Saturday, September 3, 2011

Off Color: Guardian of the Dead

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey 2010
Little, Brown and Company

Rating: 4/5

IQ "It's the shape of the story that matters, the way belief forms around it. The story has real weight." Mark pg. 173

Ellie Spencer attends Mansfield College, a boarding school in Christchurch, New Zealand. At seventeen years old she does things lot of other teenagers, do some smart activities and some not-so smart activities. Everything is grinding along for Ellie when a mysterious and beautiful woman becomes fascinated with Ellie's best friend, Kevin. The woman's fascination borders on disturbing and there's something off about her. Ellie also has a new fascination, Mark, who finally begins to notice her but it's almost as if he's enchanted her. Ellie quickly learns that she should trust her gut as she is thrust into a world of Maori mythology and fairies. There's also a serial killer on the loose known as the "Eyeslasher". Killers, fairies and lots and lots of magic will lead Ellie on a roller coaster ride over the course of a few days.

Some of the scenes jumbled together in this book. I found myself having to go back and re-read to put the events in order because for some reason in my mind they weren't clear. I think I was most disappointed in the lack of Kevin time. Not only because Kevin had Maori heritage and I wanted to read about that but also he's a genuinely interesting character. He vanishes for much of the novel and while I understand why that disappearance occurred, I wish he could have been worked in better. I also didn't like the storyline of Ellie's sister. It adds a diverse aspect to the story but other than that it was pointless. I had hoped that we would at least 'meet' Magda or hear from her but Ellie mentions her briefly every now and then and proceeds to move on. I found it hard to focus on this book too, perhaps because it moved too slow or maybe because I got too hung up on understanding the mythology/various cultures of New Zealand? I'm not entirely sure but that's entirely on me. When I closed the book I honestly did not understand why the battle for immortality occurred the way it did. There seemed to be too many supernatural elements thrown together within a few chapters, it felt rushed. I'm still not entirely sure how the Eyeslasher murders and the paranormal creatures were related....well I think I understand it but it seemed to be an unnecessary stretch.

It is hard to keep the Maori mythology straight but I didn't care, I just wanted to learn more, more, more! While the mythology seemed to be introduced at random times and could be jarring, it was fascinating to see its modern day connections. I was very pleased at how the ending of the book showed how what had occurred in the supernatural world still affected the real world. There are some devastating repercussions that made me very sad but I didn't mind the realistic aspect, I appreciated it. Adding to the overall realistic theme of the novel is Ellie. She constantly refers to herself as big although I'm not sure if she's overweight or not (I would imagine not since she takes tae kwon do). Since Ellie is trained in tae kwon do (black belt) she's able to defend herself physically which is a lot of fun to read about because some of the info shown could prove useful in real life to the reader. I also grew enamored with the ending for not being too open or firmly shut and Ellie does not put her future education on hold. She talks about classes during the book and she plans on going to University, in fact she agonizes over what she wants to study BECAUSE WHAT SHE LOVES WON'T PAY MUCH. Boy oh boy could I relate to that anxiety. It's also quite funny to read about Ellie's Classics professor, Gribaldi, who is always complaining that her students in New Zealand don't work as hard as AP American students. I'm sure that's not true but it must be nice not being exhausted every waking minute because of school. As Ellie says "I couldn't see the appeal of working yourself ragged and doing ten thousand extra-curriculars. So New Zealand only had seven universities, and most entrance courses required entrants to meet a bare minimum of standards. So what?" (pg. 49), sentences like that would did seem didactic at times. However, I didn't mind because I love comparing and contrasting how teens live in different countries. And like Ellie I don't see the appeal either but that attitude has/will hurt me.

I was enamored with Guardian of the Dead due its close-to-perfect ending along with its authentic characters struggling with teen insecurities, diverse cast and informal view of life in New Zealand specifically life at a prestigious New Zealand boarding school and in Christchurch. At times the author seemed to be pointedly discussing the diversity of her characters, when describing Samia it came across more subtly that she was Muslim, but for other characters Ellie would flat-out describe them as Asian or Desi. I'm not sure which I would prefer but it was something small that I found interesting. I do wish the book's ending had been less jumbled and that more characters became 3D. Ellie, Mark and Iris are the three teens I would say become fully fleshed out but there are so many other characters worth exploring (Kevin)! Ellie is fairly logical but not more so than the average teen except for the fact that she knows self-defense. She seems to think the most inappropriate thoughts at crucial moments but they made me pause because they were good points. When a particular character dies she observes "in the movies, you could close the eyelids of a dead man by passing one hand over his face. I had to pinch the skin of his right eyelid and tug, and even then it wouldn't close all the way over the emptied eye socket" (pg. 289), a gross image but who would have ever considered the logistics of that particular scenario? I found Ellie's down-to-earth, insecure, self-deprecating, somewhat quirky (but not obnoxiously so) personality to be refreshing.

Disclosure: Received from publisher. Thank you so much L&B Company!

*Note: I had originally planned on reading this the 2011 Global Reading Challenge. While it technically counts for the challenge since it's set in New Zealand, it does not count for my personal guidelines since the main character is not a person of color and her best friend who is does not play as much of a role in the story. But I think the author's next book does have a main character of color so I added it to the list!

PS Just a fyi: one of the characters is asexual. I've never read a book that even mentions being asexual so I was really happy to see it mentioned because I know nothing about that sexual orientation.