Book Review: Chew (Volume Nine) “Chicken Tenders” by John Layman and Rob Guillory

TL;DR – Against Tony’s warnings, Colby and Savoy convince Applebee and the FDA to try and take down The Vampire. Things are about to hit the fan, and it’s going to be bloody.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to see what has happened in previous volumes of this award winning graphic novel series.

With the knowledge of future events imparted by his deceased twin sister, Tony now knows the actions that he needs to take in order to bring The Vampire (aka The Collector) to justice. Until such time, he is seeking to embrace his life a little more and finally ties the knot with his girlfriend, Ameila, with a gunshot wedding in Las Vegas.

Tony’s partner, John Colby, who has been in an on-again, off-again relationship with their boss, Mike Applebee (Director of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration)) also ends up tying the knot after a drunken night of drinking too much vodka. This devastates John’s prior boss, Holly Penya, who he also had an on-again off-again relationship and runs the USDA (U.S Department of Agriculture).

Last but not least, we dive into the many missions of our returning killer rooster, Poyo, as he faces off against an assortment of food-related monstrosities and even travels to another dimension to save a different world from killer vegetables. Poyo is the terminator with feathers. He saves the world and protects those who cannot protect themselves. Nothing can stop him. At least, that’s what we think.

Review

Volume nine sees Tony accomplish a number of missions using his cibopath powers. After his gunshot wedding, he is called back to the job and successfully retrieves a prototype blaster that shoots hot fudge that freezes people in place when it hardens. The theft appears to have been done by the religious cult, The Church of the Immaculate Ova, but Tony’s food-related power identifies that the individual behind the scenes is actually The Vampire looking to make it appear that the cultists are responsible. Tony successfully foils The Vampire’s attempts to acquire the knowledge and skills of the scientist responsible for designing the hot fudge blaster.

Tony is then sent on a mission to an underwater sea station near the island of Yamapalu where it has been discovered that the strange chicken-tasting fruit known as Gallsaberry is growing on the ocean seabed. He is there to identify the murderer of an agent known as Sammi (an intelligent seal that worked for the USDA special operations division). Thoughts are that an E.G.G. terrorist spy may be responsible, but it turns out to be a scientist who acquired a food-related power that allows him to grow his brain by eating fish, and he took exception to Sammi eating his fish.

Everything seems to be going well for Tony, but unknown to him is that Savoy, Ceasar, Colby and Olive convince Applebee to bring in FDA resources and work with them to bring down The Vampire. A couple of things to point out from previous volumes:

  1. Tony is unaware that his partner Colby is working with Savoy, who Tony considers a criminal and murderer. While Savoy has committed a number of atrocities, he is looking to uncover the truth behind the avian flu and subsequent prohibition of chicken by the government.
  2. Tony is also unaware that Savoy has recruited his estranged daughter Olive, who not only inherited cibopath powers from her father but is much more powerful. In working with Savoy, she has absorbed powers from other individuals with food-related powers and is looking to take The Vampire down for murdering her aunt, Toni.

With the FDA on board, they locate The Vampire’s current location and touchdown at one of the mansions where The Vampire resides. Colby attempted to bring Tony also, but Tony declined saying that it is not the right time and explaining his interactions with his deceased sister, which was shown in the previous volume (Family Recipes). Tony tells Colby that the team should withdraw, but Applebee convinces Colby to proceed with the mission explaining they not only have the element of surprise and the forces of the FDA behind them but also back-up assistance from the USDA who will bring in Poyo if all else fails.

However, everything goes sideways and then down the tube as forewarned by Tony. The Vampire demonstrates fighting skills collected from all manner of food-powered individuals and inflicts massive casualties on the entire team; Applebee gets gutted in half by a pizza cutter, Savoy becomes a pin cushion of chopsticks, Colby gets stabbed in his robotic eye, Ceasar has his hand dismembered by a butter knife and Olive gets sliced across her eyes.

When the USDA are called in, they cargo drop backup and we’re all expecting it to be Poyo. Instead it’s a squirrel named Babycakes with a cybernetic eye and the poor thing gets shot to pieces. Holly Penya is a woman scorned and has not forgiven Colby for dumping her, so her help ends up being a betrayal.

With everything going south, I half expected this massacre at the hands of The Vampire to be some sort of dream sequence, but with some clever writing from John Layman, the team is rescued by Paneer Sharma (Director of NASA). Paneer was briefly married to Toni Chu and loved her deeply. Toni made Paneer promise that he would look out for her brother (but she didn’t specify which one as Toni has several brothers). We then get to see events leading up to the FDA’s failed attack on The Vampire as Paneer tries to stay in touch with all the Chu brothers without much success. Almost a forgotten character, when Paneer receives satellite imagery of the FDA team entering The Vampire’s compound. He then sends his NASA forces involving “Star Wars” level technology to stop The Vampire from killing everyone and rescuing Colby and company.

The tragedy of the failed attack leads to the entire team in critical condition in hospital. Tony confronts Colby and the pair get into a fist fight because Tony now knows all the secrets Colby has been keeping from him. Tony essentially throws away their decades long friendship and not giving Colby the chance to explain..

Dejected and depressed, Colby ends up at a bar with Poyo and unloading all his woes onto the rooster. And then a rather shocking thing happens on the final page of this volume.

Poyo, the terminator with feathers, the protector of Earth and other worlds in other dimensions, suddenly has his neck broken at the hands of Colby. It’s a shocking end to an action packed volume. Plenty of questions now pop in my head.

Is that really Poyo? Because in this volume, we see that Poyo has plenty of doubles (roosters who are made to look like him to present to the people).

If it really is Poyo, why did Colby kill him? Is it because Colby wants to get back at Holly Penya for failing to back-up the FDA mission on The Vampire? Or is there some other reason?

New questions in an ever evolving and wonderfully complex story. One of Chew‘s greatest strengths is that characters you assume are on the periphery end up playing a key role. At its core, there are three mysteries that we keep coming back to: 1) what are the origins of the avian flu and what is the truth behind the government’s subsequent chicken prohibition? 2) what is the alien fiery writing in the sky (we saw in previous volumes) and the alien Gallsaberry fruit? and 3) how did people start obtaining food-related powers?

Combining all these colourful characters and intricate plot with Guillory’s brilliant art and you’ll throw yourself willingly into the world of Chew.

4.5 out of 5.

Book Review: Chew (Volume Eight) “Family Recipes” by John Layman and Rob Guillory

TL;DR – Pieces start coming together as Tony Chu gets a little help from his deceased twin sister, Toni.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to see what has happened in previous volumes of this award winning graphic novel series.

Flashbacks prior to Toni’s death are revealed as she puts in motion a plan to help her brother solve the mystery surrounding the flaming script in the sky, the avian flu, and stopping The Vampire.

Along the way, we see Mason Savoy is hatching his own plan with the help of John Colby by infiltrating a maximum security prison that holds criminals with food-related power. Mason successfully gets his hands on Jack Montero, a man who sought to profit from the avian flu outbreak and the eventual prohibition on eating chicken. Savoy knows that somehow Montero knew the pandemic would occur before it did, and he wants to know how and why. Savoy (like Tony Chu is a cibopath) takes a literal bite out of Jack and receives the information he needs.

Meanwhile, Toni’s machinations to assist Tony after her murder involve her severed toe, a gallsaberry fruit (alien fruit that tastes like chicken), chogs (genetically combined frogs and chicken), and the help of Amelia and Olive. Tony goes on a very psychedelic trip indeed.

Review

I took a break from this series after Volume Seven felt somewhat flat. In a sense, this was expected after Volume Six shook me to the core with the brutal murder of Tony’s fraternal twin sister, Toni. She was a shining light and valuable counterpoint to Tony’s dead serious character. With her death, Tony dived deeper into the darkness and commenced a mission of revenge to find and kill Toni’s murderer, The Vampire.

So, you can imagine my surprise when Volume Eight opens with the story focused squarely on Toni Chu and the events that occurred in the months leading up to her grisly death. As we know from previous volumes, everyone in the Chu family has a food-related power. For Toni, she is able to glimpse future events when she takes a bite out of any living thing. And she foresaw her own death and thus prepared to leave key items to help her brother, Tony, bring The Vampire to justice.

At the end of Volume Seven, we see that one of those items was Toni’s toe. In Volume Eight, we see through flashback that she cut off her own toe knowing she would leave it in Tony’s freezer to find.

We also get to see, for the first time, Sage Chu. Sage is the younger sister of Tony and Toni. Sage is a cipropanthropatic, which is a food-power that allows her to access the memories of anyone close to her who is eating the same thing as she is. Sage often orders weird dishes to avoid her food-power from activating. Unfortunately, even with her best efforts, she ends up eating the same dish as a Mr. Biscotti. The memories she receives from Mr. Biscotti are violent and gruesome as he turns out to be a mobster and killer.

Sage enlists the help of Toni to arrest Mr. Biscotti and successfully does so. Toni also ends up taking a bite out of Sage (I assume because Toni knows she will die soon and wants to see how things will turn out for her younger sister). We don’t get to see what Toni sees, but she says to Sage that her life will be happy and she’s proud of her.

Events then come back to the present, where Tony, his girlfriend, Amelia, and his estranged daughter, Olive have discovered Toni’s present in the freezer. Tony sits down, stares at the dismembered toe, and takes a small bite. Tony’s food-related power allows him to see the origins of the things that he eats. So, when he nibbles on Toni’s toe, he is confronted by an image of Toni that is best described as a combination of a pre-recording mixed with her being in spiritual ghost-form. Toni explains to Tony why she left her toe and how she will help him stop The Vampire.

Toni also leaves a recipe for Amelia for a dish that combines the mysterious gallsaberry fruit with the psychedelic chogs. With the help of Olive, who Amelia convinces to impersonate as an FDA agent by borrowing Tony’s badge, they talk their way into the research lab at the FDA and secure some chogs. They then cook it all up and feed it to Tony, who then goes on a drug-induced out-of-body psychedelic trip to an alien planet (Altilis-738) where he meets with his ghost sister.

She describes to him the phenomenon of the flaming script that appeared in the sky circling Altilis-738 and how subsequently the planet was destroyed. This is the same flaming script that had appeared around Earth in previous volumes.

Toni then goes on to whisper in his ear how Tony can stop The Vampire (of course, we don’t get to read what she says). Tony’s response is that he can’t do that, but his ghost-sister says he can and he will. She warns him that if he continues down the path he is travelling seeking revenge then he will end up just like The Vampire.

Before she disappears, she asks Tony to give the rest of her severed toe to Olive for consumption. It’s gross and funny at the same time. Olive is also a cibopath like her father but she has far greater control in her food-power. Whatever she learns from ghost-Toni after consuming the toe is not revealed, but she smiles and says, “Cool.”

A jam packed volume that finally progresses a number of story lines while also leaving enough mystery that you’ll want to read on.

Every scene with Toni is a delight. And when she finally disappears into the void after bidding farewell to Tony, it genuinely choked me up. I can only hope that somehow Toni’s spirit will re-emerge in future volumes. The art by Guillory is beautiful and captures all the characters (especially the Chu family) vividly and with distinct traits.

Buckle up and get back on the Chew train!

4.5 out of 5.

Book Review: The Elephant by Peter Carnavas

TL:DR – a tale of a young girl looking to bring colour back into the life of her father.

Summary (warning: spoiler)

Olive doesn’t know what to do. Whenever she sees her father, there is a grey elephant with him. An elephant that casts a giant shadow and weighs her father down in a way that makes him look exhausted all the time. If she could only figure out how to get rid of that elephant then she knows there is a chance for the light to penetrate the darkness that envelopes his heart.

Thankfully, she has her grandfather with her who has moved in, and she can always talk to her best friend, Arthur, at school. Surely, the three of them can come up with a way to remove the elephant.

Review

I’m a big fan of picture book author and illustrator Peter Carnavas. When I met him at Maleny on the Sunshine Coast, I bought his picture book ‘Oliver and George’ for my daughter and got his autograph. There is a certain whimsy and nostalgia to his stories and illustrations that remind me of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang by comic strip legend, Charles Schulz.

The Elephant is Carnavas’s debut novel and first foray outside of the picture book realm. Aimed at junior fiction readers, the story examines grief and sadness through a child’s eyes, and how a child can learn about ‘old and wonderful things’ (i.e., the past) to help heal the present and move forward.

For Olive’s father, he is still mourning the death of his wife. Olive is old enough to understand that the manifestation of this sadness in the form of a giant, grey elephant is metaphorical. Conjured by her own imagination. However, its existence is real enough to her that it impacts all her interactions with him. She can tell his mind is elsewhere, full of untold stories and memories that she cannot access.

This naturally causes Olive to feel sad, but she obtains comfort from her little dog, Freddie, and her grandfather who picks her up after school and enjoys spending time with her. She especially gets excited whenever grandfather picks her up wearing a purple backpack because it means he is taking her somewhere she hasn’t been before. Their afternoon field trips include a second hand store filled with old and wonderful things, a nature reserve and a cricket oval where they throw paper airplanes.

The loving relationship between Olive and her grandfather is obvious, but things take a turn when Olive falls out of the jacaranda tree in their backyard. The nasty accident leaves her unconscious for a week and when she wakes up she sees her grandfather looking sad, worried and weary. More so, she notices that he now has a grey tortoise following him around. Her grandfather is guilt ridden because he normally makes sure she puts on her helmet when she climbs the jacaranda tree, but on the day of the accident, he didn’t.

Thus, with the help of her schoolfriend Arthur, she goes about getting rid of the tortoise first. She does this through the school, which is celebrating its one hundred year birthday, and the kids are presenting to their families things that are ‘old and wonderful’. Olive chooses to sing a song that she and her grandfather always sings on their field trips. She then explains to the audience that her grandfather is also ‘old and wonderful’ and her love heals her grandfather causing the grey tortoise to disappear.

Together, they then set up a plan to try and get rid of the elephant. The plan is inspired by all the things Olive has learned about ‘old and wonderful’ things she has seen and experienced. When the plan works, the elephant finally departs, and her father lets in some sunshine in the form of her daughter.

In an unexpected twist (at least for a junior fiction novel), there is a touching scene at the end where it is revealed that Freddie the dog is also imaginary. When she thanks Freddie for being there during all the times she felt sad and says he can now also leave, it is poignant and effecting.

The Elephant is a must read for junior readers but is the type of story that adults (especially parents) will be moved by. We all need colour in our lives, and I can’t think of a better way than reading this delightful story with your child.

5 out of 5

Book Review: Almost Midnight by Rainbow Rowell

TL:DR – Young adult novel containing two short stories about connections and the changes we go through during our teenage years.

Summary (warning: spoiler)

The first short story titled ‘Midnights’ is about Margaret (nicknamed ‘Mags’) and Noel who are best friends. He remembers their first meeting on New Year’s Eve in 2011 where she saved his life. She doesn’t quite remember it that way, but every New Year’s Eve since then, Noel has tried to dance with Mags in celebration of this “life-saving event” before the final countdown to the New Year. And every year, Mags has politely declined and instead watched, from afar, Noel end up dancing with some other girl and kissing her when the clock strikes midnight.

On New Year’s Eve in 2014, Mags and Noel reunite after attending colleges in different states and not seeing each other for months. Noel finally convinces her to dance with him, but as it draws close to midnight, he gets whisked away to dance with another girl. Will this be another New Year’s Eve with the same outcome?

The second short story titled ‘Kindred Spirits’ is about a teenage girl named Elena; a die-hard fan of Star Wars who lines up for the midnight premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII) four days before it opens. She had expected a huge line of die-hard fans ready to do a week long celebration of Star Wars before the midnight screening. Instead, she meets only Troy and Gabe. Two others who are crazy enough to camp outside the theatre during the cold, winter nights.

With an over-protective mother checking up on her several times each day, Elena is determined to do this. Her step towards independence and making her own decisions, regardless of how foolish they may turn out to be. Will she make it through the four days sleeping outside on the hard ground? And more importantly how will she go to the toilet if she needs to pee at night?

Review

Rowell manages to balance sentimentality and sweetness in a way that isn’t overly romanticised, so it will appeal to young readers while also being a nostalgia trip for older ones.

In ‘Midnights’, she is able to capture the angst and wanting that comes from two friends attracted to each other but somewhat stuck in the friends zone. Neither quite being brave enough to walk out on a limb to see if their friendship can be something more. Told from the perspective of Mags, you can understand her hesitation when Noel appears to be carefree with his affection and is happy to share a New Year’s kiss with any girl that raises her eyebrows at him.

Mags is never quite sure whether Noel feels anything more than friendship towards her. Their first New Year’s Eve encounter revolving around Noel revealing to her that he has a severe allergy to tree nuts (and shellfish and strawberries…) as he asks her whether the cracker she’s holding with pesto and cream cheese has pine nuts in it. An amusing dialogue ensues where Mags successfully stops Noel from eating the cracker, pesto and cream cheese combo and thus ‘saving his life’ for another year.

Two subsequent New Year’s Eve parties later and Mags and Noel are friends at the hip, but his urging of her to dance with him before the clock strikes twelve always fails. Mind you, we know Noel wants to share his New Year’s kiss with Mags but Mags never gets up onto the dance floor with him, so he ends up snogging someone else. In truth, Noel sends out all the signals but Mags doesn’t act on them so one could argue she has only herself to blame for being stuck in the friends zone.

When the fourth New Year’s Eve rolls around and Mags finally relents and has a slow dance with Noel, he pretty much confesses he can’t live without her, and you think finally they will kiss. Instead, another girl grabs Noel away and Mags walks out of the house party not being able to bear witnessing Noel kissing another girl. When the countdown to midnight happens, Noel appears outside looking for her and viola Noel makes it clear that the only girl he wants to kiss is her.

Rowell does a clever bit of plot twisting at this point. When Noel and Mags kiss, Mags has totally forgotten that she has been eating Chex mix which contains cashews. Mags saves Noel again by getting Benadryl from his car to prevent him from swelling up like a balloon and being covered in hives. Thus, they live happily allergy-free ever after.

In ‘Kindred Spirits’, the story of Elena looking to camp out for the opening of Episode VII of Star Wars is surprisingly funny and heart warming. Rowell is cognisant of the fact that in 2015 when the sequel came out, people could just buy tickets online and guarantee themselves a seat. But this isn’t the point for Elena. She wants to line up with other die-hard fans and party for a week on all things Star Wars related. And she thinks there’ll be a massive gathering based on social media posts. However, what she discovers is that the line is compromised of only two other people.

Instead of a party, it feels like stranger danger and the scenes where Elena argues with her mother who keeps periodically checking up on her is very funny.

Troy and Gabe turn out to be Star Wars geeks and nothing more predatory and Elena slowly gets to know both of them.

What is clever about the story is that Gabe turns out to be Elena’s classmate, but because he is shy, quiet and keeps to himself and she has her own group of friends, she has never noticed him. Here we have a showing of different perspectives. Elena feels genuinely bad that she didn’t recognise Gabe, but Gabe says that’s fine because he wouldn’t expect her to notice him since she’s part of her own clique.

This raises Elena’s hackles who tries to convince Gabe that she’s just a nerd, but Gabe sees her as one of the ‘popular’ girls. The ensuing debate manages to change both their perspectives and the assumptions they made about the other.

Plus Gabe helps Elena survive the nights by finding a way for her to pee in a cup behind a dumpster while he hums loudly ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars. That’s the type of embarrassing experience that makes two people bond whether they want to or not.

The ending is quite funny and another clever twist by Rowell. When the midnight premiere finally arrives, Gabe and Elena are so excited, and they get prime seats being at the head of the line. As they sit together in the cinema, they comment on how wonderful their seats are. So warm and comfy and as the opening crawl begins, they end up… falling asleep.

When they wake, to their horror, they’ve slept through the whole thing, but all’s well that ends well because Gabe has bought extra tickets for a second screening ahead of time (yep, he’s a diehard fan alright) and ends up inviting Elena to go see it.

Overall, I preferred ‘Kindred Spirits’ over ‘Midnights’ only in that there was more humour and the scenes with the mother trying to convince her daughter, Elena, to come home were believable and comic.

Rowell does use some interesting turns of phrase in her writing. Some works better than others. Specifically in ‘Midnights’ she writes, ‘he smelled warm’ and then later writes, ‘he smelled like skin’.

I’m all for a good synaesthesia. For example, ‘a gravelly voice’, or ‘the warm colours of a painting’, or ‘that’s the smell of victory’.

But I’m not sure that ‘he smelled like skin’ works, especially given it is meant to be an intimate moment between Mags and Noel. Still, young adult readers will likely gloss over this.

The art of a short story is a tricky process, and Rainbow Rowell does an admirable job in capturing the essence of that period in your life when insecurities and awkwardness can be high. Sentimental without being overly sweet, Almost Midnight is an enjoyable enough read that will appeal to young readers and will have older ones walking down memory lane.

3 out of 5

Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

TL:DR – Ryland Grace is on a suicide mission to save Earth.

Summary (warning: spoiler)

Ryland Grace wakes up in a bed with tubes connected to him and has no idea why. Nothing in the room is familiar, and a computerised voice asks him what is “two plus two”. His motor skills aren’t functioning fully, but he does manage (with difficulty) to respond with the correct answer.

Slowly, memories and events start coming back to him while he pieces together his location. He’s a junior middle school science teacher. Check that, he’s a passionate and devoted science teacher who worked previously as a molecular biologist and has an inquisitive and sharp mind, and he observes that when an object falls in the room he is in, it strikes him as unusual. He starts using his understanding of physics and does a series of tests and calculates that the gravity in his room is greater than that of Earth’s gravity. However, Earth’s gravity is constant, which means only one thing: he isn’t on earth.

As he gathers more information, along with returning memories, he realises he has been in an induced coma, undertaking interstellar travel to Tau Ceti (another solar system). Why? Because he is on a mission to solve the mystery behind an alien microbe called Astrophage that is absorbing the sun’s light energy. If Astrophage continues unchecked, it will spell the doom of Earth as the sun will die out and all life will enter an ice age that will lead to extinction.

He and two other astronauts are flying to another solar system because they have detected Astrophage around the Tau Ceti sun there. The difference being that the Tau Ceti sun is not dimming. If they can figure out why then perhaps Earth’s sun and humanity can be saved.

Oh, and along with piecing his memory back together, Ryland Grace has another problem… his two fellow astronauts are dead.

Review

Okay, I’ll say it outright. Project Hail Mary is the best book I have read so far this year. Andy Weir has done something that I can only dream of doing as a writer. Not only has he written an engrossing, page-turning science fiction novel, he has made me dream of becoming a scientist. Regardless of whether all the scientific concepts and ideas he conveys in Project Hail Mary is plausible (and I believe that they are), he does something that few authors are able to do.

One, he balances science talk with the plot. While there is a lot of science talk, he makes it accessible and conveys it in a way that we can understand even if we don’t have a degree in theoretical physics, or molecular biology, or any of the other science specialties explored in this story.

Two, caring about the characters is critical in any story, and Weir does that beautifully. But he also makes you care about the science, which is a rare feat. Because it is the science that becomes its own ‘character’. Science is the connection between Ryland Grace and Rocky (more on Rocky in a moment), and it is science that drives the suspense and tension in the story rather than spaceships blasting lasers at each other.

Three, throughout Project Hail Mary there is an infusion of humour that makes a considerable impact and elevates a read that could have been a depressing slog mired in tragedy.

The story mixes flashbacks of how and why Ryland ends up on the Hail Mary ship and while the basic premise is that he is humanity’s last hope for survival, the true joy of the novel is his interactions with Rocky.

So, who is Rocky? He is an alien from another planet, and his home world is orbiting a sun in another solar system also infected by Astrophage. He is on the same mission as Ryland and appears like a spider-type creature. Weir does a wonderful job making their initial interactions believable, and as they learn to communicate (which in itself is a clever bit of writing by Weir), they develop a friendship that transcends well… species.

Rocky is a genius engineer on his planet and combined with Ryland’s scientific know-how, the pair seek to unravel the mysteries of Astrophage and why it is attacking their respective home world suns. As their communication becomes more sophisticated, their banter is truly laugh out loud at times, and you want both of them to survive by story’s end.

And this is the driving force of the story. Yes, the extinction of humanity hangs in the balance. Yes, unraveling the mystery and finding a solution to the Astrophage invasion is critical to the plot. But it is the friendship between Ryland and Rocky, and the question mark as to whether they will survive that will make you turn every page.

Project Hail Mary is a story launched into the stratosphere and scores a touch down for all readers.

5 out of 5

Book Review: Sin City (Volume 7) – Hell and Back by Frank Miller

TL;DR – Wallace makes the most of a cool night by getting out of the city and heading for the hills. Driving along the empty roads, top down, wind in his hair, it’s as close to serenity as he has felt in a while. But it’s all cut short when he spies a woman atop a cliff looking very much like she’s going to jump without a parachute.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

Esther stands overlooking the ocean, beneath the moon and contemplates suicide. Her attempt at ending her life is foiled by a good Samaritan named Wallace after he dives into the waters to rescue her. Wallace takes her back to his apartment and there she recovers, the pair developing an instant connection through one saving the life of the other.

They head to a bar to bond over a drink. Esther learns that Wallace is an ex-Navy SEAL and was awarded a medal of honour. Esther no longer contemplates suicide, not when her knight in shining armour is right in front of her. And even though a part of Wallace wants to know why she tried to kill herself, she holds him back with her allure and her lips.

As they kiss, a shot rings through the night and hits Wallace square in the neck, not a bullet but a tranquiliser. Before he falls unconscious, he sees Esther taken away kicking and screaming by two men in an ambulance.

When Wallace wakes up, there’ll be hell to pay.

Review

Sin City (Volume 7) – Hell and Back is the final volume in Frank Miller’s epic Sin City collection. As a book end that completes the series, Frank Miller thanks his readers by creating a dense volume full of his signature black and white art and a story with enough mystery and tension to take you to the final page. A suitable end that testifies to Miller’s mastery of the crime noir genre.

His previous works, Sin City (Volume 6) – Booze, Broads & Bullets was a much slimmer volume, but if you paid attention to the short stories in volume 6 then they tie in brilliantly with volume 7.

Specifically, the hitwoman, Delia seen in several short stories in volume 6, plays a key role in this one as a femme fatale looking to seduce Wallace before slicing his throat. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

After Wallace wakes up from the tranquiliser, he spends a night in a jail cell when cops pick him up thinking he’s a drug addict. When Wallace gets out, he starts piecing together his memory and gathers clues to hunt down Esther.

The story flips between the two as we see Esther confronted by the Colonel, a captain within the Wallenquist organisation, and who trains women to become assassins including blue-eyed Delia.

The Colonel wants to transform Esther into one of his hitwomen as well. But the Colonel receives word that Wallace is on the hunt, so he sends Delia and his men to take him out.

Wallace discovers Delia in Esther’s apartment. Delia pretends to be a struggling actress who lives with Esther sharing the rent. When the hitmen come calling, they give the appearance that they’re after Delia (just as they kidnapped Esther) but Wallace makes short work of them, and thus finds himself now protecting Delia while trying to find Esther.

It creates wonderful tension as you, the reader, will be screaming at Wallace not to trust Delia. And for once, Delia’s succubus charms fail to work on a man, and Wallace sees through her façade.

As the body count racks up, Wallace is put through a number of ordeals including being injected with a cocktail of drugs. Only his Navy SEAL training allows him to work through the hallucinations. Miller breaks his modus operandi by illustrating the hallucinogenic events extensively in colour. Previously, he would use colour only sparingly to identify certain characters (e.g. yellow for Roark Junior’s skin in Sin City (Volume 4) – That Yellow Bastard and blue for Delia’s eyes).

In my opinion, the coloured pages do not work, and this is probably the biggest criticism I have for volume 7. It was a brave move by Miller, but it doesn’t come off and detracts from the artwork overall. When finally Wallace gets the drugs out of his system and the world is viewed again in black and white, it is far more effective.

The story, while containing enough momentum to see you through to the end, also flags a little in the final third. Wallace discovers that the Colonel is also operating an organ harvesting ring, and this is meant to add an additional layer of shock to the story.

Miller could have punched us in the gut by making Wallace discover true hell and have the Colonel end up killing Esther and harvesting her organs. But then Wallace would have been to hell and never come back, which would go against the volume’s title. Suffice to say, it is enough that Wallace uncovers this horrific operation and inflicts enough collateral damage that the Colonel agrees to handover Esther in exchange for Wallace’s silence.

Of course, Wallace knows it’s all a setup and the Colonel will betray him, so the necessary fail safes are put in place to ensure Wallace and Esther escape unharmed and the Colonel gets his final comeuppance.

Mind you the Colonel’s timely demise comes from an unexpected quarter. The man who ends up disposing of the Colonel is Commissioner Liebowitz, the head of the Basin City police department, who is introduced as the Colonel’s puppet and initially betrays Wallace who reports Esther’s kidnapping.

As Wallace and Esther drive off into the sunset, Esther finally reveals why she attempted suicide. The simple reason was that she felt alone. Wallace makes one final remark about Basin City (aka Sin City):

“That rotten town: those it can’t corrupt, it soils. Those it can’t soil, it kills. That rotten town. Miles behind us now. Fading into memory. A bright day dawns…”

Thus, closes the final chapter on Frank Miller’s Sin City.

The pick of the bunch for me is still Sin City (Volume 1) – The Hard Goodbye and Sin City (Volume 4) – That Yellow Bastard.

And while Sin City (Volume 7) Hell and Back doesn’t punch you in the gut, it is still good to know that even Frank Miller has a sense of hope.

3.5 out of 5.

Book Review: Sin City (Volume 6) – Booze, Broads & Bullets by Frank Miller

TL;DR – Ever wondered what the characters of Sin City do in their spare time? This volume will present a smorgasbord of Sin City’s finest.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

A collection of short stories that cover the many characters explored in previous volumes of Sin City.

Review

Sin City (Volume 6) – Booze, Broads & Bullets is an eclectic collection of yarns that taps into the crime noir with varying emotion and dark humour. If you have read the previous volumes, then you’ll obtain a greater sense of satisfaction as characters featured previously are each given the limelight for a brief number of pages in this volume.

As with any short story collection, some pack a punch while others only tickle, and like any creative work, readers will enjoy some more than others.

For example, “Just Another Saturday Night” and “Silent Night” both star Marv (probably my favourite character in the entire Sin City series).

“Just Another Saturday Night” tells the story of Marv on the night John Hartigan comes into the bar to reunite with Nancy from Sin City (Volume 4) – That Yellow Bastard. It’s a straightforward telling that doesn’t do much to expand on Marv’s character. His desire to hunt down a bunch of teenagers dousing drunks in petrol and setting them alight is in line with Marv’s sense of duty to defend the weak. The extreme punishment dished out to the teenagers by Marv is nothing shocking if you have read Sin City (Volume 1) – The Hard Goodbye.

Likewise, “Silent Night” sees Marv hunting down a bunch of bad people involved in child prostitution and in the process saving a young girl named Kimberley. Marv dishes out his punishment with extreme prejudice as you would expect.

However, “Silent Night” is a far greater piece of work in my eyes than “Just Another Saturday Night”. The first thing that stands out is that “Silent Night” has almost no dialogue. Miller’s brilliant black and white illustrations tell the tale, and the panels showing Marv walking with his trench coat, hunched over, through a blizzard is truly breathtaking. “Silent Night” packs a punch to the gut that you will feel at night before you go to sleep, while “Just Another Saturday Night” is more like a slap to the shoulder that is easily forgotten.

Other colourful characters that make an appearance in their own telling include:

  • Fat Man and Little Boy in an explosive affair that imitates something you’d see out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.
  • Dwight McCarthy who investigates the death of his friend, Fargo, who was working with a private eye on a drug trafficking exposé.
  • The Colonel who takes on a hitwoman named Delia. Several short stories within this volume follow Delia.

Overall, Sin City (Volume 6) – Booze, Broads & Bullets is a satisfactory dive in getting a glimpse into the denizens of Sin City, but if you want to experience a greater roller coaster, Frank Miller’s previous volumes are the ones you should pick up first.

3 out of 5.

Book Review: Sin City (Volume 5) – Family Values by Frank Miller

TL;DR – Dwight and deadly Miho are on a mission. A mission that revolves around the powder keg tensions between Sin City’s mob (led by Wallenquist) and mafia (led by Magliozzi). You will want to read this just to see Miho in action. Who knew roller skates could be so deadly?

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

Herr Wallenquist (aka The Kraut) is the mobster leader of a powerful criminal organisation in Sin City. Through his manipulations, he gets one of his main men, Bruno into politics. Prior to this political elevation, Bruno was one of Wallenquist’s hitmen and did a job in killing a snitch, who happened to be in bed with a beautiful woman at the time by the name of Andrea. Bruno, ever the professional and enjoying his work a little too much, ensured there were no witnesses resulting in Andrea being collateral damage.

Turns out Andrea is the beloved niece of Giacco Magliozzi, the Don of the local mafia. Magliozzi becomes consumed with the desire for revenge, and after several fruitful years, eventually obtains proof that Bruno (now in politics and espousing ‘family values’) was the man who murdered his niece. Magliozzi orders the hit on Bruno, knowing this will break the truce between him and the Kraut, and the hitman-cum-politician gets gunned down at a diner by Vito, one of Magliozzi’s nephews.

Dwight McCarthy is sent in by Gail (leader of the prostitutes in Old Town) to investigate Bruno’s death. With the help of deadly assassin, Miho, he discovers the circumstances and the individuals involved.

And it all leads to Magliozzi. So, when Dwight and Miho pay him a visit, he’s confused as to why the women of Old Town have gotten involved. Initially, he thinks that the Kraut has sent Dwight and Miho to kill him. But Dwight tells Magliozzi that that’s what they want everyone on the outside to think.

While Miho wanders around (on her roller skates) finishing off the Don’s associates, Dwight then sits down with Magliozzi at gun point to tell him a story

It’s a story that Magliozzi should understand. After all it’s all about family. And there is nothing more valuable than family.

Review

Frank Miller’s fifth instalment in the Sin City graphic novel series is, by far, the slimmest compared to previous volumes. In terms of artwork, the ‘less is more’ approach is in full effect. Miller’s panels are all crammed with the glorious black and white art of its predecessors that any astute reader will pore over, but Miller ensures he doesn’t indulge too much in the art at the expense of moving the story along.

And don’t be deceived. While the pages are less, the story written in it is no less compelling. The story of two criminal organisations banging heads is made intriguing by the fact that Dwight, Miho and the working women of Old Town enter the scene for reasons hidden to us.

If you’ve read Sin City (Volume 3) – The Big Fat Kill, then you will know that Old Town is a law onto themselves. The women there have no interest in the mob or the mafia, and so long as you respect their rules, you can explore Old Town for as much fun as you want (assuming you have the cash to pay for it).

Why they have got themselves in-between Magliozzi and Wallenquist is a mystery, and it is this unknown that will compel you to read to the final pages of Sin City (Volume 5) – Family Values.

And while the reveal is not anything earth-shattering, it does fit perfectly in its central theme of ‘family values’. Miller doesn’t attempt to be too clever. He stays true to the crime noir genre and delivers an enjoyable yarn.

Though I will sound like a broken record, the character Dwight McCarthy is one that Miller returns to and continues to tell stories about even though I do not find Dwight that interesting.

The character Marv in Sin City (Volume 1) – The Hard Goodbye and John Hartigan in Sin City (Volume 4) – That Yellow Bastard are far more engrossing, and the stories in those volumes are more intricate and pack more emotional punch.

However, this is small quip, when considered against the overall body of work Miller has generated. He has justified himself as a master storyteller and artist.

So, grab a coffee, hunker down with these graphic novels and enjoy the ride.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Sin City (Volume 4) – That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller

TL;DR – John Hartigan is a good cop. Nothing stops a good cop from doing his job. Not health problems. Not retirement. Not even Sin City.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

In Sin City, avarice and corruption work hand-in-hand with power. Finding a cop not beaten down by the system, or not on the take by some mob boss or corrupt official, is almost impossible.

John Hartigan is one of the rare ones. The needle in the haystack. He’s been on the force for decades and done his utmost to serve and protect, and he is one hour away from retiring. One hour away from heading home, hanging up his boots, enjoying a juicy steak and champagne with Eileen, his wife, and sleeping in until ten the next morning. The next chapter of his life is just around the corner.

Only one hour away.

And then a tip comes in regarding missing 11-year old, Nancy Callahan, who has been abducted by a murderer/rapist named Roark Junior (son of one of the most powerful and corrupt officials in Sin City). Junior has never been caught and hides behind the protective shield that his father provides. Hartigan knows Junior has got away with three murders of young girls.

No way in hell, he’s going to allow a fourth.

Review

For John Hartigan, he has given his life to the force. Almost thirty years on the job, enough scars on the inside and out that most would have handed in their gun and badge ages ago. Hartigan is the type of guy to bleed for the streets of Sin City even though the city would flush his blood down the sewers. He’s the type of guy to work until his last breath but the doctors are forcing him into retirement.

Suffering from angina, the opening pages show Hartigan ruminating on the fact he only has one hour until he retires. He should be pushing papers and filing away files but receives word of little Nancy Callahan’s location and is spurred into action much to the dismay of his partner, Bob.

Hartigan has been on a mission to hunt down Roark Junior, and he finally gets his way down by the docks. Or so he thinks. Though he succeeds in rescuing Nancy and taking his gun to various parts of Junior’s body including his private parts, Hartigan is betrayed by his long-time partner Bob who, fearing the repercussions from Junior’s senator father, unloads a bucket-load of bullets into Hartigan leaving him for dead. But John is fine with that thinking, “An old man dies, a little girl lives. Fair trade.”

Except John doesn’t die. Senator Roark uses his considerable resources and power to keep Hartigan alive. In the Senator’s mind, Hartigan doesn’t deserve a quick death, and he wants to torture the cop responsible for maiming his son.

Hartigan is revived only to end up being framed for Nancy’s abduction and sent to prison where he is abused and tortured. For the next several years, the only thing that keeps him sane and alive is receiving letters from Nancy, who signs them as Cordelia in order to protect her identity.

When the letters suddenly stop, Hartigan is fearful that something bad has happened to her. He is paid a visit by a sickly, yellow skinned man who stinks of garbage and hands him the dismembered finger of a young woman. Hartigan believes his worst fears have become a reality.

Hartigan doesn’t realise until it is too late that the whole thing is a ruse. The yellow bastard is Junior. He managed to survive the maiming but has terrible health consequences as a result. Junior wants to twist his own knife into Hartigan and has the cop believe that he has Nancy.

John signs a false confession for a reduced sentence and when he gets out, goes in search of Nancy. Turns out she is alive and well and no longer “little”. She’s all grown up and working as the exotic dancer wearing the cowboy outfit we have seen in previous volumes of Sin City. The scene where Hartigan smells the rotting garbage of that yellow bastard, he realises to his horror that he has led Junior right to her.

Nancy gets abducted again by Junior, Hartigan almost gets hanged, another hunt happens leading to the Roark farms, and Hartigan deals out justice, this time in a permanent fashion ensuring the blight of Roark Junior will never terrorise the streets of Sin City ever again.

The job done, Hartigan lies to Nancy to go on ahead, indicating he’ll catch up but first needs to clean up the scene and remove all evidence. It’s a lie because he knows that Nancy will never be safe while he is alive.

The final pages along with the scenes in the bar where Hartigan sees a grown up Nancy for the first time out of jail are illustrations that showcases Frank Miller at his best. This also is the first volume where Miller uses colour (specifically yellow). In all previous volumes, they are always black and white. This was also the first volume where I felt Miller’s art had upped the ante. The drawings were sharper, the angles clearer, the physicality of the characters more pronounced. How Miller manages to make the farmhouse that Hartigan approaches look foreboding and ominous is a marvel.

When Hartigan commits the ultimate sacrifice to protect Nancy, the thought comes full circle once again.

“An old man dies, a little girl lives. Fair trade.”

Dang Frank, it’s bad enough you made us care about Marv in volume one, but now Hartigan as well?!?! You are a cruel man sir. Very cruel.

5 out of 5.

Book Review: Sin City (Volume 3) – The Big Fat Kill by Frank Miller

TL;DR – Dwight McCarthy is back and this time he’s helping the women of Old Town retain control of their little patch of Sin City. Everything seems to be going to plan until the mob shows up.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

When Jackie-boy and his goons appear on Shellie’s doorstep drunk and looking for a fun time, Shellie tells them to get lost. Jackie gets rough and nasty when he’s drunk, and Shellie has the bruises to prove it.

Unknown to Jackie and company is that Dwight is standing in Shellie’s apartment, all muscle and naked, right behind her. Seems like Jackie has interrupted their lovemaking and he is none too impressed. He whispers to Shellie to let them in, saying he’ll take care of them. He’ll make sure Jackie will never bother her again.

Shellie looks at him alarmed telling him to stay out of this, so Dwight makes himself scarce but watches from the shadows as she lets Jackie in. They argue, Jackie’s goons raid her fridge, and Jackie starts to lose his temper and hits her.

A bathroom break results in Dwight making his presence known and shoving Jackie’s head in a toilet bowl. Dwight warns Jackie to leave Shellie alone and never come back. Jackie and his goons high tail it out of there, but Dwight is convinced that they are still looking for trouble. He decides to follow them and jumps down from Shellie’s apartment window, hopping into his car. Shellie appears at the window and shouts at Dwight to stop.

At least, that’s what Dwight thinks she says but a helicopter flying overhead makes it so he isn’t sure. He really should have listened to Shellie and stayed out of it. But he follows Jackie, and they all end up in Old Town… a section of Sin City best avoided if you’re drunk and looking for trouble.

Review

Welcome to Old Town. If you have the cash, you can pretty much buy anything you want from the women who work the streets. That is unless you’ve got a temper. The women of Old Town have bled for these streets, and it is now their turf. If you’re looking for trouble, then all you need to do is act violent towards a woman in Old Town and trouble will fall upon you from on high quicker than you can blink. Pull out a weapon and you’ll get a one-way ticket straight to hell. And you don’t need cash for that ticket, that’s on the house.

When Jackie and his mates come rumbling in and start wanting to hire the services of a prostitute, the prostitute calmly tells them she doesn’t do ‘group’ jobs and suggests they check out Alamo on Dillon Street. Jackie doesn’t get the message and won’t take no for an answer. He’s already on a knife’s edge after the vitriol shot at him by Shellie and then having to drink toilet water by Dwight. The man can only take so many rejections and kicks to his ego. He pulls out a gun and tells the prostitute to get in.

Bad move.

Old Town is ruled by a matriarchy of prostitutes led by Gail wearing an S&M outfit that you can’t take your eyes off and has a ton of history with Dwight. In Dwight’s own words, he describes her as: “My warrior woman. My Valkyrie. You’ll always be mine. Always and never.” Thus, indicating that they will always do anything for each other, but they’ll never be together because theirs is a fire that will consume them both.

Gail and her girls have been watching Jackie (and Dwight) ever since they drove into Old Town with a cop car in pursuit (more on this in a minute). When Jackie makes the mistake of pulling out his gun on Becky the prostitute, Gail gives the signal for Miho to do her thing.

Ahh Miho… the Japanese angel of death. She makes merciless work of Jackie and his mates using her assortment of acrobatic and assassin moves combined with dual katanas and swastika shurikens.

It’s around this time of dismembering that Dwight starts getting this feeling in his gut that he can’t ignore. That type of feeling that screams at him that things don’t quite add up. Yes, Jackie and his goons are trouble. Yes, they’re nasty drunks. Yes, Jackie talks the tough talk and throws threats at people like confetti. Yes, Jackie-boy has a temper and has hit women. But, to Dwight’s knowledge, Jackie has never actually killed anyone.

In the aftermath of the slaughter, Dwight finds Jackie’s wallet and discovers to his horror that Shellie didn’t yell “stop” when he jumped out of her window, she yelled “cop”. As in, “He’s a cop!”

And not just any cop. Turns out Jackie-boy is Jack Rafferty, a hero cop. When Dwight flashes the badge at Gail, Miho and the rest of the girls, they know the proverbial has hit the fan.

Remember the cop car I mentioned before? The one that was in hot pursuit? Turns out, there is an uneasy truce between the police and the prostitutes of Old Town. The deal is the police give Gail and her girls in Old Town freedom to defend their turf and in exchange the cops get a slice of the profits made and free parties. The police also ensure Old Town can operate without intrusion from nefarious influences such as pimps and the mob. The cop car that was pursuing Jackie-boy turned around once he saw they would enter Old Town.

However, the truce goes all down the tube if a cop gets killed.

The action comes thick and fast once reality sinks in of what Dwight, Gail and company have done. Bodies are chopped up and stuffed into the boot of a car, Jack’s decapitated head starts talking to Dwight as he drives frantically to the pits to dump the bodies, mercenaries are hired to stop Dwight, the mob gets involved, there’s manipulation, there’s double-cross, and by the last page the body count will be far higher than Jackie and his goons.

It’s all classic crime-noir written and illustrated masterfully by Frank Miller. I have already spoken extensively about his artistic style in previous reviews of the Sin City series. All I will add in this review is Miho the assassin is a marvel, and I was happy to see rain swept scenes in this volume, which were absent in volume two.

The ongoing presence of Dwight McCarthy in volume three (he was the main character in volume two) demonstrates that Frank has more to tell of this character. While I am not as enarmoured with Dwight as I was with Marv (the main character in volume one), there’s enough to enjoy in the story and art that you’ll cast your eyes repeatedly over Sin City: The Big Fat Kill.

4.5 out of 5.