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REVIEW:  Love Lessons by Heidi Cullinan

REVIEW: Love Lessons by Heidi Cullinan

Kelly Davidson has waited what seems like forever to graduate high school and get out of his small-minded, small town. But when he arrives at Hope University, he quickly realizes finding his Prince Charming isn’t so easy. Everyone here is already out. In fact, Kelly could be the only virgin on campus.

Worst of all, he’s landed the charming, handsome, gay campus Casanova as a roommate, whose bed might as well be equipped with a revolving door.

Walter Lucas doesn’t believe in storybook love. Everyone is better off having as much fun as possible with as many people as possible…except his shy, sad little sack of a roommate is seriously screwing up his world view.

As Walter sets out to lure Kelly out of his shell, staying just friends is harder than he anticipated. He discovers love is a crash course in determination. To make the grade, he’ll have to finally show up for class…and overcome his own private fear that love was never meant to last.

Warning: This story contains lingering glances, milder than usual sexual content for this author, and a steamy dance-floor kiss. Story has no dairy or egg content, but may contain almonds.

Dear Ms. Cullinan,
Your books are an auto buy for me, so I was very eager to review this one. Unfortunately this book ended up being a mixed bag for me. While I really liked both characters, the initial setup of the story felt heavy handed and manipulative and I had to force myself to continue reading the story.

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The story begins with Walter trying to convince the Dean to allow him to continue living off campus alone. But Dean Williams is not having it; Walter cannot live alone because the university wants to take care of him in light of his tough family situation (we do not know yet what that situation is). Apparently that means sticking him in a dorm with a freshman even though Walter is a junior. The Board of Regents were even involved, as they discussed Walter’s situation and refused to let him live off campus. Now, I did not go to the college in the US, I only went to a graduate- level educational institution, and housing rules were not something that I was ever concerned with. I have friends, who did go to college here, however, and I read books and watch movies set in U.S. colleges, and this situation made me raise eyebrows right away, because the idea that college would not allow a junior student live off campus seemed weird to me. Now, of course I hesitate to make the statement that this cannot ever happen – I have no clue what is happening in every college in the United States. However, I can say that at the very least such set up requires an unusual suspension of disbelief.

I understand that this set up was required in order to get our characters together – Walter and Kelly end up as roommates, but as I mentioned above I wanted something less heavy- handed. It felt even heavier handed to me that openly gay students (especially shy freshman like Kelly) end up living in a dorm that is universally considered the most homophobic in college housing. Why would Dean Williams allow it? And why would all jocks be considered homophobic? Can’t at least some of them be regular students who are also gifted in sports? I thought the book was stereotyping the students. I was already imagining scenario of Kelly being bullied and Walter protecting him later on. Yeah, I was right. Again, this development felt heavy- handed and manipulative to me. At the very least there was no huge beating happening – I was grateful for that, but Kelly definitely suffered from subtle bullying unless Walter was with him. I just thought that the situation could have been easily avoided and when I have thoughts like this, I feel that author’s hand is more visible than I would like it to be.

But I forced myself to continue and when Walter and Kelly meet and become friends and eventually lovers I did not have to do much forcing to keep reading. Walter seemed like quite a jerk to me initially with him describing Dean Williams like this and casually throwing the remarks like “Fag Hag” to Kelly.:

Dean Stevens was one of those back-end-of-middle-age women who, while once lovely, had missed the memo that declared wrinkled cleavage gross, boldly wearing plunging necklines without any viable flesh to keep them from being black holes of eww. Though he tried not to look at her chest while she greeted him and ushered him back into her office, it drew his focus like a lighthouse. A scary lighthouse.

However, I really appreciated that Walter had never been a jerk to Kelly. I loved how while he was initially attracted, he was determined to be friends and helped him and protected him when he could. Walter obviously has plenty of issues and was a flawed character but I warmed up to him immensely when I saw how he treated Kelly. Granted, I can never understand why the character that is having a lot of casual sex in m/m romance is usually shown as having issues. Isn’t this okay for a young man (or a woman for that matter) in their early twenties just enjoy himself and have fun? Do not get me wrong, Walter’s issues seem to make sense , and him learning that true love is possible was a beautiful thing to watch, but I suppose I am getting tired of this trope and do not think it is true as often as the authors seem to write it.

Kelly was adorable with his love of Disney movies and eagerness to get rid of his virginity with the right person – I have no problem with the virgin characters and Kelly is a very memorable one. His journey is about taking control of his life, figuring out what he wants and learning how to get it. I thought Kelly had changed a lot by the end of the story and I loved his character arc. I really appreciated that the first sex scene between guys did not appear until about 60% into the story on my kindle and overall the story probably has three sex scenes. For these characters it seemed very appropriate, but if you are a reader who wants a lot of sex in your stories, this one is probably not for you.

For all that it took Walter a long time to have the courage to admit to himself that he wants to be more than friends with Kelly (a bit longer than it did for Kelly because he had more demons than Kelly to overcome), it worked really well that they became friends first. I enjoyed that for all their doubts they managed to communicate better than many couples I have read about: no, it was not a perfect communication, but they avoided silly misunderstandings and unnecessary miscommunications, and they were really good together:
“For a long time they stood there, embracing and breathing slowly. Eventually Kelly spoke. “ I don’t want to screw this up either. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You…you’re everything”
The words cut Walter open, both what he longed to hear and what he feared to hear at the same time. Everything about Kelly undid him, made him feel lost and found at the same time. He stroked Kelly’s hair, letting his thumb catch on his ear. “So what do we do now?”
“I have no idea.” Kelly shivered. “Maybe we start by heading back to your car and turn on the heater?”

I do want to talk about the portrayal of the women in this story – as some of you may know; it is one of my hot buttons in m/m romance. I will confess that description of Dean Williams and “fag hag” did not make me optimistic at the beginning of the story. However, I felt better as the story went along – flawed women were not demonized in my opinion and Kelly’s mom and Kelly’s friend Rose were pretty awesome. I was disappointed that even Walter’s best friend was not there for him when he needed her – it is as if more women in the story did not measure up to certain standard (whatever that standard was supposed to be) than the ones that did. However, as I said, at the end I thought that I was more or less ok – the writer at least tried to present various women in her story and did not make the caricatures out of the flawed ones.
Overall I liked the romance in the story, but I wished it was set up much better than it was. Grade C.

~Sirius

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DUELING REVIEW:  Betrayal by Sandra Schwab

DUELING REVIEW: Betrayal by Sandra Schwab

Dear Ms. Schwab:

The next time I see someone bewail, “they don’t write historical romance like they used to,” I’m going to recommend this. The intense, angsty, sometimes uncomfortable story is very reminiscent of older books such as those by Brenda Joyce or Kat Martin, though terser and less epic. Which was perfect for me, because I could get my old skool fix without having to be up all night. I read this in what felt like about five minutes, totally engrossed.

betrayalTwo seventeen year old boys meet by chance in Tuscany and are startled by their uncanny resemblance to each other. They’re even more startled when they discover they have the same last names. Yes, this is a historical romance version of “the Parent Trap”! Or more accurately, it was inspired by Das Doppelte Lottchen, the German book that inspired “The Parent Trap.” The book isn’t really about separated twins Gareth and Finnian though — they’re mainly the catalyst to reuinite their parents, two lovers who were torn apart, each feeling betrayed by the other.

The time is not specified, though I would guess the Victorian era. In Germany, Finnian’s mother Georgina is working as a companion, and after years of celibacy is starting to think about letting love and sex into her life again.  But even her fantasies about her employer’s secretary hint that she isn’t completely free of the past:

She would look down on his dark head, run her hands –

Georgina frowned.

Fair hair. She would run her hands through his fair hair.

Meanwhile in England, Georgina’s ex-husband Lord Ashburnham is still nursing his bitterness against the wife he believes was unfaithful, and leading as cold and proper a life as possible. Later, after Georgina reappears, he’ll think, “He could feel himself unravelling and he hated it. An Ashburnham did not unravel. An Ashburnham was always in control of himself.” What he doesn’t realize that he’s been emotionally unraveled for the past 17 years, caught up in a resentment that’s effectively kept him from getting close to anyone, including his own son Gareth.

This may be the stickiest part of the book — that its hero has rejected his son because of uncertain parentage for the past 17 years. It helps that he’s obviously repressing some genuine affection: “it did not befit the Earl of Ashburnham to race to the front door the minute his heir returned from his travel through Italy.” And Gareth’s upbringing has probably not been substantially different from that of his peers. Still, it’s a pretty ugly behavior for a romance hero. Gareth finds love and comfort when he takes Finnian’s place in Germany, but Finnian’s experience in England is far different.

The appeal of this sort of book is in the passion and intensity, and Betrayal is all about that. Rage, bitterness, vengefulness — tempered by unwilling love and concern.

 The expression on her face that last time in his study. Milky-white skin, shock that he had seen through her masquerade, through all her scheming and lies. Large as saucer her eyes had been.

Her eyes…

Ash’s stomach dropped. For a moment he had to lean his forehead against the smooth wood of the door-jamb.

He couldn’t remember the colour of her eyes.

Some unknown, unwanted feeling constricted his throat, almost as if the vanishing of this particular memory was a keen loss. Fool. Fool. What did it matter what the colour of her eyes had been?

And of course Ash’s hatred towards his ex-wife can’t overcome his distress at seeing her dressed in dark, drab clothes instead of the bright colors she once loved, and he dashes to rescue her when she’s in trouble.

Originally a serialized audiobook, Betrayal is the first self-published book by Sandra Schwab, who last published a romance in 2008. (She’s digitizing her previous books, so they should be available again soon.) It has a few editing errors, especially towards the end, and it’s a bit uneven. The old-style story is told in a suitably old-style way, but the first half feels more leisurely, with room for atmosphere and some enjoyably quirky touches, while the England sections seem to rush by, focused almost entirely on the emotions of the characters, their warring bitter and sensual memories, and some over the top villainy. But though it’s not the most substantial book, I happily devoured it. B-.

Sincerely,

willaful

 


Dear Ms. Schwab,

Erich Kastner’s Das doppelte Lottchen was one of my favorite books as a child. I read it in Israel, in translation to Hebrew, and found it utterly charming. In adulthood, I even tracked down the English translation, Lisa and Lottie, which is sadly disappointing. I’m not able to read Das doppelete Lottchen in the original German, but compared to the Hebrew, Lisa and Lottie is a travesty.

BetrayalEnglish speakers will likely be most familiar with the bare bones of Kastner’s story of twins who switch places to uncover what went wrong in their parents’ marriage from its screen adaptations, The Parent Trap and sequels. Now comes your historical romance, Betrayal, which pays homage to Kastner’s beloved children’s book.

Betrayal first appeared in 2006 as a free podcast serial. When I saw that it has been reissued as an ebook and realized it was inspired by Das doppelte Lottchen, I decided to purchase it, due to my childhood love for the Kastner and also because I enjoyed your debut, The Lily Brand.

Finnian Crawley and Gareth Crawley, Viscount St. Asaph, meet in Tuscany one summer while on tour. The two seventeen year olds don’t recall meeting before, and yet they look so alike they can only be identical twins. After comparing notes, Finnian and Gareth decide to switch places. Finnian will go to Sussex, where Gareth resides with his father, the Earl of Ashburnham, while Gareth will go to Frankfurt, where Finnian lives with his mother, who serves as companion to a tradeswoman who deals in fabrics.

And so the twins switch places. In England, “Ash,” the Earl of Ashburnham, finds his heir much changed. Whereas Gareth was always rebellious and difficult to manage, he is now quieter and more thoughtful. In Germany, Georgina Crawley discovers that her son’s shoulders have broadened, and that he is becoming a man – one who puts her in mind of another man she once loved and lost.

Some of the changes are disconcerting to Ash and Georgina. “Finnian” no longer knows how to sort fabrics in the Frankfurt warehouse his mother’s employer owns, as he has done in the past. “St. Asaph” has learned to play the piano beautifully, and shows an affinity for a haunting melody that reminds Ash of the woman he only wants to forget.

Though Georgina is being courted by a gentleman she finds attractive, one whose suit she weighs accepting, and Ash’s mother attempts to introduce him to marriageable women, neither Ash nor Georgina can put the other out of his or her thoughts.

Ash, in particular, struggles with these feelings, since he believes Georgina betrayed him. When he blurts as much to his heir, a boy he has never fully treated as his son, “St. Asaph” refuses to believe him and takes off on a horse ride that causes him injury.

In Frankfurt, Gareth, posing as Finnian, begins to worry that something has happened to his brother. Ultimately, things come to a head when Georgina sees her son’s birthmark and realizes he is not the same son she stole when she left England, but her other son, Ash’s heir, whom she was forced to leave behind.

Georgina must journey to England with Gareth to confront Ash after seventeen years of separation. But what will her former husband’s reaction be? And will an old enemy, the person who poisoned her marriage, allow her to get close to Ash once again?

As I say, I loved Das doppelte Lottchen so perhaps it will come as no surprise that I enjoyed the big and small nods to Kastner’s classic children’s novel. The description of the giant statue of Neptune watching as the two boys first met reminded me of a bit in Kastner’s novel, in which the moon watches through the girls’ bedroom window at summer camp to see them make up. This, and the two siblings moving to different countries, the parents’ awareness of “changes” in their children, one child’s struggles to master “old” skills and the revelations of “new” ones in both, all delighted me.

The whimsical prose and side characters reminded me a little bit of Eva Ibbotson’s romances, of which I’m very fond. And as for the main characters, both were likable and appealing, which surprised me in Ash’s case since the plot requires him to distrust Georgina almost until the very end. But despite this, and despite the fact that Ash doesn’t allow himself to view his heir as his son, I could see he was a good man who loved Georgina intensely and suffered greatly from her loss.

It was a nice irony that although Ash had wealth and position, Georgina, who had been cast out due to his anger at her supposed betrayal, fared better than he did. Though she missed him and the child she had left behind, she was less tortured, and ready to consider moving on. I especially liked that she was attracted to her employer’s secretary and thinking of marrying him.

There were, however, some significant problems and most of these had to do with the development of the romantic relationship. First, it takes over 40% of the novel for Ash and Georgina to meet. Until then, they are not shown interacting in the present day, only recalling past interactions.

Second, the majority of these flashbacks focus on Ash and Georgina’s satisfying sex life as a young married couple. While there is a nice role reversal in that Georgina is shown to have been the sexual aggressor, the flashbacks felt intrusive to me. For the most part, they amounted to mental lusting.

At a length of 170 pages, Betrayal is a short novel, and very little attention is given to the development of Ash and Georgina’s relationship. We don’t see much of their original courtship, and while it’s nice to know they had good chemistry in bed, I would have preferred to see some of their first interactions outside the bedroom in the flashbacks.

Once Georgina and Ash meet again, we see that their feelings for each other remain as powerful as ever. But seventeen years is a long time, and we never see them become reacquainted once they are in each other’s spheres again. Both think about how attractive the man and woman they have become are, relative to the boy and girl they used to be, but neither one takes the time or trouble to truly learn who the other has grown into and what changes time has wrought.

Instead the story is dependent on the resurrection of old feelings and on the plot conflict in the form of the obvious villain machinations and attempts to come between the two. This part of the story feels more predictable than the rest.

The conflict between Ash and Gareth is one we never see resolved between the two. While I have no doubt that Ash would try to make amends for his unfair treatment of Gareth, I would have liked to at least see him begin this process. But like most of the relationships in this novel, this was glossed over.

In thinking about Betrayal, I can see that it might have worked better for me as a free podcast. The chapters keep the plot moving forward, the characters are likable, the prose would have been nice to listen to. But as a novel it falls short because the characters and their relationships don’t get sufficient attention. C.

Sincerely,

Janine

 

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