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REVIEW: Soft Focus by Jaye Valentine and Reno MacLeod

Dear Mr. Valentine and Mr. MacLeod:

379626It’s all about expectations, isn’t it? This book is being marketed, or at least it’s labeled by its publisher, eXcessica, as a BDSM novel. And the excerpt is some pretty darn hot pre-BDSM-play negotiations which promises more hotness of the BDSM variety when you get the rest of the scene….and then Ethan and David (two of the three main characters) go off and just fuck. Admittedly, there’s some rope involved and some mild dominance on David’s side and Kiyoshi (David’s submissive) is sitting at the foot of the bed listening, but mostly, it’s just fucking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hot fucking. I enjoyed it. You have a gift for making sex (with some ropes) sound really exciting, which in this erotica-saturated market is an important gift to have. But I certainly wouldn’t label the book as a whole a BDSM novel.

I discovered when I reviewed Anah Crow’s Uneven that there’s a big difference between a mainly vanilla story that includes some kinky aspects (ropes, blindfolds, mild spanking), one that demonstrates and explores the play of dominance and submission between the main characters (like most of Joey Hill’s novels), and full-on BDSM novels that include all aspects of the acronym (bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, masochism). Hill’s Natural Law is an amazing novel about a female dominant relationship that happens to include a little bit of sado-masochism. It’s all about D/s: the will to power and surrender of the two characters. Crow’s Uneven is a novel about a sado-masochistic relationship that happens to include dominance and submission. Your novel is set in a BDSM world (a BDSM convention–yes, they exist!), but is not, in and of itself, an exploration of a BDSM relationship, thereby disappointing my expectations but not necessarily making it a bad book.

Ethan is a nature photographer and an erotic romance author. He’s trying to figure out the plot and subject matter of his next novel when he is shown some D/s pictures in a magazine by a seat-mate on a plane trip. Enraptured by David Turner, the subject of the photos, Ethan contacts him, asking if he would consent to an interview for research purposes. David accepts and they agree to meet at a BDSM convention. At the convention, we’re introduced to Kiyoshi, David’s submissive. Kiyoshi presents as a remarkably beautiful woman, but is, in fact, a man told to dress as a woman by David.

I actually very much like this aspect of the story. The completely blithe acceptance by the narrative of Kiyoshi’s gender bending and yet his utter desirability as a man is wonderful to read and I’d like to see more of it. I personally find the “forced feminization” niche of male-submissive culture to be demeaning to women (Why is it so humiliating to be dressed as a woman, pray tell?), but that’s absolutely not what is going on here. Kiyoshi is beautiful as a woman but he is not dressed as such in order to be humiliated, but rather because he is beautiful and that is enough.

After their meeting, David and Ethan fuck, with very little BDSM involved, except in that David is definitely in charge. And while this might be my experience and might not translate to the gay BDSM world, if two people come together to play and impart knowledge/learn about BDSM, as is the ostensible reason for David and Ethan’s meeting, they don’t immediately fuck like bunnies; rather, they do some light, pre-negotiated, non-sexual play (and usually before one of them is securely tied, face down, to the bed). But that doesn’t happen here. The focus is the pretty darned vanilla sex, first between Ethan and David, and then between Ethan and Kiyoshi.

And it is in the progression of the relationship between Ethan and Kiyoshi that I got really confused. David and Kiyoshi apparently base their entire relationship (as is natural) on trust and honesty, and yet Ethan seduces Kiyoshi in a public bathroom in such a way that I was confused as to whether either Ethan or Kiyoshi thought that they were betraying David and whether they expected to be able to or even wanted to hide their encounter. Their motivation, especially Kiyoshi’s was very muddied by the (admittedly hot) sex. In one minute, Kiyoshi is telling Ethan how much he loves David and how lost he’d be without him, and in the next, he’s not only admitting that he’s worried about the effect Ethan will have on their relationship, he’s pondering whether he’s more worried about losing David to Ethan or whether David should be worried about losing him to Ethan.

If your hope was to try to portray a realistic, successful BDSM relationship between David and Kiyoshi, these confused motivations detracted from the relationship, for me. If they’re in an open/poly relationship, this kind of thing (outside relationships) should be negotiated as soon as the potential arises; that goes double for an open BDSM relationship in which one partner identifies as the other’s “slave”. Additionally, if Ethan falls in love with these two men IN TWO DAYS, and they with him, then a little more demonstration of the actual BDSM aspects of both sides of the relationships would be appropriate. Not only does nothing less vanilla than ropes happen to Ethan, but we don’t see the BDSM between David and Kiyoshi at all except for some crawling, despite the promise early in the book that Kiyoshi likes pain.

Add to the mix an altercation with an asshole dominant who assumes that every submissive is there for his use, consent be damned, and who demands that everyone call him Master, which turns into real attempted rape by the end of the book, and a strange little scene in which Kiyoshi canes David at one of their public demonstrations, and I was seriously confused by the dynamics of the book. Very little is explained. David is a complete enigma and his motivations and feelings are completely opaque. Kiyoshi and David are operating on their own relationship rules, but we never know what they are. Ethan is operating on his curiosity and his strong feelings for these men, but neither is fully explored.

Readers reading this story expecting a thorough and emotional exploration of a BDSM relationship will be disappointed. If they read it as a fun little triad relationship with a slightly kinky bent, some D/s aspects, but no actual kinky sex, and you’ll have a cool little story with some pretty hot sex. I enjoyed it, once I let go of my marketing-fed expectations.

Grade: C

-Joan/Sarah F.

This book can be purchased in ebook format from BooksonBoard and other etailers.

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.


  1. Emmy
    Feb 07, 2009 @ 13:07:57

    I do like these two. I generally have to read their books at least twice for them to fully compute, because their writing is so…different. It’s that slightly skewed twist on things that makes me enjoy things more, because they go out of their way to ignore the tired tropes and make something unique. Now if they would just get rid on all the non-con that seems to be present in every story…

  2. Kohdi
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 10:16:48

    So, anyway, the Asian guy makes a completely “remarkably beautiful woman” because we all know Asian men just look feminine right? And since she is now an Asian woman, let’s stay true and make her a submissive, it’s in her nature after all.
    Ahahaha <————- Not amused.

  3. Joan/Sarah F
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 10:30:06

    @kohdi Wow, I totally didn’t read it that way, but then it’s not my particular hot button. I’ve got lots of them, but that’s not one of them. I’d like to say that Kiyoshi’s Asian-ness is not fetishized, but there’s a scene in which he’s dressed in a kimono.

  4. joanne
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 12:06:57

    I swear to God curiousity is going to kill me or my computer one day but I HAD to google Asian Transvestites (yes, yes I know it’s not always the same thing) and well….

    Really, the (very quick — my family is here for dinner, LOL) look says yup, some of the faces are very pretty and could definitely pass for very pretty females.

    As for the sub stuff, it’s not my field of interest so also not a hot button but as always with me, as long as it’s consensual then what & ever.

  5. Robin
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 12:31:16

    I had the same superficial reaction as Kodhi, just from reading the review. That with three men, the one submissive is not only Asian, but told to dress as a woman. I wondered whether the authors are playing on the stereotype of the supine East, or whether they need a copy of Orientalism, stat.

    And every time I click on the blog and see that cover, all I can think of is a candle-making manual, lol (yeah, I know there’s a camera, but it’s a dark shot and the size makes the candles most prominent on my screen). Marketing is a powerful thing, but not always in predictable ways.

  6. lil
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 16:39:34

    I’m not sure I understand the reviewer’s definition of a BDSM novel, specifically in the second paragraph.
    It sounds like she is saying that a real BDSM novel must include all the elements of the acronym which doesn’t seem quite right to me. Many of the people I know who live that lifestyle embody some of those elements but not neccessarily all of them and still very much consider themselves a part of the BDSM world.

  7. Sarah Frantz
    Feb 09, 2009 @ 21:51:14

    @lil You’re right, I didn’t do a very good job there. Sorry. No, none of the BDSM-identified people I know embody/incorporate all of them, and I certainly don’t think that books need to either.

    If I could edit it without feeling like I was trying to change history, I’d say, “I discovered when I reviewed Anah Crow's Uneven that there's a big difference between a mainly vanilla story that includes some kinky aspects in the bedroom (ropes, blindfolds, mild spanking) and full-on BDSM novels in which some or all aspects of the BDSM acronym (bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, masochism) were the main focus of the construction of the relationship between the characters.”

    Hill’s novels are great D/s BDSM. Crow’s Uneven is amazing SM BDSM. Valentine and MacLeod’s novel was an okay triad romance with a little kink thrown in the edges. But it was by no means a BDSM romance as marketed. IMO.

  8. lil
    Feb 09, 2009 @ 22:19:38

    Hey Sarah, thanks for clarifying.
    I thought you were saying that Hill’s novels were vanilla with some kink thrown in so I was confused. I think she does a nice, sexy job of depicting characters who live their kink, as opposed to those books where the H/H only play at kink.
    But I get what your saying now.

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