Back Roads
by Susan Crandall, contemporary (2003)
Warner, $5.99, ISBN 0-446-61225-1


One thing that struck me, while reading Back Roads, is how author Susan Crandall has this way with words. She's not showy, bombastic, or melodramatic. Instead, she uses simple words in a way that manages to evoke the perfect pitch in mood and atmosphere at the same time. Reading this book, I almost believe I could feel the cold night breeze or listen to the sounds of the carnival just as it is described by the author. The heroine Leigh Mitchell wants to let her hair down just like every contemporary heroine in Harlequin Temptations long to do, but the author manages to convey Leigh's feelings pretty well; so much so that I emphatize with her.

A mysterious man, Will Scott, comes to sleepy hollow Glens Crossing and upsets Leigh Mitchell's calm and monotonous life. Leigh, the sheriff of Glens Crossing, loves her job, although she is bored out of her wits dealing with silly kids, drunks, and too many other petty antics that require her attention. She needs... something. So when Will invites her to take a ride on the Ferris wheel, she can't resist. Attraction flares up between them both, but there is a teenage jailbait rebel named Brittany also trying to win his attention. When Brittany goes missing and Will becomes the prime suspect, that's when matters become really complicated for everybody.

At first, everyone's a cliché. Leigh is Ms Wanna Let My Hair Down. Will is Mr Deliberately Sulky And Mysterious And You Can't Make Me Talk And Clear Matters Up Because Damn It I'm Dark And Mysterious. Brittany is Ms Misunderstood Rebel Who Just Wants Daddy To Love Her. Still, I find the book so well written that I'm drawn completely into the story. I thought the Ferris wheel encounter is just too romantic for words. Ms Crandall also has me buying Will's broody sexiness and she makes me cheer for Leigh because Leigh is so likeable. When Brittany goes missing, Will's dark broodiness really switches to high gear while Leigh's expertise kicks in. The whole interaction and conflict between Leigh and Will reaches a fevered pitch, reeling me in so that I go from being somewhat delighted at the story to being totally absorbed into it, word by word.

Back Roads isn't an original story by any stretch. It is Ms Crandall's writing that builds the story up to be a success with me. She makes the secondary characters engaging if eccentric instead of being self-consciously overly garish caricatures. Be it romantic silence or suspenseful tension, Ms Crandall still manages to evoke her scenes so clearly - when her characters smile, I thought I could see it in my mind - and I ended up smiling too sometimes. When there is fear, I am at the edge of the seat.

With such an amazing, evocative way with words that brings the characters and atmosphere to life with vivid clarity, it is really hard not to have a really wonderful time reading Back Roads. I really can't put it down. I am mean enough to deduct a few points for the story's rather slow build-up, but Ms Crandall comes really close to making the keeper grade. And no, I can't believe that she's a debut author either.

Rating: 89


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