Dueling Review – Kelly and Kim take on Maya Banks’ Sweet Series (1-3)

Joining me on the blog today is my super-bestest reading buddy Kim from Reflections of a Book Addict.  Our most recent dueling review about the first book in the new Breathless Trilogy by author Maya Banks left us a little conflicted.  On the one hand, we knew we didn’t want to continue reading the Breathless Trilogy; on the other, we weren’t positive that we wanted to write off Banks’ other books out of hand.  In the interest of fairness, then, we picked up and read the first three books in the Sweet series.  While we read, we sent text messages to each other.  Our husbands gave us a lot of side-eye at the giggling that ensued.

Cover image, Sweet Surrender by Maya Banks

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Under Faith Malone’s deceptively soft exterior lies a woman who knows exactly what she wants: a strong man who’ll take without asking – because she’s willing to give him everything…

Dallas cop Gray Montgomery is on a mission: find the guy who killed his partner and bring him to justice. So far, he’s found a link between the killer and Faith – and if Gray has to get close to her to catch the killer, so be it.

Faith is sweet and feminine, everything Gray wants and desires in a woman, but he suspects she’s playing games. No way would she allow a man to call the shots in their relationship. Or would she?

Faith sees in Gray the strong, dominant man she needs, but he seems determined to keep her at a distance. So she takes matters into her own hands to prove to him it’s no game she’s playing. She’s willing to surrender to the right man. Gray would like to be that man. But catching his partner’s killer has to be his first priority – until Faith is threatened and Gray realizes he will do anything to protect her…

Kelly: This book felt a little confused to me, as if it had an identity crisis.  The setup and all the early scenes shown in Gray’s POV are about a man on the hunt for his partner’s killer; for the first fifty pages or so, I actually expected that the book would be mostly about Gray’s quest.  It isn’t.  The entire middle section of the book and all of the scenes shown in Faith’s POV are about a woman seeking a relationship in which she can be submissive, in and out of the sack.  The entire ‘man on a hunt for his partner’s killer’ storyline is really just a ploy to get Gray from Dallas to Houston and to give Gray some reason to feel conflicted about entering into a relationship with Faith.  In the absence of any kind of point to the story, then, the real purpose is to get two people to hook up so they can do the nasty in a whole bunch of precisely-described ways.

Kim: Too true! Even though the hunt for Gray’s partner’s story is there in the background, the “main” conflict of the book (at least in my opinion) felt like Gray’s reluctance to fall for Faith.  He’s constantly fighting his attraction to her, but we never really know why.  He’s all dark and brooding about his feelings for Faith without a reason.  So you’re attracted to a hot lady. What’s the issue? The fact that you’re investigating a murder at the same time? I don’t know what the problem is….you’re a cop.  You’re always “investigating” something.

Kelly: Without any real conflict to drive the story, it seemed a bit boring to me until Banks reached the point in her story where it was time for her characters to stop biting their nails in anticipation and just get it on and on and on (this point in the story occupies about 20% of the book).  Once I reached that point, I spent the next 70 pages hooting with inappropriate laughter and sending ridiculous text messages to Kim.  They boink, they talk a bit, they boink some more, he cooks a meal and insists on cleaning up — all part of the relationship fantasy as he takes care of Faith in every imaginable way — (least realistic part of the whole book, to be honest). Then they have dinner, she falls asleep, he takes her to bed, and, the next morning, ties her to the bed. Next thing you know, a friend has joined them, and they have all kinds of crazy morning sex.  Do you know what I was thinking and texting to Kim?  Who goes that long without peeing? Who wants to have sex with two people first thing in the morning without any access to a toothbrush?  Who ARE these people?!

Kim: Gray’s attitude towards the BDSM lifestyle also bothered me a lot.  He at one point tells Faith to completely disregard safe words, that there is no place for them in their relationship. Now I’m going to be honest. I don’t live a BDSM lifestyle. Never have, probably never will. It’s just not for me personally. HOWEVER I have a ton of respect for those that do live it and respect the “rules” of it.  From everything I’ve read, safe words are a huge deal. Like super huge. Like super size it, it’s important.  So his completely cavalier attitude towards accepted notions kind of bothered me.  His background in the lifestyle is never explained, so his feelings (or lack thereof) make no sense.  At one point he totally Doms out on Faith at “The House” and as a reader you’re left sitting there going “Huh?”  One doesn’t just wake up one day and know that lifestyle.

I will say though, that there are small nuggets of sanity (as Kelly says) thrown into the book.  Gray makes the following speech to Faith:

“Faith, I’m not an asshole. I’m not going to treat you like a piece of garbage. Ever. You don’t ever need permission to speak, for God’s sake. Kneeling is just dumb. There are lots of ways to show your submission and your respect and for me to return it as well. None of those include humiliation or ill treatment.”

Like this statement is AWESOME. I’ve never understood the aspect of submissive relationships that require kneeling, permission to speak, what to eat, or even what to wear.  I understand what the word submissive means, but I don’t understand what people get off on with treating their partner like that.  Like honestly – your partner chooses that they want to eat chicken instead of beef for dinner – that shows you disrespect or something?  What is SO appealing about making every decision for someone? Mint toothpaste instead of cinnamon! Black shirt instead of a red one! No peas for dinner! IDK. I found myself respecting Gray for his statement and it was truly the first time in the book I could say that I liked him.

Kelly: But that sympathy for Gray lasts only about a few pages, and then we were back to finding him vaguely distasteful.  With this kind of book, which honestly can’t have any real purpose in existing other than to be sensational (if you know what I mean), so much of one’s enjoyment as a reader is contingent upon whether one finds the sex scenes HOT.  I didn’t… I was too busy laughing (you know, that horrified laughter that happens when you watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) at the multiple instances of squirty ejaculate and the intensely-detailed descriptions of super-unsavory sexual congress.  Lots of people go nuts for that kind of thing, but I don’t think I’m the target audience. (I also laugh at funerals.)

Kim’s final thoughts: The only positive thing I can say is that the writing is remarkably better in Sweet Surrender than it was in Rush and it also introduced us to Damon (the hero of book two) and got us hooked and intrigued to learn the rest of his story.

Kelly’s final thoughts: This book is not really worth the read, but it was hilarious, so I actually had a blast reading it.  Other than that? not so much.

Cover image, Sweet Persuasion by Maya Banks

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

The man of her dreams would give the orders. For him, she had two words that satisfied them both…”Take me.”

For five years, Serena has run Fantasy Incorporated and has devoted her time to fulfilling her clients’ fantasies. Never her own. Until now…

Her most secret desire is to give ownership of her body to a man. Someone who will command her, pleasure her, and have complete authority over her. So she seeks out Damon Roche, owner of an exclusive sex club and a man strong enough to make her do anything he wants. Anything.

Together they’ll journey into a world she’s only dreamed of. She’s given the opportunity to immerse herself in a different life while her normal one waits for her to return whenever she wishes. Damon has no desire to let her go, however. Serena is the woman he’s long searched for, and it’s up to him to convince her to stay when the game is all over with. He wants their fantasy to become their reality and for Serena to remain his pampered, cherished submissive.

Kelly: I want to start out with the one thing that I genuinely liked about this book. About a quarter of the way through the story, Damon and Serena have a conversation about boundaries, and Damon has this gem of a line:

“‘I won’t use a word that encourages a man to disregard the word no coming from a woman’s lips. If you say no, if you’re even thinking no, then it ends for me. I won’t indulge in silly little no-means-yes games.  When that word crosses your lips? It’s over. If I ever ask of you something that you won’t give unreservedly, then all you need to say is no.’

She wasn’t even sure how to respond to that because he was absolutely, one hundred percent right. How moronic to ever discount the notion of a woman saying no.”

I am completely OK with having paid $13 for a book I otherwise disliked just to read that exchange in print, to get that concept out into the world, into our culture.  Whatever else I’ll end up saying about this book, I’m glad I read it for those two paragraphs.

Kim: I 100% agree with you.  Kelly and I texted each other back and forth the entire time we read this series and we both like freaked when we read that passage.  I think it’s sad that we got so excited about a character understanding what should be common sense. No means no. Why is this such a difficult notion to grasp in our culture?

Kelly and I were both intrigued by Damon in the first book and opted to read his story to find out more about him.  Sadly, the respect I felt for him for the above passage was possibly one of the only positive things I can say about him.  He lost a lot of points with me for being OBSESSED with feeding Serena.  Kelly knows I can’t handle books that have men obsessed with feeding their partners. Damon definitely rates higher on my list than Gray did, and him losing his heart to Serena was pleasing to read, but I never found myself attracted to him, wishing he was mine. (Aren’t you supposed to want the hero when reading a romance novel?)

Serena on the other hand…..I never connected with her because I just couldn’t relate to her.  Her needs and desires are so far from my own that there was just nothing there for me to connect with.

Kelly:  (I’m answering Kim’s earlier parenthetical question here: You pretty much have to (1) want the hero yourself or (2) at least be able to understand why the heroine does.)  I also had difficulties connecting with Serena, and I think it’s because she didn’t actually own her needs and desires until the end (the very abrupt end).  The rest of the time, the ridiculous plot device that moves this story is that Serena is only interested in a fantasy — because what modern woman would actually dream of being a submissive? — while Damon wants something deeper and more permanent.  Will these two crazy kids ever get their shit worked out?  Well, read the whole thing to find out.

OK… one of the more memorable aspects of this book is a fairly outrageous scene that occurs at a dinner party hosted by Damon.

Kim: We both agree. Our dinner parties just can’t compare to Damon’s. Also, our houses seem to be lacking some really important dungeon equipment.  We’re asking you, our readers, to please please please tell us if you’re hosting dinner parties like the ones that occur in these books. If you are can we please come and be flies on the wall? Because we don’t believe shit like this really happens.

Kelly: I’m not sure I want to know… as it is, I’m looking at all the people I work with and wondering… What do you do when you go home? Does a panel slide open in your ceiling from which a set of restraints descends into your living room? Do you have an armoire full of whips, paddles, and other necessary equipment? I mean, you definitely don’t want to start a dinner party and then find out you’re unprepared, right?  I’ve lost my innocence, thanks to this book.

Kim: I can honestly say I’ve never laughed SO HARD at a section of a book that was totally not meant for laughing.  I honestly couldn’t contain all the laughter that the dinner party scene caused.  And in Sweet Persuasion’s defense…it’s not the only book with a crazy dinner party.  It’s almost every erotica book I read! Everyone who is in this lifestyle seems surrounded by business partners or co-workers etc that are just like them.  Like how do you even broach the topic with co-workers and business partners? “Oh hey. So umm…I’m into BDSM. You? Yeah, ok let’s throw a party where we invite other kinky people and have like a gangbang. And we can totally talk business while 5 women blow us.” Like I just don’t get it.

Kelly: Exactly… I keep wondering if someone’s going to make a time capsule filled with all the crazy books that have been printed in the last five years.  In 100 years, someone will open the time capsule and be like, “Whoah…. those people from 2013… they were freaky.”  Pop culture reflects the trends and expectations of our society… so what the hell does the popularity of these books say about us?

Kim: I’m not sure i want to know the answer to that question – HA!

Kelly: Yeah, I know.  Anyway, as ridiculous as most of the book was, the ending was the real kicker to me.  I got to the last page and tried to figure out what had happened – was my Nook edition missing a chapter or something?  I’m not kidding… it goes like this.  She gets all freaked out, so she leaves, and goes completely off the deep end.  (I’m serious… it was like Bella in New Moon but just for a week…)  He worries, her friends worry. Finally, he goes to find her, and is like, “Hey… there you are.” And she’s like, “LOL… here I am… btw, I ummm… love you.” And he’s like, “Coo.” The End.  That’s it.  I was murderous.  After 250 pages of waffling about whether or not she can accept that lifestyle, and OMG, it’s just a fantasy, and OMG, I love her so much but she’ll never love me, and wah wah wah… the fucking end.  Ugh.

Kim: LMFAO.

Kim’s final thoughts: We were both blind with rage when the end came. Just one more point of contention about this book. It literally feels unfinished.  So…summing up this book…bad characters, no ending, lots of ridiculous angst….DINNER PARTIES!

Kelly’s final thoughts: Now that we quoted the two paragraphs that are worth reading in this book, we’ve spared you the effort.  I know – we’re the best.

Cover image, Sweet Seduction by Maya Banks

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

He was the stuff erotic dreams are made of

Salon owner Julie Stanford wanted Nathan Tucker ever since she gave him his first massage. Getting paid to feel every inch of his body, stripped, oiled, and spread out in front of her. Stuff dreams are made of. But the sexy guy was oblivious to the signals she was sending; until she finished off his final rub-down with something extra. In fact, the best extra he ever had. Unfortunately, he came around too late. Now Julie’s moving on.

She was everything he’d dreamed of

The woman was driving him crazy.  She lit fire to his insides then ran like a scalded cat.  And now she’s going to someone else to have all her fantasies fulfilled? Over his dead body. He’s more than willing to give her what she wants, and as soon as he pins the little minx down, he’d show her his own brand of sweet seduction.

It’s all fun and games until someone falls in love.

Kim: I know what you must all be saying.  “What the hell is wrong with the two of them for continuing on to book three when they clearly disliked the first two books?”  I 100% take the blame for that.  The heroine of book three, Julie, is introduced to us in Sweet Persuasion.  She is literally what got me through that book.  Her no-nonsense attitude, spunk, and sarcasm sold me on reading just ONE more book in the Sweet series.  After many texts back and forth with Kelly she agreed, there was something about Julie that we just had to find out about.  I’m actually really glad I convinced her to read Julie’s story.  Hers wound up becoming my favorite of the three we read.

Kelly: I was very reluctant to read this book — hence all the texts required to get me to consent to read it —  Julie shows up quite a bit in book 2, but I found her kind of annoying, pushy, and a bit desperate.  In other words, she reminded me of myself a little bit, and I wasn’t sure I was up for that much reality.  But Kim convinced me, and I’m actually glad I read the book. It almost justified having read the first two. (Very nearly).  There’s a lot that I just don’t get about these books, but it’s the general tone that annoys me most.  These characters have so much drama in their lives, and it gets a little exhausting after a while.  The drama at the end of book 2 was at a fever pitch, and I knew I couldn’t sustain another book with that level of histrionics.  Lucky for the world in general, this book has a much lighter tone with plenty of humor thrown in to offset the occasional drama.

Kim: I completely agree about the insanely high level of drama in the characters lives.  Books 1 & 2 read something like this: Angst, angst, angst, sex, sex, sex, angst, sex, fights, angry make up sex, angst, brooding, angst, sex, sex, abrupt ending. Julie’s book at least had some feminine power going on and a storyline that wasn’t just about sex.  The friendship between the three women (Faith, Serena, and Julie) gets a chance to take center stage at certain parts of the book, helping give a little more depth to Banks’ book.

One thing that did bother me a lot about this book, though, was Nathan and all his “heifer” comments.  Kelly and I both discussed how we’ve heard women use this term to discuss other women (both in good and bad ways) but have never heard men use it.  We feel it’s one of those things that doesn’t cross sex lines.  Like men should never call women heifers.  Nathan uses it thinking he’s one of the girls, but he isn’t. It’s an indicator that the editing isn’t superb here.

Kelly:  Exactly, and that’s the real problem.  Nathan’s voice isn’t quite consistent throughout the book. Sometimes he’s a little bit broody and totally besotted with Julie, sometimes he’s a lighthearted funny guy, sometimes he seems like one of the girls (and those times are really weird and totally should have been smoothed out in editing).  It’s difficult to get a proper bead on his character if you’re just going by his dialogue.  As the reader, half the time you’re like, “OK, this makes sense… I could totally see why Julie’s a bit obsessed with this fellow,” and then he morphs into the Sassy Gay Friend, and you get a bit confused.

Kim: His up and down personality did get a bit confusing.  I think reflecting back on all the books, you can find all the characters have this wavering voice.  It’s a clear indicator that the $13 these eBooks cost wasn’t exactly well spent.  To be honest, the only one I’m glad I bought was this one.  It’s the most realistic (story-wise) of the three.  Kelly and I think about random things as we read. For example, in book two Damon keeps Serena tied to the bed every night so he can do her in the morning.  Some people might find that hot. Kelly and I? We wonder – man, don’t they have to pee in the morning?  All the marathon sex sessions? We think – I hope these women have been drinking a lot of cranberry juice cause they are totes going to get a UTI. In Rush the all-day butt plugs – our thoughts? Damn – hope that girl doesn’t have to go #2. That’ll be uncomfortable.  It’s difficult for us to see reality in a lot of the ways that sex is portrayed in this series.

Kelly: Exactly – and we read these scenes and try to imagine what we’d think if we experienced something like it in real life, and our response is general hilarity.  It seems to me that the main reason these books exist is to titillate, but they didn’t really work for me.  Not when the whole time I was laughing.  The sex scenes are just over the top, too much, a little ridiculous.  It’s like that time in college when I dated a dude who thought it would be a good idea to do a weird strip tease dance in tighty whities… My response: laughter.  It’s not hot.  And all the odd sex scenes in these books just reminded me of that awkward moment…

Kim: I get that for some people these books are fantasy.  They are escapes from their real lives.  Isn’t that what women kept saying about why they loved 50 Shades?  I guess for me, I’m happy and satisfied in my own life that the sex in these books doesn’t read like a fantasy.  They read like people who revolve their lives around sex only.  How many scenes do you read in these books where the couple can have a serious conversation together that has depth and meaning without it leading to someone being horny as shit? I personally find intimacy in being able to sit with your partner and read together, or watch a movie together cuddling on the couch.  Knowing that your partner finds pleasure in your presence not just because of your body, but because of your mind and soul, too means more to me than someone who can’t keep their hands off me.

Kelly: Preach it, sister!  While there was plenty of odd and slightly awkward sex in this book, it was much more pleasant to read than the last two books, and I think that’s because the entire approach was different with this book.  Let’s talk blow jobs.  In the first two books of this series (and in Rush, the other book we read by this author), there are quite a lot of blow jobs, and they’re all pretty similar — dude grabs a lady’s head and pretty much forces his junk in her mouth, and then all the mechanics are explained in far greater detail than is necessary.  Every gag, every bit of swallowing, you name it, it’s described. Sweet Seduction breaks the mold a little bit and allows Julie to take the lead when giving head.  She’s not just some receptacle for Nathan’s junk — she knows what she wants to do, and she does it, fully knowing that she’s giving him the best head of his life.  I’m never a big fan of BJ scenes in books — really, they’re where all the awkward hides — but I was very pleased to see that Banks could envision another style of sexual encounter and could present it as equally compelling (actually, I found it more compelling).

Kim’s final thoughts: Kelly’s going to share our final thoughts mutually via the texts we shared during the reading of Sweet Persuasion.  I think it’s seriously the best way to represent our feelings on the three Sweet books we read.

Kelly’s final thoughts:  So, the obvious takeaway is that we liked this book better than the first two, but we decided to stop reading this series.  However, our in-the-moment take away was this conversation, and I really think it shows the reality of these books:

Kim: So 100% done with book three. Definitely my favorite of the ones we read so far. I really don’t understand the fruit covers. WTF did grapes have to do with that story?

Kelly: I think we can blame the publisher and 50 Shades for the fruit covers… I’m almost done. She’s just gone raring off to Serena… but now I’m hosting a dinner party, so I’ll have to finish later. Amazingly, no one is naked or likely to be whipped at this dinner… I have all these unreasonable expectations now…

Kim: I hope it’s as exciting a dinner party as Serena and Damon threw! Cause really, if you aren’t whipping someone in the middle of it…How does one even begin to throw a party like that? Like would your invite say to Kelly and slave?

Kelly:  Kelly requests the pleasure of your company at a dinner party at six of the clock. Slaves welcome. Whipping will precede the dinner.