Rachel reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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I read Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) about a month ago, and I’m still thinking about it. If you’re looking for a slice of mid-twentieth-century lesbian culture with some wonderful Chinese American representation and rich social history, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is for you. Having read many of her books over multiple years, including Ash (2009) and Huntress (2011), I believe that this novel is Lo’s most stunning achievement to date. The world needs more lesbian fiction like this, and I couldn’t get enough.

Set in 1954 San Francisco, the novel follows seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a young Chinese American girl growing up amidst social, political, and cultural changes—many of which could place her and her family in danger. But Lily’s struggling with more than what’s happening in the world—she’s begun to wonder about herself, too. About who she might be beyond the context of the Red Scare and her family’s expectations. When she and her friend Kathleen Miller arrive at the long-coveted lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club, Lily’s world opens up in ways she has never allowed herself to imagine. But these discoveries are not without consequences, and Lily and Kathleen must struggle against the various influences that threaten them on all sides.

I was unable to put this book down. The rich, immersive quality of Lo’s writing really painted a picture of queer life in 1950s San Francisco that was alternately tantalizing and educational. So much of this novel reminded me of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998) in the best way—not just because of the aspects/erotics of male impersonation that Lo employs, but due to Lo’s sophisticated writing and careful detail. It’s clear that this novel was heavily researched, and it really is the kind of Young Adult fiction that shows an immense interest in telling queer stories correctly and for all audiences. Lo obviously has a grasp of various cultural touchstones for queer communities of the period, and her work with lesbian pulp fiction was alternately heart-warming and thrilling—who among us hasn’t encountered our own version of Strange Season?

There is something so high-stakes and fast paced about this novel that kept it from leaving my hands. You’re desperate to see what will happen, which keeps you hurtling towards the end. Lily’s anticipation and desire are infectious, and by the time she enters the Telegraph Club for the first time, I was just as desperate to see inside as she was. What I truly appreciated about Lo’s novel was how universal she rendered queer experience—there were so many moments where I recognized myself (both as a teenager and now) in Lily or Kathleen’s characters. What is particularly special about novel’s like this one is that they make an effort to identify a queer community beyond two individual (and often isolated) love interests. That’s what truly makes this novel so rich and unique, and it makes the reading experience so much wider and worthwhile.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking/talking about or recommending this book to everyone I know. It’s such a heartwarming story that will appeal to queer readers and beyond.

Please visit Malinda Lo on Twitter or on her Website, and put Last Night at the Telegraph Club on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

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.

A copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Carolina reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

It seems apt to begin 2021, a time of reflection and introspection for many, with a YA novel that feels fresh and timeless at the same time. Malinda Lo’s new novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club echoes with the same beats as my favorite “baby gay” first lesbian novels (e.g. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel), but holds nuance and depth as an exploration of the limitations and restraints of the Eisenhower Era. Malindo Lo explores the role of the “other” in white picket fence McCarthyist America through the eyes of a young girl coming to terms with historical familial trauma, her identity as a Chinese lesbian in society, and future as a woman in a male-dominated field in San Francisco’s post-war Chinatown.

Lily Hu is a “good Chinese girl.” Her father is a reputable family doctor, her mother by his side as a nurse, both parents well-respected members of their tight-knit Chinatown family. There is no room in their community’s embrace for error or deviation, as their neighborhood faces the tides of post-World War II racism and the initial waves of the Red Scare. When Lily discovers an intriguing advertisement for a male impersonator at a local nightclub, The Telegraph Club, she realizes she might not be quite like her cookie-cutter classmates as she once thought.. As the novel progresses, Lily discovers the wonder of the gay underground in The Telegraph Club alongside her close friend, and first love, Kath. Lily must delicately maintain the balance her of double life between Chinatown and The Castro in order to protect her family as they face deportation for supposed Communist ties, and save her new friends, Kath, and herself from the prying eyes of the gay-bashing police.

Last Night at The Telegraph Club has beautiful writing full of detail and care; Lo rebuilds the glitz and glitter of 1950’s era San Francisco before your eyes, situating the reader in the heart of Chinatown alongside the Hu family. The pacing was on the nose for a fast-paced, exciting coming of age novel and I could seldom put the novel down. Malinda Lo celebrates queer friendship and found families in Last Night at The Telegraph Club, one of my favorite themes that is very near and dear to my heart and seldom stressed in novels.

I loved the vignettes between chapters from Lily’s family’s point of view, as it regaled their journey to adulthood as immigrants and children of diaspora as they come to terms with their American surroundings as Chinese outsiders. Lily’s father’s fear of deportation and alienation from his American peers rings true in contemporary America. Personally, I related to Lily’s mother’s fear of being too “Americanized” and distanced from her own culture, as I am the daughter of Cuban immigrants. However, these outside perspectives interrupted Lily’s narrative and felt that they needed more depth in order to remain pertinent to the plot. I also would have preferred some fleshing out of the secondary characters, especially Shirley and Calvin, Lily’s friends who become involved in the Communist Party.

Malinda Lo’s works are already a bookshelf staple for any WLW; Ash and Huntress are often a young gay person’s first book with lesbian characters. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a fitting addition to Lo’s acclaimed literature, a wonderful coming of age novel full of love and heart. I would highly recommend this new novel, in stores and online on January 19, 2021.

Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher and author for the eARC of the novel!

Trigger Warnings: racism, homophobia, police brutality, family trauma, abandonment

Danika reviews Goldie Vance: The Hocus Pocus Hoax by Lilliam Rivera

Goldie Vance: The Hocus Pocus Hoax by Lilliam RiveraI already know and love the Goldie Vance comics, but now it is also a middle grade novel series! The premise is that Goldie Vance is a sixteen year old girl who works as a part-time valet, part-time detective at a resort her father manages. She is the assistant to the hotel’s detective–which is apparently a thing?–and aspires to be a full-time detective when she’s older.

It has a 1950s feel, and Goldie is the plucky heroine we expect from a girl detective, except this one is a queer girl of colour! I love the comics, so I had to see how the novel versions compare. Although the main character is 16, she appears to be a little younger, which I think matches the 1950s aesthetic and definitely makes this work as a middle grade novel. When I worked in the children’s department of my local bookstore, I often wished there were more middle grade and YA mysteries–they are very popular for around 6-8 year olds and then inexplicably disappear–so I’m glad to see this will help fill that niche.

I was a bit worried about whether the queer relationship would be included in this middle grade version of the story–the comics are all-ages, but could easily be read by teens as well. Happily, it’s actually a big part of the plot in this volume.

A conference of magicians is happening in the hotel, and the stakes are high. The intimidating owner is demanding everything goes smoothly, because if this because a repeat event, it will be very profitable. Unfortunately, three of the waiters get food poisoning, and Goldie and a few of her friends at the hotel have to fill in. Meanwhile, Goldie is trying to plan the perfect first date with Diane. Unfortunately, she’s forced to be a server that night and has to cancel, and when they reschedule, the restaurant has been reserved for a special event. Goldie invites Diane to come to some of the magician performances happening at the hotel, which she happily accepts. But that’s not the end of her first date complications: someone is sabotaging the magicians’ performances, and she has to figure out the culprit–all while the son of the celebrity magician keeps following her around and telling her how to better do her job.

Was I proud of myself for keeping up with a middle grade mystery’s clues? Yes. I’m not usually a mystery reader because I am terrible at keeping track of details, so apparently middle grade mysteries are my level. I won’t comment on the mystery structure itself, because it seems silly to critique whether a mystery for 10 year olds is sufficiently complex for a reader triple that age, but this was an entertaining read full of memorable characters.

This finishes with a short comic at the end, which was a fun surprise. We see Goldie and Diane finally get to have their date together, and it’s adorable. I do think this translates well in the novel format, and I hope the series is long-running. This is technically the second book in the series, not counting the comics, but you don’t need to have read any of the other Goldie Vance books before this one: it’s a self-contained story.

Marthese reviews Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

“We’re not allowed to touch any of them, no matter what they do to us”

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley was a difficult book to read, but an important one. While it is a fiction book, it is realistic; it could have happened. I found this book at the library. It hadn’t been on my radar but don’t you just love when you recognize books as being queer that’s to their covers?

Lies We Tell Ourselves is set in 1959 in Virginia during Integration and it tells the story of Sarah – one of the first few black students who are trying to integrate into a previously all white school – and Linda, the daughter of a newspaper editor who heavily influences people and is against forced integration. Sarah is one of three senior, who try to take care of their younger peers. Sarah’s sister Ruth also is one of the new students and so Sarah is constantly worrying about her.

The high school is a hostile place. Almost nowhere is safe and almost no one stands up for them. What follows from day 1 isn’t just bullying, it’s torture. Sarah thinks it won’t get better and she isn’t wrong: mostly because in public, things stay the same but in private, thanks to the classic group project, she starts to befriend (or be cordial with) Linda and her friend Judy who doesn’t mind that Sarah is black. Judy was in fact Sarah’s first connection. The development of Linda and Sarah’s relationship was realistic. It took time and they had a lot of disagreements.

Deep down, Linda knows she is wrong. Linda is trying to escape her father’s house by getting married to an older man. Despite being a public figure due to her father, even when she had not yet realized that she was wrong, Linda is compassionate. Yet, she cares very much what people say about her. Breaking down such ingrained feelings is evidently hard. The same goes for Sarah. She lets her parents dictate her life for her and to take her life back from them, it’s a long journey. The chapter titles and themes are all lies that Sarah and Linda tell themselves and the slow deconstruction of them.

Sarah and Linda both feel invisible despite being so public, no one knows who they really are. This bonds them in a way that nothing else would. They grow together and decide their own future. The romance part of the book I think was not as important as the rest of the plot but if romance were to overshadow something so harsh like integration and systematic racial hatred and discrimination, it would be a problem. Romance is not a solution, simply a by-product realisations and character development.

Every step is a struggle. The plot deals with some major triggers of violence. I found myself scared for the black students at every page that took place in school. There were some major incidences of violence, although I can safely assure that no one dies. There is also a lot of victim blaming, so beware.

It’s a difficult read but an important one. There is plenty of build-up for the relationship and issues aren’t magically resolved through attraction, which I appreciated. There is great character development, and I grew attached to the side characters as well: they were all so strong.

I’d recommend for anyone that has enough strength to read something like this. Something that didn’t necessarily happen as is, but with the possibility that the different instances did happen to people in the past and with the hard truth that some of these things still happen.

Danika reviews Pulp by Robin Talley

Pulp by Robin Talley cover

I have been anticipating this book for a long time. I collect lesbian pulp, and I’m fascinated by the history of this period of lesbian literature. Pulp is a YA novel from two perspectives: Abby, a modern day out and proud lesbian, and Janet, a 1950s teenager just discovering that she’s a lesbian, and what that means for her life. Both of them discover lesbian pulp at the beginning of the novel, and it inspires them and their writing, though in different ways. I had very high expectations for this, and I’m happy to say that it lived up to them.

First, I have to talk about the pulp aspect. This is something that I really nerd out about, and it’s not often that I bump into someone else as interested in lesbian pulp as I am. So I was delighted to read about Abby discovering pulp–the wonder at the over-the-top but incredible covers, the initial disdain then growing appreciation for the genre as a whole, and the fascination with how these books fit into real people’s lives, authors and readers alike. I could relate to Abby’s obsession, is what I’m saying. There are also great easter eggs, if you are a lesbian pulp fan. Not only are real pulp titles name dropped (including Satan Was a Lesbian, which I have as a canvas print in my living room!), but a ton of the characters have the last names of famous lesbian pulp authors/pen names, including Aldrich, Sloane, Hastings, and Bannon (“Bannon Press” is the publisher’s name). And no wonder: not only did Ann Bannon (author of The Beebo Brinker pulp novels) have a blurb on the front cover, she also gave notes on an early draft of this novel!

But enough about my own obsession. Into the actual story! I thought it was balanced nicely between the two perspectives. They mirror each other in some ways (both lesbians, both authors, both enamored with a particular lesbian pulp novel), but they have very different personalities and settings. In Janet’s timeline, I appreciated learning more about the Lavender Scare, particularly in Washington, DC. I had heard of it before, but seeing how it infiltrated every aspect of these people’s lives was chilling–the smallest thing could mean being outed as a “homosexual” and therefore a threat to the nation. You could lose everything, just because someone thought your haircut was too short or that your friendship was too close. You could never let your guard down. Although I liked both main characters, I was particularly drawn to the present day protagonist, Abby.

I should have known I’d like Abby, just from all the reviews that mentioned hating her. I’ve found that any female character who expresses pain is usually seen as annoying by reviewers. Abby is in a horrible sense of stasis: she’s about to graduate, but she can’t even think about college. College means change, and change means acknowledging that her family is falling apart. Abby’s parents are barely home–always travelling for work–and they’re never home at the same time. Meanwhile, Abby’s girlfriend broke up with her last summer, and although she assumed it would be short-term, they don’t seem to be getting back together. When Abby discovers lesbian pulp, she latches on to one particular novel with a happy ending, becoming obsessed with it and the author. This is the kind of love that lasts forever–and what’s the point of love that doesn’t last? Abby is in a lot of pain, and as long as her parents refuse to acknowledge what’s happening, her and her brother can’t begin to process it.

I also enjoyed a lot of the side characters in Abby’s story. She has an out lesbian teacher! (I’m about to become a teacher, so that stood out to me.) One who is knowledgeable about lesbian pulp and can advise Abby on her project revolving around that topic! Abby also has a queer group of friends, including bisexual and non-binary characters (one who uses they/them pronouns). Abby is Jewish, and there are Black and Brazilian side characters as well. And one tiny thing I liked: Abby and Linh (her ex-girlfriend) bonded over reading m/m fanfiction before they dated! That’s how me and my high school girlfriend got together!

I really appreciate this book. Lesbian pulp is something close to my heart, so I hope that this novel introduces queer teens to it, so they can discover the ridiculousness and appeal of it themselves. Personally, I loved Abby as a main character. She is hurting, so she may not always make the best decisions, but that just means that when she does finally break through–when she does begin to face the difficult changes in her life and even embrace them–it’s all the sweeter. Highly recommended!

Marthese reviews Carol by Patricia Highsmith

”How would the world come to life? How would its salt come back?”

Finally read this classic! Carol, originally published as The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith in 1952, was written in the late 40s, taking some inspiration from Patricia Highsmith’s real life and running away with it.

The story is about Therese, a young woman who at first works in retail but is hoping to get jobs as a set designer. She’s currently dating Richard but she does not love him and he knows it. Therese grows a lot during the story and becomes less awkward, but first, she has a few existential crises. One day, during the Christmas rush, she helps Carol select a gift for her daughter, Rindy. Carol has grey eyes and poise and Therese is immediately taken with her. They meet again and begin a friendship that is obvious where it will lead, although there is some resistance.

This book is often described as the first lesbian story with a happy ending. I’m not sure whether the story could be said to be happy – because for sure there are scars – but Therese and Carol are true to themselves. It is also a realistic description of the time and feelings.

Since this book was made into a movie, many may know the story, so I will focus on themes and elements within the book.

One of the things that immediately struck me was all the descriptions of things that are seen. It made for visual and captivating prose. Highsmith also describes emotions vividly.

The character of Therese is introspective. As I mentioned, she has existential crisises. They are not about her sexuality mostly – she’s never been in love and she immediately makes a connection – they are about her work and the place she has in life. This is something that everyone can relate with. Although she starts of as really insecure, she doesn’t have a problem saying ‘no’ to things she doesn’t like! I could also relate to her because she pushed a lot of people out of her life when she needed a change – she knows when a goodbye is a goodbye.

How males interacted with her was also interesting. At first, Phil and Dannie (her boyfriend Richard’s friends) ignore her and it seems like she gets jobs because of her connection with Richard. However, she managed to become friendly with them and she also gets jobs based on her connections.

The character of Richard was also interesting. At first, although I didn’t like him, I pitied him. He and Terry also appeared to at least have a good friendship when they laughed, but as time went on, he become more bitter and more sexist, using the ‘but I’m a nice guy’ and ‘you’ll change’, he gaslighted her and threatening to expose Terry. These are pretty common tropes, but it was done well, and keeping in mind when it was written, I cannot help but feel that on many accounts, Highsmith was a pioneer and beyond her time.

Carol’s character I can imagine as being very poised and having a ‘resting bitch face’ that hid her emotions. She does care a lot but never begs too much and her voice and expressions are usually controlled. She is also very direct and is not afraid to criticize. Although there was hesitation at first and a few misunderstandings when problems escalated, these two know how to maturely communicate! One thing that I noticed, is that Carol seems to be depressed: ”Carol was happy only at moments” (page 168).

As with regards to gender, I believe that this book was really progressive. It humanized a lot and voiced a lot of probably unpopular opinions. One thing that bothered me a bit was the use of ‘men’ vs ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’, something which is still done today.

It also offers a complex view of sexuality. For example, at one point, sleeping with the same people is described as a habit. Carol also has loved Harge, the husband she’s getting a divorce from and also another female before Therese. And although Therese did not love Richard, she seems attracted to another man for a while. There are no explicit sex scenes, but there are allusions to a good night!

This book is a historical fiction, but it was written in the same time (so at the time, it was a contemporary read). This was really felt. It was, for example, really interesting to see how humans interacted with so little technology. People used to amuse each other, go out to eat, go for car drives and talk, and so on. We still do it, but it had a different vibe to it.

I would recommend to read this book especially at this time. The story starts before Christmas and although it’s not really a ‘Christmas/Holiday read’ because it goes beyond the holidays, there is still a holiday feeling with shopping, presents, and celebrations. This book is a classic because so many of the themes are applicable today, so many of the emotions felt we can nod to.

One question that I have after reading the book is…how many hotels did these two pay for and not stay in? I hope they managed to get a refund! Time to watch the movie now! I still haven’t…


Allysse reviews The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif


The World Unseen is set in South Africa in the 1950’s and relates the story of two women – Miriam and Amina – and the way their lives impact each others.

Let me start this review by saying that I love this book. After a lot of trouble to get it from my library I read it in two days, unable to put it down unless I really had to.

What I love most about the novel is that Shamim Sarif takes the time to explore the two main characters but also their family and surroundings. The story is divided into three main sections and we can feel those separations quite well when reading the novel. However it is a smooth and logical process. Every part is introduced and possible only from the actions and developments of the previous sections.

Through the pages we are introduced to a culture, an environment, and we feel as a foreigner getting to understand an unfamiliar place. All characters’ point of views are explored objectively. We may dislike a character but it is from our own choices as we are given the key to understand them and their behaviour.

The author takes us into a different era and a different culture but it feels like we are with the characters, getting to know them and sharing their lives. We can sense the political background of South Africa in the 1950’s. It is fully present but only through the lives and actions of the characters. It is not emphasized or put in the front line of the text, it is simply there as a fact of life of those characters.

Shamim Sarif is a very skillful writer to set the tone of a character, a culture, and a place. She never uses many words but in a few lines, through a few gestures and thoughts, she conveys all the meaning necessary for the reader to understand each character and its motivation.

There is one minor aspect of the novel I didn’t enjoy much. It is the use of non-english words. I wouldn’t have minded so much if a glossary or footnotes had been included to give a translation or definition of the terms. Most of the time the context provides a sort of definition but the words mostly remained vague to me and I was feeling a bit irritated at not understanding them fully.

All in all I highly recommend this novel for its numerous interesting characters as well as for the discovery of another culture. I am not an expert about Idians in South Africa in the 1950’s, but it does feel like Shamim Sarif transcribed the feel of a period and culture very well.

On a none literary note, I also highly recommend the film. Directed by Shamim Sarif herself, it is very respectful of the book but the focus is put more on Amina and Miriam than in the novel. The book really is more about them and their environment, their families and friends, taking the time to explore the life of behaviour of all.

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

When this novel was published in 1952, it was Controversial with the Capital and thus, naturally, immensely popular. Patricia Highsmith – apparently a pretty renowned author but not a particularly likable personality – wrote it under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” and denied having anything to do with the book until much later on in life, when it was revealed that it was based extensively on her own personal experiences. It’s toted as dark and mysterious, and said to bear uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita – and it came first. Recipe for a perfect lesbian-themed book? I thought so.

Here’s the catch: I read it in 2010-2011 (seriously, I read it over New Year’s Eve), not 1952. I liked the book but I wasn’t enamoured by it.

…while we’re talking about enamour, though, let’s get to the good stuff first:

Carol kissed her on the lips, and pleasure leaped in Therese again. […] Her arms were tight around Carol, and she was conscious of Carol and nothing else. And then her body too seemed to vanish in widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow.

(I have to admit I didn’t choose this excerpt on my own – usually I would, but I’ve returned the book to the library so I just googled this.) Highsmith’s prose is powerful and elegant and I don’t only mean this in reference to the lovemaking scenes like above; I particularly liked her descriptions of the setting and the general feel of the book. New York in 2011 is charismatic and alluring, but New York in 1952 is downright sexy.

What I felt was lacking was character development, which is a pretty key element in any book but especially one that’s centred on just two individuals. (I know this sounds somewhat contradictory, but you can have powerful prose without similarly powerful plot progression, as anyone who’s read the original Frankenstein can attest to.) The premise of the characters is interesting enough – inexperienced but already cynical 19-year-old paired with a tired but not quite jaded middle-aged woman – and as I pieced together bits of their stories throughout the book it’s evident that they aren’t your usual lesbian clichés, but at no point did either Therese or Carol become real to me. I was especially frustrated by the lack of build-up to their relationship, because while I could understand (somewhat) why they’d be attracted to each other based on their lots in life, I felt like it was more my own filling-in-the-blanks rather than a narrative that was presented to me. I figure more emotional aspects of their story might have been glossed over in consideration of the era in which the book was written, maybe, because it is not altogether uncommon for characters in books of yesteryear to fall in love for no discernible reason. Nonetheless, I can’t say I didn’t care for the characters: I interrupted my pseudo-New Year’s celebrations to “see if my lesbians get a happy ending.” (Chances are if you’ve read about this book anywhere you’ll know the answer to this, but I didn’t and I try my best to write spoiler-free reviews so I won’t give it away.)

I have to admit that at the end of it, I’m still left in the dark as to why the book is called The Price of Salt. I know it’s mentioned a couple of times in the book but there appears to be no significant meaning to it and I can’t find a satisfactory explanation online either. (The actual price of salt, by the way, is not as easy to determine as you’d think.) This was, to me, quite a waste because it’s an intriguing title and it’s a big part of the reason I chose to read this book.

By way of coming-of-age lesbian novels, I’d still say that Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet takes the cake and then some but The Price of Salt is still an interesting piece in its own right. You’d also have to take my opinion with a heap of salt here because I haven’t actually read that many coming-of-age lesbian novels. This book would probably be better appreciated if actually read in the 20th century as intended, but there’s nothing any of us can do about that eh?

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review here.

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