According to the introduction of Violet Blue’s Best Women’s Erotica 2010, editing anthologies is a lot like professionally tasting chocolate. I can embrace this opinion because I’ve worked with some editors who seem equipped with nothing more than the skill to masticate, and most of those types often appear to have a mouth that’s filled with brown stuff.
Not that all editors are like that. I can name at least three I’ve worked with who aren’t like that. Four, if you include Violet Blue with whom I don’t think I’ve worked, but who has always struck me as a dedicated and competent professional. And Violet Blue’s Best Women’s Erotica 2010 shows (as always) that she is capable of producing a world -class anthology of high octane erotica brimmed to bursting with exciting explicit fiction.
Alison Tyler’s “In a Handbasket” is a witty tale of ostensibly mismatched lovers finally finding each other. Kay Jaybee’s “Equipment” is a raunchy yarn of one woman switching roles on her partner. Emerald in “Shift Change” is tempted by an Apple and shows that computer repairs are not always interminable drudgery. I could go on and praise the abilities of Sommer Marsden, Angela Caperton, Kristina Lloyd or Rachel Kramer Bussel and a host of other sensational authors. This really is a wonderful anthology of highly-charged stories that are filled with surprises, sex and scintillating scenarios.
So, call me a curmudgeon, but I always wrinkle my nose with disapproval when I see the words ‘women’s erotica’ on the cover of an anthology. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing else annoying about the title. The word ‘best’ deserves its place. The date 2010 (even though I’m reviewing this title at the arse end of 2009) is close enough to be accurate. But I have to shake my head with dismay at the words “women’s erotica” and wonder if this isn’t an anachronistic holdover from an antiquated age.
As I say, the stories in this anthology deserve the word “best” because they’re all bloody good. But why do we need to differentiate between ‘women’s erotica’ and other erotica? (Notice there that I didn’t say “men’s erotica.” There are no titles out there that I can find that market themselves as ‘men’s erotica.’ There are some books listed as ‘erotica for men’ but that is semantically and pragmatically different. Presumably the reason there is no ‘men’s erotica’ is because it’s a known fact that men can usually tug off to nothing more erotic than the memory of partially glimpsed underwear in a launderette). But referring to a collection of world-class erotic stories as “women’s erotica”strikes me as labeling for no good reason.
In the publishing world it was once commonplace for people to discuss “women’s fiction” as a separate genre. The term referred disparagingly to romantic stories, usually with ubiquitous purple prose and an obligatory “Happily Ever After.” The term was seldom used as compliment and even Ms Blue, in her introduction to BWE 2010, suggests that the sight of too much florid euphemism is enough to send her heading to Harlequin HQ with a pitchfork, a can of gasoline and a road flare. Which makes it all the more puzzling as to why the term “women’s erotica” is so warmly embraced.
Could it be that this collection is only for women? Admittedly, the possessive ‘s’ in the title would suggest as much (in the same vein as the words women’s clothes in clothing stores and women’s studies in academic disciplines) but I personally think this is unlikely. I thoroughly enjoyed reading BWE 2010 and I’m guilty of being very male. I’m so male I drink beer, never go shoe-shopping and drive a Ford with a stick-shift. That’s how very male I am. If I had any interest in competitive televised sports I’d be exceptionally male but I can only honestly carry a stereotype so far.
Admittedly, the stories in BWE 2010 have all been written by women, but does the author’s gender ever make a difference to the style or quality of the story? Literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes famously said, “the author is dead.” Barthes assertion has been used predominantly in literary criticism to indicate appraisal of a text from the reader’s interaction solely with the words, rather than a mystical relationship between the reader and the distant (and invariably unknowable) author. It’s an attitude that makes sense to me. It also circumvents issues of whether the author is a man, woman or kangaroo.As I say, it’s hard to understand why such a wonderful book of stories should be blighted by such anachronistic and arbitrary labeling. Nevertheless, I would urge every aficionado of erotica to overlook the title and simply rush out and buy a copy of the book now. It’s good writing and won’t disappoint any woman (or man) who enjoys quality erotic fiction.
The best paranormal or sexual fantasy stories transport the reader to an imaginary world which is parallel to this one: recognizable in some ways, completely exotic in others. Each of the seven stories in this diverse, single-author collection seems to be based on an intriguing premise and each includes sex scenes that really seem to take place in another dimension. However, not all the stories come equipped with the same amount of fuel, so to speak.
The thin line between "What an amazing setting/character/sex scene!" and "This is just too hokey" is drawn differently by different readers, depending on how long we can each suspend our disbelief. My own view of the world and my past experience of fantasy literature (I was raised on A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, Grimms' and Anderson's fairy tales) undoubtedly influence my responses.
The opening story in this book, "The Enchanted Forest," seems as beautifully heartbreaking (at least on first reading) as Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl," and for similar reasons. A fairly typical modern woman, seeking relief from stress, goes on a camping trip alone, and finds exactly what she has dreamed of: a natural environment that responds to her every wish and literally makes love to her.
Catherine, the heroine, is lovingly bound to a tree by sentient roots and branches. There follows a consensual assault by flowers (I kid you not) which resembles a scene from “The Nutcracker Suite:”
She peered down between her legs and noticed that each and every bloom, while brushing cross her trembling nether lips, cleverly turned its face toward them and thrust out its heavily coated stamens for a thoroughly intimate kiss that doused her with their nectar!
This is only the first round.
Catherine hears a high-pitched sound and sees a mist moving in the sky. When the “mist” approaches, she sees that it is a huge swarm of brilliantly-colored butterflies who have arrived to finish what the flowers started:
Catherine stared with wide, disbelieving eyes as they each, in turns, feasted on the banquet that had been so painstakingly spread out before them. Their activity tortured her in the most delightful way.
Remarkably, Catherine is able to survive on her own in the forest without any of the supplies she brought with her. Memories of her past life fade over time, and she feels no desire to contact anyone or return to a job or an apartment.
When she discovers something unexpected, the enchantment of the forest can be understood. Is this story about an afterlife? Read it and decide.
"Disenchantment" is a clever war-between-the-sexes story in which a woman tells her date, apparently a nice-enough guy, why men and women are not well suited to each other."'A woman's most fundamental need, at her core,’ explains Maryanne, ‘is to be desirable.'” She pauses for effect before explaining that everything men do after they have had sex with a woman for the first time “’is designed to diminish her belief that she is desirable.’” Maryanne sums up: “’I think it is an unconscious effort to ultimately destroy her desirability to other men.'"
The man takes her explanation as a challenge and decides to prove her wrong. Will he be attentive to her for the rest of his life? Is his attentiveness a sign that he is truly in love or that he is trying to prove her wrong? Although the sex between them is completely mutual and romantic in its way, the two characters are clearly fighting a duel.
The conclusion of this story is as brutal as the woman's theory. It is both unforeseen (by one of them) and as predictable as the behavior of a predator in the wild.
There is a vampire story in this collection, and it follows the popular heterosexual pattern of Dominant vampire male with submissive mortal female. In this version, the woman has a reason to offer herself to the local vampire, whom she has been stalking for awhile. She even has an elaborate plan for getting what she wants, a kind of topping-from-below strategy. The story has a surprisingly happy ending, but the enchantment doesn't work for me.
"Expecting" is about the alien impregnation of Emilie, a woman who is happily married at the beginning of the story. Her life is taken over by something almost indescribable which creates a credibility gap between her and everyone she knows, particularly her bewildered husband. As in real-life testimony about alien abductions, the sanity of the witness is in question.
Here is where the author’s use of a distancing third-person voice (which expresses Emilie’s consciousness) really works. There is objective evidence that something is happening in Emilie’s body, but the reader can never be sure what to believe.
Emilie has “dreams” or experiences which combine intense fear of the alien, reptilian invader(s) and an expectation of intense pleasure:
She could never be fully prepared for the creeping, slithering, clinging feel of them, weighty and slick as they moved sluggishly over her. The intrusiveness of their touch, so all at once eerie and repulsive, caused all of her senses to come startlingly alert.
Emilie comes to expect the intimate visits of beings she can barely see and whose motives she can only guess. The superhuman pleasure they give her is palpable, and her sense of having been chosen for an important mission is perversely flattering. However, like all such relationships—whether the mortal woman is visited by a fairy, a shapeshifter, a demon, by aliens or the Angel Gabriel—this one increasingly alienates Emilie from other human beings.
“Flowers for Angela” is a clever response to the award-winning short story (first published in 1959), novel and numerous dramatizations of Flowers for Algernon, the tragic tale of a laboratory mouse (Algernon) and his fellow-subject, Charlie, whose intelligence is manipulated by the mental-health establishment.
In Nancy Madore’s story, Angela is a psychologist who becomes suspicious of her male colleague’s methods when she is treating one of his former patients, a widow who can’t seem to move past her relationship with her late husband. The widow, who had first sought counselling because she and her husband were at odds, seemed to change abruptly from an independent thinker, who was not attracted to BDSM, to a devoted submissive who played the role of her husband’s dog whenever they were alone together.
Angela, as a career-driven professional, is also predictably separated from her husband, who would prefer a more appreciative wife. The one thing Angela and her husband can agree on is that their current relationship (not together but not yet divorced) is uncomfortable for both. Meanwhile, Angela decides to investigate her colleague under the guise of becoming his patient. The outcome is disturbing, especially when Angela’s colleague defends his methods in a male-to-male conversation with her husband.
While this story could be interpreted as anti-BDSM, it raises valid questions about marriage, two-career relationships, women’s rights, heterosexuality and the role of psychiatry (and counselling in general) in all of the above.
One of the author’s most convincing supernatural male characters is Jimmy in the story by that name. Like a teenage troublemaker who jimmies locks to steal other people’s stuff, Jimmy is a kind of archetypal bad boy who is magnetically attractive to (as well as attracted to) the central character, Sara, who lives with her boyfriend Ray, an understanding guy with whom she is totally compatible except in bed. Ray often climaxes before her and then falls asleep, not knowing that she is frustrated and too polite to tell him so.
Like other demon lovers, Jimmy can only possess those who want him on some level—and Sara’s frustration gives him the opening he needs. Jimmy, as it turns out, tormented good-guy Ray in life. And after Jimmy’s premature death, caused by one risk too many, he is not about to stop.
The sex-addiction that Jimmy can induce is vividly described, as is Sara’s increasing desperation. How do you fight off an incubus?
The answer to that question is elegantly simple, and Sara’s good-guy vs. bad-guy dilemma actually has a solution which does not force her to give up dirty, edgy, thrilling and satisfying sex to hang onto the “normal” pleasures of love, a job and a life that includes non-sexual activities.
Unfortunately, the author’s exclusive focus on male-female sex sometimes leads her into the shallow clichés of romance fiction. In “The Incentive Program,” the concluding story, a computer expert named Georgia spends all her time on a program which predicts the future and which ultimately leads to actual time-travel. The end result of the combination of technology and government bureaucracy is that Georgia is able to identify with an alter-ego, several centuries in the “future,” who becomes the cherished female partner of three men in a society in which women have become scarce. Considering the space-opera framework, the sexual adventures of “Cassie,” the alter-ego, seem surprisingly bland. The sex scenes would be more suited to a contemporary romance novel about a woman and her male harem, in which she carefully divides her time among three good-natured, barely-distinguishable lovers.Enchanted Dreams is part of a series by Nancy Madore which includes Enchanted: Erotic Bedtime Stories for Women, Enchanted Again and The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The series seems to have a deserved cult following. This author clearly has a way with paranormal subject-matter. She could be described as an enchantress who was born to cast spells, but whose power (like electricity) surges and wanes.
Mitzi Szereto’s In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed is a handsome collection of fairy tales published by Cleis Press. This is one of their best produced and edited books to date. Traditional folk/fairy tales (and some authored stories) have been reworked by Ms. Szereto with her unique vision and sexual zest. Each story is preceded by a brief literary history and interpretation of the original. The book is highly eclectic and therefore both appealing to your naughty bits and intellectually engaging.
From the outset, let me say that Szereto has a wonderfully creative and deft command of English. She can elaborate where others merely complicate. That makes for a degree of sensual pleasure in reading her thoughts all on its own. Equally important is the fact that she has seriously researched and thought about the fairy tale as erotic art. I think writers of erotica have always felt a natural pull toward the folk tale because its themes seem as basic, organic and natural as the sex they want to explore in prose.
The fairy tale is not so easy a nut to crack though, and the insertion of sexual specifics can often seem a gratuitous appendage. As any devotee of “Fractured Fairy Tales” on Rocky and Bullwinkle can tell you, they work precisely because the original form has been so lovingly, but totally, ruptured in the form of a burlesque. Szereto wants to hold onto the pungent earthiness of the originals and she pretty much gets there.
The folk tale is closest to the fable or parable, both of which are closed forms that are intended as instruction, rather than a more lyric form of literary engagement. You don’t argue with Aesop; you get it or you don’t. Sometimes, like “Hansel and Gretel” the lesson is about very hard truths of a bitter and greedy world that can reduce its inhabitants to cannibals. So in its original form, the folktale is often far more suited to the theatre of Bertolt Brecht than Walt Disney.
Following 19th century efforts to bowdlerize folk tales into what we now think of as fairy tales, Disney leaves in a lot of sexual innuendo, but cuts out the actual sexual contact. He relies on the adolescent shiver of frustration rather than the mature sigh of satisfaction after orgasm. The result is that I am still trying to see up Tinkerbelle’s skirt, as I was when I was eight. What a little tease she is, don’t you think? And what gives with Snow White of the plunging neckline and her seven little friends in tight pants? They must have gotten a lot tighter mooning over her glass “coffin.” Disney is the master of the bloodless, odorless, crankyless menstrual cycle. It’s not that easy to do either, but it can also make for rather creepy and unnatural images of human relations.
Every culture has its folk/fairy tale tradition and Szereto has searched a lot of them in compiling her wonderful book. What she so clearly understands is that these forms are the way that people in an every day world deal with the things that frighten them, entice them and/or both. They are the stories of the power we fear most because it is beyond our control, and of deep sexual yearnings that are in us all. They are there even when sometimes we do not realize they are there. Fairly tales deal with our common, deep sense of truth.
My favorite story in the book is “The Swineherd” which she has adapted from Hans Christian Andersen. Her analysis is original, insightful and thought provoking. Her reworking of his story is a charming and very exciting game of sexual provocation. The low seduce the high in a most clever and sensual way. That power is then subsumed by the high mastering the low in the form of mutually willing and delicious BDSM play. It hardly fails to please that during this erotic struggle, handmaidens are regularly spanked and caned as pretty princess feet are stamped in feminine frustration. Szereto can even make girlish pouting sexy, which is no small accomplishment.
Of late my reading tastes have lead me back to the 19th century if only because writers of that time were not afraid of words as a medium for complex feelings, and by extension, exploring the complexity of love and eroticism that words can reveal. Szereto will not seem like a museum piece to any of her readers, but she is gifted with the sort of eye that sees many facets on a jewel.
The other thing that I truly love about this book is that it is in no way cynical, but it makes no attempt to idealize the human condition. People are not presented as trolls, but even princesses can have eager little hands that are too bent upon sheer acquisition. Gadgets, toys and shiny baubles can blind them to true love’s ardor. In Szereto’s world the scales are often lifted from their eyes, by the brisk application of a male palm to their luscious bottoms. Thus balance – even a rough, country balance – is restored. Men in Szereto’s world do seem to think with their dicks, but she does not mind that quality in them. Actually from her descriptions of them, she seems quite fond of dicks herself. We are thus relieved of the boring burden of political correctness, which is by its nature antithetical to art. People are not designed to think about sex in one sanitized way, and art is about giving people a route to what they really think.
I have to applaud this book as a milestone in a very difficult area of literature. If for no other reason, folk tales have been perfected to their uses like well worn steps that so many people have traveled in an ancient staircase. For a single author to make her own rendition of them requires a unique level of talent and respect for the original.
A little over a year ago, Ravenous Romance popped up on the eBook scene with some rather bold boasts about its future. That riled a number of romance bloggers who attacked before the first book was released, and turned even more vicious after. It was (and remains) ugly, and reflected poorly on the romance community. The only part of the attack that interested me was the charge that Ravenous Romance had no right (?) to claim they published romance, as the eBooks they published were all clearly erotica.
I’m not part of the romance community. I write erotica. The fine line between the two is a personal definition, although my rule is: If it’s written in the genre style of romance but has sex scenes, it’s erotic romance. If it’s written in the genre style of literary fiction, and it uses sex and sexuality to explore the characters, then it’s erotica.
Which brings me to my book this month: The Darkness and the Night 3: Twins of Darkness. It’s written in the genre style of romance, which seems to support Ravenous Romance’s claim that they publish erotic romance. But is this story erotic?
Sex scenes, even if they occur frequently, involving multiple partners, and gymnastic contortions, aren’t always erotic. Eroticism draws in the reader through the use of sensual imagery. It had the power to physically affect the reader. Well-written erotic passages might not include orgasm or penetration, and yet, the reader is left feeling that something deeply sexual occurred. The Darkness and the Night 3 has sex scenes, but nothing about them is erotic. Take most of them out of the story, and it wouldn’t affect anything. That’s not erotica.
By now, if you regularly read my reviews, you know that I hate to judge a book by what it isn’t. If it’s not erotica, what is it? It’s not particularly romantic in that it doesn’t focus on a core romantic relationship and how it grows. It’s sort of paranormal, sort of fantasy, but the world building isn’t there to support it. But what I found most disappointing was the level of storytelling. Nothing was shown. Everything was told. There was no depth to any scene, nothing to grab onto.
I had hoped that Ravenous Romance would put out a book that really wowed to balance out the critics. This is the third book in a series, so the first two were much better, or the readers like this style of writing. You might too. But the best rating I can give this is sideways.
Sometimes I hate being a reviewer. I'd rather just be a reader, with no goal other than self-entertainment and occasional enlightenment. Instead, I'm engaged in ongoing evaluation every time I open a book or a PDF file. It doesn't matter whether I plan to review the book or not. The critical mindset becomes a habit. These days I can't just read; I have to judge.
When I was still innocent--many years ago, before I began writing reviews--I might well have loved Threesomes. I've always been attracted to the notion of ménage (even before I had the chance to participate in one). I especially like group sex where everyone gets it on with everyone else regardless of gender or ostensible orientation. Threesomes indulges my polymorphously perverse tendencies by serving up pretty much every combination imaginable: gay men who are still not opposed to having sex with a woman, straight women drawn into lesbian embraces or bonds, straight men willing-- no, eager--to bend over and offer their butts to their queer companions in the mini-orgy. Even"straight" male-female interactions take on new spice in the context of additional participants.
I give Ms. Perkins, the editor of this collection, two thumbs up for the variety of its stories. I wish that I could say the same for the quality of the writing.
Of the dozen stories in this anthology, only three stand out for me as both original and well-written. "Center Part" by Hobart Glass offers an intriguing three-way lesbian encounter in which one of the participants is in some sense imaginary. Natalie is seriously in lust with her gorgeous hairdresser Hillary, but still holding a torch for the mysterious Safi who was Natalie's first woman lover. Safi returned to her native Africa and then disappeared, leaving a huge hole in Natalie's life. Hillary manages to conjure Safi to join in Natalie's sexual healing. The result is arousing and erotic in the truest sense of the word, as rich with the ache of desire as with its fulfillment.
Cynthia Genty's contribution "Just Friends" is fascinating because of the complex relationships between its characters. "Back when Matt and I were trying to be lovers, he used to talk dirty to me on the phone," Ms. Gentry's tale begins. Matt and the narrator have a powerful sexual connection, but personality and circumstances become obstacles too serious to overcome. They decide to be just friends, but when they meet for a seemingly casual drink, the narrator discovers that Matt still recalls her fantasies and is eager to fulfill them. There's no happily ever after, though--at least not for her and Matt.
The third gem in this anthology is Kilt Kilpatrick's hilarious "Later, Day Saints":
I know, I know, this is the part where I go straight to hell. But can you honestly blame me? Are you trying to tell me you wouldn't have done the same thing in my place? Bitch, you are such a liar!
So listen, there I am, minding my business in the Swinging Bachelorette Pad. I should have been working on my term paper, but I was still collating my data and letting the outline marinate a while. Get off my case already, that's my process, and you have to respect that, right?
I was giggling already, but my amusement turned to awe as I watched how the narrator systematically seduces and corrupts the two (extremely cute) Mormon missionaries who show up at her door. Actually, this is not the first story I've read based on this premise. (The other was equally good, but the main character was different enough that this seemed original.) The sexual shenanigans that ensue are playful but intense, cleverly skirting the edge of parody without stepping over.
Moving from the special to the adequate, Em Brown's "And Damian Makes Four" and Brit M.'s "Two Men and a Lady Prequel" are competently composed stroke fiction, replete with sexual activities but with little plot or point. Readers whose main interest is arousal will probably enjoy them.
The remaining stories in the collection are hackneyed, badly written, or both. As a policy, I don't mention the names of stories that I rate negatively. I'm an author myself, and I know how much that would hurt. Suffice it to say that the other offerings in Threesomes ranged from the implausible and incoherent fantasy scenarios buried in purple prose, to painfully amateurish efforts that read like offerings on a free "true confessions" website. (Sorry but I don't consider references to a woman's "rack" and "jugs" to be at all erotic.) In one case, I debated whether the story was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, a clever imitation of some vintage tale from the days of the alt.sex newsgroups. I decided, alas, that this was not the case.
Group sex is a potent fantasy, and this book tries to tap into that erotic potential. It succeeds only occasionally. One might ask whether a few noteworthy tales might be enough to save a book. However, I've read some anthologies lately in which almost every story was exceptional. Those books set the bar pretty high.As I said, unless you're snarky by nature, it's no fun being a reviewer. Readers less particular than I might get off on Threesomes, but I can't really recommend it.