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Blue Bayou by JoAnn Ross
(Pocket, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-7434-3682-2
***
JoAnn Ross’ latest contemporary romance, Blue Bayou, is riddled with clichéd plots and characters, yet it is a surprisingly entertaining read. Ross knows how to tell a story; one just wishes she had chosen a more interesting story to tell.

Here’s the familiar recipe - and don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before. Take one bad-boy, dark and handsome hero, Jack Callahan, who was nothing but trouble before he became an undercover drug agent, grew even more jaded and burnt out, and finally earned beaucoup bucks as the popular author of hard-boiled suspense novels. Show how tortured he is by having him drink and suffer nightmares in the darkest hours of the night. Make sure Jack uses lots of Cajun dialect and calls the heroine swoony names like mon petite ange and chere. Sprinkle in lots of pirate references and even give him an earring to make the picture more complete. Toss in a lovable stray mutt so Jack can prove that he is, deep down inside, a good guy.

Add in a venerable Louisiana plantation where a teenaged Jack, son of the housekeeper, once carried on a clandestine affair with sheltered daughter-of-the-manor Danielle Dupree, until their relationship ended abruptly. Make Danielle a beautiful blonde to contrast with Jack’s dark good looks. Give Danielle an autocratic father, a once-powerful judge who is now serving a jail sentence for bribery. Make sure Danielle isn’t starry-eyed and idealistic anymore by providing her with a philandering, ambitious ex-husband who only married her for her political connections and never satisfied her sexually. Send her back home from Washington D.C. to Blue Bayou with her eight-year-old son and a Big Secret. Stir all ingredients together and cook until done, but make sure you leave some leftovers for the next two books in the trilogy about Jack’s two hottie brothers.

As you can see, there are few surprises in the novel, but this romance-by-the-numbers almost works because Ross is a skilled writer. She’s descriptive without being overblown and she’s funny without stooping to unnecessary zaniness. Her dialogue sparkles. Despite their less-than-original characters, Jack and Danielle have definite chemistry together, and they never stoop to the dreadful “I hate you/kiss me” level, even though they have plenty of baggage to overcome. And give Ross a few points for the macabre way Danielle’s husband exits the scene (I can’t tell you, it would ruin the only creative plot point).

Still, every time I thought Ross might take a risk, I was disappointed. While Jack is the quintessential alpha hero, Danielle gives the token “I’m in control of my life now” speech even as she allows Jack to fix her problems. Danielle’s son, Matt, has an interesting personality, but it feels as if he only exists so Jack can befriend him, thus proving his heroism once again and contrasting with Danielle’s louse of an ex-husband, who ignored the boy. Then Matt conveniently trots off to baseball camp so that he doesn’t get in the way of Danielle and Jack’s midnight trysts. At the book’s climax, the Big Secret is resolved in the most far-fetched way possible so that absolutely no loose ends are left and no feelings are hurt, except for the big, fat Bad Guy, who smirked too much anyway.

The novel’s front cover promises that Blue Bayou is the first in a “steamy” new trilogy, and Ross has ratcheted up the sex a notch from her previous novels. The language is slightly rougher and the love scenes slightly more explicit. A few f*cks and c*cks aren’t enough to engage my interest, however. Unless the plots become more creative, I won’t stick around long enough to see how Jack’s hunky brothers fare in their own stories. What a waste; JoAnn Ross is capable of much better.

--Susan Scribner


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