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: Death: The Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman

Death: The Deluxe Edition (Death of the Endless, #1-2)Death: The Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book includes seven stories featuring the character of Death from Gaiman’s Sandman series. Two of the stories are longer (three-issue) tales, and the rest are single-issue short fiction.


For those unfamiliar with character, Gaiman subverts the “Grim Reaper” persona. Instead of a cloak-enshrouded skeleton, its face obscured by hood and shadow, Gaiman’s Death is an attractive young woman who goes by Didi, Gothically pale but certainly more beautiful than terrifying. However, appearances aren’t the only way in which Didi is the polar opposite of the Grim Reaper. She’s also preternaturally likeable and gregarious.


The first tripartite story is entitled “The Hight Cost of Living,” and in it a suicidal teen, Sexton, gets drawn into Didi’s drama, but also experiences a newfound appreciation for living. The other three-part story, “The Time of Your Life,” is about a rock star [stage name, “Foxglove”] who has everything a budding pop star could want, but when she learns that you can’t have it all and no one escapes their mortality, she’s forced to reevaluate her priorities. While the collection is built around those two stories, it’s not like the shorter works are filler. I found that “Façade” and “Death and Venice,” in particular, to be quite satisfying as stories.


A couple things to keep in mind: First, the stories are pulled from a long run, and so there are discontinuities – e.g. Death in “The Wheel” looks different from the other stories. Second, one reviewer said this book wasn’t a good choice if one hadn’t read the whole “Sandman” series. Someone who’d read it all might get more Easter Eggs, but it’s not the case that the stories don’t make sense in isolation. With the exception of the opening story, “The Sound of Her Wings,” I didn’t feel I was missing anything by not having read the series.


One can’t go wrong with Gaiman, the storytelling is clever and compelling, and the art is captivating – despite the stylistic variation.


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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: 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: 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: 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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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: Maria Llovet’s Eros/Psyche by Maria Llovet

Maria Llovet's Eros/PsycheMaria Llovet’s Eros/Psyche by Maria Llovet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story takes place at a all-girl boarding school called “The Rose.” It’s a strange place with something vaguely supernatural about it, including: we see no faculty or staff – only students, and, also, it appears to teach witchcraft or some sort of herbal potion-based artform. And the students are eliminated one by one – as in a reality tv show in which the low-scoring student (or disobedient / disorderly students) must leave, at least that’s what we are led to believe. The bulk of the story revolves around just two characters, Sara [a new student] and Silje [a veteran.] Few of the other girls have much in the way of speaking roles or story relevance. That’s part of a minimalist motif that’s used to generate a stark feel. There’s a lot of textless frames, and most frames show a simple scene that is often more reflective than active.

The story consists of a slow-burn budding romance of the two main characters. The sparse approach leaves some story elements inexplicit or ambiguous, and that means that varied readers may have a broader than usual range of interpretations. The sparsity may generate feelings of desolate melancholy for which I suspect the author was aiming, but it also might create a sort of emotional disconnect from the book. I kind of fluctuated between the two as I read.

At the end of the story, I found it satisfying – if simple, but during the read I frequently wondered where it was going and / or what I was missing. It’s essentially a romance set in an all-girl and sadder-feeling Hogwarts.

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