BOOK REVIEW: Animals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi

Animals in Our DaysAnimals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

Besides being animal-themed or animal-centric to varying degrees, there are a couple of other features common to the stories in this translated collection from Egyptian author, Mohamed Makhzangi. First, it’s truly international in terms of settings. In addition to stories that take place closer to the author’s (i.e. in the Middle East,) there are tales set in Bangkok, Jaipur, Windhoek, and undefined but evocative locales that all feel based on the author’s travels. Second, the stories tend to have a dreamy, surreal quality and / or speculative elements – i.e. they aren’t strictly realist, but more magical realist. At times, stories read like Kafka (e.g. “Brass Grasshoppers”) and at other times like a fairy tale (e.g. “White Bears / Black Bears.”) Where the stories vary is with respect to theme, from war to alienation to the interconnectedness of nature.

The translation by Chip Rossetti is highly readable, and the stories are well-crafted, engaging, and often thought-provoking. I’d recommend this for all readers of short fiction.


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BOOK REVIEW: Shock Treatment by Cullen Bunn, Peter Milligan, & Aaron Douglas

Shock TreatmentShock Treatment by Cullen Bunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 7, 2022

This graphic novel consists of three unrelated pieces of short fiction. All of the stories are of the horror / dark speculative fiction genres, but – otherwise – they are distinct both with respect to story and art. I enjoyed them all, but definitely felt there was a variation in quality.

“Piecemeal” (Cullen Bunn) is about a clique of teenagers who stumble onto a long-deserted house, and find formaldehyde-preserved body parts. It’s got a “Final Destination” meets “Freddie Krueger” kind of vibe. I would rate it as my least favorite. Despite an intriguing (if simple) premise, it never achieved a high creepiness factor, and it resolved too easily / cleanly for my tastes. It also had the most chaotic art, which I’m sure was on purpose, but it didn’t do much for me.

“God of Tremors” (Peter Milligan) this is a period piece set in the 19th century household of a prominent Anglican vicar. It’s about a boy with epilepsy whose anti-science father wants to beat the demon out of him (because that’s what used to cause medical conditions.) While his mother tries with limited success to protect the boy, he ultimately gets help from an unexpected source. This was my favorite because it generated emotional resonance and offered evocative character development. It also had the cleanest artistic style of the three, though I don’t know how important that was to my liking it.

“10 Years to Death” (Aaron Douglas) shows a boy’s uncle telling him a disturbing tale that took place at a prison where the uncle works as the head jailer. That may seem completely unbelievable, unless you’ve had an uncle who didn’t know how to interact with kids so he just – for good or ill – treated them like adults. This was my favorite as far as story premise is concerned. The way the story unfolds is compelling and well-presented.

If you like short fiction of the dark / horror genre, you may want to look into this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Karmen by Guillem March

KarmenKarmen by Guillem March
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 17, 2022

My tagline for this book would be: Neil Gaiman’s “Death” [i.e. from “The Sandman”] meets Paulo Coelho’s “Veronika Decides to Die.” For those unfamiliar with either of those points of comparison, the former is a character that subverts the traditional scary Grim Reaper, replacing the faceless hood with a personable and endearing lass, and the latter is the story of a young woman whose actions force her to learn the lesson of that old chestnut: suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

While it’s convenient for me to present the book in this “X meets Y” summation, it’s a unique story, diverging from both of those tagline references in many important ways. For example, the model of the afterlife is not Judeo-Christian like Gaiman’s, but is more Buddhism meets bureaucracy. [There I go again with the X meets Y.] I found the story captivating, and thought the character development was skillfully presented, particularly as regards the character of Cata.

I struggled with whether I liked the tone of the ending, but I’ll say no more about that to avoid spoilers — except to say that it grew on me. The art was beautiful and I found it to be an all-around entertaining read. Highly recommended.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shang-Chi, Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters by Gene Luen Yang

Shang-Chi by Gene Luen Yang, Vol. 1: Brothers & SistersShang-Chi by Gene Luen Yang, Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters by Gene Luen Yang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This five-issue story arc tells the tale of an intra-family battle for control of the Five Weapons Society, a kung fu dynasty that dates back at least to the Boxer Rebellion. With the patriarch deceased, sides form behind Shang-Chi, on the one hand, and Sister Hammer, on the other. While close as young children, Shang-Chi and Sister Hammer grew up separated, and could not have turned out more differently. Shang-Chi (aka. Brother Hand) has been reluctantly drawn into the conflict by virtue of his being the “chosen one,” and by having the support of Brother Sabre and (to a lesser degree) Sister Dagger. Sister Hammer has raised an army and is bent on taking over the dynasty by whatever means necessary.

So, this is one of those stories that’s not about a purely good hero against a purely evil villain, the latter needing to be completely destroyed, but rather it’s about the need for catharsis and reconciliation. But that doesn’t keep the comic from being loaded with action. We also see a protagonist who experiences a change, which is a story convention that is often jettisoned in the action genre. Shang-Chi must move past his reluctance, and embrace his role in the family.

I found this comic to be compelling and worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan

Unmanned (Y: The Last Man, #1)Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel has a fascinating premise, a dystopia in the aftermath of the extinction of all males – except for one man (of whom we know.) The “Y” in the title is a reference to the Y chromosome that no doubt factors into the cause of the eradication of males, and some genetic mutation presumably explains why there’s this one male survivor. The state of the world is as seen in any apocalyptic dystopia in which a huge proportion of the populace dies off, leaving governance and essential services broken down, being replaced by anarchy. However, there’s also the unique feature that the clock is ticking on the last generation of humanity (and some other species,) unless something can be done about it.

The protagonist is a love-struck man-child who wants nothing more than to get to the other side of the world (to Australia from America) because it’s his fiancé’s last known location. However, given that the key to continuation of the species may lie within his chromosomes, what remains of the government insists he be studied. Other segments of the population have their own ideas about what they’d like to do if they get their hands on him. All of this makes international travel infeasible.

I’m a bit torn on this book. On the positive side, not only does it have a compelling premise, but it presents a thoughtful examination of some of the problems that might arise — such as political bodies being tremendously thinned and that the remaining women politicians wouldn’t necessarily be proportionately distributed between political parties. On the negative side, the volume doesn’t have a substantial climax and conclusion, and thus isn’t a satisfying standalone read. This isn’t uncommon among comic books written with vast serialization in mind. My problem with such writing is that if the first volume doesn’t provide a satisfying self-contained arc, I don’t trust that the story will ever conclude satisfyingly – especially if it’s something that turns out to be popular.

If you’re committed to reading the whole series, you’ll find this volume to provide a gripping and humorous start. However, I can’t say I’d recommend it as a standalone read, and I can’t speak to the overall story.


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BOOK REVIEW: Night Mary by Rick Remender

Night MaryNight Mary by Rick Remender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this graphic novel, the protagonist is a young woman, Mary, who is a talented lucid dreamer – i.e. being conscious in one’s dreams. While lucid dreaming is a real thing, the sci-fi “magic” of the story world is that, using an experimental medication in conjunction with skilled dreamers allows the lucid dreamer to observe and take part in the dreams of another person. Said experimental medication was developed by Mary’s father, who’s a bit of a shady “evil scientist” type, and he employs Mary as his lucid dreamer (even though she is still a high school student.)

The story is intense and provocative. Character development is good and we learn that Mary is dealing with her own mental health issues, presumably PTSD-like traumatization related to an automobile accident she was in with her mother, but she may have already been anxiety prone. Mary’s father is a complex character throughout. He’s cold and distant as a father and obsessive as a scientist, but not altogether dastardly. I enjoyed falling into the story and found it to be narratively taut. That said, it wasn’t with out some problems of pacing and villain monologuing around the climax.

The artwork by Kieron Dwyer succeeded in creating a visceral horror / surreal feel. Also, the use of different color palettes for the real world versus various dream worlds helps to clarify where one is, which is useful in a story that shifts between the real (waking) world and dream scenes.

If you enjoy stories set in dreams and the sci-fi of the unconscious mind, you may want to look into this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: St. Mercy by John Zuur Platten

St. MercySt. Mercy by John Zuur Platten
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: March 1, 2022

This graphic novel combines a Cowboy Western with backstory featuring Incan mythology from pre-Colonial Peru, the latter adding a supernatural element to make a kind of “Unforgiven” meets “Dawn of the Dead” mashup.

It thought the Western narrative was quite well done. The villains were villainous. It’s nothing particularly novel, but the story and characters are skillfully crafted. The Incan story portion forms the origin story for the main character and offers a supernatural element thrown into the gritty realism of the Western. This part of the story is intriguing as well, but there are a couple things I should point out. First of all, I know nothing about Incan gods and monsters lore. Therefore, I can’t say whether the author and artist did their homework, or whether they just made up a generic demon and zombified beings out of nowhere. Secondly, I don’t think the link up of the two storylines was as seamless as it could have been. I found myself unsure of who was whom among carry over characters, and didn’t feel its relevance was sufficient to go back in the middle of what was otherwise an intense story in order to figure it out.

I think the story suffers from two common problems among comic books. First, the mindset of “you can smash any two good things together and make a great thing.” People love Westerns. People love zombies and monster. How could thrusting them together miss? Well, it misses because the visceral emotional quality of the gritty Western tanks in the face of magic and monsters. It misses because the smartly developed Sheriff character is squandered to get him out of the way. Second, this comic suffered from the “cool idea” problem. That’s when someone says “wouldn’t it be cool if…” And then there’s this idea that’s floating out there that you can either do a lot of work to fit into the story so that it makes sense organically, or you can cram it in there willy-nilly and hope the reader says, “cool,” instead of being befuddled by needless complication. I found myself more with the latter.

With a little thought and focus I believe this could have been an excellent story, but – as it is – it’s a bit muddled because it tries to mash together disparate story elements and genres in a way that robs its own thunder.


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BOOK REVIEW: After Lambana by Eliza Victoria & Mervin Malonzo

After Lambana: A Graphic Novel: Myth and Magic in ManilaAfter Lambana: A Graphic Novel: Myth and Magic in Manila by Eliza Victoria
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 10, 2022

This urban fantasy takes place in a Manila where magic exists and mythological creatures live. The story follows two young men as they travel around the city. The two seem to be new and casual friends. One is an ordinary human (Conrad) though with a terminal illness that seems not of this world, and the other is an expat from the magic realm (Ignacio) who’s going to great efforts to help Conrad. The hook is the question of why this casual acquaintance seems so important to the too-cool-for-school Ignacio. Conrad seems to be along for the ride as a distraction in his last hours, but Ignacio has an objective – benighted as it may be. The story unfolds to reveal what’s really happening and to offer backstory.

I love works that incorporate mythology and folklore, and think it’s a wise move for writers of speculative fiction because there’s such a rich and engaging field of stories and characters / creatures – all ripe for the picking. This is particularly true of a mythology, such as that of the Philippines, that isn’t widely known and, thus, offers a whole slate of creatures and alternate worlds with which most readers aren’t familiar. In this book, Filipino mythology is most prominently seen via the “Sirena,” which bear some resemblance to Greek Sirens – except being in the form of mermaids (though able to walk on legs under certain conditions.) I think more could have been done with Filipino Mythology, though there are a few other magic elements in the book that may or may not have mythological origins.

In found this to be a compelling story, and the art was colorful, while still capturing a little noir feel for late night Manila. If you’re interested in speculative fiction graphic novels, this one is worth investigating.


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BOOK REVIEW: Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll's House - 30th Anniversary EditionThe Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House – 30th Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“The Doll’s House” story arc is the second volume in the original run of “Sandman,” and consists of issues #9 – 16. After a prologue that tells an African tribal myth about a love between a mortal woman and a god, the other seven issues tell the story of Rose Walker, a young woman whose mere existence will become a threat to the Dreaming (the world of dreams and the dominion of Morpheus, god of dreams.) The prologue story introduces concepts helpful for the main story, but does not otherwise share characters or plot details with the larger arc.

The volume presents a clean and satisfying story. Gaiman is among the most superb developers of stories within stories such that his serial work always leaves the reader satisfied. The troubles that play out in this volume result from Morpheus’s (a.k.a. Dream’s) earlier incarceration [volume 1,] but one learns what one needs to follow it during the telling of this story. Besides the issue of Rose Walker, there were escapes and shenanigans in the Dreaming owing to the lack of proper supervision. Morpheus has to fix these problems without a clear picture of what has happened.

Gaiman creates a story that is at once engrossing and humorous. The story reaches its heights in both regards in the issue called “Collectors,” [a.k.a. “The Doll’s House, Part Five”] which involves Rose Walker’s stay in a hotel that is holding a convention that is nominally for the breakfast cereal industry, but is – in fact – for serial killers and collectors of human beings (or artifacts, thereof.) The world of Sandman is gripping and brilliantly creative, and I highly recommend this book.


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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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