Monday, October 31, 2016

The 10th 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")

And in prize news, Lisa has won a signed copy of Jeff Lemire's The Underwater Welder for taking part in last month's mini-challenge to read a Canadian graphic novel. Congratulations, Lisa! (Canadian Book Challenge mini-challenges are exclusive to members via email.)

Reader's Diary #1406- Nancy Brewka-Clark: Thicker Than Blood

There are obviously different levels of fear of which we're comfortable and we differ greatly on what we find scary. This became very obvious to me this past month as my daughter and I took on a horror movie marathon. Everything from The Blob to Scream to Ouija: Origins of Evil. We didn't always agree on which ones were scary (we watched about 15 in total), but it's a tradition I hope we continue.

I think we'd both agree however that "Thicker Than Blood" by Nancy Brewka-Clark would fit in the lighter end of the fear factor. Nonetheless it's got some pretty classic Halloween elements combined with light touches of humour that make it pretty enjoyable. It involves a couple of bone-headed thugs who are convinced that Miss McKee, the oldest resident of their town, is a vampire. One of the thugs is determined to join in her in the ranks of the immortal.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Reader's Diary #1405 - Robbie Thompson (writer), various artists: Silk Sinister Vol. 1

If my forays into Marvel's Spider-Verse earlier this year taught me anything, it's that the days of Peter Parker being the sole spider-themed superhero are long gone. One of the more recent additions is Cindy Moon, who goes by the name Silk, and who was apparently bitten by the same spider that bit Parker. So where had she supposedly been all this time? Having difficultly initially controlling her powers, she was whisked away to an underground bunker, kept out of the public eye and presumably hanging with Kimmy Schmidt.

(Silk also, for the record, joins the ranks of Elektra and Mort from Bazooka Joe comics as one of the few whose idea of a disguise is pulling a turtle-neck up over one's nose.)

Silk is a lot like Peter Parker, not only in her super-abilities, but also works for the media, for J. Jonah Jameson who now leads Fact Channel, a competitor to the Daily Bugle of Spider-Man comics. I didn't get this, but apparently there's a Silk collected edition volume 0. Maybe it was explained there. What an idiot I was to presume #1 would be a good place to start.

Also, Silk likes to make a lot of funny quips. While I admit to finding most of these funny, some of her word choices seemed a bit too modern for someone who'd been cut off from the world for 10 years (e.g., "What the what now?").

I nonetheless enjoyed her character, similar to Peter Parker but with enough differences to keep her interesting (besides the unique bunker backstory, she's also Asian American). And the plot of this volume was quite interesting. Pretending to be a villain, while working for SHIELD and infiltrating Black Cat's war against another villain King Goblin, Silk is subtly thrown by Black Cat's revelation that she not be completely evil and that sometimes people are not as black and white as they seem. While the main plot of King Goblin is resolved in this arc, the secondary more character-driven plot remains open and for me, is certainly enough of a hook to pick up a 2nd volume.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Reader's Diary #1404: David Alexander Robertson (writer), Scott B. Henderson (artist): Sugar Falls

I have found myself reading many of David Alexander Robertson's comics this year, despite frequently complaining of the same issue: the unnecessary frame stories. So why keep going back? I nonetheless admire Robertson's goals of highlighting the lives and events of various Indigenous Canadians.

Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story also comes with a rather insignificant frame story (a high school teen has to do an assignment about residential schools), but fortunately that part is brief and soon the woman named Betsy who he decides to interview shares her memories and this is beautifully done.

While the hardships and ugliness are not ignored (physical and emotional abuse is shown, sexual abuse is implied), this is ultimately a story of support and resilience. In one powerful scene, Betsy is attending the funeral of a friend who drowned while trying to escape. She is not to young to miss the hypocrisy of the priest who preaches for the dead girl, even though he was the one she'd been trying to escape.

Henderson does an admirable job capturing the raw emotional scenes, especially from a young person's eyes. The priest and a nun, for example, are often seen glowering from above.

Sugar Falls is based on the true recollections of Betty Ross, an Elder from Cross Lake First Nation.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Reader's Diary #1403- Dan Slott (writer), various artists: She-Hulk The Complete Collection

I wasn't sure what to expect with a She-Hulk collection. I'd encountered the character only in ensemble comics before and to be honest, she never made much of an impression. Worse, she was sometimes there just for overly sexualized eye-candy. I knew of her origin story (created from a blood transfusion from her cousin, the Hulk, which smacks of the whole Eve/Adam's rib thing) and even the name She-Hulk makes her sound like an afterthought.

There are some traces of sexism still prevalent in Dan Slott's She-Hulk collection, don't get me wrong. In one scene she seems to imply that she misses being cat-called granted this may have been over her car, not her body. But by and large, I think Slott respected and enjoyed writing for this character. And the result? I too came to respect and enjoy reading about this character.

One of the more compelling things about She-Hulk is the way she usually actually enjoys being a Hulk. This is a great contrast to her cousin Bruce Banner who typically fears and shuns his out-of-control rage monster. Perhaps She-Hulk's (Jen Walters') healthier take is a result of her seeing a therapist on a regular basis (one Doc Samson) to take care of her mental health, or perhaps it's also a part of her age. In this collection, She-Hulk is a millennial just at the beginning of a very successful law career. As most at this stage in life, she's still finding herself, struggling to find that balance between fun and responsibility, and really her alter-ego is just an extension of that. Granted, as a superhero she also has a few more traumatic points in her past, which brings me to my next point about why this collection is so great.

If you've never read a She-Hulk comic before and may only have a loose grasp on the character, this is an excellent jumping on point. Slott not only does a remarkable job defining the character, but also effortlessly schools readers on She-Hulk's past. Organically worked into the story, memorable and important She-Hulk story-lines are all revisited while helping round out who she is now and focus where she is going.

And on top of all this, I've not yet mentioned how funny it all is and all the original creative touches. The humor is classic Marvel (a blend of self-deprecation and slapstick) and one of my favourite features of the collection was the role of Marvel comics themselves. She-Hulk's law firm uses them as legal reference guides, referring to old editions and story-lines as if the comics were but historical documents in comic form. Loved it.

The art is fine, on the generic side. The cover art (for the individual comics inside), was, however, fantastic, with a more realistic tone. It's too bad, in a way, that the entire comics couldn't be drawn like that. But, I suppose, as they came out so fast in their original single volumes that such a level of artistry couldn't be maintained. Also, to be fair, the less realistic tone might fit the humour a little better.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reader's Diary #1402- Julius Long: The Pale Man

When it comes to delivering up real chills in horror, pacing is everything. Which is really silly when you think about it. Why do ghosts and demons and other spooks take so long getting the job done? Nonetheless, if you want your readers, viewers, listeners, filled with a sense of dread you've got to nurse that baby along.

Julius Long's "The Pale Man" is a great example of this. Set in a quiet, nearly vacant hotel, the narrator, who is staying at one end of a long floor, becomes obsessed with the strange and off-putting pale man staying in a room at the opposite end. It doesn't help (but it does, of course), that the pale man switches rooms every day, inching slower and slower to the narrator's own.

As with most horror, the fear goes away once you analyze it, but it was certainly fun to let myself play along while reading "The Pale Man."

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Reader's Diary #1401- Teva Harrison: In-Between Days

I complain a lot about the art in superhero comics and usually it's because it's too generic. One superhero comic tends to look like the rest. I will add, however, that most of this art is technically fine. A million times better than I could do. Interestingly, memoir comics often are not technically fine. Sometimes it's rough as all hell. Still, it makes artistic sense. A lot of these (Tangles, Rosalie Lightning, and Teva Harrison's In-Between Days) have cathartic intentions and that doesn't typically allow a lot of time for intricacies and edits. More curious is the fact that some of these artists have created something beautiful and poignant when it is looked at as a whole.

In-Between Days is a graphic memoir about living with metastatic breast cancer. If you are unclear about what that is, as I was, it's an incurable breast cancer; it will spread and kill you. Treatment is about prolonging a life as much as possible in as much comfort as possible. As one might imagine, the emotional toll this must take can be as rough as the physical.

There are, as you would expect, tremendously sad moments. I found a scene with Harrison going into an MRI incredibly lonely. There were doctors on the other side, but they were on the other side. There's another scene when she's lying awake beside her sleeping husband trying in vain to keep the negative thoughts away. But Harrison ultimately is upbeat, loving and appreciating life. That sleeping husband? Supportive, loving, and loved in return, beyond any doubt. There are even traces of humour in the unlikeliest of places.

One scene that stood out to me finds Harrison in a support group. "There are no atheists among the stage 4 cancer patients," she observes, then adding, "except for me." With an accompanying essay she elaborates by stating how she would like to believe in an afterlife, but just can't. I suppose I could chalk it up as another way cancer can make you lonely-- what if you can't even relate to your support group? But it actually made me admire her more and not out of some kinship to atheism, but because I appreciated how resilient she was, not allowing cancer to change her completely.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Reader's Diary #1400- Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

We live so much in our own heads that it's reasonable we'd consider ourselves the protagonists of our own stories. But what if we are minor, supporting characters in someone else's story?

Though Tom Stoppard's  Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead presents itself as an absurdist comedy, I have to say, when the fatalistic thought above occurred to me while reading the play, it clanged about in my head and bothered me more than it had any right.

Still, now that I'm done, I suppose it doesn't matter a hill of beans, so comedy was the way to go after all. Else it's all a little depressing, isn't it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Reader's Diary #1399- Devon Code: In a Mist

I don't read a lot of short story collections, but for the past many years I've been reading and reflecting upon a short story per week as part of Short Story Mondays and I consider myself a fan of the form. Perhaps that's why I bristle somewhat when someone, someone who has not adequately given the short story a chance, declares themselves uninterested with a nonsense excuse like short stories being incomplete or unrealized, not having enough space to fully develop both character and plot. And perhaps those people are why, when I come across a short story that doesn't make the best use of its condensed space, I am almost resentful.

That opening paragraph doesn't bode well for Devon Code's short story collection In a Mist.

However, I will say, on a positive note, that Code has a real knack for description. The places, each unique from story to story, felt authentic. The characters had depth and complex motivation. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that the plots themselves were vague. And worse, vague masquerading as profound.

Tellingly, the one I remember and enjoyed the most from this collection, "Edgar and Morty," did seem to follow the more traditional conflict and resolution format.

But I'll also give the benefit of a doubt that as I'm not much of a re-reader (a downside to my one short story a week practice), maybe the plots in the rest of the stories were just buried a little bit deeper and required either a second read or at the very least, a slower, more considerate read. Still, I think it's fair to say that if you were not a fan of short stories before, In a Mist would not convert you.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Reader's Diary #1398- Pascal Chatterjee: annie96 is typing

When I was a teen, a buddy of mine called me up one night and asked what I was wearing. I thought at first he was joking. (You know, with fake "sexy" talk.) But I was game. "What do you think I'm wearing?" "Your purple shirt?"

Wait, how did he know that?

It turned out he'd just slowly awakened to find me playing me with his stereo. And yes, I was wearing a purple shirt. It was the early 90s, what can I say. But then he rubbed his eyes and poof, I was gone!

Nothing else creepier than that happened. And, if I'm being logical about the whole thing, I suppose I wore that shirt a lot so it wouldn't have been strange to dream of me wearing it. Still, it freaked it us a bit at the time.

You'll perhaps understand why I bring that memory up after reading Pascal Chatterjee's very uniquely told "annie96 is typing." While I link to it here, it's best that you read it on a phone. Trust me on this. Told in a "found footage" scenario of an archived text chat, you'll need to click your way through the story. Sound gimmicky? Sure, it is. But the gimmick works wonderfully here and what could be a pretty generic horror story is made all the more creepy the way you force it to unfold before your very eyes, seemingly in real time.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Reader's Diary #1397- Richard Van Camp (writer), Scott B. Henderson (artist): A Blanket of Butterflies

One of the more quirky mysteries in the north is how and why a suit of Samurai armour wound up in a Fort Smith museum. Richard Van Camp, who also hails from Fort Smith, has fun with this fact while composing a quick action story with a few loftier themes.

The Eisner Award nominated graphic novel A Blanket of Butterflies tells the story of Shinobu who has traveled to Fort Smith to return the ancestral suit along with a family sword. The sword, unfortunately, is not being held at the museum but a notorious local group led by "Benny the Bank." They are not as willing to hand it over.

After some intense fight scenes, it is an elder woman who saves the day through her powerful storytelling. She is able to get to the root of and deflate the anger. Soon the sword, too, is back in its rightful hands.

Clearly the healing power of stories is a theme, but I also enjoyed the parallels between Shinobu's struggles to reclaim familial artifacts and the struggles that many First Nations have had in reclaiming their ancestral artifacts from museums.

I appreciated Henderson's art, especially the montage of fight scenes. He uses a lot of hatching and cross-hatching to achieve shadow and enhance expression that could have gotten lost had they chosen to go with colour, but fortunately it's done in black and white. Also, of course, black and white lends a historical vibe which is perfect for a story such as this, one entrenched in history.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Reader's Diary #1396 - Bill Watterson: Yukon Ho!

A few months back I posted a list of cartoons, comics, and graphic novels by province/territory. As you would predict this proved harder the smaller and more sparsely populated the place. For Yukon, I was surprised to find a collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics called Yukon Ho!

Now, after having read it, I'm not entirely comfortable with its inclusion on the list as the connection to Canada's smallest territory is minor at best. Like a lot of these strip collections, there's not much of a rhyme or reason behind the chosen material and a title does not imply a running theme.

Or does it?

This collection is prefaced by a poem by Watterson called The Yukon Song. With its simple rhyme  scheme (akin to Robert Service, one might say) and rhythm, it's not very good. It does however, accurately reflect Calvin's childish brand of imagination and idealism. Ignorant about all but the basic fact of Yukon, that it is cold and there is wildlife, Calvin supposes it to be a land of freedom, a place where he wouldn't have to go to school (he would), where he could yell and cuss (maybe, but not in school), and where the wolves would be his friend (they wouldn't). Partway through the book, the context of this daydream is provided: Calvin has had it up to hear with parental and school rules and plans to runaway to the Yukon to live in a lawless freedom.

Besides the fact that this idealistic naivete is the theme that runs through all Calvin and Hobbes strips (and therefore, not a bad choice for a collection title after all), I think it also pretty accurately reflects the North as imagined by many, adults included, who have never set foot north of 60. Before I came here 15 years ago, I too was pretty ignorant. Granted, I was the opposite of Calvin, instead of romanticizing the freedom and adventure, I was needlessly terrified for the cold and isolation. (For better or worse, I am proof that one can live a pretty happy and pampered life in the north.) So, for its ability to make me reflect on the difference between the idealized north and the real north, I'm happier to include Yukon Ho! on the list of Canadian comics and graphic novels. (And yes, I'm well aware that Watterson is American.)

Question of Canadian relevance aside, I cannot say I fell in love with this collection, nor Calvin and Hobbes strips, of which I'd never really paid much attention until now.  I don't know if it's Watterson's reclusive nature that has ramped up the allure or not, but there seems to be a hipster-cult following of Calvin and Hobbes and so I was expecting something more, something cooler or smarter. Really, I didn't see how it stood out among the rest of the Sunday funnies crowd and it's certainly more Garfield than The Far Side. Basically the theme I discussed above (i.e., Calvin uses his imagination to escape the doldrums and pressures of real life) is explored ad nauseum.

This is not to say that there weren't some gems, some examples when Watterson took a little more time in the art or commentary. I especially enjoyed the strips about Christmas and felt that he took a risk away from his typically innocuous fare. In one of these Calvin is beginning to have doubts about Santa, questioning the meaning of it all, and then applying that same logic to religion in general, "[...]Actually, I've got the same questions about God." In another, he's challenged by Hobbes after stating that Calvin will believe in Santa after all, as he doesn't want to risk not getting presents. After Hobbes charges that it is a "cynically enterprising" approach to take, Calvin rebuts, "It's the spirit of Christmas." Regardless of whether or not I agree with Watterson or whether it's even all that funny, I was thrilled for these rare moments when the comic was actually about something.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Reader's Diary #1395- Amelia B. Edwards: The Phantom Coach

No doubt it's my building excitement for the upcoming Marvel movie, Doctor Strange, but at one point reading Amelia B. Edwards' "The Phantom Coach" I could almost hear Tilda Swinton's voice from the trailer...

You think you know how the world works. You think this material universe is all there is. What if I told you the reality you know is one of many? 

There's a very compelling character in "The Phantom Coach," a former scientist and scholar who, finding no place in the world for someone like himself, someone who believes in the metaphysical and in science, cut himself off from society. I guess I just found it interesting that this theme, found in an 19th century ghost story, could still hold relevance today.

Otherwise the story is a very traditional ghost story, to the point of tropes, but as it was written way back when there's a lot more forgiveness seeing as I have no idea if such scenes were tropes at the time.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Reader's Diary #1394- Michel Tremblay: The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant

My only prior experience reading Michel Tremblay before was his play Forever Yours Marie-Lou. I'm not sure if that's what put it in my head or not, but reading The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant felt a bit like reading a play and the same problem I often have with that medium, finding it difficult to tell all the characters apart without a visual, I had here.

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is the day in the life of a Montreal street in 1942. The book flows in and out of the lives of various characters (including a cat!), most of whom intersect at some point or another. The pervading tone is one of melancholia; everyone seems to feel judged unfairly by everyone else, but there are flashes of humor and danger as well. It's not particularly plot heavy, but it's interesting, even poignant at times. Not all lives are created equal of course and some of the problems I had with remembering who was who simply came down to some being less compelling than others. The prostitutes were interesting. The elderly mother was interesting. The cat and the family of ghost sisters were interesting. The others, not so much. Oddly, the titular character seemed no more important than anyone else. She seems like the kind of character book clubs would discuss, debating why Tremblay singled her out for the title role. Does she symbolize something?

All in all, not an unpleasant read, but I have a feeling that it would have grown tedious had it gone on much longer.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Reader's Diary #1393- Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker (writers), David Aja: The Immortal Iron Fist (The Complete Collection)

Really enjoying Luke Cage, the latest gritty Marvel superhero show from Netflix, I'm also trying to get a jump start on next year's addition to the slate, Iron Fist, by reading the complete acclaimed run on the character by Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, and David Aja (actually, a few more had their hands in this volume as well, but those are the main guys).

In the sense that it's given me an appreciation for Danny Rand the character and Iron Fist the concept, I'm glad that I read it. Rand is thoughtful, loyal, strong, and though the book is quite violent, he doesn't relish violence, nor shun it. He seems to have a pragmatic appreciation verging on Zen. He's the latest in a long line of Iron Fists, those blessed and trained with a magical martial art from a mystical city known as K'un Lun.

But as a story, I found it all to be a convoluted, over-stuffed mess. There's a madman trying to K'un Lun and the other mystical cities, a tournament, a bunch of underwhelming Hydra guys, a kidnapping, and it's all rather unfortunate considering there are seeds of great stories everywhere, none of which are allowed to blossom. The most compelling is the sense of history, the idea of being part of, and learning from, a larger legacy while protecting it from a cancerous turn.

I'm not at all sure how it'll all work in the street level Netflix world of Marvel with such lofty and worldly constructs, but I'm very curious to find out.

The art, the stuff done by David Aja, is excellent and I'm quickly becoming a big fan. It tends to have thin lines with thick shadows and it almost resemble wood prints. This especially works with the timeless story of the Iron Fist.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Reader's Diary #1392- Jana G. Pruden: The Crichton Farm

There's that legendary supreme court line about pornography and the difficult matter of defining it when recognizing it is relatively easy. Reflecting upon Jana G. Pruden's "The Crichton Farm," it is clear that the same can be said for creative non-fiction.

"The Crichton Farm" reads like a regular (i.e., fiction) short story. So much so that I was more than halfway through before I realized that it even was true. Using Instagram's new story feature, Pruden uses 12 photos as prompts to tell a story about an Albertan family befallen by one tragedy after another but somehow persevering. It is only when I got to a photo of a woman signing a book that I realized that the story must be true. This actually came at a good time because I was just starting to think that the number of tragedies was actually too overdone to be believable!

Of course, the format alone also makes the story worthy of the "creative" label, a fantastic use of the Instagram feature. That said, when I stumbled upon it at first it was difficult to find the 12 pieces in order. Luckily the pieces are so succinct and rich that they almost work as 12 separate stories. Still, for now the best bet to read all 12 in order is to go to Pruden's Twitter feed where she offers links to all 12 parts. As these will eventually be buried further down her Twitter scroll, I'll also offer the 12 links here:

Part one
Part two
Part three
Part four
Part five
Part six
Part seven
Part eight
Part nine
Part ten
Part eleven
Part twelve