Review: Bitter Root – Graphic Novel

Bitter Root Vol 1, Cover

Cover by Sanford Greene

Bitter Root,
Vol. 1: Family Business 
(Bitter Root #1-5) 
by David F. WalkerChuck BrownSanford Greene (Contributor)

In terms of theme, the book is pretty simple: racism and hate make people into monsters.

The strength of this graphic novel lies in the relationships of the family members. Even though we are all acquainted with the drama and angst that familial issues cause, it doesn’t alter the fact that we are drawn to them, even for the same reason.

In this novel, the Sangeryes family has had its share of tragedy, even for a family whose business is to capture and purify (not kill) people who have been made into monsters by their hatred. Decreased in numbers, they are in the middle of dealing with an explosion of new cases when they’re confronted by a couple of new problems – portals from another dimension letting in more powerful true demonoid monsters and a transformed doctor (Sylvester) who, because of his own pain and loss, is trying to eliminate pain by eliminating the ones who cause it.

Set in Harlem a few years before the Renaissance flourished, the book jumps into action right away without time spent on the cultural and intellectual growth of that time and how it might be impacted by the racial hate that caused the killings of the Red Summer of 1919 in Harlem and the massacre that was the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. But those events are mentioned: the Sangeryes lost family during the Red Summer and the doctor-turned-monster lost his family to white vigilantes in Tulsa.

There’s much push and pull related to the characters trying to find their balance in such an environment. The Sangeryes continue to help others regardless of race, even as they argue about it amongst themselves. Doctor Sylvester starts out as somewhat admiring of the Sangeryes, but then becomes dismissive as his own hate grows to eclipse his desire to cure the new infection from the demons coming through from another dimension and causes him to decide to use it, instead.

There is despair as white policemen who know the true story, avoid speaking up out of fear, but there is also hope in a young white member of a KKK group becoming a follower of one of the Sangeryes.

The artwork is so good and the pacing is very quick, moving from one member of the family to another until the point where all of them converge in the streets of Harlem to find both a daunting challenge in Doctor Sylvester and the new – intelligent – demons, and renewed strength through family reunion.

I don’t know that I will continue with the series – I found the story to be less challenging than I like – but I enjoyed this book and consider the time on it spent well, if only for the reminders of our bloody history of racial hate and the ways people have of surmounting it and still flourishing.

Jason dinAlt Goes Interdimensional

Sword of the Bright Lady (WORLD OF PRIME Book 1) by M.C. Planck

The character of Christopher Sinclair, mechanical engineer from Arizona, dropped into a world where magic works and rank is the most important aspect of society, is fascinating. He’s blunt, often clueless, and yet very intelligent and a determined personality. He reminds me of Jason dinAlt, if Jason didn’t know anything about subterfuge or manipulation. And Christopher’s current world is every bit as dangerous as any of Jason’s Deathworlds, though people and politics are more the drivers than the monsters are.

In a world where people can be brought back to life when nothing of them is left but their heads, and the gods are real, Christopher uses his engineering knowledge to level the playing field for himself – actions that affect larger and larger groups of people as he focuses on finding a way back to his wife, Maggie. He’s no kid; he’s forty and not used to the active life of someone who frequently finds himself embroiled in battles or duels. The idea of killing another human being – even if they DO have the possibility of being brought back – makes him ill, but he has his black belt in kendo, and he didn’t find his soulmate until his late 30s, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get back to her, including signing on as the priest of a god he never guessed existed.

It’s absorbing to learn, as he does, what this world is all about, and to shake your head over his cluelessness when it comes to people and politics. For him, rationality and logic are nearly everything, and it’s fascinating to see how he accomplishes what he sets out to do when he’s at such a disadvantage.

The first ebook was a bargain (as #1 books in a series can be), but subsequent books sell at nearly $10. When I started the book I scoffed at the idea that I might be willing to pay so much for each of the successive ebooks in the series (#3 is the latest). But as soon as I finished the last sentence, I was plunking down my money for book #2.

The Master Executioner by Loren D. Estleman

The Master ExecutionerThe Master Executioner by Loren D. Estleman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These days it is popular to tell people to work and what they love and success will be sure to follow. The Master Executioner is about a man who takes this advice and its impact on his life.

This is not my grandfather’s western. It is a modern novel that happens to take place in the years just after the Civil War and before the turn of the century, when people were migrating in hordes from east to west and industrial innovations were happening so fast the landscape could change from year to year.

Oscar Stone is a pragmatist. After abandoning his father’s farm and serving in the Union army during the war, he decides to leave the east completely and travel to Missouri. He reasons that with a building boom going on, carpenters will be in short supply, so he apprentices and becomes an excellent carpenter. From his master he receives advice, which he takes to heart about being a craftsman and being meticulous and knowledgeable about your work. During his last months in the war, he sees a lynching, badly handled, and this affects him profoundly.

While apprenticed, Oscar meets a young woman and applies his formidable honesty and persistence in winning over her reluctant father and they take a wagon train west. But they are late to the party. There is a surfeit of carpenters and Oscar has a hard time finding work. Finally, he takes a temporary job building a gallows and meets Rudd, a master hangman. Rudd tells Oscar the young man has a gift and would likely make an excellent hangman. It is steady employment, and best of all, a chance to experience satisfaction in a job well done. Rudd offers to teach him everything he knows, and eventually, over his own misgivings, and his wife’s flat opposition, Oscar becomes the hangman’s apprentice. It is an experience and occupation that is both more satisfying and more unforgiving than he could ever have expected. He loses his wife over it and the majority of the book covers his subsequent career and attempts to locate her.

This is not a book of self-examination. Though generally more honest with himself than most people, Oscar Stone is not that kind of man. And Estleman deliberately confines himself to Oscar’s actions and conversations, leaving it open about what the man actually feels which makes it ironically easier to understand him.

Though the novel is full of criminals, each walks the stage for a short time only, which makes it all the more remarkable that Estleman’s clear writing can make them all so human and mostly pitiable. Oscar, however, remains the star, a man of neat habits who looks more like a banker than a hangman, a problem-solver, and a man who takes pride in providing each client with a swift and painless death.

Eventually Oscar finds his wife again and once more his life is altered permanently. The ending is one of those which seems inevitable and is therefore satisfying, but you don’t anticipate it because Estleman’s writing is like setting yourself afloat in a briskly moving creek – you go with the flow and are content to do so. In their ways, so did Rudd the hangman, and his apprentice Oscar Stone.

Historical novels about the old west are not a usual choice for me, but the subject and the sample I read made me want more so I bought the book. I am very glad I did.

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Bone Song by John Meaney

Bone Song (Tristopolis, #1)Bone Song by John Meaney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m really glad I picked this one up. The mystery being investigated in the book is pretty standard fare, but the worldbuilding!

Meaney has created a society that runs on bones – all of the energy in Tristopolis comes from a necrofusion center where the bones of tortured souls are fuel. Bound spirits also exist in everything else: furniture, elevators, cars… you name it and there’s likely someone’s soul inhabiting it. As you might guess, some people treat those spirits better than others, like Detective Lieutenant Donal Riordan, who is friendly with the guy at HQ’s front desk – or rather the guy who is HQ’s front desk, the huge police wolves, the #7 elevator, and even zombies.

Riordan’s world is a dark one literally – the sky is always dark purple in his city – and figuratively – only the really wealthy are able to bury their dead in catacombs; everyone else is fuel. There’s the usual class divide and corruption, but now something new has been added: bone collectors. These people don’t want to wait until an artist or performer dies to bid on the memories their bones hold. Instead, they’ve created a conspiracy to kill them before their time and steal the bones.

In trying to stop them, Riordan will join a special task force headed up by a beautiful zombie, become friends with some of the most respected forensic bone listeners, and fight against powerful dark mages.

Bone Song is like Raymond Chandler was recreated using some genetic material from Brian Lumley and Tom Clancy. It’s fast moving, entertaining, and dark without noir’s usual cynicism.

I was so enthralled by the world Riordan lives in that I bought the sequel, Dark Blood the same night I finished reading Bone Song. Fascinating world, interesting characters.

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The Barrel Murder by Michael Zarocostas – A Book Review

THE BARREL MURDER - a Detective Joe Petrosino case (based on true events)THE BARREL MURDER – a Detective Joe Petrosino case by Michael Zarocostas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book involved a lot of research because it is based on real events and real New York City detectives at the turn of the century.

A swarthy man who could be Italian or Middle Eastern is found murdered, his body bent double and stuffed into a wooden barrel on a New York street. These are the days when the NYC police force is dominated by Irish immigrants and there is considerable and open prejudice in the ranks against Italians and Jews, among others. Detective Joe Petrosino has been lucky; he was smiled upon by Teddy Roosevelt, who appointed him the first Italian American detective in the Central Bureau. Teddy was intent on removing graft and stamping out Tammany Hall and Joe is an honest cop. But Teddy has moved on to Washington, and Joe Petrosino can see the Tammany ways are back. He and other cops who stood for Reform are on the outs. This is not a good time to be fighting with the Irish cops over the murder of an unknown man in a barrel. But Joe just can’t help himself. And from there, things can only get worse.

Was it a crime of passion by a mentally disturbed doctor or was it really a message from a gang of drug dealers and counterfeiters who moved over from Sicily? And are they working on their own or with others? And might those others be people Joe knows and works for? Adding to his problems are a couple of muckraking journalists and an uncertainty about whether his big Jewish partner, Inspector Max Schmittberger, is really reformed from taking graft.

Michael Zarocostas does a good job of telling the facts and giving the reader just enough flavor of the times to stay engaged without getting bogged down. He is also faithful to the thinking of the times in that he does not pull any punches when it comes to the kind of talk people in Joe’s position may have both heard and engaged in, including racial slurs that are made more shocking by the offhand way in which they are uttered. Zarocostas’s prose itself is a little on the terse side. The connections between sentences and paragraphs is not always a smooth one, which makes the read a little bumpy.

The book is sprinkled with pictures of many of the main participants as well as photos of newspaper articles printed about them and the case as it unfolded which add to the sense of witnessing the events.

The only true disappointment in this book lies in the ending. It’s obviously the first book in a series, but it should have been able to stand alone. By the last chapter, Schmittberger has taken a leave and Joe has promised to talk to his lady friend’s father about marriage. But these relationships are not addressed. Further, Joe’s decision to take a risky action related to his career is only asserted, not depicted. We don’t know whether it succeeded, partially succeeded, or failed. No doubt readers will discover the answer in the second book, but it would have been nice to have some things made a little clearer.

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The Rook – A Book Review

The Rook (The Checquy Files, #1)The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine that you are a high-ranking member of a super-secret, quasi-governmental, paranormal agency in the UK with a long, long past. Now imagine that one of other top members is trying to kill you, but you have no idea who. Lastly, imagine that you’ve just come to your senses with bodies all about you and no memory of how you got there. Or who you are. The only help available to you are some letters your previous self wrote to you before her memories were destroyed and those, along with her meticulous preparation for this moment, are all that can keep you alive. Well, that and your ability to kill people with a touch. If you can get yourself to use it.

The Rook is the title of both the book and the main character. Myfanwy (to rhyme with Tiffany) Thomas is one of two Rooks in the secret organization she works for, called Chequy. The other one is a super-soldier called Gestalt who shares one mind between four bodies. She has lived most of her life among people like Gestalt, people who can spit bugs, make metal into different shapes by thinking about it, gorgeous vampires hatched from eggs and a boss who can walk through your dreams whenever she wants to.

Among these talented and often assertive paranormals, Myfanwy is a lesser-valued asset. Though she has a scary power, she’s reluctant to use it. Most things and people upset her and she prefers to work behind a desk, which is actually good for the organization, since Myfanwy is a super bureaucrat. And fortunately for her, both her ability with touch and her administrative acumen remain when all of her memories are destroyed. She will need them and more to discover her enemies and preserve Checquy. In the meantime, she will also have to cope with the usual business of migrating forests, psychic ducks, and learning to run a military operation while worrying about others noticing she isn’t the same old Myfanwy.

This is Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel and it’s a better than average start. He blends frightening ideas like people with heavily-modified innards with comedic elements like the psychic duck without hurting the pace or pushing you out of the story. This is likely because the narrative is conversational throughout, especially when reading the letters Myfanwy I writes to Myfanwy II. Through the narrative and letters, we get to know and like both Myfanwys. By the end of the book, I was really sorry that Myfanwy I couldn’t avoid her transmutation into Myfanwy II and developed a big appreciation for her talents as an organizer. Without them, Myfanwy II would never have made it.

There are mysteries within mysteries in The Rook, some of them connected to those inimical to Checquy and some just crazy things that have to be dealt with. The world in which they happen has a very real feel with history, grudges, silly traditions, and enemies. Though O’Malley has done some fantastic world-building here, Myfanwy’s story is ultimately about how others see us and how we see ourselves and what we might do if we had the chance to remake ourselves without the baggage of our memories.

All of the characters were well-drawn; enough so that I felt the loss when some of them didn’t survive. But there was never any confusion on who the story was about. There were also no dead-spots; everything included in the story was there for a reason, including those small breaks where something funny happened that pointed up just how absurd such a life could be even while it gave you a breather from the action.

If you like to lose yourself in a well thought-out world with layers of interesting things to think about in the plot and you like a touch of humor with your dark fantasy, then The Rook may be for you.

NOTE: There is a sequel Stiletto which has just been released, but The Rook pretty much stands alone.

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Kick – a Book Review

KickKick by John L. Monk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a college student, Daniel killed himself over love lost. But his existence didn’t end there. Stuck in a limbo he calls ‘The Great Somewhere’, he finds he can exit through a kind of gate and spend 3 to 4 weeks in the body of a living man. The good thing is, he can enjoy pie again. The bad thing is, the guy he’s inhabiting is a nasty killer. Unable to access any of his host’s memories, he must use his wits to navigate the living man’s life, friends, and foes, to discover what he has been brought out of limbo to do. But when he does, his accomplishment becomes confused wonder as he’s given a ticket out of limbo again and again and usually to deal with the same sort of conscience-less killer. Connections to his life as Daniel occasionally come up and he understands them as small tests; ones he often fails. Then one day, he finds himself in the body of someone not a psychopathic predator. What is he meant to do?

This is the second book in one month I have read that deals with the idea of a personality piggy-backing on a living person (the other being A Warm Place to Call Home by Michael Siemsen). But where the protagonist in Siemsen’s book does not know exactly what he is, Daniel has all of his memories of life as a human man, even if he would rather not. Where A Warm Place speculates on the meaning of identity, Kick is about self-understanding, forgiveness, and redemption. It’s also about becoming a grown-up, something that Daniel did not allow himself to do.

With a young man’s passion, Daniel is frequently ruthless with his hosts, whom he refers to as ‘rides,’ though his ruthlessness is often anger on behalf of their victims. He is clever and resourceful, but he’s also aware that limbo hasn’t seemed to have made a real dent in his callowness. (He killed himself, after all, to make sure the girl who dumped him never forgets him.) But when his latest ride turns out to be a decent guy, he recognizes it as the opportunity it is. If he can make use of it.

It’s a difficult thing to balance self-examination while simultaneously trying to find your way through dangerous situations and author Monk does a good job of making Daniel’s struggles interesting. Likewise, his alternately carefree and introspective turns are never awkward or inhibit the pace of the book, which is brisk. There is violence, but seen from Daniel’s perspective, it becomes darkly humorous rather than off-putting; it’s easy to get caught up in Daniel’s brazen actions and wonder what crazy thing he will do next as he veers from avenging angel to junk food gourmand while trying to make the most of things before the next *Kick* that tells him his host is repossessing his ride.

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