"Private Places," Various

Pros: Four well-drawn, self-consistent, interesting stories with a strong feel to each of them
Cons: A slightly odd duality to the collection; some mild confusion in the last story
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review copy (uncorrected proof) courtesy of Penguin Group.
Expected publication date: 8/5/2008.

 

Allyson James’s The Decidedly Devilish Duke: A well-traveled wild man of a duke has returned home to England at last, a widower with a hellion of a child in tow. When he encounters his original reason for leaving—the lovely Amelia, who spurned his proposal many years ago—he’s stunned by their reversal of fortunes. Her husband died, leaving her only funds in the care of a relative who certainly doesn’t have her best interests at heart. The blackguard offers to give Amelia her funds if she bests him at a game of piquet, but Michael can tell the man intends to cheat, so he does the only thing he can think of—he tricks the man into allowing him to play against Amelia instead. But that’s hardly the end of the story for either of them, and their troubles are just beginning…

Claudia Dain’s A Night at the Theater: Two young courtesans are attending the theater for the evening, but the stage performance is the least of what’s on their minds. Sophia, a shrewd and experienced woman, has planned an intricate revenge against the man who hurt her and the woman who left younger Zoe destitute. That’s only half of what’s in store, however, and before the night is over, many people will get pulled into Sophia’s dangerous games.

Shiloh Walker’s Hunter’s Mercy: Jack has returned home at last from the Revolutionary War, determined to protect his dead friend’s sister as he promised. Mercy, however, needs the most protecting from herself. Her husband was killed by monsters, it seems, and she’s determined to kill every last one of them in return—even if she dies in the process.

Robin Schone’s The Men and Women’s Club: A Latin professor and the first female publicist for the London Museum square off across a dark boardroom, determined to sort out certain… issues… hanging between them. Rather than a simple assignation, however, this encounter goes much deeper, and it threatens to destroy both of their lives.

 

Private Places includes four very well-constructed and well-told stories with some wonderful characters.

The Devilish Duke is fun and sweet. It’s a heart-warming and delightfully enjoyable read. A Night at the Theater pairs well with it—while it touches on slightly darker themes, and its characters are more deeply and intricately scheming, it’s also highly entertaining and amusing. Listening to the two courtesans make arch comments as they observe members of society is definitely worth a laugh!

Although Robin Schone’s name headlines this book, and her story was quite moving, to me it was also a weak link. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still a great story. Some of the details are amazing. It has a very unusual dark, intellectual, harsh, at-times somber tone that sets it far apart from most examples of the genre. It’s about two damaged people who are facing themselves and each other: raw, naked, and exposed; it isn’t easy to read, but it shows incredible insight into and empathy for people. I did have some trouble at times making visual sense of some of the details, although the stylistic choices the author made in the way she detailed the story suited it quite well. I also never entirely understood the ‘club’ the two characters were involved in, or the related trial, since they were discussed in rather roundabout manner. The story also just didn’t fit well into the rest of the anthology, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Hunter’s Mercy was my favorite story of the book, although since it was written by Shiloh Walker that hardly surprised me. I’ve never read any of her other ‘Hunter’ books, but I love her style, and I didn’t find that the lack of familiarity with her work in any way took away from this story. It was raw, tragic, and sorrowful, and yet had a delicious sweetness to it as well. It’s the one story in this book that left me in tears. To a lesser extent, however, it had one of the same issues as Schone’s story.

When I’m reading an anthology that has this few stories in it, I generally expect at least some consistency in tone or theme between them. With erotica, I also tend to expect some similarity in the level of explicit material included. That consistency was lacking here. There was one paranormal story and three normal. There was one story with very explicit and adventuresome sexual content (Schone’s), some of it a bit dark, while the explicit material in the other three was fairly straightforward and ordinary. Two of the stories are rather light-hearted and fun, while the other two are darker and more tragic. There wasn’t even really a conceptual theme either; the Private Places title makes sense to me with respect to Schone’s story, and maybe one of the others in a loose sense, but not the others.

This isn’t a tragic flaw that in any way breaks the book. These are great stories and definitely worth reading. It just might be a bit harder to find readers who will enjoy all four stories, or at least want to read them all in succession. Now that you know the feel of each, you might simply try reading the stories separately, when you’re in the mood for each.

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