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Robinson, IL and Other Flash Fiction Stories – Dennis Milam Bensie (Independently Published)

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Yes, yes – I know I just reviewed Bensie’s Shorn: Toys to Men, but that was a reissue and this is a brand new collection of stories. The only thing more interesting than Bensie’s non-fiction is his fiction, and although I’m not usually a fan of flash fiction, the short hits in Robinson, IL are both entertaining and insightful.

By turns playful and provocative, many of these stories turn on O. Henry surprise, and that’s not a bad thing. It does, however, make reviewing them without spoilers a bit more difficult. The premises for the more outrageous stories are unique but Bensie makes them work. It’s a testament to his talent that he can draw you into a story about a Nazi-themed gay bar complete with tattoos and gassing (“VOTE”) or a neighborhood carnival whose purpose is to raise money to send a boy to a Christian anti-gay school (“Save Dave”) without the weirdness seeming self-conscious.

But it’s not all weird. Some of the pieces seem to come directly from Bensie’s childhood and provide moments of clarity in his relationships with his parents and others, such as the opener, “Denny,” which sees his mother killing a snake for him, or “Swimmer’s Ear,” the retelling of a tender, all too rare father and son moment. These, especially the latter, are done with taste and a heartfelt honesty.

Indeed, honesty is the mainstay of Bensie’s work, be it flash fiction or memoir. “Sunday Drive,” about a father’s reaction when he learns of his son’s molestation, falls in this category, as do “Him Outside the Camp,” which relates a particularly ugly episode between parents, and “Eric in Your Bed,” which revisits and fictionalizes the haircutting fetish Bensie speaks of in his memoir, Shorn: Toys to Men.

But Bensie always changes it up, alternating poignancy with the aforementioned weirdness–“Patsy Cline Airlines,” “The Vest,” about a bombing of sorts, and “The Truck,” which features a mobile disco and bar that travels to RV retirement communities and other neighborhoods.

Robinson, IL is truly a mixed bag, and I mean that in the nicest way possible, packing twenty-seven stories in just over a hundred pages. Many will stick with you longer than you think they will considering their brevity. All in all, this is a highly successful package you won’t regret purchasing.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Vermilion Pursuit: A Marco Fontana Mystery – Joseph R.G. DeMarco (Jade Mountain Books)

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It’s been seven years since we last saw Marco Fontana, and it’s good to have him and Olga and the boys from StripGuyz back. This time, Fontana is taking on the not-so-stuffy world of fine art as he races against the lead detective on the case to prove his uncle Luciano did not murder a colleague. As usual, DeMarco pulls out all the stops in this solid, well thought out entry to the Fontana mystery series.

Fontana’s uncle, Luciano Sforza, is in town with a panel of art critics and restoration experts tasked with authenticating a previously unknown Botticelli. It might be real, or it could be a fake perpetuated by the infamous forger Vermilion. Before the committee can make their decision, however, one of its more contentious members is found dead, with Sforza standing over the body. Detective Baldwin is certain the case is open and shut, but Fontana has other ideas. He has to prove his uncle’s innocence before Baldwin makes an arrest.

Among DeMarco’s many strengths is his ability to juggle a large number of characters without losing the thread of the mystery or confusing the reader. There are at least six on the committee alone, plus various assistants and gallery owners–and that’s just the main plot. We also have secretary Olga, Fontana’s mother (Luciano’s sister), StripGuyz drama, the policemen, security guards, and Fontana’s on again/off again open relationship with boyfriend Sean. Yet the plot never bogs down or feels crowded. There’s a lot going on, to be sure, but DeMarco never drops the balls. And though the book is longish, it’s so well-paced you don’t notice.

But what DeMarco does best here is crack the veneers of the effete and oh-so-proper art experts, exposing the real motivations behind their high-minded ethics. To no one’s particular surprise, they are as base as the rest of us–greed, ambition, and sex often taking priority over their profession. This isn’t news, of course, but DeMarco seems to take great delight in laying these predelictions bare. And it’s most fun to watch.

The ending is also quite satisfactory. You see about three quarters of the way through how a couple of the plot pieces will fit together, but the identity of the murderer remains a mystery until just before the reveal. The process of elimination is artfully accomplished, and DeMarco leaves no loose ends.

So, The Vermilion Pursuit is entirely successful. It’s a great standalone, as are the others in this series, but if you read this, I can just about guarantee you’ll want them as well. Let’s hope it’s not another seven years before the next.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Violence Almanac – Miah Jeffra (Black Lawrence Press)

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I first ran across Miah Jeffra’s work in Sibling Rivalry Press’s collection of his essays, The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I was looking forward to reading this bunch of his short stories, and I must say he’s just as witty, incisive, and entertaining in the realm of fiction. The Violence Almanac glitters like a dark diamond.

The shine is evident from the first short piece, “Growl,” but this is minor compared to the next two stories. “Babies” is a recounting of the tale of Andrea Yeats who, you may remember, is the Texas mother who drowned her five children in their bathtub twenty years ago. The incident is told from several points of view: one of the children, Noah, Andrea herself, her husband, Rusty, and a fictional biographer. It’s difficult to tell which of these viewpoints is the most poignant, but just as we begin to wonder whose eyes we’ll see this incident through next, Jeffra changes the form up to a screenplay of the book the biographer is writing. That should be jarring, but the format works, providing some distance as Andrea and Rusty discuss having the last of the children she kills. He then switches back to the biographer and, finally, Andrea after the crimes have been committed. Far from being fractured despite the changes in viewpoint, “Babies” hangs together both as a piece of realistic fiction and a cautionary tale.

The second story in this one-two combo punch is “Jingle-Jingle-Pop,” the story of “pre-op T” Lalo and her friends working the mean streets of L.A. Here, Jeffra goes all first person and brings us a singularly unique voice. Lalo and the girls are reeling from the death of their friend, Champagne, at the hands of a Carlos–they call all the tough johns they work Carlos. Learning the lesson, Lalo concentrates on saving money for her bottom surgery and finding a good man to take her out of this life. Deep down, however, she knows no one escapes. So, when the brown El Dorado that Champagne was last seen getting into shows up…well, this chola don’t print no spoilers. Wholly engaging and as tough as it is compulsive to read, this is storytelling at its finest.

If these two stories were the only ones in the book, it’d still be worth your time and money, but there’s so much more to discover, such as “Gethsemane,” the history of a house and its previous occupants as seen through the eyes of a realtor trying to sell it, a boy anxious to win the respect of his abusive father by bringing in a fugitive in “Footfall,” and the examination of a relationship as a man tries to rescue a sick pigeon in “Saving a Bird” for starters. But really, you can land anywhere among these tales and find a great story.

So, if you missed The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!, go back and pick it up, but the stories comprising The Violence Almanac are the shouts of a new, richly talented voice. You won’t regret it.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Lies With Man – Michael Nava (Amble Press)

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There’s nothing like the ease and assuredness of a master at work, and Michael Nava’s Henry Rios series just gets better and better. This is Nava’s second book after an eighteen year gap, but the rest must have done him a world of good. Now on Bywater Books’ new imprint, Amble Press, Nava once again puts Rios through his paces as the out and proud criminal defense lawyer takes on his most involved case yet.

Newly sober, Rios finds himself in Los Angeles during the height of the AIDS epidemic in a community petrified about a Christian-sponsored ballot initiative that would force HIV positive people into quarantine camps. He takes on the job of counsel for an ostensibly peaceful activist group called QUEER (Queers United to End Erasure and Repression). That position becomes critical when Theo Latour, one of the group members, is accused of bombing an evangelical church that supported the quarantine, killing the pastor in the process.

Nava’s skill at plotting is as evident as his way with a character, and Daniel Herron, the pastor killed in the bombing, is a particularly perfect example. Herron is an old hippie, straight from Haight, who begins as an atheist and falls sideways into the evangelical life. In one of the more intriguing subplots, he also has a child with an old girlfriend who, unbeknownst to him, was pregnant when they lost track of each other. Many years on, when Herron is entrenched in the church hierarchy, he finds out about the boy, who is in the hospital with AIDS complications. Herron is such an interesting character, it’s almost a shame he dies in the accident. However, the remainder of the book is suffused with his presence.

Rios, too, is as complicated as always. Committed to staying sober, he’s also beginning to seek out a relationship with a guy named Josh. The fact that the accused, Theo, is Josh’s roommate doesn’t dissuade him a bit. Even the minor characters, such as Marc Unger, a sleazy fellow gay lawyer who bombards Rios with smarmy sexual remarks, and the bail bondsman/private investigator are interesting and well-drawn. Mention also needs to be made of Herron’s wife, an alcoholic who has a small but pivotal role to play in the ending.

Lies With Man is a perfect addition to the Henry Rios series, as sure and confident as you’d want. It’s great as a standalone and a good place to start if you’ve never read any of the others. Open it up and prepare yourself for quite the ride.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Tender Grave – Sheri Reynolds (Bywater Books)

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Since my review blog is for independently published queer books, I rarely get a chance to look at mainstream literature or even the bestseller lists. I know that’s anathema to someone in my profession, but you only have time to read so many books, and I prefer stories in my own LGBTQ wheelhouse. It’s who I am and what I’m comfortable with. So, I had no idea who New York Times bestselling author Sheri Reynolds was. All I knew is The Tender Grave came in over the transom, so to speak, with some other Bywater Books. And it happened to be next on the list. I wasn’t prepared to be swept up in such a complex story whose back cover blurb totally belies its intensity.

Seventeen-year-old Dori has to leave town in a hurry. She and her boyfriend and some others have assaulted a gay classmate and left him for dead, so Dori’s mother gives her all the ready cash in the house and hustles her out on the first bus. Dori’s destination is the home of a long-lost older half-sister she’s never met. She doesn’t know that her sister, Teresa, is not only a lesbian but in a committed relationship with wife, Jen. Or that Teresa and Jen have been trying to get Teresa pregnant. All Dori knows is that the address she’s been carrying around is no good. After some false leads, she finally arrives on Teresa and Jen’s doorstep only to find that she and Teresa don’t like each other. In spite of her sister’s generosity, Dori runs away again. But her options are limited. Or are they?

In many ways, Dori and Teresa are opposites. Dori has taken a life; Teresa is trying to create one. Dori is headstrong and prone to impulsive decisions; Teresa is plodding and overthinks things. But once committed to a course of action, they are both determined to follow through. They both need family but have some very different ideas about what that looks like and what their roles are supposed to be. However, they know instinctively that their mother is a poor example.

Their mother, Hilda, only appears in a couple of scenes, but her presence is all over the place. Why did she abandon Teresa but stick around to raise Dori? Teresa desperately needs the answer to that question, especially since motherhood is her overriding ambition, but in the one scene they have together, Hilda doesn’t really provide one. Perhaps she can’t. She readily admits her shortcomings, but can’t explain her reasoning. She can never give Teresa what she needs, and as tough as being abandoned was, that realization may be even tougher.

Is the ending happy? Let’s just say Reynolds ends this the only way she can, with the essential question being how Dori and Teresa will shape their relationship moving forward. Reynolds does an admirable job of weaving character and plot. Dori’s scenes in particular will keep you on edge. She’s so volatile and has so many paths to destruction, you wonder which one she’ll take.

The Tender Grave is a splendid study of sibling relationships, full of rich, deep characters working their way through a totally believable and very unpredictable plot. It’s well worth your time and emotional investment.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Shorn: Toys to Men, A Memoir – Dennis Milam Bensie (Indepedently Published)

This was originally published ten years ago, but I didn’t encounter Bensie’s work until his next two books, One Gay American and Thirty Years a Dresser, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. As my TBR stack nearly reaches the ceiling now—and that’s not including ebooks—I had no hope of reading this until he reissued it with a new epilogue and provided me with an excuse. And I’m very glad he did.

Approaching sixty-five years old, I’ve seen just about every sexual kink imaginable, including the guy who only got turned on by the way my armpit skin wrinkled when my arms were at my side, so a haircutting fetish doesn’t seem too odd to me. But if Shorn was just about that, it wouldn’t be as interesting as it is. The actual fetish is less important than its origin, its practice, and its aftermath.

And, as always, its roots are in Bensie’s childhood, which he describes with alarming honesty, including his rape at the hands of a neighbor. Bensie details his experiences with cutting Barbie hair and fashioning his own “head” out of a wire hanger and yarn, all against the disapproval of his parents–especially his father. But there’s usually that one family member who gets it, and in Bensie’s case, his grandmother encourages his rich fantasy life. As Bensie graduates and gets married, however, his obsession grows. The marriage forces him to make choices, and ultimately he divorces and begins a backstage career in the theatre, freeing him to indulge as he never has before.

His worst impulses now given free rein, he obsesses over friends, acquaintances, and people he works with at the theatre. This works for a while, but eventually that circle grows smaller until he finds himself picking up strangers and hustlers, paying to give them haircuts. This part of the memoir is sheer Degradation Porn, relating how much time and money and bother he invests in feeding his addiction. He’s even included before, during, and after pictures of the trade he shears. Those snapshots are absolutely fascinating and provide an unsettling look at the dangerous reality of the situation.

Of course, this can’t last. As those of us who have followed our sexual obsessions know, and I know many, there comes a point of diminishing returns. You either stop, get help, or fall beyond reach into the abyss. Thankfully, Bensie got the help he needed through therapy and chemical balancing and managed to rid himself of many demons–or at least safely shut them away.

I’d be untruthful if I said I hadn’t read books like this before. But Bensie is so honest and unpretentious about his failings, never making excuses or blaming others, the matter-of-factness lifts this far above other books about personal downward spirals I’ve read. And his prose is entertaining. Bensie has a way with a story, as evidenced by his other two books. Shorn is all of a piece with those works, yet stands alone. If you have the others, you need this. If you haven’t, this is a perfect place to start.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Blood Moon: A Wolves of Wolf’s Point Novel – Catherine Lundoff (Queen of Swords Press)

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I’ve always said sequels are tricky and successful series are few and far between, but the ladies seem to have it down. I always enjoy Cari Hunter (Dark Peak), J.M. Redmann (Micky Knight), and Cheryl Head (Charlie Mack), and I can now add to that Catherine Lundoff’s Wolves of Wolf’s Point. The second book, Blood Moon, is a total winner. If you’re not familiar with the menopausal werewolves who guard the valley of Wolf’s Point, you should be. Everything about this series is a hoot and a holler.

The newest Pack members, Becca and Erin, have settled into a tentative relationship with each other in the aftermath of the Pack’s encounter with werewolf hunters who offered a “cure” for their lycanthropy. But they’re not out of danger. Waking up from a blackout, Erin finds a body in her car. Assuming she’s responsible because she fell off the wagon, she turns herself in to the local constabulary, but the full moon is close. The Pack has to get to her before the change comes. But before they can break her out, Erin is kidnapped from jail by a straight couple new to Wolf’s Point, bent on filming her change for fame and fortune. Becca, Alpha Shelly, and the rest of the Pack have their plates full trying to rescue Erin while solving a murder.

I loved everything about the first book, Silver Moon, and this installment is all of a piece with that. The very concept of female werewolves who begin their lycanthropic careers at menopause is a wonderful, empowering twist on the shifter genre, and Lundoff absolutely runs with it, even giving us a wolf cave with ancient magical paintings—world-building at its finest.

And Lundoff hits the ground running from the very first scene where Erin comes to grips with a blackout and a body in the trunk. That’s storytelling. The pace of this is such that you feel like she and the others barely have time for their wounds to heal from the last set-to before they take off on this adventure. That doesn’t mean, however, that this is all action. Lundoff does a fantastic job of creating peaks and valleys, populating those valleys with lots of characterization of Erin, Becca, Shelly, and Lizzie. Lizzie, the investigating officer and local authority figure, is especially interesting because she is on the cusp of menopause herself. She knows all about the Pack and is desperate to be a part of it. But not all are called. Lundoff also keeps Becca and Erin apart for most of the book, creating some delicious tension about whether or not they will actually get back together again should they both survive.  

Obstacles? Oh, there are many. Werebears, werejaguars, blind greed, and Annie, a curious holdover from Silver Moon. Annie killed the previous Alpha, but had also taken the aforementioned “cure,” which prevented her from fully changing and left her part human and part wolf. She roams the forests of Wolf’s Point in this hybrid state, assisting the Pack in their fight with the straight couple. She becomes the focal point of the last quarter of the book as the Pack has to decide what to do with her when all is said and done.

Blood Moon is a terrific read and a worthy successor to Silver Moon. Is it too early to start wishing for number three? I think not. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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If I Remember Him – Louis Flint Ceci (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

Readers of Louis Flint Ceci’s first novel, Comfort Me, which focuses on the story of three high school friends growing up in small-town Croy, Oklahoma, will recognize many of the characters in his latest novel If I Remember Him. Although set fifteen years before the action of Comfort Me, during the summer of 1952, the actual action of If I Remember Him begins seventeen years before that, with the aftermath of a weather event so legendary, it has more than one name: The TriCounty Twister, the Cyclone of ’35, the Wild Horse Tornado, an example of what the indigenous Chicksaw call “Crazy Woman Weather.” Such a weather event nearly wiped Croy off the map: many families were wiped out, and plenty of others lost all they had; Lerner Philip Alquist, the town’s wealthiest citizen, lost his beloved wife Ada.  Overwhelmed by grief, and now devoid of any human warmth or feeling, Alquist manages to manipulate the City Council into approving the plans for a library as a memorial for his dead wife. Progress is slow as the city rebuilds, so it is only after a Depression, World War, and another war before the building can finally be dedicated. The last piece, the crowning touch, is a sculpture by Sunny Sohi, a final homage to Ada.

Into all the small-town drama enters an outsider: Andy Simms, the new music director at the Mt. Hermon Bible Church. Earnest, college-educated, and full of zeal, he is eager to succeed at his first musical ministry. But despite his best attempts at building bridges among the different communities of Croy, he only exacerbates the not-so-thinly-veiled bigotry barely hidden beneath the surface: the racism, religious dogmatism (and, when he takes up with Sohi, the sexual intolerance) all erupt, with lasting effects on all of the inhabitants of Croy.

Croy, ostensibly a small town, is an eclectic mix of White, Negro, and Indian—both American Indian, and Indian Indian. Not that Croy is a melting pot, by any means; rather it seems to be a mosaic, with its tiles carefully organized by color. Croy mirrors its creator, who demonstrates a wide-ranging interest in numerous subjects, many of which crop up throughout this novel: religion, poetry, music, even mathematics. (How often has the Fibonacci series been sited during a City Council meeting, really? And yet, within the context of the story, it works.) Far from depicting his characters as uneducated hicks, Ceci has done a stellar job of creating his characters, all with fully developed histories and interconnections (so typical of any small town). Ceci really shines as a writer when his characters grapple with matters of faith, having them speak with heart-felt eloquence. (And can I just say that I don’t think that I have ever read a more beautiful sexual communion between two men? There, I’ve said it.)

Prior visitors to Croy of course, will already have a sense of how the conflicts between the clashing personalities will play out; and even astute first-time readers of Ceci will know that, in 1950’s small-town mid-America, this story surely will not, cannot, end well. To his credit, Ceci does not shrink from depicting the virulence of bigotry and the toll it exacts on both its victims and perpetrators; virulence that extends years beyond the events retold here. And yet Ceci manages to inject some hope for the citizens of Croy, hope that might not come to fruition until Comfort Me, or even until the forthcoming Jacob’s Ladder.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Fishwives – Sally Bellerose (Bywater Books)

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Sally Bellerose made my cry, but I forgive her. It’s been almost ten years since she did it to me with The Girls Club, so I figure we’re overdue. This time, however, mortality and loss seem to be uppermost in both our minds. Despite this solemnity, her latest novel, Fishwives, also contains joy, compassion, and history—but above all, it celebrates the endurance of love.

Regina and Jackie need to get rid of their old, dead Christmas tree, but as they are eighty-nine and ninety years old, respectively, said task is more difficult than usual. They enlist the help of some neighborhood kids, tie the thing to the roof of their car, and take it to the dump. Yes, that’s the plot—interspersed with flashbacks that send us as far back as how they met in 1955, illustrating the highs and lows of their life together.

The simplicity of the plot is in direct contrast to the complexity of the characters, and Bellerose reaches down deep to come up with two very complicated women. What I loved most about Regina and Jackie—outside of their age, which I’ll get to in a minute—is their extraordinary ordinariness. They scrape by, financially and emotionally. Their health is in danger. They have had trouble in their relationship as Jackie has an eye for the ladies. Yet the same experiences that have left them with no security or stability for their old age have provided them with a wealth of memories and friends. Moreover, they ponder whether or not the tradeoff has been worthwhile, a question that becomes more salient to me as I get older myself.

You don’t often see eighty-nine and ninety-year-olds as main characters, and when you do, they are usually only that age when they are narratively framing the story of a younger version of themselves. Bellerose does indeed use that device as she flashes back to various points in their lives, but I never felt as if Regina and Jackie’s elderly present was given short shrift for their youthful past. I haven’t read anything as age-empowering since Matt Kailey’s virtually unheard-of story of love in a nursing home, Our Day Will Come, by now out of print but well worth searching out used.

Other characters? Sure, there are other characters; chiefly Regina’s sister Lynn and the neighborhood kids who look after the ladies, not to mention the friends and lovers who populate many of the flashbacks, but truth be told, those were secondary for me. Regina and Jackie are the stars of this show, and when the inevitable happens (which is as close to a spoiler as I’m going to get), you will be devastated even though you see it coming a mile away.

Fishwives is a wonderful story with an incredible pair of fully realized and totally successful main characters you’ll remember long after you’ve finished the book. And if you get the urge to chastise the author for such a long wait between books, don’t. Stories as rich as this aren’t written in a year. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Unbalanced Mercy – J. Warren (Queer Space/Rebel Satori Press

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I have no desire to step in the fanfic argument because it matters not a whit to me where writers come from or how they cut their authorial teeth. I say this so no one will think I’m insulting the compulsively readable Unbalanced Mercy when I tell you its beginning reminded me of X-Files fanfic except Scully is the agent in charge instead of Mulder. What follows is an exciting tale of amateur magicians in over their heads, trying to keep a dangerous entity from breaking through to our world, aided by our two federal agents, a gay bookseller, and a magician out for revenge.

Special Agent Paul Lowe and Special Agent Miranda Burton are investigating The Order, a group of amateur magicians making magical objects. However, Delores Vandecamp, a rogue Order member, has stolen one of the artifacts, gone on a killing spree, and opened up a dark portal. Lowe and Burton will have to pull out all the stops to find and defeat Delores, but they have bookseller Derek Goldman and firebrand Stacey Durand, who has already battled Delores once and seen her mentor killed, along with a few others to try to stop her.

Lowe and Burton have the first part of the book as they begin their investigation and Lowe settles into his new role, so we don’t meet Goldman and Durand until about seventy pages in. The focus then changes from a police procedural to something a bit more character driven. Both Goldman and Durand are great characters: a middle-aged Jewish, bi-racial, cis gay man and a homeless queer teen who helps out at the bookstore while she seeks revenge. And they have a more interesting relationship than the agents do, so it’s no surprise that they carry the book once they appear. Not that the agents are uninteresting or useless. They set up most of the plot elements and introduce us to characters we’ll see again later, but theirs is a working relationship.

 Warren also knows his way around an action scene. He renders both skirmishes and battles with exacting detail, but you always know where the fighters are and what they’re doing. His prose is concise but never skimpy, and his pacing is flawless. He takes advantage of the lulls and valleys to build character, so that when it’s time to fight, the reader is fully invested in the outcome.

Unbalanced Mercy is a corker of a supernatural police thriller, and if that’s your thing, this will be enough to make you join the Malleus Maleficarum.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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