Archive for Book Reviews

28269.121501Green River Killer: A True Detective Story
Written by Jeff Jensen
Illustrated by Jonathan Case
Dark Horse Books
September 13, 2011
Reviewed by Elaine Pascale

Synopsis: Throughout the 1980s, the highest priority of Seattle-area police was the apprehension of the Green River Killer, the man responsible for the murders of dozens of women. In 1990, with the body count numbering at least forty-eight, the case was put in the hands of a single detective, Tom Jensen. After twenty years, when the killer was finally captured with the help of DNA technology, Jensen spent 180 days interviewing Gary Leon Ridgway in an effort to learn his most closely held secrets–an epic confrontation with evil that proved as disturbing and surreal as can be imagined. Written by Jensen’s own son, acclaimed entertainment writer Jeff Jensen, Green River Killer: A True Detective Story presents the ultimate insider’s account of America’s most prolific serial killer.

Green River Killer was simply excellent. Moreover, it served as an example of the importance of good writing in graphic novels. Too often the artwork is the mesmerizing force at the expense of a clearly developed story. Jeff Jensen provides a complex telling of his father’s experiences working on Gary Ridgway’s case. There is tension in the plot, even though it is not a “who done it” crime story. Tom Jensen is established as a caring, dedicated professional with a desire to do right by the victims’ families. Even Ridgway is presented in ways that are sometimes sympathetic. The characters are rich and realistic; the art work, while fantastic, is there to further the plot line, not trump it.

Jonathon Case masterfully places tiny, but important details into the illustrations. For example, Detective Jensen has little notes on his desk with quotes from Sherlock Holmes and these notes highlight pivotal turns in the serial killer’s case. Tom Jensen also has a habit of doing construction projects on his home when he feels particularly stressed about the case. Case’s rendering of Jensen on his knees, placing tiny squares of tile onto a bathroom floor was an intricate statement of the man’s coping strategy: Tom is trying to piece together a complex puzzle in his work life, and he mirrors it by working on a ceramic puzzle that is, at times, both in and out of his control in his home life.

True crime story fans will really appreciate this graphic novel. It does not sensationalize the murders; instead, it brings a humanity to the victims and a great deal of honor to the detectives who dedicated decades of their lives to stopping and convicting Gary Ridgway. I enjoyed Green River Killer immensely and am not ashamed to admit that the tender epilogue tugged at my heart strings.

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Hellbound – Graphic Novel Review

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Written by Victor Gischler
Illustrated by Riccardo Burchielli
Dark Horse Books
October 6, 2015
Reviewed by Jess Landry

If the grittiness of True Detective and the supernatural elements of The X-Files got together for a gory little satanic ritual one evening and ended up having a graphic novel demon baby, that beautiful thing would probably look a lot like Hellbound.

Agents Mirchandani and Brew are the black sheep of the FBI – they take on the cases no one else wants. When they’re assigned to investigate a string of murders along Route 5 of the US’s east coast, they quickly discover that the bloodless bodies and horrific displays of torture aren’t the work of a commonplace serial killer, but of something more than they could ever imagine.

Brew and Mirchandani fit the partner stereotypes pretty well: Brew is a reckless womanizer, someone more concerned with getting laid than saving the day; and Mirchandani is the by-the-book, level-headed cop looking to do something right in the world. What takes Hellbound up a notch is that Mirchandani is a person of colour, something that we often don’t see in the whitewashed world.

The story doesn’t shy away from racial tensions either as there’s more than one instance of slurs being thrown Mirchandani’s way. Another formulaic trait of Brew is his loyalty, and it never falters from his partner. He’s there to throw any insult back the way it came as Mirchandani is not the type to retort.

Hellbound starts with a full-on True Detective vibe. All we know is that there have been some “unconventional” murders along a highway, and we play detective along with Brew and Mirchandani. As the story unfolds, it becomes something so much more than just a serial killer story. When one character is revealed to be something more than initially thought, that’s when the proverbial shit hits the fan. From that point on, Hellbound switches from gritty cop drama to supernatural bloodbath.

To call the artwork gory would be an understatement. There are scenes of torture, bodies strung up by what’s left of their bits, and a dinner spread that doesn’t look very appetizing. But as graphic as some moments are, the gore never feels out of place. All the blood and guts, no matter how plentiful, fit right at home in the storyline.

The colour pallette sings the gritty tune of the story wonderfully. A strong use of dark yellows, greens and earth tones give Hellbound a muddied feel that couldn’t be more appropriate. When the story switches from present to past, there’s a break in the style. The present is drawn like most comics of today, while the past feels more like rich oil paintings. Sometimes a style break can upset the flow of the story, but if anything within the pages of Hellbound, it elevates the book from simple graphic novel to coffee table art book (if you’re awesome and like having that sort of art on display).

My only gripe with the story is the representation of female characters. There are two strong women in this graphic novel, but they’re used more as the butt of Brew’s chauvinistic jokes and objects for him to try and bed. They also find themselves in situations that make Hellbound seem a little desperate to add the “sexy” factor to a story that was doing just fine without it – specifically a scene involving Ramirez, a police officer who helps Brew and Mirchandani with their investigation. After taking a shower, walking around her house naked (with a few gratuitous ass shots), and finally putting on her bra and panties, she’s attacked by an evil entity. And so begins the underwear fight scene.

Aside from that, Hellbound is a very strong graphic novel both story-wise and art-wise. It’s highly recommended for those who don’t shun away from a little blood and guts, and who appreciate a solid, dark story.

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Mycroft Holmes – Book Review

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48096590.cachedMycroft Holmes
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Anna Waterhouse
Titan Books
October 6, 2015
Reviewed by Marvin P. Vernon

I am a major Sherlock Holmes fan. I have read every one of the Arthur Conan Doyle tales and many of the tributes, a.k.a. “Pastiches,” written by others since then. Not surprisingly, none of them ever rise to the equivalent of the original but there have been some noble attempts.

In Mycroft Holmes  written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Anna Waterhouse, the authors do a very wise move:  they avoid the imposing Sherlock and concentrate on his smarter and older brother Mycroft. Sherlock does appear, but only for a brief chapter.

Mycroft only appears in four stories by Doyle. In this reworking, we are introduced to a younger Mycroft when he is still in good physical health and he hasn’t developed his phobia about field work. Sherlock is a university student who Mycroft is indulgent to, and maybe slightly condescending, but sees real potential.

Mycroft is a promising young civil servant working for the British Secretary of State. He has his own “Doctor Watson,” a black man from Trinidad by the name of Cyrus Douglas who runs a tobacco shop. This friendship moves much of the friction in the tale as the writers are quite aware of and deftly use the racial friction of the times as a major theme in the story. In fact, one of the strengths in the book is that the authors are quite knowledgeable and skilled in portraying the social and psychological tones of the 19th century. But Douglas and Mycroft‘s girlfriend, Georgiana, both have secrets about their Trinidadian homeland that comes into play when a string of children disappear, allegedly taken by an evil spirit called the Douen. The novel moves swiftly from London to Trinidad with much of it happening on the ship’s journey. Not surprisingly, Mycroft is very smart, very perceptive and surprisingly quick on his feet for an employee of the Crown, yet Cyrus also has a number of skills and resources that become a surprise to Mycroft as he gets to know his friend better. The novel works on making both Mycroft and Douglas likable and it succeeds. My only complaint is that I wonder what happened to Mycroft that made him into the sedentary and somewhat haughty man that Doyle describes. I suspect there may be some sequels intended and perhaps I will find out.

I applaud Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse for creating an exciting character, one that Doyle did not really seem all that interested in developing in the long run. Of course it is poetic license but that’s what makes these pastiches work when they do. Mycroft Holmes does work and if it tends to bog down at parts or show a few minor discrepancy in plot, they are instantly forgivable. Mycroft Holmes is exciting and fun and that is enough for now.

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Crawlspace – Book Review

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John Gregory Hancock
November 15, 2014
Reviewed by Marvin P. Vernon

Haunted house novels can be a lot of fun but are full of logistical traps for the writer. A good haunted house novel is essentially a psychological horror novel; the haunting is important but it is the people who are being haunted who make up the story, no matter how creative your house and resident spirits are. Both Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson were very aware of that, and so is John Gregory Hancock. His novel, Crawlspace, may not be the equivalence of such masterpieces as The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House, but what is? However, Crawlspace is still a rousing good tale of a haunted house and haunted people.

A good haunting usually depends on either the psychology of the haunted (Hill House) or the nature of the haunting (Hell House), which can also be psychological. Hancock gives us both.

In Crawlspace we have the character of Ethan Novotny, a distant cousin to Hill House’s Eleanor Vance in his fragile personality and his claustrophobic fears. We meet him early on as he is headed to an allegedly haunted Southern plantation to appear in a filming of a “Ghost Hunters” styled reality TV show that focuses on the supernatural. The novel then leaves him for a good while as we are given the story that reveals the nature of the haunting, which entails a African shaman who is shipped to the US as a slave in the 19th century, an evil girl, and a troubled World War II soldier. The best part of Hancock’s tale is how he blends these three characters together in the development of the horrors of the plantation house.

By the time we return to Ethan in contemporary times, we have all the elements in play. There are a lot of scares and feelings of dread in this novel (which is an essential ingredient for this type of novel), but most of all I like the way the characters interact together. I wish I felt the same for the reality TV crew; they seem to be the weak link, having little character development and basically being there to fill in the blanks. It remains for Ethan and the spirits of the house to move this tale along.

Crawlspace has some nice elements to it: a strong backstory, a fragile but thoughtful main protagonist, and sufficiently vivid spirits of which their intentions are varied. While it is a standalone novel in one way, it is also the first of a series that uses some of the characters to continue the story apparently away from the haunting. It also has a bit of a tease and cliffhanger at the end. I wish that was made clearer at the beginning or in the blurb on the book as it weakens some of the resolution. There is also a resolution regarding Ethan’s girlfriend that felt tacked on and unconnected to the bulk of the story. Yet Crawlspace remains an entertaining and scary haunted house tale that effectively brings together Ethan’s fears and the intentions of the spirits of the house. I recommend this to anyone who likes a good haunted house story.

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bloch_draft_cover_2Letters to Robert Bloch and Others
Edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi
Hippocampus Press
July 18, 2015

Reviewed by David Goudsward

The seventh collection of the Letters to H.P. Lovecraft may be one of the more important in the series. The other volumes span years of correspondents with an individual; The August Derleth letters alone are a two-volume set spanning 1926 to 1937. It has been suggested that had Lovecraft not been a writer of weird fiction, he would still be known for the scope, range, and quantity of his correspondence.

This volume is different. These are letters from the end of Lovecraft’s life, responding to notes from fans who have read his work in Weird Tales who wanted to become writers. And of all the correspondents that Lovecraft tutored, none achieved the success of Robert Bloch, who would later pen the 1959 novel Psycho of Hitchcock film fame. From his first letter to Lovecraft 1933, the 16-year old Bloch takes the advice of his mentor to heart and soon, Lovecraft is impressed with his commercial success in the pulps.

Included after Bloch letter are correspondence to other, lesser known figures including Kenneth Sterling (who collaborated with Lovecraft on “In the Walls of Eryx”), Donald A. Wollheim (co-founder of Arkham House), Willis Conover (jazz producer), and Natalie Wooley (poet and amateur journalism figure). In these letters we see the mature Lovecraft, carefully pointing potential authors to the appropriate markets, making suggestions whose work to read, and sharing the same tattered manuscripts that had been passed among friends for a decade. And as the letters creep toward his March 1937 death, the discussions remain as eclectic and intellectual, but references to his ill-health begin to creep in. It is only in his brief, poignant reply to Willis Conover, six days before cancer claimed him, that Lovecraft admits he is very ill.

The book is priced consistently with the other single volumes in the series but there’s close to 100 pages of material such as appendices of works by the correspondents and bibliographies. Considering the total page count is 550, I can’t help but wonder if there really is a need for things such as a glossary of frequently mentioned names. It’s the seventh book in the series (eighth if you include the OOP Robert Howard 2-volume set). Factor in the various biographies and frankly, if you don’t know all the names by now, you’re probably not the target audience to start with. And if you are the Lovecraftian aficionado who needs to see the inner workings of the Old Gent’s mind, this books should be on your shopping list. Especially since you’ll want to digest this one before the next one is released next year.

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Tales_from_Alhazred_coverTales of Alhazred
Donald Tyson
Dark Renaissance Books
September 24, 2015
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings

In the distant past (it now seems so long ago that dinosaurs might have still ruled the Earth), there was a popular television series called Have Gun—Will Travel. The black-and-white Western ran from 1957 (okay, so I was ten when it debuted) until 1963, with writers that included Bruce Geller, Irving Wallace, and Gene Roddenberry, subsequently famous for creating the first incarnation of the Star Trek empire.

Each half-hour episode starred an excellent but atypical, gruff-voiced, craggy-faced, decidedly un-handsome actor, Richard Boone, as Paladin, a gunslinger-for-hire in the post-Civil War era. From there, stories might take viewers anywhere in the still-exotic landscape of television’s early conceptions of the Old West. There would be villains and dastardly deeds, to be sure, and Paladin—true to the etymology of his name, which refers to one of the twelve warrior-knights of Charlemagne—could use violence when necessary but preferred the more gentlemanly attributes of intellect, observation, and understanding.

The series became standard family viewing in our home. I remember it as interesting and fun, mostly because of the oddities surrounding the “man in black” with the “fast gun for hire”—a “soldier of fortune” willing to donate his services to those in need. For half an hour, we could count on seeing familiar faces in unfamiliar places, watching ingenious plans for evil unraveled by equally ingenious plans for good, and finally leaving that landscape, secure in the knowledge that we would revisit the following week.

What has this to do with Donald Tyson’s Tales of Alhazred?

Put simply, Tyson has transformed one of the most formidable, mysterious, and fearsome human characters in the Lovecraft mythos—the “mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”—into the star of a short-story series that provides much of the same species of entertainment as did Have Gun—Will Travel.

There is the unlikely hero, Abdul Alhazred, human with the heart and soul of a ghoul and an internal djinn who surfaces when needed. Once a handsome luminary at the court of an eighth-century Yemeni ruler, he is now hideously scarred as punishment for misplaced amorous advances. A necromancer of enormous reputation (although he admits that much of that reputation is due not to his own knowledge but that of one of his companion, Marlata) he will sell his services…or give them, depending upon the situation. He travels through generalized landscapes—vast deserts, ancient and partially ruined cities, shadowy necropolises, rough mountain redoubts—usually accompanied by the same cast of characters. He fights evil in all of its physical manifestations, most prominently djinni and ghouls but often amorphous or insectile or tentacled creatures from other spheres (literally in one story), magicians and other necromancers, and simply evil, venal humans.

Oh, and along the way he encounters Lovecraftian Old Ones.

That is where Tales of Alhazred falters for me as reader.

The stories—even those that conjure Yog-Sothoth and carefully avoid revealing the name Nyarlathotep—lack the sense of the cosmic, of the other, of the outré in its original sense of ‘beyond all barriers.’ The actions are human-based, earth-based, even when they incorporate a gigantic maggot-like monster worshipped as a god or an enigmatic black sphere that opens onto another world, which remains largely unexplored and unexplained. There is a safeness to the stories, a feeling akin to watching the closing credits of an enjoyable television episode, relaxing slightly that the hero has escaped again (although that was really not in doubt), and looking forward to much of the same next week. For stories about the early life of the author of the most notorious book in creation, the Necronomicon, these seem remarkably tame, with little to hint of horrors and madness.

This is not to say that the stories are uninteresting. They are solid, well told, with sufficient twists and turns to keep the momentum going to the final page. And they are accompanied by color and black-and-white illustrations by Frank Wells, each aptly capturing a key moment and making it visual. But in the end, they fall uncomfortably into a niche somewhere between the Tales of the Arabian Nights and revelations of Lovecraftian Horrors, partaking of both but perhaps not enough of either.

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28268Pixu: The Mark of Evil
Written and Illustrated by Gabriel Ba, Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos, Fabio Moon
Dark Horse Comics
September 9, 2015

Reviewed by Elaine Pascale

Award-winning artists collaborated on Pixu, the story of haunted apartment dwellers. The images throughout the story depict a dark mark in the building: a mark of evil that spreads, causing violence and insanity.

The artwork is meant to carry Pixu, and largely, it does. The four artists are fantastic and their black and white drawings blend well and give Pixu a solitary feel. The book is largely a showcase for the art, which is very frightening and contains staples of the horror genre. Pixu begins with a visual feeling of dread, which blossoms into nightmarish and terrifying images.

While the artwork is impressive, the story is vague. I know that one picture is worth a thousand words, but the individual panels leave gaps in the narrative. There were characters that I really could not get a handle on, even after additional readings. That might be because the main character is the “mark of evil,” but even that dark mark is largely undefined. Pixu contains a wealth of creepy stuff, I simply wanted it to be more cohesive.

I also wanted more of a backstory. For example, is the landlord aware of the mark and is he using it in some nefarious way? Each individual apartment’s story begins in media res; perhaps the clues were too vague for me to craft a plot from the images and very sparse text.

Pixu is an adult only graphic novel. There are disturbing visuals, as well as a story line that suggests child molestation and pedophilia. If you enjoy a minimalistic plot that is open to many interpretations, then Pixu is a good match for you. Likewise, if you are a fan of any of the four artists, you will not be disappointed.

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