Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book Review: Beautiful Bastard [2013]

Another title that came up as a potential 50 Shades readalike was Beautiful Bastard, a Twilight  fanfic-turned-book that was co-written by two women under the name Christina Lauren. Reviews online range from glowing to vituperative, depending on where the writer stands on the idea of publishing fan fiction. I am not going to dive in to that particular can of worms here, but instead try to give an idea of the book’s merit as a work of fiction (whether some ideas or characters are “borrowed” or not) and as a 50 shades readalike.

Chloe Mills is very close to finishing her MBA, but first she’s got to complete her internship as an assistant under the most demanding, arrogant, and rude boss ever known: advertising whiz kid Bennett Ryan. He may look like a god (her nickname for him is “Beautiful Bastard”), but he acts like a devil, offering Chloe constant criticism and pushing her to her limits. She rises to the challenge and isn’t afraid to give as well as she gets--even during an encounter in the conference room, in which their constant antagonism takes an abrupt turn into panty-ripping sex.

Despite their continued professed dislike for one another, each subsequent encounter leads to the same frenzied coupling, resulting in a stack of shredded lingerie in Bennett’s drawer and serious questions for Chloe about what exposure of their non-relationship would do for her reputation and future job prospects. Bennett has all the power and has already established himself in the man’s world of advertising, while Chloe is merely his assistant. From these inauspicious beginnings, will they be able to find their way to a meaningful relationship?

Grade: B+

Perhaps surprisingly, I really enjoyed this book. The structure is a little bit unconventional, as it alternates between Chloe and Bennett’s first-person perspectives--perhaps because of the tandem authorship? Despite the power imbalance, it’s clear from the outset that Chloe and Bennett are equally smart and driven; they are each other’s match and would be bored by someone who didn’t challenge them. Their gradually increasing intimacy and realization that their encounters are doing the opposite of “getting it out of their system” is actually quite sweet.

Things that make this a good 50 Shades readalike: the obsession with fancy underwear; their  power dynamic; the sheer number of times they have sex; the fact that it also began as Twilight fan fiction. Unlike the E.L. James books, however, there isn’t a great deal of working through emotional traumas from the past. For me, this was a welcome relief, as was the fact that Bennett expressed his emotions first. Also, aside from their predilection for having sex in public places, Bennett and Chloe aren’t particularly kinky.

ETA: My review of the next book in the series, Beautiful Stranger, is here.

The audio version of this book review is now live.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: Mine to Hold [2012]

Shayla Black's Mine to Hold is the sixth book in her Wicked Lovers series, described as "[d]ark, dangerous, beyond sexy erotic romances about high-octane men and the daring women they will risk all for, even their hearts." The series or individual books in the series were recommended as readalikes for 50 Shades of Grey in more than 30% of the sources I reviewed, and Mine to Hold was the book that arrived first through the interlibrary loan lottery. Major spoilers ahoy!

Extremely poor decision-making and alcohol leads temporarily disabled LA detective Eric Catalano to encourage his wife Delaney to have sex with his partner Tyler. With Eric watching, Tyler and Delaney experience extreme (dare I say, unlikely) amounts of sexual gratification--leading to emotional chaos and Tyler's self-imposed exile to Louisiana. Two years later, Delaney shows up on Tyler's doorstep with their child. Yes, the condom broke at some point during those 5+ orgasms--and Delaney and Eric are now divorced. Delaney wants Tyler's help watching their son while she writes an exposé on the corrupt LA assistant district attorney who's been trying to kill her.

Rather than stay home to babysit the son he didn't knew he had but loves instantly, Tyler informs Delaney that this time they're going to do it "his way"--with the help of his new friends (protagonists of other books in the Wicked Lovers series). Tyler's way includes breaking down all the barriers that Delaney might have to a relationship between them, nevermind the fact that Tyler has apparently been having sex nonstop with other women since he left LA; the fact that she's recently divorced and someone has tried to kill her several times and situations with heightened stress levels are always the best time to begin relationships; and the fact that she said "no" and "don't" when he kissed her...

After a long, sexual tension- and then sex-filled road trip to Los Angeles, Tyler and Delaney arrive and then, after finding out that there's a time limit on their mission to expose the ADA, have a lot more sex before accomplishing anything. But in the process, they establish that Delaney is finding it difficult to trust Tyler because of his sexual history and that he's hoping that she'll get pregnant again as soon as possible so they can have more kids. So. Some things happen, including her ex-husband handcuffing Tyler to a fridge and attempting to rape Delaney in front of him. Also: anal sex! Things like that. I confess, there were many times I almost stopped reading this book, but I persevered for you, dear reader. And in the end, we all lived happily ever after.

Grade: D

This book: not my cup of tea.

My first reaction is that Mine to Hold has a lot more in common with Lora Leigh's Forbidden Pleasure than anything by E.L. James. There's an improbable cop/thriller plot and a man who has trouble understanding the word "no" from the woman he's attracted to. While this may be compelling for some readers, it certainly wasn't for me, and I'm not sure it aligns well with the relationship that James depicts. There are numerous references to Tyler as a "caveman," but no implication that there's anything too far out of line in his approach. By contrast, Leigh's Keiley and James's Ana have their many moments of understanding how impossible and overbearing their male counterparts can be. I would definitely recommend it to Lora Leigh fans, however!

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: Gabriel's Inferno [2011]

On the list of 50 Shades readalikes I’ve read so far, Sylvain Reynard’s Gabriel’s Inferno has by far the least explicit sex, but it also has some of the most sensual scenes and language. Originally written as Twilight fan fiction, the book and its sequel were both best-sellers for their pseudonymous Canadian author. Some spoilers below.

Julia Mitchell is an American graduate student newly enrolled at the University of Toronto and writing her thesis on Dante. Professor Gabriel Emerson is the instructor for her Dante seminar. Due to several unfortunate coincidences, they do not get off to a good start, and Professor Emerson acts like--as described quite often in the text--an ass. What takes some time to become clear is the details of their shared past; six years before the story opens, Julia and Gabriel shared one perfect (chaste) evening which she has never forgotten. Professor Emerson, however, is a creature of some dark and lustful habits, and believes that their meeting was a product of his drug-addled imagination.

Once this misunderstanding is cleared up, Gabriel is determined not to let Julia stray far from his side again, but there are various complicating factors: she is still enrolled in his class, which makes any relationship between them a violation of university policy; he is burdened by secrets that he is convinced make him unworthy of her love; her abusive ex-boyfriend resurfaces to cause trouble; she’s a virgin who finds it hard to trust his attraction to her . . . the list goes on. But it’s a romance, so you know they will manage to be together in the end (unlike the first 50 Shades book).

Grade: B+

My primary irritation with the book had to do with the “we met six years ago and I remember but you don’t remember me and I’m not going to tell you” plotline that consumes so much of the first part of the narrative. Julia spends so much time waiting for him to figure it out, and I’ve never liked it when romances use that kind of narrative device to create tension. However, once they got over that hump, I was able to get on board and appreciate the slow unfolding of their relationship. And I do mean slow.

The type of reader who prefers their romances to start fast, with sex in the first few chapters, should stay far away from Gabriel’s Inferno. By the time they were preparing to have intercourse for the first time, it was disc 16 (out of 16) in the audio version. This chastity, of course, makes the book very different than the 50 Shades books (although I don’t know yet what happens in the sequel, Gabriel’s Rapture, or in the forthcoming Gabriel’s Redemption). In an interview with USA Today, “Sylvain Reynard”--a male pseudonym that many consider to be hiding a female author--addressed his views on writing explicit sex:

“I think that leaving things to the imagination is what creates seduction. Sometimes one can have too much of a good thing. Part of the thrill of sex is the anticipation, so as a writer I'm conscious of that fact. In my view, sex is a mystery. If one focuses on the mechanics of sex or the awkwardness of two human beings communing physically, it takes away from the mysterious and sometimes transcendent aspects of it.”

After recently reading so many books with incredibly detailed sexual encounters, I appreciated this refreshing approach. I listened to the audio version, and the narrator was above average, especially when describing intimate scenes.

As for similarities to 50 Shades, Gabriel has many of the same controlling tendencies (bordering on asshole, until he tempers them) as Christian, as well as a taste for expensive things. Julia is a virgin, but not an innocent, and she has had a difficult life with two neglectful parents and an abusive ex. Ana’s parents are much more present and involved, but the women do share a core of strength despite their insecurity and inexperience. Other things that recall 50 Shades are the importance of music to the narrative and Julia’s lip-biting habit, as well as the obvious fact that they are both published Twilight fan fiction.

Completely unlike the EL James books is Reynard’s use of the story of Dante and Beatrice, Dante scholarship, Italian quotes, and other scholarly trappings. Themes of devils and angels, transgression and redemption, and sin and forgiveness loom large. As a former scholar myself, these parts were some of my favorites, especially when Gabriel and Julia had a fight in the seminar in which they both tried to relate their injured feelings to Dante scholarship. However, I was a bit skeptical that Gabriel, in his early 30s and with a history of drug abuse and violent behavior, would have been able to get tenure and publish prolifically enough to be one of the foremost scholars in his field. Yes, that is where I had trouble suspending my disbelief.

And one last warning, there is a near-rape scene that might cause some distress.

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Monday, April 1, 2013

Book Review: Forbidden Pleasure [2007]

Forbidden Pleasure is the seventh book in Lora Leigh’s Bound Hearts series, which was recommended as a readalike for the 50 Shades trilogy. Although the writing is uneven, if you actually find yourself with a patron who is willing to tell you they’re interested in something focused on ménage relationships, this would be a good place to start.

Mac McCoy has left the FBI and his days as a member of “The Club”--a DC area establishment catering to men who prefer to share their women with other men--behind him and moved with his new wife Keiley to a farm in North Carolina. Although he’s happy with his new life, he’s been keeping a part of himself carefully controlled and hidden from Keiley, and the strain is starting to show. Mac has deep-rooted dominant tendencies and a strong desire to share Keiley with his preferred “third,” Jethro. As Mac’s brother in all but blood, Jethro has always used Mac’s relationships with women as a way to have intimacy without getting too close, knowing that he could never give himself completely. He’s also halfway in love with Keiley already, which is why he introduced her to Mac--so that he could become their third. But Mac changed the equation when he left DC, and Jethro, behind.

When Keiley begins to question Mac more and more intently about his past and The Club, he feels that she may finally be ready for the introduction of Jethro into their lives. But the relationship that Mac has in mind for himself and Jethro and Keiley will require all three of them to erase their boundaries and embark on a sensual and loving journey that will either leave them as one happy whole, or three broken individuals. Leigh also inserts a plot in which a serial stalker (from a case that Mac and Jethro worked on at the FBI) fixates on Keiley. But don’t worry, the fact that their lives are potentially in danger does not prevent them from having lots of sex.

Grade: C+

I spent several days trying to articulate how I feel about this book. I definitely didn’t love it. I don’t think it was the three-way sex that bothered me, either. Rather it was the way that Mac and Jethro would sandwich Keiley repeatedly and tell her that they would stop making coordinated sexual advances toward her if she just said no. Leigh suggests several times that Keiley knew about her husband’s tendencies and had been working her way up to interest in where that could take them, but she was too often (for my taste) put in a position where they were asking forgiveness and not permission.

The short time-span of the plot--two weeks at most--makes it difficult to believe that Mac and Keiley’s idyllic existence as a monogamous couple who engaged in very little kinky sex would transform so quickly into a completely different relationship. The writing was also a bit heavy handed, in the “Keiley didn’t know what to do about these desires, which were forbidden” kind of way. As a readalike for 50 Shades, it’s not too bad. It definitely has the dominant and kink elements, plus both the guys have the requisite tortured pasts. It’s written in the third person, but Keiley’s personality is well fleshed-out and not unlike Ana’s. She swings between deep arousal and interest to being supremely irritated at both Mac and Jethro’s high-handedness. The stalker plot is about as believable as the crisis that troubles Christian and Ana in Fifty Shades Freed.

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