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13 1/2
by Nevada Barr
Vanguard, October 2009
320 pages
ISBN: 1593155530

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This non-series book by Nevada Barr encompasses a completely different theme and background from her series books. This tells the story of two people who are badly damaged by entirely different circumstances who meet in New Orleans and fall in love. They are then menaced by some terrible torments that may destroy them both.

The woman is Polly. We meet her first as a fifteen year old girl in a trailer park in Louisiana. She is frightened and disgusted by the various men her mother brings home and runs away to New Orleans where through some means she goes to school and eventually becomes a professor of English. Along the way she has two daughters. She leads a quiet life very happy not to have the intrusion of a man.

The man is Dylan. At age eleven he was discovered by the police covered with the blood of his murdered mother, father, and baby sister. His older brother was badly wounded with the same axe used to murder the others. Dylan was tried and convicted and sent to the juvenile detention center. While there he could not remember the details of the murders, but accepted the fact that he had committed this atrocious deed. He is released to the care of his older brother and they move to New Orleans and change their names and their lives.

The characters are very nicely drawn. We see the two main characters as they see themselves. Both are wounded. Dylan (or Marshall as he is now known) is afraid to get close to anyone for fear he will kill again. He is haunted by what he has done and what was done to him in the juvenile detention center. He has learned to live with himself and his terrible past but he has hardly made peace with it. Polly is much more secure, on the surface at least. She has never felt the need of a husband in her life and is very surprised to find herself falling in love. But she is a strong and very accomplished person and, when her daughters are in danger, capable of any action necessary to protect them. It takes the reader some time to appreciate and learn to like these two characters, however.

Most of the book takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans and the setting is very well done. We see the ruined parts of the city, the people desperately trying to rebuild their homes and their city, the haunting notes of what used to be and what will be again. A particularly intriguing part of this story takes place on Jackson Square where the tarot readers and the prostitutes gather. Polly goes down often to get her future told.

Interspersed between sections of the book are first person thoughts about serial killers. The writer muses on what they did, why they did it, and whether the writer could also do the same.

The writing is smooth and professional. Details add to the descriptions and to the story. Dialogue is realistic and believable. The settings are credible as well. This is not a difficult book to read.

The end was fraught with tension and excitement. Both protagonists are in danger, albeit of a different sort, and it is not until the very end that the reader is certain from which direction the menace comes and why it is occurring. The problem is that I figured out this solution about two-thirds of the way through the book, so the surprise did not work for me. Nonetheless it was a satisfying ending and explained many things which I had not understood.

Reviewed by Sally A. Fellows, September 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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