BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA, Vol. 1 by Brandon Beckner

Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIAProject MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA by Stewart Kenneth Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 19, 2021

This graphic novel mixes fiction with the historical events, and – in a bizarre inversion of the usual – the most outlandish parts of the story tend to be the history. It tells the story of the CIA’s ill-fated and highly illegal “experiments” with LSD, studies that involved dosing unwitting individuals on American soil. The fictionalized through line of the story involves a San Francisco journalist who stumbles onto the CIA’s illicit activities in 1971, and – even after being discredited – continues to pursue the story with the help of a whistleblower. The book includes a prologue that shows the accidental dosing of chemist Albert Hofmann in his laboratory, an event that marked the discovery of LSD. And it comes to an end showing Operation Midnight Climax, a sub-project of MK-Ultra that was among the most audacious plots because it involved setting up a brothel at which johns were involuntarily dosed with LSD and watched through 2-way mirrors as they did the deed [or freaked out, as the case may be.]


The art is interesting. A lot of the frames are psychedelic, reflecting the fact that one is seeing the world through the eyes of tripping individuals. Most of the rest are retro to give the feel of the time at hand. In most cases, that’s 1971 San Francisco, but some of the story jumps back to events in the 50’s and 60’s. At one point the frames reminded me of Archie and Jughead comics.


I enjoyed how the story was told, using the driven newbie journalist as protagonist. That said, the book may be annoying for individuals who are curious about what is fact and what is fiction. Footnotes are occasionally used to help in this regard, as well as to give information about period references used for authenticity.


I found this book compelling, but – having read a fair amount about MK-Ultra – I had some idea what was true and recognized the names of key figures. If you’re interested in the ridiculous annals of the CIA and aren’t bothered by the fact / fiction mixing, check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Atheist in the Attic by Samuel R. Delany

The Atheist in the AtticThe Atheist in the Attic by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The first two-thirds of this book is the titular novella. It’s a cerebral work of historical fiction that will be loved by readers interested in philosophy and history, but which will be dry and claustrophobic to those expecting a gripping tale. It’s not that there are no stakes. The story is about a clandestine meeting between Leibniz and Spinoza during a turbulent time in the Dutch Republic. That said, the bulk of the story is discussion and internal monologuing about philosophic ideas. Leibniz speaks with Spinoza, but also with household staff – offering insight into his psychology. In short, for perspective into the psychology and philosophy of the time, it’s intriguing, but it’s no thriller.

The last one-third of the book consists of two nonfiction pieces. The first, there’s an essay that Delany wrote on racism in science fiction. In it, he discusses some hostility he was subjected to at a Hugo Award ceremony early in his career. He also describes how he is repeatedly put on panels with other black writers (whose work is different from his own) rather than with those whose work is most closely related to his. It’s an interesting look at the varied faces of racism from blatant through well-intentioned to accidental. The last piece is an interview that rambles over a wide expanse of topics touching on Delany’s career.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. That said, I’m an admitted philosophy nerd. I think someone who only read the cover blurb might expect the novella to be more story driven and less character- and philosophy-centric. The essay on race features both stories from Delany’s career and his views on racism as a system. If you like cerebrally-engaging reading, check it out.

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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: 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: Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable

Dracula: Son of the Dragon (comiXology Originals)Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There is a vast amount of vampiric fiction available today, and no small amount of it focuses on the character of Dracula. This graphic novel sets itself apart by building the story on real world events (such as they are known, and with dramatic license to make the story exciting and the imagery evocative.) At the risk of turning people off (but not intending to,) I would go as far as to say this book leads with history, and makes the supernatural secondary. I actually liked that about it. When I say the supernatural is secondary, it’s not like its eliminated from existence or that it’s purely garnish. There are dragons and vampires, but a story exists with or without those elements.

A story of war and political intrigue in what is now Romania is bookended by the depiction of a meeting between Vlad Dracula and three clergymen. In the opening, Vlad is telling the priests that he is about to let them in on the truth of his story, which they have no doubt heard in mythologized form. At the end, he asks the clergymen to tell him whether he will be allowed into heaven. The body of the story is a flashback from the meeting with the priests. It splits focus between Vlad’s father, who is working to keep his domain under his control by playing the ends against the middle vis-à-vis his Roman Catholic neighbors (notably Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire, and the story oft Vlad, himself. Vlad is a young man. He and his brother are sent to Scholomance (a kind of Slavic Dark Arts Hogwarts) and later become prisoners of the Ottomans.

I thought the artwork was easy to follow and stylistically appealing enough. Some of the frames in the ancillary material at the back were truly beautiful. I often disregard the back-matter in comics because it usually amounts to little more than discussion of how the drafts changed over time – i.e. offering insight into the sausage-making of the book. However, this book had an extensive Notes section that I found fascinating and useful because it explained how points in the book compared with known history. Some of the points that I assumed were pure fiction had a factual basis. Sable also related points to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The creators tried to be consistent with Stoker’s book, as well as with history, when they could. The former wasn’t so hard because readers of Bram Stoker’s will recognize that the titular character is kept largely a mystery, particularly with regard to his backstory.

If you are interested at all in the historical and mythological basis of the Dracula vampire, I’d recommend this book. As I said, the notes will give you a good idea of what was known to be true, what is complete fiction, and what is a kernel of truth enveloped in story sensationalism. Obviously, all the supernatural elements are pure fiction, and also there is a lot that remains unknown, but this graphic novel provides an interesting take on the origins of Vlad Dracula.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen, Vol. 1Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The protagonist is a lesbian Norse warrior, Aydis, who is living in exile in the wilderness. After she was discovered making out with a girlfriend, two unappealing fates were offered: marriage (to a man) or death. Her father, recognizing that neither of those options was acceptable to his daughter or himself, pretends to accept the death sentence, but instead of killing Aydis he helps with her escape. The story is set in a period in between the heyday of Norse Mythology and modernity. The story refers back to mythological events (and since many of those characters are immortal it includes a few of them,) but it’s during a time when Christianity is spreading in the region and some of the old ways have been forgotten or dismissed by many.

The four issues contained in this book follow a quest that involves Aydis going to rescue a Valkyrie named Brynhild who was long ago imprisoned on a mountain in a circle of fire for defying Odin. Then – once Brynhild is freed –the quest continues in order to keep the rescue from being reversed and becoming meaninglessness. [Brynhild must be married to a mortal to escape imprisonment, but since that means she must repeatedly see her mortal spouses die only to go back to her prison. Aydis intends to see this reversed.]

I found the writing engaging and action gripping. While I’m no expert on art, I was able to follow the action in the panels and found it stylistically interesting and distinct – though I couldn’t tell you anything about what that style is.

My primary criticism revolves around my own preference for a volume having a self-contained satisfying narrative arc. This volume had plenty of great action and relatable character objectives. Admittedly, this is a tough standard for work that is by its nature serialized. However, at the end of the book one feels the set up for the continuation of the story (the cliffhanger) much more intensely than one feels there was any kind of conclusion and resolution. For readers who are predominantly series readers, this may not be a problem, but as one who reads one book at a time, I need to feel that something was resolved over the course of the story.

I think the book was bold and successful in turning conventions on its head. The primary convention under attack is the distressed damsel – a helpless character who needs a man to come along to rescue her. The book also takes the social issue of persecution based on sexual preference in a scene within Brynhild’s parallel (but intersecting?) quest.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. If you like the story idea and tend to read in series, then this is a great volume to pick up. If you’re not sure you want to be drawn into another series, you may decide to exercise more caution.

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BOOK REVIEW: Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer

Under the FrogUnder the Frog by Tibor Fischer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s strange title derives from an old Hungarian saying of “under a frog’s arse [and down a coal mine.]” That’s the position the protagonist, Gyuri Fischer, feels himself to be in during the course of the book, running from end of the Second World War through the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Not many can see, let alone convey, the great absurdist comedy of life under a totalitarian regime, but Tibor Fischer manages to do so. Of course, no tale of life under a Communist regime is without a share of tragedy as well, and that plays out to make a gripping finale.

The book is a mostly chronological telling of the life story of a blue-collar worker who plays basketball well enough to be on the team of the factory he works for (and then, when he switches jobs, the railway.) Throughout the book, Gyuri wants nothing more than to leave Hungary behind. His lonely bachelor’s life and the grim nature of life in a Soviet satellite is too much to bear. One sees his fraying sanity as well as that of some of the other key characters. The sole bright-spot in Gyuri’s life is a love affair that plays out during the second half of the book.

I researched the events of the 1956 Uprising for my Master’s thesis, and Fischer’s book was quite accurate in the portion of the book that covers that time period. In places, I suspect the author favors exaggeration for comedic effect (such as in a hilarious segment that explains the origins of Budapest’s “White House” – a hideous piece of Stalinist architecture if ever there was one,) but he weaves real-world happenings into the stories of his book’s characters.

I’d highly recommend this book. If you’re interested in life under a Communist regime, but can’t take the grim and dreary way these stories are usually conveyed, you’ll find this book a refreshing change. (It’s not that the dreariness is absent, but the absurdity blunts the demoralization.) Alternatively, if you just like humor in your novels, this book will serve one well.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One might think that a book narrated by Death and set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War would be bleak from cover to cover. But one would be wrong. “The Book Thief” heaps hope and humor upon the reader, saving tragedy for the final course – besides a few sprinkles throughout. It’s not that the story lacks a tension born of many close calls and morally compromised situations, but it’s a very human story – with the appropriate mix of blemishes and beauty.

The protagonist is a girl named Liesel who is sent to live with foster parents during the first year of World War II. Traveling to meet her new family, her brother dies, leaving her alone with new parents in a new city on the doorstep of the most lethal war in human history. In the cemetery, after her brother’s impromptu funeral, Liesel finds a fallen book and keeps it. It’s the first of several books she will “steal,” acts that will define her but which are comic sins in the shadow of the mass murder in progress. Fortunately, Liesel’s foster parents are salt of the earth folk. They aren’t wealthy or erudite, but they offer Liesel a loving home. It’s a little harder to see this affection in her foster-mother, who has a stern and gruff exterior — in contrast to her papa who is endearingly sympathetic.

The story is about this family, and others in the neighborhood, trying to get through life under a regime they recognize as tragically absurd, but which is terrifying none-the-less. Besides surviving, characters like Liesel’s papa try to do the right thing whenever they can, in whatever way won’t get them killed. Life gets harder as the war wears on. Liesel’s papa is a house painter, an occupation that is not a year-round occupation in Germany. Liesel’s mother does laundry, a luxury that most can’t afford as the war rages. On the other hand, this doesn’t make them worse off than most of the others on Himmel Street, which is – figuratively speaking – on the wrong side of the tracks.

While this is an engaging story, Death as narrator is the feature that really makes this book exceptional to me. Much of the lightness and humor comes from the fact that the narrator is not grim, but rather has humor and a stilted form of humanity about him. From a narrative perspective, Death offers a unique point of view, but it’s the circumvention of expectations that comes from the fact that Death can recognize the tragedy of what is unfolding before him. He’s not emotional about it in the way a human would be, but neither does he ignore the brutality and absurdity of it. The other factor that catapults this book beyond the realm of run-of-mill war story, is how the desire for literature and learning — which would usually be lost in a war story’s struggle for survival – is given a prominent role.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s an intensely human story, neither saturated in sorrow nor ignoring the horrors of war and genocide. I highly recommend it for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Miss BurmaMiss Burma by Charmaine Craig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel tells the story of a mixed-race family and their trials and tribulations in Burma / Myanmar from the colonial period (before the Second World War) through the early 1960’s when a civil war was in progress. The father / husband, Benny, is ethnically Indian, religiously Jewish, works for the British, but was born and spent his early childhood in Burma. He marries a Karen woman (i.e. of the Karen tribe.) The central (and titular) character is the couple’s first child, Louisa. Louisa is a beauty, and for various reasons – none of which reflect her own preferences – she ends up a beauty queen and national celebrity.

What is fascinating about this book is how the many levels of humanity – from the individual level (e.g.Louisa / Miss Burma) to the international level – play into each other. At an individual level, each member of the family finds his or her life intruded upon by the nation’s conflicts. Benny ends up a prisoner of war of the Japanese and then later a prisoner of the Burman ruling regime. He feels beholden to the Karens because of a combination of factors involving repaying of debt, familial obligation, and friendship. Louisa ends up in the pageant – in part — because of the question of whether the leaders and Burman citizens are really serious enough about unity to allow a non-Burman into that high-status role.

At a national level, there is a rapid succession of changing situations. First, the country needs to thwart the Japanese invasion. Next, they must throw off the British colonial yoke, and, finally, Burma must figure out what kind of nation (or nations) it will become. The Burman leader wants to consolidate the country, while many tribal groups, including the Karen, want independence. Benny’s family is tied up in this conflict, in part, because of their Karen connection, but also the fact that Benny was able to exploit the post-war economy to his advantage and became rich after the war. This makes him, and his family, both important and simultaneously loved and despised.

At the international level, America and other global powers have interests in keeping Burma from disintegrating into tribal sub-states. In the early post-war period, these interests are largely economic, and involve the preference to have a solitary trading partner for Burmese goods. However, later, as “domino theory” takes center stage in American foreign policy, the interest shifts to thwarting the spread of Communism. (“Domino theory” was the idea that if a non-Communist government fell, others would proceed in a chain reaction throughout the region. It was a little simplistic, but reflected the anxiety of the times and was a large part of the justification for the Vietnam War.)

I found this book gripping and fascinating. The international intrigue and family tensions both work together to make an intensely readable work. Without getting into the ending, I will say that it feels a little bit rushed and anti-climactic. However, the events of the book give it plenty of tension overall, and there is a logic to the place the book ends. It is emotionally powerful to see how this family is repeatedly torn apart and must come together again through great difficulties. We also see how obligation and sense of duty play themselves out, often trumping other considerations.

I would highly recommend this book for readers of fiction, particularly those with interests in historical fiction and works that offer insight into a nation and a culture.

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