Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Review: Beautiful Disaster [2011]

Jamie McGuire's Beautiful Disaster was mentioned twenty percent of the time in the sources I consulted about readalikes for the 50 Shades trilogy. It was one of the few books that I was actually able to find on the shelf at my library. Some spoilers follow.

The book told from the perspective of Abby Abernathy, a college freshman who is trying to make a fresh start and leave her troubled past behind. Through her best friend America, she meets the heavily tattooed Travis Maddox. A serial womanizer, fight club champion, and heavy drinker,Travis is everything that Abby is trying to escape from, yet she finds herself drawn to him. Abby is the only girl who has ever encountered Travis and not immediately succumbed to his charms. Although she's attracted, she manages to do an excellent job of avoiding falling into a romantic relationship with him.

After they become friends, Abby and Travis make a bet that results in her moving in to his apartment for a month and drastically increasing the intimacy between them, despite the fact that she begins to date someone else. Despite his protestations of disinterest, Travis has great difficulty seeing her with anyone else, and eventually the simmering attraction between them is addressed.

I don't want to say too much about what happens and spoil the rest of the book. If she had stopped with Abby and Travis getting together, McGuire would have had herself a garden-variety romance. However, the plot continues through revelations about Abby's past, a breakup, a trip to Vegas, and a fight club disaster before it reaches its conclusion.

Grade: B-

Beautiful Disaster was one of the least sexually explicit books I've reviewed for this project. However, it has such an emotional roller coaster ride in the relationship depicted that it still qualifies, in my opinion, as a very good readalike for 50 Shades of Grey. It's told from Abby's first-person perspective, and her emotions and reactions are always in the foreground. Like Ana, she's a virgin, although she is far from naive. Travis is troubled, violent, aggressive, and absolutely obsessive about Abby, in the grand tradition of Christian Grey and countless other alpha males. McGuire does a good job of establishing Abby and Travis as believable friends before they become lovers. Once they're together, their level of obsessive need for one another feels similar to that described in 50 Shades and the Crossfire books.

The focus on eighteen and nineteen-year old characters in their first years of college, however, suggests that this title might be best described as (deep breath) New Adult. Given that, I wouldn't hesitate to give this book to teens who might be interested in the emotional content of a contemporary romance but not quite ready for an onslaught of sexual description. In that way, it might best be described as a more mature (and not at all paranormal) Twilight.

All that said, I had some issues with the plot. For example, Abby's father precipitates a particular plot twist, and then disappears for the rest of the book. The "will they-won't they" dragged on too long for my taste. There are probably those that feel a violently possessive friend/boyfriend is an attractive character, but that's just not my cup of tea. I also wish that characters in these books would stop calling each other by stupid nicknames; Travis calls Abby "Pigeon" or "Pidge" about a hundred times, and it made me want to scream by the time I was done.

McGuire just published Walking Disaster, which apparently tells the same story from Travis's perspective. This recalls Stephenie Meyer's abortive Midnight Sun, which re-told Twilight from Edward's point of view. The story at the time was that it had been so soundly mocked online that Meyer vowed never to finish it, but it seems it was the movies that interfered with her creative vision. But for those that want to experience the story again from a new perspective, Walking Disaster seems like a good bet.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Book Review: Freedom & Necessity [1997]

Several years ago, my sister gave me a copy of Freedom & Necessity, which came up in my second Reading Roulette* draw, enabling it to come off the bench and into the game at last. The book is an epistolary novel from science fiction fantasy heavyweights Steven Brust and Emma Bull that takes place, for the most part, in 1848 England.

As the novel opens, James Cobham--presumed dead, but in reality having recently escaped from captivity--writes his cousin Richard to enlist his assistance in uncovering the mystery of his "death." Their investigation evolves to include their cousins Kitty (romantically involved with Richard) and Susan. The story is told through letters between the four principal characters and their journal entries, with a few scattered newspaper clippings and book excerpts for good measure. Once the plot really gets going, it's rare to find any of the four in the same place at the same time, which makes the format choice logical, along with the fact that it was written by two authors.

The four relatives are all members of England's upper class, but it's revealed early on that James has long been living a double life as a radical and Chartist sympathizer. The identity of his pursuers, and whether they would prefer his death or recapture, is in doubt for most of the book and could be one of several groups. As questions continue to increase in number, with few answers forthcoming, the four work disparately and together to gather clues and put together information from their family's past to unravel the events of the present before it's too late.

It's difficult to describe the plot except to say that it involves revolutionaries and political intrigue, cross-country chases, family history, romance, and a group of people practicing a druidical magic. There is a great deal of discussion of Hegel, much of which went right over my head. The epistolary format sometimes lends itself to rambling and reflective passages that would definitely frustrate a reader looking for continuous action. However, the conclusion was well-plotted and satisfactory.

Grade: B+

While not precisely fantasy, the book does play with some fantastical elements, especially where the character of Kitty is concerned. If forced to put it in a genre, I'd call it historical fiction. Susan's character in particular was a delight to read, as she uses the mysterious events as a launching point to exercise a range of talents that she was never able to access in her role as a lady:
I'm doing this mostly because it's opened wide a door to a room inside me that before I could only guess at by the light along the sill and through the keyhole. It's a room in which all those things in me that, living the normal life of a well-bred woman, I could never use--strength and speed and hardiness; command over my mind and body; respect for the language of my senses; a certain ferocity of the spirit--are not only useful but essential (146).
This book is definitely not for everyone. If you're not down with having Friedrich Engels as a supporting character, don't even bother. But if you're interested in mid-19th century English history, if you like complex characters with flawed relationships, if you don't mind the occasional philosophical ramble . . . this book is definitely a good choice.

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*Which project has been sadly neglected in my attempt to read as many 50 Shades of Grey readalikes as possible, but which is now back on track as if those three months never happened. In my attempt to get this book (begun in February of this year) actually read, I resorted to keeping one copy at work, one at home, and one in my car.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Book Review: Too Much Temptation [2002]

Lori Foster's Too Much Temptation was a less-recommended 50 Shades readalike than some I've discussed here, but it was available and came in through ILL! Sometimes you take what you can get.

After Noah Harper discovers his bride-to-be in bed with another man, he's too much of a gentleman to explain the reason for his broken engagement to his high-society grandmother, Agatha. When she promptly disinherits Noah in an attempt to change his mind, her personal assistant, Grace Jenkins, leaps to his defense. Grace has always had a soft spot for the scarred, streetwise kid who made himself into an entrepreneurial success after Agatha adopted him. She's been in love with him for years, but is accustomed to men viewing her plus-size body as friend material rather than fodder for sexual fantasies.

After caring for a drunk Noah and waking up in his bed, Grace finds herself agreeing to a no-strings sexual relationship with him, in which--while they are in the bedroom only--she will accede to his every desire. But Noah soon finds that despite his stated wish for an attachment-free relationship, he's getting serious about being with Grace. Plagued by insecurity and determined not to invest her heart, Grace nonetheless throws herself into the opportunity to be intimate with the man she loves. There are some shenanigans with a family-owned restaurant and Noah's ex, but those are pretty much beside the point.

Grade: B

I understand why it only got six mentions out of fifty sources in terms of being a 50 Shades readalike. Too Much Temptation is essentially a traditional romance novel that plays a little bit with kink (the theoretical bedroom "slave" scenario) and is distinguished by its dominant male protagonist. However, there are several similarities. Like Ana, Grace is a virgin. Noah does have the tormented foster kid backstory that 50 Shades fans will be familiar with, and perhaps drawn to. The story takes place in a setting of wealth and privilege.

The parts I liked about this book had no bearing on its relationship with the E.L. James books. I liked that Noah talked with Grace about her body and how she saw herself, and how she slowly gained confidence, especially sexually. I liked that the relationship between Noah, Grace, and Agatha was thorny and complicated. I liked that Grace actually had to find a new job, and that she pursued it even though she knew it would make Noah frustrated. It was an enjoyable read, and I'd definitely read the sequel featuring Noah's half-brother.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

. . . And Other Duties as Assigned

Artwork by John LeMasney,

Some days (or weeks, or months) it's hard to feel like I'm accomplishing anything. There's always so much to do, and it's hard to feel that there's progress when the tasks--even when they're fun--are repetitive. As soon as I finish a book order, I start another book order. We are also doing some realignment at my library, which made me really think about what it is I actually do at work. So I'm taking a step back and listing my current job duties here--both because they may soon change, and because sometimes I need a reminder of how much I actually accomplish for my job.

I'm a reference librarian, which means I spend 4-5 hours a day on desk, five or six days a week (unless I'm working on a Friday), helping people. I'm finding patrons books and other materials, pointing them toward the bathroom and the exit, fielding microfilm requests and helping people use our venerable machines, recommending books, and helping patrons fill out those horrifically complicated online job applications or teaching them how to upload a profile picture to Facebook. At the same time, I'm checking the tables and disposing of trash, picking up books and stacking them on the cart for counting use and reshelving, keeping my eye out for patrons who look like they might need help, and trying to get other work done as I can while still looking approachable at the desk.

Whether I'm on desk or not, I am responsible for:
  • Collection management (ordering, replacing, moving from "new" status to the regular stacks, weeding) for parts of the nonfiction collection that include more than 25,000 items in a variety of subject areas.
  • Collection management of more than 26,000 paperbacks across 10 locations. This includes taking in stacks of donations and evaluating their suitability for the collection.
  • Collection management for the adult graphic novel collection at my library and six branches.
  • Collection management for the system's young adult video game collection, housed at two locations.
  • Teaching two or more classes (usually Computer Basics and Microsoft Excel) for up to 14 students each two-month session of computer classes, and assisting my co-workers with their classes.
  • Keeping the paperback display area stocked with books and changing it monthly. It's a bit big for one theme, so I usually do one on each half. I also do the National Poetry Month display.
  • Gathering materials and sending them to my two homebound patrons.
  • Ordering the few museum passes that the library offers and keeping them up to date.
  • Pursuing continuing education opportunities--attending and presenting at conferences, etc.
  • Maintaining a stream of information on the library's Google+ page.
...and other duties as assigned, which includes any number of things they don't teach you in library school.

I don't know what the future holds, but my five-year anniversary at this library is this month. I've added a lot of responsibilities since I started working here, and have come to feel very proprietary about my work and my library. I will try to continue challenging myself by taking on new projects, presenting, and talking about what I'm doing, but I also want to balance that with my desire to help library patrons--with whatever they need--on a one-on-one basis. My collection development responsibilities are very important to me as well.

I know they say libraries can't be all things to all people, but when it comes down to ME, I want to do it all. And hey, that's a lot of stuff that I juggle every day! I am proud of myself--and will bookmark this post for those days when it feels like nothing is getting done.

Want to know more about Show Me the Awesome? Check out these posts by Kelly, Liz, and Sophie.


I keep finding myself remembering more things I do as a part of my job that I haven't listed here. For example, at least twice a year I co-teach a class on grantwriting basics or grant budgeting with one of my colleagues, drawing on knowledge from my nonprofit office-working days. I don't know what it means that I can't seem to remember everything that I do.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: Corralled [2010]

Two series of Lorelei James books were recommended as potential 50 Shades of Grey readalikes: Rough Riders and Blacktop Cowboys. Perhaps due to the raciness of the covers, the libraries in my system have only one of the former and most of the latter series, so I checked out Corralled, which is the first of the Blacktop Cowboys series (and yes, the entire series features shirtless cowboy covers).

The daughter of a famous bull rider who died tragically, Lainie Capshaw works as a sports therapist on two different rodeo circuits, and finds herself drawn to--and sleeping with--one man from each tour. When both bullfighter Hank and bull rider Kyle appear at the same bar at the same time, she knows the jig is up. What she doesn't expect is for Hank and Kyle to approach her with a proposition: she will travel with both of them for three weeks during "Cowboy Christmas." They propose to share her bed at the same time, launching the three of them on a voyage of erotic discovery.

The men are hoping that she'll be forced to choose between them, which she declares she won't do when she accepts their offer. But after several weeks on the road with both Hank and Kyle, she finds herself drawn to one of them more than the other . . .

Grade: A-

I wouldn't class this as a great readalike for the 50 Shades trilogy, but it was an excellent erotic romance. I would give it to someone who loves western romances and Jaci Burton fans. James has a skillful way of handling the dynamics of a three-person relationship in a hypermasculine world like rodeo, and uses plenty of detail to make the setting believable. The book is as much about rodeo politics and genuine friendships as it is about hot sex (of which there is plenty). As seems to be customary for these books, there is an attempted rape.

Corralled ended up being one of my favorite books read for this project, so much so that I just voluntarily read another book in the series, One Night Rodeo, to find out what happened to some of the characters in Corralled.

Book Review Index

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: Smooth Talking Stranger [2009]

Smooth Talking Stranger is the third book in a series about the Travis siblings by Lisa Kleypas. While another book in the series, Blue Eyed Devil, was mentioned once as a potential 50 Shades readalike, Smooth Talking Stranger was mentioned about 25% of the time in the sources I consulted. I listened to the audio version of this book, and found it quite addictive. It ended up being one of my favorites of the books I read for this project. Some spoilers below.
Jack Travis is a millionaire playboy who is rarely seen with the same woman twice. When Ella Varner appears in his office with a baby she claims is his, he's taken aback . . . and intrigued. Although he claims he hasn't slept with Ella's sister, Tara, he is willing to go through DNA testing. In the meantime, relationship advice columnist Ella is finding her carefully ordered life turned upside down by the nephew that has been thrust upon her by her brittle, uncaring mother and rehab-bound sister. At the beginning of the story, Ella is in a relationship with a man who doesn't believe in marriage or commitment, and she has come to espouse those ideals as well. When Jack challenges her preconceived notions, she finds it hard to ignore the points he makes, even as she stubbornly tries to maintain her independence.

Grade: A

There's so much to like in this well-rounded book, in which women have conversations with each other that aren't about men, there are some truly unlikable people but no true villains, and a baby is a plot device but isn't just used and then never seen again. Luke requires housing, feeding, and energy from both Ella and Jack, and he ends up feeling like more than a convenient trope. The progression of Jack and Ella's relationship was very well-developed, and included a lot of moments among his and her family members that made it seem much more grounded in reality than many of the books I've been reading recently.

As for its similarity to 50 Shades, Jack is definitely a dominant male, and the setting is, once again, among the  one percent. Unlike the James books, however, Ella is the one with the traumatic past (trigger warning for attempted rape, as is true of many of these books), although like Eva of the Crossfire trilogy she has taken steps to care for herself and move forward. If someone came to the reference desk and asked me for a good contemporary romance, I wouldn't hesitate to hand this one over, 50 Shades or no 50 Shades.

Book Review Index

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book Review: Caught in Amber [2013]

I am a big fan of Cathy Pegau’s book Rulebreaker, which came out in 2011. I was very pleased when Cathy asked earlier this year if I would be interested in reading the next two books in the series--thankfully, she didn’t stop at just one! However, for some reason she refuses to send me the ones she hasn’t written yet...

Caught in Amber is the story of Nathan Sterling (the mining authority agent introduced in Rulebreaker) and Sasha James, the woman whose help he needs to rescue his sister from the clutches of a dangerous drug dealer. Sasha has recently been released from prison, where she was serving a sentence and recovering from her addiction to the drug known as amber. Once the lover of Guy Christiansen, the colony’s notorious amber dealer, Sasha is determined to stay clean and finish her parole as far away from him as possible.

Nathan has other ideas, however. His sister Kylie has disappeared into Christiansen’s compound and he fears that her fate will be the same as Sasha’s--or worse. He has reason to suspect that Christiansen still harbors feelings for Sasha, and wants her assistance getting into the dealer’s compound. In exchange, he promises her freedom from the system and the regulatory chip implanted in her neck. Unfortunately, he’s working alone and not authorized to promise Sasha anything, especially when it’s not clear whether either of them will make it out of their encounters with Christiansen alive.

Growing attraction and sympathy between Nathan and Sasha complicate things further as Sasha risks her recovery and her life in order to befriend Kylie and help Nathan under the eyes of Christiansen and the enigmatic Genevieve Caine, his lieutenant. But will she be able to resist the lure of amber when she’s back where it all began?

Grade: A

My favorite part of these books is the carefully constructed world that Cathy has imagined, which includes meticulous details of religion, food, culture, mining(!), and climate. The setting is a consistent background character that is carried through all of what I have read so far. The books have an appealing blend of science fiction, romance, and thriller--with a dash of mystery--and Caught in Amber is no exception. Cathy also gets points from me for naming one of her secondary characters Mickelson, even if she did use an “-on”...

I can feel a little nervous when I am asked to look at the work of someone I know, because although I am an easy grader, I do try to review things honestly. However, I wasn’t worried about reviewing Cathy’s work, and I liked Caught in Amber enough to buy myself a copy, even though I’ve already read the book. I want to be able to re-read the whole (hopefully long) series when the time comes!

ETA: My review of the next book in the series, Deep Deception, is now up at the Lesbrary.

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Book Review: Sweet Surrender [2008]

Maya Banks' Sweet series was often recommended as a readalike for the 50 Shades trilogy in the sources I consulted, coming in third behind Sylvia Day's Crossfire trilogy and the Anne Rice Beauty trilogy. Much like the Wicked Lovers series, the stories revolve around a set of friends and co-workers, with each book featuring a different pairing. The series was originally published from 2008-2012, but all six books were redesigned and released again at the end of 2012, I suspect in response to the popularity of 50 Shades.

Sweet Surrender
 is the first book in the series. I read the mass market paperback version (pictured above), which I had the foresight to purchase for my library before I had any idea I would want to read it. Go me! Mild spoilers below.

At the instigation of his partner's father, Dallas cop Grayson Montgomery comes to Houston looking for leads on his partner's unsolved murder. He begins by getting a job at a local security firm in order to get close to Faith Malone. He believes that Faith's mother is connected to his partner's killer, and expects Faith to provide the connection he needs to crack the case. Faith works at the security firm for her adoptive father and has only recently severed her relationship with her neglectful mother. She's also beginning to realize some things about her personal life, especially about her sexual desires. Faith wants a man to take control of all aspects of her life, not just sexually. More than anything else, she wants to be taken care of. Meanwhile, Gray is a man who wants to be in complete control. The spark between them is strong and instantaneous, but Gray doesn't want to be distracted from his goal by starting a relationship with Faith, especially when he's in her life under false pretenses.

However, Faith's natural curiosity about submission and her mother's sudden reappearance in her life combine to throw the couple together so often that they are unable to deny their attraction. The only questions are whether their burgeoning relationship will be able to survive Gray's duplicity . . . or the killer that is hot on her trail.

Grade: B-

Like Forbidden Pleasure and Mine to Hold, Sweet Surrender features a male protagonist in law enforcement. And, as with those, the "thriller" plot doesn't hold together as well as the development of the romantic relationship. Unlike the heroines of those books, however, Faith takes a much more active role--first in her self-education about submissive desire, and then when she finds herself in danger. There is a moment in which she and Gray clash over the depth of her involvement; she comes to realize that if she wants a man to dictate her sexual experiences, she must let go of her preconceived notions of how it will play out. These details of their developing relationship are interesting, but it feels as if Banks has left half of the equation blank--even though we learn about Faith's past, her history with her abusive mother, and her evolving concept of desire, we learn precious little about Gray. It seems like a missed opportunity when he could be a much more well-developed character. However, since all the action takes place in the space of perhaps three weeks (maximum), perhaps this isn't surprising.

This is a book about dominance and submission that does not venture into the pain part of the equation. It's adventurous and kinky without being completely over the top, which in my opinion is what makes it a good 50 Shades readalike. However, Faith is a true submissive, which is completely unlike Ana.

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