Lighten up Anita

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton

I am profoundly aware that I often read books in the wrong order. I’m not referring to books in a series here though – I always prefer to start from the beginning with them; instead I’m talking about influence.

This means for instance that it was forty years before I came to We by Yevgeny Zamyatkin (my review)- the 1924 Russian dystopia that so profoundly influenced Orwell’s 1984. I was really glad to have read both, and actually would probably have found 1984 derivative if read in the publication order. In this case, reading the influenced before the influencer allowed me to revel in both future visions.

Then for my first Season of the Living Dead on this blog back in 2009, I managed to read Twilight before LK Smith’s The Vampire Diaries (my review). The Vampire Diaries arguably paved the way for subsequent teen high-school paranormal romances, but didn’t grab my imagination the way Twilight did.

Affliction

Which brings me to Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton. I was prompted to read this book when a copy of Affliction was sent by the publisher to me.  Affliction turns out to be the 22nd (!) in a series of vampire novels featuring Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter.  Good for me then, that I just happened to have the first, the aforesaid Guilty Pleasures in my bookcase, as I couldn’t possibly dive in at volume 22.

But first, a caveat: I have read and loved some of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels set in the deep south (my review of the first here). Apart from all the vampire blood and gore, there is a rich vein of humour in these books, and Sookie is a kooky and lovable heroine. It didn’t take much research to find that the first Sookie book didn’t appear until eight years after Guilty Pleasures, which also predates Buffy. With Anita being a sort of paranormal Private Investigator, I thought there may be similarities too with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (my review of the first two here), but again The Dresden Files didn’t start until 2000.

Obviously I’ve read these books in the wrong order again, as Hamilton can probably claim to be the first in this particular sub-genre of paranormal urban fantasy writers. So how does Anita Blake hold up to those that follow …

guilty pleasures

I don’t date Vampires. I kill them.
My name is Anita Blake. Vampires call me the Executioner. What I call them isn’t repeatable.
Every since the Supreme Court granted the undead equal rights, most people think vampires are just ordinary folks with fangs. I know better. I’ve seen their victims. I carry the scars.
But now a serial killer is murdering vampires – and the most powerful bloodsucker in town wants me to find the killer.

Anita Blake lives and works in St Louis, Missouri.  Her primary job at the agency run by Bert is as an Animator – she can raise zombies, or put them to rest again. She’s also an expert in vampires. We don’t know the detail, but we know she bears a grudge against the bloodsuckers.  Her expertise in these areas though is very useful to the police; she’s on retainer and is often called in to murders where undead have been involved.

When vampires start being murdered, against her better judgement, she reluctantly agrees to investigate for the vampire grandmaster.  She’s better placed than most investigators to to this, for she is partially immune to the effects of a vampire’s gaze. She still knows better than to look them directly in the eyes.

It’s not clear whether it’s a vampire killing vampires, or one of the human anti-vampire activist groups.  Anita’s first port of call is to the club, Guilty Pleasures, run by vampire Jean-Claude – who has a definite attraction to her.  I suspect that Jean-Claude, who does remain alive at the end of the book, will play a big role in subsequent novels.

Jean-Claude, although masterful, is not the grandmaster of the vampires. That is Nikolaos – a thousand year old child vampire, whose powers are strong indeed. This evil girl is determined to let Anita know that the only reason she is alive is to solve the crimes.

Anita’s investigations also take her to a ‘freak’ party, where she masquerades as a new human vampire junkie – addicted to having some blood sucked from her.  Her escort for the night is Philip, a junkie trying to kick the habit.  He is strong and noble in protecting her, but things go wrong, the party is attacked and they escape. From there, it all gets terribly complicated between all the factions involved, the vampires, the hate-groups, the human servants, and the internal rivalries between the vamps.  Anyone who associates with Anita is at risk too.

We know that Anita will survive to tell at least another 21 tales, but how many others are going to die along with the way with her?  Frankly, it was all a bit grim, and there’s no let-up, no pause for breath. All the action takes place over just a few days and you wonder how Anita has the stamina for it.

Anita is a typical heroine. Super-tough and feisty, also petite – she has to punch above her weight being small. We get few details about what she does off-duty – this is a gal that lives for her job.  She narrates the story in a noir-ish style which, it feels, allows every noir cliché ever coined to be adapted to the world of vampires.

What Anita lacks though, and hence the book, is a sense of humour.  That’s what the other books I mentioned above have, and it allows us to take a breather from the action, and absorb all the complexities of the plot.  With Anita, it’s all bam, bam, bam – no pauses for a cup of joe with a friend, no chance to let off steam and allow another side of her personality to come through. Actually, she’s a bit whiny (mostly at herself, it must be admitted), but I didn’t warm to her the way I did Sookie.  It’s just non-stop action, with a few hours sleep to recover from the mounting number of injuries Anita accrues along the way.  The amount of pain this gal can sustain is superhuman – oh – maybe she is one?

Also, I without the device of Harris’s Tru-blood – the synthetic blood that allows vampires to live alongside humans without the risk of bloodlust killing them all, even if vampires were real, they couldn’t be given equal rights to live alongside humans safely.  Given all their superhuman powers, unless the blood thing could be resolved, Anita’s world can’t exist – they have to remain underground.  That’s what makes the later series work.

While this first novel in the series did keep me reading until the end, I didn’t bond enough with Anita to want to read more of this series.  She does have legions of fans though. Do let me know if you think I should give her another chance. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton, Headline paperback, 327 pages.
Affliction (Anita Blake Vampire Hunter 22), pub July 2nd, 2013, Headline hardback.

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The case of the randy old goats and the vampire!

Linger Awhile by Russell Hoban

The ex-pat US author Russell Hoban, who lived in London,  died at the end of 2011 aged 86. He kept writing right up to the end.  I haven’t paid a visit to Hobanville in a while, and this short novel published in 2006 neatly filled in the gap between more major reads. Hoban’s world is weird, wacky and earthy – anything goes, and anything can happen, as it does in abundance in Linger Awhile

I’ve included a larger than usual picture of the book’s cover, as the montage of images seems to cover a lot of what happens – from Soho and Chinatown, to a black and white movie cowgirl who looks a bit like Barbara Stanwyck, a toad of the wart-licking variety, a videotape (remember those!), an old seafort, and of course the vampire and her victim in glorious Technicolor.  All that’s missing are the three old guys and a parrot called Elijah. Let’s  meet one of them…

Irving Goodman was married to Charlotte for ten happy years.

We were faithful to each other and I had no mid-life crisis. Then she died. Nobody talks about end-of-life crises but they do happen and twenty-seven years after Charlotte’s death I fell into one at the age of eighty-three. I needed some technical help with it so I bought a bottle of expensive whisky and went to see Istvan Fallok at Hermes Soundways in Soho.

Irving’s crisis is complex. He’s 83 and he’s fallen in love with Justine Trimble who’s been dead for twenty-five years. She was a black and white movie star in the 1950s, and played the kind of cowgirl “you could tie her to a post and leave her out in the rain for two or three days and she’d come out of it freshly laundered, make-up unsmudged, and with dry knickers.”  Irving is convinced that she can be brought to life from the visual DNA of her image in an old video tape of Last Stage to El Paso, and Istvan will be able to work out how to do it.

They drink their Bowmore Cask Strength Scotch (Hoban is big on this kind of detail), and Irv leaves Istvan to it.  Needless to say, he manages to regenerate Justine – but she’s black and white, and not at all happy to be brought back to life like this.  Istvan ‘sees’ to her, and also donates some red stuff which gives her some colour, but he’s an old man himself, and it’s not enough for the newly energised Justine.  She goes off in search of blood and finds and accidentally kills a woman she encounters just dumping the body around the corner. Chauncey Lim, who’s also a Trimble fan, witnessed it, and soon he’s admitted to the club of her randy old admirers.  Although they move the body, the police are soon on the trail, and it all gets very complicated, especially once Istvan’s girlfriend Grace hears about Justine.

This book is very camp, and totally non-PC, reminding me more of the Carry On films with their farce rather than Hammer Horror with its scream factor – call it ‘carry on vamping’?  There are chuckles aplenty with some good one-liners, and plenty of just desserts distributed to even up the high-jinks.

The whole though, feels a bit like a novella stretched just a little thin.  It was a fun, quick read, but I have read better: 2007’s My Tango with Barbara Strozzi for instance, plus his post-apocalyptic cult classic Riddley Walker which is totally different to the rest of his writing (and wonderful).  This one may be slightly more miss than hit, but Hoban is a writer I will keep on reading, and I’ve got plenty left to catch up with. (6.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Linger Awhile by Russell Hoban, Bloomsbury Paperback 2006, 160 pages.
My Tango with Barbara Strozzi (2007)
Riddley Walker (1980)

War & Peace – without much peace, but with added Vampires…

It’s that time of year again when I like to pepper my reading with a bit of blood and gore and undead creatures.  I won’t be reading all vampires and zombies – the plan is to alternate roughly, so do come back later if the undead are not your thang!

My first book in the Transworld Book Group challenge however fits the bill perfectly to kick off Gaskella’s new … Duh-duh-daaah!…

Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1) by Jasper Kent.

I have read War and Peace, so I know a little bit about Napoleon v. General Kutozsov, the Battle of Borodino and Napoleon’s march on Moscow, and I’m sure we all know that Napoleon had to retreat and Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 overture to commemorate it.

This military setting forms the backbone of this novel as we follow the exploits of Captain Alexei Ivanovich Danilov and his small band of officer comrades.  They work as a kind of elite force, spying on the French and using guerilla tactics to keep one step ahead. It’s hard work though – Alexei lost two fingers when he was captured in a previous campaign.

It’s not going well for the Russians, and Dmitry, nominally in charge of Alexei’s group, has taken matters into his own hands. He has engaged a band of mercenaries whom he met in the Balkans to help. He explains that they’re like the monks the Tsar once had as a bodyguard – the ‘Oprichniki’. The Balkans will act as a guerilla force to pick off a few French soldiers here and there and generally sow fear amongst them.  Dmitry explains …

‘They enjoy their work. Like any army, they live off the vanquished.’ None of us quite followed Dmitry’s meaning. ‘The spoils of war. Armies live off the gold and the food and whatever other plunder they take from the enemy.’
‘I’m not sure they’ll find enough gold with the French army to make their journey worthwhile,’ I said.
‘There are rewards other than gold,’ said Dmitry with an uncharacteristic lack of materialism. ‘They are experts at taking what the rest of us would ignore.’

They are a scary band of chaps, and they certainly go to work with relish – but then they would be, the Oprichniki are vampires.  It’s obvious from the start to us the reader what they are, but it takes Alexei some time to cotton on, and then he becomes a man with a rather different mission.

Meanwhile, in between bouts of spying on the French and haring around the place trying to catch up with his fellow officers, Alexei hangs around Moscow, where he acquires a mistress – a posh prostitute called Domnikiia. Alexei’s wife and young son remain in Petersburg – he feels little guilt though, and continued encounters with the Oprichniki give him no time to consider his position.

Then, of course, there’s a third element after the French and vampires to do battle with – the weather.  It’s winter, and a foodless, occupied Moscow is no place to hang out for humans – the vampires do OK though!

At the beginning of this book, I had wondered whether the military setting would overshadow the rest of the story, which was something I found slightly with The Officer’s Prey – a Napoleonic military detective story by Armand Cabasson I read a couple of years ago.  Twelve though, with its domestic sections in Moscow, came alive in a less soldierly fashion.

Although this book was rather long at 539 pages, and took a little while to get into, I did enjoy it.   It does have a high gore and violence count, but these vampires are the real thing – proper nasty blood-drinking, flesh-rending, sunshine hating, superhuman monsters from the borders of Europe and Asia.   Twelve in the first in a planned quintet of novels – would I read another?  Next vampire season certainly!  (7.5/10)

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My copy was supplied by the publisher, Transworld – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1)by Jasper Kent – paperback 539 pages
Thirteen Years Later (Danilov Quintet 2)
The Third Section (Danilov Quintet 3)
War and Peace (Vintage Classics) by Leo Tolstoy
The Officer’s Prey: The Napoleonic Murders by Armand Cabasson.

Vamped out? Book Group Report

Two months ago, we were trying to choose a book to read in August, and no-one could come up with any suggestions that met any consensus. I suggested one of the books in the latest series of the Channel 4 TV Book Club that happens to be a vampire story and a jolly good summer read, everyone said OK then.

The book in question was The Radleys by Matt Haig, which I previously reviewed here. In the pub last night, it got quite a mixed reception – but it was a good discussion!

Most of the group agreed that it was a great summer read.  Some, not knowing that it was also being marketed as a YA crossover title wondered whether it was particularly aimed at teens upwards rather than adults.

Some like me, had loved it, but there were a couple for whom it didn’t hit the mark of being original enough, being True Blood fans, they were vamped out by it. I argued that half the point was to have a comic particularly suburban British look at the entire vampire phenomenon.

We were agreed that there were some great scenes though, the whole vegetarian thing, the dinner party drinks, etc, but several found the ‘Abstainer’s Handbook’ which punctuates the chapters unfunny.  We felt that the darker softback cover (right) promised a different read to the paperback (above).  We also spent some time discussing whether the vampirism was a metaphor for drink, drugs, or a case of name your addiction.

The Radleys would make a good book choice, particularly for groups that haven’t read as many vampire novels as we have between us!

Next month:  Candide by Voltaire – you can’t say we don’t read a wide choice of titles!

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Radleys by Matt Haig
Candide by Voltaire