It’s summer, which means I’m in the mood for some fun, naughty reading. Lucky for me, it came in the form of Sommer Marsden’s Calendar Girl. This is the perfect beach read, as long as you don’t mind getting a little wet while you sunbathe.
Merritt comes home from Christmas shopping to catch her husband Drake in bed with a man. She divorces him by New Years Eve (yeah, yeah, summer read, let it go). While discussing her state of affairs with her best friend, Jeffery the gay drag queen, they come up with a plan for her to move past her current situation. Well, Jeffrey comes up with it. He proposes a new man every month for her: a no strings attached, no expectations, no commitments celebration of her freedom. Merritt doesn’t think she can pull off the Calendar Girl plan, but next thing she knows, she’s in the spare bedroom being finger fucked into a state of bliss by another party guest.
Merritt has a lot of fun with Mr. January, but by the end of the month, she’s ready to move on. Each of the men she meets fills a need, and they treat her pretty well. Each has a kink or two that she explores. It’s sort of a Goldilocks situation though – none are just right. Not that she cares. The idea is to keep moving and have fun, not to settle down with anyone.
Then she meets Penn. Merritt is a professional organizer; Penn is need of some organization. He’s aware that she’s working her way through the calendar, and he knows that she doesn’t sleep with clients, but he can’t get her off his mind. He has to go out of the country, but they keep in touch over the phone.
Merritt’s schedule starts to wear on her. She’s grateful when Mr. May (I think) mends things with his ex-girlfriend. Besides, she has a lot of other stuff going on – her brother just came out and her mother isn’t taking it well, and her ex-husband wants to get back together. Finally, she’s had enough, and she decides to stop being the Calendar Girl and just spend some time sorting things out. But the first of August is coming soon, and Penn is penciled in as Mr. August.Calendar Girl is a breezy, quick read. It’s more erotic romance than literary erotica, but if you’re looking for something fun to read, you’ve found it.
I'm American, but since I've been networking with fellow authors from "across the pond," I've picked up a bit of British slang. There's "bollocks," for instance, a far more elegant way to swear than our one-syllable American curse words. I love to say that I'm "chuffed." It's the perfect word to describe that excited, proud, cocky state we writers enter when we learn about an acceptance or first see our work in print. The other day I told my husband, “Don't get your knickers in a twist”. Aside from the fact that he doesn't wear knickers, this phrase is a magnificently evocative description of annoyance and discomfort. And then there's the slang usage of the word "brilliant."
Everyday American English applies the term "brilliant" to works of surpassing artistic genius, like Mozart's "Requiem," or to the inspired leap of intellectual power that leads to great scientific discoveries, like the structure of DNA. Brits, however, appear to use "brilliant" to describe aspects of contemporary culture that are clever, well-executed, and wildly entertaining.
In the British sense, Once Bitten by Lisette Ashton is definitely brilliant. Once Bitten is that exceedingly rare article, an original vampire story. It is also sly, sexy and hilariously funny.
Forget about gothic mansions, shadowy crypts or fog-hung alleys. Ms. Ashton's heroine, a twenty-something slacker named Tessa Cameron, is made a vampire on the couch of her dingy rented flat, in the throes of a Sapphic encounter with her best friend Melinda. As far as Tessa can tell, the main features of being undead are heightened senses, an immortal body that can heal itself of any wound other than a stake through the heart, and an insatiable libido. Oh, and the fact that she can't see herself in mirrors, a detail that causes the somewhat vain Tessa a bit of consternation.
Tessa doesn't even drink blood. She drinks vodka, a clear holdover from her very recent days as a mortal.
We'd been drinking vodka. Mel had found the bottle in the kitchen cupboard of my third floor apartment. It was next to a mouldering loaf of bread and a rusting tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce. The bottle wasn't anything special?one of those made-up Russian names (Glasnost, Prada, Kervorkian or something) that are meant to sound authentic and as though it had been shipped direct from behind the Iron Curtain. The main thing I remember is that it was cheap, the aftertaste wasn't too bad, and it mixed well with the dregs of the Dr. Pepper Mel had brought to our impromptu girls' night in.
Tessa's few qualms about making love to a woman vanish almost immediately under the influence of the vodka and Mel's seductive caresses. However, it turns out that Mel's motives are far from merely sexual. Tessa's century old pal has turned Tessa in order to bring her as an offering to the man she loves, a handsome, tortured and very kinky priest named Alan. By bringing him a vamp to exorcise, Mel hopes to win his affection. Alan, however, betrays Mel herself into the hands of the mysterious Legion of Vampire Hunters, a band of rogue monks dedicated to eradicating the undead--very slowly and painfully.
Tessa may not be the sharpest tool in the shed but she has many positive qualities. She is fiercely loyal and admirably stubborn. She is determined to rescue her friend from the clutches of the villainous League. In pursuing this goal she interacts with a variety of individuals, both vamp and human: her well-hung but boring ex-boyfriend Dean (who happens to be a cop), a gorgeous, titian-haired, blood-sucking lawyer (or is that redundant?) in a power suit named Christine; and the swarthy, hairy, charismatic vampire Dom, Carlos san Miguel. A good deal of the book takes place in Carlos' luxurious home, sort of a cross between the Playboy Mansion and a house of horrors. With the enthusiastic assistance of his voluptuous blonde subs, the Ron Jeremy-esque Carlos subjects poor Tessa to delicious and painful sexual torments that would likely kill a mortal, in an attempt to make her submit. The indomitable Tessa takes it all in stride. Sternly, he demands again and again that Tessa beg for his horse-dimensioned organ. Focused on her objective of freeing her friend and just plain annoyed by the greasy Dom's arrogance, Tessa manages to resist her very strong temptation to comply.
The tale climaxes (so to speak) in Priest Alan's church, where the hapless Mel is bound to the altar and ravaged by members of the Legion. In the course of the scene, a vampire is killed and Tessa is held responsible. In fact the entire novel is narrated within the frame of her trial for heresy, treason and murder. The logic and decorum of Ms. Ashton's vampire court is reminiscent of the Red Queen's.
I don't think I'm giving away too much by telling you that Once Bitten ends happily for all concerned (except the murdered villain, who definitely deserves his fate) and indeed, that true love conquers. The fun of this book is in the journey, though, not in the destination. The frequent and inventive sex scenes (including an abundance of delicious lesbian interaction), the meticulous attention to details of costume and setting (the look-a-like trio of subs are particularly vivid) and the occasional off-hand social commentary make the book a delight to read. It's difficult to write humorous erotica without slipping over the line and becoming ridiculous, but Ms. Ashton succeeds wonderfully. The sex scenes manage to be arousing even though they tend to be (as we Americans say) "over the top". This is partly due to the intimacy of Tessa's first person narrative (and the fact that she's an exceptionally horny young vampire).
No, I don't think it's an exaggeration to call Once Bitten brilliant. It might even be appropriate in the American sense. In a literary scene awash with vampires, Tessa stands apart. She might not make you swoon, but she'll definitely make you howl--with laughter and perhaps even with lust.
I recently taught a class where the subject of the Twilight novels was broached. Several members of the class were huge fans. Others were less enthusiastic. My favourite quote from the whole lesson came when one student said the books were simply: one girl’s choice between necrophilia and bestiality.
But it got us onto discussing werewolves and vampires and how, in the current trend for paranormal fiction, vampires seem to be winning the battle for popularity. This is understandable when you realise that vampires are cool, vampires are sexy (and sometimes sparkly) and vampires are immortal. But it overlooks the appeal of werewolves.
You’ll have to forgive a personal bias here but I genuinely feared werewolves when I was a small child. I was young, impressionable, and had been listening to adults with twisted senses of humour. They convinced me werewolves were real and I spent several sleepless nights each full moon petrified that I was going to be devoured by an extra from The Howling. Fortunately, thanks to medication and the work of a good therapist, I’m almost over that fear now.
This is not to say that I think werewolves should replace vampires. (Buffy the Werewolf Fighter would sound plain stupid as the title for a TV show). But I do think they are undervalued as a genuinely scary theme for paranormal fiction.
Take Pack of Lies as an example. Written by the extremely talented Vanessa Vaughn, and published by Ravenous Romance, Pack of Lies is a well-paced tale of wily werewolves. It smolders on every page. Vaughn makes the tension in this story as tight as can be suffered, creating characters who appear realistic even when the subject matter is paranormal creatures that mutate from human to werewolf beneath the light of a full moon.
The suspension of disbelief in any paranormal story is a hard trick to navigate. The writer has to make the world believable and unbelievable in the same moment.
Vaughn manages this with aplomb.
Similarly, trying to make the unbelievably believable story erotic, whilst maintaining some semblance of a plot, means the writer needs to play a balancing act akin to spinning plates on a pole, onboard a pitching and yawing boat, during a thunderstorm.
Vaughan does this with sufficient style as to make it look effortless.
If I sound like I’m going overboard with the praise (and the nautical similes) then you’ll have to bear with me. As a reviewer I’m not just exposed to good books. I’m also forced to read some pretty dire wastes of paper. This means I’ve seen the shipwrecks that have been sound ideas, piloted by some of the writing world’s less-talented captains. I’ve read through the flotsam and jetsam of spurious crap that make you weep for the future of humanity.
Vaughan doesn’t fall into that category.
Pack of Lies is marketed as m/m paranormal romance. The story begins with a werewolf orgy that blends m/m relationships with hetero scenes and the rough and ready passion of understandable animal instincts. The characters are introduced as complex in media res creations that live their life beyond the confines of the narrative. When the story’s central human character is introduced, accidentally running over a werewolf, the excitement moves up a notch, the plot’s complexities kick into overdrive, and the pace never lets go.
For anyone who enjoys being gripped by werewolves, Pack of Lies is the erotic download you need to read. Well-paced, well-written and well worth the investment of time and money. Don’t wait for the next full moon to have your fun with this one.
What makes Paris unique -- apart from food and architecture, art and ambience, fashion and flowers -- is the French people. What makes the people of France unique is their sense of appetite, which finds expression in everything their senses encounter, all of which would be null and void without l’amour. The French connect sex and love in ways that English speakers can or do not. Flirting is a not just a game, it’s a sport for which the French people wisely train all their lives. Thus the French -- who often tend toward being dour, practical and frugal – create existential balance for themselves through love lives that thrive and grow throughout their life.
Parisians can afford to be fussy about what they eat and wear because they are always in training for their next affaire de coeur, even if it is with the same person they have been in love with for decades. All that and more is wonderfully reflected in a quirky volume of stories edited by Maxim Jakubowski as a part of his Sex in the City series published by Xcite books, which is devoted to love making in Paris.
Paris is at the heart of this studied Gallic devotion to the erotic. Any number of books have been written about Paris as the city of love. Some are vastly better than others, depending on how well the authors have actually invested themselves with the living personality of Paris. Hemingway, for example, in The Moveable Feast, was so interested in himself and his own feelings that he dealt with Paris from an abstract distance as though he were seeing it in a movie. Orwell, on the other hand, climbed down into its gustatory bowels and heard its stomach rumble in Down and Out in Paris and London.
Such is the case with Sex in the City: Paris. Those authors who actually have opened their minds and hearts to its nature truly get the city; those who do not, fail rather badly. That is especially true in instances where details of actual city life are botched or simply wrong. Paris has a strange but definite emotional embrace that it you either feel or don’t, regardless of how long you are there. For many people that embrace is almost instantaneous, just as it is for those who fall in love with New York City, even though she can be a very cranky mistress.
Three stories in this volume stand out in particular, "Bellville Blue" by Carrie Williams is wonderfully written in a fluid, engaging style. But what makes the story work best is that she has truly thought about the character of each sector and street of the city she describes. The erotic encounter she relates is not merely plausible, but tangible to the senses. She knows the difference of the feel of each block as you walk along with your lover, and thus her balance of deftness and precision makes her writing a lovely amuse bouche to read.
Maxim Jakubowski’s own story, "An Unreliable Guide to Paris Hotel Rooms," offers his delightfully droll look at sex, with and without room service, in an assortment of Paris hotels. In truth these establishments usually seem to be expensive and dreary with claustrophobic rooms and a furtive staff. But as we all know, an assignation is often a way of making life beautiful despite the surrounding conditions, rather than because of them. What this story captures so well is that transitory sex is often a matter of misdirection and substitution that produces as much irony as fulfillment. That is not to say that his story is without romance; it’s just not always between the two people who happen to be in bed at the time.
By far for me, however, the best story in this anthology is EllaRegina’s "The Red Brassiere," an homage to the film, "The Red Balloon," by Lamorrisse made in 1956. This story is a truly outrageous surreal fantasy about a flying red brassiere that magically becomes the seductress of all the men in the multi-national capitol of France. I will not spoil this story with further plot elucidation, but I will say that it is a work of delightfully playful story telling that authentically lifts the heart. And that’s what makes it so perfect, because despite the endless struggles of urban life, Paris is a city that truly is available to the open heart when it is supported with élan, a little charm and a sense of humor. That short list also fairly well sums up the greater part of Sex in the City: Paris, as a lovely read.
The “bottoms" in these stories are all willing, attractive young men who crave both sex and approval from men who are usually older and more powerful. In keeping with the D/s tradition of representing submissive characters with lower-case names and pronouns, none of the titles in this book have capital letters.
Here a porn star openly asks his therapist for what he wants:
“It would be easier for me to know you approved of me if you fucked me,” Tristan said. “That's how I know I'm good enough.”
Paul stroked his chin. “Yes. I'll show you how good you are. I'll give you so much approval you'll be sore for weeks.” Paul felt sweat on his palms.”'Have you...have you been taking your medication?”
“Yes, sir. I'm still constantly horny anyway.”
“Of course, you are.”
“Tristan" (from an archaic French word for “sad”) the porn star has hinted that he wants his therapist, Paul, to be “the rapist.” “Tristan” is so tempting for Paul that Paul discusses this case regularly with his therapist, Jack, a very straight man who reminds Paul to remain professional. Confused yet? Tristan has been starring in porn films since he was recruited by an older man at age sixteen. Although he enjoys more anal sex than most other people could stand, it is clear to both therapists and even to "Tristan" himself that being a fuck-toy for a potentially unlimited number of "tops" is not good for him. In this case, it seems there ain’t no cure for lust, whether it is a desire to fuck or be fucked.
All the stories in this collection feature young men with irresistible bodies (especially seen from behind) who can't say no, even when they are sore, exhausted and threatened with unsafe sex. Their horniness triggers that of the men who use them and invite their friends to join in. To complicate things further, even the most gorgeous young men and the most powerful silver-haired daddies are afraid of being rejected. In the stories with the happiest endings, a bottom who needs protection finds an owner who can use his "boy" as much as he needs to be used while keeping more dangerous predators under control.
In "Claiming Danny," a college student fulfills the fantasies of a group of older men. Here they simmer with frustration:
There was a small group of us over-fifty crowd, most of us coal miners, that huddled in a corner of the one gay bar in town and bitched about the stuck-up boys from the little liberal arts college that wouldn't give us any. We were always jawing on about what we would do to one of them if we ever got a chance.
Then the narrator's friend Howard tells him about Danny, a college boy who makes himself available to older men at all hours of the day or night. He misses classes, study-time and exams because of the men who come to his room regularly, take what they want and then leave. Working men who have always resented the sense of entitlement shown by some of the college students enjoy taking revenge on Danny.
It seems that Danny had an affair with a male faculty member who abandoned Danny when he moved away. Danny has been looking for a "Daddy" ever since.
The narrator is moved by Danny's sweetness, turned on by his willingness, and disturbed by the callousness of the other men who use him. He decides to rescue Danny by carrying him naked to the narrator's apartment and telling him that from now on, Danny will live there and keep his grades up because the narrator "owns his ass." Danny happily consents. The narrator explains to the reader:
Yeah, he wanted constant savaging instead of love, but maybe I could help. I kissed him for the first time, softly on the lips, and he smiled the prettiest smile I've ever seen.
These stories are told in a straightforward, unadorned style that dramatizes the poignancy of the dilemmas of both bottoms and tops. Bottoms want to be appreciated for what they give, but the more they and their colorful reputations are passed around, the less respect they get. Tops are drawn to young, willing bodies, but they are reluctant to claim responsibility for anyone who can't be trusted.
The clashing desires of men on both sides of the divide resemble those of guys and girls in the double-standard dating scene that many of us remember from high school. In the midst of hot male-on-male sex scenes that look deceptively simple, the reader hopes that all the players will get their emotional needs met too, against the odds.
Gavin Atlas reveals the psychology of both tops and bottoms with equal skill. He even ventures into paranormal territory without losing credibility. In "slavery by degree," first published in Wired Hard 4.0 from Circlet Press, the bottom-boy (a version of Danny) is forced into space-age prostitution. When asked the classic question about why he got into the business, he brags that he is a slut. Later, however, he explains to the customer:
My parents have a lot of debt for investing in my future. When I didn't study hard enough for comps, I didn't get any scholarships, and there was no way they could pay back the loans.
This is only one story in which the bottom is forced into sexual slavery, which makes him constantly hard. In "the only bottom for a thousand miles,” another athletic college student is victimized by two demonic businessmen who take him to an island resort where he is the main attraction for hordes of gay male sex-tourists. If this story were not an amusingly over-the-top fantasy with a happy ending, it would be the stuff of nightmares.
Several of the plots of these stories look similar, but the issues are presented from enough different angles that a second reading of each story can change a reader's reaction. The author is clearly familiar with this territory, and he doesn't dodge the intensity or the moral concerns that go with it.