Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The 10th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - May 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, congratulations once again to Irene for winning a copy of T. K. Boomer's Planet Song for taking part in last month's mini-challenge to read a Canadian eBook. Canadian Book Challenge mini-challenges are exclusive to members via email.)

Reader's Diary #1598- Box Brown: Tetris

I love when authors are able to take topic like beer, salt, or Tetris and make what should be a mildy amusing history at best fascinating.

Not a dig at the game, of course. You know the game was great. But how it was created and published? Do you really care? Maybe you should.

Brown begins by introducing us Alexey Pajitnov, a computer scientist in Moscow in the last few years of the U.S.S.R. Pajtinov is instantly likeable. He's a much a philosopher as a computer scientist, and a pretty selfless person to boot. Together, Pajitnov and Brown make a solid case for games as art.

Soon, however, it becomes a high stakes business story as Atari, Nintendo, Sega, and a handful of other developers travel the globe trying to secure the rights. It's complicated by the communist government, language barriers, and mistaken assumptions wind up having dire consequences.

Tetris becomes a subtle metaphor for people and companies scrambling to fit in. Art.

The visuals are simplistic but sufficient, like Tetris blocks, and a black/white/yellow colour scheme recalls the 1st generation Nintendo Game Boys.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Reader's Diary #1597- Peter Milligan and Larry Hama (writers), Mike Deodato Jr. (artist): Elektra The Complete Collection

A funny thing happened while reading this collection: I went from hating the art to forgetting about it (not the same as enjoying it) while not minding the story-telling to hating it.

Mike Deodato Jr.'s art was sexist and lame. Elektra's body proportions and movements looked so exaggerated and impossible I seriously began to suspect that he used a Barbie doll. Worse still, he then broke that Barbie doll's spine so that she could heave out her chest as much as possible and dressed her a one piece that barely covered her vulva let alone her butt.. to fight in!

Thankfully I didn't mind Elektra's character and looked forward to getting to know her. The vengeful woman who is desperately trying her damnedest to be good is intriguing and likeable. Eventually however her story got bogged down with two dimensional side characters. I'd be okay with secondary characters, of course, put these were either poorly written or underdeveloped. First there was Mac, her Steven Segal-looking boyfriend without the personality. Then there was Konrad, a Broadway director whose personality gets trapped in a woman's body. I feel like they tried something progressive there, but failed miserably. There was nothing stating that Konrad was transsexual before and yet he seems to quickly come to peace with this new body. Um. I don't think the message that people should be happy regardless of the sex is of their current physical form is as progressive as all that. Finally there was Nina, a teenage girl that Elektra takes in early on in the collection, barely interacts with, then watches her get killed. Of course, being Marvel, she comes back to life and I guess it's supposed to be emotionally gut-wrenching when she then turns on Elektra, but the bond was never adequately established in the first place.

All in all, this was a disappointing collection.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Reader's Diary #1596- Kate Reuther: A Man Walks Into a Bar

Last week I had remarked that my Short Story Monday selection read like a joke. Coincidentally, Kate Reuther's "A Man Walks Into a Bar" uses this approach intentionally. And it's so much better for it.

I've long thought that good jokes were like flash fiction and I'm a huge fan of "into a bar" jokes, so this story was completely up my alley.

While playing homage to the puns, Reuther subverts the humor as the story progresses. If a man spends this much time walking into a bar, there's likely something very sad going on. Like Cheers without the laugh track.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Reader's Diary #1595- Rick Remender (writer), various artists: Venom, The Complete Collection Volume 1

Confession time:I didn't mind Topher Grace as Venom in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3.

With that out of the way, and with hardcore Venom fans writing me off as a fraud and moving on, I'll also admit that Venom's not a character to whom I've paid a lot of attention. I used to think of him primarily as a villain, but I've since seen that he's sometimes considered a hero and well, all that has piqued my interest.

I do feel that Rick Remender's Venom gives a good sense of what the character is all about. Sort of. Venom is, in Marvel lingo, a symbiote. The name might be considered a misnomer considering that it triggers connotations of symbiosis rather than parasitism and Venom blurs that line. A sentient alien goo, it attaches itself to a human host and gives that person strength and shape shifting abilities. One also assumes Venom gets something from the relationship. So far, so good. But, if one leaves the goo attached too long (as Flash Thompson does from time to time in this collection), Venom begins to take over. It also seems to react to the hosts emotions and takes over when the host feels threatened or angry. Furthermore, human morals are not necessarily alien morals and when Venom takes over, the line between hero and villain is also blurred.

With such a unique and foreign concept as Venom then, it's a difficult character to pin down. Remender does what I assume most would in his case: focuses instead on the host. Enter Flash Thompson (not Eddie Brock of the aforementioned movie, though he does make an appearance). First introduced way back in the day, Flash was a high school bully to Spider-Man's Peter Parker. Here Remender fleshes out the character a lot more, giving him a background and what not. There's a pretty solid argument to make that he overdid the tragic angle (Flash is an alcoholic war amp with some pretty severe daddy issues) but this also makes the Venom angle edgier. If the symbiote reacts to human emotion, having him latch unto such an emotionally unstable wreck as Flash Thompson promises a lot of drama.

As a collection, it's pretty good, though calling it complete is not entirely accurate and there were a few moments when gaps were clearly filled in in stories not included here. Still, it's coherent for the most part and pretty solid exciting storytelling.

Despite the variety of different artists, the art is surprisingly consistent. Most seemed to have fun with the idea of an inky shape-shifting, slightly humanoid monster and went with it. The real task was honing in the chaos to still create something visually legible and they succeeded with aplomb. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reader's Diary #1594- Barry Rosen: A Visit to Tim Horton's

Barry Rosen's "A Visit to Tim Horton's" very much reads like a joke: Sigmund Freud, Elvis Presley, and Tim Horton meet at the eponymous coffee joint. There are even a few punch lines here or there, but ultimately this reader's anticipation was not rewarded.

It's quirky and entertaining, though, and considering that it's all rather pointless, mercifully short.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reader's Diary #1593- Chris Claremont (writer), John Byrne (artist): The Uncanny X-Men / The Dark Phoenix Saga

I've read a few solo X-Men titles, but surprisingly few featuring a team of them. But it was the word that "The Dark Phoenix Saga" would be adapted for a movie next year that drew my attention. It turns out to be one of the most respected storylines in the X-Men canon.

I suppose the underlying plot still holds up well enough. It centers around Jean Grey whose ever-increasing superpowers prove to be too much. Her absolute power corrupts her absolutely, essentially turning her into an entirely different creature: the murderous and power-lusting Dark Phoenix. Her former friends and teammates a terrible emotional and physical battle as they attempt to destroy the Dark Phoenix while saving Jean Grey.

As a comic as a whole, however, it's terribly dated. The garish colours are all uniformly applied in that colour-by-numbers approach of the time; though I suppose, depending on your viewpoint, perhaps that could be seen as charming. Less debatable is the tendency to tell the story through narration and thought balloons.

I also felt that the story was dragged out a bit at the end, essentially wrapped up in the penultimate comic in the collection, but with a tacked out moon battle in the final issue.

On the plus side, a few essential characters are introduced in the comic, namely Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reader's Diary #1592- Lucy Clifford: The New Mother

Lucy Clifford's "The New Mother" reminds me of Dwight Schrute's cautionary tales for kids; overly horrific tales meant to teach children a lesson.

On that note, "The New Mother" is more creepy-weird than perversely violent, and essentially it's a lesson on not giving into temptations that will provide a few minutes enjoyment at the cost of misbehaving (a lesson just as applicable to adults).

Still, it's a bizarre and fascinating tale that reads more as horror than as a moralistic story.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Reader's Diary #1591- Various writers and artists: X-23 Complete Series

In the early 2000s Marvel began its MAX imprint with edgier, uncensored titles. I've read a few titles from this run, but how the X-23 stories didn't fall under this banner, I have no idea. They certainly disturbed me more than say, the Punisher.

Of course, we all have certain lines that make us more uncomfortable and child abuse is one of mine. If you've seen Stranger Things and were bothered over Eleven's childhood as a weaponized experiment, magnify that by... well, 11, and then don't let up on it. There's a lot of physical and emotional abuse is what I'm saying.

If that doesn't make you turn away, the stories are still thrilling and, perhaps because of the abuse and X-23's determination to be good, to rise above everyone's ill intentions and stop being used, it's next to impossible not to root for her. A secondary, but also compelling character is X-23's mother who is treated with an unexpected level of complexity for a comic book where good and evil tends to be black and white.

With many artists involved, it's not consistent in quality, but it's largely good. Mike Choi's work on the "Target X" story line was my favourite with its realism and artistic paneling, plus superior colouring by Sonia Oback.  

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Reader's Diary #1590- Dan Abnett (writer), Luke Ross (artist): Hercules Still Going Strong

Though he was in the periphery of many Marvel comics that I've read, I still didn't know much about Hercules. Of course, I'm a little familiar with the non-Marvel mythology, but I've been a little in the dark with how he's been interpreted by Marvel.

This is not a bad collection to understand his role at Marvel, though perhaps best to see where he's going rather than where he's been. It's not an origin story (i.e., how he has wound up in present day New York), but there are hints of his drunken, playboy past as he has now decided to get his life back on track, to stop being a joke and return to his hero roots.

The action is good (it involves a new class of "gods" who are trying to get rid of any left from the old mythology, but the sub-story of Hercules' battle with alcoholism brings it a notch higher than standard fare. Considering he goes around shirtless (and hairy) with a man-bun, the humanity angle was also much needed to take him serious as a character.

The art is fine, if rather generic.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Reader's Diary #1589- Heikki Hietala: Lord Stanton's Horse

I'm not usually a fan of war stories, but I can certainly be patient enough for a war-themed flash fiction.

What keeps Heikki Hietala's "Lord Stanton's Horse" compelling, even for non-fans of war stories, is the tension created by the withholding of information. In the story, a soldier is recounting a battle to a woman named Emily. She wants to know what happened to a man named Charles, yet the soldier seems more interested in discussing horses. The reason becomes clear.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Reader's Diary #1588- Kurt Busiek (writer), various artists: Conan The Blood-Stained Crown and Other Stories

I've never watched a Conan the Barbarian film but references have come up enough in pop culture that I not only was aware of the character but had also formed an impression of what he was all about: a meathead who solved most of his problems with violence.

Turns out, that's about right. Not to say I didn't enjoy this collection of Conan tales at all, but I've probably read enough for now.

Kurt Busiek, perhaps best known for Astro City, managed to still tell an entertaining yarn and mostly, counter-intuitively, by not focusing on the titular character. Most compelling are the stories that feature characters who themselves are enthralled by the legend of Conan and contrasting those against the "real" deeds of Conan.

Still it's all too much of a macho-grunt fest for me. The fantastical realm is brutally violent and unappealing and the women are eye-candy props for male readers. One female is presented as a capable fighter at least, but even then we're supposed to believe she'd choose to battle in a crop top, intentionally undersized to show as much under-boob as possible.

Art-wise, it's pretty great. Despite an assortment of artists, there's a consistent feel and Will Eisner's influence is everywhere. Plus the colouring and grit complement the tales perfectly.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Reader's Diary #1587- Vernon Oickle (writer), Julie Anne Babin (illustrator): Strange Nova Scotia

Vernon Oickle's Strange Nova Scotia is unlikely to make any national bestseller list, but that's just fine and I doubt he had any aspirations of that. It's the kind of book you see on a gas station counter. It'll sell a few copies to tourists and a few locals will have copies in their bathrooms, but that's likely to be it.

But as I'm not a local nor a tourist, how did I end up with it? A friend of mine recently moved to Nova Scotia and perhaps knowing that I'm a trivia buff, sent me a copy.

And to be sure, it's more a book of trivia than facts that anyone would really consider all that strange. I mean, the first baptism in Canada had to happen somewhere; that it happened in Nova Scotia isn't particularly odd.

I'm not sure how many of these tidbits will actually stick with me, but it was an enjoyable, slightly educational quick read. It also serves as a reminder that every little town in Nova Scotia and across Canada has its share of interesting history.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Reader's Diary #1586- Ed Piskor: Hip Hop Family Tree 4 1984-1985

A huge fan of this series, I don't know how I managed to miss the 4th volume of Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree series. In any case, I've now had my hands on it and once again Piskor's added to my music collection.

It's quite noticeable that the series has now slowed down to a volume per year. That makes sense considering that hip hop grew so much beyond its earlier days. There are more artists that Piskor must now report on.

I was surprised at the early entries of a few stars, notably D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince as well as Dr. Dre as I tend to think of them as coming onto the scene in the later 80s early 90s. Nonetheless, it was interesting to get some of their background stories. Conversely, I was also surprised that some of the old guard had still been hanging on in the mid 80s.

Unfortunately because of the plethora of artists, I was looking for a bit more narrative like had been in the earlier volumes. Sometimes it felt like Piskor was just shouting out a name and song. Still, he manages to still tell enough stories to keep me intrigued. The story behind the "Roof is on Fire" was especially fascinating.

The art, as always, is wonderful. This time around, Piskor also makes use of a photo here or there which was a nice way of keeping things new as well as serving as a reminder that these books are based on actual people and events.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Reader's Diary #1585- Austin Bunn: The End of the Age is Upon Us

I'll try not to spoil too much, but a big reason why I enjoyed Austin Bunn's "The End of the Age is Upon Us" is because it came as a surprise to me that it wasn't science fiction.

It's a tragedy, it's an unrequited love story, it's a fascinating and well written story.