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REVIEW:  Backwoods by Jill Sorenson

REVIEW: Backwoods by Jill Sorenson


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,

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REVIEW:  Far Gone by Laura Griffin

REVIEW: Far Gone by Laura Griffin

far goneDear Ms. Griffin,

When your books work for me, they’re a great blend of romance and suspense. When they’re not, they tend to be okay but forgettable reads. Unfortunately, Far Gone falls in the latter category.

Andrea Finch is an Austin police detective currently on leave after a shooting incident that left a young man dead. When her younger brother Gavin asks for a two thousand dollar loan and ends up at Lost Creek Ranch in West Texas, Andrea sets out to investigate and to get her brother out of what looks like a very dangerous situation. Jon North is part of a small team of undercover FBI agents investigating Shay Hardin, the owner of the ranch. Jon suspects that Hardin may have been behind the murder of a federal judge several years earlier and is now involved in even worse. While their agendas don’t quite overlap, Andrea and Jon work together to investigate what Hardin is up to and how exactly Gavin is involved.

It’s often considered a good idea to drop the reader directly into the action, but in this case I felt that it just went too far. The book starts with a terrorist bombing (from the perpetrator’s point of view), Andrea’s shooting incident, the situation with her brother and Jon’s investigation, without offering any good reason for me to care about any of the people involved. I can’t say that I came to know or care much more about anyone as the narrative progressed. While I did enjoy some of the action parts, I couldn’t get any real sense of who the characters were and why the lead couple should be together.

Jon is an FBI agent, he’s good-looking, and he’s a workaholic at the expense of personal relationships. That’s about it in terms of characterization, and it’s not enough. Andrea is somewhat better drawn and less conventional. She had a difficult childhood which left her very close to her brother  but with difficulty forming relationships otherwise. She’s a dedicated cop and very good at what she does, and she can be resourceful and assertive when it’s called for. Andrea’s background and characterization are more in line with heroes rather than heroines in the genre, which was interesting. With multiple points of view and the suspense storyline to juggle, however, I felt that the development of her romance with Jon suffered – too much tell and not enough show. Far Gone would have also benefited from fewer points of view and better characterization, not just of Jon but also most of the secondary characters: Shay Hardin is a stock villain, there’s a senator who’s pretty much a stereotype, and Jon’s colleague Jimmy Torres doesn’t get much to do. I’d have liked more insight as to why and how Andrea’s brother Gavin made some of his initial choices and his later decisions; it’s not really clear how he was so easily drawn in by Hardin.

Far Gone is linked to your Tracers series and some characters from previous books make an appearance, though mostly in minor roles (the exception being FBI agent Elizabeth LeBlanc, who should really get her own book). Your novels tend to work better for me when the main characters are introduced and developed before being given a starring role. In that sense, it works better as a series and not as much when looking for standalone novels.

While I’ve mostly been critical in writing this, I can’t say that I truly disliked Far Gone, and I’ve certainly come across far worse in my romantic suspense reading. But there just wasn’t enough to make it stand out in any way, and I’ll probably remember little of it a week from now. That’s pretty much the definition of a C read for me: not bad, but not memorable in any way.

Best regards,

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