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text SPOILER ALERT! 2013-10-14 20:42
Lorraine Heath: Skirting the Edge of Squick
Between the Devil and Desire - Lorraine Heath
Lord of Wicked Intentions - Lorraine Heath
In Bed With the Devil (Avon Romantic Treasure) - Lorraine Heath
Texas Glory - Lorraine Heath
Texas Destiny - Lorraine Heath

Before I started reviewing the romance novels I read, I rarely thought about them for more than ten seconds after turning the last page, and often everything about the book would fly out of my head except for a vague positive or negative impression of the book, series, or author. So it is with Lorraine Heath: I've been reading her historical romance novels for years, with a generally favorable impression, but only the in the last few months have I noticed a pattern: a lot of her plots tread uncomfortably close to my personal squick threshold. 


Now, no doubt everyone has their own personal point at which something becomes too icky for enjoyment, and also perhaps that point changes over time. For example, I know I'm a lot more sensitive to issues of nonconsent and violence now that I'm a domestic violence prosecutor than I was when I was prosecuting DUIs. I imagine someone who has been raped, or is close to someone who has, might be a lot less tolerant of old skool bodice rippers than she might have been prior to that experience. Likewise, someone whose lover is unfaithful might have even less patience than the average reader with infidelity tropes. 


At any rate, I hadn't realized it until just now, but Lorraine Heath seems to have real talent for developing dramatic conflict that makes me very uncomfortable, but which usually does not cross the line where, for me, that discomfort reduces my enjoyment of a book. Some examples:


Lord of Wicked Intentions: The heroine's brother auctions off her virginity to settle his gambling debts. She thinks she's being introduced to potential husbands, and doesn't learn the truth until the winner, the hero, gets her home and tells her she's essentially a sex slave. Luckily, there's no forced seduction, and he undergoes a really emotionally satisfying redemptive character arc before the happy ever after, but there's no escaping the fact that the heroine doesn't have any real choice in becoming his lover.


In Bed with the Devil (Scoundrels of St. James, #1): The hero is in love with and hopes to marry someone else, but she, a commoner, is intimidated by his social standing (an Earl) and refuses his suit. In exchange for a helluva giant favor, the heroine agrees to give his would-be fiancee lessons in joining the aristocracy so that she will agree to marry the hero. Of course, the hero and heroine fall in love and start screwing around, and only the fact that the would-be fiancee knows she and the hero don't suit saves the hero's infidelity from seeming as reprehensible as, rationally, I know it is. 


Between the Devil and Desire (Scoundrels of St. James, #2): The hero's mother sold him to a child molester when he was five. When he grows up, he unexpectedly is named the guardian to another five year old boy when the boy's father, a duke, passes away. Having had no real relationship with the duke, the hero believes for a time that the duke was the guy who diddled him, but it turns out the duke was actually his father. Of course, he learns this after he has married the duke's widow. That's right: he marries his stepmother and becomes stepfather to his own half-brother. Kind of gross, eh?


Texas Destiny (Texas #1): I really love this book. It makes you feel all the feelz, but the dramatic conflict, satisfying though it is, is pretty squicky. The heroine is a mail order bride who comes to Texas to marry the hero's brother. She and the hero fall in love on the long, treacherous trip from the train to the brother's very, very remote ranch, but the hero doesn't want to be the bastard who steals his brother's girl, so he lets her marry the brother anyway. -And they do marry, and it's totally worth reading the book to find out how they untangle that complication. 


Texas Glory (Texas #2): Don't feel too badly for the brother whose wife got stolen; he's wealthy enough that in the next book, he just buys himself another. That's right: the hero buys his bride from his enemy in exchange for giving water and grazing rights to her family. At the time, he thinks she's been disfigured by Indians and doesn't have a nose -- but he doesn't care, as long as her ladybits work and she can give him an heir. Thankfully, he's not as evil as the creepers in the family that sold her, so marrying the hero is actually as significant improvement in her circumstances. Also, imagine how liberating it must be to have a husband willing to marry you even believing you're hideously disfigured. He married her thinking she was missing half her face (she wasn't), so what's he going to care if she packs on some extra pounds as the years go by? 


I have about eight other books by Lorraine Heath on my kindle that I read a long while ago, and she's got others that I've never read, and now I'm fascinated to know if all of her books skirt so close to my squick threshold, and if any of them go over the line. 


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review SPOILER ALERT! 2013-10-09 01:19
When Will I Learn that I *Hate* Austen-Inspired "Spin Offs"?!
Austenland - Shannon Hale

I read this because it was the May selection of the Sizzling Book Club at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I was leery of the premise: Jane, a thirty-something New Yorker, frustrated in love, goes to a Jane Austen themed vacation park in Kent to try to get her Mr. Darcy obsession out of her system, the way listening to a song you've had in your head for days will sometimes help kill an earworm. I was right to be leery. I disliked virtually everything about this book.


To be fair, while I love Jane Austen, there are very few Austen "spin offs" that I've enjoyed. (The only exceptions that come to mind are the BBC's "Lost in Austen" miniseries of a few years back, and the Emma-inspired Clueless, both of which I found cleverly irreverent.) So, strike one against this book is the clumsy attempt to blend the mannerly comedy of Austen with the modern world. The residents at "Pembrook" (the Pemberley-esque manor where most of the story takes place) are meant to try to speak in proper Georgian English and follow the strict social rules of the era, but their efforts are read-out-loud awful. Also, even while Jane makes some half-hearted effort to speak as Austen's characters did, she makes no such effort with her internal monologue, and the result is jarring and distracting, though at least Jane (and presumably Ms. Hale) seems to know that and acknowledge the ridiculousness of it.


Worse, there is something really distasteful about the very idea of the Austenland vacation: women go on holiday to wear corsets and do needlework and have restrained flirtations with be-sideburned actors in topcoats and tails, all culminating in a ball and (hopefully) a proposal, and it's supposed to feel real enough to set the hardcore Austen romantic's heart all aflutter, but not so real that anyone actually forgets this is a vacation with paid actors and everyone's supposed to go home without bruised feelings (and of course without getting laid, because that's just vulgar). The layers upon layers of artifice and hypocrisy necessary to the premise made me so uncomfortable, and as the plot wore on, it just got worse and worse. Two examples (warning: Spoilers Ahead):


1) Shortly after arriving at Pembroke, Jane has a flirtation with Martin, a gardener on the estate. She feels the need to escape the corsets and manners and restrained conversation, and so sneaks off to the staff quarters and watches a Knicks game with Martin and they end up making out on his couch. She is initially delighted by this, returns several nights running for more heavy petting, thinks she's over her Darcy obsession already, and then abruptly wrecks it by getting into a pique with him when she thinks he's judging her for that very obsession. As a result, she ignores Martin for most of the rest of the book. Ignoring a gardener may have been socially appropriate, mannerly behavior in Jane Austen's world, but blowing off a man you've been almost intimate with in the present day is just evil. Then, not only does Jane ignore Martin, but she throws herself more deeply into the sanctioned flirtation with the buttoned-up, Darcy-like Mr. Nobley, like a high school girl trying get more attention from her would-be boyfriend by flirting openly with someone else (with equally predictable results). When the end of the book reveals that Martin is also a paid actor planted in case some of the Pembrook guests have the urge to "go slumming", rather than vindicating Jane's behavior to blow him off, it just makes everyone involved seem more skeevy.


2) One of the other guests, Miss Heartwright, develops a flirtation with Captain East (closely modeled after the plot of Austen's Persuasion). Jane isn't sure whether their romance is real or if it is just part of the act, and she worries for Miss Heartwright's emotions when the vacation ends if the romance turns out not to be genuine. When the masquerade ends, Jane is taken aback to learn that "Miss Heartwright" is a wealthy socialite from California who has been to Austenland four times on her husband's nickel, and that she employs an acting coach to make her performance more authentic. Icky-Squicky. 


As icky as it seems, Miss Heartwright's approach to the experience is at least less emotionally contrived: as a return visitor, she presumably knows better than Jane the rules and limits of the feigned romances. She doesn't get her heart involved, and she presumably doesn't seek to wring real attractions or emotions from the men around her. By contrast, Jane keeps seeking confirmation that the connections she makes with Martin and Mr. Nobley are real and genuine, which made me (the reader) uncomfortable because what possible good can come from making genuine emotional ties with paid actors in a situation so far removed from one's real life? No good can come of it, except to feed Jane's stunted ego.


It doesn't surprise me at all to learn that Shannon Hale mostly writes juvenile fiction, because throughout the book, Jane struck me as a very immature character. She has an adolescent's intense self-absorbtion coupled with a stunning lack of self-awareness.


I didn't find the Happy-Ever-After ending believable or satisfying at all; it was abrupt, sophomoric, and had a sloppy straight-to-DVD half-assery about it. (Speaking of straight-to-DVD: they've made this into a movie: I have ZERO interest in seeing it.) Nothing in the book indicates that Jane has really learned anything at all, so there's no good reason to believe that her next relationship will go any more smoothly than the umpteen disastrous relationships before it.



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review 2013-10-06 19:46
This Book Undermines My Faith in Humanity
Own the Wind (Chaos #1) - Kristen Ashley

This is one of those books that everyone loves but me. Usually I'm fine with that; it happens. Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath -- these are great works that I just didn't like at all. Sometimes, though, a book comes along that is so bad, so lacking in redemptive qualities, that the fact that so many other people like it seems like an assault on all I hold good and honest in the world. This is such a book.


Kristen Ashley is kind if a big deal in Romancelandia these days. This book in particular was really hyped. Read it, people said: Kristen Ashley has such a great voice, so different, so hot. Um, no. I read it, and that's six hours of my life that I'll never get back.

I should have known better. I looked at the Goodreads reviews before I read it, and I knew that among all of the book squee, the voices of the one- and two-star minority warned that this book is rife with all the things I can't stand: rampant sexism, poor plotting, crimes against grammar. I can't say I wasn't warned.


I hate this book. I hate Shy for being a violent, misogynistic ass. I hate Tabby for always bending over. I hate that women are described as either "bitches" (skanks whose purpose is recreational sex) or "old ladies" (the kind of girl you can settle down with, so long as she knows her place: i.e.,knows to shut up and not ask questions or express opinions). I hate that the women of Chaos can't join the Club of their own right and don't get their own bikes (or even get to drive). I hate that every time Tabby calls Shy on any issue in their relationship--from the major ("I'd rather you not beat the crap out of my boss, honey") to the minor ("how come you never help with the laundry, buddy?")--Shy's response is that she should suck it up because he gives good sex, and I hate that Tabby lets him pull that shit.


I hate the run on sentences and the incomprehensible dialogue and the hail of misplaced commas (I swear, Ms. Ashley must think she gets paid by the comma) and the rambling plot. I hate the cliffhanger-wrapped-in-a-cliché ending that deprives me of any sense of closure or accomplishment after I forced myself to finish this drivel.


I hate this book so much I'm tempted to argue with all the positive reviews, especially those who say that Shy is the shit, because actually, Shy is a shit, not the shit. But we are all entitled to our own opinions. I may be in the minority, but this is mine: 1/2 star.

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review 2013-10-05 01:08
Feminist Angel vs. Fantasy Devil: A very conflicting read!
Lord of Wicked Intentions - Lorraine Heath

You know how old movies and cartoons sometimes do that thing where there's an angel and a devil perched on a character's shoulders, urging the character in opposing sides of some dilemma? That was me reading this book. As I read, my sensitive-to-feminist-issues better angel kept whimpering, "This is not okay," while the just-caught-in-the-fantasy devil growled, "You're over thinking this. Just feel all the lovely, happy Feelings."

The premise has an off-the-charts high Ick Factor. Evelyn is the sheltered, pampered by blow of the Earl of Wortham and his long deceased mistress; when the earl dies, his son auctions Evelyn, and her virginity, off to the highest bidder. Only Evelyn doesn't get it: she thinks she's being introduced around as a potential bride (which, given the cruel way her brother treats her, makes her a little bit Too Stupid to Live).


Lord Rafe Easton is the highest bidder. We're meant not to hold this against him, because he's not as boorish and crude as the other gents, and because he's not actually paying money for her (just forgiving her brother's gambling debt). He is so offended by the spectacle of the auction that it almost seems that, by "rescuing" her, he is being noble. (Feminist Angel calls BS, because just like all the other men there, he intends to make Evelyn his mistress and not give her any say in the matter, so she has not been saved from sexual slavery: he's just a kinder, gentler Master than the alternatives.)


Early in their acquaintance, Rafe takes Evelyn to St. Giles to show her the extreme poverty and degradation there. (Feminist Angel cringes at the not-so-subtle "lesson" for Evelyn: isn't it better to be a whore for one man, in a clean, fancy house, than it is to whore for many in these dirty streets? But make no mistake, girl: your only choice is to get on your back.)


Then (because he has a Tortured Past, croons Fantasy Devil by way of excuse), Rafe has to counter every tender impulse he feels toward Evelyn, and every kindness she offers him, with a cruel, humiliating reminder that they are not lovers, he cannot love her, he will not give her the respectable life she craves: she is his mistress, he will use her when and how he wants until he's done with her, and so long as she toes the line and doesn't leave first, he'll make it worth her while by settling a house and fortune on her when he goes. Icky, Icky, Icky!

It is a testament to Lorraine Heath's skill as a storyteller that I didn't throw the book at the wall at the sensible urging of Feminist Angel. Because Fantasy Devil is right: despite the Ick Factor, this story is full of delicious, seductive, romantic, warm, fuzzy, gooey, melty Feelings. Rafe's character arc, overcoming his Tortured Past to learn how to love and be loved in return, is the kind of emotionally satisfying transformation we romance addicts live for. I didn't like Evelyn nearly as well--(she goes from being Too Stupid To Live at the start of the book to unrealistic Mary Sue perfection by the end, providing Rafe sublime sexual and emotional healing despite her total innocence)--but she does grow a bit of a backbone by the end, so I'll cut her some slack.


Whether you will enjoy this book may depend upon whether Feminist Angel or Fantasy Devil holds more sway with you. For me, Feminist Angel made me deeply uncomfortable with this book, but the notion of a benevolent Master holds some appeal, at least in fantasy, so I was able to enjoy the romance despite my discomfort. For others, Evelyn's lack of agency may be a hard limit.

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