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Book Review: Dead Air by Deborah Shlian and Linda Reid

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Ellsford University holds many secrets within its austere walls. Macabre murder, suicidal students and one radio journalist who threatens to bring down the institution, if her own dark secrets don't destroy her first.

A good mystery is a work of art. By its very nature it must be. Plots, subplots, characters. All must be interwoven just so to draw the reader in. Any failure on one front will cause the entire work to unravel, leaving the reader feeling disappointed, cheated. If the writer is too elaborate the work will not flow naturally, leaving the reader feeling overwhelmed and confused.

Dead Air by Deborah Shlian and Linda Reid finds that perfect balance, engaging the reader, yet taking the time to build upon itself. It draws you in, but leaves just enough distance to allow for objectivity. An omniscient viewpoint gives the book a web-like feeling as the reader becomes aware of events happening on campus and the characters are left to play catch up. The layers create an intricate groundwork that adds to the anticipation and makes the novel a fast read.

From the opening pages Dead Air begins to weave its magic with an elegant prose that wraps its fingers around your mind, refusing to let go. You find yourself compelled by the writer's language, no matter how macabre the subject matter.

The first campus death is a suicide, a young man who decides to take a high dive off a low clock tower, but it's the writing that strikes you. Not a grisly death scene, a tantalizing tease leaves you hungry for more.

"He’d been sitting there, feet dangling over the precipice of the university clock tower for nearly twenty minutes, not clear how he got there or why. But then he hadn’t been certain of much since — since when? He wasn’t sure. He couldn’t seem to remember anything except the recurrent nightmares. Tormenting him. Invading his thoughts. He’d hardly slept at all in two weeks."

I had a feeling of anticipation as I began reading Dead Air. The information I had received beforehand was fascinating. A dead professor, disappearing students, a student radio journalist whose own dark past threatens to destroy her as she delves deeper into her investigation.

That information was actually a bit deceiving. There's so much more to this book than the expurgated synopsis let on. With both the authors having backgrounds as university medical directors and researchers, that should have been my first clue that this was not going to be your run-of-the-mill murder mystery. I haven't been this rocked by a book since reading Coma by Robin Cook. Only in this case it would be like having Coma read to me by… Hannibal Lecter.

Sammy Greene is a red-headed spitfire, a Junior at Ellsford University, and a native New Yorker who's turning the university and the little town of St. Charlesbury on its ear with her popular, controversial radio talk show called The Hot Line. This seems to make her a threat to the establishment and a magnet for the religious nutjobs who have made the university and its medical experiments the focal point of their protests. When Sammy sets out to do an expose called "The Death of Education," examining the supposed suicide of a prominent professor, she finds more questions than answers. It seems that Ellsford has a problem with suicide. Suicide amongst the staff and the student body. And it's a problem that's growing. As the bodies start to pile up the university wheels begin to turn in the direction of self preservation.

And Sammy has secrets of her own. On the outside she's a tough kid with a thick skin who doesn't back down from a challenge, but there is an underlying fragility that threatens to break her. She can't escape her past or the voices in her own head that have been re-awakened by her research.

At times it's difficult to distinguish between the roles of protagonist and antagonist. For instance, the powerful, evangelical figurehead who holds sway over the town and many of the university students. His unfocused vitriol leaves one wondering exactly whom the target really is. However, even this seems to work in the authors' favor. Another loose cannon whose next move is unpredictable. Can he be a trusted ally or is he simply another dark cog in Ellsford's murderous machinery?

There are several foreshadowing events that occur early on, but you shouldn't get too comfortable thinking that you have it all figured out. You'll find that this story weaves in and out and it will shake up anyone going in with preconceived notions. The tension builds as Sammy realizes the magnitude of skeletons in Ellsford's closets. Students begin to disappear and Sammy soon finds herself in a race for her life. As her situation becomes more desperate she struggles to discern friend from foe in a world full of deception and danger.

The authors call Dead Air A Sammy Greene Thriller leaving the impression that there are more to come in a series. I hope so. They've done for academia what Patricia Cornwell did for forensic science.

This is a great book for anyone who enjoys reading thrillers and mysteries. The release date is set for December 7th but I'd definitely recommend pre-ordering a copy for anyone who has an avid reader on their holiday shopping list. Dead Air is sure to be in high demand this season.

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