Dead Until Dark
by Charlaine Harris
Recommended Ages: 15+
Regarded as a either crazy or mentally deficient by most people who know her, Sookie expends a lot of energy holding up mental barriers so she doesn't hear other people's thoughts. Despite being pretty, she's never had a romantic relationship because getting close to a man means hearing thoughts she'd rather not hear. She's always wanted to meet a vampire, and when Bill walks into Merlotte's she's delighted to realize that she can't hear any of his thoughts. Their mutual attraction quickly develops into passion, but just as quickly, trouble begins to crop up. First a series of murders seems to point toward a connection with vampires – making Bill an early suspect in the eyes of the community. Anti-vampire sentiment grows so inflamed that a mob of locals burns a nest of vampires to death in the neighboring town. Then the police notice that another thing the victims have in common is a relationship with Sookie's ne'er-do-well brother Jason, leading the police to suspect him.
Things get worse when Sookie's beloved grandmother becomes the victim of a murder apparently intended for Sookie herself. Even using her mind-reading abilities, Sookie can't seem to figure out who's behind the crimes. Then Bill disappears out of town on an unexplained errand – something to do with protecting their relationship from interference by older and more powerful vampires in Shreveport – and Sookie finds herself in serious, personal danger despite the protection of a simple-minded bloodsucker named Bubba, who outwardly resembles a certain rock'n'roll legend. Inevitably, trouble finds her despite her powers, her vampire guard, her shapeshifting boss, and the fact that the killer has been right under everybody's nose the whole time.
It's a swift, businesslike introduction to a down-to-earth, sexy concept of supernatural beings lurking (or, in some cases, seeking acceptance) in present-day society. Sookie is a smart, insightful, tough character with a healthy sense of humor, a bracing edge of sarcasm and an unusual openness to some very weird things, which doesn't prevent her from getting her mind blown as she discovers supernatural facets of the world around her that she had never guessed at before. (Apparently, vampires in her world claim to suffer from a virus, but that isn't entirely true.) So, she's a good point of view through which to get to know not only the scary ways of vampires, but also shapeshifters like Sam and perhaps other, as yet unspecified critters.
One thing I think this book could have done without, with little or no loss of readability, is the graphic sex scene or two that, in my opinion, would have to be a great deal better written before it would be truly erotic. I tend to be disappointed with sex scenes; the more detail they go into, the less they do for me. It isn't just that the intimate images make me squirm; but they also lack the charm and subtlety of the rest of the book. I have a theory that the process of writing a graphic sex scene flushes more blood out of an author's brain than they can afford to write without. Having read one of her subsequent books (Grave Sight), I'm encouraged to think that Charlaine Harris might have learned this, confining that book's love scenes to the steamy buildup and leaving the act itself to the reader's imagination.
This is the first book in the Sookie Stackhouse series, a.k.a. Southern Vampire Mysteries, a.k.a. the inspiration for the TV series True Blood. Other titles in the series include Living Dead in Dallas, Club Dead, Dead to the World and about nine more novels, plus several novellas and short stories. Besides writing erotic thrillers about vampires in Louisiana, Charlaine Harris Schultz also writes the Aurora Teagarden mysteries (about a "real murders club" in Georgia), the Lily Bard mysteries (featuring an amateur sleuth from Arkansas), the Harper Connelly thrillers (about a woman from Texas with a psychic ability to locate dead bodies), the Midnight, Texas trilogy (about a small town full of supernatural creatures), the Gunnie Rose series (about a witch in an alternate-history U.S.), and the Cemetery Girl Trilogy (co-authored with Christopher Golden, about a girl who sees dead people). She seems to be the place to shop if you like your mystery with a pinch of paranormal and a dash of romance.