Charlie Valentine's ambitious fiction debut Better Days Ahead, the first in a planned trilogy, is a sprawling saga of four disparate families of very different origins whose fortunes are destined to intersect in 1950s California.
Sarah Robbins is a nightclub singer in Cleveland who finds herself pregnant and abandoned by her socially prominent lover. Her battles with drink and a poor track record in the men with whom she chooses to share her bed will lead to the loss of the one man who truly loves her and a devastating impact on her only son.
Neil Dvorak, a Michigan woodworker with an unrealistically idealized vision of marriage and family, finds himself twice betrayed and grasping at the tenuous hope of redemption with his daughter.
Dolores Drake takes desperate steps to save herself and her children from her husband's violence along the vicious racial divide of a small Alabama town. Her decision to cross to the wrong side of the tracks leaves her innocent son exposed to the mortal threat of Klan retribution.
David Stratton, a bright, privileged engineer on the fast track to success, learns that sometimes it's not just of time that a career can demand sacrifice - and it is his beloved wife and daughter who will pay the price for that education.
Compulsively readable - as with so many family saga-style novels, losing yourself in Better Days Ahead feels like indulging in a guilty pleasure - Valentine's first novel shows a good deal of promise, both for drama potential in the continuing life stories of her characters and for her own growth as a novelist. That the book was a finalist in the 2006 USA Book News Contest
only punctuates that evaluation, making her more decisively an author to watch.