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JOINT REVIEW: Driftwood by Harper Fox

Dear Ms. Fox,

We enjoyed writing our joint review of K.A. Mitchell’s Life, Over Easy and, individually, both enjoyed your own Life After Joe so much that we thought we'd double the fun and repeat the experience. Driftwood shares some of the characteristics of your debut effort, Life After Joe. It features flawed, self-aware, and angst-ridden central and supporting characters; a rich, atmospheric context which engulfs the reader; beautiful writing which leavens the angst with a wry wit; and a plot centered on the sea and those who work and live in and around it. But Driftwood also diverges from your previous novel by focusing on characters who are either serving in or are veterans of the military, and by including a mystery subplot.

Driftwood by Harper FoxThomas Penrose is a former army medic who served in Afghanistan and then returned to his native village in Cornwall to set up a practice as a GP. He lives in a derelict lighthouse/watch tower with his wolfhound, Belle, as his only companion. Thomas avoids everyone except his patients and tries to keep from drinking himself into oblivion on a regular basis. When he rescues a gorgeous young surfer, Flynn Summers, on the beach one day, he is drawn into contact with villagers and with servicemen at the nearby Royal Naval Air Service base, and he is enmeshed in a triangle with Flynn and Flynn's lover and former copilot, Rob Tremaine. Both Flynn and Thomas carry deep scars from their military experiences, and Flynn's bond with Rob is destructive and complex. The combination of the characters' military back stories, the abusive nature of Flynn and Rob's relationship, and the way the mystery unfolds ratchets up the angst level to such a high pitch that it is difficult for the reader to see how you will get them to an HFN, let alone an HEA. But the writing is so strong, and the evocation of the Cornish coast is so vivid, that it is difficult not to be swept along to the somewhat over the top resolution of the mystery and the absolutely over the top final pages.

Sunita: I loved Tom's voice and felt as if we really got inside his head. But the single POV, again, meant that Flynn was a lot harder for me to read. He's so beautiful and so screwed up, which the writing makes entirely believable and sucks me in, but in real life I think I would run far, far away. Nonetheless, I thought the way the relationship developed, and the way Tom tried to stay firm in his unwillingness to become part of a triangle, was effective.

I have no personal experience so I don't know how accurate this part was, but I thought the depictions of varied types of PTSD were excellent. I am so glad to see a sympathetic but unflinching description of what the lingering effects of war and conflict are. If anything, I thought some of the characters (like Victor) recovered a little too quickly.

Joan/Sarah F.: I don't have any experience with PTSD, either, thank heavens, but Thomas was brilliantly written, in all his fucked-up glory. I read this book because of the excerpt online. But especially this:

First, do no harm. Thomas, about to walk away, shivered to a halt. Eight bitter years since he had taken his Hippocratic oath, and he was certain he had violated it in a dozen ways. The war his nation was waging in the far-off desert he had left behind to come home and fit himself into the shape of the man he once had been-‘that formless, limitless, probably endless fucking war-‘it hadn't been conducive to good and dignified medical practice. Hippocrates probably had not foreseen the necessity of punching a wounded soldier unconscious to silence his raging objection to the failed Afghani suicide bomber being treated in the next bed. Of taking a rifle from a corpse and sniping off a bunch of gun-toting local kids across a wall of sandbags to defend the bleeding and helpless survivors at his feet. First, do no harm- It made Thomas want to laugh, or throw up, but he knew that to turn his back on the ocean now would be a harm his own fragmented soul might not survive.

I loved Flynn, too, because I could see him trying so hard to be normal, to make the expected gestures, and just repeatedly getting it wrong. I thought the slow reveal of his trauma and how it worked in with the mystery was very well done, no matter my issues with the mystery itself.

Sunita: I think the context is a character in and of itself. The depictions of Cornwall made me feel as if I were there, and the scenes on the ocean were really well done. To be able to move from the urban setting of the first novel to the rural village environment of the second without missing a beat is impressive. And the writing is once again top notch.

Joan/Sarah F.: I especially loved the watch tower that Tom lived in. I could feel Tom's relief when he was able to step over the threshold, but could also feel its desolation and emptiness that matched Tom's internal landscape so perfectly. I think the ending — after the mystery was wrapped up, the very last chapter — was perfectly done (and no spoilers here), precisely because of how it demonstrated the changed internal landscapes of both Tom and Flynn.

Sunita: I was less taken with the mystery subplot, and with Rob as a character, especially in the later parts of the book. He came across as too villainous. The prior connection between him and Tom which was eventually revealed was clever, but instead of providing a way to make Rob more complex, it didn't really go anywhere, and Rob wound up becoming more and more evil. And with the intensity of the mystery storyline, it was hard to come back to the HEA/HFN of the final pages. Given what has gone before, can we really believe that Tom and Flynn can settle into a relatively peaceful, angst-free life?

Joan/Sarah F.: It wasn't only Rob's character, but the over-the-topness of the mystery itself. Rob's crime was particularly heinous and his attempted cover-up with the hit-and-run on Tom was a little unbelievable, as was Tom's physical ability to do all that he did during the climax of the plot after being in a coma. I just kept thinking, “Okay, he needs to collapse now,” rather than focusing on the resolution of the mystery.

Sunita: Overall, the mystery and the angst were a bit too much for me. But I was so taken by the writing and the Cornish setting that I can see myself rereading this. And the sex scenes were really good; they were integrated into the story and they helped us understand the characters and their relationships. I will definitely read your next book.

Joan/Sarah F.: While the mystery and final suspense was a bit silly, to my mind, I adored the attendant angst, of course, as is my wont. I think the characters of both Tom and Flynn were wonderfully done and I loved seeing them both coming to life a little bit at a time through each other. Stay away from the grand gesture at the end and stick with the emotional introspection and your books would be perfect. For me. :P But I'm also very much looking forward to your next book (from Loose Id in November, apparently).

Grade: B

Best regards,
-Sunita and Joan/Sarah F.

Book Link | Kindle | nook | Sony| Samhain

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

11 Comments

  1. Tamara Hogan
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 12:28:30

    The story sounds fascinating, but both of the cover guys look…really, really young to me. I’m having a hard time believing the model in the forefront of the cover (who I assume is Tom) is old enough to have been practicing medicine for eight years.

    Or am I just old?

  2. jayhjay
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 12:42:43

    I recently read this based on it place on this month’s Recommended Reads and I must say I really loved it. The descriptions of the setting and the relationship between the two men were really lovely. It is weird to say in a book that has so much darkness (Flynn and Rob’s relationship, war trauma, etc) but I fount it very sweet.

    I loved Tom and was really rooting for him to sort things out and find his HEA. @Tamara – it is funny you commented on how young they look on the cover, bc during the whole book I kept imagining Tom as so old, even though I figured he was probably in his 30’s. So I kept looking at the cover to remind myself he was supposed to be a young guy!

    I definitely would recommend this book and look forward to reading her next one. Really enjoyable.

  3. ka
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 13:10:00

    Excellent review! Two points resonated with me:

    – Sunita: “I have no personal experience so I don't know how accurate this part was, but I thought the depictions of varied types of PTSD were excellent. I am so glad to see a sympathetic but unflinching description of what the lingering effects of war and conflict are.”

    The popularity of the Alpha Male as the undercover cop, FBI agent, or special ops fails to address the rest of the story. Kudos to the author for tackling the issue. I am curious to read this book since a distant relative suffered from the Gulf War Syndrome (from the first invasion back in 1992). He tried to settle in Cornwall, but found it difficult to integrate into the local society with his illness (isolation, limited services, and few business opportunities outside farming and tourism).

    – Sunita, “The depictions of Cornwall made me feel as if I were there, and the scenes on the ocean were really well done. To be able to move from the urban setting of the first novel to the rural village environment of the second without missing a beat is impressive.”

    Indeed, Cornwall is a magical place that is popular in historicals. But as you pointed out, it was author’s skill that seamlessly transported the reader to Cornwall in a contemporary setting.

    Per the author's bio on the Samhain website, “She is currently working on an archaeological mystery set in Salisbury, and plans as her next project a story of warrior monks battling it out with Viking raiders on the Northumbrian coast.” Hmmm, sounds like making of another great book.

  4. allison
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 13:49:48

    I quite liked this one. It was well-written and featured interesting characters. I definitely enjoyed that they weren’t perfect and that they didn’t immediately fall into a HEA. There was no magical healing cock, either, so bonus points there, too.

  5. Joan/SarahF
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 15:28:15

    @Tamara Hogan: Even assuming a quicker educational system in the UK than the US, Tom HAS to be AT LEAST 35, maybe a little bit older. And yeah, those guys look too young to me, too. But maybe I’m getting old, too.

  6. Sunita
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 15:48:00

    @ka:

    He tried to settle in Cornwall, but found it difficult to integrate into the local society with his illness (isolation, limited services, and few business opportunities outside farming and tourism).

    I can see how that might happen. In the novel, the fact that Tom is embedded into the community helps him in the end, but this book and a couple of others I have read emphasize the limited opportunities for newcomers. That may be why protagonists in fields like medicine work well.
    @Joan/SarahF: @Tamara Hogan: Agreed. I find that I have to ignore the cover models in m/m almost as often as I do in historicals, unfortunately.

  7. Kaetrin
    Sep 22, 2010 @ 20:59:40

    As does Sarah, I like the angst, so I’ll definitely be picking this one up. I really enjoyed Life After Joe. I saw an interview with this author the other day and she’s working on a number of books – all of which sound great.

  8. sirius11214
    Sep 23, 2010 @ 09:10:47

    Oh I loved this one so much, this is one of the books where I was so engrossed in characters and settings that as a reader I was not thinking about any deficiencies, it was A plus story for me. Thanks for the review.

  9. Zola
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 16:12:00

    OOH, I am soo glad Harper finally got a website. I loved, loved, loved Driftwood & Life After Joe. Fox’s writing just sparkles for me and for once I actually found myself moved by angst (a rarity).

    Thanks for the review.

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