How Much Would You Sacrifice for Fame?: Every Time You Hear That Song by Jenna Voris

Every Time You Hear That Song by Jenna Voris cover

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I won’t be able to get through this review without mentioning The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, so let me get the comparison out of the way now. Like Evelyn Hugo, this cover likely doesn’t scream “queer story,” but it is—twice over, actually. Like Evelyn Hugo, we’re alternating between two stories, one of which is an ambitious queer woman trying to make it in an industry and time period that required being closeted. I’m definitely tempted to recommend this one to fans of Evelyn Hugo, but it has some big differences, not least of which is that this is a young adult novel.

Our main character is Darren, a seventeen-year-old aspiring journalist who can’t wait to get out of her hometown of Mayberry, Arkansas. The only thing Mayberry ever produced to put it on the map is country music legend Decklee Castle—and Decklee left as soon as she could. Darren and her mother are big fans; her music helped the two of them get through her mother’s cancer treatment. When they watch Decklee’s televised funeral, they learn that she put together a treasure hunt to begin after her death. The prize at the end is three million dollars and a new album of Decklee’s music—enough money to pay off Darren’s mother’s medical debt and get her into a good university. So she convinces her coworker with a car, Kendall, to come with her to decipher the clues hidden in Decklee’s lyrics. Meanwhile, we flash back to Decklee’s life, beginning with her running away from her childhood home in Mayberry in the middle of the night.

Last time, I promise: like Evelyn Hugo, Decklee Castle is a fascinating character. She’s ruthlessly ambitious and loves nothing more than to be on stage. She’s willing to sacrifice a lot—almost everything—for fame. When she and songwriter Mickenlee Hooper fall for each other, she goes to great lengths to conceal their relationship from the press. Decklee isn’t a likable character. She’s believable, but she’s not exactly sympathetic. To be honest, I find that refreshing in a queer character. Decklee is talented and hardworking, but she is also callous and selfish. Darren considers her a role model because she got out of Mayberry and also because Dareen suspects Decklee was queer and Darren is trying to come to grips with her own bisexuality. The more she learns about her, though, the more she begins to realize that her image of Decklee isn’t true to life.

While we alternate between Decklee and Darren’s perspectives, this is Darren’s story. As Kendall and Darren spend more time together, Darren begins to see him in a different light—and she’s surprised that he sees the good in Mayberry. In fact, he’s offended that she seems to hate it so much. He points out that she’s buying into racist and classist narratives about the South and argues that she loves Mayberry, that you can see her passion for their hometown in her writing about it. As they fall for each other, this tension between his commitment to stay and her determination to leave simmers underneath the surface.

I could easily pitch this as a road trip story, a scavenger hunt, a tell-all about a fictional celebrity, but that doesn’t really match the vibes. Above all, this is about relationships, ambition, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get what you want. While both Decklee and Dareen have love stories, this isn’t a romance. It’s bittersweet, and Decklee’s story is a warning for Darren.

I think the way these stories play out together is really well done, and I liked Dareen’s subplot of coming out as bisexual. Both couples in the alternating timelines have interesting dynamics, and Decklee’s friend Marquel1 was a breakout character, especially as he shows an alternate approach to being queer in an industry that does not accept that. I listened the audiobook, and I think it works well that way: there are two different narrators, so it’s easy to keep the stories separate. I highly recommend this one.

  1. I listened to the audiobook, so I’m not sure if that’s how you spell it. ↩︎

You Need to Read Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

the cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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I’m embarrassed to admit I only just read this for the first time. I’ve read every other Malinda Lo book. I’ve had a copy since it first came out—in fact, I’ve owned two copies, because I also spent $100 on a signed hardcover (it was for charity, in my defense). In 2018, I read All Out, which contained a short story by Malinda Lo that would later be adapted into this book, and I said, “I’m eager to get my hands on the novel version“! I have no good reason for waiting three years to finally pick this up, but I’m happy to say that I loved it just as much as I knew I would.

If you somehow missed this bestselling, award-winning YA novel, it’s the story of a Chinese American lesbian teenager growing up in 1950s San Francisco. When she discovers the existence of a male impersonator performing at the Telegraph Club, she can’t resist the temptation, especially when a classmate says she has been there before and offers to accompany her. What follows is a bittersweet first love and coming out story that weaves in the political and social realities of the time period.

This is such an atmospheric, absorbing story. Lo does a great job of situating us in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown, and the inclusion of timeline pages show how Lily’s story plays out against bigger political events as well as her family’s history. Lily and her classmates do duck-and-cover drills in preparation of a nuclear attack. Her father is questioned for treating a supposedly communist patient. Her aunt works on technology that brings the U.S. one step closer to landing on the moon.

I couldn’t help feeling for Lily. She’s a very sympathetic main character, initially being pushed towards a prescribed path by her family and best friend. When she discovers the Telegraph Club—as well as a lesbian pulp fiction book, which she reads furtively in a corner of the drug store, she eventually is forced to choose between the future laid out for her and risking it all for a life of her own design.

Lily is some ways is naive: she starts the novel not knowing about the existence of queer people, and she questions throughout how you know that you’re in love. On the other hand, she also faces constant prejudice. As she discovers her own sexuality, she knows her family and community would judge her harshly for it. At the Telegraph Club, she’s the only Asian person—and often the only person of colour—there, and she’s tokenized by the other white queer patrons.

At one point, Lily mentions feeling split in two, like only the “good Chinese girl” is allowed through the door at her family’s house, while the queer half of her has to stay outside. This was such a powerful way to express being multiply marginalized, so rarely finding a space or community where you can be your entire authentic self. It’s heartbreaking, since Lily can’t walk away from either side of her identity.

The relationship between Kath and Lily felt realistic to first love: they’re both hesitant at first, even after it’s pretty obvious they’re both queer. They don’t know how to find the words to ask if the other person feels the same way about them. When they can’t contain their feelings anymore, it’s the kind of intense, overwhelming connection (both romantically and sexually) that you’d expect of a teen first love, but complicated by being mixed up with coming out.

Their relationship, while central to the narrative, isn’t the dynamic that stood out to me the most, though. There’s more complication and layers to Lily’s relationship with Shirley, her childhood best friend that she’s beginning to grow apart from. The two of them struggling to understand who they are to each other now, and whether they can still be friends at this point.

I appreciated the inclusion of several chapters from other points of view in previous years, including from her mother, father, and aunt. We get to see a broader look at the events that led up to Lily’s current life, including how her parents got together, how their plans to return to China were derailed, and Lily’s childhood growing up with her best friend. These chapters make the story feel bigger, almost like a family saga, even though the vast majority of the chapters are focused on Lily. They also make these side characters feel more well-rounded, which is crucial to how we interpret the ending.

(Spoilers in this paragraph) I’ve read a few different queer YA stories where teens are sent off to other family members to separate them from their partner/crush, and it’s always a traumatic experience for them. (For example, The Stars and the Darkness Between Them.) It makes sense that this is what Lily’s family would do to her, especially given the time period, but I appreciated Lo’s choice to skip over this part of her life. It allows us to end on a hopeful note, with Kath and Lily reuniting and Lily having more independence. (End of spoilers)

Maybe I put this aside for long because the hype was intense. Last Night at the Telegraph club has won some of the biggest awards YA books are eligible for, and it’s by far Lo’s most popular book—both in terms of readership and ratings. Any fears that this would fail to live up to this reception were misplaced, though: I honestly can’t think of any real flaws in this story. It is such a rich narrative that kept me immersed from beginning to end. This is a five star read and a new favourite. Whether or not you usually pick up historical fiction or YA, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Content warnings: homophobia, racism, miscarriage, underage drinking

A Bittersweet Portrait of Platonic Partnership: Significant Others by Zoe Eisenberg

the cover of Significant Others
by Zoe Eisenberg

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Jess and Ren were college roommates, and they have been inseparable ever since. That’s acceptable in college, but much less common when you’re in your late 30s, have bought a house together, and co-parent a dog. They’re committed to each other, but not dating—Jess is bisexual, and Ren is straight. Jess has always been the responsible one, taking care of Ren. While Jess has a successful career in real estate, Ren is aimless, working at a bar and teaching dance classes at a gym while looking for what to do next. When Ren accidentally gets pregnant after a hookup, she decides to keep the baby, and Jess—as she always does—agrees to help. Then the father of Ren’s unborn baby reappears in their lives, and everything gets a lot more complicated.

College had been full of friendships like ours, when it was natural, normal, to wear each other’s clothes, to do one another’s eyeliner with stoic concentration as warm breath washed over our faces in comforting waves. It was only later that we seemed to mystify people, as if the normalcy of our specific kind of closeness had an expiration date, like milk.

At the beginning of this story, it felt so cozy. I loved the idea of this found family and their unconventional living arrangement. They discuss how romantic relationships are seen as more reliable than their decades-long friendship, and even Ren’s brother, who lives with the two of them, thinks Jess must secretly be in love with Ren.

But despite their closeness, this isn’t an idyllic found family. There is so much under the surface of Jess and Ren’s relationship. Like with many relationships (romantic, familial, friendship) that have gone on for many years, every argument has a dozen other arguments bubbling beneath the surface. A lot of their dynamic with each other has been something they’ve passively let develop instead of actually questioning what they want from this relationship and why. The tension between that cozy, comforting notion of building a life together with a friend and the reality of their flawed relationship really got to me. There’s something so beautiful and sad about this story.

In the middle of the afternoon I might receive a snapshot of the remnants of her lunch. The grainy crust of a sandwich. A half-eaten container of yogurt. Killed it, the note would read. We’d had this type of exchange a thousand times. Two thousand. Unexceptional. Ordinary. The way truly intimate things usually are.

Then, of course, there’s the pregnancy—and the father, Quincy. Quincy is…fine. He’s not a terrible person. I can see how people could find him charming. But for me, when you’re getting a story about this complex relationship between two women and then some dude comes stumbling into it and messing everything up, I’m going to resent that guy! I own that as a flaw of mine as a reader. Despite him not at all being a villain, and in fact being similarly flawed and human to Ren and Jess, I never fully got over my irritation with him, even if ultimately he might have been a necessary catalyst.

I watched them for a bit trying to determine whether they were friends or partners, sisters, maybe cousins, before deciding it didn’t really matter, because there they were, enjoying one another.

Despite this not being a plot-driven book—it’s a portrait of these characters and how they interact with each other—I find it difficult to discuss without spoilers. (vague spoilers) I will say that this did make me cry, and that although the ending isn’t what I wanted, on reflection, it’s the one that makes sense. Was the connection between Jess and Ren an inspiring platonic partnership, or a codependent friendship? Both, of course, and maybe neither. This is a bittersweet story that left my heart aching. (end of spoilers)

One aspect I’m not sure how I feel about is that this is set in Hawaii, and protests and politics (about tourism, telescopes, water, colonialism, and more) are often mentioned, but they are playing out in the background, not a focus of the narrative.

If you’re looking for a fluffy story of found family and the power of friendship, this might not be the best choice: it gets into how these relationships are just as fraught as romances. But if you’re looking for a portrait of a complicated relationship between two women, I highly recommend this one.