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River Rising by Merline Lovelace
(Onyx, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-40850-0
***
When writing a romantic suspense novel, an author is presented with the challenge of juggling two themes, the romance and the suspense. Unless they’re both kept up in the air, the whole book suffers. In River Rising, there are a few missed balls.

Major Carly Samuels is an Air Force JAG officer. She is presently teaching at the Judge Advocate General School in Alabama. Even though this takes her out of the courtroom, she is pleased with the assignment since it brings her closer to home and to her grandfather and mother, a U.S. Congresswoman.

When a fast-rising colonel is found murdered and her husband accused of the crime, Carly is excited to be chosen to lead the Air Force investigation. The only witness is Ryan McMann, a former NHL hockey star and convicted felon, who is serving out the remainder of his sentence doing public service at the nearby minimum security prison. He claims to have seen the suspect, also an Air Force officer, driving near the scene of his wife’s murder close to the time of the crime.

In order to evaluate the credibility of McMann’s testimony, Carly delves deeper into his criminal and personal background and into the circumstances of the crime. A chance encounter with a prison inmate leads Carly to suspect that there is more behind the murder than a case of domestic violence.

Meanwhile, Carly’s personal life is affected by the case. She is angered by her boyfriend’s interference and finds herself increasingly attracted to McMann. As heavy rains saturate Alabama and rivers threaten to flood, Carly and McMann will face a new challenges.

There is enough in this story to keep a reader’s interest. The criminal investigation has some unexpected twists, and Carly herself is an adult woman with a mature professional attitude. (Although she demonstrates a little immaturity in believing that wearing spike heels adds needed height to her five foot, three inches – trust me, Carly, it’s not worth the pain!)

Where the book is less successful is in the romance between Carly and McMann. The author has endowed McMann with an abundance of admirable characteristics. He was a scholar athlete, a hockey player of legendary skill, a man of conscience (he only pled guilty to manslaughter because he felt badly that the girl had died not because he was complicitous – a bit much to believe), a sensitive friend. After all, there has to be some reason that the otherwise level-headed Carly prefers the ex-con to her lawyer boyfriend.

I wasn’t persuaded that this romance had any long-term future. Sure, he is a hunk and she looks great in a uniform, but their attraction seems more expedient than sensual. Once the particular circumstances that have brought them together have concluded, what’s to keep them together? Fortunately, in most of their encounters Carly maintains her professionalism and doesn’t engage in any inappropriate hanky-panky, but I sensed a lack of any real heat between the two of them.

The scenes involving Carly’s family seem unnecessary padding. They don’t add anything to the plot or much to the character development. It’s nice that she is devoted to her family, but some of the superfluous details (such as the history of her grandfather’s old mule) merely slowed the story’s momentum. One detail that isn’t explored is why Carly, with her distinguished family’s legal background, joined the Air Force JAG rather than practicing law as a civilian.

With a tighter plot and a stronger romance, River Rising could have been a more successful book. There is enough in it, however, to appeal to many fans of this subgenre.

--Lesley Dunlap


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