Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Vampires with a twist

I started watching True Blood when HBO was showing repeats of the first season in the lead up to the premiere of the second season. For a complete recounting of my little obsession with the show please see my other blog, Le Bon Temps. The show made me curious about the series it’s based on, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, by Charlaine Harris, because seeing as I live in Louisiana, where the story is set, it’s hard not to have heard about the books. The local Borders always has a little display them in the “Louisiana fiction” section and the covers were so unique that I came very close to picking them up several times before I caught the True Blood bug.

So I picked up the first book, Dead Until Dark, and started reading. Even though I knew the basic plot of the first novel through watching the show I was completely hooked on this series within the first few chapters. I had just had to read the rest after that. It’s hard not to be in the story: Charlaine Harris has the kind of writing style that is perfect for this kind of fantasy/mystery genre. She really doesn’t waste much time in getting to the action in her books and almost every chapter has it’s own mini-climax with plenty of crazy plot twists.

"I could tell Hugo was convinced that he would get to walk back up these stairs: after all, he was a civilized person. These were all civilized people. Hugo really couldn't imagine that anything irreparable could happen to him, because he was a middle-class white American with a college education, as were all the people on the stairs with us. I had no such conviction. I was not a wholly civilized person."

I’m someone who has always loved vampire novels, from Stoker’s Dracula to, more recently Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian; I’ve even dabbled in Anne Rice on occasion, so I know the run-of-the-mill vampire cliches. Let me tell you, Southern Vampire really turns a lot of them on their head. Harris creates a world in which a multitude of supernatural species live alongside rather naive humans: vampires, shapeshifters, werewolves and even fairies. At the start of the first novel, the vampires have “been out of the coffin”, so to speak, to the human populace for two years, since the invention of a Japanese synthetic substance called True Blood, which allows vampires to survive without having to drink the blood of humans–in theory… duh duh duh.

Enter our protagonist, Miss Sookie Stackhouse, barmaid and reluctant telepath in the small and very fictional town of Bon Temps, whose neighbours have considered her the town crazy since childhood, and who has been hoping, for two years, that she might get to meet a real live vampire. On the very first page of the first novel (I told you, Harris works fast), she gets her wish in the form of Bill Compton, a rather stoic vampire who is attempting to “mainstream”, as the vampires put it, by moving back to his hometown and living amongst its human citizens. Sookie and Bill immediately become romantically entangled and Sookie gets pulled into the rather murky world of vampire politics and intrigue. From that point on the poor girl pretty much gets the crap kicked out of her on a semi-regular basis – seriously, not a single novel passes that doesn’t end with Sookie flat on her back in a hospital somewhere.

The series so far consists of nine books, Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, Club Dead, Dead to the World, Dead as a Doornail, Definitely Dead, All Together Dead, From Dead to Worse, and Dead and Gone. I’m sure you can see a theme here. Each book has its own self-contained mystery or adventure but also builds up the increasing complexity of Sookie’s ever-broadening world – new species to contend with, new vampire political struggles. Basically you could read each novel as a stand-alone and muddle through but you’d be confused beyond what can be explained in the brief recap at the beginning of each book.

What sets the series apart from other mystery or fantasy for me is the humour with which Harris writes all of her characters. Now that I’ve read the books I infinitely prefer the Sookie of the novel to her TV counterpart. It’s no offense against Anna Paquin or the show at all, I just find that they sort of overdo the whole southern charm thing–Sookie sort of ends up coming off as a bit of a bimbo–whereas in the books she still has that polite southern belle element but she’s also sarcastic and increasingly pragmatic about the sort of horrors she is exposed to as the books go on. I like that she’s unflappable.

Bill is a character I really can’t stand in either format because he’s your typical tortured soul style vampire made so famous by Louis in “Interview with the Vampire”, which I find gets very old, very fast, and then you just want him to scram. Like most fans of this series I absolutely adore the character of Eric, the 1000-year old vampire who acts as leader of Northern Louisiana, but he doesn’t really become a major character until the fourth book and on the show he’s still coming off as one of the bad guys–I still have high hopes. Both he and his second in command Pam are favourite characters of mine because they so enjoy their undead lives (no pun intended) and keep a sense of humour in even the most bizarre of circumstances (and there are plenty).

"'I read a policeman's mind,' I muttered. I snuck a look to see how Eric was taking this, and he was staring at me the same way the Monroe vampires had. Thoughtful. Hungry.
"That's interesting," he said. "I had a psychic once. It was incredible."
"Did the psychic think so?"
Eric laughed. "For a while."

Also there is sex. Lots and lots of sex. That seems to be a real sticker with the book and show–these vampires are very horny. And as we all know, sex can only improve a book J

There are nine books so far plus several shorts stories that fall between the novels and Harris has said there will be at least four more before she finishes with Sookie. I can’t recommend these books more and I can say with complete confidence that this series has absolutely made my year. Read it!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Transatlantic flight reading

Sorry for the long gap between posts. The big trip to France took up most of June, if you count all the packing and unpacking and sleeping off the jet lag. On our way to Nice we were delayed in London for 24 hours which was not too bad at all since the airline picked up the tab. We took the red eye across to London so I really didn't do much reading on that leg of the journey; aside from a few trashy romances, I mainly slipped in and out of consciousness until we arrived. Once we arrived in France there was too much to see and do to do more than peak at the books I'd brought along.

On the way back, however, I was in the mood for something funny so I started reading the first book in the Thursday Next series, called The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Several years ago I was on a trip somewhere with my family, I think to Costa Rica, and I was going through books like crazy since we were spending a lot of time being driven from once place to another. So my sister let me read a few that she had brought along and one of these was another Thursday Next novel somewhere in the middle of the series. I enjoyed it a lot but this is a series with a lot of complicated plot twists and I admit to being a little lost with some of the references in the book to what had happened previously. I meant to look for the rest of the series when we got home but, typically, I got distracted by some other book and forgot all about it until I re-discovered it, like some vacation-reading holy grail, on a cart being pushed by a very sweet librarian.

It turns out that the New Orleans public library has the complete Thursday Next series on their shelves, which might not seem so miraculous in any other city but down here whenever I type something into the search engine I know that dreaded "damaged in Katrina" is gonna pop up somewhere. So it seemed like divine literary intervention, if you know what I mean, and I made sure to pack that book in my carry on.

It's definitely just as funny as I remembered. It's irreverent, witty and the absolute perfect book for literature lovers. In fact being at least familiar with the great works of literature is a bit of a prerequisite to getting a lot of the humour in Thursday Next's world, which is sort of an alternate-history/fantasy nod to the written word.

In her world, England is republic with a rather totalitarian method of policing its citizens and conducting its affairs abroad. The country has been bailed out of the World Wars by a giant corporation called Goliath, which now almost runs England and controls its media. The other important difference is that literature, especially the classics, are valued deeply and taken very very seriously. Books are bigger than movies or television and authors are revered far more than any celebrity. Enter Thursday Next, literary detective, war veteran and bookworm extraordinaire. She quickly becomes embroiled in trying to catch a villain intent on blackmailing the government by kidnapping literary figures from their books: including Jane Eyre herself. The book blurs the lines between fantasy and reality but never takes itself too seriously (expect many puns). I think the series continues on for at least six more books after the first so I'm looking forward to reading the sequels when I get a chance.

"I'm not mad. I'm just...well, differently moralled, that's all."

"I shouldn't believe anything I say, if I were you-and that includes what I just told you."