Sunday, September 30, 2018

Desperate Youth

by Jean Roberta

For the past two weeks, I've mostly been reading student assignments. However, the two recent books sent to me by Lethe Press are much more interesting.

“Almost five years ago, right before I turned fifteen, people stopped asking what I wanted to be when I grew up because it was obvious I wasn’t going to. That’s when I got my diagnosis. Acute blah-blah-blah leukemia. That’s what I heard, anyway. The words that doctors use in these situations have way too many syllables making them almost impossible to remember.”

This is how Jake Margate, the narrator of Never Rest by Marshall Thornton, introduces himself. According to the blurb on the back of the book, this YA novel is a version of Frankenstein. The comparison seems apt, but this modern version is both more and less horrifying than the original.

Jake has gone through years of nauseating, exhausting, ultimately useless treatments, and he is ready to give up. So are his conventional doctors, who try to prepare his mother to accept her only child’s impending death.

Jake’s mother is a key character, and she is determined not to accept the loss of the son for whom she has sacrificed so much. She is divorced from Jake’s dad, who morphed from a struggling musician (before the divorce) to a software-inventer with a second family and a more upscale lifestyle. As Jake explains: “He had spares. She didn’t.

The narrative sounds completely convincing because it is told in Jake’s pitch-perfect adolescent voice. He can’t hate either of his parents, although he suspects that his mom would like him to blame his dad for “selling out” and remarrying. Jake’s father has made an effort to stay in his life, but his mother has been almost fanatically determined to save him at any cost.

Although Jake tries to assert himself as a legal adult, his mother has had to make painful decisions for him for so long that she is not willing to give up. She moves him into a shady, isolated “clinic” run by Dr. Harry, who admits that his treatments are experimental and that he can’t predict how his patients will respond.

In this last-ditch facility, whose costs are not covered by any American medical insurance, Jake meets other dying young people, including a friendly boy called “Goth,” whose parents actually named him Goliath. Despite his name, Goth is abnormally small, and he has had cystic fibrosis from birth. He and Jake realize that they want to be more than friends.

After being given a substance called “Property Five,” Jake is assured that his cancer has disappeared, but Dr. Harry keeps anxiously testing his “vital signs.” At one point, the doctor pushes a protesting “nurse” out of the room so that he can restart Jake’s heart. No one gives Jake enough information about his condition, but he gathers enough clues to form a very disturbing hypothesis.

Despite the macabre plot premise, this novel is full of the black humour of a young man who has always been the victim of fate and adult power. The reader comes to care about Jake and Goth, and to hope a miracle will enable them to have a life together.

Nothing has really been resolved by the end of the novel, but Jake seems to have caught his mother’s determination, and he is not willing to let Goth die.

After Jake has given Property Five to his lover, he watches Goth open his eyes.

“’What happens next?’ he asked me again.

This time I answered: ‘I don’t know.’ I caressed his cheek with one hand. He was already cooling. That made me happier than I’d been in a very long time.

We’d figure it out. We were ready.”

The other book is an anthology of speculative fiction, Survivor. Edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke, this collection is about mostly young, resourceful survivors of extreme conditions. Some of these stories are post-apocalyptic, and some are about survivors of social or personal injustice.

In the space opera “Scream Angel” by Douglas Smith, “scream” is a highly addictive, hallucinogenic substance extracted from the oppressed inhabitants of a colonized planet. Trelayne, the central character, has a change of heart when he fully understands that his employer, the Merged Corporate Entity, is keeping him under control by keeping him addicted so that he will co-operate in committing genocide.

“On Abydos, Dreaming” by John Linwood Grant is another space opera that sensitively explores religious differences and the ethics of creating artificial intelligence.

“The Good Liar” by Steven Grassie is set in a kind of medieval alternative universe, somewhat reminiscent of Star Wars, in which a brilliant woman manipulates the men in power to avert an unnecessary war.

“Mold” by Eric Gern is a witty contemporary story about a mother escaping with her two children from a violent husband and a house with mold in the attic. Told by the son, the story shows why he would rather lock himself in a car filled with the unusual, ever-growing green stuff than let himself be taken prisoner by his belt-wielding father. In the end, the mold functions like karma.

“A Stitch in Time” by Canadian writer Tonya Liburd is a heartbreaking story of another abused young man who can’t accept the sudden death of his girlfriend, who seemed like the only person who could really love him. He buys a magic spell that enables him to go back in time to a concert where he can make love to her, over and over. Yet the present contains possibilities, and he has to make a choice.

Limited time and space don’t allow me to summarize all sixteen stories in this anthology, but they are all well worth reading. When conditions are extreme, fictional characters show more strength and creativity than they knew they had.


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Closing the Door on The Superfluous Man: Eugene Onegin, a post by @GiselleRenarde.
I’m proofreading and I’m obsessed. Obsessed with turning this book I wrote into the best piece of writing it can possibly be. Because, you see, this book of mine has been years in the making.

It’s a contemporary adaptation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a tale I’ve been into since I was a teenager. That’s when I first heard Tchaikovsky’s operatic version on the radio. Instantly, it became my favourite opera. And it still is. The Canadian Opera Company is mounting a production this fall—a Met production I’ve seen twice on TV and once live… with obstructed view, granted—and I’m going to have to scrounge up a ticket somehow. Just one. I WILL go to the opera alone. I’ve done it before.

Tchaikovsky didn’t even refer to this opera as an opera. I think he called it “lyrical scenes” or something. Which is just as well, considering the work it was based on was a verse novel rather than prose. The whole thing rhymes.

I’ll admit something shameful, here: it’s been 20 years since I read the original Pushkin (in English, not in Russian—I’m not that impressive). When I wrote my adaptation, I shaped it by basically laying my words over the structure of the opera. I had the libretto open beside my computer and I even went line by line, at times, creating this new version. Mine does diverge from the original in many ways, but not in form. When it comes to structure, I need all the help I can get. It’s always been my weak point, so I’m not afraid to steal from opera.

Maybe I should tell you what Eugene Onegin is all about. I think of the story as being popular because I’m aware of it, but I also woke up this morning with a song in my head from a 1992 episode of Jeeves and Wooster because I’ve watched it 6 times this week. This might be niche knowledge. I just don’t know anymore.
The best summary I’ve heard of Pushkin’s story comes from the introduction to the 1979 translation by Charles Johnston and it goes like this: “Tatyana falls in love with Onegin and nothing comes of it. Then he falls in love with her and nothing comes of it. End of novel.”

Sounds like quite a romp, doesn’t it?

But it’s full of angst, and that’s probably why I loved this story as a teenager. I believe it was Turgenev who referred to the character of Eugene Onegin (and those of his ilk) as The Superfluous Man. He’s got money, but it doesn’t make him happy. Everything bores him. He seeks amusement in travel, in gambling, in women, but nothing floats his boat.

Tatyana is a much less cynical individual, but something attracts her to Onegin. She’s infatuated, pretty much in an instant.

I just realized I’m spoiler-ing this story for those of you who aren’t familiar with it. So I guess you could stop reading now, and pick up a copy of Pushkin’s novel… or, better yet, wait for my book to come out and buy that.

But I’m going to continue with my spoiler-y post, because this book was written nearly 200 years ago, so I’d say ample time has passed.

Anyway, Tatyana proclaims her love for Onegin in her famous letter scene, but he rejects her. Hard. He’s a condescending jerk about it.

Years pass. Tatyana marries a prince. When the Fates conspire to put her in the same room with Onegin once more, he decides it’s a good time to return her love. Now he’s infatuated and she’s decidedly not. Also, she’s a princess. Eugene, dude, all the ennui in the world can’t compete with that.

“Tatyana falls in love with Onegin and nothing comes of it. Then he falls in love with her and nothing comes of it. End of novel.”

So that’s that. Interest lies in these characters’ emotional experiences.

I began my adaptation of this work a couple years ago during NaNoWriMo, but I did something weird with it—something I’ve never done with any other book. I wrote my entire first draft as dialogue with the odd stage direction thrown in. I guess I did it that way because I was working from an opera, but also because the contemporary characters existed so strongly in my mind that I was just recording their conversations.

It took me years to come back to my first draft and fill in prose where it was practically non-existent. I wouldn’t recommend this process. Or would I? I’ve got to admit, the dialogue is very snappy, and I think it came out that way because I wasn’t stopping my characters’ conversations while I filled in dialogue tags and descriptions. I just let them run wild.

That said, writing the second draft was a considerable slog. I felt like I’d already written this book and why did I have to write it all over again?

As much as I enjoy this little book of mine, I’ll be glad to close the door on it, and the reason for that is a personal one. Nabokov said, of Onegin, “those most anxious to read a moral into the poem are apt to impose on it not only their own interpretation but even their own version of its events.” I’ve gone so far as to write my own version and, as I look back on the adaptation I’ve created, I can’t help thinking how strongly it reflects one aspect of my life.

I don’t need to go into detail about the man I was once in a “relationship” with. The married man who was my teacher, whose mistress I became. You’re sick of hearing about him and I’m sick of reflecting on that time in my life. I’m ready to close the door on that, too.

Well, I can’t help thinking how much I was like Tatyana, in my younger days. Wanting not only his attention and affection, but wanting more. Wanting a real life together which, thankfully, I wasn’t granted.

Ten years went by. I didn’t marry a prince, but I would make a terrible princess anyway. Plus, I’ve got my girlfriend. I’m happy with her. I don’t want my ex back. At. All.

So when he started sending me all these pleading emails recently, it grossed me out. Big time. Especially the one where he actually wrote the words “You are my bucket list.” Eww. Who wants to be called a bucket list? I shudder.

I asked my girlfriend what to do about this grossness. She agreed that responding was not the answer, since he would take any response as an open door to further communication. She said, “Why don’t you block his email address?” and I was like, “You can do that?!?!” I had no idea. That’s me and technology for you.

So I did it. Immediately. I closed the door on him. I blocked him out of my life for good, and I can’t begin to tell you how empowering that felt. I’m sure you can hear it in my voice. I was so done.

John Bayley, in his introduction to Pushkin’s work, points out that “Eugene Onegin not only tells its own story to the reader but tells a story which feeds the reader’s own particular needs.”

Onegin wants Tatyana back, but nothing’s going to come of it.

She’s closed the door on him.

End of novel.
UPDATE: My Onegin adaptation is now available and it's called TRAGIC COOLNESS. Buy it now! Or ask your local library to acquire a copy. Read it now!
TRAGIC COOLNESS is available from Smashwords:
Google Play:

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

What have I been reading? #brokenkindle #TheParkhurstYears #TellTale

I recently returned from two weeks in Italy. I had a wonderful time – sea, sun, sightseeing - but met with one major disaster. My kindle died on Day 2. Now, I do have the kindle app on my phone so could manage more or less, and of course there are audiobooks to fall back on. But my kindle… I was bereft.

I desperation I wandered into the book swap library at my hotel. You know the sort of thing, guests dump a battered paperback they’ve finished with and take something from the shelf in exchange. I didn’t have anything to leave behind, unless you count a dead kindle, but I availed myself of the facilities anyway. I found a Nora Roberts time travel romance and devoured that. It was good, the usual sort of thing. As was a Regency romance by Eloisa James. My sort of fodder, tried and tested.

Venturing off my beaten track somewhat, I also found Tell Tale, a book of short stories by Jeffrey Archer and decided to give that a go. Years ago I read and loved First Among Equals, Kane and Abel and so on, and I do like Archer’s story-telling style, even if his politics and attitude towards the concept of truth are not entirely to my taste. 

Tell Tale didn’t disappoint. It even contains a couple of stories that are just 100 words in length – no mean feat if you ask me – and one tale where Archer supplied alternative endings for the reader to choose their preferred one. No spoilers, of course, but my favourite of the short stories described a young woman hitching a lift who meets a most extraordinary elderly gentleman, but a close second was the inspiring tale of an enterprising young car park attendant.

I invariably write novels or occasionally novellas. I rarely attempt shorter stories because I find the need to dive right in to the action a challenge to say the least and I would struggle to round out my characters sufficiently to make them believable. In a short story every word counts, they all have to punch above their weight. Short story writing is a special skill, an art, and I admire it.

If you enjoy short stories, bite-sized chunks to keep you turning the pages, often with quirky characters or bizarre settings that do, in fact, mirror real life in all its unpredictable glory, you could do a lot worse than try this one.

My second foray into the unknown came with Bobby Cummines The Parkhurst Years. Bobby Cummines made his living as a career criminal in the seventies and ended up in Parkhurst for his trouble. This autobiographical account describes his life inside, cosying up with some of the most notorious inmates in the UK – The Krays, IRA political prisoners, The Yorkshire Ripper to name but a few of the most famous, or infamous.

Cummines describes his life as a criminal in a way which is chillingly matter of fact, seeing his activities as just ‘a bit of work’. Violence was nothing personal, just doing what had to be done. He expresses neither remorse nor rancor at the prospect of a lengthy spell behind bars, accepts it as the consequence of getting caught. He describes serving his time, mostly in Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight but with occasional spells in Wormwood Scrubs, Maidstone or Albany. Cummines tells how he set up a successful money-lending scheme inside and steered a delicate course between rival factions and notorious villains in an environment which was both brutal and incredibly violent. He became close friends with Ronnie Kray, and with Kray’s arch-rival in London’s criminal community, Charlie Richardson. They would pop around to each other’s cells for a cup of tea and a natter. Richardson encouraged Cummines to see education as a way out of a life of crime, and that was eventually the route he took to become an acclaimed charity worker founding an organisation which helps ex-prisoners not to re-offend.

The Parkhurst Years offers an intriguing, no-holds-barred insight into an alien way of life, a world view so unlike my own, a moral compass barely recognisable. It was both fascinating and chilling. I could not put it down.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Recently read: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon - #conspiracy #review #reality

Bleeding Edge cover

By Lisabet Sarai

It’s early 2001 in New York. Divorced Jewish mother Maxine Tarnow used to be a certified fraud investigator, until she skated too close to the dark side and lost her license. That hasn’t diminished the reputation of Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em, the firm she runs out of a small Upper West Side office. Indeed, she’s seems to be in greater demand than ever, by clients with tangled connections to various dubiously legal activities, and to each other. In the wake of the dot-com collapse, the city’s investors, entrepreneurs and hackers are all scrambling to save themselves. They’ll stoop to anything to keep their heads above water: embezzlement, drug-running, money laundering, weapons smuggling, even murder. They’re doing deals with crime bosses, foreign spies, terrorists and the Feds, losing themselves and their souls in real and simulated conspiracies, hiding out in underground bunkers and on the Dark Web, in the vast reaches of cyberspace where commercialism hasn’t yet penetrated.

Like a spider in its web, geek billionaire Gabriel Ice lies at the heart of these plots and counter-plots, pulling strings and making plans. All Maxine’s contacts — video-pirate- turned-film-maker Reg Despard, sleazy venture capitalist Rocky Slagiatt, Russian agent Igor Dashkov, crooked accountant Lester Traipse, neo-con operative Nicholas Windust, even Maxi’s best friend Heidi — are somehow linked to Ice and his paradoxically profitable company At the same time, Maxine appears to be a nexus herself, as these varied characters explode into her life, dragging her on midnight boat trips to vast harborside landfills, pulling her into drunken and drug-infused parties, convincing her to take a turn on the stage at a strip club. Mysterious USB memory sticks and DVDs are delivered to her, full of classified dossiers and videos taken by hidden cameras. As she struggles to make sense of what’s going on, threats pile up, people around her die or disappear, and finally, two planes barrel into the World Trade Center, turning it to a cloud a toxic dust.

I realize that as a summary, the above paragraphs seem pretty incoherent. I’m trying to capture the delirious, frantic, nearly overwhelming complexity of Bleeding Edge. This brilliant, funny, frightening book is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time, but it’s almost impossible to describe. What is it “about”? The raw wound in the American psyche ripped open by 9/11? The vanishing of the beloved and familiar in New York, and by extension, everywhere? The co-opting of the Internet and every other type of media? The gutted dream of freedom, personal responsibility, even personal agency? The nature of reality?

All of the above. Bleeding Edge casts a gritty, ironic spotlight on our times (and despite the supposedly historical references, the book is definitely a commentary on our times, not the early years of the century). Yet it has touches of magical realism, as Maxine catches glimpses of the dead and experiences the occasional revelation. It’s also hilarious, with acerbic dialogue and perfectly-pitched cultural nuance.

Maxine herself is a delight, a tough, smart, compassionate, sentimental Yenta who’s also a sexy MILF. Though disturbed by the chaos around her, visited by dark, twisted dreams whose meaning eludes her, she somehow remains centered. She takes shopping to the level of an art, knows where to find the best bagels, mothers her two sons without smothering them. At the same time, she packs a revolver in her handbag and hardly thinks twice about kicking off her shoes to satisfy a foot fetishist.

Let me warn you; once you begin reading this book, you’re committed. One review on Amazon commented that Pynchon demands your full attention. I wholeheartedly agree. The sheer number of characters means you’re likely to forget who’s who if you take a break to sample something else. I put the novel down for a few weeks and found I needed to start from the beginning. The book is not exactly difficult (though Pynchon has that reputation), but it’s so rich it may spoil your appetite for other fiction.

How can I summarize a rollicking, provocative, pyrotechnic masterpiece like Bleeding Edge? I can’t. All I can do is urge you to read it.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Eucharist Moments

There are moments in my life that stand out like shiny new coins. These moments are clearer, crisper. They’re full-blown,
high definition, 3D, and thoroughly enhanced. Amazingly enough these vivid moments usually involve the simplest acts, and yet somehow, in their simplicity, they encompass the fullness of being in this body on this planet at this time. And for those brief few moments, I feel like I actually truly GET IT. The sun breaks through the clouds and the mysteries of the universe are revealed. Then, everything goes back to normal, I go back to my routine and life moves forward to the next shining moment. 

I’ve always referred to these times as Eucharist Moments not because I’m religious, but because the original meaning of Eucharist in Greek is thanksgiving, gratitude. Because those moments are so complete when I’m in them, what I feel is thankfulness, gratitude that I’m me, and that I am even MORE me than I realize.

I remember one such moment when my husband, Raymond, and I were in Philadelphia. We had driven all night to get there. It was summer, hot, humid and thick. We were there for a very short time for a series of meetings, the details of which escape me now. But the Eucharist Moment is as brilliant as if it had happened only yesterday. 

We’d managed early check-in at our hotel, stashed our bags and went immediately out to explore. That meant we were out in the heat most of the day playing tourist. We didn’t have a lot of time, and we wanted to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Christ Church, walk through the Old Town and cram in anything else we could before the sleepless night caught up with us. By the middle of the afternoon, we were parched and positively wilted. We were too tired to go out for a late lunch so we stopped in at a small local shop and bought a box of Ritz crackers, a small jar of peanut butter and some Lipton teabags. Back in our hotel room, Raymond ran down the hall for ice, and I made tea in the coffee maker – a well-known practice among iced tea addicts everywhere. We poured the tea, still hot, over the ice into the small hotel room glasses. I don’t remember where we got it, but we had a plastic picnic knife. We ate peanut butter spread thickly on Ritz crackers and washed it all down with freshly brewed iced tea while we discuss the adventures of the day. 

I’ve had a lot of great meals in my life in a lot of nice restaurants and in a lot of amazing places, but I’ve never had one better than that one. The shades were drawn and the room was cool and quiet after the noisy heat of the street. The tea had that lovely crisp, bronze bite that only freshly brewed tea has, and the aroma of it filled the whole room. We sat with our bare feet kicked up on the coffee table, passing the plastic knife back and forth, spreading peanut buttery goodness on crunchy, crumbly crackers. We ate until our t-shirts were covered with crumbs. We ate until we were both replete and drowsy and happily, quietly amazed that we were actually in Philadelphia, seeing all the things we’d only ever read about in history books. Afterwards we napped sprawled across the king-sized bed, and when we woke late afternoon was leaning heavily toward evening, and we were ready to go out again. It was the simplest of experiences, and yet all these years on it still shines in my memory. 

The best writing is a treasure map of Eucharist Moments. Anyone who has ever read a story or a novel full of the grocery lists which make up every day life knows how boring that is, and how quickly we lose interest. Good stories that stay with us long after we’ve finished them, the stories we just can’t put down, are a stringing together of those Eucharist Moments, those moments of clarity, those moments of sloppy poignant full-frontal, in-your-face humanity, and pleased to be there. In novels, just as in real life, those moments are best when they’re hard earned and well anticipated. 

Not surprisingly those moments are as fabulous to write about as they are to read about. Whether we’re the reader or the writer, Eucharist Moments in a story are the next best thing to being there. They draw us into the plot in the same way they draw us into life. They are the points where the story reaches out to us, touches us and becomes a living, breathing thing. They may last only the length of a few words, and they’re seldom longer than a few pages, which is just as well because the intense purity, the clarity with which those moments shine would be too much to bear for 250 pages. 

The best writers, at least in my opinion, know how to string those Eucharist Moments together, leading the reader from one to the next, to the next, through to the end. Those moments are the guiding lights through even the darkest, most twisted of plots. They move us forward to discover what secret the writer has hidden at the end of the journey. If it’s well
done, the end of the journey is never really the end, but will rather create for readers their own Eucharist Moment, which will stay with them long after they’ve finished the book. The power of these moments is that each time we have one we’re changed. What writer doesn’t want to tell a story that changes the reader? 

This is just as true of erotica as it is of any genre. While stringing together sex scenes is not creating a story, sex scenes can often be those Eucharist Moments along the path of the story’s plot. They can be the moments of pure, unabashed joy. They can be the moments of clarity, of revelation, when the writer is able to give us a peek into the soul of a character. Sex lends itself to Eucharist Moments because of the vulnerability it demands, because of the exposure it forces. Those sexy Eucharist Moments provide places where the light shines through and the reader understands, yearns, empathizes, and experiences the character from the inside out. Then the journey of the story truly becomes intimate.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Joy is Where You Find It

By Tim Smith

I’ve always tried to be an upbeat, positive person, the Pollyanna in the crowd, trying to find the good in any situation. Throughout life, one of my mantras has been “It could be worse…”

Recently there’s been little joy in my life. Last month, I voluntarily left my post-retirement job as the editor of a weekly arts and entertainment publication. I still work for them from home as a freelancer and copy editor. The publisher turned out to be the worst boss I’ve ever worked under, a cross between Hitler and Atilla the Hun. I didn’t come out of retirement to be verbally abused every day, so I chose to leave. This came at the end of a summer that was so stressful, I couldn’t enjoy many of the things I typically do. We didn’t even get to celebrate the Fourth of July, because he refused to close the office that day.  

At first, I was relaxed and content. Then I began to miss the daily interactions with my former co-workers, with whom I have remained friendly. We got along well and made a good team, working together against the common enemy. Then, my life partner’s work schedule changed, resulting in a lot of double shifts and overtime. I found myself spending a lot of time alone in a big empty house.

One thing people don’t consider about retirement is that many of your work friends are still employed, and have their own things going on. When you leave someplace after 25 years like I did last year, among the tearful goodbyes are the false promises “We’ll keep in touch” and “Let’s do lunch.” Funny how these folks are always too busy to get together.

I’ve never been one who likes attending events by myself or dining out alone. I have done the solo travel thing and for the most part, I didn’t care for it. Even the times when I went to the Florida Keys alone, the aura wore off after the first couple of days. Times like those are when I tend to get myself in trouble. 

It occurred to me long ago that sometimes, you have to make your own joy, your own happiness. It’s important to do things that bring you pleasure, whether it’s writing, or watching a movie, or doing some project around your house, or just settling back with a good book. I had forgotten about these simple pleasures.

I finally decided to get out of my self-induced funk and rejoin the human race. I took stock of my situation and realized that I didn’t have it so bad, after all. Anything I perceived as being wrong could be fixed. I started keeping the same routine I had when I was working and forced myself to focus on writing. I reached out to a few friends and family members I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Social media, like Facebook groups, took on more importance and I reconnected with a few people from my past. A friend I used to work with included me in a group that plays trivia at a local sports bar every week. It turned out that those former co-workers actually had time for an occasional lunch or Happy Hour.

Sometimes, you have to be your own cheerleader.      

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Rediscovering the Joy of Writing

I write under several pen names. Some of my pen names even have pen names. (Like, for example, I write my young adult gay romances under the name “Dylan James”, which is the YA-friendly pen name for “Cameron D James”, which is in itself a pen name.)

Altogether, my bibliography, ranging from a few magazine articles, to a crap-ton of short stories, to full-length novels, comes out at 103 publications. I’ve got two more books pretty much ready-to-go and I’m in the planning stage for perhaps a dozen more projects, again ranging from short stories to full length novels.

For me, sometimes writing and publishing can be a revolving door of projects. I finish one and I quickly move on to the next. Often I hit the “publish” button with little fanfare, really doing not much more than simply sharing it in my newsletter.

I treat writing like a job — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that I sometimes lose the joy in all of this. I’m so focussed on getting my next project done and out so that I can move onto the project after that — and I sometimes forget to look at the milestones I’ve accomplished or to celebrate the joy of a book well-received.

(As well, it might be because of this sometimes lack of joy on my part that leads to very little fanfare on social media and very few reviews. I used to think it’s because I don’t flog my books. But now I think it’s that I don’t celebrate the joy of my books, so few people in turn celebrate that joy on my behalf.)

Last week was the publication of my first young adult romance novel, Gay Love and Other Fairy Tales. This was really a risk for me. Well, not a risk, but certainly a step outside of what I normally do.

For one, there’s no sex in a young adult novel. (Well, big publishers can sometimes get away with implied sex, but as a small press or an indie author, that’s a no-go for YA books.) It’s been years now since I’ve written something that didn’t include at least one fully explicit sex scene. It was … unusual.

It was also the book that we chose to launch my publishing company’s young adult imprint with — so it was the first book for Deep Hearts YA. If the book is a flop, then the publishing imprint gets off to a very weak start. It’s not impossible to recover from, but it can be challenging.

It’s also a brand new start for a brand new pen name — Dylan James. While it’s loosely tied to Cameron D. James, it is still separate. I had to build a platform in a matter of weeks without relying on my Cameron D. James clout — though I did try to flex that clout whenever I could.

Understandably, I was quite nervous about this book.

So it was with this book that I finally slowed down … finally re-discovered the joy of writing and publishing.

I got my first review the other day — five stars — and I’m currently on two top-100 lists on Amazon (teen LGBT romance and teen LGBT fiction). While of course reviews ride on the strength of the book, I can’t help but wonder if some of the success is due to me being joyful about the book. I talk about it on my Dylan James Twitter and I post about it on my Dylan James Instagram — I talk about it more than I usually talk about my books.

I think I need to do this more often.

I’ve also been talking a lot (especially on here) about my upcoming book New York Heat. I’m joyful about that one too. I’m excited to get it out and get people to read it. I haven’t felt this joyful about writing and publishing for a few years now. This is new. I like it.

I think I want to make this joyful attitude a regular thing. I should be excited about my writing and my books. Really, I am, but I need to show it more. If people can see I’m excited and joyful, hopefully they’ll feel the same. And that can only lead to good things.

Cameron D. James is a writer of gay smut. His upcoming publication is the (surprisingly smut-free) gay YA romance, Gay Love And Other Fairy Tales, under his YA pen name, Dylan James.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Joy Is to Happiness as an Orgasm Is to a Backrub

Am I overdoing this? Sure. But joy is an eruption, a boiling over of emotion and/or senses. Your cat may show pleasure, purring and rubbing against your leg, but your dog greets you with frenzied, tail-wagging joy. Joy may well up inside you until you shed tears of joy, or come with metaphorical blasts of trumpets. In the Christmas carol “Joy to the World!” the implied trumpets come with implied angels. “Merry Christmas” speaks of fun, of enjoyment, while the supposed French equivalent “Joyeux Noel” seems to up the ante with a wish for a high pitch of joy.

Joy and enjoyment are not quite the same thing. Enjoyment seems to apply to an extended period of pleasure. You can enjoy an entire concert, or movie, or book, or conversation, or meal, but joy is the peak of enjoyment, the height of the crescendo.

All of this is, of course, just my spur-of-the-moment opinion. Joy, like pleasure, or happiness, or contentment, is an entirely subjective matter. When it comes to discussing writing about sex, as we so often do, joy plays a large role, not just in the climax but in as much intense foreplay as we can fit in. Okay, yes, I’m contradicting my “peak” claim above. Getting there can be almost as joyful as reaching the goal.

I’d better stop trying to analyze the meaning of joy and just post an excerpt that demonstrates, I now realize, how much I overused the term in a scene that I should have edited more carefully. I guess I was having too much fun.

A bit of context. This is from my story in Delilah Devlin’s anthology Hot Highlanders and Wild Warriors, and it’s as het as het can be. As the Golden Horde of the Mongols pours across eastern Europe, the strong-minded Lady ruling a province of Armenia is entangled with the Mongolian Governor taking over her lands and people. Much strife ensues, until, just after she has saved her hunting falcon from his much larger gyrfalcon by shooting an arrow between them…

From "A Hawk in Flight"
Connie Wilkins

At first Ardzvik rode Yul, her long dark hair flailing across his body as she savored the exquisite joy of easing inch by inch onto his great length and breadth. Men were more like stallions than she had ever dreamed! Then he growled low, lurched atop her, and thrust deep and hard. Her hips arched upward to take him in still deeper. Her passage gripped him, yet let him slide in its wetness just enough to drive her to a peak of intensity close to madness. Sounds burst from her that were not words, and from him as well, until all she could hear was her own voice rising in a cry of triumph, her body wrenched by joy.
But Yul, she saw, when she could focus on anything outside herself, was braced above her on stiffened arms, face twisted, jaw grimly set, the cords of his neck standing out like tree roots. “I must…” he forced out the words. “I would not get a bastard on you!” He struggled to lift his great weight from her, to withdraw.
“Then you had better wed me!” Ardzvik cried. “I will have now what is mine!” Need surged in her again. She dug her hands into his clenched buttocks, gripped him close, and tightened her inner walls about his hardness until he had no words at all, only rough groans accelerating into a mighty roar. That sound, and the hot fierce flow of his seed, sent her into a second spasm of joy.
At last Yul rolled aside. She lay beside him, both breathing in the sunwarmed air as though they could never get enough. “I too will have what is mine,” he said at last. “But what of your priest?”
“Father Kristopor?” Ardzvik gave a short laugh. “I’ll wager that one will already have ordered extra candles for the ceremony in the chapel.” She lifted her head enough to rest it on his damp chest. “What of your Shaman? And the ceremonies of your people?”
A low chuckle made his chest rise and fall. “Much simpler. We pledge to each other outdoors under the Blue Eternal Sky, with respect for Mother Earth, and the Shaman chants such ancient songs and burn such herbs as he thinks proper. Each has his own ways. Then there is feasting, but that must be the same the world over.”
“Well then, we have made good progress already under the Blue Eternal Sky. But more would surely not be wasted.”
There was time, now, for Ardzvik to lean over Yul and explore his long, strong body, tracing the contours of his wide shoulders with her fingers, pressing her mouth into the hollow of his throat and feeling the vibrations of a moan too low for ears to hear, moving her lips across his great chest and around his nipples. She licked at salty traces of sweat all the way down past his belly to where his skin became paler and more tender. By then the sounds of his pleasure were loud enough to signal renewed arousal, already clear from the rising of his shaft. Still he remained unmoving, letting Ardzvik enjoy her journey.
The temptation to take him into her mouth was great, but she moved past with only a teasing flick of her tongue at the dewy pearl on his tip. His hands tightened painfully on her arms. She kept on downward along his strong thighs, heavily muscled as only those of a man who’d spent his life on horseback could be.
“Let me…” Ardzvik twisted so that she knelt between Yul’s widespread legs, gripping those powerful thighs and bending at last to savor the taste and feel of his hard, jutting shaft. His hips rose to thrust himself deeper into her mouth. She matched his rhythm, hearing the harsh sounds tearing from his throat, feeling them vibrate into her own core as though he touched her between her legs—and suddenly she needed him there more than she needed breath.  
She lifted her head. “Ride me!” she pleaded, rolling onto her back, and at once Yul was on her, in her, his thighs gripping her flanks. They raced together, soared together, until both shouted their triumph in tones as keen as any fierce pair of mating hawks. The sun, when they came to earth, was warm on their naked skin, and even clouds would not have diminished the inner heat they shared.                
The horse grew restive. The falcon, knowing there was meat for her in the saddlebag, began to make her hunger known. They could wait. Life would seldom be easy, peace was always fleeting, but nothing that bound together in joy the Lady of Aragatsotn and Yul Darugha would ever be a waste.

Ahem. Yes, one of those books with a naked, muscular male chest filling the cover image, except that in this case it’s a naked, muscular male back, with quite an artistic sword being held right down the middle. Very, um, tasteful. I do seem to have used my other name for this one. Just as well.

Note: I've been trying since last night to post this, and getting a "too many redirects" message. Thus morning I found a way around that, but the original problem is still there. Maybe fate was turning up its nose at the excerpt I chose. I probably should have gone with exhibitionist sex on a ledge in the Grand Canyon. That was joyful in its way, too.        

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Cure for Social Isolation, a post by @GiselleRenarde

I've had a rough couple weeks. Pretty common, for a depressed person. The difference this time was that I was started to feel socially isolated. I can't remember another time when I would have plastered that label all over myself, but it got so bad I started reaching out to actual humans. And I never do that.

I got in touch with my oldest friend. We have a close bond. I know stuff about her that she doesn't tell most people. I knew her when she was going through some tough PTSD shit. She knew me when I was young and foolish.

Now we live in different cities and we rarely see one another. We rarely even talk, but somehow that doesn't matter. The bond between us is so strong we don't need to be in constant contact to feel connected.

But sometimes I need support, and sometimes she does, and that's usually when we reach out to each other.

It was me reaching out, this time. We made plans to see each other. Unfortunately, the father of a friend of hers died, and she had to drive clear across the province for the funeral. We formulated new plans for when she'd be passing through Toronto on her way home, but the thing about my friend is that she has a very serious health condition and her depressed immune system meant she became quite ill and stuck in the small town where her friend lives.

So none of our plans panned out. I don't blame her, obviously. But that doesn't stop me from being sad that we didn't get to see each other.

Depression and social isolation mingle in this weird way where the isolation is crying out, "I want to see someone," and the depression is whispering, "No you don't.  You just stay right here by me."  It's so seductive, the way it holds you close and runs its fingers through your hair. Depression has such a good grip on a person like me. It knows how to keep me from seeking out solace in the social sphere.

Through all this, my girlfriend's been working her ass off getting ready for a charity event she helps to run. She called me one night when she'd planned on coming over and said she was just too tired.  She'd been doing hard physical labour for 12 hours. I understood.  But I was so sad about not being able to connect with anyone, not even my own girlfriend, that when she called I was just silent on the phone.  I couldn't speak. I was too sad, but I couldn't explain why. I literally couldn't produce words.

It led to a very unfortunate misunderstanding, which I couldn't clear up because... Depression. Sweet was upset with me.  She didn't know everything that had happened with my friend getting sick and all that.  She just thought I was being a selfish brat.

When I woke up Saturday morning (okay, afternoon), life wasn't looking good.  The only thing I had to look forward was picking up a hold at the library.  And, to be honest, sometimes I get really jazzed about that.  But not when Depression's got me in her grip.

Thank goodness for radio. It's gotten me through some really rough times. And not just the music, but the hosts too.

I was listening to an indie rock station, and the host was talking about how she'd been feeling really irritated because she knew the streetcar she took to work would be diverted. The route change had to do with King Street being turned into a pedestrian walkway during the Toronto International Film Festival.

The radio host said that, after feeling disgruntled about the change in her commute, she decided to simply leave the house early, get off the streetcar where the road closure started, and walk through the pedestrian section of the street. And doing so took her from being irritated that her route was interrupted to feeling elated by the buoyant energy of all these people trying to get a glimpse of movie stars.

So I thought... you know what?  I'm going to King Street.

I'll tell you something about me: I don't even like movies. I have the attention span of a fruit fly. I cannot sit through a movie.  Just ask my girlfriend. She's a movie buff.  But she has a movie friend who goes to the movies with her, because I just can't.

I didn't go to the film festival for the movies.  I went for the people.

And you know what?

It worked.

As soon as I got to King Street, where it was blocked off for pedestrian use, the energy all around was just electric. There were people of all ages snapping photos, laughing and talking, lining up to try samples of products.  Restaurants had spilled out onto the street. Roads became patios.

But it was the people that helped me shake this bout of depression. Their excitement was frenetic.  There were big screens set up, I guess to broadcast celebrities getting out of limos?  I don't know. I'm really not up on pop culture.  But just that sound of teens squealing, the general frenzy, the joy and anticipation--it lifted me out of the pit I'd been living in for weeks.

My girlfriend's volunteer event was only a few blocks away, so I walked up to meet her.  She'd been on her feet for ten hours by that point, but she wasn't too busy talk.  I was finally able to tell her everything that had been going on, and she said that if she'd realized all that she'd have cut me some slack instead of arguing.  We spent the rest of the evening together and it was great.  And a big part of the greatness was being out in the city, in these big crowds of people.

So the cure for social isolation is... people?  That seems a little too simplistic.

I've been thinking about those who are depressed and living in smaller communities. If they go out to a community gathering, they're probably going to see people they know.  The key, for me, was in being able to go out and be around people I didn't know. For me, that first step toward integrating myself more fully into the world is being anonymous in the world. Being around people, but being a nobody.  Enjoying the energy and excitement of an event without really being part of it.  I don't drive. If I lived in a tiny community, I'm not sure what I'd do.

But for those of us who live in active, vibrant cities, the cure for social isolation might simply be to find a crowd that's excited about something fun.  Steal that collective energy before it dissipates.  If you're anything like me, you need it.

It's funny--I was on the subway the other day and a man got on with his leg in a cast.  He was having trouble negotiating the crowd and I asked him if he needed a hand.  He thanked me, but said he was doing okay. He told me: "My motto is I'd rather have pain like this, that's visible on the outside, than pain on the inside that no one else can see."

I swear that man was reading my soul.
By the way, if you need something to look forward to every day, you can visit my Donuts and Desires blog every day in September for Erotica Every Day, which is exactly what it sounds like. I'm posting a different flash fiction story each day at this link:

Why don't you visit more often? heh

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

"Eyebrows": A Joyful Poem

Stepping from the shower
Without your morning clothes 
you are merely nude. 
Without your make up, there you are naked. 

Wandering the room unarmored,
 in your curlers is so much more. 
 Without your eyeliner
Is something more than without your bra. 

Your bare face is so tender without your eyebrows 
Your unpowdered belly kindles something so keen, so mortal
                                                                         It makes me want to fuck. 

Without your lipstick to meet the people you will greet
your unreddened lips are something more
Maddening than that hole in your panties. 

Your untailored hair aloft like wind blown weeds above
That unconsummated longing  in your bare morning eyes
As you bring me cookies
Climbing into the precious wild field of our unmade bed
Spreading, wide and green in the morning sun
Opening for a feast.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


Joy? What even is it?

I checked on Wikipedia (usually the fount of all wisdom) and came up with zilch. So I dug further and found a bit of information. Definitions of joy are out there, and they seem to focus on the source of the feeling of wellbeing joy brings. There is even a branch of psychology dedicated to joy which sounds useful, but don’t even get me started on the Christian definition. It seems to boil down to this - happiness and pleasure are, we are told, created by external events or circumstances whereas joy comes from within.

Fair enough, but a bit wishy washy and probably a matter of opinion anyway, as are most attempts to define slippery words. So, I’ve decided to fall back on reflecting on what gives me joy, I think it has to be people. People who matter to me, their company and companionship. People whose presence in my life I relish and can’t start to imagine their loss.

I suppose the list of people who fall into that category is not long, I wouldn’t have the emotional energy to sustain my relationships if it were. I’m not merely talking of people I like. I’m fortunate enough to have lots of those in my life, in the world of authorly things and in real life too. Friends who I care about, who I can rely on to answer my texts and lend me a tenner when I go out without any cash. Joy bringers are closer than that and I think I could count them on my fingers probably. My close family, my husband and daughter, a handful of friends who I love.

There are not that many instances of pure joy in my books. There are lots of descriptions of happiness – happy events, pleasure whether sexual or otherwise, people who get lucky or find their happy ever after. Joy is more than that, more intense, more grab you by the balls life-affirming. Joy is fundamental, soul-deep, a powerful emotional response when something fabulous happens.

This excerpt is from Red Skye at Night, a book I released in 2015 but I’m intending to re-release it in the next couple of months, with a sequel which I am working on now. It’s a story about two people who go on a journey together, a road trip with benefits you might say. They end up on Skye in the Scottish Highlands in search of the family roots of the hero. His grandfather grew up on a remote croft but left there fifty years previously after a family argument and never returned. In this excerpt, the elderly parents, now in their nineties, receive the news they’ve waited a lifetime to hear.

Back at the tiny bungalow, Ann-Marie insists on making the tea while we all park ourselves in her living room again. Angus carries the tray in, and we help ourselves.
As the clink of teacups echoes around the tiny space, Angus at last broaches the subject I’ve been dreading, “So, lad, ye spoke to Ritchie last night, I suppose?”
“I did.” Harry puts his cup down and meets Angus’ level gaze.
“He was surprised tae hear yer news, I daresay?”
“He was. They both were.” I note he mentions his grandmother carefully, deliberately, as though gauging Angus’ reaction today.
The older man just inclines his head. “I can imagine. An’ did he ask about us? Our Ritchie?”
“Of course. He was keen to know how you both are.”
A silence follows, the silence in which Harry should be saying that Ritchie sent his regards, that he wished his parents well, or some other message of familial greeting. There is none.
“He didna ask for our phone number? We do ha’ a telephone now. Did ye tell him that?” Ann-Marie leans forwards, her face anxious. “Or perhaps ye could let us have his number. We could make the call. I ken it’d be long distance, but that’d be fine, wouldn’t it, Angus?”
“Aye, lass. D’ye have his number, Harry?”
“He won’t talk to you on the phone.”
Angus heaves a long sigh. “I can understand that. It’s been a long time, an’ I had hoped… Well…” His voice trails off but he rallies. “If Ritchie won’t talk tae me, what about his mam? He’ll talk tae her, surely.”
Harry shakes his head. “Not just now.”
Harry’s phone buzzes in his pocket and he pulls it out to check the incoming text. We all wait, hoping it’s some reprieve from Ritchie. That he’s relented. Harry merely nods and slips it back into his pocket.
Ann-Marie launches in with what must be her plan B, “I’ll write tae him. He’ll accept a letter from us, surely. Ye could take it wi’ ye. An’ he’ll reply. Or maybe Sarah would. She’s a good lass. Me an’ her had ne’er a wrong word. Ye could ask her, lad. Ye’ll do that for me, aye?”
Harry smiles at her. “Of course. A letter might be a good move. But I won’t deliver it for you.”
We all three turn on him. Angus and Ann-Marie are trying to be reasonable, determined to remain polite. I have no such scruples.
“Why the hell not? You could at least do that.”
His raised eyebrow is signal enough that I’m going to be apologising for my outburst, but not before he’s made certain that I won’t be sitting in comfort for a while. Undaunted—well, almost—I open my mouth to resume my protest. He halts me with one raised finger.
“I won’t be passing on a letter because there won’t be any need. My grandparents can’t talk on the phone because they’re in airplane mode. Or they were. That text just now was from Ritchie. Their plane landed in Glasgow just over an hour ago.” He pauses as if to let that sink into the stunned silence. A slight smile on his lips, he continues, “They already cleared customs and baggage control and are now headed for car hire. What is it, a six hour drive up here?” He glances at the clock on the mantelpiece, which is showing ten past two. “They should be here by about eight o’clock then. Perhaps closer to nine. Then you’ll be able to tell them anything you want to say. Yourselves.”
We all gape at him. I’m stunned. I expected Ritchie to calm down and respond to his parents’ overtures, but not in so rapid and decisive a fashion.
Ann-Marie gropes blindly for Angus’ hand. “My boy? He’s here? In Scotland. He’s really here and coming home?”
Harry nods. “He is. And he’s not alone. Two of my uncles are with him. Your grandsons. And my mother follows in two days. My other uncle flies in tomorrow from New York. We’ll be having a family reunion.” He turns to me. “Should we invite Auntie Janet, do you think?”

Red Skye at Night, by Ashe Barker