The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Well howdy there friends! It’s been a little while. How have you been? How’s your life? Now that I’m finally done organizing bachelorette parties and almost balling while trying to give speeches and drinking my body weight in fermented, tasty beverages, we can finally get back to the thing that brought us all here: delightful, delicious, wonderful books.

Or, you know, this one.

Now before we get into the review I want to make clear that there are things that I did really like about this novel. Pollock is a hell of a writer, and even when I wasn’t having any fun, I was still burning through it, pulled from one situation to the next to see where it lead. That’s enough, in my opinion, to classify this as a good book, even if it’s not a particularly enjoyable one.

Unfortunately, you can be the wordsmith of our age, writing the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, but if your character work is lacking, you’re going to lose me. The reason that I read is to experience other people’s lives, to slide myself into the brain of someone else. It’s why I’m here. And I’m not against doing that with a vile person every now and again, but…they have to feel real. I have to buy it. Every character in this book was a caricature. All of them the vilest, slimiest, most self-serving pieces of trash that humanity could come up with. So over the top in their quirky grossness that they didn’t even really seem human anymore. The first time he introduced a couple of them I was intrigued, the second time a little wary, and by the fourth or fifth just tired of it. If they weren’t dumb and vile to their bones they were evil. If they were neither, if there was a single ounce of goodness in them, then they were pathetic and doomed to suffer. It was just an unending slog of sadness and pain, with nowhere to look for redemption of any kind.

Maybe that’s the crux of this whole thing. No redemption for anybody. And yes, I know, not every story needs it, not everybody needs to find absolution, but I don’t feel like there was a single satisfying character arc in this whole book. Shitty people kept being shitty till they died from it, nobody got any better, nobody learned any lessons, nobody did anything at all, except for damage and wound and die. Even the main character, the one I think you’re supposed to relate to the most, doesn’t change much. After the first thirty or so pages he grows into a man who uses violence to solve his problems, and that’s where he stays until the end. And he is better than the others, but he’s not good. He’s motivated by a slightly more moral viewpoint than almost anybody else in the novel, but he’s still brutal. He may not want to kill, but when he’s backed into a situation where he feels like he has to, he does. Over and over again. To the point where it’s tiresome, where I didn’t see what the author was trying to say, if he was trying to say anything at all.

I’d recommend this book for people who like southern gothics that tend towards the gritty and filthy and violent, people who like their characters as gross and mean and pathetic as they can get them, and anyone who doesn’t mind a story where the morale is “people are shitty and will probably try and kill you”.

VBR

Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale

Hey there my beautifuls!

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and because of my crippling laziness and attachment to sweatpants and my couch, I’m going to avoid all those gross outdoor things and write a second review today!

Huzzah!

Now for a severe tonal shift.

Disclosure at the top. This book has a lot of misogyny in it. It opens with an attempted rape, and there’s shitty dudes treating women shittily all throughout. It’s the type of thing that would normally put me off a book but…I dunno. The author treats the misogynists in the book like they deserve to be treated (badly), and the female characters have tons of agency and grit. The people who discount them are quite clearly framed as being, not just villains, but short-sighted, close-minded, and stupid. It didn’t really bother me at all, but I know some people don’t like any of that kind of thing in their stories, and I get it.

I love Joe R. Lansdale. There’s something about his voice and the way he writes dialogue that just gets into my head, under my skin. His books are always fast and fun and filthy (in real life I’ve got the mouth of a Victorian era dock worker, but every now and again he’ll turn a phrase that catches me off guard). They’re also really unpredictable. He has this way of making it seem like everything is unstable- who the main character is, what the plot is actually about, who’s going to make it to the end. And not in a “bait the audience for cheap thrills” way *cough cough* walking dead *cough*, or in a “wait till you see what ridiculous twist I have in store for you, even though it isn’t really properly motivated by the story” (do I have to do another cough thing, or do we all know that I’m talking about M. Night Shyamalan) way. It’s just that these people seem to get themselves into legitimately dangerous, precarious situations, and you feel like if the story called for their deaths, Lansdale wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

There is a little bit of male-gazey stuff with the protagonist (she’s hot and chesty and e’rybody knows it), but again, it didn’t bother me too much. My engagement with the story and my investment in the characters just carried me right past it.

Anybody who knows me knows I love a good mystery/crime book, and I’m a sucker for anything set in the south, but even if you’re not as into those things as I am, you should give this book a shot. Quick, fun, and well done. More Sunset please!

 

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones…And Some Other Stuff

So I’m going to start this one with a little blurb about the direction of the blog. Don’t worry, I’m going to get to the book, but I just want to chat at ya’ll a little first.

After the kicking that I gave Wolf Road last week, I…felt a little weird. A little of it is guilt, Beth Lewis took the time and put in the effort to create something, something that had the germ of a really good thing in it, and I love that. She did something that I’ve yet to, and maybe never will, do. And giving her shit for the mistakes that she made has left me feeling a little…guilty? Or maybe guilty is not exactly the right word, there’s some other stuff in there, but it’s certainly part of it. Another part of it, a big one, is that I don’t like being negative about things. It’s too easy, it’s the cheap way to do reviews, and, if I’m being honest, it’s just not that fun. I’m not going to take any of the posts down, they’re still true, still my opinion, and I stand behind them, but I just don’t think it’s the best use of my time (I could be napping or eating pizza or, I dunno, reading books that I enjoy). I read a lot, like a lot a lot, and I only have the time to write reviews for a small percentage of the books that I read, so why waste the time on the stuff I don’t really like? So, from this point forward I’m going to be focusing a lot more on things that I actually liked. There are still going to be criticisms (I pick things apart, even things that I like a lot. It’s just the way my brain works), but from now on most of the books that I cover are going to be ones that, at the end of it, flaws and all, I’d still recommend.

But enough about that. On to the good stuff.

This book was really, really good. I’m not usually a fan of the classic monsters (werewolves, vampires, mummies, zombies, uh…Frankensteins? I liked Frankenstein. Are there a lot of books about Frankensteins?) but I’ve always got time for a book that takes something old and well worn and offers an original angle on it.

And this novel is definitely original. Mongrels is sharper, grimier, and more human than your average monster book (or not monster book). It, like all good fantasy novels, is heavily allegorical, more about the inheritance of poverty and anger and trauma than anything else. And I know that may sound boring to some of you, but it’s really not. There’s plenty of bloody meat on this bone, enough for even the die hard smash ‘em up monster fans to sink their fangs into (was that too many cheap, hack writer-y werewolf puns? It felt like a lot). Besides, that’s what good fantasies do. By using the fantastic, the exciting, and the impossible, they exaggerate and shine a light on real human experiences. I like sword fights as much as the next guy, but you can’t prop a three hundred page novel on action alone. Mongrels used this device to better effect than I’ve seen in a long time, and I left this novel feeling not only like I’d recognized pieces of myself and my experience as an adolescent man (especially one with an absentee father figure and a less than ideal uncle that I worshiped), but some insight into a perspective and way of life that was crazy different from my own.

As a final note, I loved the empathetic, intelligent way Stephen Graham Jones treated these characters. In the hands of a lesser writer they would have ended up as caricatures. Poor, southern, can’t hold down a job, anger issues, uneducated, impulsive. But they’re more than just a collection of those traits. They’re complicated, flawed people using their understanding of the world to do their best within the bounds of their own limitations.

A great fucking read.

With the sincerest of salutations,

❤  VBR

 

*Brief Disclaimer: My dad is actually great, and in no way comparable to the completely absent father figure from the book. He just lived in a different part of the country from me when I was a kid. And my uncle, well…he’s a good person. He’s got his issues, like all of us, but he’s doing his best. It’s not his fault that I worshiped him as a child, that I created an idealized version of him in my head that had noooo chance of surviving my cynical teenage years. Anyways, I’m not sure why I felt motivated to add this in here. Maybe because people are starting to actually read this thing. Scary. ❤

Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

This book was an absolute and utter delight.

Now I know what you’re thinking, and you’re not wrong. A western, a badass lady seeking revenge, gunslinging goodness. It all sounds a lot like Wake of Vultures (another book that I gave a fairly positive review to a while back), and to some extent the two are very similar. But rest assured dear readers, the two are not identical (if they were I wouldn’t bother to review this one. What would be the point?) and there are two main ways in which I think the novels differ.

The first and least important is the supernatural element. Unlike Wake of Vultures, the only monsters in Vengeance Road are the greedy, shitty characters who steal and murder to get what they want. And while I did think that the book pushed a little too hard on that old western trope of “just plain rotten” as a defining character trait for it’s villains (they were almost comically bad or nonsensically greedy. *Mild Spoiler Warning, I guess, I mean if you’re really concerned about that kind of thing, which, as a side note, you shouldn’t be. If you’re reading an engaging narrative, spoilers shouldn’t have much of an impact. A story that relies on it’s ending to be effective or interesting isn’t much of a story at all. Although, I guess everybody goes to books for different things, and if that thing is wanting to be surprised, who am I to judge?* What was that woman doing hiding in the mountains? Why wasn’t she out living life and spending the cache that she found? If she knew that Kate’s father had the map the whole time, why didn’t she take it with her when she left? Why didn’t she go back after him herself? There were a lot of questions there, but anyways, I digress), for the most part I really liked the straight up western setting and characters.

The second way that this novel differs from the first is in the quality of the writing. It’s not really fair to compare one writer to another, every novel should be judged on its own merits, but I already started this review as a comparison and it would be SO MUCH WORK to go back and think of another idea, so…yeah, here goes. Lila Bowen (Wake of Vultures) has heaps of imagination, her novel is (honestly a little over) stuffed with it, but Erin Bowman is the superior of the two when it comes to the nitty gritty of the writing. Her novel is very well structured, compact and fast-paced without seeming rushed, the romantic tension in it is skillfully woven in and unobtrusive (though you’d have to be a real grade A dumby not to know that the tall, handsome, infuriating cowboy was going to be the love interest from the get go), and her prose, on a sentence by sentence level, can be really beautiful at times, without drawing attention to itself and pulling you out of the story. Now I’m willing to admit that part of my love for this story might come from my fondness for the simple “person needs to head to this place and take revenge” story structure, kick ass lady leads in general, and the western genre in and of itself, but…my name is The Very Biased Reviewer. So, you know, shut up about it.

Anyways! I enjoyed this book a lot. There were some problems with the ending, and the big reveal, which I sort of spoiled, but also didn’t really spoil, before. But they weren’t huge, and they didn’t have an impact on my overall satisfaction with it. Read this book. It was lots of fun.

VBR

 

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