Black Hills, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, August 16, 2009

TITLE: Black Hills
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: Piatkus in the UK

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: No, it's a standalone

REASON FOR READING: Autoread author

A summer at his grandparents’ South Dakota ranch is not eleven-year-old Cooper Sullivan’s idea of a good time. But things are a bit more bearable now that he’s discovered the neighbor girl, Lil Chance, and her homemade batting cage. Even horseback riding isn’t as awful as Coop thought it would be. Each year, with Coop’s annual summer visit, their friendship deepens from innocent games to stolen kisses, but there is one shared experience that will forever haunt them: the terrifying discovery of a hiker’s body.

As the seasons change and the years roll, Lil stays steadfast to her dreams of becoming a wildlife biologist and protecting her family land, while Coop struggles with his father’s demand that he attend law school and join the family firm. Twelve years after they last walked together hand in hand, fate has brought them back to the Black Hills when the people and things they hold most dear need them most.

An investigator in New York, Coop recently left his fastpaced life to care for his aging grandparents and the ranch he has come to call home. Though the memory of his touch still haunts her, Lil has let nothing stop her dream of opening the Chance Wildlife Refuge, but something . . . or someone . . . has been keeping a close watch. When small pranks and acts of destruction escalate into the heartless killing of Lil’s beloved cougar, recollections of an unsolved murder in these very hills have Coop springing to action to keep Lil safe.

Lil and Coop both know the natural dangers that lurk in the wild landscape of the Black Hills. But now they must work together to unearth a killer of twisted and unnatural instincts who has singled them out as prey.
I always look forward to Nora Roberts' annual romantic suspense release. They're always long and meaty books I can really sink into, and I can be assured that whatever the subject, at the very least I will be getting good writing, strong characters and an interesting plot.

I did get all that with Black Hills, but not that much more. For some reason, the book felt a bit lackluster. It was good, but I didn't love it.

Cooper Sullivan and Lil Chance met as children, during Coop's summer visits to his grandparents in South Dakota. They became friends, and when they grew up, they fell in love. Their love affair didn't last, though, and as the action moves to the present day, they have been apart for years. Lil has realised her dream of becoming a top wildlife biologist and founding a sanctuary near her parents' ranch, while Coop joined the police and then became a PI. The action starts when Lil returns from an extended field trip in South America and discovers that Coop has come back to South Dakota for good, to help out his grandparents.

Needless to say, she's not too happy about that (she's managed to be out of town every time he visited in previous years), but soon, that's the least of her problems. Someone is targetting her and her sanctuary, and Coop is determined to help her.

The suspense, I'm afraid, was not Roberts' best. It starts well (the scenes up in the mountains, when Lil goes to tag a cougar, were chilling and very well done), but soon becomes a bit humdrum. I think part of it is that we soon know exactly what's going on, who's behind it and why, and there's no real way to stop this person. So the rest of the book is about waiting for the villain to come out and try something, so that they can take that opportunity to put a stop to things. It just wasn't very exciting or interesting, and neither was the villain. In fact, the villain was a bit of a pathetic figure, quite clearly delusional and a bit dumb. Still, it's not that this is in any way bad, just not great.

And I suppose the same thing could be said about the romance. Lil and Coop are both nice people, but I wouldn't say there's any sort of sizzling chemistry between them, and I didn't find them particularly exciting together.

There's not even a riveting conflict keeping them apart: simply that Lil still holds a grudge against Coop for the way he left her all those years earlier (something that is not narrated, but revealed gradually through their conversations). The whole thing was just not such a big deal for me, though I've seen plenty of opinions online saying how Lil shouldn't have forgiven him so easily. I don't quite see it. I think Coop actually did what was best for both of them, in the long run. True, he should have done it in a different way, but then again, I'm not surprised a young man in his early 20s would feel as he did. And he's now a very, very different person, too. I basically couldn't see why they would be apart now at all.

There's a very nice secondary romance, involving Lil's partner Tansy and Farley, a young man Lil's parents took in as a teen and who now helps them at the ranch. Farley is quite a few years younger than Tansy, and he's also white, while she's black. It was really sweet and had the potential to be quite steamy, and I wish we'd got more of it. As it is, it felt underwritten.

What is brilliant about the book (and led me to increase the grade from B- to B) is what's also brilliant in pretty much every other Nora Roberts book: all the other non romantic relationships. That between Coop and his grandparents, Lil and her parents, Lil and Tansy, and on and on. Those all felt lovely and real and I enjoyed them very much.



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