BOOK REVIEW: After the Fall by Laurent Queyssi

After the FallAfter the Fall by Laurent Queyssi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

This isn’t exactly a thinking person’s read. It’s a fine, if simple, return home quest story with plenty of action. But it feels like the production process began with an artist’s Wishlist – e.g. “I would like to draw a comic that combines my love of dinosaurs, aliens, roided-up dudes, scantily-clad women, fantasy genre weaponry, bare boobies, zombies, and set it all within a crumbling 21st century Earth city.” To which the writer said, “We can do that! I’ve been working on this story about a friend who got his headphones stolen.” And the artist said, “That sounds perfect!”

It’s not until the end of the book that we learn what could create such a disparate set of conditions. We know that nuclear radiation could only account for the super-huge and preternaturally-aggressive animals, as well as the superpowers. How are we to account for the fact that all the men look like Conan the Barbarian, all the women look like their previous gig was sitting atop a muscle car for a muffler shop calendar, and some of the dudes look like video game monsters / aliens? I won’t spoil the mystery radiation that could result in such a range of afflictions, as well as bringing back the dinosaurs, except to say that I didn’t find the explanation compelling.

Unless you’ve been looking for a book that combines pterodactyls, aliens, superpowered anti-heroes, boobies, roided-up dudes, and stylized battle axes, you can probably pass on this one. But, if you’re into such things,…

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gold Persimmon by Lindsay Merbaum

The Gold PersimmonThe Gold Persimmon by Lindsay Merbaum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This book consists of two stories with the common connection of being set in strange hotels. The first story is split between parts one and three (of three.) This allows part one to tell a story that feels like straightforward realism (while part three is where the story gets a bit trippy and where – in that trippiness – the reader may see connections between the two stories that may or may not be intended.) It’s the story of Cly, an employee of a fancy hotel [The Gold Persimmon] that specializes in serving a grieving clientele, and her love affair with a regular guest, Edith, who is a physician. The strangest thing in this story is that Cly is probably the most attached to her job of any low-level hotel employee in the history of low-level hotel employees.

The second story’s protagonist, Jaime, is an aspiring writer of nonbinary gender identification who is about to take a job in another hotel, a Japanese-style love hotel. [For the unfamiliar, that means a place with themed rooms where people come for short-term stays to get their freak on – think: dungeon, subway train interior, etc.] This story gets weird almost immediately as a fog descends over the city leaving only a few employees and customers trapped together inside the hotel. This is a much more engaging story than the other. The few people in the hotel inexplicably go all “Lord of the Flies,” and the reader can’t be sure whether it’s descent into madness from whatever fog has enveloped the hotel, or whether they are mostly unstable from the start.

It’s extremely difficult to write surreal- / madness-based stories that aren’t distractingly unclear about what – if anything – is real. I felt this story suffered from two difficulties. First, Jaime’s internal monologue sways radically from what seems like extreme paranoia to very reasonable states, but we don’t know the character enough to have a baseline. Second, many of analogies used in describing events read a bit clunky, causing one to need to re-read to try to make sense of whether what is said is what is actually being seen or whether it’s just a confusing metaphor.

That said, I was engaged throughout the story, and found it compelling enough to need to keep reading. I’d say if you don’t mind some ambiguity and experimentation in writing, you’ll enjoy this book. If not, not.

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BOOK REVIEW: Scout’s Honor by David Pepose

Scout's HonorScout’s Honor by David Pepose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This is one of those books that I found myself liking more and more as I continued to read, though which, frankly, the opening left me with low expectations. Said opening was pure Cold War cliché. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, radioactivity has had no impact on the human population besides thinning it out tremendously, but it has rendered incredible size, aggression, and monstrous adaptations upon every other species on the planet. [This preference for being cinematic over being smart is getting a bit old.] Between this and one of the lead characters hotwiring a car that had ostensibly not moved in decades, I was feeling I’d chosen poorly.

However, eventually, I did get the book that I’d expected from reading the blurb, a book based on the intriguing premise of a religified and militarized Boy Scout-like organization in a dystopian / post-apocalyptic future. The protagonist is named Kit, a highly-motivated Scout who has risen to the top of the troop through valor and clever-thinking. Kit has a secret, but learns an even bigger secret of the organization, one that throws the Scout’s worldview into doubt.

The book does a good job of establishing relationships to build emotional intensity, as well as in how it deals with the apparent truth that any organization that holds itself as a moral paragon is going to have some skeletons in its closet. I found it worthwhile to continue reading, even when this book felt like it was going to be just another post-apocalyptic cliché-fest.


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BOOK REVIEW: When a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González

When a Robot Decides to Die and Other StoriesWhen a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 15, 2021

This book isn’t for everyone. There are two factors I believe a reader needs to be aware of going forward. First, shocking and taboo plot devices are used throughout; so, one needs to be mentally ready for bestiality, necrophilia, cannibalism, and enslavement. Second, while this is nominally science fiction, it’s not nerd’s sci-fi, but rather English Lit / Humanities major sci-fi. Which is to say, scientifically- / technologically-minded people are likely be occasionally distracted by thoughts like: “that’s not how that would work,” or “why did he use that word? It doesn’t make sense in that context. Is it just because it sounded vaguely techy?”

For those who are still reading, the stories are more than just shock for shock’s sake. They are thought-provoking, and the taboo topics both engage readers on a visceral level, but also engage readers on an intellectual level as symbolism. While it’s far from great sci-fi, it’s fine psych-fi (a subgenre that – like sci-fi – deals in speculative futures, but which focuses more on changes in human modes of interaction and ways of behaving – rather than on the effects of technological advances.) “The Year of the Pig” was probably my personal favorite. That story explores family dynamics, cultural proclivities, and personal psychology in a smart way.

If the opening paragraph didn’t scare you away, you’ll probably find some compelling stories in this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: I Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson

I Breathed a BodyI Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This is one creepy commentary on technology run amok, and the alienation, desensitization, and disconnection that can result. [Or, at least that’s how I interpret it.] The protagonist is a driven social media executive who finds herself in territory that even she believes is over the line, despite her near psychopathic emotional disconnection. Another way to interpret the story is that the fungi that has taken parasitic control over humanity is making people see the world more as they would – i.e. with less cringing about death, decomposition, and deformation. [I happen to think that the fungi infection is a clever plot device to get across ideas about technology and modernity, but I could be wrong.]

Either way, I do think this is a clever story. There’s a species of Cordyceps fungi that takes control of the brain of an ant, steers it to the top of the nearest tree, and bursts out of the ant’s head to spread its spores from its new, elevated vantage point. This book reminded me of the Cordyceps fungi, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired the story — with the requisite growth in sophistication to account for taking over a much more complex brain. This is a compelling and thought-provoking story, but it’s also gruesome and at times chaotic. If you can take horror, you’ll probably find it worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ashes, Ashes by Jean-David Morvan

Ashes, Ashes #1Ashes, Ashes #1 by JD Morvan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

[Note: The book I’m reviewing is the 144-page multi-issue story.]

This is the story of a technological apocalypse and a post-apocalyptic Alexander the Great who was born of it. The bulk of the story reveals the cataclysm and life in the early days of its wake. But there is an interspersed subplot that takes place in a present-day that is well after the apocalypse. The big difference between this “world-conqueror” (actually, it seems to be only a small area of what had been southern France) and other power-consolidating titans is his luddism. He vehemently hates [almost] all technologies and insists that all (but one) post-Amish technology be eschewed because he feels human innovation to be cause of humanity’s fall. Otherwise, he checks the boxes: narcissistic, nihilistic, and probably a psychopath.

The story is compelling, and it definitely draws one in. I thought the pacing was well-executed and the concept was intriguing. Both the art and story have a unique feel, though I don’t know that the book will be able to distinguish itself within an extremely bloated dystopian / post-apocalyptic sub-genre.

There were a few elements that felt clunky. First of all, the mid-twenty-first century technological landscape is strange. I didn’t think anyone still imagined flying cars on the near-future time horizon. I think they only existed here to make the moment of doom impressively fiery. Second, a romance is established with great effort that is allowed to flameout to a lukewarm puddle of nothing. Perhaps, this was the point — to show the romance as victim of the demands of life under an anarchic dystopia. (If so, it gets lost amid the more exhilarating happenings.) Third, there is one modern technology that the protagonist is quick to adopt. This might be an intentional way of showing his love of self far exceeds his hatred of technology, but it’s curious.

If you don’t have dystopia fatigue, you may want to give this book a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Department of Truth, Vol. 1 by James Tynion IV

The Department of Truth, Vol 1: The End of the WorldThe Department of Truth, Vol 1: The End of the World by James Tynion IV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the cleverest and most mind-blowing graphic novel I’ve read in a long time. Like the first “Matrix” film, it challenges one’s metaphysical certitude, making one question whether the world might – just might – work differently than we think. But, more importantly, it shines a light on one of the major problems of our age, and it does so in a smart way, recognizing a core conundrum – that there are no clear-cut right answers.

The sci-fi premise at the heart of this book is the idea that collective belief shapes reality, and, thus, conspiracy theories that gain enough of a following can manifest physical evidence of their truth. This is a fascinating concept, but – even without it – the book forces one to reflect upon what might be the single most important dilemma of our age. On the one hand, people would rather believe malarkey that confirms their worldview and ideology than truth that conflicts with it. On the other hand, if people don’t have the freedom to believe whatever they please, in what sense can they be said to be free?

As I read, there were many examples from our present pandemic in which one could see this conflict in action. I saw an article in which a person who took one of the COVID vaccines but mentioned that he felt quite sick afterward was ostracized as an “anti-vaxxer.” While I’m pro-vaccine and took my shots, I’m disturbed by the idea that “off-message” statements are being so vitriolically (and, sometimes, deceptively) attacked. “Truth at any cost” will incur a terrifying cost, I’m afraid. And, therein, lies the point of this book, that the issue is complicated and it’s by no means clear who the good and bad guys are.

I’d highly recommend reading this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Maria Llovet’s Eros/Psyche by Maria Llovet

Maria Llovet's Eros/PsycheMaria Llovet’s Eros/Psyche by Maria Llovet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story takes place at a all-girl boarding school called “The Rose.” It’s a strange place with something vaguely supernatural about it, including: we see no faculty or staff – only students, and, also, it appears to teach witchcraft or some sort of herbal potion-based artform. And the students are eliminated one by one – as in a reality tv show in which the low-scoring student (or disobedient / disorderly students) must leave, at least that’s what we are led to believe. The bulk of the story revolves around just two characters, Sara [a new student] and Silje [a veteran.] Few of the other girls have much in the way of speaking roles or story relevance. That’s part of a minimalist motif that’s used to generate a stark feel. There’s a lot of textless frames, and most frames show a simple scene that is often more reflective than active.

The story consists of a slow-burn budding romance of the two main characters. The sparse approach leaves some story elements inexplicit or ambiguous, and that means that varied readers may have a broader than usual range of interpretations. The sparsity may generate feelings of desolate melancholy for which I suspect the author was aiming, but it also might create a sort of emotional disconnect from the book. I kind of fluctuated between the two as I read.

At the end of the story, I found it satisfying – if simple, but during the read I frequently wondered where it was going and / or what I was missing. It’s essentially a romance set in an all-girl and sadder-feeling Hogwarts.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell

Black Widow: Deadly OriginBlack Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This flashback-laden volume revolves around Natasha Romanov’s relations with various men but especially Ivan, a man the Black Widow saw as a father figure. Ivan’s death is an impactful moment in the life of this femme fatale, and it seems like it might be just the start as all the men in her life begin to come under attack (mostly fellow Avengers and other superheroes from the Marvel pantheon.) The story unfolds as the Black Widow tries to unravel the mysterious plot to eliminate her prodigious corps of boyfriends while protecting said friends and (ex-)lovers.

This comic might seem like it would be the perfect entry point for a reader new to the Black Widow character. It offers flashes of insight into the character’s origin, but without the dated feel of old comics that were often marketed toward ten-year-old boys and that didn’t anticipate technological progress and cultural trends any better than most sci-fi does. However, I would argue that it’s a bit of a chaotic read for a newbie to the character (speaking as one.) It’s a four-issue volume and so the glimpses of backstory and the references to arcane Marvel characters and events come in rapid succession.

I found this book a fun and entertaining read, if a bit helter-skelter. I should point out that by the time one gets into the latter-half of the volume everything starts to come into focus.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sheeple’ by Simon Carr

Sheeple'Sheeple’ by Simon Carr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is an absurdist sci-fi hero’s journey, featuring an everyman, Jim, who discovers that not only is the world not at all what it appears to be, he is far from what he believes himself to be. The world is as the conspiracy kooks see it, Jim is Satan’s spawn, and it will fall to him and his mildly villainous cohort to save the world from another — also semi-evil — faction.

Absurdist stories can get away with all sorts of deus ex machina happenings and logical inconsistencies that would never fly in other genres. This book capitalizes on this fact to some degree. However, one can only really get away with those problematic story elements if the book is: 1.) a laugh-riot of hilarity – such that the reader doesn’t notice or care about those “defects,” or 2.) carefully composed be clear in the face of the bizarreness that is part and parcel of the genre. This book is fully neither. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an amusing story with some genuinely humorous events and turns of phrase. However, it also has more fun with plays on the word “Uranus” than anyone other than an eight-year-old boy has a right to have. While it has its moments, some of the humor feels forced, and so the overall effect isn’t likely to remind readers of the work of Douglas Adams.

If you’re looking for a carefree read that will give you a chuckle here and there, give this book a look. But I can’t say that I got drawn into it to the point that I was desensitized to its spasticity.

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