Sunday, December 8, 2013

Best of 2013

I am not a big fan of that contemporary journalistic phenomenon known as the “listicle” (a not-nearly-as-clever-as-some-people-think portmanteau of “list” and “article”). These ubiquitous, often lazily-written plug ‘n’ play pieces seem to be filling every popular website and ‘zine on the planet nowadays, as if a zombie army of third-string Letterman gag-writers and ex Cosmo staff interns had risen from their graves to pitch titles like Ten Signs the Guy You’re Dating is a Loser, Five Excuses People Use to Behave Like Jerks, or Twenty-five Things Writers Do That Really Tick Me Off. All I can say is that the rotten little snark-spewing hacks who write this kind of dreck need to get the hell off my lawn—and stop those creepy death-rattle chants of “Biiig braaaiiins! Biiig braaaiiins!”

I don’t consider these annual “Best of” retrospectives “listicles” in the strictest sense of the term—whatever that may be. For starters, I don’t assign a ranking to each book on the list. If the book was good enough to get through my vetting process in the first place, and then extraordinary enough to be included among the best of the year, it’s already in a pretty rarefied group, so ranking means very little, and nobody should read too much into the order of presentation, or infer that the titles at the bottom of the page are less worthy than those at the top. 

2013 was a good year for adult fiction, at least, judging from what I was able to devour of it. As a torturously slow reader, getting through something like thirty-five to forty titles over the course of the year was no small feat. Of those, five or six ultimately weren’t worthy of a notice for one reason or another. Of the thirty-some-odd fiction titles that did get write-ups in the last twelve months, I had no trouble picking slightly more than a dozen off the top of my head at the beginning of December. These are the books that sunk in and stayed with me, captivated and charmed me, lingered in my memory like music. The best books of the year, I think, inspired some of my best writing, too, though revisiting them gives me a chance to do some obsessive-compulsive tweaking and editing, add a few extra comments here and there, all the while atoning for my near-criminal abuse of the semi-colon. (I promise to do better next year.)

I note that last year’s “Best of” list was by far and away the most-viewed post ever on Erotica for the Big Brain. Some of the original reviews of books on this year’s list came close to breaking records as well. To judge by responses, there are clearly some writers with large, extremely dedicated fan-bases out there, and it is always a thrill to see thirty, forty, fifty, or sometimes even more views for a review on the same day it appears. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from one of my very favorite movies, “it makes me feel as if all my hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’.”   

So here they are, the Best of 2013. Enjoy!


Amorous Woman by Donna George Storey

Desire (short story collection) by Kathryn O’Halloran

The Pleasure Dial by Jeremy Edwards

The Killer Wore Leather by Laura Antoniou

Extraordinary Deviations by Raven Kaldera

In the Forests of the Night by Vanessa de Sade with illustrations by Vanity Chase

Carnal Machines: Steampunk Erotica ed. D.L. King)

Dream Lover: Tales of Paranormal Erotic Romance ed. Kristina Wright

Nude and Tattooed (Youthful Indiscretions trilogy) by V. Moore

The Composition Book and 24 Frames per Second (short stories) by E.B. Jones

Gardenias (story collection) by Valentine Bonnaire

Gratifyingly Graphic: Teeny Weeny, Error-Free, Very Descriptive Erotic Tales by Yasmine Jones

Volksie: A Tale of Sex, Americana and Cars by P.M. White

Amorous Woman by Donna George Storey

Reading Donna George Storey’s Amorous Woman is sheer unalloyed delight.  Intelligent, yet highly accessible, the style is relaxed but never flip, the language fluent and flowing. Taking the form of an erotic memoir cum novel of education, part travelogue, part romance, this is a thoughtful reflection on the subtle beauty and sublime intricacy of one of the most fascinating cultures on earth.

“Japan was a perfect place for a cowardly Western rebel,” Storey’s narrator, Lydia, tells us, “You could break a dozen rules of etiquette in a day and get that bad-boy frisson without anyone really giving a damn, because the Japanese were expecting you to get it wrong anyway.” 

And Storey knows whereof she writes, having spent some years living and working in Japan.  Now, she has given her readers a decidedly magnificent piece of fiction in which the authenticity of experience shines through, lifting Amorous Woman far above so many of those blandly “colorful” Danielle-Steele-knock-off “romance-in-a-foreign-country” stories with their cookie-cutter characters going through the same universal motions against some sketchily researched, vaguely imagined “exotic” background. In fact, Storey’s heroine, the blonde, blue-eyed gaijin, Lydia is the true exotic element of this tale. There is a certain irony in her being employed to teach the niceties of Western etiquette in a society so richly—some might say severely—steeped in ritual, layer upon layer of prescribed complexity, which few outsiders ever manage to penetrate. And, especially where sex is concerned, the American faces a bewildering set of seemingly contradictory taboos and proscriptions that make the simple black-and-white dualism of the West seem positively laid-back. Through Lydia, we explore this “floating world”, a kind of erotic parallel universe, “the neon-lit world of dreams and desire”. At times as luridly salacious as a classic shunga print, at others as subtle and cerebrally engaging as the most exquisitely polysemous kanji, sweet and mystically melodious as the languid interplay of shakuhachi, shamisen, and koto, Amorous Woman is destined to become one of the great erotic classics of the modern era.


Desire by Kathryn O’Halloran

Kathryn O'Halloran is a writer attuned to the erotic rhythms pulsing beneath the surface of everyday life, the vibrant colors of the commonplace, the inchoate sensuality of the mundane. Her brilliant short-story collection, Desire is a masterpiece of imagination and craft. One’s first impression upon entering these hyper-sensuous word-scapes is of the raw pulsing power of O’Halloran’s prose, the frenetic onomatopoeic energy informing structure even as it drives language. We feel it as we spy on strangers making love in time to the incessant motion of a train in the title story, the herky-jerky momentum of acceleration and sex; the braking wheels squealing as lovers stifle their cries, metal against metal, a spray of ozone, and the electric sparks of orgasm. The narrator’s memories of the recent past are visited, briefly, like the train’s stops along the line. In another tale, O’Halloran employs the manic motion of a rollercoaster at an amusement park to underscore the emotional struggles of her characters, translating the clack and whine of flanged wheels and groaning track into the roaring, full-throated cadences of sexual release. Yet, there’s more than mere quasi-poetic gimmickry to this writing. Reading through these five wonderful short stories reveals a multi-faceted talent, from the structural tour de force of the title story, to the delicate, jewel-like impressionism of I Always Cry in the Rain, to the darkly disturbing, terrifyingly unbidden eroticism of Thief.  Here is writing that evokes the very forces of nature. Kathryn O’Halloran is one of the best young erotic writers to come along in quite some time. She is an author to watch, and, most certainly, an author to be read.


The Pleasure Dial by Jeremy Edwards

Jeremy Edwards is that rare writer who is at once a gifted entertainer, a charismatically blithe raconteur, and a consummate professional. His well-polished prose are unfailingly engaging, his style sometimes cerebral, yet always affably accessible. The Pleasure Dial is a laugh-out-loud sexy; tickle-me-till-I-pass-out funny, brain-gasm-inducing work of sheer genius, and one of the most scrumptiously entertaining novels—erotic or otherwise—I’ve had the pleasure to read in quite some time, an unforgettable, couldn’t-put-it-down, never-wanted-it-to-end reading experience, the sort of which have become increasingly rare nowadays.

The Pleasure Dial transports us to the thriving entertainment world of 1930s America, dominated by radio and the movies, recently reborn, if not always reinvigorated, with sound. The story is a lovingly irreverent homage to the golden age of radio comedy  and the great screwball romps of the silver screen, without the pesky Hayes Code censorship—think Carole Lombard and William Powell in My Man Godfrey or Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in The Front Page with the same razor-sharp double-entendre-rich repartee and considerably fewer clothes. The veritably Shakespearian ins and out of the plot are summarized by chief protagonist, radio gag-writer Artie Plask, thusly:

Here’s what I have on my list so far: (1) A radio show in which the star, an irascible and conceited Hollywood legend is doing comedy when he thinks he’s doing drama—and he mustn’t find out. (2) A second radio show, whose star, though a dream of an employer in and of herself, is viewed with suspicion by star #1 because she is an intrafamily rival. (3) A fledgling mannequin manufacturing company that we’ve promised will show a profit shortly, and with whom my personal appearance is so closely identified in the suspicious mind of radio star #1 that I am forced to wear a disguise in his presence—because he mustn’t find out that the mannequin executive who stood up to him is really one of his own writers.

If you think that this sounds like something with the potential to be hilarious, you’d be right. The jokes fly fast and low, sneaking in under the blood-brain barrier before we even get them, and when we finally do, we have to mark our place and take a few minutes to roar till the belly is quite literally aching with pleasure. The “juicy parts” aren’t bad either, especially considering that Edwards’ special brand of funny infuses the sex like white on rice. You can easily visualize a young, ditzy Carole Lombard as Edwards’ young, ditzy Elyse Hefferman. For Artie’s fast-talking, even faster-thinking, comedy-writing girlfriend, Mariel Fenton, my imagination cast Rosalind Russell. And then there’s the beautiful, Garbo-esque Lila Lowell, cast in the mold of the classic ‘30s Hollywood sex goddess, a woman who really does want to be alone—in her modest, book-lined bungalow, playing checkers with her lesbian lover. Edwards gives us, if not a cast of thousands, a vast troupe of memorable, wise-cracking supporting characters who can trace their laugh-lines back to Vaudeville and the Catskills; Jack Benny, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Marx Brothers, The Great Gildersleeve, Abbott and Costello, and the list could go on and on.  

Charming and smart, wry and rollicking, intoxicating and, yes, funny as aitch-ee-double-hockey-sticks, The Pleasure Dial is one of the year’s very best, and not to be missed.

The Killer Wore Leather by Laura Antoniou

I do have one tiny complaint about The Killer Wore Leather; it ends. The book’s 402 pages (or their electronic equivalent) breeze by with such engaging alacrity, that I found myself in the mild throes of literary postpartum let-down when it was over—surest symptom of an enjoyable read if there ever was one. To be sure, I could have lingered quite happily in Antoniou’s world for another thousand pages. The goings-on here are described with so much panache, observed so astutely, with such sympathetic realism and detail, good humor, and—dare one say it?—love, that we’re left wanting more of these subtly-drawn characters and their intriguing interactions.
The Killer Wore Leather coopts the staid convention of the cozy mystery and turns it on its head, not merely updating the genre to the age of Twitter and Facebook, but brilliantly transmogrifying it to the realm of contemporary cosplay and kink. Antoniou sets her story at a weekend confab of leather-lifestyle enthusiasts, some 3,000 costumed kinksters crowded into a downtown New York City hotel for the annual Mr. and Mrs. Global Leather (and Bootblack) competition. When a previous title-holder is found dead in his suite, there’s more than enough motive to go around—everybody, it seems, hated the guy—and more suspicious black leather accessories taken into evidence than forensics can possibly analyze before the conventioneers, including potential suspects—head for home on Monday. So, there’s a race against time, bringing its own built-in element of suspense, thousands of possible disguises, with a would-be red herring in leather, latex, rubber or fur behind each one, and the bewildering vagaries of personal and organizational politics, virtually impenetrable to an outsider. It’s an absolutely ingenious premise for a murder mystery—and Antoniou follows through on this set-up with dazzling dexterity, never missing a beat or a nuance, never once letting the reader down.  

Anybody who’s ever dabbled in cosplay or been involved in one of those broad, ever-evolving shared-special-interest groups, clubs or organizations will immediately recognize some of these characters. Antoniou’s clearly been there and done that a few times, capturing the subtlest nuances of ordinary human behavior without calling undue attention to herself or her process, getting at the essence of diverse and often-conflicting personalities and the most amusing minutiae of social politics with the eyes and ears of a true artist, all the shifting alliances, resentments, personal vendettas and concomitant motives, means and opportunities for murder that make an extraordinary mystery into an irresistible, all-absorbing page-turner.

The Killer Wore Leather is among the most memorable and enjoyable reading experiences of the year. A book to be read, re-read and read again, with ever-growing pleasure.

Extraordinary Deviations by Raven Kaldera

The most imaginative fiction often defies easy classification, and this strange, eclectic, weirdly dazzling, sometimes disturbing collection of short stories must certainly be among the most imaginative and original books to appear in recent memory. Challenging at every level, intellectually engaging and consistently diverting, Raven Kaldera’s Extraordinary Deviations stubbornly defies convention as well as any casual attempt to pigeonhole its contents.  High Fantasy, sci-fi or erotica? Historical? Paranormal? Horror? Neo-paganism? Genderqueer? The question itself could very well lead to madness. But sanity seems a small price to pay for the thrill of discovery, the pure narcotic rush of sudden illumination and deep insight to be found here. These eight well-crafted short stories bend genre and gender with equal virtuosity, running a sublimely eclectic gamut of mood and voice, time, place and theme, drawing on everything from ancient Greek and Norse origin stories to the contemporary mythos of the superhero, the far-futuristic limits of speculative fiction, virtual reality and quantum theory, all which, in the end, seem an awful lot like magic. In some ways, this suggests a kind of closed circle; the same forces which have been at work since the beginning of time have not gone away, but are simply known by other names, manifested in new, more relatably-sophisticated guises and forms for each new eon. 

Kaldera revels in the divine fluidity of gender. His gods take many forms, and his stories offer unique perspectives on gender and the infinitely complex nature of intimacy. While picking up the thread of the ancient theophany narrative, the author offers insight into the very essence of humanity and the divine itself. He does not turn away from ugliness or blink at imagined deformities, as, indeed, he does not shy away from the honest appraisal of life in all its profound connectedness, its glittering splendors as well as its pain and filth. But with what lacerating lyricism he portrays it. This is virtuoso storytelling, short literary erotica at its indelible best, pure mind-expanding pleasure, transcending genre.

In the Forests of the Night by Vanessa de Sade with illustrations by Vanity Chase

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 sumptuous 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 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. De Sade’s characters aren’t all necessarily physically perfect (Rapunzel), or perfectly predictably endowed (Cinderella Story). She ingeniously 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). She elucidates the dark recesses of human folly while delving deep veins of horror, obsession, and madness (Bluebeard’s Tower, Thumbelina). 

The 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 in which 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, and the lush, clear-lined illustrations by Vanity Chase add to the delightfully vibrant atmosphere, effectively proving Joyce Whalley’s assertion that “a good illustrated book is one where the pictures enhance or add depth to the text."

Marvelous in the most essential sense of the word, fascinating, eerily sexy, unforgettable, fantastical, and utterly mind-blowing, In the Forests of the Night is a rare treat with “future classic” written all over it. Not to be missed.

Carnal Machines: Steampunk Erotica ed. D.L. King

This captivating collection 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 editor D.L. 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. 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. A collection to be treasured and revisited again and again.

Dream Lover: Tales of Paranormal Erotic Romance ed. Kristina Wright

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 remembered (or re-read) yet one more time. 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. 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. 

Ravishing, sometimes extravagantly imaginative, the stories in Dream Lover will haunt the reader in the most welcome of ways.

Nude and Tattooed (Youthful Indiscretions trilogy) by V. Moore

V. Moore and her generation should give us all hope, not only for the evolution of humanity, but for the very future of the erotica genre. A promising newcomer, this self-described alt-girl has re-choreographed the traditional mating dance for a new century, and while not exactly reinventing sex itself, brings an invigorating open-mindedness and casual maturity long lacking in many so-called “adult” discussions of the subject. This trio of short stories—surprisingly good, ultimately rewarding—offers a furtive glimpse into the erotic minds of contemporary twentysomethings—and we are the richer for being allowed to look.

Moore’s stories are realistic, straightforward, and understated. She effectively occupies the minds and bodies of her characters—both male and female—to reveal authentic emotion and internal conflict without resort to florid simile or pretentious homiletic asides. These three tales are loosely interconnected, populated by an extended circle of acquaintances, friends and lovers, easily referencing one another. Each story is a little slice of life, a sharply focused vignette depicting the most seemingly mundane moments of workaday life, mined for their erotic potential. A young man buying office supplies fantasizes about the cute clerk who waits on him (Ten Reams). Another guy waits nervously in a coffee shop for a meeting with his ex (Nude and Tattooed); and later, the ex gives us her side of the story Rashamon-like (Illustrated Woman).  

At its best, Moore’s writing is taut, weightless; unburdened by superfluous ornament. The narrative is succinct and well-organized, flowing with a pleasing natural rhythm. Readers will be thoroughly entertained, enlightened, impressed, and pleasantly turned on. Who could ask for better? 


The Composition Book and 24 Frames per Second by E.B. Jones

“Wise” is not a term one often associates with erotic fiction. The word itself has become something of a crutch in highbrow blurb writing (“wonderful, witty and wise . . .” “as wise as it is nebulous”); a platitude of first resort for easily dazzled interns and bubble-headed network-radio-affiliate reviewers with delusions of far-reaching influence. Wisdom where sex is concerned may well have its place, but not, we generally think, in stories designed to pique prurient interest, or entertain by way of erotic evocation. The prospect seems deadly dull—a mood-killer if there ever was one. And yet, if wisdom is that critical mass of insight gained through acute observation, no word is more appropriately applied to the finest works of erotica, a genre, which, at its literate best, delves the human condition—the secrets of our inner lives—with an astute intimacy that most “respectable” literary authors could only envy. They also might learn a thing or two about the honest portrayal of common everyday life, human passion, and elegant sentence structure from this stylish pair of short stories by E.B. Jones.

"Night is when I allow myself to become someone else . . .” the narrator of Jones’ The Composition Book tells us:

My dreams take me to dark places. I never know where I’ll end up when I close my eyes. I have dreams so lucid that I feel compelled to write them down in a secret journal. Who else vividly remembers their dreams? Mine haunt me during the day. I sometimes ask myself if maybe I’m actually living outside my own body during these nighttime intervals. I feel guilt over the fantasies that I have. I know my husband is sleeping upstairs, exhausted from hauling plywood and pounding nails with his crew. And yet my thoughts sometimes betray him in a way that I could never share. A subtle wedge between us. He would understand that. With each excursion of my mind I drive it deeper.

Note the short, graceful, telegraphic sentences, each on its own a mere thread. And yet, skillfully woven together, these small segments collectively form a supple matrix of expression, drawing us inexorably into the author’s imagination, practically unawares. The structure is deceptively simple, and yet, the needs of story are supplied; character, conflict (albeit internal here); some obstacle to be overcome in the pursuit of a desire. It all works—and quite beautifully.

Where The Composition Book is about escape from workaday life through unbidden sexual fantasy, Twenty-Four Frames per Second drops us into an arid landscape of grueling realism. The story is at once wistful, deeply introspective, and grittily nostalgic. The narrator recalls a dusty road trip through the American southwest, an unconsummated relationship, and a present life, depressingly incomplete in retrospect. The story has a decidedly  Hemmingway-esque feel to it, the language is spare but abundantly evocative, its artful economy reminding us that in literature as well as in life, the essence of cool lies in few words, expressing much while saying little.

Superbly written, acutely observed, thoughtful, and, yes, wise, “great things” don’t always have to be “big things”, as these two, lovely little stories so aptly prove. With them, E.B. Jones establishes herself as one of the brightest newcomers to the indie literotica scene, and gives us hope for still more great things to come.

Gardenias (story collection) by Valentine Bonnaire

It is an occasion of no small pleasure to discover the work of Valentine Bonnaire through this exquisite collection of erotic short stories. The language and style of Gardenias is very much in the rarefied spirit of James Joyce and Anias Nin—writers to whom Bonnaire often seems to be paying reverent, though never slavish, homage—and these stories will be especially welcome to those in search of a purer, unapologetically literary approach to erotic narrative. It may not be entirely accurate to describe the twenty-one sections of this book (untitled except in the Table of Contents) as “stories” in the most strictly conventional sense. More like gossamer strands of dream or nebulous wisps of uncongealed thought, sometimes surreal in their very promiscuous joinings and juxtapositions. The opening section, itself a kind of rondeau in prose, forms a broad thematic axis around which the other narratives—whether photo-realistic, impressionist or sensuously abstract, revolve. Characters and ideas seem to phase in and out of focus, recapitulated—or perhaps, more aptly, reincarnated, again and again. Some of the stories are reprised from different perspectives or vantages of time and retrospect.

Bonnaire’s is a world of profoundly romantic magical realism, steeped in powerful emotion. Her women are strong, mature, and ever-passionate. Her men are unexpectedly deep and authentic, sensitive, but never weak, gentle, but no-less masculine for their gentleness; experienced, wise, and accomplished without the jejune pop psychology baggage of so many contemporary genre stock players. This in itself is pure anodyne, a loving breath of good, fresh air.

Like the finest poetry, which does not realize its full potential unless read or recited aloud, Bonnaire’s prose needs to be spoken aloud to release its magic. For this is the prose of seduction, of moonlit rooms and distant drums, of incense and candlelight, rose-scented baths and diaphanous curtains stirred on warm evening breezes. Words that should be whispered, by one lover to another like a sibilant caress, the imagined brushing of lips, moving softly and so very near, yet all the while just out of reach.

Gratifyingly Graphic: Teeny Weeny, Error-Free, Very Descriptive Erotic Tales by Yasmine Jones

What if Boccaccio, the great 14th-century pioneer of erotic realism were to be transported forward in time to modern day America? What would the author of the Decameron make of internet porn, social media, on-line dating, IPhones, e-books and flash fiction? He might well be pleased to find his droll and bawdy spirit still very much alive in the writing of Yasmine Jones.

In fact, I don’t know if Jones has ever read Boccaccio, but she seems to have channeled something of the poet’s tone along with a keenly sardonic attitude towards her characters; libidinous clergymen, “sweet young things” who aren’t so sweet after all, naïve sugar daddies asleep on the job, amorous friends in the serendipitous throes of sensual discovery. Then again, it may be that human nature has barely changed in the intervening 700 years; human corruption just as rampant and ridiculous; foibles no less funny, self-serving institutions no less ripe for satire.

And Jones does it all quite well. She is a talented newcomer with a gift for highly concentrated story-telling. The five tantalizing miniature tales in this collection range from as many as 2800 to as few as 100 words, all deliciously tongue in cheek, spiced with a healthy hint of cynicism, each with its own satisfying erotic twist at the end. Jones’ humor can be broad, bordering on adolescent cutesy-ness, yet the writing is never so undisciplined as to devolve into insufferable banality or mere stroke-book flippancy.

These little stories were a pleasure to read, and we can only hope that more will follow soon.

Volksie: A Tale of Sex, Americana and Cars by P.M. White

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 classic 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. This is 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. 

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 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, one of the most memorable scenes in the book.   

With magically memorable characters and an engaging story that surges forward with a stylish momentum, Volksie is a fast, fun and refreshingly wild ride, not to be missed.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review of "Gardenias" by Valentine Bonnaire

Gardenias by Valentine Bonnaire

Modern literary erotica may well have had its genesis in Molly Bloom’s rambling (and notoriously unpunctuated) soliloquy at the end of Ulysses:

the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

This is Stream of Consciousness at its most powerful, affective, and alluring. The influence of Joyce’s writing is undeniable even today, the technique imitated, aped and copied, adapted, used and abused so often in the intervening century that we sometimes forget the force of its initial impact, the blazing controversies surrounding its very novelty—akin, perhaps, to the scandals swirling about Stravinsky’s Le sacré du printemps only a few years earlier.  In the hands of countless lesser stylists this sort of writing quickly becomes tiresome, spawning clichés that are the stuff of broad parody, revealing the tail markings of starry-eyed amateurs, clueless wannabe iconoclasts, and misanthropic mercenaries. It all begins to feel like jacket notes on mediocre jazz albums from the 1960s. Needless to say, beginners should never try this kind of thing at home.

It is an occasion of no small pleasure, then, to discover the work of Valentine Bonnaire through this recent collection of erotic short stories. The language and style of Gardenias is very much in that rarefied spirit of Joyce and Anias Nin—writers to whom Bonnaire often seems to be paying reverent, though never slavish, homage—and these stories will be especially welcome to those in search of a purer, unapologetically literary approach to erotic narrative.

It may not be entirely accurate to describe the twenty-one sections of this book (untitled except in the Table of Contents) as “stories” in the most strictly conventional sense. More like gossamer strands of dream or nebulous wisps of uncongealed thought, sometimes surreal in their very promiscuous joinings and juxtapositions. The opening section, itself a kind of rondeau in prose, forms a broad thematic axis around which the other narratives—whether photo-realistic, impressionist or sensuously abstract, revolve. Characters and ideas seem to phase in and out of focus, recapitulated—or perhaps, more aptly, reincarnated, again and again. Some of the stories are reprised from different perspectives or vantages of time and retrospect.

The power of lingerie. It’s so easy, really. Most men are simple. They like to look at it and imagine that it is all for them , except, no, it’s all about Vogue, really. It’s all about glamour and the thrill of putting all these things on  only to have them ripped off hours later as he sends his hands traveling up and down and he doesn’t give a damn about it anyway , he just wants to get it all off  of you and dig up deep and get inside until you lock and couple swaying into one perfumed entity together.

High heels and lipstick and perfume. How incredibly easy it is to set up moods that you later remember in a swirl of darkness  where his tongue took you over and over as your thighs opened to him. Opened to his tongue all curved against the surfaces you planned for hours  beforehand, knowing exactly what you were doing choosing colors and textures  and patterns like an artiste  and he fell into it like a trap because it is a trap in the end, isn’t it baby? So much succulence all curved around scent and color and . . . then he says to you your skin, your skin, baby I’ve never . . .

Like the finest poetry, which does not realize its full potential unless read or recited aloud, Bonnaire’s prose needs to be spoken aloud to release its magic. For this is the prose of seduction, of moonlit rooms and distant drums, of incense and candlelight, of rose-scented baths and diaphanous curtains stirred on warm evening breezes. Words that should be whispered, by one lover to another in close embrace like a sibilant caress, the imagined brushing of lips, moving softly and so very near, yet all the while just out of reach, and hearts going like mad and yes we say yes we will Yes.


Latest post on the Write-Sex blog; Carol Conley and TAS on book reviewing by P. M. White

P.M. White (author of Volksie) interviews Carol Conley and me about book reviewing on the Write-Sex blog: