The worst thing about reviewing a thriller is that almost anything I say about the plot may be a spoiler. The best thing is that I love thrillers, and Don’t is a pretty good one. This is what I like to see in erotic fiction – a solid story with decent writing. Period. If it fails there, the sex scenes aren’t going to help it. It’s also so refreshing to step outside the cookie-cutter Dom/sub mansion training secret society high fantasy world. Okay – there’s a mansion and a secret society, but that’s not the main focus, and the dynamics of the relationships are more compatible with real life than the way they’re portrayed in many other novels.
Let’s see if I can give you an idea of the plot without giving anything away.
Jack owns a garage but he also works as a mechanic there. His need for order and cleanliness is challenged every day. He has OCD and a few other issues that are best kept under control when he has a Dom to help him through things. One of his other issues, however, is in direct opposition to being a sub: his first impulse is always to disobey. So when he gets a mysterious email that begins with the order “Don’t,” he does exactly what it says not to do. He doesn’t know who is sending these messages, or apparently how this person got such direct personal access to him. Then Mr. Perfect Vanilla comes into his life. The messages start coming more frequently and weird things begin to happen. Whoever is sending the messages is getting closer, and his demands are getting more intense. Mr. Perfect Vanilla is finding out more about Jack and he’s not sure he can handle all of Jack’s issues, but he tries. As Jack tries to balance his secrets, his love life, and the escalating creepiness of the mystery man, everything falls apart.
This is a long novel, and as I read the second half, I wished it had been split into two stories. It began as a captivating psychological thriller and it would have been nice if that had remained the focus. It could have been amazingly intense. The second half with the complications of a relationship between a very vanilla guy and a man who really needs a Dom would have made a compelling stand alone novel. Instead, neither premise is used to its full potential.
While the copy edit on this novel was very good, some intense story-level editing was needed here. There were far too many secondary characters without much to make them stand out. After reading several paragraphs devoted to a woman at Jack’s dojo, I expected her to become relevant in the story, but she was never seen again. A good edit would have deleted those useless paragraphs. That’s just one example, but there were many problems like that. Easily twenty percent of the word count could have been cut and not changed the core of the story(ies). The narrative needed to be clarified and tightened. And I was extremely disappointed in the reveal. You may think that means I don’t recommend the book. That’s not quite true. There’s a lot to like about this book. I just wish it had been either a thriller or a story about a difficult relationship and spent time exploring either one of those worthy themes. It’s evident from what I read that the writer has the talent to do it, and do it well.
One Saved to the Sea takes its title from a tale told in the Orkney Islands of northernmost Scotland. Selkies, shapeshifters who are seals in the sea and human on land, can be trapped and forced to remain human and in servitude to whoever steals their sealskins while they are in human form. The story as related in fragments in the book is that a selkie woman has been freed and given back her skin, returning to the sea, and repays the debt by saving three children who wander into deep water. “One saved to the sea, three saved to the land.”
Many stories have been woven around the subject of selkies, and many songs sung; I especially remember the hauntingly beautiful folksong Joan Baez made famous in the 60s. Any such stories I’ve read since then haven’t stuck in my mind, but this book by Catt Kingsgrave comes close to being as hauntingly beautiful in its own way as the folksong, and I’ll remember it just as well.
The story is beautifully written, sometimes lyrical, sometimes grittily realistic, in a blend that fits the setting and the characters exactly right. Mairead, the protagonist, tends a lighthouse on the rocky coast of an Orkney island while her three brothers are away fighting in WWII and her grief stricken father is sinking into dementia.
We see her first in all her necessary strength, wielding an oar as a weapon against a local low-life who has stolen a selkie’s skin and then dropped it when Mairead clipped him hard on the head. When he tries to get it back, she tells him, You wasn’t born wearing it, and her that was will be wanting it back again. Then she clips him again.
When she searches for the selkie to return the skin, we see a different side of her.
The moonlight revealed no soft curve of white skin on the river-mouth island; no trembling whorl of wood-dark hair in the shadows of sea-carved stone.
She has watched the selkies dance on rare moonlit nights since she was a child, and now fears that they’ve been scared away for good.
God, how she would miss it. The dancing, yes; the flash of limbs in the moonlight, lovely girls pale as foam and plump as plums, their dark hair glimmering as they danced under the moon, but later. Oh, later. When they danced in pairs and threes, tangled like driftwood in a restless tide.
The tone and rhythm of the writing are just right, evoking the rough, wild setting, the people who have eked out a living there for generations, and the poetic turn of mind that produces such legends. Besides the lovely language, there’s an engrossing plot that becomes clear early on and thus has no big surprises, but keeps the reader involved just the same. I won’t go into the details, so as not to reveal too much in the way of spoilers, but events unfold in ways that seem inevitable and are, for the most part, satisfying.
This is fantasy that fits seamlessly into a story that is otherwise quite realistic, and the language fits both aspects. Some terms from Orkney dialect take a while to understand, but the context makes them clear.
The sex scenes are no exception. Here are just a couple of tastes:
One of them made a desperate, hungry sound, equal kin to sob and sigh, and with a single, shocked wriggle the kiss fitted itself snug and solid between them. No room for words, for shame, for a lick of care that anyone might come and see, and watch Mairead drowning in arms and eyes and a rain of dark hair far softer than any fur pelt... and
She had lain with this girl, this mad, wild, fey creature—had lain with her and loved her now enough to let herself be led nearly naked to the shallow trink, and the holm rising beyond it. How could she begin to worry about the sin of it now?
For all the book’s exquisite writing, however, I’m not sure it should be classed as erotica, even though I personally love works that have much more “story” to them than sex. And I am sure that many wouldn’t class it as a novel, being about eighty pages. By my rough computation that’s a bit under thirty thousand words, novella-length by professional fantasy and science fiction standards.
This in no way makes the book less worth reading than any other, though. It’s a fine, fine novella, and, just as with wild sex without regard to sin, there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’d like to posit that there’s a glorious case of pride involved in exhibitionism, and a deep well of desire – often unfulfilled – in voyeurism. I was recently at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, and one evening after a shockingly good dinner and a memory deadening cocktail known as Sazerac I found myself with some excellent company at a club where mostly naked fellows danced on the bar counter for the enjoyment of all.
Show-offs was actually quite fresh in my mind. When I review for Erotica Revealed, I will usually make sure I’ve read the book at least twice. While visiting New Orleans I was on my third perusal through the collection and the reality of the strippers in front of me was certainly helping cement my thoughts on the collection.
So, a confession. It turns out I don’t actually enjoy strippers that much. Something about their buffed and perfect bodies (seriously, is chest hair an offence?) and the crowd around them (who are so often seemingly made of the sad and lonely, though I could be projecting) doesn’t combine to titillation. The real world, as is so often the case, doesn’t deliver as well as fiction.
Which is to say, Show-offs delivers in full.
When Richard Labonte collects stories for an anthology, I know that he’ll put together a collection that has a mix of tales that bring the expected – to settle the theme solidly before the reader – and the unexpected to just as quickly unsettle the reader and bring a fresh take on the idea. The idea of watchers and those who are watched has what at first appears to be a pretty narrow window that is soon cracked wide by the authors in the collection.
“Vacancy,” by Jamie Freeman, doesn’t so much open the window as shatter it. Taking a vaguely guilty pleasure – watching a neighbour masturbate while he watches porn – and tying in something darker gives this story a real edge. Realizing that while he is watching his neighbour, he is himself being watched by someone who might be dangerous, the final few moments of the story leave a delightful shiver in the base of the spine.
“My Best Friend’s Dad,” by J. M. Snyder, ends the collection with a take on voyeurism that I wouldn’t have considered: hope. This is a cleverly designed tale of a young man who stumbles into a fantasy scenario that gives him a picture of what can happen in his future. Sort of an X-rated It Gets Better, only with more sweat and a decidedly happy ending. Kudos to Snyder for coming up with this angle, and for Labonte to place it so perfectly at the close of the collection.
Between those two brackets, the stories bob and weave between the usual scenarios (a hot man who knows he’s a hot man and likes others to watch him, in “Golden Shadows,” by David Holly) to some humorous beginnings that turn to something sexier in Rob Rosen’s “You’ve Been Spunked.” Of course, I’d be remiss to miss mentioning Dale Chase’s fasntastic “Chisholm Trail Boys” – every time I speak of Chase, I feel like all I can do is babble that no one does western erotica like Dale Chase, but it bears repeating, and spinning a voyeur/exhibitionist angle without breaking her trademarked earthiness is no mean feat. Similarly, Jeff Mann is once again in fine form, bringing a man with a real sense of verisimilitude to the topic – a man feeling the desires of other slip somewhat from his grasp, but who fills his fantasies with those who he has watched from a distance through his days. This tale, “Harem,” best captured the widest range of takes on the theme in one place, and of course didn’t skimp on the usual BDSM lens through which so much of Jeff Mann’s work is seen. And finally, “What Pleases Him Most,” by Thomas Kearnes, shone a harsh light on how love can be hard work, and how the predilections of one partner can leave the other pushing their limits for their love. That the result is successful was all the more stirring, given the young man in the tale who doesn’t really enjoy being on display, and his partner who likes to watch others be with him.
Show-offs surprised me in the sense of completeness I felt once I was done. The writing is sexy, and varied, and everything I knew to expect from Labonte’s work, but somehow this collection had more weight to it. The reality is that I can’t help but be wowed when I open a collection of erotica and discover pieces that are thoughtful and inspire revisiting notions I’d allowed myself to cement in my own mind. Voyeurism and exhibitionism as hopeful, as love-notes to a partner, as a rich fantasy that fulfills a place we cannot usually go were all things I hadn’t really considered.
Now I can watch differently.
The superlative quality of James Lear’s writing never fails to amaze me. From the opening lines of The Hardest Thing I was absolutely hooked.
New York City on a dirty night in July is not my favorite place to be. I’d rather be almost anywhere else—I was thinking of the beach in Connecticut or up in the Green Mountains of Vermont, or any of those overseas places I’ve traveled, most of them warzones, where you can breathe without feeling like someone just threw up on your shoes. But New York is where I am, and short of a miracle New York is where I stay, with temperatures in the 80s and humidity in the 90s and me in my late 30s wondering what the hell happened to my life. A couple of years ago I had a career and a salary, status and respect, and a sense of purpose. Now I’m working nights at a shitty club in the East Village for minimum wage. I don’t even have a uniform; the security company is so damn cheap that I have to provide my own. So it’s black polyester slacks, a black T-shirt and a pair of black shoes from my dress uniform that I still keep shined—old habits die hard. I look like a burglar, except you can see my face.
Dan Stagg is an engaging narrator. He tells a story that is compelling, well-observed and a genuine page turner.
It will come as no surprise to readers familiar with James Lear’s work that Dan Stagg is gay. A former marine, dismissed because of inappropriate sexual relations, Stagg loses his job as a doorman in the opening pages of the novel. Fresh on the job market he’s called on to deliver a package safely and he’s paid a ridiculous amount of money to complete job. From there the story develops into a fast-paced narrative of bonking and backstory as Stagg learns deeper truths about his assignment.
And Stagg is a truly engaging character.
There are echoes of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher in Stagg’s composition. He is calculating, efficient and ruthless. But, unlike Jack Reacher, Dan Stagg is fatally-flawed by two weaknesses: Stagg’s got a sensitive side and he has a tendency to think with his penis. These attributes make him believable as a character and perfect for the lead in an erotic thriller.
We touched the necks of our bottles together and drank, our eyes joined in the gathering darkness, and we both knew at that moment what was going to happen. I reached out—actually watched my hand moving out from my body, as if it was something over which I had no control—and touched the back of his head, feeling the short brown hair, the soft brown skin. Breath whished out of his mouth, and I felt him shudder. I drew him to me, and we kissed.
A soft wind disturbed the surface of the lake and made his guitar strings hum. We carried on kissing. There was another distant roar of male voices, and, from closer at hand, the dry chirp of an insect. Our hands were on each other’s shoulders, backs, heads and arms, finding the gap between pants and shirts, travelling up stomachs and chests, mine furry, his smooth. I found his nipples and pinched, and he moaned into my open mouth.
It’s a fast and compelling tale. Lear’s writing always comes with a strong sense of place and time. This story is set in modern times with the hero trying to escape the shadow of New York. The characters, plot and eroticism never seem contrived, forced or anything less than genuine. Perhaps one of the most engaging things in Lear’s writing is that, even though he’s producing erotica, he does not focus solely on the erotic. There is a consistent concentration on the plot and the characters beyond their sexual involvement with the story’s physicality. Additionally, as a background against the frivolity of Stagg’s promiscuous voracity, there is also an undercurrent of hardboiled realism in the unexpected truths the narrator occasionally reveals.
All we had was survival and the endless quest for money. Everything else was just dick in ass. Friction. Temporary relief from loneliness. Illusion.
Cleis Press are renowned for producing quality titles. This is another brilliant piece of fiction to add to their catalogue and well worth the price of admission.
How does one evaluate a collection subtitled True Lesbian Sex Stories?
Originality counts as one of my top criteria when reviewing fiction. A startling premise, a setting or a conflict I haven't encountered in the past, will immediately predispose me toward enjoying a story. Can this be applied to real life tales, though? To a large extent, we don't choose our experiences, although authors will clearly exercise discretion in selecting the events to recount. Still, given the fantasy-oriented nature of much erotica, the more creative and unusual premises often tend to be the most implausible.
How about the arousal generated by the stories? This is a highly personal criterion, depending as it does on one's own sexual proclivities. A couple of tales in this collection definitely pushed my buttons, especially “The Insatiable Travel Itch,” by Evan Mora, which brilliantly exposes the narrator's frustrated fantasies, and “Delinquents,” by Catherine Paulssen, a gorgeously sensual first-time tale. Given my usual tastes, one might have expected me to mention some of the kinkier offerings, such as Mia Savage's “Kat's House,”Danielle Mignon's “Are You My Mommy?” or Cheyenne Blue's “Nurse Joan.” However, I have no experience with and relatively few fantasies about F/F dominance and submission, so these titles had less of a visceral effect on me than I would have guessed.
Writing quality, then? No problem here. With one or two exceptions, the offerings in Wild Girls, Wild Nights are as well-crafted as I'd expect from an award-winning editor like Sacchi Green. Vivid descriptions, believable characters, variety in subject and voice: if this were a fiction anthology, I'd have no reservations about giving this book a definite thumbs up.
But therein lies the rub. For the most part, these tales read not like true confessions, but like fiction. They have initial hooks, plot arcs, conflict and resolution. Real world experience is messy, confusing, and usually inconclusive. Ambiguity reigns. There's no ending, happily-ever-after or other. These tales, however, are mostly polished, self-aware, self-contained nuggets with a point and a punch-line.
Of course, this isn't all that surprising. Most erotic authors mine their own sexual adventures in creating their fiction. One gets into the habit of focusing on some details and glossing over others, ramping up the heat and playing down discomfort or insecurity, twisting the outcomes in directions that make them more satisfying for readers. I've certainly done this myself, in dozens of stories.
Then there's the fact that perceptual experience is notoriously difficult to recall accurately. It's generally not possible to give an accurate account of past events without “filling in the blanks,” whether consciously or not. When the experience in question occurred decades ago (as is obviously the case for some of these authors), the imagination-to-fact ratio increases dramatically.
When I recall my first Sapphic experience now (after more than thirty years), I remember only a few salient details. If I were to recount this for a book, I'd have to recreate – or invent – almost all the context. And then there would be the temptation to change the outcome – the fact that this woman, a dear friend, and I have never talked about that one night again. That doesn't make a good ending, after all.
So I don't fault the authors in this book for producing stories that feel like – stories. However, that makes me admire the few authors whose accounts really did feel more like “being there.”
“Higher Learning” by Charlotte Dare fell into that category. I liked this account because of the unconventional relationship between an older woman returning to college and a much younger student who is nevertheless old enough to know what she wants – and what she's doing. The uncertainties of the older narrator come through clearly and ring true. Every woman, after a certain age, wonders how she could possibly be viewed as desirable. Most of all, I appreciated the fact that the story ends with a question mark. The two women pursue separate career paths in different states. Neither wants to end the relationship, but will it survive the stress of geographic separation? Ms. Dare leaves us to wonder.
Another stand-out for me was Catherine Henreid's “Odds.” This story, set in Tel Aviv, has enough disasters in it that I can't help believe it. The quirky and unpredictable encounter between the narrator and her bisexual housemate, who is in some sense a total mystery, was both intriguing and arousing.
I've already mentioned “Delinquents,” about two girlfriends who experiment with lesbian sex while their parents are away. I strongly identified with the narrator's concerns about how this would alter the relationship – naturally, given my personal experience.
Finally, I have no doubts about the truth of Dawn McKay's “Hot Summer Nights,” in which the author, a military medic in what is likely Iraq, shares a single night of healing passion with an off-limits officer. The sense of risk, of desperation, of sorrow, that permeates this story make it one of the most intense in the volume.
“I'll see you around,” she said.
“Yeah.” I knew I wouldn't. So did she.
She left as quietly as she had come, slipping from my tent in the middle of a sandstorm.
I have to reserve special mention for Allison Moon's “Foxy and the Ridiculous Lesbian Orgy.” In terms of the activities it describes, this tale is by far the wildest in the book, and certainly one of the funniest. The events in the tale undoubtedly took place – because the author staged them in order to have some content for a live girl-on-girl storytelling event.
I had no story to tell, but the flyers had gone out, and time was short. I had no choice. For the sake of science – nay for the sake of art, I had to take matters into my own hands. I had to throw a Ridiculous Lesbian Orgy.
Now, I know what you're thinking. If you construct the context for a story, are you actually experiencing the story, or are just experiencing yourself experiencing the story, thus negating the veracity of the experience? If it's really happening but in an artificial context, does it count as “true”? I'm a writer, these are the things I think about.
I'm an author, and I think about these things too. Wild Girls, Wild Nights is a bit of an epistemological puzzle, all the way around. However, if your main interest is simply in reading some hot, believable, girl-on-girl tales, you won't be disappointed.