Edgar winner Chris Pavone rocks it with The Accident

accidentI blew it in 2013 with my choice for the Edgar for Best First Novel by an American author – my pick was Matthew Quirk with The 500, but the actual winner was Chris Pavone for The Ex-Pats.  (The novel came in at #3 for me!)  Now Pavone is back with a book I liked even better, even though it was not a nominee this year:  The Accident.

As in The Ex-Pats, there’s a lot of characters, a lot of action, and a lot of “twisty.”  Maybe even more twistiness.  Kate Moore – the protagonist in the debut novel – is back, but as a minor character.  The heavy lifting in The Accident is done by Isabel Reed.  She’s a literary agent, and the recipient of a manuscript that a media mogul/potential politician with his own private CIA agent will go to any lengths to suppress.  Isabel’s on the run, dragging along Jeff Fielder, the hapless editor who has loved her for almost 20 years, and the only person she trusts with the dangerous blockbuster-to-be.  It’s very suspenseful.  There’s also a lot of inside baseball for those who know publishing, which makes it extra fun.  (Pavone himself was a book editor.)

Here’s where The Accident has it over The Ex-Pats, for me – I cared about the characters.  A lot.  That Isabel Reed is a sad but spunky dame.  Plus it kept me guessing.  On page 296, I had it figured out.  Ah, yes, but not completely.  On page 311 I thought I was wrong.  Then on 354 we find out why Isabel is so sad and lonely.  And then on 374 why she’s maybe going to triumph.  And then at the end, it’s totally satisfactory…except we know something Isabel doesn’t.  So it’s a final, tiny twist.  It’s a solid Literary Lunchbox recommendation for Chris Pavone’s The Accident.

franePS – One of my resolutions for 2015 was to blog more frequently – 2014 was challenging for me and my blog stats showed it!  But Edgar time is always a boost.  And I noticed today that my international traffic is picking up – two visitors in the last week from FRANCE!  So bonjour, mes amis.  Bienvenue!

 

 

All the Light #1 for a reason

lightAnthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See has now been on the New York Times bestseller list for 35 weeks, and I had been actively resisting reading it for 30 or so of them.  Nazi Germany?  Meh.  Plucky blind girl?  Be serious.  Sensitive teenage wunderkind?  What is this, some kind of historical Fault in Our Stars?

But then I stood in my local bookseller (Schuler Books and Music), and read the first chapter, and then a couple more… standing there with Christmas shoppers jostling me and the occasional heavy sigh from someone who was annoyed with my aisle-blocking.  There are leaflets falling from the sky, then the bombers come, and then the “sightless sixteen-year-old girl,” who is clearly all on her own, catches one of the useless-to-her leaflets, and then the young German soldier hustles to the basement to the sound of bombs falling all around.  And I was hooked.

I read a lot of mysteries, needless to say, but there’s not a one that starts out with more suspense than Doerr has provided.  History gives the reader the context, and there is zero doubt that the allies defeated the Nazis.  But this town – and these people – how did they get there?  And what happens to them?  In just nine short pages, Doerr makes you care.

The story he tells could easily be real, although there is a bit of the magical about it.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a lively, lovely girl who goes blind slowly, and then all at once, at the age of six.  She lives with her father, the main locksmith and keeper of the keys at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.  He is a careful, caring man, and builds Marie-Laure’s autonomy by fashioning a model of their neighborhood for her to hold in her hands.  By studying the model, she will learn to navigate independently.  One thread of the plot recounts what happens to Marie-Laure and her father as Germany begins its assault on France, how they escape (along with a priceless diamond from the museum) to Saint-Malo, where her shell-shocked great uncle lives with his housekeeper, and how this unassuming group become a critical part of the French resistance.

At the same time, the young German boy Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutta, are orphans.  They live in deprivation in an orphanage, where there is some love but also fear, minimal hope and no escape.  But Werner has a talent, a talent for understanding how electrical things – especially radios – work.  And so, as things begin to fall apart, Werner begins to be the person that everyone turns to.  Even the local SS hear of his talent, and Werner is offered a place in the Hitler Youth.  He takes it, and receives an education in not only electrical engineering, but cruelty.  This second thread recounts Werner’s path, which includes many sad events, true friendship and ultimately, heroism.

The two threads intertwine loosely, looping back and forth in time, occasionally almost touching, until the point where Marie-Laure and Werner meet.  Their meeting is brief, but profoundly meaningful.  The book is beautifully written, the characters compelling real and honest, and there are few easy answers.

What I liked best about All the Light We Cannot See is that it not only revealed the truth, as needed by the story and the characters within the work, but broader truths about the nature of humanity.  There’s plenty for book clubs to excavate – symbolism!  Metaphor!  Man’s inhumanity to man!  But it’s all presented in a way that is eminently readable and entertaining.  Fabulous.  Here’s hoping that 20th Century Fox, which has optioned the book, can keep Doerr’s deft touch with the material.

BTW, the book made the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2014.  You can check it out here.

 

Edgar Nominees Announced!!

mwa_logoOh frabjous day!  I am chortling in my joy.  Today is the day that the Mystery Writers of America announced the nominees for the 2015 Edgar awards.  This is usually on January 19 (Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday), but we had an extra wait thanks to the MLK Day holiday.

This year, the best novel race is a six-way dash… and four of the authors are people that I know, love and have been furiously recommending.  The Best First Novel by an American Author category, as usual, is an opportunity to get some new favorites.  None of those authors are remotely familiar to me!

As in previous years, I will be reading (or in some cases, re-reading), reviewing and ranking the books.  And following April’s Edgar Banquet in New York City, I‘ll see how the Literary Lunchbox Edgar Awards match up with the real thing.  In the interests of honest disclosure, I must reveal that I do not bat .1000.  Part of this is because I’m not trying to guess which book will win, but to determine which book SHOULD win.  Big difference.

So, with that being said, here’s the line-up for 2015!

BEST NOVEL

BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOR

Writing on the Red Cedar

“They’re just not serious about writing,” was my super-judgmental and not-very-insightful perspective on people who talked about writing, maybe even went to writing-related events, but didn’t actually, you know, write.  No new short stories.  No energy for reworking stuff in the hopper.  How hard can it be to churn out 500 words a day?  If you watch one TV show a night, you should be able to write something every day.

I should be writing here!

I should be writing here!

Oh, but now the shoe’s on the other foot.  Because in 2014, here are the number of words I wrote, fiction-wise:  Zero.  And here are the number of times I took my current work-in-progress out of the drawer:  Zero.   And here are ALL the things I did to set myself up for writing:  One.  Yep, one.  I registered for Write on the Red Cedar.

Write on the Red Cedar is sponsored by the Capital City Writers Association (of which I am a member but have done, wait for it… zero!).  It kicks off with a cocktail party on Friday night and then Saturday is dedicated to education that accomplishes two goals:  1. Helps writers improve their writing and 2. Gets them motivated!

“This,” I told myself, “this will ensure that I get my act together.”  Surely I will regain my focus, with January 16, 2015 looming.

And loom it did!  And now the day is today and dang it, I’m excited.  My good friend Addy Whitehouse is driving up from Skokie to spend the weekend and hit the conference with me.  She has, I assure you, written thousands and thousands of words this year.  She is kicking butt.

Don Maass

Don Maass

We also signed up for the four-hour post-conference hands-on workshop with uber-agent Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, and other helpful writing books.  I will share that I am petrified, petrified, of Don Maass.  He read my first mystery eons ago and passed, although he did say some sorta nice things.  But I will put on my big girl pants and go because the chance to learn something fabulous is, well, fabulous.  Did I say I was petrified?

Jane Whitefield back in A String of Beads

Perry

Thomas Perry at Men of Mystery

I discovered Thomas Perry in the mid 1990s, with Vanishing Act, the debut novel in his Jane Whitefield series.  The series was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, although the focus is on crime, it features neither a law enforcement professional nor a private detective.   Second, the purpose is generally not crime-solving and locking up bad guys.  And third, the main character’s not a white guy.

Jane Whitefield is a woman with an interesting past who uses her experience to help people in trouble disappear.  She’s like a one woman witness protection program, but without the bureaucracy.  Her clients tend to be ordinarily people – they may not be saints, but they’re in way over their heads.   She’s Native American – Seneca, to be precise – and her culture informs her every action.  Vanishing Act was followed rapidly by a series of additional Whitefield books, at which point Perry took a break from Jane.  She was back in Runner, followed by Poison Flower, and now a brand-new book,  A String of Beads.

beadsBeads is Jane’s most personal assignment.  The clan mothers of her tribe have given her a string of beads – purple and white – as a symbol of their assignment: to find her childhood friend, Jimmy Sanders, and bring him back to face murder charges.  (Yes, I know, kind of the opposite of hiding someone!)  Jane’s married now, and her husband, surgeon Cary MacKinnon, is not so understanding when she heads out, retracing the steps she and Jimmy took as fatherless 13-year-old so long ago.

But what about that murder?  Jimmy’s innocent, of course.  He punched a drunk in a bar a few weeks ago, but now that drunk – Nick Bauermeister- has been shot dead, right in front of his girlfriend’s eyes.  The cops would look at Jimmy no matter what, but he’s suspect #1 because someone has stepped forward to say “I sold Jimmy Sanders a rifle two weeks ago.”  Not just a mistake, it’s a frame-up.  And that changes everything.   To fulfill the mothers’ assignment, Jane can’t just bring Jimmy home.  She has to solve the crime.

That may take Jane a while, but the reader’s not too mystified, because we kn0w pretty quickly that Nick’s not just a drunken, controlling lout, but a criminal.  It’s his boss, the not-too-smooth-with-the-women Dan Crane, who killed him so he could steal his girlfriend, the beautiful and trusting Chelsea Schnell.

What follows is the always-compelling cat-and-mouse game that is common to Jane Whitefield novels, where Jane stays one step ahead of the bad guys and has to save her charge from certain death a couple of times.  This usually includes at least one time where the charge makes a stupid move, like calling his mom or giving his address to his girlfriend.  Perry is a pro at this kind of writing, Jane is amazing, and even if you’ve read it a dozen times before, it still keeps those pages turning.  (A bit like Lee Child’s Reacher books in that respect.)

I pounced when A String of Beads came out and consumed it with enthusiasm:  I love Jane.   That being said, this was not her best outing, with less suspense than usual and no real sense of danger, perhaps because all the bad guys are not particularly well-motivated.  At the end, Jimmy’s back home and the clan mothers are happy, but I had the nagging feeling that too many local people now know Jane’s secret.  It’s a worry.

If you’re already a fan, you’ll want to read A String of Beads.  If you’ve never read a Jane Whitfield novel, start with the earlier ones:  Dance for the Dead was particularly harrowing.

Like knotty crime fiction? Try Nele Neuhaus

neuhaus

Nele Neuhaus

My $50 Barnes and Noble gift card was radiating energy, burning a hole in my wallet, demanding to be spent.  My purchases that day included two books by an author totally new to me:   Nele Neuhaus.  Neuhaus writes crime fiction that is extremely popular in her native Germany, and is translated into twelve languages.  The series features detective Pia Kirchhoff and her boss, Oliver von Bodenstein.

My bounty that day:  Snow White Must Die and Bad Wolf.  Both got great reviews.  Based on Snow White, I’m not going to quibble!

In Snow White Must Die, 20-year-old Tobias Santorius committed a heinous crime, murdering his girlfriend Stefanie and another childhood friend, Laura.  Although the girls’ bodies were never found, the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming and even Tobias believes he did it while in an alcoholic blackout.  Only Nathalie, a long-time buddy, and Claudius Terlinden, the town benefactor, offer him any support throughout his 11 years in prison.  Tobias’ release from prison and return to his home town unsettles the community, and when another girl disappears, people are quick to place blame.   The surprising discovery of Laura’s body raises questions about the original investigation.  But if Tobias did not do it, who did?  And where is Amelie, the missing teen who bears an uncanny resemblance to Stefanie?

snow whiteThere is no end to the potential suspects and unravelling the truth about what happened in the past, while making the connections to today’s mystery, is a labyrinthine effort.  Each new fact revealed only raises more questions.  Pia and Oliver are smart, insightful and tenacious, but not super-human.

Here’s what I liked about Snow White:  Well-crafted main characters.  Twisty plot.  Appropriate backstories.  No ridiculous romantic subplots.  Nice use of family dynamics as explanation for dysfunction – one bad guy has actually convinced himself that he was acting in everyone’s best interests!

Not so great:  Bit of a groaner, likelihood-wise.  Tobias can’t come up with an alibi or defend himself – he blacked out!  Theis can’t say what he saw – he’s autistic!  School-teacher can’t admit he was sleeping with a student – his wife has all the money!  Person X isn’t caring friend – person X is a sociopath!

Still, there are unlikelier plots… and with the help of shifts in point of view and time frame as well as stellar pacing, it’s easy to overlook this aspect of the book while you keep those pages turning.  I wouldn’t give Snow White Must Die a giant thumbs up, but it’s well worth reading and I’m looking forward to Bad Wolf.

S.J. Bolton is rocking it for me

sjb_polaroids_8bitMy husband discovered a new author at the library in S.J. Bolton, who writes the Detective Lacey Flint series.  His description of the main character was really ringing a bell… and yep, I had Now You See Me, the first book in the series, on my Kindle.  I re-read it.  Thumbs up.  Complicated female character, tense (and bloody) plot featuring a serial killer – in fact, maybe LACEY’s the serial killer.  Plus there’s a dishy fellow cop who may or may not be romantically involved with their mutual female boss, so there’s that little box of fun checked.  Ooh.

Second book in the series is Dead Scared.  This one’s got Lacey undercover at university, where there is an unusually high number of suicides among the prettier coeds.  (Sorry for the spoiler, obviously Lacey was not actually the serial killer, after all.)  Very tense.  Who’s driving them over the edge?  And why is the dishy colleague shouting to Lacey that he loves her, right at the end of the book?

Third book is Lost.  This one is enlivened by an additional character’s POV – 10 year old Barney Roberts.  You’ll get to know Barney, grow fond of Barney, want to smack Barney’s dad upside the head… all while 10-0ld-boys in the area are being abducted and horrifically murdered.  But by whom?  Could it be Barney’s dad?  Barney himself?  Barney’s missing mother?  Very tense ending, but a little “what the heck?”   Lost is scary and worth reading, but not quite as pulled-together as the first two.

And then there is #4 in the series, A Dark and Twisted Tide.  It’s brand new and not yet read by me, but I’ve got high hopes, so I’ll check back in later.  There are also several standalone books (yay!).

As an author, Bolton reminds me of Mo Hayder… and if you know how much I love Mo, you know that is high praise indeed.   To learn more about Mo, click here.  And for more about S.J. Bolton, try her author website!  Well worth clicking around.