BOOK REVIEW: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & NocturnesThe Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this, the first, eight-issue volume of Sandman, we’re introduced to Morpheus / Dream – the king of dreams & nightmares and one of the seven Endless – when he’s captured by an amateur occultist who was trying to kidnap Death [the (not-so Grim) Reaper and also Dream’s sister.] The story told in “Preludes and Nocturnes” is one of Dream’s captivity, escape, and the subsequent missions to reacquire three magic artifacts that were stolen from him when he was captured (i.e. his bag of sand, helmet, and ruby-like jewel.) That last sentence makes it sound like a far-out fantasy, but it’s really a relatable and human set of stories.

This imaginative and compelling opening volume is at its best with “24 Hours” (as well as “Passengers,” the issue that precedes “24 Hours” and sets up its story.) In “24 Hours,” escaped villain, John Dee, torments the occupants of a smalltown diner by manipulating their reality (a capability he achieved when he came into possession of Dream’s “ruby.”) It’s a story that’s both horrifying and thought-provoking as Dee forces the diners to shed the masks of polite society and get to know the uncensored versions of each other.

Another favorite is the concluding issue, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which is really more of an epilogue, given the story has been brought to a successful and satisfying conclusion with the penultimate issue. “The Sound of Her Wings” introduces us to Death (the kinder, more charismatic, and more articulate Gaiman-version of the Grim Reaper) and shows us interaction between Dream and Death as Dream learns a crucial lesson from his sister.

“Sandman” is an excellent series, and the volume where it all began is no exception. I’d highly recommend it for readers in general.


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BOOK REVIEW: Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One by Rodney Barnes

Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One (Killadelphia, 1)Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One by Rodney Barnes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 22, 2022

Just when you think the vampire subgenre has been done to death, a graphic novel comes along that grabs one’s attention and reignites one’s affinity for the trope. As the title suggests, one of the ways that this book establishes itself as something different is to lean into setting, a setting with a unique heritage but no particular connection to vampires, in this case Philadelphia. The book takes cross-genre to the extremes, involving not only speculative fiction / horror but, also, historical fiction and detective fiction.

Killadelphia doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, but it does an exemplary job with an assortment of common tropes and plot devices. Like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the book mashes up vampires and historical figures, but – in this case – Barnes goes more obscure by using John and Abagail Adams. The book also plays on the dysfunctional father / son relationship as source of tension and character growth. In this case, James Sangster Jr. comes to Philly due to the untimely death of his father, James Sangster Sr., but the father’s death turns out to be more of an undeath, the detective having been caught up in an investigation that led him into a den of vampires. This ultimately plays into a reluctant team up as the Philly vampire scene goes epidemic.

There’s some ancillary material with this deluxe edition, most notably a werewolf comic that takes place in the same universe, called Elysium Gardens. [Otherwise, it’s the usual alternate cover art and author exposition type stuff.]

I enjoyed Killadelphia and would put it in the upper echelon of vampire-inspired graphic novels that I’ve seen of late.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Closet, Vol. 1 by James Tynion IV

The ClosetThe Closet by James Tynion IV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

The protagonist, Thom, is a stay-at-home dad whose four-year-old is having nightmares of a monster that resides in the closet and sits on his chest in the manner Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.” Thom is both someone that you want to shake and / or slap, and – yet, at the same time – he is every single one of us at some point in our lives. (i.e. He is completely overwhelmed and stuck in a fantasy that he can dig out from under the rubble of past mistakes and be born anew, and the fact that he can’t ever be free of the past and always has to deal with momentary reality just adds to his anger and frustration.) The thing is, Thom isn’t a bad guy, but you still want to slap him. That’s what I call excellent character development.

I don’t know where the overarching story is going, and don’t even know whether it’s truly speculative fiction or rather domestic realism, but I know it draws one in and is evocative.

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BOOK REVIEW: Slumber, Vol. 1 by Tyler Burton Smith

Slumber, Volume 1Slumber, Volume 1 by Tyler Burton Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

Stetson is a “dream eater.” She makes her living by entering the dreaming mind of clients and “killing” their nightmares. When a series of mysterious and highly irregular murders happen in the real world, the police develop a hunch that Stetson might be involved, or – at a minimum – know something they don’t. And it soon becomes clear that it’s not just a job for her; there’s some sort of personal stakes or vendetta driving her.

I got hooked on this book. The art is colorful and fun and plays well with the imaginative and amusing dream world. The story was well-crafted and offered a satisfying and pleasurable read. If you’re into surreal speculative fiction that deals in dreams and nightmares, it’s worth looking into this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire

Little Monsters, Vol. 1Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 11, 2022

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

It’s vampiric Lord of the Flies in a dystopian wasteland. Checks a lot of boxes. To begin on a positive note, I loved the character development in this book. Each of the kids is distinct and one rapidly develops an affinity for some of them and a distrust of others. Long story short, you want to know what happens to these kids, and why they’re in the situation in which they find themselves.

What I didn’t like is what I call the “resolution to hook” ratio. When something is written with serialization in mind, it’s a challenge to provide a satisfying story arc. There’s an incentive to end with a big hook, so as to draw readers farther down the line, and often the whole climax-resolution-conclusion bit is skipped or glossed over. Often, this leaves no (or a weak) resolution, such that reading the volume doesn’t scratch the itch that good stories do. Steamrolling through the end of the story arc to end on a cliffhanger may attract some continuing readers, but for those of us wary of the sunk cost fallacy (giving into an investment made with the assumption that it will eventually turn out positively,) it’s a sign to move on to the next story. (Lest one be Lost-ed – i.e. to be drawn in by a brilliant and inventive story only to see it become increasingly muddled, ultimately to end in a sad crash landing.)

The art is somewhat crudely rendered, but I suspect that was a conscious choice to achieve the desired atmospherics. And, I think it worked. The art clearly conveys the action.

If you have faith that you’ll eventually get that narrative itch scratched, you may want to check this one out. It does have a lot of potential. For my part, I’m once bitten, twice shy.


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BOOK REVIEW: Stephen King by Bev Vincent

Stephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life, and InfluencesStephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life, and Influences by Bev Vincent
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

This book offers one-stop shopping for anyone who wants to know about the life and works of one of the most popular and prolific genre fiction writers ever, Stephen King. The book is built around decade-by-decade examination of the books that King published as well as the adaptations that those books spawned (film, tv, comic book, theater, etc.) It’s arranged in an encyclopedic fashion (though chronologically) with entries on all of King’s titles, and has many textboxes about niche subjects including: King’s side hustles (e.g. owning radio stations, playing in a rock bank, etc.,) major events in King’s life, fictional places and characters that grew lives of their own, adaptations other than film and tv [film & tv adaptations are presented in the body of the text,] and various other quirky King-related topics.

The book is illustrated with a large collection of photos of King from various time periods and engaged in various activities.

Many fascinating insights can be discovered throughout the book. I learned, for example, that the Richard Bachman alias resulted from King’s prolific nature (and because BTO was playing at the time.) Publishers thought that readers would only buy one or two titles from a given author per year, but King had a back log of unpublished material – so he started publishing books under the Bachman persona. King was ever experimenting with various approaches to publishing and that makes the book potentially interesting for those with a curiosity about publishing innovations. The book is forthright about King’s alcohol and drug addictions and the influence they had on his work.

Oddly, I’m not the target audience for this book. I’ve only read a couple of King’s books (and one of those was “On Writing,” his nonfiction guide to writing.) That said, I found the book quite interesting.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Darkness by S. Elizabeth

The Art of Darkness: A Treasury of the Morbid, Melancholic and MacabreThe Art of Darkness: A Treasury of the Morbid, Melancholic and Macabre by S. Elizabeth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release: September 6, 2022

As the title suggests, this book collects a diverse group of artworks that share the common theme of the macabre. While most of these works are paintings, a few photos and sculptures are included. It’s also predominantly Western (European and North American) art, but some exceptions exist, notably several Japanese works are included. Where the collection really shows its breadth is in the styles of art and eras included. The works range from more than half-a-millennium old to some produced within the last couple years, with the expected variations in styles and media, given the centuries covered. The collection is also varied with respect to the popularity of the pieces and artists. You’ll likely see some familiar works (e.g. Fuseli’s “The Nightmare,” Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and Dalí’s “The Face of War.”) However, most of the works were new to me. (Granted, I’m a visual arts neophyte.)

The pieces are arranged into four topical divisions, each containing three chapters. The subjects include realist content such as: bodily ailments, crime, dark takes on nature, and architectural ruins. However, much of the book delves into surreal and supernatural subject matter, including: nightmares, hallucinations, gods, monsters, ghosts, and magic.

The book lets the art do the heavy lifting, but it does have brief chapter introductions and captions for each piece that includes not only the title, artist, and (if known) the year the art was released, but also some interesting tidbits about artwork and / or artist. These write ups are concise, intriguing, and well-written, and offer some fascinating insights. The book also presents numerous quotes from poets, artists, and other intellectuals.

I learned a great deal from reading this book and discovered some new favorite artworks, art that is beautiful or grotesque but often a combination of both — but always evocative. If you’re interested in how artists depict the darkness in the lives and souls of humanity, you should definitely give this book a looksie.


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BOOK REVIEW: Cross to Bear by Marko Stojanović 

Cross to BearCross to Bear by Marko Stojanović
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 5, 2022

This Western-Dark Fantasy hybrid tells the story of two men who fled the Old World, seeking anonymity in the American West, two men whose stories tragically intersect. The protagonist is a battle-weary ex-killer for the enforcement arm of a secret society. It’s a twist on the clichéd “man-of-violence who walks away from it all only to be drawn back.” The other immigrant to the West is none other than Jack the Ripper.

I thought the author built a clever story that both drew heavily on the conventions of the Western, but with some atypical elements to give it a unique flavor. While the story draws on the clichés of the genre, by telling it slant they aren’t quite as blinding. The story builds emotional resonance and feels unique despite the fact that the components of the mashup are familiar.

I only felt one clunker in the story, a point during which the protagonist tells another man that he should keep in mind that the protagonist’s son is a Lord and, therefore, is this other man’s better. This would make an American LAUGH and LAUGH. I’m not saying that promise of equality embedded in the American mythos worked out for everyone, but the idea that this deputy would find claims to aristocracy a meaningful basis of superiority (and that the protagonist wouldn’t know better than to say it, having lived there as long as he did) seem unbelievable.

If you like Westerns and cross-genre comics, you’ll probably find this one to be a compelling read.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Dark Room by Gerry Duggan

The Dark RoomThe Dark Room by Gerry Duggan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: June 29, 2022

The MacGuffin of this dark fantasy story is a camera that shows scenes not as they appear to the photographer, but in a way that reflects the blessings or curses of the photographic subject. There’s a demon looking for the camera, and he’s focused his search on Dounia, proprietress of a cabinet of curiosity style collection of usual objects. Dounia is a plucky young woman who’s well-connected within the supernatural community.

The setting of the story is a New York that’s a bit like the London of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” book, which is to say normal on the surface but overlapped with a city of mythic and magic beings.

The art is clearly drawn and uses color boldly, particularly given the ghastly subject matter. Different color palettes are used for different realms, and the cast does move around among the homes of folkloric and fantastical beings. I liked the color and don’t think it detracted from the macabre content, and – it should be noted – that the tone always retains a level of humor and lightheartedness.

I enjoyed reading this comic, and thought the art was skillfully rendered. If you’re interested in dark fantasy graphic novels, you might want to give it a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Bone Orchard: The Passageway by Jeff Lemire

Bone Orchard: The PassagewayBone Orchard: The Passageway by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: June 21, 2022

A geologist from the Geologic Survey is dispatched to a remote lighthouse island to investigate an unusual hole in the rock, and what he finds is beyond expectation.

I must admit, I might have found this book more intense were it not for my own recent reading history. In the past year or so, I’ve read more than one book placing a stranger on a lighthouse island, and so it feels cliché. I can’t say for certain whether it’s truly an overused plot device or a fluke of my reading selections (though they were all new releases.) The lighthouse is a visceral setting by virtue of its isolation, with only an antisocial lighthouse keeper for company.

The bigger challenge for me was the decision to let the art do much of the heavy lifting at the climax of the story. This created a great deal of ambiguity, and I couldn’t tell whether it was purposeful / strategic ambiguity or whether it was just a misunderstanding of what the reader would glean from the rapid succession of stylized panels. The artist did a good job of capturing the stark and frightful imagery necessary to achieve the requisite emotional palette for the story. However, I was distracted by so many questions: “Is this meant to be real or a dream?” “Why does the island work that way?” “What is the story’s base reality?” etc.

The book’s art and premise are good (if overly familiar,) but I felt the story was given short shrift, possibly the author was more focused on the overarching story and not enough on this as a standalone entity. Long-story-short: it’s okay, and maybe as a whole the series will be more promising.


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