Etta Lawrence has staked everything on a year at a prestigious writing academy in the rainy Oregon woods. But truth be told, she’s an indifferent writer. She’s also distracted by her roommate’s distraught behavior and has a crush on the academy’s cook, a Texan named Carl.
In THE GARDEN OF DEAD DREAMS, Quillen’s prose drips with atmosphere, quirky characters, and a deep sense of foreboding. The academy’s founder, the late great novelist Vincent Buchanan (a Herman Wouk-type figure on literary steroids) is still revered by students and administrators alike, almost to the point of demagoguery. His impact, via fiction, on the outcome of WWII is a central and continuing argument for everyone at the lodge. But as Etta’s roommate goes off the rails and personal relationships at the academy begin to fray, Etta grows uncomfortable with the tension-filled atmosphere and certain that bad things are happening behind the scenes.
When the roommate, after a major literary success, disappears, Etta finds some improbable clues that implicate both a visiting professor and the late Buchanan. With the help of an old manuscript, Etta begins to piece together a dark secret. But before she truly knows what is going on, the academy administrators show that they’ll use all the many means at their disposal to ensure her silence. Yet, exactly what is the secret they are hiding and why will they kill to keep it?
The strength of DEAD DREAMS is the powerful prose. Descriptions are excellent, whether of people, places, or the quivering tension in the air. Etta retreats into the woods surrounding the academy more than once and Quillen makes you feel the crunch of leaves underfoot and the tang of pine in the air. Later in the book, when Etta tracks the secret to a Japanese mom-and-pop store, the reader is right there amid the paper lanterns and dusty boxes.
The prose keeps the reader hooked, even when the mystery is slow to develop or the plotting gets wobbly. For example, a key clue to Etta’s place at the academy isn’t revealed until the 40% point, a friend suddenly becomes a horticultural specialist when one is needed, and after establishing that the lodge is a closed zone impossible to get in or out, Etta suddenly is able to come and go undetected.
At the end, the loop doesn’t quite close on all the drama, leaving some questions. A couple of relationships are blurry and Carl disappears. But Quillen is a writer to watch. Perhaps the biggest question is when is her next book?
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I'm author Carmen Amato.
I used to work for the CIA, now I write mystery and suspense, including the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco.
Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat.