REVIEW: THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT, BY KAREN WHITE

 

Recently divorced, Merilee Talbot Dunlap moves with her two children to the Atlanta suburb of Sweet Apple, Georgia. It’s not her first time starting over, but her efforts at a new beginning aren’t helped by an anonymous local blog that dishes about the scandalous events that caused her marriage to fail.
 
Merilee finds some measure of peace in the cottage she is renting from town matriarch Sugar Prescott. Though stubborn and irascible, Sugar sees something of herself in Merilee—something that allows her to open up about her own colorful past.
 
Sugar’s stories give Merilee a different perspective on the town and its wealthy school moms in their tennis whites and shiny SUVs, and even on her new friendship with Heather Blackford. Merilee is charmed by the glamorous young mother’s seemingly perfect life and finds herself drawn into Heather’s world.
 
In a town like Sweet Apple, where sins and secrets are as likely to be found behind the walls of gated mansions as in the dark woods surrounding Merilee’s house, appearance is everything. But just how dangerous that deception can be will shock all three women….

MY THOUGHTS:
Small town Southern life feels familiar to me, having lived in such places, even when they were not actually in the South. Folks who migrate from that part of the world carry their values and traditions with them, along with the secrets of the past, and creating a mini-Southern enclave wherever they are.

Secrets are a core theme in The Night the Lights Went Out, and we have a couple of the characters that share some of their secrets, a bit at a time, as alternating narrators. Sugar, the ninety-something matriarch is technically Merilee’s landlord, but as time and secret-sharing bring them closer together, we see that a very strong bond is forming.

I loved Sugar, who reminded me of my feisty grandmothers. And like them, she knew how to hold a secret close…until its revelation would strengthen a friendship or save a life.

Heather was a character that I disliked from the beginning. First, because nobody is all that perfect and seemingly one’s best friend without an agenda. I worried about how willingly Merilee gave over her friendship to this woman, but it would be a while before we saw what was really going on behind that façade.

Alternating with Sugar and Merilee’s narratives are blog posts from an anonymous source, entitled “Your Neighbor.” A site that seems like a gossip fest soon reveals itself for its tidbits of wisdom, including Southern Sayings, interpreted for those who are new to them.

This intense story turned dark and threatening and kept me turning pages until the startling revelations and the delightful denouement, thus earning 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: DEAR CAROLINA, BY KRISTY WOODSON HARVEY

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What constitutes a true family? For Frances (Khaki) Mason, a busy interior designer with an antiques store and coffee table book publications, her family with her husband Graham consisted of a son, Alex, from Khaki’s first husband who had died. Their desire for another child had not yet been realized.

Meanwhile, Graham’s cousin Jodi, at nineteen, found herself pregnant and struggling with her addictions. She wanted to try to do better than her own mother had, but after just a few weeks, she made a hard decision.

What Khaki and Jodi decided to do would make some people cringe. But adopting little Carolina, and then allowing Jodi to continue as part of that family, turned into the best solution for all. Jodi had her own little trailer, and visited regularly. Later, she moved in with them for a while. Ultimately, Jodi made her own dreams come true when she enrolled in college.

Dear Carolina is the story of that blended family, and alternate narrators, Khaki and Jodi, reveal the struggles, the victories, and the gifts they found along the way. Eventually, Khaki struck a better balance for her life and her family, selling some of the holdings in Manhattan, and continued to include Jodi as part of the family in some fashion or another.

I enjoyed this book and the characters, and the Southern feel was brought out in the cookbooks and canning that Jodi did, as well as the homespun world they all inhabited. 4 stars.

REVIEW: SMALL BLESSINGS, BY MARTHA WOODROOF

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Professor Tom Putnam is a bumbling, kind, and quiet individual, just making it a day at a time.

And then, out of nowhere, a chain of events unfold to turn his world topsy-turvy, but in ways that seem like gifts. First he meets Rose Callahan, a quirky woman who is the Assistant Manager at The Bookshop, near the university. She has been like a rolling stone her whole life, as she and her single mother moved from place to place. Almost as if they were afraid of settling down. What is it about Rose that, despite her nomadic history, gathers those she meets into a circle of warmth around her, making the world seem like it is bursting with sunshine?

Even Tom’s troubled and fragile wife Marjory is drawn to Rose.

Small Blessings: A Novel is one of those books that seemed to wrap itself around me like a cozy shawl, as each character brought something special to the canvas. Even loud and ebullient Iris adds her own unique presence, once we manage to see beneath her obnoxious demeanor, along with the somewhat cranky Agnes, Tom’s mother-in-law, who conceals a sharp legal mind behind her façade.

Most of all, among the unexpected gifts in each of their lives, the presence of young Henry will change everything about the predictable world they had all lived in for so long. But Henry comes with baggage…not only the kind that hides in the folds of his backpack, but the mysteries of his past. What, if anything, does another professor, Russell Jacobs, have to do with Henry? And why are all of these people keeping so many secrets?

Even as we wonder about the intricacies of their lives, we bumble along, almost like Tom, savoring the moments…and then, as startling as a flash of lightning, everyone is thrust into a dangerous situation. Who will save the day? And what will finally happen to make Rose realize that it is okay to be happy?

Set somewhere in Virginia, not too far from Charlottesville, this story is one that made me keep turning those pages, connecting with these characters and their lives, as if we might knock on their doors one day. Five stars.