Tag Archives: Under the Harrow

Edgar winner winner chicken dinner

raindogsFriends, I am heartily sorry for spending the last five months away from my book blog, but I resolve to turn over a new leaf!  Where I left you last was waiting for the outcome of the Edgar Awards banquet in New York City, after having read, reviewed and ranked finalists in three categories.  I’ll cut to the chase:  I’m batting .333 here – Edgar judges only agreed with me on the Best Original Paperback.  We both selected Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs.  His series featuring Irish police detective Sean Duffy is set in the 1980s and feels fresh and funny, but has a noir edge.

harrow.jpgFor Best First Novel, I picked Heather Young’s The Lost Girls, which is a character-driven suspense novel with two story lines (1935 and present day).  I was a fan the first time I read it, and an even bigger fan on rereading for the Edgars.  Alas, the Edgar went to Flynn Berry  for Under the Harrow, which was fifth on my ranking.  To be fair, Berry;s thriller is a great read in the Girl on the Train “genre” – unreliable female protagonist is driven around the bend but prevails.  I expect a movie any month now.

fallAnd for Best Novel, I gave the Literary Lunchbox Edgar to Lyndsey Faye’s Jane Steele.  I am not usually a fan of historical, but this one is genre-bending tribute to Jane Eyre, very well-written with plenty of action.  The actual award went to Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall.  I did enjoy Hawley’s book a great deal, which takes a pretty ordinary guy, puts him into extraordinary circumstances, and then ramps up a mystery with a big dose of conspiracy.  It’s got some plot holes that are apparent on re-reading, and my friend and writing buddy Addy Whitehouse really hated it, but I was more forgiving.  It was third on my list.

In a non-reviewed category, Best Critical/Biographical, the winner was Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson, which I read and enjoyed despite its doorstopper length.  It was also good to see Charles Todd (Charles and Caroline Todd) win the Mary Higgins Clark award for The Shattered Tree.

This is my eighth year reviewing Edgar nominees, and what I’ve found is that some years the Edgar judges agree with me (100% in 2010!) and some years they don’t (0% in 2011).  Here’s a round-up!  If you’re looking for some great reads, generally you can’t go wrong with my picks OR Mystery Writers of America’s choices, and all are now available in paperback.   Happy reading!

2010:  MWA and I agreed on John Hart’s The Last Child for Best Novel and Stefanie Pintoff’s In the Shadow of Gotham for Best First Novel.

2011:  I still think MWA was crazy, giving Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist the Best Novel award over Tana French’s Faithful Place, and Rogue Island (Bruce De Silva) instead of Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston for Best First Novel.  (Not that I don’t like Steve Hamilton.)

2012:  It was 50/50 – MWA and I both gave Mo Hayder’s Gone the Best Novel Edgar (I loooooove Mo Hayder), but Lori Roy’s Bent Road took home the actual Edgar while the Literary Lunchbox award went to Leonard Rosen’s All Cry Chaos.  (Rosen sent me a very nice note by email commenting on my review.  Swoon.)

2013:  Another 0% year.  Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night won Best Novel, while Gillian Flynn’s hugely popular Gone Girl was my pick.  Interestingly, both were made into movies featuring Ben Affleck.  Gone Girl was clearly superior, both book and film.  Meanwhile, Chris Pavoni took Best First Novel home for The Expats, while I would have given the award to Matthew Quirk’s The 500.

2014:  I was crazy this year.  Jason Matthews’ Red Sparrow won the Edgar for Best First Novel, while my pick was Becky Masterman’s Rage Against Dying.  Seriously?  What was I thinking?  William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace took home Best Novel, and I loved it, so that redeems me somewhat.  50-50.

2015:  Another 50% agreement with MWA;  Best First Novel went to Tom Bouton’s Dry Bones in the ValleyAnd it was the year that Stephen King won Best Novel for Mr. Mercedes.  It was fantastic.  But I gave the edge to Mo Hayder for Wolf.  Both fabulous writers.

2016:  As with this year, last year MWA and I were aligned 33% of the time.  We totally agreed that Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone deserved Best Paperback Original.  (I loved it so much I gave it as a gift at least three times!)  For Best Novel, Lori Roy was again an Edgar winner for Let Me Die in His Footsteps while I gave he nod to Duane Swierzynski’s Canary (both good but super-different).  And I gave the Best First Novel Edgar to Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive over the actual Edgar recipient, The Sympathizer by Viet Nanh Nguyen (my #2 pick).

So there you have it, a real round-up to make up for a lengthy absence.  Looking back, I see that I often run out of time or energy as the Edgar awards draw near and I go into hibernation mode immediately following.  I diagnose blogging burn-out!  In 2018, I’ll cut back to a single category (two at the most) and see if that helps.

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Next Up: Joe Ide’s IQ

IQSo, what are the odds?  Like Dodgers, the third book nominated  for the MWA Edgar for Best First Novel has an inner city, drug dealing-slash-thieving setting.  It also is a coming-of-age story, as a young man grows into adulthood.  But IQ, Joe Ide’s debut novel, is also funny and jam-packed with a cast of characters that is made for the big screen.  It’s a trip in itself, but it also calls out for a sequel.  Good news – Entertainment Weekly says Ide now has a four-book deal!

Here’s the deal:  teenage Isaiah Quintabe lives with his older brother Marcus.  Marcus is smart, focused, gives good advice, and can build anything, repair anything, in fact, do just about anything with his hands.  Marcus clearly could have done more with his life, but he’s found his groove, just raising his brother to be a good man, to go to college, to have a future.  And it’s working out great, because Isaiah is smart, thoughtful and an all-around good kid.  And did I mention he was seriously smart?  And so all is well until one day, when Isaiah and Marcus are just walking down the street, a car speeds around the corner and Marcus flies into the air.  And just like that, Isaiah is left alone.

Of course, he falls apart. And he also beats himself up.  Because he was right there, and saw nothing.  Whoever killed Marcus is going to get away with it.  So he starts to dig.  And as he gets a clue, and spends hours, each day, just sitting and looking for a particular car.  And he uses that time to train his observation skills.

Flash forward eight years and Isaiah’s still in the neighborhood, but now in demand as a detective and all-around problem-solver.  Juanell Dodson, roommate, former classmate, and all around smartass with pretentions, has hooked him up with Calvin Wright, a rapper and potential murder victim.   Between Cal and Dodson, there is plenty of outsize ego and crazy behavior to go around, especially since Cal is having a bit of a crisis.  It’s like writer’s block for rappers, and he can’t cure it with pills, booze, or food.   Isaiah’s job is to keep Cal alive while he figures out who’s behind the plot.  Cui bono?  Good question.

This is an amazing debut novel, and Isaiah is a character that demands serialization.   In fact, pluck almost any of this rich and funny novel’s characters  out for scrutiny:  they hold up.  The self-absorbed Deronda, who believes she deserves stardom because of the size of her booty.  Magnus Westerveld, who created a new self in Skip Hanson, and bred a pit bull the size of a Volkswagen.  Dodson, partner and devil.  Flaco, Isaiah’s penance in human form, and so much more.

However, characters alone do not make a great detective novel.  For that, you need plot.  And there is plot in abundance.  Inventive, believable, and hair-raising plot; Ide weaves present day and past, accommodating various sub-plots that add complexity and hilarity to great effect.  And the end – when Isaiah finds the car that killed his brother? – great set-up for book #2.

Dodgers was heart-tugging and well-worth reading.  IQ is that and more.  It takes the top spot in the LL Edgar ranking.

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  3. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Next up: Dodgers

dodgersBill Beverly’s debut novel, Dodgers, is a coming of age story.  It’s a road trip.  It’s a crime novel.  It’s a mission.  And ultimately, it’s a dodge.

Here’s the set-up:  There’s a gang in LA.  No surprise, they sell drugs and commit other crimes.  In fact, Fin, the head of their gang is likely to go to jail, but there’s a witness (a former judge) hiding out in Wisconsin that needs killing.

Four boys – ages 13 to 20 – are tasked with taking that road trip:  15-year-old East, his younger half-brother Ty, Walter, and Michael.  East spends most of his time “standing yard” in the Boxes, watching for trouble, refusing entry to some potential drug purchasers while letting others in, always on the lookout for cops.  It’s thought he’s related to Fin.  His younger brother Ty has a different dad, and he’s tough, maybe crazy, and already a killer.  Walter’s supposed to be the smart one, a hulking six-footer.  And then there’s Michael, a college boy, who can talk white, knows the landscape, and can help them fit in where four black guys  – even wearing Dodger t-shirts, caps and sweatshirt and driving a mini-van – will stand out.

They head out with strict instructions: keep your head down, wear your Dodger wear, no guns, no drugs, no credit cards, and the oldest – Michael – drive the car and holds most of the cash.  They are to head eastward, follow specific instructions to obtain a gun, kill the judge, and then come home.  Of course, it almost immediately begins to fall apart, and 2,000 miles later, they’ve thrown Michael out of the car, the judge is dead, East shot his own brother, Walter’s taking a plane home, and East is stranded in the midwest.  He hunkers down, making a life for himself as the jack of all trades at an Ohio paintball range, where the proprietor and his wife take him on in a quasi-familial relationship.  The sad part of this: paintball proprietor Perry is dying.  A call home to Walter reveals that Fin’s in jail,  and everything East has  known is changed.  He decides he’s  never coming home.

Of course, he does.  I won’t reveal the plot twist that brings him back, but I didn’t foresee it.  He has to head home. Because, of course, the boys’ journey to kill the judge was much like Dorothy and her friends’ mission to kill the wicked witch of the West:  just an assignment to keep them all busy.  Fin’s goal was to simply keep East safe.  It was a dodge – which Merriam defines as “a cunning trick or ploy to avoid something unpleasant.”  The boys may have been the Dodgers, but Fin pulled the strings.

Beverly is a fine writer, with a particular strength in description of people and places.  You almost smell the sweat of the boys in the hot car and see the wonder of the icy beauty of the midwestern landscape.  His description of the people, even minor characters, makes them real.  It’s worth the time to savor his writing.   It’s an unusual and haunting story, particularly given the ending, which I won’t give away here!

It’s tough to compare Dodgers to Under the Harrow.  They are very different books.  Under the Harrow is a personal story, emotional, raw in its feelings.  Dodgers comes across much more “literary,”  cooler in feel.  I enjoyed them both – but for the character detail, the complex plot, and let’s face it, the play on words that is the title, I’m giving the top spot to Bill Beverly’s Dodgers.

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

  1. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  2. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry