Book Review: DOVE SEASON by Johnny Shaw

In my mind, this novel can be broken down into two parts, and both of them are satisfying, but for different reasons.  Part One is about Jimmy Veeder, a good guy drifter with a sense of humor, who returns to the Imperial Valley in California to visit his dying father, Big Jack Veeder.  The highlights of this section are Shaw’s descriptions of Imperial Valley and Mexico, which is right on the border nearby.  Here is one of my favorite sections from the beginning of chapter six:

All the fun stuff is in Mexico. . . Hell, you can buy Cuban cigars. You can go to a bullfight, a dog fight, or a cock fight if that’s your pleasure. What is fun and illegal in the U.S., Mexico gladly offers in a semi-legal, slightly dangerous way. If the law looks the other way, then is it really illegal?

In this passage, Shaw comically sums up the moral and legal ambiguity of Mexico and what role America and Americans play in that ambiguity; pretty much throughout Part One, he manages to skillfully provide commentary on the complex relationship between the two countries, but without being preachy, long-winded, and, most importantly, without sacrificing the narrative thread. Another aspect of Part One I enjoyed was the relationships between Jimmy (the son) and Jack (the father).  Even in a crime novel, death bed scenes, especially death bed scenes between parent and child, could very easily come across as trite or just plain boring to read. But these aren’t.  Big Jack, a veteran and a farmer, is kind of the strong-silent type, but he has a wonderful sense of humor, especially about death.  Here’s Big Jack on death, from chapter three:

Dying is a bitch when you don’t believe in God. But I ain’t going to start now just because I’m scared. I’m afraid, and the only way I know how to kill fear is distraction. I want to die happy. I want to die laughing.  . .Let’s not let this get dark and sad and morose. Leave the crying to the women.

Throughout Part One, there are funny exchanges like this between Jimmy and Jack, the best of which happens when Jack asks his son to find him a prostitute, which, in a way, serves as the transition from Part One to Part Two.

Part Two of the novel is the crime element of this particular crime novel, and this is when the narrative really picks up speed.  Jimmy and his friend Bobby head into Mexico to locate Yolanda, a prostitute that Big Jack has a mysterious relationship with.  I never like to talk specifics about plot, but I can say this journey into Mexico brings death, kidnapping, and gangsters into the mix, which is always fun. I especially enjoy the character Tomas Morales, a stone-cold businessman who Jimmy used to look after when Tomas was a little kid. Morales is into all manner of illegal activity, but he assists Jimmy in finding Yolanda.  In this section of the novel, the reader really gets to know Jimmy, and the misadventures he gets into with Bobby are great fun.  As is their dialogue.  Here’s Bobby’s response when Jimmy asks him to go to Mexico and help Jimmy locate a hooker for Big Jack:

Your dad is fucking awesome. I am so in on this. Beats the shit out of bringing flowers. Jack wants a piece, let’s tear him off some chonch.

That made me laugh.  I also enjoyed the relationship Jimmy has with Angie, his ex-girlfriend who works at Big Jack’s hospice center. Tough as nails and every bit as funny as Bobby, Angie keeps Jimmy, a slacker by nature, focused and centered, and it is always fun to read.

Bottom line, this is an excellent book with a funny yet flawed main character and a fascinating setting.  The Mexico/US border is always fertile ground for great stories, and Johnny Shaw has certainly added a great new one.  I’ve already downloaded PLASTER CITY, which is another book in the Jimmy Veeder series. I give DOVE SEASON my highest recommendation.

http://www.amazon.com/Dove-Season-Jimmy-Veeder-Fiasco-ebook/dp/B004FPZ272/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403267409&sr=8-1&keywords=dove+season

dove season

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Book Review: The Year of the Storm by John Mantooth

I’m a pre-maturely middle-aged curmudgeon, who no longer enjoys reading coming-of-age stories.  There, I said it.

Now let me say something else: The Year of the Storm, a crime/horror/literary coming-of-age novel, is a fantastic book.  Told through two perspectives, one a fourteen year old boy named Danny, the other an old man named Walter, the story revolves around two missing people: Danny’s mother and sister, who are presumed by many to be dead.  When the novel begins, Danny is desperate to know what happened, and then Walter, a chain-smoking wreck-of-a-man, appears on Danny’s doorstep in the middle of the night. Turns out, Walter may know something about Danny’s mother and sister, but in order to find them, Danny will have to engage in “slipping,” which, essentially means using the power of imagination to slip from the real world to another one.  Entered into via a hidden storm shelter, this other world is guarded by a purely evil man who is holding Danny’s mother and sister as well as two other innocent young girls. In the end, Danny faces his fears and goes into this other world, so you could also call this a quest tale.  As for plot, I don’t want to say much more.

There is much to praise in this jewel of a book, but I’ll start with the prose. Reminiscent of Ron Rash, the writing is elegantly spare with a depth of insight and heart not often seen in novels, let alone debut efforts. Throughout the narrative, I felt as if I were sitting on a back porch somewhere, cold beer in hand listening to these two men tell me a very personal, very engaging story.  It is a testament to the strength of voice in this novel that early on in the story I no longer thought of Danny and Walter as characters, but as two men, flawed and conflicted, yes, but fundamentally decent human beings, ones I could relate to and root for. Great care was put into every sentence in this novel, and it is worth reading for the prose alone, but I also appreciate–on many levels–the use of the storm shelter and the storms themselves as literary devices. Granted, bad weather–tornadoes and lightning storms, in particular–are overused tropes in literature, and in the hands of a lesser author, they might have come across as passe or trite.  But in this book, they fit perfectly and add layer upon layer of meaning.  Danny is fourteen, which, as many of us know, means he is not a boy anymore, but he is not a man either, and the storms mirror that chaotic swirl of emotions that occur during that time in adolescence. Too, the storms make for a useful metaphor for fear, or, more specifically, facing down our deepest fears.  A final element I enjoyed: this book is thematically dense while being extremely enjoyable. Weaved near-flawlessly into the fabric of the narrative are half a dozen themes: good versus evil; belief in magic; human sympathy; conquering deeply-held fears; friendship; and many more besides. And what’s particularly impressive about this is the author manages to nail pretty much of all of them.  Readers of all ages could pick up this book and find something profound about human experience, something worth reflecting on.

In the end, The Year of the Storm manages to walk confidently on that tissue-thin line between a horror/crime novel and what is known as a literary book. It manages to make a reader turn pages AND think AND feel.  That, I think, is a feat in and of itself . . .and a fairly stunning one at that.  Read this book immediately.

The Year of the Storm

http://www.amazon.com/The-Year-Storm-John-Mantooth/dp/0425265749

Book Review of The Barkeep by William Lashner

Justin Chase is an ex-law student turned traveling bartender who follows the teachings of The Tibetan Book of the Dead to numb the pain of his mother’s murder, the murder that Justin’s father is now rotting away in prison for. One night while tending bar, Chase makes the acquaintance of Birdie Grackle, an alcoholic hit man who claims to have killed Chase’s mother. For a price, Birdie is willing to tell Chase who hired Birdie to kill Chase’s mother. Instead of paying the hit man for the information, Chase begins investigating his mother’s murder, and aside from crossing paths with some well-drawn characters–a beautiful but self-loathing mistress, an aging detective obsessed with doing jumbles, and a borderline-retarded yet effective killer–Chase makes some shocking discoveries about the case, and his father.

This is a page-turner, but what I really enjoyed was the characterization and the shifting narration. Every character has a clear voice and is uniquely flawed, which made them all compelling. Too, the dialogue, particularly the scenes at the bar with Justin and his regulars is fantastic. There is something very cinematic about Lashner’s writing, but it is also literary as well. I really enjoyed this one, and I will definitely pick up another of his novels.

the barkeep