Book Review: Hot Highlanders and Wild Warriors

tumblr_nec2gzHH4M1tjspnyo1_1280So here’s a little known fact about me: I really like a good historical romance. Sure, genre romances usually follow a predictable formula and lack complicated character development, but there is something comforting and satisfying about sinking into a huge page-turner full of lush description and sexual tension. Generic historical romances are my cotton candy. They’re basically my literary problematic fave: I admit they’re whitewashed, heteronormative, and have weird messages about class, but I read the shit out of them anyway.

So I’ve been pumped about Cleis’s new romance imprint, Tempted Romance. I suspected romance coming out of a smart, socially conscious publishing team would be top notch, and this theory seems on point from what I’ve read so far. I really enjoyed Hot Highlanders and Wild Warriors. Like, I really did. Genuinely. I didn’t expect to like this title in particular much, as I’ve missed the whole highlanders craze and the book cover is, let’s be real, a bit ridiculous. But fortuitously I’ve been on a masculinity kick—what a friend is referring to as my “muscular renaissance”—and this anthology has that market cornered. The male characters are deeply physical and ambitiously calculating, walking the line between dangerous and gentle. Plus they’re smart. Smart is good. From Susannah Capin’s “Wicked”:

He straightened, towering over her. Long and lean, built for power and speed. A deadly combination of brains and brawn.”

Is it fluff? Totally. Eventually I will write a more coherent post about the female gaze in erotica and erotic romance, but for now I’ll just say I dig it. Sometimes you just want a guy who can pin you. I’m not above admitting that. As far as escapist fantasy goes I think this is pretty harmless. Continue reading

The “Cool Girls” of Penthouse Variations on Oral

PHVAR_oralLet me start this review with a warning: this post contains vulgar, sexual language of the cringe-inducing variety. Also lots of discussion of sexism. My humorless feminist critic came out in this one.

This spring, Cleis Press announced it was teaming up with Penthouse Variations to release a series of erotic anthologies. Edited by the Penthouse team but published by Cleis, it sounded like an unlikely but potentially brilliant pairing. Sex-positive, queer, feminist Cleis Press working with boy’s club, sleazy, mainstream Penthouse? Cool! This seemed genuinely cool. Their first title in the series, Penthouse Variations on Oral, came out this October.

I really wanted to like Variations on Oral. I really, really did. Because Cleis Press has a great legacy of producing challenging, feminist, queer-friendly erotica, and while I don’t like every title that comes out of their house, I’m a loyalist. I’m less familiar with Penthouse because, um, I’m not exactly their demographic. But I also don’t hate all mainstream porn on principal, and Variations on Oral has a female editor, Barbara Pizio. Penthouse meets Cleis wouldn’t be a sex-positive, feminist fantasyland, but it had to be a cool mash-up of these two erotica bastions, right? Plus I’m currently obsessed with the notion of dude-friendly erotica right now, and Penthouse is predominantly mainstream man porn. Maybe a Cleis/Penthouse collaboration would hit the sweet spot of smart, considerate erotica for straight male readers. Continue reading

Book Review: 10 Shades of Seduction

10 Shades of SeductionSo I’m a big Alison Tyler fan. She pretty much rocks my world. When she tweeted about having copies of 10 Shades of Seduction available for anyone who wanted to write a review, my response was essentially, “Gimme.”

For those who want to avoid spoilers, maybe tune out now and just go order the book. It’s worth it. Scout’s honor.

Tyler has two novellas in this gigantic anthology from Harlequin (is this the first Harlequin title I’ve reviewed? I think so!). In case you couldn’t guess from the title, the theme is BDSM erotica romance. Now I read a surprising amount of BDSM erotic romance for someone who doesn’t actually like BDSM erotic romance, and that’s usually all Alison Tyler’s fault. She’s just so fucking good at writing it, at manipulating its predictable tropes into something clever and gorgeous. Continue reading

Blog Tour: The Sexy Librarian’s Big Book of Erotica

Digging into my personal copy after work.

Digging into my personal copy after work.

This must be the fall of mind-blowingly erotica.

Confession: I spent most of my internship at Cleis Press this summer hoping I would go to work the next morning and discover The Sexy Librarian’s Big Book of Erotica had arrived in the office. When that day finally came, I was so eager to kneel on the floor with a box cutter and slice those puppies open. I coveted my nice, shiny, gigantic copy and brought it with me everywhere until I had devoured the entire thing. I even read it on my plane back to the East Coast, much to the discomfort of the body builder sitting next to me in coach.

This book is fantastic. Rose Caraway, newbie anthology editor but experienced erotica audiobook narrator and podcaster, has put together the most diverse, well written, and entertaining collection I’ve ever seen. This book has everything: male and female authors, different types of couples, ghosts, talking alcohol bottles, the list goes on. It’s living proof of the fact that “erotica” is a genre with its own genres. There’s sci fi, horror, realistic fiction, steampunk, historical fiction, BDSM, romance, etc. I’m admittedly not a genre reader, but maybe that’s a good thing—each story in this collection was a surprise, so many windows to types of erotica I never knew existed.

4e36338e2890952bef47269bb6d39da7So this is a great collection for someone new to erotica who wants to discover what they might like, but also a must have for the tried and true erotica fans. It really is a library, complete with its own card catalogue Caraway painstakingly assembled herself (the dewey decimal listings are all real). Not to be That Trite Reviewer, but this would make a perfect gift for your newly single best friend, a lover you want to shake things up with, a bachelorette party present… It’s so accessible. Continue reading

Wrapped Around Your Finger Blog Tour

20763789(tw: discussion of rape fantasies)

I love about Alison Tyler because I always feel like I have learned something after I finish reading one of her books. Without fail, Tyler’s prose picks up my brain and rattles it around. As a relatively vanilla and monogamous twenty-something, my understanding of relationships, sexuality, and submission are always challenged. But I also learn about writing erotica itself: how to do it well, how to do it hot, and how to do it smart.

When I reviewed the first two books in her Dark Secret Love series this winter, I gushed about Tyler’s unique blend of memoir and fiction. In the third installment, Wrapped Around Your Finger, this is even more pronounced. For example, the Samantha who narrates regularly refers to Los Angeles as it was back then—when the action is taking place—implying she is writing this story from some vague future where the restaurants she and her partners eat no longer exist. This doubling, having the character Samantha who is living her life and the future Samantha who narrates it, is awesome.

Why is it awesome? Good question. It’s awesome because it has really cool implications for how consent and kink operate in the book. Character Samantha is constantly being surprised by her Dom, Jack. They have an incredible bond and he understands her needs better than she does, which leads to him pushing her boundaries despite her reservations. Simply put, he already knows what she wants. As an outsider to the kink community who is super uptight about consent, this at times makes me uncomfortable. I find it difficult to separate fantasy from reality while I read (a struggle that is quickly becoming a theme to this blog), and so I was often concerned for this fictional character who doesn’t always have a say in what is happening to her. Present character Samantha doesn’t know if she wants to be publically spanked on stage at a club. She doesn’t necessarily want to participate in a fetish photo shoot either.

But narrator Samantha does know, and narrator Samantha does want, and this allows me as a worried reader to relax. There is an agreement between narrator Samantha and me to trust the story, and by extension to trust Jack with Samantha. Eventually character Samantha catches up and recognizes her desires, never leaving a sexual encounter displeased. For her, those moments of fear, confusion, and free-fall are part of her submission and sexuality.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Boss

71kmA235KZL._SL1500_Okay, I almost don’t know where to start with how much I appreciated this fantastic, sexy powder keg of a book. The Boss by Abigail Barnette just won my ‘favorite feminist erotica ever’ trophy. This review is going to be long, disorganized, and ecstatic. Get ready, folks.

I talk a big game about the possibilities of feminist erotica, about a literary genre where women are sexually empowered, savvy, satisfied, but still real. It is my belief that feminist erotica can deliver the sex education most teenagers are deprived of due to abstinence-only curricula, can provide sexual role models for readers to respect and learn from, and can still turn them on. But the crux of feminist erotica, for me at least, is realism. Feminist erotica engages with the fucked up parts of sex, the confusing elements, the issues we bump into as we screw around and try to navigate both our politics and our pleasure. And this book, this fucking book, is what I have been waiting for.

A summary of the book will sound familiar: Sophie works at a magazine as the assistant of an Anna Wintour-look alike when Porteras is sold and gorgeous, rich, sexy Neil Elwood takes over. The only problem is that Sophie slept with Neil during a layover at LAX six years ago, and the sexual tension is thick. Oh also he’s super into BDSM. In the abstract this plot seems riddled with cliché, and I’ll admit I pegged it at first as a well-written, fun, but generally unsurprising romance novel.

Yo, I was so wrong. Let me offer a few reasons.

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Consent, Children’s Lit, and Ella Enchanted

Copy lovingly borrowed, as mine is in a box of 'Little Ella' books in Connecticut.

Copy lovingly borrowed, as mine is in a box of ‘Little Ella’ books in Connecticut.

When I was little, my favorite book was Ella Enchanted. Some relative bought me a copy of Gail Carson Levine’s paperback because my name was also Ella, and little me thought this was the best thing to have ever happened, especially when my hair was also brown and I was also something of a weirdo. I read and reread that book until its pages were torn and falling out, and I regularly took the audiobook out from Greenwich Public Library to listen to the cassette tapes on my canary yellow Walkman (#90schild). Ella Enchanted resonated with little Ella because its characters were smart, relatable, and well intentioned in a world that kind of sucked. I was growing up in a heavily class-conscious suburb, the commercial district of the aforementioned Greenwich, Connecticut, so its themes of class stratification helped me make sense of the world around me. My childhood love for Ella Enchanted wound up being formative in ways I would not realize for over a decade. Far more than little kid lit, it ingrained in me the vital principle that everyone had the right to say no.

I just spent the weekend with my boyfriend in Los Angeles, and on day two of my mini-vacation I finished reading the only book I had brought with me. Lucky for me, my partner relished the opportunity to give me a tour of every bookshelf in his family’s home, stocked with everything from the classics to a smorgasbord of YA lit. There, nestled among the shelves, was his yellow-tinged copy of Ella Enchanted. I spent the next day racing through its familiar stories, feeling like I had rediscovered an old friend. I was maybe thirty pages in when I realized it was a book about consent. Continue reading

Book Review: Active Duty

ActiveDuty_hires I should begin this review of Neil Plakcy’s Active Duty: Gay Military Erotic Romance by saying that I have never read M/M erotic fiction before. Aside from my pre-teen days of following Sirius Black/Remus Lupin fan fiction, I fall outside of the gay male fiction demographic. That isn’t to say women do not read M/M, and several of my close female friends do. I just want to preface this review by saying I am a total newbie to this genre. I probably wouldn’t have picked up Active Duty other than to gawk at its spectacular beefcake cover, but my first real task as an intern at Cleis Press has been to manage its blog tour. I read the paperback to get to know its authors and to select excerpts to send to bloggers, a surprisingly difficult task considering I kept forgetting I was reading the book for work and not for my own enjoyment. Active Duty is in turn sweet, funny, sexy, and graphic, and I’m glad my internship gave me a reason to read it.

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Ebook Review: WHAT KIND OF TROUBLE?

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It scares me when people say I’m sweet because I’m not. I’m bitter enough to burst, half-sick with rage on my good days. I wish someone hated him the way I did, so that I could stop, so that I could get rid of this fury that rots & blooms inside of me. This is a terrible way to think: if you really loved me you’d want him dead. I’m so tired of boys saying I’ll kill him because they never follow through. It’s just a loud thing to say before they try to touch me and then I’m left with him in my head: laughing, rolling his eyes” (Nicola Maye Goldberg).

WHAT KIND OF TROUBLE? is a fever dream of the confessions of women just like me: teenagers or women in their early twenties, losing and finding themselves at the same time. They are girls who are jaded and too old and too young, angry and fucked up and frightened and poetic, throwing around phrases like “façade of escapades” (Gabby Giullano). It’s a bit like a “best of” review of tumblr word posts. If well-curated wounded female poetry is your thing, Sara Sutterlin has the hookup. WHAT KIND OF TROUBLE? is by the girls, for the girls, except we would find you calling us “girls” patronizing. We are women, or at least we might be some day soon.

This collection felt intimately familiar to me for two reasons. The first is that one of my friends from college is listed in the table of contents, her poetry just as powerful as the prose I got to know during a shared creative writing course. The second is that this is poetry I could have written myself (if I were a better poet). Every piece about thinly veiled (or not veiled at all) emotional abuse, about struggling to be strong enough, about driving in endless loops around our hometowns, about being raped, about the entitlement of (white) teenage boys, about the value of female friendship in the face of misogyny, about loving a man who under no circumstances is worthy of that love… it’s basically the past decade of my life in an ebook. Continue reading

Ebook review: NO LONGER MINE: INTERVIEWS WITH EX BOYFRIENDS

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Anyone who spends enough time on tumblr will recognize Sara Sutterlin’s poetry. Usually appearing in all capital letters and uploaded in a screen-cap of a text window, her work is unapologetic, demanding, and brutal in its detail. She writes about everything from heartbreak to internalized misogyny, and her posts are wildly popular, resonating hardcore with tumblr’s younger female (read: feminist) demographic. When I saw Sutterlin was looking for reviewers for her ebooks, which are more like digital zines due to their stripped down style, I jumped at the opportunity to do more than just stalk her website.

We all have questions we would love to ask our exes. Some might be about the relationship itself, or about where things between us stands now. Maybe we would like to clarify an unfinished moment or a lie that was never forgotten. In NO LONGER MINE: INTERVIEWS WITH EX BOYFRIENDS, Sutterlin explores this curiosity. But instead of demanding answers to lingering concerns, she asks her exes about herself, an act both self-indulgent and fascinating. She explains her project briefly and without apology, offering the results without any sales pitch. “AS A PART OF MY SELF LOATHING SELF EXPLORATION BULLSHIT PROJECT I DECIDED TO INTERVIEW SOME OF MY EX BOYFRIENDS AND ASK THEM A BUNCH OF WEIRD SHIT.” The ebook is for her, and if you benefit from it, cool. But that’s not Sutterlin’s priority.

I don’t want that to be read as an insult. It isn’t. I have so much respect for writers who write for themselves—especially women, who are told at every turn that their stories are invalid. The bulk of my work was written for myself because I had feelings I needed to exorcise, or because I wanted to communicate something that I wished someone had communicated to me. This blog is for me, at the end of the day. It’s a chance for me to read things without paying for them in exchange for an honest review. More importantly, it’s a means to represent myself, instead of letting the world decide how I should be represented. Sutterlin’s ebook is for her, but she is allowing her exes to represent her through their answers to her (highly intentional) questions. The result is honest, fascinating, and raw. I feel like I know Sutterlin, or that I know a version refracted through a mirror from the words of those who loved and lost her. To be even more exact, the ebook offers a glimpse of who she was at a time when these men thought they knew her, if they ever did. Continue reading