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REVIEW:  Riding Dirty by Jill Sorenson

REVIEW: Riding Dirty by Jill Sorenson

Riding-Dirty

Dear Ms. Sorenson,

I remember you mentioning on Twitter or a maybe in a blog post that you decided to write an erotic MC (Motorcycle Club) book at least in part because of the popularity of the genre. It is somewhat out of the usual way for you.  It is darker and definitely hotter than your previous books.  That said, it still holds true to what I know of you from chatting with you on social media.  This isn’t a book which lionises MC culture or crime. It doesn’t camouflage the criminal element of an outlaw MC or romanticise it. Because of that I think it will appeal even to readers who don’t normally like MC books.  I also think it stands as proof that a skilled author can write to a trend without sacrificing quality or voice.

Mia Russo (aka Mia Richards, aka Michelle Ruiz) barely survived a home invasion which resulted in the death of her husband three years earlier.  She entered the witness protection programme and has recently returned to California in order to be near her mother, her only living relative, who is in a nursing home at the end stages of Alzheimer’s.  The book explains how she came to be back in California and why and, if it’s not completely kosher in terms of how WITSEC  operates (and I don’t know if it is or not) it felt believable within the context of the book and I was prepared to go with it.

ADA Damon Vargas is the only person who knows her real identity.  He works in the gang crime area and has a real hard-on for putting MC members behind bars.   Damon has offered Cole “Shank” Shepherd a deal: become a criminal informant (CI) and get out of jail six months early (and alive – the Aryan Brotherhood has him in their sights and it’s not very likely he will survive until the end of his sentence).  Vargas poses as Cole’s “parole officer” and Mia is his “life coach”.  It is a little unclear why Mia needs to be involved – Vargas asked her to work pro bono so he could keep this assignment “off the books”, but perhaps it is standard for a newly released criminal to have coaching sessions with a psychologist to help them adjust to life outside of jail.  However, given that it is an off the books operation, it doesn’t seem likely that Vargas actually cares about Cole’s mental health. (We do find out later he has his reasons.)  In any event, Mia appears to take her role seriously and offers Cole  a safe space to relieve the stress of being a CI and also assists him with strategies to control his temper and hopefully, stay out of jail.

Mia has an ulterior motive (in this book, everybody does). WITSEC would never allow her to work with a member of an MC given the circumstances of the home invasion.  She does have experience counselling female inmates but this assignment is a different beast entirely.

Mia was able to identify one of her attackers as Gordon “Gonzo” Lowe, the president of the White Lightning MC.   There was insufficient evidence to arrest Lowe and so Mia was put into WITSEC and Vargas kept trying to identify the other attacker/uncover more evidence which would allow an arrest.  Mia’s plan is to use Cole as a weapon – she will seduce him and entice him to kill Lowe and the other (to be identified) attacker.   Which is kind of an odd juxtaposition with her apparent dedication to her professional role.  I read it that the dedication was Mia’s default and also that she had to play it straight with Cole at the beginning in order to get him to trust her. The therapy sessions had the ring of truth to them and also were not without humour.

She studied his clenched fists and his scarred, tattooed knuckles. T-I-C-K T-O-C-K. “Do you often give in to violent impulses?”

“Not as often as I’d like.”

“Have you tried to make healthier choices?”

His eyes narrowed in disbelief. “Is that a serious question?”

“Yes.”

“Do I look like I’ve made healthy choices?”

Mia is presented as someone who is stuck in her grief. She was very happily married and her life was completely blown apart by the home invasion. She does her work well but it doesn’t satisfy her. She feels nothing much more than her desire for retribution.  She knows what she is planning is morally wrong and professional suicide but she doesn’t care.  She counts the cost and decides it’s worth it.  I appreciated that the professional consequences of her actions weren’t diminished.  I also appreciated that pretty soon after meeting Cole, when he becomes a real person to her rather than just a blunt weapon to be used, she (minor spoiler alert) abandons her plan.

Almost immediately on meeting Cole, Mia starts feeling again. For the first time in three years, she feels attraction and desire.  She begins to care for Cole and think of him as a person with needs and desires of his own.  She goes from thinking that seducing him might not be so hard, to knowing she can’t go through with it, to being helplessly swept away by the heady feeling of having desire and passion again.

It’s not hard to see why Cole is attracted to Mia – she’s classy and beautiful and smart – not surprisingly, he feels she is out of his league but if she wants to go slumming, he’s happy to accommodate her.

Cole is conflicted by his role as CI and his love for his uncle, “Wild Bill” Shepherd, the president of the Dirty Eleven MC.   The Dirty Eleven run marijuana and some guns, but has a strict “no hurting women” policy.  Vargas wants the goods on the Dirty Eleven and Cole wants to find out what happened to his brother Rylan (who was a character in your earlier novel, Badlands I believe).  Bill and his wife, Shawnee, raised Cole and Rylan from adolescence when their parents got hooked on meth.  While their life wasn’t sunshine and roses, there is nevertheless a bond between them and this makes it hard for Cole to think of turning on Bill.  However, Cole was devastated by the death of his brother and if he finds out Bill had anything to do with it, that loyalty isn’t likely to withstand the pressure.

When Cole finds out that Dirty Eleven have been working with White Lightning, he is not happy.  White Lightning do hurt women and have a big meth business – neither of those two things fly with Cole.  Cole went to jail the first time after he beat a White Lightning member (Jesse “Jester” Arno) nearly to death after Jester raped Cole’s 15 year old cousin. I liked the way you expressed the ambiguity of Cole’s relationship with the Dirty Eleven.

Cole shrugged out of the leather garment and tossed it on a chair. His expression was a mixture of pride and contempt, as if the vest was a rowdy dog he loved that had nevertheless bitten a small child.

All of the players have ulterior motives and all of them are involved in shady dealings in one way or another.  Nevertheless, Cole and Mia’s attraction grows and pretty soon, Mia gives in to it and they start seeing each other outside of the therapy room.  The sex is off the charts hot and plentiful.  It is also a bit on the kinky side.  It’s much hotter than other books you’ve written but I must say I think you have a gift.

Mia is a different person to Michelle Ruiz.  While Michelle and her husband, Phillip, had a “better than good” sex life, the home invasion and its aftermath so changed Michelle that she became, in many ways, unrecognisable.  Michelle Ruiz would never have looked at Cole with desire or passion; Mia can’t help it. I thought you did a great job of explaining Mia’s attraction to Cole and I appreciated that Phillip wasn’t demonised (or sainted for that matter).

Cole feels stuck in the criminal world but would like to make changes. He does have a core of “honour” to him but he is not a “good” man in the usual hero type of way.  He is a man who has made mistakes, who has let his temper get the better of him to his detriment, and who doesn’t have a great deal of respect for the law.  While he wants things to be different, he’s never going to turn into a clean cut Mr. Nice Guy.   As it happens, Mia wouldn’t know what to do with a Mr. Nice Guy anymore and, even though things seem impossible, she does begin to wish they could have a future together.

I was really wondering how you were going to pull it all together by the end because things were indeed looking impossible for Mia and Cole.  I liked how, even in the romance genre where the HEA is guaranteed (or at least it better be or Kaetrin gets stabby), you kept me guessing.  While there was one element of the denouement I felt wasn’t set up quite as well as the rest, overall, the resolution felt believable and authentic and also delivered the romantic ending I was after.

It is clear that you are lovingly familiar with the areas in California where the book is set and it has a wonderful sense of place.  I also loved how you embedded Mia’s cultural heritage into the story. I’m not an expert but it didn’t feel fetishised, while at the same time, it clearly formed part of her. If one took those aspects of Mia away, she would have been a very different character.

The writing is mostly kind of spare, with short sentences that can sometimes seem choppy.  On the occasions when you let your adjectives out, they shone against the sparse backdrop and gave those passages extra punch and emotional authenticity.

I liked Dirty Eleven very much. You took the erotic MC storyline and gave it a Sorenson twist to create a story that is both different and entertaining.  Also, did I mention that the sex is scorching? I give it a B.

“You look like you’re having a bad day. Let’s combine your bad day and my bad idea, and be bad together.”

Regards,
Kaetrin

 

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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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