The Best Books of 2017 – So Far!

Best Books of 2017 - so Far!

A graphic novel, a brilliant retelling of a Shakespeare play, a standout second novel from the 2015 Miles Franklin winner Sofie Laguna, a couple of mile-a-minute page-turners, and a brilliant debut literary crime novel from a fresh Australian voice; these, and more, are my picks for the books that have already made 2017 a stellar year for reading. And we’re only halfway through it!

Continue reading “The Best Books of 2017 – So Far!”

Review: Roughneck by Jeff Lemire

9781501160998Poignant and harrowing, Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel Roughneck is a deeply moving and beautifully illustrated story about family, heritage, and breaking a family’s cycle of violence and abuse.

Derek Oullette’s glory days are a distant speck in the rear-view mirror. His hockey career – which prospered on his reputation as a bruiser – ended a decade earlier following a ferocious incident on the ice. Since then he’s lived off his reputation in the remote northern community where he grew up – the fictional Pimitamon – drinking too much, fighting anybody who crosses him. Basically, he is his father reincarnated, prone to the same lapses into violence, one misstep away from prison.

Derek’s sister, Beth, has her own demons. A drug addict, tormented by an abusive ex-boyfriend, when she shows up on Derek’s doorstep, the siblings flee to a secluded hunting cabin in the woods, living off the land as they reconnect and face up to the painful secrets of their past and their Cree heritage, to find their future. But as Beth’s ex-boyfriend closes in, he threatens to unravel the hard work the siblings have put into placating their tumultuous lives, and hoisting them back into the cycle of self-destruction.

How does someone whose life is so imbued in violence – as Derek’s was, professionally – cope when the game forces them out into the real world, where there’s no funnel for that pent-up rage? Roughneck is about the cyclical nature of violence and abuse, and the quest for redemption, which touches on the history of exploitation faced by the Indigenous people of Canada without getting bogged down in the minutiae. It’s a book that validates Jeff Lemire as one of Canada’s greatest living storytellers, in any medium, and can stand proudly beside his magnum opus, Essex County. This is one of the best graphic novels of the year. Heck, it’s one of my favourite stories of the year.

ISBN: 9781501160998
Format: Hardback (254mm x 184mm x 30mm)
Pages: 272
Imprint: Simon & Schuster
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publish Date: 4-May-2017
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Teen Titans – Earth One, Vol 1 by Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson

Teen TitansThere’s a lot to like about TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson. This re-invention of the classic teenage super-team balances the requisite super-heroics with a good dose of teenage angst and soap opera. But it’s hindered by the need to rehash the origins of these characters – variations of their previous incarnations, but still tinged with an overwhelming resemblance to them – and a derivative plot, that bears an uncanny similarity to the core narrative of Marvel Comics’ THE RUNAWAYS.

The strength of the EARTH ONE line of graphic novels, at least in theory, is their continuity-free approach to DC Comics’ characters. There has clearly been a line drawn in the sand, however, in terms of how far creators can push these characters beyond their established origins. These ‘reinventions’ and ‘fresh takes’ aren’t overhauls; they’re merely contemporized reintroductions with slight twists; the equivalent of a fresh paint job. Which is disappointing, because given the esteemed talent on TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE, had they been allowed total freedom, Lemire and Dodson might’ve produced something seminal rather than a fun, but ultimately unmemorable romp.

The strength of TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE is the characters, and Lemire’s pitch-perfect depiction of the teenage cast. Victor, Gar and Tara aren’t typecast in the standard teenage roles: they’re genuine, obnoxious youngsters, who are undergoing a life-changing experience as their powers begin to surface. Their attitudes are infuriating at times, and their initial inability to work together encapsulates the adolescent mentality. But the great character work is undercut by the underwhelming plot; turns out, the people who claimed to love them – their parents – aren’t the protectors the teens assumed they were; they’re bad guys, liars, with nefarious agendas.

THE RUNAWAYS, the hit Marvel Comics series from almost a decade ago, presented a similar set-up, and while TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE isn’t an exact replication, its resemblance is striking. The parents-are-secretly-scrum-bags card has been played umpteen times before, and it’s a unfortunately this story heads down that well-worn and trodden path. Separating the Teen Titans from their parents is fundamental to their character journeys, of course; but surely another route could’ve been taken.

Dodson’s illustrations are as slick as ever; the perfect super-hero artist. Lemire’s script allows room for various splash pages, and even a two-page spread, which are all dynamically rendered. Some of the new designs are questionable, but that’s potentially veteran-reader bias, and takes nothing away from the overall package.

TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE is a fine addition to DC Comics’ line of graphic novels, and with a few alternate storytelling choices, it might’ve been something truly special. While it’s not quite A-Grade, there’s plenty to like: great characters, pitch-perfect dialog, and stunning visuals. Readers should look forward to the second volume.

(Thanks to DC Entertainment and NetGalley for providing a digital review copy)

Review: Green Arrow, Vol. 5 – The Outsiders War by Lemire & Sorrentino

Green ArrowWhen the DC Universe was revamped and relaunched in 2011, Green Arrow suffered. Never a consistent reader of the series, I’ve read many of the seminal works, and saw ‘The New 52’ as a way to jump on for the long haul. Alas, the series didn’t hold my attention, so I quickly removed it from my monthly reading stack. Since then, creative teams have come and gone, but the arrival of Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino has returned the character to the spotlight. I’d heard whispers that GREEN ARROW was required reading; one of DC’s best monthly books, in fact. So I took the plunge with Volume 5: THE OUTSIDERS WAR, without any prior knowledge of what’s been going on in the series up to that point.

An inexorable side-effect of long-form storytelling is that it’s very difficult for a new reader to catch up on what they’ve missed. While THE OUTSIDERS WAR is a standalone arc, it’s heavily affected by events from the previous volume. While Jeff Lemire does a laudable job of trying to catch us up, it’s impossible to do so without dialogue and captions feeling stilted, so he limits his backtracking and for the most part leaves readers to discern overarching plot points. It’s never a major problem, but there were times when I struggled to understand the motivations of certain characters; and when the appearance of a new character clearly lacked the intended impact.

Lemire borrows elements from the successful television show Arrow, but mines new territory, too. THE OUTSIDERS WAR reveals the secrets of Oliver Queen’s past – his stranding on a desert island wasn’t the accident he’d been lead to believe; there were sinister forces at work (aren’t they always). We learn that the Queen family has been embroiled in a war that has perpetuated for generations, involving ancient clans, known collectively as the Outsiders. There are character revelations, fantastically rendered fight sequences, and a conclusion that sets up the next story arc; it’s really just good, fun super-hero comics, benefitted by dynamic artwork from Sorrentino, whose use of color in highlighting specific moments on a panel or page is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.