Review: ‘Rumrunners’ by Eric Beetner

Rumrunners by Eric Beetner
280 Steps (May 2015)

RRCoverCriminal empires share many commonalities with more legitimate businesses; including the fact that they are often built on the backs of blue collar workers, the faceless worker bees and foot soldiers that bear the brunt of the labor and receive little or no glory. In Rumrunners, the empire is the Stanley family, and the worker bees are the McGraws. The Stanleys and McGraws have worked together since the early bootlegging days, but as time has moved on things have changed. For one, it’s no longer a few cases of booze the Stanleys want moved; it’s high-dollar inventory at higher stakes. For another, the current McGraw generation – i.e. Tucker McGraw – wants nothing to do with the old family business. And he’s determined to keep his son, Milo, away from it as well.

When Tucker’s father, Webb, goes missing after a job gone wrong, Tucker finds himself being drawn into the situation against his will. The Stanleys want to know what happened to Webb, and of course they have a strong interest in the cargo he was handling. Calvin McGraw, Webb’s father and Tucker’s grandfather, wants to know, too; but more than that, he sees this situation as a way to get himself back in the action, and to maybe get his reluctant grandson in on it, too.

Family (and the tension that goes along with family) is a major theme in Rumrunners. The new generation of the Stanley family is having to deal with dangers and consequences that reach far beyond anything they faced in the old bootlegging days. The McGraws are facing new challenges as well; for Tucker, it’s the challenge of remaining true to his family, but in his own, non-criminal way; for Calvin, it’s the challenge of ensuring his family’s legacy and purpose didn’t disappear with Webb.

Now, it may seem at this point that the novel we’re talking about is some kind of quiet, introspective meditation on family. Make no mistake, it’s a crime novel first and foremost, and all this family tension is taking place in the midst of some brutal fights and plenty of car chases. Beetner works hard to create well-rounded characters, and then places them in
increasingly dicey situations. He also tries to fit in a little comic relief now and then, mostly in one crew’s bumbling attempts to reclaim a car Calvin took from them. Comedy in the midst of crime is hard to pull off, and Beetner’s efforts don’t always work, but they don’t detract from the meat of the story, either.

Rumrunners is a quick, fun read with some characters I wouldn’t mind revisiting in the future. There are times when I felt like the writing could use a little more grit and authenticity, but overall I think it was a good introduction to Beetner’s work, and I look forward to reading more of his stuff in the future.

Review: ‘Kickback’ by Ace Atkins

Kickback by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (May 19, 2015)

KickbackAce Atkins continues to hit all the right notes as curator of Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series in Kickback, the 45th overall Spenser novel and the fourth written by Atkins. In this latest adventure we get to watch as Spenser connects dots that run from a private juvenile detention facility in Boston Harbor, through a couple of buddy-buddy judges in Blackburn, Massachusetts, all the way down to the sunny beaches of Tampa, Florida. Along the way we’re treated to Atkins’ flawless approximation of Parker’s style as he maintains the sharp plotting and witty banter that helped make Spenser so popular in the first place.

Kickback opens with a woman walking through Spenser’s door with a sandwich and a problem – two things guaranteed to get a response from the private investigator. Sheila Yates is looking for help for her son, Dillon, who’s serving time at a local juvenile detention facility because he set up a fake Twitter account as a prank on his vice principal. Like many of Blackburn’s youth, Dillon has run afoul of the town’s famous “zero tolerance” judge, Joe Scali. Scali believes in no free passes and no breaks, sentencing  kids to months-long stretches for the slightest indiscretions. As Spenser begins to nose around the case, he finds that Scali’s intentions may be less about reducing juvenile crime and more about increasing his personal wealth.

I won’t go any further into the plot, because the main appeal of the series is joining Spenser and his cast of supporting characters (Kickback includes appearances by Hawk and, of course, Spenser’s lovely constant companion, Susan) as they go through their paces. Atkins does a great job of exploring the ways P.I. work can go from routine to deadly with little notice. He also knows the perfect time to drop in the little details that enrich the characters and the world they inhabit – the clothes they wear, the food they eat, and, more importantly, what those things say about them as people.

Is it formulaic? Yes. Atkins is not out to upend the world Parker created. Spenser is basically the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, and that’s the way we like it. It’s comfort food, and when done right, there’s nothing better than comfort food. If you prefer to see Atkins unfettered by rules he didn’t create, check out the next book in his series about Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson (The Redeemers, out on July 21). But until then, join him as he takes a walk in the well-worn shoes of one of our best mystery writers. With every new Spenser novel, he proves that the trust placed in him by Robert Parker’s family to continue his legacy was well-founded.

Review: ‘The Acolyte’ by Nick Cutter

The Acolyte by Nick Cutter
ChiZine Publications (May 2015)

TheAcolyte-NickCutterAs “Nick Cutter,” author Craig Davidson has already built a reputation as a go-for-broke kind of horror writer; the kind that shies away from nothing, be it disturbing imagery or disturbing ideas. His latest novel, The Acolyte, is the first of Cutter’s books to tip the scales appreciably in favor of idea over imagery. Don’t get me wrong – there’s more than a dollop of blood and guts in The Acolyte, but there are also moments of almost unbelievable restraint; times in which Cutter realizes that what he’s writing about is shocking enough without rolling it in viscera to boot. It’s these moments that help make this his most powerful book yet.

The world of The Acolyte is one ruled by religion, a perversion of the Christian faith that is more about bureaucracy and judgement than love and forgiveness. Cities are ruled by government-appointed Prophets; “heathens” such as Jews are consigned to fenced-off ghettos; scientific advancement has been halted, and measurements come straight out of the Bible (furlongs instead of miles, for example); and the rules are enforced by squads of highly-trained officers known as Acolytes. Cutter has done a tremendous piece of world-building in this book, organically laying out its structure and rules, creating a society that’s both uncomfortably recognizable and completely alien at the same time.

Jonah Murtag is an Acolyte, a devout follower who is good at his job, yet has somehow retained enough of an open mind that he’s not immune to doubt. The tiny cracks in his faith begin to widen as a series of suicide bombings rock his city. When he witnesses one of these bombings in person, he realizes that the usual culprits may not be behind this particular surge of violence. His investigation into the bombings, coupled with his relationship with a fellow Acolyte, soon proves to be the biggest test of faith Murtag will ever encounter.

The Acolyte is a spiritual cousin to another dystopian novel, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Like Bradbury’s fireman Guy Montag, Murtag (the name itself a nice nod to Bradbury’s work) is an appointed official tasked with keeping the peace through means that he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with. Both men have been raised and trained to think a certain way, but neither of them is able to fully suppress the idea that this certain way may not be the “right” way. And, like Montag, once Murtag begins to break away from the pack and act on his newfound ideals, he finds that his position within the system offers little in the way of protection.

I don’t know a thing about Cutter’s personal faith or his views on organized religion, but he does not paint a pretty picture of either of those concepts here. In the world of The Acolyte, religion is one big tent revival, a flashy show that keeps the rubes in line, keeps the church coffers lined with cash, and dispenses little in the way of actual salvation. Mix that with Cutter’s gut-punch style of writing, and you’re left with a book that is going to be a difficult read for some. It’s also an excellent read for those that can handle it. As with his previous books, Cutter heartily embraces horror fiction while pushing it beyond its limitations. The Acolyte is highly recommended.

Review: ‘Nothing Lasting’ by Glen Krisch

Nothing Lasting by Glen Krisch
Cemetery Dance (November 20, 2014)

nothinglastingComing-of-age stories have long been fertile ground for horror writers – if “The Body” by Stephen King and Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon don’t immediately spring to mind when you hear the term “coming-of-age,” then you have some reading to do. But those are just two examples out of a mountain of stories and novels that feature young characters learning hard truths about life, family and self amidst difficult, often horrific, circumstances.

When you add Glen Krisch’s Nothing Lasting to that mountain, be sure and add it somewhere near the top. Featuring richly drawn characters, complex family dynamics and the requisite unsolved small-town mystery, Nothing Lasting doesn’t reinvent the coming-of-age story, but it does delivers a fresh take on the material.

Our young hero is a boy named Noah Berkley, he of the life recently turned upside-down. His parents have split up, his beloved grandfather has died, and he’s being taken back to his father’s hometown to live. To make matters worse, Noah’s mother isn’t putting up much of a battle to keep him, and it looks like his father has a second family already on standby:
Erin Dooling, his high school sweetheart, and her brooding son, Derek.

Derek immediately grabs the upper hand in their forced relationship, dragging Noah into some criminal mischief and then gleefully holding it over his head. As Noah tries to find some corner of this new life to fit in, he becomes aware of a long-ago tragedy that continues to cast a shadow over the town. Further complicating matters are a series of revelations about his own family that force him to confront the idea that his childhood has never truly been the ideal situation he believed it to be.

There is a lone bright spot for Noah, and her name is Jenny Sparrow. Jenny has never had the chance to believe her life was ideal, and these two wounded children gravitate toward one another, finally finding someone else to share in their once-private confusion, anger and resentment.

Krisch does a great job of building these characters and their relationships while slowly – but not too slowly – pushing the story forward with a series of expertly-timed reveals and revelations. Add a few red herrings and at least one monster of a twist, and you’ve got a
thoroughly satisfying page-turner of a mystery that doubles as an enjoyable character study. The book’s big reveal might be straight out of any number of serial killer stories – and might, in fact, be seen from a mile away by those playing particularly close attention – but it
doesn’t diminish the impact of the story as a whole.

In the end, you’ll be rooting for a happy ending for Noah and Jenny, because by the end you’ll have come to care for them. Whether that’s what you – and they – get is up for you to find out on your own.

Review: ‘Sing Me Your Scars’ by Damien Angelica Walters

ScarsSing Me Your Scars by Damien Angelica Walters
Apex Publications (March 9, 2015)

Sing Me Your Scars is a gripping collection of short stories that provides a number of deeply-felt chills without relying on the crutches of common horror clichés and tropes.

In this mix of new and previously published fiction, Damien Angelica Walters focuses less on the boogeymen in the shadows and more on inner demons like doubt, insecurity, and dependance. Don’t get me wrong – this is no mundane collection of inner monologues; we’ve got a snake-headed woman you might recognize from Mythology 101, and a robot model of Henry VIII that lives with a stripper, and women who can sing buildings into existence, and many more such wondrous creations. But every single story,
now matter how outlandish the window dressing may seem, is grounded in the
very real foibles and frailties of human existence.

There are a number of standouts in Sing Me Your Scars. Among them is the title story, a fresh take on the Frankenstein story in which each “contributor” maintains a voice in the increasingly crowded headspace of Victoria, the mad doctor’s tragic creation. “Melancholia” is another strong entry; in it, a woman watches her mother slowly unravel due to Alzheimer’s, tragically unable to see the very real magic her mother is leaving behind. “Scarred” sees a woman with those fabled voices in her head, urging her to cause pain to people around here; when she cuts herself, her hate is manifested as a dangerous, physical thing, but she only uses it on those who deserve…at least, those who the voices say deserve it.

Walters is not afraid to play around with established storytelling techniques, but throughout her experimentation she never loses control of the story itself. There’s nothing here that can be reduced to pure gimmickry – when she does try something out of the ordinary, it’s with a very real and specific purpose.

Sing Me Your Scars is the third entry in Apex’s “Voices” series, their attempt to spotlight new and exciting storytellers. As with the previous entries (Douglas F. Warrick and Maurice Broaddus), Apex proves they have a great eye (and ear) for talent. Walters is a writer that seems prepared to be around for the long haul, and horror fiction as a whole is likely to benefit greatly from her talents.

Review: ‘Where All Light Tends to Go’ by David Joy

LightWhere All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (March 3, 2015)

It’s hard to discuss the impact of a book like this and remain spoiler-free when so much of what separates it from the pack is that last gut punch David Joy throws at the end. It’s something we should see coming, and it’s definitely something the book’s main character, Jacob McNeely, should have anticipated. But by the time the endgame plays out, Joy has us all – readers and character alike – so enraptured by the first real bit of hope we’ve seen since the story began that we’re blinded to the sad reality he’s been preparing us for all along.

Let me backtrack a bit. Jacob McNeely is the 18-year-old son of a drug-dealing father and a drug-addicted mother. As you might expect, his home life is a bit lacking, and nobody bats an eye when he drops out of school in the tenth grade. Jacob knows that everyone around him has a preconceived notion of what his future holds, and he’s resigned himself to a life of fulfilling those low expectations.

The lone bright spot in his life is long-time friend/girlfriend Maggie Jennings. She sees things in Jacob that he can’t bring himself to believe are really there, so when he cuts ties with school he cuts ties with her as well, reasoning that he’d rather be alone than drag her down with him.

Joy does an excellent job at capturing the frustration and hopelessness any young man would feel when faced with the idea that such a stark, lonely future has been laid out for him. There are times when Jacob tries to embrace the life he feels destined for, and he’s such a broken young man that he often squanders opportunities for escape; not because he doesn’t want them, but because he doesn’t feel he deserves him.

When Jacob talks about the precious few bonding moments he’s shared with his dad, those moments that don’t involve his dad trying to integrate him into the family business, it’s shattering because you can see how those small sips of “normal life” come back to haunt him time and time again. When it comes to his mother, Jacob mostly seems to hold her at arm’s length, disgusted at the way she’s let her addiction grind her down; and when Joy does allow them one small moment of real togetherness, it’s a glimpse at what could have – should have – been the reality between them that makes the truth of what they are all the more devastating.

Caught in what he feels is a hopeless situation, Jacob continues to allow his father to manipulate him deeper and deeper into into the muck, until he’s finally pushed far enough that he begins to push back. An unexpected helping hand appears, and Jacob, caught at just the right moment, grabs for it. Eagerly. Too eagerly, and that’s when Joy takes his last swing, and I’ll admit I kind of hated him for it, even as I told myself I should have seen it coming.

There’s very little light in Where All Light Tends to Go, and what little there is doesn’t do much to brighten the mood. Joy’s novel is grim, and bleak, and powerful, and wonderfully written, and it will wreck your day. It’s a strong debut, and well worth your time.

Review: ‘The Glittering World’ by Robert Levy

The Glittering World by Robert Levy
glittering-world-9781476774527_lgGallery Books (February 10, 2015)

You’re going to see a lot of comparisons made between this, playwright Robert Levy‘s debut novel, and the work of Neil Gaiman, and I think those comparisons are appropriate. Like Gaiman, Levy is charting his own unique path through the darkened, shadowy corners of the fantasy genre, leading a journey that even those who normally avoid the “F” word will be glad they joined.

In The Glittering World, Levy has written a fantasy novel that is rooted in the reality of human emotion and longing; a fantasy that eschews orcs and trolls and faraway places with unprounounceable names for a hidden Canadian cove and a cast of humans reeling from the their own frailties. To this idyllic place comes Blue, a man looking to make some kind of peace with his past. Along with Blue are his friend (and sometimes more), Gabe; the former (maybe former) love of his life, Elisa; and Elisa’s husband Jason.

Rural Cape Breton was once the home of an artists’ commune, and it’s the place where Blue was born. His mother took him away at a young age, and Blue has never been sure why. As he returns to finalize the sale of his grandmother’s home – his last concrete tie to the area – he hopes to put together the pieces of a past that’s always been a mystery to him. His arrival triggers an escalating chain of events, and when Blue disappears – and Elisa along with him – his friends are forced to confront that idea that the man they’ve come to love and support may not be the man they thought he was.

Levy confidently and patiently builds his world with rich, textured storytelling and prose that leans to the lush side at times, but never becomes self-indulgent. The book is divided into four sections, each dedicated to a member of the main cast, and Levy uses these sections to flesh out these characters while keeping the story moving forward. He smartly eases us into the supernatural elements, teaching us what we need to know about the
“Other Kind” and their intoxicating influence on humans, when we need to know it. The finale is a satisfying one, and while it leaves a door or two open for more exploration, it’s refreshing to read a book that isn’t a blatant setup for a trilogy.

The Glittering World is a direct – sometimes brutally so – examination of the lengths some will go to in order to maintain a sense of belonging. It’s also a compelling look at identity, and what “who we are” means to each of us. All of this is wrapped up in a beautifully written fantasy thriller that bleeds pure imagination. It’s a wonderful debut, and it marks Robert Levy as a talent to watch.