AAR Book Club, August 2009:
Written on Your Skin by Meredith Duran

 

All About Romance is always open to trying new and different features, and when something new can also bring back a taste of our past, we think that’s even better.

So, welcome to the first of what we hope will be a regular and fun way to interact with our readers – we’re thinking of it as our own virtual AAR Book Club. We’ll start with a spoiler-free online dual review from staff reviewers here at AAR and then follow up with a Cover it Live/Twitter feed approximately two weeks later when we’ll invite you to discuss your thoughts on the book live with us. Don’t worry: if you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still participate via the Cover It Live box.

Up first are reviewers Katie Mack and Jean Wan who share their thoughts on Meredith Duran’s Written on Your Skin, the follow-up to her DIK’d Bound by Your Touch. We hope you’ll read what they have to say, read the book yourselves (you can even win one of two copies right here at AAR), and then join us on Saturday, August 15th from 6 to 8 p.m. eastern time to share your own thoughts with us live online.

In the meantime, if you have any suggestions about the format and the waters we’re testing, we’d love to hear them. Just drop us a note via the AAR Contact Form.

 

Written on Your Skin

Meredith Duran

August 2009, European Historical Romance (Victorian London)

Pocket, $7.99, 368 pages, Amazon ASIN 141659311X

Grades: Katie A, Jean B-

Sensuality: Hot

Part of a Series

Katie and Jean’s Take

Meredith Duran is one of the shooting stars of romance. She writes assured and elegant prose, but also (and, perhaps, more importantly) re-examines and refreshes familiar themes used prominently in romance. We leapt at the chance to read, review, and reflect on the author’s latest book. So without any further ado, let’s dig in:

The Book:

Meredith Duran on Written on Your Skin:

Written on Your Skin … opens in Hong Kong. Mina, who has mastered the art of hiding desperation behind batting lashes and a pretty smile, discovers that her stepfather’s houseguest is not who he says he is. In fact, Phin Granville secretly works for the British government. Dragged against his will into an international game of espionage, he has long since given up on prospect of freedom. But to his surprise, he can’t quite give up on the will to survive.

One momentous night, he makes a very grave mistake, and Mina risks her life to save his own. In exchange, Phin promises to help her if ever he is able. What he doesn’t anticipate is that she’ll choose to collect on that promise at the exact moment he finally wins his freedom – or that his salvation from a very dark past might lie in the arms of a woman who’s even better at deception than he is.

Jean: There is no one writing like Meredith Duran right now. The writing is stunning: It sizzles, it crackles; it’s elegant, it’s layered, and even when I don’t like the central characters I understand them, which is entirely due to intricate, profound, and rich characterization. There is nothing clichéd or banal about this book except one or two things, and I’m being nit-picky. The author takes familiar elements and does what all authors should do: Makes them specific to the book and the characters.

Katie: I loved this book. I think I may have loved it more than Bound by Your Touch, although it’s pretty close. Duran’s writing is absolutely incredible. Written on Your Skin has fabulous chemistry, rich characterizations, and a true meeting of the souls between the hero and heroine. She takes familiar themes and gives them enough of a twist and enough layers that the result feels varied and refreshing.

On the Natures of Mina and Phin; Musings on the Plot

Jean: The first half was very difficult to read because I found Mina strange, Phin hateful, and both very difficult to sympathize (much less empathize) with. I understood their motives, but that didn’t mean I felt comfortable with their behavior. The second half, however, was pure magic. This is undoubtedly because once they get over the mutual distrust, it’s a true meeting of souls. Of course it wouldn’t be as meaningful without the initial distrust, but I, nevertheless, found it hard to read through the discord.

Katie: I had a different perspective reading the first half: I knew that once Mina and Phin started to trust each other and truly began to discover each other, it would be that meeting of the souls you mentioned. My disclaimer here is that I love Best Enemies storylines. Love, love, love them. I love the conflict and distrust and hate and loathing that you see in the beginning, and love to see it transformed into love and understanding and acceptance. Although I wouldn’t classify WOYS as a Best Enemies story, I do have a bias for stories with mutual distrust, and I think this affected my reaction to the book.

Jean: See, I have a distinct aversion for Best Enemies and stories with mutual distrust, which thus affected my reaction to WOYS. I hate the distrust and hate and loathing. I wouldn’t classify WOYS as a Best Enemies plotline either because Best Enemies, to me, means they have a preconceived prejudice against the other, which then leads to mistrust. Mina and Phin have conflict because they lost their trust in most of humankind a long, long time ago.

Katie: Mina definitely has some trust issues with men. Given her mother’s history, she has a genuinely understandable motive for remaining single; she doesn’t want to be imprisoned by the institution of marriage. So she plays the role of the femme fatale: Flaunting – even exaggerating – her sexuality. If this had been a contemporary, I likely would have hated Mina. But given the social status of women in the 1880s, and how few weapons were available to them, I really liked the way she’s used men’s arrogance and chauvinism against them to achieve a level of success uncommon for women at that time. I thought she was brilliant, and I really liked her.

Jean: I had a mixed reaction to Mina. She has good reason to use everything in her arsenal, given the time period and her own experiences, but how she uses her sexuality, while understandable, bothers me. Manipulating others with sex is the one thing guaranteed to push all my buttons, which means I generally can’t stand femme fatales (amongst others too); I wearied of attempting to understand Mina amidst her manipulative games. She is complex, difficult, honest, and I respect her a lot; but I’m not sure I like her.

Phin I found equally difficult to get into. However, whereas Mina retains a strong moral compass, Phin is one warped bastard. He’s twisted, perverse, and tortured – which of course makes him perfect for Mina. When their barriers fall and the trust builds, Phin and Mina together are exquisite. Until then, they’re mighty uncomfortable people to be around.

Katie: Phin took more for me to get into than Mina, mainly because I was struggling to accept that he’s twisted. But at some point, pretty early on I think, I just accepted that he’d been permanently twisted by the things he’s done and seen and just went with it. He wants so badly to be good and proper, but is having a hell of a time with it. His attraction to Mina is a definite source of frustration, and, he believes, further proof of his twisted character.

My one complaint with Phin is that I was unclear on what consequences he would have faced had he refused to spy for the government. It’s very clear that Phin felt trapped, but I don’t think it’s spelled out what would have happened had he refused to go along.

Jean: Which brings me to the suspense plot. Sigh. Frankly, it surprises me how unpolished it is because I’ve seen that the author can do better. But WOYS is so externally driven it needs a rock-solid foundation. However, there are too many moments of “Where did that come from?”, and the resolutions for two significant characters are so rushed I almost missed them. The plot progression isn’t nearly as smooth as everything else, which is a bitter disappointment. And furthermore, when it takes me so long to bond with the hero and heroine, there is no possible way I can be lenient with an inferior plot.

Katie: There was a suspense plot? Seriously though, I didn’t pay all that much attention to the suspense plot. I know that sounds bad, but I was so totally engrossed in the romance that the suspense plot would have to have been pretty bad for me to have a complaint. In other words: I found it satisfactory enough not to have any issues in that area.

On the Nobleman Spy, Tortured Characters and Trust

We’ve already noted how unique Mina and Phin are, and it is entirely due to superlative writing. Meredith Duran took a familiar device (the tortured protagonist), embodied in a familiar character (the nobleman spy), and made them wholly original. And we also noted that Mina and Phin have major trust issues. So we thought, duh, let’s put ‘em all together.

Katie: Writing the hero as a Nobleman Spy is fairly common in historicals—perhaps too common—so I really enjoyed the twists Duran added. First, Phin was a very unwilling spy, having been forced into it. Second, he stops spying when he inherits the title – his title being what frees him from his chains. So he’s not really a Nobleman Spy. He’s more of a former-spy-turned-nobleman who’s troubled because although he thoroughly loathes spying, at the same time he’s excited by it – when it’s on his terms, of course. This is a contradiction in himself that he’s really bothered by. He was very good at spying and killing, but he seemed to hate every minute of it.

Jean: This relates to his genuinely tortured character: Warring within him is one of his society’s basic rules – thou shalt not kill – and what is clearly a genius for espionage. Most authors take the easy road and have their heroes going from one extreme (Continental killing machine) to the other (Cotswold sheep farmer) via the love of a good woman (snort). But there are no facile answers for Phin, and he struggles believably and progressively.

The one thing that jumped out at me after reading the book was the overriding theme of trust. Connected to the trust (or distrust, as it were) are the manipulations, the masks, the deceptions, etc., and we really see how the layers are peeled away gradually (ogres aren’t the only ones like onions).

Katie: Yes, the trust theme in this book is huge. I think every tortured character I’ve read finds it hardest to learn to trust oneself. Clearly Phin has issues trusting himself: He’s afraid of becoming an alcoholic like his father, and I think he’s afraid that his past as a spy has damaged him beyond redemption. Just as clearly, Mina is afraid of following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming the prisoner of a man – physically and emotionally. Mina and Phin’s histories demonstrate just how difficult it is for them to build trust between each other. Plus, if you can’t trust yourself, how do you truly trust someone else?

Jean: You’d have to be saintly or stupid to trust others before yourself, and I’ve noticed that too many tortured characters fall under this category. Many of them indulge in the past at the expense of the present. To me, that is irresponsibility, not mistrust of self. Mina, by contrast, has experienced much hurt and has good reason to be tortured, yet she retains exceptional clarity of mind. Phin treads the border, but ultimately I think his conflicts are believable. What it comes down to is that their mistrust reflects an insecurity of the heart rather than the mind.

The Grades:

Katie: There was (almost) nothing I didn’t love about this book. The writing was terrific, and delving into Mina and Phin’s psyches was a remarkable experience. I loved that Mina and Phin were both a bit twisted and perverse, and thought the development of their relationship was exceptional. Final Grade: A

Jean: Written on Your Skin was beautifully written, thought-provoking and gut-wrenching. It also had, for the first two hundred pages, two characters very difficult to like, and the plot was uneven and perfunctory at best. I don’t love this book, but I do admire it. Final Grade: B-

We hope you’ve enjoyed our discussion of Written on Your Skin. Don’t forget to join us on on August 15th at 6 pm eastern time for a live Twitter discussion. Until then!

— Jean Wan and Katie Mack

 

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