Posts filed under Books I Love

Malinda Lo's Ash

Ash by Malinda LoRemixing fairy tales is deceptively hard to do well. Especially when the fairy tale in question features a fairy god mother, and evil stepsister, and magic slippers. As much as I love Cinderella, I'm pretty cynical when someone tells me that this or that retelling actually brings something new to the story for real this time*. Basically, if you can't do better than the Rogers & Hammerstein musical (specifically, the 90s version with the multiracial cast and the regrettable costumes), you're probably not going to impress me.

Malinda Lo impressed me.

I'm sorry I waited so long to read ASH.

It's not just that she's written a version that affirms Lesbian and Bisexual teens. It's great that she did; I always appreciate seeing myself represented in fiction, and I really wish there had been more stories like this out there when I was a teen: stories with queer heroines who get to do all the things straight heroines get to do, rather than having their entire story and all their struggles revolve around discrimination.

But just like I want to read about people like me who get to do what other heroes do, I also want to read like non-marginalized people do. Straight white men don't have  to cleave to every science fiction and fantasy novel that pays even the faintest lip-service to the idea that they're multidimensional people with their own stories, and I refuse to swoon over their table scraps.

So my actual favorite thing about ASH is that the traditional elements of Cinderella's story--the fairy benefactor helping her attend the ball, the prince dazzled by her beauty, the magic slippers, the jealous stepsister, the clock striking twelve--are little more than a backdrop to a completely original story about a young woman struggling past her grief to shape her own destiny and happiness.

I also really loved the dimension she brought to the traditional story's characters. Unlike the fairytale, Lo's version doesn't skip over Cinderella's grief at the loss of her parents or the change in her circumstances. This isn't Disney's long-suffering and eternally patient princess. Her reaction to her mistreatment is human and whole. The fairy benefactor has also been rounded out; appearing as a fleshed-out character with motivations and desires completely separate from helping Cinderella catch Charming's eye.

To my mind, though, Lo's neatest trick was the wicked stepmother. She's no more sympathetic in ASH than she is in the traditional fairytale, but in this version, she's mistreating Cinderella for her own reasons, and not just because the story needs a villain.

Lo's newest book, ADAPTATION, is the first half of a science fiction duology, and it's fresh off the presses. I'm definitely snapping up a copy.

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*I actually took a crack at retelling Cinderella with the fairies in the foreground, back when I was a teen. It involved the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Irish legend of Deirdre and Naoise. It was not very good.

Posted on September 30, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth WeinThis book will kick you in the gut, but you should read it anyway. When I started hearing buzz about CODE NAME VERITY, a story about a young British pilot and her passenger crash-landed in Nazi-occupied France, it wasn't a tough sell. I've been a fan of women of early aviation ever since I came across a photo of Katherine Stinson and fell down a rabbit-hole.

VERITY is pretty dark. It opens with a young woman being interrogated by the Gestapo after being caught in occupied France. Wein doesn't soft-pedal that experience.

But the darkness only managed to draw me in and swallow me up because the main characters are so brilliant. Their bravery, loyalty, and most of all their friendship had me at the edge of my seat the whole time, desperate to know if they'd make it safely back across the Channel. Verity says that meeting her best friend was like falling in love--and she makes me believe it, because her account of how she befriended pilot and mechanic Maddie Brodatt, written as a confession to her Gestapo interrogators, made me fall in love with them both.

If you hear that and think you know where the book's going to go with it, all I can say without spoiling anything is, it's not what you think.

Really.

Because this story is not about British agents escaping France. It's about an unlikely friendship between two young women who are willing to give anything to save each other. And that friendship, like the book itself, is terribly beautiful.

Posted on September 23, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories

cover of Mary Robinette Kowal's Without A SummerI first heard about SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY from John Sclazi's The Big Idea posts. Kowal described it as "[The] sort of novel Jane Austen would have written if she’d lived in a world where magic worked." That was pretty much all I needed to know before I ran out and grabbed a copy, and I was not disappointed.

The Austen fan in me loved the family drama and the send-ups to Regency literature; the fantasy fan in me appreciated the original magic system and the exciting, guns-and-secrets climactic sequence. I also loved the protagonist, Jane. She's a quick-witted heroine worthy of the Austen comparisons, who uses resourcefulness and skill with magic to get herself out of trouble.

And did I mention the dresses? It has dresses.

The second book in the series, GLAMOUR IN GLASS, finds Jane stranded on the Continent in the final weeks of the Napoleonic wars. Having invented a new and potentially game-changing way to create illusions, she must use it to thwart Napoleon's army. I loved the way the scope of the world has gotten bigger as Jane's skills as a glamourist have grown.

Book Three, WITHOUT A SUMMER, is coming out in April 2013. The cover is so delicious that I just want to eat it.

Kowal has several shorter works available for free online, including her Hugo-winning short story "For Want of a Nail" and Hugo and Nebula nominated novella "Kiss Me Twice."  Be the first on your block to read Ginger Stuyvesant and the Case of the Eastworth Abbey, out today in the debut issue of a new magazine from TM Publishing.

Posted on September 15, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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Molly Gloss's The Dazzle Of Day

cover of Molly Gloss's The Dazzle of DayThe first I ever heard about THE DAZZLE OF DAY was an off-hand aside in a blog post by Mary Anne Mohanraj. She mentioned a book about Esperanto-speaking Quakers in space. As an Esperanto-Speaking Quaker Science Fiction fan, it was hard to escape the conclusion that Molly Gloss must have reached into my head and written a book just for me. I was dismayed to find the book out of print, but a week or so later, my brother presented me with a copy he'd scored of Amazon.

Based on the premise, I was expecting the book to be a lot of fun. It wasn't. But what it was was breathtakingly beautiful. The prose. I'd quote it, but I just want to quote the whole thing.

It's also become my staple recommendation to anyone wanting to learn more about Quakerism. The story chronicles the journey a generation ship full of Quakers takes away from a badly-depleted Earth, in search of a new homeworld. The entire ship and all its business are run on Quaker process; presented in a way that's both accurate and accessible to folks who aren't already familiar. Science Fiction fans are no strangers to being dropped in the middle of alien cultures and introduced to them over the course of the story. In DAZZLE, Gloss uses that trick to catch readers up on Quaker society and business, and it works brilliantly.

Gloss has a new short story, The Grinnell Method, up at Strange Horizons. I've only just started it, but I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Posted on September 3, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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E. Lockhart's Disreputable History

cover of E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksTHE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS contains two of my favorite things: pranks and girl-power. This book alleges to be the tale of how fifteen-year-old Frankie became a criminal mastermind. Frankie is hurt when her boyfriend excludes from her school's all-male secret society of pranksters. So she reads Foucault, figures out the panopticon, and decides to show the boys how it's done.

If that were all the book accomplished, it would be a funny, girl-power-fuelled YA comedy with smart writing and a protag you'll love to root for. But Lockhart has managed a much neater trick than that, because DISREPUTABLE HISTORY is, at its heart, a story about sexism and self-respect. I root for Frankie because she's the feminist I wish I'd been at fifteen.

Posted on August 15, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls Series

cover of Ally Carter’s Out of Sight, Out of TimeOk, so no fooling, I'm jealous of Ally Carter for having written these books, because I wish I had beaten her to it. Who are the Gallagher Girls? They're sophomores at the Gallagher Academy, an elite prep school for fine young women spies.

Now you wish you'd written it too, right? If these books were around when I was twelve, I would have been wearing plaid skirts and binoculars everywhere I went for weeks.

The first book-- I'D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU, BUT THEN I'D HAVE TO KILL YOU is fairly self-contained. Fifteen-year-old Cammie Morgan, scion of a legendary spy family, meets a normal boy. Trained spy that she is, she tackles boyfriend-acquisition like it's a matter of national security. Hijinx ensue.

That might sound like a Disney Afternoon Movie to you, but the actual story is hilarious. It has a great voice, loveable characters, and a charming dose of ridiculous (how does a born-and-bred spy get to know a normal boy? Why, she assembles a recon team to help her gather data, and writes up their findings in incident reports, of course!).

The sequels have taken on a darker tone, growing up around Cammie as her world gets bigger. She and her friends have left small-town boyfriends behind to take on a mysterious international criminal syndicate. Carter, with a masterful command of pacing, has mixed a high-stakes spy drama with a coming-of-age story. I'd been looking forward to Book 5 for quite some time, so I was thrilled to find it at a bookstore in California during a recent business trip. I bought it right in front of my colleagues and read it the whole plane ride back, because I'm a grown up now, and I get to decide what that means.

Posted on July 31, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale

cover of John Scalzi's Zoe's TaleI've enjoyed all the books in Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR universe, but ZOE'S TALE is my favorite. The previous book in the series, THE LAST COLONY, finds series heroes John Perry and Jane Sagan preparing to come out of retirement to lead a new human colony. The universe they live in being a harsh and dangerous place where myriad factions fight over every scrap of land, their new colony's situation ends up getting complicated. ZOE'S TALE retells the events of THE LAST COLONY from the perspective of seventeen-year-old Zoe, John Perry and Jane Sagan's adopted daughter. I'm a sucker for stories of sarcastic teens, and Scalzi is pretty much the reigning king of sarcasm. The banter between Zoe and her friend Gretchen is pretty much worth the price of admission all on its own.

What really surprised me though was how moving the book was. It actually brought me to tears at one point.

Retelling the same story from a different perspective is tough, and it usually doesn't work (where 'work' is defined as telling a compelling story that brings something new to the table for folks who've already read the original). A few things made it work here: first, Zoe was pivotal to the events of COLONY, but we don't learn very much about how she did what she did, so Scalzi still had room to surprise me. And he did.

Second, in Colony, Scalzi pulled off the neat trick of presenting an ensemble of side characters who felt like they had full inner lives outside of Perry and Sagan's narratives. He managed to create the impression that these people were all the heroes of their own stories, and those just weren't the stories he happened to be telling at the time. So I came into ZOE'S TALE wanting to hear more of these other people's stories. And I did.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, ZOE'S TALE isn't really the same story at all. It's a completely different story that just happens to be told at the same time and place as the previous one. Zoe's goals line up pretty well with her parents' as far as not wanting her colony wiped off the map, but her dramatic arc isn't about saving the colony--or at least, it's not directly about that. It's about a young woman who's trying to find her place in a big and complicated universe.

And she does.

Posted on July 15, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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Jay Worrall's Sails On The Horizon

cover of Jay Worrall’s Sails On The HorizonI love a good Napoleonic Nautical tale--I devoured all the Hornblower books when I was younger--and SAILS ON THE HORIZON is a lesser-known gem of the genre. This book had me laughing practically from the moment I picked it up. The main character, Charles Edgemont, won me over the moment he started joking with his midshipmen in the lead-in to a ship action. Halfway through the book, there's a slyly arranged cameo that killed me dead. I knew at once I needed to get this book for my father, with whom I'd enjoyed many an episode of the Hornblower miniseries. Then there's Edgemont's Quaker love interest. I admit a pretty hefty bias towards books with Quakers in them, because hey, there aren't a lot of them. But nautical military fiction is just about the last place I would have looked for a main Quaker character. A Quaker himself, Worrall managed to fit the Society of Friends into his story without making them seem forced or out of place, nor making them one-dimensional mouthpieces for the author's anti-war sympathies.

The book also spends nearly as much time on land as he does at sea, which is unusual for a nautical, but it works. It's neat to see so much of Edgemont's life outside of his career.

Posted on June 29, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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Stephen Schlesinger's Act of Creation

cover of Stephen Schlesinger’s Act of CreationAs a former Model UN Nerd, I understand if folks are skeptical when I say that ACT OF CREATION is a fascinating read, but there it is. Schlesinger's history starts with the death of President Roosevelt in April of 1945 and takes us from there through the San Francisco conference that founded the United Nations. He tells the story of the conference--its different actors, conflicts, and intrigues in an open, approachable style that made me feel like I was listening to someone who'd been there.

Posted on June 15, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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Lucy Maud Montgomery's Rilla Of Ingleside

cover of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Rilla of InglesideAs a child, I loved ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and its sequels, ANNE OF AVONLEA and ANNE OF THE ISLAND. I was an avid fan of the Canadian TV Show Road To Avonlea. I didn't read the rest of the series until much later. The last book RILLA OF INGLESIDE, feature's Anne and Gilbert's youngest daughter. Rilla starts the book an immature teenager anticipating her first adult party. When war breaks out, Rilla steps up, taking on work for the red cross, raising a war orphan, and anxiously awaiting news of her brothers and friends on the front.

One of the only novels about life in Canada during WWI by someone who actually lived through it, RILLA is a coming-of-age story in more ways than one. If ANNE OF GREEN GABLES is a charming portrayal of a simpler time, RILLA is a moving, heartfelt story of a town coming into the modern era. The previous book in the series, RAINBOW VALLEY, foreshadows the coming of a pied piper who will summon the Blythe boys away from Ingleside. In RILLA, we see that promise fulfilled, as the boys of Glen Saint Mary and Four Winds are piped across the sea to war. This is the story of the women they leave behind.

As fond as I am of Anne's story, RILLA is my favorite book in the series.

Posted on May 31, 2012 and filed under Books I Love.

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