Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

August 21, 2017 at 2:00 pm (Reads) ()

escapeEscape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

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Not sure if you’ll like this book? Well, the back of the book tells you everything you need to know in one quote: “In this cross between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and A Night in the Museum …”. Twelve kids go into a state-of-the-art library, built by the enigmatic and eccentric Mr. Lemoncello, and try to solve puzzles to find a secret exit. He (or she!) who does wins an extraordinary prize.

Straight up, this book is a lot of fun. It starts fast and maintains its pace throughout the story, keeping us engaged with lively characters and an engaging plot. We don’t have any Mike Teevees or Veruca Salts, but neither do we have any Uncle Joes or Charlie Buckets, instead, we have everyday kid protagonists who are easy to like, and everyday kid antagonists who are as equally easy to loathe. The plot doesn’t wander far off its mark, which is fine, since the story is set in one location, and there’s only one goal in mind for all the characters. It’s a simple story that plugs along without pretention.

It’s best to understand that this is a kids’ book. Its characters are drawn with a broad brush, without much complexity or depth. We get enough to know who we should like and who we shouldn’t, but we’re not getting a bunch of backstory or ambiguity in their characters. It’s straightfoward, easily accessible, and pretty mindless, none of which are bad things, so long as you understand that going into the book. Anyone looking for a Harry Potter or a Percy Jackson are going to be disappointed.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a love letter to libraries and books and reading and knowledge. Sure, it’s written for kids, but adults who are still kids at heart, or who have a soft spot for the libraries of their youth, will find a lot to like here. It’s morally sound, with good behavior rewarded in the story, and its main theme is friendship (though teamwork takes a close second). If it sounds like anything you might like, then I’ll bet that you will. I highly recommend it.

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Han Solo: The Hutt Gambit

August 18, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

gambitHan Solo: The Hutt Gambit by A.C. Crispin

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The Paradise Snare introduced the idea of Han Solo as an Imperial Navy pilot. It was an interesting idea, and one that helps explain why he’s such a good pilot in the movies (though it doesn’t explain why he never brings it up in the movies, but hey, this book was written 20 years after the movie, and I can live with such things), and one that I looked forward to reading about in The Hutt Gambit. Alas, this book picks up five years later, a month or so after Han has been kicked out of the Navy for striking an officer, so we don’t get to see that part of the story.

Instead, we see Han beginning his life as a smuggler proper. He’s being hunted by bounty hunters hired by the Ylesian Hutts he crossed in The Paradise Snare, while working for Jiliac and his nephew, Jabba. Chewbacca is now Han’s partner (Chewie is part of the reason Han got kicked out of the Navy), and the two of them start crossing the galaxy and getting into trouble.

The story flows pretty well, taking us through the characters’ lives, and giving us hints at what’s to come, and what’s come before. Bria makes an appearance here, though she’s a tertiary character, at best. We get a few fan-service moments throughout the story (Boba Fett, Cloud City, and Tatooine all make appearances, or are at least mentioned), and Crispin sets up the end of the novel to take us through to the third book in the series, which feels like it will be a culmination of the characters she’s introduced in the first two books.

Han feels more like Han in The Hutt Gambit, and Crispin avoids overusing “Honey” and “Sweetheart” in his speech like she did in The Paradise Snare (I don’t remember seeing a single instance of either, in fact). I felt more invested in Han and the characters around him, even though I didn’t have the kind of connection I’ve had with other characters in other books. The action is solid and well-paced, and the final battle in the book (which takes up about a quarter of the novel) is gripping and engaging.

The Hutt Gambit is a solid read, and is an improvement over the first book in this trilogy. I wouldn’t count it among my favorites, but it was worth the time, and is a stronger book than some of the newer Expanded Universe books. Despite some telly parts here and there, and taking a little too long to get to the heart of the story, the book satisfies.

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We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

August 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

bobWe Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

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I blame Andy Weir for We Are Legion (We Are Bob). I get the feeling Taylor read Weir’s book, thought, Hey, I’m a bit of a smartass too, and I know science! and then started work on this book. Somehow, Taylor doesn’t quite bring the level of charm to the story that Weir did, making the book a little less than it could have been.

Bob is our central character. The story begins with him in the early 21st century, shortly after selling his tech company for a ridiculous amount of money. His first stop after depositing the check is a cryogenics lab, which turns out to be a good decision, since that same day, he’s struck by a car and killed. One hundred years later, he wakes to find himself a disembodied computer program tasked with taking command of a spacecraft with self-replicating abilities so he can travel the galaxy looking for worlds to where the human race can emigrate. In true science fiction form, humans have destroyed the planet through greed, politics, and self-interest, so it’s time to move on.

It’s no secret that I think Weir’s book, as entertaining as it is, is poorly written. Still, he captures the reader’s attention with the premise, and keeps the reader engaged by creating a likeable character in Mark Watney. Bob? Not so much. His smartassery gets tiresome, because everything is the potential for a joke in his world. Plus, the irreverence of Watney in The Martian is easier to take, because Weir has us invested in Watney’s survival, while in We Are Legion, Taylor keeps the focus all over the place. At first it’s Bob we’re supposed to be concerned about, but then it’s the human race, and then later still, it’s … well, maybe I shouldn’t spoil it. Just know that he splits the reader’s concerns even more as the story progresses.

Bob is also extremely good at everything he needs to do. He doesn’t suffer many setbacks in his ordeals, and as he reminds us time and again, he’s essentially immortal, so the stakes never seem very high. Bob isn’t a relateable character, despite his Everyman status. At one point in the story, I thought maybe I was supposed to relate more to the human survivors, but this isn’t really their story. We Are Legion is all about Bob and what he can do, and all of his corny, stupid jokes.

I wouldn’t think to compare this book to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, but I read them back-to-back, and they’re both stories of human survival and space exploration. They’re not really the same class of book, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities, and it’s hard not to see Children of Time as the better book. It isn’t because it handles its theme better, though; it’s more that Tchaikovsky recognizes the need for good characters to drive his story, and that he pays attention to the human drama. We Are Legion focuses on one character, and doesn’t seem to care about the real people that exist outside of Bob.

Taylor touches on a theme when he explains what drove humans to the brink of extinction, but it’s just there to explain the need to escape the planet. It comes up a few times later in the narrative, but for the most part, it’s just there as a motivating factor, and doesn’t recur in the story. Imagine if The Handmaid’s Tale reduced its entire story down to one chapter, and made the focus of the book the afterword set hundreds of years in the future, and you’ll have an idea of how Taylor handles this point. It should have been the focus of an entire novel by itself, but it’s not really about Bob, so we just get a Cliff’s Notes version instead, and even then, it comes across as ham-fisted.

The book starts off strong, but then it peters out around the middle. By then, I had resolved that I wasn’t going to read anything else in the series, but I’ll be damned if Taylor didn’t pick up the story again as it neared the end. It wasn’t enough for me to raise my rating above three stars (I had anticipated giving it two up until then), but it was enough for me to pick up For We Are Many as soon as I finished it. We’ll see if it’s enough to keep me around for book three.

In the end, We Are Legion feels amateurish. The style is too colloquial and too irreverent, and Bob’s personality is too off-putting to take him too seriously. It feels off in some way I can’t describe, but it definitely affects how I feel about the book. I’m not sure I would recommend it (I have to see if the next book makes the fumblings of this one worthwhile), because by itself, it’s just not that great. Folks who like it seem to really like it, but they don’t seem to find Bob as grating as I do. For me, the book is just a solid “Eh”.

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Han Solo: The Paradise Snare

August 16, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

snareHan Solo: The Paradise Snare by A.C. Crispin

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Reading the Star Wars Legends books in chronological order has been an interesting approach. Since the original writers of the Expanded Universe were asked not to write anything preceding Episode IV, most of what I’ve read in the EU so far has been the books that were written near the end of the Legends project. It’s only now that I’m getting back to the books that were written in the ’90s, when the EU became a lucrative license again. The Paradise Snare was written in 1997, several years after the Thrawn trilogy, but still a couple of years before Episode I. Reading a book written before the events that preceded it presents its own challenges, reminding me that it’s usually better to read a series in written chronological order. At the very least, it’s strange to shift from a series of books about the Empire slowly taking over every planet in the galaxy to one planet that has no concern over the Empire.

The Paradise Snare takes us back to when Han Solo is about nineteen, making a break from being part of a thieves’ gang, and starting on his own adventures as a pilot. During the time this story occurs, Han entertains notions of being a pilot for the Imperial Navy, but he first has to learn more about piloting in general. He applies for a job on the planet Ylesia. It pays well, but it requires not asking too many questions about the jobs.

The story is more romance than adventure, as Han meets a young Corellian woman on Ylesia. It doesn’t take much for him to fall for her (or her for him), but Bria is involved with a religious cult that pervades the workers on Ylesia. In order for their relationship to progress, they have to get off of the planet, but that means (a) breaking Bria out of the cult, (b) stealing enough valuables to give them money for a new life together, (c) getting Han’s ever-present guard, Muuurgh, a giant cat, to agree to the plan, and (d) stealing a ship and getting past the guards around the planet. It’s a hefty plan, and one that’s set up rather well.

My main problems with the story were that I couldn’t understand what drove Han and Bria’s relationship, and that events coincided a little too easily for the plan to work out the way it did. I’ve mentioned before that there’s a lot of coincidence in the EU, which can usually be explained away by the Force, but here it didn’t quite work since the Force wasn’t a part of this novel at all. Anyone familiar with the EU knows about it, and may write off the coincidences as the Force at work, but by itself, the novel doesn’t give much to explain how everything comes together so neatly at the end of the main plot. I can accept it and move on with the story, but I have to acknowledge it as a sticking point.

Han and Bria make a nice couple, but beyond each of them finding the other attractive, there isn’t much there to explain why they get together. We get enough backstory on each of them to understand they feel a connection, but it’s not defined well enough to build their relationship. It feels superficial, and since the story is primarily about the two of them as a couple, it feels incomplete.

Crispin works hard to give us hints at the character Han will become — he’s jaded, works on his own, is fiercely loyal to his friends, and calls Bria “Honey” or “Sweetheart” almost exclusively — but I never felt like I was watching Han Solo. I get that he’s younger, and still growing into who he will become, but it was enough of a disconnect that I sometimes felt I was reading a novel set outside the world of Star Wars.

For all that being said, I was caught up in the story, and read the last half of the book over one sitting. Even if the events were too much of a coincidence, and even if the relationship felt shallow, Crispin still kept me engaged enough to feel the tension of the story. The main action ended about 100 pages from the end of the book, so there was more to tell outside of the planetbreak, but even then, I was hooked enough to want to see it through to the end.

The Paradise Snare reminds me more of Beverly Hills 90210 than Star Wars, but it’s still a decent enough read. Crispin’s style is natural and engrossing, and her action sequences are easy to follow, it just isn’t the kind of book I would expect for Star Wars. That point aside, though, this is a solid read and a nice segueway from the new EU to the classic EU.

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Dark Disciple

August 15, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

discipleDark Disciple by Christie Golden

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After The Last Jedi, I decided to jump ahead to the new canon novels and start on those. I figured it would be a good way to stay on top of the new movies as they come out, and also that, since there were fewer volumes, I could feel like I accomplished something with them this year. Dark Disciple was a bad place to start, namely because I haven’t finished watching all of The Clone Wars yet.

Dark Disciple, if you don’t know, is based on eight unproduced episodes of The Clone Wars, written by Katie Lucas, adapted by Golden. The premise of the book is the Jedi Council has decided the best thing to do regarding Count Dooku is to kill him. Obi-Wan suggests Quinlan Vos be the one to do the deed, and sends him in search of Asajj Ventress, a wanted criminal by the Jedi who has been cast out by Dooku and is likely to want revenge, to train Vos and help him get close to Dooku.

Since I wasn’t too fond of the book, it’s hard to know where to point my criticism. It makes sense to point it toward Lucas, since most of what I didn’t like have to do with the story, not with how it was written.

I had a lot of issues with the plot, but most of them stem from the fact that no one in the book acts like you would expect. We have the Jedi Council calling for assassinations, Yoda himself calling for executions, and Ventress showing her human side. None of these characters have been presented in other works as being anything like they are in this novel, and it was hard to accept the main premise of the story because of that. Vos and Ventress fall in love over the course of their story, which was at odds to both of their characters (a Jedi spurns attachment, and Ventress … well, she’s Ventress; she doesn’t trust anyone), but those are the two plots that drive the story forward. When it’s hard to accept the actions and motivations of the characters, how can we be invested in the story?

The narrative moves along at a pretty good clip, sometimes going too fast to get a sense of emotion. Early in the novel, there’s a scene where the Jedi suffer a tremendous loss, which is what spurns them to plan the assassination at all. It’s key, and it serves its purpose, but once it’s done that, Golden doesn’t come back to it at all. For as pivotal a moment as it is in the story, I expected more introspection and contemplation about it, especially from the Jedi.

I wasn’t paying close enough attention through the book to find any Easter eggs (and I still don’t know enough about the Clone Wars to catch anything from the show), but I did notice near the end of the book that one of the clones was named Threepwood. That was a nice surprise.

The edition I read included a short story by Golden, “Kindred Spirits”, about Ventriss and Lassa Rhayme, a female pirate. Together, they retrieve some goods that were stolen from Rhayme, one of which is an item Ventriss needs to collect a bounty. It was about as decent as any other Star Wars story, but that’s not saying much. I have yet to read one that feels necessary.

I’m going to shift back to the Legends books after Dark Disciple. I think I could get away with skipping some of the books that might spoil the shows I have yet to see, but it looks like some of the books in the middle are based off of Rebels, too, so I figure I should play it safe and not run the risk of spoiling either show.

Star Wars Progress
Total Read: 110
Total Legends: 104
Total Canon: 6
Total Percentage: 36.4%

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Agents of Dreamland

August 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

agentsAgents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Agents of Dreamland is my first exposure to Caitlín Kiernan. I’ve known of her for a long time (I even had a copy of Silk for a long time), but she never pinged my radar enough for me to read her work. Later, I found a quote of hers where she discarded the use of plot in creative writing, and I, being a function-over-form reader, figured she wasn’t for me. I kept hearing good things about this novella, though, and I figured it was time to try her out.

I’m glad I did, because what I found is a story that has some plot (just enough, really), but excels for its use of language, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a piece that draws on The X-Files as much as Lovecraft, and it paints a picture of a moment that presents a terrible future. It flows through time, and introduces us to a couple of characters who appear to be on the same side, but are only marginally so. We don’t get caught up in their relationship, nor are we presented with the characters in such a way that we find ourselves immediately relating to and caring for them, but that’s not the point of the story, so it’s hard to complain about it.

Kiernan has an hallucinatory style to her narrative that’s a perfect fit for a story like this. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors have always resembled something from a bad acid trip, and here we have a writer who embraces that style with her writing. She also peppers the story with some named horrors lifted right out of our reality, giving the book a sense of reality, and reminding us that we don’t have to look far to find something to fear. The novella is an unsettling piece of work.

Suffice it to say, I’m impressed. I’m not sure if her style would sustain me over the length of an entire novel, but I’m more willing to give her a shot now than I was before. Agents of Dreamland strikes me as a perfect starting point for Kiernan. I can see that she wouldn’t be a writer for just anyone (heck, the jury’s still out on whether she’s one for me), but readers who like the dark and questionable and enjoy stories that aren’t traditionally told should give her a chance.

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The Collapsing Empire

August 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

rmpitrThe Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

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In the future, we’ve conquered space travel not by exceeding the speed of light or by using suspended animation, or using wormholes or anything like that. No, instead we discovered The Flow, an odd, barely-understood quirk of physics that allows ships to travel from one solar system to another in a span of months. It’s been there for a thousand years, and save for a couple of minor quirks along the way, it’s held up well, and people expect it to hold up until the end of time.

The problem is that The Flow is failing. Few people have spent time studying it, but those who have predict The Flow will begin collapsing, one route at a time, until all the systems connected by it will be left to their own devices. Considering that none of these systems are self-sufficient and that,, for a thousand years, these systems have built up an interdependency with one another, it means that these systems will all begin dying once they’re stranded. And the people who have studied the Flow believe that the collapse will begin in a matter of months.

Thus begins The Collapsing Empire, the first book in The Interdependency, John Scalzi’s latest science fiction series. Unlike Old Man’s War, though, this is a book written with the intent of being a series, so the first book is an introduction to The Flow, the complex dependencies that exist among the systems, and the wide range of characters that create the drama to carry the story. That’s not to say the book is just exposition; there’s a central conflict, a mystery to be solved, and Scalzi, in true form, creates a good one. It’s important to note, though, that you’re not going to get all of your questions answered in this one book, because aside from building a world where the major conflict is just getting started, Scalzi also ends the book on a cliffhanger.

I’ve seen this book described as a “space opera”, which is … interesting. I’m not entirely sure if I could define space opera, but The Collapsing Empire isn’t it. Alastair Reynolds? James S.A. Corey? Sure (with the caveat being that I haven’t read anything by these authors; they’re just who come to mind when I hear “space opera”). But The Collapsing Empire? Well, it’s engaging and compelling, full of realistic characters, and has a complex, realized plot, but it’s just not a space opera.

Already-fans of Scalzi’s should love this book, as would any new reader with a fancy for a strong, well-told science fiction story. It’s not at the level of, say, The Broken Earth or Children of Time, but Scalzi doesn’t write stories like that, anyway, and I don’t think he’s ever pretended to. The Collapsing Empire is a solid piece of work, well worth the time for anyone to read it.

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Norse Mythology

August 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

norseNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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I like Neil Gaiman. A lot. I have a tattoo of Death on my arm, and I got to show it to him at a convention in 1995 that I attended pretty much just so I could meet him. My fandom is great, is what I’m saying, and it’s hard for me to admit that he can do no wrong.

With Norse Mythology, though, I’ll admit I wasn’t that interested in reading it. I prefer his fiction, the way he combines mythology and fairy tales and legend and the modern day in the way only he can, and while others were oohing and squeeing over this book, I couldn’t muster up a lot of enthusiasm for it. I hadn’t even planned on buying it, but I saw a store selling signed copies at no upcharge, so I bit. At the very least, I figured it would go well with the books I got signed in 1995.

My expectations were low going in, but I still wasn’t that thrilled with the book. The introductory stories (chapters?) were more like reading nonfiction, with their bland retelling of facts, and I started to wonder if I was going to make it all the way through the book. Later stories were just that, stories, where Gaiman characterized the gods as if they were people he had created for his own story. Loki, Thor, and Odin all had their own personalities and traits, and Gaiman told their stories with the same kind of humor and charm that he uses to tell all his other stories. The book improved, since once Gaiman started on telling their stories, he stuck with them.

I still couldn’t find myself getting excited for the book, because the stories were still mythology, not Gaiman stories. Norse mythology especially is hard to take, since it’s so male-centric and battle-oriented. This might be true of Roman and Greek mythology, too, but in the Norse mythology, women, as strong and battle-worthy as they may be, are still there to be married off to whoever needs appeasing at that moment in the story, and the most important thing to the men is to have a worthy death in battle. These aren’t the sorts of stories I would normally read, is what I’m saying.

Loki features heavily in the stories, and I’m not sure if this was Gaiman’s choice, or is just how Norse mythology is. If it’s the latter case, then I have to wonder how much treachery and deceit was involved among the Norse that they had to create a god just to handle that sort of thing. It seems like an odd god to have among a pantheon.

Based on other ratings I see from friends, we all give this book a solid MEH. It’s fine for what it is, but I wouldn’t consider it required reading, even for Gaiman fans. One day the book might attain the same stature as Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but even then, Gaiman writes the gods with a touch of irreverence that I have a hard time seeing used in a classroom. If there’s a particular audience for Norse Mythology, I couldn’t tell you what it is.

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A New Hope: The Life of Luke Skywalker

August 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lukeA New Hope: The Life of Luke Skywalker by Ryder Windham

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When I set out on this Star Wars reading project, I decided against including all of the novelizations of other works, save for the adult novelizations of the movies. It cut out a lot of the juvenile books, since most of them were retellings of even the adult novels, but it appears that a few of them squeezed through the cracks. Ryder Windham’s biographies of the characters are a few of those.

For the most part, the books have been entertaining, and in some ways even enlightening (it’s nice to get Obi-Wan’s viewpoint when he first talks to Luke about Anakin and Darth Vader in The Life and Legend of Obi-Wan Kenobi), but they’ve been a collection of details from other works. The Life of Luke Skywalker collects dialogue and scenes from Star Wars, the radio plays, some comics, and even a novel from the Legends Expanded Universe, so very little of the content is original. Windham borrows from these sources to build a single story of Luke, but what he chooses to include and exclude seems odd. The largest details are left out (those from Episodes IVVI), and some scenes are hastened through, as if he were trying to cram as much as possible into the story. As a result, the story doesn’t feel cohesive, or even complete.

This is the last of the biographies written by Windham, the others being about Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, and Darth Maul (no love for Leia there, I guess), but none of them have felt necessary. With the earlier books, I thought they would serve a purpose as an introduction into the larger works, but now that I’ve read one where I don’t know some of the details Windham covers, I can see that it only causes confusion. I’d skip over these if I were to do this project over again.

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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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