Book Review for: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Image- Coldtown

Title: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Author: Holly Black

Targeted Age: Young Adult

Genre: Science Fiction/ Fantasy

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

 

Does the world need another young adult vampire novel? After reading, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, I’m happy to say, yes, we do, if Holly Black is going to write it.

When seventeen-year-old Tana wakes up at a sundown party, she realizes the terrible truth; she and her ex-boyfriend, Aiden, are the only ones to survive a vampire attack and they’ve both probably been scratched or bitten. Tana lives in a world where vampirism is caused by a virus and transmitted by scratches or bites. An infected human can get rid of the virus if the patient doesn’t drink human blood for 88 days, which means being locked up away from other humans. There are whole quarantined cities, called Coldtowns, throughout the country where the infected are sent to live.

Tana understands the danger of this disease and still bares the physical scars from it.  When she was six years old her father locked her mother in the basement, in a misguided attempt to treat his wife at home. Tana watched as her mother went from a caring parent to a manipulative user who would do anything to get a drink of blood.

Rather than risk harming others, Tana decides to take herself, Aiden, and the good-looking mysterious vampire boy chained to the bed, to Coldtown. No one leaves Coldtown but Tana’s pretty sure the vampire she’s going to turn in to to the Coldtown authorities is her key to getting out.

Holly Black takes the vampire mythology and manages to tell it from a fresh gritty angle with the quarantined Coldtowns— part MTV reality show, part cold war Berlin, and part prison. In addition to levelheaded Tana, Black populates the book with colorful characters, like Winter and Midnight, twin bloggers hitchhiking their way to Coldtown to chase their dream of becoming vampires, and Gavriel, the beautiful centuries-old vampire with a secret mission.

Book Review: Stranger and Hostage (Books 1 and 2 of The Change Series) , by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Image- StrangerStranger (The Change, Book #1), by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Targeted Age: Young Adult

Genre: Science Fiction/ Fantasy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Stranger is an enjoyable new young adult science-fiction novel that stands out among the many teen dystopian novels published since The Hunger Games made the New York Times bestseller list. Instead of predicting that humans can only respond to hardship with aggression and malice, Stranger imagines a world in which the best of human nature also comes out after disaster.

The story takes places generations after a catastrophic event rocked the world and wiped out most of its technology.  Leftover radiation changes some people, giving them unique powers.  The “change” tends to occur during times of strong hormonal upheaval—pregnancy, birth, adolescence, or menopause.

The City of Los Angeles has been reduced to a small frontier town now called, Las Anclas—full of diverse people— who work together, for the most part, to keep the town independent from despot King Voske’s nearby empire. In Voske’s empire, which looks a lot like the typical dystopian society, “the changed” are controlled by the king and used to keep the commoners in line.

While Las Anclas works to value all its citizens, there are those in the town who fear “the changed”. The town’s sovereignty depends on guarding the city walls against Voske’s army though. Volunteers, called Rangers, protect the city. The town needs every strong warrior and that means accepting any man or woman willing, including “the changed”.

Sheriff Elizabeth Crow rescues teen prospector, Ross Juarez, one of the stories main characters, during a shoot out with one of King Voske’s men. Now the people of Las Anclas must decide if they will protect Ross and let him stay—despite his change.

Brown and Smith fill their world with a diverse cast of fully developed characters, free of stereotypes, and full of progressive ideas about relationships. The story is told through five narrators: Ross, three teen girls, Mia, Jennie, and Felicité and another teen boy, Yuki— each with their own unique personality. Yuki is gay and his romance to another local boy is treated as if it’s any other romance.  In fact, there are a couple of non-straight romances in the book, between minor characters that are also treated as completely ordinary.

The multiple viewpoints made me very aware of the complexities of a town’s politics. As Ross, Yuki, Mia, and Jennie rush to defend their town’s unique hopeful nature, I felt like I was right in the center of a story of action and danger hoping for the best to happen right along with them.

 

Image- Hostage Hostage (The Change, Book # 2)

Target Age: Young Adult

Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

I won’t say too much about this book except that it satisfyingly continues the story of Las Anlas and Voske’s Gold Point City, again using multiple points of view to tell the story from many sides.  I’m looking forward to the next 2 books in the series.

 

 

Book Review for: White Cat (The Curse Workers, Book 1), by Holly Black

Image- White CatHigh school student Cassel Sharpe lives in a world much like ours, except that the mafia is mostly made up of workers—people with the magical power of touch. Cassel makes up for being the only one in his family without a magical power by being the best con man he can be, another family specialty.

When Cassel dreams that a white cat has his tongue, and wakes up on the roof of his boarding school, he’s considered a health risk to his school and is sent home to his worker family.  Cassel has always felt uncomfortable around his family since they covered up for him when he murdered his childhood friend, Lila.  He can barely remember the details of the murder, has no idea why he murdered her, and wants to be back at school where he can forget all about it. Now Cassel must use all the con skills he’s learned to try to get himself back to school, but while he cons his way there, he stumbles upon secrets his family has been keeping from him.

I’m quickly becoming a fan of Holly Black’s writing style.  Cassel’s in-depth understanding of con jobs and lack of understanding about normal life makes him an especially fun narrator in this entertaining, tightly-plotted novel. I guessed one of the twists in the beginning but still enjoyed watching Cassel figure it out. The audiobook is excellent.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Age Range: Young Adult

Genre: Sci-fi/Fantasy

Version: Listened on audiobook by through Audible

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale

Title: The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale
Author: Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright
Year Published: 2011
Rating: 4 stars
Ages:  8 and up
Format:  Listened to the audiobook

The Cheshire Cheese Cat is a classic animal tale with the kind of lovable characters, secrets and intrigue that make for a good read aloud story which appeals to kids and adults. Skilley, the cat, and Pip, the mouse, both have secrets.  When Skilley gets the job as mouser at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, they discover they might be able help each other out. But can a cat and a mouse trust each other?
There's also plenty of kid-friendly British pub atmosphere and a side plot involving Charles Dickens as a regular at the pub.  The excellent audiobook version adds to the British flavor and would make for a good choice for a family road trip.

The Book Thief and Whose Side Are You On?

Books:
Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Year Published: 2006
Rating: 4 stars
Ages: 14 and up
Format: Listened to audiobook on mp3 player from Audible.com

A twelve-year-old girl in World War II Germany starts her life as a book thief when she arrives at the home of her new foster parents in a suburb of Munich. This is a lovely tale about regular life and how it exists even during war.  I had heard a lot of enthusiastic reviews about how this book would blow my mind.  I think it's easy for a story to get overpraised once it's been out for a while. While the story didn't blow my mind — like it seemed to do for some of my friends and family — I still enjoyed this sweet story a lot.

Music:
Ani Di Franco, Which Side Are You On? (4 stars) [2012] – Ani Di Franco's new album combines of all things I liked about her previous albums with an added maturity and wisdom.  The title song, "Which Side Are You On?" is a rousing battle cry to inspire the regular people trying to defend ourselves in the class war and culture war the right has been waging on the 99% for the past 30 years.  Her quieter songs like, "Promiscuity", are full of sage advice about why sex and relationships are good and what they have to teach you. Like her previous albums, this one comforted me, entertained me, and inspired me.

The Underneath

Books:
Title: The Underneath
Author: Kathi Appelt
Year Published: 2008
Rating: 4 stars
For Ages: 9 years and up

An abandoned calico cat teams up with an abused dog to raise her kittens in rural Louisiana.  This lyrical story also features an abused man who has become a monster, the largest alligator in the bayou, and a mythical snakelike creature.  The story is about hardship, survival, and love.  It's one of those challenging stories with beautiful language and strong themes that lifts a child's understanding of literature to another level, but usually only if they have an adult supporting them through the story.  So, The Underneath would be a good choice for a classroom read aloud or family read with lots of discussion. The audiobook version is excellent. [I listened to the audiobook version through Audible books on my music player.]

How Reading Helps Kids Develop Empathy & A Review for the TV show, Smash

Blogs:
How Reading Helps Kids Develop Empathy – If you have elementary-school-aged kids, or if you just enjoy middle grade books, check out the excellent Middle Grade blog, From the Mixed Up Files. It's chock full of helpful information for parents, teachers, and writers of middle grade readers. One of their recent posts is about how reading helps kids develop empathy.

I experienced this lesson first hand with my kids.  I read aloud to my kids until they were around 10 or 11 years old. Plus, I gave them a special book allowance, where I would buy them one book a month– in addition to their regular allowance. They were also given an extra half-hour later bedtime, if they wanted to read in bed — but it could only be used for reading. I also suggested books I thought they might like, not books I wanted them to read, but books I truly thought they'd enjoy.  As a result, they read a lot as kids and as teens. In fact, my son came home from college and was happy he was able to read a book for pleasure during his winter break.

Now that they're 15 and 18, I'm starting to see the results of all this reading. Not only has their regular reading habit helped them with their SAT scores and writing, but it also has helped them empathize with others and understand people who are quite different from themselves. They both are able to get along with lots of different people, without much drama, because they seem to understand others pretty easily.

When kids read, they get to feel what it's like to live in other parts of the country or world and even other imaginary societies.  They get to experience romance, adventure, and heartbreak vicariously, and see how others handle those situations, and what the consequences of their actions are.  This gives kids who read an upper-hand when they start dating, or have to deal with drinking and drugs, or head off to college, or when they get their first job.  There's nothing like getting to do tricky things vicariously first to help you feel more confident when you start doing them as yourself in the real world. This doesn't mean that my kids have never learned life lessons the harder self-experience way.  They have, but they also seemed to learn a lot of lessons the easy way too.

PS  – Middle Grade books are fiction novels for kids from around 8-12 years,

TV:
Smash ( 4 stars) – I watched the pilot for the new TV show, Smash, on Hulu last night and loved it.  Smash is the fictional story about a Broadway play coming to life. It starts at the beginning, when a writing team first gets the idea to do a musical about Marilyn Monroe, and I imagine will follow the story all the way up to the show's opening and beyond. 

The pilot deals with introducing the major players: the writing team, the producer,  and the director.  The potential leads are introduced as the initial production team starts auditioning for the lead role of Marilyn. 

All the major players have their own problems and dreams and I can already see what conflicts are coming, and the potential Marilyn has to be a smash hit, but also the real possibility that it might not make it to Broadway either.  The insider details of putting together a Broadway show, plus the musical numbers, plus the individual character stories make the show really fun to watch.  Smash has the strong potential to become a favorite show.

The cast of Smash is a mix of excellent unknown actors and well-known actors, like: Anjelica Huston, Jack Davenport (Coupling, The Event) and Debra Messing (Will and Grace). I don't usually like Debra Messing, but so far, her character is pretty low-key.

[The pilot is available to view for free without registration on Hulu.  It's also available for free online viewing on NBC. The show premieres on NBC, on February 6th at 10/9c.]