Like Lions by Brian Panowich

McFalls County sheriff Clayton Burroughs is a broken man in many ways.  He wrestlesLike Lions with the aches of past injuries, drinks his way through a failing marriage and fatherhood to an infant son, and struggles to keep his distance from his family’s legacy as the county’s drug kingpins.

Although his father died years ago and his brother Halford was a recent casualty (by Clayton’s hand), the Burroughs organization is still vital, but crumbling without direction.  There are family associates that recognize Clayton’s hardheaded talents and want him back in the fold.

Clayton is a hard sell, until a shoot up in a local bar stirs up a bigger nest of trouble, as forces from outside the county, in the form of the volatile Viner family, want in on the sway the Burroughs family once had, and they don’t play easy.

After some rough justice that goes too far, Clayton and his family are now in danger, and he doubts what integrity he has left.  And his marriage with Kate, damaged as it is, may be his last strength.

This book is the sequel to Bull Mountain, one of the hardest hitting debuts of rural noir I have read.  Like its predecessor, Like Lions starts hard and finishes harder, a potboiler that begs for continual page turning.  There’s some serious violence, and an incident in one chapter that I had to reread several times to have it sink in.  By the end, it’s understood that nobody’s hands come clean.

I started Like Lions with high hopes, and while it didn’t impress me as much as the first book (do sophomore efforts ever?), the book caught on quickly enough.  I burned through it in a few days, and the first and last chapters, both prequel to the rest of the book, worked nicely together into a surprise ending.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Jodi McCarty, serving life for murdering her girlfriend Paula, has spent all of hersugar run adulthood in jail.  Now thirty-five, she gets an early release, and freedom is a nebulous concept to her.  Her only motivations are unfinished business in Georgia and a planned move back to her grandmother’s farm in West Virginia.

It’s in Georgia that Jodi first encounters Miranda, a young mother of three boys who is living in a motel room.  Miranda is a charmer whose facade hides a troubled marriage and a pill addiction.  Jodi is drawn to Miranda, and soon plans to drive Miranda and her kids up to West Virginia, along with Ricky, Paula’s abused younger brother who is now grown, but still a man-child living under his father’s thumb.

The farm remains there, overgrown and remote and no longer hers, and there’s a fracking operation going on that’s uncomfortably close by.  Still, Jodi is dead set on living there.

Life on the farm is idyllic at first but primitive – they have no electricity, running water is a hand pump in the kitchen, and the facilities are an outhouse.  The cabin there is in the process of caving in.  It’s not a utopian paradise, but Jodi envisions the farm as the best refuge for all involved.

The outside world has a way of working in its troubles.  Jodi’s two younger brothers want certain favors from her that could compromise her parole, the outside owner who bought her land at auction years ago is becoming more persistent, and Jodi has to establish a shaky alliance with a rich if eccentric woman in town in an effort to buy back the property.

Sugar Run is a gripping novel told in two overlapping time frames, the earlier working up gradually to Jodi’s killing of Paula.  The book observes some pretty hard people who are molded by poverty and drug abuse.  Jodi herself is a mess of confusion – someone without any kind of foundation trying to make a better situation for herself and others, often without thinking how the others might feel about her intentions.

With recommendations from the likes of Lauren Groff, Daniel Woodrell, and others, it appears that the author is off to a good start.

(William Hicks, Information Services)