Monday, July 21, 2014

Review of "Slave Girls: Erotic Stories of Submission" ed. D.L. King

There’s a lot of terrific writing in this abundant, sharply-focused theme anthology from editor D.L. King. Slave Girls is a collection of twenty-one surprisingly diverse short stories exploring the ‘s’ in D/s, from the sometimes breathless, needy, longing, hungry, curious, occasionally reluctant, perpetually horny point of view of the submissives themselves. Several of these stories are undoubtable masterpieces of the subgenre: Alison Tyler’s Cubed; Lisabet Sarai’s Muse; Dirty Pictures by Thomas S. Roche; the beautiful, imaginative and poignant My Master’s Mark by Lydia Hill; Erzabet Bishop’s The Red Envelope; Teresa Noel Roberts’ Bridle Party. I particularly enjoyed Summer Marsden’s stylish, character-driven, inward-probing Breathe:  
Breathing is the first thing an anxious person forgets to do, and then they wonder why they feel as if they’re drowning. Breathing is the first thing that Nick helped me with when our relationship went from part-time play-and-fuck-buddies to something more. He tells me what to do at times like this. I do it.  It is simple and perfect as that. A mystical symbiosis on which words would be lost.
Nina Fairweather’s Press My Buttons deftly explores the inner workings of a would-be submissive’s mind:
I didn’t want to be gagged. It limited my speech. I couldn’t communicate effectively. It objectified me. Yet when Lynn threaded the scarf through my teeth, under my hair and around my head, I could feel my sex throbbing. While she tied it tightly I could think of little else except the fact that I wanted to beg, and beg, and beg to be touched, but I could not. That seemed only to make my excitement more profound.
Equally impressive is the understated yet wholly ineluctable eroticism of Donna George Storey’s Passing the Final. Not relying on kinks or paraphilic gimmickry, never descending into raunchiness or vulgarity, the aphrodisiacal potency of the writing is nonetheless undeniable:
His bedroom was illuminated only by two thick, round candles arranged on the nightstand as if it were and altar. A satin robe lay shimmering in the golden shadows across the pillow. She hung her dress in his closet, kicked off her shoes, and slipped the robe over her lacy, bride-white bra, matching thong and thigh-high stockings. She paused to check her reflection in the closet mirror.
Don’t be afraid. The Master said you were ready.
He hadn’t elaborated exactly what she was ready for, but she would find out soon enough.For some reason he’s removed his quilt and flat sheet, but fortunately the room was quite warm. She stretched out on the bed, realizing she’d never been here without him beside, above, or below her.
So, clearly, what’s good here is very good indeed. It would not be honest, however, to say that everything is equally good—I’m not giving out trophies for T-ball after all—there is, unfortunately, a whiff or two of “bad”, and here and there even a soupçon of “ugly”. Several issues plague what I will diplomatically refer to as the “second-tier” stories in this collection; poorly conceived points-of-view; amateurish malapropism, a retreat to platitude and shallow stereotype, and a discouraging sense that some of these authors’ hearts weren’t in the project.
I have always tried to adhere to a set of simple rules for reviewing; foremost among these is never give a bad notice based on my bad mood. But what if the writing itself puts me in a funk?  Second-person POV is infuriating when it isn’t boring. Aside from the fact that I have no interest in being made a de-facto character in an author’s story, the conceit doesn’t—can’t—work because the author doesn’t know me, doesn’t understand my motivations and desires, what turns me on or makes me tick. Second-person also lends itself to a kind of soporifically sing-songy backing and forthing “I do this/You do that” ad sempiternum nauseum. Employ this kind of writing in erotica and what inevitably results is the literary equivalent of a checklist for an oil change. Thus, Evan Mora’s Noise was probably not the best choice for the opening story in the collection, and the title of D.L. King’s What’s Not to Like begs a very loaded question indeed.
Malapropism, if sufficiently glaring, can effectively put me off a story, especially if other issues have already gotten my attention. Please repeat after me; crescendo does not mean climax; you don’t “build up to a blazing crescendo” (again, Evan Mora’s Noise); the crescendo IS the building up.  I was already sufficiently annoyed with Graydancer’s sloppily written Savoring Little One not to overlook the author’s use of ‘attenuated’ when the word obviously ought to have been ‘acclimated’. Honestly, one can look this stuff up—and, clearly, there are many people who need to.
Beyond these basic technical considerations, there are a few aesthetic and philosophical issues to give thoughtful readers pause. I have to admit that I am weary of power-exchange stories in which Domination is reflexively (and simplistically) equated with Sadism and, conversely, submission with weakness. There is, too often, an unarticulated assumption to the effect that submissive tendencies indicate a psyche that is less than whole and submissives—especially female submissives—are accordingly portrayed as naive, airheaded pushovers, willing to be used, humiliated, and hurt beyond the point of reason and safety simply in order to feel loved and wanted. In fact, the best subs in fiction—and in life—are often plucky, strong-willed, fully actualized, “totally together” human beings who know precisely what they want, just as the best Doms know when to lighten up and show affection.
In addition to negative stereotypes, I got the impression that some of the authors here either had no real life experience on which to draw (or, perhaps, no life whatsoever), or were simply going through the motions of telling a steamy story without stretching their imaginations too terribly far. Is it possible to write convincingly about an act that doesn’t really turn one on? An act one would never truly enjoy in real life? Some writers pride themselves on their imagined ability to work in any genre, slipping into the established modes of convention the way many people change clothes in the course of a day, but just as genuine passion always shines through, indifference renders even the most engaging subjects drab and tedious. I do not like having to read that kind of writing.  
Still, on balance, the good and the great far outweigh the mediocre and the bad in this collection. Highly recommended for its ample trove of gems.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review of "Darkly Delicious Short Stories" by Elizabeta Brooke

Stella: An Erotic Kidnapping
Elizabeta Brooke is that rare creator of erotic fiction that is at once beautifully written, sharply perceptive, and probingly intelligent, but also thoroughly entertaining. She occupies her character’s heads with such seeming ease and naturalistic empathy that readers cannot help but be drawn in. Brooke’s work is always sensually charged, with rich, vibrantly erogenous atmosphere, never failing to touch us on an acutely visceral level. And yet, she does not shy away from psychological conflict or moral complexity—all-too rare in literature nowadays, and virtually unheard of in erotica. More than anything else, this is what makes Brooke’s work extraordinary, and, ultimately, destined to last.

It is thus something of an occasion to celebrate the appearance of this new collection of five short stories. Representing Brooke’s entire output in the form to date, Darkly Delicious Short Stories offers readers the rarest of gifts; sexy tales that they will actually want to read more than once.   

All these stories have been published separately before. Poe was included on EFTBB’s Best of 2012 list, and Knock: An Erotic Housecall was reviewed here just a few weeks ago. The new stories (including Knock) reveal the author’s movement in a somewhat more accessibly mainstream direction. Stella: An Erotic Kidnapping is a diverting, if fairly lightweight action/adventure piece with flashes of comic irony and a satisfying last-second twist; a heist caper infused with nostalgic “what-if-ing” and a bit of marvelously steamy present-moment “why-not-ing” as well.  

Wryly satirical on one level, funny, poignant and perceptive, Prissy: An Erotic Act of Kindness offers a sardonically delicious take on adolescent voyeurism, and the bewildering nature of “old sex” as seen through the eyes of relative inexperience. Prissy is a still-somewhat sheltered seventeen-year-old for whom thirty or—gods forbid!—forty seems unfathomably “old”. She is at once naïve and cynical, but it is a cynicism born more of ignorance and youthful absolute certainty than real-life experience. Will what she sees, hears, and learns broaden her horizons and open her mind, or leave her still more confused than before?  With its realistic and sensitive portrayal of adolescent emotion in the context of satiric fantasy, this may well be one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve read in a quite some time.


Brooke’s superbly affecting Roj, begins with the promise of a psycho-erotic masterpiece. Harried, constantly put-upon, thirtysomething housewife Lynne finds herself nearing the end of her rope, and contemplates the most extreme and final of escapes from a deeply unsatisfying existence. That is, until she is interrupted by a handsome young man, a school friend of her son’s, still almost a stranger to Lynne, a creature half-shrouded in mystery, the boy seems to possess everything her husband lacks; fire, passion, intelligence, and a terrifying beauty.

Lynne tried to smile at that but it was too hard. The weight of her sadness was a rock inside her chest that couldn’t be dislodged. She swallowed against it, trying to get some of her composure back. “It doesn’t matter, Roj,” she said, her voice husky and unfamiliar. Nothing mattered anymore.

“Yes it does,” he said, giving her shoulder a little squeeze.

His fingers felt big. Strong. She tried to remember the last time someone had consoled her. Couldn’t.

Brooke so skillfully builds tension in what is, after all, a fairly simple narrative structure, and so effectively brings us along with her, that it is almost painful when she overshoots the psychological climax, keeps the characters talking too long, dwelling too heavily on process when the time for words has passed, lets them turn away from each other, however briefly, when their sexual focus should only deepen. There is a point in any truly successful erotic narrative at which sophisticated mind-reading and metacognition needs to give way to simple sensuality and pure carnal release. While there is some tantalizing sexual tension here, and some wonderfully titillating potential, it feels, in the end, more like a tease than a full-blown erotic experience. Roj is thus a flawed erotic masterpiece, if not a true masterpiece of literary psychology.

While the four newer stories in this collection do endeavor to reach a broader audience, their genre aspirations do not detract from their decided literary quality and substance. Though I may complain from time to time about the excesses of genre erotica, ultimately, the only unredeemable sin as far as I’m concerned is bad writing, a crime of which no one will ever honestly accuse Elizabeta Brooke. Her Darkly Delicious is enthusiastically recommended.