Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Sarah Frantz

http://iaspr.org

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

Posts by Sarah Frantz:

REVIEWS: Master Class and SUBlime by Rachel Haimowitz

REVIEWS: Master Class and SUBlime by Rachel Haimowitz

Dear Ms. Haimowitz.

I’ve been remiss in not reviewing these books. I recommended them in November, but then the end of the semester and the holidays and then the beginning of the semester and and and…caught up with me. But I’ve been dipping into them again and again through the last few months when I needed to cleanse my palate from other books.

Master Class Rachel HorowitzNicky Avery is a TV star who is rehearsing for a Broadway show. He meets Devon Turner, film star and all around amazing actor. They connect instantly, Nicky feeling Devon’s dominance, Devon reacting to Nicky’s submissiveness. But this isn’t a touchy-feely story. This is pure D/s with intense sadomasochistic overtones. Devon doesn’t let Nicky get away with anything, either physically or emotionally. The first book, Master Class, shows Nicky and Devon’s meeting and the start of their relationship. SUBlime (really on that title?! Please trust your readers to Get It without the hokey capitals!) is a serious of short vignettes, mostly (really great) wank material more than anything else, that reveals scenes in their daily life, but that doesn’t really forward their relationship.

Devon and Nicky meet at a dinner with friends. I love this. I love that they don’t meet at a Kinky Klub of Kinkiness. They meet like other normal people do. And they’re drawn to each other through mutual attraction rather than some ridiculous set up. The book definitely has a lot of “All-Knowing All-Seeing Dom Who Knows What’s Right for the Misguided Little Submissive”-itis to go around. Devon recognizes that Nicky’s submissive, that he’s deeply masochistic, that he’s utterly fucked up. And he knows just what Nicky needs. Of course. (Honestly, just once, I’d like to read a book with a fucked up Dom and a has-it-together sub who saves him/her.) But if that’s going to be the point of the book, it’s very well done. Brilliantly done, even.

Devon takes care of Nicky. He knows what Nicky needs and he gives it to him. And as physically excruciating as their play can be, both for them and for the reader, depending on the reader’s squick levels, it’s possible to see Devon’s care for Nicky all the way through the book.

As an example of the physical and emotional intensity of the book:

Devon retrieved his crop. He wasn’t usually such a one-toy man, but he needed precision tonight without too much bite. He thwapped it lightly against Nicky’s testicles. Stretched and weighted as they were, even a light touch was painful; Nicky grunted, stumbled, fell. The rigging caught him, and he scrambled back to his feet and forced his limbs back to their straining stance. Devon rewarded this by striking Nicky’s nuts again, upping the force a bit. Perhaps expecting it this time, Nicky kept his feet.

“Now, I do believe we were having a conversation. Tell me what I’m doing.”

Another strike. Nicky gasped.

“You’re cropping my nuts, sir.” Again, and Nicky lifted one foot but quickly put it back, gasping out, “Fuck, it hurts.”

Devon knelt down to add a second weight to the leather cord, stretching Nicky’s sack a little more. He let it go carefully, stroking one sweat-damp thigh as he released the weight. Nicky’s whimper went straight to Devon’s cock, but he ignored it. Right now, his boy demanded all his focus.

Devon picked up the crop again and rubbed it against the stretched skin of Nicky’s scrotum, then slapped it lightly, several times in succession, until Nicky danced away. “Hold still,” Devon warned, grabbing him by the rigging to keep him in place and resuming his tapping with the crop.

It was impressive that Nicky remembered to speak through this treatment. He gritted out, “Tapping my balls, sir,” through increasingly heavy breaths that became grunts, then cries: Devon’s cue to stop. Devon smoothed over the hot skin with his thumb, gave Nicky’s half-hard cock a few quick pumps.

“And I suppose you know what my next question’s going to be.”

Chest heaving, limbs quaking, Nicky said nothing as Devon worked his erection. Finally, he shook his head, looking contrite and a little frightened. A drop of sweat flew from his chin and plopped to the floor.

Good. Nicky was moving beyond the ability to parse every little thing, moving beyond control and into true subspace. Devon added another weight, and another.

“How do you feel, Nicky?”

“Hurts,” he panted.

“How you feel, Nicky, not how it feels. That’s five.”

This book is not for the faint of heart. It shows an intensely physical and deeply emotional relationship between a sadist and a masochist, between a Dom and a sub, that has some necessary suspension of disbelief (do people REALLY play that hard — especially emotionally — with each other right away?), but is otherwise beautiful, brilliant, and if you like that sort of this, deeply arousing.

Grade: B+

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SUBlime, on the other hand, is a series of vignettes that seems to lose sight of the fact that Devon and Nicky are people. In these stories, ever-in-control Dom and bratty sub are thrown in with various kinks (medical play, knives, cross-dressing, isolation, mummification). And while the individual stories stay true to Devon and Nicky’s personalities, and while the stories are arousing if it hits the reader’s kink buttons, and while they’re very well-written, Devon and Nicky are no longer actors with real lives. They’re just posable kink dolls you brought out whenever some nifty new kink caught your fancy.

Which is not to say they’re not fun, but I doubt very much that an A-list film actor can bring his A-list stage and TV actor boyfriend to a huge party, no matter how “private,” and parade him around in pony-play gear without having to worry about it getting out to the press. No matter how much you trust other people in the lifestyle, stardom is still fraught with blackmailers and paparazzi, and I just missed the real lives of Devon and Nicky amidst the kinkiness.

I feel like I’m hammering these stories for not being something they never tried to be, and I REALLY hate it when people do that. I *think* they were written first, precisely AS wankable shorts, and Master Class was written to show how Devon and Nicky got together. But however they were written, they were published as a stand-alone story and some sequel shorts, so that’s how I read them. And with that in mind, the posable kink doll thing bothered me, as much as I enjoyed the individual stories themselves. They were more erotica than romance. Brilliantly GOOD erotica, with each short having an emotional arc of its own, which is SO important, but erotica, not romance, nonetheless. As erotica, I’d give it another B+. But as romance:

Grade: C+

Best regards,
-Sarah

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REVIEW: Duck! by Kim Dare

REVIEW: Duck! by Kim Dare

Dear Ms. Dare.

You have a knack for writing characters who are all different, no matter how many times you seem to write them into similar situations or how similar they seem at the start. And your conflicts are entirely character-based, so the conflicts are all different. I find your construction of BDSM sometimes requires a lot of suspension of disbelief but as you get the emotions right, no matter how far-fetched some of the scenarios, I (usually) don’t really mind.

In my shopping sprees buying your books, however, I had avoided this particular book. I’m a simple girl and tend to like my romance non-paranormal, non-world-building-heavy. I like books to focus on the characters, not on supernatural aspects. But when I was rhapsodizing about your other books, Duck! was recommended so often and by so many people I trust, that I bought it, devoured it, and loved it.

Ori Jones is an avian shifter. The avian shifter community is rigidly heirarchical, with birds of prey as the aristocracy and all other birds fulfilling more or less submissive roles below them. The bird you are seems to guide your personality to a great extent, so crows are assholes who hang out in packs, ravens are clever and strong, seagulls are bad-tempered, peacocks are tattoo artists. And everyone’s gay. Or at least, willing to fuck other men.

Up front, the one thing that bothered me most about this book is that there are NO women. Anywhere. Not one female is mentioned — literally, the words “she” and “her” don’t show up once. I have no idea if there are female shifters, no idea how shifting gets passed down, no idea if women CAN be shifters, or if they can be a part of the shifting community. I found that extremely odd, especially since, if the entire world is built on heirarchies, some species of birds are matriarchal, with reversed gender dimorphism. If the invisibility of women in m/m romance bothers readers, they should avoid this book, because women are more that invisible — they’re almost hyper-present in their complete absence.

Anyway…Ori is “an ugly little duckling,” according to the avian elders who watched his partial shift when he first joined the community. He can’t fully shift until he comes of age at 21. He’s been serving in the “nest” for six months, a sort of communal hotel/dormitory/community center, having come to the community at 20 because his foster parents suggested he see if he’s a shifter (implying a Alternate Universe in which shifting is known and acknowledged by outside humans, but this is never really dealt with or discussed in the book). Ori’s been serving in the communal restaurant/cafeteria, suffering the abuse of the birds higher in rank than him (pretty much anyone). One day, Raynard, a high-ranking hawk shifter, saves Ori (twice) from a pack of crows and eventually takes him from the nest to be a personal servant. And that’s…pretty much the story for much of the book, although the emotional stakes are higher than they sound here. Ori serves Raynard and slowly finds his place in the world as they slowly figure out their relationship. Ori is first servant, then submissive to Raynard, then lover, then beloved. But all is halted when he completes his first shift.

This gets a bit spoilery, perhaps. It happens just over halfway through the story, so if you don’t like to know this stuff, then don’t read anymore.

This story is overtly styled on the “Ugly Duckling” fairytale, so it should be obvious what Ori actually shifts into, rather than a duck. But this changes everything, because swans are:

the purest species of avian that exists. They are good, and noble, and beautiful. They have the most exquisite spirits, the finest temperaments.

Swans are the tiptop of avian heirarchy, treated like royalty, cossetted and served, able to command all other avians, no matter their rank. It would have been nice to have some sort of indication, some foreshadowing, some hint of a swan’s rank prior to Ori’s shift, so we could have known what was coming. Instead, it comes out of the blue, because, really, why would a swan be royalty in the heirarchy except for the need to fit the fairy tale inspiration? So Raynard leaves Ori at the nest to get used to his new life as an unexpectedly high-ranking bird. Except Ori hates it, is actively hurt by losing his master, by not being allowed to serve, as is his nature.

The D/s in this book is all about the characters’ nature, tied up with their avian species. And I love what Dare does with Ori’s nature as a swan, why and how he’s a better swan when allowed to act upon his submissive nature. This is an incredibly emotional book. Not much actually happens, but every action is deeply felt by both characters (and we do get both Ori’s and Raynard’s viewpoints), their motivations deeply explored, their responses deeply examined. And it’s a very sexy book. Raynard and Ori have a lot of hot sex, all of it D/s flavored.

In fact, it’s got one of my favorite lines so far for a D/s sex scene. Ori, of course, is not allowed to come unless with his master’s express permission. Raynard’s just had a wonderful orgasm, leaving Ori wanting:

The older man pushed the last of his clothes off the bed and collapsed back against the mattress. Ori nibbled at his bottom lip as he watched the dominant settle and rest. There was a sensitive spot on his lip, where his master’s teeth had caught him hard enough to draw blood. He ran his tongue over it, relishing the sensations it sent spiraling through him.

“Come here.”

The first word almost had him spilling onto the sheet. Somehow, Ori managed to shuffle forward without tripping over his orgasm en route. [Seriously, I just love that. Sweet and funny.] His master’s hand wrapped around his cock as he reached his side, his grip tight and perfect.

Ori met Raynard’s eyes. There was a touch of amusement mixed in with the sleepiness and the afterglow, but all the anger and confusion was gone, at least for a little while. Moving his own hands behind his back, Ori knelt next to his master and arranged himself as close as he could to his rest position, his knees spread wide apart and his head bowed to watch his master’s hand toy with him.

Raynard had always liked to hold him like that, to cradle him in the palm of his hand and know that he had complete control over his lover. He was treating him in exactly the same way he had when he was a duck. Ori had never been more grateful to feel so painfully frustrated in his life.

“Come.”

The word was said at his master’s discretion, and according to his own timetable. Ori knew that. He also knew he’d never been more thankful to hear it spoken.

He came. Lights flashing, head spinning and his master’s hand never even slowing its movements. The older man’s palm kept pumping around his shaft long after he had stilled.

Ori whimpered, too sensitive to truly enjoy his master’s touch right then, too lost in his submission to even consider protesting. Gradually his master’s hand slowed of its own accord until it finally left him completely.

Despite my misgivings about the utter absence of females and the sometimes sketchiness of the world building, I really enjoyed this book. It was such a different take on the fairy tale, such a different take on a shifter myth, such a different take on D/s, that all in all, it was way more interesting — and way more well-written — than it was confusing or annoying.

Grade: B

Best regards,
-Sarah

P.S. Loved the cover. Very evocative. (Except that’s only one full wing, not two, which looks kinda funny.) Copy editing from this publisher sucks (I lost all my OMGWTFBBQ highlights when my Mantano app started acting strangely on my Android device, but still, the copy editing sucks.)

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