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Bitter River

A Bell Elkins Novel

by Julia Keller

Bitter River by Julia Keller X
Bitter River by Julia Keller
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  • Published in USA  Sep 2013
    400 pages
    Genre: Mysteries

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Minnesota book lover (07/07/13)

Wild West Virginia
I have lived in a small town for 35 years and in all that time there has never been the amount of crime and violence as Acker's Gap, West Virginia, the small town in Bitter River, experiences within a few weeks. Leaving aside the need to suspend disbelief, though, this is a readable and fairly interesting crime procedural. The main characters are people one would like to know. Some of the peripheral characters (of whom there are too many) are a little one-dimensional, but the plot moves along in spite of that. And the solution to the primary "whodunit" is not at all obvious. Overall, a book worth reading if one enjoys crime/mystery novels.
Aleksandra E. (Alpharetta, GA) (07/06/13)

At times times annoying
I enjoyed the character development & the building mystery found within the beginning of the book. Learning about the characters in this small town was initially intriguing although at times I found them difficult to keep straight.

What I could not understand and did not enjoy was the story sub-plot. I found it ultimately irrelevant and distracting. In the end, I never got that "ahaaa" moment I was so hoping for.
Kenneth T. (Houston, TX) (07/05/13)

Turbulance isn't limited to
Life is usually messy. We may have problems at work, at home, with family or the plumbing. Books don't often involve the reader in the multiple problems of its characters. "Bitter River" manages to do it well. Belfa Elkins, divorced mother and Prosecuting Attorney, is a mess. A younger lover, a murder that strikes close to home, a mysterious stranger... You get the picture. Julia Keller pulls it off. The disparate characters get enough time to develop so that we care and the denouement works. I loved the fact that the setting was hardscrabble West Virginia, the heroine was a mess and though life remains chaotic, we wouldn't want any other way.
Diane C. (Nashville, TN) (07/04/13)

Whole Lotta Twisted Going-ons
Bell is as tough as the mountains that cradle the small town of Acker's Gap, where she serves as County Prosecutor. Hell, there sure is a lot of criminal activity in that place! You got a young girl murdered, some crazy guy shooting an elderly lady, and terrorist blowing up the oldest building in town. This is in addition to the ordinary business of sneaky love trysts, troubled families, and missing sisters. Folks trust their sharp-as-a-nettle prosecutor to sort it all out. And she does, in the colorful way of a mountain woman who might be a bit excessive with her metaphors and similes, but never with her big ol' generous heart.
Nancy C. (Newton, KS) (07/01/13)

Bitter River
Julia Keller writes a mesmerizing murder, suspense novel that carries the reader along at a fast pace; almost like it would be if floating down the Bitter River. The currents and eddies of this novel take us into the small town of Acker's Gulch, West Virginia. The team of Bell, the county prosecutor, and Nick, the sheriff, are faced with the murder of a young, pregnant high school girl. Keller's visual writing style makes the town and her characters come alive for the reader. I encourage you to pick up this great murder mystery - you will have trouble putting down.
Judi C. (QUARTZSITE, AZ) (06/30/13)

Bitter River
Set in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, Bitter River centers on solving a pregnant teenage girl's murder in the small mountain town of Acker's Gap in Rathune County. Belfa Elkins is prosecuting attorney of Raythune County and although the story is told in third person, it is mostly her point of view; her thoughts on returning to and living in this small mountain town.

When Bell learns of the dead girl, she is driving back from Washington, DC after spending a brief amount of time with her own teenage daughter now living with her dad (at sixteen, she had a choice as to which parent to live with and thus chose to get off the mountain).

The dead girl is Lucinda Trimble, a star student being raised by her off-beat, hippie mother, Maddie, who lives in a cottage on Route 4 with a perpetual yard sale of home-made trinkets. "Maddie Trimble was everything Bell Elkins despised about some of the people who lived in this area. She had raised eccentricity to an art form, and helped perpetuate the stereotype that 'mountain folk' were exotic characters running around in bare feet and cutoff shorts, mixing up weeds and herbs to make nutty potions intended to heal everything from heartaches to hemorrhoids."

Sheriff Nick Fogelsong is Bell's counterpart in the investigations and a good friend. But the two of them get off to bad start with this investigation. Nick used to see Maddy years ago, before Maddy started seeing Lucinda's father. That was over seventeen years ago, "Except in these parts, the story never ended. No matter how long ago it was, Nick Fogelsong had a link to Maddie Trimble, a tie. When he talked to her these days, Bell thought, he probably had to raise his voice a little bit to be heard over a soft confusion of echoes." Nick has a blind eye to Maddy... and Bell bluntly points this out.

There are two other main story threads running through this novel. Bell's sister was released on parole nearly 5 months earlier after almost 30 years in jail for killing their father. Bell expected to pick her up at the prison and take her back to Acker's Gap to help her get back on her feet, but when she went to get Shirley, Shirley had already left, and did not leave any contact information. Bell feels confident that Shirley will make her way back to Acker's Gap and thus is compelled to stay there until she does. The reason for Shirley's imprisonment and the debt that Belfa owes here sister is backdrop to help provide an understanding as to Bell's reasons for being/staying there.

The third thread involves Matt Harless, an old family friend/neighbor from when Bell and Sam were still married. On Bell's latest trip to D.C., she is surprised when Matt joins them (her ex-husband Sam, his girlfriend and their daughter, Carla) for dinner. As it turns out Matt has retired from the military and needs time to decompress and wants to see Acker's Gap, the place that he heard so much about from Bell all those years ago when they used to run together. As it turns out, Matt has as many secrets as anyone in Acker's Gap. And may or may not be involved in the a tragic explosion that occurs about halfway through the book.

Although this is technically a murder mystery, it is a literary one in that the setting plays as much a role in the story as the characters. Bell (or the author Julia Keller) shares insight into this community, such as the familiarity of people, the long memories, the fact that "In a small town everybody is next of kin to everybody else." She also spends a bit of time reflecting on the socio-economics and the inherit problems. For example, she explains how the prescription drug problem is far worse problem than the more widely known Meth problem --- and why it is more difficult for law enforcement to deal with. Or, "The fact that over half of the children in Raythune County go to bed hungry a night..." And even reveals a bit of interesting history as to how West Virginia because a state under Abraham Lincoln.

Julia Keller creatively uses metaphors to bring home a point. But to be honest, some of them just left me scratching my head as I tried to figure them out. For example, "The flounce and swoop of his accent reminded Bell of a dust ruffle on a bedspread." Huh? Or "Her hair was the color of a dirty Q-tip..." (I prefer not to think on this one too long.) and "she heard a faint and sustained jingle in the distance, almost a choral singing. The sound, she knew, came for Paw Paw Creek..." (Choral singing? Please, just give me the gurgling brook!)

But every now and then she comes up with some really good analogies: "Gossip leaked out of a county courthouse like chicken broth through a slotted spoon;" or "Dumping coffee on an empty stomach-- which she'd just done-- was akin to walking in a biker bar and calling the first guy you see a candy-ass. Just asking for trouble;" or "Seeing Wendy Doggett in a cell in the Raythune County Jail would be a little jarring, Bell had assumed, like finding escargot on the menu at White Castle."

From the start, it is assumed that the murderer is someone that knows Lucinda. "Statistics tell the tale, folks. Look around. You've got a heck of a lot more to fear from that person sitting right next to you on the couch night after night than you do from a stranger hanging out in a dark alley." Even at that, in a small town there are a lot of people that know this girl, and thus a lot of suspects to get through.

"Small towns, Bell thought. Jesus."
P J. (Columbia, SC) (06/30/13)

Bitter River
Initially I worried this book would be too predictable but was quickly hooked on the author's writing style. Her use of such vivid descriptions quickly grabbed my interest and made me want to keep reading. Julia Keller weaves a mystery reminiscent of a feminine James Patterson. I look forward to reading her first book.
Anne G. (Byram, MS) (06/29/13)

Even small towns can have big mysteries
Bell Elkins, the county prosecuting attorney, is always reminding herself that "Everyone in this town is related to everyone else". A tragedy befalling one person or family will cause ripples that involve most of the people in the small town of Acker's Gap, WV. Finding a submerged car containing a body in Bitter River begins the unfolding of a small town tragedy that involves Bell and many of her friends. The initial murder is not resolved before more criminal acts are committed. Ms. Keller portrays strong characterizations, complex family relationships, small town politics, mystery, and a bit of romance with a deft hand. Although this is the second book in what is hoped will be a continuing series featuring Bell Elkins, it is not absolutely necessary to read the first one . It is hoped, however, there will be a third novel to resolve some of Bell's family problems, and the challenges in the novel's non-traditional romance.
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