I hope you're all having a decent holiday season. I'm slowly making my way through sending out responses to stories received over the last few months. I hope you'll still bear with me as I do that.
I'm still actively looking for books to review, so if you have a forthcoming or recent book you'd like to have considered for review, please send it to me in .mobi or PDF at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, November 5, 2017
Hi folks. Thanks for sticking with Tough over these few months since we began. For a few reasons, there will be new content until February 5th 2018, when we'll have a new story, our third from Michael Bracken, who's rapidly become a favorite of mine. This off time will also give me a better opportunity to catch up with submissions, as I'm seriously behind, and to build a new stock of reviews, as I have exhausted my supply. Along with that, I need new books to review. If you can send your recent small press crime fiction title in e-book or PDF form to email@example.com, I'll do my best to find a reviewer for it. Finally, I want to build up a four or five month lead time for publishing stories. As Tough has gotten more popular with submitters, I've been unable to do as much editing on stories as I'd like. Most of that is due to getting more and better stories, so thank you. The editing is my pleasure, though, and I want to do more of it. So, thanks too, for bearing with me. See you in the new year!
April 5, 2016
reviewed by Tim Hennessy
Not long after my brother-in-law arrived in Wisconsin for the first time, he could not hide his confusion. Having spent a good portion of his life in California, he didn’t have any point of reference for the Midwest beyond vast blandness and ridiculous accents. One cannot escape the presence of cheese, but we were to his mind and humor, the land of cows and Indians and he hadn’t seen a sign of either. We chose to overlook his sarcasm and tried to oblige, driving until we could locate a few active dairy farms. The part of Wisconsin I’ve lived in most of my life is a notch in the Rust Belt that more closely resembles my brother-in-law’s hometown of Buffalo, which he happily escaped, more than the lawless open expanse punctuated with pot--luck dinners and an unquenchable thirst for beer that he anticipated.
In much of pop culture, the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin, has been a mundane purgatory that remains underexplored in fiction. As young residents are told when wanderlust sets in, Wisconsin is a place you are either born into or you are sent. In Bill Beverly’s Dodgers, the baby-faced characters’ journey to Wisconsin has a critical objective: murder. Rife with coming-of-age trials, Dodgers poetically renders remote beauty among unforeseen dangers.
Beverly’s protagonist East, at fifteen, has risen to a position of authority watching over older boys and keeping an eye on the drug houses his Uncle Fin controls. The night one of the houses gets raided, the usually focused and attentive East is distracted by a girl visiting relatives in the neighborhood who naively tries to impress the corner boys while she plays outside. During the police action and subsequent firefight that erupts, the girl catches a stray bullet and bleeds out before East’s eyes. He bears the guilt and responsibility of her death.
In the wake of the increased attention the girl’s death and the raid brought onto the business, Fin commands East and a crew of other four boys to travel to Wisconsin. A judge who was an asset to their organization, now a witness in hiding until he can testify against them in an upcoming trial, must be killed. Beverly interjects uncertainty that plagues East throughout his journey: is this a precautionary maneuver or a deal with the devil, where the intended objective may be too many moves ahead for East to see? Has Fin’s distant, yet paternal influence, hardened him or overprotected him?
Beverly thrusts a crew of African-American boys 2,000 miles into middle America, giving them a stealth mission into a part of the country where their presence always goes noticed, among a sea of homogenized white faces.
“Everybody tired, even the people getting paid to be there. Everyone with eyeballs, noticing the black boys. The lady with chin length, orange-dyed hair, bright sweater, staring in the candles aisle. East felt small, tried to stay small.”
They are not just driving away from their comfort zones; they are driving into a region that isn’t comfortable with them. Given the fraught nature of their mission, Beverly imbues the plot with an underlying tension daring anyone the boys pass to do more than notice them and wonder if they are actually up to no good. To them, their quest borders on the slightly absurd. Why would an asset to their organization hide where he could be noticed? Or, the more succinct, “What’s a black man doing in Wisconsin?” asks Walter, an older boy whose skills with computers and his part-time job at the DMV have proven useful enabling the gang members access to well-made fake IDs. Also joining East on this mission is Michael Wilson, an annoying showoff who ran Fin’s expansion into the insatiable market of his college campus; and East’s wolfish younger brother Ty, who’s more hood than all three of the older boys combined. Ty’s brashness combined with the volatile group dynamic provides surprises as complications spring up along the way.
When the group distrust of Michael Wilson reaches mutiny levels, he lays out the troubles the youngsters face without him: “You a neighborhood boy. You ain’t in no neighborhood now. There is plenty you don’t know, gangster. You don’t know you can’t go back, because when you fail, there’s no place for you.”East eventually emerges as the group’s leader; forced to no longer observe, but to put his thoughtfulness into decisive action.
The easy reflexive comparison would be to suggest Beverly’s coming-of-age novel channels Richard Price’s work; it does inasmuch as they both strive for a verisimilitude (although Beverly in interviews admits freely that he admires Price’s depth of research, but doesn’t subscribe to the same process) and both authors’ dialogues are absolute joys to read. Beverly has gone beyond the conclusion of Clockers and combined it with his interest in narratives of fugitives in flight.
The journey allows East to shed the confines of growing up impoverished in an urban environment, the limitations of climbing the ranks within the drug trade, and even the cardboard shelters in which he finds comfort enough to sleep. Rising to the challenges, East finds himself expanding beyond the world that has held him. East embraces the change in environment. He learns to adapt, showing a resilient nature to become the man he wants to be. The freedom of leaving behind his home opened him up to possibilities outside of those he knew.
Now my brother-in-law rarely visits. His trips here cause him more anxiety than relaxation. It’s never been clear if it’s any one thing: the inefficiencies of a state slow to evolve or just the pace; the maddening way Wisconsinites live like they drive, clogging lanes, taking time to rubber neck any little thing out of the ordinary. The grating sound of rounded vowels stretched when we speak. Maybe what bothers him isn’t where we live, or even how we live; it could be just who we are.
Saturday, October 28, 2017
Author: Matt Phillip
s Publisher: Near To The Knuckle
Release Date: February 2016
Reviewer: Heather Luby
California native Matt Phillips has been carving his name in the table of crime fiction for close to a decade. As a formally educated writer, poet, and journalist; Phillips knows his way around a story, from flash fiction and poetry, to his latest novel “Three Kinds of Fool,” out from All Due Respect Books.
Phillips is a writer’s writer. He knows the power of the carefully chosen “telling” detail, the beauty of the perfectly placed phrase, and the impact of subtle subtext in dialogue. But when it comes to capturing the sweaty underbelly of sin city and the depravity of criminals who hurt people for pleasure—it takes more than a sexy sentence to make the pain of it all feel true on the page.Lucky for us; Phillips knows his way around the dark recesses of the heart, too.
Sim Palmer is a lonely guy. The only family legacy he has comes in a bottle and burns going down. A rumpled veteran reporter whose best days and best stories seem to be behind him. No wife, no kids, just the job and a city that never sleeps. In walks a man in a fedora who offers him something he can’t refuse. There’s a girl, booze, and bad men to go around. If it all sounds a bit too familiar, you’re right; but you’re also wrong.
Bad Luck City pays homage to the well-worn crime fiction conventions, but it also steps up with more than a few unexpected detours. The pages deliver the well-timed gut punches, but they also carry with them something more potent: the revelation by Palmer that when you start digging, you’re bound to uncover a bit of yourself along the way. Whether you like it or not.
As the story progresses, Palmer begins to catch glimpses of his long dead father. These sightings force him to contemplate the dark instincts that kept his dad under the thumb of the city until his death. Palmer begins to wonder if maybe he’s inherited more than his dad’s .38. As he squares against tough guys and a sinister casino boss, Palmer suspects there’s more to uncover than just a good headline.
When casino boss Stan Evers preaches to Palmer, “There’s a difference, lots of times, between what feels true and what really is true. I think you know that,” Palmer begins to put the pieces together—seeing both himself and Evers for what they really are—men searching for something they can’t quite name.
For me, this is how the pieces come together in Bad Luck City. I think it feels true to say, in many ways, Bad Luck City has a little too much in common with most of the crime fiction out there. But what really is true, is that Phillips makes the reader care about his story anyway.
If characters are to ring true on the page, if readers come to ache along with their suffering, the stories can’t just be about rage or retribution. The stories must have heart, and Phillips delivers it beating on the pages in Bad Luck City.
For Sim Palmer the truth boils down to family. Behind all the bullshit and booze is an oozing wound of want; a primal need festering for decades until it ignites a fire in his belly so fierce he no longer recognizes himself or fears what he may be capable of doing to satisfy it.
If Phillips goal was to explore the emotional landscape of a washed-up reporter, pushed to the edge in order to grasp his deepest unspoken desire; then he succeeded. The raw need on the page reminded me of the desperation so potent in the writing of Denis Johnson. His quick turns of phrase even called up a little Elmore Leonard.
So, despite my small concern that the plotting in the work might ring too familiar for some readers, there is a lot to admire about Bad Luck City. If Phillips continues to integrate the best elements of his influences while exploring ways to break from some of the more traditional crime conventions, then I’ve no doubt even bigger and better things are coming for this writer and his work.