Most of the anthologies I review have fairly concrete themes. During the past year, I've tackled collections on the topics of lesbian lust, dysfunctional romance, one night stands, female submission, and gay sex in the afternoon. Indeed, one sees calls these days for stories focused on particular sexual events: anal sex, oral sex, orgasms, spanking. Books like these target specific audiences who want to know exactly what they can expect from the stories inside.
When I picked up ComingTogether: In Flux, a charity anthology on the slippery topic of “transformation”, I had little idea what I would find within. Having finished the book, I find myself astonished by the myriad creative ways the authors of these tales have interpreted the theme. About the only things these stories have in common are originality and exceptional craft.
The book begins with Angela Caperton's “Lawman”. An aging, retired member of an elite cadre of morality police enjoys the first blow job of his life as he tries to let go of the craving for the chemicals that made him a superman, but denied him desire. Even with a stranger, the experience of unfettered sex changes everything.
“Final Note” by Shanna Germain comes next – a wrenchingly honest portrayal of a woman whose long-time partner lies dying.
“Clara, Clara, Clara.”
My name slips from her lips, caw-cawed as though she is a dying creature on a sidewalk and not a full- grown woman. Not an adult, not a lover, not the former fabulous Raven Freemont. Just a fragile thing, wings crushed, beak croaking out the only word it can still remember. I need to end it.
The darkness of this tale is relieved by startling passion, as Clara burrows into the body of another woman to soothe the pain she can scarcely admit.
After this difficult story, editor Nobilis Reed transforms the mood completely in “Actual Size”, a bawdy tale featuring hypnotism, ménage and self-expanding breasts. He takes the anthology theme more literally than many of the other contributors, balancing philosophy with raunchy physicality. His other story later in the volume, “Explosion”, features psychological transformation, as the fallout from a mysterious blast turns women into insatiable, demanding dominants.
In Xan West's “Ready”, an uncertain young man trusts his rough but loving Daddy to take him where he needs to go. I'd read this story before and loved it. I found it every bit as intense and poignant upon rereading.
Ann Regentin's “Meltdown” is more an essay than a story. In luminous prose, she draws an extended comparison between the ruined, twisted environs of Chernobyl and her own experience of sexuality mutated by disability. Defying expectations, she paints her life as fundamentally changed but not necessarily diminished.
I, too, have stabilized, and I think I seem asexual to most people, just as Chernobyl seems quiet under its concrete lid. Who would imagine a disabled woman otherwise?
But in solitude, I have gone feral, able to give in to every desire, and fiercely defensive of my territory. Female sexuality is a powerful force, one that most cultures put enormous time and effort into controlling, and mine is now unchecked. It can go anywhere it wants, burning through what was supposed to contain it, consuming everything manmade and transforming into something no one has ever seen before, including me.
Several of the stories feature science fiction themes. Peter Tupper's “Upgrade” envisions an increasingly depopulated world as humans elect to “upgrade” their consciousness, transferring their memories and cognitive processes to a sort of group mind. Two late adopters – strangers - come together for a last, wistful coupling before relinquishing their physical bodies and their separateness.
“Feast of the Incarnations” by Gayle Straun is a wildly imaginative political fable of corrupting power and liberating sexuality, where the ruling class do nightly backups of their consciousness so that they can be reincarnated in the event of their assassination.
The book includes several stories about shape shifting: ancient vampires in Skylar Sinclair's “Love Everlasting,” werewolves in Mildred Cady's “Three Moons,” finned and scaled mer-creatures in Jhada Addams' “Water Shaman.” Meanwhile, Kissiah Aiken's “Transformative” deals with a real world shape shift, as the narrator crosses genders from female to male – and then realizes this is only the first stage in her change.
Possibly the most erotic tale in the mix is the lovely “Unlock My Heart”, by R. Taylor, about a female automaton, created as a servant for humans, seeking her one true mate.
She knew her lock by heart, having examined it with mirrors and fingers often. It was set low in her abdomen, decorated with silver filigree that stood out against the deep purple of her ceramic skin. It had a rounded upper opening extending to a long rectangular hole, seven tumblers waiting inside to be depressed by the properly-shaped key. The man gazed at her lock as his key extended with a small grating sound. It seemed to be a match, with its curved top and oblong base, and crenellations that looked as though they would fit into hers. But only the test would tell.
The ending of this story took me by surprise – but then, pleasurable surprise was a common experience for me while I was reading this volume.
If you're looking for a whole book full of stories about the specific kinks that push your buttons, you might find Coming Together: In Flux a disappointment. If you're more like me, capable of being aroused by a novel premise or a stunning sentence, buy this book.
All profits from the sale of Coming Together: In Flux benefit the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance.
Do you feel vampires have been done to death? Not so fast. There's always room for compelling characters and well written stories, which Janine Ashbless delivers in Red Grow the Roses.
I truly like how this collection of short stories is put together. The stories are linked together with a story arc that comes together at the end so that it has characteristics of a novel while allowing the short stories to remain as complete tales unto themselves, sort of like the concept albums rock bands used to produce.
London has a small cadre of vampires ruled by Reynauld, once an Islamic scholar but now a Buddhist. On the outside he may be ageless, but the years are creeping up on him and he fears what the future holds. The others chafe under his rule, but especially ruthless Naylor. If you meet a London vampire, pray that it isn't Naylor. Estelle is just as aggressive, but more sane. She loves to watch strong men bend to her will. Ben was and is still a surfer boy at heart. His favorite prey is women with pent-up desires that he can unleash. He can be fun, but not if he's under Naylor's influence. Wakefield feels unholy and unclean. He tries so very hard not to feed on humans. But by denying a nature that deeply troubles him, he's lost his ability to control it. You'd be perfectly safe with Wakefield - until he saw your blood. Then you'd be doomed. Roisin, the lady of the glass, lives in mirrors. She's the future Reynauld fears for himself. Although she's mad, if you're going to meet any of the London vampires, this ghostly apparition is the one to chose, because she'll love you tenderly while she feeds.
Between deeply erotic stories of the humans they encounter (victims is a problematic word as some of the vampires are prey for humans), you get the history of each vampire.
Normally, I'd grouse a bit about those long passages in italics as they're harder on the eyes than regular font, but that's such a petty complaint. It's my only complaint. I found those passages fascinating enough that the italics didn't matter that much.
You may have issues with the questionable consensuality of some of the sex scenes. I didn't. (I was about to mention something about Naylor's human encounter, but don't want to spoil anything.) I thought I was done with the whole vampire thing, but Janine Ashbless writes compelling stories that explore the essence of human nature, even among the fanged. Two thumbs way up.
This slim collection of nine stories by women about women doing reckless things looks like a reckless project in itself. Shameful Thrills: Girls Who Should Know Better, was produced by a relatively new publisher of erotica and erotic romance; there is no introduction.
Like a surprisingly attractive neighbour who poses naked in her bedroom window at night, this anthology is unadorned. All you get are the words of skilled writers who build suspense (OMG, what will happen next?) and play on several traditional fantasies based on women’s realistic fears of danger and humiliation.
Here is the opening scene of the first story, “Raising the Stakes” by Elizabeth Coldwell:
Robin was wrong for me in so many ways. Married, a good twenty years older than me and, most importantly, my father’s best friend. The last person I should have ever considered fucking. But from the moment I stepped into the unlocked bathroom on the second floor of his Belgravia home and saw him with his head buried between the bare, spread legs of his children’s nanny, it didn’t matter that I should have known better. I simply had to have him.
Immediately, the sensible reader (maybe I should just speak for myself) is both intrigued and aghast. The narrator’s desire is likely to be satisfied, but she is heading down a slippery slope to all sorts of trouble. Someone should stop her from making a fool of herself! Yet this unfolding plot is as irresistible as the latest celebrity scandal in a tabloid newspaper.
Friendships, marriages, the nurturing love of parents for their children, reputations and physical safety all hang by a thread in these stories. Each story seems on the surface to be a cautionary tale, yet each one includes earth-shattering sexual pleasure which is all the more intense because it happens on the edge of a cliff, so to speak.
In “Great White Arcs” by Jennie Treverton, an urban planner has been inspired by the flow of milk through his wife’s breasts just after the birth of her child, and that’s just the backstory. A young single woman takes a ride with another married man in the same office, and encounters great white arcs of a different kind.
The theme of single-woman-attracted-to-married-man seems to continue in “Love Bites” by Chrissie Bentley, but in this story about enduring memories of first-time oral sex, the man has come to regret leaving the girlfriend of his youth for the one he married, and is glad to find Ms. Right again. The near-incestuous sexual in-jokes between the divorced man and his grown son, however, make this fantasy hard to believe in.
“Touched” by Ashley Hind is more over-the-top, and more feverishly written. In this tale, a long-term, one-sided lesbian crush has an effect on the next generation: a kind of condensed, F/f, sexually explicit version of Wuthering Heights.
“Slapper” by Rachel Kramer Bussel is probably the most romantic story in the batch. It begins with an on-line BDSM relationship, always cause for concern, but as it turns out, the submissive narrator is not misled by her instincts, and the man who understands her seems worth the 3000-mile trip to meet him.
Shame and risk-taking go well with Dominance and submission, including exhibitionist and multiple-dom scenes, and several of these stories would fit into a “best of” annual collection of BDSM erotica. In “The Auction” by Janine Ashbless, a frightened girl camper, captured, bound and sexually abused by badass bikers, is shown being auctioned to the highest bidder. Of course, the non-consensual brutality of the scene is an illusion.
In “Soaked and Dripping” by Valerie Grey, a small, thin college girl is tricked into entering a wet T-shirt contest in a bar by three female “friends” who contribute to her public exposure, but to her own amazement, the wallflower becomes the object of every man’s fantasy. “A Country Ramble” by Penny Birch also features unplanned, non-consensual nudity, but the sex with a stranger which follows is exactly what the naked woman was hoping for.“Watercolours” by Primula Bond plays on the erotic attraction between a nude female model and a male painter, a fairly well-worn theme in erotica, but in this case the model is also the canvas, and there is something magical (or hellish) in the paint itself. All these stories dramatize the warning that you should be careful what you wish for – except that, in most of them, careless wishing leads to thrilling adventures.
In the Foreword to She Shifters, Kate Douglas says:
I write of the redeeming power of love and the need for us to love ourselves before we can freely love another. I write of men and women who have suffered, but have gone on to find the strength to believe in themselves, to believe they are truly worthy of love—and to choose partners who are worthy of their love. But most of all, I write about acceptance. That love in and of itself is what matters. Paramount in my stories is the concept that we are all worthy of love, that gender, race, religion, and all the other things society tries to throw in our way as barriers to love are foolish—though I have to admit, they do create wonderful themes around which to build our tales.
These are recurrent themes that are foregrounded throughout the sixteen excellent stories of lesbian paranormal erotica within this anthology: love, redemption and acceptance.
The genre of the paranormal has always been popular with those who believe themselves to be outside the limitations of whatever is perceived as normal. This is possibly why the genre has always had such an extensive appeal for teenagers (a demograph who invariably see themselves as outsiders). It’s an appeal, which we’ve seen evinced repeatedly over the past decade or so, with teen icons such as Buffy and Bella Swan creating a fantasy world of the paranormal where teenage angst is an acceptable form of expression.
But this is not a book for teenagers – this is aimed at a more adult market.
However, there are certainly echoes of the outsider striving for redemption and acceptance in stories like “Sneak” by Giselle Renarde where the common unity of a curse is found between a lesbian shape-shifter mouse and an unfortunate and unhappy sex worker.
Ah, Loralee, so unassumingly pretty underneath that thick foundation, the false lashes, the dark shadow. Her men only got to see her one way—made-up, falsified, cloaked in everything she wasn’t. Her skirts were small, but her hair was big—teased and sprayed to retain dimension. It wasn’t the real Loralee on that bed, just a body that looked like her. Cosmetics prevented the men, the adulterers and perverts, from seeing her true self. Loralee, pretty Loralee, was so vulnerable, so insecure…so like Bess. Bess looked on, unnoticed, as some reeking cowboy took Loralee from behind. His shirt was half-off, dirty denim around his ankles, boots grinding mud into the worn-down carpet. They were all so lazy, these dirty, grunting men. Loralee deserved better, but the poor thing was resigned to her fate.
And how, exactly, did Bess know all this? Well, people tend to talk when they think they’re alone. Loralee always talked to herself when the men had gone, while she stripped the bed. Poor girl always washed the sheets after a john had left.
“Sneak” Giselle Renarde
It’s argued that regular readers of the paranormal genre can often identify with the characters and familiar tropes found in this milieu of fiction. Some critics claim that regular readers of this genre see a reflection of their own personality in the personification of those outside the restrictions of society’s regular limitations.
I’m not sure how much of this is generalisation and how much is likely accurate but there are echoes of the outsider in many of the stories in this collection, including JL Merrow’s second contribution to this anthology: “Nine Days and Seven Tears.”
I found where the heat of her was centered, and as she opened for me like a sea anemone, she arched her back and hummed with pleasure. The scent and the flavor of her almost overwhelming me. I tongued that hard, crimson bud again and again, until Freyja shuddered and came, crying out softly in an ancient language I longed to understand.
“You make me so hot,” she whispered, but her white fingers felt cool on my heated skin, like the lap of the sea on a hot summer’s day. They rippled over me, bringing life and yearning to every part they caressed, and then they dove inside me, darting in and out with a touch that both burned and soothed.
“Nine Days and Seven Tears” JL Merrow
This is not to say, despite these stories sharing themes, that they are predictable. The stories in this collection are all exciting and well-written. Editor Delilah Devlin has picked a fine host of fiction for this anthology, each of which works as an exemplar of erotic fiction and together they collectively work to fulfil the promise of the title.
She Shifters explores a wide array of metaphors for female sexuality and lesbian intimacy and presents the reader with an accessible selection of stories that can be enjoyed for the surface pleasure of erotic fulfilment, or can be considered for the greater depth that they give to this genre.
Since I’ve been with Erotica Revealed, I’ve learned that I’ve pretty much come late to the party of the world of quality erotica short fiction. There are so many wonderful writers out there that I’ve yet to encounter, and every month the list grows. When I read and reviewed Frat Boys (edited by Shane Allison) the most standout story that struck me as hot – and different – was Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “Stripped.” I loved that story, which had a gender fluidity to it, and a full narrative alongside the hot erotic content.
Getting a copy of Suite Encounters to review, then, made me smile in anticipation. I’d had that one small dose of Rachel Kramer Bussel’s work, and I couldn’t wait to see what one of her collections would bring.
Short version: Suite Encounters is a fantastic collection, with a range of stories and characters I rarely encounter in an anthology. The theme is tight – hotels, which our editor lovingly discusses in her introduction as a kind of erotic tabula rasa. Taking a narrow theme and collecting authors who can spin that theme into such a wide range of stories is a mark of a great editor, and Rachel Kramer Bussel does just that.
The stories themselves are all quite short. Usually, and I’ve mentioned this before, short “scene” pieces aren’t typically my favorite. I like my erotica with a very strong helping of narrative and character (and character development). If there’s any flaw in the collection – and I wouldn’t say there is, really – it would be the brevity of some of the tales. I often wanted more.
Yet somehow, in the majority of these tales, short is still very much sweet without cutting down on depth and variance of character. I think it’s the wide range of the characters that really captured me. Married couples looking to rekindle their spark (“Unbound at the Holiday Inn” by Lily K. Cho), night counter clerks with crushes on rent-boys (“Night School” by Valerie Alexander), 70’s blacksploitation actresses making a comeback (“Stiletto’s Big Score” by Michael A. Gonzales) – it felt like every story had a fresh character for the reader to enjoy. Age, race, kink level – the variety here was superb.
I feel I should point out a favorite or two, but in no way does this mean the other stories were lesser. “Tailgaiting at the Cedar Inn” by Delilah Devlin was scorching hot, and I loved seeing the situation turned around to empower the woman involved – who takes control of a situation with two hot fellas interrupting her sleep on her way to a new life. That her new life isn’t one she’s looking forward to makes the scorch factor rise, and the reversal of her attitude was a lovely one-two punch amid the sweat and sex dripping from the page.
On a completely different note, “Return to the Nonchalant Inn” by Erobintica was a lovely piece with a man and a woman reminiscing on the erotic adventures of their youth – but from a vantage point of an older, wiser – and still sexually heated – perspective. I think the inclusion of this story, with a woman confident and content in her mature body, was an absolute win for the collection – and a very strong reminder that eroticism doesn’t die with the passing of years.
Lastly, I should mention that the final story in the collection – contributed by the editor herself, leaves just the right note ringing in the mind of the reader. “Special Request” spins a tale of a woman at a high priced hotel who is known for her ability to acquire anything the guest would like – but when the guest would like her – and a half dozen or so others – for an orgy, is she up for the challenge? Given the collection, I daresay you can answer that question, but it doesn’t make the journey any less hot or enjoyable.
It’s interesting – I’d never really considered hotels a particularly intriguing location. It may be that I traveled too much to really think of them that way, but after a month with Suite Encounters, I may need to change my mind.