Friday, 29 December 2006

2006, In Review

New Year’s Eve is approaching, I’d like to review something thematically in keeping with the occasion, and my spent 2006 planner is sitting conveniently on my desk, so here goes. Perhaps I should begin by saying this planner cannot be named or described too exactly as the publishing company that employs me produced it, and there would be both conflict of interest and personal security issues in my being specific enough that it could be identified. Ahem.

I hope I can safely say it wasn’t the planner for me. Not that it isn’t a handsome, nicely designed volume in its own right, and I’m not just writing that because I’ve helped edit it in the past and/or could be fired for publicly criticizing my company’s product. The planner is black-covered and gold-lettered, has gold and black satin ribbons for marking one’s place, has a lot of reference material at the back, and at 8.5” x 11” looked weighty and impressive on my desk all year. But then weightiness and impressiveness weren’t qualities I particularly needed or wanted in a planner. I take public transit and need a planner that isn’t a chore in itself to carry. And then this planner is designed to be used at one’s workplace, whereas I needed one geared to organizing my activities outside of work. I can see it being exactly right for a number of busy professionals — thousands of them, in fact. Planners are a very individual preference.

But it’s typical of me, and indicative of a larger issue in my life, that I never do find quite the right planner for me, the one that will help me feel more in control of my life, to stop me from frittering away time and procrastinating (actual Freudian-style typo: procasturbating), to accomplish more, to keep me from neglecting or forgetting to do things I very much want to do. Or failing that, I’d like FOR THE LOVE OF GOD to at least find one that lets me look at a week at a glance, gives me some actual room to scribble more than a few things down AND still fits into my already bulging shoulder bag. This past year I wound up carrying a little plastic-covered calendar style planner because the weighty black one had to stay at home, a memo pad because the little calendar had no room in which I could write, and also keeping a planning notebook because I needed some place to write down brainstorming lists and research notes on the best roofers/internet service providers/books to read/Christmas present ideas. Etc.

Again, it’s typical of me that for 2007 I’ve bought a new planner, hoping that both the planner and the year will be a better one than the one past or if not, that I can at least condense my oragnizational system from four notebooks to two. But then this is always the appeal of new planners and notebooks. I can’t be the only person who has a notebook fetish, who lusts after those beautiful covers and crisp blank pages and winds up giving away several journals for Christmas every year simply because I wanted an excuse to buy them. (As was the case with the exquisite embroidered pale green satin one I gave to my seventeen-year-old niece this year – I wanted to buy it and it matched my niece’s eyes, so she got it.) Those rafts of gorgeous notebooks and planners one sees in the stores must go somewhere. The appeal of these planners and notebooks is the promise of renewal, of a fresh start, of new things and new days to come. It’s an act of faith to buy one because it presumes that one will be living each and every one of those days named within. And, if one is a writer, there’s always the hope that the words one will write within will actually be worthy of their beautiful setting.

I don’t get a sense of this promise as I flip back through my spent planners. Instead I get a sense of the past as a thing apart from my memories and overall impressions of it. Perhaps I find I went out more often or was more productive than I thought, or perhaps less. Perhaps I discover that I wrote in some item to be done, such as signing up for a yoga class or doing some home improvement task, see that I scheduled it again and again before it finally disappeared, but realize it doesn’t matter now that I’d rather take kickboxing and have moved. This particular year I find the gold ribbon is stalled in mid-November, because I was embroiled in all sorts of real estate and moving craziness and was too overwhelmed to even be able to try to calmly order my days. This bird’s eye sense of the past — even my own past, which I should know intimately — as something significantly different from my conception of it isn’t as exciting as the sense of anticipation I get from a new notebook, but it’s probably more instructive.

The planner is a relatively modern invention. I don’t suppose it is much more than a century old, though people were certainly jotting down their daily minutiae long before that. It’s something we designed to help us cope with lives that have become more varied and hectic (though not harder overall) than they were two hundred years ago. Not that the medieval peasant whose daily to-do list might have been a one item “plant turnips” wouldn’t have had some conception of the more primal motivation that underlies our dependency on planners, and BlackBerries, and whatever other forms the planner will take in future. Like most adaptations, they help us cope with currently existing circumstances without necessarily making us any happier or more fulfilled in the larger sense than people have been in past millenniums. Nearly two thousand years ago Paul of the Bible was writing, “That which I would not do, I do; and that which I would do, I do not”, and that is a universal, eternal human lament which even the most beautifully designed Moleskine will never do more than assauge. Not that this realization for one minute dampens my ravenous desire for the said Moleskines.

Monday, 25 December 2006

A Reader's Digest Christmas, Digested

I've been meaning to write a special Christmas-themed review about O. Henry's The Gifts of the Magi and four of his other short stories, but since I am now at my parents' place for Christmas and I cleverly left the O. Henry book at my own home in Toronto, I'll have to fall back on reviewing something from my parents' bookshelves.

So, I've unearthed a somewhat battered, Reader's Digest-produced copy of A Family's Christmas, copyright 1984. And I'm actually disposed to be more gentle with it than I would have been to The Gifts of the Magi. But please don't take this as some sort of endorsement of Reader's Digest.

Reader's Digest was always in my home as I grew up because my father subscribed to it, and it does seem to me to be a sort of yardstick to my development as a reader, the equivalent of old pencil marks on a wall being used to gauge a child's height. When I first began to read it at about eight, I read just the jokes. Then, perhaps a year later, I began to read the lighter articles. Then I began to read whatever articles interested me, and by twelve or so I was reading the entire magazine. At fourteen I beguiled away a good portion of a case of mono by reading ten years' worth of back issues. (I always remember my illnesses by my reading material, and have fond memories of the time I escaped from the miseries of a 2002 bout with Influenza A into a thick, small-print collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.) At fifteen I began to notice, as with an outgrown, outworn piece of clothing, the shortcomings of Reader's Digest, and consequently read it less and less. By the age of seventeen, I had stopped reading it all together, and now can't bear to read it at all. So, now, revisiting A Family Christmas as an adult, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that the book I enjoyed so much as a ten-year-old still has some merit.

The book opens with an essay written by the excellent Jessamyn West. (Not, you understand, the living and equally excellent Jessamyn West, librarian and moderator, but the late and excellent Jessamyn West, Quaker writer.) West muses about her Christmas memories, and it's enjoyable reading, though I would enjoy it more if I didn't have to worry that Reader's Digest editors have gutted the piece — or as they call it, "condensed" it. The first time I ever read an original version of something I had only previously read as a Reader's Digest version I realized how cheated I had been, and it is this more than anything that destroyed my enjoyment of Reader's Digest materials. If the piece has been gutted, the editors certainly chose to leave in West's slightly didactic conclusion about the "heart-warmth" and religious meaning of Christmas. I can't help but suspect it would have seemed less preachy in the original form, as West, a woman who helped her own sister euthanize herself, had a very nuanced belief system and no tendency at all to proselytize.

Paging on, we enter a section called "Christmas Customs and Crafts". This section features pieces about the origin and practice of different Christmas customs followed by instructions for making your own Christmas paraphernalia. For instance, the first custom discussed is the Christmas tree. Origin of the custom, historical and present-day variations, a cute anecdote about Theodore Roosevelt's son's scheme to subvert his conservationist father's decree that there would be no White House Christmas tree, quotes from A.E. Housman, reproductions of works by Norman Rockwell, and Grandma Moses, pictures of antique ornaments, illustrations of various kinds of pine trees. Quite readable. Immediately following it we have instructions on how to make tree ornaments out of wood shavings, which look lovely. Then instructions on how to make Ecuadorian star ornaments out of yarn and foil covered squares. They're done in garish colours and look none too attractive in the book, but the crafter in me is thinking perhaps the idea has some potential...

Moving on more rapidly, there are pieces on creches, Christmas stockings, toys, Christmas cards, Christmas greens, and Santa Claus, and these are followed, respectively, by instructions on making one's own cornhusk creche, knitted Aran stockings, Cinderella doll and wooden wagon, Christmas cards, pine cone wreath and Advent wreath, and "Santa's dream dollhouse". Which I must admit mostly look attractive and damn tempting to me as a knitter, sewer, and person who loves to make things, and there's something to be said for a company that can produce crafts which still look good over twenty years later. The picture of a brooding Santa peering around a tree while a little girl plays happily with the dollhouse does look a little iffy, however.

Then we come to the "Christmas in the Kitchen" section. James Beard's Christmas recollections, and four separate menus for Christmas meals. Also a cookie section, featuring a photo of a pink-cheeked grandma happily making cookies with two children at her kitchen table. Grandma's pink cheeks are a little too obviously rouged, and there's no way any baker could possibly work on such crowded surface as her kitchen table, but we'll let that pass. The recipes certainly look good, but I'm already feeling sated on my mother's cooking, so I'll just move on to the next section.

Paging on, we find the section I remember the best, a collection of Christmas stories, which as always with Reader's Digest selections, range from the very good to the horrendous, and, as with West's piece, I cannot fully enjoy any of them for fear they have been gutted.

I would place the first story, "A Miserable, Merry Christmas" in the "very good" category. Lincoln Steffens tells the story of the boyhood Christmas he told his parents that he wanted "a pony or nothing" for Christmas, and how he awoke to find Christmas morning to find he'd been taken at his word. Steffens, so Wikipedia claims, is known for remarking, upon his return from a 1921 visit to the Soviet Union, that he "has been over into the future and it works", but let us leave that aside and give him credit for at least understanding his own past, and presenting us with an evocative representation of a childhood experience, with its wild expectations and painful hopes and sudden plunges from joy to misery and back again.

Next we find the lyrics for "Go Tell It On The Mountain". I'd say this was public domain (read: "free") filler and am musing on whether in today's cultural climate the Reader's Digest editors would still chose to subtitle the lyrics "American Black Spiritual".

On page 148, Selma Lagerlof's "The Legend of the Christmas Rose" begins, a mystical tale of monks and robbers and a forest that blooms and is visited by angels every Christmas. It's not bad, and it does achieve that certain flavour of a tale that has been passed down orally from generation to generation.

Next is Valentine Davies' "Miracle on 34th Street". I read this story before ever knowing about the movie. Now that I know about the movie and have skimmed over the story again, I found myself wondering if the story was the "fictionalization" of the movie — fiction written from the screen play. Such fictionalizations are usually flat and mechanical, like this story. Upon looking it up, I find the movie was made from the "novel". Since the story in the Reader's Digest book is just 35 pages long, I suspect the story has been stripped to the bare bones. It's hardly fair to assess it in this state.

Norah Lofts's "The Lord of Misrule" follows "Miracle on 34th Street". In medieval times, a minstrel and a penniless girl of good family fall in love. They know they would never be allowed even to speak together under ordinary circumstances, but when the minstrel is named Lord of Misrule they seize their chance. It's a good story, and is well told.

Then we come to "Mr. Edward Meets Santa Claus", as excerpted from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. Not a bad story, nor badly written. And, of course, it's imbued by all those values Reader's Digest and Wilder's libertarian daughter Rose Wilder Lane (who heavily edited and rewrote her mother's work) hold so dear — the bonds of family and friendship, and hardy self-reliance.

Next is Pearl S. Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning", the story of an elderly man's memories of a boyhood Christmas surprise for his father. More about the bonds of family and love, but the story has a dark vein, because it more than hints at the loneliness of an elderly couple whose children are busy with their own lives.

Then we read Kay Thompson's "Eloise at Christmastime". Somehow even at ten I never cared for this story. I don't think I really had the patience to read it properly. I always liked a good story, and this one is short on actual narrative and long on nonsense rhymes and whimsy.

On to Frank R. Stockton's "Old Applejoy's Ghost". The ghost of a man from the eighteenth century pulls some strings to manage a Christmas and other matters for his great-granddaughter. It's not literature by any means, but it's readable enough.

Then we find Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver", which is supposed to be among the best of Millay's work. I hope this isn't the case. "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver" is maudlin, subscribes to the awful mother-reverence that was far too prevalent in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, and is barely above doggerel.

Next is "Christmas Every Day" by William Dean Howells. A little girl gets her wish and has Christmas every day for a year. I hope it's not just my love for nineteenth century children's and pulp fiction speaking when I say I really like this one. I suppose it's supposed to be a morality lesson instructing little girls in the dangers of greed, but to my mind it's just as much about the excesses of Christmas and how once a year is as much Christmas as anyone can bear, and this subtext amuses me no end.

Finally, we come to "A Conversation About Christmas", by Dylan Thomas. A Welsh man describes his boyhood Christmasses to a small boy. It's a poetic piece about the nature of nostalgia.

We finish with more public domain filler — a poem from Tennyson, and then "A Christmas Prayer Book", which is a few pages of short poems and readings from various sources.

As you can tell from my description, it's a reasonably enjoyable, worthwhile book on the whole. The problems I have with it, and with Reader's Digest materials in general, are like unto the problem I have with Christmas as a whole. I don't like the painful contrast between the ideal presented as reality and the actual reality, the saccharine feel-good vibe, the unreasonable, unrealistic expectations nearly everyone develops and is subjected to. I don't like the nostalgia that laces its way through everything. The lament for "how things used to be" is literally everywhere in this book, even in the medieval-era The Lord of Misrule. But then Christmas, like such "family oriented" materials as this book, are not things that can or should be experienced every day. Perhaps they are well enough in their place.

I'll just say then, that I hope we all enjoy Christmas, and all such artificially sweet fare, on our own terms, and then enjoy equally our return to a more holistic way of living and perceiving.

Friday, 15 December 2006

Perfume That Attracts and Repels

Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a novel about the life and career of an orphan boy born in eighteenth century Paris. Suskind’s first sentence refers to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille as a "gifted and abominable man", and that does sum up Grenouille as well as any phrase that occurs to me. Grenouille is a gruesome creature, seemingly both because he’s a product of brutish treatment, and because it is his nature to be. His genius lies in his nose, as he has infallible recall for any scent he has ever encountered and a bloodhound’s ability to track the scents of beings miles away, or behind walls. The story of his efforts to experience the world through his nose and conquer the world through his ability to create scents — and the extreme and horrific methods he uses to do so — isn’t a pleasant one, but it is enthralling. I read the second half of the book in a single sitting today despite the fact that a number of pressing tasks awaited me.

It’s much more difficult to review a good book than a bad one. With the bad novel the reviewer has readymade topics and the keen if low pleasure of snarking. When I try to write a piece on a good to stellar novel I usually spend a lot of time staring morosely at the cover of the book, trying to figure out what angle to take so that I can say something other than unadulterated praise, which is boring and will make me sound like a groupie — or perhaps just intellectually lazy. At the publishing company where I work we editors are regularly asked to double-check each other’s productions. When I get, say, an especially carefully prepared newsletter to proofread I often end up putting more effort into checking for errors than usual, because I’m worried if I don’t find a single mistake the other editor will think I didn’t really try.

Also beneath all these other concerns is usually the feeling that I don’t want to pick apart a book I love, anymore than I would want to pull a rose to pieces. I’m so reluctant to maul a well-crafted book with my clumsy analysis, not because I can possibly injure the book, but because the ineptitude of my efforts show up so much more clearlywhen contrasted with its artistry. These motives are all working in me right now, and I’ve decided to solve the problem of an angle by heading off into vaguely related topic that kept occurring to me as I read Perfume.

As I read I kept reflecting on certain other books or short stories that I have read that bear a sort of likeness to Perfume. These other works also involved a repulsive, unsympathetic main protagonist, and are almost unbearable to read because of their content. I suppose the genre can be roughly classified as literary horror. I kept musing over whether each writer had succeeded or failed in what he or she attempted to do. There seems to be no formula for success, as indeed there isn’t in literature. Each work always fails or succeeds on its own merits and in its totality.

A Clockwork Orange was a book that came to mind, for instance. And it is a success, of course. The whole point of Anthony Burgess’s work is the very banality of the sociopathic narrator’s voice and mindset. He’s ordinary, he’s violent, he’s remorseless, he's nonchalant, and you don’t even mind reading what he has to say because he’s so matter of fact about it all and because there’s a certain cool style in his use of slang and nonchalance. The horror lies in the very lack of horror.

The short story Clay by George Romero is another example. In Clay a mentally handicapped, socially isolated man crafts himself companions out of clay, and his efforts to make them as realistic as possible become more and more extreme and monstrous. I deem this one a failure because it has nothing attractive in it to grip the reader. In a horror novel one must provide something that holds the reader to counterbalance the repelling effect of the horror. There certainly is horror and repulsiveness enough in this story, but as I read I found myself physically turning my head aside, pulling back from the book. Nothing made me want to read it but the fact that I had to turn the pages anyway to get the next story in the anthology that contained it. I barely skimmed the last ten pages because I found the story so unbearable. Had it been much longer than 22 pages I certainly would never have finished it.

Another book that occurred to me, that perhaps may seem an odd or unsuitable choice if I’m supposedly discussing the genre of literary horror, is Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees. Fall On Your Knees is more often described as an epic, or a multigenerational saga than as horror. Frankly, I can only call it wretched. I’ll never review it properly for this site because I can’t bear the thought of re-reading it, and I doubt I’ll ever read the sequel, The Way the Crow Flies.

I was obsessed with Fall On Your Knees in a very negative way when I read it some years back. It’s quite long, and I hated almost every moment I spent reading it. The only part I enjoyed was Kathleen’s beautiful and lyrical diary of her days as a music student in New York — which sojourn ended suddenly with a horrific incident that dragged me back into the sewer that is the rest of the book. I remember how in the week or two that I spent reading the book I complained to a friend in email after email how much I hated it. Reasonably enough, she asked me WHY I kept reading it and even tried ordering me to stop. I replied that I couldn’t, that I just had to finish it. It’s a testament to MacDonald’s sheer narrative force that Fall on Your Knees should be so compulsively readable that I finished the book despite considering it the literary equivalent of thumbscrews. And I haven’t — at least, not at the distance of three or four years — a stylistic fault to find with it.

My whole experience of being made miserable by Fall on Your Knees lasted even longer than the actual reading. I could not understand why the book was so popular. Had I missed something? Was I a prissy, limited reader incapable of the empathetic and imaginative stretch it would take to enjoy something like this book? I scoured the internet for commentary on the book looking for a key to understanding how anyone could love it. I read reviews of Fall on Your Knees which usually didn’t seem to be about the book I had read. If my memory serves me correctly, one reviewer claimed it was an evocative depiction of family life in Cape Breton in the twenties. If I were a Cape Bretoner I would object to that assessment quite strongly. Perhaps I'd also produce a statistic or two about the rarity of families boasting pedophiliac, incestuous, bootlegging patriarchs.

Oprah Winfrey later selected Fall On Your Knees for her book club. This did not faze me. Although I applaud Winfrey’s efforts to get America reading and respect that she probably has realized demonstrable success in this endeavour, I can’t show the same enthusiasm for her literary taste. Yes, her books are a step up artistically for those who normally might only read romance or detective novels, but I would hope those who made that step would keep on climbing. I don’t feel any need to align my literary taste with Winfrey’s. She is just one person, after all. I wasn’t even bothered by her pronouncement that she was discontinuing her book club because "there weren’t enough good books", because I automatically amended her statement to "she can’t possibly have enough reading time to find the good books". What did bother me was that before she had singled out Fall On Your Knees, tens of thousands of people were reading the book and independently coming to the conclusion that they enjoyed it.

I still have not settled my internal "is it my failing or is it MacDonald’s" debate over this book, though fortunately the debate eventually dimmed and quieted. I can only say again, as I said about Clay, that a book that has horrifying, repulsive content must have some sufficiently attractive qualities to compensate. Perfume has enough attractive qualities. Grenouille has genius, artistry, and achieves at a high level, which are always compelling, no matter what their context. Perfume is well plotted and suspenseful. The concept is original and the idea that scent is such a profound and unrealized force in our lives is an intriguing one. These things compensate for the repellent force of Grenouille’s cold-bloodedness — and for the silliness of the novel’s climactic scene and denouement (scent may be an unrecognized power in our lives but I refuse to believe it's as powerful as Suskind's scenario suggests).

I can’t say that Fall On Your Knees has achieved this sort of balance between attraction and repulsion. I wanted, somewhere in the course of my reading of it, to experience a positive emotion, to be inspired, to be moved, to admire, to empathize. Instead the experience was more like that of watching the lowest kind of talk show. I came to know too much about a group of people about whom I couldn't bring myself to care, and I was only repelled.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

The Witch That Cannot Bewitch

Witch Child by Celia Rees is a young adult novel about a seventeenth-century English girl, Mary. The woman who raised Mary and whom Mary called her grandmother is tried and hung as a witch, and Mary winds up immigrating with a group of Puritan settlers to America in attempt to escape the same fate. Except that she is then accused of witchcraft there, and it turns out that she does indeed have some supernatural powers. Witch Child is a respectably good young adult novel – the writing is competent, it’s very well plotted and suspenseful, and the historical research seems to be accurate. Rees also used a Blair Witch Project-style gimmick, presenting the novel as though it were an actual historical diary by including prologues and afterword notes from one “Alison Ellman”, who states that efforts to identify Mary are ongoing and requesting that anyone who might have information about her email her at the address provided. I visited the site mentioned, and found that it featured some basic historical background for the book, period woodcut illustrations, Celia Rees’ explanations of how she came up with the idea and why she used the Alison Ellman presentation, and of course a vendor’s link so that the viewer can conveniently purchase the book and its sequel. I admire the cleverness of the Alison Ellman gimmick – it will make the book seem very immediate to modern teens. But the book itself is too slick. There isn’t a lot of depth. Yes, I realize that it’s a young adult fantasy novel and so I deliberately used the phrase “respectably good young adult novel” in my assessment above. Witch Child does stand up well compared to an average teen novel. But then so many teen novels are atrocious, so this is not saying much. Which leads me to the question of why they’re atrocious.

I’m impatient with the all too common practice of classifying children’s and young adult literature as some sort of lesser art than materials written for adults. To begin with, good writing is always something to cherish, wherever it may be found. Adults should be beyond the sort of developmental superiority and condescension children often have for those a few years younger than they, and be able to enjoy genuine artistry in all its forms and at all levels. Children and young adults deserve and need good writing, and I still think it’s fair to judge a young adult or child’s novel by the usual literary standards, to expect artistic and intellectual merit rather than merely readability. It’s entirely possible to write excellent literary fiction that is suited to a teenager’s intellectual level, as say, Cynthia Voigt has done. And if we fail to demand literary work from authors in this genre and also don’t acknowledge it when it does appear, we’re only reinforcing the low calibre. So, as I say, the book is a very slight one in terms of literary merits. It’s in the Lois Duncan vein – suspenseful, readable, but flimsy. The characterizations are rather shallow, and though Rees’ physical settings may be historically accurate she has not been able to recreate a convincing seventeenth-century psychology for her characters. Mary is too modern in her sensibilities, too sophisticated for a seventeenth-century 14-year-old girl, too brisk and assured in her choices and emotional reactions, too detached in her descriptions of her environment and society. She writes as though she were a twenty-first century adult coolly assessing the ridiculously hysterical people around her. Though she knows she has some magical powers, she never wonders if any others in her settlement do. She makes friends with a native American without having to overcome a trace of the prejudice and fear the other settlers uniformly feel. She masquerades as a boy and swims naked without a qualm. Meanwhile the other characters act on simplistic motivations. Mary’s considered a witch by the ill-natured of the town and protected by the kindly ones who know her. It probably would have been a sound idea to have some of those who cared for her also show some fear of possible witchcraft, to have to resolve some inner conflicts, to have Mary progress from being a child to a self-sufficient adult, to have her make mistakes and question herself and her own values. As is, it’s a thin little suspense novel, quickly and easily read, and almost as quickly and easily forgotten.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

The Vampire Book I Read In Spite of Myself

I found out about the novel Sunshine, by young adult fantasy writer Robin McKinley by visiting McKinley's web site. Upon reading the excerpt I found there I discovered that Sunshine was about vampires, which in effect punctured my usual enthusiasm for the latest McKinley book. Those of you who like vampires can picture blood spurting from the jugular, and the rest of you can imagine a tire sadly deflating. Far be it from me to deny anyone the visual of his or her choice.

A reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a half-reading of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire exhausted my limited interest in sucker lit some years ago, and it has not revived. However, I’ve read and loved all of McKinley’s books published to date and it would likely be a few years before there was another and so… I popped over to the Toronto Public Library site and placed a hold on it. I’m glad I did.

Sunshine is funny, involving, and suspenseful. There’s the usual wry, reluctant McKinley heroine, her next-to-impossible yet inescapable quest, and a complex, beautifully imagined alternate universe, complete with homely details such as how a vampire looks in a borrowed bathrobe. Aside from the vampires, there are other ways in which this book is something apart from the rest of McKinley’s oeuvre. It’s set in a modern environment with cars, sneakers, and video games such as McKinley has only used in some of her short stories, and written in the first person, which as far as I can recall she hasn’t previously done at all. She’s invented her own slang for the 25-year-old heroine to use and her own terms for computers and the Internet (a wise choice, since real slang and technology date faster than anything else). The resulting modernity and immediacy gives this alternate universe a coolness and an edge Damar never had. Moreover there is an abortive sex scene that is so incredibly erotic that its abrupt termination left me nearly as frustrated as the heroine. McKinley has been holding out on us—there were no sex scenes in any of her earlier books.

I remain uncoverted to all things vampirish, and am going to let Interview with the Vampire remain half-read (as I wish I had done with the horribly bloated The Witching Hour), but I enjoyed Sunshine as much as any of McKinley’s other novels.