Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.
I look forward to this season every year because it means I get to reread Sunshine. This is one of my few solid seasonal reads. I revisit it every year for so many reasons. Because it originally came out in October. Because it absolutely encapsulates autumn for me. And Halloween, of course, what with all the vampires and the midnight outings and the smell of fallen leaves and cinnamon rolls in the air. And because it's just one of the biggest Angie books there is. I remember being almost apoplectic with excitement when I heard Robin McKinley was writing a vampire novel. The whole notion filled me with tingles. And imagine how happy I was when it turned out to be better than I could ever have imagined. I know people have strong feelings on this book, one way or the other, and it's certainly not your run-of-the-mill urban fantasy (thank heavens for that). But for those who love feisty girls with thoughts of their own, ugly vampires with developing senses of humor, and wonderfully rich, dense, smart writing, this book may very well have your name on it. As for me, I bought it the day it came out (almost exactly eight years ago). I took it home and read it aloud with DH. And to this day favorite passages and scenes come up in our daily conversation. So as Halloween approaches, a Retro Friday review of my very favorite spooky read.
A side note: I'm not even slightly embarrassed to admit I own all three editions pictured above. If a new edition of Sunshine comes out, I buy it. End of story. It helps that they're all so very pretty. If pressed, I will admit that the original U.S. hardcover with the chandelier is my favorite. But I adore all three. And the important thing is that they're there. On my shelves. So that when the urge arises, I can take them out and stroke them and know that they're there and that they're loved. I know. But like I said--not even a little embarrassed.
It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn't that dumb. There hadn't been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.
These opening lines set the scene. Sunshine just wanted some solitude. Just a little time away from the strange and chaotic life she leads as the head baker at Charlie's and as her mother's daughter. She gets up every morning at the butt crack of dawn to get the dough going for her famous Cinnamon Rolls as Big as Your Head. And for Sunshine's Killer Zebras. And for Bitter Chocolate Death. And any number of awesome, original desserts and pastries she whips up on a daily basis at Charlie's--her stepfather's diner. She gets up and fights another round with her overprotective, obsessive mother. She gets up and goes out with her former soldier/reformed biker/cook boyfriend Mel. She gets up and gets through another day in New Arcadia--one of the few remaining spots that wasn't utterly demolished by the Voodoo Wars. And all she wanted was a moment alone in a peaceful place. So she drove out to the lake to sit. And that's when they came. And that's where they got her. As everybody knows, you don't hear them coming. Not when they're vampires. And you don't come back either. But Sunshine does come back after her extended and terrifying encounter with one vampire Constantine. She comes back and comes home. But. Even though she's home once more, nothing is the same. For all her surviving the encounter, she may not survive living with herself after.
Sunshine is one of those sarcastic, supremely set-in-her-ways tough girls that I seem to live for. The girl holds my heart in her flour-dusted hands. And because she is rendered in Robin McKinley's trademark prose, she's even more quirky and meandering and tangentially-inclined than those girls usually are. The tangents and meanderings bother some readers, I understand. If long internal monologues aren't your cup of tea, then they're not your cup of tea. But nobody can say that Ms. McKinley didn't go all-out hardcore when she sat down to write an urban fantasy. Because she did. And I love Sunshine with the fierce kind of love I reserve for those characters and stories that take no prisoners and make no apologies. I knew I would love Sunshine herself on page two when she set out to describe her stepfather.
Charlie is one of the big good guys in my universe.
There's so much fight and heart in that simple statement. Her relationship with Charlie is a highlight of the book, as he took her in as his own, gave her a job and a way out, and understood her when her mother could only scream. The way she introduced him made me love her. Many of Rae's rambling monologues include wry, self-effacing asides that always make me grin. For example:
I didn't want to know that the monster that lived under your bed when you were a kid not only really is there but used to have a few beers with your dad.
Set against the backdrop of almost certain doom, these barbs of humor secured my affection the way nothing else could have. I laugh a lot when I read Sunshine. I also shiver deliciously with fear. Which brings us to Con. As if Sunshine wasn't enough, Robin McKinley had to go and write Con--a vampire as far removed from the sexy-sparkly variety as is inhumanly possible. I really don't know of any other author who could make me fall in love with a vampire with skin the color of old mushrooms and a voice that unhinges your spine. But fall in love with Con I did. Or, more precisely, fall in love with the unlikely alliance of Sunshine-and-Con I did. It is this unprecedented friendship between human and vampire that is the real heart of the book. And it is made more believable (and much more valuable) by the lengths to which the author goes to to display how antithetical, how other, they are from one another. These two are not drawn together by attraction or random circumstance. They are bound together by the will to survive, by the refusal to live at the expense of another life, and by a slow-simmering, if uncomfortable, mutual admiration. The combination of Sunshine's jittery rambles and Con's remote and ominous silences gets me every time. As does the smart, knotty writing, Sunshine's passion for what she does, and the wonderful, wonderful restraint exercised to let the story unfold in its own way. Every time I read it, I find extra nuance and sympathy. And a perfect ending. As only she knows how to write them. This book, you guys. This best of all combinations of fairy tale, urban fantasy, and horror story. Neil Gaiman notably described it as "pretty much perfect," and I have to concur. I never tire of it. It's October once more, and I'm feeling that familiar Sunshine pull. Which copy shall I read this time?
Retro Friday Roundup