Sunday, February 28, 2016

Hap & Leonard Ride Again

Honky Tonk Samurai Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hotdog crap fries! Hap and Leonard are back!

You’ve never heard the expression ‘hotdog crap fries’ before? That’s because it’s my new favorite exclamation after misreading this line in the book: ”Some summers it’s so hot dog crap fries on the sidewalk.” For a minute there I thought Sonic was really scraping the bottom of the barrel for new menu ideas…

But aside from that little misunderstanding it was great to get a new adventure with a couple of my favorite rednecks just in time for the premiere of their new TV show. The guys are trying to do a little quiet surveillance work for their private detective gig when they witness a dog being beaten by an abusive owner. After a much deserved ass kicking is delivered Hap has a new dog, but as usual their best intentions have unintended consequences when this leads to them getting a new client, an elderly woman who wants to hire them to look for a granddaughter who stole her money and went missing years before.

The trail leads to a car dealership that is offering a lot more than easy financing, and as usual Hap & Leonard soon find themselves at odds with various dangerous people including a biker gang. They’re also warned that the people they’re dealing with may use the services of a mysterious hitman who likes to remove the testicles of his victims.

While I always enjoy reading this series I’d found the last several books less than fully satisfactory. A large part of this was because Vanilla Ride and Devil Red were on the thin side, and the next two after that were just novellas that clocked in about a 100 pages each. This time out Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe Lansdale provides a full 340 pages of Hap & Leonard doing their thing, and it felt like finally getting a full meal after having to nibble on appetizers when you’re really hungry.

There’s all the usual factors that make for a great Hap & Leonard story with lots of humor, profanity filled crude dialogue, crazy characters, a mystery for the guys to bumble through, and plenty of threats to their well being. There's also a whole lot of violence in the form of beatings, gunfire, and the judicious use of a crowbar at one point.

Getting a full sized novel instead of a quickie also means there’s time for subplots, and we’re treated to Hap’s girlfriend Brett taking over the detective agency they work for, Leonard’s problems with his on-again-off-again boyfriend, and the appearance of a new character that promises a whole mess of new complications for Hap. There’s also the reappearance of some old friends that add a lot of spice and action to the whole adventure. (view spoiler)

Overall, this ended up being a return to form for the series, and I’d say it's the best book featuring Hap and Leonard since Bad Chili. Now I can settle back with a big order of hotdog crap fries and watch the TV show.

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Hap & Leonard Get Ready For The Hollywood Treatment

Hap and Leonard Hap and Leonard by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free copy from the publisher for review.

This is a good time to be a fan of Hap & Leonard with the new novel Honky Tonk Samurai being released and a TV series based on their adventures about to premiere. As a fan who has been reading H&L since the late ‘90s I have to admit to feeling a bit conflicted about all this attention. I’m glad to see Joe R. Lansdale and his creations getting their due, but I’ve also got that same kind of scornful streak that makes hipsters such a delight when they sneer at any band that more than a dozen people have heard of.

“Oh, really? You started reading Hap & Leonard? Just downloaded all their books on your e-reader this morning, did you? How nice. Of course, they were better LAST CENTURY which is when I discovered their early books in a soggy cardboard box in the basement of a used book store….”

If you don’t know about Hap & Leonard already then suffice it to say that they’re a couple of best friends living in east Texas who have an uncanny ability to put themselves in bad situations that usually require a whole lot of ass whippings and some gunfire to get out of. They’re profane and politically incorrect but don’t think that they’re your standard good old boys. Hap is a former hippie whose bleeding heart is frequently the cause of their problems while Leonard is a Vietnam veteran who is proud to be black and gay, and his favorite hobby is burning down crack houses. In the hands of Lansdale the adventures of H&L are often hilarious and frequently gross, and yet there’s a surprising amount of depth at times about the real cost of violence as well as a profound sense of melancholy that the narrator Hap has as he reflects on his life and other matters.

Even as I look down my nose at you late comers I have to admit that this collection put together to capitalize on the TV show has a lot of stuff that I haven’t read. There’s two novellas, four short stories, an ‘interview’ with the author questioning the guys, and Lansdale also wrote a brief summary of his history writing the series as an extended afterwards. Michael Koryta also provides a nice introduction.

While I’d previously read the novella Hyenas and the short story that came with it, The Boy Who Became Invisible, all the rest of this was new to me so even as a long time H&L fan I found plenty of value here. (I’d never read the other novella, Dead Aim, because I refused to pay the outrageous hardback price for it at the time although it’s since become available at a much more reasonable cost as an e-book.) I was particularly delighted to finally read the short story Veil’s Visit which is a collaboration with Andrew Vachss who is also the inspiration for the character of Veil, a lawyer who you don’t want to meet in or out of court.

If you’re someone who hasn’t read Hap & Leonard, and you’re curious then this could make for a good starting point because it is a nice variety pack that gives you a taste of what they’re all about. For those who have read some of the series then it’s a question of how much is new material to you. If you’ve read the novellas already then it may seem a bit thin, but it’d be a good buy for H&L fans who haven’t.

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Wasting A Perfectly Good Space Raccoon

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 5: Through the Looking Glass Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 5: Through the Looking Glass by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This collection is the perfect summation of what was good but ultimately frustrating about this run of the series.

There are fun moments with the characters like Rocket bickering with Captain Marvel, and there’s some potentially interesting storylines lurking in the background like Peter Quill being named the new king of Spartax against his wishes. However, once again with this title most of time is spent in service of crossing over to some other event.

This collection is especially irritating because it contains the GotG issues for The Black Vortex, but none of the other books involved. Since the story weaved through at least three other titles that means that this is like trying to read a novel with various chapters missing. I could get the Black Vortex trade from the library or read through the other comics using my Marvel Ultimate subscription, but I just don’t care.

So as usual I get enough moments with the Guardians themselves to make me crave more, but that’s never delivered because it was deemed more important to have them hook up with the X-Men for like the umpteenth time in recent memory. Now this version of the title is done, and who knows what’ll happen after Secret Wars. I just hope that maybe there will eventually come a time when I could read a version of Guardians of the Galaxy in which they actually have a purpose other than showing up in crossovers and giving a temporary home to other Marvel characters.

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Friday, February 19, 2016

Shake It Off

Shaker: A novel Shaker: A novel by Scott Frank
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Traveling for work can be a real headache, but it’s especially bad when the city you’re going to is still recovering from a natural disaster.

That’s what hit man Roy Cooper encounters when he flies into Los Angeles for his latest job because the area was hit with a round of serious earthquakes that have disrupted utilities and traffic, and the city is still experiencing random aftershocks. Roy manages to take care of his business quickly, but he hits a snag when he stumbles into a group of young gang members assaulting a jogger in an alley. Wacky hijinks ensue during which get Roy shot, and the jogger is killed by a banger with the gun Roy just used to murder his own target. As he recovers in the hospital Roy learns that the jogger was a mayoral candidate, the incident was recorded by a witness, cable news is running the footage repeatedly, and the kid who killed the jogger got away with Roy’s gun.

Everyone mistakenly thinks he’s a hero who tried to help the jogger, but Roy knows that his employers won’t be happy that his face is all over TV. Plus, he’s still got a murder weapon in the hands of a gang member that needs to be retrieved. Roy has other problems in the form of a Kelly Maguire and Science. Kelly is a tough cop on the verge of losing her job for excess force and racist statements who thinks that his story is fishy, and Science, the kid with his gun, is desperate to save face because the video shows Roy punking him so he’s looking for a rematch. Meanwhile, the mayor of LA tries to cope with the political fallout of his rival being murdered as well as find the best way to spin events for the media. Roy just wants to get out of the hospital so he can try to clean up the mess and maybe see his favorite baseball pitcher try to break a record.

This is a debut novel, but Scott Frank is hardly new to the writing game. He’s a veteran screenwriter whose credits include two of my favorite film adaptations of books, Get Shorty and Out of Sight. He’s also written and directed The Lookout, a very good heist movie with a twist starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as well as another respectable adaptation of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones featuring Liam Neeson.

So Frank knows a thing or two about crime stories, and the experience pays off here. The idea of a hit man getting waylaid by a gang in the midst of an earthquake ravaged LA is the kind of high concept that could make for a pretty good thriller in book or movie form. Frank actually digs a lot deeper into the history and personalities of Roy, Kelly, and Science so that all of them are fully formed characters, and he has more than a few things to say about the gaps between government and police policies versus the reality of life in a poor community dominated by drugs and gangs. This often seemed less like the crime thriller it appears to be and more like something that Richard Price or Dennis Lehane would do.

Roy in particular was compelling to me because he starts as this kind of blank slate that many hit man characters are often written as, but then we get a detailed history that turns into a parallel story that explains how he arrived at this particular moment. This turns into the sad and touching heart of the book.

Also, as a Kansas City area resident I enjoyed that Roy’s backstory is set here, but Frank does make a few errors. For example, you can’t be in Missouri and head east to Kansas City since it’s at the western edge of the state. Two characters committing crimes in Missouri are jailed in Kansas for some reason. A road is referred to as Route 435, but it’s actually an interstate highway, and referred to as I-435 or just 435 by locals, not Route 435. These are all minor nitpicks that didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the book, and I did appreciate that he got a lot right like naming a popular bar downtown and the Royals are always losing any game that Roy watches back in the day. (That’s a situation that has greatly improved though.)

Overall, this is a great crime novel that makes the most of its characters and their settings to tell a compelling story, and it builds to a climactic moment that manages to seem like the ending of a Hollywood blockbuster while simultaneously subverting a reader’s expectations as to how it all plays out. Whether it’s another movie or another book, I’ll be willing to check out more of Scott Frank’s work.

Also posted on Goodreads.

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Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Last Picture Show

The Drive-In The Drive-In by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With a new Hap & Leonard book out and the TV series based on their adventures coming soon it seems like Lansdale Fever is sweeping Goodreads these days. I blame Dan for infecting me with this particular strain of the virus.

I’d read the first two parts of The Drive-In saga way back in the ‘90s when I first discovered the Champion Mojo Storyteller, but I’d forgotten most of the story and never even gotten around to checking out the third installment. Then Dan spread his contagion all over the place, and I found myself rediscovering the gruesomeness of the Popcorn King all over again. Thanks a lot, Dan!

During the late ‘80s in Texas four young men head out to the local drive-in where they plan to spend the night watching a horror movie marathon. In the middle of their films a comet with a smile roars by, and the entire drive-in is suddenly surrounded by an inky darkness that dissolves anyone who tries to leave. With no other options the trapped patrons watch the movies over and over in an endless night as the food starts to run out. That’s when things get even weirder and more horrible.

This is a very short book, and that’s a good thing because I don’t think spinning the concept out much longer than 150 pages would actually work. (Although I’m sure Stephen King would have taken a 700 or 800 page swing at it if he would have thought of this idea first.) What really sells it is that Lansdale quickly provides the details that ground things in reality among the most mundane circumstances of people going to the movies before unleashing the batshit craziness. Then he uses the most terrible of creatures, human beings, to set the stage for the real horror show which becomes a gory supernatural B-movie spectacle.

Lansdale mainly uses two characters to represent different points of view. Our narrator Jack holds the desperately hopeful belief that there is some inherent goodness and meaning in humanity’s existence, but the counterpoint is his buddy Bob who operates under the basic assumptions that people are just bastard covered bastards with bastard filling and that believing in anything other than yourself is a waste of time. This is pretty much the same dynamic that defines the soft-hearted Hap and the pragmatic Leonard so you can almost see Jack and Bob as an early trial run at those two characters.

The part that really got to me this time was that period before things really go sideways when everyone is just stuck watching the movies over and over again while living off concession stand hotdogs and popcorn. While drive-ins were pretty much dead in my area by the time I was a teenager I’ve attended some movie marathons, and I think Lansdale really nailed that weird dreamy limbo state that sets in if you spend hour after hour staring at a screen in a theater as you shove popcorn or candy into your mouth.

Like most things Lansdale it’s got some funny stuff mixed in with some sharp edges that unsuspecting readers might cut themselves on. Overall, it’s weird and gory in ways that are different than most horror stories you’d read, but it’s also got an ugliness to it that definitely cuts into the fun factor you might expect from something this bizarre.

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Requiem For A Dentist

Doc Doc by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I’m your huckleberry."
- Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone

I’m far the first person to bring up Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc in the movie when reviewing this book, but it’s hard to avoid the comparison other than just the obvious fact that they’re both stories about the same man. Much like Tombstone embraces the legend of a dying drunken dentist turned gambler with a talent and taste for gun fighting but also adds unexpected depths thanks in large part to Kilmer’s performance, the book speculates about the man behind the myth and creates a tragic figure with a lot of admirable qualities.

The book moves us briskly through the early part of John Henry Holliday’s life as the son of aristocratic Southerners before the Civil War to the promising young man who seems poised to make his mark as a talented dentist before being given a delayed death sentence from tuberculosis. Seeking to extend his life Holliday travels to Texas, and when dentistry can’t pay the bills his skill at poker does. That’s where Doc meets Kate, the lady who will be both his loyalest ally and greatest tormentor, and she convinces him to move to the Dodge City, Kansas, which is booming thanks to the cattle herds being driven up from Texas.

Doc becomes a local fixture in Dodge, meeting many people and making interesting new friends like Morgan Earp. When a young man is killed in a stable fire most of Dodge just thinks that it is a tragic accident, but Doc suspects there was something more sinister behind the man’s death, and this gives him something in common with Wyatt Earp who also has reasons to think foul play may have been involved. As Doc deals with his on-going illness and Kate’s tantrums, Wyatt tries to keep the peace and navigate Dodge’s murky political waters. A bond eventually forms between the two man with the stoic Wyatt being amazed at the intelligence and sheer force of will that the sickly dentist exhibits while Doc is impressed with the law man’s honesty and integrity.

One of the more interesting things about it is addressed in the author’s afterward in which Mary Doria Russell notes:

"When Homer sang of Troy and Virgil wrote of Carthage and Rome, no one expected a bright line to divide myth from history. Arriving at the end of historical fiction today, the modern reader is likely to wonder, 'How much of that was real?' In this case the answer is: not all of it but a lot more than you might think."

Russell goes on to explain what is fictional while laying out some of the things she drew on for the real, and it's obvious that she did a lot of homework to bring Doc and Dodge City to life. However, it's the bit about what modern readers expect in historical fiction that caught my attention because that's usually the first question I'll ask when finishing a book like this. Now I'm wondering if that's how I should approach stories where the myth has so overshadowed the real people and events that it's almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Especially in one where the players have alternately been idealized or demonized to suit the purposes of whoever was telling the story at the time.

Doc Holliday has been written about in histories and historical fictions as well as being portrayed on screen countless times, and he's been painted as a bloodthirsty scoundrel, a man of honor, a murderer, and a loyal friend, and sometimes he was all of these at once. When a character has been played by multiple famous actors and even appeared on an episode of classic Star Trek it gets hard to know what to think about the guy. Even a close study of the historical facts as we know them leaves a lot open to interpretation.

So how do we tell stories about a guy like Doc Holliday? As they said in another western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the truth becomes legend, print the legend."

That’s precisely what’s been done here with this fascinating account that is equal parts historical fiction, western, character study, and just an all-around well-written book that is so elegantly told that it might be called delicate despite its rough frontier setting. Doc is the focal point, of course, but the shifting viewpoint also puts us into the thoughts of most of the major characters, and by the time it’s all done you’ll understand exactly what who they are and want they want in this particular version of their story.

One oddity is that despite the main character being known as a gunfighter and taking place mostly in one of the wildest cow towns of the era is that this isn’t filled with shoot-em-up action in the same way that Tombstone is. It's closer to Lonesome Dove, and some of it feels like HBO’s Deadwood. In the end, this is good enough on its own to make even the obvious comparisons feel a bit lame, and I’ll be checking out it’s follow-up, Epitaph, in the near future.

This book definitely was my huckleberry.

Note: I rewrote parts of this review on 2/6/16 because some of the comments I got made me think I wasn't sufficiently clear in what I was trying to say about the difference between writing a history and a historical fiction, and I thought I was potentially misrepresenting what Mary Doria Russell wrote in her author's note. I've tried to clarify that by including her quote and expanding on my own thoughts on the matter.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Floodgates Open

Floodgate: A Novel Floodgate: A Novel by Johnny Shaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received an advance copy of this from NetGalley.

Auction City is the kind of town that would keep Gotham City from being ranked #1 on one of those Worst Places To Live In America lists. It’s a decaying cesspool of crime and corruption where an honest cop like Andy Destra gets framed, disgraced, and tossed off the police force after he digs a little too deeply into a case.

Unemployment doesn’t keep Andy from launching a personal investigation and crusade against the deputy chief who got him fired, but Andy’s obsession with looking into Auction City’s shady history has him teetering on the brink of being written off as a conspiracy theory whackadoo. When Andy sees a mysterious lady visiting the woman who raised him it sparks his curiosity and leads him to previously unsuspected layers of Auction City secrets that could get him killed.

I’ve been a big cheerleader for Johnny Shaw since I stumbled across his old Blood & Tacos* e-zines and had an ARC of his Dove Season dropped in my lap a few years back, and it’s been a genuine pleasure to keep up with his career since then. He’s got a knack of creating characters who are likable losers and putting them in hilariously violent situations with plenty of laugh out loud moments. Floodgate continues that trend with Andy being a goof who finds himself in over his head and confronted with a stream of increasingly outlandish characters and situations.

That works pretty well, but I had a few problems with this one. The story seems a bit slow coming out of the gate, and it takes a while to get up and running. Andy is also a problematic protagonist who is supposed to be an ex-cop who knows the score in Auction City, and yet he seems almost painfully na├»ve, and short-sighted at times. This whole story hinges on the idea that out of simple curiosity Andy starts chasing a trail despite being warned off in very scary ways and having his life threatened, and that just doesn’t seem like enough motivation for this.

In addition to that there’s also the contradiction that Andy is supposed to be the kind of guy who can patiently prowl old records and painstakingly build files on every nook and cranny of Auction City, yet he’s so impatient that he can’t sit on a stake-out for 20 minutes without getting bored and doing something he knows his stupid. Frankly, he comes across as kind of a dumb ass just running around with his hair on fire who then criticizes other for their lack of planning and research later in the book. (view spoiler)

That kind of characterization has worked in other Shaw books when his leads are supposed to be rednecks and morons, but this kind of story seems to demand a smart, cynical, and capable hero. It seems improbable that Andy could have lasted for ten minutes in Auction City, let alone have once been a cop there. I know this is primarily a comedy, but it just didn’t seem like the kind of story where the main character could be that idiotic and impulsive.

Still, I loved the whole idea of this hellish city that makes Detroit seem like garden spot and the underlying history to the whole situation. There’s a cool concept at the heart of this that could be a fun series, and Shaw puts some very funny bits into the chaos that ensues. However, I had a hard time getting past the basic stupidity of Andy that drives the entire plot.

* - Full disclosure. I once contributed an unpaid review to Blood & Tacos.

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