Tag Archives: Edgar

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


  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

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

Final finalist Before the Fall

fallWe’re getting down to the wire – the MWA Edgar Awards banquet is just four days away in NYC and I am posting my final review in the read, review, and ranking for the Best Novel category.  I previously completed the Best Paperback Original and Best First Novel by an American Author categories.  The nominee:  Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall.  This is his first Edgar nom.

You might know Hawley as a novelist, or you might know him as a screenwriter and producer (Fargo, Legion, others).  He’s won Emmys, Golden Globes and Peabody awards. I read one of his previous books – A Conspiracy of Tall Men – and found it entertaining.  It is similar to Before the Fall in that it takes a pretty ordinary guy, puts him into extraordinary circumstances, and then ramps up a mystery with a big dose of conspiracy.  The books (at least the two I’ve read) are very cinematic.

In Before the Fall, nice guy and artist Scott Burroughs accepts an offer of a lift on a private plane from Maggie Bateman, a casual friend, the young wife of the head of a television news network, David Bateman.  Also on the plane are Rachel and JJ, the couple’s young daughter and son; their security chief, Gil Baruch; Ben and Sarah Kipling, a Wall Street hedge fund manager about to be indicted for money laundering and his wife.  There is also the three-person crew: beautiful flight attendant Emma Lightner, pilot James Melody who is having some medical issues, and hard-partying co-pilot Charlie Busch.  Just 18 minutes into the flight from Martha’s Vineyard to NYC, the plane crashes into the ocean.   Scott comes up into a hellish view, as the plane fuel is on fire, and he soon encounters the only other survivor –  four year old JJ.   Scott swims ten miles with an injured arm, carrying the child.

The book alternates between what happens to Scott and JJ, as time moves forward, and the individual backstories of the plane’s passengers and crew.   As the authorities search for the wreckage, theories as to the cause of the crash abound.  Newsman Bill Cunningham (my mind’s eye pictured Bill O’Reilly) had been about to be fired from Bateman’s network, but instead he makes ratings soar with speculation about the cause of the crash, anchoring a lot of his wild ramblings to Scott Burroughs.  The depths of his amoral self-interest… well, let’s just say the depths or so deep we’re not sure there’s a bottom.  Scott and the boy have forged a bond that is unquestionable, but of course it is questioned, and JJ’s loving Aunt Eleanor is married to a man best described as “loser scumbag” (expect attraction to hero Scott and you will be right on).

I liked Before the Fall when I read it the first time, carried along on the tide of the plot, the sneak peeks into the characters’ backstories, and the insights Hawley provides along the way before revealing the reason for the crash.  Rereading more critically for the Edgar ranking, I still see the good.  Some of the backstories, in particular, are like short stories in themselves (pilot James Melody and his mom, for example).

But I see the book’s flaws more clearly this time around.  The good guys are uber-good.  The bad guys are uber-bad.  Coincidence abounds:  Scott almost misses the plane, but doesn’t.  His big new idea for his paintings is a series of hyper-realistic depictions of tragedies, including a plane crash.  He is capable of the huge, heroic swim because as a child he had seen and been inspired by a feat of swimming derring-do by the famous Jack LaLanne, so he devoted himself to the sport.  The pilot leaves the cockpit because he has a bloody nose, something he’d been delaying seeing a doctor for, leaving the way clear for a homocidal/suicidal act that dooms them all.  And the climax – where Scott is live on-camera with Bill Cunningham when the newsman plays a tape that reveals he had been bugging victim’s phones to dig up dirt and Scott is able to reveal exactly what the FBI found out – is completely over the top.

And yet, I still like the book.  My friend and writing colleague Addy Whitehouse is also rating these nominees, and she gave Before the Fall a 1.  And that’s not #1, it’s the best, it’s 1 on a 10-point scale, with 10 as high.  You can read her review hereshe really hated the head-hopping and varying POVs.  She noted the cinematic approach, and not in admiration.  On the there hand, we were in total agreement on Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where it Hurts.  All of which proves why there are so many books published each year – opinions differ!

Where does Before the Fall go on the ranking?  Definitely not above mid-packWhere it Hurts and Jane Steele are clearly superior.  And I can’t get around The Ex’s OMG twister of an ending (seriously?).  So that leaves Noah Hawley at #3.  If the MWA judges agree with me, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele will take home the Edgar.

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

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
  4. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  5. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin

What Remains of Me? Not sure.

remainsWhat Remains of Me, Alison Gaylin’s novel of psychological suspense that has been nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, is the latest in a number of books I’ve read where my first thought on finishing is “Why this title?”  It’s not written in the first person, so who is me?  The main character is Kelly Lund, and while she has a tough life and scary stuff happens to her, she is uniquely and wholly herself all the way through the entire book.  No remains.  Perhaps I am not deep enough. (I often think this.)

A better title for the book would have been, “Who Are You, Really?”   The characters’ motivations drive the plot, which is thoroughly twisty, sometimes scary, and occasionally sad.  And these motivations, which are revealed at various intervals throughout the book, often rely on ignorance of the real relationships between the characters, their well-kept secrets, and a certain degree of willful blindness.

But perhaps I’m confusing you.  Here’s the scoop:  In 1980, Kelly Lund was arrested as a teenager for murdering her friend Vince’s father, famous director John McFadden.  She admitted it, she shot him, she did the time, although she never said why.  Now it’s 2010, Kelly’s an adult in her late 40s, and married for the past 15 years to Shane Marshall, the younger brother of her former best friend, Bellamy, and the son of film director Sterling Marshall, McFadden’s best friend. They don’t have sex, though, and Shane doesn’t really know why and we’re not sure about Kelly.  Maybe it’s because she’s fooling around with a hot neighbor who makes giant sculptures out of wood, who reminds her strongly of the boy she loved back in the day?  Or maybe it’s even him?

But then Sterling Marshall dies.  Just like John McFadden did – two in the head and one in the heart.  Suspicion falls on Kelly, and it seems like she probably did it, because she came home from a middle-of-the-night drive and put bloody clothes into the washing machine.

The book shifts back and forth between 1980 and 2010.  In 1980, Kelly has a controlling and hardworking mother, a dead twin sister, and a stuntman father she doesn’t see much.  (The dad is heartbreaking, he’s such a good but ruined man.)  She also has new, privileged Hollywood friends who introduce her to alcohol, drugs, sex, and general making a mess of her life.

In 2010, Kelly is under suspicion for Sterling’s death, Bellamy hates her and always has, despite having made it as an artist by exploiting Kelly, Shane still loves her but is confused, and her mother-in-law should be awful, but is actually kind of nice when she isn’t high.

By the end of the unfolding of the intertwined tales, the reader knows


that Kelly and Shane are half-siblings, that Kelly didn’t kill Sterling but she did kill McFadden, that Bellamy might adore her father, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t kill him to keep him from leaving any part of his estate to his other daughter, Kelly, that Kelly’s mom has been living in a commune for decades with Kelly’s cowardly friend Vince, that the guy she is in love with and imagined was Vince is actually the boy who sat behind her in homeroom and threw spitballs her way to torment her.

Does it all hang together?  Absolutely.   Does Gaylin keep those pages turning?  No doubt. Is it all a glorious soap opera?  Yes, and if it were a movie, half the people in the theater would be asking the friend next to them to explain it to them.   My problem is that the ludicrous plot would come undone if almost anyone would ask a question or tell the truth.    

What Remains of Me is like Pringle’s.  Not really potato chips, but you keep munching away anyway, feeling slightly sick but unable to stop yourself.  Gaylin is a best-selling author and her debut novel, Hide Your Eyes, got an Edgar nom in 2006.  Her Stay With Me was nominated for Best Paperback Original in 2015.  So I am just going to chalk this up to differing tastes, while putting the book firmly at the bottom of the ranking.

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

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  4. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin

I’m in trouble with Jane Steele

steeleLyndsay Faye’s novel Jane Steele is a genre-bending page-turner that’s winning accolades from critics and on Amazon.  This is Faye’s second turn at bat for the Best Novel award (her first being The Gods of Gotham, also a historical mystery).   Still, she lost out that year to Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night, another historical.

Thus the question  – could an homage to classic novel Jane Eyre win a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel?  – seems to be answered in a strong affirmative.

Cosmo’s blurb on the cover says the novel is a mash-up of Jane Eyre and tortured serial killer Dexter.  This is certainly true from Jane’s perspective.  She sees a parallel between herself and Bronte’s heroine – both had difficult upbringings, were orphaned, and became governesses.  But Jane Steele is made of sterner stuff than Bronte’s Jane, taking things into her own hands when she faces injustice.  With her first murder – a strong push that results in the death of her cousin, who had been tormenting her – she sees herself as morally corrupt and irredeemable, unworthy of the happiness she seeks.  Although she has always been told that Highgate House will be hers one day, she agrees to be cast off after her mother’s death, attending a sadist-run school, where she manages to make friends.  Her second murder occurs here, and she and her young friend are soon on the run, making ends meet as best they can, and encountering the occasion for murders #3 and #4.  (Rest assured the deceased deserved their fates.)

Separating from her friend, she finds the opportunity to return to her childhood home under a false name (Jane Stone) as the governess for Sahjara, a young girl of Caucasian-Indian heritage.  It is here that Jane falls in love, as did the other Jane, with the lord of the manor (Mr. Thornfield).  Only instead of a secret wife in the attic, Thornfield is a physician with a secret morgue in the basement.  Sahjara is the orphaned daughter of the love of Thornfield’s life who happens to be his best friend’s sister, by a ne’er-do-well Englishman.  Thornfield is paying a deep, self-imposed penance for his misplaced guilt in failing to keep Sahjara’s mother safe.

There are mysteries aplenty at Highgate House, where they are assailed by villains at every turn seeking Sahjara’s mother’s jewels (thus murder #5)..  As far as Thornfield and his friend Sardar Singh know, those jewels are long gone, so their options for a peaceful life are limited.  Add in the tortured love story – Jane and Charles are in love, but will never be together due to his penitent vow – and Jane is left with naught to do but get to the bottom of the mystery, find the jewels, and vanquish the bad guys.  Which she does, in a thorough manner, with some unlikely allies.   And I did not for a moment see the underlying betrayal until it was revealed by the author.  Good going, Lyndsay Faye.

The book has it all – suspense, intrigue, romance, a compellingly likable heroine, and a twist of snark.  Jane Steele is just the kind of book that I might not read, but that would have been a mistake.  I’m in real trouble here – it’s tough to compare Jane Steele to Reed Farrell Coleman’s Where It Hurts, which I loved, because they are so different in type.  However, I’ve got to say that Lyndsey Faye set herself a tougher job, and accomplished it quite thoroughly.  Her book is a singular experience.  As a result, Jane Steele is taking the top spot in the LL Edgar ranking for Best Novel.

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

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. The Ex by Alafair Burke


Coming down to the wire with Best Novel

best novel

Thank heavens there are only five books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel – time is running out with the Awards banquet less then a month away, on April 27.   You see all the nominees pictured – out of them, I have only previously read Before the Fall.  My memory was that it was excellent.  But let’s see how the others fare!

I’m starting out with The Ex, by Alafair Burke.  It’s her first Edgar nomination, although her father, James Lee Burke has won the Best Novel Award three times (1990, 1998, and 2003) and was honored with the Grand Master Award in 2009.  His daughter tends to write suspense, but this outing is pretty much a legal thriller (with strong suspense overtones, of course).

Criminal defense attorney Olivia Randall is surprised when she gets a phone call from a teenage girl, asking Olivia to help her father.  Her dad?  Jackson Harris Olivia’s former fiancé, whom she treated absolutely horribly by sleeping around in a semi-conscious effort to get him to break up with her, finally taking it to “unforgivable” territory by sleeping with his brother, Owen.   It all gets even worse when over-tired and over-served Owen gets into a car wreck and is killed.  That very night.  After talking and drinking into the wee hours with Jack.  Which causes Jack to have a nervous breakdown, for which he spends a year in a mental hospital.  Awkward.  She hasn’t seen him since.

Still, 16-year-old Buckley Harris is calling Olivia and asking her for help.  And Olivia knows that Buckley only has her dad, because her mother – the saintly substitute teacher Molly Harris – had been murdered in a shooting spree by a troubled teenage boy whose father had denied his issues and done a lot of father-son bonding with guns.  So down she goes to the police station, where she finds out that her ex is under suspicion for shooting that horrible father.  Jack had means (they think), motive (definitely), and opportunity (absolutely, he was in the area when the shooting happened).  It can’t be true, Olivia thinks.  She knows him, too sensitive for his own good.  Plus he tells a story that she thinks can be verified – he was meeting a sort-of blind date for a picnic.

But it turns out Jack’s story is pretty unbelievable.  Then the blind date turns out to be an escort that somebody hired to lure Jack, and Olivia’s thoughts turn to “who would try to frame Jack?”  There is one twist after another, and the reader lurches violently from “Jack is innocent!”  to “Jack did it!”  And I’d be okay with all this – the characters are pretty interesting, the pace is powerful with each new piece of info propelling the reader forward – except that around page 167, I realized who did it.  And on page 277, Burke revealed it… and it’s not Jack.  But he pleads guilty anyway to cover up for the real killer (bet you’ve got it figured out, too).

The epilogue is four years later, and the reader learns that Olivia visits Jack once a year on the anniversary of his guilty plea, to see if she can convince him to work with her to get his guilty plea set aside.  And every year, he says no.

magic 8Would I read more Alafair Burke?  Absolutely.  Is The Ex going to take the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best Novel?  As the Magic 8 ball says, “Outlook not so good.”  Still, first reviewed so it gets top spot for now!


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

  1.  The Ex by Alafair Burke