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REVIEW:  Tough Love by Heidi Cullinan

REVIEW: Tough Love by Heidi Cullinan

tough-loveDear 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 Unevenand 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.



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REVIEW:  Mark Cooper Versus America by Lisa Henry & J.A. Rock

REVIEW: Mark Cooper Versus America by Lisa Henry & J.A....

MarkCoopervAmericaDear Lisa Henry & J.A. Rock,

I enjoyed your Good Boy books, so I was keen to review this book.  In many ways this is a far more light-hearted, non-serious book than the earlier stories (except for one aspect which I will discuss later). I had an idea about the main characters from the emails, letters and text messages you posted on your respective blogs in the lead up to Mark Cooper versus America’s release. Those things definitely informed my expectation that this book was more comedic in nature – and certainly there were a few laugh-out-loud moments for me (most particularly in relation to Blake who has a bad habit of becoming locked in toilets. Really).

Mark Cooper is an Australian, from Bundaberg in Queensland, where the weather is warm and tropical and there is never ever any snow.  His mother married Jim, an American and they all moved to Pennsylvania.  Jim is wealthy and is paying for Mark to attend prestigious Prescott College, his old alma mater, and is more than keen for Mark to join the Alpha Delta fraternity (something Jim did when he was at school and which he regards as incredibly valuable and worthwhile).  Alpha Delt (as it is called colloquially) has changed a lot since Jim’s time and it is no longer devoted to community service as it once was.  In fact, the guy in charge of the pledges, “Bengal” is dangerous (more on that later).

Mark is… prickly.  When he first meets Deacon, the other hero, Deacon thinks of Mark as an “angry bunny”.  Mark uses anger/aggression/defensiveness and/or humour as self-protection mechanisms.  He is alone, out of his depth and he doesn’t want anyone to know how isolated he feels.  If he doesn’t want them, they can’t reject him.

His plan when rushing the fraternity is to be so obnoxious that they will kick him out and he will be able to say to Jim, “hey, I tried”.  Jim is largely absent from the book but he is consistently described as “nice”.  He is perfectly nice but again, Mark has kept his distance and holds Jim at arm’s length.  Over the course of the book, Mark does learn to let some people in and he does mature.  That said, he is just turned 18 and he felt authentically that age.

Deacon is 21, a Junior at Prescott.  He is a member of the Phi Sigma fraternity, an academic/service based frat which is more about studying and playing Risk for long stretches.  The fraternity houses are next door to each other, even though Mark meets Deacon at the bar he works at to help pay for college.  There is a Romeo and Juliet vibe – well more than a vibe – it is overtly played up in the story as Alpha Delt and Phi Sig are enemies.

Jackson is Jim’s nephew and a member of Alpha Delt.  He makes an effort to befriend Mark, but Mark doesn’t make it easy for him.  By the end of the book, I think they are headed there.  Mark makes another friend, Brandon at college.  Brandon is wicked smart and has an eidetic memory.  He has a deeply held belief that he is nothing if he is not in a fraternity and he urges Mark not to quit as a pledge.  The friendship between Mark and Brandon is kind of sweet and it was nice to see Mark struggling with being a friend who can be leaned upon, as opposed to always (in his view at least) being the leaner.

The romance between Deacon and Mark is sweet and sexy, with a bit of kink thrown in.  Between them, they discover a previously unknown fetish for women’s underwear (Mark wearing it, Deacon fucking him while Mark’s wearing it) and they explore some more extreme “arse play” (coughfistingcough).   This might be a little much for those who prefer their m/m less explicit.  I coped okay but I admit to cringing in sympathetic pain in some parts.  The stuff with the underwear was quite well done I thought – it seemed to me to be very sexy and masculine even while they were playing with gender norms. That doesn’t make much sense does it? Sorry, I can’t explain it any better.

I enjoyed seeing Mark bloom and mature in the time he spent with Deacon and I liked the way he remained himself while he did it.

“So, uh…” Mark swallowed. “I can’t promise you much. I’m not a hopeless romantic, and sometimes I forget that people generally like it when you do nice things for them. I’ve never been anyone’s boyfriend. And I probably could, in my own way, out-douche a lot of the Alpha Delts.” He turned his head slightly and pressed his face against Deacon’s chest. “But I…” He turned again so he wasn’t speaking into Deacon’s T-shirt. “But you don’t have to be afraid to tell me anything. Because I won’t judge you for it. And you don’t have to worry about not seeming like a good guy in front of me. Because I guarantee I’ve been a worse guy. And if you need anything from me, just ask. I’m not the best at figuring out what people need on my own. But if you tell me, I’ll try to give it. That’s what I can promise you.”

Deacon has his own problems too – his mother has severe OCD and he has a brother in Afghanistan.  Deacon is level-headed and very much the protector.  During the course of the book he reflects on this and realises that he does have a need to be needed.  But he also realises that’s okay.  One of the things that make he and Mark a good pair is that Mark helps him remember to be young and have fun and Deacon helps Mark be a bit more responsible – as concept they name as “reasonably stupid”.  Deacon is very aware he’s not Mark’s dad and he doesn’t want to be so it always seemed to be a healthy balance to me. I thought the way the story captured Deacon’s complicated feelings about his brother coming home was wonderful and spot on. I could definitely relate.  I also thought his mother’s OCD was handled well.  It was a depicted as a serious and debilitating illness but his mother wasn’t helpless or unable to be his mother.  And Deacon’s complicated feelings about his mother’s illness made sense to me too.

 And his thoughts about his mother were often far from selfless. He’d told her to call him anytime she felt worried. What he’d meant was Please don’t need to call. Please just be okay.

Deacon’s family situation and Mark’s isolation are of course, serious matters.  But they didn’t make the book feel heavy and I felt the overall tone was upbeat and sweetly fun.

That said, there is a more serious aspect to the story.  I confess I’m having trouble deciding what I think about it. In part I think it’s because the rest of the book is fairly light-hearted and comedic and in part because most of the bad stuff happens off page or at somewhat of a distance.  The hazing that Bengal puts the Alpha Delt pledges through is… not okay.  In particular, there is something involving Brandon (who has his own particular vulnerability) which goes beyond that  (ie it is not legal).  (And, just because Brandon is a bit more vulnerable than the other pledges, it wouldn’t have been acceptable  if it were done to others and not to him. That is; whoever it was done to: totally not okay.)

On the one hand, the narrative clearly states that this is NOT OKAY.  Mark urges Brandon to go to the college authorities (at the least) about it but Brandon refuses. Mark feels guilty because he doesn’t take any action himself but he’s torn between doing the right thing, keeping a confidence to a friend at that friend’s specific request and the pledge of secrecy made to the fraternity.  Even though he thinks most of the fraternity stuff is bullshit, he still gets kind of caught up in it.  (And, in the end, Mark finds value and brotherhood in the fraternity – although never with Bengal.)

The other thing is that the pledges have the choice of walking away and quitting.  Does this mean they volunteer for mistreatment?  I don’t think so.  And peer pressure is a huge thing.  Plus in Brandon’s case as well, it’s a massive deal to his dad that he get into a fraternity.  It’s not that the pledges are “forced” exactly.  But I’m uncomfortable where the line is between willing participant and victim of crime. And by that, I mean it seems to me that the members of Alpha Delt had a great deal of trouble working out where that line was and I don’t think they got it right. With at least with the lesser stuff, Mark explicitly states that he allowed it.  Brandon feels this too.  But there is a tension between this and the acknowledgement of just about everyone as well as the narrative, that humiliating people is not a good thing and at least some of it is downright illegal.

Bengal does get a comeuppance – I don’t think it was enough though and, more disappointingly, it comes as a result of something which I felt was less severe than what happened with Brandon.  Perhaps it was meant to be a more cumulative thing but frankly, (and even Mark says this earlier on in the book) what he’d already done was way past enough.  No-one in the fraternity likes Bengal but he’s allowed to get away with increasingly bad behaviour and mistreatment of the pledges. And no-one else in the fraternity wore any consequences for their inaction at all.  Perhaps I’m the wrong person to comment on this because I’m Australian and I have virtually no idea about fraternities/sororities.  The whole hazing thing just seems silly and ridiculous to me and I don’t know why anyone would want to put themselves through it.

There are perhaps broader questions too (questions to which I don’t have answers).  Does a book have an obligation to provide the ideal moral/legal outcome in a story?  Does it merely have to be believable? Or show an experience in a believable manner?  What obligation does a book have in the wider social context when it comes to things such as hazing? (I have deliberately chosen to use the term hazing so has not to give away spoilers.) Is it enough to merely show it exists and/or that life is messy and often far from ideal and/or allow the reader to make up his/her own mind?  Or is it obliged to show a path of moral good leading out of it?  Is “obligation” even the right word?

Maybe I should have reacted more strongly to this aspect of the book.  Maybe others will.  I’m still trying to parse all the things.  When I focus on the hazing (which I did not like – but I don’t think I was supposed to) I am uncomfortable and feel like I ought to be feeling more outrage than I currently do (and that somehow I should be ashamed about not being more upset by it).

I enjoyed the book. I thought Mark and Deacon were sweet and I liked Brandon and Blake (who is the stereotypical dumb jock – he really does get stuck in toilet cubicles a lot – but he also doesn’t bat an eyelash when Mark comes out to him either so he’s not entirely stereotypical) and I liked that generally, the people in the book were very accepting of homosexuality.

I loved the Australian v. America stuff.  How in America you can’t order a “flat white” coffee (which, for those who don’t know, is an espresso coffee with milk, no foam, but not a latte which has way more milk) and how “football” is gridiron in the US and football here is, depending on which state you live in, either Rugby League (Queensland, New South Wales) or AFL (South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria).

Mark sighed, pulling some bills out of his wallet. “Jesus, all your money is the same color, and I never know what to tip.”

“Fifteen percent usually covers it,” Brandon said.

Mark rolled his eyes. “Bran. I just ate half a pizza and a whole garlic bread. The only thing stopping me from curling up and falling asleep like a happy fat puppy is the fact that I have to have smoking-hot phone sex in a minute.” He smiled at the lady in the next booth. “I cannot be expected to do maths at a time like this.”

“Nobody’s expecting you to do maths. Math, maybe.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Why would you add an s to math?”

“Because that’s how you say it.”

Brandon picked up one of the bills and passed it back to him. “You are the weirdest person I know.”

The vernacular is used very well – I assume Lisa Henry wrote those bits, being as you are Australian. This fish-out-of-water story had moments of both humour and poignancy (especially the conversation about the stars).

I liked it. It made me laugh and it made me think.  Grade: B.



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