I have to start this with my Goodreads status update from 5 pages in:
I literally cannot handle how much I like this book. I can’t get through a page without cackling or exclaiming. The art! The narration! The surreal worldbuilding! The f/f couple in the middle of it!!! The feminism! The cleverness! Like, I actually can’t handle it. I have to read it a couple pages at a time or I get overwhelmed. I don’t think this has ever happened??
I don’t think I’ve ever been so giddy from the first pages of a book. I was already hooked from the premise: a graphic novel retelling of the Arabian Nights featuring a woman who has fallen in love with her maid. Once I had it in my hands, I was stunned by the cover alone. It looks even more gorgeous in person, with the text in shining gold letters. And best of all, the two women reaching for each other: no attempt to disguise the queer content.
I’m a sucker for experiments in story telling, and I love how this book is structured. From the page layouts to the narration, the design and writing of this book perfectly fits its story, even when it deviates from the norm. A book that starts with a creation story of “In the beginning there was the world / And it was weird” is going to immediately jump in my estimation. I haven’t read the previous book, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, but this book stands on its own–while dropping enough hints that I want to pick up the earlier book to get an even richer understanding of this story.
The framing device here is that Cherry’s husband has made a bet with another man, Manfred, that he can’t seduce Cherry in 100 nights. In order to save Cherry from being forced into this arrangement, Hero (her lover and maid) tells Manfred stories over the course of these nights, with the promise that once he seduces Cherry, the stories will end. These stories are engaging in themselves, and resemble folk tales. They revolve around women, often sisters, and as those characters tell their own narratives, the nesting story structure grows.
Although there’s a timeless, folk lore feel to the story, there’s also some moments of great, clever humor thrown in, including the narrator cutting in for commentary, and Hero and Cherry using vocabulary I was not expecting! Mostly the humor is dry, feminist wit.
And, of course, there’s the romance. The unapologetic, unshakable love between Cherry and Hero. The moment that really made me trust this story was when it describes the two women getting into bed together and then cuts to after, with the narrator interjecting “No! Of course I’m not going to show what happened then! What kind of a book do you think this is?” It was setting up for a voyeuristic look into two women’s sex life, then makes a hard left and questions the reader’s expectations.
This a beautiful, epic love story that centres on two women. That fundamentally respects women and their love. This is a story that respects storytelling, that believes that stories can change the world.
This is the queer feminist mythology we deserve.
Oh, wow! I’ve finally gotten to my first Malinda Lo book. It will not be the last. Ash is a retelling of Cinderella. It’s twisty, it has a fair amount of the fair folk, and it has some great love interests. It’s also one of those books I knew would already have been reviewed a couple times here. I looked at Katie Raynes’ review and appreciated her take on the story’s roots in the wild hunt, and in Lo’s vivid evocation of landscape. Laura Mandanas’ review focuses more on relationships and a little gender theory. What can I add or emphasize? I was surprised that this was a retelling of Cinderella where the prince isn’t even really a thing. He’s barely a plot device (and a sulky, sullen one at that).
One of the lovely things about this book is that it fully realizes the progression of Ash’s journey from beloved daughter to maligned stepchild. Too often, this feels rushed or glossed over, and hence unbelievable, but I could buy this. Another lovely thing is that we as readers actually get a sense of Ash’s mother as a character, and the mother is an integral character even after her death. Her influence is woven into the plot. There: The prince doesn’t matter, the dead mother does.
In this homophobia-free world, homosexuality is like being left-handed. Perfectly natural, but generally, people aren’t. Ash’s slow realization of her attraction to Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, is all the more lovely for being tinged with nothing but wonder and curiosity. Meanwhile, although the sulky human prince isn’t a contender, Ash is indeed attached to a prince. He’s a brittle, glittery Jareth who takes the word “glamorous” back to its original meaning. Old, old magic against real, young love: so there’s the excellent internal conflict against a backdrop of a fabulous world, and in living conditions that are fairly awful (though not all of the stepfamily is painted with the same broad strokes).
On a final note, the fun factor of this book was through the roof. It was tremendously enjoyable. If it’s been on your long list, maybe bump it up?
I love queer fairytale retellings! Although I do not think this is much of a fairytale. It’s set in the Arabian Nights fantasy world and has a few elements of the folktale Aladdin, in the sense that there is a poor messenger who’s however a girl and there is a genie, who’s not really a genie.
Adijan is a messenger girl, who dreams of having her own business and is a bit too fond of drinking despite being really hard-working. She’s married to Shalimar, a very kind woman who is always happy and yet always thought of as simple, much to Adijan’s annoyance. It is evident that Adijan loves Shalimar, but she is also slave to vices and wasn’t such a good spouse. This book, full of adventure and Adijan being kicked out from countless places, follows the journey of Adijan to try and get back Shalimar from where she is being kept by her brother Hadim.
While set in an invented Arabian country, Adijan and Shalimar’s relationship is accepted and legitimate. The problem lies in wealth not in their orientation and love. Something that really bothered me was that Adijan was continuously misgendered and most times she did not correct these assumptions where from her gender expression and clothing her gender was judged.
Adijan and the ‘genie’, don’t really get on at first. However, I thought it was great that even though they did not like each other, they were respectful, using correct names, considerately describing time and place and consoling one another. They eventually come to understand and care for one another. Nonetheless, you also see two people battling their wills against each other because they both have big and fundamental dreams.
Injustices to the social system, especially in courts and wealth are addressed. It’s a book that says a lot about non-materialistic values. For someone that was looking to get rich, Adijan got that freedom and love were priceless. Privilege was understood as it was lost. For being a fun book, it also has serious themes.
I really enjoyed the characters of Zobeidé once she stopped getting on my nerves, and of Adijan’s aunt Takush who owns a ‘friendly house’ and her suitor Fakir. A bonus in this book were the insults which often contain some form of ‘camel’ to them.
I liked how Zobeidé did not forgive simply because her old tutor apologized and said he was set up to do what he did. Stripping freedom from someone is inexcusable.
This book ended on a great note. Something that was lost, even if in a land of magic, was still not magically made better and in that it was realistic. To end, you find yourself being angry at Adijan, then pitying her and then laughing at something. This book is a fast read and a true adventure.
Fairy Tales for Princesses Who Love Dames by Rene von Bonaparte is a collection of classic fairy tales retold in a modern setting with lesbians as the main couples. It includes adaptations of “The Princess and the Pea,” “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “The Frog Prince”.
The stories are set in the modern world, but the language of each one retains the “once upon a time” lyricism of classic fairy tales. I found this method of using old-fashioned language to describe modern things and concepts (such as cell phones and rock stars) charming. Each heroine met and wooed the girl of her dreams, and I appreciated that attention was not drawn to the characters’ sexual or romantic orientation as if it needed some sort of explanation. While I think stories in which a character’s status as a gender or sexual minority is discussed are very important, I also long for stories in which nobody blinks an eye when a girl kisses another girl. These were those kind of stories.
I did have some problems with this collection, though. It really could have used a more thorough editing–I was thrown out of the story countless times by misspellings, misused words, and incorrect punctuation. More importantly, I was disturbed by the standards of beauty these stories upheld. White skin was consistently used as an indicator of beauty–I felt I was supposed to understand that the heroines or their objects of affection were beautiful simply because of how white their skin was. There were women of color, but they were always the “exotic other,” the object to be obtained or saved, rather than the central character who did the saving. I really feel it’s important to avoid using language that supports white skin as the default and brown skin as something that sets a character apart. Also, while the heroines did have a variety of body types, one of the evil stepsisters in the Cinderella story was described as fat and the narration used a lot of negative fat talk (comparing her to a pig, etc.) to illustrate how ugly she was. These undertones all made me very uncomfortable.
Fairy Tales for Princesses Who Love Dames by Rene von Bonaparte is a collection of fairy tales retold with both a lesbian and a modern twist. The beast and her prisoner, the sleeping beauty and her savior, are all women, and the pea put under the princess’ mattress is a USB drive. The narrative style is simplistic in the tradition of folk tales such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm, and I can imagine one reading them aloud to a child at bedtime, or to a lover, snuggled up in bed on a rainy day. I was pleased with the stories themselves, and the collection gets points for having at least one sad ending.
Unfortunately, this collection also has a bit of an issue with race. All the women followed by the narration are described with Caucasian features, and most of the other characters are white as well. Three of the main characters, lovers of the women followed by the narration, are women of color. (One antagonist is also a woman of color, but she is the twin of one of the protagonists, essentially her reflection.) If this had been handled correctly by the author, I would stop here and deem the POC representation decent, if limited. However, these three characters are also the three characters in the collection who have been trapped in animal forms: a swan, a beast, and a frog. They eventually turn back into humans; one dies, while another retains some animal characteristics. Furthermore, one of these characters, referred to as “Indian,” is described as having “exotic beauty.” I’m not going to go into why these things are a problem, here, aside from the fact that they’re racist; if you don’t know why they are a problem, I recommend doing some google searches.
As the author has made their POC characters, and only their POC characters, animals and exotified them, I am going to have to refrain from recommending the purchase of this collection. There is no excuse for this in a book published in 2012, and the stories are not outstanding enough to recommend in spite of problematic elements.
The first chapter of Ash by Malinda Lo stopped me in my tracks. Lo’s writing here is not the type that should be read hurriedly — speed reading here would be like sprinting through the Taj Mahal, blindfolded, and calling it sightseeing. Such a waste! No, readers will do best to advance slowly. Pause. Ponder. Resume wandering, slowly. Bask in each word of the luminous and evocative prose. This book is one worth lingering over.
Placed in a vaguely medieval secondary fantasy world, this “Cinderella” retelling follows young Aisling (“Ash”) as she comes to terms with personal tragedy and struggles to work out her place in the world. Curious, independent, and full of longing for her lost mother and the fairy world, Ash reminds me heavily of the character Saaski from The Moorchild. Like Saaski, Ash has to make a choice between two very different worlds. Unlike Saaski, Ash has no human boy companion to help her. Prince Charming does no rescuing; indeed, Ash shows very little interest in him whatsoever. But this does not mean that she is alone.
Though Ash never declares a label for her sexuality, her burgeoning relationships indicate bisexuality. (Note that as a young adult novel, there’s no explicit sex of any kind in the book.) In this world, same sex relationships are as commonplace and unremarkable as opposite sex relationships. Lo explains on her website, “In Ash’s world, there is no homosexuality or heterosexuality; there is only love. The story is about her falling in love. It’s not about her being gay.”
My favorite thing about this book is the depth and realism that Lo depicts in her inter-character relationships. Heartwarmingly full of that familiar first time awkwardness, Ash’s relationship with the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, is a pleasure to watch unfold. Conversely, her incisive relationship with the dangerous and seductive fairy Sidhean is bone-chilling… but mesmerising. Even the complicated sisterly bond Ash has with her two stepsisters — absolutely beautifully rendered.
I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I will warn you that it comes without fanfare, tacked on almost as an afterthought. It wasn’t terrible, but the big, book-long buildup had me expecting more. Luckily, there’s a prequel?
Most lesbian literature to date, it seems, details the common struggles of coming out and of dealing with the consequences of being a homosexual in a heterosexual world. Not Ash, the new teen novel by former afterellen.com editor Malinda Lo.
A revisionist Cinderella novel complete with pagan holidays and faeries reminiscent of those rampant throughout Irish and British folklore, the novel is indeed a modern fairy tale. Instead of a submissive Cinderella, Ash is a rebellious teenager. Instead of getting wishes from a kind fairy godmother, Ash makes a deal with a dangerous fairy knight. But what at first appears to be the most significant twist, that Cinderella falls in love with a woman, is not. What is truly refreshing about this story is that her falling in love with a woman, not a man, doesn’t bother anybody.
“It was clear to me from the beginning that I didn’t want to have a world where there was homophobia,” said Lo in an interview with afterellen.com’s Heather Aimee O’Neill. “I decided to not make [homosexuality] an unusual thing.”
It’s easy to see, reading her book. Casual references to women loving women are sprinkled here and there throughout the text, and when you read that “a young couple stumbled away from the dance hand in hand, one woman dressed in gold, the other woman in green”, or that one character nonchalantly voices her opinion that Ash, the cinderella character, is one of the “many who would cast themselves as the huntress’s lover”, you begin to understand that in the world of Ash, there is no “gay” or “straight”. There is only love, and the gender of the person you love doesn’t matter.
“She has enough problems,” said Lo, without having to deal with a world discriminatory towards gays. It is the difference in class between Ash and her “true love” that rankles with her society, not the lack of difference in gender. While many factors impede the progress of their relationship, stigma associated with sexual orientation, for once, is not one of them.
Ash really is a fairy tale. A world in which being gay isn’t a problem—doesn’t that sound like happily ever after?
Interview with Malinda Lo, conducted by Afterellen’s Heather Aimee O’Neill on October 15th, 2009: http://www.afterellen.com/people/2009/10/malinda-lo
Lo, Malinda. Ash. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. p. 106
Lo, Malinda. Ash. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. p. 184
Interview with Malinda Lo, conducted by Afterellen’s Heather Aimee O’Neill on October 15th, 2009: http://www.afterellen.com/people/2009/10/malinda-lo
Thanks to Emily from Wacky Word Woman for this excellent guest review! I’ve been wanting to read Ash for a while, and this just moved it up the list. Definitely check out Emily’s blog. It’s new and awesome, but she doesn’t have a lot of followers yet.
Have you read Malinda Lo’s Ash? What did you think of it?
If you’re not sure where to start with queer women books, here are some of my favourites.
This 1970s novel is not only a lesbian/queer women classic, it also entertaining and challenges social norms even to this day. I still remember the day I realized I needed to read more queer women books. It was when my mother found out I had not read Rubyfruit Jungle and said “And you call yourself a lesbian.” I’m glad she shamed me into picking it up. Lesbian author.
2) Patience and Sarah (or A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller
Written in 1969, but set in the early 19th century, this queer classic also manages to tell a romance between two women without being depressing. It also influenced my very author’s work: Sarah Waters.
Do not let this be the first lesbian book you read! If I was doing this list by order of which is most classic, I would start with this one, but it violated my cardinal rule: don’t be depressing. I recommend Well of Loneliness because it’s a classic (published in 1928), because it was actually surprisingly not very difficult to read, and because it was judged as obscene although the hot lesbian love scene consisted entirely of “And that night they were not divided”, but it’s not a pick-me-up book. In fact, if it wasn’t such a classic, I never would have read it at all; I refuse to read books that punish characters for being queer. I also got the suspicion while reading it that the protagonist was transgender, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.
Aaah, what is more lesbian than the coming-out story…
I found this book after my teens, but I still loved it. Hello, Groin deals with the protagonist’s attraction to women as well as censorship at her school. A book theme inside a lesbian book? I’m in love. It also is well-written and optimistic. I highly recommend this one.
The classic lesbian teen book. I read this a while ago, so all I really remember is that I thought they fell in love awfully fast, but I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a must-read for the well-read lesbrarian.
This is my very favourite book, queer or not. Sarah Waters has a writing style that I can just sink into, and despite the fact that I rarely seek out historical fiction, I fell in love with Tipping the Velvet. The ending is such a perfect representation of the odd, complicated nature of love. Plus, this is a coming-out story, that classic trope. Fingersmith is a very close second, which also has lesbians, but includes an absolutely killer, twisting plot. If you’re not shocked by the direction this takes, you are much more clever than I am. Lesbian author.
This is an odd book for me. In the beginning, I thought, “this is sort of clumsily written”, but by the end I was blown away. I’m not sure what it is, but I really loved this book.
This isn’t my favourite of Winterson’s books, but it is, again, a classic. Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful, dream-like way of writing, and I plan to read all of her books eventually, though she is quite prolific. This one is rumored to be semi-autobiographical, and it’s definitely worth reading. Lesbian author.
I have a soft spot for fairy tale re-tellings, so it wasn’t surprising that a lesbian fairy tale re-telling made the list. What is surprising, though, is not only Donoghue’s readable writing style, but her ability to weave each story into the next, creating a whole tapestry connecting some of your favourite fairy tales. Lesbian author.
Coyote is not exactly woman-identified, but ze’s not man-identified either, so that’s good enough for me to make the list. I love Coyote’s style, and the stories including in any of the collections (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, Loose End, The Slow Fix) are short, to-the-point, and always affecting. Queer author.
Bechdel is the creator of the famous lesbian comics Dykes to Watch Out For. In her graphic autobiography, she illustrates her childhood, constantly drawing comparisons to her father. It may violate my “don’t be depressing” rule, but the comics alone are worth reading it for, and perhaps the uneasy feeling you’ll get afterward. Lesbian author.
I actually read about half of this thinking it was a really elaborate fictional story, so that should tell you how well it was written. Plus, a lesbian love story in Berlin, 1943? You know it’s going to be interesting at the very least.
That’s all I can think of for now, but I hope to get some real reviews up soon! Feel free to start sending in reviews (more lengthy than these general recommendations, hopefully).
Thanks for reading!