Saturday, December 16, 2017

Best of 2017

Erotica for the Big Brain's Best of 2017
Roadhouse Blues  (Malin James)
Wanderlust  (ed. Megan Lewis)
In Bonds of the Earth  (Janine Ashbless)
Thrones of Desire  (ed. Mitzi Szereto)
Named and Shamed  (Janine Ashbless)
Viking Thunder  (Emmanuelle de Maupasant)

Times are getting tough for erotica and, especially, for those authors of erotica who take their work seriously and care deeply about their art. 2017 has seen a snowballing movement towards censorship and outright suppression from the big publishing platforms, not to mention the "usual suspects" of resurgent cultural puritanism, the reactionary forces of patriarchy, and the sex-negative attitudes of  people on the left as well as on the right. One might be forgiven for believing that we are galloping headlong into a New Dark Age--or, indeed, that such a time has already overtaken us. It is heartening, therefore, to note the achievements of some very fine, courageous, visionary, and brilliant authors, great practitioners of the writer's craft and tellers of damn fine stories, who still insist on holding up a light against this gathering gloom. Thank you for giving us hope. Thank you for giving so much more than a cynical fuck. Thank you for sharing your vision through your words. Thank you for turning us on.  (TAS)

(NOTE: a new feature on EftBB, look for 'Best of Short Fiction (2015-2017) to be posted tomorrow, December 18.) 

BEST OF 2017

Come, Let Us Sing Anyway

Leone Ross is a writer who thinks deeply about her craft. Beyond mere nuts and bolts—the practical minutiae of syntax and punctuation—she grasps the workings of prose as few other writers do, at an elemental, sub-atomic level, her words like charged particles, whirling and spinning in concert to build up language of extraordinary power and beauty.

Ross never wastes a word. Her narrative style is objective, concise, economical yet seldom spare; rich and colorful yet never gaudy or effusive, animated by the lilting cadences of Jamaican patois, the word-music of the mother island, that home where her characters’ hearts invariably turn in spite of time or distance. 

Ross gives us melancholy, homesick stories of the Jamaican diaspora in Britain (Love Silk Food, The Mullerian Expanse), unexpected flashes of humor in the midst of conflict and despair (President Daisy, Velvet Man), the sweet-sour poignancy of imperfect love (The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant, Art, For Fuck’s Sake), tragedy and heartbreak (Minty Minty, Mudboy), and existential horror with a knowing nod to island folklore and ghost stories (Roll It).

This is marvelous storytelling by any standard. The author artfully seduces the reader, and the reader is more than happy to let themself be seduced. The twenty-three short stories in Come, Let Us Sing Anyway offer a sumptuous magical realism, the product of a frenetic and fertile imagination squarely rooted in the rich soil of cultural identity, the keen observation of gesture and motive refracted through a profoundly empathetic lens.

It would be difficult—if not impossible—to understate the excellence of this collection. As a reader, hungry for enlightenment, I was dazzled.  As a writer with an abiding interest in the craft, I came away impressed, inspired, and deeply humbled. 

Roadhouse Blues

Malin James had me from the first line of Skins, second of the eleven good, gritty, honest, bittersweet and beautifully-written short stories in Roadhouse Blues:

Cassie was born ten miles from the middle of nowhere in a town called Styx, if you can fucking believe it…

That line is keynote and key for this collection. All these stories are set emotionally, if not physically, in the same small place somewhere deep in the wilderness of the American psyche. Styx could be practically anywhere, and this, I think, is intentional on the author’s part. There is a sense of near-mythic wide-openness about the place, like the west Texas of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, or the windswept plains of the lower Midwest, an arch nonspecificity invoking universality:  

A curtain dropped over her mind as Cassie walked downstage. She wasn’t in the theater any more. She was in the ugly brown heart of the dust bowl. She could taste it like a film in her mouth…

We’ve seen these box stores, garages, and greasy spoons, strip malls, strip clubs, factories, bars, and bedrooms a hundred times before, wandered through the dusty streets of the same stifling chicken-fried towns where everybody makes it their business to know yours, yet are utterly incurious where the secret pain of the heart is concerned. Where same-sex attraction is still the ultimate scandal, and tenderness more taboo than rage.

James shows us what’s really going on behind those closed doors and drawn drapes, inside her character’s heads. She sets her scenes with a few well-chosen details to conjure atmosphere, but it is the characters’ emotional landscape that interests her and us, that sense of being lost in the only place you’ve ever known, of fleeing the past even as you fear the future, of being trapped in a world where you are free only so long as you don’t stand out too much…  

Leigh imagined her ugly underwear, her ugly comforting armor, and reminded herself to breathe. Fumbling fingers on blue cotton hearts, pink Sundays worn on Mondays, lying so still, mismatched days of the week…

Reminiscent of working-class portraitists like Richard Russo or Stephen King at their keenly-observant best, James’ characters are refreshingly real, down-to-earth, mostly blue collar, sometimes not quite as articulate as they’d like to be. The soundtrack of their lives is more often rockabilly than pure country western, but we recognize a lot of the same themes; infidelity, loneliness, nostalgia, regret, and desire. So much desire. An auto mechanic carries on a life-long affair with his boss, who also happens to be his sister-in-law. His wife’s longing for a baby ultimately leads her to desperate measures. Later, the new mother contemplates the passions that have been awakened within her. Another woman sets out to exact revenge on a faithless lover, only to have the tables turned, when her anger is sublimed into pure lust. The owner of the local diner comes out of the closet, if only for one glorious night. The lover of a fallen soldier is consoled by the soldier’s widow. A waitress's encounter with a creepy late-night patron triggers memories of being young and crazy-in-love, but also the unhinged abuse that followed when the thrill was gone.  A sad-eyed stripper comforts a dying man who appears like the ghost of her beloved father. The bartender at the strip club meets the woman who shares the passions he cannot confess.  Life goes on, little changes, but dreaming makes it bearable.

Wanderlust: A Literary Erotica Anthology

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. Hill’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 his latest 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 keep each other company. 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 they describe—it’s simply gorgeous writing, and not to be missed!  

With its superb writing, diverse, fascinating themes, and consistently scintillating eroticism, Wanderlust is an easy choice for inclusion on this year's Best-Of list.

In Bonds of the Earth

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 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 erogenous zones—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.” 

[The third book in the series, The Prison of the Angels, is already available: look for a review early next year.]

Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms

An absolute delight! The thirteen f/f stories in this treasurable Sacchi Green-edited anthology are, without exception, nothing short of superb. One is impressed not only by the consistent high quality of the writing, but dazzled by the sheer breadth of imagination here on display, and, time and time again, utterly astonished by the very realistic depths of these engaging fantasy characters.

There’s more than enough variation in mood and style to avoid the sort of creeping disaffection one too often experiences with overly ambitious specialty collections. On the other hand, one detects a strong but sympathetic editorial hand quietly at work throughout, keeping everything taut and focused. Green has arranged the stories to achieve and maintain maximum interest.

If this collection can be said to have a unifying theme, it might best be summed up as “love overcomes all”. Curiosity gets the better of suspicion, understanding makes the heart grow fonder, the ice-melting fire of lust leads to an endless springtime of delight, the call of duty ultimately defers to the call of the blood, happily for now, if not always happily ever after. (I would not characterize any of these stories as ‘romance’ per se.)

A stunning achievement overall! 

Thrones of Desire

This superb collection makes a near-perfect companion to Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms. But where that collection maintains a laser-like focus on f/f narratives, the fourteen stories in Mitzi Szereto’s Thrones of Desire offer readers a sumptuous pan-sexual fantasy smorgasbord with something to entice all tastes. 

There are so many fine stories here, it’s hard to pick a favorite. The writing is first-rate throughout, and the range of imagination, impressive. 

Named and Shamed 

Since its initial publication in 2012, Janine Ashbless’ Named and Shamed has attained the status of a modern erotic classic. It is apropos to cite the title for this year's Best-Of list, as the author has recently re-issued the book in a new independent e-book edition. Named and Shamed is a relentless, orgiastic tour de force, a groaning board of pansexual delight unencumbered by the sort of repetition or slacking off in intensity that dooms so many full-length erotic novels. Drawing broad inspiration from Gaelic folklore and pagan myth, the story begins with the theft of a priceless imaginary manuscript, the unexpurgated first draft of Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market, obtained through a cynical act of seduction. In order to return the manuscript without drawing the bloody ire of its owner, Tansy, the reluctant heroine, must seek out the help of a “thing that looks like a man, but wasn’t,” one of the shadowy preternatural entities collectively known as Them There. Of course, the demon’s assistance comes with a sexy price, seemingly pleasant to pay, before its sinister after-effects become apparent. Tansy becomes insatiable, and none too picky about her partners along the way to finding an antidote to her raging nymphomania.  Sex of practically every variety and permutation is described in exuberant detail, whether with a group of horny auto mechanics in a greasy garage, or with just about every mythical creature populating the dark corners of the human imagination—a scene with a randy troll under a bridge is particularly memorable.

Viking Thunder

Emmanuelle de Maupassant’s Viking Thunder is an exquisite piece of writing by any standard, imaginative historical fiction at its finest, and one of the sexiest tales I’ve had the pleasure to read in—ever. Told from the point of view of Elswyth, a young Anglo-Saxon woman, promptly made a widow when a band of Northmen raid her village, this is a clash-of-cultures story enlivened by lots of deliciously lurid action, pillage, fire, and, yes, rape. Elswyth, not ungrateful to be rid of her feckless husband, quickly catches the eye of the Viking leader, Eirik, and is befriended by the shield maiden Helka, Eirik’s sister who functions as interpreter, cultural go-between and a counterbalance of quiet reason to her brother’s fiercely impulsive nature. Yet, more than mere escapist adventure, Viking Thunder has its thoughtful moments, too, a bit of comparative theology and myth, reflection on love, fate and destiny, cheek by jowl with unapologetically explicit descriptions of sex, heady as the sweetest mead. First in a yet another series from the remarkably prolific Emmanuelle de Maupassant, I, for one, can hardly wait for more.

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