BOOK REVIEW: War & Peace: The Graphic Novel Adapted by Alexandr Poltorak [from the work by Leo Tolstoy]

War and Peace: The Graphic NovelWar and Peace: The Graphic Novel by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: September 27, 2022

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Ambitious. Many readers will feel it’s overly ambitious or even impossibly ambitious. It’s not just the challenge of capturing a sprawling 1,220-page tome in a 220-page graphic novel. Tolstoy’s work has a vast cast of characters and captures a broad set of both fictional and factual events whose broad contours are determined by Napoleon’s wars in Europe, culminating in his adventures into Russia. (In other words, the narrative arc wasn’t organized in such a manner as to be readily compressible, but to capture real world events.)

I must make a confession. Usually, when I’m reviewing a graphic novel adaptation of a work of literature, I’ve read the source material. In this case, I haven’t, and so I may not be the best person to comment on how accurately Poltorak and Chukhrai condense events. I can say that the pacing of the book – particularly in the latter half – is a bit like taking in the world through the window of a speeding train. Of the two most important characters, this is particularly true of the experience of Prince Andrew, whose major moments are “blink and you’ll miss them.” Pierre’s arc seems to be covered in greater detail, though still at breakneck pacing.

Given all that, many people will say to themselves: “Realistically, I am never going to read a 1000+ page novel about the experience of Russian aristocratic families leading up to and during the Napoleonic French invasion, even if it has love triangles, conniving inheritance disputes, and plenty of good ole family dysfunction.” The early part of the book is mostly rich people sitting around at soirees discussing war (in peace) as they live out their various familial and romantic dramas. If you’re that person, this graphic novel maybe the perfect solution for you, and I’d recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Candide by Voltaire

CandideCandide by Voltaire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Do we live in the best of all possible worlds? “Candide” attempts to wrestle with this question. The protagonist, Candide, is taught by his tutor – the renowned philosopher, Pangloss – that their’s is the best possible world. However, as the story unfolds as one bad turn of events after the next, it becomes harder to argue that there couldn’t be a better world.

Candide is forced to flee from his love (Cunegonda,) is conscripted into wartime military service, is arrested for heresy, becomes a serial killer, acquires and subsequently loses a fortune, is robbed, finds himself in the middle of war and other conflicts, and stumbles into and then flees what might be the closest his world has to a utopia, el Dorado. And, it could be argued, Candide gets off relatively easy. Cunegonda is raped, sliced open, and enslaved. Her brother, the Baron, is run through and is also enslaved. Pangloss gets syphilis, is hung, is partially dissected, and is enslaved, as well.

And yet, to the end, Pangloss retains his (and Liebniz’s) belief that they live in the best of all possible worlds. Candide (kind of) does as well, though at the book’s end he’s fatigued by the question and just wants to distract himself from it with some gardening. The degree to which Candide sticks to his guns is impressive, not only because of everything that goes wrong, but also because he gets a new mentor / friend, Martin, a mentor diametrically opposed to the views of Pangloss. Like Pangloss, Martin is also a philosopher, but Martin’s worldview is much less optimistic, but it also reflects the crucial idea that how bad or good the world is has more to do with one’s perception of it than the events that one experiences. (When Candide asks Martin who has it worse: one of the deposed kings they met or Candide, himself, Martin said he couldn’t know without experiencing what’s in the mind of each.)

Despite the steady flow of negative happenings, the book doesn’t definitively answer the thematic question. How could it? The most it can say is that we don’t live in the best of all imaginable worlds, but we can’t know whether those worlds we imagine are possible. For one thing, we are forced to recognize that humans are flawed and that nature is indifferent, and these factors might play a role in the variation between best imagined world and the world we know. For another thing, maybe we couldn’t handle a more perfect world. The old lady character asks the group whether all the trials they’ve collectively suffered are worse, or better, than sitting around doing nothing – as they happened to be [not] doing at that moment.

This book provides a thought-provoking journey, and it’s well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book by Ed Brubaker

Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book Vol. 5Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book Vol. 5 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

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This hard-boiled crime graphic novel is a gritty PI story turned grittier revenge journey. In the manner of Hollywood films, it’s over-the-top in places, but it’s also a visceral and (at times) touching story. (Perhaps, because the pacing and drama of the love story are more realistic than the depictions of action – which isn’t a criticism. The book knows what it is, given the almost camp tone of a lead with the surname “Reckless.”) The protagonist, Ethan Reckless, is hired to track down a missing young woman. Ethan isn’t a PI but engages in “problem-solving” activities – often of a legally questionable variety. Finding the girl draws him into a greater mission.

I think pacing is what this book does so masterfully, such that even though the lead character may be a functional psychopath there’s a strong emotional resonance to the story.

This is supposedly the last volume in the “Reckless” series (volume #5,) and I love that it functions so well as a standalone story. If you enjoy crime stories, this one is worth looking into.

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BOOK REVIEW: Step by Bloody Step, Vol. 1 by Simon Spurrier

Step By Bloody StepStep By Bloody Step by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: August 30, 2022

This is the story of a young girl who goes on journey through a wondrous – and often perilous – exotic land with only the company of her giant knightly protector. The early part of the book involves this odd couple confronting various threats as they engage in their quest, but then they arrive in a fantastical realm, running up against their most dire threat yet — humanity.

This fantasy quest / adventure graphic novel is presented almost entirely without words. Each section is begun with a few poetically vague lines, but otherwise it’s entirely pictorial. The question is whether it works, or is like watching a movie with the sound and subtitles turned off – i.e. confusing and frustrating. The answer is complicated. For one thing, the part of the book where it’s just the girl and the giant works quite well because there aren’t a lot of characters to confuse or complex actions to grasp. However, this limits the story to a series of random unfortunate events. From the part where they arrive at civilization, it becomes less easily comprehended. There’s a lot of potential for: “Who is that, and why are they doing that?” And the conclusion has some complex story elements that are hard to comprehend without textual cues.

For another thing, it really depends on how attached one is as a reader to grasping what the author intended. If one is highly attached, one will probably spend a fair amount of time flipping back and forth and it will become an exercise in frustration as one tries to decipher meaning. If you don’t have such hang-ups – i.e. you see the act of reading as interpretative and believe all you need to do is let your brain make sense of the story (as it might in a dream — ) then it can be great fun. I came down on the latter side.

The artwork is imaginative and the “reading” process fascinating. If you’re game for a wordless story, you may want to check this one out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Trapped on Zarkass by Yann

Trapped on ZarkassTrapped on Zarkass by Yann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: October 11, 2022

This odd-couple quest story contextually resembles the movie Avatar, which is to say it involves an Earth-colonized exotic planet that has an intelligent – if primitive – indigenous lifeform. That said, neither the story nor the visuals are reminiscent of Avatar.

The story is about a pair of women who are tasked with tracking down a crashed enemy spacecraft in the remote jungles of the planet Zarkass, and returning with samples and intel about it. Because of treaties, the pair must operate undercover, assisted by a group of locals who are kept from the truth of the mission. One of the “agents” is a sweet, sensitive young woman who is pretending to do research as an expert on butterflies, and the other is a gruff, red-neck-ish drug dealer who’s released from prison to be the first woman’s guide and protector. The downed aircraft is a triangular spaceship that outmatches the Earthling craft, and the colonizers want metal samples to discover why their missiles glance off.

I enjoyed the story and found the world-building to be brilliantly imaginative [it’s outlandish, scientifically speaking, but creative.] As per the odd-couple norm, these two very different women slowly and begrudgingly develop respect and concern for each other by surviving numerous trials by fire together. Furthermore, in the end, it seems like they’ve developed a similar begrudging connection with the indigenous species that they did for each other. Even the main characters look down on the indigenous population throughout the book, but there seems to be a change. If you’re put off by nudity and near nudity of a gratuitous nature, the book does have it in spades.

If you like sci-fi adventures set on exotic worlds, you might want to give this one a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Dwellers by Eliza Victoria

Dwellers: A Novel: Winner of the Philippine National Book AwardDwellers: A Novel: Winner of the Philippine National Book Award by Eliza Victoria
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: August 16, 2022

This well-crafted tragedy features a form of magic handed down within a family that allows one to shift one’s consciousness into to the body of another, though this bodily colonization kills the original owner. While it might seem like just another sci-fi / fantasy plot device designed to make for an interesting adventure, the book conveys lessons about the discontentment and the inability to escape oneself. It’s also worth noting that despite its speculative fiction / fantasy gimmickry, the story is also a taut drama of family dysfunction.

The narrative isn’t linear, and this allows the story to begin in medias res, with the protagonist / narrator finding himself in the fire after having leapt from the proverbial frying pan. Two crucial mysteries are solved over the course of the book. The first mystery is why two young men would jump into new bodies, apparently with such urgency as to not realize the bodies they were taking possession of belonged to people whose lives were a horrifying mess. The other mystery is why those lives were such a mess in the first place.

I found this story intriguing and it kept me reading with an interest in discovering the base truth. The book’s beginning is a bit disorienting because all one knows is that the two characters living in the house aren’t it’s rightful owners, but rather mental settlers of unknown identity who’ve taken possession of the occupants’ bodies, and — speaking of bodies – there’s a mystery corpse in the basement freezer. The body in the freezer is both an excellent hook, and also the means to create a pause in any reader who might tend to think, “if I could, I’d definitely change bodies.” Despite the nonlinearity and the snarl of characters within the bodies of other characters, the book is readable; i.e. it’s not as challenging to follow the thread of plot as it often is in books with such narrative complications.

If you enjoy philosophical speculative fiction, this book is well worth looking into.

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BOOK REVIEW: He Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani

He Who Fights With MonstersHe Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: August, 30, 2022

This graphic novel tells a story featuring the Prague Golem, a mighty protector figure from Judaic folklore – formed of clay and breathed to life by magic words. The setting is Nazi-occupied Prague, and the golem is brought to life after a great period of dormancy, having been stored in the rafters of a synagogue, in order to once more act as protector to the Jewish people.

It’s a gripping tale of wartime resistance, but with a flat ending. However, I’m not sure it could have concluded in a satisfying way. That’s the challenge of writing a story of a superhero versus Nazis. The Holocaust is such a colossal tragedy that to rewrite the it resets the book into some alternate reality fantasyland, striking a raw nerve and killing any poignancy in the process.

The artwork is skillfully rendered and captures the grim nature of a city under fascist occupation quite well.

I enjoyed the story, despite not really knowing how to process the ending. Maybe that’s the point, that one can’t turn such mindless brutality into a storybook satisfying ending [by satisfying I don’t mean happy, but rather concluded in the definitive and intrinsically reasonable – if horrifying – way of tragedies.] Still, one is left wondering about apparent changes in character motivation and whether they make any sense — because they don’t feel like they do.

If you’re intrigued by a historical fiction / fantasy mashup set in Prague during the Second World War, check this book out, but expect to be left in an uneasy space at the end.


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BOOK REVIEW: Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi; Adapted by Fred Duval

Black Water LiliesBlack Water Lilies by Fred Duval
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release date: October 11, 2022

This is a murder mystery novel by Michel Bussi adapted into a graphic novel. It’s a bold move to transform it into a graphic novel because the story is so setting-dependent, that setting being the timeless tourist village of Giverny in France, a village that served as the model for many of the paintings of Monet. That said, the book worked for me. I found it engrossing from cover to cover.

A trio of police detectives arrives in Giverny to investigate the death of a man who was stabbed and subsequently bludgeoned, his corpse found in a picturesque stream. So, one has this small town where everyone knows everyone else — and the secrets and the rumors, except these outsider detectives who must learn what they can from questioning locals who are used to keeping things to themselves. The detectives aren’t even clear about whether the victim was done in by his womanizing, his attempts to acquire rare paintings, or some unknown cause. Therefore, they have to purse multiple lines of investigation at the same time.

I found the story to be well-crafted in terms of how information is concealed and revealed and how the loose-ends and anomalies are tied up in the end. The art is beautiful and green, and captures the scenic appeal of Giverny. Though I should note that I don’t read many mysteries and those who do and who have intense attention to detail might find problems that I missed altogether.

I’d highly recommend book. Those with an interest in art will find the book particularly intriguing.


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BOOK REVIEW: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

God Bless You, Mr. RosewaterGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel presents a satire of American socio-economic existence. It spends much of its time poking fun at old money folk (trust fund kids, as they’d be called today,) but the book has plenty of barbs to go around. The story centers on Eliot Rosewater, the head of the Rosewater Foundation, the charitable arm of an old money robber-baron kind of family corporation. Eliot is cut from different cloth, however. He’s in love with the work-a-day blue collar American, and does everything in his power to eliminate his separation from such people, including obsessively working with volunteer fire departments, setting up his foundation in his hometown (Rosewater, Indiana,) and making the Foundation an extremely personal organization that gives what would today be called micro-grants to ordinary citizens for ordinary uses.

Opposing Eliot Rosewater is a lawyer named Norman Mushari who’s made it his mission in life to have Eliot proven insane so that he can have the Rosewater Foundation fortune shifted to Fred Rosewater (of the middle-class Rhode Island Rosewaters.) The challenge is knowing whether Eliot is truly insane or not, even Eliot, himself, doesn’t always seem clear on the matter. For many, such as Mushari, just the fact that Eliot is acting in opposition to the societal norm (e.g. setting up in Rosewater, Indiana v. New York or Chicago and not making big grants to corporations and colossal NGO’s but rather giving a few hundred dollars at a time to residents of Rosewater) is proof enough. And, if Eliot is crazy, is it because there’s something wrong with him, or that there’s something wrong with the world.

This book is hilarious, and the last chapter leaves the reader with a great deal to mull over. I’d highly recommend this book for all fiction readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: Pulp: The Process Edition by Ed Brubaker

Pulp: The Process EditionPulp: The Process Edition by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 26, 2022

This is the “how the sausage gets made” edition of a popular standalone graphic novel, “Pulp.” It takes the reader through the various stages of the book’s development from conception through book “trailer,” drafting, penciling, coloring, and on to the final product. It offers explanatory notes by the author and artist at each stage along the way, in addition to showing the work at that stage of development. For the more substantial stages (e.g. drafting and final edition) it shows the full product, but for intermediary stages (e.g. inking and coloring) it just shows a few representative pages to give one the idea.

If you’re just looking to be entertained by a story, this isn’t the edition you want. Which isn’t to say that it’s not the book you want, “Pulp” offers a well-crafted and intriguing tale of a man, Max, who lived the gangster life in the wild west in the prime of his life (late 1800’s) and then “went straight” to become a pulp fiction writer in 1930’s New York during his senior years. The action of the story takes place in 1930’s New York, with flashbacks to violent episodes of Max’s past out west. It’s a take on “the life sucks you back in” storyline.

The main market for this edition is artists and writers interested in the comic writing / drawing tricks and techniques of seasoned professionals. I can also imagine actors, filmmakers, and those with cinematic interests benefiting from learning how choices are made with respect to how scenes are set and framed – i.e. to learn from the economy of the graphic novel format.

If you’re a creative type looking to work with comics or wanting to learn about how scene choices are made, give this book a look. If you’re just looking for an action-packed story, pick up the original edition of “Pulp.”


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