images-1First up for review of Mystery Writers of America’s  Edgar Award Nominees, Best First Book category, is Adam Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready. Spademan, the main character and protagonist in this post-apocalyptic story set in bombed-out/radioactive New York City, kills people for a living. (“Think of me more like a bullet.”). He has only two rules in his profession: no kids (17 and under) and no suicides. He does it for money (even though he doesn’t spend the money) and because, “…someone asked me to.” If you’re looking to care about this character, put that aside. There’s no sentiment here, (except for the fact that his wife was killed by one of those bombs, presumably what changed Spademan from a can-in-the-alley garbageman to a where-do-I-put-the-body garbageman). This story is strictly for video-gamers who want action, gore, and gleefully tough characters who follow thier own codes and don’t give a damn about anyone. I assume the folks in Hollywood are lining up to option it for a film (if they haven’t already).

In a nutshell, Spademan is hired to kill the daughter (Persephone) of a famous evangelist (no questions asked–Spademan doesn’t allow questions). He is assured she’s 18, so no rules broken there. When he does find her, his moral code enlarges to allow for one more exception: she’s pregnant. Spademan finds out that Persephone is being pursued by other bad guys, so he tries to help her. The rest of the story plays out from there. No spoiler alerts–I found the plot convoluted and hard to follow. For me, the book was a slow-go to the finish because I didn’t care about any of the characters, not one; willy-nilly killing doesn’t make for night-time reading. Also, switching point of view from Spademan to other characters two-thirds of the way through the book felt awkward and poorly conceived.

I’ll give Sternbergh props for his setting, though, and some cool and believable concepts about what life might be like if NYC was bombed.  His gritty New York, whose population is reduced by half from the bombs and people fleeing, feels real. Two camps are delineated well: those who are scrounging street people and those who are rich and above the fray. I especially like the concept of “limning.” In this near-future, “tapping-in” or “going off-body” is virtual reality taken to its hyper-best. Those who can afford it buy special (very expensive) beds, get hooked up and go under, and do anything they want/fantasize about in the limnosphere. It’s the internet on steroids. After the bombs, the rich people take to their beds and tap in full-time, attended by nurses who check vitals and keep them fed, and armed guards to keep the rest of the world at bay.

If you like sci-fi with some dystopia thown in, this is the book for you; it’s an escapist romp. If you’re looking for character development and a story you can sink into, look elsewhere. I rank the nominated books I review for The Edgar Awards on a scale from one to ten, one being the lowest. Shovel Ready rates a 3.

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