Cover Image: Don't Know Tough

Don't Know Tough

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Member Reviews

Engaging and entertaining. A recommended purchase for collections where crime and thrillers are popular.

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It’s the voice that grabs you first in Arkansas teacher and former quarterback Eli Cranor’s astonishing debut novel. Billy Lowe, a tough teen who shoulders the dreams of many in the backwater of Denton, Arkansas. A high school running back who lives in a trailer park and gets his neck used as an ashtray by the abusive boyfriend of his mother, who unleashes his rage on the football field. And sometimes off.

California high school coach Trent Powers didn’t envisage Denton in his plans, a town of poultry farms and trailer parks. But after he was banished by his father-in-law, it may be his last-chance saloon. His wife Marley wants a state title even more than he does: it’s their ticket to escape, to reclaim some of what they should have had. Billy’s a simmering volcano, but they need him. He crosses the line, but Trent takes him into his home, seeking redemption as well as wins. Then the rotting body of Billy’s abuser is found. Everyone has secrets, and is scrabbling to survive. Not all will.

Cranor delivers a powerful tale full of darkness, desperation, and humanity. Don’t Know Tough is an exceptional slice of Southern Gothic that heralds the arrival of a terrific new voice in rural noir. Cranor takes readers into the grimy underbelly of high school sports, but this tale is about far more than football. A clash of values and principles, between characters and within them. Evocative prose throughout, and an extraordinary first-person voice in Billy’s passages. A triumph of a debut

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This was a hard book to read because the writing made you believe in the characters, and Billy's story was a horrific one. It was a story about an abused child--Billy was abused by his mother's live in lover--and about the importance of family. Billy's mother, his big brother, his coach, and the coach's wife all had family ties that affected Billy. But maybe, just maybe, there is a bit of hope for him at the end. Billy was a star football player, and the story is set in Arkansas in a town where football reigns. . I did spend some time in Arkansas, but I never met any people who would act quite like the people in this book acted. I received an advance copy and that did not influence my review.

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I heard this book compared to Friday Night Lights and the description of the plot held great promise. Unfortunately I had a difficult time connecting with the characters and I craved more depth and background.

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Don't Know Tough is like nothing I've read before -- part football story, part murder mystery, Eli Cranor puts the worst of humanity in this novel of deep southern poverty-stricken American life. Billy is a force of nature on the football field, tough as nails and with an anger inside of him that unleashes on anyone who gets in his path. Growing up has been hard on him and his brothers, and an abusive step-father certainly doesn't make his life any easier. Trent is the new coach in town, hailing from sunny California with a deep devotion to God and no idea what he's gotten himself into with a small town football team that hasn't seen success in years. But now, with Billy, they've made the playoffs and Trent will do whatever it takes to win -- even if it means covering up the worst sin of all.

Thoughts: If you're looking for a messy story to get lost in, Don't Know Tough will get you there. It's set in the stereotypical low-income Southern town where outsiders are sneered at and football is second only to God. There's a whole cast of characters but they're so different that they are easily distinguishable, albeit none are likable in any way. And while some readers may sympathize with Billy and Trent at first, that sympathy probably won't last long. No character is completely innocent here, and secrets will threaten to tear everyone apart. The plot moves fast, but so do the points-of-view -- while the characters are easy to tell apart, the perspectives change from paragraph to paragraph. This may be a literary device on Cranor's part but left me feeling confused and kept me from investing in any one character because we don't truly get to know any of them. But if you're in need of a fast-paced suspense with a bit of Friday Night Lights, you've found your book!

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Don’t Know Tough is an impressive debut novel from Eli Cranor. It is the personification of southern noir - gritty and bleak.

The tiny town of Denton, Arkansas lives and breathes high school football. The team’s success is in the hands of Billy Lowe, a talented but troubled kid. Billy’s home life is a mess. His mother is an addict and turns a blind eye when her boyfriend physically abuses Billy. Billy has anger issues and his rage comes out on the football field.

The team has a new head coach, Trent Powers. He sees a lot of his younger self in Billy and is determined to help the boy at any cost. When Billy’s abuser is murdered, Billy is the main suspect. Will the truth come with more deadly consequences?

There are lots of villains in this story- from Billy’s abuser to the school administrator who only cares about the teaming winning to the coach’s resentful, manipulative wife. Cranor does a masterful job portraying Billy’s character. He gives Billy layers of hidden depth. Billy is a character who will stay long after you finish reading his story.

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Thank you to Soho Press, Eli Cranor and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review*

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“Standing on the rise, there’s another woman, a ghostly figure, barely visible beneath the towering lights of Friday night. Her shape is familiar, though the way she stands bent against the backdrop of the small, southern town. Trent can feel her pull, their lives woven together now like the thick white laces on a football.” –Trent Powers Don’t Know Tough.

Don’t Know Tough is intense. It is a dark Friday Night Lights written with a gruesome murder mystery thrown in. It is compelling, unputdownable and full of the twists and turns you only see in the most seasoned writers. I have a hard time accepting this is Eli Cranor’s first novel. He writes about the complex but also magical world of football in small town Arkansas. But don’t be fooled. This book is dark. There is racism, murder, teen pregnancy, bullying and horrific abuse. The characters are multi-faceted but tragic. I am not a huge fan of Noir books, but I couldn’t put this down once I picked it up.

Billy Lowe is one tough football player. Simple-minded and angry, he cannot control his temper. He has been raised by a single mom, Tina, never really knowing his dad. His mother’s longtime boyfriend, Trent, is abusive. Cranor brings you right into Lowe’s reality in only a few sentences. Billy’s story will grab you and not let go. In the same vein as the movie “The Blind Side”, Billy’s life is so unstable that the new coach takes him in. Trent Powers has moved his family from California to small town Arkansas, to be the coach of the town’s high school football team, the Denton Pirates. He has been fired from his previous coaching job, under his Father-in-law’s guidance. Marley, his wife, is disappointed in Trent and unhappy in Arkansas. But he is determined to show Marley and his Father-in-law that he can make this work and make it to the play-offs. He knows he can not do this without Billy Lowe. When Billy, from the wrong side of the tracks, beats up rich kid Austin Murphy at practice, the principal recommends that they pull Billy out, putting Trent in a bind on whether to play or bench Billy. Trent thinks he has the answer to both his and Billy’s problems by taking Billy into his home. But when Trent and the chief of police find a body, everything explodes in the small town of Denton, Arkansas.

As one reader so eloquently put it, there are two people running; Billy on the football field running away from his family, his violent stepfather, his negligent addict mother, and from the history his older brother has left for him. Trent Powers, running from a wife who can’t be happy with him unless he is doing what her father says. In reading Cranor’s acknowledgements at the end, agents rejected him over 200 times in trying to publish this book. He has played football at every level, including coach and his research and experience contribute a lot to how readable it is. You will feel you are sitting at the stands on a Friday night under the lights, watching a game and not having any idea how it will end. One thing is for sure, it will definitely surprise you. This author is one to watch!

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The characters in this book, especially Billy, broke my damn heart. Sometimes, this book was so difficult, I had to walk away from it for a few days. That's not a knock on it - I just wasn't in the right mental space for it at the time. It's a good read - but definitely not an easy one. I would recommend it for anyone who was a fan of S.A. Cosby's Razorblade Tears, though it does lack some of that novel's dark humor.

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When I heard the description that this was like FNL I got it. But the dialect was hard to follow and made for not as an enjoyable read. Strong story

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You might think this is a book about football. The goalposts on the cover might give you that idea.
You might think this is a book about rural Arkansas, since that’s where it’s set, and that’s where the author lives.
You might think it’s about good guys and bad guys, black and white, winning and losing.
But after reading it, and thinking about it for a couple of days, I decided it’s a book about love. About how hard it is to keep love alive in some families, and about the choices people make to keep their families intact or to tear them apart.
There are two families in this story. One is a stable nuclear family. They go to church every Sunday. They live in a nice house and the husband drives a Prius (a daring act of environmental defiance in Ford truck country). The other family is fractured, with a departed father, an alcoholic mother, and a failed and embittered older brother.
Both endure intense emotional and physical pressures. The fires of caring in each family are banked after years of inattention and loss. Will anyone have the courage to fan the flame into life, and save what’s left of those who were once bound by love?
That’s what this book is about. It’s well worth finding out the answer.

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