Thursday, February 12, 2009

Queen Betsy series, by MaryJanice Davidson

Vampire chick lit. This continues the descent of vampire novels into the most disposable of writing: this has all the complexity and moral probing of the shoe department at Nordstrom. Our heroine, Betsey (nee Elizabeth, ha ha) Taylor is hit by a car after a spectacularly awful day, and wakes up three days later in the mortuary. Turns out she had been attacked by something carrying the vampirism virus, and she's not dead. She's undead. And so the series starts, each book in the series titled "Undead and . . . ." beginning with "Undead and Unwed."

Betsy Taylor is a vapid and cartoonish figure, who inexplicably has vampire powers previously unheard of. She does not need to feed daily, but can go three or four days between taking blood; she lets her family and friends know about her new undead status, she can actually enjoy sunshine, althrough for quite a while it's like narcolepsy--once the sun rises, she is completley unconscious. But, due to her unusual powers, the vampires slowly come to believe she is the Queen foretold by their Book of the Dead.

As a result we have mysteries, solved by Betsy and her posse of human friends and vampire associates; Vampire 101, as Betsy learns about her new powers and obligations; as well as a great deal of angst and chatter, as Betsy out Bridget Joneses Bridget Jones. Really, the series is the lowest form of chick lit, in which Betsy cares more about designer shoes than almost anything else.

Why do I keep reading them? Primarily because they are set in the Twin Cities, where Betsy and her gang live in a mansion on Summit Avenue, shop at the Mall of America, and generally live their undead lives in places I know very very well.

Will I anxiously await the next in the series, or follow the career of the author? No.
Worth a purchase? No, unless you are in an airport or otherwise desperate for reading material. Worth a library pick up? That's how I'm reading them, and also library audio. They are fun, not at all taxing, and the novelty of reading a series set Right Here makes them a beach type read.

Edited to add: While Googling this series, I stumbled across the Bookclub Bitches, who podcast reviewed Undead and Unwed in 2007, dubbing it "the worst book ever." While there is an awful lot of giggling, they are pretty articulate about the flaws of this book. My favorite comment is as they detail Betsy's unusual powers, including immunity to holy objects. Thus, she is able to say, for example, "For the love of God." As the Bitches report, "And that is something I found myself saying multiple times while reading this book."

Well said, although I didn't hate it as much as they did. Perhaps that is the advantage of listening on audio--a decent narrator can make something better than it deserves to be.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sookie Stackhouse series, by Charlaine Harris

What is it about vampires, and why do I keep reading about them?

I picked up a copy of Dead Until Dark, the first of this series about Louisiana vampires and the basis for the HBO series True Blood. To tell the truth, my curiosity was piqued by Anna Paquin's win for her role at the Golden Globes. And since I can't seem actually bring myself to watch TV, I decided to read the book. Books. All of them. And in about a week.

Clearly, these go fast, and they are nowhere as complex as Laurell K. Hamilton's vampire books. In fact, they are kind of "Hamilton lite." Vampires are public, legally recognized as citizens, but with certain limitations on their rights--they cannot marry, for example. They are viewed as exciting and romantic, making vampire nightclubs a profitable enterprise, where all night dry cleaners just weren't. They have their own rituals and hierarchy of obedience, with a King or Queen in each state, and elaborate and subtle rules of etiquette. The first person narrator, Sookie, has her own magic power--in this case the unwanted ability to read minds. She finds vampires restful, since she can't read their minds, and so they give her some quiet inside her own head.

There are the uneasy relationships with werewolves, witches, and fairies, who all turn out to be real as well, who have their own rules of etiquiette, etc., and Sookie finds herself in conflicts caused by their differing cultures. There are also bad guys, murders, attacks, failed relationships, etc., etc. In a slight twist, although the vampires themselves are quite well off, Sookie isn't, earning her living as a bar maid, and the milieu is thoroughly lower class. Harris never makes fun of her characters for their socio-economic status, and Sookie herself is quite likeable in a way that Hamilton's brittle and hostile Anita Blake really isn't.

That said, Harris's books really benefit from the extensive groundwork Hamilton has mapped--the internal politics of the various species, their conflict when they are forced into contact are deeply probed in the Anita Blake books. The werewolves have a complicated pack hierarchy, with different jobs within the pack that are completely different from their human relationships. Blake's world is more violent and sexy than Sookie's: sure, Harris has physical relationships, but they are rather prim and bloodless. As a whole, the series lacks the energy that gives the Blake series such life.

There is an arc to this series, however, and reading them in order, while not strictly necessary, is recommended. Sookie's first vampire is named Bill, and fro him she meets an increasingly wide circle of others. Their relationship falters, and in later books he is refered to only glancingly as her "ex." It helps to understand the evolving relationships when reading the books. Again, not strictly necessary, but it makes the experience a better one.

Lastly, a comment on the covers. I don't know who designed them, but they are really spectacularly poor. Badly drawn charactatures of the main characters, awkwardly scattered around a vague background actually creates an impression of amateurish work that unfairly harms the writing. These are not great novels of deathless prose, but they are better than one would be lead to believe by the cover art. The newest edition, using a visual from the TV series gives the book a better first impression.

Worth a read? Sure. Worth buying in hardcover? No. In paperback? Possibly, even probably. Worth checking out from the library? Absolutely, but do read them in order. The near impossibility of doing that in a reasonable amount of time lead me to buy nearly the whole damn series in paperback, because I couldn't wait as long as I'd have to to get the copies returned from other borrowers.

For fun, the HBO website has a related merchandise from the series, including logo "branded" tees and bar ware from Merlotte's and Fangtasia, etc. Fun if you are a fan.

Guess I'm going to have to check out the TV series now.

The Falls, and Resurrection Men, by Ian Rankin

It's called "Tartan Noir;" dark, modern cop novels set in Scotland. Perhaps a bit (okay, more than a bit) precious as a "genre." Fortunately, there is nothing twee about Ian Rankin's Inspector John Rebus.

I picked these up from, and in audio form they each took about 14 hours to listen all the way through. They might be better read than listened to, as the plots get pretty convoluted with numerous characters, victims, witnesses, suspects, police officers, and by-standers, and it would be nice to be able to quickly flick back to jog the memory about who some of these people are.

These two books come fairly late in the Inspector Rebus series, and by this time, Rebus is a bit of a cliche--divorced, living alone, one grown daughter who doesn't maintain contact, drinking problem, bad reputation for being a loner and slightly rogue in the department. Jasper Fforde nicely skewers this stereotype in The Well of Lost Plots, and properly so. He's a bit unconventional, plays odd wild hunches which work out against all odds, has a prickly relationship with his superiors, and a young DI who is learning to see through his gruff exterior to the wounded heart inside.

However, cliches become that because they do work, and Rebus is not a nice man, not a man with much insight into his own behavior, but still he is a decent guide to the grubby world of Edinburgh criminal investigation. These are books written by a Scot for Scots, and there are references and slang that I know I don't understand, but the books managed to keep me engaged in spite of the sheer drudgery of a police investigation.

The Falls seems the most gimmicky, in that a missing heiress is found to have been playing a sinister scavenger hunt game online, and the young DI Siobhan Clark gets caught up in following the clues which seem to be leading her to the missing girl's body. Eerily, a small doll figure in a tiny coffin also turns up, and might be related to several other instances of women who were murdered as long as 30 years before, each of which had a coffin memorial.

It's hard to write realistic modern police novels with a prankster murderer--the world as we know it is not an Agatha Christie book, with murderers determined to call attention to their crimes through clever clues--what real murderer would court discovery like that? But Rankin's invention of a computer game that may have turned deadly allows us to engage in a bit of Da Vinci Code clue solving that is unlikely but not completely unbelievable.

Interestingly, The Falls assumes that the reader is familiar with the "Arthur's Seat Coffins," a set of tiny handmade coffins containing small doll figures that were discovered on the high hill outside Edinburgh in 1836. Do they have a relationship to the more recent coffins?

Resurrection Men puts Rebus into a remedial course for unreliable older police officers. Rebus picks a fight with his superior and throws a mug of tea at her, and ends up in a 3 week course designed to resurrect his career. There are five other cops also in the class, from all over Scotland, doing the course in order to finish their careers and collect their pensions. They are given a cold case to review, in between classes, and they are required to work together to find anything that was overlooked the first time to see if they can reach some resolution now.

Before long, we find out that Rebus was asked by a superior to "go undercover" into the class and find if three of the other cops had turned crooked and stolen several million pounds from a criminal who was framed for another crime. To his consternation, the cold case they are investigating was one he was involved in, and there is some secret about his involvement that he does not want to reveal. Now he wonders if his "assignment" was itself a blind, and that he is the one being investigated.

Meanwhile, the department is investigating the murder of an art gallery owner who was killed on his front step after a gala reception. Newly promoted DS Siobhan Clark doesn't believe that the angry artist in the cells is the real killer, and she finds herself bending the rules the was Rebus does to find out the truth.

Amid the actual investigations, we see inter-city rivalries, the "right" way to investigate a case, obnoxious reporters, grieving families, random domestic violence, the different worlds inhabited by the various classes of Edinburgh society, as well as landmarks of modern Scotland. The solutions to these various cases are never very tidy, which feels true to life. There is no single criminal mastermind, but sometimes there are very deep ties between seemingly unrelated events. Sometimes bad men prosper, innocent people get hurt or die, sometimes justice can only be gotten if the police stoop to dirty tactics.

I'm intrigued, and will keep reading this series--plus, it makes me want to go see Edinburgh for myself now.