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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Why Exactly Are Vampires Alluring?

Having just finished the first Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Until Dark, and being partway through the second, it strikes me that there’s something very unusual, in my romance reading at least, about Sookie’s attitude towards her vampire boyfriend: she’s pretty realistic about the limitations of the relationship.

Sookie often reminds us that Bill is cold to the touch, he’s ghostly pale, and he has an out of date hairstyle that he can never alter. She can’t rest her head against him and hear his heart beating or feel the reassuring expansion of his chest as he breathes. He cannot have children. He doesn’t eat, and he doesn’t care for the smell of food. Sookie has to watch what she eats, because Bill can’t stand the smell of certain things, like garlic, on her person. Not surprisingly, she also finds his diet unappetizing. She’s tired all the time from the late nights with Bill. They’ll never walk hand in hand in the sunlight, take a beach vacation, attend a friend’s wedding, a loved one’s funeral, or indeed do anything together during the day. His nocturnal lifestyle has so far prevented him from having a career or productive work. And, while Sookie has yet to ponder this sobering reality (so far in my reading), he’ll watch her age and die as he remains the young man he was when she met him.

Not all vampire mythologies are as thoroughgoing as Ms. Harris’s. Indeed, some seem to cherry pick the most romantic or appealing aspects of vampire lore, leaving the rest out. The vamps of JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood eat food, have healthy skin, and can procreate, and she always manages (in ways that range from the convincing to the “you’ve got to be kidding me!”) to give her human partners eternal life. But even when the human partner becomes vamp, there are a host of unappealing trade-offs.

Viewing Bill through Sookie’s eyes made me wonder why vampires have become so popular in romance. I mean, it could have been anything: pirates, ducks, mollusks, clones, genetically modified humans, great apes, or canteloupe.

But no, it’s vampires.

Why? Probably there are lots of forces (the turn of the millennium, terrorism, Paris Hilton, who knows) that have led to a renewed interest in vampires in the broader culture, and the folks who put on the Melbourne conference in the above poster would be able to say more. But when it comes specifically to romance, I have some ideas:

1. Power. Vamps tend to be powerful, and are very much like the typical human alpha hero. In this sense, they are just like lairds in kilts, dukes with aquiline noses, or the muscle bound SEALS/cops/billionaires etc. that populate contemporaries. They’re the new alpha. (And this explanation works whether we are saying female readers imagine being loved by a powerful being, or image themselves as the powerful being.)

1b. Un-PC. In fact, you can argue that making a hero a vamp gives authors and readers “permission” to enjoy the un-PC fantasy of being dominated by a crude and boorish hero. (Not all vamps are like this, but you know what I mean). Readers often remark that they let a vampire get away with behavior they wouldn’t excuse in a human man. Think of Rhage cornering Mary against a wall in Lover Eternal, or Mikhail forcefully, um, detaining Raven in Christine Feehan’s Dark Prince, or the many examples, as in Lara Adrian’s Kiss of Midnight, of that trademark vampire technique of sleep-rape.

2. Sex. In real life, anemia can cause a loss of sex drive, and if that doesn’t do it, death certainly will.  But vampires are sex machines. Authors exploit the metaphor of blood as the elixir of life, drawing parallels between blood lust and lust. In most of the vampire romances I’ve read, exchanging blood is (or can be) incredibly emotionally significant, and an ultra powerful aphrodisiac, incomparable to regular old human sex, regardless of how adventurous. Maybe 21st century readers are so inundated with sexual imagery in every day life that the rise of vamp romance represents a ratcheting up of sex necessary to achieve the same narrative power a kiss in the old regencies would have.

3. Darkness. Superman is powerful. And all kinds of good guys can be sexy. But vampires are powerful, sexy bad boys. We tend to think of dark characters as more interesting, more complex. We want to unravel them. Maybe the vampire bad boy is the new rake in an era when sexual promiscuity is not all that remarkable and can no longer serve as a marker of a tortured soul. They transgress many of the most central human taboos. One way to look at social mores or moral rules is as strictures, keeping us enslaved in a way. But vampires have a freedom that can be very appealing.

3b. Eternal life. This represents the ultimate transgression. It’s hard to define what make a human being a person, and one of the things I have always found fascinating about vampire lore is the way it poses this question to us. None of the vampire romances I have read have dealt with what seems to me to be a monumental transition between having a finite amount of time on earth and being immortal. This may be because we are limited to conceptualizing immortality as “a regular human life plus more years”. But that doesn’t begin to cut it. Think about the way your mortality provides a horizon for making meaning in your life. I tend to think eternal life would make a person’s life unrecognizable in ways I cannot even articulate.

But … we have a real fear of death and a very hard time at the end of life, especially here in the US. So I think the appeal of eternal life as a fantasy — the h/h will truly NEVER be apart — is a very real part of the draw.

Can you think of the others I’m missing??

Published in: on October 22, 2008 at 2:44 am  Comments (11)  
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