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 29, 2014

Reader's Diary #1071- Chuck Palahniuk: Guts

I was surprised to realize, after stumbling upon "Guts," that I'd never read anything by Chuck Palahniuk before. I saw and enjoyed the Fight Club movie adaptation years back, but for some oversight, I never explored his actual writing.

I can't therefore say whether "Guts" is representational of his larger body of work, but the content didn't come as a shock to me. I've long heard that he likes to dive into the muck and the mire and with a masculine sense of humour. Plus, this story first appeared on the pages of Playboy, so I wasn't expecting Pride and Prejudice. That said, it's still an odd choice for Playboy. By the end of the story, I can't imagine feeling any unsexier. I don't think the original intent of that publication was to leave their regular readers squeamish or even repulsed.

But I still enjoyed it. He goes for the gross-out, for sure, but the build-up is great. It has a dark comedy feel at first but develops an urban legend vibe as the story progresses. Apparently Palahniuk likes to claim that the number of listeners who've fainted as he reads it aloud continues to grow. I'm not sure if I believe that, but it certainly adds to its fun urban legend appeal.

June 2004 - Pool by m01229, on Flickr

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   by  m01229 

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

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   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 from 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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Reader's Diary #1064- Jeff Lemire: Trillium

Trillium, by Jeff Lemire, was a limited comic book series produced by Vertigo. The first issue was released last year and all 8 issues were available in a collected format as of August. Make no mistake, with the arc and the lack of reviewing plot points common in some serials, it feels like a complete graphic novel.

I have long been a fan of Lemire's work, so I was excited to see what he would do with sci-fi. Trillium is set partially in outer space in the year 3797, when the entire human race has been reduced to about 4000 people, and on Earth in 1921. Nika, a female in the future, is in search of trillium plants, which hopefully hold a much needed cure. She finds them by the score in front of a temple, but they are guarded by a mysterious alien race. William, a male from the past is searching for the Lost Temple of the Incans. The temples house a time/space passage. William and Nika meet and eventually in love. Their love is not without complication, however. Their histories wind up switching, creating alternate universes— neither of which are pleasant.

I love how experimental Lemire was with this book. Besides the sci-fi, which involves time travel, artificial intelligence, outer space, and even a small dose of steam punk, Lemire's done such a good job with the romance genre, that I'd almost go as far as saying I'd classify the book as a romance first.

And the artwork is just crazy; at one point you even have to flip the book over to read a concurrent story.

A small complaint with the first comic (chapter) is with the amount of dialogue. I've always loved Lemire's ability to tell so much without words, but with such a convoluted set-up this time, there's much told through somewhat awkward dialogue or thoughts. Perhaps a Star Wars-esque scroll would have served to let readers know what the deal was. In any event, once that's out of the way the story gets well underway and I was enraptured in the lives of Nika and William.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Reader's Diary #1063- Sara Gruen: Water for Elephants

When I realized that Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants was told as a series of flashbacks from an elderly person, I was a little concerned. I had just recently read Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, also told from an elderly person's perspective. Was my subconscious or a higher being trying to prepare me for aging? Knock it off, universe, I'm not even middle-age yet (at least, I hope not!).

To make matters worse, I enjoyed it! Told from the perspective of one Jacob Jankoski, a 93 year old man now in a retirement home, recounting his days in a traveling circus— memories sparked by the announcement that a circus is being set up next door to the home. Set during the Great Depression, the overarching theme seems to one of luck; when it's bad luck, persevere and be patient for the good luck (should it ever come). 

Jacob is flawed, but not so much that he ever becomes unlikeable and most of the other characters are believably complex, even Rosie the Elephant. The settings are fascinating (I was as interested in the retirement home as the circus). And the love story is beautiful. Occasionally, it's predictable (Jacob is forced to be roommates with a little person, who first appears to resent Jacob's presence, but of course they eventually become friends) and while I was content with the ending of the flashback, the wrap-up of the present day frame story felt more implausible and forced. Still, these are minor complaints and honestly, I looked forward to reading it. 

(This was the first time I borrowed an eBook from the local public library and the experience was great. I'd definitely do it again. Do you or have you borrowed eBooks before?)

Monday, September 08, 2014

Reader's Diary #1062- Rolli: Were I The Leaves, I'd Be Dead

It never ceases to amaze me when writers are able to develop such rich characters in the space of a short story, or even more impressively, a flash short story.

In Rolli's "Were I The Leaves, I'd Be Dead," though there are just three short paragraphs, one cannot help learn about a couple of characters (a mother and child) and of their tragic relationship tragic because the child overhears some things that are obviously difficult to deal with.

Though the tone of the story is sad and with a hint of accusation, I found it compelling how much empathy Rolli made me feel for these characters. The mom needed an emotional outlet, the child unfortunately heard whenever she found one. It's not a complicated plot, just some of life's more unpleasant moments.

With a title like that, you weren't expecting Ferris wheels and cotton candy, I hope.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Reader's Diary #1061- Jeff Lemire: The Underwater Welder

Jeff Lemire's The Underwater Welder tells a story of a Nova Scotian man named Jack who's about to become a father. However, instead of focusing on this joyous occasion, Jack is literally haunted by his past— and to make matters worse, it's happening when he's under water.

I think the introduction by Damon Lindelof, in which he compares it to the Twilight Zone, helped set the eerie tone for me. That said, while I certainly enjoyed the creepy and mysterious aspect, what I've always admired the most about Lemire's stories are the relationships and introspection, whether he's trying his hand at familial drama, sci-fi, or ghost stories, and The Underwater Welder has the personal stuff in spades.

As for the artwork, Lemire still hasn't ventured away from those wobbly lines that I know aren't everyone's cup of tea. Likewise his cinematic approach of using far off or sudden close ups for mood or dramatic effect are still there. However, he still shows a lot more growth and experimentation. This time Lemire has also used gray watercolours that help accentuate the lonely, haunting qualities of ths story as well as the damp Nova Scotian setting. There's also an approach to paneling that I don't recall having encountered anywhere else before, in which a single object is divided into many panels. In this scene in particular, the divided panels help accentuate Jack's shaken identity:

The storytelling in the Underwater Welder is tight and amazing.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Reader's Diary #1060- Patrick deWitt: The Sisters Brothers

There were many things I enjoyed about Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, the tale of two hitmen brothers in the days of the California Gold Rush. I quite enjoyed Eli, the younger brother and narrator, for his insecurities and self-reflection. He doesn't seem entirely cut out for the business, though it's no fluke that he's been a success in the field. I enjoyed the dry humour, often which comes in the form of the authentically-sounding, but ultimately stupid things people say: in one scene Eli's older brother Charlie is about to partake in a gun-duel, and after declaring that they draw at Eli's count of three, his opponent remarks, "He can count to one hundred if it suits you," to which Charlie makes a face and responds, "What a stupid thing to say. Think of something else besides that."

Still, for all of its charms, I can't say I enjoyed it as a whole. The main plot revolves around their hunting down of a prospector, who, they discover has developed a chemical formula to help easily identify and extract gold sitting at the bottom of rivers or small lakes. It's enough of a plot for me in the one sense, but it's so slow in coming. So many of the chapters in the first half of the book seem almost entirely unrelated. I found these chapters interesting as individual short stories, but throwing the book's pacing off and too distracting to the novel at large.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Reader's Diary #1059- Neil Christopher (writer), Ramón Pérez (illustrator): The Country of Wolves

As a fan of both comics and Inhabit Media, I'm a little ashamed it's taken me this long to get around to The Country of Wolves, an Inuit legend retold by Neil Christopher and illustrated by Ramón Pérez. 

The Country of Wolves tells a story of two Inuit hunters who find themselves lost after an ice sheet they were hunting on breaks off and sets adrift. They eventually wind up ashore in an unfamiliar place and discover a village of iglus. However, their relief quickly turns to fear when they discover that it isn't an Inuit village, but a werewolf village. (There's also another twist at the end that I won't spoil here.)

Though the introduction to the book mentions this story as one that had been passed down by countless generations across the Arctic, it was one that I'd not heard of in my time in Nunavut and was pleasantly surprised to know werewolves had a place in their mythology. 

It's quite a scary tale, and I don't mean that with any disrespect at all (the intro refers to it as a "sacred story) and would be perfect for Halloween or perhaps for Carl's RIP IX Challenge. If the thought of werewolves doesn't scare you in and of itself, I should note that Pérez's illustrations of the creatures are terrifying.

I quite enjoyed Pérez's artwork. His dark shades of blue really capture both the setting and the mood, plus he strikes a perfect balance of realistic work that is still cartoony enough to draw you in to the emotions. My one complaint is that many scenes and images show so little variation that they look reused at first glance. An old lady's face, for instance, is front on on for six pages and if not for her mouth being parted slightly more in some scenes than others, she'd appear to be a simply trace and paint job. 

Otherwise, a highly enjoyable book.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Reader's Diary #1058- Laura Theis: I Dream of Sharks Again

It's taken me too long to decide on how I feel about Laura Theis's short story, "I Dream of Sharks Again." There's a sense of danger lurking, be it with a woman who has a recurring dream about sharks or her young niece that casually throws out the word paedophile. But the danger never really materializes. Literal sharks never appear and the niece has no idea what paedophile means. Instead we're left with a story involving unrequited love and insecurities.

The narrator winds up caring for another young woman who she finds puking and defecating herself in the street and who she recognizes as the girl who broke the heart of the guy that the narrator wants. The puking girl is now stripped of her power, is no longer threatening, and when the niece says, "You know, if the [shark] dream comes back tonight, just change into one of them. They can be your friends" it is apparent that the narrator is interpreting her own symbolism. Though I think it's interesting that she opts to turn into a shark rather than turn the sharks into humans.

post-it puke by ario_, on Flickr

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   by  ario_