Sunday, May 29, 2011

Some Kind of Stranger (e-book) by Katrina Strauss

As far as I can tell, it's not currently possible to buy this as a physical book.

Loose Id's website calls this a novel, but it's really short - just over 100 pages on my Nook and, according to All Romance's website, only 35,656 words. This book features enough of my personal red flags that I wouldn't have touched it if I hadn't already read and enjoyed some of Strauss's other works.

Synopsis:

Derek Graves likes the darker side of sex. In the past, his partners have been short-term, briefly held "prisoner" in his apartment. None of them have ever wanted or been able to go as far as he has wanted to go.

Derek gained a new perspective on the impact his tastes could have on his partners when an impulsive decision to try a partner who didn't fit his usual tastes went horribly wrong. He was drugged and raped, and the experience left him with a desire to get revenge on the man, as well as a desire never to do anything like what was done to him to another person.

Derek spots his captor and rapist at Blue Ruin, a gay bar. Unfortunately, the young waiter who caught Derek's eye also catches the attention of that man. Derek manages to save the waiter, whose goes by the name Blue, and takes him to his home to recover from the drugs he was given. Blue wakes up handcuffed and blindfolded - although Derek wanted to make sure he was okay, he also wanted to make sure word didn't get out that he was the one who beat Blue's would-be rapist into a coma. However, Derek's efforts are useless, because Blue remembers what Derek looks like. Blue works out a deal with him - if he gets to stay with him, Blue won't tell anyone what he's seen, particularly not his father, the city's corrupt and strongly anti-gay DA.

Derek seems to have found the perfect partner in Blue. Blue wants to stay with him and submits to Derek's darker desires, but he trusts Derek not to ever cross the line into true cruelty. The two gradually get to know each other, and Blue is encouraged by signs that Derek might actually love him and want a long-term relationship with him. Derek feels protective of Blue, but isn't quite sure whether he wants to make himself vulnerable to him by admitting he loves him, or telling him what happened between him and the man who tried to abduct Blue. Unfortunately, Blue and Derek may not have as much time to work things out as they think.

Commentary:

In case the synopsis and cover haven't made it clear, this book features m/m BDSM. As for genre, I'd probably call it erotic romance.

The few BDSM books and stories I've tried in the past tended to go in directions I really didn't like, and they didn't manage to overcome my difficulty understanding the appeal of BDSM. When some of them tried to explain the appeal and how things worked in a more realistic way, the results tended to feel a bit clinical and not terribly sexy. Plus, there was still the issue of things going in directions I couldn't stand.

Katrina Strauss has managed to make it onto my short list of authors who I feel I can trust to write about things that are potential red flags for me, in such a way that I know I'm not going to find myself wishing for brain bleach. Some Kind of Stranger is heavy on sex scenes, and, while BDSM is still not really my thing, I thought the sex scenes still came across as sexy.

What really made this book work for me is that it isn't just about the sex. The storyline involving Derek's former captor/rapist added a bit of suspense at the end, but the suspense was less of a draw than the way this storyline developed Derek's character. In the other BDSM books and stories I've read, I never felt quite sure that the dominants wouldn't end up going too far. I was also bothered by the feeling that, if they did end up going too far, they might not feel a lot of remorse and would probably even end up liking it. I didn't feel like they had actual relationships with their submissives. Derek's experience of being drugged and forced to be a submissive gave him an intense desire never to go too far. As dark as his desires might be, he honestly didn't want to be like the man who had hurt him.

With this being an e-book, it's a little tough to tell, but I'm fairly certain that at least half the book, probably more, is sex scenes. These scenes underscored the amount of trust that Blue could and did learn to have in Derek, and they made it clear that there were lines that Derek would not cross - Blue enjoyed what Derek did to him, and I never got the impression that Derek was trying to demean him or break him. That, in and of itself, made this book better than a lot of the other books and stories I've read the featured BDSM.

What made this book an actual romance (an erotic romance, but still a romance), was that Derek and Blue didn't just have sex, they had an actual relationship - a surprisingly sweet and cute relationship. Blue gradually tells Derek about his past - about the boys who beat him and verbally and emotionally abused him because he was different and, eventually, because it got out that he was gay, about his first incredibly confusing crush on one of the boys who used to torment him, and about his father's disapproval of his sexual orientation. I absolutely loved the scenes where Derek and Blue clashed over their personal styles: Derek has a love for nice clothes and fruity shampoos and conditioners that Blue, whose style is more punk, doesn't really understand. Actually, although BDSM fans might not agree with me, I wouldn't have minded it if the book had had fewer sex scenes and more scenes of Derek and Blue just being together. They made a great couple and had me grinning more than once.

I also liked Derek and Blue as individuals. If I were to try to categorize Derek according to TV tropes terminology, he could be considered a Bastard Boyfriend, although, from Blue's perspective, he's not really a bastard. His goal is to make sure that Blue enjoys what he's doing as much as he does. He's protective of Blue and pampers him - it'll be interesting to see where Strauss takes this in future books, now that Blue no longer has to stay hidden for his and Derek's safety. Derek might turn out to be a tad too restrictive, but, happily, Blue is only submissive up to a certain point. What I really liked about Blue was that he had a spine. He recognized that, although he was the submissive in this relationship, he also had a certain amount of power over Derek, and he enjoyed exercising that power on occasion.

Places I'm glad Strauss didn't go: Strauss never wrote in detail about what Derek did with his former lovers. Since, from the sounds of things, they didn't like their time with Derek to the degree that Blue did, I don't think sex scenes featuring them would have been enjoyable. Strauss never wrote in detail about Derek's experiences with his rapist, and the scene where Blue gets captured is brief and most definitely not written in a way that is intended to titillate.

Overall, I enjoyed this much more than I was expecting to. There are three other books in the series, and I plan on at least reading the next one. Strauss may write about a darker side of sex than I'm usually okay with, but she balances that out by making sure that it's clear the characters have an actual emotional connection. I'm a bit iffy about some of the things that, according to the descriptions, will be coming up in the later books, but I'm willing to trust that Strauss will continue to handle things in ways that won't put me too far outside my comfort zone.

Additional note:

I read this in EPUB format and bought it from All Romance. I don't know if it's just All Romance's EPUB file, but there's a bit of formatting strangeness. What I think were supposed to be em dashes are instead double question marks. It didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the book in a major way, but it was a bit distracting, especially in the beginning, when the double question marks appeared more often.

(UPDATE: I notified All Romance about this problem and got a response back from them within a few hours, from an actual person, telling me that they had notified the publisher and would let me know when a fixed version of the file was available for download. All Romance rocks!)

(ANOTHER UPDATE: And this one only two days after I originally wrote this post. I've been notified by All Romance that the EPUB file has been fixed. I checked it, and it looks great, now.)

I'm not really familiar enough with BDSM or m/m romance to be able to come up with a really good list of read-alikes and watch-alikes, and my usual methods of coming up with read-alikes for things outside my expertise don't seem to work as well with authors who publish primarily electronically. I've done my best, but if you have any other recommendations, I'd love to hear them. This list is short, only the first thing on it (Gravitation) has m/m romance, and everything is way lighter on the heat scale then Some Kind of Stranger (unless you look up Murakami's Gravitation doujinshi, in which case I think it's more "bye bye plot, hello sex").

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Gravitation (manga) by Maki Murakami; Gravitation (anime TV series) -Shuichi, the singer and lyricist for the up-and-coming band Bad Luck, is in a writing slump. A page of his unfinished lyrics ends up in the hands of a handsome and mysterious stranger...who tells him he sucks. Crushed and completely pissed, Shuichi becomes determined to prove the stranger wrong and later learns the guy is Eiri Yuki, an extremely popular author. Like Derek, Eiri fits the Bastard Boyfriend trope. Shuichi has an unfortunate tendency to be really, really annoying, but those who can handle that may want to try this series. The anime feels a tad too brief, but I would still recommend it over the manga, because Murakami's insane ideas about what's funny tend to overwhelm the story and characters.
  • Tramps Like Us (manga) by Yayoi Ogawa - On the surface, Sumire is a cool and successful career woman. However, her life is fraying on the edges. She's been demoted at work, and her fiance has just dumped her for his pregnant mistress. When she meets a homeless young man, she tells him he can stay with her if he agrees to be her pet. She figures he'll freak out and run off, but to her shock he agrees. I know this description makes this series sound kind of...wrong, but it's actually pretty sweet. Those who'd like another romantic story in which a character takes in a person as a "pet" might want to try this.

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