A Twisty Sapphic Spiritualist Con: Spitting Gold by Carmella Lowkins

Spitting Gold cover

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Carmella Lowkins’s new historical novel, Spitting Gold (Atria Books 2024), is a fabulously atmospheric story with a twisting plot that keeps you guessing until the very end!

Spitting Gold is set in nineteenth-century Paris. Baroness Sylvie Devereux has worked tirelessly for years to distance herself from her old life, embarking on a career of respectability with her devoted husband. However, when her estranged sister, Charlotte Mothe, appears on her doorstep with a compelling proposal, Sylvie is drawn back into a world she thought she’d left behind. The two women enjoyed a career as popular spirit mediums—all their visitations an elaborate ruse to trick wealthy patrons—before Sylvie disowned her family. But with their father sick and Charlotte’s debts climbing, Sylvie agrees to help her sister perform one final con on the de Jacquinot family, aristocrats who are convinced their great aunt who was murdered during the French Revolution is haunting the family and the house. 

As the sisters begin to orchestrate their old tricks to encourage the family to part with their fortune, strange and inexplicable events begin to occur, drawing the sisters into a haunting they begin to fear could be very real. As secrets between the sisters and the de Jacquinot’s come to light, Sylvie learns that she may not be able to outrun her past. 

As a neo-Victorian mystery novel with a sapphic subplot, Spitting Gold is a smashing good time. Lowkins draws on the history of nineteenth-century table turning and the obsession with the female spirit medium—who indeed became a kind of celebrity in this period—to stage her suspenseful plot. Add to this a dash of lesbian romance and this novel is perfect for readers of Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue. 

I was really impressed with Spitting Gold. It has a thoroughly engaging plot and the writing really draws you into the story. It’s structured so that the reader has little idea what to believe as Sylvie and her sister try to con—and then cope with—the de Jacquinot family and the strange happenings at their home. Lowkins starts us off with one kind of novel with Sylvie at the center, and then abruptly turns everything on its head with so many delightful twists. I had no idea where this novel was heading and I was thoroughly surprised by the ending!

I had such a great time reading Spitting Gold. It is the perfect summer read and great for fans of queer historical fiction and lovers of atmospheric literary novels. 

Please add Spitting Gold to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Carmella Lowkins on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

You can find Rachel on X @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

A Sapphic and Metis Secret Garden: Into the Bright Open by Cherie Dimaline 

Into the Bright Open cover

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Into the Bright Open by Cherie Dimaline is part of MacMillan’s Remixed Classics series, which has diverse authors reimagine beloved classics through their own perspective. In this offering, Dimaline remixes The Secret Garden, setting it in Canada and filling it with Metis characters and budding sapphic romance but keeping many of the elements from the original. I appreciated that this was not just a copy/paste job on the original, but its own story that is willing to use the original as a base to stand on its own terms as well, and I found this a very fun read that I think today’s readers will appreciate. 

This is still the curmudgeonly Mary Lennox we know and love. Sent to her Uncle’s house, she is appalled by the wilderness, the servants, and her new circumstances. But Sophie, a young Metis girl, is a Dickon-like character but not Dickon. She is as enthralled by Mary’s mind as Mary is by the things Sophie introduces her to in the outdoors. And Olive, Mary’s cousin who is confined to the attic, is in much more dire straits than Colin in the novel. With the addition of a wicked stepmother, Into the Bright Open has less of the quiet interiority of The Secret Garden, but the girls are still driven to make their own paths as they fight for their own space and to rescue Olive from her attic. I was a little bit taken aback by the changes at first, but once I accepted them as part of a remix, I had a good time. 

Given that Sophie is perfectly willing to haul Mary all around the landscape outside, the walled garden they tend is more about giving scope to their burgeoning relationship than about bringing the garden back to life. This is a book that really captured that moment of looking at another girl and going “oh” as that moment of queer realization hits, and it also captured Mary’s growth into someone willing to take direct action and put in work rather than wait for things to be done for her. Mary’s lack of role models of any type in her life rather works in her favor here, as she has been left to her own devices so much that her gradual realizations of her feelings are marked mostly by normal adolescent confusion rather than societal expectations. The way her and Sophie grow into each other as they spend more and more time together was very cute.

In conclusion, Into the Bright Open is an excellent addition to this remixed classics series. Whether you are already a Secret Garden fan or only vaguely know the story, Into the Bright Open is an engaging and cute read to start your spring off with. It stands up on its own, but it also provides an interesting view of remixing a classic through a different lens, and frankly, more historical sapphic YA is never a bad thing. 

Gothic Horror Infused with Queer Rage: Grey Dog by Elliott Gish 

Grey Dog cover

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Elliott Gish’s debut queer Gothic novel, Grey Dog (ECW Press, 2024), is one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Intense, foreboding, and atmospheric, Grey Dog is the latest in queer horror, and it’s a must-read!

Set in 1901, the novel is structured as the diary of Ada Byrd, a spinster and schoolteacher, who arrives in the isolated small town of Lowry Bridge under a cloud of misery after things went awry at her last post. Starting afresh with new students, Ada explores the surrounding woods and makes new friends who know nothing of her past. Slowly, Ada begins to hope for a future at Lowry Bridge and a place in the community. Maybe, in this new place, Ada can leave her past behind. 

Slowly, however, strange events begin to take place: a swarm of dying crickets, a self-mutilating rabbit, a malformed faun. Ada believes that something disturbing and inhuman lurks in the woods, pursuing her from afar and presenting her with these offerings—offerings that both repel and intrigue her. As the creature she calls ‘Grey Dog’ encroaches, Ada’s sense of reality blurs and her past returns to haunt her as she confronts the rage simmering inside her. 

I hesitate to say more without giving the plot away! One of the charms of this novel is its suspense and mystery, which quickly gives way to horror in the second half of the novel. Gish has the incredible ability to generate a sense of fear and danger in even the most seemingly innocuous moments. By structuring Grey Dog as Ada’s diary, the novel is confined to her perspective, which unravels more and more as the text goes on, although there are clues that Ada may not be as honest as the diary form suggests she will be. The reader feels as though they are living in Ada’s head and experiencing the confusing, haunting events of the novel along with her. 

As historical fiction, Gish pays close attention to the social and gendered contexts which confine and police Ada throughout the novel. Ultimately, Grey Dog is a book about rage—queer rage and women’s rage—and the pain of emotional and physical abuse. Ada can only repress her anger at the injustices of her life and the lives of those she loves at the hands of those who seek to control her. When the dam finally breaks, the result is both extraordinary and dreadful in equal measure. 

I loved Grey Dog. I could hardly bear to put it down. I’m reading it for the second time this week and it’s just as fantastic as it was the first time. This novel has become a new favourite for me and I look forward to reading Gish’s future work!

Please add Grey Dog to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Elliott Gish on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

You can find Rachel on X @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Queer Smuggler-Duggery: Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco

Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco cover

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(Note: This book is a sequel but can be enjoyed without reading the previous one)

Fans of historical fiction with high-stakes hijinks and well-developed human characters with strong internal compasses can rejoice! Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco opens on the early days of organized labor and careens headlong into a riveting world of gunfights, train heists, and scheming smuggler-duggery that doesn’t let up on its deeply immersive historicism for the next 300+ pages.

The first page also features this gem of a quote “Alma Rosales is sweating through every layer of the men’s clothes she calls home”.

The main POV character is said Alama Rosales, an unrepentant, fiercely loyal bisexual who has realized that a man’s persona suits her appetites and ambitions far better than skirts ever did. She’s a former member of the Pinkertons (Women’s Division) who long ago traded in that history for a chance to reinvent herself as hardened, hardscrabble stevedore and opium smuggler “Jack Camp”. That hard-earned equilibrium is disturbed when dead bodies begin to show up in unlikely places, attracting a figure from her past with secrets Alma would rather not face, and another from the ever-encroaching future she has to, sooner or later.

As the history and progress collide in the frontier harbor she’s come to call home, Alma is forced to confront exactly how far she’s willing to go to preserve everything she’s built on the unforgiving shore of Tacoma, 1888.

Rough Trade is at times a brilliantly twisty thriller, a tightly-examined glimpse into life on the early edge of American mythmaking, and a roustabout adventure that centers the people who kept the economy going both above and below the board and the table at the turn of the twentieth century. It is grounded in those realities, and the spaces socioeconomic marginalization made for all the aching beauty and equally fraught compromises that accompanied then-outlawed queer desires. In that way, it is also a heartfelt book and an unromantic one, about the freedom that comes from connecting to people who see you for yourself, in the risks of getting lost in a persona but also everything that can be gained when a fiction allows you to reveal who you want to be so bad you can taste it in your dreams. 

There is something uncompromising about the way Carrasco’s characters exist. I appreciated how they feel lived-in, like real people saying and doing what they think will bring them closer to their desires—and whose plans must change shape when those desires do, too. Identities in Carrasco’s vision of the Wild West are adaptable, craftable, at times malleable. They serve as shields, comforts, and weapons, all with a keen understanding of how they can be used in service of their wielders’ all-pervading wants. It felt like a breath of fresh air to delve so deeply into the negotiations and nuances of this story, and I strongly recommend it to readers who enjoy rollicking, tightly-plotted adventures with strong characterization.

Who Will Enjoy This?

  • People who want queer characters that rival the most ruffianish of cads historical fiction has ever conjured
  • People who really, really miss the feeling of reading a Sherlock Holmes story for the first time and want to revisit it at book length.
  • People who want Canada to be something other than a beacon of shining enlightenment FOR ONCE, lol.
  • People who really, really enjoy morally ambiguous queers guided by their own inner compass (even if the needle is a little/lot crooked)
  • People who want a period-accurate piece on gender nonconformity and queer life.

I can’t stress that last part enough. A book with period-accurate takes on gender-nonconformity and queer desire.

Who Might Think Twice?

  • People who want more focus on sapphic steam and intimacy than whatever the dudes are doing. There’s a lot more guy on guy (or genderfluid-masc on guy) action in these pages than explicit sapphic content, fyi. Lots of sapphic yearning, but I fully understand anyone who is tired of reading about that and wants period-accurate five-chili-rating reads. You won’t find that here but for one scene. It is a delightful scene, though, and very bittersweet in context.
  • People who want HEAs for all their queer characters. Or all the characters they become emotionally invested in.
  • People who don’t like unresolved character arcs. This is actually the second book in a series, not that I knew that going in…

Content warnings: murder, violence, drug use

Gorgeously Gothic Sapphic Vampires: An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson

the cover of An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

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After sinking my teeth into A Dowry of Blood early last year, I was ecstatic to learn we were going to get more queer, gothic vampires from S.T. Gibson. Once again we are thrown into a sumptuous tale of power, secrets, and blood, this time set within the halls of an all-female college, Saint Perpetua’s.

Like with A Dowry of BloodAn Education in Malice is a pastiche to a landmark vampire novel, this time Sheriden Le Fanu’s Carmilla. One thing I have enjoyed about Gibson’s work is how she implements these original characters into her own spellbinding world, and this novel is no different, with the sweet Laura and enigmatic Carmilla taking place as our main protagonists. 

Arriving from a small, southern town, Laura is a budding poetry student who’s come to Saint Perpetua’s to attend the highly revered poetry class headed by Miss De Lafontaine—where she meets Carmilla, an equally bright but rather callous student who is a quintessential teacher’s pet. An academic rivalry ensues, as the girls vie for De Lafontaine’s praise and approval.

Gibson once again explores power dynamics as the girls each grow closer to each other and their mysterious and alluring professor, but with a more sapphic-focused lens in comparison to A Dowry of Blood. There are themes of obsession and manipulation, but unlike Gibson’s sophomore novel, there was an all the more empathetic undertone that skewed the perspective to question the morality and judgement of each character.

We explore sex and yearning vividly through Laura’s own voice as she grapples with her sexuality, desire, and guilt. Gibson’s writing is gorgeously evocative as they pursue the depths of Laura’s attraction through intimate scenes as well as the narration throughout. One thing I love in Gibson’s novels is the inclusion of sex-positive, unashamed queerness, which makes for both a refreshing and highly enjoyable read. 

An Education in Malice is filled with lush imagery and language that construct a sumptuous gothic story, amplified by the dark academic setting. Gibson’s focus on niche experiences within the context of a sapphic relationship allow for a narrative that is both overtly and complexly queer, featuring both lesbian and bisexual identifying characters, a splash of horror, and a mystery. 

The only thing that left me wanting more was the plot itself, which didn’t quite live up to the excitement of A Dowry of Blood. We remain within the grounds of St. Perpetua’s for most of the narrative, which restricts the focus to the sub-plot mystery that I found lacking in intrigue.

Overall, if you enjoyed A Dowry of Blood, I would urge you to pick up An Education in Malice, as Gibson delivers another bloody, beautiful tale of queer, vampiric love. 

Content Warnings: Uneven power dynamics, violence, murder, blood, consensual sexual content, substance use, homophobia (mentioned).

Lizzie is a femme non-binary (they/she) reader who loves anything weird, fantastical, and queer. You can find them predominantly on their instagram @creaturereader where they share pretty books and diverse recs. 

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

An Obsessive, Erotic, Vampire Gothic: An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

the cover of An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

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I feel as though all my adult life I have been wishing for a Carmilla retelling that really illuminates the heart of the original novella—the obsession, intensity, eroticism, and power struggle between Carmilla and Laura that makes the text one of the most lasting examples of nineteenth-century lesbian fiction. I’ve finally—finally!—found it in S.T. Gibson’s An Education in Malice (Redhook 2024). 

I loved Gibson’s queer treatment of Dracula’s brides in A Dowry of Blood (2021) and her new novel, marketed as a sapphic adaptation of Carmilla that finds Le Fanu’s characters at a women’s college in the mid-twentieth century, is one of my most anticipated reads of 2024. Indeed, An Education in Malice doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously Gothic and addictive, every corner of this novel was a pleasure to read. 

We find Carmilla and Laura at the isolated Saint Perpetua’s College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by the history of the campus and the complex motives of both staff and students, Laura Sheridan is thrown into the thick of college life. Almost immediately she is unwittingly pitted against the captivating and imperious Carmilla, professor De Lafontaine’s star pupil in their poetry class. As Laura is drawn further and further into Carmilla’s orbit, she soon discovers De Lafontaine’s own obsession with Carmilla, and the darkness that cuts through the women’s lives. However, as Laura and Carmilla’s feelings for one another turn into something more, Laura’s own darker desires rise to the surface, and it might just be her own curiosity that leads to her doom—or her destiny. 

Not only does this novel do Carmilla (1872) and all of its lush, confusing, glorious Gothic excess justice, but Gibson has also written an entirely new novel of Gothic suspense. This is vampire fiction at its finest, with all the beauty and gore one comes to expect from Gibson’s writing. I couldn’t begin to guess how the story would unfold, and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. One doesn’t have to have read Carmilla to enjoy this novel—not at all. It is entirely its own text. At the same time, Gibson clearly weaves familiar easter eggs into her text for fans of the original. 

Everything—from the setting to the rivalry to the world of the vampires—is perfectly crafted to create an atmosphere of temptation and dread. The writing is so poetic I was highlighting on every page. An Education in Malice is exactly the kind of novel I wanted it to be. It’s a perfect winter read for those who are looking for something extra Gothic this February! 

Please add An Education in Malice to your TBR on Goodreads and follow S.T. Gibson on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

You can find Rachel on X @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

A Feminist, Latin American Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Recently translated into English, Marina Yuszczuk’s queer vampire novel, Thirst (Dutton, March 5, 2024), is partly what I’d hoped for in a vampire fiction, and at the same time, it was nothing like what I’d expected. 

Although it’s a Gothic, vampire novel on the surface, Thirst is really a feminist novel about two women’s experiences of life, loss, trauma, and haunting across centuries. Taking place over two different time periods in Buenos Aires, what seem at first like the totally disparate narratives of two women who live in entirely different circumstances eventually come together in a dramatic and bittersweet conclusion. In nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, a vampire arrives on a ship from Europe, fleeing the death and violence she and her sisters found there. She is less a Dracula-like figure arriving at Whitby on the deserted Demeter, and more of a lost scavenger, uninterested in human lives even as she grieves her own losses. 

As the world transforms around her—moving from isolated villages into cosmopolitan, interconnected cities, the vampire must adapt her existence in order to intermingle. In the same city in the present day, a seemingly ordinary woman struggles to cope with the terminal illness of her own mother while also looking after her young son. When she sees the vampire for the first time in a Buenos Aires cemetery at the opening of the novel, the two women are set on a collision course that promises both revelation and destruction. 

This novel is marketed for fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and I can definitely see the parallels. This is a conflicted, confused, and introspective monster novel with just enough of a dash of broken moral compass to make this interesting. Thirst is also compared to the writing of Daphne du Maurier and Carmen Maria Machado, which is something I understand a bit less—to me, Thirst is unique in its style, and it’s a fascinating take on the vampire story.

For me, much of my enjoyment of this novel came in the first half. The first chapter had me completely hooked and I loved reading about the vampire’s origin story. Dark, gory, and dramatic, the image of the nineteenth-century queer female vampire wreaking havoc on Buenos Aires society amidst an abundance of crime and death was gripping. I couldn’t look away! 

The second half, which focuses much more on present-day Buenos Aires, was less exciting for me, although I loved the relationship between the two women. It felt at times in the second half like this was a feminist novel with a Gothic overlay, and that the vampire plot was secondary to the narration of these women’s lives. This disrupted my expectations and made me enjoy the novel a bit less, although I may have been more engaged had I understood from the beginning that this was more of a novel about the way women see the world. 

Thirst is absolutely worth reading if you’re looking for a new and exciting feminist Latin American author, or if you’re a fan of queer vampire stories and historical fiction. I think it’s an interesting addition to the canon, and I would love to read more by this author. 

Please add Thirst to your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

the cover of Displacement

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“And keep drawing, too. Draw what you see, what happens here. It’s important. They can scare us, but they can’t make us forget.”

In this simply illustrated yet poignant graphic novel, Kiku Hughes reimagines herself as a teenager who is pulled back in time to witness and experience the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. There, she not only discovers the truths of what life was like within these camps but also follows her late grandmother’s own experiences having her life turned upside down as her and her family are villainized and forcibly relocated by the American government. Kiku must live alongside her young grandmother and other Japanese American citizens, as she finds out about the atrocities they had to suffer and the civil liberties they had been denied, all while somehow cultivating community and learning to survive.

Touching on important themes of cultural history and generational trauma, Hughes meshes these topics seamlessly into a fascinating plot and an extremely endearing and relatable main character. Kiku reflects a lot, during her journey, on the way that marginalized people are treated within the U.S.—during the past and in modern time—but also on the way that her family’s history and experiences had such a great effect on her own life.

Throughout the story, she feels powerless because of the lack of information she has regarding her grandmother’s past and her community’s history, which makes it difficult to help those around her. She can’t tell them what is about to happen to them; she doesn’t know what the living conditions are like in the different internment camps they are sent to; she can’t warn them about the specific atrocities that await them. She is forced to undergo this displacement alongside everyone else, and her ignorance not only makes her scared but also makes her feel quite guilty for not being able to contribute more aid or comfort to those around her.

She is also confronted with this difficult-to-place, bittersweet feeling of being disconnected from her family’s culture but also acknowledging that her own habits and traditions have been so deeply impacted by it. All these moments of introspection felt like a personal call out to me and made Kiku the kind of main character to whom a lot of readers will be able to relate.

Because of my own relationship to my family’s culture and history, reading this graphic novel was an extremely personal and emotional experience. On one hand, I think a lot of people will be able to connect with this story; on the other hand, I think a lot of other people will have the opportunity to learn something new through it.

I also loved the subtle sapphic romance arc that was included. It didn’t overpower the main message of the novel, but it was a nice, comforting surprise in an otherwise heavy read. I saw it as a beautiful testament to the joy and love we humans are capable of finding, even in moments of great duress.

The illustrations were beautiful, the art style was simple but extremely effective, the characters felt very fleshed out—which is sometimes hard to do in a graphic novel, working within a limited number of panels. All the artistic choices perfectly matched the tone of the story, which is a testament to Hughes’ true talent as a creator.

Representation: sapphic, Japanese American main character

Content warnings: racism, racial slurs, colourism, sexism, hate crimes, cancer, death, grief depiction, confinement, imprisonment, war themes (World War II and Japanese internment camps)

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.