Island Peril and Backwoods are the two of most recent installments of Jill Sorenson’s romantic suspense series Aftershock. The heroines in these books are Ella and Abby Hammond, sisters who survived the Great San Diego earthquake, central to the first Aftershock novel. The novels in this series are not closely interconnected so it is possible to enjoy without having read previous books. One thing all the Aftershock novels I've read so far have in common is how much I really love the heroines, who are realistically strong and determined without having to be perfect in every way.
In Island Peril, Ella a geologist, has joined her sister Abby and Abby’s daughter Brooke for a kayaking tour of San Miguel island when Abby’s ex-husband’s backs out of a long planned father-daughter trip. Ella and Paul Dawson (their sea-kayaking tour guide) end up separated from Abby and Brooke and stranded on San Miguel.
Island Peril is a novella and it really delivers a breezy action packed story. Paul and Ella are really likable characters without deep emotional damage that move from flirting to bonding as they try to hide from drug dealers after they accidently interfere with a drug drop.
What I liked:
Paul loved his previous girlfriend, who stood by him after the death of his parents in the San Diego Quake. Their relationship didn't endure but he is not an emotionally stunted hero afraid to own his feelings, he is just starting to want to date again. He finds Ella’s incredibly sexy, and is not threatened by her intelligence or dismissive of her geeky interests. They are both smart and ready to love and I totally believed in the HFN, because their story was about opening up to something new and seeing a future with someone.
4.5 out 5 stars
Backwoods is set a year after Island Peril, and it opens with Abby driving her daughter Brooke to a cabin in the woods, where Brooke’s father Ray, his wife Lydia and her son, Leo are supposed to join them for the week. Abby’s ex is chronically unreliable, and self-centered, so rather than risk her daughter ending up alone in the High Sierras if he cancels their family vacation at the last minute again, she risks an uncomfortable week with her ex to make sure her daughter doesn't end up alone.
Nathan Strom is a former major league baseball player who lost his career and marriage to injury and alcohol abuse. He is sober and working on rebuilding his life and reputation. He knows he was an absent husband and father and is looking to make amends and build a relationship with his son. When Ray and Lydia cancel, Nathan jumps at opportunity to spend time with his estranged son, Leo even if Leo doesn't really want him there.
Nathan, Abby, Leo and Brooke try to make the best of things, despite their disappointment and frustration with Lydia and Ray. Trying to make the best of awkward circumstances and unable to say no to the irrepressible Brooke they agree to spend several nights of hiking in the backwoods.
Nathan, Abby, Leo and Brooke are bringing with them a mess of insecurity and emotional uncertainty into the woods with them that would have made for a perilous camping trip without being stalked and hunted in the woods. But threatened, stalked & hunted they are. Sorenson did a great job building suspense, paranoia and a creeping sense of danger. The action scenes where they are fighting for their lives were incredibly pulse-pounding and lived up the action/survival plots in the previous Aftershock novels.
The novel at its core revolves around parenting and what it means to be a family. Nathan and Leo are trying to learn how to talk to each other again, while Abby and Brooke are negotiating parental anxiety and independence in they try to transition into adults parent-child relationship. And they are all wrestling with the impact of Ray and Lydia’s absent or inconsistent parenting and the permanency of relationships in blended families. Additionally Brooke and Leo are also trying to define what they are to each other, and what kind of feelings they can or do have for each other, while trying to sort out what it means to be an adult. So while Nathan and Abby are clearly attracted to each other, they are often more concerned with how their behavior will affect their children.
As a child of divorce, a lot of the conflict and tensions in the Hammond-Dwyer-Strom family really rung true.
Where the novel fell short for me was establishing an emotional connection to the characters. While I stressed for them when their lives were endangered, I struggled to connect to the emotional lives. The 3rd person narrator was too insightful, knowing and rational about the character’s history and motivations, in contrast to the confusion the characters were experiencing about their feelings, reactions and emotions. It distanced me from the characters as they tried to sort out their feelings for each other when they were no longer fighting for their lives.
I am also lukewarm on the ending, I think Sorenson was building toward a good resolution but it still felt a bit abrupt as it still seemed to be too many obstacles left for Abby and Nathan to resolve, particularly in terms of their kid’s relationships to each other for me to believe in their HFN might turn into a HEA. I suspect that their kids will eventually have their own book but I was surprised not to see more resolution here.
I still really liked the book, particularly because it was so ambitious and delivered such great action.
4 out 5 stars
A digital copy of Backwoods was provided by the author for review purposes.