Sunday, February 15th, 2009 • No Comments
I first discovered Robin McKinley when I was working in the children’s department at the public library. While reshelving books, I came across Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast and became an admirer—if not a fan—of her writing. Her fairytale retellings are clever and more mature than the original stories (though some critics would argue the original tales by the brothers Grimm are hardly suitable for children). She won the Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown and is listed among the top writers of fantasy fiction.
For some reason, I only associated McKinley with children’s and YA books—perhaps because that’s where I discovered her. Then I saw Sunshine at Barnes and Noble over the holidays and I bought it without a second thought. (These days, i weigh my book purchases against the stacks of books I have yet to read and the time I have left on this planet.) I love vampires and figured if McKinley could do for vampires what she did with fairy tales, I would be hooked. I was right. From this opening paragraph, I zipped through seventy pages in one sitting:
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.
According to Ms. McKinley’s website, Sunshine was originally published in 2003. I don’t know how I missed it the first time—especially since I was deep into my Laurell K. Hamilton vampire phase then—but I’m so glad it was reissued. McKinley is a terrific world-builder, creating an alternate reality that is at once believable and fantastical. She uses what we know—or what we think we know—about vampires and crafts her own new version.
Sunshine is told from the perspective of an ordinary, if not entirely human, girl named Rae (nicknamed Sunshine) who bakes amazing cinnamon rolls, dates a tough-looking biker, fights with her very human mother and has an unusual interest in the Others—otherwise known as vampires, demons, weres and anything not-human. Sunshine’s world takes a tumble into the dark side almost as soon as we meet her:
The road that went to what had been my parents’ cabin was passable, if only just. I got out there and went and sat on the porch and looked at the lake. My parents’ cabin was the only one still standing in this area, possibly because it had belonged to my father, whose name meant something even during the Voodoo Wars. There was a bad spot off to the east, but it was far enough away not to trouble me, though I could feel it was there.
I sat on the sagging porch, swinging my legs and feeling the troubles of the day draining out of me like water. The lake was beautiful: almost flat calm, the gentlest lapping against the shore, and silver with moonlight. I’d had many good times here: first with my parents, when they were still happy together, and later on with my gran. As I sat there I began to feel that if I sat there long enough I could get to the bottom of what was making me so cranky lately, find out if it was anything worse than poor quality flour and a somewhat errant little brother.
I never heard them coming. Of course you don’t, when they’re vampires.
In the darkness, Sunshine discovers an unlikely ally in the form of a vampire named Constantine. Con, as she calls him, has some of the best lines in the book. McKinley’s strength is in her strong, believable characterization (even in fantastical stories) and rich, almost meandering, narrative. You never quite know where she is headed in some passages—but her writing is so poetic that you don’t mind going along for the ride. Sunshine isn’t a vampire slayer and her non-human talents are something she has ignored for most of her life until circumstances force her to confront her own abilities. Con is a serious vampire, not given to the homoerotic flourishes of the vampires of Hamilton or Rice, who finds himself in dire straits. Together, Sunshine and Con, light and dark, have to find a way to work together to destroy the evil that threatens them both. The secondary characters are entertaining—especially the crowd at Charlie’s, the family coffeehouse and bakery. The setting is kind of a edge-of-nowhere sort of friendly, sort of creepy small town named New Arcadia. Think post-Apocalyptic Mayberry.
I often joke that the increase in the number of raccoons that coming begging at my backdoor during the full moon can be attributed to some were-raccoons joining the mix. So I was amused by this line:
Were-raccoons are nasty little beggars and were-skunks are, well, beyond a nightmare.
I knew they existed!
Sunshine, winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, is an entertaining read, elevating vampire fiction to a new level. If you enjoy Neil Gaiman’s mythical tales, you will certainly find McKinley equally delightful. I’m happy to have rediscovered her and I’ll be checking the bookstore shelves for other books I may have missed.
You can read Robin McKinley’s blog or visit her website for more information. And feel free to chime in if you’ve read Sunshine or are a fan of her other books!
Wednesday, February 4th, 2009 • No Comments
What better way to kick off 2009 than with a book all about one of my favorite places?
It’s no secret I spend a great deal of time in Starbucks—it is not only my office, but also my home-away-from-home. Other customers have occasionally mistaken me for an employee because of how the baristas talk to me. I follow Little, Brown and Company on Twitter (@littlebrown) and after tweeting about my Starbucks coffee, they offered to send me a review copy of Taylor Clark’s Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture. I seem like the perfect audience for this book: a lover of books, pop culture and Starbucks.
As I write this, I am sitting in my neighborhood Starbucks. There is a young woman in her twenties and a slightly older man (wearing a red bowtie, no less) sitting next to me. He is trying to recruit her for Yale graduate school (something with the sciences, it sounds like). There is a retired gentleman—another regular—sitting across from me, reading the New York Times and drinking his grande coffee. A group of teenagers just wandered in from the video game store down the strip mall and are placing orders for frappuccinos and hot chocolate. Buddy Holly is crooning over the loudspeaker as the baristas chat and giggle behind the counter. This is where I spend several hours a day, most days of the week. I am not alone.
Journalist and author Taylor Clark attacks the subject of the global popularity of Starbucks with the gusto of someone who has had a few too many shots of espresso. He asks the important questions and takes a shot (a double-shot?) at answering them, including: Why Starbucks?
An expanded version of this question comes from the company’s brilliant, controversial leader and CEO (after several years’ hiatus) Howard Schultz, who said in an interview:
People weren’t drinking coffee. So the question is, how could a company create retail stores where coffee was not previously sold, charge three times more for it than the local doughnut shop, put Italian names on it that no one can pronounce, and then have six million customers a week coming through the stores?
Schultz’s answer to this has created what has become known as the Starbucks Experience.
The fans of Starbucks might outnumber the detractors, but there is no question that Starbucks has become an enormous phenomenon. Of course, Starbucked was written pre-recession and Starbucks has certainly taken a hit. (The fact that a website called Starbucks Gossip even exists demonstrates just how big and influential Starbucks has become.) Still, Starbucks isn’t the first company to be affected by recession and they seem more than adequately prepared to ride out the economic downturn.
Clark points to Starbucks’ popularity as “a third place” (a neutral, safe, public gathering spot between home and work) as a reason for the coffeehouse’s tremendous growth and appeal. It seems that it’s about more than coffee when it comes to the popularity of Starbucks—it’s about place. Which is something anyone who has spent any amount of time in a Starbucks could tell you—but Clark examines every possible angle of Starbucks’ place in the world—and in people’s lives. Reading Starbucked is a bit like watching one of those “how the magic is done” shows; you come away with a clear understanding that everything—every single detail—about Starbucks is planned and deliberate. Even the quirky details that seem to make Starbucks unique were carefully determined. For instance:
The reason for the unusual names of the beverage sizes tall, grande and venti? Creating a unique “language” builds customer loyalty. It prevents you from going across the street to the competitor because they speak a different “language” than the one you’re used to.
The wisdom of putting two Starbucks coffee shops across the street from each other? To put Starbucks in your path, making it a convenient stopping place. Also, even Starbucks in close proximity to each other draw different customers.
The odd blend of eclectic music that’s piped in? Rotated throughout the day to create different “moods.”
The reason Starbucks can seemingly pop up over night? A limited number of interior designs that allow for each store to be up and running quickly (and relatively cheaply) while still maintaining that sense of uniqueness.
And on it goes. Clark comes off at times sounding like a minister in the church of Starbucks, but he claims he’s not a regular customer and doesn’t care for their coffee. That probably adds to his credibility as an objective researcher—as does the fact that Starbucks hasn’t made any comment on his book. He may not be a fan of Starbucks, but he certainly has become something of an expert. Clark is a journalist and Starbucked is his first book. I’m curious to see if he’ll write another book and what popular culture topic he might tackle. Reality television, maybe?
(For a taste of Clark’s writing, you can read this Slate article he wrote: Why Starbucks Actually Helps Mom and Pop Coffeehouses.)