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by Karin Salvalaggio
Minotaur Books, May 2014
289 pages
ISBN: 1250046181

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The narrative of BONE DUST WHITE is written in the present tense, while the dialogue sets the timing of events in place. I don't normally like books written in the present tense; however, in this case it is a brilliant move. There is a sense of the narrative providing a lens, something cold and crystalline, through which we see the events take place, while at the same time the characters' thoughts and feelings provide emotional depth to the story. Set, as this book is, just over the Canadian border in northern Montana during the winter, and involving somewhat quirky characters, the balance between the narrative and the dialogue transports the reader rather than distancing (as present tense often does).

At the start of the book, Grace Adams, a not-quite-eighteen-year-old is recovering from a heart transplant as she observes a woman being killed through her bedroom window. As she makes the unwise move to go to the woman's aid wearing only a silk nightie and bathrobe, the sense of isolation caused by living in the only occupied house in a failed subdivision, by the encroaching forest, and by the heavy snowfall becomes palpable. When Grace discovers the woman just barely alive, she also discovers that she is the mother who abandoned Grace eleven years previously. What Grace does at that moment, and then throughout the book, makes it clear that Grace is no ordinary teenager.

The detective assigned to investigate the murder, Macy Greeley, has a history in Grace's fictional small Montana hometown of Collier, where she investigated but did not solve a human trafficking case at the same time that Grace's mother disappeared from town a decade previously. Many of the characters peopling Grace's world are the same ones Macy either investigated or worked with during that case, and indeed, the two cases do connect as the plot develops. In her final trimester of pregnancy as the case progresses, Macy has a tough exterior, keeping others at arm's length. This contrasts well with her friend and self-appointed assistant, Jared, who seems to have a soft spot for each of the innocents who has been damaged by living in a dead-end, meth-ridden, half-abandoned ex-industrial town. There is plenty of nastiness in this book, but the narrative keeps it at distance while bringing the underlying kindness of the main characters into stronger focus.

The mystery and the characters both have great complexity, and both are revealed slowly as the layers are peeled away. While the plot moves along briskly, keeping the reader engaged, we never lose sight of the development of character and relationships. The setting provides darkness and gives perspective to the perpetrators of human violence. BONE DUST WHITE is a masterful debut, and I sincerely hope that Salvalaggio has a series in mind for Detective Macy Greeley.

Sharon Mensing is the Head of School of Emerald Mountain School, an independent school in the mountains of Colorado, where she lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, May 2014

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