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May 2014

Island Peril & Backwoods (Aftershock series) by Jill Sorenson

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.


DownloadIsland Peril (Aftershock 3.5):

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

0614-9780373778720Backwoods (Aftershock 4):

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.


The Bastard by Inez Kelley

Cover46738-mediumI kept changing my mind about this book as I read it. I impulsively requested it on Netgalley after reading some enthusiastic recommendations on twitter. I had previously read one of Inez Kelley’s West Virginia set contemporary romances.  I have a real weakness for bad boys in fiction, preferring Spike to Angel or Riley, and Wolverine over Cyclops for example, so The Bastard and the Baddest Boys in History series seemed like it was made for me.

The Baddest Boys in History is a paranormal series that plays with religious and mythical iconography from most the world’s religions. In the prologue, Inez Kelley introduces us to Sela (known in Heaven as Josiel) and Michael, Archangels in Heaven, Vangelus, servants of the Creator. Ha-Satan led a rebellion in Heaven and has been banished to Earth with a third of the heavenly hosts. That rebellion brought many of the Vangelus to Earth and they are reeling from their experiences in the earthly realm. On Earth the Vangelus were over-whelmed with sexual desire that was absent in Heaven, and it led to also sorts of un-sanctioned sexing, including Human-Angel interactions. Those encounters which get a mention in Genesis, led to the birthing of monsters and giants by human women that the Vangelus then had to track down and corral. Sela and Michael had been sexually involved, but Sela ended their affair when she realized that while she had been exclusive he had not. Since those days the Vangelus have been recalled to Heaven, and now the awkward former lovers have each been entrusted with raising from the dead seventy-seven  champions to face off against Ha-Satan’s forces. Sela and Michael’ s fractious relationship leads them to take opposing approaches in selecting their champions, the Awoken. Michael sought out the most well regarded heroes and the holiest of warriors to make up his Righteous, who guard Heaven and Sela looked for the most depraved, dirtiest of warriors to fight in the Earthly trenches. Sela is a fight fire with fire sort of woman and will use every tool in the arsenal to defeat Ha-Satan.

Fast-forward to the modern day where we meet Erik, one of Sela’s six remaining Forsaken warriors. Erik is a Viking king, whose violent first life was ended by his wife’s betrayal, leaving him battled hardened and bitter.  He has been fighting for Sela and Heaven for hundreds of years. He intervenes when Lacy, the owner of diner in West Virginia he has been frequenting is attacked by Soul-leeches, bottom feeders in Ha-Satan’s evil ranks. Erik is able to rescue Lacy but his good friend and fellow Forsaken Gen is killed. Lacy remembers more of the supernatural nature of the attack than is convenient. Erik, trying to protect his secrets while protecting her from harm  tries to dismiss all her strange memories as confusion due to her concussion. Maintaining that charade becomes even harder when he realizes that she isn’t  simply human but a descendant of the Vangelus, making her a valuable pawn and prize in this supernatural war and she will continue to be the target of attacks. Erik is drawn to Lacy but fears his attachment to her is weakness he cannot afford.  Lacy is  attracted to Erik but fears acknowledging who he might truly be. 

Sign up for this book if you have want real real bad boys. Inez Kelley isn’t lying, she populated her band of Forsaken with  legendary, mythical and historical bad guys. While she does play around a bit with the idea that they might have been misunderstood, products of their time or victims of bad PR, the Forsaken themselves are mostly unapologetic for their bad reputations, even if they have softer underbellies than they let on.

I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the Forsaken, brothers in arms, who are rude, mean and uncouth with each other as you would expect when they have been fighting a secret war for centuries without the respect or affection of those they fight for. I loved how Lacy, at first baffled, frightened and suspicious of them, comes to accept and love them. Lacy is a natural care-giver and can't help but start taking care of them all.

What didn’t work for me as well was the POV chapters Kelley gave over to Ha-Satan’s crew. In those chapters we spent extended periods of time with the seriously disgustingly evil Ha-Satan and his minions. I seriously questioned why I was reading the book whenever I hit one of those chapters, not because they weren’t well written but because events and encounters in these chapters were often so stomach churning. These chapters do effectively make you want to root for Erik and the rest of the Awakened however bad they might have been during their lifetimes.

Although I considered DNFing the book at points due to the evilness of evil characters, I hung on because I admired the writing, and plotting. The book was funny, serious and scary when it needed to be, and while at times the main romance plot was set aside to forward both the main action and a secondary romance plot Inez Kelley never lost the thread of it. The Bastard left me satisfied, and intrigued as to how the overarching conflict will be resolved. I think she gave me enough surprises and twists that on balance I would recommend this to any who like anti-heroes, strong internal and external conflicts and bad boys going mushy for a good woman.

 A copy of The Bastard: The Baddest Boys in History 1 was provided by the author Inez Kelley via NetGalley for review purposes.


Laugh (The Burnside Series) by Mary Ann Rivers


"Their hearts had let the laughter soften them into reckless intimacies."  (Kindle Location 258)

Laugh  is the second of Mary Ann Rivers’  The Burnside Series novels, that focus on a set of four orphaned adult siblings, Sam, Destiny, Sarah and PJ Burnside  from Lakefield, Ohio. I reviewed Live in January. Many locations and supporting characters in Laugh also appeared in Live. While you will have a fuller experience if you have read Live it is not necessary to do so in order to read and love Laugh.

Laugh is Dr. Sam Burnside's story. In Live, Sam is Destiny’s older over-bearing asshole doctor brother and I absolutely hated him. I was actually hoping Ms. Rivers would write PJ or Sarah’s story first and leave Sam to the end because even though Des still loved the grump, I wasn't looking forward to spending time especially if was going to continue to unintentionally upset everyone in his life with his nagging and micro-managing.

Sam and his childhood friend Lacey are about to open a community clinic in their neighborhood. The opening is weeks away and Sam’s intense yet unfocused energy has become more and more of a distraction as they struggle to jump through the remaining bureaucratic hoops. Lacey sends Sam to Nina, an urban farmer and cafe owner in the neighborhood,  under the guise of cultivating community connections and collaboration. Sam stomps into one of Nina’s urban plots, angry and out-of-sorts and he is quickly disarmed by Nina’s humor and distracted by her beauty.

“Her eyebrow arched up again, waiting for him to get his thumb out of his ass, he supposed.

So was he.

He briefly considered a conciliatory measure and polite reintroduction of himself and his mission there, and then quickly settled on fuck that.” (Kindle Loc 118-119)

The Sam Burnside in Laugh is very recognizably the Sam Burnside from Live. He has not received a personality transplant making him nicer, less over-bearing or easier to get along with. He might in fact be even more flawed in Laugh.  Yet by the second chapter I found myself rooting for him in a way I never expected to. Simply having Sam’s POV was not what made me start caring for him, it was seeing him through Nina’s eyes. Nina saw something in him worth paying attention to.

“How he let her work, and let her lead, and let her show him things, even while he ogled and bragged and postured.

The contrast between what he performed for her and what he meant told her something that made her think about more than Sam’s shoulders.

 Something made her wonder about why a man would try to distract her from noticing the best parts of himself. Maybe he hadn’t noticed the best parts of himself."  (Kindle Loc 226)

Nina Paz is the daughter of Mexican migrant workers and a transplant from Washington State. She is a vibrant, hard-working entrepreneur who with the help of her friends Tay and Rachel, run a successful  farm, cafe and catering business.  Nina has made a place for herself in  Lakefield, Ohio after the death of Russ, her husband and childhood sweetheart, in Afghanistan. In Sam, Nina recognizes same sense of loss, underneath his bluster, and posturing as she feels in her own heart.

"He lowered his eyes from hers, shy, suddenly, of her seeing either his crass and tender thoughts." (Kindle Location  183)

Nina and Sam have incredibly chemistry, they can't keep their eyes, hands or thoughts off each other. They sizzle: 

"She lifted her hand from the knob of the gearshift and trailed it over his thigh, and it was a relief to touch him after talking to him all morning, after watching him, after watching him watch her.

She pushed under the hem of his shorts to dig her fingers in the hard muscle above his knee.

He inhaled, fast and deep, against her ear. "Harder."" (Kindle Loc 287)

But they both know that physical connection is not enough. Nina has taken many casual lovers since the death of her husband to escape her feelings in feeling but she doesnt' want to use Sam this way. Sam is not a moderate man, he doesn't do casual, all passion, impulsivity and need.  It takes real effort for them to work past each others emotional defenses and baggage to trust each other.

Ms. Rivers’ puts Nina and Sam through the wringer. Their relationship has multiple-false starts, faux-pas, and interruptions, some light-hearted (their disastrous first date) and other heart-wrenching (Tay's cancer diagnosis). Sam and Nina have both been formed in distinct ways by grief and loss and their is a story how two people can build intimacy and trust after years of taking short-cuts or avoiding it all together.

"It was rare to find friends anymore. Not because she wasn’t surrounded by people, but because if she wanted to be close to someone new, she would need to share her life, tell her stories, reveal her healing grief."  (Kindle Loc 253)

In Live, Destiny and Hefin need to find the thread of their own lives again, to do things for themselves before they can reach for each other. In Laugh, Sam and Nina both need to tend to emotional bruises they have ignored and find their way back to the family and loved ones they have hurt, disappointed and pushed away as they reach for each other.

"She was here, far from her original home because everything that came after losing Russ salted the fields they had planted."  (Kindle Loc 745)

 I love how Ms. Rivers writes, and I often find myself stopping to admire her beautifully written sentences. Every single one of her stores has been a joy to read, but what really makes her novels work for me is the attention she gives to characterization, and that she doesn’t just develop the main characters and surround them with cardboard stand-ins. While I hope to eventually read PJ, Lacey and Sarah’s stories even secondary supporting characters like Mike, DeeDee, Tay and Adam feel as real as Nina and Sam. They all have substance and weight and are not simply plot devices.

"He’d wanted to tell Mike more about her, but he knew as much as he joked about matchmaking, about couples, about the happiness he found, that he also had been the voice of caution way too many times before when Sam had fallen headlong into what he thought was love, only to find out again that it was all just him, his heart overspilling until he thought that was he felt was what the woman felt, too, when what he was was just the hope he had for his own heart. "(Kindle Loc 524)

I am very appreciative of how Ms. Rivers described and developed Nina and Sam. Nina is undeniably a first-generation Mexican-American,  but it is not the only or even most important part of her identity. She is not white-washed or fetishized and I am happy to add her to my personal list of non-stereotypical Latina heroines. I also really loved how Sam’s ADHD was portrayed. One of my daughter’s has an ADD diagnosis, and there were points in the book where Sam’s anxieties, reactions and actions felt incredibly familiar and I can only thank Ms.Rivers for taking such care in her writing.

Ms. Rivers did not have any information on her website beyond the titles for the next two books in the series so I asked her on twitter whose story was whose.  

 I will be eagerly awaiting them.


A copy of Laugh was provided by Random House: Loveswept via NetGalley for review purposes.

Publication Date May 6, 2014