Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

Dead Until Dark is the first book in Charlaine Harris’ “Sookie Stackhouse” series of books. Like many others, I first encountered this series via TV; the awesome new(ish) series True Blood is based on these books and turns out to be a fairly faithful adaptation. The first series covers this first book, and I expect the second to cover the second one.

It’s fun to contrast this book + tv series versus another one in the same(ish) genre: The Dresden Files. That’s also a series with a “modern supernatural” theme, and was also made into a (short-lived) TV series. With Dead Until Dark, I have to say that both the book and the series are really good; I actually like the series a bit better, since I love the actors, visuals and general “look and feel” there… and I’m a fan of Alan Ball (the series creator, also responsible for Six Feet Under). There are differences; some characters and subplots are slightly different between the book and the series. The series has a bit more subplots going on, but that’s only natural since it’s 12 episodes which cover the plot of one not-too-thick book. Still, both stories are the same, and the general feel is the same in both.

Contrast to Dresden Files. There I also started reading the books after first seeing the series – but the quality levels are vastly different. I’m now a big fan of the books… but the series was (at best) mediocre. It skipped much cool stuff (Susan, Harry’s no-technology house, the Blue Beetle, Bob the Skull as written in the books), and substituted it with lots of “safe for TV audiences” crap. In other words, the series erased most of the gritty and unusual stuff from the books, and absolutely failed to take any risks whatsoever. And it failed, resoundingly, getting canceled after one season. It’s not absolutely horrible… but it was extremely mediocre, and nothing much like the Dresden Files books (which rock).

True Blood is a lot of things, but safe it’s not. It’s an HBO series, so they can push the envelope with sex and taboo subjects much further than mainstream TV can. And hey, Alan Ball is no stranger to TV controversy, Six Feet Under was also very far in the “not safe for general TV audiences” direction. And that’s also why True Blood works, and is a worthy adaptation of this book.

So far I’ve mostly contrasted books versus their TV adaptations. So what about the book itself? Well, it’s fairly well written, and the main character (Sookie Stackhouse) is fun. Sookie is a waitress in a Southern small-town bar, and is burdened with a “condition”: she can read minds. Far from being a “cool superpower”, this has turned her life to hell. Sex and romance has been impossible (knowing what the guy is really thinking all the time is a cold shower), and she’s generally gotten a “weirdo” stamp. However, she’s no angsty teenager, and has more or less come to terms with her unusual life.

Now, in this world vampires have recently “come out of the coffin”, made themselves public and gotten official recognition as people. They are still objects of mystery and sometimes lust (their blood is somewhat addictive), but they do now and then circulate among normal humans. They are a new weird minority.

The book begins when an honest, real vampire walks into the bar where Sookie works… and she discovers that she can’t read his mind. Stuff happens, and soon Sookie is in the middle of a murder spree, romance and other good stuff.

This is no Twilight (this book predates the whole current “vampire” craze by almost a decade). The main characters are adults instead of mopy teens, the writing is decent, and the vampires here are actually dangerous creatures instead of safe, teen-girl infatuation targets. Sookie would kick Bella’s useless bitchy ass in a minute.

The story veers dangerously close to “romance novel” territory at times, but the author usually manages to steer the story in non-stereotype directions. There are fun surprises and side characters, Sookie is an interesting and personable main character, and the deep Southern small-town vibe works nicely. I’ll probably read the other books too… but I’ll also probably wait to see the TV version first.

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Avatar and other stuff

We stayed cooped up inside for most of the New Year extended weekend; we originally intended to “do some stuff”, but the extra-chilly weather and general laziness put a stop to that. It was nice to just cozy up inside for days, don’t get me wrong. Anyway, yesterday we felt like doing something, so we decided to go see Avatar since a) it’s by Cameron who is generally awesome and b) it had been getting generally positive though slightly mixed reviews.

Well, it was very much worth seeing. It’s not a perfect movie; the plot is more than a tad predicable and follows the classic “boy meets girl and becomes hero” pattern a bit too much by-the-numbers. Maybe the most fitting thing to say about the plot is that it was serviceable; while it could have been (a lot) more original, it didn’t get in the way. But the visuals. Damn, they were jaw-dropping, especially when seen on the large screen with 3d. This is the best visualization of a science fiction world and native culture that I recall even seeing. Even though I knew that most of what I was seeing was computer-generated, my eyes were telling me the stuff was real. During the whole 3-hour span, there was only one short clip where the CGI was obviously CGI in a way that jarred me. That’s damn well done.

So. The complaints about the plot do have merit. But it’s not that bad, and this is one movie that is worth seeing for the visuals alone. They are just that good. The star of this movie is the planet Pandora.

(Added later: here is a hilarious plot summary. Spoiler alert, you might want to skip until you’ve seen the movie!)

Apart from that, I actually spent a large part of the mini-vacation coding and watching “TV” – coding in one window with a video player running in another. I’m working a hobby-project Exalted character generator web thingy. I’m not sure when if ever it will be ready, let alone ready for general use, but it’s one of those things – a way to learn lots of new tech while building something useful. I’m using a lot of bleeding-edge stuff, and Ruby on Rails of course. Among the toys are: authlogic, declarative_authorization, formtastic, css_dryer, jQuery & jQuery-UI, AJAX (with dynamic jQuery/Javascript generation via Rails views), and rspec test cases for all models and controllers. Fun stuff, and complicated enough to keep it interesting.

On the TV side, I managed to watch:

  • True Blood season two. Good stuff, and very interesting “bad guy”. Still among the best of the current crop of series. Not for the prudish, though.

  • Californication season two. Very good and very funny. Also not for the prudish, and I mean it: this show is mostly about sex. And about how people deal with it. I really like this show, because the characters are excellent and it somehow manages to be lewd & irreverent and warm & understanding at the same time. The characters screw up (and just screw) all the time, but you can’t help understanding and liking them at the same time.

  • The Doctor Who “specials” Waters of Mars and End of Time (parts 1 & 2). Watchable but nothing all that special. Will be interesting to see how the new Doctor works out, since these were the final ones with the (great!) David Tennant.

  • Some other bits and pieces… some Heroes (meh, but at least getting a bit better), Sanctuary (meh), etc. Nothing much worth commenting on.

Supernatural considered kick-ass

“You’re sorry you started Armageddon?”

Ok, I still have a metric crapton of tv episodes sitting on my server, waiting for me to grab enough time to watch them. I’ve watched some of them, some are still in the pipeline. Some observations follow.

Supernatural continues to kick ass. Seriously. Sure, the first season was a bit hit and miss, and based on a “monster of the week” idea… but the writers soon realized that they had something a lot cooler in their hands and started working on a bigger plot, using the (somewhat unexpected) talents of the lead actors. Last season (the 4th) was… pretty awesome, not to mince words. This new 5th season looks to be just as good.

Last season they had angels. And not some wimpy “play harps on clouds” versions. No, the “smite it from orbit with extreme prejudice” kind. The kind that’s not interested in justice, or anything “good” (necessarily). This season, they have… well, something worse. Much worse.

From a “sort of fun” show, this has risen to be one of my current favorites (from what’s currently active). Muchos recommended. Supernatural is the best “World of Darkness” version on TV, without being “WoD” in any licensed sense.

Apart from that, my “worth watching” list now includes Stargate Universe. I’ve always liked the Stargate series… it’s good entertainment, and does not take itself too seriously. This new series seems to be better than “Stargate Atlantis”, at least. The characters are interesting, and the setup is pretty cool… if not totally original. It’s a mishmash of Star Trek Voyager and Stargate… but unlike Voyager, the script is (at least so far) not written by drunk baboons and the acting is at least decent. The three-part series pilot was pretty cool, waiting to see where this one goes.

Suprisingly, Fringe has taken off and become quite fascinating. I almost gave up on it… sure, it had some nice moments, but it was just so corny and filled with pseudo-science and technobabble. The background “metaplot” was pretty cool, though, what little of it we saw. This second season, they seem to have dumped most of the crap and concentrated on the big plot. And it works. At best, it reaches the level of X-Files (before it turned into crap). Not sure where this one will go, but I’ll be watching. For now, at least.

A side “hooray” must also be given to Burn Notice. It (also) seems to have found its stride, and is damn funny and entertaining. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which always helps.

Other that that, nothing has impressed much so far. On the other hand, I have lots of stuff still on the waiting list: Dexter seasons 3 and 4, Californication seasons 2 and 3, True Blood season 2. I expect most of those (at least) to rock.

True Blood: utterly fails to suck

Ok, True Blood is now officially the best thing currently on TV. Or “coming soon to TV”, or “recently on TV”. Dunno, I don’t watch broadcast TV.

Anyway. Watched the last episode of the season last night, and now I’m very eagerly waiting for season two (coming next year). Wish there was a soundtrack CD available, the music here is great.

One of the best vampire-themed TV shows I know of, if not the best (ok, comparison with Buffy is pretty much impossible, the shows are very different). Not to everyone’s taste. The show has apparently been a hit for HBO, but the reviews have been extremely polarized. Some love it, some hate it, very few neutrals. This doesn’t surprise me a bit. Safe “family-friendly” entertainment fare this isn’t, even if it’s damn funny at times.

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New TV

I’m totally backlogged on new TV stuff, but while fighting the flu watching some small bit of my downloaded pile of episodes was just the thing. So I watched the 2nd season of Heroes, and the 3rd season up to the latest episode. Verdict: it’s still watchable, but the show has problems. While the second season was still ok, this third one is a mess. Time travel was cool when it was done in a limited way in the first season and used for heavy foreshadowing. Here, it’s used all the time, and I’m starting to have no idea whatsoever what’s going on. New characters are introduced, characters are killed off, same characters are brought to life again, all at a dizzying pace. What’s lost? The story. It’s… well, a mess.

After that I’ve been sampling some new series in the scifi/fantasy ballpark, with varying results.

Fringe has an ok basic setup… the passengers of a plane all die in a gruesome fashion and the FBI is called in. Things get weird, and we end up with a special group tasked with investigating “fringe science” events. Sort of in the X-Files direction, lots of good stories to be found there. Potentially, at least. Here… not so much. The acting is pretty wooden (with some exceptions), and the plots.. could use improvement. Ok, it’s “fringe science” so I’m prepared to let the “science” word slide – but here threats get pretty ridiculous, along with the solutions. The pacing is strange. Total weirdness happens, and then it often gets dropped without much of an explanation. Underneath this, there’s still something good: some of the characters have potential, and one of the episodes (The Arrival) was actually pretty damn cool. The MIB-like “Watcher” character made up for a lot of crap. Still… I’ll keep watching this for a while, but can’t recommend it too highly.

Eleventh Hour attempts to cover slightly the same territory; science & medical emergencies. The main characters spend each standalone episode investigating weird events and figuring out a solution. No X-Files vibe here, this is more straightforward… problems, then solutions; very much like traditional “detective/investigation” shows. Sounds a bit bland, and that is is, somewhat. In addition, the characters aren’t all that believable and (so far) remain totally two-dimensional. However, the episodes manage to be quite entertaining and the writing is at least lots better than Fringe. I’ve put this in the same category as Fringe – not all that hot, but ok entertainment.

Then we come to Sanctuary. Amanda Tapping (from Stargate) plays “Dr. Magnus”, a (very) long-lived scientist who specializes in providing a safe haven for various sorts of supernatural creatures. Heavy on computer-generated content, it’s very lightweight… but it’s also lots of fun. Sort of like Stargate, actually. I can’t really call this a quality series, it’s way too fluffy and lightweight for that, but it’s good fun. I’ll keep watching. Best “popcorn” series of this new bunch. Oh, and it has Jack the Ripper in it. Can’t go wrong there (well, yes you can, but it works here).

Saving the best for last, there’s True Blood. A new series from HBO, by Alan Ball (creator of Six Feet Under)… I was already expecting to like this, before I saw the first episode. I also expected it to be… not exactly family-friendly fare. Right on both counts. Based on books I haven’t read, it’s set in the present-day deep South, in an alternate world where vampires are both real and have “come out of the coffin” some years previously. Enter Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic barmaid, and a some new vampires in town. Everyone wants to sleep with everyone else, some do, some don’t, some get killed, some just screw everything else up. Oh, and it’s pretty funny, in the way Six Feet Under was funny (in a dark way, that is). There’s a lot of fun play on old racist attitudes, transformed (partially) into the human/vampire context. “God Hates Fangs”, indeed. It’s no Six Feet Under, but it is easily the best of this bunch. It doesn’t follow a formula, it’s doesn’t follow “safe” themes (quite the opposite). Will be interesting to see where this one goes.

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