Saturday, September 19, 2015

White Cat by Holly Black (2010)

White Cat was a recommendation from my best reading friend, Miguel, the person who has the closest reading taste to myself of anyone I've ever met.  The only reason he has not read as much as me is that he's 20 years younger; I have a head start.  We call each other "reading twins."  We have rarely diverged. He likes graphic novels, particularly superheroes, more than me.  That's one strike.  There haven't yet been strike two or three.  Yet.  

Accordingly, I was more than a bit terrified to read White Cat, one of his favorite books from the last few years.  

On face value, White Cat has some literary elements that over the years as a reader, I have come to dislike. For starters, it's a Young Adult book, and I think most YA is overblown, formulaic, and overly earnest in it's YA-ness.  YA writers are constantly pushing the envelope, trying to be more controversial, but I think that ends up making the books more lamely conventional;  I'm also not a huge fan of first person fiction, which most YA seems to be written in (the eternal self absorption of the typical teenager).  I also loathe the tendency in YA to have to have a love triangle of some sort.  All YA seems to come in characters of three now.

(I've been a consumer of modern fiction long enough to know that modern YA isn't aimed at me; teenagers are the primary consumers and adults who read YA are at best lurkers in the genre; at worst, adults who read only YA and nothing else are... well, I won't go there).  

What do you do when a friend recommends a book to you and you just don't like the book?
This has happened twice to me in recent memory.  My good friend Deidre, a rabid reader like myself, recommended The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  She loved  it.  I was completely ambivalent about it.  I gave it one of my better "badder" reviews:   "Morgenstern's Victorian setting feels like painted cardboard trees and flowers at the back of a high school stage.  Nothing feels authentic.  It's frustrating and more than a little annoying."  That feeling is also the feeling I get when I feel like I'm supposed to like a good friend likes and wants you to like too - I'm frustrated and annoyed with myself.  Why am I so picky?

Recently, my friend Sarah, not so much a rabid reader but a delightful discusser (discussant?) of books, recommended All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  She adored it, raved about it, thought it was a great book.  I, on the other hand, found it be tepid and not very interesting, with flat characters and a dull plot.  Also, the book made me feel stupid, as everyone seemed to like this book BUT ME.  What the hell is wrong with me?  (interestingly, both All the Light and The Night Circus were well reviewed bestsellers).

At the beginning of the summer, another reading friend, Molly, wanted a book to take with her on a trip. She was over at my house, and borrowed one of my favorites from when I was in my twenties, Grass by Sherri S. Tepper.  I was a huge fan of several of Tepper's books (The Family Tree has one of THE BEST plot twists I've ever read; better than The Sixth Sense or The Others, which I consider two of the other best plot twists, even though they are films).  I haven't read Grass in many years; perhaps, like some other books I've recently tried to re-read, it wouldn't hold up very well.  I know that Molly was very "meh" about the book, and I doubt she finished it.  I felt bad because I recommended a bad book to her!  

Being in a book club for the first time in my life has made me think about this even more.  What makes a book wonderful to someone and hideous to someone else?  (and what do you even call this?  Do the Germans have a word for it?).  

We've read two books so far in our book club:  The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (which was both repellent and wonderful) and Schubert's Winter Journey by Ian Bostridge (which wasn't very well written but provided two hours of excellent discussion).  I don't think we've come to a book yet that half the club is passionate about and the other half is most definitely not.

I know I've gone around Robin Hood's barn, so back to White Cat.  It actually turned out to be a pretty strong book, and by the middle or so, I was excitedly reading it not wanting to put it down.

First, let's dispose of the laundry list of literary thing-a-ma-bobs I hate about YA, how I separate the good YA wheat from the chaff.  Was White Cat overblown - pretentious and inflated?  I would say no, although later books in the series (another thing I hate about YA is the never-ending series, although the series is venerable in publishing, obviously).  Formulaic?  In this case, I thought absolutely not - in fact, it did something I often like, took a genre - in this case the mobster/crime boss genre and injected a cool and unique fantasy element into it.  Overly earnest in its YA-ness, pushing the boundaries to the point of conventionality - perhaps yes.  It's very dark and violent; there is quite a bit of language and sex; it's a PG-13 with shades of R.  Sometimes you forget they are teenagers; but I suppose that's the point.  And a love triangle - between Lila, the teen femme fatale, Cassel and his brother Barron,  wasn't annoying like the pandering asshat love triangle at the end of The Hunger Games; it actually made sense in the plot of the book and added to Cassel's confusion, Barron's douche-iness, and Lila's role as siren slash bad ass bitch.

Good book?  Yes, definitely yes.  A clever start to a series that could sputter out and die; entertainingly genre-bending.  What Holly Black does best here is build an alternate universe bit by bit; she allows Cassell's first person point of view to reveal pieces of this universe, and shines light on the problems of this particular society.

Miguel gave me The Corrections to read next.  I'm  terrified all over again.

White Cat (Curse Workers, #1)White Cat by Holly Black
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not a fanboy of modern YA (I have my reasons), but this is a rare YA that hit the bulls eye for me.  Holly Black genre-bends, mixing the classic mob/Mafia story with some original urban fantasy storytelling - it's like The Godfather meets a grittier Harry Potter (if Harry Potter was from New Jersey).  Black's alternate universe looks a lot like ours on face value, but using Cassel Sharpe's first person point of view, she shines the light on some dark and scary prejudice that exists in this world for people who practice this kind of magic called "curse work" (shades of X-men here).   It's dark and sometimes violent; PG-13 that skates back and forth over the Rated R line; sometimes you forget they are teenagers - but I supposed that's the point.  Even the most annoying YA trope - the love triangle - gets a bit of a twist here; Black certainly doesn't take it into The Hunger Games love triangle ridiculousness (the stupidest, tacky tack-one love story of all time).  The rest of the series may suck, but this number one worked for me.  No curses here!  

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