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

About Janine

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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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REVIEW:  The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

REVIEW: The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

Dear Ms. Noble,

A few friends of mine have been recommending your books to me for a while now, and so this summer I got The Game and the Governess.

The-Game-and-the-GovernessThe novel begins in 1817, at Mrs. Beveridge’s School in Surrey. Phoebe Baker, a young lady educated at the school, became a charity pupil when her father’s fortune was stolen by his secretary, Mr. Sharp. Now the school term is coming to a close and eighteen year old Phoebe, whose father died shortly after losing the money, must make her own way in the world.

Phoebe writes an angry letter to the man she blames for her misfortune, the Earl of Ashby. The earl once employed Mr. Sharp, the same secretary her father later hired. Lord Ashby knew Mr. Sharp’s character, since he too was one of Sharp’s victims, but chose not to bring Sharp to justice, in order to protect himself from becoming a laughingstock.

In her letter, Phoebe tells the earl that she holds him responsible for what befell her, and that if they ever meet, she will make him pay—not out of malice, but for justice.

Five years pass, and the next scene introduces Ned Granville, the earl. After being swindled by Sharp, Ned hired his good army friend John Turner to act as his secretary. John took the position on a temporary basis, intending to save the money needed to restore his family’s mill, but disasters struck and prolonged his service to Ned, and Ned, who doesn’t understand John’s desire to be his own man, will not loan him the money needed to fix up the mill.

One night, while Ned, John and a third army friend, Dr. Rhys Gray, are playing cards, “Lucky Ned” has a winning streak. A debate begins between Ned and John as to the nature of Ned’s good fortune, both with the ladies and otherwise. John deems it a direct result of Ned’s position as an earl.

The argument turns into a wager. John and Ned agree to trade places while on a trip to Leicestershire, where Ned must go to decide whether to sell his deceased mother’s house. While staying at a nearby estate owned by Sir Nathan Widcoate and his wife, Lady Widcoate, Ned will take on the role of the earl’s secretary and John the role of the earl.

If Ned can, while working in John’s position, successfully win a dance in public, a token of affection, and intimate knowledge from a lady, he will win the wager and with it, John’s mill. If he cannot, John will win five thousand pounds, enough money with which to fix the mill and quit the position of secretary. Neither man realizes Phoebe Baker is the Widcoates’ governess.

At the Widcoates’, Ned slowly catches on to the fact that a secretary is treated far less deferentially than an earl, and although the house is full of young female guests, all of them have set their caps for John.

Deprived of the privileges he takes for granted and rebuffed at every turn, Ned finally, when he learns the Widcoates’ young governess was brought up as a lady, sees his chance. He and the governess alone are housed in cramped rooms on the third floor, so he has ample opportunity to get to know her.

In the five years since she left Mrs. Beveridge’s School, Phoebe has learned to find the good in the world. Despite a position that requires her never to smile in public, Phoebe finds at least one absurdity in each day—something to laugh over, if only in private.

Phoebe loves the children she teaches, but realizes someday soon they will be too old to need a governess. She has been saving her money to purchase a ticket aboard a ship that will take her to her relatives in America and away from the exacting standards of her employers.

Years ago Phoebe gave up her vengeful plans for the Earl of Ashby, but his presence at her place of employment upsets her. Her feelings of uneasiness don’t extend to the earl’s oddly-behaved “secretary,” at least, not until he tries to steal a kiss.

Ned’s apology the next day is sincere and accompanied by a huge favor, and as she begins to become better acquainted with him, Phoebe realizes she is in danger of losing her heart—and possibly her position.

Will Ned win his wager with John? Will his eyes be opened and will he realize what a snotty jerk he has been? Will he realize his growing feelings for Phoebe have little to do with the wager? And what will happen when Phoebe discovers that he is the man she holds responsible for her own change in position?

In case it isn’t clear from the plot summary above, Ned begins the book as a spoiled, over-privileged ass with a sense of entitlement. He has a steep learning curve ahead of him and at first I found him hard to read about.

I kept reading not because I liked anything about him right away, but because I felt the narrative was conscious of his arrogant sense of entitlement and was heading for an interrogation of privilege, while Ned himself was heading for a rude awakening. Happily, this turned out to be the case.

Ned’s arrogance was not of the overbearing, dictatorial variety, but rather that of a jovial aristocrat blinded by his own privileged position and blithely unaware of the full effects of his actions on others.

Thus, when Ned arrives at the Widcoates’ estate and begins to get his comeuppance, it takes him a while to realize that the women in the household aren’t interested in his attentions. When he tries to play footsie with one guest and later to kiss Phoebe, he gets a couple of magnificent setdowns and one person goes even further to “put him in his place.”

Eventually the ugly truth does begin to penetrate Ned’s thick skull, and slowly he loses his sense of entitlement and most (but not all) of his arrogance. He also learns to enjoy working for what he wants, and to feel empathy and appreciation for people not of his status. This transformation is at times subtle, but it’s there, and while I didn’t fall in love with Ned at any point, I greatly enjoyed watching him grow as a human being.

Phoebe is another story, in the sense that I loved her almost from the moment she reappeared in the book five years after being dispossessed. As a governess, she is neither a servant nor a lady of the house, and is therefore isolated and vulnerable.

Her intelligence and her empathy are both in evidence, and as she slowly begins to trust Ned, I became invested in the relationship and in my hope that he would treat her as she deserved, not just as an object for his wager with John.

It was a joy to see Phoebe bloom from the unsmiling governess into someone who could joke with another human being, confide in him, and come to trust him. But even while it was a joy, I was in suspense the whole time to see if Ned would prove worthy of her trust.

Phoebe and Ned both have affecting backstories. I won’t reveal them here, but Ned’s helped me understand and even sympathize with him, while Phoebe’s broke my heart. I waited with bated breath to see what would happen once Phoebe learned the truth of Ned’s identity, and I appreciated the exquisite suspense with which this was drawn out.

Another thing I enjoyed a great deal was that Ned and Phoebe weren’t immediately attracted to each other. Instead being gripped with instalust, the characters slowly become acquainted, which imbued the moments of physical intimacy with romance. That holds true of all but a sex scene that comes late in the book and feels shoehorned into the story.

The prose style was enjoyable as well. It has an elegant simplicity punctuated by humorous moments, such as Ned’s insistence on responding to everything—even setbacks—with the utterance “Brilliant! Marvelous!” which takes on a delicious irony when he doesn’t mean it in the least. I even liked the chapter headings, which read like something from the rulebook for a betting game, titles like “The first hand is played.” And “Sometimes, even a novice player has to wager everything.”

The book was heading for keeper status, but then came the final 15% of the novel, the first part of which contained elements that felt like they belong in a book from another genre.

Spoiler: Show

The story briefly devolves into a different game – one of “Was it Colonel Mustard in the living room with the wrench?”

Once that’s over, there isn’t enough page space left to let the fallout from Edward’s deception play out fully, so we get a rushed and not entirely satisfying resolution.

Still, I was glad to read a book which does not treat all aristocrats as noble-hearted hero material and plays out on one level like a courtship between a governess and a secretary, where—equally refreshing—the main characters don’t ogle each other’s body parts or get hard and wet before they know each other. For its thoughtful sensibility, The Game and the Governess gets a B.

Sincerely,

Janine

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What Janine is Reading and Watching in Midsummer 2014

What Janine is Reading and Watching in Midsummer 2014

Gosh, it’s been forever since I’ve done one of these lists. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.

gilded lilyGilded Lily by Delphine Dryden

I like steampunk and I’ve heard good things about Dryden’s Steam and Seduction series, so I decided to give Gilded Lily a try. The premise of the story is that the aristocratic heroine, Frederique aka Freddie, has a secret identity as a mechanic of sorts, and her butler masquerades alongside her to make sure she doesn’t come to harm.

Barnabas, our hero, hails from North America which in this world is an extension of Britain. Barnabas’ brother was a spy for Freddie’s father, a spymaster, and he disappeared. Rumor has it that was due to addiction issues, but Barnabas does not believe this rumor, so he volunteers to do espionage work for Freddie’s father as well.Unfortunately, the spymaster wants Barnabas to first prove himself—by following Freddie and reporting on what she gets up to.

Barnabas tries, but Freddie realizes immediately what he’s doing. They strike a deal—she’ll allow him to tag along if he doesn’t interfere with whatever she wants to do. Meanwhile, there are mysterious goings on involving other disappearances, a submersible, and a dangerous gangster, who may or may not be involved with Barnabas’ brother.

The characters are likable and the world fairly well-developed. I was also glad there was no instalust, but rather, that Freddie and Barnabas only gradually discovered their attraction. But I’ve been stuck at the 24% mark and I don’t feel compelled to read on. The reason is an absence of romantic conflict.

What I mean by this is that there’s no hint of anything that will keep these characters apart down the line, or even cause bumps in their road to romance. There’s external plot conflict aplenty, but at this point it affects Barnabas’ relationship with his brother, and Freddie’s relationship with her father, far more than their own relationship. Without a romantic conflict, the relationship feels perfectly nice, but not that interesting to read about. I may continue, or it may stay a DNF.

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Prisoner Lia SilverPrisoner by Lia Silver

Jane recently reviewed this paranormal romance, in which marine and werewolf DJ Torres (a hero who happens to be Filipino) is captured by a secret government group and held in their hidden facility in the middle of the desert. The agency wants to study DJ and threaten him into acting as their assassin. DJ’s wounded friend Roy is held elsewhere and he will be killed if DJ doesn’t cooperate.

The agency already has one assassin, Echo, whom they use in a similar way. Echo was genetically engineered by the organization as was her sister Charlie. But Charlie is being kept alive by medical treatments the secret organization provides and if Echo ceases to cooperate the agency will withhold Charlie’s treatments.

For this reason, Echo foils DJ’s escape attempt. But although she has tried to harden her heart and numb her feelings to survive her situation, she can’t help liking DJ. The organization is a common enemy to them both, but one that has the power to set them at cross purposes, so Echo fears trusting DJ and becoming involved with him.

As a werewolf, DJ needs to be touched and to feel connected, and he is attracted to Echo. Neither of them realizes the other’s feelings for a long time, and I liked the slow build up. I also really appreciated the absence of fated mates from the worldbuilding. And while DJ’s need for physical contact is nothing new in werewolf romance, I liked that the emphasis here wasn’t on sexual need, but on trust and affection.

Echo’s character was a little less well-developed. Her childhood sounded sterile, and there was little information given on which adults raised her and Charlie. Considering the people who ran the program were creepy and cold, it was amazing (and a little less than fully believable) that she and Charlie turned out as well as they did. Still, I enjoyed this romance, and the nice meta-humor that was sprinkled through the book via Charlie’s hobby of romance reading.

Prisoner is only part one of a three-part storyline, but I give it a B-.

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Night’s Slow Poison by Ann Leckie

Night’s Slow Poison, a short story available free of charge on Tor.com, provides another angle into Leckie’s world of the Imperial Radch. The science fiction story is written in third person and narrated by Inarakhat Kels, a security guard aboard a ship from the planet of Ghaon which is crossing a part of space known as the Crawl, which only the Ghaonians know how to navigate. The navigation techniques are a closely guarded secret which protects the planet from colonization.

Boarding the ship at the story’s beginning is Awt Emnys from the Gerentate, the grandson of an important Ghaonish matriarch who seeks to meet his illustrious grandmother. The Ghanoians aboard the ship, Kels included, know that the matriarch isn’t likely to give her non-Ghaonish grandson the time of day. Kels himself has been rejected by the upper classes of his world, to which he once belonged. Complicating the situation are Kels’ feelings for Awt Emnys, feelings driven by Awt Emnys’ resemblance to a girl Kels once loved.

For such a short story (around 6000 words), Night’s Slow Poison packs in a lot of elements. The worldbuilding includes ethnographic, sociological and mythic elements, and even a hint of romanticism and sentiment. It’s not a feel-good story though, and I’m not sure if readers who haven’t read Ancillary Justice will understand all the implications of the ending. Still, Leckie’s command of the short form is good, even if not at the stellar heights of the novel writing virtuosity she showed with Ancillary Justice. As short stories go, I’d give this one a B.

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And now, moving on to what has been on my TV screen:

game of thronesthPRCXYI02Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 1 – “Winter is Coming”

So, after multiple recommendations from a good friend, I finally decided to start watching Game of Thrones. Hold my hand, readers, I’m scared! In the first episode alone we have murder by way of dismemberment, execution by way of decapitation, conspiracy by way of incest, acquiring an army by way of forcing your young sister to marry against her wishes and be raped on her wedding night, and getting rid of an eyewitness by way of shoving a small child from a tall tower.

I’m not yet terribly taken with any merits this show might have, but I’ve heard from a couple people that it will get much better (yet worse) if I keep watching.



americansThe Americans, Season 1, Episode 1 – “Comrades”

Now this show is more like it, at least the first episode. In this early 1980s-set series, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play a seemingly all-American suburban DC married couple named Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. In reality they are deep cover Soviet operatives, but even their two kids don’t realize this, nor do Philip and Elizabeth know each other’s real names and backstories, even after a decade and a half in America.

Philip is in love with his wife, likes the US, and dreams of defecting, but Elizabeth is deeply loyal to the USSR and doesn’t return Philip’s feelings. This conflict comes to a head when they capture a Kremlin operative who defected and whom a disguised Elizabeth seduced as part of the capture assignment, but fail to deliver him to the ship that was to take him to Russia on time. Now the government is on alert, so Elizabeth and Philip hide this man in the trunk of their car.

The captured man offers them millions if they free him, defect, and reveal all they know about secret Soviet operations in the US. Philip is tempted, but Elizabeth would rather kill the man. Philip doesn’t know it, but long ago, when she was a cadet in Russia, the man raped her.

I will not reveal what happens, but despite the fact that we know there would be no show if they were exposed or if they defected in this first episode, “Comrades” manages to be taut and suspenseful, as well as romantic. The acting is strong and so is the plotting. The 1980s soundtrack is also a nice touch. I’m interested in seeing where  this show goes.


outlanderPOutlander, Season 1, Episode 1—”Sassenach”

I must be one of the few in Romancelandia who was not a fan of the book (I quit around page 750) , but I decided to give the first episode a chance because I did like some of writer-producer Ron Moore’s earlier work, most notably on Battlestar Galactica.

What I liked:

(1) Catriona Balfe as Claire. I felt that the actress captured Claire’s better qualities, like her interest in medicine and her desire to make her marriage to Frank work, while minimizing the knowing smugness of the book’s Claire. The English accent and period clothing also helped make Claire a more persuasive character—I never bought her as a 1940s Englishwoman in the book, and I still don’t entirely, but she convinced me a bit better here.

(2) The cinematography. The show had a great look partly due to the landscape of Scotland, where it was filmed.  The only scene that looked cheesy to me was the one where the druids danced at the standing stones.

The jury is still out on:

(1) Whether the show can make me care about its eighteenth century Scottish world—because honestly Claire’s relationship with Frank was interesting enough that I’d rather it stayed in the 1940s.

(2) Sam Heughan as Jamie. To be fair to Heughan, he doesn’t have that much screen time in“Sassenach.” He looks the part (gorgeous), but so far the character doesn’t have much in the way of complexity. Eye candy is nice but not enough by itself to sustain my interest. I’m hoping for some added depth from the writing and Heughan’s performance as the series continues.

My conclusion after watching the first episode is that while I still don’t love the storyline, I’ll probably tune in to the second episode.