Tag Archives: Red Sparrow

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.)



Final Edgar entry: Rage Against The Dying

rageLast up for the Edgar!  Becky Masterman‘s first novel, Rage Against The Dying, has a unique protagonist:  Brigid Quinn, an aging former FBI agent, who spent her career hunting sexual predators.   She’s strong, flawed, and merciless, pushed out of the agency after shooting an unarmed suspect – a female Clint Eastwood.   But that’s all in the past.  Brigid’s now one of those sinewy, self-possessed women who enjoys life with her new husband, a philosophy professor and former Catholic priest, Carlo.  She keeps her former self in a box, pushed down tight, certain that if Carlo knew the real her – the cunning woman, the violent woman, the woman who can be filled with rage – he’d leave her.

Of course, this uneasy peace can’t last.  And it doesn’t.  An old case comes back to life, bringing with it Brigid’s biggest failure and her biggest regret – she blames herself for the disappearance and certain death of a young FBI agent, her protégée.  Jessica’s body has been discovered, and a man has confessed to the serial killings.  He knows things only the killer should know.  It should be good news, but Brigid always looks for the dark side.

The plot escalates.  Multiple movie-worthy action sequences.  There are good guys in desperate peril, a last-minute saving of the day, and the absolute necessity of lying about the whole thing.  Because sometimes a greater truth demands an untruth.

But the jig is up, marriage-wise.  There’s no keeping Carlo in the dark after these events.  Fortunately, Carlo is an even better man than Brigid imagined him to be.

All in all, Rage Against The Dying is a thoroughly engaging thriller.  It’s up there with the best of Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay.   But how does it rank when it comes to the other four finalists?   Let’s stack it up.  The Resurrectionist and Reconstructing Amelia – no question, still at the bottom.  Ghostman is a great read, but Rage has it beat in terms of sheer pulse-pounding engagement.  Red Sparrow had the top spot, and it is a highly literate, classic spy novel.

But Rage Against The Dying turns the classic flawed-cop thriller on its ear with its female protagonist.  Put together character, plot, action, and voice, and Rage is the winner.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Rage Against The Dying by Becky Masterman
  2. Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
  3. Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
  4. Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
  5. The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Next up: Ghostman

ghost manDid you like The Lock Artist?  That Steve Hamilton stand-alone won the Edgar for Best Novel in 2011.  Not my pick that year, but a good, original book that many absolutely loved.   Roger Hobbs’ Ghostman has a similar feel.   In the Hamilton book, young main character Mike Smith is apprenticed to The Ghost, who nurtures his safecracking skills.  In Hobbs’ book, protagonist Jack is a ghost – a daring criminal who is a master of disguise, blending remorseless hard-core violence, the ability to plan for every contingency, and a talent for disappearing.  And like Mike, Jack’s in love.

Also like Mike, Jack’s got a complicated backstory.  He’s a ghost.  He lives off the grid, fake name, untraceable.   He successfully walked away from a heist gone bad, even though it meant walking away from the woman who taught him everything.  He owes Marcus big for botching the job, but his hope is to never cross paths with him again.

That hope is foiled.  Marcus contacts him and gives him just 48 hours to fix another foul-up – the robbery of an Atlantic City casino.  Only one of the robbers makes it out alive, and it’s up to Jack to figure out where the injured man took the money.  Even more important, it’s up to Jack to figure out how to get out of the situation alive – and that means he’ll need to outsmart everybody, including the super-smart lady FBI agent, various cops,  genius Marcus, and evil incarnate: the Wolf.

It’s no spoiler to say that Jack pulls it off.  Here’s what I loved about Ghostman:

  • Fabulous main character.  Not so lovable but you can’t help but like him anyway.
  • Twisty, scary plot.  And yet totally believable.
  • Amazing pacing.   I seriously read this book in a giant gulp.
  • Smart resolution.
  • The likelihood that this is the start of a series.  (Pretty please?)

So, on to the ranking.  Serious difficulties here.  Clearly Ghostman is superior to Reconstructing Amelia.  But better than Red Sparrow?   Both books are totally believable.  Both books utilize specialized knowledge (but Red Sparrow definitely has the edge here, thanks to Matthews’ CIA background).  Both books have super-evil bad guys (even-steven).  Both had great endings.   But Red Sparrow made me cry. The edge must go to Jason Matthews.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
  2. Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
  3. Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
  4. The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Reconstructing Amelia Next Entry into Edgar Race

ameliaEntertainment Weekly said “Like Gone Girl, Reconstructing Amelia should be hailed as one of the best books of the year.”    Wow.  That’s some blurb.  And Reconstructing Amelia has a great – albeit stomach churning – setup.  The phone rings, and single-mom-slash-lawyer Kate Baron learns that her teenage daughter is in trouble at school.   Things go wrong, it takes her longer than expected to get there, and by the time the subway delivers her to Grace Hall,  her daughter is dead.  They say she jumped from the roof.

And that’s how far I read the first time I started Reconstructing Amelia.  I just wasn’t up for it.  But since it’s received its Edgar nom, trying again was definitely in order.

While Kate initially accepts the verdict of suicide, but an anonymous text – Amelia didn’t jump – makes her think twice.  Sure enough, too many things don’t add up.  Who is Ben?  A new friend?  Love interest?  But Amelia’s best friend says no.  And why is Amelia getting involved with a secret club?  What’s the big attraction, and why were other club members harassing her?

Author Kimberley McCreight knows teens, and she tells Amelia’s story through Facebook, blog posts, emails, text messages, as well as carefully revealed first person accounts from Amelia herself and a limited third person POV from Kate’s perspective.  It sounds busy and confusing, but she makes it work.  The mix allows McCreight to keep suspense high and build to twisty reveal.

And that’s the rub.  The reveal is just a little too twisty, defying believability.  But what about the Gone Girl reference?  Was not Gone Girl also contrived?  Yep.  (Click here for last year’s review of the book.) But with Gillian Flynn’s popular novel, the twists were based in Nick and Amy’s actual characters, and the unreliability of Amy’s narrative was deliberate deception on her part.

In Reconstructing Amelia, everybody is keeping secrets.  Many of these are rooted in misunderstandings and miscommunications, and with some straight talk anywhere along the way, the whole plot would fall apart.   I won’t be surprised if Reconstructing Amelia wins the Edgar, because McCreight is innovative in her approach, the story is compelling and very “of the moment.”

So where goes it in the ranking?  Definitely above The Resurrectionist, but not at the top of the list.   Jason Matthew’s complex spy thriller is still #1 for me.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
  2. Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
  3. The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

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!