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Valley of Ashes by Cornelia Read

Valley of Ashes is the fourth title in Cornelia Read's Madeline Dare series.  I've reviewed the three previous titles here on the blog.  Click here and here and here to see them.  As its predecessors did before, this latest installment picks up both later in the timeline (about a year and a half after the last book) and in a different locale than each of the others because for whatever reason, Madeline and her husband, Dean, are nomads who move every couple years.  Dean is often absent from much of the action in the story due to various business travels and as a result has remained a fairly one dimensional character.  In this installment we find out why he's away so much.  And it's because he's a verbal abuse spewing asshole of a husband who doesn't care one whit to lift a finger to help his exhausted spouse with the housework or childcare instead choosing to vaunt off on hours long bike rides on the weekends that he is home and not travelling in some far off place for business.  Excuse my language, but in none of the previous novels were we given any inkling that Dean had this in him.  He either needs to get it together and shape up or Madeline needs take those twin babies and leave his ass far behind in the dust.  But I digress...

The title of Valley of Ashes has multiple meanings that I've been thinking (okay, obsessing) about since I finished the book last night.  There's the obvious reference to the cases of arson that have been popping up in the Boulder, Colorado, area, and, despite the impression that the jacket blurb gives us, do not play an integral role in the main action of the story.  The title may also refer to the state of being that Madeline and her marriage are in by the end of the novel because when I think about this I think that in the course of this story her marriage has just been torched to cinders and has burned down around her.  By the closing pages Madeline is in a very low place and not just due to her marital drama because while she thought that was the worst thing to ever happen to her, well, she finds out, sadly, that it is not.  I am still obsessing about the state of affairs in Madeline's life and where she'll be when the next book picks up (speaking of, when is that next book coming out?)

Madeline, Dean and their year old twin daughters are in Boulder for Dean's job.  Dean's on the road three out of four weeks of the month and thus 95% of the housework and childcare responsibilities fall to Madeline who is exhausted due to lack of sleep thanks to twin babies waking up at all hours of the night.  Both Dean and Madeline are exhausted, first time parents and seemingly as a result their marriage is on the edge and Dean is emotionally disconnected from Madeline.  When he is home (read when he's not travelling for work or out gallivanting on an hours long bike ride) he's prone to verbally berating Madeline for various perceived slights and shortcomings on her part.  Meanwhile, Madeline is bewildered by this change in Dean's behavior. So what sparked this 180 in Dean's temperament?  Is the pressure of achieving corporate success getting to him because he is loathe to return home to the family farm a failure as his father and brother expect him to do?  Or is there something else going on, something else that he's doing that is perhaps making him prone to these outbursts in order to make himself feel better about something that he shouldn't be doing?  (This is vague I know, but I don't want to reveal too much about this because I don't want to spoil the book.)

The story focuses on Madeline's domestic struggles as she strives to care for the twins, keep a decent home, and start a new job as a critic/journalist for a local free paper--all while virtually being a single mother.  In the background there's the mystery of a serial arsonist who keeps lighting fires across town, and Madeline, upon her hiring at the paper, is immediately and reluctantly pulled into the newspaper's coverage of the fires.  There's also the suspicion put forth by one of Dean's colleagues that the man's supervisor is doing something hinky with company property and money.  Then the latest fire, differing in m.o. from the others, claims a fatality close to both Dean and Madeline at which point the story cranks into high gear and careens off to spectacularly implode around Madeline's ears by story's end.

One thing Madeline knows for sure is that she can't trust the Boulder police to find the murderer.  One thing Madeline doesn't know is that her marriage is more on edge, hanging by a thinner thread, and threatened by a more deeply disturbed element than she realizes.  The pages in which her marriage is depicted as coming apart at the seams are some of the most visceral and gut wrenching of the entire novel.  In the end this novel isn't so much about tracking down an arsonist as it is an account of the death throes of a marriage and a family whose life as they know it will never be the same after the dust settles.

I highly recommend that you pick up this book the next time you visit the library.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

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