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The Joy of Cooking

The Secret of Everything: A Novel by Barbara O’Neal (Bantam, $15.00, 400 pages)

Barbara O’Neal presents an enjoyable story about self-discovery, healing, romance, and adventure in her novel, The Secret of Everything.

Tessa Harlow is a woman in her mid-thirties on a quest to discover the details of her hidden past.   Following a traumatic accident that occurred while leading one of her adventure trips, Tessa attempts to heal both physically and emotionally by returning to her birthplace in Los Ladrones, New Mexico.   While Tessa allows her wounds to mend, she begins to do research for a possible upcoming adventure tour in her hometown.   On her journey she becomes romantically involved with a widower, and begins to make instant connections with the townspeople of Los Ladrones, most of whom trigger a memory from the past.   As she delves into the culture and history of this town, she discovers more than she had envisioned and slowly uncovers the secrets of her past.

O’Neal does a remarkable job of bringing her characters to life through description and dialogue, while exposing the true beauty of New Mexico.   Each character is likeable and interesting and, although they become unrealistically connected as the tale unfolds, the reader will enjoy the storyline and become entranced with her novel until its very end.

O’Neal also add a literally delicious touch to her story by describing the culinary dishes that Tessa explores and provides her readers with some of her favorite recipes.   If you’re not a “foodie” then you will no doubt be entertained by the charming dogs that are connected to Tessa throughout the story, each of which has a tail (or is it tale?) of their own.

This novel would make a great summer beach book, or serve as a fun focus for Book Club discussions.   It is light and enjoyable and, therefore, well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Embraced and loved

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also felt embraced and loved.   And that sustained her.”

There are books that you read, and put down because they are not what you expected.   This is a book that you will read and occasionally put down for another reason – in order not to finish it too quickly.   It is a book to savor and embrace, whether you are female or male.

This is a nonfiction tribute to a 40-year-old friendship among the 10 surviving members of an 11-member high school clique.   They are a group of women who “reached maturity in the age when feminism was blooming.”   They grew up with the theme of empowerment resounding in the air.   Consider that on TV they watched not “I Love Lucy” or “Father Knows Best” but instead “Wonder Woman”, “Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

The original group of 11 girls – Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana and Sheila – grew up in the relatively small community of Ames, Iowa; a place where they were literally surrounded by corn fields.   The corn there grows so high that it can hide cars.

This is a telling of the lives of this group (a real-life version of the story told in the novel The Group) and their lives are touched with successes, tragedy, divorce, illness and death.   The outgoing Sheila was to die in her twenties under strange circumstances that have never fully been resolved.   In addition, the children of the group members have been affected by serious illness and two members of the remaining group have battled breast cancer.   On the flip side, a member of the group first became a mother at the age of 45.

“Having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improve their immune systems, boost their self-esteem, stave off dementia, and actually live longer.   The Ames girls just feel the benefits in their guts.”

This book does its best in focusing on why it is vital for women “to nurture female friendships.”   We’re told, for example, “Research shows that women with advanced breast cancer have better survival rates if they have close friends.”   The matter of the peace and acceptance that accompanies aging is also well noted in The Girls from Ames.   “By their mid-forties, women know they’re at a crossroads.   They are still holding on to their younger selves, but they can also see their older selves pretty clearly.”

The one aspect of the book that may be slightly troubling is that males, particularly husbands and fathers, tend to come off as pale by comparison.   The men in the lives of these women are depicted as not being highly communicative, especially among other men (that is not how they get their needs met), and yet, they are generally well-loved.   At one point the women of the group are asked to rate their husbands/partners, and the average score came out to 8.2 on a 10-point scale.   All in all, a very good score!

One man was asked to consider reading this book and he declined sending this message via e-mail:  “Unfortunately, I do not have plans to read the book, but please convey to the girls from Ames that I think they are pretty hot.”   That was from Tom (60 years old) in Ohio.

The girls from Ames are now mothers and female role models in their own communities.   But most of all they remain the best of friends.   They are friends, survivors and a mutual support network.   They have all been battered a bit by life and, except for the still greatly missed Sheila, they have made it through.

This would be a great selection for almost any book club, even one that includes a male or two.   The very best news is that the story of the women from Ames will continue.   The 13 daughters of the 10 women are extremely good friends.   Bravo!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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