Sarah MacLean’s Killer Duke and Eroticizing the Thrill of the Fight (a little violence with your romance, Part 2)

In the third installment of Sarah MacLean’s RULE OF SCOUNDRELS series, a hero meditates on bare knuckles, violence, and identity

In the clearing stands a Boxer William Harrow, Duke of Lamont, called Temple. He’s got tantalizing tattoos, bruising ways, and an identity crisis.

And a Dead Girl Miss Mara Lowe, wealthy heiress gone underground and posing as the widowed Mrs. MacIntyre, head of an exclusive yet impoverished home for orphaned boys. She’s got auburn hair, street smarts, and way too many secrets.

The Setting Regency London:  MacIntyre’s Orphanage and the Fallen Angel gaming hell and boxing club.

Some Beloved and/or Familiar Tropes Hero Wronged by Heroine and Seeking Retribution; Heroine Faking Own Death as Means of Escape; Angst-y, Tortured Hero; Heroine with False Identity; Lovable Adolescent Lads and Hero Who Mentors; Worldly, Knowing French Dressmaker; Strange Bargain Struck Between Hero and Heroine Requiring Humiliating and/or Arousing Wardrobe Selection Outing; Reckless, Foolish, and Selfish Sibling Who Causes Most of Heroine’s Problems; Genteel Heroine Making Sacrifices and Running an Orphanage; Hero Camaraderie and Bromance with Other Badass Heroes In the Series; Adork-able Unusual Pet Thrown In For Good Measure.

Brought to you by Sarah MacLean, in No Good Duke Goes Unpunished (Avon, releasing on November 26, 2013)

How About a Little Violence with Your Romance?  Since my previous post on this subject, I continue to think a lot about the many intersections of violence and violent behavior with plot and character development in the romance genre. When I received NO GOOD DUKE, and re-encountered the mysterious bruiser called Temple who has appeared in the prior novels in the series, I decided to jump on the promo bandwagon and read it right away this month. This is a hero who has made his way in the world by using his brute force to subdue enemies, opponents, and his own inner demons.

In my other post, I basically asked a lot of questions and identified several different ways I think violence (non-sexual) functions as part of the romance genre’s stock-in-trade. I originally got stuck thinking about grim and graphic torture scenes — is there a comfort zone with violence in romance, and are there limits to that comfort? I also wondered about villain POV and violent fantasizing (yuck, this is my least favorite thing to read); hero and heroine in peril and on- or off-screen violence; secondary characters harmed or killed to elevate threat level; and expectations that heroes be capable of protecting themselves and others via the use of force. Astute commenters proposed additional angles including violence between H/h and the connection between amped up violence and increased explicit sexual content. Running throughout the discourse are questions surrounding the genre’s use (reliance?) of “acceptable” violence, badass heroes who never back down from a fight, and the ways in which a hero’s capacity for violence may be eroticized. Enter Sarah MacLean’s Temple, who is No Good Duke.

This is a book that unabashedly celebrates the sexy of the violent hero, even as it questions his objectification in the boxing ring and the prurient female gaze. Although he’s a brute, he’s a good man unjustly punished.

And in spite of Temple’s violent history, the actual violence in this book is well within a comfort zone for historical romance. It’s all about the character development — this is a master class in using the hero’s POV and reflections, along with the heroine’s observation (and that of other women) of his body at rest and in motion, to inextricably link his hotness with his violence, without having him actually cross the invisible hero line or take the reader beyond what might be called a normalized level of violence for historical romance.

Like many a hero in any historical setting, Temple will gladly deliver a brutal street beatdown if it’s justified (eg. protecting or rescuing), and it goes without saying that this behavior is presented in a positive light. And yes, I do think it’s meant to be sexy. Mara finds it so. Here’s Temple schooling the orphanage boys and subtexting:

“Protection.” Temple’s knuckles still ached from the night of Mara’s attack. He looked to her, grateful for her safety. “That’s the very best reason to fight.”

Her cheeks pinkened and he found he enjoyed the view. (p. 149)

But if he beats down opponents in the ring on a nightly basis for a living, or seems regrettably habituated to breaking other people’s ribs, anything un-heroic about that is offset by Temple’s own misgivings and meditations on fighting, hurting, and truth.

He fought for the moment when he was nothing but muscle and bone, movement and force, sleight and feint. For the way brutality blocked the world beyond, silencing the thunder of the crowd and the memories of his mind, and left him with only breath and might.

He fought because, for twelve years, it was in the ring alone that he knew the truth of himself and of the world.

Violence was pure, all else tainted. (pp.5-6)

By contrast, when we see Temple via Mara’s POV, his fighter’s body and the traces of violence it bears give rise to impure thoughts. On the one hand there is Mara’s “legitimate” desire, expressed through touch in the intimacy he allows as she binds his wounds.

“I want the rest of the story. You became unbeatable.”

His bad hand flexed against her hip. “I was always good at violence.”

Her hands moved of their own volition, sliding across his wide, warm chest. He was magnificently made, she knew, the product of years of fighting. Not simply for sport, but for safety.

“It was my purpose.”

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “It wasn’t.” (p.320)

On the flip side, and more interesting, is the way MacLean touches on the heteronormative objectification of male violence and the prurience inherent in the Fallen Angel’s winning business model, which incorporates a women-only one-way mirrored viewing gallery alongside the ring, where ladies of all classes mingle, wearing masks, for ogling.  It’s an interesting, possibly ahistorical, element that can be read as a sort of equal-rights mitigation for the overall setting and the gaming hell’s undoubted, unavoidable exploitation of the feminine charms of certain of its employees. (Heroes who run gaming hells always seem to do it in the least sexist way possible.)

“Any minute now,” a feminine sigh came from several yards away, and the entire room – on both sides of the window – seemed to still, waiting.

They were waiting for Temple.

And Mara found that she, too, was waiting.

Even though she hated him.

And then he was there, filling the doorway as though it were cut to his size, broad and tall and big as a house, bare from the waist up, wearing only those scandalous tattoos and buckskin breeches fitted to his massive thighs, and the long linen strips she’d wrapped along the hills and valleys of his knuckles and around the muscles of his thumb and wrist as she tried not to notice his hands. (p. 179)

This is from a lengthy and pivotal scene at the midpoint of the novel. (I don’t want to say more about the twist-y plot negotiations that go on between the couple here because it’d be spoilerish.) MacLean begins by eliding  Mara’s desiring gaze with that of the other women in the gallery, but quickly pulls her heroine away into quite a different emotional space:

“I’d risk a night with the Killer Duke to find out!”

The laughter fairly shook the room, nearly all of the women taking immense pleasure from the words – from their own additions to the lewd suggestions. Mara looked down the room, at the long row of silks and satins and perfect coifs and maquillage, and the way the women fairly salivated at Temple, remembering his moniker but not the truth of it – that he was a duke. That he deserved their respect.

And that, even if he weren’t a duke … he wasn’t an animal. (p.181)

What’s also rather masterful is that all this bobbing and weaving around the romance convention of a hero who’s a sexy beast of a violent badass dude, but really a good guy, is happening sort of on a meta level that entwines with the plot, which centers on Temple’s mistaken and undeserved infamy as a brutal murderer. Known to all of London as the “Killer Duke,” he’s been tried and convicted of Mara’s murder in the court of public opinion, and has never been received or accepted in his rightful ducal role. Yet the reader knows from the start that he’s not a killer, that his life of violence began in exile and survival and has flourished as a form of self-destructive, pain-numbing expiation of sins not committed.

At the orphanage again:

“Well. This is a treat. It’s not every day a duke gives up his title to take on work.”

“I hear it happens quite often in novels,” Temple said. (p. 141)

Temple has taken on more than work in response to the loss of his reputation — he’s simultaneously reduced himself to the basest survival skill and raised it to a form of contemplation and sacrifice. His face and body are textured with scarring and traces of fractures. Mara’s gaze on his scars, her attention to his past and present injuries, become her means of approach and connection. Temple and Mara share a dark and too-familiar knowledge of grievous injury and bodily harm and seeing this in each other engenders the beginning of forgiveness and redemption for both. 

early 19th centry gloves

via History Hoydens

Bare knuckles bare a lot This novel makes much of the sexy dissonance of a manor-born duke as a bare-knuckle brawler. Mara lavishes care on the bruised hands which have served him as weapons and tools of destruction yet touch her with only gentleness and grace. I loved how, in return, Temple attunes himself to observing Mara’s hands. One of the first chinks in his armor of anger at her deceptions and secrets appears when he notices that she has no gloves. He begins to know something about her hardscrabble life as he observes her work-roughened hands. She binds his hands in linen; he buys her gloves. This is something else they share. Capable, somewhat battered hands may not seem like a sexy detail, but I loved the chemistry MacLean created with these parallels.  

In a sense the violence of NO GOOD DUKE, both that which is depicted and that which is inferred, becomes a form of redemptive suffering, and not just for Temple. Mara is a survivor, and not just of her own “murder.” To say more would involve spoilers, and this post is already over-long. I will just conclude by saying I loved going more than a few rounds with this couple; although I started out focusing on Temple’s “violence is pure” rhetoric, I quickly got caught up in their stories and their romance.

Disclosures I received an advance copy of  NO GOOD DUKE GOES UNPUNISHED from Avon, in exchange for an honest review and as part of the Addicts program, along with a sweet little swag deck of cards — so I can pretend I’m gambling at the Fallen Angel, presumably.  As an intermittent blogger, I may be the most slacker Addict ever, and have wondered seriously in recent months whether I should stop taking the free books. 

no good duke

It seemed like a good idea at the time, back in May when I was even less sure than I am now how this blogging thing was going to evolve. I think this is the first time I’m even attempting a post to coincide with a release week. But how could I not? This book is practically a treatise on writing a sympathetic violent hero, and raises all kinds of interesting questions.

Also, I’m a MacLean fan. The books are so much better than the silly titles, and perhaps that’s part of the fun. And I met her at the NECRWA conference book-signing last spring, so there’s a bit of fangirl squee to acknowledge — I know she’s charming in person as well. Last but well worth revisiting – she’s a badass advocate for the genre.

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RevWar Romance: Turncoat + Quaker = Badass Couple

THE TURNCOAT, by Donna Thorland

A suspenseful Revolutionary War spy romance set against a finely textured backdrop of intrigue and decadence in British-occupied Philadelphia

For the British: Peter Tremayne, titled, well-connected officer who’s too principled for a career leading a ruthless army of occupation, too honorable for his own good, and too much in love to turn in the woman he knows played a role in his disgrace and is spying for Washington.

For the Americans: Kate Grey, serious, smart Quaker whose tactical genius and boldly calculated courage are roused by Major Tremayne along with her first taste of true desire.

The Turncoat (Renegades of the Revolution, #1)

Brought to you by: Donna Thorland, in The Turncoat (Renegades of the Revolution #1), 2013: Penguin/New American Library.

From the publisher (jacket copy):

They are lovers on opposite sides of a brutal war, with everything at stake and no possibility of retreat. They can trust no one—especially not each other.

Major Lord Peter Tremayne is the last man rebel bluestocking Kate Grey should fall in love with, but when the handsome British viscount commandeers her home, Kate throws caution to the wind and responds to his seduction. She is on the verge of surrender when a spy in her own household seizes the opportunity to steal the military dispatches Tremayne carries, ensuring his disgrace—and implicating Kate in high treason. Painfully awakened to the risks of war, Kate determines to put duty ahead of desire, and offers General Washington her services as an undercover agent in the City of Brotherly Love.

Months later, having narrowly escaped court martial and hanging, Tremayne returns to decadent, British-occupied Philadelphia with no stomach for his current assignment—to capture the woman he believes betrayed him. Nor does he relish the glittering entertainments being held for General Howe’s idle officers. Worse, the glamorous woman in the midst of this social whirl, the fiancée of his own dissolute cousin, is none other than Kate Grey herself. And so begins their dangerous dance, between passion and patriotism, between certain death and the promise of a brave new future together.

Real History AND Romance, again!

Lucky me – two books in a row that offer meticulous and atmospheric colonial history along with a breathtaking and believable romance. Like The Traitor’s Wife, which I reviewed for my previous post, The Turncoat falls on the “cusp” of the romance genre, where it blends seamlessly into historical fiction, and has been published in trade softcover format. But as with many a traditional histrom from Avon or HQN, the bosom&bodice cover image and allusion to a “Renegades” series tell a romance reader what to expect. This is certainly a romance novel. And what a romance novel! I loved it.

Here’s why:

Great hero. Peter is above reproach in many ways that matter; he deplores the inhumanity of the occupying force along with the particular depravity of certain notorious officers. Yet he’s subtle and nuanced – he’s not holier-than-thou and he’s not above using Kate’s attraction to him against her, from their first private encounter to his discovery of her masquerade as a wealthy Loyalist socialite in close proximity to the most deadly senior officers. He’s not an alpha, but he’s a survivor; he has a tortured family history and has twice disgraced his service to the Crown due to an innate sympathy for the victims of his army’s imperial occupation. He’s focused, strong, elegant and tenacious, but not one of those larger-than-life heroes who take up all the space in the book. Which is good, because….

Even greater, Jane-ish heroine. Like my beloved Jane Eyre, Kate is stronger than she knows, smarter than most of the people she encounters, unremittingly sure of her principles, and able to make painful sacrifices in order to act according to her moral compass. Her selfhood is never in question, even when she is brought painfully low it’s clear she’s choosing aspects of her abjection as a form of atonement.  And never at any time does it come across as “feisty” or “spunky” or TSTL-foolhardy, like some heroines who dash around madly and adorably doing the right thing and saving the day. This is a beautiful portrait of an unworldly young woman who becomes very worldly very fast. She falters, she doubts, she questions her own motives and inconvenient desires, but her strongly pragmatic idealism survives.

Non-icky “deflowering” scene that supports character development. (possible spoiler alert) Yes, Kate is a virgin and yes, Peter is an accomplished lover who senses her “awakening desire.” Blah blah. But Thorland deftly steers clear of the potential pitfalls with this trope. For one thing, I think it’s daring to put her heroine in the hands, literally, of another man, not the hero, for her first overtly sexual experience — this is an uncomfortable yet revealing scene where Kate, wearing her alluring assumed identity, has her first climax with her faux fiance, the curious villain of the novel, and Peter’s look-alike cousin, sadist Bayard Caide. I know, this all sounds convoluted, but it really works to throw the coupling of Kate/Peter into high relief, while exposing layers of nuance and complexity when we read Kate through her alternate identity in the Lydia/Bay scenes.

When Peter and Kate spend the night together the actual un-flowering (why isn’t there a better one-word term for this than the supremely silly “deflowering”??) scene is blessedly unflowery, and unsentimental.  Nor is it bizarrely implausible (worst for me is when these scenes are overly swoon-y and the heroine is suddenly discovered to be a “natural” sex goddess). This is one of the best scenes in the book for allowing the reader to see Peter and Kate as a man and a woman in love, in conversation, and in intimacy, without the burden of false identities or imminent danger. It’s emotionally satisfying. It’s also prosaic yet sexy and compelling.

Fresh look at fascinating history. Here is where l disclose that I have a tweep-ish acquaintance with the author, and we have twitter-chatted briefly about the history in this book, my fangirl appreciation for it, and a shared interest in local historic sites and museums. I have read numerous other fictional treatments of this period and the role of women in Revolutionary War espionage, many also incorporating the legendary figures of Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen, and Major John Andre.

As I read The Turncoat I thought a lot about the sentimental turn-of-the-century Janice Meredith, by Paul Leicester Ford (1899), which I read as a teen, and Shadow Patriots by Lucia St. Clair Robson (2005), both of which present Andre as a heroic figure on the wrong side of history. And there are dozens of other novels which do the same. But this is the first I’ve read which offers a darker, less sympathetic portrayal of the dashing, artistic Major Andre. Thorland effectively uses her knowledge of social history and material culture to create a plausibly creepier and more human version of the notorious spy hanged by Washington.

And her background as a curator of historic houses also lends varied textures to the novel’s architectural and domestic settings and deepens the impact of the events that happen therein.

Here are some of Kate’s thoughts on the first night she spends with Peter:

She’d realized in the first few weeks of her adventure in Philadelphia that no matter what the outcome of the war, she had transgressed. There would be no place in polite society, neither the learned salons of Philadelphia nor the forgiving parlors of Orchard Valley, for a woman who bartered her body for secrets. It was simply too sordid.

But this bedroom, borrowed though it was, was not sordid. It was the private retreat of proud parents. There were penmanship and embroidery samples on the wall, framed and hung with care. In the corner was the dressing table of a lady fine enough to receive visitors during her toilette, but not so fine as to banish the toys abandoned beside her chair: the cup and ball, the hoop and stick some toddler must have chased around the room just before they were forced to flee the house.

and

They lay drowsing on the soft down mattress, curled on their sides facing each other.

“I like this room,” she said, running her fingers through the fringe on the bed curtains. “Whoever lived here must miss it. I don’t think you could be unhappy in a house like this.”

He’d noted the toys beside the dressing table, the penmanship samples… “It feels like a home,” he replied.

Donna Thorland, The Turncoat, 2013, New American Library softcover edition, pp. 243 & 255.

This was a great read, both as historical fiction AND as a romance novel. In my book, that’s always a win-win. My only reservation in recommending The Turncoat to any and all histrom fans who will listen is the level of violence and the pervasive threat of rape which looms throughout Kate’s journey from country girl to notorious spy and turncoat’s wife.  Like other armies of occupation throughout history, the British in the American colonies during the war used rape as one weapon of intimidation against the general populace, as well as for punishing/torturing women suspected of espionage, and the book does include several depictions of rape or torture involving both peripheral and central characters. These scenes are not gratuitous, but the book has a graphic darkness not often found in historical romance.  Yet it IS a romance, and as such, there is a lovely HEA, hard-won and very satisfying.

Postscript: On Badass Couples

Peter and Kate reminded me of some of the compelling things about Jamie and Claire in the Outlander books — they’re both powerful in their own right but somehow become more than the sum of their parts as a couple. Like Gabaldon’s famous characters (headed to a screen near everyone next year…ack.) Peter and Kate endure long separations and harrowing near escapes, they share a sexual chemistry and candor with each other that is verbal and emotional as well as physical, and they each rescue each other and are rescued over the course of their story. Also, the use of violence in this novel is not unlike some of the challenging aspects of Outlander.

I’m a Gabaldon fan though I recognize the unevenness of her unwieldy series, and not much HEA, except at the end of the first book. But I do relish Thorland’s creation of a badass couple, akin to Jamie/Claire, and if she wanted to write them more adventures, I’d happily go along for the ride.

The Turncoat is available in the usual formats and places. I purchased my copy at my local used bookseller.

Crooked Romance: what is it with Patricia Gaffney?

Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run: a comedic, gambler-ific western romance that should have been fantastic

The Guy: Reuben Jones, veteran confidence man, wisecracker, card sharp. Always on the move, he’s a gambler with a million disguises, a secret yearning for home and family, and a crippling fear of knives.

The Girl:  Grace Russell, bold, scrappy con artist who can charm dollars out of wallets and into her pockets a million different ways, yet elude surrendering her virtue or her heart.

Crooked Hearts

Brought To You By: Patricia Gaffney in Crooked Hearts, Signet 2001 (originally published 1994).

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: 

THE CON MAN
Reuben Jones walks on the wrong side of the law — a card shark, a master of deception, a man who long ago buried the truth of his life so deep that no one would ever find it…

THE LADY
Grace Russell has had to learn a few tricks herself in order to hold on to the crumbling California vineyard that is the only thing in the world she can call her own…

CROOKED HEARTS
When Grace meets Reuben she’s dressed as a pious Catholic nun; he’s posing as a blind Spanish aristocrat. But he gets an eyeful when the pretty sister lifts her skirts to adjust the little silver derringer strapped to her thigh … So begins this sexy, rollicking ride through the gambling halls and sinful streets of 1880s San Francisco, where two “crooked hearts” discover that love is the most dangerous — and delicious — game of all.

The Setting: The multicultural California coast in the 1880’s; Monterey, San Francisco, the Russian River valley.

The Tropes: Hero who Reforms his Conniving Ways; Heroine who Reforms her Conniving Ways; Heroine Clueless that Hero Thinks She’s Married; Partners in Crime; Sham Wedding as Part of Long Con; Stagecoach Robbery; You Got to Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em; Captive Held in Gambling/Opium Den; Mysterious Chinese Villain.

“Sister Mary Augustine’s little silver derringer was cutting into her thigh.”  The first line was a dead giveaway. This book does NOT have a pokerface. Right away I knew it would be funny, and not to take it too seriously. The first chapters are utterly captivating. Grace and Reuben are extremely likeable, their conversations are hilarious, and it’s strangely refreshing, and rare to read a romance where hero and heroine are both Actual Criminals in need of reform.

In spite of the various dangerous and seedy places the couple finds themselves, this novel isn’t dark and it’s easy to root for the criminals in their various escapades. They’re usually of course up against other criminals who are much worse, and it’s clear that while they are thieves on the run from the law, they recoil from violence.

Reuben is an unusual hero; he’s described as powerful but he’s somehow much less physical than Grace. He’s not especially moody, and only moderately introspective. I haven’t read enough of Patricia Gaffney’s romances to know whether he is an atypical Gaffney hero or not (more about this later) but like the novel itself, he’s unusually blithe for a HistRom hero.

He’s not a badass — he rarely uses his strength to fight and only barely manages to knock out a villain bent on harming — and gang-raping –Grace at one point. Reuben’s badassery is that of the elegant mind game and of witty banter; he’s physically appealing but not physically intimidating. He’s so good at playing out a long con, where patience, control, and the ability to amuse and distract are the skills in his arsenal. But he seems almost passive when the fur is flying and people – even Grace who has become firmly established as the object of his desire – are in danger.  It’s hard to make a man who fleeces people, and runs rather than stand and fight (or face consequences), appealing and sexy, but somehow Gaffney manages to pull it off and I quite liked him.

Grace is equally appealing, and more of a badass in the customary ways: she knows her way around her firearms and she comes up with the bravura self-sacrificing move that saves the day at the end of the long con game. It’s all a bit of a romp, nicely infused with a strong feel for historical California and the early days of the wine industry there. So. If you’ve managed to read this far (Thank You!), you may be wondering why I said it should have been fantastic.

This is clearly the work of a gifted writer with a deft hand at historical fiction, character-driven romance, and funny dialogue. But then there are the parts that are so clumsy and so awfully NOT funny.  The terribly stereotyped villain, an opium-importing Chinese immigrant who runs a whorehouse and 19th century equivalent of a crack house. The horrible – and distracting – use of eye dialect to render the villain’s speech, along with that of Ah You, the ridiculously Confucian, epigrammatic, loyal house servant whose “ancient Chinese wisdom” pushes Grace and Reuben to acknowledge their destiny as man and wife.  And – AH YOU?!? In a romance novel? Ahh, you! Seriously. Unnecessarily. Bad.

Also, I had a bad reaction when Reuben’s suppressed childhood history was revealed and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to have had this particular background. I will endeavor to avoid going further into spoiler territory (except perhaps below in Comments), but between Reuben’s “secret” and the strangeness of his profession for a romance hero – he’s an avaricious pyramid schemer among other things – I am again left wondering at the lack of judgment on the part of both author and publisher with regard to ethnic and racial stereotyping. Unless I am just being dense – maybe for some readers this is all part of a spoof-y western quality a la Blazing Saddles, all broad humor and crass stereotypes?? If that’s so, it just didn’t work for me. It’s too sentimental to work as a spoof, especially in the case of the slow reveal of Reuben’s sad history, which, for me, just dragged down the story — he was interesting and vivid enough without it.

I hesitate to draw any comparisons to the only other Gaffney novel I’ve read, because there’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to adequately address it. For one thing, I was unable to finish To Have and To Hold, which I had with me on vacation last month. For another, THatH has been the subject of intense and incredibly rich discussion in romance bloggery in recent months, with Liz’s discussion here at Something More offering both a lengthy and wonderful review as well as numerous illuminating contributions in the Comments, and links to the best of other reviews and discussions.  It’s probably a big mistake to even bring up this immensely controversial and widely discussed book.

But I admit I am just stumped by Patricia Gaffney. I read a lot of romance in the 90’s but hadn’t read the Wyckerley novels or any of her other romances. I first thought about reading To Love and To Cherish when I posted a review  of Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green romance with a vicar for a hero (A Notorious Countess Confesses) and posed the question of whether a clergyman can be made into an appealing badass hero. Nicola from Alpha Heroes suggested looking at Christy, and I soon discovered that many other readers were looking at the Wyckerleys. Gaffney seemed to be everywhere this summer. Redemption and rape, cruelty and strength, interiority and connection — since I’ve returned home with THatH half-finished, I’ve schooled myself by catching up on the rich and challenging discussions that have taken place online recently around this unusual book. At the same time, I decided to give Gaffney another try, and I had Crooked Hearts on my TBR shelf along with Thief of Hearts and (still unread) TLatC.

What a relief it was to settle into a story that was clearly so different from Rachel and Sebastian’s tortured tale. The unusual setting and the humor drew me in right away. They meet on a stagecoach and it’s so clearly a partnership of equals. But then the disconnect started to distract me, even as I was enjoying Grace and Reuben’s various capers and escapades. Not only does Crooked Hearts lack the dark grimness of To Have and to Hold, but it also lacks the power and complexity. This in itself had me scratching my head because the difference goes deeper than the setting and tone. The two books are so vastly different I just couldn’t stop over-thinking every point of contrast. (If anyone’s read both and wants to argue they share some deep connections, I’d love to hear it!)

True, I did not (yet?) finish THatH  — I was unable to keep reading when I ran up against the worst of Sebastian’s humiliating treatment of Rachel. But this probably had something to do with being far from home and in need of a comfort read (my bad for even bringing it with me – I was supposed to only be reading road romances!).  I was deeply impressed by the writing itself, with its unsparing and multi-layered depiction of both characters’ inner lives.

In contrast, in place of raw and unsettlingly ambiguous elements of inequality, abuse of power, humiliation, and rape, Crooked Hearts serves up lighthearted criminal capers that should have been pure fun, with a side order of distraction and disappointment in the form of casual racism that doesn’t ring true as satire. Somehow it’s all just not adding up for me  — I am purely stumped by my forays into the crooked, curious, oddly challenging and uncomfortable romances of Patricia Gaffney.

I’d love to hear from others who’ve read any of Gaffney’s “lighter” western romances. There are some others set in 1890’s America with equally improbable storylines, that seem to have found favor with plenty of Goodreads reviewers, but I get nervous about these when I see that there are two such books where either the hero or the heroine is a mute. (Wild at Heart, Sweet Everlasting). Talk about an unequal power dynamic rife with risk for stereotyping of characters with disability. I think I may need to steer clear, but I would love to be persuaded otherwise, since Gaffney is so clearly a writer of depth and skill.

Finally, I can’t conclude without confessing how hard It’s been hard to get the Kenny Rogers lyrics out of my head while I’ve been thinking about Crooked Hearts. The Gambler is one of those big-sky songs that can sort of morph to fit almost any situation — perhaps even my take on the mixed bag of Patricia Gaffney’s wild west romance:  Now every gambler knows that the secret to surviving / Is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep / ‘Cause every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser / [And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.] Crooked Hearts is both a winner and a loser – and maybe the best that I can hope for is to read something else tonight that totally takes my mind off of these long and winding musings!

Crooked Hearts is available in the usual formats and places. I purchased it at my local used paperback shop.

 

Road Warriors

ONLY HIS: Elizabeth Lowell’s badass Rocky Mountain westerns and reading on the road

The Badass: Caleb Black, mythic gunslinger in black, the Man from Yuma with a badass reputation as wide and wild as the West itself. He’s feared for his ruthless skill with weapons and survival skills but he earns respect for his decency, restraint, and sense of justice.

The Lady:  Willow Moran, West Virginian horse whisperer, survivor of the war-torn heartland, steel magnolia. He calls her “southern lady” but she’s tough as nails underneath the blond hair and husky drawl.

Only His (Only Series, #1)Brought To You By: Elizabeth Lowell, in Only His (2003, Avon (originally published 1996); also available as a 2009 e-book from HarperCollins. First of 4 novels in the ONLY series.

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Escaping the ravages of the Civil War, a gently reared lady must leave behind everything she knows — and trust her life and her future to a dangerous gunfighter with a passion for vengeance.

A team of prize Arabian horses is all that Willow Moran has left — and Caleb Black is the only man who can help her reach her brother in the Colorado Rockies. But she fears this stranger who burns to avenge the wrongs of treacherous men. For Caleb is as wild and unpredictable as the uncivilized land he loves. Yet, though she challenges him at every turn, the spirited southern lady knows this proud, enigmatic loner is her destiny. And no matter what peril awaits, they must face it together — for Willow has become a fever in Caleb′s blood … awakening a need so fierce that he would defeat the devil himself to possess her.

The Setting: the American West immediately following the U.S. Civil War; Colorado, Arizona and the wilderness of the Rockies; the San Juan Mountains to the southwest.

The Tropes: Virgin Mistaken for Prostitute (“Fancy Woman”); Road Romance (grueling journey across the mountains on horseback); Hero Vowing Vengeance Against Member of Heroine’s Family; Virgin Awakened to Her Sexual Nature; Lone Gunslinger; Steel Magnolia.

IMG_0734

Shiloh National Military Park, August 2013

Road Warriors   I had read the 3 other novels in Lowell’s ONLY series last winter, so when I found a copy of this one at my favorite bookshop, I snatched it up to read on vacation. What luck – it’s a road romance, and the travel hardships endured by Caleb and Willow made my own roadtrip’s minor inconveniences and long hours behind the wheel fade into insignificance. Although my own journey (some 3,600 miles from New England down through the Southeast and back) did not take me to the Rockies, I enjoyed Lowell’s vigorous rendering of a uniquely American landscape with its wide open spaces. This story unfolds with a powerful evocation of harsh and dangerous mountain passes, and the battle to conquer each peak and cover every hard-won mile. An incredible contrast to days spent on interstates and blue highways, but it helped keep me grounded in the period when we visited Gettysburg and Shiloh, or learned about the early 19th century exploration of Mammoth Caves, in Kentucky.

Both Caleb and especially Willow are scarred by their experiences surviving the War and its aftermath, and their story is set during the chaos that followed when so many bereaved and/or displaced Americans, from both North and South, were on the move, seeking to rebuild lives and find new places to call home. Since I got home, I’ve been watching new seasons of the dramas HELL ON WHEELS and COPPER, both also set in the aftermath of the Civil War — I won’t digress further here except to say it strikes me more than ever as a period of intensely violent upheaval and social and economic chaos with people from all over the world drifting across the landscape and fighting for a place in a raw new world. Also, Anson Mount’s bearded Cullen Bohannon (HELL ON WHEELS) strikes me as a dead ringer for bearded gunslinger Caleb Black.

With Only His I found much to like about the character-driven romance itself. Willow is straightforward and likably no-nonsense. She’s pretending to be married because it feels safer to travel alone that way. She hires Caleb as a wilderness guide to see her safely to her “husband’s” homestead in the San Juans. But she’s really taking her prize horses to join her brother, who may be her last remaining family. This deception is countered by Caleb’s withholding the fact that he seeks the same man — who he really doesn’t believe is her husband — for a blood vendetta.  It seemed clear to me from the start that Willow’s brother will turn out to be an OK guy (well, I also had already read Only You, in which he takes center stage as the hero), and I didn’t mind this device to drive the plot conflict as much as some other Big Misunderstandings, largely because for most of the book Caleb keeps his vengeful fixations to himself so Willow — and the reader — are spared a lot of angst-y melodrama getting in the way of the growing attraction and love between them.

Anson Mount as Confederate veteran and railroad builder Cullen Bohannon,
AMC’s Hell on Wheels (season 3 publicity image)

Lowell’s romances have an old school feel, with strong, ruthless heroes and plucky, virginal heroines. They’re well-crafted, cozy reads in which it’s easy to settle in and enjoy the slow build as the characters banter and get to know each other without a lot of tricky plot twists. There are villains, and enough shoot-outs to feel like the Wild West (Caleb’s gun-handling skills are legendary, after all, and Willow shows him she knows her way around a shotgun when it counts). But the main focus remains on their deepening emotional connection, and their shared love of horses and wilderness.

In terms of heat level, there are numerous explicit scenes where the slow build climaxes (if you will…) and the prose turns slightly purple, with lengthy passages devoted to the hero’s awakening of the virgin heroine’s innate sensuality. For me, this tendency to dwell on the gradual deflowering didn’t become tiresome because the pace of the novel allowed me plenty of time to genuinely like Caleb and Willow and enjoy their enjoyment of each other. Their physical awareness and increasing attraction is linked to growing respect and admiration. He is bent on seduction but respects her boundaries with graceful courtesy so we don’t stray into dangerous forced seduction territory and Lowell manages to make Caleb’s restraint and patience sexy – all that leashed power under tight control in a possessive, predatory yet patient hero. But  I did find myself skimming once or twice during a love scene that felt repetitive, and the patient trout-tickling metaphor is a little worn.

My favorite of the four ONLY books is Only Mine, which pairs a half-blood Cheyenne/English aristocrat hero (Wolfe Lonetree is a friend of Caleb’s who helps him rescue Willow in Only His) with a blueblood English miss. I’m pulling it out for a re-read this fall. I have a feeling I will enjoy running into Caleb and Willow again, and I’m very glad I had them along for the read while I was on my road trip. I only wish I could keep track of which book is which – the titles are no help at all, and it turns out I read the first book last.

Only His is available in several editions in the usual formats and places. I purchased it at my local used paperback shop.

 

Sex and the Single Girl: The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers

Do single people read romance stories differently?

I can hardly remember the last time I read a contemporary romance. So when I started seeing all the buzz on Twitter about The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers, I was mainly letting it flow around and by me.  But many bloggers and authors I really admire and respect just kept saying such amazing things about this novella.  Literally dozens of 5 star reviews on Goodreads. And then there was a giveaway (an easy one, that didn’t involve rafflecopter, thankfully!) … Well,  I was intrigued enough to toss my twitter handle in, and I won a copy — or more accurately,  a download. It’s a Loveswept e-release, currently available for only 99 cents, but still – free is pretty fun.

And it turns out, The Story Guy is … well, pretty damn fun, if you’re in the mood for a well-written quick read featuring “…a good guy with a bad story doing something stupid.”

The Guy: Brian Newburgh, bicyclist-thighed federal contracts attorney; lonely and looking for love but with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to a relationship, he begins a quirky (or bizarre, depending on how you feel about personal ads) series of semi-anonymous, semi-public, time-limited weekly encounters for “kissing only.”  In trying to decide whether to label Brian a badass or not, I’ve decided he’s kind of an alphabet soup hero — he shows both his alpha and his beta sides during the course of this unusual courtship. He’s a Story Guy — if you like his story, you may think he’s kind of a badass for loving so fiercely, and he’s got a protective kinda possessive streak that shows to great advantage when we see him act with ruthless tenderness in a big “reveal” scene near the end of the book.

The Gal: Carrie West, self-assured and accomplished librarian with goals and ambitions, at 35 she feels overly single watching her friends pair off and start thinking about babies. She’s an interesting combination of self-awareness and denial, and because the entire story is told in her voice, there’s an interesting play between her authenticity and unreliability as a narrator.

The Tropes: Angsty, Tortured Hero With Secret; Sexy Librarian; Epistolary Romance (IM’ing, texting, phone sex); Love At First Sight; Sexy Stranger.

Yes, there is a lot of Sexy in this powerful little book. The eroticism is a key element of this couple’s journey of mutual discovery; it feels authentic and integral, though I confess to a preference for the sexy conversations and encounters with perhaps fewer descriptions of sensory details (all five) involving gussets and moistness.

The Setting: A large Midwestern U.S. city with a federal building, nice parks with pergolas, and a great library system.

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads:

The Story Guy (Novella)

In this eBook original novella, Mary Ann Rivers introduces a soulful and sexy tale of courage, sacrifice, and love.

I will meet you on Wednesdays at noon in Celebration Park. Kissing only.

Carrie West is happy with her life . . . isn’t she? But when she sees this provocative online ad, the thirtysomething librarian can’t help but be tempted. After all, the photo of the anonymous poster is far too attractive to ignore. And when Wednesday finally arrives, it brings a first kiss that’s hotter than any she’s ever imagined. Brian Newburgh is an attorney, but there’s more to his life . . . that he won’t share with Carrie. Determined to have more than just Wednesdays, Carrie embarks on a quest to learn Brian’s story, certain that he will be worth the cost. But is she ready to gamble her heart on a man who just might be The One . . . even though she has no idea how their love story will end?

A story about the power of stories: Carrie is a children’s librarian, and there are numerous wonderful references to formative texts and the impact of fiction and childhood reading, from Where The Red Fern Grows to J.K. Rowling. Brian is a man with a “story” — when things get tough, GBF Justin exclaims, “When I said you should go for Story Boy I didn’t realize he was a Russian novel.” The idea, though, is that in taking this risky step with a stranger, Carrie is opening up her own book for Brian to become a chapter that has the potential to be written in boldface, or poetry, or, as Justin explains, a “life highlighter,” a “big ol’ paragraph of neon pink.”

Although it is admittedly almost too cute for words, I especially loved when Carrie finds out near the end of the book that Brian (for reasons that make sense, but are spoiler-ish) has actually been attending a read-aloud storytime at the city library. Rivers weaves together the several layers of this storytelling metaphor in ways that are compelling and clever.

I can’t say enough about how much I admire and appreciate a book that is itself in love with books, composed with the kind of careful prose that strongly divides readers — some will say it’s too effortful and consciously writerly while others will love it for this thoughtful attention to craft, like a deliciously artisanal wine …  I’m happy to have writers this creative and challenging working in romance.  Sometimes I like artisanal prose and sometimes I enjoy writing so fluid and lovely it just allows me to have the experience without deconstructing the sentences. For me, Rivers was able to strike the right balance, even with the first person narration.

Hero and/or Martyr? As I mentioned, many authors, reviewers and romancelandia thought-leaders have been buzzing about this book. There is a challenging and comprehensive discussion going on over at My Extensive Reading – if you’ve already read The Story Guy, or you don’t care about spoilers, don’t miss out on the amazing conversation Liz is hosting in the Comments. The truth is, I feel many of the important themes and issues raised by this unusual book have been eloquently and sufficiently articulated there, though the discussion covers the full story, including spoilers, so be warned.

It’s actually difficult to review this book or even tell you much about the discussion without getting into spoiler territory.  Although it’s Carrie’s first-person present-tense POV throughout, the conflict and plot hinge on Brian’s familial and emotional history, and the way in which he has managed and compartmentalized his life. His back story is raw and sad and authentic, and readers seem to be divided about whether his restraint is an act of heroism and sacrifice, or a dysfunctional case of misplaced martyrdom. He’s beautifully written, because we mainly hear from him directly, in the form of dialogue, or through Carrie’s eyes. The best parts of the book are the conversations, and Carrie’s minute observations of Brian’s emotions and physical presence.

“It’s what I want. This man and his faraway gaze and rare dimples and gripping hands and voice so sad it called out over all the other sad men’s voices in the city’s most desperate corner. I think I’m wrong to want him, as if I am taking him away from where he knows he should be. I feel as though I’ve picked him out for myself, and with the tenacity and willfulness of a child, I’ve decided nothing else will do.”

Single White Female I’m having a more complicated response to Carrie herself.  I think it’s because from the first pages of this book I had to suspend SO MUCH disbelief about this 30-something woman’s willingness to answer the personal ad. Has anyone been talking about Craigslist in connection with this book?? Because to me this is the part that seems the most fantastical.  The Wednesday-only, kissing-only thing is clearly kind of a fun fantasy, but the mechanism of a faux Craigslist site — ‘the city’s most desperate corner’ — kept bothering me.

I’m wondering if it’s being single that makes this element more problematic for me. It’s true that I am always slower than a turtle in terms of adopting new technologies, and I have resisted Match.com and eHarmony and PlentyofFish in spite of the many many friends who have encouraged me in that direction, even offering to “do all the work”  (eg. write and post a profile) for me. Let me just say firstly that, like Carrie, I don’t have many single friends — I’m surrounded by the happily (or unhappily, in a couple of cases) paired. But of my single friends who, also like Carrie, venture into the online dating world, are well-educated, professional, smart, sexy, in their 30s and 40s and read a lot of books, I don’t think any of them would consider following up on a Craigslist personal.

Single White Female

Bridget Fonda and Steven Weber in Single White Female (1992)
via allmovie.com

I stumbled over this – it only works as a plot device because it’s precisely NOT a matchmaking site and Brian’s only posted his cryptic ad, not a profile. There is a pretty detailed description of the site that makes it clear it’s based on Craigslist. But there’s a vulnerability in being middle aged and single (frankly, at my age, Carrie and Brian both actually seem young, but they’re not immature). Maybe I am just a risk averse wuss, but I kept thinking Whaaat?? I had to keep telling myself that she was just at a low ebb, goofing around reading the ads, clicked on his photo and fell in love with his looks. But. Still. Craigslist criminals can look fetching too, people! And frankly, it’s not just Carrie’s safety I was tripping up on — she becomes at times uncomfortably pushy in her pursuit of Brian and is clearly partly attracted to his sadness and vulnerability. The book skirts around the edges of the creepy, unsafe, stalker-y territory it has relied on for this central plot device, and this is something I’m still wrestling with.

So. Carrie speaks of having few epiphanies, but when she does, it’s internalized to become part of her identity.  It turns out reading this wonderful novella has prompted an epiphany of sorts for me as a reader of romance.

I’m still puzzling this out, but I am beginning to wonder if my general avoidance of contemporary romance is connected to my being single. And (very) middle-aged. I haven’t done any research (yet) and I don’t know how the romance readership demographics are organized relative to various subgenres. But I realized that even though I was at times completely immersed in The Story Guy, and at other times I was pausing to admire the writing, something about it just didn’t take me where I want to go as a romance reader. And that this has nothing to do with this particular novella, and everything to do with its contemporary setting.

Juggling, Leaning In, and Work/Life Balance Aren’t Romantic The Story Guy, like all contemporary romance, is simultaneously too real-world and mundane (eg. “contemporary” with my own harried lived experience) and too fantastical for me. Reading about Carrie whiling away her evening waiting for a new message to pop up, or thinking about how thinly Brian is stretched to manage his work and the other demands on his time — that’s all too close to home for me. So the real-world contemporariness gets me into a place that’s very familiar, which means I have too much trouble going along with the various unlikely coincidences and circumstances through which our H/h meet, resolve their conflicts, surmount all obstacles, and reach their HEA.

It’s not that I’m not rooting for them, it’s just harder for me to enter into the fantasy. In a historical romance, or paranormal, or even an occasional 50 Shades clone erotic billionaire story, if it’s done well I’m already immersed in an alternate reality, and while I do care about historical authenticity, I can more easily let go of rigid adherence to questions of plausibility, plotting, and coincidence.

Miss Lonely Hearts? Shame of a Single Romance Reader? I don’t have time/space now to take this up fully, but my response to Carrie and her Craigslist gamble — which tapped some ambivalence about being single and the online complexities of contemporary courtship activities — got me thinking about the issue of reader shame again.  I talked about this in a different context last month. Is there more/different stigma attached to reading romance for women who are single? We may be reading for many of the same reasons (pleasure, fantasy, escape, immersion, imagination, emotional satisfaction, id vortex,  HEA guarantee, etc) as people who are at other points on the relationship spectrum (dating, divorced, married, living together, hooking up, you name it…) but do we feel that our reading habits may be judged differently? How do I feel about the baggage that comes with friends who I know are thinking that I read romance so much of the time as some kind of “poor substitute” for a relationship?

To be continued…. and I would love to hear your thoughts on this as I ponder a future post.

Brave in Heart: A Contradiction Too Great for One Man to Bear?

A Civil War Romance in Which we find Many Intriguing Contradictions

The Hero: Theo Ward, dutiful son and attorney-at-law; justice-seeker on the side of right, abolitionist but not activist; mildly henpecked, professionally and emotionally stalled until a second chance at his failed romance galvanizes his enlistment as a Union officer.

Falls For:  Margaret Hampton, principled and devoted teacher, pragmatist and secret romantic.

Brave in HeartBrought To You By: Emma Barry, in Brave in Heart (July 2013 e-release from Crimson)

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Theodore Ward is a man of deep passions and strong principles—none of which he acts on. So Margaret Hampton ends their engagement, breaking both of their hearts in the process.

Years after their estrangement, ardent but frozen Theo attempts to reconnect with Margaret. She is no longer trusting of the idea of romantic love, having become pragmatic and wary during decades alone. But with the drumbeat of the early days of the Civil War in the background, how can she refuse?

The courtship that results is hasty, reckless, and intense, fueled by contradictions between Theo’s willingness finally to change and Margaret’s fears about the future. Two smart, stubborn, fiery people will need to overcome the hesitancies of their hearts and the perils of battle if they’re ever to find happiness.

The Setting: Middletown, Connecticut, at the start of the U.S. Civil War, 1861 through 1863. The setting alone is going to get this book noticed within the histrom community, and Emma Barry has been eloquent in framing her enterprise in the long shadow of Margaret Mitchell, in spite of the fact that GWTW is not a romance, and Brave in Heart is not set in the South.

It’s a bold move to set a romance in a decidedly unglamorous wartime, and especially so when there is no plot device to put the couple together at the front (eg. working as spies, battlefield hospital, etc). In historical romance these days, when war is a major theme, it’s nearly always Napoleonic and it’s usually in the hero’s past, not his present. The history here is well-researched and authentic and the details of their lives as lawyer and teacher and members of the educated and privileged class of Connecticut society are skillfully rendered.

GWTW regimental ball scene, replica lobby card, via posterplace.com

Barry’s evocation of a Northern community on the brink of what we (but not they) know to be the massive and protracted trauma of the Civil War is moving and poignant without ever patronizing. I truly loved the opening sequence set during a ball in honor of departing Union regiments, with its heightened emotion and feverish sense of enthusiasm staving off grim realities and dread of what’s to come. The writing itself has an old-fashioned density and dignity that enhances the Victorian-era atmosphere, without making use of overt dialects or overwhelming the narrative.

The Tropes: Second Chance at Love, War Bride, Mother in Law Issues, Love Letters, Ordinary Heroes

Brave but not Badass: “Ardent but frozen” is a great tagline for Theo, asserting a hero who is by definition contradictory.  I couldn’t really figure him out and as a result I’m finding this a challenging book to review as a romance.  Let’s start with ardent: I badly wanted to connect with Theo as a man driven by strong emotion, but reluctantly concluded that, for me, this was a case of telling not showing.  He’s described as impassioned. I just couldn’t feel it, except maybe in his letters. He’s frustrated, with himself and with his life; he has strong political principles and inner yearnings to be an actor on a larger stage. I’m not sure these frustrations make him come across as passionate, though ardent is an interesting word choice because it suggests someone more youthful (even adolescent?) than a man in his late 30’s.

And how about frozen? We see him freeze up — and give up — in the Prologue when Margaret breaks off the original engagement, but WHY is he frozen? I couldn’t get past the fact that he’s 39 years old and the broken engagement happened two years prior – he would have been 37. What happened during almost two decades of adulthood to make him so passive and deferential to his mother? We do learn early on that the death of his father has caused his mother to rely on him and keep him close, but he seems to have almost no discernible personality beyond his politics, his love and admiration for Margaret, and his frustration with his own lack of backbone. I kept wishing that the Prologue had been long enough to help me understand what makes Theo tick, and why he has chosen to live such a narrow life for so many years. I just needed more back story to understand his pressures and priorities.

Arrested Development? Perhaps if Margaret and Theo had been written as younger characters — in their early 20’s, say — the romance might have made more sense to me.  Theo in particular comes across as a much younger person, flailing around trying to figure out how to match his actions with his dreams and fantasies. There are several references to the years he has suffered since the broken engagement, so it might have made more sense if they had been estranged for 10 or 12 years, rather than 2, which doesn’t really seem all that long if you are nearly 40. Because the wartime separation is part of the novel’s main story arc, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to  note that Theo suddenly enlists in the Union army immediately following an unsatisfying encounter with Margaret in which she gives him a reprise of her original rejection and dressing down.  At this point his thought process more resembles that of an “I’ll show her!” adolescent than a seasoned lawyer of 39 years. It also doesn’t come off as the bold, ruthless action of a man in control of his destiny — it feels reactive and hectic, rather than badass. Also, I know authors have little or no control over cover images, but this one, which uses sepia tones beautifully to convey the period, really misleads with its photo image of a young woman who looks decades younger than Margaret’s 37 years.

An Unusual Romance Hero: I’m very sympathetic to arguments for getting rid of rigid alpha/beta hero classifications, and Theo makes a strong case for the inadequacy of these definitions. He’s one of the most passive heroes I’ve ever encountered in romance. As I mentioned, I’m finding it challenging to sum up my response to Theo — on the one hand I appreciate the intellectual challenge of encountering and enjoying an unusual hero who’s not an up-in-your-face alpha. I also like Barry’s willingness to construct a hero who is hard to love, but not in the usual bad boy ways, and I do think Theo works quite well as a portrait of a young man riven by inner conflict, still seeking to live an authentic life in accordance with his beliefs as well as with his family’s (his domineering mama!) needs and expectations.

If I’m being honest, though, Theo’s To Be or Not To Be angst just irritated me for much of the novel, and, like Margaret, I kept wanting him to man up. Here’s how Margaret describes her man to a younger friend, during the wonderful ballroom scene where she re-encounters him for the first time since breaking the engagement:

He is a passionate man, but he submits, I think, too much to the desires of others. He…doesn’t achieve moderation. I grew weary of his inner intemperateness and his outward capitulation. It’s a contradiction too great for one man to bear.

The Age of Innocence

Ardent but frozen? Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis as Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in the 1993 film adaptation of The Age of Innocence, via moviemail.com

I need to pause here to savor this language, with its old-fashioned restraint and cadence masking the ruthlessness of the judgment rendered. Barry’s gift for replicating the tone and flavor of period dialogue and prose is unique and tremendous.

Back to Theo — his quest for love, identity, and authenticity put me in mind of another 19th-century passive hero — the tragically trapped Newland Archer of Edith Wharton’s masterful The Age of Innocence. So I am intrigued by all this, but not immersed in the romance. Neither hero nor heroine captured my heart in the way that larger-than-life characters do when I am reading a captivating romance in which the principle focus of my experience as a reader is the anticipation of their every interaction, and the ultimate HEA.

The fact that Brave in Heart, as a work of genre/romance fiction, ends with an HEA, is satisfying on one level, but doesn’t match my experience of these characters or this couple.   It just wasn’t a good sign when the hero refers to the heroine as a nag within the first chapters of the book — and not in a jokingly affectionate way.  This may be authentic, and how real people think, but it felt jarring and caused me to repeatedly question whether Theo and Margaret really liked each other.  She thinks he’s a mama’s boy; he thinks she’s demanding and impulsive. In a romance, I’m not sure I want to spend much time thinking about how the couple will probably drive each other crazy once they start actually having to live together.

A Successful Contradiction of Expectations: What this unusual book did achieve quite brilliantly was to evoke the experience of reading an authentic 19th-century story, and this in itself is quite captivating. Theo survives the great battle of Fredericksburg (again, I’m asserting this is not a spoiler since we know the book will have an HEA), but most of what we hear about his experience of the front is about surviving and enduring. I haven’t said much about Margaret as the heroine, but she, too, is a figure of stoicism and yearning, and I didn’t see her as impulsive or demanding. Her one truly impulsive act was breaking off an engagement with someone she appeared to love but not like very much. But what’s so interesting about this kind of protagonist — whether hero or heroine — is that it suggests the ordinary heroism to be found in endurance, perseverance, and constancy. The ability to love someone in spite of their fears and unredeemed flaws can also be an act of heroism.

In some ways this trope in particular reminds me more of mainstream fiction, or a 19th century novel.  It’s almost as if Theo and Margaret are literary characters from a period piece who have been given Romance H/h roles to play, and they do so somewhat awkwardly. In historical romance there is a strange alchemy that happens when the sexy times take us inside the bedroom for steamy sizzle without breaking into anachronism or allowing the characters to become ahistorical.  I can’t figure out why the love scenes felt uncomfortable, since there is indeed heat along with a sense of intimate discovery, and both characters remain fully authentic. For some reason I just felt like I would have been OK with letting this hesitant couple have their privacy! These contradictions kept taking me out of the romance itself, but may have served to enhance this novel as a work of nuanced historical fiction.

Bring Back the Epistolary Novel! Finally, the most distinctive feature of Brave in Heart as a romance in the style of a 19th century novel is its reliance on a long separation and correspondence between hero and heroine. The epistolary sections of the book are fiercely and beautifully written, and these passages where we hear the characters narrating in first person were the most effective in pulling me in and allowing me to connect with the genuine romance between Theo and Margaret. I am delighted to be reminded of how affecting an epistolary novel can be, and also how difficult to write an entire novel within the constraints of this format.  But if anyone has a chance at reviving this old-fashioned and challenging literary form with authenticity and verve, I’d venture to say it’s Ms. Barry, and I hope she may indeed consider it.

Brave in Heart is available today from Crimson Romance, and is available in the usual formats and places. I received a generous e-ARC of this novel from the author, for an honest review.

 

Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency

In which a Duke is Deceitful and the Badass Hero is a Spinster

The Badass:  Katherine (Kit) Sutherland, spinster sister of a countess and niece of an earl; fraying at the seams trying to keep her family’s manor home from going under, she’s a cynical, brusque, brooding hero who just wants to be left alone to take care of her family in the wake of her father’s ruinous gambling and emotional manipulations.

Falls For: Jude, His Grace the Duke of Darlington. Who is also Lady Rose, Darlington’s cousin. A cross-dressing Duke who follows Kit home to beard the badass in her den. They bond over painful childhood memories.

17877553

Likes: Country ways, simple gowns, seeing her mother smile, reading her brother’s books. Oh, and wooing her sister’s eccentric, ducal lover.

Dislikes: Actually, she’s not really a negative person. She’s unhappy/tormented for a lot of the book, and under duress, but she struck me as having a pretty good attitude. She even notes that if not for her intensely protective possessiveness about Jude, she’d admire and respect the actions of her nemesis, Lady Marmotte.

Brought To You By: Anna Cowan, in Untamed

(2013 debut release ebook from Penguin Books Australia, which I obtained by purchasing it.)

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Outspoken and opinionated, Katherine Sutherland is ill at ease amongst the fine ladies of Regency London. She is more familiar with farmers and her blunt opinions and rough manners offend polite society. Yet when she hears the scandalous rumours involving her sister and the seductive Duke of Darlington, the fiercely loyal Katherine vows to save her sister’s marriage – whatever the cost.

Intrigued by Katherine’s interference in his affairs, the manipulative Duke is soon fascinated. He engages in a daring deception and follows her back to her country home. Here, their intense connection shocks them both. But the Duke’s games have dangerous consequences, and the potential to throw both their lives into chaos…

The Setting: Regency London & the Sutherland country manor and pig farm.

The Tropes: Genteel Poverty, Ruinous Gambling, Animal Husbandry, Long Suffering Elder Sister, Selfish Titled Younger Sister, Rakish Duke with Hellish Childhood, Eccentric Uninvited Female Houseguest, Vengeful Discarded Mistress, Loyal Well-Dressed Friend Group including GBF (Gay Best Friend) Sidekick, Traveling Under Assumed Identity

Badass Hero Moment: Liverpool’s Ball.  Can’t say more, there be spoilers here, but it is a big bold badass moment that reminded me of favorite ballroom declaration scenes. This may have been the point in the book where I began to feel emotionally engaged with Kit and Jude as a couple. As satisfying and heartstoppingly romantic as Colin and Penelope at the ball near the end of Julia Quinn’s near-incomparable Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, and in a weird way not unlike those thrilling Queer Eye big reveals at the end of that late, lamented, gone-but-not-forgotten makeover show.

Badass Annoying Moment: Tough call, because as is by now evident, I liked this unforgiving and relentless character. I can concede that the sequence of events and her eventual embrace and triumph among the political and social elite of London may require more suspension of disbelief than some readers are able to muster.

(too) Frequently Described As: Unattractive.  Some careful readers have objected to the language Cowan employs to convey Kit’s rough exterior and lack of feminine graces. I’m not sure her broken nose and unkempt hair are unfortunate signifiers or not, but I rather like this view of Kit coming in from a downpour, from Darlington’s POV:

Miss Sutherland… looked nothing like a kitten. Her dress and smock clung to her, and the hair was slick beside her face. She was pared back – all that might have been floss or sugar about her had melted away and left the hard, uncompromising core. Only her lashes became poetic when wet, conceding some relationship to stars.

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) as photographed by Mert and Marcus for Love #8, Autumn/Winter 2012, via The English Group

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) as photographed by Mert and Marcus for Love #8, Autumn/Winter 2012, via The English Group

Casting:  For him, I’m really not sure, but I just kept thinking Johnny Depp.  Probably way too obvious. But possibly Jude-like: clever, funny, smoldering when he wants to be, master of ironic self-deprecation. Not averse to an I Feel Pretty moment. A friend, however, has suggested James Callis, from Battlestar Galactica, and I think she might have the right of it here.

For her, I’m going with Jessica Brown Findlay/Lady Sybil Crawley. Something about the stubborn stare.

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via fancarpet.com

Ten Reasons This Book Is Perfectly Imperfect

  1. This book risks a badass heroine without providing the familiar even-more-badass hero. I’m blurring my language here — I guess I could say she’s a badass heroine, but I’m more inclined to just view her as the hero. Kit is assigned many hero attributes and in effect she’s playing a cross-dressed role in this book much as Jude plays a cross-dressed role when he visits the Sutherlands at the Manor. He’s a beauty, and she’s really kind of a beast – untamed, and possibly untame-able. But not bitchy. Her sister Lydia can be bitchy (she has her reasons).
  2. This Regency hero/ine says “fuck.” And not as a verb. Or being coaxed to talk dirty by her man.
  3. This author takes risks, and so did the publisher. Here’s Anna Cowan’s kick-ass feature post for Dear Author about her motivation for crafting a sort of  ‘social experiment’ of a Regency (my words, not hers). Regardless of Cowan’s motivation, and whether a queering the hetero romance experiment intrigues you, for some readers the construction and artifice of the exercise may be too distracting, and cause a disconnect in place of emotional engagement with the romance and the story.
  4. This experiment demands a strong response — people are either loving it or hating on it, with dueling reviews appearing on release day a few weeks ago, and many, many thoughtful comments. I sat up and listened when Joanna Bourne tweeted a rave; when a writer of her level of badassery points out a good book, I’m THERE.
  5. This novel has flaws. The writing is at times so oblique that I had to re-read passages; more so in the first third of the book, while I was still getting to know the cast of characters. There’s a choppiness when the POV switches unevenly to secondary characters. As others have pointed out, the most damaging flaw, which can sink a novel with lesser compensations, may be that the hero/ine Jude doesn’t exactly come across as charismatic, charming, or desirable though we’re told he is all of these things via Kit’s POV. It’s telling, not showing, yes. But something raw and fresh is going on here, and there are moments of liquid silver when the language is effortlessly exquisite.
  6. This sentence, which I read over at least 8 times before turning the page:  “Mme. Soulier had indulged him as few adults had, managing him with words like pins tucked into the fabric of his wayward nature.” I love the idea of Words Like Pins.
  7. This cross-dressing duke may actually be the least compelling element of the book for me. He’s intellectually intriguing, as an exercise, and I appreciated his take-charge attitude towards addressing the resource constraints at the Manor. But my sense of him as a character in a play got in the way of the emotional connection I look for in a romance read, and it wasn’t until somewhere in the latter half of the book that I felt invested in the HEA for this couple.  He just didn’t get under my skin nearly as much as Kit, or even some of the secondary characters. But I was moved by the recurring theme of people, including Darlington, yearning to be “chosen” — to be seen, understood, and embraced.
  8. The Earl of BenRuin. This secondary hero, the “great Scottish lummox,” nearly overtakes Kit as my favorite character. I know some found him too much of a caricature. I just really fell for him and for damaged Lydia’s eventual repair. Their fragile conversations drew me in completely.
  9. This historical is somehow both detailed enough to beautifully convey domestic period authenticity (pig farming, running out of candles, carrot soup cookery, etc.) and freewheeling enough to rankle the history police (the divorce proceedings, the Corn Laws – neither are accounted for with historical accuracy, but these problems have been sufficiently explicated elsewhere).
  10. This writing has a loose tension and distinct voice that puts me in mind of haiku. At its best, it is sparkling and precise; when it falters, it can be frustrating. Artisanal, yet unruly.

Overall, I’m calling Untamed perfectly IMperfect — by which I mean this debut novel is uneven; flawed in many of the the right ways, and subversive in interesting ways, too. We have a queered “hero” who can be read as a heroine; an “unmanly” version of masculinity who is the object of female desire. A badass heroine who cross-dresses as the hero of the novel; once she fixes her desire on Jude she is as relentless, ruthless, and daring as any alpha (in fact the bold badassery with which she pursues and “wins” her mate reminded me a great deal of a classic alpha-pursuer hero in the Cynster/Laurens mode).

It’s rare to see the female pursuer in a historical romance, and maybe in romance in general, and this book explores female desire without reverting to focus on her desire to be desirable to him. Jude is passive, and fully objectified by her desire. And yet I’m not sure it’s entirely the swapping of roles that makes this book subversive, since one could view this as reinforcing heteronormative archetypes, even if they are “worn” by the opposite gender.

Subversiveness is in the eye of the beholder, and what makes this book most intriguing for me is its willingness to embrace the “same old” Regency tropes and turn them inside out. If a talented new writer like Anna Cowan is applying herself to historical romance, I take it as a welcome sign of vigorous — untamed — growth and life for the genre.