Prophet Annie by Ellen Recknor
(Avon, $12.00, PG) ISBN 0-380-79513-2
****
Weird, wild, and wonderful! How's that for a summation? Okay, I can't help it those were the three words that popped into my head as I closed the cover of Prophet Annie, a western historical that will leave readers laughing out loud.

Annie Pinkerton Boone is left destitute after the death of her harridan mother. Thinking she'd inherit the family boardinghouse, Annie is shocked to learn her mother promised Annie's hand in marriage to one Jonas Newcastle, an elderly acquaintance who apparently bankrolled the boarding house in lean times by purchasing it from Mama. With nowhere else to turn, and feeling that she owes her mother something, Annie travels west to Arizona Territory and the rickety ghost town called Rock Bottom. There she meets up with Jonas, his two spinster sisters, and a half-Indian cook named Sam Two Trees.

Jonas has made his fortune in the mines and spent most of it building an enormous black-rock castle for Annie, which he has christened Newcastle's Castle. It sits out in the middle of nowhere, and Annie describes it as:

"A big, black, cut-stone, turreted mansion with stained glass eyes. Three stories tall, it straddled the top of a black-rock hill with nothing but that ugly, heat-shimmered, scrub desert all around. I had never seen anything so flat-out stupid in all my life."

Jonas doesn't have long to enjoy his young bride, for on their wedding night, he dies in bed. A terminal case of coitus interruptus. Annie is left with an ugly house, the care of two old biddies, and no money. When she starts hearing Jonas' voice, she puts it down to nerves, but it's soon apparent to her that Jonas is back, and he wants to take over her body, at least part-time. Annie is inhabited by the spirit of a ghost. And when Jonas speaks, Annie can't control him.

What ensues is a hilarious story of Annie's new career as Prophet Annie the spiritualist, first with a small-time traveling show, then with the great P.T. Barnum himself. Along the way she meets her true love, but unless and until she can get rid of Jonas, there's little hope of doing anything about it.

Annie Pinkerton Boone Newcastle is one of the most memorable characters you're likely to meet this year. Warmhearted, pragmatic, and thoroughly exasperated with Jonas and his shenanigans, she learns to fight back and finally get the upper hand. The story is populated with lively secondary characters, from the twitty sisters to the carnival sideshow folks and a cheetah named Nebuchadnezzer, all of whom have a special place in Annie's life.

There is one subplot that didn't quite fit. When Annie steps off the stage at Rock Bottom, a small bird dive-bombs her head and dies at her feet. Soon Annie is a target for suicidal birds whenever she steps outdoors. It's amusing at first, but after a while it got to be tiresome as it's never explained. (I thought it might have something to do with Jonas' ghost, but the bird thing started happening before he died, so that didn't seem to fit.) At the end, it isn't resolved, either.

Romance readers will want to take note that this is a journey to romance, not a love story. The ending is satisfyingly happy, though.

Prophet Annie will keep you in stitches. This is one book that's worth the trade paperback price.

--Cathy Sova


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