Tuesday, 21 April 2009


Elmore Leonard

Right then. Why is HOMBRE often thought of as a 'classic'? I honestly don't know. Is it because it's told in the first person, and as such is the very first Western done in this way? No, since plenty of Westerns were written in this manner before 1961. Is it because of the historical accuracy apparent within the story? Nope, because Leonard's previous Westerns managed to pull this off well enough. So, is it because it deals, in a round-about way, with racism? Possibly.

"This wasn't any of my business. He couldn't help the ex-soldier, saying it was none of his business. All right, this was none of my business. If he wanted to act like an uncivilised person - which is what he must be and you could see it clearer all the time - then let him alone. Let him act any way he wanted."

Carl Allen is the narrator here, as he details his initial meeting with John Russell (the hombre of the title) and the stagecoach jouney that leads to the climatic stand-off between Russell, and a small gang of outlaws.

John Russell is a white man who was raised by Apaches. The crux of the story revolves around how others see him, and how he responds to them; from the corrupt government agent who stole from the Native Americans he'd been charged to protect, to the young lady recently rescued from savage Indians.

And that's pretty much it. Of course there are more characters, with a couple of interesting exchanges and confrontations, but the story and plot are both pretty thin on the ground - the book itself is only 168 pages long, and as such can easily be finished in a day, or a particularly slow afternoon.

Although HOMBRE may not be the epic Western some might claim, or want, it is still a decent example of pulp writing; we've got the inscrutable anti-hero, the ruthless bandit villain, and a few gunfights. The racism is quite standard for the time period, with it fuelling distrust more than anything else (such as inflammatory violence). Another thing HOMBRE does have going for it, though, is a pleasantly surprising ending.

However, as enjoyable as it is, it's not an example of Leonard's best work. Last Stand At Sabre River, his previous novel, is a better choice if you're trying to decide which of his earlier Westerns to check out. Like HOMBRE, it has a very simple story and plot (Confederate soldier returns from the Civil War to find Union soldiers using his farm), but expands on it to a more successful degree.

Thursday, 16 April 2009



A FINE DARK LINE is a ‘Murder Mystery’ in the same way that Nick Cave is a ‘Blues’ musician; both take elements and staples of their respective genres but add darker, more sinister aspects, subsequently warping something previously thought familiar into the unknown.

In this case, we have what is essentially a coming-of-age tale, supported by backwoods folklore and an almost supernatural tone in parts. There is also a lot of violence in this book; towards women, African-Americans, children, and animals. Although some of it is quite brutal, it is never glorified or gratuitous, and always serves the story rather than detracts from it. Unfortunately, violence is the only language some people understand, and it is this ugly truth that informs many of the more aggressive situations that crop up during the course of the story.

And what of the actual story? We’re introduced to thirteen-year-old Stanley Mitchel, who lives and works at the Dew Drop Drive-In Theatre with his mother, father, older sister and black housekeeper Rosy Mae. It’s 1958 and summer in the small Texan town of Dewmont, and young Stan’s eyes are about to be opened to how the world really works…

"It was so wild the way the world and Dewmont really were. Probably all towns were like this and most people never found out. I wished I were most people. It was like once the lid was off the world, everything that was ugly and secret came out."

After discovering a metal box buried at the edge of some nearby woods, Stanley manages to open it and finds it filled with old diary pages and love letters between two people, referred to in the notes as only ‘M’ and ‘J’. And thus begins an investigation that involves murder, secret truths, and one of the most influential families in Dewmont.

Stanley teams up with a few people in his search for the truth, with perhaps the most influential in his young life being Buster, the near-alcoholic projectionist from the Drive-In. Buster is around seventy years old, and an extremely grumpy bastard. He is also a keen fan of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s this literary creation’s motto of ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’ that he applies to the investigation into the love letters.

Some of the ‘twists’ in A FINE DARK LINE aren’t entirely unpredictable, but that’s not really a problem, or even that important to be honest, as the story keeps shifting your expectations and subverting the focus of both the plot and the story.

There isn’t one character or line of dialogue that feels false, and everything, from the father whose casual racism that gives way to real respect, to the creepy description of what might be a headless ghost, is excellent. I love this book. I could have quite happily wrote 600 synonyms for ‘brilliant’ instead of a proper review.

But, I did write a review and as such I need a closing statement for it. So, in reference to the opening comment (and because I feel it really is the most appropriate comparison): If this book were to be turned into music, it’d be a concept album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - and it would probably be the best album of their career.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009



The fourth book in the Odd Thomas series, ODD HOURS is (much like its protagonist) an unusual and unorthodox creation that promises action, wit and drama, but never delivers it in quite the way you’d expect or hope. This has been an endearing quality implemented in previous Odd Thomas adventures, with varying degrees of success:

The first Odd novel was a near-faultless mix of supernatural horror, corrupt human nature, and emotional personal drama. Forever Odd continued these themes but on a smaller scale, and as such had a disappointing climax. Brother Odd changed location from the desert to snow-capped mountains and involved a sinister force that threatened an entire abbey of children, and proved to be an excellent return to form. And now, Odd Thomas has found himself in the small coastal town of Magic Beach, accompanied by the ghosts of an alsatian called Boo, and Frank Sinatra.

"So much death was coming that it would be the end of death, such absolute destruction that nothing would escape to be destroyed hence."

Odd Thomas, as a character and a book, is always at his and its best when dealing with some huge disaster. In this respect, ODD HOURS doesn’t disappoint as it features the possibility of a truly apocalyptic event. Haunted by a premontion involving a pregnant woman hovering over the sea as it boils red, Odd finds himself involved with everything from corrupt local officials to mysterious packs of coyotes.

Ah yes, here's where we discuss the buzz word for this story: mysterious. Almost everything and everyone Odd encounters in Magic Beach is mysterious, if not in description than in execution. The biggest culprit is Annamaria, the pregnant young lady from Odd's vision. She speaks in riddles and is so vague that both we and Odd start to become frustrated with her deliberate aversion to the truth. This curious strangeness also informs the supporting characters, to such an extent that you start to wonder if there are any normal people in Magic Beach.

Another disappointing aspect of ODD HOURS is that Boo and Sinatra go from story characters to plot devices, only appearing when they're of use rather than to add extra flavour (as Elvis did in previous Odd books). It's a small niggle, but it's compounded by the lack of true supernatural activity - this time around, Odd Thomas goes out of his way to avoid the possibility of running into the lingering dead. There are other ghosts involved, but on a much smaller scale than previous entries into the series. Odd also takes on a more violent persona this time around, and whilst he regretfully accepts that such a thing had to happen eventually, it gives the impression that Koontz is trying to steer the character down a different path to his past adventures.

Despite it's slightly frustrating dips in tone, ODD HOURS is an enjoyable and fast-paced tale. Odd Thomas remains an affable and humourous guide, whilst Koontz continues to create truly sinister characters and wring emotion out of situations you wouldn't normally expect to care about. With more questions asked than answers given, Koontz is clearly setting up a new journey (and style?) for Odd Thomas, so it'll be interesting to see where he takes him.

Monday, 13 April 2009

THE WALKING DEAD, Vol. 9 - Here We Remain


First things first: if you’ve never read this fabulous ‘never-ending zombie story’, and you’re interested in 1) zombies, and 2) graphic novels, then I strongly suggest you seek out Volume 1 and start catching up.

Done that? Excellent.

As with the best zombie apocalypse stories, The Walking Dead excels when concentrating on the more ‘human’ side of things. That isn’t to say that the story falters as soon as any zombies show up, it simply helps to heighten the drama when we actually care about the people involved. And, boy, do we care.

The Walking Dead concentrates on Rick, a cop who wakes up in a hospital to find the world’s gone to hell. Over the last eight collected volumes, we’ve followed him as he sought his wife and son, and other survivors of the zombie outbreak. Along the way, characters we’re actually bothered about have left the main group, returned, betrayed others, repented, and most of all – died.

Kirkman is not afraid to kill his characters off. This is, after all, a world that has devolved into chaos, where every shadowy doorway can hide a bloodthirsty zombie, or worse, a frightened survivor with a loaded gun.

Charlie Adlard’s black-and-white artwork continues to serve the story excellently, with the only complaint being that sometimes the amount of time that passes between panels is unclear. However, this quirk has been part of all The Walking Dead issues so far, so it’s easier to forgive it when it happens again this time around.

Conversely, one of my favourite sections of HERE WE REMAIN is a two-page spread featuring nothing except a shot of a house as a few days pass. It is absolutely lovely in its simplicity.

The drama can become overwrought on the odd occasion, but for every panel featuring a husband crying over his devoured wife, we get more than enough genuinely affecting moments. The last volume, Made To Suffer, lived up to it’s title by packing in a number of truly gut-punching scenes, a couple of which actually made me put the book down so I could gather my wits and take in what had just happened.

HERE WE REMAIN can’t really compete with this level of emotional attachment as it plays more like an ‘aftermath’ of the events in that book; the main group has splintered and separated, with various characters dead and gone, after the attack on their prison base. Rick and his son Carl are back on the road, lost and wandering, trying to figure out what to do and where to go.

We do get a look into Rick’s broken state of mind as he finds himself talking to people who aren’t really there, as well as Carl’s growing sense of independence. It is this latter storyline that is the most interesting, as Carl’s feelings are birthed from his frustration with a father who he feels is failing him, even though he knows deep down that it isn’t entirely Rick’s fault.

Whilst on the road, the pair are reunited with the sword-wielding Michonne, and together they decide to head for a former base: Hershel’s farm. It is here that the next part of the main plot comes into play, as some new survivors show up, one of whom claims to have knowledge of what caused the zombie outbreak in the first place.

However, since this man won’t share what he knows with anyone until he reaches Washington, the question then becomes one of trust: in a world ravaged by the living dead, with survivors who can be as bloodthirsty as these monsters, is it worth putting all your faith in one stranger when all other avenues have lead to dead ends? I, for one, look forward to Volume 10 to find out.