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.

Danika reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost #1) by C.L. Clark

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This is a thought-provoking, complex book that I’m still mulling over. The Unbroken is a military fantasy about a colonial occupation. It’s based on French on occupation of North Africa, though it’s not–of course–an exact match. There isn’t a lot of sexism in this world: women serve alongside men at all ranks in the military, and they also lead the revolution. It also doesn’t seem to have heteronormativity. There are lots of same-sex couples, and none of them are treated any differently. Don’t let that mislead you, though: this is a brutal colonialist occupation, and while there may not be a lot of sexism or homophobia, racism is a foundational piece of this narrative. The Balladairians also view religion as “uncivilized” and have banned any practice of religion, whether in Balladaire or Qazāl.

Because this is military fantasy, it’s not surprising that this is grim and violent, including hangings and discussion of rape. I sometimes struggled with this novel because of how bleak it got–but that is also an unreasonable criticism of a book about colonialism. It is multi-faceted in its depiction of the realities of colonialism, looking at it from multiple angles. The two main characters are Luca, the Balladairian princess fighting to get her rightful throne that is being occupied by her uncle, and Touraine, a conscript (or “Sand,” pejoratively) who was taken from Qazāl as a child to be made into a Balladairian soldier. They are fascinating, deeply flawed, complicated characters who have a powerful bond despite spending 95% of the story apart. Luca, of course, looks at the occupation of Qazāl from the perspective of the powerful, and she wants to restore peace to prove to her uncle that she is ready to lead. Touraine wants to be a good soldier, to rise in the ranks far enough to be respected despite being a “Sand.” Both begin on the same side of this conflict, but as the novel goes on, we also see how Qazāl citizens see this occupation, and a rebellion is planned.

The most compelling and fraught aspect of The Unbroken, to me, are these two main characters. Luca is a Balladarian (white) bisexual disabled princess–her legs were injured in an accident and she walks with a cane. She wants Balladairian rule in Qazāl to be less violent–but she has no intention of pulling Balladaire out of Qazāl. She wants peace, but as a tool to gaining power. Touraine was taken by the empire when she was young and doesn’t remember her childhood home. Her cohort is the only one made up of “Sands,” and she is fiercely loyal to them. They are in a difficult situation: they’re not Balladarian enough to be trusted by their superiors, but the Qazāl citizens don’t trust them either. They’re always on the front lines, essentially used as cannon fodder, and they have no way to escape. Touraine and the other “Sands” soldiers do have ideological differences, though: Touraine wants to be treated as an equal, assimilated into Balladarian society, while Beau and others want to be free from them. She doesn’t recognize that working hard to become a lieutenant hasn’t saved her from racist disrespect and threats, and that she won’t be able to pull herself up by her bootstraps out of systemic oppression. When they arrive in Qazāl, she hears rumors about her mother being there, but she has no desire to meet her. She thinks of the Qazāl citizens as uncivilized–she’s internalized this racism and thinks she’s “not like other Qazāli.”

At the beginning of the story, I didn’t know what to think of Luca and Touraine. They are interesting, but they’re also both on the side of the colonizers. Was I supposed to be rooting for them and their relationship? That misconception didn’t last long, though. Despite following the rules her entire life and devoting herself to protecting the empire, Touraine ends up in a situation that strips her of her rank and should have also cost her life. Luca steps in and saves her, hiring her as an assistant. This creates a complicated power dynamic between them–even more so than already existed. Touraine still isn’t free: “Luca was as much a jailer as she was a safe bunker.” She’s also disposable for Luca, who wants to use her to further her plans. Other soldiers are also resentful of Touraine’s new cushy life, while she misses them and feels like she’s lost autonomy. Over the course of working together and living in close quarters, Luca and Touraine form a complicated relationship that is mostly made left unexplained by both of them. They are drawn together and will continue to be throughout the entire book, but they don’t have a foundation there. They can’t seem to stay apart or forget about the other, but they never have an equal footing or healthy dynamic. It’s compelling, but it’s also frustrating and disappointing. Luca imagines what they could have been in different circumstances.

I really appreciated Touraine’s story arc, but it was also difficult to read. (Mild spoilers follow) She recognizes how wrong she was about Balladaire and Qazāl. She begins to turn against the power that has always treated her, the other “Sands,” and the Qazāli like dirt. Touraine evolves from trying to further her own career while protecting the “Sands” to looking out for the well-being of this occupied nation as a whole: “This looked like the losing side. It even felt like the losing side. It didn’t feel like the wrong side.” She stops trying to be the “One Good Qazāli:” “She didn’t want Balladairian respect. Not anymore.” At the same time… wow, this was hard to read. I was constantly surprised at how Clark would allow Touraine (and Luca) to make mistakes. Big mistakes. Mistakes with disastrous consequences that she had to live with. At each turn, I could understand their reasoning, but it was painful to read. Things just seemed to get worse and worse, partly because of both Luca and Touraine’s fractured loyalties and priorities. They both say they want peace in Qazāl, but they both have things they value over that (the throne, the Sands), and the choices they make to try to balance those two things tend to blow up in their faces. (Spoiler end here)

Even after writing a thousand words about this book, I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I appreciate it. I think it is a complex book the depicts the messiness and horrors of colonialism. It allows its characters to be incredibly fallible. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life consequences of their actions and of colonialism in general. But I also struggled to finish this book. The bleakness, the toxic relationship between Luca and Touraine, the gut punches of mistakes and their consequences–it wasn’t necessarily a story I wanted to come back to. And at almost 500 pages, it’s not a quick read to power through at that point. That is what it was trying to do, though, and I think it was a great accomplishment. I’m curious about where the trilogy will go, but I’m still on the fence about whether I want to return to this world again. If you want to read post-colonial/anti-colonialism fantasy, though, I highly recommend this one.

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.

Danika reviews I’m a Wild Seed: My Graphic Memoir on Queerness and Decolonizing the World by Sharon Lee De La Cruz

I'm a Wild Seed by Sharon Lee De La Cruz cover

I’m a Wild Seed is a short (51 pages) graphic memoir exploring the author’s exploration of her identity. It’s about how her “coming into queerness,” but it’s also about her relationship to her racial identity and decolonizing gender and sexuality.

Because this is so short, it often reminded me more of an in-depth essay than a graphic memoir–that’s not a complaint! It’s packed full of memes, diagrams, and other visuals that I’m familiar with on the internet than I am in books.

De La Cruz shares not only her personal story, but also the history and context she’s learned along the way. It’s through this background that she can better understand her own identity, and she’s clearly eager to share these with the reader. She also discussed how her freedom is tied to Black trans women’s: that no one is free until the most vulnerable of us are.

She comes out at 29 because she spends her early years trying to understand her racial and cultural identity: how can she be Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Black? What does that mean for her? Where does she fit in? She explains that because it was so difficult to understand and come to terms with that, she had no time or space to question her sexual identity or gender.

This is a quick read, but it’s insightful and thought-provoking. My only complaint is that I would have gladly read a version of this book twice or three times as long!

I’m a Wild Seed comes out April 6, 2021