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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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Friday Film Review: The Sure Thing

Friday Film Review: The Sure Thing

The Sure Thing (1985)
Genre: Coming of age romance
Grade: B

Once I’d seen “Say Anything,” I knew I’d eventually have to finally, after all these years, watch this whole movie. Yep, I’d seen bits and pieces of it on TV but always ended up flipping the channel, maybe because I’d never seen it from the start. It’s cute, it’s sweet, it’s dated but it’s much better than I thought it would be.

Freshman Walter “Gib” Gibson (John Cusack) is headed to California over winter break to hook up with a bikini wearing hot young thing (Nicollette Sheridan) whom Gib’s friend Lance (Anthony Edwards) assures him is a “Sure Thing.” Along for the ride is fellow Ivy League student Alison (Daphne Zuniga), with whom Gib has already struck out, on her way to see her boyfriend Jason (Boyd Gains).

Goaded by Gib during an argument on whether or not she’s repressed, Alison pulls a stunt that gets them both tossed out of the car somewhere along the roadside in Georgia. Now they’ve got to hitch their way to LA, keep from killing each other and, just maybe, fall in love.

Oh wow, the music and clothes take me straight back to the mid 80s and my days in college. Director Rob Reiner says the music dates the movie but still the songs are all so lyrically perfect for their spots in the film that I wouldn’t see them changed even if it made the film more “timeless.” I was puzzled by Reiner’s statement that they did some faux ZZ Top music for the 18 wheeler scene because the production couldn’t afford the real thing when most of the other songs were also by top stars of the day and they were included. Oh, well.

Cusack plays another sorta angsty older teenager. He’s not as perfect a man as in “Say Anything” but then it’s his job here to become more like that wonderful character. He starts out as a typical – let’s be honest – horny young man interested in using the usual pick up lines men try in order to get laid. Yet it’s obvious, as he saves Alison from a hitchhike gone wrong by doing a crazed maniac routine, that he’s a decent guy underneath. Zuniga does one of her clenched personality roles – see also “Gross Anatomy” – here and is in some serious need of fun and letting loose. She’s wound so tight I’m amazed that she doesn’t explode. Her role is to discover that you can be studious and still have a good time. And to learn to shotgun beer.

There are some great actors in secondary roles including Edwards before he becomes “Goose.” Here he’s got the superficial, frat boy charm down pat. Plus I love his imported beer decorated bedroom. I remember frat rooms like that! Boyd Gains plays the wonderfully repressed boyfriend who looks like he starches the boxer shorts he probably wears under his all beige wardrobe. Watch for his tea collection and start saying “Earl Grey” the way he does. Tim Robbins and Lisa Jane Persky are hilarious as the earnest “gee whiz, this is fun” show tune singing couple driving the car during the start of the journey to CA.

The way that Reiner goes about getting these characters to see life from the other side is, as one commenter at IMDB says, tender and innocent. Sure it’s predictable how things will turn out and even some of what’s going to happen along the way but no one acts like an ass. Even when Gib gets drunk in a cocktail lounge, he still doesn’t come back to the hotel room and vomit on anything. During the scene where they end up sharing a bed and wake up curled around each other, there’s no groping, there are no dirty jokes, there’s just Gib confused by the feelings he’s starting to have for Alison.

By the end of the movie, of course Gib has now gotten past meaningless, shallow sex while Alison is willing to listen to him and believe his declarations. As in “Say Anything,” it’s a public declaration though this time instead of using a boom box, it’s an English term paper that wins the heroine’s heart. This is a sweet coming of age movie with a HFN ending of two people learning that sometimes the best person for you isn’t someone who is the same as you, but one who compliments you. B