Tag Archives: Tom Bouman

Congrats to Edgar recipients Jim Klise, Tom Bouman and Stephen King!

EdgarsSo, I’m feeling pretty smug – I may not have batted 1000 on my Edgar rankings this year, but it was pretty dang close.   I called it 100% one time, been completely wrong once, and otherwise tend to get one right and the other one wrong.  Since I’m not actually trying to predict the outcome, but to review and rank by my own standards (I’m not actually sure what standards the Edgars judges actually use!), it’s not surprising that I am not in perfect alignment.  Still, MWA and Literary Lunchbox agree way more often than random chance would dictate.

secretsFirst up, kudos to ADA pal and FB friend Jim Klise, whose young adult mystery The Art of Secrets took home an Edgar.  I read The Art of Secrets and enjoyed it very much!  Not in middle school?  Read it anyway!

bonesMy call for Best First Novel was Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley.  An assured debut, it stood out for me among the other worthy nominees.  And indeed, it won the Edgar.  My good friend Addy Whitehouse reviewed this category as well – her call was The Life We Bury.  I enjoyed that book, but it wasn’t my favorite.

mercedeAnd you all know just how difficult the call was for Best Novel this year.  Of the six nominees, I truly felt that five of them were 5-star books.  Ultimately, I gave Mo Hayder’s Wolf the nod because it was a more complex narrative, in my estimation, than Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes.  I ranked that #2, and dang it, Mr. King’s Mr. Mercedes took home the Edgar.  Still, if this were horseshoes, I’d be the big winner.

The Edgar excitement is all over for another year!   Colleagues in my workplace find it all super-geeky, but hey, geek is chic.

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…

#4 in the Edgar countdown: Invisible City

city

Well-titled Invisible City, okay cover art! IMHO.

They say to write what you know, and Julia Dahl did.   She’s a journalist specializing in crime, has a Lutheran father and Jewish mother, and lives in Brooklyn.  And Rebekah Roberts, the protagonist of her debut mystery (up for an MWA Edgar!), Invisible Cityis a lot like Julia.   Her mother was a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who rebelled, married Rebekah’s dad (just to mix it up, he’s a Methodist), and stuck with him for a few years, leaving them to return to her own community when Rebekah was five. Her mother’s abandonment has haunted Rebekah ever since.  It’s the expectation that somehow, someway, she’ll find out more about her mother – and perhaps even connect with her – that leads new college grad Rebekah to head for NYC and a job as a tabloid stringer.

Indeed, it’s Rebekah’s physical resemblance to her mother that gives her an edge over other reporters when the naked body of an observant woman turns up, head shaved, in Gowanus.  The NYPD barely investigates and the woman’s body is whisked away, not to the coroner’s office, but to a Jewish funeral home, where her body will be cleansed and buried within 24 hours – no autopsy, no evidence.  A Jewish police detective, brought in to help translate, knows Rebekah’s mother, and he smooths the way for her to talk with many of the religious who would ordinarily keep shtum.  At first, Rebekah just wants to get the story.  But soon, she’s driven to actually solve the crime.   As she gets deeper into the investigation and her persona as Rivka (the diminutive for Rebekah), she also begins to understand the world her mother inhabited.

Dahl tells the story well, including a surprising plot twist at the end that you won’t see coming, but is not a cheat. The side story about her mother is interesting, and Dahl is skillful in revealing this religious culture to the reader as Rebekah learns about it herself.  However, I’m having a terrible time ranking the book, because there are definitely clunky aspects to the writing.  For example, the boyfriend Tony is barely a sketch, and there’s at least one random, coarse-languaged sex scene that feels grafted-on to ensure grittiness.

The book clearly ranks above The Life We Bury, and below Dry Bones in the Valley, but where to place it compared to Murder at the Brightwell, which has an assured, elegant style and is a lovely book for its type (not my favorite type, though!)  After much mental haggling, I’m ranking this Edgar nominee third out of the four reviewed to date.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

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

And since I’ve been explicitly commenting on covers and titles, I would point out that Invisible City is a perfect fit for the city within a city where the Hasidim reside.  I suppose the cover art features the appropriate city and evokes a certain angst, so can’t really complain there, either.

Charming Murder at the Brightwell enters the competition

brightwellDeborah Crombie’s blurb on the cover of Ashley Weaver’s debut mystery, Murder at the Brightwell, says it all:  “An elegant Christie-esque 1930s romp.”  Quite a change from the college student/amateur sleuth (The Life We Bury) and the Pennsylvania noir police procedural (Dry Bones in the Valley) that were the first two entries in the competition for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

And romp it is, if you like beautiful people doing fabulous things in an exclusive hotel with a dark undercurrent of skulduggery and murder.  Amory Ames is a wealthy young woman, married five years to Milo, who stole her away from fiancé Gil Trent.  Now they mostly lead separate lives, hers at home and his out gallivanting.  Let’s just say he’s good looking, charming, and quite popular with the ladies.  Amory’s ripe for reconnecting with Gil when he shows up, seeking her help in discouraging his niece from marrying a good-looking ne’er-do-well.  His plan is to bring Amory along to a holiday at the Brightwell, where her sad experience with Milo will serve to illustrate to the lovely Emmeline what a big mistake she is about to make.  He’s hoping she’s willing to behave as if they are back together as a couple… and she’s willing to do so because she is frankly annoyed with her husband and doubting their future together.

At the hotel, there’s a mixed group of characters (just like Agatha Christie!), including rapacious women, stodgy men, a handsome actor, cruel husbands… They’re all lightly and skillfully drawn.  It’s frothy amusement until  Emmeline’s bad-boy-fiance Rupert turns up dead, conked on the head and thrown over the cliff onto the rocks below.  Various characters come under the suspicious gaze of canny Inspector Jones, who develops an easygoing rapport with Amory, and when said gaze falls upon friend Gil Trent, Amory goes into overdrive to determine which of the hotel guests committed the murder.  She is aided in her efforts by husband Milo, who is undertaking an effort to win Amory back… at least until some details emerge which cause our heroine to wonder if her husband is himself the guilty party.

Of course, that’s not the case, but once the crime is neatly solved, the couple cannot bring themselves to admit what is completely clear to the reader:  that they belong together.  I won’t spoil that surprise for you!

So, comparison time.  Brightwell is a lovely book of its type, well-written, albeit lightweight.  Impossible to complain about the characters, plot, or pacing.  I briefly wondered if it would be as good set in present day and decided it would not; although I am sure there are plenty of idle rich among us in 2015, any book that featured them would require either a heavy dose of irony or one of cynicism.

Is it likely to win the Edgar?  Stepping outside of Lunchbox mode, I’d have to say no.  Reviewing the Edgar database, I see plenty of spy novels, police procedurals, and thrillers that won the Best First Novel award.  Is it worthy of a win, from my perspective?  I enjoyed the book, but it is definitely outdone by Dry Bones in the Valley.  But the quality of the writing and plotting gives Brightwell a decisive edge over The Life We Bury.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings:  Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  3. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

ps- thumbs up on the cover and title for this book!  I had previously complained about Dry Bones and Life, noting that neither the books’ titles nor their cover art made any sense to me.  Everything about Murder at the Brightwell is spot on, including the title, artwork and typography.  Well-done, Minotaur.

Dry Bones in the Valley second entry in Edgar Race

bonesAbout ten pages in, I realized that I had previously read Dry Bones in the Valley, Tom Bouman’s debut novel featuring Officer Henry Farrell of Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania.  And I liked it.  That made re-reading it for the Edgar race for Best First Novel by an American Author a pleasure for me.

Here’s the setup:  Henry’s a rural cop in a small department (one deputy), where a typical crime is a stolen tractor.  Times have been hard, but landowners have been banding together to sign contracts for drilling rights on their land, and it’s dividing the community.  It’s the kind of place where the law-abiding, the lawbreakers and the lawmen all know each other and drink together in the local tavern.  Henry plays the fiddle and is more than half-way in love with the local doc.  Unfortunately, she’s his best friend’s wife.

It’s a sloppy, thawing-out March when local eccentric Aub Dunigan shoots a load of buckshot into a local ruffian trespassing on his land.  Henry comes out with a family member to see what’s what, only to find that Aub – who’s not really all there – has discovered a body in the melting snow.  Pieces of it are missing.  Who is this young man?  Who killed him and why?  Along the way to solving the murder, somebody shoots the well-liked deputy dead, and Henry uncovers a tragedy that is decades old.

Dry Bones in the Valley is a notable debut for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Bouman’s skill in depicting places and people.  His prose is elegant and spare, with carefully chosen details that illuminate the story.  Henry himself is a good man, weighed down by expectations and a tinge of sorrow.   The book is well-plotted, the action sequences are nail-bitingly realistic, and while the resolution is satisfying, it’s not all happy-happy-joy-joy.  Thank heavens.

Comparison to The Life We Bury?  Dry Bones has it all over Life.  Life has a lot to recommend it, but it is obviously a first novel.  Dry Bones is more assured, the product of a fully developed talent.  I’m waiting for more from Tom Bouman and Officer Henry Farrell.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

PS:  Another note of comparison, as an aside.  What is up with the titles and book covers for these two books?   The Life We Bury is set in a small town and a university town – the cover makes it look rural.  And nobody is literally buried, and if you want to go all metaphorical, I don’t see it.  So the title is a miss for me.  Same deal, more or less, with Dry Bones in the Valley.  The cover makes features an ominous flock of birds, potentially hovering over dry bones, making you think of desert, not Pennsylvania.  And all the bones in this book are literally wet. Soaking, in fact.  I realize you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but this may be taking that adage too far…