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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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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.

14 Comments

  1. jamie beck
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 13:22:44

    I read this post with interest because I, too, have felt a serious reading “slump” lately. I have only one DNF, though, (No Good Duke Goes Unpunished) and it was mostly because I just really did not like/empathize with the heroine and her lack of remorse…so after about 2/3 of the way through, I just didn’t care about her anymore. I wonder if I’m just burned out from reading too many romance novels…so I’m going to switch it up a bit more. But, of the three you mention here, I’m interested in the Pamela Sherwood book. I love the way you describe her voice, and while the issues you had with this story might also trouble me, I think I’m willing to give it a try.

    Thanks for sharing your reading blahs with us! ;-) May 2014 bring you more exciting stories!

  2. hapax
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 13:30:43

    Oh, bother. I was saving BROTHERS for my end of the year treat, since I had seen so many positive reviews of it, and early medieval British monasticism is my area of research.

    But I should have been wary of the curse of “knowing too much” — all those things you mention about Cai’s attitude and opinions are not just implausible, but nigh impossible. This book would have driven me stark raving bonkers.

  3. cleoc
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 14:32:55

    I read Brothers of the Wild North Sea, but it really didn’t work for me. The plot got sillier and sillier and I just couldn’t buy the romance. I did like parts of it a lot, but it didn’t work as a whole. I was able to suspend disbelief about Cai’s attitudes – but he later takes on a leadership role that made me roll my eyes. It sort of works as an AU fantasy, but the character development was goofy. It was this book, combined with Driftwood, that moved Harper Fox down a rung on my author list.

    I DNF a lot – life’s too short to finish a bad book or a book that I’m not in the mood for. I’ve started a DNF folder and it’s kind of fascinating to me.

  4. Lada
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 14:46:19

    I empathize with your slump and realized what a bummer reading year it had been when I was trying to think of my best book for 2013 to comment on for the mini ipad giveaway. Usually there are at least a few books I’m pushing on friends or recommending as gifts but this year, not so much. My personal slump isn’t restricted to romance either but affecting all the genres I prefer to read.

    I think my feelings of disappointment stem from long anticipated books by favored authors that didn’t live up to the hype. Unlike many readers on the list, Singh’s Heart of Obsidian was one of my least favorite books this year. I was utterly bored and would have DNF’d if it wasn’t part of a series I’ve invested so much time in. I wasn’t thrilled by either Briggs’ or Andrews’ latest in either of those series either though they weren’t total fails either. I’m also getting gun-shy about racing to get the latest by a previously favorite author since I’ve been underwhelmed so much of late.

    I’ve been trying to branch out and try new-to-me authors but haven’t been captivated by anything so far. I very much miss that feeling of “can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-my-book”. Here’s hoping 2014 is a complete turn-around.

  5. Janine
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 14:48:12

    @jamie beck: Slumps suck! You have my sympathy.

    Sherwood’s voice really is lovely. I’m going to suggest that you start with the prequel to A Song at Twilight which is called Waltz with a Stranger. Characters from that book appeared in A Song at Twilight and this made me wish I’d read the first book first. I’ve also heard from a couple of friends who have read both that Waltz with a Stranger is the stronger book. It is currently on sale to kindle users (at least in the US, not sure about other countries) for $1.99.

    @hapax: There are some explanations for Cai’s attitudes — they come from Theo’s teachings and Theo turns out to be a heretic monk who was sent from Rome into exile in Britannica. You’d have to buy that the ancient knowledge of astronomy and theories of heliocentrism somehow survived into 7th century, and was brought to Britannia by Theo, who was also remarkably tolerant of sex between monks.

    But even so it was a huge stretch for me. Brothers of the North Sea has a lot of strengths, so I wanted to like it, but the issues I mentioned were constant irritants. I tried to look at it as a fantasy but couldn’t quite. And Cai’s forgetfulness of crucial details was also impossible for me to buy.

  6. Janine
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 15:19:00

    @cleoc: You make me feel better about not sticking with Brothers of the North Sea. I’m also glad not to be alone in my feelings about the book since I know others loved it. I DNF a lot too, but mostly within the first couple chapters. It’s more unusual (though not unheard of) for me to get this far into books and still not be able to finish them.

    @Lada: I enjoyed Heart of Obsidian a great deal, but with post-reading reservations. With both Briggs and Andrews, only one of their UF series captivated me, and it was the one they stopped writing! I miss the Edge, and Anna and Charles, very badly.

    Here’s hoping 2014 is a complete turn-around.

    I’ll sign on to that!

  7. Lindsay
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 15:58:41

    I was the same way with Beauty and the Bounty Hunter (and think I picked it up for the same reasons!), and I’m glad it’s not just me! I haven’t been much in a book slump but I absolutely have found myself DNF-ing books if they lose me partway, and I don’t really feel bad about that. I slugged my way through half of Terror before I gave up, but I was thrilled all through Abominable so there’s that. There are just SO many books out there and I read such a wide variety that if a romance isn’t doing it for me, maybe I need to jump to sci-fi or a biography or a book about cats. I can’t read non-fiction at night (it wakes me up) so I always have something on the go, but when something gets back about 15 pages on my Kindle and I notice it’s only halfway done, I might give it one more try, then delete it off. It feels a lot better. Then again, I don’t have the added pressure of reviewing unless I really want to!

    I hope you have a better reading year, there have got to be some out-of-the-park reads around the corner for you.

  8. cleo
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 16:33:28

    @Janine: The more I think about Brothers, the more WTF details I remember – I think you made a good choice not finishing it. Part of my problem with it was that the tone kept shifting – parts of it are quite dark and then it has these goofball, wish-fulfillment fantasy elements, like the heretic monk with 21st C attitudes about sex. I have no idea if the ending is historically probable or not, but it made me roll my eyes A LOT.

  9. Susan
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 18:37:01

    I commiserate. I’ve been DNF’ing a lot recently, which is not the norm for me in the sense that once I get past a certain point I’m usually compelled to finish just for the hell of it. What I do a lot of, tho, is start books, get a few pages in, and decide it’s not what I’m in the mood for and set it aside. I’ll sometimes come back to those books later, but sometimes not. Sometimes it’s truly me and not the book. Either way, I’ve had a lot of false starts and unfinished books recently.

  10. Jamie Beck
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 07:47:23

    @Janine:
    Thanks! I will start with that one.

  11. Janine
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 09:23:47

    @Cassie Knight: Thank you, but the appropriate place to post descriptions of your novels is the monthly Open Thread for Authors, which can be found here. Please read and observe the rules posted at the top of that page.

    If you would like to participate in a giveaway, contact Jane via this form and ask what can be arranged. You might also want to visit our For Authors page for further information.

    I am now going to delete your comment. I understand it was well-meaning, but we would appreciate it if you observe our rules here at DA in the future.

  12. Janine
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 10:16:47

    @Lindsay: How funny that you picked up Beauty and the Bounty Hunter for the same reasons I did! With regard to my slump, I think part of the problem is that my favorite genres to read in, historical romance and YA fantasy, aren’t doing as well right now as they were a couple years back. I may have to search out new to me authors in genres I’m less familiar with in order to have a better year next year.

    @cleo: Re the tonal shifts in Brothers of the North Sea — you’re right, and I hadn’t thought about that. Even just in the section I read, that was the case. I’m sorry to hear the ending was an eye roller, too.

    @Susan: That sounds frustrating, and I commiserate right back!

  13. Cassie Knight
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 12:03:58

    Oh gosh, I’m so sorry Janine! I should have thought about that–I got a bit ahead of myself. My bad! 1,000 lashes for me. :(

  14. Janine
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 12:50:18

    @Cassie Knight: No worries. Everything’s fine now.

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