Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

For those who’ve somehow missed four books, five movies and quite a lot of hoopla—perhaps you’re living under the rock next door to the rock where all the people who missed Harry Potter have congregated—here’s the plot summary: Bella Swan is moving from the greater Phoenix area up to Fork, a bitty little town on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Her parents are divorced, and her mother is now remarried to a minor-league baseball player who’s considering shifting over to a team in Florida; it therefore makes sense for Bella to live with her father in Washington until things settle down for/with her mother.

Needless to say, moving from a large city in Arizona to a small town in rural Washington comes as something of a shock to our protagonist. Issues range from the continually dampish weather to the public library being so small. The fact that the high school has fewer students in its entirety than her own grade in the Phoenix high school is particularly worrisome…until she sees the hypnotically beautiful Cullens. Graceful and gorgeous as models, the five kids draw attention to themselves merely by breathing.

Other students warn her that they’re standoffish, and indeed Edward seems actively repulsed by her initially to the point of trying to switch out of the science lab class they have together. Until he flip-flops and begins following her intently. Unable to resist, Bella is sucked into his sphere of influence irretrievably, despite warnings from the Native American kid, Jacob, whose father has warned him about the dangerous Cullens.

In the course of this book, we find out many things about the vampires’ society; they’re physically superhuman, they sparkle in daylight, they never sleep, and more specifically, the Cullen coven is a bit unusual in that they refuse to drink human blood. Instead, they make do with animals. Their refusal to hunt humans makes them something of an outcast group among their own kinds, but being moral beings, they take the high road and remain isolated. Oh, and Bella smells absolutely amazing to Edward; to him, she has the One Perfect Scent Source of which all vampires dream. This means that she is destined to become his soul mate and life partner…at least for the short span allotted humans relative to vampires. She cannot bear aging faster than the One True Love of Her Life. He lusts for her scent. Therefore she concludes that he must make her One Of Them.

…and we’re set up for another three books.

As a budding editor, I spotted more than a few factual errors, of varying degrees of (un)factuality.
     1) Travel times mentioned in the book perplex me. Bella mentions a four-hour flight from Phoenix to Seattle; in my experience, it’s four hours between Chicago and Seattle by air, and Phoenix to Seattle is more like three hours, according to American Airlines. Later in the book, Bella is surprised that the Cullens manage to drive from Forks to Phoenix in less that 24 hours. Well, if you’re a normal human being, sure: of course it will take three days to drive that distance, what with pit stops and eating and sleeping and what have you. If, however, you’re a speed freak supernatural being who doesn’t need to eat or sleep or pee, Seattle to Phoenix overnight is perfectly doable.
     2) The Cullens have moved to this part of Washington because it’s raining or cloudy all year ’round. Possibly, but only if the Olympic Peninsula has drastically different weather patterns from the rest of Western Washington and northern Oregon. The general weather pattern is, as I recall, permacloud for most of the winter and much drier weather during the summer.
     3) There are typos of the sort that a human can catch but a computer won’t; there are a lot of homonyms that are real words, but not the one the author intended (‘naval’ piercing, e.g.). In this case, in order to limit the word count, the one I’m going to mention is moat/mote. The first one is a channel dug around a castle as a protective measure. The second is a minuscule fleck. Those little specks you see dancing around in rays of sunshine? They’re the latter.

…and so on.

Additionally as an adult who reads a lot, I can spot several developmental editing issues, such as the flat characterization and lack of backstory suggested herein. I have to wonder a bit about Meyer’s presentation of the vampires; she’s not the first to suggest that they can go out in daylight, but remains a bit foggy on the details of why vampires aren’t entirely nice to be around. Instead, her vampires come out being more superhuman than frighteningly supernatural, with no real drawbacks.

Others have touched on Edward’s possible pedophilic behavior—he may look seventeen but he’s actually over ninety, and unless vampires are frozen mentally and psychologically at the age they were when “changed” in addition to physically, he’s considerably older than she. I’d add to that the fact that at even half Edward’s putative age, the idea of returning to high school is a repellent one to me. You couldn’t pay me enough to go back! In fairness to Meyer, I don’t remember any other authors mentioning practicalities that she leaves out: wouldn’t the kids need transcripts and immunization records from their previous “school”? how do you explain to the DMV that you look 28 but were born in 1640? and for that matter, how about Social Security numbers?

…and so on.

What to read next? If Twilight was just right (and I know there are a lot of people who think so!), try Maggie Stievater’s books in the “Shiver” sequence, especially if you’re a ‘Team Jacob’ kind of girl. For those who want something from the adult section, Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches (and its sequel) might be a good place to start; they’re similar in many regards, though Harkness’ book is a bit more complex, being intended for adults. If you still like vampires after reading this (or any of the books in the series) but find the language a bit simplistic and the characterization flat, try Anne Rice’s “Vampire” books”. Another possibility, if you find these too SRZ, are S.P. Somtow’s The Vampire’s Beautiful Daughter (a stand-alone) and his Timmy Valentine books.

As for the Team Edward/Team Jacob split, frankly I’m neither. I’m Team Constantine.

I love vampires


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

What I’ve read of Gaiman’s work–I haven’t gotten around to The Sandman–is pretty dark; a man is sucked into the nightmare world of London Below, a little girl must rescue her real parents from the ghoulish button-eyed Other Mother, and The Graveyard Book is no exception. It begins with the brutal murder of four of the five members of a family, and the narrow escape of the youngest, a toddler boy.

The toddler wanders into a graveyard now converted into a nature preserve near his home, where he is taken in by a middle-aged childless couple, the Owens…who are ghosts. (This is a graveyard, after all.) The permanent inhabitants of the graveyard confer, advised by Silas on events outside the cemetery, and the “Lady In Grey” suggests they keep him until the world outside their boundaries is safe once again for him. As he doesn’t know his own name, he’s called Nobody Owens, Bod for short. The Owens provide what under the circumstances might be called a stable loving home environment, a vampire Silas supplies Bod’s physical needs, the many ghost children–people died young in past centuries–provide friendship, and the inhabitants of the graveyard something approximating a village. How is a child Bod’s age to know that there’s anything untoward about this? The world itself is strange to young children, and “imaginary” creatures quite as real as daylight things; how is a three-year-old to know he ought to be afraid of ghosts, when they’re proffering comfort? So he isn’t.

Bod has a few forays into the outside world and contact with the living. He befriends a little girl, Scarlett, who is eventually convinced by her mother that Bod is only her imaginary friend and the adventures with him inside the graveyard only nightmares. Bod attempts attending school, but is bullied into revealing himself. He tries to purchase a headstone from a pawnbroker for a woman buried as a witch (because she was, though not the kind the people feared). Overall, though, it’s more or less a description of growing up in a graveyard, and what one might need to learn there: Fading, Dream Walking and Haunting. At least until the Man Jack who killed his parents discovered that the youngest and last member of that family whose members he was assigned to kill all is yet alive, and comes for him. Bod releases the Sleer, something approximating the archetypal Boogeyman Under the Barrow, which offs Jack.

The book ends as Bod goes out into the world of the living, having outgrown the world within the graveyard as children usually do outgrow their ability to see monsters in the closet, under the bed or hiding in culverts.

As with many fantasies, if you stop to think about it, the plot unravels a bit. Ghosts are uncorporeal: how could they do the necessary physical things for a child, such as put on sticking plasters or teach him to tie his shoes? If Bod cannot leave the graveyard at all (and Silas only at night), how does Bod manage routine medical attention, such as vaccinations administered or cavities filled? How does he bathe? Here I will digress somewhat into Jasper Fforde’s third Thursday Next book, The Well of Lost Plots, in which Our Protagonist, a woman from what we would consider ‘reality’ seeks refuge in the world of fiction: the people within that world are mystified by her ability to smell and to distinguish between speakers in dialogue without identifiers, and she equally by the lack of breakfasts or needing to change vacuum cleaner bags and absence of illnesses between the minor, such as colds, and the swiftly fatal.

If you stop to think too hard about most fiction, you start to spot holes like this everywhere. Mundane stuff doesn’t come up in fiction unless it furthers the plot–remember Chekhov’s gun?–but we’ll just have to take it as given that people in novels DO dull routine tasks, such as fill their car’s gas tank, wait to get prescriptions filled, clean house and so on. That said, I can understand if people don’t like Gaiman’s work; that’s fine. I can also understand if you like some books by Gaiman, or any given author, but not others; that’s true of many authors! Maybe you like the Underground stations in Neverwhere, or the noir air of American Gods, or the illustrations in The Sandman.

Gaiman hints at many of the details in The Graveyard Book; he never specifies that Silas is a vampire or Miss Lupescu is a werewolf–there’s no sucking blood or transforming under the full moon. He never goes into much detail about the Jacks’ social/business networking techniques (for lack of a better fantasy term), and overall the book’s more than slightly episodic, a collection of short stories rather than a unified novel; there’s no overarching plot or theme other than Bod’s life in the cemetery, and eventual departure. Fans of Gaiman’s work will like it, as will (I think) children who prefer stories about things that go bump under the coffin than sweetly cotton-candyish books.

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Vampires, check. Shapechanger, check. Female protagonist with psychic abilities and a tendency to get in over her head in exceedingly dangerous situations requiring the assistance of either the Incredibly Protective Possessive Vampire (or one of his buddies) or the Reserved but still Incredibly Protective Shapechanger. Check. No, not Twilight. It’s Dead Until Dark, the first in the Sookie Stackhouse series.

This is a widely read example of the paranormal vampire romance chick-lit genre, partway between Anne Rice’s novels and Twilight, with a few twists. Vampires are “out of the closet”, so to speak; while there’s deep prejudice against them among the majority of the living population, the vampires are able to openly move amongst society, at least in the United States, acknowledging their nature. (Other countries are not so accepting.) This change came about as a result of a synthetic ‘blood’ created in Japan, with worldwide distribution now, which allows the vampires to sustain themselves, although the vampires need not kill the humans in the process of, er, feeding: just a mouthful or two will do. Otherwise, the vampires follow many of the currently accepted modern tropes: unable to tolerate sunlight, lives prolonged to the point of immortality, faster and stronger than humans, and so on.

Our Heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, is a waitress in Merlotte’s Bar and Grille in Bon Temps, Louisiana, a small town nothing like New Orleans. She’s telepathic, though has learned to shut her ‘reception’ off through concentration; telepathy plays havoc with her sex life as she doesn’t much care to hear what guys are really thinking as they hit on to her. One night a vampire shows up in the bar, and she’s instantly attracted to him as she cannot hear his thoughts. He is attracted to her, for a variety of reasons, and they form an intimate relationship. Through Bill, Sookie is drawn into the vampire community, even as her family and friends disapprove.

Dead Until Dark‘s second main subplot is that of a serial killer hunting women known to have had relations with vampires, ladies who might be described as “no better than they ought to be”: working class, and sexually active with a range of men. The police are investigating this series of crimes as Sookie herself realizes she is being stalked by someone, quite possibly the killer himself.

On the plus side, I’m glad to find a paranormal series with a reasonably mature protagonist who doesn’t scream or faint at every turn, not to mention the whole working class aspect to the majority of the characters. Surely some of the vampires have to work for a living? and how would one arrange for things like plumbers or electricians to come work on your house if you haven’t the ability to go out in daylight?

On the minus? There are several of the spelling and grammar errors (affect vs effect) I’ve come to expect from the majority of fiction these days. I’m left feeling that I’ve read the novelization of a Jersey Shore episode transmogrified to TrailerLand, Louisiana. Based on things Charlaine Harris has said about the series, it is intended to be at least partially humorous.

What to read next? Well, there are the remaining 12 books in the Sookie Stackhouse series, but when those are done, perhaps Twilight, although those haven’t the same adult relationships as Harris’ books. Perhaps Bloodsucking Fiends for readers who liked the humor, and delving into the practicalities of what vampires must manage. Meljean Brooks’ Iron Seas books might suit readers who liked the steamier aspects of Harris’ books.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

My dear and unfortunate successor,
To you I suggest that you keep firmly in mind that this is a first novel by an ambitiously literary author.

This is a story within a story within a story, all concerning a series of historians (and before “historian” was a career or job description, soldiers and monks) who have searched for the truth about Dracula. The framing story is that of the ostensible author of the book, a seventeen year old innocent who has always believed herself to be the daughter of a widowed diplomat, Paul, based in Amsterdam1. She discovers in her father’s library a mysterious packet of letters tucked in with a book containing only a woodcut illustration of a rococo stylized dragon. When she presses her father for details, he becomes atypically and unaccountably evasive, but under pressure he reveals the story behind what his daughter’s found: twenty years earlier when he was finishing his doctoral work at Oxford, his thesis advisor, Bartholomew Rossi, disappeared suddenly under mysterious circumstances, leaving only splatterings of blood in his office. Partway through this story, Paul disappears without any word to the unnamed narrator, who goes in search of her father as best a fundless over protected girl can manage, with the help of an eagerly puppyish young Oxford undergraduate.

Paul tracks down his vanished advisor, as he suspects there to be something more than merely abduction behind this; just the night before his disappearance, Rossi had shown Paul his own copy of a book identical in all essential regards to the one Paul has himself just found upon his carrel desk. The quest leads Paul through the hallowed halls of Oxford’s colleges to Budapest and the wilds of Hungary, which are very much behind the Iron Curtain in 1952, accompanied by a ferociously capable determined Hungarian scholar of the female gender. Along the way, Paul reads the packet of letters and research which Rossi left for him, which turns out to be Rossi’s own search along the same academic and geographic lines as Paul’s own. The two end up at what turns out to be the tomb of Rossi himself, now a vampire presumably at the hand, or rather tooth, of Dracul himself; they are obliged to bring this unlife to an end. After doing so, they remove themselves to marry, with the blessing of Helen’s mother…who just to complete the story in appropriate romance fashion turns out to be Rossi’s abandoned lover, left pregnant with Helen.

There was, of course, a very real Vlad Tepes, and he wasn’t a very nice man, to put it mildly; let’s just say he came by his nickname “the Impaler” quite legitimately. Was he a vampire in the modern sense? I’m as sure as any non-historian 500 years later that the answer to that’s a pretty firm NO. Sorry. But aren’t folk tales about things that go bump in the night fun, in a hair raising sort of way? While it’s true legends and folk tales about ghouls and undead were old when Tepes was alive, the “vampire” legends don’t always resemble the vampire tales upon which Stoker based Dracula, upon which Kostova is so firmly basing this novel–sorry!–although that is not to say that we’d particularly want to meet the subjects of those tales either! Propaganda denouncing one’s political opponents aren’t anything new to the American political scene either.

Unlike Simmons’ Drood, Kostova’s novel reads like pretty much exactly what it is: the first novel of someone with the potential to become a good author. Overall, it reads like a modern take on Dracula–a hunt for the Ultimate King of All Vampires–with a leavening of the sort of conspiracy theory which Dan Brown fans will appreciate: not one but two centuries’ old secret societies in opposition to one another, who must remain hidden to outsiders. Recommended for people who love long though padded books about the history of vampires.

The Guardian review
The New York Times Review

1we are only left to guess whether this is intended to be Kostova herself

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore

Gotta love a pragmatic novel about the first days and weeks in the life of a vampire newbie.

Our heroine Jody didn’t plan on becoming a vampire. She didn’t ask to become a vampire. Nope. She just wakes up one evening, lying squashed under a tipped-over dumpster wondering what the [expletive] happened and why one hand has a second degree burn. After flipping the filled dumpster off and staggering back to her last known residence, the apartment of her shackup job, whose head she dents upon losing her temper at his refusal to sympathize with her situation, she puts two and two together and figures out approximately what happened.

Thankfully, the vampire who “turned” her left her a packet of several thousand dollars cash in addition to leaving her hand exposed so she’d realize the consequences of exposure to sunlight. Jody creeps off to a local cheap motel and attempts to sort out her life as best she can. Chief among her problems is that she can no longer do her job and will have difficulty finding another (because she can’t go out during daylight hours), she can’t retrieve her car from the impound lot (because she can’t go out during daylight hours), she can’t rent an apartment on her own (because she can’t go out during daylight hours), she can’t check books out of the library with which to research her “condition” (because she can’t go out during daylight hours)…among many of the other issues that you and I manage for granted. Thankfully, she meets a young man from rural Indiana, Tommy Flood, who is working the night shift stocking a Safeway in San Francisco while sorting out his life as a fiction writer. He agrees to serve as her minion in regards tasks which must be conducted during daylight hours in return for having his housing expenditures covered, research services at the local public library and a bit of freelance bloodsucking services.

She, he and several of his third shift coworkers at the Safeway end up investigating the vampire who made Jody what she is when they realize that his Incredibly Luxurious Very Well Automated Yacht is currently docked at a local marina…a few sub plots later, Jody and Tommy end up back together with a hook sufficient for a couple of sequel novels but not large/tempting enough to convince me to read said sequelae.

Hopefully, this will have convinced fans of Christopher Moore’s writing overall to read the novel if they haven’t already. This isn’t a well developed vampire novel, complete with brilliant plotting, dialogue, characterization or sophisticated adaptation of the vampire folklore and literature from previous fiction and folklore. It’s an amusing bit of mind candy, on a par with the cozy mystery series I so adore, but not the sort of thing that ends up getting included in college literature classes.

As I said some years ago, pre-Twilight rave fanfic, while I enjoy vampire novels as a subset of fantasy, I have a few issues with the extant vampire literature, and I have even more vitriolic issues with the current fiction. As I mentioned lo these many years ago in LiveJournal:

My chief complaint about the vampire literature I’ve read is that authors duck out of explaining a few crucial issues: how do you explain not being able to go out during daylight hours? This isn’t such a huge problem for vampires of independent means, but what if they have to work for a living? Also, especially in this day of government issued identification, how does one explain away the whole immortality/eternal youth thing? Can you imagine the reaction of the average clerk in a Department of Motor Vehicles office or passport branch should someone show up and say “I was born in 1437, may I get a drivers’ license?”

It strikes me that many of their problems could be solved if enough vampires congregated in the same community, since the isolation and forced secrecy compound the problems. Think “Salem’s Lot” except without the King-esque overtones–just people trying to live in peace…who just happen to be immortal nightdwellers. Prejudice wouldn’t be a factor if the vampires comprised a significant portion of the community, since unlike many other groups discriminated against, one trifles with vampires only at the risk of one’s own life. (Unfortunately, unlike the groups most often discriminated against in the United States, vampirism WOULD affect one’s ability to hold a job.) Banks and government offices might be a bit put out at having to extend their hours, but once everybody got over the whole fangs and blood thing, I can only imagine that any business with a second and third shift would be overwhelmingly delighted at having a built in pool of employees for same, whether hospitals, police and fire services, 24 hour restaurants.

For the time being, I’ll take Christopher Moore’s take on vampirism over most of the modern fiction. And the 20th century and 19th century fiction. Heck, all of the fiction.

Blood Games by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Before Twilight, even before Anne Rice…there was Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Specifically, there was Sanct’ Germain, the vampire who lived through a good many of the human historical epochs.

Le Compte St. Germain is an ancient vampire, old even in Yarbro’s novel set first chronologically, Blood Games, set during the era of Nero in the Roman Empire. Here it is evidenced not only by his Egyptian servant, who writes in the hieroglyphic style long vanished even in this time when Christianity was no more than a furtive underground sect but more importantly in Germain’s own hard-won skills in navigating the intricacies of politics in an age when “throwing you to the lions” was not a timeworn expression but a very real threat. In Blood Games, Sanct’ Germain is a foreign wealthy nobleman residing in Rome, adroitly sidestepping many of the intrigues of the Roman Court while indulging in a taste for participating in the Circus Maximus Games via his slaves, when he falls in love with an abused and battered wife, Atta Olivia Clemens, married to a debauched and corrupt senator. (Watch this character: she shows up in later books.)

Blood Games is fairly typical of the series as a whole: a blend of vampire supernatural lore, historical fiction about geopolitical issues, with more than a slight leavening of romance and vampire kink. There’s just enough about the vampires and vampire nature to remind us that the hero and central character of the series IS a vampire, but he (and his ‘family/children’) are, not surprisingly, reluctant to reveal their true nature to the humans around them, for fear of being lynched as supernatural/evil beings. While Sanct’ Germain’s vampiric nature is important, nay central, to the plot, the novels themselves are as much historical and romance as they are supernatural in tone as Germain’s vampire nature serves equally to support the supernatural and the historical genre aspects of the fiction; how else would an immortal being fit into fiction? The series as a whole will be interesting to those interested in vampire books, though individual books will be of interest to readers who concentrate on specific historic eras. Yarbro started the series in pre-Revolution France and worked her way backwards and forwards in time as her series progressed, so there’s something for fans of ancient and comparatively recent history, for those who prefer novels at the beginning and at the recent end of the author’s writing career. Blood Games is a good book with which to start the series, despite not being the first written, as it’s the first chronologically (at least for now) and is therefore the one in which Yarbro sets up the relationships which thread their way through the rest of the series.

Yarbro’s series has more action and more historical background than Rice’s books, and a great deal more characterization and relationships building than Twilight, in addition to more realistic description of how vampires may “pass” in a human dominated world than the majority of vampire novels which I’ve read. Indeed, how else would vampires manage to survive more than a natural lifespan or two? Surely the suspicious amongst us would notice if someone didn’t age or sleep or eat? Use of the cross to affect a vampire does not figure in Blood Games, but then since this is only a few decades after Jesus’ death, the cross had not yet come to serve as a religious symbol rather than a literal form of Roman torture. How would one kill a pre-Christian vampire? This series might appeal to readers who’ve only just graduated from the Twilight series, even though strictly speaking all the books are intended for older readers. It’s not for readers who dislike repetitive or formulaic books–how many times do we really need to know that Germain is short and has delicate hands?–but then at 30+ years, a certain amount of “shopworn trope” is to be expected….as these are the authors who created just those tropes in the first place.