E. M. Hillwood, Just Say What's on Your Mind (BookSurge, 2008)
Erotica is a very interesting field these days. Even while it's exploding in popularity, both in the self-publishing world and the major labels (who would have imagined even ten years ago that my local Half Price Books would have an entire section dedicated to what they euphemistically call "erotic romance"? And that I'd be able to get Jaid Black and Megan Hart books there? [I grant you, it's two shelves' worth. BUT STILL.]), it's actually increasing in quality. I find myself utterly befuddled by this, since almost by definition the more of a genre that's getting written, the more of it's going to suck. (To cross this hypothesis over to a different medium, consider radio-friendly pop. For every Michelle Branch, there are ninety-nine Christina Aguilera clones. Not that I'm going to name *cough*Pink*cough* names or anything.) But it's almost uncanny in my recent adventures in Kindle porn, excluding those idiotic collections of newsgroup postings some poor fool tried to pass off as a short story collection: the more recent the work I'm reading, the better it is, quality-wise at least. All of which is a preface to my saying that while I had a number of problems with E. M. Hillwood's vanity-pubbed 2008 book Just Say What's on Your Mind, and it's not anywhere near the same ballpark as Hart or Black (or even the same postal code as Selena Kitt or Portia da Costa), it blows the doors off the stuff Olympia Press and Bumblebee were publishing in the seventies and eighties. Not necessarily in subject matter--I can't remember who said it's all been done before, but nowhere is that truer than in porn--but in style. For one thing, even the vanity-pubbed stuff today is better-proofread. (I find it interesting that the most error-free books coming out of presses like iUniverse, CreateSpace, and BookSurge are porn....)
Now, to get back to Just Say What's on Your Mind: there's a couple who've been married for ten years, Mike and Angie. They're still frisky, but family life tends to get in the way, and let's face it, familiarity breeds contempt. After some discussions, they decided tentatively to bring someone else into the mix, and meet the older, and somewhat mysterious, Bennett. Once they decide they like him, things happen, and all is well and good (save one problem which I'll get to in a minute, and it has to do with the author, not the characters). But as time goes on, things get weirder and weirder--and eventually Mike realizes that maybe everything's not quite as equitable as he thinks it is, leading Mike and Angie to seriously re-evaluate their relationship. Things go even farther downhill when Mike's ex-fiancee, a schemer who may have ulterior motives for getting involved, comes back on the scene.
Okay, so here's that problem I referred to earlier. I mentioned the predictability of erotica, but that in itself isn't the problem, really. If you've read a handful of erotic novels and you don't know what you're getting yourself into, that's your fault, not the book's. It not for nothing that I call erotica "romance novels for guys". No, it's that whenever an author wants to convey "edgy", not in his writing but in character development, they all fall back on S&M. Come on, people, can you really think of no other interesting, outre fetishes to work with? It's not like you can't portray power games using other situations. But the S&M scene in the erotic novel is right up there with the messy-breakup scene in the romance; it's so well-trod and so easily done that no one thinks to go beyond it, save those who actually want to do something original. And to Hillwood's credit, he (I'm assuming Hillwood is a he based on a few markers; that would be a bit complex to go into, but I'll touch on one briefly next paragraph) does explore this in the subplot with the ex-fiancee, and more interestingly he pretty much gets it right. Which makes me wonder all the more why we had to go there. And I am perfectly willing to admit that's my own prejudice; maybe there's so much S&M in erotica because there really is that much of a market for it. I've always found it a bit off-putting, so judge accordingly. Your mileage may, and probably will, vary.
Okay, there are more things than one that make me strongly suspect Hillwood is male, but since I said I'd give you one, I'll give you the real kicker. Have you ever noticed that most of the gay male characters being written these days are being written by women? That's a particular kink in the system I haven't gotten round to exploring yet, but I find it utterly fascinating (and don't just think erotica here; Poppy Z. Brite, for one, has a fondness for creating exquisitely-detailed gay males in her mainstream fiction, and was doing it long before it was cool; so was Kathe Koja, though she always seemed more drawn to lesbian culture to me, at least back in the nineties). Perhaps women are simply more willing than men to think about two males being, well, tender with one another, to scrabble for a euphemism I can actually use in an Amazon review. Hillwood presents us with a number of threesome scenes here involving two men and one woman, and the two men never touch. There's not even an accidental brushing of a bare arm on a bare thigh or the like. Now, strip away the fantasy aspects of such a scene in your head and think about simple mechanics; when you get three people that close together, the idea that there are two of them who will never touch is, well, kind of absurd. In fact, it's darn near impossible. Who would write it that way except someone who has a vested interest in not appearing bi (or gay) himself? Thus, a pretty clear marker you've got a male author. Which has nothing to do with the quality of the book, unless you strongly prefer your threesomes to be bi all the way around. Once again, that's a judgment call I'll leave to you.
As I've intimated a couple of times, when you compare this to other erotica, it comes out looking pretty good. But I rate things based on the entire body of what I've read, and so I have to compare it to mainstream novels as well, where it doesn't fare quite as well. But despite the seemingly low rating, and a few things that may or may not be flaws depending on your outlook, as noted above (and it's refreshing to say that all of these are surface, rather than structural, flaws), I'd say that if you're looking for erotica, don't toss this one away simply because it's a vanity-published novel; E. M. Hillwood may be no Jaid Black, but he's worth looking into if you want a change of pace from what you can (amazing!) find at the local Half-Price Books. **