Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - September 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")

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reader's Diary #1070- Yoss, translated by David Frye: A Planet for Rent

I don't feel that I read a lot of sci-fi. About a 3rd of the free online short stories I find online are sci-fi, so I get some exposure that way I suppose, but I still feel that I only have a basic familiarity. I can name some sci-fi authors, books, and movies that have gone mainstream, but that's about it. That's probably why, when reading Yoss's "A Planet for Rent" I drew comparisons to Star Wars' Mos Eisley Cantina (mainstream sci-fi) and to the 1980s comedy All of Me (starring Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin). What I'm saying is, I don't have an extensive background from which to draw comparisons.

I have read enough though to realize that there are very different levels of sci-fi literature. There's the easily accessible stuff that even newcomers to the genre can feel comfortable with and the stuff that just seems so out there that newcomers are left scratching their heads feeling unwelcome. If these were two ends of a scale, "A Planet for Rent" is nearer the latter.

It's not so much a criticism as it a warning so as others might know what to expect. Actually, I kind of think sci-fi should be this unapologetic. If you dropped me into the world described in Yoss's story, I'd likely be just as confused and intimidated. It doesn't seem like the kind of place where a welcoming committee would be assigned, and it's supposed to be the reality- nothing strange at all to those living it.

But like the good sci-fi I've read (and keep in mind that that's limited), there are lots of good themes explored in "A Planet for Rent" that hold relevancy in our present time and place: war, dominance, and exploitation... you've just got to get past those polypy aliens.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Reader's Diary #1069- Cory Doctorow: Little Brother

I'll chalk this one up as one of the biggest disappointments I've read this year. I enjoyed parts of Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I usually find his contributions to BoingBoing interesting, and I even support many of his politics. So, his best-known novel, and an allusion to 1984 no less, should have been a clear winner.

Alas, I really, really, really did not like Little Brother. It started out okay. There was a lot of cyber-jargon at the beginning but I thought I was holding my own (though a lot of credit for that comes from an Evolving and Emerging Technology course I took recently) and the plot of some teens being held on terrorism suspicions by the Department of Homeland Security certainly had promise. But eventually the jargon became too much. As did every other computer science, political science, underground culture, nerd culture, and history lesson. The story, when it occasionally managed to break through, felt contrived and even silly. Marcus, the central character, quotes a passage from the Declaration of Independence about half a dozen times. Little Brother is not clever, it's annoying and didactic.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reader's Diary #1068- Sheila Watson: The Double Hook

Sheila Watson's The Double Hook reminded me somewhat of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Some, I'm sure, would take that to be a good thing.

I found it difficult and oddly offensive. For one, the perspective kept changing. Third person omniscient perspective never sits well with me, but when it even changes without warning one paragraph to the next, I'm confused. For the other, I found the portrayal of small townsfolk to be like someone trying to suggest that there's "something poignant in their stupid words." The problem, clearly, is that this do-gooder attitude rests on an air of condescension. Characters all talk like they've experienced some brain-damaging trauma and yet also in vague and weirdly angular thoughts, so that a reader might suspect they've actually been profound.

Furthermore, the whole "deep" message of the book, that you hook the darkness when you catch the light, is lost when there's too much focus on the darkness. It's also no more high-fallootin' an idea than a certain sitcom theme song, "you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and then you have, the Facts of Life..."

In the afterword at the end, F. T. Flahiff discusses the trouble Watson had finding a publisher and an early negative review. While the reviewer got some of the facts wrong, I think s/he was nonetheless accurate by calling the book "difficult" (which may have led to him/her getting some details incorrect) and "permeated by an odd atmosphere of unreality."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reader's Diary #1067- Sofi Papamarko: The Pollinators

I admit being one of those people a little too preoccupied with the end of the world. It's not that I want it to happen, but I find that I need to remind myself of that when I find reading about doomsday scenarios morbidly fun. What's next? Ebola? World War 3? It's not fun of course. For those in Liberia, Syria, or the Ukraine, such concerns probably conjure up much realer connotations than a Suzanne Collins novel.

So why do those of us living in relative comfort obsess over such things? The obvious answer is that we are afraid of losing those comforts, but that doesn't explain the "fun" factor. Given the success of apocalyptic books, movies, and so on, I know I'm not the only one. Clearly we're all naive, but I thing a larger part of the answer lies in the fact that it provides a distraction from the mundane and/or personal stressors of life. Who needs to worry about a 13% increase in their electricity bills when the world is about to end? Global concerns are so much more exciting. We can pretend to be concerned about that stuff because deep down we know the likelihood is still pretty slim.

In Sofi Papamarko's "The Pollinators" a dinner table conversation about such lighthearted fare becomes a bit of a cautionary tale about neglecting the smaller issues, leading to the death of much smaller, but no less significant worlds. The tension that underlies this story is brilliant and the release, while not fun at all, is just as explosive as an Ebola outbreak.

Dead bees found outside the hive in earl by Shawn Caza, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
   by  Shawn Caza 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Reader's Diary #1066- Michael Ian Black (writer), Debbie Ridpath Ohi (illustrator):

Written by Michael Ian Black, who is also a comedian, actor, and director, I'm Bored actually was presented to me because of its Canadian connection: illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Based out of Toronto, this was her first children's book collaboration, though she's since done another book with Black as well as updates of Judy Blume classics.

My hat's off to the publishers who saw the potential in Black's script. About a girl who tries her best to convince a potato (yes, a potato), that she's anything but boring, I could have perhaps foreseen potential to have irreverent humour and strong themes of imagination, but the text is so minimal I think I'd have either rejected it outright or else sent Black back with instructions to flesh out the story more. Both would have been a mistake. The secret, as the publisher knew, was finding the right illustrator to capture it's simplistic, fun spirit and add a little in the process. With Ohi, the book strikes the perfect balance in a picture book and the result is more than the sum of its parts.

Scraggly and basic, Ohi's cartooning is nonetheless stylish, inventive, and expressive. She also adds to the story with muted blue pastels expressing the imagination of the girl with more detail than provided by Black's text. The end result is charming and amusing package.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reader's Diary #1065- Faith Erin Hicks: Friends with Boys

I very much don't like the title to Faith Erin Hicks' graphic novel Friends with Boys. I realize, of course, that I was not the demographic the publishers probably had in mind, but I think boys could easily enjoy this book (really the title is my only beef) and would certainly be alienated by this title which sets them apart as other. It also isn't very representative of the plot. I actually thought the strongest new friendship formed in the book was actually between two of the female characters. In the rough drafts at the back of the book, it shows that the working title was actually the Education of Maggie McKay. While I get that "Education" in the title is probably not a marketer's dream, it's better than misrepresenting the story and discouraging potential male readers. I think I'd like it called, Homeschooled. Home-schooling is a topic of the book, it conjures up the familial bonds that are prevalent, it still gets the learning across (from the original title), it doesn't imply that gender issues are the predominant focus (they're not), and school, with its double o's, subtly conjures up that eerie ghost sounds*.

Ghosts? Perhaps I should summarize the plot. Friends with Boys is about a teenage girl named Maggie who is going to high school for the first time. It can be a daunting time for anyone, but made even more terrifying by the fact that she doesn't exactly have a lot of public school experience: until recently her mother had home-schooled her. Fortunately her older brothers are there and she quickly makes friends with another brother-sister team, Alistair and Lucy, who are quite nice and seem to go against the grain from the majority of kids at the school. And, as promised there's also a ghost. Though Maggie has seen the ghost of a woman since her childhood, it ramps up its appearances seemingly without provocation and becomes a more full-fledged haunting. Maggie enlists her friends and her brothers to help.

Put that way, it sounds like a Scooby-Doo episode and doesn't really do the book justice. The book, to me, wasn't as much about the ghost as it was relationships, forgiveness, being oneself, and "having each other's back." That's not to say the ghost is irrelevant either, but its role is... complicated. At the end, I think I know what purpose it served to the plot (Maggie's mother walked out on the family and Maggie seems to project her confusion onto the ghost, the ghost helps unite the characters) but that was Hicks' motives; just what the ghost's motives were more illusive.

It's creepy sometimes, more often touching, but it'd be a disservice not to also point out how hilarious Friends with Boys sometimes is as well.

The artwork is also great. Character-wise, I found it similar to Brian O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim with the large, expressive eyes.  But the setting and artistic story-telling are quite different. There's one scene for instance, where Maggie is leaving the house and her various positions along the path are shown in a single panel. It's different from the norm, though I have noticed the approach becoming more common in graphic novels. I think it works best in small doses and when it's purposeful; in Friends with Boys it captures Maggie's springy pace, complimenting her attitude in that scene and felt like I was being invited along for the walk. Hicks has also done some amazing things with the lighting. Just check out the very first page:

Note how she not only sets the time of day, but also the mood. That final panel is suddenly so much brighter, like the obscene abruptness of an alarm clock, and even the lettering has changed colour (and position) signifying the forceful passage form night into day.

I look forward to reading more of Hicks' work!

*I also considered the title Home's Ghouled, but it's too punny even for me.