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REVIEW:  A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan

REVIEW: A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan

(This one is addressed to readers, not the author) Dear Readers:

As we all know, it’s impossible to be objective about a review. And this is fine, as long as we can be honest about the sources of our lack of objectivity, if we know them. This book has flaws, even major flaws that have been pointed out to me by other really astute readers, and I will talk about these flaws. But I was and am utterly unable to be aware of these flaws as I read this book, no matter how many times I read it — and I’ve read it at least three times by now. This book ripped my heart out, stomped all over it, put it back, then did it again, only harder.

A Private Gentleman by Heidi CullinanI need plot summary to explain my particular and specific non-objectivity: The story is set at some point during Victoria’s reign — gas lighting and indoor plumbing exist, for example. Lord George Albert Westin, or Wes to his very few friends, is the second son of a very powerful Marquess, painfully shy, reclusive, a brilliant botanist, completely gay, a stammerer, and addicted to heroin that was first prescribed to him by a doctor to control his panic attacks. Michael Vallant is a first class whore, beautiful, and the victim of rape at the age of twelve by none other than Wes’s father. I am giving nothing away by saying this because it’s all revealed very early in the story.

My utter lack of objectively arises from the fact that I was sent the ARC of this book a week after the Penn State/Sandusky story broke. The situation at Penn State broke my heart and made me furious, in turn/together. So the first time I read this book, all I could think of was Sandusky’s victims, who seem to have been lost in the circus of all the other “more important” players of the “scandal.” The most recent time I read this book (for this review) was about two weeks after a very close friend told me about how their heroin addiction destroyed their life and how they’ve struggled to piece it back together. So I have no ability to separate from this book. I haven’t the slightest hope of viewing it with anything close to objectivity or even impartiality. This book is real people to me, desperately vulnerable people and/or people I care about deeply.

This book, if you couldn’t tell, is utterly over the top. Everything that happens, every character, every plot point, every sentence, is designed specifically to rip your heart out and stomp on it. Being the glutton I am, I love this. I’m a Romantic (Big-R, literary movement Romantic) at heart, as well as a romantic (small-R, people falling in love romantic), so I go for the grand gestures, always have. I love Over The Top. This book, therefore, utterly worked for me. But I know that’s what exasperated some of my astute reader friends who read it.

For instance, the stock characters: the villain (Wes’s father) is evil incarnate. He’s not like Sandusky was — everyone’s best friend and buddy. Daventry is only after power. You get the impression he isn’t even really a pedophile; rather, he just gets off on the utter power of “owning” a boy and doing exactly what he wants with him. He’s evil and horrible and that’s the point. Then there’s the pimp with the heart of gold: Michael’s mother (an aging courtesan) sold Michael to Wes’s father when Michael was 12. After the week with Daventry was over, Michael ran away and was saved by Rodger, who was 16 at the time and — of course — a master thief and pimp. Rodger’s basically controlled everything about Michael’s life since then, with Michael’s full permission. He knows all, sees all, controls all. But he loves Michael and wants what’s best for him. And there’s also Penelope Brannigan, the American “social worker” (an anachronistic term I’m using here just to make a point) with the horrible past that’s the reason she’s trying to save the world, one addict at a time.

While these characters are completely from Stock Central, and therefore annoy other readers, they completely worked for me because of their layers. Yes, they’re stock, but stock characters exist for a reason, and really, any representation of a pimp has become a stock representation, ditto a social worker with tragedy in her past that spurs her to do her good work. Cullinan doesn’t leave them at that, though. Rodger comes to realize his mistakes in dealing with Michael and the interaction between them is so well done. Penelope helps Wes overcome his addiction and control his stutter, but at cost to herself. And honestly, people with Over The Top issues like this do actually exist in real life. I know a surprising number of them, in fact. So it doesn’t actually seem over the top to me.

However, the ONE issue I had with this book was with Wes’s brother: if any character was cardboard, it was him, parroting their father’s estimation of Wes, focused on his son as “the heir,” not as a boy. That did bother me and seemed too OTT, even for this book. His about-face acceptance of the relationship between Wes and Michael at the end of the story (remember, this is a historical, so “sodomy” is a crime, etc.) bothered other readers I talked with, but I bought it, considering the specific circumstances (that are spoilerish so I will comment no more).

But really, the love story between Wes and Michael is strong enough that it allows me to say words which might seem unbelievable, but here I go: addiction and child rape aside, this book is about Wes and Michael, two very damaged souls, finding each other and becoming both weaker and stronger together. As always, Cullinan delivers the goods (for me). For instance, Wes (whom Michael calls and thinks of as Albert) is trying to convince Michael to wear his much-needed glasses:

Albert only smiled wryly and held out the spectacles, dangling them from his fingers. “Wh-Wh-Why will you n-not wear them? You p-p-prefer not to see?”

Michael’s cock was pounding as hard as his pulse now, and as he knew neither would get release, he lost his temper. “My lord, I make my living by my looks. How many whores have you met with glasses thicker than most windowpanes?”

He doubted he’d have been able to read Albert’s face even if he could see it. It made him angry, and he would have stormed out, but he couldn’t leave his glasses. He’d fallen asleep before he’d finished the Dickens.

“Wh-Wh-Why d-did you ask m-m-me to k-k-kiss you?” Albert asked at last.

“Because you haven’t kissed me all week,” Michael shot back.

Albert’s reply was measured, careful. “You w-w-wanted me to?”

“Yes.” Michael folded his arms over his chest. “I did.”

Albert took a step forward, his blurry form coming into partial focus. “H-How m-many c-clients h-have y-you m-met with s-s-s-such a c-c-clumsy st-st-ststammer?”

Heat raced up Michael’s cheeks. “You’re different,” he whispered.

“S-S-So are you,” Albert whispered back.

Don’t fall in love with him. Rodger’s words rose up in faint echo, a last warning.

Too late, Michael admitted, frozen in place as Albert lifted Michael’s glasses and arranged them carefully on his face.

The impetus for the story is that Wes and Michael meet by accident at a not-quite-ton party. Michael is there to find tricks (which in retrospect seems odd, considering how much he stays at the brothel during the rest of the book), but is instead being harassed by a rejected customer; Wes is there to see a rare orchid (he’s a botanist) but is unable to control his social anxiety enough to ask his hostess to see it. Wes and Michael are trapped together by Michael’s irate former customer and “talk” to each other on Wes’s notepad, allowing them to have a conversation without consideration for Wes’s stammer. They have a sexual encounter which sends Michael into an unaccountable tailspin of flashbacks to his abuse at the hands of Wes’s father. Unable to earn his keep anymore, Michael asks Rodger to find Wes, hoping that another encounter with Wes will fix him (Michael), just as the first one messed him up. It doesn’t, but after Michael’s panic attack, Wes buys a month of Michael’s time, during which they spend every afternoon together, learning each other, falling in love, and struggling with what life has thrown them.

Cullinan’s writing is brilliant, as usual. Michael and Wes are amazing characters; their relationship is perfect for them. They don’t cure each other. There’s no insta-cure in this book for heroin addiction or for PTSD flashbacks to child sex abuse. But their love for each other makes them want to try to be better, however much they stumble along the way. But I also love how the characters don’t just strengthen each other — they weaken each other as well; their relationship makes things worse for them as well as better. It’s brilliantly done.

Once again, I feel like my review doesn’t begin to do justice to the book. Honestly, yes, the book is over the top and if that’s not your thing as a reader, then this book will NOT work for you. But, you know what, every now and then I’m confronted with the fact that some people’s lives are like this: maybe none of Sandusky’s victims will end up with a recovering heroin addict for a partner, but both deserve happiness just as much as anyone else (except Sandusky himself, of course). Sometimes the love story should be about the victims, the non-Alphas, the ones who are left behind, the ones who aren’t strong — but of course, are the strongest of us all. That is this book. And I adored it.

Grade: B+ (Recommended Read for February)

Best regards,
-Sarah

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REVIEW: Something Different by S.A. Reid

REVIEW: Something Different by S.A. Reid

Dear Ms. Reid (actually I’m just assuming your gender here — sorry if I got it wrong).

This is a self-pubbed book that you sent to Dear Author for possible review. I enjoyed the excerpt and it hit one of my buttons pretty hard (*love* stories about prostitutes or strippers — no idea why), so I figured I’d go for it. And I’m so glad I did. I loved this story. I never know why people choose to self-pub, but some aspects of the story might raise some eyebrows (they certainly raised mine), but overall, it was a fantastic story.

Something Different S.A. ReidMichael is 34, has been married for 15 years, and has two kids. He and his wife very rarely have sex:

Michael couldn’t remember the last time he’d had sex with Frannie, and there were so many rules he was no longer tempted to try. Weeknights were out, she was too tired from housework and spin class and book club and keeping up with her favorite programs on telly. Sundays were a no-go; she tended to go out with girlfriends after church and preferred a nice long evening with the telly when she returned. That left Saturday, and then Michael had to be freshly showered, the kids had to be either asleep or out of the house, and Frannie had to be in the mood. The likelihood of all these factors coming together was about as favorable as a total eclipse. Once Michael had thought that as he grew older he’d get “past it,” as men used to say, and find himself as disinterested as Frannie. But now he was thirty-four and more frustrated than ever.

A colleague goads Michael into the rebellion of going to the local park, looking for a female prostitute. There James finds him and, after a bit of conversation, Michael takes James to a hotel where James sucks him off and fucks him. Michael and James establish a regular routine until James is attacked by another client. At that point, Michael houses James and pays for his medical bills and rehabilitation, all while dealing with specters from his past and eventually being honest with his wife and starting amicable divorce proceedings.

Most but not all of the story is told from Michael’s perspective. Honestly, it reads almost like a fable. There’s some telling rather than showing, especially of the backstory for both men, but it works with your voice and just pulled me through the story (of course, looking for some to excerpt, I couldn’t find any, so maybe there’s less telling than I thought). Michael believes in truth:

“If it’s not about sex . . . what, then?”

Michael modulated his breathing. This would be taking a chance. But he could withstand the truth, he knew he could. He could ask James to be honest and not fear it would break him.

“It’s about friendship. I think of you as a friend. What we did before – I’d like to go back to it, whenever you’re ready. But until then, I want you to stay here, James. Get better. Spend time with me. Unless … unless it’s too much. Unless you don’t think of me the same way.”

“I thought of you as a client,” James said softly. “Till you rang me up. Till I said I was out of commission and you asked if we were finished. I felt – I don’t know. I thought maybe it would hurt you, wondering why I disappeared. So I met you in the restaurant. Not because I expected you to help me. I just didn’t want to leave you in pain.” James took a deep breath. “I don’t deserve you as a friend.”

“I don’t deserve you, either,” Michael said. It was the most he could manage. There was more inside him, he knew there was, but it was like staring at the white digital page when he tried to write a piece of fiction. A disconnect that made communication impossible.

So part of the “fable” feel of the story comes from Michael’s own disconnect from his emotions, but that’s very well explained by his back-story and he comes out of it now and then and increasingly toward the end of the story. The “fable” feel also comes from the ease with which Michael and James fall into their life together and with which Michael and his wife break up. But it all fits with their established characters, so again, I went with the flow of it. And Michael’s insistence on truth and honesty means that there’s never any recriminations about James’ former profession. Both of them just take it at face value, but that’s in-character for both of them, rather than forced.

From the self-publishing perspective, I saw 4 glaring typos and missing punctuation (on two complete read-throughs) which is not bad. The formatting for ePub was a little off because the WHOLE book was one chapter, so it took a while to load on Stanza (“a while” being around 10 seconds, rather than instantly). And the cover is boring. But altogether, at a $0.99 price point, it’s utterly and completely worth it.

From the self-pubbed perspective, you also deal with topics that are potentially triggering and/or might not be acceptable at mainstream e-publishers. Those topics are potential spoilers, so click to see them:
[spoiler]Both James and Michael are the victims of sexual assault: James when he was 12 by his uncle, lasting a few years and Michael when he was 14 by his step-mother, lasting three years.[/spoiler] Also, James has herpes and he and Michael have unprotected anal sex after they find this out. The unprotected sex made me REALLY uncomfortable, but I saw it as in-character for Michael at that stage in his personal development, so it sort of worked, even if it was a little strange to read. Once they have sex without both a condom AND lube, which just…no, thank you. I mean, I’m sure it’s *possible* but it’s gotta fucking HURT.

I don’t think I’m doing a good job of saying how much I liked this book. I really really did. It was both a romance and a coming-into-his-own for Michael and even a bit for James. And everyone gets their believable HEA at the end, so it left me with the warm fuzzies. You have a gift for characterization, the dialogue sparkled, I could see how Michael was changing and growing, and I was rooting for them both right from the start.

And a completely gratuitous excerpt because I just loved the description of Michael’s love for James:

“I love you, James,” Michael gasped, dealing a final battering thrust. James screamed, his cum hotter than piss against Michaels’s belly. Then it was Michael’s turn, pressing in deep as he could, pumping his cum into James. Time shifted, blurring things between them, putting Michael into another place where there was no need for ego, reassurance, or even reciprocity. He felt what he felt for James and took the deepest possible pleasure in it; the emotion was its own reward. Finally when he was completely soft, Michael withdrew, rolling onto his back beside James. He was almost surprised when the other man curled into his arms. But he let himself enjoy it, let himself go half-weak with pleasure. This was sublime, loving, truly loving, and expecting nothing but the freedom to express it.

Isn’t that an amazing way to think about love?

Grade: B+

Best regards,
-Sarah

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