In 1926, Sara Newsome, daughter of a black British physician and his high-society white wife, journeys to glitzy bustling Harlem to make silent films. Sara doesn't merely want to act, however; she wants to produce and direct her own movies, movies about love, life and sex aimed at a black audience. She has the gift of revealing the sensual truth even in a feigned sexual encounter. Furthermore, she's not afraid to break the rules and expose the naked flesh and raw emotion of actual couplings - working both in front of, and behind the camera. Struggling against economic and social constraints, Sara nevertheless assembles a small, dedicated band of talented black actors, writers, directors and technicians, and founds Sapphire Films in a flat upstairs from a hardware store on 125th Street. The company makes blue movies with a difference: plot, intelligence, emotion, fantasies that nevertheless speak directly to their audience.
A Darker Shade of Blue follows Sara's life and career through roaring twenties New York, with its speakeasies and rent parties, to Hollywood during the Depression, though the Second World War and into the repressive Fifties. Sara's beauty, wit, creative genius and unfettered spirit draw both men and women. Her lovers include Gil, her director, collaborator and creative rival; alcoholic playboy Benjamin Austen, whose cynical humor hides his deeper feelings; and the charismatic, ambitious and radical Paul Robeson. She faces challenges from bigoted politicians and empty-headed studio executives, as well as from the people she cares for. She is lionized and abandoned, achieves notoriety as well as some genuine artistic regard, but is eventually ousted by the directors of the studio she founded, and left to begin again.
This book is a genuine historical novel, but does not completely fit my definition of erotica. Although it includes multiple graphic sex scenes between Sara and her various partners, as well as a few matings in front of the camera, sex is not a primary motivator of the narrative. In fact, the sex could be removed or at least muted to the PG-13 level without impacting the story significantly.
This is not necessarily a complaint. The tale of Sara's odyssey from porn extra to cultural icon is engrossing in its own right. Furthermore, the sex is not gratuitous; it does help develop Sara's character and those of her companions. It's also generally enjoyable, hot and sweet, slightly naughty without dark edges.
I suppose that ultimately, the category to which one assigns a book does not matter. The real test is whether the work leaves you satisfied or disappointed. Although I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Blue, while I was reading it, in retrospect I was aware of its weaknesses.
It's obvious that Ms. Campion engaged in significant amounts of research in preparation for writing this book. She dwells on historical details such as the advances in movie-making technology and the social structure of 1920's Harlem. Somehow, though, she did not manage to bring history alive, at least not for me. (This is, of course, an extremely difficult feat to accomplish.) Her New Yorkers feel more like tourists than denizens. The book spans nearly five decades, but I didn't have a strong sense of the changes those decades brought - changes in mood and world-view. Every now and again, an anachronism was jarring enough to completely pull me out of the scene. For example, I'm fairly sure that no woman in the twenties would gush over a man's "abs" and "pecs".
My other disappointment relates to the character of Sara, and is more idiosyncratic. She is a believable character, an admirable character - but ultimately, despite all her carnal encounters, she struck me as cold. The book covers much of her life, and during that life she experiences many lovers, but little love. She feels affection, respect, lust even jealousy. However, there is no great love in her life, no relationship that even begins to mean more to her than her ambitions and artistic vision. I'm undoubtedly being influenced by the conventions of the romance genre. However, without that romantic spark, I felt that her life, full as it was of adventure, innovation, and achievement, was somehow empty.
I must admit that I loved the ending of the book. It's the early seventies, the era of anti-war protests and black power. Sara and Gil are invited to address a Film Studies class at Columbia University, to discuss their early silent work. They screen one of Sara's first films, one which broke taboos by showing Sara and Gil actually making love. The scene has as much impact on this audience of hip young people as it did when it was first released, shattering their presumptions and exciting their senses. The reader remembers the chapter, early on, when this scene was created, and smiles with the sense of completion.
A Darker Shade of Blue is an original and quite ambitious novel that explores little known corners of black American history. While it is not without flaws, it is different enough to be worth reading.
Sex and the sea have always had a strong association with each other, and not just because of the fishy smell.
I went on a cruise recently and I have to admit there was something inherently arousing about the whole experience. I’d watched "Titanic" before embarking on the journey. Watching apposite disaster movies before travelling is a superstitious ritual that I perform before trying any new form of transportation. I’ll sit through "Final Destination Two" before I go on a long car journey. I have to watch "Cast Away" (for the aeroplane scene) before I take a flight. And I needed to watch "Titanic" before I set foot onboard our holiday cruise liner.
And the movie turned out to be an informative experience. I learnt that the correct term for my accommodation was “steerage.” I played that game Kate Winslett taught to Leonardo DiCaprio (where you spit on the heads of people walking on lower decks) and thought it was a little like “Pooh Sticks” but with phlegm and irate sailors.
And I discovered that the reality of the sea is just as sexy as its Hollywood and fictional counterparts. Obviously "Titanic" was a sexy movie (Kate Winslett spits, Leonardo DiCaprio goes down, etc) all of which is only mentioned for cheap gags and to confirm my original assertion that the sea and ocean travel are incredibly sexy.
Which is probably why R.V. Raiment starts Aphrodite Overboard on a boat. There are few things more sexually exciting than the anticipation of travel, the thrill of exploring new shores, and the old world charm that comes from using such an anachronistic mode of transportation.
Technically, Aphrodite Overboard doesn’t actually start onboard a boat. The framed narrative presents the manuscript as having been found in the bottom of a sea chest, the personal memoirs of Susanna, Lady F, offered to the reader by one of the protagonist’s forebears. But the story proper begins in Chapter the First, when Susanna encounters “an ugly little man and an ugly little ship.” And, as this beginning sets the stylish tone for the remainder of the narrative, it seems appropriate to mention the nautical theme.
Not that Aphrodite Overboard is all about sailors and seamen. The first chapter includes a ship going down, Susanna getting rescued, Susanna going down, and then Susanna finding refuge on an idyllic tropical island. Which is where her adventures really start.
And I really have to ask at this point: what’s not to love about this book?
There is something innately endearing about the style of a Victorian novel. Usually, the inherent charm comes from learning to hear the distinctive timbre of the narrator’s voice and that’s an absolute delight with this story. The pleasure of that artifice is invariably compounded in erotic novels of that period as the reader is politely introduced to the very unvictorian concept of the characters possessing genitalia and daring to break societal protocols by doing things with them. And, R.V. Raiment has kept true to the period language in this story by chatting freely about bubbies, cunnies and manhoods.
That last sentence is probably a little misleading. R.V. Raiment doesn’t “chat freely” about those various parts of the anatomy. Each time Susanna refers to a cunny or a manhood, R.V Raiment has written the prose so eloquently you can almost hear those forbidden words being whispered naughtily from behind a discreet hand covering the lips of his narrator. It is probably this secretly prurient voice that lends the story its authentic feel and inescapable charm.
Now, call me old fashioned and remind me I need to get a life but, if I was ever sad enough to compile a list of my favourite words, “cunnie” would be somewhere near the top. Compared to its contemporarily more popular etymological cousin, “cunnie” lacks the harsh and vulgar sound of “cunt.” Cunnie is almost sufficiently twee and inoffensive to be the name a small child would give to a pet hamster.
“I had two hamsters as a child: Bubbies and Cunnie.” (Actually, this isn’t true. My pet hamsters were called Funbags and Minge, but I’m sure I would have been a happier pet owner if they had been called Bubbies and Cunnie.)
None of which has much to do with Aphrodite Overboard but I mention it because the language in this book is so thoroughly entertaining.
As I said before, R V Raiment has cleverly packaged this epistolary tale as the fresh found memoirs of a long lost grandparent. Susanna’s manuscript is filled with the typical twists and turns of the Victorian novel. But the work is written by a contemporary author with more than enough wit and style to keep the narrative interesting and compelling for a modern day reader. The sex scenes are arousing and extremely well written. Even as the story progresses toward its denouement, and the bump-and-grind should have become dull or commonplace, Susanna’s distinctive voice maintains the shocked innocence and wonder that seems quite proper for the tone of this time period.
The story opens with Susanna’s own introduction to her memoirs:
“I begin, knowing that what I write may never be read…”
I only repeat this line because I think it would be a terrible shame for any aficionado of the eloquence and artistry of Victorian erotica to not read Aphrodite Overboard.
Beyond Desire: A Collection of Paranormal Stories features many well known writers and a few who are new to me. The cover promises that “Ghosts, vampires, shape-shifters, succubae, demon lovers… there is no end to the mysteriously exciting ways the paranormal force of human desire defies reason – and death – by fearlessly embracing the eternal nature of love and the darkly potent power of sexual lust,” and that, “Between the covers of Beyond Desire, the paranormal is not fiction as it honors the undeniable real way desire dares to transcend all limits.” This rather verbose prose, bordering on the purple, unfortunately reflects some of the writing to be found in this anthology. Thankfully, several stories are much better than that.
Bonnie Dee’s story "Three Wishes" made me laugh. A woman discovers a genie in a bottle. Knowing how wishes can backfire, she matches wits with the genie to get exactly what she wants, and maybe a little more.
"Tropical Temptress" by Sage Vivant celebrates the goddess that lies within women. While the main character sees erotic situations, the real driving force comes from her imagination and her will. Call it magic influence or simply recognition of her own nature, it’s a refreshing change when a character seizes the power of her sexuality instead of passively waiting for someone to bring it out in her.
M. Christian’s "The Tinkling of Tiny Silver Bells" is a difficult case. As with many of his stories, it’s brilliantly written and a delight to read. But is it erotic? I didn’t find it particularly so, but on the other hand, I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t really care.
"When Aborigines Dream" by Michele Larue, translated from French by Noel Burch, is simply incredible. A dream plague robs white men of their sexual vitality. The rich, distant wife of a victim goes in search of a cure and finds instead a developing hunger for sex that she never had before. This is the kind of story I can read many times and never tire of. I’d love to read more from this writer.
The paranormal is a popular theme in erotica because it can deliver an experience rich in sensuality. Unfortunately, this anthology is hit and miss. Several stories bordered on purple prose, recycled romantic erotica clichés, or simply failed to use the sensual trope of horror and erotica to elicit even a frisson of interest. Sex isn’t sexy just because someone comes. It has to get under the reader’s skin and rev up the libido. While no one is going to like every story in an anthology, I had hoped to find more to enjoy.
The Voyeur by Michael Luongo is an excellent first novel. It is fine erotica and many other engaging things to think about as well. Luongo takes a look at the days when Giuliani was Mayor of New York, and when AIDS was an undiscovered and unwanted frontier in public policy.
Luongo’s hero is a man named Jason who is doing some sort of Ph.D. in behavioral sciences. He also happens to be gay which in a large sense is incidental to the discoveries the novel offers the reader. I say that, despite the fact that the subject of the novel is his evolution as a gay man at a time when the very forces of nature seem bent against that state of being. Still, he perseveres, stumbling often and falling into his own shortsightedness. If anyone thinks that is not an experience we all share, then they are probably in junior high school and shouldn’t be reading this anyway.
The novel also presents us with the state of social science as an intellectual discipline, demonstrating once again that “social science,” as it is usually applied, is an oxymoron. The only person who ever fully understands that paradox in this book is Jason himself. He learns from the bizarre and often prurient self-interests of his investigative colleagues. He learns it from the sleazy means by which the research is being funded and conducted. Most of all, he learns it from himself as he slowly confronts the operations of his own mind. It galls me to say it, but he is actually a very sweet person, and I believe I am intended to feel that way. He is also very annoying at times, but you can’t help liking him. He has courage, brains, and a sense of integrity. Best of all, he is only dimly aware of his virtues.
The Voyeur is obviously about the observer, Jason, and the French meaning of the word is fully realized. Jason observes as a detached investigator. He is also hopelessly overpowered by his penis, which rises to the occasion when he is spanked, simply ogling or helplessly fantasizing during his researches. He is fascinated and aroused by situations and people he would otherwise have thought repellant. He is no connoisseur of gay sex, but more a tourist. He is almost never, for example, dressed right for the occasion and feels awkward when he is, even when the event calls for no more than a towel.
He does not observe from an amused and knowing distance like some figure in Huysmans, Balzac or Proust. He wishes he could be more detached as he tours the bathhouses, gay night clubs, bars, street corners, and shrubbery of gay amour in the 90s. His job is to look for HIV positive men to interview about their sexual practices. It occurs to no one that the fact that the subjects are being paid skews the study, but that is because the people in charge are looking for lurid anecdotes in order to support renewed and larger funding. His vocation is some sort of search for purity that is quite impossible.
Jason, like the Jason of myth, is not sure where he is going, how to deal with what he finds when he gets there, and who can be trusted to help him sort through it. Ultimately, his struggle for detachment puts him at odds with his lover. It is really from that point that the scales begin to fall from his eyes, and he begins to see sex less as a unique mystery but a part of the larger conundrum of being. The question is are you living your life, if you are observing it at the same time?
If there is a flaw in this novel it is that Jason is presented as a slightly nerdy and naïve idealist. That rings false given the New York of the 90s, a city he has chosen for his Mecca of gay culture. He may live with his lover in Plainfield, NJ, but he longs for New York’s answer to the Marais, Chelsea. It would seem he is not quite up to scratch for that. The demands of the local chic; his physical height; the very fact that he is taking a Ph.D.; all brand him. As he sees himself, he will never be the equal of those who can charm the world effortlessly on their looks alone. What’s more, he knows it, so there is an element of discontinuity in then making him naïve.
He is up to his elbows all day and night in sex whether in the abstract, or in the sleaziest of fact. The disconnection between his perception and the world he is seeing is not always very plausible especially when he is enjoying the view. I believe Luongo has created Jason this way so that he can go through the long descent of self-discovery that the character makes. At times, this soul-searching gets windy because like most people who wish to think of themselves as naïve idealists, they are tiresomely egocentric.
On balance, however, that is a small flaw given the constant round of genuine insights about human nature and perception that the book offers. The book provokes a groan with a prologue, which presents Jason’s mother as a sex-hating, imperious myrmidon, and we fear for a moment that the next line will be, “My mother made me a homosexual,” with or without the usual punch line. However, Jason’s journeys through his various relationships are always revelations and never what you expect they might be. That is very much the case in the way that Luongo concludes Jason’s relationship with his mother.
Mr. Luongo’s great strength is that his writing is uncompromisingly human. By that I mean, he presents the problems before Jason as neither romantically hopeless nor easily tractable. Life is a pain in the ass. The key is learning to live with yourself. From that well of integrity springs a truly poetic style in many parts of this novel. He writes about sex in a way that is both lyrical and passionate while avoiding none of the essential details.
I wish he would indulge his sense of humor more and his angst less, but nothing in this novel is dishonest or contrived. It is well worth your time. I will leave you with part of a very nicely done passage from the book about seduction:
"No, this leather was soft, seductive, sexy, with a touch of hairiness that tickled gently, and caressed and lulled one into its power, making the observer part of it, not commanding him to pay attention to it. Yet, the choice was still no choice, there was no way to resist something this enticing. Jason was forced to draw nearer."
The Voyeur, p. 191.
This novel is a rip-snorting pornographic fantasy, much like an X-rated cartoon movie. The characters make up in exuberance what they lack in depth, and the plot turns out to be clever and satisfying. Eventually, all the women get what they want, even if they don't know what that is until it sinks in (so to speak), and the male stud at the center (or centre) of the action receives the kind of justice he claims to believe in. This book is unlikely to win any literary awards, but it makes an excellent light snack. It seems physically smaller than the average paperback, as if designed to be carried in a small purse or a large pocket.
The author flirts with stereotypes, and the camp quality of the characters is part of the fun. Meet Victoria, a sensitive blonde widow with large pillowy breasts, a graduate degree in English which she has never used (she loves poetry), and a fortune which she has inherited from the man she married on the rebound. The only man she ever really loved is her fellow-Canadian, a hunk of manhood who manages to combine a roving eye, a tireless cock, a desire to mark shapely female bottoms with various implements, and leftist political convictions. This man, Ray Torrington, left her years ago to go to Cuba, a mecca for the socially-conscious and for refugees from northern winters. Now he is in London, England, to give a speech at a world conference on housing for the homeless.
Victoria, who is in England to wrap up the disposal of her late husband's estate, summons Ray to her hotel room by telling him that she has a potentially fatal heart condition. Neither he nor the reader knows how seriously to take her metaphorical broken heart, but Ray can't resist her luscious body or her need for his attention. Their reunion is the first sex scene in the novel.
Cut to a scene of the flame-haired English card shark, Penny, in a high-stakes game of poker with a bevy of distracted men. Penny is slim and cool, and she uses her sex appeal as well as her instincts to part rich men from their money. She learned to take care of herself while staying in Canada during the lean years of her youth, when she worked as a nightclub dancer. Few of her London rivals or admirers know of her shady past across the Atlantic, but Ray is part of her emotional baggage, or her unfinished business.
Much as he enjoys reuniting with Victoria, Ray never stops looking for new territory to conquer. Bai Lon from Hong Kong, who tells Ray to call her Lonnie, fascinates him for reasons which have nothing to do with his claim to be "so inspired by [her] decision to embrace the socialist perspective regarding basic human rights like housing and healthcare." Her hunting style is described:
"Lonnie liked to tease such a man by coming on slowly and then, just when he resigned himself to a night of polite courtship, dropping a bomb like 'I'm a sensualist, Ray.' With her dark little naively tilted eyes and creaseless lids, her gaze suggested she didn't quite know what her words implied, as if she had slightly misunderstood the definition of 'sensualist.' She would retreat behind her mask of Asian coolness, then dart out again when least expected and boom! Drop another bomb!"
Boom! Ray manages to shuttle back and forth between Lonnie the tease and Victoria the devoted submissive during one hectic day and evening. Meanwhile, in apparently unrelated chapters, Penny takes on a male movie star who wants her to teach him to play poker and a lordly African chief whom she happens to meet while waiting for the lift (elevator). Penny gets what she wants by taking risks with strange men both in bed and at the gaming table. Before leaving her hotel room, she carefully dresses to create the right effect on her audience. She wonders why her calls to Ray's cellphone go unanswered.
Each of the major characters has a distinct fetish or two: Victoria likes rough treatment, Ray likes to dish it out, Lonnie likes to tease and to be watched, Penny adores games of chance and anal action. And then there is Victoria's "nurse" (or is she?), Verushka the statuesque, no-nonsense Russian whose dialogue resembles that of Natasha, the sexy Soviet spy in an American cartoon show of the 1960s, "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." Verushka's version of medical therapy is intense and effective.
Ray is intrigued by Victoria's self-centered mind-games, as he sees them, but he avoids giving a clear answer to her repeated invitation to come to Cuba with her at her expense. Will Ray continue to manipulate women while passing himself off as a savior of suffering humanity? Will they all continue to regard him as "King Fuck?"
To Ray's and the reader's surprise, solidarity eventually prevails among the oppressed (or screwed) masses. Women who appear at first to be sexually dependent on men discover their own attraction to each other, and not simply because the Man likes to watch.
After the camera’s eye of the narrative hops from one scene to another, giving the reader a brief glimpse of London landmarks along the way, all the major characters converge in the same hotel room for a memorable all-night group scene. At a delicious, pivotal moment, the traditional male fantasy of a traveling man collecting a harem changes to a scenario of sexually-empowered women playing with their boy-toy.
The climactic trip to Cuba which Victoria has been planning throughout the novel takes place on schedule, but with some changes in the seating plan. The merry band of players only leaves the hotel bed to pack quickly and board the plane which will whisk them away to a tropical paradise which is also politically correct. On the plane, Penny deals the cards. When asked what the game is, she explains: “Stud poker, of course. Queens are wild.” A kind of subtitle on the cover of the book brags: “The winner takes all.”
As part of the Black Lace stable, this novel is advertised as “erotic fiction for women by women.” It covers all the bases traditionally covered by “men’s” (sexually explicit) magazines and cheap paperbacks, but in a woman-centered way which does not dehumanize any group of human beings more than any other. As a Canadian writer, Madeline Moore has included two major white Canadian characters in a cast of fetishized national, racial and social types. She describes this as: “a first, I think, for Black Lace.” It’s heartening to know that someone is working to make Canadians appear both visible and sexy in this context.
This novel could keep you entertained on a plane or in a doctor's waiting room, but it is not a heavyweight in any sense. There is meatier stuff available for the connoisseur of erotic fiction.