October 13, 2012

Review: Control by Charlotte Stein

I put off buying Control because I was unsure who, if either of the men we meet in the sample, was going to be the HEA hero. The book more or less opens with the heroine being fucked by a potential employee, Andy, over the kitchen table. Gabriel walks in on them and is subsequently employed in Madison's erotic book store. I was concerned that Madison was going to get her HEA as the submissive. There wasn't anything particularly to suggest this - it's just depressingly common in stories that female switches, or even dominants, have to be submissive. My worry was unjustified. I don't think it gives too much away to reveal that quite quickly Madison realizes that tentative submissive virgin Gabriel is the man for her. Andy is a foil to their kinks, to their relationship and to Madison's fear of commitment. He drives the emotional plot and the sex forward and therefore it doesn't feel unnatural for him to be in the story and I don't feel that he poses a risk to the HEA. A nice compromise all in all.

So anyhow, the plot. Madison owns and runs a book store selling erotica, and needs an assistant. The kind of assistance offered by Andy, her first interviewee, is not exactly what she had in mind, but she's enjoying it all the same. Her second applicant walks in on them. Despite herself, Madison thinks about him:
...his too thick glasses and his tweediness and those hunched shoulders...
Well! We've not met a hero like that before and I LIKE IT! It's never quite clear how Madison then employs Gabe, but she does and all sorts of teasing ensues. Andy reappears to fuck Madison, but she gets off much more on teasing Gabe, the thought of him knowing or watching her fuck Andy and the image of him, awkward and turned on by her deliberately provocative actions. At one point, Andy is fucking her and she is thinking:
Gabe bent over me, fucking me the way Andy is while I tell him - I don't beg him - to do it harder. Do it harder, babe, yes. Give it to me I want you. I want you. Just you. 
Though Madison is a switch and somewhat of an exhibitionist and is submissive to Andy, she actually uses him to work out her feelings for Gabe. At one point, Madison and Andy are fucking in the kitchen (again) and Andy says to her:
'Make up your mind, hon. I'm going to come pretty soon and then you'll kick my arse out of here.'
So although when they're having sex she's Andy's submissive, in many other ways, Madison is in control. Which makes it somewhat surprising that Madison doesn't spit it out when it appears that she wants to be dominant with Andy and Gabe together. Madison doesn't say anything. So you have moments like this:
'Maddie doesn't know what she wants. Isn't that right babe?'
I'm sure I do. I do, right?
It's moments like that that I think that this book could just as easily have been called Confused as Control. And:
I hate Andy. I don't know why I 'm not telling him to get out.
Madison, it's because you like the idea of having two men. Also, he's hot. And you seem to get off on being used. I don't however get off on being used, and I find it difficult to get out of your first person head-space and into Andy's, directing you and Gabe, in order to enjoy the scene.
And again:
Andy just grins - his expression saying dance, puppets, dance, very clearly. I've no idea how he took the reins so quickly, but I understand this much for sure: my own efforts seem weak and third rate, by comparison.
This is, I think, the crux of the issue. It's the old trope of the insecure, nervous heroine: the placeholder heroine. In this case, I think that Madison's unsureness about what she wants and her insecurity about being a dominant is supposed to reflect the reader's potential nervousness about switching from submissive to dominant. It is supposed to make us empathize with Madison, that she can't speak up, or stand up to Andy. Placeholder heroines who are wet blankets generally make me want to slap them. And Madison, when she continually doesn't say anything to Andy when he takes control, really needs to snap out of it.


And the miraculous thing is, that in this story, she pretty much does snap out of it. Not exactly the way I would have liked, but good enough to stop me, mid grump. There's a misunderstanding in their threesome while they're having sex. Gabe thinks that Andy is hurting her. Technically, he is, but Madison is enjoying it, but somehow cannot articulate this to Gabe. (A lot of the problems that need to be overcome in this book are to do with Madison being unable to spit out what she really means at the crucial moment.) After they establish that Madison was quite happy, Gabe asks Madison to domme Andy, and she does. The scene that follows is awesome. Though I have reservations about how she got to this point, I find something delicious in the role reversal of Madison protecting Gabe from Andy, and humiliating Andy. Gabe gets off on humiliation, but even so, it's surely the dominant's right /duty/pleasure to protect their submissive. Everyone's happy.

 In another amusing gender trope reversal, it is Gabe who runs away because he thinks that Madison doesn't love him (the classic Harlequin Presents scenario is that the heroine runs away because she believes that the hero doesn't love her). Gabe thinks that Madison loves Andy, who can switch and dom her, whereas he can only be submissive. Madison, thank god, comes to her senses, chases after him and they have their HEA. I'm not quite sure what causes Madison to suddenly decide that she doesn't need to be submissive anymore, when she was being submissive to Andy only the night before. But hey, let's not allow technicalities to get in the way. This is a pretty convincing switch to F/m HEA and that is sooooo good <happy sigh>.

***End Spoilers***

A comparison between this book and Power Play is unavoidable. The characters are very similar: an up-tight heroine who is discovering that she loves being in control; a hero who is discovering just how far his kinkiness goes; a third person that both brings the pair together and keeps them apart. The emotional plots are similar; the setting (work) is similar. Even the covers are the same - with an identical photo of the same couple and a pink color scheme. Both Power Play and Control are written in a visceral first-person narrative and have a great build up of the sex and the relationship and the decent into spine-tingling kinkiness. And they are both HOT HOT HOT.

For me, the plot is more cohesive in Control, and the threesome is much better integrated into the story and the relationship. Power Play blindsided me with unexpected submissive scenes that jarred with the relationship and left me with concerns about the future happiness of the protagonists. Not so in Control.

In terms of characters, the heroes are actually quite different. Gabe is a geeky virgin, whereas Ben (in Power Play) is cooler and more knowledgeable. I felt that Gabe cares much more about Madison than Ben did about Elenor. Comparing the two, I wonder if Ben is more interested in his kink than he is in Elenor, whereas the opposite is definitely true of Gabe.

Often, the review length is inversely proportional to how much I liked the book. Not so here. I've talked about some of the tensions in the story, but I haven't said how amazing the scenes are between Madison and Gabe. Where he licks her out, repeatedly, follows her orders, is teased, denied, directed, spanked and humiliated, it's wonderful. It's incandescently good. The multiple, almost continuous sex scenes are spectacularly erotic. Definitely NSFW and totally distracting.

TL;DR: I have some reservations about this story, but overall, it's a gem. If we're really lucky, perhaps one day Charlotte Stein will write a full femdom story, where the heroine is dominant all the time. Until then, Control is pretty damn good.



  1. I loved this book. Fantastic review

    1. Hi nix,

      So wandered over to your site and read your review, and I think it's interesting that we had almost exactly the same issues with Andy in this book. Perhaps we think alike!

      Thanks for dropping by. :)