Blue Smoke, by Nora Roberts

>> Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Even though I love Nora Roberts's books and she's in the very first place on my autobuy list, certain comments I'd read meant I didn't really expect much from her latest Romantic Suspense single title, Blue Smoke. That is, it never crossed my mind not to buy it, because even a NR that's not among her best is still very much worth a read for me, but I was eagerly waiting for it, ready to pounce on it as soon as it got here, as I often do with her books.


The blaze that night at her family's pizzeria changed young Reena Hale's life. Neighbors and relatives would help the Hales rebuild. The Baltimore authorities would arrest the arsonist responsible. But as Reena beheld the fire's brutal beauty and destructive power, her destiny began to take shape. She would understand and master its terrible force-and one day become an investigator herself.

But she is not the only one fascinated by the flames. Someone else sees their power-and is obsessed not with conquering the fire but with controlling it, owning it, using it to exact vicious revenge . . .

When Reena finally joins the arson unit, her strength and wits are constantly tested-although sometimes the job seems like a snap compared to her love life. But she can't always blame the men-after all, a soot-caked woman barking orders and smelling of smoke isn't the biggest turn-on in the world. Then she meets Bo Goodnight, who seems different. He's been trying to find Reena for years, and now that she is close enough to touch, he has no intention of letting go.

Nor does the man who has begun to haunt Reena's life-with taunting phone calls and a string of horrifying crimes. And as Reena tries desperately to trace the origins-of the calls, the fires, the hatred aimed in her direction-she will step into the worst inferno she has ever faced.
I needn't have worried. I absolutely loved Blue Smoke. It was a big, juicy story, one I could really sink into, with compelling characters and a lovely romance. I'd rate it an A-, and the only reason I don't rate it higher is that certain scenes were a bit too graphic and upsetting for me.

When she was almost 12, the restaurant owned by Reena Hale's family was torched by a neighbour who wanted to get back at Reena's father for getting in his face about his son hitting Reena. This episode worked to make Reena fascinated with fire, with its whys and hows, and cemented her decision to become an arson investigator.

So for the next few hundreds of pages, we follow Reena as she builds her life. We see her going to college, becoming a cop, then an arson investigator. We see some of her relationships with men. But we also get glimpses of the shadow following her, hitting at her by hitting at the people (the men, especially) she cares about.

It's quite a few pages before we get to the meat of the story. Only for Nora, do I tolerate 300 out of 760 pages (I've got the large print edition... seller at amazon listed it wrong, damn him! It weighs a ton!) before the story actually gets going. Hell, before hero and heroine even meet! But I have to say, I did get a kick from that first part. The background really does make the character of Reena much, much deeper and layered.

While this first half of the story is mostly about Reena, we do catch a few scenes about Bo, and in all of these we see his life barely touching with Reena's. Bo falls in love at first sight the first time he sees her. He catches a glimpse of her across a crowded room in a college party and is absolutely gobsmacked, but when he tries to get to her, she has disappeared. Same thing a few years later, when she sees her in a shopping mall. She becomes his "Dream Girl", and though he doesn't become a monk, or anything, his Dream Girl is always on the back of his mind, whoever he's with.

Something like this risks being a bit creepy, but I though Roberts handled it perfectly. Once Bo and Reena actually meet, there was never a question in my mind of Bo being in love with some kind of ideal image and not with the real woman. Sure, his initial overtures are about his having finally found his Dream Girl, but it was obvious to me that he would have fallen for this new neighbour of his even if this had been the first time he'd seen her.

Bo and Reena were wonderful characters. Reena takes her place right up there with my favourites Nora Roberts heroines, and that's no small thing. She's a strong and honourable woman, but not an annoyingly perfect one. Something I really appreciated about her was how her reactions to someone stalking her and taunting her as the villain did were perfect. I didn't realize until after I thought about it when I finished the book just how rare they were, and how sick I am of heroines (even cop heroines) always doing the "oh, it's nothing, I won't bother the police with this. I'll just hide it" thing. Reena doesn't. She does the sensible, right thing, and not just with the villain's actions. I stood up and applauded when I saw what she did when that other guy she was involved with hit her! Perfect!

Bo was the perfect guy for this tough, driven woman, an easygoing, lovely beta. But beta doesn't mean weak, and I though Bo was very strong in the way he wouldn't budge from certain positions. Someone says right in the book that he'll just go along until he reaches a certain line, but when he's reached that line, you'd need dynamite to move him from his position. He reminded me a bit of Declan, from Midnight Bayou, who I loved.

I also loved the family stuff, which was just vintage Nora. Reena's family is huge and they're all very close, and I loved that Roberts didn't make them a stereotypical Eye-talian meddlesome family but a realistical and three-dimensional group of secondary characters.

The suspense element of this book was one I thought was really well done. Throughout it all, we readers see the villain coming close, and that adds a lot of tension because we know and Reena doesn't. And that was good, because there really was no reason she should catch on, so she didn't look like an idiot. The villain's identity isn't a big secret, really, but this doesn't diminish the suspensefulness of the story in any way.

What didn't work quite that well was that the villains actions were a quite a bit too disturbing for me. Whenever he actually hit at people, it was truly horrific. All of them, really, but I think it was the first one and the cop's widow who hit me the hardest. The former maybe because I just wasn't expecting it (I read the reviews of the book months ago, so I'd forgotten a lot of what it was about) and the latter because I really think Nora gave too many details there. I really didn't need that much to know the villain was an evil, evil person. In those two, I actually had to consciously get out of the story and remind myself that these were NOT real people, but words on a page of a fiction book, one that wasn't even based on a real story.

For the most part, however, the balance between the chilling suspense, the sweet romance and the warm family stuff is pitch-perfect, and this is an amazing story. I'm very much looking forward to Robert's next single title, which comes out in a couple of months. The title of that one is Angels Fall, and if you want to know what it's about, take that link, since it's the only place where I've found a synopsis. I guess the good part of having waited so long to read Blue Smoke is that now I don't have that long to wait before the next book!

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