It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since Marcy Sheiner published the first Best of Best Women’s Erotica. “Best of the Best” is one hell of an accolade to foist upon anyone’s shoulders and I honestly don’t envy Violet Blue having to judge which stories from the Best Women’s Erotica series should be placed in the compilation title Best of Best Women’s Erotica. Yet Ms Blue has managed this task with style and aplomb and I can’t see any stories in this collection that don’t deserve such elevated praise.
The collection is prefaced by a highly personal introduction from the editor, which is as arousing and well-paced as any of the stories included. It then moves onto Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “Animals”: a tour-de-force encounter that celebrates the physicality of sex in a powerhouse rush of literate erotica. This is followed by Kristina Wright’s “Call Me,” an obscene phone call that successfully uses dialogue to impart conflicting ideals of taboo-breaking and arousal. And then there’s Teresa Noelle Roberts’ “Voice of an Angel” which imbues a deliciously unreal sexuality and passion to baroque opera.
I could go on, listing author after author, and producing an incredibly dull review that is the antithesis to an incredibly exciting collection. Instead, I want to focus on two stories that highlight the diversity of this anthology whilst illustrating its phenomenal power to consistently arouse. The titles are “Heat” by Elizabeth Coldwell, and “Chill” by Kathleen Bradean.
“Heat” is a story of sultry, smoldering passions. Coldwell writes with graphic intensity that hurtles the reader toward the satisfying conclusion of this sweat-fuelled fantasy. The simmering tension between the central characters is exemplified by the following extract:
When I think of Ian, I think of heat. The heat of the sticky days of summer and sweaty sheets. The heat of the flame that draws in the moth. The heat of passion, and shame. I think of that sultry August night, and the things he did tome, and I still hate him—and I still want him.
Coldwell’s story is written to inflame. The story produces a warmth of welcome arousal as well as the uncomfortable glow of embarrassment. It’s an erotic encounter that many will find reminiscent of tasting forbidden fruits: a discovery that the flavor is so delicious it should be forbidden.
This contrasts with Bradean’s treatment of arousal in “Chill.” Here the story dwells on a single and uncommon fetish. The fetish, as suggested by the title, includes an extensive use of ice cubes and an emotional distancing that enhances the story’s powerful premise.
It wasn’t healthy, this thing, this need. I’d go for months without it, and then I’d be on the phone with a client, or at dinner with friends, and I’d yearn for the cold. Thinking about it would make my breasts ache. I’d cross and uncross my legs, and fidget in my chair. Sometimes, I’d take an ice cube from my drink, put it into my mouth, and excuse myself to the ladies room, where I’d rub the cube against my clit until I came. Then I’d smooth down my clothes and take my seat, and no one would ever guess. But it was never a really good orgasm. It was a shadow, a knockoff, a little something to see me through.
Bradean’s use of language is as cold and clinical as the fetish that drives her protagonist. The story employs such intense description it blends the heat of arousal with the chill of the fetish, accumulating in unprecedented peaks and troughs of physicality.
And I mention these two stories because they show the perfect balance Violet Blue has achieved in this anthology—selecting stories that can warm the reader, or chill them to the core—without losing sight of the focus that these stories are written to arouse.
There are other stories in this collection, and a collection of respected names from the genre including Kristina Lloyd, Donna George Storey and Kay Jaybee, all of whom deserve their place in a collection entitled Best of Best. If you don’t regularly subscribe to the annual collection of Best Women’s Erotica, you’d be foolish to miss out on the Best of Best Women’s Erotica 2.
In his introduction, the editor says:
My quest to create this anthology stems from a conversation I had some years ago with Calvin Herndon, author of the bestselling Sex and Racism in America, who told me, shortly before I attempted my first erotic story:
‘When Black people are allowed to indulge the usual sins, the customary fetishes, and all the regular vices humans are permitted, then they will have achieved total sexual citizenship. Otherwise, they will remain trapped in the usual stale stereotypes and labels the world has assigned to us.’
So Cole Riley set out to collect erotic stories about (and by, as far as this reviewer can tell) people of African descent.
“All the regular vices” is a mixed bag. If the editor’s goal was to collect a diverse set of stories, he more-or-less succeeded. These stories vary in tone and subject-matter, although most are heterosexual.
Attraction between men only occurs out of sight, on the other side of a wall, in “Keeping Up with the Joneses” by Reginald Harris. In this story, a married man who claims to be squicked by the mere thought of two men in bed together is inspired to enjoy more sex with his wife by the sounds of bed-thumping from the gay neighbors in the house next door. In “Velvet,” Fiona Zedde (a brilliant world-builder) describes a bittersweet lesbian initiation.
Several of these stories are essentially “dirty jokes” (a brotha gets some from a sista, heh-heh). In “Three Kisses” by Preston Allen, Docta Love decides to seduce a well-built female dealer in a casino by offering her a large amount of money for three kisses over three nights. She insists that she is happily married with children, but she could use some help in remodeling her bathroom. The deal goes far beyond three kisses, and the reader is clearly meant to be amused, but this one was annoyed. Docta Love comes very close to the traditional stereotype of a black pimp, dripping with bling and false promises, and he persistently refers to his love-interest as a PR (Puerto Rican). Not that she deserves more respect than he does. So much for breaking out of stale stereotypes.
“Got Milk?” by Monica Elaine is an unbelievable story about a horny woman who opens the door to a strange white man while she is wearing a bathrobe and nothing else. It seems he wants to borrow some milk, but he has a white fiancée who is both suspicious and attracted to the female narrator. At some point, all three are literally sliding about in spilled milk. Huh.
Then there are stories of apparently random but plausible hook-ups such as the relationship between Aden and Yanni in “Rain” by Kweli Walker, a union of intellectual soul-mates that started with a wrong telephone number.
In the poignant “For Nita” by Jolie du Pre, a downtrodden wife gets out of her marriage and improves her life with help from her best friend Nita, a successful psychiatrist. But as in most such stories of transformation, the mentor can’t control her creature or protégée, and when the newly-empowered woman trusts her instincts and a pair of strangers to give her what she wants, Nita disapproves. The saying that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs seems relevant here.
In “Hung by Zetta Brown, a woman called to jury duty finds ways to cope with the frustration and boredom of being sequestered for weeks with other jurors, one of whom is definitely “hung.” Of course, this term can be applied in a legal sense to a jury as a whole. This sexual joke tickled my funny bone, since it implies that satisfaction can be found in the least likely places, in the midst of ambiguity and disagreement.
One of the themes of this anthology is the influence of Fate or serendipity in bringing the right two people together, and this theme can be found in almost any erotic anthology. Then there are some themes that seem more specific to the African diaspora. One is the attractiveness of women (especially) and men who would be considered fat by current (white, mainstream) standards of beauty. Lush, fleshy curves are described with enthusiasm in these stories. As the male Master of two submissive women says in “Welcome Home” by Shakir Rashaan:
I’m a big man myself, so there’s not much that a petite girl can do for me but introduce me to her thicker girlfriend. I’m sorry, but bones do hurt.
The mutual admiration and confidence of the full-figured characters in this book are a refreshing change from the images of anorexic fashion models that are often presented in the media as ideal women, in groups that usually include token featherweight women of color.
Another theme in this collection could be defined as “Roots.” In these stories, characters discover, or rediscover, their sexuality by returning to their personal places of birth, or to the homeland of their ancestors, which seems both strange and familiar. In some cases, characters heal themselves by revisiting an old trauma. The best of these stories have a kind of magnetic power that suggests “roots” in the sense of magic, or kitchen voodoo.
In R. Gay’s “Strangers in the Water,” the female narrator brings her husband and twin sons from the United States to visit her grandmother in Haiti. The narrator, unlike her mother, feels drawn to the scene of a crucial event:
I owe my existence to the frantic coupling of two strangers in 1937 in the shallow and bloody waters of the Massacre River that separates Haiti from the Dominican Republic.
In the story that has been passed down, the grandmother mated with a fellow-refugee in the river, where soldiers on both sides were hunting them down. Jean-Marc, the temporary lover, had already been killed when the grandmother discovered that she was pregnant, but he lives on in family lore as the husband she never had. The narrator’s living husband helps her to pay homage to the past.
In “Sex and Chocolate,” the female narrator comes home from New York City to the island in the Bahamas where she grew up, a place that (like Haiti) seems closer to Africa than to the U.S. There she meets an honest homeboy who is wiser and better for her than the shallow playboy who tries to get her into bed.
In “Lights on a Cave Wall,” Kira and Imbe, a kind of generic couple, seduce each other in Cuba, in a climate described as sexy by nature:
It was the kind of heat she’d only felt in private places, places only he touched. As she sat on the fine gray sand near the mouth of the cave, she could feel the sun awakening her to memories that made her body ache.
This story borders on melodrama, but Imbe’s story of two kindred souls who seek each other through several generations fits with the slow and hypnotic sex he shares with Kira in the cave, their natural home. By the last paragraph, she is convinced that she loved him even before they “met” in their current lives.
In a sadder, parallel story, “When the River” by Leone Ross, the heroine meets “a man of integrity” in an old, romantic hotel somewhere in Europe. Rosemarie and her new friend try to resist their mutual attraction. Even though they seem to be soul-mates, he refuses to break his commitment to another woman.
The theme of a healing sexual journey gets an unusual treatment in the editor’s own road-trip story about a traveling preacher-woman and a desperate man with a gun who thinks he has nothing to lose. They only have one night together, but it is enough to change their lives.
To sum up, I found this anthology extremely mixed. The best stories in it are ht, compelling, emotionally honest and as powerful as the best literary fiction anywhere. The worst make adequate one-handed reading, but they (like the “petite girl” disdained by the “big man”) are just too thin in comparison.
Marianne starts off as the kind of book that readers quietly hunger to read because it promises relationships on the stumbling level of real human beings. It manages many complex themes in reasonably fluid English, and deftly knits them all together. They include the basis for polyamory; the day-to-day workings of male dominated BDSM relationships; the problem of literal versus intuitive communication and the deep differences between the genders.
I am up for all that, and the first third of Marianne engages us with a plausible, funny, articulate relationship between Simon and Marianne that is at once necessary and impossible for both. What the characters lack is that essential individual moral consciousness that rises above their immediate appetites, and worse, their vanity. That absence appears with the arrival of Mark and Sophie. More about all these folk anon.
To my relief there are no grandly erectile aliens, futuristic sex contraptions set in the past, amorous lycanthropes, cozy wormholes, boy band vampires, or other paranormal paraphernalia of the contemporary hip erotica scene in Marianne. People have sex, and the boys spank the girls.
There are one or two belts and a paddle as well as one butt plug. There is also one suspiciously oversized penis, but that may just be wishful thinking. Ordinary furniture stands in for infernal hydraulic spanking benches that seize the unwary maiden while exposing her bottom to the lash. The girls take down their own pants when told to do so. The task for the author is therefore that much harder because he cannot rely on special effects. He has to write about people. He can too, but he falls down when his characters trap him in a thematic cul de sac.
Even so, this book is an authentic modern romance without any of the usual artificial psychobabble, hair-tearing and adolescent angst of most contemporary romance fiction. The first third deals with unraveling Marianne from her knotted self. She discovers her true nature as a submissive, which resolves much of her internal conflicts and thus her unhappiness.
That part of Marianne is a romance that reveals the subtle evolution and deepening of a relationship with Simon based on dominance and submission. Marianne is the submissive who can command any and all sorts of glittering attention from anyone in most of her life. In love she needs a truly dominant male lover along with the occasional bottom-searing spanking to keep her balanced and happy. Simon learns about himself as she grows.
The moments of humor between them are genuinely funny and authentically odd in the way conversation is between people who venture into new emotional territory in the name of love. For them, the risk of embarrassment by sounding nutty or being silly is far outweighed by the possibilities created by reaching beyond such concerns.
Isn’t that what we all want from our lover? Don’t we yearn for them to go beyond their own boundaries of comfort? Don’t we want them to risk themselves because they want us so badly? Isn’t that why in the actual literature of romance, the lovers are heroic? Shakespeare is full of people who he often conjured from medieval romances. Implicitly, however, that love is unselfish like Berowne’s in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and harkens to an enduring larger human order. It’s not just filling a greedy appetite for sexual power.
Then we are introduced to Mark and Sophie at which point the novel takes a distinct turn for the worse as it seems to argue, perhaps by default, that BDSM is a rationale for male cruelty – both physical and psychological—toward women. Marianne thus adds to the popular myth that the practice of BDSM is limited to brutal anarchists and the depraved of all sorts and classes.
If that weren’t enough, the ensuing complex adventures give the impression that insensitive brutality is the proof of a really strong -- and therefore hot -- man. Have we not had enough of Sergeant Slaughter and Blackwater? Most offensive is the curious theme that men seem to rule women by some toffee-nosed public school notion of divine right. All these themes are served up in rather windy, wandering prose that a passable editor could have either incised or eliminated.
To his credit, the author makes his themes organic to his characters’ collective and individual nature. They have, sadly, the mindset of Thatcherite Sloane Rangers with a Neo-con worldview that is still widely shared, if slightly tempered by the crash of 2008. Greed is still good.
Sophie is pathetic not because she is an extreme submissive, but because she wants to abnegate herself and Simon will oblige. She is a long suffering admirer of Simon who agrees to take her on as his household slave only after he has repeatedly rubbed it in that he loves only Marianne, not her. Sophie wants her mind drubbed into ‘off’ mode through sterile obedience.
As she says:
Oh Simon! I appreciate every single minute that you spend with me, every word you say! They're like presents to me, every one of them, special presents! All I want to do is earn them all I can and make sure that you stay happy with me.
What person really wants that unbroken flow of automatism? Simon gasses on about his cruelty to Sophie with Marianne as though Sophie’s suffering were some act of Providence. He is but the hapless agent of “the grace of God” as follows:
You've put yourself in Sophie's place [Marianne], that's what. Most girls – ninety nine percent I'd say – couldn't even stretch their brains that far. They'd just grandly say 'oh I could never be as weak as her' or 'there's no way I'd ever let myself get into that position' - like people ever get to choose which form of the monster-virus known as love attacks them. . . .[Editor’s deletion]. Fact is, we’re all just cobwebs in the wind. Before I met you, I'd have said not me and couldn't happen with the best of them, and before she met me, I daresay Sophie would have said the same things too. We're all too dumb and proud to really know that there but for the grace of God go any of us anywhere at any time at all.
Marianne is herself a spoiled upper middle class brat whose only regret for her appalling bad manners and neurotic behavior is that no one has beaten her senseless to set her straight. Objectively, she certainly has a point, but that has nothing to do with the merits or failings of BDSM. She is just selfish and thus repulsive. She does, however, finally tell Mark, her Ubermensch boyfriend, that he is a “self-righteous arrogant pig.” It almost redeems her because, if anything, Mark is most certainly that and worse.
Mark seems a Titan of the City or what Americans now laughingly – if ruefully -- call a Master of the Universe. He is actually an inarticulate thug who through his physical size and strength intimidates people. If you don’t like what he says, he hits you. When annoyed with women, he drags them around by their hair.
Because he makes a great deal of money intimidating people in the financial industry, he grants himself a mysterious moral authority. He is often described as a combination of “an ogre and Prince Charming,” when in fact he’s a natural-born fascist. If he didn’t have hair, he’d be a skinhead in a 2000-pound suit.
Simon is the classic public school twit rather like Bertie Wooster, a man who never ceases intoning his moral superiority while unable to put on his socks unless aided by a serf. He takes the long view of his own obsessive wheedling for Marianne, his moral cowardice with Mark and emotional cruelty to Sophie by pointing them out, and in so doing, abrogating their importance. Humbert Humbert has more of a moral compass.
We yearn for a Bolshevik with a small caliber pistol to interrupt his flow of modest, Tory self-approbation. He oozes out his unquestioned expectation that it is the confusing but necessary burden of men to rule women by some right destined by Providence.
This writer has real talent and Marianne has promise, but Mr. Lowrie cannot yet control his themes and thus his characters wind up being perverse.
The title of Kemble Scott’s The Sower is from the parable in the Book of Mark in the New Testament. If you got kicked out of Sunday School classes as often as I did (I swear the teachers started it) you might not be up on your gospels. Basically, things thrive in a hospitable environment. Or if you spill your seed in enough places, with luck something good will come of it.
Last year, I reviewed Scott’s book SoMa (recommended), so I was already familiar with the character Mark Hazodo. Is he a villain? I guess you could make the case if you have an extreme black and white view of the world. By the end of SoMa, I decided he was the kind of guy who got away with things most of us wouldn’t dare try, and a self-centered ass with no concern for anyone, which made him enviable and vile, but not evil. Now I think he may be Loki, or Brother Coyote. He’s not a main character in SoMa or The Sower, but he’s always an important protagonist.
As The Sower begins, Mark has a bareback (no condoms) orgy planned. Everyone coming knows that there will be one HIV+ man there. Despicable? They’re going into this with full knowledge of the risks. But put that aside for a moment. The HIV+ participant is Bill Soileau, a petroleum engineer. (Soileau is pronounced Swallow, but I’m sure the Soil part of his name was chosen with great care. This is, after all, a parable.)
After the orgy, Bill goes to Armenia to look at an abandoned Soviet Era oil refinery to assess what it will take to get it running again. While he’s there, he meets a French doctor working for the UN, and she shows him a laboratory on the grounds of the refinery that obviously was used for advanced research. As he helps her gather evidence from the lab, he’s pricked by a needle that contains a viral phage that somehow miraculously cures everything, even HIV.
The French doctor’s blood samples of the villagers living near the refinery show that they have the same immunity as Bill. Before she can take an investigative team from the Pasteur Institute back, the lab is blown up and the villagers killed. The only other person who saw the lab was Bill, so she begs him to come to France to verify her story. He tells her he’s cured of HIV. She runs tests and verifies the existence of the phage, but it’s fragile and can only be transmitted through his ejaculate directly into another person. Word of this miracle cure gets out. Soon, the Catholic Church, a fading popstar, the CIA, and even more sinister folks are after him. I can’t say too much more about the plot without spoiling it for you.
What I found interesting was that the phage seems to cure emotional maladies too. Bill was raised in a home without love, and he’s never looked for a relationship. Within days of contact with the phage, he falls in love. The doctor’s sister is in the last stages of AIDS, and she asks Bill to pass the cure to her sister. When the sister recovers, she and Bill are bound by platonic love. Since a high-ranking enforcer from the Vatican demands Bill share the cure with him, it’s nice to dream that this altruistic ability to care also spreads quickly through the church hierarchy. Evangelical Christians in the CIA proclaim they’d rather die than receive the cure, but as with the bareback orgy, everyone is an informed adult. No one is forcing them to take part. They enjoy their hatred too much to risk being cured of it.As with SoMa, this isn’t a wankfest. There’s a lot of sex, but it isn’t written to arouse. It’s a suspense thriller, so the pace is pleasantly brisk, and the plot will keep you guessing. If you want to read something that will make you reflect on the nature of sex, healing, and what would happen to the churches if suddenly sex were the source of a miracle, then read The Sower.
Envy. It's one of the hazards of reviewing work in one's own genre. Every so often you encounter a book so wonderful that you can't help wishing you'd written it yourself. If you're not careful, it can spoil your whole day.
The Things That Make Me Give In is one of those books. Charlotte Stein has penned a collection of imaginative, intense and extremely nasty erotic tales, which manage to stimulate the senses without neglecting the intellect. I'd love to claim it as my own. This book, though, belongs uniquely to Charlotte, because I believe it's a brazen exploration of her personal fantasies (and perhaps her experiences). Usually I refer more formally to authors in my reviews, but this volume demands a more intimate tone. In this book, Charlotte bares all.
She has a distinctive voice, brash, energetic, self-deprecating, introspective, full of sentence fragments and body parts. Her stories rush forward, born along on the current of an inner monologue. Not every tale is first person (though many of them are), but they might as well be. We're in the head of the main character (in every case but one, a woman) who is simultaneously analyzing everything and oozing for some action. To give you a taste, here's a segment from one of my favorite tales, “Dirty Disgusting You:”
His leg brushes mine, and it's terrible but I like it. I think about last week in the cinema, watching pinkly sweet bodies pretend to enjoy each other on the screen, the screen then fading to black just as it got to the really good bits. And him whispering through the darkness at me: Do you want to make our own good bits up?
I did. I do. But then he asked me to touch myself and I couldn't do it. I told him so, too, and he laughed. Though he hadn't laughed at all when I told him that I'd never touched myself. Not ever.
The look on his face! As though a grown woman who never masturbated was the equivalent of a straight man never looking at a big pair of tits. That shocked, slightly condescending expression made me say some spiteful things to him, but none of them landed. Or, at least, he never made me feel bad for saying them.
The voice is cheeky, fresh and a bit wild. The stories vary, but the voice is consistent. This is perhaps, the book's main weakness. In some ways it feels more like a novel than a collection of stories. The woman whose mind we inhabit differs superficially from one story to the next, but somehow I had the sense that she was really a single character, a single woman, whom I'm fairly convinced is Charlotte herself.
This woman likes big men, sometimes more than one at a time. She's turned on by power games, whether she's on the top or the bottom. She pretends to be innocent but is willing to do just about anything if someone teases her enough. She loves to be fucked hard and deluged in come. She's drawn to strangeness, otherness, feeling kinship with people who are “Different on the Inside,” to cite the title of one tale.
In “Because I Made You So,” she's a student lusting helplessly for her stern professor. In “Her Father Disapproves,” she's the girl next door, teasing the junior accountant her father has invited to a summer getaway. “Just Be Good” puts her in the role of the juvenile delinquent, challenging the town sheriff to put her in handcuffs. In “Yes/,”,she agrees to do whatever her partner orders; in the paired tale “/Yes,” she's the one giving the orders. In neither case does she get exactly what she expects.
The sex in The Things That Make Me Give In is visceral and messy, but it's never just sex. There's always a subtext, always the analysis. Talking is another kind of fucking (the whole point of her bittersweet tale “Phoned In”). Charlotte understands the feedback loop between mind and body; she can't turn off her mind even when someone is trying to fuck her brains out.
I part the lips of my pussy myself, and let that slippery tip slide against it. Pleasure surges and tries to force me over the edge into orgasm, but I hold off. I want him to rub against my clit and then push his cock into me. I want him to fuck me the way that he just fucked himself, in punishing strokes that make me pant harder and say more than I'm doing now.
And when I tell him all this, he sings my praises.
I sing his right back. I tell him all the things I've always wanted to, but left by the wayside because they sounded too cheesy or too clichéd or too much. When he pushes his cock through my slit and down to my wet and waiting hole, I tell him that he's so big, that he fills me like nothing else, that I love his cock in my pussy.
He tilts my hips to meet his thrusts, one-handed. Just one big hand on my hip. His fingers stir against my clit, and my orgasm begins something like fluttering. Wings beating against my skin. Saying something now only makes them beat harder.
Given all the fucking and sucking and coming in this collection, I find it interesting that my favorite tale involves no physical sex at all – only stories about sex. “For You,” one of the darker contributions in the book, is narrated by a nurse caring for a cardiac patient who is waiting for a transplant heart. Dwelling in the shadow of death, he concocts lascivious fables of irresistible desire for his caretaker. His words leave her damp and twitching as they bear him away to the surgery he might not survive.
This story could, of course, represent the entire book in a nutshell.