Saturday, May 26, 2012

Flesh Worn Stone by John A. Burks, Jr.

Chalk one up for free e-books. It's unlikely I would ever have heard of Flesh Worn Stone had it not come up in a list of books available free for the Kindle. But the name of the author, John A. Burks, Jr., also rang a bell from my time at a message board years ago. Said message board inspired a horror anthology, Damned Nation, which was co-edited by David T. Wilbanks, with whom I would later form Acid Grave Press. And Burks's story was one of the highlights within.

Flesh Worn Stone, despite its inscrutable title (which is mentioned near the end of the story), is a gripping novel that held me in its thrall for an entire weekend. A handful of people wake up to find themselves caged on a beach.

When they are taken out, these folks are introduced into an unfamiliar society overseen by an faceless individual who judges them on how well they perform in the Game — and who decides if they will eat or if one of them will be eaten.

The Game is an occasional event where two numbers are displayed and the people whose arms are tattooed with those numbers are expected to perform the requested action or pay the consequences. The consequences to breaking just about any rule involves being that night's dinner.

Burks has taken the post-apocalyptic-society scenario and taken out the apocalypse, and it still works.  This makes Flesh Worn Stone all the more interesting as the question, "Why are these people in this situation?" remains unanswered for quite some time. 

The answers are eventually forthcoming, but Burks skillfully holds them back and dishes them out carefully one by one when they'll yield the most dramatic punch.  I even gasped a couple of times — actually, physically gasped out loud — from the shock of some of the revelations in Flesh Worn Stone. And you know how rare that kind of physical reaction is with fiction, however much blurbers would like you to believe otherwise.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hard Country: A Novel of the Old West by Michael McGarrity (family saga Western)

"When I first put Kevin Kerney on the page as the protagonist in my crime novels, I was already imagining his family history back several generations or more.... As the series progressed and Kerney grew and developed, I knew I would someday have to tell his family’s story generation by generation. I never once entertained the notion of simply writing the back story of Kerney’s life.... That seemed too mundane."
—author Michael McGarrity in an interview with Bookgasm

Fans of author Michael McGarrity have been waiting a long time since his last book, Dead or Alive, published back in 2008. And now that Hard Country is out, we know why. This beast of an epic Western was intended to be a single novel and ballooned into a trilogy!

McGarrity is best known for his series of southwestern mysteries featuring law enforcement officer Kevin Kerney. The only one of these I had read before Hard Country was Hermit's Peak, which was excellent, both as a mystery and as a portrait of New Mexico.

That McGarrity has been nominated for awards by both Western and mystery communities says a great deal about his ability in combining the genres. Hard Country is a deliberate departure from that series, but it retains a tie by going back into Kevin Kerney's ancestral line and telling the story of the expansion of the American West, from after the Civil War through the end of World War I, through the eyes of some of those involved.

From the opening portrait of a young wife's frustration with frontier life, I was caught up in McGarrity's characters' world. John Kerney is in west Texas to build up his Double K ranch. But, when his wife dies in childbirth, and his brother and nephew are murdered, he leaves his ranch and son behind to find the killers. Later, when Kerney decides to reclaim his son, Hard Country really starts to show its stuff. McGarrity's prose is so skilled as to be invisible, the words simply unveiling the story like truly great writing should.

It is impossible to read Hard Country and not recall some of the often-cited Western classics like Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky in its sheer scope. But the book it most reminded me of was Wallace Stegner's The Big Rock Candy Mountain, especially in its portrait of a father. At nearly 700 pages, the sweep of Hard Country is breathtaking, and yet its pages zip by like a desert wind and remains accessible to even the most reluctant reader. I'm already looking forward to the sequel.
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