Sunday, December 16, 2018

Best of 2018

BEST OF 2018

Perfect Strangers: A Memoir of the Swinging Seventies (Dorothy Freed)
Desire: Sensual Lesbian Erotica (Emily L. Byrne)
The Prison of the Angels (Janine Ashbless)
Viking Wolf (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)
Forget the Sleepless Shores (Sonya Taaffe)

A very short list this year. Whether this is due to a dearth of truly excellent books on the market or the fact of my own increasingly busy work schedule (completing The Erotic Writer's Thesaurus as well as a novel The Seven Seductions and several short stories, along with starting work on a new high fantasy novel in June) I couldn't say.  I don't think I'm reading any less this year, though perhaps my reading list has become more diverse with classic titles from J.G. Ballard, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Anthony Boucher, Walter M. Miller Jr. John D. McDonald, Kevin Brockmeier and so many more! It might be easy to lament the declining interest in erotica in general, the stresses many writers feel from the threat of corporate censorship, what appears to be the rise of a new Puritanism (partially in reaction to the excesses of the current occupant of the White House), and the perpetuation of an increasingly virulent moral panic surrounding sexually explicit content. It is easy to be discouraged, but we should also take time to celebrate the good, positive, and optimistic achievements of this past year, as represented by these five amazing books. (TAS)

Perfect Strangers  proves once again that real life is often farther-out than fiction. Freed’s story has all the elements of a well-crafted erotic page-turner, including the plucky heroine with a problem on her hands, a seemingly endless series of obstacles to negotiate, and conflicts to overcome—her storytelling all the more powerful for being true. As in any good tale, conflict  comes right at the beginning, in this case when Freed discovers her husband in bed with her best friend. Lacking the confidence that comes with experience, the young heroine is, at first, very much adrift: married at seventeen and a dutiful housewife for twelve years, her husband is the only lover she has ever known, though he never seems to miss an opportunity to remind her of what he perceives as her sexual inadequacies, particularly her (supposed) inability to achieve vaginal orgasm.

Soon divorced with two young sons to support, Freed made her way to the west coast in the mid-1970s. “If you come to San Francisco,” Scott McKenzie so famously sang, “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…” Had she known what awaited her there, Freed might well have arrived with bells on. Already the legendary mecca of seekers, and undisputed world capitol of the dawning New Age culture, San Francisco in those years was the very pulsing, exuberant heart of the Sexual Revolution, and Freed found her element—and herself—there, truly at home for the first time in her life.

The city is much more than mere backdrop in this narrative, with its sleazy clubs and peep shows, steaming bathhouses, velvet-upholstered swingers’ retreats, greasy bistros, head shops, and cafes, high-quality psychedelics, and easy sex—what Erica Jong notoriously referred to as the zipless fuck—San Francisco is the magical canvas on which the story of Freed’s quest for liberty and self-knowledge assumes vivid life.

As in any quest-narrative worth the telling, the heroine needs a guide or mentors to help her learn the workings of this strange, new, and sometimes scary world. Enter a series of fascinating acquaintances and “perfect strangers” to help Dorothy navigate the Yellow Brick Road. At one point, Freed informs us, she was simultaneously dating no fewer than seven men, and would ultimately have close to a hundred lovers in the space of four years. She describes a few of these encounters in frank, unblinking detail, the good, the bad, and the bat-shit crazy, along with what lessons were learned along the way. But probably the most influential and constant figure in her life at that time was “Jake,” Freed’s friend-with-benefits galore, who, in his constant challenging of her inhibitions and hang-ups, ever pushing the envelope of convention, was instrumental in helping her realize her true sexual self, the dazzling butterfly at last emerging from its cocoon of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Freed’s musings about the pitfalls of love, the search for deeper connection and meaning in life, are often extraordinary and beautifully written, rising to the level of the most memorable personal literature. Throughout, her language is direct, frank—but seldom brutally so—and never convoluted or confused. This is by no means a difficult book to read, though it is certainly an easy one to love.

In this collection of eleven finely-wrought f/f erotic romance tales, Emily L. Byrne offers readers a dizzying diversity of setting, vibrantly evocative, sharply-focused, and practically always unforgettable. From the tourist-choked thoroughfares of Viva Las Vegas (with its hot-to-trot Elvis drag kings) to the revolutionary Nicaragua of A Night in EstelĂ­, the churches and art galleries of Florence in A Room with a View, and the wintry cityscape of Minneapolis in the hauntingly surreal Cherrybridge and Spoon. Nearly as dazzling and varied as her settings, Byrne seems to traverse disparate genres with the breezy nonchalance of a master, whether it be sci-fi (Diplomacy), sword and sorcery (Heart’s Thief), espionage (The Old Spies Club), realist mainstream (Summer Stock), or contemporary romance with a bit of magic thrown in for good measure (The Goddess Within).

But it’s her characters who truly make these stories stand out, from the lonely police detective in The Further Adventures of Miss Scarlet, to the environmental activist falling madly in love with the female park ranger in the delightful Treehugger; the once-burned (literally) in-love starship commander in Diplomacy, the empathic burglar in Heart’s Thief, the bewildered goddess-for-a day of The Goddess Within, or the young American activist stealing a dangerous moment of passion with an itinerant journalist in A Night in EstelĂ­.

A fantastic collection from a fantastic writer, and an easy choice for inclusion on this year’s Best-of list!

The Prison of the Angels (Janine Ashbless)

With The Prison of the Angels, the final installment in her Book of the Watchers trilogy, Janine Ashbless brings this epic erotic-romance saga to a conclusion with a bang of near-apocalyptic intensity. And how could it be otherwise, given what we’ve come to expect thus far in the series?

In The Prison of the Angels, the scary feathered beasts come home to roost, the consequences of choices made must at last be faced, the price of love and freedom paid regardless of the cost. Yet, as always, Ashbless ties it all together with such style, such flare, conveying a sense of  inevitability—of ineluctable right-ness—with the plot’s every twist and turn, it’s hard to imagine all hell breaking loose quite so entertainingly! Needless to say, the sex is wicked hot throughout, and it is sex, after all, desire and lust, that have driven this story from the beginning, ultimately creating the critical mass from which it draws its power. 

But it would be wrong to dismiss this story as just another facile fast-paced sex-action-adventure franchise—though it certainly is fast-paced and often sexy as hell!

What I have always admired about Janine Ashbless’ writing is her ability to tell riveting erotic stories in a way that recognizes and honors her readers’ intelligence and curiosity—their willingness to look up the occasional word if they need to. The essential story is never weighed down by excessive literary vocabulary—the author’s voice, or need to prove how smart they are, overwhelming the narrative—but words are used correctly, precisely, and always with thoughtfulness and care. Big ideas are woven into the fabric of the tale with seamless craft to seem as natural a part of the whole as the action-packed set pieces and steamy bedroom scenes.

And—wow!—do I ever love the way Ashbless employs mythology in her stories, perhaps the true hallmark of her style. It doesn’t matter that we largely no longer believe in Zeus or Apollo, Thor and Loki, or the creation mythos of the Hebrew Bible; all these stories—always essentially metaphors—have outlived literal credulity; yet all are still exciting, still thought-provoking, brimming with narrative possibility. The thing Ashbless shows us about myth is that it is malleable; it can be molded and reformed, melded and spliced to suit any time and place. The fascinating angelology in her Book of the Watchers series comprises far more than the traditional (and rather staid) Judeo-Christian roster; but shows how different cultures may have interpreted the same archetypes in diverse ways. The Norse trickster god, Loki, becomes the tempter of Genesis, the fallen serpent-angel Samyaza; the Archangel Michael assumes the form of something out of Native American myth… It all makes for a wonderful, engaging, multi-layered story that touches the mind as well as the heart, yet is always fun to read!

In The Prison of the Angels, as in the books that preceded it, Ashbless has created an extraordinary new world, a “real realm of the spirit” that is a sheer pleasure to visit.

Viking Wolf  (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)

Another ultra-steamy winner from Emmanuelle de Maupassant, rapidly establishing herself as the undisputed queen of erotic romance, Viking Wolf takes up where the first book in the series, 2017’s Viking Thunder, left off.

Like its predecessor,  Viking Thunder is an eminently entertaining and expertly crafted piece of erotic historical fiction. In this exciting, and gorgeously-written sequel, the Middle Ages’ hottest couple, Anglo-Saxon Elswyth and her Viking lover Eiric return to the norseman’s home in Svolvaen. But it’s not all hearts and flowers in spite of the erotic heat generated by these two, darker conflicts loom, and, this being erotic romance, a virtual long-boat-load of heroinic self-doubt pads a goodly percentage of the narrative. Eirik’s elder brother, Gunnolf, jarl of Svolvaen turns his lustful eye on the Northumbrian beauty, and one can almost smell the testosterone in the air. When Eirik and his sister Hekla are conveniently sent off to a neighboring community in order to establish an alliance, Elswyth is without allies, a virtual stranger in a strange land, very much at Gunnolf’s mercy. With lots of political and romantic intrigue to go along with fascinating discussions of Viking lore and legend, the story is compelling, vividly related, and seldom dull.

Not erotica per se, yet this ravishing collection of literary stories should be on the to-read list of every erotic writer who claims to care about the beauty of language and the compelling allure of style. Taffe's stories are seldom "short" in the strictly commercial understanding of the term, they take their time to be told with however many words may be required, and some of them are quite long indeed. The language is not overly dense or difficult, the narrative seldom inaccessible or overly obscure, and yet, the writing is so dazzlingly fecund, so spendthrift in its vivid, varicolored descriptions, that the reader is immersed in wonder, engulfed like a drowning soul in a state of helpless bliss. Images of water and the supernatural permeate all these stories, forming loose relationships, a kind of magnetic coherency or some form of sub-molecular bonding. Water in all its ineffable forms, life-giving or lethal, calm or chaotic, rain, tears, tides, lakes, rivers, oceans, sea brine, blood, sexual fluid... Love-sick demons, the ghosts of the drowned, vampires, mer-folk, muses bearing gifts of madness and otherworldly inspiration. Wondrous! Rarefied! Ineffably gorgeous! Read it and weep with joy!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The People Who Cry Porn! On Defending Our Turf

Last year I read a fascinating little tome with the attention-grabbing title Ethical Porn for Dicks by Dr. David J. Ley. It's a fairly fast but nonetheless richly-enlightening read, which, alas, will not be read by those in the most dire need of enlightenment. Teeming with insight and practical wisdom, the book is an unblushing, honest, straightforward discussion of the role of pornography in modern life, society, and mass media, and of the reasonable, ethical employment of pornographic materials as a means to a healthier understanding of ourselves and those with whom we seek to relate. I cannot recommend this title highly enough; suffice to say that it is essential reading for anyone interested in erotic storytelling, whether as a content provider or a consumer. I mention Ley's book in the context of this article because of his on-the-nail commentary about the contemporary--indeed never-ending--moral panic surrounding pornography (and, by extension, erotica). Here's just a snippet from the introduction:

We have internalized puritanical and negative ideas about sex, we have no models for honest sexual communication, and we rarely see diverse depictions of sexuality in any media. As a result, we've  all got hang-ups, misinformation, and insecurities, and we are afraid to admit that we have them, or look at why we do. So when someone else demonized porn, we can latch on and say 'yeah, there's the culprit.' Then we don't have to look at our unrealistic expectations about love and sex, our isolation and fear, our untreated mental health issues, and our outdated relationship models...

Anti-porn crusaders, many of whom have a vested financial interest in perpetuating moral panic, have effectively boiled the vast diversity of erotic content down to a set of highly-misleading, reductionist stereotypes. But that's hardly the worst or most insidious tactic in these neo-puritans' well-worn playbook: 

A relatively recent phenomenon is how porn consumption is conflated with porn addiction models by a growing part of the psychological/therapeutic industry...

Of course, the anti-porn crowd will point to this trend in their arguments, yet, it is interesting to note, as Ley explains, that there exists not a single credible peer-reviewed scientific study to bear out any of the extravagant claims and assertions about the psychological damage supposedly done by pornography or the "evil" consequences of its consumption.

But still, these claims continue to be made on an almost-daily basis. Porn consumption is blamed for everything from declining birth rates to wild fires in the west, divorce, child abuse, rape, bestiality, and the general decline of "traditional family values"--whatever the hell those ever were. And, largely, these assertions go unchallenged, even when there is compelling evidence to contradict them. One would think it possible to bury this puritanical nonsense for good, and yet very few knowledgeable, articulate people from the "pro-porn" camp ever seem to get a hearing, let alone a word in edgewise, before being shouted down. Why should this be?

John Michael Greerone of the brightest bloggers of our day, has written about what he refers to as thoughtstoppers. Here's how Greer defines the term:

A thoughtstopper is exactly what the term suggests: a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply, so that any attempt you might make to reason about it will land you in perplexity. The perplexity won’t do the trick by itself, and neither will the strong emotion; it’s the combination of the two that lets a thoughtstopper throw a monkey wrench in the works of the user’s mind.

(NOTE: A thoughtstopper in this context is not to be confused with 'thought stopping,' the controversial technique sometimes employed in cognitive behavioral therapy as a way of dealing with PTSD. Here, we are talking about the intentional use of distractions in discourse, a way to derail thoughtful discussions of difficult topics, or dumb them down to the point of irrelevance.) 

So, try to have a reasonable, mature discussion of erotica, all someone has to do is inject the word "porn" into the mix, and out the window goes any pretense of thoughtful debate. Try to write a serious, evenhanded critique of any creative endeavor involving sexual content, no matter how obliquely referenced, and the whole piece is dismissed with a single utterance of the word "porn." 
This particular thoughtstopper has become the favored fall-back of pretentious, indolent columnists posing as social critics, as well as jaded,  intellectually lazy (or terminally stupid) bloggers who want to come off as world-weary (seen-all-that) and coolly above the fray. And this is nothing new; writers from D.H. Lawrence to Grace Metalious to  E.L. James have all had their work dismissed (justly or not) as "porn" and that was the end of it till some subsequent, more open-minded generation could come along and have its say.

I point this out because it is high time that we as erotic content providers stood up and defended our turf. Particularly in these last few years, we have found ourselves under increasing pressure, our art under attack, with the real threat of censorship growing every day, and iwe would fight back against these trends we need to recognize the most potent weapons in our adversaries' arsenal. Never let one of these blowhards derail a serious discussion again. Stand up, make your point quietly, reasonably, and with pride in your work! Never let them shout you down again. Never let them cry porn!