The Perks of Being a Wallflower

There are certain books that make me long for time-travel. When you've been a bookworm from the womb, it's not often that you stumble upon a brilliant YA book that was in print when you were its target demographic and yet it never crossed your path. I realize that it's not possible to read everything (though heaven knows we try), but you'd like to think that you've been thorough in you literary education... and yet there will come a time in your adult years when, for whatever reason, you'll pick up a gem like Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower and you figure you'll give it a whirl. When the moment arrives where you finally start to read this book, your jaw will drop and your mind will scour itself for any possible explanation as to how this wonderful piece slipped through the cracks. You will wish that time travel was an option so that you could slip this book to the front of your sixteen-year-old self's queue so that your younger self could have the pleasure of reading this while still trying to endure high school. I might even correct myself at this point to insist that The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn't really a young adult book, even if it's written from the perspective of a high school freshman. It's a literary work of fiction that a reader of any age should be able to appreciate for its complexities, refreshing voice, and the deep emotional reaction it provokes.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel, comprised of letters written by high school freshman Charlie to a "friend" in the early 90s -- though this "friend" recipient is unknown, even by Charlie, who assumes the recipient has no knowledge of him and his life. The "dear friend" essentially substitutes in for a more guy-friendly "dear diary" thing. He's got a sports star older brother who just started college and an older sister with self-confidence issues in an abusive relationship. Prior to the start of the novel, Charlie's only friend committed suicide, leaving Charlie to start high school without a crowd of friends or any sympathetic faces. He's been seeing a therapist and that turns out to be a pretty good thing, as Charlie comes off as being slightly autistic. He's awkward and unpopular (often called a freak), though ultimately it is revealed that his issues are much more serious than initially indicated (though the reader starts to suspect from early on). Charlie is also incredibly sympathetic as as character because he's sensitive and painfully honest, totally clueless to social complexities and subtext. Eventually, he's taken under the wing of two seniors in the alternative crowd -- Sam (a girl whom Charlie falls in love with) and her stepbrother Patrick (a gay boy in a secret relationship with a guy from the in-crowd). Charlie gets an introduction to alcohol, drugs, and relationships, though it's important to note that even if these kids can be a bit self-destructive, we're not talking about overdoses or dealing here. They're simply mixed up kids trying to figure things out and at least they're always incredibly kind to Charlie, who they can tell functions on a bit of a different wavelength. At times he's very perceptive and capable of reacting in the perfect way, but at other moments he becomes overwhelmed, resulting in tears or panic-attacks. He cares deeply for his friends, spending a great deal of time selecting Christmas or graduation presents, and recognizes when people are making a great effort with him. He's appreciative of any notice, though not desperate for it, and clearly there's something in his past that he needs to deal with before he can have any hope of settling in to a more "normal" life.

Despite being a bit emotionally confused, Charlie is clearly very intelligent. As the book progresses, Charlie's writing style improves. An English teacher takes an interest in Charlie, assigning him extra reading and reports that make an impact on Charlie's education and personal growth. His friends allow him to be exposed to new music, which Charlie immediately takes to as a way of expressing emotion. One might consider him to be a bit emotionally stunted, but really, Charlie has so many emotions and he just doesn't know what to do with them. Mostly, he wants his friends to be happy -- whether that means the girl he loves is dating somebody else or his gay friend is using him to get over his heartbreak. His own sexuality is not terribly defined, but eventually it's a reaction to actual sexual activity that causes him to have a mental break as he remembers sexual abuse from childhood at the hands of a trusted relative that he had buried within himself.

The book is obviously influenced by Catcher in the Rye, but caters to an MTV crowd where kids are dealing with the same issues in new ways (or, perhaps, the same ways, just with a different set of cultural touchstones). Charlie, though, is not nearly the same jaded kid as Holden... he's just stumbling through high school and enjoying his friends while he can. There might be a lot of worry for the future buried in Charlie's mind, but he's also very good about reminding us to enjoy the moments we have, perfect moments laughing with friends or receiving encouragement from a beloved mentor. As such a vulnerable young man, the reader wishes she could hug him and tell him that everyone must endure high school, but Charlie has been given a lot of things to endure.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is for every kid who felt like they were on the outside looking in, misunderstood, or in some way just not quite fitting in during high school. It's impossible to not fall in love with Charlie. Your heart breaks for him over and over again, but somehow that's perfectly okay because you know that at least he's living and engaging with others. These may not have been episodes from your own high school career, but you'll understand the highs and lows (particularly the lows) endured by each one of these sympathetic characters. I really do wish I could somehow put this in the hands of my younger self, but for those of us who grew up in the 90s, this is a bit of an experiment in time-travel itself as you're transported back to a time not so very long ago when we were all awkward and uncertain, with a wealth of mistakes still ahead of us and a soundtrack of songs that made us feel infinite.

The Vampire Diaries Series

Sigh. When people talk about paranormal YA these days, there's a lot to choose from in the genre and even if I haven't read it all, I get the sneaking suspicion that most of it isn't brilliant. When it comes to The Vampire Diaries, however, I knew that LJ Smith and her series had been around before Twilight and that claims were made about how it seemed hard to believe that Meyer hadn't read Smith's series, given certain similarities. So while fishing about for something to read in the wake of the Vampire Academy books, I remembered The Vampire Diaries and now I rather wish that I'd just Netflixed the DVDs.

If you've read Twilight, you will, indeed, be able to see some suspicious parallels... but not so spot-on that it's inconceivable the two works could have been produced without any influence. That said, there are a few details that make The Vampire Diaries a little better... and yet I actually prefer Twilight. I'm not sure I ever thought that Meyer's writing style would be the thing that came out as the number one thing in her favor -- btw, have you visited http://reasoningwithvampires.tumblr.com yet? you really should -- but I actually think I disliked Smith's style even more. It felt as though she was impatient to get through everything, wishing for wit and passion yet only producing a quick account, interspersed with teenage tantrums.

The Awakening sets us up with a basic plotline. Elena is queen bee at the small town high school and has never really been refused anything she ever wanted, though all of that isn't enough. With a tragic background (parents killed, she and her baby sister left to be raised by her aunt), Elena still manages to shine as a cold beauty with perfect high school gentleman and football star Matt on her arm... and yet she's supposed to be sensitive enough to know that she doesn't really feel that way towards Matt and so after a summer of traveling, it's time to officially end it. Matt, being a good guy, takes it in stride. Then, Elena meets the new kid in school -- Stefan -- and she wants to claim him as her own. The trouble is, Stefan doesn't seem to want anything to do with her... but just give it time. Meanwhile, Elena and her two bffs have been encountering some strange things in town. A bird that looks too knowingly at her. A strange presence in the graveyard that chases them until they cross the safety of running water, an attack on a girl in their class who doesn't seem to mentally recover. We've also got the emergence of a rival love interest other than too-nice Matt and in case you were wondering, it's not a werewolf... it's another vampire named Damon and he also happens to be Stefan's brother. It's a small vampire world after all.

The Struggle continues in the same vein (Get it? Vampires? Blood? Veins? Sorry.) except things are getting even more dangerous for Elena and her vampire boyfriend and... is there a romantic equivalent of "frenemy"? The book literally starts right off where The Awakening left off. Damon is even more interested in Elena now, though Elena is loyal to Stefan. I'm not sure if this wasn't an issue in the early 90s when this was published (but seriously, when has this ever not been an issue?) but why aren't they having sex? I mean, I think we get one scene where Stefan silences Elena with a kiss and I laughed out loud at its ridiculousness as there's a complete and utter lack of passion/chemistry with those two normally. They just kind of cling to each other with no other interaction that suggests two characters who are interested in the other as people. At least in Twilight you get blind and ridiculous devotion but that's accompanied with a stated interest in the other, whether that's believably demonstrated or not. In any case, the scene is getting desperate and Stefan is driven to great lengths to try and save Elena from his brother... but is it Damon that Elena needs saving from?

Well, surprise surprise. The Fury opens up with Elena as a vampire, having been killed by some mysterious force that wasn't Damon, even if Stefan thinks that Damon killed her. With the blood of both brothers in her (that tramp!), Elena "survives"/morphs into vampire mode (funny how everyone else accepts that she's dead even though there's no body) and awakens with a total devotion to Damon as the one who kind of turned her. This fades when Elena sleeps off the whole transformation thing and attends her own funeral, which ends badly when all the dogs of the town seem to gather and turn on the humans. Hm. Not your normal vampy behavior, so Stefan and Damon come to a reluctant truce to figure out what the heck is going on and continue to protect Elena. Naturally, Elena revealing herself to select people can be complicated, but we apparently need the whole cast of secondary characters along for the rest of the ride. The ending is PAINFULLY obvious to anyone who has read the rest of the books and I judge you if you didn't see it coming.

Here's the thing. I picked up The Vampire Diaries series with the full knowledge that if I read one, I'd read them all, but it wouldn't be that hard to manage, as they were each fairly quick reads. This remains true if you do not put the book aside to do something else, but once you do that... well, it's very easy to leave the book aside. I read the first two quite quickly (and honestly, when the last line of the first book is the same as the first line of the second, you know it's one of those things where you just need to keep reading, as the first has no closure whatsoever) and then put down the third at some point... and didn't care much to pick it up again until I decided I just wanted to write this review and be done with them. Sadly, there's a fourth book written after audiences clamored for more (seriously?!) called Dark Reunion which I'll have to read because apparently I hate myself but at least follow through on things. This is not admirable when taken to such extremes as this.

So if you want my recommendation, here it is. If you want real vampires, go watch True Blood and start reading Charlaine Harris. No, the aren't in high school, but that means they can have sex without panning away and it's a much more interesting choice that Sookie has between two vampires than Elena does. If you really want the teenage vampy thing, go to Twilight, then Netflix the first season of The Vampire Diaries (though I haven't seen this, so I can't offer an opinion), or try reading Vampire Academy, but be aware that it's a very different world and you're dealing with very different vampires. After reading LJ Smith's books, though, I am mighty suspicious of Stephenie Meyer (but hey, rest assured that all the freaky stuff from book four must have come direct from her crazy Mormon mind, as Smith doesn't deal in werewolves or vampire babies of any kind). Meyer's world goes far beyond the small town that Smith explores, but they have many things in common. It just seemed like very little happened in this series, and yet everything was written as though we were in a rush. I never felt like the characters were sitting still or getting to know each other (heck, I didn't even know why any of these people were friends with each other except out of habit and convenience). It doesn't help that I don't particularly like any of these characters to start with. So I can't say I endorse the series, but perhaps you'll find something you enjoy about them as many other readers have. As for me, I'll be impatiently waiting for the last Vampire Academy installment and hoping that Charlaine Harris starts laying off the fairies.


The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance

When the phrase "Mormon comedienne" is enough to produce a chuckle, you know that Elna Baker's memoir cannot fail but be amusing as it sets out to chart the first quarter century of just that... a Mormon comedienne. The ridiculous title The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance should be enough to clue you in that we'll certainly be hearing from an interesting perspective, though thankfully this is no humorous indoctrination to the Mormon religion and the book isn't poised to provide insight so much as it's ready to provide charming and ridiculous stories from the life of one particular Mormon girl as she struggles with her faith and overall life in the city that never sleeps. Of course, I say this, and yet my whole review seems to be a discussion of Elna and her Mormon faith, so evidently as the chuckles wore off, the thoughts inspired by this particular girl and her faith questions/issues clearly stuck with me.

While she's not the most conventional Mormon, Elna Baker's religion colors just about every aspect of her life... whether she wants it to or not. Sure, there are lots of moments where you might be able to put aside the issue and think that she's like any other funny girl recounting anecdotes from childhood and her young adult years. After all, Elna's got a crazy dad who scared the crap out of his kids after tricking them into believing that aliens had arrived in the form of Dairy Queen treats. Her parents paid a Moroccan rug weaver to use their kids for child labor. Her mother sent her off to college with a warning against making out with lesbians. Elna then did make out with some questionable fellows for the sake of feeling like she's seizing her youth. She ruined a family vacation by being self-involved and pretending to faint from low blood sugar. She nearly had sex with an actor who isn't Warren Beatty but whom she refers to as Warren Beatty for the sake of hiding the identity of the real actor. I mean really, haven't we all? But if you think that you'll be able to forget that she's a Mormon, think again. It will always come back to be a major focus. It frequently puts Elna in awkward or painful situations, but just trust that it's actually a combination of her faith (and culture, one could certainly argue) and clear perspective that has probably helped Elna be as funny as she is. (Case in point: a particularly hysterical and painful essay on her tenure at FAO Schwartz when a particular baby doll became the Christmas must-have toy and the store ran out of white babies, leaving parents to struggle with politically correct language as they asked for babies with the acceptable color skin and the option of buying the white sample baby with malformed body and flippers for hands over babies of other ethnicities.)

What helps make Elna funny is that she is her own worst enemy. If something is going wrong for her, it's more than likely her own fault... and rather than lament this, she has no problem laughing at herself and asking us to join in the fun. (An excellent example of this is when an attempt to get the cool guy in school to kiss her resulted in a gash on her head and a maxi-pad was taped to the wound.) Despite being incredibly naive at moments, she also has an impressive bullshit detector when dealing with others. (I'll note that its this perspective which often makes it hard to believe that Elna totally accepts the Mormon religion and its many unique tenets when she seems so level-headed otherwise... but this is a non-Mormon talking.) While she notes that most Mormons are known for saying "no" to things, Elna makes it a point to live life to the fullest and say yes to as much as possible (just not drugs, alcohol, sex, or caffeine). The result of living life like this is that Elna either scores big (crashing a 7-11 conference and getting free tickets to their booze cruise) or she fails spectacularly (the stupendous homemade fortune cookie costume that got slightly bent and ended up making her look like a giant vagina on the way to the annual title dance). No matter what, even if one does occasionally want to smack her upside the head, the reader is always in her corner, hoping that Elna will be happy and find love (though subversive readers like me and most of my book club were hoping that the whole "find love" thing went hand-in-hand with abandoning Mormonism... more on that later).

The other major issue for Elna in this book is weight -- for most of her life, Elna was a "big girl" (weighing over 200 pounds) and it isn't until after moving to New York that she decides enough is enough and she will commit to a change. She sees a doctor who provides her with a diet and exercise regimen (along with "vitamins" that turn out to be a drug like Fen-fen) and manages to lose 80 pounds in record time. She suddenly becomes the thin girl that she's always wanted to be -- but she's still an insecure fat girl in her mind, which always seems to rear its head, even after her miraculous transformation. (And let's not forget that she also attributes her weight loss to a miracle of God helping motivate her through the process... until she realizes that her miracle is due to the drugs the doctor put her on.) Nonetheless, her triumph is heartwarming because even if one laments a culture where people feel they must be think, at least Elna seems to be doing this for herself and not anyone else. In addition, her own reaction to her transformation is fascinating as she chronicles the highs and lows -- including a brutally honest admission that she got irritated with her family for still referring to her sister as the beautiful one when Elna felt she should have made some headway. (As a child, she remembers a man offering to trade their father one thousand camels for her beautiful elder sister Tina and, when refused, he suggested one hundred camels for Elna. "Nine hundred camels, I thought. There is a nine-hundred-camel difference between my sister and me? The rest of my life can be described as a pursuit to be worth more camels.") It also leads to uncertain territory as Elna realizes the weight loss can really be attributed to the drugs (Mormons don't like drugs) and then she starts to contemplate cosmetic surgery (to remove the excess skin that resulted from her dramatic weight less). Given the rules laid out by her faith and culture, Elna is repeatedly put into situations where decisions must be made and she lays everything on the table for the reader.

It's the honesty that makes the reader sympathize with Elna in her essays; she's never one to sugar-coat her actions, though one does get the feeling that she'll never be an essayist like David Sedaris who risks alienating family for the sake of a laugh. (Indeed, in my book club, we laughed about how certain Elna stories started out like Sedaris stories... such as when her parents take the kids to the airport and challenge their kids to find the cheapest fare for their weekend destination. In an Elna story, this was a family bonding experience... something charming and exciting that we wish we could have experienced ourselves as children. In a David Sedaris story, this would have been faux character building exercise as the parents toss the kids on a plane and then drive away to have the weekend to themselves while the kids are left to fend for themelves in a foreign country, cobbling together bits of languages to buy food and somehow negotiating a drug deal.) The novel starts out with one of the best dedications I've ever seen... a note to her parents, thanking them for helping her become who she is. "This book... aside from the nine F-words, thirteen Sh-words, for A-holes, page 257, and the entire Warren Beatty chapter... is dedicated to you. You might want to avoid chapters twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three anything I quote Mom saying, and most of the end as well. Sorry. Am I still as cute as a button?" Her candor becomes endearing as you realize that she wants to be loved for who she is and somehow this gives her the courage to tell the whole story exactly as it happened, mistakes and all.

While the weight issue is important for Elna, the really central thing to Elna's life and the book is her religion and the role it plays in her life. I did mention that God is pretty prominent in every situation, but when it's Mormons... well, if you're anything like me, then you're immediately on the look-out for crazy. Elna is insistent that Mormons aren't nutjobs with multiple wives who worship golden cutlery and dance around in magic underwear (or at least not all of them?). It isn't her objective to convert anybody or even get the reader to understand and accept Mormons as totally normal people, but she is constantly encountering people in New York to whom she feels as though she must explain and defend her religion. (I would probably be one of those New Yorkers, but I should hope I'd be polite not to joke about her faith to her face, but rather, use the opportunity to ask questions to try and understand it all a bit better.) The thing that makes this a bit difficult is the fact that Elna really isn't your standard Utah Mormon. She didn't attend Brigham Young University and she never lived in Utah until she practically forced herself into a relationship with a Mormon guy and she desperately tried to hold on to it, even though she knew it wasn't right. Elna grew up traveling the world with her family; one of her best friends is flamboyantly gay; she dates outside of her religion. She didn't get married at eighteen (and even in her childhood predictions for herself and her friends, she was the late-bloomer who married at the ancient age of twenty). She understands why certain things are funny and has no problem making a few jokes about what her faith means for her (for instance, when noting that you marry someone for "eternity" in the Mormon faith, she recognizes that by not sleeping with him first, she could get stuck with bad sex for eternity). But with this awareness of her faith comes the fact that she does want to believe. Almost every time she's in a vaguely complicated situation (read: a situation where ANY choice is involved at all), her reflections on the situation spiral into a crisis of conscience that seem to put her relationship with God higher than her relationship with her own wants and desires. Does this stop her entirely? No, thank goodness, or else none of us would have bothered with this book. The memoir is basically arranged around recounts of kisses (and occasionally features an updated cartoon featuring the locations of Elna's kisses around Manhattan), so perhaps it's not surprising that it's her love life that is front-and-center throughout the book... or maybe you just needed to know that she's Mormon and in order to achieve the ultimate circle or level of heaven, you have to be married and so finding a marriage partner is a pretty big deal. But even if she does have a relationship with God, I got the impression that she stuck with her religion for the sake of her family. When you're a non-Mormon reading all of this, you like Elna enough to kind of hope that she ditches the religion for the sake of her sanity (Levels of heaven? In the highest one you get to become a God and create your own world? Um, what now?), and yet her loyalty to her family keeps her in a faith that provides emotional obstacles to leaving it. If she marries outside of the church, then she doesn't get to be with her family in heaven. "If I choose not to get married in a Mormon temple, I forfeit the ability to be with my family in the afterlife. I'm convinced that this is why my mother puts so much pressure on marriage: She's afraid of losing me after I'm dead." At a youth meeting, Elna recalls a particular church youth conference called "The Dangers of Dating Outside of Our Faith" where they received a lesson ("Mormons are big on object lessons") where twigs were used to demonstrate their collective strength as a group... though even at twelve, Elna thinks twigs have nothing to do with love. I could keep going on and on with examples of why things seem a little off (though I'll say that perhaps this is because Elna is purposely bringing up humorous incidents where things don't quite line up... incidents which can probably occur in any group, religious or otherwise), but I have one particular passage that seemed to summarize a lot of the story for me as it pertained to Elna, her struggle with finding a Mormon boy, the importance of her family, and the fact that she's not the usual Mormon. She's having a conversation with Tina, her elder sister, about the fact that by Mormon standards, they're old maids in their mid-twenties.

"Why do our lives only matter if we're married?" Tina complained.
"Because we're women," I answered. Only this didn't help cheer her up, so I tried another route. "Has dad ever pressured you to get married?"
"You see? We're fine. Once he starts interfering, then we know we're in trouble. Until then, we're in the clear--"
"He did say something once that really bothered me," she interrupted.
"He said, 'Did we do you kids a disservice by showing you the world?'"
"Why would he think that?" I said defensively.
"Because he said that now, when mom and him want us to make simple choices, choices they know will make us happy, we can't seem to do it."

This was one of the most profound moments for me in the book because it seemed to epitomize Elna's problem -- her parents were simple Mormons who were happy together and, because of work issues, wound up traveling the world. This may have been lovely for them, but for their kids, it was an exposure to a world and choices that were far more complicated than any simple existence their parents once had. There was no going back for the kids. Ignorance might be bliss, but they were no longer ignorant and couldn't reassume a place in a world without the complexities that gave it color and vibrancy. Things were no longer black and white and for Elna, it seemed that to embrace the Mormon faith wholeheartedly, it rather seems as though they needed to be. At one point, Elna even admits, "My dad says I think too much and that if I'm not careful my thoughts will undermine my faith." Seriously? A religion that encourages you to not think? Clearly this isn't Mormon doctrine or anything, but it makes the reader wish that Elna could give it all up without completely alienating her family (and the reader can see why the members of her family are truly good people and worth her loyalty), which seems to be the main reason she sticks with it.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is a delightful read. Elna isn't a brilliant writer, but the situations she describes are really the focus of the book. She does manage to win you over to her side so that you're either cheering or wincing every page (and sometimes you're doing both), whether she's describing her rather painful attempt to date and stay with a Mormon guy or she's flying to Africa to try and win back her atheist love. Clearly it's more than just a funny book, as it spawned this whole questioning rant on my part, but I would attribute that to the reader's fondness for Elna growing into a genuine desire to see her happy with her choices. If you're interested in reading the book but are a little bit on the fence, then perhaps you should take a look at this YouTube video (though it will spoil one of the great essays in the book) where Elna Baker doing an early version of the story for the Rejection Collection where she recounts an experience at the titular New York Mormon Singles Halloween Dance and her ruined fortune cookie costume. Perfectly acceptable for work as a video, though you should use headphones for the audio --http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBvVBXpV8tI -- and I refuse to be held responsible if you attract stares for snickering too loudly. All in all, a worthwhile read, though I'm not really sure where Elna can go from this in her career. Just the same, I hope she still continues to get herself in awkward situations for my entertainment pleasure, and I'm still holding out hope for the atheist love.


Great House

As I started to read Nicole Krauss's third novel, Great House, it occurred to me that I 'd never actually read the summary of what the book in my hands was about, nor did I feel a need to do so. Come to think of it, I had *never* read a summary for a book by Krauss, even though I've read all three of her novels. And do you know why? Because Nicole Krauss is one of those authors who could publish a grocery list and I will read it without any hesitation whatsoever. (To be fair, I'd recognize it as a grocery list and not praise it for being "meta" or anything, but I'd still read it.) There are few living authors who get such unwavering approval from me, but I know that within Krauss's work, I will be transported by exquisite language to a scene of such vivid detail and heartbreaking emotion that I will feel as though I have learned some great truth about humankind.
I never wanted Great House to end. It was one of those books that you want to savor, so you try and trick yourself by keeping it in another room so you won't immediately rush to it... but it's useless, because all you can do is think about the story being told. The table of contents gives you a good idea of the book's make-up: it is comprised of four separate threads of stories, each of which have a go in part one and part two. The reader is well aware that things will all tie together somehow, but it's the journey to that point which makes everything worthwhile. Each story deals with personal loss, motivation, and the weight of memory. One part features a writer who, in her youth, was entrusted with the desk of a friend of a friend, a poet who then was killed in Chile under Pinochet's regime; years pass and the writer feels as though her very being forms itself to the desk, until one day she receives a phone call from the poet's daughter, asking if she might claim her father's desk. Another thread is told from the perspective of an older man who is coping with the loss of his wife and trying to understand his younger son, with whom he has always had a troubled relationship. The third part focuses on another older man, this one an academic, who has a solitary and secretive wife with her own troubled past, and he comes to realize that she has secrets much larger than he had ever suspected. The final section is told from the perspective of a young American woman at Oxford who embarks upon a romance with young Israeli who lives with his sister; the young American gradually comes to understand these solitary siblings who feel controlled by their frequently-absent yet incredibly domineering father.

All four storylines are vaguely connected by a desk that exerts a pull over those who come in contact with it. I found it fascinating that the article which ties things together is so large... it's not like we're talking about a bracelet that can change hands with ease. A desk (particularly this desk, which is giant and contains many drawers) is something so substantial... a large and weighty reminder of time and owners now gone. I'm not going to give it the plot any other summary than that because that's all you really need. Trust in the genius of Krauss to take you somewhere fascinating. The story travels across the world and, unsurprisingly given Krauss's background, includes very strong elements of Jewish history and culture. Many of the characters in this novel are writers, poets, or academics... most of the characters are heavily invested in careers or studies that focus on words. It's always interesting to see a writer discuss writing through a character... it makes for fascinating observations and you wonder which the author shares (and then you realize that an author can have contradictory feelings about writing at the same time, so perhaps she shares them all). I was pleased to see a brief mention of Brodsky (as I recently learned that Krauss worked with Joseph Brodsky at the end of his life) and hardly a page goes by that I didn't mark for some turn of phrase or sentence that struck me by its insight or beauty. Normally, I'm a person who needs a specific plot or arc to a story, but halfway through this, I wasn't quite sure where we were headed and yet I was happy to float along, carried wherever Krauss saw fit to take me.

If you haven't read The History of Love, then you're missing out. Great House is a fantastic follow-up and further proof that Krauss is one of the best young writers around. Don't try too hard to figure out where the title comes from, as Krauss will let you know in her own good time. In fact, don't even try too hard to figure out all the connections... just enjoy the story as it plays out and appreciate the dawning moments of realization as you connect the dots... a feeling sadly absent in literature that isn't on the mystery shelves. From cover to cover, Great House is magnificent and I certainly hope that it gets the recognition it rightly deserves.


Beauty Salon

Beauty Salon is a 63-page novella by the Mexican experimental novelist Mario Bellatin, a deeply unsettling account of a man watching others die in the midst of a unknown illness affecting a city, vision clouded by the murky waters of aquariums and self-isolation.

Rather than have a plot or any story arc, the novella simply exists as a snapshot of an existence: the narrator vaguely recounts (for it feels like there's hardly ever any direct statements of action where one thing leads to another, only statements of what things become) how he turned his beauty salon into the Terminal, a place where men on the verge of death from this unknown illness come to die so that they do not meet their end in the street or under bridges. At the Terminal, these guests have a bed and a bowl of soup, along with the company of others close to death, though they cannot have outside visitors and they cannot speak of God. The narrator only accepts men (note that it is not just men who are affected by this illness, but the narrator always turns away women and children) and only accepts those whose death is imminent. In addition to these actions, we have a spotty account from the narrator of his own life as a homosexual man who occasionally wore women's clothing while out late looking for encounters or simply just in his beauty salon. (By the time the narrator is telling his story, though, he indicates that he has burned most of these clothes.) The seedy encounters between men, often at bathhouses or on streetcorners, and the very few flashes of real intimacy shared by the narrator with another only magnify the feeling that this is an isolated man, alone in the world by his own choice and yet he still reaches out to human kind as he takes in the ill and dying, even if he attempts to stay completely detached from individuals.

Weaved throughout the story is a near-constant attention to the fish and aquariums that once provided the beauty salon with its unique and elegant air. Careful attention was once lavished on these creatures, though now few have survived time and neglect; still, the narrator remembers the breeds of fish and particular details about their interactions with amazing clarity. He recites individuals types and recollects their behavior, with particular attention to violent encounters or mysterious deaths, starting with the first three fish he ever purchased. If one ever looked at a novel in terms of a fishbowl, then perhaps Beauty Salon is a strong argument that life is spent floating along, trapped in a set existence and waiting for the inevitable demise as others look on.

As that observation might suggest, I would hazard to say that Beauty Salon might be the most depressing work that I've ever read through. Bellatin crafts some of the most haunting imagery and even now, weeks later, I still recall scenes with a shudder. Very little action occurs and the book seems an attempt to sketch the character of this narrator, yet I still can't understand him... and perhaps that is part of the point. I hesitate to use the word "detached" when discussing the narrator, as he never pulls away and out of life, yet he seals off his ability to connect emotionally with anyone or anything. It doesn't necessarily make him hard, but it makes him seem appear callous, even if that, too, isn't quite right. Caring for men in their dying hours and yet not caring to know them as individuals. Reaching out for physical encounters with other men, yet never seeking a relationship. Intensely focusing on his fish and then deciding to move on to some other breed, and so discarding the living fish as though they were already dead. It's all very unsettling and the reader is left wondering if there's any meaning to life at all or if we are the fish, easily purchased and easily discarded. If we are the fish, then we're really simply floating through life, subject to the whims of a greater force outside the tank... or perhaps (which might even be worse) observed by nothing and no one at all.

The book is structured with the narrator telling his story without interruption, ultimately revealing that he, too, has contracted the same illness as those who die around him and it is only a matter of time before he'll share the fate of so many others who have arrived at the Terminal. There is no obsessive focus on this, as if we're listening to the rasped and rushed words of a man on his deathbed, and yet there is a confessional quality to it, with topics fading in and out as he calmly speaks on. This is the first work of Bellatin's to be translated into English and I cannot help but wonder what subtle linguistic notations were lost in translation. The novel was originally published in 1999, so perhaps that will have some impact on your interpretation of the mysterious illness striking the city... though perhaps not so much as if this were written in 1989, I think. It is impossible to not interpret this as a reaction to the height of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s/90s when information about HIV and AIDS was so scarce and entire communities seemed to disappear, ravaged by the same illness. One might also think of Saramago's Blindness and other books where disease seems to wipe out a population, though the focus on the narrator's lifestyle reminds the reader that not everyone is dying of this disease. Life does seem to go on in the city, even though it feels as though many men come through the Terminal's door. One of the truly frightening things is the utter lack of hope from within the narrator, who has no illusions about his fate and, given that one of his rules for the Terminal is there can be no talk of God, he does not ask moral questions of a higher power. It is not a novel of despair, but one of bleak vastness... an emotional death that has taken place long ago and left a man in the four walls of what was once his dream business... now reduced to a sanctuary that only offers the essentials as men prepare to die.

If all of that isn't enough to scare you off and, instead, you feel intrigued, then I would actually recommend Beauty Salon... for no other reason than the images and ideas stay with you. The thoughts they inspire certainly aren't warm and fuzzy, but they get interesting. This was a book club selection and I voted for reading it purely on the basis of a NY Times article published a little over a year ago, written by Larry Rohter:
A few years ago the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin attended one of those literary conferences here where writers are asked to talk about their own favorites. Unwilling to make a choice, he invented a Japanese author named Shiki Nagaoka and spoke with apparent conviction about how deeply Nagaoka had influenced him, fully expecting the prank to be unmasked during the question-and-answer period.

Instead the audience peppered him for more information about Nagaoka, who was said to have a nose so immense that it impeded his ability to eat. So Mr. Bellatin (pronounced Bay-yah-TEEN) decided to extend the joke and promptly wrote a fake biography — complete with excerpts, photographs and bibliography — called “Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction.”
You can find the rest of that article here. Seriously, after reading that, how can you not want to see what else comes from this man's imagination? Of course, Beauty Salon does not share any of the whimsy of this particular prank, but what it does have is an amazing attention to details and an ability to provoke deep thought... though I'm not sure my thoughts are guided towards anything in particular besides what springs from musing on the presentation of this isolated man's experience and perspective. It might not be pretty, but I'd still be interested in reading more of Bellatin's work in the future, pretty or no.


Vampire Academy

So... I just surfaced from three days of binge-reading the five published Vampire Academy novels, the best-selling YA series by Richelle Mead featuring yet another paranormal reality that attempts to redefine classical vampire mythology and add a new twist. As a result of reading the books in rapid succession, I can't really separate them well enough in my mind to write a clear review for each one, so here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to give a quick pitch as to why you should bother reading them when you already feel like you've overdosed on the whole vamp scene and a summary of the world and basic plot; then I'm going to break out with a short glance at each. If you're reading this review on my blog, you'll see everything here, but if you're reading this on Goodreads or LibraryThing, when it comes to each individual book, you'll only see the snippet for that book -- but be warned that each successive snippet might give away something from the previous book. I'll try not to give away major plot points in my general pitch, but once I'm reviewing the whole series to date... well, I'm reviewing the whole series to date, so you'll understand if I might need to move beyond the first book's purview.

The reason you should read this series can be summarized quite neatly: the narrator, Rose Hathaway. (Well, there's that and the fact that if you're trying to figure out *why* you should read this series, then it's likely that you already want to, so just do it.) Rose Hathaway is the badass heroine you've always wanted for a YA book -- the bridge between YA and regular fiction that creates an honest and funny narrator who still gets tripped up a bit with the fact that she's only a teenager. What makes it YA is the world around her and the fact that, like young adult readers, she's still trying to come up with some answers in her life, too. Rose is not the standard YA heroine who gets blamed for things she didn't do or dithers about solving a problem -- she barrels headfirst into every situation and if she is blamed for something, she almost always did it and then some. (At one point in the series, when accused of killing someone, the best defense for her not having done it is that she insists she never would have killed the person in so obvious and stupid a fashion.) She's street-smart and rough, and her wise-ass comments and hold-nothing-back attitude will have you smirking every chapter. She is far from perfect and still a teenager with a lot to learn, but at least she's saying out loud all the things you'd normally think the heroine should be saying when she encounters obstacles, tricky situations, or hot guys... which often involves swearing. If you need another reason to read these books, then you've got to look within -- if you read YA and fantasy, then chances are the whole setting appeals to you. Paranormal activities, teenage characters taking on responsibilities, the whole boarding school dynamic, and (as always) complicated romantic relationships. The "good" vampires aren't all that sexy and dangerous (in fact, if "sexy" comes into anything, it's just the general teenage hormones talking) and the bad vampires are mostly just dangerous, so the take on vampires is a bit different... but at least they're not sparkly and they don't just hunt animals.

Here's a bit of a summary of Mead's world so you get a feel for the setting. There are two separate races of vampires, along with a race of half-vampire people, that opt to fly under the radar and live a secret existence separate from humans. The Moroi are living members of a vampire race who need both real food and blood to survive, but rely on volunteers for that blood and never kill. (Picture leggy models with impossibly thin bodies and gorgeous features.) They can endure limited exposure to the sun, grow old, and can work certain elemental magic. They have a worldwide system of government, a moderated monarchy that focuses on twelve royal families and an appointed monarch (each monarch appoints his or her successor from a family not their own). There is great wealth and power within these families (my image of the royal Moroi is rather based on Russia and the Romanovs before the revolution), though there are many other Moroi who are not royal or wealthy. Alternately, there's a darker strain of evil immortal vampires called the Strigoi, which are not born but are made out of violence -- by purposely killing someone, a Moroi can turn him/herself into a Strigoi or a Strigoi must drain an individual and then that individual must drink Strigoi blood to be forcibly turned. The Strigoi are extremely strong and fast and never sleep, but they give up any magic or sun tolerance in their transition for such traits. They also forfeit their souls and any true compassion or capability for love. The Strigoi hunt down Moroi and drain them of blood, which is particularly appetizing for them (and even more so should their victim come from one of the twelve royal Moroi families) and the Moroi are not even close to being as strong as the Strigoi when it comes to defending themselves. That's where the half-breeds come in. The Moroi rely on a race of people called dhampirs, which are half-vampire half-human hybrids, historically serving the Moroi as "guardians" to protect them. Dhampirs retain certain benefits from both sides of their genetic pool, allowing them to be excellent warriors, though they cannot perform magic. In addition, they are incapable of producing children within their population alone, requiring their reliance on the Moroi, as only a Moroi/dhampir union will result in a dhampir child (don't try to go with the 3/4 vampire argument, it evidently doesn't work that way). Even though the Moroi need the dhampirs for protection, dhampirs are unofficially treated like second class citizens. Since dhampirs require the Moroi to produce children, there tend to be a lot of Moroi men sleeping with dhampir women, but ultimately marrying to have a "real" family with Moroi women. This leads to lots of single dhampir moms and dhampir men (as Moroi women are less likely to shack up with a dhampir guy) get the short end of the stick. Guardians are overwhelmingly male, though not much biased at all when it comes to dhampir women choosing a career as a guardian. Dhampirs and Moroi are educated side-by-side in schools, though dhampirs specialize in combat training, hand-to-hand fighting and so on. When dhampirs graduate and pass the tests to become a guardian, there are assigned to a Moroi to guard, and given the depleting guardian numbers (the battle against the Strigoi is a hard one), it usually means that mostly royal Moroi get guardians and regular Moroi go without -- unless they're wealthy enough to hire vigilante guardians who don't work within the system.

Did you get all that? Good, because I haven't even really touched on the main characters. Rosemarie Hathaway is a teenage dhampir girl and Vasilisa (Lissa) Dragomir is a Moroi princess; they've been best friends since kindergarten and their relationship became even stronger two years prior to the opening of the first novel when a car crash claimed the lives of Lissa's family, but Rose and Lissa walked away unharmed... well... sort of. The thing is, the car crash resulted in the girls forming a bond which allows Rose to read Lissa's mind (aka slip into Lissa's mind and watch things unfold from Lissa's perspective) and enables her to always know where her friend is. If Rose didn't feel responsible for Lissa to begin with, this sealed the deal and means Rose already views herself as Lissa's guardian and the bond gives her an edge. Lissa needs particular protection as she is the last of her bloodline, the only living member of the royal Dragomir line. Rose believes that it is her duty to protect Lissa at all costs -- which somehow meant that she felt it necessary to break Lissa out of their high-security school and keep them on the run for two years before the first book opens with their recapture and return to St. Vladimir's, the titular "vampire academy" located in middle-of-nowhere Montana. The series follows these two girls (particularly Rose, the narrator) as they spend their last year at school and move into the "real world." The plotlines revolve around larger problems unique to their situation (struggling to understand their bond and magic, determining who can be trusted to know their secrets, navigating complicated Moroi politics, and battling Strigoi for survival) as well as all the usual high school stuff (bitchy social-climbing competitors, vicious gossip, difficult classes, and love lives that are complicated in ways that only high school love lives can be). Within the series, the girls mature quickly as their problems escalate... or maybe they simply figure out just how big their problems are as they learn more and more.

In the first novel, Vampire Academy, we get the groundwork for the world and an introduction to our two heroines, but we also have to deal with the fact that even Rose, our narrator, isn't being totally honest with us. She reveals information about themselves a little at a time as a means of prolonging suspense. Rose and Lissa are captured by school officials at the beginning of the book after having spent two years on the run. Rose broke Lissa out of school and insists she had a good reason, but we slowly have to piece together that information. To be fair, even Rose isn't entirely sure why she did it, only that Lissa felt she was being followed and was in danger, but as they learn more about themselves and their unique bond, Rose gets a better idea of the problems they're up against. The girls might be settling back into life at their school, but by no means does that mean they're safe. In this book, we meet several important secondary characters that play a role throughout the books, including a new dhampir mentor for Rose named Dimitri (towards whom she feels significantly more than what is proper between teacher and student), a young Moroi named Christian (who lives on the fringes of school society because of his parents who chose to turn Strigoi), a Moroi girl named Mia who's currently dating Lissa's ex who would like nothing better than to see both Lissa and Rose ruined in the eyes of the school, and a family friend of Lissa's named Victor Dashkov who seems a little too keen on helping the girls re-acclimate. Even if Rose can keep them safe from threats both inside and outside of school, Rose doesn't know what to do when it comes to keeping Lissa sane and secrets from their shared history might be their undoing. On the whole, Vampire Academy is a strong start to the series, though it does take advantage of its first novel status by withholding information about the characters so it's not simply a case of "what's going to happen?" but "what *already* happened?" Rose, however, immediately shines as a reckless yet well-intentioned character ready to dive into the fray and accept any future consequences when she knows she's doing the right thing. Her loyalty to Lissa is impressive and since it's their relationship is the crux of the series, it's important that Rose's character compensates for Lissa, who can be a bit too wishy-washy.

In the second novel, Frostbite, a large Strigoi attack on a Moroi family just before Christmas has the Moroi terrified. As a result of this threat, most of the students would otherwise be kept on campus, but a wealthy Moroi family donates the use of its ski resort to the school so students and their families can stay safe over the holidays. This might provide a distraction, but not enough for the young dhampir students who are eager to get out into the world and start killing Strigoi. Rose finds herself in the rare position of trying to be the voice of reason, but that doesn't stop her from sharing some classified information and when some of her friends rush off to take advantage of this to be heroic, Rose goes after them. Of course, not everyone would look at Rose and think "responsible," including Rose's mother, a renowned dhampir guardian who Rose hasn't seen in years and isn't keen on getting to know now after feeling abandoned. Meanwhile, Lissa is starting to understand what it really means to be the last Dragomir as she moves towards a life where she'll inevitably play a role in Moroi politics. She's also learning more about what it is to be in a real relationship (one that isn't entirely approved of by all around her) and what her magic powers mean for herself, Rose, and the larger fate of the Moroi. Frostbite culminates in a very intense situation that makes the reader and Rose realize just how serious the dangers are from Strigoi... and just how useless the current Moroi response to them is if they rely entirely on defensive guardians. Between Lissa's position and Rose's firsthand knowledge, one can see that together, they could be a powerful instrument for future change... if they can manage to survive to bring it about.

In the third novel, Shadow Kiss, Rose is still dealing with grief after losing a friend and surviving a harrowing encounter with Strigoi. Yes, she triumphed but at what cost? At school, she's facing one of the toughest trials of her education -- a six-week "practical" exam where she has to protect a Moroi from "attacks" made by school officials to test her reactions. Normally, she wouldn't be concerned about this (as she's managed to do just this in the real world) but Rose has started to see the ghost of her dead friend appear and she's worrying that she's losing her mind. And that's not the only thing keeping her on edge. Rose was not paired with Lissa as expected for her trial, which she sees as a useless experiment, for their bond makes Rose an ideal guardian for Lissa, but the school won't budge on its decision and Rose has no choice if she wants to pass the test... though her ghost sightings might make even that a bit tricky. Filled with concerns about her abilities as a guardian and the fact that she might be going crazy, Rose also has to deal with her mounting feelings for Dimitri (her mentor) and realize that she might just have to choose between love and doing she job she knows she was destined to do. Rose learns a great deal about herself in this book and in Shadow Kiss, we see the most dramatic battle to date as the threat of Strigoi is brought home to the St. Vladimir's campus.

In the fourth novel, Blood Promise, Rose leaves St. Vladimir's again (though this time she can legally withdraw as opposed to running away) with a mission -- to kill the man she loves. After the battle at St. Vladimir's, a rare rescue mission was formed to bring back those captured by the Strigoi. Dimitri fought valiantly, but at the last moment was captured and subjected to everyone's worst nightmare -- he was forcibly turned Strigoi. Knowing that the Dimitri she loved would want someone to kill him in his turned state rather than leave him to exist as an evil being, Rose sets off for his former homeland of Siberia to hunt him down and do just that. In leaving St. Vladimir's, she also has to leave Lissa behind and Rose fears their friendship has been permanently shattered. Once in Russia, Rose learns more about the world outside St. Vladimir's than she ever knew before, including information about Alchemists (mortals chosen to assist the Moroi in keeping the existence of vampires a secret from the rest of the human race) and about renegade dhampir guardians who can either be for hire or take justice into their own hands against the Strigoi. In Siberia, Rose is taken in by Dimitri's family and wonders if she could have another life than what she had always assumed, but ultimately knows she must complete her quest and find Dimitri... though whether she can follow through on her resolution when she comes face to face with the altered man she loves is another thing entirely. Rose checks in on Lissa every now and then through their bond, but Lissa is proving to be a rather vulnerable character without Rose around. A new friend, Avery, seems to be a bad influence and even Lissa's relationship with Christian is suffering for it. If we thought Lissa had gotten a bit stronger before, we see her suffer a slide back to being weaker and without Rose, she might not be able to recover before it's too late. Because of Rose's intense feelings of grief and being adrift in the world, she, too, is a bit weaker in this book than in any other. She might be strong enough to defeat Strigoi, but she's not strong enough to not have an emotional tirade every few pages. It's her weakest moment, and even if one is inclined to cut the character a bit of slack, that only goes so far. Towards the end, Mead does some interesting things with the Rose/Dimitri dynamic that proves she's not interested in any ending where things are simple. That in itself is appreciated, but the book relies a touch too much on new scenery and characters to carry it through before the final confrontations.

In the fifth book, Spirit Bound, Rose is dealing with the fact that she cannot simply move on with her life and accept things as they are if there might be the small chance to change them. This dissatisfaction and yearning for change is a broad theme that carries over into their entire government and society's structure, too. Rose managed to bring herself to stake Dimitri at the end of book four... but it turns out she didn't do a good enough job and he's still alive as a Strigoi. (Way to go, Rose.) And now Strigoi Dimitri is no longer interested in "awakening" Rose so she can join him and they can be together for eternity... now, he's simply intent on killing her. This would be one thing if she simply had to still deal with Dimitri being Strigoi, but it turns out that there might be a way to turn a Strigoi *back* and even if that means she needs to break her enemy from book one out of prision... well, we know Rose well enough by now to know that Rose usually accomplishes even her craziest plans. This whole situation is further complicated by the fact that Rose has begun a relationship with Adrian, a Moroi royal who has been flirting with her for a while now and who has the same kind of rare magical gifts that Lissa does. Rose cares for Adrian, but just she cannot let Dimitri go without a fight... and this time, Lissa has insisted that she be part of the plan. Lissa is preparing for a life at Court after her graduation, having struck a deal with the Queen in exchange for admittance to an excellent college nearby, but neither Rose nor Lissa knows if they're going to be paired together once Rose passes her final guardian trials. Those trials turn out to be a cakewalk... breaking Victor Dashkov out of prison and avoiding suspicion, however, is a bit trickier. And that's just the first step in their complicated plan to save Dimitri. On top of all this, both girls are being drawn into dangerous court politics and neither will escape the limelight before the book is through.
So much happens in Spirit Bound that it makes waiting for the sixth book (which will be named Last Sacrifice) an absolute agony. Why oh why do I bother starting a series when I know that it hasn't wrapped up yet? I'm not a patient person. I'll have to content myself with predicting the ending of the sixth book until it's published in November (which isn't that far away, I suppose.) As for the book itself, I feel that Mead packed a lot into this, which suggests there is a great deal more to come. Finding out a way to bring Dimitri back seems hard... but it might actually be the easy part in the grand scheme of happily ever after for Rose. Of course, Rose has set herself on a hard path and so happily ever after is a very slim possibility... and rather unlikely in my eyes, no matter how things turn out. As the books get more complicated, Rose's strong and badass presence has suffered a bit (except when it comes to her fighting abilities), but she's back full force in this one when she speaks against a government ruling and you realize that she's going to be just as much of a leader as Lissa has the potential to be, making them a dangerous combination.

In all, I think it's obvious that I enjoyed the books given my rate of consumption, though this doesn't necessarily mean they're brilliant, only that I have an addictive personality and enjoyed the characters. The books have the benefit of feeling both familiar and yet original. They follow certain obvious paths, and yet Mead still makes the paths are fun and exciting. One cares about the characters and, thankfully, few of them are complete idiots, which can easily kill one's interest in a series. I would say that Mead's talent lies in the creation of the world and plotlines as opposed to her writing, though it's sufficient for the task at hand and most everything out of Rose's mouth when she's being a smart-ass is amusing. One takes particular pleasure in seeing the characters mature and come into their own within their respective spheres of society. This is particularly true for Rose, as hers feels more earned than Lissa's. The secondary characters meant to support our heroines such as Christian and Adrian are amusing for their faults and dry wit. The villains tend to be a bit transparent, so it's rare to be really surprised by anything. The most interesting villain is Dimitri as a Strigoi, who the reader is inclined to like for what he was, yet must accept his altered state as a bad thing (one cannot help but think that Mead was a fan of Buffy).

I know the books are about vampires, but perhaps it's to their credit that I don't think of this as the first thing to discuss when I describe them. But of course, this means that I think of them more as YA, as they put more emphasis on the relationships and the drama as opposed to the fangs and blood. What I also appreciate is the fact that these books are pretty honest when it comes to sex and alcohol and the age of the kids involved. It's boarding school life and there isn't harsh judgment except when it comes to overindulgence. Same goes for the sex -- Rose deals with the implications in the first book of earning a reputation of being easy, but we also touch on taboos of culture, like Rose's allowing Lissa to drink her blood when they were on the run. In sexual scenarios between dhampir and Moroi, this has a tinge of the scandalous (touched upon in book five) which would give young adult readers a thrill while they still consider consequences of their actions. There's discussion of underage sex, safe sex, and what kinky things can be done without having actual sex. There's the frank admission that even a teenage girl can have a healthy sex drive, but clearly shouldn't let it make decisions for her. And there's knowledge that relationships are complicated and not just about wanting to be with a person, but working out the trust, the obligation, and all the many emotions that come into play.

So yes, here we have another vampire series to fit onto the YA shelves, but honestly? If all the vampire books were of this caliber, I'd be totally fine with the ever-expanding lists. I might prefer the main heroine to be a bit brainier, but Rose does at least promote values like loyalty, putting faith in oneself, and working hard to achieve one's goals. Her disregard for working within the system can be both refreshing and a bit frustrating... but at least she's always trying to be honest with herself so she can do the right thing. When it comes to the vampires, at least these vampires can be sexy and dangerous, but it's a shame that the "good" vampires aren't all that sexy and dangerous. Quite honestly, I sometimes wonder if there's a reason they have to be vampires at all. With their magic, they could simply be wizards, and yet the vampire aspect can sometimes yield interesting details. I hope Mead continues to explore the complicated paths without taking any easy ways out, but I have this sneaking suspicion that I might end up dissatisfied with the ultimate result. Not everyone can survive book six and choices will have to be made. Since we already know she's agreed to do another six-book series as a spin-off (and she's said that Rose will make occasional appearances), it'll be interesting to see how it all pans out in the end. Clearly Mead has me hooked and I hope she doesn't take that for granted with the last one.

Oh and PS... what's with the covers? I read these on my nook, so I didn't fully take in how ridiculous the covers to these books are until I hunted images up for my blog post. They're really quite absurd, but hey, whatever sells 'em, I suppose.