Saturday, February 19, 2011

Last Exit In New Jersey (CE Grundler)

Overall: 4.9
  • Plot: 5/5
  • Originality: 5/5
  • Language: 4.5/5
  • Believability: 5/5
Last Exit in New Jersey by CE Grundler

Nice young ladies really shouldn't be dumping bodies at sea.

Then again, that isn't stopping Hazel Moran, and she can't figure where anyone got the idea she was nice to begin with. Raised aboard her father's aging schooner and riding shotgun in their old 18-wheeler, there's little on the road or water that she can't handle; it's her people skills that need work. Normally that isn't an issue - behind the wheel of a Kenworth most people tend to leave her alone. But when Hazel and her father become the targets of some unsavory characters hunting for her blue-haired cousin, their stolen tractor-trailer truck and a delivery that never arrived, she knows it's time to heed a lesson learned from her favorite hard-boiled paperbacks: playing nice will only end in tears.

For ten sweltering days Hazel navigates the Garden State's highways and shorelines, contending with a suspiciously wealthy stranger, white trash, Born Agains, appliance salesmen, an unstable stalker and his curiously troublesome companion. It'll take all her ingenuity, not to mention some fishing tackle and high voltage, if Hazel hopes to protect her family and unravel this tangle of greed and betrayal. And anyone who gets too close, no matter their intent, will discover just how dangerous Hazel truly is as she sets in motion a twisted plan to uncover the truth, settle some scores, and if possible not wind up dead in the process.
Genre: Thriller
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As much as I loathe the phrase "twists and turns" in all its hideous triteness, I can think of no better way to explain the serpentine path that is Last Exit In New Jersey. My mind is still trying to process as I write, but the first word to come to mind is this: wow.

The book begins with an introduction to a protagonist who, by all rights, should be wholly unlikable. She is rude, egocentric, antisocial, judgmental, and more than a little bit of a sociopath. It is a great demonstration of Grundler's skill that the girl ended up drawing my compassion, as well as a begrudging sort of affection. Her character, in all its flawed glory, was revealed through the choices that she made, and I found myself caught between marveling at her MacGyver-esque skills and feeling completely awed by her presence of mind, laughing all the while at the inch-think coat of snark that blankets her tongue.

The novel actually alternates between two points of view, flip-flopping from Hazel to Hammon and back again. At first, it was difficult to see how the parallel storylines were related, and I was annoyed by the constant passing of the baton because I wanted to find out where each one was going. When she dovetailed the two, however, everything came together seamlessly, and the importance of establishing personalities and histories became apparent. As the mystery unraveled, I was torn between blazing forward to see how it ends and going back to match recent revelations with past clues. The plot was complex, surprising, and at times confusing, but wholly enjoyable for those very reasons.

There is a fair amount of nautical-speak, as would be expected in a story about people who live on boats. Grundler successful walks the line between authenticity and overkill; as a reader with very little sailing experience, I was still able to wade through the technical terms without becoming bogged down by them. They slipped in unobtrusively in the edgy, irony-ridden tone of voice that dominates the novel. My own real criticism would be a few typographical errors, but no glaring grammatical ones come to mind.

Last Exit In New Jersey is a lesson in balance — dramatics without implausibility; suspense sans gratuitous filler; and romance conveyed in half a handful of love scenes. In the end, reading this book is a lot like sailing aboard Hammon's boat, the Revenge: the pacing is efficiently done, even if part of you irrationally wishes it were a faster ride.

(Review copy provided by the author)

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