Ash Ericmore’s Daddy confirms that the Smalls brothers came by it all honestly, everything from their knack for stumbling ass-backward into situations they’d have sooner avoided to their peculiar sense of nobility and morality. Between Mumma and Daddy, we’re forced to admit that the Smalls siblings turned out as well as could be reasonably expected. When film buff and criminal, Daddy Smalls, is offered a job driving a truck filled with drugs up North, he’s more than happy to oblige. It’s only after he learns that he’s transporting something entirely different that he’s driven to teach the buyer a lesson. Quick-witted, unflappable, and prepared for violence, Daddy will need to call on all of his resources–including that borderline supernatural luck that the whole Smalls clan benefits from–as he discovers himself face-to-face with a sadistic, monstrous, and perverse opponent in a house designed to prohibit escape. And yet again, somehow the Eastern Europeans are involved. They’re like cockroaches. If Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie had taken a stab at writing a script inspired by either the Saw or Collector series, this is approximately what Ash Ericmore has channeled in crafting this exciting installment in the ongoing Smalls adventures.
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It begins with an illegal street race in a virtually empty, forgotten corner of Virginia. With a thundering rumble of engines breaking the silence of the cool night, Beauregard “Bug” Montage pushes his Duster to victory. The winnings from this one race will be enough for Bug to keep his garage open for another month, but the arrival of a couple of fake police officers shatters any hope he had of keeping himself afloat. With bills piling up, his loan on the garage past due, unplanned expenses arising, and the business he and his cousin, Kelvin, used to count on diverted to a competitor’s garage, Bug finds himself in a desperate situation. He and his wife had both hoped he could put his former life behind him, where his skills as a mechanic and his skills behind the wheel had been instrumental in making him a wheelman as capable as his father before him. But when legitimate avenues fail him, Bug feels compelled to look for alternatives. The unexpected arrival of a former associate could be fortuitous, or it could lead to disaster, and greater trouble than Bug anticipates, but with the clock ticking, what choice does he have? S. A. Cosby provides a gripping narrative of high stakes and high speed, propelling the reader through a southern noir tale that never lets off the gas until it reaches the end of the road. Populated with characters who feel as real as anyone, Blacktop Wasteland is–at its heart–a study on identity and the conflict between who we are vs. who we want to be. It’s a story about the struggle of escaping one’s past and inherited behaviors, while the whole world seems dead set on forcing everything into that mold. Sure, this is a heist story, but there’s more to it than that. Blacktop Wasteland will not disappoint readers who are searching for a thrilling crime novel, or gearheads searching for a book that lovingly captures details of both the world under the hood and behind the wheel, but it should also appeal to those seeking an engrossing character study. Adam Lazarre-White’s narration couldn’t be more perfect if the book had been written with his voice in mind. He deftly tackles the emotion and depth of the characters while lending a smooth baritone delivery of the magnificent prose laid out by Cosby. I knew what to expect after listening to the equally fantastic audiobook for Razorblade Tears, and yet I was still stunned by just how amazing these two men managed to create something hauntingly beautiful when working together.
Setting the stage and whetting the appetite for his upcoming novel, Addicted To the Dead, Shane McKenzie’s Like A Brother provides readers with a tantalizing glimpse of a world where the dead don’t stay dead and organized crime is going strong–perhaps stronger than ever before. We join Donnie, a member of Sal’s crew, just after another crime family interrupted a funeral and spirited away Calico and the object of the funeral, Beauty. Sal is planning to attack, and take back the people who were taken from him. But his enemies aren’t done yet. Barely surviving the bloodbath that ensues, Donnie struggles to reach his family and the families of the others who’d just been murdered, but he might be too late. Will Donnie have the strength to take revenge and perform the rescue that Sal’s crew had intended before they were all but wiped out? Will he ever see his friend–his almost brother–Calico again? McKenzie introduces us to a world of casual, excessive violence and a thriving black market built on the nourishment provided by an unsavory meat supply with unique characteristics. After reading this story, you’ll surely be addicted as well.
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If you’ve been following my reviews at all, you know how much I adore Ash Ericmore’s writing and especially the sordid tales associated with the Smalls Family. To say I was pleased when Ericmore indicated there would be more to come after he’d concluded the stories of the seven Smalls brothers with Candyboy’s agricultural escapades would be an extreme understatement. With Valentine, we’re fully introduced to their cousin Marian. Babysitting Backy for Adam (Bliss) becomes quite the adventure when a group of Scottish criminals force their way into the house and leave with Valentine’s charge, hoping to take something of importance to Adam. Unfortunately for them, Valentine is no less prone to violence and impulsive behavior than the other Smalls we’ve met. Physical torture, superhero antics, excessive violence, a reptile ruckus, and a big rig brouhaha ensues as Valentine tracks down the twice-stolen baby, hoping to return him home before Adam is any the wiser. As with Ericmore’s other criminal capers, this story is non-stop, full-tilt excitement from the first line to the conclusion. You can’t be disappointed when you’re delving into the world of the Smalls clan, it’s simply not an option.
You can purchase this title as well as the other Smalls Family stories from http://www.godless.com or by downloading the Godless app to your mobile device of choice. The link is below:
There is no question why S. A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears made it to many national publications’ best of 2021 lists. This novel rests near the top of my list of best titles published in 2021 as well, especially when I focus on non-horror titles. 2021 was a good year for crime and suspense literature. Stephen King released Billy Summers, Kristopher Triana released And the Devil Cried, and S. A. Cosby released the absolute masterpiece Razorblade Tears. Neither Ike nor Buddy Lee were great fathers when their sons were alive. Between recurring stints in prison and their prejudices about the fact that the boys were gay, in large part informed by antiquated perspectives on what it meant to be a man, the two men had driven substantial wedges between themselves and the sons they loved with reservations. It was only after the two young men were murdered that either father allowed themselves to embrace the sons they’d shown far too little affection when they were alive. Isiah and Derek, the interracial married sons, are like ghosts at the periphery of the tale Cosby weaves for us. They haunt the two men we come to admire, despite all of their faults, at the core of this novel. Had Ike and Buddy Lee been able to overcome their ingrained bigotry while the boys had been alive, the two would have met years before the funeral, but that was not who the two men were. It turns out that the meeting of these two vastly different–yet strangely similar–men would be a fateful occasion that would lead to more bloodshed than either of the men could anticipate. As the police investigation into Isiah and Derek’s deaths stalls out, Buddy Lee approaches Ike with a proposition that the two of them might have better luck taking matters into their own hands. Unraveling the mystery behind the brutal murder of the boys will force the two ex-cons to confront their pasts, their preconceived notions, and their concepts of love as the trail leads them through Hell and back before bringing them closer to home than they could’ve imagined. The regret and retribution at the core of this book are at turns heartbreaking and viscerally satisfying. Most important, Cosby doesn’t shoehorn in any ersatz redemption for Ike and Buddy Lee because both men are so damaged and broken that redemption, in the sense that many writers would define it, simply wouldn’t make sense. That is not to say there’s no redemption here; there is redemption in these pages, but it’s the hollow sort that arises from the transformations coming far too late for it to make any difference. Witty dialogue, well-crafted characters, and realistic portrayals of race relations, homophobia, and the difficulty associated with escaping a criminal past fill this novel with so much depth and honesty that it would be impossible to convey in a review. All I can say is that anyone delving into this book will come out the other end with an understanding that they didn’t have when going in. Adam Lazarre-White’s narration for the audiobook is phenomenal. The additional character he brings to both Ike and Buddy Lee with his delivery of their dialogue is something that weighs heavily in favor of the audiobook edition of this novel because there’s such life and depth added to the characters with that extra texture.
Billy Summers is, in my opinion, the best book Stephen King’s written in a great many years. It also stands out as being one of the best non-horror books of 2021, probably of the past few years at the very least. I’m not one of those to denigrate King just because he’s King; there’s a reason he’s perhaps the best-selling horror author of all time. He knows what he’s doing, even if I sometimes question his ability to stick the landing concerning his endings. Botched endings aside, most of his oeuvre is pretty well stellar, and even the material that hasn’t aged well is still worth diving into. With Billy Summers, while there are passing references to supernatural forces within the world (commentary on The Overlook Hotel), King has made what I consider to be his most pronounced deviation from the realm of horror and the supernatural. Beneath the surface, this novel has a lot to say about the subjective nature of morality, the fluidity of identity and self-identity, the importance of memory, and the relationships we develop in our lives. None of that overshadows the surface-level compelling narrative of Billy and Alice. Billy is an almost unnaturally skilled killer. While he’s an expert with firearms, he’s written with such humanity and depth that he never crosses the line into being a caricature of the action heroes from film and television. Highly literate, prone to in-depth analysis of both himself and those around him, and always planning, Billy has nevertheless immersed himself within a character he refers to as his “dumb self” when interacting with the criminals for whom he acts as a shooter. Providing his employers with a false sense of confidence derived from apparent superiority has allowed Billy to avoid being perceived as a threat, and it’s potentially kept him alive through the years. When Billy accepts what he imagines to be one last job, he’s provided with a long-term identity that brings to the surface a dream he’d never expected to pursue. As time passes and Billy immerses himself deeper within the fictional identity, he begins noticing some disturbing signs that everything might not be as smooth as expected when the time comes to complete the job. Thankfully for Billy, he’s much smarter and more capable than the people who hired him. As Murphy’s Law takes over and anything that can go wrong does go wrong, Billy finds himself in a complex paternal relationship with a damaged young woman. As they help one another heal, Billy learns that he’s still got one last job to complete, and it’s far more dangerous than the one he’d signed up for. The pacing is superb, and the balance of character study with narrative as we find ourselves led by King to the conclusion of the tale is about as perfect as one could hope to experience. Paul Sparks expertly tackles the audiobook narration, thoroughly capturing the different sides of Billy as he slips from identity to identity throughout the story. He additionally captures the secondary characters well enough that there’s never any doubt who we’re hearing in the dialogue. Sparks exhibits fantastic cadence as he guides us along the path King has carved for us to follow.
The release of Kristopher Triana’s And the Devil Cried is one of those examples of strangely serendipitous timing. It serves as an odd juxtaposition with Stephen King’s Billy Summers. Both stories are about men who became involved with organized crime after committing a murder during their youth and enlisting with the military. That is, of course, where the similarities end, as the characters themselves couldn’t be more different. Triana excels in crafting unlikeable characters. His true skill is in developing these characters who manage to be entirely captivating precisely because of how unlikeable they are. Jackie is a prime example of that. Committing his first murder at the age of 17 for no better reason than greed and bitterness over the good fortune of the victim, Jackie never strives to be a better person. After his time in the Army, Jackie never adjusts to civilian life, and he gets arrested for an attempted armed robbery. The story picks up as he’s being released and reacquainting himself with bad people he met while on the inside. As the story unfolds, you find yourself wishing he’d never been released, but there wouldn’t be much of a book if that were the case. Misogynistic, abusive, sexist, violent, bigoted, and fundamentally heartless, there’s not much about Jackie that resembles a human being, and that’s what makes him an excellent protagonist for this particular story. While this isn’t one of Triana’s extreme horror or splatterpunk tales, he brings those sensibilities to the pulp crime genre with a character so devoid of decency that he’s almost a caricature of what one might expect a hardened criminal to be. There are components of this story that are difficult to read. I’d suggest those are notably Jackie’s treatment of homosexuals in prison and his unabashed fixation on young girls, but it’s worth sticking it out to the end. Triana showcases a talent for writing hardboiled pulp crime that transcends the genre conventions. It’s a little bit Scarface, a little bit The Godfather, and all Triana. While it’s not my favorite of his books, it’s well worth reading and it displays a side of Triana as an author that I’d never witnessed previously. It’s encouraging to see him stepping outside of his comfort zone and exploring new ground, and that makes me curious about what he’ll have in store for us next.
Reed is the fourth of the Smalls brothers we’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and it could be argued that he might just be the most unstable and disorganized of the bunch. In Wasphead, we discover a man who prides himself on a certain level of decorum and a pretense of organization and planning, but he is clearly quite lousy at formulating and executing a plan. With the help of his recently adopted associate, Reed Smalls takes on a risky, high profile job that stands to put him in direct conflict with a local crime boss. Thankfully, for us, nothing goes even remotely according to plan. As the story progresses to a messy, fluid-drenched, and dismembered conclusion, we can only hope to hold on for the ride. Reed might be my least favorite of the Smalls brothers we’ve met so far, based on personality alone, but his misadventure is no less captivating than the previous three. The fact that this character is so starkly different from the others we’ve encountered is an excellent display of how thoroughly diverse in their disfunctionality the Smalls brothers are. I can’t even begin to imagine what’s coming next.
Wasphead is available as part of the 31 Days of Godless event at http://www.godless.com for October of 2021. You can pick it up for yourself by going to the website or by downloading the Godless app. The link is below:
Sawbones introduces the reader to Edward Smalls, one of seven siblings in the Smalls family, and it is one hell of an introduction. A meeting with Alfred Leonard, a drug dealer and the criminal equivalent of middle-management, takes an unexpected turn as Edward is asked if he’d be willing to supply a snuff film for some new European business partners. No stranger to killing, Edward agrees to the strange proposition.. He already makes a living by supplying harvested organs on the black market, earning him the nickname Sawbones. How hard can it be to make a video incorporating sex and death? Locating a suitable victim and getting her back to his dungeon workspace turns out to be the simple part. Everything else seems to be working against him, from the oppressive heat to unwanted visitors. Edward learns the hard way that film sets are a perpetual state of barely organized chaos, and that the people behind-the-scenes bankrolling the production often seem not to share the same creative vision as the director. Edward Smalls is a strangely likeable character, considering how he earns his living. Ericmore successfully fleshes out a human monster who seems uncomfortably relatable and awkwardly amusing. It’ll be interesting to meet the other members of the Smalls family as the series continues. If this first installment is a solid basis of what to expect, there’s no way anyone could come out of this series feeling disappointed. The story reads like the novelization of a film written as a collaboration between Tarantino, Ritchie, and Roth.
You can obtain Sawbones, as well as the subsequent two volumes of the series right now, by going to http://www.godless.com or by downloading the Godless app. The link is below:
Few authors could successfully pack as much intrigue, mystery, and suspense into a novella as John Scalzi. Murder By Other Means is a prime example of Scalzi at his fast-paced best. At the heart of this story is a question, “How do you successfully assassinate people when 99.99% of murder victims reappear–unharmed–in their homes, only moments later?” We return to the world of Tony Valdez, the titular Dispatcher of the previous story in this sequence, not too long after we left him at the end of The Dispatcher. Legitimate work has dried up for him and the city of Chicago is on an austerity budget that prohibits him from finding many side gigs on the up-and-up. This is where we meet up with him again, as he enters a law firm for a less than legal utilization of his skills. From there it’s a dizzying spiral of international corporate intrigue, organized crime, suicide, and survival…with a healthy dose of police procedural and noir-ish detective story providing the framework. This is a better story than The Dispatcher, which was a pretty high bar to clear. Zachary Quinto again provides narration for the story, and there’s probably no need for me to point out that he’s beyond excellent in all respects. I can’t imagine Tony with a different voice.