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.

Arthur: The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland

The Seeing Stone coverArthur de Caldicot is surrounded by crossing places. There’s the year, 1199, which promises the mystery of a new century. There’s his home, perched on the border of England and Wales, and his family, which blends the traditions and sensibilities of both. There’s the death of Coeur de Lion, and the rise of King John. And there’s Arthur’s seeing stone, a gift from his mentor, Merlin, which give him glimpses into another life strangely parallel to his own.

This first book in Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy introduces the Arthurian legends through the eyes of a medieval teen convinced that knighthood is everything he wants. Short chapters alternate between detailed images of life in a medieval manor, and vivid scenes from King Arthur’s beginnings, from his strange conception to the much-contested drawing of the sword from the stone. Between the two, the later Arthur’s story moves almost imperceptibly forward. Though there is a central conflict and, ultimately, a kind of resolution, there is a sense that for the most part, the reader is trusted to draw meaning out everyday life. Arthur asks questions and makes choices, observes and discovers, worries and determines who he can and will trust. Having experienced all of this with Arthur, the reader is ready to recognise the full weight of the conclusion — and to reach eagerly for the next book.

I highly recommend The Seeing Stone for readers who enjoy historical fiction that provides a faithful window into another culture, and for those interested in the Middle Ages more generally. The series is also a great place to start developing a deeper sense of the Arthurian legends, as the short, memorable scenes provide plenty of entry points for understanding a more advanced work like Le Morte d’Arthur down the road without conflicting with those more traditional tellings.

Continue the series with At the Crossing Places and The King of the Middle March.

Read other reviews from Publishers Weekly and, from a writer’s point of view, Miss Reading.

Visit the author’s website to find out how his Arthur trilogy came to be, or head over to The Guardian for an interview with Crossley-Holland on the occasion of his Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

*Apologies for the delayed post!

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

The 5th Wave coverIn a post-apocalyptic world, Cassie feels like she is the last human alive. When the alien mothership loomed closer towards Earth, no one could have predicted what was to happen. The first wave took away their lives, the second took away hope of reconciliation, the third left only the few (both lucky and unlucky) survivors, and the fourth is killing off most of those who have outlived the other waves. Now, on the brink of the fifth wave, anything could happen — nothing and no one can be trusted.

Among Cassie’s possessions is her M-16, a first aid kit, water, a diary, some tins of sardines, pictures and a stuffed toy bear. Though worn and ragged from years of being loved, the bear represents the promise that she made to her brother, and the reason she fights so hard to survive. Little does she know that she is being stalked by someone in the shadows.

Elsewhere is another survivor who, through a miracle, has also somehow survived through all four waves. Dubbed Zombie by his rescuers, he is ushered to the barracks amongst the other surviving children to become trained “military style” to fight the enemies: you either make it or you die trying. When his regiment succeeds in bumping up its ranking and finally takes action outside camp, they are in for a surprise when they learn who their real enemies are.

Suspenseful, mysterious and with hints of romance throughout, Yancey does a stellar job of interweaving the lives and stories of its characters. He leaves the reader speculating about the realities within our day to day lives; what if the world that we live in really isn’t what we think it is? What would you do if your life was endangered by another species?

See more reviews by: Wired, the New York Times, and Mrs. ReaderPants.

Read the interview between Entertainment Weekly and Rick Yancey.

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky coverHattie Inez Brooks arrives in rural Montana in January, 1918. Behind her is a lifetime of being shuffled from one reluctant relative to another — whenever someone stops needing her help, on she goes. Before her are the remaining requirements for “proving up” the land claim her Uncle Chester has left her. Specifically, in the next 11 months, 16-year-old Hattie must plant 480 fence posts, farm 40 acres, and finish the season with enough money to pay her debts and cover the final fee that will make the land hers.

Hattie takes the challenge eagerly, thrilled to be working toward a home that’s truly her own. With advice from books and neighbours, determination, and especially the help of the Mueller family down the road, it looks like Hattie just might make it. But in 1918, hard work in the fields isn’t necessarily enough to earn the respect of the community. With WWI reaching its peak, patriotism is everything, and suspicion is everywhere. Though Hattie dutifully attends town events in support of the war, and promises far more than she can afford in the war bonds drive, her friendship with the part-German Mueller family means she shares their assumed guilt.

It’s a year full of challenges, some funny, others devastating. As Hattie struggles toward her November deadline, letters to a childhood friend on the front line and Wingfield-esque, “making a go of the farm” articles for a city newspaper in Iowa allow her to interpret and reinterpret her experiences, gradually drawing meaning from the senseless, and preparing to face an unknown future with grace and courage.

I grew up loving homesteading stories, and I’ve become increasingly fascinated by home front stories in the last few years. Hattie Big Sky does a fantastic job of exploring both in a period of overlap I didn’t know existed. If you haven’t yet, read this book — you won’t regret it!

Find more reviews at Nerdy Book Club and Slatebreakers.

Check out the publisher’s Reader’s Guide.

Catch a sample of one of the Wingfield plays:

Watch for a review of the sequel, Hattie Ever After this fall!

Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman

Enthusiasm coverAshleigh has a history of enthusiasm. When she loved Little House on the Prairie, she tried to wear her flowered nightgown to school. When she was into The Wet Blankets, she camped out — with the ingredients for a wet blanket salute — in front of a music store that promised free tickets to their next concert. Now, besotted with the newly-discovered Pride and Prejudice, Ashleigh is covering her “lower limbs,” learning country dances, and figuring out how to crash a prep school dance to find Mr Darcy…and a nice Mr Bingley for her best friend.

Julie, the best friend, and the narrator of Enthusiasm, is a quieter sort. She’s happier reading a good book than trying to live it, but she goes along with Ashleigh’s projects, partly out of love for her friend, and partly because, embarrassment aside, she usually does have a good time. It’s true that Pride and Prejudice was Julie’s favourite book long before Ashleigh embraced it, and the “Mr Bingley” they meet at the dance does seem a much better fit for her enthusiastic friend. But Ashleigh’s never been anything but generous, and sometimes you have to put aside your own feelings to support your friend. Right?

One of Enthusiasm’s real strengths is its exploration of friendship. Julie and Ashleigh misunderstand and occasionally (unintentionally) hurt one another, but both are consistently motivated by an interest in the other’s happiness. Is the story rather “light and sparkling”? Sure. But with solid characters, believable friendships, and a hint of Austen more creative than most, I’d say this one’s well worth a read.

A small warning: The characters do use an unusual collection of slang words, which is a bit jarring at first. The words are used consistently, though, so they fade into the background pretty quickly.

Read more reviews at Austen Prose and Angieville

Read an author-supplied excerpt from Ashleigh’s book, Dancing and Its Relations to Education and Social Life, With a New Method of Instruction Including a Complete Guide to the Cotillion (German), With 250 Figures, by Allen Dodworth: http://www.pollyshulman.com/dodworth.html

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.