Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: The Lady's Tutor [1999]

I read The Lady’s Tutor by Robin Schone because it came up several times in my search for potential 50 Shades of Grey readalikes, and it was one of the few historical romances that appeared on any lists. However, I definitely would not categorize it as a "readalike." It’s a historical romance with some explicit sexual content. I’ll explain further after the review.

The year is 1886. Mrs. Elizabeth Petre is the wife of England’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, to whom she has been married for sixteen years. Though they have done their duty and produced two sons, Elizabeth’s husband has never come to her bed for pleasure. When rumors reach her regarding the existence of her husband’s mistress, she decides to take matters into her own hands and learn the arts of seduction. She selects the “Bastard Sheikh” Ramiel Devington, the son of an English countess and an Arab sheikh, to provide instruction. But as Ramiel begins to teach Elizabeth about the sensual arts, their student-teacher relationship quickly blossoms into something deeper.

After denying her own sexual appetites for the entirety of her married life, Elizabeth is intrigued and aroused by the acts Ramiel describes, as well as by the man himself. However, she risks her reputation each time she visits him at his house, and as the wife of a politician and the daughter of the Prime Minister, she is even more tightly constrained than most women. Her husband--who has dark secrets of his own--holds all the power, and would have legal custody of her children were they to divorce. It is difficult to describe the plot without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that Elizabeth’s freedom, and future with Ramiel, hinges on her husband’s involvement in a secret society called the Uranians.

Grade: B-

Despite the interesting teacher-student dynamic, with its Arabic flavor (Schone quotes extensively from a book called The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefza), and the fact that Schone thanks reference librarians in her acknowledgments, something about this book left me cold. It could have been the way that Schone incorporated homosexuality, or the use of italics, or just that I wasn’t in the mood for it.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth in particular is an interesting and complex character, as severely constrained as she has been by her family and society. Ramiel also has been slighted by society and, like Christian Grey, is troubled by past abuse. The book does contain explicit sex. However, I still wouldn’t class it as a 50 Shades readalike. Ramiel is much more experienced than Elizabeth, and that shapes their power dynamic somewhat, but there are no control issues being played out between them. If anything, she has more power socially than he does, although he is wealthy. Instead, I’d suggest that the book is more closely related to Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened (one of my favorites from last year).

Book Review Index

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review: Bared to You and Reflected in You [2012]

I recently spent a good chunk of time combing the internet to see what other librarians and readers were recommending as readalikes for the 50 Shades series.* Of the fifty sources I reviewed, more than half cited Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series (thus far consisting of Bared to You and Reflected in You, with Entwined with You due for publication in June of this year) as a recommendation for people who have finished the EL James books and are looking for something similar. I can see why: they both feature controlling, wealthy men and women who are recent college graduates. Like Christian and Ana, Gideon and Eva find an almost instantaneous, obsessive, and all-consuming love as they navigate their new relationship and face demons from the past.
The primary difference between the series is Eva herself. Unlike Ana, she is not virginal or na├»ve. She is strong and sure of herself; she’s been through hell and therapy and knows her own limitations, even if she sometimes can’t help giving in to them. Like the 50 Shades books, Day’s series is written in the first person from the heroine’s perspective, but for the most part she eschews statements such as “He was just so . . . male” (Bared to You, 27) that recall the eyeroll-inducing phrases that were the hallmark of the James trilogy. Some spoilers in the review that follows. After graduation, Eva Tramell moves to New York City, across the country from her loving father, in order to take an advertising job and start living her dreams. She has the support of her bisexual best friend Cary and luxuries provided by her mother and stepfather, which unfortunately also come with extreme, stalkerish overprotectiveness. A chance collision with business mogul Gideon Cross knocks her flat and kindles an instant attraction, but when he later propositions her, she turns down his offer. After he pursues a more than sexual relationship, she relents. What begins as a theoretical “no strings” relationship soon evolves into something much more complex and shattering. Like Christian Grey, Gideon is haunted by events from his past, including his father’s suicide and sexual abuse. Gideon and Eva are both self-sufficient survivors who very quickly find themselves caught up in a whirlwind that includes episodes in which they trigger each other’s deepest fears, roommate drama, ex-lovers, Gideon’s need for control and Eva’s desire for independence, and the return of Eva’s childhood abuser. Despite numerous challenges to their relationship, they work hard to forge something lasting, refusing to give up even when that appears to be the most reasonable course of action. Grade: B Overall, I liked this series rather better than 50 Shades (which I didn’t hate). The writing was much tighter and the main characters seemed to be closer to equal; I liked that Eva has her own wealth and had sexual experience before Gideon. The second book ends with a somewhat startling admission, and it will be interesting to see where Day goes next with the plot. The elements of dominance and submission are subtler than the James trilogy, consisting mostly of conversations about control and Gideon’s assertion that Eva wants him to have total control of her pleasure, which she comes to accept as true. Final word for librarians: If you’ve got someone in front of you who has finished the 50 Shades trilogy and is looking for more, this is a good pick, but not necessarily a something for anyone with triggers around sexual abuse.

ETA: My review of the next book in the series, Entwined with You, is here.

Book Review Index *Full results to be revealed in a later post.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review: 50 Shades Trilogy [2012]

It seems almost ridiculous for me to weigh in on this trilogy after everything that has been written about it already, but I want to provide my take here before I move on to reviewing some of the books that have been offered as readalikes.* I read Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker on paper, and listened to the audio version of Fifty Shades Freed. I got all three through my library without a long wait. Let me tell you, it is very weird to listen to an erotic story being read aloud when the heroine shares your name.

I’m not sure whether I would have picked up the books (and persevered through all of them) if I weren’t a librarian; what motivated me initially was a desire to discover for myself what was compelling so many of my patrons to read the books, which required them to put their names on enormous holds lists. I interacted with several people who, faced with the fact that they would be 450th in line, told me they were just going to buy the book.

I believe that the appeal of the books (in terms of the public’s consumption) wanes by about 30% after the first book, as the sales figures and holds ratios seem to bear out. In my library system, there are still twice as many holds on the first book as the successive volumes (159 holds on 428 total copies vs. 73/300 and 86/284). The first book of the trilogy has sold 168,959 copies in 2013 (as of this week's Publishers Weekly data) vs. 115,447 and 112,251 for the second and third books, respectively. I’m not sure if this is a result of a bottleneck created by people still waiting for their hold on the first book to come in, or how this drop-off after the first book compares to other series.

But enough idle speculation, let me get to my thoughts about the series. The trilogy involves the complicated, often tortured relationship between a young mogul, Christian Grey, and Anastasia Steele, who is a college senior when the first book opens. Christian copes with the traumas of his tortured past by attempting to exert absolute control over his environment, especially his sexual partners. Ana is an innocent who is swept up by his magnetism and power, but she finds it impossible to be the completely submissive partner Christian wants, even though she comes to care for him deeply. They learn to compromise as various challenges threaten their relationship. As you have probably heard, the books were originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction.

I will say up front that I enjoyed parts of the trilogy, but felt that it would have been a much stronger product if someone had taken a firmer editorial hand with the text. Never mind the plot points, James repeated so many phrases (“Oh, my sweet Fifty!”) and descriptive terms that it was very difficult for someone like me, who approaches life with red pen in hand, to remain immersed in the story. As a longtime romance reader, I wasn’t particularly shocked by the content; in fact, it was a bit tamer than I had been led to expect by some pearl-clutching reactions.

The trilogy is essentially a romance with a more explicit erotic content (some BDSM-related) than you would find in your garden-variety genre book. Ana and Christian (spoiler!) end up living happily-ever-after. The books feature the reformation of an overbearing male character that is not unlike the redemption of a rake in a historical romance. Although I found the primary external threat to their relationship unbelievable, I did appreciate the push-and-pull of negotiation between Christian and Ana over the course of the books, which didn’t stop after their marriage. It was interesting to see how things developed, as well as the material she was drawing from Twilight. One of the most peculiar reactions I had was to feel that James had created a backstory that made the actions of the characters in the Twilight Saga (which I also read and enjoyed portions of) make sense.

Grade: C+

I recommend that librarians on the front lines read (or listen to) at least the first book in the series, so they will be able to make informed collection decisions and be able to do the best reader’s advisory they can. There are various reasons that a patron might be interested in the series; this article on its appeal factors is a good starting point when trying to understand why it has been and continues to be such a phenomenon. I will say that when I tell patrons that I have read the series, they are immediately put more at ease and willing to open up to me when they’re asking for my help at the reference desk.

Book Review Index

*As part of my run-up to an upcoming presentation on erotica and collection development in the library. Since 50 Shades of Grey has kicked off a lot of discussion in the library world, in terms of collection development and reader’s advisory, it makes sense to start here. Future reviews will evaluate potential readalikes for the trilogy.