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REVIEW: Have Mercy by Shelley Ann Clark

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Dear Ms. Clark:

I don’t normally include the book blurb in my reviews, but in this case, it seems significant.

In Shelley Ann Clark’s seductive debut novel, two damaged souls discover that when they’re together, their bodies hit all the right notes.

Rock diva Emme Hayes already broke up one band after sleeping with the lead singer, and she swears she won’t let sex screw things up again. The problem is, her new bass player—a lean, muscular, tattooed mystery man who makes her want to demand his absolute attention—has her so worked up she can hardly carry a tune. Emme promises he’s off-limits. She just doesn’t know how she’ll be able to confine the heat to her love songs.

The moment Tom McKinney lays eyes on Emme strutting around the stage of his blues bar—all curves, eye liner, and teased blond hair—he knows she’s one of a kind. So when she offers him a two-month paid gig to tour with her band, Tom can’t say no, despite family troubles and the bar’s precarious finances. Onstage and off, the music they make thrums in his soul, but Tom has too much going on to get involved—even if he burns to let Emme play his body like a fine-tuned instrument.

I don’t think this marketing is doing the book many favors. If you’re looking for rock star excess and majorly fucked up people, you’re not going to find it (not in the main characters, anyway.) More importantly, there’s only the tiniest hint that this involves a specific erotic subgenre, femdom, when there’s no narrative reason to keep that a secret. This is an area in which surprises tend to backfire; I hope that doesn’t happen, because I liked the book a lot.

Emme’s singing career is on the rise, but no matter how conscientious and professional she is — which is very — scandal still dogs her. When she decides to hire bassist Tom for a tour, her bandmate Dave is uneasy; he senses an attraction between them, and he’s never forgiven Emme for being “a drama magnet.” Also, Tom is known for having to frequently bail his alcoholic sister out of trouble. Emme is undeniably attracted to Tom, with his strong hands, and forearms that flex while he plays, but she swears that it’ll work: “I promise I won’t seduce the new bass player. I’ll make him promise his sister won’t cause problems for us.” As you might guess, neither of these promises can be kept.

This story hit a lot of my happy spots, with exhilarating depictions of creative people who are passionate about their art:

Tom’s nerves coalesced into adrenaline as he played, the sheer joy of making with a talented group of people. He could hear them including himself through the monitors and god damn, they sounded good.[..] By time time the song ended, the notes had wound around them all, the tiny communications coming as second nature; slowing the tempo when Emme nodded, holding a note a little longer with a look from Dave.

The relationship between the bandmates also feels real. There are tensions and conflicts, but also the strength of a long, intimate knowledge of each other.

But I think I loved the sex scenes most of all — which is good, because there’s a lot of them. Both characters are almost newbies to dominance and submission (Tom has some limited experience) and they’re a little tentative, but so excited and joyful as they figure out how it works for them.

‘Okay,’ Tom said, his voice barely more than a brush of breath against her cheek.

‘Good, sugar.’ Tom leaned into her body with the praise, nudging against her warmth. It felt so sweet, the way he nearly melted into her. ‘Now take your cock out.’

The buzz of power was back, her palms tingling, sense sharpening. She could feel Tom’s body responding beside her, his muscles tending, feel the reverberation of his low hum in her own chest.

There isn’t much in the way of formal negotiation or education, but Emme is careful about paying attention to Tom’s physical signals, and proceeds very cautiously when they move into sparking with a belt. (This, and some public play, is as hardcore as it gets; their main form of play is teasing.) Both of their points of view are strongly depicted and sympathetic. I did think that the move from attraction to BDSM happened too fast: in one scene Tom and Emme are making out in the back of the van, and in the next she’s ordering him around, feeling positive that he’ll do exactly what she tells him. The book isn’t all that long and could have used more transitions. But the emotional aspects are so good; it’s the kind of writing that can make any kink seem hot, just because the characters are enjoying themselves so much.

(Tangentially, I’m starting to sympathize with those who are annoyed by the lack of experienced female doms in erotic romance. I enjoy reading about newbies because the process is interesting and they’re allowed to show some vulnerability — at least if they’re women — but for someone seriously into femdom, it must get old.)

Although the sexual journey is integral to the romance, the personal journeys and relationship conflicts are also a strong point. This isn’t exactly the NA story the cover seems to promise, since Tom and Emme are definitely mature adults, but the problems aren’t that dissimilar: Emme is dealing with sexist and unjust slut shaming, and Tom is weighed down by family pressures that keep him from living the life he really wants. (I also suspect Tom might have ADHD, but if so, it’s not a plot point.) Their solutions are adult solutions, involving thought and honesty; Tom’s story is deeply sad, but couldn’t really happen any other way. I did think the very end gets a bit cheesy and over the top, but it also felt right for there to be a climactic moment for this couple, celebrating their new chance for happiness.

This is a promising debut, and I think it’d be a great place to start for someone curious about femdom romance. I hope it finds its audience. B

Sincerely,

Willaful

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Willaful

Willaful fell in love with romance novels at an early age, but ruthlessly suppressed the passion for years, while grabbing onto any crumbs of romance to be found in other genres. About eight years ago she finally gave in and started reading romance again, and has been trying to catch up with the entire genre ever since. She loves exquisitely written historical romance, intense m/m, and crazy, over the top categories about equally, and hopes to be buried with her e-readers. Look for her on twitter or at her blog at www.willaful.wordpress.com

20 Comments

  1. Christine
    Jul 01, 2014 @ 19:12:05

    Great review, I really enjoyed this book as well!

  2. Allison
    Jul 01, 2014 @ 19:36:26

    Thanks for this review! Purchase complete!

  3. JewelCourt
    Jul 01, 2014 @ 20:19:22

    With the exception of Joey Hill, I’ve never read a book with BDSM elements that I’ve care for. However, this sounds intriguing and the price is right. I think I’ll buy, if for nothing else than the fact that the woman isn’t the sub for a change.

  4. Willaful
    Jul 01, 2014 @ 21:03:38

    @JewelCourt: I haven’t read any Hill yet — I keep meaning to — so I can’t really compare them, but I get the sense this is in a lighter mode.

  5. Rosario
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 00:43:07

    The marketing does seem quite strange. I put this one of my wish list *in spite* of the rock star angle. I have absolutely no interest in reading about “rock star excess and majorly fucked up people”, so good to know there’s none of that here. But there really should be a little bit more of an indication that there are BDSM elements. By hiding them they’re missing out on the people who are drawn by that element and potentially annoying those who dislike it (and yes, sorry publishers, but not all of us are into that. In fact, it’s quite a big turn-off for quite a few of us).

    I might give this one a try anyway, since I really like what I’ve seen of the author’s voice and the BDSM element sounds like it’s on the low-key side, but I would have been really annoyed if I’d read it without having seen your review.

  6. Willaful
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 01:27:43

    @Rosario: I came this close to not requesting it, because rock star NA? Blech. (It was in the NA category at NetGalley.)

    The BDSM is… low-key as in not hardcore, but it’s also a very strong theme.

  7. Jill Sorenson
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 06:16:27

    I disagree about the blurb. I’m not really into the rock star thing, but I think there are hints of the heroine’s proclivities (demand his absolute attention, play his body like an instrument). That’s enough for me. I’ve heard that readers will avoid femdom books, so why not be vague and emphasize the angles they DO go for–rock star, NA, damaged.

  8. lawless
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 07:21:58

    I guess I’m different from most readers, then, because I can’t stand most erotic romance/erotica with female subs. I do not find reading the relationship dynamics I can find anywhere turned up a notch (or more) because of the BDSM aspects charming. But I’m not interested in the kind of fetishized humiliation that is what many think of first when they hear about female dominants/dominatrixes. So thank you for reading and reccing a rare femdom novel.

    Most readers seem to like Natural Law best of Joey Hill’s Nature of Desire series but I like Branded Sanctuary better. Hill’s books rely a lot on past emotional and physical abuse or trauma for character development and do come close to “BDSM as therapy,” but unlike 50 Shades, their protagonists do not forswear BDSM once they’re in a better place emotionally.

  9. Jane
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 08:27:17

    Tricking a reader into picking up your book is a way to get a lot of returns. If a reader doesn’t like a femdom book, I don’t see disguising it as something else as a way to pick up new readers.

  10. Jill Sorenson
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 08:56:55

    Not really the same issue, but this came up in the comments for a Farrah Rochon interview. Some readers don’t want to be “tricked” into buying a book about POC, so they prefer the cover and blurb to clue them in. But I don’t think every element in a story needs to be spelled out. Unbound by Cara McKenna is a good example. I might not have picked it up if I’d known about the hero’s preferences, but I’m so glad I read it. The hints are even more subtle in that blurb than in this one.

  11. Jane
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 09:35:06

    A person’s racial profile isn’t a big deal in a book. An erotic romance where the woman is a domme is a big deal. Generally, the entire story is about the female being a domme and the male being a submissive. That’s a big detail to leave out and counts as “tricking” in my book which ultimately leads to unhappy readers, poor reviews, and lots of returns. Obviously the author gets to make her decision about what she’d rather risk.

  12. Jill Sorenson
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 10:01:00

    What about an erotic romance with a male dom, should that be stamped on the front cover in a big neon warning sign also? I don’t know if the author wrote the blurb (HQN writes mine) but I don’t agree that the hints given are insufficient. Maybe I’d feel differently if I read the novel. If it was about sex clubs and nonstop kink, rather than bars and music, I’d see your point.

  13. Willaful
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 10:22:06

    @Jill Sorenson: A big neon warning is not necessary, but BDSM book blurbs generally have pretty strong clues. Here’s an example of another recent femdom book (I could also find any number of examples for male dom books):

    “Caitlyn Fox has one chance to prove to her outrageously hot—and ridiculously controlling—boss that she’s got the chops to succeed. But Jamison Wolfe isn’t quite what he seems. And once they cross the line between business and pleasure, Caitlyn discovers the one place where she’s in control…”

    I don’t mind a secretive blurb when there’s a narrative reason, as I said — in Unbound, it was an important reveal, and I made every effort not to spoil it in my review. When there’s no reason, it comes across as tricky, and it throws people off.

  14. Christine
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 10:27:57

    I have to say that I thought the blurb hinted quite well at the plot in the book. The line ” even if he burns to let Emme play his body like a fine-tuned instrument” gave me an indication that she would be the one in control, so I didn’t find anything surprising in it.

  15. Jill Sorenson
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 13:31:05

    @Willaful: I wonder if this was a decision made with the NA market in mind? I could be totally wrong about that, and about readers shying about from femdom. I got the idea from McKenna, who IIRC said her publisher didn’t want to mention male submission in the blurb! I meant my comment as an insight into these behind-the-scenes marketing decisions, not as a criticism of your review. I enjoy your reviews.

  16. Willaful
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 13:48:35

    @Jill Sorenson: Thanks, Jill. I do think they were aiming for an NA market, and it might work… like I said, the themes fit fairly well.

  17. Rosario
    Jul 03, 2014 @ 00:57:31

    Just to be clear, I don’t object to this being femdom rather than having a male dom. In fact, I can just about tolerate femdom and will read this, whereas if it was male dom, I wouldn’t go near it. But if other readers do shy away from femdom, I still find it objectionable to trick them into reading it. It smacks of “You’re saying no, but I know you want it”.

  18. Jane
    Jul 03, 2014 @ 07:56:48

    @Rosario – exactly. I love a good femdom story. Joey Hill’s Natural Law is a book I recommend time and again. I read it specifically because it is a femdom story. That’s what makes it unique and wonderful. But trying to disguise a femdom story as something else treats readers poorly and I wouldn’t be surprised if they react in kind.

  19. Anonymous
    Jul 04, 2014 @ 12:35:06

    What all gets defined as femdom sub-genre-wise? Is it only actual bona fide BDSM with a female dominant, or is it also books where, if the genders were reversed, we’d call it mainstream and ordinary? (That is, there are a lot of kind of very mainstream, non-BDSM romances out there where the hero is very clearly the one in charge of the sex.)

  20. Willaful
    Jul 04, 2014 @ 13:31:00

    Interesting question. I might actually have an example… The Valentine Legacy by Catherine Coulter. Though you could argue it’s bona fide BDSM, since the hero is frequently tied up and even has special handcuffs made.

    In general, I don’t think I’d use the terms unless there’s actual BDSM. That applies to dominant heroes as well as heroines. But I could use some example to ponder.

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