Always Annie by Liz Flaherty
(Precious Gems #205, $1.96, PG) ISBN 0-8217-6397-0
After reading Liz Flaherty's first book, Always Annie, I have come to the conclusion that I don't get to Wal-Mart enough. Precious Gems are sold only in Wal-Marts, much to my chagrin. I've got to broaden my shopping and book-buying horizons. Books like Always Annie, which is wonderful reading and good for the heart, are too good to miss.

Always Annie is a poignant look at second chances. We first meet Annie Houston as she reminisces about her ex-husband Josh. Theirs had been a storybook romance until Annie's third miscarriage, when the marriage just crumbled under the weight of her despair. Annie stayed in their hometown and bought a book store, while Josh moved away and remarried. He is now divorced but has custody of his two teenaged stepsons. Their mother's new husband doesn't want them around.

It's Christmas, and Josh and the boys have returned to celebrate with his brother. Because of a mix-up and some unscheduled remodeling, Josh and the boys will be staying with Annie. Seeing Josh with his stepsons, Annie is heartsick that she was never able to give him children. She comes to love the two teenagers, but is still bitter about her miscarriages. She also doesn't want to be a step stepmom if she and Josh do manage a reconciliation. She is having a hard time relinquishing her dreams of a family of her own.

What set this story apart from the other second chance reconciliations is the depth of the characters. I'm frankly amazed that Ms. Flaherty could create such three-dimensional characters with the constraints of such a limited word count. Annie and Josh are so well-drawn, so realistic that it's easy to empathize with them, to understand what went wrong and to rejoice as the depth of their feelings allows them to achieve that second chance at happily ever after. Josh's stepsons are almost too good to be real, but that didn't stop me from appreciating them and grinning at them every time they appear.

I did find the ending a bit contrived but there's nothing wrong with an ultimate HEA. I'm not so cynical that I can't wish for everything to be perfect. A couple of secondary characters were too implausible to be treated with any degree of credence, but they didn't detract from my concern for Annie and Josh.

Always Annie is a wonderful debut novel. Ms. Flaherty's unique mix of pathos and joy succeeds on both levels. If second chance stories appeal to you, then you can't go wrong. Perhaps the song is right, and love is lovelier the second time around.

--Linda Mowery

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