Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review: "Dead Until Dark," by Charlaine Harris (2001)

You've probably heard about True Blood by now, even if you don't have HBO. Or cable. Even if you don't watch TV at all, you've probably heard about it from someone. I haven't watched it myself, but I may have to, now that I've started reading the books that the show's based on.

Dead Until Dark is the first of The Southern Vampire Mysteries, a.k.a. The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries, retroactively known as the True Blood Series, after the debut of the HBO miniseries in 2008. The books follow the life and loves of one Sookie Stackhouse, a cocktail waitress in the small rural town of Bon Temps, Louisiana.

The book begins roughly two years after vampires have "come out of the coffin" and revealed themselves to the world at large. Thanks to a synthetic blood-substitute developed by Japanese scientists, vampires no longer need to feed off humans, and have decided to reveal themselves en masse.

Now, let's get one thing out of the way: yes, Sookie is a telepath. While this seems like it would make for a very boring mystery novel, Sookie's "disability" is handled very well, and never feels like a cheap way to conjure up a hard-to-find clue. In fact, instead of feeling like a contrived power-up, it comes across as a legitimate difficulty for Sookie in her daily life. It sometimes makes it difficult for her to keep a job, and it's nearly impossible for her to have sex with any man. Any human man, that is...

You're probably thinking to yourself: Vampires? Mind-reading? Twoo wuv? Where have I heard this before? But before you hit the "Back" button on your browser, you should know that Dead Until Dark hit shelves four years before Twilight did. That's right, Twilight is the ripoff, not True Blood.

Anyway, the book itself is really good. It has just the right mix of sex, danger, mystery, humor, and the supernatural. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story, and more than a little interested in the "romantic interludes". By which I mean sex, sex, and lots more sex. At times, the text can be a little, shall we say, blush-inducing, but never graphic. Harris' sex scenes are always veiled with polite Southern modesty, which prevents the story from degenerating into pornographic wish-fulfillment. The characters are likable and imperfect, with foibles and shortcomings that keep their interactions honest and human. Harris does an excellent job of delving into vampiric psychology, and how the curse of immortality might weigh heavily on one's sanity and morality.

The most refreshing part of the book by far is the subversion of one of the most pervasive tropes in all supernatural fiction: The Masquerade. Gone are the frantic rushes to destroy evidence of vampires' existence, gone too is the need for cloak-and-dagger secrecy, because everyone already knows that vampires are real. They're over it. They've got pride rallies, for gosh sakes!

I also really liked the way Harris depicts the reaction of average Americans to the sudden appearance of the undead in their midst. First, of course, there was shock, followed closely by disbelief. Then a wave of curiosity, followed by revulsion for some, and fascination for others. Finally, the dust began to settle, and the vast majority of American citizens began to see vampires as neither freaks nor sex-objects, but as potential sources of revenue.

And isn't that really just another expression of the American Dream?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: City of Thieves, by David Benioff (2008)

Brianna loaned me this book back in... oh, late summer, I'd guess. Early fall? I'd told her I would read it, and I liked the blurb, but I wasn't really committed. Then, sometime in November, I actually read the first chapter, and was hooked. The first sentence is one of the best opening lines I've ever read:

"My grandfather, the knife-fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen."

Unfortunately, I was too deeply engaged in NaNoWriMo to stop and read it, but I resolved to start it the moment I finished my first draft.

City of Thieves is the real-life story of David Benioff's grandfather Lev, and how he survived the brutal siege of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War. Arrested for looting a dead Nazi's corpse, the young Lev Abramovich Beniov is thrown in jail with a handsome, insufferably cheerful deserter named Kolya. The punishment for their crimes (as it was for all crimes at that period), was summary execution. But instead of being shot and dumped on the ice of the River Neva, the two men are given a chance to save their lives: if they can find one dozen eggs for Colonel Grechko's daughter's wedding cake, and deliver them to him in four days, they go free. If not, well, he took their ration cards, so good luck getting anything to eat in the next few months.

I'd like to give you a little perspective on the complete insanity of such an order: Leningrad had been under siege for months. People were burning railroad ties, and breathing the toxic fumes they released, because being poisoned was still better than freezing to death. People were shelling out a hundred rubles for a cup of dirt from the floor of a bombed-out sugar factory. Pigeons were the only meat available, because all the dogs and cats had already been eaten. As Lev so artfully puts it, "By January the rumors had become plain fact. No one but the best connected could feed a pet, so the pets fed us."

In a city suffering this level of deprivation, Col. Grechko wants them to find not two or three eggs, but twelve!

It's an incredible book. I've never read another book that so artfully mixes comedy and tragedy, frequently in the same breath. At times, I wasn't sure if I was laughing or crying for the two bewildered young men. Lev often comments about the strange beauty of war, even in the midst of its terrible destructive power. There's something oddly poetic about tracer bullets streaking across the night sky. Lev is a deeply sympathetic young man, and Kolya is at once the funniest and most infuriating character I've encountered in a long, long time. He always knows how to make a bad situation worse, and still manages to come away smelling like roses.

This book reminds me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, with its emphasis on the absurd unreality of warfare. Everything seems so pointless, so hopeless, it's a minor miracle that they even keep moving, when the future is so assuredly grim. But it's kind of inspiring to see how they survived such brutality and danger. It makes me grateful for what I've got, even when the economy's so bad.

After all, it could be worse: you could be living in Russia.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Paperback Writer

There's no use beating around the bush. I've decided to put my novel on hold for a few months.

It's not that I doubt my ability to finish typing it up by the end of January, as I vowed to do in my New Year's Resolutions (though we're more than a third of the way through the month already, and there's little chance that I'll get it done in time.) No, the reason is that I've re-evaluated my needs versus my desires, and decided that I need to devote myself to finding a serious, post-graduation job more than I need to finish my book. The job search is time-sensitive; my book is not.

I'd always intended to keep up the job search and type up the novel, as parallel endeavors. But the time has come to do the grown-up thing, and admit that I'm not Superman. I simply don't have the time or mental agility to do both jobs effectively. I need to pick one, and work on it 'till it's done. Then I'll take up the other, and finish that one, too. But I need to do them one-at-a-time. That's the only way I can do justice to both of them.

I'll pick up the pen (well, keyboard, anyway) after I've found a serious job. I'll let you know when that is.