Thursday, December 13, 2012

Two Erotic "Imports" from Yumiko Ozawa and Alicia Torres

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.

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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Best of 2012

These are the books that dazzled me, turned me on and blew me away in 2012. While not all of them fall strictly into the Literary Erotica category, I’ve always believed in getting my orgasms where I find them, and a good book is truly an orgasmic experience, regardless of where it ends up being shelved.  The one thing that all these titles have in common is a fearless originality; an adventuresome spirit—a willingness on the part of the author to break out and try something new, damn the prudes and censors, full steam ahead. Readers rejoice!  


These are stories to be savored, reflected upon and dreamed about, returned to again and again; and always with that same quickening delight of first discovery. Germain's language is lithe and lyrical, prose ravished by poetry; dark fantasies turned on subtle lathes of light. Rare alchemy indeed; these tales are evocations of the elemental drawn from the most exquisite strata of quantum possibility. The author captures those infinitesimal flashes of human experience--the unconsciously commonplace--drawing out what we know in our bones, yet could never express in anything less than music, at least until now. Ms. Germain is fearless in exploring the shadowy erotic impulses at the heart of some of our most chastely cherished legends. She does not blink when the disturbing logic of her premise is carried out to its inevitable, sometimes horrific conclusion. It is a rare author who can so easily break out of established genre patterns to create settings and characters with such consummate economy and soul-searing truth. Germain invites her readers to use their own imaginations in concert with hers. These stories take shape before our eyes as if viewed from over the shoulder of a master artist at work on a drawing; a single boldly sketched line is all it takes to define a whole new world; a few more delicate strokes of the pencil, a hint of shading, bring that world and its remarkable inhabitants to unforgettable life. We may, perhaps, be left guessing, pleasantly, at the end, having been given only enough information as our imaginations require to soar.



With Never, Elizabeta Brooke has accomplished a rare feat in erotic literature, creating an elaborate, extended, character-driven story that remains exciting and fresh throughout. Clearly the product of a brilliantly fecund sexual imagination, the story is as vivid as it is varied. Cleverly conceived, elegantly executed and beautifully written, this book has the potential to become one of the great classics of literary erotica. The author’s insistent emphasis on plausible story and character development is remarkable; a probing, deeply sympathetic exploration of her subjects’ inner lives. This takes time to do well. But like the most exquisite foreplay, Brooke’s narrative builds deliberately, logically, inevitably, missing no opportunity for psycho-sexual drama and illumination.  For all the magnificently explicit portrayals of orgiastic excess and visceral delight to come, there are no one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs or stock characters here; these are living beings, complex and complete; each with her—or his—own set of deeply personal conflicts and contradictions. But make no mistake; while this is clearly a well-crafted piece of writing with genuine literary merit and substance, “Never” is also one hell of a sexy read; a veritable smorgasbord of sensuous wonder where we are invited to cast off our inhibitions and revel in every exotic texture and taste. Each new scenario in Brooke’s vibrant omnisexual universe is as unabashedly adventuresome as it is refreshingly irreverent; no obeisance paid to taboo here; no patience for prudery, and, best of all, no squeamish self-censorship—the proverbial lead balloon of far too many failed erotic narratives.  Elizabeta Brooke’s Never is a nascent masterpiece, an unburnished gem; it truly deserves to be read, seriously discussed and widely celebrated.


The eleven very-short BDSM-themed stories in this collection are sexy and cerebral; breezy, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny and utterly addictive. The author strikes just the right balance between light fluffy diversion and crunchy intellectual substance, letting his horny inner nerd come out to play delightfully kinky games; whimsically creating new words and worlds even as he establishes fascinating new paradigms for the next generation of erotic fiction. Informed by everything from Roland Barthes and Stanislaw Lem to Nu Fetish, industrial bondage; flash fiction and on-line piracy; underground music festivals, and those pulpy sexploitation magazines of the 50s and 60s with their lurid cover paintings and thick black “censor bars” redacting all the naughty bits in the grainy photos accompanying the articles, Fulani’s stories draw their inspiration from an astonishingly diverse cosmos of commonplace artifacts; vacuum cleaners, toasters, plumbing supplies, burned out autos, melted plastic forms, all weirdly apt when turned to the author’s singularly amusing purpose. And yet, there’s great beauty here, too, however unexpected; the language can be lyrical even as it educes degradation and pain; the poetry of domination and submission set amid dystopian landscapes of industrial decay and urban blight. Entertaining, sexy, hilarious, Fulani’s The Museum of Deviant Desires is a trenchant, self-effacing critique of contemporary erotic literature with its finger firmly on the g-spot of popular culture; a treat, not to be missed.


Elizabeta Brooke: Poe

This sexy, bleak, beautiful, occasionally disturbing short story is well worth the adventuresome reader’s attention. Talented Australian writer Elizabeta Brooke invokes for us a gritty, gray urban world of alienation and despair, illuminated with aching lyricism and deep emotional insight. Brooke’s characters vividly embody W.B. Yeats’ notion that “sex and death are the only subjects that can interest a serious mind”; Eros and Thanatos; the erotic, creative impulse and the self-destructive death wish, not so different from one another in the final analysis. In the author’s deep-probing vision, we find ourselves at that terrifying nexus of sex and death; flesh and mind, introspection and lust. Perhaps most memorable and poignant is Brooke’s  portrayal of her characters’ longing for creative intimacy—an emptiness only a true artist can know—the poignant search for mutual understanding, the melding of inventive minds.


James Wood: Taking Jennifer

Taking Jennifer is the second entry in Wood’s Erotic Stories of Domination and Submission series.  This taut, well-crafted story offers a new scenario from the surprisingly introspective point of view of a passionate female submissive. The language is never effusive or pretentious; but reminiscent of the finest chamber music, intimate, logical, transparent, without a single note out of place, nor a syllable wasted—extraordinary prose by the standards of any genre. Wood has a keen eye for the most exquisite, often unexpected details. But the true epiphany to be experienced here is in the author’s probing, poignant exploration of his heroine’s deepest thoughts and feelings as she suffers the agony of anticipation—more painful than her master’s physical disciplines—the long minutes of waiting which seem to her an eternity of unrequited need. With Taking Jennifer, James Wood has written the kind of story with the power to inspire a generation of talented, courageous erotic authors. Why should this genre, so steeped in the intricacies of deep human emotions, be left to the hacks? 

Shanna Germain: Beneath Sea and Sky

Ms. Germain is as persuasively adept at sci-fi and paranormal fantasy as she is with more poetically-tinged magical realism and mainstream narratives; her settings, often mysterious, vaguely alien, yet sometimes frighteningly familiar as if viewed through weirdly distorted mirrors, turning taboo on its head and trite assumption on its heels. She takes infectious delight in probing the darker erogenous recesses of familiar legends and fairytales. How, we wonder, can a writer so easily, so believably occupy her characters’ spaces—inner as well as outer?  How is she able to get into their heads so completely, so convincingly? It is, perhaps, Germain’s unfailing sense of wonder that makes these stories so compelling. This is not a naïve or child-like wonder; nor jaded, synthesized sentimentality, the facile façade of lost innocence; but, rather, the inextinguishable joy of discovery; the sublimity of the ever-new.



Adam Penenberg: Virtually True

This techno-thriller from Adam Penenberg is a frenetic headlong rush through a colorful multi-verse of intrigue and illusion, hard-boiled noir and high-tech magical realism; squalid dystopian nightmare and lush cyber seduction; a cosmic data-storm of brilliant ideas and unforgettable imagery. The author portrays a future not so very far off; unnervingly close to present reality for much of the world; less prophetic vision than logical projection. Into this bleak future, Penenberg’s protagonist, journalist True Ailey emerges from the great literary tradition of smart-mouthed gumshoes and hard-boiled reporters, though he has not wholly succumbed to cynicism. A cyber-savant, able to navigate massive data streams manifested within virtual reality; inside these “meta-worlds” True has no equal. But VR addiction—“mnemonia”—has compromised his health, alienated the love of his life, and all but ruined his professional career. Now he finds himself in the capitol of Luzonia, one of the bleaker corners of the developing world, little more than a stringer for a CNN-like infotainment network, itself part of the vast “corpocracy” that dominates the globe.  An old friend offers a tantalizing scoop—a story that could put True’s career back on track—but the friend is assassinated before he can spill the details, and True is left with more mystery than he can handle on his own.  The search for the killer takes the form of classic whodunit with the smartest elements of sci-fi, techno-epic and geopolitical thriller folded into a rich, spicy mix; think Philip K. Dick at his post-apocalyptic perception-bending best including his familiar recurring theme of the phantom twin; the brooding zeitgeist of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the cyber-punk whiz-bang of Max Headroom, and the artist’s unerring eye for the minutiae of human suffering in Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful cinematic interpretation of P.D. James’ Children of Men. The dialogue sizzles in the best “better-than-real” tradition of Robert Heinlein, Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler. But Penenberg is at his most original, vivid and animated when describing the irrepressible life that teams in the dusty slums and choked thoroughfares of the developing world, far below the radar of sheltered Western consciousness. Readers will be richly entertained even as they wrestle with the most acute questions of our times. How do we maintain our essential human connections in an age of hyper-connectedness? How do we keep ourselves grounded in reality when there are so many realities to choose from; one layered thinly on top of another in a perplexing veneer of “maybes?”  What defines sanity in a world where avatar and self have become hopelessly interchangeable? How do we hold on to those genuine but intangible lifelines to our humanity; emotion, intimacy, community?  And, having “evolved” this far, what is the inevitable next-step in hyper-connectedness? Virtually True is a riveting read that leaves us, as most intelligently entertaining books do, with much to think about and replay in our imagination long after our e-readers have been turned off.


Bad girls may not necessarily have more fun—but they’re definitely more fun to read about. I’d guess that they’re also a lot of fun to write about, if this engaging, well-crafted tale from Andre SanThomas is anything to judge by. Mayia is the fourth installment in SanThomas’ superb Realm of Janos series, and very probably the best of the lot so far, combining elements of classic High Fantasy saga and heart-stopping heist-caper, pagan erotic romance and BDSM debauch. One of the real joys of this series over time has been to observe the author’s growing maturity and command of her craft. The writing is lovely, spare, and increasingly more direct.  Having established the rules by which her imagined realm is governed, SanThomas has begun to play with the possibilities within those boundaries, and the results are wonderfully entertaining. Where, in some of her earlier books, I occasionally got the sense that she was too rigidly constrained by her own pre-established conventions, often missing opportunities for drama and conflict; here she begins to flex her muscles as an original creative force, recognizing what great artists have always known, that infinite possibilities are found within a well-conceived set of limitations.  With Mayia, Andre SanThomas has given her readers an unforgettable, entertaining, fast-paced character-driven story, and that is a literary feat in and of itself.

James Wood: Amy’s Choice

Amy’s Choice is a story about voyeurism and erotic dreams come true, beautifully told. The third in a series of finely crafted short stories, this entry offers a sensuous, colorful glimpse into the world of domination and willing submission. At his best, James Wood is a brilliant miniaturist with an eye for the most exquisite details, working with words as a jeweler might work with tiny precious stones; delicately turning and polishing each facet until it becomes luminous. The reader is enthralled by the sheer art of it; the way in which the connection of the minutest detail to the whole is skillfully revealed. Wood’s   sentences are short, elegant, telegraphic; reminiscent of Hemmingway or, perhaps more aptly, Somerset Maugham at his best; and like Maugham, Wood does not judge his characters for their kinks, or begrudge them their excesses. The language itself puts one in mind of certain passages in The Pearl or The Boudoir, those notorious Victorian-era pornographic magazines, utterly scandalous in their day, though by modern standards somewhat quaint, if not downright tame.  Once enticed, readers will find themselves happily enthralled in this lovely shimmering matrix of language and lust. Yes, this is a story about voyeurism and erotic dreams come true; and what may be most ingenious about it is that we have all unconsciously accepted the invitation to watch. 


Smart Smut: Hot Springs

A masterfully written, beautiful, evocative tale with genuine literary substance, this short story is an erotic tour de force. Set in a region so remote as to seem almost magical, a botanist travels with an aged native shaman in search of a rare flower with legendary medicinal properties, and finds more than she could ever have hoped for.   Particularly striking is the manner in which the author infuses the setting itself with vibrant erotic energy. The narrative has a near-cinematic sweep to it, which in no way detracts from the "turn-on" factor; and while the story itself is fairly simple, the telling of it is so colorful, at times so achingly vivid, as to transport us directly into the scene. Readers in search of a good, intelligent sexy tale need look no further.


Big Ed Magusson: Irie No Kaubutsu
Bondage ritual meets monster-movie matinée in this intriguing short story from Big Ed Magusson. The author has drilled deep into the shadowy vaults of the reptilian complex to uncover mysteries of the male Id that most guys would just as soon keep buried. Adventuresome readers will be pleasantly terrified, enlightened and entertained by this unusual, highly imaginative foray into the steamy realm of "tentacle titillation.”