“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

If you, like Indiana Jones, have a severe aversion to snakes, you probably won’t enjoy Awakening by S. J. Bolton–the snakes will be just too distracting. 

  
Clara is a veterinarian in a small town, where she works at The Little Order of St. Francis, which was founded by Catholic monks in the late 1800s to treat sick and injured wild animals, including snakes, badgers, and wild birds.  She relates better to animals than to people, but a rash of snakes in the village plunges her into the spotlight as the resident expert, whether she likes it or not.  Clara is under the mistaken illusion that living in a small town will afford her the privacy she so desperately craves, when really, her every move is much more under the microscope in a small town than if she lived in a big, anonymous city.  

Clara’s aversion to other people comes from being severely self-conscious about a deforming scar on her face that dates back to her early childhood. The reader only gradually learns more about this scar, as Clara herself hardly likes to think about it, and she’s narrating the story. 

So, the snakes.  A man dies from a snake bite, but Clara is suspicious, as a bite from this snake rarely kills.  Turns out she’s right, that the amount of venom found in the body is so high that it could not have come from a bite–someone injected it to kill the man.  Then a family wakes in the middle of the night to a house filled with a “swarm” of snakes, which theoretically could happen.  I found this rather alarming, I must say, but by that time there was a ghost in an old, crumbling house, a hot police detective, and a mystery, and I couldn’t put it down.

Awakening is a great title, as it works on several levels, including Clara’s own awakening to how people really see her as opposed to how she thinks they see her.  There’s also some fascinating history about a real religious sect that used snakes in their rituals, as well as snake-handling in general and the genuinely unsolvable mystery of how some people can handle snakes and never get bitten.  I liked that Bolton found some mystery to leave unsolved, and had such a fascinating solution to the crimes involving the snakes and the ghost.