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A missing boy, government agents, an interdimensional portal... Click image for more!

“My new life began on Saturday.”

That’s the first line in Brinda Berry’s THE WAITING BOOTH, and from that hook you’re in it, line and sinker. The story opens over pancakes and a missing brother, but things turn creeptastic from there. A long gravel drive, sketchy happenings in the woods, and a single father away for days on end leaves Mia Taylor’s young life teetering a bit to the left of cozy. Then a relatively benign science project pushes things into another dimension … or rather pushes the other dimension to her neck of the woods—quite literally so in the form of a couple of “enforcers” with a dubious talent for first impressions.

There’s much to love about this story. Mia’s voice is strong, yet the reader senses her vulnerability.  One part that really sticks with me is how she wonders what it must be like to be her friend, Em, who has two parents, a sibling who hasn’t gone missing, and a home cooked dinner every night at six. The moment is poignant, the contrast gut-wrenching as Mia sits alone, peeling plastic off a frozen microwave dinner. Elsewhere, when her car makes contact with one of the less couth travelers from another dimension, she realizes the shrieking she hears is herself—the same kind of scream she used when her brother had “accidentally, or on purpose—when you have a brother, it’s hard to tell—shot a bottle rocket in the back of [her] shoe.” Wow. In the space of a single sentence, the reader feels a connection not only to Mia, but to her brother Pete—the latter all the more impressive considering he’s not a character the reader meets firsthand.

But Mia isn’t the only one with a strong voice. Regulus—one of the IIA agents caught on film by her science project—is the silent type, but his cohort Arizona is a laugh a minute. At one point, tiring of Arizona’s chatter, Regulus laments to himself that Arizona talks more than anyone he had ever known. These details are small in the big picture, but are the very thing that allows the reader to relate to these characters on such an intimate level.

That example is the rule rather than the exception. Throughout THE WAITING BOOTH, the characters are brilliantly written. Even the minor players are brimming with personality, from the ponytail tugging, Risky Business watching father (yeah, that made me feel old) to the elderly neighbor who clutches her “little old lady bag” and uses the phrase “tar hill.” Moreover, she won’t call Mia’s cell phone because she herself doesn’t own “a cellular phone,” therefore she’s certain it would never work. Mia finds this hilarious, and I’ve got to say I’m on board with that assessment.

The plot is well crafted, the fantasy elements tied in with bits of reality to the point that I fell for the whole thing. I became so immersed in the story that it didn’t occur to me to question the existence of a portal—or of agents monitoring the immigration of traffic therein. When a couple of dark characters slipped past Arizona and Regulus, my heart resided most uncomfortably in my throat. To that end, there were a few uncomfortable  moments—in particular with the so-called unauthorized travelers—and the story was better for it. When, as a reader, your skin crawls and your heart claws at your chest, you know you’ve been snagged.

That’s the dark side. On the lighter end of the scale, Mia has her hands full with her longtime friend Austin, who is taking steps over the line of friendship. Dodging his kiss was one thing, but when Austin catches Regulus and Arizona sharing a pizza in Mia’s kitchen, the tension mounts. I found it hard not to like Austin (I’m such a romance junkie), but I found Arizona to be charming and pulled for him throughout most of the story. In the end, however, it was Regulus with whom Mia shared a deeper connection—tangible moments which first fill the reader with the sweet, shaky tendrils of new attraction, then linger warmly as a question of what might come.

THE WAITING BOOTH is the first title in the Whispering Woods series, and I have to admit I’m eagerly awaiting Book Two. Ms. Berry’s clean, engaging writing style and talent for creating characters who burst from the page are just as addicting as the deepening mystery surrounding the disappearance of Mia’s brother, Pete. While that particular plot point isn’t entirely resolved, the ending leaves the reader, like Mia, just a little bit fluttery about what’s to come.

When an author and her characters put forth such a powerful connection, it comes at no surprise when, at the story’s conclusion, you find yourself excitedly perched on the little red wooden bench of THE WAITING BOOTH, eager for more.

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*I received a complimentary copy of THE WAITING BOOTH as a host of Brinda Berry’s Summer 2011 Blog Tour.