These are not literary masterpieces, and under normal circumstances, I would have given them a pass. In attempting to write explicit stories with broad appeal, both authors fall back, rather lazily, on the imagery, if not the attitude, of conventional mainstream porn. Still, while both books are seriously flawed, even allowing for the obvious “English-as-a-second-language” quality of the writing, I found something to like in each of them. Both are well-enough organized to capture initial interest, and each in its own way has a compelling tale to tell. While I do not recommend either book, I invite curious readers to judge for themselves.
Yumiko Ozawa: Yumiko’s House of Secret Dreams
This is the first in a projected series of books about the life of a contemporary Asian courtesan. It’s not entirely clear whether these are fictionalized accounts, or true stories about the author and her clients. The very personal autobiographical narrative style suggests the latter, but Ozawa is demurely cagey, holding our interest in no small part by keeping us guessing.
Ozawa’s English is quite good, though clearly not that of a native stylist. The narration has the detached feel of English overdubbing in some imported Japanese films; uninflected, dispassionate; a bit stiff. She is at her best when offering glimpses and unique insight into Japanese and East Asian culture. But it is her open-mindedness, her empathy, and above all, her infectious spirit of sensual adventure that hooks us:
I set up this house because I wanted to help people live their most secret dreams. But this is also a place where you can find your true self, a place where the body helps the soul find the right path . . . Do not be shy, my friend. No matter what your age or looks are, you will always find someone who will feel your charm. I have felt the charm of many men, and given myself to them, feeling happy when they enjoyed their sexual fantasies with me. I love to look into the eyes of my lovers and see that they desire me, and they see that I desire them as well. That is why I chose this career. I am not one of those who pretend. . .
Unfortunately, the writing loses much of its artless charm when the narrator tries to relay secondhand her clients’ stories, which are little more than shallow porn-inspired vignettes full of clichéd descriptions of always-unbelievably huge body parts, spontaneous threesomes, convulsive, earth-moving orgasms and bad road-construction metaphors. (Granted, traditional Japanese sexual iconography is quite exaggerated by Western standards, but that's still no excuse for bad writing.) The well-worn devices of the epistolary novel simply don’t work very well here. In the end it’s Yumiko herself we want to be with, and her gentle, welcoming voice we want to hear.
Alicia Torres: The Devil’s Breath
A beautiful, sociopathic femme fatale cuts a swath of sexual intrigue and criminal mayhem through contemporary Colombian society in her search for revenge. Noone escapes this ruthless anti-heroine’s seductive wiles or the mind-altering drug she employs to manipulate her marks, whether the naïve British and American tourists she meets in the bars of Bogota and Cartagena, or the brutal narco-trafficker who destroyed her family years earlier. Sexual sparks and tracer bullets fly thick and fast in The Devil’s Breath, with near equal impact.
This purports to be a true story, though I remain skeptical, especially as much of the plot is wildly over the top. The story is not uninteresting overall, and holds together quite well. The tone and cadence of the narrative do seem authentic (one of my ex-in-laws was from Colombia). The sex scenes are sufficiently steamy, if somewhat formulaic and repetitious, liberally borrowing all the familiar visual clichés and triple-X tropes of lowbrow hardcore porn. Unsurprisingly, the writing is often less than stellar, and the editing is downright amateurish in places.
Yet, in spite of her many literary shortcomings, Torres does manage to succeed in portraying a character with some depth, more than a few interesting thoughts in her head, and even a smattering of human empathy. Good sex writing not only gets into the characters’ beds, but, almost as importantly, into their heads, and the author redeems herself quite well in this regard.
Not so, the publisher, who, I think, must be faulted for attempting to promote this story as a heavily sensationalized pulp-sexploitation piece, when, in fact, it’s more of a splashy telenovela, often quite explicit and gratuitously graphic to be sure. But ultimately the sex scenes have a perfunctory feel to them, as if added in more for commercial reasons or length-padding, than narrative value. Several early passages are conspicuously “redacted,” which seems more a crass, ham-fisted marketing ploy than an attempt to protect the innocent.
Readers in search of steamy, fast-paced entertainment that feels like low-budget adventure cinema may well find something to like in The Devil’s Breath.