An Editor’s Review of Kristen Ashley’s novel, “Sweet Dreams”

Preface: I originally wrote this review for Amazon.com but it got rejected, no doubt because of the discussion of explicit sexual language — in a book that they have no problem selling, of course. I decided to post the review here instead, even though it is somewhat outside the focus of scholarly editing, because some of what I have to say applies to writing in general, but also, primarily, because I am interested in editing quality fiction as well. And I also have a great deal to say about how this book reproduces some of the worst gender stereotypes (as well as other stereotypes) in our culture.

WARNING: multiple plot spoilers here. If you like Kristen Ashley’s novels but haven’t read this one yet, I suggest that you not read this review. One of the elements of the novel that I talk about is the absurd plot lines and subplot lines, and in order to do that I have to reveal the ending as well as other parts of the plot held in suspense.

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I don’t know why I did it.

I don’t know why I slogged all the way through this really badly written “chick lit” romance novel, listening to the audio version from beginning to end. And I don’t know why I spent so much time writing this review (which Amazon.com rejected because of a few explicit sex terms — even though the book itself is FULL of explicit sex scenes and I am criticizing those scenes).

I think the positive reviews on this book on Amazon.com and elsewhere really got me going. I got part way through the book and thought, “oh my god this book is so bad.” So I googled for reviews to see if there was anyone else out there who thought this book is as bad as I do. While there are a couple of negative reviews, none of them do much of a job of criticizing the writing, and none of them that I have found talk about the gender stereotypes and mythologies (including rape culture mythologies). Most of the reviews are gushingly positive.

So I did it. I felt I had to. There had to be at least one published review of this book that tells the truth about it. And I slogged all the way through to the end so that nobody could accuse me of writing a review based on limited knowledge of the book.

What is the book? Sweet Dreams, by Kristen Ashley. I downloaded the audio version onto my iPad based on the overview, which on the surface at least seemed interesting. Turns out it is one of a series of her books set in small towns in Colorado…all of them, of course, of the “chick lit” and “romance” variety.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a place for genre writing in my pantheon of good books. I LOVE a good detective story or mystery, for instance. But regardless of the genre, it has to be WRITTEN WELL. And this one is not…by a long shot.

This is the WORST novel I have ever encountered in my entire life. I simply cannot understand the extensive positive reviews of this novel and other novels by the same author.

As another reviewer on Amazon said, Kristen Ashley is in dire need of an editor — for content, for style, and for her horrible grammar. (I listened to an audio version from the library, so I cannot comment upon the punctuation, as someone else has.) Worst of all, however, is that the characters in this novel (and I imagine in the rest of her work) represent of some of the worst gender stereotypes you will find anywhere, setting the women’s movement back half a century at least.

(And no, the fact that the heroine is a former airline company Vice President does not make her any less of a gender stereotype. Read on.)

The “heroine” and primary narrator (we get her first person point of view all the way through until nearly the end) Lauren Graham (god she has so many nicknames it is hard to keep them straight – “Ace,” “Lori,” “Ri” (or however you spell it –audio versions are no help there), has to be one of the stupidest women I have ever encountered in a novel, and that includes books written by misogynist men. She is utterly clueless throughout 99% of the book and is always misunderstanding her lover, the “smokin’ hot, badass, biker bounty hunter who looks good in jeans” Tatum Jackson, in spite of the fact that his patterns of communication as an “alpha male” are repeated endlessly. She is always confused about what he wants from her when anyone with half a working brain cell could figure it out. I certainly did myself, and I have zero knowledge of so-called “biker talk.” I can’t tell you how many times, while listening to this story, I said “you idiot” out loud. A problem is that those misunderstandings form the foundation of the vast majority of the plot in this book.

For example, I really got ticked off at Lauren when she goes into this tizzy trying to figure out whether Tate wants her to live with him. Get this: she is ALREADY staying in his house and has made her move out of the motel room she was living in and enjoying, purportedly for her safety given the serial rapist/killer running amok, not to mention that this is, after all, a biker town. In spite of all that she goes so far as to look for an apartment and then pisses him off because of it. Just asking him appears to be out of the question for this spineless woman. Still, he has made it clear in no uncertain terms that he wants “his woman” where he can know where she is at all times. Sure, she is insecure when the novel starts out (though how a former corporate VP could be that insecure is beyond me), but by the time THAT scene rolls around she has been playing “biker babe” for quite a while.

To me Lauren comes off as a complete idiot. I have serious trouble believing she was EVER an “Executive Vice President of Human Relations” at an airline with a recognizable name. You don’t get to a job like that being as mealy-mouthed and as lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem as Lauren is. She doubts EVERYTHING about herself. Ok, so in part that’s because her now ex-husband ran her down all the time, but seriously now. A woman at a job at that level letting a man like Brad (a stereotypical pompous ass interested only in status) run her down is simply unbelievable. She doesn’t leave him — he is the one who divorces her. Even after the divorce she is still pining for Brad, saying they can work it out, even though the main reason for the divorce is that he has “fallen in love” with Lauren’s best friend, and the two have been having an affair for five years. The fact that she still wants him back even after the divorce is final (at least until she “finds herself” in biker town Carnal, Colorado and falls in love with the salaciously delicious Tatum Jackson) alone is enough to tell you what an idiot she is.

Then there are all those “uuuhhmmms” that get repeated and reiterated when she isn’t sure what to say. They make her sound like a teenager! “Uh oh! Daddy (i.e., Tate) caught me doing a b-a-a-a-a-d thing! How do I get out of this now? Oh! Oh! I know… I say, ‘Uuuhhhhmmmmm’…”  (Those Uuuhhhhmmmmm sound particularly bad when they are read aloud.) A smart woman who isn’t sure what to say keeps her mouth shut until she figures it out! She will very likely say things like “I’m not sure what you want from me.” You know. DIRECT communication. 

Equally disturbing — Tatum Jackson’s personality and his expectation of maintaining control over Lauren make him a serious control freak, and his whole modus operandi especially relative to his chosen woman, involves characteristics you find among domestic violence perpetrators. No, he never hits her (thank Goddess!) but he is a large man with an incredible muscular build, and there are frequent hints at the possibility he will be violent — verbally if not physically — if “his woman” disobeys him,  although of course that threat is never fulfilled. However, Lauren seems to like that implied threat of violence (so long as, of course, he doesn’t fulfill it). For instance, Lauren perceives her family backing off from questioning Tate for fear of what a man with his physique might do to Lauren if he is sufficiently displeased by her family. And there are other scenes where Lauren is clearly intimidated by this hunkahunkahunka burnin’ love because of his size and the way he tries to control her. And she apparently finds that attractive, all of her protests notwithstanding.

All of THAT supports the mythology that what a real woman wants is a man to boss her around — as long as he is terrific in bed and, although he is physically intimidating, he never actually hits her. Although she tosses out objections now and then, leading a lot of readers (it appears from the reviews) to see her as a woman they admire for her “sass,” she ALWAYS loses the confrontation. ALWAYS. Until the very end when she has proven her ability to be submissive to her hunkahunkahunka burnin’ love so she is somehow able to talk him into being decent to his son and into refraining from real physical violence against another man. Until she has proven that she knows her place in this castle, Tate absolutely refuses to listen to her.

Often he has good reason not to listen, I have to admit, because often she is so freaking stupid. 

Worst of all of the gender stereotypes is  the “no means yes” mythology that gets reinforced in nearly all of the sex scenes, where the potential for rape is implied —  but of course she always submits in spite of her initial objections.  Ok, yeah, she is seriously attracted to him, but gimme a break. If she says no, he should accept it. PERIOD. Because that mythology of “no means yes” is the #1 reason women experience date rape. 

I can tell you one thing — if I were ever to meet a man like this I would run like hell from him. Actually, I HAVE met someone like that, and he ended up trying to choke me when I told him I wanted to see other people. I got away from him only by turning into that submissive woman that Tate is training Lauren to be, telling him, sure I would do whatever he wanted, knowing that if I didn’t, I could end up dead, playing that role so I could escape alive the next morning.

Of course, Tate Jackson isn’t THAT guy. Tate Jackson somehow incorporates the personality of a control freak with a sweet, loving man who only has his woman’s best interests at heart. Uuhhhhhmmmm. No. No such person in real life, though lots of women get sold on that myth, and end up imprisoned in an emotionally if not physically abusive marriage.

Let me tell you, at 66 years of age and having spent some time working at a domestic violence shelter, not to mention having been married to a control freak for 7 years, I can say with considerable authority that if you come across a man who has to be in control all the time — run like hell. He will NOT turn out to be sweet, sensitive, and understanding the way Tate Jackson turns out to be. GuaranDAMNteed! 

The reality is that this character is a complete fantasy bearing zero relationship to the real world. A man in the REAL WORLD who is as much of a control freak as Tate is ALWAYS ends up being violent with “his woman” (either physically or emotionally; usually both) if he displeases him by disobeying his orders, or simply not doing what he wants (which she is supposed to figure out by telepathy).

Tatum Jackson is of course incredibly hot, hot, hot! Not only does he LOOK hot, he is the most incredible lover who ever lived — described by Lauren as a “god” in a few scenes. He is a masterful man constantly barking orders (which rebellious Lauren challenges in that “stamping your foot” kind of way so many women use, but ALWAYS ultimately gives into) whether about household matters or sexual matters or…WHATEVER.

What you have in Tatum Jackson as an “alpha male” in reality is everything that is wrong with the way masculinity has been defined for centuries. A) He OWNS his woman. She is his PROPERTY. He needs to take a “strong hand” with her. B) He is orders her around without any consideration for what SHE might want — he supposedly already KNOWS what she wants (that is, a big strong he-man to run her life since she has made such a mess of it on her own). C) It is his job to protect her at all times, including from herself (hence all the ordering around). She CAN’T POSSIBLY figure out how to protect herself without him telling her (such as not opening your door unless you know who is on the other side). No. Tate has to very carefully instruct her about peepholes and bolt locks and how those door chains are utterly useless. And no, she is not in her late teens/early twenties. She is FORTY-TWO.

Of course, we always find out LATER that Tate had a good reason for telling her to do something, but he couldn’t possibly be bothered with explaining that to her until after she gets all rebellious and makes him tell her WHY she is being such an idiot.

That macho macho man that every woman supposedly wants is a big load of donkey doo-doo! Any woman who clearly likes getting ordered around (really, she gets off on it) like that seriously needs a good therapist, preferably a feminist one. Any woman who in real life hungers after a man like Tatum Jackson will be hugely disappointed when she finds him. Because control freaks in real life are impossible to live with, are always putting you down, and you always end up selling your soul to them in order to try to make the relationship work, because of course if it doesn’t work out, YOU are the one with the problem. No ACTUAL male control freak  has the sensitive, insightful understanding of human nature that Tate has but that he only reveals when he has to (and when it works for the plot line so that Lauren won’t go running off). 

The worst of that — aside from the reinforcement of rape culture’s “yes means no” mythology and the idea that all a good woman really wants is a good man to tell her what to do — is that no real man can measure up to the ideal man as represented by Tatum Jackson, and so women who fall in love with this character and then measure their husbands or boyfriends against him, will be horribly disappointed. This brute with a heart of gold doesn’t exist. I can’t tell you how many divorces I have seen resulting from the fact that women keep pining for a man who can’t possibly live up to this fantasy!

Get over it, already! If you want a man who is sensitive to your needs, don’t go looking for an alpha male, because no real alpha male is anything like Tatum Jackson.

As for Lauren as a character, aside from being so incredibly clueless (which she has to be in order for the plot line to work), she is spineless as hell until the very end…but even when, in the end she successfully “stands up” to Tate by talking him into being sensitive to his son and out of being abusive or violent to those who have wronged him, she is still being submissive to him overall. She ends up emphasizing how much she loves to give Tate ANYTHING he wants. Absolutely ANYTHING. 

BTW what was that “dirty sex” scene about? Elsewhere there are pages and pages of detailed, explicit sex scenes, and then Tate tells her he wants to “do it dirty” with here. Where there should be details to explain the difference, there are none, just a quick quick description and boom, it’s all over. What?  Did he give it to her anally? Has the author suddenly become shy about being explicit with her sex scenes?

I mean I can’t see anything, other than that, that would be “dirtier” than the sex they are already described as having. Not that I am a prude…I just get tired of the repetition. Ok, Tate “lights her up.” Ok, she has multiple orgasms. I get the point! How could anyone NOT get the point? How many of these scenes are essential to the story line? Oh wait. Ok, maybe it’s INTENDED to be gratuitous. Maybe the readers who love this author really get off (innuendo intended) on these scenes. But for me? Enough already! I’d rather have REAL sex than read about it! Especially when it is NOT advancing the story line.

And then there are the dumb phrases like “he cupped my sex,” meaning, I assume, that he cupped his hand over her vulva. Look, if you can say “cock” and write about oral sex, you can also say VULVA, or even CUNT (referring to genitalia, not to the character of a woman) if you need a feminine slang term on the same level as “cock.” If you can talk about a woman working her “clit” then for goddess sake you can be more explicit than “her sex” in reference to her vulva. Sure, sure.  “Her sex” is a remnant from old style romance novels that were never sexually explicit and used the phrase “his/her sex” to refer to the entire genital region. But this writer is explicit about everything else, so why say “her sex” instead of “her cunt” or “her vulva”?

Aside from the gender stereotypes the novel is full of stock characters like “the hippie chick” and her boyfriend who, oh by the way, are the only “hippies” in a tiny biker town in Colorado. Of course they are nearly always stoned, and yet they manage to make a living off of a coffeehouse that is completely out of place in a “biker” town. Naturally all the townspeople come to love the hippies, thanks to Lauren helping them out. Well, tell ya what. I have seen hick towns like that and these “hippies” would have been run out of town on a rail if they didn’t have others around to support them. Least of all would they have a decent business going — and I don’t give a damn about how spectacularly delicious the baking is.

Sorry. If you are a hippie couple and you want to make a living with a coffeehouse in a small town, there really have to be OTHERS like you around. Maybe a college or university nearby. Or an artists’ colony that brings in tourists. Stuck out in the middle of nowheresville? Not a chance. Bikers and hippies just do not get along. Not even if there is a woman with a heart of gold to bridge the gap. The only thing bikers and hippies have in common is a rebellious appearance and a predilection for mind-altering drugs.

And then there are the plot and subplot lines. The serial rapist/killer subplot is completely unbelievable. You cannot tell me that “the best bounty hunter” in the country — who says early on that the killer has to be someone that the women know — is not going to check out every single male in town that he hasn’t known going all the way back to his childhood very EARLY in the investigation, as soon as he figures out that the killer has to be known to the women. This super-bounty-hunter is extremely successful, and yet he is unable to track down any leads for months (years, even, as this goes back several years), puts the case aside and leaves it for the cops and the Feds, and then, when his woman’s life is on the line, is able to figure it out IN ONE HOUR, just in time to save Lauren. Oh. How ConVEEEENient.

Seriously? SERIOUSLY?????

It is a freaking SMALL TOWN, so small that you can walk the entire business district, which exists on one street, Main Street. Here’s a store, there’s a store, here’s a motorcycle mechanic, there’s the hippie coffeehouse, and then, of course, the biker bar. The ONLY biker bar in town. And that is pretty much Carnal entire.

You are going to tell me that this incredibly successful bounty hunter is going to be stumped THAT LONG? When the investigative starting point, at least for the Tanya character, would so obviously be the bar that she left from before she was attacked? And where it turns out (at the very end of the book) the killer has worked as a bartender for a few years in the bar Tate Jackson owns.  I tell you this much, I would NOT hire a bounty hunter who hasn’t looked into the immediate associates of EVERY victim, least of all the first one who is that close at hand.

Not to mention we find out that this killer rapist — who is targeting “bad girls” — has come to see Lauren as a “bad girl” (even though throughout the book she represents herself, as does everyone else, as a “good girl,” with that being her primary characteristic). He comes to the “bad girl” conclusion about Lauren because she is now living with Tate without benefit of marriage, worst of all eventually in front of Tate’s son. Throughout the novel up to the climax and denouement, when Tate is explaining the inexplicable WHY the rapist targeted “good girl” Lauren, there is not a single moment when “good girl” Lauren even questions her living with Tate, not even with his son there, though she is constantly questioning whether Tate WANTS her to live with him.

So, ok, today’s sexual morality is a bit different these days. But to not even THINK about the impact it might have on the son? He has already had to cope with a promiscuous mother — shouldn’t there at least be SOME TALK about whether the live-in situation is APPROPRIATE for the son? Some DISCUSSION with the son about what the change means? Shouldn’t Lauren at least WONDER about it? And wouldn’t a truly GOOD father make sure that a woman who is going to be living in the same house as his son has a commitment to the kid BEFORE they sleep together when the son is there?

I mean, kids need stability. They do NOT need to be present while EITHER mom or dad works out this, that, or the other sexual partner sleeping in their home while the relationship is new.  There needs to be TALK about it at the very least. Otherwise you are putting your kid in yet another situation where he/she will lose someone who becomes important.

So anyway, now suddenly “good girl” Lauren is a “bad girl” in the eyes of this serial rapist/killer (who already killed his “bad girl” mother for falling in love with someone other than her son and then framed the man for the murder…oh, goodie, another plot stereotype). What puts this man over the line in re:Lauren is when Tate talks explicitly about how he and Lauren “get it on” in bed to an audience in the bar — the sole purpose of which is to enable Tate to lord it over Lauren’s ex-husband Brad, strutting his macho macho man around and marking his property boundaries.

THAT is what sets this killer off on a quest to torture, rape, kill, and scalp “good girl” Lauren. And yet, Tate, who has all kinds of other reasons for feeling guilty, hardly gets the point that it was HIS TALK, HIS need to mark his territory that set the guy off. I tell you, if any man did that to me he would NEVER touch me again. But of course, mealy, weasely little Lauren registers her objection, but like all of her other objections to Tate’s actions, she just SWOONS over what he does to her in bed, and so she just can’t find it in her to actually make him listen to her.

I don’t care how good a man is in bed. He is NOT WORTH THAT violation of privacy. Yet it seems for our heroine who is supposed to be GROWING in a positive direction in this novel just loves the macho macho man routine, calling him “captain” and following his orders. Even when her captain puts her life in danger.

Yes. Tate puts Lauren’s life in danger. But because he somehow manages to figure out who and where the killer is within an hour, and gets out to this secluded spot in the nick of time, Tate is the hero.

Oh, and then there is this main plot where Lauren realizes how superficial her life was before in Phoenix with Brad, focusing on what money can buy, and so she transforms her life completely after she ends up in this biker town where she finds REAL life. Only it turns out she craves closets full of clothes and high heeled shoes, and ohhh, it is so great when Tate gives her a brand spanking, sparkling new kitchen (that somehow got put together while she was at work…yeah, right), and mountains of silver jewelry as proof of his love for her. And of course we get “treated” to detailed descriptions of her clothing purchases and what she is wearing at any given time, not to mention her hair and makeup. Talk about superficial!

All she has done is exchange her business suits for “biker babe” duds, which apparently are just as expensive. And a mousy haircut for a very expensive one with highlights done at the salon run by the “gay guy.” (Ugh. More stereotypes! The hairstylist apparently the only gay in town until the butch  “lesby” comes along to waitress at the biker bar…who then, of course, gets taught how to be more feminine by Lauren. (Like, the only kind of lesbian is seriously BUTCH, but hey, she can be taught if the right person comes along! And the only gay guy is a hairdresser.)

SMH.

I have much more to say about the plot lines but this is already long and there is more to cover. So now, the “smaller stuff.”

Apparently, Kristen Ashley has never taken a decent writing course nor had a decent editor. This is SO obvious with her grammar errors, but then there is her wild variety of attribution tags.

 #1 lesson regarding attribution tags. DON’T use any words other than a version of “said” unless there is a GOOD REASON for it. Attribution tags are there just to keep clear who is speaking. You do NOT need to vary them…definitely not to the wild extent that Ashley does…out of fear of repetition. What is important in dialogue is WHAT is said, not the attribution tag, which needs to fade into the background unless there is something about the WAY something is said that needs to be emphasized.

For instance, if you need to convey that someone is shouting, you say “shouted.” If somebody actually whispers, then you say “whispered” (Ashley uses this way too much in circumstances where a whisper hardly seems appropriate.)

NOBODY, but NOBODY “breathes” words. (That one is an abomination!) And you don’t need “reply” because it is obvious from the dialog that someone is replying.

Most important, you do NOT need to change the attribution tag with every sentence. Why? Because unless there is a good reason to use a different word for the fact that it conveys meaning other than simply speaking, using an attribution verb other than “said” calls attention to the tag rather than to the words being spoken.

The one that annoyed me the most, aside from “breathed” was “educated.” You may be educating someone when you speak, but you do NOT educate words. Get that? You SAY words. PEOPLE GET educated.

The verb “educate” is a TRANSITIVE VERB. A transitive verb has two characteristics. First, it is an action verb, expressing a doable activity like kick, want, paint, write, eat, clean, etc. Second, it must have a direct object, something or someone who receives the action of the verb.

That means, for instance, that the person who is in the process of educating someone can, for example, “educate a student” (verb=educate; object = a student). But you CAN’T write:

“One plus one equals two,” the teacher educated.

(No that is not an example from the book — I will NOT listen to it again to find the gawdawful places where she uses that as an attribution tag.)

More examples:
QUOTE:

The blonde’s eyes narrowed.
“Did Bubba put you up to this?” she asked.
“Bubba?” I asked back, at this point confused.
“Bubba,” she bit out, then glanced around…

…I looked again at the blonde.
“I’m not kidding,” I told her.
“Bullshit,” she replied irately, already at the end of her patience.

…Tate’ll like her. Big time,” he declared. “Bubba will like her even better.”
“Shut up, Jim-Billy,” the blonde muttered.
“About the job…,” I stated…

Those aren’t the worst cases, but again, I can’t skim audio. And there is no way in the world I am listening to this again.

“Asked.” Ok, fine. She is in fact asking a question. But “asked back”? You have a question mark, you don’t need to note that it is a question in the attribution tag, especially not when it is as awkward as “asked back.”

And then, “she bit out.” “Bit out?” Ok, you SPIT OUT, but you don’t BITE OUT words. You can speak biting (i.e. harsh) words, but if the words are biting it should be obvious from what is said.

Then “I told her.” Not inaccurate, but completely unnecessary. Generally you use the verb “told” as in “I told her a story.” Or “I told you not to go outside without a jacket.” But here there is no purpose, no value gained, by using the word “told” in an attribution tag…better still would be to not even use an attribution tag, as Ashley does SOMETIMES. You need that tag in dialog ONLY when you switch speakers or if there is something special about the WAY something is said.

And here is a really awful one:

“Bullshit,” she replied irately, already at the end of her patience.

Ok, I will let the “reply” slide. Not really necessary, but hey, ok. N.P. What you REALLY don’t need is “replied IRATELY…” The irritation is OBVIOUS from the word chosen: “bullshit.” I don’t know of ANYONE who says that word who is NOT irritated when they say it.

“He declared.” Mmmmm…maybe. Can the writer JUSTIFY it as a declaration? I am not so sure.

“I stated…” This is a really awful one. The verb “state” is reserved for formal statements (as in “the president stated that he would withdraw troops…”) or documents (the divorce decree states…), not ordinary conversation. “Stated” is used frequently throughout the book, always in reference to ordinary dialogue.

There are many far worse ones than these, particularly (but not only) in the sex scenes. These tags become especially obtrusive in the sex scenes! But one more time: I am NOT going to listen to this again.

Finally, there are the absolutely endless and boring detailed descriptions, especially of absolutely irrelevant actions. The ones that come to mind immediately are all the descriptions of how Lauren opens up her cell phone and dials number, and then of course we are “treated” to a description of the procedure she uses for ending her call. Why are those details important? Is there something special about the way Lauren makes and ends a call that is different from the way other people do it? Ok, so maybe if she snaps the phone shut because she is irritated about the call, but why do we have to have the information about opening the phone and putting the numbers in? Why can’t she just CALL someone? If it is important that she is using her cell, fine, say that. But why do we need a description of her dialing?

That is just one example of absolutely unnecessary descriptions of actions. Yes, descriptive detail is important. BUT ONLY IF THAT DETAIL ADDS SOMETHING to the story. Does she have a particularly quirky way of dialing? Fine, describe that, as it might reveal something about her character. But unless the description reveals something about a character, advances the story in a meaningful way, or is essential for setting the scene, LEAVE IT OUT!

I could cut this book in HALF and still have everything that actually matters in the story.

Not that any part of it matters to ME, since I hate the characters and the story line. But hey, to each her own. I guess.

So, why did I bother to listen to the whole book and spend the time it took to write this review? Because this book is representative of so many other books in its genre. And worst of all, it is badly written. And there are so many women who fall for the mythologies built into it. That is the biggest tragedy of all.