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Originally published Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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Book review

New novels by Jane Porter and Elizabeth Sims are steeped in sense of place

Western Washington authors Jane Porter and Elizabeth Sims turn out new novels with a strong sense of location. Porter's "She's Gone Country" has a strong Texas flavor; Sims' "On Location" is set in the dim and misty backwoods of the Olympic Peninsula.

Special to The Seattle Times

'She's Gone Country'

by Jane Porter

5 Spot/Grand Central Publishing, 382 pp., $13.99

'On Location'

by Elizabeth Sims

St. Martin's/Minotaur, 374 pp., $25.99

Location, location, location.

The "where" of a novel can be just as important as the "who" and the "why." And two Western Washington writers have just produced new novels that have such a strong sense of place that they're unthinkable in any setting except their own.

Jane Porter, who is variously described as a romance writer and a chick-lit author ("Flirting With Forty"), has set "She's Gone Country" in deepest Texas, full of manly cowboys and barbecued spareribs. Elizabeth Sims' mystery "On Location," the third in a series featuring feisty actress Rita Farmer, is so thoroughly enmeshed in the Olympic Peninsula forest that you almost expect moss to sprout on the book cover.

Both are strongly plotted, with heroines who are vulnerable yet resilient. Beyond this point, however, they diverge in interesting ways.

Porter's first-person narrative is written in the present continuous ("I shower and leave the house with my hair wet"), in the voice of Shey Lynne Darcy, a 39-year-old New York fashion model who has graced the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and the cover of Vogue. Shey and her three teenage sons have sought refuge in her native Texas after her husband left her for his boyfriend Erik.

Complicating things further are Shey's mother ("Shey Lynne, you've been here three months now and not once have you taken those boys to church"), her overprotective brothers, and her sons' serious adjustment problems (one wants to return to New York; one wants to ride dangerous rodeo bulls; and one is flunking out of school). And, of course, there is the dangerously attractive man from Shey's girlhood — retired rodeo champ Dane Kelly, who has his own troubled past.

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All these elements are neatly tied up — with a few twists — in an engaging, if idealized, romance. According to interviews and Porter's blog (at www.janeporter.com), some of the plot elements echo aspects of the author's own life, suggesting she has taken to heart the familiar dictum, "Write what you know."

Elizabeth Sims' hot-tempered, independent actress/heroine Rita Farmer has already appeared in two previous mysteries ("The Actress" and "The Extra"), but you needn't have read the preceding books to appreciate the third ("On Location"). In this fast-paced, atmospheric mystery, Rita is hot on the trail of her scatty sister Gina, who has disappeared while on an ill-prepared deep-woods camping trip with her boyfriend. When Gina fails to report back and doesn't answer her cellphone, Rita fears the worst, mobilizing her friend Daniel and her impossibly chipper, obedient and gifted 6-year-old son to trace the campers.

The dense Olympic Peninsula forests and the rising floodwaters make the search more difficult. Rita's investigator boyfriend, George, is meanwhile hot on the trail of related misdeeds. Telling the story through several separate points of view, Sims assembles almost her entire cast of characters in a portion of the wilderness that at times suggests the movie "Deliverance."

Sims shines in her deft characterizations, and in the descriptive passages that call the gloomy Northwest skies "stomped-newspaper gray" and the Puget Sound waters "slaty and ominous." The rains are so vividly depicted that readers may find themselves reaching for a warm jacket ... even in midsummer.

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She's a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).

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