Monday, November 30, 2015

PARADISE SKY by Joe R. Lansdale

"Now, in the living of my life, I've killed deadly men and dangerous animals and made love to four Chinese women, all of them on the same night and in the same wagon bed, and one of them with a wooden leg, which made things a mite difficult from time to time. I even ate some of a dead fellow once when I was crossing the plains, though I want to rush right in here and make it clear I didn't know him all that well, and we damn sure wasn't kinfolks, and it all come about by a misunderstanding."
And so begins the true account of the adventures of the Western legend Deadwood Dick, as told by his own damn self. He's eager to set the record straight about his story, which begins when as a young man named Willie Jackson, he runs away from home to escape a lynching after a grudge-crazed rancher catches him staring at his wife's ass. After he discovers that he's a natural horseman and shootist, Willie takes the name of Nat Love and embarks on a series of wild escapades across the frontier, making friends, killing enemies, finding love, rubbing noses with legends, and becoming one himself.

Once again Joe Lansdale crafts a Western adventure that is charming, exciting, and a pleasure to read, featuring a great lead character. And big ups to him for helping to bring attention to black western figures like Nat Love, since they've largely been ignored in movies and books. And aside from Love, the supporting characters and villains are a big reason why this one is so enjoyable, each one memorable and providing their own color to the overall tapestry. It's a testament to Lansdale's talent that with so many characters populating the book, he can make each one stand out. His considerable skill as a natural storyteller is again on full display here, with his folksy narrative voice and trademark wit proving a perfect fit for the story.
"Let's go outside and see how much of you is fact and how much of you is fart mouth and horseshit."
If you're looking for an entertaining, rousing adventure tale, throw this one on your to-read pile. I might even go as far as saying that it's even more knock-down awesome as his previous western The Thicket, but I personally wish he explored Nat as a more flawed character. It's a wonderful novel that I would gladly read again and a great folktale of the Old West. For companion reading, there is an old autobiography of the real Nat Love that was an inspiration for the novel, and Lansdale also published a novella with further adventures of Deadwood Dick called Black Hat Jack.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

RUMBLE TUMBLE by Joe R. Lansdale

*Book 5 of the Hap and Leonard series*

After a twister blew away his house, Hap is living on Leonard's couch, working as a bouncer, thinking about moving in with his girlfriend Brett, and balls-deep in his mid-life crisis. But when Brett asks for help rescuing her estranged daughter who's turned to whoring and seems to be in danger with the wrong crowd, Hap puts on his white knight helmet, and the three head to the town of Hootie Hoot, Oklahoma, and equally dangerous Mexican border towns to track her down.
Size and strength didn't intimidate Herman. As he told me later, no matter how big they grow, balls and eyes stay soft and a tire tool has no friends.
Every installment of the Hap and Leonard series has been exciting entertainment, guaranteed for a heap of chuckles! Although this one delivers, it doesn't really stand out on its own the way the other books have. It doesn't really add much to the series, doesn't try anything new, and felt a bit more long-winded this time. But it's still lots of fun, and involves shotguns, armadillos, biker gangs, midgets with attitudes and prairie dog hunting, so fans of the series, of Lansdale, and his great dialogue won't be too disappointed. If I hadn't read the first four great novels, I would have probably loved this one more. On it's own though, it's a good thriller and solid entertainment.
"As Leonard has pointed out, I'm like the guy goes out in the yard and steps in a pile of horse shit, and where he or someone else would say, goddamn, I've stepped in horse shit, me, I'm looking for the pony."

Friday, November 13, 2015

THE FISHERMEN by Chigozie Obioma

This elegant coming-of-age novel is told from the point of view of Benjamin Agwu, a 10-year old boy growing up in the small Nigerian village of Akure.  He bears witness to the breakdown of his family and his three older brothers Ikenna, Boja, and Obembe, after an encounter with Abulu the Madman, who's foreboding prophecy changes everything.

Debut author Chigozie Obioma shows true talent with imagery and smooth prose, giving the story a storybook, fable quality which Lends weight to the retrospective element of the novel. The book's biggest strength is the way it illustrates the characters almost immediately, really giving us a portrait of a genuine family and the dynamics between the brothers and the parents. The parents were especially compelling. When things go wrong, I immediately sympathized because I felt so familiar with these people and the community that surrounds them. Another thing that really works and that actually surprised me was the novel's historical aspect, where Obioma weaves in bits of Nigerian history in the 90's as a framework for the story. It's really interesting how the breakdown of the Agwu family parallels the change in their village and the political change in Nigeria in general. Although the pacing could've been a little more concise (it took me longer than I expected to finish), I was charmed by the characters, the lovely ending, and enjoyed the book as a whole. 
"I want you all to know that even though what you did was wrong, it reflected once again that you have the courage to indulge in something adventurous. Such adventurous spirit is the spirit of men. So from now onwards, I want you all to channel that spirit into something more fruitful...

What I want you to be is a group of fishermen who will be fishers of good dreams, who will not relentuntil they have caught the biggest catch. I want you to be juggernauts, menacing and unstoppable fishermen."

Thursday, November 12, 2015


It's always a great feeling when you feel like you've discovered a new author that's on the cusp of blowing up. When you feel that great privilege of knowing that not only is there still a whole career's worth of material to look forward to, but also once he/she gets hugely successful, you can say, "I was a fan from the beginning." In The Season of Blood and Gold (released last year in 2014) is Taylor Brown's debut, a collection of hard-hitting short stories, some of which have already won awards. 
"In a world gone white, ghosts must be the color of shadow."
I'm here to tell you that Brown is the real deal. His writing is some of the very best that I've read all year. He has a real mastery of language, using it in expressive ways, evoking both atmosphere, character, and emotion with impressive economy. There are some stories that seem like they could have been written by a young Cormac McCarthy, where Brown uses words like a mallet and chisel, making sure they stick with you long after reading. Here's the opening line of the award-winning story "Kingdom Come":
"The boy dropped the knife into the stone mouth of the well and watched the blade glitter into the depths, blood from its edge red-clouding its wake, haunting the blade like tidings of its history."
The stories take place in a wide variety of places and times, ranging from the Old West past to even a post-apocalyptic future. A big similarity that I noticed in the stories were the characters, all of which seem to be adrift in their respective worlds, searching for connections, their identities defined by what they do, whether it be a poacher, a soldier, a piano player, a moonshiner, a tattoo artist, or even an alligator wrestler.

My favorite story in the collection, "Whorehouse Piano," blew me away with it's efficiency in the way it illustrates the fascinating character of Lucy and how hard it hits emotionally in just five pages. It's about a former whore who now plays piano in her brothel, her complex and bittersweet relationship with the owner, and her journey to see her estranged father.
"They drove all night into bayou darkness, low-hung moss and the scarce reflection of blackwater amid the mangroves. Highway signs reared before them, bleary and wayward-tilted. Red-flattened carcasses of small mammals littered the road. Whoreson crossed himself when he saw them, reborn. Her hand retreated when he tried to hold it. They never touched, not since the night he slit her throat."
Other standout stories include "Sin-Eaters," set in an apocalyptic future, where one young man decides to buck the system once he finds beauty in a terrible world, "Bone Valley," about a lonely guy who wrestles gators for a living, as well as the beautiful title story, about a young Civil War soldier who risks everything after he meets the love of his life. This story also seems like it might be the basis for Brown's upcoming debut novel, Fallen Land, which I will be scooping up like a hotcake as soon as I can. So excited to read more from this guy! 


Monday, November 2, 2015

A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS by Paul Tremblay

*Note: I discuss a theory that could be seen as a SPOILER in the final paragraph of this review* 


I was pretty surprised by how forgettable this one was. It's one of the more popular horror novels this year, and the premise (about a young girl named Merry witnessing her family dealing with the possible demonic possession of their daughter and their choice to not only perform an exorcism but to film it for a reality show) is a set up for some chilling entertainment. But I was uninterested through most of this book. 

Much of it has to do with the terribly inconsistent pacing and lack of narrative urgency. When I looked at the bottom of my Kindle and realized that I was coming up on the 50% mark and wasn't really excited about continuing, I knew I was in for trouble. Some of the problems with the pacing comes from the book's structure and framing device, where we glean the story by switching back and forth from an adult Merry dictating the story of what happened to her family to an author named Rachel doing research for a true crime novel, which leads to the POV of an 8-year-old Merry during the traumatizing events. But there's also the POV of an annoying blogger dissecting the infamous reality show that documented the events. The blogger sections specifically prove to be mostly unnecessary. I mean, yea I get it, with these sections we get an idea of what the world knows about the events through the show and the fact that they differ from what might have actually happened but...*yawn*...the same thing could've been done (and to an extent was being done) in the Merry/Rachel sequences much more efficiently and with less pages of pop culture references, less shout-outs to horror and crime icons, and less words in all caps. And as much as I understand choosing to use the little girl POV for the bulk of the novel, it ultimately became a chore, and all the time spent on setting up the 8-year-old-girl-world took away from the real reason that I picked the book up in the first place. For example, what was up with Merry refusing to speak and using notes to talk? Ultimately it didn't really amount to anything other than ruining the pacing in what should've been a really engaging, pivotal chapter.

The dialogue also took away a bit and didn't feel genuine, coming across as overly formal and stilted, especially in the conversations between Merry and the writer Rachel. The theory that most reviewers seem to have by the end (that Merry has been the one that was possessed all along, and continues to be) is much more than a theory to me and is pretty blatantly spelled out for us in the final scene: with the "brrr, it's cold in here" lines popping up every paragraph. This reveal actually makes the book slightly more interesting, but comes too little and too late to redeem the rest of what could've been a nifty little piece.