The Two-Bear Mambo

June 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

mamboThe Two-Bear Mambo by Joe R. Lansdale

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I’ve been reading the Hap & Leonard series for over twenty years, which is long enough to be excited about the TV show based on the series. After the first two seasons ended, I went back and re-read the books on which they were based, and I did the same with the third season. While I wasn’t reluctant to return to the story, I remembered enough to know it was going to be a dark, depressing journey.

Florida Grange, lawyer to Leonard and one-time-lover of Hap, has gone missing in the town of Grovetown, a town known for being stuck in the Jim Crow days. Hap and Leonard, fresh off of burning down another crack house, get stuck with going to Grovetown to find her. Leonard, being black, makes that a daunting enough task, regardless of how little the residents of the town care to share about Florida. What they face there is grim enough to run them out of town.

The show takes more liberties with the story than it did with the previous seasons. I can’t say what those differences are without spoiling the plot, but they’re significant enough for me to prefer the book to the show. Suffice to say, if you’ve only seen the current season of the show, it’s worth your time to read the book to get another take on the story. They’re not so different as to be unrecognizable, but different characters get different development between the show and the book.

Started: April 14, 2018
Finished: April 15, 2018

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Making Wolf

April 2, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

wolfMaking Wolf by Tade Thompson

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Tade Thompson took me by surprise with The Murders of Molly Southborne. It was a vivid story, told well, with a vivid main character and a fantastic premise. It was such an impressive story that I immediately tracked down the other books he had written and put them at the top of my to-read list. Making Wolf is the first of those, and Thompson’s debut novel.

The story is set in the fictional country of Alcacia in West Africa, where Weston Kogi returns for his aunt’s funeral. He left when he was still a teenager, boarding a plane just as riots broke out across his country. His aunt was the one who got him out of the country, so he feels the obligation to return from London to pay his respects. While there, he makes a connection with an old schoolmate and bully who ropes him into investigating the death of a well-loved hero of Alcacia. Things slowly go from bad to worse, though, with Weston seeing first-hand the brutality of violence of living in this divided nation.

The story itself is a noir crime thriller, with Weston being the investigator and Alcacia standing in for the darkened, gritty streets. The plot carries us forward, revealing itself pieces at a time, through betrayals, double-crosses, and intrigue, complete with the long-legged dames and characters with questionable morality. The story is modernized and relocated, and it feels like Thompson has things to say about Africa as perceived through the Western eye, but it’s also a solid, page-turning crime thriller with a satisfying conclusion.

Making Wolf feels like it could be the start of a series, but since the point of the story is Weston’s character growth, it’s hard to imagine there being anything else to tell. Thompson couldn’t start over again with Weston, and there aren’t any other characters in the book that could serve as the growth for a sequel. It’s not an unfinished story by any means, but it does feel like there’s more to tell. Were Thompson to write that book, I would read it because I admire his skills as a writer, and because I trust he would be able to find a way to make a sequel fresh.

With all the Swedish crime thrillers that are populating the best-seller lists, there should be room for one more set in West Africa. Making Wolf is that book, and I think anyone looking for a well-told crime thriller, set in a new place, would do well to read it.

Started: January 4, 2018
Finished: January 6, 2018

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Blood and Lemonade

October 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lemonadeBlood and Lemonade by Joe R. Lansdale

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I started off reading Hap and Leonard Ride Again, an e-book-only release of Hap and Leonard, a collection of short stories only available in print. Contents were shuffled some between the two editions, but then when I compared the contents to Blood and Lemonade, I realized that the three books have a ridiculous amount of overlap. There are some nonfiction pieces in the first two books that aren’t in Blood and Lemonade, along with a couple of stories, but for the most part these three books have a lot of the same contents. In the end, I read the distinct stuff from Hap and Leonard Ride Again and then read Blood and Lemonade.

The stories are decent enough, but Lansdale does his best work with longer formats. “Veil’s Visit” (co-written with Andrew Vacchs) and “Death by Chili” from Ride Again are stories from when Hap and Leonard are adults, but the pieces in Blood and Lemonade are about the two characters as children. Some are about the two of them (along with “In the River of the Dead”, which I’m surprised didn’t get its own novella release), but a large number of them are about Hap’s childhood. Some of the stories are from Miracles Ain’t What They Used to Be, which brings me back to this book having a lot of overlap with Lansdale’s other collections.

That’s kind of my biggest gripe about Lansdale, that he reprints a lot of his stories from one collection to the next. A lot of them are to account for stories that were in collections that have gone out of print, but when I buy three books (MiraclesRide Again, and Lemonade) and find a lot of duplication, I get a little aggravated. I’d prefer there being distinctive works among all the collections, since I’m likely to buy them all, anyway.

Lansdale constructs this book as a novel, tying the stories together as Hap reminiscing on his childhood with Leonard, Brett, and Chance, but it’s a loose structure. Lansdale himself calls this a mosaic novel in his afterword, but to me it still read like a collection of short stories. Many of them (all of them?) speak on issues of race and class, making the stories feel similar and repetitious. The best of the bunch is “In the River of the Dead”, which reads like a usual Hap and Leonard adventure.

I wouldn’t consider Blood and Lemonade necessary reading save for the most dedicated Lansdale fans. Even Hap & Leonard fans might find it lacking, compared to the rest of the books in the series, and yes, I’m even including Captains Outrageous in that comparison. The book does collect the disparate Hap & Leonard stories, which will be of interest to some readers, but it might be better to read the stories one at a time, over several days. It might lessen the repetition of the stories.

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Rusty Puppy

September 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

puppyRusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale

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I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this book. Sure, it’s only been a few months since its release, but (a) I’m a big fan of Lansdale’s, and (b) I try to keep up with ongoing series as the new books release. I finally realized I had fallen behind and read this over a weekend.

Rusty Puppy finds Hap and Leonard in Camp Rapture, where the police are worse than the criminals. Bullies and sexual predators, they begin harassing two young siblings, which leads to the death of Jamar, the brother. Their mother doesn’t believe the story the police tell her about his death, so she hires Hap and Leonard to investigate. They seem the types who can find out what really happened.

Lately, I’ve said that Lansdale is a dependable writer. By that I mean that his dialogue is always sharp, his pacing swift, and his narrative easy. Beyond that, he can tell a razor-sharp story when given the room. His novellas (of which I’ve read several in the last year) don’t seem to give him that room, but a full-blown novel does it. This time around he gives us a novel that’s not just a fast read, but also has a solid plot to carry it along.

As usual, Lansdale touches on (rubs all over it, really) race relations in small East Texas towns. Lansdale makes sure to note that not everyone from a small town is racist, but he makes sure to show us they’re there, despite how much progress we’ve made in the last fifty years. With the real world reminding us there’s still a long way to go, books like Rusty Puppy have more relevance, and thus have a stronger punch.

Look, this is a Lansdale book. If you know him, then you know what that means. If you don’t, then you should start at the beginning and see how Hap and Leonard develop over the years. He’s well worth reading, whether or not you like crime fiction, because deep down, he’s a gifted storyteller. This whole series shows him at the top of his game.

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Cold Cotton

September 6, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cottonCold Cotton by Joe R. Lansdale

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I haven’t caught up with all of Hap and Leonard just yet (I still haven’t read Rusty Puppy, for some reason), which might have been a mistake before reading Cold Cotton. Within the first couple of paragraphs is a spoiler of sorts. It’s nothing major, I don’t think, but if you’re one of those that doesn’t want to know anything about future events, you should get caught up with the rest of the series before reading this novella.

This time around, Hap is having a little trouble with Li’l Hap, which sends him to a doctor, who in turn sends him to a psychiatrist, and in true Hap and Leonard form, that’s when everything goes south and they get caught up in events bigger than they expected. Why these things are unexpected is anyone’s guess, since every time they get involved with anything, it turns into something bigger than expected.

Leonard gets short shrift in this story, as it’s really a Hap and Brett story. Leonard appears, but the story is really theirs. Lansdale’s trademark dialogue is present, but without Leonard, it has to come from other, newer characters, which is always a little strange to me. I read Lansdale for that dialogue, but it always feels weird that everyone Hap and Leonard encounter talk that way. I’d miss it if it weren’t there, but based on the people I talk to through the course of the day, I’m not convinced that everyone is smart enough to carry of that kind of wit.

The novella has a lot of typos, which is regrettable, but I did buy and read this book as soon as it became available. Maybe future releases will be corrected, but I still feel like some copyediting would have done the book a world of favors.

Cold Cotton is a solid entry into the world of Hap and Leonard, but it doesn’t change the world. Familiar readers will find the usual off-kilter characters and snappy dialogue, and it may bring in new readers, but honestly, the novels are better. Still, it’s a must-read for already-fans of the series.

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Mucho Mojo

August 8, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

mojoMucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale

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Want to feel old? If so, consider this: Mucho Mojo was published twenty-three years ago. Twenty-three. That’s about how long ago I started reading Joe Lansdale, and while I doubt this was my first foray into Lansdale’s fiction, it was my first ride with Hap and Leonard, upon which I’m still a passenger.

I decided to re-read this book for the same reason I re-read Savage Season: I just finished watching the latest season of Hap & Leonard, the television show, and I wanted to see how they compare. What I remember of my original read was that I pegged the murderer as soon as he appeared in the story. I remembered other details, some of which were at odds with what was on the show, but it turned out I was misremembering some of those details. I think I was remembering details the way I wanted them to be, not how they were.

The show and the book differ in a lot of ways, but the main plot is the same across both. Leonard’s uncle, Chester, has died, and after inheriting Chester’s house, Leonard stumbles across the body of a child. Suspicions drop on Chester as a child-killer, but Leonard doesn’t believe it, and the story is Leonard and Hap investigating the murder to find the real killer.

The rest of the details, though, are different: MeMaw’s sons are different between the show and the book; Leonard doesn’t get arrested in the book, and neither is Hap a suspect of the murders; and Beau’s character doesn’t even exist in the book, meaning that subplot was never a part of the story. Incredibly, both the book and the show accomplish their own thing, and both are moving stories with similar themes. In the end, the difference in the details isn’t significant enough to change what makes the story so effective.

Re-reading the book helped me put the book in a better perspective, too, since my initial rating (two stars) was based on how easily I figured out the whodunnit part of the story. Knowing that when I went into the book helped me better appreciate the rest of the story, which is one of race and class and all the social complications that come from it all. Hap and Leonard being who they are, all of the stories touch on that to some degree, but here it was much more pronounced. The show followed that same theme, but I raised my rating on the book a full two stars because I was able to see the forest this time around. Plus, who I was twenty-three years ago is pretty different from who I am now, which I’m sure played a part in my appreciation.

But, man, twenty-three years. That’s a long time. I was just barely into my twenties, and I think Lansdale’s hair was still dark when this book came out. Fans of the show should definitely read the book, too, though I recommend it to anyone who likes a crime story with a good theme.

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Savage Season

June 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

seasonSavage Season by Joe R. Lansdale

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I first read Savage Season about twenty years ago. True to form, I remembered almost nothing of the book before re-reading it; I did, however, know the story, since my wife and I tore through the entire first season of Hap and Leonard on Netflix over the weekend. I also met Joe Lansdale last week at a speaking/signing event, so between the series and the signing, I had him on the brain, and figured this would be a good time to revisit the series.

The story is typical Lansdale, but, curiously, a bit tame when compared with the remaining Hap and Leonard books. That’s not much of a surprise, I guess, since I learned at the signing that he never intended for the characters to become a series, but it was missing some of the oddness that’s become a part of the later books. It’s also the introduction to the characters, so there is a bit more backstory for the two of them than is typical in the rest of the books. Still, Lansdale gets right into the action from the start, bringing in Hap’s ex-wife Trudy to lure him in to a scheme to make all of them some money. Lansdale also populates the story with a handful of strange characters — Trudy’s other ex-husband, an old hippie with plans to use the money for social change; Chub, a fat man who believes himself to be a therapist; and Paco, a bomb-scarred leftover from a sixties revolutionary group — but they’re not quite on the level of who he uses in the other books.

There are differences between the book and the show, which is to be expected, but most of them are fairly minor (instead of a sunken car, for example, they’re looking for a sunken boat). In the show, Trudy seems to want to make amends with Hap, but in the book, she’s just manipulating him for her own gain. That’s probably the biggest change, that and how the two formats portray Angel. She’s about the same, personality-wise, in both the book and the show, but the producers of the show made her much more memorable. Plus, the show introduces us to Angel and Soldier much earlier, so we have time to see how cold-blooded they are. Lansdale doesn’t need that much space to portray them that way, but we do get to see Jimmi Simpson and Pollyanna McIntosh thoroughly enjoy their characters.

(Of particular note: Pollyanna McIntosh also played the pivotal role in The Woman, a movie written in conjunction with a Jack Ketchum novella. Lansdale and Ketchum, and now The Walking Dead: she’s setting a trend for playing some dark, dark roles.)

My favorite part of the show, though, is Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard. James Purefoy is a fine Hap, but after seeing Williams play Leonard, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. He doesn’t just play the part; he owns it. Still, this is a review of a book, so I suppose I should get back to that.

A few Lansdale reviews back, I mentioned that he is a dependable writer, one you can count on to tell a good story, tell it well, and make it memorable. Savage Season is a dependable story, at least for already-fans. They’ll see a lot of the groundwork for the rest of the series, and see a hint of the style that would later define not just the series, but also all of his later fiction. Folks new to the series have a great place to start with this book, and those of us who already know it will have fun revisiting the start. I do wonder how people who started later in the series feel about this one, in comparison.

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Coco Butternut

May 5, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

cocoCoco Butternut by Joe R. Lansdale

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The award for the most ridiculous book title of 2017 is … Coco Butternut! Yes, I know it’s only mid-February (well, it is as I write this. It appears this is going to be scheduled for publication in July, so greetings from the past!), but I’m fairly certain that, of all the books I’ll read this year, this one will win the prize. It’s just a little ridiculous.

It’s not irrelevant, though, since the name of the book refers to a prize-winning dachshund, which you can see on the cover over there. He’s long dead, as long as his owner, but when someone digs up the mummified dog and uses him as ransom, the deceased owner’s son pays a hefty amount to get him back. Of course, this isn’t Hap and Leonard’s first rodeo, and neither is it our first time reading one of their books, so this event spawns an investigation into the dognappers that gets more and more complicated.

This is a formula that Lansdale uses in his Hap & Leonard books, but his stories never feel formulaic. Coco Butternut takes us through familiar locales, with a familiar cast of characters, with his familiar brand of storytelling, meaning that those of us familiar with all that are going to have a good time. This doesn’t mean we’ll find it to be the gosh-darned bestest book read EVAR, but it does mean we’ll have fun while on the ride.

I’ve noticed that Lansdale is beginning to show more of the other characters in this series instead of relying on just Hap and Leonard, and in some ways, this is good. It gives the series a fresh feeling, especially with Brett, who’s becoming more and more a full-fledged character and less Hap’s girlfriend. Chance, Hap’s daughter, is another story. Here, she feels wooden, shoehorned into the story as an obligation and not as a necessity. I can’t remember her character being much more than that in her previous appearances, but I can’t say that for certain. Either way, here she feels like a distraction.

Coco Butternut is a bit better than Hoodoo Harry, but not quite as good as Briar Patch Boogie. These Hap & Leonard novellas don’t have the same kind of punch as the full-length novels in the series, but they’re a nice snack to have between courses of the main meal. Fans will like it; those new to the two characters would be better off starting at the beginning of the novels.

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Hoodoo Harry

April 19, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

harryHoodoo Harry by Joe R. Lansdale

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I stumbled across this book on Twitter, of all places, and had one of those Omigod how did I not know about this already? moments, especially when I spent part of last year making sure I was caught up with all of Lansdale’s odds-and-ends publications. This one, it turns out, was published by The Mysterious Bookshop, a well-known bookstore specializing in mysteries and crime thrillers, which could explain why I missed hearing about it (well, that, and the fact that it was only just published when I first heard about it).

Lansdale returns to his perennial characters Hap Collins and Leonard Pine in this novella, where their adventure begins when their car is run off the road by a runaway bookmobile. For Hap and Leonard, that’s not something to just brush off, especially when said bus was being driven by a twelve-year-old, who winds up dead after being thrown through the windshield of the old bus. No, this near-death encounter for Hap begets investigations and threats, which is part and parcel of what a Hap & Leonard story is all about.

The story is engaging, but it’s not the best Hap and Leonard adventure Lansdale has written. The two characters go about the small town of Nesbit, doing their investigating and getting up to their usual antics, but the mystery feels hackneyed and pedestrian, compared with some of the usual plots they’ve been involved in. Plus, while I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think about how much trouble Hap and Leonard get involved with. As many people as have wound up dead around them, it’s a wonder the last three books haven’t been set in their prison cell.

I’ve said before that Lansdale is a dependable writer, one you can trust to tell a good story, even if said story isn’t the best dang thing you’ve ever read. Hoodoo Harry is one of those stories, but it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Sure, you might pine for something like Sunset and Sawdust while reading this, but it’s certainly no waste of time, either.

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The Big Blow

December 6, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

blowThe Big Blow by Joe R. Lansdale

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By now, I think everyone knows of my love of Lansdale. If not, then stick around; after this one, I have three other novellas of his to read before returning to my usual reading schedule. I’ll speak more of this love in those reviews.

As I’ve stated before, what makes a Lansdale story a Lansdale story is his style. His snappy dialogue, violent tendencies, and ear for the weird carries his stories, even when the stories themselves are just okay. The Big Blow is one of those “okay” stories. It’s about Jack Johnson, the early 20th-century boxer, during the hurricane that devastated Galveston in 1900. The premise of the story is that a local member of the Sporting Club has hired a white boxer to defeat Johnson after Johnson had defeated a white man in a previous fight. The boxer they bring in to defeat him is truly despicable in his violence toward women and how he treats those who hired him, and there is a racial undertone to the event, as the white members of the club can’t accept that a black boxer keeps winning the fights.

If the story were just about Johnson and the fight, it would have been slightly better than okay, but Lansdale includes a few secondary character that do little to progress the plot. There’s the young woman who has been abandoned by her lover after finally sleeping with him, and then there’s the young family trapped on the island during the storm. The family at least serves a purpose to the story, as their fate plays into the resolution between Johnson and the other fighter, but the young woman is just there to be spurned, and then attempt suicide during the storm. She doesn’t do much for the story, and I couldn’t see why she was included, save as a red herring (the white boxer has a preference for redheads, and she has red hair, so I kept expecting her presence to be a part of that subplot).

Lansdale can do much better than this. Sure, he can do much, much better than this (Sunset and Sawdust is my go-to Lansdale recommendation), but even his mediocre stories, like Leather Maiden and Lost Echoes, are better than this. It seems like this story was just dusted off to add one more book to his bibliography, as he and the publishers knew it would sell to the die-hard fans. I wouldn’t recommend the story to any but the most die-hard of those fans. It just doesn’t compare to what he can do with all pistons firing.

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