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Monday, December 19, 2016


4 stars out of 5

To really enjoy this one, readers will need a taste for the occult. I'm sort of a mugwump on that topic, so I can swing either way depending on the time of day, whether or not I've had my morning coffee and how intriguing I find the material. To the latter end, I had few issues with this book; what happens stretches a bit beyond my conception of possibility, to be sure, but the whole thing was bewitching all the same.

This book is connected to another of the author's books, The Lace Reader, although the witching art of telling people's fortunes by looking at images in lace isn't the focus here. Towner Whitney, featured in the first book, appears in this one as well - together with her husband, John Rafferty, who is the chief of police in Salem, Massachusetts. While Towner plays an important part, it's her husband - called in when a teenage boy dies on Halloween night under suspicious circumstances - who takes the lead here.

Towner does, however, get the crystal ball rolling by wondering if the boy's death is in any way connected to the horrific murder of three young women in 1989; dubbed "The Goddess Murders," the trio were related to "witches" who were accused of witchery in Salem's early years and killed.

The daughter of one of the 1989 victims, Callie Cahill, a music therapist, has returned to town. She witnessed her mother's murder back then (she was 5 years old), and was found clutching a wooden five-petaled rose that left its mysterious mark on her palm. At the time, she recalls being saved from likely death by local historian Rose Whelan, a rather strange woman who many believe actually committed the 1989 murders (neither Callie nor John are among them, but they seem to be in the minority). Considered at best to be mentally unstable, Rose's mission in life always has been, and still is, to find the oak tree at which the original witches were hanged in the 1600s; those bodies simply disappeared, never to be found.

As the story progresses, lots of skeletons (mostly figurative) are unearthed in the history of prominent area families. Along the way, Callie meets an intriguing young man (and heir to a substantial family fortune) named Paul, who's helping restore ancient churches in Matera, Italy. She's enchanted, but her strange dreams make her wonder if  he's really who he seems to be. Scenes shift from Salem to Gloucester, overlooking the beautiful Cape Ann (one of my all-time favorite places to visit, by the way) to Italy to the unbelievably ornate home of Peter's parents. An abundance of Salem's history is woven into the story, and the ending - which wraps things up in an almost too-tidy fashion, IMHO - nevertheless is exciting.

I did find it a little difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships (potential and real) straight in my mind. And at times, the story seemed a bit disjointed - jumping from place and time and character with little or no warning. Much of the latter, though, may well be because I read an advance copy (thanks to the publisher and author, via NetGalley, for that opportunity in exchange for an honest review), and the formatting was not what I expect will be in the finished product. It's a thoroughly enjoyable book, though, and I'm giving notice now that I want on the list to read the next installment.

The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry (Crown, January 2017); 448 pp.

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