Many Shades of Great: Sexy Reads That Don’t Suck

Bryn DonovanBooks37 Comments

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Sometimes I hope the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray will lead people to buy other sexy stories. Other times, I worry that it will reinforce the idea that good prose and sexy content are incompatible, so I thought I’d start a conversation about well-written steamy reads.

Sad to say, the classics have little to offer here. Lady Chatterly’s Lover is a drag, and while it was shockingly explicit for its time, it doesn’t seem that way to me – I can’t even tell precisely what kind of intercourse they are having at one point. Anais Nin enjoys a reputation for classy erotica, but her oeuvre includes disgusting stories about dogs and little girls. No thanks. Henry Miller was a pig.

Contemporary literary writers often do a horrible job with sex scenes. Maybe they’re scared of being sexy and therefore less literary, or maybe they just don’t have much practice. In The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen writes: “But from her underpants, which to his relief were delicate and sheer – distinctly gendered – an affectionate warm rabbit came springing, a kicking wet autonomous warm animal.” Wait, what? She birthed a bunny? I think the rabbit is supposed to signify the smell of her sexual arousal, but seriously, that is awful. The Literary Review gives an award for worst sex scene every year, and for 2011, Haruki Murakami made the short list for 1Q84“[Her breasts] seemed to be virtually uninfluenced by the force of gravity, the nipples turned beautifully upward, like a vine’s new tendrils seeking sunlight.” Oh dear God.

Here are some books I found both well-written and hot, though both of these are very subjective qualities. Because I like very emotional stories, I rarely read erotica and I read a lot of romance, so my picks reflect this. I’m sure there’s a lot of quality erotica out there.

 

Endless Love, by Scott Spencer. I had no idea this would be good. Mr. Donovan got me to read it soon after we got married. The hero, David, is obsessive and mentally unstable. He’s also really, really okay with period sex. Great prose.

 

Seize the Night by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Kenyon has written approximately ten thousand Dark-Hunter novels, and they vary wildly in quality. This is one of my favorites. Valerius is a great hero whom the heroes of other books have good reason to hate. Because he’s from ancient Rome, he likes doing creative things like eat off the heroine Tabitha’s naked body. There’s a strong emotional subplot regarding a guy named Nick, and Tabitha kicks ass. I also really like the heroine in Night Embrace – a flaky artist; I can relate – and Night Play, which also has great sex scenes, is notable for having a size-18 heroine.

 

 

The Leopard Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt. This author of Georgian romances creates interesting, not-perfect-looking characters. In this story, the wealthy landowner Georgiana, a clever lady with a sense of whimsy, and her steward Harry Pye, a “still waters run deep” kind of guy I adore, fall for one another. Issues of gender and class identity, and awesome sex in Harry’s cottage, ensue. If you prefer sex where people tie each other up some, you might like to start with Hoyt’s Wicked Intentions instead.

 

 

Cry to Heavenby Anne RiceCry to Heaven is a lurid, exhaustively researched novel about castrati in eighteenth-century Italian opera. I read it as a kid, and it’s one of the ways I learned about gay sex: “Wait, where is he putting that? In there?…Huh.” I will say that I’m not positive the protagonist, Tonio, is of legal age yet when he starts having an affair with his teacher, so fair warning. Tonio gets it on with a lady later on, so being castrated didn’t hamper his romantic life nearly as much as one might expect.

 

The Devil You Know, by Liz Carlyle. This was one of the first romances I ever read, when I was in my 30s – before that, I wasted many years as a literary snob. A smoking-hot and surprisingly emotional deflowering scene kicks off the story. I don’t usually like rakes as heroes, but Bentley is great. He’s got issues, OK? He is a supporting character in Beauty Like the Night, the precursor to this book, which is about his older brother Cam. The emotional story between the two brothers is my main reason for adoring The Devil You Know, besides the sex.

 

 

Ragnar and Juliet, by Lucy Woodhull. A bounty hunter and a sweet, handsome alien are made for each other in this snappy outer-space novel set in 2458. Original and hilarious. A sequel is coming out soon, so it’s a great time to check this one out! Recommended soundtrack for reading: Air’s La Voyage Dans La Lune and some Beth Jane Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny.

 

 

 

Island of Icarus, by Christine Danse. A Victorian-era inventor and a scientist are marooned on a desert island near Galapagos in this sweet, irresistible steampunk novella from Carina Press.

 

 

 

Rebel, by Zoe Archer. Speaking of steampunk, this was my favorite of the Blades of the Rose quartet. Astrid is a badass, and Nathan Lesperance, a Native American attorney in Canada’s Northwest territory, has a mix of fierceness and emotional vulnerability that I find incredibly hot. Catullus Graves, the black scientific genius who’s the terrific hero of the next book, plays a big role in this story too.

 

 

Hope you enjoyed my recommendations. I’d love to hear yours, too!

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Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.
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Bryn DonovanMany Shades of Great: Sexy Reads That Don’t Suck

37 Comments on “Many Shades of Great: Sexy Reads That Don’t Suck”

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  1. Avatar of The Unprofessional Critic
    The Unprofessional Critic

    Bryn, I’m just reading this now because it was linked in my post!

    Thanks for the recs. I’m always looking for more good erotica (and like you, I was a TOTAL snob about the genre until I was 30…and read your first book!). I love Endless Love, and I’ll have to try these other ones too.

    I also love Ms. Zoe Archer and am proud to call her my friend. And you too!

  2. Avatar of QoB
    QoB

    Ok, I got the Liz Carlyle book last night (bless you, Kindle) and while I enjoyed it, I want to put on record that I was expecting reunion sex on that hill and there was no reunion sex!! Why, gods, why?

  3. Avatar of Jessica Werner
    Jessica Werner

    I was just discussing this with a friend this morning!  My suggestions for well-written erotica:

    - Emma Holly: kinky, some M/M, some M/M/F, etc.  But sweet characters and re-readable.

    -Kristina Lloyd: harder erotica, I found her through tracking down all the stuff published under the Black Lace imprint (they do erotica)

    -Louisa Burton’s Hidden Grotto series is historical paranormal erotica at an English country manor.

    -L.A. Banks’ Vampire Huntress series has an ass-kicking heroine of color and some pretty steamy scenes.

    -Collections: the Herotica series, Wet: Aqua Erotica and More Aqua Erotica (those last two are printed on waterproof pages!)  Any edited by Susie Bright are going to be excellent.

    1. Avatar of QoB
      QoB

      I love Susie Bright’s blog but I’ve never read any of her books. Major oversight on my part…

  4. Avatar of anderscm
    anderscm

    such good timing! I always go to the library and come home with about 8 books, 5 of which I don’t end up wanting to read/liking. This gives me something to search for! yay :) and Gr…just searched my library system (which is pretty huge) and came up with only half the books. Oh well, any new books are good!

  5. Avatar of Linotte Melodieuse
    Linotte Melodieuse

    Well, Brynn, I’m glad that I’m not the only one who decided to stop being a lit snob in my 30s!  Then I started reading Anya Seton and it went from there.

     

  6. Avatar of Meg Bo
    Meg Bo

    I think her work is classified as Erotica, but I would recommend Megan Hart. Her books are really hot, but with excellent, complex characters that go through some pretty intense emotions. I would start with ‘Dirty’ or ‘Broken’  – or both!

    Thanks for the other recommendations! I’m trying to steer friends away from 50 shades, maybe this will help :)

    1. Avatar of Bryn Donovan
      Bryn Donovan

      I have heard good things about her and forgot about it! I would love to read some good erotica, as long as it has EMOTIONS, and I’ve heard she really does!

  7. Avatar of Opifex
    Opifex

    Thank you for all the recommendations! I usually pick up erotic short story collections because then if I don’t like a story it is usually over quickly and I can move to the next one. My latest acquisition was Carnal Machines a steampunk erotica collection. It’s been pretty good, with a few duds. The characters in the stories also come in a variety of sexual orientations, which is a big plus in my book.

  8. Avatar of bronwynm23
    bronwynm23

    I really enjoyed the steamy parts of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  One of the reasons I recommend it so much is that it spans years in the relationship of the protagonist couple (including the sexy times) not just the passion in the beginning.

    1. Avatar of QoB
      QoB

      Totally. I love that they’re in their 50′s (comparatively old for the time period) and still having the hot, lovely sex.

      (I marginally – marginally! – prefer Roger to Jamie.)

      1. Avatar of bronwynm23
        bronwynm23

        You should listen to the audiobooks read by Davina Porter.  Davina’s “Jamie” voice will make your knees weak and may tip the balance in Jamie’s favor.

        Kind of off topic, but I CANNOT get into the Jamie and Lord John Grey spinoff books.  I’ve come to the realization that the books just aren’t as interesting to me without Clare as a main character.  That was kind of a revelation for me since I always assumed I read romance novels for the male character.  Maybe it’s because most romance novels don’t have such an interesting female lead. :)

        1. Avatar of QoB
          QoB

          I think Lord John Grey is a relatively interesting character, but he doesn’t have the grand depths of tension and purpose that Claire and Jamie both have. Plus I don’t find him romantically interesting for obvious reasons:)

  9. Avatar of pixel
    pixel

    Cry to Heaven!! That brings back memories of the illicit, under the covers reading I did in high school. One of Anne Rice’s best, in my opinion.

    Has anyone read the Kushiel’s Legacy series? I don’t know a ton, but I hear it’s a pretty good, attentive treatment of bisexuality and BDSM.

    1. Avatar of Opifex
      Opifex

      I read the first book and disliked it intensely, but one of my friends was thrilled with it and read the whole series. Your milage may vary I guess. My main issue was that the main character comes from a race of people who are the most specialest prettiest people in the whole world and among them the main character is extra more special because she has been marked by one of their gods and gets pleasure from pain and everyone wants her. Also there is a culture of forced prostitution, but apparently it’s ok because the prostitutes are totally respected and it’s part of their religion and everything.

        1. Avatar of A wandering Jew
          A wandering Jew

          I want to stick up for the Kushiel series a little bit! Maybe it’s because I read it as a teenager and I hadn’t ever read a book with a bisexual heroine before, but I love the series. It has romance and sex and adventure and court intrigue and lots of little nods at medieval French literature, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Also, possibly TMI, but my copy of the first paperback has cracks in the spine from re-reading the sex scenes over and over.) I think it’s a pretty respectful treatment of sex work, too, although admittedly that isn’t a subject I know a lot about. It’s true that the descriptions of the D’Angelines as the most beautiful people can get a little over the top, but I do think that gets more nuanced later in the series because you run into a lot of characters who don’t buy into it (although the later books and series are sorta problematic because of orientalist tropes, unfortunately a common problem in fantasy).

          1. Avatar of Opifex
            Opifex

            When it comes to the sex work, I’m fine with how it is treated in terms of it being a legitimate and mostly respected career for the main character, I’m not ok with the fact that she never had a much choice about becoming a prostitute. She was born into the life and that was that. There were some vague noises about how this could cause problems for someone who didn’t really want to be a prostitute but that seemed to resolve itself without to much difficulty.

            I didn’t find the book to be completely without redeeming qualities. The sex scenes were pretty good, and the world while occasionally bafflingly inconsistent (rococo France is apparently next to a pagan 8th century Germany? And they are on equal footing in terms of military capability?) is still pretty interesting, and the low fantasy is done well. I would love to read some books set in the world’s England analog. But there was a little part of me that empathized with the not-Germans because the D’Angelines were just. so. full of it. And when you start rooting for the bad guys it’s probably time to walk away from a book.

            1. Avatar of Jessica Werner
              Jessica Werner

              the Naamah’s trilogy’s heroine is from the alternate England, but then she goes to alternate China and the Orientalist tropes fly fast and thick.  I loved the first trilogy but I have yet to finish the Naamah’s trilogy.

      1. Avatar of Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone
        Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone

        Second trilogy, she has risen to the point where the FORCED prostitution part is something she’s abolished. Otherwise it is done as a choice much as many religious orders. However, when she was young (the first book or two) it was allowed for a parent to pledge their child into service to pay debt or something.

        Honestly, the vaguely caste system ish issues bothered me more, but are addressed if you read the full series, as are some of the race issues- there’s an equivalent to the Romani that face similar persecution which is eventually dealt with. Also, the non-racial ethnocentricity gets dealt with a bit in the second and third books, and most definitely in the second trilogy as well.

        While the society is fucked up on multiple levels, there is recognition of the fucked up ness at various points as the protagonists slowly grow to recognize them. Just like real people, they don’t realize certain things are fucked up until they grow and experience more of the world- at which point they do. I think that is something I found impressive, how subtle and true the experience of changing perspective and cultures felt.

        Spoilers below:

         

        The third book has them widely travelling and involves some complex emotional issues. Since it also deals with sexual slavery, child sexual slavery, and the psychological fall out of those things I do think it deserves a massive trigger warning. But it does treat it as evil- and some of the emotional conflict in the later part of the book comes from dealing with the fall out of it.

        I was very. . . I don’t know, appreciative of how it dealt with the conflict of being aroused during sexual assault and rape, which is usually dealt with in a way that ignores the interior conflict in order to either demonize the victim or to have an opportunity for a third party to swoop in and tell the victim blamers to go fuck themselves. Here it looked almost exclusively at the internal experience, with the external as just a brace. Maybe this was facilitated by being primarily surrounded by other victims, maybe not.  But the protagonist’s self-disgust and the beginnings of her healing from that was. . . it was good to read, even as it was difficult.

        The first book in the second trilogy has one of the child victims of the third book, but grown into a man. It deals rather extensively with how being a survivor of sexual slavery as a child impacts numerous facets of his life, even ones that people normally don’t think of. That he’s a survivor underlays a lot of things, and his learning to balance that without trying to deny the impact is the core emotional tale. (there’s lots of plots and politics and stuff too, don’t worry.)

  10. Avatar of Sara Habein
    Sara Habein

    You know, I never read much erotica until Cleis Press started sending me a lot of their stuff for review, after I requested the more journalistic Best Sex Writing 2012. Not every story in their books is the ideal combination of good writing + sexytimes, but overall, it’s pretty good. It’s fairly equal opportunity in that they seem to have a book for whatever person/style/activity is for you, which is nice to see.

      1. Avatar of Sara Habein
        Sara Habein

        Sure!

        I’ll have reviews of two more of their books up on my site soon. I’m rather behind on my reviews lately. But hopefully those will be up within the next week or so.

  11. Avatar of Crystal Coleman
    Crystal Coleman

    I got Ragnar and Juliet from Amazon when it was on sale a month or so back, but haven’t started reading it yet. This recommendation is definitely bumping it up the list.

  12. Avatar of Angie
    Angie

    Thank you so much for this list.  I was asked to be in a book club and the book to read is 50 Shades of Grey.  I generally eschew anything that is mainstream ( not a conscious decision, just years of pretending I am cooler than others).  Everyone I know has read the book and says it is steamy, and I am sure I will read it, but now, now I am armed with other books that could be just as fun to read and discuss, so thank you for your research!

    1. Avatar of Crystal Coleman
      Crystal Coleman

      I was just at a book club last night where we discussed it and, possibly because it’s the greatest group of ladies to begin with, the discussion was great! No one really thought it was a well written book, but we all agreed that it was at least somewhat enjoyable.

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