Saturday, January 4, 2014

UndertowUndertow by Amber Lynn Natusch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this atmospheric and emotional contemporary romance.  I gather it's a departure for author Amber, who earned her stripes with her PNR/Urban Fantasy Caged series, which I'm def adding to my tbr.  But you'd never know this is her first foray into contemp, based on the sure-footed plotting, captivating characters, and thoughtful themes amply displayed in Undertow.

MC Aesa (pronounced "Ice-ah," but don't call her Ice, unless you want your ice kicked!) is complicated and dimensional, and although she's a prickly one, I found her broken, overcompensating and strong-willed self irresistible. She's returned to the small Alaskan fishing village she stormed away from 9 years ago on the heels of her mother's suicide, to confront and reconcile with her past, and above all with her father.  She's an ER doctor now, about to start her residency, and it's made her sensitive to the fragility of life and relationships.  But her dad, the sailor who all too rarely came home from the sea, isn't making it easy on her.  And when he suggests she ship out with him and his crew for a short crabbing trip before she begins her residency, it becomes quite a test of whether blood is, in fact, thicker than the cold water of the Bering Sea she both loves and hates.

The first couple of chapters introduce the above situation, the characters (including swoony deckhand Decker - I love Amber's names, btw, they're real, but suggestive in a Dickensian kind of way), and the past that Aesa is struggling to overcome.  I also love the way Amber uses the imagery of the home Aesa left behind to reflect the interior landscape of Aesa and her father's relationship, without being heavy handed or too direct.  Once that bit of exposition is over, however, hang on to your Dramamine, because as soon as the Norwegian Queen sets sail, plot developments and events start raining down faster than hail in an Alaskan squall.  And they don't let up until the reader, like Aesa, is left shaking on the shore, wondering what the hell happened, and how we're going to be able to move on in one emotional piece.

There's romance (satisfying and mature), for sure, and conflict and drama - but there's also a deeper story, one of healing and wholeness, of family and secrets, and of the way the past isn't always quite what we thought it was. No review would be complete without mentioning the vivid creation of Aesa's world - I was in the Merchant Marine (summers during undergrad), and Amber aptly recreates the claustrophobic and bone-wearying atmosphere of a hard-working small-crew ship, and the semi-macho culture surrounding it. The bars, the brawls, the bravado, it's all there.

So high kudos to author Amber for creating a gripping, compelling and characterful read, with a fresh and real feeling setting and vibe.  I hope she continues to work her sweet and substantial skills in this genre, as well as in her primary realm of Urban Fantasy.

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