Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book Review: White Cat by Holly Black

Title: White Cat
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: YA /urban fantasy
Hardcover: 310 pages
ISBN: 1416963960
Summary:
Cassel comes from a family of curse workers -- people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they're all mobsters, or con artists. Except for Cassel. He hasn't got the magic touch, so he's an outsider, the straight kid in a crooked family. You just have to ignore one small detail -- he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago.

Ever since, Cassel has carefully built up a façade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his façade starts crumbling when he starts sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat that wants to tell him something. He's noticing other disturbing things, too, including the strange behavior of his two brothers. They are keeping secrets from him, caught up in a mysterious plot. As Cassel begins to suspect he's part of a huge con game, he also wonders what really happened to Lila. Could she still be alive? To find that out, Cassel will have to out-con the conmen.




Overall rating:  9/10 flowers
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Holly Black's White Cat is a smart story about betrayal and deceit among a family of curse workers with ties to the mob.  I've enjoyed several of Holly Black's books, but White Cat is by far my favorite.  I can't wait to read Red Glove and Black Heart, the upcoming books in her Curse Workers trilogy!  

What I Liked:
-     This book will appeal to male and female readers equally.  Not only does White Cat feature a realistic male protagonist, which is fairly rare in the current YA market, but the story itself is not dripping with saccharine teenage romance or the typical high school drama that frequently repels fifty percent of the potential audience.  This is not to say that there is no romance or angst, but the point-of-view stays true to the male protagonist and the primary conflict revolves around the tension and secrets between three brothers.
-     I loved Cassel!  I have always had a soft spot for broken boys, and Cassel is far more broken than most.  He has been dealt an extremely rough hand, and it is impossible not to sympathize with him even if he isn't necessarily a law-abiding citizen.  I would try to describe what makes him so wonderful, but I think a fantastic phrase in the book describes him much more succinctly than I ever could.  He is "clever as the devil and twice as pretty."
-     The secondary characters feel realistic and have distinct personalities and motives.  Even characters that only grace the pages for a few sentences don't seem like stock background characters.  In fact, several of the least-significant characters are so vividly painted that I can still recall bit players like the schnauzer-shirted shelter employee and the businessman arguing about sorbet vs. ice cream on his cell phone.
-     I enjoyed the gritty realism of the world in which White Cat takes place.  This is not the type of gritty realism that feels contrived or designed purely for shock value, but it is a variety of realism that allows you to see that the characters bleed, vomit, and bruise, and lets you see that the world they live in is one in which houses aren't miraculously spotless and cars aren't all brand new shiny sports cars.  It is similar to the difference between a CGI-driven blockbuster populated by airbrushed actors and a clever independent film populated by character actors who look and behave like real people.  I liked the realism a lot.
-     The references to the French fairytale, The White Cat, are intriguing.  While this book is definitely not a straightforward retelling of that story, I really enjoyed all the fairytale references - such as the veiled white cat, the disembodied hands holding torches, and the three brothers with the youngest being the kindest and most likable.
-     Following a main character who is reluctantly skilled at the art of conning people is entertaining.  Even when Cassel is not actively scheming, he analyzes situations with the eyes and mind of a con artist, and it quickly becomes obvious why he has a difficult time building friendships or maintaining a romantic relationship.
-     I liked the idea of curse magic and the ways in which political choices made based on fear led to the outlawing of curse work and the development of major crime families here in the U.S.  The current political debate within the book made the fantasy elements of the story more believable, since curse workers faced such a familiar and realistic type of discrimination.
-     I was pleased that the magic in this book has very serious consequences, not only legal ramifications but immediate physical or mental consequences in the form of blowback.   
-     There are lots of quotable moments in this book.  A couple of non-spoilery ones that stand out to me are:
(Cassel thinking about how his mother's cluttered house was always overflowing with random items she couldn't seem to throw away - p. 52):  "When I was a kid and brought friends over, I was defiantly proud of the chaos.  I liked that I knew how to jump over the piles and the shattered glass while they stumbled.  Now it just seems like an ocean of crazy that I have no way to explain."
(Cassel reflecting on the unreliable nature of memories - p. 96):  "Memory is slippery.  It bends to our understanding of the world, twists to accommodate our prejudices."
-     A few of the background characters' names included winks to some of Holly's author friends or their characters - such as brief mentions of the Brennan crime family (Sarah Rees Brennan) & a Jace that lives in Cassel's dorm (Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments).  Those types of tiny nods are always fun & remind me of spotting hidden Mickeys at Disneyland.  Basically it is the type of thing that isn't necessary to your enjoyment of the book, but if you happen to like those authors it may feel like a little inside joke you get to smile at too.
-     The book's ending leaves plenty to be explored in the next two volumes of the Curse Workers trilogy, but readers are not left hanging with thousands of infuriating loose ends either.

What I Wished:
-     One of the twists near the end of the book seems slightly more contrived than I would have liked.  Not that Cassel's rotten luck surprised me or that I didn't believe the characters would behave in the ways they did, but this particular turn in the story had me thinking "Geez!  What are the odds?!" a little more than usual.

Fans of organized crime stories or noirish capers will definitely want to pick up White Cat.  Fans of clever antiheroes who find themselves caught up in horrific circumstances will want to check out White Cat.  Fans of books or movies about con-men or smart criminals, like The Usual Suspects, Ocean's Eleven, The Sting, Rounders, Snatch, L.A. Confidential, Matchstick Men, or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may also want pick up White Cat.  If you would like to learn more about the Curse Workers trilogy, you can visit Holly Black's website, blog, or twitter, and you can read the first chapter of White Cat here!

7 comments:

Carrie at In the Hammock Blog said...

I really like this author and I agree about the kind of gritty realism, i feel like she used the same kind of realism in the tithe books. it was REAL not for shock value. i really want to read this one :)

Candace said...

Wow! Now that is a GREAT review! I just finished White Cat actually and loved it the same as you. I thought it was a bit slow going in the beginning but the second half certaily made up for it! I can't wait for the rest of this trilogy! Oh, and I really loved the male protaganist. Definitely took the story to new grounds. Yes, I loved this book!

celi.a said...

Oh, I loved this book! And I agree with all of your points about what you liked. I too recommended it to anyone who has a weakness for caper movies. And I know my youngest brother (age 20) will love it to pieces too. Nice review!

Darlyn said...

This is very good review! I have to admit that and so very detail of what you love and wish. I have not read this one yet but looking forward to read the book. Glad you like it!

Sabrina @ about happy books said...

Great review, I like how detailed you write about what you enjoyed.

So far I haven't read this book, but it's on my wishlist.

chrissie_goldsmith said...

This book has been on my wishlist for a while now. Great review :)

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