Tag Archives: Julia Dahl

Shovel Ready Edgar-ready?

shovelThe fifth nominee for Best First Novel by an American Author is Adam Sternbergh’s genre-bending debut novel, Shovel Ready.  And I have to say, it knocked my socks off.

Shovel Ready‘s set in the near future in a New York City that’s been half-emptied by dirty bombs, tourist-free and divided sharply into the haves and the have-nots, where the haves can tap into the  latest technological marvel:  the limnosphere, an alternative universe where anything can happen.  And often does.

Back in the day, Spademan used to be a garbage man.  Literally.  Like his father before him, he was a NYC waste-hauler.  He met and married Stella, a beautiful, loving woman with hoped to become an actress.  One day, a bomb went off in the subway.   And then, impeccably timed to coincide with the arrival of paramedics, firefights, and cops, a second, bigger, radioactive bomb.  And Spademan can only hope that Stella was killed by bomb #1 and didn’t lie there, broken and bleeding, praying for rescue, until the big boom of bomb #2.

Now he’s a hit man.  Pay him and he’ll kill for you.  He doesn’t need to know more than who, and he doesn’t want to know why.  He only has a few rules, such as  no suicides and no children.  That’s why he’s slow to take the job when a caller wants him to target Grace Chastity Harrow (who’s re-named herself Persephone).  She’s run away from home and her uber-rich evangelist father.  Assured that she’s 18, he takes the job, but calls a halt again when he realizes she’s pregnant.  Stuck with her temporarily, he plans to feed her, clean her up, and then send her on her way.  But that can’t happen, because it’s pretty clear that Spademan is not the only hit man on the scene.  And he’s starting to like her.

And that’s when the dystopian tale gets even more dystopian.  Turns out that Daddy has been selling heaven to the masses, but what he’s been delivering is a second world where the rich can prey upon the helplessly enslaved.  And the only way to free the slaves and bring down Rev. Harrow involves not only Spademan and Persephone, but several of Spademan’s friends in a daring rescue mission, simultaneously occurring in the real world and in the limnosphere.

Here’s what’s fabulous about Shovel Ready:

  • Great voice
  • Lots of action
  • Compelling plotting (despite a couple of holes)
  • Skillful blend of fantasy, sci-fi and crime thriller

If you’re looking character development or subtlety, Shovel-Ready is not going to do it for you.  It could, however, be a great movie.  (Optioned by Denzel Washington, I’m not sure I see the big D as Spademan.)

Now for the hard part… where does it rank?  For sheer enjoyment, it’s gotta be ahead of Brightwell… but will it be #2 or take the top spot?  It could not be more different from Dry Bones in the Valley.  And as much as I love Shovel Ready‘s energy and vision, I think Bones is a deeper book.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
  3. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  4. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  5. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Cover art for Shovel Ready:  Dystopian- check.  Edgy- check.  Eye-catching – check.  Title:  just okay.  Overall,  Shovel Ready is just behind Murder at the Brightwell on the “judging the book by its cover” rating scale…

#4 in the Edgar countdown: Invisible City

city

Well-titled Invisible City, okay cover art! IMHO.

They say to write what you know, and Julia Dahl did.   She’s a journalist specializing in crime, has a Lutheran father and Jewish mother, and lives in Brooklyn.  And Rebekah Roberts, the protagonist of her debut mystery (up for an MWA Edgar!), Invisible Cityis a lot like Julia.   Her mother was a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who rebelled, married Rebekah’s dad (just to mix it up, he’s a Methodist), and stuck with him for a few years, leaving them to return to her own community when Rebekah was five. Her mother’s abandonment has haunted Rebekah ever since.  It’s the expectation that somehow, someway, she’ll find out more about her mother – and perhaps even connect with her – that leads new college grad Rebekah to head for NYC and a job as a tabloid stringer.

Indeed, it’s Rebekah’s physical resemblance to her mother that gives her an edge over other reporters when the naked body of an observant woman turns up, head shaved, in Gowanus.  The NYPD barely investigates and the woman’s body is whisked away, not to the coroner’s office, but to a Jewish funeral home, where her body will be cleansed and buried within 24 hours – no autopsy, no evidence.  A Jewish police detective, brought in to help translate, knows Rebekah’s mother, and he smooths the way for her to talk with many of the religious who would ordinarily keep shtum.  At first, Rebekah just wants to get the story.  But soon, she’s driven to actually solve the crime.   As she gets deeper into the investigation and her persona as Rivka (the diminutive for Rebekah), she also begins to understand the world her mother inhabited.

Dahl tells the story well, including a surprising plot twist at the end that you won’t see coming, but is not a cheat. The side story about her mother is interesting, and Dahl is skillful in revealing this religious culture to the reader as Rebekah learns about it herself.  However, I’m having a terrible time ranking the book, because there are definitely clunky aspects to the writing.  For example, the boyfriend Tony is barely a sketch, and there’s at least one random, coarse-languaged sex scene that feels grafted-on to ensure grittiness.

The book clearly ranks above The Life We Bury, and below Dry Bones in the Valley, but where to place it compared to Murder at the Brightwell, which has an assured, elegant style and is a lovely book for its type (not my favorite type, though!)  After much mental haggling, I’m ranking this Edgar nominee third out of the four reviewed to date.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  3. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  4. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

And since I’ve been explicitly commenting on covers and titles, I would point out that Invisible City is a perfect fit for the city within a city where the Hasidim reside.  I suppose the cover art features the appropriate city and evokes a certain angst, so can’t really complain there, either.