Friday, August 27, 2010

Excuse Me, but Where's the "bon" in Bon Temps?

Being "let down" by something involves having pretty high expectations about whatever "it" is at the outset--or at least going into it with some high hopes--only to be met, in the end, with disappointment.

Bearing that in mind, I actually wasn't as let down as I thought I'd be by Dead in the Family, Charlaine Harris' tenth (and most recent) entry in what has become her inordinately-popular series featuring Bon Temps, Louisiana waitress/telepath/lover-of-supernatural-beings Sookie Stackhouse (and a whole slew of those friendly and not-so-friendly "supes"; namely vampires, werewolves and other shapeshifters, and an assortment of decidedly un-Tinkerbell-like fairies).

After more or less enjoying the down-homey charm mixed with mayhem of the first seven books in this series, I was really let down by the eighth and ninth (due to their scattershot, everything-but-the-kitchen sink plotting and a very different--and considerably less-enjoyable--"tone"). I was so disappointed, in fact, that I didn't even plan on reading this latest entry--and still wouldn't have done so, were it not for a good friend's... erm, insistence (i.e., making sure that a mutual friend mailed me a loaner copy)... all of which leads me back to my earlier assessment--that I wasn't, technically, quite as let down by it as I expected to be.

If you're looking for a sterling recommendation for this one, though, I'm afraid you're gonna have to look elsewhere. I'm trying very hard to find some good things... some not-so-awful things... to say about it; really, I am. At least the finished product is somewhat more-coherent (and cohesive) than the ones immediately preceeding it, so, hey... that's something, right? (Okay, that's pretty much the extent of my positivity. I tried.)

What say we start with a little recap, eh? Comely, mid-20s Sookie Stackhouse works as a waitress in a bar in a podunk Southern hamlet. Her telepathic abilities, long problematic when it comes to any sort of relationship, are suddenly (for the first time, ever) not an issue when she meets new-vampire-in-town (and new neighbor), Bill Compton, who quickly becomes Boyfriend #1. (Sex, secrets, and squabbles follow.) The course of true love is a rocky one, though, and--due to some shady shenanigans on Bill's part, as well as owing a little something to the near-constant presence of his boss, the even-more-charismatic (and older! more powerful! wealthier! dangerous!) vampire, Eric Northman--Bill and Sookie's relationship eventually peters out. After dallying with a couple of other hunky supes (a local werewolf coulda-been-a-boyfriend, and the roaming were-tiger who is briefly ensconced as Boyfriend #2)--and enduring assorted skirmishes, wars, a bombing, a fire or two, and lots of senseless deaths--Sookie finds herself in a vampiric marriage to the local "sheriff", Eric (aka Boyfriend #3). (Insert angst-y stuff about their "marriage". His past. Her job. His job. Her relatives. His bosses. Her friends. Etc.) About this time there's also a vampire take-over, the Weres "come out of the closet", and Sookie endures both an annoying FBI probe and a vicious personal attack by some nasty fairies... and that pretty much covers the first nine books.

So, when Dead in the Family picks up, Sookie is still recovering--physically, mentally, and emotionally--from the gruesome torture she underwent at the hands of the evil fairies. Bill, gravely injured while trying to rescue her, is also in a bad place, noticeably weakened and depressed. Eric is preoccupied with fitting into the new vampire regime. As though all of this weren't enough to deal with--which, naturally, it isn't, in Sookie's over-stuffed (like too much sausage in a cocktail frank casing) world--she also loses her roommate (the friendly witch who finally--conveniently--moves back home), but gains a new one (her lonely fairy-cousin Claude). She finds herself in the midst of (Were) Pack business once more, when the local pack borrows her land for one of their monthly runs... and finds dead bodies on her property. She babysits another (dead) cousin's telepathic little boy. The FBI returns, with more questions. She tries to cope with the unexpected arrival of Eric's maker... and his younger brother (yet another big surprise). And, sort of beneath the surface, Sookie does a fair amount of worrying about her own mortality, and what that will mean for her and for her vampire partner down the road.

As with the last couple of books, there's just way too much shoehorned into this one, which leaves too many issues unsatisfactorily unresolved at book's end. Unfortunately, when the author does resolve something these days, her fall-back plan seems to be writing mass-killings of whatever characters she finds most tiresome... which is once again the case here. (While the gore isn't problematic for me, it seems sort of lazy--not to mention boring and predictable--to follow the same formula again and again. And again.)

Another problem is the lack of finesse when depicting communications between the various characters (meaning the ones who don't wind up victims of a staking, stabbing, or other unhappy ending, obviously). The conversations are stilted, and even Sookie's constant monologues sound forced--a far cry from the breezy, chatty tone of the early days. And, the "bad guys" (maybe that should be the "worse" guys, in a vampire book?) are incredibly one-dimensional; I (correctly) suspected from the get-go how things would play out for each of them.

Only Harris's die-hard fans are likely to be thrilled by any of the "filler", either, such as the long-awaited visit to Eric's house (the details of which weren't remotely surprising and thus, not terribly interesting) or the obligatory sex scenes (awkward and completely unsexy, unfortunately).

So, after thus ripping it apart, how can I possibly say I wasn't particularly let down by Dead in the Family? Simply because it was, actually, marginally better than the two books prior to it. (Yes, it was a very low bar that I'd set for it, but there you have it.)

Read this if you feel you must--or if someone nicely twists your arm--but try to keep those expectations low, won't you?

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 2 out of 5 mousies