World Book Night: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Friends, cohorts, everyone-but-my-mortal-enemies, I invite you to celebrate World Book Night with me! By “celebrate World Book Night,” I here mean: I have twenty copies of a really excellent book that I’m giving out for free – do you want one?

 

World Book Night is an annual celebration of books and the joy of reading. On this night, volunteer book-givers wander around with special copies of certain popular books which they hand out for free. The goal is to get books into the hands of people who might not otherwise be avid readers.

source: wikipedia

April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. (Happy 450th, William. Here, have this book about spies.)

No spare cash to go to the bookstore? Not sure if a certain story is going to be worth your valuable time? Are you waiting for a sign to literally land in your lap, declaring “This is a book you will love and you should read it!” Here’s your sign. I’m handing out a book that I loved – a really fast read with great characters and a thrilling twist – and you don’t have to buy it or remember to return it or anything. Read it, spill coffee on it, lose it in your car somewhere. Whatever. Free books are pretty great, especially when the story’s as good as this one is.

Here’s why I LOVED Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein:

  • Kick-ass girls in WWII: one foul-mouthed and aristocratic Scottish spy, one brilliant and earnest English pilot. Both of them are utterly wonderful, and they’re even better when they’re together.

 

  • Best-friendships are better than romantic relationships. This is a book about two young people trusting one another even when they’re using code-names and flying under blackouts and suffering through Nazi interrogation. There’s no mushy nonsense about star-crossed love or waiting for one’s boyfriend to come home from the war. The fierce friendship between these girls, thrown together in desperate circumstances, is way more powerful than any sentimental entanglements which might happen on the sidelines.

 

  • Inventive story-telling. Code Name Verity begins with one girl’s written memories of how they met and got started in the military. She’s being held prisoner by the Nazis and, under torture and threats, is turning over bits of code and whatever information she can recall, as long as she can have time and paper to write them down. Her confessions take the form of a memoir, with a vivid voice and plenty of anger behind each word. (Also plenty of cursing-out the Nazis, which is well deserved.) But then it switches: after the backstory of their friendship and the drama of military training, the story moves moves forward to a really harrowing denouement. With all the secret missions and coded communications flying around, it’s really interesting to see various angles of the war: from life in England, to the bases, to prisons, to scenes behind enemy lines.

 

  • On that note: Unreliable narrators! Thrilling plot twists! This is the sort of book you’ll want to read a second time, if you haven’t ruined it with your tears or crumpled pages in suspense. There are false leads and hidden messages, double-agents double-crossing each other, cunning misdirections, and secrets everywhere. This is a spy novel, after all. The plot isn’t particularly complicated or difficult to follow – I get easily confused/frustrated by war thrillers but found Code Name Verity to be an easy read. It’s just that once you see how everything comes together in the end you’ll want to go through and see all the clever details working in action.

 

  • A complete story. ‘Cause I, for one, am damned tired of extended YA series. There’s technically a companion novel to Code Name Verity called Rose Under Fire, but this is a book you can read on its own. No slamming the covers shut in frustration after an enormous cliff-hanger ending. No trilogy set-up just to make as much money as possible. The book is exciting and upsetting and a fantastic piece of literature unto itself. So no worries even if you’re a slow reader or are reluctant to get into a book. This one will grab your attention and not leave you feeling cheated at the end.

Who will enjoy Code Name Verity?

  • Anyone who wonders if they’d have the courage to sacrifice their comfortable lives for scary, lonely missions in dangerous locations. (After reading the book, I don’t think I would.)
  • Anyone who has a best friend and knows how that bond can be stronger than patriotism or romance or fear.
  • Anyone who can appreciate a war story focused on the individuals involved as well as the bigger picture. The book features Englishmen, Scots, French resistance fighters, farmers, Nazi interrogators, turncoats, American radio presenters, nameless government officers, and a passel of tiny Glaswegian evacuees who made me laugh when I thought I would be holding my breath forever. You love some characters and despise some others, and then realize near the end that nearly everyone has a side you didn’t see. War turns everyone into an enigma, and this book gets that exactly right.
  • And anyone who likes the idea of young people flying planes, parachuting into war zones, sassing their interrogators, and cracking codes, all the while managing to find something hopeful in their surroundings and comrades. Basically, anyone who looks for something to hold on to in the worst of times.

So, do you want to read Code Name Verity? Do you live within a reasonable distance from me? Get in touch and I’ll try to get it to you tonight. I promise it’s good, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the story and the characters. Anyway, it’s free. The worst that can happen is you might stay up a little too late, desperate to know what fate has in store for the heroines. Just know that while fate can be cruel and war always sucks, there are always brave people to celebrate. And I haven’t read about braver characters in a very long time.

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Book Review: Bird by Crystal Chan

source; goodreads

I had absolutely no idea what to expect with Bird when I sat down to read it over the weekend.  It could have been a ghost story.  It could have been a heart-wrenching tale of family tragedy.  It could have been silly, or mystical, or preachy, or boring.  I chose to just dive right in and see what happened.  Bird not a terribly long book, and as it’s written for middle grade readers I was able to get through it in one evening.  It turned out to be quite different from any of those adjectives, though I’m not sure which ones would fit better.  Personal, maybe, or truthful, or heartfelt.  I don’t usually like to use the term heartfelt.  It sounds sentimental most of the time.  But this is the sort of book you feel in your heart, though I was happy that the author doesn’t try too hard to reach inside your chest and prod that bloody muscle into pieces.  Jewel’s narration is poignant enough without much meddling.  Even though Bird had its slow moments and got a little introspective for my tastes, I found myself watching Jewel’s family and friendships build themselves up from near breaking with devoted interest, and cheering inwardly for every small victory along the way.

Jewel’s grandfather didn’t murder her older brother John, but he did give him the nickname “Bird” and joke that the little boy could fly.  So, when Bird actually did jump from a cliff and die — at the same hour as Jewel’s birth — Grandpa got the blame.  Jewel’s dad believes that his father called unwanted attention from duppies, which are ghosts and tricky spirits common to their native Jamaican folklore, by bestowing the unusual nickname.  Now Jewel is twelve and her home is still rife with silence and tension, so many years after the accident.  Her grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since Bird died, and the old man exudes anger and sadness from behind his closed door and closed mouth.  Jewel’s father insists that she learn about duppies and how to avoid them, while her mother insists that spirits don’t exist and wishes Jewel would focus on the real world.  So much goes unsaid in Jewel’s household, it’s no wonder she sometimes feels like Bird’s memory matters more than she does; the living sister who never met her brother but feels his presence everywhere.

When Jewel meets a boy named John perched in her favorite tree, she can’t decide if it’s coincidence, fate, or something a little magical which has brought them together.  John claims to be staying with his uncle in the small town, but some details of his story are puzzling and vague.  His appearance quickly catches the attention of everyone in Jewel’s family.  Her mother really smiles for the first time in many years when she talks to Jewel’s new friend.  Her father gets suspicious.  And Grandpa gets furious,vigorously duppy-proofing the house and making it clear that John’s not welcome near his family. But John understands Jewel’s passion for geology — a passion her family disregards entirely– and together they manage to have fun in the moment rather than dwelling on tragedy.  So she isn’t ready to give up her new-found friendship just because the grandfather who has never spoken to her sees a trickster ghost in John’s appearance.  Nor is she willing to question the strange discrepancies in John’s stories about himself, until it might be too late to ask.

Bird is a story about belonging and forgiveness.  As Jewel and her family try to work through the memories which are burdening their present, Crystal Chan shows how what we choose to believe in can change the way we see life, the afterlife, and the people who make life worth living in the first place.

For all its talk of ghosts and untimely demises, Bird is not a fantasy at all, nor is it much of a wild ride.  The entire tone is resolutely true to life, which makes Jewel’s father and grandfather even more interesting as characters when they dwell on the superstitions of their heritage.  I think that one of my favorite things about Bird was the inclusion of Jamaican folklore, and the way it blended or clashed with reality.  The writing might be realism, but names hold just as much power here as they do in fairy-tales, and there’s always a little hope of magical intervention as long as characters believe in it.

Jewel’s mother is partially Hispanic, but doesn’t speak Spanish, and her father is Jamaican, so our young heroine sort of stands out in her Midwestern town.  Chan handled the mix of cultures pretty well; all the vivid details about heritage served to give the characters memorable personalities rather than just appearing like forced “fun facts” scattered throughout the text.  Jewel’s mixed race background in a predominantly white town was mentioned with a matter-of-fact and candid honesty I very much liked about the character.

John, too, voices some really poignant observations about the nature of belonging.  In the way he brushes off any awkward questions about his being adopted by a white family, and then the true frustration which he eventually reveals, the novel shows that even kids whose parents pay them plenty of attention can feel legitimately alienated.  One moment which really stuck out to me was when John explained to Jewel that he acts cheerful and nonchalant about his background because no one wants to hear his real opinion about it.  There’s a lot in Bird about how hard it is to live up to adults’ warped expectations, especially when you’re young and full of life with not enough living going on around you.

At the same time, the hardships grown-ups have to face are treated fairly.  When Jewel and her Grandpa finally find a way to communicate, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders, a weight I didn’t even realize had descended upon me while I read.  Grandpa was definitely my favorite character, even though he wasn’t very likable for the majority of the book.  For a man of very few words, he had such an emotional history and it was wonderful to watch Jewel’s perceptions of him change over the course of the novel.

Bird is a sort of quiet, detailed, sensitive novel.  Kids who need action and peril to hold their interest in a story would find it hard to race through the pages.  There’s death, and a few near-misses, but not much in the way of swashbuckling or saving the world.  Instead, Jewel and John and the small cast of other characters are trying to salvage and re-build their own little worlds, pursuits which are equally important.  Fans Kate DiCamillo’s more serious books and Sharon Creech will enjoy Bird, and follow Jewel’s discoveries with sympathy and interest.  I’m recommending it to thoughtful kids and to their parents, too, because Bird is full of moments which shed light on how the living — and the dead — from very different generations sometimes struggle to see things as they truly are.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** ( 5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing : **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up.

Book Review of The Thickety: A Path Begins by J. A. White

“Creepy kids’ book delivery!” my co-worker announced when she dropped The Thickety in front of me at the bookshop.  The intricate, foreboding cover of the advanced reader’s copy was enough to move it to the top of my reading list. I seem to have developed a reputation as She Who Reads All The Weird Children’s Books. It’s a fitting title, I suppose, and I do enjoy the perks which go with it.  The Thickety is set to come out in May, 2014.

source: goodreads

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8 and up

(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of The Thickety and a few details might change before publication.)

The Thickety is a Middle Grade novel set on the fictional island of De’Noran, where people are still terrified of magic and follow The Path of Timoth Clen: destroyer of witches. Unfortunately, Kara’s known around the island as “the witch’s daughter.” Her mother was put to death for committing some gruesome murders with magic, and Kara’s family has been largely ostracized by their superstitiously devout community ever since. Kara just wants to be left in peace with her beloved little brother, to bring her father back from the brink of despair, and to get through a day without Grace – the religious leader’s manipulative daughter – making her life unbearable.

This fearful village exists in the shadow of the Thickety, a deep dark forest which is home to the mysterious and ominous Sordyr. There are monsters in the Thickety, and old powers which can not be understood. Kara can sometimes hear the forest demon calling her name, but she knows magic is the cause of all evil in De’Noran and tries her hardest to follow The Path; to “work hard, want nothing, stay vigilant.” No one has ventured into the Thickety and escaped unharmed. But then, one evening, Kara crosses the border and goes into the woods. She finds a magical book – a grimoire – and quickly uses it to learn magic and finally exert some control over her surroundings. That is, unless the seductive promises coming from the grimoire are controlling her, instead…

I really wanted to love The Thickety, as the premise and setting really excited me, but I ended up only liking it. Still, there’s a lot to like. The religious mythology and superstitions which rule De’Noran seem underdeveloped at times, but are creative and appealing nonetheless. If there’s a sequel, I hope that the legends behind Sordyr will be discussed in more detail, because while I love the idea of an evil nature king dwelling in accursed forests, his influence in the story tends to be told rather than shown. The village traditions of reenacting parts of their mythology filled in some of the gaps – almost in morse dancer-style pageantry – but I just felt that such a cool character ended up being wasted. The forest itself also gets less page-time than I would have liked. There are all these great descriptions of really unusual creatures which come from beyond the trees, and the small amount of time Kara does spend within the boundaries is filled with uncanny wonders befitting the likes of Mirkwood Forest. But, disappointingly, the Thickety spends most of the book looming ominously around the town rather than acting as a stage for what could have been some really atmospheric scenes. However, the novel’s subtitle is “The Path Begins,” so I’m hoping that a sequel might take us headfirst into the world of glowing webs, frightening tree-men, and many-mouthed monsters.

I did study European witch trials a bit in University, and spend a great many summer weekends in Salem Massachusetts, so I found J.A. White’s take on the witch-hunt mentality pretty interesting. While reading, I couldn’t help but pity Kara’s closed-minded neighbors, since most of them genuinely do act out of terror rather than malice. Pity and fear are the two forces forever at odds in this novel, creating much more complicated dilemmas than the popular Middle Grade conundrum of good vs. evil.

Kara herself isn’t a perfect heroine, but her motivations are clear and realistic. I always appreciate sibling friendship in children’s fiction, and you can’t help but love Kara’s brother Taff almost as much as she does. Any otherwise selfish decisions she makes are easily forgiven, because everything she does is to protect him. If that’s not enough, her father often needs to be taken care of, too, so Kara has to act like the grown up all the while navigating a very hostile little world. It’s not hard, then, to understand the appeal of dangerous magic. When the grimoire’s pages offer a chance to take back some power, I think anyone reading the book would have trouble refusing the temptation.

While some cowardly characters redeem themselves by setting aside their ingrained cruelty in the face of hardship, the meanest meanie in The Thickety is a perfectly despicable antagonist. She adds a relentless layer of unfairness to the story. Sometimes, I wondered if J.A. White has a personal crusade to remind his young readers that there’s no justice in life. It’s not a hopeful story, that’s for sure. And even when things seem like they might work out for the best, something happens to destroy that dream. I’ve got a rather bleak world-view myself, but I’m not sure this is the sort of message I would have appreciated as a youngster well on her way to becoming eternally disheartened. Yes, magic is complicated and sacrifices are often hard to understand. But with one misfortune after another, without any real breaks for humor, it got difficult to remain optimistic that Kara’s inspiring perseverance would ever pay off.

The Thickety comes out in May, and I look forward to seeing it on our shelves. It won’t be book I recommend to every young reader, because the story is so grim and the story’s conclusion does nothing to alleviate the novel’s generally distressing tone. But there are certain readers who will probably love this book. It reminded me quite a lot of Terry Pratchett’s book Wintersmith, but was lacking the humor and levity which lightened that tale. The weird community vibes brought to mind images from that M. Night Shyamalan film The Villiage. And, of course, there are the obvious parallels to the true witch-hysteria stories from our own world, explored in books and plays like The Daylight Gate and The Crucible. Fans of smart adventures and thought-provoking magic will enjoy The Thickety, as will anyone eight and older who is itching to understand how beliefs can shape the world. This book raises important questions and compelled me to read late into the night, hoping foolishly that things might work out for the best. Even though I turned the last page in fit of despair, I did enjoy reading The Thickety and will be excited to hear what our Middle School readers think of it in the Spring.

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman (coming out May, 2014)

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of Bird Box and a few details might change before publication.)

When I wrote my preview of Bird Box after meeting Josh Malerman at the HarperCollins dinner a couple of weeks ago, I made a series of predictions about what it would be like. Let’s see if I was right, shall we?

No one will let slip any concrete details about the plot of Bird Box, but it seems to be one of those gripping, horrifying tales which ensnares your attention at the beginning and completely ruins you for any weekend plans.

Well, my weekend plans were decidedly not ruined. But boy, oh boy, was my attention ensnared. I started reading Bird Box at the train station before a long ride to NYC, and I can’t remember a single detail of the commute. All I recall is burrowing deeper and deeper into my pirate scarf as my nerves got overwhelmed by the tension in this book. It’s “unputdownable,” that’s for damn sure, and I was almost reluctant to close it – halfway finished in a couple of hours – to have adventures in the big city.

I got so sucked into the story I didn’t even notice my mother taking photos in the station.

The story follows a woman as she rows down a river with two young children, blindfolded. That image alone is enough to hold my attention hostage. If there’s a combination I love, its desperation and boats! Where are they going? Why aren’t they looking? So many questions, and I’m nervous about the answers.

Yes, the story does start with Malorie gathering her two children – four year olds who have never laid eyes on the world outside their boarded-up and bloodstained home – and blindly setting out in a rowboat with the hopes of getting the three of them to safety. I got my desperation, I got my boats. But the narrative actually alternates between the immediate events of Malorie’s dangerous journey and flashbacks showing a bit of what happened to turn the world into this nightmare. She starts out living a perfectly normal life, getting accidentally pregnant, arguing with her sister about the strange and scary events which are popping up all over the news. Grisly murders and suicides, seemingly without motive, are becoming an epidemic. When the mysterious deaths start to be reported in the USA, people start to panic. No one knows what makes people snap, what turns ordinary friends and neighbors into frenzied killers. All they know is it’s something they’ve seen. So people stop looking outside. They blindfold themselves, they board up their houses, they eventually stop going outside all together. The whole country – maybe the whole world – becomes like a ghost town. The monsters – and are they monsters? – roaming outside are like infinity, or the end of space: you can’t see it without going mad and self-destructing.

But Malorie is pregnant, so she finds her way to a house with a handful of other people in it; people determined to survive. They have a system of blindly getting water from the well each day. They have a cellar full of canned food. As she falls into a routine with her new friends, and gets closer to her due date, Malorie starts trusting some of her housemates more than others. Tensions run high, as they naturally would during a horrifying scenario like this. (I would like to mention how pleased I am that there isn’t much romantic nonsense to get in the way of all this terror. Huzzah for someone who can create compelling situations without trying to make everything about sex!) Some characters want to venture outside with blindfolds and broomsticks to find food and information, while others think that’s suicidal. And all this time they’re hearing things outside – brushing against things on the way to the well – in little moments which made my blood run cold. When another stranger joins the household, all the pent-up drama has to unfold one way or another.

The story-telling shifts between this frightening backstory and the very sensory experience of Malorie’s journey, paddling a boat with her blindfolded children trained to listen and report every sound that they hear. Because who knows what could be in the woods. Do animals go mad, too, when they see these creatures? And what’s the sound that’s been following them down the river? And this whole time the reader has to wonder what exactly happened in the house, years ago, to leave Malorie alone with the children and the bloody walls? The answers are the stuff of nightmares, but there’s still hope that she might survive to get somewhere safe. The whole story is about safety, really. It made me realize how much I take my own comfort and security for granted.

While I’m not always keen on post-apocalyptic settings, I am very keen on atmospheric adventure novels and surreal horror stories.

I would actually say that Bird Box was not so post-apocalyptic as I imagined it would be. The world outside is in shambles, sure, and a great many people have died. But it’s not in the too-distant future. There was no huge destructive event and people aren’t roving the waste-land with machetes and rigged-up jeeps. Nor is there any big government conspiracy to wrap our heads around. This is a proper horror story with the creeping, eerie, something-is-terribly-wrong-oh-god-don’t-open-your-eyes sort of danger. I like this book way more than some of the large-scale zombie novels and dystopian futures set in a world of rubble.

We don’t know exactly what’s out there. Josh Malerman has turned withholding information into an art form, yet his descriptions of sounds and feelings alone create more tension than some people would be able to bear. Is that a breeze or a breath on her neck? Is there a creature in the well? Is this bucket slightly heavier than it was a few seconds ago? Does that sound like another boat, to you? Why did the birds stop chirping, in their box out the window which serves as an alarm? Sounds are scary, silence is scary, and sometimes people are scariest of all. The atmosphere of Bird Box was foreboding and relentless. It’s easy to imagine the nightmare Malorie is living, even though we never get to really see it. And, as I’m Atmosphere Girl with a capital “A,” I declare this book well done indeed.

So, did this book keep me awake at night? It honestly didn’t get the chance, because I finished it on the train ride home. But the ideas and shaken nerves I got while reading it stayed with me for days. I had to choose a funny book next to calm me down, because my neighbors’ dogs were barking unusually late at night while I was chopping kindling and I nearly bolted inside with the axe still in my hand. If you’re the twitchy, fearful sort, Bird Box will mess with your head. If you like being relentlessly terrified for several hours, go buy this book when it comes out in the Spring. Bird Box will be a great book for anyone who wants to really think about what it is that’s scaring them, and for people who might be a little tired of the horror genre’s usual conventions. Josh Malerman has written a chilling, unique, and utterly captivating first novel, here, and I’m very glad to have had the chance to read it. I’m not sure the lady next to me on the train enjoyed my company (there was a lot of gasping and nail-biting and scrunching up in my seat), but there was no way I’d be going to bed without knowing what happens to Malorie, her children, and the messed-up world around them.

Book Review: The Mark Of The Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson (Coming out in March, 2014)

I don't like to bend spines but I love the front and back covers of this book!

I don’t like to bend spines but I love the front and back covers of this book!

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****(4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: *** **(5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of The Mark of The Dragonfly and a few details might change before publication.)

How pleased am I to be giving this book five stars? So very, very pleased. It’s been a rough month and The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a wonderful distraction, a breath of fresh air, and a damned fine adventure to boot. It’s a new Middle Grade fantasy/adventure novel which will be hitting bookshelves this March, and I seriously recommend it.

We meet Piper in Scrap Town Number Sixteen – part of the Merrow Kingdom – on a night when meteors from another world are showering down. (As it happens, the artifacts which crash through the sky in a haze of poisonous dust come from our world; things like music boxes and copies of The Wizard of Oz. I thought that was pretty cool.) Piper is a scrapper, which means that she and the other poor folk in her struggling town go out to the fields after a storm to collect the strange objects and sell them to rich people from more prosperous industrial towns. After her father died in a factory working iron for a King who is obsessed with innovation and expansion, Piper has been living on her own in a somewhat hostile world. She has an unusual gift with machines and works as a mechanic to stay alive. Aside from her friend Micah, a little boy who wants to find something marvelous in the fields one day, she has few people she can trust and no one to take care of her.

All this changes when she finds a gravely injured girl in the wreckage of a caravan after a big meteor storm. The girl, Anna, has lost many of her memories and is being pursued by a mysterious and forceful man she only remembers as “the wolf.” Piper rescues Anna and is shocked to discover that the young girl has a tattoo of a dragonfly on her arm. The mark of the dragonfly implies that a person is terribly important to King Aron, and our resourceful young heroine decides to escort the frightened girl to the capitol city where she might reunite her with a grieving family and, she hopes, collect a reward for herself. I liked that Piper’s motivations weren’t entirely golden hearted. She has sympathy for Anna and feels obliged to protect her, but knows that her world is harsh and wants to build a better life for herself in the capitol. Piper and Anna board a train as they escape from “the wolf,” and find themselves treated with respect thanks to Anna’s tattoo and Piper’s ability to lie her way out of awkward situations. They meet a mysterious boy with a big – winged – secret and some rough-and-tumble train technicians with very kind hearts under all that soot.

A great majority of the book takes place on the train, but it isn’t all talking about engines and watching the scenery go by. Chases, attempted robberies, social climbing, library re-arranging, and all sorts of mischief takes places on the sturdy but old-fashioned 401. It’s a mildly steampunk setting, but Jaleigh Johnson never goes overboard with the technical descriptions. This isn’t one of those otherworldly books in which everything has a few gears slapped on it in order to render it appealing. When there are mechanical interludes, they exist for a reason. And, as this is a story aimed at readers 10 and up, I was perfectly content to have the scientific and political aspects of the Merrow Kingdom described only on a need-to-know basis. This is an adventure focused on the characters and a train with the politics and geography as mere backdrop, so the weird discrepancies were easily forgiven. (An example of this would be the weird blend of our world and the fantasy one: orange trees and “pika” trees exist in harmony, and there’s a statue of an elephant fighting a dravisht raptor, whatever that may be.) The Mark Of The Dragonfly is not a short book, though, and too much world-building would have been rather detrimental to the pace, so I suggest that readers just get cozy with the strange setting – one which is connected to ours through some space in the sky – and enjoy reading about Piper and Anna as they navigate the fraught world. They get to fly in the clutches of magical beasties, experience an awkward psychic encounter with a subterranean fantasy race, and fix gears and pipes which do way more than transport passengers. I was reminded of the TV show Firefly from so many years ago, both by the nature of the adventure and the vintage-sci-fi setting. Not to mention, the likable cast of characters to whom you can’t help but get attached. A whole range of emotions plays out within the four hundred pages: from joy to despair, and back through witty banter and friendly rivalries all the way to surprise and – dare I admit it? – warm fuzzy feelings.

There were a few pieces of The Mark Of The Dragonfly which left me wanting a bit more detail. How, exactly, were odds and ends from Earth crashing through the sky in the Scrap Towns? The idea is fascinating and the descriptions of that bizarre meteorological phenomenon were really cool, but after the first few chapters the idea is abandoned all together and never properly revisited during the course of Piper’s adventures. What were the villain’s real motives, besides greed and expansionism? When he got a chance to explain his actions, they almost seemed like noble delusions. And on that note, we never really learn why he’s called “the wolf.” I did work out the big plot twist long before it was officially revealed, but it was still done well with enough clues to convince me without making it too obvious. Bear in mind that I’ve also read loads more of the genre than the intended audience. (A note on the genre: The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a little like a less-complicated Mortal Engines, and I think that anyone who enjoys this book should consider testing the waters of more detailed steampunk-y children’s adventures. There’s quite a lot to choose from, at the moment. But Philip Reeve is definitely a favorite. Older readers might also enjoy Amy Leigh Strickland’s Rescue! Or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal.) These little distractions weren’t nearly annoying enough to make me dislike any moment I spent reading The Mark Of The Dragonfly, though, and I particularly think that young readers will be happy to immerse themselves in Johnson’s world without getting bent out of shape over a few technical difficulties.

The writing was straightforward and fun, the characters were delightful but realistic with faults and mistakes aplenty, and I was anxious to learn what would happen. When I finally did reach the end, I nearly did a heel-click from glee upon learning that there was no dreadful cliffhanger conclusion waiting to spoil my afternoon! I am so tired of Middle Grade series which rely on inconclusive endings to build suspense. (This is especially hard when you’re a bookseller and want to recommend an author, but the first of a series is sold out at your shop.) If Jaleigh Johnson decides to write another volume set in the Merrow Kingdom I will be thrilled to read it, but The Mark Of The Dragonfly can easily stand alone as a favorite book on the young readers shelf. I can’t wait to recommend it to kids who loved Inkheart and adults who want something new for the inventive and strong-willed young scrappers in their lives.

Short Review: The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg

This is just a tiny review excerpted from my blog post Birthday, Books, Bedtime over at The Bookshelf Pirate.  I read The Isle of Youth because it got some good press and I like having new short stories to recommend at the bookshop.  Now that it’s the holiday shopping frenzy, I find that collections and anthologies are getting popular as gifts.  Short story collections are often a little hit-or-miss for me, but I was intrigued by this unassuming little volume and bought it on a whim. The Isle of Youth is a collection of several short stories by Laura Van Den Berg, all of which tend to focus on displaced women struggling to understand how they relate to their surroundings and to the people in their lives.

Source.

Characters: *** 3/5 stars

Writing: *** 3/5 stars

Plots: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars out of 5, because some were great but others bored me.)

About half of the stories really interested me, while others slipped from my memory almost immediately.  The title story came at the very end of the collection and it was one of my favorites, probably because it was about a woman’s relationship with her volatile sister and I thought that the characters were entertaining and complex.  I find the dynamics between siblings and friends so much more interesting than romantic situations (or, in the case of The Isle of Youth, quiet romantic implosions and disasters).  The story “Lessons”, about a band of young bank robbers, was another favorite. In my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough stories about teenaged cousins and siblings on crime sprees!  That was another one which gave wacky backgrounds and intense motivations to a cast of characters, despite the short time we get to spend with them. I could have read a whole novel about that family.  I also enjoyed the dreary, beer-stained story about a girl who works unhappily with her mother in a cheap magic show.

Though some Van Den Berg’s pieces bled together into an indistinguishable examination of relationships and unspecified discontentment, certain details were vivid and fresh.  For example – and this was of particular interest to me though the story itself wasn’t one of my favorites – there was one which mostly took place in Antarctica, but one character had been kidnapped and held hostage in the very towns where I work/have worked.  It’s really unnerving to read a fictional account of a girl your age being snatched at knife point mere meters away from where you’re taking your lunch break.  So that was cool.  One story, which took place in Paris, started out slow but quickly grabbed my interest when acrobats and masquerades came into play.  Unfortunately, that particular story suffered from a rushed and inconclusive ending which snatched the magical feeling away in a puff of smoke.   There was a lot about marriage, siblings, memory, and ambiguous desires in The Isle Of Youth.  Very few of the endings gave us any solid resolutions, but that’s ok because the style was mostly realistic and real life rarely follows any sort of literary structure.  Occasionally, characters became too paralyzed by introspection to keep me interested – Van Den Berg’s ladies do like to wallow in their own thoughts – but that might be more a problem of personal preference.

I’d probably give The Isle of Youth 3/5 stars because the individual stories might do better in anthologies than in a collection all by the same author.  I got a little tired of their theme after a while and felt a little deflated while I was reading.  There’s no denying that Laura Van Den Berg is talented, though, and she clearly put a lot of thought into her characters and their situations.  Her writing digs into some deceptively simple parts of life to show how being an adult is confusing for everyone.  Reading these stories made me want to try being a little more understanding of the people I encounter every day.  The collection is not too long and the stories tend to be of easily digestible lengths.  It would be a good gift for someone who doesn’t have too much time to read but who likes to have meaningful conversations at parties, or with themselves.

Thoughts: A Book Hangover after The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This isn’t a proper review.  I don’t know if I’m smart enough to write a real review of The Secret History, and I’m certainly not feeling eloquent or organized enough to attempt one right now.  Instead, here’s an excerpt from my latest blog post about how hard it is to return to the real world after getting sucked into a really good book.

All week, a significant chunk of my attention was always absent from the task at hand, because I was reading an extremely compelling book.  Any time I wasn’t reading I was wishing that I could, and it was quite a busy week for me so there was less spent with the actual novel and more time spent cursing at my steering wheel about the impossibility (or, rather, the illegality) of reading during one’s commute.

The Secret History was written bloody ages ago, published when I was but two years old, but I only got around to reading it just now.  For years, my bookish friends have been insisting that I should pick it up ASAP, because it’s about everything I love.  Mysterious young people with secrets!  Pagan activities in the woods!  The perils of academia; tragically wasted youth; manipulative teachers; well dressed young lads; hilarity in country homes!  Heck, it even takes place in rural Vermont, where I’ve been spending so much time lately.  And it starts with a murder!  I trust my friends’ judgement, and they know what kind of stories I love, so I’m not surprised that this book seized hold of my brain and wouldn’t release it back into the mundane world until I finished the last page two days later.  (I would have happily read it in one day, with rare snack-breaks and without speaking to anyone, but as Bernard Black so aptly points out: “Books must be sold, and money made.”)

So why did I wait to read The Secret History until now; twenty years after its publication?  I tried to read it in my third year of University, even packed it in my barely-containable suitcase of books to bring to Scotland with me for that express purpose, but I found that I couldn’t bear to read about other college students floundering in situations over their heads when my own academic career was fraught with peril.  I mean, I never had to wash human blood off myself and then translate ancient Greek passages for the morning, but I did struggle with my medieval Scottish poetry class now and then…

Now that I’m free from perilous Academia, though, I can sometimes feel downright nostalgic for those happy days of learning and seclusion from the real world.  The Secret History sucked me instantly into its world of pine forests, secretive country homes, literary allusions, and a vivid (if a bit culturally un-diverse) cast of characters.  The ensemble made my most outlandish friends seem tame and one-dimensional in comparison.  It was so strange to read about a time when students had to borrow each others’ typewriters and call each other on payphones, and reading it made me feel rather young.  I like feeling young now and then.  And the plot, while steeped in elbow patches and slow burning cigarettes rather than fast-paced action, was so tense I couldn’t help but snap at any family members or friends who dared to interrupt me while I was clinging, white-knuckled, to the heavy book.

When I finished reading it, I had such trouble extracting myself from the fictional world I had been inhabiting.  This happens frequently when I get immersed in a great book, but I can’t remember the last time I had such trouble re-adjusting to the real world.  I probably sold five or six copies of The Secret History that week, because I felt a dreadful need to throw other readers’ minds and souls into Donna Tartt’s story.  Sort of like that movie The Ring?  But I hope they’ll enjoy reading it on their plane rides and holidays.  It’s an interesting story to be trapped in – so picturesque, smart, and twisted – and a hard one to escape.

Review of The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (coming in February, 2014)

I had the chance to meet Alice Hoffman two weeks ago, when she came to my bookshop and did a wonderful reading from her nonfiction book Survival Lessons. She was so interesting, kind, and beautifully honest in her talk, and she graciously let me babble at her like a drunk loon about how much I enjoyed Green Angel and Practical Magic when I was a teenager.

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My favorite of her books are the ones which are tinted with a little magic (or a lot of magic) and an atmosphere of something strange and wondrous lurking just behind the words. The Probable Future is another great one like that, as is – I hear – The Story Sisters.

I managed to lay my hands on an ARC (advanced reader’s copy) of Alice’s newest book, which is going to be released this coming February. She’s returned to fiction with The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and I’m happy to report that it falls into the category of dark and strange stories. Here’s my review. Keep an eye out for the book in February!

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15+. (Tragic deaths and sexual violence.)

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is about – you guessed it – a museum full of extraordinary things. More accurately, it’s about Coney Island in the beginnings of the 20th century, when theme parks and amusements were the center of society’s attention. A “professor” with a mysterious past curates a museum with his daughter and housekeeper, and displays both strange artifacts and “living wonders” to the curious public. These “living wonders” are people with deformities or special skills who make their livings as performers, and through the eyes of Coralie – the professor’s daughter, whose hands are like a mermaid’s – we see the inner operations of the museum. Coralie’s connection with water extends past her webbed fingers; she can hold her breath for an almost inhuman length of time and swims through the Hudson River even in the depths of winter. Raised by Maureen, her beloved housekeeper, Coralie grows up sheltered and contained by the manipulative Professor Sardie. When she stumbles upon Eddie Cohen taking photographs in the woods one night, Coralie is drawn out of her small world of magical trickery and into the electric, ever-changing world of Manhattan. Eddie has changed his name and hidden his Jewish upbringing in order to escape from a painful past which still haunts him. As a photographer he has his eyes open to the beautiful parts of nature and humanity, as well as to the horrors which fill his city. Miserable working conditions for immigrants, violent crime, and selfishness are part of the reality which Eddie turns into art, and his extensive view of the world creates a strong contrast to Coralie’s immersion in the details of the museum. When Eddie tries to track down a girl who went missing after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, his quest gets entangled with Coralie’s yearning for freedom and a vivid cast of characters who shed light on a past which is best left forgotten.

I’ll start out with the aspects of the book I loved. Good news: there are several! First of all, the characters were really interesting and detailed. Coralie, Eddie, Professor Sardie, and Maureen demanded most of the narration’s attention, but the minor characters and historical figures kept the story lively, showing depth and personality even in the briefest of appearances. The “living wonders” are never reduced to mere circus freaks, partly because Coralie doesn’t see them as such and also because Alice Hoffman was careful to show that these people were performers rather than lifeless displays. In addition to the men and women in the museum, the novel features a fascinating Dutch hermit, a bird-loving livery man with a dangerous past, an impeccably dressed “wolf man” with a scholarly appreciation of gothic novels, and some really distasteful specimens of humanity who prove to be way more twisted than anything in Sardie’s museum.

The novel’s careful attention to detail extends beyond the characters and into the historical setting itself. Coney Island is shown at a time when the demand for bigger and more competitive spectacles reached a frenzy: electricity is new and exotic animals are exciting. Women still faint when they get surprised. The Dreamland amusement park, which was very real, is being built throughout the novel, and there’s constant tension between the museum’s old-fashioned charm and these newer, more splashy, amusements. In Eddie’s part of the story, the industrial city is growing faster than can be sustained and many peoples’ ways of life are swallowed whole. The events take place against a backdrop of progress as the city itself expands, but we are left wondering if progress was worthwhile at such a cost. Manhattan and Coney Island become characters in their own rights, and the small-ish geographical setting is written with such a careful eye to detail that whole worlds open up in just a few square miles.

As this was a historical novel, I was also impressed with Alice Hoffman’s incorporation of history into the fictional love story she tells. Her major characters are invented to suit the narrative’s purpose – I would say that most of her books which I’ve read have been distinctly character-driven – but the setting is so important to the atmosphere that it would be a shame had she not fleshed it out with real details from such a memorable time. Two famously disastrous fires act as bookends and frame the story: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire shows us the horrible reality of how badly immigrant workers were treated (good luck getting the image of young girls jumping nine stories to their death out of your head once you’ve read this scene), and the inferno which burned down Dreamland ends the action in a whirlwind of nightmarish confusion. Hoffman stations her characters in the center of the action for these momentous incidents, therefore revealing the small details which force us to imagine them as real experiences rather than just names and dates. Her attention to detail shows how the politics and events of a place affect everyone who makes up a certain environment; her characters do not simply exist within the setting but act to illuminate the setting’s importance on our history and our collective interpretation of the past.

There were some weird parts of The Museum of Extraordinary Things which I can’t quite qualify as either “good” or “bad”, but I want to mention them anyway. The language was so poetic, and there were so many obvious metaphors; repeated images; and extended themes, that I had a hard time getting fully immersed in the novel’s writing and plot. Persistent opposition of fire and water images, and the constant dynamic between the wild versus city expansion were beautiful at times but seemed too repetitive and might draw some readers out of the story. The narrative style and shifting points of view might cause similar problems for some readers. Within each section of the book we get a chunk of text written in first person from Coralie’s past-tense point of view, a connected piece in the third person following those memories, another first-person narration from Eddie’s past-tense point of view, and yet another description of those events in the third person. This structure works better in the second half of the book, when Eddie and Coralie’s lives intertwine more obviously, but it’s a little tiresome the first few times the style changes. It’s important that we can understand the differences between how the characters see their own lives and how they really fit into their surroundings, but I wish this could have been achieved in a less abrupt style. Like I said, though, by the end of the book I wasn’t bothered so much by the shifts, since the distant plot lines eventually got braided together into a bigger picture.

The only real problem I had with the book actually has to do with how the conclusion is treated for each of the characters we grow to love throughout the story. Everything gets tied up too neatly at the end, both during and after a few scenes of intense drama and confusion. There’s a rush of chance solutions and solved mysteries which seemed to pile upon one another in rapid succession, thus downplaying the shock and concern we should be feeling for these characters and the city as we read the penultimate chapters. The denouement of this book could have been incredibly moving as well as hectic, but so many conclusions happen in so little time that the emotional impact gets buried under a rushed listing of near deaths and daring escapes. I must admit that I expected slightly more from a book which remained subtle and richly detailed until the last few chapters. This is not to say that I disliked the book by the time I put it down. On the contrary, I’m now determined to read more about the time period, and I’m sure that the characters will stay with me for quite a while. I just wish that the final action could have lived up to the careful research and detailed characters which set up for what could have been an emotional conclusion to such an interesting story.

I would recommend The Museum Of Extraordinary Things to fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, as well as to tragedy junkies and anyone who liked the excellent (and woefully short-lived) HBO series Carnivale. Alice Hoffman raises questions about family loyalty, selfishness and sacrifice, trust, religious faith, the need for adventure, and the past’s impact on every choice we make. Even if you don’t know much at all about the early years of the 20th century, pick up this book in February for a peep into a very true – and relatively recent – world in which living wonders and shocking reality combined to create one of the most dreamlike atmospheres in America’s history. It will open your eyes and fire up your imagination.

Book Review: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-13

We have a stack of Rooftoppers on display at my bookshop right now, and I will admit that I was enamored with this new-to-America children’s book even before I read it.  The cover is beautiful and subdued; an old fashioned design which won’t look out of place tucked alongside classics like The Golden Compass and The Graveyard BookRooftoppers has a charming narrative voice which calls to mind some of my favorite children’s books like Inkheart and Peter Pan, alongside a timeless setting for secretive adventures similar to The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

While it shares some excellent qualities with each of these books, though, Rundell’s writing has a unique style all her own.  She chooses her words carefully but includes enough warmth and wit in all of her dialogue and descriptions to keep us smiling at her dreamy view of the world.  I say “dreamy” there simply because I’m not poetic enough this morning to capture the right words to describe the mood of Rooftoppers. It is exactly the sort of book I would have wanted to read sitting in the cold moonlight after everyone had gone to bed when I was nine or ten years old.  There’s beautiful imagery, international travel, clever conversations, and intrepid children having adventures in a word all their own.

The story starts with a baby getting rescued from the a shipwreck, found floating in a cello case by an awkward but kindhearted scholar.  From the second page, we get a reassuring peek into the nature of the relationship between rescuer and cello-baby: “It is a scholar’s job to notice things.  He noticed that it was a girl, with hair the color of lightning, and the smile of a shy person.”  Charles raises Sophie on his own, and she grows up happily in his curious house eating cake off books (she has a tendency to break plates), reading Shakespeare, and ignoring the tangles in her hair.  Sophie refuses to give up hope that her mother still lives, and a phrase which she and Charles share with each other on numerous seemingly-hopeless occasions is “never ignore a possible.”  The family they make is happy but unconventional and so, as it often happens in books about blissfully un-brushed and precocious children, the dubiously omniscient “state” decides to meddle.  The unfeeling Ms. Eliot, a rigid woman from the National Childcare Agency who is described as often speaking in italics, decides that Charles is unfit to raise Sophie.  It seems he knows so little about bringing up girls he has scandalously allowed her to wear a shirt which buttons on the right like a man’s, as well as a slew of other frustratingly closed-minded grievances.

In defiance of their orders to be separated from one another, Charles and Sophie risk everything to escape England with high spirits in the face of adventure.  They follow a clue found in Sophie’s old floating cello case to a music shop in Paris, and decide to try and find her mother while they wait to be left in peace.  One thread of the plot which puzzled me a little was the selflessness of Charles as he helps the child he raised go searching for a mother she had never met, but between his devotion to her happiness and the unlikely odds that the woman is even alive, I could easily shelve my cynical expectations.  In Paris, Charles and Sophie have to match wits with shifty police officers and obnoxious legal waffling.  Sick of hiding in her hotel room all day, Sophie climbs up to the roof, only to discover that the rooftops of Paris are home to groups of children living free from the rules of the streets below.  She strikes up a friendship with Matteo, an orphan who vows never to go down into the streets again, and some of his friends and learns that thrill and freedom of a life above city could provide her not only with a measure of safety from the authorities but also, if she’s very lucky; very careful; and very brave; a path to her long lost mother.

I know that the books to which I compared Rooftoppers were mostly stories with some fantasy elements, but this novel is actually not a fantasy at all.  I hesitate to call it “realism,” since the historical setting is rather vague to allow for the traditional elements of a Nineteenth Century children’s adventure, but there’s no magic other than luck, hope, and powerful music.  Many of the characters also bear descriptions which imbue them with almost fairy-tale qualities: for example, Charles “had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.”  Because the characters tend to see each other as wondrous beings, there’s no real need for dragons or spells.

It was an absolute pleasure to read about Sophie and Charles as they looked out for one another, and I was easily convinced by Matteo and his hardscrabble friends that the unconstrained world above ground is the best sort of freedom a child could imagine.  The characters in Rooftoppers were determined, resourceful, and hopeful even in the face of devastating disappointment.  If Rundell had been less skilled in her creation of a storybook atmosphere, I think I might have found some of the characters and events a little too good to be true.  Luckily, she writes so beautifully that even where the plot failed to surprise me it still managed to be delightful.

The tension in Rooftoppers sems mostly from the risk of characters losing one another, which is sweet and meaningful but means that readers who are easily frightened won’t find themselves haunted by the terrifying situations which are so plentiful in other Middle Grade novels.  (I loved me some terror when I was of that age, but I understand that some parents would rather not be woken to the sound of screams after their kid stays up too late reading.)  There’s a little bit of violence, but it’s more reminiscent of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan than any true evil.  The end was bittersweet and a little abrupt, but I was extremely relieved to see that there was no cliffhanger paving the way for a sequel.  Rooftoppers can stand alone as a charming book to read on a dark night, particularly if the power’s out and you’ve got a warm fire, and you’ll be thinking about Sophie, Charles, and the shadowy children against the sky long after their adventures are through.

I haven’t been so entranced by the rooftops of Paris since I went through a phase in  Elementary School in which I watched The Hunchback Of Notre Dame every afternoon.   I imagine that sensitive children with mysterious spirits, and grown-ups who miss the atmospheric stories which stuck with them throughout the years, will enjoy Rooftoppers.  It leaves you with your head in the clouds and your heart in your throat.

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.