Tag Archives: Lauren Wilkinson

Coming down to the wire… Miracle Creek

miracleAnd now for something completely different… Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.  This legal thriller is fourth in the race for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author.   Although the Edgars banquet has sadly been canceled for this year due to the pandemic – which makes total sense, since the banquet is in NYC – the winners will still be announced April 30.

The story hinges on the prosecution of Elizabeth Ward, the mother of an 8-year-old autistic boy, for his death and that of another child with disabilities in an explosion of a hyperbaric oxygen treatment chamber.  There’s no actual science to show that HBOT cures anything besides the decompression sickness that scuba divers get if they come up to the surface from the depths of the ocean too fast, but parents desperate for a cure will try anything, and as some might say, “what could it hurt?”  Prosecutors believe that Elizabeth, desperate to be freed from the burden of caring for her son, set a fire to ignite the oxygen flowing into the chamber.   The case is circumstantial, but believable.

Roshomon-like, the book alternates perspectives, including those of Young and Pak Yoo, the Chinese immigrants who have pinned their hopes on the “Miracle Submarine” installed on their rural Virginia property to lift their fortunes, their daughter Mary, who hopes to go to college, various parents and witnesses, and the defendant herself.  All the narrators are unreliable – telling the truth, but not all the truth.  Who really caused the explosion, and why?  You may guess, or you may not, but either way, it’s a compelling story.

The plot unfolds gradually, person by person and layer on top of layer.  Some readers may get annoyed by the leisurely pace, which undercuts the tension.   I was more dismayed by what I call an “idiot” plot – if practically anyone had not been such an idiot, there would be no mystery, and maybe not even a crime!  The good news is that everyone has a good reason for their foolish behavior.

On the plus side, the story is sound, the characterization rich, and the writing assured.  The focus on marginalized people – the Yoos as immigrants and the special needs children and their loving and anxious parents – grounds Miracle Creek in a bittersweet realism.  In comparison to the previously reviewed books, I’m going to rank it #2, between American Spy and The Secrets We Kept.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. Miracle Creek, Angie Kim
  3. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  4. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

 

Three-Fifths Up Next in Edgar Race

Three FifthsNext up:  Three-Fifths by John Vercher.   It’s working class Pittsburgh, 1995 – hardly post-racial America – and 22-year-old Bobby Saraceno has a secret: he’s passing for white.  He never met his African-American father, and Isabel, his ashamed white mom, and racist grandfather have made sure that nobody knows the truth.  Now his good friend Aaron is home from prison, and Bobby’s shocked to find that he’s become a die-hard white supremacist.  That’s pretty ironic, because in high school Aaron was the embodiment of black culture, a black-wannabe.   Reunited, the two make a stop at a convenience store and Bobby, horrified, watches Aaron attack a young black man, beating his head in with a brick.  Aaron hops in the car and at his urging, Bobby drives off.  Reader, the young man dies.

What follows is Bobby’s story of angst, coming to terms with his identity, redemption, and ultimately, Bobby’s tragedy.  It’s interspersed with Isabel’s perspective as a young woman, how she came to be involved with Robert (Bobby’s dad), and why she chose to never to tell him of her pregnancy… and her interaction with him when she decides to seek him out, in the book’s present day.  A third perspective is Robert’s, a physician, and his surprise to see Isabel again and shock to learn he has a son.

This is a lot of plot, fueled by a ton of coincidences, and with numerous misunderstandings, both past and present.  There are many “you have got to be kidding me” moments.  It’s a soap opera of a book, but with plenty of explication.   Even the title over-reaches.  (“Three-fifths” refers to the proposed tax compromise of each person counting as one person and each slave counting as 3/5 of a person.)

Mystified about why the book received an Edgar nomination, I checked the ratings on Goodreads – 4.3.  People evidently loved this book.  I continue to be mystified.  Maybe it would be a good movie.  Needless to say, Three-Fifths does not bump either of the top two, and takes the #3 spot on the Edgar ranking.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  3. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

Edgar Nom Provides More Spies!

secretsAmerican Spy was the first nominee I reviewed for the Mystery Writers of America Best First Novel by an American Author… and the second nominee has even more spies!  The Secrets We Kept is Lara Prescott’s Cold War-era tale of espionage built on the true story of the CIA’s involvement in bringing Boris Pasternak’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Dr. Zhivago, to Russia.

The book features two narratives.   One features “the typists,” the CIA’s smart, capable, and underused women who are told to turn off the brains and let the words dictated by the men of the CIA flow through their headsets, into the ears, and down into their fingers and onto the typewriter page.  Occasionally, a typist is more than a typist.  And Irina, beautiful daughter of a Russian-born seamstress, is plucked from the typing pool for special training.  Glamorous and superior, the world-traveling Sally Forrester helps Irina hone her skills, and the women become close.  Really close.

The second narrative is the story of Olga Vsevolodovna, Boris Pasternak’s mistress and the inspiration for Lara in Dr. Zhivago.  She is his muse.  She and her two children can live nearby, accepting his financial support in exchange for giving up any semblance of a normal life.  And then one day she is picked up by the authorities, jailed, starved, and tortured because of her connection to Pasternak, whom the authorities suspect of writing a subversive novel.  Pregnant, she loses the baby, and comes home years later to pick up where she left off – aged beyond her years, but still beautiful to him.

The plot threads come together as a CIA department that sows dissent among the Russian people through literature plots to secure a copy of Dr. Zhivago in the original Russian in order to distribute it, clandestinely, in Russia.  This is done.  Pasternak wins, then refuses, the Nobel Prize.  He dies.  Olga is arrested once again, as is her daughter, in an effort to force her to reveal where she has hidden Pasternak’s money.

Here’s what works:  The underlying true story is mind-boggling.  The training in spycraft is fascinating.  The love affair between Irina and Sally is lovely.  The plotting is solid and the prose is well-written.

Not as good:  The men are pretty much cardboard characters and I couldn’t even work up much enthusiasm for Pasternak, even though he looked just like a young Omar Sharif in my brain.  And if only one of the star-crossed lesbians could be honest with the other!  And, at the end of the day, while I can accept that Dr Zhivago was filled with themes that were not Soviet-approved, what was the end result of this espionage?  Going by the world today, not much.  There was a lot of talk of love in this book, but not a lot of actual heart.

So how do the two spy novels stack up?  Starting out, I believed that The Secrets We Kept would come out on top, because it was so well-researched and had such a broad scope.  Plus, seriously, the blurbs and reviews were astounding.  However, American Spy was much more compelling, the main character had a very strong voice, and the reader cared much more about the outcome.  Therefore, the ranking keeps Lauren Wilkinson’s book  in the #1 spot.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott

 

 

Edgar Noms/Best First: American Spy

spyWhile much of America is hunkering down and can’t go to work, I’m sheltering-in-place but able to work remotely.  As a result, I’ve been reading but not reviewing.  Which is a shame, because I am working my way through the books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.  And – spoiler alert – all in all, it is an amazing bunch of books.  Better, in fact, than several of those nominated for Best Novel.  What’s up with that, MWA?   I’ll be reviewing American Spy today, and all the nominees include:

  • My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing (Penguin Random House – Berkley)
  • Miracle Creek by Angie Kim (Farrar Straus and Giroux –Sarah Crichton)
  • The Good Detective by John McMahon (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott (Penguin Random House – Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Three-Fifths by John Vercher (Polis Books – Agora Books)
  • American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (Penguin Random House – Random House)

Usually I link each book nominated to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, for the convenience of those who want to order and read.  Today, I’m giving a shout-out to The Book Table in Oak Park, IL.  Please order from The Book Table!   This amazing independent bookstore will fill all orders through drop shipping and get their usual not-too-generous profit, and you will get the satisfaction of knowing you are keeping an wonderful bookstore up and running.

American Spy is a rich, complicated take on the spy thriller featuring an unusual spy.  The book opens in 1992, when sharp-eared suburban mom Marie Mitchell hears an intruder in her home.  Rather than rushing to the side of her 4-year old twin sons, she get out her gun, lies in wait, and shoots the man.   And he’s no burglar.  He’s an assassin.  Wow.

It turns out that Marie had been an FBI agent, and a good one, but stymied by the agency’s perspective on women which was, shall we say, not good.  It’s the mid-80s, and bored with infiltrating groups and running small-time informers, Marie cuts one loose, forging the required documents.  Big mistake.  She’s at loose ends and ripe for recruiting by the CIA, and the next thing we know, she’s been ordered to “get close” to Thomas Sankara, the charismatic president of the African nation, Burkina Faso.  The CIA’s plan?  To undermine his popularity by exposing his sexual indiscretion and install a puppet government more to America’s liking… or is it?  In the meanwhile, we know that boredom is just one of Marie’s motivators – her older sister Helene was also an operative, who was supposedly killed in a car wreck.  This new gig will give Marie the opportunity to get to work with Daniel Slater, Helene’s boss/boyfriend, and perhaps resolve some lingering questions.  I’ll say no more for fear of spoiler alerts, but you might not be surprised to hear that Marie is not a very loyal employee.

This is truly a masterful debut, and it’s no surprise to me that it was named one of 2019’s 10 Best Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune.  The plot is tight:  every interaction serves to drive the plot forward or reveal backstory.  Marie is a surprising spy, due not only to her gender but her race (African-American), her upbringing (her dad’s a NYC cop and her mom abandoned the family for Martinique), and her smarts (top of her class).  Marie is fierce and she is guided at first, by her own innate sense of justice, but then, as a result of her unplanned pregnancy, by the need to keep her family safe at all costs.

I understand the book is inspired by true events:  the book jacket says that Thomas Sankara was known as “Africa’s Che Guevara.”  I don’t know what led author Lauren Wilkinson to use that real life history to create the fictional Marie Mitchell and American Spy, but I applaud her.  I hope there is another book on its way; the end of American Spy seems to indicate it’s likely.  Fingers crossed.

First reviewed takes top spot!  May even keep it.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson