Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. Little, Brown. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Tana wakes up after a party to a house filled with the dead.

She is one of three survivors: the others are her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, and strange vampire, Gavriel. As the sun slowly sets, the vampires who killed everyone else, bit Aidan, and tied up Gavriel, crawl out of the basement.

Tana makes a quick decision:  no one gets left behind. She escapes, taking Aidan and Gavriel with her.

Aidan is infected. If he drinks blood, he’ll become a vampire. Tana decides the only logical thing to do is to take Aidan and Gavriel to the nearest Coldtown, a place where vampires and the infected – and those humans unfortunate enough to be trapped behind the walls.

All Tana has to do is drive a hungry infected teen and a hungry vampire to the nearest Coldtown and get them safely inside. She’s also going to go inside with them: Aidan may be an ex, but he’s still her friend, and she’ll do everything in her power to stop him from drinking human blood. So she’ll go in to make sure he stays human. And Gavriel — there are a lot of questions there, but she figures, if the other vampires are after him, there has to be something there worth saving.

The problem is, Coldtown is a lawless place run by vampires. It’s dark and dangerous. Once you get in, it’s almost impossible to leave.

Almost. They haven’t met Tana yet. She’s determined to do the impossible: save Aidan, help Gavriel, and return to her father and sister.

The Good: Holly Black has created a wonderful vampire world in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. Vampires used to be hidden, remaining the subject of myth and legend, until one vampire broke the rules. The result wasn’t only the loss of secrecy, it was also the spread of vampirism. People were bit and infected. Once they drank human blood, they became vampires themselves. Very few were able to withstand the compulsion and remain human. Locking the infected in basements and hospitals didn’t work, so a handful to towns were designated “coldtowns” — towns just for vampires. The vampires were locked in, along with any humans unfortunate enough to be stuck in the towns when the walls wents up.

Everyone loves a vampire — the darkness, the danger, the eternal youth, the power. The vampires of Coldtown realize that, and realize that they need blood, and realize that all they need to do is convince humans to enter the Coldtowns willingly. Reality TV shows, live from Coldtown, making it all seem sexy and glamorous and exciting. The vampires are stars — safely behind walls, except for those few so swept out by the wonder of it that they believe they are different and unique enough to enter a Coldtown a human and become one of those stars. As I read about the parties being shown and the clothes worn, about the whole odd society of humans, vampires, and infecteds within Coldtown, I wondered — how much had the vampires created out of the myths of vampires? How much would they have done anyway? Did the vampires allow human stories to influence how they portray themselves?

Tana doesn’t see the wonder of it all, probably because as a child she saw what vampires were really like. Her mother became infected; her father locked his beloved wife up, thinking if they only kept her from drinking blood all would be well. It didn’t end well. Tana’s sister, Pearl, was too young to know her mother or remember the details of her death. Pearl watches the reality shows, online and on TV, entranced. The power and pull of the vampires is also shown by two siblings Tana meets, “Midnight” and “Winter” who are entering Coldtown in the hopes of becoming vampires. (Because of the food supply issues, this is actually not a very likely thing to happen. The last thing the existing vampires want is losing a source of food AND having another hungry mouth within the Coldtown.)

Tana is one of those characters who — well, let me put it this way. If I had been Tana, this would have been an entirely different story because I would have run as fast as I could once I woke up in a house full of my dead friends. I’d have saved myself first, sending help. So yes, I kept on yelling at the book “don’t do that, that’s too dangerous, it’s not worth it.” Except, of course, it was. Tana is simply braver than me. And more forgiving because I really couldn’t stand her ex, Aidan. Or, perhaps, not so much forgiving as someone who has lost people — her mother and a house full of dead friends — so will do anything to save the few survivors, no matter how annoying and self centered and selfish they are. It’s perhaps even a bit selfish of Tana, how she holds close those she wants to save. Selfish, because she doesn’t want to lose people, and selfish because it’s driven by the guilt from her lost mother. Selfish, because she’s not asking what it is that Aidan wants.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown also has terrific plotting: how things fit together is, at times, almost like a layered puzzle box. How the people and things fit together, how it all works out. It’s not just that Tana helping Gavriel turns out to be more significant than anyone could guess. (Well, except the reader of course, who realizes that a vampire being hunted by other vampires has to have a pretty unique backstory). It’s not just what ends up happening with Winter and Midnight and Aidan and even Pearl. It’s how all that works together as a whole. Brilliant.

This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because while I’ll never be the heroine in Coldtown, I love visiting in the safe pages of a book. Because The Coldest Girl in Coldtown starts with a mass murder of a roomful of teens, and those are not the last deaths we’ll see. I love a book where the stakes are real!

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Slatebreakers; YA Bibliophile.






Review: Doll Bones

Doll Bones by Holly Black. McElderry Books. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Zach, Poppy, and Alice  get together nearly everyday to play an elaborate game with dolls, action figures, and stories that grow and twist and turn, all related to the “Great Queen” doll that Poppy’s mother keeps locked in a cabinet.

They’re twelve now and things are beginning to change. Zach is playing basketball and his father is telling him he’s too old to play pretend games. Alice is acting different at school.

The game seems over, as does their friendship, when Poppy shares that she’s been dreaming about the “Great Queen” doll and a little girl who died years ago. The ghost of the girl is demanding that her doll be buried with her.

Zach, Poppy, and Alice are about to go on a real adventure.

The Good: A ghost story — is the Great Queen doll haunted?

An adventure, as Zach, Poppy, and Alice find out the background of the “Great Queen” doll, where she was made, and try to figure out who the dead girl is.

And, a story about growing up and, maybe, growing apart, and the intense, physical sense of loss that brings.

Doll Bones is a great book for those in middle school, or about to go in. There is the haunting (though some may argue that it’s all just a story that Poppy has made up, like the stories she makes up for the games she, Zach and Alice play). There is also a terrific adventure, and I liked how the three figured out bus schedules and how much money they had for food and all those sort of details. These three had to investigate and research and do — all great; plus, since this is about growing up, all those things are showing how, yes, these three are getting older and more responsible. Well, more responsible if you ignore the running away (technically) to do so.

Growing up —  what Doll Bones is really about is growing up and growing apart. I adored the game the three played, and I got so mad at Zach’s father for trying to stop his son from playing, and at the same time, I read about the game and the play-acting and knew that what Poppy is fighting is true, no matter what: that they are outgrowing the game. That some of them may be outgrowing it faster than others. That children grow and change and it happens. The ghost that will haunt Zach and Poppy and Alice will not be the ghost of a long dead child, but rather the ghost of their childhood and their games, even if some things (friendships, creativity) will survive. It is also the games, and all they learned pretending, that makes them able to go on a real adventure, and that, also, is growing up, taking the skills practiced in games and doing it for real.

Because there is so much in Doll Bones — on one level, a ghost story and an adventure, on another, about the loss of childhood — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: A Fuse #8 Production.




Review: Black Heart

Black Heart (The Curse Workers, Book Three) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Book One: White Cat. Book Two: Red Gloves.

Spoilers for first two books.

The Plot: Cassel Sharpe, 17, couldn’t stay out of trouble if he wanted to. (Now that’s a question; given his talents, his family, and his background, does he want to?)

The Feds are forgiving his past crimes if he works for them, using his unique talent as a transformation worker, someone who can transform whatever he touches.

His mother is in big trouble with the local crime boss, and all will be forgiven if Cassel does him one little favor. Cassel knows there is no such thing as one favor. It’s complicated by the fact that neither the mob nor the feds can now he’s working for the other. Oh, and another thing — the crime boss just happens to be the father of the girl Cassel loves.

Just to make things all that more simple — not — Cassel has to worry about his senior year in high school. Classes, avoiding demerits, friends, and a possible blackmail scheme.

It’s all in a day’s work for someone with a black heart like Cassel.

The Good: Black Heart is the third book in the trilogy about “case workers,” an alternate world that looks a lot like ours with one simple twist: curse workers. People who, with a touch of a finger, can kill you — or erase your memory — make you fall in love — or, in Cassel’s case, transform.

In the first two books, Cassel discovers his particular gift and realizes he has to make a choice about his future. Black Heart explores Cassel’s need to choose and what that means; and the ties, both blood and friendship and love, that link him to other people and what those ties mean about his future.

Black creates a flawless world, full of such tiny details as a society that always wears gloves so that a naked hand is more shocking than a naked body, to bigger issues such as the impact of the criminalization of people based on genetics beyond their control.

Are the feds the good guys and the mob the bad guys? Are curse worker by their nature criminals?

Cassel’s mother worked a politician, and it ended badly, with repercussions large and small. Is the only way to fix it to kill the politician? Will Cassel do that? Meanwhile, Cassel’s mother stole something from someone very powerful. Problem is, this happened years and years ago. Will Cassel be able to hunt through his family’s shady past, a mix of lies and truths and rearranged facts, to find the missing object?

Cassel narrates, and, as with the others, his observations and delivery are delightful. On love: “Lila would still be mine. Mine. The language of love is like that, possessive. That should be the first warning that it’s not going to encourage anyone’s betterment.”

Cassel on how he was raised to be able to con anyone, regardless of curse magic: “Mom taught it to me when I was ten. Cassel, she said, you want to know how to be the most charming guy anyone’s ever met? Remind them of their favorite person. Everyone’s favorite person is their own damn self.”

As with the previous books, Cassel appears to share everything with the reader, but holds back somethings. Not only is the book a con — a con of the reader — isn’t any book? At one point, Cassel thinks about someone, “she’s kind. She’s good. She wants to help people, even people that she shouldn’t.  . . . It’s easy to take advantage of her optimism, her faith in how the world should work. . . . . When I look into Mrs. Wasserman’s face, I know that she’s a born mark for this particular kind of con.” Later as he listens to something his brother is telling him: “the story he’s telling adds up . . . . Barron’s story is messy, full of coincidences and mistakes. As a liar myself, I know that the hallmark of lies is that they are simple and straightforward. They are reality the way we wish it was.”

Aren’t writers con artists, and readers the mark? Happy marks, happy to be born that way, because we want the story, we want the story to work, we want to like what we read. We enter into a bargain with the author: tell me lies, and I’ll believe them to be true.

If you’re one of those people who waits until it’s complete to read and buy a series, you have a new set of covers. If you aren’t, you have a cool thing to explain to people who look at your shelves and wonder about the change. And, if you wait till a series is over to make sure it’s worth investing the time: yes, this series is worth it and then some. Black Heart nicely wraps up the most important questions in Cassel’s journey, yet doesn’t answer every question or resolve every little thing. I could easily see a new series (possibly even a for-adults series) set in this world.

Other reviews: Sonderbooks; Ex Libris; Q&A with the author at Novel Novice (Part One, Two, Three).

Review: Red Glove

Red Glove (The Curse Workers, Book Two) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Sequel to White Cat, which you really should read first.

The Plot: For most high school seniors, the big question is what elite college to go to and what to do with their lives. For Cassel, it’s juggling magic and his family (the good news is his mother is out of jail, the bad news is she’s back to her old cons). As a curse worker, he is presented with two unique opportunities: work for the mob, like most of his family has done; or work for the Feds, using his talents to track criminals. Cassel would never turn against his family and friends and work for the Feds — until they show him the photo of his older brother, in a pool of blood.

The Good: This is book two of The Curse Workers series, and you really should read White Cat first. Red Glove continues all the goodness found in White Cat: family, friends, short and long cons, loyalty, mystery. Cassel remains one step ahead of the reader, and in many ways the reader is the “mark,” the subject of Cassel’s cons. Will the reader believe Cassel? Know what Cassel is doing? Or be shocked by what Cassel ends up doing? And — like in White Cat — will the reader end up being as surprised as Cassel about where Red Glove leads?

Red Glove digs deeper into the shady world where Cassel lives, exploring more layers and facets. He’s been raised to trust family and criminals, not friends and outsiders. The events of the past year left him distant from his brothers; it also brought his mother back into his life. She’s returned to her old ways, using her ability to manipulate and control emotions to target rich, old men. The reader also learns more about curse workers, the laws against them, and how those laws and discrimination led to the power of the crime families. Where does Cassel’s loyalties lie? Is it to his family and the person he was raised to be?

Cassel and Lila, the two teens raised in a world where the mob is a way of life and lies and curses are the norm, are both fascinating characters. They are street smart and Cassel’s ability to plot and scheme is impressive. At the same time, neither are perfect. Cassel, for all his planning, makes mistakes. He is, for the first time, making friends and turning to them instead of family. But family – including the crime family led by Lila’s father – won’t let him go. His brother’s death tears him apart; who would want him dead? Well, other than Cassel. And Lila — yes, Cassel knew her as his best friend from childhood. But who is she now? What is she capable of?

I had the pleasure of reading White Cat and Red Glove back to back, and I can’t wait for the third book. The world Black has created, and the characters within it, are complex and fascinating and a little bit (um, no a lot) scary. There is humor, warmth, and love in these books, but there is also darkness. One reason I’m looking forward to the next book is I want to see just how far Black will explore the darkness of Cassel’s world.

Final thing I love about this series: the writing. There are so many asides and observations that left me chuckling and reaching for a post it to mark the page. Here is Grandad, talking about magic: “magic gives you a lot of choices. Most of them are bad.” Cassel, on his mother’s dramatics at his brother’s funeral: “Mom’s putting on a show, but that doesn’t mean she’s not actually sad. It’s just that she isn’t letting her grief get in the way of her performance.”

And yes, both books in this series are in my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Review: White Cat

White Cat (The Curse Workers, Book One) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Review copy from publisher. Also listened to the audiobook version, copy from the library.

The Plot: For Cassel Sharpe, 17, life is about family, curses, and the con. His family is full of curse workers — people who with a touch of the hand can curse you. Make you fall in love, invade your dreams, alter your memory, even kill you. Cassel is the lone non-worker in a family of workers.

As Cassel knows from helping his family, all criminals of one degree or another, you don’t have to be a worker to run a con. You don’t have to be a worker for people to be afraid of you. You don’t have to be a worker to kill someone.

When Cassel was 14, he killed his best friend, Lila. The daughter, and heir, of one of the big crime families. His family sent him off to a fancy boarding school, to protect him and to hide him and keep him out of the way. He keeps his hand in the game by doing a little bit of bookmaking.

One night Cassel almost dies: he has slept walked onto the roof of his school while having a disturbing dream about a white cat eating his tongue. He goes home and notices that his brothers are keeping things from him. Is he being kept out of the family’s biggest con because he’s not a worker? Or, even worse — is he being used? Is he being worked?

In a life full of lies, where even memories and emotions can be manipulated, Cassel has to figure out the truth.

The Good: This is an amazing mash-up of genres and I am head over heels in love. Maybe an emotion worker touched me with an ungloved hand while I wasn’t looking, but no, I think my love for White Cat is real and true. It’s difficult enough to write about a con, to write a mystery, to write about the supernatural or the mafia or family or friendship. To write about them all at once? For each to be spectacular? For all of them to be woven together flawlessly into one story? Amazing and impressive.

Any con caper has to balance two competing storytelling techniques: it must be simple enough for the reader to understand, and it must be unpredictable enough for the reader to be surprised. The reader, in a way, is the mark. I confess, the TV show Leverage has spoiled me because it balances these two perfectly, which means that I began White Cat with high expectations. It has to be at least as good as the TV show. Usually, that type of expectation put on a book is a problem and slightly unfair to the book. Not the case here, because White Cat is note-perfect in how it plays the con. In White Cat, the reader feels like they are in on the con, as smart and clever as Cassel and his family, yet as surprised and fooled as any mark when the full con is played out. As a reader, I love having a book not just meet but exceed high expectations.

If the structure of White Cat is a long con, at it’s heart, White Cat is a murder mystery. Did Cassel kill Lila? Why? Will he kill again?

In Cassel’s world, curses are real, and Black has created a realistic, detailed universe that is not just about the logic of curse work but also the consequences of curse work on society and culture. Since a touch of the hand can curse a person, glove wearing becomes the norm. A naked hand in public is a shocking thing; a naked hand in private is the ultimate show of trust. Consequences to curses exist: after a curse, the curse worker experiences blowback. Play with someone’s memory, lose a bit of your own. Cassel’s grandfather is a death worker, and he has lost a finger for each death curse.

All curse work has been banned. At different times, in different places, prejudice and discrimination have resulted in terrible acts against curse workers. Making curse work illegal, which basically criminalizes curse workers themselves, has created and strengthened organized crime. At one time, people feared curse workers because of the ability to cause harm; now, it’s combined with a fear of the criminal world. Cassel’s family is all involved, in one way or another, in crime. His brother Philip has the markings that show he owes his allegiance to one of the big families. These crime families involve themselves in illegal acts beyond curse work, but curse work is used to assist the illegal actions. Being outsiders have created a sense of family amongst workers, but the family activities include murder and drug dealing. White Cat manages to be both sympathetic to the criminals and to paint them in a horrifying, chilling light.

White Cat is also a fascinating take on alternate history. No, really! Cassel’s world is ours. He lives in New Jersey, and the details about Trenton, Princeton, the Pine Barrens all add dimension to the story and make it real. Yet at the same time it’s not our world, because it’s a history where curse workers have always existed and impacted history.

Cassel has been taught that in a world of liars and cons and curses, family is the only thing that matters, the only people who you can trust. After that, well, it’s all just part of the con. “Actually trusting someone when they have nothing to gain from me just doesn’t make sense. All friendships are negotiations of power.” The power, control, and structure of the different criminal worker families demand their own version of loyalty, including loyalty exhibited by the blood and ash of keloid necklaces.

Black’s use of language is delightful. I kept on marking passages, like this one, where Cassel thinks back on his childhood friendship with Lila: “I couldn’t tell if [Lila] hated me half the time, even when we spent weeks hiding under the branches of a willow tree, drawing civilizations in the dirt and then crushing them like callous gods. But I was used to brothers who were fast and cruel and I worshipped her.” Or, this: “I can’t trust the people I care about not to hurt me. And I’m not sure I can trust myself not to hurt them, either.”

Because White Cat explores loyalty and love as Cassel negotiates the criminal and curse workers world and realizes that he cannot trust what he was taught or how he was raised. Because I was up till two in the morning reading it. Because I immediately began reading the sequel, Red Glove. Because Black has created a world and a group of people that has made me care so much, and intrigued me so much, that after I finalize this post I’m off to find the fanfiction to give me a fix until the third book comes out. For all these reasons, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011 (and is why I don’t limit my favorites to books published in one year!)

I’m not sure I did a good enough job conveying just how much I enjoyed this book. As usual, Reading Rants has a terrific review. And after reading White Cat I promptly began listening to the audiobook version, which gave me an even better appreciation for the scattered clues and delicate plotting.