BOOK REVIEW: Power Born of Dreams by Mohammad Sabaaneh

Power Born of Dreams: My Story is PalestinePower Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine by Mohammad Sabaaneh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 7, 2021

This graphic novel reflects upon the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of the author’s (artist’s) time in prison. At first, I found the story to be an evocative personal account of life in prison, but as the story continued it felt progressively less personal and more propagandistic. The central theme is that Palestinians feel imprisoned by circumstance, regardless of whether they are actually in a jail or not.

Still, it’s not the kind of work that will constructively advance a dialogue. It will rub those who sympathize with Israel the wrong way because it’s far from an unbiased account of events, vilifying the Israelis while glorifying (or failing to acknowledge) the Palestinians who engage in violence. This bias is particularly notable in the back matter, which presents accounts that seem journalistic, but which selectively present information to make it appear that all fault lies exclusively on one side.

To be fair, the author spent time in jail for (as best I could learn from the internet) what sounded like consorting with unsavory characters. [Which reeks of Soviet-style “justice,” but the book doesn’t really delve into the reason for his imprisonment, and – even if it did – I’m not sure that I’d trust that it’s the complete truth – given the way the general narrative is presented. So, I couldn’t tell you whether the author is an artist wrongly imprisoned for expressing himself, or whether he did something that was truly and legitimately seditious.]

The art is linocut to create a chiaroscuro effect (i.e. white lines, black background) and is stylistically interesting.

I enjoyed the art and found this to be an interesting read, but I wouldn’t recommend readers take it at face value as a fair account of the conflict, but rather as one man’s personal message about the conflict.

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BOOK REVIEW: Punderworld, Vol. 1 by Linda Sejic

Punderworld, Volume 1Punderworld, Volume 1 by Linda Šejić
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: August 25, 2021

Punderworld is a disneyfied telling of the love story of Persephone and Hades from Greek Mythology. I mean that in two ways. First, the art seemed stylistically reminiscent [to my neophyte eye] of a movie like “Frozen” (all the people are preternaturally good-looking / charisma-laden and even the Underworld has the sort of charm that makes it seem like it would be a nice place to visit.) The other sense in which it reminded me of a Disney story is that, while it comes from Greek Mythology, it is written and drawn to maximize resonance with a present-day American reader, and would probably be fundamentally unrecognizable to an ancient Greek even if translated into ancient Greek. (As the “Aladdin” animated movie would not resonate with an Arab viewership as much as it would Americans.) Punderworld could also be thought of as a Rom-Com of the star couple of the Underworld. [I assume the title is a “Branjelina”-like meet cute confection of a word.]

The story dragged a bit in the first half, but made good in the second, and I ended up enjoying the book more than I expected to. If you’re up for a disney-esque telling of this ancient Greek love story, give it a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn

Nightmare in SavannahNightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 9, 2021

Like New Orleans, Savannah is one of the few American cities that can pull off Old World occult-centered stories in a way that is on par with Prague or Budapest. While this is a fine story, I was underwhelmed at the degree to which it harnessed the promise of that setting. Mostly, the story plays out as teenage drama that could take place anywhere in America, with the novel addition of fairies [as opposed to the overplayed vampires or zombies.] I will say the book does a better job of getting mileage out of Fairy folklore than it does out of Savannah’s spook factor. These are not Peter Pan’s Fairies.

If you are looking for something akin to “Mean Girls” with less comedy, more angst, and a supernatural element, this book is definitely worth checking out. However, if the title “Nightmare in Savannah” has you expecting a deeply disturbing work of gothic horror, this is probably not the one for you.

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BOOK REVIEW: Taboos and Transgressions ed. by Luanne Smith, Kerry Neville, and Devi S. Laskar

Taboos and Transgressions: Stories of WrongdoingsTaboos and Transgressions: Stories of Wrongdoings by Luanne Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This anthology collects twenty-four gritty stories of familial dysfunction, lives in poverty, and various forms of wrongdoing. While there is a common theme and all the stories are situated in a realist context, there is a rich variety among the stories. A few are sparse and obscure, but most fit within the usual page range and level of story development for magazine published short stories. But there is considerable diversity to the “wrongdoing” of the story, ranging from subjective peccadillos to outright felonies, with the protagonist sometimes being the perpetrator but other times being victims or witnesses. Most, if not all, of the anthologized stories have been previously published.

Among my personal favorites were: “The God Box” (Michael Gaspeny,) “The Tao of Good Families” (Soniah Kamal,) “I Still Like Pink” (Francine Rodriguez,) “She Sheds Her Skin” (Kyle Ingrid Johnson,) and “Goatmartie” (J.C. Sasser.) That said, your preferences may vary, and the most famous authors with included pieces are probably Kim Addonizio (“True Crime”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“Gargoyle.”)

While the title might suggest erotica or even pornography, the included stories are literary fiction and, while some mention happenings that are properly taboo, few really revolve around those activities. There is some prostitution and unsubstantiated allegations of bestiality, but readers need not be concerned that there is anything sexually or violently graphic among the stories. (Certainly, no more than one would read in Philip Roth or Erica Jong.)

If you enjoy gritty, realist short stories, this collection offers a fine and diverse selection of such works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fiber Fueled by Will Bulsiewicz

Fiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your MicrobiomeFiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your Microbiome by Will Bulsiewicz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book advocates a high-fiber (i.e. plant-based) approach to eating. The book pairs a pop-sci dimension (explaining the science of why more fiber and plant-based foods would benefit most readers,) with a self-help dimension that supplies readers with a program by which they can pursue such a diet.

The book explains how the body’s microbiome breaks down fiber, producing Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs,) and discusses all the great things these molecules do for us. Speaking of the body’s microbiome, the book discusses how to keep it operating at its best, explaining all you need to know about prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics. It also explores the benefits of fermented foods, and the pros and cons of a range of other foods.

I liked that the book, by-and-large, takes both a scientific / pragmatic approach. For example, Bulsiewicz rejects the hype that everyone needs to abandon gluten (not just those with Celiac Disease.) I can’t say that the book is perfectly scientifically-objective. It does advocate that everyone quit dairy products. The author does present some of the evidence of benefits of dairy, but dismisses these as studies that must be supported by the dairy industry. [While I’m sure the dairy industry does fund studies, I doubt that they have a lock on the scholarly debate, i.e. sending out milk-goons to break the knee-caps of researchers.]

I didn’t find the dietary plan (Ch. 10) to be useful. While I eat a high-fiber / plant-dominant diet, I don’t take the extreme position that all non-plant food must be eliminated. That stance makes some of the recipes impractical. One needs a neighborhood Whole Foods to get some of the ingredients.

That said, the book offers a great explanation of why one should eat more foods that feed one’s microbiome, and it’s an excellent resource for those wishing to learning more.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hurts So Good by Leigh Cowart

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on PurposeHurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 14, 2021

Humans devote a lot of effort to avoiding unpleasant sensations. I’ve even heard people philosophize that all human activity is about moving toward pleasure or away from pain, but this claim fails on two grounds. First, people don’t invariably flee from pain, sometimes they run into its arms. Second, the dichotomization of pleasure and pain, categorizing them as opposites, also fails for a wide variety of human endeavors.

This book reflects upon a diverse set of cases in which the pleasure-pain dichotomy breaks down, attempting to glimpse why this is the case. Cowart investigates pepper-eating contests, ultramarathons, Polar Bear Club mid-winter dips, flagellation by religious adherents, and sexual sadomasochism. One thing these diverse activities have in common is that individuals voluntarily and purposefully subject themselves to intensely painful sensations. Throughout the book, the author is forthright about the varied ways that she has been attracted to pain, including: ballet dancing, an eating disorder, and sexual masochism.

This book takes a story-centric approach. As the subtitle suggests, it does present scientific findings, but this information is tucked in amid the stories – both her own confessional tales and the stories of the masochists (broadly speaking, i.e. not referring only to sexual pain-seekers) she meets during her research trips.

As a student of both martial arts and yoga, I found that the changing of one’s perception of, and relationship to, sensation is one of the most profound and empowering aspects of these practices. I, therefore, was curious what brought people to the purposeful pursuit of pain and what benefits others found. Not surprisingly, there isn’t just one reason for all cases, and Cowart discusses neurochemical, social, and psychological reasons. If you’re curious about why people engage in pain purposefully and voluntarily, this book is a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson

When the Sparrow FallsWhen the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 8, 2021 [June 29, 2021 some places.]

The Caspian Republic is a Soviet-style dystopia, but set in a future in which it is the sole holdout against rule by Artificial Intelligence (AI,) against virtual living, and against downloading one’s consciousness. When, Nikolai South, an unimpressive agent of the State Security agency is given the seemingly undemanding, yet diplomatically sensitive, job of escorting the foreign widow of a deceased “journalist,” something is amiss. Nikolai’s work philosophy has been to find the sweet spot where he is neither noticed as a shirker nor for his excellence, and his mastery of this Goldilocks Zone has made him nearly invisible to upper management – or so he thought. What makes the job tricky is that the journalist, a man who wrote rants against AI and downloading of consciousness, turns out to be a downloaded consciousness, as is his wife, making her visit a little like the head of the Dalai Lama Fan Club being invited to Beijing.

I found this story compelling. The book perspective jumps toward the end (throughout most of the book, it’s first-person narrated,) but for the most part the perspective shifts aren’t problematic. While this shift away from first person narration isn’t hard to follow, I would say this section goes on longer than I would have preferred. There is a point about two-thirds of the way through at which we lose the the thread of Nikolai, and at that point the story becomes largely a history of a fictional country (which, sans a central character, is a bit tedious,) but then the book resumes a character-centric story to the book’s end (and I resumed enjoying it.)

If you’re interested in books that make you question what being human means, and where the boundaries lie, you’ll find this book intriguing and worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

The KingdomsThe Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Kingdoms is a cross-genre work of speculative fiction built around the grandfather paradox — not in the narrow sense (no one murders an ancestor) but in the broader sense that the time traveler’s mucking about in the past will kill the version of him that otherwise would have been. It’s a time machine story sans the time machine, just a strange time-portal near a remote coastal village, on one side of which it’s near the turn of the 19th century and on the other it’s about a century later. As a work of counterfactual historical fiction, that time gap is important. It takes one from an age of wooden sailing ships to one of mammoth steel steamers, and a future man might know a great deal (historically and / or technologically) that could rewrite the world.

There’s another dimension to the story beyond the sci-fi time-travel. There’s a love story whose major complication is amnesia, and it’s a big enough complication that it takes the course of the story to bring the relationship into focus.

When we pic up the story, we find our protagonist, Joe, is in a hospital in Londres, the London that would exist if the French had come to rule Britain. Joe is amnesiac, and has the misfortune to learn that he is a slave. Joe will eventually receive a clue directing him to a lighthouse on the Scottish coast near the rift in time.

I enjoyed reading this novel. It’s both thought-provoking and entertaining. It has enough complication that it keeps one guessing, and keeps one reading, in an effort to bring into focus that which is chaotic and cloudy throughout most of the story. But in the end the intrigue is resolved clearly, and oh what a ride one has taken.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Shakespeares, Vol. 1 by Harold Sakuishi

Seven Shakespeares Vol. 1 (comiXology Originals)Seven Shakespeares Vol. 1 by Harold Sakuishi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The title and premise of this manga-style historical fiction graphic novel are presumably influenced by Gilbert Slater’s 1931 work that proposed that William Shakespeare as poet / playwright is a myth and that, in actuality, seven different writers produced the canon attributed to Shakespeare. While there remains disagreement and speculation about precisely what was composed by Shakespeare – as opposed to either being heavily co-authored or exploiting his name recognition – I don’t believe this extreme expression of the idea is so popular anymore.

But it doesn’t really matter for the purpose of this story because Sakuishi’s work suggests some truly outlandish, if intriguing, origins of the Shakespeare canon. In the case of this first volume, it is an adorable young Chinese witch (for lack of a better term,) Li, who goes from learning English via crude a pointing-out-concrete-nouns approach to penning sonnets that will be considered some of the best poetry humanity has ever known, and she does so over a period of weeks.

The volume includes light supernatural elements – either that or superstitious people in conjunction with unseen and / or unbelievable activities. So, it’s a cross-genre work. Most of the story revolves around a Chinese community who feel beleaguered by the gods or fates, and who attempt to sacrifice Li to appease said deities.

I found the premise to be intriguing. The art was cleanly rendered in the manga style. The story didn’t feel quite as clean, with some events feeling random and inorganic. If you’re looking to get some lightly dramatized historical fiction, you’d probably feel this is a bit fanciful, but if you’re down for the story’s exaggerated nature, it’s a compelling tale.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes, #5)The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A legend tells of a monstrous hell-hound who haunts the moors of Devonshire and who long ago killed the head of the Baskerville estate, a wealthy family and linchpin within the community. When the present head of the Baskerville fortune, Charles, dies suddenly and under mysterious circumstances – i.e. outdoors at night and in the presence of huge paw prints — many neighbors conclude the legendary hound has returned to fulfil the curse of the Baskervilles. The doctor, neighbor, and friend of Charles, Dr. Mortimer, doesn’t know what to think, as a man of science he might dismiss the legend, but he’s the one who found the hound prints. Above all, Mortimer knows that if the new heir to the Baskerville estate is driven away, it would be devastating for the neighborhood. Mortimer thus seeks the advice of Sherlock Holmes.

This is one of the most well-known and beloved stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon (fyi – it’s #5.) One interesting feature is that Holmes, himself, is not present through the middle of the story. As in all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s Dr. Watson who provides perspective and narration, but throughout the second act we see Watson doing the investigating as well. Sherlock is present for the beginning of the story when Mortimer comes to call and the Baskerville heir, Henry, arrives in London, and then he’s there to spring a plot to conclude the case, but in between we learn of only Watson’s activities in Devonshire.

This is an intriguing tale from beginning to end, and it is remarkable how many strange and seemingly disparate strings the story ties up cleverly. It’s a fascinating look at superstition and how it creates converts under the right circumstances. This quick and thrilling read is worthy of your time.


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