Football, religion and violence merge in dark debut; magical new series entertains – Sun Sentinel

‘Don’t Know Tough’ by Eli Cranor. Soho Crime, 336 pages, $24.95

Across the country, in towns both big and small, the obsession with football is sometimes religious.

Those Friday night lights receive a compelling noir approach in Eli Cranor’s debut “Don’t Know Tough,” in which idealism, small town politics, angst, religion, violence, and, of course, football, make for a heady brew.

Deeply religious Trent Powers has moved his family — wife Marley, teenage daughter Lorna and toddler Ava — from California to Denton, Ark., where he has been hired as head coach for the Pirates, the town’s high school football team. The town in the Ozarks desperately needs a winning team and so does Trent, whose father-in-law fired him as coach from his last school, which was on a losing streak under his guidance.

The Pirates’ salvation — and possibly Trent’s — is star player Billy Lowe, a volatile senior whose extreme talents on the field are matched by his violent temper. Billy resents his teammates, especially wealthy Austin Murphy, who he nearly paralyzes during practice. The coach is torn between benching Billy or letting him play, which will almost guarantee the team making it to the playoffs.

Billy’s brutality, which is often “pouring out,” stems from living in a rundown trailer with his baby brother, his single mother and her abusive boyfriend, Travis. As mean as Travis is to Billy, he was worse to Billy’s older brother, Ricky. “I hit things cause that the only thing ever worked in my life,” Billy explains to one character. When Travis is murdered, Trent takes Billy into his own home to offer a stable home. Trent, who was raised in foster homes, sees much of himself in the young man, and wants to save Billy’s soul and his future.

Cranor’s skill at developing characters and delving into a dark plot shine in “Don’t Know Tough,” his writing honed through several award-winning short stories. He succinctly parallels Trent’s family, who hate Denton, with Billy’s family, who believe there is no escape. Yet both families will do anything to protect their loved ones.

Cranor, who has played football himself, including a year at Florida Atlantic University, illustrates the sights and sounds of a team coming together, the thrill of a win.

“Don’t Know Tough” leads to an astounding, perfectly noir finale as Cranor shows that sometimes good intentions are thwarted by reality. Cranor is an author to watch.

‘Under Lock & Skeleton Key: A Secret Staircase Mystery’ by Gigi Pandian. Minotaur, 352 pages, $26.99

Gigi Pandian launches her third series with this spritely story about magician Tempest Raj, who has returned to her family home near San Francisco following a stage accident that destroyed her career in Las Vegas and almost killed her.

In “Under Lock & Skeleton Key: A Secret Staircase Mystery,” Pandian conjures a highly entertaining novel that weaves together a loving family, a young woman trying to make her way and magic — lots of magic — while using the tenets of a locked-room mystery. Pandian assembles a diverse cast of characters who are quirky but never caricatures while exploring the different ethnicities that combine in Tempest’s extended family that includes Scottish, Indian and Black backgrounds.

At 26 years old, Tempest already established a lucrative career as a stage magician. Now, following that near-fatal accident, she’s lucky if she doesn’t get sued. Magic came easy to Tempest as her mother was descended from a family of famous traveling magicians in India. Her father is a magician of sorts with his Secret Staircase Construction business, specializing in constructing houses with secret passageways, sliding bookcases and hidden entrances. Tempest is pulled into an investigation when a body is found in a wall that supposedly hasn’t been opened for decades in a house her father is rehabbing.

Pandian makes illusion a solid foundation of “Under Lock & Skeleton Key,” showing just enough magic to pique readers’ interest but not so much as to divulge any secrets. A treehouse that has been developed into a fun home, hidden hallways and rooms that shouldn’t exist add to the amusement. Reconnecting with her family, including her grandparents, and her former best friend makes Tempest realize how much she missed them, further elevating the plot.

“Under Lock & Skeleton Key” is just the beginning of what should be a long series with Tempest and her delightful family.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at

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