Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Club Shadowlands and The Boss

Happy almost spring, everyone! I tried for much longer than what's reasonable to turn this into a "winter is coming/winter's almost over" joke to celebrate the fact that I'm almost done with A Game of Thrones and should have a review of it out soon, but sadly I failed.

Anyway... my blog may have been all but dead between August and January, but that doesn't mean I wasn't doing any reading. I joked a long time ago on my review of The Last Swordmage that it was pretty strange that despite the fact that I feel way more at home with genres like fantasy, don't usually care for straight-up erotica/romance as a genre, and always intended for this blog to host an eclectic mix of fiction, my early reviews almost solely focused on (mostly terrible) kinky erotic romance. And now it's been what, about a year since I last reviewed anything "erotic"? Oh, how things have changed (or not) since those early days. So after taking a much-needed breather, I decided months back to cautiously dip my toe back into the hot, steamy, sweaty Jacuzzi of erotic fiction. You're welcome, my friends, you're welcome.

First up: Club Shadowlands.

(WARNING: Mild spoilers may lie ahead. Also, the usual warnings about snark and snide commentary apply, but I'm not in a super-snarky or ranty mood today. Sorry to disappoint. Also, possible trigger warning for blunt talk of non-consensual sex acts.)

Club Shadowlands (Masters of the Shadowlands #1)- Cherise Sinclair

My Rating: Two stars out of five

My Review: I know this book has a ton of positive reviews, and even a ton of people who are very much involved in BDSM as a lifestyle really seem to love Cherise Sinclair's books. But after reading it myself, I just don't get all of the praise. That's not to say that Ms. Sinclair is a bad writer, because she's not; I don't think she's anywhere close to great the way a lot of other readers do, either, but if you're familiar with my blog then you know by now that I'm either a) really hard to please, or b) really know how to pick shitty authors. So the writing in general isn't bad; however, it must be said that I found that most scenes where "sexy" was the intention instead came across as awkwardly phrased and sometimes downright uncomfortable to read (more on that below). Considering this is pretty much straight erotica and titillation is the big selling point, that's a big strike against the book right there. 

I guess the main issue is that this book is simply not my cup of tea, but it's hard to say that definitively when I'm sure that with a few changes it just might have been. First of all, the main character, Jessica, quickly became impossible to stand. I can understand and sympathize with her deep insecurities, but only up to a point. She never got over them, and they would crop up at the weirdest times for seemingly no reason. But I could deal with that if it weren't for her willful stupidity and persistent hangups about BDSM. I should've known from the beginning that this was going to be one of "those books" where the heroine is constantly SHOCKED, I tell you, SHOCKED and mortified over her desire to submit sexually when she's such a strong and independent woman, to the point where it becomes ridiculous. I just don't understand the appeal of a character who would rather slut-shame herself and angst over how wrong and taboo her desires are than simply accept it and have a good time.

Like most other erotic novels I've read (or read parts of), the circumstances which drive our two lovers together could not be any more contrived. They could also not be any more unrealistic. Not that I personally have any real-life experience with BDSM clubs, but I'm pretty sure that they 1) would't just hand a stranded stranger a contract without giving them at least a brief overview of what to expect first; 2) serve alcohol if the venue also permits full nudity, extreme impact play, and penetrative sex; and 3) physically punish a 3rd party with a spanking for breaking up a scene, especially if said 3rd party was completely new and didn't really understand what was going on. Yes, I know this is meant to be more fantasy than reality, but I guess a healthy dose of reality is my personal preference, and probably why I don't read much erotica to begin with.

My biggest beef, however, has to be the male love interest, Zachary, aka "Master Z". He's nominally a very nice guy, but his friendly, easy-going, and patient exterior masks a festering clusterfuck of consent violations. For a guy who's known as the best Dom in town and who pays a lot of lip service to being attentive to his sub's needs, he's certainly disappointing at best and guilty of sexual assault at worst. As part of the fantasy, Master Z is a literal mind-reader... or at least an emotion-reader, the narrative isn't very clear on that. He says he can sometimes read minds, but he only ever seems to be able to read emotional reactions. But whatever, the point is that he uses his powers to help Jessica on her journey of sexual self-discovery. It's a nice fantasy and all, but the problem is that almost everything he does he does without her consent. Sure, Z can sense when Jessica is getting turned on by public sex and threesomes, but he doesn't seem to understand that there's a difference between wanting something and wanting something. Ever consider that maybe she's aroused by something, but she's not ready to actually try it, or that it's something that she'd rather not do in real life at all? Go ahead and read her reactions to stuff, but for God's sake, TALK  to her before you try it and ask her what she wants!!! My discomfort was somewhat mitigated by Ms. Sinclair's inclusion of this disclaimer, however:

It's refreshing to see an erotic author who takes the time to write such a disclaimer which acknowledges the differences between fantasy and reality, and I can't really fault her for writing such a fantasy. However, it does seem to put more responsibility for talking things out on the potential sub than it does the Dom, and references to mind-reading as a substitute for actual consent being wrong are oblique at best.

Master Z also calls Jessica"kitten" and "little one" a lot, which is annoying as hell and comes across as both way too intimate and insanely condescending considering they just met. He also talks about the fact that he works with children for a living while he has a boner, which just... no.

Overall, this book was far from the worst erotica I've read, and it did have a few legitimately sexy bits and the writing was mostly decent. However, I can't recommend it and I doubt I'll be reading the rest of the series.


(WARNING: Nothing triggering in this one as far as I can tell, but definitely some spoilers near the end. To read with spoilers hidden, check it out on Goodreads.)

The Boss (The Boss #1)- Jenny Trout Abigail Barnette

My Rating: Three and a half stars

My Review: Well, this one was certainly refreshing after so much erotic romance ranging from steamy yet rage-inducing to down-right steaming turds. And yes, I will be making some comparisons to Fifty Shades of Garbage in this review, since considering this book was literally Jenny Trout's answer to it, it's kind of impossible to avoid. Let it be known that Jenny/Ms. Barnette can actually write, and she's pretty great at it, too. The descriptions are creative, the dialogue is witty, and the majority of the sex scenes are hot and tastefully written, if mostly a little vanilla for my taste.

Despite my hesitations when it comes to erotica and the fact that I hadn't read any in a long time, I was curious about this mainly because I've been an avid follower of Jenny's recaps of the Fifty Shades books, and wanted to read her take on the now-cliche "young woman has complicated romance with kinky billionaire" story. Overall, she did a pretty amazing job of making such a story work in a mostly grounded, realistic way. That's not to say that it was entirely relatable for me; I have zero interest in fashion magazines and the fashion industry, so the workplace drama often felt too Devil Wears Prada for my taste and couldn't always relate to Sophie's problems very well. Despite that, it still held my attention enough that while I wasn't exactly on the edge of my seat, I was still intrigued as to how it would all turn out in the end. 

In general, I did like both Sophie and Neil. They're both smart, down-to-earth, likable, and multi-faceted people who have actual lives outside of their relationship. I also really appreciate that Sophie's the rare romance protagonist who's sexually experienced and not shy about it. She knows what she wants and doesn't have any weird qualms about trying some kinky stuff. My only real complaint about Sophie is that the author seems to try a little too hard to make her seem independent, open-minded, and down-to-earth. After a while, I was kind of rolling my eyes and going, "WE GET IT. You're a strong, independent woman who don't need no man and has hangups about commitment. WE GET IT." 

Neil's also a breath of fresh air after so many love interests who have been immature, abusive, assholes, or all of the above. My one complaint about him is that despite generally being very patient and understanding, he does occasionally lapse into telling Sophie how she feels, or at least that's how I read it. I can't help but think that this has something to do with the huge age gap, and the fact that he's letting his parental concern show. This is very much a personal preference for me, but it's the main issue that I have with this book. There's nothing wrong with a huge age gap between two consenting adults, but it's really not my cup of tea at all. I was pretty uncomfortable with the fact that Sophie was literally the same age as her boyfriend's daughter, especially since the story kind of made a big deal about the conflict that arose from that. I get that a 48-year-old billionaire is more realistic than all those fictional 28-year-old billionaires, but I still couldn't help but be mildly squicked out at times. I'll be the first to admit that I've been attracted to a few older men before (don't get me started on my fixation on Dr. McCoy in Star Trek when I was 17), but this story was always much hotter during the times when I could temporarily forget that Neil was twice her age.

*SPOILERS* I didn't care for the ending very much. Surprise pregnancy plotlines annoy me to no end. No matter how well-crafted the rest of the story is, they almost always come across as cheap, manufactured drama, and unfortunately that's the case with The Boss. They tend to be pretty predictable, too; I could see this one coming from the first time they had sex without a condom. It also ended on a massive cliffhanger, and while it's fine for the first book in a series to have an open ending, it can be pretty irritating when they leave almost everything up in the air the way this one did. Sure, I do have some interest in reading the sequel (I've actually already read the free sample and will probably end up buying it to read the rest), but I feel like there has to be some kind of resolution to the story arc. *END SPOILERS*

All that aside, I did enjoy this book for what it is, which is a "good version" of a Fifty Shades-style story. I'd definitely recommend it to those who are looking for an antidote to Fifty Shades of Garbage, specifically those who think May-December romances are hot or can at least tolerate them. But if the thought of being in a relationship with a guy who is literally old enough to be your dad is way too uncomfortable for you, maybe give this one a pass.

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