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: Jules Verne’s Lighthouse by David

Jules Verne's LighthouseJules Verne’s Lighthouse by David Hine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 13, 2021

This graphic novel presents a loose adaptation of “The Lighthouse at the End of the World,” taking the story into space opera-like territory. Verne’s story is set on Earth in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Horn at the southern tip of the Americas. Hine’s is set in a remote region of deep space that requires a beacon to navigate through a treacherous aggregation of wormholes. (I don’t know whether the latter is even remotely in compliance with the laws of physics, but the concept of a deep space navigational station seems perfectly feasible so I was untroubled by the details. An Astronomy majors’ experience may vary. In general, the book doesn’t seem to be written as hard sci-fi.)


Hine borrows Verne’s idea of a remote navigational beacon being taken over by pirates, and a survivor of the “lighthouse” crew working to foil the pirates’ plot, as well as drawing on some character details. However, it’s not meant to be a beat-for-beat retelling of Verne’s story set in the future and in space. There are many differences of plot and character from the source material. Besides robots and aliens, there is much greater diversity in the cast.


I found the story compelling. The source premise of being far from help and at a severe disadvantage is thrilling, and I think Hine did a fine job of taking the story into the future.


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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: 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: 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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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: When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson

When the Sparrow FallsWhen the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 8, 2021 [June 29, 2021 some places.]

The Caspian Republic is a Soviet-style dystopia, but set in a future in which it is the sole holdout against rule by Artificial Intelligence (AI,) against virtual living, and against downloading one’s consciousness. When, Nikolai South, an unimpressive agent of the State Security agency is given the seemingly undemanding, yet diplomatically sensitive, job of escorting the foreign widow of a deceased “journalist,” something is amiss. Nikolai’s work philosophy has been to find the sweet spot where he is neither noticed as a shirker nor for his excellence, and his mastery of this Goldilocks Zone has made him nearly invisible to upper management – or so he thought. What makes the job tricky is that the journalist, a man who wrote rants against AI and downloading of consciousness, turns out to be a downloaded consciousness, as is his wife, making her visit a little like the head of the Dalai Lama Fan Club being invited to Beijing.

I found this story compelling. The book perspective jumps toward the end (throughout most of the book, it’s first-person narrated,) but for the most part the perspective shifts aren’t problematic. While this shift away from first person narration isn’t hard to follow, I would say this section goes on longer than I would have preferred. There is a point about two-thirds of the way through at which we lose the the thread of Nikolai, and at that point the story becomes largely a history of a fictional country (which, sans a central character, is a bit tedious,) but then the book resumes a character-centric story to the book’s end (and I resumed enjoying it.)

If you’re interested in books that make you question what being human means, and where the boundaries lie, you’ll find this book intriguing and worth reading.

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