If you’re not burned out on novels about rich, powerful older men and naïve young women, you could do worse than give Ashley Lister’s A Taste of Passion a try. Even if you think you are burned out—especially then, in fact—you may well find this variation to your taste. It kept me reading right along, not wanting to stop even when I had other urgent business (like going to bed.) When I’m reading with a review in mind, that’s a very good sign.
The setting is a city in northern England and its rural surroundings, modern but with a sense of history, which is refreshing in itself. The rich (but not overwhelmingly rich) older man is a famous chef, with his own three-star restaurant, while the young woman has a mind of her own, a brand-new degree with honors from a culinary institute, and a plan to start a new online pastry business with her two housemates. That she enjoys getting spankings as much as he enjoys delivering them is only one facet of their complex personalities.
Lister makes fine use of this food and restaurant concept to weave together the senses of taste and scent and sight and texture, intensifying the scenes of backstage gourmet cooking and those of sex as well. We get sound, too, in the chaotic kitchen, and, more to the point. when spatulas and wooden spoons play a part in the sex.
Wisely, Lister doesn’t overdo the food-sex connection, but I did appreciate such bits as the “rich and delicious sting” of a spanking that “echoed hollowly from the kitchen’s flat acoustics,” and the “slightly-sweetened saltiness” of an encounter of a slightly different nature. Very deftly done, as are many other sensual details, even those describing the forested area outside the city where the young woman runs for exercise. Maybe it’s just that I have a thing for forests and non-urban settings, but “the crisp intersecting ripples of bark” on ash trees delighted me as much as any tantalizing image of food.
The sex is abundant, to say the least, and since this is, after all, an erotica novel, I won’t quibble about some degree of repetition. Satisfying sex can be worth repeating.
I do, however, have a few quibbles, largely concerning editing that could have been better. I’ve enjoyed Ashley Lister’s writing in the past, and I did, on the whole, enjoy this book, but the level of editing seemed more lax than in previous books. Repetition of certain words and phrases bothers me where it probably wouldn’t matter to most readers. As an example, “sultry” is used twelve times, which wouldn’t seem like much in a book of 278 pages if it weren’t concentrated toward the beginning, and in one case occurs twice on the same page—and in the same paragraph.
Another issue is that as the fairly complex plot works itself out, there are a couple of instances where the same significant statement is made twice, but seems to come as a surprise to the main character the second time. There are also plot elements that don’t make much sense except as providing the requisite difficulties and misunderstandings to be overcome, but this is so far from being rare in any work involving relationships that it’s hardly worth mentioning.
My own naivité is responsible for my disappointment at the end of the book. I knew all along that this was Book 1 of the Sweet Temptation series, and that a series seems to be a requirement for books like this, but I thought that the following books might deal more with some of the other characters, or further developments affecting these main characters after the current problems were resolved. I should have known better than to hope for any resolution at all. It’s like a cliff-hanger at the season finale of a TV series.
If Ashley Lister is not aware of the late Donald Westlake’s work, he most certainly should be especially for the Dortmunder series of novels about a star-crossed Manhattan burglar and his hapless crew of professional criminals. Westlake was perhaps the most successful and, I speculate, the most beloved mystery writer of the late 20th Century. His Dortmunder books are funny, fatalistic, good-hearted, atmospheric and utterly charming. Every one of those adjectives might just as well be applied in equal measure to Mr. Lister’s murder mystery novel, Death by Fiction. Reading this book about the fraught world of writing and publishing is genuine fun. For younger readers, I would compare it favorably with Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series for the same favorable reasons.
Ashley Lister writes for Erotica Revealed and so to those who feel this review is little more than a puff piece, I can say very little other than they are wrong. That is because Death by Fiction deserves exactly the lavish praise I am about to heap upon it almost without reservation. Here follow my caveats.
As a point of interest, I have actually known several professional criminals after they resided as guests of the States of New York and New Jersey, so you know they were authentic if not always very competent. One of them, for example, insisted on using a large caliber rifle where a pistol would have done nicely. The noise and bulk lead to his incarceration. One should always use the right tool for the job.
As a life long student of crime and crime fiction, I would admonish him to consider shifting his focus at times from the moment of motivation (the inciting incident as it were) to the moment in which the criminal act actually begins. It has more tension and it lends the character’s back story about how the actor got to doing what he or she is doing, a greater intensity.
Secondly, I think the mechanics of crime – particularly guns -- though standard subjects in lots of crime fiction, are boring by themselves. Professional criminals know their weapons and how they work. However, a real professional is not friends with his gun. He wants to be rid of it as soon as it has done its job. It’s a tool to be used once. If you have to think about how it works, it’s not working properly. On the other hand, the choice of criminal technique and implements can be a reflection of character. So you can work the gadgets and gimmicks in, they just need to have a narrative purpose in the storytelling.
Those two thoughts aside, Mr. Lister has a natural gift for character driven plotting. The denizens of Death by Fiction seem sort of like rather psychotic versions of those you meet in Agatha Christie or the old game of “Clue.” Their imaginary lives are often delightfully blood-thirsty, just as their erotic lives are plangent.
All murder mysteries allow the reader the pleasure of doing the murder they will not allow themselves to commit. To drive that point home to the potentially homicidal reader, the murderer almost always gets caught. In some cases, that takes the form of hard-boiled, edgy, pathological mayhem that Charles Willeford used to write. In others we are presented with a cozy killing that is decidedly less messy than the actual results of bludgeoning, shooting or stabbing each other.
Death by Fiction provides us with pleasing examples of both with a certain amount of sex to spice things up. Surprising as it may seem, Mr. Lister’s characters are funny and frankly likeable, even when they are being diabolical. That is what most reminds me of Donald Westlake. It is that which makes you want to draw out reading Mr. Lister’s book. It’s a pleasure to come back to with all its ironic kinks, characters and plot, much like the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich, which are so rightly popular. A little playful perversity brightens one’s day in a world that has so clearly gone wacko.
So as we all face the grimly saccharine specter of the Holiday Season before us, I suggest you take a pleasant trip through Death by Fiction for its leavening effect. The real winter will be here soon, and we might as well get ready with some murderous hilarity.