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Monday, August 20, 2018

Reader's Diary #1892- Nnedi Okorafor: Mother of Invention

I've been slowly trying to find read short stories set in each country around the world and while I've been having some luck with African countries, most of those I've found have been on the traditional, folklore side of things. So, it was an unexpected treat to find a futuristic sci-fi story set in Nigeria; less expected was that it was penned by Nnedi Okorafor, author of Black Panther: Long Live the King.

"Mother of Invention" involves a pregnant woman named Anwuli holed up in a "smart house" known as Obi 3. If the idea of a AI house makes you think of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, I hope it doesn't give too much away to say that Okorafor subverts that expectation.

But more than just a technological future, she also depicts a genetically altered biological future and some fascinating ramifications of that. It's almost shocking, this developed and believable Nigerian future of Okorafor's imagination.

And finally, the best setting in the world isn't much without a story and thankfully she delivers on that front too, with the complexly proud Anwuli and the coming of a life-threatening storm.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Reader's Diary #1891- Takashi Hashiguchi: Yakitate!! Japan 1

Despite having the good fortune to visit Japan a few years back, I had no idea about Japanese baking. My first exposure was a mere year ago (and now, many butter rolls ago) when a Japanese bakery, Ja-Pain, opened here in Yellowknife.

Imagine my surprise then when I came across a manga series entirely devoted to Japanese bread. In Yakitate!! Japan, sixteen year old Kazuma Azuma knows that Japan isn't exactly known for its baked goods, not even among Japanese people, and he sets out to change that. It helps that he's been gifted with "hands of the sun," hands of the perfect temperature to cultivate yeast.

It may not seem like the most compelling of books, unless perhaps you're a hardcore foodie, but it's surprisingly entertaining. It helps that in this particular volume, the story revolves around a baking competition where the prize is a job at a prestigious bakery. Kazuma is immensely likeable if not a little naive and he befriends another competitor named Kawachi who is secretly trying to sabotage him. Will Kazuma catch on and feel betrayed? Will Kawachi be won over by Kazuma's charms? And are Kazuma's enthusiasm and miracle hands enough to take him all the way?

These answers don't come in the first volume but it definitely provides enough incentive to continue.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Reader's Diary #1890- Keith Harris: The Bicycle

Keith Harris's "The Bicycle" is a quirky little short story that I'm not sure fits what I usually think of when I hear the term "quirky."

It's told rather traditionally and with a pretty average sort of protagonist who happens to really love bicycles and biking, but not in a way I'd consider over-the-top obsession. Still the ending is kind of unpredictable and strange and I'm left pondering what it means. Is there a lesson here about hobbies sometimes paying off? I'm unsure.

In any case, I enjoyed the voice and the setting and even if I get nowhere with my final conclusion, I'll at least have enjoyed mulling it over.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Reader's Diary #1889- Rodney Barnes (writer), Joshua Cassara (artist): Falcon Take Flight

I have mixed feelings about Rodney Barnes' Falcon: Take Flight. I found myself enjoying it at times, not so much at others.

I was excited to read a solo Falcon story for sure and in that regard, I did get a better sense of him as a character. I don't think it would necessarily be a good jumping on point for a newbie to Marvel comics however as there are a lot of references to past story lines (the Secret Empire comics in particular). Fortunately, I was able to keep up with those and as an added bonus, I got to see a few other characters in action that I was curious about. There's Mephisto, whom I knew before but not greatly aware of, and brand new to me, his son Blackheart. There's Patriot, a teenage superhero also previously unfamiliar to me. (I enjoyed the mentor/mentee relationship between Falcon and he, though I did find Patriot himself somewhat annoying with his overuse of pop-culture references-- way too "Marvel"). I appreciated the appearance of Misty Knight and the blossoming romance. And I've long wanted to see Blade pop up in a new comic again, so that was pretty great.

The stories themselves didn't do a lot for me though. I couldn't buy into the stakes that were supposedly set-up and I couldn't get a good feel where Falcon was going as a character. I also wasn't overly appreciative of the art. I found the overly dark, smudgy colouring in particular inconsistent with the story; gritty but the story and characters did not seem necessarily committed to going in a gritty direction.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Reader's Diary #1888- Michelle Knudsen: Evil Librarian

I'll admit choosing this one simply because it had "Librarian" in the title. Unfortunately, while the titular character may have in fact been evil (he's a demon), the fact that he's a high school librarian is next to irrelevant. Simply put: not enough librarianing.

Perhaps that was the nail in the coffin because nothing else in the book worked for me after that. I know I'm not the demographic Knudsen likely intended (that being young adults), but I've enjoyed plenty of books not meant for me before.

I didn't find myself laughing at the parts meant to be funny, didn't find myself scared at parts meant to be scared. I didn't come to care or believe in the characters and the plot felt too convenient. I'll take some blame that I may have overthought things and perhaps it's a book best read as a fast diversion. I at least appreciated the pacing and the voice of the main character.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Reader's Diary #1887- Various writers and artists: Milk Wars

At first I wasn't sure what to think of Milk Wars, a recent comic arc from DC's new "out there" Young Animal line.

I couldn't get a grasp on what the hell was happening. There was some nefarious Retcon group rewriting actual lives of superheroes in order to sell their world. It involved a bunch of characters I'd never heard of before or just had a passing familiarity with. There was someone called Milkman Man. People were being forced/ brainwashed into drinking milk. The art was like more like something you'd see from Marvel's LSD-inspired past.

It was all well and good to be creative, but some accessibility would have been nice. Fortunately I did start to get a grasp on things. If anything it seemed like a warning to the main DC line of superheroes and their creators. Essentially it's a creator's manifesto to not let commercialism let things become predictable and bland, to avoid safe topics and conservative propaganda. Creators should be allowed to take risks, even with established characters like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.

All that and a quirky sense of humour, a wide swath of styles, made Milk Wars a fascinating collection.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Reader's Diary #1886- Mi-Kyung Yun, translated by Heejeong Haas: Bride of the Water God 1

Third time's a charm: finally, a manhwa that I enjoyed.

Mi-Kyung Yun's Bride of the Water God 1, a story of a human girl who was betrothed to a god in order to stop a drought, has the feel of classic mythology. I cannot find evidence that it is based on Korean mythology, but it certainly reminded me of old Greek and Roman tales. Perhaps some indigenous North American stories as well, but no-thanks to my Canadian schooling I'm less familiar with those.

An interesting twist to this story is that the water god appears as a child during the day, and adult at night. Soah, the bride, believes she is married to the child form and that the adult is an entirely different individual.

The character line work is crisp and eyes are drawn particularly clear and expressive, but I did wish there was more detail in the backgrounds.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Reader's Diary #1885- W. F. Harvey: August Heat

The premise behind W. F. Harvey's "August Heat" is interesting enough on its own: two strangers have a premonition about the other's bleak future, but there are a few other aspects that also raise the story above a mere supernatural tale.

The setting, August under a heat wave, adds a level of realism to the tale and also makes a reader question if this is but a detail or if the heat is somehow connected. At the very least, it's likely to have altered the strangers' decision making.

It's also one of the few ambiguous endings that I enjoyed. We know from earlier information what the ultimate outcome will be, but we're still left (in the final moments, I suspect) not knowing precisely how we get there, nor why.

It's a lovely fatalistic tale.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Reader's Diary #1884- Caitlin Major (writer), Kelly Bastow (artist): Manfried the Man

I'm sure most of us have encountered a book that didn't live up to our expectations based on a solid or at least interesting premise.

Caitlin Major's Manfried the Man definitely intrigued me with its amusing premise: cats run society and have men as pets. And, I am happy to report, did not disappoint!

The premise remains interesting throughout with new details about the "rules" of this world slowly revealed as the context dictates. Instead of meowing, the pet men say "hey!" And when I say that the cats have men as pets, it would appear that this is meant literally. I didn't see anyone with a woman as a pet.

But it's not all premise. The characters and plot are quite good as well. Manfried's owner is a cat named Steve Catson. He's... not a happy cat. He hates his job and has quite low self esteem. As series of unfortunate mistakes, the worst of which is losing Manfried, threatens to destroy him.

There's real emotional heft to the tale, as you might gather, but the humour of the premise, Kelly Bastow's bright, simple art, and a hopeful ending that revolves around friendship, keeps everything ultimately sweet.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Reader's Diary #1883- Mariko Tamaki (writer), Joelle Jones (artist): Supergirl Being Super

Supergirl's origin story isn't the greatest. It pretty much underscores that she was basically an attempt at a female version of Superman. She's sent to Earth from Kryptonian parents when her home planet is about to be destroyed, she crash lands in rural America and is raised by a loving couple on a farm. Sound familiar?

I'm not sure why exactly DC Comics decided then to revisit her origin story if they weren't going to overhaul it completely, but all that considered Mariko Tamaki did an excellent job considering those parameters.

For one, Kara Danvers (aka Supergirl) is more grounded in her teenage years. Adolescent themes (zits!) are prevalent and her friends, especially Dolly, are more fleshed out, believable, varied, and compelling. For another, her timeline is much closer to Superman's. This was confusing to me at first because as Kara began to discover her powers and history, I was questioning why she didn't see any similarities between herself and Superman. Did he not exist in this world? Fortunately that's answered toward the end of the book. Another plus was that the origin wasn't the whole story and the overarching plot was quite interesting, complete with complex villains.

Joelle Jones' art is also pretty great. While it has the generic pseudo-realistic look of most superhero comics and there's nothing too experimental, I really enjoyed the attention to anatomy and physiology; characters posed and moved in very authentic looking ways, reminding me somewhat of critically acclaimed artist Alex Ross's attention to similar details.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Reader's Diary #1882- Jen Wang: The Prince and the Dressmaker

No amount of hyperbole could adequately capture how much I enjoyed Jen Wang's graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker.

It is a tale of a Belgian prince, circa the 19th century (this is never explicitly stated, but I'm assuming based on the fashion), who secretly likes to dress in drag. When he meets the seamstress/ up-and-coming designer Frances he knows that this is a rare someone who will support his unusual choices and whose dresses are kick-ass to boot, he immediately hires her. A friendship blossoms quickly.

Of course, themes of acceptance and being true to oneself run loudly, but it never seems didactic. Instead, it's a enthralling story, with authentic characters (slightly flawed but plausible and even likeable), and lots of feels (it's funny at times, sad, hopeful, and heartwarming). I also appreciated that the dialogue was kept modern— not slangy, but contemporary, making it easier to understand and yet not taking away from the setting (it simply felt transcribed for 2018). 

And the art is gorgeous. It has a style and colouring similar to Disney cartoons of the 60s and 70s which fits the story like a glove. It has a fairy tale feel (though no fairy tale elements really), with swirls and swishes that complement the fashion angle. The characters are expressive and rich in movement.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Reader's Diary #1881- JinHo Ko, translation by Arthur Dela Cruz: Jack Frost 1

My second experience with a manhwa title and my second dud.

I really didn't like JinHo Ko's Jack Frost 1, a high school afterlife horror tale and alternated between being bored and offended.

Bored because it's basically a lot of rushed, hard to decipher action shots despite what could have been a good premise. A lot of scratchy lines and sound effects.

Offended because JinHo Ko does some really out of place/ creepy sexist things like up-skirt shots of underage girls (wearing underwear at least) and exaggerated breasts, bodies on the adult women.

Truly awful.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Reader's Diary #1880- Elaine M. Will: Look Straight Ahead

I'm sure that the Canadian Mental Health Association does some wonderful things. However, I feel that their recommendation on the front of Elaine M. Will's graphic novel Look Straight Ahead works against the book.

Now that I've read it, I understand why they'd offer up the blurb. Will does a tremendous job exploring mental illness in this book. It's sensitive and informative. But none of this, nor the CMHA logo on the front, makes the book sound particularly compelling. It's sounds "important" and unfortunately such books tend to be dull and/or poorly done.

Make no mistake, Look Straight Ahead is first and foremost a wonderful story. Jeremy Knowles is a believable, complex character trying to overcome a mental health tragedy. I choked up a few times, I admit. Peripheral characters are also interesting. The art is engaging and creative and it reminded me somewhat of Charles Burns' work in Black Hole or perhaps David B's Epileptic.

So, feel free to forget the importance, just read it if you're looking for an engaging, well crafted story.