Southern Comfort
by Karen Kelley, contemporary (2004)
Brava, $14.00, ISBN 0-7582-0709-3


From its eyeball-rolling start to its "huh?" ending, Karen Kelley's debut is a baffling story that doesn't know what it wants to be. It starts out as a heroine on the run story, morphs into a meddlesome matchmaker smalltown story, and then back to being a romantic suspense story, written in a flippant tone more appropriate for a chick-lit story. The result is either a campy tale or a train wreck. Ms Kelly isn't good enough at this stage to pass her story off as campy.

Fallon Hargis, our heroine, is a DEA agent on the run from the bad guys after her undercover gig is blown. She charges into our hero Wade Tanner's hotel room in Dallas, forces him to strip, and then pretend to be making love to him when the two trigger-happy baddies charge through the door too. Never mind that those two guys are watching, she has a bullet lodged in her gut, and she's definitely in pain and needing a quick escape route - she and Wade are so taken with each other than the pretense becomes real, so to speak. I have read everything now. The alien mothership can come and beam me up to another planet and I will have no regrets. Maybe the books there are better.

Wade is on vacation. He's the sheriff of Two Creeks, Texas (with a name like Wade and a book with the word Southern in the title, he has to be a sheriff). He takes the injured Fallon there after she lets him know who she is (hmm, that explains the ease her previous undercover stunt gets flushed down the drain). Why can't she just go back and report to her superiors, you ask? That's because Ms Kelley is saving the Mole In The DEA subplot for a rushed external conflict in the late third of the book when she's tired of writing a smalltown romance filled with stereotypical nosey old coots.

The characters, on their own, aren't too bad. They aren't too original but Fallon is a decent heroine who doesn't commit too many dumb things (and when it comes to romance heroines, that's good enough for me) while Wade is the typical big-hearted big-packaged smalltown sheriff hero readers of smalltown sheriff romances will be familiar with. But the author doesn't know what she wants to do with her story. The suspense elements are transparent and rushed in the resolution because she focuses on turning this book into a smalltown romance for too long in the middle of the book. When she changes her mind and reverts the story back to its romantic suspense roots, the suspense has been neglected for too long and there is no satisfying build-up to the denouement, just rushed scenes to the inevitable final showdown with a villain whose identity is obvious the moment the villain shows up in the story.

What this book has in abundance are contrived scenes created just to get the main characters in a steamy situation. Even so, the love scenes are quite short and there is a rushed and perfunctory feel to them, as if the author just wants to get them over with. Come to think of it, this book feels like a shorter smalltown romance that is hastily Band-aided and padded with what Ms Kelley thinks are bestselling "must-have" thingies, such as a kickass heroine in a romantic suspense subplot and a chick-lit tone in the narration, once she manages to sell this book to Brava. I'd suggest that readers who can wait a few more months before they contribute to Ms Kelley's royalty check to do so, at least until she figures out what she wants to write and her stories become less schizophrenic and contrived.

Rating: 59


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