Tag Archives: Tornado Weather

Final Edgar Nominee: Lola

LolaWho will take the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author?  We’ve had some very interesting books nominated this year, and the final nominee is very worthy:  Lola, by Melissa Scrivner Love.

This may be Love’s first published novel, but she’s been around the block a time or two when it comes to fiction.  She’s an Edgar-award nominated screenwriter who has written for TV (cop shows!), and she comes by her interest in crime fiction honestly, as she is the daughter of a police officer father and court stenographer mother.

The book is definitely cinematic – I could see it as a TV series, easily.  A crime thriller, it is obviously the first in a series.  The protagonist is Lola Vazquez, a young woman who grew up rough and hungry in South LA, pimped out as a young girl by her junkie mother, fiercely protective of her younger brother Hector, and live-in girlfriend of Garcia, the leader of a small gang, the Crenshaw Six.  She mixes with the neighborhood women, jokes about her bad cooking and insists upon a clean kitchen,  but what they don’t know is that Lola’s the true leader of the Crenshaw Six.  She’s got the brains and the grit to do what needs to be done – even if it’s killing a fellow gang member or sawing through her own brother’s trigger finger to punish him for misbehavior.

When the Crenshaw Six gets its big break – a gang high up in the hierarchy of gangs gives them the opportunity to rip off an upcoming drug deal in exchange for control of more territory – it comes with a price.  Do it and be rewarded.  Fail, and Lola, who is considered to be Garcia’s property, will be killed.   It should be no surprise that things do not go smoothly, there are multiple double-crosses, and Lola’s beloved Hector screws up, big time.

As Lola and the guys work to find the drugs and the money, the plot takes some labyrinthine turns.  New characters are introduced, including an up-from-the-projects drug lord who loves his mama and thinks that kidnapping Lola’s is going to motivate her to do his bidding; a rival dealer with a love of sushi who is the first kingpin to learn that Lola’s not the girlfriend, she’s the boss (but he has her beaten to a pulp anyway,  with some regret); and a married, WASPy, Starbucks-loving, Snugli-toting couple that import drugs through their beauty supply company.  There’s almost too many twists and turns, but Love keeps it all straight, keeping the plot moving while the clock is ticking to one horrific deadline after another.

At the end of the day, the body count is high, but Lola has a new partnership and has earned the allegiance of some former foes.  In the #metoo era, it’s definitely empowering to see a female protagonist who not only fights back, but takes the offensive.  (I had the same feeling during Wonder Woman – everybody discounts her, but she prevails!)

Lola is terrifically well-presented and other characters are well-written and generally three-dimensional.  The dialogue crackles, pacing is excellent, and the plot is satisfying.  I’d like to read the next one and definitely want to see it on the screen (hope that Netflix and Amazon are checking it out!).

It’s a tough call about where to put Lola on the Lit Lunchbox ranking.  With all it has going for it, Lola‘s definitely in the running for the top spot.  Ultimately, the comparison between Lola and She Rides Shotgun simply comes down to emotional impact.  Lola has shocks and thrills.  She Rides Shotgun has heart.  My call?  She Rides Shotgun keeps the top spot.  We’ll see come April 26 whether the MWA agrees with me!

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

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  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love
  3. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
  4. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
  5. Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li
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Idaho home to a tapestry of stories

idahoTalk about your unreliable narrator!  Wade Mitchell is rapidly losing his memory, including his recall of the hot day in August 1995 when his young wife, Jenny, murdered their 6-year-old daughter May with a backhanded blow of a hammer and 9-year-old June disappeared into the woods, never to be seen again.

Idaho is Wade’s story.  And Jenny’s.  And it belongs to May and to June.  It is also the story of Ann, who marries Wade knowing full well she will become his helpmeet and by the end of the story, is helping Jenny as well.  So many people and so much humanity, so well-presented.

Idaho is a sprawling novel, criss-crossing through time, from the early days of Wade and Jenny’s marriage and ahead to 2025, when Jenny has finally completed her sentence is emerges into a future she never thought she’d see.  The characters all have their own strengths, virtues, failures, and heartbreak.  Despite the profusion of characters, the various timelines, and the reluctant unveiling of the fateful day, Idaho’s narrative is easy to follow.  Emotionally compelling, Ruskovich reveals the bonds of love even as it revolves around the senseless tragedy.

It is hinted – but not confirmed – that Jenny’s jealousy of Wade and suspicion of his relationship with Ann, the school music teacher was the cause of her violent act.  It is also unclear where June went, or why.  At age 9, what were her options?  And yet the bloodhound found nothing.  Readers will differ on whether the lack of a clear resolution to the mysteries makes it a better book, or a worse one.  I found the book to be perfectly itself and would not have changed it.

So how does Idaho stack up to the other nominees?  It is most similar to Tornado Weather in its multitude of characters and plot threads, as well as the senseless nature of the crime.  And as much as I liked Tornado Weather, I found Idaho to be a much richer and deeper book.  And as much as I liked Idaho, it does not have the bright edge and sharply memorable characters that I found in She Rides Shotgun.  So Shotgun stays at #1 and Idaho takes the #2 spot.

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

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
  3. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
  4. Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li

Dark Chapter depicts real life

chapterIt’s been said that your first book is always an autobiography, however well-fictionalized.  For Winnie Li and Dark Chapter, that truism as literally true – both author and protagonist were raped by an Irish teenager while on a hiking vacation in Ireland.  As did Ms. Li, Dark Chapter‘s Vivian Tan dismissed her sense of unease until it was too late.  Later, both face their rapists and saw them convicted.  Vivian’s story closely parallels Li’s.  You can read more about the truth behind the fiction in this article in the Irish Times.

Grappling with a traumatic experience through writing is common enough, and to wrest a publishable book from the experience is laudable, but to achieve an Edgar nom is only slightly short of miraculous.  What takes Dark Chapter out of the “here is the horrible thing that happened” category of fictionalized memoir is Winnie Li’s decision to tell both stories:  that of the raped woman and the rapist boy.

She does so with some psychological insight and craft, alternating between Vivian’s perspective and that of the boy who rapes her.  John Michael Sweeney is a traveler, born rough and raised rougher.  He loves his ma, but the girls he kisses, fingers and forces into sex are less than people to him.  His panic following the rape, the way his friends and brother support and help him, is contrasted with his father’s expectation that he turn himself in and take responsibility for his action.  The reader has limited sympathy for Johnny, and no small measure of disgust.

Vivian Tan is a career woman in a glamorous field, with a good head on her shoulders despite some poor decision-making, and she is steadfast in her decision to hold Sweeney accountable.  She is so steadfast that the reader is distanced from the pain and trauma Vivian experiences following the assault.  The confusion regarding her background – is she a Chinese tourist?  No, American – rings true but isn’t really necessary to the plot.

As a debut novelist, Winnie Li has chosen a compelling story – her own.  But it seems to me that she has adhered too faithfully to the facts as she sees them, resulting in a plot that marches forward.  How characters are presented is particularly important in any book, but particularly so for Edgar nominees.  But there is too much good in the good Vivian and too much bad in the bad Johnny.  Neither character has much complexity.

Men come off particularly badly in Dark Chapter.  Where are the good guys?  I sincerely hope that in real life, Winnie Li has found a strong, supportive, loving man to be her partner in life.  The shallow narcissist that is protagonist Vivian’s first post-rape boyfriend is just too real to be fiction.  And Winnie – heck, every woman! – deserves better.

How does Dark Chapter stack up to the two already reviewed nominees?  For the faults noted above, it will go to the bottom of the ranking.

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

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
  3. Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li

She Rides Shotgun: a compulsive read

Nshotgunext up in the MWA Edgar Awards category of Best First Novel is Jordan Harper’s novel She Rides Shotgun.  It’s a mesmerizing, nail-biting, fast-paced and tightly plotted tale of good vs. evil with an unusual protagonist – an 11-year old, teddy-bear toting girl with ice-blue eyes and a talent for violence.

Polly McClusky’s dad, Nate McClusky, has been sentenced to death.  Not by the judicial system – although he is a felon – but by the leader of Aryan Steel, a gang of white supremacists.  It’s a particularly vicious sentence, because it dooms not only Nate, but ex-wife Avis and their daughter.  Nate comes home to warn them, but he’s too late – Avis and her new boyfriend are dead.  He scoops a wary Polly up from the sidewalk in front of her school, and they begin a deadly cat-and-mouse game with one objective:  lift the “green light” and save Polly’s life.  Tracking them both:  Detective John Park.

Nate’s initial plan is to get Polly to a relative’s home, where she’ll be safe.  On the way, he passes on the life skills taught to him by his partner in crime and dead older brother, Nick.  Skills like how to take a punch.  When to run.  How to fight dirty.  Where to stab.  How to use your skinny arms to make a grown man lose consciousness.  Most importantly, how to keep going when doing so is impossible, but the alternative is death.

It’s no surprise to learn in She Rides Shotgun that no place is safe and that friends can betray you, but also that there can be unexpected allies.  The story is primarily Polly’s, and Harper does an amazing job of letting you inside Polly’s head, to see the confusion and sadness, but also the hard core of steel and the fierce loyalty there.  Nate has been pretty much absent from Polly’s life, but is redeemed by the journey and his quest to save her, overcoming his own misjudgment through sheer will.  Det. Park is wily, but one step behind.

I think you are getting the point that She Rides Shotgun gets an enthusiastic thumbs  up from me.  How does it compare to Tornado Weather, the first book reviewed in this category?  Tornado Weather is an interesting, insightful, and thoroughly readable book.  But She Rides Shotgun is a compulsive, propulsive read, with out-there-but-believable characters that you care about.  No competition:  She Rides Shotgun takes top spot.

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

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy

Edgars again! Welcome new authors.

edgarYes, the Mystery Writers of America have announced the nominees in all categories for fiction and nonfiction Edgar (for Edgar Allan Poe) awards.  In past years, I have read, reviewed and ranked two or three categories.  This year, I’m not likely to be as ambitious thanks to a demanding work schedule.

But I have started with the debuts:  Best First Novel by an American Author.  It’s always exciting to read good new authors.  And when an exciting new author publishes more books… that’s wonderful.  I recall loving Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, which won the Edgar in 2014.  He followed up with Palace of Treason (also fabulous!) and the latest is The Kremlin’s Candidate (which I bought but can’t read until the Edgar deep dive is complete).   There’s also this.

Of this year’s nominees, the only one I had read previously is Lola, by Melissa Scrivner Love.  But I didn’t start there.

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First up for me was Tornado Weather.  The mystery: where is 5-year-old Daisy Gonzalez? A bigger mystery – how can there be any secrets in this town where everybody knows everybody’s business?

Daisy is a bright, well-liked girl, wheelchair-bound, who disappears after school one blustery day, when her bus driver is overwhelmed, her teacher father is still at school, and the high school girl who was supposed to get her home simply forgot to meet her.  She’s the subject of speculation among the residents of Colliersville, Indiana.  An economically depressed small town, Colliersville and its residents are not doing all that well.  Each chapter features a different point of view, from a dead Iraq war vet to his grieving grandmother to Daisy’s father to trans teen Willa (born Wally) and the grocery store clerk who thinks he hears animals speak, and knows more than he says.

The book is entrancing, not so much for Daisy’s story, but for the characters, their hard lives, and the fact that they can still find joy and show so much love, despite their imperfections.  It is these imperfections – especially the stupid, thoughtless acts that lead to tragedy, as is the case with Daisy’s unnecessary death – that gives life such pathos.

Tornado Weather is a deep, insightful novel and one which is a pleasure to read, although that pleasure is mixed with pain.  As it is the first one up, it takes the top spot.

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

  1. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy