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GUEST REVIEW: Power Play by Charlotte Stein

The following is a guest review from dri who you can find at http://aquandrian.livejournal.com

I started pilfering Mills & Boons at the age of nine from a housemate who tactfully pretended not to notice, read every romance novel I could lay my hands on from SuperRomances to Victoria Holt to Barbara Cartland to Catch-22 (there was a sex scene in that, wasn’t there? that was enough!) and came back to the world of romance some twenty or so years later. Since then, I read almost exclusively Regency romances and UK-based chick lit, probably because I am a total Anglophile. I live in hope for well-written erotic romance that doesn’t make me want to throw the book across the room (or aeroplane in one instance), and for Australian-based romance with characters that don’t make my eyes glaze over with boredom. I worship Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, Meredith Duran, Sophie Kinsella, Anna Maxted, Sherry Thomas, Loretta Chase (we’ll ignore the Palace of Delight), Melanie La’Brooy, Jane Lovering, and Marian Keyes. I also have a slight obsession with the films of the 40s and 50s, a rabid love for music of all decades, and am currently in love with Dirk Bogarde’s leather accessories.

It’s true I bought an ereader just so I could read this novel. And I regret nothing!

Power Play Charlotte SteinIt was through a Dear Author review of Waiting In Vain that I discovered Charlotte Stein. Funnily enough, that too was the first ebook purchase I made. I was immediately hooked by the humour and the visceral hotness of her writing style, loved the short intense rightness of that short story. So when I stumbled across her booklist on Goodreads a few months ago, it was with a definite quickening of interest. What followed was intense disappointment at seeing all but one of the books/stories were in e-format. And then I saw the blurb for Power Play, and the decision was made in a split second. Hell, I think I bought the story before the ereader!

Power Play is one of two newest releases, the other being Sheltered which I have yet to read. At 260 pages, I personally would consider Power Play a touch closer to novella than novel but then I do like my books as doorstops. And certainly Power Play does read like a novella to me, so very intense and tightly focused is it with barely a breath taken between scenes. Or perhaps that was my own shortness of breath, heh.

Our female protagonist is Eleanor Harding who we meet when bent over the desk of her boss and about to be penetrated by a certain inanimate object. Said boss however exits the picture fairly soon and Eleanor finds herself in his job, faced with a dawning terrible attraction to the fumbling office boy, Benjamin.

What I loved first and best about this story was the sheer intellectual power of our heroine, the fact that we’re witness to every ethical tussle she experiences about the situation, the fact that she notices and analyses Benjamin’s reactions, and most importantly analyses her own. No witless female, our Eleanor. She’s scathing and rather wonderful, deeply complex and secretly vulnerable. Just my kind of female protagonist, thank goodness. I thoroughly related to her, increasingly so as the story progressed and most particularly at the end.

Benjamin did give me some pause, especially at the start when he’s so bumbling and a little too wide-eyed American boy. I couldn’t help but picture Tom Welling’s Clark Kent from Smallville. But as Eleanor learns about him, so do we. And I was secretly delighted as she was to discover just how clever he was behind all the gabbling and the dropping of things. He could have come across as manipulative but there’s such a wealth of generosity to his character that Stein never leaves us in doubt he is quite simply “a lovely, lovely man.”

The sex sears off the page. I kid you not. It’s quite unrelenting for a good long while but then I like that sort of read and was very appreciative of the fact that Stein never loses focus of the characterisation even once. As it should be. Every sex scene develops their relationship and it’s particularly fascinating to see how Eleanor struggles to maintain sexual dominance as her feelings respond to Benjamin’s artless warmth. The kink rockets up at almost a breathless pace and then just as I thought there was nowhere else to go after a most excellent and beautifully drawn out consummation, Stein twisted it.

Once all the kink’s out of the way, the tenderness comes in and it’s heartbreaking to see Eleanor’s confusion and yearning. There’s no saying how much I adored that cleverness on Stein’s part, to recognise that emotional bravery is so much more dangerous and powerful than sexual adventurousness. In a way, that almost made the one incidence of menage unnecessary for me but I did appreciate how Eleanor’s misgivings mirrored mine and how that did refocus the emotion of the primary relationship. The scenes following that are possibly the loveliest in the whole story.

I would have liked more detail of Eleanor’s family history, one that has clearly scarred her. Certainly it felt like we got enough of Benjamin’s and maybe Eleanor’s stuff was cut out for space constraints but I would have liked to see that unpacked. As it was, the reappearance of the former boss to sort of explain her conflict seemed a little unnecessary and almost forced to me but again I appreciated how that worked very cleverly into an ending that was utterly heartwarming.

The writing is strong and clean, something I always appreciate. I only found one formatting error, quite literally one lack of space. Praise be! And admittedly there were a few phrases where the sexual humour was a little crass and overplayed for my liking. But then I very much liked how every time I thought “Really? Did he really just say that?” Eleanor promptly thought the same thing. That sort of intelligent writing wins me over every time and makes me forgive any horrible phrase.

Deliciously taboo office sex, deep characterisation and unvarnished writing with not a single paranormal cliche in sight? That would be Power Play by Charlotte Stein. I’m so glad I bought that ereader!

Sincerely,

dri

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Guest Reviewer

17 Comments

  1. kathybaug
    Jun 15, 2012 @ 14:39:49

    I have really enjoyed the stories I have read by Charlotte, but I feel I was price-burned on one of them, Ever Unknown. At $3.57 for what turned out to be only 47 pages or so (as checked on Amazon), I felt this price was too high. This seems to be mostly a problem with her books published by Total E-bound. I still look out for books by her, but I check file/page size a lot more carefully before I buy than I do for most authors.

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  2. Mandi
    Jun 15, 2012 @ 18:48:37

    I really enjoy this author’s voice. Edgy erotic with humor.

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  3. Anna Cowan
    Jun 15, 2012 @ 21:55:10

    this sounds amazing – but doesn’t seem to be available in Australia. Ho-hum.

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  4. Las
    Jun 15, 2012 @ 22:23:09

    I had some issues with first person POV in this one, but overall I really liked this story. I’ve been eying Stein’s backlist since reading this.

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  5. Dabney
    Jun 15, 2012 @ 22:27:11

    I was with you until the menage. It seems, based on your review, out of place. Did it push Eleanor and Benjamin apart? And please tell me if wasn’t with the earlier boss.

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  6. Las
    Jun 15, 2012 @ 23:36:10

    @Dabney: The menage wasn’t with the earlier boss. I didn’t mind the actual menage so much, but the way it happened felt really random. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but I think just one more scene with the other person would have made it make more sense.

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  7. dri
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 00:52:24

    @Dabney: That’s the thing, Dabney. As Las says, it isn’t a surprise, certainly foreshadowed with enough subtlety. I have to admit I didn’t find it random, kind of expected it even though I didn’t want it. But I really really liked the way it was handled … I don’t want to spoil it for you but I would say trust the writing on this. Both their reactions to it and the way they worked through it afterwards made it quite good for me. If that helps? :p

    @Anna Cowan: Do you mean sites other than Amazon, Anna? Cos I live in Australia and I got it from there. I think it may also be available through Mischief but will check that out and post a link here forthwith.

    @Las: I know, me too with Stein’s backlist. I think I’m about to gorge myself on the whole lot in the next few weeks … except for the paranormal stuff. :p I’m curious, though … what issues did you have with the first person?

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  8. dri
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 00:53:44

    @Mandi: Yes, exactly! Makes her quite a valuable find as far as I’m concerned. :D

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  9. dri
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 00:57:35

    @kathybaug: Hmm. Good point. I know I paid nearly $10 for this but that proved to be totally worth it as far as I was concerned. Much rather pay a little more for excellent excellent writing than nothing for writing that makes me murderous with rage. But that may be just me. :p

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  10. Kaetrin
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 01:01:13

    @Anna Cowan I’m in Australia and I can buy it from Amazon for $2.98.

    I’ve wishlisted it for now. I have 2 others from this author on my TBR. Better give her a try first and see if the style works for me before buying her whole backlist :)

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  11. Anna Cowan
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 02:16:39

    @Kaetrin: it came up for me as $2.98 but with no option to buy…Did the one-click option actually appear on the screen for you? I’d love to get my hands on it! Can you maybe post the amazon link where you got it?

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  12. Anna Cowan
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 02:17:50

    Never mind. I am an idiot. It’s on my kindle now! :-)

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  13. Sunnygirl
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 03:00:15

    I think it’s interesting that you didn’t feel that the menage scene added anything to the book – that was my thought as well. I found it a total deal breaker.

    @Dabney The menage doesn’t exactly push them apart – Elenor was trying to do that anyway. But neither was it (for me) really part of the logical progression of them coming together either. It’s more that it interrupts the flow of their relationship and confuses the power dynamic that has been established (Elenor in charge) by making a third party in charge. And no, it wasn’t with the earlier boss. In some ways it would make more sense if it had been.

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  14. Las
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 09:36:47

    @dri: It was like the first person pov didn’t match with the prose and tone of the book. The whole thing felt a bit cryptic, and I never got a handle on who Eleanor was, exactly. I often couldn’t follow her thoughts…I felt I knew Benjamin a lot more. Eleanor was still a bit of mystery to me by the end of the book. Which would have been fine by me if I hadn’t been in her head.

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  15. hapax
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 23:07:43

    I guess that I’m just out of touch with the Modern Romance Novel, but “bent over the desk of her boss and about to be penetrated by a certain inanimate object” definitely does not equal “sheer intellectual power” to me.

    Rather, I’d think “unethical, unprofessional, and too stupid to deserve a HEA.”

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  16. dri
    Jun 17, 2012 @ 07:01:42

    @Anna Cowan: Yay, awesome! Glad the Amazon link finally worked for you! I’m a bit dismayed at finding the Mischief website only sells to certain territories and clearly not Australia. Boo.

    @Las: Ahhh, isn’t that interesting? I didn’t find her cryptic at all … if anything, quite the reverse. But yes, I totally agree about Benjamin being more accessible than Eleanor. I think that’s why I would have liked to know more about her history, perhaps that would have helped.

    @hapax: Heh. As a friend says, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, you know. :) But you see, that’s what I found so well done. The fact that Eleanor doesn’t just go with her desires and break rules here and there. She actually does struggle with the taboo nature of her lust and the ethics of the workplace, enough that it made me like her very very much and made me want an HEA for her so much. I’d have absolutely no respect for a heroine who didn’t go through those tussles and she certainly didn’t come across as stupid to me. As I said. :)

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  17. Sunnygirl
    Jun 17, 2012 @ 07:37:45

    @hapax

    Lol – I rather agree! I think though that total suspension of disbelief regarding normal, acceptable, professional working practice is necessary to enjoy any romance/erotica ‘at work’ story. All those tycoons that take time off to woo their secretary, or pursue a beautiful feisty girl who came to complain about the plight of displaced and disenfranchised 3 legged antelopes down the street. Not likely knowing the bosses I’ve had.

    It was still one of my major bug bears with Power Play that I didn’t think Elenor could actually continue working there, given the whole crazy dynamic. But again, I think suspension of reality is needed here and Stein manages to sweep you up pretty well in the moment so that you (almost) forget that people generally have careers that they value and don’t compromise them for sex.

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