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REVIEW:  Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran

REVIEW: Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran

fool

Dear Ms. Duran:

Just the title is probably enough to clue in readers of That Scandalous Summer that this book will be about widower Alistair de Grey, who went spectacularly round the bend over his late wife’s betrayal in that story. And who else would he be paired with but the mysterious, undoubtedly deceitful Olivia Mather. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the first book though, the story can stand alone.

Olivia is up the Victorian equivalent of shit creek, and she’s desperately searching for a paddle. She’s already been left for dead once and though she doesn’t know the why of it, she does know the who – crooked politician Baron Bertram. Sick of running and hiding, Olivia decides to find protection for herself; she applies for a job as a maid to the Duke of Marwick, planning to search for blackmail material. The Duke is known as a kingmaker, “friend to princes, patron of prime ministers, and puppet master of countless MPs,” and as Olivia knows, he also has reason to hate Bertram.

Olivia may have been forced into impersonation, thievery and blackmail, but she’s a punctilious person at heart and she’s shocked at the state of things in the duke’s house. “…if Marwick had once governed the nation, he now failed to govern even his own home. His servants were running wild.” Marwick himself hasn’t left his suite in months. Things are so desperate that the butler gives the obviously well educated applicant a job as temporary housekeeper. And although she’s supposed to be concentrating on her search, Olivia finds herself at the mercy of her worst flaw, a need to “interfere and manage and fix things.” Not just the state of the house and the recalcitrant servants… but the master of the house himself.

Fool Me Twice is surprisingly old skool in tone, not something I expected from a Duran story. (I say in tone, because the action doesn’t actually venture far into bodice-ripper territory.) Alistair’s state of mind is extremely dark, especially when we discover that his agoraphobia is based on the fear that if he goes anywhere near the people who helped his wife betray him, he’ll kill them. His deliberate intimidation of Olivia is genuinely frightening:

He lifted a brow, which gave her a weird shock; it was the first animation she had seen on his frigid countenance. ‘Silence? But a moment ago you had so very much to say.’ He placed his thumb on her lower lip, then made a firm, hard stroke. She tasted the salt on his skin.

This was not happening. She seemed to move outside her body, viewing from above this unbelievable moment: the Duke of Marwick, molesting her.

He withdrew his thumb. Lifted it to his own mouth. Tasting her.

Their eyes met, his impossibly blue, not a speck of hazel or gold to break their electric intensity. A curious prickle spread through her.

He made a contemptuous noise and dropped his hand. ‘Disobedience,’ he said. ‘The taste of it does not suit me.’

[…]

She turned her face away. Staring at the wall, she said rapidly, ‘The staff assures me that you have never been the kind of cowardly man who abuses his servants–’

His fist slammed into the wall.

She opened her mouth. Nothing came out. His fist had missed her ear by inches, no more.

‘I am precisely that kind of man,’ he said bitterly. ‘Or did you imagine you were dreaming this episode?’

The progression of feeling between them is carefully drawn. Olivia is dismayed to find herself sorry for Alistair: “this sudden fleeting sympathy was undeserved by him, and ridiculous of her and… the very opposite of armor.” And through reading his papers, she discovers that he’s highly intelligent and was once an impassioned idealist. Perhaps she’s better able to relate to him because she’s also discovering her own dark side, especially when she realizes that one of the men Alistair yearns to kill is Bertram.

A horrible thought gripped her: if he murdered Bertram, her own life would become so much simpler!

She caught her breath, appalled by herself — and by him, too.
[..] And suddenly she felt outclassed. It was a startling and unpleasant and very novel experience, but somehow he had done it: he had turned the tables on her, not with brute strength but with his wits. For now, if she encouraged him to leave these rooms, she would be a party to his murderous intentions.

And he had made sure she knew it.

‘I can’t say I support murder,’ she managed. She hoped God took note of this virtue, and marked it to counterbalance her longer lists of sins.

Meanwhile, interacting with another human being is helping Alistair move away from his “violent, broken, shattered, murderous self.” (The self very much like his despised father.) Their relationship becomes a more standard battle of wits, and I started to feel impatient at this point. It had such a cliched feel — feisty woman vs. bear with wounded paw; it’s probably just me, but I even started thinking of the stately Olivia as being small, and apt to pound her tiny fists. (It didn’t help when Alistair told her, “You are baiting the wrong man, little girl.”) Olivia’s genuine fear becomes fear of their mutual attraction, which also pushed my particular “tired of it now” buttons. The story picks up again when Marwick, as he inevitably would, discovers Olivia’s deceit.

The strength of the book is the language around the complex, ever-changing emotions both characters are feeling. Even the more familiar moments are beautifully expressed:

He found himself groping for another script to guide him. But there was nothing now in his brain but his instinct, his rotten instinct, which wanted to smash something. Or tie her up, swaddle her in gauze, lock her away somewhere he could study her until he understood… something.

The sex scenes are particularly vivid and passionate. Yet somehow, I still wasn’t entirely in love with these characters or this relationship. There were just too many echoes for me, despite the beauty of the writing. I feel like I’ve read variants of this conversation a hundred times (and didn’t like it then, either):

‘You could not have hustled me out of that flat more quickly this morning. And now you’re refusing to have a conversation. Are you afraid that you disappointed me? For I assure you, it wouldn’t have been possible. I wasn’t expecting much–’

He made a choking sound.

‘Oh, dear.’ She reached for her discarded cup of tea, brought an hour ago by the obsequious conductor. ‘Would you like some of this? And don’t misunderstand me; it was quite nice. Last night, I mean.’

Similarly, when Alistair and Olivia thought about their feelings for each other, it never felt quite…there to me, but more like a script I already knew. This kept my grade from going as high as it otherwise might have, considering the quality of the prose, but I’m still recommending Fool Me Twice: I don’t often get the intense reads I adore in such a well constructed form. B

Sincerely,

Willaful

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REVIEW:  True Spies by Shana Galen

REVIEW: True Spies by Shana Galen

shana galen true lies

Dear Ms. Galen:

I love Regency-era romances – love them dearly.  There’s something about the pomp and circumstance, the dire-ness of rules for women and the sheer insanity of the social strictures of the time that alternately makes me want to visit there for a day and sends me screaming for my modern conveniences and right to vote.  I don’t think I could stand visiting for any longer than a day, maybe two – if the smells and crush of the routs didn’t get me first, a runaway carriage in the streets would.  While there’s something to be said for the life of a female member of the ton – the parties, the preparation, the running of households, the at-homes – there’s also a lot to be desired, particularly when one’s husband is noticeably absent on a regular basis.

Genteel Elinor, Lady Keating, is a woman who appears to have it all.  She’s married to a peer, has two beautiful, healthy daughters, has a plethora of friends and is seen as one of the most organized hostesses in town.  There’s very little she doesn’t have – save for the attentions of her all-too-busy husband, a man who is kept out of town more often than not by business on his other estates.  Winn, Lord Keating, is a man of many secrets.  Having wed Elinor for propriety, he found himself free to pursue his life-long passion – working for the Crown as a spy.  As a peer, he’s perfectly situated to move amongst others of his ilk who may, or may not, be assisting the French cause.  Winn’s well-ordered world is turned quite on its head when his quiet wife decides she’s had enough of his excuses and is tired of waiting for him to love her.  Their two separate worlds are no longer enough.  He must find a way to woo the woman he loves back – before she’s taken from him.

There’s quite a lot to be said for authors who can take an idea from a movie and mold it into a lovely, occasionally humorous escapist read in a genre light-years from its origination.  As the title of the book suggests, the story riffs off the movie “True Lies,” starring Arnold Schwarzeneger and Jamie Lee Curtis as a married couple who are just going through the motions until a considered affair and treachery collide in an explosion whose fallout rivals that of a bomb.  One thing I truly loved about this book was the fact it flew in the “traditional” tendency of Regency romances to portray the heroine as an outcast of sorts who excels in not-traditional realms – whether it be academics, botany, sciences or martial prowess.  Elinor is powerful – she’s a master of what are considered the feminine arts of home and hearth.  But rather than that detracting from her appeal, it enhances it.  Here is a woman who has done everything society has demanded of her, enjoyed it, and excelled at it – and she’s meeting a new challenge head on.  Of course there are second thoughts and pitfalls when Elinor is forced to join Winn in the spy game – she doesn’t suddenly become super woman just because her husband is taking more notice of her.  It was handled, well, realistically for a fiction novel that borrowed heavily from a big budget Hollywood action film.

I found a certain sweetness to the romance between the two main characters as well as their interactions with friends and relatives.  At times, it was a touch of “Real Housewives” (or maybe “Cougar Town” given that Elinor was being thrown at a fairly young man by her friends) mixed with the usual tongue in cheek humor used to lampoon the upper class.  But, despite the occasional biting wit, it maintained plausibility and held up well under scrutiny as both action AND romance, something that cannot be said for many books.  I particularly enjoyed the visit back to characters from the previous book, “Lord and Lady Spy,” the first in the same-titled series.  It added a bit of continuity for flavor, and gives the reader a chance to see where previous characters have gone. B-

 Yours in Petticoats,

Mary Kate

As a reader who’s old enough to know better and young enough to not care, I’ve breezed through the gamut of everything books have to offer.  As a child, I used to spend summer days happily ensconced in one of the Philadelphia public libraries, reading everything and anything I could get my hands on, thanks to the love and support of my parents and aunts – teachers, mothers and/or librarians all.  One aunt started me with Nancy Drew books (whose pages are worn from hundreds of re-reads) while another thought I needed introduced to C.S. Lewis’s land of Narnia.  By the time I was 8, I’d read everything the library’s children’s section had to offer and had “graduated” to the adult room downstairs.  Fortunately for my very supportive parents’ sanity, I didn’t discover romances until college.  My days are currently spent working in law enforcement (dispatchers unite!), working with first responders, and trying to dig my writer/editor/reviewer husband out from his latest pile of books.  I’m a devoted fan of all manner of romance (though I prefer my romance to have a hint of laughter and self-awareness), mysteries, and urban fantasy.

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