Tag Archives: Best First Novel

Final Edgar Nominee: Lola

LolaWho will take the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author?  We’ve had some very interesting books nominated this year, and the final nominee is very worthy:  Lola, by Melissa Scrivner Love.

This may be Love’s first published novel, but she’s been around the block a time or two when it comes to fiction.  She’s an Edgar-award nominated screenwriter who has written for TV (cop shows!), and she comes by her interest in crime fiction honestly, as she is the daughter of a police officer father and court stenographer mother.

The book is definitely cinematic – I could see it as a TV series, easily.  A crime thriller, it is obviously the first in a series.  The protagonist is Lola Vazquez, a young woman who grew up rough and hungry in South LA, pimped out as a young girl by her junkie mother, fiercely protective of her younger brother Hector, and live-in girlfriend of Garcia, the leader of a small gang, the Crenshaw Six.  She mixes with the neighborhood women, jokes about her bad cooking and insists upon a clean kitchen,  but what they don’t know is that Lola’s the true leader of the Crenshaw Six.  She’s got the brains and the grit to do what needs to be done – even if it’s killing a fellow gang member or sawing through her own brother’s trigger finger to punish him for misbehavior.

When the Crenshaw Six gets its big break – a gang high up in the hierarchy of gangs gives them the opportunity to rip off an upcoming drug deal in exchange for control of more territory – it comes with a price.  Do it and be rewarded.  Fail, and Lola, who is considered to be Garcia’s property, will be killed.   It should be no surprise that things do not go smoothly, there are multiple double-crosses, and Lola’s beloved Hector screws up, big time.

As Lola and the guys work to find the drugs and the money, the plot takes some labyrinthine turns.  New characters are introduced, including an up-from-the-projects drug lord who loves his mama and thinks that kidnapping Lola’s is going to motivate her to do his bidding; a rival dealer with a love of sushi who is the first kingpin to learn that Lola’s not the girlfriend, she’s the boss (but he has her beaten to a pulp anyway,  with some regret); and a married, WASPy, Starbucks-loving, Snugli-toting couple that import drugs through their beauty supply company.  There’s almost too many twists and turns, but Love keeps it all straight, keeping the plot moving while the clock is ticking to one horrific deadline after another.

At the end of the day, the body count is high, but Lola has a new partnership and has earned the allegiance of some former foes.  In the #metoo era, it’s definitely empowering to see a female protagonist who not only fights back, but takes the offensive.  (I had the same feeling during Wonder Woman – everybody discounts her, but she prevails!)

Lola is terrifically well-presented and other characters are well-written and generally three-dimensional.  The dialogue crackles, pacing is excellent, and the plot is satisfying.  I’d like to read the next one and definitely want to see it on the screen (hope that Netflix and Amazon are checking it out!).

It’s a tough call about where to put Lola on the Lit Lunchbox ranking.  With all it has going for it, Lola‘s definitely in the running for the top spot.  Ultimately, the comparison between Lola and She Rides Shotgun simply comes down to emotional impact.  Lola has shocks and thrills.  She Rides Shotgun has heart.  My call?  She Rides Shotgun keeps the top spot.  We’ll see come April 26 whether the MWA agrees with me!

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

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

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.

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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

Lost Girls Last Up, Takes LL Edgar

lostYep, I called it.  I read and reviewed Heather Young’s The Lost Girls when it come out last year, and prophesied that it would receive an Edgar nom for Best First Novel.  And indeed it did.

When I reread a book for the Edgars, it’s a different kind of reading.  It’s not just getting swept along by the story and connecting with the characters, I read for craft… how does the author put the story together, show the characters, manage the pace, reveal the secrets while maintaining the suspense?  And the ending – is it satisfying, or does it just stop?  (Or is it a set-up for the next book?  Augh.)  When it comes to these factors, Heather Young has done a fantastic job.  

The Lost Girls is two stories, one in the past and one in the present, intertwined, and connected through a single family.

It all begins in 1935 at the summer house of a seemingly happy and well-to-do family.  The father owns a pharmacy and is very religious.  There are three girls. Lilith, the wild one, is 13. Lucy, the quiet middle sister, is two years younger. And the baby of the family, the cosseted Emily who rarely leaves her mother’s side, is six.  And then one day, Emily vanishes. No trace of her is ever found, and the father kills himself just a few months later.  Lilith, Lucy, and Eleanor, their mother, live together, year-round, in the house by the lake.  There are lifelong secrets kept, not to be revealed until Lucy, nearing the end of her life, decides to recount the story of that summer and the years since then in a notebook she leaves for her grand-niece, Justine, whom she hasn’t seen in over 20 years.

Meanwhile, in the present.  Justine is gobsmacked to hear from a lawyer that her great aunt Lucy has died and she is her heir.  There is a house and money, but more than that – it’s the chance for a new beginning.  Justine had a bad marriage and is making a worse mistake with her controlling, live-in boyfriend, Patrick.  So she packs their bags, loads the girls in the car, and leaves her apartment key and a note that tells Patrick that there is spaghetti in the refrigerator, and takes her last bit of cash and drives cross-country.  No credit cards, no cell phone – she simply does not want to be found.

A lot happens on the four-day trip and once gets there, she finds that the house is not in good shape, it’s scary cold, and Melanie, her older daughter, is sullen and resentful. And always there is the specter of Patrick.  Justine works hard to make a life for herself and her girls, and slowly she is succeeding.  She discovers the handwritten books that Lucy penned about her little sister Emily.  Among them is Lucy’s story for Justine, although she doesn’t find it – Melanie does.   They settle in and just when things seem to be going well, Patrick arrives, and with him, Justine’s crushing fear that she will give in and give up.

Rereading  makes it clear that Heather Young is a skillful first-time author.  Each story carries its own weight.  Justine’s love for her daughters, her insight into her own weakness, her awakening courage and the strength to stand up to the manipulative Patrick – even when he goes so far as to set their house on fire so he can become, once again, Justine’s “savior,” is painfully true.  Her small triumph is deeply personal and fulfilling.

And Lucy tells a story of her own awakening to the hidden depths and twisted relationships in her own family.  Over that one summer, she comes to realize what all in her family know but don’t say – that her father is sexually obsessed with Lilith’s purity, and that once she is sullied, he will move on to Lucy.  And then to Emily.  And it is his obsession, and how it affects all three girls and their mother that summer, that results in Emily’s death, his death, and a drastically diminished life for the women.  As she nears the end of her life, Lucy regrets her own part in the story and the choices she made.  Young makes Lucy’s story – told in her own voice – compelling and real, and by recounting it chronologically, keeps us in suspense.

it’s clear that The Lost Girls deserves a spot at the top of the Literary Lunchbox Edgar rankings.   Well-plotted, psychologically complex, optimistic and humane, it is a level above the other  nominees, although they are all deserving of the nomination!

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

  1. The Lost Girls by Heather Young
  2. IQ by Joe Ide
  3. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  4. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  5. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
  6. Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

Dancing with the Tiger Edgar nominee

dancingThe fifth nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel continues the trend I noted in my most recent review – that is, the trend toward diversity in the genre.  Lili Wright’s book Dancing With the Tiger straddles a variety of sub-genres.  Think of it as the literary Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the plucky antiquities collector’s daughter Anna Ramsey in the Indiana Jones role.  Here’s the set-up:  Daniel and Anna Ramsey collaborated on a book about Mexican masks, only to find that the Ramsey collection featured several forgeries.  There goes the plan to sell the collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art!  Now Anna has the opportunity to go to Mexico and bring back the death mask of Montezuma, restoring their reputation and squashing the egos of their collector rivals, Mexican crime kingpin Reyes and American ex-patriat Thomas Malone.

Of course Anna’s quest is difficult.  There is every possibility that she will spend her last dollar on another forgery.  Or have her money stolen.  Or have the mask be real, and the buy proceed smoothly, but then the mask is stolen.   That last one is sort-of what actually happens, and Anna spends the rest of the book trying to recover it, with increasing desperation and a resultant willingness to confront danger.  The “tiger” of the title is just one such hazard – a hit man who wears a tiger mask when fulfilling his assignments.

The book is told through a series of interweaving chapters with interweaving points of view, including the looter (the meth addict from Colorado who first digs up the mask), the collector (Anna’s pathetic father), the gardener (Thomas Malone’s employee who is more than a gardener and is in love with a young woman who sells stationery), the housekeeper (the gardener’s wife, who takes an unexpected heroic turn), and others.  And Anna, of course.

The plot may meander a bit, but it gets there, and Wright has a beautiful way with language, lyrical and philosophical.  There are multiple subplots that are interesting in themselves, and enrich the book.  Anna’s story includes masquerading as a fact-checker and getting a job with Malone in order to get access to the mysterious shed where he keeps all his acquisitions – and then getting a huge surprise when she finds out that one of these acquisitions was the woman who preceded her as Malone’s assistant.  I saw that one coming.

At the end of the book, many things have changed, and the mystery of Montezuma’s death mask is known only to the reader.  I enjoyed Dancing With the Tiger and would recommend it.  Wright’s approach to the story – with a myriad of characters, points of view and subplots – worked for me, but it does slow it down.  In another writer’s hands, I could see this as a swashbuckling thriller, bloody and with more urgent pacing.  This is a better book.

Again, tough to decide where to place Dancing with the Tiger in the Lunchbox ranking.  It is extremely well-written and has a literary feel, like Dodgers.  It’s got murder and mayhem… but then, they all do.  At the end of the day, I just was not as engaged by this book as I was with the nominees.  So while Tiger gets a thumbs up, it goes to the bottom of the list.

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  3. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  4. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
  5. Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

Nick Petrie’s Drifter – Reacher-esque?

drifter“Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Petrie’s Peter Ash is the real deal.”   That’s the blurb from Lee Child on Nick Petrie’s debut mystery, The Drifter.  I try not to go into a book with preconceived notions, but once read, that blurb tends to influence your perceptions.  And Ash does have his similarities to Reacher.  Like Reacher, Ash has served in the military, is on the road and has few ties.  He’s also single-minded and a handy guy to have on your side in a fight.   They both have a strong sense of loyalty and their own definitions of right and wrong. And I’m a big Reacher fan, so this is setting the bar high.

The Drifter starts with a prologue – who is this man in the black canvas chore coat driving around in a pick-up truck with false id, buying fertilizer?  We don’t know, but by the end of the book, we get to know this guy, his profession and his unusual code of honor that results in his partnering with Ash to foil a terrorist plot  at the last minute.   So, while I usually an not a prologue fan, I give this one a thumbs up because it builds suspense and is integral to the plot.

In the meantime, Ash is on his belly, crawling in the dirt under Dinah Johnson’s porch and trying to figure out a way to overpower a 140-lb. pitbull mix that’s dead-set against coming out, without getting maimed.  His solution is clever and humane, and once he’s subdued the dog and tied it to a tree, his next action is to give it water from his own water bottle.  “Dog’s thirsty,” he explains to Charlie Johnson, Dinah’s son.

And thus, in the first chapter, we know a lot about Peter Ash.  We also know a lot about Nick Petrie – he knows how to set the stage, reveal character, and build suspense.  Over the subsequent chapters, we find out why Ash is there – to atone for not being there for his Marine buddy, Sgt. Jimmy Johnson, who committed suicide the month before, leaving behind a widow (ER nurse Dinah) and two boys (Charlie and Miles).  His pretext – doing “what needs to be done” as part of a VA program, which results in his offer to rebuild the Washington’s falling down porch.  His baggage – he is suffering from PTSD and can only stand to be indoors for short periods of time.

Of course, the straightforward narrative becomes  complicated almost immediately, when Ash discovers the dog was guarding a suitcase containing $400,000 and four packs  of C4 explosive under that porch.  A hard-looking case with a gun and a black SUV is lurking about.  And Dinah turns out to have resources of her own, in the form of a long-time tie to a smooth, smart and strong local crime lord named Lewis.

Ash’s unraveling the connections that lead to a hedge fund and its Machiavellian owner is a complex but gripping process.  The plot?  To blow up a bank, throw the markets into unrest, and make a fortune. Along the way, Ash discovers the truth about his friend Jimmy, builds a strong bond with Jimmy’s dog Mingus, and learns how good people can be twisted to do bad things.  In the end, good guys turn out to be bad guys, bad guys turn good, and the day is saved following a super-scary chase scene.

The Drifter is a classic thriller, and Petrie worked hard to lift it a bit above through character complexity.  He has varying success with that – the emphasis on the psychic impact of combat can be seen as exploitative, and the upright nurse, crime lord with a sensitive side, callous hedge fund owner, and crooked cop are pretty formulaic.  But it all hangs together quite well and the Ash character is compelling, so all told, it’s a very strong debut and I look forward to more from Petrie.

It’s a tough call where to place it on the rankings.  Each of the four books are so different, with Under the Harrow falling in suspense, Dodgers in literary, IQ detective and Drifter thriller.  After careful consideration, I’m going to place it #2.  As a sheer page-turner, it’s a good one, but not quite up to IQ.  But I have to say, I’d recommend all four of these books – this is a great crop of debut novels and I’m eager to see how the last two stack up!

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  3. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  4. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Next Up: Joe Ide’s IQ

IQSo, what are the odds?  Like Dodgers, the third book nominated  for the MWA Edgar for Best First Novel has an inner city, drug dealing-slash-thieving setting.  It also is a coming-of-age story, as a young man grows into adulthood.  But IQ, Joe Ide’s debut novel, is also funny and jam-packed with a cast of characters that is made for the big screen.  It’s a trip in itself, but it also calls out for a sequel.  Good news – Entertainment Weekly says Ide now has a four-book deal!

Here’s the deal:  teenage Isaiah Quintabe lives with his older brother Marcus.  Marcus is smart, focused, gives good advice, and can build anything, repair anything, in fact, do just about anything with his hands.  Marcus clearly could have done more with his life, but he’s found his groove, just raising his brother to be a good man, to go to college, to have a future.  And it’s working out great, because Isaiah is smart, thoughtful and an all-around good kid.  And did I mention he was seriously smart?  And so all is well until one day, when Isaiah and Marcus are just walking down the street, a car speeds around the corner and Marcus flies into the air.  And just like that, Isaiah is left alone.

Of course, he falls apart. And he also beats himself up.  Because he was right there, and saw nothing.  Whoever killed Marcus is going to get away with it.  So he starts to dig.  And as he gets a clue, and spends hours, each day, just sitting and looking for a particular car.  And he uses that time to train his observation skills.

Flash forward eight years and Isaiah’s still in the neighborhood, but now in demand as a detective and all-around problem-solver.  Juanell Dodson, roommate, former classmate, and all around smartass with pretentions, has hooked him up with Calvin Wright, a rapper and potential murder victim.   Between Cal and Dodson, there is plenty of outsize ego and crazy behavior to go around, especially since Cal is having a bit of a crisis.  It’s like writer’s block for rappers, and he can’t cure it with pills, booze, or food.   Isaiah’s job is to keep Cal alive while he figures out who’s behind the plot.  Cui bono?  Good question.

This is an amazing debut novel, and Isaiah is a character that demands serialization.   In fact, pluck almost any of this rich and funny novel’s characters  out for scrutiny:  they hold up.  The self-absorbed Deronda, who believes she deserves stardom because of the size of her booty.  Magnus Westerveld, who created a new self in Skip Hanson, and bred a pit bull the size of a Volkswagen.  Dodson, partner and devil.  Flaco, Isaiah’s penance in human form, and so much more.

However, characters alone do not make a great detective novel.  For that, you need plot.  And there is plot in abundance.  Inventive, believable, and hair-raising plot; Ide weaves present day and past, accommodating various sub-plots that add complexity and hilarity to great effect.  And the end – when Isaiah finds the car that killed his brother? – great set-up for book #2.

Dodgers was heart-tugging and well-worth reading.  IQ is that and more.  It takes the top spot in the LL Edgar ranking.

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  3. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry