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.

Book Review: ‘Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts’ by Mitzi Szereto

October 1, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews

There has been a recent influx of books which are essentially rewrites of out-of-copyright classic books and characters — but with a wacky twist, usually involving zombies and vampires. The most successful one is based on Jane Austen’s period romance, Pride and Prejudice (ie, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which has apparently been adapted into a film with Natalie Portman).

And so I guess it was only a matter of time before someone took Jane Austen’s enduring classic and turned it into an erotic farce. That’s exactly what Mitzi Szereto has done with Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts, an ‘erotic parody’ detailing the sexual escapades of beloved literary characters such as Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy. It’s a wild and hilarious ride that will likely polarise readers — those who believe Austen’s masterpiece has been defiled in the worst possible way (even worse than zombies), and those who think it’s a bloody brilliant idea.

Szereto is an experienced erotic fiction writer and editor, and it’s abundantly clear that she is also a skilled writer and Austen fan. Hidden Lusts may follow the plot and progression of the original and contain all the same characters, but the actual text of Austen’s work is used sparingly. A page by page comparison of the first chapter of the two books showed only a couple of short verbatim passages. The language used is genuinely Austen-esque, with none of the overtly sexual or crass vocabulary you would expect from an erotic novel. Szereto has captured Austen’s voice and tone and the essence of her characters so well that you might’ve believed that it was written by Austen herself — but for all the lustful thoughts and naughty shenanigans that appear in just about every chapter!

Bear in mind, Hidden Lusts is more parody than erotica, as just about everything is written with tongue firmly in cheek (and sometimes other things in cheek — literally), so chances are you’ll be finding yourself laughing out loud at the outrageous thoughts and actions of these traditionally uptight characters rather than feeling a bulge in your ‘breeches’ (which tends to happen in the book whenever characters cross paths!).

The kind of devilishly filthy stuff Szereto’s imagination conjures up is impressive. Every character is either a closet homosexual or sexual deviant or both. A few characters are given particularly harsh treatment. Have you ever wondered what Mr Bennett was doing locked away in his study all day? Have you ever wondered if Lydia Bennett was a nymphomaniac? Have you ever thought Mr Collins was a little gay? Have you ever been suspicious of the close relationship between Mr Darcy and his close friend Mr Bingley? Hidden Lusts has the answers.

You will probably need to have read Pride and Prejudice (or its ‘rewrites’) or seen one of the many film or TV adaptations to be able to fully appreciate the humour and wit of Szereto’s work.  My last memory had been the 2005 film adaptation starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett, Matthew Macfadyen (soon to be one of the Musketeers) as Mr Darcy, Donald Sutherland as Mr Bennett and Jena Malone as Lydia Bennett — which made it both hilarious and disturbing to be picturing these actors as I read the book.

Some of the erotic sequences do get a little repetitive after a while despite Szereto’s best efforts to keep them fresh and varied, but it’s hard to avoid in a 266-page book.  The upside is that you’ll be giggling along with all the lewd craziness in anticipation of the glorious final hurrah between Miss Bennett and Mr Darcy.  This is my first erotic parody and provided it’s as well written as this one I’d certainly be open to reading more.

3.5 out of 5

 
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