Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Short Takes: Dominant Woman Romances

Last fall, in a review of Cara McKenna's Unbound, I mentioned in passing how much more common it seems for BDSM romances to feature females, rather than males, in the submissive role. Not that stories about sexually submissive women must necessarily be anti-feminist (as I've argued in reviews of work by Teresa Noelle Roberts and Jacqueline Carey). But I have to admit that I find myself more curious about kinky romances with heroines placed in the dominant role, perhaps because, at least on the surface, they seem more overtly focused on calling conventional gender roles into question. So I was pleased to discover several intriguing examples of femdom romances over the past month, stories that led me to consider not just how femdom challenges traditional masculinity, but also how it addresses an audience that includes both those who might identify with its sexually dominant female heroines as well as those for whom such a role is less a mirror than a window onto a world of which they themselves are most definitely not a part.


Joely Sue Burkhart, The Billionaire Submissive

I chuckled at both the title (The Billionaire Submissive) and at the series title (Billionaires in Bondage) of Joely Sue Burkhart's new series with Carina Press, guessing that a certain irony was at play. The book's cover intentionally riffs on the more "mainstream" erotic romances of E. L. James and Sylvia Day, with its still life tableau of erotically-charged items. A closer look, though, calls the conventional symbolic logic of the gathered symbols into gendered question. Is that sparkling diamond an engagement ring? Or a cufflink? Could a lipstick be any more phallic? And who is that dog collar and whip intended for, anyways? Echoing the titles' placement of the male, rather than the female, in the position of submissive, such elements hint that the gender roles of James' books (and to a far lesser extent, Day's) are going to be called into suggestive question.

The Billionaire Submissive, though, follows the path taken by much femdom romance, creating a hero who is alpha strong in every aspect of life, even the submissively sexual. Donovan Morgan's stomping grounds may not be New York City, but he's just as much the larger-than-life businessman that readers have come to expect in their BDSM heroes: "His corner office was mostly glass, giving him an unimpeded view of the world he'd supposedly just conquered. He'd just closed another million-dollar deal" (Loc 2). But the thrill of conquest readers typically gain via proxy to such powerhouse heroes is notably lacking here: "He'd just closed another multi-million dollar deal, yet he felt nothing. No joy, exhilaration, or the rush of competition he'd thrived on his entire life" (Loc 2). Donovan finds himself frozen in the midst of a steamy Minnesota summer, lacking the one thing that might make him feel: a woman who can force him to submit sexually to her.

But Donovan's life changes irrevocably when he interviews Lilly Harrison, purportedly looking to hire the stained glass artist to design new windows for his St. Paul office building, but truly hoping he can persuade her alter ego, Mistress L, to take him on as a client, too. Donovan sends out clear vibes about his specific type of submission:

Yeah, he led the way. But only because she's letting me. Which was the crux of his issue. He wasn't the kind of submissive who would whine and beg and crawl to his Mistress's feet and kiss her toes. No. Donovan Morgan wasn't going down without a fight. The difficulty was finding a Mistress who'd relish the fight as much as him. Someone who was strong enough mentally to bend him to her will, even when he hated every minute of it.  (Loc 190)

Because Donovan's submissive desires are constructed here as strength ("She had to be strong enough to make him want to bend his pride to her will. He had to want to surrender" [Loc 190]), Lilly's wielding of power over him does not emasculate him, or de-feminize her. Lilly's explanation to herself about why she is drawn to the dominant role contains nothing that takes pleasure in a partner's belittlement, but instead focuses on her own power:

Mistress L had started out at the local BDSM club three years ago as Lilly tried to find what she'd been searching for her whole life. She'd dated. She'd had plenty of sex, some good, some not so good. She'd even been engaged. But there'd been an emptiness inside her the entire time, an aching, gnawing lack, even though she didn't know what it was. She'd found it at the club once she'd taken a crop in hand. "They test me. It's like each time I give them an order, and they do it, then I've proved my strength and will again. If they don't obey, then I have  to prove I'm strong enough to punish them until they do. Regardless, I'm growing every single day and becoming even stronger." (Loc 291)

Donovan gets turned on by pain—"There wasn't much on the discipline scale that didn't appeal to him"—but not by degradation: "the humiliation elements were easy enough to decline" (Loc 915). Because Donovan maintains the strength that serves as the cornerstone of conventional masculinity, and Lilly does not enjoy humiliating such men (and has never been sexually turned on by BDSM before meeting Donovan), Lilly's own dominant tendencies never threaten to become a turn-off for the non-kinky reader.



Delphine Dryden, The Principle of Desire

I've read a lot of "please pretend to be my date so my ex won't accost me/humiliate me" meet-cutes, but I've never come across one that takes place in a kink club. But a quarter of the way into The Principle of Desire (the third title in Dephine Dryden's The Science of Desire series), Dryden gives us just such a scene, and with a far less-than-conventional hero than Burkhart's Donovan Morgan. Geeky, cranky, less-than-cut aerospace engineer Ed follows his friends to what he thought was a music club to retrieve his phone, only to find himself in the middle of  kink club. Little does he realize that his offer to help out a friend of a friend when her ex-who-won't-take-no arrives will lead to more than just watching. But in her dismay, former submissive Beth tells her ex-dom Aaron that she came to the club not to meet her him, as he had commanded, but to try out the whipping post with her new boy—Ed.

Having just witnessed the unexpected sight of a female friend on the receiving end of a flogging, Ed consents to Beth's unexpected scenario ("I just found out all my friends are into this stuff, and you expect me to let you fake this in front of them? If Cami took it, so can I. Bring it on, Mistress" [Loc 580]). And he finds himself pleasantly surprised by how turned-on he becomes during Beth's unusual ministrations.

For her part, Beth imagines how comfortable it might be to lay her head on Ed's squishy stomach, and is struck by a craving to "see more of [his] intensity. To bring it out in him, see how suffering refined him into a clearer version of himself. To see how much he would be willing to take to please her" (Loc 498). Beth is not a straight-out dom, but a woman in the process of experimenting, trying to see whether she enjoys the role of dom as much as she did the role of sub. At twenty-eight, Beth has only recently recognized how lacking in mutuality her relationship with Aaron, who "claimed" her at the age of twenty after meeting her at their local kink club, has been. Aaron has no interesting in letting Beth explore her dominance desires ("He doesn't believe in switches. He was sure it was just a phase I was going through and now I'm supposed to be over it"), but misanthropic Ed accepts them without question: "You swing both ways. Got it." (Loc 487).

As their unconventional first date leads to another, and another, Beth, and through Beth, the reader, learn that Ed's unconventionality extends not only to his acceptance of Beth's sexual desires, but also to his views about his own: "I don't really know about this D/s stuff. I'm not either one, and I love doing this with you but I don't know that I'm really a switch either. I think I'm just generally kinky as fuck. I like it all. Is that a thing?" Beth knows that "Purists would say no," but she proves equally accepting of Ed as he is of her: "But it's like glueing your Lego. You have to do what works for you" (Loc 1343). Being a former sub may relieve some reader anxiety about Beth's less conventional femininity, but both her and Ed's refusal to fit neatly into categories may allow readers to question the rigidity of the boundaries of their own sexual desires.

Best line: "There was just something about a woman with a decent grasp of statistics and research" (Loc 892).



Rebecca Rogers MaherTanya

Author Maher confronts potential reader anxiety about dominant women by addressing it head-on, in the dedication to her novella: "This book is dedicated to all women who have more to offer than niceness. Fear us, world. We're coming for you." But her story is as much about convincing her protagonist, former alcoholic Tanya, that she doesn't have to be a nice girl as it is about convincing the reader. Though she's been sober for two years, Tanya has a hard time believing that she can be anything but a screw-up. She engages in one-night stands, sexual encounters in which she keeps tight control of the game. For Tanya, it's not about inflicting pain, but about "forcing [a guy] off balance, keeping [him] under her control" (Loc 152). She initially explains it to herself thus: "It's the filth of it I'm after, the vague sense of self-punishment, of eating something bad for me. I like it when they're mean, or sexist, or stupid. I like taking what I want from these men, and then shoving them out the door" (Loc 210). But there's more to it than just self-punishment:

I like it. I like being a bitch and I like making them want me that way. I like discarding them when I'm all done. It's payback, is what it is. For all those years I spent sitting in grungy apartments listening to the jam sessions and misogynist proselytizing of boys I got drunk with. It was all about them, then. What they wanted.
     Not anymore.
     It's about me now. What I want. (Loc 231)

After an anonymous hook-up with a guy who doesn't seem to feel degraded by her controlling, dominant behavior, but turned on by it, Tanya begins to question her motives even further. And when said anonymous hook-up turns out to be the brother of her sister's fiancé, his acceptance and her own questioning lead her to rethink the story she's been telling about herself: that's she's a drunk, a screw-up, a worthless person, destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Just maybe there isn't another shoe waiting to drop; just maybe she can be something else besides nice and still be valued.

Best line: "What is it that you think I want, exactly? Someone to look pretty and clean my socks? It's the twenty-first century. You don't have to be nice. You can be smart and funny and sexy as hell, and believe me, that will be more than enough." (Loc 1240)



Shelley Ann Clark, Have Mercy

In both The Principle of Desire and The Billionaire Submissive, it is the female half of each pair who undergoes the most character change/growth over the course of her story, which in some ways reassures the non-kinky reader who may find a woman with dominant tendencies a bit anxiety-provoking that these heroines are not all-powerful. Beth has to learn to imagine a life separate from Aaron before she can envision a relationship with Ed; Lilly has to learn to believe that a man can love both Lilly and Mistress L before she can commit to Donovan. But in Shelley Ann Clark's Have Mercy, the bigger learning curve is granted to the hero, musician/bar owner Tom. Tom's always been the responsible one, picking up the pieces after his alcoholic father, making sure his younger sister did her homework and ate her dinner. Touring's never been an option before, but now, with his father gone and his sister seeming to have turned the corner in battling her own addiction to liquor, Tom can't resist the offer to tour with rising songster Emily "Emme" Hayes, a woman whose "voice damn near melted his spine.... He heard desire in her voice, and he longed to give her whatever she wanted" (Loc 38). But when things fall apart back home, Tom has to decide whether to keep on giving when he's getting nothing in return, or to be "who he wanted to be, not who he was forced to be by circumstance" (Loc 2655). A daring move, to create a submissive hero who also has a mess of personal problems with which to come to terms.

For her part, Emme is the most openly dominant of the three heroines, even though she's the least aware of her own desires. Or, at least, readers are given far more access to Emme's thoughts and desires than we are to Lilly's or Beth's, desires that are directly at odds with conventional femininity. Early in the novella, Emme masturbates while fantasizing about using the band's new bassist for her own sexual pleasure:

What a stupid fantasy. He seemed different from all the other guys she'd known, sure, but she had no doubt that he'd be like them in bed—pulling her hair, trying to impress her with moves like tossing her around on the bed or putting their hands around her neck. Okay with the right person, maybe, but not what she'd ever really wanted for herself. Things that had always left her feeling a little dissatisfied. Lacking. (Loc 237)

Tom's sexual desires don't quite meet the standards of typical masculinity, either: When they play a new song she's written, "about asking the Lord for mercy for the man she was about to hurt, all he could think was, Please let that man be me" (Loc 475); "He wanted her to push him down and take hi over an dover and over again, preferably while she sang in that husky wet velvet voice" (Loc 457). He seems just the right fit for Emme, who "wanted him to want her, she wanted to make him hurt and yearn, and then she wanted to reward him for it, relieve him of it, make it all better" (Loc 1060).

Tom and Emme gradually discover each other's proclivities, choosing to have an affair despite the promise Emme's bandmates forced her to make before agreeing to hire Tom: she will not seduce the new bass player. The reason behind the promise points to the sexism of the double standard the press, and the public, hold about the sex lives of famous men compared to famous women. By surfacing such openly feminist concerns, rather than blunting Emme's dominant tendencies, Clark doesn't assuage reader anxiety about Emme's unconventional femininity, but asks readers to confront it head-on, then to recognize the sexism that may underlie it.

Best line: "It took its own kind of strength to retain that kindness, that openness, in the face of all his accumulated hurts. For all his guilelessness, he was the strongest man she'd ever met" (Loc 1928).



Can you recommend any other feminist femdom romances?

15 comments:

  1. I think I generally shy away from any romance/erotic novels where there is power imbalance between the characters. I guess I just don't want anyone to be submissive completely.

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    1. Hi, Kinga, and thanks for stopping by. I don't think that any of the characters in these stories are "submissive completely"; many just enjoy being submissive within their sexual relationships. In THE PRINCIPLE OF DESIRE, in fact, Beth, the heroine, has broken up with her former boyfriend because their relationship lacked equity.

      Is it the "completely" that bothers you? Or do you have trouble believing that "feminism" and "submissive" can ever go hand in hand?

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  2. I love stories with dominant females and they are so hard the find. Unfortunately many of them have the same thing, a novice female Dom and a male sub that fights her. One of my favorite books with this theme is Blowback by Lyn Gala. It's paranormal and the relationship is just one part of the whole story but she is dominant and he is proudly submissive to her.

    I do find it interesting though that the books will allow a woman to be submissive in all things, but they won't allow the male to be. He has to fight his submission, basically do it on his terms, or be badass in some other aspect of life. Would we (generally) be good with a completely submissive male? Hard to say.

    Issa

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    1. Hi, Issa. I think romance writers and publishers assume that readers would find a completely submissive man unappealing--that would be so opposite to the norms of western masculinity. It would be interesting to find an author who could make such a character appealing...

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  3. So rare and yet so good when done well. Charlotte Stein is particularly adept, I've found. CONTROL is the one everyone seems to have read and liked, but she's got another one called POWER PLAY where the woman is a new Dom/switch. Her male sub is also her professional assistant. He does a little topping from the bottom, but unless the reader is a BDSM purist, they'll probably find it funny. I don't know that I'd call him completely submissive, but he's pretty close.

    And recently Charlotte and I actually had a conversation about "femdom" on Twitter (a term I can't stand, but seems both standard and works well with Twitter's 140 character limit). So I can chime in with a couple of her recs that I haven't read yet but that others might find interesting: NATURAL LAW by Joey Hill and TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS by Megan Hart.

    As an aside, I've been astonished at the reviews that have popped up for some of these books. For those of us who like a dominant woman story, there are half a dozen who can't stand it and are very vocal in their opposition. I'm totally fine with a completely submissive male, but then, I also like Beta heroes tremendously. So much of mainstream romance maintains an alpha-only position that just seems limiting to both sexes. Whether it works for a particular reader as a sexual kink or not, even in our fantasies we can't give women room to stretch their bossy muscles? Can't even entertain the possibility?

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  4. When this was posted I was in the middle of reading HAVE MERCY. I loved the unconventional approach it took to the BDSM aspects of their relationship and the potential problems with bandmates turned lovers, especially since Emme is the headliner and holds the power in the relationship. Emme is not interested in using that power against him. That's not to say that no woman in her position would ever abuse a power differential, but it's a refreshing change from the many male dom "heroes" who make choices for their lovers in and out of bed and believe they know better what their lovers need than the women do.

    I loved Delphine Dryden's THE PRINCIPLE OF DESIRE because the main characters aren't afraid to color outside the lines to find what works for them and because it shows what's wrong with the "dom knows better" approach mentioned above, which is what drove Beth away from her previous boyfriend. Switchiness and Ed's geeky practicality FTW!

    I liked the other books in this series as well even though both of them feature male doms and female subs, but there was a point in the second book where the female MC attributed her psychological response to what they were doing to her gender in a sweeping way that stopped me in my tracks.

    As for other femdom romances, NATRUAL LAW is my least favorite of the femdom stories in Joey Hill's NATURE OF DESIRE series. The suspense subplot (which was part of what attracted me to it in the first place) is poorly handled and it features one of the feisty male subs who fights his Domme all the way you describe above. It's otherwise well-written, but I'm not interested in its "is the little lady tough enough to keep the macho man in line" (literally true here) dynamic.

    Of the other two femdom novels in the series, I like BRANDED SANCTUARY better. The male sub (who's a bisexual, another plus as far as I'm concerned) acts more like a knight courting a lady with kinky sex as well as his devotion than like the humiliated wimp most people associate with male submission. The woman involved is not in fact a Domme and doesn't particularly want to be a Domme, so the story also explores how a kinky person and a non-kinky person negotiate a relationship.

    The downside is that the book is not as immediately involving as other books in the series. Also, much of what happens to the female lead is a consequence of events in other books. While BRANDED SANCTUARY contains enough of an explanation so someone who hadn't read the earlier books can follow along without being lost, reading the preceding books first probably adds emotional heft.

    HOLDING THE CARDS, the first book in the series, is another femdom erotic romance. It features an mmf menage among characters who show up in later books (the man who's not part of the femdom relationship is one of the leads in the sole m/m book in the series), but it's closer to novella length and as such just shows us the beginning of Lauren and Josh's relationship, not the development of it

    I've read Charlotte Stein's CONTROL, but think of it as a threesome that resolves into a twosome rather than a femdom romance, even though it technically is. Although I enjoyed it as I read it, once I reached the end I felt the book was more about the main character test-driving two guys to figure out who she liked better. I would have felt less like she was taking advantage if she'd engaged in concurrent but separate one-on-one relationships with them rather than a threesome.

    The book also implicitly reinforces the idea that a monogamous dyad is the end-all and be-all. So femdom or not, I don't consider it a feminist book and can't recommend it.

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  5. I'd also like to echo Elizabeth Lane's distress at the reviews that slam these books for being what they are. Perhaps some are motivated by unclear blurbs and others by readers who tried to read outside their comfort zone and found they couldn't, but I agree that they demonstrate how ingrained the belief in male dominance as the way things are is.

    Sometimes I like to be in charge, sometimes I don't. That does not make me unnatural or unwomanly. Rather, reciprocity and mutuality is not only sexy but makes everything more fun by taking the pressure off of both parties.

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  6. I can't believe I've never heard of the Science of Temptation series! I'm totally putting them on my tbr! Thanks for telling us about them.

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  7. Thank you so much for this! It is surprisingly hard to find novels with a female dom and I'm so excited to dive into these books xox

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    1. You're very welcome! Hope you enjoy them...

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  8. Thank you for these recommendations. I arrived on this page whilst looking for books about individuals becoming doms (as opposed to someone learning to be a submissive, like in 50 SHADES and Delphine Dryden's THEORY OF ATTRACTION).
    I have already read Delphine Dryden's THE SEDUCTION HYPOTHESIS (where a man learns the ropes as a dom because he wants to seduce his ex-girlfriend again who's becoming interested in BDSM) and THE PRINCIPLE OF DESIRE (as described above) with a woman as a dom or switch, and a man as a sub or interested party.
    And I enjoyed CONTROL by Charlotte Stein. I think saying the heroin test-drives the 2 male characters is a bit harsh. I think it's more that she discovers her dominating tendencies as she finds that the more submissive hero suits her - they meet each other's needs. She learns from the 3rd character (in the same fashion that the married couple learns from their 3rd in ALL OTHER THINGS) but then she "overtakes the master".
    Megan Hart has another couple of books with a femal dom, which are SWITCH and VANILLA. In SWITCH, the heroin experiments with domination a little, but it doesn't seem to lead anywhere apart from better self awareness. In VANILLA, there's definitely this conflict where her vanilla lover feels threatened by her proclivities, and somehow the book ends up with an HEA but it's not very convincing.
    Another one where the status of the female heroin as a dom ends up sidelined is Emma Holly's THE TOP OF HER GAME.
    I like thinking about degrees and levels of domination. The explanation that Remittance Girl gave in BEAUTIFUL LOSERS comes to mind: in the range of taboos, a man being submissive is considered even less acceptable than a man being gay, so I understand why a lot of the sub heroes will fight their submissive tendency. It may be a cliché but it doesn't bother me.
    This was always at the back of my mind when I read Tymber Dalton's Cardinal's Rule. A female sub becomes a pro domme when abandoned by her dom and it turns out he's a submissive, so is the male sub's dom at the top of the pile, then the male sub, then the heroin, then her male sub clients?

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    1. Thanks, anonymous, for sharing your recommendations. Gender norms about male submission are definitely at play with the trope of the male sub fighting his submissive tendencies. I wonder, though, if there are other ways that male submissives might express their submissive desires. Male/male romances seem better at presenting a broader range of what male sexual submission might look like, perhaps because with another male partner, there is less of a gender threat in presenting as submissive?

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    2. Hi Jackie, since I posted my comments, I’ve read the books you reviewed and 2 more that readers commented on: The Billionaire Submissive, Tanya, Have Mercy, Natural Law and Taking Care of Business. I’ve been reading erotica for a few years now and I’ve come to the conclusion that the books that have really made an impression on me do so not just because of good sex scenes or good writing. The tensions existing around gender roles and dominance are one of the things that keep my brain cells whirring. I’m not interested in damsels in distress much and I agree the crime plot in Natural Law was not riveting at all. I’m even at the point where I think dominance trumps gender, i.e. where you can read the books and look through the genders and just see interactions and journeys.
      I didn’t like The Billionaire Submissive much to be honest. I can’t tell yet if it’s just me not relating to this female dom, and/or not taking the male sub character seriously. I suppose I don’t buy much into a character who needs submission in the bedroom as a "holiday" from the stress of a high-powered job. There’s a glimpse of a character like that, I think, in Sophie Oak’s Three to Ride: a woman who is a CEO and relaxes at the weekend with a dom for hire. (The flip-side of that, I guess, is a dom character who doesn’t want a 24/7 responsibility as this would be too heavy a weight to bear.)
      In The Billionaire Submissive, it all seemed to boil down to Lilly inflicting pain on Donovan. I just can’t equate submission to masochism. I know it’s the usual set-up, the dom inflicting pain on the sub, either for pleasure, punishment or to meet a masochist’s needs. The only vaguely dominant character I can think of who is a masochist is Brendan Donnelly in Beyond Pain by Kit Rocha.
      Tilly

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  9. I like your quote from The Principle of Desire: “To see how much he would be willing to take to please her". This is not really what happens in The Billionaire Submissive – she inflicts pain on him because he wants it; it excites her but she doesn’t need it. I remember the scene where Ed inflicts pain on Beth with pegs after Ivan tells him that she suffers beautifully, and it’s like the mirror of this quote – to see how much she can take. They’re both experimenting for their own pleasure but, at the same time, taking into account what works for the other.
    This is what I think love is all about, give and take. Dominance is just like a magnifying glass applied to that. The journey that the characters are on to determine what they like, accept it irrespective of social taboos, and (if they’re lucky) encounter somebody who accepts it too and fits with it, is what makes these books interesting.
    I liked Leah and Brandon’s story in Taking Care of Business and the follow-up No Reservations because there were 2 journeys to read about.
    I didn’t buy much into Leah’s transformation from sub to domme, I thought it was a bit clumsy, but I can accept her meeting Brandon was like a catalyst, and I can also see how perhaps the writer wanted to portray Leah as hesitant on her dominating journey. My concern is if her being hesitant is a consequence of a gender stereotype: a female dom will be portrayed as having weaknesses, struggling with shame, etc., whereas male doms will generally be described as bullet-proof.
    This goes back to what I am still investigating, the journey of a character becoming a dom(me), developing their style. It seems easier to find books about women doing this, rather than men. Here, we have Beth, Tanya, Emme, Leah and Madison (in Control) finding their way, compared to Ben (in The Seduction Hypothesis) and Seth in The Reluctant Dom.
    What I really enjoyed in Taking Care of Business was the way Brandon embraces his submissive role. You asked earlier if a writer had been able to make a completely submissive man appealing and I think Megan Hart nailed it in that one, better than Charlotte Stein did in Control. Gabriel is very endearing too, but seems a bit maladjusted, a victim of a secluded childhood. Brandon is just plain normal, had a normal childhood, has a normal family, normal parents, and he takes his new-found submissive appetite/ desires/ needs in his stride. He’s proud. He doesn’t need to shout about it from the rooftops, it’s like this strong inner glow, this sense of rightness. I think perhaps this is what Tom (in Have Mercy) and Jack (in Tanya) might have developed into if the books had been longer.
    Tilly

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    1. Thanks, Tilly, for checking back in and updating us all on your reading. I will have to check out TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS!

      Have you seen my more recent post on what's missing from BDSM romance?http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com/2017/02/whats-missing-from-bdsm-romance.html

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