Review: Living Dead in Dallas, Charlaine Harris

My Take in Brief: A terrific second installment.

For background on this series, and introductions to the main characters, see my review of Dead Until Dark. This review contains spoilers for Dead Until Dark.

Word on the Web:

Avid Book Reader, Keishon, positive

Book Smugglers, Ana and Thea, both 7 out of 10

AAR, Rachael, B+

LoveVampires, 5 stars (btw, this is one of the coolest looking blogs I have ever seen)

TRR, Susan, 4 hearts (she gave Dead Until Dark 5) (Ok, I have to take issue with this line: “Bill is caring, protective, and sexy.” Um. No, no, and …hmmm… let me think … NO! Explanation below.)

Thrifty Reader, B+, 4 stars after 149 reviews

Plot: One plot involves solving the mystery of who murdered Sookie’s friend and coworker, who is found dead in a car outside Merlotte’s early on in the book. Another involves the appearance of the maenad, another supernatural creature, who wreaks havoc at pivotal moments. A third involves Sookie’s trip to Dallas to help the vampires find a kidnapped vamp.

The Racy Romance Review:

I loved Dead Until Dark and I also loved Living Dead in Dallas. (I love this series so much that I have turned it into an academic interest. You can read the abstracts for the papers I am working on here.) However, romance fans should know that this second installment is even less of a romance than the first, for several reasons, the main one of which is that Sookie’s relationship with Bill is now steady, and often takes a back seat to other things. Another reason is Sookie’s sexual interest in other men. For example, she shares a lusty kiss with Sam, her boss:

Sam’s lips actually felt hot, and his tongue, too. The kiss was deep, intense, unexpected, like the excitement you feel when someone gives you a present you didn’t know you wanted. His arms were around me, mine were around him, and we were giving it everything we had, until I came back to earth.

A third reason I find it less of a romance is Bill’s utter lack of typical romance hero traits. I’ve already blogged about how how odd a hero a vamp makes.  Bill has always been not just reserved and quiet, but flat. For example, after an emotional separation and even more heated reunion, here’s Bill’s line:

“Let’s not separate again.” Bill said.

Makes you go all melty, huh? For another, Bill is never around when Sookie needs him — she always gets out of her jams without Bill’s help. Third, he’s inconsiderate. He never thinks about how his presence in her life can make hers better, nor about how it’s making it worse, which it is. He seems mostly interested in having sex with Sookie and having her look good enough to make other vamps jealous. Fourth, when he’s not horny, he’s disengaged, spending most of his time on the computer (a circumstance that takes on some significance in the next book). The guy is just not good boyfriend material, by either human or vampire standards.

I don’t like Bill, and I sure wish Sookie would show him the door (she’d wouldn’t be alone for long. Sookie’s like catnip to males — human, vamp, and shapeshifter alike — a fact which bothers some readers) but the way Harris writes him, he’s very real. Besides, I read the Southern Vampire Mysteries for Sookie, Bon Temps, and the vampire culture Harris has created, and on all those counts, it was very rewarding.

I love the distinctions — both large and fine — that Harris draws between vampires and humans. For example, when Sookie and Bill are preparing to leave their Dallas hotel room to meet Stan, the local head vampire, she makes this observation:

He gave me a dark look, patted his pockets like men do, just to make sure they got everything. It was an oddly human gesture, and it touched me in a way I couldn’t even describe to myself.

And this one:

People fidget. They are compelled to look engaged in an activity, or purposeful. Vampires can just occupy space without feeling obliged to justify it.

(I did notice one very rare slip in Harris’s mythology. Sookie and Bill are getting amorous against the hotel room door — all the sex scenes in these books are briefly described and nonexplicit, by the way — and Harris writes, Sookie “wriggled against him and his breath caught in his throat.” Hmmm.)

Sookie grows quite a bit in this installment (although her habit of frequent crying remains unchanged). She goes to the big city for the first time as an adult, takes on a job that offers new challenges, and takes decisive action at several points in the story, often without Bill’s knowledge or approval. She becomes more comfortable with her negative emotions, such as anger and jealousy, and more confident of her telepathy, using it in new purposeful ways. And, most interesting to me, she acknowledges not just the gray areas in morality, but the fact that we sometimes have to make choices which compromise our integrity regardless of how careful or well-meaning we are.

But she’s still uniquely Sookie. She hasn’t turned into your generic super heroine. She relies on her Word of the Day calendar, her copious reading of genre fiction, especially mystery, her knowledge of movies, and her common sense to figure things out, often long before the supposedly superior vampires do.

(Although I have a slight beef with the telepathy. In an early scene Sookie says “I could hear my temper creak and give way. Bill, unfortunately could not” but later, Sookie thinks, “[Bill] could pick up my slightest mood, which was wonderful about eighty per cent of the time.” This is one of my pet peeves in books with empathic or telepathic characters — it seems to come in and out at the author’s will, not the characters’.)

Happily, we learn more about how the vampires are organized, and how their power is structured. We discover that some vampires experience remorse or ennui after years of immortality, and commit suicide by “meeting the sun”. Others, rejecting the new era of assimilation into human society, become “rogues”, drinking and killing humans to encourage renewed social division.

Human attitudes towards vampires vary correspondingly, from the wannabe “Fangbangers”, to the Brotherhood of the Sun, an anti-vampire cult. Parallels to race relations in the US are not hard to draw, especially when Sookie herself explicitly compares the cult to the KKK.

There’s so much more going on in Living Dead in Dallas that this review hasn’t touched. There’s a development with Sam, for example, that I felt was very out of character for him, basically a klunky way to get him involved in the action at the climax. But one thing I had to mention was Eric, Bill’s vampire boss. Harris, via Sookie, tells us over and over that Eric is pure vampire: selfish, sex obsessed, violent without remorse. But in his actions toward Sookie, Eric is thoughtful, kind, generous, restrained, tender, helpful, and protective. Everything, in short, which Bill, despite the appellation “boyfriend” is not. Hmm.

I’ve already read the third installment, Club Dead, and since the series shows no sign of letting up, neither will I!

Published in: on November 13, 2008 at 10:59 pm  Comments (9)  
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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wonderfully detailed review. Sookie is an original and she grows and gets even more interesting as the series progresses.

  2. Another day, another great review from Jessica.

    “Harris, via Sookie, tells us over and over that Eric is pure vampire: selfish, sex obsessed, violent without remorse. But in his actions toward Sookie, Eric is thoughtful, kind, generous, restrained, tender, helpful, and protective.”

    In a nutshell, why Eric Northman rocks my world.

    And Worthless Bill can die.

  3. I adore this series, too.

    Bill is Sookie’s first real relationship and it struck me that she’s making the journey and discoveries at, what?, 27 or 28 years old that many of us make in our teens to early 20s (or at least by her age have more experience working out). She’s learning that calling someone “boyfriend” doesn’t really make him a good one, or really a boyfriend at all, and that sometimes those you discount as romantic partners for one reason or another really are better suited to you.

    That she’s working through these things with the mind and experience of a woman accustomed to relying on herself (that is, she doesn’t become emotionally younger just for these scenes) and the journey arcs throughout the series I find very satisfying.

  4. Ana, I cannot wait for book 4 for that very reason. But one thing wasn’t clear from your comment. How exactly do you feel about Bill? 😉

    Marsha, that’s a great point, one I hadn’t thought of. I think you are exactly right.

  5. I love, love, love this series, too!

    I will be interested to see if your ideas about Sookie’s ethical development change as you advance through more books, Jessica.

    In the meantime, though, it’s fun to relive those early books through your reviews (Keishon afforded me the same pleasure not too long ago). Although I cannot get into all this Bill hate! Now, more than ever, I have a soft spot for Bill (8 books or whatever into the series), and think about a comment a friend of mine made about him — that he’s so ordinary, even though he’s a vamp. That not only does he make a Romance non-hero, but a supernatural non-hero, too, because for all of his other-worldiness, he’s “flat,” as you put it. In some ways that makes me like him more, although I agree that his lack of consideration is extremely frustrating. And it’s one of the things that makes Eric such a lure, especially as the series continues. At this point, I don’t know what’s/who’s going to satisfy me in terms of a “perfect” mate for Sookie, which is one of my favorite things about the books, actually.

  6. Robin,

    Oooh, I was secretly hoping you would read and comment!

    I have a soft spot for Bill (8 books or whatever into the series), and think about a comment a friend of mine made about him — that he’s so ordinary, even though he’s a vamp.

    I hadn’t thought about that — to like or appreciate Bill because of his ordinariness. Perhaps I should think of him as that antebellum farmer he was. What would his expectations have been of marriage? Not a loving friendship of equals probably.

    Thank you for stopping by. I promise not to let my dislike of Bill petrify into kneejerk suspicion and critique of his every move in future books, if I can help it.

  7. LOL, Jessica!

    I had never thought about Bill’s ordinariness, either, until my friend brought it up. But once I started to think about that — about how anti-type he was to Romance, to vampire myth, to Sookie’s own experience as an empath — I started to look at Bill differently. The guy is limited; not only is he a product of the mid 19th century, but he’s different than many other vamps, too. He’s a computer geek, for one thing, and he has a few secrets you will discover that explain a lot more about Bill but that I cannot talk about here. 😉

    Actually, though, I think my favorite book in the series is #4, Dead to the World, because it really investigates the bittersweet elements of Sookie’s life and the way her practical resignation struggles against a desire for real happiness and comfort. And that book 4 storyline has some intense repercussions that are still manifesting.

    What is so fascinating to me about this series is the way Harris uses Sookie’s romantic experience to mark, urge, mirror, and pace her personal growth. Although the series is not Romance, its strong romantic elements have real import for Sookie’s emerging independence, IMO, and I have a hard time seeing her as completely fulfilled without someone on whom she can depend in a steady, romantic way. I’d like that to be someone who can stay awake with her during the day, but I realize that no matter who she ends up with she will have to make some sort of compromise, and I don’t know what will ultimately seem reasonable for Sookie. If I could blend together Eric and Bill and Quinn (you haven’t met him yet), make the product human and yet incapable of being “read,” that would probably be my choice, lol. Only the best will do for Sookie, though!

  8. What is so fascinating to me about this series is the way Harris uses Sookie’s romantic experience to mark, urge, mirror, and pace her personal growth.

    I agree, and I’m working on a paper exploring this very theme for the PCA in April (and for another one in London), except narrowed to moral growth. Abstract here.

  9. Yeah, Jessica, I had read those when I commented on this thread, which is why I wondered aloud about how your theory will evolve as you continue in the series. I am anxious to see how you continue to work through the moral and ethical issues as you’ve posted them (especially the theoretical prism of Deluze, which I’m sort of waiting to be sold on, lol. So I hope you’ll keep posting as you continue on in the series!

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