Review – The Greatest of Sins by Christine Merrill

Cover image, The Greatest of Sins by Christine Merrill

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Giving in to temptation would be the ruin of them all!  Having spent years believing a lie about his birth, Dr. Samuel Hastings has been condemned to a personal hell of his desire’s making—his sinful thoughts of the one woman he can never touch would damn his soul for eternity.

Lady Evelyn Thorne is engaged to the very suitable Duke of St. Aldric when a shocking truth is revealed—and now Sam will play every bit of the devil to seduce the woman he thought would always be denied him!

Ah, forbidden love… it’s such a romantic theme.  This book actually explores both forbidden and unrequited love themes – Sam feels that his love for Evie is forbidden; Evie feels that her love for Sam is unrequited – against an interesting backdrop of various social themes from the era (illegitimacy, class issues, women’s roles, the developing medical practice, etc.).  As many of you know, I have a soft spot for romance novels that explore such themes, so I enjoyed this book.

Sam spends most of the book’s first half smoldering in misinformed self-denial while Evie gets to cast aside the typical gender roles of the romance genre (and that era) and chase after what she wants.  And what she wants is Sam.  Actually, the first half of the book is a lot like this:

Guess which one of these two cuties is Evie and which is Sam.  As much as Sam tugged on my heart strings, it was Evie whom I really loved in this book, even when her waffling got annoying (she loves Sam, but she’s going to marry the duke, because… well, just because.).  Evie is fearless, morbid, smart, funny, manipulative (but in a fun way), confident, and self-aware.  She knows her own value, even in a society that marginalizes and devalues her sex.

I loved that Evie has an interest in medicine — which, though it springs from her love of Sam and inclination to be of use to him as his wife, is wholly her own interest — particularly women’s medicine, and practices midwifery and country medicine at her home.  In one memorable conversation with Sam, she isn’t afraid to argue her better knowledge of reproductive medicine, for want of a better term, to a licensed physician who, though male and officially trained, has less experience with women patients.  That scene was lovely, both because Evie embraces her own competence and because Sam treats her with respect.

I mentioned earlier that Evie’s waffling annoyed me… once Sam’s impediment to their relationship is removed, the only impediment is Evie.  She loves Sam, wants to marry him, realizes she’ll be unhappy and a bit stifled with the duke, yet she refuses to break her betrothal to the duke because she doesn’t want to be a promise breaker and because Sam missed the boat, so to speak, and that’s just his loss, isn’t it?  Those types of plot devices always annoy me — conflict by way of stubbornness and poor communication — and this one was certainly no exception.  Ultimately, I think this book is well worth the read, but I was pretty dang annoyed for about sixty pages….

The Greatest of Sins was released on April 23, 2013 as a mass market and e-book by Harlequin Historical.  If you’re interested in finding out more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Christine Merrill, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received and e-galley of this book from Harlequin Historical via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Review & Author Interview – The Beauty Within by Marguerite Kaye

I work at a college of science and engineering, and I am surrounded by folk who understand the world as a set of mathematical equations or as a great engineering problem requiring a creative solution or as a fabric woven of nano particles, elements, and covalent bonds.  Sometimes it amuses me to think of all these students and faculty using the power of science and math to make sense of the world – often to attempt to make sense of one another – within a hundred yards of where I sit.  I am not terribly scientific; narratives move me, and I’m rather stuck in my own humanity.  People are interesting to me, and the things people create — literature, music, art, politics, discord, destruction — drive my imagination and rivet my interest.

I loved another of Marguerite Kaye’s books, and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to read this one for review.  The Beauty Within is a blending of two ways of looking at the world – through the lens of art and the lens of mathematics – and it knocked my socks off.

Cover image, The Beauty Within by Marguerite Kaye

First up, the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – Considered the plain, clever one in her family, Lady Cressida Armstrong knows her father has given up on her ever marrying. But who needs a husband when science is the only thing to set Cressie’s pulse racing?

Disillusioned artist Giovanni di Matteo is setting the ton abuzz with his expertly executed portraits. Once his art was inspired; now it’s only technique. Until he meets Cressie….

Challenging, intelligent and yet insecure, Cressie is the one whose face and body he dreams of capturing on canvas. In the enclosed, intimate world of his studio, Giovanni rediscovers his passion as he awakens hers….

Review

When I read The Beauty Within, I was struck by how subversive it is to traditional gender roles and societal norms.  Cressie is a brilliant mathematician who is disinclined to place her fate in a man’s hands; her stepmother Bella, while fully embracing the female role of the time (lie back, think of England, make plenty of male babies), digs in and demands the right to have authority over her reproductive healthcare.  Giovanni is intimately and personally aware of how degrading sex can be when mixed with commerce and how destructive it is to feel that others may have ownership of one’s own body.  Although the focus of Kaye’s writing is always on the characters and how they develop individually and together, these nuances add greater depth to the story and increased my enjoyment of it.  I always love a good love story, but I love one even better if it makes me think and broadens my understanding of the world.  The Beauty Within is just such a book.

This book exists at the crossroads between art and mathematics, two of the languages we can use to describe the beauty of the world.  The story, while a bit episodic, unfolds over a series of painting sessions that result in three paintings using Cressie as the subject.  Cressie and Giovanni both evolve apace with the paintings, each coming into a fuller understanding and acceptance of his or her self, each coming into a fuller appreciation of the beauty within the other.  Kaye’s writing is layered and rich and a little bit decadent, and I can’t wait to read more.  (You should, too!)

Interview with Marguerite Kaye

While I could have written at least a thousand words about this book, how much I loved it, and how I think folk should drop whatever they’re doing and go buy it, that would make for a very long blog post (too long).  Besides, I am very pleased to include an interview with Marguerite in this post, especially because her answers to my random smattering of questions are so engaging.

1.  RwA:  You mention in your historical note that Cressie is based–at least in part–on Ada Lovelace.  What about her life and history inspired you to base a character on her?

Kaye:  I first read Benjamin Woolley’s biography of Ada, Bride of Science, a number of years ago. Ada’s mother, Annabella Milbanke, endured a miserable marriage to Lord Byron, and dreaded her daughter’s inheriting Byron’s artistic temperament and wild, impulsive nature. As a result poor Ada was raised subject to a strict disciplinary regime and an education steeped in logic and reason. I was intrigued by the consequences such an upbringing might have on someone’s personality, and why, unlike Ada, a person might willingly turn to mathematics and science as a sort of antidote to their life. Cressie’s life was turned upside down when her mother died, and then her two elder sisters left home. She turns to numbers, theories, proofs, because they are dependable, they won’t ever let her down. But of course love is one of the most illogical things it’s possible to experience. It can’t be explained, it can’t be rationalised, and emotions are notoriously unreliable. And if you add into the equation an artist, a man who appears to be the antithesis of all Cressie believes in, you’ve got the basis for a very eventful romantic journey indeed.

2.  RwA: How did you conduct your research for this book, particularly your art history research?

Kaye:  Right from the outset, I saw this book very clearly as a sort of contest between art/beauty on one side and reason/logic on the other. I wanted the paintings to define the structure of the story and to reflect the developing relationship between Cressie and Giovanni. The various portraits demonstrate the way their relationship changes their understanding – he of her, her of herself – but I also wanted to show how Giovanni’s art was changed by his feelings for Cressie. At the start, he’s a highly accomplished, much sought-after portrait painter, but his paintings are glossy, perfect and in his eyes facile. By the end of the book, his paintings are much more ‘impressionistic’ and emotional and therefore ‘true’, though he’s not, in the historical sense, an Impressionist since he pre-dates that particular art movement.

I saw the romance as consisting of three stages, which suggested, in artistic terms, a triptych to me. I’m personally always fascinated by the triptych form, which is used quite a lot by one of my favourite artists, the Scottish painter John Bellany. I am not in any way artistic myself so I had to do quite a bit of research on early-19th century painting methods and materials. The portraits that Giovanni paints are all based on real works that I was familiar with, and which I chose because they matched the change in Cressie wrought by her relationship with Giovanni. My working title for the book was actually The Three Faces of Lady Cressida. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but you can find them all on my Pinterest board for the book.

 3.  RwA: I love that your books include some exotic locales — what are some of your favorite geographic areas to write about?  Does your writing change when you change story locations?  Do you ever get to travel in the name of research?

Kaye:  Sadly, I don’t have the luxury of travelling in the name of research – how I wish I could afford to – so I have to rely on my imagination plus a bit of personal knowledge. Aside from my sheikh books, all of my stories are set in places that are familiar to me. I love invoking ambiance, I love incorporating buildings, names, scenery that I love, into my stories. When I’m writing anything set in Scotland, I do find that my style changes because I know it so well. I want to make readers love it as I do, I want them to say, I’d love to visit there – though I do worry sometimes that I sound like a tourist guide! Funnily enough, my sheikh books are often picked out as the most colourful in terms of ambiance, and though I’ve done a deal of research into what the Nineteenth Century Arabian world might have been like, I’ve never been there. Maybe it’s because my home is in one of the wettest parts of Scotland that I can let my imagination run riot when it comes to the sultry heat of the desert.

4.  RwA: I’ve been seeing some headlines lately about romance as feminism, and I wonder if you’d be interested in weighing in on the matter.  Is the romance genre necessarily feminist, being written primarily for women, about women, or is that generalization a bit too broad?  Do you consider your books to be feminist? (I certainly think so, which counts as a compliment from me.)

Kaye:  Difficult one. I write romances because at heart I’m a romantic. I would also consider myself a feminist, though I confess not such an ardent one as I was in my twenties. I write about strong women who take control of their own lives, and who find that love strengthens them and completes them. My heroines would survive on their own if required, they’re not clinging vines, and the relationship between hero and heroine is very much a meeting of equals, though not necessarily in an economic sense (which would be almost impossible, in terms of historical accuracy). My heroines find their happy ever after on their own terms, which don’t necessarily conform to what society requires of them, they are true to themselves first and foremost, and they instinctively rebel against boundaries set by other people. In that sense, which is pretty much my own personal idea of feminism, then they are feminist. But I would be hesitant about claiming any overtly feminist political purpose for my stories because that’s not why I write them.

RwA: (This topic is just too interesting for me to keep out of it…) Oddly enough, what struck me as most feminist about this book was the very lack of any overt feminist political purpose.  Your focus, in the writing, remains on the characters, their development, and the development of love between them — but each character’s acceptance of certain ideas (that Cressie can, despite her non-male status, excel at mathematics; that Lord Armstrong is wrong to so undervalue his daughters and wrong to be so unconcerned about their futures; that Cressie may have a life and a value all her own and may have the choice of how to spend that life), while never drawing the focus of the story, affirms the basic principles of feminism in an understated, and therefore more powerful, way.  This book presents a picture of how the world could look if we stopped seeing feminism as the opposite of patriarchy and instead saw it as a truly egalitarian perspective.

 5.  RwA: What are some of your upcoming and/or recently released projects?

Kaye:  Rumours that Ruined a Lady is the story of Cressie’s younger sister Caroline, and will be out in November. It deals with a very common situation – a woman in the ‘wrong’ marriage –  at a time when divorce was not only extremely rare but almost guaranteed to make a social leper of the woman, no matter how ‘innocent’. Caro is the dutiful sister, the only one to marry the man her father chose for her, but things have gone very badly awry indeed for her – so badly, that the book opens with Caro unconscious and near death in an opium den…

I’m currently working on a trilogy of linked novellas set during the First World War to be released next year, the centenary of the commencement of the Great War. It’s a tragic period in world history but also epoch-changing, which is why it provides such a fascinating backdrop against which romance might flourish. The effect of war on society generally is a theme that runs through many of my books, but the scale of this particular war, the suffering of civilians as well as those doing the fighting, the pace of change, both social and technological, are almost overwhelming. It’s a bit of a challenge (serious understatement!) to write believable romances without detracting from the harsh reality of the war, and I’d certainly say it’s my most taxing project yet, but then I say that about every one of my books!

6.  RwA: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered in any recent research?

Kaye:  Researching the Great War, one of the things I discovered was that the horrific injures suffered by soldiers on both sides forced the medical profession into trying out some radical solutions. A sculptor was employed in one British hospital to make masks for men whose faces were beyond repair, for example. In Lyn MacDonald’s amazing book, The Roses of No Man’s Land, I read that blood transfusions were introduced to British and French field hospitals by a team from Harvard. They required the donor and donee to be placed together in the same operating theatre and involved a warm flask and rubber tubing. Primitive stuff to us, but they saved countless lives.

Once again, I want to thank Marguerite for her graciousness in participating in this interview.  You can bet that I’ll be picking up Rumors that Ruined a Lady, and I’m very interested in reading her romances set against The Great War and will be keeping an eye out for them.  The Beauty Within was released on April 23, 2013 as an e-book and mass market by Harlequin Historical.  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  To learn more about Marguerite Kaye, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-book ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.*

Review – Too Hot to Handle by Victoria Dahl

Every now and then after reading a book, I shake my head in dismay.  Damn, I think to myself, now I have to buy all of this woman’s books.  And it may sound like I’m not happy about it — my husband and bank account certainly aren’t — but those moments are the best, full of all the hope and anticipation a reader like me can feel.  I experienced that moment when I finished the last page of Victoria Dahl’s Too Hot to Handle, and now I’ve got a lot of reading ahead of me.

Cover image, Too Hot to Handle by Victoria Dahl

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

This good girl’s going bad….  Merry Kade has always been the good girl. The best friend. The one who patiently waits for the guy to notice her. Well, no more. Merry has just scored her dream job, and it’s time for her life to change. As the new curator of a museum in Wyoming, she’ll supervise a lot of restoration work. Luckily she’s found the perfect contractor for the job.

Shane Harcourt can’t believe that someone wants to turn a beat-up ghost town into a museum attraction. After all, the last thing he needs is the site of his dream ranch turning into a tourist trap. He’ll work on the project, if only to hasten its failure…, until the beautiful, quirky woman in charge starts to change his mind.

For the first time ever, Merry has a gorgeous stud hot on her heels. But can she trust this strong, silent man, even if he is a force of nature in bed? When Shane’s ulterior motives come out, he’ll need to prove to Merry that a love like theirs may be too hot to handle, but it’s impossible to resist.

I fell for Merry first.  She’s funny, wry and a little bit goofy, and the novel’s voice perfectly complemented her charms.

This time, when she stepped back, it only tipped a tiny bit. Like the erection of a man just registering that you’d made a Star Wars joke in the middle of foreplay.

Not that that had ever happened to her.

Further, while Merry obviously carries around her own little bag of insecurities and flaws and while the book is, to a certain extent, about her discovering/accepting herself and her sexuality, her main discovery is that she doesn’t have to become anything to embrace her sexuality; it is as much a part of her as the Star Wars jokes and love of Joss Whedon.  That is my favorite thing about the book — that good-girl Merry with her humor and superhero t-shirts is allowed to be sexy on her own terms and that Shane is given the leeway to find her sexy just as she is, no makeover necessary.

Merry absolutely shines (at least to me), but Shane is also a well-developed character who grapples with his past and his future, his identity and self-concept, and some of the stupid choices he’s made.  I loved Shane, even when I wanted to smack him upside the head, and not just because he appreciated Merry.  (Tangent: I love the off-beat heroine story trope, but sometimes the only thing that makes me love the hero is that he, too, sees what’s so spectacular and awesome about the heroine… I still enjoy those stories because they’re among my favorite kind of story, but it’s an infinitely better reading experience when I can fall in love with both characters in their own right./tangent)

The bottom line is that this book is friggin’ hilarious and had me hooting with laughter at every turn.  (True story – when I’m reading, I never expect to laugh out loud, and when I’m surprised into laughter, it always comes out as this odd, high-pitched hoot.  It’s extra embarrassing.) The secondary characters — of whom my favorite is, unsurprisingly, Rayleen, because I love me some spunky older lady characters — are fantastic and vividly drawn.  I honestly loved every single thing about this book, even though I can’t precisely explain why I have such enthusiasm for it.  Or maybe I can.  The book won me over with this exchange on page 40.

“Oh, my God.” Merry laughed. “You’re the worst liar ever. No, I did not use my super-sexy wiles to lure Shane onto my fold-out sofa bed for a night of uncomfortable passion.”

“I wasn’t worried about you doing the luring!”

“Okay. No, Shane did not butter me up with Star Wars trivia and then ‘accidentally’ fall on me with his penis out.”

So, yeah.  I thought Too Hot to Handle was just plain awesome.  Too Hot to Handle was released on March 26, 2013 as an e-book and mass-market by Harlequin HQN.  If you’re interested in the book, please click on the cover image above the visit the book’s page on Goodreads (or just Google it, like God intended).  For more information about Victoria Dahl, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Harlequin HQN via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Confessions of a self-aware addict – The story of 29 books

I’ve heard that the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem, so here goes.  Oh Internet, I have a deep and shameful secret to confess.  I am hopelessly addicted to Stephanie Laurens books.  It started with this one, believe it or not.

I bought it on a whim, and it drew me in with its interesting vocabulary (honestly, susurrate, cynosurelimned?) and fabulous old lady characters.  Then I bought and read all of these books, because I am, clearly, an idiot.

Oh. My. God.  It’s horrifying to see all those covers laid out like that…

And do you know what?  They are all pretty much the same book, just with different physical descriptions (and, in the fine strokes, different character descriptions, but the broad strokes are all the same) and, for the most part, a different type of intrigue or danger that the characters face together while deciding whether or not to boink and whether or not to marry (spoiler alert: the answer is always yes.).  In fact, perhaps the only one truly worth reading is the first one: Devil’s Bride, because it (alone) doesn’t rely on poor communication as a plot and conflict device.

These books contain (1) an alpha male who is handsome, rich, compelling, good in the sack (and so experienced–and it’s uncomfortable that the dude’s experience gets mentioned so often–that you have to wonder how all these alpha males manged to avoid social diseases), and feeling a bit jaded and restless with his life–a.k.a. primed for matrimony; (2) a strong female who has some past experience or quirky character trait that creates a desire (a) never to marry without a solid belief that she is entering a love match, (b) the idea that this solid belief can be obtained only by the gentleman saying, “I love you,” and (c) the disinclination ever to express this desire in words that the poor hero could ever understand; (3) some sort of life-threatening intrigue or danger that both throws the hero and heroine together often enough for them to boink occasionally and, towards the end of the story, places the heroine’s life in danger so that the intelligence-challenged hero can realize, finally, that he loves her–and can tell her so in those words–so that she can finally agree to marry him.  These books also contain multiple episodes of the same bizarre sex scene, in which the characters’ boinking creates (what I hope is) a metaphorical aurora borealis of afterglow.

I know, right?!  Why did I read 28 versions of the same story?  Clearly, I have an illness.

And, actually, I read 29.

I know! It’s painful.  Anyway, The Lady Risks All was released last fall, and I really tried to hold out, but I failed.  I held out all of two weeks before I bought the book, read it, and then felt all the awful feels.  Was it the same plot all over again?  Yep.  Was it pretty much the same characters all over again?  Yep, for the most part.  Did the sex scenes involve sunbursts and starbeams and being both wracked and wrecked while tossed on the far shore the island people go to, if Laurens is to be believed, after they’ve had an orgasm and are floating in the sea of sated bliss?  Yes, yes it did.

Anyway, there’s a new Laurens book out now, and I need your help, friends, in resisting its insidious call.  Do any of you have this illness, too (towards different authors, perhaps)?  Do you find yourself buying and reading these books and then wondering, why did I do that?! I knew it would be bad!  Is there a cure?