Monthly Archives: January 2014

Staff Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

9780316213103

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Holly Black

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

$19.00

Available now

I’ve had an advance copy of Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown sitting on my desk since June. I’m not a fan of the Vampire genre. I never read Anne Rice, or watched Buffy. I didn’t jump on the Twilight bandwagon (books or movies). I did read Dracula in grad school, but only because it was selected by my reading group. I don’t actively dislike vampires, I just prefer other supernatural creatures. But that’s not why I didn’t read The Coldest Girl in Coldtown earlier. I had heard it was great and having read other books by Black, I was sure that was true. It was mostly time. And obligations. But then the book was released in September and the reviews started coming out. First there was this review over at io9.com. The reviewer starts the same way I do here: ‘I’m not a vampire person, but . . ..’ The io9 review is smart and enticing. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown moved closer to the top of the must-read pile. More reviews came out and the book started showing up on “Best of the Year” lists. Arg. I started to accept that I was missing something really good. Then I read this review at PW, which included this question and Black’s answer:

This isn’t meant to sound hostile, but: after Twilight and a thousand imitators, why a vampire novel?

I think that’s a great question. I’ve loved vampires for a very long time. In eighth grade, I guess, my research paper was on vampires. I’ve read countless vampire books and in all the time that I have loved vampires they’ve either been so over that you’d be crazy to write a vampire book, or so popular that writing one would be a waste of time because there were too many of them. Eventually I said to myself, there’s never going to be a time when it makes sense to write a vampire book, so just write one.

In the moment I read Black’s response, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown moved directly to the ‘next book’ spot. I love the idea that if you have a story you need to write, then who cares about trends. I knew, from her response, that The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was a book with something to say. And now I’m kicking myself for not reading it back in June.

You can read about plot descriptions, expositions on why this isn’t “just a vampire book”, and persuasive essays on the book’s commentary about social media and celebrity culture elsewhere. Instead, I want to mention two parts that catapulted this book into “one of the best books I’ve read this year” category: the chapter headings and the allusions to carnival.

Each chapter includes a quotation about death from writers and poets such as Woody Allen, George Eliot and George Bernard Shaw along with ballads and folk proverbs. The quotations often connect either directly or tangentially to the action within that chapter, but each quotation is a reminder of humanity’s obsession — and infatuation — with death. It is interesting that most of these quotations are about death and beauty. Death and love. The first chapter heading is a quotation from Whitman, “Nothing can happen more beautiful than death.” The quotations set the tone for the book because they aren’t afraid. They are celebratory. In them, death is an adventure and respite, a lover and a seducer. Place and person. Death is home. Avoiding it. Striving for immortality. Those are the real tragedies.

Chapter 33 contains a quotation from Adrienne Rich: “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters”, which is somewhat of an anomaly in that the quotation does not directly reference death. The quotation is from Rich’s book Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963). The inclusion of Rich’s overtly feminist poetry in a story about vampires might seem obvious — yes, yes violent men prey on innocent women — but Black explodes all of those gendered cliches within the narrative itself. Tana isn’t passive. She’s definitely not a victim of male aggression, and , as noted by other reviewers, gender fluidity is a significant factor in this story. So how do we understand the Rich quotation, especially as it comes rather late in the book? If Tana is our guide for intelligent women, then we must acknowledge choice. Tana, as we have come to learn, thinks before she acts and she makes contentious decisions. She can’t control everything that happens to her — and certainly not the actions of others, but she carefully determines her response. If she’s sleeping with monsters, it’s by choice.

At this point in the story, though, the distinction between human and monster has become increasingly blurred. Scientists, according to the narrative, insist that not all vampires are monsters. Humans voluntarily become vampires, indicating that there is something appealing to humans and they aren’t strictly victims. Vampires in coldtowns maintain a degree of social ethics, feeding from tubes and shunts to avoid infecting humans and creating an overpopulation of vampires. Tana continually wonders about the dynamics between vampires and humans, exposing the reader to her unanswerable questions. By the end of the novel, Tana has challenged and dismantled the entire definition of monster, leaving it up to the reader to re-assemble it. In Black’s story, we aren’t dealing with humans and the ‘other’. We are slowly forced to face the horrifying truth that humans are capable of monstrosity. And goodness. We aren’t one or the other, we move between the two. We desire the chance to become the monster, even if for only a short time, we want to escape our own own humanity and that is more terrifying than any monster.

In one of the final chapters — and I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler, because it’s not plot related — Tana “finally understood how the wildness of the Eternal ball was the wildness of grief, the intoxicating dance of carnival, where one leaves oneself at home and becomes something else for a night, hoping that the old skin will still fit when one comes back to it in the morning.” Carnival is time out. Time outside of yourself. Time when people dress-up, wear masks, become someone else. Escape. The paradox of carnival, however, is that during that time, you aren’t someone else. You are still yourself, which begs the question, who is the real you? During carnival, do we put on masks or take them off? Black’s “intoxicating dance of carnival” reminds us that carnival, like death, is seductive.

Death, however, doesn’t let us leave; “To die is landing on some distant shore” (John Dryden, Chapter 15).

Death is our final home; “Call no man happy till he is dead” (Aescylus, Chapter 12).

“Nothing can happen more beautiful than death” (Walt Whitman, Chapter 1).

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Staff Review: Boy, Snow, Bird

9781594631399Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead Books

$27.95

Available March 2014

I loved Mr. Fox, so I was really excited about Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird.  I was anticipating a loose retelling of the Snow White fable, similar to Mr. Fox and the story of Bluebeard. The wicked stepmother is present here, as is Snow White, but this novel goes beyond the familiar elements. Boy, Snow, Bird is about surfaces, what they reflect, and what lies beneath. Boy is Boy Novak, actually a girl, who escapes an abusive father, and marries a widower with a beautiful daughter, Snow. His family seems to be held in thrall to Snow’s beauty, who is so pale, with dark hair, just like in the fairy tale.

When Boy gives birth to Bird, she realizes that her husband’s family is black, passing for white.  Bird shatters this carefully guarded secret, because she looks like what she is: a mixed race child. Boy grows to hate the sight of Snow and sends her away to live with her black relatives. Boy worries about how difficult life will be for Bird. People make assumptions based on what things look like on the surface, and people have assumed that Snow is white, and therefore her beauty does not get questioned, because “they don’t see a colored girl standing there”.  Bird has one peculiarity – sometimes she cannot see herself in mirrors. What do other people really see when they look at her? Is she invisible to white people because she is not white? What do we really see when we look at another person? How much of what we see is real and how much is based on our own prejudices and assumptions? This is brilliantly illustrated in a heartbreaking scene when Bird dresses up as Alice in Wonderland in “white ankle socks, black Mary Janes, the fat ribbon tied in a bow around (my) head, the blue dress with the blue and white apron over it”,  for a fancy-dress day at school. Boy sees her as Alice, but her father sees her as a housekeeper. Bird’s classmates make the same assumption as her father, seeing her as either as housekeeper or a washerwoman.

The only jarring thing about this novel, to my mind at least, because it felt tacked on, is the revelation near the end that Boy’s abusive father is actually her mother, who has been passing as a man. With this revelation, however, Boy takes Snow and Bird to go find her father/mother and find some sort of resolution.

At the end of this wonderful book, I went back to think about the title: Boy, Snow, Bird. None of these names reflect the true person. Boy is not really a boy, Snow is not really white, and Bird is not really a bird. And yet in the end, it is not our names, or what is on the surface, that determines our true selves.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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Staff Review: The Real Boy

9780062015075The Real Boy

Anne Ursu

Erin McGuire (Illustrator)

Walden Pond Press

$16.99

Available now

The one thing I love about Anne Ursu’s novels (Breadcrumbs, The Cronus Chronicles) is that they are always filled with breath-taking magic and her newest novel The Real Boy is no different. Based loosely off the fairy tale of Pinocchio, this novel contains charm for both young and old readers to revisit time and time again. Oscar is an eleven year old boy who works for the town’s magician, mixing potions, perfumes and herbs for the city’s most privileged people. Oscar spends his days in the basement of the shop with his pet cats mixing and collecting the herbs and dreaming about the wizards that once walked the land. Although his world is small, he prefers it that way to the sprawling city of Aletheia. Unfortunately for Oscar, as soon as Caleb the magician leaves Oscar in charge of the shop while he goes away on a business trip, the children of the city start to become sick. As the town’s substitute magician, it’s up to Oscar and his new friend Callie to uncover the secret behind the illnesses. Along the way, Oscar will learn about the secret of the wizards, Caleb’s “magic” and reason behind Oscar’s being. Beautifully written, The Real Boy is an enchanting novel that will leaves its readers with the warmth of a fairy tale.

~ Laura

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Staff Review: Voices of Dragons

9780061547904-1Voices of Dragons

Carrie Vaughn

HarperTeen

$8.99

Available now

As a dragon lover, I can happily say this is one of the most exciting dragon books I have ever read from YA. With a great plot and visually beautifully written scenes, Voices of Dragons is one ride YA readers do not want to miss.

The opening plot is very simple: Kay, a seventeen year old girl decides to rock climb near the border that divides modern day America and Dragon, territory where dragons roam freely. When she accidentally falls into the river that divides the two lands, she is rescued by Artegal, a young and rebellious dragon. From that moment they form an inseparable and forbidden friendship that could mean war between dragons and humans if discovered. And war does begin to brew when Kay and Artegal are spotted by a military air craft that crash lands into Dragon territory. Soon Kay and Artegal realize their friendship may be the only thing that stands in the way of war between humans and dragons.

Carrie Vaughn wonderfully blends Dragon Mythology and World History into this modern spin. With refreshingly adventurous protagonist and an equally exciting story line in this girl-meets-dragon novel, Voices of Dragons will leave heads spinning and readers longing for more dragons.

~ Laura

Morse Pond Review: Clueless McGee Gets Famous

9780399257513_3a72aClueless McGee Gets Famous

Written and illustrated by Jeff Mack

Philomel Books

$12.95

Available now

Clueless McGee Gets Famous by Jeff Mack is a quick-read, full of break-dancing and ninja moves. I loved it; it was a great book. PJ gets a ten-gallon hat, and he loves it. But then someone steals it! He gets another, and that gets stolen too. He has to get to the bottom of this! He starts seeing posters about Nasty Ned. This man seems like the perfect hat-stealer! If you love Diary Of A Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants, this book is for you. All in all, I would give it 4.5 stars.

~ Ryan, 10

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Staff Review: Vatican Waltz

9780307452955Vatican Waltz

Roland Merullo

Crown Publishing Group (NY)

$24.00

Available Now

I like everything that Roland Merullo has written — Breakfast with Buddha, Lunch with Buddha — and thoroughly enjoyed his new book, Vatican Waltz.

Cynthia Piantedosi is a devout Catholic who has experienced visions, or “spells”, since she was a young girl. When her beloved grandmother dies, Cynthia’s visions take on a greater intensity, pointing her towards becoming the first female Catholic priest. At least this is what she thinks God is telling her. She is so focused on this goal that she pursues it all the way to the Vatican. The backlash that results from this pursuit instead reveals God’s true intentions, which will inevitably lead to just as much upheaval in the church as inviting women into the priesthood.

Vatican Waltz is not thrilling in the manner of The DaVinci Code, but is instead a more thoughtful examination of how the Catholic church might respond to an elemental change in its foundational beliefs.

Merullo writes about religion, faith, and spirituality without trivializing them. He forces us to rethink what we truly believe and what we blindly adhere to. He pushes the boundaries of dogma without denigrating one’s beliefs. I read this novel slowly because I wanted to savor it. Merullo’s books are more about the journey than the destination, and this was a journey best traveled slowly.

 ~ Lysbeth Abrams

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Morse Pond Review: A Snicker of Magic

9780545552707A Snicker of Magic

Natalie Lloyd

Scholastic Press

$16.99

Available February 2014

If you like magic and mystery you will like A Snicker of Magic. The main characters are Jonah and Felicity and they are ready to break a curse of the brothers Threadbare! Along the way Jonah and Felicity meet a girl named Florentine and she carries around jars that she has never even looked at and they have the curse on them! Felicity and her mom and sister are cursed to travel and not stay somewhere, but when they break the curse, they are free not to wander anymore. I thought this book was good because it leaves you in a mystery and you just don’t want to stop reading. This book will be out in February 2014!

~ Caroline, age 10

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Morse Pond Review: Prisoner 88

9781580895606Prisoner 88

Leah Pileggi

Charlesbridge Publishing

$16.95

Available now

Prisoner 88 by Leah Pileggi is a great story about a boy named Jake. Jake is a prisoner in the Old Idaho Penitentiary. Jake is charged of manslaughter and sentenced for five years! The more read the more you learn about Jake and other characters in story. Jake is a great character, he is very mysterious even after reading the whole book. Leah Pileggi is a great author and I can’t wait to see more books from her. The only problem I have is the ending. It just seems to be rushed, but because of how good everything thing else this doesn’t make me hate the book. Prisoner 88 is a great book even after the ending. It is a great read.

~ Matthew, age 10

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Staff Review: The Martian

9780804139021The Martian

Andy Weir

Crown Publishing Group

$24.00

Available February 2014

What would MacGyver do if he was stranded on Mars? Well, astronaut Mark Watney answers this question after he is stranded in a dust storm during a mission to Mars, left by his crewmates who mistakenly believe he is dead. In The Martian, by Andy Weir, Watney wakes up to find himself alone, unable to communicate with his crew or Earth, and with limited food supplies. Even if a rescue mission could be sent, he would starve to death before they ever arrived.

Being a resourceful engineer and botanist has its advantages, however, and Watney manages to find a way to generate oxygen without blowing himself up, make water, fix the solar cells for power, create soil with viable bacteria, and grow potatoes from 12 food potatoes left behind. He even manages to find the abandoned Pathfinder Rover and rigs it up so that he can communicate with NASA. Eventually (a year and a half later) he manages to drive the rover from his mission 3200 kilometers to where there is another base from which he can connect with a flyby mission. It’s one disaster after another, but the MacGyver of Mars always manages to find a solution.

I liked this novel, mostly. I wanted to like it more. I liked it more for various parts, than the sum total. At first I found Watney’s conversational style irritating, but it grew on me, and I often found myself laughing at his humor. I really did want to find out What Happens Next, so the book was hard to put down. I found myself skimming the text when descriptions of chemical reactions and numbers seemed to take over the page; I have a scientific background, but I don’t really want to read a blow-by-blow description of the breakdown of CO2 to make oxygen, and the conversion of the rocket fuel hydrazine to make hydrogen, and the subsequent combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water.  Nor am I particularly interested in reading about why 62 square meters of soil are needed to grow 150 kilograms of potatoes in 400 days.

However, I didn’t know that Mars has no magnetic field! And I really enjoyed the sense of place that I got from the text: the utter sense of being alone, the alien landscape, the silence. I like hard science fiction, but my tastes tend to run to Kim Stanley Robinson or Stephen Baxter. I don’t think I would recommend this novel as a hardcover, but I might recommend it as a paperback. And I do think this would appeal to a reader who likes thrillers, or maybe someone who remembers watching MacGyver back in the day.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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Staff Review: The Free

9780062276742The Free

Willy Vlautin

Harper Perennial

$14.99 (paperback original)

Available February 2014

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People back in 1981, drawing parallels with the trials of Job. Bad things happening to good people is unfortunately part of the human condition, and doesn’t show any signs of going away anytime soon. The Free, by Willy Vlautin (The Motel Life, Northline, and Lean on Pete), is a modern day parable of good people caught up in bad circumstances.

The combination of the poor economy, diminished family support structures, the lack of affordable healthcare, our willingness to wage war without thought for any consequences, and pure bad luck, create a downward spiral for people on the edge. People who are regular middle class people like us, who are being slowly squeezed into poverty. Are we as secure as we think we are?

The three people in The Free are all good, hardworking people, whose lives just seem to slowly spiral out of control. Leroy Kervin has been so severely wounded in the Iraq war that he has lived in a group home for eight years, unable to function. Freddie McCall, a night watchman at Leroy’s group home, also works at a hardware store, in order to support one of his handicapped daughters. After his wife takes the children and leaves him, child support and mounting medical bills force him into a bad decision. Pauline Hawkins is a nurse at Leroy’s home; she is emotionally drained by both her job and from caring for her mentally ill father. She cannot form a meaningful connection with another person.

In such grim circumstances, the only thing people can control is how they deal with their situations. Leroy, in a moment of lucidity, makes a choice to retreat inside himself, and eventually his death sets him free. Freddie gets his children back, and experiences the kindness of strangers. Pauline makes a connection with a drug-addicted runaway. We don’t get the happy ending where everybody lives happily ever after, but we get a sense of acceptance and peace, and sometimes that is all we can expect.  I really liked this novel and found it in step with life in America today.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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