Saturday, December 13, 2014

Is there a difference between “Non-con” and “Rape”?

If you read a lot of “non-con” romance, you will inevitably run across angry reviews making some version of the argument, “rape is rape.”

I associate the phrase “rape is rape” with the efforts to raise consciousness of date rape during the late 1980s and ‘90s. For people born before the sexual revolution, "rape" was something that involved a stranger with a gun in a poorly lit parking garage. Especially after the taboos against premarital sex were lifted, it became clear that the vast majority of rapes are “acquaintance rapes” where the parties are known to each other, and the most complex—i.e. hard to prosecute--of those cases take place between people who are romantically involved. Within that context, the phrase served as a crucial reminder that just because you dated or kissed or got drunk does not give your date the right to ignore your refusal to have sex.

And I understand that books that “blur the lines” over consent—romanticize what in real life is a crime, contribute to the myth that a woman who says “no” really means “yes,” that experiencing sexual release somehow negates the violation of will, and so on—would be infuriating to many people. From this point of view, calling these stories “non-con” is a dangerous whitewash.

I agree with these arguments—up to a point. It is absolutely crucial that everyone understand the importance of consent in sexuality, that we refute rationalizations that offer to excuse abusive, illegal behavior, that we empower all people to make healthy, conscious choices about their sexual relations. However, I consider accomplishing these real world ends to be something quite separate from, and not in any way incompatible with, the activity of reading romance novels that feature non-consent

Obviously, I am coming at this from the perspective of a woman who both reads and writes “non-con,” so I won’t pretend to objectivity, but I would like to lay out why I think the distinction between “non-con” and “rape” is both justified and necessary.

A lot of women, myself included, have what are commonly call “rape fantasies”—fantasies of being forced, helpless, humiliated, with varying degrees of violence. I have my own theories of why this may be, but they’re not based on any research, so they don’t have any more authority than anyone else’s. I do know that I have had these fantasies since before I was old enough to recognize them as sexual (for example, a childhood fascination with being kidnapped—I used to pretend my Sunshine Family dolls had been subject to a home invasion in their dollhouse) and that I do not have any trauma or abuse in my past that would offer up a “pathological” reason for why I have these fantasies.

I am also a die-hard liberal progressive, so I felt deeply ashamed and guilty about my fantasies for many years, until I hit my forties and finally said “WTF.”

For me, the distinction between “non-con” and “rape” is all-important. “Rape” simply cannot be a fantasy. Rape is my worst nightmare. It is the perversion of my most intimate fantasies into a tool to degrade, brutalize and damage me. It is turning me into the object of my enemy’s fantasy, one in which I am worthless, where my pain and humiliation serve to titillate someone else, where my feelings don’t matter. We hear pretty often the saying that “rape is a crime of violence not sex,” and that seems to me exactly right. It is an act of cruelty that seeks to violate the will and destroy the personhood of the victim.

“Non-con” fantasies are often treated as crude jerk-off fare, but my own experience is that they are quite complex, with deep roots in the inhibitions, sexual fear, guilt and shame that throughout most of history have been foisted on women and their relationship to their own desire. But whatever their origin, again from my own perspective, the defining condition of anything called an “erotic fantasy,” whether non-con or not, is that it must have pleasure and fulfillment as its ultimate goal. Moreover, within our fantasies, the loss of control is of course completely imaginary: there is no violation of will. No matter how violent the fantasy, the “victim” is always in control. In a very real way, what happens in the fantasy is simply not rape.

Insofar as romance novels are vehicles and expressions of these fantasies, I would argue the same rules apply. The fact that sometimes these depictions are brutal or violent doesn’t change that their goal is pleasure. And I can say as a reader, romance depictions of non-consensual sex do not feel the same as fictional depictions of the kind of “rape” I described above: the first is erotic and the second is horrifying.

Obviously, how a reader perceives a given scene is incredibly variable. Many readers are deeply disturbed by them, and unquestionably survivors of rape can find them traumatic, which is why content warnings are so important. But assuming there are safeguards to protect readers who don’t want to read books with non-con elements, I think it’s a very real question whether indulging in “non-con” fantasies causes greater harm either to the women who like them or to society at large—and by “real question,” I mean there are good arguments on either side and no real all-knowing authority who can inform us of the absolute truth. (And this doesn’t address the problem that I think there are plausible arguments in favor of regarding female fantasies about being “raped” as different and less harmful than male fantasies of raping someone else).

But as regards the question of damage, I would like to make two interrelated points. First, our society has a very old, very ugly history of condemning women for having “improper” sexual fantasies. In my own experience, women are at least as guilty of shaming other women for having the “wrong” fantasies as men are, and that impulse to condemn seems to spring as readily from the political left as it does the right. Ironically, as a sexually active teenager in the 1980s, I was able to dismiss my mother’s dire warnings that people would label me a “slut,” but I thoroughly internalized the often vitriolic feminist condemnation of women who indulged in disempowering, “retrograde” fantasies.

Bottom line: If we are going to argue the damage caused by female consumption of fictional “rape fantasies” then it’s only fair that we weigh that against the harm done by shaming and condemning women for their fantasies. (And, to risk another parenthetical, there is also the problem that shame and repression can make it difficult for some women to own their desires and communicate them clearly to their partners, which can in and of itself lead to destructive sexual encounters including rape.)

My second point is that the “rape is rape” argument negates the difference between fantasy and real life in way that seems to me utterly unhelpful and self-defeating. What we need is a better understanding of “rape fantasies” and why they are so different from the real-world crime of rape.

A few facts come to mind; as in fantasy, fiction is ultimately under the control of the author. She can know the true motives and desires of her characters, can state for certain what harms them and what doesn’t. In a novel, a scene of forced seduction can be credibly played as one character forcing through the unhealthy social repressions and inhibitions of another character for the simple reason that the author says they do—it’s within the parameters of the world the author is creating.

That knowledge is, essentially, magic. It does not exist in real life. There can be no scenario where a man can confidently dismiss a woman’s consent because he “knows” what she “really wants.” It is impossible to know for certain how a person can be helped or harmed by a given action. Violating the will of another person based on your own interpretation of their internal life is criminal—and delusional.

I would argue that we need to reinforce for both men and women why fantasy and fiction are fundamentally different than reality, just as we reinforce for our children that much as we love superheroes, those powers don’t and will never exist in real life.

I’ll just finish by saying that every woman I’ve ever met, whether she has been a victim or not, has to deal with the reality of rape. The fear is so ubiquitous and longstanding that most days we don't consciously register the million ways it influences our most basic decisions--over how we dress, whether we can travel, or even go to the store at 1am. I have no choice but to live with that fear, since even if I refuse to act on it, it has already shaped my instincts to the extent that I use words like "reality" to characterize it.

It makes me furious when I think about it, until that anger can feel like yet another assault on my freedom.  So I am all the more intent on not ceding this most precious, private space—the space my fantasies occupy. I want a way to talk about these fantasies and explore them that does not automatically cede the parameters to my enemies, those who hurt women in such an appalling, intimate way. They should not have the final say—that rape is always rape. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


What follows is sad, about the death of my dog, Pip, on October 16. I didn’t post anything earlier because honestly I couldn’t bear it. I pretended I was fine and threw myself into finalizing my new book for upload. It helped while it lasted, but that’s over now, and I realized I was kidding myself.

I wrote this because my younger son was worried about me and thought it might help to write something. He liked the idea of paying tribute to Pip. So here it is: for my beloved dog who died, and for my family, and really for anyone who has ever maxed out a credit card trying to save a dying pet, or ordered a burial plot in that first rush of grief, or had to face this thing which was simply fucking unbearable.

I got the call at Comic-con. It was October 9, a Thursday,  the first day of the Jewish holiday Sukkot so my son had the day off from school. He and his friend and 50,000 people were packed into the Javitz Center. I could barely hear the vet over the noise of cosplaying nerds, but the news somehow came through with stunning, terrifying clarity.

I’d taken Pip in the day before because he wasn’t eating and didn’t have the energy for his usual walk. He’d lost weight but there wasn’t anything obvious. They’d done some blood work and she was calling to give me the results.

I hate when people say things like this, because it sounds phony and egotistical, but it’s true all the same: there are times when I really, really hate that I am good at reading between the lines of what people are saying to me, that I tend to listen to subtext instead of text. My mother died of lung cancer in 1997. She was 54. I mention it because during the six months between her diagnosis and her death, I got a lot of practice listening for what the doctors were really saying. Their actual words don’t mean much—medical jargon that they know their patients don’t understand but they share anyway because they’re humoring you, or they’re trying to cover their asses, or because they think it gives you some illusion of control, something to focus on. They’re human and they don’t like giving bad news, but I got good at hearing what they were really saying, at their techniques for blunting unbearable truths.

I got the refresher course with Pip. I knew with that first call, the one at Comic-con, that it was hopeless. That my dog was dying. The vet, who was wonderful, talked vaguely about 4-6 months, which I immediately translated to 4-6 weeks. She knew he was very loved, and I honestly think she and her staff fell in love with him a little too. She didn’t want to give up hope. I refused to go on the internet like my husband did or look up anything about canine Leukemia. I made no effort to keep track of details about platelet counts or white blood cells. But every time we talked, that number got revised down like I knew it would, though I hated myself for being right.

We adopted Pip from a no-kill shelter as a puppy on October 10, 2009. That’s me holding him as we drove home for the first time:

We called him a corgeranian—for corgi-pomeranian—but that was just a guess. I picked the name, from Great Expectations, and it really did fit his personality. He was incredibly cheerful and playful. He liked to lounge on his back in the hallway, wagging his tail at anyone who walked by, hoping they’d rub his stomach. He didn’t like closed doors. Every time I went to the bathroom, he nosed the door open and went to lie down at a favorite spot underneath the sink. His fur was incredibly soft for a dog. He looked like he was wearing eyeliner and had a really fluffy tail that little kids especially loved. I read once that corgis with his coloring are described as “red.” We all thought he looked a little like a fox. I didn’t want to post personal stuff about my kids so I posted pictures of him pretty often. My husband loves photography, so we have thousands of him. This is a good shot I've posted before of him as a full-grown dog.

In the end, it wasn’t four months, or four weeks. It was one week. The following Thursday was another Jewish holiday, Simchat Torah, so my younger son was off from school again. It felt a little like a TV show when the phone rang around 9am. A kind voice that told you everything you needed to know, even without the actual words, “Could you come down to the hospital to talk to us about how to proceed.”

My husband couldn’t bear to go. I promised my younger son I’d say goodbye to Pip for him. I sent an email to my older son’s adviser at his boarding school warning that this was coming, because we all knew he was going to have an impossibly hard time with this. He was passionately fond of the dog, and idiotically, unforgivably, we’d held off from telling him how sick Pip was because we didn’t want him to worry helplessly, and we’d been thinking in terms of a few weeks or months, not seven days.

I drove to the hospital, took five minutes just to hold him, whisper goodbye from everyone, and the incredibly kind doctor did it.

I couldn’t get hold of my older son until that afternoon. After the first crash of the news, he just sobbed into the phone, “I don’t know what to do,” over and over again. It was exactly how I’d felt when I got home from Comic-con the week before. I think it was the hardest moment I’ve had in my 16 years as a parent.

I haven’t put his bowl or his bed away, though I threw away the six different meds he’d been prescribed. I tried not to be angry at them for not working. I keep hearing sounds that should be him but aren’t, like he’s a little ghost curled up in his favorite spots. On Thursday, I had to tell his friend, Jerry, at the Farmer’s Market why Pip wasn’t with me to dump our compost. He cried a little. Pip was a favorite in the neighborhood.

I can’t seem to read anything but Teen Wolf fanfics right now. I felt bad because a lot of my friends had books come out this month, amazing books that I was really excited about. But the Sterek helps so I’m sticking with it for now, some kind of fictional comfort food.

This is it, my tribute, and once it's up I'm going to have another cry and I'm not going to write anything sad again. Later tonight when I post something funny or filthy about Sterek, it won't be fake, it just won't be everything. 

At different points both my sons confessed that they felt guilty that they’d not always paid enough attention to Pip, not played with him as much as they could have. I thought that too of course. And I told myself what I told them: if ever there was a happy dog it was Pip. And horrible as this is, and it is really and truly fucking horrible, I am incredibly grateful for the five years we had with him, and I wouldn’t have given it up for anything.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

New Release: College Bound

I am totally psyched to announced my new release, College Bound, an erotic contemporary romance. Here is the cover by the amazing Kim Killion of the Killion Group, who also did the cover for The Heartwood Box.   

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the original title for the story was Convenience Store Sex Slave: A Memoir, which hopefully should give a hint of what the subject matter is like. And just to be clear, since I have actually been asked this an astounding number of times, this book is NOT a memoir in any way shape or form. It is completely and totally fictional. 

To give a fuller idea of the story, here is the blurb:
“I think you would be right for a position with quite specific requirements that would be hard to fill otherwise.”

After a vicious fight with her stepbrother and guardian, Natalie storms out of the family McMansion, never imagining that would be the last time she’d be allowed in the house. A string of truly rotten decisions follows, until she finds herself suspended from school, friendless, broke, and camping out at the convenience store where she works. Worst of all, her college applications are due!

Thanks to a helpful teacher and her own stupendous brilliance she manages to get into her top choice college. Unfortunately, dealing with the financial aid forms proves to be too much for her supersmarts and she is about to lose her spot because she cannot get the money together to pay the deposit.

Enter Gareth Boyd, an old family friend with an indecent proposal that will pay for everything—if she can meet his price.
Believe it or not, I do daydream occasionally that I might someday release a title that does not require a content warning. TODAY IS NOT THAT DAY. So here it is:
Warning: This story features an eighteen-year-old heroine with a foul mouth and horrible judgment, a criminally unscrupulous man intent on taking advantage of her, and multiple scenes of bondage, spanking, ménage, and one potentially triggering scene of attempted rape. The novel is an erotic fantasy in which characters manipulate or disregard notions of proper consent in ways that would never be acceptable in real life. Adult Readers Only.
The only part of the story that might vaguely be called "autobiographical" is that the heroine, Natalie, is a music lover, so I put together a spotify playlist of songs mentioned in the book or that I just imagine the characters listening to. It is named for the New Order song, "Bizarre Love Triangle," which frankly could have been the book's title, so yeah, PERFECT.  The video for that song is surprisingly awesome considering the song was released in 1986.

The playlist as a whole can be found on my website, and also includes New Order's synth masterpiece, "Blue Monday," some Creedence, Cure, and "Oye Come Va" by Tito Puente. 

So that about sums up this announcement.  College Bound is currently available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $2.99.  It should also be available in the future at Kobo, Apple, and in print, at which time I will likely make another announcement. Until then, hope you enjoy!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Queer Romance Month

So we're half way through Queer Romance Month, and I strongly urge you to go over and check out the posts.  There's a huge range of topics, from the pressure to produce happy endings, to the dangers of bi-erasure, to whether there's a market for F/F (Yes, here, please!)  A lot of pieces have given rise to some intense but always constructive comment debates as well.

I am proud to announce that my own contribution, "Outside In," is also up.  I plan to repost it here after the event is over, especially since it fits in with my article series on emerging genres, but in the meantime click on over.

And of course there are still two weeks left, which means two more weeks of provocative, moving, joyous tributes to this amazing genre.

Badge 2

Thursday, September 25, 2014

#Diversiverse: A Review of The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

So I was catching up on Booklikes last week and came across a post about an event taking place during the last two weeks of September entitled #Diversiverse hosted by Aarti Chapati’s blog, BookLust, inviting participants to read and review one book by a person of color during the event period. Generally, I don’t pay much attention to the author’s bio unless I’ve interacted with them or if something about the text makes their background or nationality seem relevant.

Still, I couldn’t help but be struck by Chapati’s points, first about the general need to immerse yourself in a variety of perspectives—national, religious, ethnic, racial—and second about the importance of making an active, deliberate choice to do so through your reading. As she puts it,
“Reading diversely may require you to change your book-finding habits. It ABSOLUTELY does not require you to change your book reading habits.” 

Fortunately for me, the blogger Saturday in Books who'd let me know about the event kindly recommended several titles, in particular Karen Lord's The Best of All Worlds, which she described thus: “Jane Austen Star Trek is all you need to know. Jane. Austen. Star. Trek. People.”

Jane Austen (subject of roughly half my dissertation) and Star Trek (I’ve seen every episode of Next Gen. At least twice.) being two of my most enduring and influential cultural reference points, I was instantly sold. And I can’t really say enough in praise of the book. It’s an emotional read, as much for the subtlety and gentleness with which it allows its developing relationships to unfold as for any passion or drama. It also ended up being an excellent choice for this particular event, since this is a story about cultural difference, about the dangers of assimilation put against the urgent need for compromise and discovery of shared values.

Reading the story requires patience and attention. The blurb gives a rough—and crucial—background to the story since the narrative prefers to allow the key facts about characters and their world to come to light gradually without anything resembling an info-drop. But at its heart, this is very much a story about exile and resettlement and the ensuing clash of cultures, though “clash” suggests something far noisier and more obvious than what we have here. Instead we are immersed in a world of greys, of hard choices and competing values where questions of right and wrong can only rarely be settled without the sacrifice of an equally worthy principle.

The story begins only shortly after the Sadiri home planet has been viciously destroyed. A small group of males have been offered asylum on the planet Cygnus Beta, which has a markedly different culture--as if the survivors of Star Trek’s Planet Vulcan had been forced to settle in the old American west. The Sadiri are desperate to rebuild their lives and preserve their culture yet survival requires intermingling and intermarrying with the local women, which they quickly find is a far more fraught prospect than they’d expected.

Lord’s narration is extremely deft in managing the reader’s waffling reactions to the dilemma. There are aspects of the Sadiri culture that the Cygnians (and most readers) understandably find off-putting: their obsession with mental self-discipline, their emotional reserve, their sense of superiority, their inflexibility and obtuseness when faced with the emotional needs of other peoples.

As the heroine, Delarua, tries to explain, “we’re all descended from peoples who thought they were kings and gods, and who found themselves to almost nothing in the end. Don’t let that be you.”

And yet every time you want to scream and shake one of the Sadiri, you’re forced to pull back: are we really prepared to advise that the survivors of planetary genocide set aside their values, essentially all they have left, for the sake of practicality, or even survival? Especially when every compromise, every sacrifice, furthers the cause of the enemies that tried to exterminate them?

The novel uses two traditional devices, a romantic courtship and a physical journey, to document the psychological journey of how these differences are addressed, how through dialogue, introspection, and shared experiences members of these two cultures can find enough common ground to coexist and ultimately flourish.

My breakdown makes the narrative sound far more schematic than it is. In fact it proceeds with a remarkable absence of the usual melodrama, speechifying and point-hammering that you might expect to find in this kind of story. Instead the ideas and connections emerge almost invisibly through the sum of many encounters, many scenes, where the point is often not obvious.

It might make for a sleepy or dry read but for the remarkable voice of the first-person narrator, Delarua, in turns self-deprecating, professional, vulnerable, humane, heart-broken, insecure, mischievous, and endlessly curious. I’ll just give a few characteristic quotes:

If there’s one thing a Cygnian can’t bear, it’s the stench of superiority. Too often it has been the precursor to atrocity and rationale for oppression.

Warm tendrils untangled from my nervous system, withdrawing gently but swiftly like the leaf-brush of startled mimosa.

A faint smile curved his lips as he looked at me. For a moment, I saw… I don’t know how to explain it, but I saw just a man—not an offworlder, not a foreigner, nor even a colleague and a friend but just a man, relaxed, smiling, glad to be in my company. I felt an odd, fragmenting sensation of suddenly perceiving something differently and having the whole world change as a result.

I can’t help comparing this book to Lois Bujold’s Shards of Honor and offering both as evidence of why I like female-authored sci-fi so much. This is an extremely well-written book, with lovely poetic passages, subtle, insightful characterization and a deeply resonant theme; it is also refreshingly free of the ‘chosen one’ grandiosity and superhero antics so typical of sci-fi, and which too often feel designed to appeal to an audience of adolescent boys.

Finally, as someone who reads overwhelming in a single genre, M/M romance, Chapati’s event was a timely illustration of how much I've been missing by not forcing myself out of my comfy generic house. So my gratitude to both Chapati for organizing a terrific event and to Karen Lord, for writing a subtle, humorous, lovely and always challenging story about the gifts that come when you look beyond your familiar horizons.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Adventures with Sterek or WTF

So, confession time: I've been reading Teen Wolf fan fiction. Specifically the "Sterek" subgenre, featuring Derek Hale and Stiles Stilinski doin... stuff.

And whatever you have to say about that, you can just keep to yourself, thank you very much.

Anyway, it's pretty hot. (Okay, some of it is really hot.) But since I'd never watched the show (or the 1985 Michael J. Fox movie), I realized I was missing many of the nuances. Soooooo, I just bought the show's first season and now I'm watching it with my teenaged son. For those unfamiliar with Teen Wolf, here is a sampling of "Stiles" moments.

For those curious about the massive universe that is Teen Wolf fan Fiction, here are links to the texts that I have sampled so far:

Eat, Knot, Love, by the very talented "pandabomb"

The Worst Thing I Ever Did, by the equally talented "RemainNameless"

I am at best a curious bystander in the world of fan fiction, so I am trying, haphazardly but I hope respectfully, to find my way through its terminology and concepts. For what it's worth, the first story listed is "non-canon" (the label used is "alternate universe/no werewolves") in that it borrows the characters from the show, but then creates its own universe with completely different rules, i.e. instead of werewolves people are "Alphas" and "omegas," the latter of which go into "heat," requiring something called "knotting." (If knotting is unfamiliar to you, you'd best get on that ASAP,  because it is a Very Important Concept in fiction featuring werewolves or wolf shifters.)

The second story is "canon," meaning it adheres closely to actual plot points within the show, with the small added detail of Stiles and Derek gettin' it on. Needless to say, it was the second which sent me running to I-tunes for back episodes of Teen Wolf.  It's been years since I've watched any TV, let alone a series marathon--most recently for me was March 16-April 5 2009 when my husband and I watched all 77 episodes of Battlestar Galactica. (An experience which bore an alarming and humiliating resemblance to the classic Portlandia episode.)  

My son and I are up to episode five, and we only stayed up until 1:15am, which, yeah, is not exactly "world's-greatest-mom" behavior, but fuck it, he doesn't start school for another week, so my husband can just shut up about it and let him enjoy the end of his vacation. Anyway, I can't say Teen Wolf is likely to become the sleep-destroying, world-changing obsession that Battlestar Galactica ended up being in my life, but it does feature a sexily glowering "Alpha" in Tyler Hoechlin's Derek Hale and a fantastic, scene-stealing performance by Dylan O'Brien as Stiles Stilinski.

Perhaps most tellingly for me and my evolving relationship to Fan Fiction, Stiles and Derek in their handful of scenes together demonstrate about a bajillion times more chemistry than the official, and depressingly generic, love plot between the titular hero, Scott, and his pouty lady-love, Allison.

I'm not sure if it was entirely a coincidence or some unconscious impulse at work, but during the same period I was reading "Eat, Knot, Love," I did pull out a (very dusty) copy of my dissertation which I handed in almost exactly eleven years ago and then immediately shut out of my mind as you would a crappy ex-boyfriend. I stayed up until 4am rereading it, and honestly it wasn't bad. In case you're wondering, it was on free indirect discourse in the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James, all covered in a mere 6 chapters and 244 pages, not counting the 11 page (single-spaced) bibliography.

No one will ever know the lurid, terrifying tale of how I got from Sense and Sensibility to Sterek fan fiction, which involves 100-year-old vampires, nubile virgins, and a werewolf's destined mate... Okay fine--you can just read my "It all started with Twilight" post.  Go ahead and laugh--I'm not going to stop you.  I'm too busy loading up Teen Wolf season one, episode 6, "Heart Monitor": apparently Stiles isn't speaking to Scott because of the wolf attack on Stiles' dad, and then Derek tells Scott he may have to give up Allison in order to control his changes!  OMFG!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lilia's Best Multigrain Cookies Ever Ever

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite authors, K.J. Charles, had a terrific blog post about the difficulties authors have today managing the pressure to share details about their real lives for the sake of curious fans. I write with a pen name, and since one of the main rationales for that pen name was to keep my authorship of gay tentacle porn off the radar of my kids' schools, I have not had much temptation or opportunity to overshare, though I admit to prostituting my incredibly cute, dare-I-say "Boo-esque," pet Corgeranian anywhere I think his adorable wittle face might my help my career. In fact I'll do that right now:

Isn't he precious?

Anyhoo, one really shocking, tabloid-worthy RL factoid that I have kept deeply under wraps until now is that I am really into baking, specifically baking with whole grains.  Yeah, I know, it's bad: cupcakes, cookies, quick breads, fruit crumbles--I make them all.

Except pies--I have "personal issues" with pie crusts, as in mine suck.

Generally, my family is pretty "supportive" of "Mom's whole grain thing," meaning if they ever want to eat another goddamn cookie in this house again, let alone bring three dozen top-sellers to their school bake sale, they'd better keep their traps shut about my refusal to cook with insipid, nutritionally castrated refined flours. But even my junk-food inhaling teenager would agree that my Multigrain Chocolate Chips are the best cookies he's ever eaten.  So I thought in the interest of promoting the scrumptiousness and health benefits of whole grains as well as my own coolness, I would share the recipe.

If you've ever made a chocolate chip cookie, you will realize that 100% of the innovation of this recipe is in the combination of grains, specifically the use of Spelt, Kamut, and Teff flours. Spelt and Kamut are older varieties of wheat, both far superior for most non-bread baking than regular whole wheat. Teff is a gorgeous Ethiopian grain that is used for their famous flat bread, injera. It is also a supergrain like quinoa or amaranth thanks to its kick-ass nutritional profile. All three are available from Bob's Red Mill. I buy them by the case from Amazon (You can click each name for the buy links).

So here's the recipe: 

1 cup spelt flour
½ cup teff flour
½ cup kamut flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
2 sticks of butter (softened)
1 cup Brown Sugar
½ cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. Vanilla
1 cup chocolate chips or to taste

Prepare cookie sheets—use parchment if possible, otherwise grease lightly.

Bowl 1--Dry Mix
1 cup spelt flour
½ cup teff flour
½ cup kamut flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt

Mix together thoroughly

Bowl 2—I use a stand mixer

2 sticks of softened butter
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar

Beat together until light, then add:

2 eggs
1 tsp. Vanilla

Mix lightly until blended—don’t overbeat.

Add flour mixture, mix gently until blended.
Add 1 cup chocolate chips or to taste

Place spoonfuls of dough approximately 2 inches apart on cookie sheets.

Bake 10 minutes—then check frequently.   

DO NOT OVERBAKE—I find this recipe more forgiving then the regular one, but almost the only thing you can do to ruin chocolate chip cookies is to overbake them—SO DON’T DO IT. This is what they should look like:  

A few final notes:
"USE PARCHMENT."  It's annoyingly expensive, but you can reuse it (just wipe it off), which I do since I am really cheap and make tons of cookies. But you should just trust me on this. Parchment makes better cookies. Much better. Just use it. 

"1 cup chocolate chips or to taste."  Confession: I like but don't looooove chocolate, so I go very light on the chocolate chips (I use ordinary Nestle chips--Ghirardelli are oddly hard). Yes, my kids whine, and when they make the cookies themselves they can use as many chips as they want.  (Me smiling sweetly). Since you, dear reader, are making your own cookies, you can use the whole damn bag if that's your preference.

Here's one final photo--aren't they gorgeous? (Another super-juicy Lilia factoid: that's my wedding china they're sitting on.)

Yikes, now I want one. Seriously, I recommend these cookies. Everyone loves them. I could probably say more but those photos made me hungry--like, I have to have a cookie. NOW.

Time to yell at my son to get off the damn X-box and put the butter out.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Games Boys Play



Brian and Dylan have been best friends for years. They have no secrets between them, except for the ones they’re keeping from each other.

When Dylan lets himself into Brian’s apartment to drop something off, it couldn’t be worse timing—for Brian. He’s tied himself up to play out a kidnapping fantasy. He’s mortified, but Dylan is intrigued. He even offers to help Brian out next time he has an urge to be tied up.

No. That’s all Brian can think. No way. But the idea of someone else being in control overwhelms his thoughts—and self-bondage is suddenly a pale substitute for the real thing. He gives Dylan permission, on a trial basis, and comes face to face with a side of Dylan he’s never seen before. A really hot side.

As their games pick up steam, so does their relationship, along with Brian’s courage to go after the things he wants. Like, Dylan.

It might be happily ever after, but there’s one secret left, and it could ruin everything.


(Note: This review discusses the big "reveal" towards the end. I have marked it as a spoiler, but so far as I can tell there is no way to hide it like you do on Goodreads.)

I was pleasantly surprised by how strong I thought this was. I've noted in other reviews how certain books really fit my idea of a good, solid example of erotic fiction, and this book absolutely does.

In erotic fiction, as opposed to contemporary or other genres with some (or a lot) of erotic content, the main focus of the story is almost completely on the erotic relationship and, usually, on sex. Many of us use the "porn-without-plot" label to designate those books where not much happens except sex, or, for me especially, where I don't find the sex and erotic relationship interesting enough to carry a book.

I call Games Boys Play "erotic fiction", because the overwhelming focus of the story is on Dylan and Brian's experiments with bondage fantasies. The other aspects of the story grow out of it--how Brian, the book's narrative center, feels about the escalating intensity and elaborateness of their acts, his understandable worries about how his feelings towards Dylan might be changing, hidden aspects of his own personality that come to light, and so on.

For me, strong, insightful erotic writing explores how sex and intimacy change you. The kind of acts that sometimes get labelled "kinkery" are not there just to titillate or shock, but because those acts, and the desires that provoke them, have the potential to force people to confront assumptions about themselves, inhibitions, illusions, fears, self-deceptions. There is a nakedness to complete helplessness, both for the individual and the dynamic between two people, that makes certain habitual deceptions and comfortable assumptions impossible. When done intelligently and sensitively, it can also make for a great read--which this book emphatically is.

My only qualm was that I wanted more on Dylan. We are only given Brian's perspective, which I thought was very well done and insightful. But Dylan, despite the not-very-revealing "reveal" towards the end, remained a mystery. Rider does a wonderful job hinting at Dylan's motives and the kinds of desires that would lead him to go as far as he does. You get the impression that in a way he has even less control or self-knowledge than Brian does, which is a really cool twist, and a relief from the very irritating and ubiquitous "all-knowing Dom teaches the repressed sub what he truly wants" dynamic in most D/s fiction. There is a sense that Dylan is making some quite uncomfortable discoveries about what he likes--which strikes me as authentic. If I suddenly discovered how much I wanted to backhand my closest friend and business partner, I would have a lot of soul searching to do. (There was a similarity here to Lana McGregor's His Roommate's Pleasure, which I also really admired, but there are a lot of hints that Dylan is more conflicted than Josh in that story, which I thought added a lot of intriguing complexity.)

START SPOILER: But I did end up feeling more teased than satisfied by what we did learn about Dylan. The revelation that Dylan is gay, and has been hiding it all along, did not really cut it for me. The whole story feels like it's leading up to a relationship between Brian and Dylan, so the reader is already expecting some kind of gay-for-you or similar revelation. The fact that Dylan is gay felt a lot less momentous than that he's willing to go to such incredible amounts of trouble to play out these elaborate kidnapping fantasies--and with Brian of all people. Where are these feelings coming from? Has he explored them before? His orientation also felt a lot less momentous than the fact that he'd kept his sexuality hidden, which in our day and age actually requires an explanation. Keep it hidden from fans, perhaps, but friends and family? We're not told they're raging homophobes or fundamentalists, so it says a lot about Dylan that he chose that route rather than just coming out--I believed it, but I wanted more about why. The prolonged secrecy from his loved ones seems to tie into the kidnapping and domination fantasies, which struck me as incredibly fertile ground for exploration. Perhaps because most books focus on the sub and his or her motivations, I found Dylan more unexpected and provocative than Brian (not that Brian's in any way lacking), so I just wanted more of Rider's great insights into what makes him tick. END SPOILER

Bottom line: I really recommend this. It's a very hot read--hooray!--but also a great example of what erotic fiction can, and at its best, should do, which is explore depths and complexities in the characters that could never be revealed in any other way.

Rating: FOUR Stars

(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"My Summer," by Lilia

As the camp (meaning child-free) season winds down, I thought I’d do up a little report of my summer.  Needless to say, it has been non-stop parties, adventures, thrilling car chases, and exotic travel--exactly like every summer.  Yeah right. 

First off, I got Pet to the Tentacle Monsters! launched into the world where she must now make her way without further parental input.

While the story has not quite made the bestseller list yet, I have gotten some great reactions to it. One reviewer actually called it "Goldilocks for the Depraved"--which as you can imagine pretty much made my year. 

Second off, I finally finished and sent to my proofreader a novel that I have been working on sporadically since 2009, my first ever work of erotic fiction, a contemporary ménage that spent most of its existence with the title, Convenience Store Sex Slave! A Memoir. Deciding that title was a little too low-key and elegant for Amazon, I have, reluctantly, renamed it College Bound. (Lisa Henry has a great post on the problems authors run into trying to sell books with explicit titles on Amazon. )

Here is my most recent draft of the blurb:
After a vicious fight with her stepbrother and guardian, Natalie storms out of the family McMansion, never imagining that would be the last time she’d be allowed in the house. A string of truly rotten decisions follows, until she finds herself suspended from school, friendless, broke, and camping out at the convenience store where she works. Worst of all, her college applications are due!

Thanks to a helpful teacher and her own stupendous brilliance she manages to get into her top choice college. Unfortunately, dealing with the financial aid forms proves to be too much for her supersmarts and she is about to lose her spot because she cannot get the money together to pay the deposit.

Enter Gareth Boyd, an old family friend, with an indecent proposal that will pay for everything—if she can meet his price.

I have ordered a new cover, but here, for the sake of posterity, is the cover with the original title:

I expect that the final blurb will include a long content warning, since in addition to starring an extremely foul-mouthed 18-year-old heroine, the story includes ménage, a strongly “Dubcon” premise, and scenes of both nonconsensual intercourse and attempted rape. It also seems clear that I will need to write another blog post on this issue, in particular laying out why within the context of erotic fiction I regard "dub/noncon" and "rape" as distinct entities, though I would never make that argument about real life.

On a lighter note, I have redone my website, and I’m pretty sure this one looks a lot better than the old one. If you’ve OD’d on your daily diet of kitten videos and internet quizzes, go on over—I promise my site will help you waste at least another 90 seconds of your day. Here’s the link:

One thing I did add was a “WIP” page. For those of you who have been breathless for news about my current projects but are unwilling to expend the effort of clicking the link, here is a summary.

Title: College Bound
Genre: Contemporary/MMF ménage
Stage: Final editing

Title: Collared Prince and Other Tales
Genre: M/M alternative history
Stage: 40,000 words

Title: The Demon Lords of Oxford
Genre: M/M Fantasy
Stage: 15,000 words

Title: A Biddable Witch
Genre: Erotic Fantasy
Stage: 85,000 words

Book 1: Blood of Adonis
Prequel to The Heartwood Box: A Fairy Tale

Title: Classified Defiant
Genre: M/M Sci-fi
Stage: 6000 words
Prequel to The Slave Catcher

That's about it for my incredible, thrill-a-minute summer so far.  I'm probably going to see Guardians of the Galaxy this weekend, which does count as "going out," right?  Well, leaving my apartment at least.  And I have not lost hope that I will at least step foot on a beach during the month of August 2014.  Hope you guys are all having at least 45% more fun than me.  Stay Cool.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

New Release: Pet to the Tentacle Monsters!

I am overjoyed to announce that my newest masterpiece, Pet to the Tentacle Monsters! is now live. First off, here is the amazing cover by Jared Rackler.

Here is the blurb:

It’s been more than twelve years since the alien invasion wiped out much of the human population and forced those who were left into Refugee Communes. As far as Benji Tucker is concerned, a life devoted to bare survival is boring as hell. But when a stupid prank threatens to bring disaster down on the entire commune, the Galactic Enforcers show up and announce Benji is now eligible for adoption—by the invaders!

He wakes in a plain white cell to find three very different monsters determined to make him their pet.


 And just so we're all clear on the story's subject matter, here is the Content Warning:

Warning: Adult Readers Only. Contains plenty of hot, non-consensual tentacle action, including but not limited to tentacle spanking, tentacle gagging, and tentacle-sex. Quite separately, it also contains an adorable pink-rainbow-sparkle tentacle monster. Those who dislike adorable pink rainbow sparkles or hot tentacle action should definitely not read this book.

As usual, I have done up a Pinterest Board for the story, which includes my casting choice for the hero, Benji Tucker. (Hint: he just starred in the movie The Fault in our Stars). There are also some cool pictures of tentacles, some wacky 1950s movie posters that were the inspiration for Jared's cover design, and anything else that struck me as appropriately Tentacley (or is it Tentaclesque?)

For those open to the more, ahem, probing imagery associated with the tentacle genre, especially that special marriage between tentacles and yaoi, I have also posted a select group of NSFW images on Tumblr. (That means XXX-rated, Dad!) Examine at your own risk.

Pet to the Tentacle Monsters is currently on sale for $2.99 at Amazon, Kobo Books, and Barnes & Noble.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Goodreads Review: His Whipping Boy by J. A. Jaken


Cedric de Breos was an average son from an average farmer’s family before he was chosen—by royal decree—to befriend Alain Tomolia, the solemn and enigmatic crown prince of Dunn. As Cedric dutifully pursues their strange friendship, he begins to suspect that Alain is haunted by a dark secret, one which has its roots sunk deep in the crown prince’s past. Cedric’s situation is complicated by the gradual realization that his intended purpose is not only to serve as companion to the crown prince but also as his surrogate in the whipping yard, taking the punishment for Alain’s misdeeds. Will Cedric find a way to come to terms with the resentment, pity, curiosity, and reluctant attraction he feels toward the crown prince, or will he allow the circumstances around them to command their fate?


Excellent. This pretty much epitomizes what I am looking for in a work of erotic fiction. Way too often, books like this turn out to be nothing more than a kinky set up. This is a full story about two genuinely complex leads, with an efficiently drawn fantasy/historical setting that was intriguing and plausible within the confines of the genre. Even more crucial, the "erotic" elements were not gratuitous or just for titillation, but were absolutely essential to the world being drawn and the characters' psychology. It also doesn't hurt that the story is beautifully written and, minus a few very modern sounding phrases like "suicidal ideation," carefully edited. I was really impressed by how much it does with its 50 pages. More than all of this, the story surprised me, continually moving in unexpected directions that opened up deeper insights into Jaken's characters while never totally doing away with their fundamental mystery. Highly recommend.

[Me being annoying and picky: what's with the cheesy, ugly cover! Totally does not do justice to this story.]

Rating: Four Stars

(Originally posted on Goodreads: link to Amazon)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Brute by Kim Fielding


Brute leads a lonely life in a world where magic is commonplace. He is seven and a half feet of ugly, and of disreputable descent. No one, including Brute, expects him to be more than a laborer. But heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and when he is maimed while rescuing a prince, Brute’s life changes abruptly. He is summoned to serve at the palace in Tellomer as a guard for a single prisoner. It sounds easy but turns out to be the challenge of his life.

Rumors say the prisoner, Gray Leynham, is a witch and a traitor. What is certain is that he has spent years in misery: blind, chained, and rendered nearly mute by an extreme stutter. And he dreams of people’s deaths—dreams that come true.

As Brute becomes accustomed to palace life and gets to know Gray, he discovers his own worth, first as a friend and a man and then as a lover. But Brute also learns heroes sometimes face difficult choices and that doing what is right can bring danger of its own.


There is a special kind of pleasure in books where we see dirty, broken places and people fixed up--repaired, scrubbed clean, properly fed, and healed. (Or movies: I am thinking of Cold Comfort Farm). This is one of those books. It happens first with Brute, who through an act of bravery is given the chance to escape the hopeless squalor of his life in the town where he was born. There he is friendless and exploited--treated as a beast of burden, cheated even when he works twice as hard as anyone else, with no hope of anything better. In his new home at the castle, all of the sudden he is able to make improvements to his life--a good job, new clothes, hot baths, clean sheets and good food lead to good friends, education, and then the chance to do the same for someone else.

Watching him and Gray get cleaned up, and then find healing and happiness in each other is incredibly satisfying, especially after how much each of them has suffered. All in all, a very well-done, enjoyable fable.

Rating: Five Stars

(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Ricochet by Xanthe


When the right dom is all wrong!

Even in a BDSM universe, where everyone is bisexual and identifies as dom or sub, finding the right partner isn’t always easy.

Matt is a big star on the hit TV show, Collar Crime, and he’s looking for a dom who ticks all the right boxes, including being as tidy and organized as himself.

That definitely isn’t his chaotic co-star, Rick, with his spanking fetish and habit of tying a different sub to his bed every night.

When Matt meets the perfect dom he’s swept off his feet, but he soon discovers that being pursued by a handsome, controlling billionaire isn’t the erotic fantasy he’d imagined.

Maybe the right dom for him is the one he thought was all wrong...


Can't believe I waited to read this. Fantastic. Fifty Stars--a hundred. One of the best books on BDSM I've read.

What follows is a pretty in-depth look a single scene, which comes about half way through. I’m not going to mark it with spoilers, since I don’t think it gives anything away to mention that the two leads do in fact have sex in this book—don’t read further if you don’t want your reading clouded by other people’s interpretations.

So to return to my opening point: why do I like this book’s portrayal of BDSM so much? And to answer, I would like to take a look at the crucial sequence where Rick arranges a “scene” to help Matt find his sub-space. It’s a long, gorgeously erotic piece of writing that also demonstrates the depth of Xanthe’s connection with her characters. Like the best erotic scenes in fiction, the sex is transformative for the characters, obviously for Matt but for Rick as well, helping each of them get in touch with key and buried parts of their sexuality and personality.

I also liked the scene because Matt’s particular problems are ones that I have thought a lot about, especially in trying to understand my own and other people’s fascination with BDSM fiction. The basic problem is that Matt can’t let himself go—he goes through the motions of his submission, choosing safe doms who won’t push him past his boundaries. He comes to realize how much his fear is holding him back, both from experiencing sexual pleasure and also from connecting deeply with his partner. But he also realizes that as long as he has a safeword, he will stop things before he can reach his sub-space.

In a fit of incredible rashness, he tries to arrange a scene with a stranger where he will have no control at all—no safeword. He’s desperate, and we understand why he acts this way, but his actions also chillingly demonstrate the risk of submitting: what happens when the other person is not trustworthy, when they don’t have your best interests at heart?

That’s where Rick steps in, rescuing Matt from a situation that would have been disastrous for him, and offering to help him: hence the scene. Rick refuses to go through the scene without a safeword, BUT he also effectively agrees, if not to ignore it altogether, at least to do everything he can to persuade/force/help Matt continue the scene if he does safeword.

As I said, I think Matt’s dilemma highlights some of the reasons BDSM, non-con, and dubious consent fictions are so popular. Most people have inhibitions, whether sexual or other--fears that hold them back and interfere with their full experience of what life has to offer. It’s not surprising that people would fantasize about finding someone strong and caring and trustworthy enough to force them to push past those inhibitions. Not coincidentally, that psychological process—of fighting yourself and being forced past a boundary in a way that leads to a feeling of catharsis—parallels/echoes orgasm itself. It’s also important to point out that you don’t need to have any real-life connection to the BDSM lifestyle to find depictions of this process personally relevant and satisfying. (That goes for orgasms too by the way.)

Of course, since this is a Xanthe book, this incredible scene of connection and catharsis comes at the half-way point, and the reader still has hundreds of pages of misunderstandings, banter, and idiot choices to get through before our heroes are allowed their final HEA. It’s an unusual way to structure a book to say the least, but there’s no point in complaining. Xanthe’s books are long, but they are also unique, scaldingly sexy, funny, touching, and most surprisingly, very wise.

Bottom line: Hopefully the mini Master's thesis I just wrote will be enough to make clear that I highly recommend this.

Rating: Five Stars

(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Negative Reviews and Me

We have Anne Rice to thank for the latest flap over negative reader reviews. The grandmother of all things paranormal waded into the author vs. reader cess-pool on the author’s end, publicizing her support for a petition to Amazon to force reviewers to post under their own name—her cure for the plague of “parasites” and “anti-author gangsters” who are “gratuitously destructive to the creative community.”

Instead of wasting time expounding why I think this is a horrible idea I’ll just refer you to K. J. Charles' terrific blog post, along with a hearty, “WHAT SHE SAID!” For those who haven’t read my earlier posts, suffice it to say that I am totally on the reader’s side of this conflict: reader reviews are a fact of life and assuming they don’t violate the law or the terms of service of the sites where they are posted, no one should have the right to dictate what counts as legitimate in other people’s reviews. (Credit goes to Debbie Spurts for this tidy formulation.)

That being said, it was inevitable after all the brouhaha (which I have contributed to with my own posts), that I would eventually train my finely-honed critical mind on my own reviewing practices, and take note of the irony that my personal policy has long been not to review books I hate.

I decided on this long before the current controversy, immediately after I joined Goodreads in the summer of 2012. From the beginning, I had two primary reasons for my policy. The first is that I almost never finish books I dislike and arguably it’s unfair to rate or review books I don’t finish. The other reason is Karma. Despite reading infinitely more than I write, I still think of myself as an author and I feel a camaraderie with authors’ struggles to write and publish and sell books. A lot of authors whose names I no longer remember helped me with advice and encouragement when I first published The Heartwood Box, and it just doesn’t sit well with me that I might go crap on their efforts. As I explain on my Goodreads author page: “Unless the book is very popular and my views won't make a difference, I avoid trashing stuff since I now appreciate how hard it is to publish a novel.”

I think my reasons are legitimate as far as they go, and other novelists I respect, including the great Heidi Cullinan, have argued forcefully that authors should be extremely cautious about what they say online, and especially avoid any kind of trashing.  (Though for what it's worth, I have author friends I respect just as much who write extremely scathing, brutal reviews.)

But as I was researching material for my essay series, I came across a piece on the blog, Three Rs, “Why I Write Negative Reviews,” which included the following:
Thinking about it that way, those people who refuse to write negative reviews are real bastards, aren’t they? They’d rather let countless other customers be duped the same way they were than say an “unkind” word in a review.
I’ll admit that one stung. One of my most filthy, disreputable secrets is that I am a natural-born wuss who’s prone to panicking when I think I’ve hurt someone’s feelings. I speak from experience when I say this kind of personality trait can easily become a pathology. And no question, scathing reviews hurt. (I needed a few stiff drinks after an Amazon reviewer labeled The Heartwood Box “sleaze” and had to delete it from her Kindle due to its apparently unprecedented awfulness. Which, by the way, is emphatically not an invitation to my legions of rabid fans to go harass this reviewer.)

The problem is that none of my considerations has a thing to do with the books themselves or what I’m doing as a reader. I probably start 300 books a year and finish roughly 250 of them, virtually all of them in erotic romance, specifically the subgenre M/M. I just posted my 200th review on Goodreads. Beyond the sheer amount of time and mental labor this represents, the simple fact is that I care about books, I care about this genre. Without indulging in grandiose notions of my own importance, I think it’s worth taking a little bit of time to figure out what I’m doing when I read and review.

Part of what impressed me with Three R’s essay and the blog itself is that the author has a very clear idea of what she’s doing when she reviews. As she says in her “About” section:
I think that readers today are too easy to please, and have been conned into believing that’s a virtue… We, collectively, need to raise our standards as consumers.  Give me a little time, and I’ll show you what I mean.
She is understandably troubled by the disappearance of any kind of quality control or editorial standards that has been one of the consequences of the self-publishing revolution, and is angry about authors who con readers with sock-puppets or glowing fake reviews.

I don’t agree with everything she writes. For one thing, I read M/M and erotica not YA, and the last thing I want is some Big Six publisher deciding what falls within the bounds of propriety or what is too risky or dirty. (Indies apply this pressure too, by the way, leading authors like Lisa Henry to self-publish or tone down their more risky offerings) And though I would always urge authors to painstakingly proofread their books, some of my favorite authors have lousy copyediting and I’ve just had to learn to live with it.

Most of all what I admire about Three R’s blog is that reading and reviewing for her is a thoughtful, active process. She has an agenda, not in the bad sense of a bias but in the good sense of a purpose. The word I would normally use for this sense of purpose and awareness is “critic,” though I mean it here to represent a mental attitude rather than some sort of professional credential.

Unfortunately for my wimpy nerves, it’s pretty hard to be a critic if you refuse to criticize. I’ve been putting boatloads of time into writing these blog pieces on erotica because I think the genre itself, not just specific books or authors, is important. It matters when it is misrepresented or misunderstood or undervalued. And I strongly believe that critical reviewing, including negative reviews, are essential if the genre is going to develop healthily. We need a community of thoughtful critics who take their roles seriously and are willing to do the hard work of developing critical concepts and standards for evaluation.

Whether I embark on a campaign of writing scathing reviews has yet to be decided, though I’m planning to bring it up with my therapist. Fortunately for my self-esteem, I have far fewer inhibitions writing about negative reviewing itself so stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Winner Takes All: Master/Slave Fantasies by Christopher Pierce


Every now and then I read something that reminds me that M/M romance and gay erotica are seriously different genres. I dislike essentialist sounding explanations, but there are times (most often after I've spent more than four and a half minutes watching pornography) when I just feel like shouting out: men and women are turned on by very different kinds of stories!

I enjoyed reading these stories--they are well-written and inventive–but I liked them more because they gave me a window into a world that felt truly exotic and weird than because I felt they got at the heart of my own experience. (The only chapter I can say that about was David Stein’s smart and incisive Editor's Note, “Value-Added Porn,” on the difference between porn and erotica, which I plan on quoting in some blog post if I ever get my act together.)

For me, the world of the stories was interesting but not appealing. It wasn't just the dog bowls and the piss play. I found the mentality of the slaves impossible to identify with.
"I felt full and complete being used by this totally hot stud, used like the dog slave I am, used to bring him pleasure."

"Worshipping men like him and my Master is why I was born."

“My pain or pleasure wasn’t important. All that mattered was serving him.”
That level of abjection and selflessness is just too much for me. I find it alienating. However, I think my distaste is exactly that, a matter of taste: I don’t usually like most “Club” novels that purport to depict people in the BDSM lifestyle. Any story in which characters eagerly adopt an established role leaves out most of the inner conflict and ambivalence that is the most erotically charged part of D/s for me. (As slave fics go, I find Yhalen’s inner torments over his attraction to his master? lover? rapist? both fascinating and intensely erotic, though in other ways Bloodraven is far too brutally sadistic for my taste).

The genre of Winner Takes All doesn’t help matters. With a few notable exceptions, the book offers erotic teases, ficlets, which are little more than a hot scenario or exchange in a fantasy version of gay slave life. Some stories are better than others–hotter than others–but there was not enough characterization or complexity for them to truly be erotic for me. Every character in this collection is essentially interchangeable and virtually all of them wholeheartedly embrace their situation. And that I think is the key difference. It's not enough that a book describes a kinky scenario; unless I feel involved with the characters, and to some extent challenged by what they are experiencing, then it's not very different than watching porn or looking at explicit photos, neither of which I find particularly arousing.

There were a few exceptions: I really admired "The Executioner's Boy.” It was imaginative and moody and dark. It also surprised me: usually I can't tolerate any erotic fiction that includes serious threats of death as part of the domination, but this one made that work. The title story, the last in the collection, was the longest and the most developed, with a strong story arc and compelling character development, though the narrator’s personality and mentality didn’t differ noticeably from that of the slaves in the other stories.

As I said above, I was very interested reading this. In some instances, you can learn more about yourself—your imagination and your desires–from well-written fictions that don’t quite work for you than from ones that fit your kinks dead-on. I suspect that M/M romance will always have a somewhat uneasy relationship with gay erotica and speaking from the M/M camp, I think it’s worthwhile to be both aware and respectful of how these genres—and their authors and audiences–differ. There’s no question that these stories are arousing for the right audience, and echoing editor David Stein, I am firmly of the opinion that such fiction has value—drastically underrated value. I admire Pierce for his achievement, even when I can’t totally experience it as it was intended.

Rating: Four Stars  

(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon

Monday, March 17, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Glitterland by Alexis Hall

The universe is a glitterball I hold in the palm of my hand.

Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.

Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.

But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?

This is more a set of scattered impressions than a review. I admired the book tremendously. The characterizations here are very strong--Ash's portrait of his depression was grueling to the point of being hard to read, but the book is extremely funny most of the time, so it (mostly) doesn't become too much. The writing of the Essex--dialect I'll have to call it-- was also brilliant, probably some of the best dialect writing I've come across.

Hall is an incredibly gifted writer--the closest comparison in M/M I can think of is Harper Fox. He has a gift for gorgeous metaphors and memorable phrases. Within the context of the story it makes sense; Ash is a writer, an Oxbridge type and Scrabble player, with a strongly literary temperament. But the "good writing" is also almost too much. There's a relentlessness to the impressiveness, where instead of one incredibly felicitous simile, Hall--or Ash--persistently gives us three or four. The effect ends up feeling neurotic, a symptom (and reinforcement) of Ash's endless self-absorption rather than straightforward impressive writing. The self-absorption is often charming and witty and brilliant, but it is also almost too much as well.

SPOILER WARNING: I was on the fence over whether Ash's actions at the rehearsal dinner, and then the months and months it takes him to get his shit together and apologize, weren't totally unforgivable. The problem was reinforced by the narration. We do only ever get Ash's perspective, and much as I love Darian, and I really did love him, the narrative is structured so that he remains alien--a creature of spray-on tans, Nan's cottage pie, and Essex Fashion Week. We don't ever end up finding out that much about him. 

Ash's mental illness, like his snobbery, were familiar--too familiar--my background is similar enough to his that I felt implicated in his flaws. I had no choice but to view Darian through Ash's eyes, and of course I wanted them to get back together, but without access to Darian's perspective or a real way of identifying with him, it was hard not to distrust Ash's logic, Ash's version of events as too self-serving. Even when he's in the depths of self-loathing and castigation, it still feels solipsistic. I realize it's a trap--he can't win because no matter how sorry Ash really is, he's the one doing the protesting.

But asking Darian to forgive that much risks making us think that either Hall is stacking the deck in Ash's favor, or that he secretly thinks that Darian should feel lucky that Ash is in love with him since (when all is said and done) Ash is so much smarter and classier. I don't really think Hall thinks that--and he made great use of the tattoo scene as a very unexpected but successful redemption moment for his flawed hero. But he took a big risk making Ash such an incredible wank, and it would have ruined the book if there was even the slightest hint that Darian should feel lucky that Ash came back for him. END SPOILER

But there was the tattoo scene. I gave the book five stars because I think Hall succeeded. That I found these issues can be taken as a measure of my engagement, not just with the characters and romance, but with the narration, with the writing, with Hall's sheer talent. I truly loved reading this book, even with the pain and the uncertainty. Hall took risks in making his hero such a bloody mess, but people are messy and Ash knows better than anyone that no amount of gorgeous art can tidy them up.

Rating: Five Stars

Post Script: According to a note from Hall, Darian's character was loosely inspired by X-factor contestant Rylan Clark. For Americans like me who had no previous associations with the word "Essex" and had never heard its apparently quite distinctive accent, I highly recommend checking out this footage of Clark, who really does come off as a sweet, irrepressible guy:

(Originally Posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Ethan Who Loved Carter

By twenty-four, Carter Stevenson has stuttered and ticced his way to debilitating shyness. Although his friends accuse him of letting his Tourette's dictate his life, Carter moves from Los Angeles to a quiet California town. He'll keep his head down and avoid people. He doesn't anticipate his new neighbor, Ethan Hart, crashing into his solitude and forcing him to get out and live.

From the beginning, Ethan makes his love for Carter clear. But he fears Carter won't see past Ethan's damaged brain, even though it makes Ethan more attuned to his emotions than most people. For Carter, there's a bigger issue: he's been burned by so-called "perfect" matches, and he won't risk his heart again.

One way or another, Ethan's determined to show Carter they belong together. Then Ethan receives tragic news. Suddenly he must turn to Carter for strength and support. Will Carter come through when Ethan needs him most?

My Review:
Loved it. I understand people's hesitations with the subject matter, but I thought the author handled them beautifully--with respect and compassion and a great deal of subtle insight. Though I did cry, I did not find the book overly sentimental at all. Understandably, there is not much in the way of irony to offset the sweet or emotional elements, but for once instead of being manipulative or cheap, I found those elements deeply true to the story--in fact, though I'm sort of shocked to be saying this, I found that the sentimental aspects of this book were those that most challenged me.

Ethan's mother describes his world as black and white." I would probably use the word "literal"--subtle or inferred meanings, sarcasm, nuances, things outside his own experience are almost impossible for Ethan to understand. There is definitely an innocence to him, and he requires help and reassurance with tasks that most adults perform independently. It's understandable to feel conflicted about Ethan's relationships because these are qualities that we often describe as "childlike" (though in my own experience few if any children are actually like that at all unless they have special circumstances like Ethan's). In any case, I really appreciated how the book forced me to think through the problems with applying the word "childlike" to Ethan. Our discomfort with his sexuality is real but also needed to be faced: as his mother says, Ethan is an adult male, with adult urges. Denying him this central and joyful part of human experience just feels wrong, especially since Ethan's own desires are very strong. Too many other things were taken away from him because of his injuries.

To this end, I think the author made a good choice having Ethan be 18 when he was hurt. Judging from his family's attitudes and Ethan's own confidence, it's a safe guess that he was already sexually active "Before." There are clearly risks to sexual activity since he can be taken advantage of and he has trouble remembering the rules of appropriate behavior, but I think his parents were right to treat his sexuality like they do his troubles washing his hair or finding a job that works for him--as part of the process of his carving out a new life for himself after his injuries.

I was really impressed with how Loveless handled the family part. Obviously, Ethan's parents are two very admirable people, but they did not feel unreasonably wishful to me--maybe the better word is hopeful. They're hippies to begin with and they've had ten years to come to terms with what happened to their son. She also avoided the tendency to hyper-articulate, therapeutic monologuing that too often accompanies stories where characters are recovering from traumatic events; those speeches too often cross the line into moralizing and they always kill the realism for me. If Liz and Nolan sounded a little pat when discussing Ethan's situation, it makes sense since they've obviously had to explain it many times.

That leaves Carter, who was trickiest, but I thought Loveless totally succeeded in making me understand and accept his choices. I've read several other books in the last year where the MC's occupy what I'll call radically different mental spaces (Glitterland and Muscling Through to name two), and to my surprise, I found Ethan and Carter's relationship made the most sense to me. There was something very complementary in their challenges. Ethan has real limitations but thanks to his personality he is able to push through them to the greatest extent possible.

Carter is the exact opposite: far more than any physical problem, his emotional response to his condition is what cripples him. He desperately needs acceptance; Ethan comes as close as is humanly possible to offering Carter a life where his Tourette's is simply a non-issue. Though Carter might have to take care of Ethan in more ways than is usual, in exchange Ethan can give Carter a much fuller existence than he has been able to have so far. (I'd just add it's easy to forget the myriad private ways spouses and lovers take care of each other. People can be far more dysfunctional than their friends realize--unable to take a shower or eat or leave the house, and they depend on their partners to help them through it.)

Like the timing of Ethan's catastrophe, I think it made a big difference to my acceptance that Carter is so isolated. Almost the entire context for his relationship with Ethan is provided by Ethan's family and friends, who are understandably encouraging. Ethan already has a place with them, and it makes sense that they would easily accept Carter's differences. Ethan obviously does much better with people who are familiar with him and his quirks. It's easy to imagine it being a disaster if Ethan had been thrown into uncontrolled situations with people he didn't know--and without really knowing Ethan and seeing the nuances of his situation (in other words, by reading this book) most people wouldn't be able to accept his relationship with Carter. As things stood, Carter only had to win over Alice, who like Ethan's family has strong reasons for wanting Carter to find love and happiness.

I'm probably not focusing enough on the downsides to it, and I honestly can't imagine being in a relationship like this myself, but the issues did not trouble me while I was reading. I'm enough of a romantic to cleave to the idea that true love comes in a multitude of forms, and I'm deeply grateful to Ryan Loveless for creating such an unusual and beautiful example here.

Rating: Five Stars 

(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)