Tiny Review of The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks The Spot by Caroline Carlson

Just a tiny review tonight, because it was recently Talk Like A Pirate Day and I talked about this new middle grade novel on my blog.

I read The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates in only a few hours, and while there are bits of it which I thought could have been done better – the setting was a little vague with elements of fantasy mixed in with traditional old-fashioned English references, and some of the minor characters seemed rather one dimensional – I must say that I heartily enjoyed the novel’s message and admired the heroine’s spirit. It was also quite refreshing to read a middle grade book about a young girl defying high society’s expectations in which characters who wanted to be governesses or accomplished ladies were treated with respect rather than scorn. Not all of us want to be rogues, and Carlson did a marvelous job of encouraging her readers to follow whatever path truly calls to them by including a governess with as much mettle as the fiercest pirates and a fishmonger’s daughter whose wit and compassion is never dampened by the effort she puts into finishing school. Even though I wish there had been a bit more detail to the actual piracy than mere treasure hunts and violent exclamations, I can safely say that my nine year old self would have adored this book! I’ll be recommending it to boys and girls alike who like quick witted characters and rollicking adventures. There’s also a talking gargoyle who may have been my favorite character.

Book Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2stars)

Age rage recommendation: 14+ (Or, you know, only people who are ok with lots of bloody violence. It’s a vampire book, after all!)


I was delighted by Holly Black’s new YA novel, The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, in more ways than one! It’s a disgustingly entertaining book, and I had the wonderful fortune to attend her reading and talk in Cambridge this week, where I got to hear about the writing process and what experiences go into the fantastic stories she tells. I read an ARC of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown a few days before it was released, and here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, it’s inspired by one of my favorite of her short stories, of the same title, in which vampirism is a disease which causes its victims to go “cold” for eighty eight days. If someone who’s survived being bitten by a vampire can withstand their all-consuming hunger for blood, they remain human. Vampires and the infected are quarantined in Cold Towns, and anyone who goes cold must surrender themselves or be considered a danger to society for obvious reasons. The thing about Cold Towns is, anyone can sign themselves into one, but you can never leave again unless you have a very special marker and aren’t Cold or a Vampire. Of course, this being the age of reality TV and live blogs, feeds come out of the Cold Towns glamorizing the constant bloodletting parties and the dramatic lives of the real vampires who live there. Misunderstood goth kids will do anything to become a vampire – though bitings are growing rare since vampires don’t want to create competition for the blood supply – and events like The Eternal Ball and Lucien Moreau’s highly-televised parties draw thousands of viewers from outside the heavily guarded walls. You should check out Holly Black’s short story in her collection The Poison Eaters, because it’s a great introduction to the dark and gritty atmosphere of the novel. (Please buy it from an independent bookshop, or ask your local bookseller to order it for you! Amazon is evil.)

So the background to the novel was awesome to begin with, but how about the book’s specific plot? Also awesome. Tana wakes up the morning after a drunken party to find that all of the other party goers – most of them her high school classmates and friends – have been brutally murdered. With her infected and infuriating ex-boyfriend in tow and a suspiciously helpful vampire boy in the trunk of her car, Tana heads to Coldtown hoping to get Aidan through three months of cold hell and somehow make it back to her father and sister. They encounter a pair of vampire obsessed siblings with connections in the nearby Coldtown, and things soon spiral even further out of Tana’s control when everyone around her becomes desperate enough to put their own desires – blood, immortality, escape from a mysterious past – above the struggle to stay mentally and physically human.

I liked Tana as a protagonist because her motives were simple and real. She wants to survive Coldtown, get back to her family, and convince her little sister that turning into a bloodthirsty monster isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She wants to figure out what horrifying force is pursuing the cute but terrifyingly-insane vampire who owes her his life; not because the two of them are destined to save the world (such an exhausted plot twist in YA these days) but just because she likes him. She wants to help her friends and keep them from biting her. She’s horrified but determined, and it’s easy to invest in her troubles because she experiences a conflict between the instincts of self preservation and loyalty in a completely realistic fashion throughout the whole book. The supporting characters have lots of depth and great backgrounds, too. Tana’s ex boyfriend is charming but frustrating, the famous vampires were terrifying but so completely fascinating, and the human inhabitants of Cold Town had really interesting lives. Plus, there was an awesome Trans* chick who kicked ass without functioning as a mere one-dimensional attempt at diversity! Woohoo!

Reading The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, I noted with interest which parts of the Vampire Literature tradition Holly Black had adopted into her own mythology, and which conventions she decided to ignore or subvert. It’s impossible to write a vampire book without involving some of the patterns and themes from a genre which has been so popular for centuries, and Black does a great job of acknowledging this while still letting her own creativity take center stage. There were obvious influences from Anne Rice’s vampire books – the attention loving villain reminded me an awful lot of Lestat – and some of the action scenes took on a Buffy-eque, cinematic style. It’s a bloody story, and the narrative never shies away from gore in favor of Romantic death metaphors. In fact, the violent descriptions are an integral part of the story’s dichotomy: the quest for a beautiful immortality appeals to the vainer side of human nature at the cost of our self restraint, but the reality of becoming a monster is hideous and painful.

I imagine that any reader will be able to spot hints of their own favorite vampire legends and series when they read the book. At her talk at the Cambridge Library, Holly Black mentioned a whole ton of books and movies which had built up her image of vampires and asked us which vampires we remembered igniting our interest as young readers. The list included: Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Carmilla, Sunshine, and even TV and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that 80s film The Lost Boys, among many others. Aside from the obvious lineage behind Coldtown, I also thought of some embarrassing obsessions from my teenage years which actually fit quite well with the tone and themes of the book. The sarcastic heroine reminded me a little of Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ short and bloody YA books, while the themes of loyalty; desperation; and gritty violence actually brought me right back to the years when My Chemical Romance was the soundtrack to my life. Their early albums I Brought You My Bullets You Brought Me Your Love and Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge go surprisingly well with the pace and structure of The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, though it was uncomfortable to hear the sounds of my fourteen year old weirdness eight years later…

There were a few aspects of the book which I thought could be improved upon slightly, but for the most part I really enjoyed it. The big, dramatic parts of the story actually belonged to the vampire characters and not to Tana herself, so there’s quite a lot of exposition and other characters talking about a history which the protagonist never experienced. However, I was glad to read a book about a teenage girl who isn’t the center of some powerful machination and who isn’t destined to save the world armed with nothing but underdeveloped special powers, so I didn’t mind that structure too much. Some of the interesting minor characters didn’t get enough page-time to satisfy me, but the book was a good length in the end so I suppose their moments had to be pared down to only the most essential contributions. I’m not sure if Holly Black intends to write a sequel to The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, but I was so very happy that it didn’t end on a dangling cliffhanger. If she releases another novel set in Coldtown – either about Tana and her friends or just in the same fictional timeline – I will be excited to read it, even though I’ll be grossed out and nervous for the next few days, like I was this week. The book is great on its own. If you’re after a gross and gripping tale about complex vampires, with a few clever twists, I think that The Coldest Girl in Coldtown will satisfy the morbid side of anyone looking for a disturbing and addictive book to read this Fall.

Mini Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

This is just a tiny little review, mostly copied from my blog, because I don’t have enough time to do a proper write-up of Grave Mercy but I do want to recommend it to anyone who likes historical YA fiction.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4  stars)

Age recommendation: 13+

I borrowed Grave Mercy from the library, following my best book buddy’srecommendation. I’d seen some girls get really excited about the sequel in the Teen section a few weeks ago. Rosie just had to say, “Nun-assassins in 15th century Brittany,” and I immediately flopped into a comfy library armchair to start reading.

Grave Mercy follows teenaged peasant Ismae as she escapes from a brutal marriage to become a handmaiden of Saint Mortain, the God of Death from the Breton peoples’ old religion. I loved reading about her time spent at the mysterious convent with other nuns, learning about concealed weapons, proper dancing technique, and the importance of protecting her country and its duchess from France and other, more cunning, enemies. When Ismae gets sent to investigate the source of political turmoil, she needs to co-operate with a man of questionable loyalty, and her loyalties to her heart; her convent; and the Saint of Death himself are tested as she finds herself involved in the Duchess’s court navigating treachery with no one she can trust but herself. I loved the historical details of Grave Mercy; Ismae is self-reliant and brave without ever adopting a perspective so modern as to draw us out of the story’s time period.

There is an element of romance in the book which I didn’t necessarily enjoy, but it never quite overshadows Ismae’s strong feelings for her country and her devotion to Saint Mortain, so I shan’t complain too much about that here.  I think that other readers might find that the romantic elements add another layer of interest to the story, if they like that sort of thing.  Rest assured that there is more to Ismae’s motivations than her own heart, and her love interest is an interesting character in his own right.

I didn’t know much about Brittany before I read Grave Mercy, but now I have a newfound respect for the young Duchess Anne, who is a major character in the book and a complex but admirable role model. Ismae herself is all sorts of awesome, especially since she recognizes her weaknesses and questions authority with such honesty that her own journey of faith is nearly as suspenseful as the dangerous plot which comes from the political intrigue.  The historical detail was subtle but intelligent; I closed the book feeling both entertained and educated. And, come on, Death nuns with crossbows! I can’t wait to read the sequel, which focuses on a different Sister from the Abbey of Mortain who appears briefly in Grave Mercy and left me curious about her role in the grand scheme of things.