No book has enjoyed as much popularity or stirred such controversy in the past few years as Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James. Beginning as online Twilight fanfiction, Fifty Shades of Grey (first in a trilogy; it continues in Fifty Shades Darker and concludes with Fifty Shades Freed) is essentially a kinky take on the traditional romance novel.

Anastasia "Ana" Steele is a college student on the verge of graduation. When her roommate Kate Kavanagh is sick, Ana helps her out by interviewing entrepreneur Christian Grey. Christian is rich, handsome, powerful, self-assured, and leaves Ana completely flustered. Apparently she has a similar effect on him, as he begins courting her, from giving her lavish gifts (she mentions she's into literature; he sends her a first-edition Tess of the D'Urbervilles, worth about $14,000) to flying her to exotic restaurants to exchanging emails (on the state-of-the-art, not-yet-released laptop he gives her, of course).

However, Christian has his dark side: He's a sexual dominant, and he wants Ana to be his submissive. This includes signing an extensive contract of sexual do's and dont's (with plenty of hard and soft limits), regulating much of her behavior, and playing in what Ana dubs his Red Room of Pain. He also has other idiosyncracies, such as not wanting to be touched and obsessing about Ana finishing her food. He bends quite a few of his rules for her, but she wonders if she can give him the relationship she wants -- and the submission he requires.

While I'm thrilled that Fifty Shades of Grey has helped millions of people discover/explore their kinky side, the book itself is, alas, pretty bad. The writing style is terrible, as the first-person perspective (Ana's viewpoint) has her continually bouncing around with self-doubt, attraction, fascination, jealousy, and fear; there are also numerous comments from her subconscious and "inner goddess," not to mention phrases repeated far too often (and in italics to show how "important" they are). As for Christian, he's virtually every cliche of the too-perfect romance novel hero rolled into one: He does everything perfectly (from food to music), spends money on Ana, is the perfect lover, always looks great, is powerful (yet shows his charming, childlike side), and despite warning her how messed up he is, works hard to accomodate Ana's concerns and can't resist her. Oh, and part of his work is feeding hungry children in Africa. And he owns his own jet and flies his own helicopter.

To its credit, the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey lives up to its reputation, being pretty hot and, in the details of the BDSM lifestyle, somewhat realistic. Unfortunately, this really does read like bad online fanfic than an engrossing, passionate novel.

For folks looking for a good kinky novel, I'd recommend Anne Rice's The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty trilogy or White Rose Ensnared by Juliet Hastings. Fifty Shades of Grey might be wild, but unfortunately it's far more amateurish -- and annoying.

Overall grade: D

Reviewed by James Lynch

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