Vanilla Ride, by Joe R. Lansdale / *****

vanilla-ride-775467Let me open with a disclaimer: I really, really, really love the “Hap and Leonard” series. I mean, to be fair, I pretty much love Joe Lansdale’s writing in general; the man is funny, offbeat, unpredictable, and just a great storyteller. And whether he’s writing a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in Texas, a gonzo horror epic that ends up being one of the most gleefully weird stories I’ve ever read, or dazzling you with his sheer range in a short story collection, I have yet to read a Lansdale book that I didn’t love every moment of.

But there’s something genuinely special about the Hap and Leonard series, which follows a pair of unlikely friends as they continually get tangled up in violent, dangerous situations. Hap Collins is a white Vietnam War protester – a man who went to jail rather than serve in the military during that conflict. Meanwhile, Leonard is a gay black veteran, a man who loves Vanilla Wafers, goes through relationships quickly, and has a notoriously short temper. And the two of them are best friends. There’s never been an explanation, a setup for this, and really, that’s for the best; these two men simply trust each other, and they have each other’s backs, and they love each other, for all of the contradictions and disagreements.

With that basic setup, Lansdale has crafted a continually rewarding series of adventures that’s found the men working together in any number of situations, almost all of which end up with a stack of bodies, a lot of blood, and a good amount of psychic scar tissue for a man who believes – or wants to believe – that he’s a pacifist. It’s pure neo-noir, in other words, but done with such a hilariously fantastic ear for dialogue and character that you spend as much time in each book laughing as you do cringing from the danger.

With all of that being said, it’s hard to know what to say about Vanilla Ride that doesn’t apply to most of the Hap and Leonard series. It once again finds the boys helping out a friend – in this case, a man whose daughter has taken up with a drug dealer and seems on her way to being a strung out addict who’s given up on life. But in the effort to set her free, Hap and Leonard end up angering some very dangerous people – the Dixie Mafia, in fact. Not only that, they get the attention of the local police, and FBI as well, and end up having to figure out how to get themselves out of a situation where everybody is coming after them for one reason or another.

As with most noir, half of the fun is watching the plotting unfold here, so I don’t want to get into much specific about how this all plays out; suffice to say, it’s satisfying, twisty, engaging, and constantly surprising, as Lansdale lets his story evolve and change in front of your eyes to something unexpected. That’s maybe most true in the climax, which goes in an entirely different direction than I ever guessed it would, and ends up being far more satisfying because of that, to say nothing of being far more morally complex, and getting into some deeper territory with the characters.

But the biggest thing I can say about Vanilla Ride is that it may well be the single funniest Hap and Leonard book I’ve read so far – and that’s high praise. You’d never argue that Vanilla Ride is a comedy, but Lansdale’s ear for Texas-fried banter and snappy comebacks has never been stronger, and his willingness to let conversations meander (especially between Hap and Leonard) pays off dividends left and right, as I found myself laughing out loud more times than I can count. (My favorite recurring joke may be the interesting way in which Leonard chooses to show his anger at his current boyfriend; suffice to say, it’s an impressive way to make a stand in an argument.) Make no mistake: Lansdale’s characters are profane, sarcastic, mean, and, oh, did I mention profane? But his dialogue here is wonderful, and gives the book more character than I can possibly express.

In short, Vanilla Ride may be my favorite Hap and Leonard book so far, and that’s a tough call to make; there’s not really a bad book in the series (even the first, which I’ve argued is the weakest, is still really solid; it just doesn’t measure up to what came later), but Vanilla Ride stands out with some of the greatest dialogue, a complicated climax whose messiness I admired, and some great plotting and character work that lets it stand out from the rest. But let’s be clear: it could just be that I love Hap and Leonard, and any chance to spend time with them is going to win me over. Whatever the case, I loved it; now I have to force myself not to jump into the next book  just yet. (I space these out as treats to myself, if you’re wondering.)

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Trump Chicken, by bobbygw / ****

trump-chicken-a-grotesque-tale-by-bobbygw-book-coverWhen you read copies of books that get sent to you, there’s all kinds of things that can draw you in. Sometimes it’s the book that inspired them to send it to you – for instance, I had one person who sent me their book because they knew I loved Terry Pratchett, while another did so because I loved Stephen King. Sometimes, it’s the way the author presents themselves. But most often, it’s the way they describe the book. And in the case of “Trump Chicken,” a short story by “bobbygw”, it was the comparison the author made to “A Modest Proposal.”

Now, I don’t know if you’ve read “A Modest Proposal”; suffice to say, it’s one of the greatest – and most vicious – pieces of satire ever written, a scathing piece of writing that indicts the English for their treatment of the Irish people, and does so by crafting one of the sickest jokes imaginable. (If you haven’t read it, do so here.)

Anyways, that’s the sort of comparison that’s going to win me over…but it’s also one that misled in me in some ways. What I expected from “Trump Chicken” was a piece of vicious satire, one that took on our current presumptive Republican nominee in a go-for-broke style. And while I definitely got that out of “Trump Chicken,” what I also got was a graphic story about a man who eats rich people. Quite literally. In somewhat grisly detail. Here’s the thing, though: if anything, that only made me enjoy this story more. (What that says about me is probably best left unsaid.)

“Trump Chicken” (which is basically a short story) takes the form of a rambling narrative by a prisoner being interviewed by a reporter about his crimes. Those crimes, as mentioned, are mainly of the cannibalistic variety – more specifically, cannibalism of the rich, which the narrator seems to have made his specialty over the years. It’s the narrator’s voice that really sells “Trump Chicken” – conversational, a little crass, a little broad, more than a bit arrogant…in other words, it’s a dead-on aping of Trump’s style at points, a point that bobbygw is smart enough to bring up along the way. It makes the book a blast to read, turning what could have been a pure horror tale into something darkly and horrifyingly comic as it unfolds.

The main focus, it turns out, is the narrator’s final victim: one Donald J. Trump. It was a bit of a “big get” for our narrator you see, but it turns out that Mr. Trump may be less tasty and wholesome than he hoped, as a fine diner. And as the story unfolds, the author gets to truly tear apart Trump’s image, giving us a disgusting interior to reflect the exterior.

If there’s a major fault to “Trump Chicken,” it’s the sense that the story doesn’t quite have a big point to be made, other than Trump’s awfulness. When you read “A Modest Proposal,” it’s hilarious and sick, but it’s also incredibly angry, and its points about English treatment of the Irish can’t be missed. “Trump Chicken,” by contrast, is a wonderfully sick joke – and one that I quite enjoyed – but you can’t help but wish there was a bit more meat there, if you’ll pardon the horrible pun. And yet, it’s still a darkly funny story, and one whose sick payoff I really loved, even with all of its nonsensical nature. I just kind of wish there was a tiny bit more to it.

That being said, between the writing, the great voice work, the spectacular and gory imagery, and the willingness to transgress in the name of taking down his target, I really liked the book, and I’d even recommend it quite a bit…as long as you’ve got the stomach for it.

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Hap and Leonard (Season 1) / **** ½

Imv5bngflodiyyzqtmmvmyi00mdq1lthmmgutnmm3zjhkntrhzdhhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndi0mtyynzu-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_‘ve been a fan of Joe Lansdale’s writing for a long time now, and the Hap and Leonard books almost as long. For those of you unlucky enough to never have read Lansdale, suffice to say, you’re missing out; his books are almost entirely unclassifiable and unpredictable, running the gamut from all out horror to low-key dramas, from neo-noir to supernatural thrillers, and all done with a wicked sense of humor that’s hard to ignore. Lansdale writes what he wants, but the closest thing to consistency he’s ever done is the Hap and Leonard series of books, which follow around the titular characters as they get involved in all kinds of complicated situations. It’s pure Texas noir, done without any flinching but a beautiful sense of humor, and reading them is an absolute joy.

So when it was announced that the books were being made into a television series, I was equal parts excited and worried. I love these books quite a bit, and they’re low-key enough that you could easily do them on a TV budget. More than that, the choice to make them into a TV series instead of a movie seemed right; it would allow the stories to be told, while also allowing for the derails and character work that makes the books so good. And yet, I also worried that it wouldn’t hit the tone right. The Hap and Leonard books are pure noir, yes, and they’re unflinchingly so…but they’re also really, really funny, an element that’s inextricably linked to their appeal. And more than that, there’s Hap and Leonard themselves, whose unlikely friendship works because Lansdale simply accepts it – not overexplaining it or underexplaining it, but just letting it be, and letting these two men exist with all of their complications, contradictions, and personality. And I worried that the TV series might explain too much, or lean too heavily on the comedy over the noir (or vice versa), or soft pedal things…or, mainly, I just worried that it wouldn’t do the characters justice.

And yet, I’ll be damned if Hap and Leonard doesn’t work and then some. Adapting the first novel in the series, Savage Season, the first season tells the story of how Hap and Leonard end up entangled with Hap’s ex-wife, a group of 60’s revolutionaries looking for a lot of money to keep their ideals going, and a psychopathic drug dealer. As you’d expect with noir, there’s a slew of betrayals, a plot that keeps doubling back on itself, and all kinds of bad behavior, to say nothing of some brutal violence. But there’s also a lot of thematic richness, as these hippies (Hap included) try to make their peace with the change in the world, as well as dealing with what happens when your ideals die.

Even better, though, it deals with all of that while being exciting, bloody, and really funny. The casting can’t be shortchanged here, especially James Purefoy as Hap and Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard. The two men play off of each other beautifully, depicting an old friendship between two very different people, and an easy comfort and familiarity that can’t be faked (Purefoy and Williams are reportedly friends in real life as well). That also means that both men get some great dialogue and one-liners, especially Williams, whose sarcastic (and cynical) worldview means he gets to be the voice of cynical realism at all times.

But the supporting cast is no slouch either. Christina Hendricks rocks as Trudy, Hap’s ex-wife, and turns what could have been a generic femme fatale role into something richer and more complicated – a performance that makes the character work, as her contradictions constantly surprise the viewer and the characters. And Jimmi Simpson just about steals the show as Soldier, the aforementioned drug dealer, with a scenery-chewing performance in the best way possible. Soldier is definitely the most over-the-top role in the series, but Simpson makes it work, creating a truly chilling villain who’s constantly watchable, and whose presence escalates the action in a way that’s impossible to ignore.

Hap and Leonard isn’t perfect, of course; it starts off a bit rushed, barrelling along without spending quite enough time setting the stage, and it stumbles a bit in the epilogue to the story. But by and large, the show works, bringing this world to life, and more importantly, capturing the vibe of the books wonderfully, and bringing all of the comedy, darkness, thematic richness, and character work to the screen. And given that the first book may be my least favorite so far (even though I like it a lot, I think the books only get better), here’s hoping that they get to keep making this show for a while to come.

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The nth Day, by Jonathan Huls / **

27815772You certainly can’t say that The nth Day doesn’t have a great premise. Essentially, God has returned – an immaculate conception, once again, although this time to a fairly unworthy couple who seems to be less holy and devout than you might hope for. As they start raising their unique child, the book cuts to other characters, including a millionaire who disguises himself as a beggar, a little girl who gets saved by this new Incarnation, and more.

Oh, and did I mention that this becomes a horror novel?

That’s all a pretty solid hook for a novel, and one that could go in a lot of interesting directions. And the fact that it ends up as gory and violent as it does is a pretty intriguing one…except for the fact that, even having read the book, I’m not sure I could tell you why it ends up the way it does. Or why this millionaire enjoys dressing as a beggar. Or why pretty much anything happens in this book. God exists and is reborn, and is apparently a little bit of a brat – He kills his parents when He loses at Connect Four. More or less. And that’s before he starts wandering the Earth and smiting a whole lot of people.

The nth Day, really, is a mess. There are some interesting ideas here and there – the section in which God destroys all money in the world is compelling, and there are some fascinatingly weird derails along the way. But the characters are almost entirely, uniformly awful. Orphans get abused and molested. Children get neglected. Everyone’s awful, everyone’s flawed, and everyone deserves to die. Which, apparently, God is pretty okay with, I guess, although I have no idea why, or why he’s back, or what his goal is, beyond walking around a lot and messing with people. And once you add in blank characters and unclear plotting to some weak writing, you’ve got a book that just doesn’t have a huge amount to recommend it. Huls has some neat ideas here and there, and there’s a novel book buried somewhere in this mess. But it’s far from evident, and probably at least one or two re-writes away from emerging.

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