Hell On Wheels
by Julie Ann Walker, contemporary (2012)
Sourcebooks Casablanca, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-6713-0

I believe I read somewhere that Julie Ann Walker's Black Knights Inc., of which Hell On Wheels is the first book in the series, is comparable to Suzanne Brockmann's Navy SEALs crossed with American Chopper. That's nice, I suppose, but when I think of romance heroes, I confess that Paul Teutul is somewhere at the bottom of the list of hunks that come to mind, down there with Richard Simmons and Chris Tucker. But don't let me stop you if resting your cheek on Mr Teutul's oily back as the two of you speed down the boulevard in a custom-made hog is just the thing to rev you up.

The idea of a group of ex-Marine dudes and special operatives coming together to form a motorcycle shop - where they genuinely make and sell bikes - which also fronts for a special ops team HQ is preposterous enough to be cool, however, so I decide to take a peek anyway. Motorbike kung-fu, anyone?

Okay, I lied. There are hardly any explosive action scenes here, because this book is disappointingly enough another one of those "band of action hero brothers" series where the stripes, insignia, and action hero figure pretensions turn out to be wallpaper for another cliché-ridden story of self-pitying heroes with some throwaway filler suspense plot thrown in to generate the excitement.

Nate Weller - code name Ghost, even if he's addressed as Nate here, because action heroes need code names to be cool - has always hankered after his best friend's sister, Alisa "Ali" Morgan. But he's always kept his distance by being an ass to Ali because Grigg warned him not to touch the man's little sister. Now, Grigg is dead while on an assignment with Nate, and Nate will, of course, still keep his distance by being an ass to Ali because he's now full of guilt over Grigg's death.

Okay, he has a valid excuse to believe that Ali will blame him for Grigg's death, but he never actually tries to figure out whether this is indeed the case. He just assumes all the way to the second-to-last chapter of this book that he has no chance with Ali. Of course, this doesn't mean that he won't sleep with her - he'll do that, and let her assume that he wants her only for her booty because this is for her own good.

That's basically the romance, and it's a boring one because it's all about Ali trying to figure out why Nate is being the way he is to her. The whole thing is basically a breakdown in communication because Nate just won't talk. He prefers to clam up and just walk away without a word, leaving Ali to wonder what has happened. By the last page, I'm not convinced that he has reached that nice place, at least mentally, where he is prepared to handle a long-term committed relationship with Ali. He'd most likely walk out again the next time he feels even a little hurt.

Ali can't get away from Nate because the suspense plot sees her having received - unknowingly - some important information that can implicate a Senator in a variety of misdeeds, and that man is hiring all kinds of goons to cause trouble for her. Nate has to protect her - with the sequel baits all making an appearance, naturally - so they can't crap or get off the pot even if I wish they would by page 180. The suspense plot is a pretty average one, and it does feel like every other plot in a romantic suspense novel that involves a crooked politician. Just like the romance, Ms Walker isn't trying too hard to be even a little different with the suspense.

And then we have Ali. Okay, she's actually a pretty decent heroine. She's not an action hero, which is fine as she's not supposed to be one. But Ali likes to talk a lot. She's the kind of person who has to fill a silent pause with words. And here, she talks and talks and talks, often going off in different directions, so much so that there is a distracted rambling quality to the story. When other characters do this too, sometimes breaking off in the middle of a long internal monologue to wonder why they are using a certain word to describe a situation (seriously), I can only suspect that it isn't Ali as much as it is Ms Walker who likes to ramble on and on about anything and everything. That's fine if we are having a social conversation, but this rambling quality to the narrative only bogs down the pace.

There is also another quirk in the narrative that I find annoying - the constant usage of "Fuck!" and "Shit!" by everyone when they are frustrated or annoyed. When this occurs so many times, the whole thing starts to feel like a joke. How about some variety in the cussing?

I also don't know what to make of Ali's relationship with her brother. She keeps going eek-eek and ugh-ugh in tears whenever Grigg crosses her mind. While I have nothing against a woman who loves her brother this much, I can only scratch my head at her tendency to peg glowing adjectives like "handsome" to that man or gush about how they were "so close" every time she dwells on him. And then I learn that she used to let him use her bedroom to have sex with his one-night-stands - we don't want the parents to find out, after all - and, after listening to them go all night, she will bake those girlfriends pancakes in the morning. I can only go, "Oh, that's sweet. But I think Cathy and Christopher had a more romantic thing between them."

In the end, Hell On Wheels is another standard tale of the blue emo boy and the girl who loves him, patiently. It is wrapped and presented as an action-packed tale, but there isn't much excitement here, only a prolonged self-pity party that doesn't know when to call it a day. Factor in the rambling nature of the narrative, punctuated at almost regular intervals by a "Fuck!" or a "Shit!", and this is a story that requires a considerable degree of patience to wade through to get to its mediocre pay-off. I hope the next book has a less distracted nature and plenty more fireworks, or this one isn't Hell On Wheels as much as it is a dead in the water start of a series that promises but hasn't delivered the goods.

Rating: 55

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