Thursday, June 27, 2013

Suite Encounters edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

Suite Encounters: Hotel Sex Stories
edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

In more than one magazine article or online advice post, I've seen writers suggest that, if one is having trouble with their usual sex life, that they try mimicking the hotel room environment at home. No laundry laying around, no family photos — as much as possible, make the bedroom as utilitarian and not “you.” The idea is that the blank slate will take you out of your regular life and open up new possibilities, and perhaps — no, hopefully — that will translate into super hot sex.

Let's be real; hotel sex is pretty great. One does not have lingering thoughts like, Did I pull dinner out of the freezer? or Is the dog getting in the trash again? The articles often make the suggestion that, if the couple can afford it, checking into a room for the night can do wonders. And even if a couple's sex life is just fine, really good, or even great, a hotel room is a fun change in scenery.

Suite Encounters is an erotica collection that encompasses all sorts of sexy ways people make use of hotel and motel rooms, with a variety of gender pairings, sexualities, and scenarios. Ages, locations, and backstories vary enough to offer a little something for everyone, but not so much that the changes are jarring. Not every story was for me, but the book is one of the better erotica collections I've read.

The story title that intrigued me right away was “Air Conditioning. Color TV. Live Mermaids” by Anna Meadows. I live in a city with a bar that does indeed feature “live mermaids.” Did someone write about the O'Haire Motor Inn and the Sip 'n Dip lounge?


Ah, curses! Montana is not so much the desert. The story itself seems to be more about the novelty of someone who works as a mermaid. At one point, the woman says that the hotel uses salt water instead of chlorine because it's “cheaper,” but I'm not sure if that's true. Yes, this is a fantasy, and here I am fact-checking, but I guess that since I was disappointed that this wasn't the Sip 'n Dip and that the sex was written about in a more restrained way (when it comes to erotica), I noticed more things about which to quibble.

Speaking of quibbles and what we allow in fantasy — I really dislike reading descriptions of characters that feel like survey answers put into sentence form: “Six feet three inches of dark-haired, blue-eyed Australian hunk.” I do not fucking care how tall he is down to the inch. Does it make a difference in how he has sex? If this story is not about a height fetish, then it does not matter. That and rampant adjective abuse is a problem in a lot of erotica, and it takes me out of the story.

Let's talk about the good: “Soundproof” by Emily Moreton features a bisexual man who gets off on hearing a couple having loud sex in the next room. Bisexual men — full-on, acknowledged bi men who are not at all conflicted about it — are such a rarity in any media that this story immediately became one of my favorites. Moreton even uses the phrase “equal opportunity,” which made me want to high-five the page.

There are stories where the people already know each other, stories with strangers who just can't help themselves, and also ones with co-workers making business more fun. I liked that not everyone is a skinny, hot 23-year-old, and not every room was a swanky suite. None of this “Let's pretend we're rich and have nothing better to do.” Rachel Kramer Bussel has edited this collection well, and one can tell that it's a topic that not only excites her, but that it excited enough submitting writers to where Suite Encounters does not appear to have filler. Cleis Press puts out a shed-load of books per year, many edited by Bussel, and finding quality erotica writers that match the theme needed must be a challenge sometimes. Because of that, I'm always more impressed when the collection feels balanced. It's not kink-heavy for those who are a little BDSM-averse, but it is not free of kink either. Those stories are introductory Dominance and submission, if you will. Other stories are more “traditionally” romantic, and then there is the offering from Delilah Devlin, “Tailgating at The Cedar Inn,” which is all about the hookup (in a two men-one woman configuration, no less).

I can't tell you your own desires, but I can tell you that I liked it. The hotel room is a fantastic setting around which to assemble a short stories (erotica or otherwise), and Suite Encounters (if you'll forgive my word play here) provides above-and-beyond service.

Full Disclosure: Cleis Press sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

AKA... That Time I Met Johnny Marr

“I ventured into this place called Rare Records on John Dalton Street in Manchester, I went into the basement and I remember to this day it was like a sea of future happiness.” 
— Johnny Marr, MOJO Magazine (January 2009)

After seeing him play in Portland, Oregon, Johnny Marr held my hand, and I told him about my novel. I told him how he had helped me write it, and in that moment, I felt the world ahead open up in that surreal and blinding way when everything seems possible. Here's how it happened:

April 16, I took the #9 bus to The Aladdin Theater. Inside, I could hear Marr sound-checking “The Right Thing Right,” and I lingered around back near his bus and thought about what I might say to him. Coming just six months from meeting Noel Gallagher in the same city, my brain had convinced itself that if I could meet one of my favorite people in the world, then surely one more would be no trouble. A man standing nearby, a fan, told me that Johnny had arrived not long before and told him that he was “running behind.”

That's fine, I thought. No point waiting in line out front when I can hear music from this spot. Eventually, the opening band, Alamar, wandered inside for their turn, and another man (who I'd later recognize as Marr's drummer), came out to retrieve something from the bus. We all nodded hello.

Once inside, I managed to walk right up to the front of the stage. Though there was a sizable open floor area, much of the crowd chose to use the theater's seats. I don't know if it was because the crowd skewed older — and therefore, they were more immune to the charms of front-row gig-experiences — but like hell was I going to grab a seat. Forget the sciatica, the burgeoning head cold, and the blister on my heel that plagued my day — On this evening, my body could pretend to have the same boundless pit energy I had at sixteen. This was Johnny Fuckin Marr, and the swirling brilliance of rock 'n roll can heal all.

Alamar's set was pretty good. The two women played alt-fuzz-rock, if you'll forgive the multiple hyphens in trying to describe them. Guitar, bass, laptop drum machine.

Oh, but then … Then out walked Johnny. He is a rather pint-sized man — probably around 5'6” and a size small — and he did this hip-swaying move while playing that was dead sexy. He engaged the crowd, walked around stage a bit, and when he played Smiths songs like “Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before” and “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” I may have temporarily died from happiness. Though he played much of his album and those few Smiths songs, he also did one Electronic song. The encore brought us “I Fought The Law” and “How Soon Is Now?” where I died all over again. I cheered, danced and sang my ass off during the whole gig, tiredness be damned.

Johnny Marr playing "Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before"
Along with a few of the other people I'd spoken to in the crowd, I made my way to the back entrance of the building and waited once more for Johnny to arrive. I'd been preparing myself — None of this blurting out the first thing that come to mind! About three people were ahead of me once he did come outside, and I waited calmly, ready.

When it was my turn, I held out my hand. “Hi, I'm Sara,” I handed him my CD and my purple Noel Gallagher-used Sharpie. “I came prepared.”

He smiled. “Is that Sara with or without an H?”

My brain made various nonsensical !!!!!! thoughts.

“No H.”

“Are you from Portland, Sara?” He looked up from signing the CD, and it became very clear that when Johnny Marr is talking to a person, he is talking only to that person. No hurrying me along.

“No, I'm from Montana.”

“Montana!” People are always impressed by Montana as though it's Mars.

“Yeah, I got in on the train this morning. And, I have to tell you something.”

“Yeah? What's that?”

Johnny Marr“Something you said in an interview about Rare Records in Manchester helped me write a part of my novel.”

At this, he brightened up considerably. “Really? What did I say?”

“You said you'd go down into the basement — ”

“With all the singles, that's right!” Full on grinning now.

“Yes, and when you'd take the new records home and listen on headphones in the dark, that you knew you were going on a little journey.”

“Wow. I was just a kid.” He grabbed my right hand and held it there in his. We stared at each other, after I took the half-second to glance down and confirm that, Yes, Johnny Marr had willingly and excitedly grabbed my hand, before he said, “That is so wonderful that something that was so important to me so many years ago made a connection with you now.”

“You were tremendously helpful,” I said. “Really.”

I realized that the line behind me was getting anxious to have their own moment. “I won't monopolize more of your time,” I said, “but … you have my Sharpie.”

Johnny Marr setlistI took my signed CD and my Noel Gallagher/Johnny Marr purple Sharpie and stepped aside so the woman behind me, Jane, could talk to him. She'd asked me before I spoke to him if I would take their picture when it was her turn. He agreed to a photo, and she says to both me and Johnny, “Can we move into the light? Here, move over here.”

She directed us closer to the lighted area by the stage door. “Jane is a bit bossy,” he said, laughing.

I took a photo, but it was a bit blurry — probably because my insides were still all !!!!!! They had a conversation about the buttons/badges on her coat, and she gave him one that her friend made. While they were talking, I scribbled onto one of my business cards, You helped me write my novel.

“I don't have a pen for you to sign anything,” she said to him.

“Oh, here.” I handed her my Sharpie, along with her phone. To Johnny, I gave the card. “So when the book is out in the world and you see it, you'll remember who I am, maybe.”

“Sara is prepared!” he said. “Thank you.”

After signing one of Jane's buttons, she and I started to walk away when he called out, “Good luck with your novel, Sara.”

And then I died again — But not before I answered, “Thank you!”

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Johnny. Even if the second time, I never got my Sharpie back.

I am so happy this t-shirt exists in the world

(View the rest of my photos from that night on Flickr.)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards exists within the lies we tell ourselves and the lies others choose to believe. In this stunning first novel, Kristopher Jansma has accomplished a narrative feat by making the reader embrace bewilderment and questions of identity.

To properly summarize Leopards is to run the risk of spoiling its magic, but our young male narrator has yearned for notoriety ever since his flight attendant mother would leave him waiting in the concourse while she worked, depending upon other airport employees to watch him. The boy would write and write, desiring great words that would impress those around him. By impressing them, he wishes to earn their love.

We think we know his name, and then we are not sure. The process continues, and the boy ages — “growing up” is not entirely the correct term, for he still has not quite figured out who he is, or if the love he feels for a special woman is a love for her or just love for love's sake. He and his best friend exchange stories, and though they are often in competition with each other, their devotion remains — until finally, their friendship breaks:

“[...] You project these fantasies onto us. It's fun playing the people you think we are, but this is where it stops. This isn't some story anymore; this is her life. And you don't get to do this. You don't get to.”
And for once I thought I knew exactly what was running through Julian's mind. He was out of his mind, of course. But underneath that was something else. Something I'd never seen before, but that had always been there, whenever he'd looked at me, from the very first day: he pitied me. Not in the same snobby way that he pitied everyone and everything, but because I had no idea who I really was. He'd seen me all along, like a moth fluttering repeatedly against a windowpane. He'd grown attached to me, gotten to know the pattern of my wings against the glass. I'd always been on the other side of it, though. I'd been circling out there for so long that I'd forgotten.
Our narrator lives many lives, meets many people, and he travels the world, but we are not quite able to sort the likely true story from the fabrications until we are further into the book. That's part of the fun. Jansma writes in such a thrilling, beautiful way that we are on the same expeditions, enjoying the ride. He makes us want to go wherever he has deemed necessary, no matter if we have adequate clues towards our destination.

Running through all these questions of self are the questions directed towards the craft of writing. At what point do we learn to disregard what others are doing? When do we learn to sit down and tell the story we need to tell? Writerly insecurity is no new topic, of course, but in this unreliable narrator's hands, I enjoyed the perspective. There's also a bit near the beginning that is the narrator's short story that also contains a novel excerpt. When other critics compare Leopards to Russian matroshka dolls, it's apt.

While insecurity and identity are indeed weighty topics, the novel can be very funny at times, too.

“You know, Julian asked me to spy on you. Find out what you were writing for this contest tomorrow.”
Julian was nervous about what
I had written?
“He said he read your story, while you were in the bathroom or something. The one about the flight attendant's kid? And that it was so good he started his over. And then he saw you'd started yours over, and so he started his over again. I swear, I love him, but he's completely insane sometimes.”
“Well, you can tell him I've got nothing,” I said moodily. “Tell him to get a good night's sleep because both of my stories suck and I can't write another word.”
All of the emphasized words reminded me of the dialogue in Salinger's Franny and Zooey, which is fantastic.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is not terribly long for a novel, which makes it all the more amazing that Kristopher Jansma is able to weave together so much simultaneous information and mystery. I loved it, and I will eagerly await any other books he may release in the future.

Full Disclosure: Viking/Penguin Books sent me this as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Internal News as of 6-4-13

We need to do a mega-update of things I've been writing lately, in case you're not otherwise paying attention or have missed the posts on either Twitter or FB.

First things first: My review of Looking For The Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco (Mr. Inaugural Poet Himself) was published on The Rumpus. Somehow, three whole years had passed since I last had a review up over there. Expect that to change.

Recently on Persephone Magazine:

  • 30 Years of Music: 2006! Featuring Richard Ashcroft, Arctic Monkeys, Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins, Beth Orton, Gnarls Barkley, The Ranconteurs, AFI, Regina Spektor, Peaches,  Lindsey Buckingham, Cold War Kids, Amy Winehouse, Willie Nelson, Damien Rice, and Justin Timberlake.
  • 30 Years of Music: 2007! Featuring Kaiser Chiefs, Modest Mouse, The Nightwatchman, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Feist, Paul McCartney, White Stripes, PJ Harvey, Aesop Rock, Linkin Park, Radiohead, Blaqk Audio, M.I.A., Kylie Minogue, and Spice Girls.
  • 30 Years of Music: 2008! Featuring Adele, Glasvegas, She & Him, Flight of the Conchords, Atmosphere, Fleet Foxes, Jakob Dylan, The Airborne Toxic Event, Lykke Li, The Verve, Pretenders, Kings of Leon, Oasis, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, and The Ting Tings.
  • 30 Years of Music: 2009! Featuring Matt and Kim, Lilly Allen, The Lonely Island feat. Justin Timberlake, Doves, Manchester Orchestra, St. Vincent, Florence and The Machine, Kasabian feat. Rosario Dawson, Lady Gaga, Muse, Hockey, The Swell Season, Leona Lewis, Bat For Lashes, and 30 Seconds to Mars.
  • 30 Years of Music: 2010! (Shorter one this time around because 2010 and my tastes/familiarity had less in common.) Featuring The Dead Weather, Goldfrapp, Janelle Monáe feat. Big Boi, Apocalypta feat. Gavin Rossdale, Cold War Kids, Gorillaz feat. Gruff Rhys and De La Soul, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Laura Marling, The Black Keys and an extra special version of Ke$ha. Really.
  • Lit Mags I Have Known: A Short Guide
  • Get in My Belly: Homemade Peanut Butter Cups: SO GOOD.
  • Get in My Belly: Black Bean Rice Salad with Mango: ALSO SO GOOD.
  • We Try It: Making Granola: Don't be like me and burn part of it.
  • We Try It: Pumpkin French Toast Bake: Mixed results, but not bad.
  • Book Review: Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho: Now also appearing at P-Mag.

And I've actually been updating at Word Riot, so here are the latest Notes From Elsewhere:

  • May 3rd: Jumbo Edition: featuring Bethany Prosseda, book arts, Cheryl Strayed, Deborah Copaken Kogan, Elif Batuman, Emily Temple, Fiona Maazel, Jenny Lawson, Jonathan Franzen, Kevin O'Cuinn, Len Kuntz, Matt Haig, Mel Bosworth, Roger Ebert, Tabitha Blankenbiller, Timmy Waldron, Tom Sheehan, Tyler Adam Smith, and Wil Wheaton.
  • May 10th: Regular Friday Edition: featuring Aimee Phan, Chloe Caldwell, Claire Messud, Elliott Holt, Harper Lee, J. Robert Lennon, Julia Fierro, Laura Stanfill, Maureen Johnson, Quinn White, and Robin Desser.
  • May 17th: Friday, I'm in Love Edition: featuring Aaron Gilbreath, Bart Schaneman, Bill Murray on Gilda Radner, Cheryl Strayed, Claire Messud, Courtney Maum, J.K. Rowling, Jennifer Egan, Katherine Rowland, Matt Thomas, and Rachel Friedman.
  • May 25th: Long Weekend Edition: featuring more Aaron Gilbreath, Barbara Westwood Diehl, Cleolinda, Eve Bridburg, Jessica Francis Kane, Jessica Probus, John Scalzi, Kindle Worlds, literary drinks, and Nancy Rommelmann.
You would think that there would be one for May 31st or June 1st, since I was so good about updating. You would be wrong. Sorry.

This many gerbillion links later.... I do believe that is all for now. Ta.

Monday, June 3, 2013

This Close: Stories by Jessica Francis Kane

This Close: Stories
by Jessica Francis Kane

Not many short story collections are entirely wonderful. One or two stories, while not necessarily un-enjoyable, usually feel like filler. And yet, Jessica Francis Kane's new collection, This Close, is quite near perfect. It left me wishing for one more story, which likely means that the length of the book is exactly right. Twelve stories, some related and some standalone, navigate the yearning for connection and the complex interior lives that we all have. 

From the start, we have characters wrapped up in affection mixed with misunderstanding and obligation. In “Lucky Boy,” Henry develops an odd relationship with his dry cleaners, two Korean woman who may or may not be sisters, who end up foisting upon him the boy who sits there with them. He takes the boy to the park where they play catch for a little while before he returns him to the dry cleaners.

“You don't have to do this,” he said as we headed out of the park.
“Do you want to?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Do you want to?”
I shrugged. We were a pair.
“Do you like baseball?” I said after a minute.
“They want me to have more friends.”

In the next story, “American Lawn,” Pat feels a compulsion to compete with her neighbor Janeen, especially when it comes to the attention of a local gardener, Kirill. Kirill is using part of Pat's lawn for a vegetable patch, but it is his own plot — Pat is just letting him use the space, so he is not “her” gardener. And yet … 

One story, “Lesson” is just a few paragraphs long, and we don't know of its greater significance until later in the book. 

“Evidence of Old Repairs” is a lovely story about a woman's relationship with her teenage daughter, and the vacation they take to London, but it's also about so much more. Kane shifts the narrative back and forth through time in an affecting way, managing to fit a lot of history into twenty pages. Her way of setting the scene is also excellent:

The morning of their last full day was still and white. A low mist the color of the sky skirted the trees in the park. It was warmer than it had been all week and smells from blocks away — fish, burning coffee, diesel fumes — hung in the air pockets. The surface of the water was glassy, the wake of a single coot rippling in long lines undisturbed. Walking past the Italian fountains, which were not yet running, Sarah felt that sounds, too, were attenuated. Somewhere in the distance she heard the noise of construction, and she walked carefully, listening to her shoes on the path.

Even when her characters are distressed, when the stories are told in the third person, there's still a serene quality to the writing. We are looking in, and though their troubles are understandable, it's different than being immersed in what they are feeling. This is not a bad thing; it's just a different way of experiencing a story.

However, when the character becomes “I,” the effect can be devastating. Without spoiling anything, “Next in Line” certainly achieves an emotional wallop, and I felt the anxiety acutely in “The Essentials of Acceleration.”

To make a comparison, the third person stories were like watching a good movie, where the entire time I was conscious of its eventual end. That's not to say any of the stories were predictable — remember, I said a good movie — but that my investment was more of the “outside looking in” variety.

The first person stories were more akin to a good television show, where I felt more “in it” and attuned to the characters' feelings. Because we're in their heads, we only know what they know, and it's easier to forget that it will end somehow.

I must admit that I read this book several months ago, and it is only because I've been slow about everything in general lately that I've not talked about This Close until now. Though it was released at the beginning of March, I told myself that being slow worked out because May was Short Story Month, after all, and wouldn't it be more thematic to have the review up then? Well, it's now June, and here I am, but no matter — This Close is an excellent book no matter when you read it. Even if you're not normally a short story collection reader — which, what's up with that? — this book is worth your attention.

Full Disclosure: Graywolf Press provided me with an uncorrected proof for review, so my excerpts may differ slightly from the finished edition. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.