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REVIEW:  Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett

REVIEW: Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett

Dear Ms. Bennett,

Reading your first foray into the romance genre, Bitter Spirits, was an interesting experience because I wasn’t sure what to think of the book. Some aspects of it were excellent, others weak, and still others somewhat discomfiting. I started out distracted and occasionally even annoyed in the first third, was absorbed and entertained in the middle, but in the last quarter, some of my enjoyment waned.

BitterSpirits

More on why in a moment, but first, a plot summary.

The novel takes place in 1927 and its heroine, Aida Palmer, is a spirit medium. She travels across the country from club to club, conducting séances at speakeasies and, as someone dear to her taught her, maintaining her independence and living only for today.

Aida is temporarily lodging in San Francisco’s Chinatown and working at the Gris-Gris speakeasy when Winter Magnusson, a wealthy bootlegger appears at the nightclub and asks for her assistance.

Winter has recently begun to be haunted by ghosts, and he needs Aida’s help to banish them. Aida succeeds in getting a ghost she sees in his presence to depart, but it turns out something Winter ingested is drawing the ghosts to him, as well as making him able to see them.

Getting the poison out of Winter’s system falls to Velma, the Gris-Gris’ owner, who has some talent for sorcery. This involves a gruesome bath, and Aida gets an eyeful. She is seized by lust.

Winter, for his part, is just as hot for her as she is for him, and he invites her to his house to perform another exorcism. There Aida sneaks a peek at one of his books and gets another eyeful– this time of some erotic drawings. Winter catches her, which results in even more lust.

But Aida and Winter each have insecurities, Winter about a scarred eye and Aida about skin covered with freckles. They each find the other attractive but are sure their attraction cannot be reciprocated.

Because he doesn’t want to seem overeager, Winter concocts an excuse to see her again and invites Aida to perform at an unpleasant person’s house. Because she doesn’t want to seem overeager, Aida almost doesn’t accept this invitation. In the end though, she does, which leads to their first kiss, one which is quickly followed by an encounter with a corporeal ghost.

A powerful enemy is out to destroy Winter using Chinese black magic, ghosts, and necromancy and Winter needs Aida’s help to find and defeat this person almost as much as he needs her body beneath him in bed. But can he open up to her about his painful past? Aida desires Winter just as badly, but can she overcome her reticence where sex is concerned, and can she sacrifice the independence she holds so dear?

Bitter Spirits came highly recommended by friends and at first I wasn’t sure why. True, the setting was unusual, the worldbuilding strong, and the characters seemed like they had potential, but initially, before the corporeal ghost appeared, Winter and Aida’s encounters seemed almost episodic, without a strong conflict or goal pull the scenes together into cohesion.

Then there was the mental lusting. I’ll concede that it was less clichéd than typical of mental lusting —instead of wondering about the color of Aida’s nipples, Winter wondered if they were covered with freckles—but it still felt forced, especially early on when each was a complete stranger to the other and had much bigger concerns, like performing exorcisms and taking an ice bath in water filled with centipede and scorpion magic.

Things improved a bit after that, but the entire getting to know each other phase was so focused on their physical attraction that when, about 40% of the way though the book, Aida got mad at Winter for not sharing his tragic past with her, I had a hard time buying that she would be as hurt and devastated as she was, because up until then she had seemed more interested in Winter’s body than in him as a person, and likewise for Winter.

In the first third or so, I was distracted enough to notice some craftsmanship issues, including the occasional awkward metaphor or use of clichés like “Guess I’m a glutton for punishment” and “If she had a penny for every time she’d heard that…” and one instance of slippage into contemporary diction in the dialogue: “Not seeing how this is a problem.”

But after Winter and Aida’s big fight at the 40% mark, the story, like the characters’ romance, began to turn around for the better. Winter and Aida started sharing more of themselves with each other, not just physically but also emotionally, and I was able to see what loveable people they both were.

Winter had lost a lot in the accident that gave him his scar, but even before that, and his experiences left him feeling unwanted and commitment-shy. Yet even so, and even before he recognized his love for her, he treated Aida with great care, and began trusting her with his heart.

Aida also knew about loss, having suffered quite a bit of it. Her love life too had been less than spectacular. And yet, for all that Winter had the wealth to shower her with gifts, and a great deal of sweetness during the love scenes, Aida gave him something equally valuable: encouragement to seize the moment and stop living in the past.

Along with the development of the romance, the threats from the villain escalated and the novel became more cohesive as well as dramatic as Aida and Winter worked to try to discover who was the source of this threat.

As mentioned before, the worldbuilding was strong in that the book had both a period feel and a consistent magical system. The ghosts felt like a real threat when they appeared, and this plot was intertwined well with the romance plot, so that both grew more compelling together.

Thus, as I was heading into the final fifth of the novel, I was feeling much better about it than I had in the first third but then at the 82% mark, the identity of the villain and his or her motive for the mayhem he or she had caused were revealed. The spoilers below doe’t reveal the villain’s identity, but they do give clues to it, as well as reveal his or her motive.

Spoiler: Show

I have to reveal that this character is Chinese-American, because it is relevant to one of my concerns.

The novel is set partly in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Aida lives there) and several Chinese American characters play a role in it. One is Winter’s right hand man, one is Aida’s landlady as well as the owner of a Chinese restaurant, one an acupuncturist, two are thugs, one a gangster, and one that gangster’s prostitute.

Roughly half of these characters were at least somewhat sympathetic, and one was fleshed out and given dimension. I have the feeling we’ll be seeing more of that character, whom I liked a lot, in upcoming books, and perhaps even in a central role.

Because of that, and because the main characters were a bootlegger and a speakeasy performer, I accepted the fact that some of the Asian-American supporting characters were somewhat seedy and/or flat.

I started questioning that, though, when one of the Chinese-American characters was revealed to be the villain, and that person turned out not only to be mad and practicing Chinese black magic, but then came the revelation about his or her motives.

”I was chosen by celestial deities to lead a quiet rebellion. My shen spirits brought me across the ocean from Hong-Kong to save my people from the Gwai-lo. The Chinese have been treated like slaves in this country, captured like pigs, forced to build your railroads. After the Great Fire, the city tried to move Chinatown and seize our land, and when we resisted, you kept us in cages on Angel Island, separating our families for years.”

The persecution of Chinese Americans in early 20th century California was all too real, so I was discomfited by the way this history was put in the mouth of an insane, black magic wielding Chinese American villain.

It seems to trivialize a painful history, and as I read this it also made me wonder whether I was cutting the book too much slack with regard to the backgrounds of some of the Chinese American characters.

To be honest, I still can’t decide about that, but I know that wondering about it made it hard to go back to my entertained, engrossed state and enjoy the resolution of the romantic plotline, which could have been lovely otherwise.

A lot of people I know love this book, and it is indeed a polished debut. Still, for me, there were enough snags and concerns to mar half the book, and even though I enjoyed the rest of it quite a lot, I can’t grade the whole above a C+.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

REVIEW: Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

Delias-Shadow

“It is the dawn of a new century in San Francisco and Delia Martin is a wealthy young woman whose life appears ideal. But a dark secret colors her life, for Delia’s most loyal companions are ghosts, as she has been gifted (or some would say cursed) with an ability to peer across to the other side.

Since the great quake rocked her city in 1906, Delia has been haunted by an avalanche of the dead clamoring for her help. Delia flees to the other side of the continent, hoping to gain some peace. After several years in New York, Delia believes she is free…until one determined specter appears and she realizes that she must return to the City by the Bay in order to put this tortured soul to rest.

It will not be easy, as the ghost is only one of the many victims of a serial killer who was never caught. A killer who after thirty years is killing again.

And who is now aware of Delia’s existence.”

Dear Ms. Moyer,

A beautiful cover can catch my attention and the one for “Delia’s Shadow” got me in a headlock. I saw it and had to click on the link for more information. Who is this woman in the Edwardian clothing and why is she so somber? Well, I guess if you’ve seen ghosts all your life and are now returning to a city that’s teeming with them after the earthquake, you’d be straight faced too.

Though Delia has returned to San Francisco for her best friend’s wedding, she’s also aware that a ghost she calls “Shadow” has ties to the city and wants something from Delia. Since she can only see them and experience their emotions – horrifying in the case of the people who burned to death after the earthquake – Delia doesn’t know why Shadow has appeared and haunts her both by day and in her dreams. It doesn’t take her long to find out.

The book is told from Delia’s first person POV and the 3rd person of Gabe – a police officer whose father was also cop and who is now trying to find and stop a horrific serial killer. Delia’s sections were more immediate, more emotional to me. I guess the reason behind the two differing PsoV is that Delia is our window into the paranormal while Gave stands for the cold realism of the every day? I’m sure there’s an reason for the choice to have Gabe’s section told in third person I’m still not sure that it made a difference to me beyond what I said earlier.

“Delia’s Shadow” is a sort of romance x mystery/thriller. While neither part totally fell apart for me, I did have issues with both. For suspense fans, I think it’s important to note that there is little chance of them being able to solve the identify of the killer until late in the book at about the same time as the police. The emphasis is more on how Gabe and Delia go about solving the crimes using their own particular knowledge and skills.

I found it fascinating to see how by this point in time so many modern forensics techniques – including using folding Kodak cameras to take crime scene photos and taking plaster casts of footprints – went along with the time honored questioning of witnesses and examining crime scenes. Flamboyant psychic character Isadora also introduces important information she learned while helping on murder cases elsewhere. Dora is a fascinating character and I’d love to see her story told. The new age just dawning seems like it would suit her to perfection: Flapper dresses, ciggies in long holders, fast cars, loose sex and lots of booze.

As Delia explained how she sees ghosts, I got more twitchy. It’s one thing to encounter them at specific places – at least that way you can leave – but to have them follow you around and not be able to shake them off – that gave me the creeps. The number of ghosts just exploded as the story progressed to the point that it felt like a “pile on.” Delia sees and senses tons of them out on the streets but the Larkin house gets packed to the gills with all the ones Shadow hauls back from the spirit world.

Delia’s dreams of Shadow get more intense, more involved the longer she’s back in SF with Delia now “in her skin” and seeing/feeling what Shadow felt. These were skin crawling scenes to me showing the horror of what the victims their fate would be. We see none of the crimes actually happening which is good for my stomach given what is done to the victims but … I wanted to know how the killer so easily overpowers two victims at a time x multiple times. And what was behind his obsession – the reason behind the madness? It’s made clear what he’s enacting but why? That was never explained.

I didn’t feel that there isn’t any romance but the main emphasis of the story, and a lot of Gabe and Delia’s relationship, is catching the killer so their progressing courtship tended to get caught up in that. This does serve to establish how much Gabe is willing to believe in what Dee tells him about how she “sees” and experiences the world and how much he trusts her about this. Enough to face the skepticism and amusement of the police force who know about what she can do. Mention is made of long walks they take as they discuss the case and many evenings spent chastely together but I would have liked to actually see more of this instead of just being told.

Lots of historical detail is included which made the book feel very much of its time and place. There were some sections, however, that got bogged down in stuff that I felt went on too long and added little to story. For instance, when the two couples initially went to dinner at the Pan Pacific Fair, the pace slowed to a crawl as the sights were described. I kept wondering if this information would be important later but ultimately it just felt like unneeded padding.

I did guess some of the things that happened in the story, some of the relationships, some of the outcomes but other incidents took me by off guard. Despite the fact that Gabe and Delia put 2 and 2 together early on and start working together, I was happily surprised by how well the tension is maintained even through the catching of the killer. I almost knew who would be the final victim but was still caught up in what was going to happen and would the police arrive in time. So, well done with that. If a few things had been explained more or shown more, I would have been a happier camper though. B-

~Jayne

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