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Three and one half moon gifThomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur (Hardcover), ISBN: 0312252064
Today's murder mysteries provide a fictional equivalent of ancient Roman blood sports and other death games. One writer wrote, "We create characters . . . and they kill one another for the bloodthirsty amusement of our readers."  

My frustration with these bloodstained pages arises from writers committing murder in a vacuum simply as a literary device to fill a plot requirement. As an alternative, I recommend Christine Andreae's Smoke Eaters.  

Christine Andreae, Smoke EatersThis author writes about good vs evil, cause and effect, not just mindless killing and thrilling investigations. Her multi-layered plots swirl around the evil act providing real-life settings peopled with breathing characters who act and react based upon their experiences, motivations and morals. 

Her latest thriller provides a thought provoking, well-researched, factual experience that elicits character change. Nothing in her book happens without consequences. 

The storylines revolve around Mattie McCulloch, her career with the Forest Service, her family, her battle against fire, her fight against a psycho and her search for self. The book opens with diary entries written by an angry, sick diarist with a fascination for fire. Then we travel with Mattie to the Justice Peak Fire in Montana where she accepts her first position as Incident Commander. 

A single mom, Mattie entered her career field for financial rather than altruistic reasons. But over time, that career evolved into a crusade. She resolves to best the men who harass her and the fires that she studies and respects. Yet, clearly the career takes second place to her maternal feelings for her only child, Jimmy.

Jim, 19, followed his parents into fighting forest fires. He also serves at the Justice Fire as one of the Milville Hotshots, a well-respected group of "ground pounders" who fight fires up close and personal. The elements intersect at Justice for a wild roller-coaster ride of death, survival and rebirth. 

Andreae's novel burns with realism and draws readers into the fire fighters' camps, lives, experiences and politics. If anyone wants to shout stereotype, the good old boy network falls into that trap. The author hammers a bit repetitively at the sexist attitudes and stoic resentment against women fire fighters. But the topic plays a vital role in the story.  

Smoke Eaters maintains its realism through a trial by fire when compared to the real life experience in Los Alamos, N.M.. It didn't hurt the story's realism that shortly after I put this book down, the Los Alamos forest fires flared up in the media. I realized the book gave me a deeper appreciation for the war firefighters wage, the risks they take, and the individuals who dedicate themselves to this work, as the real-life fire appeared on my television each day. 

Dawn Goldsmith 

Click here to read Elizabeth Sheley's view of Smoke Eaters.

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