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DUAL REVIEW:  The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

DUAL REVIEW: The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

 

It is a time of celebration in the Pingkang li, where imperial scholars and bureaucrats mingle with beautiful courtesans. At the center is the Lotus Palace, home of the most exquisite courtesans in China…

Maidservant Yue-ying is not one of those beauties. Street-smart and practical, she’s content to live in the shadow of her infamous mistress—until she meets the aristocratic playboy Bai Huang.

Bai Huang lives in a privileged world Yue-ying can barely imagine, let alone share, but as they are thrown together in an attempt to solve a deadly mystery, they both start to dream of a different life. Yet Bai Huang’s position means that all she could ever be to him is his concubine— will she sacrifice her pride to follow her heart?

The Lotus Palace by Jeannie LinJayne:I don’t think we’ve ever dual reviewed a Lin novel and I was eager to see what you thought of her latest one. “The Lotus Palace” is almost two books in one. It’s a love story between two people of vastly differing social backgrounds as well as a murder mystery. The romance worked fairly well for me but the mystery didn’t grab my attention as much as I might have wished.

Sunita: I really enjoyed your review of her previous book, The Sword Dancer, so it’s great to do this one together! I agree that the mystery wasn’t particularly unusual, and by the end I didn’t really care whodunit, but the setting and the romance were so appealing to me, especially as events unfolded in the second half, that I was really caught up in the different aspects of the book.

Jayne: One thing I can always count on when reading her work is that I will almost effortlessly learn a lot. Details, large and small, are seamlessly woven into the narrative and I never feel as if I’m being force fed every little thing she learned during her research. Recently I read something on the BBC website about the difficulty of the exams Chinese scholars who sought government positions had to face. In the struggles of Bai Huang, I can see this come to life. 20+ years later, I still remember the grueling study schedules my accounting major sorority sisters set for themselves in order to pass the CPA exam but I don’t think they had anything on what Bai Huang endures – for the fourth time. It’s too bad that women couldn’t have taken it as his sister Wei-Wei looks like she would have aced the test the first go round.

Sunita: Wei-Wei is a terrific character; she starts out as the stereotypical cute younger sister but you realize quickly what Bai Huang knows, that she is very smart and very focused. She accepts that she can’t be a scholar the way a man can, but she still manages to use her talents.

The setting is so richly realized, even more so than in The Sword Dancer, whose worldbuilding I thought was excellent. I agree that there is no sense of infodumping, just the careful evocation of a community and its geographical and political context. Because of that, the first half of the book was a bit slow-moving for me. We learn about the Pinkang li, the quarter where the courtesans live, and we get to know the inhabitants and customers of the Lotus Palace. What I like about this approach is that by the time the romance really gets going, we know Yue-ying and Bai Huang as individuals, so we’re rooting for a happy ending because they really fit together, not because they are each the other’s designated Beloved Object.

Jayne:The Historical Undone novella “Capturing the Silken Thief” introduced me to the world of Tang Dynasty courtesans and the people who worked with them. “The Lotus Palace” takes this many steps further and is a full-on immersion into this environment. Yue-ying lives in the background of this pleasure palace. She and her mistress Mingyu were sold into this life and share a bond no outsider understands. Yue-ying knows how lucky she is to have been redeemed from being a common prostitute in a brothel even if her marked face disqualifies her from the heights that Mingyu has reached.

I enjoyed reading about Yue-ying. She’s practical, hardworking and doesn’t stand for any nonsense from Bai Huang. She serves as his introduction to the world of these servant girls and teaches him some respect for those who aren’t rich and privileged. This is actually my favorite aspect of the book. An experience in Bai Huang’s past has already stripped away the veneer of the beautiful illusion the courtesans project but meeting Yue-ying makes him truly see the harsh reality behind the glitter.

Sunita: Yue-ying is a terrific character. She’s been dealt a very tough hand, but she’s neither downtrodden nor feisty. She accepts the world as it has been made for her and she appreciates the good things in her life. Her relationship with Mingyu (who is another nuanced, interesting character) is clearly more than just courtesan-servant, but we don’t find out precisely what it is until the second half of the book. Yue-ying is understandably unromantic, but she’s also loving and interested in the world around her.

Jayne: One thing I loved was Yue-ying’s visits to the local temple including stopping to see an ancient (I assume) sea turtle who lives there.

Sunita: I did too, and it’s typical of Lin’s approach that was seems like a trivial interlude featuring the turtle turns out to be important, both in showing us a side of Yue-ying and to the plot. As for our hero, Bai Huang is clearly more than he at first appears, but I wasn’t sure exactly how he would turn out. In the second half of the book I realized that he fit a common historical romance archetype: the under-achieving aristocratic eldest son who has failed to live up to expectations but wants to do better. But he wasn’t predictable in this story because his background and context meant that his family interactions, his parents’ expectations, and his own choices were identifiably Chinese, not British or even generically Western. It’s a great example of how a little-used cultural context provides a palette of character motivations and actions that is the same in some ways and very different in others.

Jayne: Still, he’s a bit of the romantic in their growing relationship. She has to bring him back down to earth. It felt realistic that to her, sex would be devoid of emotion while he would get wrapped up the hearts and rainbows. And while her feelings changed more quickly than might be reasonable, I appreciate that Lin didn’t have one good sexual experience “cure” her. It took two. Oh, well.

Sunita: Those are really great points. The “bad sex” scene has the shape of other bad sex scenes in romance novels, but the particulars are all about these two characters. I admit I was also surprised at the relatively rapid transition, but by genre standards I suppose it’s not that fast.

Jayne: The roadblocks on the way to their HEA are formidable. He is of a renowned family of wealth and means. She is the daughter of a poor farmer who sold her. His family has already arranged a marriage for him and she resists becoming his concubine because she’s already been owned in the past and, now that she’s free, she’ll never submit to that again. As it got closer to the end of the book, I was biting my nails as I wondered how Lin would get them past this impossible impasse. A clever woman – yah! – saves the day. I hope she will get her own wonderful hero at some point.

Sunita: I honestly did not know how Lin was going to get this couple to an HEA. She laid the groundwork for why Yue-ying didn’t want to be a concubine so well that I launch into my usual “Oh, just go ahead, you’ll be set for life” lecture. Yes, there was a way to be a content woman as a concubine, but Yue-ying wasn’t going to be able to manage it, and neither would Bai Huang be able to play his part. And given that both she and Bai Huang knew that he wouldn’t be happy if he didn’t fulfill his family obligations, I didn’t see a way out. But there was, it was completely believable and, in retrospect, it was obvious.

Jayne: Yes, very obvious but very realistic and nothing that made me roll my eyes and think,”Oh, just go with it, Jayne!” As much as I enjoyed the romance though, the mystery didn’t work so well for me. It just didn’t make sense to me that Mingyu and Huilan, who had both been in this world of owned women for years, would have banded together over this one incident out of what surely must have been a similar background shared by many of these courtesans and prostitutes. The nitty gritty of solving the case didn’t differ from many mysteries I’ve already read and wasn’t as interesting to me as learning more about the Tang Dynasty.

Sunita: I don’t disagree with you at all on this, but I nevertheless went along with it. I didn’t have much of a sense of Huilan, but I felt that Mingyu had more intense emotions than she expressed, so her sudden decision seemed somewhat plausible. And while the procedural aspect was pretty standard, I liked the character of Constable Wu a great deal, especially his interactions with Yue-ying.

Jayne: The romance between a down-to-earth heroine and a more starry eyed hero “made” this book for me. The “how would she manage to get them together and solve the realistic conflict she’s set up” dilemma kept me glued to the story. The murder mystery – eh, not so much. I hope Wei-Wei will show up again in a future book and that we’ll see more of Yue-ying managing to keep Huang anchored and steady. B-

Sunita: I think that there are definitely readers who have similar reactions to yours, and I think you make a good argument for them. Nevertheless, when the romance started to really take off, and Yue-ying and Bai Huang had to balance their happiness at being together with the uncertainty of how they could have a future, I fell completely in love with this book. I think it’s in part because I deeply appreciated the way the context and the language reflected a more formal, hierarchical society while still showing the way romantic and familial love shaped people’s motivations and actions. It felt utterly authentic to me, and I don’t have that reaction very often. The way Lin took traditional romance archetypes and storylines and embedded them in an unfamiliar (for romance) context impressed me a lot. That’s probably why I find this to be her best book yet, and I expect that she will get even better. A-

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REVIEW:  Letters to Nowhere by Julie Cross

REVIEW: Letters to Nowhere by Julie Cross

Dear Julie Cross:

A few YA authors here and there have been writing stories that cross the boundaries of New Adult and Young Adult – they’re either a little on the mature side in characterization and/or situation to be YA for some publishers, or they’re a little younger in voice than other NA novels on the market. Either way, these authors have been using self-publishing as a way of finding a place for these stories. Your book Letters to Nowhere is exactly this: a YA novel with mature characters that is entirely unlike anything you’ve currently published, being entirely without time travel and an attached mystery. The only commonality is the strong romance, and that (luckily) has remained.

Letters to Nowhere by Julie Cross, recommended by John

Letters to Nowhere by Julie Cross, recommended by John

Two dead parents and a life turned upside down. Karen, lifelong gymnast with ambitions as strong as her resilience, has to try and survive after her parents are killed in a car accident one night. Her grandmother is her only real family left, yet said grandmother lives across the country. Moving across the country spells the end for Karen’s gymnastics career. Switching up coaches could mean stalled training, adjusting to yet another new coaching style, and maybe losing her chance at competing in international competition.

Karen’s coach doesn’t know her too well – he’s fairly new to the gym, replacing the old coach that left to coach college gymnastics at UCLA – but he’s willing to take her in for the year so she can complete her training without upsetting her progress. Her online schooling could continue on as usual, and Karen’s grandmother would still keep track of all of the financial and legal decisions. Her coach would simply take on the role of legal guardian for specific cases. He has no intention to infringe on Karen and become her new father; he just doesn’t want her to lose an opportunity she’s wanted for years.

Living with her coach proves to be as awkward as it is convenient. His son Jordan is a surprise, to say the least. Karen’s devotion to gymnastics has kept her out of the dating and social scene. She’s no introvert, but it’s hard to search for teenage boys to date when you’re spending a huge chunk of your time conditioning for gymnastics. Jordan may not be the most comfortable person to live with, but he seems to understand where Karen’s coming from with her grief. Panic attacks and anxiety-filled nights plague her regularly. She can’t stop envisioning her parents, the accident, a human head rolling away from it.

She was never told the details. All she can imagine is the worst, and it haunts her at every moment. As she continues to train and improve, Karen also has to deal with the lingering goals she set up with her parents at the beginning of the year: don’t push too hard, clean up her routines, and go early to UCLA to compete on the college level for a full ride. The catch is that doing so would ruin her chances at competing internationally, at competing on the Olympic level someday. Through every concern, Karen seems to turn to Jordan, and before she knows it she’s falling for someone that she has no place falling for, all in the name of figuring out where her life is without the two people she loved most.

It have the feeling that the self-published books that I’ve read and enjoyed have tended towards the angsty side of things – not necessarily with the relationships provided, but with the other extraneous things going on outside of the romance. Letters to Nowhere isn’t nearly as depressing as Suicide Watch was, but it has the same focus of a broken character who is effectively more ‘mature’ than most teenagers her age, one who is between high school and college. It’s an interesting period of suspension in the character’s life, especially when it involves a traumatic event. I think that Letters to Nowhere balances the angst well by using the romance as a way to buoy the harder feelings brought on by Karen’s anguish and guilt.

Balancing that angst works well with Karen’s voice. She’s very together when it comes to gymnastics and schooling. She may have issues with deciding her future, but those are issues connected more to her parents than to her own understanding. She looks at things with logic and uses that logic as a way to get through her grief, sticking to her dietary plans and making a point to detail the gymnastics work she does throughout the narrative. The logical thought process is supported enough frequently that it’s believable without being a huge “thing”, and it also allows the romance to proceed in a way that isn’t overdramatic. By contrast, the parts dealing with Karen’s grief, panic, and depression regarding the accident are extremely emotional and contrast with the rest of the narrative in a way that makes the emotions feel all too realistic.

Her romance with Jordan is a relief in comparison to everything. He has a past that gets revealed slowly throughout the book, a past that connects to his dad and makes his dad a great character, too. There’s an appropriate amount of angst and bad-boy in said past to make him appealing to today’s reading market, but for the most part he’s a sensitive guy that easily captures your heart. I liked how he worked with Karen to overcome all of the emotional shit in their lives, even when it wasn’t intended to be romantic. That’s what endeared me to him as a reader – that focus on Karen’s well-being throughout the narrative. They also had great dialogue, interacting with a lot of humor and general adorable-ness. I loved this scene in particular, where Karen recounts a memory of her father. The understanding between these two characters got to me every time.

“‘You used to do a double layout,’ Jordan said.

My eyebrows shot up. ‘Been looking me up?’

He grinned but didn’t confirm or deny it. I exhaled and continued my story. ‘Anyway, I’d switched to the double front and he thought I’d just peeled off and was heading neck first for the landing mats.’ I wiped a tear from my cheek and smiled at Jordan. ‘I guess that’s not exactly a great memory, but I’d never seen my dad so worried before about me before and later, when we went out for dinner, we laughed about it a lot. Apparently he jumped out of his seat and someone had to yell at him to sit down. It’s not like he could have leapt through the stands and caught me or anything.’

‘I like it,’ Jordan said. ‘If it made you laugh, that’s a good start. Much better than screaming.’

‘Yes, I learned that from Monsters, Inc.’

Kindle Location 4343

Your plotting is well-paced emotionally, and I think the outside factors involving gymnastics were handled well, too. Your history with them is obvious with the amount of detail that you put into the exposition regarding all of the gymnastics moves Karen was doing in the narrative. It may get old for readers who aren’t into it at all, but it shows a passion for the subject and feels like more than a way to show off the knowledge you as the author have on the subject. It worked well in giving the narrative extra depth beyond all of the emotional stuff, which was the best part of it.

The subplot with one of Jordan’s friends was a misstep for me. I liked that you made him a reoccurring character and made him useful to Karen’s development, yet I didn’t like how his own personal issues were barely touched upon and felt very common for side characters that go through said issue in YA and NA. Diversity is always a plus, but the rest of the story expanded on everything in detail and made it more than the common stereotypes, so I felt disappointed that the route of this character’s issues was so traditional in comparison to the surrounding characters.

The premise itself, while made to be believable by the storyline and the realism within it, is a little hard to swallow at first. You address the issue of Karen living with her coach well as it goes on, but I think it’s something that’s going to require a suspension of disbelief for other readers, especially with how sensitive of an issue it is to have a teenager to make any non-professional connection to someone that is supposed to be a mentor, teacher, or coach. I was able to appreciate the way it was handled, but it did have me worried when I initially started the book.

Letters to Nowhere was just a book that worked so well for me personally. The grief, the happy romance – it all had a way of working together to make an excellent whole. Some of my issues with it were minor, reflecting my hope that everything in the book would be treated with such finesse and expertise. It’s a great foray into the world of self-publishing with its clean writing style and editing, the characters sweet (they don’t go beyond some sexy kisses in this one, folks) yet mature. It’s a great read for someone looking for a YA mature enough to handle, or a book that would work for an NA reader who wants something more cute than erotic. Either way, they’re in for a great read. My final grade is an A-.

All my best,

John

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