Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black

Black_Holly-ColdestGirlInColdtownTitle: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
Author: Holly Black
Little, Brown for Young Readers
Rating: 2 / 5

Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.

One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

I tried to like this. I really, really did. I wanted to read a fresh vampire novel. I wanted something new, something different. I thought the idea of Coldtowns was pretty interesting. Unfortunately, the book fell flat for me.

Part of this is the timeline. Everything happens fairly fast, within a week, and as a result, everything feels rushed. From getting from the party in which Tana finds herself to be the only survivor of a vampire attack, to arriving to Coldtown, to everything else that happens after (which I won’t say, because SPOILERS). It feels rushed because it is–I would have probably preferred this to be a two-parter, told in two novels.

Because of the rushed pace, we don’t learn much about the characters. We learn a lot of backstory about Tana and Gavriel, but that’s it. With the exception of his history with Tana (which, honestly, wasn’t a lot, and he was kind of a douchecanoe through most of it), Aidan has no history. Midnight and Winter, two teens Tana, Aidan and Gavriel run into on their way to Coldtown, have next to no backstory (not that it matters, turns out they really aren’t all that important). A lot of the lack of characterization is where the novel fell flat for me–I didn’t know the characters, wasn’t learning much about them, and therefore I really didn’t care about what happened to them.

There’s also the problem of random chapters dropped in the middle of the action. For some people, this isn’t a problem, but it’s a huge problem for me because it slows down the pace and a lot of it was unnecessary exposition. There’s even a chapter that starts with “once upon a time” and was vaguely reminiscent of Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone”, or at least that’s where my mind went at the time, and I asked myself just what I was reading.

Finally, there was the problem with the sort of insta-love between Tana and Gavriel. They have hardly any scenes together, and all of a sudden Gavriel drops the L-word like a bomb. It wasn’t believable.

Overall, the book wasn’t terribly horrible. I did, after all, manage to finish it. Holly Black writes well technically, but between the rushed pace, lack of characterization, and the insta-love, I just couldn’t really enjoy it.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. This has not influenced my opinion in any way.

BFTA Review: Sarah Dessen – Lock & Key

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Title: Lock & Key

Author: Sarah Dessen

Viking


Rating: 4/5

Ruby, where is your mother?

Ruby knows that the game is up. For the past few months, she’s been on her own in the yellow house, managing somehow, knowing that her mother will probably never return.

That’s how she comes to live with Cora, the sister she hasn’t seen in ten years, and Cora’s husband Jamie, whose down-to-earth demeanor makes it hard for Ruby to believe he founded the most popular networking Web site around. A luxurious house, fancy private school, a new wardrobe, the promise of college and a future; it’s a dream come true. So why is Ruby such a reluctant Cinderella, wary and defensive? And why is Nate, the genial boy next door with some secrets of his own, unable to accept the help that Ruby is just learning to give? (goodreads.com)

I’ve never read a Sarah Dessen book before. I see them everywhere I look at books, but I’ve never picked one up, not even to read the back cover. Fortunately, I read the summary for this one and thought it sounded interesting without even seeing the cover. I’m glad I picked this book up. It was touching, and it didn’t come across as cheesy, although it definitely had the potential to do just that.

There was something about Ruby that rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m not sure if I can put my finger on it. Ruby wants to stay in her little yellow house with mildew on her clothes, where half the appliances are broken and where she has to work to pay rent on top of going to school, all because her mother abandons her. Sometimes, I could understand Ruby and her need to stay in her own world–change, especially such a dramatic change, is difficult, and it is compounded by Ruby’s opinion of her sister, Cora. But sometimes, I really didn’t understand why she would rather get black-out drunk above everything else. While she talks a lot about her life with her mom, her life outside her mom, if she had much of one, is a bit more blurry.

Ruby, of course, likes Cora’s husband almost immediately, and I did, too. He’s open and friendly, and I was really glad to see that he had a serious side that went beyond being happy, or serious about business. I was really glad to see that he wasn’t completely one-dimentional.

I had a harder time relating with Nate, probably because I’ve never known anyone in Nate’s situation. It’s a crappy situation, and I love that Ruby wants to help him. I really liked their interactions and that he really seems to like her, despite her need to return to what she knows. I was glad to see that he really wanted to stick by her, and that he was there when she needed him. It really drove home the point that, later in the novel, she wanted him to need her and it hurt her that he didn’t (or, at least, he didn’t want to admit it).

I really liked this book, and I’ll probably be picking up some more books by Sarah Dessen in the future.

Originally posted 02 April 2011.

BFTA Review: Jack Kilborn – Afraid

Kilborn_Jack-Afraid

Title: Afraid
Author: Jack Kilborn
Grand Central Publishing
Rating: 3/5

Welcome to Safe Haven, miles from everything, with one road in and out, this peaceful town has never needed a full-time police force. Until now…
A helicopter has crashed near Safe Haven and unleashed something horrifying. Now this merciless force is about to do what it does best. Isolate. Terrorize. Annihilate. As residents begin dying in a storm of gory violence, Safe Haven’s only chance for survival will rest with an aging county sheriff, a firefighter, and a single mom. And each will have this harrowing thought: Maybe death hasn’t come to their town by accident… (goodreads.com)

It’s really rare for me to have to put a book down because it’s really creeping me out. I’ve heard a lot of hype about how gore-y this book is, and it definitely delivered. It’s done in such a subtle way sometimes, at first leaving what happens up to the imagination of the reader before slamming what actually happens in your face. At the same time, the book isn’t so full of gore that the reader would want to put the book down due to a gross-out factor.
There’s a lot of talk about panic, whether it’s a panicked reaction or how panic affects the body. I loved how each character had their own reactions, their own reason for doing things specifically the way they did them.
I was torn between liking the fact that you don’t really get to know the characters, and disliking the book for the same reason. It’s good, because you’re not so invested in the characters that it’s a huge let-down when they die, but at the same time I felt like I wasn’t connecting with any of the characters enough for me to really care about them dying.
After a while, the book started to become a little convoluted to me. The team’s entire objective is to find Warren Streng, and there’s so much going on between the characters that I found it hard to keep track of what was going on, and who was doing what. The book kind of redeemed itself at the end, though, when the main characters finally come together.
While I liked the book, I did pick it up for its gross factor, which kind of failed to deliver. I felt like a lot of it was mediocre, every-day torture, and I was really looking for something new.
I also felt like the book had a little bit of a political agenda, which turned me off a little to the book because I’m just not into that.
Overall, though, I liked the book. I’m just not sure whether it would be worth a re-read or not.

Originally posted 31 March 2011.

BFTA Review: Emma Donoghue – Room

Donoghue_Emma-Room

Title: Room
Author: Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company
Rating: 3.5/5
Read for: Amazon Best of 2010 Challenge

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another. (goodreads.com)

I both liked and disliked this book. I disliked it because I had a hard time relating to a five-year-old’s mentality. Sometimes it was difficult for me to figure out what Jack was talking about when he described something.
But I liked it because, at least for me, it was something new. Despite my difficulty figuring some things out, this was a fast read because it was, simply, interesting. There are probably a bunch of stories out there about survival from kidnappings, hostage situations, and the like, but how many of them are from the perspective of a kid who’s never seen the outside world?

Originally posted 05 March 2011.

ARC Review: Max Barry – Lexicon

Barry_Max-Lexicon

Title: Lexicon
Author: Max Barry
Penguin
Rating: 4 / 5

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as “poets”: adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.

Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school’s strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Brontë, Eliot, and Lowell—who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.

Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he’s done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated tow nof Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.

As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry’s most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love—whatever the cost.

How do I begin this? Better yet, how do I talk about this book without spoilers? Lexicon took forever for me to read (embarrassingly so!), but it was not a bad book at all (4 out of 5 stars? Come on, now). Although it was only 400 pages (at least, in my e-reader it is), it felt like it was over a thousand pages. This is not in any way a knock against Max Barry, whose writing I’ve enjoyed since I first read Jennifer Government in the fall/winter of 2008. Instead, it’s a compliment. The book is weighty in its content, and is very thorough.

Lexicon spins a beautiful story between just a few main characters, Wil and Emily, and spins them together in a beautifully spiraling story that weaves past and present together almost seamlessly.

The novel begins right in the middle of the story, with a man named Wil who has hardly any background–we come to find out that he can’t really remember who he is, although we aren’t sure why. Next, we meet Emily, a young teen hustler, earning money for herself with card tricks. What follows is the story of Emily’s education at a covert academy and beyond, and Wil’s journey to find out exactly who he is and how he fits into the bigger picture.

To say anything more about the plot would be to invite massive spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.

The novel revolves around words–how they’re used, perceived, how connotations change over time, how languages evolve, etc. It’s actually brilliant in its evolution. I’m not just saying this because I really enjoy Max Barry’s work, but also because he executes such an idea flawlessly. The only true issues I had were of the formatting variety, and I chalked a lot of it up to my copy being an e-ARC, and not a final version.

I have only one more thing to say about this novel, and it’s the pattern with which it’s written. Barry’s format is brilliant, at first leaving each character with his or her own large chunk of narrative that, as the story winds towards its climax, gradually becomes shorter and shorter until the two converge. It’s a style choice I’ve seen before, mostly with Stephen King’s work (especially in The Dark Half and Needful Things), and the result is a sense of urgency and a sense of the fast pace of the novel that, if another style had been used, would probably not be there.

To put it mildly, I really enjoyed Lexicon. I plan on revisiting Jennifer Government, as well as Barry’s other novels, in short time.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. The opinions herein are my own, and were not influenced by the author or publisher in any way.

BFTA Review: Mary Higgins Clark – Where Are You Now?

Clark_Mary_Higgins-WhereAreYouNow

Title: Where Are You Now?
Author: Mary Higgins Clark
Simon & Schuster
Rating: 3/5
Read for: Queen of Suspense challenge

It has been ten years since twenty-one-year-old Charles MacKenzie Jr. (“Mack”) went missing. A Columbia University senior, about to graduate and already accepted at Duke University Law School, he walked out of his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side without a word to his college roommates and has never been seen again. However, he does make one ritual phone call to his mother every year: on Mother’s Day. Each time, he assures her he is fine, refuses to answer her frantic questions, then hangs up. Even the death of his father, a corporate lawyer, in the tragedy of 9/11 does not bring him home or break the pattern of his calls.
Mack’s sister, Carolyn, is now twenty-six, a law school graduate, and has just finished her clerkship for a civil court judge in Manhattan. She has endured two family tragedies, yet she realizes that she will never be able to have closure and get on with her life until she finds her brother. She resolves to discover what happened to Mack and why he has found it necessary to hide from them. So this year when Mack makes his annual Mother’s Day call, Carolyn interrupts to announce her intention to track him down, no matter what it takes. The next morning after Mass, her uncle, Monsignor Devon MacKenzie, receives a scrawled message left in the collection basket: “Uncle Devon, tell Carolyn she must not look for me.”
Mack’s cryptic warning does nothing to deter his sister from taking up the search, despite the angry reaction of her mother, Olivia, and the polite disapproval of Elliott Wallace, Carolyn’s honorary uncle, who is clearly in love with Olivia.
Carolyn’s pursuit of the truth about Mack’s disappearance swiftly plunges her into a world of unexpected danger and unanswered questions. What is the secret that Gus and Lil Kramer, the superintendents of the building in which Mack was living, have to hide? What do Mack’s old roommates, the charismatic club owner Nick DeMarco and the cold and wealthy real estate tycoon Bruce Galbraith, know about Mack’s disappearance? Is Nick connected to the disappearance of Leesey Andrews, who had last been seen in his trendy club? Can the police possibly believe that Mack is not only alive, but a serial killer, a shadowy predator of young women? Was Mack also guilty of the brutal murder of his drama teacher and the theft of his taped sessions with her?
Carolyn’s passionate search for the truth about her brother — and for her brother himself — leads her into a deadly confrontation with someone close to her whose secret he cannot allow her to reveal. (goodreads.com)

I have finally figured out what it is about MHC’s books that bug me: the dialogue. I’ll be reading, engrossed in the little world she’s created around her characters, when bam! Awkward dialogue rears its ugly head. And it doesn’t happen once, or even twice, but quite often, and it makes reading her books difficult, because it pulls me out of the story to make me go, “People don’t really have conversations like that, do they?”


I had that issue a lot during this book. I also found the somewhat romance between Nick and Carolyn somewhat distracting and unnecessary. Fortunately, it becomes a back-burner plot point, and the plot stays focused on Carolyn’s need to find her brother.

You would think, that after reading five other MHC books, I would have gotten used to her characters, but I still haven’t. They’re still intangible, at least for me.

Despite its short length, it took me a while to read, and while I generally like the who-dun-its, I didn’t like this one.

Originally posted 25 February 2011.

BFTA Review: Anne Fortier – Juliet

Fortier_Anne-Juliet

Title: Juliet
Author: Anne Fortier
Ballantine Books
Rating: 5/5
Read for: 2011 Book Blogger Recommendation Challenge

Twenty-five-year-old Julie Jacobs is heartbroken over the death of her beloved Aunt Rose. But the shock goes even deeper when she learns that the woman who has been like a mother to her has left her entire estate to Julie’s twin sister. The only thing Julie receives is a key—one carried by her mother on the day she herself died—to a safety-deposit box in Siena, Italy.
This key sends Julie on a journey that will change her life forever—a journey into the troubled past of her ancestor Giulietta Tolomei. In 1340, still reeling from the slaughter of her parents, Giulietta was smuggled into Siena, where she met a young man named Romeo. Their ill-fated love turned medieval Siena upside-down and went on to inspire generations of poets and artists, the story reaching its pinnacle in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.
But six centuries have a way of catching up to the present, and Julie gradually begins to discover that here, in this ancient city, the past and present are hard to tell apart. The deeper she delves into the history of Romeo and Giulietta, and the closer she gets to the treasure they allegedly left behind, the greater the danger surrounding her—superstitions, ancient hostilities, and personal vendettas. As Julie crosses paths with the descendants of the families involved in the unforgettable blood feud, she begins to fear that the notorious curse—“A plague on both your houses!”—is still at work, and that she is destined to be its next target. Only someone like Romeo, it seems, could save her from this dreaded fate, but his story ended long ago. Or did it? (goodreads.com)

It’s no secret that I really don’t like the Romeo & Juliet story, and it really has nothing to do with the storyline itself, but the fact that it’s over-done. But reading this book was nothing like reading a new take on the Romeo & Juliet story. It was a romance, definitely, but the romance is sewn through Julie Jacobs’s adventures, and it becomes more than just a romance. It becomes an adventure.


The book eventually alternates chapters between the present, with Julie’s story, and the past as Julie reads the letters and papers her mother hid away. I thought this would be distracting, but instead it enriched Julie’s story, and unfolded a new version of Romeo & Juliet that I hadn’t heard before–the one that inspired Shakespeare’s version.


I found Julie to be a little boring at times, and sometimes annoying (and most definitely naive, especially considering how “travelled” she is supposed to be), but I disliked her pushy sister, Janice, even more. Janice often treats Julie like crap, then has the nerve to be upset when Julie brushes her off or doesn’t listen to her. Julie also does really weird things, like run when she should stay and listen to explanation. The book could have been a little shorter if Julie had just followed her heart and gone with Alessandro in the first place.


Despite my annoyance with Julie and Janice, I fell in love with the book. I sometimes felt I was walking through the streets of Siena with Julie. And I so desperately wanted her to be with Alessandro that I would roll my eyes when she did something to push him away. Although the “hate at first sight” scheme might be a little contrived, for Julie and Alessandro it seemed to work; she was intrigued, and not at all put off when it seemed he didn’t speak english at first, and she was definitely physically attracted to him. I just had a hard time believing that the reason he doesn’t believe she is Giuletta is that she is supposed to be dead. It felt like an awkward plot point thrown in to give a little more twist to the story.


Overall, I loved the book (as if the rating didn’t give that away). I didn’t walk into it expecting a romance, but that’s exactly what I got, and it was pleasantly surprising.

Originally posted 24 February 2011.