Sunday, August 5, 2018

It Stings So Sweet by Stephanie Draven

💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Jazz Age Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙

IT STINGS SO SWEET came out when everyone was trying to out-FIFTY SHADES OF GREY FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. I bought it at the tail end of the fad, when people were starting to get fatigued by the crazy influx of taboo erotica. This book, along with others, was sitting sadly on the discount table at a Barnes & Noble, where its price had been slashed several times, despite the lack of takers. I imagine it's like arriving late to a Roman orgy when everyone's tired and all the grapes are wilted.

My hopes were pretty low when I picked it up, but after a few pages, I was like, "Wow, this is hot!" It's costume fiction to be sure, but the author made a genuine effort to pick up the slang and the scenery of the times, and it gives IT STINGS SO SWEET a fun, colorful element that keeps it from being "just another kinky erotica." I don't know if the author was watching The Great Gatsby on TV and thought, "this would make a good porn," but if that's the case, she was totally right, and more power to her, because it put this awesome book in my hands.

IT STINGS SO SWEET contains three short stories that have interconnecting characters. Each can be read as a standalone, but together they create a whole, as several of the characters have arcs that are introduced in one of the previous short stories in which they are a secondary characters, only to have it resolved when they finally get their own story. I thought that set-up was pretty creative.

Love Me or Leave Me: ☆☆☆☆

This is the first story and it is definitely the most intense. Nora Richardson and her husband, Johnathan, are at a party, but neither are enjoying themselves. Nora got drunk and kissed another man and her husband is fuming over her infidelity and planning to leave her on the morrow. But first - he wants to punish her by humiliating her in front of all their friends, which at first fills her with outrage, and then fills her with something far more complicated and messed up.

I think if people have issues with one of these stories, it's going to be Love Me or Leave Me, since it's so dark and really toes the line of safe, sane, and consensual. This is because Johnathan is a sadist and Nora is a masochist, and their dance of physical and emotional humiliation can feel very uncomfortable, especially when Johnathan forces her to do sexual things with other men while he watches (stopping short of sex, of course) or even hitting her in the face. That said, I felt like it was done well, and there was aftercare, and the author really tried to untangle Johanthan's anger from his wife with his desire to see her humiliated, and I appreciated that distinction from straight-up abuse.

When I'm Bad I'm Better: ☆☆☆☆

I liked this story a lot. It's about a silent film star named Clara Cartwright who meets a flying ace from WWI at the same party where Nora and Johnathan have their fight. He blackmails her into seeing him by claiming to have a smutty tape she filmed when she was a teenager. To her horror, the tape is real and he forces her to watch it with him, which she finds out she actually likes. She actually lets him keep the tape, despite his offer to give it back, so he can continue to use it against her and blackmail her into humiliating herself more and more, culminating in a menage a trois with another man.

This story lacks some of the emotional intensity of the first story, but ups the kink level to compensate for it. I thought it was really well done, as exhibitionism and sexual blackmail are fetishes that are less-explored than some of the more mainstream ones (e.g. spanking, bondage). I also liked how the romance between Clara and Leo played out, and his descriptions of PTSD from the war. I always appreciate it when the author makes a solid attempt at characterization in erotica because that emotional intimacy makes the sexual intimacy that much more explosive.

Let's Misbehave: ☆☆☆½

The last story in this book requires the most suspension of disbelief, even though it's also the cutest. Sophie is a girl working at a hotel, while also trying to undermine the status quo from within. She's an activist who speaks in union halls and hands out pamphlets about birth control to her friends and coworkers, and basically wants to make everything better for her coworkers. When she's called into the boss's office, she assumes she's going to get fired. Robert Aster is, after all, heir to a vast fortune and son to a notoriously cold and no-nonsense ambassador. However, Robert doesn't want to see her about her picketing; he wants to talk to her about the journal he found when her locker was searched - a journal in which she detailed all of her secret sexual fantasies.

The romance between Sophie and Robert is more typical of the millionaire meets the innocent ingenue-type BDSM romance the market was flooded with from 2012-2014, but Sophie has her head set firmly on her shoulders and isn't afraid to take control or set limits. She also doesn't abandon her principles at the first glimpse of a pretty face, which I appreciated, and made this story feel like it was written by Courtney Milan or Alisha Rai instead of, say, C.D. Reiss or E.L. James. This story is less edgy than the other two, although it does experiment with the fluidity of sexual attraction.

Overall, this collection came as a pleasant surprise. It was well-written and most of the sex scenes were very hot. There were a few phrases that made me lift an eyebrow (one in particular, which I gleefully made fun of in a status update, because that's what I do), but for the most part, I was very pleased andliked the feminist twist on all of these stories. Porn doesn't have to be exploitative.

4 out of 5 stars

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