‘I don’t know hard’ by Eli Cranor. Crime of Soho, 336 pages, $24.95
Across the country, in big and small towns, the obsession with football is sometimes religious.
These Friday night vigils are given a compelling noir approach in Eli Cranor’s debut album “Don’t Know Tough,” in which idealism, small-town politics, angst, religion, violence and, well, sure, football, make a heady brew.
Deeply religious, Trent Powers moved his family — wife Marley, teenage daughter Lorna, and baby Ava — from California to Denton, Ark., where he was hired as head coach of the Pirates, the high school football team. from the city. The town of the Ozarks desperately needs a winning team, just like Trent, whose stepfather fired him as coach of his last school, which was on a losing streak under his guidance.
The salvation of the Pirates – and perhaps Trent – is star player Billy Lowe, an unstable senior whose extreme skills on the pitch are matched only by his violent temper. Billy resents his teammates, especially wealthy Austin Murphy, whom he nearly paralyzes during practice. The coach is torn between benching Billy or letting him play, which will almost guarantee the team making the playoffs.
Billy’s brutality, which “often pours out,” stems from living in a ramshackle trailer with his little brother, single mother, and abusive boyfriend, Travis. As mean as Travis was to Billy, he was worse around Billy’s older brother, Ricky. “I hit things because the only thing that ever worked in my life,” Billy explains to one character. When Travis is murdered, Trent takes Billy home to give him a stable home. Trent, who was raised in foster homes, sees himself in the young man very much and wants to save Billy’s soul and his future.
Cranor’s skill at character development and delving into dark plot shines in “Don’t Know Tough,” his writing honed through several award-winning short stories. He succinctly parallels Trent’s family, who hate Denton, with Billy’s family, who believe there is no escape. However, the two families will do everything to protect their loved ones.
Cranor, who played football himself, including a year at Florida Atlantic University, exemplifies the sights and sounds of a team coming together, the thrill of victory.
“Don’t Know Tough” leads to a stunning, pitch-black finale as Cranor shows that sometimes good intentions are thwarted by reality. Cranor is an author to watch.
‘Under Lock & Skeleton Key: A Secret Staircase Mystery’ by Gigi Pandian. Minotaur, 352 pages, $26.99
Gigi Pandian kicks off her third series with this animated story about magician Tempest Raj, who returned to her family home near San Francisco following a stage accident that destroyed her career in Las Vegas and nearly killed her .
In “Under Lock & Skeleton Key: A Secret Staircase Mystery,” Pandian conjures up a highly entertaining novel that weaves together a loving family, a young woman trying to find her way, and magic—lots of magic—all while using the principles of ‘a locked- mystery room. Pandian brings together a diverse cast of quirky but never cartoonish characters while exploring the various ethnicities that combine in Tempest’s extended family which includes Scottish, Indian, and black backgrounds.
At 26, Tempest has already established a lucrative career as a stage magician. Now, after this near fatal accident, she is lucky if she is not prosecuted. Magic came easily to Tempest as his mother descended from a family of famous traveling magicians in India. Her father is something of a magician with his company Secret Staircase Construction, which specializes in building houses with secret passageways, sliding bookcases, and hidden entrances. Tempest is drawn into an investigation when a body is found in a wall that supposedly hasn’t been opened in decades in a house her father is rehabilitating.
Pandian makes the illusion a solid foundation of “Under Lock & Skeleton Key,” showing just enough magic to pique readers’ interest, but not enough to spill any secrets. A tree house that has been transformed into a fun house, hidden hallways and rooms that shouldn’t exist add to the fun. Reconnecting with his family, including his grandparents, and his former best friend makes Tempest realize how much he missed them, further elevating the plot.
“Under Lock & Skeleton Key” is just the beginning of what should be a long series with Tempest and his lovely family.
Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at email@example.com.