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Kate Sherwood

REVIEW:  Mark of Cain by Kate Sherwood

REVIEW: Mark of Cain by Kate Sherwood

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When a man is consumed by hatred, is there anything left to love?

After a tough day of counseling sessions, Anglican priest Mark Webber is looking forward to a relaxing dinner at a local restaurant. When he sees who’s bellied up to the bar, though, he reaches for his cell phone to call the police.

It’s Lucas Cain, the man who killed Mark’s brother three years ago. Apparently he’s out of jail and hanging out with his old crowd, which has to be a breach of parole, right?

Pulled over upon leaving the bar, Lucas blows a clean breathalyzer and hopes this isn’t a harbinger of things to come. He’s ready to build a sober, peaceful life. His friends aren’t ready to let him move on, though, and he ends up taking refuge in an Anglican half-way house.

Thrown together, Mark and Lucas find common ground in the struggle to help a young gay man come to terms with his sexuality—and the fight against homophobic townsfolk. As attraction grows, the past is the last stumbling block between them and a future filled with hope.

Warning: Bad boys being good, good boys being bad.

Review:

Dear Kate Sherwood,

I had been hunting for good redemption story for what feels like months by now and yours certainly delivered what I was looking for and more. Talk about seemingly impossible to overcome and at the same time very realistic conflict between the main characters. I could not imagine how you would believably bring them together, because I could not really relate to such situation – meaning that personally I cannot see myself ever falling in love with somebody who killed my loved one. But you convinced me, you convinced me despite what I said about not being able to ever imagine myself being in these characters’ shoes. I was convinced that what happened made sense for Lucas and Mark, and I was very satisfied when I finished the book.

The book also delivered a lot of social commentary, which in my opinion was integrated with the romance really well. This is no small feat, because too often I think that social commentary in romance gets chopped in favor of the happy ending, or it gets so preachy that I start to wonder where the romance went. It is understandable on the one hand, but on the other I too often find myself wishing that the writer had never attempted the social commentary in the first place. For this reader at least, this story achieved a pretty good balance, and I never felt that the social commentary was too heavy or preachy.

As the blurb tells you Lucas comes back to his hometown, having been released early for good behavior. Three years ago he killed Mark’s brother in a drunken bar fight. You can imagine that not everybody is happy to see him back and Mark is one of those unhappy people. I was not going to blame him for that, even though slowly but surely Mark sees just how much Lucas has changed and how he has taken complete responsibility for what he did. I can imagine that some readers may find Lucas’ unequivocal responsibility to be a little too much and a little too close to martyrdom, but for me it was just perfect. Because a killing was involved, nothing less than what Lucas felt would have satisfied me. I mean, eventually I was perfectly okay with Lucas’ moving on to realizing that he deserves to live a happy life too and that he should not throw away his own life at 22, but I was glad to never hear a single justification from him. If anything, I was a little cynical and skeptical that he was able to experience such profound change while in prison, but I went with the flow because as I said, nothing less would have satisfied me.

“I did my time? Some of it, yeah. But Sean, the guy’s still dead. It’s permanent. His family, his friends, all the shit he wanted to do with his life? He’s gone, forever.” Lucas stared at his friend’s uncomprehending face. Sean was almost innocent sometimes. Like he refused to accept any of the harder truths of the world. Mortality. Responsibility. Guilt. “I can’t just go on with things like it never happened. Three years and then it’s all over? It’s never over, not for the people who miss him. So it should never be over for me.”

When Lucas comes back home a changed person, he notes that none of his friends have actually changed.
I thought that the author did a very good job in portraying how so many young men waste their lives in spending times in bars, drinking, doing nothing and seeking useless fights, feeding their anger.

“And there it was. Sean was actually angry, not at his friends but at this imaginary woman with her imaginary baby who’d had the nerve to imaginary tell him she wanted them to get their own apartment. It felt familiar but it did not feel natural. Not anymore”

I thought the subplot with Lucas’ friend Sean mirrored Lucas’ past situation to a certain degree and when life hit Sean just as hard as Lucas (although in a different way) I could not help but hope that it would be a rude awakening for Sean.

Lucas never completely abandons this mindset, even though he learns to believe that he can deserve a happy life, and I liked that the writer tried to portray complex human beings. Surely if we feel one thing, we can feel and believe in something else too, even if that other thing seemingly contradicts the first one?

The romance in the story is a very slow burn one, which is of course extremely understandable. Mark has to see in Lucas somebody worthy of the friendship and respect first and that takes a significant chunk of the book. Basically if you want a book high on erotic content, this one is absolutely not for you. There are some kisses in the last quarter of the book and one sex scene, but for me this was perfect for this story.

Mark is not portrayed as somebody who is perfect either. He did not always behave kindly towards Lucas, but then again Lucas killed his brother, so I cut him some slack. I thought that Mark’s being a priest played a significant role in helping him change his feelings for Lucas and at first I wondered whether this would have happened if Mark held a different profession. At the same time his faith is part of Mark’s personality, not just his vocation, so somehow it all worked well for me eventually.

Neither Mark nor Lucas struggle with being gay – they know who they are, they are not ashamed of it and they seem to be at peace with their sexual identities. However, as the blurb states, homophobia is still an issue for them in one way or another. It is an issue for a teenager they end up helping, it is somewhat of an issue for some folks in their hometown (and it does take an ugly turn at one point), and even though it was less of an issue for Mark’s job as priest than it usually is in romance stories, I wish the church people had had more guts than they did. I mean, I know it reflects a sad reality, but I cannot help but wish for something better for talented, dedicated people like Mark who want to help people and serve God as priests.

I really appreciated that the book often tried to acknowledge that some situations cannot be resolved neatly to everybody’s satisfaction and no matter how hard we try, somebody may still get hurt.

There is a strong happy ending for two main characters; however there are no neat endings for several side storylines. There are no neat resolutions about how some family members and some friends view and interact with the main characters, but again all of it made perfect sense for me.

Highly recommended.

Grade: B+

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LIGHTNING REVIEWS and LETTER OF OPINION: Various Shorts from Dreamspinner Press

LIGHTNING REVIEWS and LETTER OF OPINION: Various Shorts from Dreamspinner Press

Dreamspinner Press had five shorts I was interested in this week, so I thought I’d do lightning reviews of them. And then I ended up ranting at the end of the reviews, ending up more like an Opinion Letter than anything else.

Russian Roulette by Alex Alder:
Jacob teaches martial art fighting in…somewhere in Texas. His new neighbor is worryingly reclusive, but then they finally meet and Jacob sees how gorgeous he is. They get together, go out a couple of times, have great sex, go out for three months, everything’s great. But because Nate still hasn’t let Jacob into his apartment, Jacob convinces himself that Nate is the Dallas Strangler, the local serial killer (who started in Dallas but is now wherever Jacob and Nate are). He reports him, the police raid the apartment (with Jacob in tow!), and Jacob realizes Nate is just an artist with genius but no self-confidence. Nate breaks up with him (no, really?!), but then the serial killers comes to get them.

This book was…strange. I was never emotionally connected to the characters. They seemed to be doing everything because the story needed them to, not because it was integral to their characters. And there was no relationship tension — they met, were attracted, got together, had sex, everything was great. Which is great in real life, but doesn’t make a good story. All the tension comes halfway through or more from Jacob’s ridiculous assumptions about Nate and Nate kicking him out afterwards (too right!). As a result, the sex was boring as hell (to me), and after Jacob’s betrayal, I didn’t really care whether they got back together. In fact, I thought Nate was right to kick Jacob to the curb and the fact that Nate took Jacob back because of the shared danger when the serial killer attached them both just made me think less of Nate’s self-preservation skills — maybe he should have been killed by the serial killer.

Grade: C-

Goodreads | Amazon | Dreamspinner Press

“New Tricks” by Kate Sherwood:
After I read this short, I did a bit of research, to find that this is a continuation of the relationship of previous characters. Aaron and Quinn are together, but Aaron was a virgin before they got together, so Quinn doesn’t really trust Aaron to know what he’s talking about when Aaron says that he loves Quinn. Quinn thinks that Aaron will eventually leave to sow his wild oats elsewhere, because he’s never had the opportunity to do that. This is a short little sex scene, in which Aaron takes complete control over Quinn. He ties him, blindfolds him, and effectively gags him so that when Aaron tells Quinn that he loves him, Quinn can’t qualify the statement and has to listen to Aaron, has to really hear what Aaron is saying.

It’s a cute little scene and works well as a stand-alone scene (I hadn’t read the original story). There’s an emotional component to the story, something that the characters need to overcome during or through the sex, an actual plot, with narrative tension, and deftly handled at that. I enjoyed it.

Grade: B-

Goodreads | Amazon |DreamSpinner Press

The Playwright by Carolyn LeVine Topol
Nick and Ken live together, gay playwrights writing successful plays for Broadway. Ken signs Nick up for The Male Room, an online dating website, because he’s worried that his friend (and they really ARE just friends) never gets out. Nick’s first hit on the website is Mark. Mark’s amazing. They hit it off immediately and fall in love.

So where’s the story? It’s manufactured whole cloth in the middle. Nick has an emotional crisis–literally between one line and the next, he does an about face on the relationship, feels it’s too emotionally risky, an about face that has no foreshadowing, no flicker of angst to warn of its coming. I had to read it three times to figure out what the hell was going on. But then THAT’S dealt with almost immediately and suddenly Nick has to worry about Mark’s job — he’s a hard-news investigative reporter who goes out chasing dangerous stories. But then that’s solved immediately…and you get the idea. I couldn’t tell the two main characters apart. There was nothing to distinguish them, neither of them had a personality to speak of, let alone any differences between them. (And they both had four-letter names, making it impossible.) The story was boring, the sex was forgettable, and the characters cardboard. Yuck.

Grade: D+

Goodreads | Amazon | DreamSpinner Press

And I gave it the D+ because it wasn’t as bad as the next one:

“Take a Dip” by Lacey Wallace
This one is really short, which is good, because it was really bad. Adam is 23 with a 7 year old daughter he takes to the pool at the weekend. He thinks he’s straight, but one of the lifeguards at the pool convinces him he’s not. The story’s full of emotionless, internal monologue info dumps about Adam’s life that are boring precisely because they’re emotionless:

He had become a teenage father at the age of sixteen; a girl named Cynthia was the mother. Although he didn’t want a kid, he had decided to do the responsible thing and be a real, involved father. Cynthia had brought their daughter to his house for an afternoon. Supposedly, he was only going to watch her for the day so she could look for work.

Cynthia never came back.

Adam later found out that she had moved away with her parents, leaving Denise with Adam. His parents had demanded he take the baby to an orphanage, but Adam refused. They threatened to kick him out of the house. Adam still refused, believing it was only a bluff. They followed through with the threat, leaving Denise and Adam homeless.

Luckily his aunt, who was estranged from the family, stepped in. Aunt Belinda was wonderful. She taught him how to care for Denise properly and baby-sat while Adam worked and finished his high school education, and then earned a B.A. in Business.

Like, really? Can we talk about the terror, the boredom, the resentment, the pain, the panic, the…whatever? That was just…awful. These are PEOPLE! In a ROMANCE NOVEL. Let’s talk about FEELINGS, please. Please? No…?

Anyway, we have to get it this background on Adam from infodumps because Mark the lifeguard isn’t interested in anything other than a quick fuck in the shower room. And that’s what they have, and that’s it, that’s the story. It’s bad writing with an attempt at character depth that just fails (Adam is angsty because he’s figuring out the gay thing, but really, despite having been a teen single father, he doesn’t feel anything deeply and his daughter isn’t even a plot moppet, she’s just a prop). And the sex is boring as hell except for the “ew, in the shower at a public pool, really?” aspect that I felt, not Adam. And there’s NO HEA or HFN. It’s pure stroke fiction and it’s not even really good for that.

Grade: D

Goodreads | Amazon | Dreamspinner Press

But! OMG, even THAT wasn’t as bad as…

The Godfather’s Lover by Ann T. Ryan
Chris grew up in an orphanage, we find out in a Prologue, and the only person who cared for him is a priest (not like THAT). The second Prologue shows us an 11 year old Jarod at his mother’s funeral, where, apparently, he finds out that A. she’s dead, and B. she committed suicide. Oh, and C. his father’s an asshole and a Mafia don (although not, like, Italian). Seems a promising start. We next find Jarod in the back alley of a club overseeing the execution of someone who betrayed him. Chris shows up and becomes a potential witness, so, to take care of him, Jarod fucks him through the wall. A month later, Jarod finally tracks his anonymous trick down, kicks out his own latest “kept man” (the cousin of a rival family), and starts keeping Chris. Who, we discover is actually an FBI Special Agent looking to take down Jarod because a mob turf war killed the priest. Right. Because FBI agents always get to work on cases their bosses know they’re emotionally connected with. They’re together for a YEAR, Chris never finds out anything worthwhile, he contacts his boss via EMAIL (oh REALLY?!), and he starts getting a conscience about betraying Jarod. In fact, he falls in love, quits his job, quits Jarod, and disappears to go teach math in, I’m not kidding, Saskatchewan. Where Jarod goes to get him. And everyone lives HEA. But back in LA, not in Canada.

And really, that’s all this story is: plot points. A happened, then B happened, then C and D and E. Oh, and someone might have felt something in there, but probably not. Chris does not angst about falling in love with a mob boss. Jarod does not angst about being a gay mob boss, nor does he worry about falling in love with his piece of ass. There’s no indication why these guys fall in love — we’re just told that they do — because, after all, there’s nothing to fall in love WITH. They have no personality. At all.

The prose feels like it’s written by a twelve year old or an ESL writer:

“Where is he?” Jarod asked into the phone, without preamble.

“I will get back to you, boss,” Mike replied.

Five minutes later, Jarod received a text message. Your boy is at Suede. His boy. Jarod liked the sound of that.

“Lee.”

“Yes, boss?”

“Drive me to Suede.”

“All right, boss.”

These guys talk like this ALL THE TIME. Very few contractions (“I will” especially, is NEVER “I’ll”), which is not how people talk. And the book is just full of this witty repartee.

And Chris feels bad about betraying Jarod:

Chrisd listened as Jarod spoke to him. Telling details that Chris had already committed to memory. Jarod wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. But the fact he was opening up made Chris feel guilty about the whole thing. Yes, Jarod was a mafia boss, with his fingers dipping in every illegal pie across the country and around the world. And yet, when he was with Chris, he was just Jarod. The hard walls Jarod put up outside would slowly crumble, revealing to Chris who Jarod Greene truly was, without the responsibility of a whole clan to take on. Chris felt bad, and that was a feeling that had eluded him in all of the cases he had handled. Somehow, Jarod had wormed himself into Chris’s heart, making the conscience Chris thought he had lost wake up.

Jarod’s a MOB BOSS. Who KILLS PEOPLE (although not personally anymore, so that’s okay). And CHRIS has the crisis of conscience?! Not ONCE does Jarod worry if he’s doing the right thing, wonder about what else he could do, have any sort of problem with his inherited position in life. Seriously, what have we come to in this world that an author could think that a man like this deserves the love of a good partner without serious emotional trauma on both their parts and some serious remorse and renegotiations of the mob boss’s life? CHRIS is the one who gives up his job at the end, not Jarod. Chris makes some half-assed protest at the end:

“I still don’t like your job description.”

“But you still like me?” Jarod smiled tentatively at Chris.

“Yeah, seems like I’m a sucker for a handsome man with grey eyes.”

Really?! You were an FBI agent and that’s all you’re gonna say? And really?! You’re an author and that’s the sum total of the consideration you’re gonna give to this issue, as if Jarod DESERVES an HEA?!

And! AND, guys, there was this scene when Jarod’s henchman was outside a cafe, watching Chris meet with his FBI boss (Chris is quitting, actually). Henchman recognizes FBI boss. Then POV goes to Chris, inside the cafe, who is ON THE PHONE with his boss. Then back out to henchman threatening FBI boss’s life in the cafe. SERIOUSLY?! No one noticed this issue?

Grade: F because this one seriously offended me, as well as being suck-ass writing.

Goodreads | Amazon | Dreamspinner Press

The Too Long; Didn’t Read (TL;DR) for the five stories: one was good, the others were awful. And good here isn’t anything unusual: I’m looking for a story that

  • can string a sentence together
  • can make characters sound real
  • can make characters feel real and make me care about them
  • can make characters act in consistent, character-worthy manner, rather than as puppets moved around by the plot without motivational rhyme or reason
  • has an emotional conflict present throughout the book with an arc of its own
  • has a plot conflict that the characters have to solve, that may or may not be the emotional conflict
  • doesn’t have huge gaping plot holes, discrepancies, or flubs
  • considers the emotional ramifications of character actions
  • considers the moral ramifications of character actions (and yes, that last one is VERY important when dealing with issues like FBI agents falling in love with mob bosses)
  • has non-boring sex, which means has sex that MEANS something to the characters, that overcomes something in them, that has some affect on them.

Seriously, writers, it’s not enough to tell us that characters do things. It’s not enough to have a cool hook, a really neat “what-if” to write about. The characters have to FEEL something. They have to have reasons for doing things. They have to be REAL, with faults and foibles and fucked-up motivations that they angst over and that make them act in certain logical ways for logical reasons that are explored. It’s ROMANCE, ffs. It’s all ABOUT the emotions. And if the characters go off the rails, they have to worry about why and how and what it all means. Romance does NOT mean cool “What If?” scenarios without considering the character ramifications. Neither is it Tab A and Slot B. Even good stroke fiction has to have the characters overcoming something emotional in order to have (or even while they have) the hot sex that gets the reader off. It’s precisely the emotional struggle that’s the arousing part.

And publishers, I guess you can publish whatever the writers write, and the writers can write whatever the hell they want, but readers don’t have to like it. In fact, we can despise it. And *I* despise it NOT because it arouses strong feelings in me, but precisely the opposite. I despise it because it’s sloppy and lazy and boring as fuck. (Except the Sherwood, who I have read before, apparently, and liked.)

If I didn’t take chances on authors I hadn’t read before, I’d never have found Heidi Cullinan (at Dreamspinner, btw) or Alex Beecroft or K.A. Mitchell or A.M. Riley or any of the other brilliant authors out there who I adore, or even the ones I enjoy whose books have issues now and then, good books and not so good books, but who at least TRY to write stories about real characters with real feelings and real dilemmas that actually have a narrative arc, angst, and resolution that actually means something. But this right here is why I don’t take that chance more often. These stories were insulting.

I’m off to read Cullinan’s latest again (for review) to cleanse my palette because I just can’t take anymore awful, boring, insulting stories for a while.