Black Diamond by Susannah Sandlin was brought to my attention by a publicist. Having never heard of the author before (she also writes urban fantasy as Suzanne Johnson), I took a chance on this in the hopes that falling back on suspense (the genre that hooked me on reading oh so many years ago now....) would help alleviate the year-plus long reading slump I've been in. While this wasn't a perfect read for me (issues, I had them), this was successful enough for me that now I'm curious about keeping up with this series.
Jena Sinclair is back on the job as a Louisiana wildlife agent after recovering from gunshot wounds and a suicide attempt. Needless to say, her colleagues are treating her with kid gloves and her clueless parents have ordered her kid brother to move in with her (but is Jackson there to keep an eye on Jena or vice versa? Seriously, her parents are the worst). She's also got a new partner, a young go-getter named Mac who talks too much and is a bit of a playboy. It's while she and Mac are out on routine patrol that they find the body of a dead fisherman who lost a battle with one ticked off alligator. Even more troubling? This is just the latest body in a string of attacks.
Besides angry alligators using humans as hors d'oeuvres, their tiny parish has been overrun with a highly addictive synthetic drug called "black diamond" (think meth times 1000). Jena's been ordered to stay away from the drug investigation and to stick with working the aggressive alligator problem - and that investigation leads to Cole Ryan. A handsome recluse (for "reasons"), the last thing Cole wants to do is get involved - even if the first sight of Jena causes his heart to skip a beat. But when the alligator "thing" literally washes up at his back door? Get involved he does.
Black Diamond is the second book in a series (followed by Wild Man's Curse) and for the most part stands alone well. It's obvious that the author has already laid some ground work for these characters in the previous book, but she catches newcomers up to speed quickly and I felt like I wasn't missing anything by reading out of order. The strength of this book was definitely in the characters. In some ways it's like the author has built herself a "small town contemporary" romance with a wide array of cast members but instead of cutesy cupcake shops we get angry alligators and a fictional drug epidemic - which as far as romantic suspense goes I found quite inventive. I like romantic suspense but even I can only read so many women in peril serial killer stories before I become bored. This plot definitely kept me intrigued and invested.
What didn't work so well? The romance and the execution of the writing. The romance here is straight up Insta-Love. Jena and Cole meet, the attraction is instant, and viola! Where the author saves this from being a total disaster is that she doesn't cram in a bunch of ill-timed, out of place sex scenes (as far as sex, this book is pretty G-rated, although the violence and suspense content override that) and she ditches a Happy-Ever-After in favor of the much more believable (especially given the character baggage!) Happy-For-Now.
As much as I liked the plot and the characters, the writing wasn't always entirely smooth for me. There are some abrupt transitions between chapters and action scenes. The author makes some choices to have some events take place "off page" that didn't make any sense to me. Just two examples include Cole having to dig a bullet out of another character (and given Cole's traumatic past the fact that this scene didn't play out on page is just jaw-dropping), and a big ol' gunfight/showdown scene towards the end. And there are more examples, but I wasn't taking notes and I literally lost track. To confuse the issue, I'm not sure why these cuts were made. While this is category length (around 260 pages), it's published by Amazon Montlake - so presumably word count wouldn't be a huge issue. We're not talking scenes where Cole is taking a shower or Jena is eating a sandwich at her desk. These are big moments to the narrative, to the suspense thread in particular, and to have them take place "off page" deflates a lot of that suspense.
Ultimately what saves the day for me are the characters, the world-building and the inventiveness of the plot. Unfortunately the execution detracts from those strengths leaving me totally confused about what my final grade of this book is going to be. I was feeling generous and thinking B- until I got to the end and that big ol' gun battle, final showdown was literally left off page (grrrr!). So, I'm copping out. Hey, my blog my rules.
Final Grade = C+/B-