Monday, February 28, 2011

Comics Review -- "iZombie: Dead to the World" by Roberson and Allred

At this point, the living and/or walking dead hold almost no interest for me. Over the past five years, I've received more zombie and vampire novels, comics and pop cultural detritus than I can deal with, and still it keeps coming.

There are a few writers, however, that do I trust to do something interesting with the tired old tropes, and Chris Roberson is one of them. I've enjoyed his science fiction, including the novels "Here, There & Everywhere" and "End of the Century." So, when he comes along with a new DC/Vertigo zombie-starring monthly, my interest is piqued, especially when the art is by Michael Allred, the creator of "Madman."

"iZombie" focuses on Gwen Dylan, a gravedigger who also happens to be a zombie, and her friends: Ellie, a girl-ghost stuck in the Sixties; and Scott, aka "Spot," a "were-terrier." Gwen needs to feed on brains, otherwise she'll become a mindless, shambling husk. The trouble is, after a meal she is overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions of the recently deceased, spurring her to resolve their unfinished business.

There's a very cool "Groovie Ghoulies" vibe about this whole project, and Roberson's dialogue and Allred's art mesh perfectly, creating a welcome balance of humor and horror. Unfortunately, "Dead to the World," which collects only five monthly issues, is mainly set-up. The characters are introduced, including a pair of monster hunters, a pack of female vampires and a resurrected Egyptian mummy. Some plot complications are set in motion, but nothing gets resolved in this initial collection.

Which is fine, given the narrative potential on display here. It's a fun start, and Roberson and Allred have the chops to ferry this story through many more volumes.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- "Shibumi" by Trevanian

When I was a college sophomore, I had a conversation with my faculty adviser about popular fiction. She said something like, "Oh, yeah, I have a friend who writes spy novels. He uses the pen name 'Trevanian.'"

Rather than saying, "Holy crap! Tell me more!", I kind of blew her off. Nobody knew the identity of Trevanian, the author of "The Eiger Sanction," "The Loo Sanction" and "The Main." Surely my adviser didn't know what she was talking about.

Well, it's a good bet she did, and because I was a callow dope, I missed any opportunity to be introduced to one of the most secretive best-selling novelists of the past 40 years.

Trevanian was the pseudonym chosen by University of Texas, Austin film professor Rodney Whitaker when he published his first novel, the spy spoof "The Eiger Sanction." Most readers failed to see the satirical nature of the exploits of Jonathan Hemlock, art professor and master assassin (despite villains with names like Yurassis Dragon), so Trevanian upped the ante and made its sequel, "The Loo (think British toilet) Sanction," even more ridiculous. "Loo" proved even more popular with the reading public, and when Trevanian returned to espionage fiction with "Shibumi," he kept but muted the satirical edge and added historical detail and philosophical content that elevated the novel well above the aspirations of its predecessors.

"Shibumi" is an oddly structured thriller. Its protagonist, retired assassin Nicholai Hel, doesn't appear in the first 50 or so pages, and doesn't become an active part of the present-day action for almost another 200. The early chapters are concerned with either exposition provided by the antagonists or flashbacks to Hel's early life in Shanghai and in Japan before and during World War II. Then, there's a long sequence involving Hel mucking around in underground caverns in the Basque mountains. Eventually, as in Go, the classical Japanese board game that Hel has mastered, all the pieces are set in place and the plot moves to its inevitable conclusion.

This narrative strategy really shouldn't work, but it does. Somehow, Trevanian manages to build suspense in unexpected ways, orchestrating set pieces filled with remarkable characters, dazzling action and elegant wit. There's no other spy novel like it.

Rodney Whitaker died in 2005, having published three other novels -- a historical psychological thriller, a revisionist Western and an autobiographical novel about growing up in Albany, NY -- under the Trevanian monicker. In a few weeks, Don Winslow, author of "Savages" and "California Fire and Life," will publish a "prequel" to "Shibumi," and I'll post a review of it. In the meantime, track down the original.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oscar Predictions 2011

It's that time of year again, when Hollywood goads me into seeing more movies in a month than I see in the other 335 days. In previous years, I was spurred to make predictions by the thought of winning the Oscar pool at my local, independently operated video store. But now they've gone the way of the local blacksmithery and dry goods emporium, so it will be no more free credits for me!

However, I somehow managed, without really thinking about it, to see eight of the 10 contenders for Best Picture. Armed with that many opinions, how can I possibly refrain from voicing them? So, here goes:

Best Supporting Actress
Melissa Leo
I think it's likely to go to Melissa Leo for her work in "The Fighter." It's a brassy, yet nuanced, performance. I don't think Amy Adams from the same movie will be strong enough to split the vote. Leo always comes across as smart, dedicated and personable in her interviews. Besides, she was Kaye on "Homicide"! She therefore deserves whatever fresh acclaim comes her way.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale
Bale is really good as the punch-drunk/cracked-out brother in "The Fighter," another strong performance in an only-so-so picture. He looks like death on toast, and big fluctuations in weight always impress the Academy. Plus, he isn't doing that annoying Batman voice. I don't think there are any other significant contenders in this category, although Geoffrey Rush and Mark Ruffalo both did stellar work in their respective films.

Best Actress
Natalie Portman
I have not yet mustered the energy to see "Black Swan." Just can't seem to generate the necessary enthusiasm for an ornithological ballet freakout  with lesbian overtones. But Portman is the front-runner, and she's cute as a button and pregnant, so she's likely to snag the Oscar.

I did see Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right." The movie was alternately entertaining and annoying, but I thought she was spot-on in every scene. If not Portman, then definitely Bening!

Best Actor
Colin Firth
No one's betting against Firth, and with good reason. Not even James Franco will come close, even after chewing off his own arm. (That is what happens in "127 Hours," right?) Firth's performance as "Bertie" is impeccable and quite moving. If I had to make a second pick, I would choose Jeff Bridges, but he's not going to take the Oscar two years running.

Best Director
David Fincher
My money's on David Fincher for "The Social Network." C'mon, who really thought that would work so well as a major motion picture? Perhaps the award will go Tom Hooper for "The King's Speech," but I would definitely pick the innovative veteran over the competent newcomer.

Best Picture
The King's Speech
The Academy eats up stuff like this: period pieces about royalty, especially royalty with physical disabilities. It's a fine movie, but "The Social Network" was the film that most entertained and impressed me -- more than "True Grit," more than "Toy Story III." But I'll be shocked if "The King's Speech" doesn't take Best Picture.

Some of the other categories about which I have an opinion include: Best Original Screenplay, "The King's Speech"; Best Adapted Screenplay, "The Social Network"; and Best Documentary, "Inside Job" (because it's the one documentary I've seen this year).

That's it. Now I can go back to ignoring nine-tenths of the upcoming theatrical releases!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- The Hog Murders by William L. DeAndrea

That has to be one of the best-designed paperback mystery covers of the Seventies. Look at it. That is one bad-ass swine in a business suit.

William L. DeAndrea made a big splash in the crime genre when he won back-to-back Edgars in 1979 and 1980: a Best First Novel for "Killed in the Ratings" and a Best Paperback Original for "The Hog Murders."  DeAndrea went on to publish nearly 20 other novels and won another Edgar for his non-fiction "Encyclopedia Mysteriosa." He died of a rare form of brain cancer in 1996.

Set in upstate New York during a bitter winter, "The Hog Murders" opens with a horrific traffic accident, in which a freeway sign falls on a carload of young women, killing two of them and leaving one badly injured. Within a short span, an old man dies from a fall down a staircase, and small boy is nearly decapitated by a falling icicle. The deaths seems unrelated and accidental -- until the local newspaper starts receiving taunting letters from someone who signs his name as HOG, has information only the killer could know and claims responsibility for each of the murders.

DeAndrea was an enthusiastic fan of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books, and "The Hog Murders" is very much a homage to The Great Detective and his ilk. In this case, the eccentric detective is one Nicolo Benedetti, an elderly professor of philosopher who enjoys flirting with women of a certain age, is a notorious cheapskate and demands as his fee the right to interview the culprit alone for two hours.

As the body count increases, Benedetti and his right-hand man, private investigator Ron Gentry, work with the local cops to catch the killer. At times, it seems as if everyone in the town of Sparta is somehow connected to the deaths; at others, the crimes seem utterly impossible.

"The Hog Murders" isn't a book that rewards re-reading. It's designed to work once and deliver a short, sharp shock at the end. It does so with cleverness and precision. The final line is a stunner, so don't peek.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Comics Review -- "Daytripper" by Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba

Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba are twin brothers from Sao Paulo, Brazil, with more than 15 years of experience in comics. I wasn't familiar with their work until I picked up the two collected volumes of "The Umbrella Academy," written by Gerard Way. Their ability to depict hyperkinetic surrealism adds a lot to that gonzo superhero series. So I was intrigued when I received the non-superheroic "Daytripper, both written and illustrated by the brothers.

"Daytripper" is a much more somber affair. When we first meet Bras de Oliva Domingos, he's 32 years old, unenthusiastically composing obituaries for a daily newspaper. His stand-offish father is a revered and best-selling writer, and Bras finds it difficult living in the older man's shadow, especially since he wants to write a book of his own. On the way to a black-tie tribute to his father, Bras walks into the wrong bar and comes face-to-face with death in its most concrete form.

The subsequent chapters of "Daytripper" shuttle back and forth in time, presenting a day in Bras's life at 21, at 11, at 38. He falls in love for the first time, loses his best friend, awaits the birth of his son. But each time, the day ends with an unforeseen, often utterly capricious, tragedy.

I'm not sure I would have stuck with "Daytrippers" had I read it as a monthly pamphlet. Across ten issues, ending each chapter with a version of Bras's death begins to feel gimmicky by about Chapter Four. But as the clues begin to pile up, and Bras's continuing encounters with mortality hint of a possible resolution, the narrative becomes clearer and compelling.

"Daytripper" is a trippy, thoughtful piece of Latin-flavored magic realism, serious in intent, but joyous in its details. I'm hyped to see the next Umbrella Academy limited series, but this graphic volume was a welcome side-trip.

Monday, February 07, 2011

First SF Column of 2011 -- Walton, Rickert & Bear

Always happy to see my byline in The Chronicle or on This one covers two novels and one story collection: "Among Others" by Jo Walton, "Hull Zero Three" by Greg Bear and "Holiday" by M. Rickert.

All three are worth seeking out, but the real stand-out is "Among Others." I am a big fan of Walton's alternate-World War II thrillers, but her new book is even better. If you love reading -- and reading science fiction and fantasy in particular -- it's a marvelous mix of fantasy and memoir that will remind you of how powerful fiction can be at the right time in your life.