Sunday, December 17, 2017

Best Short Fiction 2015-2017

A new feature this year, a natural outgrowth of the annual Best-Of lists, the Short-Fiction Honor Roll is a recognition of some (though by no means all) of the finest achievements in the not-as-easy-as-it-looks craft of the erotic short story. While these may be tough times for the genre in general (see my introduction to the Best of 2017 here), erotica remains one of the few places left where short-form fiction continues not only to survive, but flourish. 

I've read hundreds of short stories in the six years since starting EftBB, and it has occurred to me that a lot of very fine stories often get lost in the voluminous shuffle of anthologies--great as many of those collections can be. Too often, customer reviews focus on a few stories by the reviewers' favorite authors (names they recognize) at the expense of work by dozens of talented writers who deserve as much if not more notice. 

It's extremely rare to run across a collection in which every story is a masterpiece, though it does happen  on occasion (check out Rose Caraway's marvelous Libidinous Zombie from 2015 for example, probably the finest quality-over-quantity anthology compiled in the last decade). But, let's be honest, there are a lot of anthologies which simply aren't very good overall. Too much emphasis on variety can kill just as surely as too narrow a focus on a single subgenre or kink. In either case, a discriminating reader may be lucky to find one or two decent stories in a collection of otherwise mediocre material. But what's to become of those diamonds in the rough? It's been said of fine handmade cigars (of which I am something of an aficionado) that "the best one you ever smoked can be sitting in the same box right next to the worst one you ever smoked..." I may not cherish the box itself, but I surely remember the pleasure I got from that one extraordinary smoke...  

And so it is with the twenty-eight short masterpieces listed below. These are the stories that have stayed with me, moved me, haunted me, made me feel, and think, and laugh, and say "Damn! That was good!" even years after I finished reading. 

Long live the short story and the authors and readers who love them! (TAS)

Erotica for the Big Brain's Short Fiction Honor Roll (2015-2017)

The Pier by Night (Janine Ashbless) (Sinful Pleasures (ed. Lisa Jenkins))
The Black Orchid (Jo Henry Wolf) (Sinful Pleasures)
Lazy Sunday (Tony Flyer) (Sinful Pleasures)
Aljanar Ruwa (J.S. Emuakpor) (Wanderlust  (ed. Megan Lewis))
Zero Gravity (Valerie Alexander) (Hotel (ed. Megan Lewis))
Grey Bar Motel (Arden Ellis) (Hotel)
Odd Man (Sonni de Soto) (For the Men and the Women Who Love Them (ed. Rose Caraway))
Winning Big (Charlie Powell) (For the Men)
Enhanced (T.J. Christian) (For the Men)
Sanctum (Dee Maselle) (Love and Lust in Space (ed. Jennifer Denys))
Behrouz Gets Lucky (Avery Cassell) (Best Lesbian Erotica 2015 (ed. Laura Antoniou))
Arachne (Catherine Lundoff) (BLE 2015)
Kiss of the Rain Queen (Fiona Zedde) (BLE 2015)
Michael’s Moment (Kate Ellink) (Tonight She’s Yours (ed. Rose Caraway))
The Miller's Daughter (Michael M. Jones) (Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms (ed. Sacchi Green))
Wood Witch (M. Bird) (Witches, Princesses...)
Penthouse 31 (Brey Willows)  (Witches, Princesses...)
Toads, Diamonds, and the Occasional Pearl (Emily L. Byrne) (Witches, Princesses...)
Jericho (Megan Arkenberg) (Thrones of Desire (ed. Mitzi Szereto)
At the Sorcerer's Command (Kim Knox) (Thrones of Desire)
Flesh and Stone (Sacchi Green) (Thrones of Desire)
The Last Sacrifice (Zander Vyne) (Thrones of Desire)
Canvas (Malin James) (Sexy Librarian’s Dirty 30 Vol. 2 (ed. Rose Caraway))
Sweet Hel Below (Janine Ashbless) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)
Thunderclap (Sommer Marsden) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)
Torrid Zone (Elliot Delocke) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)
Thief  (Michael Lewis) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)
Life Drawing 101 (Brantwijn Serrah) (Dirty 30 Vol. 2)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Best of 2017

Erotica for the Big Brain's Best of 2017
Roadhouse Blues  (Malin James)
Wanderlust  (ed. Megan Lewis)
In Bonds of the Earth  (Janine Ashbless)
Thrones of Desire  (ed. Mitzi Szereto)
Named and Shamed  (Janine Ashbless)
Viking Thunder  (Emmanuelle de Maupasant)

Times are getting tough for erotica and, especially, for those authors of erotica who take their work seriously and care deeply about their art. 2017 has seen a snowballing movement towards censorship and outright suppression from the big publishing platforms, not to mention the "usual suspects" of resurgent cultural puritanism, the reactionary forces of patriarchy, and the sex-negative attitudes of  people on the left as well as on the right. One might be forgiven for believing that we are galloping headlong into a New Dark Age--or, indeed, that such a time has already overtaken us. It is heartening, therefore, to note the achievements of some very fine, courageous, visionary, and brilliant authors, great practitioners of the writer's craft and tellers of damn fine stories, who still insist on holding up a light against this gathering gloom. Thank you for giving us hope. Thank you for giving so much more than a cynical fuck. Thank you for sharing your vision through your words. Thank you for turning us on.  (TAS)

(NOTE: a new feature on EftBB, look for 'Best of Short Fiction (2015-2017) to be posted tomorrow, December 18.) 

BEST OF 2017

Come, Let Us Sing Anyway

Leone Ross is a writer who thinks deeply about her craft. Beyond mere nuts and bolts—the practical minutiae of syntax and punctuation—she grasps the workings of prose as few other writers do, at an elemental, sub-atomic level, her words like charged particles, whirling and spinning in concert to build up language of extraordinary power and beauty.

Ross never wastes a word. Her narrative style is objective, concise, economical yet seldom spare; rich and colorful yet never gaudy or effusive, animated by the lilting cadences of Jamaican patois, the word-music of the mother island, that home where her characters’ hearts invariably turn in spite of time or distance. 

Ross gives us melancholy, homesick stories of the Jamaican diaspora in Britain (Love Silk Food, The Mullerian Expanse), unexpected flashes of humor in the midst of conflict and despair (President Daisy, Velvet Man), the sweet-sour poignancy of imperfect love (The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant, Art, For Fuck’s Sake), tragedy and heartbreak (Minty Minty, Mudboy), and existential horror with a knowing nod to island folklore and ghost stories (Roll It).

This is marvelous storytelling by any standard. The author artfully seduces the reader, and the reader is more than happy to let themself be seduced. The twenty-three short stories in Come, Let Us Sing Anyway offer a sumptuous magical realism, the product of a frenetic and fertile imagination squarely rooted in the rich soil of cultural identity, the keen observation of gesture and motive refracted through a profoundly empathetic lens.

It would be difficult—if not impossible—to understate the excellence of this collection. As a reader, hungry for enlightenment, I was dazzled.  As a writer with an abiding interest in the craft, I came away impressed, inspired, and deeply humbled. 

Roadhouse Blues

Malin James had me from the first line of Skins, second of the eleven good, gritty, honest, bittersweet and beautifully-written short stories in Roadhouse Blues:

Cassie was born ten miles from the middle of nowhere in a town called Styx, if you can fucking believe it…

That line is keynote and key for this collection. All these stories are set emotionally, if not physically, in the same small place somewhere deep in the wilderness of the American psyche. Styx could be practically anywhere, and this, I think, is intentional on the author’s part. There is a sense of near-mythic wide-openness about the place, like the west Texas of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, or the windswept plains of the lower Midwest, an arch nonspecificity invoking universality:  

A curtain dropped over her mind as Cassie walked downstage. She wasn’t in the theater any more. She was in the ugly brown heart of the dust bowl. She could taste it like a film in her mouth…

We’ve seen these box stores, garages, and greasy spoons, strip malls, strip clubs, factories, bars, and bedrooms a hundred times before, wandered through the dusty streets of the same stifling chicken-fried towns where everybody makes it their business to know yours, yet are utterly incurious where the secret pain of the heart is concerned. Where same-sex attraction is still the ultimate scandal, and tenderness more taboo than rage.

James shows us what’s really going on behind those closed doors and drawn drapes, inside her character’s heads. She sets her scenes with a few well-chosen details to conjure atmosphere, but it is the characters’ emotional landscape that interests her and us, that sense of being lost in the only place you’ve ever known, of fleeing the past even as you fear the future, of being trapped in a world where you are free only so long as you don’t stand out too much…  

Leigh imagined her ugly underwear, her ugly comforting armor, and reminded herself to breathe. Fumbling fingers on blue cotton hearts, pink Sundays worn on Mondays, lying so still, mismatched days of the week…

Reminiscent of working-class portraitists like Richard Russo or Stephen King at their keenly-observant best, James’ characters are refreshingly real, down-to-earth, mostly blue collar, sometimes not quite as articulate as they’d like to be. The soundtrack of their lives is more often rockabilly than pure country western, but we recognize a lot of the same themes; infidelity, loneliness, nostalgia, regret, and desire. So much desire. An auto mechanic carries on a life-long affair with his boss, who also happens to be his sister-in-law. His wife’s longing for a baby ultimately leads her to desperate measures. Later, the new mother contemplates the passions that have been awakened within her. Another woman sets out to exact revenge on a faithless lover, only to have the tables turned, when her anger is sublimed into pure lust. The owner of the local diner comes out of the closet, if only for one glorious night. The lover of a fallen soldier is consoled by the soldier’s widow. A waitress's encounter with a creepy late-night patron triggers memories of being young and crazy-in-love, but also the unhinged abuse that followed when the thrill was gone.  A sad-eyed stripper comforts a dying man who appears like the ghost of her beloved father. The bartender at the strip club meets the woman who shares the passions he cannot confess.  Life goes on, little changes, but dreaming makes it bearable.

Wanderlust: A Literary Erotica Anthology

I think it was Ernest Hemingway who said that short story writers are mostly frustrated poets. I can’t recall if Hemingway meant this as a good thing or not, but it is certainly easy to see his point after exploring editor Megan Lewis’ Wanderlust, a collection of thirteen short stories in which literary erotic prose is often taken to its lyrical limits—and that definitely is a good thing.

As the title suggests, this collection is centered around themes of travel, or that restless, deeply human urge to be ever someplace else, very much akin to the insatiable hunger for sex that drives so many from moment to moment if not from place to place. These are mostly stories about brief encounters as in Zac Blue’s The Cruelty of Eden, set in Paris; T.C. Hill’s melancholy Soft, Rough wherein a lonely house sitter ponders her past as she entertains her lover; or Alexis Quinton’s Red Earth, in which a restless woman from Australia’s Gold Coast finds peace of a sort as a barmaid in an isolated outback settlement. In Terri Pray’s Colors, a vampiric drifter meets his soulmate in a roadside diner—or is she merely his latest meal? Arden Ellis’ f/f Nighthawk finds a biker breaking down along a lonely stretch of the Al-Can highway, picked up by an adventurous runaway—this acutely-observed story features engaging characterizations and admirably realistic dialogue. In Jack Swift’s m/m American Leather, a punk rocker “initiates” one of his groupies in the changing room of a BDSM leather shop.

Other stories tell of longer-term relationships: in Arden Ellis’ poignant Scheherazade two women travel to a distant planet on a journey of a thousand years, periodically coming out of suspended animation to maintain their ship and keep each other company. In Zac Blue’s haunting, atmospheric Slipping Through the Splinters a restless visitor from another world discovers the complications of love in human form. Val Prozorova’s clever Urgent Train Message: Immediate Delivery is a heartbreaking and exultant story of forbidden m/m love in late-Victorian Britain; while in Riever Scott’s deliciously written Tawaif, a British woman recounts her affair with a young native co-worker in Mumbai, looking back in regret on how things ended.

The stories coming closest to poetry here are Parker Marlo’s Zephyr, nothing less than a rondeau in prose recalling a steamy encounter on a west-bound passenger train, and J.S. Emuakpor’s ravishingly beautiful Aljanar Ruwa in which the water nymph of the title is reunited with her lover, the great river god. Emuakpor’s language flows with the limpid grace of the very waters they describe—it’s simply gorgeous writing, and not to be missed!  

With its superb writing, diverse, fascinating themes, and consistently scintillating eroticism, Wanderlust is an easy choice for inclusion on this year's Best-Of list.

In Bonds of the Earth

Janine Ashbless pushes all the right buttons in this exciting follow-up to 2015’s Cover Him With Darkness. I described that first entry in the series as “an intense, engaging, grandly imagined, intelligent, entertainingly well-paced and very—very—sexy story; erotic romance writ large.” I also noted that Cover Him With Darkness “ends with a cliffhanger worthy of Lord of the Rings, and leaves us breathless for more…” It’s a pleasure, then, to report that
In Bonds of the Earth is everything fans have been waiting for, taking all the elements that made the first book memorable, artfully supercharging them in a sweeping, action-packed, powerfully erotic story that dazzles with its imaginative employment of real-life settings, elements of ancient lore and legend, and fast-paced contemporary thrillers.

The story is told in first person from the viewpoint of Milja, somewhat wiser now after having freed fallen angel Azazel from bondage, she is doubtful about her lover’s plan to release his “brothers” from their prisons in order to mount a new assault on the forces of heaven. His search leads them to the labyrinth of ancient monolithic rock-cut churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia, where the priests, wielding the rusted relics of saints, guard a secret that humankind must never know. (No spoilers here, but let’s just say that the mid-story climax—and Ashbless’ way of relating it—is exciting as hell!)

The romantic leads are realistically imperfect here; Milja is smart and beautiful, but also still rather naïve, not always wise in the ways of human—or angelic—behavior, and still vulnerable where the heart—not to mention her hair-trigger erogenous zones—are concerned. She describes Azazel, for all his physical allure, as not very bright, a musclebound creature who lives in the here and now without much thought for consequence or the feelings of others, least of all Milja’s. 

I was—as ever—impressed by Ashbless’ ability to set her tale within a broad historical and cultural context without resorting to obvious “data dumps” or dry narrative digressions; the fascinating history of Lalibela is woven so subtly into the fabric of the story, as to seem perfectly of a piece with the unfolding adventure. The author’s erudition shines through, illuminating the story without ever casting shade on the reader. Milja’s informal conversational style does not clash with her obvious intelligence, but brings readers comfortably along, never making them feel patronized or inadequate.

This entry in the series closes with a shattering cliffhanger that will have readers on the edge of their seats, hearts pounding in their throats, and practically howling in half-fulfilled frustration! I felt afterwards as if I’d enjoyed an extraordinary meal—or had really great sex—richly fed to be sure, yet craving still more, able only to dream of “next time.” 

[The third book in the series, The Prison of the Angels, is already available: look for a review early next year.]

Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms

An absolute delight! The thirteen f/f stories in this treasurable Sacchi Green-edited anthology are, without exception, nothing short of superb. One is impressed not only by the consistent high quality of the writing, but dazzled by the sheer breadth of imagination here on display, and, time and time again, utterly astonished by the very realistic depths of these engaging fantasy characters.

There’s more than enough variation in mood and style to avoid the sort of creeping disaffection one too often experiences with overly ambitious specialty collections. On the other hand, one detects a strong but sympathetic editorial hand quietly at work throughout, keeping everything taut and focused. Green has arranged the stories to achieve and maintain maximum interest.

If this collection can be said to have a unifying theme, it might best be summed up as “love overcomes all”. Curiosity gets the better of suspicion, understanding makes the heart grow fonder, the ice-melting fire of lust leads to an endless springtime of delight, the call of duty ultimately defers to the call of the blood, happily for now, if not always happily ever after. (I would not characterize any of these stories as ‘romance’ per se.)

A stunning achievement overall! 

Thrones of Desire

This superb collection makes a near-perfect companion to Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms. But where that collection maintains a laser-like focus on f/f narratives, the fourteen stories in Mitzi Szereto’s Thrones of Desire offer readers a sumptuous pan-sexual fantasy smorgasbord with something to entice all tastes. 

There are so many fine stories here, it’s hard to pick a favorite. The writing is first-rate throughout, and the range of imagination, impressive. 

Named and Shamed 

Since its initial publication in 2012, Janine Ashbless’ Named and Shamed has attained the status of a modern erotic classic. It is apropos to cite the title for this year's Best-Of list, as the author has recently re-issued the book in a new independent e-book edition. Named and Shamed is a relentless, orgiastic tour de force, a groaning board of pansexual delight unencumbered by the sort of repetition or slacking off in intensity that dooms so many full-length erotic novels. Drawing broad inspiration from Gaelic folklore and pagan myth, the story begins with the theft of a priceless imaginary manuscript, the unexpurgated first draft of Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market, obtained through a cynical act of seduction. In order to return the manuscript without drawing the bloody ire of its owner, Tansy, the reluctant heroine, must seek out the help of a “thing that looks like a man, but wasn’t,” one of the shadowy preternatural entities collectively known as Them There. Of course, the demon’s assistance comes with a sexy price, seemingly pleasant to pay, before its sinister after-effects become apparent. Tansy becomes insatiable, and none too picky about her partners along the way to finding an antidote to her raging nymphomania.  Sex of practically every variety and permutation is described in exuberant detail, whether with a group of horny auto mechanics in a greasy garage, or with just about every mythical creature populating the dark corners of the human imagination—a scene with a randy troll under a bridge is particularly memorable.

Viking Thunder

Emmanuelle de Maupassant’s Viking Thunder is an exquisite piece of writing by any standard, imaginative historical fiction at its finest, and one of the sexiest tales I’ve had the pleasure to read in—ever. Told from the point of view of Elswyth, a young Anglo-Saxon woman, promptly made a widow when a band of Northmen raid her village, this is a clash-of-cultures story enlivened by lots of deliciously lurid action, pillage, fire, and, yes, rape. Elswyth, not ungrateful to be rid of her feckless husband, quickly catches the eye of the Viking leader, Eirik, and is befriended by the shield maiden Helka, Eirik’s sister who functions as interpreter, cultural go-between and a counterbalance of quiet reason to her brother’s fiercely impulsive nature. Yet, more than mere escapist adventure, Viking Thunder has its thoughtful moments, too, a bit of comparative theology and myth, reflection on love, fate and destiny, cheek by jowl with unapologetically explicit descriptions of sex, heady as the sweetest mead. First in a yet another series from the remarkably prolific Emmanuelle de Maupassant, I, for one, can hardly wait for more.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review of TAS' 'Kiss-Off the Devil' on Reading and Writing by Publight

Scroll down to read the review of my short-story collection Kiss-Off the Devil, which appeared here on December 6, 2017.

Ironically, this review comes after I've been forced to un-publish the e-book version of Kiss-Off the Devil due to censorship pressure from Amazon and Smashwords. The book will remain available in a paperback edition, however, which you can purchase here.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Reviews of 'Thrones of Desire' (ed. Mitzi Szereto) and 'Sinful Pleasures' (ed. Lisa Jenkins)

Thrones of DesireErotic Tales of Swords, Mist, and Fire (edited by Mitzi Szereto with a foreword by Piers Anthony

This superb collection would appear to be the companion to another recent Cleis anthology, Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms: Erotic Lesbian Fairy Tales edited by Sacchi Green and reviewed here last month. Where that earlier collection maintained a laser-like focus on f/f narratives, the fourteen stories in Mitzi Szereto’s Thrones of Desire offer readers a a sumptuous pan-sexual fantasy smorgasbord with something to entice all tastes.

There are so many fine stories here, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I was particularly impressed by Megen Arkenberg’s Jericho, a nifty gender-switched re-imagining of the Biblical story of the besieged city, told here from the perspective of a male Rahab. Also striking is Kim Knox’ At the Sorcerer’s Command, a tale of richly-sustained atmosphere and suspense in which a taboo sex act becomes a catalyst for a near-impossible feat of magic. In Ashley Lister’s tautly-crafted Here There Be Dragons a keeper of dragons must draw on all her powers of guile and seduction to outwit invaders from a foreign land; this story is, at once, scary and sexy as hell, with a satisfying final twist. Much more than a facile quickie, Janine Ashbless’ Of High Renown offers readers a tale of realistic moral complexity and suffering that is also sensually rewarding. The opening of Zander Vyne’s ostensive damsel-in-distress narrative The Last Sacrifice seems reminiscent of Dragonslayer, with, possibly, a bit of Ladyhawke thrown in for good measure, and yet, the author’s subtle skill in bending this material through her own unique vision—to give readers something exciting and new—is truly striking. At the end we feel we’ve been given a wonderful gift.

Also excellent: Silver, Anna Meadows’ dark fairy tale in which a bride’s true appearance is disguised by a charm, her high-born groom nearly driven mad until both face the truth in themselves.  Mitzi Szereto’s Escape conjures a dystopian Handmaids-Tale-like world in which fertile young virgins are forced to marry the old powerful men in charge, yet one woman and her young lover endeavor to break free. In Sacchi Green’s marvelously-imagined Flesh and Stone, an empath is sold into slavery, but for a purpose that will redeem all her suffering.

We are tossed directly into the midst of a complex fantasy world in M.H. Crane’s ultimately moving Saints and Heroes. Key to the Queen’s Elixir by Jo Wu tells of the Snow Queen’s unexpected encounter with a stranger from her past, and the upheaval that ensues. And in the lyrical sexy prose of Nyla Nox in The Widow’s Man we are treated to the tale of a man awaiting execution after having been seduced into a conspiracy. In Madeleine Moore’s imaginative In the Kingdom of Roz, a pampered princess is kidnapped on the day of her début, only to discover truths about herself and her family’s past, and to be offered an extraordinary choice-of-a-lifetime. Moore uses deceptively simple language to tell this subtly colorful story. Eric Del Carlo’s Hot as Dragon’s Blood, in spite of its straightforward narrative form, tells a psycho-sexually complex story of sacrifice, of “letting go” and doing the right thing: a young man, bonded by blood to the dragon he would ride into battle, is outed as gay and, disgraced, forbidden to fight. His one hope is to transfer his blood-bond to another rider—in this case, a woman whose cultural tradition forbids her from riding with the dragon cavalry—but only through an act of “straight” sex. Interesting dilemma to say the least… And in Eye Keeper by Aurelia T. Evans readers encounter a bewildering world of political intrigue, theft, betrayal, and a coup in the making.

Enthusiastically recommended!

To be honest, I was, at first, going to take a pass on this anthology of eleven short erotic stories. I felt that, while the collection does feature three or four truly brilliant stories—as fine as anything I’ve read in an age—overall, this is a pretty uneven book, the remaining seven stories ranging from nice-if-not-great, to cloyingly mediocre, to please-get-me-the-hell-out-of-this. In the end, I’ve decided to recommend the book, because what’s good here is too good to ignore.

These four stories are worth the price of the book:

The Pier by Night by Janine Ashbless. What makes this story stand out is its sustained ambiance, always in the service of inner truth. The setting, strikingly described, perfectly mirrors the main character’s sense of wonder, emotional uncertainty, and awakening desire. Nobody is better at evoking that rich, vivid atmosphere in which readers may dream, and Ashbless is here at the very top of her form.  

The Black Orchid by Jo Henry Wolf. This marvelous erotic horror story is at once luminous in its language and darkly ominous in its mood. The setting is contemporary, the characters rough-edged and less-than forthcoming about their motives. This is steamy (in more ways than one), highly intelligent, and creepily Lovecraftian (or perhaps more aptly Barker-esque) in its final reveal. I found myself bursting forth in sheer delight after reading this tale, like one of the plants in Wolf’s mysterious greenhouse.

Lazy Sunday by Tony Flyer. This lyrical tale of nostalgia and enduring love is a little masterpiece. Virtually every note is pitch-perfect. Emotions are mirrored in unforgettable poetic imagery—and poetry itself plays an essential role in the main characters’ history. The structure is fairly simple, yet so admirably taut as to defy mundane analysis. Flyer is most certainly an author to be watched and anticipated.

The Dream Weaver by Ella Scandal, as the title suggests, evokes colorful dream imagery, yet not in the tired conventional way one might expect. Well-written, and imaginatively conceived to the most pleasing of ends.

I have only discussed the things I liked best here—with sincere apologies to the other authors, because I know how much it hurts to be left out and denied mention in an anthology review. Unfortunately, there have been a few too many collections that I didn’t feel I could recommend on the basis of only one or two decent stories, yet I've felt bad about not bringing those stories to my readers’ attention. And so, beginning this year, I will be adding a new Short Fiction category to EftBB’s annual Best-of list. Look for it in the next few weeks. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review of 'Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms: Erotic Lesbian Fairy Tales' (ed. Sacchi Green)

Witches, Princesses,and Women at Arms: Erotic Lesbian Fairy Tales

An absolute delight! The thirteen f/f stories in this treasurable Sacchi Green-edited anthology are, without exception, nothing short of superb. One is impressed not only by the consistent high quality of the writing, but dazzled by the sheer breadth of imagination here on display, and, time and time again, utterly astonished by the very realistic depths of these engaging fantasy characters.

There’s more than enough variation in mood and style to avoid the sort of creeping disaffection one too often experiences with overly ambitious specialty collections. On the other hand, one detects a strong but sympathetic editorial hand quietly at work throughout, keeping everything taut and focused. (Readers do not encounter those glaring inaccuracies in language, careless apposition, or amateurish plot detours sometimes indulged by editors of a more laissez faire frame of mind.) Green has arranged the stories to achieve and maintain maximum interest.

If this collection can be said to have a unifying theme, it might best be summed up as “love overcomes all”. Curiosity gets the better of suspicion, understanding makes the heart grow fonder, the ice-melting fire of lust leads to an endless springtime of delight, the call of duty ultimately defers to the call of the blood, happily for now, if not always happily ever after. (I would not characterize any of these stories as ‘romance’ per se.)

In Cara Peterson’s Steel a deposed princess seeks the aid of a witch in order to slay a dragon and reclaim her throne, but finds that neither is possible until she can outgrow her own deep-seeded prejudices. Madeleine Shade’s Robber Girl is a fast-moving, action-packed shifter story with the author’s characteristic eye for interesting detail.  Salome Wilde’s The Princess’s Princess gives us a stylish f/f variation on the ‘spoiled princess’ meme, though in this case our princess learns a charming lesson about love and sex from an outsider, who, it turns out, is  every bit her equal. On the lighter side, readers are treated to Emily L. Byrne’s wonderfully whimsical Toads, Diamonds, and the Occasional Pearl, and the snarky banter of SWF Seeks FGM  by Allison Wonderland, which turns the story of Cinderella’s evil stepmother into a wickedly delicious romp with the Fairy Godmother, the language steeped in puns, alliteration, and sprung rhymes like some old-time late-night radio host channeling her inner beatnik.

Brey Willows’ Penthouse 31 is a clever contemporary updating of the Rapunzel legend, that does not eschew the scarier elements of the tale. H.N. Janzen’s The Prize of the Willow is a simple, beautiful, poignant tale of loneliness and longing overcome. In The Mark and the Caul, the always-interesting Anabeth Leung gives us a classic fairy tale of lovers overcoming their supposed ‘handicaps’, while A.D.R. Forte gives us a sweeping mythic “call of fate” story in Warrior’s Choice. Sacchi Green’s Norse-flavored Trollwise is marvelously constructed and perfectly satisfying with its sly wink of a surprise ending. Lea Daley’s wonderful The Sorceress of Solisterre combines cool palace intrigue with blazing sensual tension in the story of a politically astute princess and her young court seer and counselor.

Probably my favorite stories in the collection are Michael M. Jones’ scintillating, brilliant, lyrical Rumpelstiltskin redux The Miller’s Daughter, and M Birds’ powerful, memorably atmospheric Wood Witch. This exquisitely-crafted story draws on the archetype so familiar from legends like Mulan or folk songs like Sweet Polly Oliver and Bold William Taylor in which the young would-be warrior woman must don a man’s armor and pass as a soldier in order to fight for what she wants or believes in. Birds does not blink at the gruesome inhumanity of war, while gradually bringing the main characters into focus through the blood and smoke of battle. A truly stunning achievement…as is this anthology altogether!

Enthusiastically recommended! 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Did Not Finish

A DNF is a book or story that, for one reason or another, a reader Does Not Finish. Whether they simply drop it with a yawn, or fling it across the room with a righteous roar of disgust, something about the book compels them to put it aside.

There are all sorts of reasons for not finishing, and not all of them have to do with bad writing or ineffectual storytelling. Sometimes the reader has personal issues that make the story painful or disturbing. Sometimes they’re just not suited temperamentally or intellectually to be the “proper observer” of a particular work of literature. (Unfortunately, such readers are usually the ones who end up leaving one-star reviews.) Sometimes it boils down to nothing more than being easily bored.

Whatever the reason, there’s not much a writer can do about DNFs. Once the story is “out there” and available to the wider public, it’s beyond its creator’s control. Authors, publishers, and booksellers can target an audience with laser-like precision, but they can never wholly eliminate those pesky personal variables that throw the best-drawn curves askew.

I do a great deal of reading in my capacity as a reviewer, though, as an independent, I am not required to begin or finish anything I don’t fancy. Even so, I’ve been encountering a lot of DNFs lately, many of them from writers and editors whose work I’ve respected and enjoyed in the past. I’m not sure why this should be. I wonder if I’ve gotten so heavily invested in my own extremely intense process of self-criticism as to become hypersensitive to flaws in the work of other writers?  Or is it that I, too, am becoming ever more easily distracted? Yet, when I don’t like something, my inclination is not simply to say “this sucks” and move on, but to wonder why I don’t like it. As such, I’ve tried to identify some of the most common reasons I end up not finishing a book. Broadly speaking, the things that are most likely to wind up impaled on my DNF spike are:

(1) Stories that fail to catch and hold my attention.
I once had an aspiring author complain that I stopped reading their story before I got to the “really good part in Chapter 5…” This same passive-aggressive spoiled-brat dilettante turned around in public and sniffed that I “couldn’t be bothered to give [their] book a fair chance…” In fact, I’d slogged through the entire first chapter—about twelve pages—even though I could tell from the opening line that the story wasn’t going to work.

Where they may only dampen a full-length novel’s promise, a dull first line or paragraph is downright fatal to a short story. Life is fleeting and time far too precious for most readers to waste on the hope that things might pick up in a page or two. A smart author grabs her readers right away and does not let go. Beyond that first line, the writer needs to keep giving the audience reasons to read on. Barring this, it’s more than likely that all but the most stalwart or masochistic members of the author’s own family will abandon the effort, probably with a great sigh of relief.

(2) Stories bogged down by superfluous detail.
In his essay on Charles Dickens, George Orwell remarked on Dickens’ inclusion of unnecessary detail in his novels. These little slices of everyday life were meant to make characters more relatable yet, at the same time, more unique, imbuing scenes with a charming sense of realism. Yet this great surfeit of superfluous detail is the very thing that many readers find so off-putting about Dickens; it can be like slogging through a mud-choked nineteenth-century London street to get anywhere near the bloody point of the story. Description for its own sake, no matter how rich and colorful, does not move things forward, and often ends up exhausting a reader’s patience, if not suffocating their interest altogether.

Some authors seem bound and determined to put a Fit-Bit on their characters’ wrists, cataloging every single step they take, every insignificant gesture (“He handed the barista a crumpled twenty-dollar bill and twiddled his thumbs while waiting for her to hand him the six dollars and thirty-seven cents she owed him in change…”), and every solitary thing they see, starting from the moment they open their eyes in the morning to the second they sit down in front of the computer in their burlap-lined institutional-beige cubicle at work some 6,792 torturously-documented steps later. (Honestly! I’ve encountered stuff just like this, not only from free-range amateurs, but from supposedly respectable traditionally-published authors who should damn-well know better!)

WE DON’T NEED TO SEE ALL THIS UNNECESSARY CRAP! What we need is a hawk-eyed focus on CHARACTERS, their thoughts, and feelings, and needs. If an action has nothing special to do with the character’s motivation within the narrative, the core problem of the story that must be solved, the particular conflict that gave rise to the story in the first place, GET RID OF IT! Details must serve the character’s story, and contribute to the reader’s understanding of that character’s journey to the ending. 

Closely related to the issue of excess detail is the problem of…

(3) Stories full of overelaborate, belabored transitions
In classic animation, when a character had to move quickly from one place to another, the animators did not draw every movement involved in that transition, which would have involved a lot of extra labor and expense. Instead, they used a type of shorthand in which the character’s image was blurred on their way from one cell to the next.  (Look at something like Don Bluth’s An American Tail or The Secret of N.I.M.H. frame by frame to see how this technique worked.)

In fiction, of course, characters sometimes have to get from point A to point B, and readers need to know that they’ve moved. But even the shortest transition passages tend to place a drag on forward momentum, and drawn-out transitions full of needless description can halt that essential momentum dead in its tracks. We don’t need to see everything a character sees as they cross a room, unless, for example, what they see is the object of their most passionate desire somewhere off in the distance. Then, it’s much more interesting to talk about their reaction to what they see—what’s going through their heads as they near their destination. Best advice to avoid landing on the DNF pile is to keep transitions as simple, short and sweet as possible, or consider whether they need to be included at all.

(4) Stories that get stuck in traffic, going nowhere.
I once stopped reading a story when I came across something very much like this:

The secretary got up from her desk and walked on high heels to the area where the filing cabinets were kept. She bent down to reach the drawer marked W, opened the W drawer and filed the folders that were supposed to go under W, then closed the drawer, stood up, and walked back to her desk… [where she spent the rest of the day daydreaming about her super-hot boss].

Aside from the fact that this sentence didn’t put the story forward in any meaningful way until the very end (which I added), the author wasted words and time on a pointless bit of stage business. While movement was depicted, this wasn’t a real transition so much as a trip down a blind alley. Every word in a narrative needs to function in relationship to the totality of that narrative. Every word in a story needs to facilitate and enhance the forward flow of that story.

Stories and writing that are rambling, turgid, and unfocused invariably end up as DNFs. Static passages like the one cited above practically guarantee a DNF, not to mention all those stories that are literally about going nowhere. I am SO SICK of stories that begin with a character stuck in traffic, worrying about being late as they curse their boss or their boyfriend or their own rotten luck, spouting shopworn shite like “Damn him!” and “The bastard!”

And it’s a pretty safe bet that when nothing’s moving…

(5) Nothing Changes
In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig tells us that “stories begin when things change.” I’ve consigned way too many stillborn stories to DNF oblivion for the simple reason that they portray static characters living in worlds where nothing ever truly changes. (This seems particularly rife in erotic romance involving happily married couples, devoid of conflict or transgression.)

Maybe it’s the influence of domestic realism as purveyed by the academic/creative-writing industrial complex of the last few decades, but a lot of authors nowadays seem to think they’re telling an “authentic” story when all they’re doing is cataloging a series of unextraordinary events. (Characters wake up in the morning, make coffee, sit at their desks, or arrive home from work…) Almost nothing compels me to stop reading a story faster than the prospect of having to wade through pages and pages of this bland boring shite. Give your characters a problem to solve! Force them to deal with change! Make then do something, dammit!

(6) Buried in Backstory
Backstory can be important to understanding a character’s present circumstances. If handled well it can lend depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters and the problems they have to solve. Ideally, it should also be entertaining in itself. Unfortunately, I’ve run across a fair number of stories lately in which backstory is presented as a massive data dump right near the beginning, about as subtle as a mudslide. It feels like the authors are treating backstory as something to be presented and gotten out of the way all at once, as opposed to a gradual unspooling of detail, a delicate narrative thread woven through the fabric of the whole. (I recommend the novels of Margaret Atwood to anybody who wants to see how a true master handles backstory.)

Especially in shorter fictional forms, extended backstory does very little to advance a story. I’m not saying don’t use it; I’m saying introduce it subtly, employ it artfully, and resort to it only when necessary, that is, when it is essential to an explanation of the present. Drop it on the reader like a ton of bricks and prepare to have your book disappear into DNF limbo.

(7) “Too too”…
Stories and characters that are too perfect, too pat, too simple, too obvious. Mysteries that are too easy to solve from the get-go. Conflict that requires no real effort to overcome, giving the characters nothing interesting to do. Dialogue that’s too straightforward and “on the nose”. Plots that are too conventional and cliché-ridden, or too reliant on coincidence. To paraphrase a song by Jethro Tull, too many “toos” add up to a DNF.

(8) Sucky Settings
I’m no fan of stories that depend on vaguely ‘exotic’ locales for interest, where, in effect, the setting is forced to do the characters’ work for them. Setting, no matter how alluring, can never redeem an uninteresting character.

Yet, there’s an even bigger issue with setting that’s annoyed me for years; that is when authors fail to take full advantage of a setting’s potential. Sometimes this is because they haven’t bothered to do even the most basic research. More often, it’s because they’ve simply failed to close their eyes and use their own imagination. Look at a room through your mind's eye: what props are available in that room for your characters to use? (View some of the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons to see how Hannah and Barbera took full advantage of even the smallest detail in a particular setting to create brilliant physical comedy! I’d recommend The Bowling Alley Cat, The Cat Concerto, and Cat Fishin’ for a start.)

(9) Trope-heavy stories.
These are slick, facile stories that rely on conventional plot devices, usually so predictable as to encourage readers to “skim” the text. (Think pretty much anything by Dan Brown.)

This issue is especially prevalent in erotic writing, where sex scenes have all the originality and passion of a checklist for an oil change. I’ve complained often about the sing-songy, almost somnolent quality of these scenes; the predictable “I do this/you do that” back-and-forth, seesaw action and reaction. There are very few authors anymore who can compel me to read straight through a sex scene. I am far less likely to skim if the scene is skillfully and subtly integrated into the narrative flow of the text—if the sex doesn’t seem like an authorial obligation or a passionless afterthought.  NEVER GIVE READERS AN EXCUSE TO SKIM!!!!!

And other common and extremely irritating issues:
(10) Clunky, awkward or far-fetched plotting.
(11) Poor Pacing.
(12) Head-hopping.
(13) Sloppy editing (allowing many of these other problems to make it into print).
(14) Downright stupid stories that fail to engage viscerally, intellectually, or even on the level of pure entertainment.
(15) Boring, annoying, or dismally forgettable writing (with the gentle admonition that some things truly are a matter of individual taste).