REVIEW: Written on Your Skin by Meredith Duran
Dear Ms. Duran,
Since I’ve acquired my lovely Sony PRS-505, I’ve used the handy-dandy “bookmark” button to mark notable pages in a book that I may want to refer back to when I write a review. Depending on the book, the bookmarks may be noting something that worked for me or something that didn’t. When reading your latest book, Written on Your Skin, I hit the bookmark button so many times I was afraid I was going to wear it out. All 32 bookmarks (and it easily could’ve been 132 if I hadn’t restrained myself a bit) noted bits of prose or characterization that I just loved. So it’s no surprise that Written on Your Skin is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long while.
The book opens in Hong Kong in 1880. Phin Monroe and Mina Masters have been carrying on a flirtation for several weeks when they encounter each other at a party. Phin thinks that Mina is an empty-headed flirt and Mina thinks Phin is an American businessman. They’re both wrong. Things get interesting when Phin collapses, the victim of poisoned brandy. Each quickly realizes that the other has hidden depths, but there is no time to explore their new understanding of each other – Phin has to get away before Mina’s brutal stepfather comes for him. Mina saves Phin’s life, but not without great cost to her own.
Four years later, Mina is in London, more or less under house arrest. Her beloved mother has gone missing, and Mina is under the thumb of Ridland, a rather amoral character who happens to be Phin’s former spymaster. Mina decides to call in the favor that Phin owes her.
Phin has finally gotten himself out from under Ridland’s hated control, and he isn’t eager to fall back into it. He’s now Phineas Granville, Earl of Ashmore. He has the power to ignore Ridland’s dictates, and in fact is using that power to try to destroy the man who blackmailed him for years, forcing him to kill for crown and country. The last thing Phin wants is to be dragged back into Ridland’s web of intrigue. But the fact that Mina once saved his life weighs on his conscience, and the reluctant attraction he felt for her in Hong Kong still lingers in his mind.
There is nothing extraordinary about the plot of Written on Your Skin – it’s pretty standard historical romance fare. It is well-executed and almost perfectly balanced. I had some brief concerns about it dragging during a section where Mina us under Phin’s control and Phin suspects her of being in league with Ridland – hero/heroine power struggles are a delicate area for me and suspicious heroes are such a staple of mediocre romance that I was hoping this aspect of the story would be resolved quickly. It was. The rest of the book was largely a road romance, as Mina and Phin try to track down and save Mina’s mother. I don’t think of myself as having a particular affinity for road romances, but on reflection I think I do. There are so many possibilities that arise from having the hero and heroine uprooted from their everyday surroundings, and you utilize that aspect of the story very well.
What really worked for me in Written on Your Skin is the beautiful prose and especially the extraordinary characterization. Prose and characterization are inextricably linked in my mind – I suppose you can have fine prose and still have bland characterization, but I think it’s pretty impossible to have exceptional characterization without superior prose. In WOYS you have both, and that is what lifts it from the status of a good book to a great one.
Phin and Mina are remarkable characters. Phin was born to the aristocracy but always existed as a bit of an outsider, due to his Irish heritage and his wastrel father. He found a mentor at an early age who welcomed Phin into his family and taught him cartography. But even this positive development ended up having a dark side: it was the mentor and Phin’s mapmaking skill that caused Ridland to take an interest in him.
Phin has tried to settle into the life of an Earl and forget his past. But he is essentially consumed with self-loathing about the things he did during his career as a spy. He feels like a murderer and suffers from panic attacks. He reminded me a bit of Samuel from Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, not only in his feelings of shame and inadequacy but in his nascent attempts to court the daughter of his recently deceased mentor, a move he seems to feel would help cleanse him of his sins (as well as perhaps bring him closer to being the son of a man he regarded as a father). Phin’s anguish and guilt are real and devastatingly rendered.
If Phin is a wonderfully drawn character, Mina is even more so. She may have vaulted onto my list of favorite romance heroines of all time.
Mina is an American, daughter of a long-dead American father and an English mother who has tried, mostly without success, to instill in her only child strict English notions of propriety. Mina’s childhood was traumatic due to her mother’s weak character and marriage to Mr. Collins, an Irish-American businessman of shadowy ties and brutal tendencies, a marriage that forces Mina to assume the role of protector and comforter at a young age:
But as she drew a breath to start the routine-‘reassurances (he did not mean it), denials (he will not leave you), promises (he will never leave you), for God’s sake all the manufactured optimism, the lies-‘she could not muster much feeling beyond exhaustion. You are not meant to cry in my arms, she thought. You are my mother. I am meant to cry in yours.
Mina and her mother were able to escape Collins back in Hong Kong four years before, but not without acquiring scars, both physical and emotional. She has since flourished as a businesswoman in New York, formulating and selling hair tonics and enjoying her independence. A trip to England, in part to procure lavender for her tonics, turns into a nightmare for Mina when Collins escapes from prison and Mina’s mother disappears.
What did I love about Mina? Where to start? She is a beautiful woman who is not shy about using her beauty to achieve her goals. She’s managed to turn the tables on the condescending men she encounters in business and society by playing the role of the brainless and helpless beauty who is unthreatening and in need of their aid. She had previously successfully played this role with Phin, and though the mask slipped a bit at the end, when they are reunited he is still not sure about Mina’s true nature. In fact, the first time they encounter each other in London, she rather amusingly throws herself into his arms and begs his aid with the air of one who cannot imagine that a man would not help her, a ruse that might have worked had Phin been less suspicious due to Ridland’s involvement.
Mina has every bit as much emotional baggage as Phin does, though ultimately I think she is stronger emotionally and better able to carry it. The main impediment to love for her is trust – she has watched her mother subvert her own character to a man’s will, and she vows that she will never do the same. Mina’s mother is on stage for relatively brief portions of the book, but I found myself resenting her for the damage she had done to her daughter. I was that attached to Mina, whose character is aptly described here, in her own thoughts:
She lifted her chin as she walked, the better to display the line of her neck, which a number of gentlemen had assured her put them in mind of a swan’s. Surely it would prove harder on the conscience to hurt a swan than a hedgehog, although she could use a few sharp quills right now, and the helpful capacity to curl into a bristling ball.
Mina is both a beautiful swan and an impenetrable and prickly hedgehog; she’s also at times a roaring tigress, as well as perhaps a few other denizens of the animal kingdom. She’s not a perfect romance heroine, at least not in the traditional sense: she’s not beloved by servants and kind to small children. She’s also not a new-school kickass heroine, operating at all times without fear or error. She’s beautiful and smart and tough, and she uses all of these attributes to get through life.
This book is tangentially related to your June release, Bound by Your Touch, and it’s interesting to read Phin’s thoughts on that book’s hero, his friend Viscount Sanburne:
It would be a simple thing to put his curiosity to rest. I stole things. I killed people. And I drew a few maps. But it had occurred to Phin that the viscount was too bored to receive these tidings with the proper revulsion. He might see them as novel options for keeping himself occupied.
So often the heroes of related historical romances are portrayed as blood brothers, almost platonic soulmates. It was actually refreshing to read, from Phin’s perspective, that he finds Sanburne’s laconic jokester persona wearing at times.
Being that Phin is a wonderful character and Mina is a wonderful character, it makes sense that I found myself very emotionally invested in their romance. Their relationship, is, in the end, wildly romantic. Both have fears to overcome; neither is entirely reasonable at times (I found myself siding with Mina more often than not, perhaps because her independence makes her a sympathetically though not unrealistically modern heroine). Written on Your Skin is my favorite type of romance, one in which the obstacles to lasting love are relatively equal on each side, and the hero and heroine thus have to take an equal number of steps to come together.
Okay, I find that I still have about 30 bookmarks I haven’t gone through yet, but I don’t want to spoil the book for readers. Rather I want to urge them to run, not walk to their nearest bookstore and pick up a copy of Written on Your Skin. My grade (one I’ve managed to talk myself into in the course of writing this review): A+.
This book can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or in ebook format from Sony on July 28, 2009, or other etailers.
I *loved* Bound by Your Touch. I can’t wait for this one, though I don’t know if I’ll read it right away, because then it will be a long, long wait for the next Duran.
I really enjoy this in connected books, as well.
Written on Your Skin is my favorite of Meredith’s books so far. I *adored* Phin and Mina. This book is way up there on my list of my favorite books of the year.
I can’t wait for this book come out!!!!
Meredith’s words are like poetry. This book had me in tears.
The first love scene between Phin and Mina had me blushing. That doesn’t happen that often.
I am halfway through Bound by Your Touch and so far I love every page. Sanburne is quite the typical bored to his eyeballs historical hero, but the couple’s interaction so far is splendid. I believe in their attraction to each other – and the author’s way of showing Lydia melting to his advances is again, believable. I could feel their gravitational pull towards each other.
And frankly I’m not a fan of historicals that brings outside influences like Egypt and pashas and sheiks and whathaveyou into it – but Duran manages to keep me from being bored and reading word by word when usually I would have skipped a dozen pages by now. Remarkable how she uses the heroine’s father’s business as a driving plot in the book yet the historical and business aspects of it does not distract from the romance. I am reading romance – not a history textbook and I love that.
I have to say if she does great endings, Duran might be my new fave historical romance author.
This bored reader suddenly has a few books to look forward to.
I have to be honest here and say that the book didn’t wow me. I’m sure that my dislike for spy romances was part of my not enjoying it more. I did like Mina a lot, and found her to be very interesting. But sadly the rest of the book, while well-written, didn’t affect me the way Duke of Shadows did (I’ve not read Bound by your Touch – which, btw, I think affected my perceptions. There were things I could tell had been discussed elsewhere that I was missing, and I thought that was detrimental to my experience with the book.) For me though, the prose just didn’t have those moments that made me stop and stare, except one, the whole scene where Phin realizes he was wrong about Mina and he starts to open up. It was a nice a turning point as I’ve ever read in a romance.
Hopefully BBYT will be more my cup of tea. I ended up giving WOYS a B.
Bound by your Touch was a wall banger for me so I won’t be buying Duran again.
I enjoyed Written on Your Skin so much more than BBYT. I thought BBYT was trying a little too hard to be complex (if that makes sense?). I felt the connection between Phin and Mina much, much more.
I just finished Bound By Your Touch yesterday, noticed Written on Your Skin was due for release tomorrow, checked on line and discovered it was at my nearest Chapters, stopped on the way home to pick it up, didn’t see it on the shelves so asked the clerk if he could get it for me in the back.
He did and I can hardly wait to start it!!
I can’t wait to download this one tomorrow morning.
These are the sorts of little details that make a characterization come alive for me. They are small things, but they give a character depth.
Let us know what you think when and if you do get to it. The h/h are very different from Phin and Mina, and a bit less original, from my POV, though I did like them a lot.
Do you mind if I ask what made it a wall-banger for you?
I liked them both a lot but WoYS definitely had a stronger effect on me. I agree about the connection between Phin and Mina.
KristieJ, there’s nothing like having a book fall into your hands like that, almost unexpectedly (okay, kind of OT, but it reminds me of a dream I had years ago where I found a bookstore that had all of these Kinsale titles I’d never heard of. It was one of the best dreams I ever had – until I woke up!).
Sorry, I realise now that I could have explained why it was a wall banger for me and that the blunt statement I made comes across as aggressive sounding.
In short, this book is aimed at the US market and the use of modern United Statesian (?) expressions of speech really put me off. I think the author was a bit lazy as some of the expressions were really 21st Century, not 19th.
I bought WOYS this past weekend and am really looking forward to it since I enjoyed BBYT so much. BBYT is complex, but the challenge was worth it. I adore an author who doesn’t talk down to her readers, so this promises to be a treat.
I pre-ordered from Fictionwise, so after 9 pm last night on the west coast I was able to download the book. Now it’s sitting on my ipod touch, calling to me as I settle in for a boring day at work. Do I read it immediately or enjoy some delayed gratification?
And as Babz mentioned, this is an author so good that you read every single word. You can’t cruise through a Meredith Duran book, and you shouldn’t want to.
Meredith is IT.
I loved WOYS so this was an auto-buy (and, yes, I’m very much enjoying my rentry into historicals!). My husband knows tonight is a “do not disturb the wife” night. Kind of like when there’s a baseball game or football game or hockey game or . . . whatever-sport game he really, really needs to watch.
Okay, duh, I meant I loved Bound by Your Touch and WOYS was the auto-buy. Must needs afternoon coffee.
What a terrific review. I have wanted to read this book since I first heard about it last year (along with BBYT). Your review just ratcheted up the anticipation. I enjoyed BBYT but didn’t LOVE it. I think I’m going to LOVE WOYS – at least I hope so!
Downloaded this today for my Kindle. Looking forward to the read!
I’m curious as to why BBYT and WoYS were released back to back. Can anyone explain the reasoning behind that, from a marketing standpoint?
Mind you I’m not complaining…I loved BBYT and will pick up WoYS as soon as my paycheck goes through…
@JennyME: I don’t know that much about it, and I think others might know more, but it’s a marketing strategy for paperback books. I first noticed it when Naomi Novik’s first three Temeraire series books were each released one month after the other. Apparently it was successful in raising readers’ awareness of Novik, because it became more popular after that. I think the concept is that if you release another book while the previous one is still on readers’ minds, they will be more likely to purchase it.
Just finished this one and . . . hmm . . . I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. Here’s the thing–I love, love, love Meredith Duran’s writing and I thought BBYT was exceptional. And WOYS is so well written, it’s not accurate to just come out and say I didn’t like it because I did on many levels.
Part of my problem is that I found Mina and Phin difficult to like and I’m not sure why exactly. They were both really well drawn and I normally love heroines like Mina, but honestly, for the first half of the book, she grated on my nerves, as did Phin. I understood why they were drawn that way, given the backstories, but I just didn’t buy that these characters needed to be that distrustful or that tortured. This part of the characterization seemed out of proportion to their individual traumas. (If I’m being too vague, it’s because I’m trying not to give away specifics.)
That said, once Mina and Phin finally got together, the book was so much better. The characters are a matched pair in so many ways and I truly enjoyed the way Phin comes to accept Mina as an equal. It was not so much a revelation for him as a journey and it was very well done. Ditto with the way the author handled Mina’s acceptance of Phin.
The “who’s the traitor” intrigue was more of a distraction than it needed to be, I thought. I didn’t mind the Egyptian intrigue in BBYT because it seemed to hover in the background without obscuring the relationship between the h/h. Here, the spy story was a little more prominent and maybe, because of my initial dislike of the h/h, it bothered me more.
I’d give this a B/B-, on the strength of (a) the writing and (b) the second half of the book. I have a feeling that this is the kind of book that would probably be better on a re-read.
This is Meredith Duran’s best book yet. Phin and Mina felt very real to me, not just characters. With each book I’ve been more and more entranced by her ability to tell a story that entertains but touches your heart at the same time. I’m unsure of a way to describe my overriding feeling but this book feels intimate. It’s like you’re there, invisible, and you’re a witness to this intense, moving love story. Her writing is, I believe, what every fledgling writer should aspire to. WOYS is in my top five books this year and Ms Duran is now an autobuy.
The only thing I really noticed in reading this book that set it apart from books about American heorines in England is that the American heroine actually acted like an American. I can;t think of any phrases that stuck out at me for being 21st century, except one thing that I reread adn realized I had misread the wording. I can;t tell you how many books I have read about American heroine’s that leave me shacking my head because they have it all wrong, I LOVED the scene where Phin says “you’re one of those Yanks” and Mina says something along the lines of “in New York we don’t recognize forigen titles.”
Of course having said that I am only half way through and getting a little bored. I agree that the writing is leaps ahead of so much coming out now, and for someone who usualy shys away from non virgin heroines in historicals I don’t really care about that in Mina’s case since the it’s believable in Mina’s case. Still I just don’t know I feel like I’m missing something, like is the case in most cabin and road romances where the heorine and hero are seperated from the outside world, and that’s effecting me here I think. Anyway, from other posts I believe it’s going to improve.
This one worked better for me than BBYT but neither one of them reached the heights of DOS for me. *sigh*
I found this book very nearly unreadable. Yes, Ms. Duran is a notch above many writers in this genre and I don’t wince at her prose. But, that was the only redeeming grace of this book for me. I found both protagonists unfathomable and unbearable — and perilously close to TSTL at more than one point. I’m sorry, but complexity for complexity’s sake is tedious. Page after page of navel-gazing angst with no legitimate source or purpose that I could discern. Ugh. Where were they going? What were they doing? Why? None of it was very clear or compelling. I just wanted it to be over.
I think it is the one of the first times that my grade for a book has not been consistent with the Dear Author’s grade. While I did not find the book nearly unreadable (Ms. Duran is an exquisite and evocative writer), my problem with the book can be summed up in one word – MINA!
Mina, the heroine, was just too much of everything and, as a package, it was not very appealing, for me at least. Her constant manipulations (which could change over the course of a short conversation or interaction), her self-possession, her judgements . . . just grated. I found myself rolling my eyes more often than not as she flitted from one persona to another in a heartbeat, none of them being particularly compelling. By the half-way point of the book, I could feel neither sympathy nor admiration for her, and I thought that Phin got the bum’s rush in the heroine department. Their HEA, for me, felt hollow and unsustainable in the long term.
Also, the over-abundance of internal dialogue grew a bit tiresome, particularly since I found a lot of it did not add increased depth to either character or their motivations.
I really liked Bound by Your Touch and was looking forward to Phin’s story. Sadly, for me, WOYS was a let down for me after BBYT.
Mim, I have occasionally read books that I felt that way about – the characters were so angsty (which I normally love), but it felt so contrived to me that I couldn’t muster any sympathy for them and ended up just wanting to tell them to snap out of it, already.
I’m sorry WOYS didn’t work for you – obviously, we had very different reactions. Have you read Duran’s other books? Maybe she’s just not the author for you.
dreamweaver, I really loved Mina so I can’t relate to the way you felt about her. I don’t think I can articulate why she worked for me. I think Duran’s abilities with prose and characterization have something to do with it, though. I love the idea of difficult heroines, but am sometimes iffy on the execution – then I feel bad for not having a higher tolerance for obnoxiousness in heroines, since we romance readers have had to put up with so much obnoxiousness from heroes. So when one does work for me, she really works – I appreciate that Duran was able to make Mina flawed but still so sympathetic and lovable (to me, I mean). It’s kind of thrilling to me to be able to love a heroine like Mina, and I think she’s a large part of the reason I loved the book so much.
At least, knowing you like Duran’s writing, there’s every chance that you’ll like her next book – her h/h are not cookie-cutter, I don’t think, and so I doubt we’ll see another Mina from her.
For the most part, I like the idea of difficult heroines and, generally, have a pretty high tolerance for obnoxiousness in heroines. As a matter of fact, I might be more inclined to toss a book with an overly-obnoxious hero before one with an obnoxious heroine. So, I was somewhat surprised that Mina grated so much for me. Maybe it’s because we were in her head so much Who knows?
In spite of how I felt about WOYS, I will read her next book.
I just finished reading this and I while I wouldn’t say it was unreadable I found it boring as hell. The fact that spies and road romances aren’t high on my list certainly didn’t help.
I love angst, so I had high hopes for this and I have a high tolerance or better said expectation for introspection, but the prose that seems to work so well for most of you was mostly impenetrable to me. I started by thinking ‘I have no idea what this sentence/paragraph/page is supposed to mean’ and ended with ‘I wish she’d just say what happened to these people without all these ‘clever’ allusions and the obscure ornamental phrasing’.
I agree with Mim, it definitely felt like complexity for complexity’s sake and I got a whiff of ‘look how smart I can write’. Guess I wasn’t smart enough to follow. Really disagreeable experience and since I didn’t care much for BBYT either, I guess it’s safe to say that Duran is not for me.
Too bad, I’d really love to read a new book that grabs me by the throat like so many of my keepers do. In the meantime I guess I’ll be re-reading some oldies.
I’ve been meaning to re-read ‘Silk and Secrets’, which is one of my all-time favorites and now that I think about it is both a road romance and has a bit of a spy plot line it it… which just goes to show that if the story and writing speak to the reader, anything goes.
I just finished this book yesterday, and I have to say that I found it sooo boring. I was interested when I read the backstory on the characters, and I thought that a the whole spy business would give the romance a bit of excitement . BUT, the action moved way too slow for my taste.
I liked the characters, and is not that I’m against a certain amount of angst. In the right amount, it can give the characters a great deal of depth. It also helps to see the relationship grow and develop. But in this case, I found the internal dialogue to be excessive, repetitive and distracting. I tended to skip pages and pages, waiting for something to happen.
I read BBYT, and I had the same feelings about it (too much internal dialogue, not enough action), but I decided to give this one a try after reading the review. I guess I won’t be picking up another book by this author.
I purchased this book based on the review (once I could find it!) and I’m so glad. I loved it – and I’m normally one to shy away from historical fiction. I adored that she’s NOT a virgin, but not as ‘worldly’ as she thinks either. That he’s not the typical rake/man to be reformed. That they don’t overly dwell on past, but do face it to address their futures. Oh… just loved it!
It was so full of great lines and passages I had to re-read like
Yeah. I loved. That the majority of novel is really just the two of them, that their angsty issues weren’t totally over the top/blown up, and really just everything. Will be checking out Meredith Duran again FOR SURE.
runnergirl, I’m definitely more prose-oriented than action-oriented (though that said, I sometimes forget how absorbing well-written action can be!), so the pace and the internal dialogues didn’t bother me. These are all things that I could see being annoyed with if a book weren’t really well-written and well-characterized – but since I thought WOYS was, it just wasn’t an issue for me.
May, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I hope you like her other books – this was my favorite so far but the other two are quite good.
I was not impressed by this book. The writing seemed forced and heavy-handed, and the characters just weren’t engaging or believable, especially in their motivations. More thorough editing might have made it clearer; there were some odd jumps that perhaps were due to rewrites. Not for me…
Fantastic article post.Thanks Again. Fantastic.