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REVIEW:  Carolina Man by Virginia Kantra

REVIEW: Carolina Man by Virginia Kantra

carolina-manDear Virginia Kantra,

Carolina Man is the third book in your Dare Island series which, so far has featured the three offspring of Tom and Tess Fletcher.  Tom was a Marine for 20 years and after his retirement from the Corps, the family moved back to Dare Island, North Carolina to run the Pirate’s Rest B&B. Matt Fletcher, the oldest child, and teacher, Allison Carter, were featured in the first book, Carolina Home.  Meg Fletcher and Sam Grady were paired up in Carolina Girl and the third and youngest child, Luke, finally gets his book in Carolina Man. While each of the romances are separate stories, there is wider story arc in the trilogy involving Luke’s daughter, Taylor.  At the start of Carolina Home, Luke takes emergency leave from Afghanistan where he is a deployed Marine, to collect a daughter he never knew he had. His high school girlfriend, Dawn Simpson, dumped him when he enlisted and after she and her family moved off Dare Island, he never heard from her again.  Certainly he didn’t know that when she left she was pregnant with his daughter.  Dawn dies suddenly from a brain aneurysm and lawyer (and Dawn’s former employer) Kate Dolan contacts Luke to let him know that Dawn had nominated him as Taylor’s guardian in her will.  After confirming paternity, Luke takes Taylor to his parents to care for while he completes his deployment in Afghanistan.

*Mild series spoilers follow*

Most of Carolina Man occurs when Luke comes home from his deployment (some 4 months later) and tries to establish a meaningful relationship with and to secure permanent custody of his daughter. Kate Dolan is a family lawyer who, after a difficult childhood – her father was an abusive alcoholic – made it her life’s work to help (usually) women and children escape from difficult home situations.  She was also Dawn’s friend and Luke turns to her for help when Dawn’s parents (who want custody of Taylor) make unfounded allegations of maltreatment to Child Services.

While, with the above background, a reader could understand and enjoy Carolina Man as a stand alone, I think the true joy of the book is with the complete background of the previous stories.  Taylor features most strongly in the first and third books but her story arc continues over the entirety of the trilogy.  We know from the first book that something happened to Taylor when she was briefly in the care of Dawn’s parents after her mother’s death and before Luke arrived to take her to Dare Island, but we don’t know what.  We see Taylor begin to form bonds with the Fletchers, especially her Uncle Matt and her 16 year old cousin (Matt’s son) Luke.  We know that she longs for a relationship with her dad but she is also scared because she doesn’t know him and hasn’t really had a chance to with their communications pretty much limited to Skype.  We’ve also watched the family band together not just to help and welcome Taylor, but also to help Tess when she is seriously injured in a car accident in the first book.  I have read all three books and when I was reading the family scenes in this one it was with the rich background of having spend significant time with them.  I think that background only enhances the enjoyment of this, my favourite book of the series.

Like Brie at Romance Around the Corner, I think the series is reminiscent of Nora Roberts’ contemporary series (such as the Chesapeake Bay Saga) and I think fans of those books will enjoy the Dare Island books.  The style is easy to read and effortlessly engaging and full of the strong bonds of familial love.

I loved the banter between Luke and Kate, as well as the military metaphors Luke so often used and which fit his character so perfectly.

“You just got home. You’re understandably feeling unsettled. This is hardly the right time for you to be . . . for us to be doing . . .” She waggled her fingers in the air between them. “This.”

His grin broadened. “I’m not sure I recognize your hand sign. You mean dinner?”

She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean. Any sort of personal contact— relationship— between us would be terribly complicated.”

“Only because you’re thinking like a lawyer.”

“I am a lawyer.”

“Right. You’re used to complicating things. Marines keep it simple. Identify your long-term objective, execute the steps to achieve your objective.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Do you honestly expect me to believe your objective is to have dinner with me?”

“No,” he admitted. “Dinner would be more like the short-term strategy.”

“I thought so.”

“Getting to know you would be the objective,” he explained.

I really liked the way Luke saw through Kate’s defence mechanisms and assumed good intent, wisdom, strength and capability.  His default was to think the best of her when others may have been put off by her prickliness and her reliance on the rules and legal mores she was more familiar with.  He appreciates her doggedness when it comes to her job and her “focus on the mission” which he never mistakes for a lack of care.  Kate has never known family the way Luke has and seeing her get slowly assimilated into the Fletcher clan and to learn to be a part of a loving family was a pleasure.

Kate might be relationship-challenged but she’s no pushover either – just as well Luke had a habit of saying just the right thing.

“It’s different for guys. Look around next time you’re at a bar or a restaurant or even at the movies. The men are in jeans and T-shirts. Maybe they’ve shaved. And their dates are all made up and dressed up, like they have to knock themselves out just to be with these guys.” She stabbed her fork into a shrimp. “I have to dress for court. I don’t need to waste my weekends tweezing, waxing, and worrying about my underwear in return for ordinary food and mediocre sex.”

He was looking at her with the warm, slightly unfocused look men got when they were thinking about sex.

Point to me for mentioning the waxing thing, Kate thought smugly.

“You could try doing something about that,” he suggested.

What? Oh. “I suppose I could hold out for better restaurants.”

“Or better sex.” A low note of laughter underscored his voice.

Kate lifted her chin. “I can handle the sex part fine on my own. I don’t need a man to have an orgasm.”

“Then maybe you should try a better man.”

Not that Luke always said and did the right thing -  he wasn’t comfortable with Taylor at first and he fumbled enough with Kate that he felt human to me

He was uneasily aware he could have handled things better last night. Not the sex. The sex was amazing. The talking and the dinner before that had been great, too. But the gotta-go-I’ll-call-you bit at the end needed some work. Like the invasion of Iraq, the evening had been strong on shock and awe, weak on exit strategy.

There is also a kind of love story between Taylor and Luke – as they get to know one another, as the parent gene kicks in and he realises that Taylor has a hold on his heart.  What happened to Taylor when she was staying with the Simpsons wasn’t quite what I had expected.  I liked the way Luke got furiously angry but kept his focus on making sure Taylor was okay.  I liked that he was smart and that he demonstrated both to Taylor and to Kate that he could be relied upon but always kept on the right side of the line.  I would have liked a little more information on what happened with the other part of the Simpson family afterwards though – particularly because there had been a thread running through the story of Taylor benefiting by having relationships with Dawn’s relatives.  We never know exactly why Dawn didn’t tell Luke he was a father but it wasn’t a “secret baby” book in the traditional sense and it wasn’t something I felt I needed to know.

There were a couple of things I wasn’t quite clear on at the end, but they really only occurred to me as I was writing the review.  As I was reading I was too caught up in the story.  There will be another book in the series – Dare Island police chief Jack Rossi, who is introduced in Carolina Man will feature as the hero in Carolina Blue – so maybe those questions will be answered then.  I’m sure the Fletchers will have a supporting role there.

I suppose in many ways it is not so very different to any number of small town contemporary romances.  But I think this is a particularly good example of the subgenre and I don’t get tired of familiar tropes when they are done as well as this.  I give Carolina Man a B+ and recommend the whole series to lovers of small town contemporaries.  (I can also add that I have listened to the first book and the narrator is one of my personal favourites – Sophie Eastlake – so, for those who inclined to listen, I can recommend the audiobooks as well.)

Regards,
Kaetrin

 

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GROUP REVIEW:  The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin

GROUP REVIEW: The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin

 

Dear Ms. Lin:

A number of us here at Dear Author have really enjoyed your historical romances set in China, including (and perhaps especially) the Pinkang Li series.  Sunita and Jayne read and recommended The Sword Dancer and they and Janine raved about The Lotus Palace. Not surprisingly, therefore, there has been considerable excitement about its sequel, The Jade Temptress. Willaful hopped on board the Lin train and read The Lotus Palace for SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge and then went straight to The Jade Temptress, and Jayne snuck it into her teetering review pile. It’s rare that a book comes along that generates so much interest and praise, especially one that qualifies in multiple ways as an Unusual Historical, and since three of us couldn’t stay away, we decided a group review was the way to go.

jade-temptressA very brief summary before we dive into the review. Early in the story Mingyu discovers the brutal murder of her most powerful client, General Deng. She immediately summons Constable Wu, despite their conflicted history. Mingyu becomes a prime suspect, and Wu Kaifeng discovers that there are people in high and low places who have professional and personal interests in the outcome. Mingyu and Wu work together to try and clear Mingyu’s name and find the killer as well as the motive behind the murder, and as they spend time together they grow closer, even though their private lives run in parallel tracks that seem fated never to be brought together. The mystery and the romance are skillfully intertwined in this book, and together they create a rich, textured portrayal of medieval Chinese lives as well as a poignant, gripping love story.

Sunita: By the end of my reading of The Lotus Palace Mingyu and Constable Wu had almost (but not quite) stolen the story from Yue-Ying and Bai Huang, so I was really looking forward to seeing their relationship unfold. And I wasn’t disappointed. I would encourage everyone to read The Lotus Palace, of course, but do you think it’s possible to read The Jade Temptress without it?

Willaful: I don’t think readers would have any trouble following The Jade Temptress by itself, although they will encounter some major spoilers for The Lotus Palace. And I do think having a sense of Mingyu and Kaifeng’s uncomfortable history adds depth to this story — though we learn that there was even more to it than was originally revealed to us. Kaifeng had not only questioned Mingyu as a murder suspect, he had, following the usual procedure, also tortured her. He also — contrary to everything we know about him as a man solely committed to the truth and the law — stopped before truly damaging her.

Jayne: Bai Huang and Yue-Ying appear along with Wei-Wei, but they’re there to take part in this story and not just as sequel bait or Family Reunion Time. I think this one stands well on its own but why not read The Lotus Palace first and enjoy even more Lin goodness?

Sunita: One of my favorite aspects of Lin’s worldbuilding is the way she creates cross-class relationship that feel entirely organic. These aren’t people who are specifically rebelling against their own social and economic backgrounds; rather, they find themselves attracted to people who aren’t socially available to them. In some ways these romances feel more powerful to me, and yet the class differences are ever-present and have to be negotiated.

Willaful: As in The Lotus Palace, class is a very important issue here; in some ways, it’s even more complex than a relationship between a lord and a servant. As a constable, Kaifeng is a lowly working man with very little actual authority; what power he has is mostly personal, coming from his strength of personality. Mingyu is deferentially called “Lady” and consorts with men in the highest echelon, yet she is essentially an indentured servant, a bird in a gilded cage. Her influence is also personal, coming from her beauty and carefully acquired charm of manner.

When Mingyu was a murder suspect, Kaifeng had had power over her: “No one came to her defense. For all the compliments and praise the scholars bestowed upon her, she was still nothing more than a diversion.”

Jayne: Mingyu has had her peasant background scrubbed away and polished to a perfect jewel by Madame Sun while Kaifeng has no desire to be anyone but who he is – a mannerless oaf as Mingyu first sees him. But his blunt manner appeals to her because she can trust it over the smooth and practiced schmoozing of the scholars who frequent the Pinkang li.

Willaful: Yes, she ultimately falls for him, not only because he’s “the only man who looks at me as something more than a… a thing” but because “Wu was never anything but what he was.”

Another common theme to both books is the distinction between reality and artifice, in a setting that places a high value on veneer. These are the lessons a courtesan learns:

Feel whatever you needed to feel, but bury it deep. On the surface, there must be tranquility, gaiety and beauty. Such was the facade of the pleasure quarter. Mingyu had become so adept at being pleasing.

Sunita: I really appreciated that Mingyu is not a fake courtesan or an unwilling one, this is how she has made her life. It wasn’t her choice in the beginning, but she has become very successful, and she’s upfront about the benefits it has conferred. When she thinks about leaving this life, it’s not an easy choice.

Jayne: Mingyu has to inform Kaifeng about freedom v. security, which are not the same thing for Mingyu or Yue-Ying as for a man. As women, they must yield some of one for the other.

Willaful: And the security isn’t the only benefit. Her life is full of contradictions: “bondage and servitude on one side, poetry and music on the other.”

Sunita: As in her previous two books, I was completely captivated by the romance. From the beginning of their interactions, you can see that despite their differences in personality and social position, they have important things in common. And their attraction is built on respect and trust, which makes it believable, when they fall in love, that their love will be something real and lasting. For me, this is one of the most compelling aspects of the romances Lin creates. Even if they hadn’t fallen in love, you know that her heroes and heroines would admire and respect each other.

Willaful: Mingyu believes that Wu is immune to her artifices — she’s wrong — and she trusts his integrity. She tells him, “I don’t trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don’t care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his force are. You don’t care who I am, which mean you don’t care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth.” Later, when she realizes that Kaifeng does have feelings for her, it touches her deeply. “[Wu] wanted her simply because he desired her. Her and not some illusion.”

There are inevitable conflicts, because Wu finds it difficult to believe in the real Mingyu, the person inside the beautiful, poised surface.

Jayne: Kaifeng and Mingyu are drawn to each other. He to her fearless independence – her warrior self – and she to the fact that she can’t manipulate him with her beauty and learned wiles. Each is honest with the other – something they can’t be with almost anyone else. It’s telling that Mingyu sends first to Kaifeng when she discovers the General’s body. It’s not that she trusts him more but that she knows he’ll seek the truth of the matter.

I love the slow and gentle way their mutual love is teased out and revealed. He tells her that he knew her regular day to visit her sister – and thus planned his visit on that day to see her. She begins to notice his subtle, almost hidden, humor and crooked smiles. He is helpless not to love her because she is that which he – the consummate policeman – can’t resist, a mystery and she reveals bits and pieces of herself to him over the course of the investigation.

Sunita:  I’ve liked the mysteries in all the previous books, so I may not be the most discerning critic, but I thought the way the mystery, the romance, and the overall story fit together worked even better here than in the others. Thinking about it after I was done, I didn’t think you could have one part without the others. The mystery shaped the romance and vice versa.

Jayne: This time mystery works better for me. The main purpose is to be a framework on which to hang the relationship between Kaifeng and Mingyu. But I wanted to learn the truth behind the murder and was interested in political maneuvering and forensic details Kaifeng knows and uses to help solve the crime. Kaifeng has common sense too – as in how he solves whether or not a youth steals coins from butcher and later uses materials from the butcher shop to answer his own questions about how murder might have been committed.

Willaful: That’s a really good point. I’m not generally a fan of mystery in romance, but I was also more engaged by the mystery this time, and Wu’s deductive methods helped keep it interesting.

Sunita: I loved the ending of The Lotus Palace, but some readers found it harder to buy into. I thought the ending of The Jade Temptress worked really well and fit the characters as we have come to understand them.

Jayne: I love the quiet ending – it reminds me of The Sword Dancer. The challenge of how to resolve all the various impediments to their future life together is formidable. But Lin is a master at this and solve the roadblocks in believable ways using the strengths and talents of the people she’s created. Like Wei-Wei, I was delighted at how Mingyu destroys her adversary, how Kaifeng addresses the issue of Mingyu’s ties to the Lotus Palace, and how the two of them find their future in the end. Kaifeng is the only man she’s dealt with who wants her to be free and who doesn’t want to own her.  He wants her to be free to choose her life, and he wants her to freely choose him and not go to him because he’s her only option.

Willaful: Yes — although there’s still an element of luck in this ending, it really demonstrates the changes that have happened in them through falling in love, while allowing them to still be themselves.

Sunita: The Jade Temptress is definitely falls in the Unusual Historical category since neither the setting nor the characters are the standard European or North American. But the characters are completely accessible, in my opinion. As Jane said in a recent review of Carolyn Crane’s latest book, “it’s truly different yet not.” Grade: A.

Willaful: I appreciated how firmly we are inside this rich, interesting civilization. No one is an outsider, or outlier, or above the beliefs of the time. No one explains or excuses them. Yet it’s not at all intimidating. The language is accessible and the emotions are universal. Grade: B+

Jayne: That’s a great point about how we’re taken so deeply inside this world. I never felt lost or adrift about anything. Lin just keeps getting better and better for me and this one is a solid A.

 

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