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Image: Three moon gifBerkley Prime Crime (Hardcover), ISBN 0-425-17808-0
In her latest installment of the Benni Harper mystery series, Arkansas Traveler, Earlene Fowler packs up the gang and temporarily moves them out of San Celina, Calif. Grandma Dove, Benni, her friend Elvia and cousin Emory return to Sugartree, Ark., for the centennial homecoming of the family church. The event offers amnesty to black sheep and stray lambs visiting the hometown fold.

Book: Earlene Fowler, Arkansas traveller Everyone moves in with Aunt Garnet, Dove's younger sister and nemesis. The siblings fight their way through almost every page. Between the battle of the sisters, Fowler records small town life, Southern recipes, religion, racism -- and murder. A boy dies, but his death seems less important than the food and meringue wars between Garnet and Dove. Nobody liked him very much.

A different tension reigns in Sugartree. The mayor's race, between the white, good-old-boy incumbent and Benni's African-American girlfriend from her Sugartree childhood, fractures the town along fault lines of race, gender and politics. The proposed merger of two churches -- one white, one African-American -- raises ire, dividing the congregations and families. Even Benni and hubby, as well as Elvia and Emory, face racist opposition to their Anglo-Hispanic differences. The anger escalates into Sugartree's own Civil War with confrontations turning to battles and destruction. People Benni has known for a lifetime reveal secrets she never imagined. And as readers expect from this series, past mistakes impact current events.

Book: Earlene Fowler, A Dove in the Window Hidden among these major conflicts, Gabe Ortiz and Benni log another chapter in their husband-wife relationship. Sadly, no passionate scenes for this charismatic couple. Eight books into the series, Gabe still remains a shadowy Latino hunk who studies philosophy. Fowler fails to shed light on the mysterious husband, police chief and man. Maybe she will promote him to more than Benni's foil in her ninth book. Her strong characterizations of Benni, her family and friends make the cursory coverage of Ortiz more glaring.

Fowler, a strong, courageous writer, takes on controversial topics. But she reins her characters in a bit too tightly for my taste -- too much sugar, not enough spice. Speaking of taste, by the end of the first chapter, I gained 10 pounds just reading about fattening, deep fried, sugar encrusted foods. By the end of the book I lusted for chess pie, and I don't even know what that is!

Fowler effectively uses quilts in book titles and plot surprises. She creates a whole world that leaves me homesick when I close the book. Yet, unfairly perhaps, I least enjoy her trips to Arkansas. I quickly tired of Sugartree. Even before Benni waddled out of the Waffle House and into the Piggly Wiggly, I longed for San Celina.

Dawn Goldsmith

A multi-published writer of non-fiction and short stories, Dawn Goldsmith's latest short story, "Two to Tango," appears in the April issue of Love Words. Her multi-part feature on Women's History Month can be read in the current issue of Myria Magazine for Moms.

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Click here to read Dawn Goldsmith's interview with Earlene Fowler.