May 24, 2013

Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan

A cross-dressing Duke hero. That alone had my interest before anything else was said over at Dear Author. This book defies gender stereotypes in many, many ways and has genuinely interesting characters, who grow throughout the story. It's a tough read in places, for various different reasons, but it's still one of the most original books I've read in a long time. And the heroine is awesome.

Kit is in London with her sister Lydia, who is having an affair with the Duke of Darlington. Lydia's husband is furious. Kit realises that she needs to save their marriage, by calling the Duke off Lydia. The price he extracts for this favor is that Kit take him back to her county home. What she doesn't realize, is that he will turn up as a woman. What he doesn't realize is that her home isn't just not fit for a Duke, they are outright in poverty. That's the beginning, but a whole lot of other things are going on.

What I love about this book is that the heroine, Kit, really is the heroine. I mean that in the sense that she's the one that saves the day, in every way. Kit must be described as strong about a dozen times and its justified. She is robust both physically and metaphorically. She also does traditionally 'male' things. She goes out and chops wood in the rain while Jude looks on; she swears; she competently manges the family finances. Jude on the other hand lounges around, pouts, and causes more problems when he tries to help than if he'd just left well alone. Kit shoves Jude up against walls and won't take any crap. I understand that some people found Kit rather unsympathetic, or unrealistic. I didn't at all. I was with her every step of the way. She made tough calls but I felt that she had grit and integrity.

The other female characters are also good. More strong, well rounded women who are distinct and human, rather than wallpaper in dresses behind the main characters. Kit's family play a big role in this book and Sophie (Kit's mother) and her sister Lydia are both characters that at various times you are repulsed by and endeared to.

Jude is a bit of an arsehole. He's morally dubious, and not just in a vague, 'Oh he's a rake' kind of way. We seem him do things, including things to Kit, which are highly questionable. On the other hand, there is an awareness of his arse-holery in the book. It's not ignored, or passed off as him being an alpha-male. So although I was occasionally uncomfortable, actually I didn't mind, because I thought that Kit could manage him. He was brought pretty low and she was always portrayed as strong. (No crying in the corner for Kit, oh no, that's Jude's role.) He was quite gender queer, passing himself off as a woman (Lady Rose) for much of the book and was quite effeminate even as a man. I didn't quite understand his 'dark side', which was a meaner, slightly dominant version of himself. It felt a bit like shoe-horning a bit of male dominance in for effect, but there was very little of it and Kit usually pulled him up on his bullshit quickly.

The weakest part of this book is definitely the historical aspect. It seems to be set in a sort of regency-esque world, but it's never at all clear when (I think this is deliberate). It would have been better set later, maybe late Victorian, as some of the things that the women do in this book (particularly Kit, but also Lady Marmotte) are so anachronistic for the regency style setting, it makes them a little difficult to believe.

Another problem is some things that are made a big deal of and then dropped. Threads are left hanging. Jude's name takes practically a whole chapter for Kit to get out of him, but then it seems that everyone else knows it, which rather ruins the feeling that Kit is being given something special in permission to call him by it. It's never clear what Jude's motivation is to start doing a lot of things and that makes the ending slightly hollow. Hints early on that Jude is almost bankrupt actually turn out that he has money (or enough money anyhow). Kit's brother is an anonymous but successful author, but nothing is made of this, and it's not clear where the money he earns really goes. And there are plenty more things like this. For nit-pickers like me, this gapiness is frustrating.

Some I'm sure will be uncomfortable or disbelieving about a hero who cross dresses. Personally I think it's eminently believable - the male/female false dichotomy has always been evident to me. Women being passed off as men is so ubiquitous though, this seems like very fair turn-about. But if you disagree, it needs some suspension of disbelief.

The beginning is slow but persevere, it quickly becomes compulsive. At some points it makes you laugh, (Jude's pig, Porkie, is awesome). Other times, it deals bluntly then delicately with issues like rape, domestic violence and child abuse. Not only that, it skims lightly over homophobia (a bit too lightly really), greed, gambling, etc. Between this, and the strong personalities of the characters, along with some political plot lines, there's a lot going on.

TL;DR: A gender stereotype and trope breaking book with a heroine you'll want to team Domme with/have Dominate you. A deliciously androgynous hero, who she has to sort out. A difficult book with some plot problems, it's held up totally by the originality of the concept and the portrayal of the characters.

Overall, it's a difficult book to grade. It's emotional and gripping, but the protagonists are fairly messed up, so the HEA hard fought. I do believe in the HEA though, and I think that both Jude and Kit, as well as Lydia and James, deserve it. There's an acknowledgement that life isn't easy though, and that there will be arguments and tough times. I like that. Although there is heat, attraction and sex, it isn't primarily erotic. There are some gaping plot holes, but it gets away with it because it's so character driven. Though not really femdom, it features female protagonists who are strong, sometimes sadistic, belligerent and control their men. I'm conflicted. I didn't always enjoy this book but it is outstanding - it stands out. Overall, a B perhaps?

By the way, I've never quite established whether the character on the front of the book is supposed to be Kit or Jude. I like to think it's Jude - and that is hot.

May 12, 2013

Review: Still by Ann Mayburn

Concept: A military macho-guy has PTSD has a major crush on the untouchable military Doctor that he worked with in Afghanistan. When they meet again, she tells him that she's into the being the D bit of a D/s and BDSM relationship, but he's not sure. When he hits a particular low, including alcohol and a knife, and being arrested, he gets in touch. A gritty set up, no doubt. Michelle makes it clear that it's her way or nothing and Wyatt agrees. As a premise, this 'strong guy needs to submit to a strong woman' thing actually is one of my favorites (I always think of this pic). Perhaps my excitement and high expectations were a problem in this case, but I couldn't help feeling that this wasn't quite what I signed up for.

An ex-marine, Wyatt's PTSD has escalated back in Texas into alcohol abuse, suicidal tendencies and a lack of doing anything productive in his life. He winds up agreeing to stay with Michelle for a month and to obey her, to see how it turns out. The reader is filled in quite early on about how the two met when in service and generally I'm pretty okay with this book up until the point that they're at Michelle's house and I feel like the big issue of Wyatt's PTSD and possible alcoholism is forgotten in favor of Michelle's poor rich girl 'bad things happened in the past and so she can't trust or love or have sex in the present' story line. This I guess I could deal with, but there were other big problems that I just couldn't ignore in this book.

The first issue for me was that I didn't feel that there was any consistency in the characterization of either of the main characters. I feel like the book starts off with a woman who says that her first and main interest sexually is being a Domme, and a man who has never been involved with BDSM, but who slightly against what he thought was his usual inclinations is turned on by it and likes her enough to give it a go. But it's almost as if there are another set of characters, Jekyll and Hyde style, who keep seeping through. And you can probably guess what they are, right? Yep. It's the TSTL heroine who really wants a man to spank, protect, belittle and tell her what to do. And the alphahole who must take/fuck/possess/own/spank/blah his woman so that he can feel like a real man TM. For instance, the constant refrain in Wyatt's head (much of the book is in his third person pov) is that he wants to fuck her, he wants to spank her, he wants to come. Whenever she's in charge, he's plotting to subvert her. The rest of the time, she lets him take charge. I wouldn't mind this if there was some self reflection on this paradox, but there isn't. I think that the challenge of submitting, for a man who is used to being in charge, is a really interesting problem. But there's no feeling of that tension here, there's just 'I want to fuck her into the ground' and 'oh, when she talks about doing things to me, I get hard'.

Michelle's character is no less malleable. Part of that is that it's too much tell and not enough show. We're told that Michelle has only cried like, three times in the last ten years, but since we see all three of those crying incidents, the show (rather than the tell) of the book has her crying all the time. Now, I know that she needs to be vulnerable (because I'm beginning to understand that vulnerable=feminine and relate-able to many readers, though not me), but I think we could have seen Michelle being strong because she realizes that Wyatt needs her to be strong, and not fall apart over something that happened ten years ago when he needs her. There's more of the same though. Michelle's nickname in the military was the "Ice Queen" and yet, Wyatt describes her as "humble, kind" when she was in the forces. Those are not the sort of qualities that gain a woman the nickname "Ice Queen". This gave me the uneasy feeling of not knowing the characters very well, which makes it difficult. I think that part of the fun of a book is thinking, 'oh, she's going to be pissed when she finds out about that... ' or similar. When a character doesn't react in character, or is inconsistent with their description of themselves, it's disconcerting.

Related to the characterization problem was a stack load of gender crap. Particularly, gender generalizations which are at best annoying and at worst insulting to both genders. Gems like:
One thing she’d learned about men, submissive, Dominant, or just plain vanilla, they liked to be needed. It was hard coded in their DNA to protect and defend.
Can't wait until we find the gene for the need to protect and defend. Do you think they'll find it in dogs too?
"You give a man one good, toe-curling, I-rocked-your-fucking-world blow job and he’ll never leave you."
Damn, all this time I thought that couples stayed together because of mutual love and respect. If only I'd known that all it took was a proper blow job.
"Do you really think any man will truly understand any woman?"
I'm so bored by that discussion. As if same gender couples understand each other any better. Now, just one more eye rolling moment for:
He kept checking the clock, bemused at how he was the one waiting for his woman to come home from work, and not the other way around.
Right, because women who stay at home are just waiting around for their partners to come home. Not cleaning/child care/educating/life maintenance/cooking, or anything like that. It doesn't help that Suki and James, Michelle's BDSM friends, are the cook/housekeeper and the groundsman respectively. They're F/m, in fact, rather more convincingly that Wyatt and Michelle are, but why do they have such gender stereotyped jobs?

The wtfery didn't stop there though. I'm not going to go though it all, but there are all sorts of 'huh?' moments. Scents everywhere, dog and horse sub-plots for no discernible reason, disappearing/reappearing pants, gold allergy questions (seriously, no-one is allergic to gold. It's basically inert.) - I could go on, but I'll spare you all but one rant. Wyatt bites through her pants.
Using his free hand, he held up the soaked crotch of her pants and bit a small hole into the cloth.
What has he got, like razor teeth? We're told that she wears white cotton panties, so I guess it means those, but even so, no-one can bite through cotton. Unless he's a dog or something. Even then, I don't think it's possible. Unless he has razor-vampire teeth. But the next moment he's biting her clit, which given that his teeth are capable of going through fabric, sounds mighty painful to me. She seems to enjoy it, so I guess she's a masochist. Wouldn't she need stitches though?

Talking of which, there's a big deal made out of the Dommes not being sadists in this book.
Michelle giggled, allowing Yuki to draw her away from her dark thoughts. “You are such a sadist.”
“Much to James’ relief, my tastes don’t run in that direction.”
I don't understand this, because I really think that men make such perfect masochists - a big strong man taking pain for/from a woman is so incredibly hot. Men are big and strong and it's a matter of macho pride to take whatever is dished out in a fight/sport etc., why not in bed? And you can't have a masochist without a sadist - they go together. Why is masochism okay, but sadism not? Especially for women, that always seems to be the case. A dominant man who likes to whip his sub is just a dom. A dominant woman who likes to inflict pain is a "man hating, ball crushing".... blah, etc. Similarly, there is a double standard that is alive and well in this book about BDSM training. I've almost never seen a book where a male dom has done submissive training. But as usual, Michelle bottomed as 'training' and refers to the Dom who trained her when she 'messes up' by forgetting to give Wyatt a safe word (he hasn't needed one, doesn't in the whole book actually) and says that her trainer would have whipped her for that. Needless to say, she doesn't whip Wyatt for any of his many transgressions. Wyatt does make an effort to reflect that he was wrong in his initial thoughts, but really...:
His earlier ignorant views about all Dominatrices being man hating, ball crushing, sadistic bitches couldn’t be further from the truth if Michelle and Yuki were any example of what a Mistress was truly like. Everything she did to him, with him, was for their mutual pleasure and never once had he felt abused. If anything he felt cherished in a weird way.
Why is it weird? REALLY?! And lots of subs like a bit of consensual 'abuse.' But then Wyatt has an attitude towards BDSM that I'm not keen on full stop. He calls it "fucked up" or berates himself for being turned on by it. If the (change of) sentiment was part of his character development, I think perhaps a more nuanced exploration of his head might have been helpful - beyond 'that's so kinky - no, yes, next thing'. This is partly I think a consequence of the setting (small town America / Texas), so I think it's a given that the opinions of the characters are a bit closed. It's just not my thing.

Having said all that, in between there are some good bits. Sexy oral sex bits. A nice spanking. Nothing too kinky to be honest. When Michelle is getting her dom on, it's fun. And the initial set up of Michelle and Wyatt was great - I could see how they worked together and why they needed each other. The characters wibbled from about the point that they got to Michelle's ranch, but until then I was enjoying it a lot.

***Small spoilers***
But as the book progressed, I just began to feel constantly uncomfortable - either because I wasn't sure what version of their personalities the characters were going to be or because of the gender and BDSM stereotypes and braindumps. Most of all though, I was deeply troubled that Wyatt's (suspected) alcoholism and PTSD was not being addressed. Especially the alcohol. When the alcohol issue was addressed, I didn't feel that there was much sensitivity about how alcoholism is an illness. Michelle's reactions to Wyatt were very emotive, but then she was portrayed as over-reacting and that she should have trusted Wyatt. I know that a sit-down rational conversation is highly frowned upon in romancelandia, but this really did warrant one. Similarly, I really felt that it takes more than a stroke on the back and a guard dog to deal with PTSD. Clearly the series is going to explore Wyatt's problems more (or I hope it is) and I hope that part (not the whole of course) of that will be how submission can help him, kind of integrate the plots together a bit. Dogs too of course.

At the beginning of the book, Michelle took on the role of Wyatt's carer, but ended up being a bit pathetic and indulging in her own woes. Wyatt signed up to be her submissive but only ever seemed to want to dominate her (and she's not averse to the idea).
***End spoilers***

A brilliant premise, executed in a cookie cutter M/f gender stereotyped way.  Really, a book that takes on so much (PTSD, femdom, BDSM, small-town America) and struggles to tie together the different elements.

It's really admirable that this book is pushing at the boundaries of what is considered erotica/femdom/BDSM. Moving beyond 'femdom is bitches in leather' and towards 'femdom can be just what a strong female character and an alpha male character need' is good. It's progress. But this is part of a vanguard of these sorts of books and so there are inevitable tensions and problems. I think we'll see more like this, hopefully from this author and others, which will get better every time.


May 6, 2013

Review: Beyond Temptation by Lisette Ashton

The tag line is: there's only so much frustration a girl can take. I couldn't agree more.

I was attracted to Beyond Temptation as I'd had a good experience with femdom labelled books from the publisher, Mischief (aka Harper Collins). The period look of the cover suggested to me that it was set in 1930s, or similar. Actually it's mainly set in present day Scotland. Bit of a let down. Anyhow, the plot.

There are several plot lines that come (alright, cum) together at Manor. This means quite a lot of switching around of third person pov and it made it difficult to keep track of. There are also about six million characters and they have a lot of sex. With so many characters, it was difficult to get to the point of really feeling for any of them. Or understanding them.

The story also tried to pack in a fair amount of convoluted plot. It was a bit overwhelming. Half the interest in the plot (as opposed to the erotica) is driven by a ex-lover of Amelia and Yale, who is she who must not be named (SWMNBN) so that it can create suspense in the plot. It would work if it wasn't pretty obvious who SWMNBN was. The other bit of plot is Robyn and Harold, owners of an art magazine - Art (good name eh?!). Harold says that he's fed up with their open marriage and issues Robyn with an ultimatum - stop fucking other men, or he'll divorce her. Since Harold sounds like an prat, I'm never quite clear why she would actually want to stay married to him. Harold certainly doesn't - he actually wants to marry his secretary Sheridan, who is a rebellious but virginal pain in the ass.

Robyn goes to blah manor to get some space. She's followed by Yale and his devotees, who barge in and create erotic chaos. Robyn is trying to be faithful, but Yale won't back off. There's combinations of nearly all the characters in some sort of clinch, at some point. Some of the sex is good, some of it is so-so, other bits are bordering on rapetastic. There's certainly very dubious consent where Robyn/Dominic/Yale/Amelia are concerned.

The leading women in the book are actually quite interesting characters. Sheridan is totally immoral, using and manipulating men and women alike. She's smart, but makes stupid impulsive decisions, which are not really in character. Robyn is okay at first, teasing the men she wants and demanding what she likes. Amelia is good too, a sadistic Domme who takes out her pain on others.

However, they all are totally spineless when it comes to erotic artist Yale.  They worship at the mighty wang of Yale. They let him do whatever he wants and he's unreasonable and dictatorial. To complete strangers. This Alphahole behavior spoils the whole book for me. He's a complete asshole. I guess a lot of people love that arrogant artist trope, but it's really a turn off for me.

The other problem for me is that the motivations for the people in this novel are paper thin - they rely on most characters being really dumb and overly emotional. Pretty much irrational. Yale is supposed to love the Manor sooooo much. It's never clear why. He's in love with Angelica but still totally hung up about SWMNBN. Angelica was SWMNBN's submissive and is possibly still in love with her and is also in love with Yale. She's a dominant to the two submissives, but for Yale's mighty wang, she's submissive. The two submissives are just foils to show that Angelica isn't a 'real' domme, she's just mean and bossy (or something, they don't like to take orders from her) unlike Yale who is a real Dom TM.

I enjoyed the bits where Amelia was domming, but otherwise the pervasive mighty dickhead that was Yale and Yale worshiping was rather dull and frustrating. I wanted more Amelia. It's a short novel and there's not much space for character development, there's quite a lot of contrived plot sooo many characters.

In summary, there's lots going on. If you like complicated menage with super horny people all round, with convoluted plots and machinations then this might be for you. I found it very frustrating - I never understood enough about any of the characters to see what motivated them (beyond sex, obviously) and it skipped around between all the characters so much, I never really engaged with it. Except to shout at Yale. Arrogant rapey dickhead. I wanted Amelia to put him in his place, but she turned out as idiotic as the rest of them.

It sort of classes as femdom as Amelia is dominant most of the time and when the female characters aren't around Yale, they're pretty strong. But as a whole, there was much too much of Yale (did I mention that I didn't like him?) and male dominance with an undertone of rape for this to be particularly enjoyable.