Below Deck, by Dorien Kelly

>> Saturday, December 18, 2010

TITLE: Below Deck
AUTHOR: Dorien Kelly

PAGES: Harlequin

SETTING: Cruise ship in the Mediterranean
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Part of the Mediterranean Nights continuity series (which I didn't know)


Not everything is aboveboard... When Mei Lin Wang met young radical social activist Wei Chan she knew it was fate. She didn't know that less than three years later she would be left widowed with a newborn son after a suspicious illness claimed Wei's life.

Now, still convinced of their shared destiny, Lin is determined to avenge Wei and continue his work, but she must also protect her son from those responsible for her husband's death.

For months Lin has secreted her son below deck on the cruise ship Alexandra's Dream, under cover of her job. It's turned into a game of hide-and-seek with the ship's security officer, Gideon Dayan, whose interest is piqued by the mystery that surrounds her.

But through his attraction, Gideon sees his own haunted past when he looks at Lin...and she can't let her past go. Will they finally be able to face the future...together?
I enjoyed Do-Over so much that I barely looked at what Below Deck was about before ordering it. When it arrived, I was very happily surprised, as it sounded different and interesting.

Our heroine is Mei Lin Wang. Lin is Chinese, and is the secret widow of a democracy activist. Her husband died after the Chinese government held him captive for and unpleasant few weeks. Lin was in the very early stages of pregnancy when that happened, and she kept the identity of the baby's father secret. She's determined to get to Paris to continue her late husband's work amongst the exiled members of his organisation. To do so, she's taken a job on a cruise ship and has secreted her baby son there, with the help of a few friends.

Gideon Dayan is the cruise ship's head of security, a former Mossad operative who's recovering from the wounds caused by a bomb attack which killed the woman he loved, another member of Mossad. Lin intrigues him more than any woman has in a long time, but it's clear there's some mystery surrounding her. And on her part, Lin is just as attracted to Gideon, but dares not put her son at risk.

So we've got protagonist with very unique backgrounds, a potentially very interesting conflict, exotic locations in the Mediterranean and an author who I know can write wonderful books. No way this could go wrong.

But somehow, it did. I just cannot believe this was written a few years after Do-Over. It often felt clumsy and shallow, as if it was a first book, rather than a more recent one. The dialogue tended towards stilted, the chemistry between Gideon and Lin was pretty tepid and the action more plot-driven than inspired by the characters the author had set up. Actually, the characters were so inconsistent, that maybe the action made sense. For instance, Lin is one minute thinking that it feels so wrong to have someone other than her husband kiss her and the next, she's buying condoms and sexy nighties to seduce Gideon, without the reader ever understanding what made her change her mind.

The big conflict between Gideon and Lin is also pretty inconsistent. It's not about Lin hiding the baby at all, it's about her intending to continue her husband's work, risking her life for the cause of democracy. First of all, I found it a bit rich that Gideon would reject the idea of a cause ever being worth risking one's life for, given that he's a member of Mossad. What is that if not risking your life for something you believe in? He goes on about how it was risking her life for a cause that killed his beloved Rachel, but she was doing exactly what he would have done (and actually tried to do) and what for most of the book he intends to keep doing, given that he plans to go back to his work. The other problem is that Lin keeps saying that she's going to do this, leave her child in Paris and continue her husband's work, but she doesn't appear to give that cause even a passing thought. This is not a woman passionately committed to justice, which makes Gideon actually right that she shouldn't be doing this, only he's right for all the wrong reasons.

I also had a problem with the ending, when they deal with a risk to Lin and her son by threatening certain people with exposing some past crimes of theirs. I was very uncomfortable with their making the decision not to report these crimes (they never even consider doing it, actually), and actually just use them for their own purposes. It was crimes committed against others, who would have deserved if not justice, at least revenge on the perpetrators. It was not Lin and Gideon's right to keep this hidden.

To make things even worse, this book is part of a continuity series. I didn't know it was. I absolutely hate Harlequin's continuities and avoid them like the plague. Whenever I do end up reading one (usually because it's written by an autobuy author whose backlist I'm determined to read), I always hope that the overarching bits are unobtrusive. I often get that, as quite a few entries in those series are just token parts of them. This was not the case here, especially for the first half of the book. There's this thing about stolen treasures, a woman who's disappeared from the cruise ship and her captor, whom she thinks is part of the Mafia but is clearly protecting her from something. There's also a priest who's just as obviously mixed up in something nasty, and his contact on the ship. There's a lot of time spent on them in the first half of the book, which I suppose might have been slightly interesting, if I knew who these people were and understood what they were mixed up in. I didn't. And then in the second half, this whole thing disappears, and there's no closure whatsoever.

MY GRADE: A C-. For most of the book, I had to force myself to keep reading.


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