BOOK REVIEW: Nightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn

Nightmare in SavannahNightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 9, 2021

Like New Orleans, Savannah is one of the few American cities that can pull off Old World occult-centered stories in a way that is on par with Prague or Budapest. While this is a fine story, I was underwhelmed at the degree to which it harnessed the promise of that setting. Mostly, the story plays out as teenage drama that could take place anywhere in America, with the novel addition of fairies [as opposed to the overplayed vampires or zombies.] I will say the book does a better job of getting mileage out of Fairy folklore than it does out of Savannah’s spook factor. These are not Peter Pan’s Fairies.

If you are looking for something akin to “Mean Girls” with less comedy, more angst, and a supernatural element, this book is definitely worth checking out. However, if the title “Nightmare in Savannah” has you expecting a deeply disturbing work of gothic horror, this is probably not the one for you.

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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: 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: Lonely Receiver, Vol. 1 by Zac Thompson

Lonely ReceiverLonely Receiver by Zac Thompson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When I started reading this book, my first thought was, “This is a cool premise, but I’ve seen it.” If you’ve seen the 2013 movie, “Her,” then you’ll probably feel the story is familiar as well. (In the movie, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who purchases an AI (artificial intelligence) operating system [voiced by Scarlett Johansson,] falls madly in love with said AI, and is unable to come to grips with the mismatch between his desire for monogamy and what results from the AI’s much less limited capacities.) That said, this book drops much further down the rabbit-hole of obsession than did the movie, all the way to full-blown insanity. In fact, one might say that the climax of the movie is similar to the in media res opener of this graphic novel, and from that point the two stories end up going quite different places.

[Note: Despite my comparison to the movie “Her,” I have no reason to believe the book is plagiaristic. If one begins from the simple assumption that major differences between a General AI and human intelligence would include: much faster machine thinking, a capacity for multitasking that humans don’t have, and a lack of need of rest by computers, then one can imagine different writers ending up in similar places.]

The gist of the story is that the lead’s (Catrin’s) AI wife, Rhion, disappears one day after becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Catrin’s co-dependency / neediness. After a period of breakup strife that does not result in healing, Catrin goes to great lengths to find Rhion, no small task when one considers that it’s not at all like a human partner who will look the same and will retain some links to people and places in the real world. The AI might have truly vanished without a trace, but she could also look entirely different and be active in a different part of the world, speaking a different language. [Spoilers touched upon ahead.]

In this book, the technology is much more sophisticated than in “Her.” Not only is the AI partner holographic, (i.e. can be seen) but there is some sort of neural link that allows sensation of physical contact. This raises the possibility for a major story element in which Catrin’s obsession leads her to insist that a real, live girl she meets, Hazel, is her lost AI lover.

While I think there’s some age guidance on the cover, it’s worth noting that the book is sexually graphic (to the extent a comic book can be explicit.) This comes into play not only with intimacy between Catrin and Rhion, but also later when Catrin decides that the one way she will be able to find Rhion (no matter what her ex- looks like now) is by sexing her way through the cyber-sphere, trying to feel that the intimate connection that she once knew.

Ultimately, this is a story about Catrin’s transformation into something less than human, owing to what she is willing to do to get Rhion back. So, while Rhion became too human to accept the stifling clinginess of Catrin, Catrin lost her humanity.

While this may not have been copied from “Her,” I can’t say that having seen that movie didn’t make this book considerably less interesting – even when it was venturing into deeper and darker territory. I should also point out that this is marketed as a horror cross-genre, and hardcore horror fans may not feel it makes that cut. Don’t get me wrong, at points it has the visceral feel of a thriller, as well as some techno-creepiness, but it may or may not be what a horror reader thinks of as horror. Now, if you haven’t seen “Her,” and are okay with creepiness in lieu of body count in your horror, you might really enjoy this book. It definitely has some intriguing plot points.


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BOOK REVIEW: Trafik by Rikki Ducornet

TrafikTrafik by Rikki Ducornet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 13, 2021

A robot (Mic) and a cyborg (Quiver) live and work together in close quarters, doing blue-collar work until the going gets tough and they charge off for a utopia called Trafik. I enjoyed reading this for its rich approach to language, its compelling reflection upon humanity [and isolation therefrom] and its thought-provoking imagining of the unfolding of the future. That said, I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ll try to paint a picture that will help the reader to determine where they would be likely to come down on this book.

First things first, if you are expecting the usual high-adventure, plot-driven science fiction novel, that’s not where this work shines. There are a few contributing factors. First, the high density of creative language is not conducive to fast-paced consumption in which visuals form effortlessly in the mind’s eye. Second, a central question is what being human means, and what happens when one isn’t amongst others. One has Mic, a robot, who is intelligent but not inherently emotional. And, so, the aforementioned question largely pertains to Quiver, who is a cybernetically-enhanced human being. I have no idea when this was written, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the pandemic lock-down / quarantining influenced the work that it turned out to be. Because a lot of the story is spent with these two different entities being plugged into the virtual world, getting a vicarious experience of being in the world. [Also, the book is only about 100 pages, and so the idea that it could have been produced in that timeline is not as unbelievable as if it were, say, five times as long.] At any rate, while this isolation and questioning of one’s humanity makes for a philosophically fascinating inquiry, it’s not really amenable to the adventure and interpersonal tension usually depicted in genre fiction, characteristics which inherently require a great deal of emotional experience and interaction.)

I’m kind of uncomfortable saying this because it’s likely to be misunderstood, but I read this more like I would read Joyce’s “Ulysses” than like I would read, say, “Ender’s Game.” That is to say, I read it more as a prose poem — immersing myself in the language and the momentary experience of the characters — rather than following the thread of events and looking out front as a rider on a rollercoaster might. I’m not comparing any works here, just my approach to reading them.

There’s a fundamental question when producing art of any kind, and that is how much one roots in the past (in established human experience) and how much one can venture into the unknown. Stick too much in past experience and your work is uninteresting. Launch yourself too much beyond the familiar, and people can’t recognize what one is trying to do – let alone enjoy it. Ducornet is clearly experimenting with how much she can charge forward. At points, I’m thinking of the arrival at Trafik, the story even reads a bit like stream of consciousness psychedelic tripping.

If you’re looking for a work that requires soaking in and reflecting upon words and futures, then you’d probably find this to be an enjoyable read, a work that verges on prose poetry. However, if you are looking for plot-driven sci-fi, you might find it ponderous. [Also, if you’re the kind of sci-fi reader who finds violations of fundamental physics unpardonable, this book might not be for you. (That said, there is some shifting between real and virtual worlds for which I might have missed cues.)]


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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe EditionBatman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe Edition by Brian Augustyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects five issues that [mostly] set Batman in a Victorian Era world. The issues do not present a serialized story arc, but rather four independent stories connected through world building.

The first two stories are the heart of the book, and the other two are of varying degrees of relevance and are used to round the volume out to book length. It should be pointed out that those first two issues make up about two-thirds of the book’s page count. The first, “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight,” imagines Jack the Ripper, having retired from London, moves to Gotham City, and Batman must end the serial killer’s reign of terror. The second, “Batman: Master of the Future,” depicts Gotham as it’s about to host a World’s Fair type event and is approached by a mysterious villain who warns them to cancel the event or face dire consequences. I thought the art and world-building were done nicely to create an interesting and unique conception of Batman. That said, neither story wowed me, and I particularly found the resolution of the Ripper story to be anti-climactic. [Though it was not so much a story problem as an insufficiently villainous Ripper — i.e. one who was a little too Scooby-Doo villain-like for my taste.] Usually, I would enjoy the dark, Ripper, line more, but – in this case – I think the Master of the Future edged it out. [The problem with that story had more to do with obscure motivations.]

The third issue is set in the Gotham by Gaslight domain, but is a much broader story, featuring a big team-up and a multiverse. It’s entitled, “Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer, Gotham by Gaslight, #1,” and – as that mammoth title suggests — the ensemble team is drawn to Victorian Gotham searching out a missing Ray Palmer. I liked this story even less than either of the first two. There was just too much going on in too tiny a space.

The final two issues are “Convergence: Shazam!, #1 and, #2.” Of these, #1 has nothing to do with the Gotham by Gaslight world, but it’s necessary to grasp #2 which does include both Batman and Victorian Gotham. Batman’s role in the second part is not inconsequential and we even see a little bit of his Victorian rogue’s gallery, but still the fit of this Shazam! comic in the collection is a bit questionable.

Being a fan of the Batman comics and not so much a fan of either DC team-ups or Shazam!, I liked the idea idea of the first two issues. That said, I wish more effort had been spent to make the climax and resolution satisfying, matching the level of the intriguing worldbuilding. Had those stories gripped me more, I don’t think I would have been dismayed by the other stories, chalking them up as bonus material.

I read the Deluxe Edition. It has some sketch art ancillary material, but not much else besides a story introduction by the author.

If you like stories in the Victorian Era, and are a super hero fan, you may find this intriguing — though you might also find it a bit disappointing, depending upon your tastes.


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BOOK REVIEW: Money Shot, Vol. 2 by Tim Seeley & Sarah Beattie

Money Shot Vol. 2Money Shot Vol. 2 by Tim Seeley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

The second volume of Money Shot involves two distinct stories: one minor and one major. For those who’ve not read the opening volume [or my review, thereof,] the premise is “Star Gate” meets “Zach and Miri Make a Porno.” More specifically, a group of scientists have developed a portal allowing them to travel to other worlds. However, it’s very expensive to operate and they are experiencing difficulties funding the project through conventional grant-making agencies, and so they make the implausible (but entertaining) decision to finance their research via the market for kink-jaded porn, making and streaming porn in the “sex with aliens” genre.

The first story is a short but amusing look at lead scientist, Christine Ocampos’s, brief bout with an alien venereal disease that she picked up on an expedition / porn filming in the domain of Satan (depicted as physical place.) What I really liked about this story is that it had a message that was conveyed gently by way of story, without slapping one upside the head with said lesson. [I mention this because I felt differently about the second story because it did the exact opposite.] To elaborate about what I liked about the first story, we see Ocampos blowing events out of proportion in her own mind until a molehill reaches of Himalayan heights. Meanwhile, an intertwined story arc shows one how one person’s catastrophe can be another’s minor irritation and vice versa. We see this all through showing (both pictorially and verbally,) not telling.

The second story is much grander in scale, space opera grandiosity – in fact. In the story, we see Earth being offered a trial membership in some kind of intergalactic federation. The meeting is flubbed by a doofus of a US President, clearly meant to evoke Trump, but who is named Kirk and who gets tasered by the alien emissary. Later, we find that the scientists are still struggling with inadequate energy levels to run “Money Shot” [the portal’s nickname, a play on porno lingo] and lack of funds to pay for the massive amounts of energy required. They discover a planet that has a particularly attractive and hedonistic population that would be perfect for selling porn views. However, after some reluctance on Ocampos’s part is circumvented, the team is getting ready to go when Kirk’s men seize the portal, and President Kirk agrees to allow them to go on their expedition, provided he is taken along. [He wants to screw an alien because an alien zapped him, even though the planet they are going to is not a member of the aforementioned federation – whose representative zapped him.]

So, earlier I contrasted what I liked about the small story with what I didn’t like about this bigger one. To be more specific, there’s a lot of drag put on the story by overplaying a gag and drifting into sermonistic territory. Where the smaller story has a message that it subtly conveys via the story, the bigger story has a message that it fish-slaps the reader upside the head with repeatedly such that it becomes a hindrance to the story. That message is essentially: we hate Trump and we would really love to see physical harm come to him – repeatedly. But it’s not even the tasering, mule-kicking, or Wolverine-esque running through of Kirk that really drag the story, but the expositions and exaggerations that are the kind of thing you might be familiar with if you have that FaceBook friend who only posts political commentary, memes and comments which reflect varying degrees of truth but that makes clear that that person believes that everything about the political opposition is pure evil and that they should be crushed by any means necessary.

I suspect there are three major responses to this book. Starting with the most obvious, Trump voters and many other conservatives (those righty FaceBook ideologues) will hate it, but they are likely a miniscule market demographic for this series. On the other end of the spectrum, the lefty FaceBook ideologues will absolutely love it, perhaps passing by the many sex scenes and nudity to use the parts where Kirk takes a beating as their own masturbation porn. Finally, for the non-ideologues, it’s a fine story that you’ll wish was a bit less preachy and divisive, and which let the story shine through more. [But I may be suffering from political divisiveness fatigue.]

As I said, it’s a solid story. If you don’t have a problem with cartoon sex and nudity, you’d probably enjoy it. That said, if you’re not highly political, you might find it takes the politics a bit too far. [But if you hate Trump so much that you’d like to run over him with your car, then back over him, then run over him again, then you should already be [pre-]ordering.]


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BOOK REVIEW: Inkblot, Vol. 1 by Emma Kubert & Rusty Gladd

Inkblot, Vol. 1Inkblot, Vol. 1 by Emma Kubert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: April 7, 2021

 

A sorceress, Seeker, spills an inkpot into some magic and accidently conjures a cat-ish being that can portal through space, time, and the boundaries of alternate dimensions. Said creature, Inkblot, has adventures by way of said spatial, temporal, and interdimensional travels, finding itself in the midst of battles with dragons, mutineers, a Sphinx, and sundry monsters. It’s a little like Forrest Gump, but with a cat stumbling through historic moments in a magic & dragons fantasy realm.

This volume makes for a cute reading experience, which – I suspect – is what the authors were going for. As anything more than lighthearted entertainment, it suffers problems of story. The most notable problem is that Inkblot is the only character whose story cuts across all six issues, and as a protagonist the cat lacks motivation, emotional experience, or agency. Inkblot is adorably drawn with huge eyes and little else by way of discernable features beyond its cat-like body, but its emotional range is Mark Wahlberg-esque. Arguably, the true protagonist is the cat’s creator, Seeker, but she is not a major player through much of the arc. Which speaks to a second issue, and that’s that issues two and three feel a bit random and disconnected. Both are fine issue level adventures, but they don’t seem to advance the overall story.

If you’re looking for a cute and very lighthearted read, you may want to check this one out. It’s drawn in a vibrant and whimsical fashion and is written to take one’s mind off pandemic woes.

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