intense sensations

StrummedStrummed by Stella Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On those days when you have your most rapturous sexual experiences, you can’t help feeling deep in your heart that there is nothing trivial or superficial about sex. If you are going to talk about it, you are going to be as articulate as you can. If you are going to write about it, you want to find the very best words. And if you are going to read stories about it, you want them to be chosen by Kojo Black at Sweetmeats Press.

The very best writing flows like music. Sex is a lot like music too. It has sounds and rhythms. It is amplified and enriched by the synchronous movements of your body. So it makes perfect sense to have a sexual anthology themed to music, and to the idea that your body is an instrument that can be strummed.

Since it is an anthology compiled by Kojo Black, you would expect “Strummed” to include some of the very best writing, conveying, through its sounds and rhythms, the pleasure and profundity of sex. And you would be right.

Here is an example of some beautiful musical writing by the very refined and very sensual Harper Eliot, from her story “And the Midnight Trio.”

As he reached the angular shape of her hip, he kissed her shoulder, pausing there to let her feel the rough stubble on his chin.

It was moments like these, always moments like these, that allowed Violet to escape the mundanity of day to day life. She wasn’t sure when exactly she had agreed to sit and live with boredom, but she went to sleep each night with the wish that she was living a more extraordinary life. Meanwhile she made no attempt to create any constant excitement, living instead off feelings such as these, the stubble of his chin grazing her milky flesh.

The other stories have moments like these too. The writing is not grandiose or pompous but it touches you. It sinks into your subconscious and resonates there.

In “On the Highway 17” by B.Z.R. Vukovina we meet a folk singer called Cob who knows in his soul that he is going to be famous. Cob’s journey has a mythic quality that is expressed not just through the juxtaposition of black bears, totems and the rugged beauty of the Canadian landscape, but also in rhythms like these:

Cob heard the water before he saw it: a faint buzzing that intensified like a swarm of insects, steady without the monotony of mechanisms, always on the verge of crashing, of waves, like the string of a guitar plucked hard, once-and-forever.

The trees ended.

He emerged from amongst them and approached Winnie, who was already standing on the slick, rocky edge of the white rushing water of the (“They call it the Dead Horse.”) river.

The other stories in the collection are more prosaic but the impression they make is no less emphatic. We meet several highly creative cellists in “Well Played” by Stella Harris. There’s a rampant rock chick in “Raw” by Amélie Hope. And in “The Vicar’s Organ” by Percy Quirk we meet the plain spoken Mrs. Evans and the even more plain spoken Mr. Creasey.

“You’re a horny little slut, Mrs. Evans,” he said to me, smirking. My nipples were dark and erect. I could already imagine his hands on my breasts, roughly kneading them, hurting and exciting me. “Get on with it,” he said, gesturing impatiently with his hand.

I unfastened my skirt, again folded it, and laid it next to the blouse on the sofa. I was down to my stockings and knickers.

“Leave them,” he told me. “I will only use your mouth today.”

One of the advantages of reading an anthology is that you get variety. Variety of phrase, of image, of voice. Variety of situation and, let’s be blunt, variety of sexual position. There are different insights and different obsessions. But one of the particular advantages of a Sweetmeats anthology is that the stories are relatively long. They have time to evolve.

I have only given you a hint and a taste of them here. A few chords and motifs. To get the full effect you really need to dive in deeper. So get the full works and immerse yourself in this stereophonic symphony of sex.

Can You Forgive Her? (Palliser, #1)Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I recommend the Kindle version of this for two reasons.

1. It’s free.

2. You won’t realise how long it is until you start reading, after which it won’t matter because you’ll be hooked. Although the little percent sign at the bottom of the page will stay in demoralisingly low single figures for so long that you might think your device is broken.

There’s a third reason for recommending it. It’s awesome!

It’s not erotic but, on the other hand, it’s hardly decent. At least, it doesn’t seem decent to me that a middle-aged Victorian gentleman (he was just the right side of 50 when he wrote it) should be able to get so effortlessly into the heart and mind of an excitable young maiden in the first flush of youth and dissect her vacillating intentions with the precision of a modern micro surgeon.

How dare he! Yes, and make us love her! And love him too for his audacious charm!

Trollope is sometimes looked down on by arbiters of quality in Victorian fiction. I often hear people apologising for liking him. The trouble with Trollope, you see, is that his books are so hugely enjoyable; and they are without a scar or a blemish so there is nothing for the critics to critique.

Sometimes his works are not even looked on as fiction but as social history. Why? Because his plots are not fanciful. They are robust. And his characters are intensely alive. So when you read him, it is like looking at real life.

Except it isn’t. Everything is much simpler and clearer and funnier than real life because Trollope is so sharp, so witty, so light. He has the driest sense of humour of any Englishman I’ve met and, believe me, I’ve met some very dry Englishmen in my time. Yet you take in every word and nothing is above your head. It just falls into place beautifully.

And there I should end because the book is quite long enough; you don’t want to delay starting it a moment longer.

Brideshead RevisitedBrideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh, this book is sensational! Sensational and sad. At first I was suspicious of its sadness. The sentimental, drunken Sebastian, suffocated by privilege and mired in wealth, was not someone I could feel sorry for. Charles Ryder, who becomes besotted with Sebastian and the vast estate of Brideshead Castle that Sebastian calls home, was a bit lacking in judgement, I felt. Those snooty English upper classes don’t deserve our pity, I wanted to tell him.

But the whole point of reading is to broaden one’s horizons, and mine were in need of broadening. For this book is a work of profound and sophisticated intelligence, engaging the full scope of the human imagination and the very best of all our feelings.

“My theme is memory,” Charles tells us, “that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of wartime. These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me.”

Memories can, indeed, be profound but it is seldom that a writer can bring them alive on the page as vividly and with such compelling credibility as Evelyn Waugh does in this deeply moving novel.

I worry that perhaps the novel is overshadowed by the television series and the films that have been made of it. A flickering image on the screen has more influence and stirs us more deeply than words that have to be read. But I heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves literature because it is more subtle and more sophisticated than the films and because Waugh’s integrity and conscience resonate within it. It is a work of very great beauty by a writer who, when he writes of things that matter to him, cannot tell a lie. I was moved by it and it made me see Waugh very differently from the image I had of him after reading a few of his more satirical books.

This book will be in my mind on my journey back to China. I am already seeing my journey differently after reading it. I wonder if my parents and my home and the surroundings that were once so familiar to me will ever seem the same again.

I will certainly never look upon a stuck-up Englishman in quite the same way again. But I’m not yet ready to become a Roman Catholic. Sorry, Evelyn. Five stars, though. Perfect job!

Orchid PinkOrchid Pink by Toni Sands
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book surprised me with the depth and complexity of its characterisation and, to be quite honest, with the quality of its writing. Xcite is a blatantly erotic publisher and as such could be seen as off limits for many readers of fiction. When I saw that this novel is about a well-to-do Victorian young lady who enjoys Sapphic romps with her maid, I was wary, to say the least. What drew me in were the orchids, which are my favourite flower.

And I’m so grateful to those orchids for if I had passed this book by I would have missed something quite exceptional.

This is a very well-researched book and you can feel the depth of that research in the way it is written. I have read many historical novels that have clunky dialogue and use contemporary idioms and cadences that would have been quite unavailable to their characters. This novel, in contrast, feels like it was written by a Victorian young lady and the dialogue is simple, effective and authentic.

At first I thought it clever. Then, as I was drawn into the story, I thought it profound. The author has become so immersed in her subject that everything about it rings true. She shows great empathy for the plight of her heroine, which is a very real plight that must have affected a good many young women in Victorian England. She explores Adelaide’s dilemma in detail and we can’t help but become caught up in the drama. We feel for Adelaide as she struggles to overcome the obstacles that fate, her father, her husband and history lay across her path.

Yet, let us not forget, Xcite is an erotic publisher. So, yes, the novel deals explicitly with Adelaide’s sexual feelings. It includes masturbation, seduction, penetration and a deluge of orgasms. For the kinkier reader there’s a leather dildo and dark secrets. The sexual content is explicit, erotic and tasteful. Much of it aroused me. There are many circumlocutions but they enhanced the authenticity of the experiences and I’m glad they were there. In fact I would say that the sexual content deepened the way I experienced this story. I felt I really got inside Adelaide and understood her from the inside out.

But what I enjoyed above all about this novel was the deep, literary flavour of it and the sensitivity with which it described subtle nuances of feeling. It is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, packed with surprising observations from an author steeped in the pleasures of reading and the evocative power of words.

Instructions for a HeatwaveInstructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I started reviewing books publicly I wrote most of my reviews in under ten minutes. That’s because I wrote without compunction. I just wrote what I thought without worrying about the writers’ feelings.

Then at some point I learned that people were reading my reviews and I slowed down and started to give them more thought. One of the writers in an anthology I reviewed wrote a heart-wrenching public reply that made me almost stop writing altogether. The only positive thing I took from it was that he seemed to think I’d had some sort of privileged education in an English public school.

Then I made a partly subconscious decision to write only glowing reviews.

I have written a string of glowing reviews recently. Quite a short string, because I have been lazy and I’ve been sleeping a lot. But a string nevertheless.

So I hope Maggie O’Farrell will forgive me if I emerge from my lethargic stupor to break with habit and pour cold water on her Instructions for a Heatwave.

There is little of practical value here. I am in London, 10 or 12 days into the hottest summer for decades and I’m not feeling any empathy with Maggie’s London heatwave of 1976.

She is writing in the present tense, which is a good trick if you can pull it off, because it makes time seem to stand still and immerses us in the moment. But I’m not immersed because this is one of those very thin stories that relies on flashbacks and asides to eke out the novel’s length. And its suspense comes from not telling us things we really ought to be told. Like why Gretta’s husband has left her.

I can’t believe it’s because she bakes bread in the middle of a heatwave.

As I said, you will not find sound advice here on how to survive the summer heat in one of the most polluted cities on the planet.

My advice is to stay indoors with a good air con unit, keep the windows closed so insects don’t get in, wear linen and extend yourself languorously on a cool leather sofa within reach of a tall stack of paperback erotic novels.

I’ll be recommending some soon.

In the meantime, drink plenty of liquids, move slowly and try not to think too much.

Trust me, I’m an expert in how to survive hot weather. I’m from China.

Thrill SeekerThrill Seeker by Kristina Lloyd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The publisher has called this novel controversial. I’m not going to argue with that.

Not everyone is going to like it. Some people will hate it. Probably for the very reasons that make it so good.

I first came across Kristina Lloyd in the Mammoth Book of Erotica 2009. Her story in that collection was exceptional and ever since then I’ve rated her as one of the very best writers in the genre. Thrill Seeker does nothing to change my view but I have to admit that it presents a few challenges.

One of the things Kristina does very well is to stimulate your physical senses. This alone would make her worth reading but Kristina goes further, teasing those elusive other senses of imagination, anticipation and lust. This is where she excels, in my view, for she does it very simply and subtly and with consummate skill.

Here’s an example. Disturbed by the sounds of an intruder while giving her boyfriend a blowjob, Natalie goes downstairs to investigate…

My fingers inched over the wall’s rough stone as I descended to the kitchen. I heard nothing, saw no shadows shifting. I crept down the final few steps then switched on the light. Scanning the room, I tried to make sense of the mess. Shards of glass sparkled on the drainer of the sink. The windows were intact. No one was here. One window was open, its drooping metal handle scraping against the outside wall, hinges banging in the clattering rain. The damp gingham curtains fluttered in the breeze, ditsy flags of surrender. A vase. My glass vase on the windowsill had smashed. A wine glass too by the looks of it. The back door was ajar. My heart was thumping, my throat parched.

Liam’s feet banged on the first flight of stairs. ‘I’m coming, you OK?’

On the kitchen table, as if waiting to be filed, was a sheet of A4 paper in a clear, plastic poly pocket. It wasn’t mine. I snatched it up. Across the page, in glued lettering cut from newspapers, were the words: CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW.

It’s because she works on your senses with all those succinctly provocative physical descriptions that the psychological impact, when it comes, is so powerful. The first time I read those paragraphs, my skin tingled.

Film makers would kill for that kind of reaction. The scene could in fact work very well on film. It has another ingredient that screen writers like to sprinkle into their work, which is foreshadowing. Those ditsy gingham curtains are not just damp and fluttering because they are exposed to the hidden dangers of the darkness outside. They are flags of surrender.

Surrender is one of the novel’s key themes. In this respect it has a lot in common with Kristina’s earlier novel, Asking For Trouble, which was hugely popular and sold very well. But Thrill Seeker goes deeper and hits harder than the earlier book. In some respects it is more serious. I think it really stretches the limits of the genre. It’s about surrender but it’s also about being honest with yourself and finding what you want. And for this you need to be tough enough not to give in to another kind of constraint – the constraint of public opinion.

Natalie has the courage not to surrender to the censures of society but to surrender instead to her sexual cravings. She is a strong woman who likes to be dominated and abused. Like her predecessor in Asking For Trouble, she does not believe in compromise. There are no safe words for her. Where is the thrill in danger if you know it’s not real? She likes to go to the very knife-edge of consensual sex. She doesn’t so much flirt with danger as issue an open invitation to the worst possible kind of sexual pervert to seize her and do his worst.

This is probably not every woman’s idea of a romantic story. “Plenty of people out there think that what I’m doing is ridiculous or wrong,” moans Natalie. And I must admit that I am not, like Natalie, turned on by “arrogance, ingratitude and disdain.” I do not enjoy being sexually degraded. For me, therefore, there was a distance between the pleasures I seek and some of the the sexual activities depicted in the story.

Then I started to wonder, Do we really want men reading this stuff? Do we want them to think women really have these kind of fantasies? When there are real sexually-motivated horrors emerging every other day in the newspapers, do we really want to give men this kind of licence to do their worst under the misguided impression that they are giving us what we really want?

But that is partly the subject matter of this book, that very serious social issue. It is not an irresponsible book. It’s a very serious one.

And as a writer, everything Kristina does is spot on. The writing is so taut and controlled that I was fixated on it, unable to look away. The sex, of course, is sometimes gratuitous. The descriptions are long, lingering and detailed. All well and good, you might think, but what about the characters? Well, the characters are true to themselves. The dangers escalate and the climax has a dizzy inevitability. This is not a how-to manual for BDSM neophytes. Natalie is no role model for the internet dating generation. But this is an important, exciting and provocative book that really throws down the gauntlet for anyone wanting to take up the challenge of writing a BDSM thriller and says, “Top that!”

And, in her next book, if rumours are to be believed, Kristina will do exactly that.

I can’t wait!

The Flamethrowers: A NovelThe Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am always interested in what the competition is doing and, being on the verge of publishing a new story called Playing With Fire, I couldn’t help but be drawn to this coruscating new novel from Rachel Kushner which has as its epigraph Fac ut ardeat – Made to burn.

The narrator is an artsy biker girl. She breaks the women’s speed record in the Salt Flats in Utah. She has the hots for young firebrands and trailblazers. She mixes it up with artists in New York. She writes scorching prose.

I can’t drive, I have to admit, and I have never ridden a motorbike, except once as a terrified passenger, going at 17 mph in congested rush-hour London. (Never again!) But yet I could relate to this book and this heroine, who is called Reno, although that isn’t her real name.

In Nevada she meets a man called Stretch (possibly not his real name), who lets her sleep in his room because the motel he runs is full. He doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead he only comes into her room to shower.

While the water ran I hurriedly pulled on my leathers. I was making the bed when he emerged, a towel around his waist. Tall and blond and lanky, like a giraffe, water beading on skin that was ruddy from the hot shower. He asked if I minded covering my eyes for a moment. I felt his nudity as he changed, but I suppose he could just as easily claim to have felt mine, right there under my clothes.

This is hot, very American, very rakish – almost masculine – modern prose that doesn’t bother about predicates but has lashings of flair and attitude. There is an authentic cadence to the dialogue that made me shiver.

“I never met a girl who rides Italian motorcycles,” he said. “It’s like you aren’t real.”

(I get that a lot. “I never met a Chinese girl who writes erotica. Are you for real?”)

Reno doesn’t have sex with Stretch, even though he’s almost poignantly desperate to rub his nearly naked body up against her leathers. Instead she has imaginary conversations with him years later in which they say very American, seventies things to each other in a romantic setting.

“Were you ever in Vietnam?” I’d ask, assuming some terrible story would come tumbling out, me there to offer some comfort, the two of us in the cab of an old white pickup, the desert sun orange and giant over the flat edge of a Nevada horizon. “Me?” he’d say. “Nah.”

This is an ambitious book. You can tell it’s ambitious because many reviewers mention how brilliantly it is written while admitting that they struggled to finish it.

(That’s a reason that I write short stories and novellas, by the way.)

But I recommend this big, sprawling, hardback treasure of a book. It’s a great inspiration for writers and if you’re truly hungry for great writing, its length isn’t an obstacle at all. Prose like this can be consumed greedily and in haste, the way a well-oiled engine sucks in air and petrol and spews out a great whooshing tongue of flame.

Books by Vanessa Wu

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