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.



  1. I've read the book and pretty much agree with your criticisms. However, I'd like to point out that you CAN be allergic to gold because most gold products these days are not 24k gold, but more like 14k. And that means a lot of other metals, which aren't necessarily hypoallergenic, have been alloyed with the gold.

    (Not speaking from personal experience with gold, but I do have wacky-sensitive skin that can react to copper, sterling silver, and "hypoallergenic" surgical steel. Thus, I tend to believe the folks who claim that they're allergic to gold.)

    1. @Keilexandra

      Yes, but being allergic to the metal that is mixed with gold is *being allergic to that metal*, it's not being allergic to gold. Also, it seems to me that most people who are allergic to common gold alloys would know about it, and be like 'oh by the way...'

      I am perhaps being picky. It was just one of a number of things though that kept on being like 'eh - that isn't right...' for me in this book.

      Anyhow, I'm glad that you thought the review wasn't unreasonable. It seems to have gathered rave reviews elsewhere, so I feel like a bit of humbug not loving it.

  2. I stumbled on this review a few weeks ago and bought to book before I finished reading the review (military femdom? I was all over that!)

    Yeah, in the future, I'll be finishing the reviews first.

    That said, I don't think that the issues are really about Michelle not being dominant in their relationship. Yeah, in the beginning Wyatt does think about wanting to top her, but that's done by the time the book is half over. I don't see her having PSTD and weak moments as making her less of a dominant - hell, as a dom with PTSD, I LIKE seeing femdoms who can be weak and still be dominant.

    The flip flop isn't in whether or not she is a dom - she is definitely in control of their relationship, even when she isn't in control of herself. The issue is goes deeper into the story. She doesn't have any agency. She may be dominant, but as a character is the backdrop against which Wyatt takes action. She doesn't drive the story, or effect it at all, she may dominate the relationship, but the story is all about him, and she's just there as someone for him to interact with.

    This is a constant problem in all kinds of fiction. It's one reason I love Buffy but gag at Twilight. It's why the Black Widow in the Avengers is a fail character, even though I love her in the comics. Women in mainstream (and sadly, much femdom) fiction aren't there to impact or drive the stories, they are there for the story to happen around and too.

    What is particularly painful about this book is that it starts by presenting Michelle as having all the agency. She is the one coming to Wyatt's rescue, she is the one who is forcing him to pull himself out of the funk and start healing. She is the one who is instigating... and then Wyatt ends up largely healing himself (or at least its written to seem that way, his later healing largely ignoring the huge impact her pulling him into a new environment and forcing him to rethink his life had) while he ends up rescuing her from her problems, which take over the story. That isn't about the D/s relationship flip flopping, it's about the story being inherently messed up in the way it treats the female character.

    On the other issues, I very much agree with you. The gold allergy thing nearly had me throwing my tablet across the room. You do not leave metal on a person for 24 hours then check out go "Oh, good, you don't have an allergy." WTF!!!!

    1. @Jessica

      Ah, I like your analysis! Sometimes things really rub me up the wrong way in a book, but I can't quite express why. In this case I said that it was a seeping in of the small town America trope, but I think you're right. It's really an issue of who drives the story. I hadn't exactly thought of it like that before. It's certainly a common problem - female heroines (who really do things, rather than take on a passive Bella Swan 'save me' role) are rare. Sadly.

      And I agree - I was all ready and willing to love the hell out of this book. Especially when in the extract she pulls him out of jail - saves him. But I didn't feel that the character who did that was the same one as she is in the rest of book.