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

About Janine

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.

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What Janine is Reading: DNF Edition

What Janine is Reading: DNF Edition

Dear Readers,

I struggled with this “What Janine is Reading” column. I’ve been in a reading slump for over a year, and only a handful of books have succeeded in absorbing me completely. The majority of books I’ve picked up with excitement this year, I’ve put down unfinished.

All three of the books I mention below seemed promising when I chose them. Unlike many other books I’ve tried, all three held my attention for a good while. I didn’t write any of them off after a chapter, and given my current reading slump, that was something. Had I been in a better place, I might have been able to finish and grade them, but since I couldn’t, I’m putting them down as DNFs.

beauty and bounty hunterBeauty and the Bounty Hunter by Lori Austin

I became interested in this western historical after reading this spoiler-filled but intriguing post and discussion at Jackie Horne’s Romance Novels for Feminists blog. The discussion there shows that one reader’s novel with a feminist streak is another’s problematic novel vis a vis gender roles. Since I can enjoy both types of novels, those with feminist elements and those with problematic ones, I figured I had nothing to lose by trying Beauty and the Bounty Hunter.

It’s refreshing that, as Jackie notes on her blog, the “Beauty” of this novel’s title is the hero, Alexi—possibly a Russian, possibly not Russian at all, but a con artist either way. The “Bounty Hunter” is the heroine, Cat, a woman who is willing to go to any length to kill the man who destroyed the happy, peaceful life that she once had with her now-dead husband.

And when I say any length, I mean it. When we first meet up with Cat she is masquerading as a prostitute in a brothel. She entices a client, seduces him, and ties him to the bed when Alexi arrives, insisting that she leave with him to escape a group of men bounty hunting her.

Cat and Alexi have a long-standing history and were once lovers. Alexi also taught her the trick of his trade: how to masquerade near-flawlessly and fool almost anyone. In fact, Alexi is so, so good at what he does that even Cat, his ex-lover, does not at first recognize him when he appears.

This last part is what bothered me when it came to this book. Alexi took being a charlatan to new heights. He fooled people everywhere he went, but much of the time it was not explained exactly how he pulled it off.

It was as if he had a superpower when it came to passing himself as someone from a different country. He could tell tall tales about his all-healing elixir and even invent a place it came from that didn’t actually exist, and people bought his lies as and his bottles of inky water.

I couldn’t suspend disbelief in that. It seemed as though Alexi’s successes were dependent on his marks’ slow-wittedness, and this was my biggest problem with the book.

I’m also not a big fan of western settings, and that was likely a contributing factor to my lack of involvement. Another issue was the spoiler I read in Jackie’s great post at Romance Novels for Feminists. That discussion there interested me in the book, but knowing this spoiler took out a lot of the motivation to turn the pages.

I read 22% of Beauty and the Bounty Hunter before deciding to DNF it—for now at least.

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song twilightA Song at Twilight by Pamela Sherwood

Wow, does this author have a voice. A soft, gentle, elegant voice that is so well suited to her story and her characters that initially I was engrossed.

A Song at Twilight begins with a first chapter set in London in July of 1896. Robin Pendravis observes Sophie Tresilian performing an opera. Sophie is a celebrated soprano, and the woman Robin loved long ago. His memory then flashes back five years, and the novel switches to another time and place.

On New Year’s Eve, 1890, Robin and Sophie meet. Robin is twenty-three and new to Sophie’s Cornwall residence, but he stands to inherit a manor there. At a holiday party in Sophie’s brother Sir Harry’s home, Robin sees seventeen year old Sophie sing at a local musicale.

There is something magical in Sophie’s singing, and Robin is transfixed by her voice. Robin claps until his hands tingle, and later looks for Sophie. A moment later he admonishes himself for it. He is too old for her, and would be so even if his circumstances permitted him to court her, which they do not.

Then he changes his mind and resolves to, for just one night, act like a man without history. He approaches her, and both feel an immediate connection. Sophie is drawn to Robin’s intensity, and they end up waltzing and then dining together. The attraction between them slowly strengthens, even as Robin tells himself he has no right to these feelings.

The story then alternates between the romantic past, in which the two fell in love, and the more complicated present in which Robin approaches Sophie, and Sophie is torn about whether she should steer clear of Robin. Around the 12% mark, we learn Robin’s dark secret.

[spoiler] He is trapped in an unhappy marriage. [/spoiler]

Robin and Sophie were both likable and charming characters, though the spoiler made me root l for Robin less than I had before. It’s not that I object to this kind of plot, but rather that I was uncomfortable with his keeping this a secret.

Around the same time, the novel also became less absorbing than it had been before. That was because as Robin and Sophie discussed their past, the novel then followed up with a chapter set in that past and covering those same events.

This is a pattern that persists for a while. We learn that Sophie had suggested to Robin that he go into the hotel business, and then we flash back to see Robin wondering what he should do with his life, and Sophie introducing the hotel idea. We learn of Robin’s dark secret, and then see Sophie in the past, wondering what it could possibly be before learning the truth from Robin.

In a nutshell, I thought that a large part of the suspense was defused in the present day storyline, since I went into the flashbacks knowing what would happen next. In order to keep turning pages, I need questions and mysteries about what the story holds for the characters.

Although I only made it 27% of the way through this novel, I plan to keep an eye out for Sherwood’s next one. Her voice is lovely, her characters sympathetic, and A Song of Twilight struck me as well researched, too.

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BrothersOfTheWildNorthSea72smBrothers of the Wild North Sea by Harper Fox

This book was first recommended to me by a friend. I bought it but I wasn’t in the mood to read anything, so I forgot about it. Months passed, and then PublishersWeekly put it on their Best Books of 2013 List, and that reminded me that it was in my TBR. I admit, I am a sucker for best of lists.

Brothers of the Wild North Sea is an m/m historical romance set in 687 AD Britannia. The narrator and one of the main characters is Caius, known as Cai, a monk at Fara Sancta, the Island of the Holy Tide. The monastery is small, but Theo, its abbot, is wise and tolerant, and he assigns tasks to the monks that minimize friction and maximize the feeling of brotherhood.

One of Cai’s tasks has been to learn as much as he can of medicine, and treat his brother monks’ illnesses. Cai enjoys his life at Fara, love the science lessons Theo sometimes teaches, which many consider heresy, loves his fellow monks, and most especially Leof, another monk at Fara who is also Cai’s lover – something Theo does not discourage, although the church itself does.

But Cai’s much-loved way of life changes when Vikings attack Fara, seeking treasure among the abbot’s books. Cai’s beloved Leof is killed in the raid, as is Theo, whose last words to Cai are that the book is a copy and the treasure is in the original’s binding.

Soon after the attack, a new and intolerant abbot arrives, saying the raid was God’s punishment for Theo’s heretic ways. New policies are instituted, and they range from impractical to horrifying.

In secret, Cai teaches some of the monks sword fighting, so they can defend themselves from the Vikings in the future. Meanwhile, Cai begins to pay attention to his dreams and visions, which foretell the future, including a dream of one particular Viking.

During a second raid, the monks of Fara prove victorious, and Fenrir, the Viking Cai dreamed of, whose brother Cai kills in this same battle, is left for dead on Fara’s shore. For no reason he can explain to himself. Cai takes Fen into his infirmary and heals him, to the great censure of the other monks. As the two men begin to feel mutual respect and attraction, many obstacles still stand in their way.

I got further into this book than into the other two – 37% of the way. Fox’s writing style is nice, and I liked the warm community she created at Fara before Theo’s death. Cai was sympathetic and Fen intriguing. The latter’s arrogance bugged me, but I was willing to wait and see if it changed for the better. The plot had multiple hooks, and there was a light paranormal element that fit well with the spiritual themes.

What kept me from finishing was the inability to suspend disbelief on more than one front. First, Cai’s sensibility struck me as unlikely for the time period. Not only did he believe that for a Catholic monks to sleep together was no sin, he also believed in an earth that revolved around the sun, in the ability to plot the distance to stars using mathematics, and he was remarkably tolerant even beyond that. In the first third of the book, I did not see him giving much weight to concepts like hell or damnation.

Fox makes it clear that Cai is unusual for his time and place, and I suppose it is not impossible for someone like him to have existed in seventh century Britannia, but it was a stretch for me to believe in him as a character, especially when combined with other aspects of him that required a suspension of disbelief.

First, Cai was remarkably forgetful. After Theo died, he completely forgot Theo’s dying words about the treasure in the binding of a book, even though Theo instructed Cai to find the book and give the treasure to the Vikings so that Fara would not be raided again. Given that these were Theo’s last words as well as a way to save the monastery, it seemed very odd that Cai forgot them for weeks afterward.

Cai’s dream vision of Fen, before he met him, also slipped from his memory once he met Fen in the flesh, when I felt that the vision coming true should have been a remarkable thing.

Worse yet, Cai forgot that he killed Fen’s brother in battle! Even after he started having feelings for Fen, this did not immediately concern him. In fact, he wondered what was going on with Fen’s brother, even though he had noticed on the battlefield that the two were brothers.

My last suspension-of-disbelief issue is that Cai and Fen were quickly attracted to each other, and soon almost to ready to jump each other’s bones—odd given that Cai was aware that Vikings had killed Leof, his previous lover, only weeks before. The thawing of these two’s enmity was simply too fast for me.

For me, nice touches like the spiritual dimension, the light paranormal elements, the community at Fara, and Cai himself were not enough to overcome my incredulity; hence the DNF.

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JOINT REVIEW:  Christmas Past by Susanna Fraser

JOINT REVIEW: Christmas Past by Susanna Fraser

Recently, Jane forwarded a review request email from Entangled’s publicist for Susanna Fraser’s story Christmas Past to the DA loop, and Sunita and I both expressed interest in it. We decided to review the story together. –Janine

Janine: Christmas Past begins on Christmas Eve of 1810. Our heroine, Sydney, is in Lisbon, facing up to the fact that the temporal engine of her time machine is broken. Sydney, a time-traveling PhD student from our own time, was supposed to arrive safely in 2013 with the aid of her time machine’s fail-safe, an auto-recall function that brings time travelers home if even a hint of damage to the timeline appears.

Christmas Past by Susanna FraserNow the fail-safe has failed, and Sydney is stuck in 1810. This means that, in order to refrain from changing the future beyond recognition, Sydney must kill herself. It’s not a simple choice because Sydney has loving parents, a married sister, and an adorable three year old niece in 2013. If she chooses to stay alive in 1810, it is possible that all of them will cease to exist.

Before Sydney can swallow the poison she brought with her, Captain Miles Griffin intervenes. Captain Griffin is an attractive officer in the British army, with whom Sydney had spoken at the hospital where she volunteered as a nurse when he came there to visit the wounded men of his regiment.

Sydney tries to convince Miles that her time machine is only a carriage—after all, its exterior looks like one—but she is too late. Miles has seen her iPad which seems an amazing marvel to him.

Sydney has no choice but to come out with the truth, but when Captain Griffin hears that she means to kill herself, he resolves to do everything in his power to dissuade her. He convinces her to spend another day and night in 1810, and invites her to attend a Christmas dinner with officers from the King’s German Legion along with him.

After hesitating, Sydney agrees to 24 hours more, and decides to spend the night with Miles, too—since it will be her last on earth. Can Miles persuade her to spend many more days and nights with him, before it’s too late?

When I agreed to review this story, I didn’t realize how short it was – only 39 pages. Still, I’m very glad I took it up, because it’s been a frustrating reading year for me, but this story was thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunita: I really enjoyed it too. I peeked to see how long it was, so I was more prepared, and I approached it like a Christmas anthology story. That helped, both in having a sense of how quickly the story would have to move, and in the other-worldly sense of it.

Janine: The Christmas anthology story is a good comparison. Christmas Past does have a similar otherworldliness to it, and it moves at a fast clip.

I thought the world-building aspects were handled well for the most part. I loved the idea of the PhD program Sydney attended, a Historical Epidemiology program at the University of Washington which sent its PhD students to research the past. I loved the idea of a National Institute for Temporal Research, too.

These things reminded me of Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book, in which a university student goes back in time to study the past, but whereas that novel felt really slow to me, this was a tight, focused story that got right to the compelling central conflict.

Sunita: I also enjoyed the backstory about why the time-travel takes place. In so many books it just happens, or it’s because of magic. Here it’s explained in a way that makes sense without entirely losing the magic element. That makes it believable and interesting to me.

I thought the way in which the time travel explained might have been a bit too elaborate, though. I bought the science aspect enough that when it changed at the end, I was less willing to go along than I might have been if I had had to suspend more disbelief, if that makes sense. But overall, I liked the approach and world-building very much.

Janine: I had an issue with that too. Early on, it is stated in Sydney’s POV that she can’t know with certainty whether every change in the timeline creates a new multiverse, while at another point in the story she seems to have reached a conclusion on that, and I wasn’t clear on how she had arrived at that conclusion. I wish it had been explained and supported better.

The other quibble I have is that there was a protocol guiding Sydney and the other time travelers, but it seemed like this protocol didn’t make provisions for situations like the one Sydney found herself in. Initially at first, I found this frustrating – if time travel was such serious business, wouldn’t the National Institute of Temporal Research have come up with rules to cover every potential eventuality?

But overall, I really, really liked the world of this book, and I hope Ms. Fraser writes more in this vein. I’d love to read about some of Sydney’s fellow time travelers, and even about her professor.

Sunita: Given how carefully the science was set up, I found it hard to believe they hadn’t come up with multiple fail-safes. Sydney’s need to make a sacrifice seemed a bit over the top to me.

In addition, while I think the idea that every single thing we do in time-travel can change the past is believable, the probability that our actions will change key aspects of the future is not that high. And normatively, it’s not clear to me that the changes we make are necessarily worse than the chance elements that cause changes in the same time frame. After all, if time-travel is possible, then it’s part of our world and should be accepted.

But that’s a larger philosophical question, and the fact that I even bring it up suggests that Fraser goes a long way to making this scenario plausible for me.

Janine: I have philosophical questions too, but they are less profound. Like, how come most time travelers in romance are women who typically travel to the past, and on the rare occasion when we get a time-traveling man, that hero goes forward in time?

Regardless, the romance in this story was very sweet. Sydney was immediately relatable and likeable, because she faced such a serious conflict and wanted to make an ethical decision that would preserve the lives of her loved ones. I also understood her better because I share her time.

Miles took longer to get to know, but by the end of the story I liked him quite a bit. I liked that he was attracted to Sydney and her different aspects, and while some of her mores surprised him, he didn’t judge her for them.

Sunita: I felt as if I understood and got to know Sydney much more than Miles. It was really her story, for obvious reasons, and Miles stayed a bit of a cipher for me. I put most of that down to the length of the novella, but I would have liked to know Miles better.

Janine: I agree with that—it was Sydney’s story, but that feels appropriate to the length of the story. A little more insight into Miles would have been welcome.

On another topic, although this story has a happy ending, there was also poignancy to it that I appreciated. Saying goodbye to your own time cannot be easy, and I loved that this was acknowledged here.

I enjoyed A Christmas Past significantly more than the Fraser romance I read and reviewed with you in the past, A Marriage of Inconvenience. I’m sincere in my hope that Ms. Fraser write us more time-travel stories. My grade for Christmas Past is a B/B+.

Sunita: I always look forward to Fraser’s novels and novellas. While they don’t all work fully, there is so much that is thoughtful and intelligent that she’s always an auto-buy author for me. And I agree, I’d love to read another time-travel from her! Grade: B.

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