Review: The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale

The ThicketThe Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale (9780316188456): Mulholland Books (2013)

I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry, that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us, or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.

Thus begins master yarnspinner Joe R. Lansdale’s latest East Texas tale, The Thicket. Like most of Lansdale’s fiction, it starts strong, travels fast, and packs a mighty punch.

Jack Parker, a teenager in rural East Texas at the turn of the twentieth century, has seen his fair share of tragedy. He and his younger sister, Lula, have just buried their parents, who were victims of a small pox epidemic that swept through the region. Their grandfather, a cantankerous preacher, plans on escorting them to Kansas to live with distant relatives that neither of the young people have ever met. Their journey takes them to a ferry across the Sabine River and a fateful meeting with a band of very bad men. Soon, Grandfather is killed, Lula taken, and the ferry torn apart by a water tornado. Jack gathers himself up and tries to find help in getting his sister back. Help comes in the form of an unlikely pair of bounty hunters. One is a dwarf with a philosophical streak and the other is a former gravedigger who is constantly in the company of a wild hog named Hog. The three set off across the largely lawless wilds of East Texas in search of the desperadoes. Along the way, the staunchly religious Jack will have all of his sureties questioned and will learn that the world, and the human heart, is made up of mostly shades of gray.

This novel reads like Quentin Tarantino had made a version of True Grit, only with Lansdale’s dark and ornery sense of humor and crackling dialog. It’s crass, it’s violent, and unapologetically earthy as Texas red dirt. But it also has a lot of heart. You learn to love the characters, despite their moral failings. They’re like real people–a little bit angel, a little bit devil–that have been thrown into dire circumstances again and again. Lansdale also takes some of the various western tropes (“the whore with a heart of gold”, for example) and turns them into something special. The book is familiar territory but the story, nevertheless, comes alive.

One warning: The Thicket is a dark and violent tale. There is blood, guts, and more than one mention of sexual violence. It can be a rough read. But it is a tale well-told by a master.


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Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry (9780143125426): Penguin Books (2013)

Words have power.

As a writer and a librarian, this is the pillar of my faith.

When used by a master, words can change the world. They evoke emotion, propel progress, and inspire imagination. They can also provoke fear, entrench the status quo, and confound the mind. All things are possible with words.

In the world of Max Barry’s cinematic thriller, Lexicon, a shadow-organization of “poets” have unlocked the power of words to “persuade” individuals to perform any act they see fit. Through a combination of neuropsychology, sociolinguistics, and ancient verbal alchemy, these poets can unlock the tumblers of the mind and control individuals, the media, and, thus, world events, on an unprecedented scale.

This smart, action-packed novel follows the lives of Emily and Wil as they get sucked into this world of control and manipulation. Emily is a down-and-out street hustler with an uncanny ability to read people. After being recruited to join the organization, she is taken to a private school in Virginia where she is educated in the poets’ system of psychological profiling, and in the “lexicon”, a series of ancient, powerful words. These words can allow her to “compromise” her subjects, subjugating their will for her instructions. Wil is a regular guy, a carpenter, who, when the book opens, has been attacked in an airport restroom, is asked a series of nonsensical questions, and has had a needle placed in his eye. His day goes downhill from there. The two protagonists’ stories intertwine around a deadly environmental incident that occurred in a small town in Australia called Broken Hill. The secret of what really happened in the dusty mining town, and the ongoing consequences of it, are the crux of the plot of the story, a plot which includes many harrowing chases, much violence, and a schism in the poet’s organization.

Barry (Jennifer Government, Syrup) has created a tightly-plotted and crafty modern thriller. The prose, despite the novel’s highfalutin premise, is never flowery and often clever. The characters are interesting and the antagonists (especially Yeats) are fleshed-out and full of juicy menace. The two main plotlines expertly roll into each other and form a perfect storm of conflict and revelation. This novel is hard to set aside, even when the story is done. Highly recommended.

Lexicon will be available in paperback from Penguin Books on March 25, 2014.

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Slow-Burning Impulse

Indulge me a bit as I write on the following prompt:

Sometimes, we act on impulse: it could be something as small as ordering that special dessert on the menu, maybe asking out that cute boy or girl, or as large quitting your job and selling everything you own to become a shepherd in New Zealand. What’s the most crazy, outrageously impulsive thing you’ve ever done? If you’ve never succumbed to temptation, dream a little. If you gave yourself permission to go a little crazy, what would you do?


I’m not a very impulsive person.

I’m also not a very passionate person. I’m pretty laid back and easy-going. A stirring of passion usually makes me uncomfortable and I value comfort above all else.

I think of impulses as momentary passions. Flashes of emotion that drive you to commit acts that you wouldn’t otherwise consider. This is neither good nor bad–but just not “me”.

Looking back, I consider one of the craziest things I’ve ever done is asking my wife on a date for the first time. It was an act of passion, of emotion, and one that changed my life forever. But it was a slow-burning impulse that lead me to it.

I remember the first time I really became aware of the woman that would later become my wife. We both worked in the same library but seldom came into contact. At the time, she worked in her area and I worked in mine and our paths seldom crossed. But one day, around Christmastime, we happened to be working at the front desk together. It was a pretty quiet day, business-wise, and we chatted much of the time. And I was quietly blown away by her humor and her intelligence. Talking to her was as easy as breathing–and I had never experienced that before with anyone.

We finished our shift and made our way home. I remember freaking myself out because we happened to be driving the same direction home that day and I was certain she was going to think I was stalking her like a creep. After that day, a seed was planted in my brain. A little voice that said, “You should ask her out.”

Months passed and nothing happened. We’d pass each other in our travels and I’d here that little voice in my head, but I’d ignore it. She didn’t want to be bothered with the likes of me. What if she said no? What if she said yes? What would I do? No, it was better to leave her alone.

Then came April–and the annual Employee banquet. I happened to be seated at her table and once again got to enjoy her company. I was my usual, quiet self but I soaked in the conservation that hovered around me. Once again I was struck by just how wonderful she was. And that little voice that I had been hearing since Christmas spoke up a little louder. That night, as I went home alone, I told myself that I would ask her out–once I figured out how.

All that weekend, I plotted my best approach–and ended up talking myself out it. She didn’t need me bothering her. Until, one day later that week, she happened to be taking a break in the periodical area where I was working on updating our current stock. I turned a corner and there she was, sitting at a table, reading a magazine.

She looked up and said “Hi” and I said “Hi” in turn. Then, as she started to turn back to her magazine, I just said it. No thought, no approach. “How would you like to catch a movie sometime?” (or some such). She looked a bit surprised and said “Sure.” I said “How about tomorrow night?” She said that would be fine. We arranged to meet at a nearby movie theater after work and there it was.

Then I promptly went back to my work and tried to not to completely spaz out. But on the inside, all my organs were vibrating. Though it had been in the making for months, this was an impulsive act for me. I had already talked myself out of this. I didn’t have a plan or anything. I didn’t know what to do with myself now that the deed was done. I just blurted out my question with a complete disregard to everything but my desire to spend more time with this amazing woman.

For an introvert like me–that’s an impulse. That’s passion.

That date, our first, is a story for another time. But my slow-burning impulse turned out to be the best decision I ever made in my life.

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Beer, Punditry, and Self-Satisfaction

I’m going to try something a little different today in my quest to put words to virtual paper. I’m going to use a writing prompt from another WordPress blog to spur me to stretching my writing muscles a bit. I’ve been letting them atrophy of late…

Have you ever eavesdropped on a conversation you weren’t supposed to? Tell us about a time when it was impossible not to overhear a conversation between people who didn’t know you were there. What was the conversation about? How did it make you feel?


The wife and I were sitting down to dinner at our new favorite local restaurant. The place, as usual, was busy enough to make us happy that it wasn’t going to dry up and disappear on us, but not so busy that we couldn’t get seated immediately. We settled into a booth, I ordered my obligatory local beer, and we held hands across the table, enjoying each other’s quiet company.

Behind me, at the large corner booth, was a family having a celebratory dinner of some sort. At least, I assumed it was celebratory, as one member of the party had apparently had a fair amount of wine and was discussing the charges for said wine, loudly, with the waiter. Once they worked out the charges, it seemed that the wine-buzzed patron wasn’t done talking for the evening.

As my lady love and I enjoyed our meal, we were regaled with the many political opinions of the well-lubricated man behind me. I won’t get into the actual politics involved, as I don’t really care and I’m sure that you don’t either. All that needs to be said is that my and my wife’s opinions would not have been welcomed at that man’s table–and vice versa.

The thing is, I was taking a perverse pleasure in overhearing the conversation going on behind me. I sat in bemused silence, taking it all in, rolling over the various points in my mind, and enjoyed my moral and logical superiority with my tasty local beer. Smug self-satisfaction and hops FTW. I’m not proud of myself–but there it is.

In the meantime, my wife begged me to converse more with her so she wouldn’t have to hear the man. Of course, I’m not much of a conversationalist on the best of days and definitely don’t do well on command. But, I did the best I could so that we could salvage the a pleasant evening for the both of us.

At any rate, the party behind me eventually broke up and made their way out as we were having our lovely dessert. My wife and I had a couple of good-natured chuckles at the some of the more nonsensical pontifications uttered by the slightly-inebriated pundit and got on with our lives.

But the incident sticks with me because of the difference between my and my wife’s reactions. She was obviously put out by the loudness (and rudeness) of what was being said. She wanted to avoid it because it made her uncomfortable. A very sensible reaction. I, on the other hand, was mostly amused by it. And, as I said, more than a little self-satisfied.

Make of that what you will. And feel free to judge me, quietly, with self-satisfaction. We’re only human.

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So this happened…

A couple of weeks ago I came home from work with an impending headache with the added benefit of sinus pressure. My favorite combination. I took some acetaminophen and went to bed, hoping to not wake up with a headache–which always is a sucky way to start the day.

Not only did I wake up with a headache, but the worst headache of my life. On a scale of 1 to 10, this one played on 11. Plus I had the added bonus of nausea and vomiting. Could not even keep water down. I was sick as a dog all day long with no sign of relief.

The next day, my wife took me to the local urgent care facility to see if something could be done. They tested me for the flu (negative) and gave me some medicine for the nausea and the pain, as well as some antibiotics to combat what was assumed to be a possible sinus infection. The pills helped a bit, but I still felt awful and was in pain.

The next day, I noticed that was seeing double–unless I closed one eye. Didn’t really matter which eye, but if I had both eyes open, I saw double. A rather disturbing development, to say the least. My pain and nausea were a little better, but not much.

After another day of pain and nausea, I went to the my general practitioner’s office. After testing me for flu (again, negative) and strep (negatory), she suggested that we go to the ER. So my wife carted my sick butt to the ER where we waited about 4 hours to see a doctor. They took a CT scan of my noggin and loaded my IV with fluids and a “cocktail” of medicines to combat the headache and nausea, as well as some Benedryl for my eye. They found nothing on the CT scan and sent me home with some new prescriptions for the nausea and pain and suggested I follow up with my doctor and get referred to a neurologist.

The ER cocktail really seemed to help. My pain went down and nausea as well. Still had the double vision, though.

A couple of days later, we saw my GP. She checked all my reflexes and looked at my eyes and confirmed that, yes, I should see a neurologist. The double vision had her concerned, as well, as I’m on anticoagulants and clotting is a very real worry. She was afraid that perhaps I had experienced a “mini stroke”. I got my referral and saw the neurologist the following week. I also bought an eye-patch so I wouldn’t strain my eye by squinting and closing it all the time.

The neurologist tested my eyes and ordered some further tests, including a CT Angiogram. His working theory and the one that we’re left with today after the test results: a mini-stroke has damaged one of my cranial nerves, resulting in the loss of vision. There’s no way to know for certain–we can only test against other possibilities and eliminate them. The good news is that my eye *should* heal itself in 6 to 8 weeks.

In the meantime, I look like Rooster Cogburn and have a definite blind spot. I’ve already had a kid ask me if I had something secret hidden under my eye-patch. Maybe he hoped I was a cyborg.

So…a mini-stroke. It sounds so, I don’t know, cute. It’s mini so it’s instantly cuter, right? It’s chibi!

It goes to show that you don’t know when or how you’re going to be struck by something. There’s no predicting it. You can be struck out of nowhere by something completely unknown and out of your control.

In many ways, this is pretty scary. But, on the other hand, it’s always been true. Despite this demonstration of the fickle finger of fate, it’s not like this is new. It could have happened any time and been anything. I was just fortunate that my damage is fairly manageable (if extremely irritating).

So what’s the lesson to learn from this? I don’t know, really. It happened. I’m dealing with it. My wife is helping me deal with it. You never know what’s going to happen from one day to the next so embrace those around you and live your life the best way you know how. It was true before the chibi-stroke, and it’s true now. That’s all I know.

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