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Simply Magic by Kathleen Kane
(St. Martin's, $ 5.99, PG) ISBN 0-312-96984-8
Simply Magic has a magical or mystical element, as do Kathleen Kane's other recent books, but this new effort is significantly different in that the magic is packaged as a peripheral character, somewhat akin to an impaired fairy godmother. This character is labeled a "tinker." Certainly his methods of delivering "magic" make him appear a bungler rather than a repairman.

US Marshal Riley Burnett is about to retire reluctantly. Riley's life as a lawman has been a success, but his past growing up in Rimshot, Nevada, then entering a forced marriage has returned to haunt him. Now he must return to his hometown to raise his three-year old daughter, which amounts to his returning to spend the rest of his life feeling inadequate.

On his way to turn in his badge, enjoying the freedom of a last ride through wide open spaces in Texas, Riley encounters a lone man attempting to repair a broken wagon wheel. The fellow has an odd accent and strange eyes, but Riley ignores his misgivings and helps the tinker repair the wagon. The man offers Riley a gift of thanks but warns him the cost will be very dear.

Phoebe Hightower is living in St. Louis, impoverished by a father who had lived ignoring his daughter, then died leaving her a legacy of debt. She does what she must to survive, though with some guilt, since her situation in St. Louis has become desperate. Phoebe is a kind soul but no wimp, and she is very much in character when she wields her parasol to rescue a mugging victim.

The odd little man offers to grant her four wishes in gratitude for her help, but warns that no gift comes without a price. Though baffled by his enigmatic words, Phoebe does not dwell on them until in a desperate mood later that evening she wishes to start over preferably in a warm place. Too late, she realizes she may have be more careful with her wishes.

These encounters with the odd, little traveling man bring Riley and Phoebe together in Rimshot, Nevada, as they become partners in a saloon-hotel. Rimshot in 1875 appears to be on the verge of economic development.

Riley has a very strict moral code evidenced by his having agreed to marry Tess, the town slut. Tess left town with a great deal of encouragement from Riley immediately after the child's birth, then was killed in a stagecoach accident, leaving Riley guilt-ridden.

As a character, Riley suffers by comparison to Phoebe. He is honorable and exhibits a dogged determination, but he lacks self-confidence and places little value on relationships. His obsessive self-reproach lacks credibility after awhile. Too frequently, Riley's actions seems selfish, spoiled and self-absorbed. Over and over, he finds himself wistfully contemplating his former life or contemplating how much more time he must remain in the sorry little town of Rimshot. Ultimately, Phoebe is instrumental in helping him see the positive side of sticking around for others, but the changes take so long, I simply became bored waiting for him to improve.

The plot is negligible, including a villain who simply is not credible. While suspense is not the core of a romance novel, if an author introduces an element of mystery, the reader should care who-done-it. There are sporadic acts of vandalism. Oddly, despite his success as a marshal, Riley seems rather inept in finding a source. By the time, Phoebe is physically threatened by the real villain, the interaction between her and the villain has a surreal quality. The poor man has to explain his entire story to Phoebe, presumably for the reader's benefit. In the end, it is difficult to reconcile his past with his psychosis.

Simply Magic is not a book I can recommend. When a storyline is weak, I look for well-developed characters to salvage a book. In Simply Magic, Phoebe and Simmons are strong characters but they alone cannot carry the burden .

--Sue Klock

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