Top 10 Queer and Feminist Books of 2014

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2014 has been really excellent for a ton of new queer/feminist things to read. Here are some of the best.

The Top 10 Queer/Feminist Books of 2014

10. Texts From Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

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Texts From Jane Eyre is a compilation, including new material, of Mallory Ortberg’s popular texts from series. The point is less that popular canonical literary characters have phones, and more that depicting them through vapid, hilarious text message means they are dismantled, with a dash of misandry. In a review at the LARB, Sarah Mesle argues Texts From has created a whole new genre of literary criticism and expression:

Texts from Jane Eyre isn’t really another book in the mode of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — a book I enjoy, but which stages the collision between high literature and mass culture as a joke for its own sake. Texts from Jane Eyre, by contrast, uses that collision to pointed satiric effect.

The better comparison might be that Texts from Jane Eyre is to literary culture what The Daily Show is to politics: both use satire to expose the contradictions and absurdity enabling powerful figures. And Ortberg’s satire matters because it is fantastically able to express women’s anger toward men: men both real, and imagined.”


9. Playing The Whore by Melissa Gira Grant

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In Playing the Whore, Melissa Gira Grant argues that sex workers are entitled to the same rights as people in any other field, and that insisting that sex workers – and everyone – must love their jobs or risk losing them is harmful. In an interview with Carmen at Autostraddle right before Playing The Whore was published, Grant says:

“I wanted to document and question the various interests involved in insisting that any sex workers who for whatever reason still want to do sex work are both an insignificant minority and a dire threat — because they shatter stereotypes, sure, but also because they insist on speaking for themselves. Writing the essay [that led to the book] pulled my perspective around sex work into a new focus, shifting from sex workers’ experiences (including my own) to those people who want to speak for sex workers. Anti-sex work activists, police, politicians, journalists — these people produce fantasies about sex work that bear even less relationship to sex workers’ own lives than what sex workers get paid to play out with customers. Writing this was a classic script flip.”


8. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

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In Redefining Realness, Janet Mock tells her coming-of-age story with a backdrop of the intersection that “bridge[s] between those communities, between the queer and trans community and women of color communities.” In an interview with Rookie, Mock says:

“Those words [i.e., intersectionality] are very powerful tools for describing this oppression, and it’s great that some people have access to them. But most people don’t. For me, it was super important to not use those terms in the book, because they exclude a lot of people who don’t have educational access, or who may not be engaged in social-justice stuff but who want to be enlightened about things and have their political consciousnesses raised a bit. I wanted to write the book for everyone—including that girl who I was in seventh grade who didn’t even know the term transgender. I wanted to give her a book so she could also feel like she was in the know, without being talked down to or made to feel like she has to aspire to something “higher” when she already has all the knowledge she needs to define her own experience. It’s not for me to define it for her. So I wanted to use words and language that she understands.”


7. Women In Clothes edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton

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Women In Clothes is a collaborative, lengthy, multi-form anthology that uses survey answers, personal essays, interviews, discussions, illustrations, photography and more to examine the relationships between women and the way they present themselves. At the Rumpus, Amy Feltman writes:

“In our conversation, Ms. Julavits emphasized the plasticity and continued evolution of the project. The book includes such diverse contributions as essays on perfume selection, whether to wear lipstick as a female Israeli soldier, and wardrobe choices as an Orthodox Jewish woman in an MFA program. […]

Ultimately, it is the multiplicity of perspectives that makes Women in Clothes an immersive, fascinating experience—“un-put-downable,” to borrow a term from a friend. The book is well-balanced between serious, insightful journalism (an essay by human rights journalist Mac McClelland, an account of a collapsed clothing factory in Bangladesh) and pleasurable self-reflection (Julavits’s piece on a misplaced mitten and the downfall of refusing to accept loss). The reader feels included in an intimate, ongoing conversation about the relationship between our physical and emotional selves.”


6. A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernández

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Former Colorlines editor Daisy Hernández calls her new memoir on sexuality, family, and class and race her attempt “to answer the questions I had. What did it mean to be bi coming from a Cuban-Colombian home? What did it mean that I longed to be normal?” In a review at Feministing, Juliana Britto Schwartz writes:

“Hernandez’s coming-of-age memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, explores some of the questions we face as young adults navigating gender, race, migration and sexuality in a world that imposes such strict borders on us. She writes her experiences as a queer Latina and daughter of immigrants like a compilation of anecdotes which ultimately tell a whole history.”


5. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes reads partly like a coming-of-age memoir and partly like an anti-patriarchial reclamation of death and dying. It is gross and it is glorious. (You can read an excerpt at NRP.) In a later chapter, Doughty writes:

“We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choice means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives. Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes.”


4. Like A Beggar by Ellen Bass

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The latest poetry collection from Ellen Bass is structural, naked, vivid, and sexy in the sense of “contains lesbian sex.” In a review at the Rumpus, Julie Enszer writes:

“Bass’s deftness as a poet is breathtaking in Like a Beggar. By which I mean: I am left breathless reading these poems and witnessing her control of the line. Then, I am equally awed by my own breathlessness, which Bass, of course, has elicited artfully through her control. Reading each poem I feel as though I have been walking up and down the hills of Esalen with her. Like a Beggar sings with the clarity of a single voice alone in a large concert hall and with the gravitas of a full chorus in the finale of a sold out opera. These poems are large in their ambitions and precise in their observations.”


3. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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Sarah Waters’s latest historical novel, set in 1922 London, comes predictably highly praised and centers on the love affair between Frances, who lives in a house newly divided with an apartment for renters, and Lilian, one of the renters. Also there is a murder. In her Year of Reading at the Millions, Emily Gould writes:

“[I]t’s a gripping page-turner in addition to being perfectly written and it’s about something important and real. I wonder whether reviewers’ understandable reticence about revealing the plot twist that changes the book halfway through from masterful historical portraiture to something more like a thriller made it a harder sell than it ought to have been? Anyway, if you like interwar London, fraught lesbian secret affairs, and hot sex scenes, plus crime, punishment, and hard moral questions that keep you thinking long after the book is over — I mean, it’s just hard to imagine anyone not loving this book.”


2. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

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Essayist, short story writer and internet hero Roxane Gay’s debut novel is about a woman who is kidnapped and held for thirteen days and who must then find her way back to herself. In the LARB, Eric Newman writes:

An Untamed State is a novel about the cultural politics of belonging, and the precarious condition of women in a world organized by male violence. It is important to remember that it is also an exploration of a particular historical moment and place. Gay writes about a Haiti ‘that belonged to men who obeyed no kind of law.’ […]

Looking back on her experience, Mireille reasons that there are at least three Haitis: ‘The country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew.’ Haiti might ultimately be unknowable to Mireille and Gay’s American readers, but An Untamed State works to illuminate the difference that sutures that unknowability across national borders. Readers won’t forget this painful, beautiful, and important novel.”


1. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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In her first essay collection, Roxane Gay addresses gender, sexuality, race and pop culture. Everything about it is amazing. In an edited version of the introduction at Buzzfeed, Gay writes:

“I’m trying to lead, in a small, imperfect way. I am raising my voice as a bad feminist. I am taking a stand as a bad feminist. I offer insights on our culture and how we consume it. The essays in my collection also examine race in contemporary film, the limits of “diversity,” and how innovation is rarely satisfying; it is rarely enough. I call for creating new, more inclusive measures for literary excellence and take a closer look at HBO’s Girls and the phenomenon of the Fifty Shades trilogy. The essays are political and they are personal. They are, like feminism, flawed, but they come from a genuine place. I am just one woman trying to make sense of this world we live in. I’m raising my voice to show all the ways we have room to want more, to do better.”


Honorable Mentions, In No Order

best-of-2014-honorable-mentions

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones

Lumberjanes by Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters and Brooke Allen *

Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo

New York 1, Tel Aviv 0: Stories by Shelly Oria

* Conflict of interest disclosure: Lumberjanes is top 10 in my heart and so is one of its creators. NOT YOU GRACE DON’T WORRY.


If I missed your favorite book of this year and you have feelings about it, please comment using as much punctuation and self-righteous indignation as possible. Or just tell me about what I should read next.


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Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Editor for Autostraddle.com. She is also a freelance copy editor and writer, and her work has appeared in Bitch, The Toast, Xtra!, Jezebel, and other places. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 628 articles for us.

26 Comments

  1. Thumb up 10

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    This is a super great list, but I have some additions!!

    ++Trans Bodies Trans Selves is a MASSIVE collection of resources, information, personal stories, and advice, written by transgender or genderqueer authors. It uses the basic concept that there is no one way to be trans and covers many issues (such as race, employment, medical and surgical transition, mental health topics, relationships, sexuality, parenthood). Definitly a useful resource for anyone under the trans umbrella and would be useful to any allies as well.

    ++Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion THISSSSSS BOOOOOOOOKKKKKK Changed the way I looked at gay marriage, don’t ask don’t tell, and prisons as well. SO well written, totally accessible, interesting and smart without being academic. I would recommend it a million times.

    ++Queer and Trans Artists Of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives This is a collection of interviews by Nia King that I found to be inspiring, interesting, and super thoughtful. There’s a lot of talk about doing what you love and a lot of talk about money and poverty, and a lot of talk about being a minority (race-wise, gender-wise) in your line of work.

    ++Black Girl Dangerous on Race, Queerness, Class and Gender this is by the person of the Black Girl Dangerous blog! SO helpful, so direct, so honest! A++++

  2. Thumb up 1

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    What a great selection! I was listening to a Dharma talk by Jack Kornfield and he recited part of an Ellen Bass poem, “If you knew”. So, I looked up her poetry and have her poem “Relax” hanging on my refrigerator right now- just gorgeous,heavy, truthful stuff.
    The Paying Guests has of course been on hold at the library since it came out (I think I was number 40-something).
    But, I keep seeing Bad Feminist pop up on the best books of 2014 in every list I look up. I’m going to have to read it (along with pretty much every other book on this list). Thanks for this list! I’ve got a lot of reading to do in 2015 to catch up!

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    Okay, I have two things, and one of them is a question that maybe some adult-y/college-y people can help me with (please if you think you can it’d mean a lot).

    1. These all look wonderful and fascinating and I am going to read them at the nearest opportunity.

    2. Pondering over my fascination with these choices, as I have pondered over many topics that this site tends to muse on, I have realized how attached to these subjects I am. I’m a junior in high school currently, and as such, I’m caught up in a frenzy of college searching and applications and “so tell me every detail about your future plans even though I’m a grown up you barely even know”. I know I want to move out of state for college and I know I want to double major and get my Phd, all of which are things that 90% of the people I encounter try to shoot down and dissuade me from even though they have no right to. I don’t know what I want to major in, but I’ve been seriously considering something along the lines of gender studies for months now. My parents, though I am a bright young girl who works hard and cares a lot and isn’t afraid to have ambition, think I have no future because apparently all my interests aren’t applicable to the real world and won’t make me any money, etc. I know it’s my life and my decision, not theirs, and I know once I get to college the things I want to pursue further could completely change, but I’ve been wanting to know from all of you who’ve already done/are in the college thing–is it better to get a degree socially deemed “practical” in today’s jobless and expensive world? Will I have more regrets doing what I love than I would choosing something that I might actually have a future in? Are there jobs out there for people who major in gender studies and similar subjects? This was a very long post and I appreciate it if you’ve read this far, but I’ve been thinking all these things for months and I don’t know what to do.

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      Juliet,

      You ask a very important question. Should I essentially earn a degree that will most likely make me money or get a degree in something I am passionate about. I used to be one of those people who would have said passion all the way. All you need is a roof over your head and love in your heart… Then after college I also realized there was food to buy, utilities, gas, internet, phone bills, ties and button-ups (most importantly of course), etc. So, I would not frown upon a person who chose a degree path to make money. I mean if you make enough money you can pursuit your interests in your free time (granted how much you have will be based on the particular field you go into). That being said, I still emphatically believe that you must do what would make you happy. Can you be happy with a 9-5 doing something you aren’t crazy about and get to do what you like after? Or, are you going to be happier taking classes you feel a genuine interest in, graduate, search for an initial career(and probably search, and search… BUT I’m sure if you are willing to put the legwork in, you will find something that fits YOU), and maybe have a bit more of a struggle with finding insurance and paying your bills initially. It is not an easy choice. One, that for me, I sometimes wish I would have taken a different path, but the answer is unique to you. Yes, you can find a job with a degree in gender studies; maybe it will take you down a different path than you envision right now, but that’s okay. Not too many people go into college with an idea of what they want and leave with the same one. Good luck with your decision, and I wouldn’t stress out too much because you have some wiggle room the first year or two to change your mind without it impacting your wallet too much.

      University of Ohio had this career list for their gender studies program:
      https://wgss.osu.edu/what-can-i-do-wgss-degree

      and a simple Google search could get you even further. Hope this was helpful.

    • Thumb up 5

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      Hello!
      This is a topic of great interest to me. I am currently entering the last semester of my Master’s program in Sociology. I have also been submitting applications to PhD programs in Anthropology. (My bachelor’s degree is in Anthropology.)
      When I finished undergrad I looked around and had some thoughts. I don’t ever want to stop conducting research and I have discovered a passion for teaching. Decent academic jobs are in short supply. I decided to get a master’s degree in a separate, but related, field in order to increase my future marketability.I’ll be qualified to teach in both subjects. In my capacity as a teaching assistant, I regularly receive emails from students desperate for advice about their career/education paths. I think there are two main considerations here.
      1. Studying something you love will motivate you to make good grades. Excelling in class brings you to the attention of professors who may have interesting projects that they can invite you to work on with them.(You’d be surprised how many of these sorts of opportunities there are) At the very least, these instructors will be more likely to write glowing recommendation letters. Also, you will be more likely to stick with school until you get your degree. It is easy to lose your fire when faced with crushing debt, bad job prospects, and a field of study you hate.
      2. Degrees do not guarantee jobs. I know plenty of people with “practical” degrees (accounting, law, business) that never found work in their field. You said you are interested in double majoring. Find a combination of studies that gives you a competitive edge. What else turns you on intellectually? Gender studies and math? Gender studies and communication? The goal is to develop skills and knowledge that you can apply to a variety of situations and jobs. A gender studies degree can get your foot in the door at thousands of places if you sell it well on your resume.
      I could keep writing forever.

      Well, I hope this was helpful.

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      I teach history at a small liberal arts college. Take a wide variety of courses and major in something you are both passionate about and good at. Liberal arts students learn how to think, be flexible and creative, and understand the world and their place in it. One of my friends who’s an economics prof says that after a few years in any given job the liberal arts grads really pull ahead of people with just technical training. But explore! Gender studies is great, but you may find you can pursue the same issues in greater depth via anthropology or literature or biology.

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      This is a topic that remains really interesting to me, because it was my dilemma, too.

      I double-majored in English and philosophy. My mother’s assessment was that I’d be “really interesting to talk to in the unemployment line,” and my father said, “what am I supposed to do, tell people my daughter is a philosopher?” I loved my classes, my professors, and my classmates in those courses. Debating was enjoyable, the reading was great (I’m still moving most of those texts around with me), and even writing papers wasn’t a chore. The vast majority of the students at my college went on to some sort of post-college education, and I too went to grad school, in English. Those were the hardest and best years of my life.

      Compared to so many other people I went to school with (for example, I lived with three roommates my senior year; all three could be used here), I make comparatively little money. But I believe what I do is important and makes a difference (not that other things don’t or that what I do is especially noble!). I stay engaged with the things I care about. I’m 34, and I’ve realized that the things I care about aren’t the right address, the right car, or even impressing relatives and friends at gatherings.

      That said, if you’re thinking of going into an academic field, the job market is realistically not just wonderful. An ideal college advisor will be honest about that. You don’t have to commit to a major today, and if you have a particular interest in gender studies, you may find a way to build up a concentration in that through other majors (I did, between philosophy and English– our gender studies concentration was very weak). You can do some digging to find out what career paths are open to you through your projected major possibilities and see if any stand out as particular interests.

      I don’t know what your parents’ involvement is in your college education and how much degree of influence they may have (are they footing the bill and therefore get to pull some strings, for example?). Try to sort out what’s prejudice from what’s really intended as good advice.

      And best of luck.

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      My advice would be to think about the end goal – the job you are going to do when you graduate. What do you enjoy doing day-to-day? What shit aspects of a job you are willing to tolerate (every job has its bad side)?

      I studied sociology and my parents were against it because they thought I would end up unemployed. They wanted me to study economics instead. I enjoyed studying, graduated a few years ago (with a master’s) and turns out I’m doing GREAT in the job market. I have had no trouble finding stable employment and the pay is ok as well. Actually many of my colleagues are economists, with the same salary as me, so there you go, parents.

      Unfortunately it turns out that even though my skills seem to be in demand in the labour market, I actually hate the actual work – which for a ‘specialist’ like me inevitably consists of sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day. Now I’m looking to change careers to psychology or similar (another x years in college, ‘yay’), something where I cant interact with people and not feel buried alive in an office.

      Sooo I would advise a young person to not worry so much about getting a job and more about what job would make them happy, day-to-day. And do your decisions based on that. I know this is a hard question when you don’t have a lot of work experience, a lot of things you have to figure out by trying out different stuff.

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      Also something to think about- really know a lot about the universities you’re applying to, their Gender studies departments (what courses they offer, and who’s in them) see if you can find them on the Campus Pride site. To my knowledge too many gender studies departments are very white, VERY CIS and transmisogynistic especially (as in teaching from a perspective of AFAB people only, maybe acknowledging trans men but being horrible to trans women), and pretty straight even. Don’t be scared to admit that community and not having your gender identity and sexuality, or that of the people you support, shit on is a priority in your college search; I was until very late in the process and regret it now!

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    Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is one of the best books I’ve read in a long ass time. It was really eye opening and confronted some of my deepest fears, and I related a lot to the author. I mean, granted, my childhood was filled to the brim with death to the point that three, four, five, six year old me had panic attacks anytime I passed a cemetery in the car, much to my caregivers’ chagrin. BUT I sort of dealt with it the same way she dealt with the kids falling in the mall. I had crippling anxiety about it but then I tried to flood myself with it so that it would lose its hold. It hasn’t entirely worked…but still.
    I was particularly interested in all the death practices she referenced in the book. I would like to be buried in a boat grave when I die. And that chapter about the babies…slayed me.

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      I also loved this book and felt deeply moved by it. I never had anything traumatic happen to me but when my grandmother who I was close with passed away several years ago it hit me hard. After reading this it made me re-think how as a society we view death and the dead; now when my parents pass I want to be there to “push the button” when they are cremated. This book also made me what to re-think the whole donating my body to scenic think.

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    I really loved ‘how to be both’ by ali smith, which has a little bit of queerness (I won’t attempt to define it as any more than that) together with poetic mind-transporting exhilaration and characters that I inhabited for a few days.

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    So recently I’ve been trying to find some books that are subtly feminist for my younger sisters. One is 15, the other is 12. They’re at the age where they’re still into the boy-meets-girl-immediately-fall-in-love thing. But the older one also likes dystopian future stories. They both like comics and manga as well. I was just wondering if you guys had any suggestions?
    Thanks

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      You could try The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Attwood, it takes place in a very possible future where society has taken on some crazy weird views of women. The book fallows one ladies store throw this “new world”. My guidance counselor recommended it when I was in high school and parts of it still resonates with me today.

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      Unfortunately YA books wise, I’m more slanted towards fantasy, so I would say anything by Tamora Pierce and Jane Yolen is pretty good. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is also really good! I also quite liked The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (not so much the movie unfortunately.) Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series is also pretty good.

      For dystopian future stories, honestly the main one that comes to mind currently would be The Hunger Games?

      Manga-wise: Dystopian future stories; how about Attack On Titan/Shingeki No Kyojin? They have strong female characters inside, but it’s kind of dark and I’m not sure how you feel about letting your sisters see people getting eaten by titans or titans getting dismembered by humans etc.

      There’s also Claymore a dark fantasy series centered primarily around female warriors~ (Has many graphically violent scenes too)

      A bit on the lighter front would be Magical Knight Rayearth, also centered around three girls who get sent to an parallel world to save a princess. (It’s also by CLAMP, a rather legendary group of lady mangakas who created many a great series~)

      On the anime front, movies wise, I find Hayao Miyazaki’s animations generally have pretty strong females or are female centric in a good way.

      Hope this is somewhat useful!

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      Graceling by Kristen Cashore is incredible. It was hawked at my local kids’ bookstore as the antidote to the horrible messages in Twilight. Sister-in-law recently read it with her 11-year-old daughter, and, barring the slightly awkward sex scene I forgot about completely when I recommended it, they both loved it. I would recommend it for the 15-year-old first. Boy/girl romance elements, but they talk about how she doesn’t ever want to get married or have kids and he’s supportive of her decisions.

      Rapunzel’s Revenge is a graphic novel adaptation of Rapunzel that takes place in the wild west, where Rapunzel saves herself and a bunch of other people too. Great twisted fairy tale for a 12-year-old, plus there is romance. As a bonus, the sequel is a subtle introduction to postcolonialism!

      Dystopian YA for 15-year-old: the Chaos Walking trilogy (Knife of Never Letting Go is the first one) by Patrick Ness. A hard sell if she doesn’t like vernacular prose, but it also expands from feminist to postcolonialist over the course of the series. Very Joss Whedon, but better…?

      The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld for the 12-year-old. Everyone gets plastic surgery to equalize the playing field and stop war from happening, but of course you later learn that they are all being lobotomized as well. The main girl is the hero. 3-book series. Not a super happy ending for romance-lovers, but there is a boy/girl romancey thing.

      Beauty Queens by Libba Bray is a really funny, lighthearted satire of beauty pageants. A plane full of contestants crashes off the coast of a small island, and they have to figure out how to survive. Queer and trans content, and girls banding together rather than giving in to the girl-fight stereotype.

      Not sure if the 15-year-old would be at all interested in a story about lady spies in WW2, but Code Name Verity is probably the best depiction of girl friendship I have ever read, and it’s all really well researched! Not for sensitive souls.

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      I hadn’t heard of it before but it’s definitely the one that stood out to me on this list – and I was lucky enough to get a bookstore gift card for Christmas, so I’m going to use that to buy it I think 🙂

      And Woman in Chains started playing in my head as soon as I read the title!

      …do you read ebooks at all? Because that might be a more affordable option for you and/or maybe I could pitch in to help, this is a book that seems worth sharing <3

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    Texts from Jane Eyre– as soon as I got that, I think I pretty much read the whole thing aloud in bits to anyone in hearing distance. So many of those were excellent, and others are on my yet-to-read list.

    Good stuff!

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    I am really excited to get to Bad Feminist and A Cup of Water Under My Bed!! Sarah Waters’s new book just didn’t quite live up to my expectations (which were really high, I admit). I guess I miss the rompy fun of Tipping the Velvet.

    I just did a best of 2014 too, but just for fiction by queer women. The ones I picked all happened to be Canadian, although that wasn’t my intention.
    https://caseythecanadianlesbrarian.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/the-best-queer-womens-fiction-of-2014/

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