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on April 26, 2011
Vastly different from Charles Perrault's The Fairies, in my opinion, Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson is a much-better version of the tale. For those not familiar with the original, two step-sisters encounter a disguised fairy on separate occasions. The younger of the two is blessed with a gift: Whenever she speaks, flowers and jewels fall from her lips. The eldest isn't a kind person, so the fairy curses her to spit out snakes and amphibians when she speaks. In traditional fairy tale fashion, the good-hearted, but downtrodden maiden overcomes all while those that put her down get their just rewards. Tomlinson took a fresh look at the original tale and thought, "What if the fairy blessed both sisters?" Both sisters are kind, good-hearted people who honestly love one another despite the fact that they don't share blood. Some parts of the tale remain consistent: Diribani is blessed with the gift of jewels and flowers, while her stepsister Tana is given the ability to speak snakes and toads. But which is a blessing and which a curse?

Tomlinson sets Toads and Diamonds in India, where snakes are revered. Tana has also received a gift, not a curse, though there are those who flee from what her lips release upon speaking. Many families own house nagas, snakes that eat the rats and keep pestilence from spreading. While outwardly, Diribani has received a priceless gift and releases a small fortune whenever she has something to say, it's actually a curse in disguise. She's locked up and kept away from everyone; her jewels line the king's coffers and a greedy governor wants her for himself. Toads and Diamonds is told in alternating POVs, so readers are able to follow both Diribani and Tana, seeing what becomes of the sisters and their "gifts."

Overall, Tana was my favorite of the sisters. She's made of strong mettle and goes through so much agony, while Diribani has a much easier life. Diribani's story flatlined a bit, and at times, I was eager to get back to Tana's plight. There was so much heartbreak and misery in her life; Tana was braver than most girls in her situation. As with any other fairy tale, there are also romantic prospects involved, though a relationship is hard for either sister due to their unique gifts. The throne doesn't want to let go of Diribani's riches while Tana feels that no one could love a girl who spits venomous snakes. The setting also played an important factor in the book and was a character in and of itself. I loved that Tomlinson modeled her land on a real country, India, and invented two powerful religions that are similar to ones we have in reality, while still being quite unique. Everything fit together well and created a lovely atmosphere not often seen in literature. Combined with an unusual outlook on what constitutes a blessing or a curse, Toads and Diamonds leaves readers with a lot to think about and reflect on.
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on January 17, 2011
As a mother who screens everything her 11-year-old daughter reads, I love it when what she reads corresponds, even tenuously, with what she's currently studying at school. At this point, she is studying Ancient History, which, of course, includes India. It is *not* easy to find age-appropriate fiction that might heighten a sixth-grader's interested in Indian history during the time of Janahara (other than "The Royal Diaries") so I was especially intrigued to discover "Toads and Diamonds" by Heather Tomlinson. It is, truly, a gem in the genre.

I could not read the book without critical comment, however: in the author's note at the end of the book, she mentions a number of religious traditions present in India. I thought it was a glaring omission of Christianity that she made in favour of political correctness that I had to spend some time discussing with said daughter. Christianity was introduced in India by St. Thomas, one of the first Apostles of Jesus, and till this day factors significantly in India - just look at the mission started by Mother Theresa and maintained by Indian Christians. I only bring this point up because it is salient to the author's own discussion of her very, very well-written book. The language used was truly appropriate for the time and was a treat for all the senses. Both said daughter and I could literally feel the silks and smell the curries! In the words of said daughter:

"The book, 'Toads and Diamonds' by Heather Tomlinson is one of my all-time favorite fractured fairytales.

"Diribani is beautiful and kind. Her step-sister Tana is clever, practical and loyal. So when the goddess Naghali-ji grants Diribani the blessing of speaking flowers and jewels, Tana isn't surprised that she ends up speaking toads, frogs and snakes. However, are these really blessings or curses? Diribani's newfound wealth put her in touch with a charming prince - and murderers. Tana is banished from the village she grew up in but only she can produce the much-needed snakes that eat the rats which are causing the plague which is wiping out that village. Yet will the gifts the goddess gave them bring them wisdom, good fortune, love... or death?

"My favorite part was when Diribani admit her envy of her sister, wishing she had her sister's sharp mind and wit. At the same time, Tana is wishing she had Diribani's patience and kindness. I like it because it shows that everyone has something someone else envies.

"I would recommend this book to anyone interested in magic, adventure and the quest to find out what you where put on this earth for. I would also give this book five stars: two stars for the characters, two stars for the adventure and one star for the title which was very intriguing."
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on April 9, 2011
I admit it: I chose this book by its cover, at my local library. But it lived up to my hopes. I like the use of a fairy tale not covered by Disney. I appreciate the South Asian setting that provides a refreshing change of scene, as well as a reason for people to perceive the ability to conjure snakes and toads as blessing rather than a curse. I like that the stepsisters love each other and their mother/stepmother instead of being rivals as in a traditional fairy tale.

The plot offers plenty of adventure. The details of the setting give a nice view of a fascinating culture. The main characters are richly depicted; their thoughts sound realistic for young women. Tana's tendency to put herself down and Diribati's occasional daydreaming counterbalance the girls' many virtuous traits. Secondary characters are interesting too. The swift-moving plot doesn't allow much time to get to know them, but we see that they are more than just cardboard cutouts, each having their own lives and motivations. The hardships the girls face, from the discomforts of heat and hunger, to working with manure all day, to plague and the danger of physical violence, are all real and grim enough without being gratuitously horrifying.

I was grateful for the author's note that this is not meant to truly show India or the Mughal empire, but only a similar imaginary country reminiscent of a certain place and time. I would not have known the difference. I would have liked a drawing or two of the costumes of the Believers and the indigenous people, as I had a hard time picturing the outfits just from the text descriptions.

In response to the three-star review: "the story is somewhat standard in the story concepts it uses. There are some slaves, a lot of running, and haughty nobles." Good stories tend to be built on one of a few common frameworks, because they work well. The coming-of-age journey story, in which the main character grows wiser and stronger as he travels, is classic. This is not a drawback. Also, this book includes servants, but I don't recall them being described as slaves specifically, and the haughty nobles are there to flesh out the story; at least one of them turns out to be not so haughty.

On a tangent: if you enjoyed this book, you might also like The Secrets of Jin-shei. It has more of a fantastical element and is darker, definitely an adult book rather than young adult.
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on June 9, 2011
I was really hoping to like this book and I did. I really enjoyed it. There were spots where I felt a little lost due to the references to culture that I am not familiar with but I was not lost for long and not so lost that I still couldn't follow the story line. I thought this book was rich, creative, full and refreshing. I hated that it was over when I finished it. I wanted to know more. Granted, it was great to read a book for once that was just that, one book. No book one of x# series or trilogy. No having to wait till the next one to find out what happened. But just to say ok, done.
But in this case I would have like a little more just to find out what happened after. The story did end a little on the short side I believe. I felt like I needed more but I still loved the book.
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VINE VOICEon February 22, 2013
Wow an amazing new book by one of my new favorite authors! I love learning about new cultures and love a good fairy tale and this was quite the spin on the sisters who get bleesed by a fairy and one talks diamonds and flowers and the other toads and snakes. Very enjoyable and educational
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on October 7, 2015
This is an adaptation of the classic fairy tale, “Toads and Diamonds”. In this version, two stepsisters live in a country reminiscent of India. While they worship the old religion filled with gods and goddesses, the country is now ruled by those that worship only one god, wear demure white outfits, and practice their faith quietly. After their father died, the family is in difficult circumstances. Tana, who learned her father’s craft of gemstones, is trying to come up with a plan to support the family. Her sister, Diribani, goes to the well for water and is gifted by a goddess to have jewels and flowers fall from her mouth when she speaks. Tana is sent to the well and is given the far different gift of spouting snakes and toads. Their gifts bring them to the attention of the prince who takes Diribani with him to his capitol city while sending Tana in isolation near the well. The clever part of the story is how the gifts twist in value, with Tana’s creatures being a boon for the locals who are infested with rats due to the policies of the local governor. The story also does a nice job of showing both sides for the two very different religions. The author does a good job of bringing a new face to an old tale.
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on January 26, 2013
I'm rather amazed I've never heard of Heather Tomlinson until the Book Smugglers reviewed this book and her other, The Swan Maiden. For all that this book had some problems it was still really well written, and Tomlinson deserves more recognition.

The greatest part about the book was the fact that Diribani and Tana love and admire each other. In the original fairy tale, of course the sisters are polar opposites and the abrasive one hates the perfect one. Tana and Diribani aren't the same, either (though they both come across as a little too perfect at times) but they love each other for their differences and admire the other's best traits. This is wonderful and touching, and it needs to happen more often in YA. Their differences are even shown in the writing; Diribani tended to be more descriptive of her surroundings and tended to use lush words, and she would easily become distracted by a daydream. Tana was more practical, and while she had her moments of lush description, it wasn't as often as Diribani's. When Tana became distracted it was because she was planning, trying to secure her family's future. Sometimes she let herself daydream but she almost always pulled herself back down to reality to focus on the task at hand.

The biggest issue I had with the book was the pacing, I think. It started off a little slow, then when the girls got their blessings it sped up, then it slowed down again as they went off their separate ways and tried to find footing in their new circumstances. Diribani's storyline was the worst case of this, I think. The pacing in her story slows down to a snail's pace, although I suppose it's understandable because the dangers surrounding her and her gift are more subtle than the ones Tana faces. But because Diribani's pacing was slow, Tana's story turned out to be the more interesting one, because big things happened in hers. Her gift turned out to be a strong asset in restoring ecological order to her country, since a government official had ordered all snakes to be killed, and rats were running rampant. Tana also had a strong character arc throughout the book; she starts off as a woman with horribly low self-esteem and thinking she's been punished with her gift for being a sinner, to a person who realizes she can use her gift for good, and someone who plans to save her entire village.

I never quite got the hang of Diribani's story line. Hers was mostly building a stepwell for the miners and pining away after Zahid, but having to slowly come to terms with the fact that they can never be together. I never felt like her gift had much importance in the long run except as a tool of subversion; gems aren't so nice when there's a greedy government official around, wanting to use your gift for himself. Whereas snakes were important for the ecological balance and also have a strong religious importance in their culture. There were some good side characters in Diribani's story--the princess, her maid, and some others--but they couldn't quite spruce up Diribani's side of the plot. While Tana's story had some pacing issues in the beginning as well, hers quickly resolved, whereas Diribani's never quite did.

I do respect Tomlinson for not feeling the need to tie everything off with one big happy ending, however. While Tana has a good chance of a happy ending in the future, Diribani's is less clear. It's a rather brave move in the genre that currently lives on happy endings, after a few books of "omg I love you but I can't be with you BUT I WANT TO BE WITH YOU." If you're a reader who typically likes happy endings with everything in the book solved, Toads and Diamonds probably isn't the book for you.

The only other quibble I have is the ending. I felt like the villain was defeated too easily, and that his characterization was weak compared to everyone else in the book. He was just the typical fanatical greedy villain, and we never got much more than that for his characterization. The pacing felt a little rushed, too, after pages of slow moving plot. It fits with the rest of the story, of course, but I still wish maybe more time had been taken on it and made it a bit stronger.

The writing itself was smooth and easy, and nothing except the pacing felt forced. Tomlinson has a truly lovely gift for description, and she shows it. Her character building was strong, too, and, as I said, while Tana and Diribani sometimes came off as a little too perfect, they were still strong characters. Tana ended up being the stronger one but Diribani wasn't half bad herself. The fact that Tomlinson took the time to show that both religions present in the story had their good points and bad points was sadly remarkable. The fact that she showed Diribani staying strong and true to her religion while slowly learning about the white-coats religion, and learning to tolerate it, was even more remarkable. She also showed that not everyone who practiced a certain religion was a fanatic (as the government official, Governor Alwar, is) and intolerant of other religions. How often does one see this in YA? A lot of books simply make it black and white with no gray in between, but Tomlinson went for the harder choice and treated both religions respectfully.

All in all while the book had some issues, I really did enjoy Toads and Diamonds for breaking away from the usual mold of today's YA. I'll definitely be checking out Tomlinson's other books, The Swan Maiden and Aurelie.
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on June 18, 2012
The fairytale of "Toads and Diamonds" was introduced to me in the short story "The Fairy's Mistake" by Gail Carson Levine. After that I hadn't heard much of the fairytale at all, though the premise of it really intrigued me, the thought that things aren't always what they seem at first and that blessings are curses and curses blessings.

Tomlinson takes this premise and stretches it out, exploring it to its fullest potential. This is, however, only one of the many layers in this book. Another very important layer is the setting of the book.

The book takes place in India after a Muslim invasion an conquering. The natives and the Muslims find themselves at odds during this time, especially because of their very different religions. The heroines Diribani and Tana are both native girls surviving this world where they are now at the disadvantage, on top of the fact that due to the death of their father, a jewel merchant, they have had no way to gain money to pay for their lives.

Tomlinson also includes Hindu cosmology as the driving force behind the mystical part of the fairytale, which I love.

Overall there is a strong Indian/Hindu Cultural and Historical slant on this fairytale which I wish there were more of out there.

--

I highly recommend this book to any lovers of fairytale adaptations. I also recommend this book for people who love India and the culture or even just a non-western point of view in a YA story.
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on January 28, 2012
I have always loved the Charles Perrault fairy tale called simply "The Fairies." A girl goes to a well to draw water for her family and is approached by an old, threadbare woman who asks for a drink. The girl gladly gives her water. As a reward for her kindness, the woman (actually a fairy, disguised) gives the girl a gift: for every word she speaks, a flower or a jewel shall fall from her lips. The girl returns to her stepmother, who is astonished at the gift and resolves to send her own daughter to the well. That daughter is rude to the fairy, who this time appears as a wealthy old woman (thereby foiling the mother's instructions to treat a threadbare old woman with kindness). The fairy therefore rewards the daughter with a different gift: for every word she speaks, a toad or a snake will fall from her lips. A nice lesson on the importance of kindness!

Heather Tomlinson has written her own, more modern -- and foreign -- version of this fairy tale in the young adult novel Toads and Diamonds. Tomlinson sets her novel in an unnamed imagined country similar to India or Pakistan. Her two main characters, who take turns as the viewpoint character in alternating chapters, are Diribani and Tana. The two are stepsisters, but in this story they are the best of friends rather than the typical fairy tale enemies. They live in poverty since the death of Diribani's father, who was Tana's stepfather. They are not used to this state; their father was a well-off jeweler, but everything he had saved for them is gone now. One day Diribani goes to the well for water -- a task she is not used to performing, as servants used to accomplish that for her family -- and meets the goddess Naghali-ji, one of a pantheon of twelve gods. Naghali-ji is disguised as an old, infirm and destitute woman. Diribani gives her water and helps her to a spot in the shade, at which point the old woman is suddenly clear-voiced and sound of body, offering Diribani her heart's desire. Silently, stunned by the now-obvious presence of the goddess, Diribani wishes for beauty, and receives the gift of flowers and jewels.

In the tumult of emotions arising from the gift, though, Diribani breaks the family's last clay jar. Tana must return to the well to get water, taking with her a silver pitcher, the last of the family's wealth. She encounters an obviously wealthy woman who offers her a drink, but Tana refuses. She tells the woman that she would serve her but for the fact that the pitcher drips, and would streak the woman's lovely silk dress. The woman, who is once again Naghali-ji, offers her a gift for her candor. Tana is silent, but Naghali-ji divines her wish: to protect her family. And so Naghali-ji gives her the gift of toads and snakes. The difference from the Perrault take is that, in this culture, toads and snakes really are a gift. Frogs and toads are lucky, and every household keeps a "house naga" -- a snake known to be a species that eats rats.

The young women realize immediately that they must hide their gifts to avoid unwanted attention, but that very quickly becomes impossible. An impetuous but kind act by Diribani gets the story really moving past its fairy tale origins by bringing both sisters to the attention of Prince Zahid and Governor Alwar. The sisters become separated from each other and their mother, both seeking to learn what Naghali-ji intended for them with their gifts in environments fundamentally different from their lives before their encounters with the goddess.

Toads and Diamonds is simply told, with few linguistic flourishes. It lets the reader peer into a foreign culture; even if it is not strictly set in the Mughal Empire during the time of the Hundred Kingdoms, it is sufficiently similar to pique a young reader's curiosity in another place and time (Tomlinson gives some recommendations for women of the time whom readers might wish to investigate). It is free of sex and bad language, making it easily appropriate for children as young as eight years old to read, but sufficiently sophisticated that a teenager is likely to enjoy it as well. And for those of us who enjoy fairy tales retold, it is good reading no matter our age.
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on April 6, 2011
Diribani and Tana both meet a goddess while fetching water from the town. She grants each sister a gift. When Diribani speaks, jewels and flowers fall from her mouth. When Tana speaks, toads and snakes fall from hers.

When their secret is discovered, it changes the sisters' lives. Diribani finds herself traveling with the Prince and his family. Each jewel is recorded and taken to send back to her village. She learns a new set of customs but struggles to keep part of herself intact.

Tana's gift brings fear. She, too, leaves her home and travels to a monastery. Before long, she sets off on a pilgrimage to learn the true meaning of her gift. Her travels bring her grief, and destruction follows in her path.

Are their gifts a blessing or a curse?

A wonderful fairy tale consisting of two sisters, with alternating chapters of each one's story. As each sister struggles to understand her gift, they encounter danger, friendship, romance, hardships, joy, tests of their strength, and a strong desire to see her sister.

Reviewed by: Jennifer Rummel
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