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Lori Austin

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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REVIEW: An Outlaw in Wonderland by Lori Austin

REVIEW: An Outlaw in Wonderland by Lori Austin

Dear Ms. Austin,

When I first read the description of Outlaw in Wonderland, I believe I may have said “gimme gimme gimme” out loud. But I deny actually making the ~grabbyhands~ gesture.

Outlaw in Wonderland by Lori Austin

Saving soldiers’ lives at the Confederate army hospital Chimborazo, Annabeth Phelan is no ordinary Southern belle. She’s never known work more exhausting or rewarding. And she’s never known a man like Dr. Ethan Walsh, with his disarming gray eyes and peculiar ways. But now the Confederacy is charging her with another service: find the Union spy at Chimborazo.

Ethan’s one passion is saving lives, and if he can do that by helping to end the war, he will — even if it means spying for the North. He’s gotten used to fooling Confederates, but he can’t bear lying to Annabeth. And together, they are about to discover a new passion—one that could even transcend the chaos of war.

Then I saw the cover, and nearly changed my mind. But we’ll save that discussion for later.

I was expecting the kickass heroine, the noble hero, the wartime intrigue and the ugliness of 19th-century battlefield medicine. I wasn’t expecting all that to be only the first third of the book — but by that point, I was along for the ride. And what an angsty, adventurous, brooding, emotional, angsty, humorous, tense, DID I MENTION ANGSTY?, and romantic ride it was.

From the Confederate war hospital mentioned in the blurb, the plot takes us to the notorious Castle Thunder prison in Richmond to a Kansas cow town. In addition to amputations and espionage, we get amnesia, baby loss, infidelity, abduction, murder, a tornado, prison sex, opium addiction with forced detox in a tepee, and a lot of flying bullets.

Life had been a little chaotic since she’d gotten back to Freedom. It wasn’t every day that a sheriff fell out a window, a federal marshal arrived asking questions, Annabeth returned from the dead and the local doctor was shot in the head.

Amongst all that fabulous craziness, we’re treated to vivid secondary characters like a one-eyed retired schoolmarm, a reclusive smallpox-scarred lawyer, a fainting ex-mistress, a long-suffering federal marshal, and a former childhood friend/spymonger/Pinkerton agent who mysteriously appears at the absolute worst possible times. And, of course, the batshit-insane thug bandit obsessed with Alice in Wonderland.

But none of that overwhelms the angsty, messy romance. Ethan and Annabeth are drawn to each other out of mutual respect, loneliness and adrenaline in the chaos of the hospital. As their relationship evolves, we learn how ill-prepared they for mundane real life, struggling with the consequences of their wartime decisions and actions.

The main source of angst in Outlaw is a miscarriage — a trope that can be disastrous in the wrong author’s hands. But not in this book.

“Beth?” Ethan stepped into the room. Hands open to show he held nothing in them, he stared at her as if she were a wild thing. “What are you doing?”

“What you should have done.” She tightened her grip. “Long ago.”

“Honey,” he began.

“Shut. Up.” Annabeth swung the ax.

The crib shattered into several large chunks. She continued to hack away at it until the thing lay in several dozen small ones. When she finished, she tossed the blade in the center of the room and peered out the window. She needed to leave — this room, this house, this town, this life — but right now it was all she could do to stay on her feet.

“Why did you keep it?” she whispered.

“I…” he began, then sighed. “I don’t know.”

And later….

Hope fluttered — or at least he thought it might be hope. He couldn’t quite recall what hope felt like.

The last thing Ethan remembered clearly was standing in the spare bedroom as his wife took an ax to their child’s crib. He’d been amazed, frightened, a little aroused. Which was pretty much the effect his wife always had on him. She was an amazing, frightening, arousing woman.

Am I wrong to find that romantic? But whatever — DAMN, that’s good writing.

I did have a few minor annoyances that disrupted my book trance. Ethan is the usual historical-romance-novel-doctor who is way ahead of his time in insisting on antiseptic surgery, a fact we’re reminded of several times. And to mark off a box on the Required Elements in a Western checklist, we have the noble Native American who silently communicates life- and soul-saving advice.

Speaking of annoyances…. The cover. Uff da, that cover. In addition to the huge disconnect between the cover and the blurb, we get a skeletal cover model in glaringly modern clothing — complete with zippered skinny jeans. And the western portion of the story is set in Kansas. I haven’t traveled the entire state of Kansas, but I’m pretty sure none it looks like Utah.

Now that the whining is out of the way, it’s true confession time — by the end of chapter six of Outlaw, I had to buy the previous book in the series (Beauty and the Bounty Hunter) and it’s even better. I’ll be waiting impatiently for the next one.

Grade: B+

~ Kelly