Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review of "In the Forests of the Night" by Vanessa de Sade, illustrated by Vanity Chase

In the Forests of the Night

What a pleasant surprise—and what utter lubricious delight! Vanessa de Sade’s collection of seven short erotic wonder tales is a feast for the senses and the intellect. And Vanity Chase’s beautiful, luxuriously frank storybook-style illustrations make for a scrumptious dessert, indeed. Offering more than mere spiced up retellings of popular fairy tales, de Sade draws broad inspiration from stories that have become part of our collective subconscious, borrowing imagery and atmosphere as suits her diverse and very-contemporary mise-en-scènes. She effectively reconnects these narratives with their long-dormant sensuality, cutting away the centuries-old briar hedges of reticence, sanitized puritan disapprobation, PC pap, and Bowdlerized bunkum.

But we’re not talking artsy-fartsy bijou or nerdishly twee literary autoeroticism here. To be sure, In the Forests of the Night is intelligently written, but always accessibly sexy, too; scintillating as the hottest foreplay, satisfying as a serial orgasm, memorable as the first time a lover made you faint in bed. I like the fact that de Sade’s characters aren’t all necessarily physically perfect (Rapunzel), or perfectly predictably endowed (Cinderella Story). I enjoy the way she blurs the lines of the hetero- and homoerotic, reveling in voyeurism and the vicarious thrill of pansexual abandon (In the Forest of the Night, Thumbelina). I relish the style with which she elucidates horror, obsession, and madness (Bluebeard’s Tower, Thumbelina). 

Language can be deceptively simple here, but this serves to draw us all the more deeply into the world of de Sade’s characters. She employs the familiar narrative forms of bedtime stories and the kind of literary fairy tales that are, alas, no longer in vogue. Essential backstory is frontloaded as opposed to being “marbled” through the text, where, once gotten past, action—and particularly erotic action—is everything. The imagery is rich, sometimes extravagantly so, yet always archly apt, as in this passage from Handsome and Gertrude, the fourth tale in the collection:

She could hear them all whispering in their plush and cosy little apartments, tiny rodent-like voices scratch-scratching away like sunbed-tanned mice as they watched her approach the private elevator that led to the penthouse, their curious eyeballs glued to their shiny brass peepholes as she walked boldly past exuding a confidence that she certainly didn’t feel.

The lush, clear-lined illustrations by Vanity Chase add to the delightfully vibrant atmosphere so expertly evoked in de Sade’s writing. The artist’s sometimes Art-Nouveau-ishly eleborate arabesques effectively prove Joyce Whalley’s assertion that "a good illustrated book is one where the pictures enhance or add depth to the text."  See, in particular, the plate accompanying Beauty and Her Beast, the marvelous nudes in Cinderella Story and In the Forests of the Night, and the fascinating, eerily sexy, unforgettably fantastical image that enhances the already mind-blowing storyline of Thumbelina (I think, my favorite of the lot).  

Enthusiastically recommended!

[The publisher, Sweetmeats Press, informs me that the only way to guarantee getting the illustrations is to purchase the print version of the book.]

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Review of "Dream Lover: Paranormal Tales of Erotic Romance" (ed. Kristina Wright)

Dream Lover: Paranormal Tales of EroticRomance

What these seventeen surprisingly diverse stories all have in common is atmosphere—and that in luxurious groaning-board abundance. It’s the kind of rich, erotically charged ambiance that stays with a reader long after the book has been closed or the electronic device turned off, and, like the memory of the tastes and aromas of a great meal, lingers pleasantly in the imagination, waiting to be called up (or re-read) again and again. (I was surprised, in compiling my notes for this review, at how easily I could recall and summarize each tale, some weeks after first encountering them.) Editor Kristina Wright has accomplished something quite remarkable, in recruiting so conspicuously gifted a group of writers, producing an anthology that is not only immediately entertaining and satisfyingly sexy at every turn, but a collection of true and lasting literary merit.     

And what a profuse, colorful patchwork of mood and voice! From Shanna Germain’s masterful Devil’s Food with its comically-tinged tale of sugar-jonesing fairies and wise-cracking frogs, to Delilah Devlin’s feverishly wet-bodied reimagining of The Little Mermaid (Dreaming by the Sea), to Justine Elyot’s  Love Resurrection in which a young woman seeks out the ghost of a Byron-esque poet in the house he continues to haunt:

And then her eyelids were sliding and the curtain billowed, and she was pinned down by the invisible force again, calling the serpentine sibilance into her ears, letting it pour into her head and fill her body.

The sound streamed toward her, a flow of movement that she could follow, crossing from the curtains to the bed, where it loomed over her for long minutes as if waiting for a sign, perhaps an indication of consent.

“Everything good in life leads to madness. I think you understand that, Freya. I think that’s why you’ve come here and freed me from my bondage.”

“Bondage?” Freya had a fleeting, rather titillating vision of Lucien’s fine eyes bound in black satin while his wrists struggled against silken cords.

“I was a foolish boy. I experimented with forces I should have left well alone. I participated in rituals and made bargains. I lost the bargains.”

No less impressive or erotically irresistible, in spite of their more seemingly ordinary characters and settings, are the stories by A.D.R. Forte (Rainmaker) in which a young woman must reluctantly return to her childhood home and seek out an old lover in order to fulfill her quasi-divine destiny, and Craig J. Sorensen’s tale of two lonely souls (one living, one not-quite-departed) encountering each other in a genuine ghost town (Shattered Belle). The haunted house mythos gets its due as well. In Living Off Lovers, Kristina Lloyd skillfully delves the many possible meanings of her title with a story set in a decrepit ‘30s-era apartment building, where two current tenants find themselves under the spell of a pair of ghostly star-crossed lovers, and the dark secrets that lie hidden behind the building’s decaying Art Deco facades. And Kate Pearce’s Folly draws us to a crumbling, castle-like mansion along with her heroine, to discover the beautiful soul of a lover trapped within its ancient stones.

The thrill of sensual discovery virtually leaps from the page in Victoria Jannsen’s Vanilla, a sci-fi inflected narrative of a steamy and unusually sweet encounter between two empaths, and Lana Fox’s For Humans, Love’s All About Weight, a deliciously imagined tale of an unexpected bequest and a wild air-born fling. A bit more melancholy and bittersweet, if no less lubricious, is Madeline Moore’s Lust as Old as Us, about a woman’s life-long affair with a vampire who cannot grow old, but refuses to grow up. And in Kristina Wright’s own contribution, Thief of Dreams, insomnia threatens a woman’s relationship with an angelic, albeit fallen, lover.  The collection offers a nod to High Fantasy as well. When a demon comes to collect her elfin lover’s soul, a woman must take drastic action to protect him and keep him for herself in Erika Hiatt’s The Eye of Pearl.   

My personal favorite of the whole lot is probably Saachi Green’s Freeing the Demon, a marvelously conceived piece of storytelling, in which a beautiful young working girl discovers the presence of an insatiable demonic entity imprisoned within one of the gargoyles ornamenting her apartment building.  

Jayne thought fleetingly of pulling back. How could she bear it if this hot tide never flooded into release? But it was all she had to give. Besides, it was too late.

Hard nipples jutted from her round full breasts, yearning desperately for the stroke of hands that could not reach out, for the hot tug and press and bite of a mouth frozen in stillness. Her fingers teased their tips into greater, harder unbearable tension, while her palms still cupped the swelling fullness. She thrust against her own hands and moaned, again and again, until a deeper echo sounded from the stone before her and she raised her eyes.

My only disappointments here were, surprisingly, with the stories by two otherwise well-regarded and usually very reliable authors. (And I really do hate having to mention this.) Alana Noel Voth’s Moon Girl Meets the Wolfman is a surreal, quasi-flow-of-consciousness shape shifting narrative. For the life of me, I could not make sense of what was going on. (Maybe that’s the point?) And, granted, this may well be due to my own lack of perception rather than any fault of the writer. Not so, Lucy Felthouse’s Succubus Comes Home, which reads like an early draft of a story in serious want of editing. The writing is so heavily freighted with common clichés and irritatingly repetitive syntactical constructions that I simply could not get through to the end. Interesting as both stories might potentially be, they need some work in order to rise to the level of the other entries in this anthology.

These minor complaints aside, my overall impression? Ravishing, sometimes extravagantly imaginative, the stories in Dream Lover will haunt the reader in the most welcome of ways. Highly recommended!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review of two D.L. King-edited short-story collections: "Carnal Machines" and "Under Her Thumb"

Carnal Machines (steampunk erotica)

What if H.G. Wells, Jules Verne or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been free to write the kind of erotica reflective of their own technologically-obsessed times? If the insatiable scientific curiosity of the Victorian era could have been focused on the myriad questions surrounding human sexuality, what strange and wonderful inventions might well have been wrought? In Carnal Machines, editor D.L. King has dared to ask “what if”, and in so doing, has raised another fascinating question; who knew steampunk could be so sexy?

Carnal Machines has everything I look for in outstanding erotica; rich atmospheric settings, interesting, intelligent characters, well-crafted storylines, and the playful but always cerebrally surprising use of language. These stories also make for a ripping good time. (Or would that be bodice-ripping good time?) There’s not a single clinker in the lot of fourteen, a credit to King and the dazzling cadre of talent she brings together for this anthology.  Having once entered this oddly ahistorical world of clockwork marital aids, tireless sex-slave automatons, and steam-powered fucking machines, readers may never want to leave. 

The consistent high quality of these stories is truly impressive. They have a way of lingering in the reader’s mind, bright sparks of pleasant memory. It’s difficult to cite only a few as standouts. (But, of course, I’m going to anyway, implying no offense to the other authors). The opening story, Human Powered by Teresa Noel Roberts, sets the tone perfectly in terms of language and mood. I was mesmerized by the darkly seductive atmosphere of Her Own Devices by Lisabet Sarai, set in Victorian-era Hong Kong. Infernal Machine by Elias A. St. James offers a refreshing same-sex take on the broader themes of the collection, and Elizabeth Schechter’s The Succubus rings down the curtain with just the right hints of sexual intrigue, mystery and menace.

Highly recommended!

UnderHer Thumb (BDSM erotic romance)

Another recent D.L. King-edited theme anthology, Under Her Thumb brings together twenty-one short stories centering on the experiences of dominant women and the subs who love them. A bracing antidote to the ubiquitous, boring “helpless female as plaything for well-heeled psychopath” narratives, this is BDSM with a decidedly feminist appeal. As the incomparable Midori writes in the introduction (itself alone worth the price of the book):

The femme dom as filled with rage and hate, engaging in vulgarity and thoughtless violence, is a stereotype used to dismiss the complexity of women’s desires. It’s high time we leave that behind.

She goes on to say,

The energy source of the dominant femme is not the artifice of costumes. The truth of Her is the brutal honesty of, and to, her desires, deliberately shaped by equally fierce self-discipline. She must intentionally engage this self-discipline as it’s necessary to resist capitulation to life-long social conditioning and cultural pressures of constant self-effacing and denial of yearnings.

It may seem contradictory that self-discipline would be necessary for the dominant woman to be satisfied. Doesn’t she just have to demand what she wants? First, this assumes that making a demand equates to authority. Any tantrum-throwing three-year-old can demand what she wants, but that’s not going to get results. The brat child has no authority. Pestering others until they give in is merely juvenile manipulation. Authority, however, comes with knowledge, a grasp of resources and limits, respect, and understanding of one’s scope of influence.

King's theme is somewhat narrowly focused, but this is not to say that these stories suffer from a same-ness of tone. The treatment of the subject matter is broadly diverse and multi-faceted. While the writing is not as uniformly fine or consistently engaging as in Carnal Machines, a good number of these stories are outstanding. Among the best here is Valerie Alexander’s La Sexorcista, in which the unrequited desires of a hopelessly infatuated submissive are addressed in a most unusual and deliciously ironic fashion. All Eyes on Him by Aimee Nichols (also included in her own collection, The Mercy of Strange Men, recently reviewed here) is a particularly taut piece of writing, and not to be missed. Perhaps my favorite piece is Laura Antoniou’s Blame Spartacus, with a characteristically humorous take on what can all-too-often be a deadly serious theme.