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What Janine is Reading — April and May 2012

My hot reading streak in February and March turned into a reading slump in April. For a little while there, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into anything I picked up. I couldn’t even tell you guys what I tried to read at that time, because I didn’t make it far into anything and everything seemed forgettable.

Eventually I had enough of that and decided to try to see if I could revive my enthusiasm for reading by rereading books that had been hard to put down in the past. I picked two of my favorite Nalini Singhs, Caressed by Ice and Archangel’s Blade, and while neither one was as enjoyable as they’d been the first time around, they were still fun enough to restore my enthusiasm for reading.

Back in my reading groove, I read the following books:

Rainshadow Road Lisa KleypasRainshadow Road by Lisa Kleypas

This was my first full-length Kleypas in years (I really need to backtrack and read her Travis series sometime). I had read Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, but before that, nothing since Devil in Winter. Rainshadow Road, the story of a glass artist dumped by her boyfriend for her younger sister and a commitment-shy vintner, was enjoyable and different, though not perfect.

I liked the quirky community in which the story was situated. Details like the bikers and their church, the house being renovated, and the heroine’s brusque innkeeper friend, made this book come alive in a way that many contemporaries don’t manage to do for me. I agree with those who said that the magical realism was not always well-integrated into the story, and I also felt the romance itself was rushed. On the whole though, this book was quite enjoyable. C+/B-

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The Shape of Desire by Sharon ShinnThe Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

I have a hard time articulating why, but I couldn’t progress more than a chapter or two into this book, and I am a huge fan of Sharon Shinn’s earlier works. This happened to me once before with another of her books, Fortune and Fate. If I had to pin down a reason, I would say it has a lot to do with both the characters, and the lack of a strong plot hook.

The Shape of Desire, Shinn’s first urban fantasy, opens with a reunion between Maria and her boyfriend, the shape-changing Dante. Dante, we learn, has no control over his shape changing and for that reason his life and Maria’s are far from normal. For most of the time Dante roams the wild, and Maria worries about him. He can’t hold a normal job, and she can’t introduce him to her friends. We also see Maria with those friends, discussing relationships.

I liked the friends and their lunchtime away from work milieu, but I didn’t feel a connection to Maria or Dante. They were nice enough people, just not interesting. They had some problems, true, but these were not serious enough to make me feel I should care. According to the back blurb a string of murders would make their problems worse, but there was not enough ominous sense of that in the writing. Maria’s happiness that Dante had resurfaced made it hard for me to feel worried for them or even uneasy, so I put this down unfinished. DNF.

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Gaijin by Remittance GirlGaijin by Remittance Girl

Set in Japan, Gaijin is the story of an English waitress kidnapped and raped by a Japanese mobster. The novella focuses on Jennifer’s captivity and her struggle to survive it. We had an interesting discussion in the comment thread when I reviewed it. Some readers were offended by the idea of such a story, but I felt it examined the fascinating issue of cultural differences and ethnocentrism without in any way justifying or romanticizing rape. Despite feeling more like a slice-of-life vignette than a full-fledged story, Gaijin has stuck with me. Review here.

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This was an enjoyable enough Spice Brief from Harlequin, but it didn’t stay with me. The heroine who works on Wall Street, arrives at the hero’s Mexican resort for a brief getaway. He observes her plagued by the phone, sends her a drink at the bar, and later seduces her, all without saying a word. But why won’t he speak?

It was interesting to read a story with so little dialogue and I could almost hear the silence myself. The characters were sympathetic and likable, the writing lovely at times but awkward at other times. This was nice, but not memorable, especially when compared to Hancock’s post-apocalyptic romance novella Ghost in the Machine. Review here.

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Dancing on the Wind by Mary Jo PutneyDancing on the Wind by Mary Jo Putney

Recently I reread Putney’s Thunder and Roses, and though I didn’t enjoy it, I decided to see if I could reread the rest of the Fallen Angels series. After all, I used to love these books and also, they’ve been rereleased in electronic editions. It would be good to review them, or so I thought.

Dancing on the Wind is the second book in the series, featuring Lucien and Kit, who meet while he is investigating a group called the Hellions (modeled after the Hellfire Club) in search of a traitor and she is doing the same in order to find her sister’s kidnapper.

I’ve been reading this book for a month and so far I’m at the halfway point. The problem is that as Kit keeps disguising herself and Lucien finds her again and again, each time in a new identity, and each time without pinning down how to find her again, so their relationship is proceeding at a glacial pace. On the upside, I like them both better than I liked the protagonists of Thunder and Roses. Review to come when I finish, or give up on finishing.

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Moon Over Soho by Ben AaronovitchMoon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the second book in Aaronovitch’s delightful urban fantasy/police procedural series about Peter Grant, a London constable investigating paranormal crimes. In this one Peter is faced with the death of a string of jazzmen, just as his musician father decides to resume his jazz playing career.

Meanwhile, Peter gets involved with the former girlfriend of one of the dead men, investigates the violent death of a magical practitioner, trades witty quips with his supervisor and makes snarky remarks about London architecture and history. This series is adorable. If you haven’t tried them yet, what are you waiting for? Midnight Riot is the first book. As for Moon Over Soho, the review can be found here.

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Overseas by Beatriz Williams

This time travel was, as Jane has said, nothing if not romantic, but at the same time, it felt like a flight of wish-fulfillment fantasy. The pages turned very quickly as I kept reading to get to the bottom of the mystery of what was keeping the protagonists apart. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time but at the end, was left wishing for a little more substance and grounding in the World War I era.

Part of the problem was that the hero was just too perfect – a viscount, a brilliant student, athletic, gorgeous, chivalrous, a wall street titan, and a poet of literary greatness as well? Where do they make them like this, except in women’s fantasies? With all that going for him, it was difficult to understand why he fell so hard for the heroine. Still, he was lovely, and I like a Cinderella story as much as the next person. The romanticism and sheer fun of this book isn’t to be denied. B.

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Shadow and Bone by Leigh BardugoShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

This historical fantasy set in an alternate Russia started off wonderfully. Alina, an orphan who was raised with her best friend Mal, is plucked from obscurity when it’s discovered that she is a Sun Summoner – the only person who can free her country from the dark and horrifying rift known as the Shadow Fold.

Separated from Mal and brought to the stronghold of the Grisha, powerful magic users, she is trained in using her abilities, a task made difficult by her own suppression of her gifts. Alina misses Mal horribly, and wonders if he’s forgotten about her, even as she’s drawn to the leader of the Grisha, a fascinating man known as the Darkling.

Bardugo has a very engaging voice and I was loving this book until two thirds of the way through when a turn was taken in the story that sucked a lot of the complexity out of it. I kept reading to the end, but wished this one thing could be undone because it was so disappointing and without it, the book could have been marvelous. Review here.

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Fire by Kristin CashoreFire by Kristin Cashore

Cashore’s follow-up to Graceling was less engaging than its predecessor. Whereas Katsa was an active character with a mission, Fire, the heroine of the novel of the same name, was more passive and aimless. True, she had interesting mental powers tied to her matchless beauty, a good backstory and a great deal of selflessness, but none of that was enough to make me turn the pages as fast as I did with Graceling, and reading the story made me feel melancholy and even morose. Cashore’s writing is lovely, but also has a youthful innocence to it that didn’t fit the subject matter well here. All in all, I could take or leave this one. C.

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Bitterblue by Kristin CashoreBitterblue by Kristin Cashore

This is the third book in the same YA fantasy series and I thought it was better than either Graceling or Fire. It’s the story of an eighteen year old queen trying to take control of her reign and heal her kingdom from the national trauma inflicted by her late father when he was king.

There’s also a romantic subplot — Bitterblue sneaks out at night and befriends two young men while pretending to be a baker girl. One of them is a thief whom she spies stealing one of her castle’s gargoyles. She starts to fall for him, but he doesn’t know who she really is and she doesn’t know if he’s an enemy of hers.

Bitterblue discovers in the process that someone is harming her kingdom’s “truthseekers,” people who want to uncover the truth about her father’s misdeeds, and there’s a mystery over who it is that is trying to suppress the truth and what that person has to hide.

The themes of truth vs. lies, memory vs. moving on, discoveries and concealments, and the healing power of storytelling were so well integrated into this book. The characters were sympathetic yet real and the mystery at the center of the plot was compelling. The melancholy was leavened with humor. It is one of the most impressive YA novels I’ve read. Review to come.

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What are you guys reading? If you’ve read any of the books I mention above, what did you think of them? And when you have reading slumps, what do you do to break out of them?

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. Brie
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 10:26:09

    The Shape of Desire is one of the worst books I’ve read this year. He is emotionally and even physically unavailable, and all he does is use her for food and sex. But she loves him so she will settle for anything he has to give. They have been together for 15 years and he’s never allowed her to see him in animal form. The list is long, but just thinking about the book is making me angry all over again. I can’t believe I paid $12.99 for it.

  2. Darlynne
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 10:48:06

    Janine, I am so relieved Ben Aaronovitch’s book didn’t fall victim to your slump because that wouldn’t bode well for my upcoming reading life. Peter Grant is such a great character in an unusual story and I’m glad to see the promise of the first book is real.

    Overseas, though? I had to work to finish it and will probably react strongly–not in a good way–to anyone uttering in my presence “Beloved” or “Darling girl” or whatever endearments swamped the story. A financial analyst in the middle of the biggest crisis of 2008 and she is singularly uninformed about any of it? Really? As I mentioned elsewhere, there were so many unbelievable things and, by comparison, time travel wasn’t one of them. This book should have been perfect for me, but I grew tired of it.

    Robert Goddard’s (such a fabulous writer) Hand in Glove is the story of a 1930’s Spanish Civil War hero similar to Julian Ashford. In Pale Battalions has its basis in WWI. If you’re not familiar with Goddard’s work, you owe it to yourself to read him. His books are not mysteries per se, nor are they romance–although both elements are present–but the past always comes roaring up to impact the present in astonishing ways. A list, with synopses, is here: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/g/robert-goddard/

  3. Janine
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 11:13:05

    @Brie: It sounds like I didn’t miss anything I would have enjoyed. I got some sense of the dynamic you are describing from what I read and it was an additional turn-off for me.

    It’s too bad because I loved Shinn’s adult fantasy angel/Samaria series, her YA fantasy Safe-Keeper series, and her two SF novels, Wrapt in Crystal and Heart of Gold. I was less keen on the Thirteen Houses series but Dark Moon Defender was terrific and so romantic. And as recently as a few years ago I loved the novella “Blood” in Quatrain.

    I wish she would go back to the world of that novella and Heart of Gold. It’s such a socially complex and fascinating setting, and she’s managed to explore cultural differences, as well as gender roles, terrorism, and racism in those two works, while telling compelling stories in the process.

    @Darlynne: So far the Aaronovitch series is almost as charming and endearing as Peter.

    I’m sorry you didn’t care for Overseas. I have a couple of friends who felt the way you did, one of whom read it on my recommendation. I see Overseas as a romantic wish-fulfillment fantasy, more fluff than substance, but entertaining for all that. I know I found it hard to put the book down, even though I didn’t love it as much as Jane did.

    My friend told me she thought the writing itself was amateurish, which surprised me since I thought it was solid. I agree where Julian’s dialogue is concerned though — he did lay the darlings on thick. I saw his whole character as more of a dream man/prize than a person who could exist in the real world in any era, but it worked for me in the fantasy/fairy tale context.

  4. EGS
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 11:17:51

    I have to disagree about Bitterblue. It fell so flat to me, and had little movement throughout the almost 600 page story. Bitterblue as a character basically spends her time moping around the castle, the Saf storyline was dropped and never recovered, her father’s history was so evil as to almost be ridiculous, and Katsa/Po were obnoxious. I was definitely disappointed. I loved Graceling but I feel like Cashore is quickly edging into “preachy” in terms of her politics in her novels. It gets grating after a while.

  5. Janine
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 11:26:07

    @EGS: That is interesting. My review of Bitterblue is running today and as you will see if you read it, the political stuff that came across as preachy to you really spoke to me. Having spent my early childhood in Israel, I could really relate to the subject of the traumatized kingdom.

    I also loved Bitterblue and felt that she doggedly pursued her goal of learning more/gaining agency the whole time. Yeah, her personal history and Monsea’s national one got to her at times, but she wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. She is my favorite of Cashore’s heroines.

    SPOILERS
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    I really loved the handling of the story with Saf, too. Completely apropos to their ages and their different social stations, IMO. It was a vehicle for Bitterblue’s growth, not a long term relationship. Most first romantic relationships are that way.

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    END OF SPOILERS

  6. Brie
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 11:49:35

    @Darlynne: I’ve been struck in the middle of Overseas for weeks now. The only reason I’m not calling it a DNF is because I’m curious to see how it ends so I might finish it, eventually. But I had the same problems you did and I found the characters a bit Twilight-ish. The way the hero is so overprotective, then he leaves her saying he’s too dangerous just to come back because he can’t stay away from her. Also, he accepts her time travel story so easily! It felt off, like all the elements of a great romance were there, but the execution was poor. I do see the appeal, though.

    @Janine: The first time I read one of Ms. Shinn’s stories was last year when I read Nocturne, the novella in the Angels of Darkness anthology (did you read that one? How did you like Ilona Andrews’ novella?). I loved that story, which is part of the Samaria series. But I was feeling lazy and instead of getting the first Samaria book, I decided to read The Shape of Desire because it was book 1 in a new series. I must say that her take on shifters is quite original, but the romance was terrible. I really like her voice, but TSoD left me with such a bad aftertaste I’m weary of reading her again. Dark Moon Defender sounds intriguing, though.

  7. Janine
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 12:06:00

    @Darlynne: I looked up that Robert Goddard page. He does sound good. What do you suggest as the best starting place for someone interested in trying one of his books?

    @Brie: I haven’t read the novella in Angels of Darkness yet, but I’ll have to rectify that.

    The Samaria books are probably my favorite Shinns. I’m not sure what my favorite of them is, but I love that world and there’s something so romantic about the angel/human pairings given the way the world is constructed.

    I would recommend starting there, rather than with Dark Moon Defender which is the third book in the Thirteen Houses series. The world of the Thirteen Houses is less imaginative IMO, and I think most of the Samaria books (with the possible exception of The Alleluia Files) are highly romantic.

    If you choose to go that route, you can start with Archangel which is the first book published in that series (By the number of reviews on Amazon, it also appears to be her most popular book) , or with Angelica which is a prequel and the earliest set of the books, I believe.

    Back in 2006, in the early days of DA, we had a “Sharon Shinn Week” and the resulting posts, including an interview with Shinn, can be found here. More recent Shinn reviews can be found here.

  8. EGS
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 14:21:18

    SPOILERS

    It wasn’t so much that Saf and Bitterblue didn’t end up together in the end that bothered me, just that their relationship was based on very little. They had some moments before Saf realized who Bitterblue was, but then he turned into a real asshole, and then suddenly they sleep together, and then he leaves because…well, because. And Bitterblue goes back to her paperwork. Hrn.

  9. Darlynne
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 16:53:33

    @Brie: Amateurish is exactly what I thought of the writing in Overseas. And then I got completely bogged down with the circular “I love you, you don’t trust me, what aren’t you telling me, I can’t tell you everything” drama. Day-to-day was unbelievable; time travel was a piece of cake.

    @Janine: Hard to choose a particular Goddard book. Most people find that the first they read remains their favorite, not because the others aren’t as good or better, but because they know they’ve come to an exceptional, almost magical, place. Oh, the pressure.

    OK, I’m going to go with In Pale Battalions or Hand in Glove or Past Caring. Into the Blue was my favorite, my first, made into a horrible movie, but it’s contemporary and I don’t know what you’re in the mood for. I will say that you won’t have any idea where the story is going–in a really good way–until the end, because nothing is as it appears. I do so hope you like his writing.

  10. Leslie
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 17:55:45

    I just finished Moon Over Soho last night. I love Peter Grant and at the same time I am exasperated by the choices he makes. I found myself saying over and over “No Peter No!!!”. After what happened to his friend in Midnight Riot I was worried what Aaronovitch would do this time around. I liked being on pins and needles about the outcome and am looking forward to reading the next book.

    I didn’t like Overseas. I found the heroine annoying. She was stupid, cowardly and wishy washy. Totally unbelievable. I couldn’t understand why she was so “beloved” by the hero. I only finished reading the book to see how Williams would pull it off. After all the hype I was very disappointed.

    I loved Thunder and Roses, and feel that Dancing on the Wind is the weakest book in the series. The costume thing got old very quickly and I don’t like the Hellfire Club trope.
    I’m curious to hear how you feel about Shattered Rainbows and One Perfect Rose.

  11. Edith
    Jun 14, 2012 @ 00:11:45

    I was stunned to find the Shinn *dreadful*. I’ve adored her Samaria books. But Shape of Desire was not just boring with a cast of stupid unlikable characters, the ending was annoyingly convenient. I started listening to it but was so bored I got the book from the library and skimmed to the end. Glad I didn’t pay for the book. Sadly, this is the first book in a series. I can’t imagine them getting better.

    Love love love Aaronovitch’s voice! I listened to the book and the reader was excellent.

  12. BR
    Jun 14, 2012 @ 01:34:50

    Good, more people who thought the Shape of Desire was dreadful! I read it recently from the library, and honestly if I had spent money on it I would have emailed her directly to ask for a refund it was SO BAD!

    I read Rainshadow Road, I have read the first two as well (on recommendations from here and they were in the library) Sweet and light and good to while a way a Sunday afternoon on the sofa. I had no major complaints (except how she kept forgiving her sister)

    I am hearing nothing but good things about Ben Aaronovitch – I am going to have to do something about that RSN!

  13. Rosario
    Jun 14, 2012 @ 05:19:41

    @Brie:

    @Darlynne: I’ve been struck in the middle of Overseas for weeks now. The only reason I’m not calling it a DNF is because I’m curious to see how it ends so I might finish it, eventually.

    Exactly the same for me, although it sounds like I got stuck a little bit earlier than you. It was the first exchange of texts that did it for me, found them completely unbelievable, and then lost interest after a couple more chapters. I do want to read a little bit more, though, see if it gets better.

    Completely agree with Janine’s Sharon Shinn recs. The Samaria series is where you should start, but I’d add Heart of Gold if you would prefer a stand-alone. I found that one less romantic, but very interesting.

  14. Janine
    Jun 14, 2012 @ 09:02:49

    @EGS:

    SPOILERS for Bitterblue
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    The things you mention having a problem with were things I saw as integral to the class-difference conflict. Bitterblue was a queen, Saf was a commoner — and that meant that Saf’s sense of self was on the line in this relationship. Once he found out who she was, that drove all his actions with her, so I thought there were good reasons for those actions.
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    @Darlynne: Thanks for the rec! I’ll look those up and put one on the Excel spreadsheet my husband developed to help us decide what to read next (he’s an engineer, LOL).

    @Leslie: I had that same “No Peter No!” reaction in Moon Over Soho, but I really liked the way things ended, and the setup for book three looks excellent. I have an ARC of that one TBR and I plan to try to get to it soon.

    It’s interesting to hear from so many people who didn’t care for Overseas. I can understand why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I thought it had some things on the ball.

    Not sure if I’ll get that far in the series, but the first several times I read them, back in the 1990s, Shattered Rainbows was my favorite.

    @Edith, @BR & @Rosario (as well as Brie): You guys make me glad I quit The Shape of Desire as early as I did. I read her previous book Troubled Waters, and it worked pretty well for me but not as well as some of her others.

    @Edith: So glad you enjoyed Aaronovitch’s books. Thanks for letting me know!

    @BR: I thought the Kleypas was really great in developing the side characters that surrounded Lucy but the development of the romantic relationship could have been stronger. I hope you enjoy the Aaronovitch series!

    @Rosario: The texts in Overseas worked for me because they were motivated by things that had happened to Julian and Kate in his past/her future. Since we are in her POV, we don’t know about those events yet, but I felt those texts helped foreshadow what would happen/had happened.

  15. orchard
    Jun 15, 2012 @ 13:18:55

    I’ve read the reviews for Gaijin over the last several weeks and it sounds so intriguing. But is it just me or is this book no longer available? I’ve searched Amazon, followed the links on the reviews, searched the author’s web page…..nothing.

  16. Janine
    Jun 15, 2012 @ 13:24:23

    @orchard: Wow, that is weird! I can’t find either! I’ll contact Remittance Girl via Twitter and let you know what she says.

  17. Janine
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 01:17:57

    @orchard: Remittance Girl says “At the moment, I am without a publisher. But hopefully not for long.”

    I don’t know anymore than that but she can be contacted at Twitter @remittancegirl.

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