BOOK REVIEW: Out of Body by Peter Milligan

Out of BodyOut of Body by Peter Milligan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: March 8, 2022

As the title suggests, this story is built around the concept of the out-of-body experience (OBE,) as well as the near-death experience (NDE) — another controversial concept discussed in similar circles. We find a prominent psychotherapist, Dan Collins, in a coma after he took a beating in an alleyway. Having been blindsided by his attacker, the story revolves around Collins trying to solve his own near murder as his “astrally projected” self plays detective. It turns out that there are many possible suspects, ranging from those who might wish him ill for personal reasons to those who might have professional motives. However, as Dan is assisted by a young but talented psychic from the Ozarks named Abi, other possibilities arise, ones that are far more bizarre than the scientifically-minded Collins can wrap his head around.

While I’m not a believer in OBE’s and NDE’s as anything other than natural perceptual phenomena resulting from conditions in the brain, I do think they make for an intriguing speculative fiction plot. Some fascinating psychology is on display as Collins (who’s always fancied himself an expert in human nature) discovers that his beliefs about how he was perceived are radically different than what he glimpses in the minds of individuals with whom he has had relationships.

I found the story to be sound and intriguing, and I enjoyed reading this book. The art was well done, much of it being psychedelic, but all of it being clear and comprehensible. If an OBE detective story sounds compelling, you may want to give this one a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie and Dave Walker

Compass, Volume 1: The Cauldron of Eternal LifeCompass, Volume 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: January 25, 2022

This graphic novel mixes Fantasy, mythology, and bits of history to tell a story with a fountain of youth trope. The protagonist is Shahidah El-Amin, an Arab Moslem Indiana Jones but in the form of a teenage girl. Her ultimate antagonist is a Mongolian Khan with leprosy who wants the “cauldron of eternal life” in order to cure his leprosy, and – you know – because he wants to live forever. However, the more immediate conflict plays out between Shahidah and a Chinese version of herself, i.e. another teenaged girl scholar / adventurer. This allows for a more interesting emotional arc as the two girls have clearly been close companions before, but now they’re on opposite sides and it’s never clear whether their friendship (or their other obligations) will win the day. Having a peer antagonist also avoids the strained credulity of Shahidah having to single-handedly defeat the leader of the biggest and most accomplished army of its time, and, well, said army.

This is an exciting adventure story. Being in the Fantasy genre, it’s hard to build and maintain thills and suspense when anything [i.e. magic] can happen. However, the limits of the fantastic elements are kept in check in this book, and don’t really benefit the main characters — who must rely on their own wits and physical capabilities.

If you like historical fantasy that blends mythology with creative story elements, you may want to check this book out. [Not to mention if you like the idea of a young / female / period Indiana Jones.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: New Writing from Japan: Vol. 2: Travel ed. Ted Goosen & Motoyuki Shibata

MONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVELMONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVEL by Ted Goossen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 28, 2021

This anthology of travel-themed short writings by prominent Japanese authors includes: short stories, essays, poems, excerpts from longer works, and even an illustrated story [i.e. “The Overcoat” by Satoshi Kitamura.] The nature and degree of travel varies considerably with some pieces being travelogues or setting-centric fiction, but other pieces explore travel in a more symbolic sense (e.g. “Hell” by Kikuko Tsumura or “Decline of the Aliens” by Hideo Furukawa.] And one piece, “Cardboard Boxes and Their Uses” by Taki Monma deals more with the topic of being shut in, so it might be considered a study in travel through its absence.

The anthology includes works by literary stars such as Mieko Kawakami, Haruki Murakami, and Yasunari Kawabata, and showcases translation by some of the most well-know translators of Japanese literature. [The edition ends with a dozen brief statements by translators about what they have found particularly daunting to translate — not necessarily because the literal translation is difficult but because the elegance of the origin language can be lost to clunkiness in the translated language.]

Among my favorite pieces were “The Dugong” (a historical fiction story with a “Journey to the West” feel to it,) Haruki Murakami’s essay entitled “Jogging in Southern Europe” (which anyone who’s ever exercised amid people who don’t exercise will find amusing,) “Five Modern Poets on Travel” [particularly the tanka of Kanoko Okamoto and the haiku of both Hisago Sugita and Dakotsu Iida,] and “Every Reading, Every Sound, Every Sight” by Jun’ichi Konuma. That said, I don’t think there was a clunker in the bunch, each piece was well-composed and translated, and I’d highly recommend reading this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag (Trans. Srinath Perur)

Ghachar GhocharGhachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella, translated from Kannada, shows the Indian family as both a gordian knot that can be the source of great strength through unity and as an unruly tangle that can neither be loosed nor made neat. It’s character-driven literary fiction that focuses on a young man in a family that becomes nouveau-riche. He is aimless and dependent upon the income of his family’s business, and that is fine and natural with him until his newly-wedded wife discovers he’s more man-child than the business executive his calling cards proclaim him to be.

I found the book to be both insightful and brilliantly crafted. As mentioned, it’s more about the family dynamic than a story, but it’s humorous, contemplative, and shows the psychology of family drama nicely.

I’d highly recommend this novella for readers of literary fiction.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered WorldThe Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel was originally entitled Kusamakura or “Grass Pillow,” and it’s the Alan Turney translation that bears the title The Three-Cornered World. Turney drew from a concept that Natsume presents in the book – i.e. that an artist lives in the triangle created by the collapse of a corner called common sense. It’s a poetic and philosophical novel that is very much character-centric. In other words, if you must have an intriguing story, this book is not so much for you. However, if you find ideas and clever use of language appealing, you’ll love it.

The premise is that an artist takes retreat in the mountain countryside, and becomes infatuated with a local woman with a storied past. As the book tells us of the artist’s experience, it discusses aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and the place of emotion in artistic experience. This book is often compared to Bashō’s travelogue (i.e. Narrow Road to the Deep North) as it involves a great deal of elegant imagery and the occasional interspersed poem.

While the book is light on story, I was wowed by the author’s thought process and his use of language. While I’ve never read the original in Japanese, Turney’s translation is beautiful writing in its own right and I suspect it captures the sparse beauty for which Natsume’s work is famed. It is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is one of Agatha Christie’s most popular and beloved murder mysteries, in large part because of the atmospherics and premise of the book. It’s not just that the murder takes place on a long-distance luxury train, an exotic and exciting setting to be sure, but that said train is stopped indefinitely by a build up of snow on the tracks in the mountains. What this does is to cut the detective, Hercule Poirot [who just happens to have ended up on the train,] off from the usual resources he would have at hand to solve a case – e.g. forensic science, law enforcement officers, etc. (Though forensic science wasn’t so advanced during the early twentieth century when the story takes place.) This requires Poirot to solve the case with only his wits, encyclopedic knowledge of crimes, and skepticism to piece together a solution to this locked-door mystery.

This was the first Agatha Christie novel I’ve read, and I felt it was a fine entry point into her work. While Poirot – like Sherlock Holmes – is a recurring character that features in a number of short stories and novels, this is a completely standalone story that requires no knowledge from the nine Poirot books that precede it. Poirot has other aspects in common with Sherlock Holmes, but is also quite distinct. Both detectives know pretty much everything there is to know about investigating crimes, but Poirot is much more personable and suave. This makes the Frenchman a more likable but less interesting detective than Holmes – i.e. Poirot is unflawed but correspondingly less believably brilliant.

I enjoyed this story. It does a spectacular job of building intrigue, and that is no doubt largely responsible for the book’s great success.


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BOOK REVIEW: Bliss by Sean Lewis

BlissBliss by Sean Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This eight-issue graphic novel blends sci-fi and mythology to tell a story of the double-edged nature of memory – bringer of both bliss and trauma. At the story’s core is a father-son relationship in which both the father, Benton, and son, Perry, must come to grips with the fact that contained within the former is the greatest possible range of virtue and vice, a nearly irreconcilable mix of good and bad.

I enjoyed that the author instilled an intriguing strangeness to the book’s world using a mix of futurism, mythology, and creativity while at the same time dealing with primal human concerns. The book asks whether being free of memories can contribute to our being worse versions of ourselves (being able to forget misdeeds,) and whether healing (forgiveness of both self and others) can happen without memory.

I found this book to be provocative and well-composed. There were points at which it felt like the scale of deviation between the good and the bad Benton were unfathomably great. In other words, it felt like the motivation for his actions strained credulity. However, that encourages one to think about how a person might behave if he knew he could be freed of the memory of ill deeds.

I loved the story, the art, the world, and the characters. I’d highly recommend the book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (Wisehouse Classics Edition - With Original Illustrations)The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The dozen stories in this collection make up the final book in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It’s not the most beloved of the Holmes’ books, but Doyle did take some bold diversions from the usual Sherlock formula (probably in an attempt to maintain his own interest in the character.) Some of the experiments are regarded as fails. I’ll discuss the anomalous tales, with the understanding that most of the other stories follow the recipe.


In “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” Doyle ventures into what some have called bad sci-fi with a tale in the vein of “Island of Doctor Moreau.” While the farfetched nature of the story stands in contrast to the usual enlightened rationality of Holmes, to be fair, it’s hard to fault anyone living through the early decades of the twentieth century for imagining some outlandish possibilities — given the wild scientific and technological advances being seen. In this collection we see microscopes and other disruptive technologies.


In “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” Holmes, himself, takes up narration (i.e. Doctor Watson’s job.) In my view, besides Holmes’s occasional chiding of Watson and his writings, there didn’t seem to be as great a distinction in voice as Doyle might have hoped to achieve.


“The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” is also narrated by Holmes, but is also anomalous for the nature of its solution. While a murder investigation is solved using Holmes’s arcane knowledge, it might leave many readers feeling that it was an anticlimactic variation on the formula.


A couple stories, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and – to a lesser extent – “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” skip the usual necessity of Holmes solving the case and taking part in the explanation of discoveries, and – instead – the solution is presented entirely by individuals involved in the mystery. This harms the protagonist’s agency.


Despite the lack of love this collection receives, generally, it does still present some interesting cases and I credit Doyle both for taking chances and for showing an evolution of Holmes and his world.


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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente, et. al.

Marvel-Verse: Shang-ChiMarvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of issues involving Shang-Chi. The early issues present the “Master of Kung Fu” in cameo / secondary roles within headliner characters’ comics – notably Wolverine and Spiderman. In those early issues, Shang-Chi mostly serves as the invincible master showing quippy superheroes that their kung fu lacks vigor and precision. In the later issues, those in which Shang-Chi is the lead, he becomes more well-rounded leading man material and less of a stoic, exotic Yoda-figure. In those issues, Shang-Chi combats the elusive ninja organization called “The Hand,” as well as “Lady Deathstrike.”


There is one issue, “Shang-Chi’s Day Off,” which is written as one-liner laden low comedy. Its tone stands out as distinct from the rest of the volume, but it has a few genuinely amusing lines, and so it’s not so bad. Those who take their superheroes somewhat seriously will hate it.


This collection isn’t a bad way to gain insight into the character and his evolution over time. Don’t be thrown off by the campy and stereotyped way he’s portrayed in his 70’s Kung fu cinema iteration, it gets more balanced and sophisticated later in the volume. I read found it on Amazon Prime.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Old Guard: Tales Through Time, Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka, et. al.

The Old Guard: Tales Through Time, Vol. 1The Old Guard: Tales Through Time, Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 21, 2021

This six-issue graphic novel collects twelve standalone short stories from “The Old Guard” universe. For those who’ve neither read the comic nor watched the Netflix movie, it imagines that a few immortals walk among us, or – if not immortals – at least extremely long-lived people. The oldest known among them, Andromache the Scythian (a.k.a. Andy,) is somewhere between six and seven thousand years old. (She appears in about half the stories in some capacity or another, ranging from cameo mention to main character.)

As the subtitle suggests, the dozen stories jump through time offering vignettes from the lives of the various immortals. The locales also vary, though primarily involving places that are known for their belligerency, intrigue, or noir ambiance — e.g. the wild west, samurai era Japan, 197o’s New York City, Berlin in 1932, etc. Some of the tales, e.g. “How to Make a Ghost Town,” “Zanzibar and Other Harbors,” and “Lacus Solitudinus,” are story-driven. Other pieces are more conceptual, focusing on an intriguing idea that comes with immortality. For example, “My Mother’s Axe” explores the Theseus’s ship idea of what it means for a thing to be itself when it’s replaced piece by piece over time.

I enjoyed this collection a great deal. The artistic styles vary to be apropos to the time and place in question, and the storytelling approach also shifts, owing not only to the different settings but also to the numerous authors involved. If you’re attached to having extended story arcs told over several issues, this might not be for you. The storytelling is necessarily terse and / or truncated, owing to space constraints. But if you go in expecting the two story-per-issue flash fiction format, you’ll likely find it compelling.


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