Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ by EL James

January 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Fifty Shades Freed

Fifty Shades Freed is the perfect title to the third and final book of EL James’s 50 Shades Trilogy. After struggling with to get through this book for months, I can finally say, “I have been freed!” Freed from one of the worst pieces of crap I have ever read.

You may ask why I would read something I find so horrible — and trust me, I have asked myself that question several times — but the Fifty Shades trilogy is actually an excellent lesson in bad writing and how to avoid it. I may not be a good writer, but I sure know terrible writing when I see it. This is not to say James is necessarily a bad writer. As Anne Lamont wrote in Bird by Bird, almost all writers start off with shitty first drafts. All of Fifty Shades is, essentially, is a shitty first draft. It could have been pared back,  fixed up and improved significantly with two or three (most probably more) rewrites, but instead, we were given the product in practically raw form. And it’s ghastly.

I had tried to defend the first two books of the series to some degree, but I simply cannot think of one redeeming feature about this one. The first entry, Fifty Shades of Grey, was at least fresh and had some interesting dynamics as our protagonist, Anastasia Steele, is courted by the enigmatic, impossibly handsome and super rich Christian Grey. The second book has the couple reconciling after a brief break up and then has them “getting to know each other” a little better, before ending with a really bizarre epilogue that foreshadowed the rise of a nasty villain in the final book.

Well, this so-called villain turned out to be completely pathetic and incapable of generating any tension whatsoever. He/she was a completely different person to the character that James had described and depicted in the first book and a half. It just made no sense at all. Even when this villain made a final appearance for the “climax” it was still incredibly lame, and again, made no sense at all. I can’t say too much without giving away the “twists”, but whole thing made less sense than Mulholland Drive multiplied by Primer.

To insult readers further, instead of explaining why a certain part of the story didn’t make sense in the aftermath of the climax, James added an “author’s note” at the end and inserted an additional conversation to fudge the plot back into coherence. Unfortunately she needed another dozen authors notes to explain all the other stuff that remained inexplicable.

Enough with the villain, who is, to be fair, only a tiny part of the book. The majority of Fifty Shades Freed is still devoted to the unbearably saccharine relationship between Ana and Christian. I tried my best but I just couldn’t find anything real about their relationship, their emotions or their personalities.

Ana loves Christian so much and Christian loves Ana so so much. They can’t live without each other despite their respective flaws. Christian is so unbelievably beautiful and domineering and rich and a sex god. Ana can’t believe how lucky she is. Women can’t stop making passes at her man and she can’t stop rolling her eyes at them. James keeps telling us the same things over and over, rubbing it in our faces and shoving it down our throats — for 1,500+ pages.

But having them constantly and repeatedly tell each other how much love is in the air doesn’t make us feel that love. In fact, the more times they said it (almost every second page, really) the less convinced I became. To James’s credit, she does tone down the pointless email conversations and the inner goddess/subconscious gymnastics that irked me so much in the first two books, but to be honest I still had to regularly break out the speed reading I learned in high school (which had not been utilized for fiction in more than a decade) just so I could get through the worst sections.

As for the sex — there wasn’t a whole lot, and what was left behind lacked the passion of the earlier entries in the series. If Fifty Shades of Grey was all hot and heavy between two horny teenagers, then Fifty Shades Freed is like an old couple who have been married for 60 years and lost their libidos long ago.

Without arguably the best part of the novels working its magic, Fifty Shades Freed was more or less a fantasy diary that simply went on and on aimlessly and kept rehashing the same things. I don’t remember ever reading something so repetitive and tedious. There probably was an attempt at plotting, but it sure didn’t feel like it. The efforts at creating tension were horrendous — SPOILER ALERT — with the car chase and kidnapping the most laughable examples.

To top things off, at the very end of the book there is a retelling of the first encounter between Christian and Ana — but this time, from Christian’s perspective (I believe it was attempting to mirror what Stephenie Meyer tried to do with Twilight until it was leaked online and she scrapped it). If there was ever any charm to this Christian fellow, James’s misguided attempt at his male voice pretty much destroyed it. Instead of remaining this enigmatic, tortured soul with a heart of gold, Christian Grey turned out to be, as feared, an obnoxious prick with only one thing on his mind.

Good for James and the millions she has raked in, but personally, I’m just glad it’s all over.

0.5/5

Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ by EL James

November 28, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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.

Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ by EL James

July 22, 2012 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

Just to be clear, I have pedestrian — if not lowbrow — tastes when it comes to reading. I enjoy Dan Brown, I’ve read Stephenie Meyer, and heck, even Matthew Reilly. So I just want you to know that I approached EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey not with the intent of trashing it but with immense interest in discovering what the fuss is all about.

The erotic-fiction book, the first in the Fifty Shades trilogy, is arguably the hottest literary phenomenon in the world right now. A recent report I read said James was making something like US$1.3 million a week, and no shortage of actors and actresses are already lining up for the inevitable film version. Brett Easton Ellis has apparently put his hand up to write the screenplay. Not bad for a story that began as a piece of Twilight fan fiction.

What you’re about to read is a brutally honest opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey. While I can see why some people might be obsessed with this “mummy porn” (as it has been distastefully called), like Twilight, I genuinely cannot understand why it has become so obscenely successful. Notwithstanding the shortcomings in James’s prose, the first 150 pages or so of this 500-page book (paperback version), I admit, were fresh, exciting and compulsive — but once the novelty wore off and the narrative stagnated, the remaining 350 pages became utterly brutal.

Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of an innocent young woman living in Seattle, Anastasia Steele, who meets and begins a relationship with the enigmatic, incredibly wealthy and “impossibly beautiful” (direct quote) Christian Grey, who may or may not be into some wild, kinky stuff in the bedroom. What a dilemma.

Anastasia was originally Bella Swan, and Christian was originally Edward Cullen, and the idea sprung from the fantasy that the Twilight kids were not as chaste as they appeared to be.

So you can see the attraction there. I’m sure millions of Twilight fans had probably been imagining the same thing, and James, who is actually a Brit, merely put her fantasy into words. The book intended to be a drug for ordinary girls dreaming of sexual heaven with a rich, handsome and perfect dude who, despite being capable of getting any girl in the universe, chooses them for some reason.

Accordingly, I didn’t have a huge problem with the unbelievable premise or the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey, because after all, it is an erotic fantasy. And besides, how is it any worse than Twilight?

That said, it doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle to accept that Anastasia Steele is a 22-year-old American college student who:

  1. is completely oblivious to the fact that she is incredibly beautiful despite having a multitude of hot guys chasing after her all the time (and having eyes);
  2. has a killer body despite a horrible diet and almost never exercising;
  3. is not only a virgin but has never ever dated anyone in her entire life; and
  4. has never in 22 years loved or even “liked” a boy or man in that way – before Christian Grey.

But I digress. Fantasies are supposed to be crazy.

As mentioned above, I had fun with Fifty Shades of Grey’s first 10 chapters or so. Part of the reason is the ridiculous premise, and part of it is because of the building sexual tension between Ana and Christian. You know they’re eventually going to get it on at some point, and it’s the thrill of the chase and the anticipation that makes the book such an explosive page turner in its early stages.

I cannot profess to be experienced in erotic fiction so I don’t know if the first couple of sex scenes were any good, but I assume, from the public reaction, that they were more than adequate. I at least thought it was a decent payoff after all that anticipation. So far so good for Fifty Shades of Grey.

The bulk of the problem comes after that. I don’t want to spoil too much, but about a third of the way in, after finally losing her virginity, Ana is presented with an unusual offer from Christian. From here, the book becomes a lengthy and infuriating procrastination and negotiation process that does not get anywhere. Ana thinks about it, exchanges a dozen emails with Christian, thinks about it some more, sends more pointless emails, and thinks about it some more. There must seriously be a hundred emails set out in full in this book, and 90% of them are probably asinine. From memory they also go through the terms of a contract, line by agonizing line, on more than one occasion.

Don’t worry, there’s still some hanky panky in between (though even that becomes stale after a while), but all it does is prove that erotic fiction is best served as short stories and novellas, not 500-page monsters.

Much has been said about James’s literary prowess, or lack thereof. I don’t think she is as fundamentally awful as people say she is, and even if she is, I think they’re just jealous they’re not raking in the money like her. I actually think she’s not too far off Stephenie Meyer — it’s just easier to trash James because of the genre she is writing in.

James’s biggest problem was not getting an editor (or if she did get one, an editor unafraid to do something about the book’s nagging issues). For starters, James has the tendency to use a lot of repetitive words and phrases, often within a very short space. She’s absolutely in love with littering her prose with irritating words/phrases such as shit, crap, fuck, oh crap, holy shit, holy crap, holy fuck and holy cow (and almost always in italics too). She also goes through phases where she becomes addicted to whoa, wow, oh no and so forth. You cannot possibly read more than three of pages anywhere in the book without seeing these words at least a couple of times. It makes Anastasia Steele feel like a nagging middle-aged housewife as opposed to a young, red-blooded hottie.

The repetition is also rife in descriptions and body language. Every single time Christian Grey appears in the book we are reminded how handsome, good-looking, hot, gorgeous and impossibly beautiful he is. And he appears a lot. We are also told frequently that he likes to “cock his head to one side”, and that it might be the sexiest thing any man has ever done.

Ana, on the other hand, loves to bite her lip and must “flush” or “blush” at least once on just about every page. She also likes to remind people of the obvious, like “that was the first time I had sex in my house” (or something like that), when we know she just lost her virginity away from her house the day before. Or “as far as sex goes, that was pretty good” (or something like that), when we know she had only had sex a couple of times with the same guy!

Remember, this is a 500-page book.

The one phrase that practically killed me was the repeated mention of Ana’s “inner goddess”, who we are informed, is capable of doing all sorts of acrobatic movements. I still have no idea what an “inner goddess” is or is supposed to be, but I do know it annoys the hell out of me every time I see it.

I bitch, I know, but the truth is, Fifty Shades of Grey could have been so much better if the editor simply paid attention to fixing all its very fixable issues. Summarize the key points of the contract negotiations. Reduce the emails by about 70%-80%. Eliminate all the repetitious stuff I mentioned and pare it back into a 300-page book, tops. Then you might have something approaching special.

Instead, what we ended up with was an erotic fantasy born out of an intriguing idea, races off to a quick start and has some very good moments, but ultimately splutters and fails to maintain interest because it is too long, repetitive and uneventful.

But that’s just my unimportant opinion. Don’t let that stop you from discovering Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels on your own. For all its flaws, at least it is getting people to read and, from what I hear, spicing up people’s (sex) lives.

2 out of 5

PS: In case you were wondering, yes, I have started reading the second book in the series, Fifty Shades Darker. Whether I can finish it is another question.

 
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