REVIEW: With or Without Him by Barbara Elsborg
Dear Ms. Elsborg,
I’ve heard good things about your writing and I’m a bit of a sucker for a male escort book so when I saw this one was available I asked Jane if I could review it. I’d certainly read another of your books because there was much about the writing style I liked and quite a bit about With or Without Him I liked too. At the same time, there were things which troubled me and you lost me at the end there. I’m hoping, by the time I finish this review, I will be able to assign a grade with confidence – because right now? I’m really not sure.
Warning: I’m not sure I can really discuss my thoughts about the book without giving some possible spoilers, so proceed at own risk. Also, it’s a long-ass review. Sorry.
In some ways, this book was a little reminiscent of Sylvia Day’s Bared to You except with gay male characters and it’s a stand alone book. It may well also be reminiscent of Fifty Shades of Grey but I haven’t read that book so I can’t say with any certainty. There is a certain… melodrama to the tone, a heightened sense of emotion and, Haris does offer Tyler a contract for four months in return for 20,000 GBP, so there’s that too.
Tyler Bellamy is 21. He has a traumatic past and this has left him with a phobia about being in debt. There are reasons, which are explained later in the book and I was prepared, for the purposes of the story, to buy them. He is a music student, determined to educate himself and earn a living but also terrified about the nearly 40,000 GPB of debt he will have accumulated by the end of this, his final year of college. He is a very talented musician but he does not want to rely on the possibility of future earnings. So, he sells his body every Saturday night at “parties” arranged by Prescott, a mysterious and nefarious figure who, it seems, preys upon young vulnerable men. Tyler earns 500 GBP a night but it is a rough trade indeed. While he gets some physical pleasure out of the equation, he also reaps a lot of shame and there are some patrons who inspire pure terror and who are only at all controlled by the fact it is not private (that is, the sex is all in one big common area).
There is a LOT of sex in this book. At the start the sex is fairly tawdry and sad, being as it takes place at one of Prescott’s parties. Then there is some sex with new friend and new partygoer/male escort Jeremy – which is emotionless but at least, less transactional. Tyler feels he is the old man of the business and warns Jeremy away but at 17 (he lied about his age to Prescott but really, it’s obvious) he’s too tempted by the money he could earn to be worried.
There are a number of very confronting scenes in this book. I would usually not regard myself as having particularly hot buttons in relation to sexual abuse, rape, forced seduction/dub-con and torture in fiction – I don’t I actively seek it out, but if it turns up, I can usually read it without finding it triggering. In this case, there were three scenes in particular which were difficult to read. On the one hand, because they did cause me to feel fairly extreme emotions, I’d have to say that the writing, setting and (at least some of the) characterisations were done very well. However, at the same time, they made me feel a little ill and also
a little quite a bit afraid – not for myself, but for Tyler.
Trigger warnings – proceed with caution
The first one is fairly early in the book (12%) and sets up Tyler’s and Haris’s first meeting. Haris Evans, born of an English mother and a Saudi father, is a rich venture capitalist (I don’t know if he’s as rich as Gideon Cross or Christian Grey but he’s not hurting for money even a little bit). Attending a fund-raising musical performance at the college Tyler is a student, he sees Tyler from the back and is then completely mesmerised by his performance (complete with insta-boner). Haris follows Tyler because he must and eventually ends up at the same BDSM performance party/expo where Tyler is the star attraction. Tyler knew he’d earn a thousand pounds for the night and he didn’t feel he could turn it down but other than that, he didn’t know what to expect. He was given an address and told, by Prescott, to attend or else. I’ll put this behind a spoiler tag I think. [spoiler]What faces him is horrific. He is tied to a St. Andrew’s Cross and evil-bad-doesn’t-deserve-the-name-Dom Lu (who doesn’t speak good English but that’s a whole nother area and I can’t discuss everything) proceeds to place clamps on Tyler. Lots and lots of clamps. Yes, there too. When Tyler says no, attempts to use any safeword he can think of to just make it stop, Lu ignores him and further, gags him so that he cannot further protest. This is particularly traumatising to Tyler because of his (as yet unknown to the reader) background, but even without that – just, no no no. Tyler is in significant pain and having trouble breathing, he is just about in full panic attack mode, the only thing keeping him slightly this side of that line is his need to keep his airway clear so he doesn’t suffocate. It was awful to read. I found my heart beating too fast and I read on with my eyes squinted a little – wanting to see his “rescue” but wishing it would hurry up. [/spoiler]Haris does come to the rescue but it’s a hell of a meet cute.
After that meeting, Haris offers Tyler a contract for four months. The reasons were fairly vague but it had something to do with Haris not believing that someone like Tyler would want to be with him otherwise. Haris is a good looking rich guy in his mid thirties. So I’m not sure I bought his argument there.
Of course, Haris also has a tortured past (literally) and he doesn’t trust easily. He is also quite jealous and this leads to problems in their relationship almost from the get go. They have a fairly explosive passion and go at it like rabbits as often as possible but as far as actually talking to one another, here their chemistry doesn’t get them far.
Wilson, Haris’ driver/valet/cook/butler/assistant is convinced someone has been following them and Haris, not wanting to “bother” Tyler with this takes various steps which inevitably lead to him finding out things and jumping to conclusions about them and getting everyone into trouble. This is pretty much a pattern for the rest of their relationship actually. Big misunderstandings aren’t my favourite trope and I felt very much in sync with Tyler when this happened:
Anger swamped Tyler’s misery. “Why didn’t you just ask me?”
Wilson is an amusing character – a kind of cross between a younger Hobson (from the movie Arthur) and Marvin the Paranoid Android
“Do you need my help?” Wilson asked. “I studied jujitsu. Well, only for two weeks but I’m sure it will all come flooding back, and the chances of putting my back out in the same way resulting in four months of traction would surely not happen a second time…”
He kind of played the part of sassy gay friend without actually being gay (well, Wilson’s sexuality was unspecified now I come to think of it, so maybe that’s not accurate…). That said, he did have some characterisation beyond being the smack in the head Haris needed from time to time – including an addiction to True Blood and taking in stray dogs.
When Haris and Tyler got along, their scenes were engaging, sometimes steamy, sometimes full of affectionate fun. Some of the writing was really lovely, painting word pictures using simple phrases.
They fell on the bed in a writhing mix of tangled arms and legs, and as their wet bodies linked and unlinked in simple puzzles, Haris didn’t stop kissing him and Tyler’s worries ebbed away.
But on the other hand, there was some head-hopping and pronoun abuse which was at times confusing.
Haris swallowed Tyler’s gasp and kissed away the discomfort until only pleasure remained. He clung onto Haris’s shoulders and began to move, lifting himself off the shaft buried deep inside him and moaning as his muscles fought to keep Haris just where he was.
Later in the book, Haris’ past catches up with Tyler and he’s once again in a dangerous and vulnerable situation. This scene was less uncomfortable for me than the first one, but it was a fairly close run thing. At least the first two potentially triggering scenes were not undertaken by Haris against Tyler but I did get a little sick of him being the whipping boy (that’s not just figurative) all the time. Where Tyler was hesitant to share details of his past with Haris, he did come clean fairly early on about his childhood and it wasn’t too much after that when he was confessing what Haris already knew (because Private Investigator) – Tyler had done porn films for cash before he met Prescott and started attending the “parties”. I thought it was pretty much glossed over how Haris and Tyler would deal with the potential public exposure of that information in the future. It was something Tyler worried about often but there didn’t seem to be a solution, other than it was best to be open and moved forward. That sounded a bit trite to me. Then again, perhaps a rock star (which was where Tyler was headed musically) would find some cachet in such a history? I don’t know.
I thought the story was too long. The end dragged and the final misunderstanding felt manufactured. After the big reveal with the various people out to get Tyler and Haris got their comeuppance (whether it was sufficient is a matter for individual readers I suppose, but I was dubious), rather than going to the happy ending, there was wilful withholding of the “L” word and another misunderstanding which actually made me doubt the connection between the characters and wonder whether Haris would just cock it up again next week.
The final of the three troubling scenes bothered me in an entirely different way. Once again, Haris has leapt to an erroneous conclusion and lost his temper. This time, he takes it out on Tyler. At best, this encounter could be described as dub-con. This is how the characters describe it:
Haris lifted his head and stared at him. “I as good as raped you. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t even ask you to forgive me, but I want you to know how sorry I am.”
“I could have stopped you. It wasn’t rape, but you wanted to hurt me. I don’t know what you were thinking. I can’t get my head around that.”
Because the reader was in Haris’s head when this occurred, I admit I felt Tyler let him off too easily and it was just not good “hero” behaviour. I found myself disliking Haris at that point. This was in the section I felt was entirely unnecessary anyway and this scene didn’t help.
In the course of writing this review, I’ve kind of talked myself out of a lot of what I liked about the book. Where I had maybe been leaning toward a B-/C+ I think I have to give With or Without Him a C-. I think I will read at least another of your books because there were things I liked here but, in hindsight, the melodrama, the way Tyler was constantly shat upon (metaphorically) by life and the villains and even Haris, felt a bit like authorial manipulation – some kind of strange hurt/comfort which I wasn’t into – there was just too much of it. This book is very dark, has lots of sex and plays into the popular style of ramping up the emotion to 11 – which I gather was a feature of Fifty – it certainly was in Bared To You – but between the big misunderstandings, torture and abuse, I think it went a bit too far for my own comfort level.