Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review of erotic fiction by Aimee Nichols and Liberty St. James

Everybody wants to be a famous writer these days, but nobody wants to read. A shocking number of self-proclaimed authors seem to believe that reading anything other than their own “brilliant” stuff will somehow ruin them, sap them of their Wile-E.-Coyote-Super-Genius-like inspiration, and snuff out their personal eternal flame of autoerotic originality. And what’s the result of this belief? A lot of sloppy, rambling, self-indulgent, same-old-rooky-mistake-infected amateur dreck, often little more than a weak echo of the one or two books these morons actually did bother to read once upon a time. I slog through more of these dilettante scribblings than I care to think about every month in the process of vetting books for review on this site, and I can only say that I have come to understand why so many of my English instructors in high school and college were in such a perpetually sour mood. (Of course, some of them were simply being their normal asshole selves, but most of them, I now see, had a pretty good excuse.) 

And it’s not only would-be authors who don’t want to read; there’s a whole world of self-deluded wannabe singer/song-writers, actors, composers, painters and performance artists, all clamoring for attention; a nation of narcissists, scheming to copyright themselves, dreaming of being discovered without actually having to do any hard work, ultimately transcending themselves as their own brand. (One starry-eyed dreamer who contacted me recently, with but a single self-published title to her credit, is already inviting potential readers to write fanfic—talk about the triumph of self-delusion over reality, not to mention carts before horses!) People seem enthralled by this notion that what they have to say is uniquely interesting or irresistibly compelling, and if they can only find the right forum or platform for their self-expression; if they can only market themselves a bit more aggressively; if they can only snag one more review from the “right” venue, then the world will simply have to recognize their specialness and reward them with fame, adulation, and untold riches. A few wild tales of “overnight success”; a handful of fluke “discoveries”; rumors of so-and-so’s latest fat advance, and the gold rush is on. Never mind that those old media paradigms are now hopelessly obsolete. Self-expression and self-indulgence are becoming one and the same. Professional creative endeavor is doomed. And there’s a reason those riches are “untold”; for the most part, they don’t exist.

Alright, perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic—and please, shoot me if I ever turn into the old guy yelling at the rotten kids to get off his lawn—but the question remains; what does an aspiring author have to do to be heard in this increasingly noisy world of ours? Beyond that; what does a writer need to do in order to be taken seriously?  The simple answer is; to be heard, one must have a voice. A writer’s voice does not necessarily need to be unique, or striking or even particularly original; but, for a start, it must be strong, clear, and well-focused. A writer’s voice is not an innate gift; it is something that must be trained up; cultivated, nurtured, exercised, polished; honed. To train the voice, a writer must do two things with unfailing diligence; write constantly, and read voraciously.  Constant writing is like weight lifting to build up muscle mass; the regular habit of writing builds up the brain and keeps it strong, while reading provides the fuel it needs to flourish.

No one is born a writer; writing is learned, and no writer—no artist—ever steps out into the world fully formed. Working through early influences is part of the artistic growth process. There is nothing wrong or unnatural about being influenced. Rather than resisting influences, a young writer should turn and face them head on (preferably without trying to publish the early results). There is no piece of writing from which one may not learn. So far from stifling one’s originality, good books offer models of what works; bad books—and there are many—show us what not to do. When a writer attains maturity, if not mastery, she will look back on her early influences and understand the difference between the good books and the bad ones, recognizing the lessons learned from both. The fact is, if reading other people’s books had the power to snuff out one’s precious creative spark, there wasn’t much of a spark to begin with.  In truth, the more one reads the less enthralled by any single influence one is likely to be, and the more original one becomes.  But the need to read doesn’t end with the attainment of mastery; it is a lifetime pursuit, and part of the ongoing job. Ultimately, the more broadly one reads, the deeper one thinks, the better one writes, and this process of literary symbiosis is never-ending.

And how to be taken seriously? What I look for when vetting books for review is, first, that strong, clear, fluent voice; confidence, competence, a solid command of language, and an engaging style.  Beyond that, I want well-drawn, well-defined, smart, memorable characters undergoing a process of growth or change; compelling conflict, a story that piques my interest without being overly derivative or gratuitously far-fetched; a narrative that continually moves forward. I want maturity—but not in the euphemistic Triple-X sense of the word—a thoughtful, entertaining exploration of grownup themes. Is this asking too much?

For your consideration then; two recent works of fiction by a pair of authors whose voices may not necessarily be unique or strikingly original, but nonetheless, at their best, pass the test of clarity, fluency and strength with impressively high marks. Liberty St. James is a promising newcomer. Her first effort, Lock Me Up and Set Me Free, is a novella-length BDSM-tinged erotic romance with a memorable central female character and the occasional flash of something approaching brilliance. Aimee Nichols’ recent collection of erotic short stories, The Mercy of Strange Men, offers up some very fine writing with enough passion and insight to compel page-turning.  Both writers shine when describing what is immediate and real and most arousing to them. Beyond sex, for St. James, this is the transporting orgasmic power of music. For Nichols, it is the perpetual flux of urban life; another kind of music; the pulse of the bar scene; the grit and sweat of the crowd. Both titles offer much to enjoy, though neither is recommended wholly without caveat.  

Lock Me Up and Set Me Free by Liberty St. James

With a surprisingly good story, and an unforgettable female lead, this debut novella from Liberty St. James comes as a thoroughly pleasant surprise. What might have been yet another run-of-the-mill erotic romance with BDSM a la mode transcends ordinary genre fare with its empathy and depth of insight into character. Tam is smart, clear-headed, and strong-willed; submissive but never a pushover, that is, the perfect bottom. Hired to provide musical entertainment at a country estate’s New Year’s gathering, St. James’ bi-sexual heroine accepts an offer to get away from her workaday routine, and act as a slave for a young businessman and his fiancée over the weekend. “Sometimes,” she tells us,

I like to move out of my slap-dash, hand to mouth existence, and play at being pampered. Sitting at the top table in the restaurant of the moment, drinking champagne and flirting. Lying like the Rokeby Venus on some chaise lounge in a flat looking over London, naked except for real pearls or a silk scarf round my waist, while a man sits fully clothed in the chair opposite, watching me touch myself while he smokes. There’s something about that much quiet luxury; something that’s almost melancholy, like being indoors in winter while rain batters the window.”

Granted, we could do with fewer exchanges like this: 

“Keep them wide. No moving. My god, you’re wet. Fuck, you’re beautiful. Ah, you beautiful, beautiful little slut.”

Honestly? If the Victorians had made porno videos, something like this could have been the soundtrack. Can erotic writers PLEASE (!) do something to make their characters’ “naughty talk” more varied, interesting and realistic? Still, while St. James’ scenes of BDSM play seem rather contrived, repetitious and often boring (less would definitely seem like more, here), what keeps us reading are passages like this:

I love music as much—more than—I love sex. I want to drown in it; lose myself in it. Falling into music makes me feel safe, as if someone is holding me up. While I listened, I decided to let myself fall into this weekend the same way and not resist. Total submission. I’ve flirted with it before but never properly given myself to it

At an appropriate point I do a slow strip to You Made Me Love You. The dress, hat, and gloves come off. Underneath I’m in a corset, frilly pants and stockings. I sing I Want to Be Loved By You with brunette sleaze rather than blonde Marilyn Monroe dizziness. Then I get the cello out and play the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite Number 1. You know the one, that famous one; the only cello tune you’ve ever heard on the radio or as the backing to an advert. I play it in my corset and stockings. I play it as if it’s turning me on like no-one I’ve ever known; I play it like I’m fucking the music. I am fucking the music. It does turn me on like no-one I’ve ever known. If I died playing the cello, I’d die happy.

Liberty St. James is a writer with enormous potential, and a newcomer to watch. In spite of its subtle flaws, overdone sex scenes, and a male lead whose demons are just a bit too predictable to be compelling, Lock Me Up and Set Me Free is nonetheless an impressive first effort and recommended to those in search of something new.


The Mercy of Strange Men by Aimee Nichols

This collection of well-crafted short stories from Australian author, Aimee Nichols is something of a mixed bag. There is sufficient contrast in mood and voice to keep things interesting, but it’s clear the author was more invested in some fantasies than others. She is at her best when her passions shine through; but has some difficulty disguising her distaste—occasionally approaching contempt—for some of her more conventional scenarios. The most interesting stories take us into steamy urban undergrounds, indie rock dives, kinky sex clubs, and seedy apartment back-bedrooms, as in The Gospel of Sophie, a genuinely first-rate ménage narrative, or the gloriously passionate lesbian encounters of Lipstick and Strap On Sex is So Passé. Nichols conveys considerably less enthusiasm when inhabiting the heads of serendipitous voyeurs (The Window and Down in the Park), and the overly-stylized psychological monodrama of the title story leaves the reader with a bewildering sense of literary déjà vu, bringing nothing new or positively exciting to the standard BDSM scenario. Far more successful is the exceptionally well-thought-out All Eyes On Him, written from the perceptively mature reference of an experienced fem-dom:

This is the story we are used to. Women, and especially attractive young women, are meant to be attracted to power. We’re meant to be the reason why men who make no effort to please anyone but themselves bemoan their lack of ability to get the women they feel they deserve. We’re supposed to accept status and money in exchange for being dominated. Some of us know that’s not the only narrative . . . Topping helps me find equilibrium, brings a dynamic to a relationship that allows me to relax into things. I like to know where I stand with the person I’m fucking or playing with, and I like them to know where I stand, which sexually speaking is over them, and usually holding something used to inflict pain.

The beauty of any short-fiction anthology is that readers may quickly seek out the gems while giving the tailings a pass. With more than a fair proportion of well-refined erotic literary ore; Aimee Nichols’ The Mercy of Strange Men is a vein adventuresome readers will surely want to tap.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review of P.M. White's "Volksie"

At one point, early on in P.M. White’s Volksie, anti-hero Alston, along with his best friend Grumbine, and Volksie, Alston’s soul mate-as-yet-unawares, plunge their stolen VW Beetle into the Mississippi River near the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The little car begins to sink, and for a terrifying moment, Alston fears he’s lost the girl of his dreams, not ten minutes after meeting her. But before the chapter skids up to a brake-squealing, metal-crunching, edge-of-the-precipice to-be-continued , Alston believes he sees Volksie emerging, naked, on the opposite bank. Never mind that the river is nearly a mile wide at this point, and rife with treacherous currents; this girl is magic!  

And so it is with much of this story. Subtitled “A tale of sex, Americana, and cars”, Volksie is P.M. White’s vividly dreamed, cute, seductively satirical, sometimes silly magical homage to the wide, fast-flowing river of the American mythos and the tributary subcultures that feed and renew it. The book is a classic chase epic; a tale of sadistic gangsters pursuing hapless heroes across the wide open deserts of the American southwest; think Vanishing Point with VWs; classic American car culture turned on its head; a gentler, geekier Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry with cybersex, less impressive horsepower, and a much happier ending.  It is a story about survival and revenge, enthusiasm, passion, obsession, and loving what you love no matter what the world may think. 

Where style was concerned, the VW Type 1 (Beetle or bug) was a living fossil long before it ceased production in the early 2000s; a charming throwback to the late 1930s, when “streamlining” was all the rage in automotive design. There is a certain female-ness, a Reubenesque voluptuousness to the profile of these cars with their sloping, fat-fendered curves; a look that can be seductive—even erogenous—to those sufficiently receptive. Truck, one of Alston’s shadier acquaintances, even goes so far as to gratify himself with a Beetle in a surprisingly creative—if not crudely obvious—fashion. This is, in its way, a metaphor for enthusiasm taken to extremes; the very essence of what it is to be a nerd.

In fact, I do not believe it would be unfair or in any way unduly dismissive to say that Volksie is the ultimate nerd fantasy. The story would not have had quite the same quirky charm if White’s characters had indulged a more conventionally macho passion for, say, classic Mustangs, Corvettes, or ‘70s-era muscle cars. VW-fandom may be no less unselfconsciously intense; no less unapologetically enthusiastic or—dare one say it?—hardcore; but park a 1966 VW 1300 Beetle with its tiny, rear-mounted, air-cooled four-cylinder engine next to any contemporary American performance car, and one is defied not to smile—or laugh out loud—at the juxtaposition. (Volkswagen’s advertising in the ‘60s was famous for playing up the car’s underdog-ish ordinariness in extremely funny and highly effective ways.) Whether intentional or not, there is a similarly subtle vein of parody running through White’s narrative, the sort of sly referential gestures that film geeks and car buffs (like myself!) absolutely love, as when Volksie convinces Alston to tie her to the roof of another stolen Beetle, for a round of “ship’s mast” a la Zoe Bell riding the hood of a ’70 Dodge Challenger in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof:

Volksie dropped her floral skirt to the asphalt and left it where it lay. She wore no panties beneath it. Alston admired the way the sun played along her long, thin legs as she unbuttoned her blouse. She dropped it to the ground next to her skirt, and stood fully nude on the deserted airport runway. Without saying a word, she climbed onto the hood. The seductive globes of her milky ass thrust toward the hot sun like a carnal offering. Volksie mounted the bug slowly and carefully. Her breasts swayed like firm, fleshy pendulums. Once on the rounded roof, she turned and spread her legs wide, then leaned back on her elbows, waiting to be tied. Her nipples looked hard enough to cut glass.

Alston grabbed her ankles and pulled her forward. Her ass squeaked on the metal roof. With her legs spread across the windshield and pointed toward the front fender, he set to work on the bindings. Within minutes, he had her ankles tied tightly to the metal fender. He popped out the small side windows and looped the rope through it, then bound her wrists. Throughout the process, Volksie lay silently on the roof, her eyes closed and her chest rising and falling with excitement.

Sounds like fun! No character in this story, infused as it is with the kind of magical, dream-like atmosphere, is more magical or enchanting than the title character herself. Volksie is quirky, eccentric, sensual, impulsive, and just the right kind of crazy. We fall in love with her, precisely as Alston does, because she’s the girl who loves the outsider--not necessarily the bad boy--the babe who ought to be out of our league but doesn’t play hard to get; knows what we need before we know it, and never fails to satisfy in the sack; the down to earth demi-goddess who’s easy to talk to, and wants to be with us in spite of our inexperience and insecurity. Wow! Does she have a sister? 

[*] I do have a few nerdish nit-picks about certain details in the text. First, there’s no such thing as a “’65 Super Beetle”. The Super Beetle, with MacPhearson struts and elongated front end, did not appear until 1971. Second; when White talks about a customized VW, built to resemble a stretch limo he writes “opposite facing doors, as well as the standard ones lay open for public viewing.” Surely, if one is writing from the viewpoint of American car enthusiasts, one would know the term “suicide doors”. Finally, in referring to a VW Thing, we get this: “The Thing, which turned out to be a 1944 model, the precursor to the German sales model.” The VW Type 181 “The Thing” was a product of the late 1960s, and not quite the same animal as the Type 82 Kubelwagen, the jeep-like VWs used by the German army during World War II. (Honestly, people; you can look this stuff up!) There are certain “British-isms” lurking in the background of the American setting; the character’s names, for example, don’t ring true;  especially the gangsters, who seem to have stepped out of one of Guy Ritchie’s dark-underbelly-of-London crime dramedies (of which I am a huge fan, by the way).

I don’t think any of these misplaced details represent a fatal flaw, however. Once readers start rolling with the story, which accelerates with a stylish momentum, such minor niceties will hardly matter. Volksie is a fast, fun and refreshingly wild ride, not to be missed. (Oh! And by the way: I WANT a reproduction of the cover done up as a large-size glossy poster! Genuinely beautiful!)

[*] Subsequent to the posting of this review, the author and publisher took my "nerdish nit-picks" into consideration and have accordingly revised the text, both in the e-book and forthcoming print editions.  It's gratifying to know that my plodding pedantry is good for something! TAS]