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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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RITA Best First Book 2012 Interviews: Historical

RITA Best First Book 2012 Interviews: Historical

Welcome to part two of the 2012 RITA Best First Book interview series. Up today are the rakes and scoundrels, strumpets and spies, ladies and lords. Luscious historical tidbits follow, so let us know in the comments what struck your fancy and if you’d like to win this set of books.

About the nominated books…

The Darling Strumpet, by Gillian Bagwell: Nell Gwynn, one of history’s most famous courtesans, is the inspiration for this novel, set in 17th century London.

The Darling Strumpet by Gillian BagwellOpening lines: The sun shone hot and bright in the glorious May sky, and the streets of London were rivers of joyous activity.

Nell Gwynn’s six word memoir: From nothing to the king’s bed!

She is… one of the first actresses in England! Nell got her start in the theatre selling oranges, but it wasn’t long before her saucy wit and likeable sex appeal got her noticed. She rapidly became a beloved comic actress, and she and her lover and mentor Charles Hart, one of the leading actors of the King’s Company, inspired a wave of romantic comedies and became the William Powell and Myrna Loy of the 1660s!

What readers will love about the hero: He’s Charles II, King of England, one of the most charismatic men in history! But he understands Nell and can identify surprisingly well with her impoverished childhood and desperate need for security.

The first kiss happens… in the king’s privy chamber, after a private supper engineered by the Duke of Buckingham, who was raised with Charles II and was like a brother to him. Nell knows what she’s getting into—Buckingham has made it clear he wants to put a mistress in the king’s bed who will be friendly to him and influence the king for him.

A scene I vividly remember writing: There’s a scene when [Nell] and Charles Hart walk out to observe the devastation in the aftermath of [the Great Fire of London in 1666]. St. Paul’s Cathedral has fallen and the streets around it are unrecognizable jumbles of ruin. I wrote that scene as an exercise when I was taking Kerry Madden’s class—the direction was to have the character start in stillness and then move faster and faster and finally come to rest. I had Nell have a panic attack as she is overwhelmed by a sense of loss, devastation, and disorientation, which worked well in the context of the story. I know that area of London very well and could imagine how it might have looked in those awful days after the fire. And fortunately the diarist Samuel Pepys left a very vivid description of touring the fire area and what he saw.

An unexpected research detour: One of the books I read while writing researching The Darling Strumpet was Derek Wilson’s All the King’s Women, about the various women in Charles II’s life. Wilson wrote about Charles’s desperate flight after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and how a young woman named Jane Lane helped him by disguising him as her servant and riding with him to Bristol…. The Royal Miracle, as the whole odyssey came to be called, was a very formative episode in Charles’s life—after he was restored to the throne he told the tale over and over…. When my agent asked what I was going to write next, I suggested Jane Lane and her adventures with Charles, and was delighted to find that no one had written a novel about her yet!

What readers seem to love about The Darling Strumpet: Nell Gwynn’s life really was a Cinderella story—a rags-to-riches, local-girl-makes-good rise from obscurity and hardship of the kind readers love. She was born into poverty, with an abusive drunk for a mother and no father. According to legend, when she was a small child she actually gathered cinders and the leavings of fires and sold them to soap makers, and later she sold oysters on the street. But she rose to become a beloved comic actress and the life-long mistress of King Charles II.

The Devil in Disguise, by Stefanie Sloane: The title character is also known as “Iron Will,” a spy charged with the duty of protecting a lady who doesn’t approve of him at all.

The Devil in Disguise, by Stefanie SloaneOpening lines: Lady Lucinda Grey had not precisely decided what she would do if the overly eager Matthew Redding, Lord Cuthbert, compared her eyes to the Aegean Sea.

The protagonist’s six-word memoir: William Randall, the Duke of Clairemont, is a sexy spy for God’s sake. He doesn’t have the time to write a memoir.

The heroine is… part-owner in a horse breeding business. But it is a Regency historical, so officially she’s a tea-drinking, gown-wearing, waltz-dancing, pianoforte-playing lady of the ton.

What readers will love about the hero: See answer to question #1.

What readers seem to love about The Devil in Disguise: It’s witty, adventurous, and fun. Their words, not mine.

How to Marry a Duke, by Vicky Dreiling: In the midst of a mad matrimonial contest, a matchmaker falls in love with her client. Dreiling’s books are also nominated in two other categories.

How to Marry a Duke by Vicky DreilingOpening lines: The belles of the Beau Monde had resorted to clumsiness in an effort to snag a ducal husband.

Tessa Mansfield’s six-word memoir: Everything happens for a reason.

She is a … matchmaker.

What readers will love about the hero: Tristan’s wit and his sense of honor.

The first kiss happens… in a library.

I vividly remember writing… The proposal scene. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a Cinderella twist of an ending.

This book taught me… to expect the unexpected. The surprises are the best part of writing.

An unexpected research detour: I took a boat tour of the Thames that gave me the idea for the ill-fated barge scene in How to Marry a Duke.

What readers seem to love about How to Marry a Duke: The night before the RWA nominations, I told a friend I was managing my expectations–below sea level. Imagine my shock when I got the call and learned that I’d finaled three times. I have no idea how I got so lucky. ;-)

About the authors…

Number of books I wrote before this one sold:

VICKY DREILING: One.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Zero; this was the first.

How I found my agent:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Random House party, RWA 2000-something. Jenn told the best beaver story ever and I was smitten. No, not that kind of beaver.

VICKY DREILING: By accident – twice. You can read the crazy story here: http://tinyurl.com/4o7qlwe

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I attended a writers’ conference and paid extra to get critiques of my first 20 pages from two different agents. The first one I met with said she loved it and wanted to see the first 100 pages. She loved that and passed it on to her colleague, Kevan Lyon, who told me she was very interested and was willing to work with me as I finished the book—I didn’t even have a complete first draft yet. It took almost two years, with her reading my work and giving me feedback, before I finally finished the book. Kevan called me when she was halfway through reading it and said she wanted to sign me. And then she sold it—and a second book, as yet unwritten—within a few weeks.

Someone who helped me along the way:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Jennifer McCord, publishing professional. Jenn’s an absolute font of knowledge and a total mensch to boot.

VICKY DREILING: There are so many, but to keep this brief, I must mention my mentor Gerry Bartlett. She’s given me great advice and lots of encouragement.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Besides Kevan, who I can’t thank enough, I received a lot of encouragement, support, and good writing advice from Kerry Madden, an author whose classes I took at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California when I came back from London in 2006.

One piece of wisdom I’ve gained:

VICKY DREILING: Trust my writing process.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Just write the book. When I’m having a hard time I tell myself it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done. I can revise it later and make it better. For me rewriting it much easier than getting than cranking out that first draft. And believe in yourself!

Acceptance speech—wing it, prepare it, or something in-between?

STEFANIE SLOANE: Totally prepared and ends with a Susan Sarandon moment where I demand world peace and encourage everyone to support their local animal shelter.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: If I’m fortunate enough to win, I would thank the RITA voters, my agent, and my editor. I think I can manage that without notes!

What’s coming up next?

STEFANIE SLOANE: The Scoundrel Takes a Bride will be published December 26th, 2012. Here’s the skinny: A notorious scoundrel, the right Honorable Nicholas Bourne has spent years in the East Indies amassing a fortune through questionable means. Still, his loyalty to his older brother, Langdon, and his childhood friends remains true and trusted. But when Lady Sophia Southwell, the woman promised to Nicholas’s brother, seeks his help on a dangerous mission, he is troubled—and torn. Unable to dissuade her from her quest to find a killer, he vows to keep her safe. This makes his mission the hardest test of his wits, honor, and skill. For Sophia is the secret love of his life. For years, Sophia has planned her daring act of revenge against her mother’s killer. She has painstakingly prepared herself by studying the criminal mind. Now she knows that the moment is right and that Nicholas is the man to help her. But she doesn’t count on the reckless temptation of his rugged sensuality or the captivating intensity in his deep eyes. When desire and emotion intoxicate her as they venture together into the darkest corners of London’s underbelly, Sophia must contend with a yearning even more powerful than the quest for vengeance: the call of love.

VICKY DREILING: A novella starring a minor character from How to Ravish a Rake and three additional full-length Regency historical romances.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I’m just finishing my third novel, Venus in Winter, based on the first 40 years of the life of Bess of Hardwick, the formidable four-times widowed Tudor dynast who began life in genteel poverty and ended as the richest and most powerful woman in England after Queen Elizabeth; built Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall; and is the forebear of numerous noble lines including the Dukedoms of Devonshire, Norfolk, Somerset, and Newcastle, the Earls of Lincoln, Portsmouth, Kellie, and Pembroke, the Baron Waterpark, and the current royal family of Britain.

Oddest or most reliable writing ritual/habit:

STEFANIE SLOANE: I twist my hair around my finger. You know, like a mindless flirt in a really bad romantic comedy. Only I’m not flirting, I’m thinking. About the book, of course. Or what Kate Middleton might wear to the Olympics opening ceremonies. But probably the book.

VICKY DREILING: I wear Bose noise cancellation ear phones and listen to playlists I put together for each book. Readers can listen to the playlists on my website.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I don’t really have any particular rituals or habits. I need a reasonable amount of peace and quiet; that’s about it. One of my favorite quotes by an author is something to the effect of “I write when I feel inspired. And I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 o’clock.”

The worst part about writing a novel:

STEFANIE SLOANE: The writing part.

VICKY DREILING: Writing The End, because I know I’ll miss the characters.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Feeling under the gun to meet my publisher’s deadline. My books take a massive amount of research and I feel overwhelmed when I start and wonder how I can ever possibly finish. I’d love the luxury of more time— and a big enough advance so I’m not worrying about money while I’m writing!

The part I relish:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Having written.

VICKY DREILING: The first kiss.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: It’s magic when I’m able to really get into a character’s world. When I first began working on The September Queen, I went on a research trip to England and visited Boscobel and Moseley Old Hall, two of the places where Charles II hid. Looking down into the actual priest hole where he hid at Moseley gave me chills.

How I fill my creative well:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Wine.

VICKY DREILING: I read, watch movies, and go to lunch with friends.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I find that once I start writing and am in the groove things just come. I love it when I write a scene that I didn’t know I was going to write, or when a scene comes out differently than I thought it would.

I’m an author, but I’m also…

STEFANIE SLOANE: A wife, mom, volunteer, businesswoman, chocolate cake lover, pitbull advocate, and card carrying member of The Clash fan club.

VICKY DREILING: A reader and a mom.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I grew up around theatre, began my professional life as an actress, and then began directing and producing theatre. I founded the Pasadena Shakespeare Company and ran it for nine years, producing 37 critically acclaimed shows. My years of experience in theatre very much informed my writing about Nell’s life on stage.

Last class I took or skill I learned:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Last class I took? “Good God, get a hold of yourself because puberty is coming and you’re about to die” class with my pre-tween. Skill I learned? How to lock myself in the bathroom and avoid my “Good God, get a hold of yourself because puberty is coming and you’re about to die” pre-tween.

VICKY DREILING: A workshop with Michael Hauge.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I recently took a class in copy editing, adding an arrow to my quiver of word-related skills that can give me freelance work while I’m writing.

A book or author I recommend again and again:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Anything by David Sedaris. He’s hysterically funny and heartbreakingly true all at the same time.

VICKY DREILING: Loretta Chase.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Well, of course Diana Gabaldon is a big favorite of mine. I love her books and have read them several times. She was at the Historical Novel Society Conference in 2007, the first writers’ conference I went to. I was working on The Darling Strumpet at the time and was really inspired by hearing her story and how she became a writer after being well established in a much different career. Especially because she talked about starting to write Outlander and considering it to be her “practice book.” Some practice book!

My favorite book at age ten:

STEFANIE SLOANE: The Black Stallion series. Walter Farley’s horse smarts and love for his subject, combined with the fantastic adventures Alec and Black experience, made for a reading experience I’ve never forgotten.

VICKY DREILING: Little House on the Prairie.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. My mother read them to us and I read them to myself over and over, and Laura and her family felt like members of my own family. She brought her experiences and the past so vividly to life. My sisters and I still refer to “Laura” and we know who we’re talking about!

Thank you, authors! The final installment in this series will appear next week, and the RITA winners will be announced at the RWA national conference on July 28.