Revenge Gifts by Cindy Cruciger
(Tor, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-765-35225-7
***
Tara Cole is a revenge expert. Having left the corporate world behind, she now runs her own website called Revenge-Gifts.com. Want a decorative pillow filled with allergy inducing stuffing? Chain mail underwear to set off metal detectors? Non-stop candy-a-day shipments to make that chocoholic gain 100 pounds? Then Tara Cole is your woman. Sure her best friend says that all this revenge is bad for her karma, but Tara doesnít care. So what if she has to share her Florida Keys bungalow with two ghosts?

However things are starting to get weirder than usual in the Keys. Someone is trying to put a voodoo hex on Tara. Little presents keep showing up unannounced, and the black rooster, cat and goat are turning out to be a real nuisance. Thereís also the arrival of a newcomer, Howard Payne, who wants to start up a business venture with Tara. Does his appearance have anything to do with the hex? Or should Tara just lay back and enjoy the incredible sex?

Revenge Gifts is a book that is all about voice. Cruciger has an incredible voice, and it is definitely the strongest aspect of this debut novel. Tara Cole is not a nice person, but dang if she isnít funny. She believes that the need to get even rules everybody, and she must be right, because business is booming. She has a fantastic, sarcastic, chick lit style voice, and this first person novel is told entirely from her perspective.

Unfortunately the rest of Revenge Gifts doesnít work nearly as well. While Tara has a great voice, the plotting and pacing drift aimlessly like windless day at sea. The first half in particular doesnít go anywhere, and outside of Tara receiving voodoo gifts thereís not much to get excited about.

The last 70 pages or so is when the real fun begins, but it takes so long to get there that my enthusiasm began to fade. In this brief time frame the reader is treated to the answer to Taraís voodoo problem, a murder (which is never fleshed out to satisfaction), and a funeral. It all ends rather abruptly and one suspects that Revenge Gifts may be the start of a series.

The romance generates some heat, and the sex is hot stuff, but Howard remains a rather mysterious figure for the bulk of the story. He has a bit of a past, which is minimally explored, and he seems to fall instantly in love with Tara. However given his tragic past, one wonders why he isnít more gun shy.

There are many authors currently writing in the romance genre who have very strong voices. Cruciger succeeds where some of these others fail because she doesnít fall into the trap of having her characters speak in constant one-liners. Tara and the other characters arenít about snappy comebacks and the dialogue is rather good. Also, Tara is refreshingly different for a genre often overrun by too-good-to-be-true heroines. She is flawed, but sheís also funny, sweet (in her own way), and smart.

While Revenge Gifts failed my put-down, pick-up test, the writing is crisp and Crucigerís voice so engaging that this is a hard debut to dismiss. It will be interesting to watch this new author grow, and this reviewer suspects she will only improve with subsequent releases.

--Wendy Crutcher


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