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November 2014

Gunpower Alchemy (The Gunpowder Chronicles) by Jeannie Lin

Cover53780-mediumThis summer I read Jeannie Lin’s beautiful “Lotus Palace” and the beauty of that book won her a place on my auto-buy list. I have been stockpiling her other earlier China-set historical romances for the TBR.

Gunpower Alchemy is the first book in the Gunpowder Chronicles a steampunk flavored speculative/alternative history fiction series set in China during Qing Dynasty & the Opium Wars. The series follows Soling a young woman whose father, once the Chief Engineer of the Empire and head of the Ministry of Science, was executed by the Emperor when China's navy fell before the Yangguizi’s steam-powered iron-ships. Ten years later, the Yangguizi (English) control many of the China’s port cities, insurrectionists are raiding cities in the interior,  opium addiction is at all time high. Soling has grown up in poverty, taking care of her opium addicted mother and younger brother Tian after they were were exiled from Peking. There is nothing genteel about their situation, but Soling has managed to provide for them, attaching herself to the village doctor, learning to practice acupuncture and training to be a healer, while slowly selling the few of her father’s precious trinkets and inventions they were able to bring with them out of Peking to ensure her mother always has her next dose. When she travels out of her small village to the provincial center to get a better price for the last of these treasures, a foreign-made metal puzzle box, she doesn’t realize that her life will be changing dramatically once again.

The world-building in Gunpower Alchemy is fantastic. Lin creates vibrant  steam gunpowder-punk China, with acupuncture inspired bio-mechanical devices, gunpowder powered junks, and delicate kite-like dirigibles and gliders. The world of the Gunpowder Chronicles is both familiar and surprising. The world never feels artificial but instead feels lived in and grounded by the weight of the well-developed characters that inhabit it.

Jin Soling is recruited by the Crown Prince to track down her father’s associates in an effort to reclaim some of his discoveries for the benefit of the empire. Some of these men are outlaws on the run from the Emperor since her father’s execution. The Crown Prince sends her to work with Chang-wei, her father’s protege, to whom she was once betrothed. They had never met, but have been ghostly presences  in each others lives, haunting each other with might-have-beens. The stakes are very high for Soling through out the story. If she successfully fulfills this quest, she could see her family honor restored and secure a better future for her brother Tian, but if she fails she could die a world away from the family that depends on her.  Chang-wei tries to dissuade her from participating, and feels great responsibility for her but Soling refuses to stay home when there is a chance to better her own life and that of her family.  In the end she has the resourcefulness, observational skills and occasionally the right life-experiences to help her and Chang-wei to survive the many perilous situations they encounter. 

This novel is the first of a projected three stories following Soling and Chang-wei and and while we have resolution to one storyline in this book, the overarching plot of the Opium Wars & internal insurrectionist threat against the empire remain. The romantic plot is progressing and clearly will continue to develop in the next book.

I loved roaming around Lin’s Gunpowder-punk China, meeting mad or madly brilliant scientists, tinkerers and engineers, to face down passionate and ruthless rebels, whose cause is not unjust but who pose great danger to Soling and her family. I loved how Soling, Chang-wei, & Yang all wrestle with how they should balance the demands of Emperor, Nation, Family and Self. I can’t wait to read more.

 

4.5 Stars

A review copy of this novel was made available by Penguin Group: Intermix via NetGalley


Fall Reading

Between work conferences and family visits I have gotten too far ahead on my review reading and fallen behind on my review writing so  I had all these mini-reviews floating around in my head. These are some of the books I read and enjoyed reading in October and November that I haven't had a chance to post about.

 

Intrusion by Charlotte Stein:

 Noah and Beth are both survivors of violence. They have been deeply traumatized by the torture they endured, Noah at the hands of serial killer who he once profiled and Beth at the hands of stalker turn rapist. Told from Beth's point of view in Stein’s fantastically absorbing first-person style, their love story is highly unconventional.

The novel is a story of repression and an ode to anticipation and dirty talking. Stein does a fantastic job building tension as Beth, who questions everything tries to figure out if the attraction she feels for Noah is one sided and Noah, who fears his own desires and wants, is affecting detachment and distance while radiating need. If you like your heroes tortured and vulnerable and your heroines determined and courageous, you will want to read this. Never have fingers grazing meant so much.

I am grateful for the review copy of Intrusion published by Avon I received directly from the author, Charlotte Stein.

4.5 stars

 

Think of England by KJ Charles:

Curtis is a man’s man in the early 20th century England, raised by his bachelor uncles and the British boarding school system, he is now a former soldier recently returned from war, maimed. Lost and aimless for the first time in his life, Curtis is determined to find out the truth about the possible sabotage that destroyed his battalion and cost him most of the fingers of his right hand. His quest brings him to house party at an isolated country estate, whose secrets purposes are more sinister than Curtis could have ever imagined. He must ally himself with the slimiest of snakes, Daniel DaSilva, a effete poet, whose modern ideas, tight clothing and ultra-sophisticated manner un-nerve and and unsettle Curtis.

This novel was amazing, told from Curtis’s point of view is was fantastic to see how his perception of the people around him and himself shift as he falls in love with DaSilva. This book is a treat for anyone fond of early-20th century country house mysteries and novels. The characters were perfect, the romance breathtaking and the writing was delicious. I am so glad I read it, and I can’t wait to start Charles’ fantasy-romance series, A Charm of Magpies next month.

5 stars

 

 

Beyond Possession by Kit Rocha:

 Tatiana is a survivor. She has learned everything she has needed about know about life in Sector 4, through surviving her father’s abusive dictatorial rule and destruction of his empire by Dallas O’Kane. At great personal cost Tatiana has built for herself a growing business and shepherded her sister into adulthood pampered, sheltered and un-scathed. The lessons she learned in those early days, when she had nothing made her incredibly determined to be independent and self-reliant.

Zan is one of Dallas O’Kane’s men, and while he has long admired and wanted to be closer to Tatiana, his loyalty to O’Kane and his awareness of the power dynamics of being an O’Kane in Sector 4, has meant that he restrained himself to casual conversations and friendly visits, so as not to even unintentionally coerce Tatiana into a relationship with him. But the political landscape in Sector 4 is in danger of changing  once again, when a dangerous rabble-rouser seduces Tatiana’s sister as part of play for power and Zan must try to figure out a way, where he can secure Tatiana’s support for the O’Kanes without ending any chance they might have at building a relationship.

I really liked how much time this book spent on Tatiana. We really got to know how she thought, and why she thought they way she did. Her concerns are not trivial ones, and while Zan, Lex and Dallas upend her expectations by behaving in ways she could not anticipate based on her life experience, we never see her as wrong-headed. I particularly liked how the ending continued to show how much the O’Kane world is changing.

 I am grateful for the review copy of Beyond Possession I received from the authors.

 4 stars

 

 

Her Holiday Man by Shannon Stacey:

 Will ran away from his life after his pregnant wife was killed in a car accident. He has been drifting ever since working short-term contracts all around the country. After his father's unexpected death and with the holidays coming, he packs up all his gear and head back home to be there for his mom. But home has changed since he left. His mother is not as lonely as he expects her to be. She has taken under her wing, Christina and Nathaniel,  a divorced mother and son, who live across the street. As his initial suspicious reaction to Christina and Nathaniel fade, he becomes uncomfortably aware of his strong attraction to her. Christina is new to town, having relocated there after her ex-husband bankrupted them when his financial pyramid scheme collapsed. Without family and friends to depend on she has fallen a long way from society wife to convenience store attendant. It is has been a very long time since she has felt the pull of attraction too but the last thing she wants is to get involved with a man that might pick up and leave when things get tough.

Over multiple encounters Christina and Will try to ignore their attraction before eventually they settle one of my favorite tropes, the “we both know this is going nowhere but” secret sexual relationship. Will’s grief and Christina’s trust issues mean they both are scared of getting involved again but can’t help getting attached. Of course Christina’s son Nathaniel and Will’s mom Gail are not oblivious to what is really going on and Christina and Will might hope.

I cried buckets reading this book. Stacey did a wonderful job presenting Will’s grief and the underlying fears he is struggling with. I thought their big conflict was incredibly believable, it sounded like a real fight, and I believed their emotions.  And after putting me through the wringer it had a wonderful resolution that still makes me smile.

 I am grateful for the review copy of Her Holiday Man I received from Carina Press via NetGalley.

 4.5 stars

 

 

One in a Million by Jill Shalvis

 With this book Jill Shalvis’ Lucky Harbor series is drawing to a close, and I will miss Lucky Harbor and its slightly kooky residents. Lucille has been a geriatric pest throughout the series, and while occasionally she has pulled too much time and attention from the main characters with her antics, she appears just the right amount in this book despite the fact that it is Lucille’s unpredictable antics that has brought Callie to Lucky Harbor. Callie is Lucille’s grand-daughter and her busy parents have sent her to check up on her grandmother. Callie grew up in Lucky Harbor and left after she was jilted by her fiancee. She turned her heartbreak into a successful virtual wedding planning business, and even though she never got her big day, she ensures other brides’s days go off without a hitch without ever having to leaving her her apartment. Relocating to Lucky Harbor to check up on her grandmother is not without its perks. The biggest is being able to watch Tanner swim in the bay from her window. She used to have a huge unrequited crush on Tanner. Tanner is not as oblivious to it as she thought then and he has certainly noticed her looking now. Tanner like Callie has heartbreak in his past. He gave up college scholarship and married young to provided for his girlfriend and their unplanned son Troy. He served in Navy, and then worked on the oil rigs, providing them financially but failing to be there physically and emotionally. He feels like a failure as father and husband and hasn’t gotten seriously involved with anyone since.

There was a lot going on in this book, but I enjoyed it. Everything from Callie slowly realizing she is full of shit when she says she doesn’t believe in love or want it, to Tanner working to reconnect with his teenage son Troy and not let Callie slip away. Their flirting was fun, and I enjoyed reading about them .

 I am grateful for the review copy of One in a Million I received from Grand Central via NetGalley

 4 stars


Season for Desire by Theresa Romain

Having recently recaptured an interest in historical romances I thought I should test my limits by picking one of the historical romance ARCs that have been languishing in my Kindle since the end of summer. With the weather turning cold I am finally able to at least consider reading something set during the Christmas season. This review also has the distinction of being an experiment. Like many others bloggers,  post-blogger-boycott, I am experimenting and tinkering with the way I review. This review will be broken up into two parts, the first a traditional review and the second a  commentary-like  somewhat spoilery extension at the end.

 

Cover52123-mediumSeason for Desire by Theresa Romain

Giles Rutherford is a dutiful and devoted son, tagging along after his father Richard as he searches for his late wife’s lost diamonds. Giles has left behind a life in Philadelphia to make sure his father’s treasure hunting adventure doesn’t beggar their family. Giles is unhappy to be an ocean away from his siblings. Through a mutual acquaintance, Lady Irving, the Rutherfords are enlisted to help track down a missing young woman, Lady Audrina, who is thought to be eloping with a suitor and they are asked to apprehend the couple should they come upon them.

Lady Audrina, has thrived on mischief and scandalous behavior since her debut. She has found her thrills sneaking off to dark corners and scandalous parties without getting caught. But caught she is now. A former lover, David Llewellyn has decided he could use her dowry and has drugged and abducted her, planning on forcing her to elope in Scotland. I immediately liked the heroine. She is worried, angry and cynical which I think is what I would feel in her situation.

Lady Audrina & Giles's paths intersect at coaching inn in York, where the groggy Audrina has to face her father’s deep disappointment. To cover Lady Audrina’s unplanned absence from London, and reward the Rutherfords for their assistance, Lord Alleyneham, Lady Audrina’s father arranges for Lady Irving and Audrina to join the Rutherfords on their treasure hunt and travel further into Yorkshire to the home of Lord and Lady Dudley, who have in their possession a puzzle box once owned by the Richard’s late wife. The trip is meant to insure that this or any further misadventures by Audrina derail her sister’s wedding to a Duke. Lady Audrina sees it for what it truly is, a father opportunistically abandoning a difficult and inconvenient daughter. 

Thrown together, Giles and Audrina are essentially exiled from their normal lives and are forced to get to know each other. They also feel keenly that under regular circumstances they would have little to do with each other. I liked that Giles, even as an American is particular very aware of their difference in social rank, alluding to it whenever he teasingly calls Audrina, Princess. The social and familial costs of his mother’s, a Marquis’s daughter, elopement with an apprentice jeweler are well know to him. It allows him be compassionate and understanding, surprising Audrina.

I really liked that Romain took the time to develop Giles and Audrina’s relationship. They start off as antagonists, then grudging companions, and eventually unlikely confidants. The admiration they develop for each other goes beyond admiring each other’s eyes or bodies, although they do that too but is grounded in growing knowledge of each other’s character.

Romain crafted a delightful illusion of a slow burn romance. The sexual tension and the feelings of confusion and uncertainty they feel were appropriately messy, without feeling irrational or unfounded. The way they come to view each other, and how it challenges what they think of themselves, transforms them. Transformations are not comfortable or tidy, and neither is what they feel for each other.

The Audrina and Giles must confront complicated identity crises. Both have embraced false beliefs about themselves, letting situations and people define them and they have undervalued their own worth.I really liked that while they help change each other’s mind about their value and future, they make the crucial choices, realizations and transformations on their own. When they finally give themselves to each other they do so knowing their own worth.

 This was the first Theresa Romain I’ve read and although Season for Desire is the 4th book in her Holiday Pleasures series I was very happy to report that I was able to enjoy it fully despite not having read any of the previous books in the series. Some of the heroes and heroines from the previous books do appear in the last half of the book but they don’t pull attention away from the main characters.

 I really appreciated her treatment of secondary characters. They are richly drawn and distinct. Richard and Lady Irving, Sophy & the Dudley’s do more than exist for the benefit of providing conversational partners for the main characters. Richard is a dreamer without being foolish. He uses his good-humor to benefit all around him. He is not simply a foil for his realist son. Caustic Lady Irving’s backstory and hidden vulnerabilities humanizes her, and I loved how feelings of incredulity and pleasure war in her as she realizes Richard is flirting with her. The Dudleys, their widowed blue-stocking daughter-in-law Sophy & Miss Corning have their own motivations for aiding the Rutherfords in their treasure hunt. Like everyone else who walks in and out of the story they have pains and history, even if we only know them for a little while. Personally, I would have loved to have read a whole novel centered on Sophy and Miss Corning.

As a whole I found Season For Desire to be highly enjoyable. It was funny, witty, while not sacrificing emotional weight. I thought all the characters were given time to develop and both the pacing and the plot worked for me. As holiday-themed novel, I thought it did a great job weaving in the holiday setting, without being cloying or artificial. I will certainly seek out other novels by Theresa Romain.

 4 out 5 stars to Season for Desire by Theresa Romain

Season for Desire has been available at all the usual places since Oct 7, 2014

 

I received a review copy of Season for Desire from its publisher Zebra Books, Kensington Publishing Group via NetGalley.

 

 

Expanded Review ( with some spoilery commentary below):

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One of the things that grabbed me when I started reading this story was the fact that Giles believes himself to be suffering from a form of arthritis.  Giles suffers from ocassional numbness in his fingers, sharp pains in his hands and wrists, that causes him to believe he is developing the same kind of arthritis that debilitated his mother. I really liked having a hero who was not physically perfect. His pain is real, it more than inconveniences him, but what he fears most is what he thinks it means for his life, and it keeps him from offering himself to her.

Medical knowledge being what it was, the uncertainty and assumptions Giles makes are not unbelievable. It was totally credible that he would believe himself to have the same kind of arthritis that affected his mother and aunt. It is also perfectly believable to me that he would think of himself as cursed by it and that it would keep him from offering himself to Audrina. It is consistent with his ultra-responsible personality.

But I was troubled by the fact that while Giles is missing Audrina horribly, and knows he loves her, the catalyst that helps Giles decided that he can’t let Audrina get away is when he learns that his pains and aches are not same in character as those of his mother and that he might in fact be suffering instead from a treatable injury (the author's note makes it clear that she intends for him to be suffering from Carpal Tunnel) . While it is not the only thing that decides him, and although when proposes he insists that he would have done so even if he still believed he had a debilitating illness, that is not how it read to me. I wished that he had come to the decision of offering himself to her fully before realizing that he might not have arthritis. Audrina had found him worthy of her love when she thought him ill, even while challenging his certainty that he in fact has arthritis. Their HEA was lovely, but it would have been more satisfyingly romantic for me if he chose to believe in a  future for them together with or without arthritis