Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ash: Malinda Lo

Ash is the Cinderella fairy tale for the queer set. Instead of being the pauper girl chosen by the prince, this story features an orphan who is caught in a love triangle between a handsome fairy and a beautiful huntress. Malinda Lo challenges the social norms we receive as children and sheds light on the magic of love.

The role of Cinderella is played by Aisling, nicknamed Ash. The story begins pretty much the way we remember it--her mother is dead, her father remarries (enter the evil stepmother and two ugly stepsisters), and then her poor papa dies, and Ash is left in the care of her conniving stepmother. The twist is that this story takes place in a time when the fairy kingdom was a part of not-so-distant lore. Ash dreams about what life with the fairies would be like, and in her youth she commits herself to a future with Sidhean-- a handsome fairy she meets one night while wandering in the Wood. As she grows up, Ash takes on the role of servant in her stepmother's household, and has limited exposure to the outside world. When stepsister Ana sets her sights on winning the prince's favor, Ash is taken into the City for the Yule celebration. On that fateful night, Ash meets Kaisa, the King's huntress. Kaisa is strong and powerful, yet beautiful. Ash and Kaisa become intrigued by one another and their friendship blossoms over the Spring and Summer months when Ash is able to escape for a few hours to herself.. As the renowned ball approaches, Ash realizes that her love for Kaisa has outgrown the commitment she once made to Sidhean, but she cannot back out of her promise to the fairy. Knowing that the ball may be her last chance to see Kaisa, Ash asks Sidhean for the favor of a gown and carriage to take her to the ball. In traditional fairy tale fashion, Ash catches the eye of the prince, who asks her to dance, and spends the rest of the evening looking for the belle of the ball. In not-so-typical fairy tale fashion, after her dance with the prince, Ash runs to find Kaisa and share a moment with her. Realizing that she could never be fully happy with Sidhean, Ash must ask the fairy to release her so that she may have a life of love.

A friend of mine read and adored this book, and said that I had to read it because I would absolutely love it. While I didn't absolutely love it, I did really enjoy it. I love how Lo bravely knits together the classic Cinderella story with relevant themes of homosexuality and commitment. To my inner child, this story represents hope that true love will always win. It is also refreshing to read a novel that features a strong and competent female, as well as a love-lorn male. This "role reversal" is rare in young adult fiction these days, though it is desperately needed. Young women need strong and capable role models to counteract the simpering, vapid starlets of today's media.

While Lo is a great storyteller, I'm not a huge fan of her writing. Unlike her creative plot, her writing lacks inventiveness. While her descriptions are detailed, they weren't quite eloquent enough to take me to the scene. And though her characters are mostly borrowed from a well known storybook, she has done little to add dimension. That said, I am a sucker for a good story, and I am happy to recommend this novel based on its merit as a well-told fairy tale.

Rating: $$.5

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Heart Specialist: Claire Holden Rothman

By far one of the most engrossing novels I've read this year, The Heart Specialist is a groundbreaking debut by Claire Holden Rothman who is sure to gain notoriety with her eloquent writing and colorful story-telling. Inspired by one of Montreal's first woman doctors, this novel is a beautiful depiction of the battles fought by women to gain entry into the male-dominated medical field.

Agnes White is a strange child who grows up to be a strange adult. Rather than playing with dolls, she prefers to dissect bugs and animals to study their biology. Agnes and her sister Laure are abandoned by their widower father, left to be raised by their stern grandmother who doesn't know what to do with outrageous Agnes. When Miss Georgiana Skerry is hired to be the girls' governess, Agnes expects opposition, but instead finds an ally in her educated governess. With Miss Skerry's encouragement, Agnes attends school and goes on to earn a college degree, which is no small feat at the turn of the 20th century. Her life becomes a battle of wills as Agnes tries to make a place for herself in the medical community, aligning herself with open-minded allies, fighting every day to prove herself worthy of her degree. While earning herself a reputation as an intelligent heart specialist, Agnes is also conducting her own research into the disappearance of her father who was once a well-respected doctor at McGill College, where Agnes now works as museum curator. Focused on her career and father, Agnes watches as so many of the societal norms for women her age pass by: courtship, marriage, children. Though she meets many eligible bachelors along the way, Agnes has fought so hard to be considered one of them that they hardly see her as feminine at all. It is only after she has been able to lay the mystery of her father to rest that Agnes is finally able to open her heart to the man who has been standing before her all along.

This book feels so much like Little Women. It's sort of angsty and the character of Agnes is so much like Jo March that they could easily be friends. Agnes and Jo are both so determined to have a career that they nearly miss out on love. I felt so breathless throughout this novel, hoping desperately that Agnes would finally open her eyes and let herself love the man who has so obviously adored her from day one. At times it was downright frustrating to watch as the pair stood so close to romance, but unable to close the gap because of social standards that kept either party from being too forward.

There are a lot of layers to this book. Honestly, I couldn't possibly give a proper description of this novel without giving away half the story, and yet, it doesn't feel bogged down. Rothman has woven together a lifetime of intricate details and pulled them together into a tight epic novel that exposes the harsh realities of gender roles while also telling a touching love story. She is a superb story-teller and skilled writer you don't want to miss.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Soho Press

The Throne of Fire: Rick Riordan

The Throne of Fire is Book Two in Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles series, featuring a brother and sister team who are trying to protect the world from the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. In this second installment, Carter and Sadie are on a mission to awaken the sun god, Ra, before Apophis is freed from the Duat (think of it as the underworld).

After the adventure of The Red Pyramid, Carter and Sadie have returned to Brooklyn to start a school for magicians, knowing that they will need to raise an army before Set returns to make his claim on the world. The school introduces readers to some new characters, most importantly Jaz--a feisty healer, and Walt--a good-looking charm maker. Having had a dream in which Horus directed Carter to obtain the three scrolls of Ra, The Throne of Fire opens with a heist to steal the first scroll from a museum. When things go a little sideways, the heat is on to stay one step ahead of Set and his plans to free Apophis. Of course awaking Ra and returning him to his path through the sky is no easy task, and Carter and Sadie will face new demons and monsters, as well as some ancient sibling rivalry on their path to Ra's new morning.

I think it's fair to say that I was disappointed with this book. The story is interesting enough, but it seemed slow-paced. I kept waiting for the action to pick up, which only happened at the very end. I also notice that Riordan's writing doesn't seem to be improving. There is little difference between the Percy Jackson narration and the Kane narration. The siblings are supposedly very different, having been raised separately--Carter is the darker of the two and was raised on the road by his archaeologist father, Sadie is the sassy girl raised by her grandparents in England-- and yet I don't notice when they switch narrators; Carter and Sadie have essentially the same voice.

Which is not to say it was all bad. My favorite part of Riordan's stories is the history. Ancient Egypt literally comes alive in this book, educating readers about so many Egyptian gods and their fables. The gods are colorful characters who add dimension to Riordan's world.

I have hope that the final book in this trilogy will offer more of the excitement and adventure that Riordan has taught me to expect.

Rating: $.5

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Great And Terrible Beauty: Libba Bray

Don't you hate it when you pick up a book and only after getting involved in the story, find out that it's the first in a trilogy? Because now I'm totally hooked and I will not be able to sleep until I find the other two books in this series and devour them.

It's the late 19th century in India and sixteen year old Gemma Doyle has started having visions--visions that quickly become reality. After witnessing her mother's strange death, Gemma is sent to an all girls boarding school in England where she encounters an unusual gypsy named Kartik who warns her against using her new-found powers. As a social parriah, Gemma befriends Ann, "the scholarship girl", who is the victim of ceaseless bullying from the most popular girls. When Gemma finds leader-of-the-pack Felicity in a compromising situation, she enters into a manipulative friendship with Felicity and her cohort, the beautiful Pippa. After Gemma finds the secret diary of Mary Dowd--a former student-- that explains the powers that Gemma has uncovered, life takes a turn for the wonderful. Gemma, Ann, Felicity, and Pippa form a kind of coven in which they wield powers beyond mortal recognition. Gemma acts as a conduit for the "great and terrible" powers, making her very popular while honing her skills. It doesn't take long for the power-hungry Felicity to get carried away, and soon Gemma is forced into making a decision that may cost her everything.

This review is difficult to write because there is SO much happening. The cast is wide and diverse and the story is complicated. I loved it! I'm just not sure how to tell you readers what I loved about it. Gemma is awesome, I like her as a person. I loved the Realms and the possibilities they offered. The scenes of magic are technicolor in their descriptions and creativity. The prose isn't stunning, but Bray is a wonderful storyteller. I don't know what else to tell you about this book except, go get it!

Rating: $$$