Thursday, August 30, 2018

Mini-Reviews: Rebekah Roberts Series

I have two sisters and I would classify them both as binge-readers.  I always have a book going. They go months without reading one and then whamo! They read like 12 in a month.  Lil' Sis (Lemon Drop's Mom for longtime blog followers...) joined the Summer Reading Program at her local library when she signed my niece up and proceeded to burn through the books (figuratively, not literally).  Invisible City is one of those books she tore through and recommended that I read.  And here we are.  I'm now caught up on the series to date.
Invisible City by Julia Dahl is the first book in the series and introduces the reader to Rebekah Roberts, a young (early 20s) reporter for the New York Tribune (think New York Post). Rebekah is a stringer - which means she goes where the paper sends her, she digs up details on a breaking story and phones it in to the desk for someone else to write.  She's sent to a scrap yard where the body of a young woman has been found, discarded like trash.  Turns out the woman is from the insulated Hasidic Jewish community, which is already closing ranks.  The whole story is challenging enough but then Rebekah meets Saul Katz, a cop, who tells her she "looks just like her mother."  Shocking since Rebekah's mother, also a Hasidic Jew, left the community to be with Rebekah's father, only to abandon her lover and newborn baby without a word.  As in, they have no idea if she's alive, dead, what the heck happened to her, abandoned.

As Rebekah works the story she finds herself learning more about her mother, a woman who has cast a long shadow and shaped her life by her very disappearance.  Dahl has taken a very women's fiction idea (a heroine coming to peace with her mother) and woven it into a mystery novel.  The world-building is very good, although Rebekah is a green reporter who makes some seriously bone-headed decisions in this book (my biggest gripe here).  But she's young and green and it's totally believable that she would make wrong moves as she's emotionally being battered by the ghost of Mommy Dearest.  Grade = B-
Run You Down picks up immediately where Invisible City left off and people, this book!  It's one of those incredibly shocking with the benefit of hindsight books.  It takes place during the Obama administration and white supremacists end up playing a hefty roll in the plot.  Given current affairs (see: Charlottesville...) Dahl comes off looking like a genius or someone who can see into the future (this was published in 2015).

A Hasidic man comes to see Rebekah.  He lives in upstate New York and his wife was found dead in their bathtub.  Everyone said it's a suicide because *gasp* she was on anti-depressants (a HUGE stigma in the community).  But he cannot believe it.  His wife would never abandon their infant son.  So he begs Rebekah to look into it, which she does.  And once again, the ghost of her mother is lurking in the shadows.

The author moves between alternating points of view in this story - giving us present day Rebekah as she works the story and her mother, Aviva, who tells the story of her past, how she came to abandon her daughter, and what her life has become.  Eventually both narratives collide, chickens come home to roost, and daughter finally meets her mother.

The dual narrative took some time for me to sink into, mostly because I was more interested in the mystery than in Aviva's point of view.  But once the author begins weaving the threads together, the suspense ratchets up and the ending is explosive, shocking, and upsetting.  White supremacists are involved, so that should give you the clue that things get very ugly, and no one is going to walk away unscathed.  Final Grade = B
As challenging and thought-provoking as Run You Down was, Conviction was at times an uglier read.  Rebekah is at loose ends, dissatisfied with work at The Trib following the events of the previous book.  She meets a woman who runs a crime blog who tells her she gets hundreds of letters from prisoners begging her to write about their cases. Rebekah is looking for a story that isn't tabloid trash and reads some of those letters. That's when she finds one sent by DeShawn Perkins, who as a teenager was convicted of the savage murders of his foster parents and toddler foster sister while they slept in bed in the summer of 1992.  DeShawn says he didn't do it, but what he claims was a coerced confession and an eye witness sealed his fate.  What catches Rebekah's eye about this letter?  One of the original officers on the case was none other than Saul Katz.

We have dual timelines with this story: 1992 when Saul and his partner catch the case and present day as Rebekah starts to dig.  What's coloring the edges of this story is the fact that in DeShawn's Crown Heights neighborhood in 1991 there was a riot ignited by tensions between the Hasidic Jewish community and Black residents.  The murder of DeShawn's family just one year after those riots changes everything for him with the consequences reverberating 20 years later.

Again, I wasn't as enamored with the dual narrative structure here but it's important because it unfolds DeShawn's story and sets the stage for Rebekah's digging into it in 2017.  What soon becomes evident is that there's plenty of blame to go around and it will unearth secrets that many people would love to see stay buried.  I'm not going to lie, this is an upsetting read.  In part because it shows us that gray area where "good people" make horrible choices based on the idea that "well, so what about that guy, he's not my problem."  There's an inhumanity here that is upsetting in it's subtlety and Dahl unearths all the ugly racism and prejudices that can lurk below the surface, undetected, until they either boil over or someone takes the lid off the pot to send it into the atmosphere.  It's not an easy read but it's compelling and remarkable.  Grade = B+

Genre fiction (of all stripes) tends to get labelled as fluffy, brain candy more often than not.  This trilogy is a perfect example of how something as "entertaining" as genre fiction can also be thought-provoking.  These are the sorts of mysteries that you could recommend to someone who says, "I only read serious fiction!" or to a book club group who sniffs disdainfully at your leisure reading.  There's a lot to unpack in all three of these stories, and read as a set of three, it's a fine achievement.

The last book came out in 2017 and I hope the author isn't finished with Rebekah. She sets things up in the final book that could take her heroine off into some interesting directions and it seems a shame to waste such a lovely series idea.  But, Dahl is also a journalist so - who knows?

I know this blog is mostly read by romance readers, and I will say that while Rebekah does date, there's really no romantic story arcs to be found in these books.  That said, there's a lovely friendship between Rebekah and her roommate, along with all that baggage to unpack with Mommy Dearest.  While the books are challenging reads, justice and the truth do come out in the end - but not without collateral damage.

No comments: