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Jeannie Lin

What Janine is Reading, January through March of 2014

What Janine is Reading, January through March of 2014

Because most of the books I’ve read this year so far have been given the full-length review treatment, there are only two covered in detail in this column. My other reviews for this time period are linked at the bottom of this post.

Married for Christmas by Noelle AdamsMarried for Christmas by Noelle Adams

Back in December Kelly raved about this short book, which features a friends to lovers marriage of convenience between a computer programmer heroine and a pastor hero. I was drawn in by the premise, that although this book featured a hero who was a minister, it was not a Christian romance. I prefer books that don’t preach about Christianity, but at the same time I have a fondness for characters whose faiths are in evidence.

Marriage for Christmas is a simple story and for me the simplicity was both part of its charm but also occasionally a source of frustration.

Best friends Jessica and Daniel already love each other as friends when Jessica proposes that they marry to help Daniel secure the position of minister in their hometown. Daniel resists the idea at first, telling Jess he doesn’t plan on falling into romantic love again after the loss of his first wife. But Jessica wears him down with her explanation that she wants kids and their friendship-love will be enough for her. What Daniel doesn’t know is that Jessica has been in love with him for years.

The relationship development in this one is lovely and romantic. There is sex and it is sexy. though Jessica is a virgin which is unusual for her age and explained by her love for Daniel. Thankfully, Daniel is not a rake.

There is humor and it is funny, involving disagreements over Jessica’s dog. There is emotion as Jess gradually breaks down Daniel’s stubborn emotional barriers. These two are already friends so when Daniel tries to shut her out, it’s difficult for him to accomplish but also hurts Jessica. A good thing Jessica is even more stubborn than Daniel and there is a happy ending for this sweet couple.

Still, while I enjoyed the book I didn’t love it as much as Kelly did. One thing that bothered me was that there was a lot of emphasis in the story (mostly from Jess herself) on her lack of domestic skills like cooking. This struck me as a little too 1950s.

Another issue was that Daniel suffers a crisis of faith yet this seems to have no impact at all on his ability to do his job as a pastor. I didn’t find that believable.

I also wanted to know when Daniel first fell for Jess romantically, as well as when he realized it, but these questions were left unanswered. B-.

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jade-temptressThe Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin

I adored the first novel in this two book series, The Lotus Palace, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed The Jade Temptress as well. We have a great group review by Jayne, Sunita and Willaful. Sunita and Jayne gave this one a straight A and Willaful rated it a B+. My own grade is the same as Willaful’s but that still puts this book head and shoulders above most historical romances I’ve read recently.

The Jade Temptress takes place in Tang Dynasty (specifically 848 AD) China centers on the lovely, enigmatic and famed courtesan Mingyu, and on Wu Kaifeng, a strong, straightforward police constable.

When Mingyu stumbles on the dead and headless body of her “protector,” General Deng, she summons Kaifeng to the scene of the crime. As he investigates the murder, Kaifeng encounters again and again the woman who has secretly fascinated him since he arrested her the previous year.

Gradually—very gradually—Mingyu and Kaifeng get to know each other, but after a powerful bureaucrat obsessed with Mingyu crosses paths with them both, things come to a head on several fronts.

Mingyu falls into a type of heroine I really appreciate – the sort who may appear cold on the outside, but it’s because she’s walled off parts of herself that the hero can reach. I loved her elegance and wit, as well as her loyalty to herself and her appreciation of the value of her skills as much as I did her loyalty to Kaifeng and to her sister, Yue Ying.

Kaifeng is what some might call the strong, silent type. He doesn’t speak unless he has something important to say, and like Mingyu, he doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. In fact, he’s so solid and dependable partly because his emotional reactions are often more muted than those of other people, which makes it all the more moving when he recognizes his feelings.

The mystery is well-executed, with procedural elements like forensics and interesting clues.I would say the mystery aspect is handled better here than in The Lotus Palace, but for me, The Lotus Palace was more romantic.

The reason for the latter is this: I desperately wanted Mingyu and Kaifeng to share something of their past heartaches with each other earlier than they did. Neither of these two had an easy childhood and I wanted that to come to the surface of their relationship a bit more and a bit sooner than it did.

It takes three-quarters of the book for Kaifeng to open up to Mingyu about what he suffered, while Mingyu never shares her own painful past with him. It would have been out of character for Kaifeng or Mingyu to navel gaze or cry, and I would not have wanted that, but I did want a greater sense of emotional intimacy between them and just a little bit more in the way of shared confidences could have fulfilled that for me and edged the book into A level terrain. B+.

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Here are the other books I’ve reviewed between January and March:

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones — B-

The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin — A-

Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett — C+

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – A

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh — C-

Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard (Joint review with Kaetrin) — C+/B- for me and B-/C+/B for Kaetrin

GROUP REVIEW:  The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin

GROUP REVIEW: The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin

 

Dear Ms. Lin:

A number of us here at Dear Author have really enjoyed your historical romances set in China, including (and perhaps especially) the Pinkang Li series.  Sunita and Jayne read and recommended The Sword Dancer and they and Janine raved about The Lotus Palace. Not surprisingly, therefore, there has been considerable excitement about its sequel, The Jade Temptress. Willaful hopped on board the Lin train and read The Lotus Palace for SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge and then went straight to The Jade Temptress, and Jayne snuck it into her teetering review pile. It’s rare that a book comes along that generates so much interest and praise, especially one that qualifies in multiple ways as an Unusual Historical, and since three of us couldn’t stay away, we decided a group review was the way to go.

jade-temptressA very brief summary before we dive into the review. Early in the story Mingyu discovers the brutal murder of her most powerful client, General Deng. She immediately summons Constable Wu, despite their conflicted history. Mingyu becomes a prime suspect, and Wu Kaifeng discovers that there are people in high and low places who have professional and personal interests in the outcome. Mingyu and Wu work together to try and clear Mingyu’s name and find the killer as well as the motive behind the murder, and as they spend time together they grow closer, even though their private lives run in parallel tracks that seem fated never to be brought together. The mystery and the romance are skillfully intertwined in this book, and together they create a rich, textured portrayal of medieval Chinese lives as well as a poignant, gripping love story.

Sunita: By the end of my reading of The Lotus Palace Mingyu and Constable Wu had almost (but not quite) stolen the story from Yue-Ying and Bai Huang, so I was really looking forward to seeing their relationship unfold. And I wasn’t disappointed. I would encourage everyone to read The Lotus Palace, of course, but do you think it’s possible to read The Jade Temptress without it?

Willaful: I don’t think readers would have any trouble following The Jade Temptress by itself, although they will encounter some major spoilers for The Lotus Palace. And I do think having a sense of Mingyu and Kaifeng’s uncomfortable history adds depth to this story — though we learn that there was even more to it than was originally revealed to us. Kaifeng had not only questioned Mingyu as a murder suspect, he had, following the usual procedure, also tortured her. He also — contrary to everything we know about him as a man solely committed to the truth and the law — stopped before truly damaging her.

Jayne: Bai Huang and Yue-Ying appear along with Wei-Wei, but they’re there to take part in this story and not just as sequel bait or Family Reunion Time. I think this one stands well on its own but why not read The Lotus Palace first and enjoy even more Lin goodness?

Sunita: One of my favorite aspects of Lin’s worldbuilding is the way she creates cross-class relationship that feel entirely organic. These aren’t people who are specifically rebelling against their own social and economic backgrounds; rather, they find themselves attracted to people who aren’t socially available to them. In some ways these romances feel more powerful to me, and yet the class differences are ever-present and have to be negotiated.

Willaful: As in The Lotus Palace, class is a very important issue here; in some ways, it’s even more complex than a relationship between a lord and a servant. As a constable, Kaifeng is a lowly working man with very little actual authority; what power he has is mostly personal, coming from his strength of personality. Mingyu is deferentially called “Lady” and consorts with men in the highest echelon, yet she is essentially an indentured servant, a bird in a gilded cage. Her influence is also personal, coming from her beauty and carefully acquired charm of manner.

When Mingyu was a murder suspect, Kaifeng had had power over her: “No one came to her defense. For all the compliments and praise the scholars bestowed upon her, she was still nothing more than a diversion.”

Jayne: Mingyu has had her peasant background scrubbed away and polished to a perfect jewel by Madame Sun while Kaifeng has no desire to be anyone but who he is – a mannerless oaf as Mingyu first sees him. But his blunt manner appeals to her because she can trust it over the smooth and practiced schmoozing of the scholars who frequent the Pinkang li.

Willaful: Yes, she ultimately falls for him, not only because he’s “the only man who looks at me as something more than a… a thing” but because “Wu was never anything but what he was.”

Another common theme to both books is the distinction between reality and artifice, in a setting that places a high value on veneer. These are the lessons a courtesan learns:

Feel whatever you needed to feel, but bury it deep. On the surface, there must be tranquility, gaiety and beauty. Such was the facade of the pleasure quarter. Mingyu had become so adept at being pleasing.

Sunita: I really appreciated that Mingyu is not a fake courtesan or an unwilling one, this is how she has made her life. It wasn’t her choice in the beginning, but she has become very successful, and she’s upfront about the benefits it has conferred. When she thinks about leaving this life, it’s not an easy choice.

Jayne: Mingyu has to inform Kaifeng about freedom v. security, which are not the same thing for Mingyu or Yue-Ying as for a man. As women, they must yield some of one for the other.

Willaful: And the security isn’t the only benefit. Her life is full of contradictions: “bondage and servitude on one side, poetry and music on the other.”

Sunita: As in her previous two books, I was completely captivated by the romance. From the beginning of their interactions, you can see that despite their differences in personality and social position, they have important things in common. And their attraction is built on respect and trust, which makes it believable, when they fall in love, that their love will be something real and lasting. For me, this is one of the most compelling aspects of the romances Lin creates. Even if they hadn’t fallen in love, you know that her heroes and heroines would admire and respect each other.

Willaful: Mingyu believes that Wu is immune to her artifices — she’s wrong — and she trusts his integrity. She tells him, “I don’t trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don’t care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his force are. You don’t care who I am, which mean you don’t care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth.” Later, when she realizes that Kaifeng does have feelings for her, it touches her deeply. “[Wu] wanted her simply because he desired her. Her and not some illusion.”

There are inevitable conflicts, because Wu finds it difficult to believe in the real Mingyu, the person inside the beautiful, poised surface.

Jayne: Kaifeng and Mingyu are drawn to each other. He to her fearless independence – her warrior self – and she to the fact that she can’t manipulate him with her beauty and learned wiles. Each is honest with the other – something they can’t be with almost anyone else. It’s telling that Mingyu sends first to Kaifeng when she discovers the General’s body. It’s not that she trusts him more but that she knows he’ll seek the truth of the matter.

I love the slow and gentle way their mutual love is teased out and revealed. He tells her that he knew her regular day to visit her sister – and thus planned his visit on that day to see her. She begins to notice his subtle, almost hidden, humor and crooked smiles. He is helpless not to love her because she is that which he – the consummate policeman – can’t resist, a mystery and she reveals bits and pieces of herself to him over the course of the investigation.

Sunita:  I’ve liked the mysteries in all the previous books, so I may not be the most discerning critic, but I thought the way the mystery, the romance, and the overall story fit together worked even better here than in the others. Thinking about it after I was done, I didn’t think you could have one part without the others. The mystery shaped the romance and vice versa.

Jayne: This time mystery works better for me. The main purpose is to be a framework on which to hang the relationship between Kaifeng and Mingyu. But I wanted to learn the truth behind the murder and was interested in political maneuvering and forensic details Kaifeng knows and uses to help solve the crime. Kaifeng has common sense too – as in how he solves whether or not a youth steals coins from butcher and later uses materials from the butcher shop to answer his own questions about how murder might have been committed.

Willaful: That’s a really good point. I’m not generally a fan of mystery in romance, but I was also more engaged by the mystery this time, and Wu’s deductive methods helped keep it interesting.

Sunita: I loved the ending of The Lotus Palace, but some readers found it harder to buy into. I thought the ending of The Jade Temptress worked really well and fit the characters as we have come to understand them.

Jayne: I love the quiet ending – it reminds me of The Sword Dancer. The challenge of how to resolve all the various impediments to their future life together is formidable. But Lin is a master at this and solve the roadblocks in believable ways using the strengths and talents of the people she’s created. Like Wei-Wei, I was delighted at how Mingyu destroys her adversary, how Kaifeng addresses the issue of Mingyu’s ties to the Lotus Palace, and how the two of them find their future in the end. Kaifeng is the only man she’s dealt with who wants her to be free and who doesn’t want to own her.  He wants her to be free to choose her life, and he wants her to freely choose him and not go to him because he’s her only option.

Willaful: Yes — although there’s still an element of luck in this ending, it really demonstrates the changes that have happened in them through falling in love, while allowing them to still be themselves.

Sunita: The Jade Temptress is definitely falls in the Unusual Historical category since neither the setting nor the characters are the standard European or North American. But the characters are completely accessible, in my opinion. As Jane said in a recent review of Carolyn Crane’s latest book, “it’s truly different yet not.” Grade: A.

Willaful: I appreciated how firmly we are inside this rich, interesting civilization. No one is an outsider, or outlier, or above the beliefs of the time. No one explains or excuses them. Yet it’s not at all intimidating. The language is accessible and the emotions are universal. Grade: B+

Jayne: That’s a great point about how we’re taken so deeply inside this world. I never felt lost or adrift about anything. Lin just keeps getting better and better for me and this one is a solid A.

 

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