Saturday, October 31, 2015

The 9th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - October 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")

Reader's Diary #1208- Darren Shaw (writer), Takahiro Arai (art): Cirque du Freak, Volume 1

Cirque-du-freak, cirque-du-freak, it's cirque-du-freaky, yow. (Sorry, that's been stuck in my head for the past few days and so I feel I must do my duty and pass it on.)

Actually, it's not that freaky. But freaky enough, I suppose, for some harmless entertainment.

Originally a novel series by Irish author Darren Shaw, the manga version comes as the result of a contest in which Takahiro Arai won the rights to draw the manga version. Apparently it was also a movie starring John C. Reilly in 2009 but I have no recollection of that.

Based on the first volume, I'd have to question if they weren't being a bit ambitious to think this story would need a movie. For a title that promises a circus full of freaks, it's not exactly as shocking or compelling as it might appear. The freaks are what you'd expect, for the most part. The catch is that one is a vampire.

Stephen, one of two boys who have snuck out to see the show, realizes that a particular spider-training freak, Larten Crepsly is a vampire, and desperate to become one himself, Stephen pleads with Crespsley who decides he's unworthy. The other boy, Darren, however (yes, the author named him after himself), is deemed worthy. Instead of a freak-show story, the story quickly becomes a generic vampire assistant story. Also unpredictably, this causes friction between the two boys. About the only fascinating and more unique thing so far is Darren's pre-occupation with spiders.

Likewise Arai's artwork, while interesting in the way that I find most manga interesting (i.e., how different it is than most North American comics), is no more ground-breaking than the plot.

All that aside, I haven't read a vampire story in ages and I was in the mood for it. Generic or not. Plus, I think there's potential, some seeds sown, that might allow the series to veer into more uncharted waters later on. Sowing seeds, uncharted waters. Yes, I'm in a mixing my metaphors sort of mood today. Freaky.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Reader's Diary #1207- Robert Kirkman (Writer), Sean Phillips (Art): Marvel Zombies (Collecting #1-5)

I wasn't expecting a lot from Marvel Zombies. A bit of fun, perhaps, but still, I knew it was a cash grab for the zombie craze. That's okay, it's almost Halloween, I can do a frivolous zombie tale.

But then I realized that Robert Kirkman, the mastermind behind The Walking Dead was behind it, and I grew more excited.

Kirkman did not disappoint. That said, it's surprisingly different from The Walking Dead. Here the zombies aren't slow, groaning, stupid hunger monsters, they're talking, plotting, superhero hunger monsters. They're the same characters as before except when it comes to their hunger for human flesh, they have no willpower whatsoever and will kill their own mothers to get some. It's to the point where they've eaten every non-hero on Earth and are now starving.

But a more important difference is that this isn't literary Kirkman. This isn't the fall, redemption, and evolution of Rick Grimes. This is over-the-top gore and senseless violence. In the introduction, Kirkman hysterically tells of how he kept trying to offend the editors and top brass at Marvel, but nothing he wrote got turned down. In other words, this is a very fun collection.

Unfortunately it's all soured by Sean Phillip's art and June Chung's colouring. When it's not generic, everything is so terribly hidden in shadows that all Kirkman's blood and guts are gone to waste. On the TV version of the Walking Dead, one of the best things is how they don't turn away from the gross but delight in it. The makeup artists there must think they have the best job in the world. In Marvel Zombies it's too dark to see anything. It's like they didn't know how to keep those dangling bits of flesh consistent from one panel to the next so they simply didn't try.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Reader's Diary #1206- M. R. James: Lost Hearts

Ah Halloween. Normally I'd have been saving up all my found horror stories for the entire month of October in anticipation. This year I got behind and only have this story to show for it. In any case, M. R. James "Lost Hearts" is a goody.

It's a classic sort of ghost story. Creepy house, creepy kids, old Victorian language, and a smattering of mystery to accompany the thrills. Much of what happens here would be considered tropes by now, but nonetheless it's perfect for this time of year.

It tells of a boy named Stephen Elliott who, orphaned, has been called upon to live with his rich, bachelor, slightly reclusive, cousin and his servants. From the get go something is clearly off with the cousin, who seems preoccupied with Stephen's age...

Galt House (demolished) by rockcreek, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License
   by  rockcreek 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Reader's Diary #1205- Josh O'Neill, Andrew Carl, and Chris Stevens (Editors): Little Nemo's Big New Dreams

I first heard of Little Nemo through the Eisner Awards. Earlier this year  Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, a tribute anthology to Winsor McCay, won the Best Anthology and Best Publication Design awards. Winsor McCay's Complete Little Nemo collection took the Best Archival Collection/Project Award, and Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland was deemed Best Limited Series.

You may note that Little Nemo's Big New Dreams was not mentioned. It is, however, an abridged version of the Dream Another Dream anthology. That one featured 118 tribute comics in an oversized book, while this one selects and presents 31 in a bookshelf-friendly version.

I was underwhelmed by the whole thing. First off, I'd not heard of Winsor McCay, the early 20th century cartoonist, before. That's quite okay, I enjoy reading about the history of comics. From that point of view, I don't feel the experience was a complete loss. I was very impressed with McCay's artwork and I can appreciate why so many cartoonists considered him to be influential. (As it turned out, I had not been completely unaware of McCay's style and immediately recognized it as the same style employed in Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen). That said, from the few originals shown, I didn't think much of McCay's writing abilities. Invariably, Nemo (a young boy, not a clown fish as it turns out) falls asleep, has a whimisical or nightmarish dream and it's revealed he'd eaten something he shouldn't have before bed. Hardee-har-har.

The tributes (the only names I recognized out of the contributors were Art Spiegelman and Craig Thompson), fortunately, were funnier or more interesting than that, but still nothing I'm likely to remember a year from now. Normally I'd suppose that something got lost in the abridgement. In this case I was sort of glad it was short.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reader's Diary #1204- Jason Aaron (Writer) and Russell Dauterman, Jorge Molina (Illustrators): Thor, The Goddess of Thunder

At the beginning of Jason Aaron's Thor: The Goddess of Thunder the original Thor is devastated. He is no longer worthy to hold Mjolnir, the magic hammer. What has he done that has been so terrible? Or perhaps, what has he thought?

We don't know. All it took was a whisper from former SHIELD director Nick Fury to render Thor unable to lift his tool. Hmm. That came out wrong. In any case, we still don't know what Fury said.

Knowing that there's been more Thor, Goddess of Thunder comics published since this volume, I went to the internet in the hopes to find out and was led to Reddit. My first mistake. It turns out that the writers are yet to reveal Fury's impotence-inducing whisper, but oh, those clever Redditors had a few theories. Not surprisingly, many ran with the theme, "Pssst, Marvel needs more diversity."

And of course, that's said with disdain, as if Marvel doesn't need more diversity. Perhaps in response to such critics, Aaron not-so-subtly takes them on right there in the pages of his comic. Thor, the new Thor that is, finds herself fighting a particularly chauvinistic villain named Creel who objects to this female version. "Damn feminists are ruining everything!" he rants, "You wanna be a chick super hero? Fine, who the hell cares? But get your own identity."

Well, let's just back up a second. In pure internet fashion (says John over the internet), this argument has gotten too simplified and shouty in a hurry. There's nothing wrong with Marvel trying to increase their diversity. Hell, it's about time. But on the other hand, I'm sure not everyone who objects to this new Thor is a misogynistic pig either. Sometimes people just dislike change. Ask the 2nd Darrin (Bewitched) or the 2nd Aunt Viv (Fresh Prince), ask Sammy Hagar or the guys from Kiss who replaced Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. Some superheroes have typically changed identities a lot (Ant Man and Green Lantern come to mind), while others, like Thor, haven't. People have gotten used to him.

As for Creel's "Get your own identity" well, I have to say, it hasn't seemed like the most empowering of approaches to simply take a male superhero and create a female version. Aaron pats himself on the back on a couple of occasions in this book for not referring to her as She-Thor, or Thorina, or some feminized version, but arguably, this is just moderately better. I do like when there's a new female character started from scratch (Hi Squirrel Girl! Hi Equinox!) rather than from Adam's rib.

Fortunately it's easy to put the politics aside when the writing is good. And when Aaron isn't trying to push an agenda, it is good. Basically, it's an origin story, and I love origin stories. Someone unused to new powers struggles their way through it, the realizations about responsibilities and so on. Plus, being Marvel, there's humour (the hammer, much to her chagrin, also makes her talk more pompous). Not having read Thor comics before, I was also interested in all the Norse mythology.

Dauterman and Molina's art is serviceable, which I feel like I've been saying a lot about superhero comics lately. I mean it's good and all, but it just doesn't stand out. Look at the recent Hawkeye series, all superhero comics don't need to look alike! All that one had to do was use a limited colour scheme and bam, it stood out. Not that I'd want everyone to suddenly do that either, but I'd just like my comic book art to be as memorable.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Reader's Diary #1203- John Scalzi: An Election

The best thing about John Scalzi's "Election Story" is the humor. He plays the bizarre and unexpected for laughs, and largely it works.

That said, the sci-fi also feels too proud of itself. Scalzi presents it at first like a generic, everyday familiar Earth: a couple is discussing an upcoming election, one is considering running, when the non-running partner asks, "what do we know about the demographics of the third district?". The guy running responds, "It’s a human-minority district." Bam, there's the sci-fi. It feels inauthentic, contrived.

Equally unsubtle is the satire about elections in a diverse demographic environment, and worse, there's really no point to any of it. Like someone going through the motions of political satire to appear intelligent.

Oh well.

Happy voting today, Canada!

Voting by KCIvey, on Flickr

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Reader's Diary #1202- Takehiko Inoue: Vagabond, Vol. 1

It was last year that a friend of mine showed me a picture of Inoue's art from the Vagabond series. I was blown away. It took me a long time to get into manga, but I'd grown accustomed to a familiar style. Vagabond is just breathtaking and different. The overly cartoon faces that I'd just taken for granted as the way manga had to be are replaced here with highly detailed, far more realistic faces but incredibly expressive. Just stunning.

This edition, published by Vizbig, actually contains volumes 1-3 translated versions of the original Japanese. At the beginning of each volume, a few pages are presented in colour. Oddly, they don't work. Inoue's etched details have gotten covered up in favour of watercolour shading and it's a testament to his original drawings that the colour version looks less realistic than the black and white. That said, the monochromatic cover shown above may actually have worked. That's fantastic, don't you think?

The story, be fair warned, is very violent. I could deal with that, but the threats of rape in the earlier third of the book made me uncomfortable. I don't know if these were Inoue's additions, if they were Eiji Yoshikawa's creation (Vagabond is based on Yoshikawa's novel Musashi), or they were based on historical fact (both books are based on the real life of a renown samurai from the 16th Century). In any case, if you can get past that, the story becomes quite compelling. It's a coming of age story essentially, but of a very troubled individual and with hints of spiritual enlightenment bubbling underneath the surface.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Reader's Diary #1201- Storm DiCastanzo: Through-street

Storm DiCastanzo's "Through-street" is about an elderly lady named Doris and her rottweiler, Samson. There seems to be a message about the black and white way we label people (and animals) as good or evil, ignoring the fact that everyone tends to have a capacity for both given the right or wrong context.

It's told with a quick, almost matter-of-fact delivery. Like it has a sense of its own brief space and will tell you just the right details to give you pause for thought, the sensibilities of a haiku.

rottweiler eye by foxrosser, on Flickr

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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Reader's Diary #1200- Lee Selleck and Francis Thompson: Dying for Gold

In 1992 Yellowknife found unwittingly itself placed in the history books as the site of the deadliest labour dispute and one of the worst mass murders in Canadian history. Nine people were killed by intentionally set explosives. Roger Warren was convicted for this horrific crime in 1994.

When we moved to Yellowknife in 2008, I admit not having known anything about the Giant Mine murders. Though it had made national headlines at the time, I somehow missed them. What can I say? A teenager in outport Newfoundland when it all went down, I was probably too caught up in growing a moustache that was as impressive as my mullet to notice what was happening in Canada's north.

However, we weren't in Yellowknife long before the whispers of the Giant Mine disaster reached our ears. Closed for a full 4 years before we arrived, the quickly deteriorating mine site was but a tourist attraction to us. (You can see me peacefully reading a book in front of an old mine shaft at the top of this page.) For others, however, it became quickly apparent that the mine meant a whole lot more. But you didn't bring it up, we were advised. Hostilities were still there, like remaining flakes of unstaked gold, somewhere beneath the surface. The strike and murders turned former friends against one another, tore families apart, and animosities still ran high.

With that in mind, I didn't go around asking people to catch me up to speed. I certainly didn't want to bring up such painful memories. Still, Yellowknife is now my home. I adore it here; the pace of life, the environment, the culture, and the community. And part of making a place a home is knowing its history, even the nasty, ugly parts. So, when Selleck and Thompson's book fell into my lap I leaped at the opportunity to be finally gain more insight into this tragedy.

I suppose I got some. The details are certainly there. Oddly, however, I never, ever felt like I was reading about Yellowknife. I read Elizabeth Hay's novel Late Nights on Air a while back and reflecting on it, it doesn't depict a Yellowknife I know. However, I give it the benefit of a doubt that as it was set in the 70s, based largely upon Hay's experiences when she lived here, perhaps the city had change dramatically since then. It still, at the very least, felt like a real and unique place. Perhaps, too, Yellowknife has changed dramatically since the early 90s and the mine explosion. But the problem with Selleck and Thompson's book is that it feels like it could have been anywhere. As an exploration of labour unions and strikes, of criminal proceedings, it is, I suppose enlightening, but the book lacks any real context. Any reported emotions come across as dry fact. It's quite a bizarre accomplishment to take a mass murder and make it boring.

Perhaps those that recognize the names involved, those that were here when all of this went down, would feel differently. But they'd have the context that Selleck and Thompson failed to deliver. I've been advised by a friend that The Third Suspect by David Staples and Greg Owens is a more compelling read, so I'll have to give that one a shot.

In the meantime, here's a bit of additional background information:

Initially Roger Warren confessed. The conditions under which he confessed were dubious and many suspected he was wrongfully convicted. Indeed, throughout his entire trial and the first 9 years of his subsequent incarceration Warren would stick by the claim that he was innocent. However, he confessed again in 2003, 6 years after Selleck and Thompson's book was published, and in 2014 was granted day parole.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Reader's Diary #1199- Hilary Boyd: The Bed

A lot of people say they don't like short stories. They often gripe that they feel incomplete, a small part of the bigger picture that they'd rather have.

Nuts to them, I say. Well, not really, as nuts to them is not really an expression I say, but I don't think they've been exposed to good short stories. Good ones feel complete. In that respect Hilary Boyd's "The Bed" is not a good short story. As a piece of a larger novel, it would be fantastic. Nonetheless, if there's someone that you're trying to sell on short stories, steer them clear of this one.

It's about an adult daughter and her mother who is out to buy a bed. The daughter realizes, with dismay, that her mother has moved off since the death of her husband, the daughter's father, is dating, and... the horror... may even be having sexual relations.

It's a domestic sort of story, kind of slow. But that doesn't mean there couldn't be some real meat here. Why is that the mother has moved on while the daughter hasn't? Who has more to gain by moving on? Or conversely, who stands to lose more by not. As it is, none of this is really explored and the story feels underdeveloped. Too much time is spent on a big reveal that to most readers, I would assume, is pretty obvious.

That said, the characters still feel real enough that I'd read more... if more was available.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Reader's Diary #1198- Ryan North (Writer) and Erica Henderson (Illustrator): Squirrel Girl / Squirrel Power

Okay, so I'm officially demanding that Marvel starts selling Squirrel Girl merch. T-shirts. In men's sizes. (Then, they can't even seem to make a Black Widow toy, so I won't hold my breath.).

But yeah, I'd wear that shirt proudly. Squirrel Girl is fun. I mean a riot. Socially awkward, but happy anyway, quirky-as-all-hell, but owning it without faking it. Most of this credit can be given to North who squeezes as much humour out of page as possible. Even at the very bottom, in the tiniest, eye-strainingest font are self-aware jokes. His comedy ranges from the slapstick and punny to the ironic and irreverent. It's seldom mean though, and clean but without coming across as juvenile or aimed, necessarily, at children. (That said, I totally shared this one with my own kids.)

I say most of the credit is North's, because Henderson's influence is clearly there as well. She inserts her own sight gags from time to time and you can tell how much fun she's having with North's material. Her full-body armor of living squirrels is a hoot. However, it's the fan letter inserts and her replies  that really prove that, in the wit and comedy department, she can hold her own against North.

Henderson should also be given credit for the awesome job she did with the Squirrel Girl character. Finally a superheroine with a realistic body shape, with a costume that's cool and functional and fitting of the character's personality. Other Marvel characters who pop up are given just the right amount of caricature. You still recognize them, but all have a comedic bent.

My one issue, or minor concern really, is that I'm afraid the character will never be taken seriously by superhero fans. It's okay to have a humour comic. I love humour comics. But she's just such a kick-ass character, I would like to someday be able to see her in actual peril. Yes, she has the power of squirrels. I know she was never really intended to be given that much thought. But North and Henderson have made such a likable and enjoyable character, that it's impossible not to want her to have more of the limelight. I see that she's in the A-Force, the all-female Avengers team, which I haven't read, so my fingers are crossed that she'll prove more than comic relief. I think she needs a less buffoonish adversary. She is "unbeatable," I get that, but her enemies have so far been too easy to defeat. Kraven the Hunter and Whiplash are just silly mosquitoes, slapped away, and while there was a huge build up to Squirrel Girl's encounter with Galactus, it fell a little flat. Don't get me wrong. I still loved this series. I'm just saying that while North and Henderson nailed the humour and the art, they just need to tweak the action a bit.

An added bonus to this collected volume was the inclusion of Squirrel Girl's first appearance in Marvel Comics from 1991where she meets Iron Man. It's interesting from a historical standpoint. By Will Murray and Steve Ditko, I thought it looked and read like something far more dated than it really was. Like something from the 60s or 70s. I'm glad they came up with the idea, sure, but huge props to North and Henderson for taking this character and actually making her compelling.