Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - March 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")

Reader's Diary #1137- G. Willow Wilson (writer) and Adrian Alphona (artist): Ms. Marvel, No Normal

I keep stumbling upon Canadian comic book artists that I had no idea were Canadian. The latest? Adrian Alphona, who's also worked with Brian K. Vaughan on Runaways (Vaughan must have have a thing for working with Canadian artists).

And since I bring up Alphona first, I may as well start with the art of Ms. Marvel. Loved it. There was something psychedelic about it, especially when Ms. Marvel first started realizing she had powers and began to use them. The artwork fit the story like a glove. There was also something retro and familiar about it that I couldn't put my finger on. I went looking for influences to see if I could track it down. Alphona says in this interview that he was influenced by MAD Magazine, Archie, and Looney Tunes, but none of those seemed obvious. Then he mentioned Bob Peak. That wasn't a name I was familiar with, but I can definitely see his style in Ms. Marvel and it must be where that retro look comes from. If I may have one tiny complaint with Alphona's art it's when characters are shown from any sort of distance they become way too cartoony and simplistic and I found it distracting. I get some loss of detail with distance, but the characters needn't become smiley faces.

The story, too, is wonderful. Ms. Marvel has gotten much attention because she's a Muslim teenager  and a reasonably dressed female; two positive leaps forward for Marvel who (along with DC) have long been criticized for their lack of diversity and poor representation of women. Politically correct doesn't always translate to good story telling however, but I am happy to repeat that Ms. Marvel is wonderful. I loved it. Yes, her Muslim identity is a point in the book and the exploration of that is handled really well. She doesn't represent all Muslims and the diverse opinions expressed by her family and friends help destroy the ridiculous myth that all Muslims are the same. Still, the Muslim part doesn't feel like it's the focus either, just a natural inclusion. Instead, it's about a girl who sometimes wishes she could be someone different. It's certainly a theme teens (and adults who were teens) most likely relate to, regardless of (or in additional to) questions about religious identity. There are also superpowers, of course, and some crime-busting.

I would like to talk about her name, though. Not Kamala Khan, that's fine. My issue is with the Ms. Marvel thing. Kamala's idol is Captain Marvel, who also, according to Wikipedia, went by Ms. Marvel at one point. Shortly after acquiring superpowers, and not realizing what she could do or how to control it, Kamala accidentally adopts the appearance of Captain Marvel, and winds up acquiring the name Ms. Marvel in the process. The problem, as I see it, is that the name sticks even though Kamala changes her appearance to something more unique and having a Captain Marvel and a Ms. Marvel in two ongoing series is a bit confusing. My thought is that if the Kamala comics continue to be successful, Marvel plans to eventually kill off or retire the current Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, and Kamala will take the helm. Maybe this transition could take happen in the 2018 Captain Marvel movie? Thoughts?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Reader's Diary #1136- Sait Faik Abasiyanik: Hisht, Hisht!


One detail in Sait Faik Abasiyankik's "Hisht, Hisht" kept throwing me off: the colour of green almonds. Several times in the story he refers to it; once to describe a goat, another a donkey. And while the story can be described as surreal, a green goat wouldn't fit as it follows a paragraph in which the narrator is thankful that things are the colours they're supposed to be, the grass, the sea. The almond-green goat appears as another example of naormalcy, not as a shocking turn of events. I realized, of course, that "green" is often used to denote unripe— a riddle I remember from my childhood went something like, "Q. What colour is a blueberry when it's green? A. White." But still, I'm unfamiliar with the colour of unripe almonds, so this description meant nothing to me. To save you the hassle, there's a picture of green almonds below. 

That out of the way, "Hisht, Hisht" is an engaging, lightly humourous story about someone taking a walk, decompressing from a vaguely described incident at home. The strange, titular noise comes out of nowhere and he tries in vain to track down its source.

It may be frustrating for some readers, but as it doesn't wind up so for the narrator, it wasn't for me either.

Almonds by J-Blue, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
   by  J-Blue 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Reader's Diary #1135- Andrea Leask (Writer) and Alison McCreesh (Illustrator): Ty and The Fly

Ty and the Fly by Yellowknife locals Andrea Leask and Alison McCreesh is a short but wildly energetic and funny tale perfect for young kids and dog lovers of all ages. I don't really fit either of those categories (I don't mind dogs, per se...) but nonetheless I was charmed.

Ty is a young chocolate lab who, as dogs are wont to do, chases and swallows a hapless fly. And just like that other fly-swallowing story, it wiggles and wriggles and tickles inside him, making its way down to the tip of Ty's tail. Unlike that other story, Ty doesn't swallow a spider to catch the fly but decides to take matters into his own hands paws. Thus, the tail chasing, and subsequent hilarity begins. (Rest assured, there's a happy ending for both parties.)

Leask's rhymes and rhythms come fast and furious and McCreesh is more than capable of capturing that in her art, which could be a study in dog anatomy in motion it's that good. That goofy, curious and youthful puppy energy is reflected in Ty's eyes in just about every scene. My favourite page comes after Ty is dizzy and exhausted and has flopped to the floor:
(Please note that the colours are much brighter in the original.)

I love the angle of the words and the slight curve of the floorboards; it's as if the room is still spinning.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Reader's Diary #1134- Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Writer), Francesco Francavilla (Art): Afterlife with Archie, Escape from Riverdale

For someone who still denies being an Archie fan, I sure have read a lot of Archie comics in recent years. I am, it turns out, a fan of the Archie Comics company. Man, they've made a lot of cool and interesting decisions in recent years. Some good, some not so good, but hats off to them for keeping Archie relevant.

For someone who also denies being a zombie fan, I really underestimated how much I'd wind up enjoying Afterlife with Archie. These comics are fantastic.

Here's the crazy setup: Jughead's dog Hot Dog is accidentally run over and killed by Reggie. He goes to Sabrina's (the Teenage Witch) for help, who, against her aunts' wishes, uses a forbidden spell to resurrect Jughead's beloved pet. The dog, now a zombie, attacks Jughead, who winds up attacking Mr. Weatherbee and Ms. Grundy, and before you know it, Riverdale's under a full-blown zombie apocalypse.

It's fun, but very dark. I'd not say it's overly scary exactly, but if zombie fans are worried about a childish take on the horror genre, they needn't be. Aguirre-Sacasa is both loyal to the Archie personalities, but at the same time seems to take perverse pleasure in deconstructing it. There's some pretty unwholesome stuff here. Nothing particularly shocking for zombie fare, perhaps, but even par-for-the-course zombie stuff is shocking by Archie standards.

And Francavilla's artwork is sublime. Toying with the iconic Archie looks must have been a tricky task. People have tried to revamp it before and failed miserably. On the other hand, the classic cartoony characters would have seemed too silly and taken away from the chills they were going for. Here was an alternate cover by Andrew Pepoy to prove my point:
Although "not scary" is the lesser of the two wrongs with this scene.
The balance Francavilla strikes is just about perfect. But what really pulls it off is the colouring. Colour is used very, but purposefully, sparingly. Most panels are monochromatic with either orange or purple, sometimes a combination, and a lot of black space. The result is Archie, Halloween,  shadowy, sinister, and cool:

From a historical standpoint I'm also amused that the company is producing these, considering that John L. Goldwater, who co-founded Archie Comics back in the 40s, was also largely responsible for the now infamous Comics Code Authority that sought to censor comics, including horror. William Gaines (now best known perhaps for having been the longest running publisher of MAD Magazine) initially himself suggested the code as an industry run standard to stave off outside censorship, but soon found his horror line of comics especially targeted by Goldwater and the CCA. And now, some 70 years or so later, look at that cover at the top of the post. The image looks like it could have been been right at home on Gaines' Tales from the Crypt. Now it's on Archie Comics? Goldwater must be spinning in his grave. (Mwah-haa-haa.)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Reader's Diary #1133- Kailee Carr: Qu?ušin (Raven)


A major reason why I chose this week's short story is because of its traditional spelling, with the question mark looking symbol and the diacritical mark above the s. It reminded me of a very important issue going on in the Northwest Territories at the moment which began when Shene Catholique Valpy chose to give her daughter a traditional Chipewyan name and was told that it couldn't be registered because it featured a glottal stop and could only feature Roman orthography characters. Supposedly our territory has 11 official languages, including Chipewyan. Good for Valpy for fighting this.

Not that that case has any bearing on Carr's "Qu?ušin" (though I'll also note that the em-dashes in the story also show up, for some reason, as different characters, so be forewarned those are not intentional!)

Qu?ušin is about an angry youth who has moved back to his mother's childhood community. Here he meets an Elder who has the patience of a saint, and perhaps not surprisingly, breaks through the boy's defenses. It's simply told, but told in the first person, so simple is fitting (considering the age of the main character). It's got a predictable plot, as I've already suggested, except for the raven character who thankfully adds more emotional depth.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Reader's Diary #1132: Susan Hughes (writer), Willow Dawson (illustrations): No Girls Allowed

I had high hopes for No Girls Allowed, mostly because of its subtitle: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure. Important message + love + adventure? I'm in!

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed. Susan Hughes' stories of seven historical females from all over the world who, for various reasons, chose to dress as men fell oddly flat. At 77 pages, none of these women's lives or exploits were treated with a lot of depth. Facts were basic and time just clipped along methodically to the next fact, interspersed with the occasional snippets of stiff ex- or in- ternal dialogue.

Dawson's artwork was slightly better. It was certainly a unique style, but not a lot of range. Heavy in black and white inks, colour may have added much needed variety. Plus a bit more detail in the backgrounds could have kept things a bit more interesting.

In all the package felt rushed and overly simple, even for the younger audience it was aimed at. I think I would have enjoyed it more had Hughes and Dawson spent the time to turn this into a series. Instead of a chapter each, an entire book each.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Reader's Diary #1131- Kyle Thomas: Yellowknife Street Stories

At the end of Yellowknife Street Stories, author and photographer Kyle Thomas thanks the individuals he has profiled in his book while saying, "It is your stories that make up this book; I am simply the storyteller."

"Simply the storyteller" is Kyle being as he always is humble. Talking with people, mostly homeless, on the streets of Yellowknife, recording snippets from their complex stories and photographing their deceivingly simple smiles, would not have been possible, or at least not have been as honest, without Kyle's humility. You can tell how Kyle has gently guided their conversations to find out where this small fragment of our Yellowknife population has hailed from and clues as to why they came to be here and on the streets and how they are currently surviving. You can tell they trusted Kyle and though I don't know Kyle well I met him only a couple of times on the small and inconsistent Yellowknife blogging circuit it does not surprise me.

Besides Kyle's natural charm I am also sure that there must have been a lot of hard work. The people in this book cannot, of course, be condensed to a mere page or 2, and I am sure Kyle collected many more details and anecdotes than presented here. However, he has thoughtfully and skillfully chosen just the right stuff to differentiate between each of these people, destroy the illusion that "street people" must all be cut from the same cloth. Accentuating that theme are his stunning photos. It's remarkable that in almost all of them his subjects are smiling. Most of us with homes have trouble even fathoming finding happiness without one, yet for this moment they are smiling. And even then, Kyle has managed to so honestly depict these people that their differences are obvious. Some seem to smile merely because there's a camera present, some seem to smile to convince themselves that they are happy, and more, thankfully, seem genuinely happy.

There's little editorializing here and Kyle has also not put anyone on a pedestal. He acknowledges in his introduction that he makes no guarantees about the truth of the stories within or of the characterizations people present of themselves. Still, one message is loud and clear, everyone is individual and everyone is human. It's a simply beautiful message, but one we often forget.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Reader's Diary #1130- Jerome K. Jerome: The Man Who Did Not Believe in Luck


There's a pleasant, old-fashioned charm to Jerome K. Jerome's "The Man Who Did Not Believe in Luck." It's amusing, not hilarious, but it has that Stephen Leacock sort of tone, where you feel invited to his park bench to smile at the locals; the locals who are in all honesty, just a little more quirky than either of you.

The joke of "The Man Who Did Not Believe in Luck" is that the man clearly does believe in luck— just not good luck.

There are a few details lacking that once or twice made the story a bit difficult to follow and I wondered if there hadn't been a paragraph missing somewhere. Still, it's the kind of story where the inclusion of such details would still have only improved it to a degree. It was pleasant as it was, and that's all it would ever be.

Horseshoe by taberandrew, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License
   by  taberandrew 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Reader's Diary #1129- Geoff Johns (Writer), Jim Lee (Penciller): Justice League, Volume 1 Origin

It was just last year that I read Geoff John's Flashpoint but I can already tell that I am becoming a fan of his work. I'm not a fully converted DC Comics guy yet, but they struck gold when they hired him for sure.

As the entire DC Comics universe got rebooted with the New 52 line, Justice League #1 is a new origin story of how the unlikely (not really) team up of the Flash, Wonder Woman, Superman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Batman, and Cyborg came to be. This may or may not have been a problem for long time fans but being new to it all, this origin story is all I've known, therefore I have nothing to compare it to. That said, I was familiar with most of the characters and I enjoyed how Johns wittily played with their stereotypes. I loved for instance how none of the other 6 could quite get that Batman had no super powers. At one point the Green Lantern says to him, "You can't fly, how else were we going to get here? Talk in a deep voice?"

Unlike Flashpoint, however, I think Justice League #1 is friendlier to newcomers. For one, 7 is much more manageable of a number than the superhero stew that was Flashpoint (and keep in mind, I enjoyed that book as well, even as a relative newcomer). While the fast-paced, often funny storyline (involving the villain Darkseid) is not lost, the goal seems to be establishing unique personalities while making it plausible (comic book plausible) that they would find a way and purpose to work together.

As for Jim Lee's artwork, I enjoyed it well enough. It didn't stray too far from classic, moderately realistic superhero fare, but I did quite like what I took to be very subtle manga influences. The thin, sharp penciling reminded me of Akira, as did the action sequences in which the characters stayed stationary while the background seemed to rush by.

What I find interesting about comics in this day and age, and this goes for Marvel as well, is how many storylines involve a mistrusting and skeptical non-superhero human populace. For all the trouble superheroes fight, how much of it, the people wonder, did they invite in the first place? And how much damage did they cause in the process? It's fascinating to consider all of this as social commentary. In the wake of 9/11 it seems like more and more have questioned the United States in this very manner...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reader's Diary #1128- Roz Chast: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Perhaps it's my inner-Canadian (i.e., not American, not British) that's making me want to begin by stating what Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is not.

It is not funny. Sure Chast might be best known for her humorous New Yorker cartoon, but just as I said about Something Fierce a week ago, readers going into Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? expecting a roll on the floor are in for a rude awakening. Do book reviewers not get comedy? There are funny moments, for sure, and I did even LOL once. I'm not saying it needs to be a book of knock knock jokes in order to have the funny label, but I do think that the number one intent of a funny book should be to make people laugh and I do not think that was Chast's intent with this book. I think it was her intent to write an honest depiction of dealing with the aging process and death of one's parents, to talk about an unpleasant side of life. But because it's honest, and observant, of course there are humorous momentsthere are such moments in real life but I don't think they're the focus of this book, they're incidental. Well, maybe not incidental. I think she is making a point that it's okay to occasionally laugh during tough times, but let's be real, the focus here is on the tough times.

It is also not a great graphic novel. To me, a great graphic novel is a complete package: good story, good art, and they are only great together. Chast's art is serviceable, but not stellar (excluding the drawings of her mother at the very end which were stellar and reminded me of Ron Mueck's "Dead Dad" sculpture). Furthermore, it works more like the art of a picture book, tending to compliment the text but the text could work on its own. And to be sure, the text of Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? works superbly which brings me to what it is: an occasionally funny, but always honest and poignant memoir that happens to be illustrated.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Reader's Diary #1127- Kim Curran: The Kiss


Kim Curran's "The Kiss" may be the perfect modern short story. With terrorism, social media, and themes of "truth/truthiness," told as a fast paced, cynically humorous mystery, I can't remember anything I've read in recent years that so wonderfully captures life in the 2010s without feeling forced.

It tells of a blast in London on a fine spring day and of a couple that appeared perfect and in love and sitting on a park bench. They may have caused the blast.

Theories, of course, abound. Fascinatingly however, the theories seem to say more about the theorists than the Blast or the couple, which in these times of rapid-fire collective memory construction seems pretty plausible. I can't help but think of the conspiracies that recently worked Canada into a frenzy over a mysterious tunnel in Toronto.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Reader's Diary #1126- David Malcolm: Pine Cones and Small Stones

I'm a sucker for haiku; traditional haiku— you know, with natural imagery and subtle, personal epiphanies. David Malcolm does these exceedingly well in his poetry collection, Pine Cones and Small Stones: Poems for Warming in a Cold Climate. All the poems don't meet this description, but perhaps it's their proximity to the many that do, that they all have the same sort of haiku air. They feel like the honest and reflective thoughts of a kindhearted man.

Not that I was in love with all of the poems. Towards the middle of the book, Malcolm seemed to get bogged down with Biblical poetry: haiku and other short poems inspired by Bible verses or simply lifted word for word. I don't mind the occasional literary quote in a book to set the context or mood, and though I don't doubt Malcolm was personally moved by the passages he's shared, they're a bit too plentiful in what is already a short book. It was especially problematic to me as I had been so enjoying Malcolm's own writing and I began at times to feel that I was missing it. 

Fortunately, he eventually moved onto more unique offerings again and overall the book was a quiet but emotional read.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Reader's Diary #1125- Jo Senior: The Green Suitcase


I can get behind the low octane, slice of life story. I think Lynn Coady does these very well. For me the secret lies in is making it not too long; mundane but not boring. Jo Senior's "The Green Suitcase" works perfectly. Astute observations and an authentic, complex character-- just what these sort of stories usually excel at.

The plot, as you may have guessed, does not involve robots having an orgy in the back of a speeding Hummer. It's about an elderly lady who just discovers that the airline has lost her luggage. To her, it's not just any piece of luggage, but something that's been with her forever. I think it could have been easy to be cynical with such a story. Attaching emotional significance to objects is often something mocked. It's too materialistic. It brings up images of hoarding. Etc. But Senior ignores all that and there's something simple, beautiful, and sad about it.

I loved that it was an elderly character as well, because the loss of the suitcase, in her mind, seems tied so much to memories and the end of it all.

Texture Green No. 54 by Elné, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License
   by  Elné