A Cinderella story, a dazzling debut One of the greatest joys for romance readers is discovering a truly fresh take on a classic love story. One of the greatest challenges for romance authors is writing with an original voice. When the writer is a first-time novelist, the discovery is all the sweeter. Just such a story is Linda Nichols's Handyman (Delacorte, $20, 0385334370), an enchanting contemporary retelling of the Cinderella tale only this heroine is single mom Maggie Ivey, struggling to make a life for herself and her son Tim in a shabby apartment in Oakland. Prince Charming is contractor Jake Cooper, whom Maggie mistakes for Dr. Jason Golding, the self-help guru of the 21-Day Overhaul. Jake is in the psychologist's office to bid on a remodeling job, but from their first encounter, he decides Maggie is the one who needs fixing. No Cinderella tale would be complete without a conniving pair of competitors for our hero's affections. Lindsay, Jake's ex-girlfriend, is determined to help him resolve his issues so they can get back together. And Gina, well, she's supposed to be Maggie's best friend she even paid for the 21-Day Overhaul but now can't stand having her guru give Maggie more personal attention.

After indulging in this irresistible tale, we asked author Linda Nichols to do a little self-analysis: Sandy Huseby: Your novel pokes at the psychobabble, self-help fixation. What do you really need help with? Linda Nichols: Handyman does sort of poke fun at psychobabble, but I don't think struggling with mental health issues is funny, and I'm very much in favor of competent counselors and psychologists doing their work. But there is an aspect to the whole self-help industry that strikes me as very commercial and almost addictive in nature. Your phrase self-help fixation describes it perfectly. I do have struggles myself in that area from time to time. I'm a worrier, and I've noticed that I get worse when my life feels out of control for some reason. The other thing I struggle with is being sort of a loner. I was an only child, and I tend to be pretty independent anyway. It's easy for me to sort of hibernate and let myself get out of touch with other people. But it's interesting; I've found the cure for both of these problems is to stay connected to the people I care about. They tend to help me put my worries into perspective, even if it's just to say, Even if the worst happens, I'll still love you. SH: What do you like most about your heroine? LN: I think the thing I like most about Maggie Ivey is her sweetness. She hasn't let betrayal make her hard and bitter. And I also like that she takes such good care of her son. She has her priorities straight, no matter what other people are telling her. SH: What do you like best about yourself as a writer? As a person? LN: I think the thing I like best about myself as a writer is my perseverance. I made the decision a while back that I was never going to give up on my writing, no matter how hard it was at times. I felt I had been given a talent and it was my responsibility to develop it. I take classes, belong to a workshop, and write five days a week, almost without exception. What I like about myself as a person is a tougher question. I feel I have a lot of character flaws. Sometimes I think I should wear a sign that says, As Is. But I guess the thing I like best about myself is my honesty and lack of pretense. I'm not very good at pretending to be anything other than what I am. SH: Who is your real-world hero and why? LN: I have a group of heroes. When I was a junior in high school my family disintegrated. My dad moved us to the Seattle area from Virginia. I left behind all my friends and extended family, and as soon as we arrived here my parents' marriage sort of melted down. I was an only child, without friends, whose family was falling apart. But then, miraculously, I think as I look back, these people just came out of the woodwork and took care of me. One was the pastor of the church I began attending. He filled the role of father in my life during high school and college. Another was a girl who came along and became my friend. Her family included me in everything they did. A third was an older woman who took me under her wing. I would sit at her house for hours, and she would listen and encourage me. They are my heroes. Out of a complete void came a father, mother, and family. I'll never forget what they did for me.

The caring relationships Linda Nichols describes in her own life ring just as true in her story. Help yourself to Handyman, sit back, and turn off all the distractions you're in for a real treat!

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