Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review of recent fiction by Spencer Dryden and Emmanuelle de Maupassant

Great writing is a turn-on in and of itself, as surely as lively intelligence and a wicked sense of humor. I’m far less particular about subgenre, erotic flavor or kink than I am about quality of writing. Tell me a story about anything you like, but tell it well, tell it articulately, assuredly, vividly, and, most of all, originally. Do all this and I am likely to be delighted.

I was decidedly pleased to spend time recently with a couple new-ish titles from two gifted and highly intelligent writers: Highland Pursuits by Emmanuelle de Maupassant and The Gueschtunkina Ray Gun by Spencer Dryden.  These two stories are about as different from each other as it’s possible to imagine, nothing whatsoever alike in terms of length, narrative sensibility, style, point-of-view, or character development. But both gave me extended moments of pleasant laughter even as they impressed me with their craftspersonship and their respective authors’ assured command of language.

Highland Pursuits by Emmanuelle de Maupassant

Set in the Britain of 1928, Highland Pursuits begins as a feather-light Wodehouse-ian romp liberally crossed with elements of Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. Lovely, young, and reluctantly eligible Ophelia rejects her upper-class twit of a suitor in London and is summarily packed off to the Scottish highlands to “come to her senses” spending the summer on her grandmother’s manor estate. Ophelia hardly fits the mold of a typical Wodehouse leading lady; she is neither an insufferable battle-axe nor a doe-eyed ditz, though she encounters her share of the like in her travels, along with effusively pretentious artists, foreign scoundrels, loudmouthed Americans, dirty old men, titled eccentrics, and divers members of the aristocratic huntin’-shootin’ set.

But it’s the handsome estate manager Hamish who catches Ophelia’s eye. Hamish, of course, possesses all the characteristics of the perfect romance hero; impossibly good-looking (especially in a kilt), macho, sometimes gallant, but also brooding and darkly aloof as he nurses a broken heart from his past. You KNOW how this is going to turn out, right? Yet, it’s in the “getting there” that this superbly crafted story shines.

If I have any complaints about Highland Pursuits, it is that the tone becomes decidedly less lighthearted towards the middle, whence, consequently, the pacing seems to flag. Where do all the wonderful jokes go—even the delightful antics of Ophelia’s cairn terrier Pudding? It’s all-too serious of a sudden, perhaps because, knowing how stories like this are supposed to end, it’s necessary to spin out the dramatic irony for a spell. This inconsistency in tone is ameliorated to some degree by the quality of the writing, and, perhaps, most people, who read considerably faster than I, won’t even notice. Still, 'tis ne’ bu’ a wee quibble considering the excellence of the whole.  

Highly recommended!

The Gueschtunkina Ray Gun by Spencer Dryden

This wry little tale riffs on one of the oldest and most familiar of all male fantasies, the quest for a magical shortcut to the heart of female desire. Drawing on the tradition of pulp sci-fi and classic men’s-magazine entertainments, Spencer Dryden gives readers a lighthearted fantasy about a horny grad student’s encounter with a time-traveling monk from a bleak matriarchal future. (Dryden’s use of natural, snappy dialogue is most impressive!) In a last-ditch effort to save some vestige of male-ness, the monk gifts the grad student with a mysterious artifact, the gueschtunkina ray gun, which, when fired at a female subject, makes her instantly amenable to just about anything a guy is up for. According to the monk, a certain ball-busting female professor is in dire need of a good “gueschtunkining” if the balance between the sexes is to be preserved, and it falls to our valiant grad student to do the honors—or take one for the team as the case may be. Fun!!!

As much as I enjoyed this story, I wish Dryden had taken better advantage of his entertaining premise. There are all sorts of possibilities for erotic hijinks and bawdy humor here, but the storyline is so rigidly linear, so focused on getting in and getting out, that the notion of artful complication, conflict, a bit of trouble along the journey, making the final reward so much sweeter, seems to have eluded the author. The story, entertaining as it is, is simply too short.

Nonetheless, this is a highly enjoyable, rewarding, and occasionally even thought-provoking effort, perhaps Spencer Dryden’s best to date. Enthusiastically recommended.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of 'Wanderlust: A Literary Erotica Anthology' (ed. Megan Lewis)

I think it was Ernest Hemingway who said that short story writers are mostly frustrated poets. I can’t recall if Hemingway meant this as a good thing or not, but it is certainly easy to see his point after exploring editor Megan Lewis’ Wanderlust, a collection of thirteen short stories in which literary erotic prose is often taken to its lyrical limits—and that definitely is a good thing.

As the title suggests, this collection is centered around themes of travel, or that restless, deeply human urge to be ever someplace else, very much akin to the insatiable hunger for sex that drives so many from moment to moment if not from place to place. These are mostly stories about brief encounters as in Zac Blue’s The Cruelty of Eden, set in Paris; T.C. Mill’s melancholy Soft, Rough wherein a lonely house sitter ponders her past as she entertains her lover; or Alexis Quinton’s Red Earth, in which a restless woman from Australia’s Gold Coast finds peace of a sort as a barmaid in an isolated outback settlement. In Terri Pray’s Colors, a vampiric drifter meets his soulmate in a roadside diner—or is she merely a meal? Arden Ellis’ f/f Nighthawk finds a biker breaking down along a lonely stretch of the Al-Can highway, picked up by an adventurous runaway—this acutely-observed story features engaging characterizations and admirably realistic dialogue. In Jack Swift’s m/m American Leather, a punk rocker “initiates” one of his groupies in the changing room of a BDSM leather shop.

Other stories tell of longer-term relationships: in Arden Ellis’ poignant Scheherazade two women travel to a distant planet on a journey of a thousand years, periodically coming out of suspended animation to maintain their ship and tell each other stories of life that was. In Zac Blue’s haunting, atmospheric Slipping Through the Splinters a restless visitor from another world discovers the complications of love in human form. Val Prozorova’s clever Urgent Train Message: Immediate Delivery is a heartbreaking and exultant story of forbidden m/m love in late-Victorian Britain; while in Riever Scott’s deliciously written Tawaif, a British woman recounts her affair with a young native co-worker in Mumbai, looking back in regret on how things ended.

The stories coming closest to poetry here are Parker Marlo’s Zephyr, nothing less than a rondeau in prose recalling a steamy encounter on a west-bound passenger train, and J.S. Emuakpor’s ravishingly beautiful Aljanar Ruwa in which the water nymph of the title is reunited with her lover, the great river god. Emuakpor’s language flows with the limpid grace of the very waters it describes—it’s simply gorgeous writing, and not to be missed!  

With its superb writing, diverse, fascinating themes, and consistently scintillating eroticism, Wanderlust is enthusiastically recommended!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Review of 'How Not to Write a Novel' by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman

NOTE: I'm digging this older review out of mothballs for today, with a promise to get back to new reviews and commentary next week.  TAS

How Not To Write a Novel is certainly one of the most amusing discussions of the art and craft of writing I've encountered--and I have read many books on the topic, devouring them like cotton candy, if not always digesting their best advice. While this book makes for a pleasant diversion, and can serve the purpose of a fairly painless refresher course, I would not recommend it for the rank beginner. There's a little too much snark in the mix--at times, contrary to the advice they themselves offer, the authors seem overly taken with their own cleverness--and the jokes occasionally get in the way of clear explanation. Much of the humor only works insofar as the reader is capable of telling the difference between literary dreck and solid practice from the get-go--something that requires experience in addition to a very active sense of humor.

For those with well-tuned funny bones or a couple Pulitzer prizes under their belts, the book may turn up a few nuggets of insight. It can also be rather discouraging if we recognize some of these pitfalls and bad habits in our own earlier work. Yes, it would be wonderful to live in a world full of brilliant, hard-working writers who never bore us or insult our intelligence, yet, if every aspiring author took every single one of these examples of what not to do to heart, novels would be little more than thoughtless play-by-play; stories reduced to pure action; the show-don't-tell principal taken to its horrifying logical extreme with nothing left of introspection, illumination or personal narrative. One must approach the advice here with a healthy dose of skepticism and a strong sense of self-identity as a writer. No novelist ever became great by being ignorant of the rules; but no great writer ever met at least one rule that wasn't worth breaking for the sake of a truer art.

I would note, too, that a lot of the sort of rotten writing illustrated here still has a way of ending up, with disturbing regularity, in traditionally published, best-selling commercial fiction, as well as far too many poorly conceived, albeit popular, "novelistic" television drama series. Thus, the very premise of the book, that in order to be pubished, one should avoid certain behaviors, is rendered moot. Sure, maybe Dan Brown, E.L. James or the writers of the Revenge TV series would be better, more engaging, more respected authors were they to take some of Mittlemark and Newman's advice, though one doubts they'd be measurably richer, and I don't think they'd be likely to listen in any case.

Among the most useful books on writing-craft, I would strongly recommend these in addition to (or instead of) Mittlemark and Newman:

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guinn
On Writing by Stephen King
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Remmi Browne and Dave King
How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block
Spider Spin Me a Web: A Handbook for Writers by Lawrence Block
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

How Not to Write a Novel is recommended more for entertainment than instructional value.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review of "In Bonds of the Earth" by Janine Ashbless

Janine Ashbless pushes all the right buttons in this exciting follow-up to 2015’s Cover Him With Darkness. I described that first entry in the series as “an intense, engaging, grandly imagined, intelligent, entertainingly well-paced and very—very—sexy story; erotic romance writ large.” I also noted that Cover Him With Darkness “ends with a cliffhanger worthy of Lord of the Rings, and leaves us breathless for more…” It’s a pleasure, then, to report that In Bonds of the Earth is everything fans have been waiting for, taking all the elements that made the first book memorable, artfully supercharging them in a sweeping, action-packed, powerfully erotic story that dazzles with its imaginative employment of real-life settings, elements of ancient lore and legend, and fast-paced contemporary thrillers.

The story is told in first person from the viewpoint of Milja, somewhat wiser now after having freed fallen angel Azazel from eons of bondage, she is doubtful about her lover’s plan to release his “brothers” from their prisons in order to mount a new assault on the forces of heaven. His search leads them to the labyrinth of ancient monolithic rock-cut churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia, where the priests, wielding the rusted relics of saints, guard a secret that humankind must never know. (No spoilers here, but let’s just say that the mid-story climax—and Ashbless’ way of relating it—is exciting as hell!)

The romantic leads are realistically imperfect here; Milja is smart and beautiful, but also still rather naïve, not always wise in the ways of human—or angelic—behavior, and still vulnerable where the heart—not to mention her hair-trigger erotic responses—are concerned. She describes Azazel, for all his physical allure, as not very bright, a musclebound creature who lives in the here and now without much thought for consequence or the feelings of others, least of all Milja’s.  

I was—as ever—impressed by Ashbless’ ability to set her tale within a broad historical and cultural context without resorting to obvious “data dumps” or dry narrative digressions; the fascinating history of Lalibela is woven so subtly into the fabric of the story as to seem perfectly of a piece with the unfolding adventure. The author’s erudition shines through, illuminating the story without ever casting shade on the reader. Milja’s informal conversational style does not clash with her obvious intelligence, but brings readers comfortably along, never making them feel patronized or inadequate.

This entry in the series closes with a shattering cliffhanger that will have readers on the edge of their seats, hearts pounding in their throats, and practically howling in half-fulfilled frustration! I felt afterwards as if I’d enjoyed an extraordinary meal—or had really great sex—richly fed to be sure, yet craving still more, able only to dream of “next time.”

Well worth the wait—and let’s hope the wait for the third book won’t be too long!—In Bonds of the Earth is enthusiastically recommended! 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Nerd Love (a EuphOff Quickie) by TAS

This horrid little piece of tripe was composed for this year's EuphOff, a delightful "non-competition" that asks erotica writers to pull out all the stops on bad metaphor, shopworn cliché, adverbial excess, and prose as purple as plum lipstick stains on an Arrow collar in 500 words or less. Wasn't it G.K. Chesterton  who observed that one cannot truly understand how good they are until they've discovered how bad they can be--or something to that effect?

Nerd Love
(a EuphOff Quickie)
by Terrance Aldon Shaw

Gazing up from between his lover’s legs, Jesus-Horatio was utterly captivated by the sight of her preternaturally perfect orbs, huge, pendulous, rounder than round, floating haughtily above him like a double vision of the second Death Star as seen by a cross-eyed Ewok crouching on the surface of the forest moon of Endor at night.

“Those are no moons!” he murmured referentially as he zeroed in on the throbbing mushroom—agaricus bisporus—of Maggie’s desire, which, beneath the hyper-articulate ministrations of his Poindexterishly pornographic tongue, had tumesced like a well-nurtured robin’s egg, resting cozily in the soft nest of her venereal delta.

“Oh! Jesus-H—” Maggie moaned. “Eat me like a senior-citizen’s discount-Wednesday buffet!”

“Erumph!” Jesus-Horatio tried to speak with his mouth full, adjusting the angle of his lingual dart’s trajectory, the better to buff the already-glistening pearl of Maggie’s magnificent girl-ness.

There had been a great disturbance in the Force when they met, only moments earlier, at the sci-fi/fantasy convention downstairs. Resplendent as Obi-Wan in his youthful Phantom-Meance iteration, Jesus-Horatio was waiting in line to see a man about a tauntaun when he spied Maggie, stunningly attired as Gabrielle from Xena, Warrior Princess and hanging--not pervertedly at all--around the entrance to the men’s room, where she was waiting, so she said, for her scantly-endowed wheelchair-bound boyfriend to finish washing his hands. 

Thrilled for once to be hitting on a female humanoid whose boyfriend couldn’t actually beat him up, Jesus-Horatio was quick to compliment Maggie on the exquisitely detailed filagree-work gracing the left cup of her brazen battle brassiere. Impressed for her part that a guy who wasn’t obviously gay would notice such things, Maggie gushed like a soft-serve ice cream machine in a heat wave, whence, looking down, her eyes lighted on his light sabre, a burgeoning hummock rising from mist-gray folds of Jesus-Horatio's Jedi robes.

With uncharacteristic boldness, Jesus-Horatio then asked Maggie if she would like to come up to the room on the 37th floor he was sharing with five other nerds from out of town in order to see his impeccably-preserved first edition of the “legendary” graphic novel in which Luke and Leah never figure out that they’re brother and sister.

All else was forgotten in the next instant as Maggie agreed. The elevator doors closed with a ping, and, alone at last, the fevered fan-geeks fell into each other’s arms in a blazing frisson of unbridled concupiscence.

In the room, Maggie’s whole body convulsed with naughty plasmic bursts of orgiastic delectation as she wrapped a pair of shapely calves around her Yoda-quoting inamorato’s neck in a manner suggestive of a python contemplating the lugubrious strangulation of its victim du jour.

At this point, to Maggie’s undying dismay, Jesus-Horatio’s faithful R-2 unit malfunctioned, causing the premature deployment of a quarter-million storm troopers. Thus, her deep core remaining sadly un-fracked, the earth did not move,  and plans for a sequel were put on indefinite hold.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Emmanuelle de Maupassant interviews TAS on author influences

This week, you can read Emmanuelle de Maupassant's interview with me about my artistic influences here. A wide-ranging discussion focusing on the influence of music in my approach to craft and style, the interview features additional comments on film, literary fiction, poetry, the visual arts and dance.

Next week: a review of In Bonds of the Earth, Janine Ashbless' follow-up to Cover Him With Darkness (one of EftBB's "Best of 2015" selections).


Sunday, March 12, 2017

How to Get Good (Part 1)

It’s probably safe to say that nothing you read here on EftBB will ever help you achieve outstanding financial success as a writer. For all the hard work I’ve done over the decades, the secret to authorial fame and riches remains maddeningly beyond my muddled ken. I have ultimately come to the conclusion that it is indeed possible to do everything “right” and still come up short. One can pursue a dream to the end, obdurately believing in the greatness of one’s vision, hoping with all one’s heart to strike that magic chord in the soul of the reading public, yet simply lack the luck to be in the right place at the right time, even as some demonstrably less-gifted writer strides the best-seller list like a snot-nosed colossus, snickering all the way to the bank.

This, alas, is life, arbitrary, cruel, perpetually unfair, and always out to lunch at the complaints department. We may whine and kvetch about talentless slop artists, ass-kissing arivistes, and upjumped hacks with more aptitude for schmoozery than literary sense, but, in the end, that’s just the way things work out. It doesn’t mean that we should not continue to work hard every day, dedicate ourselves to doing our best in spite of the odds, and strive towards greatness; it means we should probably develop a set of realistic expectations about life in general, and this, our chosen profession, in particular. What it all boils down to is; we do this work because it is the work we are meant to do, no matter what.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject:

(1) Nobody will ever care about your work as much as you do.

Oh, some people will certainly care, often quite intensely, about what you do; but, in the end, it’s not their life or their work, it’s yours, and if you of all people aren’t passionate about it, how can you expect others to be? A writer’s commitment and passion shines through on every page—readers can tell—and there’s very little that turns readers off more than a writer who clearly doesn’t have their heart in the endeavor.  Authors who write in genres they clearly don’t like—an all-too-common phenomenon in erotica—cheat their audience and themselves.

(2) It is futile (and self-destructive) to compare yourself with other writers.

Lawrence Block makes this point in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. We waste a lot of time and potential creative energy obsesing about our place in the scheme of things—why we’re so much better than this writer, or will never be as good as that one—always looking outward with envy or stubborn defiance, scorn more often than not mingled with self-loathing. The fact, whether we are willing to admit it or not, is that we are most miserable when we try to be something we are not. When we try to fit in, or change to please another person, or be like someone else instead of being true to ourselves. A writer needs to develop a balance between healthy self-love and honest humility.

(3) On the other hand, a healthy competition with oneself—comparing your present work with things you’ve done in the past—can be a key to growth.

To paraphrase Tolstoy: you can’t become a better writer if you already think your writing is perfect. If you understand that you are not in competition with other writers, you will be free to develop the self-confidence to perceive not only how good you are, but also how good you are not, and when you understand that, you will find the space in which to strive, grow, and improve.

(4) To be great at something, you must concentrate solely on that one thing.

This doesn’t mean that you can achieve greatness simply by setting your mind to it. Malcolm Gladwell famously posited that one must put in 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field—and that’s still no guarantee of one’s 15 minutes of fame. Talent and inspiration are not enough; you have to be willing and able to back those things up with real sweat equity and single-minded commitment, pouring yourself—your mental and physical energies—into this single endeavor, if only to see how good you can become.

Near the end of his life, Norman Mailer said that every book he wrote killed him a little bit more. And it’s true: we die slowly for our art. Writing is a less-messy form of self-murder, and the work we leave behind an elaborate suicide note.

I think, too, of  the film Quills in which Jeffrey Rush portrays the Marquis de Sade: imprisoned, condemned as possessed or insane, nothing stopped de Sade from expressing himself, to the point where, after having his tongue cut out and being placed in solitary confinement, he continued to write with his own feces... THAT is the madness that drives a true creative! THAT is the commitment that greatness demands.

Remember, though, that great things do not always have to be big or extravagant things. Nor is it necessary to be the center of attention in order to achieve a great thing. It is important, however, not to spread oneself too thin.

(5) To this end, cultivate a work ethic.

Anyone who says that writing is easy is a liar. If writing is easy all the time, you’re not doing it right. Indeed, what so many people don't get is that writing is genuinely hard work, often physically taxing and mentally draining. It can be frustrating as often as it is rewarding, and there are times when it's difficult to justify the input of labor and time by the usual metrics of conventional success. To optimize one’s efforts, treat writing the way you would any serious work; develop a daily writing schedule and discipline yourself to stick to it, especially if you have any desire to earn more than a hobbyist’s income from the endeavor.

The best way to produce a steady stream of high-quality work, is to observe regular writing hours with defined daily starting and quitting times. Such a schedule can conform to the needs of your life, whether early in the morning or late at night, or in the middle of the afternoon, but it should ideally be the same time each day. Getting into the regular pattern of writing, the quotidian habit of work, does wonders to lubricate the mental mechanisms of craft. The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the former believes they can sit and wait for inspiration to pay a mysterious and unscheduled visit. The professional knows that inspiration is drawn from within by the regular exercise of one’s mental faculties.

It’s OK, by the way, to be a "difficult person" where defending your work time is concerned. Make it clear that you expect others to respect your schedule—but be just as adamant that you respect it yourself by sticking to the hours you have established.

(6) Don’t spend your royalties before you’ve finished the book.

I don’t care if you think you’ve got a story inside you. Come back when you have a dozen on paper—or, better still, fifteen or fifty. Get into the habit of writing everything down, and soon enough, you’ll have more stories than you can tell in a lifetime. Build up a body of work you can be proud of, and don't keep it to yourself.

(7) Be the kind of professional you yourself would like to deal with.

Believe it or not, editors, agents, and publishers like dealing with people who are easy to work and get along with. You can stick up for yourself and your work while still being agreeable, and, in fact, other professionals will respect you for being true to yourself; but you don’t have to do this by (1) putting other writers down, either overtly or passive-aggressively, (2) behaving like a spoiled prima dona, believing that you are above constructive criticism or too great to take advice.

Remember that a smart, thoughtful consistency is the essence of professionalism. If people have had good experiences with you in the past, and expect the same in the future, that is an asset more valubale than almost anything else.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule...

To be continued