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What Jennie’s Been Reading, Part the Third

By Jennie

Another in my sporadic updates on what I’ve been reading…

Still reading Bleak HouseStill. But: I finished The Brothers Karamazov and it was awesome! Okay, awesome is a bit strong, but finally, a big, important Russian novel that I felt connected to. It makes me want to read The Idiot soon. But not too soon. Also read:

Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe: Not sure why I picked this up, except that I’d heard it was better than the average star autobiography. I didn’t really think it was (better, that is). It was okay, but it read the way I imagine Lowe to be in real life: glib and a bit shallow. He sure was pretty when he was younger, though. I still remember all the girls at my middle school going to the first showing of The Outsiders when it premiered, and swooning over Soda Pop.

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Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne: I was disappointed in this one. In Christine’s review, she touches on the equality of Adrian and Justine, but it was what I perceived as the lack of equality that continually frustrated me. It was one of those romances where the hero has to best the heroine constantly, just a little bit. That is something that bugs me enough in the normal course of things, but when the heroine *is* supposed to be the hero’s equal (in this case, in spying), and yet the reader is shown in a million little ways that he is more competent than she, it damn near maddens me. It reminds me of Anne Stuart’s Ice Storm, and then it’s “flames, flames on the side of my face!” time for me. Seriously, that book makes me want to punch a kitten, and I love kittens.

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 Bess of Hardwick by Mary S. Lovell: Man, if The Tudors didn’t prove it, I am reminded once again that life in Tudor England was dangerous. Not just for the poor and downtrodden, subject to all sorts of fatal diseases, but to the upper classes, who were also at the mercy of those diseases (though perhaps a bit better protected from them), and as well in danger of getting their heads lopped off. What I find strange is all the scheming people did back then, knowing what the consequences might be. I mean, I get the idea of ambition, in theory (in practice I find that ambition gets in the way of napping), but if decapitation is one of the possible outcomes, I’ll just stay at home in my drafty castle and mind my own business, thank you very much (note: some people did try this and STILL got their heads cut off; it wasn’t a foolproof system). So, Bess of Hardwick is especially noteworthy for being ambitious, successful, and so far, in no danger of being snuffed (unlike numerous poor souls around her). Of course, I’m not quite halfway through this biography yet, so who knows what might happen? So far, so good.

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 Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich: I managed to avoid the Stephanie Plum series entirely for the first decade and a half of its existence. I followed the Ranger-Morelli wars at a distance, but the series didn’t really interest me (I’m not a big mystery reader). Then I got sucked into reading the first book a couple of years ago for a book club thing. I was surprised to find that I actually rather liked it. It wasn’t my usual sort of book, to be sure. But it was very readable. Very easy and quick, and it didn’t require much brain power. I am sure that sounds like damning with faint praise, but darn it, sometimes that’s what I really want in a book. When I finished the first book, I wanted to read the second. And then then next, and the next, and the next. So now I’m on book 15. The weird thing is that whenever I start one of the Plum books it takes me a few chapters to really get into it. At first I kind of roll my eyes at the recitation of familiar Stephanie facts and the stereotypical behavior of the secondary characters. I find myself annoyed at Stephanie’s inevitable bumbling as some pathetic skip manages to outwit and escape her. But after a while I remember what I like about the world Evanovich has created – how familiar and comfortable it is, how I really do like most of the characters quite a bit. The humor is too broad and unrealistic for me to say that I find it very funny (I tend to like broad humor more on screen than on the page), and the mysteries are not usually hugely involving (though again, I’m just not much of a mystery fan in general), but somehow these books work for me. For the record, I am Team Ranger, though I like Morelli fine.

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 The September Queen by Gillian Bagwell: Earlier this year I read and reviewed Darling Strumpet so when the opportunity came along to read about another one of Charles II’s mistresses, I thought: sure, why not? Of course, if I read a book about ever woman he ever screwed, I will be reading about them for the rest of my life. Jane Lane (I think her parents might have given a bit more thought to her Christian name, but that’s just me) was actually an early conquest of Charles (at least according to this story); they met when he was on the run from Cromwell’s forces, before the Restoration. Anyway, I will be reviewing this, but so far, I’m finding Jane a little annoyingly googly-eyed over hot Charles. At 25, she’s actually several years his senior, and practically ancient for a woman of that era, so I have little patience for her swooning. But there’s a lot of book left, and I’m curious to see where the story will go from here.

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Until next time,

Jennie

 

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

21 Comments

  1. Janine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 10:21:31

    It was one of those romances where the hero has to best the heroine constantly, just a little bit. That is something that bugs me enough in the normal course of things, but when the heroine *is* supposed to be the hero’s equal (in this case, in spying), and yet the reader is shown in a million little ways that he is more competent than she, it damn near maddens me.

    Me too. I felt the same way about Stuart’s Ice Storm, and had a similar issue with Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, but I loved the language, so I’ve been wanting to try Bourne again. Is there one you would most recommend among her books?

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  2. Avery Flynn
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 10:47:07

    Oh I agree with Team Ranger. :)

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  3. Suzanne
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 10:54:07

    @Janine…I loved The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne. I had been eagerly awaiting The Black Hawk, but about 1/3 of the way through I put it down…just a little disappointed in it, so thought I would take a break and try again later. Really a bummer though, because Adrian is such an awesome character in all the other books.

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  4. Janine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 11:21:27

    @Suzanne: Thanks! I think I have The Forbidden Rose in my TBR pile.

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  5. Ros
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 12:07:37

    Rob Lowe: still pretty. That is all.

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  6. vita
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 12:52:05

    The Stepanie Plum books are just like Lays potato chips, ya can’t eat (or read) just one! Is One for the Money coming out this Christmas? It must be because I’ve seen a new edition with Katherine Heigle on the cover. I think Sherry Shepard, from the View, is the ex-prostitute character. Can’t think of her name…

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  7. Christine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 14:14:23

    @Jennie who said “but it was what I perceived as the lack of equality that continually frustrated me”

    @Janine who said “I felt the same way about Stuart’s Ice Storm, and had a similar issue with Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady”

    I agree that in “The Spymaster’s Lady”there was a large inequality between Grey and Annique but as she was a very petite teenager and he a good size seasoned and decorated army veteran and head of section for the British Secret Service (and a good ten plus years older) it would have seemed odd if there weren’t. Bourne also goes to great lengths in that one to show Annique does not have a killer instinct either and pulls back from doing anything that would seriously hurt Grey and even the villain who is constantly trying to kill her. That’s a serious disadvantage.Also he is someone who has been on the front lines killing, she is a spy meant to blend in and bring back reports, not take out targets. They are apples and oranges.

    With Justine and Adrian I didn’t feel the inequality at all except in their circumstances. It’s constantly shown how Justine excels at her job despite the fact that she is female (which is in many ways a huge disadvantage), on the losing side, and years behind Adrian in spy and”survival training.” When Justine and Adrian meet he is a seasoned killer and thief having grown up on the streets and had risen to the position of “Hand” for Lazarus the king of the London underworld. Justine has somewhat recently been rescued from a brothel for pedophiles and has been doing some minor spy work in an adult brothel. Adrian has been scratching out a living on the streets his entire life. Justine’s childhood was spent as an aristocrat then trapped as a child prostitute. Her assignment with Adrian at the orphanage is the first time she had any work beyond “look and listen.” Adrian has been killing people and sneak thieving for his entire life. They are both intelligent and crafty but he has years of experience on her. I enjoyed the fact that she could be just as ruthless and bloodthirsty as he. When it comes to her first revenge killing she is no shrinking violet.

    I’m curious to know what stuck out for you both as Justine seeming “less” than Adrian?

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  8. Janine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 15:26:13

    I’m curious to know what stuck out for you both as Justine seeming “less” than Adrian?

    I haven’t yet read The Forbidden Rose or The Black Hawk so I wasn’t commenting on either book, just on Anne Stuart’s Ice Storm and Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady. So I can’t speak to the equality (or lack thereof) between Adrian and Justine. I look forward to Jennie’s answer.

    With regard to The Spymaster’s Lady, I don’t think the inequality would have bothered me as much if it hadn’t been for all the English male spies praising Annique so much for being a super-competent spy. IIRC, I felt she was entrapped and imprisoned by Grey easily and even after she escaped, she shared state secrets with a man whom she believed to be a new acquaintance.

    For all these reasons, she didn’t seem particularly good at her spying job to me and that, combined with her improbable virginity and the praise of her spying abilities, served to make her characterization feel inconsistent to me.

    I loved Bourne’s way with words — her writing is downright poetic — so my frustration with Annique was exacerbated by my inability to enjoy the story. In hindsight, I sometimes wonder if I was too harsh on the book, since it had many strengths, but I also recall it as a highly frustrating reading experience.

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  9. Jennie
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 15:59:19

    @Janine: Honestly, I’m not even sure at this point. There’s a certain sameness in the quality of Bourne’s h/hs that I think has started to make all her books pall for me. That tart, ironic voice was more appealing before I realized that most of the main characters employ it.

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  10. Jennie
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 16:10:28

    @vita: Lula. I think Shepherd should be good in that role. I remember some kvetching about Katherine Heigl as Stephanie, but I think she’s a good choice. Of course, Heigl is one of those actresses that people seem to hate unreasonably.

    Anyway, if it gets half-way decent reviews, I’ll see it.

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  11. Jennifer
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 16:20:14

    @Janine: I agree with you about Bourne’s way with words. I listened to The Spymaster’s Lady as an audiobook, and really enjoyed it. I am have a paper copy of The Forbidden Rose on reserve at the library – it will be interesting to see if I enjoy her voice as much when reading it.

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  12. Jennie
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 16:53:05

    @Christine: Christine, it’s hard to say because it was chiefly in subtle ways, but you actually allude to it by describing the differences in their experience. I would’ve vastly preferred it if Justine had the same level of experience as Adrian rather than being a bit of a beginner to his experienced spy.

    Things I remember – he was shown to be accomplished at picking locks; I don’t recall that she had any corresponding special skill that he lacked. He, of course, has had lovers, whereas she’s simply been a sexual victim. He gets the best of her when they encounter each other in Belgium (I think it’s Belgium – where he lets her go). It was little irritant piled on little irritant. We are told a lot how good she is, but we are SHOWN how good Adrian is.

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  13. Jane
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 17:59:01

    @Christine I’ve other issues with BlackHawk (flashbacks primarily) but I agree with your assessment that Justine and Adrian read like true equals to me.

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  14. JB Hunt
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 18:50:50

    @Jane, I enjoyed the flashbacks in The Black Hawk, as I did in Sherry Thomas’s Private Arrangements.

    Refreshing to see a non-chronological narrative in a romance, for a change.

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  15. MaryAnn
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 22:05:59

    I haven’t read that bio of Bess of Hardwick but it’s on my TBR list because I also find her to be a totally fascinating minor player of the Elizabethan period. I’ve been interested in her ever since I read an extremely lurid romance novel about her as a teenager… and I just realized I can’t remember who wrote it! That’s really too bad, it might be fun to reread for laughs. Has anybody else read that? Can you remember the title or author?

    I do think Bess of Hardwick, in contrast to a lot of political players of the era, is someone who benefited immensely from all of that scheming and plotting. A lot of nobles went straight from being extremely powerful to being headless. Coming from impoverished gentry, she had a lot more to gain than they did. Another example of a political player who took big risks that paid off is William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Not coincidentally both were very loyal to Elizabeth I. She liked to promote people of lesser birth because it kept the powerful nobles from ancient families in line (more on why that was necessary later).

    I have also given quite a bit of thought as to why people that were already extremely privileged were so willing to risk their lives for even more political power during the Renaissance when the payoff was honesty very poor. There are really a number of reasons as to why this was the case and I think it’s a mistake to see the nobility as acting purely from desire from political power, although obviously that played a role in their involvement in treasonous activities.

    The historical context for this behavior is relevant here. The English nobility and royalty had been killing each other in pursuit of greater political power for most of the country’s recent history. The English nobility spent most of the 15th century fighting the War of the Roses. It was a period with far more political violence than the 16th century.

    After the Henry VII ended the War of the Roses and the Tudors came to power it was not at all certain that they wouldn’t be deposed as a number of recent monarchs had been. When the nobility engaged in treasonous behavior it was because they thought they had a good shot at deposing the current monarch. Elizabeth I was viewed as a particularly weak target because she was a woman and the product of her father’s second marriage, which was seen as illegitimate by some. The Tudors’ harsh response to treason or even suspected treason stemmed from their fear of losing the throne as so many others had.

    Also, many of those who schemed against Elizabeth I were Catholics that were influenced by fervent religious belief. They embraced Mary, Queen of Scots, as the legitimate ruler after the pope declared Elizabeth I illegitimate. One can’t underestimate religious belief as one of the most important drivers political conflict in 16th and 17th c. Europe.

    Finally, from the perspective of someone living in the 21st c., it can be difficult to understand how important building dynastic power was to the English nobility for most of their history. Many of them saw advancing familial power as just as important as – if not more important than – preserving their lives. During the Tudor period Henry VIII and Elizabeth I very successfully curbed the power of the nobility to summon their own military forces and that caused quite a bit of backlash since it did truly diminish the power of the nobility.

    Sorry that got so long! I just find the English Renaissance, especially the Elizabethan period, to be so fascinating, and it’s partly because their worldview is so foreign to us. I thought maybe I could shed a little light on this particular bit of puzzling behavior but, as is usually the case when I start talking about history, I got a bit carried away.

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  16. Christine
    Dec 02, 2011 @ 08:29:56

    @Janine who said “I felt she was entrapped and imprisoned by Grey easily and even after she escaped, she shared state secrets with a man whom she believed to be a new acquaintance. ”

    I agree about the secret sharing part- I had a problem with that. It seemed inconsistent with her character but I guess the point was she really thought she was almost “free” at that point? I don’t think she was trapped easily at all by Grey (unless you mean in England after falling for his whole new persona part. In France she was blind and it took three of them to catch her the first time. She also got the better of Grey while blind and left him trussed up like a turkey.

    I also though Bourne did a good job of showing how Annique was a good spy and the long history Doyle and Adrian had skirting around her in different countries for years.

    That being said even though I love “The Spymaster’s Lady” it may be my least favorite of Bourne’s books. I find the couple the least romantic of her books and I was more interested in Adrian as a character than the hero.

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  17. Christine
    Dec 02, 2011 @ 09:08:14

    @Jennie who said “Things I remember – he was shown to be accomplished at picking locks; I don’t recall that she had any corresponding special skill that he lacked. He, of course, has had lovers, whereas she’s simply been a sexual victim. He gets the best of her when they encounter each other in Belgium (I think it’s Belgium – where he lets her go). It was little irritant piled on little irritant.”

    I don’t know if you have read Bourne’s other two books but in “My Lord And Spymaster” the heroine is a former thief who is an expert at picking locks and sneaking across roofs etc. She actually becomes the “Hand” of Lazarus some time after Adrian has left the position. I am assuming Bourne didn’t want to create too many expert lock picking characters and as Justine was a beginner she couldn’t be an expert at everything right away.
    Because I have read all the books (and am apparanly the Bourne equivalent of the trekkie William Shatner tells to “get a life” in that old SNL skit) I have had the benefit of seeing Justine helping to “educate” Adrian in Forbidden Rose. Adrian is from the streets in London and his accent etc. (as mentioned in Black Hawk) is terrible. There is a nice scene in TFR where Adrian and Justine sit down cozily together as he is learning from one of her books.
    One thing I like about her books is all the little bits of information you can pick up through the books about the characters that is very subtle.

    @Jane- I didn’t mind the flashbacks at all because they were integrated into the story so well. I despise books that begin with long prologues that take place years ago. The author will lose me almost immediately. I felt like Bourne got the reader hooked in the “present” before diving into any flashbacks. Because Joanna Bourne had never intended originally to make Adrian a leading man (she thought he wasn’t hero material) she has said she painted herself in a corner regarding the timeline in previous books. Because of the first book she wrote (which included Adrian) the readers know he is still single in 1818 and that Justine had shot him at the time of Spymaster’s Lady etc. I don’t see any way she could have written his story without flashbacks.

    I’m glad you agree about their relative equality. For me they are different in their skills and experience but definitely equal, particularly in their relationship. If anything Justine struck me as being the cooler one relationship wise.

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  18. Jennie
    Dec 03, 2011 @ 00:26:08

    @JB Hunt: I also have no problem with flashbacks. It’s one of those things that other readers seem opposed to that I just don’t quite get.

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  19. Jennie
    Dec 03, 2011 @ 00:30:01

    @MaryAnn: Not at all – it’s very interesting!

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  20. Jennie
    Dec 03, 2011 @ 00:59:46

    @Christine: I agree that Justine seemed the cooler one in the relationship. That wasn’t an issue for me.

    I did read Bourne’s other books; I don’t remember them as well as The Spymaster’s Lady, where I had a similar problem. I just want a heroine who is depicted as ruthless to actually be ruthless, and Justine did not have the edge that Adrian did.

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  21. Janine
    Dec 03, 2011 @ 15:40:27

    @Christine: I had to refresh my memory by reading my 2008 review of The Spymaster’s Lady. Here’s some of what I found I had written about the book:

    First, we are told that Annique is an amazing spy, but as a good friend of mine pointed out when we discussed the book, every time Annique and Grey grapple in any way, he always gets the upper hand. When he wants to entrap her in chapter two, he succeeds (and he does it by using her thirst for water against her, as if she were a wild animal). When she tries to escape in the carriage, he stops her. When she tried to escape again (being softhearted and not wanting to kill him in the process), he knocks her away and hurts her. When he decides to drug her with opium so that she won’t attempt another escape, she does not detect the opium in her coffee, even though she’s blind and so her other senses are supposedly acute. And on it goes… He gets the upper hand every time, and puts one over on her more than once in the process.

    You can find the full review here.

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