Tag Archives: ranking

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
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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

 

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

Gilly MacMillan’s What She Knew

knewThe third finalist for the MWA Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original is Gilly MacMillan’s What She Knew.  It’s a compulsive page-turner of the “oh no, what more can go wrong” variety.

The book turns on a missing boy, eight-year-old Benedict Finch, who disappears one day from an area woodland where he, his mom, and their little dog Skittle often walk.  Told primarily from the point of view of his mother, Rachel, the story is also recounted from the perspective of Jim Clemo as well as that of Jim’s psychiatrist.   Although the time frame from Ben’s disappearance to the solving of the crime is about a week, the impact of everyone’s actions – including those closest to Ben, the police investigators, even the suspects – reverberates well into the future.

MacMillan does an excellent job of doling out information a bit at a time, ratcheting up the suspense, while switching from one perspective to another (a characteristic of Lou Berney’s nominated novel, as well).   The police follow one lead after another, many of which seem promising on the surface, but fail to pan out.  The police distrust of the mother leads to some significant mis-steps, and when it comes right down to it, Rachel is the only one who figures out what happened and takes action to save her son.

Ultimately, What She Knew is a fun psychological thriller with some aspirations to significance, an easy book to gulp down.  But I found it to be overcrowded with characters, all of whom had a carefully constructed psychological backstory which was eventually recounted.  I also could have done without the talky epilogue.

In terms of ranking, Berney’s book is clearly superior.  And comparing MacMillan to McAlpine, I’ll have to give Woman with a Blue Pencil the edge for mind-bending originality. Thus What She Knew comes in third at this point.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Paperback Original

  1. The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
  2. Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine
  3. What She Knew by Gilly MacMillan

 

ps- As an MWA member, I got my invite for the Edgar Symposium and Awards Banquet… ah, if only…

Edgar Nom #3: Luckiest Girl Alive

girl aliveUh-oh, the cover says “Gillian Flynn” and it’s an “Instant New York Times Best Seller.”  It seems like ever since Gone Girl, everybody’s trying to hop onto the unreliable narrator train (including, of course, Paula Hawkins with The Girl on The Train).

So here is the actual scoop:  even if you ignore the hoopla, Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive is still a powerhouse of a first novel.  Main character Ani FaNelli is leading a charmed life.  She’s 28, lives in Manhattan, writes for a women’s magazine, wears size-zero designer clothes, and is engaged to a handsome blueblood.  And frankly, she comes across as a pretty controlling bitch.

But her backstory… ah, her backstory.  Well, first of all, Ani is not really Ani.  She TifAni.  And she grew up on the wrong side of town with a meek dad and a social climbing mom, who scraped up the money to send TifAni to private school so she could meet the right people (rich people, that is) and make a new life.  Tif would do almost anything to fit in with the cool kids.  And she did some pretty stupid stuff, up to and including partying with a bunch of boys, getting drunk, getting raped, and then backing away from prosecuting the boys… because desperate as she was, she still wanted them to like her.

Back to today:  Big rock on her finger, wedding around the corner, glamorous job, Ani’s being courted to participate in a documentary, to “tell her story.”  Wait, what story?  What is it that fiance Luke wants Ani to put behind her, that Ani is so desperate to overcome?  A Columbine-style school shooting, perpetrated by one of her closest friends.  Although she was never prosecuted, some suspected that she was involved.

Knoll alternates between Ani and TifAni, revealing more and more of her story and how out-of-control this very controlled and controlling young woman really is.  Ani has a strong voice that is uniquely hers, and we see everything through her eyes.  The ending is particularly satisfying, as Ani addresses her unresolved issues.  Much to her credit, Knoll doesn’t make it too easy on Ani.

How to compare with the other nominees, Past Crimes and Where All Light Tends to Go?  What should get the Edgar for best First Novel?  

Luckiest Girl is definitely above Past Crimes, which is likely to be the first in an entertaining and serviceable series for Glen Erik Hamilton, but feels more written-to-order than inspired.  Both Light and Luckiest Girl have unique characters with unique perspectives, so that’s a tie.Writing is good in both, and although Luckiest Girl is more accessible, Light has its reasons for not being so.  From a psychological point of view, Knoll has to address a wider variety of characters and motivation, so she has the edge there.  But ultimately, I’m making this call simply on which book I enjoyed more.  And that means Luckiest Girl Alive bounces to the top.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  2. Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
  3. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town Best Novel Nominee

coptownI grabbed another police procedural for my second book to read, review and rank for the Mystery Writers of America‘s Edgar award for Best Novel this year:  Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town.  Slaughter’s a well-established author, like Rankin, albeit a younger one.  According to her website, she writes two series, although both are set in Georgia and feature overlapping characters.  The book that’s up for an Edgar is a standalone.  And what a standalone it is.

Cop Town‘s set in 1974 Atlanta, and the protagonists are officers Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy.  For Maggie, Atlanta is truly a cop town – her brother, her uncle, in fact, most of the guys she knows and grew up with are all with the police.  And in Atlanta in 1974, the police department is about as segregated as it gets.   White rides with white, black with black, and when it comes to gender… man, no guy wants to ride with a woman.  Maggie’s got the street smarts and the experience (mostly from her time with Gail Patterson, an experienced detective, who’s both profane and surprisingly tender).  But at home, she’s chopped liver.  Her mother dotes on her brother Jimmy while Maggie does everybody’s ironing and takes the back of her uncle Terry’s hand – and worse – whenever he’s angry with her.

Enter Kate Murphy, her first day on the force.  Kate’s blonde, beautiful, rich, Jewish and a widow.  There’s no hiding the first two attributes, but she keeps the final three well-buried.  She’s also smart, determined, and willing to learn.

The world they’re living in:  Somebody’s shooting cops, execution-style... and not from a distance.  Somehow they’re getting up close and personal, getting the victim to call in for a break, unplug his radio, kneel on the ground and take a bullet to the brain.  Only the most recent victim is a little different:  It was Jimmy Lawson’s partner who was killed while Jimmy watched, horrified, just a few yards away.  And Maggie and Kate are determined to find the killer.  

The job’s a tough one, because they not only have to piece together the clues, but they have to do so by crossing the color line (the barriers they have to overcome just to get to talk to a black pimp!) while all the male cops either shut them out or harass them.  It takes them just four action-packed days.

Needless to say, Cop Town‘s an out-and-out fantastic crime thriller.  The pacing, the police work, the dialogue, plus the occasional sneak peek into the killer’s POV, keeps it moving right along.  It’s a gritty book, too.  The violence isn’t gratuitous, but Slaughter doesn’t shy away.  Add in great, three-dimensional characters and even some character development – you know I’m going to love that.  Then, throw in the fact that I was 19 in 1974… man, I can relate to Maggie and Kate.  We were all trying to convince ourselves that we could do anything we wanted to do.

Still, how does Cop Town stack up against Saints of the Shadow Bible?  That’s a tough one.  Saints is a superior Rebus novel, and I love Rebus.  In Goodreads parlance, Saints is a five-star book for me, and so is Cop Town.  But I’m going to have to give Cop Town the edge for originality.   Slaughter’s told a tough story from a unique perspective and done it exceedingly well.

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

  1. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  2. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

Rankin’s Ranking for Standing in Another Man’s Grave

best5The third nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best Novel is, like Thomas H. Cook, no newcomer to the awards scene.   1998 brought a nomination of Black and Blue, an Inspector Rebus novel (didn’t win), but Rebus  brought home the Edgar for him in 2004 for Resurrection Men.   Now author Ian Rankin up again, this time for Standing in Another Man’s Grave.

I’ve been a Rebus fan since I discovered him in the early books, when he was a mid-career detective with a young daughter and an estranged wife, smoking too much, drinking too much, and spending way too much time on the job.  It’s 25 years later, and Rebus is retired but can’t leave the life behind – still working on the job, now as a civilian.  As always, Rebus does things his own way… as always, he wreaks havoc for himself and others…. and, as always, he gets results.

I reviewed the book when it first came out, you can read that review here.  Big thumbs up from me then.  On re-reading for the Edgars, my experience was just as positive, and I had the chance to revisit some of the reasons why.

The book’s plot is satisfyingly twisty, with a resolution most readers won’t see coming.   In addition to the suspense generated by the mystery itself, there is plenty of character-driven tension as well, as Rebus walks too close to the line for Internal Affairs officer Malcolm Fox.  Introduced as the protagonist in Rankin’s The Complaints, Fox couldn’t be more opposite to – or more suspicious of – John Rebus.  Fox is out to prove Rebus is dirty, but he’s got a softer spot for Rebus’ old pal Siobhan Clarke.  Both men hope that her relationship with Rebus won’t derail her successful career.    Plus, there’s an interesting side plot focusing on Rebus’ nemesis/frenemy, Big Ger Cafferty.   Cafferty may be sidelined, but he’s still active behind the scenes and it’s fun to see him out-maneuvered for once.

It’s a solid book in the series and ranks, in my eyes, about as high as Edgar-winning Resurrection Men.   Comparing Standing to Sandrine is challenging, as they are so different in type.  In many ways, Cook is attempting a deeper, more nuanced novel, but he doesn’t completely pull it off.  Standing in Another Man’s Grave is a classic police procedural, perfectly presented.  Therefore, Rankin ranks higher.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings: Best Novel

  1. Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin
  2. Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook
  3. The Humans by Matt Haig