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Thursday, January 30, 2014


Author:  Jenn Bennett
Plot Type:  Urban/Historical Soul-Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4+; Humor3
Publisher and Titles:  Berkley Sensation
     Bitter Spirits (1/2014) 
     Grim Shadows  (6/2014)
     Grave Phantoms (5/2015) (FINAL)

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.    

                    NOVEL 3:  Grave Phantoms                    
Publisher's Blurb:
     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…

     Bo has worked with the Magnusson family for years, doing whatever is needed, including keeping his boss’s younger sister out of trouble—and his hands to himself. Of course, that isn’t so easy after Astrid has a haunting vision about the yacht’s disappearance, plunging them into an underground world of old money and dark magic. Danger will drive them closer together, but surviving their own forbidden feelings could be the bigger risk.

My Summary and Review:
     This novel features Bo Yeung and Astrid Magnusson, who have been secondary characters in the previous two novels, always flirting, but never revealing their true feelings for one another. Astrid is the sister of Winter and Lowe Magnusson, stars of the first two novels. Bo is like an adopted brother to Winter, who brought him into the Magnusson household after the death of Bo's father, when Bo was only fourteen. Currently, Bo is Winter's first assistant in his bootlegging business, and Astrid is (unhappily and unwillingly) attending college in Los Angeles. When Astrid comes home for the holidays, the situation between them heats up, making their burgeoning romance the heart of this novel.

     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 brotherand his good friendWinter, 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 page and click on the cover art. 

     This fresh and inventive series takes place in California in the late 1920s during Prohibition, when bootleggers made themselves rich by risking their freedom and sometimes their lives by providing illegal liquor to the rich and powerful citizens of San Francisco. The Roaring Twenties period of American history is generally defined as that period of prosperity and social and cultural edginess that began after World War I and ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which signaled the beginning of the Great Depression.   

     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. 

     As the series begins, Winter Magnusson has been running the business since his parents' death in a tragic automobile accident several years ago. His sister, Astrid, lives with him in the family mansion, and his brother, Lowe, is a globe-trotting archaeologist.  

     Jenn Bennett also writes the terrific ARCADIA BELL urban fantasy series. Click HERE to read my reviews of that series.

                    NOVEL 1:  Bitter Spirits                    
     Aida Palmer earns her living as a spirit medium, either onstage or at private seances. She has the ability to call spirits to her and speak with their voices, and she can also banish ghosts with just a touch. As the story opens, Aida is coming to the end of her contract at Gris-Gris, a North Beach speakeasy, when she is hired by a notorious bootlegger to get rid of a ghost that is following him around. Aida has been on her own for a decade—since her brother was killed during World War I. Her parents died in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and her foster parents died in a train wreck just a month after her brother's death. Aida is an independent woman who travels from city to city working mostly in speakeasies—helping people talk to their dead friends and relatives and trying to save enough money to open her own business and put down some roots. 

     Winter Magnusson is a wealthy bootlegger who has recently become the target of a black magic curse that has made him a magnet for ghosts. Since Aida can banish ghosts, Winter hires her to get rid of the one that keeps following him around. Winter is a complex man with a tragic past. Several years ago, his parents and wife were killed when the car he was driving crashed into a streetcar. Since then, Magnusson has lived with constant guilt over the three deaths, made even worse by the fact that he didn't love his wife but feels responsible for her death. 

     Winter and Aida's meeting, caused by the ghostly curse, is the inciting incident—the event that sets the plot in motion. At this point, the story line continues along the usual two branches: the romance and the action. In this book, the romance is far more important than the action, which percolates along in the background for 3/4 of the book before boiling to the surface just in time for a slam-bang climax. Winter and Aida have one of those oh-so-common insta-lust reactions the moment they see each other for the first time, and that lust carries them through the rest of the book, with many, many graphically detailed scenes of various forms of love-making. 

     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. 

     In the second novel, Winter's brother, Lowe, is trying to sell a priceless Egyptian artifact, but complications arise when he falls for Hadley Bacall, a museum curator cursed by deadly spirits.

                    NOVEL 2:  Grim Shadows                    

     Starring in this novel is Lowe Magnusson, younger brother of the hero of Bitter Spirits. Lowe is an archaeologista disreputable man famous for his charisma, gambling, and constant prevarication. The man just can't tell the truth. In short, he's kind of a con man: always in debt, always in trouble, and always trying to lie his way out of the sticky situations in which he constantly finds himself. As the story opens, Lowe has just returned from an archaeological dig in Egypt, where he recovered a rare artifact—the base of an extremely rare and valuable ancient Egyptian amulet. Missing from the amulet are the four crossbars that form the figure's spine (see images below). Lowe's sensational discovery made headlines in all the American newspapers, so now several people are very interested in taking the amulet away from Lowe. One of the more villainous of these scoundrels sends a pair of thugs to waylay Lowe before he reaches San Francisco by train.   

     Also interested in the amulet is Dr. Archibald Bacall, director of a San Francisco museum, who sends his daughter Hadleyalso an archaeologistto meet Lowe in Salt Lake City and make him an offer to buy the amulet. When the thugs make their move, Lowe and Hadley manage to outmaneuver them and soon arrive safely back in San Francisco. By this time, Lowe is smitten with Hadley, and vice versa, but both have dark secrets that keep interfering with their budding romance.

     Hadley's secret is that she is constantly followed by dark and dangerous specters (ghostly grim reapers) who stay hidden until she loses her temper. Then, they appear and attack the object of her anger. In order to keep the specters away, Hadley must always remain very calm and avoid strong feelings. Over time, she has developed into an ice queen with an aversion for being touched, either emotionally or physically. Hadley has a very difficult relationship with her father, who constantly criticizes her and has kept many secrets from her about her mother, who died when Hadley was just eight years old. Lowe's first efforts to seduce Hadley are unsuccessful, so he decides to use counter conditioning: plying her with peppermint candy each time he touches her in order to guide her into associating sweetness and satisfaction with his touching her. That part of the story comes across as improbable, rather silly, and demeaning to Hadley's intelligence. 

     Lowe's dark secret is that for years a friend of his has been creating perfect forgeries of the most valuable artifacts that Lowe finds on his archaeological expeditions. Lowe has been making money by selling the replicas and the real objects to different customers, thus doubling his profits. (Lowe's uneasy relationship with the artisan who makes the copies forms one of the supporting story threads.) Unfortunately, one of Lowe's clients has realized that Lowe sold him a knock-off of a valuable statue, so Lowe needs the amulet to pay him off. He plans to palm off a replica amulet on Dr. Bacall. 

     The plot thickens when Dr. Bacall hires Lowe to find the amulet's missing golden crossbars, which his late wife hid in different places around San Francisco. Lowe and Hadley team up to search for the treasures, but unfortunately, someone with magical power tries to stop them by setting various magical monsters on them each time they find one of the missing pieces. Several story threads wind through this main plot, including the back story of Lowe's relationship with his forger friend, Hadley's relationship with a wealthy man who is encouraging a closer relationship with her, and the fateful story of Dr. Bacall's real reasons for wanting the amulet (which includes a witch's curse).

     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 jacketwhich 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 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).  

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