Thursday, November 30, 2017

Reader's Diary #1674- Lael Morgan: Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush

Lael Morgan's Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush is a remarkable account of the prostitutes of Alaska and Yukon in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most applaudable is the amount of material she was able to uncover and collect on a subject and people not often discussed and from a time and place so remote. But almost equally impressive is the dynamic storytelling. I'm always in awe of historians who make nonfiction as compelling as fiction and Good Time Girls reads almost like a novel.

Of course, it probably helps that the characters in question aren't boring-ass politicians or bank tellers. However, despite these girls' trade, it's not a salacious book. She doesn't shy away from what they actually did for a living, but I can recall only sexual description in the whole book that even comes close to graphic. Likewise, for violence. She presents the women non-judgmentally and allows their rich and diverse personalities to shine through.

I was particularly fascinated with the women of Dawson City. While it's a sad reality that many are, and were, forced into prostitution, a lot of those in the trade there were adventure-seeking entrepreneurs who eschewed the mores of the day. Some, heaven-forbid, even enjoyed sex! They were not unlike their male counterparts, most of whom left the comforts of San Francisco behind to find thrills and riches in the north.

Almost as compelling were the johns. Many wound up falling in love with these women and often didn't even care when they continued to sleep with other men for money.

None of this is to suggest that Morgan presents an overly rosy picture. There were many hardships and heartbreaks and disease, abuse, suicides, prejudice, and poverty are all recorded.

Together it's a fascinating look at the women who were crucial to the culture and development of many northern towns.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Reader's Diary #1673- Kelley Armstrong: Bitten

For the longest time, it seemed Canada had no genre fiction. It was all, for better or worse, CanLit. I'm sure there were always Canadian writers trying their pens at horror, romance, sci-fi and the like, but Kelley Armstrong was among the first to finally make it popular and profitable.

Despite that, and despite having met her a few years back, I'd not read anything of hers beyond a short story. Might as well start with the novel that kicked off her prolific career: Bitten, the werewolf romance/urban fantasy/horror book and first in her Women of the Otherworld series.

While I enjoyed it overall, it did feel rather like a first novel. Curiously, I was able to suspend my belief for werewolves but not for her rather faulty representation of a small town. Set by and large in Bear Valley, which at one point she mentions as having only 8000 inhabitants, it ebbs and flows between small town and major city. No small town I've ever lived in (and I've lived in many) would have had the rave described here and if an enormous "dog" wound up killing people at said rave, I can assure you that it would be front page news for a very long time.

Still, I liked the voice of the protagonist Elena. Though not always a trustworthy narrator (to be fair, she was struggling with inner conflict), she had a consistently conversational style. And while the plot itself seemed to struggle to find its footing, I admit enjoying not always knowing where the story was headed.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Reader's Diary #1672- Karen Ovér: Lazlo and Laroux

This is a pre-scheduled post to appear while I am on vacation in Curacao. 

A few week's back our premier made headlines by calling out the Prime Minister on the off-shore drilling ban in the Arctic. It's a complicated issue for sure and I'm sympathetic to both sides. On the one hand, people still need fossil fuels and people still need jobs. On the other, the environment is a mess and perhaps it will take bans and other extreme measures to push technological solutions.

Karen Ovér's "Lazlo and Laroux" is set in a post-apocalyptic world where fossil fuels have nearly been used up. The remaining have been taken by a select few who have walled themselves off from the rest of the world. And there are dragons.

It's an odd element to be sure, but keeps the story engaging. I'd have to read a few more times, however, before deciding that they serve a purpose beyond getting the story published on a sci-fi site.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Reader's Diary #1671 - Mensje van Keulen: Sand

(This is a pre-scheduled post to appeared while I am vacationing in Curacao.)

I absolutely loved the way Mensje van Keulen's "Sand" unfolded. It begins as a bit of a character study of a married couple having a disagreement. The husband throws out what should be a frivolous comment but the wife attacks it. Initially she comes across as shrill and unreasonable, but then as details emerge, the wife is granted more complexity allowing readers the opportunity to be more empathetic.

And then the story takes a 90 degree turn and goes off in a wholly unexpected area. I won't give too much of a trigger warning except to say that where it goes is very disturbing.

That said, I loved the writing.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Reader's Diary #1670- Aimee Major Steinberger: Japan Ai

I'm not typically a fan of travel comics. I love the idea of someone recording their daily observations this way but publishing them seems a little self-indulgent to me. That said, Japan was a favourite vacation of mine and so I was definitely open to Aimee Major Steinberger's Japan Ai.

Subtitled "A Tall Girl's Adventure in Japan," I wasn't expecting a lot of common observations, but height and gender themes weren't strong. Even when they were I found common ground. Her experiences being dressed as a geisha, for instance, reminded me of when my daughter did the same.

More common were the observations that most North American's would likely make there and I found myself smiling in agreement and nostalgia as she talked about the Japanese style toilets, the vending machines selling cans of hot coffee, and the Tokyo Tower mascot that... doesn't look like a tower (if you catch my drift).

For those westerners who have been lucky enough to have been there, I am sure you'll be like me and enjoy Steinberger's recollections. For those who haven't yet, it will provide a very accurate depiction of what to expect.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reader's Diary #1699- Mike Norton: Battlepug 1

Continuing on my exploration of comics that first breathed life on the web, it's Battlepug by Mike Norton.

Battlepug is a wacky fantasy series with a giant pug who's a companion to a Conan-esque barbarian character. It also features giant terrorizing baby seals and a slave master Santa Claus. It's really a perfect blend of humor and action with awesome art (caricature style and beautifully rendered colours).

One small bone of contention is the gratuitous nudity. It's not that it's over-the-top (just a butt is shown) but the frame story comes off as a tad sexist. Could a beautiful woman be lying on her bed naked while telling a story to her dogs? Sure, I guess. Still, seems like a cheap way to appeal to the hormones of adolescent straight males.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Reader's Diary #1698- Reinhard Kleist: Nick Cave Mercy On Me

Earlier this year I read and quite enjoyed Reinhard Kleist's Johnny Cash graphic biography I See A Darkness. I won't lie and pretend that I liked his treatment of Nick Cave Mercy on Me to the same degree, but largely that's simply because I was less familiar with Nick Cave's music before going in.

You could enjoy this book without any prior knowledge of Cave or his songs, simply as a portrait of a driven (sometimes obsessive) artist who, more than anything, shuns normalcy. However, as proven when Kleist worked in the few songs I did know (Mercy Seat, Where the Wild Roses Go), it helps one's enjoyment. Reinhard likes to intertwine fact and fiction, often incorporating song lyrics as elements of the singer's life, and so to really make sense of it and appreciate his point, familiarity can only work in the reader's favour. All that aside, as a music junky, whenever there were references to songs I didn't know, I immediately downloaded them and even if just for that, I'd be glad to have read this book.

Once again, Reinhard's style (inky, black, and scratchy) fits his subject. I'm curious though how he'd do with a biography of say Aqua or Barry Manilow.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Reader's Diary #1697- Doug Bayne (writer) and Trudy Cooper (artist): Oglaf Book One

I'm forever trying to study comics and graphic novels and one area I've not explored much is webcomics. I've happened upon some print versions of comics that first appeared online (by folks such as Kate Beaton, Ryan North, and The Oatmeal), but didn't seek them out specifically for their origins.

So, this time I went looking for recommendations. I still cheated somewhat and stuck with ones that were later preserved on paper, but nonetheless I managed to come up with a list. I've begun my reading with Doug Bayne and Trudy Cooper's Oglaf which came up most frequently on must-read lists, but most compelling always with a disclaimer that it is not safe for work.

And whoo-boy is it not. I would venture to say that 90% of the strips in this collection have punchlines about genitalia and/or sex. And the visuals leave NOTHING up to the imagination. Is it pornographic? I'd say it depends on your definition, but as the primary purpose of these comics seem to be humour I'd say not.

And it's dang funny. It helps that Trudy Cooper's characters give just the right expressions to acknowledge the absurdity of it all.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reader's Diary #1696- Diego Vecchio: The Tobacco Man

Bizarrely, Argentinian writer Diego Vecchio's short story "The Tobacco Man" is set in Alberta. But that's not the most bizarre thing.

The premise of the frame story is the recounting of the events that led to a successful lawsuit against a tobacco company by a writer for causing irreparable damage to his artistic career. Then there are a series of stories within this story that somewhat use the "butterfly effect" scenario and time travel.

I'm not entirely sure that the end result is more than a sum of its parts, but the parts themselves are fascinating enough.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Reader's Diary #1695- Scott Snyder (writer) and Jeff Lemire (artist): A.D. After Death

Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire's A.D. After Death is the second comic I've read this year dealing with immortality. Being a fan of both of these creators though, I was expecting to enjoy this one more.

In the end, I respected the ambition of the book more than the execution. The themes of immortality and memory are certainly lofty enough and the approach was very creative (illustrated prose pages are mixed with comics, images are a mix of realistic and abstract), but it all comes across as a bit of a fever dream. The story needed to be reined in and fleshed out more before attempting philosophical musings that ultimately distracted from the tale rather than blossom from it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Reader's Diary #1694- Peter David: Ben Reilly The Scarlet Spider / Back in the Hood

It seems that most of the positive reviews of the new Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider series were from fans of the character since the 90s when he first appeared as a Spider-Man clone.

Not having read those earlier books, I cannot say the character does anything for me now. I believe he appeared in Spider-Verse a couple of years back but he's so forgettable that I don't recall. Now with a whole trade focused on him, I cannot see what there is to like. He seems more of a Deadpool to tell you the truth. Snarky comments, more anti-hero than hero, scarred face, Spider-Man infatuation— the only thing missing is the 4th wall breaking. Even the villains seem like knock-offs. Slate has unbreakable skin? Umm, isn't that Luke Cage's thing? 

A plot about a dying sick girl is underdeveloped and if the point was to give the book some emotional gravitas, it sadly fails. 

I can think of at least a dozen other characters I'd like to see get their own comic run before Ben Reilly. Tigra please! Or Echo! But, if we're going back for a Spider-Verse character, I'll take Spider-Punk!

Monday, November 06, 2017

Reader's Diary #1693- Robin Quackenbush: The Oak and the Willow

The first three quarters of Robin Quackenbush's "The Oak and the Willow" reminded me very much of the Indigenous folk tales, parables, and origin stories that I've read. It is not until the end and mention of a prince that that effect was lost, but the story of a pair of sentient trees remained charming.

As for messages one could take away, I'll have to spend some time thinking on that, perhaps re-reading the story. Though the fact that these are two different species of trees was not lost on me.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Reader's Diary #1692- Mary Walsh: Crying for the Moon

Ah Mary Walsh. I've been a fan of hers for such a long time. Of course, that was primarily for her comedic TV work, so the jury was still out on whether or not she could write.

I will say that her old TV characters influenced my reading of the book. Maureen, the protagonist, reminded somewhat of one of the "Friday Night Girls" from CODCO. Her mother reminded me a whole lot of Ma Reardon from "This Hour has 22 Minutes". There was even a character that reminded me Tommy Sexton's "Spook" character from CODCO. That all said, it's as if everyone had been given a gritty reboot as Crying for the Moon could not be classified as comedy. Nor would I say, it was a distraction or necessity to know of those TV characters. This is all pretty much an aside.

I'm not familiar with much of the perspective being explored by Walsh in this novel. Though I grew up in Newfoundland, it wasn't in the city and it wasn't in the late 60s. I also have no idea (thankfully) of what it's like to be an alcoholic or an abused woman. I will say that Walsh, to her real credit, makes it all seem authentic. Whether an insider would agree or not remains to be seen, but the story and characters in Crying for the Moon seem plausible and wholly developed.  Given Walsh's known love of literature, this should have come as no surprise.

The plot itself loosely revolves around a murder mystery but while that story is engaging, it pales in comparison to the frustrating but endearing Maureen. I found myself begging for her to gain some confidence, not to make that decision, to get her life on track. To be that attached to a character is the mark of great writing.

There's a resolution of sorts at the end, but it definitely leaves itself open for a sequel. I'd love to read more!

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Reader's Diary #1691- Tom DeFalco (writer), Sandy Jarrell (artist): Reggie and Me

Reggie's always held a bit of weird spot in Archie comics, certainly more of a main player than say Midge or Dilton, but more like a 5th wheel to the big four. So getting his own title does make some sense.

Then, he's also a bit of a minor villain and even Veronica, who sometimes plays that role, has typically shared her title outings with the more affable Betty. So, to take the edge off, Reggie gets paired with his loyal dog Vader who also serves as the narrator.

The Reggie and Me collection is certainly entertaining, mildly funny with a none-too-serious plot and drawn well by Sandy Jarrell. I don't think, however, they really succeeded in making him likeable. That doesn't always, and shouldn't always, matter, but towards the end I sort of suspected that was the goal. He cries over his dog and I think that's supposed to be enough to make him a sympathetic character. But there's still a lot of rot underneath and to be honest, while he doesn't doing anything too outrageous in this book, it's hard not to think of such a person in real life and in real life, I'd think he'd be a bit of a psychopath.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Reader's Diary #1690- Jim Starlin (writer), Various artists: The Infinity War

Despite the title, I'm told that next year's Avengers movie of the same name will be based more heavily on the Infinity Gauntlet than this story line. Nonetheless, I'd be lying if I said that the upcoming film didn't inspire me to pick this one up.

The problem with this collection are likely to be an issue with the film: with an abundance of characters, it's hard to give everyone something to do. Starlin has clearly picked his favourites and Adam Warlock, Magus, Thanos, and Gamora get more "screen-time" than the rest. Granted, even as large as the cast of the movie will be, due to property rights they'll still have far less to worry about the book.

The Infinity War is a classic evil-power-grab story but has a strong space-opera component. In this regard, the film might do best to rely heavily on their Guardians of the Galaxy characters. And, if they're trying to give homage to the visuals of The Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity Wars books, perhaps best to rely on the special effects of Doctor Strange.

Despite the battle for control of the universe, it's mostly fluff fun with little in the way of philosophical ideas (though there is posturing). Perhaps those looking for such concepts would do better to turn to the more recent Secret Wars story line.

In all, a fun, wild ride but nothing earth-shattering.