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.*

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.*