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.
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!
You know what? I’m going to stick my neck out and give this book five stars. I don’t like the cover and I don’t read a lot of erotic romance but I was attracted to this book by something deeper than the cover or the genre.
I’ve been racking my brains trying to think how to express what it is that I like about this book. I know that I like it but it’s hard to explain.
What I do read a lot of is erotica. And when you read a lot of erotica you start to wonder if something serious is missing from your sex life. I mean, am I the only woman who can have an orgasm without being tied up or vampirized or handcuffed to a toilet in a public bar?
I hate being called vanilla. But the truth is I love vanilla. In fact, chain me up someone, please, because I’m addicted to vanilla ice cream. Vanilla is a very subtle flavour, I find, and very versatile. Vanilla goes with lots of things. Lots of very naughty things.
Vanilla goes very well with hot Tunisian ruins bleached by a scorching sun. It goes splendidly with a sexy, mature American archaeologist who behaves almost as well as an English gentleman.
Of course, if he behaved exactly like an English gentleman there wouldn’t even be any vanilla in the story and Beth would have her tongue hanging out with nothing to lick. But Beth is not disappointed.
I was not disappointed either.
But I was excited in a very comfortable, well-cushioned sort of way. I was able to sink back in my plumped-up pillows and enjoy the vanilla action with complete, languid, unhurried satisfaction.
I like the way Kay Jaybee tells this story. In fact, this isn’t the first Kay Jaybee story I’ve read. I’ve read a few because I like her style.
The stories don’t overreach themselves. They don’t try to shock you or do something that other stories don’t. They do something much cleverer than that. They dig deep. They draw on little things that happen in real life and turn them into very plausible adventures that could happen to you or me. They make me feel connected and turned on.
That’s not something I want to underestimate. After all, just like with those vanilla ice creams, I keep going back for more.
This anthology edited by D.L. King is a collection of truly scrumptious stories about sex with a succubus. There are twenty-one fabulous stories here and it would be unfair to single out one or two for praise but I’m going to be unfair because I want to give you just a little tease and taste.
But before I do so, let me say that there is one thing all these stories have in common, besides being brilliant, and that is that they are all very short. Yes, it may be stating the obvious but they are all very short. My guess is that they are all under 3,000 words.
I mention this because I would really like to draw attention to the skill of these writers in being able to capture my attention and impress me so much with such very brief and fleeting stories.
Jean Roberta’s story has a very long title: Moon Like a Sickle, Wind Like a Knife, but the story itself is astonishingly succinct and concise. She shows just how much you can put into a sentence if you really try. In two beautifully concentrated pages she sets the scene for a fairly complex tale. It’s a rare concoction, ripe with promise, that is dished up over the ensuing pages with lashings of gothic sauce.
Cynthia Rayne’s Succumb is even more concise. Her story and her succubus get straight to the point. ‘Brad, I need you to f— me!’ the demon declares. He gets on with the job and, ‘I came immediately, ‘ we are told. But this swift sexual activity leaves room for some devilishly languid scheming, which takes place in an atmosphere of brooding menace. I succumbed to this story. It has depth. There’s far more to Feckless Fanny than there seems.
And there’s so much more to this anthology, too.
If you are weary, dip into the sensuous descriptions of Jay Lawrence in Deliverance. Revel in Evan Mora’s wicked retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Delight in the sophisticated subtlety of Angela Caperton’s The Sorcerer’s Catch, a very clever tale in which reality seems as fragile as black lace lingerie.
And still there’s more…
D.L. King has done a wonderful job because she has brought together in one book some of the finest contemporary erotic writers and given them a theme that has evidently inspired them to new heights. So if you’ve never thought about sex with a succubus and you’d like to know more, this is a good place to start. If, like me, you’ve thought of it often and consider yourself something of an expert, this book will take you to the next level. Believe me, it really is that good!
I suppose lacking the voluminous literary heritage of England, Americans tend to latch onto any big book as a possible contender for the Great American Novel that they are always desperately seeking. It helps its chances if the book is also indigestible. That way the Brits are unlikely to read it and challenge its literary supremacy.
Hence, I suppose, the lasting appeal of Moby Dick. Who is going to read it in this day and age? Its supremacy is assured for all time.
I like to plunge into its yawning depths and immerse myself in the great shroud of its frothing prose as an antidote to Twitter. It’s fun to read it in Starbucks, especially now we have freezing fog in London and treacherous ice on the streets. America, what have you given to Britain? You’ve closed all their bookshops thanks to Amazon. You’ve replaced all their pubs with coffee shops. You’ve doomed them to a high street without record shops thanks to Apple and iTunes. You suck up all their spare cash into your great maw and you construct labyrinthine corporate shelters to avoid paying any tax in the UK. It’s genius. What sweet revenge for the all the wrongs inflicted on you by Mad King George.
But you’ve at least given them Moby Dick, a seething epic that teaches them not to go chasing after phantoms and break their necks on a brick wall. Good advice, incidentally, to anyone who feels they ought to read this novel but is put off by its sheer bulk. It is a whale of a book and you chase it down at your peril.
I do wonder where the female characters are. Ishmael clinging to Queequeg’s coffin to avoid a watery doom is about as close as we get to a love story.
But it’s a wicked book. Wicked and wild. I like to think the great white whale is a metaphor for all of us women giving men the run around: the fathomless mask of the unknown but still reasoning vortex at the heart of men’s tragically turbulent universe.
Posted January 14, 2013on:
Incisive reviews of some sharp writing
Originally posted on Follow the Thread:
Ryu Murakami, Piercing (1994/2007)
Natsuo Kirino, Out (1997/2004)
Kawashima Masayuki, the protagonist of Ryu Murakami’s Piercing (translated by Ralph McCarthy), stands over his baby daughter’s crib with an ice pick, testing his resolve not to use it. The full darkness beneath Kawashima’s outwardly happy family life is soon revealed, as we learn that he once stabbed a woman with an ice pick, and he’s afraid he’ll do so again to the baby. He convinces himself that the only way to deal with these feelings is to stab a stranger instead. So he checks into a hotel, calls for a prostitute, and waits.
The young woman who arrives is Sanada Chiaki, who has had her own demons to face in life, and is perhaps more than anything just looking to feel once again. What follows, in a chapter taking up fully half of this short novel, is a tense and fascinating game of power-plays. Our perspective shifts back and forth between Kawashima and Chiaki, as does the upper hand in a battle they don’t (at first) even know they are fighting. Both characters have their strengths and weaknesses, their resources and defences, and one can never be sure how this game will end. Piercing is deeply uncomfortable reading, certainly; but, as a portrait of two deeply damaged individuals, it’s also compelling.