What I’ve been reading lately — a little historical romance fiction

I’m not really a goal-oriented person.  Goals — and I’m using a fairly broad definition that comprises resolutions of the New Year’s and less formal variety, vague life goals, reading goals, dreams I used to have when I was a kid, etc. — often seem like a waste of time and emotional energy.  The thing is, I’m terrible at goal setting.  Either I pick a goal so easy to achieve that attaining it means nothing or I pick a difficult goal and it becomes just another way for me to fail. That is such an Eeyore sentence, right?

This year when setting my arbitrary reading challenge ‘goal’ on Goodreads, I decided to try to be intentional about it rather than just guessing how many books I might read in 2014. I set a low goal — 100 books — because I want to slow down and think about all the books I read — even the ones that don’t seem to deserve it — and live out the purpose of this blog.  I want to analyze, and I can’t do that when I start a new book the instant I finish one. So far, I don’t think this is a goal I will achieve this year, but I have plenty of time left to surprise myself.

I shared all of this as an introduction to a series of mini-review posts and as a public declaration both of my goal to think more (and perhaps think better, but that’s less certain) and of my less-than-stellar track record with goals.  Because I know you care. Obviously.

First up on the mini-review train is A Kiss of Lies by Bronwen Evans.

Desperate to escape her abusive past, Sarah Cooper disguises herself as a governess in the employ of Christian Trent, Earl of Markham, the man who, long ago, she fantasized about marrying. Despite the battle scars that mar his face, Sarah finds being near Christian rekindles her infatuation. A governess, however, has no business in the arms of an earl, and as she accompanies Christian on his voyage home, Sarah must resist her intense desires—or risk revealing her dangerous secrets.

One of the renowned Libertine Scholars, Christian Trent once enjoyed the company of any woman he chose. But that was before the horrors of Waterloo, his wrongful conviction of a hideous crime, and his forcible removal from England. Far from home and the resources he once had, Christian believes the life he knew—and any chance of happiness—is over . . . until his ward’s governess sparks his heart back to life, and makes him remember the man he used to be. Now Christian is determined to return to England, regain his honor, and win the heart of the woman he has come to love.

You know how sometimes you’re reading a book, and you’re enjoying it, but these niggling little thoughts keep intruding on your enjoyment, poking you and causing you to doubt whether you really should be enjoying yourself, all things considered?  Well, I felt that way when I read A Kiss of Lies. The story is sweeping, covers a lot of geography (York, Canada to Kingston, Jamaica, to London), uses some of my favorite tropes (injured/damaged hero, governess heroine, characters with issues, and secret childhood infatuation), and is well-paced and emotionally satisfying.  So what was the problem?

A Kiss of Lies is pretty damn bold (not a bad thing), and part of its story involves a plantation, an abusive slave owner, and the white woman who’s caught in the crossfire. And part of me wants to praise the book for not shying away from such a loaded topic. But another part of me wonders what is the point of bringing up slavery if the story is going to be told from the perspective of the white woman who’s harmed by it.  Maybe my reading approach was too nervous (or too American, maybe), but it felt like this giant, festering, definitely not resolved issue was used — was appropriated, perhaps — as a narrative crutch to demonstrate just how much the heroine suffered in her marriage. There are other ways to achieve that end without marginalizing people whose experiences were fifty thousand times worse than the heroine’s because she was, eventually, able to escape and hide because she’s white.  I dunno… I liked so many things about the book, but all the parts that related to Sarah’s back story made me feel deeply uncomfortable.

Then there is Portrait of a Scandal by Annie Burrows.

HE HAS TAKEN HER TO HEAVEN, HELL AND BACK AGAIN… 

Her heart and hope long since shattered, Amethyst Dalby is content with her life as an independent woman. With wealth of her own, and no one to answer to, she is free to live as she pleases.

Until a trip to Paris throws her into contact with the one man who still has a hold over her—the bitter but still devastatingly sensual Nathan Harcourt! Living as an artist, this highborn gentleman has been brought low by scandal—and he is determined to show Amethyst that life is much more fun if you walk on the dark side….

I read this book in January, and I just didn’t know what to say about it. There were quite a few things that I liked about it, particularly that the heroine (sort of) recovers from a difficult family situation and achieves a (sort of) independence and that the hero escapes from the stifling expectations of his family to live out his passions (art) on his own terms.  But there were also a lot of things I didn’t like, particularly that the heroine’s recovery from her difficult family situation involves an extreme pendulum swing from naively trusting young lady to hardened and crotchety pensioner in the body of a young woman.  Further, I wanted a lot more sucking up from the hero, who was the cause of all the heroine’s difficulties.  Portrait of a Scandal is pretty typical for its genre, which will be comforting to some readers and frustrating to others.  You know who you are.

Finally, I want to talk about Fall of a Saint by Christine Merrill.  Nearly a year ago, I reviewed The Greatest of Sinsand anticipated the continuation of The Sinner and the Saint story line.

Honorable—and handsome to boot! — Michael Poole, Duke of St. Aldric, has earned his nickname “The Saint.” But the ton would shudder if they knew the truth. Because, thrust into a world of debauchery, this saint has turned sinner!

With the appearance of fallen governess Madeline Cranston—carrying his heir—St. Aldric looks for redemption through a marriage of convenience. But the intriguing Madeline is far from a dutiful duchess, and soon this saint is indulging in the most sinful of thoughts…while his new wife vows to make him pay for his past.

I cannot believe I liked this book, you guys. In fact, I think there might be something wrong with me. You see, it goes against one of my hardest of hard limits: it gives an HEA to a hero who raped the heroine. I know. I KNOW! But here’s the thing… it was interesting because it stayed resolutely mired in the gray area that is real life; it was believable because it allowed the hero and heroine each to feel a whole range of emotions, regrets, hopes, and fears; and it was subversive as hell because it took a number of tropes — the rapey hero, the victimized heroine, the marriage of convenience, the secret baby… — twisted them around, and hinted at a dialogue I just never expected to find in a Harlequin Historical.

There are some things about rape that you just know, right? (And if you don’t… well, I don’t want to hear about it.)  For example, in a scenario wherein an intoxicated man stumbles upon a sleeping woman and proceeds to have sex with her, is it rape? You probably answered, YES.  And you’re right, because the sleeping woman did not give consent.  Here’s a harder question, though: take that same intoxicated man and tell me if he’s an evil person, a person who deserves to be punished forever for what he did.  Tell me what that punishment looks like. These questions do not have simple answers. To get near the neighborhood of those answers, you have to answer a whole slew of other questions: what is good, and what is evil? what is right, and what is wrong? what is justice? what do we mean when we say “deserve,” and who could decide such a thing?

I am certain — indeed, there is proof in the Goodreads reviews — that not everyone will agree with me that the HEA in The Fall of a Saint is just. I liked it because it pushed the envelope and made me think beyond the failed logic of my oversimplified views vis-à-vis rape and rapists.  I know you want to see my diagram.

Diagram 032614

The truth is, it’s just not that simple, and I liked The Fall of a Saint because it didn’t try to keep things simple. Merrill allowed her hero to feel devastation and condemnation and hopelessness and self-hatred; she allowed him to act with contrition; but she also allowed him to develop hope and to find happiness.  If it were just about him, maybe that would be problematic, but she also allowed her heroine to feel anger and grief and shame and righteousness; she allowed her to act out her anger; but she also allowed her to develop strength and forgiveness. And together they found love, and I thought that was pretty cool, all things considered.

Kiss of Lies was released on January 14, 2014 as an e-book by Loveswept. Portrait of a Scandal was released on January 21, 2014 as an e-book and mass-market paperback by Harlequin Historical. The Fall of a Saint was released on February 18, 2014 as an e-book and mass-market paperback by Harlequin Historical.  For more information about any of these books, click on the cover images above to visit their page on Goodreads.  Check out the authors’ websites: Bronwen Evans, Annie Burrows, Christine Merrill.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of all three books from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

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9 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading lately — a little historical romance fiction

  1. “Portrait of a Scandal is pretty typical for its genre, which will be comforting to some readers and frustrating to others. You know who you are.”

    *shifty eyes*

    The Fall of a Saint sounds really great, actually! Even an “oops-I-raped-her” scene is usually an automatic DNF for me. I love books that question good and evil and characters with moral ambiguity.

    • LOL. I really liked the first third of Portrait of a Scandal… there’s a disapproving Frenchman and a little comedy of errors and latent angst (if that makes any sense), and I’m in favor of all of that. But… once the characters got down to the business of disrobing and pursuing a romance, I felt like the book sort of snapped back into the historical romance box, and that was a shame (to me).

      The Fall of a Saint… it’s just so damn complicated, and I couldn’t help but enjoy all that moral ambiguity, as you put it. From the very beginning, when the preggo heroine shows up on the hero’s doorstep demanding a settlement, I couldn’t help but notice how different the narrative was from what I expected. For starters, there was never any question about the act being anything besides rape. There’s no equivocation there, no attempt to sugar coat it. It was such an unexpected approach that I kept reading.

  2. Regarding Fall of a Saint: Actually, it is that simple. I’m sorry, but I do not think that a rapist is deserving of a HAE. He can be contrite and mentally torture himself about it, I’m fine with that. But he does not deserve to have a happy and fulfilling romance in the future. Some things can not ever be redeemed. And I really don’t get the heroine falling for the man who raped her trope. I don’t buy it and I just don’t get it. It’s gross and wrong. I see no problem with your original logic, rapists are evil. I’m all for moral ambiguity, but there is nothing ambiguous when it comes to rape. Life isn’t just, and people (both good and evil) don’t usually get what they deserve, and maybe that’s where this book went. But in my opinion, the answer to the question of if a rapist ever can deserve a HEA, the answer will always be no.

    • Thank you for this comment, because that’s totally fair, and most readers are with you. The reviews of this book are really interesting, because there’s very little ‘meh.’ Most people were like Oh. Hell. No. And then a few of us were like, Wow… That was unexpected — I can’t believe I liked it.

      In a genre with a dirty history of rapey and/or abusive alphaholes winning over TSTL heroines with their arrogance and physical mastery and eventually capitulating to said heroines’ Cinderella-like kindness, beauty & innocence, it is distinctly disturbing to see that dangerous trope used in modern hist-rom. What I liked about this one is how it deviated from that old trope. The heroine is never Cinderella-like. In fact, she’s fucking pissed, and her goal going into the marriage of convenience is to make the hero pay for what he did. And she does. And the hero isn’t an alphahole at all, and he forces himself to take on a completely submissive role in the marriage of convenience. All of that is highly unusual for the genre, and against that backdrop the narrative suggests that a person’s identity is bigger than this one thing they did or this one thing that happened to them. That it does so without managing to get mired in rape apologia is particularly interesting.

      It’s not a book for everyone, and I can’t really recommend it, because some of the stuff in there could be horribly triggering. But to me, with my background and beliefs and mental habits, it was really damn interesting, and that — after all — is what I want from a book.

      • I can see why you would find that interesting- turning tropes on their heads and all. My thing is, why does rape have to be in romance novels in the first place? Like, why are there ever “heroes” who have raped? That just doesn’t make sense to me. The fact that the trope even exists to begin with makes me insane. I’m glad that the heroine was pissed. She should be pissed. Because of the patriarchal society, she is left with very little choice but to marry the guy who raped her and knocked her up (if I am understanding the plot correctly). I really don’t care if the guy is the nicest, coolest guy ever. He’s still a freaking rapist, which makes him really bad and undeserving, and he should be labeled as such for the rest of forever. Because, yes, there are some things that are so big that they are indelibly marked on your identity. Rape, murder, these are thing that should haunt you for the rest of your days. That’s why the US has a registered sex offender list. Obviously I haven’t read the book, and I’m not saying that you are a horrible person for finding it interesting. All I’m saying is that romance novels need to stop including rape and abuse. The whole things makes me feel stabby because it just feeds into rape culture and makes the world less safe. It leads to lighter sentencing for perpetrators (hello, Steubenville) and possibly victim blaming. We should never empathize with a rapist. And at this point I’m just ranting and a little ragey, so I’ll stop. I am apparently very passionate about this subject. I just think that it is a very unhealthy message that can have no other effect than to continue the trend of women being put down and getting totally screwed.

  3. Thank you so much for this review. And not just because you liked it. I wanted to ask hard questions with this one, and to get people thinking. Definitely did that. I am more than willing to take my lunps from anyone who thinks I committed the utilmate in romance sins, since I also HATE books with rapey heroes. I particularly loathe the ‘I will rape you until you love me’ heroes of the 70′s and 80′s. That is a trope that needed to die.
    But I love redeeming rakes. I’ve always said that rape was the one thing that couldn’t be redeemed. So, of course, I had to try, just to see what would happen. And I made Michael so impossibly good in the The Greatest of Sins, that I could not resist utterly destroying him in this one.
    I can guess which dialog you never expected to find in a Harlequin Historical. Was it in the hero’s childhood? Granted, it is a spoiler, but it surprises me that no one ever says anything about it, since it is a huge deal and should be just as shocking as what happens to the heroine.
    It also surprises me when I get comments that the heroine is a bitch. But that happens just about every time I write a book. I may not look like a feminist after writing this story, but really I am. And I see a huge double standard in what people will allow from the heroines. Readers are much more forgiving of the men.

    • Thanks for stopping by to comment! Did you ever read Woodiwiss’ THE WOLF AND THE DOVE? ‘I will rape you until you love me,’ indeed. (*stabs that trope until it is dead*)

      Yes, you guessed correctly. And, you’re right, it is just as shocking… I can offer no explanation for why it is absent from so many discussions of the book (including mine).

      What I found most intriguing about the book is that other than Michael’s, “I’d been drinking,” quasi explanation for his behavior, you did not make any attempt to lessen the offense or to explain it away. As a woman and a reader, I was aware the entire time that Michael’s acceptance of his fate was a highly unusual, if desirable, behavior — if it’s difficult for modern men (and women) and modern laws to comprehend consent and sexual assault, how much more difficult for a man in Regency England? — and I kept waiting for the narrative to make it easier on him, or to make excuses for him, but that’s not what happened. Even the discussion about Michael’s childhood — which I thought might throw him in a more sympathetic light — was carefully neutral. He did a thing, and it was a bad thing. The reasons he did that bad thing do not matter, because they don’t change the impact of that bad thing on Madeline. And, yet, he and Madeline are both able to heal and move on, and it was totally believable that they would do so together.

      Is it weird that this story actually struck me as feminist (despite the marriage of convenience trope)? <– take me with a giant bucket of salt, though… my concept of feminism has more to do with my vague thoughts and feelings about things than any proper study of feminist theory. I totally get that a story that involves a pregnant woman forced to depend financially upon a wealthy man (a man who raped her!) doesn't seem very feminist, but I persist in my notions. 😉

  4. I haven’t read Woodiwiss, but I have read Judith McNaught. That seemed to happen in every book I read. Throwing all those books on the ‘really guilty pleasures’ pile, and assuring myself that we’ve evolved since the 70′s.
    And I wouldn’t worry about studying feminism to understand it. Frankly, I think by age 50 every woman deserves a PhD in women’s studies. All we have to do is notice the number of times we get screwed over as a gender, and then draw our own conclusions.
    But trying to be feminist in the 19th c is tricky. Women and children were property. There was no divorce. There was no vote for women. Unlesss it was set aside in a trust or something, the womna’s property became the husband’s property at marriage. Any feminism I can shoehorn into a historical has to be based on the strength of the female character and the willingness of the hero not to be an asshole. He has to be willing to allow the woman to be his equal, since there is no law compelling him to treat her fairly.
    I laid some ground rules for myself when I started this story. It was going to start with non consentual sex. But there would be no force used. There would be no intent on the part of the hero. It would not be an act of power or dominance. None of that makes what happened right. But it wasn’t the old fashioned ‘submit to me’ hero. It was an ordinary guy (actually an extraordinarily good guy) who made the biggest mistake he could possibly make. His past doesn’t give him an excuse for bad behavior. It only gives him a bigger reason to feel guilty and like a total failure.
    Someone told me a story once about a friend of a friend. He was backing his truck out of a driveway and accidentally ran over and killed the child of a friend. He wasn’t really to blame. He couldn’t see a small child behind him. Sometimes, accidents happen to good people after only one moment of carelessness. But how can a person ever forgive himself after a mistake like that? And how does the parent get over the loss? That was kind of my premise here.
    Someone asked why there had to be a rape in a romance novel at all. Because that is probably one of the things that I shouldn’t sanitize out of the Regency. I’m sure it happened often enough. I think it needs to be there to prove that, even when something awful happens, life doesn’t end for the heroine. She still gets a happy ending.

  5. Pingback: Review – A Promise of More by Bronwen Evans | Reading with Analysis

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