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REVIEW:  Backwoods by Jill Sorenson

REVIEW: Backwoods by Jill Sorenson

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Dear Ms. Sorenson,

Several of your books can be characterized as adventure/survival-driven romantic suspense, with outdoor California settings playing a large role in the narrative. I think this has been a good direction for you, but while I enjoyed parts of Backwoods, I don’t feel it’s one of your better books.

Heroine Abby and her daughter Brooke are headed for a wilderness retreat with Abby’s ex-husband Ray, his current wife Lydia, and Lydia’s son Leo. Instead of Ray and Lydia, it’s Leo’s father, Nathan, who joins them, and the four head out for a multiday trek. Abby and Nathan are attracted to each other, as are Brooke and Leo, but the family dynamics and history make it difficult for any of them to act on the attraction. In addition, there are strange things going on in the woods – a young couple disappeared some time ago and the man was later found dead of an arrow shot, a pair of hunters turn up and their intentions do not appear to be friendly, and at one point a woman’s screams can be heard in the distance, but further investigation reveals only a newly killed deer. As they continue farther away from civilization, things become more dangerous, but it’s too late to turn back.

As in some of your previous novels, the setting really contributes to the atmosphere and the story. Another thing I’ve enjoyed in your books is that you write characters that don’t fall into the usual age range for contemporaries; here, the main couple are in their mid to late thirties and the secondary characters are teenaged college students who act their age. I actually felt that Abby and Nathan could have been written even a bit older, and Abby’s first marriage being at such a young age seemed out of character for both her and her ex-husband.

Abby is the sort of character who at first glance seems quite conventional, but in fact there’s a lot about her that is unusual for the genre: she was a teen parent, but is very well-adjusted and a wonderful mother to Brooke. She got breast implants after her divorce and is happy with her decision – not something I’ve come across much when it comes to romance heroines. She’s had some casual relationships in the last few years, rather than moping about her cheating husband and broken marriage; and she’s not particularly interested in having more kids, or in any form of hiking that does not end with a shower and a bed (I can certainly identify with the latter). In other words: Abby reads like a real person and not a romance ideal.

Nathan is a former major league baseball player whose career ended due to injuries and alcohol abuse. There were some errors with the baseball details, but this isn’t a sports romance so I wasn’t too bothered by it. Nathan’s been clean, sober, and celibate for a while (not wanting any more drunken hookups) but the damage done to his relationship with Leo during his years as a ballplayer and alcoholic is considerable, and he has no idea how to fix it or communicate with his son. For him, Abby is a role model as a parent, and he’s open to advice and criticism. I’ll admit that the development of his relationship with Leo interested me more than his relationship with Abby for much of the book.

I thought I would be uncomfortable with Leo and Brooke’s relationship because they are step-siblings, but they already in their teens when their parents married so I was willing to go along with it. Brooke could have been boringly perfect – she’s pretty, smart and talented – but she can also be immature, has a hard time reading other people’s signals, and has doubts about herself and her relationships. Leo, meanwhile, has a difficult relationship with his father and feels aimless and lacking in direction, especially compared to the driven and successful Brooke. Their future is not neatly wrapped up at the end, and considering their age, issues and personalities, I think that’s for the best.

The characters mostly worked for me, but the story didn’t quite hold up. It read to me like several separate stories that were slapped together: there’s the rather creepy initial experiences that Abby, Brooke, Nathan and Leo go through while in the woods; then, as they become less concerned, there’s much mental lusting and Brooke tries to do some matchmaking for Abby and Nathan, which mostly reminded me of an updated version of The Parent Trap; then, the action part, which was much shorter than I expected and kind of fizzled – but it did feature Abby putting her obsession with survival stories to good use, so that was a plus. Finally, there is a fairly long wrapup in which various relationships are sorted out (or not). It didn’t feel like a coherent story and the pacing and structure didn’t really work for me. I’d characterize Backwoods as more of a contemporary with a suspense interlude, and the romance and suspense were not as well-integrated as I would have liked.

I also had some difficulty with the writing style, specifically the short sentences that you use quite a lot. I don’t have a problem with a more spare writing style, but at times it just seemed too staccato and felt distancing – as though everything was kept rather brief and at a shallow level, and it didn’t always feel like each character had a distinctive voice.

Overall, Backwoods mostly worked for me as an adventure story and I appreciate that you continue to write characters that diverge from genre conventions in obvious and more subtle ways. But the plotting was simply too uneven to justify a higher grade. C+/B-.

Best regards,
Rose

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GUEST REVIEW:  Badlands by Jill Sorenson

GUEST REVIEW: Badlands by Jill Sorenson

Badlands by Jill SorensonDear Ms. Sorenson,

If I’m not mistaken, Badlands is the first book of yours in which characters from an earlier, unresolved storyline get their own book and happy ending. It can probably be read on its own, as the back story is well-integrated into the narrative. Still, I’m glad that I was familiar with the main characters and their past relationship beforehand.

Penny Sandoval and Owen Jackson first appeared in Aftershock, in which they were part of a small group of survivors trapped in a collapsed freeway following a major earthquake. The then eighteen year old Penny was about to give birth and was estranged from her family, who did not approve of her becoming a teen mother; Owen, who is three years older, was a prison inmate on a work detail. During the course of that book, Owen ends up delivering Penny’s baby and is the one who manages to get out of the rubble and go for help. At the end, they went their separate ways, with Penny returning to her family and Owen transferred to a new prison.

Janine, who reviewed Aftershock, felt that Penny’s bond with Owen developed too rapidly considering their backgrounds: Penny is Mexican-American, while Owen is affiliated with a white supremacist prison gang and has visible symbols of this, including a Swastika tattoo. I agreed with Janine about the pacing of their relationship, but I was able to accept that Penny would come to consider Owen’s choices in prison as not being any meaningful reflection of his beliefs. I was interested to see what you would do with these characters and their relationship.

Badlands takes place about five years after the events of Aftershock. Penny, who has stayed with her family, is a recent college graduate and a single mother to son Cruz. Owen has been out of prison for several years, and has gotten some of his tattoos removed, finished college, and worked at a national park. Penny’s father Jorge, who was the mayor of Los Angeles in Aftershock, is now the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, and Owen is part of his personal security team. Penny and Owen are on friendly terms and although both have feelings for each other, neither is certain of how the other feels. In addition, Penny feels obligated to her parents and dates only men that they would approve of, while Owen doesn’t believe that he could ever have a relationship with Penny, for various reasons.

Penny is about to introduce her mother at one of the Republican National Convention events leading up to the nomination when things go wrong: an alarm goes off, and when Owen escorts Penny and Cruz to a waiting car in what is meant to be a secure area, they are attacked by a group of men who overpower Owen and the driver and abduct Owen, Penny and Cruz. Their leader is Owen’s older brother Shane, who was recently released from prison. They take off for the Salton Sea area, where Shane and Owen grew up. Penny is eventually able to overpower a guard and escapes into the desert with Cruz, and Owen manages to get away and find them. But Penny, Cruz and Owen are on their own in a harsh landscape, far from help, with almost no supplies, and with Shane and his gang after them. The kidnappers want money, and the men controlling them have their own goals.

What I’ve described so far is mostly setup, and it only takes up the first seventy pages or so. Which is probably for the best, as for me this was the weakest part of the book and required more than a little suspension of disbelief: that Penny’s father would jump directly from mayor of LA to presidential nominee, that Owen, an ex-con, would be working in personal security for him (or for anyone else), that the kidnappers – hardly criminal masterminds – would succeed so easily in grabbing Penny, Cruz and Owen at the convention, and that Owen, despite injuries from a serious beating, would be in any shape to take on the kidnappers. The quick recovery of the hero is probably a staple of romantic suspense, but one of the strengths of your books for me is that they are very believable and the heroes are not supercop/superagent/super military guys, so it seemed a bit jarring.

Once Owen, Penny and Cruz get away from Shane and his men and go deeper into the badlands, I felt that the story worked much better. Your books often have a strong sense of the southern Californian setting, and Badlands was no exception. Penny and Owen have their work cut out for them just trying to survive the challenging conditions with a five year old in tow, and Owen also makes some tough decisions as they try to evade the men after them.

Penny is wonderful – she’s compassionate and kind as well as strong, and it comes across throughout. She knows that she’s allowed her parents to control too much of her life because of her gratitude and sense of obligation, and decides to go after what she wants even if they won’t approve. Despite her parents’ disapproval, Penny doesn’t feel ashamed of the choices she’s made in her life and doesn’t feel as though she’s making a bad one in pursuing a relationship with Owen. Penny’s father did not seem to have changed much following the events of Aftershock, somewhat to my disappointment; he is still trying to impose his values and beliefs on Penny and to keep her and Owen apart. Penny loves her father and wants him to succeed, but is not blind to his manipulative side.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that Badlands is more Owen’s story than Penny’s, and he has more to overcome than she does. Owen has always been interested in Penny and his feelings have only grown stronger over the years, but he has a very low sense of self-worth and doesn’t feel like he has anything to offer Penny other than protecting her and Cruz. He had a very difficult childhood, with a father who tried to toughen him up by abusing him both verbally and physically. Owen planned to be better, but got involved in drugs when he was a teenager and eventually in his brother’s criminal schemes, leading him to prison at the age of eighteen. Being young and not physically powerful when he went to prison, Owen was a target for older inmates, whom he wasn’t able to fight off. He was raped more than once before deciding to turn to a gang in an attempt to protect himself from predators. Owen has not been able to have a sexual relationship since then, and certain things are triggering for him. He feels very ashamed of what was done to him and how he reacted to it, and this can be difficult to read at times. I felt that Owen’s experiences and their effect on him were handled with sensitivity, but one of the things he did while with the gang was disturbing to me, and he already had a lot of trauma and emotional issues to work through without it. Owen is a good man and his entire life seems to be an attempt to make amends for some of his earlier actions. He’s hesitant to get involved with Penny and their romantic and sexual relationship progress slowly, mostly closer to the end of the book, which I felt was believable.

In addition to Owen and Penny, some sections are from the POV of Owen’s brother Shane as well as Shane’s ex-girlfriend Janelle. Like Penny, Janelle was a teen mother, but with far less support and opportunities. Shane’s actions have put both Janelle and their son Jamie at risk, but while Janelle plays a role towards the end of the story, I didn’t feel that her perspective was really needed. Shane is the main villain but he’s far from a one-note bad guy. He does love Owen in his own way and tries to protect his brother even while he’s getting him involved in some very bad situations. Shane is a product of a difficult childhood similar to Owen’s, but lacks Owen’s empathy and basic goodness.

The beginning of Badlands and certain other things didn’t really work for me, but once the setup was out of the way, I became much more absorbed in the story and wanted Penny and Owen to be happy together. Although they are relatively young for the genre, I don’t doubt that they were right for each other and would be so in the future. Badlands get a B from me.

Best regards,
Rose

Rose lives in a country where romance readers are few and far between, so discovering romance websites was a welcome development. When not busy with reading and graduate school, she can often be found online discussing romance novels or sports –occasionally both at the same time. She has no TBR pile and is forever looking to change this unfortunate fact; recommendations for historicals, romantic suspense and contemporaries (preferably of the non-small town variety) are welcome.

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