Tag Archives: Jason Matthews

OMG, seriously

I am shocked, shocked, to find that it has been 10 weeks since my last blog post.  I knew it was a long time, but seriously?  Real life took precedence over literary life.

red sparrowSo let’s do a quickie catch-up.  Previously on Literary Lunchbox, I was in the midst of my reviews for the Edgar Best Novel nominees.  Not surprisingly, the Mystery Writers of America did not wait for my reviews to bestow their awards.   Nope.  Jason Matthews won Best First Novel for his amazing book, Red Sparrow.  My pick was Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterson.  Red Sparrow was #2.   In retrospect, I think MWA got it right.

ordinary-grace-200William Kent Krueger took home the Edgar for Best Novel for his luminous novel, Ordinary Grace.  When I left off reviewing, Krueger was #1 of the four I had reviewed.  I can’t give myself full marks for calling it in advance, though, because unreviewed was Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In as well as Lori Roy’s  Until She Comes Home.

untilLori Roy is a very special author.  Her prose is beautiful, her stories engaging, characters are well-developed and fully human, and her books defy categorization.   Until She Comes Home is a mystery, and much more.  Still, I believe I would have ranked it below Ordinary Grace because Krueger did a wonderful job of luring me in, engaging me emotionally throughout.  With Home, I was always a bit of an observer.

lightBut I think there is a very real danger I might have put Louise Penny‘s How the Light Gets In at the top of the Lit Lunchbox ranking.  The book features the always-compelling Inspector Gamache, and life is very bleak, with his department disbanded and his beloved Jean-Guy Beauvoir addicted to pain pills and filled with hatred for his former mentor.   An investigation in Three Pines while hostile forces gather against Gamache and threaten the country leads to the inspector’s eventual, but shocking, triumph.  Yes, I have to admit – it’s probably 50/50 whether I would have called it for Ordinary Grace or for How the Light Gets In.

So let us draw a curtain across this confusion.  All six nominees for the Best Novel Edgar are well worth reading, in my opinion.  So go for it.  Similarly, there’s a lot to like about all the Best First Novel nominees… the only one I would have reservations about is The Resurrectionist.  (So read that last.)

 

 

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Red Sparrow vs. The Resurrectionist

resurrectionistThe race to the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel is heating up – I gave a big thumbs up to former CIA agent Jason Matthew’s debut spy thriller Red Sparrow.   Reviewing, rating and ranking time is here for Matthew Guinn’s novel that blends the present and past at the South Carolina Medical College, The Resurrectionist.   In an unlikely set-up, protagonist Dr. Jacob Thacker is a physician whose addiction to Xanax has led to his probation and subsequent interim position as public relations director for the medical school dean.

Things heat up for Dr. Thacker when construction workers discover human bones buried in the basement of a campus building.  The unsavory showboat of a medical school dean is determined to cover it up, while Jacob’s ethics – such as they are – compel him to oppose the plan.  How the bodies came to the basement is a more engrossing story, revealing the venal nature of the medical school origins.  Forget the noble hall of higher learning – it was all about getting tuition dollars from as many would-be physician as they could churn through the system. And more students requires more teaching aids… specifically, human bodies for dissection to teach anatomy and for surgical training.  Enter Nemo, a slave purchased by one of the school’s founders for his skill with a knife, who develops his own surgical skills at the school by day, while stealing bodies from the cemetery at night.   While Jacob struggles in present day, Nemo has his own trials back in the day.  Through clever plotting, both Jacob and Nemo triumph against their respective tormentors.

Here’s what I liked about The Resurrectionist:

  • The historical underpinnings of the novel were interesting.
  • Both Thacker and Nemo are flawed heroes.
  • The cinematic comeuppance of the smarmy medical school dean.

Unfortunately, I never bought the set-up for Jacob’s character and the present-day story was thin – a little too Nicolas Cage in National Treasure.  And while the historical aspect was way more interesting, Nemo was just too darn scary for me to root for him.

Fortunately, it makes ranking Red Sparrow vs. The Resurrectionist easy-peasy.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
  2. The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Best First Novel Nominee: Red Sparrow

red sparrowWhat do you get when a 33-year CIA veteran with literary talent pens his debut novel?  If you’re talking  Jason Matthews, who led the Operations Directorate before his retirement, and the book Red Sparrow, what you get is a page-turner that is strong on spycraft and plot with plenty of heart.  And of course, you get an Edgar nomination.  This is an amazingly strong entry right out of the gate, and I wish the other nominees the best of luck in the quest to surpass Red Sparrow in the Lunchbox rankings.

Here’s the quickie plot synopsis:  Beautiful Russian dancer (Dominika) wants to serve her country, is sent to spy school but is mostly expected to lure diplomats into sexual scandals (or to their deaths).  She can’t get out because evil uncle is basically holding her mother hostage.  Meanwhile, clever Nate is running a high-level, high value Russian mole.  Their paths cross as each tries to “turn” the other.  It’s no surprise that Nate and Dominika are soon working together for the U.S. – and in love.   As the pulse-pounding plot unfolds, the reader’s hopes are dashed, then lifted, and then dashed again… how will it all end?  I refuse to say since I want you to go read it yourself.

Here’s what I liked about Red Sparrow:

  • No cardboard cutout characters, real people – even the smaller characters are well-drawn.
  • Wow!  Backstories for the main characters.
  • Loved the Russian turncoat, MARBLE.  What a guy.
  • Bad stuff happens, and people just have to suck it up.
  • Love story is prominent, but not overdone.
  • Pacing is awesome.
  • Engimatic ending.

Here’s what I didn’t like:  Not much.  Perhaps it’s a somewhat annoying that Dominika is soooo awesome.  But at least she limps a little bit.

mwa_logoI know Red Sparrow‘s the first one I’m reviewing, but it’s setting the bar really high.  Let’s see how the rest of the nominees stack up!