Fifty Shades Trilogy: Fifty Shades of Grey – Book Review (EL James)

The Fifty Shades trilogy, whose three books are currently are the top three sellers in the United States, is anything but tame. The first book, titled Fifty Shades of Grey, should have been titled Fifty Shades of Scarlet. That’s how your face will be while reading it – especially if there’s someone peaking at your copy.

Ana Steele is a soon-to-be college graduate in her early twenties who’s asked by her best friend, Kate, to go and interview a self-made young enigmatic billionaire named Christian Grey at the HQ of his company. Knowing nothing about him, the interview isn’t exactly top notch. But it works well enough for Christian to develop an interest in Ana, who reciprocates the feeling.

What Ana doesn’t know is that Christian Grey is controlling, seriously into BDSM, with a playroom in his huge Seattle apartment, and who wants Ana to be his submissive beyond anything he’s ever wanted before.

Fifty Shades of Grey is carnal. There’s nothing that happens in the 500-pages book apart from the two main characters having sex all the time. The sex scenes are also graphically detailed. Fifty Shades of Grey is porn on paper.

Ana Steele is so one-dimensional as a character that she can’t even remotely draw you in. For a self-proclaimed virgin who can’t wait to be deflowered by Christian, she sure develops an insatiable need for sex. Her character is so shallow that the few moments where she appears to be different are marred by what immediately follows: her relapsing into the girl/women who can’t but seek Christian’s approval. The words “oh my” are present at every sentence to signal her astonishment as she explores the boundaries of her body, reveling in the eroticism of it all. Her “inner-goddess” never gets enough. And it quickly becomes grating.

Christian’s need, on the other hand, is never fully explained. While he is the more interesting character, the potential complexity is barely touched, never delved in. He’s left to his rough exterior, barely ruffled. And if Ana’s needy for sex, she can barely keep up with Christian who never seems to get enough. It eventually becomes repetitive, not adding anything to the story but useless pages to increase the book’s spine.

Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t manage to go five shades deep, it remains afloat, blowing you, no pun intended, with sex scene after another, after another and then some. It’s a shallow, useless read. It’s repetitive beyond imagination. The characters initiate intercourse using the same gestures: biting their lips, cocking their heads to the side… that you get to smell it coming, no pun intended – again, from a mile away. The success of this book baffles me. I am not a reader of erotic fiction and I don’t think I’ll ever be. But if an erotic book at least had a plot to support it, I can comprehend people going for it. Fifty Shades of Grey has nothing in it.

I pity the person who had to do the audiobook for this.

2/10

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The Hunger Games – Movie Review

For legions of people, The Hunger Games is the most anticipated movie release of the year. And for a movie released so early in 2012, that’s saying something. Based on the book of the same title (read my review here), The Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl living in a post-apocalyptic America where hunger and oppression ruled, where hunting for rodents was the way to keep your family alive and where every day represents a fight for your life.

This post-apocalyptic America is the country of Panem, governed by the Capitol which oversees twelve districts, making sure they are stripped down to the bare necessities. Those twelve districts had been thirteen that rebelled against the Capitol’s oppression. They lost the war and are still paying the price, the heaviest of which is the annual Hunger Games which require each district to send a young man and woman, for a total of 24, to battle each other to the death. There can only be one victor. “May the odds be ever in your favor” is the sentence the tributes keep hearing as if odds will help them on the brink of death.

When her sister is chosen, Katniss volunteers in her place and is taken along with the male tribute of District 12, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), to the Capitol where they are groomed like lambs for slaughter in an attempt to make an impression which can make it or break it for them once the games fall upon them. And fall they do, with devastating consequences.

To see the Katniss Everdeen of your imagination after reading The Hunger Games books be incarnated so perfectly on screen by Jennifer Lawrence is a joy to the eye. Lawrence struts through every scene as if she was Katniss and Katniss was her. She exuberates confidence, sentimentality, fragility, innocence, worry, love and pain. Widely known for her Oscar-nominated role in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence is still in the same vein in The Hunger Games. This time, however, she manages to polish the sides of her performance, nitpicking until she truly becomes flawless. In Katniss, Lawrence gives you a heroine you want to root for with all your heart. It doesn’t even feel forced, it’s simply natural to feel invested in the primal force that Lawrence conveys to Katniss. And it is then that you realize the brilliance of Lawrence’s Katniss. She has managed to make her character one that is driven by principle.

Director Gary Ross manages to not let the movie’s extended run at 140 minutes affect it negatively. The Hunger Games doesn’t let down. It keeps picking up, bring in gut-wrenching revelations and action sequences one after the other. Ross uses the action of the movie to serve the characters, not drown them. He keeps the suspense going throughout. His camerawork is also highly interesting, with lots of focus on his characters’ faces, giving them a more humane appearance and seeing the struggles in them easily. Co-writing the movie’s script with the book’s author, Suzanne Collins, he stays true to the book’s essence. Even though some sequences have been shortened and some have been omitted, the feeling of the book remains there, present for you throughout to sink your eyes into.

At the center of the deathly games is a growing love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a friend of Katniss from District 12 who’s lucky enough not to have been chosen as tribute. Liam Hemsworth quickly establishes himself as a forceful character, with the limited screentime he gets. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is highly relatable as the man secretly crushing over Katniss whose only memory of him is him helping her in a time of need. But the greatest triumph in this regard for The Hunger Games is focusing less on the love triangle than other movies targeting the same audience, making you really not care about either Team Peeta or Team Gale. At the end of the day, the only team you want to be on is the movie.

Other actors that appear in the movie are Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, a TV host that charmingly narrates the games as they unfold. Elizabeth Banks stars as Effie Trinket, a Capitol spokesperson who’s as obnoxious as she is caring. Donald Sutherland appears as the horrible President Snow, governing his country with a hand of steel. Woody Harrelson is the always drunk Haymitch who has to sober up in order to tip the balance in his tributes’ favor.

The Hunger Games is an unflinching adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ book. In many ways, the book was more suited for a screen adaptation because it is that fertile for the imagination. The movie does not falter. It’s a more serious movie than many might think it could possibly be. It is gut-wrenching at times and heavily sincere at others. It takes you on a roller coaster ride that you never want to let go of. In fact, not wanting to let go is most evident when, after 140 minutes, the movie suddenly ends and you remain in your seat wanting more. Fans of the book, rejoice. The Hunger Games does not disappoint at all. It’s a haunting tale that, coupled with a chilling score by James Newton Howard that serves as a brilliant auditory backdrop the darkest of scenes, will leave you mesmerized by how real it feels and how good it turned out to be. May the odds be ever in favor of The Hunger Games.
10/10

The Help (Book Review) – Kathryn Stockett

For the movie review, click here.

Born in Jackson, Mississippi and raised at the hands of a maid, Kathryn Stockett knows firsthand how it was to be a “superior” white person in the American South in the 1960s. The black maids tend to the white children, watch those children grow up and eventually become their bosses.

So it is with that sort of autobiographical flair that Stockett approaches her debut novel: The Help. No, the book is not an autobiography but it feels very real because it draws upon life-like elements and historical events to drive its plot. Eugena “Skeeter” Phelan is a fresh college graduate going home to Jackson in 1962 after a failed attempt at securing a job with important New York publishers. As she settles in the hierarchal routine of her hometown, Skeeter starts to realize that she doesn’t really belong in the bridge circles her friends have every week or their banquets. She’s also not as interested in the mundane elements of their lives that they love to share so much. So as Skeeter looks upon her friend’s maid, Aibileen, she asks her if she wished things were different. Aibileen cannot reply. But in a world where the white people of Jackson were trying to pass a regulation whereby colored individuals would have a different bathroom just because “they” carry different germs that do not go well with them while folks, Aibeleen has every reason to want change.

It is to the backdrop of racial segregation, fear, the KKK and white supremacists, mostly in the form of Skeeter’s friend, miss Hilly, that three women: Skeeter, Aibileen and a third maid, Minny, embark on an extraordinary quest that is really ordinary in all of its details: write a book about the stories of the maid of Jackson, a book that talks about the help including all of the bad, the ugly and the beautiful moments they have lived with their white employers.

The Help is told in three main parts, divided according to each character. The three parts intertwine as the story progresses but they are as distinct as they can be mostly due to the drastically different natures of the characters outlining and driving each part. Even the english language employed by Stockett is drastically different for each part: Aibileen’s part is mostly slang, Skeeter is proper English and Minnie finds a middle ground between them.

What is common to the three parts, however, is that all three characters driving them jump off the page due to their complex structure, warmth and exquisite character. Aibileen is the mother who cares about her employer’s little girl, Mae Mobley, as much as she cared about her son. Minnie is the angry, scrappy character who can’t stand silent to her employers berating her, who can’t stand by as Miss Hilly accuses her of being a thief. Skeeter is the woman wanting change in a time when people like her even existing is frowned upon, in a time where even the people she was trying to help are wary of her.

All of this is exposed in Stockett’s The Help in three-dimensional glory.

What leaves you as you finish The Help is a sense of happiness. It is a book about tormented lives seeking emancipation from the bonds of society. It is a book that gets you to laugh at points and sit in reflection at your own life at other points, especially as we, the Lebanese, have many of the incidences taking place in this book happening in own households with our “help”.

The Help, at the end of the day, is a book about empowerment. Be it the white woman empowering the black women to rise beyond their predicaments or Aibileen empowering Mae Mobley to be more than what her mother tells her: “Mae Mobley is kind. Mae Mobley is smart. Mae Mobley is important.”

The Help is kind. The Help is smart. The Help is important.

The Heroes of Olympus: The Son of Neptune (Book Review) – Rick Riordan

The second installment in Rick Riordan’s new Greek (and Roman) mythology series: “The Heroes of Olympus,” was released a couple of weeks ago and immediately shot up to the top lists of best sellers. The book’s publishers prepared a 3 million copy first run print, something unprecedented in their history.

“The Heroes of Olympus” picks up where Riordan’s first series: “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” left off. With the first book, “The Lost Hero“, released last Fall, we were introduced to Jason, a demigod with no memories whatsoever about his origins or how he ended up with two other demigods named Piper and Leo. Together, they faced a terrifying quest where they had to save the goddess Hera from having her force absorbed by Mother Earth Gaea who sought to rise, as our regular cast (comprised of Annabeth, Grover and Tyson) searched frantically for a missing Percy Jackson.

As “The Lost Hero” ends, it is revealed to us that while the events of that book were taking place, Percy Jackson was taking part in the events of another demigod camp (illustrated in “The Son of Neptune”) – one where descendants of the Roman gods train. Both camps had been kept separate because Greek and Roman demigods – although they share godly parents – have different forms of those same gods and tend to get into brutal fights around each other.

In “The Son of Neptune,” Percy Jackson also has no recollection of who he is – apart from his name. He is taken to Camp Jupiter where he is immediately perceived as an outsider, with more than one person knowing who he truly is and refusing to tell him. Soon enough, he finds himself on another quest with Frank, a Chinese-descendant boy with a heavy burden and family secret, and Hazel, a girl with a mysterious past: two demigods with secrets they would like to keep hidden. And as the trio travel to Alaska – a land beyond the protection of the gods – they will grow a tight bond that helps them through all the ordeals they will face to finish their quest and come back to Camp Jupiter before it is destroyed by an army sent by Gaea.

The interesting thing about “The Heroes of Olympus” is that it is way more interesting than “Percy Jackson & The Olympians” book for book. While the first two books in the latter series struggle to keep an older reader interested, these ones do so right off the bat, simply because Rick Riordan doesn’t have the need to establish a readership for them anymore. Those who are reading “The Heroes of Olympus” have already read “Percy Jackson & The Olympians” – and stuck with Percy to the end.

Rick Riordan manages to create interesting new characters without you feeling they are overloaded with too much side story. And in books made out to be a light, breezy read, this helps the purpose while keeping those characters interesting enough for you to keep reading. The main fuel for “The Son of Neptune” – what gets the story going the most – is not the necessary need to advance the plot but rather the small revelations you get about those characters, especially Frank and Hazel.

The Son of Neptune” is a must read for whoever has stuck with Percy Jackson and Rick Riordan up to this point. This is definitely not the time to let go. And being an easy read, it won’t take much of your time, and with it alternating between the points of view of its three protagonists, provides you with different approaches to the plot. There’s everything you search for in a Rick Riordan book in this one: fight scenes, comedy, intrigue… and as usual Riordan delivers.

The third book in “The Heroes of Olympus” series, titled “The Mark of Athena” is scheduled for a Fall 2012 release.

Rick Riordan also has another series out – The Kane Chronicles – about Egyptian Mythology. Check out my reviews for The Red Pyramid and The Throne of Fire from that series.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Book Review) – Stieg Larsson

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the first book in The Millenium Trilogy by late Swedish author Stieg Larson.

Mikael Blomkvist is a man of many things but liar isn’t one of them. He wasn’t exactly being framed. His predicament was totally his fault but he should have known better. Sitting in court, receiving a three month sentence for libel against a Swedish business giant, he thought he had hit rock-bottom both financially and career-wise.

Soon after, Mikael receives the strangest job offer from the head of one of Sweden’s leading businesses, albeit being on its way down. Henrik Vagner, aged 82, wants Mikael to spend a year writing the history of the Vagner family in an attempt to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his niece: Harriet Vagner, some 40 years prior.

As they say, you can’t get a colder case than this. Harriet disappeared on Children’s day on the fictional Swedish island of Hedestad and even though an extensive search was made following her disappearance, a body was never found. So Vagner asks Mikael to attempt to find answers, as a way of closure for a man whose days are nearing their end.

But soon enough, Mikael needs help as he starts uncovering chilling new evidence that were overlooked in the original investigation. And that help comes in the form of Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth Salander is a 26 year old woman who has been under the auspices of the Swedish state since she was thirteen after being deemed unfit to look after herself. She’s 4’11”, flat-chested, has more piercings than places to put them and more tattoos than real skin. One of those tattoos is a dragon on her left shoulder blade.

Lisbeth also happens to be a world class computer hacker, able to go into any program or computer known to man and make it look as easy as counting from one to ten. She’s also excellent at investigating people and coming up with extensive reports detailing things they never told anyone.

Together, Lisbeth and Mikael start unearthing detail after detail about a chilling series of murders with a biblical element, all taking place in scattered parts around Sweden, in relation with the Vagner corporation. Who could the killer be? And how does Harriet fit in all of this? these are some of the questions they will try to answer in the book, even if their lives depend on it.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a top-notch thriller. It doesn’t have any dull moments and it engages you with the complexity of its characters. You get immersed in the detail that Stieg Larson provides in his description of the inner workings of Salander’s mind, who happens to have some form of asperger syndrome, or Blomkvist’s sense of guilt after his sentence, which nearly got his magazine “Millenium” to go under.

The author writes down many of the main characters’ thoughts, in italics, throughout the book. These thoughts, along with the impeccable dialogue in which they are immersed, serve as a backdrop that enriches the story and breathes new life into it. Sure, many authors have used thoughts in italics in their texts before but those thoughts have never been as important to the development of the story as they were in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”

Larson doesn’t shy away from being explicit in the book as well. There are scenes which are depicted with exquisite detail that they will shake you. The book’s original Swedish title was, after all, Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), which means the book has many physical, mental and sexual abuse scenes. They are depicted to the letter.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a must read to anyone who enjoys an immersing novel to entertain their days (and nights). It is a book that you won’t be able to let down. It is a serious page turner that is more a character study of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist than a cynical approach by the author to his country, Sweden. It is a book where little is at is seems. But one thing is most definitely clear: you do not want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.