BOOK REVIEW: Bliss by Sean Lewis

BlissBliss by Sean Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This eight-issue graphic novel blends sci-fi and mythology to tell a story of the double-edged nature of memory – bringer of both bliss and trauma. At the story’s core is a father-son relationship in which both the father, Benton, and son, Perry, must come to grips with the fact that contained within the former is the greatest possible range of virtue and vice, a nearly irreconcilable mix of good and bad.

I enjoyed that the author instilled an intriguing strangeness to the book’s world using a mix of futurism, mythology, and creativity while at the same time dealing with primal human concerns. The book asks whether being free of memories can contribute to our being worse versions of ourselves (being able to forget misdeeds,) and whether healing (forgiveness of both self and others) can happen without memory.

I found this book to be provocative and well-composed. There were points at which it felt like the scale of deviation between the good and the bad Benton were unfathomably great. In other words, it felt like the motivation for his actions strained credulity. However, that encourages one to think about how a person might behave if he knew he could be freed of the memory of ill deeds.

I loved the story, the art, the world, and the characters. I’d highly recommend the book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (Wisehouse Classics Edition - With Original Illustrations)The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The dozen stories in this collection make up the final book in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It’s not the most beloved of the Holmes’ books, but Doyle did take some bold diversions from the usual Sherlock formula (probably in an attempt to maintain his own interest in the character.) Some of the experiments are regarded as fails. I’ll discuss the anomalous tales, with the understanding that most of the other stories follow the recipe.


In “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” Doyle ventures into what some have called bad sci-fi with a tale in the vein of “Island of Doctor Moreau.” While the farfetched nature of the story stands in contrast to the usual enlightened rationality of Holmes, to be fair, it’s hard to fault anyone living through the early decades of the twentieth century for imagining some outlandish possibilities — given the wild scientific and technological advances being seen. In this collection we see microscopes and other disruptive technologies.


In “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” Holmes, himself, takes up narration (i.e. Doctor Watson’s job.) In my view, besides Holmes’s occasional chiding of Watson and his writings, there didn’t seem to be as great a distinction in voice as Doyle might have hoped to achieve.


“The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” is also narrated by Holmes, but is also anomalous for the nature of its solution. While a murder investigation is solved using Holmes’s arcane knowledge, it might leave many readers feeling that it was an anticlimactic variation on the formula.


A couple stories, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and – to a lesser extent – “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” skip the usual necessity of Holmes solving the case and taking part in the explanation of discoveries, and – instead – the solution is presented entirely by individuals involved in the mystery. This harms the protagonist’s agency.


Despite the lack of love this collection receives, generally, it does still present some interesting cases and I credit Doyle both for taking chances and for showing an evolution of Holmes and his world.


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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente, et. al.

Marvel-Verse: Shang-ChiMarvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of issues involving Shang-Chi. The early issues present the “Master of Kung Fu” in cameo / secondary roles within headliner characters’ comics – notably Wolverine and Spiderman. In those early issues, Shang-Chi mostly serves as the invincible master showing quippy superheroes that their kung fu lacks vigor and precision. In the later issues, those in which Shang-Chi is the lead, he becomes more well-rounded leading man material and less of a stoic, exotic Yoda-figure. In those issues, Shang-Chi combats the elusive ninja organization called “The Hand,” as well as “Lady Deathstrike.”


There is one issue, “Shang-Chi’s Day Off,” which is written as one-liner laden low comedy. Its tone stands out as distinct from the rest of the volume, but it has a few genuinely amusing lines, and so it’s not so bad. Those who take their superheroes somewhat seriously will hate it.


This collection isn’t a bad way to gain insight into the character and his evolution over time. Don’t be thrown off by the campy and stereotyped way he’s portrayed in his 70’s Kung fu cinema iteration, it gets more balanced and sophisticated later in the volume. I read found it on Amazon Prime.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Old Guard: Tales Through Time, Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka, et. al.

The Old Guard: Tales Through Time, Vol. 1The Old Guard: Tales Through Time, Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 21, 2021

This six-issue graphic novel collects twelve standalone short stories from “The Old Guard” universe. For those who’ve neither read the comic nor watched the Netflix movie, it imagines that a few immortals walk among us, or – if not immortals – at least extremely long-lived people. The oldest known among them, Andromache the Scythian (a.k.a. Andy,) is somewhere between six and seven thousand years old. (She appears in about half the stories in some capacity or another, ranging from cameo mention to main character.)

As the subtitle suggests, the dozen stories jump through time offering vignettes from the lives of the various immortals. The locales also vary, though primarily involving places that are known for their belligerency, intrigue, or noir ambiance — e.g. the wild west, samurai era Japan, 197o’s New York City, Berlin in 1932, etc. Some of the tales, e.g. “How to Make a Ghost Town,” “Zanzibar and Other Harbors,” and “Lacus Solitudinus,” are story-driven. Other pieces are more conceptual, focusing on an intriguing idea that comes with immortality. For example, “My Mother’s Axe” explores the Theseus’s ship idea of what it means for a thing to be itself when it’s replaced piece by piece over time.

I enjoyed this collection a great deal. The artistic styles vary to be apropos to the time and place in question, and the storytelling approach also shifts, owing not only to the different settings but also to the numerous authors involved. If you’re attached to having extended story arcs told over several issues, this might not be for you. The storytelling is necessarily terse and / or truncated, owing to space constraints. But if you go in expecting the two story-per-issue flash fiction format, you’ll likely find it compelling.


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BOOK REVIEW: Fine Print, Vol. 1 by Stjepan Šejić

Fine Print, Volume 1Fine Print, Volume 1 by Stjepan Šejić
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 30, 2021

This erotic graphic novel intertwines a “real world” star-crossed love story with a storyline set in a fantastical realm that mixes Greek Mythology, the lore of incubi and succubi, and elements from the author’s imagination. The central premise is a Faustian bargain, but with some twists.

The artwork is beautifully done, colorful, and in some cases quite explicit. Readers who are a bit prudish or who are considering buying this for someone as a gift should beware that there are many graphically explicit scenes of nudity and a wide variety of sex acts.

It’s best read in a single sitting because the non-linear depiction of events combined with the crossing between two different story worlds can result in the read being a bit disjointed / confusing.

I found this story to be engrossing and evocative with likable characters.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Umbrella Academy, #0 by Gerard Way

The Umbrella Academy #0The Umbrella Academy #0 by Gerard Way
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This issue features the dysfunctional family of freakish [non-blood] sibling superheroes taking on a character called the “Murder Magician,” a dapper but demented individual who likes to combine the showmanship of magic with the psychopathy of serial killing. The Murder Magician takes control of a talk show with a live studio audience while he’s being interviewed so that he can have the makings of mass murder readily at hand.


The art is chaotically drawn, but colorful, imparting a level of whimsy in line a villain with an affinity for sleight of hand.


It’s a simple story, as a single-issue comic can only be. I was familiar with the characters from the Netflix series adaptation, and that proved necessary because even though it’s #0, it’s very much a story in medias res.


I stumbled upon this issue as a free promotional gift on Amazon. If you like and are familiar with the comic, it’s worth a look. If not, there might be too many characters and too much oddness to make sense of it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch

Around the World in 80 BooksAround the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 16, 2021

David Damrosch’s comp lit world tour has a simple premise. You’re a traveler and the pandemic strikes, how do you travel by book while trapped at home? For those who think travel and reading are unrelated endeavors, I disagree. As a traveler and avid reader, I’ve always found the two intertwined in building a greater understanding of the world. Reading is an essential part of traveling, and I read literature from every place I visit. Why? Because people the world over are guarded, yearning to make good impressions. Because of this, one gets a partial and distorted view of other cultures. Poets and novelists round out the picture by airing the dirty laundry of their people. It’s not that revealing the dark and ugly edges of a culture is their foremost objective, but those are good sources of tension in a novel and of emotional resonance in a poem. [Seeking out what’s not so pretty about a culture might seem like a tawdry undertaking, but falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, if you do so without first seeing their bad habits, it’s not really love. It’s just childlike infatuation.]


The book’s organization is straightforward. There are sixteen locales, and five books are discussed for each. I enjoyed Damrosch’s “syllabus.” The eighty books included a pleasant mix of works I’ve read, those I’ve been meaning to read, and [most importantly] those I’d missed altogether. Any source that reveals new reading material to me will definitely find favor.


The book starts in London (apropos of its titular connection to the Jules Verne novel) and moves through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, over through Asia, back around to Latin America, and finally to North America to conclude (as trips generally do) back at home.


The book is weighted heavily toward the literature side of the travel-literature nexus. That’s not a criticism, it’s just worth noting for travelers who aren’t avid readers of literary fiction and poetry, because they may find this book gets a bit deep in the literary weeds. (The sections don’t focus single-mindedly on the listed book, but meander through the author’s oeuvre and influences.) While many of the selections are indisputably excellent choices for traveling by book, others lack a connection that is readily apparent (e.g. the final book, Lord of the Rings.) Again, I didn’t find that to be a negative as there was always something to be learned from the discussions, and – who knows – it may have even expanded my thinking.


If you’re a traveler / reader, you should definitely consider giving this book a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Death: The Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman

Death: The Deluxe Edition (Death of the Endless, #1-2)Death: The Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book includes seven stories featuring the character of Death from Gaiman’s Sandman series. Two of the stories are longer (three-issue) tales, and the rest are single-issue short fiction.


For those unfamiliar with character, Gaiman subverts the “Grim Reaper” persona. Instead of a cloak-enshrouded skeleton, its face obscured by hood and shadow, Gaiman’s Death is an attractive young woman who goes by Didi, Gothically pale but certainly more beautiful than terrifying. However, appearances aren’t the only way in which Didi is the polar opposite of the Grim Reaper. She’s also preternaturally likeable and gregarious.


The first tripartite story is entitled “The Hight Cost of Living,” and in it a suicidal teen, Sexton, gets drawn into Didi’s drama, but also experiences a newfound appreciation for living. The other three-part story, “The Time of Your Life,” is about a rock star [stage name, “Foxglove”] who has everything a budding pop star could want, but when she learns that you can’t have it all and no one escapes their mortality, she’s forced to reevaluate her priorities. While the collection is built around those two stories, it’s not like the shorter works are filler. I found that “Façade” and “Death and Venice,” in particular, to be quite satisfying as stories.


A couple things to keep in mind: First, the stories are pulled from a long run, and so there are discontinuities – e.g. Death in “The Wheel” looks different from the other stories. Second, one reviewer said this book wasn’t a good choice if one hadn’t read the whole “Sandman” series. Someone who’d read it all might get more Easter Eggs, but it’s not the case that the stories don’t make sense in isolation. With the exception of the opening story, “The Sound of Her Wings,” I didn’t feel I was missing anything by not having read the series.


One can’t go wrong with Gaiman, the storytelling is clever and compelling, and the art is captivating – despite the stylistic variation.


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BOOK REVIEW: Home by Julio Anta

Home, Vol. 1Home, Vol. 1 by Julio Anta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: November 23, 2021

This book starts out with a gripping premise, a single mother and her son separated at the border, the mother being deported back to Guatemala as the son makes his way to the home of his aunt in Texas. The story shows a great deal of promise in the introductory issue. Unfortunately, over the course of the volume, all of the tension that is painstakingly built up is squandered. Whenever there is a challenging and visceral circumstance a new set of random superpowers is revealed, such that by the fifth and final issue, one no longer feels the protagonist is in peril (regardless of circumstance) because it’s a given that some deus ex machina magic will come along to save the day.


What’s sad is that, other than the crippling problems of anti-climactic story, the book shows many positive attributes. It’s well drawn. The book builds characters for whom the reader is rooting. Emotion is effectively portrayed. I think if the superpowers had been introduced upfront with some understanding of limitations and “kryptonite,” there would have been potential for an enjoyable read. As it is, however, it’s exactly the opposite of what one would like – a book that gets more and more intense – as resolutions come too easily.


It’s an impassioned, if not nuanced, view of immigration issues, and – if that’s enough for you – you might be interested in checking it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: False Guard by Merwan

Fausse Garde - NE (Hors Collection)Fausse Garde – NE by Merwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 30, 2021

This graphic novel is set in a fantastical world that combines the culture of a Southeast Asian live-in gym, a setting suggestive of “One Thousand and One Nights” supersized to mega-city scale, and some novel creative elements of the author-artist’s imagination. The protagonist, Mane, is a fighter who dreams of making it big in the big city. On the bright side, despite the prejudices against him as an outsider, Mane has the drive and talent to be a champion. However, in a universe of single-minded people (professional fighters,) his energies are split between the gym and his desire to fight for social justice. It turns out that the man leading him into a guerrilla battle against the societal elite, Fessat, is an old intra-gym rival of the gym-owner / coach, Eiam, for whom Mane is fighting.


The story is largely about Mane’s attempts to reconcile these two aspects of himself, and the travails of the bifurcated mentorship he receives from Fessat and Eiam. The fictional martial art of Pankat bears resemblance to Muay Thai / Lethwei / Pradal Serey Southeast Asian style kick-boxing, with a combination of MMA elements to appeal to the present-day reader and some creative details to make it feel more exotic.


For the most part, I found the story and character development compelling. There were some points at which it felt like there was a disjoint between the emotional displays being made and the events at hand. It’s hard to put a finger on what was off, it just felt a bit overwrought at times. Besides a desire to create a visceral story, this is probably meant to reflect Mane’s stress level, but it felt forced at times. It’s also true that Mane is a complex character – at times sympathetic and at other times an impetuous jerk.


If found this book to be enjoyable and engaging.


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