Alice at Heart

Charming Grace

On Bear Mountain

A Place to Call Home

The Stone Flower Garden

Sweet Hush

Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes

When Venus Fell

Diary of a Radical Mermaid
by Deborah Smith
(BelleBooks, $14.95, PG) ISBN 0-9673-0357-5
Deborah Smith has taught me that the publishing business isn’t fair. No, that doesn’t go far enough – publishing is brainless, heartless and spineless. It is beyond comprehension that Smith, a brilliantly talented writer, is currently without a major publishing deal despite penning such masterpieces as A Place to Call Home and Sweet Hush, just to name a few of many. I also don’t understand why her fantastic Waterlilies Series books are confined to BelleBooks, the small publishing company that Smith runs with several of her fellow Southern romance novelists. Readers, you have a chance to correct a deep injustice – buy this woman’s books!  

Although Diary of a Radical Mermaid is the sequel to Smith’s first Waterlilies book, Alice at Heart, the tone is much different. Instead of dignified Lilith Bonavendier as our mermaid guide and part-time narrator, we get Juna Lee Poinfax, noted mermaid socialite, diva and hell-raiser. After dissing Donald Trump and ruining a prospective business deal between Trump and Lilith’s long-time lover, Juna Lee is banished to Sainte’s Point Island off the coast of Georgia to take on whatever community service mermaid-in-residence Lilith can dream up for her.  

The wise, far-seeing Lilith has just the project for the spoiled but not malicious Juna Lee. Her assignment is to locate Molly Revere, noted children’s author, and let her know about her mermaid heritage. She’s not a true Mer “Swimmer” like Lilith and Juna Lee – no webbed feet, no prolonged lifespan – just a “Floater” who can adopt partial Mer characteristics with some training. Lilith thinks that Molly is a perfect match for Rhymer McEvers, a former British secret agent who is serving as guardian for his three nieces due to the recent tragic death of his sister Tara. The girls’ father, a powerful shapeshifter named Orion, was at least partially responsible for Tara’s death, and Rhymer is headed towards Sainte’s Point Island to hide the girls from Orion’s deadly intentions. Lilith is counting on Molly’s optimism to balance Rhymer’s cynicism in the inevitable confrontation, and Juna Lee figures it will be a piece of cake to overpower the hapless Floater with her own never-fail mermaid powers of persuasion.  

But Juna Lee has met her match in the “gimpy Ally McBeal” that she encounters in a Memphis hotel. And there’s lots of danger, romance and more than a little magic ahead for both women as Juna Lee tries to teach Molly everything encompassed by the unofficial mermaid motto: “We’re Better Than Everyone Else, And We Know It.”  

While Radical Mermaid is a delight, it’s very different from than the book that introduced Smith’s Mer fantasy world. Alice at Heart’s charming Maxfield Parrish cover portrait has been replaced this time around with a cartoonish picture that would look at home on a Chick Lit novel. That noticeable difference sets a more lighthearted tone which is carried out through the rest of the novel. There’s plenty of humor from Juna Lee’s wisecracking mouth and from the spirited encounters between Juna Lee and Molly. Smith writes the best female cat fights this side of Dynasty’s Krystle and Alexis – see Hush McGillen vs. First Lady Edwina Jacobs in Sweet Hush and Grace Vance vs. Diamond Senterra in Charming Grace for more evidence. I’d hate to spoil all of the best lines, so I’ll just say that only Juna Lee would dare to tell Donald Trump the truth about his godawful hairstyle. And I love the way the less-than-humble mermaid claims that almost every famous actor, politician or artist has Mer blood in their past – shades of both My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Men in Black.  

Diary of a Radical Mermaid has a sweet romance between Molly and Rhymer, who are immediately drawn to each other despite the many external obstacles in their way, and a spirited but slightly underdeveloped romance between Juna Lee and a suave playboy mermaid who is one of the few individuals brave or foolish enough to say no to her. Although the novel’s male characters are less fully realized than the female ones, they are generally brave, honorable and of course sexy. Rhymer in particular comes across as a male mermaid version of James Bond (the Sean Connery version, of course, not any of those later pretenders).  

Once again Smith creates a credible fantasy world that is eminently more attractive than our own. As Juna Lee points out logically, three-quarters of the earth is covered with water, so it stands to reason that there are mermaids, or Mers, living beneath the seas. They don’t have any silly Disney’s Little Mermaid or Splash tails, but they are blessed with longevity, psychic powers and the ability to swim underwater for hours at a time. Who wouldn’t want to be one? Smith’s appendix provides additional background on Mer history and culture and leaves the reader wanting more.  

Fortunately, it looks like that wish will be granted. Although the danger from Orion is resolved by the end of the novel, other loose ends left hanging lead to the promise of a third Waterlilies book and the return of the unforgettable Juna Lee. My only consolation about Smith’s current publisher woes is that without a contract, she might be able to devote more time to the quick release of Radical Mermaid Gets Rude. And meanwhile, I can only hope that the publishing world will come to its senses and give Smith the deal she deserves.  

--Susan Scribner

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