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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

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. 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.

22 Comments

  1. Donna Thorland
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 13:31:29

    This might be just the thing for my case of Miss Fisher Mysteries withdrawal. That show also had some orientalizing issues–but the never married 40-something heroine with real sexual agency was terrific and the setting was thrilling.

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  2. Jayne
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 13:34:36

    I got very excited when I read the tags for this review but TBH the descriptions of the lusting will probably make me pass on it as this is something I hate in romance novels.

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  3. Janine
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 14:42:04

    @Donna Thorland: I’ve never even heard of that show but I just looked it up and it seems like something that could be a lot of fun.

    I think the 1920s has all the potential to be a great setting but the racism of that time period is tricky to deal with thoughtfully in genre fiction, especially when the protagonists are white but many of the side characters are not. There are hints that one of the upcoming book in the series may be about an interracial couple and if that comes about, I will be curious to see how Ms. Bennett deals with the “miscegenation” laws that existed in California during the twenties.

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  4. Janine
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 14:44:52

    @Jayne: I was very excited by the concept but mental lusting can be a big turnoff for me as well, especially when it feels intrusive, cliched or forced. I will say the second two-thirds were much better than the first third in this regard because while the attraction between Aida and Winter remained strong it didn’t feel as forced and was no longer just mental.

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  5. Sandy l
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 15:37:29

    I got to about the middle of the book and then stopped. The mental lusting was ok, but I was more interested in the mystery. I guess wanted the two to be more entwined. The plot felt too weak to me.

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  6. Variel
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 15:39:12

    @donna thorland @janine the books are better than the tv series, Phryne is a 30 something then and her love life is more varied. Kerry Greenwood writes them and they are brilliant.

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  7. Janine
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 15:46:15

    @Sandy l: As far as the mystery, its entwinement with the romantic relationship and the plotting, these all got stronger in the second half. But I completely understand giving up in the first half. I came close to that myself and if it hadn’t been for the enthusiasm of friends I might have done the same.

    @Variel: I didn’t realize Miss Fisher was a book series too! How have I not heard of it before today?

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  8. Allison
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 15:51:08

    I agree w/the points about the lusting. It did seem a bit much at the start of the novel. However, I found their connection, both mental and sexual, to be tangible. I thought the mystery was the weakest part of the story–maybe it needed more pages to flesh it out.

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  9. Janine
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 16:10:06

    @Allison: The connection felt tangible to me in the second half but really not so much in the first third or so. At that point in the story, I questioned whether the author was actually writing a romance, or more of a historical fantasy with a lot of lusting.

    Yeah, the mystery wasn’t super-strong. The worldbuilding was good though and it reads more polished than most debuts. I can understand why a lot of readers liked it more than I did.

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  10. cleo
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 16:20:33

    @Janine: I’d be curious what you think of The Miss Fisher books – I bought Cocaine Blues, the first in the series, when it was on sale recently-ish, and I honestly couldn’t get into it. Phryne struck me as a languid Mary Sue and I just didn’t care enough to finish it. I keep thinking I should give it one more try, since it’s so beloved.

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  11. Janine
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 16:35:07

    @cleo: I’m not sure I’ll get to it anytime soon. I have review commitments through February or early March and many other books on my radar as well. I appreciate your feedback about it and I’ll definitely look it up though.

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  12. Misti
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 17:29:12

    I also thought the lust at the beginning was a little much and I didn’t buy their “big fight”. I did enjoy as they bantered back and forth but it wasn’t enough to save the book for me. I do really love Jenn Bennett’s Arcadia Bell series though.

    I had a good time with the first couple Phryne Fisher books, and then they kind of started to feel the same. The books are definitley better, but the show is also kind of fun.

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  13. Janine
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 17:34:34

    @Misti: Sounds like we are on the same page since I agree about the nice banter — something I forgot to mention in my review.

    I’ve heard good things about Bennett’s Arcadia Bell books so I may try those. In fact I think I may have picked up the first one in a ebook deal a while back.

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  14. Kaetrin
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 21:07:55

    This is a debut book? So this Jenn Bennett is a different one than the one who writes Harlequin Desires (or whatever the line is called now)?

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  15. persnickety
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 21:37:09

    @cleo the first two or three of the Phryne Fisher mysteries are probably the weakest- they bear the weight of the set up. The series is a comfort reread for me, but I rarely go back to the first two. The writer has said that she intended Phryne to be a sort of female James Bond character.

    I like the one set in The Castlemaine murders- which has two slightly intersecting stories- one for Phryne and the other for her lover.
    A full list of the books is here http://www.phrynefisher.com/books.html

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  16. Janine
    Jan 30, 2014 @ 00:30:07

    @Kaetrin: She writes the Arcadia Bell Urban Fantasy series so Bitter Spirits is not a debut novel, but if she has written a romance before this one there is no mention of it on the books page of her website, so I felt safe in assuming that it was her first foray into romance.

    I can’t find an author of Harlequin Desires named Jenn Bennett by googling but there is an author of Harlequin Desires named Jules Bennett.

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  17. Lindsay
    Jan 30, 2014 @ 12:04:59

    Thank you for the review, as this is a sort-of new to me author, or at least genre of hers! I just read and really enjoyed the first Arcadia Bell book — I picked it up during the same deal you did, I’ll bet — and have bought the next two. I was left wanting to know more about the world and the characters but in a good way, but at the same time it wraps up nicely and doesn’t end on a cliffhanger.

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  18. Stephanie Scott
    Jan 30, 2014 @ 15:13:58

    I have this on my To Read list; the setting intrigues me.

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  19. Janine
    Jan 30, 2014 @ 16:35:07

    @Lindsay: You’re welcome. It’s good to hear that about the Arcadia Bell series.

    @Stephanie Scott: I hope you enjoy it!

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  20. cleo
    Jan 30, 2014 @ 16:46:20

    @persnickety: That’s good to know. That makes a lot of sense. I can definitely see her as Bond-like, which explains why I didn’t much care for her.

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  21. Kaetrin
    Jan 30, 2014 @ 17:28:12

    @Janine: Thx Janine. I obviously had my wires crossed :)

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  22. Janine
    Jan 30, 2014 @ 18:01:13

    @Kaetrin: It happens to the best of us.

    ReplyReply

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