A Witchy Parent Trap: Emma and the Love Spell by Meredith Ireland

Emma and the Love Spell cover

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Emma has plans for the perfect summer, and they all involve her best friend (and crush!) Avangeline by her side. However, Avangeline reveals that her parents are getting a divorce, and her mom plans to take her with her to New Orleans! Emma decides that she will do whatever it takes to keep Avangeline here with her in Samsonville—even if it means using her secret witchy powers that she doesn’t have control over. As Emma works on honing her craft and tries to get Avangeline’s parents together through both magical and non-magical means, she learns that being different may be the most powerful thing of all.

I adored reading Emma and the Love Spell. For a deceptively simple premise, it packs a powerful punch. Emma is not only dealing with typical middle-school trials, like her best friend having to move away, but also layers that with feelings of isolation due to being the only non-white person in Samsonville and also a witch. She struggles with having to hide so many parts of herself and it is heartbreaking to read her sadness and anger at having to do so. The ending (spoiler alert) makes it all the sweeter when Emma is able to not only gain control over her powers, but also can share them with Avangeline. 

Even with these serious subthemes, Emma and the Love Spell is kept light and easy most of the time. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing as I read about Emma’s attempts to “parent trap” Avangeline’s parents, or her many opinions on Shrek Forever After. (Siri, remind me to rewatch it later.) Emma’s friendship with Avangeline is sweet and true, making the reader reminiscent of when they were a young person, excited to spend summer with their best friend. Add to that the sarcastic Persimmon the telepathic cat and the wise Oliver the talking parrot, and you have a hilarious crew ready for any supernatural hijinks!

Readlikes for Emma and the Love Spell include Summer at Squee by Andrea Wang, When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega.

If you enjoy retellings of The Parent Trap, Eva Ibbotson, and emotional climaxes, you can order your copy of Emma and the Love Spell through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

Messy Roots: a Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American by Laura Gao

the cover of Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American

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Messy Roots is Laura Gao’s memoir of her childhood and coming of age, first in Wuhan, China, then an early move to Texas, and finally through her choices of college in Pennsylvania and a job in the Bay area. As a Chinese American immigrant, Gao depicts her struggle to reconcile her childhood in Wuhan with the expectations of her friends and classmates in America via a direct and honest look at her own internalized biases and struggles, illustrated by a flowing and charming art style. I found Messy Roots to be a heartwarming and fast-paced read, and I’m really glad a friend recommended it to me.

Gao is brutally honest in her depiction of herself. She starts out by describing her efforts to fit in with her classmates in Texas, including by taking an American-ized name and minimizing hobbies and traits that mark her out as too obviously an immigrant. She finds her Chinese lessons burdensome and resents having to attend Chinese events at her family’s church. When she moves to college, she both connects more with the Chinese student community and realizes that she is attracted to women. Free from being directly under the eye of her family and people who knew her growing up, Gao, like many college students, starts to figure out for herself who she wants to be as a person. I felt like Gao’s personal journey really resonated from the page, because it was messy and not linear. I personally really empathized with how Gao’s attraction to women was evident through her early years with the benefit of hindsight, but not fully realized until college and near adulthood. Laura also struggles with who and how to come out to people, and especially to her family, but even when they are struggling to communicate, Gao depicts a complex and affectionately nuanced showing of family. I think memoirs like this are important, because real life does not reflect a neat narrative like in fiction. Reading this really focuses in on how you keep growing and learning as a person, and things that you think you had moved on from can later become important to you, and I really think this perspective is important for the teen audience this is intended for, although older readers can certainly appreciate that aspect as well.

In the final part of the book, Gao tells about moving to San Francisco after college, and rooming with a group of her immigrant friends. Buoyed by the strong Chinese community in the area and the city’s diverse and modern atmosphere, Gao starts to feel like she is putting down her own roots. But when the pandemic hits in 2020, Wuhan goes from an obscure location to a household name in America. As waves of racism and hatred impact her life and her family, Gao once again struggles to make sense of her identity and her life. It’s a terribly poignant and personal look at a time most of us would rather not look to closely at. It’s sort of refreshing to see a narrative that actively includes the pandemic as a time period that had real impact on people, and not just through the possibility of getting sick. Gao’s narrative highlights the some of the real ripple effects that this global event had, and I think that is also important to show in literature. 

Messy Roots is Laura Gao’s effort to document her journey through her identity.  Unlike a conventional, fictional coming of age story, Gao shows that life is messy and most people’s development is not linear. Her unflinching introspection and willingness to shine a light on the complex and less pretty parts of personal development make for an inspiring and insightful read. I am definitely glad to have read her perspective, and think this would be an excellent book for both adults and teens looking for a new viewpoint about growing up, coming out, and finding yourself. 

Censorship, Expression, and Signaling in Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club

the cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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Malinda Lo’s novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) has won multiple awards and has been reviewed multiple times at the Lesbrary already, so let’s start this review somewhere different: Last Night at the Telegraph Club has been banned and/or challenged at least 34 times in 14 states. Having done a bit of research and writing about these book challenges, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the people who submit complaints to school boards and file police reports with law enforcement very rarely actually read the books that they are attempting to ban. In the post linked above, Lo provides evidence of just how easy it is to file FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests that reveal all sorts of information about the people who want to ban books that they feel do not fit a certain narrative profile.

This is why you won’t see me write much about YA here—I spend way too much time writing about these issues elsewhere. However, I wanted to write about Last Night at the Telegraph Club because, simply, I hadn’t read it yet. 2023 was not a good year, so why not end it with a book on my TBR pile that I knew would be good? And it certainly was.

One element of YA that is important to watch out for is how it serves two primary sets of readers. The first set is the group of readers whose identities most closely align with the characters and/or the subject matter. For example, in the case of Last Night, adolescents who are Asian American, immigrants, and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community are in this first set of readers (along with potentially any other adolescent from a marginalized community). When we talk about who books are for, this is the set of readers to whom we are usually referring. If I can recognize myself in some facet of Lily’s character, Last Night speaks to me and my experiences. I might, for example, be reminded of the thrill of realizing something important about myself when Lily begins to interact with Kath, or I might recognize the danger that I feel through Lily’s constant need to keep large parts of her life a secret. In other words, the reader’s experience is reflected back to them in the pages of the novel.

The second group of readers is, simply put, everyone else—and this is where we run into trouble. Why should my child, who is nothing like the characters in these books, be subjected to these books? That’s the question that I’ve heard posed so often, either in those exact words or otherwise. Their children, they argue, shouldn’t have to be confronted with what it means to call an Asian American person a term that is meant to describe objects rather than people. Their children shouldn’t be exposed to a point of view that challenges the way the “typical” white person behaves, as they are when Lily is asked if she can speak English or is repeatedly called a “China doll.” Their children, most especially, shouldn’t see “immoral” behavior go unpunished. 

Except these sorts of issues are precisely what adolescents should be reading about because, for many, novels like Last Night provide a window into an experience that isn’t their own. The parents who seek to ban books only want their children reading books that mirror a certain set of experiences, while marginalized adolescents have to look through windows into lives that don’t mirror their own. In truth, all adolescents should read both sorts of books. All adolescents need the books they read to function as windows and mirrors so that they can learn about themselves and about others. (Note: The credit for the windows/mirrors metaphor goes to Rudine Sims Bishop, who advocated for diversity in children’s literature, particularly for Black readers and authors. Here is a great resource for more on this concept.)

Again, I really enjoyed Last Night, and I wanted to say just a bit more about two things that I found particularly delightful: the discussions of butch/femme and signaling. Does anyone remember Genesis from The Real World: Boston? The first time that I ever heard the term “lipstick lesbian” was from her. A couple of years later, I learned more about the concept of “butch” from Jack Halberstam. In 2024, we know that these terms are slippery and have limited utility—perhaps they don’t even have any utility for current adolescents at all. However, for many of us who left adolescence behind long ago, femme and butch were part of the limited ways that we had to describe queerness at something resembling a mainstream level.

Lo uses the historical setting of San Francisco during the Red Scare to explore the femme/butch binary in a way that helps younger readers understand the ways in which previous generations explored queerness, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Again, even if the femme/butch binary doesn’t serve adolescents today, the historical context does because, as we know, where we came from directly influences where we are and where we are going. And, of course, who among us hasn’t at some point felt the same awkwardness and excitement that Lily feels as she is figuring all of these things out over the course of the novel?

This past fall, I taught an undergraduate seminar on young adult literature; in one of the books that we read, several characters provide nonverbal cues to signal their sexuality. The discussion that we had in class about signaling was one of my favorite discussions that we had all semester. I wish I had time to recount more of that discussion; for now, though, just imagine Last Night as a way to juxtapose mid-20th century signaling from what it looks like today. After all, all one has to do today is slap on a pride flag, get an undercut, or quote Steven Universe or The Owl House, and the people who need to know—well, they know. Compare those contemporary signals with the ways in which Lo describes the way her characters dress and wear their hair as well as the way she describes Lily’s reverence as she encounters outward expressions of queerness. 

If you haven’t read Last Night at the Telegraph Club yet, don’t wait any longer! If you have read it already, perhaps it’s time to give it a second read.

Content warning: homophobia, racial slurs, racism

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

Sea Monsters and Lesbian Pirates: The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss by Emily Skrutskie

the covers of The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss

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The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss feel like one book that’s been split in two. And I mean that in the best way possible—one of my biggest frustrations with young adult fiction is when it doesn’t take the time to slowly and properly develop its themes, characters, narrative payoffs, and romances. The Abyss duology doesn’t fall into that “fast food” pitfall; there’s plenty to chew on here, though it’s not like the story has a slow start. Quite the opposite, in fact: though there’s quite a lot of worldbuilding setup that the first novel has to do, The Abyss Surrounds Us takes the classic science fiction approach of dropping the reader into the deep end and letting us acclimate as the story goes. A hard trick to pull off, but Skrutskie manages it while also developing a cast of delightfully intriguing characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is the Abyss duology actually about? The books take place in a near future where the Earth is mostly flooded, and sea travel is the most important means of global connection left to humanity. Naturally, this means pirates—and charmingly, it also means genetically engineered sea monsters raised and trained to defend ships from pirates. As fun as that premise sounds in theory, the execution is even better. The protagonist, Cas, raises and handles these “Reckoners,” as the big beasties are called, but finds out quickly into her first mission that the world is a lot more complicated than she may have assumed. Skrutskie does an excellent job making every character feel real and multi-dimensional—from the terrifying pirate queen Santa Elena, to the roguish pirate Swift with whom Cas has immediate and obvious chemistry, to the horrifically strong but recognizably animal Reckoners themselves.

A lot of these elements—the culture around Reckoners and pirates, the romance between Cas and Swift, the escalating conflict for control of the sea—are resolved satisfactorily enough by the end of the first book, but some of the best payoffs come in the second. In a way, it is both the Abyss duology’s greatest strength and weakness, because for some reason I just never see people talking about The Edge of the Abyss. And I don’t know why! Granted, these books can be pretty hard to find—no library system near me had any copies (though they do now carry Skrutskie’s new trilogy about men piloting spaceships—go figure).

Point is, the Abyss duology is highly underrated—and The Edge of the Abyss  is not to be slept on, especially for anyone who enjoyed The Abyss Surrounds Us. I’m not sure I could even separate them enough in my head to decide which one is better…though you do need to get to the second book to see a ship getting attacked by a giant squid. Which is a fact, I think, that speaks for itself.

Content Warning: animal injury/death

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.

A Bisexual, Magical, Asian American Take on Gatsby: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, Narrated by Natalie Naudus

the audiobook cover for The Chosen and the Beautiful

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In this retelling of The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker narrates the story from the perspective of a queer, Asian woman adopted by a white couple. Although she runs in elite circles with Daisy and Tom, she is treated as an exotic pet, left on the outside even when a part of their group.

Calling Jordan adopted brings up a problematic situation of white saviors. When the Bakers found her in Vietnam, they claimed she had been wandering alone. Wanting to save her from the violent environment, they simply took her back with them to Kentucky. They never even inquired about her parents’ whereabouts.

Throughout the story, Jordan encounters racism at every turn. She endures questions like, “Where are you from?” and when she answers Kentucky, it makes white people uncomfortable. Even in her own group with Daisy and Tom, Tom goes off on racist rants against Asians but tells Jordan she’s “one of the good ones.”

Jordan also encounters that feeling of Otherness amid people who look like her. As the novel unfolds, she interacts with other Asian characters who ask her the same thing: “Where are you from?” When she tells them Kentucky, there’s a disappointed reaction to her seeing herself as American. She embodies the duality of neither belonging among white Americans nor among the Asian community. As she says toward the end of the novel: “Alone I was a charming anomaly, with Kai I was a dangerous conspiracy.”

In certain ways, Jordan uses her Otherness to occupy a space not afforded to her gender at this time in history. As she is an outsider in elite white society, she is not expected to be a proper lady or behave in predefined proprieties. She takes greater freedoms that Daisy does not feel she can.

Personally, when I read The Great Gatsby in high school, I hated it. I hated all the characters and thought they were all the worst possible human beings. In this retelling through Jordan’s perspective, it’s easier to see the nuance of what makes these characters so terrible. For Daisy especially, as it’s clear throughout that Jordan is in love with her, there’s much more sympathy toward her position in a society that puts so much pressure on young, upper-class women.

All the queer subtext from the original novel gets brought to the forefront. Jordan, openly bisexual, has relationships with whoever strikes her fancy, including Nick, who is also bisexual. But Nick isn’t as open or accepting about his sexuality. Jordan tries to pull out of him his feelings for Gatsby but it makes Nick angry and she doesn’t bring it up again. Daisy and Jordan have an unspoken desire for each other that never becomes actualized.

The magic woven throughout the story brings another interesting layer to the original book. Jordan has special powers that appear to be an inheritance from her Vietnamese bloodline. She meets others like herself who have the same power, but she tries to deny this part of herself. It plays into her insecurities and how she fights against her Otherness in every way.

Where the classic novel ends with the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg looking upon Daisy’s crime, Jordan confronts the billboard and brings it to life with her magic powers to learn what they saw. She realizes what happened and reluctantly comes to Daisy’s rescue.

SPOILERS BEGIN

Vo also creates mindblowing twists with the added layer of magic. Jay Gatsby made a deal with the devil and when he fails to deliver his end of the deal, his life is taken. And in the end, Nick turns out to be a paper being of Jordan’s making with her magical powers. With all these strings that tethered her to New York gone, Jordan is finally free to go to Shanghai and find out where she really belongs.

SPOILERS END

At times the pacing is slow, but overall, it’s a compelling read that really brings the original story to another level. I listened to the audiobook, so the narrator, Natalie Naudus, brings it to life.

Content warning: racism

Kelleen reviews Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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At the risk of being profoundly cliche (and profoundly redundant as I reviewed a graphic novel last month), I’ve decided to review Mooncakes.

I am not a spooky season gal. I’m a curl up with a cozy blanket and a hot cup of tea, watching Gilmore Girls by the light of a sandalwood scented candle while orange and yellow leaves fall outside my window kind of gal.

But somehow, I think this YA graphic novel is perfect for both kinds of autumnal gals. It tells the story of Nova Huang, a hard-of-hearing witch working at her aunt’s magical bookshop as she navigates mysterious mystical forces, rabid demons, and the sudden reappearance of her childhood crush Tam Lang, a nonbinary werewolf who needs Nova’s help.

This graphic novel is an absolute delight. The artwork is beautiful and cheeky, with expressive, evocative coloring and atmospheric detail. And the story is so heartwarming and entertaining! Part mystery, part romance, whole paranormal romp, Mooncakes is a captivating story that practically turns its own pages. The characters are empathetic and hilarious, and the relationships between them are so sweet. In fact, the whole thing is cozy. It’s the perfect quick autumnal read. It’s bite-sized, but it packs a punch of queer paranormal joy.

The writing is fast and witty, and the representation is off the charts. The world that Xu and Walker create is adorable, but also incredibly powerful: queer disabled witches, nonbinary werewolves, and a world with no homophobia or ableism that still manages to honor the complexities of these identities. They explore the nuances of what it means to have a queer sense of home; the powerful, nurturing friendships between young women; and even present an allusion to the epidemic of queer homelessness that is treated with tenderness and care.

It is such a comfortable, loving book. It’s a book about transformation and safety, and finding home in the people who love you. In my most humble opinion, it is the perfect read for any time of year, but especially for spooky season.

In fact, writing this review (while drinking tea and watching Gilmore Girls) is making me want to reread it all over again.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Vic reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne cover

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Considering it’s commonly referred to as part of the Sapphic Trifecta of fantasy and sapphic fantasy is, in my professional opinion, the best genre there is, it seems almost criminal that it took me so long to get to it. Maybe it was intimidation (how often do popular things actually live up to the hype?), or maybe it was distraction, but now that I’ve finally read Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, I get it completely.

Simultaneously a complex, epic political fantasy and a beautiful love story, The Jasmine Throne follows Priya, a maidservant who possesses forbidden magic, and Malini, a princess who has been imprisoned in the temple by her brother for her refusal to be burned. When Malini sees Priya use her magic, she realizes she may be able to help her make her escape and enact revenge on her cruel brother, but as the two women start spending more time together, their feelings begin to deepen.

I really thought this was going to be enemies to lovers for some reason, so I was surprised (but not at all disappointed!) by how tender their relationship was from the start, and it only got better from there. I loved both Priya and Malini as individuals, but God, their relationship. From the very first time they meet, it is clear that they see each other, see that there is more than the cover they present to the world, and that more than anything is the root of their attraction.

Priya and Malini are two of my favorite characters I have ever encountered, and my favorite between them was more often than not simply the one whose head I was in at that moment. Malini’s ruthlessness paired with Priya’s kindness gave this book a ferocity that made me devour every page because I just needed to see more. Indeed, every single woman in this book has a ferocity to them, though it takes shape in different ways for each of them.

Multi-POV stories can be difficult to manage, particularly when there are as many as this book has (7+), but Suri balances them impressively. Every perspective served a purpose, whether they were a main character or a single-chapter soldier, giving the reader insight on an attack for which none of the leads were present, for example. Admittedly, some of the POVs didn’t interest me nearly as much as others, but by the end, I was shocked by how much certain characters had grown on me. Even when I sighed to see a name I didn’t know after a particularly tender Priya/Malini scene, for example, I never felt like a perspective was wasted.

Everything in this book is crafted with such care. Based in Indian history, the world of this book is as vivid as Suri’s writing style. With characters hailing from all parts of the empire, I never struggled to keep track of the customs or the religions of any of them. Because of that, the stakes of the rebellion felt immediate. I understood what the world looked like before Malini’s brother stepped in, and I understood what it would become if the revolution could not put a stop to his reign.

If you are thinking about reading this book and have somehow managed to skip it up until now, I highly recommend picking it up. It was somehow both fierce and tender, and it is one of my favorite recent reads (and I’ve been on a roll with some really great ones this month). Believe me, this review undersold the book. I can’t wait to pick up the next one.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Crossfire: A Litany for Survival by Staceyann Chin

Crossfire cover

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I had the privilege to see Staceyann Chin do a live reading at Miami Book Fair a few years ago, which is where and why I picked up this collection. Her performance was electric and captivating, and that strong voice translates well on the page.

Every piece is propulsive and rhythmic, feeling like there’s a drum beat underlying each one. A lack of punctuation in most pieces creates this movement, forcing you to read line after line after line, all in one breath until you reach the end of the poem, like in “Catalogue the Insanity,” written from start to finish without any punctuation marks, not even a period at the end.

But there are also quieter moments that slow down the rhythm, giving you a chance to breathe. Chin creates this with the use of white space around lines and stanzas, such as in the poem, Love:

“I’ve bought the bloody myth
swallowed that sucker
hairy legs and all
crawled careless into bed with a fantasy
and now I’m hopping antsy with expectation
having drawn these crooked lines
in what looked to me like sand
my uncertain frame stands
hooked
on what I have been promised by the TV
by that saccharine ache Anita Baker
moans from a mass-produced CD…”

The speaker’s language packs a punch, bringing forth fire and anger. Chin is unapologetic in her feminist rage and it energizes the reader, making you feel like burning it all down. Covering themes of sex and sexuality, rape and assault, it can be overwhelming at times. But that’s the point. Her purpose is to be loud and in your face and make it hard for you to look away.

She combines poetic imagery and metaphors with straightforward phrases that don’t mince words to create both art and rant, like in the poem Speech Delivered in Chicago at 2006 Gay Games:

“…even in friendly conversation
I have to rein in the bell hooks-ian urge
to kill motherfuckers who say stupid shit to me
all day, bitter branches of things I cannot say out loud
sprout deviant from my neck…”

Overall, this is a loud and empowering collection of poetry that is accessible to readers who often feel like they don’t understand poetry. It’s an outstanding example of how much we need more diversity and representation to give space for voices that often get drowned out by the mainstream and literary canon.

Content warnings: rape, homophobia, violence

Nat reviews Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

the cover Black Water Sister

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A suspenseful tale of vengeful ghosts, family secrets, and self discovery – it’s funny, it’s creepy, there are twists and turns, gods and spirits, and a queer main character who’s just trying to get her shit together. What more can you ask for? 

Jessamyn Teoh is the daughter of immigrant parents, freshly graduated from Harvard with no job prospects and a struggling long distance relationship with her girlfriend. If that wasn’t tough enough, Jess is preparing to return to Malaysia with her very traditional parents, pushing her even farther into the closet. In a roundabout way, this story shapes up to be a coming of age/coming out story of a late bloomer. Our main character is a self described “shut-in with no friends,” and many of her struggles are internal. This is quite fitting when much of the story is about spirits who can literally enter your body to haunt and possess you, and you can have entire conversations without saying a single word aloud. 

Despite the serious nature of bodies controlled by restless spirits and vengeful gods, while grappling with sexuality and life’s purpose, this book had me cackling the entire time. Our plucky protagonist has a dry wit and plenty of snarky commentary, and then there’s her meddlesome aunties and tiresome uncles, who are equal parts amusing and stifling. And that leads us to one of Cho’s most intriguing characters, Ah Ma, Jess’ spirit grandmother. Ah Ma is larger than life, even in death, and never shy about telling you how she really feels.  

As Jess learns of her family secrets, while keeping a few of her own, she also finds her voice and a newfound confidence, as she’s forced to face her darkest fears. While most of us haven’t literally been visited or overtaken by a dead relative’s spirit, many of us do know what it’s like to be haunted by our own private fears or struggle with the concept of home and belonging. 

While at first glance this might appear to be a straightforward supernatural suspense, and an exciting and enjoyable read (and I want to lure you in with that prospect,) also know that Cho is coming at you with a lot of serious material: sexuality, religion, racism, cultural identity, and the struggles of immigrant communities both in the US and abroad. There’s a lot to unpack and consider if you’re up for it.

As for culture, I loved experiencing Malaysia through Jess’ eyes, as she too is a visitor there. I didn’t know much about Malaysia and religions in that region, so I found myself Googling details throughout the reading, from food to dialect. Meanwhile, Jess is navigating her feelings of not belonging to any particular place, but also seeing a side of her parents that she never saw when they lived in the US. And Cho’s use of language and sentence structure throughout the novel is one of the keys to its success, further immersing us in her world. 

It’s really hard to do this story justice because there’s so much going on, but it’s never in a way that feels overwhelming. It might be better described as a journey composed of many side quests that each unlock awareness in our main character. While this isn’t a romance (or even really about Jess’ sexuality), the novel still leaves us with an optimistic ending and a feeling of closure, which in these pandemic times is very much appreciated. Absolutely one of my favorite reads in 2021! 

Content warnings: violence, attempted sexual assault, implied assault/rape

Vic reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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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