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

Mary Jo Putney

What Janine is Reading — April and May 2012

What Janine is Reading — April and May 2012

My hot reading streak in February and March turned into a reading slump in April. For a little while there, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into anything I picked up. I couldn’t even tell you guys what I tried to read at that time, because I didn’t make it far into anything and everything seemed forgettable.

Eventually I had enough of that and decided to try to see if I could revive my enthusiasm for reading by rereading books that had been hard to put down in the past. I picked two of my favorite Nalini Singhs, Caressed by Ice and Archangel’s Blade, and while neither one was as enjoyable as they’d been the first time around, they were still fun enough to restore my enthusiasm for reading.

Back in my reading groove, I read the following books:

Rainshadow Road Lisa KleypasRainshadow Road by Lisa Kleypas

This was my first full-length Kleypas in years (I really need to backtrack and read her Travis series sometime). I had read Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, but before that, nothing since Devil in Winter. Rainshadow Road, the story of a glass artist dumped by her boyfriend for her younger sister and a commitment-shy vintner, was enjoyable and different, though not perfect.

I liked the quirky community in which the story was situated. Details like the bikers and their church, the house being renovated, and the heroine’s brusque innkeeper friend, made this book come alive in a way that many contemporaries don’t manage to do for me. I agree with those who said that the magical realism was not always well-integrated into the story, and I also felt the romance itself was rushed. On the whole though, this book was quite enjoyable. C+/B-

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The Shape of Desire by Sharon ShinnThe Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

I have a hard time articulating why, but I couldn’t progress more than a chapter or two into this book, and I am a huge fan of Sharon Shinn’s earlier works. This happened to me once before with another of her books, Fortune and Fate. If I had to pin down a reason, I would say it has a lot to do with both the characters, and the lack of a strong plot hook.

The Shape of Desire, Shinn’s first urban fantasy, opens with a reunion between Maria and her boyfriend, the shape-changing Dante. Dante, we learn, has no control over his shape changing and for that reason his life and Maria’s are far from normal. For most of the time Dante roams the wild, and Maria worries about him. He can’t hold a normal job, and she can’t introduce him to her friends. We also see Maria with those friends, discussing relationships.

I liked the friends and their lunchtime away from work milieu, but I didn’t feel a connection to Maria or Dante. They were nice enough people, just not interesting. They had some problems, true, but these were not serious enough to make me feel I should care. According to the back blurb a string of murders would make their problems worse, but there was not enough ominous sense of that in the writing. Maria’s happiness that Dante had resurfaced made it hard for me to feel worried for them or even uneasy, so I put this down unfinished. DNF.

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Gaijin by Remittance GirlGaijin by Remittance Girl

Set in Japan, Gaijin is the story of an English waitress kidnapped and raped by a Japanese mobster. The novella focuses on Jennifer’s captivity and her struggle to survive it. We had an interesting discussion in the comment thread when I reviewed it. Some readers were offended by the idea of such a story, but I felt it examined the fascinating issue of cultural differences and ethnocentrism without in any way justifying or romanticizing rape. Despite feeling more like a slice-of-life vignette than a full-fledged story, Gaijin has stuck with me. Review here.

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This was an enjoyable enough Spice Brief from Harlequin, but it didn’t stay with me. The heroine who works on Wall Street, arrives at the hero’s Mexican resort for a brief getaway. He observes her plagued by the phone, sends her a drink at the bar, and later seduces her, all without saying a word. But why won’t he speak?

It was interesting to read a story with so little dialogue and I could almost hear the silence myself. The characters were sympathetic and likable, the writing lovely at times but awkward at other times. This was nice, but not memorable, especially when compared to Hancock’s post-apocalyptic romance novella Ghost in the Machine. Review here.

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Dancing on the Wind by Mary Jo PutneyDancing on the Wind by Mary Jo Putney

Recently I reread Putney’s Thunder and Roses, and though I didn’t enjoy it, I decided to see if I could reread the rest of the Fallen Angels series. After all, I used to love these books and also, they’ve been rereleased in electronic editions. It would be good to review them, or so I thought.

Dancing on the Wind is the second book in the series, featuring Lucien and Kit, who meet while he is investigating a group called the Hellions (modeled after the Hellfire Club) in search of a traitor and she is doing the same in order to find her sister’s kidnapper.

I’ve been reading this book for a month and so far I’m at the halfway point. The problem is that as Kit keeps disguising herself and Lucien finds her again and again, each time in a new identity, and each time without pinning down how to find her again, so their relationship is proceeding at a glacial pace. On the upside, I like them both better than I liked the protagonists of Thunder and Roses. Review to come when I finish, or give up on finishing.

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Moon Over Soho by Ben AaronovitchMoon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the second book in Aaronovitch’s delightful urban fantasy/police procedural series about Peter Grant, a London constable investigating paranormal crimes. In this one Peter is faced with the death of a string of jazzmen, just as his musician father decides to resume his jazz playing career.

Meanwhile, Peter gets involved with the former girlfriend of one of the dead men, investigates the violent death of a magical practitioner, trades witty quips with his supervisor and makes snarky remarks about London architecture and history. This series is adorable. If you haven’t tried them yet, what are you waiting for? Midnight Riot is the first book. As for Moon Over Soho, the review can be found here.

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Overseas by Beatriz Williams

This time travel was, as Jane has said, nothing if not romantic, but at the same time, it felt like a flight of wish-fulfillment fantasy. The pages turned very quickly as I kept reading to get to the bottom of the mystery of what was keeping the protagonists apart. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time but at the end, was left wishing for a little more substance and grounding in the World War I era.

Part of the problem was that the hero was just too perfect – a viscount, a brilliant student, athletic, gorgeous, chivalrous, a wall street titan, and a poet of literary greatness as well? Where do they make them like this, except in women’s fantasies? With all that going for him, it was difficult to understand why he fell so hard for the heroine. Still, he was lovely, and I like a Cinderella story as much as the next person. The romanticism and sheer fun of this book isn’t to be denied. B.

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Shadow and Bone by Leigh BardugoShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

This historical fantasy set in an alternate Russia started off wonderfully. Alina, an orphan who was raised with her best friend Mal, is plucked from obscurity when it’s discovered that she is a Sun Summoner – the only person who can free her country from the dark and horrifying rift known as the Shadow Fold.

Separated from Mal and brought to the stronghold of the Grisha, powerful magic users, she is trained in using her abilities, a task made difficult by her own suppression of her gifts. Alina misses Mal horribly, and wonders if he’s forgotten about her, even as she’s drawn to the leader of the Grisha, a fascinating man known as the Darkling.

Bardugo has a very engaging voice and I was loving this book until two thirds of the way through when a turn was taken in the story that sucked a lot of the complexity out of it. I kept reading to the end, but wished this one thing could be undone because it was so disappointing and without it, the book could have been marvelous. Review here.

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Fire by Kristin CashoreFire by Kristin Cashore

Cashore’s follow-up to Graceling was less engaging than its predecessor. Whereas Katsa was an active character with a mission, Fire, the heroine of the novel of the same name, was more passive and aimless. True, she had interesting mental powers tied to her matchless beauty, a good backstory and a great deal of selflessness, but none of that was enough to make me turn the pages as fast as I did with Graceling, and reading the story made me feel melancholy and even morose. Cashore’s writing is lovely, but also has a youthful innocence to it that didn’t fit the subject matter well here. All in all, I could take or leave this one. C.

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Bitterblue by Kristin CashoreBitterblue by Kristin Cashore

This is the third book in the same YA fantasy series and I thought it was better than either Graceling or Fire. It’s the story of an eighteen year old queen trying to take control of her reign and heal her kingdom from the national trauma inflicted by her late father when he was king.

There’s also a romantic subplot — Bitterblue sneaks out at night and befriends two young men while pretending to be a baker girl. One of them is a thief whom she spies stealing one of her castle’s gargoyles. She starts to fall for him, but he doesn’t know who she really is and she doesn’t know if he’s an enemy of hers.

Bitterblue discovers in the process that someone is harming her kingdom’s “truthseekers,” people who want to uncover the truth about her father’s misdeeds, and there’s a mystery over who it is that is trying to suppress the truth and what that person has to hide.

The themes of truth vs. lies, memory vs. moving on, discoveries and concealments, and the healing power of storytelling were so well integrated into this book. The characters were sympathetic yet real and the mystery at the center of the plot was compelling. The melancholy was leavened with humor. It is one of the most impressive YA novels I’ve read. Review to come.

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What are you guys reading? If you’ve read any of the books I mention above, what did you think of them? And when you have reading slumps, what do you do to break out of them?

REVIEW:  Thunder and Roses by Mary Jo Putney

REVIEW: Thunder and Roses by Mary Jo Putney

Dear Ms. Putney,

I was a big fan of your books in the 1990s. They came along at a time when I had not read anything like them. If the characters made mistakes or committed wrongs, your books actually examined the of the characters’ motives for doing so in some depth. And your characters actually had spiritual lives, often in conflict with a troubled conscience. Concepts like honor mattered to them. Your side characters could be Jewish, gypsy, or gay, yet never the villains in the story. And sometimes even your main characters belonged to minority groups.

Thunder and Roses by Mary Jo PutneyUnderstand, I came to historical romance in the 1980s via the American single title blockbuster books, at a time when they were quite different from today’s romances. The heroes of many of those 1980s books just took what they wanted, and didn’t spend much time agonizing about wrong and right. The heroines embodied feisty. While those books were filled with adventures in exciting locales, and had some qualities I still miss, your books, when I discovered them, were so different from the pack that they were a breath of fresh air.

The Fallen Angels series, while perhaps not the very first series about a group of men who went to Eton together and earned a nickname for their closeness there, was certainly one of the first, and without a doubt the first I read. I remember the books being prominently displayed in bookstores at a time when most historical were still standalone, so I’d venture to guess that for good or ill, the Fallen Angels’ success played a part in setting the series trend.

I was an avid reader of your books at the time and eagerly awaited each release (This changed for me somewhere around the time you switched to writing contemporaries). I remember reading Thunder and Roses, the first Fallen Angels book, when it was released, and while it wasn’t among my most favorite of your books, I think I would have graded it a B or B+ at that time.

When I heard that the series was being reissued in electronic editions, I dug out my old paperback (yes, I still have it – I hate to separate related books from one another) and decided it might be fun to revisit this book in a review. I wanted to see how the book held up. Unhappily, the answer (for me at least) is not well.

Thunder and Roses begins with a prologue in which a gypsy woman delivers her son to his grandfather, the Earl of Aberdare. Marta’s motives for handing her son over to the earl aren’t revealed until late in the book, but Nikki, Marta’s son, is devastated and anguished by his mother’s abandonment, and it is clear the earl is perturbed by his grandson’s dark skin. Marta was legally married to Kenrick, the earl’s son, so the earl is forced to accept a gypsy as his heir.

Flash forward twenty-three years, and Nicholas Davies is now the Earl of Aberdare. Rumors have it that “the Demon Earl” seduced his grandfather’s much younger wife, bringing about the previous earl’s death, and then capped off the crimes by murdering his own wife. But Clare Morgan still goes to confront Nicholas about failing in his responsibilities to the villagers on his Welsh estate.

Clare is a schoolteacher as well as the daughter of the deceased Methodist Reverend Morgan, and is therefore respected in the local village of Penreith. Nicholas has just returned from four years abroad. He is drunk and wants nothing more than to be rid of Clare when she shows up at his home and insists that the dearth of jobs and the dangerous conditions at the coal mine in Penreith are forcing the villagers to risk their lives and that since Nicholas owns both a slate quarry and the land on which the mine is located, he must do something about it.

To get rid of Clare, Nicholas proposes a trade –he’ll help the villagers only if she’ll sacrifice her reputation to the cause.

To be clear, Nicholas is not asking Clare for sex. He merely wants her to move in with him so that everyone will think they are having sex. If Clare, Reverend Morgan’s daughter, is willing to destroy her precious reputation to save the same villagers who will condemn her, she will enlist his help. Otherwise, it’s a no go.

Oh, and there’s also the matter of a little side bet about whether Nicholas can actually succeed in seducing Clare during the time she’s in residence at his home. To that end, Clare must allow him a kiss a day. He will not go beyond that without her consent.

This being a romance novel, Clare agrees rather than telling Nicholas to go to hell. Nicholas, who mostly wanted her to go away, is instead obliged to check out the quarry and visit the mine. Clare takes on the redecorating of his house and discovers that a portrait of his late wife infuriates Nicholas.

Eventually the two travel to London where Clare gets a new wardrobe and Nicholas introduces her to his other “Fallen Angel” friends, Lucien and Rafe. A fourth friend, Michael, owns the mine on Nicholas’s Land, but Lucien warns Nicholas that while he was traveling, Michael conceived a hatred for him for unknown reasons.

While Clare and Nicholas await an opportunity to approach Michael about the mine, their daily kisses grow more passionate. But though Nicholas thinks that being “ruined” could only be a good thing for Clare, Clare vehemently disagrees. Since she’s never felt a deep spiritual connection to God, she feels she’s a fraud both as a Methodist and as the reverend’s daughter. Nicholas’s kisses amplify that feeling and therefore Clare both looks forward to them and dreads them.

I had a number of problems with Thunder and Roses this time around, but I’ll start with the nature of Clare’s conflict. I have no problem, at least in principle, with a heroine whose religious beliefs prevent her from sleeping with the hero. That was the case with the heroine of your medieval romance, Uncommon Vows, and it worked for me in that novel. But in that book, Meriel was deeply devout and had almost become a nun as a teen. She was also held captive by the hero who wanted her to agree to become his mistress. So she had very strong reasons to refuse.

With Clare, the religion vs. premarital sex conflict did not work nearly as well for me, and here’s why: Clare’s fears focused on her reputation and what others thought of her and it was in this context that she seemed to find sex sinful. But she couched her objections in terms of religion and spirituality.

As events in the book later proved, her experience of spirituality was in no way harmed by sex; the real issue was what others thought of her. I think I would have had more sympathy for Clare if she had called a spade a spade and just admitted that it was her reputation and her standing in the community that mattered to her most, not the state of her soul.

Moving on to Nicholas. I think I was supposed to find Nicholas a charming rogue, but I found him pretty off-putting. First, there was his hypocrisy. He goes on about how he doesn’t force women, but he insists on the daily kiss a number of times when Clare is reluctant. He also touches her in casual ways early on in their relationship when he knows she’s not entirely comfortable with it.

Second, Nicholas also insists that losing her reputation would be the best thing in the world for Clare. Dude, if she cares about her reputation, and you really want the best thing in the world for her, then get a clue: destroying her reputation isn’t it.

Third, there’s the fact that even after Nicholas realizes conditions at the Penreith mine are horrendously dangerous, he threatens to withdraw his support from that cause when Clare tries to leave him. That’s right – he doesn’t force women, but a bunch of villagers will have to die unless Clare stays at his side and puts up with his kisses.

Okay, yeah, Clare is turned on by these kisses, and obviously so is Nicholas. Maybe he’s even falling for her. But threatening to endanger the lives of the miners, which include children, in order to have this chick is not cool.

But here’s my most important point: I think I might have been fine with all of the above had Nicholas been portrayed as a morally ambiguous character. If he’d owned up to his dark side, the way the hero of Uncommon Vows does. Sadly, that doesn’t happen here. A couple of people chide Nicholas for what he’s doing to Clare but Nicholas himself doesn’t seem to realize what a jerk he’s being.

Moreover, Nicholas is continuously referred to as charming. He has peacocks and penguins and a sad life story about all the people who betrayed him, and all that is somehow supposed to make him a nice guy even when he’s being selfish, childish, and obnoxious.

The book does have some good points – interesting details about mining conditions, a sexy game of strip billiards, and a nice suspense sequence involving fire. I appreciated that Nicholas was frequently described as dark skinned (even now the historical romance genre is too white), and liked side characters like Clare’s friends Owen and Marged. And when the conflict between Nicholas and Clare came to a head, it finally got compelling.

Other aspects I felt less keen on. The pacing of the story felt slow, though that may be partly because I’d read the book before and knew where the story was going. The language was occasionally pleasing but occasionally anachronistic. The gypsy side characters were portrayed stereotypically, but at least that they were also portrayed as a safe harbor for Nicholas. I mildly liked the resolution of Michael and Nicholas’s relationship, but hated what came between them in the first place.

[spoiler](Nicholas’ dead wife, Caroline read like a stock villainess and in that regard, the book reminded me of those 1980s books in which so the heroes despised all girls because of one bad experience with love. Thankfully, Nicholas wasn’t a misogynist, but I still found the absence of all redeeming qualities in Caroline deeply problematic.)[/spoiler]

On the whole, a good part of Thunder and Roses frustrated me, and I was a little surprised that I managed to finish it. I feel like I am slaughtering a sacred cow here, since I know how beloved the books in this series were for many readers, myself included. It feels churlish to write this after the many, many hours of reading pleasure I have received through your books in my years of reading, but as a reviewer, I have to be honest, and the truth is that while my 1993 self enjoyed this book, my 2012 self found it dissatisfying. D

Sincerely,

Janine

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