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Recent Reading: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris - Mo's Journal
July 17th, 2009
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Recent Reading: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
As mentioned elsewhere, I'm loving the HBO TV Series "True Blood" and was intrigued to read the books it's based on. So I got the first one from my library and read it the other day. I'd been warned that the books are not very well written, but I wanted to see how they compared to the show. Well, this is definitely a case where the adaptation is considerably better than the original.

The Southern Vampire Mysteries are Harris's series about Sookie Stackhouse, telepathic waitress in rural Louisiana, and her undead beau, Bill Compton. Dead Until Dark is the initial book in the series. It corresponds roughly to the first season of True Blood. As in the TV series, the book opens a couple of years after vampires "came out of the coffin" when Japanese scientists perfected synthetic human blood, allowing those vampires who want to live without preying on people to do so and "mainstream" among humans. Bill, a vampire and veteran of the Civil War, moves into the tiny town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, where he meets Sookie and they fall in love. Meanwhile, a serial killer is strangling Bon Temps women who have had sex with vampires, so Sookie is vulnerable. As in the TV series, the murderer is found out at the end and Sookie barely escapes with her life in a dramatic denouement.

Stylistically, the books (or at least this first one) have a "cheap romance novel" feel to them. Characterization is sketchy, but there's great attention to what all the characters are wearing. Both the sex and the telepathy are very poorly written. I have high standards for both sex and telepathy (in writing, that is), I know, but I think even one who doesn't will find that the sex is cheesy/romantic rather than hot, and the telepathy unconvincing. This is a huge contrast with the TV series, where the sex is sometimes hot, sometimes creepy, and occasionally both, while the telepathy is conveyed in a vivid manner.

That said, I did find the book relatively absorbing, if a little tiresome on the clothing front. The small town setting felt realistic; the characters and settings were varied and often amusing; the mystery itself was pretty good. The villain turns out to be the same person as in the TV show but his story is somewhat different so it kept me guessing a bit.

There were a number of plot and character differences between the book and the show. In some cases I think the tv show improved on the book plot; in others not so much. Some things that really surprised me were:

- There's no "True Blood." Central to the TV Series is the marketing of True Blood, and the ads for the show in advance were faux ads for the product. In the book, it's referred to as "artificial human blood" with no brand name, and although it can be purchased, it's also distributed at clinics. The TV show is about American commercial and media culture at least as much as it's about vampires; that's totally missing from the book.

- Lafayette is barely in it. My favorite character in the first season was Lafayette - flamboyantly gay short-order cook cum road worker cum prostitute. He shows up in only a couple of scenes in the book, and only as the cook at Merlotte's. I know through fandom circles that he dies in the second book and was surprised he was not a major presence in the first.

- Tara isn't in it at all. One of the central relationships in True Blood is that of Sookie and her best friend Tara, and many of the subplots revolve around Tara. She's nowhere to be found in the first book.

- The Sam/Sookie/Bill triangle plays out quite differently in the book. Sam in the TV show has always been in love with Sookie (as established in the first episode) and she does not return his feelings. He is resentful when she falls for Bill, but happy to comfort her and with some hopes of a relationship when she's on the outs with him, although she always dumps him eventually. I found this whole subplot beyond annoying. In the book, he only gets interested in her after Bill shows up and shows some regret that he hadn't noticed her before, when he might have had a chance. It's one section where I found the book preferable to the show.

- Another interesting difference is in the ending, when Sookie is almost killed by Rene, the murderer. In the tv series, both Sam and Bill come to her rescue. In the book, she's on her own and kills Rene in self-defense with his own knife, while Bill is off in New Orleans running for an elected vampire position. The book ending felt more satisfying to me.



In sum, I don't think it was a very good book and I'd be unlikely to have read it if not for the show. Still, there were things I liked about it and I enjoyed comparing it to True Blood and have already requested the sequel from the library.

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From:tarchannon
Date:July 17th, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
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The books are light summer reading, and the quality improves as they go along. Yeah, they have their 'romance novel' moments, but that's really in the style of the genre of supernatural romance as much as any other reason (and, boy, some of the others are OMG bad). They do get much more complex as Sookie's world widens, and are generally a decent read (with the exception of the newst one, whic was a bit of a throwback). Clearly, don't go into them with the idea that they'll withstand an actual literary review. LOL! To me, the universe is the most interesting thing about the series.

As for the most excellent TV adaptation, it is a lot more fun, sexy, and interesting than the novels. In the book, it's Sookie, Sookie, Sookie all the time, and while she's fine, I find some of her friends more interesting. By the very nature of doing a TV series, Ball had to expand the role of the other characters (altering a few that are now important, and adding some new ones) so Anna simlpy didn't die of exhaustion. :) Ball does a great job at bringing the other characters to life, and he's virtuoso at twisting threads into side pltos that eventually weave back in or making new threads to service the show as a whole. I think it's astonishing that Alan Ball can do this - it's a rare, rare gift to make the video version of a work better than the written one.
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From:mofic
Date:July 17th, 2009 03:58 pm (UTC)
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By the very nature of doing a TV series, Ball had to expand the role of the other characters (altering a few that are now important, and adding some new ones) so Anna simply didn't die of exhaustion.

Yes, I was thinking about how a movie version of a novel necessarily contracts it (because more happens in a novel than you can portray in a couple of hours) and a TV version, by contrast, has to expand it.

So is Tara totally Ball's invention? Or does she show up in later books?

I totally agree with you on the sub-plots and the way they come together. I recently turned my youngest on to True Blood and we watched a few of the early episodes together. I was so struck in rewatching the first episode by how:

- all the important relationships are established, and in a very natural way (I hate it in books, movies, or tv when characters say things they just wouldn't say because the reader/viewer needs to know something)

- there's so much foreshadowing

- the queer subtext stuff is so good from the start (I didn't see any of that in the book, did you?)

Yeah, I'm not reading them for literary value, but for fun. And I did find the first book fun, albeit not as fun as the TV show.
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From:talktooloose
Date:July 17th, 2009 04:18 pm (UTC)

Queers Subtext (SPOILERS FOR SE02EP04)

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Alan Ball wrote an interesting bit of queer subtext into last week's episode -- the generational gap in new vampires like Jessica (created after vampires have come out of the coffin) and old school vamps like Bill. Bill points out the ways it is both easier and harder for her.
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From:mofic
Date:July 17th, 2009 04:20 pm (UTC)

Re: Queers Subtext (SPOILERS FOR SE02EP04)

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I know! I was really struck by that, too.

True Blood is shaping up to have as much queer subtext as the X-Men!
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From:talktooloose
Date:July 17th, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC)

Re: Queers Subtext (SPOILERS FOR SE02EP04)

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A lot of world-building in the episode, too (there's a vampire queen! There's another telepath!), but frankly, Alan Ball isn't as good a writer as the rest of his team. I felt the same way when he wrote the occasional Six Feet Under. His dialougue is clunky.
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From:mofic
Date:July 17th, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Queers Subtext (SPOILERS FOR SE02EP04)

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I don't know who wrote which, and I haven't spotted a pattern, although certainly dialogue is better in some spots and some episodes than others.

The vampire queen is going to be Evan Rachel Wood.
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From:talktooloose
Date:July 17th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Queers Subtext (SPOILERS FOR SE02EP04)

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Speaking of queer X-Men, do you know that in recent X-Factor issues, Peter David has made canon a long-standing slash 'ship? Rictor and Shatterstar kissed! (first time in a mainstream Marvel book) and are having some kind of relationship.
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From:mofic
Date:July 17th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)

Re: Queers Subtext (SPOILERS FOR SE02EP04)

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I did know about Rictor and Shatterstar. Part of me thinks it's exciting and part thinks it's way overdue.

Are you saying there haven't been same sex kisses in Marvel before? Or just not with two well established characters?

The reason I'm asking is I have a very vivid memory of being in a comic book store with Doran when he was 12 or 13 and the sales guy wouldn't let him buy a particular comic without my permission and when I asked why it was in a special category breaking the code was told it was because two men kissed in it. I think it was an X-Force, but definitely a Marvel.

Of course, I could have hallucinated the whole thing...

Edited at 2009-07-17 10:32 pm (UTC)
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From:tarchannon
Date:July 17th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
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Tara is indeed a book character; she's an old high school friend of Sookie's, but she's a a very different lady. She is chilly, white, and is a vampire lover. She manages a clothing store in the neighboring store, and being vampire friendly helps Bill and Erik keep Sookie in clothing (and appropriate clothing for the various vampire events) - since being around vampires is invariably destructive to clothing (and Sookie's pretty cash poor). She does, in a way, give Sookie that friend that she can discuss thevampire stuff with, but they aren't that close. I pretty much adore Ball's Tara, and I alternately want to cheer for her and hug her and tell her eveything with be all right. ;)

When you read along one book more, you'll catch just how brialian Ball is at picking up little things and using them to create sideplots for the other characters that are fascinating, and then be able to weave them back into the main story (usually to Sookie, as the core of the show). I'm a touch in awe, and I'm honestly studying how he does it because of there is a lesson in genius to be learned, it's there.

As far as the queer subtext, I did pick it up right away (but that might have been how I was pointed to the series in the first place). I think at various points it's very clear - and the parallels with *all* of the civil rights struggles are made. However, Ball is deft at underscoring this and bring the realities involved into focus.

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From:astronomylover
Date:July 17th, 2009 10:38 pm (UTC)
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So is Tara totally Ball's invention? Or does she show up in later books?

Tara shows up later in the books, BTW. (I love Tara. She's one of my favorites.)
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From:shayheyred
Date:July 17th, 2009 06:42 pm (UTC)
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Oddly, I just read the first book on my plane to England, having no idea it had anything to do with a TV series - and since I don't get HBO I haven't seen that. But I thought it was, without fail, the worst book, and worst mystery, I've read in years. The main character just smacked of a Mary Sue in a vampire fandom (she's gorgeous! She's telepathic! She's a virgin! Puh-leeze). All it needed was for her to have lavender eyes and be a brain surgeon. As for the prose, there were so many examples like "the taller man said," or "blue eyes locked onto green ones" that I could barely stop from hurling the book across the room.

The only thing that kept me going was the character of Bill (and I did love that a vampire has such a prosaic name) and the idea of him addressing the locals about his Civil War experiences. I enjoyed the whole concept of vampires "coming out," complete with vampire elections - though I confess I did not understand the "virus" story promoted in the press in the atory. I agree with you that Lafayette was the most appealing secondary character and I'm happy to hear he's got a bigger part in the show.

I wish I could see the tv show - I imagine it will turn up sooner or later on non-pay cable - because the concept of the show is great, even if the telepathy aspect still makes me roll my eyes. But the book? Horrible. Awful. I finished it and thought, "I've read bad!fic before, but this takes the cake."
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From:mofic
Date:July 17th, 2009 07:28 pm (UTC)
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The show is really good! And the scene where he gives his presentation is quite marvelous. It's extremely well written, well acted, and well conceived. The accents are great (and most of the main actors are not even from this country, much less Louisiana) and so is the music. I really, really love it.

The first season is available on DVD. You can rent it. I don't know about on non-pay cable - do premium cable shows do that? Like The Sopranos, for example?

I took the "virus" story to mean that when vampires first show themselves, some people look for a non-magical explanation for them. So the story is that they contracted a virus that made them look dead (i.e. they didn't really die) and that had after-effects that got exaggerated into the vampire legend, with the real sequelae being that they are sensitive to sunlight, silver, and garlic and that they have a blood deficiency that requires frequent transfusions or synthetic blood. And some vampires adopt that story because they think it will make people less frightened of them than if they know the truth.
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From:executrix
Date:July 17th, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)

Don't Just Stand There, Do Something

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I got the first disk from Netflix. I was underwhelmed. I think that Tara is like Mahandra-from-Wonderfalls-lite. Also, Jaye in Wonderfalls has a much nicer brother than Sookie does, so Tara's fixation makes her seems dumber than Mahandra.

Also, I know that the Southern climate is enervating, but the (numerous) het sex scenes in the first two episodes featured men just lying or standing there moving the women's hips, which seemed...well, odd.
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From:tarchannon
Date:July 19th, 2009 04:02 am (UTC)
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Wow, I wish I had your luck in picking books. I come across a boatload of books that are far less well written (for axample, the X-Men novelization was apparently written by a high school sophomore that was flunking their first creative writing class, and well, frankly, Meyer's prose in the Twilight books are bad enough to make your eyes bleed). I'd guess that Harris is solidly in the middle, and after reading a sampling of other books in the supernatural romance/mystery genre, she's significantly higher than that in her genre. As for Sue's - never read Hamilton's Anita Blake series or pick up Twilight. The latter *burns*. :D
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From:shayheyred
Date:July 19th, 2009 04:04 am (UTC)
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Hee! I leafed through one of the Twilight books in a Barnes & Noble and thought I'd gone brain dead. I have a far greater opinion of fanfic now, having read Harris' book. But the sad thing is, I liked the premise enough that I'll probably end up reading all the novels.
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From:lunabee34
Date:July 17th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC)
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I read about the first ten of the novels because I must have something to read in the bath and it's a bitch to make marginalia in the tub so only worthless books in the bath.

I found the small town atmosphere and the Southern grace notes very well done. Everything else was kinda meh. I mean, my first fandom was Buffy, so I've read some good vampire writing before. The sex is also meh. And it does not improve over time; if anything else, it gets more boring.
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From:mofic
Date:July 17th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
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Have you seen the show? What did you think?
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From:lunabee34
Date:July 19th, 2009 02:59 am (UTC)
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Not yet! I have to be all scholarly right now. *sad face* But soon!
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From:davidfcooper
Date:July 17th, 2009 10:46 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the warning; we'll skip the book.

Sorry our evening was cut short a week ago. Apparently Shoshana had a bad reaction to a generic equivalent of medication that never caused her problems in its original version.
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From:mofic
Date:July 18th, 2009 01:59 am (UTC)
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Yeah, I talked to Shoshana at shul last week. I'm glad she's okay.

We'd love to have you guys over for dinner. Are you around the rest of the summer? I'll email some possible dates...
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From:realpestilence
Date:July 18th, 2009 02:42 am (UTC)
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The series came out around the time Laurel K Hamilton's Anita Blake series went to hell, and it was a nice change to read something paranormal/romanticish that wasn't NC-17. I noticed, though, after a few books, it seemed like they were trying to head the same way, so I said the heck with it & stopped reading them. It's too bad, they were fun, and kind of interesting.
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From:tarchannon
Date:July 19th, 2009 03:53 am (UTC)
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Yeah, I'm not buying that Sookie is a Sue at all; not only is Harris' Aurora Teagarden more a Sue, if you compare any of her ladies with half the Rogue-based fanfic out there (or hey, as you mention, Hamilton's Anita Blake), a Sue she is not. Hamilton's writing is a bit sharper, and her sex a bit hotter, but - oy! - as Blake gone to far into ridiculousness. The Blake novels are pretty groan-worthy at this point.
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From:shayheyred
Date:July 19th, 2009 04:07 am (UTC)
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I'm greatful never to have read those books, though many friends of mine are into the whole Anita Blake saga. I guess I'll just stick to fanfic instead of the source material.
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From:tarchannon
Date:July 19th, 2009 04:29 am (UTC)
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There is such a wonderful amount of well-written fanfic, isn't there. It's great to have that resource; unfortunatly, I can't take that on the bus (yet). :P
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