Friday, February 27, 2009

Review: Air: Letters from Lost Countries by G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Peker

DC Comics did G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Peker's new on-going series a serious disservice when it previewed "Air" in its other books from the Vertigo line. The disjointed pages excerpted from the first issue did little to convey the charm of this tale of air travel through the not-so-friendly skies. Now the first five issues of "Air" have been collected in "Letter from Lost Countries," and it's an introductory volume well worth picking up.

When acrophobic flight attendant Blythe becomes intrigued with Zayn, a mysterious male traveler of indeterminate national origin, she helps set in motion a violent on-board incident that culminates with her and the stranger jumping from the plane with only one parachute between them. After Blythe recovers from her minor injuries, Zayn leaves on a mission to Bangladesh, only to disappear in another presumed air crash. A letter with a return address from Narimar, a country that appears on no map, gives Blythe hope that, with the help of two co-workers, she can rescue her lover, wherever he is.

Wilson and Peker are the team behind the Vertigo black-and-white hardcover "Cairo," and they seem to be developing a comfortable groove for their first monthly series. Blythe is a good antidote to the usual Vertigo heroine. She's complicated but not kooky, she's a genuine adult, not an angsty teenager, and she seems free of the usual daddy and mommy issues. The antagonists are little over-the-top and too on-the-mark in their dialogue, not to mention too fond of explaining their nefarious plans exactly where they can be overheard. At the ends of the fourth issues, though, Wilson and Peker stage a reveal that pushes the premise of "Air" in a promising and unexpected new direction.

I'm not sure I'll become a regular reader of "Air," but I'm sufficiently impressed by "Letter from Lost Countries" to keep that possibility open.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Datlow, Berry and Sterling

This week's Sunday Chronicle includes my regular science fiction/fantasy column. The featured books are Ellen Datlow's "Poe" anthology, "The Manual of Detection," a first novel by Jedediah Berry and "The Caryatids" by Bruce Sterling.

All three are worth your time, with Sterling's novel as the stand-out. "The Caryatids" feels very much in tune with the tenor of these awful, uncertain times, but it also manages to provide a ray of hard-won hope.

Now I start reading for my April 5 column. Suggestions welcome!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oscar Fever, Chills and Vague Nausea

I'm usually pretty excited in Oscar Season, but not this year. My friendly neighborhood video store isn't being very friendly, having discontinued its annual Academy Awards contest. Times are tough all over, I guess, but without the prospect of winning an armload of free credits, I'm not mustering much enthusiasm.

I've actually seen three out of the five Best Picture nominees, so I'm better informed than usual. But I don't feel a personal stake in any of them, and I find the conventional wisdom about who will win to closely match my own guesswork.

Best Supporting Actress -- Penelope Cruz. Woody Allen has an excellent track record for directing the women who take home this award, so she gets my vote. Viola Davis is pretty amazing in "Doubt," but I think that voting block will be split.

Best Supporting Actor -- Heath Ledger. I think he'd be the top contender even without having met a tragically early death.

Best Actor -- Sean Penn. I'm not a big Penn fan, but I thought he was truly outstanding in "Milk." I'm even less of a Mickey Rourke enthusiast, so while I wish him and his freaky chihuahuas well, I'm not rooting for him.

Best Actress -- Kate Winslet. You couldn't pay me enough to sit through "The Reader," but everybody seems to like Winslet on general principles and feel it's past time she got an Oscar.

Best Director -- Danny Boyle. "Slumdog Millionaire" won me over against my better judgment, and it took a sure and inventive hand to pull that off.

Best Picture -- Slumdog Millionaire. See above.

Yeah, no surprises or dazzling insights there. But I've at least made my choices known.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: Tom Piccirilli's "The Coldest Mile"

One of the drawbacks of being a reviewer is that you have to make a lot of snap decisions just to keep up with the tide of material that washes over you. I get literally hundreds of ARCs and finished copies every year, and it's a little frightening to realize how arbitrary my methods for selecting the 30-35 titles for review really are.

For one thing, I very rarely review mass-market paperback originals, and usually only if there's a local connection. (Currently, a lot of urban fantasies with covers depicting well-toned, bare-midriffed young women wielding edged weapons go directly into the rejects bin. Sorry.) And sometimes I later regret not holding onto these books for my own reading pleasure. Case in point: the novels of Tom Piccirilli.

I know I received copies of his horror novels "The Midnight Road" and "The Dead Letters." But I didn't hang onto them, and now I'm kicking myself. Because I read his Edgar-nominated crime novel, "The Cold Spot," last year, and I immediately wanted more. Luckily, the sequel, "The Coldest Mile," is now available.

The new book picks up pretty much where the earlier volume left off, with wheelman Chase at loose ends after the death of his wife and his act of vengeance against her killers. He takes a job as a chauffeur for a Mob family, trying to figure out how he can rip them off and then be on his way to hunt down Jonah, the grandfather who raised him and betrayed him.

Chase wants to find his grandfather in order to protect Jonah's two-year-old daughter, whom he doesn't want to be raised by a sociopath. Chase's quest takes him to Florida, where he falls in with various small-time hoods, all the while girding himself a confrontation he's not at all sure he will survive.

"The Coldest Mile" can probably be enjoyed on its own, but you need to have read "The Cold Spot" to get its full effect. And it's pretty damn powerful. Chase and Jonah are great characters, the plotting works smoothly and Piccirilli both pays tribute to the likes of Goodis, Thompson and Stark and gives them a fair run for their money.

It's likely that Piccirilli isn't done with these characters, so this has the feel of a middle book in a trilogy. Whatever happens, I won't make the mistake of overlooking any more of Piccirilli's books that come my way.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Review: Joe Hill's "Gunpowder"

I've enjoyed pretty much everything I've read by Joe Hill, starting with his novel, "Heart-Shaped Box," and continuing on through his collection of short fiction, "20th Century Ghosts," and the first volume of his on-going comics project, "Locke & Key."

Now comes a new, 26,000-word novella, "Gunpowder," published in various editions by PS Publishing. It's set on a planet being terraformed by a gang of young psychics under the tutelage of a lone teacher/mother figure. The boys squabble among themselves and scapegoat Charley, the only one who doesn't seem to have The Talent. Everything works well enough until a starship arrives and sends down an emissary with new orders for the kids.

To the best of my knowledge, this is Hill's first published foray into outright science fiction, and he does a good job of setting up the premise and delineating the shifting allegiances within this cohort of young mutants. My problem with "Gunpower" lies in its climatic confrontation. Hill doesn't precisely fall back on cliche, but it's clear too soon that the narrative is going to head toward its expected conclusion. The details are unguessable, but the overall shape of the showdown between the children and the interloper is too predictable.

Is it worth the money and effort to track down this hardcover edition? Depends on how fervent a fan you are. Hill has the potential to be prolific. Wait a few years, and perhaps "Gunpowder" will be part of a larger collection.