BOOK REVIEW: All Talk by Bartosz Sztybor

All TalkAll Talk by Bartosz Sztybor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 14, 2023

This is the tragedy of a young man, Rahim, whose need to feel esteemed and empowered leads him ever deeper into the gangster life. But in that vicious world, his desire to be seen as powerful and his inability to tolerate insult is a threat not only to his life, but to all those close to him – even those who are more emotionally mature than he. There are a couple characters that provide contrast by showing an ability to navigate that life of youth amidst inner city poverty. The reader hopes Rahim will bend their way but fears he will pull them down with him.

This is a straightforward story but is still emotionally rousing. It’s a little like watching a car crash in slow motion, one knows what will go wrong well before it does, just by virtue of the fact that it’s all been set inexorably in motion. And yet one can’t look away.

If you enjoy a modern-day tragedy, you may want to look into this one.


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BOOK REVIEW: Punishment of a Hunter by Yulia Yakovleva

Punishment of a Hunter: A Leningrad Confidential (The Leningrad Confidential Series Book 1)Punishment of a Hunter: A Leningrad Confidential by Yulia Yakovleva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is “Seven” meets “1984” — i.e. an American-style work of crime fiction where an obsessive and deceptively savvy detective attempts to solve a string of bizarre murders but set under a totalitarian regime in which the powers that be are more concerned about quashing liberties that might bloom into insurrection than solving the odd murder. Yakovleva isn’t the first to do such a fish out of water crime novel, but she does a fine job of it. The mash-up does spin things around a bit vis-a-vis the genre’s usual conventions and mechanisms. In the typical American version, the police detective teeters on roguishness, but in the Soviet Union, “going rogue” has an entirely different meaning and set of consequences. I enjoyed the psychology that plays out in this story.

This book does demand attentive reading. There are quick and dirty transitions that can make the book read in a disjoint fashion, and – if you blink – you may miss something crucial to the story. That said, it’s not a murder mystery precisely, and so it’s not like one is engaged in a clue hunt. The story has a fascinating premise and I enjoyed reading it tremendously.


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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: The Complete Hush by Jeph Loeb

Batman: The Complete HushBatman: The Complete Hush by Jeph Loeb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Over the course of this twelve-chapter story, Batman is pitted against much of his rogues’ gallery, but they’re puppets to a shadowy unknown, a secret villain: Hush. Batman has to do his best detective work, and still faces twist after turn in uncovering this enemy that knows him all too well, who knows all his pressure points. Batman has to battle Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Joker, Scarecrow, and Clayface – and even [due to mind control] Superman and Catwoman, but nothing is as it seems. One might expect that a book this packed with enemies would face problems of pacing and poignancy, but the way the story is crafted (and the villains are effectively subordinated) it’s quite the opposite.

This was one of the smartest comics I’ve read. It’s a mystery that offers foreshadowing, but also false flags. There’s a sub-plot love story between Batman and Catwoman in which the relationship matures, but the question of whether one can ever really trust someone in that world remains ever in the background.

I thought this was one of the best comics I’ve read, and if you’re a Batman fan, it’s definitely a must-read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book by Ed Brubaker

Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book Vol. 5Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book Vol. 5 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

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This hard-boiled crime graphic novel is a gritty PI story turned grittier revenge journey. In the manner of Hollywood films, it’s over-the-top in places, but it’s also a visceral and (at times) touching story. (Perhaps, because the pacing and drama of the love story are more realistic than the depictions of action – which isn’t a criticism. The book knows what it is, given the almost camp tone of a lead with the surname “Reckless.”) The protagonist, Ethan Reckless, is hired to track down a missing young woman. Ethan isn’t a PI but engages in “problem-solving” activities – often of a legally questionable variety. Finding the girl draws him into a greater mission.

I think pacing is what this book does so masterfully, such that even though the lead character may be a functional psychopath there’s a strong emotional resonance to the story.

This is supposedly the last volume in the “Reckless” series (volume #5,) and I love that it functions so well as a standalone story. If you enjoy crime stories, this one is worth looking into.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi; Adapted by Fred Duval

Black Water LiliesBlack Water Lilies by Fred Duval
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release date: October 11, 2022

This is a murder mystery novel by Michel Bussi adapted into a graphic novel. It’s a bold move to transform it into a graphic novel because the story is so setting-dependent, that setting being the timeless tourist village of Giverny in France, a village that served as the model for many of the paintings of Monet. That said, the book worked for me. I found it engrossing from cover to cover.

A trio of police detectives arrives in Giverny to investigate the death of a man who was stabbed and subsequently bludgeoned, his corpse found in a picturesque stream. So, one has this small town where everyone knows everyone else — and the secrets and the rumors, except these outsider detectives who must learn what they can from questioning locals who are used to keeping things to themselves. The detectives aren’t even clear about whether the victim was done in by his womanizing, his attempts to acquire rare paintings, or some unknown cause. Therefore, they have to purse multiple lines of investigation at the same time.

I found the story to be well-crafted in terms of how information is concealed and revealed and how the loose-ends and anomalies are tied up in the end. The art is beautiful and green, and captures the scenic appeal of Giverny. Though I should note that I don’t read many mysteries and those who do and who have intense attention to detail might find problems that I missed altogether.

I’d highly recommend book. Those with an interest in art will find the book particularly intriguing.


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BOOK REVIEW: Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman ThiefArsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: July 5, 2022

This is a beautifully illustrated edition of the first collection of stories featuring the fictional burglar-extraordinaire, Arsène Lupin. While some of the nine stories reference others, they each read standalone.

Arsène Lupin is the Sherlock Holmes of crime. Like Holmes, he’s extremely intelligent, gifted in observation, with deep insight into human nature, and with a range of practical skills from hand-to-hand combat to disguise, but Lupin puts these talents to use for the purpose of theft. While one might think of Prof. Moriarty as “the Sherlock Holmes of crime,” Lupin operates by a code, eschewing senseless violence, carefully targeting his victims, and returning items he feels inappropriately taken. (Mirroring how Holmes occasionally lets a [technically] guilty party go free due to extenuating circumstances.) Besides cameo references to Holmes in multiple stories, the final story pits England’s greatest detective against France’s greatest burglar (though in a way that mostly allows each to retain an unblemished record and mutual admiration.)

I found these stories to be enjoyable to read, and generally clever, but – having been forced to make the comparison due to the repeated references to Holmes – I couldn’t help but see their inferiorty to the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Lupin is more one-dimensional and fantastical than Holmes. In Holmes, one recognizes that one is unlikely to get extreme intelligence without some sort of countervailing cognitive challenges – e.g. Holmes is an addict who needs to fill his days with work lest he fill them with heroin, and for all his great observational skills, Holmes frequently doesn’t recognize when he’s offending others with his brusque nature and sense of superiority. Lupin can come off as an arrogant jerk (he recognizes that he’s being narcissistic, but doesn’t care) but it seems we’re supposed to conclude that he’s just that good. Lupin is a fantastical mix of super intelligence, preternatural charm, and zero weaknesses – i.e. a perfect being made for pure escapism.

The stories are enjoyable and the art is beautifully rendered, and if you can avoid comparing it to Sherlock Holes and take it as mere escapism, you’ll likely find this book pleasing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Second Chances by Ricky Mammone

Second Chances, Vol. 1Second Chances, Vol. 1 by Ricky Mammone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: March 22, 2022

This is essentially a hard-boiled PI story, except, instead of being a private investigator, the protagonist runs what is basically a commercial witness protection program for individuals who are trying to escape from someone (but aren’t witnesses and – thus – can’t get the government to provide a new life on the taxpayer dime.) The story follows the fallout of a case gone wrong, in which the lead, Leblanc, finds himself being pursued by a sexy hit squad and must protect his clients at all cost.

It’s not the most innovative of stories and relies on action a great deal. The action being all the more important because our hard-boiled lead experiences little to no growth throughout the story. That said, it’s no worse than a great deal action stories, and better than some. It has a coherent storyline, lots of action, and characters that are interesting – if in a clichéd sort of way.

The illustration is monochrome but detailed, presumably the black-and-white format is meant to contribute to the noir / pulp feel.

If you like action stories, this is a fine one – but not necessarily one that differentiates itself from the pack.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Valley of Fear (Sherlock Holmes, #7)The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This (book seven of nine of the Sherlock Holmes canon) follows a pattern set by the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Both books are arranged into two parts, the first of each is a typical Sherlock Holmes story in which the detective investigates a puzzling crime in England; the second skips back in time (and across the Atlantic) to tell a compelling tale that provides motive and context for the first story.

In “Valley of Fear,” the first story involves the gruesome death of a country gentleman in his own home by sawed-off shotgun blast to the face. While suicide is quickly eliminated, the clues present mixed signals. While it’s not, strictly speaking, a locked-door mystery, its occurrence inside a moat-enveloped manor house leaves open the possibility of an inside-job, but there is confounding evidence that suggests someone fled the scene.

The second story takes place in a mining town in the United States, in a place insinuated in the first part to be “the valley of fear.” This valley, properly named Vermissa Valley, earned this epithet because it was run by a thuggish group of violent men who used a secret society as a cover for the corrupt gangland-like practices they carried out as “the Scowrers.” This story focuses on a new arrival, McMurdo, who we are led to believe was a gangster in Chicago who fled to this quiet – yet gangster-ruled – place to disappear into the protective company of fellow criminals. But, of course, nothing is as it seems.

While this book may be self-derivative, I still found it engrossing. While the two novels use a similar narrative scaffolding, each is unique in its details. In both cases, the second part is especially compelling.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #6)The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This short story collection is the sixth book in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and – as the title suggests – it marks the return of the famous fictional detective after a hiatus. Doyle had tried to kill off the Holmes character so that he could work on other projects. At the end of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” Doyle leads us to believe Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, wrestled off the Reichenbach Falls, plummeting to stony deaths.

In the first story in this collection, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” we discover that Holmes didn’t die, and has been exploiting his reputed death, playing a game of cat-and-mouse against the remnants of Moriarty’s gang, notably the deadly, Col. Sebastian Moran. The other twelve stories of the collection stand alone among the larger canon, and follow the usual Holmes narrative weave. Most involve murder, but there is one (“The Adventure of the Three Students”) that involves a “crime” as mundane as test theft, and in some cases, e.g. “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the murder is a secondary issue. Each crime is solved using the intense observation, out-of-the-box thinking, and leaps of intuition of which only Holmes is capable. Usually, the guilty party is brought to justice, but, in some cases, Holmes follows his own moral code, deciding not to assist the authorities in cases for which he believes the crime justified, or unavoidable.

Among my favorites of the collection are: “The Adventure of the… Norwood Builder,” …Dancing Men,” and …Missing Three-Quarter,” but there’s not a vast standard deviation of quality or style in these stories. They are all intriguing and have their own distinctive features while showing Holmes’s quirky brilliance. This is definitely a must-read for Holmes fans.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes, #5)The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A legend tells of a monstrous hell-hound who haunts the moors of Devonshire and who long ago killed the head of the Baskerville estate, a wealthy family and linchpin within the community. When the present head of the Baskerville fortune, Charles, dies suddenly and under mysterious circumstances – i.e. outdoors at night and in the presence of huge paw prints — many neighbors conclude the legendary hound has returned to fulfil the curse of the Baskervilles. The doctor, neighbor, and friend of Charles, Dr. Mortimer, doesn’t know what to think, as a man of science he might dismiss the legend, but he’s the one who found the hound prints. Above all, Mortimer knows that if the new heir to the Baskerville estate is driven away, it would be devastating for the neighborhood. Mortimer thus seeks the advice of Sherlock Holmes.

This is one of the most well-known and beloved stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon (fyi – it’s #5.) One interesting feature is that Holmes, himself, is not present through the middle of the story. As in all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s Dr. Watson who provides perspective and narration, but throughout the second act we see Watson doing the investigating as well. Sherlock is present for the beginning of the story when Mortimer comes to call and the Baskerville heir, Henry, arrives in London, and then he’s there to spring a plot to conclude the case, but in between we learn of only Watson’s activities in Devonshire.

This is an intriguing tale from beginning to end, and it is remarkable how many strange and seemingly disparate strings the story ties up cleverly. It’s a fascinating look at superstition and how it creates converts under the right circumstances. This quick and thrilling read is worthy of your time.


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