Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The 9th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - September Roundup (Sticky Post— Scroll down for most recent post)

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 28, 2015

Reader's Diary #1197- Richard Rupnarain: Where is the Mutton?

I'll ruin the ending right off the bat for this one, provided you've read Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter." Yes, sheep-based evidence gets eaten by the police.

Unfortunately, Dahl's is a far better story. One positive about Richard Rupnarain's "Where is the Mutton?" is that it's set in Guyana. I've never read anything from Guyana before, so that angle was interesting. The dialogue is a bit difficult, but not impossible to make out. The plot, however, takes a while to come, the second half seems disjointed from the first half of the story, and it's sadly unoriginal.

Mutton curry by jetalone, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License
   by  jetalone 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reader's Diary #1196- Adam Glass (Writer), Various Artists: Suicide Squad, Volume 1 Kicked in the Teeth

I admit only reading this because of the upcoming movie. I'm not, never really have been, a fan of Batman or the associated villains. I've enjoyed a title or two, a movie here or there, but nothing about him or his world has ever really excited me. (Okay, so I liked the campy TV series when I was kid, but who didn't?)

I can't say this one has increased my interest any. With an ensemble called Suicide Squad, with a collection called Kicked in the Teeth, it's as over-the-top violent as you'd expect. And therein lies some of the problem. It's predictable.

However, I do like learning about new characters and most of these were new to me. Some wound up more compelling than others, but my personal favourite wound up being El Diablo. He's cool looking, has pretty neat powers, and most importantly he's a bit more complex than the others. As the head of the gang, Deadshot is just flat and his get-up looks like another dull character, Black Spider. King Shark is just ridiculous (though he would have made a kickass He-Man character back in the day). There's a bunch of others who are either boring, not featured enough, or both. And of course there's Harley Quinn.

Harley Quinn, unless you've been living in a comics-free void for the past two years, you'll recognize as one of DC's more recent and hottest commodities. In Calgary a couple of week's ago, I hit up every comic book store I could find, trying to find a Squirrel Girl or Ms. Marvel t-shirt to no avail. In fact Marvel sold no merchandise featuring women at all, whereas DC had a few Wonder Woman things here or there, and holy two-toned hair Batman, was there a lot of Harley Quinn stuff. (Note to Marvel, I just wanted to give you my money. You suck.)

Suicide Squad, Kicked in the Teeth was my first real exposure to her as a character and I'm still undecided. She's rather insane, so that makes her compelling and fun to watch, much like the Joker. But her whole origin story (basically manipulated by the Joker and then forever and crazily hung up on the guy) makes her seem weak and none too bright. Plus, while I'll admit she looks cool (even if she was more sexualized in this collection than in some other incarnations I've seen), I don't know if it's a case of style over substance. Maybe she's like the Darth Maul of the Suicide Squad. I haven't written her off yet. I have a solo title that I'll be trying in the near future, but for now I'm still on the fence.

The story itself is decent. Incarcerated criminals striking a deal with a shady government agent to take on covert missions in exchange for lessened sentences is not a bad premise. Glass didn't create that premise, the Squad was around before him, but those covert missions allowed him as an author to have fun and plenty of leeway. After a while though, for better or worse, one mission after another and no end insight it took on a Catch-22 sort of vibe where there was just no getting out.

The art across the collection is surprisingly consistent for stories with different artists at the helm. My favourite, however, was Dallacchio's for a story called "Bad Company" where he makes a few more experimental choices. There's a cool shot, for instance, of El Diablo in a fish eye lens shot, to mimic King Shark's point of view. There's also a neat few frames when Harley hears the truth about what's happened to the Joker. She pauses in shock and the rest of the characters walk past her. It's a perfectly executed set, capturing the effect on her beautifully.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Reader's Diary #1195- Jesse Eisenberg: A Short Story Written with Thought to Text Technology

I have mixed feelings about celebrity-written books and short stories. (And by that I mean the normally non-writing celebrities, so settle down Margaret.) On the one hand, I have no doubt that they have an easier time getting published. That means there's a lot of crap out there. (If this blog wasn't as family-wholesome, I'd cue up video of Bea Arthur reading from Pamela Anderson's "novel" to prove my point.) On the other hand, I'm not Rex Murphy and I can acknowledge that in rare cases celebrities have knowledge or skills outside of those which they are better known for.

That's a big buildup to not deliver a verdict on Jesse Eisenberg, and yet here I am. I liked the concept of "A Short Story Written with Thought to Text Technology" and it allowed Eisenberg to explore the creative process of writing, the balancing act fiction authors must face when they pull from personal experience yet must resist the urge to make it too autobiographical. It's a humorous piece, but I also think the humor dragged it down. One joke in particular (I won't share it here, you'll easily spot it) was repeated so often that it ended up getting on my nerves and nearly ruined the whole thing. Nearly.

The best I can say is that I am intrigued enough by this one particular story that I would definitely read another by Eisenberg. I owe him that much. He's a celebrity, after all.

Still from ”I Write Erotic Short Stories by marchorowitz, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reader's Diary #1194- Kurt Busiek (Writer) & Brent Eric Anderson (Artist): Astro City Family Album

So, as it turns out, there are superheroes out there beyond the DC and Marvel Universes. And they're pretty cool.

To comic nerds, this isn't new. Busiek's been winning Eisner Awards for Astro City since the early 90s. But alas, I'm forever late to the game. Nonetheless, I'm at the game now.

Game isn't a bad turn of phrase actually, because Astro City is quite fun. It's just a burst of creative energy. Ridiculously over-the-top superheroes (like most superheroes, I suppose) but great storytelling. There's an old school look to Anderson's characters but with the better, modern storytelling.

Astro City is basically a city of superheroes (not unlike The City in The Tick cartoons), and Family Album collects a bunch of their stories. It seems nowadays everyone is talking about the Marvel Universe (or Marvel Cinematic Universe) or the DC Universe and I don't know, I certainly appreciate them both (hell I get giddy for a new Marvel movie), but it seems to be at the point where neither company knows what to do with the worlds they've created. They have to keep them around (or smash them together or whatever) because money, but the thrill of building it is gone. With Astro City you sense the early days. Like it must have felt when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were pumping out new characters every week.

But better that that, it captures that grandeur of classic comics without the cockamamie cold war plots and general offensiveness. Sure, these stories are pretty "out there" but in a way that seems smarter; it makes intelligent points and throws in an abundance of subtle satirical jabs. These are comics that understand that they can retain the outrageous fun stuff but still appeal to an adult market.

It's not deconstructing a universe, it's constructing one. And that's a beautiful thing.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Reader's Diary #1193- James Baldwin: Sir Humphrey Gilbert

If you went through the Newfoundland school system, chances are you know who Sir Humphrey Gilbert is. Basically he was was an early British explorer and colonialist who claimed Newfoundland for England in the late 1500s. He was also known for his famous last words, "We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land!" which some of you may recall from Kevin Major's Newfoundland history book, As Near to Heaven By Sea. I stumbled upon "Sir Humphrey Gilbert" the story last week while searching Project Gutenberg.

Written by an American educator named James Baldwin in the 1800s, who liked to retell classical stories and stories about famous people, "Sir Humphrey Gilbert" comes from one of his collections. It also shows its age. In an effort to impress upon his readers the bravery of Gilbert to exploring North America in those days, Baldwin references the "wild Indians." Oh boy. He also claims that there were no white people in the land at the time, suggesting that Humphrey was the first. Also not true.

So, fine, we take it as a racist piece of historical fiction. It's flash fiction, at least, so it's over quickly, but if that's the best I can say, it doesn't bode well. I guess if it was written for children, it may have made for a quick bit of excitement and Gilbert, especially with his death, comes across as brave and a bit crazy, so perhaps compelling enough to have enticed kids to want to learn more. But his quote is paraphrased into a more awkward form of the one referenced above, so more points have to be taken off for that.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Reader's Diary #1192- MAD Magazine, Issue #533

We're flying out to Calgary tomorrow to see Weird Al. Yes, we're big fans. On that note, I couldn't help but review this particular of MAD Magazine. Sometimes the stars align for us nerds...
For the  Fold-In of this particular issue cartoonist Al Jaffee asks, “What demeaning low-paying job do experts agree is a career dead end?”  It is a cardinal rule of reviewing not to give spoilers, but the answer is too funny and too on point not to share:  “Guest editor of MAD (Thanks, Al!)

MAD Magazine and Weird Al have long established themselves of pop culture icons of satire. Yet whereas Weird Al’s career has only continued to grow, sometimes lasting longer than the musicians he’s parodied, MAD’s circulation peaked in the 1970s, declining ever since. So it was nice for MAD to get an assist from the Weird One himself.

MAD and Weird Al are both on the sillier end of the satire spectrum; more slapstick, puns, and gross-out humour than say, Jon Stewart. However, if you have been following Weird Al’s career in more recent years you may have noticed his writing get more intelligent, even with insightful social commentary creeping through.  MAD, however, has been in danger of becoming stale, recycling the same old tired gags and adolescent insults.

Therefore, Jaffee’s fears that Weird Al taking on the role of guest editor—the first time anyone has guest edited MAD during its entire run—would be Yankovic’s ultimate demise were not unfounded. Fortunately, it is a pleasure to report that the opposite was true: Weird Al may have saved MAD. This issue is funny! It is silly, sarcastic, and sometimes—believe it or not—smart. Together they target Marvel movies,, polarized American politics, and many more. Perhaps the funniest moments are when Weird Al parodies himself or when he invites his famous comedian friends to write short bits (Patton Oswalt’s is unsurprisingly hilarious).

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Reader's Diary #1191- Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer), David Lopez (artist): Captain Marvel Higher, Faster, Further, More

The blurb above Captain Marvel's head there comes from says, "This is a pure fun book through-and-through."

Largely I would agree. At the beginning, I found myself thinking of Star Wars. It was in no small part because of the presence of an alien named Ja Kyee Lrurt who, to me at least, bore a resemblance to Ahsoka from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It soon became obvious that I wasn't just imagining things. There's even a direct Star Wars reference at one point when Captain Marvel tries the old "These are not the droids you are looking for" gag.

So it's fun. It's funny, action packed, and the characters are compelling. I didn't know much about Captain Marvel before, not even her origin story. That part is dealt with quickly but effectively for a newbie like me, as a one page comic written by Captain Marvel's (aka Carol Danver's) young nice— though I must say, it's not the most satisfying of origin stories. It once again involves the Kree, an ancient alien race that seems to be Marvel's go-to answer for everything lately.

The art work is good. Again, maybe not ground-breaking but certainly more than serviceable.

But fun, action-packed, and serviceable artwork doesn't mean stupid either. I quite enjoyed DeConnick's political overtones. The arc of the story actually reminded me somewhat of the plight of certain Aboriginal groups. A population of aliens have their homes destroyed, but then are sent to live on another planet. Things are fine until rich minerals are discovered on that planet and suddenly they're being driven off, first with underhanded policies then with direct violence.

I am definitely in for more Captain Marvel adventures.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Reader's Diary #1190- Aesop (translated by George Flyer Townshend): The Fox and the Goat

I discovered a new short story site: Poop Fiction. It's a site of free short stories gleaned from Project Gutenberg but conveniently sorted by length of time it would likely take a person to read them so that they can pick one to read while they go to the bathroom. Funny. Except that who can predict how long that will take? And except that the result of the sorting leaves a little too be desired. It's not that I think they're wrong in their estimations, but I read "The Fox and the Goat" a couple of days back on my phone (not while on the can, in case you're curious) and when I went to find it again today, found it impossible. You pick the length of time you want and then it selects a random story that fits that description. There is not, however, a way to search by author or story title.

Not of which is a big deal, really. Project Gutenberg stories are readily available online and so I just searched for it again, finding it here. Interestingly, however, I believe that the good people at Poop Fiction provided a different moral to this tale. (For the life of me, I cannot remember what exactly their moral was but I'm sure it wasn't "look before you leap" as was the case at the new link given above).

For those unfamiliar with this particular tale, it involves a fox who's fallen into a well and cannot get out. A goat wanders by and a fox convinces him that the water is great, the goat climbs in and is now also trapped. The fox convinces the goat to let him climb aboard to leap out, promising to help the goat out afterwards. However, once the fox gets out, he mocks the goat and runs off.

What a cynical little story! How can the fox mock the goat for getting into the well (i.e., not looking before he leaped) when the fox himself fell down there first? Why didn't the fox just ask the goat for help in the first place rather than trick him into getting into the well? Why did he just run off? The real moral here seems to be to beware of sociopaths.

Red fox by hehaden, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License
   by  hehaden 

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Reader's Diary #1189- Ed Piskor: Hip Hop Family Tree, Book 1 (1970s - 1981)

My musical tastes are wide and varied and I'm a huge fan of music trivia. That said, my knowledge of hip hop is not as great as my knowledge of rock. So a graphic novel—and a critically acclaimed, award-winning one at that exploring the history of hip hop was right up my alley.

Sure I did know a few of the names beforehand (Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow) but only vaguely and certainly had no sense of their personalities or where their legacies came from. Plus there were plenty more names that hadn't crossed my radar before. I hit iTunes pretty hard after this one.

Where Piskor succeeds is making the people and the place and even the time feel authentic. A white guy from outport Newfoundland, I'm not in much of a position to judge if it was truly authentic or not, but it certainly felt so and that's no small feat. Much I think can be attributed to the amazing production of the book. Character-wise everyone looks like the Daniel Clowes kind of character; heavily contoured features that border just on the edge of caricature. The styles, the lingo, the settings were superb. But it was the colours, and cheap newsprint (with real halftone dots!) giving the book a vintage feel that elevated this book to its greatness. If I had one complaint, it's that in their attempts to make this like a comic from the late 70s era, it's over-sized and a bit difficult to hold up while reading or to shelf. Small complaint really.

Thankfully, while all this history is being told, it's not dry in the least. There's a sense that something big is happening. The personalities are all diverse yet they're caught up in a moment that seems larger than them, even though you sense that as it's starting they don't even realize it (they quickly do). It's funny but respectful without putting anyone on a pedestal. And, as an added bonus for us modern readers, it gives us a sense of how these roots grew the hip hop culture we know today. I'm really looking forward to reading the 2nd volume.