Sunday, August 31, 2014

The 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - August 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")

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Reader's Diary #1057- Paul Kupperberg (writer): Life with Archie #s 36 and 37

A couple of years back was the first time I used this blog to talk about Archie. At the end of a post about Archie Meets Kiss, I wrote that I'd "probably not be visiting Riverdale again any time soon." Any time soon was apparently only about a year later. Then, September of last year I wound up reading an Archie anthology. Now, close to a year later again, I find myself reading more Archie. Yes, it's turned into an annual thing. In my defense, I live in a house with two young converts. I've never been into Archie myself (and I'd still not consider myself a fan), but it's hard to not read an Archie comic when you're constantly having to push them aside just to find a seat. Add to that the way Archie comics have been in the news in recent years- what with Archie getting married, adding a gay character, adding a physically disabled character, and now the death of Archie, and, well, I'm a sucker for a good publicity stunt. Hats off to them for managing to stay relevant for more than 70 years.

Issues 36 and 37 are the final volumes in the Life with Archie series. I was aware of the series, but hadn't read any of them until now. Though Life with Archie ran earlier (1958-1992), when it was reborn in 2010, it was changed into an adult-theme soap opera following the alternate universes of Archie having married either Betty or Veronica.

Not having read either incarnation of Life of Archie, I was glad to see a recap of the last four years, set in two universes post-Archie's wedding, but also a little taken aback by its tackling of such heavy themes as cancer, divorce, anger management, homophobia, and gun control. I'm not sure what I expected of a comic that was supposed to be more adult oriented, but it sounded more like the adults of the kids from Degrassi High than Riverdale. The weirdest moment, however, was a science fiction interlude in which Dilton hires someone to create some sort of time/space manipulator that threatens to unite the two alternate universes, in which Archie has married either Betty or Veronica. It's negated a la something out of Men in Black and the stories apparently returned to their mildly depressing but more realistic plots- unbeknownst to the central characters.

The whole alternate universe thing was handled quite strangely in the final 2 issues. Instead of Archie being killed in two separate story lines, he's killed in one, but we're never exactly sure which one. Was he married to Betty or Veronica when his death took place? I assume we're supposed to believe that fate would have led to that pivotal moment in either world. Sometimes the ruse is handled quite adeptly, as Archie thinks back with comments like, "I married the only woman I've ever loved" and in the context it feels natural, even if frustratingly vague (who?!). At other times it feels gimmicky; a speech balloon blocking his wife's face as he had married Tim's neighbour from Home Improvement.

As for the plot itself, it, I suppose, is satisfactory. It's not as dumb as you'd might think, though his death and the build-up showing Archie at a very reflective point in his life prior to it, might merit some debate as to whether it was contrived or tragically coincidental. In the final issue, it's set a year later and other characters reminisce about Archie and what he meant to the town. It was okay, but probably packed more of an emotional punch for those who have been faithful fans (though the comics of him as a teenager are still ongoing).

There was also some revisionism going on. Archie is presented as a pretty selfless character who spent his entire life just wanting everyone to get along. Of course, no one ever wants to speak ill of the dead (notable exception: Hitler, who's totally fair game), but there's reason to believe that Archie's sainthood might require a closer look. Still, after 70 years, loads of different writers, it's expected that there were some questionable missteps along the way. In a note from publisher John Goldwater at the end, it says, "Sure he stumbles, and makes mistakes-- don't we all?" and it was oddly one of the more honest comments in the book, even if somewhat dismissive.

As for the art, again I was pleasantly surprised. The barely modified, iconic looks are preserved (except in the alternate covers at the end-- an annoying trend I've been noticing in a lot of comics lately) but there seems to have been far more attention to background detail and the colouring was excellent, really capturing and enhancing moods.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Reader's Diary #1065- Blessing Musariri: Eloquent Notes of Suicide

I've noticed a huge change in the narrative surrounding the recent suicide of Robin Williams from the suicide of Kurt Cobain back in 94. I remember a lot of anger directed at Cobain, whereas the once-usual accusations of selfishness that inevitably came up whenever someone committed suicide, the few that dared speak such an outdated outlook this time around have been forced to apologize.

I have to believe that name calling isn't helpful. Williams or Cobain aren't going to hear it. And those currently suffering through depression? I can only imagine that making them feel worse about themselves isn't the way to encourage them to seek help. "I'm so depressed that I think I might end it all. Can you help me doc?" "No! And get out of my office, you selfish piece of s*&%."

But I'm certainly not suggesting that animosity towards those that take their own lives isn't a normal reaction. The thing is, I'm not sure, nor is anyone else, what the right way to feel is. The living are left with so many questions, often unanswerable questions, that must gnaw at their being.

I bring you Blessing Mussari's "Eloquent Notes of Suicide," a short story that takes the form of an investigator's case file notes as he tries to determine what drove a sixteen year old girl to take her own life. He looks for clues and while he fixates on the fact that the girl had given up talking (the result of some traumatic event?) he doesn't find solid answers and becomes consumed with the case. There's a twist at the end but I'm not sure how I feel about it. I actually felt the story was provocative and poignant enough without it. The end was somewhat confusing and distracting. Maybe such is suicide.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Reader's Diary #1064- Geoff Johns (writer), Andy Kubert (penciler): Flashpoint Vol. 1

I'm a sucker for Marvel Comics movies. Even so, I was surprised when DC blinked first in the showdown between next year's Batman v. Superman movie and Captain America 3. Both were scheduled to open next May 6th but a couple of weeks back DC announced that it would be bumping their release date up to March 25 instead, therefore avoiding a clash with Marvel. Now, as I say, I'm a fan of the Marvel movies. And most fans and critics agree that the Captain America movies have been surprisingly good. But, even I want to see Batman and Superman duke it out. These are iconic characters, both supposed to be on the same side. And then other Justice Leaguers are also making an appearance? Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash? Come on! We all love superhero ensembles. Now if it were going up against Marvel's next Avengers movie, that would be a real show down, but they backed away from Captain America?! That's crazy. I can only theorize that they must realize that they have a turd on their hands. Why else would they be afraid of the Captain?

In any case, I've recently found myself switching allegiance to DC once again and picked up the surprisingly good Flashpoint graphic novel written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Andy Kubert. It involves Barry Allen, aka the Flash, waking up one day to discover his world's reality has been completely altered. He no longer has superpowers, Batman is really Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne's father), no one's heard of Superman or the Green Lantern, and perhaps most surprisingly, and importantly, Aqauman and Wonder Woman are waging war against one, a battle so extreme that millions of lives have been lost and the entire planet is in danger.

An Associated Press blurb on the front of my edition says that it "uses superheroes in ways that may surprise both first-time readers and long-time fans." But make no mistake, long time fans will certainly appreciate Flashpoint more and better appreciate the impact. That said, I wasn't a long time fan, knowing virtually nothing about the Flash and only a minor bit of trivia about any DC characters other than Batman and Superman, but I still really enjoyed it. There are loads of peripheral and lesser known characters here. Cyborg, the Enchantress, Element Woman, Captain Thunder, Citizen Cold, the Outsider, and many, many more. DC fans would no doubt have a field day, and they'd also be able to know what impact this alternate reality has had on them. For a relative newcomer to the world of DC, I admit that Flashpoint was overwhelming at times, but for the most part, the story itself was easy to follow and honestly, quite exciting.

For the most part, I enjoyed the artwork. It's gritty, but balanced nicely with bright colours to take the edge off (it's been a complaint of mine and plenty of others that the DC movies have gone overboard with the dark, gritty look). However, occasionally I was annoyed at the full or double page spreads that looked more like promotional posters rather than art that enhanced or furthered the story.

All in all though, an entertaining comic. And for the record, I think it would make a great movie.

Reader's Diary #1053- PJ Sarah Collins: What Happened to Serenity?

I don't know if we've reached peak dystopia yet, but surely in 2011 when PJ Sarah Collins published What Happened to Serenity? there was still some elbow room in the YA market. In the Canadian YA market? It's probably still a veritable prairie of youthful misery.

What Happened to Serenity? is told from the perspective of a teenage girl named Katherine who lives in an oppressive and isolated society in the year 2021. Supposedly they are the last survivors of an ecological revolution, but two events provide a combined catalyst, setting Katherine off on a mission to find out the truth which she now feels has been kept from her. The first is a mysterious note found in a cornfield that begins, "Everything is not as it seems." The second is the disappearance of her best friend's younger sister Serenity. Katherine must decide who she can trust and whether or not the truth is worthwhile, but she pursues and eventually escapes the confines of her town, meeting up with outsiders. Skeptical of the outside world as well, she nonetheless gets the answers she has been seeking and exposes her society to the world at large.

I wasn't off to a good start with this book from the very moment that I discovered that Collins was using Serenity as a play on words, as in what happened to her friend's sister named Serenity, and what happened to enjoying the peaceful, structured community; or what happened to the... serenity? I hate when authors give their character's overly convenient names for them to pun with. Then I started to notice all of the other dystopian books and movies that had very similar elements: The Giver, 1984, even M. Night Shymalan's The Village. I won't go as far as suggesting that Collins' stole these ideas, but she had to have been aware of them and I think she could have avoided it better.

That said, there were some positives. I enjoyed the hook at the beginning. There was a major focus on the importance of asking question, which I felt was handled less conventionally. And the setting was definitely a plus. I won't spoil what it was anymore than I already have, but I'll say that I was more than halfway through before I realized that I was reading a dystopian novel, not a post-apocalyptic novel, and that subtle difference created a mystery which was almost satisfying enough to make me overlook the book's lack of originality in other areas.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Male Models Needed... Male Reading Role-Models, That is...

I recently read an (albeit slightly dated) article from Scouting Magazine titled, "Guys Read Guy Books." In the article, Mary Jacobs cites research that shows that boys are reading less and are less enthusiastic about reading than girls. This is a problem.

She also refers to a statement by William Brozo, a professor of literacy at George Mason University:
Brozo adds that those are the years when masculine identity becomes paramount for boys—and many boys see reading as a “girl thing.” 
But the star of the article seems to be Jon Scieszka (author of The Stinky Cheese and Other Fairly Stupid Tales) and his proposed solution: a website known as "".

I'm all for getting more boys to read, but I've never been entirely comfortable with such programs as these, believing that they further entrench male stereotypes— stereotypes that I think got males into such trouble in the first place! This quote from Scieszka in particular got my panties in a bunch:

Little House on the Prairie might be a wonderful book, but if you’re an 8-year-old boy, it’s not the book that’s going to light your fire and get you reading.

Little House on the Prairie was a favourite of mine as a boy. Did this make me less of a boy? If Scieszka is suggesting so, I'd suggest where he could stick the book, but perhaps it's thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder, I'm too much of a gentleman for that.

But my point for this post isn't to debate Scieszka's program (though feel free to do so in the comments below). My point is that I was reminded of the "girl thing" again this morning when I saw this poster from the American Library Association this morning:

And I thought, images of men reading should be a campaign (if it hasn't been one already). Boys need to see men reading, to know that it isn't a "girl thing." Reading is not gender-specific!

So, on Twitter this morning I started asking for photos of men reading books. They might be your husbands, boyfriends, boy-friends, self, sons, uncles, grandfathers, neighbours, whoever (just ask permission first!). Upload them to Twitter with the hashtag #boysreadtoo. Feel free to upload them to Facebook, Blogger, Instagram, or whatever social media that's currently diverting your attention. It doesn't matter what they're reading: Little House on the Prairie or a John Wayne biography. It doesn't matter if they're a basketball player or a kindergarten teacher. Get the image out there: 



Not me.

Reader's Diary #1052- Sarah Meehan Sirk: Ozk

It might be easy to call Sarah Meehan Sirk's "Ozk"a female version of Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle," but it would also be unfair. Sure it's about a parent (in this case, a mother) not spending enough time with a child (in this case, a daughter), but Sirk has painted a much more complex and sympathetic portrayal of a parent. Yes, she puts her work first, but I got the sense that she didn't know how to do otherwise. Told through the daughter's eyes, there's some resentment but there's also a slow coming to grips with what appears to be some sort of emotional disorder in her mom, and perhaps even a psychological disorder.

It's a touching tale, with one of the very best introductions I've read in a long, long, time.

Cat’s Cradles at the MJT by m kasahara, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  m kasahara 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Reader's Diary #1051- Stan Rogers and Matt James: Northwest Passage

As a long time fan of Stan Rogers' song "Northwest Passage" (even more so than "Barrett's Privateers"), I was thrilled to see that it had been turned into a picture book, with illustrations and supplementary information by Toronto based Renaissance man, Matt James.

My son's first read-aloud loves were songs turned into picture books, specifically Bud Davidge's The Mummer Song, Dolly Parton's The Coat of Many Colors, and Stompin' Tom's Hockey Night Tonight (aka "The Hockey Song"), so the idea of such a concept was not new to me. That said, Matt James has taken it above and beyond those aforementioned books. The illustrations alone blow the others out of the water (Matt James even won a Governor General's Award for illustration for his work on it) but the additional historical information added a whole other fascinating angle.

Using Stan Rogers as a character, James alternates between Rogers' own introspective lyrics and the explorers referred to in the song. Using timelines, bios, and historical facts, James provides a wonderful resource on those early European explorers, while humanizing them in the process. It would be a wonderful companion to Pierre Berton's The Arctic Grail.

There were a few formatting issues and decisions that could have been handled better. The text on the timeline is incredibly small, for instance. I also think that, while the non-fiction historical facts were a bonus to the book, sometimes the flow of the song got lost. Instead of always alternating, I'd have preferred to have the lyrics run across the top of each page, and adding the historical stuff below whenever appropriate.

Otherwise, a fantastic book.

I've mentioned Stompin' Tom and Stan Rogers. Apparently Gordon Lightfoot also has had a picture book based on one of his songs. Any other Canadian songs that you know of that have also been adapted for children's literature? Or ones that you'd like to see? I think the Tragically Hip features a lot of Canadiana but a lot of it's dark. Likewise, I'll not accept Leonard Cohen's "The Future" as a children's book. I think "I'se the B'y" or "Lukey's Boat" could be done well, but it need not just be folk songs.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reader's Diary #1150- Raina Telgemeier: Smile

The universe was out to make me read Raina Telgemeier's Smile. My daughter was reading it this summer. My son's about to get braces. And it seems like I've been seeing it everywhere lately even though the book's 4 years old now. Actually, I didn't fight too hard against the universe. It looked pretty good.

Smile is Telgemeier's autobiographical story about her experiences from grade six to high school. That's potentially an awkward and tough time for anyone, but hers has become more complicated after she falls, injures her teeth, and begins a long ordeal with surgeries and braces. Plenty of people go through similar experiences, of course, but I don't doubt that it must be difficult. But "issue" books typically tend to be of heavier topics: suicide, AIDS, divorce, drugs, gangs, and so on. It's nice that Smile can provide some sort of solace to those experiencing simpler, but no less real, problems (and it does address bullying, to a small extent).

That said, I wouldn't get hung up on it being an issue book anyway. I know lots of others who enjoyed it and though they couldn't necessarily relate to the specific incidents, could relate to many of the broader issues like simply fitting in. Raina (the character) comes across as super sweet and personable that you've just got to root for her. (Though she does break one poor boy's heart who reminded me an awful lot of me at that age!)

I also wouldn't get hung up on it being a YA graphic novel either. I quite enjoyed the setting as well; circa late 80's and references that took me back to my own childhood. The references to the original Nintendo system and Bart Simpson were appreciated. I wasn't surprised to see on Telgemeier's website that she's just a year younger than I am.

Likewise, I also wasn't surprised to see For Better or For Worse listed as early inspiration. The style of the artwork was very similar to Lynn Johnston and plot-wise both cartoonists seem to find poignancy in the mundanewith just a dash of humour.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reader's Diary #1149- Maile Meloy: The Proxy Marriage

It was only recently that I discovered that Colin Meloy of the Decemberists was also an author. In hindsight, I should have known. In "the Engine Driver" he even sings, "I am a writer, writer of fictions." So, I went to find one of his short stories online and made yet another discovery: his sister is also an accomplished writer. And I'm so glad to have made said discovery because if her "The Proxy Marriage" is any indication, I am in love (with her writing, of course).

Perhaps love is on my brain, as "The Proxy Marriage" is quite a beautiful love story. It's a simple story at its heart, with a familiar plot of unrequited love. Though on the surface, there was a very unfamiliar tale of soldiers and their spouses getting married by proxy. I must admit, it's that fascinating detail that got me hooked.

It's brilliantly written, with Wiliam, the protagonist maturing as the story progresses, so believable, and in such a short space. Some novels don't achieve this.

And I so appreciate a smart romance. Romance, of all the genres, gets such a bad rap. People think it's cheesy or complain when it feels tacked on. It can be both of these things, of course, but it doesn't need to be. People still fall in love in real life. Nothing dumb about that. It's just beautiful.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Reader's Diary #1148- Steig Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Since starting my blog, I don't recall leaving this much time between having finished a book and blogging about it. I finished Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo back in June. Then I went on vacation and I've also been busy with a course. Essentially time got away from me.

In any case, I think I remember enough to write some basic thoughts, and if not many, I guess that's something, too.

First off, I never got into the whole corrupt "big business" story. Every blurb seemed to shout what a page turner the book was. Sure the serial killer plot was exciting, but getting there I thought was a slog. If you're the other person on Earth still left to read it, it goes a little something like this: a Swedish political magazine publisher named Mikael Blomkvist is taken up on libel charges against a rich industrialist named Wennerstrom. Blomkvist's career and reputation seemed to be shot. However, another important, albeit retired, CEO named Vanger requests help from Blomkvist in solving the mystery of his missing niece who disappeared in 1966. In return, Blomkvist is offered dirt on Wennerstrom that would finally return some Blomkvist's credibility. With nothing to lose, he agrees to help solve the missing niece case. However, he is soon paired with an unlikely but capable partner, Lisbeth Salander, a tiny, but fierce and enigmatic tattooed young woman who values her independence and is suspicious, sometimes with good reason, of others. The missing girl case turns into a serial killer case and soon Blomkvist and Salander's own lives are in danger when as get too close to the answer. Of course they get to the answer, but then the book returns once more to that boring business fraud story. It felt like the final hour of the Lord of the Rings trilogy when they go back to the shire: unnecessary!

Something I didn't get about the serial killer case: Why did the killer go after Blomkvist when he started investigating, but didn't go after Vanger himself who'd apparently been obsessed with the ever since it happened?

I also, and I know she's a well-liked character so I apologize in advance, didn't really like Lisbeth. I felt like I supposed to find her all enigmatic and respect her take-no-prisoners approach, but I felt she was overdone, contrived.

Still, I suppose the action scenes were thrilling enough that I can see the appeal, and I wouldn't mind seeing the movie. And I almost forgot to add how much I enjoyed the Swedish setting. But still, I'm in no rush to read the others in the trilogy.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Reader's Diary #1147- Yanka Bryl, translated by Davis Skivrsky: The Girl with Black Eyebrows


Continuing once again with my slow trek around the world through literature, this week takes me to Belarus and Yanka (aka Janka) Bryl's "The Girl with Black Eyebrows."

It's an awkward tale and once again I'm left wondering if it's a translation thing, a cultural thing, or intentional. It's not without its charm; I quite enjoyed the voice of the narrator. The way he brags about his town— the pine trees! the girls!— in that non-conceited way that expects to win you over with sheer enthusiasm, gave the story a very personal feel, like I was one of his comrades. 

His story about a competition between teams of men and women lumberjacks, and the narrator falling for the female's teams leader, was interesting, amusing at times, but it took me several attempts to figure out some rather awkward phrases and odd word choices that it dampened my overall enjoyment.