Vic reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Growing up, I devoured books quickly and easily, but by high school, I started to lose interest in the books I found in bookstores or the library, jumping from book to book without finishing a single one.  The problem, I determined, was that I was bored with reading about straight people all the time, and published books, as far as I could tell, were all about straight people.  And then I found a list of YA books featuring LGBT+ characters, and I bought every book on the list, among them Huntress by Malinda Lo. I didn’t end up reading all of the books (genre still matters, among other things, even when LGBT+ books are scarce), but I loved Huntress, enough that it has been the book that, for me, represents the time in my life when I discovered that there actually were books about LGBT+ people, if you knew to look for them.  Fortunately, now it is much easier to find those books, but my fondness for Malinda Lo remains, so when I first heard about Last Night at the Telegraph Club, her name excited me almost as much as the summary (and I love historical fiction, so that is saying something).  Happily, it did not disappoint.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club centers around seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a closeted Chinese lesbian living in San Francisco during the Red Scare.  At school, Lily befriends another girl, Kath, with whom she begins to visit the Telegraph Club, a popular lesbian bar.  As their feelings for each other deepen, Lily also has to contend with both the racism that could see her father deported, though he is legally an American citizen, and the knowledge that if her love for Kath were to be discovered, it would put both of them in danger.

Though Lo keeps this story firmly planted in history, she does so without it ever becoming either too grim or too rose-colored.  The setting is fully realized, with timelines interspersed throughout the sections to further contextualize the events of the novel, and Lo does not shy away from depicting the racism and homophobia that Lily and the people around her face, ranging from microaggressions to being deported or disowned.

Despite all of this, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is full of love and levity.  While it is true that a part of Lily is always disconnected from her environment, as the only lesbian she knows in Chinatown and the only Chinese girl at the Telegraph Club, the love she feels for her home and the freedom she experiences at the Telegraph Club matter just as much as the fear and the pain.  Though Lo makes it clear that it is not easy to be Chinese, a lesbian, or a Chinese lesbian in this time or place, it is not simply a life of prejudice or hiding or suffering.  She presents a multifaceted view of all parts of Lily’s identity, with a strong feeling of community and hope, and it is those aspects that make this novel really shine.

Perhaps what I loved most about this book was the relationship between Lily and Kath.  I found their dynamic to be a breath of fresh air, both in this book specifically as well as in a more general sense.  From the beginning, Lily and Kath clearly enjoy talking to each other.  They ask each other questions about themselves and their interests, and they listen.  As a reader, I never struggled to understand what they liked about each other, which, for me, is what really makes or breaks a romance.  Their bond was real, a genuine connection that grew out of friendship more than anything else.  They were sweet, and they were passionate, and I rooted for their happiness all the way through.

I know I am not the first reviewer to say this, but Last Night at the Telegraph Club is exactly the sort of book I was looking for in high school.  It is a compelling historical fiction novel centered around a protagonist whose story so rarely gets told, but in Lo’s capable hands, no part of this feels unfamiliar.  I was able to both see myself and learn where I did not, and when I finally closed the book, it left me feeling whole in the way that all my favorite books do.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism, racial slurs, misogyny, miscarriage

Maggie reviews Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

In the backdrop of the glamorous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Matrix follows 17-year-old Marie, who is unwanted at court for her bastardy, her height and rough-hewn appearance, and her scandalous family history of women crusaders and warriors. Deeply in love (and lust) with Queen Eleanor, Marie is shocked to find herself shipped off to a dilapidated abbey in England as its new prioress, despite having no vocation. Nominally historical fiction, Matrix only vaguely concerns itself with documented historical events, rather focusing on the space women can build for themselves when they have the space to do so and the relationships they had with either other, from queer to contentious and everything in between.

The abbey Marie is consigned to is impoverished, the nuns are diminishing in number and beset by disease, and the local gentry and peasants are refusing to pay their rents and stealing abbey land. The abbess is vague and frequently lost in the depths of her own mind, the other sisters in charge are frequently cruel or inefficient, and Marie has no interest in becoming a part of the community or taking any real leadership. Instead, she frequently writes to Eleanor, letters and religious poetry, hoping that Eleanor will think fondly of her and bring her back at court. It’s only as the years pass and she realizes that Eleanor will never return her affections that Marie turns her mind to taking up the reins of abbey leadership, and once she does Marie, trained to run a noble estate, builds her abbey from a pit of disease and starvation to a bustling and powerful community of religious women and herself into a towering religious power who takes more authority on herself than the church would normally allow.

The sensuality embedded in Marie’s story is both commonplace and shocking. Early on, while Marie is still at court, we learn that she has had a sexual relationship with her maidservant Cecily – and that her regard for Eleanor isn’t purely platonic – but it’s unclear whether Marie regards these encounters are “real sex” or more along the lines of physical things that just happen since it’s presented so matter-of-factly – nothing to see here, just medieval gals being pals. This is both reinforced and complicated by her relief when, years later at the abbey, the sister in charge of the abbey infirmary invites her to come by for regular orgasms as a way of “rebalancing the humours” and categorizes it as a simple physical thing that some people need to have. Relief because she has scoured religious texts for “female sodomy” and found nothing – indicating that she has an inkling her sexual encounters would not be as acceptable to wider society but her quick acceptance of an explanation – and the continuing circle of physical relationships among the sisters – indicates that no one intends to give up such acts or feel guilt over them. Indeed, none of the conflict in the story was about the simple existence of such relationships, and it seems like the community built by the women has a strong tradition of close relationships between sisters.

Matrix is outside of my usual reads, because I don’t normally long to read about the Catholic Church, but I really enjoyed how this book blended historical figures with beautiful imagery, and how it played with the line between sensuality and practicality. It’s not a typical historical fiction book, but it is eminently readable and enjoyable. I enjoyed the idea and the slow rise of women building a base of protection and power for themselves in an area where their options were limited and without much influence. I enjoyed Marie’s slow turn from pining for Eleanor to determination and skill to take the situation she was given and make it better, and her increasing desire to make it a community by women for women, with fewer and fewer men allowed on the grounds for any reason. The resulting community is flawed and prosperous and queer and strong and rather engaging to read about. A good rec if you want a little something different in your to-read list.

anna marie’s 3 best sapphic books of 2021 so far, with honourable mentions

Here are some of the best sapphic books i’ve read so far this year, which i think everyone should read immediately considering how incredible, prescient, inspiring and sexy they are. 

  1. The gilda stories by jewelle gomez
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

this is my favourite vampire story i’ve ever read and i’m sad it took me so long to get to it because it’s a delight. Jewelle Gomez writes so tenderly about Gilda, the main character, who becomes a vampire after escaping slavery in the south in the 1850s. We then track through time, in and out of different people’s lives and into the future, but always following Gilda’s path. The way this novel animates history, demonstrating it’s ongoing effect on the present/future as well as community, especially black queer community, through the figure of the vampire is wonderful and inspiring. The changes that are made to traditional vampire lore/representation (which is so heterosexual usually) allow the novel to explore a whole wealth of meanings and experiences normally forgotten or seen as unimportant. The way the vampires in this novel drink blood is one of my favourite things about it because it’s so reciprocal and caring, basically a form of mutual aid between vampires & non vampires and not just a transactional or sometimes violent relationship. the afterword in my edition is by alexis pauline gumbs which was also so beautiful and definitely worthwhile reading too if you have access to it! – about black feminist legacies and the implications of writing a queer black woman vampyre both in the 1990s & in 2016 or so when a new edition was published.

Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes – all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of the struggles of those times sustained her, somehow.

  1. Lucy by jamaica kincaid  
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

I think some might find the inclusion of this book on a sapphic book list a surprise but i wanted to include it because the eponymous character, in my opinion, has a sexuality that is queer (or at least not heterosexual), because it includes making out with her best friend, peggy. Much like the novel this short novel is based on (Villette by charlotte bronte), Lucy is a judgemental and, to some, unlikeable character but i love her! I found being ensconced in her life and hearing directly from her was so fascinating; sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes curious.

Kincaid’s novel is mostly a coming of age story about what happens to lucy when she moves from the west indies to north america to work as a nanny for Mariah and Lewis’ children. She develops a complicated and interesting relationship with Mariah along the way and thinks about her own mother back at home. All the relationships in this novel are extremely vivid and extremely fraught with differing emotions and differing levels of power which makes for a really variegated glimpse into lucy’s mind and life. I don’t think i’ll forget lucy as a character or her experiences for a really long time!!

  1. Plain bad heroines by emily m danforth
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I’m pretty sure this 600+ page novel was made for me to enjoy – as someone who identifies in a lot of ways as a plain bad heroine (sometimes known as a dyke), i felt like i had to read this this year and i’m so glad i did. It’s a campy horror film pastiche with sapphism at it’s centre. Part fin-de-siecle horror book, part love letter to horror films and literary gossip novels, it combines the best of all these into an ambitious and at points genuinely terrifying (at least for me) novel that includes two main storylines, one at a rhode island boarding school in 1902 and a contemporary one which follows three plain bad heroines as they attempt to make a horror film about what happened.

It’s at times uncomfortable, at times sexy, at times gruesome and sweet, and whilst i did have a preferred storyline (the 1902 one which starts off with the tragic deaths of flo and clara by yellowjackets as they run away from family obligation and heterosexuality), i thought they ultimately melded together so well. A delicious, lesboerotic romp with a fun and distinctive writing style which included footnotes!! My favourite!!! Absolutely would recommend this to anyone who can read. 

Honourable mentions go to children’s murder mystery novel jolly foul play by robin stevens, which is set in a 1930s boarding school, and the mercies by kiran millwood hargrave, an ambient and beautifully written historical fiction novel set in the late 1610s in norway.

Marieke reviews Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This book has been on the edges of my radar for a long time, and I’m not sure why I never got to it before now. Luckily I picked it when I was browsing through my ereader for something that might help to break my reading slump, with no idea what the book was about beyond it being a YA story. If I had known before starting that it was about schools integrating in the South during the 1960s, I probably would have skipped it, assuming something with such serious and intense subject material would be too much for me to keep going. I was very wrong about that, and hopefully I’ll be able to bear that in mind when picking future reads set during turbulent times.

This story follows Sarah and Linda, two girls starting their senior year of high school. Starting their senior 5 months late, because the governor of Virginia closed all schools in a bid to prevent them from integrating as was ordered by the Supreme Court five whole years before. When the schools are eventually forced to open and allow Black students, Sarah is one of the first Black pupils to attend. It does not go smoothly. I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen footage of the abuse Black children suffered as they walked up the path to enter their now desegregated schools, and this book does not shy away from the reality of the situation.

I found it extremely interesting to see that all of the students and their families were cherrypicked, and they were coached on how to handle this and any other situations they might find themselves in over the course of the school day and the year ahead. One of the main messages in this book is that despite all their goodwill and good intentions, the people on the outside can never understand what goes on inside the school grounds. It isn’t pleasant or pretty, and Sarah learns that in order for the whole movement to grow and move forwards, individuals will have to make personal sacrifices that are likely to go unnoticed by history.

Sarah is very good at self denial, but never loses sight of her own identity – even when she’s not sure how to define that identity. She knows she’s always had certain feelings for other girls, and she learned relatively early that those feelings are ‘sinful’ and ‘against God.’ When she has to join with Linda – a very popular white girl and daughter of the very conservative editor of the local newspaper – for a French group project, that self denial and testing of identity become very prominent. Linda is a staunch segregationist, but she’s also intelligent. She doesn’t want it to come out (and she especially doesn’t want it to come back to her father) that she’s working on a school project with a Black student, so they find a quiet space where no one will see them. While this escape from the public eye is for clearly racist reasons, it provides both Sarah and Linda with a space to speak more freely, even while they know they can’t have this kind of open discussion outside of closed doors.

It is the first time either of them can speak so freely with someone of a different ethnicity, and Linda especially is forced to reconsider some of the party lines she has been parroting all her life. As soon as someone asks her to use her mind and actually consider the implications and internal contradictions of her arguments, that starts a process within her that can’t be stopped. She carries her questioning mind into other conversations, with white peers and white figures of authority. This is not a straightforward journey, and for every step she makes forwards, she will make some kind of step backwards as well. It’s confusing for both girls, and the fact that they are both developing feelings doesn’t make matters any less confusing.

The relationship development between these two characters is the core of the book, and it is very strong and thoughtfully written. The author adds plenty of (well researched) historical background and notes, and fleshes out all main, side, and background characters well. This book makes you think a lot, about the insidious ways racism and other forms of bigotry work and interacted, with small throw away lines occasionally making you sit down and think through the various implications.

Content warnings: racism, homophobia, internalised homophobia, general bigotry, violence, physical abuse, domestic abuse, bullying, racial slurs, hate crime, religious bigotry

Maggie reviews The Hellion’s Waltz by Olivia Waite

The Hellion's Waltz cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The Hellion’s Waltz is the third installment of Olivia Waite’s Feminine Pursuits series, and where the first two involved astronomy, printing, and beekeeping, this one revolves around music, weaving, and crime. With the re-surfacing of the hit tv show Leverage, I was quite excited to read a crime romance, and this series hadn’t let me down yet.

Maddie Crewe and the local weaver’s guild are planning a con on a businessman whose unsavory practices are taking advantage of the local weavers and pushing them out of business or into dangerous factories. With their ability to legally organize coming down the pipeline, Maddie and her friends need one good score to properly fund their guild and give their future organizing some teeth. Meanwhile, Sophie Roseingrave’s family has just arrived in town after being forced from London when a con artist’s scheme ruined their reputations and forced their family shop to close.  When she accidentally brushes up against the opening stages of Maddie’s con, she’s torn between her instant attraction to the other woman and her instinctive revulsion towards a scam, no matter how well-intentioned.

As usual with this series, the characters are charming to read.  I loved that they were both talented women in their own fields – Maddie as a weaver and Sophie as both a musician and piano tuner. I loved that neither had any sort of queer awakening during this; being attracted to a woman and acting on that desire wasn’t news or a shock to either of them. They’re both quite taken with each other and are willing to act on their attraction. It’s still refreshing to me to read historical romances where both characters are confident and confidently queer, and I adore it.

Also, who doesn’t love a good crime crew when they’re out to take down a heinous rich guy? And crime to fund a union is especially delicious. The con itself is a little complicated and far-fetched to seem entirely plausible, but it’s fun, and its hilarious hijinks are a good contrast to Sophie’s memories of getting taken in by a dastardly con man who but their piano-making business out of order. Maddie and the weavers are not out to harm families, but rather to protect them. The confidence they have to stand up for themselves helps Sophie to face her lingering trauma after her family’s own experiences and take up music again.

In conclusion, The Hellion’s Waltz is a fun little romp through crime, protecting a community of craftspeople, and letting yourself have good things. It’s fun, not especially deep, and the queerness is established rather than a plot point. It was a very diverting and fun read, and I recommend it if you are looking for a nice f/f historical romance that’s on the light side.

Rachel reviews The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

If you like dark, historical novels with a brooding mystery at the center, you’ll love Jane Healey’s The Animals at Lockwood Manor. A queer novel set at a remote country estate in England at the beginning of World War II, the twists and turns of this novel—like the hallways at Lockwood Manor—will surprise you.

In 1939, war has just broken out across the world. In London, Hetty Cartwright is helping to evacuate and safeguard the natural history museum’s vast collection of specimens. Her job is to transport and maintain the large collection of mammals to Lockwood Manor, the vast and daunting estate well beyond the blast zone of the blitz. However, once she arrives at Lockwood, Hetty encounters its cavernous hallways and dark corners alongside its unwelcoming and controlling Lord and his intriguing but allegedly frail daughter, Lucy.

Soon, Hetty realizes that keeping the animals at Lockwood safe entails far more than protecting them from bombs—despite the meddling of Lord Lockwood and the servants, strange things begin to happen at Lockwood; animals go missing, museum property is destroyed, and much worse. Something seems to be stalking Lockwood and the animals within it—and maybe even Hetty herself. Hetty’s only consolation is the darkly beautiful Lucy, who is haunted by her own nightmares and demons. Soon, it falls to Hetty to protect Lucy and unravel the mystery of Lockwood Manor—are the grounds cursed and haunted by spirits, or could it possibly be something worse?

I very much enjoyed this book. Historical fiction set during any time period is a favourite genre of mine, but I especially like novels of WWII. Healey did an excellent job of bringing to life one little-known aspect of the war, and her narrow focus on these fictional events underscored the widespread effect of war on these characters. The setting was intriguing and haunting—a rambling, castle-like house on a remote estate filled with the hulking taxidermy forms of animals is the perfect setting for a creepy mystery like Healey’s. I felt fully immersed in the world throughout the novel.

Hetty’s character was an excellent perspective throughout the novel. While there are short, dream-like interjections from Lucy’s perspective, these only add to the mystery. Hetty’s voice is the primary vehicle through which we encounter the strange happenings at Lockwood and her headstrong, industrious personality was refreshing. She was someone who was easy to relate to, despite the historical setting, and it was exciting to unravel the mystery of this novel and its characters alongside her.

Lucy’s character was similarly intriguing. One thing I felt unsatisfied with in this novel, however, was the romance. While Lucy and Hetty’s partnership was enjoyable and relatively convincing, the discovery of their feelings for one another felt a bit stilted and indelicate. The novel seemed to lurch into a lesbian relationship rather than flow into one. While it is difficult to frame lesbian desire in a historical setting, I felt that, in this case, Hetty and Lucy declaring their love for one another was a bit too disjointed at times.

Nevertheless, the end of this novel was a lovely and haunting conclusion. Hetty and Lucy’s partnership was far more grounded at the end of this novel, and overall I felt that the book was an exciting historical mystery with haunting elements that kept me guessing.

Please visit Jane Healey on Twitter and put The Animals at Lockwood Manor on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. 

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

If you’re a fan of paranormal retellings, historical fiction, and poetic writing, S.T. Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood is the perfect read.

The novel is an innovative and refreshing retelling of Dracula, told from the perspective of one of Dracula’s three brides—infamous in the novel as the licentious, erotic, lust-filled women who attempt to seduce Johnathan Harker. A Dowry of Blood begins centuries before the events of Stoker’s original novel with Constanta, a Romany woman saved from death by a dark and mysterious stranger who compels her from the beginning. Alternately his bride and daughter, Dracula transforms Constanta, and they embark on a centuries-long life together full of love, pain, treachery, and devotion in equal measure. As the centuries wear on, two other consorts join Constanta, and the controlling and confining machinations of her beloved reach a breaking point.

Gibson’s text is a fantastic addition to the canon of Dracula adaptations. In (re)characterizing Dracula’s brides, the novel seems to also consider the famous iterations of the characters in the original novel and in film (Coppola 1992, Sommers 2004, for example). Moving beyond the events of Stoker’s novel, Gibson’s novel gives a voice to Dracula’s brides as more than sex/blood-obsessed monsters while still maintaining the quintessentially dark, gothic, and horrific aspects of a good vampire novel alongside the telltale eroticism that drives many vampire fictions. It was compelling to see the three brides as more than one moving body of vampiric desire filtered through a male perspective. Instead, each character is distinct and complex, with wants and desires controlled by a domineering controller. Another innovation on Gibson’s part is the transformation of one of the brides into a male figure—Alexi—which complicates and queers the novel in a compelling way.

One startlingly refreshing aspect of Gibson’s text is her portrait of domestic abuse through emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological manipulation. Complex and various over centuries, the story is as much about the oppressed triumphing over the oppressor as it is about vampires and supernatural horror. While Gibson keeps the character of Dracula distant from the text—aloof, cold, and threatening—she recounts the histories and secret strengths of his three brides, centering them within the narrative.

Gibson’s novel emphasises and elaborates on the queerness inherent in Stoker’s original novel. The queer dynamic between the four central characters is crucial in establishing the complex relationship each of them has with Dracula and with one another.

Please visit S.T. Gibson on Twitter and put A Dowry of Blood on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual manipulation.  

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Carolina reads The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Buckle up, old sport! The Great Gatsby has entered the public domain, leaving the door open for any author to submit their take on Fitzgerald’s classic. A myriad of sequels, prequels and retellings of the novel have already been published in 2021, or are slated to be released in the near future. Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful dares to stand out from the other boats beating ceaselessly into the past, and charts a unique course as a trailblazing debut full of heart and originality through the eyes of The Great Gatsby’s enigmatic side character, Jordan Baker.

Amidst the glitz, glamour and gossip of the flapper scene, a magical Manhattan materializes in Nghi Vo’s debut, deftly weaving historical fiction and urban fantasy into a treatise on queer Asian American womanhood. Professional golfer and socialite Jordan Baker feels disillusioned with her peers of the upper echelon of New York society; as a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, Jordan must steel herself within a cool and collected façade to cope with her oppressive surroundings. As her friend Daisy Buchanan begins to fall for the mysterious Jay Gatsby, Jordan questions her place among her patronizing white friends as she discovers her true self and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.

Through Jordan’s perspective we lose the sugar-coating of Nick’s rose-tinted lens, exposing the true vanity and monstrosity of The Great Gatsby’s main characters. Daisy becomes an irredeemable white saviour while Gatsby’s incessant stalking and unquenchable lust for power is laid bare, offering an intriguing critique of white womanhood and masculinity. The novel acts as a character study of the intersections of identity: Jordan must reckon with each side of herself, as a woman, as a Vietnamese immigrant, and as a bisexual in the 1920’s to determine who in her life loves her for who she truly is, as microaggressions and blatant exoticism boil over the course of the novel. In this way, The Chosen and the Beautiful acts as a true retelling and re-imagining of the so-called great American novel: Jordan’s story is a reflection of the prosaic contemporary state of Americana, touching upon timeless themes such as  white fragility and model minority with candor and precision. 

The Chosen and the Beautiful is deliciously queer: Jordan refuses to hide her sexuality and regularly parties at gay speakeasies as Nick and Gatsby fall for each other, further subverting the iconic twisted love triangle of the original novel. The novel also goes further in depth into the social struggles of the 1920’s that create the context and worldbuilding for The Great Gatsby, including racism and homophobia, crossing lines that Fitzgerald steered clear of. By touching upon contemporary issues eugenics, Asian exclusion laws and early 20th century gay bar culture, the world of West Egg becomes infinitely more real and fleshed out. 

The world of The Chosen and the Beautiful is quietly imbued with magic: dandies sell their souls to the devil for a chance at wealth, performing troupes craft dragons out of  paper and ghosts and the undead walk among the living. Although I would have preferred a more concrete understanding of the magic system and a deeper exploration of the subplot regarding Jordan’s magic, I appreciated the infectious whimsy of casual magic built with beautiful prose, constructing scenes that will stick with the reader long after the book is over. 

Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance copy!

Content Warnings: racism, sexism, homophobia, internalized homophobia, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, substance abuse, alcoholism, death, cheating, abortion

Marieke reviews The Confessions Of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is not a happy book. It tells you that in the title already: the ‘confessions’ refer to Frannie’s written musings that she notes down while she is on trial for the murder of her employer and his wife–the latter of whom she happened to be in a romantic relationship with. Make sure to take note of the content warnings, and be ready for some gruesome scenes. All of this grimness does make for an appropriate setting to the troubles that Frannie is dealing with in the present moment of the story, but it can be overwhelming.

As Frannie recounts the events of her life that have led her to her current predicament, it takes a while for her supposed victims to take the stage, to the point I was becoming slightly impatient with the pacing. It opens with her life as a slave at the Langton plantation in Jamaica (which gave her the name she bears), where she was forced to serve her master as he carried out pseudo-scientific experiments with the aim to prove that African people were not human. That in itself is extremely horrific, and almost numbed me to the further events in the story. Of course, this history is important to understand–both in terms of general history and specifically for Frannie as a character. Still, even knowing that we are learning this history through the writings of Frannie herself, I couldn’t help but wish she would hurry up. Her lingering on this earlier part of her life creates a tense atmosphere, preparing the reader for all the awfulness to come, but this is an approach that either doesn’t work for me or I simply wasn’t in the mood for at the time.

Once Frannie arrives in London, her life becomes even more complicated. She is changed from a slave into a maid, as officially slavery was illegal in England at the time (ca. 1820). This is one of the main moments on which the story turns, where her plantation master gifts her to be employed by his friend, a practice that was still legal and is based on historical fact. It is in this position that she joins the Benham household and meets her employer and his wife (Madame Marguerite or Meg), as well as the other staff, who receive her with mixed feelings. It is also in this position that Frannie grows closer to Madame.

While I believe they both love the other at certain points in the narrative, I couldn’t say that they loved each other at the same time or even in the same way. Their relationship is so inherently shaped by inequalities: Frannie is black, of mixed race, a former slave, a maid, and on top of all that she is educated–which occasionally forces her into the position of sideshow. Madame is wealthy (through her husband), pretty, and of high society, though her being French seems to count as much as a mark against her as in her favour depending on the situation. Most complicated of all though, is the fact that the Benham wealth is generated through slavery, and this cannot ever be removed from the relationship between Frannie and Meg.

On top of all that, Meg has an opium habit that worsens over the course of the book, and she involves Frannie in covering it up so her husband won’t grow aware. There are so many secrets in this story, and the opium secret is an early indication of the bleakness that lives in the Benham marriage, creating another layer to the women’s relationship. It presents a theme often explored in historical fiction: while Madame seemingly has everything she could ever want (husband, wealth, beauty, youth), she either holds these things through her husband or her own age–which of course only ever advances in one direction. She is isolated and even needs drugs to numb the loneliness of her life. In one moment, Frannie suggests that white women are also the property of white men. Still, that doesn’t mean Meg and Frannie suffer the same pains, but the story does a good job of suggesting that the rules of society can protect as much as they can hurt and trap someone. Frannie and Meg just happen to be trapped in different ways.

In the end, these entrapments lead to the death of the Benhams and the imprisonment of Frannie, who is trying to figure out what happened that fateful night. The later chapters where she notes down the proceedings of her court case (all her writings are addressed directly to her lawyer, in the hopes that he can either figure out a defense or share her words, depending on the outcome of the case) come closest to feeling like a murder mystery. There are witnesses, evidence, a judge, and lawyers trying to make the best of it all. This is also where Frannie has a chance to figure out what she did (if anything), as her trauma seems to have blocked her memory. As she unravels the various threads being spun by the background characters in the court case, it becomes clearer to the reader how many more secrets lived in the Benham household, and you begin to question ever more what is and isn’t true.

Content warnings: slavery, prison, physical abuse, emotional manipulation, blood, gore, body horror, racism, suicide, murder, violence, miscarriage, rape mentions

Danika reviews The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

The Legend of Auntie Po cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is a quiet, almost slice-of-life graphic novel about a 13-year-old queer Chinese American girl’s life at a logging camp. Mei is the daughter of the camp cook, and she helps out in the kitchen and spends her free time spinning yarns for the other children in camp–especially about Po Pan Yin, or Auntie Po, a Chinese American matriarchal version of Paul Bunyan. She is best friends with (and obviously has a crush on) Bee, the foreman’s daughter.

In the background, though, is the constant hum of anti-Asian racism. The Chinese workers eat separately from other workers. A sawmill that employed Chinese workers is burned down. Mei is keenly aware that she’s losing something: she no longer prays, she doesn’t know her grandparents, and her Cantonese is rusty. She is caught between traditions she feels disconnected with and an American culture that doesn’t accept her.

Auntie Po is the bridge between them: a blending of cultures and a way of adapting tradition to make it relevant. Not only does Mei tell stories about Auntie Po, she also begins to see her–especially when times get hard. Auntie Poe (and her giant water buffalo Pei Pei) become a source of hope and inspiration for her, and it’s left ambiguous whether or not she’s real.

The foreman claims that Mei and her father are like “family” to him, but Mei’s father knows better than to take him at his word, even if their daughters have grown up together. The story explores friendships across racial and financial differences in both these generations (Bee and Mei as well as their fathers’ relationship) and how fraught these can be. Mei’s father soon finds himself choosing between the man he’s called “family” and his own safety and comfort.

I enjoyed the watercolor illustrations with digital lines art style, and there are some stunning spreads. Pei Pei especially is a delight whenever he makes an appearance. This is a quick read, but there are lots of different aspects to dive into: I think this is a book that could act as a great conversation starter with young readers.

As for the queer content, Mei’s crush on Bee is obvious, and they hold hands and dream about a future together, but this isn’t a romance. It’s the kind of adoring friendship (with occasional blow-ups) you’d expect between 13-year-old girls. Not long ago, this kind of relationship in a kids’ book would likely be dismissed as a close friendship, but the author’s note makes it clear that Mei is queer, and I think we’re finally at a point where queer content doesn’t have to be spelled out to be obvious.

This is a thoughtful book about a topic of U.S. American history not often written about in middle grade books, and I highly recommend it.