Bradstreet Gate Inventive Debut for Robin Kirman

bradstreetAuthor Robin Kirman’s got the credentials for an auspicious debut – BA in Philosophy from Yale followed by an MFA in fiction from Columbia – and sure enough, Bradstreet Gate is an inventive and well-executed first novel.   However, I found the ending disappointing.

The book follows several characters from 1997 to present day.  They meet at Harvard – Georgia the beautiful, Alice the odd, Charlie the good-hearted, and Rufus Storrow, the professor.  Each is more complicated than first they seem, and the inter-relationships drive the plot through graduation and beyond.  At the heart of the story is a mystery.  Did Professor Storrow, who is a West Point graduate with a shady military past, murder Julie Patel, the student whose accusations against him threatened to derail his academic career?

Alas, we never learn the truth.  Not for sure.

Kirman does a wonderful job of revealing each character’s journey as they intersect through the years,  leading up to an anniversary memorial at Harvard for Julie Patel.  Each plot thread is well-presented and keeps the reader turning pages.  Georgia had an affair with Storrow while at school and had not believed him guilty of the crime, but had declined to lie and give him an alibi.  And as she realized at the time, there was not enough evidence to arrest him, but he would always be suspected.

And, indeed, Storrow suffers.  As do they all, to some degree or other.  Georgia matures, finds love, becomes pregnant and then endures her husband’s tragic death.  Alice takes advantage of her inside knowledge at Harvard to advance her career as a journalist, climbs high but then falls far due to a single impulsive act for which she pays for many years, literally.  Charlie’s broken heart spurs him to achieve success in the business world, but through everything, he retains an abiding affection for them all.  And Storrow’s arrival shows him to have become a shady character, hanging on the fringes of better men for any opportunistic gain, embezzling from his company and abandoning a family in India.

But here is the question:  is this a story where a bad man in the making becomes the man he deserves to be?  Or is this a story where a man becomes what circumstance makes of him?

The lack of clarity on this question would be more compelling if Kirman had presented, at any time throughout the book, any alternative scenario for Julie Patel’s death other than Storrow’s guilt.  With none given, the reader can only take the easy way out and assume it.

Some reviews draw parallels between Bradstreet Gate and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I can definitely see it.  In my opinion, a comparison between the two is much to Ms. Tartt’s benefit.

Finders Keepers the Follow-up to Edgar-Winning Mr. Mercedes

KingI blew it this year by not calling the Edgar for Best Novel for Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, but instead ranking it #2 while bestowing the Literary Lunchbox Edgar on Mo Hayder’s Wolf.  (Check it out here.)  Still, I loved the book and was definitely looking forward to #2 in the planned trilogy, Finders Keepers.

findersAnd friends, it is now here.  It’s got all the good stuff that the best King novels have... plotting, pacing, suspense, and wonderful characters.  Still, it definitely feels like King is counting on our patience… particularly since Bill Hodges, our hero and the guy we are most interested in seeing, doesn’t show up until roughly halfway through Finders Keepers.  Nor do Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson (Aspy-challenged savant and bright black teen with a twisted sense of humor).  ‘

This is risky, because how does King know that we’ll put up with 147 pages of what is essentially backstory?  But what a backstory!  Picture this:  obsessed fan talks two buddies into robbing the home of a famous, reclusive author.  (Think JD Salinger with a twist of John Updike.)   Author ends up dead, fan and buddies get away with a bunch of unpublished manuscripts and a pile of cash.  No surprise, fan kills partners… but then goes to prison for a very long time for an unrelated crime.  Oh, and did I say it’s 1978?

Flash forward to 2010, when teenage Pete Sauber – who is super-smart but also pretty dorky – discovers the fan’s cache.  His parents are having serious money problems, as his dad was one of the unemployed job fair hopefuls who got run over by Mr. Mercedes in King’s previous book.  Pete quickly decides to send $500/month in cash to his parents, who conveniently and understandably decide that there is a benefactor out there trying to make life better for the Mercedes killer’s victims.  (Which is sort of true.)

Of course, you can see where this is going.  Right about the time the money runs out, the fan gets out of jail and the two – elderly bad guy and teenage dork – are on a collision course that is not likely to end well.  Fortunately, Pete ends up with an ace in the hole.  That’s right, Bill.  Plus Holly and Jerome.

It’s a pretty wild ride.  As with Mr. Mercedes, there’s a lot of tension and quite a few bodies along the way.  There’s also great pacing, some new and believable characters, and interesting character development, as Bill grapples with his responsibility for Janey’s death, Holly has become more independent, and Jerome is now a Harvard man.

The stand-off at the end, as the fan (Morris Bellamy) threatens to shoot Pete’s little sister, while Pete threatens to set  the author’s manuscripts on fire, is a nail-biter.  I won’t spoil it for you, except to reassure you that Bill Hodges is a hero.

I predict great things for this Stephen King.  He may be a newbie at detective fiction, but he’s got what it takes.

Discovering Laurie Halse Anderson

knifeSo, when I picked this book up from the sale bin at my local indy bookstore (Schuler’s in Okemos!  Hi, guys!) I had no idea that Laurie Halse Anderson is evidently some kind of a super-well-known YA author who tackles contemporary and controversial topics.

Better late than never, I say, if my introduction to the author is through her  scary and sweet fifth novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory.  She illuminates Andy Kincaid’s post-traumatic stress disorder by putting the spotlight on his 17-year-old daughter, Hayley.

Hayley’s a pretty bright and articulate girl, but not well-socialized, thanks to spending the last few years driving cross country with her dad’s rig, home schooled on the road.  They’ve come back to their home town so that Hayley can have a normal senior year and transition into a normal life.

But it’s tough to focus on fitting in when money is scarce and Dad seems to be falling apart.   She makes a friend – Gracie – but can’t really open up to her.  Then she finds Finn, a great guy whose family has its own secret stress and sorrow, and they help each other.

Both Andy and Hayley have memory problems… Andy, who struggles to cope with horrific memories of Iraq and Afghanistan and Hayley, who has blocked off whole chunks of her past and struggles to recall the truth.   She soon finds that there is no “the” truth, but that other people’s truth can be just as real as her own.

The book builds to a scene where a frantic Hayley, in her quest to save her father from himself, puts herself in danger and he ends up saving her.  (Irony alert!)

But as Hayley recounts, “If this were a fairy tale, I’d stick in the ‘Happily Ever After’ crap right here.  But this was my life, so it was a little more complicated than that.”

Thank heavens.  It’s a complicated topic, they’re complicated characters, and they deserve their complicated-but-still-hopeful-and-definitely happier ending.

It’s a great read, Hayley has a real and powerful voice, and the few chapters told from her father’s POV are realistically harrowing.  A definite thumbs up from me.  It’s just out in paperback, so well-worth an Amazon visit.  And if you’d like to read more about the Anderson and her perspective on dealing with troubling issues, there’s a good interview with her on Entertainment Weekly‘s site, where she explains why it’s important to leave issues unresolved.

I was interested to see that Anderson has written several previous books, including Speak, Catalyst, Prom, Twisted, and Wintergirls, which explore other contemporary themes.   I’ll be exploring that backlist!

Tender, wry Dept. of Speculation

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

Imagine this chick lit:  a book about a young east coast writerly woman who meets a wholesome but arty midwestern man.  They fall in love, they marry, they have a child.   She sinks into parenting.  Him too, but less so.  The baby is difficult.  They get bedbugs.  The baby becomes a small person.  He becomes distant.  She wonders what’s going on.  He has an affair and admits to it.  Drama and pain in equal measures.   They move to the country and patch things up, but there will always be a question at the center.   The book would have lots of characters, friends and family members, coming and going, conversation, cups of coffee…  plenty of the woman’s internal thoughts, decisions about what to wear, descriptions of his indifference.  All in all, it would be a worthwhile book and a solid seller.

speculationNow consider the Dept. of Speculation.  Jenny Offill’s book has the plot outlined above, but stripped down to snippets that move the story along while revealing the woman, the husband, the child.  These snippets are carefully curated moments, each one representative.  The reader is pulled in to the narrative and to the narrator’s singular voice, which is thoughtful and funny.  Somehow, in far fewer words, Offill has created a much more enjoyable and memorable book in The Dept. of Speculation.

Here’s how enjoyable the writing is:  I stopped every few pages to read something aloud to my husband, and he didn’t complain.  One of the great joys of reading something interesting is sharing it with someone else, and it’s pretty painful when the other person just says “uh-huh,” or worse, “I’m reading here, too, you know.”  So The Dept. of Speculation passes the husband test.  A few (short) examples:

  • The Buddhists say that there are 121 states of consciousness.  Of these, only three involve misery or suffering.  Most of us spend spend our time moving back and forth between these three.
  • Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well no, I’d say.
  • Studies show that 110% of husbands who leave their wives for other women report that their wives are crazy.
  • Later, when it’s time to go to bed, she puts both legs into one side of her footy pajamas and slyly waits for us to notice.

Bottom line:  There’s a good reason that The Dept. of Speculation was named one of the top books of the year by so many different publications (New Yorker, New York Times… even BuzzFeed!).   A definite recommend.

Congrats to Edgar recipients Jim Klise, Tom Bouman and Stephen King!

EdgarsSo, I’m feeling pretty smug – I may not have batted 1000 on my Edgar rankings this year, but it was pretty dang close.   I called it 100% one time, been completely wrong once, and otherwise tend to get one right and the other one wrong.  Since I’m not actually trying to predict the outcome, but to review and rank by my own standards (I’m not actually sure what standards the Edgars judges actually use!), it’s not surprising that I am not in perfect alignment.  Still, MWA and Literary Lunchbox agree way more often than random chance would dictate.

secretsFirst up, kudos to ADA pal and FB friend Jim Klise, whose young adult mystery The Art of Secrets took home an Edgar.  I read The Art of Secrets and enjoyed it very much!  Not in middle school?  Read it anyway!

bonesMy call for Best First Novel was Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley.  An assured debut, it stood out for me among the other worthy nominees.  And indeed, it won the Edgar.  My good friend Addy Whitehouse reviewed this category as well – her call was The Life We Bury.  I enjoyed that book, but it wasn’t my favorite.

mercedeAnd you all know just how difficult the call was for Best Novel this year.  Of the six nominees, I truly felt that five of them were 5-star books.  Ultimately, I gave Mo Hayder’s Wolf the nod because it was a more complex narrative, in my estimation, than Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes.  I ranked that #2, and dang it, Mr. King’s Mr. Mercedes took home the Edgar.  Still, if this were horseshoes, I’d be the big winner.

The Edgar excitement is all over for another year!   Colleagues in my workplace find it all super-geeky, but hey, geek is chic.

Mo Hayder’s Wolf the final nominee for MWA Best Novel Edgar

wolfLunchbox regulars know that there are a few favorite authors that I buy in hardback, recommend wholeheartedly, and await with anticipation their next novel.  Back in the day it was Dick Francis, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and John Grisham.  Currently, it’s Ian Rankin, Laura Lippmann, Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, William Kent Krueger and Mo Hayder.   It was a wonderful day when I discovered Mo Hayder’s Gone – not to mention her entire back catalog – and I marveled at her ability to create suspense and surprise.  As an aspiring writer myself, reading Gone was like a master lesson in craft.  It deserved and won the Edgar for Best Novel in 2012.

No surprise to me –  Mo Hayder has penned another masterclass of a thrilling detective story with Wolf.  If anything the plot is even more knotty than Gone, and there’s no cheating.  Reading Wolf the third time through to review it for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, I was able to note all the clues that I should have been picking up on were right there in front of me.

There are two plot threads. In the first, a wealthy family – the Anchor-Ferrars – are settling into their comfortable vacation home when they’re visited by two policemen, DI Honey and DS Molina.  Fifteen years previously, a teenage couple had been brutally murdered just a short distance away.  The killer disemboweled them both and strung their intestines, shaped into a heart, in the trees above them.  Now it appears that a second, similar murder has taken place, and the family is stricken to learn that their safety is at risk.  And it certainly is, for we soon realize that the policemen are not policemen at all, but have been hired to terrorize the family in order to suppress the publication of Oliver Anchor-Ferrars’ memoirs.  Although he’s now in his mid-60s and recovering from open-heart surgery, Oliver Anchor-Ferrars is a much harder and smarter man than he appears.  Over the four days of their captivity, Oliver deduces the truth and leaves a hidden message for the police detective he anticipates will be responsible for solving the crime.

The second thread is DI Jack Caffery’s lifelong search for the truth about the abduction and presumed sexual assault and murder of his 9-year-old brother, Ewan.  The Caffery family lived just steps away from a known pedophile, and Jack has spent decades trying to discover what happened to his brother and to find his body.  He’s similar, in that respect, to Hayder’s continuing character known as the walking man.  The walking man is a homeless itinerant, but highly intelligent and educated man, whose daughter was abducted.  He searches as he walks, seeking her body, and sometimes shares information with Jack.  And sometimes he doesn’t.

The threads come together through coincidence, or as the walking man would have it, fate.   For the only hope for rescue of the Anchor-Ferrars family rests in the speedy exit of their Border terrier, Bear.  A note reading “Help Us,” and including their address, was attached to Bear’s collar by Mrs. Anchor-Ferrars, who then threw the dog down the fireplace chimney.  Injured and with most of the note missing, Bear is discovered by a little blonde girl – Amy – in the nearby park who turns to none other than the walking man for help.  And the walking man turns to Jack, dangling the potential of information about Ewan from a new source as his incentive to track down Bear’s owners.

And thus does Jack Caffery begin his search, even as Honey and Molina are inflicting mental torture and physical abuse on the family.  It’s a long and complicated process, and Jack prevails in bringing all the perpetrators to justice, although the day is not entirely saved.  (I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.)

Mo Hayder has written a perfect Rubik’s cube of a puzzle, where all the pieces slot perfectly into place but there’s a lot of looking at things in new ways to make them do so.  At the same time, the characters are simply the most well-drawn and compelling characters – good guys, bad guys, and minor walk-ons alike – that I have seen in … well, forever, really.  The book itself is painful at many points and the resolution of the mystery of Jack’s brother Ewan is surprising, ironic, and completely in keeping with the synchronicity of life’s events.

So, there’s the review – but what about the ranking?  The #1 ranked novel, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, is an excellent book and I look forward to more from Bill Hodges.  But Mo Hayder’s Wolf is a deeper experience all together – it takes the top spot.   I forecast Wolf as the big winner at the Edgar Awards ceremony this week.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Wolf by Mo Hayder
  2. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  3. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  4. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  5. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
  6. This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

The Mystery Writers of America Edgars Banquet is Wednesday, April 29.  That night, the winners of the Best Novel and Best First Novel awards will be announced, among others.  My former colleague Jim Klise is up for an Edgar for his YA novel, The Art of Secrets.  (Good luck, Jim!)  We’ll see if he prevails, and if my calls of Mo Hayder’s Wolf and Tim Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley are on the money.

Beat the clock: This Dark Road to Mercy & the Edgars

dark roadSuper-speedy rereading occurring here in Okemos, as I endeavor to get all the nominees reviewed and ranked before the Wednesday evening Edgar banquet.  I imagine all the authors (many crime fiction luminaries!) calming their respective tummy butterflies as the hours grow short.  Next up:  Wiley Cash‘s This Dark Road to Mercy.

Cash was unknown to me prior to this nomination.  In fact, Dark Road is just his second novel.  His debut, A Land More Kind than Home, is on my must-read-after-the-Edgars list.   An Edgar nom for Best Novel on his second outing is quite an accomplishment, and it’s well-deserved.

Here’s the set-up:  Twelve-year-old Easter Quillby and her 9-year-old sister Ruby are in a foster home following their mother’s death by overdose.  The girls have had a tough life with their troubled mom and their dad, a former pro baseball player named Wade Chesterfield, gave up his parental rights years ago.  Now Wade wants them back, and that means sneaking them out the window and taking them on the run.  And it’s not just family court that’s looking for them, it’s a hit man with a grudge against Wade that’s even more important to him than getting back the hundreds of thousands of dollars the opportunistic Wade lifted from mobbed-up criminal Tommy Broughman.

The story is told from three perspectives:  Easter, would-be hitman Robert “Bobby” Pruitt, and Brady Weller.  Weller is the girls’ guardian ad litem, a former police detective who was forced from his position when he accidentally ran over – in his own driveway – the teenage neighbor who mowed his lawn.   The multiple POV approach works well for the reader, and we quickly bond with both Easter and Brady.  It would be a stretch to say that I bonded with Pruitt, but his motivation… and the depths to which he would sink in order to harm Wade… were clear, believable, and chilling.  

While a compelling crime novel, the book is even more effective as the story of the love that binds a family together, character flaws and all.  I forecast a film treatment in Dark Road’s future.  Unfortunately for Cash, he’s up against some pretty heavy hitters in this year’s Edgar race.  Although it’s a good story, well-told, he’s outclassed by his competitors.  Hence, the eminently readable Wiley Cash takes the #5 spot.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  2. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  3. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  4. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
  5. This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash