Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ by EL James

November 28, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

There are significantly fewer reviews of Fifty Shades Darker, the second book of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by EL James, than its predecessor. My guess is that the reason is the same as why sales of the trilogy have dipped noticeably after the first book: readers stopped being titillated by the erotica and got sick of the Twilightesque melodrama and bad writing.

As for me, after powering through the first 150 pages of Fifty Shades of Grey (review here) with ease and excitement, I am saddened to say that the rest of the series has thus far been a chore to get through. I began reading Fifty Shades Darker immediately after the first book, and even though I had a lot going on in between, it still took me a full four months to complete.

(By the way, this review is going to have spoilers for those who haven’t read the first book, so be warned.)

Fifty Shades Darker picks up almost right where Fifty Shades of Grey left off — the young, recently deflowered Anastasia Steele (based on Bella Swan from Twilight) is devastated because had just broken up with her young billionaire lover Christian Grey (based on Edward Cullen from Twilight) over her belief that she can never fully satisfy his sadomasochistic desires.

We were left thinking that the spanking, nipple clamps and anal beads were going to be a deal-breaker for these two star-crossed lovers, but for some inexplicable reason they are back getting it on by chapter two as though nothing ever went wrong in their relationship and all problems have been forgotten.

I don’t get it either, but rest assured that the young couple is less tormented by each other in this second book and more by external forces who want to keep them apart.

In a sign that James’s planning and structuring has improved, the story feels slightly less “roaming” and has identifiable story arcs this time. There’s Ana’s sleazy boss who continues to hit on her, Christian’s “Mrs Robinson”, the woman who “saved his life” but turned him into a freak in the bedroom, and some skinny-ass looney girl who used to be one of Christian’s subordinates and can’t get over him. These stumbling blocks appear intermittently throughout this 544-page (paperback) epic to offer some breathing room from the passions of the central characters and to inject some much-needed tension and suspense.

The writing is also generally better, with improvements addressing some of my worst complaints from the first book, but on the whole it is still messy and occasionally downright amateurish. On the bright side, James has cut down on her reliance on mundane email correspondences (that go on for pages and pages without purpose), the constant blushing, cocking of the head to one side and the repetitive descriptions of Christian’s unbelievable beauty — though I suspect the reason is because James got sick of writing these things over and over as opposed to a conscious decision to pare back.

Hanging around, however, the unbearable references to Ana’s “subconscious” and her “inner goddess”, which still drive me up the wall every time they start doing backflips and other acrobatic crap (which is probably at least a hundred times). They are not the same thing, by the way, because she sometimes refers to them both in the same sentence. And call me pedantic, but how can anyone be CONSCIOUSLY aware of what their SUBCONSCIOUS is thinking or doing is beyond me.

You can also almost tell from reading the book when James begins and ends a session of writing because she goes through phases where certain terms are used repeatedly and excessively. For instance, she goes through chunks of the book referring to Christian as “Fifty”. Maybe I’m being a dick here, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking it is endearing to nickname the love of their life a “number” representing their psychotic behaviour and bi-polar tendencies (well, maybe apart from 50 Cent).

Another interesting style change is James’s decision to cut back on the sex scenes, even using the “fade-to-black and skip to next scene” technique we often see in PG movies. It’s a catch-22, really, because when I was reading the sex scenes I was like, “Man, this is so boring and repetitive, I wish she would just skip it”, and when she skipped them I was like “Man, why am I reading this book if she’s skipping all the good parts?” — before realising how unfair I was being.

You can also tell that James has been experimenting after reading too many commercial crime thrillers. Bearing in mind that the series is otherwise told entirely through a first person narrative from Ana’s perspective, the introduction to the novel is inexplicably written in first person through the eyes of Christian when he was a child — and it’s an insignificant piece of information that gets little attention for the rest of the novel. Even more bizarre is the sudden turn to third person narrative for the final pages of the book, from the perspective of a character who has, up to that point, been little more than an annoying, inept nuisance, but is for some reason set up to be the major villain in the final novel. Your guess is as good as mine.

Strangely, despite all my bitching, I actually think Fifty Shades Darker is, on the whole, no better or worse than its predecessor. It’s a different kind of novel that does some things better and other things worse, is more consistent but has less highs and lows. The series has kind of transformed since the first book, much like a relationship. It started off hot and heavy but its mellowing and become more about the emotional connection than the physical one. For some readers, that might be refreshing, and dare I say, rewarding.

There are three problems, though. One, people started reading the book because of the erotica, and the erotica is not that exciting anymore. Two, the relationship has never been very interesting or believable. And three, the book is way too freaking long.

2 out of 5

PS: Yep, reading the third book now.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 10 (Part I): Say Hi to China’s New Leaders

November 28, 2012 in China, Travel by pacejmiller

Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and a bunch of other old guys

November 15

My Beijing trip is finally drawing to a close, and even though I as on a work assignment I intended for my last full day in the Chinese capital to be one of enjoyment and sightseeing.

But first, there was one thing left to write about: China’s new leadership lineup. Yesterday’s closing ceremony at the 18th National Congress saw the unveiling of the Communist Party’s new 205-member Central Committee. Today, the committee was going to conduct it’s first plenary session and “elect” the members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, effectively China’s highest ruling body. The new lineup would then be introduced to the media at a press conference at the Great Hall of the People.

The previous standing committee had 9 members, and this time there had been swirling rumours that it would be reduced to 7. Many papers had already “leaked” the names of the 7 members, of which five would be new members (only new party leader Xi Jinping and future premier Li Keqiang were returning as the others were all forced to retire due to age).

As I mentioned before, I was not invited to this event, so I had to watch it from the comfort of my hotel room. Like yesterday, the press conference began about an hour later than scheduled, but also like yesterday, there were no other surprises.

No one knows how the Communist Party really operates behind closed doors, but they did emphasize over and over that the members of the standing committee were going to be “elected” by the central committee that morning. And yet, the seven men who walked onto the stage in identical black suits and red ties shortly before noon were exactly the seven that had been supposedly “decided” by the party last month as reported by foreign media, including our own paper. Coincidence?

Nevertheless, I have to say I was very impressed with the speech given by new party general secretary Xi Jinping. Even with the eyes of the world all over him, Xi was cool and calm, and delivered a well rounded speech that sounded genuine and nothing like his predecessor, the monotonous cyborg known as Hu Jintao. Maybe China does have a bright future after all.

The great thing about the predictability of Chinese politics is that I had basically written 85% of my article before the press conference even began. And so within 15 minutes of the press conference finishing I had already sent out my 600 word article, meaning the remainder of the afternoon was going to be absolutely free. At last.

Movie Review: Life of Pie (3D IMAX) (2012)

November 27, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Yann Martel’s Man Booker-winning Life of Pi is one of my favourite novels of all-time, and so I was both excited and apprehensive when I heard that it was finally released as a movie more than 10 years after it was originally published.

One of the reasons why the film took so long to adapt from the 2001 novel is because filmmakers deemed it unadaptable and unfilmable, which was certainly the way I felt when I finished reading it. But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Oscar winner Ang Lee, one of the most skilled directors of his generation.

And so I’m glad to say that the film version of Life of Pi is a huge success. While it doesn’t quite make me believe in God, as the story’s protagonist suggests, it is probably as good as it could have ever been given the inherent difficulties in bringing this wonderful tale to life.

The adapted screenplay by Oscar nominee David Magee (Finding Neverland) turned out to be surprisingly faithful to the novel (as far as I can remember anyway). Told through the voice of the titular character, it tells the story of a young Indian boy who becomes stranded on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

The first problem, of course, is making the situation believable within its own context. The second is employing special effects that support authenticity. And the third, and possibly biggest obstacle, is to make a 2-hour film interesting when most of it is dominated by a single human character and a mostly-CGI animal incapable of dialogue.

To Lee’s credit, he overcomes all three problems with ease, or at least it feels that way. Lee’s Life of Pi comes across as a kind of surreal fable recounted by a skilled storyteller, enabling it to feel both genuine and fantastical. The special effects are seamless (Lee says his experience on the underrated Hulk made it possible) and I certainly could not tell when the tiger was real or animated. As for keeping the story interesting, Lee does so by lengthening the on-land introduction (though not unnecessarily so — it sets up the characters and the remainder of the film nicely) and by changing things up constantly so there is not a lot of repetition when they are at sea.

The performance of Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi is remarkable, especially considering that it’s the teenage student’s first film. He didn’t have to do it alone but he carries the film through its toughest stretches and remained convincing all the way until the very end.

Some have criticised the film’s preachiness about god/religion and its ending, but both of these things come straight from the novel. Personally, the ending was one thing about the novel that I truly loved, and I’m glad Lee decided to keep it in, though I question his decision to rely on strictly verbal storytelling as opposed to utilizing the visual. I can’t say much more without giving things away so I’ll stop there.

Granted, there are times when the film felt a little like a prettier version of Castaway (the one with a skinny Tom Hanks and “Wilsoooooon!”) and the story occasionally felt trapped in that little lifeboat, but on the whole Life of Pi is an enchanting, poetic and visually stunning experience that’s also unexpectedly moving and thought-provoking — even for someone who has read the book. Going in, I thought I’d appreciate the film’s aesthetics and technical achievements more than anything else, but I was pleasantly surprised by the emotive storytelling and engrossing drama.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: That said, I’m still not sold on the 3D, which despite my numerous vows I ended up paying extra for again — I thought only the introductory sequence with the animals, and maybe a few of the underwater scenes, were really enhanced by the 3D; the rest seemed perfectly fine in 2D to me. The extra large screen and superior sound from IMAX, on the other hand, was probably worth it.

PPS: I wonder what kind of film it would have been had M Night Shyamalan adapted and directed it, as rumoured earlier. That’s not bagging Mr Airbender — I’m genuinely wondering.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 9 (Part II): The Great Wall!

November 24, 2012 in Best Of, China, Travel by pacejmiller

The Great Wall of China

November 14

The Great Wall

With my schedule almost free for the afternoon, my plan was to visit the Great Wall of China. I had actually booked a car (for 600 yuan, including tolls) to pick me up from my hotel and drive me to the Great Wall and back, but the problem was that I never expected the closing ceremony to go over time and asked the driver to come at 2pm, meaning I only had an hour and a half to have lunch, get back to the hotel AND write an article and send it off.

By some miracle, I managed to do all of the above in time (a true demonstration of how determination can work wonders), and by 2pm I was in a Volkswagen heading towards the famed Great Wall of China.

There are supposedly three parts of the Great Wall near Beijing that most tourists visit. The nearest is Juyongguan, followed closely by Badaling, with Mutianyu a little further away. Badaling is the most popular and considered the grandest, and I believe it is the one I visited about 20 years ago during my first trip to Beijing. But it’s also the most annoying because of all the tourists and vendors and what not. So with my limited time in mind, I decided to go with Juyongguan, which is about an hours drive from the center of Beijing without traffic.

After a fine snooze we arrived at the Juyongguan parking lot. There wasn’t a whole lot of the Great Wall I could see from down there, and to be honest it didn’t look all that “Great”. It was just a long wall rising up on a mountain slope — I don’t know what else I was expecting. I paid my entry (40 yuan) and headed in. Apparently it is the beginning of the off-peak season so I was glad that there were hardly any other souls around.

The view form the parking lot at Juyongguan

One thing that surprised me was how steep parts of the wall was. It was actually a real challenge walking up and down those steep stairs, which took me all the way up and down various peaks and valleys along the mountainous terrain. The Great Wall is truly impressive when you can stand in a place that enables you to see how long it stretches for. It just goes on and on and on. And on and on.

I had supposedly entered the east side of the Juyongguan part of the wall, and from there I could see the west side, which looked even longer and challenging as it goes all the way up the mountain. According to Wikipedia, the Wall stetches for more than 21,000km, which is more than the journey from Sydney to Beijing and back. Considering the technology they had more than 2,000 years ago, and the fact that much of it is on ridiculously difficult terrain (not to mention how cold it gets in winter), it’s no surprise than an estimated 1 million+ people died while building it.

It’s a long walk

What really freaked me out were the stories that many of the bodies were simply buried into the foundations of the wall, making the Great Wall of China essentially a mass burial ground. That was when walking along the wall for about 20 minutes in the breezy cold without seeing another soul kinda scary (I was was ready to scream if I saw anyone dressed in clothes from another era).

There weren’t many people that day

Eventually, I came across a group of Hong Kong tourists, who were so loud that I realized the company of ghosts wouldn’t actually have been so bad. I was tempted to keep walking but I knew the later I left the place the longer we would be stuck in traffic on the way back. So after briefly checking out the west side of the wall, I decided it was about enough and returned to the car, roughly about an hour and 45 minutes after I arrived.

Chinglish is a lot rarer these days in government-owned places, apparently, so it’s great to see this

And this

Visiting the Great Wall was a strange experience. On the one hand it is just a really long wall, but walking on it and absorbing its majestic grandeur up close and from afar is indeed a powerful experience. It’s a unique place that infuses you with a sense of history and wonder, while at the same time making you work up a sweat from all that climbing. Ultimately, considering what a rare opportunity it was, I am glad that I decided to take the trip.

The way back is pretty steep

PS: The ride back was, according to the driver, unnaturally smooth. We didn’t really hit any traffic until we were near the city, and even then it took about an hour and 40 minutes to get back to the hotel.

In defense of Jack Taylor’s 138-point game

November 24, 2012 in Basketball, Sport by pacejmiller

More surprising than the 138-point game by Jack Taylor game has been the overwhelming negativity directed at the jaw-dropping performance from the 5’10” guard from Grinnell College in Dallas.

For those unfamiliar with the feat, Taylor, a sophomore who actually played lacrosse last year, scored 138 points in Grinnell’s high-octane 179-104 victory over Faith Baptist Bible in an NCAA Division IIII game on Tuesday night.

Taylor had struggled with his shot in his first two games of the season, but on this night he hit 52 of his 108 shot attempts (!!), including 27 of 71 from three-point range (!!!). He was also 7 of 10 from the free throw line. He played 36 out of a possible 40 minutes.

To rationalize how the feat was possible, know that Grinnell coach David Arsenault employs a crazy offensive and defensive scheme designed to maximize opportunities to score a lot of points — for both sides. Players are told to shoot quickly and frequently and the team employs a high-risk, high-reward full court trap for the entire game, which often means certain players rarely even cross the half court line on defense. Arsenault’s teams have led the nation in scoring in 17 of the last 19 years at any college level in America. Taylor’s teammate, Griffin Lentsch, scored 89 points in a game last November using the same system.

In this particular game, Taylor started off cold, but he was encouraged to keep shooting and by halftime he had 58 points (his previous career high was 48 points in high school). Sensing something special was happening, his teammates sacrificed their own shots and kept feeding Taylor the ball, much like Wilt Chamberlain’s teammates did on the historic night the Stilt scored 100 in an NBA game (and probably slept with his 20,000th woman on the same night). Taylor eventually caught fire like Katniss Everdeen and scored 28 consecutive points at one point before finishing with the incredible record which shredded the previous NCAA high of 113 by Bevo Francis in 1954.

Here is the link to the full game, or you can check out the highlights below.

Admittedly, there are a lot of people amazed and impressed by the performance, including NBA superstars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. But the praise has been overshadowed by the vitriol directed at Taylor, his team, his teammates, his opponents and his coach.

Here are some of the more common complaints.

He took 108 shots and 71 three-pointers in a single game with zero assists! What a hog!

Yes, Taylor took an insane number of shots. But how else would you expect someone to score 138 points? By standing around? By passing his teammates the ball? They were the ones who kept feeding Taylor the ball and encouraging him to score as many points as he could. He would never have managed it if they didn’t keep passing the ball to him, setting screens for him and getting him extra possessions with their full court trap.

The fact that he was able to take so many shots in 36 minutes is impressive in itself. It’s not like he tries to do this every game. It was just one of those nights where he was given free reign to launch. Basketball is a team game where everyone has a role. Taylor’s role on this night was to shoot as much as he could. He did it with the blessing and support of his coach and teammates.

In Chamberlain’s 100-point game, Wilt took 63 shots but had 32 free throw attempts, while Taylor only had 10. Chamberlain also played 12 more minutes. In Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game, he played 42 minutes and took just 46 shots, but had 20 free throws attempts. And remember, Taylor scored 38 points more than Chamberlain and 57 points more than Kobe. Scoring 38 or 57 points in a single game is impressive enough, let alone 100 more than that. Wilt’s career average is around 30 points a game. Kobe has only scored more than 57 points four times in his entire career.

Zero assists? Big deal. Wilt and Kobe only had 2 assists each in their historic games. Plenty of guards at the elite level have recorded zero assist games, and none of them have ever scored 138 points.

He didn’t even shoot 50%! Anyone who takes that many shots can score 138 points!

This just shows a complete lack of understanding of basketball. 52 of 108 from the field is 48%, a rate which most basketball players at any level would take on any given night. The same goes for his 38% (27 of 71) shooting from three-point range (Reggie Miller, regarded as either the best or second best three-point shooter of all-time, averaged 39.5% from the three-point line for his career). They are not amazing percentages for a player having the game of his life, but they are certainly respectable, especially considering how many of his shots were jumpshots and not layups.

I’d also differ on the argument that anyone who takes that many shots can score 138 points. In an empty gym, maybe, but not in a proper game. If it were that easy and common we wouldn’t be talking about it.

Great scorers might be able to score that many points on that many shots against the right opponents, but the bigger difficulty is actually being able to attempt that many shots in a 40-minute game. I don’t care what anyone says, taking a shot every 20 seconds for 36 minutes straight while running around is extremely difficult to do regardless of the opponent.

His opponents were crap; my high school team could have beaten them

This may be true, but it’s been greatly exaggerated. The inept Faith Baptist may be 0-5 on their season but they are still a college basketball team in the NCAA (albeit Div III). No one is saying they are North Carolina, but let’s not pretend this was Michael Jordan dominating in the mentally challenged midget league. Taylor wasn’t playing in a backyard comp against his baby sister — he was playing in a proper game against an opponent deemed good enough to be in the same league. Let’s not forget, Faith Baptist scored 104 points of their own, which means at the very least that they are not complete amateurs and were competing.

Yes, your high school team might have been able to beat them, crush them even. But could anyone on that team score 138 points against them?

His opponents didn’t play any defense

Another myth espoused by haters who likely didn’t even see any game footage. They weren’t exactly good defenders but from what I could tell they sure tried. It wasn’t like they were daring him to shoot and allowing him open jumpers or offering a layup drill all night. They weren’t inviting him to put up 138 points and embarrass them, if that’s what anyone is suggesting.

The vast majority of Taylor’s shots were at least semi-contested or made in traffic. Most of them were made off the dribble in isolation situations. At times Faith Baptist double and triple teamed him and there’s no denying that Taylor made a bunch of difficult shots.

It’s sad that any time a player has a great offensive game critics are quick to blame the defense rather than give credit to the offense.

His opponents should have “done something about it”

It’s frightening how many people say Faith Baptist should have put Taylor on his backside or tried to cause him physical harm by attempting to score so many points on them in a game that was probably settled by halftime. This is not the bush league and the name “Faith Baptist” should have suggested that such tactics were unlikely.

“I will tell you, we tried,”said Faith Baptist coach Brian Fincham. “I’m not going to be cheap and foul or hit somebody. That’s not the type of program we’re going to be. But I’m proud of my guys and the effort they put in. Jack just had a great night.”

Some say it’s not a classy thing to run up the score against a hapless opponent, but it’s happened countless times before and no one ever scored 138 points.

“I wasn’t going to take a guy out who was in the zone,” Grinnell’s Arsenault said in defense of letting Taylor run wild. “I’ve never been in the zone like that, and if I was I certainly wouldn’t want my coach to end it for me. So we just let him go.”

Perhaps Faith Baptist could have slowed down their offense and run out the clock to minimize Grinnell’s possessions, but that was their choice to make. You can’t fault Grinnell or Taylor for making the most of their opponent’s strategy.

David Larson’s 70 points on 34 of 44 shooting was more impressive

Some critics have gone as far as to say that David Larson from Faith Baptist, who scored 70 points on 34 of 44 shooting against Grinnell on the same night, had the more impressive performance.

No it’s not.

First of all, his team got trounced. While Larson, who played all 40 minutes, scored at a much more efficient percentage (77%), the majority of his baskets came from close range after Grinnell’s high-risk full court press broke down (and broke down often). In fact, Larson’s performance was much more like an undefended layup drill than Taylor’s.

Oh, and by the way, Taylor almost doubled Larson’s point output.

So what? He wouldn’t score 10 points in the NBA!

By far the dumbest comment I’ve seen, and I’m surprised how many times I’ve come across something like it the last few days.

No one with half a brain is saying this guy is a future NBA star. No one’s even saying he’s the second coming of Jimmer Fredette. He’s going to have his 15 minutes of fame and that’ll be the end of it. But what is wrong with that?

Taylor’s 138-point game is what it is — a once-in-a-lifetime freakish occurrence where everything fell into line at the right place at the right time. It was the culmination of coach Arsenault’s system, Faith Baptist’s less-than-stellar defense and refusal to slow the game down, Taylor’s teammates and coach helping him along the way, and of course, Taylor catching fire like he has never before and probably never will again. But most record-setting performances in basketball are a combination of circumstances, luck and skill, and I don’t see why this was any less amazing just because it happened in Div III of the NCAA.

Perhaps Kobe said it best: “I don’t care what level you’re at. Scoring 138 points is pretty insane.”

LeBron said he couldn’t even do it in a video game, noting that he would have to mess with the rules and ratings and sliders to be able to accomplish it.

Accordingly to Taylor’s critics, however, it was nothing special. I’m not sure what would impress them. Perhaps it needs to be an NBA player who shoots 70% from the floor while racking up a triple-double and hits the game winner as well — in addition to the 138 points, of course. Then again, my guess is even then it will never be enough for the haters.

I’m not saying Taylor should start being compared to Wilt or Kobe or even Tyler Hansbrough, but I think it’s unfortunate so many people are so quick to shoot down what is clearly a remarkable achievement which should be appreciated and respected, in context or otherwise.