Sunshine, Robin McKinley

Another Thursday, another book I haven’t quite finished in time. Sure, it’s only noon here, and I could put aside the other work I have for the day to finish Sunshine before writing my review, but I won’t. See how I defy you, deadline gods?! See how I spit in the face of completion!?! Or, well, not so much spit, as gently bat away…anxiously…with the baleful eyes of expectant English teachers upon me…

I am trying to care a little less about deadlines though, and a little more about the quality of my reading experience, so if that means battling a little OCD anxiety, I can handle it. Also, this is both a fun book and one I keep putting down to think about; it refuses to be rushed.

Now, I’m going to throw something out here that might cause a few of you to stop reading this post as quickly as your eyes and internet connection will allow, but I implore you – stay with me – if only for a minute. Don’t make me send you over to The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy article “Beware Literary Snobbery,” because I will. Just take a deep breath and refrain from judgement – Sunshine  is like the thinking-reader’s Twilight.

If I had to guess, I would say about a third of readers just bristled on Bella’s behalf, about half threw up in their mouths, and the remaining few are scratching their heads because they live in a cave (or like to pretend they do). I get it (even the cave thing – I’m not aware of about half the pop culture happenings at any given moment). The Twilight books have this curiously divisive effect on readers; as soon as they’re mentioned, heads shake, self-satisfied smirks appear, and furious arguments break out.

Personally, I don’t understand what the big deal is. I read them. Sure, the heroine of those stories is a pretty unexceptional teenager whose life revolves around her boyfriend, but do you stop loving your children just because they act like that? Or do you remember, in a sort of nostalgic, “thank goodness my hormones have the edge taken off” sort of way what it was like to be young and stubborn and in love? Do you give Juliet as hard a time as you do Bella? Because believe me, when I first read Romeo and Juliet, all I could think was, really? Poison? Was he worth it? You knew him, what, three days?! Give me a break. And I was boy crazy. I have a diary from the first grade talking about crushes and kissing boys on the playground to prove it!

But I digress. One of the reasons people give Twilight such a hard time is that they don’t consider Bella to be a strong role model for young women. She’s too ordinary. She’s weak. She needs a man to make her life worthwhile. When I started reading Sunshine, I couldn’t help but compare her to McKinley’s protagonist, Rae Seddon (aka Sunshine). Rae is older (around 25). She has a job she loves baking in her family’s diner. She has a boyfriend she seems at least content with. She has, by all accounts, a good life, and yet she’s restless. Unhappy. And whether she means to or not, she seeks out adventure – ugly, life-changing, unromantic adventure  – that in just two days separates her from the life she’s had.

And that separation makes her weak. She’s afraid all the time. She can’t heal from the psychic or physical stress of her experience. It’s alienating, even when what she wants most is to go back to a safer, more ignorant existence.

Now, I’m only a little over halfway through the book, so maybe it takes a more traditionally romantic turn. If so, I don’t expect it’s the focus of the story in the same way Bella’s love triangle is the focus of the Twilight books. Sunshine is more of a dystopian novel that happens to have vampires than a vampire novel that happens to have romance.

That being said, I still find these two protagonists to be more similar than I expected. They’re incredibly vulnerable. They’re loners, more by choice than by necessity, and yet, when faced with strangeness and horror that would stretch the imaginations of many people, they both do their best to stand against the worst parts and accept that vampires might be more than the sum of the stories told about them. They allow a bridge to form between themselves and a supernatural community where none could have been erected to connect them with their own.

McKinley just manages to do this in a way that appeals to a wider audience. She also doesn’t make the mistake that often (sadly) damns YA books from greater acceptance – she doesn’t choose a teenager to tell her story. I love YA as a genre, and I remember my own teens as being an insane(ly interesting) time, so I enjoy reading from that perspective. Other people don’t relate well to those characters and feel more comfortable in other genres. Fortunately, books exist that bridge the gap for both types of readers, and Sunshine is one of those books.

It’s part suspense, part character study, part family drama with a little comedy to humanize it. I still find McKinley’s pacing to be on the slower side, but it works well in this book, better than it did in Beauty. Rae is a thoughtful woman – the book reflects that. I believe that, like most of us, she doesn’t want to go rushing headlong into unknown danger, and this makes me like her even more. Also, while she and Bella are both flawed women, Rae has an edge in the wisdom department – sure, twenty-five is no fifty when it comes to making good choices – but it beats sixteen almost every time.

Honestly, I like Bella; she does the best she can with the story provided her, but Rae has untapped depth, and I look forward to curling up with this book tonight and following her back into the unpredictable underbelly of her world.

You can follow Robin McKinley here.

Once more, with feeling!

Okay, so I know I promised I would not post about Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series again, but I lied. I know, I’m a terrible person, and here you’ve patiently waited a week for a new post and I don’t even have anything interesting to share (or at least I assume that’s the general train of thought for all you non-vampire readers out there, and really, I don’t hold it against you). But the thing is, I was on vacation. And I read five more of her books while I was away. Now I’m back, and I have roughly ninety loads of laundry to do, and paying projects that need attending to, and a husband who is even more jet-lagged than I am (thanks a lot nine-hour time difference!), and it’s raining. I can’t possibly get my head in the game as quickly as I’d planned to, and that’s just the bottom line. I won’t be offended if you trip off to explore further regions of the interwebs today, but know that next week, I’ll be back on my game and I’ll have something special to report on.

For those of you who are fans of Harris (or are just completists, like me, who hate stopping halfway through a blog post), welcome. I have to admit to being curious about watching the show based on the books now that I’ve read so many of them, but I’m even more interested in the fact that Harris managed to pull off something that very few series writers do – she paces her novels so well that they flow seamlessly together and make, I expect, for excellent translation to television.

Seriously though, she’s addictive. I found myself reading bits and pieces at every possible opportunity over the last two weeks (I’m so thankful for Kindle apps on smart phones!), although I quickly realized that I’m a little too wound up if I read her right before bedtime. Inevitably I run across a gruesome murder about three pages before I plan to turn out the light, and then the night is just one crazy nightmare after another as my brain tries to process all the violence, especially against women. But while waiting for my parents to be ready to go out? While standing and stirring pudding on the stove? After getting to yoga twenty minutes earlier than necessary? Check, check and check.

The reason it’s so easy to go through Harris’ books rapidly is that they’re written to take place only a week or two after the last one wraps up. Often in a series, the time between the novels is indeterminate, or at best, a few months or a year later. It’s a lot easier to disengage from the characters when so much time has passed. Harris doesn’t allow that to happen, and once I discovered that evil little fact, I was screwed.

And, well, I’m the sort of person who falls in with characters like they’re my best friends, and I keep in touch with my actual best friends on almost a weekly basis…so give me the chance to keep up with my fictional friends on a timeline with no lag and I’m hooked. It’s really not fair because I have an insanely long list of recommendations for books from my friends, but I’m so tuned into these characters that even tv shows I normally love are annoying to me because they take away from reading time. And that’s why I can justify writing two entries about an author many serious readers wouldn’t give a chance – she writes books that make me forget about television, about email, about Facebook and Twitter – and that is no small feat.

When I talk to other people, especially my age and younger, I’m disappointed by how few readers are in my social circles. People are always telling me, “oh, but I read articles online!” All I can say to that is articles are not books. Blog posts are not books (unless of course, an author is posting chapters of their book to their blog…). Magazines are not books. Books are books. Anthologies? Sure. Fanfic even gets the thumbs up from me. Essays – I’ll give ’em to you, though they’re on the line for me.

The sad truth is, books are not as in now as I want them to be. I sometimes feel in the minority as a writer and reader who loves the advent of the electronic book, but the fact of the matter is, e-readers are encouraging people to read who had long been stuck to their computer screens, people who felt daunted by physical books (yes, it turns out not everyone is as turned on by the smell of well-worn paper as Readers are). I’ve seen my husband start books a hundred times and never finish them, and yet a novel I get him on the Kindle is devoured – the format is just so familiar and comfortable to him – the little screen, the ability to get it anywhere…it makes reading accessible to a whole new audience.

But only if that audience stops messing around on the internet long enough to try it. Since I started this project in December, I realized how much time I was wasting watching reruns on tv, refreshing my twitter stream, and generally making excuses to put off books until later.  Sometimes, even though I adore books, I still make excuses; the fact that I write about them here keeps me on track. It was sort of moving, then, for me to realize last week, when I was reading books I had no plans to review, how much I enjoy the simple pleasures of a compelling story. Sure, Sookie Stackhouse is no Sherlock Holmes, but her stories thrill me and make me laugh and reinforce a love for books over other things. And for that, Charlaine Harris deserves great respect.

Dead Until Dark, Charlaine Harris

It’s shocking, even to me, that I have never read any of the Sookie Stackhouse books. I haven’t seen True Blood (the show based on this series) either, mostly because everyone who watches it tells me it resembles violent porn, and that’s not my cup of tea.

The thing is, ever since I was old enough to go to the library, I have loved series’ with reoccurring characters (and by “series,” I mean at least four or more books – trilogies are another topic entirely). My favorite, and the one I’m most looking forward to reading the next installment of is The Dresden Files. A private eye wizard?! It has all the best of genre fiction, and I can’t get enough of it. When I was little though, I read mountains of Nancy Drew and the Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins; I adored The Boxcar Children maybe most of all. I wasn’t embarrassed by any of this, even when my friends started to pick more mainstream fiction. Nope. I just moved onto Xanth and Pern, to stories about elves in San Francisco and to the overwhelming world created by George RR Martin.

Since I started reviewing books, I’ve worked hard to expand my interests (I think I was getting a little lazy book-wise), and I’ve been enjoying it. Unfortunately, my brain can’t keep up with the solid stream of life changing fiction I’ve been reading recently, and yesterday I decided to pull up a book I bought on my kindle years ago.

Dead Before Dark is what my friend Jeannine and I call “popcorn.” It’s the perfect book when you’re home sick or need a distraction. The characters are just witty enough to be appealing, and Harris drew me in immediately with a little wink and a healthy dose of feminine backbone. The series is a little deep south and a little chick lit with a dash of gruesome murder thrown in for kicks. This is pure vacation for the brain, and I plan to read more of her books. I won’t post about them all here, mostly because as much as I love my guilty pleasure, it doesn’t always provide the most stimulating discussion.

I’ll be taking a break this Monday though, while I’m out-of-town, and you can bet I’ll be using the down time to cram a few more vamp-lite books in…

Charlaine Harris can be found at She had what looks like a really interesting blog with book recommendations as well, which I plan to check out for future reads.