Tag Archives: LGBT character

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood

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The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood
Candlewick, 2018.

This is the second collection of feminist stories edited by Jessica Spotswood, following on from A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls. I don’t usually read short stories (and I haven’t read Tyranny) as I find the form a little unsatisfying but the title appealed and I picked the book up for review.

This collection of 12 stories focuses on young women on the cusp of making a significant change in their life and stepping away from what is expected, even demanded, from them; girls who are “radical in their communities.”

The stories all feature fictional girls but are set in historically accurate places across the US and in eras ranging from 1823 to 1984, and though a couple do have an element of fantasy they are rooted in the real world. There is a range of protagonists with diverse ethnicities, religions, abilities, and sexual preferences, but who all have in common the desire to follow their hearts and their intellects and break out of society or, as Spotswood puts it in her introduction, there is a “quiet badassery in girls taking charge of their own destinies.”

The majority of stories are about the catalyzing events that crystallize these desires and usually end with the young women preparing to make it happen. In endnotes, each author shows how she has brought her own background and philosophy to her story, making for a deeply personal and heartfelt collection. Because the stories are similar thematically, there is a synergy in reading them together as a collection.

Though all stories are readable, highlights are Better for All the World by Marieke Nijkamp about Carrie, an autistic girl who wants to study the law in 1927 Washington DC and The Belle of the Ball, set in 1952 Brooklyn, by Sarvenaz Tash, in which Rosemary finds a route to pursue her dream of writing comedy.

Perfect for readers who enjoy the quick hit of short stories and are interested in seeing history from a different perspective through exploring a wide range of intersectional feminist outlooks.

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen, 2017.

Lord Henry “Monty” Montague, Viscount of Disley, his sister, Felicity, and his friend, biracial Percy Newton are off on their Grand Tour of Europe. But instead of taking in culture and high society in the prominent continental cities of their time, they end up in a series of adventures precipitated by Monty stealing a trinket box from the Duke of Bourbon.

All three characters are hiding their secrets from the world and each other. 18-year-old Monty seems to be a shallow, if enchanting, rake without a care or thought for anyone else, but he is deeply in love with Percy though doesn’t dare to tell him. Once the three are on the run from the aristocrat, they get held up by highwaymen, Monty is imprisoned in Barcelona, and then they are captured by pirates. As their troubles pile up, their secrets start to spill and this becomes much more than a lighthearted romp through 18th century high society.

Ms Lee has done thorough research on the attitudes and mores of the period, which she shares in an afterword, but the novel wears the learning lightly. Through Percy, we see how dark-skinned people were treated, even if they were part of a high born family; and the beliefs about women’s capabilities are explored through Felicity’s unfulfilled ambitions.

Monty, as our narrator, starts off as an oblivious and childishly spoilt social gadfly – he drinks, he gambles, and has flings with both sexes. The adventure tests and tries him, and his development and maturing is organic and written beautifully. Though Felicity and Percy don’t have the need to grow up in quite the same way, they both are gradually revealed as satisfyingly well rounded characters.

The plot is a rollercoaster of escapades, parties, intrigue, and romantic near misses. The ending leaves all three characters with closure, but I’m rather hoping Ms Lee will continue the adventures of these charmers.

Posted by John David Anderson

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Posted by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2017

Bench, Wolf and Deedee are Frost’s people, they make up his middle school tribe – he eats lunch with them, plays Dungeon and Dragons with them at weekends, and supports them in their passions. They have been together for years and are planning to cruise through middle and high school together.

But then two things happen: the school principal bans cellphones and Rose Holland starts at their school. These catalysts test the boys’ friendship and reveals the level of cruelty that anonymity can bring out in 8th graders. The cellphone ban generates a new method of communication – unsigned post-it notes. Many are just harmless notes to friends but a few are hate-filled.

The novel starts like an Andrew Clements novel with a funny situation at a school, but quickly gets much darker and more nuanced as it tackles middle school social dynamics rather than elementary school ones.

Frost, the narrator and the poet of the group, can only watch as his tribe fractures. Bench (so-called because of where he tends to spend most sports games) is not keen on letting Rose join them and when he makes a stunning catch in a football game and becomes part of the jock crowd he drifts away from them. Sensitive Wolf, a gifted pianist, bonds with Rose as they are both outsiders who become the target of post-it bullying. Only Dungeon master Indian American Deedee seems comfortable, or perhaps oblivious, with the status quo. Rose, “tall and wide,” has moved around from school to school and knows all about name-calling and bullying.

Set in a small town in Michigan, the novel zooms out from the school and portrays a variety of family structures and dynamics, and the effect that can have on a child. Frost’s parents are bitterly divorced, whereas Wolf’s are bitterly still together.

Mr Anderson seems comfortable to move between fantasy and novels, and writes equally adeptly in both genres. Kids who enjoyed Ms Bixby’s Last Day, should be happy to move up to the middle school machinations of Posted.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Clarion, 2017.

Salvador Silva is just starting senior year at high school and finds that his comfortable life is about to be disrupted both externally and internally. His grandmother, Mima, is dying of cancer, his best friend Sam is having difficulties with her mother, and his other good friend, Fito, is having even worse family troubles. And then Sal himself is feeling different – he punches a kid and then another, which is so not how he has been brought up.

There are some traditional and non-traditional families in this book and a lot of dead mothers. A lot. Sal himself is a white boy who was adopted by Vicente, a gay Mexican American, after his mother died when he was three. He doesn’t know who his birth father is and begins to suspect that these aggressive feelings must come from him. Vicente gives him a letter from his mother but Sal doesn’t feel quite ready to open it yet.

Vicente is the sort of saint-like parent that you only get in novels (or at least I don’t know any of them, myself included). He has sacrificed his life for Sal and always has the right thing to say or do, no matter how difficult the problem. When a boyfriend from the past returns, the family is expanded as Marcos turns out to be similarly saintly.

There’s also the sibling bonds that Sal has created with Sam and, tentatively, with Fito, both Latinx.  Sam is smart and confident but is fractured by her relationship with her mother, and unusually for a YA novel, her feelings for Sal stay at a sisterly level. Fito is also smart but because of his family dynamics, he feels worthless and that he deserves nothing.

The writing is easy but precise, short chapters often punctuated with text conversations. The author creates a warm, loving family even if it is not traditional. Sal has his moments, but the reader knows that with the loving support he gets from his father, relatives, and friends – all of whom make up his family – he’s going to be ok.

Release by Patrick Ness

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Release by Patrick Ness
HarperTeen, 2017

Over the course of one “eternal pivotal day” Ness’s masterful YA speculative novel tracks both gay white rising senior Adam Thorn and the destiny of the world. As in The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015), the author intersperses a wrenching realistic novel with snippets of an apparently unrelated fantasy story, and their coming together at the end, a mere brief kiss of two worlds, completes both stories.

Adam is having the worst day of his life: His former lover Enzo, who he is still not over, is leaving town, his boss fires him after Adam turns down his advances, and there is tension with his repressive evangelical family.  Adam reels through all of this wanting only a release to let him live his life as he wants.

Meanwhile the spirit of a girl who was murdered has bound itself to a Queen, and seeking her own release walks the town. And if the Queen doesn’t get back to the lake before the sun sets, then the world will end.

Adam is a vibrantly alive teen who has felt unloved by his blood family so has created his own family. Angela, who is Korean, is everything a person might want in a best friend – supportive, funny, wise and always on his side. Her liberal and loving adoptive family provide a stark contrast to Adam’s. And he has a new boyfriend, Linus, who Adam knows intellectually is so much better for him than Enzo but his heart has yet to accept it. (Note: there is some fairly explicit but sensually written sex).

As I found with The Rest of Us, I chafed at the fantasy element initially but loved the realistic sections. Towards the middle I was appreciating the way they echoed and resonated with each other, and by the end, the closure made sense, though the two stories are nowhere near as integrated as in the previous novel. Could it work without? Yes, probably, but it would be a lesser novel.

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston
Dutton, 2017

This quirkily appealing alternate history imagines that the sun never set on the British Empire because Queen Victoria’s descendants married into the colonies, ensuring a “cosmopolitan, multiracial mosaic.” Now, two centuries on, a debut ball in Toronto brings together quiet and pragmatic white Helena, her Irish-Hong Kong Chinese unspoken intended August, and Margaret, with “brown skin, epicanthal folds” and a “curly dark mass” of hair.

Each of the three has a secret that will shape their futures: Margaret is actually the heir to the throne; August has got himself into legal and financial trouble; Helena learns that she has an XY chromosome and is intersex. How these three learn each other’s secrets and what they do with them makes for an entertaining and charming novel. However, I thought that Helena’s Big Reveal was somewhat muffled and its significance isn’t explained till much later.

The world the author has created is an intriguingly odd mash up of Victorian era dress and manners, present day technology, and scifi genetic matching and it is explicated through snippets of history at the start of chapters. I found the role of genetics, which is somehow under the purview of the Church, to be a little confusing and it was never entirely clear to me what connection Helena’s mother had with all of this.

Nonetheless, the author’s three lead characters are very well-crafted and it is their story and the unexpected ways in which their relationships develop that form the beating heart of the novel and while the setting is smart it takes a backseat to that. While I spent most of the novel assuming it was going to be a series because of the leisurely pace, a surprisingly quick and complete wrap-up suggests otherwise though I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel.

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
HarperTeen, 2017.

This magnificent and haunting YA novel is set in an alternate present day New York in which Death-Cast alerts you on the day you are to die.

Two teen Latinx boys who have received this call spend their last day together ensuring that they live before they die. Puerto Rican Mateo has been living his life vicariously through video games and online updates of other Deckers, as those who are on their End Day are called, and Cuban American Rufus has felt lost and out of control since he saw the rest of his family die.

They meet through the Last Friend app and movingly support each other as they tie up ends and make peace with themselves. Silvera (More Happy than Not, 2015) has created two wonderful and wonderfully distinct characters and their dual narration is punctuated with short accounts of other people whose lives are, however briefly, touched by these young men.

As the plot drives towards the inevitable end, signaled by the book’s title, this reader for one was hoping for a miracle, and  the potent theme of living without fear and regrets shines through. Tears were shed.

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