BOOK REVIEW: Crueler than Dead, Vol. 1 by Tsukasa Saimura

Crueler than dead, vol.1 (Crueler than dead, #1)Crueler than dead, vol.1 by Tsukasa Saimura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

A teenage girl regains consciousness in a bland institutional setting to discover that she has been part of medical experimentation. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, is to get a vile of vaccine tested on her and the young boy who will be her traveling companion (as well as, on a bunch of people who didn’t survive) to a stadium in the heart of a Tokyo, a city overrun by Zombies. This is a manga-style graphic novel (i.e. black-and-white panels read right to left.)

I found the work to be in the meaty middle among the vast Zombie subgenre – neither among the best nor the worst. What I think the book did well was set up stakes for intense action. They have to journey to the center of the world’s most populous city to the only un-Zombified people known to remain living. So, the stakes are the continued existence of our species. What the book doesn’t do so well is maintain pace and a clear narrative thread. Textless panels are used to make transitional jumps and it’s not clear to me that most readers will follow the flow smoothly.

If you enjoy Zombie stories and manga comics, you may want to look into this one. It has a video game like aesthetic and feel which may (or may not) appeal to gamers more than the average reader. If you find Zombies overplayed and are looking for only the best of the best in Zombie stories, you’re unlikely to find that here.

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BOOK REVIEW: 1000 Storms by Tony Sandoval

1000 Storms #11000 Storms #1 by Tony Sandoval
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: August 10, 2021

As in A Wrinkle in Time, a girl whose father disappeared under mysterious circumstances travels through a portal to a strange and menacing world of adventure. The art is beautiful and – where applicable – simultaneously grotesque, and I found the surreal aesthetic compelling. The protagonist is well-developed and interesting, being a seemingly orphaned girl, living with relatives, who likes to go off on her own adventures, and whose solitary nature encourages a reputation for oddity among her peers. Unlike A Wrinkle in Time, the protagonist’s motivation (other than getting out of the house and collecting peculiar things) is not so clear, and so the story feels like it stumbles toward an ex machina resolution. There’s plenty of engrossing action, but little sense of motivation or agency. It’s a coming-of-age story split between the real world and a kind of fairy story demon realm.

It’s a tad darker than the average down-the-rabbit-hole children’s story, but except for a couple frames it would be unobjectionable for the youth market. [That said, given what seems to be the youthful age of the characters, these frames (involving sexual exploration) seem awkward and out-of-place – though they definitely separate this graphic novel from Alice in Wonderland, A Wrinkle in Time, or other stories that share its subgenre and themes.]

This is an intriguing adventure story with a pleasing aesthetic, but I felt it could have been driven by the protagonist’s goals to a greater degree, rather than reacting to events unfolding around her. Though it’s occurred to me that what I really might have been missing was a greater sense of what her “opposition” was after.

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BOOK REVIEW: Stray Dogs by Tony Fleecs

Stray DogsStray Dogs by Tony Fleecs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 21, 2021

Like Watership Down, this story is told about animals through the eyes of animals, but – in this case – it’s a house full of dogs. The story begins on a placid enough note. The one human character has a lot of dogs, but it’s not a crazy-cat-lady situation, the animals seem well cared for and the reader has a brief moment to see the man admiringly, as a dog-lover who cares for strays. But those feelings are short-lived. The newest dog, Sophie, begins to get memory flashes about her life before she moved into the house, and she faces an intense challenge in convincing the other dogs that all is not as it seems. The dogs like the man. He feeds them, and – as long as they behave – they have a pretty comfortable existence. Only gradually are we shown the man’s nefarious side, what happens when the dogs don’t behave.

This graphic novel has a simple but taught story arc, and is a visceral read. It does get dark, so one shouldn’t be lured by the cuteness factor into thinking that it’s some sort of lighthearted romp – it’s definitely not. If you’re alright with tragic scenes woven into what otherwise might seem Disney-like, you’ll probably find this book engrossing, but sensitive readers may find it a bit revolting.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hansel and Greta by Jeanette Winterson

Hansel and Greta: A Fairy Tale RevolutionHansel and Greta: A Fairy Tale Revolution by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This story takes a green twist on the similarly named Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Being such a beloved classic, it seems like it would be hard to mess up an environmentally friendly re-telling, and yet it succeeds [in messing it up.] It’s true to its subtitle, “A Fairy Tale Revolution,” being – in part – fairy tale and – in part – the kind of vitriolic villainization of out-group members that one sees in the diatribes of political revolutionaries.

In one of the only non-rant departures from the original story, the witch is made a good character. This might be viewed as a progressive and charitable turn of the story were it not for the fact that the author just – unconsciously or consciously – shifts villainization over to another group: fat people. In the story, fat characters not only consume more food, they are in every way materialistic, gluttonous, and environmentally hateful — as opposed to the skinny in-group who aren’t at all part of the problem. This us-them tribalization is particularly unproductive in dealing with environmental problems because we are all part of the problem, and we all need to be engaged.

I don’t know whether Winterson got caught up in her own ideological anger, or whether she thought young readers need to have the issue oversimplified and the villains made over-the-top. It seems to me like reading Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” results in kids wanting to plant trees and be more aware of how they use natural resources. Reading this book is more likely to make the child want to slap food out of a fat kid’s hands and shame him for his gluttony.

I can’t really recommend this book for kids. It’s more for parents who want their kids to know how to virtue signal than to be thoughtful about using resources.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Adapted by P. Craig Russell

The Complete American Gods (Graphic Novel)The Complete American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 28, 2021

This is the graphic novelization of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant story “American Gods.” The tale begins with the protagonist, Shadow Moon, being released a few days early from his prison sentence to attend the funeral of the wife whom he has been longing to see. On the flight home, he sits next to a gregarious man named Wednesday who offers him a job and who knows way too much about Shadow. While Shadow initially rejects the offer, Wednesday is relentless. When Shadow finally gives in, he’s introduced to a world where nothing is as it seems, a world of gods, demi-gods, and folklore heroes.

The premise is simple, but magnificent. America is a hard land for gods. The country’s melting pot nature makes for so many old gods: Native American gods, Norse gods, African tribal gods, pagan gods, Hindu gods, Slavic gods, etc. Then there are the new gods like “technology” and “media.” Comparing the average American’s screen time versus time in church or in prayer, it’s not difficult to tell which side is winning the war for the affection and attention. Still, the new gods exist in an ephemeral landscape. So, Wednesday is going around trying to build support among old gods for a war between the old and new gods — no easy task as a self-confessed con man.

It’s been a while since I read the novel, but this adaptation felt true to my recollection of the original story. It seems closer to the original than, say, the Amazon Prime series (which I also enjoyed, but which often diverges, particularly to build out some of the secondary characters’ arcs.)

This is definitely worth a read, whether you’ve read the novel or not. The artwork was well-done, and I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Escaping 1939 Prague, Joe Kavalier moves in with family in Brooklyn, becoming fast friends with his younger cousin, Sam Clay. Combining their talents, Joe as artist and Sam as writer, the young men create a number of popular comic book characters. For those unfamiliar with comic book history, a major stream running through this story involves the trials of “work for hire.” Because of the nature of comic book publishing, creative types tended to work on salary (giving the publisher all rights to whatever was created – e.g. TV shows, toys, etc.) Because of this, the creators of some of the most lucrative characters and stories received little credit or financial reward (relative to the profits.) While these artists / authors didn’t lose their shirt if a title failed, there’s something offensive about Corporations (or actors) shoveling in money from a franchise while the creator lives a dank suburban existence.

If it were just about the unfair lives of comic book creators, the book would be interesting — but not 600+ pages interesting. What makes this a compelling story is that each of the titular characters has a darker challenge with which to deal. For Joe, it is an obsession with bringing as much of his family to safety as he can, and coping with his rage against the Nazis. For Sam, it is the fact that he is a closeted and conflicted gay man in 1940’s and 50’s America. The driving question is whether the two men will be able to avail themselves of the tripartite support network (themselves, plus Rosa – Joe’s girlfriend,) or whether either (or both) will self-destruct because of an inability to do so.

This is a well-crafted novel and I highly recommend it.

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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: 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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BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of the Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2)The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel is the second of the books in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It begins with a client (Miss Morstan) coming to see Holmes to acquire his advice as to whether she should make a rendezvous to which she has been summoned by mysterious means, Morstan being a beautiful young lady who is weary of showing up to a random public location, having been told to not involve the police. We learn some intriguing facts from the conversation, such as that she began receiving a pearl from an anonymous source each year and that her father (Capt. Morstan) has passed away.

With Sherlock and Watson in tow, Miss Morstan does attend the rendezvous, and we learn that the meeting is with the son (Thaddeus Sholto) of a man with whom her father served in the military at Port Blair in the Andaman Isles (Maj. Sholto.) The mystery of the pearls is cleared up as we discover that Maj. Sholto cheated Capt. Morstan out of his share of a treasure that the Major came into possession of while stationed in India, and his two sons (particularly Thaddeus) feel the need to make amends to Capt. Morstan’s heir, but would like to do so without dragging the family name through the muck or creating legal hassles.

It seems everything is wrapped up with a nice bow, when Thaddeus takes Miss Morstan, Holmes, and Watson to see his (more reluctant to be fair to Morstan) brother Bartholomew, who is the one in actual possession of the treasure. However, when they find Bartholomew dead and the treasure gone, the true mystery begins. The balance of the book involves a chase to find the missing treasure, the men who stole it, and to unravel the mysterious circumstances behind the treasure. The final chapter tells the elaborate backstory of the treasure, going back to India and to the titular four men, the four whose names were found at the scene of Bartholomew’s murder and who previously possessed it — one of whom serves as the storyteller. Along the way, a mangy bloodhound, the Baker Street Irregulars (street urchins employed by Holmes,) and – of course – the brilliant reasoning of Sherlock Holmes are used to solve the case.

Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most intriguing fictional characters ever with Holmes. If he were just a brilliant man with supreme skills of observation and reasoning, he’d be no more interesting, and have no greater longevity, than any of the many other characters. But in Sherlock we see that brilliance always has a cost. Holmes is also an addict, is troubled by insomnia, and is – in some ways – socially dysfunctional. (e.g. When Watson develops a relationship with Miss Morstan, Holmes confesses that he can’t grasp the value of marriage / long-term intimate relationships.)

What the author does with character, he also does with setting by bringing into the story (through backstory) locales that are exotic and intriguing – e.g. Port Blair. Even by today’s standards there are always little tidbits of the exotic drawn into the story, even though most of the Holmes’ stories — this one included — don’t venture far from London.

If you enjoy crime and detection fiction, this book is a must. It’s highly readable and offers a compelling story. In terms of the Holmes canon, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly better or worse than others, but I don’t find there is a huge variation in quality among these novels and stories. It is one of the better-known titles (except that some call it “The Sign of Four” and others “The Sign of the Four” – the latter being the original title as far as I can discern.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Dreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis

Dreaming EaglesDreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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New Edition Out: June 1, 2021

This graphic novel by the author of “The Boys” and “Preacher,” tells a story based on the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen, and does so as a story within a story. The framing story is set in 1960’s America and finds a World War II veteran (a pilot of the Tuskegee Airmen) trying to talk his teenaged son down from getting too entangled in the Civil Rights movement — for reasons that are only revealed as he completes the telling of his experiences at war. Through flashbacks, the protagonist depicts not only the thrilling exploits of air-to-air combat over Europe and the visceral tragedies that occur when hot lead meets with aluminum high above the world, but it also shows the unique tribulations experienced by these particular military men – such as “leaders” who wanted to see them fail and widespread discrimination.

The story-in-story approach is an excellent one because it allows for a character arc in which the protagonist grows. Without getting into spoiling details, as the protagonist revisits his story, he comes away with a new and changed perspective (which is always a valuable feature in storytelling.) The frame also breaks up the history and helps maintain reader attentiveness by showing the influence the story has on the attentive son. (Young men not being famous for being interested in the life stories of their parents.) I don’t mean to suggest that the war story is not interesting. It’s full of action, heroism, and the tension of interpersonal conflict. However, for those who aren’t history buffs and are acclimated to Ennis’s more popular fare [i.e. full of superheroes and random acts of violence and titillation,] the story may feel a bit flat only by virtue of the fact that it is constrained by actual historical events.

I found the art to be well-crafted. The chaos of air combat is conveyed without being so chaotic that one can’t tell what is happening, and the graphics offer a great sense of setting and era.

This volume is definitely worth giving a read. It tells a compelling story of the combative exploits and the political / social travails of these groundbreaking and heroic pilots, while holding a mirror to the rank societal biases of the era.


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