Idaho home to a tapestry of stories

idahoTalk about your unreliable narrator!  Wade Mitchell is rapidly losing his memory, including his recall of the hot day in August 1995 when his young wife, Jenny, murdered their 6-year-old daughter May with a backhanded blow of a hammer and 9-year-old June disappeared into the woods, never to be seen again.

Idaho is Wade’s story.  And Jenny’s.  And it belongs to May and to June.  It is also the story of Ann, who marries Wade knowing full well she will become his helpmeet and by the end of the story, is helping Jenny as well.  So many people and so much humanity, so well-presented.

Idaho is a sprawling novel, criss-crossing through time, from the early days of Wade and Jenny’s marriage and ahead to 2025, when Jenny has finally completed her sentence is emerges into a future she never thought she’d see.  The characters all have their own strengths, virtues, failures, and heartbreak.  Despite the profusion of characters, the various timelines, and the reluctant unveiling of the fateful day, Idaho’s narrative is easy to follow.  Emotionally compelling, Ruskovich reveals the bonds of love even as it revolves around the senseless tragedy.

It is hinted – but not confirmed – that Jenny’s jealousy of Wade and suspicion of his relationship with Ann, the school music teacher was the cause of her violent act.  It is also unclear where June went, or why.  At age 9, what were her options?  And yet the bloodhound found nothing.  Readers will differ on whether the lack of a clear resolution to the mysteries makes it a better book, or a worse one.  I found the book to be perfectly itself and would not have changed it.

So how does Idaho stack up to the other nominees?  It is most similar to Tornado Weather in its multitude of characters and plot threads, as well as the senseless nature of the crime.  And as much as I liked Tornado Weather, I found Idaho to be a much richer and deeper book.  And as much as I liked Idaho, it does not have the bright edge and sharply memorable characters that I found in She Rides Shotgun.  So Shotgun stays at #1 and Idaho takes the #2 spot.

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

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
  3. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
  4. Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li

Dark Chapter depicts real life

chapterIt’s been said that your first book is always an autobiography, however well-fictionalized.  For Winnie Li and Dark Chapter, that truism as literally true – both author and protagonist were raped by an Irish teenager while on a hiking vacation in Ireland.  As did Ms. Li, Dark Chapter‘s Vivian Tan dismissed her sense of unease until it was too late.  Later, both face their rapists and saw them convicted.  Vivian’s story closely parallels Li’s.  You can read more about the truth behind the fiction in this article in the Irish Times.

Grappling with a traumatic experience through writing is common enough, and to wrest a publishable book from the experience is laudable, but to achieve an Edgar nom is only slightly short of miraculous.  What takes Dark Chapter out of the “here is the horrible thing that happened” category of fictionalized memoir is Winnie Li’s decision to tell both stories:  that of the raped woman and the rapist boy.

She does so with some psychological insight and craft, alternating between Vivian’s perspective and that of the boy who rapes her.  John Michael Sweeney is a traveler, born rough and raised rougher.  He loves his ma, but the girls he kisses, fingers and forces into sex are less than people to him.  His panic following the rape, the way his friends and brother support and help him, is contrasted with his father’s expectation that he turn himself in and take responsibility for his action.  The reader has limited sympathy for Johnny, and no small measure of disgust.

Vivian Tan is a career woman in a glamorous field, with a good head on her shoulders despite some poor decision-making, and she is steadfast in her decision to hold Sweeney accountable.  She is so steadfast that the reader is distanced from the pain and trauma Vivian experiences following the assault.  The confusion regarding her background – is she a Chinese tourist?  No, American – rings true but isn’t really necessary to the plot.

As a debut novelist, Winnie Li has chosen a compelling story – her own.  But it seems to me that she has adhered too faithfully to the facts as she sees them, resulting in a plot that marches forward.  How characters are presented is particularly important in any book, but particularly so for Edgar nominees.  But there is too much good in the good Vivian and too much bad in the bad Johnny.  Neither character has much complexity.

Men come off particularly badly in Dark Chapter.  Where are the good guys?  I sincerely hope that in real life, Winnie Li has found a strong, supportive, loving man to be her partner in life.  The shallow narcissist that is protagonist Vivian’s first post-rape boyfriend is just too real to be fiction.  And Winnie – heck, every woman! – deserves better.

How does Dark Chapter stack up to the two already reviewed nominees?  For the faults noted above, it will go to the bottom of the ranking.

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

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
  3. Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li

She Rides Shotgun: a compulsive read

Nshotgunext up in the MWA Edgar Awards category of Best First Novel is Jordan Harper’s novel She Rides Shotgun.  It’s a mesmerizing, nail-biting, fast-paced and tightly plotted tale of good vs. evil with an unusual protagonist – an 11-year old, teddy-bear toting girl with ice-blue eyes and a talent for violence.

Polly McClusky’s dad, Nate McClusky, has been sentenced to death.  Not by the judicial system – although he is a felon – but by the leader of Aryan Steel, a gang of white supremacists.  It’s a particularly vicious sentence, because it dooms not only Nate, but ex-wife Avis and their daughter.  Nate comes home to warn them, but he’s too late – Avis and her new boyfriend are dead.  He scoops a wary Polly up from the sidewalk in front of her school, and they begin a deadly cat-and-mouse game with one objective:  lift the “green light” and save Polly’s life.  Tracking them both:  Detective John Park.

Nate’s initial plan is to get Polly to a relative’s home, where she’ll be safe.  On the way, he passes on the life skills taught to him by his partner in crime and dead older brother, Nick.  Skills like how to take a punch.  When to run.  How to fight dirty.  Where to stab.  How to use your skinny arms to make a grown man lose consciousness.  Most importantly, how to keep going when doing so is impossible, but the alternative is death.

It’s no surprise to learn in She Rides Shotgun that no place is safe and that friends can betray you, but also that there can be unexpected allies.  The story is primarily Polly’s, and Harper does an amazing job of letting you inside Polly’s head, to see the confusion and sadness, but also the hard core of steel and the fierce loyalty there.  Nate has been pretty much absent from Polly’s life, but is redeemed by the journey and his quest to save her, overcoming his own misjudgment through sheer will.  Det. Park is wily, but one step behind.

I think you are getting the point that She Rides Shotgun gets an enthusiastic thumbs  up from me.  How does it compare to Tornado Weather, the first book reviewed in this category?  Tornado Weather is an interesting, insightful, and thoroughly readable book.  But She Rides Shotgun is a compulsive, propulsive read, with out-there-but-believable characters that you care about.  No competition:  She Rides Shotgun takes top spot.

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

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy

Edgars again! Welcome new authors.

edgarYes, the Mystery Writers of America have announced the nominees in all categories for fiction and nonfiction Edgar (for Edgar Allan Poe) awards.  In past years, I have read, reviewed and ranked two or three categories.  This year, I’m not likely to be as ambitious thanks to a demanding work schedule.

But I have started with the debuts:  Best First Novel by an American Author.  It’s always exciting to read good new authors.  And when an exciting new author publishes more books… that’s wonderful.  I recall loving Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, which won the Edgar in 2014.  He followed up with Palace of Treason (also fabulous!) and the latest is The Kremlin’s Candidate (which I bought but can’t read until the Edgar deep dive is complete).   There’s also this.

Of this year’s nominees, the only one I had read previously is Lola, by Melissa Scrivner Love.  But I didn’t start there.


First up for me was Tornado Weather.  The mystery: where is 5-year-old Daisy Gonzalez? A bigger mystery – how can there be any secrets in this town where everybody knows everybody’s business?

Daisy is a bright, well-liked girl, wheelchair-bound, who disappears after school one blustery day, when her bus driver is overwhelmed, her teacher father is still at school, and the high school girl who was supposed to get her home simply forgot to meet her.  She’s the subject of speculation among the residents of Colliersville, Indiana.  An economically depressed small town, Colliersville and its residents are not doing all that well.  Each chapter features a different point of view, from a dead Iraq war vet to his grieving grandmother to Daisy’s father to trans teen Willa (born Wally) and the grocery store clerk who thinks he hears animals speak, and knows more than he says.

The book is entrancing, not so much for Daisy’s story, but for the characters, their hard lives, and the fact that they can still find joy and show so much love, despite their imperfections.  It is these imperfections – especially the stupid, thoughtless acts that lead to tragedy, as is the case with Daisy’s unnecessary death – that gives life such pathos.

Tornado Weather is a deep, insightful novel and one which is a pleasure to read, although that pleasure is mixed with pain.  As it is the first one up, it takes the top spot.

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

  1. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy

More new books from old friends

I’ve been reading and not blogging due to a wide variety of … reasons?  excuses?  At any rate, some of my long-time favorites have new books out.  Therefore, this set of three short reviews!

dontletgoThumbHarlen Coben’s up to 30 books, both series and standalone, and I’ve been reading him since his Myron Bolitar days.  (I like humor, and snark as well.)  Don’t Let Go features New Jersey detective Nap Dumas, whose personal life has been pretty much in a holding pattern since his senior year in high school.  That’s when his twin brother Leo and Leo’s girlfriend Diana were killed on the train tracks outside of town, and Nap’s girlfriend, Maura, disappeared from his life.  Now, Maura’s fingerprints show up at a murder scene – is she back?  And the person murdered is a cop, a high school friend.  What the heck happened?  And does it connect back to that senior-year mystery?  No surprise, it does.  What happened, why, and who was involved all becomes clear, and the “who” is a special twist.  Coben is a reliably good read and this outing lives up to that reputation.

two nightsAlso back is Kathy Reichs with Two Nights.  She writes the popular Temperance Brennan books, but this one features Sunday Night, a kick-ass but haunted investigator.  Sunnie’s been hired to find the four people who set off a bomb outside a school, killing kids and adults.  There’s also the matter of Stella, a teenager who went missing at the bomb scene.  Sunnie has reasons of her own to want to rescue Stella, and her dogged pursuit of the home-grown terrorists pays off in a surprising twist.  Reichs keeps the suspense up with a parallel plot from another perspective, a young girl caught in a web of intrigue – will she free herself and her friend?  If you like a female protagonist with an edge, you’ll like Sunnie.

murderFinally, Anne Perry is back on the mystery scene with An Echo of Murder, of her William Monk/Hester Latterly series.  This is one of the most engaging historical series out there.  There is a compelling backstory for each of these two protagonists, great character development, and an intricate whodunnit to solve.  This time around, Perry demonstrates how the fear of outsiders – in this case, Hungarian emigres in Victorian London – can lead to suspicion an violence.  There are a series of murders, and solving them is extra twisty, since Monk is convinced that there is a copycat at work.  As is often the case, the solution comes down to motive.  A very engaging read, although if you’re like me, you will be disappointed in the dramatic, but easy “out” at the end.

Three new books by old friends

The only thing more exciting than the discovery of a new author you love is the upcoming publication of new books by authors you already adore.  Some fall into the “pre-order this in hardback” category (Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, Ian Rankin, Sue Grafton, and more).

yBittersweet for me was reading Sue Grafton’s Y is for Yesterday, because Grafton has announced that she’ll be retiring upon publication of the Z book (Z is for Zero).  After 35 years and 25 Kinsey Millhone books, she’s ready to be done.  I’ve read every Kinsey book starting with A is for Alibiso slipping between the covers with her new one brought the same pleasures – familiar characters, a little spicy language and potential romance, and a  solid mystery to be solved by the PI with (now) plenty of experience.   The question – who’s blackmailing the ex-con scion of a wealthy family with a sex tape that shows him and several other teens raping a teenage girl?  Fritz McCabe is just out of jail, having done his time for killing one of his classmates, and his parents put Kinsey on the case.  As usual, the story is much more convoluted than it originally appears, and when it all unravels, the ending is a surprise, but not surprising.  Because time passes much more slowly in Kinsey’s world of Santa Teresa, California, the year is 1989.  No internet, no Google, no cell phones – but plenty of shoe leather and face-to-face interviews.  Classic.

glass housesA more thrilling read is Louise Penny’s new Chief Superintendent Gamache novel, Glass Houses.  I came to Penny midseries, but went back to begin Superintendant at the start, with Still Life.  I found it to be full of charm, heartwarming and clever, an original voice.  That has continued through the series.  With Glass Houses, as usual, Armand Gamache has a small band of ultra-loyalists to work with, including his now son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir and newly minted Inspector Isabelle Lacoste, the colorful denizens of the small village of Three Pines, and the trust of those at the highest level of the Canadian government.  There are two questions to be addressed in the book:  why is a costumed figure haunting the Three Pines village green?  And will Gamache be successful in bringing down a drug cartel that is gathering so much power, he expects it will take over the country if it is not stopped?  It is no surprise to faithful readers to learn that the answer to both questions are resolved successfully, but not without great personal cost.  As Penny has ratcheted up the stakes with each Gamache book, it has occurred to me that there can surely only be so many times that the bad guys underestimate our protagonist.  Gamache is always playing the long game against difficult odds.  That, and Penny’s willingness to harm and even kill main characters we have come to know and love, adds a nail-biting quality to the already considerable tension.

late showThird up is Michael Connelly’s The Late Show.  Unlike Grafton and Penny, Connelly is not delivering another book in an already loved series (Harry Bosch, Mickey Haller), but taking a flyer with a new lead character, LAPD detective Renee Ballard.  Brave man to take on a female protagonist, and he does an good job portraying the challenges and the characteristics of this young female.  Connelly’s given her the quirk of homelessness – she surfs and spends many nights with her dog in a tent on the beach – which I found unnecessary.  (I imagine he’ll dispense with this or use it as a pivotal plot point in a future book.)  Ballard’s working mostly on her own on the night shift (nicknamed “the late show”) as punishment for filing a sexual harassment complaint against a supervisor.  Still, she’s does her best for the many victim she meets, and works hard to shine while doing so.  It’s tough, because she’s supposed to hand off the cases she catches to the detectives who work days.  Kind of like a doctor who always does the intake, and never gets to cure anybody.  Still, she’s determined to get to the bottom of the ruthless beating of a transgender prostitute – a victim type that is often marginalized by the police – and also to figure out what really happened in a nightclub shooting.  Needless to say, she does, and it’s a pretty wild ride.  My take – definitely a hit and a series I will be sure to read.   

Edgar winner winner chicken dinner

raindogsFriends, I am heartily sorry for spending the last five months away from my book blog, but I resolve to turn over a new leaf!  Where I left you last was waiting for the outcome of the Edgar Awards banquet in New York City, after having read, reviewed and ranked finalists in three categories.  I’ll cut to the chase:  I’m batting .333 here – Edgar judges only agreed with me on the Best Original Paperback.  We both selected Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs.  His series featuring Irish police detective Sean Duffy is set in the 1980s and feels fresh and funny, but has a noir edge.

harrow.jpgFor Best First Novel, I picked Heather Young’s The Lost Girls, which is a character-driven suspense novel with two story lines (1935 and present day).  I was a fan the first time I read it, and an even bigger fan on rereading for the Edgars.  Alas, the Edgar went to Flynn Berry  for Under the Harrow, which was fifth on my ranking.  To be fair, Berry;s thriller is a great read in the Girl on the Train “genre” – unreliable female protagonist is driven around the bend but prevails.  I expect a movie any month now.

fallAnd for Best Novel, I gave the Literary Lunchbox Edgar to Lyndsey Faye’s Jane Steele.  I am not usually a fan of historical, but this one is genre-bending tribute to Jane Eyre, very well-written with plenty of action.  The actual award went to Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall.  I did enjoy Hawley’s book a great deal, which takes a pretty ordinary guy, puts him into extraordinary circumstances, and then ramps up a mystery with a big dose of conspiracy.  It’s got some plot holes that are apparent on re-reading, and my friend and writing buddy Addy Whitehouse really hated it, but I was more forgiving.  It was third on my list.

In a non-reviewed category, Best Critical/Biographical, the winner was Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson, which I read and enjoyed despite its doorstopper length.  It was also good to see Charles Todd (Charles and Caroline Todd) win the Mary Higgins Clark award for The Shattered Tree.

This is my eighth year reviewing Edgar nominees, and what I’ve found is that some years the Edgar judges agree with me (100% in 2010!) and some years they don’t (0% in 2011).  Here’s a round-up!  If you’re looking for some great reads, generally you can’t go wrong with my picks OR Mystery Writers of America’s choices, and all are now available in paperback.   Happy reading!

2010:  MWA and I agreed on John Hart’s The Last Child for Best Novel and Stefanie Pintoff’s In the Shadow of Gotham for Best First Novel.

2011:  I still think MWA was crazy, giving Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist the Best Novel award over Tana French’s Faithful Place, and Rogue Island (Bruce De Silva) instead of Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston for Best First Novel.  (Not that I don’t like Steve Hamilton.)

2012:  It was 50/50 – MWA and I both gave Mo Hayder’s Gone the Best Novel Edgar (I loooooove Mo Hayder), but Lori Roy’s Bent Road took home the actual Edgar while the Literary Lunchbox award went to Leonard Rosen’s All Cry Chaos.  (Rosen sent me a very nice note by email commenting on my review.  Swoon.)

2013:  Another 0% year.  Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night won Best Novel, while Gillian Flynn’s hugely popular Gone Girl was my pick.  Interestingly, both were made into movies featuring Ben Affleck.  Gone Girl was clearly superior, both book and film.  Meanwhile, Chris Pavoni took Best First Novel home for The Expats, while I would have given the award to Matthew Quirk’s The 500.

2014:  I was crazy this year.  Jason Matthews’ Red Sparrow won the Edgar for Best First Novel, while my pick was Becky Masterman’s Rage Against Dying.  Seriously?  What was I thinking?  William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace took home Best Novel, and I loved it, so that redeems me somewhat.  50-50.

2015:  Another 50% agreement with MWA;  Best First Novel went to Tom Bouton’s Dry Bones in the ValleyAnd it was the year that Stephen King won Best Novel for Mr. Mercedes.  It was fantastic.  But I gave the edge to Mo Hayder for Wolf.  Both fabulous writers.

2016:  As with this year, last year MWA and I were aligned 33% of the time.  We totally agreed that Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone deserved Best Paperback Original.  (I loved it so much I gave it as a gift at least three times!)  For Best Novel, Lori Roy was again an Edgar winner for Let Me Die in His Footsteps while I gave he nod to Duane Swierzynski’s Canary (both good but super-different).  And I gave the Best First Novel Edgar to Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive over the actual Edgar recipient, The Sympathizer by Viet Nanh Nguyen (my #2 pick).

So there you have it, a real round-up to make up for a lengthy absence.  Looking back, I see that I often run out of time or energy as the Edgar awards draw near and I go into hibernation mode immediately following.  I diagnose blogging burn-out!  In 2018, I’ll cut back to a single category (two at the most) and see if that helps.