Fifty Shades of Grey By E.L. James
April 16, 2012

This is a dirty book. It is probably the dirtiest book I have ever read, and that is really saying something, because I am not new to dirty books.

As teenager, after I finished all the Sweet Valley High Books, I started reading adult fiction of the Jackie Collins variety. These were really fun books. On the whole, the stories themselves were only slightly more sophisticated than the YA books of my youth. But, instead of focusing on high school politics, they were about grown up teenagers, almost-recognizable celebrities living very scandalous lives.

It was like harmless celebrity fan fiction. Except that they were very, very racy. The first adult fiction book I read was Jackie Collins’ Lovers & Gamblers. While I was far too young to be reading it, I seriously loved it and read it multiple times. And not just for its blushingly explicit depictions of casual and frequently kinky sex.

Lovers & Gamblers is positively puritanical when compared to E.L. James’ Fifty Shades Trilogy.

Given that the plot of the series seems to exist only to facilitate explicit sex scenes, its not that surprising that the plot and characters are lifted blatantly from the Twilight series.  The author openly admits that the story started as a piece of Twilight fan fiction called Master of The Universe.

The only difference between the stories is that instead of Edward Cullen being a vampire, Christian Grey is an emotionally damaged sexual Dominant who wants his Bella Swan – Anastasia Steele – to agree to play Submissive in a kinky BDSM relationship.

I realize that sounds really different, but in practice, it isn’t.

Basically, Christian looks and behaves almost exactly like Edward Cullen – down to the copper hair and chiseled abs. Like Edward, he fights a compulsion to hurt the girl he loves, and obsesses on controlling and protecting her.

Like Bella Swan, Anastasia (Ana) Steele is beautiful and special, and only she thinks she is ordinary. She believes that she is too pale and skinny, that her eyes are too big and she is too clumsy. These ridiculous insecurities prevent her from realizing that the most beautiful and mysterious man on earth is hopelessly in love with her. He almost immediately wants to give up his dangerous ways have a real relationship with her and she is somehow FURIOUS about it!  The only thing keeping them apart is Ana’s stubborn insistence on acting like an idiot.

Exactly like Bella Swan, you guys.

I know that Twilight itself is rather poorly written, but the writing in Fifty Shades is epically awful. I’m never one to complain about a little explicit sex in my reading, but even Jackie Collins included an actual plot between the “good parts”. Otherwise, it’s just LadyPorn for the Twilight Soul. There is literally so much distractingly narrated sex in these books that I actually tried to stop reading those scenes.

But, literally nothing else happens.

Any semblance of a story runs out halfway through the second book, so the third book consists of Ana and Christian being rich and in love and hanging out with their bodyguards and maids. It would be very Downton Abbey, if Downton had a sex dungeon.

I have to admit that the biggest complaint I had about Twilight was that it didn’t have enough sex in it. But, the biggest complaint I have about Fifty Shades, is that it has too much sex. I think this makes a pretty convincing argument for splicing the books together. (If someone does this, please let me know!)

Having started as fan fiction – which is really just a fantasy about a fantasy – this book is just using the plot of Twilight as a vehicle for wish fulfillment.

So, to me, the most interesting thing about both stories is to consider what these fantasies say about the reality it is intended to stand in contrast to. Does this mean that ladies these days are beset by men who are mean for no reason, never buy them anything, criticize them for eating too much, make them have jobs, drive their own cars and engage in boring and infrequent sex?

That’s kind of sad, ladies.

I have no comment on the cover art for these books. I was grateful to read it on my phone, so I didn’t have to admit to anyone that I was reading porn.

Bloodsucking Fiends – By Christopher Moore
April 14, 2011

Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends is a funny and twisted vampire romance from an earlier age of vampire stories, where all the references to pop culture vampires are centered on Anne Rice and Lestat de Lioncourt, instead of Stephenie Meyer and Edward Cullen.

As you know, I possess an inscrutable and unknowable love for THAT vampire series – The  Twilight Saga. However, let it not be forgotten that back in the day I was equally psychotic and irrational about Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. My 1990’s-era copy of The Vampire Lestat featured so many of my favorite passages outlined in fading yellow highlighter that even I had to admit I would have been better served to highlight the passages I did not find profound and beautiful and revolutionary. Growing up in the suburbs of San Francisco, no book entranced and enchanted my teenage soul like The Vampire Lestat. (Except maybe The Stand by Stephen King).

Beset as I am by my love for the most famous vampire series of this century, I am not unfamiliar with the pop psychology analysis of the current vampire craze, which seems to be a bit over-reaching in its suggestion that our predilection for “vegetarian vampires” is emblematic of post-Cold War anxieties and the twin specters of American consumerism and rising globalism…or whatever.

I honestly don’t know what it is about the condition of our economy and society that creates an almost universal interest in vampires.  Nor do I know what it says about us that our post-modern vampires eschew the classical view of humans as a food supply, and instead they want to screw us and love us and buy us fancy cars and houses. (Ok, maybe it does suggest we are a tad materialistic.)

Back in the day, however, the popular interest in vampires seemed more blatantly reflective of a collective consciousness haunted by fear and blood and death in the dark shape of the of the exploding AIDS epidemic.

While Bloodsucking Fiends is set in 1990s San Francisco, a city inside the dark heart of a horrifying real-life pandemic, it is mostly a hilarious and charming tale of a magical city populated by quirky and clever outsiders  – where homelessness, mental illness – and yes – terminal illness play clever and amusing supporting roles.

Originally published in the mid-nineties, Bloodsucking Fiends follows twenty-something  insurance adjuster Jody who wakes up one evening under a dumpster, suddenly immortal with thousands of dollars in cash stuffed in her blouse. Once she realizes that she is a vampire, her biggest regret is that she never shed that stubborn 5 pounds, and is now doomed to carry it forever.  Jody is addicted to bad relationships and needs an apartment and a new human boyfriend to help her manage her new nocturnal and supernatural life. She happens upon aspiring writer Tommy Flood, who is naive and kind-hearted and girl crazy. Their unlikely love story unfolds against a backdrop of murder and mayhem colored by a slacker sensibility that is uniquely 1990s.

Two brilliantly-titled sequels have followed Bloodsucking FiendsBite Me and You Suck, respectively.  I can’t wait to read them and find out how the new millennium and a new vampire craze are treating Jody and Tommy, et al.

Caitlin – The Love Trilogy – #2 – Love Lost
February 11, 2011

Obviously, you should read my review of The Love Trilogy #1  Loving before you go any further.

When last we met our heroine, the RAVEN HAIRED Caitlin Ryan, she was blissfully in love with cleft-chinned cowboy Jed Michaels, but burdened with the guilty secret of her unintentional role in The Accident.

The Accident is a huge part of Loving and I probably should have explained it in more detail earlier, but it is so convoluted and ridiculous that I was hoping it would go away.  But no, The Accident is here to stay. Apparently, it cannot be contained by only one book! So, I will do my best to explain it to you, but please know in advance,  it is not going to make any sense. Because it actually doesn’t. Just go with it!

Here goes: Caitlin Ryan, RAVEN HAIRED rich bitch extraordinaire falls in love at first sight with Jed Michaels. Caitlin throws herself at Jed, but he isn’t interested because he thinks Caitlin is a bitch and Jed’s mother is a bitch and he just doesn’t like bitches.  Besides he’s already dating a scholarship girl named Diana. Jed is really into Diana, because she’s really poor and helpless and fragile and totally reminds him of his sister and apparently he’s into that kind of thing.   Meanwhile, Caitlin is producing a drag show at school – for charity of course – and needed a shovel for a prop. She uses this as a pretext to lurk over to the dean’s house – where Diana is babysitting – to see if Jed and Diana are making out or studying or something.  When Caitlin arrives at the house, Diana is inside answering the phone and the dean’s 6-year-old son Ian is contentedly playing in the yard by himself. Jed is nowhere to be found. No one sees Caitlin as she sneaks into the backyard and unlocks the shed to take a shovel. She’s in such a hurry to leave that she forgets to lock the shed. As soon as Caitlin is out of sight, Ian immediately wanders over to the shed, goes inside and eats a bunch of pesticides. He wanders back out and then falls down, hits his head and slips into a coma. Eventually, he wakes up, but he’s mysteriously paralyzed from the waist down.

Everyone blames The Accident on Diana, because she wasn’t watching Ian and must have left the shed unlocked. Even thought Diana knows she locked the shed, she also knows no one else could have left it unlocked. But, no one knows that Caitlin was there, and of course Caitlin doesn’t confess. Confessing is for poor people! Diana feels extremely guilty about The Accident and drops out of school and breaks up with Jed and disappears.  Caitlin also feels really bad for her role in The Accident, and also for letting Diana take the fall, but not bad enough to keep her from scooping up Jed and making him her own.

When we rejoin this saga, Caitlin and Jed have been desperately and beautifully in love for months now.  The only thing that mars their perfect coupling is the secret of Caitlin’s role in The Accident.

Jed’s love has TOTALLY changed Caitlin! Nowadays, she spends her afternoons helping poor, paralyzed Ian learn to walk again. She tells herself that if she can help Ian walk again it will balance out her culpability. She’s like a miracle worker!  Ian loves her, his family loves her and even the professional medical staff is impressed by Caitlin’s almost supernatural healing abilities. Its like she was born to tend to sick people! Like it is in her genes or something (hint, hint)!

When she isn’t making miracles, Caitlin is kinda obsessed with the fate of Diana.  She asks around about her and eventually finds out that Diana is anorexic now and has been hospitalized. For some reason, everyone calls it “anorectic”, which is an official word but I don’t think it applies in this case. (Clearly, A LOT of medical research has gone into The Trilogies).  One of the best/worst parts of this epic tale is the misinformation about anorexia. Of course, Caitlin knows that this anorexia was caused by the guilt Diana feels about The Accident, and The Accident was really Caitlin’s fault and therefore Caitlin caused Diana’s anorexia! Of course she did! Because that’s totally how anorexia works! (It isn’t.)

Jed Michaels: Creepy Cleft-Chinned Cowboy

Remember how Caitlin wrote Jed a letter confessing her role in The Accident, but decided not to give it to him and instead hid the letter in book? Remember how that seemed like a bad idea? It totally was, because Jed finds the letter and he is PISSED. He actually wants to kill Caitlin, but decides that maybe he will just rape her instead. Seriously.

Thankfully, he decides at the last minute that while Caitlin deserved to be raped, he just couldn’t do it, so he just goes back to Montana for the summer.

Confused and hurt, Caitlin knows that she can’t live without Jed so she decides she needs to do something to prove to Jed how sorry she is for lying about The Accident. I mean, a girl can’t just give up on a guy just because he tries to rape her, right?

Its pretty obvious what Caitlin needs to do to make things right. She immediately tracks down Diana at the Eating Disorder Hospital and – using a fake name and wearing a disguise – she signs up as a volunteer.

This is not just any disguise, you guys.

It isn’t like she just puts on glasses with a fake nose and mustache attached and calls it good. No, this is a serious disguise. Caitlin slicks her hair back, uses makeup to make herself pale and tired looking, gets some frumpy clothes, puts on a pair of glasses and – presto-chango! – she is unrecognizable!

Having basically morphed into someone else, Caitlin becomes a volunteer at the hospital, passing out magazines and books to the patients.  When she finds Diana catatonic and refusing to eat, she requests that the hospital allow her to try to help the girl. Obviously, they agree.  How could they not? Who wouldn’t allow a random teenager unfettered access to a severely mentally ill patient?

So, armed with a couple of library books on anorexia and a little elbow grease,  Caitlin cures Diana of anorexia!

Initially, Caitlin’s treatment plan of  holding Diana’s hand and whispering generic encouragement in her ear doesn’t work. In desperation, she whispers to Diana that the accident wasn’t her fault and that someone else had left the shed unlocked. Obviously, this totally does the trick and Diana wakes up and starts eating again.

All of the doctors and  hospital staff are thrilled and impressed by Caitlin. She’s like The Anorexia Whisperer!

At first, Diana doesn’t recognize Caitlin. How could she? Caitlin does have her hair in a bun and is wearing glasses. She thinks that Caitlin is just a random traveling miracle worker named “Karen Martin”. But, as Caitlin’s anorexia treatments continue, Diana starts to think that she recognizes Caitlin’s voice. Unsure of herself, Diana invites Laurence, another Highgate Student who knows both girls to help her decide if “Karen Martin” is really Caitlin Ryan. Laurence, who must have x-ray vision or something to see through Caitlin’s brilliant disguise, immediately recognizes her.

But, instead of immediately confronting “Karen”, Laurence and Diana just play along with the charade. Well, that’s probably easier. It might be awkward to point out that Caitlin is wearing a disguise and pretending to be a different person while performing amateur eating disorder treatments.

Meanwhile, Diana’s doctor – the handsome, dark-haired Dr. Westlake – also recognizes Caitlin. After taking to Diana, who tells him that “Karen Martin” = Caitlin Ryan, Dr. Westlake realizes that Caitlin is the daughter of a girl who he had loved and lost 17 years ago – a girl named Laura Ryan (DUN DUN DUN!). Dr Westlake remembers meeting Regina Ryan (AKA Mean Old Grandma) back in the day and decides to pay her a visit to talk about her amazing granddaughter, The Anorexia Whisperer.

Mean Old Grandma remembers Dr. Westlake and immediately announces that he is Caitlin’s father.

Of course he is.

Apparently Dr. Westlake and Laura had fallen in love in college, but Mean Old Grandma didn’t approve, and forbid them to be together. Before she could tear Laura away from the then-struggling medical student, Laura got knocked up. Mean Old Grandma forced Laura to leave without out even saying goodbye to her love, and Dr. Westlake never heard from them again.  Laura died giving birth to Caitlin and Mean Old Grandma became her guardian. For convenience’s sake, Mean Old Grandma lied to Caitlin and told her that her father intentionally abandoned her. But in truth, Dr. Westlake didn’t even know she existed.

Now, Dr. Westlake is all excited to tell Miracle Worker Caitlin Ryan that he’s her father.

But, instead of being happy, Caitlin is furious. She thinks Dr. Westlake is lying and that he did abandon her and she hates him. Mean Old Grandma would never lie to her! (BTW, she TOTALLY would.)

But, now that her cover is blown by her super-sleuting secret father, Caitlin has to confess to Diana who she really is and the real reason that she is there at the hospital. In disguise. Curing anorexia. AWKWARD!

Love Lost circa 1991

But, Diana isn’t mad at Caitlin at all!  She forgives Caitlin for her role in The Accident and they become really good friends. At the end of the summer, Diana leaves the hospital and moves away, but she and Caitlin vow to be BFFs. Oh and Caitlin starts dating Diana’s friend Laurence, but she just can’t forget about Jed. How could she? Yes, he’s a douchebag with an Oedipus complex, but he does have a cleft chin and rides horses so Caitlin can’t just let a guy like that go!

What will happen when Caitlin and Jed return to Highgate Academy in the fall? Stay tuned for True Love.

Awesome Outfit: Violet Ball gown with a scooped neck and puffed sleeves ending at a row of buttons at the wrist

Cover Art: The original cover of this book (featured at the top of this post) is one of the best of the series. The 1990s reissue of the series to your left is also amazing in its awfulness.

Caitlin: The Love Trilogy: Loving (#1)
January 30, 2011

God, that’s a long title for a book.

It does sound fancy though dosen’t it? And this book is nothing if not fancy!

On the surface, Caitlin Ryan is your standard issue Poor Little Rich Girl. She’s raven haired, beautiful and unapologetically bitchy and cruel.  Despite being worshiped by not just the students of Highgate Academy – the super-fancy boarding school that she attends – but pretty much the world in general, Caitlin is sad and lonely. She’s vaguely an orphan and lives with her Mean Old Grandma, Regina Ryan. Regina owns a coal mine, and is terribly wealthy and cold-hearted. Despite being old, she’s a super-modern liberated woman who is too busy being rich to  tolerate her granddaughter so she has sent her to a nearby boarding school.

Regina’s only interest in Caitlin is as something she can parade in front of mining industry people, to further her Mean Old Mining agenda. Its a little weird how much the mining industry is discussed in this book, considering that most of the characters don’t even receive physical descriptions. As I recall, the later books actually delve into the mortality behind treatment of mine workers and the environmental impact of strip mining.

Seriously.

We are supposed to hate Mean Old Grandma, but its hard.  Highgate Academy is freaking awesome. This may be where my Boarding School obsession began. Set in the rolling hills of Virginia, there are stables and riding paths and the dining hall is like the fanciest country club ever!  It features mahogany paneling and crystal chandeliers and everything! Caitlin’s dorm room is even awesomer than the rest of the school because her Mean Old Grandma tricked it out with mahogany bookshelves, a stereo and custom made drapes.

I also don’t see how we can feel sorry for Caitlin – she is living the teenage dream. She’s the richest rich girl ever and lives a life blissfully free from meddling parents or financial limitations. She has her own horses and when not at fancy-fancy Highgate Academy, she lives right around the corner at her grandmother’s resort-like palatial estate – Ryan Acres.  That’s right, a house with a name! (This is something I discovered with Gone With The Wind, and I have never really let go of. If I could get away with naming my house, I would TOTALLY do it!)

Plus she has RAVEN HAIR and sparkly blue eyes and is driven around in a sick Bentley by a chauffeur named Rollins.

I think we are supposed to be learning a lesson about how money dosen’t buy love, but I’m not learning shit because life is pretty awesome for Caitlin. When she wants to attract the attention of a boy at school, she just invites a dozen of her closest friends back to Ryan Acres for a fabulous weekend riding horses and lounging in luxury.

When Caitlin hears an awesome idea for a school fundraiser, she blatantly steals it. The girl she steals it from is named Tenny, and she dosen’t even bother to protest. That’s right, her name is Tenny. What is Tenny short for? Tennis? Tennessee? We will never know.

But, its not just any idea that Caitlin is stealing. Tenny has suggested that they sell tickets to a boys beauty pageant, where the boys dress in drag. Clearly, Caitlin cannot allow a girl named Tenny to take credit for an idea of that caliber. And even though you might think that a drag show starring wealthy teen-aged soccer players might be in questionable taste – everyone loves the idea initially.

When the boys have a moment to consider the ramifications of prancing around on stage in drag, they protest weakly, and Caitlin brilliantly twists the idea so that boys can also dress in costumes like napoleon and superman. Um, ok…. Whatever. This pageant is all window dressing for the real story here: the insane and dysfunctional love story of Caitlin and Jed Michaels.

Jed is a really hot cowboy from Montana with wavy hair and a hot body. Caitlin thinks its revolutionary that  Jed wears cowboy clothes. Its just so edgy! Also, his pants are tight. Jed is is new to Highgate, and Caitlin is immediately smitten. They bond over horseback riding and dysfunctional families.

Jed, however, has taken an interest in a scholarship girl named Diana. Caitlin is understandably horrified that Jed would take an interest in a poor person, who doesn’t even ride horses! Diana is from a trashy family and has to babysit for a teacher to afford to stay at the fancy school.

Despite Caitlin’s almost magical powers of manipulation, she is unable to distract Jed from Diana. Until, through a confusing series of events, Caitlin’s negligence results in the kid Diana babysits getting poisoned, and Diana is blamed.  Diana drops of out school and disappears.

Caitlin’s Mean Old Grandma forgets her birthday and dosen’t show up to watch the cross-dressing costume pageant. In addition, she feels really guilty for her part in the accidental poisoning  – oh that somehow leads to the kid being paralyzed, which really dosen’t make much sense, but whatever. Distraught, Caitlin dramatically rides her horse off in the rain, crying about how everywhere she goes, misery and death follow. She realizes that the reason Mean Old Grandma avoids her birthday is that Caitlin’s mother died giving birth to her, and even her birthday is shrouded in darkness and death.

Being emo and riding horses in the rain leads to Caitlin contracting pneumonia, and having to stay in bed at Ryan Acres for weeks, wishing she had died. Its totally melodramatic and dark and I know I loved it when I read this book back in the day.

The whole pneumonia/kid poisoning episode TOTALLY CHANGES Caitlin, and when she returns to school she has become an old lady who hates parties and just wants to sit in the corner. Well, this was the best move ever because Jed LOVES girls that sit in corners and he immediately wants to get all up on her.

With Diana gone, Jed – who apparently has a fetish for sad girls – falls for Caitlin.

Jed tells Caitlin that he never really loved Diana. He realizes now that he was just into her because she was quiet and sad and reminded him of his sister. He also tells Caitlin he didn’t like her initially because he thought she was shallow, manipulative and flirtatious, which reminded him of his mother. But, now that Caitlin is sad and broody he’s totally into her. Um. Is it just me, or does Jed have a thing for his sister???

Oh who cares if its creepy, because the love of Jed Michaels changes Caitlin into a totally different person who is happy and nice and actually cares about other people. You see, all Caitlin needed to be human was the love of a sexy cowboy in tight corduroy jeans.

Only one thing mars the perfection that is the icky love of Jed Michaels,  and that is the teeny tiny secret that it was really Caitlin who caused the accident that paralyzed the kid and drove Diana back to the trailer park. Caitlin decides that she cannot keep the secret any longer and writes Jed a letter confessing her part in the accident. But, she just can’t bring herself to give him the letter, because she fears that he will stop loving her and obviously the world will end. So she does what anyone would do. She hides the letter in a book of love poems that she places upon the mahogany bookshelf in her dorm room.

You guys don’t think that someone is going find that letter in The Love Trilogy #2 – Love Lost, do you???

Let’s talk cover art. I was pretty sad when my copy of this book arrived from amazon, as did not feature the epic painting you see above. Instead, I received a version so bizarre that I can’t even find it on the internet. Apparently these books were re-issued in the early 90s and they decided to use a cover model. She kind of looks like Jamie Gertz and its wearing leather gloves and holding a riding crop. Its awful.

Finally, the best part about reading 1980s era YA is the awesome outfits. Caitlin wears such fashionable items as a pink and magenta taffeta dress, an indigo jumpsuit and a black leather pants suit. Oh if only these books came with pictures!

Up next: Love Lost.

Caitlin: A Trilogy of Trilogies
January 30, 2011

Man, I love a trilogy.

Francine Pascal loves trilogies too. Perhaps more than even I, because in the late 80s she decided that one trilogy was not enough to contain a heroine as bitchy and dark as that beautiful demoness Caitlin Ryan.

Of course, as with that magnum opus Sweet Valley High, Francine dosen’t love these books enough to write them herself. That lowly task falls to ghostwriters, but its Francine’s name emblazoned across the cover.

Obviously, I loved Sweet Valley High back in the day. I was an active fan and sought the books out at the library and bookstores as they were published, and it seemed for a while like new books would come out at least once a month. I don’t remember when I first saw the Caitlin Series, but I imagine that it was advertised in the backs of SVH books. I loved these book covers. The drawings of Caitlin Ryan’s raven hair, pale skin and blue eyes captivated and inspired  me in my burgeoning interest in black hair dye.

Francine was in rare form when she conceived Caitlin’s tale. A regular old “series” wasn’t epic enough to contain this sweeping tale of 80s fashion, horses and the mining industry. It was a story suited only for a trilogy – but still too vast for just ONE trilogy. No.

Only a Trilogy of Trilogies can do this legend justice.

The Love Trilogy: Loving, Love Lost, True Love

The Promise Trilogy: Tender Promises, Promises Broken, A New Promise

The Forever Trilogy: Dreams of Forever, Forever & Always, Together Forever

I read and loved them all. Perhaps more than even SVH, because they were dark. Caitlin wasn’t just rich, beautiful and cruel – she was self destructive, sociopathic and lonely.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to dig around at garage sales to locate these fabulous books. Through the wonder of technology that even super-rich Caitlin didn’t have access to back in the day (i.e. Amazon.com), over the next few weeks I plan to read them and report back. It is my gift to you, Interwebs. You are welcome.