Wednesday, August 17, 2011

TBR Challenge -- Neuroscience, Philosophy & Ice Cream in BDSM Erotica

This month's TBR Challenge is, and I quote, "Steamy reads (Erotic romance, erotica, something spicy!)"

However, this post will itself be spice-free.  Because my one and two-thirds TBR books interest me in non-sexual ways.  And because I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable.

Okay, let's get the two-thirds out of the way.  An online friend highly recommended an anthology of novellas about police officers.  I had to stop reading the first story about an undercover cop falling for the bookkeeper for the mob, when it used expressions like, "He made me an offer I couldn't refuse" and it wasn't talking about sex.  The Godfather clich├ęs were as stupid as the conceit that the cop could be losing his mind about this woman while he's undercover and at risk of getting them both killed.  I dunno -- maybe a better writer could have made the situation work, but I found it insultingly silly.  And not sexy.

I abandoned the mob and tried the second story about a cop going undercover as a male stripper to catch the Black Widow, a serial killer preying on strippers (a set-up Linda Howard herself couldn't rescue).  This story was better written, although the notion that he'd actually have sex with a woman he'd thought was a killer just ten minutes earlier is just crazy.  I managed to finish it, but I'll never get that hour back.

I had no stomach even to start the third story, so maybe it's great.  I'll come back and edit this post if it is.  Oh, and you noticed I haven't told you the name of the book or the novellas' authors?  The names have been omitted to protect the guilty...and the innocent, namely my friend who recommended this book in good faith.

But to satisfy the TBR Challenge rules, I had to read a book I could name and discuss, so I picked an ebook I had in my TBR, Fortune by Annabel Joseph.  Ms. Joseph writes BDSM erotica, and her early books (Mercy, Comfort Object) are pretty hardcore stories with the romance -- and yes, there's a romance in each one -- playing a supporting role.  But her recent books, Caressa's Knees, Deep in the Woods, and Fortune (the last two are connected), have focused more on the relationship between the protagonists, with the kinky sex being one aspect of that relationship.  (I'm pleased to see from her website that she's writing non-BDSM romances as well.)

In Fortune, Kat is a second-generation Russian-American who haunts dance clubs for one-night hook-ups with college-aged guys.  She'll also sleep with the DJs, and sometimes with the bartender, but never with the bouncer.  As almost all of Kat's life is shadowed with bone-deep ennui, her reluctance to sleep with a bouncer seems odd.

One of the bouncers (she thinks) catches her eye -- Ryan, who's actually a neurosurgeon (stop rolling your eyes) helping to train the bouncers in something or other.  (Really -- don't dwell on this.  It's absurd, but Joseph is so assured in her writing that I just went with it.  Ryan's a complicated guy, so of course he's at that club hanging out with the bouncers when Kat notices him.)

He chats her up but she's not interested.  Or, to be more precise, she is interested in him, but she's more interested in being disinterested in stuff that might make her happy.  She's deeply invested in her weltschmerz and she's not letting him mess with that.

Which raises some fascinating questions about paternalism and self-determination.  If someone offered to help you get more organized, or lose weight, or eat better, would you be interested?  What if the methods he was going to use were distinctly paternalistic, ordering for you at a restaurant for example, so while they worked, they also took away your casual self-determination?

I say "casual self-determination" because as David Eagleman shows in his book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, there's no monolithic entity controling our preferences and ultimate choices.  He likens it more to a parliament, with majority members and the "back benchers," -- you want the ice cream but you also don't want the ice cream, so the factions fight over whether to have the ice cream.  We all know what that feels like.

In Fortune, Kat wants Ryan (who she learns is a Dominant in the BDSM lifestyle) but she also doesn't want him.  He scares her not because he'll harm her physically, but because he'll make her feel wanting, or even love.  He senses her ambivalence and just decides to override her stated objections because he can tell what she "really wants."

Yeah, don't try that at home, folks.  But it's fiction, and if we held all romances to the standard that "real life doesn't work that way," we'd have nothing to read.

When Kat pulls away, Ryan lets her.  The decision, ultimately, is hers and eventually her desire to be with him wins over the weltschmerz.  She moves in with him for a month, never intending it be permanent.  There's a nice mix of vanilla and non-vanilla sex, and it's more on the "we'll be serious about the lifestyle part of the time and just be a couple the rest of the time" end of the kinkiness spectrum.  (The other end of the kinky spectrum is better represented in Mercy or Comfort Object.)

Unfortunately, the intriguing conflicts of their relationship are all much more vivid and engaging than the sex.  (Just because leather is involved doesn't mean the sex is intense.  It's intense when it's blowing someone's mind.)  As a result, the final quarter of the book drags in places.   I can't wait to see what Joseph's writing is like when she doesn't have to meet the requirement of X number of sex scenes with Y yards of rope and Z leather objects.

Overall, this is a wonderful romance between a very complicated and sad heroine and a resourceful hero.

One final thought:  I like BDSM heroes because they're very obviously thinking a lot about what's in the heroine's head.  The Dominant hero stuff is okay (I don't like the humiliation and name calling, but if both parties find it a turn-on, that's great for them) because really, how different is this from a cowboy romance or a billionaire sheik romance?  He's got power, she's got something he wants (smokin' hot bod, or perhaps a secret baby), they work out a way for both sides to be happy with the arrangement.  Usually that involves taming the wild man -- getting the hero to behave in a more civilized and sensitive manner.

But in BDSM novels, the hero's already "civilized" in that he knows what he likes to do, he knows women who want to be on the receiving end, and he's happy to accommodate them.  And I mean that word seriously:  the hero either knows at the beginning of a BDSM erotic romance how to accommodate the heroine (so the character arc is hers) or he doesn't yet, and he'll have to figure it out by the end.  Even in a story with wildly unequal power status, there's a vital negotiation going on.  Both parties have a vote, and both parties have to vote yes for the relationship to work.  (Joseph looks at the dynamic of a failed BDSM relationship, where the man removed the woman's right to veto the relationship, in Deep in the Woods.  She leaves no doubt about how wrong that situation is, and how it's vital for the submissive always to retain the power to get out.)

Clearly, these books aren't for everybody.  It's a shame, actually, because Annabel Joseph's writing and characterizations are very fine and she raises some philosophical questions about passivity and paternalism that I wrestled with in a paper I wrote for grad school 30+ years ago.  (I left out the sex, of course.)

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done review. I'll have to read the books and check my eye-roll control.


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