Four-year-old Maddie is dead—from sunburn. Her body is found in the front yard by her grandparents, Alton and Beatrice Miller. Their daughter, Casey, a beautiful but troubled meth addict, appears to be to blame. When detective A.J. Tillman shows up to investigate, Casey is all-too-eager to confess. But Tillman doesn’t buy her confession, and not just because he’s in love with her. When charges are filed, Tillman begins to dig, risking his reputation and his shaky marriage. Will he find the truth, or will Casey spend her life behind bars?
Kenneth Harmon’s Upon the Stage of Time is a claustrophobic little crime thriller set in a scorched East Texas town where everyone has secrets, including the ones they keep from themselves. Harmon’s characters are irreparably broken, and this tragic wreck of a story works on your heart from the first few pages until the last paragraph.
Harmon’s prose is deceptively simple, telling a fascinating story in a straight-forward fashion. The author lets tiny details mark the narrative like poetics. The cumulative effect is emotionally devastating. I was reminded of an old saying—children want justice, and adults want mercy. Suffice it to say that justice is done. My highest recommendation (five stars out of five).
In Ken Harmon’s The Paranormalist, Quinn Westerly’s father, an FBI agent, dies in what is characterized as a murder/suicide involving immolation. She does not believe that her father could be part of such a horrible crime, but the agency considers the matter closed. Running out of options and determined to cover all bases, Quinn contacts Evan Cordell, a psychiatrist with a dark past who understands what Quinn is up against. He’d like to help her find answers, and he’d like to protect her. But Cordell the paranormalist knows the latter may be impossible. No one controls the dark side.
Ken Harmon writes magical realism, a difficult genre to pull off. Elements of whimsy (Lightfoot the ghost operates as a comic foil), naturalism (a detailed, realistic depiction of the world), and surrealism (dreamlike imagery), coupled with elements of horror. That’s a lot to juggle. Harmon pulls it off beautifully by focusing on his two lead characters—two flawed, damaged people struggling against the hidden world.
Harmon’s prose is straight-forward, firmly anchored in the real world, which draws the reader into his dark fantasy. The depiction of the shadow world is clever and consistent—Harmon is an expert at world-building. As for the ending, I’ll just say that the gruesome close was emotionally satisfying and worthy of the horror elements of the tale. The Paranormalist is satisfying on every level. (Five stars out of five)
Ronald Malfi’s We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone is an anthology of dark, short fiction. The author, who wrote last year’s masterful horror novel, Bone White, delivers in this fine collection. 20 stories run the gamut from psychological horror to the supernatural.
The first story, The Dinner Party, stuck with me for days. It’s hard to scare the adult reader. Most authors settle for related emotions, like revulsion (gore). The protagonist of Malfi’s lead story is a disturbed housewife suffering from disorientation and (possibly) paranoid delusions. The story draws the reader into an eerie, unsettling narrative that sets up a gut-punch ending that is genuinely frightening – a sense of horror that owes both to the emotional crafting and to the single, understated imagery that closes the tale.
Malfi is a horror master, and this collection is well worth your time. (Five stars out of five)
Little Chapa does not fit in at home or in school, so when he finds himself trapped in Daeya, a dangerous world full of creatures, traps and mazes, he’s in real trouble! His new friend Davkaleon is willing to help, but when the boys discover what might be a passageway to Twierks—a forbidden place that no one dares speak of—wizards and witches hunt them at every turn.
Tetyana Butler’s Adventures of the Little Adoleeseet introduces a unique fantasy series that explores the nexus between magic and science. (One world’s science is magic in another…) The author, a mathematician and programmer by trade, has done a nice job of world building. The story blends whimsey and physics in an imaginative, entertaining fashion.
The unlikely friendship between Chapa and Davkaleon gives the novel its spine. The story focuses on their desperate gauntlet run to return Chapa to his home world. The action is creative and outrageous. I truly enjoyed this short novel, and look forward to the next installment in the series. (Five stars out of five)
Kirk Duncan runs a trading post in the wilderness. When his partner is killed, Duncan takes on a role as a Ranger, defending English settlements, and his partner’s lovely widow. Aided by his Mohawk allies, Duncan is part scout, part spy, and all fighter.
To the north, the French have allied with the Abenaki, sworn enemies of the English settlers. Duncan’s nemesis, Jacque de Lamar, instigates war by sending raiding parties from New France (Canada). Duncan and his French counterpart find themselves in the middle of a proxy war between the French and British governments, using Native American tribes as combatants.
La Petite Guerre is Book Two of John H. Lambe’s American Scouts and Rangers series. The novella is a throwback—great storytelling with brave heroes and ruthless villains. Lambe writes with a sense of authenticity without jamming up the narrative with historical asides. His prose is clean and straightforward, reading very much like a movie. La Petite Guerre is pure, story-driven joy. (Five stars out of five)
Daniel Garrison’s Drifting in the Push is a loosely organized, fast-paced memoir, tracing the author’s manic, comic adventures on the road less traveled.
Dan, the narrator, traces his journey from boyhood to early manhood, in settings from Oregon and Colorado, to Alaska and Mexico. Recurring characters include childhood friends Bryan and Shane, and a dog named Hank. Fate is a character of sorts, since much of what happens to Dan is unplanned and inadvertent. Some of Dan’s misadventures, however, are self-inflicted.
One story involves trying to refurbish a $75 dollar a month cabin in the dead of winter. Repairing plumbing becomes a nightmare: “Time didn’t matter in the crawlspace anyway. It was an uncaring black coffin of agony.” What follows, from walls of frozen excrement to setting himself on fire, will have readers slapping foreheads. The writing is excellent. Garrison’s prose is clean, funny, and often touching.
It’s difficult to tell how much (if any) of the book is fiction and how much is a memoir. Doesn’t matter—the stories have the authenticity one attributes to real events, and the narrative drive associated with the very best fiction.
Drifting in the Push was published by Tongue & Groove Publishing, located in Oregon. Garrison’s story ends somewhat abruptly, but a sequel is currently in the works. I intend to read it. (Five stars out of five)
Pat is a patriotic cubicle production tech who falls victim to a freak, one-car accident that the media spins into a terrorist attack. When he fails to die (martyrdom is so much more newsworthy), questions arise. Is he the most dangerous terrorist in the two-hundred-year war on terror, the “Chosen One” destined to lead the next American Revolution, or just a guy who’s removed his L.I.F.E. bio-mechanism to live off the grid?
Jason Richter’s “L.I.F.E. in the 23rd Century: A Dystopian Tale of Consumerism, Corporate Coffee, and Crowbars,” though crafted in the absurdist tradition, has serious concerns in mind, including wag-the-dog news coverage and the erosion of civil liberties. Richter’s fable is laugh-out-loud funny, but the humor is more like a hot stick in the eye than slapstick. Satire that cuts this close to the bone should carry a warning sticker.
Richter’s novel is the first release from Diskordian Press. I look forward to their future publications. (Five stars out of five)