Friday, October 31, 2014

The 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - October 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")

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reader's Diary #1081- Robert Crumb: The Book of Genesis

It's only recently that I've been paying attention to the influence and legacy of Robert Crumb. As one of the earliest and most successful players in the underground comix movement, creator of Fritz the Cat as well as other notable titles and characters, and illustrator for some now-classic album covers (such as Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills), you now see his name pop up often as an influence to such well-known and respected comics artists as Joe Sacco, Chester Brown, and Julie Doucet.

But Crumb has also courted controversy and many have found his work to be sexist and racist.

So diving into my first Crumb book, the illustrated Book of Genesis, I had a lot of expectations. Boring was not one of them.

First off, I don't find the source material (yes, this is that book of Genesis) boring. Sure there are boring parts, what with all the begats and other repetition, but that particular book is where so many of the familiar stories are told: the story of creation, the Garden of Eden, Noah and the flood, Joseph and his coat, and so on. The first time I read (the non-illustrated) Genesis, I remember looking at how much of the Bible remained and wondering what in the world was left.

But sadly, I don't know what Crumb added. See that note on the orange scroll on the cover? "Nothing left out!" it boasts, like it's a selling feature. Fine, I suppose that would appeal to a lot of people, and often comics artists do more of their "writing" through their art anyway, so there was still hope for something poignant, something to prove how great (or at least interesting) this Crumb guy was. I know and respect the power of the visual and I know how violent and sexual the Bible can be, so to be honest, I was expecting intensity. I was expecting something that would offend a lot of people to which Crumb could just shrug off for once saying something along the lines of, "I just draws 'em as I reads 'em." But while there's a bit of nudity here or there, some violence, scenes like this are about as raunchy as it gets and are rare:

All of which makes it sound like I wanted Crumb to step all over a book that 3 major world religions hold dear. Not so. I just think there was room for a bit more interpretation, more creativity. The most interesting things he does is give the serpent in the Garden arms and legs and make Noah's sons slightly resemble the three stooges, and that's about it. I mean there's some technicality to be admired. Crumb's fleshy characters with big slobbery looking mouths are at least stylized. The hatching and cross-hatching shading is well done. But even so, the angles are dull, straight on affairs with little change in perspective. And given the choice to keep all the text intact, the combination of a very wordy book with dull illustrations made me simply push through, almost tuning out the art altogether. For comics, isn't that a cardinal sin?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reader's Diary #1080- Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner

I know it's not considered the mark of a mature reader to dismiss a book for the unlikeability of a character. And I get that. Sometimes a book of horrible people is still a great book. But The Kite Runner protagonist is so darn nice that I started to think that we shouldn't reject that criteria outright.

He's not a perfect character, but I understood and loved him even more for his flaws. If you're one of the last people on Earth to read it (and here I thought I was the last), The Kite Runner tells of a man completely racked by guilt. As a child living in Afghanistan, he witnessed his friend, and friend of the family, being brutally attacked by some other boys and did not intervene. To add insult to injury, he could no longer look at his friend without being overwhelmed with guilt so effectively plotted to write his friend and family out of his life.

What I find so brilliant about the book is the way Hosseini has played with "unreliable narrator" idea. Normally that entails people whose facts might be called into question. In The Kite Runner, however, I didn't question the facts but the focus and interpretation. I found I had more empathy towards the narrator than even he had of himself. Did he make some horrible choices? Absolutely. But Hosseini manages to make them understandable, remarkably through a narrator that doesn't understand them himself.

That, plus the fascinating glimpse into a place and culture that I am almost completely ignorant about made the book one of the best things I've read this year.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Reader's Diary #1079- Elizabeth Bowen: The Demon Lover

The best part about Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover," for me, was the setting. It manages to be unique yet still play to classic ghost story imagery and is so finely detailed. Largely taking place in an abandoned house on an abandoned street? Of course that's just perfect to conjure eerie feelings. But Bowen ramps it up a notch with minute attention to detail (there's a mark on the wallpaper where a doorknob had always bumped it) and yet another notch by placing it during World War II in London, where the reason behind the abandonment is a whole other kind of fear: bombing.

The plot, however, didn't quite live up the setting. Kathleen, a middle aged woman, has ventured back to the house to gather a few things when she discovers a letter from a former fiance on a dusty table-- a fiance she'd presumed dead after World War I. He's back to collect upon a promise made 25 years ago, long before she'd married another man and raised a family.

It's fine, I suppose, if somewhat predictable story. Maybe a nice touch about the past having a way to come back to bite us, but I admit, when the old soldier fiance shows up in a taxi, I couldn't help but picture David Johansen's portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged, and well, it didn't exactly elicit shivers as much as giggles.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Reader's Diary #1078- Bill Willingham (writer), Lan Medina, Mark Buckingham (Illustrators): Fables the Deluxe Edition Book One

Initially I enjoyed the fractured fairy tales idea. Then, I admit, it started to rank up there with zombies, vampire lust, and teenage dystopias. In other words, I started to find it too trendy and grew tired of it. Not that any of these genres didn't have their shining stars, but I no longer cared to look for them amongst the heaps of poorly executed knock-offs. I'm glad, however, that I finally gave Bill Willingham's Fables a chance.

Fables, the Deluxe Edition Book One collects the first two story arcs, Legends in Exile and Animal Farm, the former of which started the whole series back in 2002.

Knowing these were fairy-tale themed but aimed at adult readers, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would they be gritty retellings, maybe more in line with the dark origins of many of these stories? Not that I wouldn't have been okay with that but I was pleasantly surprised that they were more fun and satirical than that. I think the bio of Willingham on the jacket flap help set the tone. “Bill Willingham has written hundreds of comic books," we're told, "some of which have found readers.” And this gem, "He’s never wrestled a bear, but knows someone who did." You also get a sense from his introduction to the book that he's not out to disrespect the stories but in his own way, play homage to them; "Fables," he explains, "are fairy tales, folk tales, whispered legends and ribald ballads, sung too loud and off-key, but with vigor and purpose."

The first story, beginning of course with "Once upon a time," introduces us to a plethora of familiar characters but with strongly defined personalities that the originals often lacked. Bigby, is the Big Bad Wolf in human form, a rough around the edges private investigator. Snow White is the no-nonsense deputy to the mayor (though she's the brains behind the operation). Her ex, Prince Charming is a sleezy manipulator. They're just the beginning.

What makes Legends in Exile so remarkably well done is the way it sets up the universe so naturally while still managing to tell a story that is entertaining. Snow White's sister Rose Red has gone missing, appearing to be the victim of a brutal murder, and we're left with a wonderfully engaging noir-ish crime drama. And while all this is going on, we seamlessly learn that the human fairy tale legends are living, unbeknown to us mundanes, in New York City. They are immortal, their kingdoms of days gone by are no more, and they've cleverly hidden the truth as unbelievable, often silly, children's stories, songs, and rhymes. They have an enemy, which explains why they're all now in exile, but for now that is left as an overarching premise that, while not explored in depth here, will clearly come into play later.

This story is illustrated in a style usually associated with traditional superhero comics, which oddly fits the classic whodunnit story.

I was nervous going into the second story, Animal Farm, wondering how Willingham would approach it. Though I loved the first one, would another noir crime drama already lose the charm? I also noted that it was set in an hidden society of fairy tale characters, and I wondered if it wouldn't bee just too silly to enjoy, but thankfully I was able to quickly suspend my belief and went along for the ride. These characters are the ones that couldn't blend in in contemporary societytalking animals, giants, and so on— so must live, much to the animosity of many, concealed from the rest of the world. 

But, as the title might suggest, Orwell's themes of socialism and Marxism are explored, and this time Goldilocks takes center-stage as a dangerous, idealistic leader. Yes, there's a lot of satire in this story, and a lot of riffing on propaganda motifs, but it's most importantly an entertaining story, so I'd not suggest that it's really a political story despite the surface details. 

In the end, I'm not sure I enjoyed the second as much as the first story, but I loved that Willingham showed that he would be exploring a variety of stories and genres all within this fantastically complex world that he has established and made his own.

I can definitely see why the series has been a hit.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reader's Diary #1077- Elinor Nash: The Ghost Boy

I stumbled upon Elinor Nash's short story "The Ghost Boy" earlier this year, clearly only paying attention to the title, explaining why I bookmarked it as a Halloween story.

It's not.

Instead it's about a teenage boy named Jake Bennett who sees the world differently since his bicycle accident. There are a lot of fascinating things about Jake's new perception, but I think what Nash does brilliantly here is to make readers question whether or not all these new ways of looking at the world really indicate a handicap or a strength. There's no doubt Jake's new brain doesn't allow for a a comfortable existence in the regular world, but some of this is undeniably problematic (particularly the violent lash-outs) unfortunately helping negate or ignore the poetic beauty to some of his more unique interpretations.

I think fans of Emma Donoghue's Room or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime would enjoy the story.

Accident by Bertoz, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License
   by  Bertoz 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Reader's Diary #1076- Brian K Vaughan (writer), Fiona Staples (illustrator): Saga, Volume One

As a huge fan of Brian K Vaughan's Pride of Baghdad, I was excited to finally get read the first volume of his critically acclaimed Saga series. Then I was even more excited to see that he had teamed up with another Canadian for the artwork: Calgary's Fiona Staples. It gets to count toward the Graphic Novel and Manga Challenge AND the Canadian Book Challenge? Sweet.

Perhaps I've been reading a bit too much children's and YA lit lately because my first reaction to the opening scenes in Saga were not great. It begins with a woman named Alana giving birth. Fine. She asks if she's shitting. "It feels like I'm shitting." Even that's fine (birth isn't always harps and incense). But a follow-up joke about coprophilia, an f bomb, and a scene with her husband Marko chewing through an umbilical cord (a la Freddy Got Fingered) and I started to think it was trying too try to hard to be risque, to prove it's an adult book. I was also put off by a comment from Alana in response to Marko calling her beautiful, "Right, because nothing's more lovely than a fat woman spread eagle[...]" Fat?! In no universe would hers have been considered a fat body, nor was it the body of someone nine months pregnant.

Despite the disappointing start though, I did get caught up in the sci-fi/fantasy take on the classic star-crossed lovers story. In this case, the lovers come from different planets (or more accurately, a planet and its moon) and their two alien humanoid species (races?) are at war with one another. Plus, you've got to love the angel (wings) and demon (horns) symbolism to really strike home home the point that they really, really shouldn't be together.

Since the war between their two peoples has become rather Big Business, neither side thinks that a love child between the cross-warring tribes is exactly the helpful kind of propaganda and stop at nothing to eliminate them, including hiring some pretty shady characters to take them down. (One of these, named The Will, inherits his own interesting subplot as he finds himself rescuing a young slave girl.). Marko and Alana in the meantime strike a deal with a disemboweled teenage ghost girl to help them escape. Yes, it's a crazy ride.

Fortunately it's also just the beginning of a series and though I was slow to connect, I'm glad to have been won over. I'll definitely be reading further volumes!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reader's Diary #1075- Gertrude Chandler Warner: The Boxcar Children

I know for some folks, even kids today, Gertrude Chandler Warner's Boxcar Children series has been as much a part of their childhood as Nancy Drew, Archie Comics, and The Baby-Sitters Club has been for others. This I only found out as an adult. Somehow the series escaped me as a child, or at the very least I have no recollection of ever coming across it in my younger years.

Perhaps that would have made a difference— nostalgia gives almost everything a rosy glow (not the Dukes of Hazzard, unfortunately). As it stands, reading it now the book seems very dated. Originally written in 1924, that's not surprising, but what is surprising is that I use that term negatively. Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, those books are dated too, but I still find them enjoyable— perhaps even more so because of the dated quality. But the secret to why it matters here was revealed to me in the author bio at the end of the book. Chandler, we're told, discovered that "many readers who like an exciting story could find no books that were both easy and fun to read." It's that "easy to read" bit that highlights the first issue I had with the book. The language is very overly simplified to the point of coming across as unnatural. This is especially true of the dialogue that reads like an old Dick and Jane book, where easy reading apparently meant people were afraid of contractions. Warner didn't forgo the contraction altogether, but they were used sparingly and people were left sounding oddly formal, even for a book set in a time when people did talk differently. "Come to bed now. You must be tired with all that work, and I am tired, too."

Another issue I had was with the overly perfect children. Maybe we overdo the bratty-but-witty kids in modern media, but I know there wasn't a time in history when children got along with one another as well as they did in the first Boxcar Children book. Hardworking, full of smiles, and always looking out for one another. Good qualities to be sure, but when every child is this squeaky clean it eventually comes across as unnatural and flat. 

Apparently the series eventually turns out to be more mystery-oriented (and taken on by other authors once Warner died), but in this book the story the plot revolves around four orphans who decide to set up home in an abandoned boxcar. The only mystery here seems unintentional. Not wanting to be discovered by their grandfather, they eventually are and it turns out he's a wonderful man and they have a caregiver once again. Oddly though, the reason they fear him initially is that he disliked their mother so much that he had never ever visited them. This rather dark and out-of-place character portrayal is never revisited or explained. Why did he dislike their mother so much? Maybe the issue is revisited in later volumes. Alas, the happy ending here ignores it entirely.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Reader's Diary #1074- Harold Rolseth: Hey, You Down There!


For this week's story I looked for a horror story with a Thanksgiving connection. It's what people do when their country places Thanksgiving so close to Halloween.

Harold Rolseth's short story, "Hey, You Down There!" is about a couple who are trying, in vain, to dig a well. What they discover instead is wholly unexpected.

The husband in this story is boorish and abusive and that clearly takes some fun out of the tale, but without giving too much away, it has a "Goodbye Earl" sort of feel, so you'll probably figure that a mishap is heading his way long before it actually happens. Not to say it's entirely predictable. In fact, twice I thought I knew where Rolseth was leading us when the story took a strange new direction, recovering the fun that I said was lost. It's not scary really, but has a creepy sci-fi angle. I'm not surprised to hear it first appeared in a book of stories compiled by Alfred Hitchock called Stories to be Read in the Dark.

As for the Thanksgiving connection? There isn't much of one, but you'll recognize it when you get there.
The Abyss by Jake Fowler, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  Jake Fowler 

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Reader's Diary #1073- Vera Brosgol: Anya's Ghost

I was a little reluctant to read Vera Brosgol's Anya's Ghost so soon after reading Faith Erin Hicks's Friends with Boys. Two teenage girls being haunted by female ghosts? I didn't want to get in such a specific rut. But I'm glad I did.

I actually thought the two books ended up feeling very different from one another. There's a certain naive sweetness to Maggie of Friends with Boys that is lacking in Anya. Not that Anya isn't unlikeable, but there's a cynical edginess to her. As a teenager I think I would have related more to Anya. Plus, the significance of the ghost in Friends with Boys is less obvious than Anya's ghost who clearly provides the antagonist.

Anya is walking along one day, preoccupied with her frustrations, when she falls into a well. Here she meets a ghost girl named Emily who'd fallen in 90 years prior. Fortunately for Anya, her stint in the well isn't as long. Unfortunately for Anya, Emily hitches a ride out with her when Anya is rescued. At first it seems Anya has gotten a true friend out of experience, as Emily helps her cheat on tests, gives her boy advice, and so on. But before long, Casper the Friendly Ghost becomes Single White Female and Anya has a new problem on her hands.

Throughout the ordeal, Anya learns many valuable lessons: to appreciate her heritage, accept that nobody's life is perfect, the importance of being oneself, and so on. Despite that, the only message that I thought came on too strong was an anti-smoking message. Near the end Anya remarks, "I don't think I ever liked [smoking]. And it doesn't look as cool as I thought it did." It seemed more after-school special than the rest of the book. Otherwise the story just reads as a wonderful coming-of-age/ ghost story.

The illustrations seem simple on the surface. I thought the characters like something Charles Schulz would have done had he tried manga.  But there are occasional glimpses of more complexity. I loved, for example, this scene where Anya is at a party and breaks the fourth wall, staring at the reader from the very center of the panel as if pleading with us to help her out of this awkward situation:
Or a scene where she's tuning out her teacher's long, boring lesson. Check out the ingenious way Brosgol has made the words run right out of the panel:

One beef I had with the book, and I'm as of yet undecided whether or not it's major, is the idea that an uncovered well has been this close to the city for 90 years, easily found, and no one besides Anya and Emily have fallen victim to it. And even after Anya is rescued, no one seems to be in much rush to cover or fill it in (it is eventually). Inconvenient as it was for the two girls, it seemed a bit too convenient for Brosgol. Stick a lid on that plot hole already!

Monday, October 06, 2014

Reader's Diary #1072- Samantha Frazer Gordon: The Path of Dead Roses


Every year, when October rolls around I try to stick to horror stories for Short Story Monday. Throughout the year, when looking for a free online short story, the second I note that it's horror I stick it in a bookmarked folder called Halloween and save it. Unfortunately this year it's slim pickin's. I managed only to put two aside. So, if you know of some scary stories I can find and read online (free, no sign-ups or passwords) send them my way please!

This week's story, Samantha Frazer Gordon's "The Path of Dead Roses" has a lot of classic ghost story tropes. So many, in fact, that it teeters on the edge of cheesy. It's probably good that this one is kicking off my October mini-horror marathon as I think I'd be even less tolerant at the end.

It tells a story about a teenage girl who encounters a ghost who has been destroying her rose bushes. The ghost, as it turns out, is the same unknown woman who appears in a bunch of old photos belonging to her dad. As such, it's more the mystery kind of ghost story than the genuinely scary kind, which, as I suggested earlier, gives it a sort of classic feel. Gordon began the story attempting to turn it into a coming-of-age tale, but that angle gets slowly pushed aside as the story gets going and in the end I felt mildly entertained but otherwise underwhelmed.