Venom and the River: A Novel of Pepin by Marsha Qualey

Venom and the River: A Novel of Pepin by Marsha Qualey
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (151 Pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Cyclamen

Several hundred women are about to converge on tiny Pepin, Minnesota, to celebrate the birthday of Ida May Turnbull, the long-dead author of a beloved series of children’s books. When the “Little Girls” gather in Pepin, one woman finds life has changed forever.

Leigh Burton is a disgraced journalist who was stripped of a Pulitzer for fabricating details in a few newspaper stories. In the years since, Leigh has been scratching out a living as a freelancer, and has arrived in Pepin to assist an aged former vice president of the United States with his memoirs. Because no publisher will buy any nonfiction with her fingerprints on it, Leigh has to keep her past under wraps, which becomes a challenge when she’s gently blackmailed by a Pepin local, and Leigh’s sixteen-year-old daughter arrives unexpectedly and threatens to tell everyone Mom’s secret. Making things even more difficult is that Leigh is living in Ida May Turnbull’s long-shuttered childhood home, which puts her in the bulls-eye of the Little Girls’ obsession. It’s a position that jeopardizes her secret, her work, a budding romance, and her fragile relationship with her daughter.

This is a novel of secrets, some of them held for decades. Leigh Burton uncovers a number of them, but her secret is one of the biggest. She is a disgraced journalist, stripped of her Pulitzer, and now, having changed her name, is eking out a life as a freelancer. She arrives in Pepin, Minnesota, a small rural town to help an aged former vice-president with his memoirs.

Marsha Qualey hooked me from the very beginning and I found myself immersed in Leigh’s struggles. I really cared about her and I wanted her to succeed with her work and with her daughter. This novel is not a conventional whodunit type mystery. Instead, Leigh has to work out what happened in the past and how past events connect with the present. There are no current crimes to solve and yet the suspense in the novel is tightly woven.

Qualey has written a very solid character driven novel and the characters are well-defined and fully fleshed out. Even the minor characters ring true to the point where I felt that the town of Pepin really exists. I can see the newer section and the historical section. I just know that if I walked into the library I’d meet Kate, the overworked reference librarian who moonlights as a bartender, or Marti Lanier, who sells real estate, and who wants Ida May Turnbull recognized for her literary talent and not for the hype from the television shows. These people are very real and the secrets that are held are ones that Leigh ferrets out or stumbles upon. And as is true in many small towns, the secrets reach into the past and link many of the town’s current inhabitants in the web of mystery.

If you enjoy a well-written story with great characters filled with decades of secrets, Venom and the River might be just what you are looking for.

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