Sunshine: My First Vampire Novel

I don’t read a whole lot of mainstream YA novels.

Particularly the ones about vampires.

So you could say that I read Sunshine due to an accident.

You see, I was assigned Robin McKinley’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast for school. And because I’m an obsessive little bean, I decided I was going to read all her other retellings as well. Beauty was my first exposure to the genre and I was fascinated.

What I didn’t know was that McKinley didn’t just write retellings. Some of her books are original. Sunshine is one of those… those it could perhaps be viewed as a distant cousin to a retelling of George MacDonald’s Little Daylight? I don’t presume to know.

In some ways, then Sunshine seems so out of McKinley’s league. But there were still moments that were so distinctly her and that was good to see. You shouldn’t lose your distinctive flair and personality just because you make a genre jump.

Admittedly, once I began reading – and realized that this was not a retelling, as I had expected – I wanted to see it through. If only because this book was a complete departure from what I normally read.

I had some big problems with Sunshine. But I also learned some things I previously did not know.

One of my biggest issues with the genre as a whole is that YA authors seem to feel like in order to appeal to the audience they have to include sex and obscene language.

Because apparently that’s all we’re interested in – sex – and all we do – use profanity. Why must mainstream YA is so predictable in this respect!

It doesn’t bother me  to hear profanity used but to see it is unbearable. They are ugly words. They don’t look nice. And I like writing to look pretty.

Sunshine was predictable in every respect, to be honest. Crude, lurid, mindless, overdramatic. Like, “Oh, my life is so hard because I think I might be in love with two guys at the same time and can’t pick, so I’ll lead them both on!” Am I supposed to be able to relate to this? I can’t.

In my – admittedly limited – experience, YA novels are always about teenagers – which is understandable, I suppose – hot guys – more rare than such books lead you to believe – and said teenagers “saving the world” or participating in other activities that are equally questionable in the realism department.

That said, I found myself enjoying this book against my better judgement. I thought I was “above” this. I despised the stereotypical teenage girl books. I thought I knew better than to be interested in things like dark romance and messy relationships and craving human blood.

I apologize for my arrogance. I was wrong.

I thought vampire novels were the worst of the fantasy genre, but Sunshine made me realize that “vampire” is a genre all its own and – just like every genre -has its good and its bad.

That doesn’t mean that I think that Sunshine is the best of its genre.

It was much different – and better – than was expecting it to be.

Just because a book is about vampires doesn’t mean it is automatically poorly-written, mindless trash.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t completely farfetched! It was plausible. It worked. This made me realize that when set in an appropriate world, one can do almost anything without it coming across as unrealistic.

It was complex, the world created. But also overwhelming for a newbie like me. I am basically illiterate in this genre. I don’t read much fantasy. The Lord of the Rings, Eragon, The Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia were as far as I went.

I didn’t realize at first that it was understood that this is all taking place after the Apocalypse – or… sometime in the distant future, when the world looks nothing like it does now. Maybe that is an understood fact about all vampire novels, I don’t pretend to know. I’m too new to the genre.

Another thing I liked was that Rae didn’t have these perfectly panned speeches. She couldn’t always find the swords to say what she wanted to.

I have a huge problem with protagonists who come up with great speeches on the spot. Katniss, I’m looking at you.

Who does this? Certainly not me.

It is unattractive to have a constantly tongue-tied character, but let’s face it – that’s how most of us would react to situations like the ones these girls are facing.

Unfortunately, Rae’s charm ended right about there, at her realism. She is too cliche.Tough loner girl who has powers she somehow didn’t know she had…Where have we seen this before? 

She is a baker… So that’s fairly different? But in my book that doesn’t outweigh being cliche.

Con, on the other hand, is great. Stoic and stiff and gentlemanly and Darcy-like. I read the whole book just for him, I think. It was boring when he wasn’t around. The beginning part of the book where they are trapped together is the best part.

It is kind of obvious that Rae and Con will fall in love.  Is this okay in some circumstances? It’s certainly something to consider…

I was thoroughly annoyed with facets of their relationship though. For example, Con and Rae have exactly one heated sexual encounter and then McKinley backs off and tries to act like it never happened.

Um. You can’t do that.

You’ve been setting this up for half the book! The audience demands resolution! Either they are together or they break up! You can’t tell me they are just friends when desire is obviously present.

The forbidden love because-he’s-nice-but-also-wants-your-blood trope is terribly overused. Anybody else thinking Twilight at this point?

Then again, the fact that Rae had a boyfriend who was not villified in any way was a breath of fresh air for the Love Triangle Society. I kept waiting for him to turn out to be working for the dark side, but it never happened, so…

I do think that Rae should have felt a little more guilty – or, rather, guilty at all – for messing around with two guys at once.

Ultimately, the end was terribly dissatisfying. All the buildup seemed to be for nothing. The climax fell flat.

In closing, I will just say – thank goodness for standalones! We do not need another series in the world!

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Do you ever make a complete departure from what you normally read? Do you read mainstream YA? Are there any good vampire novels? Do you think people should step outside of what they normally read to try new things?


Song Of Seare Trilogy: I Did Not See That Coming…

The Song of Seare trilogy follows a young man named Conor Mac Nir and his journey to overcome the evil threatening his world, and, on a more personal level, Conor’s journey as a man.

In the first book in the trilogy, The Oath of the Brotherhood, we meet Conor Mac Nir, a puny, scholarly boy who has powerful gifts as a musician. Conor does not really seem to fit in anywhere. When Conor’s foster father dies, Conor fakes his own death to cover his trail and joins the Firein, a group of monk-like “brothers” – the difference being that the otherwise monastic brotherhood are trained in the fighting arts as well as spiritual disciplines.

But Conor soon grows restless and wants to leave the brotherhood to do something about the darkness that has begun to threaten the outside world.

Finally, Conor leaves Ard Dhaimin, to join Calhoun Mac Cuilinn’s army. Calhoun is the older half-brother of Aine, a beautiful young girl Conor fell in love with in the short time he stayed with her family before joining the brotherhood.

Aine, in Conor’s absence, has developed her own unique gifts and has gained renown for her incredible healing abilities. When Aine is kidnapped, Conor risks everything to save her and the two are reunited and married aboard a ship that they hope will carry them to a new life.

This first book really sets the stage nicely for the other two books to come. It’s a little slow in the beginning but interest really soars when Conor joins the brotherhood and really becomes a hero worth cheering for.

I have to say, when a character is described as puny, it kind of gives you a mental picture of that character that is irreversible, even if the we are told that the character really beefs up later on in the story (which, of course, they always do, because where’s the attraction in a guy who does not have bulging biceps and a perfect six pack?). Fortunately for Laureano, this is not the case with Conor; his progression from wimpy boy to muscular man is slow enough and convincing enough that your not permanently stuck thinking of Conor as that toothpick-limbed guy we envision when we were first introduced to him.

In the second book in The Song of Seare Trilogy, Beneath the Forsaken City, Conor and Aine have been separated in a storm at sea and now must pursue separate journeys.

Conor is made a slave but is set free and escapes with one of his fellow captives, Prince Talfryn, there under cover to save Conor. As his honored guest, Conor remains with Talfryn while he awaits news of Aine.

But while there he comes up against unforeseen obstacles – things are not what they seem within the kingdom. Briallu, the only daughter of his friend, holds a strange attraction for Conor that he struggles to resist.

Aine makes her way to her native land, where her aunt is currently in power and magic of all kinds – such as Aine now wields with more power than ever – is held in extreme suspicion. While some welcome Aine back, or grow to love her, her aunt’s veiled dislike of her serves to make her even more lonely and distraught. Aine struggles desperately against doubt and confusion, and is bewildered when attempts on her life become disturbingly frequent and there seem to be veiled threats on every side. Aine no longer knows who she can trust.

Both of their paths eventually lead them both back to Seare, however, and Aine and Conor are finally reunited once more.

Beneath the Forsaken City builds well on the first book. Separating Conor and Aine the way she does is a masterful move on Laureano’s part – it allows readers a chance to get to know them as individuals, apart from one another, something we got to do in Oath of the Brotherhood with Conor, obviously, but not as much with Aine, and since her role is only increasing, it’s important that we really get behind Aine. This is the closest thing to a flaw that I foresee for this trilogy. That we won’t ever get to know Aine enough to ever like her. Honestly, when we first met her back in Oath of the Brotherhood, she never appealed to me. I like her better in this book, but the connection between her and the reader is not as strong as it should be – something Laureano will have to remedy quickly if she wishes to redeem Aine.

That is the trouble with reserved, sweet characters. While the writer may just think of them as quiet or shy, or just kindhearted and compassionate, they come across to the reader as boring and dull, lacking life and personality. Such characters give us very little reason to get behind them, to laugh when they laugh and cry when they cry, because we don’t really know what would make them laugh or cry. They have remained so aloof and distant, hiding behind that facade of reserve or kindness, that We The Reader don’t really know them at all.

In the last book in the Song of Seare Trilogy, The Sword and the Song, Aine and Conor are reunited in Ard Dhaimin and the future is looking bright for them. The couple is expecting their first child, they are happy, and Ard Dhaimin has become a refuge for many fleeing the darkness and danger that has become rampant in Seare.

But it soons becomes apparent that everything is not as perfect as it seems. Eoghan, Conor’s closest friend, is the fulfillment of the prophecy, and as such, he should be taking leadership of the Firein. But Eoghan is hesitant to step up, which causes friction between Conor and him. Eoghan reached out to Conor when he first arrived friendless in Ard Dhaimin, Eoghan mentored and trained Conor until he became a better swordsman than Eoghan himself, Eoghan risked severe punishment to leave Ard Dhaimin and help Conor, saving his life, and Eoghan saved Aine’s life when she returned to Seare after struggling with doubt and defeat in her homeland. So the bond between the two men is still strong… but it’s strength is being tested. Especially as it becomes more and more obvious to everyone, Conor, Aine, and Eoghan himself, that Eoghan is falling for Aine – the pregnant wife of his best friend.

Conor has thought of a way to protect Seare and fight back against the Red Druid, Diarmuid – but it requires leaving Ard Dhaimin.

He gets back in plenty of time to witness the birth of his child – but almost as soon as he returns, he has to leave again.

On an even longer journey this time.

Conor’s mission is almost complete when Diarmuid attacks Ard Dhaimin. His goal is to kidnap Aine’s soon-to-be born, specially gifted child. Because of Aine’s growing powers, she is able to communicate mentally with Conor – but he is experiencing difficulty as well: he has been badly wounded, and help cannot reach him. In an unexpected twist, Conor’s foster sister who has been living in Ard Dhaimin, once a confederate of Diarmuid, turns on him suddenly, killing him. But it is too late for Conor.

With his last words, he names the son he wanted to desperately to witness the birth of, the son he so desperately wanted to be a good father to, the son he will now never meet… his son is born only minutes later.

Wow. I did not even see this ending coming.

It is superb. I was so close to tears.

I’ve read a lot of books, a lot of endings, a lot of good endings, even. But I don’t know that I’ve ever read an ending quite like this one. It is unique and so oddly moving.

I think because it really is very surprising. Conor is so very afraid that if he dies, Aine and Eoghan will be together and forget him, that you never think that that will actually happen! You just assume that because they want it so much, because Conor and Aine deserve it so much after all they have been through, all the separation and pain and doubting each other and not knowing if the other is even alive, and feeling unworthy of the other’s love, you just naturally assume that they will get that happy ending… You want them to have that happy ending.

You want Conor so see his son. You want them to be able to be a family. And so it is really depressing when Conor dies when he is so close to achieving this dream.

This last book really highlights Conor’s strength as a character. He has become the hero. And that is something I find rather fascinating: Conor didn’t start out the hero that you were hoping for – he becomes that hero.

You really begin to see his depth in this last book, his brokenness and disappointment with himself, his frustration and anger as he starts to really snap and kind of lose his grip on sanity. (I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a completely sane hero anyway.)

Aine, though, actually regressed, in my opinion. She effectively loses all the ground she gained in the second book.

Overall, this last book was not only by far the best but was a great way to end the series; Laureano got better with each succeeding book.

Wuthering Heights… Is Haunting

Wuthering Heights is the story of Cathy Bradshaw, a willful young woman who destroys everyone around her, and Heathcliff, an orphan boy who falls in love with Cathy. When she rejects Heathcliff, he becomes determined to win her back, and, when she is dead, destroy her family – leaving us to wonder: what kind of love is it that destroys that which it loves?

This was a disturbing read on a number of levels for me. Obviously, Heathcliff’s almost demonic obsession with Cathy gets a little weird, but even aside from that, it bothers me that I don’t really want to like this book – there are so many things about it that drive me crazy – but some small part of me is fascinated despite myself.

The whole book has this weird, dark tone that I find strangely appealing, and I do like the story itself, but anything good I can say about this book has to be canceled out by a number of huge issues that I can find no way around.

1. Point Of View

Point of view is crucial. Most writers are aware of this fact, and all of them must recognize how crucial it is, or fail at their craft.

Perspective can be confusing in Wuthering Heights because there are literally layers of it. The story is actually being told from the perspective of a completely random character we know nothing about, a young tenant of Heathcliff’s. However, it isn’t terribly obvious that the story is being told from his perspective, because most of the story is told from the perspective of the Bradshaw family’s maid, Nelly. Nelly is telling Cathy and Heathcliff’s story to the young man. So, in other words, most of the story is in the form of dialogue. Or monologue, rather.

Bronte made, in my opinion, a peculiar decision when she had Nelly tell the story. Though Nelly was deeply invested in the inner workings of this family and familiar with Cathy’s story because she witnessed most of it, she still does not seem the right person to tell this story.

I’m sure that there are those who would strongly disagree with that assessment. Some people may view Nelly’s being the narrator the best thing Wuthering Heights has going for it. I’m sorry to say that this is probably my biggest issue with it.

If the story was written entirely from Nelly’s perspective, the inconsequential little servant girl watching from the fringes, and was telling it as it occurred, it might just have been a brilliant move – it would have worked well with the tone of the rest of the story, flowed well to have the distant observer, someone on the outside, telling the story. But having Nelly tell the story as an old woman was a big mistake.

2. Let Me Tell You A Story

Nelly is orally passing the story on to a young man staying at the house she takes care of, which makes it seem like Nelly is just casually telling it as nothing more than common hearsay or gossip. This “story” is something she was apart of, she is relating the most painful events of her life. And she is doing it in the calmest manner possible! I’d like to see a little emotional investment or something!

3. Interruptions

Because Nelly is supposedly telling the story to this guy – who is a completely useless character, by the way – and the story is too involved to tell all at once, she actually takes several breaks from telling it.

During these pauses, we temporarily return to present time, which is thoroughly frustrating because we were just starting to actually be interested in this story and we really couldn’t care any less about some random guy having a cold, or taking a nap, or a walk, or whatever!

This phenomenon is also extremely distracting. All the jerks back to present time are jarring. Random Dude and Older Nelly don’t fit into this story.

For those of you who would argue that these pauses build up suspense, you’re wrong. They don’t. They simply kill all the momentum the story was gaining.You can’t mix present and past like that – unless the past comes to us in the form of flashbacks, which it does not in Wuthering Heights.

4. One Good Memory

Another thing about Nelly: how has she remembered all this so perfectly? She recounts her story in vivid detail, including people’s exact words. I know of very few people, especially elderly women, who have that perfect of a memory concerning things that happened when she was in her teens and twenties.

5. Nelly: Both Sides

Nelly is the impartial mediator between Heathcliff and Cathy in this story. She doesn’t actually like either Cathy or Heathcliff, and while her cold indifference to both of them isn’t exactly admirable, it does allow her to coolly observe the whole thing without bias. So maybe she is the person to tell this story after all. Even when Heathcliff despises everyone else, he regards Nelly with something like fondness. Even when Cathy stubbornly refuses to submit to anyone else, she is swayed by Nelly’s opinion. Nelly plays, albeit reluctantly, both sides. She serves alternately as Heathcliff or Cathy’s partner in crime; she is traitorous – and brilliant.

In the end, all of these distractions take away from the haunting beauty of Cathy and Heathcliff’s story. It just goes to show that the details are everything and that little mistakes can ruin the whole story. I like the story, I just don’t like how it’s told.

The Bridge To Terabithia: An Instant Favorite

“She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there – like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.”

Bridge To Terabithia is the story of Jess Aarons, a ten-year-old boy growing up in a difficult time and environment. He is surrounded by hard questions, poverty, a painful family situation. Then Leslie shows up. Leslie shows Jess a new way to look at the world around him. But then, tragically, Leslie dies. At first, Jess is in shock; he simply cannot believe that the person who brought so much beauty to his life is actually gone. When he finally comes to terms, though, with the fact that she is gone, he realizes just what Leslie has done for him.

Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins was wry and amusing and perhaps even poignant at times, but it lacked believability. Her less-known work, The Master Puppeteer is difficult and unappealing. Bridge To Terabithia is emotional, raw, and tough. I like that.

Paterson deals with complicated topics in her books. I do not recommend this. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea and something that authors should, as a rule, try to stay away from. Mishandling a delicate topic is probably the single most destructive thing an author could do. Topics like the ones she writes about – relational issues between family members and people’s distorted views of God and religion being two such topics that appear in both Bridge To Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved – mean either the instant death or instant celebrity of a novel: handle them the wrong way and failure is unavoidable. Paterson, however, has the rare gift of handling difficult topics with skill. I think this is particularly evident in Bridge To Terabithia.

Bridge To Terabithia is a small book – only about two hundred pages long – and took me roughly two hours to read, but while there were, as always, a few things about Paterson’s writing style that annoyed me, this book has a big impact and was deeply personal for me.

This book breaks my heart. Jess is really only a child, and yet he acts much older. Even more shocking is how old May Belle, who is just six, acts. Their life is difficult, the same way it is difficult for all the families in their community. Life has forced them to leave childhood behind far earlier than they should have to.

Jess is a talented child, but he feels the tacit disapproval of the adults in his life, which leads him to believe he is weird and that being an artist is not acceptable for a boy. This causes him to hide his talent and his real feelings, because he desperately craves approval – especially his father’s. The adults in Jess’ life are so scarred themselves that they cannot care for Jess properly. Hurting parents hurt their children, without wanting or meaning to, and this is especially true of Jess. When Jess’ father pays him any attention at all, it is in the form of criticism and harshness and too-high expectations. But Jess would never tell this to anyone, because he feels that it is his duty to hide his parents’ misdeeds.

Aside from his six-year-old little sister, May Belle, Jess despises his sisters. His two older sisters for their demanding self-centeredness, and his four-year-old sister for her timidity. Jess is disgusted to find that he emulates the behaviors he so despises in his sisters, but finds himself unable to stop.

Perhaps because of these painful circumstances, Jess has a distorted view of nearly everything around him. His parents, siblings, friendship, school, God, and his own value are all colored by how well his most basic needs for love and acceptance are met. Jess has exactly one positive adult influence in his life: his young, free-spirited music teacher, the only person who encourages Jess to draw, and is therefore the object of all his young, unrealistic passion.

Though Leslie seems like the hero of this story, Leslie is the one who takes Jess away from May Belle, causing her to become lonely and resentful of her older brother. And if Leslie hadn’t died, the barriers between Jess and his father would never have finally broken down, allowing them to connect in a way that Jess had been needing his whole life. His father is able to comfort Jess, holding him while he cries. Leslie’s death also makes Jess realize that he has been unreasonable and judgmental about other people. Mrs. Meyers, a teacher he had thought of as hypocritical and hard, he realizes, is a kind, caring woman with her own story of hurt to share.

Jess is painfully aware of the stark contrast between he and Leslie: she is bright and vivacious and he is slow and fearful. Leslie makes Jess feel inferior – cowardly and stupid, but Jess is, in some ways, superior to Leslie. While Leslie is vengeful and vindictive, Jess realizes that people are hurting, wants to help them, and does not like to hurt people.

The 2007 movie based on the book fell, in my opinion, epically short of the ideal. AnaSophia Robb highlights all of Leslie’s friendly sweetness and imagination without any of the anger or selfishness or loneliness that comes through so clearly in the book. Both Robb and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Jess with only mediocre success, are simply too old to play ten-year-old kids. They look to be in their early teens, skewing the whole perspective of the story.

I was never a fan of the movie, but I knew that other people who had read, and liked, the book were upset with how the movie turned out. At that point, I had never read the book, but was very familiar with the story through the movie. So it was good to finally read the book and immerse myself in the story as it was originally intended to be. Always read the book!

I highly recommend Bridge To Terabithia. It’s one of those books everyone should read.

The Giver… Was Colorless

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”

The Giver, written by Lois Lowry, follows the story of Jonas, a preteen who lives in an ideal, if colorless, world. Something is special about Jonas. When, at the age of twelve, all the children in his class are assigned their future careers, Jonas learns that he is to be the new Giver, which means that he will store all the memories for his community. Jonas begins receiving the memories stored by the current Giver – and he begins to learn that there is something wrong with his world. That it is not as ideal and perfect as he has always thought. So Jonas goes on a journey to find a place where things are different.

The Giver was written in 1993 when Lowry was fifty-six years old. It is one of the four books that make up The Giver Quartet, the others being Gathering Blue, written in 2000, Messenger, written in 2004, and Son, written in 2012.

The story simply does not seem well thought-out. Either that, or the message is poorly conveyed to the reader. This colorless world, for example. Is the world actually without color or is it simply that humans have been rendered incapable of seeing color? This is not made clear.

Jonas, an anomaly, is described as having “pale” or “light” eyes. Gabe also has the same oddity. Perhaps this indicates that both Jonas’ and Gabe’s genetics are somehow faulty. They – the people with the strange eyes – can see color but no one else can. So colors do exist?

But if no one but Jonas can see those colors, than why would Fiona’s red hair be aggravating to the geneticists? How can said geneticists even see that her hair is red? And how can Jonas’ little sister Lily see the color of his eyes to tell him that they are “funny”?

More important than these little inconsistencies was the fact that I felt like the writing was tailored for a much younger audience than is suggested. The Giver is considered “young adult”, but it seemed to be written more for a eight- or ten-year-old. The writing is so simple, and while that is not necessarily a flaw, it becomes one when simplicity borders on being dumbed down – as if the reader won’t be able to understand big words or follow sentences with more than ten words in them. To put it simply, the writing style of The Giver makes me feel stupid.

Nearly all the characters are just children – why would it be interesting for a teenager to read about kids the age of their annoying younger sibling? The main character, Jonas, is only twelve and all his friends are the same age. Granted, the kids act very old for their ages – they are ready to begin training for their future careers at only age twelve, for crying out loud – but that simply makes them harder to relate to! I didn’t care about any of the characters. And that is a problem. When one does not care about the characters, there is really no reason to continue reading – which is why I plodded to the end of the book on principle, not out of desire. And, at the end, I found myself with no desire whatsoever to read any of Lowry’s other books, even though The Giver ended with a blatant attempt to get the reader to want to read on and find out what happens.

This is the intractable problem with futuristic novels: how to write about the future in a way that shows how different the world will one day be – and yet not make that future so different that it loses all sense of familiarity. In other words, just how weird can the future look before we don’t recognize our world at all?

Because of this difficulty, there will always be a measure of error in any book set in the future. The reason is obvious: the future will not look nearly so familiar as it is portrayed in fiction but those who create it want the audience to keep reading, to keep watching, so they must maintain some level of similarity between the future world and the world as we know it now. I mean, look at how rapidly we are currently progressing – if we continue at this rate, the world will be totally unrecognizable in a hundred years, much less thousands! Not only in the more obvious areas like technology, medicine, or geography, but in details like how we talk and dress. There is no way to predict what clothing trends will be like in the future, or what kinds of slang we will use! In some ways, I think it’s silly to try.

The Hunger Games is another futuristic novel. I think Collins does a fantastic job of making the future of America at once disturbingly weird and disturbingly familiar. She achieves a nearly perfect balance. But I think we all know that her picture of the future is flawed. How could it not be?

The Giver, on the other hand, makes our world so cold and sterilized that readers can’t relate to it at all.

The Shack: Not Quite What I Expected

“Am I supposed to believe that God is a big black woman with a questionable sense of humor?”

The Shack, written by William Paul Young in 2007, is the story of middle-aged Mack meeting God personally in an old run-down shack where his daughter was murdered several years earlier.

To be honest, it was not my intention to read The Shack. I first heard of it right around the time it began gaining popularity because both my father and older brother read it and I remember it being a topic of conversation between them several times. For some reason, this gave me a bad impression – ever since I had thought of The Shack as a vaguely “scary” book and never had the slightest desire to read it. But when I saw that William Paul Young had put out another book, Eve, and read the little blurb about it, it piqued my curiosity and I decided to go ahead and add it to my already lengthy list of books to read. And then I threw The Shack on there for good measure.

Unfortunately, when I got to the library, Eve was only available in digital form not as a hard copy so I satisfied myself with getting The Shack and promising to check back later to see if Eve would become available in hard copy format.

I had always thought, because of the whole murdered daughter thing, I suppose, that The Shack was a criminal thriller with a fantasy twist. I assumed the story would go something like this: “Mack’s daughter gets abducted. Mack turns into a crazed maniac with an insatiable thirst for justice. Mack and his daughter’s abductor have a reunion at the shack. Mack loses it and physically assaults the man, demanding to know where his daughter is. The sick pyscho reveals that Mack’s daughter has long been dead. Mack takes the law into his own hands and murders his daughter’s killer. Somehow this brings him closure.” I’m not sure exactly how I thought the author would work God into the narrative – I did know that there was some spiritual element to the story. Maybe I thought God arranged the meeting, or maybe I thought the killer would turn out to be God – what a twist that would have been, right?

Either way, I was in for a bit of a shock. The Shack was not what I was expecting at all, and I must admit that part of me was not a little disappointed. Instead of the thriller I was expecting, I was greeted with a theological meandering lamely cloaked as fiction, kind of a Max Lucado-meets-Touched By An Angel.

Though I will admit I did not recognize “God” at first, Young’s portrayal was nothing I haven’t seen before. The most unusual part is that God consisted of not one, but three characters, who interacted with one another – a big black lady, a Middle Eastern man, and a little Asian woman. That, I suppose, was something rather new.

Individually, however, I’ve seen all of these before. God portrayed as a big black woman, Jesus as a Middle-Eastern guy – the only exception, of course, being Sarayu, Young’s idea of the Holy Spirit. As by far the most neglected member of the Trinity, there was something rather refreshing about having “her” finally get some time in the spotlight. All the portrayals of the Holy Spirit I am familiar with have been sadly lacking in imagination – doves and wind are about as far as anyone seems willing to go.

I did not particularly like Young’s portrayal of God, to be honest. While Sarayu’s statement that “humans are clumsy” seemed uproariously funny, most of the other attempts at humor fell flat. Doesn’t it seem a bit presumptuous on Young’s part to try and act like he knows what God would find trivial enough to joke about? I came away feeling like God-as-a-black-lady was perhaps not the best comparison after all.

So far, the only portrayal of God that has hit home for me was Ted Dekker’s, as a little ten-year-old boy called “Elyon.”

The only part of The Shack that seemed terribly profound was the idea that responsibility and expectations are limits that we impose upon ourselves and were never apart of God’s plan for us. Overall, I found The Shack to be a disappointment.

Robinson Crusoe: Worst Hero Of All Time

“Hero: An ordinary person facing extraordinary circumstances and acting with courage, honor, and self-sacrifice.”

I have read some awful books in my time. I expect that most people who read books inevitably encounter books that, for one reason or another, they think are poorly done and come away with a very unfavorable feeling about the book, perhaps even the author or the genre. I am no exception – if I find a book boring or the writing weak or the dialogue unrealistic then I will rarely read that book a second time. As a general rule, I like to give an author at least two chances, but if the book is really bad, I may just make the decision to avoid that author in the future. That said, I do not believe I have ever encountered a book I hated as much as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Yes, it was that bad.

Not only could I not get over his sloppy, rambling writing style that prominently featured the most horrendous punctuation I have ever seen, gross overuse of capitalization – every single noun is capitalized, be it animate or not – and sentences that run on for entire paragraphs, making it an agonizingly slow and frustrating read, but the hero – Robinson Crusoe – does not deserve the name at all.

Heroes Are Courageous: Crusoe is one of the weakest, most cowardly “heroes” I have ever encountered. Scared to the point of passing out of a storm at sea, he is also terrified of lions – even though they are on land and he is on the water. He even goes so far as to openly admit that the only reason he saved Friday – his only friend – is because he thinks he can use him, otherwise he would have been too afraid to intervene.

Heroes Sacrifice For The Other Person: Crusoe is something of a control freak. Though he is on equal footing with both Xury and Friday he makes them both his slaves. What makes him think that he is in any position to do such a thing, I have no idea. Crusoe seems to think any kindness on his part is a great benevolence – when in fact it is the least he could do for them, as they are his superiors, both in intelligence and resourcefulness.

Heroes Are Resourceful: Commonly lauded as incredibly resourceful, I found that Crusoe was nothing of the sort. Left on his own, he is almost entirely helpless; instead he relies heavily on first Xury, and later, Friday.

Heroes Have A Purpose: As a young man, Crusoe willfully and deliberately disobeys his well-meaning father who advises him to settle down and be an honest businessman. Instead, Crusoe runs off to sea, where all his troubles begin.

Heroes Are Not Delusional: It is apparent that Crusoe has actually gone stark raving mad after so many years alone on a deserted island – he has started referring to the trees and animals on the island as his “subjects,” calling himself a “king” and a “ruler” and his cave a “castle.”

Why is Robinson Crusoe such an enduring classic? I can’t imagine anyone admiring this man.

What do you think makes a hero? Does Crusoe fit the bill? Who is your favorite hero in literature?

Whispers In The Reading Room: What Genre Is This?

Recently, I read Whispers in the Reading Room by Shelley Gray. This was an unexpected, unplanned read for me. I received a free, Advanced Reader Copy, sat down and read it in an afternoon.

Shelley Gray is an author I am unfamiliar with. I had never heard of her and haven’t read any of her other books.

Why am I telling you this? I anticipate that my review will reflect my lack of experience with Gray as an author, and I want you to know why.

Though her name sounds very British, Gray actually hails from Ohio. In addition to romance, she also writes Amish fiction, and is apparently best known for her Heart of a Hero series.

Whispers in the Reading Room is actually the third book in the Chicago World’s Fair Mystery series, a fact that I was unaware of when I read the book. Perhaps that was the reason for some of the disconnectedness I felt? The two other books in the series are Secrets of Sloane House and Deception on Sable Hill.

Set in the late-nineteenth century, Whispers in the Reading Room centers around a “reading room” or library where Lydia Bancroft works. There she meets Sebastian Marks, a mysterious club owner. Inexplicably drawn to one another, Lydia and Sebastian’s lives become intertwined when a murder occurs at his club – and Lydia is on the suspect list.

I don’t know why this is considered Christian fiction – there is no reason whatsoever for such a label. There is nothing Christian about this book. Not to say that there is anything morally objectionable in it – I just think that a few references to God or the Bible doesn’t make a book “Christian.”

It’s also labeled as a mystery. I beg to differ. There is no mystery in this book. It has none of the elements of a typical mystery, aside from the murder – and a murder does not necessarily make a mystery. It’s more of a romance novel… but even then, not all the necessary elements are present. For example, the marriage proposal occurs in the middle of the book instead of at the end, and there is absolutely no kissing to be found – what kind of romance is that! As I read the book, I was unable to figure what exactly it was that I was reading and found it extremely frustrating.

Sebastian Marks reminded me a little of Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind, and, since I liked Rhett, I found myself liking Marks’ character. That said, I found his actions laughably unrealistic. Marks is street smart and knows better than to get into a relationship with the naïve young librarian. In the beginning of the book, he has resolved to keep his distance because he cares what Lydia thinks of he him – and he knows that if he gets close to her she will inevitably find out about his underhanded business operations. And then he deliberately inserts himself into her life and doesn’t even withdraw in horrified shock when he realizes what he has done but insists on continuing to see her and even proposes?

Yeah. That seems like a perfectly natural way of handling things. Oh, wait! No, it doesn’t.

But I think that the really major flaw of this book is its inconsistency. This drives me crazy – more than anything else, I want consistency in a story. There is no believing a story that is not consistent.

Take one of the side characters, Hunt, for example. When the book opens we meet Hunt, a kind man, a widower who misses his dead wife, and wants nothing more than to take care of his little girl as best as he can. Hunt is disconcerted by the lack of feeling shown by his employer, Sebastian Marks. But later in the story, Hunt comes across as hard and unfeeling himself, capable of coarse vulgarity. He angrily opposes Marks’ relationship with Lydia, but a reason is never given for his seemingly random dislike. At other times, he is all care and concern. This doesn’t make any sense. Real people wouldn’t act like that without any reason.

I didn’t feel like, as a reader, that I got to know the characters well. Lydia, particularly, is left largely to your imagination. Marks’ past is only ever hinted at. Hunt is inconsistent, and Bridget, a character I felt more of an interest in than the heroine herself, is entirely undeveloped. When I am dissatisfied with the characters, I find that I end up being dissatisfied with the book in general and this was certainly the case with Whispers in the Reading Room.

Though I came away with an unfavorable impression of  Whispers in the Reading Room, I may read the two preceding novels to see if context improves my opinion.

Oliver Twist: Nancy Steals The Show

Oliver Twist is a book I have been wanting to read for some time. I have always been familiar with the story but somehow reading it always slipped through the cracks; there were other, more exciting books to read, I suppose.

This year has plunged me headlong into Dickens works. A friend and I wanted to read a book together and we selected – okay, she selected – A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. I had never read anything by Dickens before. And, I will admit, A Tale of Two Cities was perhaps not the best introduction – I hated it. Shortly thereafter, I randomly decided that over the holidays, I would read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This, on the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed. Later in the year, Oliver Twist was assigned to me for school. So it has been a Dickens-y kind of year.

Where A Tale of Two Cities was cold and distant, Oliver Twist is up close and personal, emotional and lurid. In A Tale of Two Cities, I couldn’t have cared less about stiff, wooden characters like Lucie and Darnay; in Oliver Twist, I found myself irresistibly drawn into Nancy’s world. Though Rose Maylie and Brownlow, Harry, Mrs. Maylie, and even the supposed main character, Oliver, fall into the same category as Lucie from A Tale of Two Cities – characters that bored me and I did not care about – Fagin and Charley, Bill and the Dodger, and, of course, Nancy, more than made up for them.

Though the book bears his name, Oliver is a pathetic little weakling, too angelic to be interesting or even realistic. Described as sturdy when a little boy, Oliver becomes increasingly sickly as the story progresses, fainting like a woman at the least provocation. It is painfully obvious, from the moment they take the stage, that Nancy, or perhaps Fagin, is the true focus of this story. And while Fagin could never be called its hero, Nancy is most definitely a heroine.

Something I am finding to be true of Dickens in my limited experience, is that, while his dryly sarcastic writing style never varies, he writes characters that fall into one of two extremes – the saintly Rose Maylies, Olivers, and Lucies, and the startlingly lifelike Bills and Fagins and Nancys. It is obvious that there was a woman in Dickens’ life that he idolized somewhat, and, drawing from life as all authors subconsciously do, this woman has made her way, under different aliases, into Dickens’ works. So far, I have found her in Rose Maylie and Lucie Manette. I would assume that she appears in his other works as well. Similarly, one could probably find an “Oliver” in many of his books,  or a “Nancy.”

Obviously, the main attraction of Oliver Twist is its portrayal of the criminal element. The reason it has been either fiercely loved or intensely hated for so long is because Dickens – without apology –  humanizes the criminals. Shocking in his day, this probably tends to be more fascinating in ours. I certainly found it to be. But then again, I have always had something of a tendency to secretly admire the “bad guy.” Stories like Robin Hood were always particularly appealing, as they depicted the “good outlaw.” There is something magnetic about their charming, carefree, daredevil ways. Something about them that makes you care. I fell head-over-heels for the cast of Oliver Twist. The man-of-the-world Dodger, happy-go-lucky Charley, tough Bill, heroic Nancy. Dickens turns this motley band of criminals into actual people. People like you and me who have strong loyalties and affections, are afraid, get lonely, seek warmth, love, and companionship. Monks is scared of being alone, Bill shares his food with his dog, Charley despises Bill for the murder of his friend, Nancy refuses to betray her friends of leave “her man.”

I am left with only one question – whatever happened to the Dodger?

Have you read Oliver Twist? Who is your favorite character? Who is your least favorite character? How do you feel about making crime romantic and criminals appealing?

Beauty: My First Fairytale Retelling

Robin McKinley’s Beauty was my first experience with a fairytale retelling. I have always been intrigued by the idea of fairytale retellings, but, for me, it was more professional than consumer – I was interested in the possibility of retelling some of the classic fairytales myself one day. And for this reason, I completely overlooked the possibility of reading fairytale retellings. Partly because I was busy reading other things, and partly because I didn’t quite know this genre existed.

Beauty reverses the classic story by making the “Belle” character ugly. Ironically, she is named Beauty. Her two sisters are the real “beauties” of the family, but, for once, these two are not the typical Disney stepsisters – they are both kind and sweet as well as beautiful, and love and admire their little sister. Personally, I thought it would be kind of interesting if, since everything is supposed to be reversed, Beauty was not only ugly but had kind of a nasty personality, but she is only described as having a bad temper.

But, of course, she turns beautiful in the end. Granted, there is something innately wrong about an ugly heroine, but still. Couldn’t the guy have fallen in love with an actually ugly girl just this once?

I didn’t wan the Beast to turn into a man! Beauty fell in love with a beast, not a man. Somehow, his changing at the end of the story feels like cheating her of the person she fell in love with. And why should Beauty be rewarded for doing something she was okay with doing?

And if Beauty is the beast, in some respects, because she is the ugly one in this version, then shouldn’t he be drop-dead gorgeous? McKinley doesn’t seem to have gotten the whole idea of switching everything around…

There were some striking similarities to Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, which happens to be my favorite. In both stories ugly heroines are the main characters, in both, there is a young girl who is offered up to a “beast” and in both stories the beast turns out to be a nice, if a little misunderstood, guy who lives in a huge castle full of invisible servants.

At first, I thought that the reason inanimate objects were moving around was because the servants were invisible – they were moving the objects, you just couldn’t see them. As the story goes on, however, I began to realize that, no, the servants were not moving the objects, they were actually moving themselves – kind of like in the Disney version. I found this unnecessary and disappointing.

Beauty reads like a Greek myth, a resemblance I thought fitting as there are numerous Greek references throughout the book because of Beauty’s extensive education.

There were these brief glimpses of brilliance and I wanted more of that! One scene in particular struck me as missing something great by mere inches. Beauty is scantily clad in a beautiful dress. Angrily, she tries to remove it, but finds that she can’t. I felt like this scene touched on the deeper themes of Beauty. Why doesn’t Beauty want to wear the dress? Why is she so upset and angry? Instead of pursuing these questions, McKinley abruptly changes directions. Beauty stubbornly refuses to leave her room or let the Beast see her in the dress. The topic is never rejoined. So why did she include the scene at all? What was the point?

I found the writing to be tantalizingly aloof; the first person perspective usually affords the reader a intimate, personal look at the characters and setting, but this was not at all the case with Beauty.

One thing that I found deeply disturbing is that one reads the whole book without ever being able to form a complete picture of what the Beast looks like. As a intensely visual reader, this is important to me – vitally important. If I can’t picture what’s happening, I quickly lose interest because the story fails to take on reality for me. It doesn’t seem real because I can’t see it in my mind. McKinley never, to my knowledge, gives a full description of the Beast. We only get bits and pieces – he’s obviously big, he has retractable claws, and the teeth of a carnivore. And he wears human clothes. This incomplete picture leaves the reader relying on mental images of Disney’s sabre-toothed lion dude. And believe me when I say that is a major turnoff.

There were definitely some moments of having to laugh at the absurdity of it all, which, really, is one of the worst things I could say about a book. It was culturally unsound at times. Beauty and her soon-to-be brother-in-law sharing the same attic, for example. Something like that simply would not happen in that culture and time period. The whole “magic” thing comes off as tacky and unrealistic – McKinley doesn’t even attempt to explain it. In my opinion this is a big flaw.

There are also several random things that don’t fit with this story. Robbie’s being lost at sea is vital to the plot but feels incongruous. It is never explained why Tom Black gives Beauty an expensive horse free of charge – is he in love with her? – and then he simply disappears from the story and never comes back. Ferdy’s character and Beauty’s elderly father’s remarriage are two other things that add to the overall feeling of disjointedness.

Are you a fan of fairytale-retellings? Do you think the Beast should turn into a man at the end of the story? What do you think of ugly heroines? Does it annoy you that Beauty turns gorgeous? How would you retell the story of Beauty and the Beast?