Sunday, July 31, 2016

The 10th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - July 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")

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Guest Post from Gary Dvorkin

 Hi everyone!

About a month ago, I was approached to see if I'd be interested in hosting a stop of new author, Gary Dvorkin's, blog tour. As he had just published his first book, Gary had not hit my radar yet. But, I'm always excited to discover new Canadian writers, so I agreed as long as he kept the focus on Canada. Below is Gary's post, followed by a little info about him and his book. As an added bonus, to all the 10th Canadian Book Challenge participants, you'll be emailed an exclusive mini-challenge with a chance to win a copy of Ransom's Voice. The winner will be announced on September 1st.

From Gary Dvorkin:

Canada is a great country for writers, and I am proud and grateful to be a Canadian. I was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, and I currently live in Montréal, Québec. I’ve always loved writing, and ideas for stories seemed to be demanding to be heard. For years, I lived with that inner voice and was less than happy with myself for not just sitting down and pounding out a novel.
I am grateful that this voice has now been dealt with! My novel, Ransom’s Voice, follows Dominique Stein, a beautiful, young, Jewish woman. Her sanity is overly dependent on external cues: chameleon-like. It all explodes. She desperately searches to find her way back inside that cozy bubble of sanity she had constructed. Lost, her bearings off and wobbly, she discovers that her instincts are not functioning as they should. Horrific crimes are committed. Not everyone survives. Dominique is found not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity and is sent to a psychiatric prison for women.

 There, she is caught between the kind, serene Freudian analyst Dr. Haddad, and the head of the institute, the manic, megalomaniacal Dr. du Chevre, who offers her the Faustian contract: be the subject for his secretive, odd research, and he will get her out of prison earlier. Dominique has to navigate her way out of this maze of institutional insanity. Which shrink is telling her the truth? Or, are they both lying to her, manipulating her for their own strange motives? She must figure this out while trying to survive the random, explosive violence of the women’s prison.

The book is strictly fiction. There is a little bit of me in most of the characters (but not all!). Strangely, I was not a big reader of psychological thrillers. But then a friend compared Ransom’s Voice to The Silence of the Lambs. I had seen the movie but had never read the novel. It was an interesting experience to read it and try to understand what my friend had seen in common with Ransom’s Voice. I then read Patricia Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery, which I loved.

I read a lot of history and biography, but remind myself to keep in touch with fiction. Recently, I reread Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. Plus, Roth’s Letting Go.
Having written a novel, I am now, of course, reading novels in a very different manner. I am much more conscious of, “What are they up to?”

My most admired authors are Leo Tolstoy, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Stephen King, and Edward St Aubyn. My favourite Canadian authors are Douglas Coupland, Robertson Davies, and Saul Bellow. (Vive Lachine Quebec!) I certainly agree that it’s important to support fellow Canadian authors with their work.

Be sure to check out my debut novel, Ransom’s Voice.

Gary Dvorkin Author Bio:

Debut author Gary Dvorkin, M.D., has been working as a practicing neurologist in Montréal, Canada for more than thirty years. He earned his medical degree at the University of Alberta. Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, he currently makes his home in Montréal, Québec with his wife. He has one daughter. Unlike his reading interests in history and biography, Dvorkin prefers to write fiction books, and his first novel, Ransom’s Voice (Brown Books Publishing Group), was released on February 23, 2016.

Ransom’s Voice Synopsis:

Dominique Stein is beautiful, young and Jewish. Her sanity is overly dependent on external cues: chameleon-like. She wakes up every morning at 5:59:59. She weighs in at exactly 111 lbs., her snug palindrome. These are her "friends." They keep her safe. Then, it all explodes, and she finds herself desperately searching to find a way back inside that cozy bubble of sanity.

Lost, her bearings off and wobbly, she discovers that her instincts are not functioning as they should. Crimes are committed, and not everyone survives. Found “not guilty” by virtue of temporary insanity, she is sent to a psychiatric prison for women. There, she is caught between the kind, serene Freudian analyst, Dr. Haddad, and the head of the institute, the manic, megalomaniacal Dr. du Chevre, who offers her the Faustian contract: be the subject for his secretive, odd research, and he’ll get her out of prison earlier. Dominique has to navigate her way out of this maze of institutional insanity while also trying to survive the random explosive violence of the women's prison.

In this psychological thriller, Gary Dvorkin crafts a compelling story of love, betrayal and reality-shifting anxiety. Dominique hears many voices in her life. But which one can she trust? Which voice will ransom her sanity?

Ransom’s Voice Endorsements:

"A superb exploration of sanity's dark corridors, recounted with grace, intelligence and biting irony. This is a book to be savored."
-Arthur Holden, Goodreads

"It was the most suspenseful, thrilling tale of a young woman's transformation in the hands of her captors' professional routine. Every chapter brought unexpected twists; every move Dominique took presented a different side of her complex character. I teach drama at a local high school. I could not help but think of my senior students. As part of my curriculum, I work on character development. What an amazing learning experience it would be to analyze a scene from the novel. Extremely visual, with thrilling turns, but at the end, a fully accessible human story."
-Kati Kemeny, Goodreads

"Ransom's Voice is a taut, cerebral thriller with a wicked sense of humor. This debut novel succeeds as both an inventive page-turner and a complex exploration of sanity and reality, with echoes of Patricia Highsmith's dark suspense and Carl Hiaasen's laugh-out-loud dialogue. In both story and tone, Ransom's Voice surprises, shocks and delights in equal measure."
-Charlie Delfield, Amazon

"This book was a rollercoaster ride from beginning to end. What I love about Dvorkin's book is that every time I was sure that I knew what was coming up next, I was constantly surprised to see the book turn in a direction that I wasn't expecting. This book gave me a very interesting glimpse into the human psyche. It's very controversial at times and really gets you thinking! I highly recommend it!!!"
-Yuval, Goodreads

Book website:

Purchase links:

Monday, July 25, 2016

Reader's Diary #1345- Douglas Sovern: The Blogger Wolf

At last year's Folk on the Rocks, Yellowknife's annual music festival, I noted a lot of people taking photos of the crowd. How funny it would be, I thought, if Waldo was hiding in that crowd. Everyone could have their very own, and unexpected, game of Where's Waldo? when they got home. So this year I ordered a Waldo Halloween costume and did just that. (And hey, Waldo's a pretty good Halloween costume for a librarian, so it's money well spent.)

The festival, by the way, was fantastic. And if you ever get a chance to see the Lemon Bucket Orkestra live, spend hundreds to do so because they're worth every penny. Of course, as in any crowd situation, there was also a lot of opportunity for people watching. At one point though I got a bit disgusted at myself for being too judgmental. So what if every hipster male in his mid 20s has a beard and man-bun. They may be sheep, but who are they hurting? So what if the two bros at front seem to think that the Barr Brothers are LMFAO. They're having fun. It was an important realization to have, especially considering what happened at the end of the night. Having spent the day having strangers laugh and say "I found you!" I thought most people appreciated the Waldo joke. But then I had a rather odd reaction from a couple of acquaintances who seemed bizarrely offended or bothered by the get-up. "What's the deal?", eye-rolls, and the whole bit. No explanation seemed satisfactory. I still can't quite put my finger on why they were so annoyed. Too attention seeking, maybe? Bitterness about having never actually found Waldo? That can't be it. In any case, I was glad to have had my epiphany about hipsters and bros earlier as I'd hate to come across as that sour and judgmental. To each their own.

I bring this all up, because the tone of Douglas Sovern "The Blogger Wolf" begins with a similarly judgemental vein. A traditional journalist is put off by a new young blogger just joining his news organization, judging and jumping to all sorts of conclusions that turned out to be incorrect (and unfair). The story should be one of comeuppance, but the narrator, having done some pretty difficult ego-acrobatics, manages to (hilariously and tragically) miss the point.

(This is a pre-scheduled post to appear while I am vacationing in the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. Sovern is from San Francisco, but this story-- wonderfully told in the 2nd person, by the way-- is set in New York.)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Reader's Diary #1344- Jeff Lemire (writer), Mikel Janin (artist): Justice League Dark Vol. 2 The Books of Magic

Continuing on in the Justice League Dark series, I was thrilled to see that Jeff Lemire (a personal favourite) had taken over the writing duties with this second volume: The Books of Magic.

Lemire's take is less bizarre than Milligan's, though it doesn't feel like too much of a clash (there are flying houses, after all), but rather a natural progression. With Mikel Janin continuing on in the artist role, it might even be easy to miss that the writer had changed.

This plot revolves around the titular Books of Magic, essentially tomes containing ALL knowledge and therefore an awesome source of power, especially for a trained magician who would know how to use it. The theme, a familiar one to comics especially, is how power, or even the thirst for power, corrupts. But in such "dark" books as these, where the heroes are only marginally better than the villains, the theme takes on better shades of gray.

A few newer characters are introduced this time around, a few old ones are dropped, and familiar ones are better developed. I missed Shade, from Volume 1, and so far, the main replacement, Orchid, doesn't do much for me. This is not to say that I wish Lemire hadn't added her, just that she needs better development yet. Fortunately, with patience, I think it will come. I did, for instance, like Deadman a lot more this time around. Lemire toned down the bro-ish tones of Milligan's take on the character and I began to get a better feel for who the character is. Despite being the ghost of a past life acrobat and having the ability to possess people, he's somewhat of an every-man character and I'm beginning to enjoy that irony. Oh, and did I mention that Frankenstein makes an appearance? That's pretty cool.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reader's Diary #1343- Peter Steele: The Man Who Mapped the Arctic

Coinciding with first moving to the Arctic 15 years ago, I went through a phase of reading about Northern explorers, the search for the Northwest Passage, and conquest of the North Pole. After a while though, you realize that the same themes prevail: it was treacherous and in hindsight, many people made a lot of mistakes, the most common of which was to ignore the wisdom of those that already lived here, the indigenous people.

To that end, The Man Who Mapped the Arctic, the story of explorer and sometimes Franklin lieutenant, George Black, doesn't add anything new. Still, if you've not read a northern explorer book before, or if it's been a while, it's as good as any. You'll still be awe of the stamina and bravery of such men, even if simultaneously throwing up your hands at their arrogance and, even fatal, racism. George Black is not particularly interesting; at least as far as any 1800s northern explorer could be boring, he doesn't really stand out. As writer Peter Steele points out, history often forgets those who didn't die in tragic or mysterious circumstance, and that's true here. The title seems to suggest Back's importance as a cartographer, but I'm now left questioning if it wasn't a publisher's decision, trying to give Back a new angle among such books. Sure his map mapping was impressive and added to the body of northern knowledge, but it's barely mentioned in the book, certainly not comprising a central thesis.

So why Back? I'm left to conclude that Franklin's story has been told ad nauseam and Back kept a lot of notes.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reader's Diary #1342- Billie Livingston: Give Yourself Nightmares

In Billie Livingston's "Give Yourself Nightmares" a story of a woman named Nora being concerned that her husband is becoming dangerously obsessed with cannibalism and violent pornography is contrasted brilliantly with a domestic tale of a mouse infestation that a landlord won't take seriously.

Grounding the sensational with such a specific and ordinary problem was a stroke of genius. Immediately the first over-the-top story seems more plausible while the second story gets lent an air of metaphor. There's also hint of a theme in the whole piece about the importance of mental health and counseling for police officers (and perhaps their families). Finally, all of this combined with the unresolved ending, and the result is a perfect short story. Loved it.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Reader's Diary #1341- Peter Milligan (writer) and Mikel Janin (artist): Justice League Dark Vol. 1 In the Dark

Recently I embarrassed myself for advising the folks at DC Comics (not that they read this blog anyway!) to embrace their darker characters, not realizing, of course, that they have done just that with the Justice League Dark series. So, it was time for a crash course that begins here with Peter Milligan's Justice League Dark Volume 1: In the Dark.

I'm generally more of a Marvel guy than DC, but I have to say, this could give them a run for their money. Easily my favourite corner of the DC universe. Characters here are generally along the occult spectrum: witches, magicians, ghosts, and that sort of thing. Most were unfamiliar to me, Madame Xanadu, Shade, Zatanna. I'd recently read a John Constantine title, Enchantress has made an appearance or two in other DC comics I've read, and then there was Deadman. I was aware of Deadman but had little knowledge of him beyond that he looked cool and sounded intriguing. So far, he's turned out to be disappointing-- a bit chauvinistic and bro-ish, which I certainly wasn't expecting. I'm also told that Swamp Thing, Martian Manhunter, and Animal Man storylines might intersect with this world, which would be great, but honestly I think the best fit, and notably missing, is Sandman. That definitely needs to happen.

In any case, the cast this time (even with my disappointment in Deadman) were interesting enough and the story was thoroughly bizarre (without being too difficult to follow) and entertaining. Enchantress, the witch, has basically gone insane and the world must suffer the consequences unless the Justice League Dark can intervene. When I say insane, this is not super-villain insane, but flying teeth insane.

Mikel Janin has a field day with it and his monsters are a delight, especially well-contrasted with the realistic backdrops. Everything gets warped from time to time; panels are askew an so on, but he shows just enough restraint to keep it balanced.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Reader's Diary #1340- Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder (writers), Natacha Bustos (artist): Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Vol. 1 BFF

As I've pointed out before Marvel has been oddly fascinated with dinosaur superhero sidekicks for some time. But it seems to be Lunella Lafayette (aka Moon Girl) and her new T. Rex companion that has finally started making people pay attention.

The reviews on this series have been great. It has been praised for its accessibility for all ages, it's fun, and falling in line with Marvel's recent (and much needed and much welcome) emphasis on diversity. Not only is Lunella black and female, she's also one of the youngest superheroes to come along in a while, clocking in at just 10 years of age.

Not that she's quite a superhero yet. In this volume all Lunella knows is that she has Inhuman DNA and subjected to the right (or wrong, if you ask her) catalyst, she'll change. As most Marvel Inhuman fans know, the change is unpredictable. Usually it comes with some sort of superhuman ability, but often deformities as well. Already a very different child (she's quite precocious), Lunella spends most of the book trying to avoid the change. (Hmm, now that I say that out loud, I wonder if there's a puberty analogy?)

Older readers like me will likely relate to the parents of Lunella more than the child herself and to some extent the story works in this regard, making one feel protective. That said, sometimes the precociousness is overdone and she becomes unbelievable. She says once or twice that she's afraid of the Devil Dinosaur but all of her actions suggest otherwise.

Another complaint I have is that while the book has a big emphasis on science (which is a good thing), beginning each comic with a quote from a famous scientist (Curie, Einstein, Degrasse Tyson), the science itself is weak. Apparently the original Devil Dinosaur series explained the co-existence of dinosaurs and cavemen as the reality in an alternate universe. Fine, except here, set in modern day New York, there's barely a breath of this despite cavemen supposedly from the T.Rex's time as the main villains. I feel with a girl as smart as Lunella, this could have been addressed better.

Still, it's entertaining and ends with a great cliff-hanger that'll definitely make me want to read more. Plus, there's a cameo from Amadeus Cho's version of the Hulk that I've been wanting to see, so that was pretty cool.

Bustos' art is just a tad more cartoony than most superhero comics, but that plays well with the light humour.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Reader's Diary #1339- Fumi Yoshinaga: Ooku Vol. 1 The Inner Chambers

The premise of Fumi Yoshinaga's Ooku series reminded me of Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man. In Vaughan's series a man named Yorick and his pet monkey find themselves to be the last remaining mammals on the planet with a Y chromosome. In Yoshinaga's the situation isn't quite as bleak but the biologically male population has taken a huge beating in numbers due to a disease. In both cases, society is now run by females. To say these are role reversal books is not, of course, entirely true as in both cases half the population has almost vanished and the women in these stories need to also deal with a shortage of labour.

Premise aside, Ooku and Y: The Last Man are quite different and this can largely be attributed to the setting. With Y: The Last Man set in modern day U.S., the flips of society and comparisons to our present North American culture are more blatant and obvious. I've read that Ooku has won a couple of awards for its exploration of gender, but it's set in feudal Japan and so the culture would be quite unfamiliar to me even without a play on gender norms.

However, this setting actually held my interest a bit more and during my reading of Ooku, found myself looking up things like the real, historical Ooku and homosexuality in Japan, which helped increase my understanding of the book, and my enjoyment (who doesn't like to learn something new?).

I enjoyed Yoshinaga's art, while it was somewhat inconsistent. When she put her all into the backgrounds and patterns (especially on clothing) the work could be stunning. Too often, however, panels consisted merely of simple facial close-ups.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Reader's Diary #1338 - Austin Clarke: Where are the Men?

Just a few days ago, Jay Z released a song called Spiritual which seems like an applicable song to all that is going on in the news lately. So how was he able to craft the song so fast? It turns out, he'd been working on the song for a few years now and it was almost released after Mike Brown's shooting in Ferguson a couple of years back. As Jay Z correctly, if pessimistically, said at the time, "This issue would always be relevant."

It is no more surprising that the late Austin Clarke's "Where Are The Men?" published in 2008, also has themes of mistreatment at the hands of racist police and the potential psychological damage it may cause in an individual, of the strength and resolve needed to rise above. It's also a stark reminder for people like me (i.e., white) of the sad, angering, and tragic truth that while I may feel safe and secure in the presence of a police officer, there are plenty of people who do not and cannot; who, in fact, feel the very opposite.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Reader's Diary #1337- Kurtis J. Wiebe (writer), Roc Upchurch (artist): Rat Queens Vol. 1 Sass and Sorcery

Reservations I may have had after flicking through the pages of Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery— that it was a bit too "cool," a bit too Bettie Page-ish with macho-hipster barbershop pin-ups
— were lifted almost immediately after actually starting to read it. It felt like the real deal. Real cool, not "trying too hard" cool.

Rat Queens is a fantasy-based series (there are orc, fairies, and so on all in a medieval looking setting and with swords and magic rather than machine guns) but with modern sensibilities. Females are definitely not reduced to wenches or princesses here and sex and drugs are commonplace. As for the four titular characters, they're varied in both personalities and looks, but all tough and likeable. They're remarkably well-developed in such a short space and in a book with so much action that I'd hardly call it a character-based story at all. 

Upchurch's art was vibrant and expressive, most impressive in his depiction of varied and realistic body shapes, and for blurring the backgrounds to draw focus to foreground characters when necessary.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Reader's Diary #1336 - Bob Gale (Writer): Back to the Future / Untold Tales and Alternate Timelines

In the introduction to Back to the Future: Untold Tales and Alternate Timelines, original screenplay writer for the movies, Bob Gale explains that this collection will fill in gaps of previously unanswered questions as well as a few other possibilities.

As a collection of such, illustrated by many different artists, there's bound to be those you enjoy more than others. I preferred the ones that worked as stand alone short stories to those that felt like mere vignettes of things not shown in the movies; questions that maybe weren't answered because no one really cared.

Still, overall, the book, like the movies, is fun, funny sci-fi lite. One major difference is that Doc Brown is much more the focus than Marty and often the stories are framed as if Doc is telling the stories to his kids.

Like the stories, the artwork, too is inconsistent. Most is pretty unremarkable, looking like standard superhero-ish pseudo-realism, but one panel in particular, drawn by Brent Shoonover, is a cut above. Check out this Rube Goldberg trap that Doc Brown has set. In the top right panel, you see Marty climbing in through a window and knocking over a domino. Then, in the large bottom panel, you follow the movement of the machine all in a single panel. Brilliant!

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Reader's Diary #1335: Clamp: xxxHolic 1

Initially I was afraid I wasn't going to enjoy xxxHolic. Coming right on heels of having read Tite Kubo's Bleach, I was immediately put off by the way characters would have such wild outbursts of emotions for every little thing. Subtlety does not exist.

But, more and more, xxxHolic began to win me over. It follows a teenage boy named Kimihiro who, much to his chagrin, sees spirits. One day, however, he finds himself being pulled into a shop run by the witch Yuko. Yuko is a wish-granting witch but whose wishes come at a price. Kimihiro wishes to have his rare spirit-seeing ability removed but has to agree to become Yuko's servant.

The artwork is a notch above most shonen and seinen manga I've read, given to its use of gothic patterns. And I began to appreciate the way Yuko granted wishes, seeing how an entire series could be interesting. At one point I was reminded of Stephen King's "Quitters, Inc", which, if you've read the short story or have seen the movie adaptation starring James Woods, you'll know was quite dark. xxxHolic wasn't that dark in this early volume, but as with any "be careful what you wish for" tale, you know the potential's there.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Reader's Diary #1334- D.M. Gillis: A Canadian Over Hiroshima

It took a few reads and a few Google searches before D.M. Gillis' "A Canadian Over Hiroshima" started to make any sense to me. It's still far from clear and I'm left with vague theories about adopting another person's guilt but I could be way off base. There are creative vignettes throughout that I appreciated (the idea of dreaming that one is an atomic bomb!) but as a cohesive whole I was a bit lost. However, it did remind me Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and so I'm sure there are many who would love this story.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Reader's Diary #1333- Jeff Loveness (writer), Brian Kesinger (artist): Groot (Collected)

Of course, the first thing you ask yourself when you hear they've given Groot his own comic book series, is how do they get around the fact that all this talking tree/alien ever says is "I am Groot"?

Well, it turns out there's more than one solution and Loveness' creativity on that front is reflective of his creativity throughout the whole series. His best friend Rocket Raccoon seems to be the only one able to translate Groot's verbal intentions and so scenes with him present are easy. Basically he becomes like the Peanuts kids who echo the requests of their teacher who only talks through a trombone. But if such an approach seems like a cop out, not to worry, Loveness ups the game by getting Rocket out of the picture. Rocket is taken hostage quite early on and Groot's rescue mission becomes the series arc. So now we're introduced to new ways of understanding Groot. He seeks mind-reading Marvel characters to lend a hand, his words are often in huge block letters in which Kesinger illustrates Groot's thoughts, but most importantly, there's an emphasis on the fact that we don't always need words to communicate. (Comic book people should appreciate this message more than most!) Context, of course, is a good clue as to what Groot's thinking, but Kesinger's highly expressive cartooning lends an even bigger hand. You know when Groot's happy, frustrated, sad, or angry as it's written all over his face.

Groot is a great addition to the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Funny without being vulgar, packed with space opera adventure, and surprisingly sensitive moments.