Friday 17 January 2014

REVIEW: Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay (4.5*)

(Orion Books, 2005)

"If I am ever careless enough to be caught, they will say I am a sociopathic monster, a sick and twisted demon who is not even human, and they will probably send me to die in Old Sparky with a smug self-righteous glow."

Dexter Morgan is a nice guy.  He has a sweet girlfriend whose kids adore him, he gets on well with his foster sister Deborah, and he's fantastic at his job, working in forensics as a blood spatter analyst.  Those spookily accurate hunches he gets during homicide investigations... well, they just make him even more of an asset to the police department, right?  No, actually.  Dexter's 'hunches' stem from personal experience.  Because Dexter Morgan is a sociopath and a serial killer.  Thanks to a hefty amount of teenage guidance from his late foster father, wise cop Harry, he channels his need to kill into a vigilante-style hunt for bad guys who've escaped the law, and with his finely honed and careful methods, he's never been caught.  Except now there's a new serial killer in town.  And with his rapidly increasing body count and sly personal 'messages' that no one else understands, it seems that maybe Dexter finally has a playmate...

I'd obviously heard about Dexter, the TV series, a long time ago, and the premise really appealed.  When I realised it was based - at least the first series, anyway - on a book, I knew I had to get hold of a copy.  So I waited, and looked, and waited some more, and finally this first book in the series arrived at the bookshop and IT WAS MINE.  It came home with me the same day.  I bought the next three in a '3 for £5' remainder deal last year, and thank heavens I did, because I LOVED THIS BOOK SO HARD.  I wasn't expecting that much because both Hanna and Sarah had already mentioned that they didn't rate it, but WOW this was a good reminder that sometimes good old-fashioned gut instinct is a better guide to what you'll enjoy than what other bloggers think.  Y'know, like how we used to pick our books BEFORE the blogosphere took over.  Good times...

What made the novel for me was definitely Dexter Morgan himself.  Like R in Warm Bodies, his compelling narrative voice is a means of rendering a rather dark and macabre subject matter (and a potentially frightening character) more readable, more enjoyable, more absorbing and yes, more amusing.  I loved how playful his narrative was at times, twisting words into alliterative flights of description, often making me chuckle at the bone-dry, midnight black humour and well-placed jabs of sarcasm.  At the same time, as you might imagine, the 'Dark Passenger' (as Dexter calls his inner killer) is a threatening and ever-shifting presence in the background, and Lindsay never lets us forget - via little glimpses of this instinct, and via Dexter's constant awareness of his sociopathy and the need to appear 'human' - that our friendly forensics geek is actually a deadly menace whose benevolence in his choice of victims can only be maintained with absolutely rigid self-control.

This, perhaps, for someone with a keen interest in social sciences, psychology and mental health, was what made the novel as a whole so fascinating.  Dexter is fascinating.  The way he so closely emulates human emotion while understanding so little of it is fascinating.  The way he sees himself as a monster, as an outsider, yet works so hard to fit in is fascinating.  The way he lives so rigorously by 'the code of Harry', the way he respects his foster father's memory despite not being able to love him, is fascinating.  The way he will gleefully enjoy killing a serial rapist or a murdering paedophile, but his girlfriend Rita's kids absolutely adore him, is fascinating.  I guess this is probably what draws people to the TV show too - this is a unique character, and watching his constant struggle to appear 'normal' makes him a hugely interesting and even sympathetic protagonist.

Of course, Dexter isn't the only character worth mentioning.  His cop sister Deb is a lot of fun - feisty, foul-mouthed yet strangely vulnerable - and her political manoeuvring against inept Detective Maria LaGuerta is quite a compelling subplot, particularly as each time LaGuerta gets something wrong it has further implications for Dexter's own interest in the new serial killer.  The dialogue was occasionally a tad clunky, but it improved if I read it sort-of aloud, like maybe it had more to do with the fact that I was silently reading it in my own accent, which didn't work very well.  Does that make sense?  The other key characters - like Angel, Doakes and even Dex's girlfriend Rita - don't play a huge part in this book, but I'm assuming they'll maybe get more page time in the next few novels.  I also really enjoyed the Cuban influences in the book.  I had no idea that Miami had such strong Cuban culture (ssssshhh, Brit girl here), so that was a kind of fun bonus for me.  Maybe more so in the TV series, where a lot of the (fantastic) soundtrack has a distinctly Cuban flavour.

To sum up... well, did I mentioned that I loved this book?  I think me and Dexter are going to get on just fine for the rest of the book series as well as all eight seasons of the show (which I just bought after enjoying the first half of my sister's season 1 box set).  If I knew where the hell I'd put those next three books I'd probably have read on by now - but since I don't, I'm going to finish season 1 of the TV series and go from there!

Notable Quotables:
  • "In spite of feeling so very moved by the thing, I didn't have any immediate theories about what it meant.  Sometimes great art is like that.  It affects you and you can't say why."
  • "I began to feel unsettled, dizzy, confused, hyperactive and lethargic at the same time.  I walked to the window and looked out.  It was dark now and far away over the water a light rose up into the sky and at the sight of it a small and evil voice rose up to meet it from somewhere deep inside."
  • "I felt the Dark Passenger become the new driver for the first time.  Dexter became understated, almost invisible, the light-coloured stripes on a sharp and transparent tiger.  I blended in, almost impossible to see, but I was there and I was stalking, circling in the wind to find my prey.  In that tremendous flash of freedom, on my way to do the Thing for the first time, sanctioned by almighty Harry, I receded, faded back into the scenery of my own dark self, while the other me crouched and growled.  I would do It at last, do what I had been created to do.  And I did."
  • "Weren't we all crazy in our sleep?  What was sleep, after all, but the process by which we dumped our insanity into a dark subconscious pit and came out on the other side ready to eat cereal instead of the neighbour's children?"

Source:  I nicked this book from our shop as soon as it came in, because I knew it was the first in the series and I wanted to give it a try!

Friday 10 January 2014

REVIEW: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black (4*)

(Indigo, 2013)

"Vampires were fairy tales and magic.  They were the wolf in the forest that ran ahead to grandmother's house, the video game big boss who could be hunted without guilt, the monster that tempted you into its bed, the powerful eternal beast one might become.  The beautiful dead, la belle mort."

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a new take on vampire lore by the author of the highly-acclaimed Curse Workers series.  I've never read them, but Charlotte and Hanna have both told me how good they are, so I was definitely hoping to enjoy Holly Black's new top-end YA novel.

What's great about this new addition to the vast pool of vampire fiction is the fact that it blends old-school elements of vampire mythology with a whole new twist on their existence.  The central thing to get to grips with is the idea of 'going Cold'.  When a vampire bites a human in Black's world, their body temperature quickly drops and within two days they develop a fierce and irresistible craving for human blood.  With their first taste, they will die and rise again as a vampire.  Their only hope of living on 'normally' is to quarantine themselves for eighty-eight days until the infection has left their body.  Understandably, very few people manage to withstand this torture.  Protagonist Tana's infected mother attacked her, still a small child, in a frenzy of blood lust, and had to be killed by her father.  Their family has never really recovered.

So, that's where we begin.  Tana is now in her late teens, and has woken up at a 'sundown party' to find herself surrounded by the corpses of her friends and schoolmates.  Someone has made the fatal mistake of leaving a window ajar, allowing vampires to enter.  So far, so I Am Legend.  Wandering through the house in shock, she stumbles across her ex-boyfriend Aiden, tied to a bed and obviously bitten, and a rather attractive young vampire, Gavriel, mysteriously chained up on the floor.  As the undead perpetrators of the carnage creep closer, Tana makes the snap decision to save Aiden AND the vampire, narrowly escaping out the window, bundling them into her car and heading for Coldtown, a walled party prison-city for vampires, infected humans and all the gothic hangers-on who hope to one day win favour and be made immortal.  Of course, with a Cold ex and a half-crazy vampire for company, nothing's going to be simple, on either side of the Coldtown wall.  This is the story of Tana's self-discovery, of Aiden's transformation, of Tana and Gavriel's mutual attraction, of Gavriel's past and of Coldtown's secrets.  It's complex and intriguing and exciting, and I loved it.

Part of what makes it so good is the mixture of brilliant influences and interesting reference points.  I thought Gavriel was pure Anne Rice, an old-fashioned seductive, black-haired, slightly mad vampire who holds a delicious attraction for Tana.  Lucien, the bad boy of the piece, was a bit like Caius from The Twilight Saga in my head - young, blonde, arrogant - with more than a touch of Lestat in him too.  The hangers-on and rather pathetic wannabe-immortals reminded me of the fang bangers in the True Blood series, the ones who just wanted to be around vampires because OMG IMMORTAL.  The city itself was a tad Warm Bodies-in-reverse, a prison to keep vampires out of the way, a lawless place where parties go on all night and every debauched whim is catered for.  And each chapter is garnished with a literary quote relating to death or immortality.  It's very elegantly done.

The constant social media theme was also quite interesting, bringing the novel right up to date.  Live feeds coming from inside Coldtown - Lucien's famous party feed is one of the most popular - are eagerly followed by schoolgirls on the outside (including Tana's sister Pearl).  People have posters of their favourite personalities from television, whether vampire or bounty hunter.  People blog and vlog from inside the walls, and there are huge communities of wannabes whose sole aim is to get into Coldtown, meet up with friends inside, and transform into their 'true selves'.  Tana, Aiden and Gavriel fall in with two of these - siblings Midnight and Winter - near the walls of Coldtown, and their obsession with documenting everything via social media is a bit sickening.  The 'too much information' thing at work, even in the most inappropriate of situations...

Soooo, yes!  I really enjoyed the book.  It was beautifully written and very immersive, so that after a while I think I even dreamed about Coldtown once or twice!  Always the sign of a good book.  The attraction between Byronic Gavriel and Katniss-esque Tana was the right balance of seductive and pithy, dangerous and tender, as the best vampire romances always are, and there were a couple of twists that I didn't see coming until they hit, which again, is always a good sign for me.  I'll definitely be checking out more from Holly Black at some point, and highly recommend this one for anyone who likes their vampire novels well written and with a clever dose of fresh lore to... um... sink their teeth into.

Notable Quotables:

  • "Vampires were always more beautiful than the living.  Their skin was without blemish, marble smooth, and poreless.  The older they got, the more their unnatural red eyes grew bright as poppies and their hair became as lustrous as silk.  It was as if whatever demon possessed them, whatever force kept their corpse from the grave, had refined them in the blaze of its power, burning away their humanity to reveal something finer.  They looked absurdly gorgeous, glowing from the television like fallen angels.  Even from the beginning, that was a problem.  People liked pretty things.  People even liked pretty things that wanted to kill and eat them."
  • "Gavriel sat stock-still.  Inside him roiled such turmoil that he feared that should he move, he would smash every piece of furniture in the room, crack every pane of every window, until there was nothing but shining splinters where the parlour had been."
  • "You play with fire because you want to be burned."
  • "Tana thought about how much fun it must have been, once upon a time, to be a vampire and have forever stretching out in front of you - an endless carnival of nights.  They must have felt as almighty as angels, looking down on the world from their windows, choosing to spare each passerby."
  • "... the third option, the possibility that there's something monstrous inside of us that can be unleashed, is the most disturbing of all.  Maybe it's just us, us with a raging hunger, us with a couple of accidental murders under our belt.  Humanity, with the training wheels off the bike, careening down a steep hill.  Humanity, freed from the constraints of consequence and gifted with power.  Humanity, grown away from all things human."

Source: I got this book out of my local library.