BOOK REVIEW: The Umbrella Academy, #0 by Gerard Way

The Umbrella Academy #0The Umbrella Academy #0 by Gerard Way
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This issue features the dysfunctional family of freakish [non-blood] sibling superheroes taking on a character called the “Murder Magician,” a dapper but demented individual who likes to combine the showmanship of magic with the psychopathy of serial killing. The Murder Magician takes control of a talk show with a live studio audience while he’s being interviewed so that he can have the makings of mass murder readily at hand.


The art is chaotically drawn, but colorful, imparting a level of whimsy in line a villain with an affinity for sleight of hand.


It’s a simple story, as a single-issue comic can only be. I was familiar with the characters from the Netflix series adaptation, and that proved necessary because even though it’s #0, it’s very much a story in medias res.


I stumbled upon this issue as a free promotional gift on Amazon. If you like and are familiar with the comic, it’s worth a look. If not, there might be too many characters and too much oddness to make sense of it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Home by Julio Anta

Home, Vol. 1Home, Vol. 1 by Julio Anta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: November 23, 2021

This book starts out with a gripping premise, a single mother and her son separated at the border, the mother being deported back to Guatemala as the son makes his way to the home of his aunt in Texas. The story shows a great deal of promise in the introductory issue. Unfortunately, over the course of the volume, all of the tension that is painstakingly built up is squandered. Whenever there is a challenging and visceral circumstance a new set of random superpowers is revealed, such that by the fifth and final issue, one no longer feels the protagonist is in peril (regardless of circumstance) because it’s a given that some deus ex machina magic will come along to save the day.


What’s sad is that, other than the crippling problems of anti-climactic story, the book shows many positive attributes. It’s well drawn. The book builds characters for whom the reader is rooting. Emotion is effectively portrayed. I think if the superpowers had been introduced upfront with some understanding of limitations and “kryptonite,” there would have been potential for an enjoyable read. As it is, however, it’s exactly the opposite of what one would like – a book that gets more and more intense – as resolutions come too easily.


It’s an impassioned, if not nuanced, view of immigration issues, and – if that’s enough for you – you might be interested in checking it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: False Guard by Merwan

Fausse Garde - NE (Hors Collection)Fausse Garde – NE by Merwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 30, 2021

This graphic novel is set in a fantastical world that combines the culture of a Southeast Asian live-in gym, a setting suggestive of “One Thousand and One Nights” supersized to mega-city scale, and some novel creative elements of the author-artist’s imagination. The protagonist, Mane, is a fighter who dreams of making it big in the big city. On the bright side, despite the prejudices against him as an outsider, Mane has the drive and talent to be a champion. However, in a universe of single-minded people (professional fighters,) his energies are split between the gym and his desire to fight for social justice. It turns out that the man leading him into a guerrilla battle against the societal elite, Fessat, is an old intra-gym rival of the gym-owner / coach, Eiam, for whom Mane is fighting.


The story is largely about Mane’s attempts to reconcile these two aspects of himself, and the travails of the bifurcated mentorship he receives from Fessat and Eiam. The fictional martial art of Pankat bears resemblance to Muay Thai / Lethwei / Pradal Serey Southeast Asian style kick-boxing, with a combination of MMA elements to appeal to the present-day reader and some creative details to make it feel more exotic.


For the most part, I found the story and character development compelling. There were some points at which it felt like there was a disjoint between the emotional displays being made and the events at hand. It’s hard to put a finger on what was off, it just felt a bit overwrought at times. Besides a desire to create a visceral story, this is probably meant to reflect Mane’s stress level, but it felt forced at times. It’s also true that Mane is a complex character – at times sympathetic and at other times an impetuous jerk.


If found this book to be enjoyable and engaging.


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BOOK REVIEW: His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle

His Last Bow: A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes (Wisehouse Classics Edition - with original illustrations)His Last Bow: A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story collection is the penultimate book in the Sherlock Holmes canon. One sees a shift into the modernity of the twentieth century in the seven collected stories. In particular, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” is about the theft of plans for a submarine, and the final story, the titular finale, “His Last Bow” takes Holmes out of the world of crime and law enforcement and into the realm of espionage. Of course, the Sherlock Holmes books have always taken advantage of both the science of the day as well as offering glimpses into the cultures and peculiarities of far away lands. This blending of the cutting edge with exoticism is part of what gave these books a mystique that set them apart from other detective fiction, and is also partly why they have aged so well.


Two recurring plot devices in the book are poisonous substances and – ever popular with Doyle – the criminal secret society. Poisons play a central role in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” and “The Adventure of the Dying Detective.” The secret society angle plays into the only two stories of the collection that are two-parters: “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” and “The Adventure of the Red Circle.” “His Last Bow” isn’t the only departure from the standard Sherlock fare. Given an attempt to kill off Holmes as well as the unsuccessful finality of this book’s title, it seems like Doyle was acutely concerned by the capacity for these stories to become overplayed. Therefore, he seemed to experiment a little with story. Unfortunately for him, the author did too good of a job at creating one of the most intriguing characters ever, and so demand for the stories remained unabated – regardless of the fact that the stories tend to become a bit more predictable as one reads through them in their entirety.


I felt this collection provided a nice mix of atypical and classic Sherlock. It’s definitely worth a read.

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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: Friday, Book One: The First Day of Christmas by Ed Brubaker

Friday, Volume 1Friday, Volume 1 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 9, 2021

I was loving everything about this book until (the very big issue of) its failure to provide any conclusion or resolution. Imagine watching a two-hour movie, and at the one hour and forty-two minute mark the screen goes blank, the lights come on, and the ushers start humming “…you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here…” I understand writers of serialized works need to leave a hook, but this is all hook and no itch gets scratched.

And it’s a shame because the art was beautiful and evocative, the setting was both warmly hometown and eerily odd, the character building was intriguing, and everything seemed to be clicking. The conflict level was compelling, and one could definitely get attached to this world and its characters, but then one gets cold water thrown in one’s face and is asked to leave.

I will tell you one thing about the book that’s magnificent and that’s…


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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: The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges

The Aleph : including the prose fictions from The MakerThe Aleph : including the prose fictions from The Maker by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains the seventeen stories of The Aleph, plus about twenty short pieces of prose fiction from The Maker. Borges was one of the best writers of the twentieth century. His writings are mystical, philosophical, imaginative, provocative, compact, and thick with ideas and references to great literature from Don Quixote to Shakespeare to Greek Mythology. Much of Borges work has a fantasy / speculative component, but it never feels like it’s for its own sake, but rather to convey ideas of a philosophical, psychological, or spiritual nature. One might think that such short writings by a man who was clearly obsessed with a few key ideas (e.g. libraries and labyrinths) would get stale, but far from it.

The collection known by its titular final story (i.e. “The Aleph”) makes up the bulk of the book, and offers some exceptional stories – e.g. “The Other Death,” “Deutsches Requiem,” “The Man on the Threshold,” and, of course, “The Aleph.” The stories engage the readers with issues like mortality, fate, courage, and mystery.

The pieces from “The Maker” are short, few more than a couple pages and some just a paragraph. The most famous piece included is probably the brilliant “Borges and I,” but other important pieces include “The Maker,” “Everything and Nothing,” “The Yellow Rose,” and “The Witness.”

The book has notes and back-matter by the translator / editor, which can be useful for readers who aren’t acquainted with Latin America or the broad canon of classic literature Borges regularly references.

I’d highly recommend this for those who enjoy though-provoking, philosophical fiction. It is a thinking person’s read, but yet many of the pieces are highly engaging as stories.

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