Monthly Archives: February 2010

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

2003. 405 pages. Mass Market Paperback.

From: the public library

For the challenge: 2nd Reading Challenge

Recommendation from: Erin (Something Wicked This Way Blogs) and Clare (The Literary Omnivore)

In a nutshell:

Rae is a young baker with a never-used magical heritage and an abiding curiosity about vampires.   One night she drives out to a lake and is captured by a gang of vampires.  They shackle her in a ballroom as a meal for a rival vampire who they have imprisoned.  This vampire’s name is Constantine and he and Rae forge an unlikely alliance that will mean both danger and salvation for them both.


I galloped through this book in about three sittings.  McKinley definitely starts out the book strong with  Rae’s capture and escape.  The suspense of this instigating event had me thoroughly engaged.

Although there is an array of interesting characters in Sunshine, at the center is the complicated but compelling relationship between Rae and Constantine.  I liked how they worked together as a team, watching out for each other’s backs.  Yes, there is romantic tinge there too, and midway through there is a rather jarring sexual scene, but that doesn’t seem to be the point of their bond.  Indeed, after that one scene, both characters back off from that direction.  I liked that the vampires were by and large creepy and threatening.  This is true even for Constantine who is admirable but still always exudes a different-ness.

Rae narrates the story in first-person and is prone to tangents, asides and random exposition.  This will probably annoy some readers.  For the most part, I liked this style because these supposedly ‘off-topic’ parts did a fantastic job with world-building.  As I think I have mentioned on my blog before, I have a high respect for authors that can make their fictional world feel lived-in.  Rae’s forays into city politics, hints about past world conflicts, and details of charms and wards all helped in this achievement.  I did get a little tired of the rambling by the last third though.

Indeed, the book lost some steam toward the end and the much-anticipated standoff with the main villain was anti-climactic.  There are some loose threads I wish had been resolved, seeing as how this is a standalone novel and not a series.  For instance, I kept waiting for Rae to have a conversation with her mother about her father and it didn’t happen.  I would say that of the four “parts” to the book, the first two were definitely the strongest, ending with intensity.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is how natural imagery is woven into Rae’s conception of her changed self.  Her awakening power is like a tree with rustling leaves.  Also, when a doe’s life is used to save Rae, she acquires the animal’s memory and this becomes a recurring, peaceful motif throughout the carnage and fear of Rae’s life.   To incorporate the strength and calm of nature into one’s self is an appealing concept.

This was my second book by author Robin McKinley.  When I was in high school I read Beauty, but I hardly remember it so I can’t compare.  For readers of McKinley’s work, where does Sunshine stand in relation to her other books?  Are they similar?  For, despite some of the flaws I pointed out, I really enjoyed reading this book, so I would be open to reading more from McKinley.


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

1818.  271 pages. Mass market paperback.

From: my roommate’s library

For the challenge: Read 19 books older than myself

In a nutshell:

Ambitious scholar and scientist Frankenstein creates life in the form of a large, misshapen being.  He regrets his action immediately, but little does he realize the compounding damage that will be wrought by his creation.


Well, through no particular design of mine, it’s been a week since I last posted.  Egads!  Never fear, though, a book review is here.  Though many people apparently had Frankenstein as an assigned book for school, I never did.  So bear with me as I obliviously and superficially name themes and concepts on which you may have written term papers.  Expound away in the comments!

So.  Frankenstein is essentially about two miserable beings, creator and created.  For the most part, the novel is told from the perspective of Frankenstein as he watches the destruction of his life and all he loves, knowing that it was his mistake that instigated this destruction.  There are a few chapters though that are told from the perspective of Frankenstein’s creature, who has no name.  And the entire narrative is bookended by passages written by a third narrator, an outsider to the main events who chances upon Frankenstein while on an Arctic exploration voyage.

I loved the passages from the perspective of Frankenstein’s monster, as he related his intense loneliness in the world as an immediate outcast from humanity.  I find his story more of a tragedy than that of Frankenstein.  I couldn’t really forgive Frankenstein for leaving his creature to fend for itself.  Frankenstein feels briefly bad for his abandonment, but by that time, the creature has murdered so it’s too late for the scientist’s repentance.  Later, Frankenstein insists that his past conduct was not blamable, and seems to forget that his desertion of his creation was a mistake too.  The greater tragedy is of course for Frankenstein’s family and friends who have to suffer for it.

One thing that kind of bothered me about the novel is that Mary Shelley doesn’t describe how the monster was created.  The reason given by Frankenstein is that he doesn’t want anyone to duplicate his efforts.  Fair enough.  Also, if Mary Shelley had described this impossible endeavor it might have sounded completely ludicrous, so in that sense, it was the smart thing to do.  What bugs me is where did Frankenstein get the parts??  The ‘monster’ appears to be basically human in function, so by what manner did Frankenstein get the human bits?  At one point, he is creating a second being, and he is on a remote island.  Did he rob their cemetery?  This point bugged me because his procurement of these parts would seem to have ethical implications in and of themselves.

*Mild spoiler in this paragraph*  For those who have read it, do you think that Frankenstein should have complied with his monster’s request for a companion of his own kind?  I think Frankenstein made the right choice not to do it, because there were too many variables that could have made that action disastrous.  But I still feel the unfairness of the monster’s loneliness.  The story is nicely complicated in that way. *Spoiler over*

One aspect I did not expect from Frankenstein was the travelogue elements.  Frankenstein has a great love for nature and curiosity about new places and describes the places of his visits in some detail, from Geneva to Ingolstadt, to England, and the Orkney Islands.  There’s a wildness to many of the places that suits the narrative.

I can definitely see why this book is a classic and am glad I included it on my list of older books to read this year.  I look forward to your thoughts on it!


Filed under Book Review

Library Loot

There are no book reviews between this library loot and the last one, which shows that I tend to bite off a little more than I can chew, heh.  EDIT: Apparently I cannot read my own blog.  Erin has pointed out that I did review Wonder Spot.

Still, this slowish patch in book-reading is partially due to my impromptu marathon of MI-5 episodes on Netflix Instant Watch last weekend.  Mmm, British television.

Anyway, I returned some books to the library (a few unread or abandoned among them) and picked up a fresh batch.

Here they are!

Abbeville by Jack Fuller – This one is for the Spotlight Series, which is spotlighting various independent small presses throughout the year.  The publisher for this round is Unbridled Books.  I don’t think I’ve read anything by them before. I wanted to read Taroko Gorge, because the cover and premise reminded me of Peter Weir’s great, creepy film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, but my library system doesn’t have it yet.  I don’t remember why I picked Abbeville when I put it on hold over a week ago.  Its premise is not usually my cup of tea: a man returns to his hometown after career failure and there are flashbacks to his grandfather’s life – a man who also suffered failure, but during the Depression.  I must have tripped across a review online that convinced me to give it a shot.

Generation Kill by Evan Wright – I’ve seen the miniseries based on the  book, and I’ve also read and loved Nathaniel Fick’s book One Bullet Away which overlaps Wright’s book in events and people.  (Fick was a lieutenant in the platoon where Wright was embedded during the Iraq war in 2003).  I like the idea of seeing the things Fick wrote about from another perspective.   My review of Fick’s book is here.

The Best American Travel Writing 2006 – I really enjoyed reading the 2009 compilation.  2008 and 2007 were not on the shelves, so I picked this one up.

Hunting Ground by Patricia Briggs – This is the second book of the Alpha & Omega series.  I’m a huge fan of Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, and Alpha & Omega is the (lesser but still interesting) spin-off series.  Hunting Ground will give me a Briggs fix until Silver Borne, the 5th Mercy Thompson book, comes out at the end of March.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley – recommendations for this book have come from several different corners, principally that of Erin, from Something Wicked This Way Blogs.


Filed under Library Loot

Teaser Tuesday: Frankenstein

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

Okay, I cheated and chose a quote I found interesting from the book, instead of a random page:

If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy could possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful , that is to say, not befitting the human mind.

from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, p. 55


Filed under Teaser Tuesday

The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank

2005.  324 pages. Hardcover

From: The public library

In a nutshell:

The Wonder Spot is a set of short stories about Sophie Appelbaum, a snarky but not particularly ambitious young woman.  The first story is the only one to take place in her childhood.  The rest follows her as an adult dealing with career, family and dating quandaries.


Sophie Appelbaum is not someone you would admire or want to emulate.  Almost every story has a new boyfriend with the relationship’s end already forecasted and she never accomplishes much job-wise.  I liked her though, for her humor and ordinariness and her observations about life that ring true.

What most rings true in the book is how people never fully understand each other: that there’s some part of us that will always remain a stranger.  Then there are the joyful moments of connection, and the book captures that too.

I liked reading about Sophie’s relationship with her family, especially her maternal grandmother in the chapter/story called “The One After You.”  I also liked her co-workers Adam and Francine in “20th Century Typing.”

The set-up of the book is very interesting.  All of the stories are about Sophie Appelbaum, told from her point of view.  Some characters resurface again, but others disappear completely with no explanation.  In one story, Sophie takes an art class and this is the focal point of the narrative.  In a later story, the art class is referred to off-handedly as if it was of little note.  Of course there is no way I could know, but I suspect that you could read any one of these stories by themselves and not be lost.  They are self-contained in a sense, and yet reading them together has the cumulative effect of seeing a life enfold over time.


Filed under Book Review

Library Loot: February 10th

Before we were inundated with all of this snow, I nipped out to the library and picked up a couple more books.

Library Loot is hosted by Eva at A Striped Armchair and Marg at Reading Adventures.

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

– I’d heard of Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat before, but hadn’t read one of her books.  The recent tragic events in Haiti brought the author to my attention again and this book looked interesting.   I love the title and the cover.

Black Mountain Breakdown by Lee Smith

– I loved Lee Smith’s epistolary novel Fair and Tender Ladies, which I read a couple of summers ago.  As with that novel, Black Mountain Breakdown circles around the life of an Appalachian woman.  Fair and Tender Ladies‘ protagonist Ivy Rowe was a fantastic character, and I hope this book has a similarly engaging protagonist.


Filed under Library Loot

Teaser Tuesday: The Wonder Spot

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

Here’s an excerpt from my current read.  The narrator is talking about her roommate Venice.

She said, “I was named for the place of my conception,” and it sounded like she was claiming that the city had been named for her.

But then she said, “I’m lucky they didn’t name me Gondola.  Or Canal,” and I went all the way from hating to liking her, and the distance made me feel like I loved her.

from The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank, p. 58


Filed under Teaser Tuesday


Here are a couple of pictures I took on Saturday afternoon during Snowmageddon:

The apartment balcony

My car.  I had the pleasure of excavating it yesterday.


Filed under Uncategorized

Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson

2008. 277 pages (hardcover).

From: the public library

For the challenge: Thriller and Suspense 2010

In a nutshell:

This ‘medieval noir’ takes place in London 1384.  Crispin Guest, disgraced and disenfranchised knight, makes his trade as a ‘tracker,’ chasing down lost items, and other investigative work.  A wealthy merchant hires Guest to find out if his wife is being unfaithful.  When Guest returns to the merchant with his findings, he finds the man murdered.  The resulting investigation is complicated by false identities, holy relics, and lots of villains all too willing to commit violence against Guest and others.


After abandoning another historical mystery, Francine Mathews’ The Alibi Club, I restlessly chose Veil of Lies from my library stash as a replacement read.  It took me a little while to get into it, but in the end, it was worth the time.

I wasn’t enamored by Crispin Guest himself.  He’s kind of broody.  Also, maybe I’m tired of heroes in historical novels who are uncommonly humane for their time.  The other characters mentioned numerous times how unusual he is in that respect.  However, Guest isn’t entirely anachronistic, for which I was grateful.  Class matters much to him, though he is no longer in a position where it should.  He threw in his lot with a misguided cause and that led to his past downfall.  It is a fine line for the author to walk: to make the protagonist likable without being unrealistic to the time period.

My favorite character was Jack, Crispin’s young scrappy servant, who is paid with food and shelter.  I hope to see more of him in the next book.

The story is a potpourri of locked-room murder mystery, political intrigue, and romance, with some light supernatural shading.  I’m not sure it all worked together smoothly, but it definitely made for some surprising twists.

I’m not a connoisseur of noir mysteries, but my immediate standard for comparison was Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, which are set in Nazi Germany.  (Excellent, but very dark, series.)  Kerr had the rat-a-tat, aloof noir-speak down pat, complete with the wry figurative language.  Westerson’s book doesn’t quite have that same sensibility, which is too bad.  The noir label doesn’t quite fit in my mind as a result.

Still, the medieval setting and characters are of enough interest that I will probably check out the next book in the series.


Filed under Historical Fiction, Mysteries & Thrillers

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

2009. 304 pages. (Hardcover)

From: The public library

For the challenge: Memorable Memoir Challenge

Recommendation found at: Sophisticated Dorkiness

In a nutshell:

In 1986, recent Brown university graduates Susie Gilman and Claire Van Houten decide to travel around the world, starting with China.  China only recently had become open to independent backpackers.  They start their journey with naive over-confidence but as their weeks in China progress, cultural disorientation, illness and Claire’s erratic behavior plunge the two women into nightmarish scenarios.


With time made available by the snowstorm in my area, I started and finished this book in one day.  Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a gobsmacker of a travel tale, managing to be funny, awe-inspiring and scary all at once.

From the standpoint of nearly twenty years later, Gilman writes with unflinching honesty about the trip.  She does not cover up her younger self’s failures and naivete.  This is not to say that young Susie Gilman is unlikeable in the novel: I enjoyed seeing her discover wells of resourcefulness she didn’t know she had.  Still, I appreciated that Gilman didn’t airbrush out some of the stupid things she said and did during that time.  This perspective can come only with time.

Gilman’s writing is superb, conveying both the sights and sounds and smells of China as well as the inner confused swirl of her emotions and thoughts.  Here’s an excerpt:

Elbowing through the gawking spitters, smokers and farmhands, I ran down the dank hallway after Claire, shouting, “Someone, please. Ni shou ying wen ma?”  My voice broke then; tears dripped down my cheeks.  I couldn’t find Claire; she’d been taken from me.  This was far too much, way out of my league.  “STOP” I yelled hoarsely down the empty corridor to no one, my voice dissolving into the damp vegetable air.  “STOP!”

Despite incidents like that described above, Gilman also writes beautifully of the country’s grandeur, and particularly how she is humbled by the Chinese people’s generosity and kindness.  The helpfulness of strangers – from both Chinese people and from fellow backpackers – is astounding.

Though I never had travel experiences as extreme as Gilman’s, I could identify with some of her struggles.  I once had a travel companion who started feeling inexplicable pain in her knee.  We decided to visit a hospital, where our basic French barely sufficed.  That friend and I also had some interpersonal conflict that reared its ugly head during the trip.  It is a strange thing to feel furious anger while standing at the top of a chateau in the Loire Valley.  (Surprisingly, we actually became better friends after all that.)  The problems between Claire and Susie were much more serious, but at a certain level I understood the conflicting emotions Susie felt toward Claire.

If you are put off by the weird cover (the more common red cover – not the one I have used here) or by the title, don’t be.  The red cover is all wrong for the book.  Also, the title does not refer to some desecrating act at a Chinese landmark as I feared, but rather is a reference to a feverish dream recounted by Gilman.  There is some mild sexual content and strong language, but it’s not as provocative as the book’s packaging suggests.

I hope that my review has stirred up your interest, because this book is an incredible read.  Many thanks to Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness whose review made me want to run right out and read it.


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays