Partway through Ellie’s senior year, her life takes a turn for the weird and she’s thrown into the reality of Maori mythology—and in Guardian of the Dead, it is real. Her crush causes strange memory lapses, headaches, and impulses to not go out at night; and a strange woman appears in her life, looking sporadically otherworldly and harboring ill intent toward Ellie’s best friend, Mark. And that’s just the beginning.

I was a reader of Karen Healey’s now-defunct comics and feminism blog, Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed), and I’m an occasional reader of her not-at-all-defunct general blog, and spent the first third of Guardian of the Dead feeling distracted by Ellie’s first-person narratorial voice sounding exactly like Karen’s blogging voice. This isn’t necessarily a problem with the book, but it did make it harder for me to dive into Ellie’s world and brain; the familiar voice kept me in this world, where I’m used to reading it. Apparently there is a downside to the world of authorial blogging, eh?

The book has three distinct phases: discovery, dealing with the small-scale bad guy, and dealing with the large-scale bad guys. The excitement and tension increases as the book progresses, which is good, but not knowing what the major conflict is until halfway through the book diminishes its overall effectiveness. Too much changes when the first bad guy has been dealt with and they’re moving on to the rest: the scale of the conflict, the setting, what’s at stake, who’s involved.

On the other hand, the characters present a pleasing level of both diversity and moral ambiguity. On the diversity front, not only are the characters a mix of white and Maori New Zealanders, Ellie is not skinny, there’s an off-screen lesbian character, and there’s an asexual character—and all these are dealt with honestly but without sensationalizing. On the moral ambiguity front, we have a bad guy who’s helpful, a good guy who’s fairly problematic—mucking around with people’s minds without consent, concealing really essential information, stalking, that sort of thing. The end is likewise mixed; it firmly resists the impulse toward a happy, everything was saved ending, but there’s enough happiness to make sure it’s not depressing.

Guardian of the Dead presents Maori folklore in beautiful, deadly ways, and comes with a fairly thorough author’s note explaining what liberties she took and what choices she mad. It’s a mixed bag, but with enough unusual features, like the New Zealand setting and mythological basis, to make it stand out.

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Guardian of the Dead ~ Karen Healey

Louisa Cosgrove is unusual for a Victorian young woman: passionate about science, aspiring to become one of the first generation of female doctors, and far more interested in her cousin Grace than in any young man she’s ever met. Her name isn’t Lucy Childs and she isn’t insane. And yet, she finds herself taken to an insane asylum, where the apathetic doctor and sadistic matron insist that she is Lucy Childs, and that her instance that she is Louisa Cosgrove is a symptom of her insanity. The only consolation is Eliza, a kind, smiling, pretty young woman who works in the asylum.

It’s a sweet, romantic little book. Louisa’s emotions are realistically raw and painful; her early unfounded hope and her growing sense of betrayal as she realizes that she is not in the asylum through sheer accident are particularly difficult. Eliza’s gentle raising of Louisa’s spirits and energy following a further catastrophe goes slowly but with a sense of the inevitable. Both Louisa’s early passionate crush on Grace and her more mature and balanced esteem for Eliza ring true.

Wildthorn gave me less of a feel for Victorian England than I would have liked. Rather than feeling grounded in its period, it felt like a struggle between twenty-first century mores and late-nineteenth century ones. Though Louisa’s indulgent father is presented as an explanation for her freethinking ways, the ease with which Louisa casts off Victorian ideals is stunning, and though Eliza is in many ways more of a realist and more aware of the difficulties they face, her casual and open acknowledgment of lesbianism makes her a bit too obviously an angel dropped into Louisa’s life to rescue her. The supporting characters, though far less sympathetic than the romantic leads, have more depth and more awareness of the time, and the ending is surprisingly pragmatic—though happy, it resists the urge to become utopian.

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Wildthorn

Evil CarterStuart is an outsider, a snarky, gay, non-Christian teen in a very conservative Christian small town. He may not have many—or any—friends, but at least the town’s population is civil, quietly hoping he’ll come back around to Christianity and become straight but not bothering him about it: (“‘We know you’ve chosen that lifestyle,’ Mrs. Farmson told me in her understanding voice. ‘I have faith that you will find the error of your ways soon”1). That all changes when, suddenly, both Sunday school/youth group leaders are moved to change their planned lessons and instead discuss the horror of the Sin of Onan—masturbation.2 And as luck would have it, Stuart’s little brother walked in on him enjoying a rather onanistic shower that morning, so Stuart is in a lot of trouble. Way more trouble than makes any sense at all. In danger from the suddenly-very-judgmental and possibly violent populace, Stuart turns to an understanding priest and a handy demonic informer—just what he needs to go up against a couple of fallen angels and save his own skin.

As a farce, it’s pretty fun. As a narrator, Stuart is flippant and entertaining, and there are some delightful little touches in the descriptions of small-town life, the pettiness of high school, and the effectiveness of tomatoes as a device of torture. As a farce should be, it’s completely over the top and hyperbolic. Unfortunately, it tries to explain the exaggeration and it takes itself a little to seriously to be convincing as a farce. And if it’s not a farce, it’s too unbelievable and somehow hopeful to be satisfying. Evil? blames homophobic/anti-masturbatory/anti-heretic/anti-whatever violence on supernatural forces; Humans are plenty capable of such violence without any outside influences, and by dismissing that tendency, the book undermines its own message of acceptance and live-and-let-live. If our discriminatory outbursts aren’t our fault, if we are not responsible for our own prejudices, then we don’t need to work to overcome them.

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1P. 14
2Though the book takes pains to point out that the story of Onan in Genesis can (and probably should) be read to condemn greed and selfishness, rather than masturbation.

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Evil? ~ Timothy Carter

Will Grayson Will Grayson David Levithan John GreenCaustic, insecure Will Grayson (CIWG) has two rules: don’t care and shut up. His best friend, the very large and very gay Tiny Cooper, cares about many things and never shuts up. Currently, aside from falling in and out of love, Tiny is trying to hook Will up with a young lady and to produce, direct, write, and star in, a FABULOUS high school musical about his life. Meanwhile, morbidly depressed Will Grayson (MDWG) is constantly at war with his best friend, Goth girl Maura, barely exchanging two words with his stressed, worried mom, and finding his only solace in his internet boyfriend, Isaac. A coincidental meeting between the two Will Graysons acts as a catalyst, sparking change in friendships and relationships.

It’s hilarious. CIWG, written by John Green, is defensive, harsh, at times a terrible person, and an incredibly funny narrator. Even MDWG, written by David Levithan, sends many deeply funny statements out from the depths of his despair. (griping about internet slang: “or <3. you think that looks like a heart? if you do, that’s only because you’ve never seen a scrotum.”1). It’s also heartbreaking: both Will Graysons are in pain most of the time, and the writing expresses their depression, self-loathing, and need flawlessly. The girls are a bit underdeveloped and underrespected, existing almost as foils for the boys, but other things the book just nails. For instance:

gideon: yeah, and, i don’t know, when i realized that I was gay, it really sucked that nobody was like, ‘way to go’ so i just wanted to come over and say…
me: way to go?2

When I came out in high school, one of my classmates did say way to go. And that was really, really awesome of her. And this is a book that understands why that was important, and celebrates it, without losing the awkwardness inherent in just about every conversation ever held in a high school hallway or cafeteria.

It does get rather over the top, notably Tiny’s musical and, even more notably, the ending. It’s too neat, too perfect, too sentimental. And yet… I don’t cry over books. I certainly don’t cry over books while walking down the street in Brooklyn and I certainly don’t cry over unrealistically perfect sentimental bullshit endings. And yet… for this one, I did.

April 2010. I got an ARC from my mother, who works at a bookstore.

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1p. 2
2p. 181
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Will Grayson, Will Grayson ~ John Green ~ John Green’s Blog ~ David Levithan

Bloodhound Tamora PierceBloodhound is Tamora Pierce’s second book about Beka Cooper, an ancestress of a character in her other books set in the world (referred to from here out as “Tortall books,” as Tortall is the central country). Beka has finished her Puppy year—a year of training to become a member of the Provost’s Guard, the police force well endowed with canine slang—and is starting her first year as a full Dog. What starts out as a bad fall in the Lower City due to a poor grain harvest becomes worse when counterfeits start showing up in the money system—lots of counterfeits. The investigation sends Beka into Port Caynn, a harbor city full of extra-corrupt Dogs and extra-bold Rats.

Tamora Pierce has been a source of comfort-reading for me since I was twelve or so. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read some of her older books, but… more times than I’ve read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. A lot. None of her books are amazing and there is some variation in quality, but they are by and large good, enjoyable stories. They feature appealing, entirely non-wimpy characters, many of them women, and there’s a decent smattering of LGBT characters and characters of color. I freely admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for Tamora Pierce, so season this review with as many grains of salt as you feel necessary. (Mmmm. Tasty salt.)

The major flaw in the Beka Cooper books comes from the narrative style she chose: journal-style. Dogs are trained to have excellent memories, so after all her adventures Beka comes home and writes them out in her journal, in great detail. Mostly this works, and the level of detail seems appropriate to a police procedural. Yet, for some unfathomable reason, she feels it necessary to throw in gimmicks. Inkblots; paw-prints where her cat walks over the page; words misspelled, crossed-out, and rewritten when Beka is tired. They distract from the story far more than they enhance it.

Fortunately, the gimmicks are widely spread through a book that is otherwise one of her best. Beka’s an appealing character, forthright and prickly. The police work is appropriately gritty and the investigation accelerates in a compelling way as they get closer to the truth. The romance is believable and enjoyable but stays secondary to the main plot and is not viewed through rose-colored glasses.

It’s particularly interesting to look at the Beka Cooper books, especially this one, in comparison to her other Tortall books. It’s set several hundred years earlier, and the difference in gender dynamics is amazing. In the books set later, women are fighting to gain equal status and rights, and to be accepted as warriors. In these, women are just starting to lose equal status, rights, and acceptance as warriors. The pendulum swings. The books from the later time period are generally set in and around the palace and nobles; not every character is a noble, but many are, and the rest interact with nobles on a daily basis. These books are set in a thoroughly lower-class part of town, with nobles showing up only occasionally. Between the gender and class differences, the attitudes among the characters toward money, family, loyalty, noblesse oblige, sex, and marriage are simultaneously quite different from her other Tortall books and yet entirely consistent with them. It’s really cool! I love it when authors put thought and effort into their worlds.

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Bloodhound ~ Tamora Pierce

Ash Malinda Lo Lesbian Cinderella RetellingA Cinderella variant haunted by echoes of science clashing with belief and new religions clashing with old ones, Ash tells the story of a young woman untethered, trying to find a place in the world. First Ash returns, again and again, to the grave of her mother; then she shelters in the protection of a handsome fairy; later, she falls for a confident huntress and gets some confidence and agency for herself.

Ash is told in a gentle, largely expository style, fittingly reminiscent of oral tradition. The pacing is unusual; fairly slow, it thoroughly develops Ash and Sidhean, the fairy, before introducing Kaisa, the huntress. Between those two factors, it took a while to draw me in, but once it caught me I was caught but good. Ash’s slow emotional transitions are dealt with beautifully, one set of emotions fading—but not disappearing—as another rises up. The differences between Ash’s relationships with Sidhean and Kaisa are well drawn and a fascinating reflection of the differences in their personalities and statuses, his bitterness contrasting with her caution. Though the romance is important, it’s less central than in many Cinderella variants; the focus is more on Ash coming into her own, something she does slowly and believably, with a few natural stumbles on the way. Likewise, though it builds to a lesbian relationship, the fact that it’s queer is less central than in many GLBT books. For the most part, it’s treated as perfectly natural and obvious that there would be same-sex relationships. In fact, one of the few parts of the book that didn’t work for me was a few pages of Ash being confused and awkward because of the suggestion that her feelings for Kaisa could be romantic and/or sexual. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful, unusual book, and a pleasant reprieve from heavy LGBT-related books and new stories.

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Ash ~ Malinda Lo

baby be-bop francesca lia blockBackground information: Baby Bebop is a prequel to Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books, now only in print in the compilation Dangerous Angels. A group in Wisconsin is currently suing for the right to publicly burn their local public library‘s copy of Baby Be-Bop. Let’s read it instead, shall we?

Dirk has always known that he’s gay, but he’s never told anyone: not his loving grandmother, nor her gay best friends, nor the young man he falls in love with when they’re teenagers. Full of self-loathing and afraid of anyone guessing, he defends himself with leather, punk music, and black hair-dye. He still gets himself beat up, and in the resulting semi-conscious state he gets a visit from some of his ancestors, telling their stories of love and life.

Francesca Lia Block specializes in an odd sort of Los Angeles flowers-and-fairies dreamy quasi-fantasy, and this is no exception. Plot-wise, there isn’t much to it, but it’s a beautiful book. It does tiptoe into sappiness, but in many ways its more of a love letter to gay teenagers than it is a novel; and love letters are allowed to be sappy.

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Baby Be-Bop ~ Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books ~ Francesca Lia Block