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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Reader's Diary #1963- Tanya Tagaq: Split Tooth

"The drunks came home rowdier than usual one night, so we opted for the closet. We giggle nervously as the yelling begins."

The above sentences from the very first page of Tanya Tagaq's debut novel Split Tooth reveal a lot about what the rest of the book will be like. Obviously there's real life drama, but there's also some laughter. More importantly the book is a challenging read despite appearing on the surface to be straightforward. (More than a few people I know have remarked that they finished the book, slightly less than 200 pages, in one sitting.) What's so difficult about the above passage?

The tense switches from past tense to the present without any warning. It speaks loudly about the power of memory, for sure, but Tagaq and/or her nameless protagonist have an interesting relationship with time that may be the key to understanding other intents. "Time," she writes later on, "has a way of eternally looping us in the same configurations."

I found myself dwelling on this quite a bit. So much so that in a chapter dated 1978 when she mentions wearing acid washed jeans and a colour changing heat-sensitive sweatshirt and bangs hairsprayed high, I almost convinced myself that this image, clearly from 1988, was intentional. (I'm now more inclined to believe that the fashion description was a mistake and that there's an earlier draft of the book that has it all set a decade later, but this is all a guess on my part and not really vital to the larger story.)

If you've concluded by now that I was confused by this book, you'd be right. If you've assumed that I didn't enjoy the book, however, you'd be way off base.

It may be interesting to note that I was reading Tagaq's book simultaneously with Louise Penny's A Fatal Grace, a book far more traditional by CanLit's colonial standards, and enjoying them both. A fan of Tagaq's music as well, I knew enough to not expect anything easy or necessarily comfortable. She once wrote on Twitter, "I'm not weird you are just boring." I'll also note that Split Tooth incorporates a lot of traditional Inuit stories and spirituality, both of which I've only had passing (but fortunate) encounters with.

Still, there was enough of a plot that I could discern (it's actually similar to the origin story of Nelvana of the Northern Lights- can we please start a petition asking Tagaq to revive and reclaim that comic book heroine?) and the more artistic experiments and philosophies gave my brain a much needed workout. I'll be dwelling on it for some time.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Reader's Diary #1962- Aleksis Kivi: Seven Brothers in the Sauna

Aleksis Kivi's "Seven Brothers in the Sauna" was originally written in Finnish and is mostly made up of a conversation.

It's also strange. I'm going to assume that some of the story would require more than a passing familiarity with Finland and her customs (all I know is that they rake their forests) and also that there's likely a lot lost in a rather awkward translation.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Reader's Diary #1961- Ashley Spires: Fluffy Strikes Back / Gordon Bark to the Future!

I began with Ashley Spires' Gordon Bark to the Future! the second in her P.U.R.S.T. Adventure series of graphic novels. I didn't, however, realize it was the second. But when the book began with the line, "It's all up to Gordon now" I began to assume there was an earlier book that left off with a cliffhanger.

It is a time-travel book though so to some extent gaps in my knowledge were filled in courtesy of visits to the past. However, time travel creates a whole other slew of complications and the plot was sometimes a bit of a rushed mess.

I also wasn't crazy about the scatological humor. I'm not offended at poop or pee jokes, and believe it's even possible to be (but not usually) funny. Here though panels of Gordon peeing or pooping just seemed thrown in. And when more panels could have been devoted to clearing up the plot, these scenes were just annoying.

Art wise, if your a fan of Spires highly stylized characters, you'll be fine. I think Gordon looks an awful lot like the way she draws cats (which also don't look like cats).

Not having been overly impressed with Gordon Bark to the Future! I decided to go back to Fluffy Strikes Back, the first P.U.R.S.T. Adventure. It's definitely an easier to follow, and funnier,  story though didn't exactly pave the way to Gordon's tale.

I will say, on a positive note, that I enjoyed Spires' experimentation with genres; spies in Fluffy Strikes Back and sci-fi in Gordon Bark to the Future.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Reader's Diary #1960- Debbie Tung: Quiet Girl in a Noisy World

Debbie Tung's Quiet Girl in a Noisy World is somewhat reminiscent of Sarah Anderson's or Allie Brosh's comics in that they take comedic approaches to their own lives, especially focusing on their insecurities. As it happens, their insecurities are also my insecurities, so if anyone wanted to know me better (anyone? no?) I'd safely recommend any of these.

Tung's book is subtitled An Introvert's Story and herein lies the source of most of her insecurities. The book however explores how society has made her, and me, insecure about that, convincing us that it's a weakness and something to be ashamed of. However, she still leads a successful life, has a healthy relationship (her extroverted spouse reminded me of my own), and as she starts to discover, there are plenty of introverted people with very similar traits and just knowing that can be a revelation and a source of comfort. This is why the book is so important.

Unsurprisingly, the book is in black and white with grey watercolours. Not goth necessarily, just no need to be flashy.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Reader's Diary #1959- Ben Clanton: Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt / Peanut Butter and Jelly

When I read Ben Clanton's Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea originally, I was left with some misgivings that it was a tad too sweet and the art was overly simplistic. But knowing how popular the series has become among young readers, I felt I owed the books another look.

Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt is the second in the series and already I was coming around to the appeal. The characters are getting a bit more defined (Narwhal seems to have the bigger imagination and Jelly is more of a skeptic) as their friendship remains sweet. Art-wise, it's still pretty simple but there is some use of collage and patterns thrown in which amps the skill level without making it intimidating.

This all continues with Peanut Butter and Jelly, the 3rd book of the series. My only reservation this time around was the potentially bad messaging. Basically it's a rip off of Green Eggs and Ham as Jelly tries to get Narwhal to try a peanut butter cookie. Spun right, it's a valuable lesson of not knocking something until you try it. Spun in another direction, it could be argued that kids should give into peer pressure.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Reader's Diary #1958- Ian Lendler (writer), Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb (illustrators): One Day a Dot

It's not every day you come across a picture book that seeks to explain the Big Bang theory and evolution to the very youngest of readers. Yet, I'd say Ian Lendler, with the assistance of illustrators Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb have definitely pulled it off in a way that is fun and easy to understand in One Day a Dot.

Of course, to simplify billions of years of history in such a way undersells how long these things actually took and also implies that the time between events was equal, but as an intro it's fine. The only small change I'd personally make is the section on the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. They make it seem like the only land animals that survived were mammals when that's not true. Perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson would have other critiques, but mine are minor and overall, I'd recommend it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Reader's Diary #1957- Mairghread Scott (writer), Robin Robinson (artist): The City on the Other Side

I'll admit not having high hopes for Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson's The City on the Other Side. It's fantasy and while I've read a bit from the genre here or there, I'd hardly call myself a fan. But more concerning, I recently read a Transformers / G.I. Joe crossover comic penned by Scott and I really didn't enjoy it all all.

However, I was won over.

Actually, urban fantasy would be a more precise category for the book being set partially in San Francisco, partially "behind the veil" of San Francisco. For Stranger Thing fans, think the upside-down but instead of gorgons, think two sects of warring fairies, the Seelies and the Unseelies. I quite like San Francisco, so I was happy to find it set there and intrigued by the time period, shortly after the 1906 earthquake.

Centered around a human girl named Isabel who feels rather ignored by her parents and one day inadvertently finds herself behind the veil, with powers no less! she and her situation are a bit of a trope I would argue. (Could her magical amulet be akin to Dorothy's slippers?) In any case, there's enough creativity in the delivery and details that it hardly matters. I especially liked that war was explained in a way that wasn't completely black and white.

Robin Robinson's art was also good, and I especially enjoyed her used of panels. In one particularly interesting sequence, one story is going on in the panels while behind them another is happening; this was especially appropriate considering the whole "veil" idea.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Reader's Diary #1956- Isabel Quintero (writer) and Zeke Peña (illustrator): Photographic

A blurb written by Lilliam Rivera, on the back of Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña's Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, states that "it is a rare feat when a writer and illustrator are able to capture the creative magnitude of an iconic photographer."

It was a rather odd declaration. I would say it's just as rare that writers and illustrators even try. And it isn't to suggest one art form is superior over another, it's just that they are usually content to be their own beasts. So, I think kudos are in order for Quintero and Zeke Peña for even attempting a graphic novel approach to a photographer's biography.

Unfortunately, I'm not convinced that it worked.

I wasn't familiar with Graciela Iturbide or her photography before now, photography not being an art form I've paid a lot of attention to. I did enjoy the few photos of hers that made it into the book, as well as quotes from her about her craft and perspective (why, for instance, she chose black and white). But I'd rather have had more photos and more words. Peña's line work, capable as it was, didn't really add much in my opinion, and Quintero's sparse poetic take, seemed clunky and lacking.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Reader's Diary #1955- Benjamin Paige: A Soldier's Short Story of Battle

Sometimes we have no way of knowing how accurate an author got it. There's some trust involved but the author must also make it feel authentic.

Such was the case with Benjamin Paige's "A Soldier's Short Story of Battle." Not having been at war myself, I could only compare Paige's story of a soldier surveying a battle scene and quickly recounting the events that led him here before charging to places I've been (Vimy Ridge) and countless war movies, tv shows, and books I've seen. But even then it's the way Paige describes the soldier's thinking process that sold the story for me, that made it ring true.

Making this feat even more incredible was that Benjamin Paige was only 11 years old when he wrote this 7 years ago in Alberta.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Reader's Diary #1954- Joris Chamblain (writer), Aurelie Neyret (artist): Cici's Journal Vol. 1

Joris Chamblain's Cici's Journal Vol. 1 is a promising start to a new series featuring a young girl who's also a writer-in-training. Getting the advice of a local author she admires, Cici aims to study people and their motivations. Like most kids she has an active imagination and an interest in spying on grown-ups. However, in the two adventures that make up this first volume, her nosiness pays off.

The first story is also the stronger of the two. It deals with a mysterious old painter that Cici discovers has been keeping an old shut-down zoo "alive" by painting the animals that used to live there. It's a unique and quite beautiful story with valuable lessons about art and community.

The second is perhaps the more ambitious of the two, but some of the messages and lessons got lost in my opinion. In this one, there's an old lady who Cici discovers has been checking out the same book from the local library week after week, year after year. She's advised however that perhaps she's meddling a bit too much in this instance. Unfortunately, the warning I think would have been lost given the outcome of the story (which I won't spoil here). Likewise, there's a sub-plot involving a feud with a friend, but it's underdeveloped, never really clear on why it's happened, nor how it got resolved.

Aurelie Neyret's art was also strong, but with some caveats. It was beautiful, with exquisite line work and great characterizations, but the colouring I felt a bit too sepia toned, giving the book a nostalgic or historical feel. I was surprised when a cellphone was mentioned as I thought at first that it was set in the past. I also felt that Cici's personality was such that it deserved brighter colours. Another issue, and I fear that I'm drifting into nit-picking with this one, was the speech balloons. They didn't have frames and the tails that typically points to the speaker, were so thin and twirly that sometimes I had to get back to see who said what.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Reader's Diary #1953- Tedd Arnold, Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss: Noodleheads Find Something Fishy

Reading through Tedd Arnold, Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss's Noodleheads Find Something Fishy, I found myself thinking at first that it wasn't the most original of books.

The Noodleheads, a pair of twin macaroni both called Mac, are sweet and inquisitive characters but profoundly stupid. They take things entirely too literally, come up with moronic solutions to simple problems, and inadvertently speak in puns. They reminded me of Amelia Bedelia and a slew of other such characters. When they marked an X on the side of their boat so they'd know where they saw a fish, however, I knew for sure I'd heard of that gag before. I supposed that a good many really young readers wouldn't have and might still find it funny, but it ate away at my respect for the writers.

Then, at the end, there are a couple of page of authors' notes that made me forgive everything. They credit these plots and situations to specific folk tales from around the world and even discuss the importance of stock "fool" characters. Would kids be interested in all of this? Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly helped elevate the project for me.

Art-wise, if you're familiar with Arnold's work on his Fly Guy series, it's pretty similar except in comic book form. Lines are thick and curvy, details are simple, but nonetheless it all does the trick.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Reader's Diary #1952- Joe Flood: Sharks

I was super into animals as a kid. In fact, I wanted to be a veterinarian for the longest time. Despite that, sharks never held any real fascination for me, no more than any other animal in any case. I was not one of the many kids who, according to biologist David Shiffman who wrote the intro to Joe Flood's Sharks: Nature's Perfect Hunter, "[went] through an 'I love sharks' phase." That said, this nonfiction comic might just be the start of one.

Flood does an excellent job highlighting just why these beasts are so unique and worthy of our awe all while making science fun and accessible. He talks about how they are different than bony fish (stating that a cat and a hummingbird are more similar to one another); gets into taxonomy, evolution, anatomy and physiology, and other concepts; and uses a variety of different shark species to illustrate his points. Readers will learn about science through sharks and sharks through science.

Flood's art reminded me of Erica Henderson's work on Squirrel Girl and gave the book an upbeat, fun tone.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Reader's Diary #1951- Teresa Radice (writer), Stefano Turconi (artist): Violette Around the World 1

I'm curious to know what Teresa Radice's plans are for Violette Around the World as it is clearly meant to develop into a series; this one is labeled volume 1 and it's only set in France, despite the title alluding to the entire planet.

With that in mind, it's hard for me to fully comment on the book. It's a comic with classic bande dessinee formating, and much of it seems to be setting up the premise and characters. It's set in the mid to late 1800s and revolves around a traveling family circus.

I didn't feel however that I really connected with the titular Violette yet as she meets up with artist Toulouse Lautrec and he steals the spotlight. I wonder if Violette will continue meeting famous historical figures. It's certainly a fun way to handle an educational goal but will Violette get lost in the shuffle?

I also found myself thinking about diversity as I read it. On the one hand,there's a lot of representation here from people of different cultures but I don't think that they're handled well. Violette's granddad, as a perfect example, is from the Himalayas and really stereotyped. He sits cross-legged on a rug, in traditional garb, eyes shut and smoking a pipe while speaking in wise proverbs. It's pretty cringe-worthy.

The art though was really good. It had the flowy-angular lines that captured movement well (not unlike a Toulouse Lautrec piece), while the characters had a vintage Looney Toons vibe, complementing the comedic approach.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Reader's Diary #1950- Sam Sykes (writer), Selina Espiritu (artist): Brave Chef Brianna

It's fascinating sometimes how unrelated books seem to talk to one another, how you can pick up random books for random reasons and still find similarities. Sam Syke's Brave Chef Brianna is a young adult oriented graphic novel about a new chef, which reminded me of Yakitate!! Japan, which I read back in August-- I would consider this an unusual topic for younger readers. While chef Brianna is a human, the story is set in a city of monsters, reminding me me of Grace Ellis's Moonstruck, which I read back in September. And whenever Brianna has self-doubt, these are manifested by small inky demonic blobs around her, unseen by her peers; exactly the same concept as in Mel Tregonning's Little Things, which I read just last week.

It's human nature to compare things anyway, but it's even harder to resist when you find such unusual and coincidental commonalities.

I didn't, for instance, like the art in Brave Chef Brianna as much as in Little Things. Espiritu's art was serviceable, and fit the mostly fun tone of the story, but no where near the same level of craftsmanship.

I did enjoy the story a lot more than Moonstruck. It was definitely more focused. Brianna is competing with her brothers to win their father's cooking empire legacy until finally Brianna realizes that this contest created by her dying father is a pretty shitty thing. And, unlike in Moonstruck, there's a strong supporting cast that remains just that.

I'd probably put it on par with Yakitate!! Japan, as it's not the greatest thing ever, but it's a surprisingly fun take on a rather uncommon career. It also has strong themes about ambition, friendship, and confidence.

One unique theme that could be read into Brave Chef Brianna is cultural sensitivity; the ideas of cultural appropriation, colonialism, and racism. There's a story bubbling under the surface of whether or not this human has the right to intrude upon the world of monsters, especially given how humans have exploited and mistreated monsters in the past.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Reader's Diary #1949- Julia Kaye: Super Late Bloomer

Earlier this year I read Sabrina Symington's First Year Out and while Julia Kaye's Super Late Bloomer is also a transgender woman's memoir of transitioning, they are two very different books. I suppose this should go without saying to some extent; just because two women are transgendered does not mean they have identical personalities. And for sure, they do. They also have some common experiences; self-doubt, friends who accept them and friends that don't, good days, bad days, etc. But what I mean when I say that they are both very different books is their approach.

I would say Symington's aimed to be a bit more comprehensive. While still telling her own personal story, she also got into everything from the science, philosophy, and politics of gender and transitioning. Kaye's focuses almost entirely on her own experience, treating it as a day to day journal of transitioning. With those differences, both obviously have their own unique strengths and would appeal to different readers who come to the books with different purposes in mind.

I would Kaye's offers a more intimate portrait and readers of any gender will likely cheer her on when she's up and cheer her up when she's down.

The art felt a bit on the rushed side for me, coming across more as a newspaper strip than a graphic novel. For the humorous moments, it fit. And I would imagine that drawing a daily journal strip was cathartic for Kaye, that spending weeks on a single set of panels would have taken away from that aspect. Still, some colour, some refinement, some extra detail in the backgrounds, would have made me appreciate it more.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Reader's Diary #1948- Gilbert Parker: The Going of the White Swan

Gilbert Parker's The Going of the White Swan begins strong enough. Set in a cabin in the Canadian wilderness, a young boy is dying after a cougar attack has led to an infection. His father is trying to keep it together, but on top of his son dying, his wife (the boy's mother) has also recently run away. The boy seems to be drawing solace for his situation through his faith in God, whereas the father wishes he could also believe.

Unfortunately the story then begins to show its age and colonial perspective (it was written in 1912), hitting on all those familiar refrains: women are property, Indigenous people are evil drunkards, and it's perfectly acceptable to coerce a man into religion. Sigh.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Reader's Diary #1947- Kate DiCamillo (writer), Harry Bliss (artist): Good Rosie!

I'm not too sure that I would have been all over Kate DiCamillo's comic book/picture book Good Rosie! as a child as it leans towards the saccharine side. That said, it did remind me a bit of Arnold Lobel's Mouse Tales, which was a favourite.

There's not an overly complicated plot by any means; Rosie is a shy dog whose owner takes her to a dog park. Here she meets a couple of other dogs, one who greatly outsizes her but wants to be her friend, the other who is overly excitable but also wants to be her friend. Of course, it all works out in the end.

It's not as funny as the aforementioned Lobel book, but it does have some amusing moments and the slow voice of the big dog would make for a fun read-aloud.

Harry Bliss's soft art works well for the story.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Reader's Diary #1946- Marguerite Abouet (writer), Mathieu Sapin (artist): Akissi Tales of Mischief

Growing up I used to love hearing stories of my parents' childhoods. Often they seemed to do such dangerous, stupid things-- were free to do so! And survived! The funny thing is, while I think my parents were more cautious than their own, when I tell my kids stories about my childhood, I also know darn well that I'd have a conniption if they did half of that stuff. Every generation, it seems, loses some freedom for adventure while their parents get stricter.

Reading Marguerite Abouet's Akissi: Tales of Mischief really took me back to those days of imagination and danger, of kids who misbehave but are not really bad kids at heart. I couldn't tell exactly when the book is set but I'd guess perhaps the 70s based on their obsession with Spectreman and on a Bruce Lee movie being shown in the theater. So, no doubt some of the titular character's misadventures could be chalked up to the times, but I was also intrigued by the Cote D'Ivoire setting. Are kids there today as restrained by helicopter parents as they are in North America, I wonder?

There are some more serious themes if one is to look (gender roles, for example), but for the most part the book is just a fun, celebration of childhood, warts and all. Complementing this lighthearted tone is Mathieu Sapin's whimsical, unpretentious art.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Reader's Diary #1945- Mel Tregonning: Small Things

Mel Tregonning's Small Things is a wordless picture book that tells a story of an anxious young boy using elements of comics.

Using soft but detailed gray-scale pencils, the art reminded me of Chris Van Allsburg's black and white work, but the star of the book, the nameless boy shown on the cover, has large expressive eyes that also showcases his youth and would endear him to most readers (this is my way of saying he's adorable). He goes about his day just trying to fit it, to be accepted, to feel valued, time and time again being rejected by his peers, getting poor grades, and tripping over himself. At least he has an older sister who tries to help. While it doesn't have a fairy-tale happy ending, it does at least end on a hopeful note and sends the message to those with similar experiences that at least they're not alone.

Upping the ante is an intriguing artistic choice to show little pieces breaking off and cracks appearing whenever the boy doubts himself. These pieces then take on little demonic sprites that surround him and live in his shadow unbeknownst to anyone else.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Reader's Diary #1944- Jeremy Whitley (writer), various artists: The Unstoppable Wasp Vol. 2 Agents of G.I.R.L.

After reading the first volume of The Unstoppable Wasp last year, I was still on the fence about the series and the Nadia version of the character. This time around however, I feel like Jeremy Whitley has settled into his groove and this run is much stronger.

Whereas last time a large majority of the plot revolved around Nadia trying to recruit characters into her new G.I.R.L. team of super-scientists, meaning that cameo characters too often stole the show (Ms. Marvel, Dinosaur Girl, etc), this time around her team is essentially in place from the get go. There's a little background info on the characters but ultimately it's Nadia's story. There are still a few cameos from Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp, and from Bobbi Morse, a.k.a. Mockingbird, but it's Nadia's relationship with these characters that was important. (Though it was a very important highlight that Janet's domestic abuse at the hands of Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, was discussed.)

And, while Nadia's character is finally being developed, there's some actual adventure plot as well with the G.I.R.L. team trying to separate an explosive device that has been fused to their friend's spine. How do they accomplish this? Science, of course! It's a hugely important message for people to see highly capable young women in science when we all know how under-represented and under-appreciated they have been in such fields. Adding to the progressive messaging in this book is the diverse characters, including those from different cultures, abilities, and orientation. None of this seems didactic, just as a fact of life.

Art-wise, it's best in the earlier comics with Elsa Charretier helming, as she has a real creative flair and some unique paneling approaches. Especially great is a two-page spread of a room in the Pym House that has been divided up into panels resembling the rays of a sun. The room is shown in a single background image, while repeats of the G.I.R.L. members are shown throughout, establishing how much work they are doing and how well they're making use of the space. The artists who finish off the later comics are good in the sense that the transition wasn't jarring, though I missed anything exciting like the aforementioned Pym House scene.