Monday, November 30, 2015

The 9th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - November 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 #1221- Magela Baudoin: Vertical Dream

Magela Baudoin's "Vertical Dream" is more of a snapshot than a story. I'm close to calling it a character study, but that doesn't quite capture it either. It's more of an episode study. It's about a girl who's about to be leaving home to attend university. In the restless sleep of the preceding night she's hit with some pretty profound insights.

In her thought processes, there is a growing awareness that others go through the same or similar moments of insecurities, but ironically that seems to make her feel more alone.

It's certainly a beautifully rendered piece, but steer clear if you're looking for something plot-driven.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Reader's Diary #1220- Jim Davis, Dan Walsh: Garfield Minus Garfield

I'll give Jim Davis and Ballantine Books credit for their business savvy. In 2008 Dan Walsh managed to get the world's attention with his parody website, People, it would seem, wanted the cat out his eponymous comic strip.

But Garfield Minus Garfield, the book, is credited to Jim Davis. Granted, they do include a foreword by Dan Walsh. In this foreword, Walsh admits getting nervous as his site began to get noticed. (Incidentally, Walsh didn't come up with the idea of getting rid of Garfield either, but he certainly was the most prolific with his results.) Would Jim Davis sue?

Davis probably could have, but whether or not he would have won is up in the air, parody laws being what they are. But even if he could have won, I'm not sure that would have been the greatest publicity. No, instead Davis let it slide and capitalized on it. Smart choice. I can't say I'd have had much interest in reading a Garfield book at this point in my life, but it's an interesting premise and here I am.

Like most kids from my generation, I read Garfield strips now and again when I was a kid. Truth be told, I was more into Heathcliff. But in hindsight, I think I just had a thing for underdogs (or undercats, as the case might be) because Heathcliff wasn't actually any funnier than Garfield. (As an aside, I was also more into the GoBots than the Transformers.)

On that note, I can't say that Garfield Minus Garfield is much funnier than the originals. Much has been said about Jon, Garfield's owner, appearing more crazy without the cat there. But, as Walsh himself points out, it's not like Garfield ever talked back. He's always shown with a thought balloon in comparison to Jon's speech balloons. And really, is talking to oneself all that much crazier than talking to your cat? If they really wanted Jon to look psycho, Garfield could have been replaced with a half-eaten sandwich, getting moldier as the strips progressed. Or better yet, remember Jon's old roommate that went missing, Lyman? How about if Jon was always talking to Lyman's severed head, floating in a transparent bag of ice water?

Granted some of the Garfield-less strips are funny, I suppose, but I found it more interesting as an art project. I like found poetry and mashups and this, to me, feels in the same vein as those. In many scenes Jon comes across as quite sad. Without Garfield's sarcastic commentary, the reader is forced often with long awkward pauses— to focus on Jon's mental state. He comes across as a much more sympathetic character, rather than a punch line, in the process. Of course, he also seems out right nuts at times, too, but you feel at this point that all things considered, he's entitled to a break down every now and again. Those points, I'll concede, are amusing.

Ballantine has published these with the original strips underneath for comparison purposes. That's a great idea, but occasionally it shows how Walsh cheated a bit on the idea. In one original strip, for instance, Jon and Garfield are having a sock puppet battle. In the final scene, the pathetic-ness of the situation occurs to both at the same time. Garfield thinks it's Jon's fault for not having dates that they have to play such games, Jon asks, "Wanna go get pizza?" However, in Walsh's take, he's also removed Jon's question at the end, resulting in a speechless scene with Jon and a defeated look on his face, holding up his sock puppet in silence. Sure it makes him look sad, but he should have been asking "Wanna go get pizza?" It still could have worked; it would have looked like he was asking this of his sock puppet, thus making him look even crazier. But I suspect it didn't fit into Walsh's more common statement, i.e., that Jon is depressed.

A supposed reason that Garfield Minus Garfield was such a hit is that Garfield is shown as kind of pointless to his own strip. Again, this was another good reason for Ballantine to include the originals. While this does appear to be true in some strips, it's certainly not all of the time. Garfield often works as a straight man, and his reaction to Jon's strangeness is necessary. At other times, he's actually the protagonist, not simply a target for Jon's musings and complaints. In one Garfield-less strip, for example, Jon comes strolling by, walking upon his fingertips with his shoes tied together and back around his head. "Mister funny man!" he yells. True, the Garfield-less one works: Jon looks like he's gone completely off the deep end. But the original works as well. In the first panel, Garfield is thinking, "I'm not tying Jon's shoelaces together anymore." The next panel, he continues, "It's too dull." And finally, in the third, Jon comes by as described above, and Garfield concludes, "I'm forging new frontiers." I liked such comparisons the best; when each strip represented two very different ideas, without pointing out any weaknesses in the other.  

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Reader's Diary #1219- Chip Zdarsky (Writer), Joe Quinones (Artist): Howard the Duck, What the Duck?

Howard the Duck surprised many a Marvel fan last year, showing up in a after the credits scene following The Guardians of the Galaxy. After the disastrous 1986 movie, not many thought he'd ever have his day on the big screen again. Not that many cared, I suppose. For many, he was a bit too silly in the first place and perhaps the joke had worn thin.

I will admit that I liked the movie. I will also admit that I was 10 and liked a lot of crap. Still, I liked anthropomorphic ducks. I raised ducks, and my favourite Disney and Looney Tunes characters were Donald and Daffy respectively. So I was cool with Howard.

The Guardians of the Galaxy cameo was brilliant. After just watching a movie about a superhero raccoon and semi-talking Vin Diesel, moviegoers were ready to accept anything. Not surprisingly, the renewed interest in Howard the Duck found him in the pages of Marvel once more. More surprisingly, the creators were able to keep the momentum going and even garnered glowing reviews. Howard was back. He was fun, and weird, and there was honest-to-god action.

I won't disagree, though I'll cheapen the praise somewhat. First of all, I'm an easy sell with fun, weird action. Hell, one of my favourite comics this past year was Squirrel Girl, and she's the queen of such stuff. But perhaps it was my enjoyment of Squirrel Girl that lessened my enjoyment of Howard. Simply put: Howard is not as funny. That said, the writers try harder, but I think therein lay the problem: they try too hard. There's a "throw-everything-at-the-wall" sort of quality and the end result is inconsistency. Slapstick, wit, self-deprecation, potty humour, silliness, puns, satire, it's all in there, and sure, there are some real laughs. Unfortunately, I also thought there were a lot of duds. Not so many that I didn't enjoy the book overall, mind you, but just not as great as I hoped.

I also, for some reason, expected it to have a noir, Sam Spade thing going on. Perhaps it's that great cover, Howard in that brown suit, in that quintessential private eye office. It's true he's a private eye in the book, but that look and feel is lost in both the art and writing inside.

The cameos, however, were great. The aforementioned Squirrel Girl shows up (albeit in a non-talking role), as did Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Thor (the new, female version), Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, and She-Hulk. Wanting to know more about She-Hulk, that was an especially unexpected treat.

Quinones art is okay. It's nice and colourful and the expressions are comedic, which suit the book well, but once again, sounding like a broken record, not terribly inventive. That's probably been my number one complaint with superhero comics this year, but ironically it's the better drawn superhero comics that I've also discovered this year (Animal Man, Hawkeye) that are making me judge the generic more harshly.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Reader's Diary #1218- Yana Toboso, translated by Tomo Kimura: Black Butler, Vol. 1

I'm starting to think that it's shonen and shojo manga that I have most difficulty with. It's definitely the most manga-ish of the mangas, filled with a lot of (to me) unfamiliar styles and symbols. Characters get mad and suddenly their pupils are gone, they have fangs. Insignificant characters who are acting silly suddenly appear as doll/puppet versions of themselves.

This is in no way a complaint on my part. North American comics have their own lexicon that I'm sure must look crazy and confusing to other audiences. It's more of an issue with myself, who clearly needs more practice and familiarity. Right now it's a distraction more than anything else. Still, it might serve as a warning to other English adults who are hoping to get into manga; maybe starting at manga aimed at teens (i.e., shonen for boys, shojo for girls) is not the easiest place to start.

With that all in mind, the premise of Black Butler was pretty engaging. Sebastian, the Black Butler himself, is butler to a young preteen looking boy named Ciel who seems rather mopey, wears an eye patch, and is the head of the notable Phantomhive family. Already there are questions you're just dying to figure out. But even better, as some of those answers do get answered in 1st volume, new questions arise. Why is Sebastian so skilled at everything. First more domestic stuff, but gradually fighting, and even... well, I don't want to give too much away.

The art, aside from all the aforementioned manga iconography, has a rather goth appearance. (Goth as in the modern black eye-liner and finger nails look rather than Gothic, the medieval European style). It seems rather fitting, nonetheless, as there's something cool and questionably sinister about Sebastian from the get-go.

On those notes, I can see why it's been a popular series. As for me, I'm unlikely to return to it any time soon. The slapstick of the peripheral characters annoyed me, I'll admit, but more than that I'm just not interested in starting a 21 volume series at this point.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Reader's Diary #1217- Brian K. Vaughan (Writer), Marcos Martin (Artist): Doctor Strange, The Oath

Again, another Marvel character that I'm not overly familiar with, Doctor Strange is nonetheless being made part of the ever growing and ever great Marvel Cinematic Universe (with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role!), and therefore I need to brush up.

I'm told that The Oath is a good place to start. Reviews I've read seemed to applaud the story, plus it gets into Doctor Strange's origins (important for a newbie like me) without it being the entire focus (important for those already familiar). And, of course, it's the critically acclaimed Brian K. Vaughan behind it, writer of Saga, Y: The Last Man, Pride of Baghdad and more, so I felt it was a pretty safe bet that I would enjoy it.

I did. While skeptical I'd find it all a bit silly (not just the fact that Doctor Strange's superpower is magic, but also that ridiculous cape), I was immediately swept up in the story, suspending my belief without hesitation.

In this tale, Doctor Strange travels to another dimension to secure a magical elixir that will cure his assistant, Wong's, cancer. It turns out to be even more powerful than he thought which makes him a target of an evil pharmaceutical company, and their very own magic henchman.

The cancer bit, at first, threw me for a loop. Perhaps a bit too real, a bit too tragic, when I'm trying to have fun with a Marvel comic, but that feeling was short lived. Plus, beyond the plot, the characters themselves were compelling enough to keep me going. The villain is not as flat out sinister as many comic book villains, the presence of Night Nurse (whom I've only heard whisperings of in Daredevil conversations) was a nice bonus. But Strange himself was also fascinating. His past and his ethics make him, frankly, more complex than strange but that's a good thing. I also thought the humour, particularly where his character is concerned, was well done. It's not one wise crack after another like Spider-Man or Iron Man, but there are occasional glimpses. At the end I didn't feel like I knew everything I needed to know about Doctor Strange, but just enough that I want to learn more.

The art was just okay. I'm a sucker for rich, detailed backgrounds, and Marcos proved capable here or there, but too often just seemed to the go very minimalist. There was also nothing particularly inventive or new.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Reader's Diary #1216- Charles Wilson: Clipping Bud

I've written an angry sounding review or two in my day. Sometimes I look back ashamed at such reviews, and in a rare case here or there, I still stand by it.

Charles Wilson's "Clipping Bud" seems to have inspired the angry sort. But not from me. Reading the comments that follow the story, I was sort of taken aback. Was it the best story in the world? No. I thought the dialogue in particular felt forced. But I was entertained there for a bit, and sometimes that's enough.

It seems one of the biggest issue that Wilson's critics had was the unrealistic portrayal of a grow-op. Out of my realm of experience, I can't say I'd have picked up that, but mistakenly I had believed that anyone who would have had experience with such matters would likely have been too mellow to care so much about Wilson's tale. The vitriol is kind of bizarre.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Reader's Diary #1215- David Alexander Robertson (Writer), Wai Tien (Artist): The Peacemaker Thanadelthur

The only biographies I remember reading as a kid were those old Values books by Ann Donegan Johnson. I particularly remember enjoying the Value of Determination: The Story of Helen Keller. But though I still enjoy reading biographies, and I still enjoy children's books, I'm not finding that I'm overly enjoying biographies for children. Earlier this year I tried Willow Dawson's Hyena in Petticoats: The Story of Suffagette Nellie McClung and the Susan Hughes/ Willow Dawson collaboration No Girls Allowed and both left me unfulfilled. I wish I could say the same for David Alexander Robertson's The Peacemaker Thanadelthur, but I cannot.

This is certainly not a comment on any of their subjects. Indeed, I found Thanadelthur, a Dene woman who strove for peace between her people and the Cree, to be an enormously compelling character. And I think it's an absolute necessity that people like Roberston are writing about important historical figures such as her. About time Canadian history acknowledges that it didn't begin with white European settlers (granted, they're also in the book). No, this is more a comment on me. When it comes to biographies, I want them fleshed out more than a child's book is likely to offer. But at least I've had exposure to this character. And at least kids who come across it will as well. Maybe Thanadelthur's name will stick with them as Helen Keller did with me.

Robertson's story, while scant perhaps on enough details to wholly satisfy me, is nonetheless interesting. There is a rather unnecessary frame story a sister is telling Thanadelthur's story to her brother as a lesson in courage so that he can deliver a speech to his class— but otherwise there is enough of an adventure to appeal to many children.

Wai Tien's artwork is rich in colour, with stunning landscapes and interesting angles.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Presenting... Book Mine Set Junior

Of course I'm proud of my daughter when she's not following in my footsteps, too, but this is pretty cool:

Please check it out and offer words of encouragement!

Reader's Diary #1214- Dania El-Kadi: Trophy Wife

The titular character and narrator of Dania El-Kadi's "Trophy Wife," reminded of a good form(al) poem. With so much free verse seeming to be the norm, it's distracting sometimes to come across a new poem that abides by more stringent rules. There's something almost depressing, unnatural about it. But, of course, when a great poet pulls it off you realize that the poem didn't shine despite the constraints, but rather because of them.

The trophy wife too, seemed at first, too, like something to be pitied. But she finds her freedom, however fleeting, and for that moment she sparkles. Ideas and life cannot be constrained.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Reader's Diary #1213- Michael Green and Mike Johnson (Writers), Mahmud Asrar (Artist): Supergirl Volume 1, Last Daughter of Krypton

I haven't seen the new Supergirl series yet, but that's out of a lack of time more than a lack of interest. Granted, I'm not overly crazy about the Supes in general. I'm not the first to complain about it, but they're usually wildly over-powered to have much drama. Still, I can acknowledge that there's been a good Superman story or two. As for Supergirl? I don't know a lot about that character. I saw the 1984 movie as a kid, but I remember next to nothing about it. So I was interested in learning more about her.

Last Daughter of Krypton is an origin story. I know comics nerds have had a hate on those lately, but when I'm out to learn about a new character, I can appreciate a good origin story.

Is Supergirl's origin story a good one? It's not half bad. Of course, if you know Superman's story, you kind of know hers. Her home planet of Krypton is no more and her father sent her off to Earth to survive. But in reference to Superman's story, its interesting in that Kara, aka Supergirl, is a teenager when she arrives, unlike Kal-El, aka Superman who arrived as an infant. But something must have gone wonky in the whole time/space travel because while the left Krypton within days of one another, Kal-El has had time to age into a man, Kara arrives as the same teenage girl she was when she left. That's an interesting angle.

And, while you need familiarity with Kal-el's (Clark Kent's) story for the comparison, I actually find Kara's has a bit more to play with. As an infant, the Earth was Kal-el's norm, as were his superpowers. It's only once he aged he started to realize, or was instructed by his adopted parents, that he was actually different. Kara realizes how bizarre everything is from the get-go. No one speaks the same language and she has these awesome new powers. That's a lot to cope with!

About all that... It was, I must say, good to have it acknowledged that the people on Earth are not speaking her language. That's something that's bugged me about Marvel's Thor. But, if we're going to explain the language, I wished they had also addressed the fact that the Kryptonians look humanoid and also provided some rationale on that front. Oh well, I've gone with sillier stuff before.

Speaking of silly stuff, let's also reflect on those Supe Powers. X-Ray vision, ultra-strength, laser eyes, flying? Check, check, check, check. But now the Supes also have mind-reading abilities? Seriously? Is that new?


Sigh again.

Okay, belief suspended once more. It's all good.

Except for the way the writers frequently explain the plot through character thoughts and dialogue. Seems forced.

Geez, I'm coming across harsher than I felt. Believe it or not, I did find this to be a fun book. Kara's a pretty cool character. Plus, the villains, i.e., the Worldkillers, are fantastic. They don't give a lot of backstory, except that they were basically a Kryptonian science experiment gone wrong. But the vagueness and the sense that yes, they're bad, but they can't really help it (in the words of Jessica Rabbit, they were just drawn that way), make them compelling. Their powers are cool and best of all, they aren't all humanoid.

The artwork is decent, nothing particularly noteworthy except for again, the villains, in whom the artists finally show some creativity.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Reader's Diary #1212- Brian Bendis (Writer), various artists: Jessica Jones, the Pulse

I had slight reservations about Jessica Jones' The Pulse (Complete Collection).  Mostly I was looking forward to it. I've enjoyed other work by Brian Bendis, I knew little about Jessica Jones and love learning about new Marvel characters, and mostly I'm just stoked for the new Netflix series. (After watching how great Daredevil was I have high hopes!) But, when I found out the premise...

The Pulse, it turns out, is supposed to be a feature of the fictional newspaper, The Daily Bugle (yes, the one from Spider-Man). Jessica Jones gets hired as a reporter to cover the Pulse with its focus on superheroes. As Jones herself is an ex-Avenger, J. Jonah Jameson expects she'll bring both insight and intel to paper.

So far nothing to worry about, might even be interesting. But then I discover it's supposed to be the street view of Secret War, a much larger comic book event a few years back, not to be confused with Secret Wars, an storyline from the 80s, or Secret Wars, a storyline from the past summer because Marvel absolutely sucks at naming things. Anyway, Secret War (2004) culminates with an Avengers vs. X-Men smackdown. Could be good.

Except, I read World War Hulk Front Line earlier this year and it had remarkably similar idea. Instead of showing an exciting superhero war, it aimed to show the affects of the superhero war on the muggles, er... regular folks. It sucked. It was boring and didn't work as a standalone volume at all. So enter my aforementioned slight reservations.

Well, I needn't have worried too much. Jessica Jones isn't a boring old muggle... geez, why I keep doing that?... what I mean to say is Jones isn't an ordinary human and can quite hold a story on her own. True, there wasn't even a hint of the Avenger/X-Men battle, but Jones' fights a good fight when she needs to. Especially great was the punch she landed on the Green Goblin.

If I'm being honest though, the humanity (the non-superhero-ity?) actually works as well. Yes, Jones has superpowers, but it's dealing with common concerns like being pregnant that balance out the silliness and give the book something different, something compelling. The plethora of cameos (Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain America, and more) don't hurt either.

None of this is to say the book is perfect, it's just better than the Front Line book. It still has issues. J. Jonah Jameson hires Jessica Jones to work at the Bugle and she never seems to do anything for them. The only Pulse stories actually revolve around Ben Ulrich, another reporter (also from Front Line and the Netflix Daredevil series), but whereas his plots and Jones intersect in the earlier part of the book, by the end Ulrich's stories seem completely unconnected. His discovery of another washed up B-Superhero, "D-Man", is interesting, I suppose, but why it was necessary in a Jessica Jones collection? I have no idea.

The artwork is wildly inconsistent. Everyone gets what J. Jonah Jameson is supposed to look like, but holy crap, you could hardly recognize Jessica Jones or her husband Luke Cage from one panel to the next.

The standout artist in the whole collection for me was Michael Gaydos whose grainy artwork gave the whole thing a slightly-off, pulp fiction sort of vibe. Like an out-of-tune soundtrack. But that's good! It stands out from the average superhero look.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Reader's Diary #1211- Sheila Watt-Cloutier: The Right to Be Cold

Our library has Sheila Watt-Cloutier's The Right to be Cold classified in the biography section (which also includes autobiographies and memoirs).

The title, however, suggests something different. It's "The Right to Be Cold," not, "My Right to Be Cold," after all.

So did my library catalogue it incorrectly? Perhaps it would better fit under ecology? Or perhaps philosophy?

In the end, however, I think the classification is apt. Cloutier begins by describing her early life in Kuujjuaq, northern Quebec. And her own life very much remains at the center of the book. Sharing details about her residential school experience, her marriage, her father, and so forth, I wondered when she might get to "the right to be cold." She does, to be sure, but it's past the midway of the book. There's actually almost as much about her fight against POPs; the pesticides and other synthetic chemicals to wind up in the winds, making their way to Arctic and the food chain.

However, Watt-Cloutier does lead us, eventually, to the right to be cold and it's her arguments here that make me suspect none of this arrangement of details was haphazard. She rails against global warming campaigns that do not put a human face on the tragedy. Polar bears are usually at the center of such campaigns, with nary an Inuk in sight. By telling her own story, she submits herself, essentially as Exhibit A. You want to talk about change in the Arctic? You want to talk about how it affects people? Here she is.

But it also helps support her other argument: that we're all connected. Hers is a message of holistic health. As she gets her own life in order, taking care of herself spiritually, socially, physically, and so forth; as she reconciles her choices and her circumstances, seeks a greater understanding, all in an effort to become a complete human being, she advocates the same for the Earth and the human race. We cannot be a healthy planet without a healthy Arctic and we cannot be a healthy human race if we forget about the Inuit. Life is not a metaphor but the entire theme.

Reader's Diary #1210- Alec Niedenthal: When the War was Over

"When the War is Over" by Alec Niedenthal is about a Jewish private school board, planning to build a new wing to memorialize the holocaust. First, however, they need to deal with the controversial Facebook comments of one of their members who has spoken out against Israel in the most recent Israel-Palestine conflict.

Admittedly, this is all of a topic of which I'm quite uncomfortable. (Well, boo-hoo to me, right?) It's just that I know it's so complicated and politically charged, plus, I don't know if I'm informed enough despite endless news stories and documentaries and so forth to weigh in. I'm not sure I want to.

What's intriguing about Niedenthal's story is all the words he doesn't say. He never says Israel. Nor Palestine, nor Jew, nor Nazi, nor holocaust. He says war, but never World War II. He says camps, but never concentration camps.

The omissions seem purposeful. Maybe we're suppose to just write the missing stuff off as context, and focus on the damaged relationship between the school board and Rosa, who's gone rogue. Maybe those at the heart of all of that don't need to be so specific, maybe those specifics are just used by CNN to explain it all to the unconnected folks like me. But by not using those terms, Niedenthal created a "don't think of a pink rhinoceros" scenario. It was impossible for me not to notice what wasn't there.

I feel there's a point here somewhere that I haven't yet grasped in its entirety.

In any case, maybe I should be thankful that I haven't been forced to weigh in?

Monday, November 02, 2015

Reader's Diary #1209- Hans Christian Anderson: The Brave Tin Soldier

Sometimes translated as "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," Hans Christian Anderson's tale has been turned into a ballet. It is very similar in feel to the Nutcracker with its cast of animated toys. Not a big fan of the Nutcracker, this was not a plus in my book.

That said, it is interesting from a philosophical point of view. It seems at first to be a very fatalist piece, but several times Anderson refers to the soldier choosing not to speak and the reader is left to wonder what would have happened had he spoken up-- in other words, perhaps his life didn't need to be determined by fate after all.

It's hard to say if such thoughts were originally intended by Anderson. Published at first in a collection of fairy tales for children, it seems to be a pretty adult message to include. Perhaps it was included in the same way that adult jokes get included in Pixar films today, or perhaps Anderson had no pretensions whatsoever. Maybe it was supposed to just be some random stuff that happened to toys.

Still The Brave Tin Soldiers by w0LD, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  w0LD