REVIEW: SYCAMORE, BY BRYN CHANCELLOR

Out for a hike one scorching afternoon in Sycamore, Arizona, a newcomer to town stumbles across what appear to be human remains embedded in the wall of a dry desert ravine. As news of the discovery makes its way around town, Sycamore’s longtime residents fear the bones may belong to Jess Winters, the teenage girl who disappeared suddenly some eighteen years earlier, an unsolved mystery that has soaked into the porous rock of the town and haunted it ever since. In the days it takes the authorities to make an identification, the residents rekindle stories, rumors, and recollections both painful and poignant as they revisit Jess’s troubled history. In resurrecting the past, the people of Sycamore will find clarity, unexpected possibility, and a way forward for their lives.

 

Skillfully interweaving multiple points of view, Bryn Chancellor knowingly maps the bloodlines of a community and the indelible characters at its heart—most notably Jess Winters, a thoughtful, promising adolescent poised on the threshold of adulthood. Evocative and atmospheric, Sycamore is a coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a moving exploration of the elemental forces that drive human nature—desire, loneliness, grief, love, forgiveness, and hope—as witnessed through the inhabitants of one small Arizona town.

 
 
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Sycamore takes the reader back and forth through time, as we follow the residents of the small Arizona town. One of their own, a young teenage girl new to the town, went missing in December 1991. But as our tale sweeps back and forth from the past to the present, we learn about a relationship that turns the town upside down just before Jess disappears, and for many years, there was speculation that she had either run away due to the shame or that someone had hurt her.

 

As the residents’ lives continue and change, the town itself goes through its own metamorphosis until one day, a newcomer makes a discovery that will spin them all out again. What was the truth about Jess Winters and her disappearance? Would any of them ever recover from it?

The characters were interesting and were all linked around these events in some way. It was hard to keep track of them all throughout the story, but I couldn’t stop turning the pages. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE AFFLICTION, BY BETH GUTCHEON

 

Since retiring as head of a famous New York City private school, Maggie Detweiler is busier than ever. Chairing a team to evaluate the faltering Rye Manor School for girls, she will determine whether, in spite of its fabled past, the school has a future at all. With so much on the line for so many, tensions on campus are at an excruciating pitch, and Maggie expects to be as welcome as a case of Ebola virus.

At a reception for the faculty and trustees to “welcome” Maggie’s team, no one seems more keen for all to go well than Florence Meagher, a star teacher who is loved and respected in spite of her affliction—that she can never stop talking.

Florence is one of those dedicated teachers for whom the school is her life, and yet the next morning, when Maggie arrives to observe her teaching, Florence is missing. Florence’s husband, Ray, an auxiliary policeman in the village, seems more annoyed than alarmed at her disappearance. But Florence’s sister is distraught. There have been tensions in the marriage, and at their last visit, Florence had warned, “If anything happens to me, don’t assume it’s an accident.”

Two days later, Florence’s body is found in the campus swimming pool.

Maggie is asked to stay on to coach the very young and inexperienced head of Rye Manor through the crisis. Maggie obviously knows schools, but she also knows something about investigating murder, having solved a mysterious death in Maine the previous year when the police went after the wrong suspect. She is soon joined by her madcap socialite friend Hope, who is jonesing for an excuse to ditch her book club anyway, before she has to actually read Silas Marner.

My Thoughts: When I see a book authored by Beth Gutcheon, I am all in. I wasn’t sure about the boarding school aspect of The Affliction, but the great characters and the wonderful writing kept me turning the pages. Soon I was lost in the story and the discoveries along the way.

The sheer number of possible suspects kept me guessing, but by the time I had settled on the who and the why of the most likely suspect’s actions, I was lost in the fascination of the various routes that Maggie and Hope took to try to find some proof. The police were quite diligent, too, which is always a good thing in small town crime. But a suspect connected to important people cannot be hauled in on circumstantial evidence. By the end, all seemed hopeless. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, an astonishing series of actions taken by an unexpected individual turned everything into a certain kind of justice. 5 stars

***

REVIEW: THE DEVIL’S FOOTHOLD, BY MARILYN MEREDITH

Devils-Foothold_sm-resizedIn a small Northern California town, a young Sheriff’s deputy, Jessica McGuire, is raising her son as a single mother and trying to do the job of keeping the community safe. Not too much seems to happen in those parts, until one day, something very strange happens. And then a few more odd events transpire, and before she knows it, Jessica is investigating the happenings that seem to suggest a devil worshipping cult in their midst.

Her boss doesn’t believe any of these things can be happening, and dismisses what she tells him. What is the most challenging aspect of the cult is that the most powerful members of the community seem to be involved. And a few teenagers, most of whom are good kids.

With the help of the local minister, widower David Tanner, who first got involved when he discovered that an infant’s grave had been robbed, Jessica is able to follow the clues that lead to the sinister answers. Along the way, there is plenty of suspense and a few tidbits about the personal lives of the characters that made me root for them.

Definitely a page-turner, The Devil’s Foothold gifted the reader with the author’s depiction of small town police procedures, while offering a glimpse of life in a part of California that I love. 5.0 stars.