The Stone Forest by Karen Harper
(Mira, $6.50, PG) ISBN 1-55166-909-9
It was 1985, and Jenna and Mandi Kirk and Mace and Cassie MacCaman were close high school friends in the small Indiana town of Ridgeview. The town was well known for its limestone quarry and had furnished that material to build many of Washington D.C.ís largest edifices.

Mandi and Mace were the golden couple and Jenna worshipped her older sisterís boyfriend from afar, The night of Jennaís sixteenth birthday she was helping her sister sneak out to meet Mace when they were both kidnapped. Jenna woke up to find the two of them bound and held in one of the many subterranean limestone caves. She managed to work herself free and she and Mandi tried to escape in the dark, She last heard Mandi scream as they were separated and her next conscious memory was finding herself in the woods near her home.

Mandi was never found, the ransom demanded was never picked up and Jenna underwent years of psychotherapy to try and address her grief, and the predictable claustrophobia that resulted. Mace left town permanently under suspicion although his father had provided him an alibi for that evening, Jennaís widowed mother had catapulted to the lieutenant governorís seat and is now being considered as a running mate by her party in the coming presidential election.

Jenna retreated from her motherís home in the capitol to Ridgeview to escape from her motherís quiet and relentless domination and to start her own business building and designing tree houses. The story opens as Mace and Cassie return to Ridgeview as well to be with their father in his last months as he is dying of cancer.

Suddenly Jenna begins receiving gifts and contacts that indicate that Mandi is still alive. Cassie reveals that she has returned to write a biography of Jennaís mother, and Mace has decided to abandon his passion of caving to take over the family business of quarrying limestone. The suspense escalates, as it is apparent that someone who had known Mandi very well is stalking Jenna. The author does her best work by casting suspicion on every one in very subtle ways.

She is less adept in character portrayal. By my count there are 8 fairly significant characters and perhaps there was not enough space to present them in more than one dimension, but that unhappily is the consequence. The setting is not only important to the story but in many scenes it overrides dialogue, and interferes with the pacing of the story and the plot development.

What is left is a choppy, awkwardly paced novel that has a fairly clever suspense plot, but is executed with cardboard characters that leave the romance up to the imagination of the reader. One does, however, learn something about limestone, caving and tree houses.

--Thea Davis

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