Review | Project Superhero, E. Paul Zehr and Kris Pearn (illus.)

20578719I have to admit, the minute I saw this cover, Project Superhero went right to the top of my TBR pile. I also have to admit that I mistakenly thought it was a graphic novel about a young girl who creates actual superhero powers for herself. The actual premise of the story is somewhat similar, though much more grounded in reality and real-life heroes than the caped crusader teen my mind had conjured up from this cover.

13 year old Jessie and her classmates are given a year-long research project on superheroes, which culminates in the Superhero Slam, a head-to-head debate about which superhero reigns supreme, given a set of characteristics like agility, recovery and teamwork. A shy comic book nerd, Jessie is both thrilled by the subject of the assignment and terrified at the need for public speaking at the end of the project. She decides to champion Batgirl, who doesn’t have superpowers but rather relies on training and hard work to achieve great things. Through the year, Jessie documents her work on the project, which involves training in karate to become as strong as Batgirl, and which also connects her with real life heroes such as Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and Batgirl writer Brian Q. Miller, among others.

According to the advance reading copy I received, author E. Paul Zehr is known for using superheroes as a metaphor to communicate science. The book does a good job of teaching scientific principles, using both Jessie’s research on superheroes and her karate lessons. For example, an observation about how karate lessons are affecting her mentally as well as physically leads to a brief description of the cerebellum and the 100 billion neurons in the brain. Because the science is presented in line with something tangible like karate training or Batgirl powers, it’s a fun, easy way to learn. Heck, I learned things I don’t even remember taking up in school.

I love the premise behind this book, particularly the question on what makes a hero, and the vibe that girls can do anything, because science! Even a shy comic book nerd like Jessie can become a physically strong karateka with the confidence to debate her classmate in front of the entire school. I love that real-life heroes took the time to contribute to this project, and practically every other chapter is a brief interview or note from a notable name that inspires Jessie (and therefore the reader) to have confidence in her ability to achieve her goals.

The book is most valuable as an educational resource and a source of inspiration from these real life individuals, rather than for the story itself. The idea of the Superhero Slam held promise, but the debate itself wasn’t exciting. Part of me wishes Jessie’s class had been allowed to create their own superheroes rather than use ready-made DC and Marvel characters. If you could be any kind of superhero, what would you be and why? I believe those answers will be much more interesting, and much more revealing, than a canned debate on why Ironman isn’t as agile as Captain America. As well, due to the format of the story, superheroes other than Batgirl herself are given fairly short shrift — we learn next to nothing about the actual superhero characters, and so Jessie’s nervousness about some of her match ups fail to register any actual impact. And the way the debate ended made no sense to me. The framing device helps target the message towards its readers, but almost feels superfluous by the end.

Jessie is 13, but the book itself seems to skew more towards a younger demographic. The illustrations are absolutely awesome, and will definitely keep readers turning the page. The premise is inspiring, and I hope the letters from familiar names will inspire young readers to become real-life heroes themselves.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman

18089975I remember being very moved by Laura Lippman’s earlier work I’d Know You AnywhereAfter I’m Gone didn’t have quite the same impact on me, but it definitely kept me turning the pages way past my bedtime. Con man Felix Brewer disappears without a trace, leaving behind his wife, three daughters and a mistress. If this sounds like a story ripped from the headlines, that’s because it is: the novel is inspired by the true story of Julius Salsbury, the head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore in the 1970s.

Ten years after Felix disappears, his mistress Julie goes missing. Everyone assumes she’s gone to join Felix, but her body is discovered in a secluded park a few days later. Fast forward twenty six years and retired detective Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez is investigating the case of Julie’s death. No one seems overly concerned about who had killed Julie and why, but Sanchez is the classic dogged detective, who won’t rest until he finds justice for a victim no one cares about.

More than the hunt for Julie’s killer, the novel is about the lives of the women Felix left behind. We learn about his relationship with his wife Bambi, how they fell in love and how the relationship eventually hit its rocky patch. We meet his daughters, and how they dealt not just with their father’s disappearance, but also with his betrayal of their mother. And Julie, of course, and the mistakes that eventually cost her her life. Through it all, Felix remains a major force in their lives. He’s utterly unlikeable, and while generally good-intentioned, his insecurities and weakness for easy money end up destroying not just his life but the lives of the women around him.

After I’m Gone is an enjoyable read, with an entertaining look at family and romantic drama. The story really hits its mark near the end, where a series of revelations reveals the strength of the family ties among the remaining women. The epilogue takes us back to Felix, and ties the whole story up where it began — with the actions of one man.

What happens to someone’s loved ones when he takes the easy way out? What happens when he does get away with it, but the people around him are left to pick up the pieces. After I’m Gone is a frustrating read in some ways — even though the murderer is eventually caught, I can’t help but feel that justice has ultimately not been served — yet all too believable. One person’s choices can indeed ruin the lives of people around him, and After I’m Gone shows just how far reaching this impact can be.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami

20663667“From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.” So begins one of Haruki Murakami’s loveliest, most lyrical novels ever. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage marks the author’s return away from the sprawling, surrealistic narrative style of 2011’s 1Q84 to the lyrical realism of 1987’s Norwegian Wood.

Tsukuru Tazaki grew up with a tight-knit group of five friends in high school, the kind of friendship children imagine will last forever. Yet in college, Tsukuru is kicked out of the group with explanation. Something has happened, but none of his friends would tell him what. The novel takes place years later, when Tsukuru, now in his 30s, takes his girlfriend Sara’s advice to solve the mystery that has haunted him since: why did his friends reject him so completely and so suddenly?

The mystery behind the betrayal propels the story forward, but discovering the answer is far from the core of the story. Rather, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is about discovering oneself, about coming to an understanding about one’s place in the world, and about how childhood experiences will have power over us long into adulthood. The title of the book comes from an inside joke among Tsukuru’s friends, that with the exception of Tsukuru, all of them have colours in their names — red, blue, white, black. They each have vibrant personalities as well, colourful characters to match colourful names — one is an intellectual, another is a jock, a third is a beautiful musician and the fourth is a comedian. In contrast, Tsukuru is colourless not just in name, but in personality — he believes he is extraordinary only in being absolutely ordinary, and even wonders what he brings to the group’s friendship. Though he grows up to have an impressive job as an engineer of train stations, he dismisses it as merely a mechanical skill at being able to organize things. His name as well is symbolic. Tsukuru means “to make” — while the Chinese character could be written to mean either “to create” or “to make,” his father had chosen the more prosaic definition, not wanting to give his son the burden of a grandiose name. And this resistance to grandiosity has defined Tsukuru all his life.

This of course is Tsukuru’s view of himself, and when he meets up with old friends, he discovers a very different view of himself and his fit into the group dynamic. It’s an eye opening experience for Tsukuru, and likely one many readers can relate to. How we view ourselves is usually not how others view us, and realizing the discrepancy is a fascinating experience.

Like all Murakami works, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is rich in symbolism and beautifully told. The novel is a masterclass in symbolism — some may very well consider it overdone, but I love how consistent the tropes are throughout. Colour is repeated time and again; even in university, Tsukuru meets a new friend Haida, whose name means grey, and who later features in a feverish dream sequence (that may or may not have been real) with Tsukuru’s high school friends whose names mean black and white. Music, of course, is classic Murakami, and here we have the usual references to classical music, as well as a pianist among Tsukuru’s high school friends, and a fable told about a musician which later links to another story told about a train station. It all ties in perfectly, and despite the grounding in realism, the story feels very much like a fable, a mosaic of a tale where all the parts fit together to make a breathtaking whole.

There’s also a musicality and a strong sense of poetry to Murakami’s language, even in translation, and this, more than his other books, made me wish I could read the original Japanese. Take for example this passage:

As he gazed at the four names on the screen, and considered the memories those names brought back, he felt the past silently mingling with the present, as a time that should have been long gone hovered in the air around him. Like odorless, colorless smoke leaking into the room through a small crack in the door. [p. 119]

And of course, my favourite part of any Murakami book and the reason I buy them in hardcover: Chip Kidd’s jacket design is absolute perfection. Probably my second favourite Murakami cover (nothing beats 1Q84!), and I admit when I first saw the cover online last year, I was disappointed. But I should’ve known Chip Kidd wouldn’t let me down — the beauty of this jacket design is in the layers, and this piece of artistry alone is well worth purchasing the hardcover.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Ghostwritten, Isabel Wolff

21416276Writing is generally viewed as a profession that reveals much about the individual. Even fiction writers are asked time and again about parallels of their fiction to their own lives. In Jenni’s case, however, her career as a writer helps her subsume her own memories of a childhood tragedy. She is a ghostwriter, and in exploring other people’s stories and in taking on their own voices, she is able, for the most part, to forget a bit of her own story.

That changes when she agrees to write the memoir of a survivor from a Japanese internment camp in Java. The subject, Klara, lives near the same beach where Jenni’s own childhood tragedy has occurred. Worse, Klara’s story holds some disquieting parallels to Jenni’s own experience, and forces Jenni to reexamine her past.

Isabel Wolff’s Ghostwritten isn’t an easy story to read. Klara’s tale in particular is filled with violence and horror. Wolff doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the more gruesome aspects of these internment camps, and the tale is an eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the history of the Japanese occupation in Gaza. Especially difficult to read are tales of prisoners who turn on other prisoners, either to escape punishment or to receive some form of special treatment for the guards.

The moment when we learn the decision that has haunted Klara all her life is heartrending, and while Jenni’s response is the right one, it also feels much too inadequate. Klara’s grief over this act is all too real and understandable, and to be fair, no response would likely have been enough to make her fully get over it.

Paling in comparison to Klara’s story is Jenni’s. Her struggle to come to terms with her own childhood tragedy is touching enough, but the parallel to Klara’s story just feels forced. The interweaving of the stories feels orchestrated, which is especially egregious when compared to the depth of emotion in Klara’s story. Jenni does indeed have her own demons to contend with, but I found myself skimming over her sections, and being impatient with her reluctance to open up.

Klara’s story is told ostensibly as a plot device to help the protagonist fulfill her own character arc, but Klara ends up stealing the show. There are some subplots within her tale that I wish I’d learned more about — the story about the neighbourhood bully and his mother, for example, and a star crossed romance between two of Klara’s neighbours — and I wish Wolff had focused more on this part of the novel.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Benediction, Kent Haruf

17978442Benediction is a deliberately paced, contemplative read about a man dying of cancer, and the people around him. The restraint of Haruf’s prose keeps the story from becoming maudlin, and while Dad Lewis’ strength is admirable, the novel resists the easy turn towards the inspirational. Instead, what we have is a story that rings with quiet truth.

There’s a large cast of characters, some of whom are a bit difficult to keep straight, but there are many memorable figures among them. A young girl who has lost her mother to cancer, and who finds a sense of family with a pair of neighbours. A woman who lives with her mother and who is still dealing with the remnants of a love affair gone wrong. A preacher who has just moved into town, and whose interpretation of a particular Biblical passage sparks controversy in the close-knit community and division within his own family. Dad’s own estrangement from his son, and the pain of longing to see him again before death. Dad’s battle against cancer is the linchpin upon which all these stories revolve, and Haruf creates a textured portrait of a small town.

Haruf’s narration echoes the diction of his characters, and while his use of “of” rather than “have” (“We would of had it for her”) drove me crazy throughout, the language as a whole does create a measured pace that lulls the reader in. There are also some passages that are absolutely beautiful. A character walking down a street and looking into his neighbours’ houses tells a police officer he was hoping “to recapture something… The precious ordinary.” [p. 162] I love that phrase, “precious ordinary.”

The character then goes on to confess:

I thought I’d see people being hurtful. Cruel. …But I haven’t seen that. Maybe all that’s behind the curtains. …What I’ve seen is the sweet kindness of one person to another. Just time passing by on a summer’s night. This ordinary life. [p. 163]

This is a novel about death, about violence and about loneliness, but the quotes above best capture the spirit of the text. I generally dislike calling a novel uplifting, because it makes the book sound utterly precious. But in this case, uplifting works. And it’s a good book, a quiet meditation on life through the lives of ordinary people in a small town.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Pitiful Human-Lizard, Jason Loo

00cover01A Toronto superhero with a dead end day job whose name would strike fear into the heart of any self-respecting bad guy… what’s not to love about Jason Loo’s Pitiful Human-LizardIt took me a while to track down a copy of this book. I went from The Beguiling to The Silver Snail to a couple of comic book stores in Kensington Market only to find out they were either completely sold out or (in the case of the Kensington stores), they happened to be closed that day. I was having a case of Pitiful Human Lizard luck myself, it seemed, but more than that, I learned just how popular and how much a phenomenon this comic book series has become. A lesson to all of you then: if you want to get your own copy of this series, snap up a copy at your local comic book store before it’s too late. (For the record, I finally found my copy in the Toronto talent section of Silver Snail, by the Eaton Centre. There were two other copies left on the shelf when I left, and the staff member who spoke with me said she was planning to check it out herself after her shift. So like I said, snap up your copy today.)

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. This Toronto superhero story is absolutely hilarious, an everyman loveable loser-type bundle of awesome. The Human Lizard is Lucas Barrett, an office worker who can barely afford to pay for his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lessons and who covers up his superhero exploits by telling his mother that he’s learning to play the harmonica. He signs up for a clinical trial for a super healing drug and, well, the rest is superhero history… with a pitiful twist, of course.

I absolutely love the Toronto setting. This story features a hot dog vendor, a streetcar and an epic superhero battle in one of my favourite Toronto landmarks — the Royal Ontario Museum! A ROM security guard makes a cameo in a hilarious bit that will make other museum or art gallery workers recognize a bit of themselves in him.

Loo’s self-deprecating humour is what makes this story so fantastic, and punchlines and sight gags are littered throughout. Particularly effective are Lucas Barrett’s interactions with his parents, and the scenes where the Human Lizard joins forces with the (much more traditional superhero type) Mother Wonder.

Author and artist Jason Loo was kind enough to provide some excerpts of the book for my blog, so check these out:

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The Pitiful Human-Lizard is available at various locations in Toronto: Silver Snail, The Beguiling, The Comic Pile, and Dr. Comics. You may also purchase it online and check out the Pitiful Human-Lizard Facebook page for a schedule of upcoming events and signings!

Review | Depth of Field, Chantel Guertin

20344869At the end of the first Pippa Green novel, Pippa had just won admission to the prestigious two week Tisch Photography Camp. Depth of Field picks up pretty much where the last left off, and some of the threads left hanging in the first book are resolved here.

The Tisch Photography Camp is Pippa’s dream come true, mostly because it’s in the same school her father graduated from. Unfortunately, while her boyfriend Dylan and best friend Dace were originally going to come to New York with her, both had to back out at the last minute. Instead of the fun NYC trip she’d planned, Pippa was stuck with the annoying Ben Baxter, who used her work to cheat his way into the programme.

Part of it may that I’m just too old for this kind of drama, but the entire time Pippa complained about her boyfriend and best friend being out of reach for the two week camp, all I could think of is that it’s just two weeks. You can survive two weeks — grow up.

Depth of Field is better than the first book — we learn a bit more about Pippa’s relationship with her father, and why photography is so important to her. The photography projects in this book were also more interesting, and I especially love the group of students who did a pigeon’s eye view series of the city. I wish the photography angle had been explored more. For an experience that had been such a dream for Pippa, we learn a lot more about her life outside the camp than about photography lessons she’d learned.

The book is written well, and a quick entertaining read. I only wish the story had been a little less predictable. For example, Pippa gets to know Ben a bit better in this book, and realizes he’s much more complex than she’d originally thought. Personally, I think his reason still doesn’t excuse his actions in the first book, and I much prefer Dylan’s witty flirtation to Ben’s complete 180 into a sensitive guy. But Dylan isn’t answering Pippa’s calls, and Ben’s turning out to be a tortured soul, so you do the math. With Pippa so adamant that Ben would ruin her Tisch experience and with Ben so bafflingly nice to her from the beginning, it seemed pretty obvious where this was headed. And normally, I may not mind, except Pippa’s cluelessness throughout just got annoying.

Beyond Ben, Pippa’s also dealing with David, her Tisch mentor and a renowned photographer with unexpected ties to her parents’ past. The truth is a bit of a surprise, though to be honest, he seemed so sleazy that I was expecting something much more sinister — a sign, clearly, that I need to stop reading/watching all those creepy psychological thrillers.

To Pippa’s disappointment, one of the most important things she learns from her mentor is that he’s unprofessional and a flake. This leads to one of the most unbelievable twists in the series yet, which, I’m sorry to say, is pure wish fulfillment. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s impossible that such a thing would happen, but it’s highly unlikely and sets Pippa up as a special snowflake type of heroine.

This is unfortunate, because when it comes to realism, Guertin is amazing at capturing depth of emotion. When Pippa wears a Tisch sweatshirt in memory of her father for her first day at Camp, for example, or when she has a breakthrough for her final Tisch project — these are all beautifully written moments, and they ground the story. Even when Pippa has a series of misadventures in various projects for Camp, it’s fun to read, and the reader can relate to the feeling of being out of your depth in a big city. And while I didn’t like the predictability of Ben’s storyline, there’s a moment when he pursues his own reasons for going to New York, and it’s sad, and I wish more had been done with it.

With both the books in the series, there’s a lot going on and a lot of real emotion being explored, and yet there’s always at least one big scene that feels completely false and takes me right out of Pippa’s world. The photography aspect is great, and I think girls who dream of becoming professional photographers themselves will enjoy reading about Pippa Greene. The ending of this book sets up for a sequel, and I’d be curious to see where Guertin takes Pippa’s story next.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.