Sunday, February 19, 2017

When Sex Is Not Enough

I’d hoped to share a book review with you this week, but that is not to be. The book in question was written well enough, had a promising premise and an ambitious erotic vision; I got past the first few pages without being terminally turned off or overly impressed. Things did not subsequently improve, nor did they become dramatically worse. In other words, ho hum. I kept myself reading page after page with the notion that, while the book was no great masterpiece, it was nothing I couldn’t slog my way through, and, perhaps, find something worth writing about in the end.

As it happened, I did discover something to write about, though it wasn’t necessary to suffer through to the end in order to find it. The writing had been putting me to sleep—notwithstanding a few pleasingly steamy episodes—and I was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain concentration with something like 400 pages left to go. Then the author gave me an out; made the rankest of rooky errors—the sort of thing any competent editor would have caught immediately, and, very probably like me, been inspired to throw the book across the room (though, with an e-reader, I am denied that visceral satisfaction). The author had carelessly allowed head-hopping to creep into a third-person narrative, probably not even realizing that they were doing it. Granted, this is a common pitfall, and a flaw I might have chosen to ignore had the story been more engaging or the language less simplistically third-grade level. But, given the other doubts that had built up in my mind, this issue was the proverbial last straw.

The author was counting on the novelty of their book’s premise to carry the story—basically, eroticism in ancient cultures—and was endeavoring to employ an antiquated “storybook style” of narrative. But the novelty was not enough. The sex, for all its vibrant plenitude, was not enough. One came away less with the sense of having been entertained than patronized. The auctorial attitude seemed to be that of a patient grownup telling a story to a group of children while greatly underestimating their intelligence.

Sexy content does not in itself absolve an author from the basic rules of writing. Telling a story for adults does not give one license to write like a dolt. It takes more than sex to write a sexy storyCharacters have to be more than pornographic pawns, with no other purpose than to be maneuvered into the next occasion to copulate. Readers looking for more than just a quick stroke—who might actually be inclined to read the entire book—need to recognize the elements of a good story; character, conflict, plot. A conscientious author owes their readers nothing less—a truly fine writer will give them infinitely more.

Personally, I’ve resolved that life is too short to waste on books that bore me. The only thing I truly care about is good writing—I’m open to all sorts of stories, so long as the writing is exceptional, but I am done babysitting dilettantes. I’m done coddling the delicate sensibilities of amateurs who've never  heard a healthy “no”.  It’s time to grow up.   

[Next time: Things I’ve Learned from Reading (and Writing) Erotic Novels] 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review of 'Haven's Fall (Rebel Mage Book II)" by Elizabeth Schechter

Somewhere about the middle of Elizabeth Schechter’s Haven’s Fall it struck me: were one to remove the erotic elements from this story, there’d be a pretty fine YA fantasy/romance novel left over. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—YA offers some of the most imaginative storytelling and fine writing of these times, from brilliant authors like Madeline L’Engle and Philip Pullman to Suzane Collins. The point is, delightful as the sex scenes may be, if one can imagine a story without the erotic, it may be many things, but erotica is not one of them. Granted, there’s a beautiful m/m romance here, a budding m/f love affair and even a bit of bondage (consensual and otherwise), all fine and good. Yet, there’s something about the language, a kind of easy, placid flow that doesn’t make undue demands of the reader or challenge their cozy sensibilities—at least not too forcefully. Then there’s the nice, gentle way these characters relate to one another. All the main characters are so likable—so reflexively agreeable—the temperature of conflict barely rises above a mild simmer till near the end.

In Haven’s Fall, Schechter continues the story of Matthias, the reluctant mage, begun in Counsel of the Wicked (included on EftBB Best of 2015 list). Matthias possesses enormous magical powers of which he himself has never been fully aware, nor has he been trained in the proper use of his magic. At the same time, some sinister person or group, jealous of that power whether because they seek to harness it or destroy it altogether, has set out to capture or kill Matthias. But our hero has one great advantage. His friends: there’s his quiet, strong, patient lover Solomon, his kind and resourceful cousin Tam, Linnea the fearless foot soldier with the ability to track and locate sources of magic, and the wise Gryphon mother Dancer, as well as several new, equally likable characters who will no doubt make appearances in the projected third volume of the series.

Schechter understand that the way to keep people turning pages—and there are a lot of pages to turn here!—is to put her hero in peril and keep him there, never giving him a chance to breathe easy. This does result in a few too many scenes in which Matthias wakes up after having suffered some new and terrible injury, asking what happened to him, while Solomon, Tam, and the healer Illane are always right there to tend his wounds and rehash the events of the previous chapter in the gentlest of tones so as not to disturb Matt’s delicate emotional equilibrium. Magic is used to speed the hero’s recovery before he is invariably hurt in yet another new and horrible misadventure. It does get a bit repetitious in spots, and I came away from many chapters feeling less that essential story had been related than that time had been marked in an entertaining way, stringing me along in anticipation of some as yet unimagined Big And Exciting Thing to be revealed in the not-too-distant future.

Still, there’s a good deal to like and admire here. A novel of this length is not a casual undertaking to be treated indifferently, and Schechter proves once again that she is more than adequate to the task; the writing reflects a lively imagination, brought to the page with solid craftspersonship and practiced professionalism. Her characters may at times be a little too nice—stretching credibility to its curmudgeonly limits—but we are still curious to find out what happens to them. In the end, we are made to care for these people almost as much as they care for each other, and that is something that only a very skilled writer can do.  


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fearless Fiction

Write for oneself, write what you yourself would most identity with, write honestly and unsparingly and fearlessly.

Lawrence Block
from Spider Spin Me a Web: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

Yes! Give me a fearless fiction! I have no interest in the nice, polite, easy, comfortable, comforting kind of story that lulls the incurious mind to sleep. No interest whatsoever in the opiate of happy endings, or the numbing oblivion of cozy genre tropes. I care nothing for the kind of writing that validates the childish prejudices of prudes and prigs, or coddles the self-righteous in their frigid cloisters. Spare me the company of writers who hire themselves out as glorified babysitters for the willfully ignorant and the easily-amused.

Picasso said that ‘true art can never be chaste’ and this is true, as well, for writing. Great writing bares all. A great writer cannot be body shy. Fearless fiction teaches us to face the things that terrify us most, even as we stand naked before the world in all our brazen brokenness, seared but unconsumed. For one cannot live a full and true and meaningful life in a state of fear. If we would use our past hurts and present fears as an excuse to self-censor, even as we would shrink from life, in the end we may find that we have never truly lived at all, let alone written anything of lasting value.

We must venture to upset and unsettle. We must dare to disturb. And we must begin with ourselves.

One encounters far too many uninspired erotic passages with all the allure of a checklist for an oil-change or a pathologist's notes on an autopsy. I suspect that much of this clinically repetitive claptrap can be explained as nothing more than bad writing, plain and simple. But much of it, I think, is the product of people who are ultimately afraid of losing control, who fear the dark depths of their own sexual imagination—or, more likely, the disapprobation of others, and so insist on keeping their fantasies bottled up and under control. In aspiring to create a fresh, fearless fiction, it may be helpful, first, to write down everything—get it all out on the page, whether or not it's worth polishing or publishing—and once these fantasies have been brought up into the light—the bizarre, the weird, the dark, the perverse, the downright sick—once the writer truly knows themself and what they are capable of creating, there is a basis for something good, if not great.

Note that sincere creative courage is not the same as merely venturing to outrage or shock an audience. Many beginners, infatuated with the forbidden or the sheer novelty of naughtiness, assume that erotic writing is naturally extreme in its depictions and must be ‘over the top’ in order to stand out. But these are the illusions of a novice. What makes a story about sex interesting isn’t so much the act itself; it’s the characters who come together to have that sex. Before you can tell an exceptional story about sex, you need to tell an extraordinary story about people; their thoughts, their feelings and their fears, their histories, hungers, hopes and hang-ups; ambitions, jealousies, obsessions, eccentricities, perversions, machinations, nightmares, daydreams and despairs. And, above all, the way these things are imagined, conveyed in language and in gesture.

Eroticism is impossible without imagination. As a physiological phenomenon, sex is neither extraordinary nor particularly interesting—after all, human beings can only ‘fit together’ in so many ways. Fortunately, our sexuality encompasses a great deal more than what lies within the limits of our finite physicality. What makes sex glorious and unique and endlessly fascinating is the way humans apply the infinite power of their imaginations to it.

Writing itself is like sex in this regard: in theory, anybody can do it, but, in practice, relatively few are capable of creating art with it. Doubtless, any half-witted hog can master the basic mechanics of what goes where (and I suspect that almost anybody could write rudimentary porn were they to put half or less of a mind to it); but it takes an extraordinary, thoughtful, sensitive human being to make love or move the world with words.

No. There’s nothing unusual about the ability to write—there’s no great mystery about it at all. This is why people tend to think that writing is easy, and balk at the prospect of putting down a few dollars for a novel or a short story collection—‘after all,’ they say, ‘why should I pay good money for something that anybody can do?’ It’s true, anybody can write, but few truly write well, and only the rarest handful write anything worth remembering.

If our sexuality is microcosm and metaphor for life in its vast complexity and bewildering abundance, those who would write about sex with insight and power must know something of and about life. Indeed, too much ‘serious’ literature envisions a life without sex. At the other end of the spectrum, porn gives us sex without life.  Somewhere in the middle, erotica endeavors to show us a real, human world in which life and sex are unimaginable without each other.

Write sincerely. Write beautifully. Write hopefully. Write fearlessly!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bread and Fiction—A Recipe for Writers

Let’s have some fun, shall we? January is the blue Monday of the year, and this January especially, there are a lot of folks who need cheering up. As it will be several weeks before I can finish reading the first books slated for review this year, I thought it might be enjoyable in the interim, to do a few articles “off the beaten track” just for the sheer pleasure of it. Enjoy this one! (TAS)

To make pumpernickel rye, you will need the following ingredients:

4 cups lukewarm water
2 tablespoons dry yeast
2 tablespoons salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup caraway or anise seed (optional)
6 cups rye flour
4 cups white flour (with 1 additional cup held in reserve)

Place dry ingredients (yeast, salt, sugar, seeds) plus oil in large mixing bowl. Add water and combine. It is essential at this stage to make sure that all measurements are precise: the water must be exactly four cups—no more, no less—and it must be perfectly luke warm—if you place your finger in it, you should not be able to feel either heat or coolness. More than anything else you do or don’t do along the way, getting this fluid base exactly right at the start insures a satisfactory outcome.

Slowly, carefully, one cup at a time, add six cups of rye flour to the fluid base. Stir and combine. (I like to whip the batter at this point, as it results in a nice, fluffy texture when the bread comes out of the oven.) Then, slowly, gently, one cup at a time, add four cups of All Purpose flour. Note here that the stirring gets tough; the dough is thickening and coming together. (Optionally, you may imitate a dalek from Doctor Who exclaiming “Agglutinate! Agglutinate!”). The dough will begin to adhere into sticky clumps: with the mixing spoon—or clean bare hands as need be—work these clumps into a rough mass. Spread a little extra flour on the bench or table before turning the contents of the bowl out onto the bench. Cover the dough with the dome of the upturned mixing bowl, and allow the dough to rest for ten to twenty minutes before kneading.

Once the dough has had a chance to rest, it’s time to knead it. This manual process squeezes voids and air pockets out of the dough. Depending on conditions of ambient temperature and humidity, the dough may be quite sticky at this stage. Use some of the reserved “bench flour” to apply to these sticky areas. Slowly turn the dough and press at it with the heels of your hands—not your fingers!—turn, press and fold, sprinkle flour as needed, turn, press and fold, until the dough surface is consistently smooth and “silky” to the touch.

Press this nice smooth chunk of dough into the bottom of a clean mixing bowl. Cover the bowl and set it in a warm place. The best weather conditions for bread-rising are hot, muggy summer days, but you can simulate these conditions at other times of year by placing a pan of hot water under the mixing bowl, and covering both with a heavy towel. Let the dough rise—that is, allow the yeast to do its work—for one hour and thirty minutes.

When the bread has completed its first rising, dump the risen mass onto the bench, after putting down a little flour. With a clean serrated knife, divide the dough into four equal parts. The dough may, once again, have become sticky in places—as before, use small amounts of flour to “heal” and dry out these areas. Form each quarter into a small round loaf, rolling it steadily in your hands, tucking the dough underneath so as to form a beautiful smooth top. Set these quarter loaves onto a greased metal cookie sheet, cover with a heavy towel and allow to rise one more hour. (The pan of hot water is no longer needed.)

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. After the second rising, place the sheet with its loaves into the oven for forty (40) minutes. Remove the baked bread and transfer the loaves to cooling racks, baste the tops with butter, and allow to cool before cutting yourself a nice warm slice…

Some of you may be asking what any of this has to do with writing fiction … and I’m going to tell you. The recipe I’ve just shared can be seen as a pretty good metaphor for the process of writing fiction. Let’s explore. Remember how I said that the fluid base needs to be just so in order to ensure that something good ultimately comes out of the oven? In writing, too, you need to have a solid grasp of the fundamentals, grammar, spelling, punctuation. The more precise you are—the greater command you have of the fundamentals—the better your work will turn out, regardless of what kind of story you wish to tell.

The flour is like the idea for a story. In fact, several ideas may come together to form the basis for an interesting tale. If skillfully, thoroughly and thoughtfully combined, this mass of ideas, while a bit rough to begin with, will show a great deal of potential. But, just as the agglutinated mass needs a little time to rest before you knead it, so too, the writer needs to be patient in letting their imagination begin to do its work.

Some ideas need more work than others in order to form a solid story. Some disparate ideas resist coming together—make things ‘sticky’ as it were—and a bit of extra attention is required to work them in smoothly.  Patience again, as the dough rises or as the story expands and becomes more vivid in the writer’s imagination. The story is first told inside a writer’s head—it remains only for the author to write the story down…

The dough, formed into loaves is like a first draft. Many writers—Stephen King comes immediately to mind—say that it’s important to set aside the first draft for a time before doing re-writes. And so it is with the process of waiting as the dough rises to maturity. Eventually, you get in, do the necessary re-writing, revising, and editing—incidentally, “edit” comes from the Latin verb meaning “to eat”—and you turn out the kind of book that people will want to read, just as that lovely brown bread comes out of the oven, smelling heavenly, and looking delicious. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

How to be a Better Beta-Reader (And a Better Writer)

My short story Making Hay begins like this:

Her brothers called me Blindy because of the patch over where my left eye used to be…

One of the people I’d asked to beta read this story commented that they weren’t sure how ‘Blindy’ was supposed to be pronounced, suggesting that readers might assume it rhymed with ‘Mindy’. My colleague—in so many respects an absolutely brilliant person—had apparently overlooked the rest of the sentence, which surely indicates the proper pronunciation of the word by placing it in context.

Another beta reader cited this sentence in Making Hay:

… she could do better’n some old one-eyed rambler.

This reader insisted—emphatically—that my syntax was wrong, and that I ought to have written ‘one-eyed old rambler’ instead. Yet, were I inclined to engage in debate with my beta readers over trivial issues, my question would be: Which word do you suppose bears the rhetorical weight of that sentence? Is the emphasis, as you would have it, on ‘old’ or is it on ‘one-eyed’?  In fact, ‘old’ is nothing more than a cadential placeholder here, thus, transposing it to the end of the sentence would, in effect, deplete the phrase of rhythmic momentum and rhetorical efficacy.

The point of this is that, though I certainly make my share of mistakes, in the end, I know what I’m doing; otherwise I wouldn’t be in this line of work. Like a good ship’s captain knows the minutest details of their vessel down to the last bolt and rivet, a competent author knows where they're going, why and how. As Ursula K. Le Guinn tells us in Steering the Craft:

Ultimately, you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work. The judgment that a work is complete—this is what I meant to do and I stand by it—can come only from the writer, and it can only be made rightly by a writer who’s learned to read her own work…

Yet, there are some things—typos, misspellings, the occasional grammatical faux pas—that even the most fastidious author might miss, and this is why beta readers—that second and third and fourth set of eyes on a text—are so important to the editorial process. (I note with a certain smug irony that everyone who beta-read Making Hay for me missed a fairly conspicuous spelling error (“desperate straights” where it ought to have read “desperate straits”), which I eventually caught on my own—thankfully before sending the story to the editor.

Now, I’ve done a fair amount of beta-reading for others myself, and, admittedly, have not always been the sort of help I’d hoped I could be. It’s difficult for me not to be snarky when confronting writers who use phrases like “tussled hair” or “the table groaned under the weight of its nuptials”. My comments to these authors were, respectively, “Gosh! Did his hair get in a fight? Surely you mean tousled hair? and “I didn’t know tables could get married now! Did you, perhaps, mean to say victuals?”

I’m a stickler for accuracy in my own areas of expertise, and tend to become mildly annoyed with authors who try to write stories set in worlds they clearly know little about. I get downright pissed off with writers who show no inclination to do proper research into their topic or setting: it is not my job as a beta reader to do that research for them, even though I may strongly desire to help them make their work better. My sense is that if they come off looking like an amateur, their failure reflects on me.  

Then again, I’ve had a few beta readers who seemed more interested in taking passive-aggressive swipes at me personally than in helping me improve my work. One beta reader who KNEW that I had subsequently changed the title of the story they were reading, wasted my time and theirs typing out several long-ish paragraphs about how the abandoned title was completely wrong, and how I was imperceptive and basically incompetent. I do hope said beta reader felt better after venting, even as this outburst of impuissant bile clearly demonstrates that they’re not nearly as clever as they think they are.

Now, let us consider ways in which the author/beta-reader relationship might be more professional, and consistently fruitful. As in any healthy relationship, both parties have responsibilities and an ethical obligation to be respectful and fair at all times.

What the author needs to know:

(1) It’s important to have several people reading your work. If one beta reader complains about an issue in the text, it may or may not be something the writer should concern themselves with. On the other hand, if two or three readers cite the same problem, the author should, at the very least, sit up and pay attention.

What is the ideal number of readers to employ? I would say three at a minimum for a short story, probably no more than five. You may want more for a longer piece of work like a novel, as there’s considerably more to be ‘caught’.  Note that these are odd numbers: in case one of those “issues” arises, an odd number may be helpful in discerning a clear consensus. On the other hand, it's not wise or helpful to have too many beta readers with too many conflicting opinions: "too many cooks spoil the soup" as they say, potentially causing all kinds of  heartache and creative inertia in the process.

(2) Tell your beta readers precisely what you want them to do for you. If all you’re after is a simple scan for obvious grammatical or typographical problems, say so up front. If you want a more elaborate critique, be specific about what that means.

(3) Give your beta readers a definite time frame in which to complete their work, say “I need this within a week…” Stick to this time frame; don’t pester the readers before the stated deadline. Give the readers sufficient time to do their work. Don’t throw something at a reader a few hours before your deadline—not if you expect a thorough and genuinely helpful response. (This is rude and unprofessional in any case.)

(4) Never argue with your beta readers. Don’t waste your time getting into debates over small details—or even big issues. If you think they’re full of shit, simply thank them for taking a look and say something diplomatic to the effect that you “will take their suggestions under advisement”. If you think they have a point, ask them to clarify and discuss the issue.

(5) Never confuse criticism of your work with criticism of yourself. Don’t take criticism—even if it’s deeply misguided—personally. A true professional takes praise and criticism in equal stride.

What the beta-reader needs to know:

(1) Be prompt in responding. Ask the author for a deadline before agreeing to read and stick to that deadline. Do your work as quickly, thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible within the stated time-frame. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to finish on time, let the author know.  Don’t try to do more than you’ve been asked—but never do less.

(2) Read carefully. It’s wise, where possible, to read the text once over before making any comments. This will help avoid misinterpreting words or phrases that make sense in a larger context. Go back and read a second time, making points as necessary.

(3) Be as diplomatic as possible. Don’t be dogmatic: offer critique in the form of questions or suggestions. (e.g. Did you mean “desperate straits” here? or Suggest “desperate straits” here) It’s OK to be tough, but it’s important also to be fair. It’s one thing to tear into an author’s work—it’s quite another to tear into the author. There’s a word for beta readers who make it their mission to crush a writer’s ego or put them down personally; that word is asshole, and nobody likes an asshole.  

(4) Your job is to help the author make their writing as effective as possible. This means suggesting ways that a text can be clearer, structure more streamlined, and language more concise, expressive and powerful.  Understand, that for all the flaws you may find, the author knows more about the story they’re trying to tell than you do. Your job is to help them realize THEIR vision—not yours.

(5) Conversely, it’s not your job to impress the author with your own cleverness. This is a waste of your time and theirs, and, frankly, leads to some pretty ridiculous exchanges (see the comment on syntax above for example). If you have facts that you think might help improve the writing, by all means, present them—but don’t go beyond the scope of the mission, and don’t be overly disappointed if the author ignores your suggestions.  

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Best of 2016

Here following, sans fanfare, is EftBB's list of 2016's best titles in erotica and adult fiction. Enjoy! TAS

Constraint (Siri Ousdahl)
Auletris: Erotica (Anais Nin)
London Triptych (Jonathan Kemp)
Cautionary Tales from the Edges (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)
Islands (Richard V. Raiment)
Skin Effect  (M. Christian)
The Innocent’s Progress (Peter Tupper)
Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (ed. J. Blackmore)
Blue: A Novel (L.N. Bey)

Constraint (Siri Ousdahl)

Siri Ousdahl’s Constraint is mature literary fiction at its finest, masterfully conceived and exquisitely written, unflinching, dark, disquieting, boldly amoral, never judging its characters or its readers. This story of dubious consent is handled with a seriousness seldom encountered in the BDSM subgenre, a refreshing frankness, trenchant observation turned acutely—and often painfully—inward. Safe, sane, and consensual this is not; dazzling, mind-expanding, and addictive it most certainly is. 

Beneath its ostensibly conventional mass-market paperback blurb of a plot is something unexpectedly original. The material is handled with surprising seriousness and magnificent poise. The characters are psychologically complex and almost always interesting—more often than not because we don’t agree with them, or like the way their minds work, or approve of the actions they may or may not choose to take. Ousdahl does not treat her characters like pawns on a chessboard, but consistently refuses to judge them, or manipulate the reader through them. The author skirts the morality of the situation—a hint of doubt flitting through the main male character’s mind, a word caught on the heroine’s tongue—but, refreshingly, declines to confront their issues head on.

In the past I have complained about writers casually flirting with darkness, psychologically unprepared for the horror and ugliness they awaken within themselves. Here, at last, is a fearless fiction; an author who not only embraces the darkness, but ties it up, bends it over, and makes it their willing slave.

Auletris: Erotica (Anais Nin)

It’s not every year a blogger gets to include a new work by Anaïs Nin on their Best-of list! This year’s publication of Nin’s Auletris: Erotica is itself the stuff of stories, akin to the live capture of a unicorn, or, at the very least, the discovery of long-buried pirate’s gold. What a transcendent thrill to hold this book in one’s hands and read that glorious, hypnotically rhythmic, dream-spinning prose that was and is like nothing else.

Here is everything we have come to love and revere about Nin’s work—everything without which modern literary erotica would never have come to be. The writing is, by turns, poetically inspired, sublime, sensuous, cerebral, steamy, transgressive, disturbing, psychologically searing, and joyfully sumptuous in its amoral abandon.

Of the two stories in this 1950 collection, the extended “original” version of Marcel (later included in Delta of Venus) is decidedly the better, while the long-hidden Life in Provincetown is the true “find”. It would be disingenuous, however, to say that Life in Provincetown, for all its beauty and narrative surprise, is a perfectly finished work. More a promising chunk of literary ore not fully refined, the series of small erotic episodes that make up the whole can feel disjointed at times, even somewhat perfunctory, though this might be expected from “writing to entertain under pressure from a (hated) client” who seemed to have no poetry in his soul, or much of any erotic imagination, something like piece-work that had to be turned out in a terrible hurry. A number of the episodes here bear strong thematic resemblance to tales written years earlier, and now familiar to readers from Delta of Venus and Little Birds; The Hungarian Adventurer and Artists and Models come particularly to mind in Nin’s stories of the sexually-naïve Pietro, which may be most disturbing to “modern” sensibilities. Yet, had Nin cared to apply a more rigorous attention to the editing and polishing of this work, it would—I have little doubt—be among the greatest and most daring erotic stories of the twentieth century.    

In the end, we are left with inspiration!

London Triptych (Jonathan Kemp)

Jonathan Kemp’s 2010 debut novel comes as close to what I would call a complete work of art as anything I have encountered so far this century. London Triptych is a at once a poignant and sympathetically observed character study, a compelling work of historical fiction comprising trenchant social critique, and a vivid evocation of the eternally-unfinished,  perpetually renewed and renewing city of its title. Here, the stories of three gay men from three different times play out and sometimes overlap; Jack Rose, a young rent boy in the late Victorian period, Colin Read, an artist in the cruelly closeted 1950s, and David, a male prostitute, writing a letter to his lover and betrayer from a prison cell in 1998--a poignant echo of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis from a century earlier.

Jack’s search for pleasure and profit lead him into the shabby, exuberant demimonde of queer life in 1890s’ London, where he eventually meets an aging Wilde. Lonely and still deeply naïve at fifty-four, Colin lives a severely buttoned-up existence, in constant fear of being found out, only to be coaxed out of his shell by, Gregory (Gore) a beautiful young model. Growing up in the 1980s, David escapes the stifling conformity of small-town life to seek fortune and adventure in the city as a prostitute and porn actor. The three stories are neatly tied together by Gore, who, in the 1950s is acquainted with Jack, a man by then in his seventies. Gore goes on to become one of young David’s clients in the 1990s.)   

The stories may be as striking for their similarities as their differences: each of these characters makes the ultimate mistake of falling in love where love is forbidden or simply foolish, inevitably leading to betrayal and desolation. There are no happy endings, but only life continuing for better or for worse—fiction is seldom more real than this.

As readers have come to expect, Kemp’s writing is gorgeous, clear and confident with a rich vein of metaphor, often approaching the poetic, yet never becoming overly effusive or strained. Seldom has a debut novel been so well organized or cleverly thought out with such near-perfect economy of expression, eschewing the inessential so as to evoke a world like no other.

Cautionary Tales from the Edges (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)

This extraordinary collection of short tales is, at once, a celebration of the simple beauty of language, a colorful and sometimes terrifying glimpse into the grimly fatalistic heart of Slavic folk culture, and a highly satisfying work of sensually charged entertainment. These twelve stories range pleasingly in mood and atmosphere from the mysterious and macabre—reminiscent of Angela Carter’s treatments of traditional folk and fairy tales—to the broadly humorous, bawdy romps in the spirit of Boccacio, populated with loutish peasants, dirty old men, promiscuous milkmaids, and horny demons in varying degrees of malevolence, ghouls, ghosts, vampires, elemental sprites, and throngs of things that go bump in the magical night.

Yet, as the title of this collection suggests, no story here is without an overt moral component, an appropriate comeuppance for bad behavior, just desserts for greed, lechery, and deciet, infidelty, cruelty, murder—the whole catalog of sins, mortal and venial. The tales are narrated with the occasional poetic aside by the souls of the dead, collectively observing the realm of the living, commenting on human folly, sometimes with sadness, more often with a sort of wearily superior resignation as if to say ‘we see it all so clearly, yet the living make the same foolish mistakes again and again, and we, poor spirits, not wholly beyond care, can only watch, having forever lost the ability to intervene.’

Emmanuelle de Maupassant’s language is elegant and direct, never simplistic or condescendingly obvious. The style is consistent, concise and to the point without venturing off on tangents. This language puts one in mind of the best classic children’s literature, those wonderfully old-fashioned fairy tale collections from the earlier years of the last century, genuine literature that never patronized or talked down to its intended audience, never insulted the reader’s intelligence or dumbed down its content to accommodate the attenuated attention spans of addlebrained TV addicts. The author has done a great deal of research into Slavic folkways, customs and cuisine, and clearly loves the material she is working with—an affection that shines through on every page.

Islands (Richard V. Raiment)

This is an extraordinary book, one of those rare stories that seem, in retrospect, inevitable, as if it had always been part of our consciousness, only waiting for a gifted author to do it justice. In voice and style, Richard Raiment’s Islands is clearly inspired by the classic adventure narratives from the Age of Sail, everything from Defoe to Stevenson. But there is much more here than a simple, action-packed yarn of late-17th-century British mariners, tossed up together by fate upon a remote island, struggling to survive in an alien land against the caprice of the elements and the cruel whims of the sea, battling pirates and slavers—as well as their own deep-seeded prejudices—in order to claim their dignity as men. Islands is also a touching, m/m/f polyamorous romance, a powerful philosophical novel, as wide-ranging and wise as it is acutely observed; stylish, exciting, thoughtful, probing, beautiful, moving, wonderful!

Above all, this is a story of an inner journey, and though introspection comes at times with a shiny aura of anachronism—the relative ease with which the narrator questions
the consciousness of his time, the cultural conditioning, communal beliefs, mores and taboos of a rigidly-defined class society—his struggles are—or ought to be—timeless and universal; the search for who we really are, deep within ourselves, as sexual beings capable of love in whatever form that love might take, without anyone to tell us we must be one thing or another—or enforce their sadistic, ridiculously rigid notions of theocratic ‘natural law’ and propriety upon us.

What makes a fictional character interesting—what makes a character great in the end—is their capacity to grow and change within a set of limitations that place them in situations of intense conflict. Raiment has succeeded most admirably in creating a world almost perfectly suited for the incubation of interesting characters. Beyond the physical setting, a small island somewhere in the tropics off the coast of Africa, two castaways must learn to live and work together—must learn to learn from each other—and find a way to coexist when one of the sailors, Peter, is gay (a “molly” in the parlance of the day) while the other, Tom the narrator, is a rabidly reflexive homophobe. Inner and outer conflict is inevitable, especially when a young woman—an escaped slave—finds her way into their world. Ultimately the two men—islands unto themselves—must find a way to bridge their differences, for, as Donne so famously put it, “no man is an island”—nor can anyone pretend very long to be so if they would be fully human. (Raiment’s title is a stroke of descriptive genius on many levels!)

Raiment’s command of period idiom is without equal in modern historical fiction. His ability to make the older forms of language work so consistently to achieve his present literary objectives is awe-inspiring.  This is an author who has clearly done extensive research, and knows his subject matter in and out, but never bores readers with unnecessary detail, and never wields his superior knowledge like a bludgeon to patronize the less well-informed. There is a graciousness and a humility that shines through on every page, imbuing the storytelling with a rich and rare humanity. 

Skin Effect  (M. Christian)

The nine stories in this intriguing, highly-imaginative, occasionally maddening collection have a deeply personal feel to them. These are not easy, breezy reads: these stories require that readers take a journey—and the road is not always direct or level or smooth. A bit of effort is required—and sometimes, more than a single reading. But, in the end, the reader is richly rewarded with beauty and enlightenment.  

This isn’t ‘hard’ sci-fi or conventional genre erotica, but, indeed, something quite extraordinary: less Frankenstein’s monster genre hybrid than the precocious love child of an optimistic speculative fiction (Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov) and a mature, deeply self-aware literary sensualism. If it must be classified, then I would suggest a brand new subgenre: call it ‘techno-sexual.’

And what do we find in this brave, sometimes bewildering new world? Trans-humanism that does not—cannot—forget its humanity. Awesome technical capability with the aura of magic, though, in the end, it cannot assuage our deepest longings, our atavistic thirst for mystery.  Hyper-connectedness that cannot sate our hunger to touch, and feel, and remember.  

The writing can be dense, knotty, sometimes overlong to a point where potential dramatic impact is diluted, the final ironic twists coming too little and just a bit too late to dazzle. Yet, the collection does have its share of truly amazing moments, inspired imagining,
sparks of the ingenious. Prêt-à-Porter tells a marvelous tale of a futuristic garment that—virtually miraculously—adjusts to the desires and moods of its wearer. The Bell House Invitation brilliantly takes the ideas of collective consciousness and cyber-community to their logical—and, perhaps, a tad disturbing—extremes. The Potter’s Wheel and [Title Forgotten] imagine worlds in which connectedness makes us omniscient yet utterly incapable of knowing our deepest selves. 

At first glance, The Innocent's Progress is a hodgepodge of tenuously connected short episodes. Only later on does the tight interlocking structure of the whole become apparent. And what a world Peter Tupper builds! Drawing on true historical elements, characters, contemporary art and literary landmarks viewed through a haunted stereoscope, this is the nostalgic past portrayed as dystopian future; erotic visions filtered through Victorian fun house mirrors and classic steampunk. The novel casts a cynical beam on its setting, an empire in decay, bereft of optimism, morally reactionary, stratified along lines of class, gender and race, hypocritically repressive wherever sex is concerned. In short, a world rife with seething conflicts and, thus, ripe with dramatic possibility. The characters cast odd shadows, like actors standing before flickering gas footlights on a stage. Indeed, stock-players of an ossified  comedia de l'arte meet no-less rigidly typecast avatars of Victorian 'decency' in the titular opening chapter, engaging in a form of ritualized prostitution off stage. There is always a tinge of melancholy and regret, a sense of loss and foiled aspiration tugging at the heartstrings. But there is adventure--of a cozy sort--flashes of levity like sparks from a fantastical machine as our view of this at-once familiar and strange world gradually expands with each subsequent chapter, 

In The Pretty Horsebreaker and Spirit of the Future, we meet the irrepressible Miss Ccri (based on the notorious Catherine "Skittles" Walters) as she endeavors to do a good turn for the widow of a famous explorer and hero of the empire. (Captain Braen bears a striking likeness to the great real-life translator of the Kama Sutra, Sir Richard Francis Burton, while Lord Hough, Braen's rival and fellow collector of all-things erotic is, as the author informs us in his notes, "a hybrid of Richard Moncton Milnes, later Lord Houghton, and Henry Spencer Ashbee. The oily middleman, Mr. Wycke is a barely disguised Oscar Wilde). Famous literary characters appear in Tupper's world as well: in The Impurity, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is re-imagined sans the original's rigid black-and-white dualism with a rather delicious BDSM element, and a macabre love triangle involving servant girl Mary, at once "angel of the house and dominatrix."

Probably my favorite section of the book, the virtually self-contained  Delicate Work, is Tupper's moving and mature twist on Oliver Twist, the author's self-described attempt to "put the punk back in steampunk". Tangwin, a teenaged orphan living in a vast prison-like institution for 'wayward girls' uses her innate inventor's skills ultimately to escape, but not before finding something wonderfully like love with the most unexpected of partners. For all the seeming lack of sentimentality in its telling, Delicate Work is deeply affecting, and one is left marveling at how the author so skillfully puts us into the setting, and the very soul of his characters.

Beautifully written, fastidiously researched, exquisitely brought to life, The Innocent's Progress is enthusiastically recommended.

This collection from 2011 comprises eight consistently excellent erotic stories, all inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, probably the greatest horror stylist since Edgar Allen Poe. Editor J. Blackmore is candid about the ambivalence of Lovecraft’s legacy and influence; the famous author’s infamous xenophobia and overt racism are problematic to say the least; his seeming fear of everything, very much including sex, was sublimated into a relatively small, albeit bleakly transcendent oeuvre, though it is extremely difficult at times to separate this very-flawed man from his art. It’s a safe bet Lovecraft would not have approved of this collection—certainly not its focus on the erotic—as in many ways, it is an intentional dissection of his own literary soul, the apotheosis of fan fiction in an age that claims to have cast off inhibition, yet still cannot deny the ember of primal dread that gutters deep within its core.

The collection opens with Bernie Mojzes’ Ink, a masteful, funny, and outrageously (wonderfully!) creepy-sexy mashup of hard-boiled detective fiction and Lovecraft’s elder-god mythos. Peter Tupper challenges Lovecraft’s racism head-on in Koenigsberg’s Model with the tale of a bigoted bibliophile who meets his match in the exotically mysterious owner of an antique book shop. Kannan Feng offers a Gothic fairy tale in A Reflection of Kindness,  while Angela Caperton’s Shiek cleverly unfolds a story of occult goings-on in 1920s Hollywood. Annabeth Leong’s The Artist’s Retreat is a broodingly atmospheric albeit probing character-driven story that builds to an explosive denouement. The Dreams in the Laundramat by Elizabeth Reeve returns to Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University in Arkham in a delectably bookish bow to Japanese hentai (tentacle porn). Monique Poirier’s The Flower of Innsmouth gives readers an elegantly-narrated take on the Victorian “creepy old house full of strange relatives” trope. Finally, When the Stars Come by Alex Picchetti returns to the realm of stories like The Dunwich Horror and The Color Out of Space, when a farm girl becomes the willing bride of an ancient god.  

Sheer pleasure from beginning to end, every story in this collection is above average.

Blue: A Novel (L.N. Bey)

There’s much to admire in Blue, L.N. Bey’s promising debut novel that draws its inspiration from some of the great classic BDSM narratives while remaining uniquely true to itself. An ambitious effort, the story is believably scaled, avoiding the credulity-straining grandiosity of so-much half-baked escapism, or the pretentious plot convolutions of would-be epics, which tend to collapse under the sprawling weight of their own inanity. Not that there isn’t a great deal of very imaginative, even fantastical storytelling here—this isn’t some drab novel of manners or cloyingly pointless foray into domestic realism—but everything here is decidedly to a purpose, and almost always to the point. The novelist seems to have learned the lesson some of her characters struggle with throughout the story: sometimes the greatest expressive freedom lies within a narrow set of well-defined limitations.

In essence, Blue is a novel about the pursuit of artistic vision, about the struggle to express one’s genuine self—or, perhaps more accurately, the search for a medium through which one may express that vision—be it film, photography, performance art, or, possibly. something a good deal more personal, subtly sensual and secret. The main characters, each in their own way, are driven by an ideal, and must find their own way ultimately to achieve that ideal. 

Some effort has been made to add variety to the predictable patterns of power-exchange. Bey very skillfully explores the erotic possibilities of everyday activities, and occasionally even manages to bring a dash of joyous levity to the proceedings—virtually unheard of in “classic” BDSM. The author has successfully avoided many of the pitfalls commonly besetting the frosh novelist, those tangent superfluities and preachy, self-indulgent digressions that are more about showing off one’s own cleverness than telling a great story. While one might wish for a more subtle approach to the recapitulation of key plot elements, and greater variation to maintain interest, what readers will find in the totality of this work is something very promising indeed. The writing is assured, but never cocksure, the author’s vision broad but not overreaching. The story is sufficiently interesting to inspire curiosity about what happens next, the rising action is skillfully controlled with a clear sense of dramatic momentum, and the whole thing draws to a logically satisfactory, un-open-ended conclusion, without the pretentious (or mercenary?) promise  of an unnecessary sequel. This novel is a promise of great things to come.