrible A Moose in a Maple Tree from a few years back.

And while I still wish Catling wrote something wholly original, I'll concede that the two collaborators have done a wonderful job with Twelve Days of Christmas in Fort Reliance.

Fort Reliance, to my southern readers, is a Natural Historical Site at the Eastern end of Great Slave Lake. Catling and her husband live there in a cabin, 270km from the nearest road and off the grid. Catling and McCreesh use this fascinating and remote location to the book's advantage and so there's value beyond the parody as an educational resource. Wisely, they've also modeled it after the better educational picture books in which the teaching is not invasive. On the first page, for instance, we get the first verse of the song; "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a bucketful of snow ice cream," and an inset at the bottom of the page provides a handy recipe for snow ice cream. Subsequent days bring gifts and information about snowmobiles, chickadees, racks of dry-meat and more. For the most part, the rhymes work and scan well, and I'm relieved to find a self-published book not ruined by typos. McCreesh's paper collages are absolutely beautiful and fascinating— bound to get anyone's creative juices flowing.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Reader's Diary #1098- German Saravanja (writer), Nick MacIntosh (illustrator): The Man with the Wolf in His Belly

Many residents of the Northwest Territories are familiar with the high quality picture books based on Dene legends published by Theytus Books. The Man with the Wolf in His Belly by German Saravanja reminds me somewhat of those in that it has a mysterious story with fantastical elements presented in a matter-of-fact tone and that legend-like feel is a good thing. As far as I know though The Man with the Wolf in His Belly is not based on an existing legend but created out of Saravanja's head.

Nonetheless it is a very true-to-the-North tale of a man from elsewhere who comes to find himself. Of course, the way that tale usually ends is one of two ways: 1. successfully 2. tragically. The interesting thing about Saravanja's telling is that he's given us details of a man's life that change the valuation. There have been similar men with hermit-tendencies move to the north, live for a while on the land, then either die via starvation or other means, often never to be heard from again. The lesson in most of these (very real) accounts is usually one of respecting the land, of not taking it or one's survival abilities for granted. Saravanja flips this somewhat but putting us, the readers, at a man's side when he "disappears," and his life is about finding peace and understanding of his role in nature and the world at large. Suddenly, and for this individual, it has become a success story.

At first I wasn't sure if this was a children's story, despite the picture book format that most associate with that age demographic. It's not fast paced and the central character is an adult man.  In contrast the Theytus books often had animals as central characters which often hold more appeal to kids, and despite the title, animals, though present, are not the focus of The Man with the Wolf in His Belly. Animals are important here, but not any more than say the trees, the rocks, the water, or the sky, and this is still the man's story; how he found his place in all of that. But while it's not a book I'd expect every child to connect to, it is one that I think I would have. I recognized a bit of myself in this man one of the few bits of myself that's been there forever, unchanged— and I think I would have related to him even as a young boy.

As for MacIntosh's illustrations, they are stylistic and lend the natural an air of the surreal. I wish I had more of an art background to discuss them, but from my limited knowledge they appear to be oil pastels in their thick application. They're colourful, though perhaps a bit too dark (physically, not in subject), but otherwise help accentuate Saranvanja's text.