Saturday, December 17, 2016

Best of 2016

Here following, sans fanfare, is EftBB's list of 2016's best titles in erotica and adult fiction. Enjoy! TAS

Constraint (Siri Ousdahl)
Auletris: Erotica (Anais Nin)
London Triptych (Jonathan Kemp)
Cautionary Tales from the Edges (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)
Islands (Richard V. Raiment)
Skin Effect  (M. Christian)
The Innocent’s Progress (Peter Tupper)
Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (ed. J. Blackmore)
Blue: A Novel (L.N. Bey)

Constraint (Siri Ousdahl)

Siri Ousdahl’s Constraint is mature literary fiction at its finest, masterfully conceived and exquisitely written, unflinching, dark, disquieting, boldly amoral, never judging its characters or its readers. This story of dubious consent is handled with a seriousness seldom encountered in the BDSM subgenre, a refreshing frankness, trenchant observation turned acutely—and often painfully—inward. Safe, sane, and consensual this is not; dazzling, mind-expanding, and addictive it most certainly is. 

Beneath its ostensibly conventional mass-market paperback blurb of a plot is something unexpectedly original. The material is handled with surprising seriousness and magnificent poise. The characters are psychologically complex and almost always interesting—more often than not because we don’t agree with them, or like the way their minds work, or approve of the actions they may or may not choose to take. Ousdahl does not treat her characters like pawns on a chessboard, but consistently refuses to judge them, or manipulate the reader through them. The author skirts the morality of the situation—a hint of doubt flitting through the main male character’s mind, a word caught on the heroine’s tongue—but, refreshingly, declines to confront their issues head on.

In the past I have complained about writers casually flirting with darkness, psychologically unprepared for the horror and ugliness they awaken within themselves. Here, at last, is a fearless fiction; an author who not only embraces the darkness, but ties it up, bends it over, and makes it their willing slave.

Auletris: Erotica (Anais Nin)

It’s not every year a blogger gets to include a new work by Anaïs Nin on their Best-of list! This year’s publication of Nin’s Auletris: Erotica is itself the stuff of stories, akin to the live capture of a unicorn, or, at the very least, the discovery of long-buried pirate’s gold. What a transcendent thrill to hold this book in one’s hands and read that glorious, hypnotically rhythmic, dream-spinning prose that was and is like nothing else.

Here is everything we have come to love and revere about Nin’s work—everything without which modern literary erotica would never have come to be. The writing is, by turns, poetically inspired, sublime, sensuous, cerebral, steamy, transgressive, disturbing, psychologically searing, and joyfully sumptuous in its amoral abandon.

Of the two stories in this 1950 collection, the extended “original” version of Marcel (later included in Delta of Venus) is decidedly the better, while the long-hidden Life in Provincetown is the true “find”. It would be disingenuous, however, to say that Life in Provincetown, for all its beauty and narrative surprise, is a perfectly finished work. More a promising chunk of literary ore not fully refined, the series of small erotic episodes that make up the whole can feel disjointed at times, even somewhat perfunctory, though this might be expected from “writing to entertain under pressure from a (hated) client” who seemed to have no poetry in his soul, or much of any erotic imagination, something like piece-work that had to be turned out in a terrible hurry. A number of the episodes here bear strong thematic resemblance to tales written years earlier, and now familiar to readers from Delta of Venus and Little Birds; The Hungarian Adventurer and Artists and Models come particularly to mind in Nin’s stories of the sexually-naïve Pietro, which may be most disturbing to “modern” sensibilities. Yet, had Nin cared to apply a more rigorous attention to the editing and polishing of this work, it would—I have little doubt—be among the greatest and most daring erotic stories of the twentieth century.    

In the end, we are left with inspiration!

London Triptych (Jonathan Kemp)

Jonathan Kemp’s 2010 debut novel comes as close to what I would call a complete work of art as anything I have encountered so far this century. London Triptych is a at once a poignant and sympathetically observed character study, a compelling work of historical fiction comprising trenchant social critique, and a vivid evocation of the eternally-unfinished,  perpetually renewed and renewing city of its title. Here, the stories of three gay men from three different times play out and sometimes overlap; Jack Rose, a young rent boy in the late Victorian period, Colin Read, an artist in the cruelly closeted 1950s, and David, a male prostitute, writing a letter to his lover and betrayer from a prison cell in 1998--a poignant echo of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis from a century earlier.

Jack’s search for pleasure and profit lead him into the shabby, exuberant demimonde of queer life in 1890s’ London, where he eventually meets an aging Wilde. Lonely and still deeply naïve at fifty-four, Colin lives a severely buttoned-up existence, in constant fear of being found out, only to be coaxed out of his shell by, Gregory (Gore) a beautiful young model. Growing up in the 1980s, David escapes the stifling conformity of small-town life to seek fortune and adventure in the city as a prostitute and porn actor. The three stories are neatly tied together by Gore, who, in the 1950s is acquainted with Jack, a man by then in his seventies. Gore goes on to become one of young David’s clients in the 1990s.)   

The stories may be as striking for their similarities as their differences: each of these characters makes the ultimate mistake of falling in love where love is forbidden or simply foolish, inevitably leading to betrayal and desolation. There are no happy endings, but only life continuing for better or for worse—fiction is seldom more real than this.

As readers have come to expect, Kemp’s writing is gorgeous, clear and confident with a rich vein of metaphor, often approaching the poetic, yet never becoming overly effusive or strained. Seldom has a debut novel been so well organized or cleverly thought out with such near-perfect economy of expression, eschewing the inessential so as to evoke a world like no other.

Cautionary Tales from the Edges (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)

This extraordinary collection of short tales is, at once, a celebration of the simple beauty of language, a colorful and sometimes terrifying glimpse into the grimly fatalistic heart of Slavic folk culture, and a highly satisfying work of sensually charged entertainment. These twelve stories range pleasingly in mood and atmosphere from the mysterious and macabre—reminiscent of Angela Carter’s treatments of traditional folk and fairy tales—to the broadly humorous, bawdy romps in the spirit of Boccacio, populated with loutish peasants, dirty old men, promiscuous milkmaids, and horny demons in varying degrees of malevolence, ghouls, ghosts, vampires, elemental sprites, and throngs of things that go bump in the magical night.

Yet, as the title of this collection suggests, no story here is without an overt moral component, an appropriate comeuppance for bad behavior, just desserts for greed, lechery, and deciet, infidelty, cruelty, murder—the whole catalog of sins, mortal and venial. The tales are narrated with the occasional poetic aside by the souls of the dead, collectively observing the realm of the living, commenting on human folly, sometimes with sadness, more often with a sort of wearily superior resignation as if to say ‘we see it all so clearly, yet the living make the same foolish mistakes again and again, and we, poor spirits, not wholly beyond care, can only watch, having forever lost the ability to intervene.’

Emmanuelle de Maupassant’s language is elegant and direct, never simplistic or condescendingly obvious. The style is consistent, concise and to the point without venturing off on tangents. This language puts one in mind of the best classic children’s literature, those wonderfully old-fashioned fairy tale collections from the earlier years of the last century, genuine literature that never patronized or talked down to its intended audience, never insulted the reader’s intelligence or dumbed down its content to accommodate the attenuated attention spans of addlebrained TV addicts. The author has done a great deal of research into Slavic folkways, customs and cuisine, and clearly loves the material she is working with—an affection that shines through on every page.

Islands (Richard V. Raiment)

This is an extraordinary book, one of those rare stories that seem, in retrospect, inevitable, as if it had always been part of our consciousness, only waiting for a gifted author to do it justice. In voice and style, Richard Raiment’s Islands is clearly inspired by the classic adventure narratives from the Age of Sail, everything from Defoe to Stevenson. But there is much more here than a simple, action-packed yarn of late-17th-century British mariners, tossed up together by fate upon a remote island, struggling to survive in an alien land against the caprice of the elements and the cruel whims of the sea, battling pirates and slavers—as well as their own deep-seeded prejudices—in order to claim their dignity as men. Islands is also a touching, m/m/f polyamorous romance, a powerful philosophical novel, as wide-ranging and wise as it is acutely observed; stylish, exciting, thoughtful, probing, beautiful, moving, wonderful!

Above all, this is a story of an inner journey, and though introspection comes at times with a shiny aura of anachronism—the relative ease with which the narrator questions
the consciousness of his time, the cultural conditioning, communal beliefs, mores and taboos of a rigidly-defined class society—his struggles are—or ought to be—timeless and universal; the search for who we really are, deep within ourselves, as sexual beings capable of love in whatever form that love might take, without anyone to tell us we must be one thing or another—or enforce their sadistic, ridiculously rigid notions of theocratic ‘natural law’ and propriety upon us.

What makes a fictional character interesting—what makes a character great in the end—is their capacity to grow and change within a set of limitations that place them in situations of intense conflict. Raiment has succeeded most admirably in creating a world almost perfectly suited for the incubation of interesting characters. Beyond the physical setting, a small island somewhere in the tropics off the coast of Africa, two castaways must learn to live and work together—must learn to learn from each other—and find a way to coexist when one of the sailors, Peter, is gay (a “molly” in the parlance of the day) while the other, Tom the narrator, is a rabidly reflexive homophobe. Inner and outer conflict is inevitable, especially when a young woman—an escaped slave—finds her way into their world. Ultimately the two men—islands unto themselves—must find a way to bridge their differences, for, as Donne so famously put it, “no man is an island”—nor can anyone pretend very long to be so if they would be fully human. (Raiment’s title is a stroke of descriptive genius on many levels!)

Raiment’s command of period idiom is without equal in modern historical fiction. His ability to make the older forms of language work so consistently to achieve his present literary objectives is awe-inspiring.  This is an author who has clearly done extensive research, and knows his subject matter in and out, but never bores readers with unnecessary detail, and never wields his superior knowledge like a bludgeon to patronize the less well-informed. There is a graciousness and a humility that shines through on every page, imbuing the storytelling with a rich and rare humanity. 

Skin Effect  (M. Christian)

The nine stories in this intriguing, highly-imaginative, occasionally maddening collection have a deeply personal feel to them. These are not easy, breezy reads: these stories require that readers take a journey—and the road is not always direct or level or smooth. A bit of effort is required—and sometimes, more than a single reading. But, in the end, the reader is richly rewarded with beauty and enlightenment.  

This isn’t ‘hard’ sci-fi or conventional genre erotica, but, indeed, something quite extraordinary: less Frankenstein’s monster genre hybrid than the precocious love child of an optimistic speculative fiction (Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov) and a mature, deeply self-aware literary sensualism. If it must be classified, then I would suggest a brand new subgenre: call it ‘techno-sexual.’

And what do we find in this brave, sometimes bewildering new world? Trans-humanism that does not—cannot—forget its humanity. Awesome technical capability with the aura of magic, though, in the end, it cannot assuage our deepest longings, our atavistic thirst for mystery.  Hyper-connectedness that cannot sate our hunger to touch, and feel, and remember.  

The writing can be dense, knotty, sometimes overlong to a point where potential dramatic impact is diluted, the final ironic twists coming too little and just a bit too late to dazzle. Yet, the collection does have its share of truly amazing moments, inspired imagining,
sparks of the ingenious. Prêt-à-Porter tells a marvelous tale of a futuristic garment that—virtually miraculously—adjusts to the desires and moods of its wearer. The Bell House Invitation brilliantly takes the ideas of collective consciousness and cyber-community to their logical—and, perhaps, a tad disturbing—extremes. The Potter’s Wheel and [Title Forgotten] imagine worlds in which connectedness makes us omniscient yet utterly incapable of knowing our deepest selves. 

At first glance, The Innocent's Progress is a hodgepodge of tenuously connected short episodes. Only later on does the tight interlocking structure of the whole become apparent. And what a world Peter Tupper builds! Drawing on true historical elements, characters, contemporary art and literary landmarks viewed through a haunted stereoscope, this is the nostalgic past portrayed as dystopian future; erotic visions filtered through Victorian fun house mirrors and classic steampunk. The novel casts a cynical beam on its setting, an empire in decay, bereft of optimism, morally reactionary, stratified along lines of class, gender and race, hypocritically repressive wherever sex is concerned. In short, a world rife with seething conflicts and, thus, ripe with dramatic possibility. The characters cast odd shadows, like actors standing before flickering gas footlights on a stage. Indeed, stock-players of an ossified  comedia de l'arte meet no-less rigidly typecast avatars of Victorian 'decency' in the titular opening chapter, engaging in a form of ritualized prostitution off stage. There is always a tinge of melancholy and regret, a sense of loss and foiled aspiration tugging at the heartstrings. But there is adventure--of a cozy sort--flashes of levity like sparks from a fantastical machine as our view of this at-once familiar and strange world gradually expands with each subsequent chapter, 

In The Pretty Horsebreaker and Spirit of the Future, we meet the irrepressible Miss Ccri (based on the notorious Catherine "Skittles" Walters) as she endeavors to do a good turn for the widow of a famous explorer and hero of the empire. (Captain Braen bears a striking likeness to the great real-life translator of the Kama Sutra, Sir Richard Francis Burton, while Lord Hough, Braen's rival and fellow collector of all-things erotic is, as the author informs us in his notes, "a hybrid of Richard Moncton Milnes, later Lord Houghton, and Henry Spencer Ashbee. The oily middleman, Mr. Wycke is a barely disguised Oscar Wilde). Famous literary characters appear in Tupper's world as well: in The Impurity, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is re-imagined sans the original's rigid black-and-white dualism with a rather delicious BDSM element, and a macabre love triangle involving servant girl Mary, at once "angel of the house and dominatrix."

Probably my favorite section of the book, the virtually self-contained  Delicate Work, is Tupper's moving and mature twist on Oliver Twist, the author's self-described attempt to "put the punk back in steampunk". Tangwin, a teenaged orphan living in a vast prison-like institution for 'wayward girls' uses her innate inventor's skills ultimately to escape, but not before finding something wonderfully like love with the most unexpected of partners. For all the seeming lack of sentimentality in its telling, Delicate Work is deeply affecting, and one is left marveling at how the author so skillfully puts us into the setting, and the very soul of his characters.

Beautifully written, fastidiously researched, exquisitely brought to life, The Innocent's Progress is enthusiastically recommended.

This collection from 2011 comprises eight consistently excellent erotic stories, all inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, probably the greatest horror stylist since Edgar Allen Poe. Editor J. Blackmore is candid about the ambivalence of Lovecraft’s legacy and influence; the famous author’s infamous xenophobia and overt racism are problematic to say the least; his seeming fear of everything, very much including sex, was sublimated into a relatively small, albeit bleakly transcendent oeuvre, though it is extremely difficult at times to separate this very-flawed man from his art. It’s a safe bet Lovecraft would not have approved of this collection—certainly not its focus on the erotic—as in many ways, it is an intentional dissection of his own literary soul, the apotheosis of fan fiction in an age that claims to have cast off inhibition, yet still cannot deny the ember of primal dread that gutters deep within its core.

The collection opens with Bernie Mojzes’ Ink, a masteful, funny, and outrageously (wonderfully!) creepy-sexy mashup of hard-boiled detective fiction and Lovecraft’s elder-god mythos. Peter Tupper challenges Lovecraft’s racism head-on in Koenigsberg’s Model with the tale of a bigoted bibliophile who meets his match in the exotically mysterious owner of an antique book shop. Kannan Feng offers a Gothic fairy tale in A Reflection of Kindness,  while Angela Caperton’s Shiek cleverly unfolds a story of occult goings-on in 1920s Hollywood. Annabeth Leong’s The Artist’s Retreat is a broodingly atmospheric albeit probing character-driven story that builds to an explosive denouement. The Dreams in the Laundramat by Elizabeth Reeve returns to Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University in Arkham in a delectably bookish bow to Japanese hentai (tentacle porn). Monique Poirier’s The Flower of Innsmouth gives readers an elegantly-narrated take on the Victorian “creepy old house full of strange relatives” trope. Finally, When the Stars Come by Alex Picchetti returns to the realm of stories like The Dunwich Horror and The Color Out of Space, when a farm girl becomes the willing bride of an ancient god.  

Sheer pleasure from beginning to end, every story in this collection is above average.

Blue: A Novel (L.N. Bey)

There’s much to admire in Blue, L.N. Bey’s promising debut novel that draws its inspiration from some of the great classic BDSM narratives while remaining uniquely true to itself. An ambitious effort, the story is believably scaled, avoiding the credulity-straining grandiosity of so-much half-baked escapism, or the pretentious plot convolutions of would-be epics, which tend to collapse under the sprawling weight of their own inanity. Not that there isn’t a great deal of very imaginative, even fantastical storytelling here—this isn’t some drab novel of manners or cloyingly pointless foray into domestic realism—but everything here is decidedly to a purpose, and almost always to the point. The novelist seems to have learned the lesson some of her characters struggle with throughout the story: sometimes the greatest expressive freedom lies within a narrow set of well-defined limitations.

In essence, Blue is a novel about the pursuit of artistic vision, about the struggle to express one’s genuine self—or, perhaps more accurately, the search for a medium through which one may express that vision—be it film, photography, performance art, or, possibly. something a good deal more personal, subtly sensual and secret. The main characters, each in their own way, are driven by an ideal, and must find their own way ultimately to achieve that ideal. 

Some effort has been made to add variety to the predictable patterns of power-exchange. Bey very skillfully explores the erotic possibilities of everyday activities, and occasionally even manages to bring a dash of joyous levity to the proceedings—virtually unheard of in “classic” BDSM. The author has successfully avoided many of the pitfalls commonly besetting the frosh novelist, those tangent superfluities and preachy, self-indulgent digressions that are more about showing off one’s own cleverness than telling a great story. While one might wish for a more subtle approach to the recapitulation of key plot elements, and greater variation to maintain interest, what readers will find in the totality of this work is something very promising indeed. The writing is assured, but never cocksure, the author’s vision broad but not overreaching. The story is sufficiently interesting to inspire curiosity about what happens next, the rising action is skillfully controlled with a clear sense of dramatic momentum, and the whole thing draws to a logically satisfactory, un-open-ended conclusion, without the pretentious (or mercenary?) promise  of an unnecessary sequel. This novel is a promise of great things to come.

1 comment:

  1. Honoured to see my 'Tales' (edited by the ultra-talented Adrea Kore) appear in such incredible company, beside works by Siri Ousdahl and Jonathan Kemp (I read 'Constraint' and 'London Triptych' this year and adored them), and beside such wonderful authors as LN Bey (whose 'Blue' is queued up on my virtual bedside table) and Richard V Raiment.

    Others here that I've not read but which look fabulous.

    And, of course, the crowning discovery of the year, new work by Anais Nin: 'Auletris' (edited by Paul Herron).

    Thank you TAS for bringing your unique voice to these reviews, which are a delight.