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REVIEW: Aftershock by Jill Sorenson

Dear Ms. Sorenson,

Last year I read and enjoyed your romantic suspense novel, The Edge of Night, and ever since then I have been interested in reading another of your books. When I heard about Aftershock, a book set during and in the aftermath of an earthquake, my interest perked up and I decided to read it.

Aftershock Aftershock is set in Southern California and begins in the POV of Lauren Boyer, a paramedic. Lauren and her ambulance-driving partner Joe are on the freeway when a magnitude 8.5 earthquake strikes San Diego. The resulting crashes and collapses kill Joe and create a large cavern in which Lauren is trapped. Despite the terrifying situation, Lauren keeps her head and manages to not only leave the ambulance but take her emergency kit and a fire extinguisher with her.

Outside, she discovers death and devastation, but although she fears at first that she is the sole survivor in the cavern, she soon hears another voice calling out, asking if anyone needs help. The voice belongs to a large, fit man who introduces himself as Garrett, and Lauren learns that he is a former marine who did a tour in Iraq.

The attraction between Lauren and Garrett is instantaneous despite (or perhaps because of) the dangerous situation. Together the two find other survivors, including a pregnant teen initially trapped in a car, Penny, a grandfather and granddaughter in an RV, Don and Cadence, and a few other injured or unconscious people whom Lauren does her best to care for.

The survivors pool together their resources and search cars for more food and water. They eventually discover via shortwave radio that an evacuation has been ordered and rescue is likely to be delayed.

But that isn’t their only worry. A police transport vehicle that was transporting dangerous convicts is nearby, the policeman dead and three criminals on the loose. One has a gun, another is a rapist, and a third bears swastika, burning cross and Aryan Brotherhood tattoos.

Meanwhile, Lauren struggles with a situation that forces her to bond with her patients – something she never had to do before. She also notices that Garrett does not value his life enough. She does not know that Garrett is hiding a dark secret from her and from the rest of their group.

Can the survivors outwit the criminals whom they cannot outmuscle? Can they signal their presence to the outside world and last long enough for rescue to arrive? And if they do, will Lauren and Garrett’s feelings remain the same outside the cavern, once Garrett’s secret is revealed?

I have mixed feelings about Aftershock. On the one hand, the plotting is tight and suspenseful. I was on the edge of my proverbial seat almost the whole time I read the book.

I also liked Lauren, who was clearly capable and without whom most of the group would not have made it. I appreciated that she did not behave in a TSTL fashion at any point, except arguably in one instance when she was justifiably upset and therefore not thinking clearly.

Most of the other characters in Lauren’s group also appealed to me. While I was disappointed that unlike your earlier books, this one had no POC protagonists, I was still appreciative of the multicultural supporting cast (Penny is Mexican-American and Cadence biracial).

I live in Southern California, and the book had a convincing sense of place. I can only hope never to experience an earthquake of such high magnitude as close to the epicenter as the characters did, but this one was portrayed well enough to scare me.

At the same time, though, there were things I found problematic. Garrett is strong, brave and all that jazz, as crucial to the others’ survival as Lauren, but his lie of omission, although understandable to me (at least intellectually) made it difficult for me to feel an emotional connection to him as I read. In Lauren’s shoes, I would have found it difficult to get over.

The initial moments of attraction between Lauren and Garrett felt inappropriately tacked on. I very much doubt that in the middle of dangerous earthquake aftershocks, sex would be on most people’s minds. Both characters realized that their thoughts weren’t fitting to the situation, but it was still an eye-rolling moment for me.

A bigger issue for me was Owen, the young, tattooed criminal. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Owen’s Aryan Brotherhood membership is a matter of survival in prison and not a choice he is proud of. Even though he’s not the racist he appears to be at first glance, I was still disturbed by the secondary storyline he shared with Penny, the pregnant teenager.

Penny was Mexican-American, and as I read and put myself in her shoes, I thought she was too quick to get over her revulsion to Owen’s tattoos. I say this because I don’t know that I could ever get over something like that enough to forge a bond with someone. The storyline may be realistic in other ways (there are racist gangs in prison) but it pushed a button for me. I’m sure this subplot will appeal to some readers, but I was very uncomfortable with it myself.

My discomfort also extended to the other two convicts, Jeb and Mickey. They were the villains of the story, and as such seemed to have no human qualities. I found them unpleasant to read about and wished the suspense storyline had focused more on the challenges of surviving an earthquake and less on threats from rapists and killers.

I like to think of myself as having a high tolerance for gritty realism and flawed characters in a romance, but this book was so edgy that I couldn’t enjoy it much until the last few chapters. I was emotionally involved throughout and even cried near the end, but ultimately, I can’t say this was a pleasurable or satisfying read. C-.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

17 Comments

  1. Brie
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 12:20:35

    I had similar issues with the book, although I liked it a bit more that you did. I thought that the setting made it hard for the romance to be believable. TSTL sex is a problem I often have with RS, although in this particular case I can (maybe) understand the sex as a way of reaffirming life, but from that to love it’s stretching it a lot. Having said that, the setting is what makes the book entertaining and original, so the balance was always going to be hard to achieve.

    “wished the suspense storyline had focused more on the challenges of surviving an earthquake and less on threats from rapists and killers.”

    I agree with that, in fact, I think that the claustrophobic, panicked feel of not knowing when they would run out of food and water, and whether they would make it or not, was enough to make the tension off the charts and to keep me reading. The bad guys helped the tension, but it was a bit forced. And if you take them out of the equation, maybe the romance would have worked better.

    Still, I couldn’t put it down, and I think that RS needs more original stories like this one.

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  2. Suleikha Snyder
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 12:21:33

    It’s funny, because the subplot was what sort of made the book for me. Owen and Penny were the characters that I was most compelled by when reading, to the point where I want to know what happens to them further down the road. With the set-up of a high-pressure tragedy pulling everyone together, their awkward bond rang a lot more true to me than even Garrett and Lauren’s (particularly since I’d pegged a certain development right away and was just waiting for that shoe to drop…). I thought Penny’s discomfort and Owen’s subsequent shame came across very well, and the forced proximity later in the book that led to a pivotal act of Owen’s…it all really gelled for me.

    As for the grittiness of the book…I admit I spent a good deal of time wondering how the characters would ever be clean enough to get their groove on, and I cackled at how Jill Sorenson made it happen.

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  3. Isobel Carr
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 12:31:53

    A good friend (who is also a paramedic) was on the Bay Bridge during the 89 quake. This hits waaaaay too close to home for me.

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  4. Janine
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 12:41:35

    @Brie:

    I agree with that, in fact, I think that the claustrophobic, panicked feel of not knowing when they would run out of food and water, and whether they would make it or not, was enough to make the tension off the charts and to keep me reading. The bad guys helped the tension, but it was a bit forced. And if you take them out of the equation, maybe the romance would have worked better.

    Yes! This. You are articulated the problem much better than I did when you say that the situation with the bad guys felt forced. I think it’s also the case because the villains never felt as real as the other characters. There wasn’t even a grain of humanity in Jeb and Mickey that I saw. I also agree that the romance would have been more believable if this element had not been in the story. The earthquake was plenty of conflict on its own. I did love that part of the setup, like you.

    @Suleikha Snyder: I am trying to think how best to phrase my discomfort. I think it boils down to this. I am a grandchild of Holocaust survivors some of my relatives perished in that genocide. To me, swastikas are a horrific thing. I understand what Sorenson was trying to do with Owen’s character, but symbols have power. You can’t put a symbol like that (or a burning cross, or Aryan Brotherhood) on a character’s body without generating a visceral recoil in some readers.

    And then when it became clear that Owen was being set-up to bond with Penny, a POC character, my recoil only sharpened. It’s not that I don’t think racists and even AB members are human beings. I know that they are. It just pushed a button for me. I think this storyline might have worked better for me if there had not been romantic undertones to Penny and Owen’s connection, but I’m not sure.

    It’s hard for me not to feel, when swastikas and burning crosses are being used to set up a conflict in a romance novel, that the suffering of my grandparents and their loved ones is being cheapened in some way.

    I know that not everyone will feel that way, that’s just my very personal response, but I can only review books by relating my personal response to them. I think when an author takes symbols of hatred, violence and even genocide and brings them into a romance novel, she risks pushing some very powerful buttons for readers, and that’s what happened in this case with me.

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  5. Janine
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 12:52:13

    @Isobel Carr: How horrible. Hope she survived without coming to significant harm.

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  6. Suleikha Snyder
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 13:03:23

    @Janine: Of course everybody’s going to react differently to what they read, and in no way to do you have to quantify why the Owen/Penny subplot made you uncomfortable. I am so deeply sorry for what your family went through and for the repercussions that still echo today.

    For Hindus, the symbol is still a symbol of peace when it’s facing the right way, so I’ve had a lot of casual encounters with seeing swastikas etched in rangoli chalk drawings, on walls, in houses of worship, etc. That white supremacists took something that signifies peace and unity and turned it into something vile makes me furious, and I guess what ultimately made me feel for Owen was what he felt he had to do to himself in order to survive in prison. That he had to put that ugliness on himself as some sort of flag.

    The difficult-to-navigate empathy/redemption arc for a bigot is something that watching Justified already had me primed for in the character of Boyd Crowder, a racist, tattoo-laden mad bomber who becomes a regular character and a foil for the “hero,” Raylan. And Owen’s story is far more innocent than Boyd’s arc.

    Do I want Penny and Owen to skip off into the sunset holding hands? No. But I think there is a compelling story to be told about their future some 8-10 years down the road after the events of Aftershock, if that’s what Jill Sorenson intends.

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  7. Janine
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 13:18:42

    @Suleikha Snyder: I hear you on the swastika symbol. It’s horrible that that was twisted and corrupted by the Nazis, but even though I know that it originated as a symbol of peace, I can’t change the way I feel about it.

    I haven’t watched Justified but I think a redemption arc for a racist could work better for me in a different genre, where things aren’t so romanticized. I struggle with romances that touch on the Holocaust, and I know many readers cannot read anything set in the US before the Civil War. I described Aftershock to one such friend who hadn’t read it, and she said the Owen storyline is something she would appreciate being forewarned about in a review. That’s why I didn’t put it in a spoiler font.

    I also talked to another friend about Owen’s background, and the fact that he wasn’t racist but had to put these symbols on his body to survive prison. She pointed out that hanging around all these Aryan Brotherhood members as well as incurring the anger of their enemy gangs could easily affect or twist someone as young and relatively unformed as Owen into becoming racist, even if he didn’t start out that way. Owen’s shame and remorse for his tattoos was so powerful that I’m not sure this aspect of his characterization was completely believable for someone in his situation. But I didn’t question this until she pointed it out.

    I don’t know if you’ve read Soerenson’s The Edge of Night but that one had a secondary character, Eric, who was around Owen’s age and who was a gang member and drug dealer. I loved Eric, and I really wanted a book about him, so I know how you feel! I’m still hoping we get that book someday, but it hasn’t happened yet.

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  8. Suleikha Snyder
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 13:36:40

    @Janine: I’ll definitely be adding The Edge of Night to my TBR list!

    For whatever reason, I’ve ended up watching a lot of shows with protagonists I’d never want to know in real life, and I think between Oz, Prison Break, General Hospital and Justified, I’ve accepted the authorial narrative of the “not-so bad prisoner.” There’s always that one guy who’s the least evil of all the evil in the room, or the devil you know vs. the devil you want to stay the hell away from. I think that was probably why I was predisposed to buying that Owen was only a “fake racist.”

    Great, thought-provoking review, Janine!

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  9. Janine
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 14:12:03

    @Suleikha Snyder: Thanks! Clearly I can buy into that kind of narrative as well, or Eric from The Edge of Night would not have worked so beautifully for me. I hope you enjoy that book.

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  10. Dabney
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 19:17:47

    I liked this book more than Janine did although I didn’t love it. I thought the sense of place was terrific and I liked the redemptive sensibilities for both Owen and Garrett. I too thought the bad guys were too unrelentingly evil.

    I like the Jill Sorenson’s books have characters that are diverse and interact across racial/religious/class lines. I also think her sense of how the body works is well done–I believed in all the emt/paramedic stuff done in this book.

    I’d give Aftershock a B-. It’s flawed, but it’s compelling, and realistically creates a disaster I can easily see happening.

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  11. Janine
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 19:38:47

    Agree on the sense of place. It was very good, and I like the diversity of characters in her books as well. It’s good to know the EMT/paramedic stuff was well researched. It read believably to me but I know zip about medicine.

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  12. Kaetrin
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 21:33:12

    I liked this one a bit better than you Janine but agree that there was a little too much going on for the romance to be believable. I would have preferred that Garrett didn’t have his secret. I didn’t think it was needed to ramp up the plot – he had PTSD and other things going on and it would have made it easier for me to buy the HEA because then we could have maybe seen them spend some “normal” time together near the end.

    As for Owen, I think his “redemption” is incomplete. He mostly makes decisions which are expedient and good for him (bugger the rest) and it was a real change for him to do *anything* for anyone else. His decision to tattoo himself with swastikas and join the AB was more about expedience IMO – he would surely have been exposed to a lot of racist crap which would have fed his pre-existing character flaws. He has a lot to get over. But, I saw a glimmer there. I felt the story went exactly far enough with them – any more would have been too much for me but, in the extremely emotional circumstances, I felt Penny’s closeness to Owen made sense. I think Owen has a long way to go. But, Jill Sorenson is writing Penny’s book so I guess we’ll see it. (I gather that Owen will have his tattoos removed so this may help you Janine, if you read the book).

    I could happily have read about the quake and the romance without the convicts at all – I think there was enough of a story there but overall, I enjoyed the book and I’m glad Ms. Sorenson writing some new and interesting RS – like Brie, I agree it’s been a bit lacklustre lately.

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  13. Janine
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 01:06:41

    I would have preferred it if Garret hadn’t had his secret too, but I would probably have dealt with his secret better if the Owen/Penny storyline hadn’t been in the same book as the Garret/Lauren storyline. Garret’s secret was unsettling and Owen bonding with Penny was disturbing and squicky for me. But both in the same book, on top of evil rapists and killers on the loose, pushed me too far out of my comfort zone.

    I agree re. Owen and his redemption. I could believe his growth, my issue was less with Owen as a person and more with the way his character was constructed and the way his tattoos were used in the story, if that makes sense.

    in the extremely emotional circumstances, I felt Penny’s closeness to Owen made sense.

    I didn’t fully buy into it, as you know, but my reaction wasn’t just about whether or not it made sense. It was also about whether or not this (a romantic subplot centering on a prison escapee with racist tattoos and a Mexican-American girl) was something I want to see in a romance. I think for me, it’s just not. I mean, I’m not one of those people who thinks that if something isn’t romantic to me personally then it’s not romance or shouldn’t be in a romance. I understood when I read it that this storyline was going to work better for other readers than it would for me. But the Owen/Penny storyline went places that I personally would rather not go when I pick up a work of romantic fiction.

    I’m not sure whether Owen having the tattoos removed will be enough for me to be able to feel differently. Because of my personal history, swastikas have a great deal of power and I don’t know that physically erasing them from a character’s body would be enough to erase them (and the way they were used in the story) from my mind.

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  14. Ducky
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 01:22:24

    This is the second Sorenson book where I found the secondary couple more compelling than the main couple ( the first one was “The Edge Of Night”). I think her heroes are less complex because they are ..well… the heroes having to be heroic, while with some of her secondary male characters Sorenson really gets to show off her strength, which is how well she knows Southern California and its people.

    I live in Southern California myself and not only am I very familiar with the locales and settings in her RS, I recognize the troubled young men and women she writes about. I know them.

    I like that I get to read some romantic fiction where everything feels so familiar and “real” to me.

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  15. Janine
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 13:00:42

    @Ducky:

    I like that I get to read some romantic fiction where everything feels so familiar and “real” to me.

    This is probably my favorite thing about Sorenson’s books. I like that very much too.

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