Monthly Archives: December 2013

#34: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

I feel like the jerkiest jerk because I haven’t returned this book to the library.  I checked it out in OCTOBER and finished it within two weeks in between other books.  It’s been sitting next to my computer for me to review and there’s a wait list for it.  People have been waiting for me since October to get this done!  I am so sorry.

I love love love Holly Black.  When I read Tithe for the first time, I found a kindred spirit.  I’ve read all of her YA and dug up a lot of her short stories in various anthologies.  I’ve been lucky to see her on a few different panels at different book events.  Even better, she lives a few towns over from me, so sometimes I’ll see her when I’m out.  And then I embarrass myself by trying to tell her how much I like her writing.  Seriously, it’s bad.  I once walked past her in a restaurant and didn’t want to interrupt her, so I planned on tossing out a quick “Thank you for writing” but instead I sang it.  I sang it.  “Thank yooooooooo… for wriiiiiiiiitinggggggg…..”  Think of the scene from Elf where they think Buddy is a sing-o-gram except make it horrific.  I don’t know what happened in my brain.  I then followed up with “I donnnnnn’t knowwwwww… why I am sinnnnnnngingggggg….”  She laughed and thanked me.  I went to the bathroom and realized I was going to have to walk by her table again on the way back to mine.  I’m in my thirties and I had just awkwardly and painfully serenaded a favorite author.  I think I managed to save it on the way back with a casual “I really love your books” as I passed by.  Smooth.

Coldtowns are where the vampires live.  And those who might become vampires.Coldtown  And those who are obsessed and enthralled with vampires and want to serve them in any way.  It’s also where people are sent who are infected and if you can prove you’ve made it through your quarantine without turning, you can leave.  But no one ever seems to leave.

When you’re bit by a vampire, you get cold.  And hungry.  If you go Cold and then drink human blood, you’re done.  You get sicker, then you die, and then you come back to life, or whatever the category is for vampires.  The guideline for quarantine is eight-eight days.  If you can make it that long without taking human blood, you’ll be OK.  The problem is that when you’re craving blood, you will do anything to get it, including trying to kill your own daughter.

When Tana was ten, her mom went Cold.  Terrified of being sent to the nearest Coldtown, she agreed to be locked in the basement until it passed.  Within weeks, the screaming was nonstop.    It took a little over a month for Tana to give in, sneaking the door open to let her mother out.  A moment, and then teeth tearing into her arm.  Her mother wasn’t a vampire yet so couldn’t infect her daughter, but she was going to kill her.  Her father saved her by killing her mother.  Tana is now seventeen with a silver scar.

She wakes up at a party where she’d passed out in a bathtub with the curtain drawn.  A sundown party, where garlic hangs from the windows and holy water is sprinkled over the doorways.  Only something happened.  A window left open and the house is filled with dead friends.  Somehow they missed Tana, but she has to get out before they realize she’s there.  She knows they would have gone to the darkest part of the house to rest, their blood filled bodies waiting for darkness.  Terrified, she creeps to get her car keys and finds her ex-boyfriend alive, gagged and tied to a bed.  Just out of his reach is a young vampire, chained to the furniture.  He’s being tortured, having to look at this living boy but not being able to feed.

Tana starts to untie Aiden and he lunges for her, trying to bite.  Horrified, she realizes he’s been infected.  She’s in a room with someone going Cold and a full vampire sitting and watching.  He seems to be panicking too, straining at the chains around his neck and frantically looking back and forth between her and the door.  Someone is coming.  Someone who will love to drain her life.

Without fully understanding why, Tana saves them both.  Wrapping the vampire in as many blankets as she can find, she shoves him in her trunk.  Trying to figure out a way to keep Aiden from attacking her, she gets him in the car.  As she desperately claws her way out the window, the sun sets, the door is kicked open and she feels the scratch of something on the back of her leg.  Was she bitten?

And that’s the first three chapters.

The rest of the book is Tana trying to figure out what she’s going to do.  She wants to save Aiden but he doesn’t seem to want to be saved.  She’s waiting to see if she’ll turn Cold and turn on him first.  She’s either holding a vampire captive or being held captive by a vampire.  And he’s cute and mesmerizing and dangerous but also seems hesitant to hurt her.  None of this is normal, and she lives surrounded by things that aren’t normal.

Knowing her father won’t help, he’s been drinking nearly nonstop since her mother first went Cold, and terrified she’ll hurt her little sister, Tana decides the best thing she can do is get herself to the nearest Coldtown and wait it out.  Somehow she’ll figure out something to get herself out after her eighty-eight days have passed.  She’ll also somehow drag Aiden along with her, forcing him to wait it out, even though he’s looking at her, waiting for her to slip up so he can feed.  She was in love with him once and he broke her heart.  He knows what to say to her and how to say it and she hates herself for wanting him to be safe.

Then there’s Gavriel.  He seems to simply be waiting.  Why was he being tortured by the pack of vampires in the party house?  It makes sense that they’re coming for Tana and Aiden, but what do they want with one of their own?  And why isn’t Gavriel attacking his human saviors?

Tana just wants to come up with a plan.  Coldtown seems to be the safest bet.  If you turn in a vampire, you’re given a marker.  Get out of jail, free.  She can betray Gavriel, get herself locked in until her Coldness passes, then leave.  She’ll have to figure out something for Aiden once she’s there.  And she might not even be going Cold.  She’s still not sure she’s been bit.

The Coldtowns have become the center of reality TV.  Blogs, live feeds, 24 hour programming… the vampire followers are intense.  Many kids fall in love with the idea of forever.  They change their names and dye their hair.  The set up elaborate websites while they are on the outside, making connections and families on the inside.  When they are ready, they lie and tell the guards they have gone Cold so they can start their real lives inside of Coldtown.  Not surprisingly, not all of them do well.  They are often robbed as soon as they get there.  No one quite knows who to trust.  Some vampires don’t care where or how they feed.  There are plenty of people who will hook up IVs for them to sip from, but if you find a human wandering about…  Other vampires hate themselves and when the sun comes up, they stand in it, begging for an ending to what they’ve become.

It’s a party and anyone can come.  While Tana isn’t the only one who is afraid, she’s the only one in her group who doesn’t want to stay locked up.  Aiden is eager to see what happens next.  Maybe he’ll stay Cold without completely turning.  Maybe he’ll give in to his hunger.  Maybe he’ll kill Tana before they even arrive.

And Gavriel?  He seems to have business behind the locked gates.  Tana still doesn’t know why the other vampires want him, but he has a plan no one needs to know about.

Get him there, get her marker, get out with Aiden.  That’s all she needs to do.

And of course, everything goes to shit.  People die, people disappear, friends betray each other, people get bit.  Tana makes mistakes.  She figures things out too late.  She makes powerful enemies and traps herself.  She tries to get help from people who don’t want to leave and worship the vampires as gods.  She is completely alone, lost in Coldtown without any backup plan.

Well, maybe Gavriel?  But she doesn’t even know where he is.  Or who he is.

This is another solid book from Holly Black.  Her writing is wonderful, her story telling is skilled and she once again captures than unnamed longing that you have when you’re a teenager.  You feel like you own the world while at the same time feeling completely out of control.  You want someone to be in charge while knowing that no one can understand what’s happening.  Things seem so simple but plans become complicated.  You feel like you’re in a huge group of friends while feeling completely alone.  Black has a fantastic ability to pull from this turmoil and create characters who are completely relateable.   Sure, as an adult I can roll my eyes at a seventeen year old falling in love with a vampire.  But my inner seventeen year old is thinking “Yeah.  Go for it.”  And this happens because of Black.  She doesn’t write weak, easy characters.  Tana struggles and makes mistakes and you want her to win, even though you have no clue what winning is going to look like.

I highly recommend Holly Black to any fans of fantasy, urban fantasy and to people who just want to get their hands on smart, well-written YA.  She is extremely talented and she’s also really nice if you sing at her in public.




#33: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

Jim HensonWhen I heard there was a massive biography of Jim Henson coming out, I was excited and worried.  I wanted to know more about the man who created so many things that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, but I knew I was going to cry when they talked about his funeral.  I was also worried that he might turn out to be a jerk, even though I had no reason to worry about this.  But still, what if the guy who brought Kermit to life ended up being kind of a dick?  I don’t want that knowledge in my head.

Happily and not surprisingly, Jim Henson was lovely.

Brian Jay Jones spent several years with those close to Jim and the result is a wonderful book.  Reading it was pure pleasure because of Jones’ writing style.  It’s conversational, emotional, smart and incredibly informative and was extremely satisfying.  The combination of Jim Henson and Jones is magic and I’m so glad that Jim’s life was handed to Jones to be documented and told so carefully.

Reading Jim’s life and watching him grow from a creative child into a creative powerhouse is exhausting and impressive.  The man never stopped making things.  While he was in the middle of a massive project, he’d start thinking about how to do things better and how to improve the technology and techniques that they were currently using.  He was often a few steps ahead of what hadn’t even been made yet.  He knew that things could be done and had to wait for the technology to catch up.  He was fascinated by television and how it could be used, and later when hand held cameras began appearing, he knew it would change everything.  He didn’t live to see it, but he predicted YouTube some twenty years before it became popular.

Jim’s goal was to improve the world by learning and teaching.  He was constantly seeing what could be and was rarely satisfied with what currently was.  Pages and pages of notes were waiting to be realized.  He would have to shelve projects that proved too massive for his current budget and schedule.  He would exhaust and inspire his crew into performances and creations that no one had dreamed could be possible.  Simply by being, he created.  His employees were committed to his projects, even if they didn’t fully understand them, because they were Jim’s ideas.  They’d go on crazy journeys with him through the workshop to put together new creatures.  Even if they weren’t designing for a specific project, they’d work on the art and development because at some point, Jim would want it.  By then, they’d need to make it better, always trying to catch up to him.

Out of the workshop, Jim was quite the man.  Men wanted to be his friend and women wanted to be in his bed.  When his attention was turned to you, it made everything amazing.  Of course when you felt ignored or snubbed, it made for a difficult work environment.  Also, Jim was married with five kids.  Family was the most important thing to him and the love he had for his children was nearly tangible on the page.  He was fascinated by how they learned and interacted with their environment and would test things out on them for approval.  If it didn’t work for his kids, he wouldn’t use it.  He respected their ideas and desires, and even from a very young age incorporated them into his work.

But for Jim, it wasn’t work.  He loved what he did and couldn’t comprehend why people wanted to stop.  When you’re working on something that’s inspiring and has the potential to teach, why would you stop?  When he would go on vacation, he’d still be creating and planning, eager to get back into the workshop or studio or office to share new ideas and find out how to make them come true.

Some of them were way out there.  He dreamed of opening a night club where images were projected onto women’s bodies.  While he didn’t do drugs, except for maybe some occasional marijuana, he was always pulled in to visual effects.  He wanted this massive performance space where music and film would combine for a seamless experience.  It was crazy and people would have probably eaten every drug they could find and pack the room, but once again, the technology wasn’t there.

When it came to the business side of the Muppets, the Creature Workshop, movies and TV, Jim struggled.  He hated having to make decisions.  It was agony for him to sit through meetings or talk to lawyers when he could be working on something meaningful.  He often let things slide to other people and work was delegated over and over until it again wound up with Jim having to make a decision.  Even then, he’d often slide it to another person to take care of.  This caused a lot of hurt feelings, confusion and management struggles when he split his time between the crew in New York and his Creature Shop in England.  No one knew what the other was working on, but for Jim, this didn’t matter.  If he needed new puppets or animatronics, he’d fly to England to talk to those in the Creature Shop.  When it was time to discuss what they’d film for Sesame Street, he’d head back to New York and work with that crew.  Coming back in to the New York office, he’d run through more ideas for shows and have people get to work.  It never occurred to him that someone really needed to be in charge, and that this person was him.  He’d call in with instructions and whoever answered the phone would be the person with the information.  There were times when no one knew what the most important goals were because he had talked to several different people that week.  Still, everyone was so dedicated to him that they’d work through it and do their best to figure it out.

Jim finally became so frustrated with overhead costs and constantly trying to find funding for his work that he decided it was time to sell.  He’d been in love with Disney since he was a child and the thought of his Muppets becoming part of this magical world was comforting and practical.  They’d get the characters, and more importantly they’d get Jim, and he’d get the freedom to create and not have to run the business side.

Turns out this was a deal that took fifteen years to seal and he wasn’t alive to see it done.  Once again, the business side of his work infuriated him.  The Disney lawyers went through every line word by word.  Jim’s lawyers did what they could, but had to bring information back to Jim for approval.  Disney repeatedly tried to get their hands on the Sesame Street characters even though Jim made it clear from the beginning that they were off limits.  Several times everything almost fell apart completely, but Michael Eisner single handedly kept everyone at the table.  His sheer will and desire on getting Jim into the Disney family was powerful and Jim trusted him.

When it was announced the Jim was selling the Muppets to Disney, I was really disappointed.  I thought he was selling out and going for money.  Reading the background before I even got to the deal, I realized that it was never about money.  He wanted to continue to create and improve and by giving over the business side to a company that he loved, he’d be able to.  I’m pleased to know that I was wrong.  Jim would join Disney, he’d finish creating the Muppet Section of MGM Studios, he’d make movies and TV shows for them and he’d join the company exclusively for the next fifteen years.

And then he got sick.

Jim never got sick.  He was too busy loving life and working and it almost never happened.  On the rare occasions he’d get a cold or a flu, it wouldn’t last long.  He’d retreat to one of his homes and have comfort food until he felt better.  He rarely took any medicine, and when he did, it was nothing stronger than an aspirin.  He simply didn’t have time to get sick, and his body seemed to know it.  He ignored what was happening and brushed off people’s concerns.  He didn’t want to have attention over something like this, so he went to his New York apartment to wait it out.

His wife Jane joined him.  Although they had been separated for many years, Jane and Jim always had a special relationship.  They had children together that they both loved.  Jane was part creator of the Muppets when Jim was just getting started with his five minute shows in between the news and whatever show came next.  She filmed commercials with him.  She was the company before there was a company.  However, they were two completely different people and all the love and respect couldn’t keep them together.  Jim hated confrontation and in his personal life hated making decisions the way he did in his business life.  Jane wore her emotions in the open and would fight with him, begging him to share what he was thinking.  The angrier and sadder she got, the quieter and more closed off he became.  With two conflicting communication styles, it could not work.  However, Jim worked very hard to keep his girlfriends private.  Jane knew what was happening, but Jim would never make a relationship public.  He respected her too much.  He didn’t want to get divorced, but he realized he couldn’t be her husband.  However, she was who he would go to when it came to major decisions.  Even though she had been phased out of the company, she knew how he thought and truly knew who he was, and he trusted her completely.  When she showed up to take care of him, he let her stay.

Public opinion wonders why he didn’t just go to the hospital.  People have said that if he had just gone in that morning the doctors would have caught the pneumonia, but it never occurred to him that he was really sick.  He finally told Jane that it was time to go, but even then he insisted on walking to the car and when they were dropped off in the wrong place, he walked the blocks to the emergency room.  It was too late.  He had severe pneumonia and kidney failure.  His body was infected with a powerful strain of strep.  His lungs were shutting down.  Maybe the doctors could have caught it, but even with drugs,  it might not have worked.  He was too sick.  He died from organ failure resulting from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.

Jim’s death was brutal.  Word traveled fast and his employees gathered in shock.  It was unbelievable.  Jim never got sick.  Jim couldn’t be dead.  It was incomprehensible that a man that powerful could die, and could die so young.  He was fifty-three and he had too  much to do.  The intensity of the shock that his friends, family and coworkers felt is heartbreaking.  I was already in tears and they hadn’t gotten to his memorial service yet.

But even in his death, he was still inspiring his family.  He had written letters to his children to be delivered soon after he died.  He told them he wasn’t scared of death and was looking forward to the next adventure.  He told them what kind of service he’d like to have and not to waste money on a casket.  He promised that if he could, he’d guide them from where ever it was he’d be.  His love continued to pour over his children even though he was gone.

I so enjoyed this book.  I think for many of us, Jim Henson is part of who we are.  We have different memories of his work and it has become pieces of our history.  Watching the Muppets can make me incredibly emotional because I remember being four or five years old and watching with my dad.  I remember sitting with my mom and laughing at Bert.  I don’t know how many times she read me The Monster at the End of This Book, but every time she did, I’d laugh at Grover and how silly he was.  Later I fell in love with the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.  The sections about these movies were painful because Jim fully loved the work and was heartbroken that the movies didn’t do well and critics did not like them.  Labyrinth especially was one of his all time favorite projects and it must have broken him a little bit that it didn’t succeed.  It is a huge cosmic ripoff that he didn’t live to see it become a favorite.  He would have been delighted to see the cosplay.

I could write so much more about this book.  It was exciting to see how characters came to be.  I liked watching his performers come together.  Knowing the background story of shows and the movies made me appreciate the work even more.  Depending on what aspect of Jim’s life is interesting to you, this book will have it.

I cannot stress enough the talent and respect that Brian Jay Jones brought to this work.  The amount of time he spent with Jim’s friends, family and business associates is nearly unimaginable.  This book felt like a gift because of how carefully he wrote it and the love he put into it.  I hope Jim’s loved ones are proud of the work Jones did.

#32: Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse by Anne Carson

RedOh, how I loved this book.  This was another book club pick that I had no prior knowledge of.  I am so glad it was chosen, even if it wasn’t a huge hit with everyone.

I haven’t read a long piece of verse in a while but I love getting back into that brain space.  I’ve got a BA and M.Ed in English, so it doesn’t take me too long to find that sweet spot of feeling the rhythm of the language, not getting distracted by the line breaks, and getting pulled into the story.  For me, it feels like accessing a slightly different part of my brain than when I’m reading normal text.

Geryon is Red.  He’s a monster.  He hides his wings and tries to follow his older brother.  He’s an odd child, monster or not.  He speaks little but is always learning.  His mother is his solace and her unconditional love and guidance helps him find art.  He’s able to create a space for himself while being abused by his brother.  He grows, discovers photography and “somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.”

We know from Stesichoros that Geryon will be killed by Herakles.  He is the tenth labor and has fate is sealed when both are born.

But in this version of Geryon’s life, how will this death happen?  He and Herakles meet as teenagers.  He’s fourteen, Herakles is sixteen and Geryon  is doomed.  He spends as much time with Herakles as he can, wanting to love him completely, but at a complete loss when it comes to approaching the unnamed and unknown.  Herakles is all confidence and sexuality, and yet he seems to wait for Geryon to stumble into admitting something, or waiting for him to simply give up and give in.  Geryon’s longing and frustration is tangible and Herakles’ refusal to help soon starts to feel cruel.

But eventually Herakles possess him completely.  He is charming and only wants to journey and discover and find fun.  When Geryon amuses him, it as if they are the only two in the world.  Geryon feels unworthy and knows this attention is fleeting.  He’s desperate to keep Herakles interested.  He withdraws from his mother, both of them unsure how to approach each other now.

And then Herakles leaves Geryon behind.  He’s bored, or Geryon is boring.  Broken and sick, Geryon peers into his camera and waits.  Perhaps he’ll find something interesting, or become interesting.

Later, Herakles calls to hear his voice.  Geryon feels the love, still as fresh as it was when he was fourteen.  Herakles chatters on about dreams and Geryon is horrified to realize that Herakles doesn’t know him at all, and yet he knows he would still give up everything to be owned by Herakles again.

Years later he’s traveling.  He has his camera.  His wings are strapped tight to his back.  He falls in with scholars.  He listens and learns, like the little boy he was.

A sudden a punch to take the breath from his lungs, Herakles appears.  The two happen to be in the same place at the same time.  Herakles has Ancash now.  The two are traveling around South America.  Ancash is recording the sounds of volcanoes.  The redness Geryon  understands.  He hates Ancash.  He hates himself for drowning in Herakles so quickly.  The three travel together.  Ancash is furious.  Herakles continues to be oblivious and hurtful and wonderful and lovely.  Life is not hard for him.  He is a chosen one.

The three travel.  Geryon takes pictures.  The story’s path is obvious, but what will the ending be?  We know Herakles must kill him.  But how and when and will Geryon embrace him while he dies, or will he finally try to break free?

Geryon flies for Ancash.  He cries for Herakles, or because of him.  Ancash watches Herakles slip away while Geryon knows he’s not going to be the one to tame him.  Neither he or Ancash can keep Herakles.  The two become friends of sort because of this.  Perhaps Herakles will kill Ancash too.

Carson’s verse is red and fire and pain and wistfulness.  Geryon is almost always lost, and it’s heartbreaking because he knows he’s lost.  He is able to find himself in moments behind his camera.  He’s red and he’s surrounded by red and life is red, and he cannot live without Herakles.  Herakles will kill him and he is helpless.

Carson’s writing is beautiful.  The imagery and repetition creates a pacing and rhythm that was satisfying.  At times Geryon pauses and creeps towards his end, but other times there is quick movement, spread wings and soaring moments.  The imagery is skillfully crafted and even though Herakles does not notice, we see every drop of color in Geryon’s world.

I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys poetry.  Having a retelling of a Greek myth with confusing conversations with Stesichoros the author makes it difficult to walk away from.  Was it truth?  Did he have to rewrite to appease Helen and regain his sight?  When he was blind, did he actually see everything at once?  Which story is the real story?