The 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.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author
- Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
- Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
- Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
- Invisible City by Julia Dahl
- 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…