Oh the weather in this book is frightful, but the romance is as warm as hot cocoa in front of a roaring fire. This collection of stories by seven mistresses of erotic romance would be an excellent Valentine’s Day present for the right reader, preferably accompanied by roses and chocolates.
These stories are all competently written, and the sex scenes are plausible and arousing. This reviewer wouldn’t expect anything less from the writers assembled here. However, the theme tends to restrict the plots of these stories, each of which focuses on a woman in love with a man – in some cases, since childhood.
In several stories, the heroine is conveniently trapped with the man of her dreams in a confined space by the fury of nature. Having to face each other forces the hero and heroine to reveal their true feelings, which include mutual, irresistible desire. Several of these stories end with a promise of marriage, one ends with an agreement about childbearing, and several end with a hope that geographically-challenged lovers will agree to live together in one place for the rest of their lives.
To a large extent, these stories are driven by the romance formula rather than by the characters. Personal misunderstandings keep the lovers apart until a climactic moment, while most social and political conflicts in the real world are kept out of the world of the story. Monogamy is an unquestioned ideal, and heterosexual identity is taken for granted.
Responsibility for housework and disagreements over money are nowhere to be seen.
My favorite story of the bunch is the whimsical “It’s Not the Weather” by Alison Tyler, whose erotic stories are often set in Los Angeles, in and around the unreal world of the movie biz. The heroine here is a weather girl (meteorologist) who first works with, then lives with, a moody scriptwriter from New York who prefers the four distinct seasons of the U.S. east coast to the endless sunshine of southern California. The weather girl is so tired of revolving-door relationships and so determined to make this one work that she goes far out of her way to help her boyfriend feel at home and ready for sex, even after she learns that he is using her as comic inspiration. In due course, she gets the happy ending she deserves.
This story shows a witty approach to the seasonal theme of this collection and to the broader theme of heterosexual romance, yet it doesn’t break the conventions. Alison Tyler’s characteristic light touch prevents the heroine’s dilemma from descending into melodrama.
Subterfuges and plot devices that show the hand of Fate are too prevalent for my taste in several of the other stories. In “One Winter Night” by Kristina Wright, Susannah returns to her home town for her sister’s wedding after having left in a blaze of scandal, several years before. She protects her pride by pretending to be respectably married, even though she is divorced.
Susannah’s strategy makes sense when she arrives in town, wondering if the other townsfolk still see her as a Scarlet Woman who has returned to cause trouble. However, the revelation that Susannah (neat use of the name of a slandered Biblical heroine) is able to form a “legitimate” relationship with her former lover, now single and determined to win her back, only occurs near the end of the story, when it is too clearly intended as a means of removing the last barrier to a happy ending. Why Susannah would continue keeping her secret when she has every reason to admit the truth is unclear and unconvincing.
In “Hidden Treasure” by Sophie Mouette, a security guard and a tour guide in period costumes are conveniently trapped by a storm in an historic mansion. So far, so promising. However, two clownish intruders break in to retrieve the “treasure” promised to one of them by his deceased grandmother. When the “treasure” influences the budding affair between the guard and the guide, the reader’s credibility is stretched to its limits.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Marilyn Jaye Lewis and “Northern Exposure” by Isabelle Gray are both grittier stories about clashing desires in marriages based on love. In Lewis’ story, a chronic disagreement about when (whether) to have a first baby gets neatly resolved, and the reader can only hope that there will be no long-term resentment as a result. Isabelle Gray’s story is probably the most heartbreaking in the collection, and it looks like a serious response to Alison Tyler’s story about lovers who each want to live in a different physical and cultural milieu.
“Six Weeks on Sunrise Mountain, Colorado” by Gwen Masters is literally a cliff-hanger. The plot premise (celebrity recluse rescues the journalist who tracked him down in the wilderness) is one of the most unusual and dramatic in the book. Here is the first meeting of the hermit on the mountain and the woman who has risked her life to find him:
He found the woman at the foot of the ravine. Even in the moonlight, she looked pale as a ghost. Blood covered her forehead and a bruise was already flowering under her right eye.
Luckily, healing of various kinds takes place during six weeks of hibernation in a snowbound cabin, when the man and woman come to know each other.
“Sweet Season” by Shanna Germain includes the most creative sex scene in the book, in which seduction accompanies a hands-on lesson in turning sap into maple syrup. The sights, sounds and smell of the setting are almost palpable. The author’s bio explains: “Shanna Germain grew up in upstate New York with a pitchfork in her hand, maple syrup on her tongue, and more first loves than she can count.”This collection would certainly appeal to lovers of traditional romance with explicit sex, but it is uneven. Unfortunately, the restrictions of the genre result in some awkward and predictable writing strategies. The diverse and changing nature of heterosexuality in the real world provides plenty of raw material for fiction. The static world of romantic cliché leaves me cold.
James Lear, author of Palace of Varieties, The Back Passage, and The Secret Tunnel serves as the guest editor for this year’s edition of Best Gay Erotica. The guest editors are perhaps the strength of this series. While a reader can expect well-written erotica every year, the selection of stories reflects the guest editor’s interests, making each year unique.
So what do you have to look forward to this year? Desire, cross-dressing, poetry, and hot fantasies, but mostly, a lot of longing for what was or what will never be.
The anthology opens with “The Changing Room“ by Bradley Harris. Kyle is seventeen, gay, and lonely. He goes to the mall in search of a pair of sexy red underwear and finds an admirer in Joe, a store clerk. Kyle returns to the store to try on clothes and underwear in the changing room while Joe watches him. They play out a long seduction, discussing in detail what they’ll do when Kyle turns eighteen. The sex talk is just an excuse though. They both need to feel wanted, and inside the changing room, they are. It’s probably the best sex that never was.
When I read Tulsa Brown’s “Temporary,”it reminded me of a line from the movie The Sting. “I'm the same as you. It's two in the morning and I don't know nobody.” An ex-con dishwasher and a pre-op MTF chanteuse are two lonely people thrown together in a moment of danger late at night in a closed restaurant. Afterward, out of relief, or maybe just because they both want company, they treat each other with tender sympathy. Beautifully done.
Jamie Freeman’s “Don’t Touch” is a wonderfully told story. The narrator sees his crush everywhere, but it’s never really the man he wants. When he hooks up with another man, it seems he’s trying to relive that one perfect, painful moment where his crush let him almost have what he wanted.
In“The Opera House” by Natty Soltesz, Britt and Cody either don’t want to admit it, or can’t come to terms with their attraction to each other. As they inch toward a sexual relationship, they reassure each other that they aren’t like the fags who live a couple blocks away. But when Britt starts to hang out with another guy, Cody is jealous, and baffled. A bit of push and shove a few nights later evolves into wrestling, and the boys finally cross the last boundary. The aftermath is more confusion and anger. This story will ring true to anyone who’s struggled with their identity.
There are other excellent stories in this anthology. Jeff Man always delivers a great tale. Xan West, Gerard Wozek, and Simon Sheppard also contribute wonderful pieces. Year after year, the Best Gay Erotica series delivers on its promise of quality erotic fiction without ever being the same as the years before.
Best Lesbian Erotica ’09 is to be the final collection of lesbian-focused erotica to come from under Tristan Taormino’s editorship. Taormino founded the Best Lesbian Erotica series back in 1995 and has repeatedly thrilled readers with short stories from a collection of gifted writers who can best be described as world-class. Best Lesbian Erotica ’09 is no exception and, once again, she presents an anthology of stories that are hot, heady and filled with all the thrills that readers have come to expect.
The anthology kicks off with Jean Casse’s splendid story “The Virgin of G.” “The Virgin of G” explores a relationship between a couple from different religious backgrounds. Ordinarily religion can drive a couple apart but Jean Casse uses it in this vibrant and vivid story to bring her protagonists closer together.
Lisabet Sarai’s “Velvet” is a wicked tale of attraction and satisfaction at a software convention. Lisabet has the ability to bring her characters to life and present them in glorious and rich detail. This story of headhunting, seduction and burgeoning romance is as typically exquisite as is to be expected from the divine Lisabet.
The inimitable Shanna Germain, “On Snow-White Wings,” is equally capable when it comes to pushing all the right buttons. “On Snow-White Wings” is the bittersweet story of love found and lost and replaced by hope. Powerful writing.
Jean Roberta does not usually approach her erotic scenes in a way that can be described as “gingerly.” However, with her excellent story, “The Placement of Modifiers,” it’s fair to use that word as a vague description without giving too much away.
Teresa Noelle Roberts’, “Tough Enough to Wear a Dress,” reveals a tender story that remains hot and horny whilst addressing the artificial differences we all employ through our choice of clothes.
The thing that always startles me with these collections is that they are such an undiscovered talent of treasure. I have had many friends say to me, “Why are you reading a book of lesbian erotica when you’re not a lesbian?” (NB – They don’t use these exact words. I’m paraphrasing for the sake of clarity).
Most of the people I’ve encountered (that is, those people who haven’t read any of the Best Lesbian Erotica anthologies) assume that the stories within are either a collection of lurid masturbatory fantasies or a canon of extreme feminist propaganda.
The truth is, the Best Lesbian Erotica series is (and has always been) a collection of outstanding stories told by outstanding storytellers. It’s true that the focus is on lesbian relationships and the erotic content is invariably arousing. It’s also true that the stories lend themselves to positive feminist criticism because the absence of traditional male roles in these erotic stories leads to a direct usurpation of the stereotypical male taking over his supreme position in the narrative’s patriarchal hegemony. But that doesn’t mean the anthologies are nothing more than lurid sex stories. And no honest connoisseur of these collections could dismiss them as pro-feminist propaganda.
If you’re unfamiliar with Best Lesbian Erotica, rush out now and order your copy. If you are familiar with the series, convert a friend by buying them the latest edition. Good storytelling is always an absolute. Good storytelling transgresses the arbitrary conventions of typical gender roles. Best Lesbian Erotica ‘09 shows exactly what good storytelling looks like.
There is an awful lot contained within the pages of Best Lesbian Erotica ’09. This is a wonderful collection of girl-on-girl stories that will warm the winter for every reader and start 2009 with a very enjoyable bang. The only problem I can see is that Taormino has raised the bar pretty high for when Kathleen Warnock takes over this series with Best Lesbian Erotica ’10.
The mark of a second rate culture is its willingness to create second-class citizens. That is especially the case when it is done in the interest of advancing party supremacy, enforcing economic privilege, or institutionalizing religious humbug. Starting with Reagan, we just completed thirty-plus years of that behavior. If you are gay in America, you must be pretty fed up what with Prop 8 sitting in the middle of the brand new Obama vista. Enter I Do, an anthology of stories about gay and lesbian coupling that in large part is both entertaining and should work well for its stated purpose as a way to raise funds to defeat Prop 8.
By and large these stories are entertaining, written well, and make a convincing agitprop case against Prop 8 and for the right to gay marriage. The stories are sometimes truly subtle and articulate such as “The Lindorm Twin” by Tracey Pennington, which employs the device of the fairy tale to create a political parable about the destructive force of bigotry against gays, or anyone for that matter. It has the sort of ironic insight one finds in Yevgheny Shvarts’s “The Dragon” in which myths of the normative both serve and distort human self-understanding.
There are several stories that fit the best model of literary romance. In Lisabet Sarai’s “Making Memory,” two women achieve discovery and redemption in a brief, passionate encounter. Each surrenders a part of herself to her lover, and in so giving, gains redemptive renewal. “Desire and Disguise” byAlex Beecroft is a warm-hearted story of a relationship that is simply growing stronger. I am unable to say whether the pleasure of reading Beecroft’s story lies more in its generosity of spirit or in the author’s fluid and pleasant English. At any rate the story shows a mastery of complex sentences, the subjunctive mood, and a command of compound tenses that one rarely sees in English prose these days.
Romance has come to mean fiction laced with conventional bourgeois sentiment in place of actual feeling. It may dabble in swashbuckling and a sort of pristine prurience, but it is, finally, politically correct feeling leading toward a comfortable resolution of discord. Everyone winds up with a lot of self-esteem. That sort of romance has its origins in the 18th century bourgeois novel, the plot of which was usually based on the misfortunes of a good-hearted, virtuous, and naive hero, like Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, who suffers more than he deserves. Rip all the bodices you like, the romance novel is simply a disguised form of its milder predecessor. Goldsmith, of course, did not have to compete with reality television.
The real meaning of romance is heroic love of such magnitude that it is redemptive. We recognize the intrigues of As You Like It and Love’s Labour’s Lost, wherein the characters realize that love offers rewards beyond the mash notes and the first stolen kisses. In fact, romance need not be between lovers or spouses at all because the ultimate test of love in romance is sacrifice. Hence, Miranda’s future is redeemed by Prospero’s surrender of his magic powers. Cordelia is honored in death and defeat by Lear’s rediscovery of his love for her and their filial bond. That bond is the true arc of romance, that the power of the relationship is greater than the sum of the lovers.
“I Do” presents us with the kind of love that leads to marriage. Marriage necessarily leads to continuity beyond death. The point is that this sort of love is so great that even the inevitability of death is not an obstacle to its fruition.
As the stories in I Do grow steamier and less based in affect, they lose some of their energy. That’s not because of the subject matter, though that does tend to become redundant -- how many ways can you swallow a mouthful of cum and still say something interesting about it? The problem is the writing becomes rigid and unnatural. “Finally Forever” by Jeanne Barrack launches a story composed of lumpy badinage between two Jewish men preparing for their wedding. That would be fine if the dialogue were not such an enforced exercise in merriment that you wind up gritting your teeth. Worse still, the characters find themselves cute. These two guys would be delighted to stay locked in Stacy and Clinton’s 360-degree mirror for days on end.
“Code of Honor” by Marequesate presents a different problem in which sentences are often as rigid and awkward as the principal characters, two lover-studs in the French Foreign Legion where being gay, we are told, is strictly forbidden. I understand on good authority that is indeed the case as in most military organizations for reasons of their own perceiving. Given its enforced centrality to the story, however, this secrecy seems a literary contrivance of the sort that porn often employs for hyperbolic effect.
One can forgive a certain repetitive militancy among a portion of the stories, as the authors’ collective case is legitimate. Nonetheless, one does have to ask oneself, “What is the cause here?”
Like all political art, there is the danger of being arch rather than reaching for the profound. The net result is that the characters in some of these stories speechify about the condition of being gay almost as though it were an abstract moral state of being. From there they move on to a fundamental error: they extrapolate to the rather pathological assumption that all gay people should want to be married and that, as such, they are not being true to themselves or their gayness if they don’t. Whereas the real point is that all people, regardless of their particulars, should have the right to be married – with all attendant benefits and privileges – if they so desire.
The history of marriage is the history of property rights. It was only an issue for the propertied classes because they had something to lose in matters of inheritance, and whose numbers grew exponentially from the beginning of the industrial revolution. Thus what had been a system of feudal contracts for the nobles became a way of cementing financial relationships for the bourgeois. The notion of romantic love connected with marriage is largely a literary conceit of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
While that all went on, Christianity attempted to annex sexuality/love even if it still finds these impulses carnal, distasteful, and spiritually degrading. The marriage license was a rubber stamp for the soul by making sex legal. Prior to modern psychology in the 20th century, everyone pretty much assumed sex was just inexplicably there in the human construct just as it is in rabbits. It was probably clearer thinking and caused less general suffering than the average therapist, despite being far less profitable. In short, marriage doesn’t make much sense beyond issues of property whether you are gay, straight, or somewhere in between.
Therefore, who and what is protected by making marriage the exclusive preserve of heterosexuals, is not only moot, but also inarguable tribal nonsense, a point which I Do makes well. The stories assert that marriage should not exist as a weapon for class and economic exclusion. What is more, being a married heterosexual should no more "give you the conch" in passing judgment about the sanctity of this or that sort of relationship than being homosexual should take it away. In law, marriage is about on a par with the significance we attach to owning a house. It is either one’s principal liability or asset depending on how you look at it. To see it as more than that, clouds the issue.
We harm all Americans when some of us are legally reduced from being full citizens. That is especially true when the majority winds up serving the peculiar economic aims and religious whims of factions like the Republican rightwing as they did with Prop 8. When we make any class of citizens less than any other class of citizens, we all become less than we can be and therefore less than we should aspire to be.
The ultimate wrong done by Prop 8 is that it denies all Americans their rightful pursuit of liberty and justice. What is just is neither absolute nor fixed. Like our notion of liberty, it must evolve as our understanding of the world and others evolves. Therefore, the sound claim against Prop 8 is not one of special pleading for a minority, for they alone are not the ones wronged. It is at the heart our democracy that no man or woman is less than any other even if tradition has made it seem so. We grow by outgrowing our traditions, not by being slaves to them.
As per the publisher, all proceeds from the sale of this anthology will be donated to the Lambda Legal Defense to fight Prop 8 in support of marriage equality for all.
Whispers of the Flesh is the third volume in Louisa Burton’s Hidden Grotto series of erotic novels. In 2008, I reviewed the first two books in the series, noting that they were carefully crafted and highly entertaining. Entertainment and relatively wholesome titillation appear to be Ms. Burton’s objectives in this series, and Whispers of the Flesh succeeds in achieving these goals at least as well as the previous installments.
The series is set in the mysterious valley of the Grotte Cachée, hidden in the mountains of Auvergne, France. Despite its isolation, the valley has been inhabited for long ages by a variety of peoples. It houses sacred altars among ancient oaks, a marble bath house decorated with outrageous erotic sculpture, a volcanic cave with a healing spring and psychotropic vapors, and the medieval chateau where generations of seigneurs have lived out their lives over the centuries.
The valley is also home to a quartet of immortals whom the seigneurs have sworn to protect and serve. Inigo the satyr is a happy-go-lucky ambisexual with prodigious genitalia and a libido to match. Lili is a stunningly beautiful Mesopotamian goddess who requires sexual congress with mortals in order to survive. Elic is a Norse demon who can assume the shape of either male or female in order to couple with humans of either sex. Finally, Darius is a djinn with the power to assume animal shapes and to heal. He is cursed with an irresistible sensitivity to human emotion; if he senses a human’s desire, he cannot help but fulfill it.
The earlier books were structured as a series of vignettes jumping back and forth through time. Through privilege or chance, humans would visit the chateau and be drawn into the sexual games and intrigues of the four “follets”. The follets need a continuous supply of human lust. The lord of the Hidden Grotto is committed to providing this. Across the centuries, the chateau has played host to innumerable seductions, orgies, slave auctions, and mock satanic rituals. The humans involved rarely come to understand that their primary role is to fulfill the sexual requirements of the immortals. Nevertheless, they usually leave sated, and often wiser, for their experiences
Whispers of the Flesh offers a slightly different structure. The action occurs in three time periods: the eighteen twenties, the early nineteen seventies, and the present. However, the stories are intertwined. Back in the nineteenth century, a rigidly chaste Jesuit arrives at the chateau, ostensibly to complete a landscape design plan but actually to investigate persistent rumors of demons and black magic.
At the height of the hippie era, a clot of young pleasure seekers converge on the valley for a week of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Among them is the future wife of the current administrateur, the seneschal whose descendants over the ages have organized life for the seigneur of the Grotte Cachée.
In the present, the adminstrateur Emmett Archer lies on his deathbed, suffering from aggressive pulmonary fibrosis. His daughter Isabel has arrived at the chateau to spend what are probably his last days, and to contemplate how to refuse the responsibility of taking over his hereditary position. She cannot bear to spend her life serving the young seigneur Adrian Morel, for whom she harbors an impossible passion. Also visiting is Hitch, an old comrade of Emmett’s from the days of the Vietnam war.
Each thread of the tale influences future events. To avoid revealing to much, I won’t say anything more about the plot. However, the new structure of this novel gives it a different rhythm than the previous books, in some ways more effective.
When I reviewed the earlier books, I commented that the characterizations of the follets seemed less fully realized than those of the humans around them, partly because they do not involve themselves emotionally with their “victims”. I found Whispers of the Flesh more satisfying in this regard. Both Darius and Lili reveal themselves more fully, especially in their interactions with the priest David Beckett. Elic and Lili, lovers who cannot physically consummate their passion, suffer from jealousy and remorse. And Isabel, a woman from the outside world despite her familiarity with the follets, has some serious conflicts with them.
Although it delves somewhat deeper into the immortals’ history and motivations and even has intimations of tragedy and death, Whispers of the Flesh still struck me as a light-hearted romp, full of extravagant sexual excess enjoyed mostly for the pleasure of it. The two exceptions are Lili’s seduction of Beckett, who struggles against his own vows of chastity, and Isabel’s apparently doomed coupling with Adrian. Both of these scenes offered an emotional intensity lacking in most of the sexual interactions.
Ms. Burton’s sex scenes are a lot of fun. Also, the entire attitude of this series is emphatically sex-positive. Sex almost always produces favorable outcomes.
On the other hand, my personal notion of eroticism requires something more than just mutual pleasure. For me, a story needs to have some sort of edge to be erotic. Something more important than a climax needs to be at stake. Thus, though I found Whispers of the Flesh to be entertaining, it was only occasionally arousing. This of course is a personal reaction. For some people, the very notion of unbridled sexual activity is exciting. The follets gleefully violate taboos left and right. For some readers, this will be a turn on. I may just be jaded.
In any case, Whispers of the Flesh offers safe, sane, diverse and diverting sex, set in an historically-convincing environment laced with just the right amount of magic. If this sounds appealing, I recommend the book highly.