Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Janine

http://dearauthor.com

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

Posts by Janine :

REVIEW:  Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry

REVIEW: Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry

Dear Ms. Henry,

Recently I’ve been stuck at home due to a hairline fracture in my foot. To combat feeling cooped up, I turned to your debut mystery, Learning to Swim, which a friend had described as fresh and exciting.

Learning-to-SwimFreelance writer Troy Chance is taking the ferry from the Adirondacks town of Port Kent, New York to Burlington, Vermont when the opposite direction ferry sails by. Just then Troy spots what appears to be a child falling from the ferry opposite hers into the cold waters of Lake Champlain.

Troy, who has no children of her own (though she is a sort of den mother to the handful of male athletes with whom she shares her Lake Placid apartment) barely spares a second’s thought to the consequences before she dives in after the child.

She manages to rescue the boy, who is five or six and French speaking. The child clams up when she asks him what happened, who his parents are, and where he lives.

Troy is aware that no fuss was raised over the boy’s fall and no search for him has been announced. She recalls that a sweatshirt was tied around him, straightjacket-like, and realizes this was a deliberate attempt at murder.

If Troy reports his disappearance to the police and his parents are contacted, will the boy be safe once returned to them? Or are his parents the ones behind his close call with drowning? Afraid to take a chance with the child’s life, Troy takes him home with her.

In a matter of days, a deep attachment develops between Troy and Paul, as the boy reveals himself to be called. Troy realizes that it will be painful to part with him. But when Paul opens up to her about his parents’ identities, Troy realizes she can’t keep him with her, either.

Can the child’s father, once found, be trusted? Will it be a good thing for Troy to accept an invitation to stay in Paul’s life until he has adjusted to normal life? Is this a chance for a new romance, or is the situation far more dangerous than that for Troy, and for the little boy who has won her heart?

Learning to Swim did what I most wanted a book to do at the time I read it: absorb my attention fully. It’s a page turner and I was grateful for that.

Troy is a warmhearted protagonist. Her family background and lifestyle felt specific to her; she’d escaped Nashville and the family expectations she’d found suffocating there as a teen to go to college early, and then moved to Lake Placid where she made her living writing freelance articles and looking after an apartment with four other housemates.

Some of the small details–such as the mention of Troy’s leaving some dirty dishes in a bag outside the room door of a housemate who hadn’t washed his plates–made Troy come alive. The same was true of Paul, the somber little boy she’d saved. His physical gestures and his tendency to hide made him and his ordeal feel very real to me.

Most of the secondary characters also felt lifelike, but I had a problem with the way the villain’s actions were so very over the top. One thing that helped that go down easier was the writing itself—the dialogue was believable, and even when a character’s actions were out there, there was a normalcy to the way others reacted.

The prose had a simplicity that didn’t appeal to me but I can’t decide how much of that was due to the language itself and how much to the rather heavy-handed foreshadowing (which was especially pronounced near the end of each short chapter). Combined with the very evil villain and the child-in-jeopardy plot, these elements made me feel manipulated.

Then there was the way that Troy’s growth arc was played up in the narration. It’s true that Troy changed over the course of the story; she started out fiercely independent, and her attachment to Paul helped teach her to open up to the people who cared about her and ask their help.

I liked that, but at the same time, I felt more was made of this transformation than was actually shown. Troy kept saying she would never go back to being the same woman she’d been before rescuing Paul, so I wanted this change in her to be shown in depth, rather than just told about over and over.

I liked the sense of place employed throughout the book. Learning to Swim takes place in Lake Placid, Ottawa, and Burlington, and it doesn’t feel as though it could be set anywhere, but rather, located in these specific places.

This is primarily a mystery/suspense novel, not a romance, and the first book in the series too, but there are a couple of romantic possibilities for Troy. I was on board with the way this was handled in terms of what felt right for Troy, but at the same time, I’m not convinced that in a real life situation things would play out that way.

More important than any other relationship is Troy’s connection to Paul. The bond between them was probably my favorite thing in the story, and I loved the early scenes in which she rescued him and cared for him.

The latter parts of the book felt less organic to me, relying as they did on ominous lines highlighting the potential pitfalls for Troy and the dangers to Paul’s well-being and safety. While I loved Troy’s dedication to Paul, and liked Troy herself, I was less keen on the way these whiffs of menace toward Paul pulled at my emotional strings.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery. At one point I suspected it, but then I quickly dismissed this suspicion. I see the book as more suspense novel than mystery, because while there were clues and a solution, the greater emphasis was on the danger the characters faced.

Learning to Swim has won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, the Agatha Award for Best First Novel, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, but I am going to diverge somewhat from the award-givers.

Although I appreciate the compulsive readability of this book, its sense of place, the touching connection between its protagonist and the child she saves, and the detail employed to bring the characters to life, I was disappointed by the manipulative elements and the lack of d real depth.

The novel is worth the price I paid for it on a daily deal, but I’m on the fence about paying full price for its sequel. Taking all of the above into account, I’m going to give it a C+.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  The Fire Seer by Amy Raby

REVIEW: The Fire Seer by Amy Raby

Dear Ms. Raby,

I admit, the beautiful cover was one of the things that attracted me to your new, self-published fantasy-romance-mystery, The Fire Seer. The book is the first in a new series of novels featuring the same two sleuths, Taya and Mandir, whose relationship very gradually shifts from a reluctant partnership to a working relationship to a tentative romance.

The-Fire-Seer-2On your site, you describe the book as set “in a fantasy re-imagination of the Indus Valley Civilization, which was contemporary to ancient Egypt and Sumer.” In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, you state:

I used the historical information, sketchy as it was, only as a jumping-off point for world creation. In no way should this novel be considered historically accurate, even leaving out the obvious fantasy elements.

Although I was disappointed (but not surprised) to learn that, I appreciate your candor. The Fire Seer sent me to Wikipedia to learn a little about the real Indus Valley Civilization, which was remarkably advanced for its time. It saddens me that I was never taught about it in school since there is much to admire about it, including its relative egalitarianism.

The world you have created in The Fire Seer, however, is a fantastical society comprised of three castes: farmers, merchants and the ruling class. There is also a fourth group that exists outside this caste system, an organization of magic users called the Coalition.

The Coalition isn’t always just; its people aren’t allowed to use their magical abilities to benefit those who can’t afford to tithe generously to the group. But it does provide the only legal way to practice magic, as well as the only way out of the caste system, and for women, the freedom to take a lover without marrying.

Taya isu Ikkarum is the fire seer the title refers to, a member of the Coalition with an unusually strong gift for controlling fire. Taya arrives in the city of Hrappa to see the magistrate as the book opens. Her task in Hrappa is to catch a “jackal” – the term for a user of illicit magic – who has committed three murders, including that of the magistrate’s own son.

Taya is also about to meet the quradum — magic-using warrior — who will serve as her protector and partner during the investigation. To Taya’s great shock, the quradum turns out to be someone she already knows—Mandir isu Sarrum, whom she met nine years ago, and who trained with her at Mohenjo Temple when they were both teens.

During their years at Mohenjo, Mandir’s initial kindness toward Taya quickly turned to vicious bullying that went on for years. Thanks to Mandir and his egging on of others, Taya was friendless and alone, and his torment of her only came to an end after she almost died and he was sent away to serve out a Year of Penance.

Now Taya has no interest whatsoever in giving Mandir the trust necessary for a successful professional partnership, or allowing him close enough to protect her, as the Coalition dictates. Mandir may claim he is genuinely remorseful, but how can she believe anything he says?

But Taya and Mandir’s investigation of the three deaths puts Taya in danger—and not from Mandir. A vision reveals the involvement of two young women in the crime, but neither can be found. A once-prosperous banana farmer to whom Taya is attracted turns threatening when Taya refuses to heal his blighted banana plants (something the Coalition could execute her for). And when Taya attempts to call a vision of one of the murders, she is nearly drowned through the illicit magic of the “jackal.”

Can Taya trust Mandir to protect her life, when he once put it in jeopardy? Is Mandir genuine in his regret and remorse for past deeds? Will the two catch the killer, and after the events of the last nine years, is it possible for them to find friendship, and perhaps even love?

Taya was a lovely heroine, strong and resilient, and although she had been hurt by Mandir’s actions when they were teens, she did not allow that to color the way she saw most human beings, nor was her self-confidence damaged beyond repair.

Taya had an innate sense of justice and wished she could heal the farmers’ blighted plants even though the Coalition’s rules forbade it and the penalty for doing so without the Coalition’s permission was execution. As this was Taya’s initial assignment as a Coalition representative, it was the first time she experienced these injustices and saw how angry they made others, and it clearly got to her.

In addition to the theme of justice, I liked the way The Fire Seer explores the theme of trust. I found it interesting that although the central romantic conflict is that Taya feels she cannot trust Mandir, Taya actually has the more trusting personality of the two. It is Mandir who is a distrustful person, while Taya is only distrusting where Mandir is concerned—she has learned a bitter lesson there.

The novel interleaves flashbacks that take place in Mohenjo Temple with the present day storyline set in Hrappa. In the flashbacks, we see how Taya arrived in Mohenjo at age fourteen as the only farmer caste student and how Mandir, the son of a prince, set a tone for the cruel way she was treated by her fellow pupils.

Through Mandir’s viewpoint we learn that in his twisted way, Mandir tried to root out an unwelcome attraction to Taya. Mandir was hiding his own bastardy, the fact that his mother was farmer caste and his father ruling caste, and therefore his very existence was a taboo. By egging on other students to bully Taya, as his father had bullied him and his siblings, Mandir tried and failed to make himself feel better.

Mandir’s characterization took me by surprise because the heroes in your Hearts and Thrones series have gentler and more respectful personalities. (One of my favorite things about Assassin’s Gambit was that the heroine was the assassin/bodyguard of the title, and the hero was not the brawn of their partnership).

I appreciated that in The Fire Seer the bullying issue and Mandir’s redemption were treated in a matter of fact manner and not milked for drama and angst. Also, that it was not Taya who changed Mandir, but Mandir who brought about his own gradual improvement. The paragraphs quoted below which help the reader understand Mandir’s evolution come about halfway through the book, so I’ve hidden them:

Spoiler: Show

It was during his Year of Penance that he’d begun to understand that there was another way to relate to people, one that was more satisfying, and also more difficult, at least for him. The unfortunate truth was that the methods of domination and intimidation he’d used at Mohenjo worked. He had been at the top of the social ladder. And yet for all his success, he had not been happy. His heart had never been quiet, and he’d lived in constant fear of losing his status to a backstabbing rival.

During his Year of of Penance, he’d come to learn why he was so unhappy. It was not enough to be feared by those around him. He wanted to connect with someone on a deeper level. He wanted to be loved. And to win love, he had to treat people with kindness and respect. He understood that now.

Still, these new concepts lay on him like ill-fitting clothes. His intentions might be good, but he lacked the skills. He was like a schoolboy again with Taya, awkward and fumbling. During times of frustration, he lapsed into his old ways, but at least Taya challenged him on those occasions, so that he knew when he was being a zebu’s ass. In that sense, he desperately needed her.

It is evident that Taya and Mandir’s personalities complement each other well and that had it not been for Mandir’s actions back in Mohenjo, they might have made a great couple. I was very grateful, though, that Taya was so slow to start trusting Mandir again despite admitting to herself that he was physically attractive.

The slow and gradual evolution of the relationship from a very reluctant cooperation to tentative partnership to a budding romance was necessary and I was so glad it wasn’t fast-tracked, but toward the end of the book, things did start to move a bit quickly for me. The one and only sex scene comes very close to the end, but given that more books about Mandir and Taya are planned, I would have preferred that this aspect of their relationship be postponed until book two or three.

As for the other aspects of the book, I thought the mystery was creative—indeed I can see why the novel also won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense in 2012, when it was still an unpublished manuscript. It had enough red herrings to keep me guessing until the identity of the killer was revealed.

I had more mixed feelings about the fantasy aspect. I liked the religion and thought the integration of its origin myth into the characters’ backgrounds made for interesting reading but was a bit hard to suspend disbelief in. Some aspects of the world, like the clay buildings and tablets, had a historical feel, while others, like having an organization called the Coalition, had a more contemporary feel, and these did not always merge well.

I also have reservations about borrowing from such a little known culture while introducing elements from other cultures and periods into the book. It’s problematic in my eyes.

Even so, I liked the thoughtful tone of the romance itself, and the mystery also absorbed me. And though the world wasn’t historically accurate, I enjoyed the time I spent there. C+/B- for The Fire Seer.

Sincerely,

Janine

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