Cold by Mariko Tamaki

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Cold by Mariko Tamaki front cover

We don’t often review young adult crime fiction, but Cold by Canadian comic book writer Mariko Tamaki is a good place to make an exception. Inventive and innovative in its narrative style, this is the kind of YA novel that will convince you that nobody is too old to enjoy good storytelling.

Yes, Cold deals with the typical coming of age issues teenagers face, but here they’re counterbalanced with an interesting crime mystery. Deceptively simple in style, it chronicles the lives of two characters – Todd and Georgia – in their own voices.

Todd has been killed and we see the world through his ghost, floating above the detectives investigating his case, his fellow pupils and teachers. Georgia never knew Todd. He’s older, the same age as her brother, Mark, but they have one thing in common – they’re both queer. Could this be why Todd was killed?

On the evening of 20 January, Todd left his mother’s house at 8:30 to watch a movie. He often did this on his own, after all he was an outcast who was often bullied. By 11:30, Todd still hasn’t return home, his mother expects the worst and she’s right. The next morning his body is found in Rosemary Park, frozen to death. But before hypothermia set in, a blow to the head ended his life.

The reader is drawn into Todd’s previous life and a picture emerges of a boy being bullied because of his sexual orientation and his attempts to negotiate his way through school while being ridiculed for being different. Most of the teachers at Todd’s school turned a blind eye to the abuse, and some even joined in.

Todd doesn’t divulge who killed him. On this score, we are led by Georgia’s observations and deductions. Most of her investigative skills have been acquired by watching CSI and other crime shows. Simultaneously she is navigating the obstacles high school throws at her, such as trying to fit in and befriend Carrie, the girl she has a crush on. Being half-Asian, Georgia is trying to find her own identity. Since the age of four, she has been the inspiration behind Molly, a character in her mother’s children’s books – one Georgia has never liked and considers to be stupid. When Georgia comes out, her mother deals with it in an equally awkward way.

Detectives Daniels and Greevy investigate Todd’s murder, but even they seem largely incompetent and ill equipped to deal with high school students and the complexity of teenage psychology. Apparently no one really knew Todd or they’re not willing to say anything about him. Eventually Daniels and Greevy do find a predictable scapegoat in Mr McVeeter, a teacher who took Todd under his wing, and who also happens to be gay. But often the obvious person isn’t the guilty one.

Tamaki uses an interesting perspective with Todd speaking to readers from the afterlife. His descriptions of his feelings are tactile; his experience of his new, strange form atmospheric and dreamlike, as if he hasn’t accepted the reality of his death yet. The cold, both in terms of weather and Todd’s ghostly presence, permeates the story.

Like other YA novels, Cold deals with common themes such as friendship, sexual awakening, peer pressure, bullying and identity. These issues are treated with sensitivity and care without being prescriptive or preachy. Occasionally, Tamaki uses witty injections to see off any melancholy or bleakness.

Despite Cold being classified a YA novel, it can easily be read by anyone. The themes are relevant and important, it is beautifully written, and it has a surprising storyline running beneath it all. It’s a short and easy, but worthwhile read.

For more books narrated from the other side, here are a few suggestions.

Roaring Brook Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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