An Emotional Demon Hunter Romance: The Fall That Saved Us by Tamara Jerée

The Fall That Saved Us cover

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Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us centers around Cassiel, a former demon hunter who has left her abusive family behind in favor of a quiet life in a little bookshop she now runs. When a succubus named Avitue shows up one day, the two fall into a dangerous albeit passionate love affair that threatens both of their places in the world.

Despite such high stakes, this is a deeply personal book. In fact, when I think about this book, the word that jumps to mind is affectionate. This book had so much affection for its characters and their journeys, and it made it so easy for me to share that affection. While this book felt really heavy at the beginning, due to all of the religious trauma Cassiel was working through (and boy does this book do religious trauma really well!), by the end I was left feeling lighter. The relationships certainly helped with that, but even more so was the book’s emphasis on being kind, both to yourself and to others.

As for the relationships, I don’t only mean the romantic relationship between Cassiel and Avitue, though of course that is the main one. Cassiel’s friendship with her neighbor Ana, a witch who runs a nearby cafe and who gently but firmly encourages Cassiel to open up about her past when she’s ready, was a particular light. Likewise, the more complicated relationship with Zuriel, the sister who stayed behind, will likely resonate with many readers who come from difficult family situations.

Something I really appreciated with Cassiel and Avitue’s romance was the honesty. With a setup like this one, I find I expect a lot of secrecy and drama of the “how can I trust you!” variety. To my delight, however, Avitue was clear almost from the beginning about who she was, why she was here, and what each of them was risking by being together. This allowed the focus to remain on the actual building of a relationship, and it also made room for much more interesting conversations about how people deserve to be treated and what kind of future there is for a mostly-mortal and an immortal demon.

The only criticism I had was the pacing felt a bit off at the beginning, almost like things were being skipped over or time was moving weirdly or something I could never quite put my finger on. However, I didn’t notice that as an issue in the second half. While some might say the final conflict wrapped up rather quickly, that’s a feature for me rather than a bug, and honestly, I do think that choice ultimately served the book better as a whole. This is very much a character-driven book, and a drawn-out battle would almost feel like a detraction from a story that should center on Cassiel’s internal journey.

I am certainly planning on checking out Tamara Jerée’s next book, and if they ever wrote another book in this world (maybe about Zuriel and/or Ana), I would read it without hesitation. Though I would suggest  taking care if one struggles with religious themes, I heartily recommend Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us.

The Magic of Community: Brooms by Jasmine Walls and Teo DuVall

cover of Brooms

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Brooms is a YA graphic novel created by Jasmine Walls (writer) and Teo DuVall (illustrator) and published in 2023 by Levine Querido. It is set in an alternate 1930s Mississippi where magic flows all around, but is heavily restricted. Only certain people are allowed to learn certain types of magic to be used only in certain situations, with offenders punished by having their magical abilities locked away. Native American children showing magical abilities are rounded up and sent to government schools where they can learn “proper magic”. 

Despite the law’s best efforts, there’s one type of magical activity that continues to thrive: underground broom racing. Every weekend, teams of thrill seekers meetup to see who can take home the prize money for being the best. One such team is the Night Storms. Led by their captain Billie Mae, the team includes her best friend Loretta, Cheng Kwan, Mattie, and Emma. Together, they hope to make enough money to make their dreams come true.     

The greatest strength of Brooms is its worldbuilding. The setting of a magical 1930s Mississippi feels unique as it’s not a setting that has often been explored. By emphasizing history accuracy, Jasmine Walls shines a light on the queer communities that existed at that time but have long been ignored. The diversity of characters is also phenomenal. Mattie and Emma are mixed Black and Choctaw. Luella, their cousin who introduces them to the rest of the team, is mixed Choctaw and Mexican. Cheng Kwan is transgender and Chinese American. Emma is Deaf and speaks Indian Sign Language. Billy Mae and Loretta are Black and suffer from chronic illness and disability. Billie Mae and Luella are in a relationship with one another. Other broom racing teams include characters who are nonbinary, amputees, or come from other cultural backgrounds. Through this diversity, Jasmine Walls succeeds in showcasing people who have long been underrepresented in the media, including fantasy media. It gives every queer, BIPOC, and disabled reader the chance to see themselves as a part of the magical community of Brooms

Brooms also does a great job of developing its main characters and their relationships. The main cast is fairly large, consisting of the five racers and Luella. Through a combination of the main story and flashbacks, we get to see how this small chosen family came to be and how they continue to support each other. Luella and Billie Mae also get these really sweet moments together that show how deep their love for each other is. This made for characters and relationships that felt fully fleshed out. I was able to feel a strong connection with each and every one of them. It also made it harder for me to put the book down. I just had to know how their stories ended! 

I appreciate how Jasmine Walls was able to convey an overall hopeful tone while also clearly conveying the danger the characters are facing. Throughout the novel we are shown the very imminent threat that the girls and their community are under without ever slipping into a darker tone. We see racism and oppression, but never in its full brutality. These scenes are balanced with ones that show that, despite that oppression, the characters’ spirits never falter. They continue to support each other and their community in the face of overwhelming bigotry. To me, this feels like the perfect balance to aim for in a YA graphic novel. The people most likely reading this book may be dealing with real bigotry in their daily lives; they don’t always need to see it in their books too. They need hope and, in that regard, Brooms succeeds in giving them that. 

I found the story’s focus on the power of community incredibly resonant. Brooms isn’t a story about a group of people coming together to overthrow racist and bigoted power structures. Instead, it’s a story of how finding and building a supportive community can help people survive and thrive in spite of the dangers that surround them. It shows the reader that there is hope in community as long as its members stick together and look out for each other. It’s a message that we need more than ever. 

Brooms is also a really pretty graphic novel. The contrast between the earthy tones of the daytime scenes and the vibrant colors of the magical night races give these events a wondrous quality. It provides a nice contrast between a world that shuns non-White magic and one in which everyone is welcome and loved. The broom races also have this dynamic quality in their rendering that helps convey a sense of speed and danger, making for a thrilling read.

In the end, I enjoyed my time with Brooms. It is a well written and beautifully illustrated story that showcases the power of hope and strength of community. Through its historical setting and diverse cast, it highlights the simple fact that queer communities have always existed and will continue to exist into the future. It’s a message that every queer person, no matter their age, needs to hear.

A Bisexual, Palestinian American Coming of Age: You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much cover

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Earlier this month, during a trip to Portland, Oregon to cheer on the UConn Women’s Basketball team in the Sweet 16/Elite 8 (Go Huskies!), my partner and I visited the renowned Powell’s City of Books.  We were perusing its gorgeous shelves when You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat (she/her) caught the eye of my partner, who has a knack for making book recommendations that are right in my wheelhouse.  I had been looking for a queer book that highlights the female Arab American experience and the front cover of this book had a single blurb from Roxane Gay, which stated: “My favorite book of the year.” I was sold.

You Exist Too Much was published in 2020 and won the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Fiction.  Arafat’s debut novel follows an unnamed, bisexual, Palestinian American protagonist from her adolescence through her adulthood as she navigates identity, sexuality, addiction, intimacy, and her fraught relationship with her domineering mother.  While the story proceeds in a linear fashion, Arafat uses vignettes into the narrator’s past to contextualize her real-time thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Initially, the narrator’s lack of a name made me feel frustrated.  A name is important; it confers value and respect. Why would Arafat not name her protagonist when the stories and voices of queer women of color are already so stifled?

As I made my way through the novel, Arafat’s choice became clearer. The narrator is constantly fighting to create space for herself.  Her mother often tells her, “You exist too much.” When the narrator broaches even a hypothetical discussion regarding her sexuality with her mother, her mother effectively disowns her, telling her, “Stay away from me and the rest of my family.” The narrator continues to struggle with space in all her romantic relationships, sometimes worrying about taking up too much space, other times feeling like she doesn’t even exist. The narrator’s lack of a name is, in part, a reflection of her disengagement from her mother and the expectation that she take up as little space as possible.

Arafat has a real aptitude for creating characters with depth.  The unnamed protagonist is endearing, yet maddeningly messy, full of love, but also prone to disastrous decision-making. I did not always like her, but I did find myself rooting for her and admiring her resilience and her desire to cultivate healthy love. Her deep empathy for her incredibly flawed mother was achingly beautiful. 

While I did not enjoy the book as much as I hoped I would, I do think it’s an interesting read from a talented writer that’s worth picking up.  If you’d like to read more of Arafat’s writing, she is currently working on a collection of essays.  You can also find her at @zainaara on Instagram.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, domestic violence, racism, disordered eating, self-harm, homophobia, and biphobia.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

TAGS: ***, Raquel R. Rivera, You Exist Too Much, Zaina Arafat, Queer, Bisexual, Bisexual Main Character, Palestinian American, Arab American, Palestinian, Coming of Age, Addition, Homophobia, Biphobia

A Thrilling Elemental Fantasy Debut: The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbair

Daughters of Izdihar cover

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Nehal has practically everything that a woman could ask for: wealth, a prestigious name, an engagement to one of the most eligible men in Alamaxa. What she doesn’t have, though, is the right to join the Weaving Academy on her own and learn how to control her waterweaving—not without the permission of a male guardian or a husband.

Giorgina doesn’t have any privileges of the wealthy. Her impoverished family relies on her income to stay afloat, so she can’t afford to rock the boat by joining the Daughters of Izdihar too publicly in their fight for the right to vote, nor can she afford the tuition to learn how to control her earthweaving. Her heart is further broken when she learns that her love is being forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy aristocrat named Nehal.

These two women live worlds apart, but soon they find that their fight for the right to determine their own futures will throw them together.

I’d been meaning to read this book ever since it came out about a year ago, but after a slew of sapphic fantasies I found myself putting it off. Now, at least, I get to read it with the second book already out (no spoilers, but you’re definitely going to want to have access to the second one shortly after finishing this book). I do regret taking my sweet time because this book was such a fun, fast-paced adventure.

I heard The Daughters of Izdihar described as a sapphic, Egyptian-inspired version of Avatar the Last Airbender. The similarities with Avatar the Last Airbender are obvious with magic powers tied to the elements, but I think that is where the comparisons end. Elsbair expands upon the ways in which weaving is a metaphor for how entrenched institutions impose on marginalized groups, how it’s a way to weaponize the group against itself by creating a sense of “other” framed as dangerous. In one scene, the women working to get the right to vote consider casting out the weavers in their cause in a way that echoes how women’s rights groups have continually excluded other marginalized identities for the sake of being more “acceptable” or “tolerable”. Weaving is a skill that only the privileged classes are able to afford training, an example of how money can justify outliers and reclassify people who deviate from the norm as merely eccentric rather than dangerous.

If you’re mostly looking for an adventure story, there’s plenty of that too. I was surprised at how fast-paced the book was. At times I felt like we were speeding along in scenes that I’d prefer to linger, especially as Nehal learns more about her abilities and what the Daughters of Izdihar do. It also means, though, that there’s never a dull moment. It’s also a duology, so I remain hopeful that the characters I wanted to see more from will feature prominently in the next one. It’s a wonderful debut and I’m looking forward to whatever Elsbair puts out next.

Content warnings: police brutality, homophobia, racism, misogyny

A New Take On the 20-Something F*ckup Novel: All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

All This Could Be Different cover

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I have heard only great things about this book since it came out in 2022, but I somehow didn’t actually pick it up until my queer book club chose it for this month’s pick. I vaguely remembered downloading an ARC on my ereader, so I opened that up and jumped in. I was immediately struck by two surprises: 1) I wasn’t really enjoying the book, though I had been expecting to love it, and 2) I had started this book already. I was eight percent of the way through—which is not a lot, but it means at some point I started and abandoned it. Aside from the unease of reading through highlights I couldn’t remember making, I was also beginning to have a sinking feeling that this was not going to live up to the glowing reviews I’d heard.

Sneha is not an easy main character to like in the beginning of the story. She’s freshly graduated from her program and starting a new job in a new city: Milwaukee. She doesn’t have any real connections here, and she struggles to find her footing. Her property manager lives downstairs and erupts in anger if she makes the slightest noise. Her job is demanding and unpredictable. She hooks up with women without looking for anything lasting. And throughout it, she simmers with self-loathing that periodically boils over into cruelty and judgement.

Sneha is a queer woman of colour who has a lot of internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia. She thinks hateful things about other women, people of colour, and queer people. She’s angry and judgmental, but she’s also passive. She feels constrained by being an immigrant, especially because her father was deported. She worries that any misstep will result in failure—not just her own, but also failure to live up to her parents’ dreams.

“What nobody told me when I was a very young person was that obedience, fearful toeing of every line, chasing every kind of safety, would not save you.”

At this point in the story, I was having trouble with it. It was interesting enough to keep going, but I began to think that maybe I’ve grown beyond identifying with 20-something fuckup literary fiction—a genre I loved when I was younger. I might have even DNFed it, if it weren’t for my book club. But then…it got me. Somewhere along the way, I realized I’d gotten invested in Sneha and the network of relationships she formed.

There’s such a payoff in Sneha’s character growth—not that she becomes a perfect person, but that she becomes more accepting of herself and others. And that payoff feels so powerful because she was such a mess in the beginning. So I can’t fault the book for that, and I will say it’s worth sticking with through those beginning chapters, when she is being insensitive and even cruel.

If you’re a fan of messy found family dynamics, I definitely recommend this one. All the characters are complex and flawed, but they come together to support each other. Tig is definitely the standout character of the novel: a charismatic Black nonbinary philosopher who imagines a better world and both accepts Sneha and holds her accountable.

“This is my tragedy and my great good fortune, to be the recipient of this bond, to be kept alive under its crushing warmth and weight, to be given it so freely, so much more than I have ever deserved.”

The small section of the book that takes place in India adds a lot of depth to the story, I think. Even Sneha’s mother is a complex character—maybe more so than Sneha originally gives her credit for.

I was also surprised to see how the story is structured: while most of the book takes place over a small time span, there are a few chapters that go over several years. I think some readers will find that jarring, but I appreciated seeing the bittersweet aftermath of this formative time in these characters’ lives.

I definitely recommend this as a book club book, because there is so much to pull out and discuss, from issues of classism and appropriation to it being set during the recession to Sneha’s character arc to Sneha’s relationship with Marina and a lot more. It’s definitely one I think I would appreciate even more on rereading.

A New Classic of Queer Memoir: Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H

the cover of Hijab Butch Blues

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I have had Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H on my list since it came out, and I am so glad my library hold on it finally came in. Lamya narrates a series of essays tying together her queer coming of age and her reconciliation of that with being a devout Muslim woman in a very satisfying way, providing deep insight into her personal journey and growth in both her faith and herself. Whether you are looking for a queer memoir to dive into, or a new perspective, or simply to hear the thoughts of someone who boldly references Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, this book will take you on a journey and leave you thinking by the end. 

Lamya starts off with recollections of her childhood, when she started questioning what the Quran was saying, or not saying, about gender and how it lined up with her own feelings. When the adults in her life were unwilling to entertain her lines of questioning, Lamya started a habit of deep inner reflection and questioning that is apparent in every section. Arrayed in mostly linear fashion, the essays cover her realization that she was queer, her move to America in college, and her struggle to find either queer or Muslim community where she didn’t feel like the other half of her was being excluded. They link to specific sections of the Quran as she meditates on what they mean to her on a personal level. Lamya is painfully ready to dig into her own inner thought processes and reflections, including her own internalized biases and homophobia she had to recognize and overcome before she could move forward. Her struggles and her sincerity shine from every page, drawing you in and inviting you along with her through the process. 

I love reading queer memoirs because a queer coming of age is a journey that can be so personal and yet so relatable to anyone else that has done it themselves. On paper, I do not have much oin common with Lamya beyond us both being queer. And yet, when she spoke of her friend questioning why she didn’t transition if she was going to keep becoming more butch—and her sound rejection of the idea—I felt such empathy and connection, because that was a thought process I had also gone through. The idea that we could be so different and yet so similar is heartwarming to me. Simultaneously, I gained new perspective and appreciation for Lamya’s circumstances and choices. This is a memoir that invites both learning and empathy. It also rewards personal reflection, since it is more than just a recounting of her life events. If you don’t normally read memoirs, Hijab Butch Blues is a book that will make you appreciate the genre more. 

I believe that Hijab Butch Blues is going to go down as seminal work in queer narrative canon, and certainly as an eminently readable, unflinching memoir about reconciling faith, life circumstances, and an “authentically queer experience.” I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

A Standing Ovation for Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo cover

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“There is another girl / on this planet / who is my kin. / My father / lied to me / every day of my life. / [ . . . ] I want to put my fingers / against my sister’s cheek. / I want to put my face / in her neck & ask / if she hurts the way I do.”

And so begins Clap When You Land, a gorgeous dual narrative novel in verse about grief, loss, and the healing power of family written by acclaimed Dominican-American poet and writer Elizabeth Acevedo (she/her).

Camino and Yahaira (Yaya) are 16-year-old young women living in the Dominican Republic and New York City, respectively. Neither knows the other exists until the tragic death of their beloved Papi upends each of their lives and reveals that they are sisters. As Camino and Yahaira grieve and desperately try to make sense of a world without Papi, they must also navigate their complex feelings about each other and figure out what it means to be sisters.

Acevedo is a masterful storyteller. Her use of dual narrative and verse made for an enjoyable and accessible reading experience. The alternating perspectives kept me engaged, and there were never too many words on a page, which allowed me to really savor what I was reading. As a Latina, I felt a swell of pride every time I saw Acevedo describe a quintessential visual from our shared experience: curious neighborhood women in batas and chancletas; a mother with rollers stacked high atop her head; a community coming together to solemnly mourn a loved one with a rosario. I also really appreciated how Acevedo highlighted the range of Afro-Latine beauty through not only her descriptions of the different characters, but also the affirmations and terms of endearment Papi used with each of his daughters.

The representation in Clap When You Land goes beyond race and color. Although all the characters have a connection to Papi, it is the strong female relationships that are the novel’s throughline. Camino refers to Tia, the curandera (healer) that raised her, as “the single love of [her] life”. Tia has showed up for Camino in ways her parents could not. Camino’s belief that “curing is in [her] blood” and her aspirations of being a doctor are borne of her deep respect and admiration for Tia. Yahaira “likes girls” and has a girlfriend named Andrea (Dre). Although Yahaira’s sexuality is a core aspect of her identity, it is free-flowing and doesn’t require exposition. Dre is Yaya’s rock. Acevedo paints a beautiful picture of how a healthy and steady love can ground you in your darkest times.

I loved this book. It was my first experience reading Acevedo’s writing, but it definitely will not be my last. If you’re looking for a quick read with lots of great Latine representation that packs an emotional punch, you should pick up this book. Acevedo has also authored Poet X, With the Fire on High, and Family Lore. You can find her on Instagram @AcevedoWrites or on AcevedoWrites.com.

Trigger warnings for descriptions of a plane crash, death, sexual assault, and colorism.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey. She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

Jamaican Joan of Arc: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

the cover of So Let Them Burn

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I first saw Kamilah Cole describe her debut, So Let Them Burn, as a Jamaican Joan of Arc, which was enough to grab my attention even before the book had a cover. To be more specific, So Let Them Burn is the first book in a YA fantasy series that follows former chosen one Faron Vincent and her older sister, Elara. Five years after the war for their island’s independence, Elara inadvertently forms a bond with an enemy dragon, while Faron determines she will stop at absolutely nothing to save her sister from the threat of both the bond and the empire itself.  

Like I said, I was sold on the concept the minute I heard about it, but even the coolest concept can turn out to be a let down in the wrong hands. Kamilah Cole is not the wrong hands. It took less than half a page for me to determine that I was going to love this book, and as the story unfolded, I only got more invested. Every time I had to put the book down, I was just a little bit resentful that I couldn’t keep reading.

Something that I thought was really fun is that while I knew this book follows a chosen one after she’s done her duty, Faron is not the only one who fits into a popular fantasy archetype. One dynamic I found particularly fascinating is the one between chosen one Faron and Queen Aveline, who spent the first seventeen years of her life on a farm with no knowledge of her true identity and now resents Faron a little bit for the fact that when the war ended, Faron got to go home and Aveline didn’t.

Literally all of the relationships were wonderful, though. The romantic relationships had me hooked, as did the friendships, but the central relationship between the two sisters just felt so real. They both loved and admired each other so much that, despite the hints of jealousy on each side and the expected annoyances, they were both so determined to keep each other safe, whatever the cost. I loved them both, and I am terrified for what the next book will bring for them.

I also really enjoyed the narrative voice, which was the first thing to win me over. It made me laugh throughout, though it never detracted from the more serious themes. Since this was third-person, I’m much less inclined to be annoying about how distinct the perspectives did or did not feel from each other, but there was at least enough difference that I never forgot which sister’s head I was in, even when they were in a scene together, so I’m quite satisfied on that front.

I already know I’m going to miss these characters when the series is done, but fortunately I’ve got some time until then. (Less fortunately, it also means I have to somehow survive that cliffhanger until then.) Even more fortunately, this series is not the only thing I have to look forward to from Kamilah Cole. Not every book that sounds amazing ends up living up to my expectations, but this one definitely exceeded them. I recommend it with my whole heart.

A Slow-Burn Romance About Rival Cartoonists: Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

the cover of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

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The dedication at the start of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey reads, “For oldest daughters who have become creatives obsessed with perfection.” This perfectly encapsulates this slow-burn rivals-to-lovers romance about the importance of valuing yourself and finding people who value you. 

Noah Blue is an up-and-coming cartoonist who just got her big break as a head artist for a relaunched classic, Queen Leisah. Unfortunately, she’s sharing that role with Sage Montgomery, her rival since college, who has been at the company for years and does not want to share her own big break with a newbie. Meanwhile, their personal webcomics are competing for readers on the same website, with Noah only recently beginning to threaten Sage’s ranking. While Noah strives to surpass the woman she sees as her primary obstacle, Sage works just as hard to defend her throne.

They bring this competitive dynamic into the workplace, trying to one-up each other for their higher-ups’ approval rather than collaborating. Of course, with this being a romance, as they inspire each other to greater heights and form an undeniable chemistry, it becomes clear that working together will get them further than tearing each other down.

While they’re equals in passion for their art, Noah’s pastel pink cardigans and people-pleasing habits contrast with Sage’s leather jackets, motorcycle, and aloof demeanor. Noah’s webcomic is a mermaid romance that Sage definitely hasn’t comfort binged, and as the story progresses, Sage starts an action-packed sci-fi comic about enemy spaceship captains with a suspicious amount of chemistry.

The development of this dynamic was a highlight of the book for me. Their fierce rivalry transitions gradually and believably into an alliance, and finally, a romance. Throughout, the characters learn to emphasize communication. One challenge with this sort of dynamic is allowing the pair to keep the banter that sells this type of setup, without having it feel mean-spirited within the actual romance. Additionally, even as their personal relationship changes, they’re still in the same competitive field and can’t share every opportunity. Because they talk through these challenges and set up proper boundaries, I fully bought into their happy ending, and the third act manages to have plenty of conflict without a dramatic breakup or misunderstanding.  

I mentioned that this book is ultimately about valuing yourself. Throughout, the characters struggle with giving up their time, health, and emotions to people and companies who don’t value those things. They have experienced creative burnout and physical injury, sometimes with little payoff. It shows the different facets to working in a creative industry, as they’re both passionate about their work, using art as their lifeline in so many ways. However, there becomes a point where they have to step back and take care of themselves. This is where it becomes important to team up rather than pushing themselves even further in the name of competition. Due to working in the same field, they understand each other’s passions as well as setbacks, allowing them to support each other.

In contrast, their families do not always offer that support. As the eldest daughter in her family, Sage stepped up at a young age to care for her younger brothers in the wake of their father’s alcoholism and their mother subsequently shutting down. Almost a decade into Sage’s career, she is still financially supporting her family, who assumes she does not need help in return, and she has become used to shouldering that pressure alone. Meanwhile, Noah’s family claims to be supportive, but they do not understand her work as an artist, often making belittling comments that lower her confidence. As a result, she experiences a lot of anxiety, and part of her drive comes from a need for validation. 

Better support comes from their coworkers, who create a charming office dynamic. Within their relationship, the duo channels their rivalry to inspire each other to greater heights while ultimately giving each other a safe place to land. I also enjoyed the debates the pair have within the office as they pitch their own visions for the Queen Leisah comic. They have opposing storytelling sensibilities and strengths as artists, but neither is presented as right or wrong, and there’s no conclusion drawn on the one ‘right’ type of story to tell or way to tell it. 

This book also touches on the importance of representation. Noah is an out lesbian while Sage is out as bi, and their impact on a younger generation of artists is demonstrated. Some of their struggles are brought up as well. Queen Leisah, a Black woman with goddess powers, is considered a cult classic character, and the company piles the pressure on their team to make her reboot an instant lead title. Their editor points out that they can’t afford to be mediocre the way that the company’s other teams can, as the higher-ups won’t give them that grace. Some of the debates Noah and Sage have center around how to flesh out Queen Leisah’s character. It provides a mirror to Sage and Noah’s own experiences, as they want her to be portrayed as a whole person rather than only being valued for her sacrifices. 

In addition to covering serious topics, this book oozes charm. The romance and friendships are precious, and there are even illustrations after some chapters showing character profiles or samples of the characters’ sketch pages. 

My critiques are on the technical side: I feel that the book could have benefitted from one more editing pass to catch errors, as well as tighter pacing near the end. While I appreciate the emphasis on communication within the relationship, as a reader, I got to a point where I felt the story’s message had already been communicated and would have been happy with some of the later scenes being more concise. These are minor notes, however, and overall I recommend this to anyone who could use some warm, fuzzy feelings.  

The author’s content notes: “This book includes brief discussions of biphobia and lesbophobia, parent struggling with alcoholism, parentification, a brief mention of suicidal ideation, and sexually explicit scenes.”

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