Sunday, May 31, 2015

The 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - May 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, May 27, 2015

Reader's Diary #1160- Konami Kanata, translated by Ed Chavez: Chi's Sweet Home, Vol. 1

A few times while reading Kanata's Chi's Sweet Home I had to remind myself that I picked this from the junior graphic novel section at the library. I was not the intended the audience. So whenever I rolled my eyes over the kitten who thought in overly-cutesy misspellings (e.g., scarewy instead of scary) I quickly moved on, accepting that younger audiences may not find it as annoying.

But it wasn't all simply tolerated, the book does have it's genuine warm and funny moments. It's a story of a kitten rescued by a famiwy... er, family... who live in a "No Pets Allowed" apartment. Quickly they grow attached and the kitten grows to accept her new surroundings.

The best thing about Chi, for cat lovers, is how well Kanata captures the kitten experience. Curious, playful, skittish, Kanata also gets inside Chi's head at times, helping to clarify just why the heck she's acting the way she is. (And when it comes to cats, that's no small task!) It's not as fantastical as Ashley Spires' Binky the Space Cat, but the realism still held my attention.

The artwork is okay, if not an overly detailed work of manga, nicely coloured with watercolours. In some regards it would be a good starter manga for younger readers, adhering to many common comics and manga tactics (e.g., showing a sequence of panels featuring objects around the room to imply a passage of time) and therefore could help build one's comic literacy. It has been flipped for North American audiences, however, so some might feel it's not introducing them to the true form. On the other hand, it would also make it less of an adjustment for many.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reader's Diary #1159- Jeff Lemire (Writer) and Travel Foreman (Artist): Animal Man, Vol. 1

After finishing Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman's Animal Man, I had a nightmare. There was a lightning storm that kept me in and out of sleep, but I was convinced that this was the way the world was ending. This lightning storm was never going to stop and the rest of our short existence was going to be miserable.

I didn't used to be bothered by horror or gore, not in movies, comics, or books, but lately, instead of growing desensitized to it, it seems to affect me more. Another age thing, I suppose.

But a bad night's sleep has resulted in a better view of Animal Man than I'd have first shared. If a comic can affect your subconscious, you have to give it credit.

Animal Man is bizarre. Or since we're on an animal theme, bat-shit insane. I've read Lemire many, many times now but he managed to take me aback with this one. There's a scene at the beginning of Essex County where Lester, a young boy stands in a field in a cape. He leaps up and begins to fly, only to suddenly be interrupted by his uncle. It was only his imagination. And though I've found his work has gotten more and more out there, with Underwater Welder, with Trillium, I don't think I've ever seen him so efficiently sever his tether to reality as he does here.

And it's dark. If I was expecting a Ant-Man/ Dr. Doolittle superhero-talks-the-animals story, I instead got a Madeleine L'Engle/ H.P. Lovecraft existential sci-fi monster superhero.

Buddy Baker, aka Animal Man, is a reluctantly ex-superhero who's a bit lost at what he wants to do with life at the moment. He can take on the abilities of any animal, but he's also a family man. It's when his daughter starts exhibiting powers that things get... weird.

To say Buddy passed his powers down to Maxine is not entirely accurate. It turns out he got them from something called The Red. Only The Red-- a life force/voice/collective-- is being threatened by The Rot, which is also after Maxine and tries in vain to disguise itself as normal beings (people and animals) before twisting inside out and growing weird eyes and teeth and tentacles. I wasn't a big fan of Foreman's art at first; he's not great at normal, but he does grotesque like nobody's business.

I tried, as I was drifting off, to make sense of all I'd just read. Did Lemire really write this?! Did it represent something? Were these the thoughts of a father afraid of passing on his own doubts and negative energy to his child and the monster that could create? (Remember, I was getting sleepy here.)

In the end, there were no answers, just lightning and a lot of tossing and turning. But yeah, this was heavier than I'd expected.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reader's Diary #1158- Jo Lennan: How is Your Great Life?


Jo Lennan's "How is your great life?" asks the title question ironically. Not that the lives of Ana and Arjun are the worst lives ever, in fact Arjun's has some appearance of improving, but there's a pervasive unhappiness throughout this go-nowhere story. I can say that I'd have found the bleakness rather annoying (too much ennui killed Neville, remember) but the Japanese setting at least kept it tolerably interesting.

I also kept expecting Arjun and Ana to hook up, but (spoiler alert) they never do. I can't decide how I feel about that. It would, obviously, have been predictable, but at least it would have been something. I found the story strangely oppressive, claustrophobic, like settling for a mediocre existence. Perhaps that something.
Buildings and Boredom. by allenjaelee, on Flickr

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

Reader's Diary #1157- George Orwell: Animal Farm

I was a young teenager the first time I read George Orwell's Animal Farm and I loved it. I've since heard from some who never encountered the book until adulthood and of those, many who felt Orwell was a bit too obvious with his allegory. Rereading it again, I'll admit it's not the most subtle of books, but perfect for a young adult with awakening political awareness.

I decided this time around to read it to my daughter. She's younger than I was, but certainly more mature and smart than I was at her age ready, in other words, for Animal Farm. She enjoyed it, as did I again, but the experience was a little bittersweet.

As you've probably ascertained from my description of her above, I really don't need to be reading aloud to her anymore. She was more than capable of tackling this one on her own. But it took us forever. She's busy with her stuff right now. And I get that. But that also meant finding time for Animal Farm was hit or miss and when you've gone a while from it, it's a big hard to get back into. As the seven commandments began to be rewritten, some animals were suspicious— wasn't the rule slightly different before? The problem was, we too would often forget what the original rule was!

With that in mind, we agreed that this was probably the last bedtime read aloud. She's outgrown them. It's natural enough, I suppose (though I'm sure there are those out there that never give it up, and that's fine too), but it feels strange to have that part of our life over. We did agree though that since we both love reading and talking about books so much, we would still make an effort to read and discuss some of the same books— which I'm sure will be fine in its own right. But still...

If you're a parent, at what age did you stop the read-alouds? Or have you?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Reader's Diary #1156- Willow Dawson: Hyena in Petticoats

Earlier this year I read the Susan Hughes/ Willow Dawson collaboration No Girls Allowed and found myself underwhelmed. While I liked the premise of highlighting historical women who chose to dress as men and their range of reasons, I ultimately felt that the final product felt rushed. I'd have been more inclined to read an entire book on each woman and getting a better sense of their unique, complex identities.

With Hyena in Petticoats: The Story of Nellie McClung, Dawson has overcome most of those supposed shortcomings. Focusing entirely on one person for an entire book made McClung far more interesting and combined with the artwork, which this time around felt more adventurous and detailed, raised McClung above the level of simple facts. I enjoyed it far more.

That said, when it was all over I found myself comparing it to another famous Canadian graphic novel biography: Louis Riel by Chester Brown. I still felt that Louis Riel was the superior book, but it took me a while to put my finger on why. Was I simply more drawn to Louis Riel, the person, more than McClung? Maybe, but I didn't think so. I think the clue came in Dawson's afterword. Here she writes, in non-comic form, of additional information, including the controversial fact that McClung was a supporter of eugenics, sterilizing mentally-handicapped children. I think such information would have benefited the preceding story. Brown didn't shy away from the eyebrow raising details in Riel's life and wound up painting a more complete, compelling character; and ultimately more humanized. McClung, while certainly given a more in-depth treatment than the women in No Girls Allowed, nonetheless still felt black and white, but a hero for women's rights to be sure.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Reader's Diary #1155- Jill Sexsmith: Airplanes Couldn't be Happier in Turbulence


Before I'd progressed far into Jill Sexsmith's "Airplanes Couldn't be Happier in Turbulence," I started to wonder if it was meant to be satire. If you're wondering, that can't be good. The characters were just slightly... off, not entirely plausible, a little bit over-the-top. But also, not really that funny. Amusing, I suppose, if one was being generous, but certainly not hilarious. So was it just poorly done satire? And if so, what exactly did she mean to be satirizing? Mid-life crises? Gender roles? Marriage? Baby boomers?

That all said, it held my attention and I quite enjoyed how well the title described the main character's mindset. The story revolves around a woman named Madison who hasn't been the most adventurous, who's spent a large part of her life married to a statistic-wielding clod, and who's now desperate to shake things up in order to, paradoxically, gain back some sort of control.

This is the sort of quirky tale that I enjoy in short doses, but would be way too frustrated with if elaborated into an entire novel.

Jimmy the horse by katedubya, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  katedubya 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Reader's Diary #1154- Tom DeFalco (Writer) and Horacio Domingues (Art): Ant-Man

Ant-Man, had I been aware of him as a young boy, would likely have been my favourite superhero. I was an animal nut, and of all the creatures in the animal kingdom, insects were my favourite. It worked its way into everything I played. My imaginary ability was communicating with animals. My favourite He-Man figure was this guy. So, while the rest of the world may scoff at the silly premise of Ant-Man (i.e., a guy can shrink to the size of an ant and also communicate with his namesake kin), this still isn't a particularly hard sell to me. (And someone please explain why this is any dumber than Spider-Man?)

That all said, I was still let down by DeFalco and Domingues' Ant-Man reboot comic, setting his origin story in more modern times. It seems like they thought making it modern simply meant throwing in some contemporary science terms and drawing a computer in the background. What I love about modern superhero stories is their take on current society concerns. Like I mentioned Robert Kirkman saying regarding the best zombie stories not being so much about horror and gore but about social commentary, I likewise feel the best superhero stories aren't so much about violence and absurd science fiction.

And they had such an opportunity with Ant-Man. Hank Pym is supposedly wrestling with mental illness when he acquires his new abilities. What an angle that could have been! What a chance to explore the prejudices and the struggles and myths surrounding mental illness, to shed some light on something that only now seems to be making progress away from being something previously mocked or hushed-up. But instead, it just becomes another excuse to put him in a cliched straightjacket and Hannibal Lecter mask. Sadly, this is the most complex in the book. The rest are even more cartoonish and flat.

Domingues' art is slightly better, with some subtle hints of manga influence (especially in character expressions), but otherwise generic.

To be honest, the whole thing feels dated; out of touch with modern comic book stories. It's fun, sure, but in a stupid way. My insect-loving 8 year old self would have loved it, but 30 years later, I kind of wanted more.

(I hope the movie is better!)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Reader's Diary #1153- Zora Neale Hurston: Sweat


A couple of week's back I read Ann Petry's "Like a Winding Sheet" and was impressed at the great number of themes being explored: race, gender, class. And though I didn't set out to pick such a story, this week I found myself stumbling upon yet another story with those exact same themes. Granted, I would suggest that it's gender that dominates the discussion with Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat."

It tells a story of a washerwoman named Delia married to an abusive, cheating, free-loading husband. We find Delia at such a point in her life that she's had enough. Readers would likely be relieved at that, of course, but it's not as easy to get away as they wish it was, and a bad situation just gets worse. Fortunately, a bit of luck finally goes her way (or rather, a bit of bad luck goes her husband's way).

It's interesting that Dexter got so much credit for toying with our moral compass, making us root for a bad guy because he punishes other bad guys, but really it's not an entirely new premise. Yes, in real life we frown on things like capital punishment, but when despicable characters in literature, movies, and music have gotten their comeuppance, we not so secretly cheer on their demise. Delia is no Dexter mind you, but...

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake by Photomatt28, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  Photomatt28 

Friday, May 08, 2015

Reader's Diary #1152- Dave Olesen: Kinds of Winter

It's been years since I read Thoreau's Walden and if I were pressed to recall any details, or even how I felt about it, I'd have said that I have no idea. I don't recall having strong feelings about it one way or another, nothing specific, nothing except having read it. I'd have assumed that it had little impact on me. Yet not far into Dave Olesen's Kinds of Winter: Four Solo Journeys by Dogteam in Canada's Northwest Territories I started to think, "you know, this reminds of Thoreau."

And it turned out I was right! Very shortly after, Olesen reveals that he reads Thoreau often and continues to drop his name or a quote on what seems like every other page. And that's not a bad thing. Those familiar with Walden will know to expect a lot of nature and introspection, but not the fancy existential stuff, more the philosophical musings that derive organically from solitude but never losing site of the practical side of life (it's hard, for example, to wax too poetically about a frostbitten dog penis-- which, as it turns out, can become a very serious issue.)

Olsen set out every year for four years for a long solo journey in the four cardinal compass directions. The directions, or rather the choice to go in these directions, was somewhat arbitrary, as was the point on each journey when he'd decide to turn back. Likewise were his choice of materials brought on the journey. While a winter journey in the north has the potential for much peril, Olesen was no amateur and doesn't romanticize the idea-- in fact even warning against it for the ill-prepared. Still, he acknowledges that none of this "needs" to be done now. He calls his trip "selfish" at one point, referring to the fact that for these trips he was abandoning his daughters to the full responsibility of his wife. He also eschews too many creature comforts yet is cognizant of the remaining "luxuries" on his trip (which, from my perspective, still weren't many). It was at such times, and his reflections on the limits we put on ourselves, that I was most enraptured by Olesen's writing. For creatures that claim to value freedom, there's a paradox in the fact that we often use that freedom to live by our own rules.

In some ways, reading the book reminded me of a long dog sledding journey. There were periods when it felt slow going, monotonous even. But oddly, I felt myself embracing such moments, as it seems Olesen did some days on the back of a sled. Life was slowed down and the mind could just wander. Of course, there were other times when it was more difficult to compare his journeys to reading. When he's worried that his worn runners are not going to last? Getting his feet wet? Okay, then I'm thankful that reading doesn't have such life-or-death moments. What's the worst that could happen when you're reading? Paper cut? Still, I wouldn't have wanted my mind wandering all the time and I was thankful for the dramatic moments that popped up, the unfamiliar details of dogsledding, and Olesen's grand take on it all.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Reader's Diary #1151- Gene Luen Yang: American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese revolves around a second generation Chinese-American boy named Jin and his struggles to fit in. However, his story is just one of three being told simultaneously; the others being a folk tale about a Monkey King who struggles to get other gods to accept him and a sitcom parody featuring a white teen being visited by an overbearing and over-the-top Chinese caricature relative.

It is not difficult to see how the other stories relate to Jin's life and if they had never actually intertwined at all, I would still have appreciated them. However, when Yang does connect them toward the end, it's downright brilliant. It's also not as heavy-handed as one might expect. It's poignant, no doubt about it, but the humor (slapstick, satire, and observational) makes the message not only palatable but absolutely enjoyable. And while it's got immigrant and second-generation immigrant themes that I would imagine others with such backgrounds would relate to, the idea of a teenager wishing he could fit in and be someone else is more universal. I related to a familiar perspective and learned from an unfamiliar one at the same time.

The art reminded me of a lot of other North American YA graphic novelists (Bryan O'Malley, Vera Brosgol, Faith Erin Hickes) but still quite fitting. It's certainly friendly for demographic it's aimed at, and again, the humour, bright colours, and very cartoonish looking characters help take the edge of what had the potential to be overbearing themes.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Reader's Diary #1150- Matt Fraction (writer), David Aja, Jarvier Pulido, Alan Davis (Artists): Hawkeye, My Life as a Weapon

Despite hearing great reviews of it beforehand, I still didn't haven't high expectations of Hawkeye My Life as a Weapon. Though my son seems to have a thing for the character, I hadn't even hear of the guy until the first Avengers movie and didn't think he particularly stood out. (For the record, I know he supposedly got a better treatment in the sequel, he still didn't come across to me as much of an asset, to the team or the movie.)

But maybe the comic would bring me around? A little, yes.

The "no super-powers" thing is hammered home a lot, and that was fine. However, when I realized it was going to involve a lot of street crime (versus aliens and killer robots) I was skeptical once again. Just coming off the Netflix fantastic Daredevil series where it too was all street crime, there was no way it could compete.

But it did. Mostly because it's less serious. Granted that also misses on occasion. Fraction likes to crack a lot of jokes and set up a lot of gags. And many of them are funny. But he also likes to repeat a lot of jokes. So, if you weren't laughing hard the first time around, you're down right annoyed the 12th time. One bit, for instance, involves characters calling one another "Bro" a lot. Meh.

Still, he plays with a very Tarantino-ish style, starting at a bad point, working back to how the characters got there, returning to the present, and continuing. Plus he shares Tarantino's sense of humour about over the top violence and penchant for slipping mundane details into what should be serious matters.

Clint Barton, Hawkeye, is likeable enough, pretty self aware of his standing yet still finding himself in circumstances that are over his head and yet managing to shoot his way back out. But despite the cover shown above, he is hardly any more the star than Kate Bishop, apparently a Young Avenger who apparently also goes by the name Hawkeye from time to time. They team up several times in this collection and their chemistry is quirky but believable. Plus, Bishop holds her own in the compelling department.

As for the art, again I started off somewhat unsure but being won over-- by Aja's anyway, who drew the first three stories. The colouring seemed flat at first, like a Tintin comic, with no shading, and that's not something I typically enjoy. However, the limited choice of palette gave it a cool, 70s sort of style. The line work was inky but simple and realistic, keeping only the essential lines in a face for example. Pulidos's characters, in stories 4 and 5, were quite awful with misshapen faces. And Davis' art for the 6th story, a Young Avengers story, while not grotesque, threw out any sense of style and just went for generic.

So, it's a bit of a mixed post, I realize. But I hope it suffices to say, if I find another Fraction-Aja Hawkeye comic again I'm game. Otherwise, I'll probably pass.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Reader's Diary #1149- Michael Crummey: River Thieves

There's something to be said about declaring oneself a fan of an author's work and reading said work in order. Exhibit A: My first Mordecai Richler novel was Cocksure. Loved it. Then I read Barney's Version. Instantly became an all-time favourite and now I was declaring myself a Richler fan. But then I went and read some of his earlier work, The Incomparable Atuk, the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and they were just... okay. Underwhelming. I could see hints of Barney's Version in those, but it was starting to feel like Barney's Version was Richler's magnum opus. Like he'd spent his whole life trying to write that book and finally got it right. Do I still consider myself a fan? Sure?

Exhibit B: After reading and loving a couple of Michael Crummey's poetry collections, Hard Light and Salvage, I followed them up with a more recent novel Galore, which again, I fell in love with. The story was captivating, the language was beautiful, and the whole thing felt experimental and cool. Here I was again, declaring myself a Crummey fan.

So, I decided to return to an older Crummey novel, River Thieves. Again, it's not bad, but with my expectations so high, I found myself reviewing it more harshly than it probably deserved. It's a fine historical novel, mostly revolving around a man investigating a murder of a couple of Beothuk men in 19th century Newfoundland, but it felt, I don't know, safe. I really don't need to write an entire review as Lawrence Mathews captured how I felt almost exactly. (And rest assured, I hadn't read his review until after I'd finished River Thieves, so my opinion wasn't swayed.)

This is not a judgement on Crummey, by any means. Really, an author should get better as they go along, shouldn't they? If one was to read an early Atwood, for example, and think it's as good as anything she's pumping out today, then perhaps there's a problem.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Reader's Diary #1148- Albert Camus: The Renegade


Sometimes, arguably all of the time, one's interpretation of a story depends on your mind set at the time you read it. Mine at the moment is dwelling on patience. When I started my MLIS degree a couple of years back, I knew it would require patience and sacrifice. I was prepared for it. And while I'm still wholeheartedly enjoying my program and the path my career is on, for the first time since I started, my patience recently wore thin. I found myself wanting to be done the program and to be in there, fully, 100%, to start pushing changes, to get my hands dirty, so to speak. But, when I step back (or am prevented from stepping forward just yet), I realize that I need to reclaim some of my former patience. Find my Zen again. It will come. And change shouldn't happen overnight. Those who think it should are naive, not fully appreciating why things are the way they are and what change entails. If such people charge in and start tipping tables, they're likely to just make a mess. That's not me. I may not agree with the "because it's always been done that way" excuse, but I also have a healthy respect for tradition and culture. I want to be heard by but also learn from those who came before me, not to push them out of the way.

Sorry you had to sit through all that self-reflection. Occasionally, these Reader's Diary entries live up to their name and it gets a little... awkward. Anyway, my point is, Albert Camus's short story "The Renegade" (go here, find Camus's Exile and the Kingdom and scroll), would surely appear to most as a story about religion, or perhaps even xenophobia.

I think such interpretations are fine, and perhaps the more obvious and logical (it's about a missionary to Mali who winds up being tortured and converted, rather than having converted others), but because of where I am right now, I saw it as a parable warning against being overly eager and self-righteous. The missionary in this story was so impatient about going to Mali to convert the supposed heathens that he rebelled against those who told him that he was not yet ready, not prepared, and in the end he was weak and became a convert to the very ideas he had been hoping to change.

I don't want to be that guy. 

Friday, May 01, 2015

Reader's Diary #1147- Robert Kirkman (writer), Tony Moore (artist): The Walking Dead, Vol. 1 Days Gone Bye

Okay, so the deal is, a new comics friend is super into zombies and she's totally been swaying me in that direction. Two zombie comics already this year and I hear iZombie calling in the distance. Maybe even Marvel Zombies. Cause so far, it's so good.

Granted The Walking Dead isn't perhaps the most original, at least not the way it begins. Dude in a hospital wakes up from a coma only the find that the world has been mostly taken over by zombies. Whether or not it's the coincidence that Kirkman claims it to have been is not, however, a big sticking point with me. I really loved 28 Days Later and so if it felt familiar, at least it was a good familiar. Plus, it becomes different, and considering that the comic book series now has well over 100 titles, I think it's safe to assume that it grows into a largely unique epic.

I loved the note from Kirkman at the beginning stating that he set out to make this long and epic journey. It wasn't a case where he was testing the success of one before writing another, but he very intentionally wanted the long arc to be the point, to watch a chronic change in at least one character in particular (Rick) after the shock of an unrelentingly bizarre tragedy has struck and becomes the norm. Kirkman also, admirably, says that the best zombie stories are more social commentary than horror and gore, but the horror and gore is gravy. Even in this very first volume the seeds of such commentary are evident as a small group of survivors come together and must learn to integrate their old life values into this strange new dependency.

Tony Moore's artwork was good, reminding me of a less scratchy Jeff Lemire. But oddly, it was the additional gray tones supplied by Cliff Rathburn that ramped up the quality of The Walking Dead. Normally when I see all those extra credits in comic books, I usually think it's a bit much, like listing the caterer to Mr. Downey Jr. in the end scenes for Iron Man. But, the additional gray tones in The Walking Dead really help capture the essence of the scenes, to the point where I had to show it to my wife I was so impressed. There's one scene in particular where the survivors are sitting around a campfire. The fire, though not in the panel, is reflected on their faces from below. The trees in the background are completely black and snow is falling. It's simultaneously lonely and eerie.

Will I read more in the series? I'd like to say yes, but there are so many good comic book series out there that I've begun and plan to finish, and as much as I admire the ambition, 130+ books is a bit intimidating at the moment.