Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories by Nick Kolakowski: This collection of short fiction is a great display of Kolakowski’s strengths #IndieCrimeCrawl

I’m going to be kicking off my involvement in #IndieCrimeCrawl with the latest from Nick Kolakowski. About a year ago, he emailed me to take a peek at his novel Boise Longpig Hunting Club, a fast, energetic, visceral read. Then came his Love & Bullets Hookup Trilogy — which was as entertaining as you could want. Now it’s time for his new short fiction collection, which I pre-ordered the instant I heard about it. One of the best things about Indie Crime Fiction is the depth of strong voices with perspectives you don’t find every day. Nick Kolakowski is a prime example of this. Check out all of his work, you’ll be in for a treat.

 Finest Sh*t!Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories

by Nick Kolakowski
Series: Loose Rounds, Book 2

Kindle Edition, 202 pg.
Final Round Press, 2019

Read: June 14 – July 3, 2019

           With a feral yelp, Raoul worked the dial until he landed on a station thundering drums and guitar, a solid backbeat for Luis and Jesus slicing and shoveling mounds of peppers and onions and pig. The music blasted the asphalt amphitheater of the parking lot, signaling that the truck was officially open for business.

The first customers drifted toward them. Give me your hungry, your nearly broke, your masses yearning for lunchtime deliciousness, Jesus thought as he wiped his hands on his apron and prepared to meet the first of the lunch rush. And I’ll give you two tacos for three dollars.

That’s from “Taco Truck,” one of the ten short stories that appear with a novella in Nick Kolakowski’s latest collection, Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories. There are tales of revenge, heroism, thwarted revenge, and people driven to extremes no one should be driven to — even some SF. Essentially, like with the best of Crime Fiction (no matter when it’s set) we have people in desperate situations (sometimes of their own making, sometimes out of their control) doing what they needed to.

As with every short story collection, there are some of these short stories that really, really worked for me, and others that didn’t do much for me at all — that’s just how it goes. But even the stories that I didn’t appreciate had that Kolakowski quality that I’ve really come to enjoy.

The novella, The Farm takes up about half of the book. It begins in 1931 and ends in 2008, following one farming family through the generations. This family goes through wars, violent crime, financial hardship, betrayal — and more than a few of the more positive parts of life, too. There’s some poetry, too. I guess that qualifies as one of the more positive aspects, but I’m not always sure. In the end, I really liked this novella — but it took some effort to get into it. That’s probably on me. Kolakowski fits a novel’s worth of a family saga into this roughly 100 pages — which is quite a feat. There’s part of me that would like to see it developed into a 350-400 page novel to flush out some of the details, but I think he’s right to keep it brief. It alone is well worth grabbing the collection.

This collection covers all sorts of tones, topics and perspectives. As I’ve come to expect from Kolakowski, I wouldn’t have predicted anything that I found in these pages. My rating may be on the low side, but that’s just because I couldn’t really sink my teeth into anything — I typically rate short story collections low. But there’s gold in here — a little dross (but what I think is dross will probably appeal to others). If you’re not familiar with Kolakowski, this is a great way to introduce yourself to one of the strongest voices in Crime Fiction today. If you are familiar with him, you don’t need me to tell you how good these stories can be.

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3.5 Stars

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Pub Day Repost: Not Everyone is Special by Josh Denslow: A Short Story Collection that’ll Gobsmack You at Least Once

Not Everyone is SpecialNot Everyone is Special

by Josh Denslow

eARC, 160 pg.
7.13 Books, 2019
Read: February 2 – 24, 2019

I’m not sure what to say about this collection of 15 short stories. They’re all really well-written — there was one or two I didn’t care for, two that I really liked — but they all showed skill, craft, and achieved what I think Denslow intended to achieve. But I’m not sure that I can muster up any excitement over the collection.

Some of the stories fall into the SF/Speculative Fiction category, but by and large these are “General Fiction” (whatever exactly that is). Some are comic, some are very tragic (I think you could make the case for all of the stories containing elements of both).

“Proximity” a bittersweet story about a young man on the brink of maturity (but resisting stepping over it) who happens to be able to teleport is one of the best things I’ve read in months. A great combination of imagination and story, that sadly, I read the same day I read the best novel I’ve read so far this year, and completely forgot about until I started flipping through this book again while writing this. (but, man, am I glad I remember it now…)

Then there’s “Mousetrap,” which starts with the line,

I want to find a not scary way to tell my sister that I’m contemplating killing myself, but I don’t want her to think that it has to do with the fact that she asked me to start paying rent.

And openings don’t get much better than that (the story lives up to it).

There are a handful of other really high high points in this collection. I can’t talk about “Dorian Vandercleef” beyond encouraging you to read it — but you really should. “Blake Bishop Believes in Love” is sweet, grotesque and unpleasant (intentionally so). “Extra Ticket,” a story about a teenager dealing (and not well) with grieving over a friend’s death would serve as a handy example of the concept of “poignant,” if you ever find yourself in need of one.

I might not be over-the-moon with this book, but I did like it. I can even see me being in a situation where I’d re-read parts or all of it (I don’t normally re-read short story books, but I’m not opposed to the idea). I would absolutely read more by Denslow — long form or short form. Not Everyone is Special is a good book — some of the stories might even be more than good. I’d absolutely encourage you to get your hands on this to judge for yourself. I promise you’ll find at least one story that’ll knock your socks off.

—–

3.5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Not Everyone is Special by Josh Denslow: A Short Story Collection that’ll Gobsmack You at Least Once

Not Everyone is SpecialNot Everyone is Special

by Josh Denslow


eARC, 160 pg.
7.13 Books, 2019

Read: February 2 – 24, 2019

I’m not sure what to say about this collection of 15 short stories. They’re all really well-written — there was one or two I didn’t care for, two that I really liked — but they all showed skill, craft, and achieved what I think Denslow intended to achieve. But I’m not sure that I can muster up any excitement over the collection.

Some of the stories fall into the SF/Speculative Fiction category, but by and large these are “General Fiction” (whatever exactly that is). Some are comic, some are very tragic (I think you could make the case for all of the stories containing elements of both).

“Proximity” a bittersweet story about a young man on the brink of maturity (but resisting stepping over it) who happens to be able to teleport is one of the best things I’ve read in months. A great combination of imagination and story, that sadly, I read the same day I read the best novel I’ve read so far this year, and completely forgot about until I started flipping through this book again while writing this. (but, man, am I glad I remember it now…)

Then there’s “Mousetrap,” which starts with the line,

I want to find a not scary way to tell my sister that I’m contemplating killing myself, but I don’t want her to think that it has to do with the fact that she asked me to start paying rent.

And openings don’t get much better than that (the story lives up to it).

There are a handful of other really high high points in this collection. I can’t talk about “Dorian Vandercleef” beyond encouraging you to read it — but you really should. “Blake Bishop Believes in Love” is sweet, grotesque and unpleasant (intentionally so). “Extra Ticket,” a story about a teenager dealing (and not well) with grieving over a friend’s death would serve as a handy example of the concept of “poignant,” if you ever find yourself in need of one.

I might not be over-the-moon with this book, but I did like it. I can even see me being in a situation where I’d re-read parts or all of it (I don’t normally re-read short story books, but I’m not opposed to the idea). I would absolutely read more by Denslow — long form or short form. Not Everyone is Special is a good book — some of the stories might even be more than good. I’d absolutely encourage you to get your hands on this to judge for yourself. I promise you’ll find at least one story that’ll knock your socks off.

—–

3.5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Scoundrels Among Us by Darrin Doyle: An Impressive Array of Short Fiction

I thought I had another week to get this up in time for the release — which was actually two days ago. This is why I’m supposed to trust what I write down (and consult that frequently) rather than what I remember.

Scoundrels Among UsScoundrels Among Us

by Darrin Doyle

PDF, 284 pg.
Tortoise Books, 2018

Read: July 24 – August 6, 2018


The trouble I often have when talking about collections of short stories is just how to do talk about the collection as a whole. After tossing around some ideas, I think the easiest way to sum up my reaction to these stories is with his simple question: What was he thinking?!?!

Now sometimes I asked that question incredulously, sometimes in awe, sometimes in confusion, sometimes in bafflement, sometimes all of the above. But I kept asking it. Some of these are incredibly short, some are on the longer side — told from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of tones. So beyond my one question, I don’t know how to address them collectively. I won’t go into detail on them all individually (that’s just too many), but let’s take a look at some that stood out.

The collection starts with “Insert Name,” a story about the struggles of nonuplets growing up and then transitioning to adulthood in a very unexpected way. It impressed me, and made it clear that this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill short story collection. By the time I got to the sixth entry, “Dangling Joe,” I knew a couple of things — Doyle’s mind doesn’t work the way most people’s does, and that I needed to toss out every expectation I had when I started each story. Whatever I was starting was going to be different from what had come before, and I needed to be ready for that.

The highlight of the book is “If the Invisible Man Dies and Nobody Sees it, Does He Really Die?” This is impossible to describe, but brilliant. He does so many things in this story — in addition to telling a compelling story — that I can’t sum it up easily. Give me 15 pages or so, and I’d be willing to give it a shot. It’s one of the best things I’ve read this year.

My notes on “Twilford Baines, Buck Hunter Unbounded” were simple, “that’s really good.” I just re-read it to see if I could expand on that, and no, I really can’t. It’s a story about a man hunting deer, who is forced into some concentrated self-reflection, and it’s really good. Re-reading it tempted me to push this off another day to re-read most of the stories, actually.

“Slice of Moon” was a great read, but personally frustrating. I think if you read it, you’ll agree. I can’t think of anything else to say without ruining it. If not for “Invisible Man,” it’d be my favorite story in the collection (given how annoyed he made me with it, however, maybe it was more effective than “Invisible Man,”).

I invoked Flannery O’Conner recently, and hesitate to do it again, however, I’m compelled to. Except for the explicit sexual content (which wasn’t really necessary), “Reborn” could’ve come from the pages of Everything That Rises Must Converge. It was powerful and strange and I’m glad I got to read it.

Were there some in this collection that didn’t work for me? Yes. There were some real clunkers — but there was nothing I wasn’t glad to read. As usual, some of the stories that didn’t work for me will work for you. And the one’s that sent me over the moon won’t do much for you (you’ll be wrong most of the time there — especially if you don’t love “If the Invisible Man Dies and Nobody Sees it, Does He Really Die?”). One thing I think everyone who picks this up will agree is: Darrin Doyle is a great writer and you should read his stories. You’ll probably also ask yourself “What was he thinking?” more than once. Go grab it.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of this collection in return for my honest thoughts and this post — which I appreciate..

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4 Stars

Brief Cases by Jim Butcher: ‘Scuse me while I unleash my inner fanboy

If you’re a Dresden fan still working their way through the series and haven’t gotten to the end of Skin Game yet, DO NOT READ this post. Go catch up first.

Brief CasesBrief Cases

by Jim Butcher
Series: The Dresden Files, #15.1

Hard Cover, 448 pg.
Ace Books, 2018
Read: June 13 – 16, 2018

Being a wizard is all about being prepared. Well, that and magic, obviously.

Generally, when I start a book, my question is: how much am I going to like this? (Occasionally, the question is: I’m not going to hate this, am I?) But there are a few authors that I ask a different question with: How much am I going to love this book? Jim Butcher is probably at the top of the latter list, and the answers are typically: a lot, a considerable amount, and WOW, SO, SO, SO MUCH. I make no bones about it, I don’t pretend to be anything like objective. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m not looking to convince anyone to give him another shot (but I’m willing to give it a shot if someone wants me to), but for many, many reasons, I’m an unabashed and unashamed Jim Butcher fan and Brief Cases gives several reasons why I continue to be one.

Incidentally, I started this collection assuming the answer would be “a lot.” It ended up being on the other end of the spectrum of love. I’ll explain that shortly.

This is not a novel (alas!), it’s another collection of short stories and novellas, like Side Jobs. It’s been awhile since I’ve read or thought about that collection much, but I believe that this is a stronger batch on the whole. I’ve only read “Cold Case” from Shadowed Souls before, so this was a lot of new material for me — and I enjoyed it immensely. It was great spending a few days in the pages and world of probably my favorite ongoing series.

Five of the twelve stories here were told from the point of view of a supporting character in the series. Anastasia Luccio told “A Fistful of Warlocks” about a little adventure she had in Dodge City, which opened the collection on a fun note; we got to know “Gentleman” John Marcone a little better than we wanted to in “Even Hand,” (which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the story). Molly got to shine in “Bombshells” and the aforementioned “Cold Case.” And Waldo Butters’ opening lines to “Day One” — the tale of his first adventure as a Knight — will go down as one of my favorite opening lines of 2018. I really got a kick out of all of these — “Bombshells” and “Day One” were probably the most effective for me, but I’m not going to complain about any of the rest. Actually, after reading “Day One,” I figured I got most of my money’s worth just for that one.

Which leaves us with seven others from Harry’s perspective — there are the three Bigfoot stories that were published in various collections and then in Working for Bigfoot. I’ve been kicking myself for a while for being too budget-conscious to get that collection when it came out, yet unable to bring myself to get the e-book. Thankfully, I have them now — and they were great. Not worth the $80 that used copies seem to go for now, but still pretty good. I really liked the characters in these stories and would gladly see them again. “Curses,” was a lot of fun; “AAAA Wizardry,” was a good story that I’m glad I read, but I can’t say it was great; and “Jury Duty” was okay, but had its moments.

Which leaves us with “Zoo Day” — the only original piece in this anthology, a novella about Harry taking Maggie and Mouse to the Zoo. And it was great. Just great. I know I’ve got a healthy dose of recency bias working here, but I think in 5 years if you ask me for my favorite pieces of Butcher writing that it will be in the Top 10 — maybe Top 5. Watching Harry try to figure out how to be a good dad, while watching Maggie try to not drive him away, while Mouse just wants the two of them to understand each other . . . it just melts your heart. Yes, there’s still supernatural and dark things afoot — many of which we’ve never encountered before that could really mess things up for all three of these characters (and the rest of the Dresden Files cast, come to think of it) — and there’s at least one scene that creeped me out in a serious way. But mostly? I just loved the characters interacting with each other. My “Day One” affection and excitement remain intact, but they pale compared to what I thought about this novella. My notes (again, recency bias may play a role here) read, “A little slice of perfection. I didn’t know a 50 page story could make me so misty-eyed and so happy all on its own.” But it did, and I feel the heart-strings being tugged again as I write this.

Simply, this was a joy for me, and I imagine most Dresden Files fans would feel the same way. If you haven’t read Jim Butcher’s books about a Wizard P.I. yet, and have somehow read this far into the blog post, you really, really should. This collection isn’t the place to start — but it’s a great place to hurry up and get to.

Loved it, loved it, loved it.

—–

5 Stars

Not Talking Italics by Russell Day: This Short Story contains enough entertainment value to carry a novel.

Not Talking ItalicsNot Talking Italics

by Russell Day
Series: Doc Slidesmith

Kindle Edition
2018, Fahrenheit Press
Read: May 7, 2018
In a couple of months, I’ll be taking part in a book tour for Russell Day’s debut novel, Needle Song, and I’m really looking forward to that (and am having a hard time not reading it now). But today, we’re going to look at a short story featuring the protagonist of the book, Dr. James Slidesmith. A little something to whet our collective appetities.

I know very little about Slidesmith after reading this short story, and I can’t wait to find out more. Here’s what I do know — 1. He has a PhD in Psychology, and is touchy about those who don’t consider him to be a “real” doctor; 2. He owns and runs a tattoo parlor/shop; 3. he plays poker; 4. He’s very smart; 5. He has the gift of gab.

All five of these are important, but in this short story, that last one is essential. Everything in this is dialogue — no dialogue tags, no narrative, no descriptive passages — just characters talking. Which will involve all that other stuff, but that’s not how the story is told. It takes place in a police interrogation room — you’ve got a Detective Constable, a Detective Sergeant and Dr. Slidesmith talking about an incident at a poker game earlier that night. Things got nasty and two men died, given the small number of people at the game, the Police are looking to quickly identify the killer(s) and wrap this up quickly.

But first they’ve got to get past the silver-tongued Slidesmith. That won’t be easy. He offers a detailed explanation of the night’s events — including doing some educating on Texas Hold-’em, the ins and outs of betting in the game (and how to manipulate betting). There are a couple of characters that we only learn about from questions and answers in the interrogation, and I feel like I ahve a pretty good handle on them, without seeing them speak for themselves. That’s a nice move.

As it’s just dialogue — and well-written dialogue, at that — this is a fast, breezy read (so fast, you might miss a thing or two the first time through). It’s not so much a book that you read, it’s one you hear with your eyes. I’m not certain that makes a lot of sense, but it’s the best way I can put it. These are fast-moving conversations, they have a certain rhythm, a certain feel — and you just want to keep reading more and more of it. This could’ve been twice as long and I don’t think my attention would’ve wavered an iota. Imagine your favorite scene written by Aaron Sorkin, then imagine it changing into an interrogation in a British Police Station — that’s what this story is.

This is good stuff, my friends — better than good. There’s an extent to which the reveal seems “oh, sure, I should’ve seen that coming” — and it wouldn’t surprise me if many readers get there before Day wants you to (I was not one of them) — but it’s so satisfying, so well-executed, I can’t imagine a soul complaining about it. If Needle Song is anything like this, I’m going to have to go down to the superlative store this weekend to stock up before I write anything about it.

Stop whatever you’re doing — including reading this — and click the links at the top of the page to go get this story. You’re welcome.

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5 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Like a Champion by Vincent Chu

Like a ChampionLike a Champion

by Vincent Chu
eARC, 238 pg.
7.13 Books, 2018
Read: January 31 – February 2, 2018

The man across from Henriette read a book. It was a very big book, a Hunger Games or Game of Thrones kind, with a sword and flame and chess piece on the cover. Dean had never read such a big book. The man was on the very last page and Dean felt guilty suddenly for spying on him during this personal moment, but he did not stop. It was not often, he reasoned, that he would get the opportunity to observe another person at the exact moment they finished a book, a big one at that. But, after the last page, the man, without so much as a satisfied nod or pensive stare, shut the thing and immediately put in his iPhone buds. This disappointed Dean.

That’s just one of any number of paragraphs throughout these stories that don’t advance the plot, reveal or describe much in the way of character — but man, the little bit of flavor they add to the story makes it worth it. And don’t you just want to shake the man who finished the book by the shoulders and ask what is wrong with him? The guy appears for one paragraph, and I have a strong reaction to him. With short stories, you don’t typically get to do that kind of thing the way you can with novels, because every word has to count — and typically, that’s what Vincent Chu does, but every now and then, he stretches a bit. Typically, like the best short fiction writers, Chu gets his bang for his buck when it comes to his words — tight, economical prose that strikes just the right tone each time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like a Champion is a collection of eighteen short stories featuring all sorts of people — underdogs in one sense or another — getting a taste of victory. Some of this victory is very short-lived, some is quite Pyrrhic, but it’s there. The stories are varied in tone, in voice, in setting, in types of character — and that’s such a strength. Some will make you smile, some laugh, some are sad, some are tragic, some are somber, all are incredibly human.

There’s a lot I could talk about — if I could, I’d spend a few hundred words on “Squirrels”, the fourth story in the collection. I don’t know why, but that one sealed me appreciation for this book, and it stands out as a high point for me. There’s just something about it that worked for me, the same kind of thing that lead me to write three papers for three separate courses in college about one Updike short story. There were a couple of other stories that I could point to that were as as outstanding, but I’ll stick with “Squirrels” — a story about one man’s childhood basketball triumph in the midst of defeat — because I enjoyed it more.

With one exception (at least one that I noticed, I might have missed others), these are independent of each other. The two stories that are connected are so different in tone and subject matter that it takes you by surprise when you notice the connection — but it really works (and the connection is of a lesser importance, that not much changes if you don’t make the connection). It was a nice little touch, I would’ve liked a part three, however.

I’m not crazy about Chu’s depiction of older characters. Maybe if I only got one of the stories in this collection featuring an older character — I wouldn’t have commented. Or if I took a few more days to read this than I did, it wouldn’t have stood out to me as much, but when you get the same note or two being played so often with elderly characters it sticks out.

I don’t usually spend much time talking about the publisher of the books I post about, but when it comes to some indie presses, I should. A couple of months ago, I know I posted a link to a profile of 7.13 Books in a Saturday Miscellany, and before that I talked about another short story collection they put out. And come to think of it, I have one more book from them on my schedule in the coming weeks. If Like a Champion is indicative of what they are publishing (and it seems to be), there’s something in the water there, folks, keep an eye out for their books.

Like with every collection — be it full of short stories, essays, poems — there are some in this collection that don’t work for me — two because I didn’t get what he was going for; a couple that I’m pretty sure I got what he was going for, and just didn’t care for it. And I’m very sure that many people will get those I didn’t and will like the ones I didn’t care for — and even dislike the stories that I enjoyed, and maybe even someone’s nuts enough to not care for the ones that filled me with joy. There’s enough variety in these to appeal to all sorts of tastes — and that’s a compliment, Chu’s nothing if not versatile. But on the whole, this is a great collection of short stories, full of compassion, humanity, and talent. You’d do well to grab this one.

Note: I received a copy of this eARC in exchange for my honest opinions as expressed above.

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4 Stars