Ashes to Water, Irene Ziegler, Five Star, $25.95.
I had no expectations when I picked up Irene Ziegler's book, Ashes to Water, but I was very pleasantly surprised the more I read of her fine first novel. It's a flat out good read, with great characters, a smart story, and some nice specificity of detail that adds richness to the whole. Her main character, Annie Bartlett, has come home to 1980s Florida to bury her father and reconnect with her sister, Leigh. When was life ever so simple, though?
Annie's father, Ed, hasn't just died, he's been murdered, and his accused killer is being defended by her childhood boyfriend and best pal, Pete Duncan. Her sister, Leigh, dragged from her most recent barstool, has turned up to "help." Her addiction is obvious to everyone but her sister.
Ziegler very deftly creates the whole community of tiny DeLeon, Florida, where Annie and Leigh grew up, the place they both escaped from as quickly as possible. Their mother died, a suicide drowning, many years ago, and the negligent raising up they received from their father, Ed, hasn't made the girls very fond of their departed Dad. Complicating matters is the fact the Annie and her dead mother have an ongoing relationship, something only Leigh knows about.
Back home, Annie leaves behind her fiancee, Camp, and his difficult and reluctant 14 year old (is there another type of 14 year old?), while rekindling at the least a friendship with her old friend Pete. There are a couple of town "tentpole" characters—the lusty, cleavage heavy saloon owner, Florida; the Native American leader and developer, Kingfisher Powell; the Sheriff, Dade; and the Judge, Marguerite Lanier. This is a large cast to balance, not to mention many different venues, but Ziegler is more than capable of meeting the challenge.
Her story of family loyalty, betrayal, addiction, out of control fires set by an arsonist, and land development sounds very complicated, and it is complex, but it's very smoothly told. Ziegler is a very able storyteller, and her instincts don't seem to falter; she's able to balance romance, suspense and heartbreak very effectively.
When you finish the book you'll be fond of Annie and wondering what's going to happen to her next; and oddly, just as fond of her difficult, wounded sister, Leigh, who Ziegler has brought just as fully to life as she has Annie. I hope there will be a second installment at some point, as these are characters I could happily read about again.
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