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: 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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BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of the Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2)The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel is the second of the books in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It begins with a client (Miss Morstan) coming to see Holmes to acquire his advice as to whether she should make a rendezvous to which she has been summoned by mysterious means, Morstan being a beautiful young lady who is weary of showing up to a random public location, having been told to not involve the police. We learn some intriguing facts from the conversation, such as that she began receiving a pearl from an anonymous source each year and that her father (Capt. Morstan) has passed away.

With Sherlock and Watson in tow, Miss Morstan does attend the rendezvous, and we learn that the meeting is with the son (Thaddeus Sholto) of a man with whom her father served in the military at Port Blair in the Andaman Isles (Maj. Sholto.) The mystery of the pearls is cleared up as we discover that Maj. Sholto cheated Capt. Morstan out of his share of a treasure that the Major came into possession of while stationed in India, and his two sons (particularly Thaddeus) feel the need to make amends to Capt. Morstan’s heir, but would like to do so without dragging the family name through the muck or creating legal hassles.

It seems everything is wrapped up with a nice bow, when Thaddeus takes Miss Morstan, Holmes, and Watson to see his (more reluctant to be fair to Morstan) brother Bartholomew, who is the one in actual possession of the treasure. However, when they find Bartholomew dead and the treasure gone, the true mystery begins. The balance of the book involves a chase to find the missing treasure, the men who stole it, and to unravel the mysterious circumstances behind the treasure. The final chapter tells the elaborate backstory of the treasure, going back to India and to the titular four men, the four whose names were found at the scene of Bartholomew’s murder and who previously possessed it — one of whom serves as the storyteller. Along the way, a mangy bloodhound, the Baker Street Irregulars (street urchins employed by Holmes,) and – of course – the brilliant reasoning of Sherlock Holmes are used to solve the case.

Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most intriguing fictional characters ever with Holmes. If he were just a brilliant man with supreme skills of observation and reasoning, he’d be no more interesting, and have no greater longevity, than any of the many other characters. But in Sherlock we see that brilliance always has a cost. Holmes is also an addict, is troubled by insomnia, and is – in some ways – socially dysfunctional. (e.g. When Watson develops a relationship with Miss Morstan, Holmes confesses that he can’t grasp the value of marriage / long-term intimate relationships.)

What the author does with character, he also does with setting by bringing into the story (through backstory) locales that are exotic and intriguing – e.g. Port Blair. Even by today’s standards there are always little tidbits of the exotic drawn into the story, even though most of the Holmes’ stories — this one included — don’t venture far from London.

If you enjoy crime and detection fiction, this book is a must. It’s highly readable and offers a compelling story. In terms of the Holmes canon, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly better or worse than others, but I don’t find there is a huge variation in quality among these novels and stories. It is one of the better-known titles (except that some call it “The Sign of Four” and others “The Sign of the Four” – the latter being the original title as far as I can discern.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Van Helsing vs. Dracula’s Daughter

Van Helsing vs. Dracula's DaughterVan Helsing vs. Dracula’s Daughter by Raven Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: July 13, 2021

This comic book imagines the daughter of the Van Helsing character (from Bram Stoker’s) pitted against the daughter of Dracula in what appears to be more-or-less the present day. It is action-packed, if juvenile and prone to rely on hackneyed dialogue and story points. To clarify, it’s a small team of scantily clad supermodel vampire hunters taking on a scantily clad supermodel Vampiress and her army of expendables. I liked it in the way that one likes movies that one picked on Netflix while mentally exhausted and uninterested in anything mentally or emotionally draining, but rather just some vapid entertainment.

It’s part of a serialized universe of stories, and so, while it can be understood as a standalone story, it is not optimally organized to be read in a standalone fashion. It sort of begins with some action that the [standalone] reader has no context for, and which will not be circled back to in the way a story opening in media res typically would. Put in another way, in the second half of the story, I had to consciously reflect back and try to piece together what the opening material had to do with the overall story being told. I suspect (but cannot confirm) that if one binge read the whole collection, it would probably make more sense.

Besides the ridiculously untactical (virtually painted on) outfits, there is some reverse villain monologuing – which is to say the hero interjects into the action to explain her plot to snatch victory from defeat. Granted that victory would be completely deus ex machina, i.e. out of the blue, otherwise, but that’s not really a redeeming point. [The most (I presume) unintentionally hilarious line involves Van Helsing telling Dracula’s Daughter that VH can’t blame the vampire progeny for missing VH’s super-stealth colleague as the reader sees a pictures of one of the aforementioned supermodels with her skirt slit up two inches above her pelvic crest operating a spade with one leg bare from toes to waist, standing as models do to accentuate the shapeliness of the calf. It’s the most conspicuous ninja operation one could possibly imagine.

As I say, I found this an okay story for a mindless read, but I wouldn’t have too high of hopes for it beyond that.


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BOOK REVIEW: Dreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis

Dreaming EaglesDreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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New Edition Out: June 1, 2021

This graphic novel by the author of “The Boys” and “Preacher,” tells a story based on the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen, and does so as a story within a story. The framing story is set in 1960’s America and finds a World War II veteran (a pilot of the Tuskegee Airmen) trying to talk his teenaged son down from getting too entangled in the Civil Rights movement — for reasons that are only revealed as he completes the telling of his experiences at war. Through flashbacks, the protagonist depicts not only the thrilling exploits of air-to-air combat over Europe and the visceral tragedies that occur when hot lead meets with aluminum high above the world, but it also shows the unique tribulations experienced by these particular military men – such as “leaders” who wanted to see them fail and widespread discrimination.

The story-in-story approach is an excellent one because it allows for a character arc in which the protagonist grows. Without getting into spoiling details, as the protagonist revisits his story, he comes away with a new and changed perspective (which is always a valuable feature in storytelling.) The frame also breaks up the history and helps maintain reader attentiveness by showing the influence the story has on the attentive son. (Young men not being famous for being interested in the life stories of their parents.) I don’t mean to suggest that the war story is not interesting. It’s full of action, heroism, and the tension of interpersonal conflict. However, for those who aren’t history buffs and are acclimated to Ennis’s more popular fare [i.e. full of superheroes and random acts of violence and titillation,] the story may feel a bit flat only by virtue of the fact that it is constrained by actual historical events.

I found the art to be well-crafted. The chaos of air combat is conveyed without being so chaotic that one can’t tell what is happening, and the graphics offer a great sense of setting and era.

This volume is definitely worth giving a read. It tells a compelling story of the combative exploits and the political / social travails of these groundbreaking and heroic pilots, while holding a mirror to the rank societal biases of the era.


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BOOK REVIEW: We Live by Inaki & Roy Miranda

We LiveWe Live by Inaki Miranda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: May 19, 2021

In a dystopian future on the verge of the Earth’s doomsday, aliens send humanity an opportunity to preserve itself on a limited scale. Bracelets (gauntlets, really) are dispersed around the planet, and any child [no adults allowed] wearing one who can get to the closest beacon site can be rescued.

Hototo is an orphan boy (preschool to kindergarten-aged) who has one of the bracelets, and his sister, Tala (early elementary school-aged,) is to be his escort to the beacon. [Hototo thinks they will both remain together, but Tala knows that she will drop him off and will stick around on the planet to witness the end of the world.] The story told in this volume is essentially their perilous journey from home to the beacon site.

What I liked most about his story is that it creates the visceral scenario of these two vulnerable kids traveling together through a landscape laden with all manner of threats, and – as in any story worth its salt – one thing after the other goes wrong for them. I also found the art appealing. It creates an intriguing story world. (Though the fantastical story world did rely heavily a popular, if overused, idea in sci-fi of late that some combination of toxins, radiation, and high-speed evolution spurred by rapid environmental change will create super-powered, super-intelligent predatory species. And in this case, they are in explicably conspicuous species – making them more visually interesting, but less sensible.)

The biggest problem with the story is that our two protagonists, while generating a lot of angst in the reader about their well-being, have no agency. Tala and Hototo show braveness, particularly Tala, but they must be rescued every single time. That’s realistic, because Kindergartners who could deal with the threats that they do would either have to be superpowered or put into question how serious the threats really are. [Either of which would damage the tension of the story.] There is a secondary character, Humbo, who is (or seems) slightly older than Tala, who is much more interesting than the sister/brother protagonists. In fact, Humbo is one of the primary rescuers of the two children throughout the story. The only other problem I had with the story is that the pacing at the end is so rapid that it makes it hard to track whether the story is making sense – i.e. being internally consistent.

As for recommendations, I think some will love this story and others will loath it, because it is an experimental piece. Hopefully, I’ve provided sufficient information for the reader to make their own decision. I did enjoy reading it, and found the interesting story world and events of the story to counterbalance the fact that the protagonists were leaves on the wind. (Though I probably would have preferred a story that centered on Humbo.)

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BOOK REVIEW: The Breaker Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Jeon Geuk-Jin

The Breaker Omnibus Vol 1The Breaker Omnibus Vol 1 by Jeon Geuk-Jin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: July 13, 2021

This manga combines the motifs of traditional martial arts stories with a modern-day setting. A bullied high school student, Shiwoon Yi, discovers that his colorful (if abrasive) substitute teacher, Chunwoo Han, is a martial arts master, and employs numerous tactics to get the teacher to instruct him in the martial arts. However, Chunwoo Han is not interested, his priorities as a womanizing playboy caught up in a martial arts clan war are far removed from helping a student one iota more than he needs to in order to maintain his cover and employment.

Shiwoon Yi grows over the course of the book, learning to be more tenacious and to not give in to fear so readily. However, this growth does not come about from the teachings of Chunwoo Han, he remains unwilling to teach, even when he is begrudgingly coerced into agreeing to it. However, Chunwoo Han does assign the boy a task as a precursor to lessons, a task that – despite nearly killing the boy – forces him to be more disciplined. However, the most effective lesson results from Shiwoon Yi’s shame at almost betraying the only person who is nice to him, a girl in his class whom he is too beleaguered by bullies and low self-esteem to acknowledge.

Chunwoo Han doesn’t really grow throughout the course of the story (action heroes rarely do,) but he does soften his view towards Shiwoon Yi – presumably as a result of a new found respect. While Shiwoon Yi is quite a wimp, he does show a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of learning martial arts, and that earns him some begrudging regard.

Generally, I found the story to be entertaining. It uses a lot of the familiar martial arts story motifs (e.g. superpowered chi, elaborately named techniques, and the “you kill my master” motive.) These motifs ground it in a genre, even if it results in some trite elements. I wish Shiwoon Yi would have played a greater role in the story’s climax and conclusion. Shiwoon Yi is ostensibly the protagonist, though Chunwoo Han makes a more appealing action star. The ending felt a little gratuitous because it basically jettisoned Shiwoon Yi in favor of making a straightforward concluding battle scene.

The book is presented in manga style, including right-to-left read panels and monochrome art. The art is well drawn, though (oddly) everyone looks like a supermodel – except Chunwoo Han when he is having a meltdown of one kind or another.

It’s a straightforward story, rooted in familiar themes and plot mechanisms. If you enjoy martial arts manga and aren’t expecting complex twists and subversion of expectations, you’ll find it to be an entertaining action-centric story with a good sense of humor.


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