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Hannah Alexander
Steeple Hill
ISBN: 0373785070

True confession: this is the first Christian suspense novel I've read, and I wasn't expecting much. Given the secular suspense novels all over bookstores chockfull of gore, sex and expletives, I couldn't imagine how Hannah Alexander would put together a story without them. What would the main conflict be --- that the church coffee hour ran out of sugar?

Like all sinners who confess, I must now admit my wrongdoing: HIDEAWAY, while gentle, is a well paced, suspenseful read. That bag of missing sugar hasn't been poured into Alexander's prose, either; the novel isn't treacly. Even the requisite adorable elderly country couple, Bertie and Red, are rendered clearly. Bertie, given to concoctions of roots and herbs, isn't made to seem like a fount of wisdom or like a Wiccan-on-the-edge; instead, her homemade remedies are place in counterpoint to Cheyenne Allison's medical training.

Cheyenne Allison, a thirtysomething ER doctor, has retreated to colleague Ardis Dunaway's home in the Ozark town of Hideaway, Missouri, after her sister is in a car accident and dies on her watch. Without giving away too much of the plot, it's important to know that Allison has inner demons pursuing her, and outer ones too, in the form of a lawsuit. She thinks the quiet of country life and the challenge of helping to spruce up her friend's ramshackle house will be all that she needs to fill up her life while she recovers.

But soon she is meeting the neighbors: Dane Gideon, who runs a ranch for troubled teen boys, his ward Gavin, or "Blaze," the aforementioned Bertie and Red, Mayor Austin Barlow and his son Ramsay, and other people curious about the lone woman from the big city of Columbia. Before she can say "How quaint!" Allison finds herself aiding Gideon, tutoring Blaze, treating Red, and fending off Barlow. Her quiet period of recovery soon turns into an eventful sabbatical that leaves her wondering if she really wants to go back to what she once had.

Some of the events seem flat. For example, as the book gains speed, accidents and incidents tumble so quickly over each other that when Blaze is badly electrocuted by a ground wire, the injury almost fails to register. This may be a weakness of the collaboration; "Hannah Alexander" is the pen name for Dr. Mel and Cheryl Hodde (Hod-dee), who have written several books together and plan more novels in this "Hideaway" series.

However, weaknesses are more than offset by the strengths in this book. Some of the events are tragic, including those affecting Allison, as her brother-in-law's suit against her turns ugly and Red's deep-vein thrombosis even uglier. And as things turn ugly in town, too, with repeated acts of vandalism being blamed on Blaze, the doctor slowly, slowly, slowly begins to wonder if there might be more to the quiet, strong Christian faith of her new friends than she could have ever imagined.

Allison's road to spiritual recovery is rendered without dramatics, as befits her training and beliefs. Other characters are also attractive --- Dane Gideon, quirks and flaws included, is a fitting foil for the doctor, a female protagonist who does not conform to any particular doctrine's idea of womanhood but is nevertheless deeply attractive. However, when I finished, the character of Blaze was the one who stayed with me. An author (or authors!) who can create an African-American boy with emotional issues, whose skill with animals can bring tears to the eye, is (are) talented indeed. And so my confession ends with a penance and redemption that are one and the same: I look forward to the next Hannah Alexander suspense title!

   --- Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick

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