Customer Reviews: Sunshine
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on April 19, 2004
I resisted reading this book for many months, despite hearing glowing reviews from friends. Which was strange, since generally I like Robin McKinley's work, but I just couldn't imagine reading yet another vampire story. What could she do that hadn't already been done to death (pardon the pun) by other authors?
But finally I gave in and bought the book, and was immediately amazed. McKinley has created a richly detailed alternate version of our world, where the survivors of the voodoo wars cling to the normal rhythms of life, in spite of the lingering threat from vampires and demons. The heroine Sunshine is immediately engaging and sympathetic. As she comes in to her powers, she is forced to face the dangers that others choose to ignore.
The relationship with the vampire Con is particularly well done. There are none of the cliches here. Con isn't handsome, he's not an immediate love interest, and there's a clear sense that he is alien to Sunshine's world. And yet somehow he and Sunshine manage to form an alliance of necessity that grows into something more.
I loved this world and these characters and was sad when the book ended. I truly hope she'll be inpsired to write a sequel someday.
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on October 30, 2003
I should say from the start that I do believe Robin McKinley could rewrite the dictionary and it would be interesting, so I'm biased. I have good reason to be biased. McKinley's skills as a storyteller, as a writer, as a voice for her characters and her worlds is unparallelled.
Sunshine is not a book about vampires. They are there and they are central to the story, but the book is so much more than that. The best part of the book is that afore mentioned voice. I am not usually a fan of first person storytelling, but Sunshine is full of wry wit and a self-deprecatingly quirky combination of realism, independence, and fancy. I applaud the author for going in a new (if slightly Buffyesque) direction.
This book obviously isn't to everyone's taste, but the writing is still superb and I highly recommend it.
If it helps, my personal list of Robin McKinley favourites is: The Hero & the Crown, The Blue Sword, Deerskin, and now in 4th place -- Sunshine.
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on October 14, 2005
It was with some trepidation that I opened the covers of this latest book by Robin McKinley. As the author of one of my favorite and formative books (Beauty), McKinley has not always provided the sort of reading experience I have been looking for. Deerskin was a particularly dark sojourn into the nasty depths of Brothers Grimm, and although the storytelling was masterful & memorable, it has not ranked as a favorite novel.

So a vampire tale by McKinley would be different, I knew.

The surprise came, when it's a fantastic kind of new!

With this book reviewers must endeavour please, not to give too much of the plot away. Half the suspense of reading the book is letting the story unfold and allowing the narrator to tell it in her own way & pace.

Sunshine works as a cook at a small cafe in a seedy and forgotten suburb after a magical holocaust has come across the world, reshaping the landscape of America as we know it.

She has an uneasy relationship with her mother, and finds herself having a closer acquaintance with a vampire than she had ever planned.

The gradual unveiling must not be clouded, thus I shall write no more, leaving it to you, the reader, to discover.

A story rich with ambiance, thick with texture taste and smell, menace hangs heavy in the air only to be washed away by the sharp sunlight and dizzying aroma of delicious cooking - all vividly imagined.

I salivitated through this book!

Without the hyperbole, McKinley proves again mastership of her craft, drawing readers on the adventure & into the world more solidly than ought to be possible.

Having read a library copy, I will now purchase the book as it's one I would love to keep - I had better make that two, because I know I won't be able to resist lending this fantastic book to friends!

Hoping there will be a sequel.

kotori 2005
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on December 8, 2003
Sunshine is destined I think, to be one of those books people either love or hate. As a McKinley fan any new book by her is to be welcomed, but having finished this I'm left in the curious position of having liked it in spite of it's flaws, and thus sympathetic to a number of reviewers who have NOT enjoyed reading it at all. Part of the problem is likely to be the disconnect between the familiar, young adult novelist and fairytale re-teller we've come to love and that author departing, so to speak, from the text to try something new. Although I had problems with Sunshine, I'm inclined to give McKinley the benefit of the doubt because I'm always glad to see authors trying to stretch beyond their comfortable niche. Also, I think McKinley has managed to find that most elusive of things, a new take on an over-saturated genre. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed my Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, Tanya Huff, et al. but the field has gotten over-crowded with similar stories about sexy, bad-boy vampires and the women that love them.
McKinley's vampires are genuinely loathsome creatures that aside from being human-shaped, don't share a lot of similarities with humans. I was convinced Constantine was really was an alien creature who wasn't wild about having anything to do with a human. Not only that, he's ugly, smells funny and generally has a terror-inducing presence. He's definitely not the in-humanely handsome, charming, sexy, and powerful vampire figure that is currently in vogue. And although Sunshine and Con develop a "bond" it is more in the nature of an obligation where the two parties would be just as happy to have nothing to do with one another under better circumstances. Although it doesn't get explored in depth, Sunshine is legitimately concerned about the morality of choosing to let such an evil creature exist. Now Con is a bad guy who has chosen a different way of un-life than other vampires, but McKinley never really forces Sunshine to confront what that means. He's obviously less bad than the villain, but by how much? We don't know because Con never really does anything "evil" except to kill the doe. We don't know much about his history and that's a flaw on the author's part. Depending on how she explored it, his concrete actions would have framed a more compelling dilemma for our heroine than what her generalized understanding of the evil of the Others gave her. But on the whole, I thought her take on vampires was interesting enough that it boosted the book past some serious flaws.
I also liked the thought that went into Sunshine's element. A really nice, fresh twist that explores the opposites attract theory in the sense that she is the embodiment of daylight while vampires are the embodiment of darkness, and that by being so much of one she is drawn to the opposite element, much as one coin has two different but connected sides. At the same time, her association with the dark possibly `taints' her by incorporating vampiric elements like seeing in the dark and sense of direction to her arsenal. Whether the same is true for Con is left open, or perhaps hopefully to be explored in a sequel.
The biggest problems with this book were the narrative. Sunshine's first person voice was difficult to connect with. She too often came across as whiny and pathetic, making her hard to sympathize with. When the whole book rests on the singular voice, you want to make an effort to give someone the readers can relate to, though they don't have to be perfect. The other glaring problem with Sunshine's voice is that it was too often the vehicle for large exposition dumps. The information was necessary, but I think there were cleverer ways to do that didn't so obviously break up the flow of the plot. Also, the sentence structures and word choices McKinley uses as Sunshine were awkward to the ear, consistently throwing me out of the flow of the story. I especially was annoyed by the phony slang that felt forcibly inserted to help differentiate this world as futuristic. `Sheer" really bothered me until I decided that it was slang for kosher. The lack of dialogue between characters was equally problematic. I don't think there was an actual conversation at all between Sunshine and her mom for instance, and without conversation between Sunshine and the other characters, they never really got a chance to become fleshed-out. Mel was a prime example. He's this intriguing guy, little bit bad-boy but a cook and you know he's got something going on, but what? Heck, we don't even get to see inside Con's head. I just wish that there has been more to connect me to the other characters. I will say there were some funny comments and observations but on the whole, the structure of the writing was very disjointed. Perhaps that fact I felt compelled to struggle past those flaws should be attributed to the strength of the basic story.
When Sunshine tells Con the tale of Beauty and the Beast, I think McKinley is definitely alluding to Sunshine as being a modern re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast, inserting the vampire for the Beast. I was also reminded of two of my favorite books by her, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, both structurally and in similar characters. This is definitely a book that with more polish and trim could have been a McKinley classic. As it stands I think this book is symptomatic of a writer's growing pains as she tries to explore some familiar themes in a new way. Sunshine is a strong story that ultimately fails in it's execution. I'd definitely read a sequel, one where hopefully McKinley's very well-deserved story, character building and writing skills can really shine.
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on October 27, 2005
They teach us in library school that readers, whether they realize it or not, gravitate toward books based on one of four appeal characteristics: story, character, setting, or writing. Readers who crave fast-paced plots will probably not like Sunshine. [...] people who want action get annoyed with digressive passages about details-- yet digressive passages about details are essential for readers who prefer books strong in setting.

I've never been picky about plot or pacing, so I loved Sunshine and consider it one of the best of the many, many, many books I've read. I read for a living, so this is saying something. The writing is delicious. McKinley's narrator reveals thoughts the way a real person does: not in confortable linear sequence but in a rambling, discursive, true-to-life style. In this way Sunshine is not dissimilar to a Faulkner narrator.

Even Sunshine's sentences are realistic. People don't talk in convenient subject-verb-object sentences, and Sunshine doesn't narrate her story with them. We read her "Ers" and "Ums" and half-sentences and feel like she's really talking to us. It's refreshing to read and it lends to the subtle humor that is present throughout.

The characters are absolutely compelling. I kept reading all through the night and called into work so that I could find out if the protagonists would resolve their sexual tension.

I had my book club read Sunshine. Some loved it, some hated it, and most were in between, but everyone agreed that there was a lot to take from the book. It led to a great discussion. I recommend it to everyone, with the exception of readers who strongly prefer fast plots and readers who dislike occasional strong language or explicit descriptions of sex (bearing in mind that the sex in Sunshine, though explicit, was nowhere near smutty).
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on August 3, 2008
I heard a review of Sunshine on NPR, saying it was a good airplane book. I had a flight and nothing to read, so I picked it up.

The book starts out well. McKinley draws the reader into what seems like a normal world that's just a little off, and it gradually gets stranger and stranger. When the first REALLY BAD THING happens, you are hooked.

Unfortunately, that's when the book loses steam. McKinley has this annoying habit of breaking up conversations between the characters with explanatory background paragraphs. This can be a useful device when used sparingly, but for McKinley it is the rule. Whenever two characters get together you can expect a short conversation to be spread out over a half dozen pages. Snore. Continuity and pace are destroyed. Yes, I appreciate that this is a detailed alternate world, and McKinley has fleshed it all out in her mind. But sometimes an author should let the back story remain back story and just give the reader enough information to glean the rest by the flow of the front story.

And speaking of characters, the BIG BAD VILLAIN is entirely flat. He's out there lurking through the whole book, and we know he's BAD. REALLY BAD. PURE EVIL. And really uninteresting. We know he hates the good vampire. We never find out why, and the heroine seems uninterested as well. The good vampire is also flat. Once McKinley has drilled into our heads for the 100th time that good vampires are impossibly unusual, his character doesn't change. Nor do we learn why he's decided to be good. For McKinley, it's enough to establish who is wearing the white and black hats, then let them duke it out (with lots of stinky, gooey blood).

The book raises many questions that it never answers. That's fine, I don't mind a little mystery, even after the end. But by then the pace has become so tedious that I'm no longer even curious. What happened to Dad? Grandma? Why does the super bad SOF agent just spring up out of nowhere in the last 100 pages, with no explanation of her motivation? But McKinley doesn't concern herself with this. As long as the reader knows which side the characters are on, we can slog on.

Characters come and go for no apparent reason. Some are featured early, and then are just ignored. Others pop up later, and then are forgotten. Since this is told as a first person narrative, it makes the heroine appear self absorbed, and thus less likable. The conclusion is that the author doesn't care about the secondary characters, so they remain cardboard cutouts.

Part of the reason the story fails is that nobody we care about ever gets hurt. I should rephrase that, because McKinley never develops a character enough for us to actually care about. But the bodies that pile up at an ever faster pace are anonymous. So there's no sense that any named character is ever in any real danger. No danger means no suspense. No suspense means rather dull vampire novel.

The shame here is that McKinley has created a rich setting for a great story. But a great story needs great characters, and there are none here. Two approaches would have vastly improved this novel. Either trim off 100 pages of unneeded detail and give the novel some much needed pace, or add 100 pages of character development and give the novel some much needed depth. As it stands, it is frustratingly in the middle.
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on August 4, 2004
Robin McKinley has written some of my favorite books. I've read "Beauty" and "The Blue Sword" many times. In my opinion, no one writes better books about a woman rising to extremely challenging and unexpected circumstances and succeeding against overwhelming odds.

"Sunshine" fits this same pattern and brings it into the quasi-modern world. The story in this book is engaging and very interesting. The main character, Sunshine, is somewhat of a mystery, even to herself. The core of the book is her self-discovery that darkness and light can co-exist within herself. I thought there were some very clever things in this book. I like how McKinley uses names to deepen meaning. For example, Sunshine's birthname Raven Blaise combines the dark of raven with the phoneme Blaze suggesting light and heat. There are many things like this in this book that make it more interesting.

I also enjoyed the character of Con, the vampire. McKinley is a master of creating a sexy, intriguing male character using subtle details and leaving much to the imagination. I also liked that she didn't make this character someone who is misunderstood and who really is just a good guy. It is left much more ambiguous than that.

What I don't like about this book is how many fundamental questions remain unanswered. I raced to the end of the book looking for answers to questions that are deliberately raised thoughout it's nearly four-hundred pages to discover that virtually none of them are answered. This was very frustrating. Looking for answers, I read some of McKinley's interviews online. She talked about how she likes to leave readers unsated and wanting more.

I don't disagree with this approach. It's just that in this case there are wheel-barrows full of answered question, and the result seems sloppy and incomplete. I assumed that maybe she was planning on writing a sequel that would answer some of these basic questions, but she said that she'll have to see if another story comes to her. In my opinion, she could write a sequel just finishing what she started in this book.

In short, I liked the book, but I wish McKinley would have taken more care to write a complete, stand-alone story.
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on October 2, 2003
I'm all about Robin McKinley, because she creates female characters that are real, the kind of women with which women want to be friends. I'm also absolutely addicted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I was looking forward to getting my hands on Sunshine, Ms. McKinley's new "vampire novel." My anticipation proved quite founded.
Now, at first, it was jarring to find that Sunshine was set in a world not unlike present-day earth (with the addition of vampires, demons, and the occasional were-raccoon.) One expects expert world building from Ms. McKinley, but it was still a bit of a shock to read about cars and television and computers in the pages of one of her novels. I kept looking for the tiny glimpses of Damar Ms. McKinley sometimes throws into her stories, but couldn't find a single one.
However, Rae (Sunshine) Seddon is a classic McKinley heroine: smart, wry, self-deprecating, and, of course, chockful of magic. You want to hang out with her, and you shudder right along with her as she has her first encounter with the vampire, Constantine. The adventures that follow are mind-blowing, and require close reading not only to catch each well-chosen word, but also to make sure you know what the heck is going on. Sometimes, I felt as if I was reading sci/fi, sometimes horror, sometimes fantasy, but the entire time, I knew I was reading a good book.
So, yeah, I really liked this book. I hope there will be more stories about Sunshine. Ah, you might be saying, but why only four stars? I'll explain. Fans of Ms. McKinley will remember the shocking rape scene from Deerskin, which freaked a lot of people out, because for some reason, Ms. McKinley is always pegged as a Young Adult novelist. Sunshine is clearly a straight-up Adult novel, but that wasn't what bugged me. What bugged me was the language used during the one (graphic) and a half (not so graphic) sex scenes. It's not that the words offended me, they just seemed to fit neither the gorgeous story nor the wonderful, if flawed, protagonist. The Deerskin scene, while horrific and hard to read, was intrinsic to the story. The language used by Ms. McKinley in the sex scenes in Sunshine didn't seem intrinic, just out of place.
But it was only two or three words. And it really wasn't worth taking off one whole star. So technically, I'd give Sunshine a 4.5. Or 4.75. Okay, a 4.87, but that's as high as I'll go.
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on January 6, 2004
I'm not generally interested in vampire tales. But this is McKinley, and I adore her writing. The only disappointment associated with this book is that it had to end. The tale is masterfully woven, deep and lush, with the kind of thoughtful story-telling that one just doesn't think of until one reads something written by McKinley and realizes how much more there is to a story. Like others, I would love a sequel, but I know McKinley receives her stories rather than writes them, and like her, we must all be patient and hopeful rather than demanding. One of the elements I love so much about McKinley's writing is she creates an our world/not our world in her stories. There are cars and mechanics and cinnamon rolls - just like our world - yet there are also a whole host of other kinds of creatures and items that exist matter-of-factly in her worlds that simply don't exist in ours. Yet when you read about them, there is no disconnect.
As with any novel, "Sunshine" is not for everyone. It is well suited for those who enjoy beautiful writing, a fantastical plot and atmosphere, a good tale and a good (subtle) moral understory. That said, I feel a small bit of pity for anyone who doesn't read McKinley's novels and misses out on her extraordinary talent.
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I don't generally read books that are festering with vampires, but "Sunshine" is by Robin McKinley, one of my favorite fantasy authors. Plus I've just finished a couple of books about parasites, and if vampires existed I suppose they could be classified as parasites on humanity--resembling gigantic bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) or kissing bugs (Triatoma protracta) in regards to their unclean habits. Even though McKinley presents the idea of human-vampire sexuality as well as any author who has tackled this subject, I still can't get the idea of gigantic blood-sucking insects out of my mind.

Human Leeches are not a sexual turn-on.

Even if you agree with me about vampires, you should still read "Sunshine" for its feisty heroine, and for Charlie's Coffeehouse--the bakery of every sugar-holic's dreams. As I was reading this book, I had to fight off an overwhelming urge to bake up a pan of cinnamon buns and gorge on them. Of course, Sunshine (Ignore the name. This heroine is NOT Pollyanna.) doesn't get fat because she has to get up at 4 A.M. to bake all of those Cinnamon Rolls as Big as Your Head. Not to mention walnut sticky buns, pear gingerbread, honey cake, and assorted gooey deaths-by-chocolate.

(At least I now know how the vampire felt when one of those toothsome young Hammer Films virgins leaned out of her bedroom window, clad (if that's the right word) in lacy décolleté.)

The hero, Con, is a little harder to like, especially when the reader first meets him, deep in the shadows of a ruined mansion. It appeared as though Sunshine was going to suffer a fate worse than death (a lot worse than death) at his hands, before she could even make it back to the bakery to start the dough rising.

In fact, Part I (the first 86 pages) of this book is absolutely riveting--the darkest, most terrifying fantasy sequence I've read for a long time, right up there with some of the best work by Neil Gaiman or Garth Nix.

The rest of this novel does slow down a bit, the better to develop the main characters and their sometimes prickly relationships. We also need time to learn the geography and mores of Sunshine's dark, post-apocalyptic world, where Evil is on track to defeat Good within the next century. It won't be pretty, unless you savor the color and taste of blood.

I'm positive this fantasy is going to have a sequel just because of the multiple loose plot-ends that Robin McKinley dangles before her readers, not to mention demons, ghouls, the goddess of pain (whose side is she on, anyway?), a certain unrequited love affair, and hints about Sunshine's sorcerous family connections.

The author needn't have worried about my interest in a sequel. I was hooked on the pumpkin muffins way back in Part I.
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