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We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

With its brightly colored cover and its strange title, WE RIDE UPON STICKS by QUAN BARRY caught my attention immediately. If I had been more familiar with the plot, it is possible that I would have been more suspicious of the way it instantly grabbed me.

In the summer of 1989, the members of a high school field hockey team pledge themselves to the powers of darkness in order to make it to the state championships.

The novel is set in Danvers, Massachusetts, a small town outside of Salem. It is common knowledge in Danvers that much of the chaos of the Salem witch trials actually happened in their town – which was called Salem Village at the time.

During the previous school year, Mel Boucher found herself reading a reference book about the trials. The story of the teenage girls whose interest in witchcraft sparked the witch hunt inspires Mel to do some dabbling of her own.

The Danvers Falcons have been consistently terrible for years. Starting with Mel Boucher, the team decides to take matters into their own hands and, one-by-one, sign their names over to the darkness – represented by a notebook featuring Emilio Estevez.

Each member has their own reasons for signing the book. Everyone wants the team to win the state championship, but they each have their own personal goals that become clear over the course of the novel.

Julie Kaling, for example, lives in a restrictive, uber-religious household. When she signs her name, she asks the darkness to help her with a project. Her dreams revolve around a dress she wants to make for prom. With the boldness given to her by “Emilio” she begins spending her free period in the Home Ec room, working on her masterpiece.

Initially, signing their names seems to be enough. They obliterate the competition at their summer training camp, but once the regular season starts, they are only scraping by with narrow wins.

As the team soon finds out, the only way to appease the darkness (and secure their victories) is by doing dark things. Which the team takes to with a vengeance. They use their new power to affect change in the school and come into their own power as young adults.

AJ Johnson is upset about the racism in her English class curriculum. She uses this anger to start a rumor about a teacher, but then she decides to affect change more directly and run for student council president. Thanks to the darkness, she wins easily without ever putting up a poster.

The Falcons’ varsity team – Abby Putnam, Jen Fiorenza, Girl Cory, Little Smitty, Mel Boucher, AJ Johnson, Boy Cory, Julie Kaling, Sue Yoon, Becca Bjelica, and Heather Houston – are seniors. Like many high school students, they are trying to reconcile who they have always been with who they want to be.

Ultimately the book is about the internal power we all have, if we choose to harness it. Many of the team’s accomplishments were within their own power, they just needed the confidence to take action. On the other hand, I’m not completely sure that they weren’t also doing magic.

Reading WE RIDE UPON STICKS was a delight. It was a very unique novel, with only a small amount of actual field hockey – for which I am grateful.

Barry’s writing style is very visual. I was not surprised to find out that she is also a prize-winning poet. Jen Fiorenza has the iconic 80s teased bangs, which the team lovingly refers to as “the Claw.” Every time she mentions the Claw, Barry describes its subtle movements – which reflect the way Jen is feeling – from a tall, platinum railroad spike to a sad stack of pancakes.

She also perfectly captures the spirit of high school. Barry uses little details to accomplish the high school atmosphere, like the fact that the Danvers Falcons think about each other as either a first and last combo name, Abby Putnam, or exclusively by a nickname: Boy Cory.

The reader is given a glimpse into each character in turn, watching them go through their biggest moment of change.

By relying on each other – and using the powers of Emilio – each member of the team is able to accomplish something they never thought they could. As long as they don’t go too deep into the darkness.

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Before She Was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline B. Cooney is known for her young adult novels but she was intrigued with telling the story of someone who chose or was forced to live their life as a different person and managed to do it for almost 50 years. The resulting novel is her first for adults, Before She Was Helen.

Cooney’s effort is a well-done tale of surviving life’s challenges with a little murder and mayhem thrown in. NoveList (a reader’s advisory tool available through the catalog or the library website) describes the novel as compelling, funny, suspenseful, and intricately plotted with authentic characters. It’s the library’s pick for the Spring Book Discussion scheduled for April 26th from 6:00-7:00 p.m.

Helen is a semi-retired teacher living in the Sun City Retirement Village. The village is nice but bland. On a forgetful day a resident may need the garage door opener to identify their unit by which door goes up. You can be anyone you want to be and no one questions your past.

This suits Helen fine. She can have friends and participate in the lifestyle without too many awkward questions. Helen’s neighbor, Dom, may like the anonymity too but he doesn’t participate. He is an unpleasant man who doesn’t invite friendship. However, he and Helen have an arrangement. After a fall he gave her a key to his unit to be used only if he misses his daily check-in.

On the summer morning that begins this novel, Dom has not texted his usual message or responded to her text and phone call. Reluctant about what she might find, Helen uses the key. Dom is not inside the villa and in fact his golf cart (his transportation) is not in the garage. There is, however, a connecting door to next villa. This villa is largely unoccupied as the owners rarely come to stay and Helen knows of no other villas with a door between the units.

Doing her due diligence, she goes back through Dom’s place and over to the next villa. When there is no answer to the doorbell and repeated knocks Helen goes back to the connecting door. Could Dom be in the next villa? His missing golf cart says no but now she really wants to see the next villa.

Dom is not there and the villa appears so empty that Helen doubts anyone ever lives there. A rainbow of light catches her eye and she discovers a beautiful glass tree dragon sculpture. Unable to resist she snaps a picture with her cell phone and goes home.

Wanting to share her discovery with her great niece and nephew she sends the photo from Helen’s phone to her family phone, Clemmie’s phone, and texts the beautiful sculpture. For most of her adult life the world has known her as Helen. Clemmie only exists for her family and they know nothing of Helen.

The response Clemmie gets is surprising. The glass sculpture is actually a rig for smoking marijuana. The tree dragon was stolen from the maker, Borobasq, and Clemmie’s nephew has already contacted him about her discovery.

Clemmie’s fingerprints are in the villa with the stolen statue. Then her niece sends her news from her hometown, the decades old murder of the high school basketball coach is being reopened. The same coach who forced her transformation from Clemmie to Helen.

To add to her worry, Borobasq soon finds her. The glass maker is actually a drug dealer and whoever stole the rig took his cash, lots of cash. He has come to find his money and inflict a little pain. Before he can determine Helen’s involvement in the theft a body is found in Dom’s garage.

With the sheriff questioning her about what happened next door while a drug dealer hides in her bathroom, Helen has to think fast. Can she figure out what is going on before Clemmie is exposed and her two worlds collide?

Cooney takes us back and forth from Clemmie’s youth through young adulthood and Helen’s situation. We go from the culture of the 1950’s to navigating senior living and modern conveniences. “Her life didn’t turn out the way she expected—so she made herself a new one” is accurate and inadequate. There is so much more to Helen’s story which is why it’s a good pick for the library’s Spring Book Discussion.

The Spring Book Discussion for Before She Was Helen will be Monday, April 26th, from 6:00-7:00 p.m. via Zoom. You can find the link on handouts at the library and it will be posted on the Joplin Public Library Facebook page. We hope you’ll join us.

The library has this title in print and in the ebook format on both MoLib2Go.org (Overdrive) and Hoopla. If you find the print and MoLib2Go.org titles checked out, it is always available on Hoopla.

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Cozy Reads for January

Hidden Treasures by Jane Cleland

The Crystal Cave Trilogy by Susan Albert Wittig

Game of Dog Bones by Laurien Berenson

Yesterday’s Echo by Matt Coyle

Over the past few weeks I’ve been catching up with some of my cozy mystery series as well as checking out a new to me author.

Jane Cleland’s Hidden Treasure is number 13 in the Josie Prescott series. Newlywed Josie and husband Ty just bought their dream home. While prepping for a remodel, Josie finds a hidden trunk the previous owner left behind. She returns the trunk and its contents, potentially rare relics, to the owner and an instant friendship forms.  Maudie, encouraged by her nieces, may be interested in selling the trunk’s contents and enlists Josie’s aid. Soon, however, one niece is dead and Maudie and the trunk’s contents are missing. Josie is determined to find a killer and discover what happened to Maudie. Is she dead? Kidnapped? And who has the relics?

The Crystal Cave Trilogy is an adjunct to the long running China Bayles series by Susan Wittig Albert. Ruby Wilcox is China’s best friend and business partner.  The three novellas in this collection are all centered on Ruby and her psychic abilities. Each story from a dream that turns out to be a real kidnapping to the stopping of a serial killer before he can claim another victim highlights her expanding abilities. There is also the thread of possible romance with detective Ethan Connors. The skeptical detective slowly begins to accept Ruby’s gift and wants to know more about her. But is he interested in her as a person and just her abilities? For China Bayles’ fans this may tide you over until number 28 comes out later this year.

My last cozy is Laurien Berenson’s Game of Dog Bones. Number 25 in this canine mysteries series has Melanie Travis, her husband Sam, and Aunt Peg all headed to New York City for the Westminster Dog Show. Aunt Peg has been chosen to judge in the prestigious event. Scheduled to give a seminar on judging the day before the show, Peg is disgruntled that a dog show is being held in the same venue. Victor Durbin and Peg have a history and his location seems to have been chosen to detract from Peg’s seminar. When Victor’s body is found the day after the show, Aunt Peg becomes the number one suspect. Victor was pretty unscrupulous and had plenty of enemies. With so many suspects can Melanie find the killer before Peg is arrested for murder?

In reading book reviews, I ran across a review for Matt Coyle’s Rick Cahill series. Ready for a mystery that is a little edgier I started with the first in the series, Yesterday’s Echo. Manager of a restaurant in La Jolla, California, Cahill likes to keep a low profile. He is an ex-cop who was accused of his wife’s murder eight years ago. He returned to his hometown but it comes with its own bad memories. His dad was kicked off the police force for being a dirty cop.

Into his less than idyllic existence drops Melody Malana. When Melody’s dinner companion becomes less than cordial, Cahill steps in. When he rescues her a second time that evening he takes her home for safety but she leaves before morning. He assumes the interlude is over but soon finds that Melody has not disappeared from his life. When two thugs do not believe his denial and try to beat her location out of him, Rick decides he needs to find her. Tracking her to a hotel he finds a crime scene. A dead man occupies Melody’s room.

Melody pops back into his life only to be followed by the police. First she is taken in for questioning soon followed by Cahill. After Melody is arrested it becomes apparent that Rick may be next. It is now a race to see if he can uncover the truth before he is either in jail or the next victim.

This series has the feel of classic detective fiction but Cahill is a complex character and he doesn’t always get it right. He carries a load of guilt over his wife’s death and seems to always be under the shadow of his father’s sins. He still has his cop’s gut but sometimes follows the wrong instinct.

I’ve read the first two in the series – working my way to Blind Vigil, which published in December. Fast-paced with unexpected twists, these are hard to put down.  If you enjoy Lawrence Sanders and/or Andrew Vachss novels this is a series I think you’ll like.

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The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams

I enjoy mysteries with well-developed characters and if it is part of a series, all the better. Ellery Adams’ Secret, Book and Scone Society series has everything I like.

The series gets its title from the first book, The Secret, Book & Scone Society. The setting is the small town of Miracle Springs, North Carolina. The town is situated on the Appalachian Trail and is known for its thermal pools and spa. The afternoon train brings not only tourists but those seeking the comfort and relief the thermal pools provide.

Nora Pennington, the owner of Miracle Books, looks forward to the shoppers and to those seeking change and healing. She is a former librarian and a bibliotherapist. After talking to and listening to her readers she selects titles that help them achieve change and peace.

Nora was the recipient of bibliotherapy after an accident left her with burn scars on her right side. A nurse at the hospital knew Nora’s love of books would help her. The carefully chosen titles took her from despair and remorse to hope.

Sitting in the park before opening the bookstore, Nora meets a man in need of her talents. He works for the company bringing a new housing development to Miracle Springs. Something about the project has him deeply troubled and an employee at the thermal pools told him about Nora.

Before he comes to the bookstore, Nora sends him to the Gingerbread House for a scone. Hester Winthrop, the owner, will bake him a customized scone. She draws people out then adds ingredients to their scone that will invoke a special memory.

However, somewhere between receiving his scone and his session with Nora the stranger meets the train and not in a good way. Estella Sadler, owner of Magnolia Salon and Spa, is the first to tell Nora about the death. She is followed by Hester who at least knows the man’s name is Neil.

Soon a deputy arrives requesting the presence of Nora and Hester at the sheriff’s office. June Dixon, the employee at the thermal pools who sent Neil to Nora, has also been brought in to be interviewed. After the interviews the ladies are convinced that Sheriff Hendricks will not investigate Neil’s death. The easy thing for him to do is rule it a suicide.

Feeling that the troubled man who sought them out deserved better, the ladies decide to find out for themselves if it was suicide or murder. They want to keep their investigation a secret so to explain their meetings the four (Estella has already been asking questions) form a book club – the Secret, Book, and Scone Society.

It soon becomes apparent that things are not what they seem with the new housing development. Then another partner in the development is found dead and Estella is charged with his murder. Can Nora and her new partners find the murderer and free Estella before someone else dies?

Each of these ladies is a loner because of past traumas. To trust each other and become friends, they realize they must share their most painful secrets. As they meet to share information and theories, we hear the stories and the traumas that have brought them all to Miracle Springs.

This series is a winner if the rest of the books are as good as the first. Nora is the lead but each of the four women are strong, sympathetic characters. The setting is charming as is the bookstore in an old train depot. The mystery keeps you turning the pages with some twists you might not see coming.

I’m looking forward to “The Whispered Word”, “The Book of Candlelight” and what other titles may follow. Recommended read-alikes are Jenn McKinlay and Eva Gates. I will add Susan Albert Wittig as I think if you like the China Bayles series you’ll like this one too.

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Vanishing in the Haight by Max Tomlinson

The Summer of Love occurred in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco in 1967. Tens of thousands of young people converged on the neighborhood for music, drugs, and free love. Max Tomlinson chose this setting to begin his novel, Vanishing in the Haight.

Margaret Copeland, problem child in her wealthy family, left home to join the thousands gathering in Haight-Ashbury. However, sharing a mattress with strangers in a noisy, smoke-filled room has lost its appeal. High and clutching a dime Margaret is on her way to a pay phone. She wants to go home but a stranger who knows her name is waiting. Her body is found in a nearby park beaten, raped and suffocated with a dry cleaning bag.

The San Francisco police attributed her death, despite inconsistencies, to the Zodiac killer. Her family was not convinced and now 11 years later her dying father wants the truth. His hope is that Colleen Hayes can find the man responsible for Margaret’s death.

At first glance Colleen is not an obvious choice. She’s on parole after serving 9 years for manslaughter. She killed her husband when she discovered he molested their 8 year-old daughter, Pamela. She does have a business, Hayes Confidential, but is awaiting her PI license.
Colleen came to San Francisco a year earlier to reconnect with her daughter. In her search for Pamela she found the body of a young woman and helped Dan Moran of Santa Cruz Homicide find the killers. Impressed by her tenacity, Moran is the reason Edward Copeland wants to hire her.

The only job Hayes Confidential has is guarding an abandoned paint factory where Colleen is also living. This is where Edward Copeland’s lawyer finds her. Unsure about taking on the case Colleen doesn’t say yes or no. The decision is made for her by an early visit the next day from her parole officer. After Colleen declines his advances, he deems her living situation is a parole violation. She agrees to look into Margaret’s murder for much needed money and legal help with her parole officer.

Colleen starts digging and one of the first things she wants is a look at the police file. Futile requests have been made by the family before but she goes ahead with the paperwork. As she works her way from one desk/department to another at SFPD, calls are made alerting someone to her request.

She doesn’t get the file but she has the name of the investigating officer and tracks him down. Forced into retirement soon after Margaret’s death, Jim Davis agrees to meet and bring his copy of the murder file. But someone doesn’t want Margaret’s killer found and Davis is killed before he can talk.

The tension builds as Colleen follows clues and evidence that was ignored in the initial investigation. We know the police were protecting someone in the summer of 1967. How far will they go to shield a killer? A killer who is back and stalking his next victim. Colleen wants justice for both Margaret and Jim but can she find the truth before there is another death?

Tomlinson has penned a tough, tenacious heroine in Colleen. She’s smart, has a strong desire for justice, and can be gently compassionate. It is interesting to have a novel set in a time when you had to have dimes for the pay phone, the library was the place to go for research and finding addresses, and you put on bell bottoms and platform shoes for a night out.

This was billed as a book one in the Colleen Hayes mystery series. The second book, “Tie Die”, is out and I’m looking forward to Colleen’s next case.

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Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Teenage sleuths are all well and good, but what becomes of them when they grow up?  In Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” we meet the Blyton Summer Detective Club – a group of grown-ups who spent the summers of their formative years solving mysteries in Blyton Hills, Oregon.

Thirteen years ago, they solved their final mystery: the case of the Sleepy Lake monster. Two boys, two girls, and one dog put a man in jail for impersonating a monster and attempting to steal the fortune said to be hidden in a local abandoned mansion. On that fateful night, they solved their case, but the deeper mysteries of the mansion have haunted them ever since.

Now in their mid-twenties, the four members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club have gone their separate ways; they lead broken, unstable lives in various parts of the country:

  • Peter Manner, the leader, moved to Hollywood and became a famous actor, but he was fighting his own demons and killed himself before the action of this book.
  • Nate Rogers, the resident supernatural expert, has spent the intervening years checking himself in and out of mental institutions. He is currently at an institution in Massachusetts, where he is hoping to rid himself of a hallucination of Peter’s ghost.
  • Kerri Hollis, the brains of the group, moved to New York where she works at a bar, plagued by nightmares and unmotivated to finish college.
  • Andrea (Andy) Rodriguez – the muscle – is a vagrant with active warrants out for her in multiple states, and an as-yet-unrequited, decade-old crush on Kerri.
  • Rounding out the group is Kerri’s Weimaraner, Tim, the great-grandson of the original mystery-solving dog.

Andy is convinced that something has cursed them, and that solving the mystery of the abandoned mansion is the only way for them to move on with their lives. She convinces Kerri and Nate to join her, and the three humans, one dog, and one ghost/hallucination make their way to the house in Blyton Hills where everything began.

“Meddling Kids” is a high-energy romp, complete with wacky hijinks and suspicious townspeople. It has mysterious messages, intricate traps, and secret passages. But it is also a horror story with actual monsters for our grown-ups to battle – and an evil force waiting to be set free. It’s Scooby-Doo in the world of Cthulhu.

The story moves forward at break-neck speed; the mystery getting more complicated at every turn. Cantero’s love of pop culture beats at the heart of this book, though some references are more subtle than other – I’m looking at you, Zoinx River.

Cantero bounces back and forth between traditional dialog and movie-script-style dialog (complete with stage directions) in a way that I found compelling. He plays with language throughout the book, making it clear that he had as much fun writing it as the reader does reading it.  I look forward to seeking out more of Edgar Cantero’s work, and I hope that you give “Meddling Kids” at try.

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Bluff by Jane Stanton Hitchcock

If you’ve ever taken a writing course you’ve heard ‘write what you know’. Jane Stanton Hitchcock must have been following that advice when she penned her latest book. The author is a poker player whose mother was swindled by her financial advisor much like Maud Warner in Bluff.

Maud is known as Mad Maud Warner by the denizens of New York high society. Maud used to be a member but her family fortune vanished with her mother Lois’ death. Burt Sklar was managing that fortune and Maud’s nickname came from her frequent and vociferous accusations of theft against Sklar.

Maud grew older moved to Washington D.C. and developed a passion for poker; but she did not move on. As we meet her she is dressing very carefully in designer clothing from her more affluent days. Dress is very important so that she looks like she belongs where she is going. Millionaire Sun Sunderland frequently lunches at the Four Seasons and on this day his dinner companion is Burt Sklar.

Maud calmly walks into the famous restaurant and tells the maître de that she is meeting Sunderland. As she approaches the booth she pulls out a gun, aims and fires, then drops the gun and just as calmly walks out.

Even though the shooting is all over the news Maud knows that a middle-aged woman in the right clothes with a calm manner is invisible. She catches the train to D.C. and once there goes into hiding.

The assumption is Maud was aiming at Burt but missed and shot Sunderland (helped by Sklar who tried to use his good friend as a human shield). Sunderland’s condition is grave as his wife Jean rushes to the hospital.

Jean keeps a vigil at the hospital while her gossipy friends await news. When she is finally allowed into the ICU she has company. She discovers Sun has another wife, a former stripper named Dany. After Sun makes it clear he wants Dany, a stunned and furious Jean seeks refuge with her friend Greta.

When Sun dies things get really interesting. Maud is now wanted for murder and Jean finds she is almost penniless as Burt has a power of attorney signed by Sun leaving Burt and Dany in control of his fortune.

This novel starts more than halfway through the story so Maud begins to fill us in on the beginning of her association with Sklar. We move between Maud’s story and what is happening with Jean, Dany and the police who are getting desperate to find Maud.

Maud’s grievances against Sklar are numerous and large; they involve not only her mother and money but also her brother Alan. Maud is a very good poker player but to get revenge she’ll need to pull off the biggest bluff of her life. Will Maud succeed, what happens with Jean and Dany, and what did Sun mean when he exclaimed just before being shot “Lois! No! We killed you!”? Plus there is a plot twist I didn’t see coming.

Stanton Hitchcock is not an author I had read before but I made a note to check it out after reading a couple of reviews. Words like smartly plotted, frothy fun, quick-moving and intricate drew me. It lived up to the hype. Bluff is a fun read and the reviewers described it perfectly.

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The Burglar by Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry’s latest novel, The Burglar, has many of the elements I enjoy in a novel. A smart interesting character, action, and mystery in a story that pulls me in and keeps me turning pages.

Mystery and suspense novels are some of my favorites. I like having something that keeps me thinking and I like that the ‘good guys’ usually win. However, in this novel the ‘good guy”, Elle Stowell, is a thief. She’s smart, daring, meticulous and robs homes for a living.

Elle is pretty, small in size and keeps herself in excellent shape. From her appearance to the cars she drives, Elle fits in to the neighborhoods she burglars. Part of her fitness routine is running and she uses daily runs in affluent areas to find her targets.

Elle needs cash and her last job netted her only some nice jewelry before the police showed up. Despite her close call she heads out the next day to find another target. Once she picks a house, a second look convinces her no one is home and she enters through the attic.

The halls are full of fine art but Elle knows she can’t sell art. The master bedroom is the place she will most likely find what she wants. What she discovers is three dead bodies and a running camera that may have filmed the murder and now Elle. Knowing she can’t be caught on camera, she takes the camera and exits the way she came in.

After watching the video and being pretty sure she cannot be identified, Elle makes copies of the full recording from the memory card. After hiding the 3 copies she puts the memory card back in the camera and erases the end starting just before she entered the bedroom.  

Elle’s a thief and the police are not her friends but this is a triple homicide. She returns to the house and puts the camera back where she found it. She was quick but as she is leaving the police arrive but she manages to get out undetected.

Her civic duty done, Elle is back home but she still needs cash. She doesn’t like to work at night but heads out to a house she had previously worked up. On her way she cruises by the murder house out of curiosity. The job is successful but when leaving she senses someone close. As a precaution she loops a long way around to get back to her car. She makes it safely but soon realizes she’s being followed.

With good driving and some luck, she manages to lose the black SUV tailing her. Did the police spot her when she cruised by the murder house or is it someone else? At her friend Sharon’s urging, Elle agrees they should leave town until things die down. To do that Elle needs to sell some of her acquired merchandise.

The trip to Vegas gets her the money she needs but she now has two vehicles tailing her. Also, two men and a woman have been visiting her favorite hangout place asking about her. In her effort to evade the people looking for her, Elle inadvertently exposes Sharon to a cold-blooded killer.

This can’t be the police so who is hunting Elle? Leaving town is no longer an option. Elle has to find out who murdered the three dead people she discovered and why. She’ll have to use all the skills she’s honed as a thief to find the killers before she becomes the next victim.

The novel builds momentum quickly and for the first two thirds is hard to put down. The action slows as Elle searches for and finds the who but it picks up again as Elle takes a huge risk to pull together the why. The library has this title in both regular and large print editions.

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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

When I first read the summary of BITTER ORANGE by CLAIRE FULLER, I thought it would be a fast-paced murder mystery. I was wrong. Bitter Orange is tense, with plenty of moments that work together to build toward a shocking ending. With a small cast of characters, Fuller intimately explores the intricacies of human nature and the bonds that we form with one another.

Frances Jellico lies on her deathbed. She is dying of what she calls a wasting disease. A vicar visits her to hear her last confession, and Frances takes the opportunity to relive the particular summer that would change her life forever.

Frances is a sheltered woman who lived with her mother. Though she is not an academic, her interests lead her to research architecture and write a paper on the subject. After the paper is published and her mother dies, Frances is hired to survey the garden architecture of an English mansion called Lyntons. When she arrives at the mansion, she discovers two other people living there. Peter has been hired to inventory the estate and is accompanied by his girlfriend, Cara.

Cara and Peter have a volatile relationship, arguing frequently and loudly. During one of these fights, Frances discovers a peephole in the floor of her bathroom that looks down into bathroom of Cara and Peter’s living quarters. Through this hole, Frances sees intimate moments of their relationship.

Frances and Cara become friends and soon, they spend all their free time together. Frances and Peter begin shirking their duty of surveying the Lyntons estate in favor of picnics and swimming with Cara. But as their friendship deepens, Cara’s mental health seems to decline. Cara reveals that she had to give up a son for adoption. Frances assumes this is the source of the couple’s conflict and is filled with sympathy for the young woman.

The trio discover a locked room labeled “Museum” that Peter insists they open. As he bashes down the door with a sledgehammer, Cara tells Frances that her son had been the product of immaculate conception. For the first time, Frances begins to doubt Cara’s sanity.

The situation in the Lyntons mansion quickly escalates, with truths about Cara and Peter revealed to a stunned Frances. She has simply never been around people other than her mother. She becomes convinced that Peter is in love with her and that Cara’s erratic behavior stems from jealousy. After Peter rejects Frances’s advances, the situation in the house deteriorates further.

Ultimately, we discover that there is far more to the story than Frances has revealed. Of course, I don’t want to ruin the ending for you, but I’m sure you can already figure out that nothing in Bitter Orange is exactly what it seems to be.

Bitter Orange would be perfect for analyzing in a literature class. There are a plethora of elements to explore: the theme of motherhood, the recurring symbols of cows, water, ruined houses, and the bitter oranges that grow on the Lyntons estate. Without going into detail (because that would take far more space than I have), I will say that this is a novel that’s full of symbols and symbolic moments. Nothing happens without having meaning.

Fuller’s writing style works well to build a feeling of uneasiness. The story is told in first-person, from Frances’s point of view, which means readers have to rely totally on Frances’s observations and thoughts. My biggest issue with this book comes from this aspect. Personally, I think if a novel is written from one person’s perspective, the reader ought to be able to trust the narrator. Frances’s fragile mental state makes her naïve at best and unreliable at worst.

There are plenty of well-written, fast-paced murder mysteries on the shelves at Joplin Public Library. But if you’re looking for a slow-burning novel that’s about mental health, motherhood, and human nature, then Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange should be your next read.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes