Novel November

My Favorite Book Series

by Michael Channing

Hap and Leonard novels

Hap and Leonard series
by Joe R. Lansdale

I've read all these at least three times each. I've lent out copies and gotten my friend Bob hooked on the series. These are damn good books. Two hard-fighting East Texas guys, one white and straight, one black and gay. They have other differences, but they are blood brothers, sworn and dedicated to each other no matter what trouble comes a-crawling out of the thicket. Over the years, Hap and Leonard have developed from unemployed and down-on-their-luck to just-about-middle-class, nearly respectable private investigators. They've fallen in and out of relationships, but the binds between them have remained rock-solid. The cast of supporting characters has grown, the dangers have gotten bigger, but the dialog has always been sharp, the writing always superb. The weather itself is often a character and Lansdale's descriptions of sunsets, rainstorms, flash floods, and searing heat are pure poetry.

If you read this series from the beginning, pay attention to how the author's voice develops. The first book, Savage Season, is full of the usual violence, sex, and intrigue, but there's not much of the humor the series is now known for. The second, Mucho Mojo, is really where Lansdale begins to incorporate his trademarked blend of dark humor, witty banter, and front-porch-rocking-chair hyperbole.

The fight scenes in these books are extremely realistic because Lansdale is a bona-fide martial arts hall-of-famer. He invented his own form of martial arts, as did Bruce Lee, and has his own school in Texas. So when Hap and Leonard wail on a few thugs and knock their heads around, keep in mind the author himself could do the exact same thing to you. But he wouldn't, of course, because he's a pacifist. Unless you threaten his family, then you should be prepared to taste dirt and/or your own blood.

The Riverworld Series
Riverworld series
by Philip José Farmer

Book one sets up the premise, that everyone who ever lived on Earth, from pre-history to the present, is resurrected on a planet whose main feature is a million-mile long, twisting and turning river. Each person has a bucket, called a "grail," attached his wrist that, when placed on any one of the millions of large power conduits at certain times each day, replicates food, clothing, and special luxury items. If anyone dies they are resurrected again at a random location on the river bank. There is no metal on the planet, and technology, other than the alien grails and grail stones, is strictly stone-age. Then each further installment alters or negates some of the rules of the world. In the second book, a meteor containing a mother lode of metal strikes and allows for the creation of bladed weapons and complex machinery. In book three, several characters are revealed to be double agents, and in the final books the protagonists gain entry to the stronghold of the beings who created the world. With every volume, friendships are tested, stakes grow ever higher, and the danger of permanent death looms over the entire human civilization.

The Riverworld is one of the great inventions in all of science fiction. I can't remember which, but one of the books contains a dedication page that specifically states that you, the reader, are among the billions of individuals resurrected along the great riverbank, mingling with the commoners and heroes of history. It was a small and sly detail, but it made me feel part of the story. I could imagine having my own exploits with Buffalo Bill, long conversations with H. G. Wells, and just learning how to fish and create shelter from the old pioneers. The secrets of this world and the tower that rises from the headwaters of the River are tantalizing. The prose is crisp, the action quick and crystal clear. The plot is engaging from the first line. I tore through these books as fast as I could find them, breathless with anticipation each time a new revelation led to deeper questions. But as hooked as I was, I felt uneasy about the ending. As the fourth book drew closer to completion, I could feel a growing certainty that the ending just could not fully satisfy me after all the action and intrigue that had gone before. I was right. But thankfully there is a fifth book. The fourth, The Magic Labyrinth, was meant to be the final volume and was described as such on the cover of the copy I read. But apparently even the author knew the ending wasn't up to snuff and wrote one last book to give us a better finale. The fifth book doesn't seal the fates of the main protagonists, but it does close off the grand adventure on the River in a way that is well above snuff.

The Dark Tower Series
The Dark Tower series (the first four or five books, anyway)
by Stephen King

Stephen King's Dark Tower books are a genre-bending series that mix science-fiction, high fantasy, and westerns, with elements of horror and action adventure sprinkled liberally throughout. The first book has a dream-like quality the others don't. You are presented with a world alien to our own, a sword and scorcery-type setting with guns instead of blades, but the edges seem worn thin, and snippets of our world bleed through. The piano player in a western saloon sings "Hey, Jude," and rusted pieces of modern technology show up here and there among the frontier trappings. The second book is a fast-paced action novel, full of gun play and murder. The third ends on a cliff-hanger, which was weird considering how short it was, and the fourth is a fantastic flashback to the young life of our hero Roland the gunslinger, a long and sad fairy tale that ends in tears. The main story of the series, Roland's trek to the fabled Dark Tower, was far from over, but we didn't get another installment till many years later. After King's well-publicized accident in which he was struck and nearly killed by a van, many fans though they might never get to read the end of the story. But he finally published a new volume with the promise of two more to come in the following two years.

And they were terrible. I'm probably in the minority on this, but the last three books were crap compared to the ones that came before. One reason is that King added retroactive additions and alterations to the first first book and introduced the new ability to go "todash" while pretending it was a thing all along. But the biggest sin, to me, was to rewrite Roland as a white hat hero. Until then, he had been decidedly grey. He felt no qualms about killing or sacrificing people if they stood between him and the tower. But the final three books treat him like a holy knight doing good for the benefit of all.

So when I say this is one of my favorite series, I mean just the first four books plus The Wind in the Keyhole, which was published after the series completion and is considered volume 4.5. It's a fantastic book, a story within a story told without the filler sub-plots that bog down the final three books. King is in fine form in those four and a half volumes. It feels like he's discovering the story as he tells it, which is when he's at his best. The first books are stuffed with surprises and little details that draw you onward through unmapped territory. The final three books feel lifeless, moving through plot points and roboticly answering questions the first books asked out of whimsy. That may be what ultimately killed my joy in reading those last books. They ruined the mystery of what the tower was, who Roland was, and why he was being compelled to embark on his quest. In literature, the promise of revelation will always be more powerful than the reveal itself.

The Five-Volume Hitchiker's Trilogy
The Hitchhiker's Trilogy
by Douglas Adams

I've read these books over and over. They never get old, never get boring. Adams was one of the funniest writers ever. His passages hold weight and serious literary clout then twist in the final clause to deliver a hilarious and unexpected punch line. His characters and story inventions are so unique and unforgettable. Zaphod and Marvin, Arthur and Ford, the number 42, the Heart of Gold spaceship, the Hitchhiker's Guide itself. These are things that live forever in my mind and will always bring me joy to revisit.

The first book deals with the destruction of Earth and the wayward travels of the last human as he searches for solace and a good cuppa tea. That Earthling, Arthur Dent, is our everyman entry point into the chaotic and frustrating universe that seems to be full of nothing but danger and bureaucracy. Book two takes us to a restaurant that exists in a time bubble perched at the moment when the universe collapses and dies. The food there is very friendly. The third book is actually fairly tightly plotted, and it seems that's because Adams adapted it from a Doctor Who treatment he wrote years before. It's about a civilization that spends its entire history on a planet within a dark cloud of dust, believing they are the only entities in existence. When they learn there are other worlds and beings, they are confused by what they see and, as is the normal reaction of anyone confronted with their own misunderstandings, vow to destroy everything. In the fourth book, Arthur finds love and has sex on the wing of a plane. And in the fifth book, Earth is destroyed all over again, this time with all of the series' main characters on it. Pretty bleak ending for a comedy series.

But that's not really the end. There is a sixth book in the trilogy. With the blessing of Adams' widow, Eoin Colfer (which feels like a name Adams himself might dream up) has written And Another Thing... to bring the adventures of all the characters to a close. On the cover of that book, above the title, it says "Part Six of Three." I was standing in line, holding that book one day, when the lady ahead of me noticed it and asked what that mathematically-challenged heading was supposed to mean. She said it didn't make any sense, and it just confused her. I told her it was doing its job. I'm just glad she wasn't compelled to destroy my book.

Dragonlance Chronicles Trilogy
Dragonlance Chronicles
by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Truth be told, I don't remember much about this series. There are twins, a fighter and a wizard who end up on opposite sides of the battle; the wizard is cursed to see everyone as they will appear decades from now, so he sees everyone as either dead or decaying. I remember a race called the Kender who are mischievous little thieves. There are dragons of various colors. The main hero is a half-breed, like Spock, who's allegiance is constantly tested. I think there was PG sex scene that I found exciting simply because it was such a rare thing to stumble on. And that's about it. What I remember most is the experience of reading it in junior high.

My friends and I read the books together. We passed them back and forth, anticipated the characters' fates, talked about them so much that other folks in our classes would reference the books back to us despite not having read a single page. In computer class, we were supposed to make a database using names and phone numbers, so we cataloged the Heroes of the Lance. It was a fantastic time of bonding, of belonging. I miss those days, but just looking at the covers of those paperbacks brings them rushing back, warm and accepting. Margaret Weis just happened to be at a gaming convention I attended some years ago, and I took the opportunity to thank her. I told her how important her books were to me and friends, how big a part of my life and my memory they are. I told her she changed my life for the better. She shook my hand and said, "You're welcome."

old timey typewriter

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