Tag Archives: mystery writers of america

Squeaker: Lunchbox Best Novel Edgar

It’s Wednesday, April 25, just one day before the Mystery Writers of America Edgars Banquet, at which the MWA will be announcing the names of the 2018 Edgar award recipients.  Good news!  I have completed reading the final entry in the Best Novel category, and I’m reading to make my final pick for which author should take home the Edgar.

12 LivesThe final finalist is Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, a book I had read previously and greatly enjoyed reading again.  The Samuel Hawley in question is the single father of young Loo (short for Louisa), and the small family moves from place to place.  The twelve “lives” in question are twelve scars that Hawley bears, each one the mark of a healed bullet wound and a marker of a particular time in his life, some pre-Loo, some post.  Hawley is a rough man and a criminal, but a caring one, and is deeply devoted to his daughter.

Their nomadic life comes to an end when Hawley decides to move the teenage Loo back to the town where her mother was raised and mother’s mother still lives.  With the stability also comes a blooming curiosity, and Loo begins to uncover the secrets associated with her mother’s death – in particular, her grandmother Mabel Ridge’s belief that Hawley is responsible for her daughter’s death.  And indeed he is, for although he did not kill her, it was because of him that she was killed and the murder covered up.  Loo also faces a tough time at school, and deliberately breaks the finger of Marshall Hicks, subsequently falling in love with him.

The book builds to a climax as Samuel Hawley’s youthful chickens come home to roost, when a previously vanquished foe reappears to claim vengeance, and uses a former friend of Hawley’s to do so.  Only through quick thinking and sheer guts do Loo and her father prevail.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley has a lot going for it – the characters are rich and believable, the framing device using the twelve bullets is very useful and effective in moving the plot forward through time, and there is a real sense of tragedy, in that the heroes are undone by the flaws that make them unique.  Tinti does an excellent job of building suspense.  Hawley is similar, in some ways, to the Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun, up this year for the Edgar for Best First Novel (and it ranked #1 with me)  Both feature a criminal father, an edgy, violence-prone daughter, and a dead mother.  Tinti’s book is both deeper and broader.

Compared to the other books nominated for Best Novel, Hawley is clearly near the top of the ranking.  It’s more complex than Bluebird, Bluebird.  And while I very much enjoyed Prussian Blue, I must admit that I found The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley to be much more engaging.   I simply cared more about the characters and was literally biting my nails about what would happen next.  Therefore, Tinti takes the top spot in the Literary Lunchbox ranking.

Tomorrow evening – or first thing Friday morning – we’ll see who won the real Edgars.  If all goes as typical, I’ll be right on one of my calls, and wrong on the other.  But there is always a possibility of the MWA judges showing the good judgment to agree with me 100%, or that I’ll strike out completely.   No matter, it’s the challenge and the process that makes it fun!

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

  1. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
  2. Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
  3. Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
  4. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  5. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
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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

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

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.

bestfirst2018

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

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.

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

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