Just how interested are you in boating and amber? If you don’t know now, you will after you read Amber Beach, a book in which each of these subjects are discussed in elaborate detail. I discovered I was fairly interested in the amber, but not the boating. This pretty much sunk the first half of this book for me. In between the boating and amber facts, there were some okay characters and a couple of nice love scenes. But the overall effect is just so-so.
Honor Donovan’s brother Kyle is missing, and she has been ordered by one of her other brothers to go to Kyle’s home in the San Juan Islands of Washington to search for clues. Honor hires Jake Mallory as a guide to teach her how to operate Kyle’s boat. She is hoping she can learn just enough from Jake so that she can go looking for Kyle on her own. But Jake has a hidden agenda. Like the Donovans, he is a dealer in gem stones. When Kyle vanished, the amber shipment that Jake handed off to him vanished with him. Somewhere in the shipment is a panel from the czar’s fabled amber room that vanished in World War II. The Donovan family claims that Kyle never received the amber, and gets Jake’s company barred from doing business in Russia. Jake figures that if he stays close to Honor, she can lead him to Kyle and the stolen amber, and he can restore the good name of his company.
Others are after Kyle and the amber as well, from those in the U.S. government, to the Russian mafiya, to the Lithuanian separatists. Basically the book is Jake and Honor on a boat, looking for Kyle and the amber, with a whole lot of people following them. Honor and Jake are both attracted to each other, but they have a lot of problems with trust. Jake believes that Kyle has betrayed him, so he decides that all Donovans are evil liars, including Honor. By the time he gets around to trusting her, she finds out that Jake is not just a fishing guide, so she doesn’t trust him. There is a brief interval before Honor finds out who Jake is, and they both trust each other. This is where Lowell tucked in her nice love scene. After that there isn’t much until the slap-dash ending where both characters quickly profess their love before exiting stage right.
Amber Beach has a couple of major flaws. The first, admittedly, is personal – I hated all of the boating details. During the whole first half, Jake is teaching Honor how to drive Kyle’s boat. Every possible step is explained. Again and again. In fact, I have never driven a boat, but I believe I could march down to a marina with a copy of Amber Beach in my hands and make a pretty good show of it. Every once in a while there is some purple prose interspersed with the boating detail, which helped keep me awake. I suppose it is also quite possible that you might love boats and find all the detail fascinating, but the non-expert boater will likely be bored.
Another weak link is the character of Jake. His attitude towards Honor and the rest of the Donovans seemed like it came out of sixteenth century Scotland rather than twentieth century America. He repeatedly reminds himself that he can’t trust Honor and that all Donovans are liars, even though all evidence points to the contrary. It seems a little old fashioned to condemn an entire family for one man’s sins. He laments his lost friendship with Kyle, but he is completely unwilling to consider the possibility that Kyle was framed and that someone else is responsible for the theft. Jake also has the nerve to get angry with Honor for wanting to believe Kyle is innocent, even though he’s her brother. And this is before he and Honor have any kind of relationship. It just didn’t make sense.
There is also a major historical flaw, which is rare in a contemporary novel. Elizabeth Lowell repeatedly refers to Lithuania as part of Russia. A couple of the main characters are Lithuanian separatists, and she mentions how Lithuania would really like to have its own currency. But Lithuania already is a separate country with its own currency. It declared independence in 1990, and was officially recognized by Russia as a separate nation in 1991. This book was published in hardcover in 1997. Where has Lowell been the last six years? And what about the editors? Someone should have caught this one.
Lest I give the wrong impression, there were good things about this book too. I enjoyed all the detail about the amber, and there are some nice moments between Honor and Jake. The action and suspense are also fairly good, especially at the end.
The best part of the book is the interaction between Honor and her family. I really liked the other members of the Donovan family, especially the oldest brother Archer. The sibling dynamics were very interesting, and those who enjoy this book will be pleased to know that a whole series about the Donovans is planned. I might even read one or two…provided they don’t take place on a boat.