Carolina reads The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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Buckle up, old sport! The Great Gatsby has entered the public domain, leaving the door open for any author to submit their take on Fitzgerald’s classic. A myriad of sequels, prequels and retellings of the novel have already been published in 2021, or are slated to be released in the near future. Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful dares to stand out from the other boats beating ceaselessly into the past, and charts a unique course as a trailblazing debut full of heart and originality through the eyes of The Great Gatsby’s enigmatic side character, Jordan Baker.

Amidst the glitz, glamour and gossip of the flapper scene, a magical Manhattan materializes in Nghi Vo’s debut, deftly weaving historical fiction and urban fantasy into a treatise on queer Asian American womanhood. Professional golfer and socialite Jordan Baker feels disillusioned with her peers of the upper echelon of New York society; as a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, Jordan must steel herself within a cool and collected façade to cope with her oppressive surroundings. As her friend Daisy Buchanan begins to fall for the mysterious Jay Gatsby, Jordan questions her place among her patronizing white friends as she discovers her true self and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.

Through Jordan’s perspective we lose the sugar-coating of Nick’s rose-tinted lens, exposing the true vanity and monstrosity of The Great Gatsby’s main characters. Daisy becomes an irredeemable white saviour while Gatsby’s incessant stalking and unquenchable lust for power is laid bare, offering an intriguing critique of white womanhood and masculinity. The novel acts as a character study of the intersections of identity: Jordan must reckon with each side of herself, as a woman, as a Vietnamese immigrant, and as a bisexual in the 1920’s to determine who in her life loves her for who she truly is, as microaggressions and blatant exoticism boil over the course of the novel. In this way, The Chosen and the Beautiful acts as a true retelling and re-imagining of the so-called great American novel: Jordan’s story is a reflection of the prosaic contemporary state of Americana, touching upon timeless themes such as  white fragility and model minority with candor and precision. 

The Chosen and the Beautiful is deliciously queer: Jordan refuses to hide her sexuality and regularly parties at gay speakeasies as Nick and Gatsby fall for each other, further subverting the iconic twisted love triangle of the original novel. The novel also goes further in depth into the social struggles of the 1920’s that create the context and worldbuilding for The Great Gatsby, including racism and homophobia, crossing lines that Fitzgerald steered clear of. By touching upon contemporary issues eugenics, Asian exclusion laws and early 20th century gay bar culture, the world of West Egg becomes infinitely more real and fleshed out. 

The world of The Chosen and the Beautiful is quietly imbued with magic: dandies sell their souls to the devil for a chance at wealth, performing troupes craft dragons out of  paper and ghosts and the undead walk among the living. Although I would have preferred a more concrete understanding of the magic system and a deeper exploration of the subplot regarding Jordan’s magic, I appreciated the infectious whimsy of casual magic built with beautiful prose, constructing scenes that will stick with the reader long after the book is over. 

Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance copy!

Content Warnings: racism, sexism, homophobia, internalized homophobia, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, substance abuse, alcoholism, death, cheating, abortion

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.

Sheila Laroque reviews The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

I couldn’t believe that this novel, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, was a debut work! It was so poetic and lyrically written, and Petrus painted such a vibrant picture into the lives of Audre and Mabel. This story has two primary voices: Audre, a teen from Trinidad who is now living in Minneapolis, and Mabel, who quickly takes to showing Audre what being in an American high school is like.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons, but particularly by learning more about Trinidad through the eyes of Audre, as well as what she misses about home. I’m not very familiar with Trinidadian culture in my personal life; and I always appreciate it when books are written in a way that allows me to learn without feeling condescending or just out of place with the rest of the work.

This is a young adult romance that is written in a way that acknowledges the complexity and emotional depth that people in their teens have. It can be seen as a beautiful time to be experiencing all of the intricacies of love and dating, and this book is a beautiful experience to read. There are other elements of racial justice that fit in very well to the current political climate. I will definitely look for upcoming releases from Juanada Petrus.

Susan reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages cover

Ellen Klage’s Passing Strange is an award-winning fabulist romance between Haskel, a cover artist for pulp magazines, and Emily, a singer in a lesbian bar, set in San Francisco during the 1939-1940 World Fair.

It’s a beautiful, weird little story, with just a tiny touch of magic, that revolves around a friendship group of queer women. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I adore narratives about queer communities, especially when they show the importance of queer friendship groups (rather than focusing on one isolated couple who never talk to any other queer people), and Passing Strange does that! It has different varieties of queer women – queer women of colour and queer white women, queer women who are married to men and queer women who are openly living together – it shows so many different ways to be queer, and I loved it for doing that. I especially enjoyed the way that that characters reacted to Mona’s – there was a really fascinating touching-on of performative queerness as equal parts freedom and prison; the people who worked at or visited Mona’s had a space where they could be openly queer, but the price of that was also being a tourist attraction for straight couples to gawk at. The depiction of communities helping each other cope with oppression, and queer people building their own families together, is great and so welcome.

I have seen some complaints that there isn’t very much of the fantasy element in the book, and it’s definitely fair; Franny is introduced as having magic very early on, and that is almost the only reference to magic until the last quarter of the book. However, I really liked the magic that we did get! It’s presented very matter-of-factly, like of course a woman could fold a map to connect two different parts of San Francisco together, why wouldn’t she be able to do that? She’s interested in studying it scientifically, but of course it’s a thing she can do. The ordinary magic of the World Fair, or of the city waking up for the night, is presented as just as magical! That’s wonderful to me.

The writing is lovely too. I found the narrative tone to be perhaps a little distant, but I thought it worked for the story it was telling and the time period it was set in – it fits the tone of lesbian pulps that I’ve read. It does shift point of view in the middle of scenes, by the way, but it doesn’t feel like head-hopping to me; it feels like the camera trick of soap operas, where someone finishes their scene and leaves, leaving the camera behind focused on someone else. I feel the style and techniques work very well for what it’s doing. And the romance! It’s a romance about the parts of someone that surprised you, because Haskel and Emily don’t quite get along on their first meeting, but watching them surprise each other and move from that awkwardness warmed my heart. However, the relationship moves very quickly – but the characters seem to be as surprised by it as I was, which make me feel better about it, and considering the events of the novel (including an abusive ex-husband coming back), I could absolutely buy the relationship moving faster in response.

My attitude to the historical aspects is mixed; one the one hand, I love the little historical details it wove in, and quite frankly drawing on pulp media is how you get me. But I have this bone-deep instinctive side-eye for any narrative where famous, real, historical people are introduced, especially if one of the main characters has slept with them. On the other hand, I really appreciated that it did go so hard into the details of the time, because it worked. It’s fascinating and detailed and really brought the story to life. (There is a fair amount of historical sexism, homophobia, and racism, so fair warning! The latter is deliberately used as a way to get money out of white people, but it’s still worth warning about.)

The ending was bittersweet even as it made me smile – it resolved remarkably little about Haskel and Emily, but the way the story reveals the significance of Helen’s actions in her framing story more than made up for it. Passing Strange was so lovely and dear to me, and I highly recommend it. Please read it and come back to be excited with me!

[Caution warnings: spousal abuse, police harassment, historical homophobia and racism, non-graphic suicide]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

What a book. What a journey. Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection that blends feminism, queerness, and fabulism into a haunting read. I have to say, when I saw this book included on queer book lists, I kept my expectations low. I was already sold on reading it (feminism & fabulism & that cover? I couldn’t resist), so I would be happy with any queer story in the collection. So it felt like an abundance of riches to keep reading and finding that almost every story had a queer woman main character! I believe there was only one story that didn’t? I especially enjoyed when in one story, the main character (a writer) is accused of writing a stereotype: the mad woman in the attic–the mad lesbian in the attic, even worse! She replies in frustration that she is writing herself–her gay, anxious self.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and although I enjoyed the experience for the most part, I think this is one I would prefer reading in a physical format. They’re thoughtful, metaphorical stories–women literally fading away and being imbued in objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, ghost stories brought to life–and they would benefit from time to linger over them, instead of being steadily rushed onward by the narrator. On the other hand, I would desperately have like to skim the SVU novella. This was a riff on Law and Order: SVU, and although I liked the concept and elements of the story, I felt as if it dragged, and it was frustrating not being able to skim or at least see when the next story started.

I can see myself coming back to these stories again and again. The first few were my favourites: “The Husband Stitch,” which retells the classic scary story about a girl with a green ribbon around her neck, while also weaving in more urban legends and spooky stories, exposing the misogyny lurking at the heart of them. “Inventory,” which is a list of the main character’s lovers throughout her life. We slowly learn what lead her to this point of meticulous documentation.

Beautifully unsettling, Her Body and Other Parties cracks open familiar stories to expose the rot beneath. If you’re a fan of magical realism or fabulism, I would highly recommend this one. It will leave you unsettled and thoughtful.

Danika reviews The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

First of all, how amazing is that cover? Doesn’t it make you want to pick it up just by itself?

Amazingly, this was a book I was assigned in a class. I very reluctantly put down Inseparable by Emma Donoghue (which is also amazing, and I will be reviewing it later) to read The Salt Roads, but by the time I reached page 15 and there was a f/f sex scene, I changed my tune.

My library put a sci-fi sticker on this book, which is clearly incorrect, but I think the label of “Fantasy” wouldn’t be much better. Fabulism sounds closer, but I hesitate to use that either, since I am fairly sure I wouldn’t say that about a book that was rooted in Christian religion as much as The Salt Roads is rooted in West African religion.

The Salt Roads bounces between many characters and times, and each has their own distinct voice. A god has her own voice and storyline, and she and other gods make physical, observable impact on reality. The queer content is mainly in the beginning of the novel, with more of a focus on colonialism, racism, oppression, resistance, slavery, etc, but it still definitely has an impact on many of the characters.

I’m not sure how exactly to describe The Salt Roads. It goes all over the place, sometimes rocketing between characters and sometimes remaining in one place for a long time.  I was rarely ever irritated by that, though, and it was easy enough to keep the whole cast of characters straight. There was perhaps no coherent plot arc, but… with some books, it just doesn’t matter. It didn’t need one. It was about ideas, about the people. I really liked it, and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for queer literature featuring women of colour (or more accurately, literature with WoC that also has queer content).