Published April 2017 by Seventh Street Books
Amanda Baron died in a boating accident on the Ohio River in 1953. Or, did she? While it was generally accepted that she had died when a coal barge rammed the pleasure boat she was sharing with her lover, her body was never found.
Travis Baron was an infant when his mother disappeared. After the accident and the subsequent publicity, Travis’s father scoured the house of all evidence that Amanda Baron had ever lived, and her name was never to be uttered around him. Now in high school, Travis yearns to know more about his mother. With the help of his best friend, Mitch Malone, Travis begins a search for the truth about the mother he never knew.
Every once in awhile a book comes onto my radar and for whatever reason disappears only to resurface months later at which time I read it in record time, ignoring the family and all household happenings, and then promptly kick myself for waiting so long and almost missing out on an unforgettable read. Everyone…this is one of those books!! I saw it last spring at Barnes & Noble, loved that cover and title immediately, read the back and thought oh that sounds good, but put it down and continued browsing??! It’s even set in a small Ohio town very much like the one I grew up in…what a big mistake I made putting that book down. Fast forward almost a year and with the posting of my recent Q & A with my friend and fellow reviewer Joe Hartlaub which you can read here in case you missed it, the book was back on my radar as Joe (who’s raved about it all year) had it as one of his top reads of 2016. THEN I find out it’s up for an Edgar Award next month for Best Paperback original and that was it, I knew I had to read it now!!
The novel begins in 1971 with a Brilliant, Ohio newspaper article announcing the presumed death of recent high school graduate Travis Baron who’s body had yet to be found after his car plunged off a cliff into the Ohio River following a high speed chase with police. Travis’s best friend, Mitch Malone, narrates the story beginning with Travis’s funeral but then quickly takes us back in time to the 1960s when their friendship began. Life for both boys was very different, with Mitch growing up with two loving parents and Travis growing up with a tyrannical, abusive father and no mother as she had been missing since Travis was a newborn…Amanda Baron was last seen on the Ohio River jumping naked off their pleasure boat with an unidentified man (lover?) seconds before it was crushed to bits by a barge …their bodies were never found. Travis grew up wondering about his mother but his father, Big Frank, refused to answer any questions about her. It wasn’t until he was a young teenager that Travis decided he was going to get answers on his own, well he and Mitch that is as they were a team, and Operation Amanda was born.
I really don’t want to say any more about the plot but trust me when I say I was mesmerized by this intricately plotted small town mystery. The author’s writing so captured what I remember about growing up in a small Ohio town during a time when their weren’t cell phones or internet and kids were left much more to their own devices. The setting and characterization was so convincing that I felt I was there alongside Mitch and Travis as they pieced together the buried secrets surrounding Amanda’s disappearance. I did have one minor issue or critique centering on the boys and that was that every once in awhile they spoke in such a mature manner and with words that you wouldn’t think a 15 or 16 year old boy would use (congenial, sire) that it caused me to pause and kind of scratch my head. As I said, minor.
What I hope you take with you from this review is that this is one of the most captivating coming-of-age mysteries I’ve read in recent years! For me, it’s very reminiscent of the writing style and tone of John Hart’s The Last Child which if you’ve read my blog these last few months you know is one of my favorite books ever. Nearing the end of A Brilliant Death, I was convinced I knew how it all went down, I felt a little smug actually. Then came the last 35 pages…I had it all wrong. After drying my eyes (I was NOT prepared to cry) I realized I would need a different adjective to describe this book so as not to look like I’m stealing the title word brilliant …I’ll go with superb!
**Be sure to stop back in April when I’ll be reviewing Robin Yocum’s new novel A Welcome Murder which releases April 4th from Seventh Street Books**