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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

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. 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.

17 Comments

  1. Stephanie Scott
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 11:17:21

    I’m loving the Lotus Palace! Definitely a cut above in the historical romance genre.

  2. Janine
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 12:18:45

    @Stephanie Scott: I’m so glad you’re enjoying it! It was one of my favorite historicals of 2013.

  3. Tanya
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 13:51:34

    Halfway through The Jade Temptress and I adore it, as I knew I would. Mingyu is my kind of girl, and one I don’t encounter enough in romance-land. I am so, so thankful that Jeannie Lin is writing. I am one of those who had almost given up on all historicals (there is only one other historical writer I consistently read at this point). I am equally thankful that I have only read The Lotus Palace and My Fair Concubine, so I have more of her work to stretch out and enjoy. I am not surprised we both like this one, @Janine!

  4. Janine
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 13:53:39

    @Tanya: Oh, so glad you are adoring it! And agreed, I loved Mingyu and wish there were more heroines like her.

  5. Willaful
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 14:03:49

    We’re totally in accord on the Lin books – I also gave The Lotus Palace an A-. Although the plotting was not as well done as The Jade Palace the romance had that special intimacy.

  6. Janine
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 14:28:22

    @Willaful: Yup, we’re on the same page about these. I confess I envy Jayne and Sunita for loving The Jade Temptress enough to give it straight A’s. But regardless, all four of us agree that it’s well worth reading.

  7. trixee
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 14:45:10

    Though I also enjoyed THE LOTUS PALACE and am very much looking forward to THE JADE TEMPTRESS, my favorite Lin book (so far) is THE SWORD DANCER, the book before TLP. I loved the dynamic between thief catcher Han and his quarry, sword dancer Li Feng. I enjoyed the mystery of her past and the cat and mouse game they play with each other. And IIRC, the Lotus Palace and the Pingkang Li made an appearance in TSD.

  8. Janhavi
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 14:48:11

    I actually loved the Jade Temptress more than TLP. The mystery was much more interesting I think and I also found it more romantic. I would also give it an A

  9. Janine
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 14:49:50

    @trixee: I”m glad to hear that since I have The Sword Dancer in my digital TBR pile. Jayne and Sunita liked it too. I have heard good things about that one, My Fair Concubine and Capturing the Silken Thief and I look forward to reading them.

  10. Janine
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 14:51:09

    @Janhavi: Glad to hear you loved The Jade Temptress so much. I thought the mystery in TLP was interesting also, even though I wanted more clues. I agree the mystery was constructed with more complexity and cleverness in TJT, but I think I was more engaged by the murder of Huilan in TLP in some ways than by the fate of General Deng, because I cared about her more — she represented the courtesans who were celebrated but whose lives didn’t truly matter to the rest of society.

  11. Janhavi
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 14:58:33

    @Janine- I should thank you for introducing me to them! I didn’t notice the first review on dearauthor of TLP but I came across the twitter conversation about whether it had got buzz or not, and then I read your second review, gave it a try, and got hooked! The sword dancer is on my TBR list and I am looking forward to it.

  12. Janine
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 15:01:29

    @Janhavi: LOL! I feel badly about bringing up the buzz issue to begin with but if it brought the books to your attention then that’s a silver lining. I’m so glad you are enjoying them.

  13. Willaful
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 16:01:17

    @trixee: The Sword Dancer seems to be the one that gets most mentioned as a favorite. I’m looking forward to catching up to it sometime soon, I hope! (!#$!@# TBR…)

  14. EmilyAnn
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 19:13:58

    I really enjoyed Married For Christmas and your assessment of the somewhat ambiguous nature of Daniel’s falling is spot-on. Noelle Adams always writes from the Heroine’s perspective so her Heroes always maintain a bit of mystery. It’s something I enjoy because you need to believe in their HEA based on actions and words because you’re not in 1/2 couple’s head, but I could see how it leaves a reader a bit frustrated.

  15. Janine
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 19:18:26

    @EmilyAnn: I always like to see the hero fall for the heroine but in this case there was an added layer to my frustration which is that Daniel and Jessica already loved each other as friends when the book began. That made me all the more interested in knowing whether Daniel’s feelings turned romantic during the course of the novel, or whether they had been romantic even before Jessica proposed to him, and he was just in denial about it. Do you have an opinion on that? I really couldn’t figure it out.

  16. Edith
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 01:13:19

    “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.”

    Just thought I’d pop in to say this is not uncommon. My brother was a pastor for many years and he was always torn by questions and doubts. Some times were more intense than others. He discussed his issues with other pastors, close friends, and, on a very superficial level, with his “flock”.

  17. Janine
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 11:43:44

    @Edith: I’m sure that’s true, but wouldn’t it still affect them at work? I don’t doubt that a pastor can have a crisis of faith, but rather, that Daniel’s only impacted his romantic relationship and not his work life. If Daniel had mentioned at the end that he’d had to talk to fellow pastors if we’d seen him talking to his flock about it, I would have been fine with the way it was portrayed.

    I got into a conversation about this with the wife of a pastor on Twitter and she said sometimes pastors can fake it when struggling with these kinds of crises. I completely believe that, and that would have worked for me too — for Daniel to tell Jess at the end of the book that he had had to do that.

    Just a small indication that it affected other parts of his life besides his marriage would have done the trick for me.

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