True North by Beverly Brandt
(St. Martins, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-312-97985-1
Iíve had some poor luck with the current crop of romantic comedies. If Iíd spied debut author Beverly Brandtís cute cartoon cover in the bookstore, I may very well have passed it by. Luckily, I was given True North to review and what a delightful surprise! I had a heck of a time putting this book down.

Claire Brown is account coordinator for Allied Adjusters, one of the largest claims adjusting firms in the world. A true workaholic, she works twelve hour days and most weekends doing a job she loves. But she realizes her busy work schedule has left little time for her fiancť Bryan. So as a birthday gift, Claire spends a ton of her savings to arrange a romantic holiday at Hunterís Lodge, an award winning resort in the wilderness outside Aspen, Colorado.

Well, things didnít work out precisely as Claire planned. Late for her flight, she discovers her first class reservation has been canceled and sheís forced to grab the last seat in coach, next to a hyper three-year-old. But thatís the least of her problems. Once she arrives at the lodge she discovers Bryan intends to enjoy his birthday gift with another woman.

John McBride is the owner of Hunterís Lodge, but a miscommunication causes Claire to believe heís merely the lodge handyman, a fact John does nothing to correct. He knows Claireís type. Sheís a workaholic who canít even take a vacation without her laptop and cell phone. His ex-wife and even his mother are exactly the same way. No matter how attractive Claire may be, the workaholic type is a total turn-off.

Now, I know what youíre thinking. Another romantic comedy featuring an uptight, stressed out professional woman learning how to relax and enjoy life with the help of a laid-back rancher-type dude. While that may appear to be true on the surface, itís the character development here that takes this book beyond the standard fare.

Claire is not simply a workaholic, there are valid reasons for her lifestyle. Reasons which are slowly revealed throughout the course of the book. The same can be said for John, an ex-FBI agent, who left his chosen field to retreat from the city for very legitimate reasons. These are not stock characters who are merely plunked there, hoping their opposing lifestyles will make a cute source of conflict.

That said, their opposing lifestyles do make for some hilarious moments. Claire, although humiliated at Bryanís deception, is determined to enjoy the vacation sheís planned for so long and settles for the only remaining space at the lodge. A tiny room over the garage with just a cot and no bath. Sheís also decided to join in on several of the nature hikes and white water rafting trips, which are lead by none other that John McBride. Although Claire holds her own, letís just say sheís no natural athlete.

Claire also has a tendency to listen to what she refers to as her "evil impulse," which gets her into trouble more often than not. It sets up some funny moments, but I couldnít help gritting my teeth each time she decides to follow one of these impulses. It can be amusing when life throws you a curve, but when itís your own darn fault, it leans dangerously close to stupidity.

The cast of secondary characters are also well-developed, particularly Johnís mother Mary Jane, a career woman with an important decision to make. Even Bryanís bimbo Cindy is more fully fleshed than the average "other woman."

My only criticism concerns the suspense thread that doesnít fully come into play until the final third of the book. When the emphasis is on the budding romance between Claire and John, things really sizzle. When the focus changes to the suspense elements, things drag a bit. Although this could be a personal bias, since the suspense focuses on Claireís investigation of insurance fraud. A subject the author seems to know quite a bit about, but something a bit too dry for my taste.

Itís exciting to discover a new writer and if Beverly Brandtís next book is as satisfying as True North, Iíll have to make room on my list for another auto-buy author.

--Karen Lynch

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