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Barbara Taylor Sissel writes issue-driven women’s fiction threaded with elements of suspense, which particularly explores how families respond to the tragedy of crime. She is the author of eight previous novels: The Last Innocent Hour, The Ninth Step, The Volunteer, Evidence of Life, Safekeeping, Crooked Little Lies, Faultlines, and The Truth We Bury. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Barbara was raised in various locations across the Midwest and once lived on the grounds of a first-offender prison facility, where she interacted with the inmates, their families, and the people who worked with them. The experience made a profound impression on her and provided her with a unique insight into the circumstances of the crimes that were committed and the often-surprising ways the justice system moved to deal with them. An avid gardener, Barbara has two sons and lives on a farm in the Texas Hill Country outside Austin.


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Barbara Taylor Sissel

What Lies Below

Lake Union Publishing

Paperback, 978-1-503-95011-5 (also available in e-book and audiobook formats), 334 pages, $14.95

May 15, 2018



Texas writer Barbara Taylor Sissel’s new novel, her ninth, is a tense, engrossing tale of abduction. It’s also a story in which secrets are held close by key characters as they help search for a missing child.


In a small Central Texas town named Wyatt, Zoe Halstead, not quite four, suddenly has disappeared from her daycare facility, and the local police and numerous townspeople have rallied to try to help Jake, a single father, find Zoe and bring her home.


The trouble is, as one police officer puts it: “Something like this—when it involves a child—everyone’s a suspect, you know. Friends, family members. Everybody in this town is looking at everybody else.” He is only partially right. Amid the suspense, suspicions, and fear, some of the friends and family members want no one to uncover certain conflicts, relationships, and failings within their lives.


One of these is Gilly O’Connell, A waitress at a local café. Gilly has become Zoe’s special friend by serving her animal-shaped pancakes every Wednesday morning. Gilly also has been edging toward a possible relationship with Zoe’s father, Jake Halstead. But there is much that Jake and Zoe do not yet know about Gilly. She was a successful Houston architect, specializing in sustainable residential design, until her career was killed by drugs, alcohol, the loss of her baby, and someone murdering her husband. Hoping to keep her past secret, she now maintains a low profile as a waitress and takes part in a twelve-step recovery program that meets after work in another town.


Gilly harbors other disturbing secrets that will emerge while the search for Zoe continues. And she sometimes has “prophetic” premonitions. The day before Zoe’s abduction, Gilly saw the event unfold inside her mind. But she did not trust her instincts and resisted any urge to reveal what she had sensed.


Jake, meanwhile, is convinced his drug-addicted ex-wife, Stephanie, has come back and taken Zoe after abandoning her and him two years ago. There was never much happiness in their marriage. Jake had even tried to convince Stephanie to abort her pregnancy with Zoe. Now a loving, protective father, he wants to track down and kill Stephanie or whoever has taken Zoe, even if it means he will go to prison. Yet he also realizes he would not be able to take care of his daughter if she survives the kidnapping.


What Lies Below is paced somewhat slower than might be expected for an abduction story. There is a ticking clock, of course—the first 48 hours are always critical when trying to find a kidnapped child. However, the author also chooses to linger inside the minds of several adult characters and let them wrestle with an array of guilts, fears, self-blaming, and anger toward others, even while they try to help the police.


There's a downside to this approach. The novel gains complexity and takes a while to wrap up once it nears its conclusion. This may frustrate a few readers.


Yet, in an age of quickly produced, marginally edited books, it is pleasing to delve into a solidly structured novel built around careful, artful writing, realistic characters and settings, and excellent proofreading. What Lies Below will conjure up haunting thoughts and images that likely will remain in your mind long after you finish the book.


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