Hotbed by Portia Da Costa
The Particulars: Contemporary erotica, Black Lace, 2002, In Print
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Before the term "erotic romance" was coined, there were only a few select authors in Romancelandia pushing those sexual boundaries. Which means if you wanted to get your kicks, you went across the pond to the Virgin Publishing imprint, Black Lace. The majority of what they were publishing was erotica, but there were a few authors who specialized in happy endings, albeit "not traditional" ones. After discovering Emma Holly through her 2002 Berkley historical romance, Beyond Seduction, I was on a mission to find her Black Lace titles and discovered other authors along the way, including Da Costa.
The Review: It's been a while since I've read a Black Lace novel and it's going to take me a few days to recover. I have no idea how I'm going to review this or how I'm going to assign a grade to it - but let's get this party started and see where we end up, shall we?
First things first, this is erotica. It's not erotica with a tinge of romance, it's not erotic romance - no, it's foot to the floor, fast and furious, erotica. In recent years Da Costa's writing interests have taken her firmly into erotic romance territory (and hot vanilla at that), but she got her start writing erotica and this is most definitely from her erotica period. Repeat after me: This. Is. Erotica. Not. Erotic. Romance.
Natalie is slowly getting pushed out of her magazine job in London and decides to head back to the quaint English village where she grew up and where her half-sister Patti still lives. But this isn't a visit to see her sister, not really. No, there's a shady politician, one of those Moral Majority-types, who is rumored to have his sticky fingers in a lot of pies. In a bid to jump-start her flagging career, she's looking to do a bit of muckracking. What she finds instead is a whole lot of sexual shenanigans. Good Lord, the shenanigans! In her tiny, dull hometown?! Who woulda thunk it?
Sure, Natalie is living in cosmopolitan London - but it's Patti who is having all the fun, with a hunky window-washer roommate, a drag queen, and various other participants at said drag queen's BDSM club. Because, of course! This drag queen, with the EPIC name of Stella Fontayne, is basically the puppet master in the story - pulling various strings, manipulating everybody to basically amuse themselves. (Gender identity and pronouns aren't discussed but reading in between the lines, Stella struck me as bisexual with a fluid gender identity).
It's not long before Natalie, hot on the trail of the politician, is getting distracted by her hormones. There are men. Many men. There is humiliation and BDSM and, you know, the whole half-sister thing.
And that's how you know this is erotica. A big deal is made over them being half-sisters (because that somehow makes this less squirky?!) - but eventually there's several instances of voyeurism and a scene at the end where they speed right across that line. Also there are some dubious consent issues at play here. Characters are coaxed into things they're not completely comfortable with from the start. They end up having the best orgasms of their lives, but it doesn't make the consent issues any less squishy.
Go ahead, think less of me - but I still read this book with a kind of morbid fascination that's hard for me to describe. This is erotica and I compartmentalize erotica completely different from romance. I, personally, don't have to be "turned on" by what the characters are doing to read and/or enjoy the story - and ultimately getting "turned on" is not why I read erotica. I'm into erotica, predominantly, for heroines who aren't persecuted for being sexual beings and to be "challenged." Challenging erotica, for me, involves taboo, how the author addresses those taboos, and how the characters operate in the world they inhabit. Certainly there are things I do not want to read about - and I think any erotica reader will tell you that. So yes, even as wrong as half-sisters are? I read this. Go ahead. Judge me.
As if the incest weren't enough, other problematic elements rear their ugly head with the ending, when I felt like Natalie morally and ethically sells out. Also, the Stella character. I mean, I'm glad Natalie is having a grand ol' time, but Stella is a manipulator. I don't expect a happy ending in my erotica but I do like the heroine to be "in a better spot" at the end - and I didn't get that here. Stella will continue to manipulate and Natalie sells out.
I'm going to cop-out and assign this an average C grade. It's erotica. It's problematic. But that's exactly what I want from my erotica - for it to be problematic. But I can't think of who I would recommend this to (dear Lord, no one!) and as much as I love some of Da Costa's work (and I do!) this one is strictly for fans - those curious to read her entire backlist and follow her evolution as a writer. Now I'm off to have a glass or two (or three) of whiskey.
Final Grade = C