“Hap and Leonard” by Joe R. Lansdale

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Hap-and-Leonard-Cover-final

Cover design by Elizabeth Story

“Hap and Leonard” by Joe R. Lansdale, 2016, finished July 2017

I love Joe Lansdale. He is as effortless to read as Stephen King (who I also love) but he is also endlessly hilarious, sly, and insightful. It is not easy to predict the twists and turns his stories will take, and he is a master at shaping your emotions. I laugh a lot when I read Lansdale. I have also felt anxiety, dread, despair, hope, sadness, and joy. Most of his books have sections that are bleak and horrific, but there are characters and situations that are also wonderful. All this is my vague and meandering way of saying that you absolutely should read Joe Lansdale.

I just finished the anthology “Hap and Leonard.” These characters are now gracing the small screen via Sundance TV. I’ve only seen the first season, which is on Netflix, but I really enjoyed it. It prompted me to reread the first book featuring these two fellas, “Savage Season.” The first season of the show covers the events of this first book. The second season, the second. Given how many books there are in the series, the show could run for many years. Fingers crossed.

These characters, a couple of working class men from East Texas, are an unlikely pair. Hap is a white ex-hippy who hates guns (but who is a crack shot). Leonard is a black gay Republican (is such a thing possible?) Vietnam vet with anger-management issues. Curiously, it is usually soft-hearted Hap who gets them in to the many insane and violent situations that the two have to fight through. No matter what the circumstances, they have each other’s back. They are skilled fighters, but they get their asses handed to them on many occasions. Sometimes they disagree, and take a break from each other. But they are brothers at heart. In reality they would no doubt be in jail for multiple homicides, but they always seem to play the angles and get away with it. Mainly because they only kill really bad people. The cops seem content enough with that.

“Hap and Leonard” contains 7 stories, one interview by Lansdale with his creations, and an essay about their history. Bonus: Lansdale includes his own chili recipe! I haven’t tried it yet. There is also a beautiful intro by Michael Koryta which perfectly captures why Hap and Leonard are great and why Lansdale is so amazing to read. Some of the stories flow in to the gaps between the existing books, but a couple take place when the guys are just kids. The heart-wrenching “The Boy Who Became Invisible” is a Hap-only tale covering a pivotal moment in his young life. It is easy to see how the events of that story would shape the Hap that we know and love. “Not Our Kind” covers a time early in Hap and Leonard’s friendship. It showcases their delight in one another, and helps forge that bond that is so unbreakable throughout their lives. The first story, “Hyenas” has about the funniest opening you will ever read. It goes dark places though. But there are bright sparks of humour even in that darkness.

I would like to include a shout out to Brett, who plays a role in several stories. This lady, Hap’s girlfriend, is smart, compassionate, resilient and fierce. She is a delightful character, and both the guys admire and respect her, and seek her opinion. Her life has been challenging, and her addict daughter has put them in perilous situations more than once, but Brett is part of this weird little family too.

If you are not sure about jumping in to the Hap and Leonard series of books, this would be a good intro to the characters. It will give you a taste of what you are missing out on. If you are already a fan of these guys, then what are you waiting for? And if you are coming to this via the tv series, I promise you that the friendship you see on the show is deep and real in the stories, and the banter is electric.

“The Green Man” by Kingsley Amis

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"The Green Man" by Kingsley Amis. Cover by Brian Frowde.

“The Green Man” by Kingsley Amis. Cover by Brian Frowde.

“The Green Man” by Kingsley Amis, 1969

Finished October 2, 2012

I started this book several times over the years, and never managed to get very far. I’ve finally gotten through it, and gotta say, I should have left it alone. Amis was a famous writer (as his son is now), and the blurbs describe this book as “devilishly cunning” and “hugely enjoyable,” so I suspect time and geography does not dispose me to it. But without a doubt, the reviewer who called this “superb sexual comedy” must have lived a very sad life.

Maurice Allington owns an inn not far from London. He lives there with his second wife, Joyce, and his teenage daughter, Amy, from his first marriage. His ex-wife had died in a “street accident” a year and a half earlier, and Maurice is unable to make a connection with his child. But that is because he is a selfish drunken snotty jerk. After reading this book and finding the character of Maurice to be entirely unsympathetic, I read up on Amis and learned that he was pretty much exactly like this character: A perpetually drunken adulterer. So perhaps in his own mind Amis was writing an admirable fellow, but I was hoping he’d get eaten by bears and save his friends and acquaintances the agony of his continued existence.

Anyway, the Green Man Inn used to be a home owned by an even more unpleasant fellow, a sort of dark magician by the name of Dr. Thomas Underhill. He spent a lot of time raping young girls, and had plans to survive past death. Maurice starts spotting ghosts on his property, and in between bouts of sleeping with his friend’s wife, having stilted conversations with his family members, and drinking ridiculous amounts, he begins to explore the history of his house.

His research leads Maurice to the conclusion that Underhill had certain items and writings buried with him, and he somehow convinces his mistress to help him dig up the grave. Hang on, this is sounding way more interesting than it was. I need to point out that his interactions with people seem so cold and analytical and lacking in even a speck of empathy or fellow-feeling, or emotion of any kind, that even the sex scenes are a chore to read. Perhaps the constant inebriation numbed the writer to the point that he couldn’t really feel anything. Or maybe he was just a cold and selfish ass.

In the grave Maurice finds what he is looking for and he establishes a more stable connection with Underhill. I’m never clear on why he does this, outside of a passive sort of curiousity. At this point, God shows up. No, really. A young man appears in his study, and we soon realize that it’s God, there to drink some Scotch and give Maurice a bit of advice. God makes mention of how he realized his powers at some point, and sometimes it’s a pain, and there are rules he has to follow. When talking about mistakes he has made due to his lack of foresight, he says, “Well, then I was stuck with those decisions and their results in practice. And I couldn’t go back on them; one thing nobody’s ever credited me with is the power of undoing what I’ve done, of abolishing historical fact and so on.” I found this part slightly interesting. Then God tells Maurice that the Church can help him out of the situation he is about to get himself tangled up in, and vanishes.

When Maurice realizes that all Underhill wants to do (in his corporeal form as a giant monster man made out of branches and leaves) is to kill his daughter, he brings in the Parson to perform an exorcism. Underhill begs to be spared but Maurice ignores him, and the evil old pervert winks out of existence. Joyce leaves him after realizing what an irredeemable ass he is after he involved her in a sort-of threesome with his mistress/her best friend, and he goes back to drinking and thinking about maybe someday being a better person. Although the thought clearly wearies him. He truly is looking forward to death as an escape from the trivialities of life. Ugh.

I can imagine this book would be interesting if written by someone else. There is nothing terribly original about the story. Amis plays around with time distortion and hallucinatory images a bit, but the overall feel of the book is very much like the late 60’s and early 70’s. Drab, full of earth tones, too much booze and cigarettes, and annoying, self-indulgent soul-searching. So freaking dreary, like a cold, damp overcast winter afternoon that just won’t end. And you are stuck wearing wet socks. Not recommended, unless you like that feeling.

“Mockingbird” by Chuck Wendig

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"Mockingbird" by Chuck Wendig. Cover art by Joey Hifi.

Cover art by Joey Hifi.

 

“Mockingbird” by Chuck Wendig, 2012

Finished September 25, 2012

This is the sequel to Wendig’s enjoyable “Blackbirds.” We are back with Miriam Black, who is finding the quiet life with Louis to be grating. She is as acerbic and foul-mouthed as ever, ill-suited to ordinary existence. She has been avoiding practicing her skill – if she touches someone she sees their death – and it has become something of a craving.

For years Miriam was convinced that she could not change anyone’s fate. All her attempts to save people only helped bring about the circumstances of their inevitable death. But in the first book she learned that as long as death had a victim, things could change. In the case of Louis, this was not a difficult choice to make. But in this book, she discovers that things can get a whole lot more complicated.

After preventing a massacre at a grocery store, Miriam is overwhelmed by the need to hit the road again. Louis tracks her down, as he always does, and offers her the chance to read the fate of a woman he knows. She’s a teacher at a school for wayward girls, and once there Miriam soon finds herself faced with several future victims of a ritualistic mass murderer. Ever unable to do things the easy or polite way, she finds herself beaten, kidnapped, beaten, kidnapped again, beaten some more, and forced to deal with the morality of her choices. Along the way she discovers new facets to her abilities.

Miriam is hard to like. She is chronically unable to be pleasant or kind, even to people who are kind to her (especially poor Louis). She drinks a lot, smokes incessantly, and eats truly terrible food. Just reading about her lifestyle gives me a sour stomach. She is without a doubt her own worst enemy, which is saying something given how formidable her enemies can be. But you understand where she comes from and why she is the way she is. It is frustrating to watch her screw things up endlessly. But as unpleasant as she can be, she will fight to the death to save others. She is hard to like, but you gotta love her. And man she can just shake severe head trauma off like nobody’s business.

I love Chuck Wendig’s angry heroes, so I recommend anything by him. However, I found this book lacked a lot of the humour that he had in the first one, and the action felt repetitive. I mean, just how many times can Miriam break into that school before the guard at the gate gets fired? And the damage she can take and still keep fighting is beyond epic. It’s almost Bruce Campbell-like. She is less likable in this, probably because she is just so mean to sweet Louis, but I’d still recommend this. And if you read the first book, you will want to see where fate takes her.

“Autumn” by David Moody

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"Autumn" cover

Cover art by Lisa Marie Pompilio from a photo by Jake Garn

“Autumn” by David Moody, 2010

Finished September 24, 2012

There is some really excellent fiction that gets its start online. It seems to be a great way for authors to build an audience, find their voice, and get the support they need to get published (and paid!). I think this is wonderful. One of my favourite books, “John Dies at the End” by David Wong, has such a history. It is an approach that works well in genre fiction. Well, maybe it works well in mysteries and romances and stuff like that too, but I really don’t have any interest in those sorts of stories. Unless there are monsters and blood and the like. Scratch that, I’ve tried reading urban fantasies that combine these genres. I have developed a quiet hatred for this approach. Not my cup of tea. Anyways, the blurb on the back of this book says that David Moody “used to give his books away for free.” Happily, it seems he is now getting paid for them, and has at least two successful horror series out there in the world and in bookstores.

“Autumn” is book 1 of his zombie apocalypse series. His other series seems to be about an apocalypse of hate, so already I like him. Sadly, I found this book to be a bit boring and, at times, frustrating. The setting is the U.K., which is a nice change from the overwhelming monopoly the Americans have on the zombie-induced end of the world. The apocalypse hits hard and fast, and David takes you straight in to it, no messing around.

A virus is spreading so rapidly and kills so quickly that pretty much everyone is dead, at least in this little corner of the world, within a couple of hours. There are no ill survivors that recover. You are either totally immune or you are dead in seconds. And those that survive are shell-shocked, to say the least. My main complaint here is that it is over too quick. One of my favourite things about apocalyptic books (and I love them way more than is probably healthy) is the breakdown of society and the characters’ struggle to find their place, to adapt. In this, there is no breakdown. Everything is just done and over, and we are left with a few survivors standing in corpse-filled streets, so stunned that they can’t cope. They congregate in a dilapidated community centre, barely able to function. Someone makes soup. No one really talks. And then, a small percentage of the dead get up and start to move around.

At first the reanimated dead are totally mindless. If they walk into a wall, they just stop. Later they seem to learn how to manoeuvre. And after that, they start to attack. Before they become anything more than a creepy nuisance, however, three of the survivors decide that staying in a crummy old community centre isn’t how they want to spend their time. The others seem to find this infuriating, and send them on their way with threats that they will never be allowed back. With a whole world full of empty homes, buildings, grocery stores, etc., and no known threat (at that point), I am not sure why one would choose to stay in a place like that. Thousands of putrefying corpses lying and walking around would send me out into the countryside post haste. And that is where our crew go.

They find a farmhouse, with a generator, which they stock with supplies. They even find a shotgun. Unfortunately, this is also the time that they learn that the dead are now drawn to noise, and they aren’t passive, harmless creatures anymore. And if enough zombies show up, they can make enough noise in the silenced world to continue drawing more and more dead. A note on the dead: They don’t try to eat you, but they will hit and tear at you. If you imitate them you can pass through them fairly effectively. They continue to rot but this does not affect their locomotion, eyesight, or hearing (standard stuff in the genre).

I got a bit frustrated by a few things in regards to the zombies. Firstly, no one even speculates as to what killed everyone and then reanimated some of them. No one asks why they lived, or why only a few of the dead rose. No one wonders why the zombies seemed to get more intelligent even as they continued to rot. No one decides that they should arm themselves, or tries the old “destroy the brain” technique. In this world where no one seems familiar with the concept of zombies they seem to lack any curiousity. There is very little discussion about anything, really. Our trusty band of one girl and two guys just prefer to hunker down, maybe watch a few dvd’s. No one even has sex, or discusses sex. Maybe it’s a British thing. They do cry quite a bit.

So, we are left with watching them have a couple of excursions that don’t go so well. Once the zombies get mean they build a barrier. And of course, this doesn’t keep them out for long. The premise is good, and the writing is ok, but man the characters are uninteresting and largely interchangeable. I had to keep checking the front of the book to keep track of who was who. And there were only three of them! I’ll probably track down the sequels, but I have no burning need to read them. All in all a rather blah apocalypse, sadly.

 

“The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove” by Christopher Moore

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"The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove" cover

Cover art by Ruth Marten

“The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove” by Christopher Moore, 1999

Finished September 13, 2012

This one was recommended to me by a new friend that I met on a film set. We had HOURS to kill and I think it is safe to say we were both thrilled to find a like-minded nerd to hang out with. She raved about this book, and although I have long been aware of Christopher Moore I had never gotten around to reading him. This sounded like a good place to start. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as my friend did. I mean, there is nothing wrong with it; it has its moments and there is no question it is original; but I didn’t find it terribly funny.

The setting is Pine Cove, California, and I understand Moore has used this fictional town a few times. There is some reference to earlier weird happenings that some of the minor characters lived through. We begin with local constable and pothead Theophilus Crowe getting called out to deal with a suicide, that of obsessive-compulsive wife and mother Bess Leander. When the town’s psychiatrist Valerie Riordan learns about it, she is overcome with guilt. She decides to stop taking the easy, drug-focused route to treat her patients, and unbeknownst to everyone but the pharmacist (also a patient of hers) she replaces their meds with placebos.

Several other things come together at this point, most notably the arrival of a large sea monster/dragon. A bluesman by the name of Catfish Jefferson pulls into town around the same time and gets a steady gig at the Head of the Slug bar. He has his own link to the monster, which is the story behind how he got his name. Blues turn out to be popular in Pine Cove now that everyone is suddenly off their antidepressants.

We also meet Molly Michon, a former B-movie queen and current local oddball. She has a habit of practicing her swordwork in her old costume, which happens to be a fur bikini. She is the second person to encounter the monster, after the fuel-truck driver who is burned to a cinder when the creature tries to mate with his truck. The sea beast is trapped on land as he heals from his burns, and he and Molly form…an attachment. She has anger management issues so she has few compunctions about feeding him a few people she is not fond of.

The monster has the ability to affect people’s moods, which leads to unusual amounts of amourous behaviour in Pine Cove. Theo finds he is no longer dependant on pot, which ruled his life and kept him in thrall to the evil Sheriff Burton. Burton has been running a meth lab on farmland near Theo’s home, and Theo is too much of a cowardly junkie to even want to know what’s going on. But his new found freedom from his addiction, along with his interest in the monster and in Molly, puts him right in the middle of the action.

There are many minor characters and they all have their own odd stories, so it is an enjoyable enough read. But I didn’t find it moved me or really grabbed my attention. I’ll give Moore another shot at some point, I’m sure. I don’t NOT recommend this book, especially if you want something a bit mindless to pass the time, but there is better stuff out there, in my opinion.

“Agent to the Stars” by John Scalzi

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“Agent to the Stars” by John Scalzi, 2005

Finished April 7, 2012

I read this one in three days, with “The Hunger Games” read in the middle. It’s a fun early book by Scalzi, whom I admire for his always intelligent, entertaining, and sensible blogs. Dude has a good head on his shoulders, no question. This was originally written in 1997, as “practice,” but seems to have some staying power, and Scalzi has updated a few references to keep it current.

Thomas Stein is a young Hollywood agent, with a knack for getting good contracts for the performers he represents. His boss handpicks him for a unique assignment: preparing humanity for first contact with an alien race that resemble giant gobs of snot and which communicate primarily through exceeding foul odors. They’ve been watching our broadcasts for many years and they realize they need someone to find an angle that makes them seem a little less loathsome and terrifying. Stein doesn’t come up with any brilliant ideas, but he is able to think well on his feet and thus is able to turn a dreadful situation involving the brain death of his best client into an opportunity for the gelatinous Yherajk.

The book suffers a bit from characters who are too clever and quick-witted. This is a problem I see a lot from sci-fi nerds who love a good in-joke and who harbour a quietly simmering contempt for non-nerds. As a nerd myself, I’m mostly OK with it, but it does get a bit tiresome sometimes. I haven’t read many of Scalzi’s books yet, so I’m going to assume this is merely due to this book being written very early in his professional career.

One thing that drove me a bit crazy was his description of a life-casting session in which an actress has her head coated in _latex_ in order to get a mould. Latex. And she has straws shoved up her nose. And she’s not allowed to move for THREE HOURS while it sets. *sigh* Maybe Scalzi got this idea from a tv show or magazine article written by someone who simply didn’t know what they were talking about. He name drops his copyeditor in the introduction so I’m just going to berate Arthur Hlavaty directly. I’m trying to imagine this process and I see a few little problems: 1) The latex appears to be be still very runny even half an hour after it was applied with a spatula. This would mean it would be puddling in her lap, not forming a usable mould on her head. 2) Latex is full of ammonia, and if you spread a thick layer on someone’s skin and left it to cure for hours they’d get a pretty nasty chemical burn. Not something you want on your lead actress a few days before going to camera. 3) It would rip out all her hair, in an excrutiatingly painful way. 4) She’d probably go blind at some point in the process. 5) Latex shrinks a lot, and warps. I’m a special effects makeup artist, so this really drove me nuts. I even berated Scalzi about it on Twitter. But I did go to a makeup school where I once overheard the owner giving a tour, and she was equally as ignorant of the process. Inexcusable in her, merely annoying in this book. But yeah, it distracted me. I’m trying to think how to rewrite it so it made sense, but since the story required that the actress be trapped in this mess for at least 40 minutes, and all real-world casting materials used for this process set up in no more than 10 minutes, I’m not sure how it could be done.

But that aside, I quite liked the book. Nothing serious or world-changing, but still entertaining. The aliens, despite their appearance, stench, and odd life cycle, had very human personalities. Plus there was a nice relationship between the main alien, Joshua, and a dog. Dogs make me happy.

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

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“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, 2008

Started and finished on April 6, 2012

I wasn’t expecting a lot from this book, After all, “Twilight” is a huge bestseller in the same market, and it’s HORRIBLE. This one however, even though it seems aimed at the same teenage girl market, is so much more interesting, intelligent, and engaging. The fact that I read it in one day proves how hard it is to put down. And that it is pretty short (374 pages).

The premise: the world has crumbled, and from the ashes rose the North American capitol of Panem, and 13 outlying Districts that supply the city with essentials and luxury goods. The Districts are hardscrabble, difficult places to live, so they rise up in revolt. But Panem is so much more technologically advanced that they easily beat them back down into the dirt, using conventional weapons and genetically engineered animals. District 13 is obliterated, and the Hunger Games are devised to remind the remaining Districts that they are under the heel of Panem.

Every year a boy and a girl from each District is chosen to fight to the death in an arena. It is televised, and required viewing everywhere. The survivor gets a life of luxury and their District gets a few extra comforts for the year. Our protaganist is Katniss Everdeen, a self-sufficient 16-year-old who hunts and gathers to feed her mom and little sister, Prim. When Prim, brand new to the draw in her 12th year, is chosen, Katniss steps in as “tribute,” volunteering to take her place. The chosen boy from her District is Peeta, the local baker’s boy. Unbeknownst to Katniss, he’s been in love with her forever. They are taken off to Panem and given a polish for the cameras. During the televised lead up Peeta reveals his love for Katniss, which she assumes is all part of the plan to win much-needed gifts from the citizens of the capital.

After a few days of training and schilling for sponsers they are dropped off into the arena and the bloodbath begins. The seemingly fabricated love story proves so popular that it is announced that if a couple from the same District are the last ones standing, they will both be allowed to live. After much suffering and death and fear only Peeta and Katniss survive. The Gamesmasters then announce that they checked the rules and nope, they can only have one winner. Gambling that a Games with NO winner would deeply unpopular, Katniss and Peeta attempt suicide to force their hand. It pays off and they are both fished out of the arena, treated for their injuries, and feted. The Powers That Be are enraged, however, and Katniss has to walk a very fine line in order to make it home alive.

The closer she gets to District 12 the more conflicted she gets about Peeta. After all, she has her best friend and hunting partner Gale waiting at home. And given the risk every child must face in a world where the Games exist, Katniss has no intentions of settling down and having a family. She is also disturbed by the realization that she is now expected to train the next pair chosen from her District.

Collins has created a rich and complex world and an interesting protagonist. No question the Hunger Games are evil, and Panem’s rulers are brutal and unsympathetic. But Katniss actually likes the people she meets in the capitol, and at no point does she pull back from what she needs to do to survive. She does not revel in it, but when she does kill another child she realizes it’s not so different from killing an animal for food, provided you don’t dwell on it too much. This is the terrible world she lives in: an unending struggle for mere existence, with starvation and the Games a constant threat. Now I have to pick up book 2.

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