Wednesday, March 21, 2018

#TBRChallenge 2018: Hotbed
The Book: 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


Jill said...

Okay, some of this is going to be a bit cut and paste from Jenny Cruisie's website, but it was so hard to describe once, I don't want to try to reword it :-)
I read the novella “Taking Flight” by Tamsen Parker. It’s a contemporary erotic romance about a divorced Jewish woman who has converted to a more devout Orthodox form of the faith. She marries a widowed man in the same religious community (he has lived within this world his whole life). I want to stress, there is some cajoling from their community, but it is definitely their choice, not a forced marriage scenario. They don't know each other well (b/c dating is frowned upon) but they discover to their delight that they both like kinky stuff in the bedroom. So they connect there and it's the rest of their life where they struggle to communicate.

I'm way more of a sweet than sexy reader, but I wanted to challenge myself a bit so I dug this out of ye olde kindle tbr. I think I bought it when I saw it recc'ed and on a sale. And it really pleasantly surprised me. There were some sex scenes that went beyond my personal comfort level, but the author made me believe that this is what the characters wanted and it was the right choice for them. I don't know anything about the BDSM community or the Jewish Orthodox community, but it *felt* like the author had done her research and portrayed everything with respect.

I'd definitely read something by the same author if I was in the right mood.

Dorine said...

Wendy - you made me laugh a lot during your review, especially about who to recommend it to and the whiskey! LOL One more book off the pile. It's amazing to look back at all the changes in women's fiction since that time.

Lynn Spencer said...

This cracked me up! I know I've read and liked at least one romance by this author. This sounds like quite a switch, though. After that time I read an erotica/Jack-the-Ripper fanfic(I don't know quite what to call it??), I've been pretty firm about reading erotic romance rather than straight up erotica when I'm reading steamier books.

cleo reader said...

Oh Black Lace. I have such, such fond memories of reading them back in the day. You’re very brave to revisit them.

I barely remember the titles of any of them (except The King’s Girl and The Bracelet) but I will never forget the way I felt when I first discovered them on a back shelf in my college bookstore (why were they there? No idea).

I kind of thought I’d read this one until I got to the half sister thing. I do remember reading one with a cross-dresser, a bdsm group and shenanigans - the heroine goes on a work trip, discovers a problem with her hotel reservations and ends up staying somewhere that’s run by a dom who introduces her to spanking. And later it turns out her boyfriend set the whole thing up so she’d discover kink.

cleo reader said...

Hah - this inspired me to poke around Portia Da Costa's website and I think I solved my own mystery - the book I read and was thinking of WAS written by her - it's Continuum, republished as Master of the Game. I remember it as having a central relationship despite the multi-partner shenanigans and a happy ending, and her author notes confirm that.

I don't think I'll bother re-reading it though - it's expensive and I'd rather just have my memories of how this book made 20-something me's head explode rather than re-read it and wonder WTF?!?

Wendy said...

Jill: I have that one in my TBR too! I really need to read it. I think at one point it was free (?) and it sounded "different" - which I'm kind of desperate for in erotic romance these days. I'm burnt out on BDSM and billionaires!

Dorine: I had a nice Twitter convo with the author and even she admits this story is a bit bonkers. It was during a period when Black Lace wanted their authors to "push the envelope." Da Costa's more recent work is very much in the erotic romance vein and her Black Lace titles after this one you can see that progression.

Lynn: It was earlier in her career and at a point in time when Black Lace was really "out there." I've been pretty ho-hum on erotic romance of late, so it was kind of fun to go back in time and read a high-camp erotica novel. Seriously, I could not stop reading....

Cleo: I have Continuum! I've got a separate shelf devoted just to the Black Lace TBR, so Lord knows what sorts of campy shenanigans await me. I know what you mean about wanting to stick with your memories of a book instead of rereading. I think a big reason this one worked for me on a morbid fascination level was it was just so over-the-top, with a tinge of camp, and so gleeful, as opposed to some of the recent erotic romance I've tried to slog through. But then Da Costa has always written with a playfulness - which I find appealing in erotica.

cleo reader said...

I hope you read and review Continuum! So I can re-experience it vicariously.