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review 2014-01-20 17:06
I Hit The Ridiculousness Threshold and Have No More Shits to Give
Voyager - Diana Gabaldon

Last week when I posted my review of Outlander, I wondered whether it would be smart to press on with the series in one massive reading binge, or whether, due to their epic length and the difficult emotional content, it would be smarter to take them slowly... as if I could. A longstanding joke in my family is that I was absent the day they handed out will power, and sure enough, even as I knew it would probably be too much for me emotionally, I devoured Dragonfly in Amber and then Voyager. And maybe it was too much of a good thing, or maybe it was just that I hit a wall and had no more empathy to waste on Jamie and Claire and their endless trevails, but I reached a point midway in this book where I just could not willingly suspend my disbelief any longer.  


I'm not sure what happened. Having finished Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, I was already well used to the endless cycle of Jamie and/or Claire finding themselves in mortal peril with no way out, only they do get out, celebrate their narrow escape with sexy times, and then shortly find themselves in mortal peril again. I'd suspended my disbelief quite a bit, and was just enjoying the ride.


Back in December 2011, the DBSA Romance Fiction Podcast (hosted by Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Jane Litte of Dear Author) had an episode about the Ridiculousness Threshold -- that point at which the reader can no longer accept character or plot insanity and no longer enjoys the book. For me, I hit the Ridiculousness Threshold the moment Laoghaire's daughter walks in on Jamie going down on Claire

and calls him "Daddy!"

(spoiler show)


After that, no matter how I tried, I could not silence my inner skeptic. Almost every twist and turn of the convoluted plot made me roll my eyes and think, "Oh, for f***'s sake, seriously?" The entire rest of the book is one absolutely ridiculous coincidence after another, and even in a series where I was willing to believe in time travel and the main characters' repeated skin-of-the-teeth survival against all odds, I just could not believe in pirates and slasher-killers and secret babies and zombies and shipwrecks and all of the rest of the insanity writ large over the 870 pages of this book. 


And you know, the hell of it is that even though I'm totally done, and can't shut up my inner critic enough to enjoy reading, I still want to know what happens to Jamie and Claire next. Maybe I can find some Cliffs Notes. 


Let's call this P is for Pilgrims (the story involves moving someplace new) in Sock Poppet's 2014 A to Z Reading Challenge, since by the end Jamie and Claire seem on the verge of settling in colonial America. 


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review 2013-10-07 02:04
Disappointed by a Favorite Author
The Untamed Mackenzie - Jennifer Ashley

Jennifer Ashley's Mackenzie series has been one of my favorites for a long time, so I preordered this novella and was excited when it showed up on my Kindle, but I found it really, really disappointing.


My first objection is the fact that it's a novella. Police Inspector Lloyd Fellows has been a constant presence throughout the whole series. He is the half-brother of Hart, Cameron, Ian, and Mac, all of whom got their own full-length novels. The fact that he only rates a novella is insulting, as if he's less than the others because of his bastardy.


Second, throughout the series Fellows has been a dedicated officer of the law, a man of honor and integrity. Now, here he is falsifying evidence, lying to his colleagues and superiors, lying to his supposed beloved. It's very out of character for the man we've come to know over the course of the previous books, and this kind of behavior cheapens him. The story offers an excuse for him to behave this way, but frankly it wasn't enough: the Fellows I thought I knew would have found another way, or been way, way more tortured about playing fast and loose with the truth the way he does here.


Louisa, the heroine, didn't really seem fully formed as a character. She was trapped in a bad situation, but there wasn't much else to her: I didn't really understand her history or motivations, and I didn't feel like I knew her well enough to accept that she'd throw away her dreams of a proper marriage within her own social strata to be with Fellows just because she's got a case of hornypants. I don't mind romances across class or social strata, but in order for me to believe it and buy into the happy ever after, I have to believe that the characters have contemplated the consequences of bucking convention and decided that their love is worth all cost. I'm not convinced Louisa did that, and so I don't trust the HEA ending.

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review 2013-10-06 19:28
Trouble Turning Off the Inner Skeptic
About That Night - Julie James

I had a really hard time tuning out my Inner Skeptic as I read this. Kyle and Rylann (pet peeve: characters with names I can't pronounce) met nine years ago at a bar in grad school. They made a date, but Kyle's mom died and he couldn't keep it. Somehow, they both still remember the night they met after all this time.


Fast forward to present day: Rylann is an ambitious federal prosecutor who has just relocated to Chicago after breaking up with the guy she thought she'd marry. She is organized and driven and likes to make Life Plans. Kyle is a computer genius who got dumped, got drunk, and hacked into Twitter, shutting it down for two days and breaking a slew of Federal laws. He's just been released from jail because his sister cooperated with the FBI in exchange for a reduction in his sentence... something Rylann says out loud in court during Kyle's re-sentencing hearing.


That's when my Inner Skeptic started to cringe. I'm a prosecutor, too, and when prosecutors say in open court, on the record, "So-and-so cooperated with the cops," So-and-so runs an unreasonably high risk of winding up dead. The identity of a cooperating witness would never be so cavalierly exposed.


The main romantic conflict between the couple is that, as a big shot Assistant U.S. Attorney, Rylann just can't date an ex-con, especially not a hacker ex-con like Kyle. And that's true: she can't. She'd lose the respect of her boss and coworkers, the cops and agents she works with, the defense attorneys she goes up against. She'd probably lose whatever security clearance she has as a Federal employee, and then she'd lose her job. Someone as driven and ambitious as Rylann would never, ever risk it... But of course she does, and of course the fallout is nothing like as bad as she'd feared, and they all live HAE.


I call bullshit.

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review 2013-10-06 15:00
The Mackenzie Series has Jumped the Shark
The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie (Mackenzies Series) - Jennifer Ashley

I loved the first four books of this series, the ones that focus on the original four Mackenzie brothers: Hart, Mac, Cameron, and Ian. Later books in the series focus on more distant relations (this one is about Cameron's oldest son, Daniel), and like Stephanie Laurens' Bar Cynster series, things are getting ridiculous. 


The main problem with this book is that the plot tries to do way too much. Part of that is a function of the series: every time Ashley brings back a character we know from previous books, she writes a summary of their backstory to remind us about them. It would have been better to forego these reminders, because those of us who know the series mostly don't need our memories jogged, and those who pick up this book as a stand-alone don't need to know the backgrounds of minor characters in order to understand this plot, and so either way, it's distracting. 


The other part of it is that the plot of this story is just too ambitious. Violet, the heroine, has a tortured past, and when Daniel learns her secret, he vows to avenge her. This means hunting down and revenging not one, but two men. This is a tall order, and one he doesn't actually get started on until the last 15% of the book. Meanwhile, Violet is nearly violated again by a third man, but luckily she doesn't even bother to tell Daniel about that, because if she had, surely he'd try to hunt him down, too. Also, Daniel seems to suffer cardiac arrest the way some of the women of the era suffered fainting spells, and though the story finds him twice on the very brink of death, the plot barrels along without dwelling either on his injuries or his recovery, as if restarting his heart were as easy as passing smelling salts under his nose. The plot is so inflated that conflicts arise and are left without resolution, simply because there isn't time to follow up all the loose ends. In addition to the unavenged near-rape of the heroine, there is a scene where Violet watches Daniel enter a carriage with a passel of courtesans (he has a chaste excuse, but Violet doesn't know that) and she is distraught at his faithlessness, but the next time she sees him, she doesn't give any indication that she knows or was hurt by his betrayal. Huh? I'd have thought Ashley just forgot about writing that scene, except that it does get mentioned again, in passing, near the end of the book. 


Finally, I get frustrated by books where the tension between the main characters could be easily resolved if they'd just have a conversation. This is such a story. Daniel decides relatively early on that Violet is The One, but he doesn't tell her, so she reasonably assumes (given that he's an aristocratic heir to a fortune and she's a lower middle-class fortune teller) that their relationship is just a dalliance on his part. I found myself frustrated by the misunderstandings that ensued, until I thought, "He needs to tell her. It's not as if she's a mind-reader." -And then I thought (since she makes her living as a spiritualist) with a chuckle, "Well, actually, she kind of is." Oops. 

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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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