True Crime on the Hawaiian Lei-Away Plan
Reviewed by Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977–79)
He had me at “bodice ripper.”
When John Coyne asked me to review Rachel Mannino’s Love or Justice, it was an easy sell. Too easy. After all, who could resist what a breathless reader called “a sexy, thrilling read . . .. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys a sexy and tough alpha FBI male that’s broody and hot, and a thrill ride with sexiness and a book that will leave you wanting more.”
Wanting more? What I wanted was to edit that run-on testimonial and then get out the smelling salts in anticipation of a hot read. Mr. Coyne had, after all, dubbed Mannino the E.L James of Peace Corps —referring to the Fifty Shades of Grey author.
Here’s the thing: even though my insecurity drove me to censor the book’s racy cover with a giant post-it note while reading it in a coffee shop — it was not exactly Fifty Shades of Grey. Thank God. It was maybe Twenty Shades of Grey — but that left room for it to be much different from the bestselling S&M romp.
Like John Grisham’s The Firm, Love or Justice has short chapters that propel — nay, hurtle — the reader forward. It is lean and mean and mercifully uncluttered by drone strikes, car crashes, or knife fights atop speeding trains. Similarly, the story is not suffocated by a cast of thousands whose back story you have to struggle to keep track of.
Halfway through reading the book, it occurred to me that Love or Justice is very much like a play, with strong central characters interacting over several acts without extraneous subplots distracting from the storyline. That made perfect sense when I discovered that author Mannino studied theater in college and also worked at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Love or Justice is set in the Hawaiian islands, another unsurprising fact since the author’s Facebook homepage sports a stunning panoramic view of Hawaiian cliffs overlooking the sea.
The main character, Laurie Shelton, is a kick-ass woman disguised as a girly girl. Through a series of random accidents, she is swept up into protective custody by the U.S. Marshals because she is the sole witness who can identify Hawaii’s number one assassin — Kaimi Quamboa — who has eluded law enforcement and is about to flee to China.
Laurie’s primary protector is, yes, the hot and broody Dante Stark, a top U.S. Marshal who finds himself torn between duty and the verboten lust he feels for the woman whom he is sworn to protect.
Since I hate reviews that give away the whole story — let me just say this. While the love story itself seems inevitable, there were plenty of plot twists that kept this jaded reader flipping the pages in anticipation. And there’s plenty of conflict — between Dante and his father, a “retired” CIA officer; the hunt for a mole within the U.S. Marshals Service; tension between Dante and Laurie as they try to figure out their relationship, not to mention Dante trying to hunt down the person who betrayed him. And for the crime thriller seekers, there are plenty of dead bodies strewn about — just not the ones you anticipated.
We all know that writers write in their head. And what’s fascinating to me is that by day, sweet redheaded Rachel Mannino writes grant solicitations for Peace Corps’ Office of Gifts and Grant Management. And by night, she lets her imagination fly — and presses it into service for her novels.
Bottom line: Mannino has done what many of us Walter Mitty desk jockeys only vow to do. So take a leap, go out and buy the book — it will inspire, thrill and yes titillate you — and all for the price of that expensive salad that you are eating at your cubicle while plotting your own romance thriller.
Kitty Thuermer grew up overseas and served in Peace Corps/Mali (1977-79). The first edition of her long-awaited oeuvre will come out in VR form. As soon as she finishes her salad.