Two really cool things happened to me on the way home from Philadelphia. 1. I got bumped to first class. 2. I found a copy of Shadow Woman by Linda Howard to read on the flight. Shadow Woman has everything I love in romantic suspense: a unique plot, a kick-ass heroine, a lot of mystery, and excellent pacing.
I think there's a rule out there that a book should never start with the hero or heroine waking up in the morning. Howard not only ignores this rule, she breaks it with flare, surprising the reader and launching them immediately into the story. Lizette Henry, an average office-worker in Washington DC, wakes up one morning and goes about her routine. She's about to get in the shower when she looks in the mirror and is suddenly paralyzed. She doesn't recognize her own face. The situation is, understandably, terrifying. Lizette calls in sick to work and then spends the morning trying to piece together what's just happened.
She studies her face in the mirror and notices subtle plastic surgery scars. She realizes she has no memory of her life from young adulthood until the past two years. It's like she was born two years ago, a fully-fledged adult. To make matters worse, any time she really thinks about that missing time she's hit with a blinding headache and nausea.
So at this point I'd be curled up in the fetal position, sobbing, and very likely peeing my pants. Lizzy rallies, though. She realizes that she can kind of think about her missing time if she keeps her brain partially occupied by singing out loud or humming, if she doesn't really concentrate on it fully. She starts combing through her bank statements, credit card bills and tax returns looking for a clue as to her missing years. She also does strange things on impulse, like breaking her cellphone. Without knowing why she's plagued by the idea that someone is listening to her, she can't let them know that she's starting to remember.
She's right. One of the people listening to Lizzy is a man named Xavier. He's got her house bugged, but not for the creepy reasons you'd assume. Xavier knows that a shadowy super scary group is watching Lizzy, and he's watching the watchers. Howard quickly establishes that Xavier is badass and quite scary, a former mercenary, and clearly he has his reasons for keeping Lizzy safe.
As Lizzy regains her memories she starts having very sexy dreams about a mysterious Mr. X, waiting for her in a secret, colorful room in an otherwise blank, white house. She feels that she knew Mr. X and that she can trust him. She also starts regaining skills that don't belong to the average person. Her visit to a sporting goods store ends with her coming home with survival gear and a bunch of improvised weapons. She knows how to shoot a gun. She knows how to spot a tail. She starts to become aware that people are indeed watching her, and she knows she's in danger.
Lizzy flees, knowing she isn't safe in DC. Xavier tries to get to her before the bad people do. A lot of this book is non-stop, on-the-lam action, and I devoured it along with my complimentary white wine and Biscoff cookies.
The problem is, I can't really do this book justice in my review without spoiling the plot. The book opens with tons of questions, and answers are fed to the reader steadily chapter by chapter. In the beginning it's safe to assume Lizzy had some sort of kick-ass former life and that it involved Xavier, but if I divulge any more I'll ruin the fun of uncovering the answers along with Lizzy.
Shadow Woman reminded me a lot of two of my favorite movies The Bourne Identity and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Part of the fun was watching a supposedly average person discover they are extraordinary. Another part of the fun was the oh-so-sexy dreams regarding Xavier. When Lizzy and Xavier finally meet up the tension is volcanic.
Despite the intensity of the plot, there's also a dash of humor to balance things out. There's actually a People of Wal-Mart scene in this book. Lizzy, on the run, dashes into a Wal-Mart in the middle of the night:
People who shopped at this hour of the morning apparently weren't in a hurry. Why would they be here at this hour? They worked weird shifts, or wanted to avoid to the crowds, or maybe they were just night owls. They meandered down the aisles, stopping with their carts turned to the side, blocking anyone else who wanted to go down the same aisle.
And man, what a motley crew they were: druggies, men on their way home from a bar, people who looked as if they never left their houses at all by the light of day. That one looked as if he might live in his car. She shouldn't judge; she might be next. But, damn–over there was a woman wearing pink camouflage tights two or three sizes too small, teamed with a lime-green tank top and no bra. Lizzy hurried past, lest she be blinded.
She passed a man with a black eye, a limp, and a cart filled with beef jerky and beer. Dang. With her hat and sunglasses, and her too-big drugstore tee shirt, Lizzy fit right in. She even qualified as one of the better-dressed shoppers.
Coincidentally, I think I saw someone in camo tights and lime green tank top at the airport.
Anyway, I loved this book. It passed the time quickly and I found myself unwilling to put it down. So why didn't I give an A+? When everything is revealed at the end, why Lizzy can't remember her past, why people are watching her, how she knows Xavier, I felt like the plot jumped the shark a little. I'm willing to accept a lot of crazy in romantic suspense (hey! we're being shot at! Let's have sex!), but this felt a little over the top. It could be just that there was so much build up, no reveal would be entirely satisfactory.
If there's a romantic suspense lover on your holiday gift list, then I'd definitely recommend Shadow Woman for their stocking. It's the kind of intense, fast paced read that can make even a late night flight fly by.