Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Oh Aye, I love a man in a kilt....

And here it is, my first review of the new year!  Reading a book in four days?  That is a trend I hope to continue.  To be fair, this one went down as fast and easy as a bottle of Jameson does for an Irishman.  I bought this book before Thanksgiving, and it's been staring at me for the last month, waiting for me to finish the Black Dagger Brotherhood series.  Then I forced it wait another two weeks, promising it would be first on my list for the new year.  I kept my promise, and I have to say, the anticipation was worth the wait.

Now, with a bit of blush, I'll admit I have a bit of a thing for the so-called kilt-lifter subgenre of romance.  Come on, kilts are sexy as hell, and having been to Scotland once, I am bound and determined to return as often as possible in my life.  My husband would laugh, pointing out that Scotland and Germany have a lot in common, both in the temperament of their people and the cultural urge to pickle themselves with liquified barley and wheat.  So there is a strong appeal to my fantastically romantic side for both countries.

The Sinner by Margaret Mallory is the second book in The Return of the Highlanders series.  I read the first one either towards the end of summer, or just at the beginning of fall.  I had picked it up originally, looking for a fluff novel to read while on vacation.  Then shortly after starting it, I became engrossed with the characters and setting, and got really excited that the second one was coming out in November.  As mentioned above, it got pushed off a bit, as I was a little entrenched with the badass vampires of BDB.  Now that I have finished it, I am more than a little grumpy that I have to wait until this November to get the next one, and March of next year for the final one.

The series is set on the Isle of Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides and the traditional home of the Lord of the Isles.  It is 1515, just two years after the crippling defeat at Flodden by Henry VIII.  The whole of Scotland is in disarray, and we find ourselves joining in with a band of young men who are trying to reclaim their lands and set their clan to rights.  Alex MacDonald is cousin to the chieftain of clan MacDonald of Sleat. He is notorious throughout the Highlands as a man who will sleep with any willing woman, and proudly boasts that he will never marry.  Unfortunately, Fate and his chieftain have other ideas.

As a bid to help secure the aid and goodwill of another chieftain from the Outter Hebrides, Alex is asked to marry Glynis MacNeil.  Glynis has been married once, and refuses to ever do so again after the humiliation and abuse she suffered previously.  Alex's smooth ways and infamous reputation do little to win her over.  However, his past sins force the two of them into an unlikely marriage; the question is, will it last?  (A more in-depth review of the plot can be found here).

I'll grant you, it has all the hallmarks of a cheesy fluff romance novel.  Somehow, though, the author rises above it all.  The characters are well-rounded and fully present.  They have distinct voices, and realistic strengths and weaknesses.  The setting is rich, and often calls on actual historical people and events (or legends).  Alex has genuine fear of marriage, based on his own childhood misery; Glynis is serious-natured and sharp-tongued, but she only wants the kind of marriage her own parents had.  There are a few plot twists, which add a nice complexity to the story, keeping it from being too fantastic or boring.

Here's the only annoyance I have with the whole thing, and it's the cover.  The cover is symptomatic for the rest of the genre.  Romance as a genre, does not take itself seriously; more often than not, the entire genre is written off by society at large.  It is usually seen as literature written purely for women's sensibilities and full of outrageous plots that sound like something out of a soap opera.  Here's the thing though; by and large, the stories are just as complex as anything in the fantasy and sci-fi genre, and just as dramatic and meaningful as anything in the rest of the fiction section.  As a readership, the romance genre has very intelligent, discerning, and witty fans.  Why it continues to be disregarded I think rests solely on the premise that has to do with sex, love, and our societies taboos about sex and love.

Not to put it mildly, but American society has a hard time talking about sex.  Actually, let me refine that.  Our society, in general, has a hard time discussing meaningful sex and real relationships.  The thing is, real relationships take work; meaningful sex is a byproduct of that work.  We are awfully Victorian in our view of sex- it can be objectified and seen anywhere, but it cannot be discussed in any intensity for any length of time; to talk about it would mean having to acknowledge it and be responsible about it.  For this reason, we still have Victorian views of romance novels; the romance novels of the 19th century were a whole lot of flowery words and idealized emotions, with none of the hard work to attain those rarefied moments.

Like any good story, a romance novel should make you think; you should be asking yourself how you are similar to the characters, or how your reactions would be different.  They should expand your view of the world, and your place in it.  Brainiac that I am, it bugs me to no end that the covers of most romance novels pander to society's base perceptions of sex and love; we should want to hear stories of love and relationship-building, be inspired by the characters to be better husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, siblings, cousins, and friends.  A hunky man on the cover of a romance book is more likely to have me looking for something else to read.  I don't need a publisher's idea of what I might find sexy glaring at me from my nightstand.  Give me a real cover, like you would have for anything else found in any other genre.  Don't try to pander to me.  Either I'm going to want to read the book because it appeals to me intellectually and emotionally (you know, the driving reasons as to why I read), or I'm going to move on to something that does hit those two spots.  If I wanted to stare at half-naked men, there are other places and ways I can do that.  Don't belittle me with your Victorian notion of whatever flowery ideal you think I want.

Ok, I think I'm done with the soapbox.  For the moment.  I might break it out again.....

Despite the irritation and rankling the cover of the book brings to me, the story itself is a good one.  The people in it are true to life; the writing is very good.  I think the author's underlying point is very well illustrated- a healthy, functioning relationship hinges on honest communication and trust.  I don't think enough of us act on that truism, and I don't just mean in our romantic relationships.  This axiom is true for any interaction between two or more people; it may seem difficult to do, but like any habit or skill, practice makes perfect.

Though I may have to grit my teeth in frustration about having to wait till the fall for the next one in this series, I am going to keep myself in the same geographical area with the next book.  For the first time in several months, I'm going to read a non-fiction book (ugh, the reality of it all!).  Many thanks to my friend Hop for the gift; it is now book number two on this year's reading list!  After that, I have a two-book series that a friend lent me; I believe it pertains to the Viking-held Orkneys, so the geography still won't change much.  Mmmm, Scotland......

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed my first rant review of the year.  I can only hope the next 49 are just as amusing for you!

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