First it must be said that Susan DiPlacido can write, as her edgy story “Neon Nights” in her collection, American Cool, illustrates. Here is a Vegas denizen’s view of tourists,
I know what these tourists are seeing. High heels and wild hair, can’t walk a straight line, night-hardened, booze in the sunshine while they’ve got their fanny packs and cameras, freaking normal people ready to snap pictures of botanical gardens and Bugsy’s plaque; bright-eyed tourists assaulted with the anachronistic reality of one of Sin City’s living ghosts – me.
Her prose has the feel of her stories’ terrain, and they vary a great deal from hardcore super sex in “Coyote Blues” to a gritty search for rough justice in “Bloodlines.” DiPlacido can inspire with a story about women’s college baseball, ”Like a Girl,” in which some of the team love each other as actively and violently as they love the game. She can write hilarious misadventures in the form of a bumbling poker player with big ambitions and bigger issues that she allows to distract her attention, like the size of her butt, and a particularly nasty bee sting. Then again she can wax engagingly girlish in “Right Hand Diamonds” though it may not be safe to say that to her face.
DiPlacido is an excellent stylist, and that alone would set her well above the vast majority of writers of erotica. Of equal importance is that she is an able storyteller, and that is even more rare. American Cool is entirely devoted to the search for outsiders in American society who long to get “in” or be cool, which means being “in” on their own terms. None of them make it because their uniqueness as individuals will forever set them apart one way or the other. Some of them come to terms with that and seem ready to lead happy and fulfilling lives, but just as often they seem as likely never to understand why they are forever “out.” In some cases it costs them their lives.
It is a feeling that most Americans in the arts share with her characters and I think most young people experience at some point in their lives as they struggle to find a balance between what makes them special as individuals and what allows them to belong even if only in a world of misfits. It is here that DiPlacido’s sense of sex shines most brilliantly in her work because she is able to capture the myriad ways in which Americans use sex as a safe haven, a bargaining chip, a weapon, a tool, and, most importantly, as a vehicle of self-realization. Sometimes that can be a bitter revelation as in the last story, “American Cool” which is also the title of the book.She writes a full range of sexual tastes and so if there is not quite something for everyone in this book that suits your particular kink, I assure you there is something that is close enough. What is more, she is writing about sex as a means of celebration, understanding and discovery as well as a good way to get off. That is no guarantee that sex is the cure for anything, nor is it even the central theme of every story in this volume, but it most certainly plays a key role in the book’s vitality. I must credit Rebel Press that if there is any sloppy editing in this collection, I didn’t find it, making them one of the last serious book publishers doing erotica. More to the point DiPlacido is absolutely literate and absorbing with a funky lilt to her prose and a keen eye for the American scene, making the book nearly impossible to put down.
Imagine a city in which supernatural predators and mortals live in an uneasy balance. Imagine that the predators all belong to more-or-less powerful clans reminiscent of Renaissance Italy or the modern Mafia, except for the desperate exiles who have been expelled from their clans for various reasons. Imagine rivalry within and among families, and a network of relationships based on greed, lust, respect, curiosity and even unselfish love. Imagine a sexy mix of humans and non-humans who all meet in a seedy bar where anything can be arranged for a price, or in the one nightclub which is known as neutral ground.
This is the world of Between Love and Lust, whose title doesn’t give a clear-enough indication of what lies between its virtual covers. This is an ambitious, well-conceived erotic vampire novel intended to be the first of a series. There is definitely enough material here for a series of novels, and for a cult following.
The author's version of a creation myth (how the first vampires came to exist) is similar enough to the mythos of Bram Stoker: in the ancient past, demonic blood got into human bodies that became "non-living" in the sense of unchanging. Nikko Lee adds the influence of love: a human's love for a demon and the demon's unwillingness to live without her. The Adam and Eve of the vampiric bloodline (now in “eternal rest”) were heterosexual, complementary, fiercely bonded and long-lived, although none of their descendants are immortal. These vampires appear to be immortal because they survive much longer than humans – so much longer that they tend to fall out of touch with current reality and eventually go insane, without exception.
Faith plays a role, however. Unlike agnostic modern vampires who can’t be stopped by garlic and crucifixes, Nikko Lee’s vampires are affected by holy water the way human flesh is affected by napalm. All the reader is allowed to know about this unusual weapon in the first novel is that it works because it is infused with fervent belief.
There is a lot of sex in this world. Vampires can mate with each other as well as with mortals, and their appetites are larger than life. Their appetites vary, however. Some of the surviving members of the original thirteen families (particularly the Lucienna, a family of "shadow warriors") have their own sexual value system which mandates sex only within "blood-bonded" relationships, which last until the bond-mates literally crumble into dust. Both the sex scenes and the hints of frustrated longing are believable and integral to the plot.
Mika the vampire is a central character, a kick-ass heroine who is beautiful and stronger than she looks. She lives in a loft above the nightclub run by her best friend Dahlia, where all the major players in the plot meet for business or pleasure beyond the turf of particular clans. When her "pater-sire" Jacob, formerly her lover, comes to tell her about the recent murder of a clan leader, the third-person narrator suggests a theory of fetishism or imprinting:
"Each vampire had his own vice that could be traced back to his original embrace, as her pater-sire had once explained. Some vampires longed for chemically-induced euphoria, especially if their would-be sire had drugged them, thereby aiding them to withstand the horror that followed the rapture of the embrace. Others longed to re-create the violent hunt that preceded their transformation.
"Mika did not need her pater-sire to explain to her the vice that was her weakness above all others. The memory of her embrace was seared into her soul and her sex. Hunger for blood produced such wanton desires in Mika that her lust would make a streetwalker blush. The feel of a lover's manhood hardening under her grip or her nether lips moistening against his lapping tongue produced a satisfaction that was only paralleled by the consumption of fresh blood."
Despite her nearly-constant lust, Mika has a kind of innocence that has been protected by the now-fatherly but unreadable Jacob. When he bonded with Mika's "mater-sire," he joined a more powerful and prestigious clan than the one he was "born" into, but he still shows the unpredictable qualities of his birth-clan, the Seguines. Mika's "mater-sire," Jacob's former mate, was sentenced by the Council of Elders to "eternal rest," a punishment parallel to life imprisonment or execution. But the Council of Elders is known to be corrupt. Was Miriam really guilty of anything? Mika's memories of her seem to hover wistfully in the air.
The male vampire who ignites Mika's passion like none other is himself a Seguine by "birth," as well as an exile, sentenced to a kind of limbo by the Council of Elders. Jacob’s clan leader, Dawson, wants to reform the council into a more democratic organization which could rule the clans more fairly and effectively Yet most of the clans are more interested in their own concerns than in the business of good government, and a proposed change of regime is always opposed by someone.
Could the mysterious murders of high-status vampires be a sign of impending civil war in the vampire community? Are humans involved? And how is Hail, Mika's soul-mate, mixed up in things? As an exile he has been taken in by the exploitative Corbius clan that can always find a use for powerless vampires and humans. The once-proud Hail is the unwilling plaything of the clan leader's "little princess,” who degrades him publicly. Mika has her own kinky side (aside from the inherent kinkiness of surviving on human blood), but like Hail, she shows surprising integrity under pressure.
The great strengths of this novel are its complex plot, involving a large cast of characters, and the compelling qualities of the key players. At the heart of the conflict is an ideological clash which is echoed in the relationships between individuals, especially the Romeo-and-Juliet affair between Mika and Hail.
Vampires can inspire dread or desire, or some of both, and these vampires live up to the tradition. The way they produce "childer" mimics human reproduction, and it seems to rule out the homoerotic bonding introduced by Anne Rice and continued by her own literary offspring. Recreational sex between females happens a lot in this novel, often as part of a threesome scene. At one point, Hail sends a willing human female (a politician on the city council) to Mika much as he might send her a bouquet with an important message attached. (The message is a rhymed riddle lightly engraved in the skin of the woman’s back.) Mika shares the woman with Dahlia in an all-night party which largely takes place off the page, although there is a titillating reference to "necessary restraints." Sex between vampires and humans usually includes blood-drinking, but there is a general understanding that completely draining a victim is reckless and uncouth.
This novel is engaging on several levels, and the BDSM ethos and culture implied by any vampire story is generally well-integrated with the other elements. There is one exceptional scene, early in the plot, in which Mika goes slumming in a BDSM club in search of information, even though the place is considered disreputable – by vampires. The mind boggles, though of course such hypocrisy is also very human. In this dive, Mika puts on a show by giving a male informant a blow job which looks tamer than most of what she does for fun. Apparently the shock-value of such behavior from a member of Clan Chavel supplies the necessary frisson for a jaded or hard-core audience. Of course, it could be argued that kink is in the eyes of the beholder.Unfortunately, typing and spelling mistakes are not simply a matter of opinion, and there are too many of them in this novel. Sloppy editing does nothing to enhance the status of e-books, but with any luck, this one will be polished up and reproduced in print some day. It certainly deserves a longer shelf-life than many of its clan-members.
This slim volume of short stories is subtitled “Stories of Tainted Desire.” The description is apt. Ms. Hipple's evocative prose-poems summon the sharp pain of regret, the ache for opportunities lost, the searing fire of anger and the ice of a lover's disdain. There is beauty, passion, even sweetness in these tales, but they are a far cry from the light-hearted romps so common in contemporary erotic story collections. Ms. Hipple writes from the heart -- from personal experience, I suspect. She does not shy away from darkness: cruelty, drunken self-pity, the seductive lure of suicide when one is desperate and lonely.
Bittersweet includes twenty-two brief stories. Many are no longer than two pages. In fact, few are stories in the classical sense; they offer no plot arc and no character development, though they often chronicle changes in the narrator over time. The pieces in this volume are meditations, fantasies, extended flashbacks, vivid erotic scenarios that exist solely to evoke emotion. In “Blood on Snow,” a woman descends ever deeper into submission, until at long last her lover fulfills his promise to shed her blood. “Let It Be Uncomplicated” offers a snapshot of a marriage in which sex has become a constant reproach due to the woman's inability to conceive. “I Promise I Won't Break You,” with more of a plot than most, shows how abandonment can lead to despair and then beyond, to a hardness that even the lover's return cannot shatter. In “Waiting in the Rain,” a woman spends the day fantasizing about her husband's arrival, only to have him reject her, while in “Seems Like...” a husband reprises the decades with his beloved as he gazes on her corpse.
Some stories are told from a male perspective, some from a female. The two I liked best both have F/F themes. “White Musk” illustrates the evocative power of the sense of smell. A middle-aged wife and mother, shopping for Christmas presents, catches a whiff of the perfume favored by the woman she loved in her youth and is submerged in memory. In “Mar,” a woman who lives alone by the ocean is visited by lyrical and mysterious dreams of a gorgeous female sea-creature.
Ms. Hipple's prose is sensual in the truest sense, steeped in descriptions of sight and smell, sound, texture and taste. She skillfully captures the connection between environment and emotion. Sun, wind, mist and rain mold and reflect the characters' moods. Her sex scenes are more poetic than graphic, though you'll find no euphemisms here. The flesh is filtered, always, through the prism of emotion.
On the negative side, the stories in this collection are distressingly similar in their style. Every one is narrated in the first person, often in the present tense, with the object of passion a frequently unnamed third party pronoun. The most begin with some description of the weather or the season, setting the emotional tone. As I note above, Ms. Hipple does this quite well. However, it becomes monotonous after a while. Even though the stories explore a range of situations and emotions, I found it difficult to separate them in my mind. Another initially effective device that is overused is the reprise of the title in the last paragraph of the story. After three or four tales, this starts to seem amateurish.
The book would also benefit from more extensive editing. I noticed quite a few misused words, some of which are clearly typographic errors (“chain” rather than “chair”) but others clear confusions (“travesties” instead of “trials” or “tortures”). An effective editor could also have curbed Ms. Hipple's over-fondness for run-on sentences, three or four independent clauses joined by “and”. I read an Advanced Reader's Copy of the book that perhaps was further edited before release. I do hope so; if this were my book, I would be a bit embarrassed by these mistakes.If I had encountered one of the stories in this book in the context of a typical erotica anthology, I would have been excited and impressed. Ms. Hipple explores themes and emotions not often addressed in popular erotica, with an original, sensual style. However, reading twenty-two of these stories, all in the same vein and using the same style, one after the other, tends to diminish their impact.
Steampunk. If the word conjures up nothing in your imagination, then you probably don’t read many graphic novels or follow trends in science fiction. The definition is a bit hard to pin down, although editors J Blackmore and C. Tan do a fine job in their intros to this anthology. Rather than restate what they’ve said, I can give examples: Wild Wild West, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the flashback scenes in Torchwood. Generally set in the Victorian Age, steampunk often includes anachronisitc (out of its time) scientific devices.
What’s so hot about that? We think of the Victorian Age as being a time of great sexual repression, and it was, but Queen Victoria was a randy old gal (guess who a Prince Albert cock piercing is named after?) and her subjects followed suit – using extreme public prudery to mask rather deviant private lives. In direct contrast to that, Victorian Age machinery (usually steam driven, thus the term steampunk) didn’t cover up its inner workings. All the power and thrust of the cogs and pistons were on display, the porn of raw industrial might.
Peter Tupper’s “The Innocent’s Progress” is set in the theatrical world of the Commedia, where roles are strictly defined and stories never change. A woman auditions for the part of the innocent, a role that calls for a cute young thing. Despite her acting ability, she’s too old, too tall, and too big to play the part of the innocent. Refusing to accept that, she leaves the company in search of a role that fits her. While this story is well written and interesting, the sex scenes have nothing to do with the main story. They are asides, populated by characters that only existed for those scenes. I suppose they were tacked on to fulfill the erotica prerequisite, but they detracted from the story rather than enhancing it. That’s a shame, because the rest of the story was wonderful.
“An Extempore Romance” by Jason Rubis reminded me of the Cottingley Fairies photographs. Only in this story, the fairies are real, sort of. In this alternate history line, science has produced chimeras – something we would call a highly advanced robot – that can resemble a human, or a fairy, or any other creature. During a photo shoot with chimera characters from her novels, a writer is worked up into a sexual lather by a swarm of fairies. Following the shoot, she, and her chimera maid, go to a brothel that caters to women. Did I mention that the chimeras could be in any form? How about a lovely model called a Raphael, “a dark-skinned boy of nineteen with an obscene mouth and obsidian eyes?”
“Hysterical Friction” by Thomas S. Roche may read like science fiction, but there’s more truth to his tale than not. In Hysterical Friction, a woman is diagnosed with hysteria. It was a common diagnosis for unhappy women at the time, with an odd array of symptoms. No doubt much of it was untreated depression. Rather than ask the woman about her problems, the doctor discusses her with the husband while she waits in another room. What the wife needs, really, is sex, but her husband has no interest in touching her. The doctor figures that out and explains to the husband that he has a new device that’s just the sort of thing she needs. The device turns out to be a vibrator. This is historically accurate, although in Roche’s deft hands, it’s a rather funny scene. You see, they didn’t have batteries, so they had to generate the power somehow. The doctor’s buxom assistant is more than willing to help out. I can’t explain any more than that without ruining it for you. Let’s just say that the woman is quite calm at the end of the treatment, but she’s willing to come in for appointments three times a week, as her doctor suggests.
“In the Flask” by Vanessa Vaughn is in the vein of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Aubrey and his lab assistant, Nicholas, are trying to develop a compound that will repress sexual urges. No doubt the urges they’re trying hardest to repress are the type they feel for each other. Nicholas is left in charge of the experiment late one night. He falls asleep, and when he wakes and realizes he’s missed the last addition of a chemical, quickly pours in the contents of the nearest flask. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the wrong one. The resulting mixture has an interesting effect on the lab rats that Dr. Aubrey discovers when he returns. By no accident, the doctor releases the mixture in the lab, giving the men an excuse to give in to their desires.
Kaysee Renee Robichaud’s “Steam and Iron, Musk and Flesh” is set in the American West. The story begins with a great scene in a skyship, when Trista is caught with the Dean’s daughter. That leads to Trista working as an engineer in a traveling show where she maintains one of the star attractions, a clockwork man. The other star attraction, Maggie, a trick shooter, becomes Trista’s lover. While the show is in Arizona, the local bandit holds the troupe hostage while he forces Trista to use the clockwork man to break into the local bank. That’s a plot right out of Wild, Wild West.These stories aren’t hard science fiction, where the story is about the technology. Instead, there’s a sense of wonder about science, giving it an almost magical aura. That is one of the hallmarks of steampunk, and this fine collection of well-crafted tales delivers on that promise. A very enthusiastic thumbs up.
Short version review: Good book. Well-written. Go out and buy it.
Long version review:
I’ve recently done a blog about where erotic fiction authors get their ideas from. If you can find it on the net, I’d encourage you to search it out and enjoy it. I’m typically humorous in the blog and some of the things I say, although comically absurd, contain an existentialist germ of truth. However, I could have saved myself the time from writing that blog and directed readers to Carrie Williams’ excellent new novel, The Apprentice.
The Apprentice charts Genevieve’s story as personal assistant to a renowned author. Stated so baldly it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a story of constant couplings and saucy sexiness. The phrase, “as sexy as a writer” is not one that will become a cliché through its constant overuse. However, The Apprentice comes from the highly-acclaimed Black Lace imprint and Carrie Williams is an author of repute with titles such as The Blue Guide and Chilli Heat to her credit. Consequently, it goes without saying that this is a very hot read.
Genevieve applies for a job as a writer’s assistant and she is successful in her application. She finds herself working for the legendary Anne Tournier and it seems like a match made in heaven. Genevieve is an ardent fan of Anne’s work and desperately needs the job. Anne, without wanting to give too much away, desperately needs Genevieve.
The Apprentice is a cleverly told story. Writing about writers is never easy because, whilst all we authors want to make writers look glamorous and exciting, the truth is that sitting in a grubby office and making up stories is hard to portray as anything other than a mental health issue. Nevertheless, Carrie Williams manages this trick with aplomb and Anne Tournier comes across as coolly exciting and consistently glamorous.
What about the sex? I hear you ask. Well, it’s kind of you to offer, but we’re talking about this book, aren’t we?
Carrie Williams conveys the essence of passion and sexuality with subtle power. Erotic fiction remains one of the most potent genres of writing because, when executed efficiently, it can produce the strongest physical reactions from reading any literary form. Writing about a writer of erotic fiction (which Carrie Williams has so cleverly done) demands that the eroticism presented on the page should be so vivid it is almost tangible. Fortunately, the erotic element of this story is presented with lucid precision and exquisite detail. Genevieve’s assignations come across as realistic but, by necessity for the story’s main motif, the reader’s position can sometimes be perceived as voyeuristic. At times this can almost be perceived as a technique that distances the reader from the eroticism. However, on a second reading, most people will understand that this is the most appropriate way for the sexual elements of the story to be presented.
I think the factor I found most enjoyable about this novel was, even though it’s an erotic novel that has come from Black Lace, Carrie Williams has been bold enough to put the story first and allow the sex to take a natural subordinate position to the plot. Admittedly, the prologue is explicit and arousing: but it also raises enough questions to have readers intrigued and hankering to know what is going on in the story. The first chapter, although it’s only a mere seven pages, simply alludes to the frisson of sexual explicitness that will develop through the story.
In our modern world of McFiction and on-demand-satisfaction, the fact that Carrie Williams takes the time to patiently build to her story’s satisfying peaks is a pleasing contrast against many of the in-your-face and rush-to-the-bush stories that currently masquerade as erotic fiction.
So, it’s a book about a woman who writes saucy stories and hires an assistant. It’s explicit, erotic and all of this carried by a very compelling storyline. I’d tell you more but I’m in danger of spoiling the plot or giving away the denouement. If you like well-written erotic fiction that is intelligent, arousing and engaging, then The Apprentice should make your have-to-have list for 2009. To reiterate what I said in the short review:Good book. Well-written. Go out and buy it.