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Saturday, August 2, 2014

'Big Little Lies' by Liane Moriarty


From the BLURB:

'I guess it started with the mothers.'
'It was all just a terrible misunderstanding.'
'I'll tell you exactly why it happened.'

Pirriwee Public's annual school Trivia Night has ended in a shocking riot. A parent is dead. Was it murder, a tragic accident... or something else entirely?

Big Little Lies is a funny, heartbreaking, challenging story of ex-husbands and second wives, new friendships, old betrayals and and schoolyard politics. No. 1 New York Times bestselling author turns her unique gaze on the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves every day and what really goes on behind closed suburban doors.

'Let me be clear. This is not a circus. This is a murder investigation.'

The Pirriwee Peninsular is a fictional slice of Sydney-sider heaven. A laid-back beach community with a mix of well-to-do’s and blue collar families, all of whom congregate at the only Primary School, Pirriwee Public.

This school year has already kicked off with a bang, when the new crop of little darlings were embroiled in a bullying scandal on orientation day – that’s right, one little girl was sporting bruises and finger-pointed a classmate (a little boy, whose mother was also new to the area and so young she was mistaken for a nanny!).

But this little incident would prove only the tip of the iceberg for the new school year – especially when you consider the bullying that went on amongst the parents in retaliation to allegations thrown against their own children.

Is it any wonder the Trivia Night ended in the murder of a parent?

Backtrack six months to where it all began, and follow three mothers who would prove too close for comfort to the ongoing investigation.

Madeline is as glittery as she is fiery, never happier than when she’s wearing righteous indignation – and lately she’s had cause to wear it often. Not only is she at the beginning of the terrible teenage years with her 14-year-old daughter, Abigail, but Abigail’s father (who walked out of their marriage and left Madeline the single-mother to their baby) is living on the Peninsular too – having moved there with his new wife, and their toddler daughter who will be attending Pirriwee Public with Madeline’s own daughter from her second marriage. There really should be a law against ex-husband’s and their new (replacement) families sharing school zones.

Celeste is one-half of dazzling couple with her jet-setting husband, Perry. They live in a sprawling house, have the best of everything and Perry makes up for his long absences with beautiful bits of jewellery for his stunning wife. They have twin boys who are starting at Pirriwee Public this year and Perry’s Facebook account can attest to their perfectly happy family … except it’s all a lie.

Jane is twenty-five and single-mother to beautiful little boy, Ziggy. Painfully thin and self-conscious, she up and moved to Pirriwee on impulse and because she thought Ziggy would quite like the beach. Her family have been concerned about her ever since she confessed to being pregnant from a one-night-stand she has no wish to go into more detail about … save to say, Ziggy won’t be meeting his biological father anytime soon, not so long as Jane has something to say about it.

These three women form a united front when, on the Pirriwee Public orientation day, one of their children is singled out as a bully – and then subjected to ongoing and unsubstantiated bullying by Pirriwee Public parents who want them expelled from the school.

It’s going to be a hell of a year.

‘Big Little Lies’ is the new fiction book from Australian author Liane Moriarty.

The Moriarty name has long been associated with literary excellence and bookish-obsession for many Australian readers. Jaclyn Moriarty is the extremely popular young adult author of ‘Ashbury/Brookfield’ fame, and recently Nicola Moriarty has rounded out the triumvirate literary powerhouse. But lately the rest of the world has started sitting up and paying some serious attention to Liane Moriarty, the sister who since 2003 had been quietly releasing wonderful adult fiction titles (and the occasional children’s book) … until last year when her novel ‘The Husband’s Secret’ made it to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and catapulted this Australian women’s fiction author into a new stratosphere of international literary fame.

The praise was deserved, as ‘The Husband’s Secret’ (a favourite book of 2013 for me) was a tight, psychological suburban-gothic thriller that was as much an examination of marriage as it was of guilty-conscience. And now Liane Moriarty has come out with ‘Big Little Lies’ – which has already received a Kirkus starred review and seems destined (and deserving) of another trip to the top of the NYT Bestseller list for Moriarty … with this book she turns her eye to women’s secrets, family microcosms and the funny little world of child rearing in an era of mummy-bloggers and bullying as the hottest of hot-button topics.

Let me just say – this is one of my favourite books of 2014. Hands down.

I don’t have children, but I come from a family of teachers (many of whom teach Primary school) and I absolutely delighted in this book for the way it so seamlessly (and frighteningly) matched up with the anecdotes my family bring home from their jobs. The helicopter parents, and precocious little darlings and the “everyone get’s a trophy!” ethos of modern-day parenting/schooling – it was vicariously delicious, and I envision many readers squirming for how Moriarty portrays these caricatures of modern-day family with pin-prick accuracy. And, believe me, Liane Moriarty gets some descriptions so perfectly, so acerbically, right:

‘So are these women nice?’ asked Celeste. ‘Or should we steer clear?’ 
‘Well, they mean well,’ said Madeline. ‘They mean very, very well. They’re like, hmmm, what are they like? They’re like Mum Prefects. They feel very strongly about their roles as school mums. It’s like their religion. They’re fundamentalist mothers.’
 
It’s the sort of book you read and, with descriptions like that, you’ll instantly have a private light-bulb moment and chuckle because it’s just like someone you know (and when that happens, please, recommend the book to them).

The story begins on the fateful trivia night, when someone dies – and then backtracks to six months before and the bullying incident that sparked a parental warfare in the playground of Pirriwee Public. Each chapter from then on offers a glimpse into the present-day investigation going on into the murder, with hilarious excerpts from the detective interviewing the parents (who also offer the odd tid-bit of gossip and personal opinions on all players involved).

Gabrielle: I was new to the school. I didn’t know a soul. ‘Oh, we’re such a caring school,’ the principal told me. Blah, blah, blah. Let me tell you, the first thing I thought when I walked into that playground on that kindergarten orientation day was cliquey. Cliquey, cliquey, cliquey. I’m not surprised someone ended up dead. Oh, all right. I guess that’s overstating it. I was a little surprised.

The book follows three mothers – Jane, Celeste and Madeline – each with their own problems and secrets, and maps their friendship and how they three came to be on one side of the parental warfare.

I ‘discovered’ Liane Moriarty in 2011 with ‘The Hypnotist'sLove Story’, which I loved. I’ve since gone back and read Moriarty’s backlist … but I’ve got to say, I think ‘The Hypnotist's Love Story’ marked a turning point for her that reaches a brilliant crescendo with ‘Big Little Lies’. Her earlier books were a lot funnier, and much more typical ‘women’s fiction’ (sigh, do I dare use the word ‘beach reads’?). They’re good, don’t get me wrong, but I think Moriarty started exploring much darker stories and sharper edges with ‘The Hypnotist's Love Story’ which then led to the very gothic ‘The Husband’sSecret’ and now ‘Big Little Lies’ feels like the best of both worlds – this book is funny, particularly for Moriarty’s social commentary around family, female obligation and school. But this book is also very dark – I always read feminist undertones in Moriarty’s work, and in ‘Big Little Lies’ especially she touches on domestic abuse, single-mother stigma, the conflict of “working women can’t have it all”, female beauty and sexuality, pornography and a slew of other topics … coupled with the over-arching murder storyline, this is a brilliantly placed book for being so dark and so funny and so darkly funny.

Jane looked up and her heart sank.
It shouldn’t matter. She knew it shouldn’t matter. But the fact was that some people were so unacceptably, hurtfully beautiful, it made you feel ashamed. Your inferiority was right there on display for the world to see. This was what a woman was meant to look like. Exactly this. She was right, and Jane was wrong.

This was such an enjoyable read. One moment I’d be cackling manically and then when I finished reading a chapter I’d think on the events for hours afterwards, for all the controversies Moriarty had raised. I loved this book, it really does cement Liane Moriarty as someone who is very deserving of her new literary fame (though I say that reservedly, she’s always been beloved in Australia – it’s mostly America who is suddenly taking notice of her).

I’m calling ‘Big Little Lies’ as my favouritest-favourite book of 2014 thus far. A big call, but it’s a bloody great book.

5/5

 

US and UK covers 


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

‘A Letter of Mary’ Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #3 by Laurie R. King


From the BLURB:

It is 1923. Mary Russell Holmes and her husband, the retired Sherlock Holmes, are enjoying the summer together on their Sussex estate when they are visited by an old friend, Miss Dorothy Ruskin, an archeologist just returned from Palestine. She leaves in their protection an ancient manuscript which seems to hint at the possibility that Mary Magdalene was an apostle - an artifact certain to stir up a storm of biblical proportions in the Christian establishment.

When Ruskin is suddenly killed in a tragic accident, Russell and Holmes find themselves on the trail of a fiendishly clever murderer. This next installment is brimming with political intrigue, theological arcana, and brilliant Holmesian deductions.

Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes are happily ensconced in their Sussex countryside home. Well, maybe ‘happily’ isn’t quite the right word. Mary has graduated from Oxford and is writing a theological book, while Holmes prowls their little house like a bad-tempered cat. Some days he inhales the London papers, others he’s a bit too calculated in his refusal to keep updated on the goings on of his old city. Mary knows he’s hungry for a new case, but she’s reluctant to admit her own itch for a bit of adventure…

Then adventure – and danger – come looking for them in the form of Dorothy Ruskin, an old friend Russell and Holmes met during a trip to Palestine. Miss Ruskin is visiting family in England, leaving behind her archeological expedition and making a detour to the Holmes residence to show Mary in particular, something that might change the face of Christianity forever.

Ruskin has a papyrus scroll that was gifted to her, and she believes it’s a letter from Mary Magdalene that suggests she was an apostle of Jesus Christ.
This is quite an explosive find – and Ruskin is keen for Mary to study the papyrus and do with it what she will. But before Mary can make any decisions, news reaches her that Miss Ruskin has been killed while in London, in a hit and run car accident.

Mary and Holmes know Ruskin’s sudden death is linked to the scroll she left in Mary’s care – which has now placed them in the firing line of whoever wants to keep Mary Magdalene’s letter a secret.

‘A Letter of Mary’ is the third book in Laurie R. King’s ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ mystery series.

When I began this book I expected a bit of upheaval in Russell and Holmes’s relationship. After all, when ‘A Letter of Mary’ begins, Mary Russell is twenty-three and Holmes sixty-two-years-old, and they’re recently married. I wasn’t so much surprised by their becoming husband and wife (it’s mentioned in the blurb of all the other books, and there were hints right from book one as an older Mary was narrating) but I was curious to know if there would be a new dynamic between them, now that their relationship had become an intimate one. I’m happy to report that – aside from making Mycroft occasionally blush with the knowledge of their marriage bed – not much has changed between Russell and Holmes. Since about the age of nineteen, she has been his equal and that they’re now married has just seen them become even more of a unit.

Under his guidance I harnessed my angry intelligence. I found a direction for my life, and I came to terms with my past. When I was eighteen, we worked together on a series of cases, which culminated with finding ourselves the target of one of the cleverest, most deadly criminals he had ever faced. After that case, I was an apprentice no longer – I was, at the age of nineteen, a full partner.

There are still some adjustments to married life for the both of them too, which provides a new emotional layer to the story. King is now showing us these two evolving as partners in their detective work, and as a united, married front. This also allows for some tender moments from Holmes, who’s not exactly the most easily affectionate of characters:

‘I wish I had been there. I find it difficult to work with second-hand information, even when it comes from you.’ 
‘So why didn’t you go?’ I said irritably. 
‘I am not criticizing, Russell. There is nothing wrong with the way you gather information – far from it, in fact. It is only that I still find it difficult to accustom myself to being half of a creature with two brains and four eyes. A superior creature to a single detective, no doubt, but it takes some getting used to.’

I will say that the whodunit in this book didn’t quite fascinate me as much as those in books one and two. I should point out at this point that Laurie R. King has included theological aspects in all of the books so far – mostly pivoting around the idea of faith. This is probably because Laurie R. King herself admits a fascination with theology that she’s also given to the character of Mary who is also very proud of her Jewish background. But the discussions have never been so prominent as in ‘A Letter of Mary’, which explores shaking the very foundations of Christianity with a theological feminist investigation. Look, it’s interesting in one regard but a bit too faith-heavy for my liking.

In another way I really enjoyed this book because it majority takes place in London, with Russell doing some under-cover work and really getting stuck into the meat of the investigation and flying solo. I also really enjoyed when Mary was given a glimpse of Sherlock’s old life before retirement, and just how much of an impact he had on Scotland Yard:

‘… Some of the men laugh at him, make jokes about his pipe smoking and violin and all, but they’re laughing at all those stories Dr Watson wrote, and they don’t like to admit that their training in footprints and the laboratory’s analysis of bloodstains and tobacco ashes comes straight from the work of Sherlock Holmes. Even fingerprints – he was the first in the country to use them in a case. Miss Russell, when he says there was murder and a burglary was connected with it, then I for one believe him.’

Speaking of Laurie R. King looking at the impact of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock on her new Sherlock, I read this book at the same time that a huge decision was being made around the copyright of Sherlock Holmes, the character. From the Guardian: “A US court has ruled that Sherlock Holmes – along with 46 stories and four novels he’s appeared in – is in the public domain, reaffirming the expiration of the copyright once owned by the estate of Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle.” The federal suit was brought in early 2013 by author and scholar Leslie Klinger. The suit became necessary after the Doyle estate attempted to extract a license fee for a new book he was co-editing with Laurie R. King. That was really interesting to have in the back of my mind, because I just kept thinking how respectful King is of Conan Doyle’s creation, often paying tribute to his past stories and old cases and ensuring that any Sherlock Holmes fan would find a lot to love in her spin-off series with Mary Russell.


5/5



Saturday, July 26, 2014

‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’ Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #2 by Laurie R. King


From the BLURB:

It is 1921 and Mary Russell - Sherlock Holmes's brilliant apprentice, now an Oxford graduate with a degree in theology - is on the verge of acquiring a sizable inheritance. Independent at last, with a passion for divinity and detective work, her most baffling mystery may now involve Holmes and the burgeoning of a deeper affection between herself and the retired detective.

Russell's attentions turn to the New Temple of God and its leader, Margery Childe, a charismatic suffragette and a mystic, whose draw on the young theology scholar is irresistible. But when four bluestockings from the Temple turn up dead shortly after changing their wills, could sins of a capital nature be afoot? Holmes and Russell investigate, as their partnership takes a surprising turn...

Laurie R. King, ‘editor’ of the Mary Russell memoirs (which she received, curiously and mysteriously, via a trunk of unknown origins) has seen the first of Mary’s manuscripts published. After the publication of ‘The Beekeeper's Apprentice’, King received what she believes to be correspondence from Ms. Russell in the form of a postcard. Investigations into the mysterious author of these memoirs is still ongoing, and King puts a call out for any help in locating her whereabouts.

Meanwhile, in this – the second memoir of Mary Russell’s – ‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’ was first published in 1995, the second book in ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ mystery series.

It’s 1921 and Mary Russell is turning 21 and coming into her inheritance – the considerable business holdings of her late father and real estate of her late mother’s will now officially, legally be Mary’s and out of her dreadful guardian Aunt’s hands. At the same time as she is becoming independently wealthy, and graduating from Oxford with honours in theology and chemistry, Mary’s relationship with the ten-years retired detective Sherlock Holmes is becoming increasingly confusing. That she is his apprentice and he her mentor is never under any doubt – but Mary wonders if she is leaning towards a more amorous relationship with Holmes.

During this confusing time Mary bumps into an old Oxford friend, Veronica Beaconsfield who reaches out to Mary for help. Her ex-fiancé, one Miles Fitzwarren has come home from the Great War a broken, shell-shocked young man with a drug addiction to heroin that Veronica ‘Ronnie’ hopes Mary can have some suggestions for remedy and recuperation.

Ronnie also introduces Mary to her latest ‘do good’ work, for the New Temple of God and its charismatic leader, Margery Childe. In the wake of WWI and the nation’s “surplus women” who find their usefulness during the war effort no longer required, Childe is campaigning for a different suffragette, starting with the Catholic Church’s exclusion of women. The Temple also does considerable good working in providing education services to women, and providing shelters for battered women and children.

Margery Childe is quite a force, verging on a cult leader for all her charisma. But something doesn’t quite sit right with Mary, and when female members of the Temple start dying, she takes up her own investigation independent of Holmes…

This is the second ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ book, and while it doesn’t have quite the same panache and punch as the first (which is also considerably longer than this second instalment) Laurie R. King did manage to have me on the edge of my seat by the end of the book – anticipating both the action, and emotional pay-off that Russell and Holmes go through.
 I had met Sherlock Holmes at a time when adolescence and the devastating circumstances of my orphaning had left me with an exterior toughness and an interior that was malleable to the personality of anyone willing to listen to me and take me seriously. Had Holmes been a cat burglar or forger, no doubt I should have come into adulthood learning to walk parapets at night or concocting arcane inks.

It is worth noting that in this book, Russell finds herself on her own for the majority of the plot. She and Holmes are at an awkward and critical junction in their relationship – there’s a spark between them, that runs far deeper than mentor-apprentice, but neither seem willing to budge and risk their valuable friendship for what could be disastrous intimacy. So Holmes is out of the picture for the majority of this book, and it’s perhaps not quite as enthralling for his lack…

But King makes up for it with her witty, dry prose and a whodunit that’s frightening and captivating. I particularly liked her wry sense of humour of Russell’s description of the leader Margery Childe:

She was a feminist and she had a sense of humour, an appealing combination that was regrettably rare … 
This being set in 1921, there’s also a running-gag about Holmes’s biographer (Arthur Conan-Doyle) embarrassing himself (and Holmes, by extension) with an article he wrote around the Cottingley Fairies affair. This is hilarious, and just one example of how King so beautifully blends myth, history and reality so seamlessly into this story of a fictional character’s real-life counterpart living out a fictitious continued existence beyond his retirement/finale.

I also really liked this book for the emotional pay-off. Mary Russell goes through a lot over the course of this investigation, and by book’s end I could definitely mark out a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in her character. That’s also true of her relationship with Holmes:
 For me, for always, the paramount organ of passion was the mind. Unnatural, unbalanced, perhaps, but it was true: Without intellect, there could be no love.

This was a great book for marrying high-stakes action with the emotional build-up of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes as more than just partner detectives. I am now more invested than ever in this fabulous series, and I can’t wait to see where Russell and Holmes venture next!


5/5

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Interview with E. Lockhart, author of 'We Were Liars'

 

Earlier this year I found what is, quite possibly, my ultimate 2014 Favourite Book - 'We WereLiars' by E. Lockhart. No doubt you’ve heard of this book, which has just been released in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is making some serious waves overseas. 
 In my review of the advanced copy I received form the US, I said of ‘We Were Liars’: “haunting and visceral, full of poignancy and sugary sweetness everyone should read this.” So when the opportunity arose to interview E. Lockhart (who also authored another favourite book of mine, ‘The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks’), I naturally jumped at the chance. 

The images you see in this Q&A are from the 'We Were Liars' tumblr and Pinterest pages - something you should definitely check out as a great new addition to the YA social media marketing sphere (and a great behind-the-scenes look at Lockhart's inspiration for the book)!


Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?
  Agent. But it was not the first project my agent had tried to sell.


Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
I often restructure my novels in major ways after a first draft is finished.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘We Were Liars’, from first idea to final manuscript?
I spent 18 months writing the book, but I wrote the proposal and sold it a year before I began writing it.   I do that a lot.  I sell all my books on proposal, now.


Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
It is different with every book. With We Were Liars I thought of the setting first.  I was interested in an isolated island where people summer year after year, and the kinds of bonds those people would form.

Q: The Sinclairs feel like a very Kennedy-esque American family with a lot of skeletons in their closet. Where did the inspiration for them come from, and what sort of research did you do before writing ‘We Were Liars’?
I think rivalry between siblings  is universal. So is intergenerational conflict. I didn’t base the Sinclairs on anyone in particular, but I have seen people like that around when vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, which is an island in Massachusetts with a large and wealthy summer population.


Q: ‘We Were Liars’ has a very tricky narrator in Cadence ‘Cady’ Sinclair Eastman – especially because her narration leaks into the bigger mystery of the book. It reads seamlessly, and a lot of the time I thought it was interesting how readers were piecing together the mystery when Cady was reluctant to. How hard was it to write that narration, and how many drafts before you nailed the unreliable first-person?
The narration in We Were Liars was very, very difficult. I’d estimate 20 drafts.  Depends on what you count as a draft. Maybe 40.


 

Q: I’m also a big, big fan of ‘The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks’, which also has a very unique narrator in an omniscient third-person who reads like a biographer of the future (infamous) Frankie Landau-Banks. I thought it was such a unique way to tackle the defining moment in a young woman’s life – what inspired you to write that book in such a way?
Thank you. The narrator in Disreputable History was very fun to write, but it wasn’t a conscious decision.  The first paragraph came out in that voice and that was that.  All my novels have stylized narration, but most of them are first person. That book is just in third.  Opinionated third person isn’t that common.


Q: 'We Were Liars' is one of the biggest YA books of 2014 - it's getting such rave reviews and a real word-of-mouth fandom is growing. So, have there been any offers to adapt it for film or TV? ... also, who would your dream cast be? 
We Were Liars has been bought for film by Imperative Entertainment, which also bought the screenplay adaptation I wrote . Someone else will rewrite the screenplay, though – a proper screenwriter.  And someone else will cast it – an awesome director, hopefully. 

Q: What’s the appeal in writing for younger readers?
Adolescence is a chaotic time of life in which huge mental, physical, social and sexual chanes happen.  People separate from their families. They get new bodies. They redefine themselves. They fall in love for the first time.  It is fascinating.


Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Jaclyn Moriarty is my favorite YA writer. 

Q: Favourite book(s)?
I love so many. A book that I thought about a lot writing We Were Liars is The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?
Read.  A lot.  I know not a single working writer who is not remarkably well-read. It is part of the job.


  

We Were Liars is available from all good bookshops in Australia from August 1


Monday, July 21, 2014

'We Read To Know We Are Not Alone: Examining the Lack of LGBTQI Characters in Australian Youth Literature'




This is my first article to appear in the print edition of literary journal Kill Your Darlings - and it's free to view online!

I examine Australia's lack of LGBTQI focus in youth literature, some possible literary remedies to address this lack and I interview wonderful Aussie YA authors like Eli Glasman (The Boy’s Own Manual To Being a Proper Jew, out now) and Erin Gough (The Flywheel, coming 2015).

I hope you like it. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

'Invisible City' by Julia Dahl


From the BLURB:

Just months after Rebekah Roberts was born, her mother, an Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, abandoned her Christian boyfriend and newborn baby to return to her religion. Neither Rebekah nor her father have heard from her since. Now a recent college graduate, Rebekah has moved to New York City to follow her dream of becoming a big-city reporter. But she’s also drawn to the idea of being closer to her mother, who might still be living in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

Then Rebekah is called to cover the story of a murdered Hasidic woman. Rebekah’s shocked to learn that, because of the NYPD’s habit of kowtowing to the powerful ultra-Orthodox community, not only will the woman be buried without an autopsy, her killer may get away with murder. Rebekah can’t let the story end there. But getting to the truth won’t be easy—even as she immerses herself in the cloistered world where her mother grew up, it's clear that she's not welcome, and everyone she meets has a secret to keep from an outsider.

Rebekah Roberts moved to New York City from Florida a few months ago. Since then she got a job as a reporter, and lost the same job when the paper folded shortly thereafter (the newspaper business ain’t exactly booming, have you heard?). Now Rebekah has a job working as a ‘stringer’ for tabloid paper, New York Tribune. It’s not her ideal job (certainly not always aligned with her ethics) – as stringer, Rebekah works freelance for the Tribune and is first on the scene for breaking news stories as well as stories less likely to make the final edition. Rebekah doesn’t have an office, per-se, New York is her office and as stringer she needs to get to locations quickly and scout sources (yes, it’s her job to find people who discovered dead bodies, hound police for answers and ask grieving loved ones how they’re feeling).

On a cold, blistery New York morning Rebekah is assigned to a call down at a scrapyard where a body has been found in the mouth of a crane. But what starts as a fairly cut and dry story (though gruesome) quickly captures Rebekah’s attention when the body is confirmed to be that of a woman … then three Hasidic Jewish men arrive on the scene, followed by a specially marked van competing with the coroner for authority over the body, and Rebekah starts to learn just how complicated this story, and case, could become. 

The woman was a Hasidic Jew from Borough Park in Brooklyn. It is their religious belief that every hair and scrap of blood be buried with the deceased – thereby potentially eliminating evidence. Once the Hasidic community retrieve the body, everyone all but informs Rebekah that the case is over; the NYPD are known to relinquish cases dealing with Hasidic Jews – even homicides – lest they step on religious toes, and they don’t even object when families decline autopsy for murder victims (a body is not allowed to be cut open). 

But this case is hitting close to home for Rebekah, whose own mother was a Hasidic Jew from Borough Park, who met Rebekah’s ‘goy’ father during her teenage rebellion when she was questioning her Ultra-Orthodox religion. But once Rebekah was born her mother returned to her community, abandoning her baby and never making contact with her father again. Rebekah has grown up with anxiety and a deep sadness over her mother’s abandonment of her, and she can’t deny that at the back of her mind choosing to move from Florida to New York may have had something to do with wanting to try and find her mother after all these years…

As stringer, it’s Rebekah’s job to move from story to story as the news hits – but she can’t let go of the ‘body at the scrapyard’. Not when she learns the woman’s name – Rivka Mendelssohn – and starts to dig into her life, and discovers she too was questioning her Ultra-Orthodox upbringing, the same way Rebekah’s mother did all those years ago.

Then Rebekah meets Saul Katz, of the NYPD Shomrim (a fraternal organization for Jewish police officers of the New York City Police Department). Saul recognises Rebekah instantly, because he knew her mother and they look so very much alike. Though Saul deals mostly in theft cases, he is very invested in Rivka Mendelssohn’s death, and angry at the lack of NYPD involvement (nobody has even bought in Rivka’s husband, the influential Aron Mendelssohn, for questioning even though he owns the scrapyard where her body was found). He agrees to being Rebekah’s police informant as she keeps digging into the case…

‘Invisible City’ is the debut novel from Julia Dahl, a journalist specializing in crime and criminal justice who has previously worked for CBS News.com and the New York Post.

I kept hearing about this book from BookRiot.com – who ran several promotional ads and give-aways of Dahl’s debut. I loved the eerie cover, and was thoroughly intrigued by a crime-thriller based around the Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn. Now that I’ve read the book I have half-n’-half feelings, though I am crossing my fingers that Dahl writes more in (what I assume is?) the series, since Goodreads have labelled ‘Invisible City’ as ‘Rebekah Roberts #1’.

Straight off the bat – Rebekah having been abandoned by her Hasidic Jewish mother as a baby rings very, very convenient for this story and starts to feel clunky quite quickly. Yes, it establishes a backdrop for Rebekah and instantly gives readers some idea about the emotional instability of this protagonist. But Dahl relies heavily on Rebekah’s absent mother for plot convenience, when those in the Jewish community can seemingly tell that Rebekah is ‘one of them’ just by looking at her and it’s because of her mother that she gains a vital police informant in Saul Katz. I think Dahl relied on the mother plot too, to cut many corners in Rebekah’s investigations which also meant pacing and suspense sometimes suffered – I think ‘Invisible City’ would have been a very different (perhaps better?) story if Rebekah had actually been a true outsider to this community, instead of feeling torn between her heritage and misplaced feelings of abandonment/rejection by the community.

He thinks I’ve turned away from God. Those were his actual words. I called him to say how bad I’d been feeling sophomore year in college. I told him how I was scared all the time but I didn’t exactly know what of. Well, he said with a kind of sadness, You’ve turned away from God. His words infuriated me. I’ve never seen or heard or felt this “God”, but my life is basically a mess made by people twisting themselves into knots, trying to please him.

I don’t know, possibly Rebekah’s mother could play a bigger part in subsequent stories – but for this first instalment, there was an over-reliance and too much convenience and it even felt like Dahl was cutting emotional corners by being so on-the-nose to have Rebekah investigate the murder of a Hasidic Jewish woman when her own mother was one, and abandoned her for the very same community that harbours Rivka Mendelssohn’s killer. Y’know?

It may sound like I had a really big issue with the whole story, if I couldn’t get past this huge crux of it. But, actually, mother-issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed and was happily sucked into Dahl’s crime-thriller. The Hasidic Jewish setting in Brooklyn is fascinating – I have little to no knowledge about that community, and the way Dahl fed readers information (sometimes outrageous, as it related to the homicide case!) was incredible.

“It’s what they do when it comes to domestic violence and mental illness and sexual abuse. All of which occurs in the community, just like in any other community. But here the shame of coming forward is compounded. Generally, Jews in this community believe that speaking to the authorities about another Jew is a sin against the community. It’s mesirah, they say.” 
Mesirah?” 
Mesirah. It’s Yiddish. It means reporting on your fellow Jew. In the past, in Europe, if a Jew was arrested and sent to prison, he would be killed there. So it was every Jew’s duty to keep other Jews out of prison, which means not talking to the police.” 
“Even now?” 
“Even now.”

This was one crime-thriller in which setting definitely dictated all aspects, and became a character unto itself. It was also really intriguing because Dahl made women such a big focus of the story – the patriarchal world these women live in in the Hasidic community is explored particularly well.

My dad used to tell me stories about my mom as if she were a character in a fairy tale. Like most suburban girls growing up in the 1990s, I learned about sex young. I was nine when our Girl Scout troop went to Planned Parenthood to learn about ovaries and sperm. I learned the rest sporadically from Madonna songs and Maury Povich and maybe someone’s mom’s copy of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’. I had several years for the act itself to morph from mildly horrifying to potentially cool, and several years after that to actually get involved in doing it. Not my mother. My mother, my father said, learned about sex only in whispers. 
I will say that some aspects of the story needed tightening and cutting. Rebekah has just started a romantic relationship, of sorts, with a local bar-owner called Tony that kind of went nowhere but that Dahl relied on (again, for plot short-cuts) to give Rebekah more ties to the NYPD. Sometimes Dahl’s writing lent itself more to literary styling than crime-thriller (indeed; pacing felt off, particularly at the end, and I felt that overall the book needed bigger injections of ‘thriller’).

This book sways between a 3 and 3.5 for me. This is, after all, Dahl’s debut and if it’s for an ongoing crime series then she has good bones in Rebekah Roberts – the mother stuff may have felt overly convenient for much of this first book, but I see great potential for it to be explored (deeper, and better) in subsequent instalments. I do hope Saul Katz remains a player in any subsequent books too (in fact … I did wonder halfway through if Saul would have been a better protagonist to base this series around, especially when his backstory was far more compelling than Rebekah’s absentee mother for me?). But I can’t deny that Dahl gave me chills with some of her passages, the focus on murder in a Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn makes for captivating reading and I can see future potential for this sleuth. Not perfect, but pretty damn good.

3.5/5