Review – Behind the Courtesan by Bronwyn Stuart

Historical romance is my favorite genre, but sometimes I get tired of some of the obvious heroine tropes that are available… You know what I mean – the bluestocking heroine who finds her brainy hero, the innocent heroine who almost always gets paired with a notorious seducer of women and then charms him into monogamy with her innocence and “inner strength” (if you know what I mean), the spinster heroine who finally allows herself to be seen and snaps up her perspicacious hero, the otherwise quite normal heroine whose family’s penury forces her into a marriage of convenience that eventually becomes less convenient, more loving… When written well, I definitely enjoy stories that feature these kinds of heroines, but I tend to get excited about authors whose characters are a little more outside the box.

For example, I dig stories that feature courtesans as heroines, particularly when an author uses that type of character to have a discussion about women’s limited options throughout history and the societal assumptions and pressures that further narrow those options.  In that regard, Behind the Courtesan did not disappoint.

Cover image, Behind the Courtesan by Bronwyn Stuart

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

When courtesan Sophia Martin returns to the village she fled as a young woman, she knows it won’t be a happy reunion–but she can’t refuse her brother’s request to attend his expectant wife. Trapped until the baby arrives, she must navigate the social rift she caused when she left to pursue a disreputable life–and keep the true reason for her departure from the man she once loved, the bastard son of the Duke who ruined her.

Blake Vale has never forgotten Sophia, but he can’t accept the decisions she made, the courtesan’s life she leads, or the fact she’s cast aside her true self. Plain old Sophia has to be inside this hardened woman somewhere, and he’s determined to make her see she doesn’t need rich men to be happy, and that their future has nothing to do with the past.

When the dukedom suddenly falls within his reach, Blake must come to terms with his own past and his birthright, and what that means for his future…and Sophia.

The theme throughout this book is that behind  the mask every courtesan wears, there is a woman who made a difficult choice and who has to live with the consequences.  Most of the story involves Sophia’s struggle to be seen as a woman rather than as an object created by her life experiences, and I enjoyed Bronwyn Stuart’s depiction of that struggle.  Sophia is a well-drawn, complex character who possesses a lovely strength.  Her story is heartbreaking and all too real, and her journey from grief and shame to a self-acceptance of sorts made for a beautiful, emotional read.

To be honest, I pretty much loved all the parts of this book that didn’t relate to the romance between the two main characters.  But wait, you say, isn’t this a romance novel? Surely the point of the book is that the love story — the romance — between the two main characters is interesting and compelling.  You’re right (and don’t call me Shirley), and that’s the problem with this book.  Actually, the hero, Blake, is the problem with this book.  He’s way too whiny.

As an aside, I like the original version of this song because I live a life secluded from current pop culture (so I haven’t heard the song a bazillion times), but I like it even better when it’s sung by an enthusiastic Dutch choir.

Blake spends most of the book whining about how Sophie left him — a decade ago — when she was 14 and he was not much older, about his sucky childhood and his abandonment fantasies, about how awful it is that Sophie chose to life the life of a whore rather than marry him (not that he asked, mind… they were kids…), and on and on…  As if the whining weren’t enough to make him a less than sympathetic character, he also takes every opportunity to treat Sophia poorly, to make sure that she knows that she made a bad choice when she was 14.  Though Sophia tries to explain a few times that he might not understand all the circumstances surrounding her disappearance all those years ago, Blake doesn’t listen.  At the end, once someone else fully explains Sophia’s back story, Blake finally realizes how wrong he was, but it was too little, too late for me as a reader.  I found that I wasn’t actually rooting for him, because he was just such a douchebag that I didn’t want him to get a happily ever after with a character as awesome as Sophia.  In fact, I wanted to poke him in the eye with a stick.

For a romance novel, it’s hard to have a more serious flaw than a bad romance.  Behind the Courtesan is well written, well paced, and its heroine is beautifully crafted, but none of that matters when you’re enraged by the main story line.  That said, I’ll be keeping an eye out for Bronwyn Stuart’s future books, because I definitely enjoy her writing style.  Even though the romance irritated me, I had a hard time putting the book down because I was so captivated by the story.  I just hope Blake’s characterization is a one-off.

Behind the Courtesan was released on April 23, 2013 by Carina Press.  For more information about the book, click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Bronwyn Stuart, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Carina Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Review – The Theory of Attraction

Cover image, The Theory of Attraction by Delphine Dryden

That cover seems really weird to me… I didn’t really examine the cover until I placed the image in this post, but doesn’t it look like the lady’s legs are in the wrong place?  Or is that her belly under his arm and her pushed-up shirt is just perfectly hidden?  And, honestly, it looks a little uncomfortable how he’s squashing her boob… but whatever.

Anyway, do you like Big Bang Theory?  How about erotica?  How about a combination of the two?  A few weeks ago someone on my Twitter feed used the term “nerdmance” in connection with this book, and I really think it fits.  Also, it convinced me that I should read this book.  As an aside, I’m listening to a brand-new nerdy playlist to help me connect to my geeky side while I write this review.  Also, my geeky side is never far away.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Camilla can set her watch by her hunky rocket-scientist neighbor who jogs past her window each day. She relishes each glimpse of his shirtless abs, and is dying to see more. But it’s hard to connect with a man who doesn’t seem to know she exists…

Ivan feels at home in the lab, not in social situations. When he finally approaches his attractive neighbor, it’s not for a date-he wants tutoring in how to behave at an important fundraiser. Ivan doesn’t expect the chemistry between them to be quite so explosive, and is surprised when Cami actually accepts his proposal to embark on a series of “lessons.”

Cami soon discovers Ivan’s schedule isn’t the only thing he likes to be strict about-he needs to be charge in the bedroom as well. She’s shocked at how much she comes to enjoy her submissive side, but wonders if a real relationship is in the equation…

47,000 words

I really enjoyed this book, but I’m having a hell of a time trying to figure out what I can say about it on a blog that my mom reads (hi Mom!).  So here’s what I liked about this book:

  1. Cami makes a great narrator.  She is likable, intelligent, funny, and easy to relate to (although I didn’t exactly relate to her willingness to stick her naked ass in the air, but whatever).  Hi Mom!
  2. Ivan is just adorable.
  3. The secondary characters are great, and that’s not exactly easy to achieve in a book this short.
  4. It could have been totally crazy.  As you can see from the publisher’s blurb, there’s a bit of BDSM (I’d call it BDSM-lite, having read The Siren…), and Ivan introduces Cami to his sexual lifestyle, but he does it gently (if such a thing is possible) and with serious attention to her communications, both verbal and nonverbal.  Because of this, the BDSM stuff never veers anywhere near to abuse.
  5. The ending made me smile.  Also, this book has further convinced me that I never want to live in Texas.  Apparently, it gets hot there.
  6. It’s just fun.

There was a scene that was a wee bit too… um… yeah… hi Mom! for my particular taste, but that’s just me.  Shocked and slightly embarrassed though I was while reading that scene, I still thought it was handled very well and made sense within the context of the whole book, and it had this lovely little piece that helped me to understand Dom/sub relationships just a bit better.  I’d quote that section, but, seriously, my mom reads this blog.  🙂

Bottom line, this book is well worth a read, especially if you like erotica.

And I’ve got to finish with a shout out to my mom, because she’s awesome.

*FTC Disclosure: I received a free e-galley of this book from Carina Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

Double Review (what does it mean?) – A Scandalous Affair and Improper Relations

Cover image, A Scandalous Affair by Karen Erickson

When a novella is well written, it gives you a lovely, lunch-sized portion of your favorite meal.  It doesn’t take long to get through it, it is fulfilling, but, in the end, you still have room for dinner.  The following two novellas definitely fit in that category.  I decided to review them together because I liked them both and because I’ve got a bit of catching up to do… Here’s what the publisher (Carina Press) had to say about A Scandalous Affair:

From the moment Daphne, Lady Pomeroy, meets the mysterious Marquess of Hartwell at a masquerade ball, she’s determined to seduce him. The handsome, charming man cannot possibly be the cold, calculating lord who Society calls “Black Hart.” Risking everything, the lonely widow invites the elusive Hartwell to her dinner party…for two.

Hartwell’s arrogant reputation is built on a lie. For he has a shameful secret that keeps him in the shadows: a stutter-his downfall since childhood. He’d rather keep his mouth shut than look the fool. But he’s shocked to discover that in Daphne’s company-and in her bed-his stutter vanishes.

After one wanton evening together, Daphne is hurt when the lord lives up to his Black Hart name. Yet his reasons for leaving surprise even him. Now he must confess everything or risk losing Daphne forever…

22,000 words

First of all, I’ve got to admit that I love heroes with issues, and Hartwell is no exception.  Girls who like to read about strong male characters that will tell them what to do will probably find him to be a bit of a pansy, but I really like to read about characters who go on some sort of internal journey over the course of a book (novel, novella, short story, whatever).  When you have a character who starts out with a major issue or insecurity and gets to discover his strength and value as a human being, you (the reader) get to read a story of the redemptive power of love, and that’s my favorite kind of story.  Regarding Hartwell’s issues, I did find it a bit of a stretch to accept that no one else in his entire life (other than Daphne) had ever looked deeper to try to determine the reason for his apparent coldness.  Yes, a lot of people are shallow and self-absorbed, but not everyone is…

My favorite part of this novella is the fun relationship between Daphne and her brother.  Both characters are likable (which is lovely and sadly unusual) and they actually behave like siblings who know one another on a deeper-than-superficial level and are able to tease.  I’m a big fan of authors who manage to write engaging sibling relationships, and I thought Karen Erickson nailed this one.

The big conflict in the story was slightly underwhelming, but that didn’t bother me so much in a novella as it would in a full-length novel.  The emotional resolution to the story is extremely satisfying even though the conflict was a trifle lame.  Bottom line: this novella will provide a delightful hour or two of reading entertainment and leave you smiling, basking in the glow of a happy ending achieved by worthy characters.  It’s worth the read.

Cover image, Improper Relations by Juliana Ross

Improper Relations is steamy.  If you buy and read it, you won’t really be shocked by that.  It’s an erotic novel, and unlike the only other erotic novel I’ve discussed on my blog (that would be here), it actually earns its place in that genre. Here’s what the publisher (Carina Press) has to say about it:

Dorset, 1858

When Hannah’s caught watching her late husband’s cousin debauch the maid in the library, she’s mortified-but also intrigued. An unpaid companion to his aunt, she’s used to being ignored.

The black sheep of the family, Leo has nothing but his good looks and noble birth to recommend him. Hannah ought to be appalled at what she’s witnessed, but there’s something about Leo that draws her to him.

When Leo claims he can prove that women can feel desire as passionately as men, Hannah is incredulous. Her own experiences have been uninspiring. Yet she can’t bring herself to refuse his audacious proposal when he offers to tutor her in the art of lovemaking. As the tantalizing, wicked lessons continue, she begins to fear she’s losing not just her inhibitions, but her heart as well. The poorest of relations, she has nothing to offer Leo but herself. Will it be enough when their erotic education ends?

22,000 words

Note the word count.  This is another novella, and it is lovely.  The pacing, story, character development, etc. are all pitch perfect.  Beyond that, the story is told in an interesting way: it’s a first-person narrative, and isn’t that incredible, considering that it’s a steamy, erotic story?  And it really is steamy (seriously… I wouldn’t read this around my children…).  I was fascinated by how different it was to read sex scenes narrated by one of the participants (the female one, no less) than told through a switching-POV third-person god-like narrator.  For starters, we get a much more personal view of Leo, the male lead.  We also get the mystery of knowing only Hannah’s thoughts and feelings about the burgeoning relationship and having to wonder at Leo’s.  Even better, we don’t have to read a bunch of euphemisms for Hannah’s girly bits, and there’s no irritating mention of how “tight” she is (always annoys me…).  Brilliant.

As an erotic novel, the sex scenes are the central focus of the story, but they don’t come across as being tawdry or crude or gratuitous.  I never once thought while reading Improper Relations “Really, they’re having sex again?  Jeez…”  Instead, the sex scenes flowed seamlessly, buoyed by Hannah’s emotional journey and by the plot (the non-sex plot… and, yeah, there’s actually a non-sex plot!  Oh my god!).  I highly recommend this book to anyone who (1) is OK with quite detailed sex scenes and (2) wants a good story with plenty of emotional movement that is quite short (70-or-so pages).

*FTC Disclosure: I received review copies of both A Scandalous Affair and Improper Relations from Carina Press through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Review – Asher’s Invention by Coleen Kwan

Cover image, Asher’s Invention by Coleen Kwan

When I saw the description of this book on NetGalley, I thought, yeah, that’s pretty much up my alley.  It’s set in the Victorian era, and it’s a steampunk romance.  Honestly, they had me at “…prototype for a wondrous device…”  I’m a sucker for devices of all sorts.  Anyway, here’s the description from the publisher:

Five years ago, Asher Quigley broke his engagement to Minerva Lambkin, believing she was an accomplice in a scheme to steal his prototype for a wondrous device. Minerva swore she was innocent, though the thief-and Asher’s mentor-was her own father.

Now, sheer desperation has driven Minerva to Asher’s door. Her father has been kidnapped by investors furious that he’s never been able to make the machine work. Only Asher, now a rich and famous inventor in his own right, can replicate the device. He’s also become a hard, distant stranger far different from the young idealist she once loved.

Despite their troubled past, Asher agrees to help Minerva. He still harbors his suspicions about her, but their reunion stirs emotions and desires they both thought were buried forever. Can they rebuild their fragile relationship in time to save her father and their future together?

29,000 words

True to form, I loved all the gadgets and inventions, however implausible they might have been.  There are airships and nifty prosthetics and mechanical dogs and ray guns (!!), and, of course, there’s a “wondrous device.”  I loved that the author didn’t waste a lot of time explaining the devices but left that up to the reader’s imagination (maybe my version of a Viper Ray gun differs from Coleen Kwan’s version, but who cares?).

At about 94 pages (depending, I suppose, on one’s e-reader formatting), this book weighs in as a novella.  As such, it’s short on a lot of the story and character development that you would expect from a full-length novel, but there was still enough of a story to keep my interest, and I think it stands as a fairly strong example of ideal novella formatting and pacing, even if a lot of the story and character elements annoyed me.

I didn’t care for Asher very much, his inventions notwithstanding.  I had a difficult time connecting to him as a character, and not all of his actions made sense (particularly at the end… goodness); about halfway through the novella, he does a 180, and there isn’t enough of an explanation given to render it seamless.  I liked Minerva, and I liked how her character developed over the course of the book, but, again, it was a bit choppy, as though she developed in fits and starts, with huge changes taking place in the space of a moment rather than gradually.  This issue may be due to the space limitations of the novella format (what do I know?).

For a steampunk romance, I didn’t find it terribly romantic.  Asher’s kind of a jerk, and his big “finally not a jerk” moment isn’t given enough time and space to resonate with the reader.  The author (as the narrator) mentions twice how abrupt and strange his about-face is to Minerva, and I was left wondering why, since Coleen Kwan obviously noticed how abrupt and strange it is, she just left it that way.

Finally, it both amused me and irritated me that the author repeated herself a few times about some really strange things.  Minerva has some issues with vertigo, and I know this because the author mentions three times in the space of one scene (in the airship) that Minerva’s “stomach did another queasy tumble,” and that her “stomach was still rebelling,” and that she “had not yet mastered her stomach.”  If it’s absolutely necessary that the reader know about how Minerva’s stomach is doing (and I don’t think it is.  Minerva’s motion sickness doesn’t further either the story or her character development, so why should I, as the reader, care about it?) one mention would have been adequate.

Overall, it was an interesting story but it didn’t quite make it to my ‘i liked it’ list.

*FTC disclosure: I received a free e-galley of this book from Carina Press through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*