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REVIEW: One Real Thing by Anah Crow and Dianne Fox

Dear Ms. Crow and Ms. Fox.

I’ve had a hard time writing this review. I made it a Recommended Read for January and it’s been a best-seller at Carina since it’s been out. But it’s such a subtle book, so simple and yet so complicated, I’ve been lost for what to say about it. This is a book that needs to be read at least twice, to see how subtly the motivations of both characters are layered (the academic in me wants to say imbricated, but that’s just pretentious) into the early chapters. I really liked this book, really enjoyed the characters, and was fascinated by their relationship. But I’ll be honest, the first time I read this, I read the whole thing wondering, “OMG, how are people going to take this?!”

Lemme ‘splain. No, is too long. Let me sum up.

Nick has the perfect life in New York. He’s a successful journalist, finishing up a story uncovering the manipulative adulteries of a female Senator’s husband. His wife and he muddle along well together, each focused on their own pursuits, but still a couple. The one fly in his ointment is that a friend of his, Rick, insists on sending him tabloid stories about their mutual college buddy, Hollister Welles. Holly’s life is imploding publicly and dramatically: broken engagement, drugs, descent into the depths of depravity. Eventually Nick can’t take it anymore and, after a particularly bad story with a picture of where Holly is staying, Nick flies to LA on no notice, lying to his editor and his wife, and drags Holly back, literally by the hair at one point, and forces Holly to put himself back together. He finds him an apartment, gives him rules — no alcohol, no drugs, no meaningless sex — and watches over Holly while he detoxes and figures life out.

I don’t want to give away why Holly was purposefully self-destructing, but it’s a good reason, if devastatingly sad. At first, he’s not quite sure himself, or he won’t let himself figure it out, so the reader discovers it as he does. Which is one of the reasons that the book really rewards multiple reads, because the reader can go back and find the hints that seemed to be throw-away lines. Holly is a lost soul who insists on losing himself more, but after Nick’s intervention, he figures things out, finds himself, and jumps into life with a fervor and a joy that’s wonderful. That’s just the first half of the book. And although Nick and Holly are intensely aware of each other physically, they are just best friends, just college buddies looking out for each other.

Except, of course, they’re not. Not emotionally.

Then Nick’s life crashes around him and he doesn’t know how to put it back together, just like Holly at the beginning of the book. And Holly does exactly the same thing for Nick that Nick did for Holly: gives him a safe space and the reason to figure things out. One of the things Nick realizes as he patches his life back together is that all he’s ever really wanted…is Holly. Part of Nick’s implosion is his marriage implodes too, so Nick and Holly are finally free to explore the until-now ignored sexual side of their relationship.

Two things are important here: I love how both Nick and Holly are bisexual. Neither of them really mention it. They never make an issue of it. It’s never discussed or politicized. It’s just there. It’s who they are and there’s no angst about it. They’re both bisexual and that’s that.

The second thing is that Nick and Holly’s relationship is what’s known in the BDSM world as TPE: total power exchange. Nick controls everything about Holly. Not just their sex, but what Holly can eat or drink, where he can go:

There was something about seeing Holly on his knees, about Holly kneeling for him, that warmed Nick from the inside out.

Holly leaned into the touch, closing his eyes. When he looked up, his expression was hopeful. “May I please have some coffee?”

Holly could’ve been asking to suck him off, the way Nick’s body reacted to the question. God, he didn’t even know-No, he hadn’t known. He’d thought his responses to Holly’s obedience were only because he’d wanted to make sure Holly was safe. But he’d been lying to himself. He could see that now. He wanted that all the time, wanted to hear Holly ask so sweetly for the simplest things. “Yes, you may.”

And again, in typical fashion for these two authors, it’s not a Big Deal. It’s how and who these characters are and how their relationship fits and works for them. Nick could not have saved Holly if Holly had not instinctively followed orders because of his submissiveness to Nick. Holly could not save Nick if it weren’t for Nick’s instinctive dominant response to Holly. It just works for them. But try explain to someone that Nick feeds Holly and tells him whether or not he can have coffee in the morning, without them having read how well it just works for both characters, and it just sounds wrong and borderline abusively controlling.

But it’s a wonderful demonstration of a BDSM relationship working because of who the partners are and how they respond to each other, not because one is Supah-Dupah Dominator Owner of Kinky Klub of Doom and the other one is poor misunderstood sub who yearns to find The One True Dominate. Nick is dominant because of Holly; Holly is submissive because of Nick. They fit beautifully and I adored their relationship. They ground each other:

Holly’s blue eyes were so wide and innocent and trusting and free of guile. This could have been something degrading or controlling, but it wasn’t, it was right, and everything about Holly said it was so.

So while I spent most of the book running around in my head crying “What will people think!?” I came out of it convinced that people would think that it’s a relationship that works, a love that makes both characters so much stronger together than apart. Despite its unconventional nature, isn’t that what love’s supposed to be about?

Niggles: the wife is a little too Evil Witch, a little too strident. At times the book is a little too spare, the timeline a little too chopped up. More details and more time with the characters having time with each other would have been good. We repeatedly see only one scene, maybe two, out of an entire week, and sometimes it’s not fully clear exactly how much time has passed and what the characters did with that important time. This makes the story confusing occasionally, which is never a good thing.

But the cover is wonderful. While Holly’s hair isn’t long enough, I don’t think, from what you say in the book, the pose and his eyes…innocence and “I dare you” and knowledge and pure sex. Just perfect. Well done, Carina.

And the final sex scene? …guh… Well done, Ms. Crow and Ms. Fox.

Grade: B

Best regards,

-Joan/Sarah F.

Book Link | Kindle | Sony| KoboBooks | Carina Press

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.

12 Comments

  1. Goddess of Blah
    Jan 20, 2011 @ 15:17:44

    I like the concept of this book (however, NOT the dominance – the feminist in me rebels against any overt male dominance).

    It’s be intriguing to see how two female (I think?) authors can write a male gay relationship (including the intimate details).

  2. Mariana
    Jan 20, 2011 @ 15:34:03

    You said everything I was thinking, yay!

    I picked this book for one of the reading challenges.. I thought I would do a review, but I just couldn’t put into words what my experience with the book was. I’ll just point people to this review instead :)

    This was a first read for these authors, but won’t be the last. I gave it 5 stars (or an A), as the niggles were less for me.

    Very lovely story of two people in love.

  3. orannia
    Jan 20, 2011 @ 16:33:54

    Thank you Joan/Sarah F. I read a short review (of this book) last week and thought I’d like to read it (the book), and then I read your review and the following lines struck me:

    …I came out of it convinced that people would think that it's a relationship that works, a love that makes both characters so much stronger together than apart. Despite its unconventional nature, isn't that what love's supposed to be about?

    And now I want to read it that much more. I love how books like Special Delivery (Heidi Cullinan) and perhaps this expand how I think…about relationships, about love. About what works for some people.

    Oh, and as for …Supah-Dupah Dominator Owner of Kinky Klub of Doom…

    *snort*

  4. Sarah Frantz
    Jan 20, 2011 @ 18:48:35

    @Goddess of Blah: Dominance, male or female, done correctly and safely and consensually, has nothing to do with feminism. Or it does, because it’s all about choice and being able to exercise your choices. As a feminist, I personally see nothing wrong with dominance, male or otherwise, as long as it’s exercised with full consent of all parties.

    And…are you kidding me about the “two female authors” thing? There’s a large, varied, and incredibly successful sub-genre out there of gay male romance written by women for women. Just search DA under my name and you’ll find some of the best of it. Trust me, women can write good gay sex. Or at least, they can write good gay sex for an audience of other women. More importantly, they can write brilliant gay male relationships, even if that has to be qualified again with “for an audience of women.”

  5. Deb
    Jan 20, 2011 @ 21:14:24

    Sarah, you took the words right out of my mouth about the “two female authors” thing. But of course, you said it so much better. :)

  6. ShellBell
    Jan 20, 2011 @ 21:19:19

    I know I’ve seen this cover before … Maybe it’s from a Cynthia Eden book. Will need to investigate!

    As to the book itself .. It’s on my ‘to be considered’ list since I saw it listed at Carina. Thanks to the great review I may just need to move it closer to the top of my list.

  7. Kaetrin
    Jan 21, 2011 @ 04:03:35

    I loved this one too. I gave it an A.

    I thought the way the D/s was portrayed was very organic and (a first for me) very beautiful. They needed each other and I thought it was portrayed so very well. For the first time, I “got” it.

    I was interested in your comment about both men being bisexual and it not being made a big deal of. My only real niggle with the book was that I didn’t think it was made all that clear for Nick. I understood that Holly was “equal opportunity” (I think that’s how it was described in the book!). But the only comments about Nick were in a couple of the sex scenes where he says something like “it’s been a long time”. I had this picture of Nick being completely straight except for Holly and those couple of comments threw me out of the story just a little. I’m not sure where I picked up the impression of him being exclusively straight beforehand (as obviously you did not) but I did nevertheless. Given that, I would have liked just a sentence somewhere toward the beginning which said something about him being bisexual in college or whenever so that I didn’t only realise it during the sex scenes.

    Overall, I thought the Nick and Holly’s love story was beautiful and sexy and so very very good. I really stuck with me and I know I’ll go back for a re-read – I expect more than once.

  8. cs
    Jan 21, 2011 @ 09:04:55

    I’m reading a book where one of the main characters is bisexual (Keeping Promise by Amy Lane — great book). I love how it’s mentioned once, and that’s it. No big deal made about it. I like that this is the same case about this book. It honestly looks intriguing by your review. My only problem would be the ‘total power exchange’ which obviously seems to be a big part of their relationship. I might read this one day, if I ever get curious enough.

    I’d definitely like to read more bisexual characters in gay fiction. I’ve read a few and the most recent one was L.A. Witt’s Rules of Engagement. There is a definite difference in how bisexual characters are written. I definitely love it.

    @Goddess of Blah: In the e-market female authors do tend to dominate the M/M genre. Though, there are a lot of [gay] male authors who write in it too. I can understand your point though on females writing a gay male relationship. Especially if they’re straight females at that. It’s the same as writing about a race you don’t share. How do you know? You don’t, but you do your research (like any good author) and you read, learn and hope you do them justice. A lot of these female authors have done that, yes some have not, but that’s the case for mainstream books as well. I hope that helps answer your question some :)

  9. orannia
    Jan 22, 2011 @ 21:45:18

    I finished reading this book this morning and…it worked for me. Completely. Nick & Holly’s relationship…worked. It was like…two parts of a whole fitting together seamlessly, well, at least’s that is how it felt to me while reading it :)

  10. Joan/SarahF
    Jan 23, 2011 @ 07:05:07

    @orannia: orannia and @Kaetrin: I’m so glad these characters and their relationship worked for you, and I love what you say, orannia, about how fiction helps us understand other relationships. That’s what I love about it so much. :)

  11. Sirius11214
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 19:57:28

    Sarah may I ask how hardcore BDSM is in this book? Same as in Uneven or not? Lots of beatings and blood?

    Thanks.

  12. Sarah Frantz
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 20:11:47

    @Sirius11214: No S/M at all. It’s pure D/s. No blood, no beatings. Totally 100% Dominance and submission. And so beautifully done.

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