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

Jenn Bennett

REVIEW:  Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett

REVIEW: Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett

Dear Ms. Bennett,

Reading your first foray into the romance genre, Bitter Spirits, was an interesting experience because I wasn’t sure what to think of the book. Some aspects of it were excellent, others weak, and still others somewhat discomfiting. I started out distracted and occasionally even annoyed in the first third, was absorbed and entertained in the middle, but in the last quarter, some of my enjoyment waned.

BitterSpirits

More on why in a moment, but first, a plot summary.

The novel takes place in 1927 and its heroine, Aida Palmer, is a spirit medium. She travels across the country from club to club, conducting séances at speakeasies and, as someone dear to her taught her, maintaining her independence and living only for today.

Aida is temporarily lodging in San Francisco’s Chinatown and working at the Gris-Gris speakeasy when Winter Magnusson, a wealthy bootlegger appears at the nightclub and asks for her assistance.

Winter has recently begun to be haunted by ghosts, and he needs Aida’s help to banish them. Aida succeeds in getting a ghost she sees in his presence to depart, but it turns out something Winter ingested is drawing the ghosts to him, as well as making him able to see them.

Getting the poison out of Winter’s system falls to Velma, the Gris-Gris’ owner, who has some talent for sorcery. This involves a gruesome bath, and Aida gets an eyeful. She is seized by lust.

Winter, for his part, is just as hot for her as she is for him, and he invites her to his house to perform another exorcism. There Aida sneaks a peek at one of his books and gets another eyeful– this time of some erotic drawings. Winter catches her, which results in even more lust.

But Aida and Winter each have insecurities, Winter about a scarred eye and Aida about skin covered with freckles. They each find the other attractive but are sure their attraction cannot be reciprocated.

Because he doesn’t want to seem overeager, Winter concocts an excuse to see her again and invites Aida to perform at an unpleasant person’s house. Because she doesn’t want to seem overeager, Aida almost doesn’t accept this invitation. In the end though, she does, which leads to their first kiss, one which is quickly followed by an encounter with a corporeal ghost.

A powerful enemy is out to destroy Winter using Chinese black magic, ghosts, and necromancy and Winter needs Aida’s help to find and defeat this person almost as much as he needs her body beneath him in bed. But can he open up to her about his painful past? Aida desires Winter just as badly, but can she overcome her reticence where sex is concerned, and can she sacrifice the independence she holds so dear?

Bitter Spirits came highly recommended by friends and at first I wasn’t sure why. True, the setting was unusual, the worldbuilding strong, and the characters seemed like they had potential, but initially, before the corporeal ghost appeared, Winter and Aida’s encounters seemed almost episodic, without a strong conflict or goal pull the scenes together into cohesion.

Then there was the mental lusting. I’ll concede that it was less clichéd than typical of mental lusting —instead of wondering about the color of Aida’s nipples, Winter wondered if they were covered with freckles—but it still felt forced, especially early on when each was a complete stranger to the other and had much bigger concerns, like performing exorcisms and taking an ice bath in water filled with centipede and scorpion magic.

Things improved a bit after that, but the entire getting to know each other phase was so focused on their physical attraction that when, about 40% of the way though the book, Aida got mad at Winter for not sharing his tragic past with her, I had a hard time buying that she would be as hurt and devastated as she was, because up until then she had seemed more interested in Winter’s body than in him as a person, and likewise for Winter.

In the first third or so, I was distracted enough to notice some craftsmanship issues, including the occasional awkward metaphor or use of clichés like “Guess I’m a glutton for punishment” and “If she had a penny for every time she’d heard that…” and one instance of slippage into contemporary diction in the dialogue: “Not seeing how this is a problem.”

But after Winter and Aida’s big fight at the 40% mark, the story, like the characters’ romance, began to turn around for the better. Winter and Aida started sharing more of themselves with each other, not just physically but also emotionally, and I was able to see what loveable people they both were.

Winter had lost a lot in the accident that gave him his scar, but even before that, and his experiences left him feeling unwanted and commitment-shy. Yet even so, and even before he recognized his love for her, he treated Aida with great care, and began trusting her with his heart.

Aida also knew about loss, having suffered quite a bit of it. Her love life too had been less than spectacular. And yet, for all that Winter had the wealth to shower her with gifts, and a great deal of sweetness during the love scenes, Aida gave him something equally valuable: encouragement to seize the moment and stop living in the past.

Along with the development of the romance, the threats from the villain escalated and the novel became more cohesive as well as dramatic as Aida and Winter worked to try to discover who was the source of this threat.

As mentioned before, the worldbuilding was strong in that the book had both a period feel and a consistent magical system. The ghosts felt like a real threat when they appeared, and this plot was intertwined well with the romance plot, so that both grew more compelling together.

Thus, as I was heading into the final fifth of the novel, I was feeling much better about it than I had in the first third but then at the 82% mark, the identity of the villain and his or her motive for the mayhem he or she had caused were revealed. The spoilers below doe’t reveal the villain’s identity, but they do give clues to it, as well as reveal his or her motive.

Spoiler: Show

I have to reveal that this character is Chinese-American, because it is relevant to one of my concerns.

The novel is set partly in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Aida lives there) and several Chinese American characters play a role in it. One is Winter’s right hand man, one is Aida’s landlady as well as the owner of a Chinese restaurant, one an acupuncturist, two are thugs, one a gangster, and one that gangster’s prostitute.

Roughly half of these characters were at least somewhat sympathetic, and one was fleshed out and given dimension. I have the feeling we’ll be seeing more of that character, whom I liked a lot, in upcoming books, and perhaps even in a central role.

Because of that, and because the main characters were a bootlegger and a speakeasy performer, I accepted the fact that some of the Asian-American supporting characters were somewhat seedy and/or flat.

I started questioning that, though, when one of the Chinese-American characters was revealed to be the villain, and that person turned out not only to be mad and practicing Chinese black magic, but then came the revelation about his or her motives.

”I was chosen by celestial deities to lead a quiet rebellion. My shen spirits brought me across the ocean from Hong-Kong to save my people from the Gwai-lo. The Chinese have been treated like slaves in this country, captured like pigs, forced to build your railroads. After the Great Fire, the city tried to move Chinatown and seize our land, and when we resisted, you kept us in cages on Angel Island, separating our families for years.”

The persecution of Chinese Americans in early 20th century California was all too real, so I was discomfited by the way this history was put in the mouth of an insane, black magic wielding Chinese American villain.

It seems to trivialize a painful history, and as I read this it also made me wonder whether I was cutting the book too much slack with regard to the backgrounds of some of the Chinese American characters.

To be honest, I still can’t decide about that, but I know that wondering about it made it hard to go back to my entertained, engrossed state and enjoy the resolution of the romantic plotline, which could have been lovely otherwise.

A lot of people I know love this book, and it is indeed a polished debut. Still, for me, there were enough snags and concerns to mar half the book, and even though I enjoyed the rest of it quite a lot, I can’t grade the whole above a C+.

Sincerely,

Janine

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle

REVIEW:  Kindling the Moon by Jenn Bennett

REVIEW: Kindling the Moon by Jenn Bennett

kindling the moon jenn bennett review

 

Dear Ms. Bennett:

 

The first book in the Arcadia Bell series has been sitting on my shelf for months now, waiting for me to turn around and find myself in just the right head space to pick it up. It comes highly recommended across the board, but it was the praise from Sarah over at Clear Eyes, Full Shelves that had me committed to giving the series a shot. Is it weird to admit that I think part of what kept me from picking it up is that the world and/or characters seemed to be so magic-based? I never realized it before, but when it comes to my paranormal reading I definitely trend shifter/vamp as opposed to witch/demon. Stereotypes aside, I think the appeal lies in the physicality of those creatures and (in the case of shifters) in the constant battle between their dual natures. And, for whatever reason, I don’t often respond as positively to the more nebulous (albeit often subtler) powers of witches, demons, part-demons, etc. So I may have gone in a bit prejudiced, a bit worried Arcadia might not be the girl for me.

 

Arcadia Bell is a little bit of everything and a whole hella private. Proprietress of her very own tiki bar and amateur magician, she’s put a lot of time and effort into flying under the radar. In a world dominated by powerful magical factions where so-called Earthbound demons live side by side with humans, she’s just a small blip on the radar. Except that she’s totally not. The only child of one of the most infamous sorcerer couples in history, she went into hiding after her parents were accused of a series of murders that set the occult world on its head. For the last seven years, she’s been on her own. But when her parents’ case resurfaces and their innocence is once again called into question, Cady embarks on a mission to clear their names. A friend puts her in contact with somewhat shady demonologist Lon Butler who has, among his many questionable talents and possessions, an unparalleled magical library. Trust is in short supply, but Cady and Lon agree to collaborate as Cady is under a bit of a time crunch and Lon finds the case fascinating on a number of levels. They don’t have to dig very deep to encounter everything from cover-ups to secret societies, and before long everything Arcadia thought was true about her life is thrown into question.

 

It took me about 100 pages or so to fall into the rhythm of Cady’s world. I liked her from the very beginning. She’s independent. She has a sense of humor. And she likes to have fun. Perhaps most importantly, she likes her magic. She’s good at it. It’s what she does in her free time, always creating new spells, testing them out, learning more. I’ve read so many heroines who fear their magic, are ashamed of their magic, hide it for whatever reason. And that’s fine. But it was sort of freeing to read about a girl who, for all the hiding she did have to do, was up front about that bit of her genetic makeup. It becomes an issue at certain key points, with the few people close to her who don’t understand or who view things differently, and I like that it was important enough to her to be an issue despite all the reasons it would have been better if she turned her back on it altogether. I did struggle a bit finding my bearings in the drenching sorcerous politics of her world. The different demons were complex and many, and I occasionally lost focus trying to sort them out in my head. Lon brought an interesting angle to the whole thing, as I am nothing if not intrigued by renegade demonic intellectuals with their own private grimoire libraries. But then he had to go and sport a blonde pirate mustache and ruin all my fantasies. He was pretty darn prickly to go with it. Lon grew on me, though. With his hilariously endearing teenage son and his extremely murky origins.

 

I perused the bookshelves behind Lon while he sat with his feet propped up on the desk and thumbed through his tandem memory spells, reading the descriptions aloud to me.

 

Memory Erase by Time Period designate a length of time to eradicate thoughts.

 

“Nope.”

 

Memory Erase by Subject: designate a subject to remove from subject’s memory.”

 

“No, but you should keep that one marked. That could come in handy.”

 

He plopped a blue marker in the crease, then flipped to the next entry. “Complete Memory Erase: wipe out all memories of events, places, names, times. Jesus, that’s dangerous. Remind me to put this book in the locked cabinet. If Jupe got a hold of this . . . Okay, hold on. Memory Restoring.” He flipped through several pages then started reading to himself in low mumble, taking his feet off the desk.

 

“What? Did you find one? Memory Restore by Time Period?”

 

“I found it.”

 

“So? What’s the spell? Does it need kindled Heka?” I leaned over his shoulder and read. “Memory Restore, otherwise known as ‘The Wheel.’ Push and pull magical energies to ignite slow memory restoration gently. That sounds like an overnight laxative.” I grinned at him.

 

“Ha, ha,” he said dourly, getting up from his seat to stand.

 

“Lighten up,” I elbowed him in the shoulder, then continued reading. “Magick for The Wheel must be charged with fluids from sexual arousal . . .‘” My voiced tapered off. “Oh.”

 

“Mmm-hmm.”

 

Yes, Lon grew on me just fine. And it was when the humor and the romance began to work together that the story really took off for me. Lon is a single father and has sole custody of his son Jupe. He is understandably cagey about his small family. This dynamic (along with the age difference between he and Cady) provided an added layer of complexity and emotion to their fledgling relationship.

 

Cady doesn’t harbor as much self-loathing as has become almost standard in a lot of urban fantasy heroines. Her confidence and willingness to go for what she wants impressed me. And yet she is consistently held back by the circumstances of her enforced anonymity and the actions of her cryptic parents. I became more and more afraid as her investigation progressed that the answers she found would bind rather than free her.

 

Kar Yee drew up her mouth as she stroked Mr. Piggy. “You are the most guarded person I’ve ever met, Cady. I think you have some black luck following you around.”

 

“You have no idea,” I muttered.

 

“You might be unlucky, but I don’t think you’re a bad seed, or I wouldn’t be in business with you, no matter how long we’ve known each other.”

 

That was true. Money was a very serious matter to her.

 

“But I think you need to get rid of what’s dragging you down,” she said. “Tear it out by the roots and be done with it. You should be happy, enjoying life.” She held up her hand and began holding up fingers. “One, you have a good job—”

 

“I don’t know if I’d call it good, exactly.”

 

“It’s good, trust me. And two, you are a smart and fair sorcerer—”

 

“Sometimes.”

 

“—and three, you are very pretty, for a white American.”

 

“Gee, thanks.”

 

“Your life should be better than it is.”

 

Kar Yee always had a way of cutting something down to its simplest form. She was right: my life should be better.

 

I appreciated how Cady’s thirst to not only reclaim her life but improve the quality of that life was the driving force behind her actions. She is also never too stupid to live and while she admits her mistakes, she never regards herself as terminally unlovable because of them. All in all, a very promising start. My copy of the sequel is on its way. B

 

Cheers,

Angie

Angie is a bookish sort with a soft spot for urban fantasy, YA, historicals, and mysteries. Ever since she read The Witch of Blackbird Pond and made the acquaintance of one Nat Eaton, stories with no romantic subplot need not apply. Her favorite authors include Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, Sharon Shinn, Mary Stewart, Megan Whelan Turner, Kristin Cashore, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, and Ellen Emerson White. You can find Angie at her blog www.angie-ville.com or on Twitter @angiebookgirl.

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle