On The Line
by Kathryn Shay, contemporary (2004)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-19710-7


On the bright side, Kathryn Shay's latest firefighter romance On The Line is less cluttered than her last few books. There are only two couples in this soap opera, after all. But readers familiar with the tormented cop routine will find little new here. Substitute the cops with firemen and voila, On The Line.

Eve Woodward has a difficult assignment. The Office of Fire Prevention and Control investigating officer is charged to investigate the high number of fires breaking out in the last year in Hidden Cove, New York, and the fire department chief, Noah Callahan, is not amused at the insinuation that he is not doing his job. This assignment is difficult because she is attracted to the forty-seven year old widower but Eve has reasons to suspect that Noah is not as honest a chief that he passes himself off as. (Of course he's the noble, courageous, selfless fireman, but it doesn't seem likely at that point in the story.)

Eve is also struggling with her jealous male colleagues who spread the news around that she's sleeping with the boss to get where she is today in the OFPC. If that's not problematic enough, there's an arsonist running around town literally setting the place alight.

Meanwhile, Zach Malvaso, last seen moping in After The Fire, is in need of TLC. What better way than to have him fall for a colleague once she stops being a tough firewoman and starts "feminizing" herself for the sake of her daughters? What better way to make a hero out of a guy than to have him fall for a woman with a ready-made family?

Ms Shay has cut down on the whole "pile on the angst to pass the characters off as complex" schtick she overdoes in her last few books, which is good, but at the same time Eve and Noah aren't too interesting as they are familiar characters with familiar problems and baggages. The arsonist subplot is quite far-fetched too. Without dipping into spoilers, let me just say that I don't think Ms Shay has put much thought into making sure that the motivations of the villain are halfway believable. The less said about the template characters Zach and Casey Brennan the better as pretty much everything about the whole Single Mother In Distress and the Tormented Man Who Needs Love And A Family thing has been overdone so many times already. I suspect that the author would have been able to flesh out these characters more if she has focused on each couple in their own full-length books instead of forcing them to share the pages in this book.

There are plenty of emotionally manipulative elements in here, many of them involving children, that can make a cynical reader scoff. The arsonist is Really Evil because eeee, children are trapped in the burning building! Noah and firemen are Really Noble because they mentor children in need of father figures! Zach is Really Good Inside because he loves children! And my favorite, having children expressing their Despair and Grief at tragedies like 9/11 to work up readers into tears. I don't know whether to admire or cringe at such ballsy and blatant exploitation of reader's emotions. Children are so wonderful, they bring out the best in everybody, so let's put on a Michael Jackson CD, hold hands, and sing Heal The World!

On The Line is a cleanly-written and very readable book starring familiar and unobjectionable characters. I just wish that the emotions in the story come across in a less calculated manner. This is one story where the author's attempts to manipulate her readers are very blatant, especially in the misuse of children to bring on the soggy Kleenex moments, and I must confess that I'm probably too cynical to buy wholesale what Ms Shay has to sell in this story.

Rating: 68


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