A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Review: Destiny’s Surrender by Beverly Jenkins

I DNF’d the first book in this series, but Destiny’s Surrender sounded so interesting, I had to give it a try. It was a very different kind of read, and pretty compelling.

Set in San Francisco in 1885, the story opens with an encounter between prostitute Billie and her favorite john, Drew. She’s a little perturbed afterwards to discover her birth control was faulty, and sure enough, she becomes pregnant. This isn’t a book that follows the unwritten rules of romance, however: Billie has no certainty at all that Drew is the father.

The realistic tone continues as we discover that Billie has been pregnant before and had a chemical abortion. It made her so ill she can’t face another, and decides to have the baby and give it up to a good family — or more accurately, let her madam sell it for the money to live on when she has to stop working. However, she didn’t realize how much she would love her baby, and when the time comes, can’t bear to let him go. A convenient birthmark proving parentage, she turns to Drew for help.

Drew’s reaction is also far from typically “heroic.” He’s very angry — the fact that Billie arrives just in time to ruin his engagement to a “suitable” woman doesn’t help — and just wants her and the baby to go away.  But his strong-willed stepmother has other ideas.

I was sorry this story was based on an implausible birthmark plot; I think it could have worked without it. I also disliked the suspense plot, which features a very nasty villain. (This was also why I DNF’d the first Beverly book I tried.) But I really enjoyed Billie, who’s about as far from emo as a person can be; she always faces facts and does what she has to do. This line kind of sums her up: “for Billie birthdays had never been anything to put on the dog for. She acknowledged it when she got up in the morning, then got on with her day.” It’s sadder, in its way, than many a more obviously tragic story. Billie is also brave and resourceful, and makes a place for herself in “respectable” society through those traits.

Drew was less defined as a character, and I would have liked to see less of the nasty villain and more of Drew’s growth as a person. One of the interesting things about this story is that it’s set during a time when black Americans were starting to lose freedoms they previously had, a situation I recently read about in The Warmth of Other Suns. Drew, who is of African-American and Spanish heritage, is a lawyer who finds that judges are refusing to allow him into courtrooms; although he’s from a well-off family and isn’t financially dependent on his career, this is a blow. But not a lot of time is spent on it.

I appreciated how essentially ordinary Billie is – she’s neither exalted as special, nor demonized for her pragmatic reactions to  being poor and pregnant. Contrarily, that made the book something out of the ordinary.

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A Few Thoughts on Graceling and Fire

I feel like I’m going to turn off every single reader friend I have with this statement, but Graceling was the most disappointing book I’ve read since The Duke of Shadows.  Again, a fantastic first half, and a lousy second half.

Katsa and Po were wonderful characters; it’s still very rare to see a fictional woman who’s so incredibly powerful, and a fictional man who has no problems with that. Things are carefully set up to provide some balance, but even so, Katsa will always be the more powerful. But the second half of the book is all survival adventure, which I found so tedious.  Something about the character Bitterblue really rubbed me the wrong way (I hope this issue won’t survive into her book.) And I thought it utterly sucked that the plot put Katsa in the mothering position she had always vehemently rejected — complete with major sacrifice — even if only temporarily.

The prose was always a bit on the flat side — this made itself really obvious when I was initially listening to the audiobook, all the sentences in a row that start “she did this, she did that.” I didn’t mind when I was reading about Katsa and Po, but it failed in making the Katsa and Bitterblue sections interesting to me.

Fire on the other hand… although I didn’t find Fire and Brigan quite as brilliantly fascinating as Katsa and Po, this is one of the best YA books I’ve ever – well, listened to. I love the way Cashore sets up a fantastical situation and then really explores how it might affect a person. The moral dilemmas facing Fire are intense and not easily resolved.

The way sexuality is treated is fantastic — Fire completely owns hers, and it doesn’t control her. She has no trouble separating sex and love — or for that matter, affectionate love and romantic love. As an unwitting object of intense desire, she has clear ideas of who the right person for her would be, and she finds it in someone whose love is unselfish and not possessive. I often give YA books I’ve read to my teenaged niece, and I have no particular qualms about giving her romances, but I don’t think I’ve read a book that made me think, yes, yes, my niece must read this. All teenaged girls should read this. Make that all teenagers.

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TBR Challenge: The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

The theme: Series catch-up. Well, I read this one because I need to read the sequel… close enough.

What tickled me: Scarlet Pimpernel hero!

What ticked me off: There were a few missing scenes I really wanted to see.

Who might like it: Anyone who loves romance novels. The trappings may be different, but it’s all there.

I requested The Jade Temptress from NetGalley and then realized it was a sequel, so I borrowed this one from the library. How lovely to read a book primarily because it leads to another book, and then be dying to get to that next one when you finish! (I immediately bought my own copy of The Lotus Palace. Didn’t hurt that the ebook is on sale — ending today, btw.)

Yue-ying’s soul-destroying life in a brothel ended when her freedom was purchased by the famously lovely and witty courtesan Mingyu. Few notice that she is just as beautiful as her mistress, because they don’t see past the large red birthmark on her face. But the supoosedly foppish fool Lord Bai Huang notices. Yue-ying hasn’t been trained to be witty and captivating like Mingyu — she’s honest and straightforward. To Huang, she’s “clever, engaging, imperfect and intriguing,” the most real person in a life that is “no more than a layer of lacquer and paint.”

When another noted courtesan is murdered, Huang has his own reasons for becoming involved, but he also uses the situation as an excuse to get close to Yue-ying. The story is partially about the murder, a mystery very entrenched in the setting and time period, and partially about the difficulties of love between a lord and a former prostitute in that time and place.

Their first hurdle — one of many — is the fact that Yue-ying has never had sex of her own choosing, never even had a kiss she wanted. This leads to one of the most achingly painful and realistic sex scenes I’ve ever read. Yue-ying doesn’t react with overt terror, as some abused heroines do, but despite all Huang’s gentleness and care, she can’t be present.

“Her flesh pulled tight beneath his touch, her nipple peaking. Though her blood warmed, her mind remained cold. The two halves of her couldn’t find one another.”

I love that we see Huang’s point-of-view when things start going right for them — because he could tell that something was wrong — but I missed seeing Yue-ying’s as well.

Something about The Lotus Palace reminded me of favorite books I read as a teen, like those by Elizabeth Peters and Agatha Christie. I’m not sure if that’s the setting, the mystery element, or if it’s just that reading it took me back to when I was a different kind of reader, more apt to read widely and immersively. I enjoyed that nostalgia, and the skillfully crafted setting, but it was the beauty and depth of the characters and their feeling for each other that really got me. I had some trouble following the mystery — likely my own fault, because I wasn’t that interested — and the ending is perhaps happier than is really believable, but who cares when you’re swooning?

Possibly I enjoyed this all the more because I had started it like someone taking a medication — well, this probably won’t be what I like, but it’s good for me! — and found that in fact, it’s exactly what I like. A –

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