on August 2, 2009
Meredith Duran is a relatively new entrant in the historical romance genre, but her remarkable talent seems to grow with every book she writes. "Written on Your Skin" is her third historical romance and is loosely connected to her recent release, "Bound by Your Touch", although the books do not need to be read in sequence.
"Written on Your Skin" is the story of Phin Granville, a cartographer and former British spy, and Mina Masters, the lovely, seemingly spoiled step-daughter of one of Phin's former espionage targets. While the character types are very familiar to historical romance readers (tortured nobleman spy--check, headstrong society beauty--check), Duran's ability to transcend the stereotypes and bring these characters fully alive is what sets this book above others in the romance genre.
The story begins in Hong Kong in 1880, with Phin wrapping up a mission aimed at bringing down Gerald Collins, a wealthy Irish-American businessman, gun-runner and Mina's step-father. Phin views Mina as a reckless, bubble-headed flirt; a "loose end" from his investigation that will not go away or take no for an answer. But when Phin is poisoned during a party at Collin's house, it is Mina who has the presence of mind to save his life and help him to escape, despite the risks to herself and her mother.
Four years later, it is Mina who needs Phin's help when her mother is kidnapped by an escaped Collins during a trip to England. But Phin has recently and unexpectedly come into the title of Earl of Ashmore, and his elevation into the aristocracy has allowed him to finally turn his back on the violence of the past decade and upon his hated spy-master, Ridland. When Ridland tells Phin that Mina is requesting his help, Phin initially believes that it is a plot by Ridland to discredit him or bring him back into the game of spying for England. He agrees to help Mina in the search for her mother, but only if she remains at his house under lock and key. Mina is aware that there was a traitor in the British spy network in Hong Kong four years ago, but since she is not sure of the traitor's identity, she is reluctant to trust anyone, including Ridland. She is desperate to rescue her mother from her abusive step-father, and warily joins forces with Phin to do so, although she chafes at (and revolts against) his attempts to lock her in.
The characterizations in this book are outstanding. Both Phin and Mina carry the emotional and physical scars of their past and are constantly playing roles to hide their true selves. Phin hides his lethal skills and violent past behind the facade of a dissipated, bored nobleman, and Mina pretends to be a brainless, fragile china doll, when in truth she is calculating and rather ruthless. Phin's father was a alcoholic wastrel, and Phin has deep-seated fears that he will end up just like his father. His feelings of dissociation with his more innocent, "wholesome" past are poignant and even disturbing at times. Mina's mother was trapped in an abusive marriage to Collins, and Mina has vowed never to put herself in a man's control due to the horrors that she witnessed in that marriage. She has become a successful businesswoman in the four years since Hong Kong, and is adamant about being in control of herself and her own destiny. The attraction between Phin and Mina is combustible, despite their initial efforts to deny it or minimize it. The issues of trust--trusting one's own instincts, trusting one's self and trusting others--are beautifully explored in the story.
The prose in this story is lovely, reminiscent of the best in the genre. For historical romance readers who has been missing the writing style of Judith Ivory and Laura Kinsale, this book is for you.
VERY HIGHLY recommended for historical romance readers who like complex, flawed characters and beautiful prose.
on September 12, 2009
There is no denying the fact that Meredith Duran is a talented writer and a truly original voice in the very crowded historical romance market. Her descriptions of things as mundane as haystacks are so vivid that they'll stay with you long after you close the novel. And her depth of characterization is memorable as well.
This story concerns two characters you may have difficulty warming up to, though, even though they are expertly drawn. Phin is a deeply miserable person for a good portion of the book, and although we get an explanation for that misery throughout (he resents the fact that he was forced to become an agent when he really just wanted to be an ordinary map maker), Duran takes until almost the end of the novel to explain how he was forced into doing something he hated. Without that explanation, Phin just looks like an overly cynical, whiny, brutish opium addict. Speaking of the opium, we see Phin both in this novel and its predecessor "Bound by your Touch" that he uses the stuff fairly regularly, and we all know it was/is highly addictive. But somehow Phin escapes the perils of addiction without anyone really commenting on it, and that didn't really ring true to me.
And with his best friend, James, he's a jerk. Usually in romance novels, scenes between friends are a great way for us to see why someone would love the hero, even if the heroine is skeptical. But here, the scenes are painful and hard to read because both characters are jaded, hostile, and unlikeable.
I liked Mina a lot, and found her unique among romance heroines. She's smart, capable, and hardened against men after seeing the abusive relationship between her mother and stepfather. Her hesitance to not trust Phin made sense, yet unlike Phin, she comes across as essentially a happy person, so she was more endearing.
Phin and Mina meet in China, where both are essentially under cover. They're attracted to each other, but due to circumstances, it doesn't go anywhere. When they meet again years later, they still don't trust each other, and although that's understandable considering their backgrounds, their mistrust and Phin's grouchiness towards her grow tiresome very quickly.
Overall, I thought this romance could have used a little more, well, romance. An extra does of tenderness would have been ice as well. There are love scenes, and they're well done, but the story would have benefitted from a few more sweet exchanges or moments to cancel out the effect of all the darkness. It's hard to enjoy the beauty of the writing when you're not sure the characters are ready, willing, or deserving of love with each other. For instance, I would have liked a scene where Phin and let down their guards and simply laughed together over something mundane--just something so they appeared more human and in love with each other.
Mina's stepfather Collins was doing something illegal in Hong Kong. Phin was working undercover to catch Collins. Someone poisoned Phin's drink and he collapsed. Mina took him to a room to recover and helped him escape. Phin worked for Ridland at that time. Four years later Collins escaped British authorities. Ridland imprisons Mina in a locked hotel room thinking she can help him catch Collins. She escapes Ridland and wants Phin to help her find her mother. Mina believes Collins kidnapped her mother.
This is the kind of book that makes me think I am not a good reader. I had a terrible time concentrating. It was hard to read, hard to pay attention, hard to know what was going on. Maybe a different kind of mind can handle this writing style. I cannot. So many things were vague. I don't know what happened to Collins, Mina, or her mother during the four years. Who arrested Collins and for what. How did he escape and from where and why. Mina says she liked Phin, but we never saw how they met or why she liked him. There were not enough events and actions to develop the plot. For example, Phin and Mina are on a train. Just before they get off, they suspect a man is following them because he is well dressed. So Phin presses a nerve causing the man to fall unconscious just as he and Mina leave the train. Nothing else happens regarding that man. He was never in the story before or after the train. We are never told if he was working for someone, was following them, or anything else the man did afterwards. It felt like an unrelated and isolated event to show that Phin knew how to make a man unconscious. Another example, Mina is imprisoned in a hotel room. We are told Ridland imprisoned her, but we never saw the conversation or action that put her there. The next thing you know she is out of the room. We don't see her leaving the room. The next scene has her talking with Phin saying her servant is missing. She believes Phin may know something about it. I don't know how she found Phin, or got to him, or if he was the one who came to her. The events are choppy, no flow.
The conversations are too drawn out with too much pondering between comments. For example on page 221 Phin tells Mina they must stay the night at the inn. She then ponders for TWO PAGES thinking about the following before she says anything. She thinks about the size of the bed, Phin's appearance and qualities, a former guy she knew and had sex with, suffragettes, free love, contraception, sex outside of marriage, divorce is a sin, fallen women, and what Phin might teach her about sex. Then she says "Well, I suppose we are here for the night, then." Soon after this book I was reading a John Grisham book and a Lisa Kleypas book. Their styles are enjoyable and easy to read. Neither one of them drew out conversations this way. Their style is the following: A says something. B "thinks" (maybe 1 or 2 sentences of thought, if any) and then B "says" ... These authors do not use TWO PAGES of pondering before B responds to A. Not all conversations in "Written On Your Skin" are interrupted as badly as this. But far too many of them have paragraphs of ponderings that distract from the conversation. I lose interest.
During the entire book, nothing was interesting. I kept reading or trying to read hoping something good would come. It didn't. The dialogue between Mina and Phin was vague. She was either playing mind games or just sounding illogical. The sex scenes did nothing for me. I felt the need to skim.
Story length: 357 pages. Swearing language: moderate, including religious swear words. Sexual language: strong. Number of sex scenes: 3. Estimated number of sex scene pages: 23. Setting: 1880 Hong Kong and 1884 England. Copyright: 2009. Genre: historical romance.
on August 8, 2011
I have read the few who have given this novel low ratings and believe they are just not justified. Duran has now written five wonderful historic romances that consistently deliver some of the best and most sophisticated prose and dialog in the most well told romances out there. She sets her stories well in the times (particularly her first one, THE DUKE OF SHADOWS, set in a tumultuous time in India's history) and delivers an emotionally complex tale that will keep you turning pages. But they are not the superficial, insipid stories so often offered up to readers of romance these days. They are meatier, emotionally complex and the heroes and heroines multi-dimensional, truly interesting people. Her heroines are some of the strongest and most interesting heroines in romance. I can't say enough about how much I am loving her work and her characters.
WRITTEN ON YOUR SKIN follows closely the story in BOUND BY YOUR TOUCH. I recommend you read them together. The hero in the latter, Viscount Sanburne, is featured in this one and Phin, his friend the cartographer with the mysterious government job, is the hero in WRITTEN ON YOUR SKIN. Dear Author ranks this book as one of the Top 100 Romances of All Time; it was also a nominee for the Romantic Times award for Best Historical Romance Adventure. In other words, you won't be disappointed.
Phineas Granville, Earl of Ashmore, did not begin his life expecting to become a peer. His father died a failure and his grandfather, the earl, while educating Phin, wouldn't allow him in his home except rarely and then to lecture him on his father's faults. At Eaton, Phin met the colorful Viscount Sanburne (from BOUND BY YOUR TOUCH), and they have remained lifelong friends. Thrown out of Eaton, Phin became a cartographer and then a hardened British spy. While in Hong Kong in 1880, pretending to be an American, he is betrayed and poisoned. He is rescued by a young American debutante he thought was only an airhead, Miss Mina Masters, a beautiful blue-eyed blonde. But Mina is no airhead; that is just her act for men, including Phin, who fail to see her intelligence and cunning. Four years later, Mina (now a successful American businesswoman) has been taken captive by British authorities in London, who intend to use her as bait to capture a traitor linked to her stepfather, a horrible man who has apparently been a part of dealings that have resulted in the deaths of many as well as the theft of information the government wants badly. Phin owes Mina a favor, and though he's now a peer and no longer a spy, he comes to her aid when she uses his name with the British.
Both Phin and Mina hide behind masks. Phin can't seem to leave his days of death behind him (losing himself in opium), and Mina will show no man her real self. What happens when they are forced to work together is most intriguing. This romance has some of the most witty, funniest and most compelling dialog I have ever read. It had me laughing out loud as Mina played the dumb blonde for Phin and then had me nearly in tears as Phin's past threatened to destroy his future.
Here are some lines I particularly enjoyed:
"Miss Masters seemed oblivious to the complexities of the moment, including the progressive stiffening of her new acquaintances as the doorway remained empty. No surprise there--she had, after all, been raised among wolves, or in America; he was not sure there was a difference."
"Most of his countrymen favored a stiff-legged, chest-pouting stride, but Phineas Granville was all slink and prowl, as if his muscles had reached some special accord that other men's had not, excusing him from the limitations of gravity and tight tailoring. Like a giant cat, she thought--and about as disagreeable as one, too."
I highly recommend this one!
Written on Your Skin is a beautiful, all encompassing experience. Meredith makes sure to bring forth every emotion. And those who wish to write their own historical romance, take note. Meredith Duran is becoming a master writer of this genre. Learn from her.
The year is 1880, the setting is Hong Kong, Tokyo. Phin Granville is working undercover as a British spy. He needs to take down a Mr. Gerard Collins who will soon be arrested for crimes against the British government. Phin hates this life. He doesn't want to be a spy. It eats away at him where the stress gets to him so much that he has horrible headaches. But Phin doesn't really have a plan or the desire to figure out what he wants in life. He does enjoy making maps, that's for certain, and longs for the sweet release of his torments through smoking Opium. Phin is close to having a breakdown at any moment. But then Collins' step-daughter waltzes into his life and the suffering he experiences will not compare to the run around Mina gives him. Mina is a young, brash American who flaunts herself in front of society and taunts Phin wherever he goes. When Phin first meets Mina he thinks of her as a featherbrain, a very fragile young woman who looks like a porcelain doll. Mina is full of energy and enjoys speaking what's on her mind. Mina wants Phin and even though Phin thinks he can handle Mina, he can't. He treats her with disdain and near loathing, but underneath this façade, he wants her desperately. He hates feeling this way for a woman and can't decide if he wants to wring her neck or screw her into oblivion.
It's all about facades between these two. The world sees Phin one way. The same goes for Mina. Her step father beats her poor mother who is like a butterfly, fluttering against a window pane and trying to find a way to escape, but knows she can't because she is stuck in the hell of her own making. Mina won't be like her mother, even though she loves her dearly. Mina wants to break away and will help her mother also but running back to New York City and away from Collins. But there is a problem, and it is Phin. He is poisoned by one of Collins' lackeys. Mina nurses him back to health and helps him get away. And because Mina does help, the horrors her mother has gone through will not compare to what Mina will endure under Collins' hands.
Because Mina is a resourceful young woman she and her mother are able to make their way back to New York. Mina has started a very profitable hair tonic business. But Mina is now in London, four years later, searching for her missing mother. I am not sure why and how Mina's mother is in England and again at the hands of Collins, but Mina must find her mother before she is hurt or found dead. Collins is not one you want to cross and he will take out his anger on Mina's mama before Mina can save her. Mina is only one small woman after all. She may be resourceful but needs someone who is more skillful at the deceit and spy game. And that is Phin.
Phin never thought he would see Miss Masters again and does not want Mina in his life because she affects him in ways he cannot understand. Mina is very vulnerable even though she hides it so well. She is so good at putting on an act, one that even Phin misses at first. But he knows what game she is playing. Mina may drive him batty, but he sees her as a woman who cares for her mother and wants to save her from a horrible man before it is too late. Phin is now a rich Baron and has no choice but to help Mina. They will search across the English countryside looking for Mina's missing mother. During this time they will come to learn and understand who each other really is and why they act the way they do towards one another. Their desire and lust will grow and grow until it can no longer be contained.
Written on Your Skin is one of the most wonderfully sophisticated books I have read this year. In the mood for a road romance? This is your book. What some hotter than hot sex scenes? The passion and heat between this duo is very intense. There is one scene where my mouth dropped because Phin is so very naughty when he expresses his desire to bed Mina. And when these two do the deed, the crude language Phin uses with Mina will shock, but in a good way. The sex between Phin and Mina is a very powerful thing because this is where they accept each other, faults and all. Phin is too pushy and acts cold and superior to Mina because the idea that she can break through his defenses he has built around himself scares him. Mina may act mature and worldly but she lashes out in ways that are very immature. It is a mechanism to protect herself. Meredith has also given Mina an adorable childhood addiction she can't give up that equals to one sucking their thumb.
Written on Your Skin is an incredible feat of writing, one where you will read late into the night so you can soak up every detail on the page. Dark, poignant and all consuming, this book will have you awestruck because the words that Meredith Duran has written reaches deep into your soul.
on March 5, 2014
Despite being constantly tempted to DNF this, I pushed through and finished it, only because I generally really like Meredith Duran and I held out hope until the very end that she'd turn this around. She didn't. Although well-written and featuring sympathetic main characters, this book totally fell flat for me. Though the plot has plenty of action and drama -- poisonings, international intrigue, thrilling rescues, daring escapes, kidnappings, spies, hostage situations -- the narrative was so bogged down by the main characters' introspective navel gazing that, despite all the action, the story dragged and lacked excitement. The hero and heroine each had intriguing and sympathetic back-stories, but they were so self-absorbed and so self-pitying, that I couldn't bring myself to give a fig.
And the romance? What romance? It takes more than half the book for the hero and heroine to begin to trust each other, even more for them to begin to like each other, and about 85% of the book before they begin to be honest with each other. Their conflict isn't even the typical "opposites attract" trope, though -- they're not opposites, and they don't really attract. They're not sparking against each other in a way that is exciting or snappy or full of sexual tension: they're just bumbling along, getting in one another's way. There is a climactic scene toward the very end of the story where they're arguing and holding a gun on one another, and I think the reader is supposed to think it is some kind of foreplay, but it's just disturbing, dark, and dangerous. That scene is emblematic of the whole book: maybe someone with more tolerance for dark and twisty melodrama would enjoy this book, but to me it just felt disturbing, contrived, and honestly, pretty goddamn DULL.
I have loved the character of Phineas Granville and was therefore looking forward to reading his book. However, I must confess to some disappointment in some aspects of the book. Although I liked his relationship with Mina, there were parts that simply didn't satisfy my soul.
First off, I was disappointed that Phin left Mina after she saved his life and helped him escape from her stepfather four years previously in China. Not that he left her, but that he refused to ever try to find her and made himself not think about her for four years. But I realize Phineas had long struggled with his demons and was not in a good place for many of the years he had worked for Ridland. This was another aspect to the story that left me hanging so to speak. After reading several books in which Phin was a minor character, I had come to believe that Ridland was blackmailing Phin or using some type of coercion to keep him in line so Phin would continue serving in the manner he served Ridland as a spy/cartographer/assassin - whatever. Much is alluded to and not enough detailed explanation as to why Phineas continued in this line of work. However, when one gets down to the crux of the matter, apparently there was no blackmail, there was no undue coercion, Ridland wasn't holding anything over Phin's head. So, I don't get it. Why didn't Phineas just walk away and tell Ridland to go to he!!. If I missed something here, would someone please enlighten me.
At any rate, Phineas had not only struggled with his emotions, he didn't have the best of childhoods and always struggled with feeling "less than" his schoolmates and so on in part due to the dishonorable actions of a father Phin could not respect. Into the mix of these insecurities, he was befriended and mentored by a man who taught him everything he knew about cartographer which set Phin up to be able to work for the government. This worked out great until Ridland came into his life and persuaded Phineas to use his gifts in a manner that eventually led to an extremely dark side so that currently he's been driven to smoking opium to help keep his emotions together.
Mina, on the other hand has had to be the mother to her own mama so to speak and she has a lot of insight into Phineas. I liked many aspects of Phin's and Mina's relationship, but if ever a storyline overdid it on analyzing to the point it became tedious, this one did. After awhile, I just got tired of reading about the deep dark emotions that drove both Phin and Mina and wanted more romance. Unfortunately, when the romance came, it involved still more analyzing for nearly every single circumstance to the end of the book. Ugh! Only towards the end did we finally see a relaxation come over Phineas so he could break up his opium pipe and toss it away. By then, I was just plain weary and a bit nerve wracked myself with the entire business.
I would give this book 3 stars, but I really liked both characters. They did deserve a better story. With a lot less analyzing and more romance, this book could have been a five star.
on May 7, 2014
I had difficulties getting into this book. I felt as if there was a thick glass between me and the story, weird! Though the heroine was all that I could wish for when it comes to strength and action, she was also lying, secretive, and manipulative. Her mother was even more weird, starting to flirt with a new man as soon her second husband/jailer of many years had been killed more or less in front of her. The lovestory was a bit flat to me maybe because of the heroine, or maybe because of the drugs the hero needed, which I felt was probably correct for the time but still..........
on August 31, 2015
I gave Written on Your Skin 5 stars a year ago when I initially read it, but it doesn’t hold up to a re-read as well so I dropped a star.
I’ve determined how much you like the story has as much to do with the mood you are in as it does with the story itself; quite the challenge for authors! To that point, I must not be in the mood for historic romances. The last 2 of Ms. Duran’s have left me rather ‘meh’, though my first read of them had been 5 star ratings. Ms. Duran has a good writing style, but I just do not feel the characters come to life- the story is lacking.
Mina and Phin are unique characters, but don’t agree with how their frame of minds operated in order for the characters to come together and overcome their own obstacles. The reader must fill in how these things might occur – certainly my creative mind can think of it being plausible. But when a reader has to do work for the author, I call the story lacking.
on September 8, 2011
Meredith Duran is the only romance writer whose lines I highlight. She writes beautifully-textured novels with sharp insights about damaged people struggling to trust and love. Her characters unfold in real-time, and the push-pull of attraction and resistance evolves naturally as they come to terms with themselves and one another. No idiotic misunderstandings or out-of-the-blue solutions here.
Hers are books a literate reader can actually savor -- they start and end in the romance genre, but go everywhere else a good novel should go in between. If what you like to read are slam-bam-paced romance knock-offs written for a sixth grade reading level, with simplistic, easily huggable characters and linear plot, you may want to look elsewhere.
Written on Your Skin is my second-favorite of her novels -- Duke of Shadows was so remarkable in scope and power that it is unlikely to ever be unseated for top spot. This time it's the hero Phin's past that is destroying him, and a strangely silly and independent heroine - a Yank for a change - snaps him into dealing with the present. (Ms. Duran clearly understands PTSD, and makes it a very potent presence.)
Yeah, it took awhile for me to get into the heroine Mina, but as her own history and motivation unfolded, the constant games she played to distance and manipulate the men around her started to amuse and then impress me -- just as they slowly did the same to Phin.
An enjoyable, interesting, and definitely recommended read.