I’ve always loved collections of single-author works. For one, short-fiction junkie that I am, it’s certainly easier and more cost-effective than tracking down all the stories individually (not that that has stopped me from doing so before, many times, with authors I particularly enjoy). For another, if I haven’t read that person before, a collection of their short fiction is a wonderful way to get to “know” them from pieces they have written throughout their career.
A Love Drive-By is a perfect example of this. I’d not read Susan St. Aubin before, but the stories included in this collection come from publications between 1985 and 2010 – that’s a twenty-five year progression, and the end result is a wide-angle view on a really enjoyable author.
In almost every way, this book draws upon full ranges rather than narrow fields of view. For lovers of kink, there’s more than a few different – and lesser seen – glances to be had. In particular, I think the first story in the collection, “Hands,” does a brilliant job of painting a character whose fascination with the hands of others in a fascinating (and erotically charged) light. As the first story, it also keys in the reader to expect the unusual, but not be overwhelmed by that. No matter the kink, the style of the story and the erotic tone of the telling will work together to satisfy the reader, and this first character – who is bisexual, fluidly aware of the simplicity (and error) of viewing the world in gendered binary, and who has this fascination with hands – is a perfect example of the depth of character St. Aubin seems to effortlessly craft.
For those of us a little tired of the perfect-bodied heroines of a young age, yes, another range is also explored throughout the collection. Here, “Afterlife” – the final story in the collection – really shone for me. A woman with many years under her belt is exploring new avenues of sexuality – including shifting from being with a woman to being with a man. That her partner of many years has died is one facet of the story, and it’s handled lovingly and yet doesn’t detract from the heat of her time with this new man. And again, the kink involved (bondage and more than a little bit of sexual release denial) doesn’t distract from the sensuality of the characters.
Age, body type, kink, personality, sexual fluidity – St. Aubin doesn’t linger in one place long before moving to another, and in all cases, the destinations and the journeys are well written, smart erotica that leaves the reader with something to think about. There are even a few stories – “Live Action,” and “This Isn’t About Love,” spring to mind – that play with the reader’s preconceptions before shifting suddenly sideways and ending on a note sure to make you stop and consider. In “Live Action” the notion of exhibitionism and voyeurism is taken in a different direction by virtue of a woman who sees what others aren’t seeing. And “This Isn’t About Love” has the most incredibly hot (and absolutely non-fetishized) encounter with a man with physical disabilities I’ve read. Both pack more of a surprise punch at the end than I’d imagined when I started them.
As erotica, these are good. But it’s safe to say that as literature, these are just as good. This is a rare collection that has such strength of narrative that I – for one – was really captivated throughout the entire journey. I think fans of literary erotica will be just as taken in by St. Aubin’s turns of phrase and storytelling prowess.Certainly, short fiction junkie that I am, you can bet I’ll be looking for more from St. Aubin.
Q: What’s the difference between oral sex and anal sex?
A: Oral sex can make your day. But anal sex can make your whole week.
OK. I know it’s an old gag. But it still makes me smile. And I reiterate it here because this anthology, depending on how quickly you read, is likely to make your whole week. Maybe even your whole month.
The book comes from Cleis Press – market leaders in producing well-written erotica for discerning readers. The book has been edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel – an editor who knows how to collate, edit and balance a collection of dedicated erotic fiction. And the content has been written by some of the most respected names in current erotic writing, including DL King, Tenille Brown, Emerald, Erobintica, Thomas S Roche and Laura Antoniou (amongst many others).
Ordinarily I’d dip between stories in an anthology and share a little from this one and a little from another. But, rather than spoil any surprises, I thought it would be more appropriate to consider a single story. Randomly, I selected ‘Everybody Knows’ by Giselle Renarde.
You know when you’ve just given a blow job and then you take the subway right after and you feel like everybody knows?
That’s me, sitting on this faux-velvet seat, smelling like come and feeling so conspicuous I could hang myself. The scent doesn’t go away. It sticks to your hair, doesn’t it? And your skin.
Sex is in my aura, gossiping with other passengers, telling them things that aren’t true. I’m not a slut or a whore, though I’ve been called those names too many times to count.
There’s a guy all in black standing by the doors. I know he’s looking at me while I pretend to read subway posters. Every so often, I glance his way, really subtly, catching outlines of his bulky body. I imagine shouting, “What are you staring at, motherfucker?” but I second-guess myself. Maybe he’s not looking at me. Maybe I’m wrong. Hey, it happens.
I loved this opening. Renarde’s narrator is directly addressing me, the reader, which suggests an elevated level of intimacy – ideal for a story that touches on the elevated levels of intimacy associated with anal erotica. The characters are well-drawn. The backstory, although only present in allusion, is lingering here from the opening lines. “You know when you’ve just given a blow job and then you take the subway right after and you feel like everybody knows?”
The quality of the writing continues to excite and intrigue. This is a description of Asher, being observed by our narrator Stephanie:
There’s so much pain in his storm-gray eyes. He’s huge, and still he seems beaten down, like the world won’t stop trampling him. I don’t really know what to say, or how to make him feel better, so I kiss him.
He pulls away, and I feel like an ass.
My heart is pounding in my ears, and I stare at the swirls of chocolate sauce on my fancy-ass latte. I always move too fast with guys. I jump in with both feet—except with Yaro and Mike.
Renarde is setting us up for a delightful anal romp later in the story and the cues are all here. More importantly, we get a convincing sense of Asher, with the storm-gray eyes and beaten down by a world that won’t stop trampling him. Even that unemotional refusal of Stephanie’s kiss makes this character compelling and vivid and wholly believable.
Then there’s the sex.
His skin tastes like anxiety. It’s a vibration between us. I wish I knew how to put him at ease, but I don’t so I keep sucking his fingers until his breath grows shallow and his eyes burn dark.
He pulls his fingers from between my lips and kisses me. Now I’m the one who can’t breathe. I always imagined him kissing me softly, but this isn’t soft. He cups the back of my head in one big hand and crushes my mouth with his. I can’t catch my breath. His tongue is battling mine.
There’s a warmth in my belly and it moves down my thighs as Asher backs me into his bedroom. He’s neat and tidy and he doesn’t smell bad, and I love that about him. I love everything about him.
“His skin tastes like anxiety.” There’s poetry in this description that elevates this writing from above the mechanical to something that reminds us that sex is a revered act. Renarde’s narrator describes intimacy with the skill of an expert storyteller who has gained the trust of the reader with an honest and credible voice from the opening lines.The standard of writing through this anthology remains consistently high. The focus on anal intercourse is made clear in the title and subtitle. And each writer delivers content that is exciting, competently presented and a pleasure to read.
At first glance, the title of Deviant Sexual Desires seems more like someone’s midnight search phrase on Google than the heading for a work of fiction, but on further consideration that might not be such a bad thing in terms of sales. It could also, very briefly, be mistaken for a scholarly work by academic sexologists, but not once anyone got a look at the table of contents.
The book turns out to be a collection of short stories and longish poems, with the kind of unevenness one expects more from an anthology than a work by a single author. There’s no mention of whether any of these pieces have been previously published, but my impression is that they were written over some period of time, and arranged with the oldest first, which was, in my view, a mistake. Both the writing and the editing improve considerably as the book progresses, and, while there may be something to be said for a chronological arrangement, it’s easier to hook a reader with more of the best bits at the beginning—“best bits” being, of course, subjective.
Before I get down to editorial nit-picking, I do want to say that there are some good bits, and some very good things about the book as a whole. What I find most appealing is the joyful celebration of lesbian women of color, women with skin described in terms of chocolate, honey, caramel, mocha, most with “locs” of various lengths, tints, and degrees of intricate styling. The point of view characters range from femme to butch, hair stylists to rock stars, CEOs to girls-next-door, and they all seem to speak convincingly (and vividly) from inside the woman of color experience rather than exoticizing it from the outside.
That’s not to say that the sex is any more realistic or original or groundbreaking than in the general run of erotic fiction. For the first few stories I was wondering when anything worthy of being called deviant sex would actually appear. There was plenty of good-natured Daddy-girl play without much in the way of actual power exchange, and most of the techniques expected of lesbian sex along with a great deal of anal action. Beyond that, I suppose there are still readers of erotica who consider anything with LGBTQ themes to be “deviant.” But somehow, call me jaded, I’d expected more from a book with this title. Eventually, though, we do get some mild bondage scenes, quite an entertaining fantasy orgy, and even directions for constructing a dildo out of ice. (As a side benefit, we get to see the term “twerk” used apparently authentically, and clearly written well before the recent Miley Cyrus uproar.)
Now for the editorial nit-picking. The author mentions those who did editing and proofreading in her Acknowledgments section, but the editing and proofreading are so uneven that it seems clear that no one person oversaw the whole collection. As an example, I was thrown out of the first complete story (a poem came first) before I had a chance to really get into it by this construction: “’Can I get you another drink?’ She asked.” This occurs several times in the course of the story, sometimes with a period instead of a question mark, and once with an appropriate comma but still a capitalized “She.” It wasn’t the Dominant/submissive capitalization protocol, because “she” wasn’t always capitalized. It was a great relief to find this only happening once in the second story, and not again except for a single instance on page 124.
I made a considerable list of other editing and proofreading lapses that irritated me, but there’s no point in going on at great length about them. Readers might be caught up in the stories enough not to notice things that catch my editorial eye, or just not care, and, as I said, things got better toward the middle and even better by the end. Stylistic points such as overuse of “as” and an overload of participial phrases won’t bother many readers. The continual use of “caused me to” instead of “made me” (or some alternative construction) grates on me because it has a stilted feel and interrupts the flow of the prose, but I’ve been seeing it so often lately in fiction that it must be a fashion that I can only hope will be short-lived. When it comes to sex scenes, more variety would have been nice, and so would more clarity—wait, could she really be doing this from that position when her other hand is over there?—but erotica often has a high degree of fantasy to it. I did find the frequent images of “fully seating all 10 inches of her inside of me” distracting, especially when referring to anal penetration, but if it works for the reader, what’s anatomical accuracy got to do with it?
There were several stories featuring food, especially fruit, and somewhat to my surprise these were the ones I liked best. Fruit/sex imagery is nothing new, but it’s handled well here. The sex scenes were more sensuous when the pace slowed to incorporate the dual appeal of flesh and fruit, rather than racing through every permutation of penetration and physical contortion too fast for any of them to be fully savored. My favorite piece may be “The Seven-Up Club”, featuring a fantasy repast of exotic fruits decorating naked girls, accompanied by bowls of warm honey, chocolate and caramel, an echo of the earlier appreciations of the skin tones of the various characters.
As usual with erotica, these stories are better off being read one at a time with intervals between rather than all in one gulp. In this particular case, be assured that the writing and editing do get somewhat better as the book unfolds, which is a hopeful sign with regard to further work by this author.
Did I ever mention that I teach creative writing? I write. I review. And I teach writing. One of the things that I say to my students, quite a lot of the time, is: “Don’t worry about the standard of the material you’re producing. Don’t bother to invest your fiction with any concept of a narrative style that engages the potential reader. Don’t bother with that stuff because some publishers will publish any old rubbish.”
“Nonsense!” say my students. “You can’t make a sweeping statement like that. If it’s true that publishers will publish any old rubbish, prove it by showing us some.”
And, on an unrelated note, this month I read Stephanie by Noelle Douglas-Brown. This is the opening paragraph:
My breasts are my jewels, I thought to myself, looking at the reflection in front of me. Although not overly large, they certainly allowed me admiration in a sweater. My nipples are smallish, nicely rounded with a rose/pink hue, pointing slightly skywards. My strawberry-blond hair just reaches them. My hair is unusually straight. I leave it that way because it suits my slender build. My hair color has led of my friends to call me ‘Ginger’ but I prefer my real name, Stephanie, which shortens to ‘Steph’. My blue-green eyes are a feature people find attractive so I wear contact lenses most of the time. Glasses make me look too academic. At twenty-one my life is coming together nicely. The break up with Phil six months ago was not a happy time, ending a two year affair. We had a lot of good times but he was too needy and I had a busy life.
Last week I was talking to one of my classes about the importance of creating convincing dialogue. “Some authorities think that fictional dialogue should seem like it’s been captured from living, breathing people,” I told my students. “But don’t worry about those opinions. There are some publishers who will publish any old rubbish, not caring whether or not the dialogue sounds convincing.”
“Nonsense!” say my students. “You can’t make a sweeping statement like that. If it’s true that publishers will publish any old rubbish as dialogue, prove it by showing us some.”
And, on an unrelated note, here’s a dialogue exchange from Stephanie by Noelle Douglas-Brown.
“Doll, don’t worry that Ron could ruin our relationship. I have made a commitment to you. I love you. We will live together right away. Perhaps a part of me is envious of the passionate affection and desire that I see in your relationship with Nigel. I also admire Vanessa’s devotion to Michael. If Ron and I do become close, it would be under the terms of our ‘understanding’. You will always be number one with me.”
“All right, I’m starting to get the idea. Do you actually want to sleep with him?”
“If things go well, yes I do.”
“In that case Lover, I will return the favors I owe you for helping me find ladylove. I’ll show you a few things I have learned that will add spark to your first heterosexual experience. I guess we don’t know how things will evolve with Ron. I’m sure he isn’t gay, but you are gay, Lover. I never thought I’d be a bisexual…perhaps that is soon to be your situation too. Can we adjourn to the bedroom? For the first lesson we need Mister Chicago.”
Did I mention? I was teaching a class last week and I told my students, “Some writers produce the most mechanical and unconvincing drivel that’s supposed to pass for convincing action. It’s dire. It’s expository and bereft of poetry.”
“Nonsense!” say my students. “You can’t make a sweeping statement like that. If it’s true that publishers will publish unconvincing drivel, prove it by showing us some.”
And, on an unrelated note, here’s a super-hot sex scene from Stephanie by Noelle Douglas-Brown.
Nigel stood up to take his shirt off and I used the opportunity to undo his belt and pull his jeans and underwear down. He stepped out of the jeans and stood in front of me, wearing only his socks. His penis rose in front of my face as I sat on the couch.
I wrapped my fingers around it and pulled him closer to my lips. After months of sucking a clitoris, it was an exciting change to have a penis between my lips.
His erection was complete almost immediately and I really wanted pussy penetration. I stopped the fellatio and asked Nigel if he had a condom. He did, as I had told him the pill wouldn’t be effective until next week.
We made our way to the bedroom. I took my jeans off and Nigel complimented me on my panties as he ran his fingers under the fabric to find my waiting target. We lay down and continued fondling each other as we kissed.
The condom was rolled on and we started with the missionary position. Nigel thrust into me at a feverish pace. I soon had an orgasm and told him I wanted to try another position.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t care for this title. I thought it was expository in its construction and the writing style struck me as clumsy and didactic. That doesn’t mean this is a bad book – there’s a sequel so clearly my opinion runs counter to what the book buying masses enjoy. However, I can’t honestly put my hand on my heart and recommend this one.
Nevertheless, if the above extracts sound like the sort of fiction you would enjoy reading, or if you’re simply aware that my specific tastes run counter to your own, I trust this review has given you enough of an incentive to confidently go and enjoy a copy of Stephanie.