Tag Archives: suspense

Gritty but Ultimately Good-Hearted

CBR_Logo2Box of Rain
A Street Stories Suspense Novel
by Debra R. Borys

Box of Rain is the third in a series of “Street Stories” suspense novels focusing on the gritty side of Chicago. In this briskly paced story, Debra Borys weaves together two narratives: one about a young black man falsely suspected of murder and on the run from police, the other about a reporter on the case as she grapples with her father’s dubious past.

Borys draws on years of experience volunteering to help vulnerable youths and adults in Chicago. Apparently, nothing is ever quite what it seems to be in this hard luck world. Serious issues regarding race and law enforcement lend some weight to this otherwise lively whodunit.boxofraincover-small

When an innocent young man stumbles across a gruesome crime scene, he chooses to avoid the police. He fears he will not be believed. He has no parents or family to help him. He could turn to community volunteers, foster parents, friends, or kind-hearted individuals. But as it turns out, this network of care can be a labyrinth for young people in distress.

The characters are lightly but clearly sketched in their precarious situations and there are several nuanced angles to the story. For instance, not all of the people striving to help these young men are thoroughly “good.” Many show traces of both compassion and stubbornness or even ruthless greed. The young men themselves are far from perfect. The police show both concern and callousness. The reporter has more than her share of doubts about the young men; she is not their unfailing champion. Personal problems leave her irritable and sharp-tongued—a possible hindrance in her investigation. All this adds up to poor odds for a young man mired in a major criminal case.

Borys skillfully switches between perspectives at a rapid pace while maintaining a solid narrative structure. Though it is part of a series (with the reporter Jo Sullivan and her family mystery binding everything together), the story of Booker T Brooks is self-contained and reaches a satisfying conclusion. There are just a handful of editing missteps, most notably the habitual use of “must of” and “would of” (for “must’ve” and “would’ve”). It is regrettably unclear whether the author means to reflect how the characters think it should be spelled or whether their oral elision has been transcribed incorrectly; in either case, Borys perpetuates this woeful grammatical error unnecessarily. On the whole however, the prose is clear and effective; the dialogue, which is sometimes watered down, has at least an air of authenticity.

With recent news of the deaths of Laquan McDonald and many others, some may notice that police brutality in this novel receives relatively little attention. It feels like an opportunity missed, but it was clearly by design. This quick-paced, sometimes dark, but ultimately good-hearted novel aims for light entertainment with a straightforward message, not unlike the spirited Chicago detective novels of Sarah Paretsky. Box of Rain will not surprise those familiar with the problems between young black men and law enforcement. But with its tightly knit plot and a few good twists, this novel may be recommended for YA and general readers curious about how unconscious biases can lead to vicious cycles of distrust.

Three-Star Review

March 2015, New Libri Press
$14.95, paperback, 223 pages
ISBN: 9781614690450

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

Learn more about the author and her series.



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Mystery and ‘Honor’ in Chicago

CBR_Logo2Honor Above All
A Novel

by J. Bard-Collins

In Chicago during the late nineteenth century, when the ashes from the Civil and American Indian wars still drifted through the air, tensions simmered just below boiling point. Soldiers transitioned into civilian work wherever they could, into trades, police forces, militias, and politics. Some ran food stands on the streets, and some collected coins in cans from the absentminded passersby. Army ranks faded, alliances formed between immigrants, and these groups developed heritage neighborhoods. With aimless men flooding into the city seeking refuge and work, two things rose from the dusty postwar streets along Lake Michigan: crime and buildings. J. Bard-Collins writes of both in her first novel, Honor Above All, a work labeled historical fiction, but perhaps with a case of mistaken identity.

honor above allGarret Lyons joined the army at the age of fifteen. Serving under General Stannard as an apprentice, he rises quickly in ranks due to his aptitude for planning, a bit of courage, and an overabundance of confidence. Yet when the devastation of the battle of Powder River clears, Lyons seems the only man left standing, putting a target on his back and discharge papers on his bunk. Now in his mid-twenties, Lyons looks for a way to get by using the only skills he has: those of a soldier. Luckily, the United States remains a lawless country, and he finds sanctuary in the services of Allan Pinkerton, founder of what would become the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Lyons leads a life of turmoil, carrying grief from years of soldiering and mourning the loss of his home with General Stannard. His service with the Pinkertons allows him to forget, for a time, that the war has ended for him. Yet, when an unknown assailant guns down his partner, Lyons returns to Chicago to hunt his killer and reunites with the General in an unexpected turn of events. These events begin the novel, leaving the reader feeling that much of the action happened before he was invited along.

Familiar names from history appear throughout Honor Above All,* giving the mystery a historical-fiction slant. Lyons finds a coconspirator and partner in Louis Sullivan. He mingles with the likes of Burnham and Root while the plot spins out around Montauk Block. Bard-Collins begins each chapter with a bit of Chicago history, lending to the atmosphere and setting of her world. She finds her stride in setting, detailing quick-moving clouds over a rising city that eventually touches the sky.

Yet, with a history lesson beginning each chapter, the plot slows to a forgetful pace. The characters become faded photographs of distant people from a long-ago time instead of a living community of entrepreneurs, artists, and tradesmen. With most of the novel told in a retrospective narrative, the past stifles the present. Each time the author ventures into the historical realm, the plot weakens and another genre takes lead: biography.

Bard-Collins gives her readers vivid, interesting vignettes of 1880s Chicago, so engrossing that they distract from the make-believe story at hand. While many novels cross genres successfully, few survive an author at cross purposes. As a biographical work of Chicago’s architects, its politicians, and its people, the novel shines. As a work of mystery, the suspense hangs stale in the wake of the more interesting, historical nonfiction.

Two-Star Review

November 2014, Allium Press
312 pages, Paperback, $17.99
ISBN: 978-0-9890535-7-0

Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones

*Silver Award winner for the IBPA Ben Franklin Award in the Mystery/Suspense category and Silver Award winner for the ForeWord Reviews IndieFab Awards in the Mystery category

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A Time-Traveling Exploration of Spiritual Alternatives

CBR_Logo2Scroll Back: Travel in Time …
to Seek Eternal Life
A Novel
Jay Stamatis and Steven P. Stamatis

Billed as a thriller with Scriptural overtones and written by the father-and-son team of Illinoisans Steven and Jay Stamatis, the premise of Scroll Back is an intriguing one: a novel exploring honestly and without irony what most would call a conspiracy theory. Although the book could easily veer into kitsch, the sincerity with which it is written keeps it from being tacky.

The novel, which tackles “the relentless search for God,” delves into questions regarding the role of the individual in determining how history gets recorded and in what manner it is preserved. The historical dialogue in this novel is vast in scope—foci range from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Bermuda Triangle. The plot moves through space—from the United States to Mexico to Belgium—and, most importantly, through time. Scroll Back’s time-traveling characters move between the present, the late twentieth century, and all the way back to the time of John the Baptist. Throughout these leaps scroll back FC9781503121270through time and space, the reader witnesses people governed by their own time and theories—religious or otherwise—preserving and discarding facts of their present. The effect this has is revealed when the novel is in what serves as its present day: History is contrived by those with power.

What the reader learns is that history is selective, and one is prompted to continue along this line of investigation: How does the selectivity of history affect the present and people looking back? The protagonists of the novel—Peter Mandes and Alex Mostovolov—provide a lens through which these historical questions can be explored.

Despite the avenue they create for the compelling lines of thought presented in the novel, however, the characters in this novel come across as tools rather than their own agents. They serve primarily as mouthpieces airing what seem to be unfounded opinions from an outside party. The characters are functionally effective, but are kept from being truly interesting due to their lack of development or personality. Motivations are clear in that they are explicitly stated rather than being illustrated through action or dialogue, but this does not keep the characters from coming off as mere shadows rather than real people. The lack of attention to character exploration is further underscored by unrealistic dialogue and unexplained mental leaps contrived to advance the plot.

The plot of Scroll Back is highly intentional and tightly structured. This is both a strength and a weakness: Although the novel is confident in how it wants to proceed, its rigidity keeps it from being believable, puts too many constraints upon characters, and makes the presentation of information awkward. For this reason, the novel often reads as a series of information dumps strung together with hard-to-follow lines of logic. Luckily, although the plot is hard to follow, it is redeemed slightly in that its focus and thematic scope are interesting.

Stylistically, outside of instances of compelling word choice, the writing itself is vague and non-descriptive. Its clumsiness and ambiguity, alongside issues of characterization, prove to cloud what was a premise with great potential. As a result, Scroll Back has a thought-provoking foundation, but it struggles to clearly or realistically articulate what it has set out prove.

One-Star Review

January 2015, GK Publishing
$17.95, paperback, 314 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1503121270

—Reviewed by Cassandra Verhaegen

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