Tag Archives: Jennifer Ashley

The Mackenzie Series: Scandal and the Duchess by Jennifer Ashley

Scandal and the Duchess is a fabulous romance novel title. Five stars for that. All gold.

I continue to lovehate Jennifer Ashley, but the fact that I have read everything in her Mackenzie series would seem to indicate that she is my guilty pleasure. Despite frequently overwrought plotting, but with sincere emotional connections and excellent smolder, I just keep reading her books, and in a couple of cases re-reading them. Maybe I enjoy her brand of tortured heroes more than I like to admit. Scandal and the Duchess is restrained from that perspective and a mostly gentle romp with a moustache twirling villain thrown in.

Rose, Dowager Duchess of Southdown, is the zaftig and scandalous second wife of the erstwhile Duke. The new His Grace has successfully blocked any knowledge of his father’s will and Rose has been left dependent on her former coachman’s hospitality. As her husband, whom she genuinely cared for, died early in their marriage, she has become a figure of public speculation. Obviously, she is a Victorian sex bomb whose appetites overwhelmed the old guy, though he did die happy. One night, while out and about being pursued by scandal mongers, she is literally run into by Captain Steven Sinclair. Three sheets to the wind, he still knows a good thing when he lands on it. Rose misunderstands his situation and offers a place to crash and in the morning, sober and deliciously disheveled, he suggests a false engagement to get the reporters off her back.

Steven and Rose embark on an “engagement” that, it is a romance novella after all, quickly becomes a genuine love match. It seems Rose’s husband liked puzzles and left her an inheritance if only she and Steven can figure out where and what it is. It’s an efficient McGuffin that does the job nicely. They gad about looking for clues and being sexually attracted to each other. Steven is a Mackenzie in-law, so characters from previous books in the series pop up, in particular the ones from her most popular novels. They have a cursory participation based mostly on being in the same room as the hero and heroine.

Scandal and the Duchess was light and pleasant-ish. There was less drang and virtually no sturm which is quite a change for Ashley. The novella felt perfunctory and yet I’ll still read the next one. Ashley has a formula that works well (read: profitably) for her and is an incredibly prolific author. She currently produces at least three different series under two different pseudonyms. The Mackenzie series alone has seven novels and three novellas published since 2009, with one more of each planned into 2015. She keeps pumping them out and I keep reading them, thus drowning out my clearly disingenuous protestations of ambivalence towards her work. It’s the sincere, emotional and romantic moments. I live in hope for them every time.

A summary of Jennifer Ashley’s catalogue can be found here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

 

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The Mackenzie Series: The Untamed Mackenzie and The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley

I’m not sure there is any historical romance author who believes in the redemptive power of love as deeply as Jennifer Ashley. It’s the only reason I can think of for her persistence in creating exquisite examples of Victorian Douchelordery and making them her romantic leads.

The Untamed Mackenzie

First up is the novella The Untamed Mackenzie. Unless you are the magnificence that is Courtney Milan, or perhaps Tessa Dare, novellas are generally just a way to tide over fans and earn some extra money between major releases. They build a love story around previous secondary or even tertiary characters and, this is the important part, allow readers to revisit old favourites.  Jennifer Ashley is not Courtney Milan, or perhaps Tessa Dare, so this is a rickety love story stopping over with each of the  Mackenzies from the first four books in the series. Lloyd is the illegitimate son of the same fu*king monster that raised those tortured heroes. Louisa is the younger sister of Mac Mackenzie’s wife, Isabella.

If pater familias Hart Mackenzie is Douchelord in Chief, Lloyd is the Bastard Douchelord and/or Douchelord Bastard. An obsessive police detective, he was one of the villains in The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie and he acquitted his role in a thorough and reprehensible manner. I hated him and had well-founded concerns for his emotional stability. Admittedly, this is true of 78.3% of Ashley’s heroes. Lloyd and Louisa have flirted in previous encounters and when she is accused of murder, they feel the need to interview each of the Mackenzie characters to solve the crime. Whatever. The other characters are more interesting than Lloyd and Isabella anyway.

The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie

I wanted to like The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie.  I wanted to like it so much. Daniel is an absolute doll, just the sweetest guy. He’s not really wicked at all, not even a little bit, although he does smoke which I thought was a fantastic period detail. Still, it’s a Jennifer Ashley novel, so Daniel’s mother was batshit insane and he has abandonment issues related to his father.

It is Ashley’s best written book to date, she generally excels at sincere romance, despite frequently getting mired in overwrought and histrionic plotting. The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie avoided this pitfall. Ashley toned down the melodrama, ratcheted up the romance, and had just enough Mackenzie brothers camp to make the whole thing fun. But. There’s always a but.

The heroine, Violet, is a rape survivor, a “tortured heroine” if you will, and coming to terms with and moving past this episode was a major plot element. Violet’s experience infringes on her ability to form trusting relationships and complicates her attraction to Daniel. Ashley handled the subject matter sensitively and one could not help but feel for Violet, but I don’t want to read a romance novel which includes rape as a plot point; I don’t want to read a romance novel with any kind of abuse, sexual or otherwise. If the abuse is physical, I can just skip over these episodes.  If it is sexual, it discomfits my entire reading experience. Violet’s recovery was central to the plot, so it doesn’t matter how well it was handled, it ruined the book for me. I am sure there is a book out there that could defy this rule, but I read romance novels for escapism. Every time the Violet’s experience is relived or described, it removed me from the disconnected reality I look to these books for.

A summary of  Jennifer Ashley’s catalogue can be found here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

 

The Mackenzie Series: The Seduction of Elliott McBride by Jennifer Ashley

I lovehate Jennifer Ashley. I went on about my feelings at length in an earlier review and yet I still read the next novella, A Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift, and novel in the Mackenzie series.

The Seduction of Elliott McBride may be the book that cures me of my love and brings me down solidly on the side of hate, or at the very least never, ever paying for one of Ashley’s books ever, ever again.  The novel opens with very proper Juliana St. John being left at the altar as her fiance has married his piano teacher. Quelle horreur! Taking a moment alone in a chapel, Juliana SITS ON her childhood friend  Elliott McBride. He has recently returned from India a shattered, but appealingly bronzed, man, and, since they have always loved each other from afar, they decide to marry right away, like, RIGHT AWAY, in the next 15 minutes, and so begins the story.

As with all Ashley men, Elliott McBride has a histrionically torturous back story. He wants Juliana to ground and heal him, so after impulsively marrying, they go straight to the manor he has bought in a remote area of Scotland. With the patience of a saint and the personality of a handkerchief, Juliana passively endures all manner of ridiculous subplots including Elliott’s blackouts and unpredictable violent rages (which are never directed her and that somehow makes them okay); accusations of murder; a stalker; a home in complete disrepair; the home’s violent and irascible existing resident; a culturally patronizing portrayal of Elliott’s Sikh servants; a mixed-race lovechild; Elliott’s random disappearances; his history of imprisonment and profound abuse up to, and including, brainwashing; and hostility from the locals, all while isolated from her family and any semblance of the life she has known. Juliana is fine with it. All of it. She only wants to help. She makes a lot of lists to help organize things. None of the lists seem to include the following:

  1. hide all knives
  2. hide all  guns
  3. install stout padlock on bedroom door
  4. have doctor secretly examine husband
  5. have husband committed
  6. make conjugal visit to asylum

A laundry list of plot ridiculousness is typical of Ashley, but she usually balances it with a love story sufficiently charming to counteract said ridiculousness. That is not the case here. The book is awful and NOT because of everything I’ve already mentioned, though it certainly helps. The fundamental problem is that it’s not a romance novel: Elliott and Juliana start out in love. They stay in love. Their love does not waver. They get busy from the get go. There is nothing actually keeping them apart. The story doesn’t build to anything in their relationship. That is not a romance novel. It’s Ashley attempting to hit all the highlights of her most popular book, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, and skipping the sincere love story part that endeared her to me in spite of her farcical plotting. She completely missed the point.

I will be resetting my romance reading summary, The (Shameful) Tally for the New Year. I’m under the impression I’ve read everything decent in the historical romance genre and now I have to wait for the good authors to publish new work, so I am anticipating far less shame and a proportionately reduced tally. I may have to read a real, proper book work of literature.

A summary of Jennifer Ashley’s catalogue can be found here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

The Mackenzie Series: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage, The Many Sins of Lord Cameron, and The Duke’s Perfect Wife by Jennifer Ashley

There are only two romance genre hero types and seven storylines. That’s it. The hero is either a Rake or a Protector. If, for some heretofore unimaginable reason, I was asked to, I could slide down The Shameful Tally and instantly assign Rake/Protector status to all of the heroes listed. I prefer a “reformed rake who will make the best husband” myself, with an occasional big lug thrown in for variety. If the hero is sardonic and calls the heroine “Sweetheart”, I am SO IN. The Rakes are generally charming, dry, seemingly indolent, and very experienced. The Protector is a warrior: probably taciturn, very kind, gentle, and uncommonly stalwart. So you take one of these two men, make him either wry or laconic, and match him to one, or more, of these storylines: The Reformation of the Rake; The Awakening of the Wallflower; The Revenge Plot ; The Road Trip; The Intrigue or Mystery; The Marriage of Convenience; or The Tortured Hero or Heroine.

The Tortured Hero moves through the other stories and, depending on your taste, can be as thoroughly or as gently tortured as is your preference. MANY of the characters have sleep issues in these books and PTSD comes up a fair amount, too. Traumatized soldiers and child abuse survivors are common. Unless you are reading one of the really good authors, the psychological issues are not particularly realistic and seemingly easy to overcome.

But let’s move on to the more fun kaleidoscope of spoilers and annoyance with the author part of the review. These books each have an exhaustively tortured hero. The spoilers will help get my point across and, more importantly, the endings are foregone conclusions, so how much can I ruin anyway? Here is what you need to know about Jennifer Ashley:

When she is good she is very, very good, but when she is bad, she is horrid.

The entire range exists in every book. It’s kind of mesmerizing.

The Mackenzie brothers’ father was a fu*king monster who murdered their mother and was psychotically abusive towards his sons. All four men are very damaged. Damaged in a way that in real life creates drug addicts, madmen, or living in the metaphorical fetal position for years at a time. As is often the case, the last book features the most forbidding of the men; the one you can’t imagine rooting for, or whose arrogance and aloofness is nigh on insurmountable. The Mackenzies are intense, insanely rich, scandalously behaved, and frequently kilted. A detail in the books’ favour is that they are set in my preferred clothing period (bustles!) which adds a frisson of joy to my reading experience.

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie Protector

Ian has what I think is supposed to be Aspergers Syndrome, or a similar condition. His fascination with the widow Beth Ackerley is intense and highly-focused, but sincere, from the moment he meets her, and somehow manages to avoid obsession. Ian considers himself too damaged to love and, what with it being a romance novel and all, is proved wrong. Love heals all and redeems all. A nice thought. But while Jennifer Ashley can be spectacular at the love part, she is equally atrocious at the back story. You see, Ian not only has some kind of disorder (with savant elements, obvs), he was also abused by his fu*king monster father, and was institutionalized in 19th century England (shudder), and was experimented on/tortured, and may have killed a prostitute in a rage (who hasn’t?), and is being stalked by an obsessed investigator, and is exploited by his eldest brother, Hart, who treats Beth abominably. Overwrought enough for you? Frankly, I had enough trouble getting past the fact that he rarely makes eye contact with the heroine, and often loses the thread when she speaks to him, never mind the other 19 ridiculous elements.

Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage Rake

Do you enjoy chaos junkies? This is the book for you!

Charming Roland “Mac” Mackenzie, is an artist. His fu*king monster father tried to break all his pencils and all his fingers, but Mac persisted. He cares deeply about his art; he doesn’t sell or display it, mind you, and he hasn’t painted anything good since his wife Isabella justifiably left him four years ago. Still. Artist. Mac and Isabella met and married on the night of her society debut when she was 18 and he 23. Madly in love, their relationship was a roller coaster of honeymoon periods, his overwhelming behaviour, then disappearances and reappearances to repeat the cycle, until a pretty epic final straw.

The story begins after a 4 year separation, but includes flashbacks and excerpts from local gossip papers. Mac has decided that Isabella has had enough “space” and it is time to rebuild the relationship. Conveniently, his house burns down and he moves in with her. Sure. There is a lot of “Come here! Go away!” They love each other deeply, but Isabella is afraid of being hurt again, although she is willing to, um, consort with Mac. He is trying to show he is a better, calmer man, and sober. Did I mention he is a recovering alcoholic? Or the sub-plot about some crazy guy who is forging Mac’s works and just happens to look almost exactly like Mac because of course he does, and faux Mac paints Isabella nude from his imagimanation which freaks her out, despite the fact that it’s romantic when Mac does it, and helps them find their way back to one another and move forward with their lives? It’s how they do.

Many Sins of Lord Cameron Rake

For all my railing at the overkill, I did actually enjoy the first three books quite a bit, particularly this one. You just have to skip over chunks of ridiculous exposition lest one succumb to the desire to fling the book away from oneself with great force. I read them on Mr. Julien’s Kindle, so that would have been what is known as “a bad idea”.

Cameron owns and trains race horses which, I have to admit, is pretty cool. He’s a widower with a teenaged son, Daniel. His rampagingly mentally-ill wife killed herself during one of their arguments. The first Lady Cameron was so melodramatically insane that she makes the first Mrs. Rochester look a bit wistful. She was a violent, deranged, alley cat of a woman who beat, burned, and attempted to sexually violate him. Cam is supposed to be about 6’ 4” and brawny, but he let his wife hurt him, so that she would not hurt their infant son. Yet he didn’t, oh, I don’t know, institutionalize his wife, or seek proper help for her. This, apparently, shows loyalty. Cam’s a skooch damaged. Oh, and with a few exceptions, like the heroine of the book and his sisters-in-law, he hates is deeply distrustful of women. That’s an interesting choice in a romance novel: the hero sees women as beautiful, rapacious toys, interested only in pleasure and presents. Swoon.

Into Cam’s life comes the widow Ainsley Douglas. She’s a good and kind woman, who has a scandal in her past, but don’t we all? Ainsley is a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria, who either ignores Ainsley or is monumentally demanding according the whims of the author and needs of the plot. She is tasked with retrieving stolen love letters from the Queen to Mr. Brown (historical reference bonus +5, I guess) that just happen to be in the possession of Cam’s current mistress, who just happens to ALSO be a lady in waiting to the Queen. To sum up: blackmail, Queen, women untrustworthy, bad man owns good horse and must be thwarted subplot, Ainsley and Cam ♥.

On an up note, the fu*king monster of a father pretty much left Cameron alone.

I was willing to overlook over the histrionic elements in the first three books for the actually very charming and sincere love elements, but there is one more to go:

The Duke’s Perfect Wife Protector

So here with are with Hart. The earlier books hint at a very dark and shocking sexual history, including a propensity for violence, plus there’s that mistress he kept for years who tried to kill Beth in book one. Hart spent The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie treating Ian like a servant and Beth like a gold digger, and the subsequent books being an overbearing tyrant. Once upon a time engaged to Eleanor, she broke his heart and left him. I think it was because of the mistress, I can’t remember, whatever, it was ENTIRELY justifiable and she is ENTIRELY too understanding about everything. Hart married elsewhere and then lost both his wife (who was ENTIRELY terrified of him) and his infant son in rapid succession.

As this book begins, Hart has decided to win Eleanor back because, apparently, she’s his true love despite the whole long-standing-devoted-mistress-who-accomodated-his-fetishes-and-tried-to-kill-Beth thing. If this were virtually any other romance novel, this is when we would see beneath Hart’s anguish and turmoil to a deeply caring man, motivated only by love and duty, despite the seemingly impenetrable veneer of sexually-twisted tyrant. Good luck with that. Ashley spent three books setting him up as an irredeemable bastard with frightening proclivities and an all-consuming hunger for power. She did a great job. I hated him. He is not misunderstood, he is a fu*ing monster. I didn’t want to read about Hart’s true love for Eleanor, or the story gymnastics Ashley performed to make him bearable because it just wasn’t possible. I simply jumped through the book to visit the brothers and was glad when it ended.

Books are still being added to series. You will note that despite my protestations, I have read them all and a summary of Jennifer Ashley’s catalogue can be found here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.