Friday, September 28, 2018

Reader's Diary #1920- Vera Brosgol: Be Prepared

As a fan of Vera Brosgol's Anya's Ghost, I was not surprised to have enjoyed Be Prepared. In fact, I probably enjoyed it even more.

Slightly semi-autobiographical (the main character is named Vera, though Brosgol describes the many liberties she took in an afterword), this graphic novel revolves around a girl's miserable but character-building camp experience.

Having been a slightly socially awkward, slightly self-conscious kid myself (still am as an adult), I could relate to this. The key here being slightly. I think it would have been easy for Brosgol to have gone over the top but as it is, I think there's many a great conversation to be had about our insecurities versus our realities.

And by containing the misery-angle, Brosgol also left room for more complex characters and even humour.

The artwork, as in Anya's Ghost, is stellar. Especially great is the characterization of Vera herself with her oversized eyes. Not only was this one of her insecurities (her too large glasses) but they also play well in capturing her naivete and emotions.

The olive colouring by Alec Longstreth may not be everyone's favourite, but for an adult like myself, I thought it gave the book a nostalgic, outdoorsy appeal and reminded me of my old Boy Scout's manual.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Reader's Diary #1910- Chad Sell: The Cardboard Kingdom

Lately I've been finding so many great books with diverse characters. Chad Sell's graphic novel The Cardboard Kingdom definitely belongs in this category.

It revolves around a bunch of kids from a variety of races, with a variety of family make-ups, and characters from the LGBTQ spectrum. However, by focusing on the diversity, I'm making the book sound more didactic than it is. While there are moments when a child or a parent wrestles with their identity and questions of acceptance, for the most part diversity is simply treated as the norm... because it is normal! Instead, the book's major theme is celebrating imagination.

Set during a summer, the kids all come together building kingdoms and costumes out of cardboard, honing characters and imagining all sorts of adventures. It really took me back to my own childhood and made me nostalgic for the days pre-smartphones.

Interestingly, though Chad Sell's name is the only one on the cover, most of the chapters are co-written with a variety of other writers. The artwork helps somewhat from keeping the book from seeming disjointed, but Sell's writing should also be credited with keeping the characters feeling consistent throughout.

The art is bright and simple, sweet, fun and full of energy.

I will note, however, that I thought there'd be some sort of Marvel tie-in based upon the cover. Am I the only one seeing the Hulk, Captain America, Scarlet Witch, and Loki on there?

Monday, September 24, 2018

Reader's Diary #1909: Sandra Cisneros: Eleven

In my first year of teaching it became an informal ritual in my grade 3 class for me to sing Shirley Ellis's "the Name Game" for my students, substituting their names in as they'd go into fits and giggles once they were the star. Well, most. It turned out that one little girl found it humiliating to discover her name rhymed with Banana. I had no idea she'd been feeling like this until her mom called me and I felt terrible. While sometimes teachers are clearly douchebags, sometimes they're just humans who make insensitive mistakes. It was with that in mind that I commiserated somewhat with the teacher in Sandra Cisneros' short story "Eleven" even though the story is about, and from the perspective of, the student. I'm sure the teacher would agree that it's not her shining moment, but would probably be mortified to learn that she came across as such a villain.

The story has a pretty powerful voice though and Cisnero easily sells the trauma with authenticity. Even a non-eleven year old would likely relate to her feelings of insecurity.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Reader's Diary #1908- Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin (writers), Giovanni Rigano (artist): Illegal

One of the acknowledgements at the end of Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin's graphic novel Illegal is to those who talked to the authors "about their experiences but who wished to remain anonymous." I was glad to see this note, even if I wished it had been at the front of the book and perhaps with a little more insight into the process. Without this info ahead of time, I admit being on guard that the story of a Ghanaian refugee's journey to Europe maybe shouldn't be told from a couple of white guys with a white illustrator. Sure the subject was important and topical and sure I felt emotion why reading it, but I wondered someone from Ghana would consider it accurate and sensitive and focused on the right details.

The story revolves around a boy named Ebo whose range of expressions do a remarkable job of capturing his fear, his bravery, and his love. This connection is especially important as, once he succeeds in his journey to Europe, his humanity will be called into question (as the title implies).

Illegal is aimed at younger readers but makes a lot of use of flashbacks that I wonder wouldn't be confusing for them. Perhaps I'm not giving younger readers enough credit. As an older reader, I think I would have liked more backstory at the beginning and more follow-up on the end, but all in all, I was pleased.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Reader's Diary #1907- Joseph Kesselring: Arsenic and Old Lace

Besides having heard of the title before, I'd not seen any production or adaptation of Joseph Kesselring's play Arsenic and Old Lace before. I'd assumed it would be a cosy, murder mystery sort. And a few pages in, I suspected it would be too quaint for my tastes.

Then the dark farcical comedy started and I loved it. I suppose there might be some modern readers who might balk at the depiction of mental and cognitive illness depictions, but for what it's worth, the character that appears craziest at first (a man who believes himself Teddy Roosevelt), turns out to be one of the least villainous. It any case, it's all in over-the-top jest with witty met-asides about the theatre in general. It's fast paced and full of eccentric, hilarious characters, and all in all, I loved it.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Reader's Diary #1906- Ru Xu: Newsprints

Ru Xu's graphic novel Newsprints revolves around a young girl named Blue who so badly wants to sell newspapers that she's willing to disguise herself as a boy, boys being the only one considered socially accepted to take on such a task. While working as a newsie she meets a scientist who may have a major role to play in the current war, as well as an mysterious character named Crow.

I quite enjoyed the manga-styled art, especially with sepia tones lending to the story's pseudo-historical fiction setting. As well, I thought the themes of pursuing dreams, even despite society's expectations, to be important and handled well. Would these be enough to appeal to modern younger readers who mightn't care a whit about newspapers? I'm not sure.

There are some steampunk elements that eventually make the story more exciting but for me the pacing was off, taking a little too long to get to such elements.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Reader's Diary #1905- Gary Beck: The Audition

Gary Beck's "The Audition" is a timely story of an awkward audition. I say it's timely as the director spends too long leering at the actor's breasts, but let's face it, this would have been unfortunately timely ever since males have been directors. But at least now more people are more loudly calling bullshit.

While the director's behaviour may be typical, the rest of the audition is anything but. Told from the actor's point of view, we hear her confusion and doubts but she nonetheless is unflappable and acquiesces to the odd requests. Will it be enough to land her a role and would she even want one?

"The Audition" is a quick but interesting piece with a rich voice.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Reader's Diary #1904- Jeff Lemire: Roughneck

I've read most of Jeff Lemire's output and the record shows I'm a huge fan. But when I started to read Roughneck I wasn't sure at first that I'd get into it. Revolving around a ex-professional hockey player named Derek Ouelette, he's one of Lemire's most off-putting protagonists, hard drinking and choosing to "solve" problems with his fists.

But it's a testament to Lemire that he managed to squeeze some empathy out of me. Ouelette is a victim of domestic violence himself and like many such victims, unfortunately, he's perpetuating the cycle. As is his sister, newly returned into his life, pregnant, with an opioid addiction, and on the run from her abusive ex. Through Derek's concern for his sister, I became hopeful for some redemption (nothing could make up entirely for his past wrongs), but was kept on my toes wondering if he was already too far set in his ways.

Along the way, Jeff Lemire's scratchy style works well for the hard living themes and the watercolouring adds to the melancholy atmosphere. There's also a dog that makes an appearance for symbolism but I'm a little undecided about that as of yet; maybe too similar to the crow character in Essex County?

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Reader's Diary #1903- Grace Ellis (writer), Shae Beagle (artist): Moonstruck Vol. 1 Magic to Brew

As a fan of Lumberjanes, I had high expectations for Grace Ellis's Moonstruck. Unfortunately, despite a lot of positives, I never really connected with it.

I struggled mostly in seeing what direction the story was headed. I thought at first it would be a love story between the two characters shown on the cover, Julie and Selena, a couple of werewolves. Before long however, there's a story involving their (admittedly, very likeable) friend Chet, a centaur who loses their legs from an evil magician's spell. There's also a minor plot involving a dysfunctional music band that never really goes anywhere.

I also wasn't overly thrilled with the art. Again, there were a lot of good things going on; there was a well-defined and consistent style and the characters were expressive and represented a variety of body types, but very often I wanted more detail, especially in the background details.

Finally, there were a lot of special add-ons; a comic from Kate Leith, faux advice columns, and so forth, but overall they felt disconnected from the rest of the book and the humour was often hit or miss for me.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Reader's Diary #1902- Pénélope Bagieu: Exquisite Corpse

Had I written about Pénélope Bagieu's graphic novel Exquisite Corpse immediately after finishing it, I think I'd be far more glowing with my praise than I'll wind up being now that I've had some time to mull it all over. The ending you see, is perfect. Probably one of my favourite endings to a book I've read in a long time; a humorous twist, just desserts, an actual non-ambiguous ending, what more could a reader want?

Getting to that point however, I found to be slightly less than perfect. The plot involves a young woman in a job she doesn't like, dating a slob she doesn't like. At work and at home, she's surrounded by abusive and sexist men. Then she meets a reclusive author, starts to develop feelings for him, until finding out he's just as bad as the rest in his own way. There's another twist hinted at in the title, but I'll try not to spoil that.

While I loved the feminist message and the calling out of intellectual men on the same bullshit as other men, I did find their "chance" meeting too contrived. She's on a park bench, sees the author (a stranger to her) through his apartment window, then knocks on his door to use his bathroom and talks to him with the door open while on the can. Um, really? I get that some people make questionable decisions and choices, but that seemed over-the-top in both implausibility and plot convenience.

Otherwise though, I quite enjoyed it. The art was also delightful with French-style swirls and line work, expressive comical characters, and beautiful colouring.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reader's Diary #1901- Steve Jenkins, Derek Walter, and Caprice Crane: Happily Ever Esther

Having lived both halves of my life divided up between northern Canada and Newfoundland, where the locals have often been the target of militant animal rights groups and their racism, ignorance, and lies, I was going into Happy Ever Esther, a true story about a vegan couple who decided to start an animal sanctuary in Ontario with no small amount of hesitancy. Still I was intrigued enough by the thought of two city dwellers taking on such a task and the reviews praising the book for its entertainment value and heartwarming messages that I decided to take a chance on it.

Had I known it was a sequel (to Esther the Wonder Pig), I probably would have started with the first one, but they do a good job catching new readers up to speed. Besides, this one begins with the sanctuary, which is what I was most interested in.

A quick word on the authorship: I'm not sure exactly what Derek Walter's contributions were. The book seems told from Steve Jenkins' point of view and I gather that Caprice Crane is the professional writer that help compile it all. Not that that's really relevant I suppose. Steve's voice is typically enthusiastic, funny (maybe overly jokey depending on your tastes), and friendly. It's interesting that at a couple of points he discusses the need not to come on too strong, not to be too preachy with their messages of veganism and for the most part I think he succeeded on that front. There were definitely a couple of moments where he climbed on the proverbial soapbox, but considering that is his ultimate message, I didn't mind, even if I didn't necessarily agree. Besides the obvious vegan theme, I also think the book can be read as an inspirational story for following your dreams, despite the obstacles. (And there were lots of obstacles!)

At the end of the book, they've supplied a list of "Esther-Approved Recipes". Despite not being a vegan, or even a vegetarian, myself, I felt I needed to try at least one: thick black-maple smoked rice paper bacon. I don't know that they're as easy and as accessible as they like to think (I had to try three grocery stores before I could find "smoked" paprika, but was surprised to find "nutritional yeast" right away; and it was a lot more work than simply frying real bacon). The result? I didn't mind it, while the rest of my family hated it. It definitely didn't replicate the "bacon" taste as it name suggested it would, but I thought the taste was nonetheless decent.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Reader's Diary #1900- Katlynn Chrans: Your Misery, Then Mine

For World Suicide Prevention Day, Katlynn Chrans' "Your Misery, Then Mine" is a great choice. It deals with a bullied kid named Daniel who seems, not surprisingly given the bullying, to be depressed. He definitely doesn't "fit in."

Told from one of the bullies' point of view, the story flashes ahead, giving us more insight into Daniel and also, thankfully, allowing us to witness the reformation of the narrator.

The story feels from the heart and speaks to bystanders about the need to step up.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Reader's Diary #1899- Adam Rapp (writer), Mike Cavallaro (artist): Decelerate Blue

There were a lot of things I liked about Adam Rapp and Mike Cavallro's dystopian graphic novel Decelerate Blue, but ultimately I didn't enjoy it as a complete package.

 The concept was especially great. It's a world in which society values speed above all else and in our present day society it's not so hard to imagine. Of course, in all dystopian stories there's a protagonist who rebels against it all and in this case it falls to a teenage girl named Angela. Soon she will meet an underground (literally) resistance group. She will also fall in love. Finally, a few cracks starts to appear in the resistance group as well, suggesting they also have some questionable policies.

The art was decent in predominately black and white and with occasional uses of colour to make an artistic point.

I didn't, however, feel especially connected to Angela and her love story seemed tacked on and (ironically) rushed.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Reader's Diary #1898- Unknown writer: A Gravedigger's Daughter

"A Gravedigger's Daughter," not to be confused with Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravedigger's Daughter, is a bit of a surprising short story that appeared with credit in a Welsh newspaper in June of 1907. It has a fascinating setting involving a peasant revolt. It results in four bodies being delivered to a sick gravedigger whose daughter must now take on the task herself.

One of the bodies, however, turns out not to be dead after all and furthermore, it's someone who has had a past with the daughter. The innocent daughter then does something shockingly violent.

It would be a fine Halloween story, but kind of weird to appear in a June newspaper without any explanation for its inclusion.