“Fireworks Over Toccoa” by Jeffrey Stepakoff. Thomas Dunne Books. 272 pages. $22.99.
“Hold Up the Sky” by Patricia Houck Sprinkle. NAL. 432 pages. $15.
“Magnolia Wednesdays” by Wendy Wax. Berkley. 448 pages. $15.
It may be a little early to start thinking about beach books, but these three novels by Georgia writers are great choices for summer reading — if you can wait that long.
‘Fireworks Over Toccoa’
When you begin “Fireworks Over Toccoa, ” be sure to have a large box of tissues handy. This impressive debut novel by Jeffrey Stepakoff, a veteran television writer and former co-executive producer of “Dawson’s Creek, ” is a heart-rending love story with echoes of “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Set in the northeast Georgia town of Toccoa during the summer of 1945, the novel is an account of five days in the lives of Lily Davis Woodward and Jake Russo. Lily is from a socially prominent Toccoa family with roots as deep as kudzu in the red Georgia clay. Jake, the son of an Italian immigrant, is an itinerant pyrotechnics expert in town to set up a Fourth of July fireworks show.
Lily and Jake meet accidentally, sparks fly, and they fall in love. Lily is fascinated with the way Jake invents formulas to light up the sky in colorful explosions. Jake discovers that Lily is an artist, too, but her creations are not as ephemeral as his. She recycles pieces of broken Coca-Cola bottles into beautiful mosaics.
Lily has not told her family about her artistic life and she can’t very well tell them about Jake. After all, Lily is a married woman. Her husband, Paul Woodward, was deployed to Europe two weeks after they wed in 1942. He is expected to return home within days to resume the respectable small-town life with Lily that her family has planned.
Lily’s dilemma is that she’s not sure that’s the life she wants. Jake has awakened the free spirit in her that she has suppressed to please her family. Will she follow her heart, or will she do what is expected of her and become a proper wife?
Stepakoff, who now lives in Sandy Springs, draws on his television writing background to tell a story that is visual and fast-paced. His scenes are as vivid as a fireworks display and his characters are as real as Coca-Cola when it came in green, 8-ounce glass bottles.
‘Hold Up the Sky’
Patricia Houck Sprinkle has scattered dozens of dead bodies around Atlanta in mysteries such as “Somebody’s Dead in Snellville” and “Death of a Dunwoody Matron.” Now, in “Hold Up the Sky, ” the Smyrna author abandons the crime genre to write a novel about four women and their trials and tribulations on a Georgia peach farm.
The title comes from the African proverb, “Women hold up half the sky, ” but in the beginning of this story it appears that the entire sky is rapidly falling.
These women have more problems than Job.
Billie Waits has a daughter with cerebral palsy and a husband she hasn’t seen in five years. Porter sends a check every month, or at least he did until recently. No one seems to know what happened to him, and Billie’s financial situation is desperate.
Her sister Margaret is an exact opposite. She has the perfect home and the perfect family. Or she did until her husband left her for a younger woman.
The other two women characters have their own burdens. Mamie Fountain, an African-American, has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, but she refuses to tell her daughter or anyone about her serious condition. And then there’s Emerita Gomez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico struggling to find work with her husband.
As their lives converge on Billie’s father’s peach farm, the state is suffering from one of the worst droughts in history. All that’s missing is a plague of locusts. In the midst of increasing hardships, the fiercely independent women realize that they can solve their problems only by depending on each other.
At one point, Mamie tells the women, “God’s weaving a tapestry, and we’re all part of it. It’s hard to see the pattern at the moment, but one day we will.”
Sprinkle has created a tapestry of her own in “Hold Up the Sky, ” one that is colorful, detailed and inspiring.
Vivien Armstrong Gray, the 41-year-old heroine in Wendy Wax’s satirical novel, “Magnolia Wednesdays, ” has problems of a more suburban nature.
As an investigative TV reporter in New York, Vivien is on the fast track until she is shot in the backside during an expose. The wound is only superficial, but the video of the incident does significantly more damage to her reputation when it ends up on YouTube. Adding insult to injury, Vivien’s boss informs her that he has hired a young, attractive female reporter that he’d like her to train. Vivien quits on the spot.
Life soon gets more complicated. Not only is Vivien jobless, she discovers she’s pregnant and her significant other is working as a foreign correspondent in an Afghanistan war zone. Desperate for employment, Vivien takes a job with the “Weekly Encounter” writing a column about suburban life. Since her sister Melanie lives in Cobb County, Vivien invites herself to stay with her while she recuperates from her bullet wound. Using the pseudonym Scarlett Leigh, she secretly begins researching the lifestyles of east Cobb suburbanites as meticulously as Margaret Mead studied primitive cultures.
Vivien discovers that suburbanites use bumper stickers and magnets as tribal markings to let everyone know the family’s school, sports or charitable organizations.
“Apparently you are not only your magnets, ” Vivien writes in her column, “you are also what you drive. Just a quick look at the color, make, and model you’re driving and your fellow suburbanites will know everything about you from how much money you make to how often you have sex.”
Vivien’s snide columns about suburban soccer moms and helicopter parents are soon the talk of east Cobb. Meanwhile, as she tries to keep her pregnancy and Scarlett Leigh identity secret from her family and her boyfriend, she quietly begins investigating the death of Melanie’s husband. The shooting had been ruled accidental, but Vivien is convinced a friend of Melanie’s is the murderer.
Wax, the author of “The Accidental Bestseller, ” writes with breezy wit and a keen insight into family relations. As “Gone with the Wind” fans will quickly recognize, Wax’s tongue-in-cheek references to the characters in Margaret Mitchell’s novel are purely intentional. Vivien is deceptive and ambitious, Melanie is almost a saint. But, unlike Scarlett, Vivien eventually recognizes her faults and realizes that family is the only thing that matters. Even if it’s in suburbia.