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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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REVIEW:  In For a Penny by Rose Lerner

REVIEW: In For a Penny by Rose Lerner

In For a Penny cover Dear Ms. Lerner,

I’ve been having a hard time finding historical romances to read, and Janine suggested that I take a look at your older romances. I actually read A Lily Among Thorns a while ago and it didn’t leave much of an impression, but In For a Penny turned out to be much more enjoyable.

Nathaniel Ambrey, Viscount Nevinstoke, is heir to an earldom but has little to occupy him, so he spends his time running around town and having fun with his friends. He meets Penelope Brown at a ball and is drawn to her appearance and interest in music, but does not give it much further thought.

Soon after, however, Nev’s father is killed in a duel. The late Earl of Bedlow was, as Nev notes to Penelope earlier, good at spending money but not at making it. This leaves his family in crushing debts, and although Nev sells everything he can, it’s not enough. When his younger sister Louisa suggests that she might help the family’s financial situation by marrying a merchant, Nev thinks of a better idea: he’ll propose to Penelope, who has a fortune settled on her by her father.

In another book, Nev might have set out to court and seduce Penelope without telling her the reasons until later. Fortunately, In For a Penny is not such a book. Nev tells Penelope exactly what his situation is, but also tells her that he would not have proposed if he did not like her and thought that they could get along well together. Much to her shock and that of her parents, Penelope accepts, and the two are soon married.

Penelope and Nev then set off for his estate, Loweston, where it turns out that things have gone very badly for the tenants in recent years. The two of them are essentially strangers at this point, and they try to find a way to build a life together while also dealing with the many problems and challenges facing them at Loweston. Their neighbor Sir Jasper is convinced that the workers are criminals about to revolt and treats them accordingly, and the local vicar is not helping matters, either. Nev has cut himself off from his friends after his father’s death, convinced that he has to be responsible and avoid any of the temptations that eventually lead to his father’s ruin, and he and Penelope are essentially on their own in a situation that neither has been trained to deal with.

Penelope and Nev are wonderful characters. They’re young, even for a historical, and it shows: nineteen year old Penelope is not long removed from finishing school, where she struggled to fit in. Her parents started out poor, and while they are now wealthy, their money was made from a brewery and they lack social graces and connections. As a result, Penelope has always been made to feel like an outsider who could never be a lady. She doesn’t know how to deal with the angry tenants, and is insecure in her relationship with Nev. While the two get on well, she knows that he would have never chosen her where it not for her wealth. Penelope has a good head for numbers and experience in bookkeeping from her father’s business, but she doesn’t feel like there is much more that she can contribute.

Nev is twenty three, and until his father’s death, he had no responsibilities at all. He has no idea how to fix the situation his father left and being in a position of authority is new to him. He admits to Penelope early on that he is not particularly clever when it comes to business, and is happy to rely on her in this area. While he very much likes Penelope, he feels like he doesn’t have enough to offer her and believes that she deserved a better husband and life.

Although Penelope and Nev don’t believe that they are good enough for the other, it’s easy for the reader to see that they are wrong, and to root for them to get to know each other better and realize this too. Both are very caring and trying to live up to their new adult responsibilities. They share an interest in music and enjoy each other’s company, and they are just a good match in many ways.

I really enjoyed your writing and the dialogue, which reminded of older regency historicals at time rather than the modernized ones that we often see these days. You write about the period in a way that felt fresh and interesting, which is something that I appreciated. I also liked the secondary characters, especially Penelope’s parents. Often when a heroine comes from Penelope’s background, she is embarrassed about her origins and her parents are depicted as being interested mainly in her marrying a title. But Penelope loves her parents, and they are warm and very kind people, both to their daughter and to others. The last thing they want is for Penelope to marry a fortune hunter. They do come to like Nev for the person he is, and are supportive of their daughter and son in law.

In For a Penny was in A-grade territory for me for much of the story, but I did become frustrated with Penelope and Nev’s difficulty in communicating their feelings. At first this really worked for me, because the two barely knew each other when they married and I liked that it took time for them to build a relationship and trust each other. But eventually I just wished that they would stop feeling so inadequate and believe the worst about how the other person felt about them and the relationship. Both Nev’s former mistress and Penelope’s former suitor both eventually arrive at Loweston, though for different reasons, and Penelope and Nev can’t help but wonder if the other wouldn’t have been happier if they had been free to pursue those relationships.

It’s not unrealistic for two people who are young, inexperienced, and who married after a very short acquaintance to take time to learn to trust and communicate. My problem was not so much with the pacing but more because I felt the conflict was resolved artificially, as the story descended into melodrama in the latter part. It felt over the top and unnecessary, and I wish that Penelope and Nev had been given the opportunity to work out their differences and express their true feelings without it. Instead, the resolution struck me as rushed and too tidy. This wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me, but I was expecting something different and this seemed too conventional for the book and the characters. As a result, In For a Penny gets a B from me.

Best regards,
Rose

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