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)
Professor Merrell Anthony attains notoriety for his theories on archaeology and history, backed by a knack for unearthing ancient sites. Marianne Gallagher is a brilliant, beautiful student who finds herself inexplicably attracted to Merrell. Merrell has a secret—he’s living two lives at once; both in the present and in the 6th century, as Arthur Pendragon’s adviser. While the 21st century professor carries on a hidden affair with his student admirer, the outcome of the looming battle between Arthur and Mordred will decide determine mankind’s destiny. But Merrell isn’t the only person with secrets.
Merlin’s Last Days, Greg Krehbiel’s retelling of the Arthur legend, is a quick, tight read that does something surprising; the novella provides a fresh take on a story that’s been done to death. Krehbiel’s prose is clean and fast, matching the story’s pace. Better still, the tale has a firm subtext, including a most pressing and timely question: What can prevent the world from descending into chaos? Krehbiel’s story of a pagan mage fighting for a Christian king’s attempt to ascend the emperor’s throne in Rome has more on its mind than just a sword in the stone.
Fast moving, visual and timely. If you’re looking for fantasy with thematic bite, Merlin’s Last Days may be the perfect summer read. (Five stars out of five)
Michelle Alstead’s The Gifted: Reborn opens with one of those classic lines that demands the reader’s attention:
I brought my mother back from the dead, and it’s a mistake that could kill us all.
Fifteen year-old Sarah Proctor is “gifted” with supernatural abilities. What she wants is a normal life, but between her abilities and the efforts of the Mallum—an evil race that wants to use her powers to their own ends—her life is anything but normal.
The Mallum possess an ancient staff that could enslave the entire human race. Sarah’s ability to channel energy from the earth could activate the staff. As the Mallum close in, Sarah will find herself with a choice—save the people she loves, or save the human race.
This is the second book in Alstead’s Gifted series. The first, The Gifted: Awakening Begun is good intro to Sarah Proctor’s saga, though the second book is enjoyable as a stand-alone. The story’s main strength lies in Alstead’s unerring sense of character. Sarah is, above all else, a teen. She walks the delicate line between compassion and chaos that any young adult reader (or parent) will recognize. The character-driven twists and turns are surprising; never contrived. Alstead’s prose is “gifted” as well. You will enjoy the sure voice and fierce pacing of this extraordinary YA novel. (Five stars out of five)