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REVIEW: Vanilla on Top by C.J. Ellisson

Dear Ms. Ellisson:

I’ve had pretty good luck with the Brazen line from Entangled Publishing so when this new release came out, I bought it immediately. I was even further thrilled to read that this book featured a fem dom, unfortunately the progression of Heather’s story left me with keen disappointment when the storyline abandoned Heather’s newfound sexual proclivities for sexual dominance.

C.J. Ellisson Vanilla on Top
Heather attend a speed dating event with her best friend Carla. She feels a little morose because she has had very bad luck at dating and that she won’t have as much of an opportunity for finding a good dating candidate as the less pretty girl between her and Carla. When an attractive man sits down opposite of her and takes a phone call, Heather is less than impressed. But when Tony admits he’d like someone to take control, Heather acts impulsively and demands that he turns off his phone. The two then engage in torrid physical encounter on the patio of the bisro where the speed dating event is being held.

I was a bit taken aback by Heather thinking so unkindly about the men in the speed dating room, particularly when she felt that no one would be interested in her because she felt she was less than pretty. Having not spoken to even one of the guys in the room, Heather makes the snap judgment that there are only three “decent ones” in the room. She encourages herself by noting that she’s younger than most of the women in the room and that will give her a leg up.  That Heather, who feels judged because of her looks, lacked any self awareness of what she is doing makes this even worse.

Makes me wonder—what’s wrong with these guys if they can’t find a date on their own? Shut up, Heather! I scream at myself. You sabotage everything before it even starts!

Um, Heather, you are at a speed dating event. What is wrong with you? Actually what is wrong with Heather is that she lacks self confidence. Through her relationship with Tony, Heather begins to gain confidence and as a result begins to notice the looks of appreciation from the opposite sex that she hadn’t seen before. Unsaid is whether those had always existed and Heather did not recognize them or that her aura of self possession drew new attention. Perhaps it was a mixture of both.

There is a sweetness in how Heather’s control over their dating relationship makes normally confident Tony unsure of himself; how he’s disappointed she has canceled plans on him. I liked that she could turn him down, say no, live a life separate.

Unfortunately, at some point in the book, Tony takes control of the bedroom situation and becomes the dominant. This was unfortunate for two reasons. First, when Tony was the sub he came to the realization that he was in control of the bedroom machinations by allowing Heather to dictate to him time, place, manner, etc. When Tony becomes the dominant in the bedroom, there is no reverse realization by Heather that she is holding the reins (from the bottom). I ended up doubly disappointed. Not only was the femdom story not brought home, but ultimately Tony is charge regardless of whether he is on the top or bottom.

The non bedroom antics provide an additional layer of conflict and the resolution of the business conflict was much more satisfying.  Heather’s firm is being targeted for takeover by Tony’s firm.

The story is written in alternating first person present tense. It isn’t my favorite, but I thought the narrative voices of Heather and Tony were different enough to provide a good contrast.

“You need a condom.” The frantic gerbil-wheel of my mind draws an utter blank. I think I might have one in my wallet, but I’m not sure….She looks at me with raised eyebrows and I nod, unsure I can make anything but an unintelligible grunt right now.”

I also liked the prettier friend dynamic.  Both Heather and Tony had good friends who became jealous when Heather and Tony changed from their predictable roles.  Heather was the less attractive (or thought she was) friend in the pairing with Carla and Tony was always the guy ready to have fun.  When Heather grows confidence in herself and begins to have a more exciting life than Carla, Carla begins to interject some negativity.  When Tony begins to settle down with Heather, his friend begins to suggest that Tony has lost his edge.

It was interesting that Tony refuses to share intimate details with his friend because he knows that women don’t like that but Heather shares everything with Carla. The double standard had me uneasy.  I’m unsure if all the role reversals / inequalities were done on purpose, but they made me think about some gender expectations.

I love the idea of femdom romances but the execution of them often falters, primarily because the female dominance seems to have to take a backseat to the traditional understanding of gender roles. That was the case in Vanilla On Top. Perhaps by labeling Heather a vanilla dom, my expectations are supposed to be tempered but given the build up, Heather’s abandonment of what turns both her and Tony on in favor of elevating the male into the dominant position left me closing the story with a regretful flavor. C+

Best regards,


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Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Joanna Wylde
    Jan 23, 2013 @ 08:43:21

    Thanks for the review and the higher level look at what the book is really about. I’ve been on the fence on this one in a big way, but after reading this I can see getting it. I was a little intimidated by the fem-dom elements, and it sounds like it’s not quite as hardcore as I was picturing. Not that there’s anything wrong with hardcore fem (or masculine) domination. Just more outside my comfort zone.

    Gonna snag it.

  2. Tina @BookCrack
    Jan 23, 2013 @ 10:30:44

    I agree with Joanna and like your more in depth review particularly the closer look at the fem/dom elements of ‘Vanilla On Top’. Even more interesting, I can totally see where you are coming from in terms of the plot’s consistency or inconsistency with their dom/submissive behavior. However, I really fell for this book because it felt real for them to lapse back to their “normal” comfortable roles especially when other aspects of their lives like work began to complicate their relationship in and out of the bedroom further. Thanks for the different perspective.

  3. Sunnygirl
    Jan 23, 2013 @ 13:58:20

    I love the idea of femdom romances but the execution of them often falters, primarily because the female dominance seems to have to take a backseat to the traditional understanding of gender roles.

    I feel your pain. I really do. But as Joanna and Tina point out, perhaps a lot women don’t want femdom romances, and do want “normal”, “comfortable”, traditional gender roles.

    But please keep it up. I’m a big fan of your femdom-ish reviews. Thank you so much for keeping on reviewing femdom / from a femdom perspective.

  4. C.J. Ellisson
    Jan 24, 2013 @ 09:32:59

    Thank you, Jane, for your well thought out and detailed review. I really appreciate your time in reading the book and your effort in sharing your thoughts here so eloquently.

    This book was never intended as a femdom romance and all of the conflicting points you mentioned were done on purpose. I apologize if the description of the book somehow implied this story was ever going to be about the D/s lifestyle, that was never my goal when crafting the tale.

    Thanks again for your time, and thank you for posting your review!

  5. C.J. Ellisson
    Jan 24, 2013 @ 09:34:11

    @Joanna Wylde:

    Thanks, Joanna! I appreciate you giving the book a shot and I sincerely hope you enjoy it!

  6. C.J. Ellisson
    Jan 24, 2013 @ 09:35:37

    @Tina @BookCrack:

    Thanks, Tina! Your review had me laughing out loud and nodding my head. I was thrilled to hear you connected with the story and characters!

  7. C.J. Ellisson
    Jan 24, 2013 @ 09:36:41


    Thanks, Sunnygirl, for taking the time to read the review and comment!

  8. Jane
    Jan 24, 2013 @ 09:46:09

    @cjellisson – Given that the title is “Vanilla on Top” and the entire first half is about the heroine dominating the hero and all the sexual encounters are her taking control and the hero enjoying it, perhaps it is reasonable for a reader to believe that this IS a femdom story. I was not suggesting that this story was about the D/s lifestyle but instead about a couple who enjoyed the woman dominating in the bedroom. Unfortunately, this devolves into the hero being in control at all times, whether he is on the top or the bottom which is truly disappointing. So I think I understood your story but perhaps you did not understand my point or disappointment

  9. Sunnygirl
    Jan 24, 2013 @ 11:59:35

    @cjellisson Opinions on femdom and the book itself aside, it seems that all four (potential) readers above thought from the blurb, title and cover that this book was going to be about a woman who wanted to take control in bed as continued dynamic rather than a one off.

    I wonder if you could give us some insight into how and why the blurb/cover/title ended up being what they are? It might give us all some indication of how to avoid this sort of mix up of expectations in future.

  10. MaryK
    Jan 24, 2013 @ 14:28:08

    I can’t do first person present tense in erotic romance. Just can’t.

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