Fifty Shades of Grey By E.L. James
April 16, 2012

This is a dirty book. It is probably the dirtiest book I have ever read, and that is really saying something, because I am not new to dirty books.

As teenager, after I finished all the Sweet Valley High Books, I started reading adult fiction of the Jackie Collins variety. These were really fun books. On the whole, the stories themselves were only slightly more sophisticated than the YA books of my youth. But, instead of focusing on high school politics, they were about grown up teenagers, almost-recognizable celebrities living very scandalous lives.

It was like harmless celebrity fan fiction. Except that they were very, very racy. The first adult fiction book I read was Jackie Collins’ Lovers & Gamblers. While I was far too young to be reading it, I seriously loved it and read it multiple times. And not just for its blushingly explicit depictions of casual and frequently kinky sex.

Lovers & Gamblers is positively puritanical when compared to E.L. James’ Fifty Shades Trilogy.

Given that the plot of the series seems to exist only to facilitate explicit sex scenes, its not that surprising that the plot and characters are lifted blatantly from the Twilight series.  The author openly admits that the story started as a piece of Twilight fan fiction called Master of The Universe.

The only difference between the stories is that instead of Edward Cullen being a vampire, Christian Grey is an emotionally damaged sexual Dominant who wants his Bella Swan – Anastasia Steele – to agree to play Submissive in a kinky BDSM relationship.

I realize that sounds really different, but in practice, it isn’t.

Basically, Christian looks and behaves almost exactly like Edward Cullen – down to the copper hair and chiseled abs. Like Edward, he fights a compulsion to hurt the girl he loves, and obsesses on controlling and protecting her.

Like Bella Swan, Anastasia (Ana) Steele is beautiful and special, and only she thinks she is ordinary. She believes that she is too pale and skinny, that her eyes are too big and she is too clumsy. These ridiculous insecurities prevent her from realizing that the most beautiful and mysterious man on earth is hopelessly in love with her. He almost immediately wants to give up his dangerous ways have a real relationship with her and she is somehow FURIOUS about it!  The only thing keeping them apart is Ana’s stubborn insistence on acting like an idiot.

Exactly like Bella Swan, you guys.

I know that Twilight itself is rather poorly written, but the writing in Fifty Shades is epically awful. I’m never one to complain about a little explicit sex in my reading, but even Jackie Collins included an actual plot between the “good parts”. Otherwise, it’s just LadyPorn for the Twilight Soul. There is literally so much distractingly narrated sex in these books that I actually tried to stop reading those scenes.

But, literally nothing else happens.

Any semblance of a story runs out halfway through the second book, so the third book consists of Ana and Christian being rich and in love and hanging out with their bodyguards and maids. It would be very Downton Abbey, if Downton had a sex dungeon.

I have to admit that the biggest complaint I had about Twilight was that it didn’t have enough sex in it. But, the biggest complaint I have about Fifty Shades, is that it has too much sex. I think this makes a pretty convincing argument for splicing the books together. (If someone does this, please let me know!)

Having started as fan fiction – which is really just a fantasy about a fantasy – this book is just using the plot of Twilight as a vehicle for wish fulfillment.

So, to me, the most interesting thing about both stories is to consider what these fantasies say about the reality it is intended to stand in contrast to. Does this mean that ladies these days are beset by men who are mean for no reason, never buy them anything, criticize them for eating too much, make them have jobs, drive their own cars and engage in boring and infrequent sex?

That’s kind of sad, ladies.

I have no comment on the cover art for these books. I was grateful to read it on my phone, so I didn’t have to admit to anyone that I was reading porn.

Richelle Mead and The Circle of Life: Bloodlines and Succubus Revealed
September 6, 2011

If Richelle Mead published her grocery lists, I would buy them and read them and love them.  I would seek out the international editions and marvel at the beautiful cover art. I feel sure that they would contain clever commentary and sarcastic statements and eventually break my heart and make me cry…

Thankfully, Richelle publishes actual books. Entire series, in fact.

Just as life is filled with beginnings and endings – each bitter and sweet in its own way – in the last two weeks Richelle has published a book which starts a new series – Bloodlines – and a book to end a series – Succubus Revealed.

Oh yeah, and she had a baby too. Not a bad month, even for a Book Goddess!

The Bloodlines series is a spin-off of the greatest YA Paranormal series in the history of the world (yeah, I said it) – Vampire Academy. VA is a lesson in not judging a book series by its embarrassing cover art, but also not allowing Oneself to be turned off or confused by fancy words like “Strigoi” and Moroi” and thinking that One will not not like this book filled with unfamiliar words and bound by a cover which features a terrible red-toned picture of a model who looks like a 1990s Angelina Jolie – and not in a good way. However, once One has moved beyond One’s prejudices and misgivings, One will fall in love with rebellious, ass-kicking Rose Hathaway and her friends and classmates at St. Vladimir’s Academy. One may even find Oneself crying inconsolably in the middle of the night while breathlessly reading certain volumes in the six book series.

Bloodlines features characters from the VA universe, but focuses on Sydney Sage – a teenaged human girl who is part of a secret society sworn to protect the human race from the knowledge and influence of vampires. Sydney has been assigned to protect a vampire princess – Jill Dragomir – from an assassination which – if successful – could throw the vampire world into a turmoil so great that it could not be hidden from the human world.

Thankfully, said protecting takes place at a human boarding school in California, and features everyone’s favorite scorned bad-boy vampire – Adrian Ivashkov – in all his hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking, sarcastically sexy glory.

While many of the characters are familiar to fans of VA, there are new characters and places to learn about – so Bloodlines is light on the heart-breaking and nail-biting usually associated with a Richelle Mead novel. Its cool, though. I am already imagining the places on my heart Richelle is aiming for, and how it will hurt so good and I will cry so hard and curse the long months between books.

Succubus Revealed is the final volume in Richelle’s super-adult series about reluctant Seattle succubus, Georgina Kincaid. When I say “super-adult” I mean that every book features at least one very sexually explicit chapter. If you don’t like that sort of thing, steer clear – or just skip that chapter, because these books are so good I would hate for the prudes of the world to miss out on Georgina’s adventures in Heaven, Hell and cocktails.

Georgina is an immortal shapeshifter who sold her soul to Hell, in exchange for the husband she betrayed forgetting she ever existed. She has spent the centuries an employee of the bureaucracy of Hell, where she is assigned to use sex to steal the energy and corrupt the souls of mortal men. In her current incarnation, Georgina manages a cool bookstore in Seattle and while Hell would prefer that she seek out pure souls to corrupt, she prefers to corrupt only the already corrupted.

For a girl who makes her living screwing strangers, she’s surprisingly funny and likeable. Her friends – human, damned and otherwise –  are equally engaging and interesting. Its hard to hate a girl who introduced me to both the vodka gimlet and the white chocolate mocha.

Succubus Revealed wraps up the frustrating and star-crossed romance between Georgina and mortal author Seth Mortensen. The troubled relationship between Georgina and Seth is the heart of this series, but as with VA, secondary characters like Carter – an angel with a taste for liquor – and Jerome – the Arch Demon of Seattle who is a dead ringer for John Cusack, fill out a cast of characters I could read about forever.

I wish I could continue to read about Georgina as she balances the demands of managing a bookstore and being a good girlfriend with stealing the the lifeforce of random nefarious men all while saving Seattle from villains of both the human and hellish variety. But, alas…it was not to be.

One of the things that makes a Richelle Mead series so satisfying is that Richelle always has a plan. She has an actual plot outline and story arc for all of her series. It dosen’t sound revolutionary, but I can name several popular authors (cough, cough, Charlaine Harris, cough, cough, Maggie Steifvater) who are not effectively employing this method. I can’t say I blame an author for writing a standalone novel, or short series with no grander plan than getting published. But then said novel or short series is published, and finds success and entreaties for a sequel – or sequels – arrive, and what’s a working author to do? Just come up with something. It usually turns out alright, people like me buy the books and generally like them OK.

But its frustrating as a reader to feel like not only are you not sure what happens next – neither is the author.

This dosen’t happen in a Richelle Mead series. Stories have an arc, things happen in one book that acquire significance in later books. Fancy concepts like foreshadowing are utilized. Characters die – or don’t die – with deliberation and meaning. Storylines are resolved – or aren’t – and reignite later. And sadly – when its over, its over.

And its over for Georgina Kincaid. I’m sad, but satisfied that Georgina’s story ends the way that Richelle always intended it to. But at the same time, Sydney Sage’s story is brand new. There are terrible and beautiful things that will surely befall her in the next five books. I will worry about Sydney and Jill and Adrian for months while I wait for the next book to come out, which I will then read in record time, and start worrying all over again.

Its the circle of life, darlings. And I love it.

Dead Reckoning – By Charlaine Harris
June 1, 2011

There was a time and place in my life when I LOVED these books. Well, either I have changed or Sookie Stackhouse has changed.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think its me – its her.

Before I get too snippy, I must first acknowledge that this series -popularly known as the books that inspired the HBO show True Blood, but also known as The Southern Vampire Mysteries – started as a fun, genre-bending revolution in popular fiction. In a world before (and after) vampires were cool, seasoned mystery writer Charlaine Harris took a murder mystery, added a unique supernatural element and out came Dead Until Dark. At its core, DUD was a pretty standard murder mystery set in a small town, except that the small town was Bon Temps, Louisiana – home to vampires, shapeshifters and faeries, oh my!

Though she is frequently falsely accused of copycatting the human-girl-in-love-with-vampire-and-BFFs-with-shapeshifter storyline – one look at the 2001 copyright date on DUD reveals that Charlaine was well ahead of the Twilight curve. Also, where that other vampire story is all about love,  Sookie’s stories were rarely that serious. One of the things I initially loved about Sookie was that she was careful not to love any vampire, but never bashful about loving up on anyone.

In the beginning, Sookie was just a perky blonde telepathic waitress, who was smarter and stronger than she looked. She fell for Bon Temps’ first official vampire – the hilariously-named Bill Compton – mostly because she couldn’t read his thoughts. Never short on admirers, Sookie’s telepathic gift gave her an unappetizing glimpse into the mind of every man who struck her fancy, and thus she was the prettiest 20-something virgin on earth. Not for long. In the succeeding books, Sookie has relations with men of every stripe and supernatural origin.

For eight blissful books – despite murder and mayhem galore – things just never seemed all that serious in Sookie’s world. Vampire underworld politics were constantly upstaged by Sookie’s real world problems, like making ends meet on her waitress salary without taking money from her wealthy supernatural suitors.

Somewhere along the way, however, things got complicated. Money becomes the least of Sookie’s problems as she is drawn further down the rabbit hole into a confusing pseudo-marriage to a beautiful vampire and the discovery of her own magical origin.

The demands of an increasingly intricate mythology seem to weigh on Charlaine Harris. Not long ago, she posted an entry on her blog addressing nasty comments from readers complaining about the abruptly dark turn Sookie’s life takes in Dead and Gone, the 9th book in the series. She makes the excellent point that she is the author of this story, and novels are not written by committee. And she’s right.

Charlaine Harris is a far better writer than I – and I am genuinely an ardent fan of  her work. Honestly, her worst book is still better than the best work of many other authors – so far be it from me to try to tell her that she’s writing her story wrong. I just can’t help but wonder if its just gone on too long. Charlaine has said that she knows how Sookie’s story ends, and I believe her. I think she knows where it ends, and its starting to feel like she’s just killing time until her publishing contract allows her to share that ending with the world.

The latest installment, Dead Reckoning,  finds Sookie half-hearted about everything in her world. She’s unsure if she really loves her beautiful vampire “husband”, she is rightfully suspicious of the motives of her new faery family and is feeling increasingly guilty and philosophical about her role in a series of supernatural assassinations.

Through a string of misfortunes and windfalls, Sookie has more money than she knows what to do with. For a girl who started out as an orphan and an outcast, Sookie has come quite a long way in eleven books. Modern Sookie has more friends and family than she knows what to do with. She spends less time waiting tables and more time worrying about who she can really trust and who has nefarious motives.

I guess all this seriousness might feel familiar to Charlaine Harris. I can imagine that after years of quiet success as a small town mystery writer, the well-deserved fame and fortune that she has experienced in the past few years isn’t unlike what our dear Sookie is experiencing.

Maybe Modern Sookie is just more relevant to her author than she is to me.

All complaints aside, I can’t say that I am done with Sookie Stackhouse. Even when its overly existential,  I’m still invested in this story and will continue to follow it wherever it leads me.

I know I’m not done with Charlaine Harris either. As a creator of one of my favorite genres, I look forward to reading more from her. If I could make one wish for Charlaine, I would wish that she finish Sookie’s story and start on another genre-bending revolution. If there is any author equipped to change the world again, its her.

Bloodsucking Fiends – By Christopher Moore
April 14, 2011

Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends is a funny and twisted vampire romance from an earlier age of vampire stories, where all the references to pop culture vampires are centered on Anne Rice and Lestat de Lioncourt, instead of Stephenie Meyer and Edward Cullen.

As you know, I possess an inscrutable and unknowable love for THAT vampire series – The  Twilight Saga. However, let it not be forgotten that back in the day I was equally psychotic and irrational about Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. My 1990’s-era copy of The Vampire Lestat featured so many of my favorite passages outlined in fading yellow highlighter that even I had to admit I would have been better served to highlight the passages I did not find profound and beautiful and revolutionary. Growing up in the suburbs of San Francisco, no book entranced and enchanted my teenage soul like The Vampire Lestat. (Except maybe The Stand by Stephen King).

Beset as I am by my love for the most famous vampire series of this century, I am not unfamiliar with the pop psychology analysis of the current vampire craze, which seems to be a bit over-reaching in its suggestion that our predilection for “vegetarian vampires” is emblematic of post-Cold War anxieties and the twin specters of American consumerism and rising globalism…or whatever.

I honestly don’t know what it is about the condition of our economy and society that creates an almost universal interest in vampires.  Nor do I know what it says about us that our post-modern vampires eschew the classical view of humans as a food supply, and instead they want to screw us and love us and buy us fancy cars and houses. (Ok, maybe it does suggest we are a tad materialistic.)

Back in the day, however, the popular interest in vampires seemed more blatantly reflective of a collective consciousness haunted by fear and blood and death in the dark shape of the of the exploding AIDS epidemic.

While Bloodsucking Fiends is set in 1990s San Francisco, a city inside the dark heart of a horrifying real-life pandemic, it is mostly a hilarious and charming tale of a magical city populated by quirky and clever outsiders  – where homelessness, mental illness – and yes – terminal illness play clever and amusing supporting roles.

Originally published in the mid-nineties, Bloodsucking Fiends follows twenty-something  insurance adjuster Jody who wakes up one evening under a dumpster, suddenly immortal with thousands of dollars in cash stuffed in her blouse. Once she realizes that she is a vampire, her biggest regret is that she never shed that stubborn 5 pounds, and is now doomed to carry it forever.  Jody is addicted to bad relationships and needs an apartment and a new human boyfriend to help her manage her new nocturnal and supernatural life. She happens upon aspiring writer Tommy Flood, who is naive and kind-hearted and girl crazy. Their unlikely love story unfolds against a backdrop of murder and mayhem colored by a slacker sensibility that is uniquely 1990s.

Two brilliantly-titled sequels have followed Bloodsucking FiendsBite Me and You Suck, respectively.  I can’t wait to read them and find out how the new millennium and a new vampire craze are treating Jody and Tommy, et al.

Goodbye, Garnet Lacey
March 24, 2011

I recently finished reading Honeymoon of The Dead, the final book in Tate Hallaway’s series about reluctant Midwestern witch Garnet Lacey.

I really liked these books, and I am bit sad to see them end. At the same time, I’m glad that Ms. Hallaway quit when she did, instead of sacrificing good storytelling to the great god of sequel sales (nudge, nudge, Charlaine Harris).

Speaking of Charlaine Harris, I probably wouldn’t have discovered these books had I not read – and mostly loved – the Southern Vampire Mysteries series (AKA the books behind the solidly awesome HBO series True Blood).

After finishing what may be the last palatable book in the SVM series (Dead and Gone) I was very sad and longing for a paranormal mystery with a dash of romance to soothe me.

Fortune, it seemed, smiled upon me and I stumbled upon the first book in this series –  Tall, Dark and Dead. I immediately liked Garnet – with her spiky, dyed black hair and gothic fashion sensibilities. Under the spooky facade, Garnet is real witch, who is also a Wiccan (yes, Darlings, there is a difference) with a New Age-y leftist bent. Add a vampire boyfriend and some wacky magical shenanigans and I was totally hooked for the first 4 books.

These books also feature some of my favorite book covers in the history of cartoon-style book covers.  Its unknown if I would have loved the books quite as much as I did were it not for these whimsical portrayals of the witchy Miss Lacey and her feline friend. The dead-themed titles didn’t hurt either.

The mysteries and romantic entanglements may be a little formulaic and predicable, but they are still solidly fun and engaging. More than anything,  I liked the humorous and snarky way Garnet balances the demands of being possessed by the Goddess Lilith, falling in love with a sexy vampire and managing an occult bookstore – all while living in a cute vintage apartment in a quirky neighborhood of a small Midwestern city.

In essence, these books are your standard issue fluffy chick-lit focusing on a sexy independent single girl – with a darkly paranormal twist.

Dead Sexy and Romancing the Dead continued Garnet’s magical sleuthing and adventurous romance with daywalking vampire Sebastian Von Traum.

My amusement began to wear thin with the fourth installment, Dead if I Do. I was disappointed that Garnet moved out of her adorable apartment and started settling down into a serious life with her vampire lover, his zombie ex-wife and sullen half-vampire son. But, I had invested in Garnet and even married, she was sure to still be funny and prone to disasters of the supernatural variety. And she was.

But after finishing reading Dead if I Do, a few things happened that may have impacted how I felt about Honeymoon of the Dead. The first is that I read Richelle Mead’s series about another bookstore employee with supernatural powers. Richelle Mead’s Succubus series is funny and sexy and dark and tragic  – and pretty much all around one of the best paranormal series in all of creation.

If that wasn’t enough to overcome,  I also stared reading the personal blog of author Tate Hallaway.

Having learned more that I probably should about the author’s personal life,  Honeymoon of the Dead seems distractingly overburdened with thinly veiled personal references and shout-outs to her hometown of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. In fact, parts of the book reads like chamber of commerce propaganda for the Twin Cities. Maybe a lot of authors do this, and I don’t know enough about their personal lives to identify and be distracted by it.

However, I also read the personal blog of Richelle Mead, and know all kinds of trivia about her life, but I’m never distracted by self-referential commentary in her novels. So, who knows? In any event, its probably not fair to compare mere mortals to book-goddess Richelle Mead anyway.

Once I was able to get past the shout-outs and I did enjoy the book and was happy with how Garnet’s story ended. However, I cannot get past the horror that is the cover art. I don’t know where this cover came from, but I wish it would go back.

While the series may have gone on a little longer than it needed to, it was fun and entertaining throughout. I think I will miss Garnet, but I am reassured to hear that Tate Hallaway has expanded into YA fiction and has a series of vampire themed books set in – where else – Minneapolis/St. Paul. I can’t resist a YA book, as well you know, so you can expect to hear more about Almost to Die For soon!

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah E. Harkness
March 20, 2011

Are you guys surprised to hear that this book has been called “Twilight for Adults”?

I know, I know, it seems like all it takes to get me to read a book is to call it “the new Twilight” or “Twilight for grown-ups”. I’m easy like that. But, I seriously didn’t know that people were comparing this book to Twilight until I had already started reading it. Of course, after hearing the comparison, I was hyper-vigilant for Twilight references. I have to say, the comparing was exhausting and eventually boring and at a certain point, I just abandoned it and just read the story.

While I see why people compare the books, but I don’t know that I would have made the comparison on my own. Every book with a vampire isn’t Twilight you guys, and I kind of wish that people would stop comparing every vampire book with Twilight. (When I say “people”, I obviously don’t include myself and I will continue to compare things to Twilight as I see fit. So there. 😛 )

A Discovery of Witches is the story of Diana Bishop, a scholar of alchemical literature who falls in love with a vampire. Unlike Twilight, that is the least complicated part of the story. It’s really about secret books and secret societies and secret powers.

For a girl who has been reading YA books almost exclusively for years now, it was also really long. I kind of liked that despite reading almost every day, it still took me weeks to read this book. Usually, I get obsessed with a book, and read it all in a few days, and then its over and I’m sad. In this case, I was obsessed, but it was really long and I really couldn’t just read it in a day.

I heard through the book grapevine that my dear friend Vampire Susan read this book and commented that it was very science-y and she had to skip some parts. I love Vampire Susan, and totally understand how the science could be boring, but I secretly love science, so I kind of liked the science stuff. It was also very history-ish, and I am not as good at history, so I felt like maybe there were history jokes being made and I didn’t get them. Also, I read the About The Author part on the back of the book and found out that author – Deborah E. Harkness –  is a professor of history, and I honestly felt a little intimidated.  However, she is also really into wine so I felt like she couldn’t be too scary.

I was actually quite swept away by the romance and intrigue and science and history of the story. One evening,  I missed part of Jersey Shore because I was so captivated. I don’t know what else I could tell you that would communicate how good this book is.

Please be forewarned that this book is intended to be the first of a series, scheduled to continue in 2012. While its clear when you reach the end of the book that it will continue, it isn’t a terrible cliffhanger. That being said, I am really interested in finding out what happens next and will surely read the sequel as soon as its released.

As you guys know, I am OBSESSED with book covers. Little do you know, I am also really into book titles. The cover of this book is just words and symbols, but the spine contains a pretty picture of Oxford. However, I don’t really like the title of the book, and feel like it should have been called Spellbound. Read the book and tell me if you agree!