It's hard to believe that this is already EFTBB's third Best-of list, but here it is, nonetheless. (You can check out the lists from 2012 and 2013 if you don't believe it, either!) These are, as always, the books that struck a chord in me, moved me, inspired me, and turned me on. These are the books that, when I think back over the past year, have stayed with me; the books I still think about, wonder about, dream about, and love. I hope you will love them, too. Enjoy!
THE BEST OF 2014
Rod Kierkegard: Adultery: The Scarlet Alphabet
Donna George Storey: Picture Perfect
Janine Ashbless: Fierce Enchantments
Elizabeth Schechter: House of Sable Locks
Madeleine Shade: Porked and Rumpled
Elizabeta Brooke: Darkly Delicious Short Stories
D.L. King: Her Wish is Your Command
Gabrielle Harbowy, ed.: Jacked In: Transhumanist Erotica
Kathleen Tudor, ed.: Like a Trip Through the Mirror: Lesbian Love in Alternate Realities
Jeremy Edwards: Spark My Moment
Janine Ashbless: Cover Him with Darkness
M. Christian: Love Without Gun Control
An easy choice for best of the year, Rod Kierkegard’s Adultery: The Scarlet Alphabet is a comic gem, a cerebral masterpiece of contemporary social satire slumming as breezy sex farce, with a bit of trenchant literary criticism thrown in for good measure. The author’s razor-like wit is stropped with just the right amount of cynicism, which he employs not so much to lay bare the paradox and folly of modern life as to gleefully vivisect the whole animal, pulling back layers of pretense and self-deception like tissue to reveal the fragile, frightened egoist’s heart beneath—all the while managing to be funny as hell for more than 300 pages.
Orlando Plummer is a tenuously tenured professor of Traditional English Literature at upper-Manhattan’s ultra-PC Lumumba University (three guesses as to what that reference oh-so thinly veils). A self-described academic “performance artist” with the veneer of an Oxbridge pedigree and not a single creative or ambitious cell in his body, Orlando is, as he himself puts it, a man without a heart, incapable of feeling guilt, only fear. And there is much to be afraid of in this labyrinth of Orwellian academic bureaucracy where PC culture has run not merely amok, but deep into the province of the surreal; where New Age psychobabble and deconstructionist gobbledygook have assumed the solemnity of cultic scripture, and where a career-ending sexual harassment complaint is only a direct look in the eye away.
Accordingly, in response to Orlando’s obsessive philandering, the wife he loathes but cannot leave arranges a series of “couples dates” with the wealthy Roger and Arabia Fliederman. Ultimately, of course, wackiness and extremely expensive polyamorous group-therapy ensues. Love triangles, meanges à quatre, impromptu quintets, poly-quads, and dysfunctionally sexless sextets form and disintegrate with the manic promiscuity of some microscopic multi-celled community, the narrative convolutions a gaudily variegated mosaic of multi-cultural intercourse.
References to Japanese No and Kabuki Theater are a sort of recurring literary symbol in the novel, a principle of continuity that effectively holds the structure up despite its sprawling eclecticism. Other marvelously arcane references abound, everything from the Tale of Genji to the Orlandos of Ariosto and Virginia Wolf, the novels of Thackeray and the short stories of Irwin Shaw. Recommended with several extra soupçon of pure gusto. Run, don’t walk to get your hands on a copy of this one!
Picture Perfect: The Best of DonnaGeorge Storey (The Mammoth Book of Erotica)
Donna George Storey clearly understands that the quickest way to an intelligent reader’s turn-on is through his or her brain—as these six superbly-crafted short stories so amply demonstrate. All of them are impressively understated, yet powerfully, ineluctably sexy. Storey’s approach may strike some as oddly low-key, perhaps a tad too cerebral and slow-paced for the average smut-slut, the heat-factor a bit on the lukewarm side for the more voraciously undiscriminating members of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am crowd. Yet, this author clearly knows her audience, richly rewarding those willing to stay with her. Seldom falling back too heavily on paraphilic gimmickry or kink for the sake of mere shock value, never descending into gratuitous raunch or vulgarity, the aphrodisiacal potency of the writing is nonetheless undeniable. If this is “vanilla” it is the sweetest, most potent vanilla one could ever hope to taste—the kind a body could get happily drunk on, and never regret the hangover.
This is marvelous writing by the standards of any genre, and there is a good deal to be enjoyed here, from the pruriently playful title story to Spring Pictures, a return to the world of Amorous Woman, Storey’s outstanding novel of life in Japan, with all its deeply inscrutable erotic mystery and breathtaking wonder, to the odd sensual magic of Being Bobby, a diverting tale of imagination and physical empathy, to the outstanding To Dance at the Fair, a multi-part short story with the complexity and impact of a full-length novel, remarkable for its wealth of erudition, insight, and depth of feeling.
These ten deliciously diverse stories reveal a vivid, wide-ranging imagination—one is struck by the sheer breadth of Ashbless’ inventiveness, her natural gift for story-telling honed to acute sharpness with rigorous intellectual focus and well-practiced craftswomanship. Covering all the archetypal bases from folk ballads, myth, legend, and fairytale to futuristic sci-fi, well-researched historical fiction, contemporary horror, paranormal thriller, and post-apocalyptic action-adventure, there’s something for everyone in this wondrously abundant, cerebrally and erotically stimulating, perpetually entertaining collection.
Personal favorites include The King in the Wood, a marvelous glimpse into the life of ancient Rome, where the erotic and the sacred were often one in the same; Sycorax, a delectably sexy re-imagining of The Tempest, re-casting sweet Miranda as a rather adventurous wild-child; At Usher’s Well, based on an old folk ballad (familiar to many from the version recorded by the folk-rock group Steeleye Span in the 1970s) in which the tale of three-doomed brothers’ homecoming is related from the point of view of the serving girl who loved them all in life; and A Man’s Best Friend, the story of a wandering bard, seeking out the young widow of his fallen comrade, a gorgeously detailed story, told with such familiar ease and poignant beauty that it seems to come alive within and all around us.
Ashbless’ tales are full of lively spins and twists that almost always surprise, yet never fail in retrospect to seem exactly right, as with Bolt Hole her steamy, claustrophobic take on the zombie apocalypse; or the portrayal of BDSM-as-PTSD-therapy for emotionally scarred vampire hunters in The Last Thing She Needs, or the pleasingly Heinlein-esque The Military Mind, in which a squad of futuristic Marines bonds with the aid of a sexy telepath. Turnabout is more than fair play (or foreplay) in Knight Takes Queen, in which the familiar legend of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is transformed into something that neither Mallory, T.H. White, or Lerner and Lowe would ever have thought of, a twist so ineluctably sexily perfect that readers will be nodding their heads even as they sit gape-mouthed, trying to get their minds around what they have just imagined.
Elizabeth Schechter fuses diverse genres with such artful subtlety that we barely notice the genius at work before our eyes. Steampunk, erotica, fairytale romance, horror, sci-fi; Schechter does it all so deftly, blends it all so seamlessly, we are left wondering by what weird and wonderful magic such stories are created. Her latest novel Hose of Sable Locks is based on The Succubus, one of the most memorable short stories in the D.L. King-edited steampunk erotica anthology Carnal Machines. The original short story, related entirely from the melancholy perspective of a dominatrix-automaton in an exclusive London brothel, becomes the first chapter of the novel, virtually without alteration. But now, Schechter has expanded her somewhat narrowly defined steampunk/BDSM story-verse as well as her narrative point-of-view into the realms of alternate world history, gothic horror, mystery, and romance. We learn The Succubus’ fascinating and disturbing backstory along with that of William, the young man she comes to love and long for as no other. An artificer or mechanical scientist, William just on the cusp of majority, is a virtual prisoner in his own home, under the sway of his grasping uncle, his life, present and past, not wholly his own.
The brothel itself, a sort of Victorian BDSM Disneyland, complete with automated pirates in one of its many sexy theme rooms, becomes a character in the story; the too-long neglected machinery in its dusty attics and crawl spaces akin to a beating heart, keeping everything in operation, yet vulnerable and dangerous. William is drawn to the house as much by his scientific curiosity as by his need for physical release and psychological clarity. The very-human soul of The Succubus longs to help the young man overcome the demons of his past.
Schechter is not only an engaging storyteller, but a serious, intelligent and perceptive observer of the human condition. Among other things, I was refreshed and delighted by the author’s sensitive, beautifully naturalistic treatment of William’s bisexuality; the luminous descriptions of the polyamorous m/f/m relationship he enjoys as a student, and the romantic white-knight chivalry in his endeavors to rescue The Succubus and be united with his love. Amazing! Fantastic! Glorious! All this and more. I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter as each day drew to a close, and I suspect that readers with more unregimented time on their hands may gobble it up in a single sitting.
These gripping, intensely erotic retellings of familiar fairytales are vividly conceived, expertly executed, and make for some of the most thoroughly entertaining light reading published in recent memory. Madeleine Shade brings impressive erudition and deep psychological insight to her seductively ingenious craft, all the while remaining accessibly down-to-earth and mind-blowingly steamy—in itself, a feat akin to magic! Shade thoroughly mines each tale for its unique pscyho-erotic potential, further refining them with a frank contemporary sensibility. These are not the bowdlerized bedtime stories of Andrew Lang or Joseph Jacobs; here, the princesses and fae folk are all grown up and seething with grownup passions, portrayed with near-palpable intensity.
Porked, Shade’s twist on The Three Little Pigs amuses on many levels. Beyond its deliciously compelling storyline, readers will find is a puissant exploration of issues of self-perception, body image, and sexual ethics. A much simpler tale, but in its way no less fascinating, Rumpled offers readers a rare and tantalizing glimpse into the world of erotic lactation, still one of the most obscure, taboo-shrouded subgenre niches in all erotic writing, here illuminated with surprising taste and sensitivity.
Shade has expertly turned these once-simple stories into something resembling the cornerstone of a vast novelistic edifice; a new and exciting erotic-fantasy “verse”, familiar, yet uniquely her own, in which characters from each story end up crossing paths with the familiar ease of the dramatis personae in a Dickens’ novel.
Elizabeta Brooke is that rare creator of erotic fiction that is at once beautifully written, sharply perceptive, and probingly intelligent, but also thoroughly entertaining. She occupies her character’s heads with such seeming ease and naturalistic empathy that readers cannot help but be drawn in. Brooke’s work is always sensually charged, with rich, vibrantly erogenous atmosphere, never failing to touch us on an acutely visceral level. And yet, she does not shy away from psychological conflict or moral complexity—all-too rare in literature nowadays, and virtually unheard of in erotica. More than anything else, this is what makes Brooke’s work extraordinary, and, ultimately, destined to last.
It is thus something of an occasion to celebrate the appearance of this new collection of five short stories. Representing Brooke’s entire output in the form to date (including her Best-of-2012-cited masterpiece Poe), Darkly Delicious Short Stories offers readers the rarest of gifts; sexy tales that they will actually want to read more than once.
The new stories in this collection reveal the author’s movement in a somewhat more accessibly mainstream direction. Stella: An Erotic Kidnapping is a diverting, if fairly lightweight action/adventure piece with flashes of comic irony and a satisfying last-second twist; a heist caper infused with nostalgic “what-if-ing” and a bit of marvelously steamy present-moment “why-not-ing” as well.
The general plot description of Knock makes the story sound mundane, almost like a softcore vignette, far more ordinary than it truly is. Susan, a thirtysomething housewife, reduced to selling cosmetics door-to-door, rings her best friend’s bell, only to be met at the front door by the friend’s handsome eighteen-year-old son in nothing but a towel . . . and you can probably guess where things go from there. Except that Brooke has a few interesting new twists and turnabouts with which to surprise her readers.
The superbly affecting Roj begins with the promise of a psycho-erotic masterpiece, skillfully building tension in a simple narrative structure, though, in the end, the characters may dwell too heavily on process—but oh! What a journey it is!
Wryly satirical on one level, funny, poignant and perceptive, Prissy: An Erotic Act of Kindness offers an irresistibly sardonic take on adolescent voyeurism, and the bewildering nature of “old sex” as seen through the eyes of relative inexperience. With its realistic and sensitive portrayal of adolescent emotion in the context of satiric fantasy, this is certainly one of the most enjoyable stories of the year.
While the four newer stories in this collection do endeavor to reach a broader audience, their genre aspirations do not detract from their decided literary quality and substance. Though one may complain from time to time about the excesses of genre erotica, ultimately, the only unredeemable sin in literature is bad writing, a crime of which no one will ever honestly accuse Elizabeta Brooke. This truly delicious collection is highly recommended.
D.L. King is probably best known as the editor of several award-winning erotica anthologies, but is also a superb erotic raconteur in her own right, and this collection of twenty-one well-crafted short stories reveals an impressively prolific and perceptive artist with a teeming and colorful imagination.
Bondage, female domination and voyeurism are the author’s unifying themes, whether pursued as a profession (The Tao of Lust, Mistress of Carabas) or spiritual passion (Perhaps—A Worthy Offering), a lark for curious tourists (A Different Kind of Reality Show, Private Viewing), therapy (Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones Will See You Now), or the creative pastime of adventurous married couples (Festival of Lights, Big Night). King has a gift for revealing the sensual essence of the commonplace.
Most of these stories feature contemporary urban settings. King is very much at home in the clubs and converted loft apartments of Brooklyn. Her characters are more often than not relatably bourgeois, occupying a world somewhere halfway between the sterile high-rise heaven of New York’s most extravagant conspicuous consumers, and the ant-like working stiffs who struggle in the streets below, whose unstinting—and mostly unseen—efforts truly make the city run.
One of the most imaginative, deeply engaging stories in the collection—one of the best I’ve read in some time, in fact—is the absolutely superb Perhaps—A Worthy Offering; atypical in terms of setting and atmosphere, it delves more deeply into spiritual and philosophical space, while offering delightfully sensuous entertainment as well.
The author, who admits to suffering a great deal from self-doubt, shows the rest of us how it ought to be done. Her personal demons, hang-ups, worries, and divers doubts are akin to the irritations that ultimately produce pearls.
Erotica at its best invites readers to open their minds, to explore the rich quantum multi-verse of the human condition, correlating our most basic instincts with our most complex emotions, finding the wormhole-like connections between the subtlest physical stimuli and the deepest wellsprings of thought. Science fiction, too, at its finest, tells a richly human story from a uniquely informed point of view. Whether we call it sf, sci-fi or speculative fiction, the genre is ultimately “about” illuminating uniquely human truths, exploring the limits of human potential, ethics, and the nature of imagination itself.
The seven stories in this stimulating, sometimes disquieting collection of erotic speculative fiction portray diverse futures for humanity, some Bladerunner-ishly bleak and gritty, others gleaming and sterile as the civilization portrayed in Huxley’s Brave New World, though all of them conceive realms in which technology has either enhanced or fundamentally altered the physical and psychological boundaries of the sexual experience. Each story invites the reader to imagine and explore the fascinating erotic potential of these technological enhancements. Telepathy and shared sensations become a simple matter of neural interface, as in J. Pape’s Sweet Memories, and A Trap Self-Sprung by Nalu Kalani, offering a macabre twist on the conventional D/s narrative, with a bit of tentacle titillation thrown in for good measure. Sasha Payne’s pulsing, punkish A Sweeter Science is reminiscent of some of the great post-apocalyptic epics like Bladerunner and Akira—especially the former in its portrayal of forbidden human-robot love. Docking Maneuvers by Cynthia Hamilton may be the most purely entertaining story of the bunch, relating a steamy f/f encounter with some extremely imaginative writing about sex toys of the future.
Peter Tupper’s Upgrade is a beautiful, melancholy, elegiac but ultimately uplifting tale of one man’s final memories of physical sensation before transitioning to a new form, leaving behind and transcending the body in order to become a being of pure intellect. But not abandoning human curiosity. “When there is no possibility of loss,” Tupper tells us, “action becomes trivial. Even if we can’t die, We can feel fear, and feel even more ashamed because of that fear. We need to try new things. We need to find something that scares Us.”
Here, readers are at last invited to ponder some of the ethical dilemmas posed by Transhumanist (H+) philosophy. What does it mean to sense, but not to feel? Has rapid technological advance ultimately doomed humanity in outpacing the natural course of our evolution? Can even the most sophisticated enhancements ever truly displace the sublime, simple pleasure of human touch?
Harbowy has perhaps saved the best for last with Peggy Barnett’s marvelous, lyrical, horrifying Teneo, Tenere, Tenue. Pygmalion meets punk in this vision of a world in which have-nots are forced to scrounge and scavenge while the privileged classes cast off their corpses, preserving their heads to await a brighter, even more heavily enhanced future. Here, a young, lonely artist forages medical-waste dumps, seeking body parts for a new, daringly macabre sculpture, the face like the image of the Madonna in an ancient icon, the body that of a many-armed goddess with the discarded hands of dead women.
Science writer Ronald Bailey has called H+ “the movement that epitomizes the most daring, creative, imaginative and idealistic aspirations of humanity.” He might well have been describing the stories in Jacked In as well.
The five stories in this intriguingly focused collection of f/f erotic romance draw inspiration from a wide range of fantasy and speculative fiction, everything from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to The Butterfly Effect, True Blood, Quantum Leap, and the famous Mirror Mirror episode of the original Star Trek series. While authors seldom like to be reminded of their influences—“Gosh! You write just like [insert name here] . . .”—it is the true artist who knows how to take good preexisting story-stuff and rearrange its atoms into something dazzlingly novel.
Alternate realities, whether glimpsed fleetingly in a fitting room mirror (as in R. Anne Sawyer’s So Quite New a Thing) or experienced to their sensual full (Reflections by Kate Dominic) offer a fascinating and diverse range of ideas for fiction. Quantum possibility (new parallel realities theoretically created by each choice we make) and alternate personal history are explored with poignant and powerful effect in Annabeth Leong’s The Universe Where Katie Lived, in which orgasm itself brings new dimensions into existence—an experience to which many lovers can well relate. In Kathlene Tudor’s Into Tipera—perhaps the most heavily traditional-sci-fi influenced story of the lot—a scientist defies authority and risks her life to prove her theories concerning the possibility of travel between alternate space/time dimensions. Vivian Jackson’s Game Fae is a delightful contemporary fantasy tale wherein an overworked video game designer finds herself drawn into a world more fascinating and sexy than the most extravagantly imagined cyber environment. Just one of many delights to be found in this marvelous collection.
Jeremy Edwards’ erotic fiction is, as ever, sunlit and cerebral, stylish, sensual and smart, light as air and heavy as thought. Oh, and did I mention funny? Mustn’t forget the funny; can’t, in fact, forget it after the two or three times I nearly passed out from laughing so hard.
Edwards is clearly in love with language—undoubtedly a good thing for a writer—fetishizing the idiosyncrasies of words the way almost all his characters seem to fixate on women’s panties. He likes to toy with connotation; test the supple bounds of metaphor and innuendo, engage in gentle, nerdish foreplay with his phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, feel them growing, changing, metamorphosing under his promiscuously practiced hands, making love to them, calling new, ever-more pleasantly surprising ideas and images into existence.
Edwards’ characters are invariably agreeable, thoughtful, introspective, enthusiastically willing, and astonishingly articulate where discussions of process are concerned; especially discussions of process occurring during the sex act itself. Look! Nerds want pretty much the same thing as everybody else. It’s just that sometimes we like to talk about the things that excite or frighten or turn us on in greater detail than the average moan or grunt can convey.
The mood throughout these stories is unchangingly positive, like a two-hour concert of chamber music played entirely in a sunny C-major; rich in delights to be sure, and yet, over time the mind needs some variety to stay focused. In the absence of conflict, most of these stories convey a kind of wry detachment, rather like the protracted musings of some highly articulate smartass—a smartass with an abiding derrière fetish, and an obsession for panties as colorful and varied as the fruit flavors at Baskin-Robins’. Not that any of this is a bad thing, though, perhaps, the collection ought best be taken in smaller doses.
Complaints aside, this is one of the best single-author collections of short erotic fiction to appear in quite some time; unfailingly droll, effervescent, stimulatingly abundant, and consistently, happily surprising.
Cover Him with Darkness is an intense, engaging, grandly imagined, intelligent, entertainingly well-paced and very—very—sexy story; erotic romance writ large
Indeed, all the familiar elements of the typical genre story are here; the smart, plucky, headstrong heroine, the attractive, gentlemanly, ever-attentive sweet guy—“Mr. Maybe”—and the hero, the handsome, brooding, dangerous, perpetually-exciting bad-boy with the deep dark past who sets the heroine’s heart (among other parts) aquiver in ways the sweet guy never could. Except this bad boy is really bad—we’re talking bad on a cosmic scale here. It turns out the “hero” of this romance is nothing less than a fallen angel:
Ashbless’ young heroine, Milja, takes on the role of Pandora in this mythic morality play; drawn to the handsome captive imprisoned beneath her family’s small Orthodox shrine in the mountains of modern Montenegro, her natural curiosity about the creature is at first colored by pity, and later tinged with lust. Sensing trouble, her father, a priest of the Serbian Orthodox rite, sends her away to the US, but the young woman cannot get the image of the bound man out of her mind, even in bed with her new American boyfriend:
Inevitably, all hell (or, at least, a substantial part of it) breaks loose when Milja returns home and frees the angel from his ancient bonds. The story takes fascinating turns into paranormal action-adventure, ancient Christian myth, and contemporary ecclesiastical-political intrigue, from medieval Balkan monasteries and mountain fortresses to the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada and the New-Age communion of Burning Man.
I hesitate to draw the obvious comparison here. Ashbless’ tale of ancient texts and ruthless churchmen at first seems of a piece with some Dan Brown thriller, though Ashbless is a much better writer—certainly far more intelligent and imaginative than the purveyor of The Da Vinci Code. A more apt comparison might be early Anne Rice; in scale and pacing this novel is pleasingly reminiscent of books like Queen of the Damned, without the tiresome existential inner monologues or cloying narrative excess that overtook Rice after the first blush of literary and financial success.
Apparently the first volume in a projected trilogy, Cover Him with Darkness ends with a cliffhanger worthy of Lord of the Rings, and leaves us breathless for more!
Is there any style or genre that M. Christian can’t (or won’t) write in? After reading this very-fine short story collection from one of today’s most prolific professionals, I’m leaning heavily towards “no”. The ‘m’ in M. Christian seems to stand for “multi-faceted”, or possibly “mega-multi-tasker”. The guy certainly is versatile, as well as daring, imaginative, often funny, and seldom—if ever—unentertaining, one of those writers who seems to be everywhere at once, though if he has, in fact, cracked the saintly secret of bi-location, he’s not talking.
Readers get a broad sense of Christian’s range in Love Without Gun Control, the author’s 2009 self-compiled and –published collection of short fiction, most of which originally appeared in genre anthologies, now-defunct niche-specific literary magazines and long-since cached or dead-linked websites. These fourteen stories run a dizzying—and impressive—gamut of mood and style, each with its own carefully measured ratio of light to shadow, buoyancy to seriousness, horror to humor, and hope to despair.
Christian has clearly learned from, and distilled the essence of the best examples of 20th-century American fiction, everything from Ray Bradbury and Jack Kerouac to Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King. He does not shy away from his influences, but has wisely allowed them to sing through him as he delves the deep, sometimes silly recesses of the American psyche. The title story is a broad, campy social satire in addition to being a pitch-perfect sendup of old Western movies and TV shows, while Wanderlust and Orphans pay dark homage to the uniquely American mythos of “the road”—think Steinbeck’s musings on Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath, or the arid, windswept vistas of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger and The Stand.
In Needle Taste, Christian shows that he is no less adept at horror of the decidedly psychological variety. Techno-thriller melds seamlessly with High Fantasy in The Rich Man’s Ghost; political satire meets The Zombie Apocalypse in Buried with the Dead, while knotty existential drama and the classic Post-Apocalyptic narrative come together in 1,000, and Nothing So Dangerous, a story of love and betrayal in a time of revolution. Perhaps my favorite stories in this collection are the beautiful, elegiac, Bradbury-esque Some Assembly Required, a narrative at once clever and poignant, and the brilliantly breezy Constantine in Love.
Well worth seeking out--as are all the other titles on this year's Best-of list!