Series: ROARING TWENTIES TRILOGY
Plot Type: Urban/Historical Soul-Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—4+; Humor—3
Publisher and Titles: Berkley Sensation
Bitter Spirits (1/2014)
This ongoing post was revised and updated on 5/14/15 to include a review of Grave Phantoms, the third (and FINAL) novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels.
Feisty flapper Astrid Magnusson is home from college and yearning for the one thing that’s always been off limits: Bo Yeung, her notorious bootlegging brother’s second-in-command. Unfortunately her dream of an easy reunion proves difficult after a violent storm sends a mysterious yacht crashing into the Magnussons’ docks. What’s worse, the boat disappeared a year ago, and the survivors are acting strangely…
Simmering mostly in the background is the mystery/action plot, which begins when a pilotless yacht crashes into the Magnusson docks during a storm, carrying six people wearing blue make-up on their faces and professing not to remember anything at all about their ocean voyage on a ship that has been missing for an entire year. When Astrid boards the yacht and picks up a small turquoise and gold figurine—a miniature idol, it immediately causes her to fall unconscious and have a vision of the interior of the ship before the crash. In that vision, she "sees" a double circle of twelve people—the six survivors in white robes surrounded by six who are encased in brown burlap sacks and wearing iron boots. In the center of the circle is a woman in a red robe.
Soon, a thug who calls himself Max begins following Astrid, threatening her with harm if she doesn't return the turquoise idol to him. His first attack on Astrid comes at the Gris Gris, a club owned by Bo's friend, Velma Toussaint, a hoodoo (root doctor) who grew up in Louisiana. Velma takes one look and warns that Astrid now has a second shadowy aura that she never had before. Bo and Astrid decide to solve the mystery of the turquoise idol so that she can get rid of the dark aura and stop the threats. As Astrid and Bo get deeper and deeper into the mystery, they uncover clues that point to ancient rituals, a long-ago pirate raid, time travel, and the search for immortality. Unfortunately, the paranormal mystery lacks detail and is never fully integrated into the love story.
The true heart of the novel is the romance between this young Swedish-American woman and her Chinese lover. Once they finally admit their love for one another, their troubles just get worse because white society of that era frowns on inter-racial unions. They can't even get married in California (and in most other states) because inter-racial marriages are illegal. In San Francisco, the Chinese are treated as second class citizens and are not welcomed into white neighborhoods unless they are there to clean houses, cook meals, or do other menial work. The lovers are appealing in their first-love sincerity, but the bit involving some shocking sexual behavior in Bo's recent past is improbable and superfluous.
Although Astrid is pampered and rich, she isn't snobbish or rude, although she does have a hissy fit at one point that is related to some jealous feelings about a beautiful Chinese woman with whom Bo once had an affair. Bo is in over his head throughout most of the book. Although he fell in love with Astrid years ago, he never believed that they could be together, so when his dream comes true, he's not sure what to do next. The most moving scene comes when Bo confesses his love for Astrid to her big brother—and his good friend—Winter, knowing that his and Astrid's mutual love might very well mean the end of his job and his friendship with Winter and with Astrid's banishment from her family. It's definitely a scene that requires the reader to reach for a tissue or two.
The inevitable showdown scene at the end solves the mystery, and the romantic conflicts are resolved soon thereafter. Although the mystery plot has a few bumps and is not well-woven into the romance plot, the love story is so sweetly entertaining that it makes up for that shortcoming. The Epilogue is set ten years later and provides an update on each of the three Magnusson siblings and their families. To read an excerpt from this book, click HERE to go to this book's Amazon.com page and click on the cover art.
The main characters are members of the Magnusson family, who arrived in the U.S. in the early 1900s as immigrants from Sweden. The family made a comfortable living with their fleet of fishing boats before Prohibition began in 1920. When alcoholic beverages became illegal, their boats soon became the means by which they smuggled liquor and wine into San Francisco from Canada.
NOVEL 1: Bitter Spirits
In the action plot, Winter, Aida, and Winter's assistant (Bo Yeung) try to figure out who has placed the curse on Winter—and why. When trouble erupts within the bootlegging tongs of Chinatown, Winter and his allies see a connection to their own investigation. Someone is trying to take over San Francisco's bootlegging operation and is using black magic as a weapon. As the good guys get closer and closer to discovering the villain's identity, both Aida and Winter are forced to face their deepest fears.
Bennett is a great story teller with an excellent talent for character development and a penchant for detail. Her research on 1920s culture is obvious throughout the book, from the "happy hours" at the speakeasies to the green goddess dressing at the Palace Hotel to the beads on the flapper dresses, she gets it right every time. On the other hand, I am not so sure about the accuracy of Bennett's description of Chinese tongs as leaders in the San Francisco bootlegging business. According to my own (very light) research, the major bootleggers in San Francisco in the late 1920s and early 1930s were mostly Italian mobsters, not Chinese tongs or Swedish fishermen. The tongs at that time appear to have been involved more in gambling and prostitution than in bootlegging. I must admit, though, that using Chinese tongs instead of Italian mobsters makes for a much more inventive story.
Bennett presents Winter and Aida as fully developed characters with detailed back stories and just enough angst-filled emotion to add depth to their relationship. What makes this series so different from ARCADIA BELL (other than the time period) is that this is a romance rather than a true urban fantasy. It's a love story in which the reader is a fly on the wall of the couple's bedroom as they consummate their lust/love in every imaginable manner and as frequently as possible. If you enjoy well-written romances with mystery, suspense, and plenty of graphically depicted sensuality, this series is definitely for you.
NOVEL 2: Grim Shadows
This story is missing the fast pace and engaging characters of the first novel. In fact, the plot takes so many unlikely twists and turns, that I started to lose interest. Another problem is that Lowe and Hadley just did not engage my interest. Neither is very likable, particularly Lowe, a shallow man whose entire life is based on lies and con games. There are also some holes in the plot. For example, why hasn't Dr. Bacall tried to find the witch who placed the crucial spell on Hadley and convince her either to remove it or modify it? For me, the entire story line involving the curse is so convoluted that it just doesn't work. Unfortunately, I can't explain the problematic details in this review because that would be a spoiler. I'll just say that the way the curse initially played out makes little sense and that the explanation of the origin of the specters is incomplete and inadequate.
And now for a small continuity problem: At one point (p. 99), Lowe removes his tuxedo jacket before he and Hadley take off on an adventure during which he removes a lily from Lily's hair. (The lilies soon become an important token of love between Lowe and Hadley, so Bennett is particular about pointing out that Lowe takes the lily.) Then, after returning home (p. 112), Lowe pulls that same lily from a pocket in his tuxedo jacket—which he was not wearing when he took the lily from Hadley. These types of annoying errors are becoming more and more frequent in today's publishing world. Where have all the good editors and copy proofers gone? And why didn't the author catch this when she did her final read-through?
Although I still love the series mythology, I'd have to say that this book doesn't measure up to book one. Click HERE to go to this book's page on amazon.com to read an excerpt. The third novel will tell the love story of Bo Yeung (Winter's second in command) and Astrid (Winter and Lowe's sister).