Tag Archives: Shovel Ready

Bad Country Under Consideration

bad countryThe time has come for the final Literary Lunchbox post in the 3-Rs (reading, reviewing, and ranking) for the 2015 Best First Novel by an American Author Edgar.  The official Edgar will be awarded in NYC on April 29, but the anticipation is building right here.  The final entry is Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie.  Set in Arizona and featuring Native American PI Rodeo Grace Garnet, the book won the Tony Hillerman Prize, a $10,000 advance and publication by St. Martin’s Press.   I loved Tony Hillerman’s work, devouring his Leaphorn and Chee books when I discovered them in the 1980s.   He received practically every mystery writing award there was to win, and was president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Hillerman passed away in 2008, a sad day for mystery lovers.   All this is leading up to why I was very interested in reading Bad Country.

My overall impression is that CB McKenzie is no Tony Hillerman – but then, who could be?  Hillerman’s books were police procedurals, but steeped in the ways of the Navajo and other tribes.  There is a lot of looking, thinking and talking in Hillerman’s books.  They have a lot of space for subtlety.  Not so much for McKenzie.

Some critics have called Bad Country “cowboy noir,” and that’s a particularly apt description.  The writing is spare, the violence is gritty and real, the men are hard although not all bad, and the women are, for the most part, demons.   One plot point features the characteristics of ten Native American tribes, but otherwise, Native American culture doesn’t have much impact on the book.  It’s more like the movie Chinatown, with Rodeo Grace Garnet in the JJ Gittes role.

Here’s where the plot begins:  Rodeo’s a tough, hard-living PI in a small town in Arizona, with a bad ex-girlfriend who happens to be the good sheriff’s daughter, and a faithful dog.  Someone’s murdered an Indian man on Rodeo’s doorstep.  And someone else has gunned down a teenager in a drive-by; that teen’s grandmother hires Rodeo to look into it, and the game is afoot.

These two seemingly straight-forward crimes are just the respective tips of two different icebergs, and along the way to solving them both, Rodeo faces disillusionment and death more than once.  By the end, more than one good guy is dead, as are multiple bad guys, but Rodeo has kept more evil at bay, Rodeo’s dog is okay and we suspect that the chemistry between him and the lady vet is building into something good for book #2.

Here’s what I liked about Bad Country:  Excellent main character, knotty plot, noir tough, and a great dog.  Not in love with:  Too many characters with too many problems and too much plot stuffed into one book.  Also, use some quote marks, already.

So where to rank it?  Definitely above The Life We Bury and Invisible City. Definitely below Dry Bones in the Valley.   Shovel Ready was more inventive, Murder at the Brightwell was more assured and better written.  So Bad Country goes on my ranking at #4, making Dry Bones in the Valley my winner!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
  3. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  4. Bad Country by CB McKenzie
  5. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  6. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Cover art for Bad Country: No complaints.  The car features in the plot, as does the desert locale, and the typography is spot-on.  Title:  Also appropriate.

Shovel Ready Edgar-ready?

shovelThe fifth nominee for Best First Novel by an American Author is Adam Sternbergh’s genre-bending debut novel, Shovel Ready.  And I have to say, it knocked my socks off.

Shovel Ready‘s set in the near future in a New York City that’s been half-emptied by dirty bombs, tourist-free and divided sharply into the haves and the have-nots, where the haves can tap into the  latest technological marvel:  the limnosphere, an alternative universe where anything can happen.  And often does.

Back in the day, Spademan used to be a garbage man.  Literally.  Like his father before him, he was a NYC waste-hauler.  He met and married Stella, a beautiful, loving woman with hoped to become an actress.  One day, a bomb went off in the subway.   And then, impeccably timed to coincide with the arrival of paramedics, firefights, and cops, a second, bigger, radioactive bomb.  And Spademan can only hope that Stella was killed by bomb #1 and didn’t lie there, broken and bleeding, praying for rescue, until the big boom of bomb #2.

Now he’s a hit man.  Pay him and he’ll kill for you.  He doesn’t need to know more than who, and he doesn’t want to know why.  He only has a few rules, such as  no suicides and no children.  That’s why he’s slow to take the job when a caller wants him to target Grace Chastity Harrow (who’s re-named herself Persephone).  She’s run away from home and her uber-rich evangelist father.  Assured that she’s 18, he takes the job, but calls a halt again when he realizes she’s pregnant.  Stuck with her temporarily, he plans to feed her, clean her up, and then send her on her way.  But that can’t happen, because it’s pretty clear that Spademan is not the only hit man on the scene.  And he’s starting to like her.

And that’s when the dystopian tale gets even more dystopian.  Turns out that Daddy has been selling heaven to the masses, but what he’s been delivering is a second world where the rich can prey upon the helplessly enslaved.  And the only way to free the slaves and bring down Rev. Harrow involves not only Spademan and Persephone, but several of Spademan’s friends in a daring rescue mission, simultaneously occurring in the real world and in the limnosphere.

Here’s what’s fabulous about Shovel Ready:

  • Great voice
  • Lots of action
  • Compelling plotting (despite a couple of holes)
  • Skillful blend of fantasy, sci-fi and crime thriller

If you’re looking character development or subtlety, Shovel-Ready is not going to do it for you.  It could, however, be a great movie.  (Optioned by Denzel Washington, I’m not sure I see the big D as Spademan.)

Now for the hard part… where does it rank?  For sheer enjoyment, it’s gotta be ahead of Brightwell… but will it be #2 or take the top spot?  It could not be more different from Dry Bones in the Valley.  And as much as I love Shovel Ready‘s energy and vision, I think Bones is a deeper book.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
  3. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  4. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  5. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Cover art for Shovel Ready:  Dystopian- check.  Edgy- check.  Eye-catching – check.  Title:  just okay.  Overall,  Shovel Ready is just behind Murder at the Brightwell on the “judging the book by its cover” rating scale…