October 4, 2012

Review: Cruel to be Kind by Stephanie Vaughan

Cruel to be Kind is a small town America romance novel, in every sense of the concept. If you like books by Susan Elizabeth Philips and other classic 'going back to hometown from the big city' type stories, then this might be for you. If you like your men to drink beer and your women to realize the error of their ways in wanting to live in a city. If you like your men to men and women to be women, and want a hint of F/m, but not anything scary. If that's you, then this review might offend you.

Small town America. Where men are REAL MEN and women are real women. Where gender stereotypes are still alive and well. Being a REAL MAN, for those not initiated into small town America stories, means that you drink beer, drive a truck, act like a dick and though you would happily fuck a woman in the ass, no-one could possibly put anything near your sacred hole, because that would mean that you're not a REAL MAN. Being a real woman means that you are an over-emotional martyr to the idiotic behavior of your man, you make pie and have children, own your own cupcake company (or something equally saccharine) and will happily humiliate and prostrate yourself to the hero in the name of twue love. If you get the impression that this is not my favorite concept, you're absolutely right. This misguided trope is one of the reasons (IMHO) that wonderful submissive men feel inadequate and undervalued and dominant women feel that they aren't going to have their own HEA. I am profoundly offended by it and I wasn't expecting it from this story. I was blindsided by bigoted opinions in Cruel to be Kind, and I'm not happy about it.

Anyhow, the plot. Megan is running her sister's business while the sister is busy have babies, so Megan dropped her whole life and came running. Megan is eying up a good bit of beefcake in a bar while she does the accounts for the business, when Steve (said beefcake) notices and comes over to hassle her ask her out to dinner. There's a pretty hot scene where she orders him to stroke himself through his pockets in the bar. But then, she walks out, ordering him to meet her tomorrow, and it begins to become an oddly paced / spaced series of 'dates' between them, that don't hang together well for me.

One of the issues is that this novella is full of cliches.  Take this exchange: they're in Steve's house. The last thing that was said was Megan saying about liking all sorts of food, then asking Steve if he had help decorating (he did, though nothing is every made of this).
"You mocking my he-man club house?"
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"Good. You'd better not be playing with me. A man doesn't appreciate having his big-screen mocked."
Megan's eyelashes made a slow sweep downward before eyes like bittersweet chocolate flicked him with a sidelong glance. "Oh, I'll play with you, alright..."
Is that seriously what passes for witty banter these days? I'll play with you, alright. It sounds dull and inane to me. I should mention too, that I've added paragraphs when different people are talking to the quote above. No such courtesy was done for me. There are random paragraph splits, often mid sentence. Each time a new person speaks, it is convention to start a new line. This is one cliche not adhered to in this story. Whole conversations are run together in a confusing mess.

Not only is this story packed full of cliches, it's also full of the same phrases. God is mentioned 21 times (usually as an expletive), Jesus 5 times. Fuck - also usually as an expletive, is used 46 times. "So good." or some variant (like "So fucking good!") appears 9 times. It's like the characters can't think of anything to say. 

The story is also full of plot holes. When Steve first meets Megan, she's eating shepherds pie. But then, when he orders food for them, he orders fettuccine, in case she's a vegetarian. Right, Steve. Megan made such an impression on you, that you didn't notice that she was eating shepherds pie - that well known meat-free dish. Or anchovies in the pizza that you ordered the night before. This is either lack of continuity, or Steve is stupidly unobservant.

As another instance of a plot hole, the first night they get frisky together, Megan gives Steve photocopies of her driving license, medical summary and work information. She says that he won't get any of the goods until she sees the same from him. This doesn't make much sense to me, as the most D/s thing she does that night is make Steve hold his hands behind the back of a chair. But okay, she's super conservative about playing by the book and being a responsible dominant. Which is fine, but then this little regulation is promptly forgotten and two weeks later she's letting him have sex with her without a condom (WTF!!). And of course, Steve has a disappointed look in his eye that she's on the pill - he wants to have a baby with a woman he only just met. Of course.

Because this is a small town story, it is full of extraneous detail. The sister makes an unessary cameo. As does an older woman who mentored and dommed Megan (apparently you have to train as a submissive before you can be a dominant - it sounds a bit like graduation).  We are told about Megan cutting up vegetables five times in this novella. Five times - doesn't she have something more interesting to do?! We might as well have been told about her taking out the bins...


Anyhow, back to the plot. So everything is going pretty well for Steve and Megan. There is a minor hickup when Megan wants to try some anal play, and Steve vetos it strongly, verbally and physically. Megan backs off, berating herself for taking it too quickly. This is despite him having confessed to fantasizing about poking her back entrance. (Clearly, anal is okay for women, but REAL MEN don't take it up the ass.) Then at work, one of Steve's friends is telling the story of how he intruded on his girlfriend's privacy and looked at her porn films. They included titles such as "Bend Over, Boyfriend" and "Babes Ballin' Boys". The male audience laugh at their friend and the story teller lashes out.
"If anyone's getting fucked up the ass, it ain't gonna be me."
Winking at Rick behind Robert's back, Steve couldn't resist getting in on the ragging. "Well, I don't know there, Robert. Maybe you'd like it. I hear that after you get used to it, it feels pretty good. You know. 'It's only weird the first time'."
"Yeah, I guess if anyone would know it would be you, Steve-o."
"What the fuck's that supposed to mean, Robert?" He wasn't pissed. But his arms unfolded from their formerly relaxed position across his chest. He was just flexing his fingers, that was all. He wasn't going to hit the little cocksucker.
"Nothin' man. Just, if it's got hair like a chick, and tit jewelry like a chick..." The little shit was enjoying himself way too much. The smirk on his face made Steve itch to put his hands around ol' Bobby's greasy little neck and squeeze. "No shame in being a catcher in a world full of pitchers, man."
Rick's face was suddenly in Steve's and his brother was holding him back. ...... [Steve's brother drags him away and Rick says to him: ]
....."Hey, I'm sorry if your bother doesn't like looking in the mirror. I'm just surprised it took him and Manly Megan this long to hook up."
I'm not sure I have the energy to go into the multitude of ways that this whole scene offends me. I will let you puzzle over it yourself. (Feel free to comment.)

The next time he is due to see her, Steve stands Megan up, then blanks and brushes her off when she sees him at the bar. Presumably, Steve is scared that if he hangs out with Manly Megan he won't be a REAL MAN.  But we don't know, because although we are 'in' Steve's head a lot, all he does is lust after and be possessive and jealous over Megan. We don't see why he decides to blank her. We don't see why he changes his mind a week later. He is just a ginger boy with muscles and lust. He has zero personality. Certainly no feelings. (I think having emotions violates a REAL MAN rule anyhow.) 

As Steve tries to rid himself of these unwanted thoughts of Megan, he recalls previous women he'd been intimate with. (How sweet, how coy...). Including the foreign exchange student and older woman who'd helped him lose his virginity in his fourteenth year.. This really horrified me. That's statutory rape. Consensual or not, people (of both sexes) are put in prison for having sex with minors. That's the law. It's not a variable question of morality, it's against the law. The careless way that the author mentions this makes me very angry. I also feel because of the context, that this is supposed to explain why he is submissive. Countless studies have shown that there is no connection between sexual abuse (which is arguably what happened to Steve) and D/s. This insidious connection between statutory rape and D/s is wrong. It devalues the consensual nature of the D/s that the majority practice. I think that it is additionally supposed to imply that Steve is a total REAL MAN because he lost his virginity young. Again, I think this is a damaging and irresponsible thing to suggest. Mentioning casually an illegal activity in the middle of an erotic story is like dropping a nuclear bomb right in the plot and wreaks the same damage.

Steve eventually comes to his senses and is immediately forgiven by Megan. They go off into the sunset, but not before Steve has dommed her. It's tame, but there is an unmistakable shift of power. There's no emotional reason for it that I could see. But then, there's very little reason to any of this story. To be honest, by this point I didn't give a toss about either of the characters, or the story.

***End Spoilers***

I don't even know why this story is called Cruel to be Kind. Megan isn't cruel to Steve. She is distinctly tepid and overtly respectful of his arbitrary boundaries (actually, all she does is give him lots of orgasms). He is emotionally cruel to her, but I don't think that is cruel to be kind either.

TL,DR: Cliched in story, characterization and phrasing, this tepid story of small town America had me rolling my eyes and wishing, like bad sex, that it would be over quickly.

I'm sorry. I didn't like this much. There might have been some hot scenes in this book somewhere, but I was so busy thinking WTF, I couldn't enjoy them. I don't like the gender roles that this story upholds and I think that the only personality characteristic that the hero has is that he is an bigoted asshole. Megan is the least dominant/feisty, dominant woman I have ever read about. The plot is full of inconsistencies, the phrasing is repetitive and the lack of formatting drove me crazy.

I'm going to be genuinely cruel (to the book) to be kind (to potential readers) and give this a D. Maybe even an E. I don't care really. Whichever you like.


  1. Thanks for all these reviews. I regularly check here to see what's good and worth reading. :)

    The whole thing about all women are really subs or switches at best and need to be dommed is a huge buzzkill for me. It's especially infuriating because published novels at least make some kind of attempt at character development (unlike most of the stuff on bdsmlibrary and the like), but most of them have this sudden 'twist' of the woman being dommed halfway through the book.

    Now there's nothing wrong with switching but there usually is no indication about that happening in the synopses or summaries of the books. And it kind of ruins the story for me since I have almost zero interest in femsub stuff.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      I'm totally with you. The unexpected switches are the ones that really annoy me. It's like buying a really great chocolate icecream, then finding that just underneath is a peanut butter sandwich - fine in itself - but not what you signed up for! It's funny, because it's a trope that is frequently in F/m books, but I don't think I've ever read about a male dom who secretly wished to be a sub.

      Glad you like the reviews. It's really nice to hear from readers - do let me know what you've been reading too. :)