February’s tales of lust and longing

Just in time for Valentine’s Day come two compilations of this year’s “Best” love stories for lesbians and gay men.

“Best Lesbian Love Stories 2009,” edited by Simone Thorne, is a wonderful anthology that presents 20 different perspectives on Sapphic love. The international roster of new and established writers showcased in this collection celebrate the risk — and reward — of not always knowing another woman’s intentions.

Perhaps the best stories in “Best Lesbian Love Stories 2009” feature tales of women who are friends first before becoming lovers. In “A Higher Love,” Mercedes and Ann act like “best friends on spring break,” before Mercedes has her first tender same-sex experience. Likewise, Jenny, the heroine of “For My Silly,” discovers that the love of her life — also named Jenny — was her best friend in high school. Even in the fabulous and immensely charming tale “The Felicity of Domesticity,” written by the amusingly monikered Allison Wonderland, two 6-year-old girls in a mock marriage consider the real thing years later.

Another highlight in the book, which also demonstrates the strength and romantic power of female friendship, is Jean Copeland’s terrific story “Jamie’s Journey.” When Dorothy discovers a former lover, Suzanne, posted their tryst on the Web, she teams up with Suzanne’s current lover Jamie to drive across country to perform “a well-executed bitch-slap.” Of course, Dorothy and Jamie fall in love in the process, but the predictability of this encounter is less important than the journey of these two unified hearts.

There are also a handful of erotic tales peppered throughout “Best Lesbian Love Stories 2009” that generate heat, such as “The River” by Blayne Mitchell, in which a seductive sharing of a mango is nothing compared to the juices that are generated between the two female protagonists during their intimacy. But even better is a sweet story called “A Promise to Love Her Fur Off,” in which the first person narrator catalogues the women she loves before she catalogues all of the things she loves about the woman she is with.

But perhaps the most significant list of qualities is the one Susannah, a history professor, identifies in Sophie Moette’s delightful story, “Food for Thought.” Susannah bemoans how difficult it is to find someone “who’s intelligent, articulate, engaging, reasonably good-looking and a lesbian on top of all that.” As “Best Lesbian Love Stories 2009” proves again and again, there is someone out there for every butch and femme.

“Best Gay Love Stories 2009,” edited by Brad Nichols, is a romantic anthology featuring 18 torrid tales. The stories range from comic tales of romantic misadventures to predictable yarns about workplace rivals who fall in love. Other entries present exquisite accounts of heartache, first love and erotic passages that may have readers blushing.

While many of the stories featuring lovers ending up together — despite (or because of) their differences — the best entry in this collection bucks this convention. It would be a spoiler to reveal the particular tale in question, but the author perceptively describes the moment when a teenager’s heart “throbs with a different beat.” This entry may be the most tender and touching in the entire collection; the bond that forms between the main character and the object of his desire pulses with longing that is simply beautiful.

Another winning entry is John Holten’s “Paul and Alex: Two Sides to Every Story,” a romance told from the couple’s alternating perspectives. The drama itself is unremarkable, but what is valuable about this gimmicky tale is how people who share an experience — or a relationship — each recall it differently, and how these feelings often overlap, even if the facts themselves are misremembered.

“Best Gay Love Stories 2009” often captures what makes men in love so romantic. Without being cloying or mushy, stories feature two guys holding hands in public in Dean Reynold’s “Callum,” or the palpable burn of a lover’s touch in “Jazz Moon,” Joe Okonkwo’s fine story set in 1920s Harlem. For the protagonist in Shane Allison’s erotic entry, “The Sandwich Artist,” it’s an erection that “throb[s] like a heart” and registers the love he feels for the title character.

The racier entries in the book have their pleasures, and writers David Holly and Jay Starre describe passionate activities with purple prose in their respective works, “Love Has No Ears” and “The Flower in the Gun.” But some readers may find that the naughtier pieces are too hardcore for an otherwise “romantic” collection of love stories. It may have been better to separate the PG and NC-17 stories into different volumes. The crudeness of Ryan Field’s “Bananas Foster” is off-putting compared to the sweetness of Lawrence Schimel’s “Stag Night”

One of the book’s sexiest stories, “Not Looking for Love” by Kenn Dahill, reads like pure romantic fantasy — a 26-year-old picks up a surfer, takes him home for food and sex, and then they share more food and have more sex. Yet Dahill charms the reader with his appealing characters and his engaging writing.

While much of “Best Gay Love Stories 2009” is as satisfying as a long kiss goodnight by a potential new boyfriend, one particular entry, Jan Vander Laenen’s “Fire at the Chelsea Hotel,” seems out of place. This work is a fine memory piece, but there is nothing very romantic about it.

Like “Best Lesbian Love Stories 2009,” “Best Gay Love Stories 2009” should prompt lovers to read the stories of love, lust and even heartbreak, perhaps out loud to each other in bed.