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Hooked by Stef Ann Holm
(Sonnet, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-671-01941-4
****
I have never fully accepted the oft repeated remark that reviewing a novel is "just a matter of taste" or that it is "just one person's opinion." I do believe that there are criteria that can be applied to any story that will enable a reviewer to judge the book fairly. But as I sit down to review Stef Ann Holm's latest Americana romance, I must confront the fact that my response to Hooked is primarily "just a matter of taste."

Holm has clearly set out to write a light-hearted humorous romance. And there is the rub. Nothing is more clearly "a matter of taste" than one's taste for humor. Since my own particular preferences in this matter tend toward the wry, the subtle and, indeed, the satiric, obviously the broader humor that Holm employs does not work for me. I have never been fond of slapstick. Yet I must recognize that others' tastes might well be very different from mine.

The plot of Hooked centers on nefarious doings at the annual trout fishing contest in Harmony, Montana. Stunt journalist (think of an investigative reporter for Hard Copy) Matthew Gage hears about the widespread belief that the 1900 contest was rigged from a fellow inmate in the Bozeman jail. It seems that sweeper salesman Vernon Wilberforce was on his way to Harmony to compete for the $1000 prize when he got into trouble with the law. Since he is going to be incarcerated for some time, he is panicked because if Mrs. Wilberforce doesn't hear from him from Harmony, his life could be not worth living.

Matthew, whose career is based on uncovering chicanery wherever he finds it, decides to go to Harmony posing as Vernon Wilberforce to discover whether the contest is indeed rigged. He also agrees to mail the required letters to Mrs. Wilberforce while he is there.

Meg Brooks is the daughter of the owner of Harmony's best hotel. She has decided to abandon her harum-scarum persona and become a real lady. But decorum is not Meg's strong suit. When her petticoat begins to fall off, she rushes into what she believes is an empty hotel room to repair the damage and comes face to face with Matthew as he comes out of the bath dressed only in a towel. She then retreats under the bed when the porter arrives with "Mr. Wilberforce's" bags. Thus the hero and heroine of Hooked meet.

Matthew is much taken by the copper-haired, lightly freckled Miss Brooks. For her part, Meg is bowled over by the handsome "Mr. Wilberforce." He is certainly much more attractive then Harold "Adams' Apple," her most persistent suitor. But then it turns out that the fisherman who is suspected of having fixed last year's contest is none other than Meg's brother. Is Matthew pursuing the acquaintance because he finds Meg irresistible or is he in pursuit of his story? Frankly, he himself isn't sure.

Much of the humor in Hooked centers around Meg's impetuous character. She is the prototypical "klutzy" heroine whose efforts to act like a lady seem doomed to failure. Her suffragette grandmother is also portrayed as a comic character. (Considering that grandma is a militant suffragette ten plus years before militancy arrived in America, she is also a woman ahead of her time.)

The romance between Matthew and Meg is sweet rather than sensuous. But their growing love is threatened by Matthew's impersonation and his purposes in uncovering Meg's brother's suspected fraud.

Holm did invest her hero with a certain amount of angst, resulting from his embarrassment over his father's ruthless pursuit of wealth and his growing distaste for the methods he must employ to keep his sensational stories coming. But angst clearly takes a back seat to humor.

I enjoyed Holm's gently amusing portrayal of small town life in 1901. She provides a lot of details about fashions, fads and foibles. Her use of Princess Breast Cream as a trout lure was a nicely funny touch.

Stef Ann Holm's writing is good, her characters are well drawn, the setting is appealing, the dialogue is fine, the romance is sweet, and the plot is quite appropriate for the book. So, I must conclude that it is a good book, even though its humor doesn't appeal to me. If you like your humor broad, you should enjoy Hooked.

--Jean Mason


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