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Homeplace by JoAnn Ross
(Pocket, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-671-02706-9
Homeplace started out so strong that I found myself wondering if JoAnn Ross could possibly sustain such a brilliant beginning. Unfortunately, she couldn't. The book petered out about halfway through its 400 pages. However, because of its impressive start and because I'm excited to find a new (for me, anyway) contemporary romance novelist, I'm awarding it 4 hearts.

Raine Cantrell is an ambitious New York attorney who is proud to be known as "Xena the Warrior Princess." She's well on her way to making partner at her respected law firm. Then she receives a surprising phone call from her hometown of Coldwater Cove, Washington. Her grandmother, Ida, had become guardian to three troubled teenaged girls. But Ida has just been hospitalized, and the three girls have barricaded themselves in her home, refusing to come out. The girls beg Raine to come back home and help them.

When Raine drops everything and catches the next flight west, she encounters Sheriff Jack O'Halloran, who is trying his best to keep the situation under control. Although the assembled television media are hoping for some shocking police brutality, Jack's biggest problem is the fact that one of the three girls is a vegetarian and won't eat the pepperoni pizza he had delivered. Raine remembers Jack from high school as being an athlete, make-out artist, and hell-raiser. She can't believe he can be taken seriously as a law enforcement official. Jack thinks Raine needs to lighten up a little, but he can't help appreciate her loyalty to Ida. The two are immediately attracted to each other, but Raine plans to make her stay in Coldwater Cove a short one.

JoAnn Ross creates wonderful characters. Jack is an absolute prince of a guy. Any man who would babysit his daughter's giga-pet while she's at school and buy a Christmas tree farm to please his dying wife definitely belongs in a romance novel. It's nice to find a story in which the widower truly loved his dead wife, but doesn't cling needlessly to her memory. Some very poignant scenes of the novel feature Peg O'Halloran, who made a series of videotapes before she died for her daughter, full of love and guidance.

Raine realizes that she has to make peace with her fey, flighty mother, Lilith. This character is the primary disappointment in the book, as Lilith deserved more space than she received. Early on Ross sets up a match between Lilith and Cooper Ryan, a park ranger who was her high school sweetheart. Sparks fly when Cooper encounters Lilith conducting a New Age ritual, naked, in the park. He has no choice but to arrest her when she tears up the citation he writes. At first it seemed that Ross couldn't possibly miss with dialogue like this between these two mature but fiery characters:

"I am horribly disappointed in how you turned out, Cooper. Why, you may as well have become a Republican."

"As it happens, I am a Republican."

"Oh, dear heavens. That's so tragic. I have half a mind to stage an intervention."

"If your behavior today was any indication, sweetheart, half a mind might be overstating your qualifications."

But then, abruptly, Lilith and Cooper fade into the background, only to resurface briefly, happily engaged. It felt as if their full story had been left on the cutting room floor by an overzealous editor.

Another weakness of Homeplace is its uneven plotting. It starts out at a high energy level, and then just ambles along to the conclusion without any major climax or crisis. The story is so warmhearted and funny that I almost didn't mind, but it was a bit of a disappointment.

Still, if you're looking for a contemporary romance author who delivers humor, three-dimensional characters and a sweet love story, keep your eye on JoAnn Ross. I have a feeling she has even better novels inside her. Homeplace is a good book that could have been great, but overall it's still a recommended read.

--Susan Scribner

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