Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash coverClassic fairy tales have become ubiquitous in pop culture, from TV shows and films to comic books. Published in 2009, Malinda Lo’s debut novel predicted the current popularity of fairy tale adaptations. Her re-telling of Cinderella is an exploration of loss, wonder and courage. Particularly the courage to be yourself.

Lo includes the familiar evil stepmother, boorish step-sisters and magic, but she adds darker elements which provide welcome relief from the saccharin cartoons you are likely most familiar with. Ash is a real teenage girl with complex emotions pulling her in different directions: “She wanted to kick the gravestone; she wanted to tear the earth beneath which her mother lay and pull the body out of the ground and shake it until it gave her an answer” (p 121).

Ash has lost both her parents, and her closest companion is a brooding Fairy named Sidhean who initially warns Ash away from the temptations of Fairy life, but ultimately binds her to himself with magic. Life among the Fairies is far from magical for the humans trapped there, yet compared to her life of drudgery even false glamour is appealing.  It is Sidhean, not a fairy god-mother, who provides her trip to the ball. The delightful twist is that while the Prince is enthralled with her, Ash only has eyes for the king’s Huntress.

Ash’s path to self-understanding is believable and sympathetic. Lo’s prose is beautiful and her descriptions perfectly compliment the shifting mood of her story. Anyone who has ever wished that Cinderella’s happy ending featured a Princess, not a Prince, will love this novel. It is published by Little, Brown specifically for young adults, and would especially appeal to lesbian teens. However, anyone interested in fairy tales or classic fantasy will find much to enjoy in this novel.

This interview style review from the Bitch magazine YA Book Blog features the diverse opinions of three readers. Aaron Hughes at Fantastic Reviews also provides his perspective.

Take a look at the book trailer:

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Huntress by Malinda Lo

Huntress coverThis is a classic quest/good versus evil fantasy tale starring two seventeen year old girls, Kaede and Taisin. Both are students at The Academy, a school for aspiring sages. One of them is highborn and the other is not. Though they barely know each other, they are chosen to travel together to the fairy city to meet with the mysterious Fairy Queen in an effort to stop whatever evil force has thrown the world out of balance. The night before they are told about this quest, Taisin has a frightening premonition which sets up the emotional tension of the novel.

These are very familiar elements to any fan of fantasy fiction, yet Lo’s beautiful writing and skill at emotional exposition make this story rewarding and compelling. For example:

“Why are you afraid of your feelings?” she whispered. Taisin bit her lip. She looked away from Kaede; she looked down at her hands; they twisted together as if she were trying to weave a rope around her wrists.”

Lo respects both her characters and her readers by avoiding predictable outcomes and giving each character depth. I love that the cover art makes it clear that the characters in this tale are Chinese, and elements of Chinese culture are present throughout the book. Lo brings new possibilities to a genre that is all too often bogged down in restrictive tropes and endless description, and not just because the heroes are young Asian lesbians. Her characters are not stereotyped: they learn from their experiences, work through their fear, and fall in love. They save the world and it doesn’t take 600 pages. This engaging book will appeal to readers who like quest fantasies, or stories about girls discovering their strengths and having adventures.

Watch the book trailer at the Malinda Lo blog. Read a review at Bookishcomforts, or one by Brit Mandelo at Tor.com.

The Day My Butt Went Psycho! by Andy Griffiths

The Day My Butt Went Psycho coverOriginally published in 2001 by Pan MacMillan in Australia as The Day My Bum When Psycho, this book is well-known and loved and has become a humour classic. It was recommended to me by a high school student who described it as his favourite book; I am so glad he did. Otherwise I would have completely missed out on the delights of Andy Griffiths’ writing.

In case you hadn’t guessed by the title, this book is built around toilet humour. Adults might groan, but kids will laugh out loud. The story centers on twelve year old Zack Freeman and his butt, which has been secretly detaching itself from Zack at night and running around recruiting other butts for the butt revolution. When Zack follows his butt one night, he discovers the enormity of the butt revolution and meets a crack squad of butt-hunters, Silas Sterne and his daughter Eleanor, plus Kicker, Smacker and Kisser, skilled in various schools of butt-combat. The story follows Zack through a series of smelly events in the Brown Forest, the Great Windy Desert, and eventually to the enormous buttcano and a battle against the massive butt army of The Great White Butt.

Scholastic lists the reading level as 3.9 and recommends this book for grades 2 to 5, but I think readers of all ages who thoroughly enjoy a gross-out story will enjoy it. 150 pages of butt puns and fart jokes were a little too much for me, but I did enjoy the book. I have not yet read the sequels, Zombie Butts from Uranus and Butt Wars: the Final Conflict (originally Bumageddon: the Final Pongflict in Australia).

Check out the Andy Griffiths website on Scholastic, or read a short review from Awesome Bookclub. The review from The Bookbag includes excerpts and recommendations for similar reading.

Posy Simmonds, your gateway to Graphic Novels

If you are new to graphic novels or want realistic graphic stories, Posy Simmonds could be your gateway to graphic novels. She is best known in the UK; both Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovary were published in serial form in The Guardian newspaper. Simmonds artwork retains the soft-edged realism of sketches and are often combined with large blocks of narrative text; a combination that works perfectly for her satirical relationship dramas. These books share many elements: a heroine who has physically transformed herself, self-involved husbands, infidelity, a frump in his fifties who imagines himself to be the centre of the story, and death.

Gemma Bovary is narrated by Raymond Joubert, a middle-aged French baker and drama queen who is convinced he must save his new Anglaise neighbours Charlie and Gemma Bovary from repeating the tragic mistakes of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary! He steals Gemma’s diaries and is dismayed that Gemma barely acknowledges his existence. Instead she obsesses over her decor, her ex, her body.  She disses both the annoying French locals and the pompous English week-enders yet barely mentions her romantic liaisons. From the outset of the novel you know who is dead–what you don’t know is how it happened.

Posy Simmonds sampleTamara Drewe is set at an idyllic writer’s retreat in the English country side and is primarily narrated by Beth, wife of self-involved popular writer Nicolas Hardiman; she manages both his career and the retreat. The story shifts perspective often, giving us insights into every character. This includes two teen girls, Jody and Casey, who find the drama of Tamara’s life far more interesting than anything else in their boring village. Their neighbour’s life is so interesting, in fact, that Jody is willing to break the law to get the whole story. The frump of this tale is Glen Larson, a fiftyish academic who has convinced himself that the young and beautiful Tamara finds him attractive.

Both books are from the adult collection and are most appealing to readers who have been through a break-up, but could be read by anyone over age 12 who enjoys the social commentary often found in murder mysteries. Although adultery is a major element there are no explicit scenes. Both books reveal vanity, insecurity, stupidity, ego and hubris as the culprits of everyday tragedy. If you’d like to check Simmonds’ work out for yourself, Tamara Drewe can be read entirely online, thanks to the Guardian Archive

Posy Simmonds page on the Lambiek Comiclopedia

Read a brief review of Gemma Bovary from the NY Times

Pocket Full o’ Books in-depth review of Tamara Drewe with artwork samples.

Image from the Guardian Archive

The Battle of the Sun by Jeanette Winterson

Battle of the Sun coverThe Battle of the Sun is Winterson’s second novel for younger readers, and although one of the characters from Tanglewreck shows up in the second half it is a completely stand-alone novel. I received this as a Christmas gift and read it before Tanglewreck — no temporal anomalies or cognitive dissonance occurred.

Unlike Tanglewreck, this tale takes place in the past, London 1601, and the hero is a boy named Jack Snap who lives with his mother and his beloved dog, Max. The Magnus, an alchemist who dreams of turning London to gold, is convinced that Jack is the prophesied Golden Boy, key to realizing his transmutative dreams. Jack soon finds himself a prisoner in the Dark House, where he is forced to work alongside several failed “Golden Boys” and under the watchful eyes of Mr. Wedge and Mistress Split who are each half of a once whole creature now split in two.

Jack is resourceful and determined to escape the Magnus and thwart his selfish plans. He is assisted by many: the other boys, Max, his mother, and a visitor from the future. To succeed he must rescue a drowned king and snatch the Cinnabar egg from a dragon disguised as a moat who likes to speak in riddles. Jack joins forces with historically real alchemist John Dee for the final battle against the Magnus and his allies. Battle of the Sun is highly entertaining with bizarre though believable characters and several truly frightening situations. I would not recommend it for kids under 10 but would recommend it for preteens and teens who enjoy adventure.

This review from writer Philip Ardagh in The Guardian provides more detailed plot and character description but (Spoiler Alert) reveals who visits from the future. A second review from Media Culture is much less glowing.

Tales of Two Quirky Heroes by Jason.

You may be familiar with the ironic humour and sardonic canine charm of Norwegian comic book artist and author Jason, real name John Arne Sæterø. His art is reminiscent of Hergé, in that he draws in a seemingly simple style and uses colours that are bold and bright. His stories are populated by anthropomorphized dog-people doing their best to succeed at life. The first Jason book I read, The Left Bank Gang, starred a dog-faced Ernest Hemingway and several of his famous pals planning a bank heist. Jason writes with a wry sense of humour that easily disregards the restrictions of reality; the result is pure entertainment.

The Last Musketeer coverThe Last Musketeer stars Athos, who remarkably is still alive in present day France — how or why this is the case is not explained. One of the other Musketeers, Aramis, also survives, although he has traded his adventures for a quiet married life. When the planet Mars attacks France, Athos goes to Aramis with a plan to fight the Martians, but Aramis refuses to help. Undeterred, Athos hi-jacks a Martian spaceship, ends up in prison, escapes, battles with Martian robots, and eventually secures the help of the daughter of the Martian dictator. Athos also discovers what really happened to Porthos, the third musketeer. This comic is appropriate for middle school students, but would likely be enjoyed by any comic fan. Watch a video preview on YouTube, and read this super short review form Publishers Weekly.

I Killed Adolf Hitler coverThe hero of I Killed Adolf Hitler is a 20th-Century hitman. In the alternate reality of this book, assassins are legitimate businessmen hired by average folks to exact revenge. Hired by a scientist with a time machine, the hero of this story goes back to 1938 to assassinate Hitler. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite as planned, and instead Hitler escapes to the future, leaving the assassin to wait until he is in his 70s to try again. This story is more about relationships and letting go than it is about the wish-fulfillment of assassinating Hitler. Due to the sexual innuendo and murders so frequent they verge on banal, I would recommend this for ages 16+.  This review from ComicSphere provides more description of Jason’s unique storytelling style. Read the Artist Bio at Fantagraphics, or a Q&A with lots of sample art at The Casual Optimist.

What Makes a Hero?

For an online Comics and Graphic novel course (LIS 518). I read a blog post by Laura Hudson called “The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and their ‘Liberated Sexuality,” which described Catwoman being objectified and reduced to her cleavage in the first few pages of issue #1 of the New 52 Catwoman; her responses, though totally understandable and justified, were quite different from my own. I had subscribed to four titles in DC’s New 52 – Green Lantern, Batwoman, Wonder Woman and Catwoman; I had been enjoying them all for 14 months when I read Hudson’s post.

The vehemence of the post made me go back and re-read Catwoman #1. It also had me wondering why I enjoy Catwoman, and if my comic subscriptions could pass the Bechdel test – which measures female representation in movies with 3 simple criteria. Those criteria are: there must be more than two female characters, they must talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than a man. Hudson’s blog post states that female super heroes, specifically Catwoman and Starfire, are not heroes at all; so I set out to define concrete criteria for heroism that could be easily quantified to find out if Catwoman was the hero of her own story or not. I counted frames in the first 6 issues of the New 52 series for each title, 24 comics that were each counted 19 times. I am not familiar with Starfire so I cannot comment on that series. Continue reading