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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Sleeping Policemen

September 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

policemenSleeping Policemen by Dale Bailey & Jack Slay, Jr.

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A sleeping policeman, according to the opening pages of the book, is another term for a speed bump. This was my first encounter with the phrase, so I looked it up, and sure enough, this is a common term in Britain, Malta, and the Caribbean. It comes up early in the story because three of the main characters are returning from a night out and run over a pedestrian. One of the characters — oddly enough, the one born and raised amid the Louisiana oil rigs, who was least likely to know the phrase — says it aloud when they hit the man, making the connection, but as the story progresses, we learn that the phrase has a double meaning. As the characters try to escape and evade what they’ve done, they’re drawn into a circle of crime involving corrupt police, who are effectively sleeping, waiting for their opportunity. Their downward spiral is dark, profane, and graphic.

Bailey and Slay seem to be channeling Jack Ketchum with this story. It’s chock full of violence and sex and the fine line that exists between the two, but it’s lacking whatever it is that exists in Ketchum’s fiction (“charm” isn’t the right word, though it’s the one that comes to mind) to elevate it to that level. Part of it, I think, is that the characters aren’t that likable. The authors do a good job of giving them much to lose — three of them come from privileged backgrounds, while the fourth is looking to leave his dead-end hometown — but they don’t do much to make us like them. Nick, the main character, is the closest thing to a protagonist here, but early in the story, a choice he makes distances the reader from him, so there’s a drive to see how the story ends for these characters, but there’s no connection with them to make us care for them.

The authors have a great command of the language. Their style is introspective and poetic, and their observations on the human condition are thoughtful and apt. The story itself, though, is brutal and difficult to read, which is odd because the language and the tension kept me engaged. It’s the kind of story that shocks and might offend, but it’s also the kind of story that you can’t turn away from.

Sleeping Policemen is a dark journey into youth, privilege, and greed. I enjoyed reading the book for the narrative voice, but not for the story itself. I get the feeling that, a year from now, when I try to recall details from the book, I’ll come up blank, though I’ll definitely remember the imagery and certain scenes. Fans of dark, nihilistic fiction, like Jack Ketchum or Chuck Palahniuk, are probably the right audience for this book.

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Hot in December

August 24, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

hotHot in December by Joe R. Lansdale

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Now, this is the kind of Lansdale book one should expect. A random encounter starts off a downward slide into criminal activity, forcing the good guys to make a stand against them and fight their way through. This time around, someone witnesses a fatal hit-and-run. Given that the driver of the car is in a local gang and Tom is the only witness, things get hairy when he presses to be a witness to the crime.

One of my favorite things about Lansdale as a writer is how well he understands the “show, don’t tell” adage of writing. Here’s a good example:

I rinsed them and opened up the washer, put them in, poured myself a cup of coffee, sat at the table and thought about things. The coffee went cold in the cup.

A less experienced writer might tell us “I thought about things for a long time”, but Lansdale shows us by writing “The coffee went cold in the cup.” If I taught a fiction writing class, I would use Lansdale as an example for how to do it right.

This novella exists in the same universe as Hap and Leonard and Cason Statler, and Lansdale throws in references to those characters here. For the most part, they work (there’s reference to Leonard that establishes mood, and could have been anyone, and Cason is an integral character to the story), but the reference to Sunset and Sawdust doesn’t make any sense unless you know the story. Later, Cason tells the narrator that Hap and Leonard would be perfect for what he needs, but they’re not available. The narrator then tells him what we’re thinking: “Don’t tell me about the guys I can’t have.” I wonder what readers unfamiliar with those characters think of the references.

The story hits the usual Lansdale beats, so longtime readers might be able to predict what’s going to happen when, but what makes his stories unique isn’t so much the structure as the way he tells it. There’s a certain cadence, a particular flow to his narrative that I’ve never found in other writers. Other writers may be as compelling or as tight as Lansdale, but there’s simply no one else who writes the way he does.

Lansdale’s novellas are the perfect length for these kinds of stories. His stories are already lean, but stripped down to this length (about 120 pages), they move quickly, enough so that it’s easy to sit down with it and not look up until you’re finished. That wasn’t quite the case with this one (stupid work), but had I not had any interruptions, I would have torn through it like rice paper. Lansdale fans should like it just fine.

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A Bone Dead Sadness

December 19, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

A Bone Dead SadnessA Bone Dead Sadness by Joe R. Lansdale

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This popped up as a recommendation in my Kindle app, and given that (a) I dig Joe Lansdale’s fiction, (b) I hadn’t heard of this story before, and (c) it was only 99 cents, I bought it. I found out afterward that this is a story Lansdale wrote to include in a reprint of Act of Love, and features Marvin Hanson many years after the events in that novel. It’s also set many years after Marvin befriended Hap & Leonard, though they don’t make an appearance in the story.

A Bone Dead Sadness starts with Marvin receiving an email from a local woman who wants him to investigate the disappearance of her son from twenty-five years before. The story is just that investigation, though Lansdale throws in some of his usual style to give it a little something more. It doesn’t have the snappy dialogue one comes to expect from a Lansdale story; there’s a hint of it when Marvin has a meeting with the Chief of Police, but most of his conversation is with his wife, with the mother, and with her daughter-in-law. There’s not much room for his trademark dialogue, though that’s not saying there’s anything wrong with what is there. It’s just not what one would expect from a Lansdale story.

The story is fine, and serviceable, though it’s nothing spectacular. All the events take place in the past, so the story is all about interviewing people and hoping to put all the pieces together. If you pay attention to how Lansdale sets up the story, you’ll figure out how it will end, but I didn’t catch it myself. I think Lansdale sets up his stories craftily enough so the clues aren’t obvious, but if you go into the story looking for clues, I think you’ll figure it out.

I’d recommend this story for Lansdale completists, but other readers, including Lansdale fans, might want to give it a pass. It’s a brief read (it took me an hour, tops, to breeze through it), and it’s cheap, but there’s better Lansdale fiction out there. If you just can’t find anything else to read, though, then sure, give it a go. I’ve read worse stories, after all.

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Dead Aim

May 21, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Dead AimDead Aim by Joe R. Lansdale

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As much as I like the Hap & Leonard series, reading several of the books back-to-back probably isn’t recommended.  Each book makes a show of comparing Hap with Leonard in how they deal with the terrible things they sometimes have to do, with Hap brooding over some thing or another, and Leonard telling him he copes with it because he knows those things had to happen.  Hap broods some more, but manages to come to terms with them.  For now.

While it’s an interesting contrast between the characters, and while it highlights the differences between how they justify their morality, it gets tiresome to read it over and over again.  Read as they’re published, the books probably don’t have that kind of repetition to them; read over a single weekend, they do.

Also of note is the number of times we read about Leonard’s obsession with vanilla cookies and Dr. Pepper.  I swear, Hap & Leonard 11 is just going to be about Leonard’s trip to the dentist.

Dead Aim is another novella about the length of Hyenas, and is probably the more memorable of the two stories.  Hyenas was straightforward, with no real twists and turns to the story; Dead Aim goes a little bit further, and makes more of a mystery out the circumstances.  It’s still not as deep as the Vanilla Ride/Devil Red diptych, and unlike Hyenas, it’s not a good place to start with Hap and Leonard, but it was a more interesting, engaging read than Hyenas.

It’s a little strange to review this novella based on everything else Hap and Leonard, but it does make sense to get an idea of where it sits within the entire series.  Regardless, anyone who’s come this far with the pair should like this story, too.

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Hyenas

May 20, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

HyenasHyenas by Joe R. Lansdale

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What makes a good Hap & Leonard story is the weird confluence of events that starts in one place and takes you to on a roller coaster ride to a conclusion so far from the beginning that you have to look back to see how you got there.  It doesn’t usually feel convoluted (Captains Outrageous notwithstanding), and it’s usually pretty tight.  Since most Hap & Leonard stories are novels, this is a fine thing.

Hap & Leonard novella, though, is something a little different.  It doesn’t have the time nor the pacing to develop a series of events like that, and what you’re left with is a shorter work which is basically just the setup that would occur in a novel.  Here, Leonard gets into a bar brawl that takes him to helping one of the brawlers protect his younger brother from getting involved with a criminal group.  It’s a satisfying story with the usual wit and grit one would expect from Hap and Leonard, but it wasn’t quite the same as experiencing a full novel.

Anything by Lansdale is worth reading, though, and even if Hyenas is just mediocre when compared to the rest of the series, it’s still worth the hour it will take to read it.  Plus, if you’ve never read anything by Lansdale, this would be a good start.  It’s sort of like getting a sampler at a bar before ordering the 22-oz. growler.

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