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.
You sum up my reactions towards this book perfectly, something I gave up on trying to do myself.
Great review – I have read “With or without” and really wanted to read this one, but friend who is a Brit and who read it before me told me something that annoyed me so much that I decided not to bother. I am ok with books about male prostitutes, if I like how it is done, same as any other subject, really, but if you are going to tell me that the only way to not be in debt while you are in college- no, sorry. According to her if you do not earn enough and wait enough these fees will be waived – I guess I do not like when something so drastic is presented as clumsy plot device if that makes sense? I think stuff that you described would have bothered me too, but I just did not care enough to start.
Sorry I meant to say I have read “Every move he makes” :).
@Sirius: I agree, that bothered me too. I don’t know about the new system since the fees changed to £9000, but on the old system you only have to start paying back your student loans once you are earning beyond a certain threshold, and even then its only a small amount every month. If he’s broke he won’t be paying back for a long while, and if he stays that way long enough they’ll eventually be waived. So yeah, student loans aren’t really debt per say, not in the way it is for those in the US. It’s more immediately worrying trying to pay for housing/bills/food/transport etc which aren’t fully covered by loans. I can certainly imagine someone being desperate for money to cover that.
@Sirius: Actually, that was the least of my issues with the book. As becomes clear, once you know Tyler’s background, he does have an almost pathological fear of being in debt. The kind of money he was earning working for Prescott was the kind he couldn’t (or didn’t think he could) earn by more traditional means. And, even though he felt humiliated and ashamed, there is a part of him that likes the work – although over the 3 months he’d been doing it, that part had diminished and the other aspects became more dominant. Prescott was also a very shady character – I do believe that without Haris, Tyler would have had difficulty in getting out alive (or at least without serious injury which could ruin his musical career).
@C: Yes, we have a similar system here. The government keeps records of the fees and the debt is taken out of the income at tax time once earnings get above a certain level. I don’t know how much or whether it’s indexed etc. That said, I do hear a lot about young people being burdened with $100,000 worth of debt before they even start work so, IMO, I do think it’s something which many people would be concerned about. Add in Tyler’s history and I thought the set up worked well. For Tyler, the idea of being in debt was enough to push him over the edge and the thought of being in debt for years and years was too much for him.
@Sirius: I have that one on the TBR too. I bought it when I won a voucher a little while back but haven’t read it yet – is it good?
@Willaful: Good to know I’m not alone :)
I have three kids currently at University here in Britain, and, because I am an extremely low-earner and a single parent, their housing and living costs are paid, not by repayable loans, but by bursaries. Their tuition fees are paid from their student loans, however. But they seem to manage (two of them have part-time jobs when they are home from Uni, the earnings from which enable them to live more comfortably than the bursary would allow, the third manages on what she gets). So, if Tyler wasn’t being supported by parental contributions, he’d only have to worry about tuition fees, and get bursaries and grants to cover the rest.
Hi Kaetrin, I understood that it was your least of the issues of the book – I was saying that this would be big enough issue for me to not read it :). It’s fine if he is afraid of being in debt, but if he is afraid of being in debt which he knows would be forgiven eventually if he does not earn enough ( or whatever way the system is set up), he better be established as acting irrationally, because otherwise his behavior would still make no sense to me.
The other book – I liked it when I read it but do not remember anything else right now, so I guess it was not very memorable to me?
Jane Lovering, just because I want to be sure I understand how system works – I hope your kids all will find well paying jobs after they are done with University, but if they will be low earners for some time then their loans would be eventually forgiven as well, correct? Thanks so much for answering.
@Sirius: His irrational fear of debt has a strong backstory, so I was able to accept it.
Thank you, I hope they all get good jobs too! But, as things stand, the debts are only repayable when they start earning more than 21,000 GBP per year and then at a very low rate, and/or are written off after 30 years. In case anyone is interested, here is the repayment rate…
Your income per year Monthly repayments
£21,000 and under No repayments
Two are qualifying as accountants, so they should be able to work out a way of escaping repayments altogether (sorry any accountants out there) and one is hoping to become an editor/proofreader/author (so she’ll probably never have to pay a penny back…)
@Willaful: Yes, that’s what I was trying to get at. It arises out of childhood trauma. I had no difficulty believing it.
This was what bothered me too. After everything that happened in the book I needed a much stronger HEA instead of something that left me thinking “I guess they’ll be happy…? Maybe?”
@Jane Lovering: For Tyler, it would be the thought of being in significant debt for up to 30 years that would be crushing. That’s a really long time to be in debt without even having a house to show for it. It wasn’t the living expenses – he was managing, it was the actual uni fees – what we here call the HECS debt. There is very good motivation in the book for Tyler’s feelings, or at least I thought so.
In any event, I personally, I have a lot of sympathy for the situations of uni students – higher education used to be free here (25 years ago) and now it’s getting more and more expensive. These kids get out of uni and they have a debt for years and years (no waiving in Australia AFAIK) and they still have/want to do all the other things, buy a house, support a family, go on holidays every now and then. From a philosophical point of view I believe higher education benefits society and that’s why I think it should be free, or at least, for the first degree. We are short of doctors but expect the students to study for 7+ years and then walk out of uni owing hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege. Sure, they will have good earning capacity but it’s a great burden. And, what about teachers? We are always after great teachers and over here they are paid okay but not really well. And they too, have to start off their careers in debt. There is actually talk of making teachers to have a Masters in Education before they can get a job (and currently no talk of increading their earnings either). So, make them study even harder to get work, make the cost even greater. The minister I heard talking about it was referring to the Finland model. But in Finland, even according to the minister, higher education is FREE. /rant
@Nonnykins: Yes – I could have better gotten over the fast – if it had ended with no more misunderstandings, no dub-con from Haris and no willful withholding of I Love You – it would have been a much more satisfying ending. Instead, I was a little bored and annoyed and it gave me too much time to think about things I didn’t like.
@Kaetrin: I think what I am still trying to understand is whether Tyler knows that he actually may not be in debt for 30 years? If he had a traumatic backstory (thanks Willaful), and it was clearly shown that he is acting irrationally because of that, I can totally buy that. What I cannot buy is university student entering the university (unless his education is paid for by rich relatives) and not knowing what he is getting into when he is taking out loans. I just cannot buy it, so I am curious whether it is actually stated in the book that if he is not getting well paid job, that no, he won’t be in debt because all those fees will be eventually waved. These things just jerk me out of the story and badly – mostly because if nothing is said about that, but it is only shown that Tyler is acting scared to be in debt, I wonder whether the author actually did her research or ignored it in favor of making sure that the characters follow her outline for their professions, etc (poor Tyler just had to become a prostitute and no other way for him to go, you know?).
Sorry for hampering on this issue, I am just curious because I am still wondering maybe I should read the book, but I know I am usually annoyed where settings are ignored in favor of whatever plan author is carrying on for the story and characters.
@Jane Lovering: Thank you so much, I wish your kids all the luck in the world.
@Kaetrin: Oh, re your rant, I think high education should be free too and here in the US there is no waver of any fees and I just repaid my law school loans a year ago (I did ten years, no thirty years consolidation, because I wanted to do it as soon as I could). I mean I think you can defer here for a year and there is six month period after school before repayment starts, but I consider myself lucky because I did not take out any loans for living, only for education and I was only (ONLY) over fifty thousands in debt when I was done. A lot of people I know had loans twice and some three times of mine (a lot had undergraduate loans and my undergrad study was back home where one of the first paying colleges charged us ten dollars monthly :) – but my salary was forty dollars monthly so it was not as tiny as one would think).
@Sirius: The problem would have been that even if the debt would be waived, it would take THIRTY years. That’s a long time. Not that the 30 years was ever mentioned IIRC. He didn’t know if he’d ever make a lot of money. By the end, his music career was taking off and I expect he would have been in a position to pay off the debt super quick but he didn’t ever know that for sure and it was a huge burden to him.
I will email you with a spoiler Sirius – open at your own risk! :)
@Kaetrin: I love spoilers :). Thanks, I really appreciate it.