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review 2013-10-07 00:43
Gorgeous Prose, but Too Rape-y and Old Skool For My Tastes
To Have and To Hold (Wyckerley Trilogy #2) - Patricia Gaffney

This is a beautifully written, terrible, infuriating story. I knew this was a controversial book when I picked it up, but it's also an influential book in the "romance canon," so I wanted to read it. There are a lot of blogs and articles out there hashing out the merits and moral failings of this book in a lot more detail than I have time to match here. The controversy stems from the fact that--(spoiler alert, though I think every reader should be forewarned at least this much, because here there be triggers)--the hero rapes the heroine, in a harrowing, gut churning scene that spans twenty pages.


Then the hero and heroine both undergo dramatic transformations as characters, which are compelling and emotionally satisfying if you are the kind of person who can get past the whole he-raped-her bit. I am not that kind of person.


I loved Patricia Gaffney's prose. I will read more of her--just nothing quite so rapetastic next time.

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review 2013-10-06 19:54
Gender-flipping the "Scarred Hero" Trope
The Lass Wore Black - Karen Ranney

There is much about this book that I really, really liked:

1. The gender-flip of the "scarred hero" trope. Catriona has been scarred/disfigured in a terrible carriage accident and now must learn how to get along without beauty, which had been her defining feature. Physical allure is more important to women then men, beauty more critical to women's identity and social value, so it was a thought-provoking reversal of a fairly standard plot device.

2. Catriona was not a virgin. More than the loss of her beauty, she mourned the loss of passion and feared no man would ever want to be intimate with her. I found it refreshing that she recognized that she'd been bad by society's standards, but knew that if she'd followed the rules, she would never have known sexual fulfillment. A sexually-liberated heroine is a rare treat in historical romance.

3. A really, chillingly evil villain. I'm not usually a fan of murder-mystery subplots in romance novels, but this wasn't a mystery: the reader knows from the start who the bad guy is, and the scenes written from his perspective are gut-churningly dark.

4. Secondary characters, like Mark's grandfather and his housekeeper, were really unique and interesting. Often characters like these fade into the background; I appreciate that here, even minor characters were vividly drawn.


Other things about this book I didn't enjoy so much:

1. The pacing of the plot and flow of the dialogue was choppy/uneven. Parts of this book dragged, and parts went so fast they were hard to follow. A few times I had to re-read a few pages because I lost the flow of the narrative. Sometimes dialogue didn't make sense. This story is unique enough that I think if someone else had written it, I'd give it five stars, but I found Ms. Ranney's narrative style clunky and unwieldy.

2. Neither hero nor heroine were very likeable. Mark is busy, self-righteous, judgmental, and kind of self-absorbed. At the start of the novel, he is betrothed to another young woman, Anne. Though he has not formally declared his intention to marry her, he knows his behavior, public and private, has given the impression that they have an understanding. When he begins to fall for Catriona, he blows off the blameless Anne with a brutal lack of delicacy, tact, or remorse.

3. Catriona is selfish and vain, though given her injuries and physical and emotional pain, her self-pity is understandable, if tedious to read. More than Mark, she exhibits substantial character growth over the course of the novel.

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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 02:58
Weakest Link in an Absolute Stellar Series
Unclaimed - Courtney Milan

I love, love, love the other two books in the Turner trilogy, Unveiled and Unraveled. However, while this one is as smartly crafted as everything Courtney Milan writes, it doesn't pack the same emotionally-satisfying punch. I'll explain, but first, the plot summary: Mark, the youngest of the Turner brothers, has published a Practical Guide to Chastity to great acclaim, making him England's most famous male virgin. However, when Mark is offered a political appointment, another candidate for the job hatches a plot to discredit him: he hires a courtesan, Jessica, to seduce Mark and publish an account in the papers.


Ordinarily, this sort of gender-flipping of common romance tropes would be catnip to me. A male virgin? Yes, please. A sexually-liberated heroine pursuing him, to the prospective peril of *his* reputation, not hers? Sign me up!


But there is the first problem: Jessica is *not* a sexually-liberated heroine. In fact, she is probably more imprisoned by her sexuality than the most pristinely innocent miss. After seven years of working as a courtesan, she is burned out on her profession and in the grips of a profound depression that leaves her unable to feel anything: not the warmth of the sun on her face and certainly not sexual pleasure. When men touch her, she flinches. She pursues Mark out of cold desperation, since she is out of money and knows she doesn't have it in her to be a working girl anymore.


I often struggle with romances where the conflict comes from one character's deception of the other. Unveiled involved deception, too, in that the heroine, Margaret, posed as someone other than herself in order to get close to the hero, and I'm not quite sure why this deception bothers me so much more than that. I think it's because once they came to really know and like each other, Jess could have told Mark the truth and trusted him to help her (but she didn't), whereas Margaret trusted Ash enough to reveal her disguise, even though doing so didn't solve the tangle of familial loyalties that kept them apart. Also, Margaret was motivated by a desire to help her brothers, while Jessica's masquerade is more self-interested (although I appreciate Jessica's survival instinct). Finally, even if Margaret had succeeded in her goal (to thwart Ash in his aim to steal her family's duchy), Ash had the financial wherewithal and social standing that he would've been okay; by contrast, Jessica's planned seduction aims to topple the very foundations that make Mark the man he is--his chastity, his integrity, his reputation, his sense of self.


The other thing that bothers me about Unclaimed is, frankly, Mark. He's too good. He's whatever the male equivalent of a Mary Sue is: an Eddie Haskell, perhaps. I know it's ironic that I should feel that way, since in the book Mark is always protesting when people treat him like a saint just because he wrote a book about chastity. He feels lust and pride and he has a temper, he constantly reminds people. He isn't perfect... until one remembers that, in Romancelandia, lust and pride and temper are hardly mortal flaws in a hero. In my opinion, he is TOO perfect for me to really pull for him as a character.


Even though I don't like the romance of this book nearly as well as the other two, if you like overt feminist themes with your romance, pick this book up just for the pleasure of watching Mark deliver masterful set downs to upright Victorian gentlemen who would engage in slut-shaming. "There's no such thing as a fallen woman," he says more than once; "You just have to look for the man who pushed her."

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review 2013-10-05 01:58
Really Class Conscious, Judgmental Heroine (but she's got a great rack)
Lead Me On - Victoria Dahl

Lead Me On centers on the troubles of Jane Morgan, who is Quinn's prim-and-proper office manager. Like Start Me Up (book 2 in the same series), it deals with class differences, but it is not as good at avoiding offensive stereotypes. I found Jane Morgan to be an unpleasant character because she is so very class conscious and judgmental. (Ms. Dahl seems to know that Jane's mindset is unpopular, because the character is always acknowledging her snobbery but forging ahead anyway, even when other characters point out how very misguided she is.) In childhood, Jane's mother was a "prison groupie," marrying one prisoner after another; Jane is the product of a conjugal visit. She spent her childhood writing letters to her incarcerated father, but when he disappeared after his release from jail, Jane (then named Dynasty Mackenzie) went a little wild at the tender age of twelve. She took up drinking, drugs, and promiscuous sex with many, many men (some twice her age), but by adulthood she has turned her life around: she has a new, respectable name, a new, respectable job, a new, respectable life, and she is confident that no one from her past would recognize her.


Unfortunately, Jane finds that she isn't attracted to respectable men, so after dumping her assistant D.A.-boyfriend, she initiates an affair with Billy Chase (just "Chase"), who she believes is just a construction worker who "likes to blow stuff up," but who the reader knows is actually the owner of his own excavation company and the go-to expert for tough and intricate excavation work ("Chase could blow out a wall of rock fifty feet wide and leave the hundred-year-old barn that stood two feet away without even the slightest creak of boards."). Jane propositions him for a one time hookup, a birthday gift to herself, and he accepts because, well, he's a guy, and she's a D cup. Yet when her brother is arrested and comes under suspicion for murder, Jane suddenly finds that she needs Chase: his father is a former state police officer who is willing to investigate the case for the defense.


Chase is a really relatable hero, but it's hard to see why he's willing to put up with Jane's snobbishness (except for the aforementioned D cup). He drives a dusty pickup and has tattoos, so it doesn't even occur to Jane that Chase is not just a peon at his company, but the boss. Because he doesn't display books in his apartment, she assumes he's uneducated, though he's got a degree in geology and is an expert in his field. She tells him with a brutal lack of subtlety that he's good enough for sex, but not good enough to be a partner in her carefully crafted life, and for the first three quarters of the book he just shrugs complacently, as if he didn't already know about her turbo-slut adolescence. (He does, but Jane doesn't know he knows.) Jane ultimately learns the error of her ways and acknowledges her hypocrisy, but I think I'd have had more respect for Chase if he hadn't waited around for her to do it.

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