REVIEW: Tough Love by Heidi Cullinan
Dear Ms. Cullinan,
I’m probably not the right person to write this review. Even though Special Delivery is a favourite m/m romance book and Double Blind rates not that far behind it. Even though I generally like your writing very much (Dirty Laundry made my list of 2013 favourites). I found the kink level in this book to be beyond what I’d expected based on the first two books in the series and some of it went waaaaaaay beyond my comfort zone. Ultimately, I think that made it difficult for me to connect with the story and the characters. So much of the story is caught up in their kinks, including the main conflict, that I felt distanced from Chenco and Steve most of the time.
(Note to readers: I should also take this opportunity to make a blanket apology for anything that follows which is inadvertently offensive. Please feel free to let me know where I’ve gone wrong in the comments but please also know that it is not my intention. My lack of experience in some of these matters may (will probably) lead to me putting my foot in my mouth somehow. For the record, whatever your kink is, as long as it is safe, sane and consensual, more power to you. I don’t claim my understanding of something has anything to do with whether it is okay/not okay. As I expect I am about to demonstrate, there are many things I know very little about.)
Because I have trouble in parsing some of the things I read, I intend this review to be fairly quote heavy, so as to let the text speak for itself, but I will try and avoid spoilers.
So, with those caveats in mind, let’s proceed.
24 year old Cressencio (“Chenco”) Ortiz is just about to be evicted from his crappy trailer in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas. His father, Cooper Tedsoe, promised it to Chenco after he died, but because he was a rat bastard, he left it to the KKK instead. Chenco has little money and nowhere to live. While he could crash on someone’s couch perhaps, his alter ego Caramela requires a lot of space for her clothing and equipment. He knows he has a brother but Cooper always told him that Mitch was rabidly homophobic and would hurt him if they ever met.
Steve Vance is a friend and contemporary of Randy and Mitch. They, along with Mitch’s husband Sam, are staying with Steve at his ranch house following the funeral of Mitch’s father. Mitch has things to process about his childhood and his relationship with his dad and he’s trying to do that so he can be a better husband to Sam. Steve happens to be in the lawyer’s office when Chenco bursts in to complain about his eviction. The lawyer is extremely sympathetic and offers suggestions to buy Chenco some time but basically Chenco knows things are dire so he ends up crouched in an alley having what probably amounts to a panic attack. Steve approaches him and offers him some assistance.
There’s something of a suspension of disbelief required here because you kind of just have to accept a fairly instant [Dom/sub] connection between the two men. Steve immediately wants to help and Chenco immediately wants to let him. Chenco in particular, has a very strong reaction when he first sees Steve:
The man met Chenco’s gaze and held it. He didn’t threaten, but at the same time everything about him said, Behave, boy. Chenco wasn’t behaving. He was being an ass. Lowering his gaze in shame, Chenco loosened his posture. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard the white man grunt quietly in approval.
Very quickly Chenco discovers that Mitch is not the evil monster Cooper made him out to be and suddenly, Chenco has a family and new friends. Chenco, for most of the book, seemed to me to be a very young 24. He is almost always vulnerable, scared, uncertain and in need of reassurance. He is estranged from his mother who doesn’t understand the gay and even less understands Caramela. And this brings me to the first of the things I struggled with in the book. When I understood that Caramela was Chenco’s drag queen persona, I was pleased. It was new to me and interesting and, I thought, fun. I was less comfortable with the way the two personas were depicted. (At this point, I’ll remind readers of my previous apology). It seemed to me to be akin to multiple personality disorder. The way Chenco thought about Caramela and vice versa, the way everyone in the book thinks about them, seemed… strange to me.
“You’re switching pronouns. Is she back, or are you getting lost?”
Chenco honestly didn’t know. “Both, maybe.”
He shifted his grip and leaned down to Chenco’s ear. “Caramela,” he said, his Spanish accent achingly perfect. “I want you to come back from here to the car. Chenco will hold you, but he needs you right now. We need you until we clear the lot, and then you can rest. Do you understand?”
Chenco shut his eyes, dizzy as the full weight of his battered queen filled his headspace . She wanted to cry, but she held on, for Chenco, for Steve. “Yes. I understand.”
I didn’t have trouble with the idea that Caramela is a persona that Chenco “wears” on stage. But it crossed into something much deeper than that and I have no idea whether this is usual or if this portrayal is the more extreme end of a spectrum. I’m just completely out of my league here.
Every now and then I thought I was just reading too much into the language but then this would happen
“Well , she’s me. And she did it to protect me. But honestly, she’s mostly the front I use to be brave enough to do the things I’d like to do. So I had her wig on and her makeup, and they were her shoes, but I…” He stopped, getting lost. “I don’t know actually. Maybe it’s not as simple as it felt, asking for this.” “
If I decide Caramela needs to take the punishment, will she honor my decision?”
Chenco bit his lip as he stared at the floor, as if maybe the answer was in the carpet. “Well… no.”
Chenco is pretty fortunate that he has fallen into a crowd which includes Ethan Ellison who happens to own a casino in Vegas and Crabtree (an opaque character I have a bit of a confused/dislike/sometimes-like relationship with) who was Mafia and is incredibly wealthy and can make things happen.
Steve was pretty heavily into the BDSM lifestyle but has withdrawn from it in the last five or so years because of guilt. He is compared in the book to Mr. Rochester – only the “mad woman in the attic” is Gordy, a mentally ill friend/former friend who is homeless, but lives in the run down cannery on Steve’s property. There was a leap required here that I could not make. The conflict hinges upon it. Steve blames himself for Gordy’s predicament. Steve rejected him and Gordy got into some bad bad bad BDSM with some bad bad bad people and ended Very Messed Up. Steve has tried to get Gordy help, including housing but Gordy won’t stay anywhere except the cannery. It’s all Steve can do to get Gordy to take his medications. Steve has the cannery hooked up with cameras so when the local gangs come to beat Gordy up, he can respond quickly and run them off. This has been going on a really long time. Gordy is obviously very ill. Steve believes he is responsible but I didn’t have enough information to understand why that was so in the early part of the book and when, in the later part of the book, there was an explanation, I didn’t believe it. To be fair, most of the other characters in the book didn’t understand why Steve felt so guilty either, so I wasn’t alone.
The relationship between Steve and Gordy was unhealthy to say the least. Gordy would always want Steve to “do a scene” with him and sometimes Steve would, just to get him to calm down (even though this didn’t involve any sex). I know very little about the BDSM lifestyle but this seemed like a strange perversion of it. While the book did not in any way endorse this behaviour – the narrative very clearly recognised it was messed up – I couldn’t quite understand why Steve did these things. In the end, I decided he must have regarded it in much the same way as those philosophical thought experiments where the choices are shitty and shittier.
Steve’s particular brand of BDSM is sadism. He likes to cause pain. Chenco is initially uncertain.
“What does it mean, exactly? Sex with pain ? I mean, I know a little of the lifestyle through Booker and a couple other friends, but you don’t seem like you play the same as he and Trist.”
“It means I take pleasure in inflicting pain on my partner while engaging in intercourse. Holding him down. Bites. Pinches. I enjoy flogging a great deal, but I love edge play and needles best of all. Mostly what I love, more than anything, is to fuck someone while he cries because of pain I’ve given him.”
Chenco studied Steve critically. “I don’t understand. I’m trying, but it frankly sounds scary and mean.”
Steve appreciated the honesty. “Sex with pain can be scary— and I love that part. It’s terrifying for someone to turn so much trust over to you. They give it to me, believing I can take them to a high they need so desperately but cannot find on their own. Giving that to someone is a gift I take seriously. It’s power and control and terrible, crushing responsibility. It’s chaos and danger, and I’m allowed to hold it in my hand and make it something beautiful.”
I have read some of the edgier books. I’ve even enjoyed them. (Power Play by Rachel Haimowitz comes to mind). But this frank discussion of pain and how Steve needs it to get off threw me I admit. And Steve does like to hurt Chenco. There is some pretty heavy duty flogging, [really] rough sex, biting, clamps. They do have blood test results which show they’re clean but they start right off having condom-free sex. Steve particularly loves to fill Chenco up with his semen. He likes to put in a plug after so it stays there. Sometimes he’ll fuck Chenco three or four times and each time put the plug back (well with a strap by then because everything is so loose). That was enough to take me right up to my limits and cross over the line but to add to it there is also some other edge play including needles which was so far out of my comfort zone it might as well have been in Antarctica. There is also some watersport activity (and I’m not talking about kayaking here).
Though Steve had crooned praises all day, for the first time Chenco felt that pride, a golden river of power inside him, filling him with holy fire.
While my lifestyle could probably be best described as VANILLA VANILLA VANILLA, I have been open to reading outside the familiar before – and I’m usually happy to give things a try. I generally dislike anything that involves actual blood (which I found out after my very first foray into m/m romance in Uneven – and wasn’t that an eye-opener for me?) but I have been able to enjoy books where BDSM plays a major part. I don’t always “get it” but by the same token it doesn’t always get in the way of my enjoyment. Here, I was out of my depth. My impression is that you knew that some readers would be, because there is a lot of time in the book given over to explanation of various things and how they work. Some of the explanations were quite didactic – which on the one hand I needed because: clueless, but on the other, had the effect of distancing me from the characters and the story.
“First of all, it’s natural and smart to be wary, and since I haven’t had adequate time or opportunity to demonstrate my trustworthiness, I’ll take it as a compliment someone as smart and careful as you has decided to accept me as safe on so little.” His expression became gentle, very patient, and it was such a change Chenco almost felt lightheaded. “So it’s clear— nothing about this is a setup to get you in bed or anything smelling like sex.”
There were also times in the story where so much metaphor was used I got a little lost
Except there was one problem. Chenco had to cling to those walls. He couldn’t let go because only the walls were safe.
With throbbing pleasure, Steve burned those barriers down.
He was in a rhythm again now, alternating sting and thud, hard and soft, heavy and light . He gave nothing but patterns— bull, kangaroo, kangaroo bull for six bars, then kangaroo, kangaroo, kangaroo bull for eight more. He taught Chenco’s body all it could crave about sting and thud, beating him into headspace, forcing him to leave everything else behind.
Chenco screamed , sobbed , swore— he struggled against the leather cuffs, tried to lift the cross off the bolts securing it to the floor. He shook. He cried, a terrified, little-boy sob. He fought Steve tooth and nail, with the conviction of one ready to go to the absolute edge— until Steve took the stinger up to the same second notch he’d already taken the bullhide. Steve teased him with a deeper level still, showing him, at the edge of Chenco’s exhaustion, that Steve was just getting warmed up.
Chenco gave one last cry, a defeated gasp. Then he let go of the ruins of his walls, gave himself over to Steve— and soared into space.
I said earlier in the review that I perceived Chenco to be terribly vulnerable for most of the book. This disparity troubled me and perhaps that was one of the reasons that some of the kinkier stuff was so challenging for me. (In Power Play for example, both men were physically and emotionally fairly equal). Chenco was significantly younger than Steve and extremely dependent on him. Not just physically/materially, but in terms of his mental/emotional well being. I was pleased that by the end, the tables had turned and Chenco was standing strong while Steve was vulnerable. This did give me some comfort that though their particular brand of relationship was not for me, it was okay for them. I would have liked to have seen more of Chenco being strong. While I realise that the narrative structure of the book needed things to wrap up when they did, I had some mixed feelings about Chenco’s transformation from vulnerable and needy to strong and sure.
I love Sam and Mitch and Randy and Ethan and it was nice to catch up with them.
I struggled with the grade. Honestly, I just don’t know what to think about some of it and I feel unqualified to render a judgement. The things which distanced me from the characters and the story do not necessarily reflect at all on the skill and quality of it. That said, I didn’t buy the main conflict of Steve’s guilt/responsibility for Gordy getting in the way of his HEA with Chenco and that is something I feel I can speak to. While I didn’t like the story, most of the reason for that is because it was just so far out of my comfort zone and beyond my understanding and I don’t think the book can be blamed for that either. So I’m going with a C. It’s not a book for everyone but I imagine there is an audience out there who will enjoy it a great deal more than I did.