Nora Roberts
2008, Romantic Suspense
Putnam, $26.95, 464 pages, Amazon ASIN 0399154914

Grade: B
Sensuality: Warm

It's been awhile since I've read an actual Nora Roberts book. I'm always current with the In Death series, but somehow her standard contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. Part of the issue is that some of her books - particularly the trilogies - have taken a paranormal turn that doesn't really interest me. That said, reading Tribute reminded me that her books are great comfort reads. They may have their quirks, but there's a level of quality you can depend on.

Cilla McGowan is a child actor from a famous family. Nearly 30 years ago, her grandmother Janet - a famous actress - took her own life on her Virginia farm. Since that time, Cilla's mom has allowed the farm to fall into neglect. Now Cilla has decided to restore it to its former glory, putting her own talents to use in the process. Though she spent most of her childhood starring in a popular sitcom, Cilla knows that acting is not for her. Her former husband got her into flipping houses, and she'd really like to become a contractor.

Soon after Cilla arrives, she runs into her sexy neighbor. Ford Sawyer is a successful graphic novelist who catches a glimpse of Cilla with her tools and immediately becomes inspired to write a new series - which basically stars Cilla in cartoon form (intellectual archaeologist by day, Celtic superhero by night!). At first Cilla doesn't know what to think about the idea, or about her immediate attraction to Ford. But it doesn't take long for him to become part of her life. But there is a lot going on besides their burgeoning relationship. Cilla's grandmother made some enemies while she lived in Virginia, and some of them have turned their hostility in Cilla's direction. She finds herself the target of threats and vandalism; parts of her remodel project are sabotaged, and she finds Katie dolls (Katie was the character she played as a little girl) "killed" in creepy ways.

Nonetheless, Cilla soldiers on, working on her project, falling in love with Ford, and figuring out how to be part of a community. In the process she also unearths some letters written to her grandmother shortly before her death. She begins to wonder whether Janet's death really was suicide - or something more sinister.

There was a lot to like about this book. I really enjoyed both Ford and Cilla as characters, and found their romance - and the pacing of it - very believable. Ford's profession is unique and just plain fun. There were several times that he used his drawing talents in ways that were sometimes thoughtful, sometimes comedic. At one point, Cilla's ex-husband Steve is critically injured, and Ford's cartoon depiction of him helps save the day. The private drawing he makes for Cilla are sweet and funny.

Cilla is the more vulnerable of the characters, though I'd stop short of calling her wounded. She's the one dragging her feet - somewhat - on the relationship. It makes for a nice change, and it's great to see her come into her own as she works on her own professional goals.

I also enjoyed the book's suspense component. I was fooled by the villain's identity for most of the book, which is kind of a rarity for me. Toward the end I told my family to leave me alone because I had to find out who the killer was.

Really the only quirk in Roberts' books that tends to drive me crazy is that her characters view life through their professions, constantly making everything a job-related metaphor. Cilla is a contractor, so she worries about the "foundation" and "structure" of her background. When Ford is unraveling the mystery of the villain, he sees the panels fall into place. I just find this kind of stuff silly, and don't think people actually think this way in real life. Experimentally, I tried to come up with a reviewing or retail related metaphor that I used in my own life. Then I tried to picture my husband referring to mergers and acquisitions in a non-work-related way. I came up empty on both counts. That said, this is a really small complaint in the scheme of things.

For the most part, Tribute is a solidly enjoyable read, with a swoonable hero and a heroine worth rooting for. It's definitely worth picking up, especially if Roberts is a comfort read for you.

-- Blythe Barnhill

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