Maggie reviews She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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In She Who Became the Sun, Zhu, a peasant girl in ancient China, watches as a fortune teller predicts greatness for her brother and nothingness for herself. Days later, she is the only one alive in her family, and she makes the decision to assume her brother’s identity, and thus his destiny. Zhu joins a monastery out of necessity and learns to suppress herself into her brother’s identity so that Heaven doesn’t snatch her brother’s destiny away from her. As Zhu becomes more confident, she realizes that greatness is a destiny that has to be seized and worked for. Afraid that Heaven will throw her back to nothingness if she doesn’t want hard enough, Zhu must adapt to every change in fortune and hold onto her destiny harder than anyone else around her, through politics, war, rebellion, and pain. Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel is a gripping adventure with a lot to say about destiny, fortunes, and gender identity that I found to be a great read.

“Female character must assume a male identity to have an adventure/do what they want” is not an unusual fantasy trope (the book description mentions Mulan, but honestly Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet also sprang to mind several times), but Parker-Chan takes this concept somewhat farther. Zhu is not just worried about those around her finding out that she’s not a man, she is terrified that Heaven will realize she’s not Zhu Chongba and cast her back into nothingness, and so she must totally become Zhu Chongba, and do nothing that Zhu Chongba wouldn’t do. Later, Zhu realizes that the destined greatness she senses is uniquely hers and not her brother’s, but by that point she no longer feels like a girl as she was, but nor does she feel like a man. Terms such as gender-fluid, genderqueer or nonbinary aren’t really in Zhu’s vocabulary, or the vocabulary of anyone else around her for that matter, which really leaves a lot of scope for a queer reader to project their own experiences on the character, and makes Zhu unique and interesting in the annals of disguised fantasy heroes. It also speaks to identity as a journey that can change over time. I really enjoyed Zhu’s evolving identity, and how Zhu interacted with those around her, and I felt like this book had a lot of really interesting viewpoints and nuance.

Zhu also experiences many instances where she feels an intense connection with other people. At first this makes her intensely uncomfortable – such as when she feels a connection to the Governor of Lu’s widow. Zhu promises her power if she will help Zhu in return, and the Lady accepts. Zhu feels a connection to a woman who knows they are competent and wants power, but she’s still in a place that to feel connection feels too risky, like it will call Heaven’s attention to the fact that she’s not Zhu Chongba. Her other instances of connection are rather more queer. She feels an instant connection with General Ouyang, a eunuch serving the Emperor, the instant she lays eyes on him when he’s at the Monastery, and that connection continues on as they become rival commanders. This connection makes Zhu uncomfortable both because they are on opposing sides and because Ouyang’s otherness is blatant and acknowledged. She feels if she becomes too associated with him, or if he is around her too much, her own otherness will become too apparent. There is also Ma Xiuying, a noble girl nominally engaged to one of the rebellion’s leaders. Zhu cannot understand why Ma Xiuying won’t take what she wants for herself, and why she lets others bully her. Unlike her connection of otherness with others, Zhu is drawn even closer to Ma Xiuying, and their relationship blooms into something both delightful and queer. Zhu’s connections with others serve only to highlight her otherness and queerness, and how she reacts to them changes over time as her comfort in herself changes over time. I really enjoyed these scenes of Zhu realizing a connection, they felt real and like a great foil for Zhu’s own character development.

She Who Became the Sun is a stunning queer fantasy debut full of wide, sweeping action, and intimate character development. Zhu is a nuanced, layered character, whose evolving gender presentation and identity are great to see in a mainstream release. I had a great time reading this book, and I heartily recommend it for the epic fantasy crowd. I’m looking forward to the sequel!

Rachel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

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Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow (Penguin Random House, September 21st 2021) is a must-read blend of Chinese history and science fiction that also combines compelling writing with an original plot.

Although the plot of this YA novel is complex and has many twists and turns, this is a book worth sticking with! In Huxia, boys pair with girls (known as concubines) to pilot the giant shape-shifting robots (known as Chrysalises) that Huxia uses to defend their land and the Great Wall from the aliens who regularly attack and attempt to gain grown. Mentally connected to the robots, the boys use their spirit energy and the spirit energy of the girls to power them. However, the girls regularly die from the experience, and are often expected to.

The novel follows 18-year-old Zetian, who volunteers to be a concubine pilot in an effort to assassinate one of the top male pilots who was responsible for her sister’s death. When Zetian kills the man through unexpected means—by overpowering him in the Chrysalis and destroying him through their psychic link, she is labelled an Iron Widow, a dangerously powerful female pilot who flips the gender binary of the Chrysalises. She is able to sacrifice boys in order to pilot the robot, not girls. When Huxia’s military pairs her with Li Shimin as a way to discipline her incredible and unnerving power, Zetian struggles to maintain the power she refuses to relinquish now that she has encountered it. A story of survival, strength, and queer power, Zetian works to counter the misogyny of the pilot system to keep more girls from being unnecessarily sacrificed.

While this novel is complicated in its premise, it is also fun, immersive, and represents a fascinating blend of historical fact and science fiction. Xiran Jay Zhao’s world building is excellent and happens almost without the reader noticing. The setting arrives in the text as an immediate and stunning picture of a world where women are second-class, and where one person refutes that designation through her power and iron will. The world is also presented as a place where extraordinary things are possible, and there is an undercurrent of hope in the text primarily visible in Zetian’s character.

As a non-binary author, Zhao’s representation of queer characters is crucial to the novel’s structure. At its core, beyond its important representation of Chinese characters and people of colour, the novel is an exploration of the complex systems that uphold and perpetuate gender binaries, and a celebration of the bold people who oppose them through living authentically. The novel features bisexual main characters and a polyamorous relationship. Not only is this representation important in literature, but it is especially significant in a YA novel like this one. I personally found the characters’ identities and relationships to be enjoyable, authentic, and eye-opening.

Overall, Iron Widow is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and I think it is an innovative, exhilarating, and totally original novel with authentic queer characters and an important message. I highly recommend!

Please visit Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter and put Iron Widow on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical violence, substance 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.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Shadow Life cover

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Kumiko, a 76-year-old widow, leaves the assisted living facility her adult daughters put her in because it just wasn’t for her. She wants to maintain whatever independence she can for as long as she can. She feels death coming for her, but it’s too soon. So, when death’s shadow tries to take her before her time, Kumiko fights back.

It’s so refreshing to see an older bisexual character. I have not come across many older characters in general, let alone queer ones, but maybe I’m not reading the right books. Regardless, Kumiko is a delightful main character. She’s quirky and saucy in a way that you can see how she charms some people and irritates others.

The story focuses mostly on Kumiko’s battle with the shadow of Death that has come to take her away. But threaded throughout you also get a glimpse of her relationship with her daughters in the present and flashbacks of her time with her husband, who died in a car accident. For anyone who’s dealt with being a caretaker of an older parent or grandparent, it’s easy to understand the daughters’ perspective, seeing how easily frustrated she is by Kumiko. But in telling the story from Kumiko’s point of view, Goto brings a lot of empathy for the parent’s point of view. Kumiko simply wants to live her life, even if she will start needing more help and supervision soon.

As Kumiko battles Death’s shadow, we get a fun cast of characters that include a surly vacuum storekeeper and her sweet neighbor that looks out for her. She is also reunited with her old flame, Alice. It’s here that the story reveals her bisexuality and it’s even revealed to her daughters. Her eldest is taken by surprise but they don’t make a big deal out of her sexuality itself, so much as the fact that she never told them. Kumiko asserts that it wasn’t something she hid, she just never talked about her past relationships.

I’m not usually captivated by black and white comics, but in this case, it works. And most of the graphic novel takes place through the panel artwork with very little dialogue. In fact, there’s one moment that stands out to convey and affirm Kumiko’s identity as a Japanese Canadian woman. There’s a panel that includes dialogue in Japanese characters and provides no translation. It’s a moment where the reader is made an outsider in the way that people marginalized by white, English-speaking cultures are usually othered. Even though I have no idea what words were spoken there, I didn’t need to. It didn’t detract from the overall story.

No spoilers for how it ends, but all in all, a bewitching tale with fun characters you feel invested in.

Danika reviews The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

The Legend of Auntie Po cover

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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.

Marieke reviews When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle #2) by Nghi Vo

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[This review contains spoilers]

The Singing Hills cycle is a series of stories about storytelling, which happens to be one of my favourite narrative themes. You don’t need to have read the first one (which is also sapphic) in order to appreciate this second instalment. The debut novella does provide a bit more worldbuilding and scene-setting, while this one throws you straight into the middle of the action. Yes, I also love in media res openings.

That being said, all of the action takes place at the start and end, bookending the real meat of the story which is relatively static: none of the characters in the present timeline go through any major personal revelations and most of the present storyline takes place in one location. I specify a present storyline because the story format is similar to the frame storytelling of One Thousand And One Nights: a gifted storyteller must rely on their skill to save their life – in this case the lives of the cleric storyteller Chih (nonbinary, no labels are used but only they / them pronouns apply) and their scout Su-yi (unlucky in her girlfriends) are under threat from the three Sinh shapeshifting tiger sisters.  

Chih serves an order of archivists whose task it is to collect oral histories from around their world and memorise them so they can be written down for future generations. The first book delves a bit more into what this entails and the beliefs that are at the core of the order. The cleric is less of an active agent in this story, as they are almost constantly under threat of death from the tigers and it is only when Chih mentions their recording of the tale about another legendary tiger that the tigresses choose not to kill the two travellers right then and there.

You see, the cleric had just journeyed through a region where they first heard the tale of Ho Thi Thao, the tigress who fell in love with a human and was betrayed (note: I will switch between using tiger and tigress to refer to Ho Thi Thao and the three sisters, as the first serves more as a species identifier but the second helps to identify the character as female. The author refers to all tiger characters as tigers, but all named tigers are female). Only, they had been told this story by humans, and once the tigers who are currently threatening them realise this, they decide to keep the two travellers alive only long enough for them to rectify the wrongs in the passing down of the legend. So Chih tells them the version they learned, a version that was dictated by a distant witness fifty years after the events took place, and so was already diluted when it reached Chih even without taking the human’s bias into consideration. The legend is told in stops and starts, returning to the present time to allow for the Sinh tigers to interject and squabble and tell their version of the section that was just shared by Chih.

Thus, the love story of the tigress Ho Thi Thao and scholar-to-be Dieu is told along two different paths, each from the perspective and with the bias of the respective species. I will leave you to discover the various differences, but both stories do seem to agree that, on her way to take the scholarly examinations in the big city, Dieu is waylaid by a tigress and, the only way she survives the encounter is to share her rice cakes and read her a love poem, after which the two spend an undefined amount of time together in the tiger’s cave. When Dieu continues her journey, the tiger follows her and saves her life from a family of fox spirits who were trying to trap her into a marriage with one of their sons, possibly choosing a marriage to the tiger instead.  

Ho Thi Thao and Dieu spend some more time together after this sudden brush with death, but Dieu still leaves Ho Thi Thao for the city once more. The tigress again follows her, and in the city Dieu arranges for lodgings that the two share, until the day of the examinations arrives. Dieu leaves a final time, and this is too much for Ho Thi Thao to bear: the moment of betrayal. In the end, we don’t know which of the two characters saves the other, this strongly depends on the version you want to believe, but they do choose to leave the city and live together for the rest of their days.

It’s an intriguing tale, almost a fairy tale in its repeated patterns – which are doubled up on by the telling of the two versions. However, the interjections of the present time and the switching between both the two tales being told and the present storyline unfolding makes for a slightly disjointed reading experience. I do like how this tale emphasises that no story ever exists in one way – even if there is a written down version there will be other versions of it still circulating: it’s just a matter of finding the people who are telling them. I also love how Chih can find a story in any situation, and the first novella especially emphasises that the order they work for has a mission to seek out and preserve precisely those stories which might go unnoticed by the official annals.  

The relationship between Dieu and Ho Thi Thao feels more believable in the story told by the tigers, possibly because the human version views the shapeshifting creatures too much as monsters to be worthy of love – another fairy tale theme straight from Beauty and the Beast or East of the Sun (hey! Another story theme I love!). The tiger’s story allows for a whole love between the two characters where their respective species make no difference to the way they feel about each other and they fully see and accept each other for who they are – which really is lovely.

Content warnings: violence, murder, death, blood, gore (almost all at the hands of tigers and people defending themselves from tigers)

Danika reviews The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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When I heard that a queer Vietnamese American The Great Gatsby retelling was coming out, I immediately requested a review copy. I can’t resist sapphic retellings, especially literary ones. There’s one little hiccup to me reviewing this book, though: I’ve never read The Great Gatsby. I haven’t even seen a movie version. I’ve absorbed some things from popular culture and gave the Wikipedia page a glance, but don’t expect a lot of side-by-side comparisons between this and the original.

As I said, I only needed to hear the barest of elevator pitches before adding The Chosen and the Beautiful to my TBR–so I went in knowing very little about it. As Jordan describes her and Daisy floating on the ceiling of rooms, I spent the first chapter going back and forth about whether it was metaphorical or whether this was a fantasy story and I wasn’t aware. Then there were mentions of characters literally selling their souls to demons for power, and that settled that. I should have guessed, considering Vo’s previous books, The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, are also fantasy.

Still, although this is a fantasy novel, the magic is in the background for most of the story. Gatsby’s parties employ magical entertainment and decor–but that’s not dramatically different from the lavish parties he would throw without it. The book has a languid, dreamy quality. Time passes unpredictability: we are just seeing the beginning of Nick and Jordan’s relationship when she mentions how it ends. The first chapter has Jordan and Daisy gaze over her sleeping daughter, and then we see Daisy and Tom’s wedding further in the book.

Jordan is a fascinating main character. She’s adopted from Vietnam and was raised in a wealthy family. Her mother died when she was young, leaving her with a strict father. When he passes, she’s taken in by a feminist, independent aunt. Her aunt expects her to continue in the family tradition and manage the household when she passes away, not really acknowledging that Jordan’s claim to that position is challenged by the racist society they live in. Jordan has to learn how to navigate this world, spending most of her girlhood being treated as exotic by friends before they grew up and abandoned her for more respectable companions. She may seem to others to be a spoiled, overindulgent, “careless” young woman, but she’s constantly aware of not truly fitting in.

She has plenty of love affairs with men and women, and she even frequents a gay bar. In this version of the story, Nick and Gatsby have their own romantic relationship, which makes the love triangle (or square or pentagon) between Daisy, Tom, Gatsby (and Nick and Jordan) even more fraught. Nick is reluctant to acknowledge that he has any inclination towards men, but he clearly cares deeply about Gatsby and their… dalliances, even if Gatsby doesn’t take them seriously.

This is a beautiful, absorbing story with an overwhelming atmosphere of magic, indulgence, and tragedy–this time with queer and Asian American angles that add depth to the story. R.F. Kuang called this “Gatsby the way it should have been written” and the Kirkus review reads “Vo has crafted a retelling that, in many ways, surpasses the original.” This does so much more than I would have hoped for from the original. I know that if I do pick up The Great Gatsby now, it would just be to better appreciate The Chosen and the Beautiful.

Danika reviews Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar

Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating cover

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You might remember Adiba Jaigirdar from her previous book, The Henna Wars! This is another YA romance between two teenage girls of colour, set in Ireland, and I liked it even better than her debut. Humaira (“Hani”) and Ishita (“Ishu”) are the only two brown girls at their all girls Catholic high school. Because they’re both Bengali, they’re often lumped together–but they’re nothing alike. They speak different languages and have different religions, for one, but their personalities are what really separates them. Humaira is a social butterfly who tries to fit in and be well-liked. She’s out as bisexual to her parents, who are both supportive–she feels like she can tell her mom anything. She’s Muslim, but she doesn’t feel like her friends understand or completely accept that about her. Ishita is… prickly. She’s sometimes caustic. She’s an academic overachiever trying to live up to her parents’ impossible standards. She has no interest in cultivating friendships at school and is uninterested in what her classmates think of her. She has big goals she’s laser-focused on.

When Humaira comes out to her friends as bisexual, they’re dismissive. They argue that she can’t know unless she’s dated/kissed a girl. Humaira surprises herself by insisting that she is dating a girl: Ishita. Her friends hate Ishita, and Humaira and Ishita hardly speak, but she’s determined to try to sell this so that they won’t question her identity. When Humaira asks Ishita to go along with it, she agrees, but on one condition: Humaira helps Ishita become popular enough to win the Head Girl election, which will look good on college applications.

This is a classic fake dating romance between two girls who weren’t exactly enemies before, but definitely fit into the “opposites attract” category. I liked how distinct their personalities were and how they end up complementing each other (but not before clashing first). While their romance is the focus of the plot, it’s Jaigirdar’s depiction of being a Bengali teen in a very white high school that caught my attention the most. Both Humaira and Ishita deal with everyday racism and microaggressions, but they deal with them in very different ways. Ishita seems to tune them out, or prefers not to consciously think about them. Humaira reacts with anger and frustration at the system. The school administration demonstrates blatant (racially biased) favoritism that made me angry just to read about, but that’s accepted as a fact of life.

One small note is that I appreciated that this book starts with content warnings, which I hope is becoming a more common practice. Overall, I thought this was even stronger than The Henna Wars. Both main character feel three-dimensional and fully-realized, and it was entertaining to see how they tried to adapt to each other and work together. If you’re a fan of fake dating or F/F YA, definitely give this one a try.

Mo Springer reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda LoAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Lily Hu has always been at least somewhat aware of her attraction to women. But after seeing a lesbian novel in a store, a poster for a male impersonator, and her classmate Kath in the Telegraph Club, she knows she has to be honest with herself. However, this honesty and living with it even what small amount she thinks she can afford, could put herself and her whole family at risk. But 1954 America is not only discriminating violently against gay people, but also Chinese people, who are at risk for deportation as well. But Lily wants to have a life of her own, to date who she wants, and to be happy with Kath.

Lily is a dynamic character who you sympathize with and understand very well at every point in the story. She’s mature for her age because she has to be, but also is a teenager who is experiencing so many firsts while also under immense pressure that no teen should have to bear. Through her, we get to see a large cast of characters similarly feel real and complex.

In particular, I really loved how much we got to see of Lily’s family and how each member stood out with their own needs, wants, and opinions. The chapters from the point of view of her parents and aunt were great to see the background of Lily’s culture, family, and how all of that has led to the current situation.

Kath and the women Lily meets at the Telegraph Club similarly feel real and complex. Lily has to deal with finding a queer community for the first and also with the reality so many of us face: not everyone in the community will be your best friend, or even your friend at all. There is a unity we see in the people who go to the club, but Lily stands out as the only Asian American there.

Lily and Kath’s relationship is endearing and cute, and I found myself cheering them on, but also biting my nails in anticipation of what happens next. Her relationship with her best friend Shirley was also a roller coaster ride of emotions that created a mirror to her relationship with Kath.

This is one of those great historical novels that don’t make you feel like an outsider looking in, but does a great job of engaging with the reader so that the time period feels natural. I loved learning about the history of this time and place, but also never felt like I was being lectured. This story is incredibly immersive, and you forget you haven’t actually been there.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in sapphic romance sent in 1950s America.

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.

Danika reviews Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan

Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan cover

Zara Hossain is Here surprised me. This is a short book, and it’s written in a way that feels pared down to the essentials. When the story begins, Zara is experiencing Islamophobic harassment from the star football player at school, but she has a strong network and friends and family that supports her. This harassment escalates, though, and it takes the story in a darker and more complicated direction than I was expecting.

Zara’s family has been living in Corpus Christi for 14 years after emigrating from Pakistan. They’re still waiting for their green card application to go through, though, which has put them all in stasis for many years. Zara is graduating this year, but she can’t apply to universities until she has permanent resident status, at least not without racking up insurmountable international student tuition fees. She’s also the only Muslim going to a mostly-Catholic school, which means facing bullying, especially when her friends can’t be by her side. She tries to keep her head down and avoid drawing attention to herself.

In Social Justice club, though, she can use her voice and be her authentic self: progressive, Muslim, and proudly bisexual. (And yes, she uses the word “bisexual”! She’s also out to her supportive parents.) The club is run by a queer teacher who Zara idolizes (and has a crush on), and it’s also there that she meets Chloe, a white lesbian from a strict Catholic family looking for a place she can fit in. They quickly hit it off, and between protests, they flirt and start dating. I appreciated that they discuss a little bit about navigating white privilege in interracial relationships: Chloe is supportive, but she that doesn’t mean she immediately understands what it’s like to live as a person of color in the U.S., and she does have to learn and adapt.

Do be prepared to get hungry reading this: there is much more food on the page than I was expecting–mostly Pakistani meals. Get ready to either spend some takeout cash or try some new recipes, because there are so many dishes lovingly described that made me want to put down the book and pick up a fork.

It’s difficult to discuss this story without some mild spoilers, because an event about halfway through the book is what the entire plot hinges on. It’s also something I think you should be prepared for before reading. So I’m going to give a mild spoiler warning for the rest of the review.

Zara continues to be harassed at school by Tyler, which escalates to slurs painted on her locker, his suspension, and finally, Tyler and his friends spray-painting a racist message on their home. Zara’s mild-mannered father catches him and goes to Tyler’s father’s house to confront him, while Zara and her mother beg him to wait until morning. There, Tyler’s father shoots him, claiming self-defence and charging him with trespassing.

I wanted to mention the specifics because although the book begins with racist harassment, it’s not immediately obvious that it will involve a racist hate crime or gun violence. From that point on, Zara and her family are wholly concentrated on her father’s recovery–he is in a medically-induced coma. To make matters even worse, if he is charged with trespassing, it could jeopardize their green card status.

The rest of the story focuses on immigration and the sometimes unfathomable hurdles immigrants have to face. Zara is horrified to realize that there’s a chance that her family won’t be able to stay in the U.S. because her father was charged with trespassing–despite the fact that he was the victim of a possibly fatal hate crime. She also learns that although green card applications regularly take more than 8 years to complete, there are no protections for children who age out before their applications are finished.

Meanwhile, her mother (understandably) does not feel that her family is safe in this country anymore. Even if Zara’s father has a complete recovery, what’s preventing another racist with a gun from doing this again? She requires constant check-ins from Zara and panics when she doesn’t receive a text when Zara gets to the library. She moved her for a better life, but she no longer believes that it is.

Meanwhile, Zara is completely unmoored. The idea of either being forced or choosing to move back to Pakistan, a place she hasn’t lived since she was 3, is hard to even consider. There’s also the fact that she would be forced back into the closet, and that she might not be able to marry who she loves. That’s not even taking into account leaving her home, her friends, her family, her girlfriend… She wants somewhere that she can be her whole self in safety: a queer Muslim Pakistani woman.

I appreciated the complexity that this story brought to the subject of immigration. It discusses the wait time and challenges to completing the application process, but also the luck involved. This chance encounter could erase all her family’s years of being ideal citizens, including her father’s work as a beloved pediatrician. An author’s note explains the author’s own family’s immigration process was derailed by a clerical error, making all of their work null and void. Added to that is the layer of Zara’s family wondering: is this worth it? Do I want to be in a country where so many people don’t want me here? Even if most of the people they encounter are supportive, it just takes one armed racist or one well-connected bigot to dismantle their lives.

This is a book that doesn’t provide any easy answers. It acknowledges that these are thorny, deeply flawed choices to have to make. Zara wants to stay and fight to make things better, but her mother is tired of fighting–and both of those are fair. This is a great addition to books that start conversations about immigration in the U.S., with the added layer of being an out queer immigrant from a country that is not accepting of queer people. I highly recommend it.

Sabina Khan’s Zara Hossain is Here is out April 6, 2021.