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REVIEW:  Bare Knuckle: Vegas Top Guns by Katie Porter

REVIEW: Bare Knuckle: Vegas Top Guns by Katie Porter

Dear Ms. Porter:

Each book in this series supposedly deals with some sort of sexual kink. The first book was where the hero scandalously enjoys seeing a woman dress up, like in fishnet tights and a waitressing costume. I remember remarking on a podcast with Sarah at SmartBitches who enjoyed it more than I that I thought unless the hero wanted the heroine to dress up like a dog and bark while they were doing it, his kink didn’t seem very perverse. So then comes “Bare Knuckle” and I’m wishing for a tamer story.

The hero is Captain Eric “Kisser” Donaghue who is moonlighting as a fighter to pay for the rehab bills of his younger brother.  The heroine is Trish Monroe, a showgirl whose headlining act just got canceled and works as a ring girl at an underground fighting club while attending classes and living with her pageant driven mother.

Bare Knuckle: Vegas Top Guns Katie PorterShe likes to perform; he likes to watch. This should be a perfect match but the connection between the characters was almost clinical and the love scenes read like a porn script taking place in a concrete bunker.  We don’t even get the cheesy music to provide some ambience.

Besides Eric’s predilection for fighting, he’s a nude photographer in his spare time and maybe a part time film maker. He has many, many nude portraits in his bedroom and he felt like his current films were getting stale. In sum, I felt like he was a neckbeard who spent all of his time whacking off in his poster ladened bedroom, watching his old porn films and feeling like he just couldn’t get it up anymore unless he found some new material. Enter Trish.

These two seem to get off on everything but actually doing it. Eric is always checking out other women because he likes to watch (or that’s his excuse). After having ordered, he found it difficult to keep from checking out the waitress’s ass. Any guilt he might’ve felt dissipated when he realized Trish was looking too. But why is Trish looking? She’s the performer. I felt like she was written in way to make every lewd and unsavory action of his seem okay yet it never did.

Trish’s character, for all that she was taking classes, plays on her looks and pursues the kind of guys who only want her because she looks good on their arms and then she cries about it.

“Every man looks at me like you do,” she continued, forging on with only a whisper. “I play up to the fantasies you mentioned. And sure, I get off on it. But sometimes I’m not worth talking to. Sometimes I’m a fun fuck, or I get slapped with dumb-shit remarks that remind me I’m meat.”

There is no sense of connection between the two. He’s watching the ass of every woman that walks by and Trish is going home with a former ex-girlfriend. Trish and Eric pass this off as meaningless but even though she didn’t have sex with the ex girlfriend, she was being intimate with her in an emotional sense which means it wasn’t really that innocent. But because they aren’t having sex and the ex is NOT A GUY, it’s okay:

“Had it been with a guy, that would’ve been different.” He licked his lips. He abandoned her knee in favor of the softer meat of her inner thigh. His thumb rubbed along her taut tendon. The comforter slid back, revealing inch after inch of skin.

“Different how?”

“I’m not ready to share you yet.”

And when she is with the woman physically, it’s still okay to Eric because it’s two women together:  Maybe another man would be offended when he realized they were lost to one another. They’d used him for a moment to urge their passion to new heights, then forgot about him. Eric loved it—the pure voyeurism of watching when all the defenses were stripped and no one pretended anymore.

This gender flip didn’t work for me because all it meant to me as the reader was that Trish really wasn’t into Eric nor was Eric into her. They were into the act but there was no emotional connection. And the “if it was a guy” excuse seems to belittle lesbian relationships altogether.

Finally, the book seemed to suffer from series-itis. There was a ton of backstory that I was missing out. Eric is apparently a former mysogynist but was reformed in a previous book (he still came off as a chest beater in this book).  There were several references to previous relationships with which I was unfamiliar.  Overall, this book didn’t work for me. In an effort to be really outre, I ended up being turned off by the unlikeable characters and the lack of emotional resonance between them. D

Best regards,



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The Vanishing Closed-Door Romance

The Vanishing Closed-Door Romance

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A while back I was listening to an interview on Hard Talk, the BBC World Service interview show. The host was talking with the director of a new film version of Great Expectations. When pushed, the director said his movie was better than the classic David Lean version even though that film is a “sacred text.” When asked why, he said that it was because his movie had sexual tension, and Pip is not as nice a guy.

It sounded to me as if the director was treating the absence of expressed sexual tension as the absence of the feeling. But sexual tension doesn’t have to be overt to be present, let alone to be imagined. And was David Lean’s Pip really a nice guy, or just one whose not-nice qualities were not overt, but were conveyed through hints to the audience? I don’t remember the movie well enough to say. But I do think that people would have understood that someone could be complex without every aspect of his personality being spelled out. Was it a totally white-hat, black-hat movie? Unlikely.

That exchange made me think about the discussions we have about sex scenes in romance novels. I think everyone would agree that explicit sexual content in romance novels has increased over the last decade. Some readers say that they now skip sex scenes, but many other readers feel cheated when they’re not there, or when the scene stops at the bedroom door. I saw a review recently where a reader gave a historical romance a good grade but added the caveat that she wished there had been a final scene with the couple in bed, or an epilogue with a similar scene to solidify the sense of HEA. And some readers think the whole point of NA is to add sex scenes to YA (I don’t, but I’ve seen that comment often).

Commenter Lynn M made a remark here at DA about YA and closed-door romances, and it really made me think. She said:

as a reader – an adult reader – I hate when I’ve invested a lot of emotion in a building relationship only to have the door closed in my face when the couple has finally managed to connect. I’m not looking for explicit descriptions, simply to be allowed to share that moment in a small way. So when it comes to writing YA, I pull back from explicit but feel that fading to black is cheating the reader from part of the reading experience.

I think what Lynn expresses is shared by quite a few readers. And as an author, if she feels that fading to black is cheating the reader, then she should absolutely include sex scenes in her books, at the level of explicitness that she thinks is appropriate to the story and the characters. Omitting them when she feels they are important would be like going back to the Bad Old Days, when euphemisms and elliptical references were required.

But I don’t think every sex scene in every book is required. And in addition to the higher number of sex scenes in non-erotic romances and the explosion of the erotic romance genre, we even have publishers releasing “sexed-up classics.” Yes, it’s true that had Jane Austen wanted to included explicit sex scenes in her books (I know, I know, but just go with me here), she wouldn’t have been able to do so. But to write them in, as if she had no other way to signal sexual attraction and tension than by explicit descriptions, seems ridiculous to me. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are stuffed with sexual tension; is that enhanced by knowing exactly how sex between Jane and Mr. Rochester would have worked?

My visceral reaction is no (actually it’s Hell No), but erotic romance sells well, and even the sexed-up classics seem to be doing OK. So it would seem that a lot of us feel cheated if the door is closed, or the scene fades to black. Why?

I don’t have an answer because I don’t feel cheated, so I hope some of you will suggest reasons in the comments. Meanwhile, let me tell you why I don’t feel cheated a lot of the time, and bear in mind that I’m only speaking for myself here and describing a personal, idiosyncratic reaction.

I think the desire to read books where the sex is closed-door has to do with reader taste and the way a reader approaches a book, not prudishness, which is the usual way it’s understood. Undoubtedly there are people who object because they are prudes, i.e., they are uncomfortable with explicit discussions of sex. But why assume these are the majority of the complainers? Especially when you see these kinds of discussions at sites like Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where the non-prude ratio is pretty high. In the past there were readers who wanted more explicit scenes who put up with a low number because romance without was still better than no romance at all. Why shouldn’t there now be readers who would prefer less but are putting up with the high number for the same reason?

People read closed-door books for years and years, and it’s not as if they weren’t having sex or finding erotica to read if they wanted that. I read a lot of erotica from my late teens well into my late 30s, and it included everything from “classics” like Anaïs Nin to reprinted Victorian and imitation-Victorian-porn paperbacks that you could buy at airport bookstores. Some of it was really well written and thought-provoking, some of it was merely titillating, and some of it was terrible. I also read romance through most of those years, and it ranged from no-sex-please-we’re-Betty-Neels to no-sex-but-lots-of-UST to explicit scenes.

Eventually, I burned out on erotica. There are only so many ways to describe anatomical behavior, and the human imagination seems to have certain built-in limits. They are expansive limits, but read enough and you’ll hit them. When I started reading m/m I went through the same cycle: sex scenes were new and exciting at first, but then they started to look the same, and eventually I settled on a strategy of only reading books where the sex was necessary to the storyline and/or character development. That cuts out a lot of books, as it turns out.

In my experience, it is now almost as difficult to find sex-light romance as it used to be to find explicit romance. The assumption then was that if people wanted to read it, well, they shouldn’t, and the assumption now is that if you don’t want sex scenes you shouldn’t be reading romance. Or you should be reading inspirational romance, as if the only difference between inspies and non-inspies is the amount of sex on the page.

When I read a book with a lack of explicit sex, I don’t automatically feel left out of the relationship or feel I have an inferior understanding of the romantic journey. I use my imagination and construct a scene in my head that fits with the characters as I have interpreted them. Other readers want to see the description on the page. It doesn’t mean they are less imaginative in general, just that this is a place where they want direct information. They don’t want to imagine or infer in this particular reading experience. And there should be space in the genre for all of us. But these days, I’ve seen enough authors talk about the “need” to write sex scenes (whether the need is that of the reader or the publisher), that it seems to be increasingly the case that sex scenes are mandatory in romance. I’m all for explicit description where it’s warranted. As I said before, I don’t want to go back to the Bad Old Days. But if authors who want to write closed-door romances can’t get them published and sold today, then we’ve potentially closed another, equally important door.