REVIEW: WIFE-IN-LAW, BY HAYWOOD SMITH

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In suburban Atlanta, two completely opposite young women meet as neighbors, and despite the odds, become best friends. It was the 1970s when they first met, so imagine Betsy Callison’s surprise to discover that beneath the surface, she and the young “hippie” Kat Ellis would have something in common. They would bond and sustain that bond for many years.

Betsy and Greg are young Republicans, diametrically opposed politically to Kat and her partner Zach. But over time, the differences mattered less than what connected them. Or so it would seem.

But time and circumstance would change everything, and Betsy would find herself in a very strange situation. Greg has left her for his secretary, and then, a few months later, when Kat is widowed after Zach’s death, Greg starts spending a lot of time with her. When the two of them announce they are getting married, everything seems suddenly surreal.

Would what Betsy knows about Greg be something she could share with Kat, who is suddenly going to marry her ex-husband? And after the wedding, when she realizes that Greg has poisoned her friend against her, will she be able to warn her when old patterns begin to repeat themselves?

Wife-in-Law started out much better than it ended, in my opinion. I liked the first person narrative of Betsy in the present day, and then as she started sharing bits and pieces of the past, I felt I was there with them. The era of the 70s felt real and appropriate for the times; but suddenly, the narrative sped ahead and it seemed as though we were being “told” about what happened, when being shown worked so much better for me.

Betsy’s actions later in the book seemed out-of-character. She was too forgiving and too good…and in the end, her behavior ended up sugar-coated and sweet, which was not where I thought the story would go. I normally love this author’s books, but except for the beginning, this one was disappointing. 3.5 stars.

REVIEW: LEAVING HAVEN, BY KATHLEEN MCCLEARY

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Georgia and Alice have been best friends for so many years that their lives seem irreversibly entwined.

They are more like sisters, and their families are bound together as well. Daughters Liza and Wren have been in each others’ lives since birth.

So when Georgia’s attempts to have another baby meet with severe challenges, like a series of miscarriages and failed IVF efforts, it seems only natural that Alice would offer to donate one of her eggs.

Was that the beginning of the end for them? Or would it be the unexpected rivalries between Liza and Wren, and their parents’ efforts to intervene in rivalries gone wrong that suddenly changed the dynamic between them all?

How does one come back from betrayal and the ultimate tearing of the fabric that has defined “family” for so long?

It would be easy to empathize with Georgia and hate Alice, but because the author alternates the storytelling between these two characters, we learn about each of their challenges in life and feel for them both. Georgia’s mother’s death at an early age left her to mother her two younger sisters. When Alice’s single mother left her alone too much, forcing her to grow up way too soon…those events left their indelible imprint on her, too, changing her into the kind of person she became.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks and fast forwards, starting with the day Georgia gives birth to Haven. The history of the two women and their friendship, as well as their family histories, is revealed slowly. I liked the style, which kept me rapidly turning pages to find out more.

Leaving Haven: A Novel is a story about friendship, about family, and how even the closest ties that bind people can be severed. But they can also be woven together again in new ways. Five stars.

HAPPINESS AS AN ART FORM: A REVIEW

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The story begins by introducing the reader to Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, third cousins and best friends.

A little history of their lives thus far is woven into a tale that soon shows the reader some of their romantic escapades and then, finally, settles into how they eventually pick their marital partners and begin their “real lives.”

Not really a romance, Happy All the Time (Vintage Contemporaries) is instead a peek into the lives of four people: Holly, who seems perfect on the surface and who marries Guido, but who needs little retreats every now and then to maintain her composure; then there is Misty, who is something of a chaotic personality, with pessimism a guiding force; when she ends up with optimistic Vincent, one would think that they would be a mismatch. But the opposite turns out to be true. These four people find one another and discover that “happiness is an art form that requires energy, discipline, and talent.”

This novel is described as a “delightful comedy of manners and morals…about romantic friendship, romantic marriage and romantic love.”

I found myself smiling a lot as I read this story that shared the wonderful details of daily life, with all the challenges of living with a partner. The characters were drawn in such a way that I could visualize them completely. It has been awhile since I’ve read anything by this author, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I liked the theme of happiness, with its underlying promise that one can actually create happiness with the right attitude. Four stars.

SISTERHOOD BONDS REVISITED — A REVIEW

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Mothers, daughters, and friends are the themes in The Wednesday Daughters: A Novel, the sequel to The Wednesday Sisters: A Novel.

Three of the daughters—Hope, Julie, and Anna Page—are on a journey to learn more about Hope’s deceased mother, Allison Tantry, by visiting the writing cottage where she worked on her unpublished biography of Beatrix Potter.

Set in England’s Lake District, the reader is offered a view of what that place looked like, from the cottages and the surrounding waters to the various pubs and restaurants.

What the women discover first are some journals, some of which are written in code. And while they try to decipher these, we are also shown some backstory: for the mothers and the daughters since we saw them last as little girls and young women in the first book. The daughters, like sisters, have their rivalries. And, like siblings, some of those old issues remain.

Unlike the friendships of their mothers in the first book, the daughters were thrown together by their mother’s choices. They all varied in ages, much more like siblings than chosen friends. And while they maintained lifelong relationships with one another, I didn’t sense the same kind of bond between them that I saw with their mothers.

Can they put the old animosities behind them? Will they finally make peace with their own mothers’ choices? What will they take away with them after the journey? Their mothers’ expectations were a guiding theme as the women reconnected with one another.

The alternating chapters with Allison Tantry’s journals were like a conversation between Allison and Beatrix Potter, almost as if she were channeling her. The daughters decided that she was trying to inhabit Bea in order to accurately write about her.

An engaging story that earned 4.5 stars. Recommended for those who enjoy stories of family bonds and friendships.

FRIENDSHIP, SUMMER BREEZES, & SECRETS — A REVIEW

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Charlotte and Nicole were once the best of friends, spending summers together in Nicole’s coastal island house off of Maine. But many years, and many secrets, have kept the women apart. A successful travel writer, single Charlotte lives on the road, while Nicole, a food blogger, keeps house in Philadelphia with her surgeon-husband, Julian. When Nicole is commissioned to write a book about island food, she invites her old friend Charlotte back to Quinnipeague, for a final summer, to help. Outgoing and passionate, Charlotte has a gift for talking to people and making friends, and Nicole could use her expertise for interviews with locals. Missing a genuine connection, Charlotte agrees.

When Charlotte agrees to join her best friend Nicole for a summer on Quinnipeague, the island in Maine that was their favorite vacation spot for years, she is filled with trepidation.  For she hasn’t seen Nicole for ten years, and the underlying betrayal that has increased her feeling of distance from her friend is not enough to keep her away.  But Nicole, a blogger with a huge following, wants to write the cookbook and needs Charlotte’s help with the interviews.  Nicole has her own secret, one she has kept for four years.  Will she be able to share it with Charlotte?  Will she feel as though she is betraying her husband Julian?

Will the friendship bonds help them traverse the distance between them?  What will the summer bring?

Herbs and other island productions will be the centerpiece of the book, along with Nicole’s menus and presentations.

On the island lies Cecily’s Garden, as well.  A mystical presence, the woman’s herbs have a huge following of their own.  Will her mysterious son Leo allow them to photograph the gardens?  How will Charlotte connect with Leo and why does she keep coming back to him?  What is his secret and how will it impact the budding relationship?

I loved how the author showcased the foods, the herbs, and the island ambience…so much so that I could literally feel myself transported there.  I could definitely smell the Sweet Salt Air.  The revelation of the secrets was well-paced,  and even though part of Charlotte’s secret came out fairly soon to the reader, the rest of it was unexpected.  And the consequences of that one act of betrayal would have an unexpected outcome.

My feeling of connection to the characters alternated, as sometimes I was annoyed beyond words with Nicole and her little-girl voice and attitudes.  Charlotte had her negative qualities, too, but in the end, she was the one I could most relate to.  4.5 stars.

A LIFE OF LOVE & FRIENDSHIP — A REVIEW

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Callie Perry is a happily married photographer with two wonderful kids, a lovable sister, Steffi, and a best friend, Lila. Problems are minor: Steffi can never settle down, Lila has finally found love but the guy has a nightmare of an ex, and Callie and Steffi’s divorced parents, Honor and Walter, haven’t spoken in 30 years. But then Callie, a breast cancer survivor, is diagnosed with a rare and incurable complication of the disease. Suddenly realizing that she has only months to live, she begins the painful process of saying good-bye.

For most of the story, I was caught up in the lives of these characters that felt like people I would love to know. While Callie seemed almost too good, I enjoyed Steffi’s quirks and poor choices in men, and loved seeing her slowly find her niche in the little country house in Sleepy Hollow. I enjoyed that she was a chef who reveled in her cooking. Her nurturing side flourished and added dimension to her character.

Another rewarding aspect to PROMISES TO KEEP was seeing Honor and Walter meet each other again for the first time in years and begin to appreciate each other despite the differences and the enmity between them.

How will Callie find a way to celebrate the rest of her life? What special joining together will help them all find a way to deal with her loss? And what unexpected joys and discoveries will come along?

Predictably, there was sadness and loss…and in the end, hope. As some of the characters found love and new lives, we could revel in the whole “life goes on” theme. The author’s epilogue and her final tribute to a friend, Heidi, who died and to whom this book was dedicated, left the reader with feelings of closure.

After each chapter, there were recipes: a kind of homage to Steffi and how she brought joy to her family and friends through her cooking. A feel-good story with moments that brought me to tears, I enjoyed this one, even though it fell into place quite predictably. Four stars.

A TALE OF FRIENDSHIP SERVED WITH A GENEROUS DOLLOP OF HUMOR — A REVIEW

Mackie Sue Beanblossom and Daisy Hazelhurst have been best friends since childhood. Their enduring friendship is the backbone of this funny, poignant, and colorful story.

Set in North Carolina, Slightly Cracked draws the reader immediately into the Southern dialogue and charm of the area, while also offering an up-close and personal peek into the less-than-stellar moments that accompany these women as they journey through menopause and beyond. Their insecurities about their marriages, their body issues, and how they feel about all of it are narrated from their perspectives, dashed with a generous dollop of humor.

What unique set of circumstances draws the two women closer as the story unfolds? How does an illness threaten the bond between them, and how does Mackie Sue’s response actually cement their bond? What will happen, finally, to reassure Mackie Sue about her own marriage?

This story resonates with me, as an older woman; and while younger individuals might not have experienced these issues, knowing how these characters dealt with them could be an encouraging sign for the future. A delightful read to which I award four stars.

A CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVE ON DATING — A REVIEW

As Renee Greene approaches her thirtieth birthday, still single and not in a viable relationship, she and another friend, Mark, decide to give online dating a try.

Their experiences range from funny to horrific, with humiliation showing up all too often.

Even as Renee optimistically approaches each connection, open to the possibilities, she is also wary because of all the relationship “failures” of her life thus far.

Click: An Online Love Story is told completely through e-mails between Renee, her friends Shelley, Mark, and Ashley, and the potential dates.

It took awhile to get into the flow of this kind of story-telling. And then I did. But as I finally started to feel connected to the style, something happened midway through the book, and I lost the flow. It became difficult to focus, and I kept having to check back to see who each e-mail was to and from. There were a barrage of e-mails, with varying addressees, which felt confusing; my eyes started to cross.

The story and the characters were likeable, and I could relate to most of them. I think I would have found a combination of e-mails and ordinary story-telling more reader-friendly; but for those readers who can handle the format, I would recommend this very contemporary perspective on dating. I also liked the little surprise twist at the end leading to a “feel good” conclusion. 3.5 stars.

SISTERS, SECRETS, & THE UPS & DOWNS OF LIFE — BOOK REVIEW

Two sisters, Lizbet and Cassie, alternately tell this story using the first person narrative voice. As I slowly came to know them and their backstory, I found A Tale of Two Sisters captivating enough to continue.

However, at times, I would lose my way, as the story wended its way back and forth; occasionally, I had difficulty identifying who the narrator was at any given point. Sometimes chapters would identify the name of the narrator.

Despite those issues, however, I did come to enjoy the ups and downs of the sisters and their relationships with each other and with the men in their lives. The men were fairly loathsome, in my opinion, especially Cassie’s husband. I did like the fact that he got his comeuppance at one point, and then started to improve his behavior.

A long untold secret about Cassie is divulged (to Cassie and the reader) fairly early, but Lizbet is in the dark for most of the book.

The ending was puzzling, because, in the space of a couple of paragraphs, the reader is catapulted forward in time to “the future” (about three years ahead), and then is pushed backwards for a more slow reveal. I felt unsettled.

Overall, I would recommend the story to those who enjoy Maxted, and for anyone who just loves books about women and their relationships. For me, though, it earned three stars.

A REUNION & A DO OVER — REVIEW OF “OCEAN BEACH” — JUNE 15

Madeline, Avery, and Nicole are back!  After renovating Bella Flora, the home they inherited at Ten Beach Road, their efforts have paid off in another way.  They’ve been offered a gig that could further seal their futures in a positive way.

A chance to renovate a home in South Beach for a TV pilot called Do Over.  And if the show is picked up by the network, they could be on their way at last.

Arriving at the designated location, each of them has mixed emotions about the task ahead.  Not only is the house badly in need of a major overhaul, but they see that the network crew is already there, ready to snap their reactions, their every move, almost as if they, not the renovations, are the show.

When it dawns upon them that a reality show is what the network really has in mind, and that their personal lives, with all their warts, is fair game, the ugly truth almost makes them turn and run.

Slogging through the detritus of what was once a lovely example of Streamline Moderne architecture, the women know that the weeks ahead are going to be tough ones.

But little do they know that the task will be the least of it.

What unexpected events will threaten their peace of mind and the project itself?  What mystery from the past will grab their attention and motivate them even more?  And how will another man’s quest for vengeance stun them, with disastrous results?

Each character immediately grabbed me, as if I were reuniting with old friends.  Sometimes they frustrated me, especially Kyra, who seemingly made one bad choice after another.  I rooted for Avery and her mother Deirdre to finally reach a place of forgiveness.  And I couldn’t help but enjoy the growing love matches between a couple of the characters.

As Ocean Beach came to an end, I desperately wanted to see what would happen to the characters next.  I was totally invested in them.  Five stars.

***

A native of St. Petersburg, Florida, Wendy read voraciously as a child, was a regular at her local library, and became fast friends with Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables. Her love affairs with language and storytelling paid off beginning with her first shift at the campus radio station while studying journalism at the University of Georgia.

After returning to her home state and graduating from the University of South Florida she worked for the Tampa PBS affiliate, WEDU-TV, behind and in front of the camera. Her resume includes on air work, voiceovers and production of a variety of commercial projects and several feature films. She may be best known in the Tampa Bay area as the host of Desperate & Dateless, a radio matchmaking program that aired on WDAE radio, and nationally as host of The Home Front, a magazine format show that aired on PBS affiliates across the country.

For more information, visit her at http://www.authorwendywax.com/