Anyone who became a Carly Phillips fan back when she soared on the success of the Chandler brothers, Hot Zone and Costas sisters series might understandably wonder whether "Karma" was written by the same author.
Phillips' books haven't had the same flow and zing since Ari Costas ventured "Under the Boardwalk" and Kelly Ripa's celebrity endorsement sent readers swooning over "The Bachelor" (Roman Chandler, not those reality show kiss-and-tell hunks and chumps).
The author's tilt to the so-so side appeared to start when she sought to join the mavens of romantic suspense, moving away from what she always has done best: sassy repartee, sizzling love scenes and engaging characters whose angst isn't the primary plot line.
Phillips seems to be in her element when the story is not too stuffy, nor too fluffy, but satisfyingly in between. But her writing has been up, down and all around in recent years -- and that's as good a way as any to describe her latest series set in Serendipity, N.Y.
And "Karma," the third and final Barron brothers book, is one of Phillips' most uneven offerings.
More was expected of Dare, the youngest Barron, who was portrayed in the first two novels as less volatile and brooding than Ethan, the ubiquitous bad boy, and Nash, who displays all the charm of a wounded wolverine before he makes his peace with the past.
Yet in "Karma," Dare's tortured conscience nearly derails the charismatic cop's mutual attraction to alluring architect Liza McKnight, who is struggling to avoid being sucked under by her own emotional whirlpool. Brian, her arrogant, alcoholic brother, is the catalyst to the trouble that flares early and often between Liza and Dare.
One of the most bothersome aspects about "Karma" is the plunge ahead, pull back pace of their courtship, and that's less a description of the sex than of their emotional investment. The numerous and abrupt about-faces may leave some readers feeling like a spectator at a yo-yo exhibition, and in those instances neither character comes out a winner.
Also annoying is what could be dubbed the "Danielle Steel syndrome," or the habit of reiterating too often the pivotal pieces of backstory that readers would have to be comatose to miss in the first place. In "Karma," such repetitions involve Liza's lack of family and friends she can count on and Dare's dubious prospects for forgiving himself and Brian for their youthful lapses in judgment -- with tragic consequences -- at a drunken party Brian hosted.
The bottom line: Curling up with Phillips' Serendipity series, as with many of her other contemporary romance novels, isn't a bad way to pass the time. But it's not as fulfilling as it could and should be.