Duets #27
By Kristen Gabriel and Kay David
(Harlequin, $5.99, PG) 0-373-44093-6
***
Duets #27 is a good example of why two books in one may not always be the best buy. Book one, Bachelor by Design by Kristen Gabriel, is just plain silly, with double helpings of farce. On the other hand, Too Hot for Comfort by Kay David is really engaging, with realistic characters. Average the rating for both books, and you've got a three-heart rating.

Bachelor by Design features a matchmaker, a former fortune-teller, who reads coffee grounds and then predicts people's compatibility from that reading. Immediately I found that scenario, that hook just a tad too trendy, too cutesy, sort of Astrology by Starbucks. The story opens as Chloe D'Onofrio, visits her mom in prison. Mom is in for money laundering, and is up for parole. Chloe explains to Mom why working for Uncle Leo, the money-launderer, is a bad idea when she gets out on parole. Mom, a seeming bubble brain, liked working for Leo. " But he let me set my own hours. He had a wonderful dental plan."

It seems that Chloe is the only honest person in her family. She can make a visit to the prison last all day. There's Aunt Wanda, serving two to five for petty larceny. Cousin Kit is in for ten months for bad checks. Nora violated her parole and is back in the slammer. The last stop of the day is dear old mom. Okay, maybe I'm too traditional, but I don't find anything funny about people being in prison, and Chloe's peroxide dependent mom is just too over the edge. And she's not Chloe's only relative who's a space cadet in training.

Trace Callahan's aunt is the former fortune-teller and coffee grounds reader. He loves her, but tries to avoid all the women that auntie deems as ‘suitable.' In fact, Trace has his requirements for the perfect woman. He's about to propose to Miss Right when she thanks him for making her decision easier. ‘What decision?' he wonders. "The first time we kissed I knew for sure. That's when I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in a convent." This is supposed to be funny? If any of this sounds like your kind of humor, you're in for a book full, full, full of it.

Well, Auntie bring Chloe and Trace together as they work on the remodeling of the coffee house. Throw in Chloe's younger brother -- the other space cadet in training -- a young man strutting his machismo, the brother's girlfriend who was mom's cell mate in prison, a jewel heist and you've got the mystery that will propel the rest of the book. Frankly, I like my humor to be subtle rather than the sort that hits me in the face with a cream-filled pie.

Now let's talk about the story that raised this book to an acceptable rating. Kay David's Too Hot for Comfort is what Sally Beaumont wants to call her new radio call-in cooking show. The show is being broadcast from Comfort, Texas, hence the ‘play on words' name of the show. The townspeople mistake the purpose of the radio show. Instead of a cooking show, people are calling in with …gasp…sex questions. Luckily Sally is a fast thinker and is able to answer the questions with saucy humor couched in accuracy, kindness and acceptance.

Sally does such a good job as the show's host that the producer and advertisers want her to go with the new format. But it seems that someone in Comfort doesn't want ‘smut' to be broadcast over the airwaves. Sally suffers a series of misfortunes; her living room window is broken with a rock, her tires are slashed and the assaults just escalate.

Retired cop Jake Nolte is vege-ing in Comfort, healing from a wound and trying to get his life in order. Jake's really too young to be retired, but the burned out cop from Houston needs the peace and quiet of Comfort to regroup. What he doesn't need is a gutsy, sexy woman who will likely shake the foundations of some firmly held beliefs. But the cop and the man in him can't resist a woman very much in need of his help.

Too Hot for Comfort succeeds on several levels. It accurately portrays the feel of Smalltown USA, with its characters ranging from the colorful to the staid. Both main characters are individuals I'd like to know, that being my ultimate litmus test for the people I read about. The mystery, while not being of the Agatha Christie level, is compelling enough to keep me interested. The resolution even feels right, if a tad small town .

Bachelor by Design is just too slapstick, with humor too broad for me to enjoy. Nobody seems real, but I guess I should be thankful for that. Too Hot for Comfort features characters who are realistic, people easy to empathize with, and a plot that thankfully doesn't have Three Stooges overtones. I like one story and don't like the other. What a quandary. As my mother used to say, that's six of one and a half-dozen of the other.

--Linda Mowery


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