Top 10 Reads of 2011

So many authors gave me hours of reading pleasure this year through their amazing abilities, and I am grateful to each and every one of you. For writing what turned out to be my favorite reads of 2011, I am especially grateful to Andrez Bergen, Vincent Holland-Keen, Grant Jerkins, Lynn Kostoff, Bill Loehfelm, Matthew McBride, Steve Mosby, Josh Stallings, Urban Waite, and Benjamin Whitmer. Thank you. (PS – The only “order” these are in is reverse-chronological by review date.)


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The Office of Lost and Found by Vincent Holland-Keen

December 21, 2011 by  •
The Office of Lost and Found by Vincent Holland-Keen“My name is Thomas Locke. I am a private detective and what I’m about to say might sound strange, but it is absolutely true.”

To call Vincent Holland-Keen’s debut novel The Office of Lost & Found merely “strange” is an understatement of epic proportions. Of course, in my world strange means creative, original, enchanting, challenging, and mind-blowing, which means the über strange of The Office of Lost & Found makes for an amazing read; one of my Top 10 of 2011 in fact.

It’s kind of difficult to explain a book that damn near requires you to keep a scratch pad or dry erase board handy in order to keep people and plot points straight, but I’ll give it a go.

Thomas Locke is not just a detective, he’s a detective capable of finding anything, anywhere, no matter how long lost or how well hidden. He is the “found” half of The Office of Lost & Found, a place that has no fixed location, but rather metaphysically migrates – along with Locke and all the contents of the office – to wherever it happens to be needed.

Locke’s partner is a… well, we’ll call him a man, named Lafarge. Lafarge brings new meaning to the term shadowy, literally only appearing as a tall, dark figure cloaked deep in shadows. He is the “lost” half of The Office of Lost & Found, and you better be sure you really want something lost before seeking his help, because things Lafarge loses stay lost. Permanently.

When Veronica Drysdale’s husband goes missing she hires Locke to find him. Little could she have imagined she’d learn that far more important things had been lost to her, things she didn’t even know were missing and which she’ll only be able to reclaim by making a deal – against Locke’s advice – with the mysterious Lafarge. (more…)

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Black Flowers by Steve Mosby

December 16, 2011 by  •
Black Flowers by Steve MosbyThat was the problem, wasn’t it? In relying on other people and using them as a foundation for your life? When the floor breaks, you fall.

Aspiring author and father-to-be Neil Dawson finds himself a bit overwhelmed with the idea of being tied down with a wife and child. It’s not that he doesn’t want them, he’s just not entirely sure how he will manage both them and his job, and still find time to devote to his writing.

To let off a little steam, Neil writes a story about the Goblin King. In Neil’s story, the Goblin King grants a young man his wish… that his girlfriend’s pregnancy conveniently disappear. Neil feels slightly guilty about the topic, but still, better to write a story than say things out loud that can’t be taken back, no? Eager for some feedback, Neil sends the story off to his father, himself an author, for review.

It’s not until several days later when he receives a call from his father’s agent that Neil realizes he hasn’t heard back from him. The agent is concerned she hasn’t gotten a response from Dawson in awhile, so Neil pays a visit to his father to touch base. What he finds is an empty house, with a message on the answering machine from the police asking someone from Dawson’s family to call them. Neil’s father, it turns out, has been found dead in a neighboring town.

Enter Detective Sergeant Hannah Price. Price has built her career around trying to live up to the standard set by her father, who also rose to the rank of Detective Sergeant on the very force on which Price now serves. Having recently lost her father, when she’s assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of Christopher Dawson she’s particularly attuned to what Neil is going through struggling to cope with his father’s untimely death. What she doesn’t realize is that she too will soon be struggling once again with her own father’s death, but for reasons she couldn’t ever possibly have anticipated. (more…)

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Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat by Andrez Bergen

December 14, 2011 by  •
Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat by Andrez Bergen“Reality and perception are entirely different things, and let me tell you, Floyd, reality is the lesser of the two.” – Deaps

Andrez Bergen’s Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat (TSMG) is set in a post-apocalyptic Melbourne, Australia at an unspecified point in the future where the fortunate ones live an opulent life secure under the high tech Dome which encases the city. The less fortunate live a harsh existence in rundown areas on the outskirts of the Dome in a world where the sun seldom shines and acid rain seems to fall endlessly.

Our narrator, Floyd Maquina, is a Seeker. Employed by the government to hunt down so-called Deviants for what is euphemistically called “hospitalization,” Floyd has the authority to terminate those who won’t come along peacefully. It’s something he’s only had to do once, but that encounter weighs heavily on his mind, driving him to seek comfort in drugs, alcohol, and classic Hollywood films.

Indeed, Floyd peppers his narrative with copious references to films like The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, The Big Sleep, and Brazil amongst others, and throws enough hardboiled slang around that a Tobacco-Stained Glossary and Encyclopedia Tobacciana are included as appendices.

With one foot planted firmly in a futuristic world where Seekers routinely undergo Matrix-like virtual reality “tests” to ensure they are still in the fold and capable of carrying out company orders, TSMG manages to simultaneously have its other foot rooted in an authentic, throwback, hardboiled detective vibe. And it is in that fuzzy blending of post-apocalyptic and old-school noir that TSMG carves out what is one of the most wonderfully unique books I’ve had the pleasure to read. (more…)

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At The End Of The Road by Grant Jerkins

November 1, 2011 by  •

At the End of the Road was one of my Top 10 Reads of 2011

At The End Of The Road by Grant JerkinsHe learned that it was possible to be scared and carry a burden of fear and worry and guilt, and still behave normally. – Kyle Edwards

In the summer of 1976 ten-year-old Kyle Edwards was one of millions of Americans who celebrated a landmark birthday for our nation. Looking back, however, Kyle realizes that summer also held a landmark death for him, that of his innocence.

A typical boy in rural Georgia, Kyle’s daily activities include helping harvest peanuts and sweet potatoes, playing in the corn fields, and riding his bike with abandon up and down the dirt road in front of his house. While out riding his bike one afternoon Kyle causes an accident when he speeds around a blind curve right into the path of an oncoming car. Veering sharply to avoid hitting him, the car flips repeatedly, coming to rest on its side. Kyle watches in horror as a bloody young woman emerges from the vehicle, stumbling toward him.

Terrified of the potential consequences of having caused the accident, Kyle flees to his house, hoping in that foolish way young kids do that if he doesn’t say anything it will all go away. And it seems to, because the woman he expects to stumble up to the door any minute never arrives. Stranger still, when he gets the courage to ride out to the accident scene the following morning there is no trace of the woman or the car. Little could Kyle possibly know that his trouble wasn’t over, it had only just begun. (more…)

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Frank Sinatra In A Blender by Matthew McBride

June 28, 2011 by  •
Frank Sinatra In A Blender by Matthew McBride“Y’know, there’s just something remotely fascinating about cutting off another man’s legs with a chainsaw. Especially if he’s still alive.” – Nick Valentine

To say Nick Valentine is a unique individual would be putting it lightly. Along with his partner Frank Sinatra – no, really – he works as a private detective in St. Louis. He likes to think there’s no case he can’t solve, and he’s damn sure there’s no drink or drug he doesn’t like.

When a credit union is robbed and the police have trouble picking up a decent lead Valentine finds himself front and center on the trail of the robbers…and the money. And he’s not the only one, as an oddball assortment of the worst examples of humanity St. Louis has to offer are all hot on the trail as well.

From dealer and go-to guy Big Tony and his partner Doyle, to local heavy hitter Mr. Parker and his enforcers Sid and Johnny No Nuts, author Matthew McBride has populated Frank Sinatra in a Blender with one of the most colorful cast of characters you’ll ever run across.

Before you know it Valentine is up to his ass in double crossing bad guys, suspicious police officers, and enough liquor and Oxycontin to drop an ox. Add to that copious amounts of strippers, car chases, and shootouts and you’re in for one hell of a no-holds-barred ride. Oh, and don’t forget that chainsaw. (more…)

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The Devil She Knows by Bill Loehfelm

June 10, 2011 by  •
The Devil She Knows by Bill LoehfelmWhen your girl-on-a-dark-street alarm goes off, you listen. Every damn time. – Maureen Coughlin

It’s only a few pages into author Bill Loehfelm’s newest book, The Devil She Knows, that Maureen Coughlin’s girl-on-a-dark-street alarm goes off, and it keeps ringing for 300+ pulse-pounding pages.

Twenty-nine year old Maureen is slogging her way through life working never-ending shifts as a waitress at The Narrows, a wannabe upscale bar located in a rough part of Staten Island. She knows if she doesn’t do something to make a major change in her life soon she’s gonna end up a “lifer” on the bar scene, a fate she’s desperate to avoid.

She soon has more to worry about than long hours and bad tips, however, when leaving the bar in the wee hours of the morning she inadvertently stumbles upon the bar manager, Dennis, giving oral sex to local hot-shot and candidate for Senate Frank Sebastian. Quickly understanding that what she’s seen puts her in an awkward position – and one Sebastian may find to be a threat – Maureen assures both men she has no intention of breathing a word of it to anyone.

And she wouldn’t have, until she learns the next day that Dennis has been found dead on the railroad tracks not too far from The Narrows. Though the police are inclined to chalk it up as either an accident or suicide, Maureen can’t help but wonder if something more sinister happened. When she returns home to find her apartment has been broken into Maureen becomes convinced Sebastian killed Dennis to keep him quiet, and that she’s next. (more…)

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Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings

April 15, 2011 by  •
Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings“I guess the truth is, there’s only so much you can let pass, then you start drawing the line. Don’t draw the line somewhere, it all turns to shit.” – Moses McGuire

Moses McGuire knows a thing or two about life going to shit. Forty-three years old, he wakes up every day with a decision to make: go to his job as a bouncer at a strip club, or kill himself? The job at the strip club is relatively new, he got that shortly after being released from prison, but the thoughts of suicide aren’t. In fact, as Moses recalls it he was six years old the first time the thought seriously crossed his mind.

Somehow he made it another thirty-seven years down a rugged-ass road without topping himself, but not without hitting a few major potholes along the way. Medically discharged from the marines for “almost constant drinking and general insanity,” Moses has served time, picked up more than his share of battle scars from bar fights, is in debt to his ex-wife and his bookie, and has been cut off by his dealer for passing a bad check. (“Hell, what kind of dealer takes checks anyway?”) That suicide option looks better every morning.

And the morning we meet him at the start of Beautiful, Naked & Dead may well have been the day, until Moses gets a phone call from one of the girls at the strip club asking for his help. Not just any girl, actually, but the one person in the world Moses considers a friend. When she doesn’t show for their scheduled meeting Moses goes to her apartment, where he finds she’s been brutally tortured and murdered. The one good thing in his life having been taken from him, there’s going to be Hell to pay for those responsible, as well as anyone foolish enough to get in his way. (more…)

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Pike by Benjamin Whitmer

February 24, 2011 by  •
Pike was one of my Top 10 Reads of 2011

Pike by Benjamin Whitmer“I’m capable of anything I need to be capable of.” – Pike

Pike, the novel’s eponymous main character, is not a good person. Never was. Be it running drugs and people across the border, beating his wife, going down the rabbit hole of drug and alcohol addiction, or committing murder, Pike’s past is a bleak portrait of a squandered, meaningless life. And he knows it.

While he’s nowhere near at peace with the brutalities he committed as a younger man, with age he’s removed himself from that destructive and criminal lifestyle, finally reaching a point where he can tolerate himself. Mostly. At least he could, until one of the more shameful truths of his past is thrust upon him, quite literally, in the form of a twelve-year-old granddaughter, Wendy, he didn’t even know he had.

Of course that’s not really a surprise considering he hadn’t seen his own daughter in decades, not since his wife, finally fed up with the beatings, ushered him out of the house and their lives via the claw end of a hammer. Turns out his daughter ended up as a heroin addict, turning tricks to support her habit. When the result of her chasing one too many dragons is an overdose, Pike finds himself the only one left to take care of Wendy.

So this is where the book turns around, where Pike bonds with Wendy and is redeemed by doing right by his granddaughter in a way he failed to do with his own daughter, right? Not quite. (more…)

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Late Rain By Lynn Kostoff

February 18, 2011 by  •
Late Rain By Lynn Kostoff“At bottom, everything’s a question of character. Always has been.” – Stanley Tedros

Characters, and issues of character, abound in the latest offering from author Lynn Kostoff, Late Rain. The sleepy, second tier resort town of Magnolia Beach, South Carolina wouldn’t seem to be the ideal setting for a drama of Shakespearean proportions, yet that is precisely what Kostoff delivers.

Corrine Tedros, unhappy with her husband’s lack of a sense of urgency in persuading his uncle, Stanley, to sell his highly profitable soft drink empire, decides to speed the process along…by hiring a hitman to take Stanley out of the picture.

Unfortunately for her, things don’t go quite as planned. First, the hitman strays from the carefully arranged script, leaving Corrine with a shaky alibi during the time of the killing. Second, Jack Carson, an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s, happens to witness the murder. Third, Officer Ben Decovic, a displaced Ohio homicide detective with something to prove, latches on to the case.

With that setup, Late Rain sounds like a straightforward crime story, right? Not so fast.

From the outset it quickly becomes apparent that the cast of Late Rain is a highly complicated bunch, each driven by their unique demons and desires. As the story is told in turns from several different characters’ perspectives, the reader is presented with an ever changing picture of the events as they unfold, never quite sure if what’s being relayed is the truth or a distorted version of it as seen through the prism of the characters’ personal motives.

Corrine, of course, is motivated by her desire to gain control of the company and, later, to get free from the very tangled web she’s helped weave. She also has a mysterious past, which is catching up with her at precisely the wrong time. Ben is trying to get his confidence as an investigator back after a killer’s random murder spree took the lives of five people, including his wife. In the wake of the tragedy Ben found that he had “lost his eye” for ferreting out criminals. He no longer trusted his instincts, so he resigned his position as a homicide detective in Ohio and moved to Magnolia Beach. His casual encounter with Corrine during the early stages of the investigation reignites those instincts; he just knows something’s not right with Corrine, and he’s determined to prove it. (more…)

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The Terror of Living by Urban Waite

February 14, 2011 by  •
The Terror of Living by Urban WaiteHe just wanted someone to tell him he was a good man, that he’d done his job, that somehow it mattered. – Bobby Drake

Deputy Sheriff Bobby Drake is a man with a tremendous chip on his shoulder. Once a promising college football player, his life was turned upside down when his father, Sheriff at the time, was busted for running drugs across the US/Canada border. Drake returned home to his small hometown in Washington State and took a job as a deputy sheriff, determined to restore honor to his name and prove he’s a better man than his father.

Phil Hunt is also a man struggling hard to make amends in his life. A 10 year prison stint for manslaughter has rendered him all but unemployable, and along with his wife Hunt now ekes out a meager living by running a horse farm. The money not being quite enough, Hunt supplements the family income by picking up shipments of drugs dropped deep in the forest just inside the border and delivering them to a distributor. It’s a process that’s worked smoothly for Hunt for nearly two decades. He even had a tacit understanding with Drake’s father…but Drake isn’t his father.

When Drake notices a truck and horse trailer parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere his radar goes on high alert. After the truck doesn’t move overnight, Drake packs up his gear and heads into the forest to find out just what’s going on. What he finds is Hunt and a partner collecting a drug shipment and, a few shots later, Hunt’s low key courier job has gone seriously sideways. (more…)