Category Archives: Books

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

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Do you remember the campy version of Batman from the 1960’s TV show?  That’s the way he was portrayed for several decades. But everything changed in 1986 thanks to Frank Miller’s Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s depiction of the Dark Knight, along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, ushered in a new, darker era for comic books.

The Dark Knight Rises is itself a very interesting read. Batman retired ten years ago. But crime has continued unabated in Gotham City. When an extremely violent gang appears, something within Bruce Wayne snaps and he can’t keep Batman hidden inside anymore. But Wayne is over fifty years old; fighting crime is much harder in his aging body.

Gotham City has also changed. Commissioner Gordon is retiring. His chosen replacement, the first woman Commissioner, feels the Dark Knight is a menace who must be hunted down. This is part of a larger debate within Gotham City, where various individuals weigh in on how they feel about the Dark Knight’s return. This part of the story feels very relevant to today, both in the way that it is presented (with talk show hosts bringing in various guests to debate) and in how divided in thought everyone is. And while The Dark Knight Returns has these modern aspects, it is also very much a product of its time, having been written during the Cold War; it expressly deals with people’s fears from the time (but with a superhero twist).

One warning though: the physical book is rather daunting thanks to the sheer amount of dialogue in it. The art is also not particularly appealing, making this graphic novel a bit harder to get through as well. But the story is very much worth it!

Interview with Duncan Weller

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Duncan Weller in his art

Duncan Weller is a writer of children’s books, adult fiction and poetry.  He is also a visual artist who shows his work regularly.  He lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and travels often to get ideas and images for his books.  He won two of Canada’s top awards (Governor General’s, Schwartz) for his picture book, The Boy from the Sun.  You can find him online at duncanweller.com. And check out his artwork at the Vinyl Listening Station at Waverley Library!

Shauna Kosoris: So what came first for you: art or writing?

Duncan Weller: Children are quite happy to draw until they learn to write. The interest in writing supersedes drawing because words more easily express ideas and feelings than pictures. I kept drawing as I learned to write to satisfy an itch that I can’t explain. According to my mother, my first spoken word as a one year old child occurred when looking at a sundown over the Ottawa River. I said, “Pretty,” and not another word for three months. In my twenties I thought of myself as a visual artist. I was getting paid for my art long before my writing, but today I don’t distinguish between the two as powerful twins.

In university, you were originally in Fine Arts. Why did you decide to switch to English?

I wanted to learn about the history and methods of creating children’s books and other forms of literature. And at the time the Fine Arts Departments across North America emphasized modern art, which has value for some, but wasn’t my thing. The philosophical underpinnings of modernism was too subjective for my taste and Fine Arts departments completely ignored the potential of popular culture.There’s nothing wrong with the traditional functions of art when those traditional functions are used progressively to dramatically enrich a democratic society. And humanism is at the core of English literature which applies not only to visual art, but to cultures the world over. That emphasis, of art with a mission beyond aesthetics, ideology and the self struck me as more meaningful and useful.

Do you normally write or illustrate your books first? A Starship by Duncan Weller

Stories are movies in my mind, complete with settings, plot and characters long before they are organized into a format using words and images. In order for others to enjoy my books, movies on paper, I have to make the computer keyboard come atonally alive with the laborious part of organizing words and sentences into a meaningful story enhancing and being enhanced by the illustrations. It’s a complicated balancing act, so I make notes, a good outline and/or a story board. So again, the writing and illustrations come together. Hundreds of stories were memorized by griots or bards who passed down stories orally for thousands of years. I’m not that clever, but I have entire plots and ideas for novels worked out in my head where not a sentence has been formed, not a drawing made.

What is your favourite artistic medium to work with and why?

Watercolour is amazingly versatile and perfectly suited for illustrating children’s books. With the right paper and techniques, watercolour effects can mimic the texture of skin, bark, cloth, steel, clouds, water, etc. in wonderful ways. Oils are my second favourite. A story I completed called Lara Wood, yet to be printed/published was done in oils and alkyds. I used a crackle medium to imitate tree bark. It looks awesome. Painting faces with oils is the best way to go if you want to take your time and blend skin tones nicely, along with creating setting effects, like skies and atmospheres. For the books I’ve used all sorts of different mediums and plan to use more in the future.

In your books, you’ve written both prose and poetry. Do you have a preference for one or the other?

Prose. It’s so much easier. And safer. Poetry is hard to write and dangerous. An incredible number of poets commit suicide. This is because poets often look deeply inwards, searching for bigger truths in the well, reaching beyond the rejuvenating properties of the drinking water and heading straight for the rocky bottom. Also, the subjective nature of poetry and lack of financial support makes the life of a poet pretty hard. At its best poetry can be the most perfect form of human expression so I look forward to writing poetry for future children’s books. I look deeply, but I don’t plumb the depths of my own being for the rocky bottom. I’m not all that interested in ultimate truths. I believe there is some kind of order to the universe, and I have a few ideas about how it works, but I wouldn’t dare to take myself too seriously. I leave these depths to scientists and philosophers and try to look at the outside world as an observer with a heart. And because I’m sensitive I like to keep the poetic impulses to a minimum. I’ll live longer this way.

That’s fair. I know you’ve made videos of some of your children’s books; are you still working with film at all?

Occasionally I work on painting backdrops that may one day be green screened into a short film I want to make. And I’d love to make animated shorts and short films, leading up to making a feature film one day, but films get made by teams and require lots of management and money. So I’m sure I’ll do a few more small projects, maybe one next year.

The Ugg and the DripAs both a writer and illustrator, you must get pulled in so many different directions artistically.  How do you decide on the project you will focus your attention on?

As a writer, painter, designer, publisher, promoter, and salesperson I have to balance too many jobs with paying for rent and food like anyone else. So I take on commissions occasionally to earn some quick money. My book projects are eventually more profitable, and more so if I can find an agent and a good publisher this year. It’s expensive to print a book on my own, and will put me in debt for a while, but will eventually earn me good money. Despite the complications, choosing a project or starting a new project comes from feeling inspired or just getting bored with painting in one medium. Sometimes it’s a sudden rush of emotions that are connected with a story I love that I just can’t wait to work on. It’s also about timing and situations, some just too hard to explain.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’ve got three visual art commissions that will pay the rent. In my spare time I’m working on three different novels with lots of interesting characters and situations: We Play You (for adults) is about an artist who has his work stolen by a gallery owner. He discovers that the gallery owner is connected to an investment company that steals art from artists the world over. Punch-Out and The Search for the Ugg are two middle readers for kids. The Ugg story will have over 80 small illustrations. I hope to have Tiger Dream, a new picture book, completed this year.

So what book or author inspired you to write?

As a teenager I read nearly a novel a day, everything from Farley Mowat to dozens of science fiction authors, along with all the required books in high school, enjoying the Russian authors, Shakespeare and George Orwell. In University I was a big fan of the English Romantic Poets, Roald Dahl and the political writings of many American journalists, especially Tom Wolfe who blew up the writing world decades ago with his dramatic writing style. These days I read Ian Rankin and lots of political articles. I am looking to get back into reading a greater variety of novels by joining a book group.

What books influenced your children’s books?A picture from Girl from the Moon

For children’s books I had a few favourites like Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, books featuring Mr. Ben Red Knight, Graham Oakley’s church mice, a couple books by Dr. Suess, Jack Ezra Keats (Goggles! was my favourite), and a few oddball books from Europe including the strange imagery in Eastern European books of folktales. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was my absolute favourite because the allegory applied to all sorts of strange adult behaviours. Most often I was disappointed as a child with children’s picture books. I felt the authors and illustrators had very little imagination, playing it safe, especially when compared to the amazing imagery in movies and television which also had a big influence on me. The Tom and Jane series that my mother got me as a young child made me feel ill. These books and many others were so bad I thought adults were robots who had no idea that children had feelings. I didn’t want to grow up to be an adult. For a while I thought adults were another kind of animal. At the age of nine a school librarian recommended we read the picture books with gold stickers on their covers. After I read over twenty books with gold stickers I told my classmates that books with gold stickers were the worst. It was about this time that I gave up on picture books and began reading comic books. I recall how disappointed I was when I made this as a conscious decision. At seventeen I thought I could make a ton of money writing good books for children because so many of them were terrible. In my early twenties I discovered Roald Dahl which later had a big influence.

Is there a book you think everyone should read?

For anyone interested in the visual arts I would recommend Learning to See by Alan Gowans. It’s out of print, but old copies can be ordered from Amazon and found in secondhand book shops in British Columbia. Gowans was an art historian who taught at the University of Victoria. He offered an alternate history of art that is amazingly coherent, practical and useful for artists if they ever feel confused about what art is for – about the amazing things that art can do for people.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m reading a book by Keli Goff called Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence. It’s one of many books I’m reading about race relations in order to improve the allegory for a story called Tiger Dream. I want to show children that it’s okay for us to eat, dress, talk and express ourselves differently because underneath the human dress (culture) we are all biologically the same. Our variety of cultures make the world an amazing place. I have to do a lot of reading for this story to better develop the allegory and ensure I’m representing other cultures accurately and positively. My research for Tiger Dream began with a trip to Ghana, which was made possible by a Chalmers’ Art Fellowship Award through the Ontario Arts Council.

Duncan Weller's books

Tales From Big Spirit (Series) by David Alexander Robertson

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I have been a fan of David Alexander Robertson since I read his 7 Generations graphic novel series a few years ago. Recently I stumbled upon his graphic novel series for a younger audience called “Tales from Big Spirit”. Each book is about a prominent First Nations person from history and teaches the reader about their contributions using beautifully drawn graphics (there are a few different illustrators for the series). Although intended for children, I as an adult really enjoyed reading the books and learned a few new things.

The first title I read was “The Peacemaker- Thanadelathur” (illustrated by Wai Tien). This book teaches the reader about Thanadelathur, a remarkable Dene woman who helped make peace between the Cree and Dene peoples in the 1700s. She was originally captured by some Cree people, and managed to escape after the winter had passed. Nearly starving in the process, she was discovered by some geese hunters from the Hudson’s Bay Company and she agreed to become an interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Company to establish trade agreements. After some difficulty, she proved the be successful, and Thanadelathur is still remembered today through oral tradition and the Hudson Bay Company’s records (quite a rarity for a First Nations woman at that time!)

Second was “The Poet-Pauline Johnson” (illustrated by Scott B. Henderson). This book introduces Pauline Johnson, a Mohawk poet who was quite famous for her poetry reciting, especially “A Cry from an Indian Wife” which told of the Battle of Cut Knife during the Riel Rebellion. Being half European and half Mohawk, she worked towards reconciliation towards those groups of people, and her works have been honored by different groups yesterday and today.

Third was “The Ballad of Nancy April- Shawnadithit” (illustrated by Scott B. Henderson) which tells about the extinction of the Beothuk people in Newfoundland in the 19th century. They became instinct due to various reasons, including loss of food sources due to competition with other groups in the area, death due to European diseases (especially tuberculosis), and violent encounters from other groups. Shawnadithit was the last known full-blooded Beothuk person until her death in 1829, and because of her, some history of the Beothuk people survive today.

Last was “The Scout-Tommy Prince” (illustrated by Scott B. Henderson). This installment teaches about Sgt. Tommy Prince, the most decorated First Nations Soldier in Canada, who served in both World War II and the Korean War. As a young man, he spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and doing other skills, and he joined the army cadets when he was a teenager. Despite facing discrimination, he applied for recruitment several times until he was accepted in 1940. He volunteered to the parachute unit, being one of few who passed training. Later on he did many dangerous tasks; including scoping out and reporting on German assembly points (he laid a 1,400 meter long telephone wire and attached it to a phone in an abandoned farmhouse to do so!). After the wars, he became known once again for saving a man from drowning in Winnipeg. Since his passing, many schools and awards have been named after Prince to honor him.

In total, this has been a wonderful group of graphic novels that taught me a bit of Canadian History. Pauline Johnson’s writings are officially on my to-read list, and I have done further readings on the other individuals.  I truly recommend this collection for those young and old. These titles are available by Interlibrary Loan.

 

Paris for One and Other Stories by Jojo Moyes

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In the follow-up to her bestselling novels, Me before You and After You, author Jojo Moyes has published  an  eclectic  collection of nine short stories each from a woman’s perspective and dealing with  a variety of themes from troubled relationships to near magical shoes. The longest story in the set is “Paris for One” and centres on Nell who by her own admission is “not the adventurous type”, but has given up a planned trip to Brighton to have a romantic trip to Paris with her boyfriend, Peter.  At the outset it is clear that Peter has no intention of joining her, and instead of following her routine inclinations and cancelling, she embarks for Paris on her own.  The weekend does not start promisingly when Nell finds her hotel has double booked her and she spends the first night sharing with a stranger.  Preserving she soon discovers the delights of the city and the company of an attractive Frenchman named Fabien.

My favourite tale is “Between the Tweets”  and follows a formerly popular TV personality with a squeaky clean image and sinking ratings.  Mr. Travis is being trolled on the internet by a woman who claims to have had a spicy relationship with him.  The story is a delight about a PR nightmare with an unusual twist.

Each tale in this collection is intriguingly written, and  the characters are well drawn (if not necessary all entirely likeable) using dialogue for the most part mixed with subtle narration . Moyes experience as a journalist as well as a fiction writer is evident in the succinct  use of description that give the barest of details and leaves much to the reader’s imagination.

This would be a great and quick read for Moyes fans and anyone would relishes the joys of an interesting short story.

 

Interview with Ruta Sepetys

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Photo of Ruta Sepetys by by Magda Starowieyska

Photo by Magda Starowieyska

Ruta Sepetys is the New York Times bestselling author of Between Shades of Gray, Out of the Easy, and Salt to the Sea. Born and raised in Michigan, she grew up in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. She currently lives in a treehouse in the hills of Tennessee. You can find her online at rutasepetys.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your newest book, Salt to the Sea?

Ruta Sepetys: My father’s cousin was involved in the refugee evacuation of East Prussia and was granted passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff. By a twist of fate, she did not board the ship the day it sailed. She shared the story with me and that inspired me to write about it.

How fortunate! Your novels are all historical fiction; how much time do you typically spend on research for them?

I typically spend three years researching each novel. I know it seems like a very long time, but it goes so quickly!

What was the most interesting fact you discovered while researching the Wilhelm Gustloff?

There were so many interesting and surprising things I discovered, but one that stays with me is that it’s estimated that during World War II, over 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea.

Wow! On your website, you say that while researching your books, you interview people who have experienced the event you’re writing about, then you combine their stories into one character.  Have you always used this method to make your characters?  

Yes, I generally interview and research the background of dozens of people and then weave elements of all of them into one character. That allows me to represent a larger human experience.

Are any of the characters in Salt to the Sea based off of real people, or are they all amalgamations of people you have interviewed?

The main character of Joana was partially inspired by the story of a Lithuanian nurse who fled during the evacuation, but then I quilted together elements from several other witnesses as well.

All three of your books are set between 1940-1950.  Why does that decade appeal to you?

I’m drawn to stories of strength through struggle and the journey of finding meaning through hardship. The war and post war period are full of experiences of hope, courage, love, and loss.

So what are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a novel set in 1957 Madrid, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain.

Good luck with that!  Let’s finish up with a few quick questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

There were many authors and many books, but as a young child I was incredibly inspired by the work of Roald Dahl. His books are so full of creativity and imagination, of innocent young people at the mercy of unsavory adults. I still cherish my copy of James and the Giant Peach.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

I love Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It reminds us that even if suffering is unavoidable, we alone choose how we cope with our suffering.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading research materials for my new book, so I’m reading Interrogating Francoism by Helen Graham. Once I’m finished with research, I can’t wait to read Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman.

 

Salt to the Sea cover

Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen

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This elegantly written book shows just how connected we all are.  Here in Thunder Bay, it’s common to discover you have something or someone in common to almost everyone you meet.  The “one degree of separation” phenomenon is understandable in a city the size of ours, but could it work in the metropolis of New York?  This book proves it can, and one incredible dress is the touchstone that unites a group of nine diverse women.  It’s appropriate that the dress at the centre of this book is an iconic little black dress.  The dress takes on a mantle of magic as it fills a specific need for each woman that wears it.   The dress is created by a pattern maker at the end of his career, so it’s special as soon as it’s made.  A fresh off the bus model has the privilege to wear it first, and is an instant star.  After that the dress becomes the main character of the story.  Rosen gives the nine women their own chapter and voice, as their lives intersect with the dress. The dress works its magic in the lives of a Bloomingdales sales girl, a private detective, and a personal assistant, among others.  Rosen’s writing is a delight to read, and helps keep all the stories straight.  Readers discussing this book online have shared their own stories of life-changing moments, revealing that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!

 

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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Totalitarian control. Censorship. Loss of Freedom. All of these things are as much of a concern in 2017 as they were decades ago. Since Trump entered office, Orwell’s 1984 has become a bestseller once again. There are growing concerns about government control, “Big Brother” and spying to name a few. However, while 1984 has been highlighted in North America’s conscious, there is yet another perspective that should be considered: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. While not quite as popular as Orwell, Bradbury makes excellent observations about Western Society’s possible downfall.

The world of Fahrenheit 451 is one of entertainment- parlour families shown on large screens in individual’s houses that one can interact with, radio, and the pastime of driving extremely fast for the fun of it. The average citizen has been amused into submission. They have no interest in books. It happened slowly- universities gradually lost all enrolment and therefore closed; schools became places to learn how things operate- not why. Individuals gradually become submissive and they were happy to abide by the illegality of books as they continued to be increasingly entertained. At least, most citizens were.

Guy Montag is a fireman- not a person who extinguishes fires- a person who creates fires largely for the purpose to destroy books and the places that house them. One day he meets 17 year old Clarrise McClellan who is so peculiar she makes Guy question his worldview- especially his definition of happiness and his career choice. He brings these questions home and to work which makes his peers suspicious.  His superior, Captain Beatty, comes to comfort him in his doubts about being a fireman – to promote happiness, since books cause unease and unrest in people. Surely they are the detriment to people’s happiness and must be destroyed at all costs. But Montag wonders, how can that be true since his wife tried to take her own life with sleeping pills one night? Surely, there must be a reason why some risk their lives to protect books- like one lady he himself helped burn.

As I read through Fahrenheit 451 I couldn’t help but apply the themes to my own life. I have an entertainment machine in the palm of my hand-my smartphone- and I often use it for mindless dribble more than for educating myself. I look at the party culture of my generation and the inability many of my peers have to think about even the short term future and it saddens me. As I gain encouragement from Bradbury and other writers, I have been changing what I do in my spare moments- listening to audio books in the commute to and from work, taking classes, and so forth. Let’s not be made passive by entertainment, but use leisure for building us up.