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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Thrilling action in second Junction Chronicles mystery

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A Murder of Crows (Simon and Schuster) is Toronto mystery writer David Rotenberg’s second book in the Junction Chronicles series.

Decker Roberts is a “synaesthete,” someone who holds a unique mental power – in his case the ability to tell when people are speaking the truth.

Since readers last saw him in the previous book, Placebo Effect, Roberts has been keeping a low profile after his run-in with America’s National Security Agency.

But the NSA, headed by Leonard Harrison, a “Tommy Lee Jones without the snark,” and special agent Yslan Hicks, a young blond woman with almost translucent eyes, is keeping track of Roberts and other synaesthetes like him.

Roberts can tell whether people are speaking the truth by a series of squiggly lines that appear in his line of vision when someone is talking. In the past, he has used this gift for profit, consulting with big corporations for large fees.

But since the events of the previous book, he’s been keeping a low profile and trying to find his estranged adult son, Seth, who has cancer.

Most of the book’s action takes place in the United States, not in the Junction area of Toronto that gives the series its name, where Roberts is from.

The action in the first part of the book is fast and thrilling. Rotenberg deftly builds up the tension, letting the reader knows that something big is going to happen.

That something is a mass killing at a prestigious American college.

A disgruntled professor at Ancaster College, one of the best universities in America, plans on making a big splash on graduation day by detonating an explosive that will kill more than 200 students and faculty. He enlists the help of a school janitor, Walter Jones, who also seems to have deep issues.

The best parts of this book are those related to the janitor. In Richard Harris (Silence of the Lambs) style, Rotenberg gets us inside the mind of the psychopath. We find out about the people who’ve hurt him in the past and why he agrees to help the professor.

After the explosion, the NSA tracks Roberts down and forces him to use his skill to help them with the interrogation of witnesses.

At the college, Roberts discovers that NSA has been tracking other people like him and that the organization has also been using another synaesthe – a woman named Viola Tripping who can read the final thoughts of a person just before he or she dies – to help them solve this crime.

NSA agent Hicks takes the two of them to the crime scene so Tripping can read the victims’ final thoughts and Decker can tell if they were lying or not.

This part of the novel was thrilling, and I could see how this subject can make an exciting TV series (there was some talk about this a few years ago), but then the story slows down drastically.

Although the NSA was using the synaesthetes to track down the killer or killers, there is never a sense of urgency, of racing against the clock. There is no reason to believe the killer or killers will strike again.

A lot of fuss is made made about the U.S. president travelling to Ancaster College to speak at the memorial service, but nothing really comes of it, and we are left with an unsatisfying Edgar Allen Poe-style climax involving a premature burial.

The subplot about Decker’s friend, Eddie, a computer maven, who plans to incriminate a lawyer named Ira Charendoff, is complex, as is the account of events revolving around Decker’s son, Seth, and there is a totally unnecessary bit in Africa.

Rotenberg plans to continue the series, so one imagines some of these plot lines will be picked up later.

Fans of the genre will find a lot to like in this book.

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In Short:

• New from children/young adult author Carol Matas is Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz (Scholastic).

This is similar to the Winnipeg author’s other books in Scholastic’s  “Dear Canada” series, which includes the award-winning Turned Away and Footsteps in the Snow.

Like them, Pieces of the Past is a fictional diary account of a young girl. Rose, as she begins her diary, is living in Winnipeg in 1948. She is encouraged by her new guardian, Saul, to write down an account of her time in wartime Poland and the Holocaust.

As she digs deeper into her past, she is haunted by the most terrifying memory of all. Will she find the courage to bear witness to her mother’s ultimate sacrifice?

Intended for younger readers, the book also includes a short Holocaust history at the end, as well as photos and maps, to help children understand the period.

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