Rachel reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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I read Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) about a month ago, and I’m still thinking about it. If you’re looking for a slice of mid-twentieth-century lesbian culture with some wonderful Chinese American representation and rich social history, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is for you. Having read many of her books over multiple years, including Ash (2009) and Huntress (2011), I believe that this novel is Lo’s most stunning achievement to date. The world needs more lesbian fiction like this, and I couldn’t get enough.

Set in 1954 San Francisco, the novel follows seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a young Chinese American girl growing up amidst social, political, and cultural changes—many of which could place her and her family in danger. But Lily’s struggling with more than what’s happening in the world—she’s begun to wonder about herself, too. About who she might be beyond the context of the Red Scare and her family’s expectations. When she and her friend Kathleen Miller arrive at the long-coveted lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club, Lily’s world opens up in ways she has never allowed herself to imagine. But these discoveries are not without consequences, and Lily and Kathleen must struggle against the various influences that threaten them on all sides.

I was unable to put this book down. The rich, immersive quality of Lo’s writing really painted a picture of queer life in 1950s San Francisco that was alternately tantalizing and educational. So much of this novel reminded me of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998) in the best way—not just because of the aspects/erotics of male impersonation that Lo employs, but due to Lo’s sophisticated writing and careful detail. It’s clear that this novel was heavily researched, and it really is the kind of Young Adult fiction that shows an immense interest in telling queer stories correctly and for all audiences. Lo obviously has a grasp of various cultural touchstones for queer communities of the period, and her work with lesbian pulp fiction was alternately heart-warming and thrilling—who among us hasn’t encountered our own version of Strange Season?

There is something so high-stakes and fast paced about this novel that kept it from leaving my hands. You’re desperate to see what will happen, which keeps you hurtling towards the end. Lily’s anticipation and desire are infectious, and by the time she enters the Telegraph Club for the first time, I was just as desperate to see inside as she was. What I truly appreciated about Lo’s novel was how universal she rendered queer experience—there were so many moments where I recognized myself (both as a teenager and now) in Lily or Kathleen’s characters. What is particularly special about novel’s like this one is that they make an effort to identify a queer community beyond two individual (and often isolated) love interests. That’s what truly makes this novel so rich and unique, and it makes the reading experience so much wider and worthwhile.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking/talking about or recommending this book to everyone I know. It’s such a heartwarming story that will appeal to queer readers and beyond.

Please visit Malinda Lo on Twitter or on her Website, and put Last Night at the Telegraph Club on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

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.

A copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Alice Pate reviews A Line In The Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Trigger Warnings: drug use, underage drinking, referenced underage sex, adult/teenager relationship

Note: Not all trigger warnings are present in this review, but they are present in the book in question.

A Line In The Dark may be marketed as a YA thriller, but I personally believe all the best parts of the story have nothing to do with the mystery.

The author, Malinda Lo, really shines in her portrayal of relationships, both romantic and platonic. Perhaps this stood out so much to me because I’m reading her book immediately after slogging through some pretty mediocre writing, but the emotions shown in her characters felt so rich, and full, and satisfying. The main character, Jessica Wong (Jess), has a secret crush on her best friend Angie. Every word in the first few chapters about this crush felt like it was pulled straight out of my own closeted high school brain. So naturally, when Angie starts seeing this other girl, Margot, who goes to a nearby boarding school in town, I could feel my own heart breaking right along with Jess’s.

But this isn’t your typical love triangle. Remember how I mentioned this book is a thriller? About halfway through the book goes from a quiet and reflective piece about the main character and her internal struggles to a drama fueled “he-said-she-said.” The death of Margot’s best friend, Ryan, has the cast of characters trying to find the culprit and pointing fingers.

While this transition was a little rocky, Lo ties in all of those beautiful emotions and relationships she’d crafted in the first half of the story to form the puzzle pieces needed to solve the mystery. The tone may have shifted pretty dramatically, but the story is still intriguing enough to reel you back in to find out whodunnit.

Ultimately, A Line In The Dark was incredibly entertaining, and at a little over 300 pages, it’s a pretty fast read. I highly recommend picking it up if you have the time.

Megan G reviews A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Jess Wong is the girl nobody sees, and she’s okay with that. She likes to keep to herself, and to her art. The only person close to her is her best friend, Angie Redmond. Angie sees Jess, even if it’s not the way that Jess wishes that Angie would see her. It’s enough for Jess. Until Angie starts to fall for Margot Adams, a girl from the nearby boarding school. As Angie’s relationship with Margot progresses, Jess and Angie are drawn into a world of wealth and secrets, of privilege and cruelty. A world where terrible things happen. A world where, suddenly, Angie doesn’t see Jess anymore.

This is a difficult book to review, because, despite its short length, it almost feels like two books merged into one. The first book is about a co-dependent relationship between two best friends, one of whom has a crush on the other. The second is a murder mystery. It just so happens that both books have the same characters.

The first part of the book is told from Jess’s perspective. Jess Wong is an unreliable narrator, to say the least, who paints her relationship with Angie as not only normal, but healthy. The problem is that it isn’t healthy, which I think Malinda Lo makes very clear. Every time Jess thinks about how wonderful her friendship with Angie is, Lo shows her doing something that proves it isn’t. In fact, the co-dependency between the two (but especially from Jess) can be difficult to read at times, as you can tell how much better these girls’ lives would be if the other weren’t in it.

In a way, I sort of appreciated this. I went into this book fully expecting this to be a pining, friends-to-lovers story, with a murder mystery twist. Instead, the twist is that the reader can tell full-stop that these friends should never become lovers, and in fact probably shouldn’t even be friends at all. Some of the things that Jess does when she and Angie fight are a little frightening, but Jess wants us to think that it’s totally okay. It’s realistic in its portrayal of the co-dependency found amongst many friendships, particularly teenage friendships, and like I said, I appreciate that. As well, I can look past the argument that would usually be building in my head (“There aren’t nearly as many stories about queer women as there are about straight women, so why can’t the ones about queer women be happy for once?”) because Malinda Lo has provided us with four incredible, happily-ending stories about queer women. She has proven that she believes queer women deserve happy endings. She now gets the benefit of the doubt that other authors might not.

I don’t want to say much about the second half of the book, because I don’t want to spoil any of the mystery. All I will say is that you should not read this book if you are hoping for a fantastic who-done-it. At its core, this book is about a toxic friendship, and how these types of friendships can shape who we are and the things we do.

As well, I think it’s important to mention that Jess is not only an Asian character, but she is also described as being fat. I didn’t realize she would be when I went into this story, and it was a very pleasant surprise for me. I do believe there is a little bit of internalized fatphobia, but never to the point of extreme dieting, or even considering extreme dieting. Just the typical thoughts of a woman who doesn’t quite look like the women who surround her.

Overall, I found this story intriguing and interesting, but incorrectly marketed. Although it is, in fact, a murder mystery, that is not what the novel is truly about. I will say right now that if you go into this novel just for the mystery, you will feel disappointed. This is a story about friendships and relationships, and how easy it is for them to become toxic, even when nobody is going out of their way to make them so. It explores human dynamics deeper than any of Malinda Lo’s previous works and sets itself aside as something new and unique. As that type of book, I recommend it. As a murder mystery, however, I would not.

Danika reviews All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

One of the challenges of finding a queer community is not only connecting with your people, but also unearthing your history. Queer people have always existed, but our existence has been covered up and buried. It can feel like we have no history, which is alienating. All Out is a much-needed book, because it locates queer people (teens in particular) through time. It is also optimistic historical fiction. It imagines not only queer teens in the past, but how they might have found happiness there. It rejects the idea that queer people don’t have a history–or that if they do, it is fundamentally tragic.

Although all the stories are historical fiction, they do sometimes play with genre by including magical realism, fantastical elements, or fairy tale retellings. There are trans, gay, lesbian, asexual, and aromantic characters. (I can’t remember bi characters? But I may have missed that.) There are a lot of different time periods (~1200s-1999) and cultures involved, although I would have liked to see more stories set outside of North America and Europe.

The story that really stood out to me was Malinda Lo’s. It’s about a Chinese girl in San Francisco in the 50s, and the male impersonator she has a crush on. It incorporates race, sexism, space exploration, the Chinese immigrant experience, and lesbian pulp fiction–all in such a short space! I really loved that story, and maybe it’s unfair to want a short story to be a novel, but… I do. Luckily, I think we might be getting it! There’s definitely enough here to flesh out, so I’m eager to get my hands on the novel version.

That’s my favourite, but I really enjoyed most of the stories. Dahlia Adler’s contribution that features two girls coming out to each other at Kurt Cobain’s vigil was another memorable one, and you really can’t go wrong with a story about two girls sailing off into the sunset together. (Well, you could, but they didn’t.) There are fun, captivating stories that make the world feel a little more open and inviting, so I have to give this 5 stars.

Rachel reviews Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash

Anyone into lesbians living in a fantasy/medieval world should pick up this Cinderella retelling, Ash by Malinda Lo. Having read it twice, I’m very impressed with the details and the culture of this beautiful novel.

In a fantasy world, young Aisling “Ash” has lost her mother. Before she can properly grieve, her father leaves on a business trip…and returns with Ash’s new stepmother and two stepsisters. Her father takes ill soon after and dies, leaving Ash’s stepmother, Lady Isobel, in charge. Ash is uprooted from her childhood house and forced to be her stepmother’s servant. Treated badly by Isobel, Ash turns to her book of fairy tales, and soon meets a real fairy: Sidhean. As Ash grows up, she and Sidhean share an understanding, though Ash is not allowed to question him about where he lives. By the time she is eighteen, Sidhean reveals that he wants Ash to be his. Tired of being Isobel’s slave, Ash is ready to agree. But then she runs into Kaisa, the king’s new huntress, and the two become fast friends. Slowly, Ash’s feelings for Kaisa turn into a deep love. Torn between her potentially dangerous promises to Sidhean, and her love for Kaisa, Ash must make her choice about who she wants to be with.

Ash takes a whole new twist to the classic fairytale in an interesting way. There are elements of the old tale, such as the prince looking for a bride, and the evil-stepmother scenario. But it’s refreshing that Ash has no romantic interests in the prince, and instead loves the huntress.

Fairies are a very important part of the novel. Sidhean is the one we see the most, but the book provides glimpses of more. But unlike the real Cinderella story, the fairies in Ash are much darker in personality. They are known to lure humans into their circles, and to be deadly about keeping their secrets. Sidhean is one of the more lenient fairies, but even he seemed temperamental and rude at times.

The story itself is descriptive of Ash’s culture and the world she lives in. Lo clearly paints the settings around Ash: from the Wood where the fairies live, to the palace’s lavish parties. I really got to know Ash, the beliefs she grew up with, and her plight. The author even showed some examples of the fairy tales Ash grew up with, providing an even clearer idea of how important magic was to her culture. This added to the story, in my opinion.

Homosexuality in Ash is portrayed in a good light. Most people in the story expected Ash to fall in love with a man, but the ones who knew about her loving Kaisa didn’t seem unsettled or disturbed by the idea of her loving another woman at all. And one fairy tale in Ash’s book was about female/female love, so I got the impression that homosexuality was generally accepted, even if people didn’t think about it much. Ash feels no shame with Kaisa because of their gender, and vice versa. The typical agonizing questions “Why am I gay?” and “Can I change?” are not an issue in this book because the culture is so accepting. To people like Ash, there was no problem with their sexuality at all. This was quite refreshing, to get a glimpse of a more understanding world.

All in all, Ash is an enjoyable read. It’s easy to get lost in the story as you root for Ash and the choices she must make to secure her own future. A wonderfully descriptive novel, this book should be a classic; not because of its ties to Cinderella, but because of its own merits.

Audrey reviews Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash

Oh, wow! I’ve finally gotten to my first Malinda Lo book. It will not be the last. Ash is a retelling of Cinderella. It’s twisty, it has a fair amount of the fair folk, and it has some great love interests. It’s also one of those books I knew would already have been reviewed a couple times here. I looked at Katie Raynes’ review and appreciated her take on the story’s roots in the wild hunt, and in Lo’s vivid evocation of landscape. Laura Mandanas’ review focuses more on relationships and a little gender theory. What can I add or emphasize? I was surprised that this was a retelling of Cinderella where the prince isn’t even really a thing. He’s barely a plot device (and a sulky, sullen one at that).

One of the lovely things about this book is that it fully realizes the progression of Ash’s journey from beloved daughter to maligned stepchild. Too often, this feels rushed or glossed over, and hence unbelievable, but I could buy this. Another lovely thing is that we as readers actually get a sense of Ash’s mother as a character, and the mother is an integral character even after her death. Her influence is woven into the plot. There: The prince doesn’t matter, the dead mother does.

In this homophobia-free world, homosexuality is like being left-handed. Perfectly natural, but generally, people aren’t. Ash’s slow realization of her attraction to Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, is all the more lovely for being tinged with nothing but wonder and curiosity. Meanwhile, although the sulky human prince isn’t a contender, Ash is indeed attached to a prince. He’s a brittle, glittery Jareth who takes the word “glamorous” back to its original meaning. Old, old magic against real, young love: so there’s the excellent internal conflict against a backdrop of a fabulous world, and in living conditions that are fairly awful (though not all of the stepfamily is painted with the same broad strokes).

On a final note, the fun factor of this book was through the roof. It was tremendously enjoyable. If it’s been on your long list, maybe bump it up?

Danika reviews Natural Selection (Adaptation 1.5) by Malinda Lo

Natural Selection

 

Natural Selection is a novella connected to the Adaptation duology, and it provides a little bit of backstory for Amber Grey. Each chapter switches between two different social occasions in her life: one a school camping trip on Earth, the other a coming-of-age ceremony on Kurra. Together they explain how Amber chose her identity, and how she became the person we meet in Adaptation.

As you probably know by now, I loved Adaptation and Inheritance, so I was looking forward to getting a little bit more out of this world. I am glad I waited a while before picking this one up, though. This is a novella, so it’s only 50 pages. It’s a solid story, but it’s not a book three. Going in with that expectation of a little bonus material, I was definitely satisfied. We get a little more detail on Kurra as well as Imrian culture, and I liked seeing more of what it felt for Amber to be split between two planets, not sure where she belongs. The Amber that we see in the series is so confident and put-together, it’s nice to see that she wasn’t always that way. And what queer woman can’t relate to the difficulty of crushing on your straight best friend?

At first I wasn’t sure that I liked the constant switch back and forth between planets and time periods between chapters, but by the end it really pulled together and felt like the only way to tell this story. On reflection, it also makes sense as a representation of Amber’s reality of not being able to settle into one life on one planet. I read this after finishing the series, but seeing as its numbered Adaptation 1.5, it would probably work even better read between books. It’s only $0.84 on Amazon as an ebook, so it’s definitely worth the price tag! It would probably also work as a bit of a sample of the Adaptation universe if you’re not sure if you want to pick up the series. I definitely enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to more from Malinda Lo.

Danika reviews Inheritance by Malinda Lo [Spoiler-Free for Adaptation!]

inheritance

As you may recall, I read Adaptation by Malinda Lo about a month ago and really, really enjoyed it. Easily one of the best YA I’ve ever read, nevermind queer YA. So I was excited to pick up and the next and final book in the duology (I originally thought it was a trilogy and was sadly mistaken). Right after reading Adaptation and raving about it, however, I was warned by another book blogger that the second book was slower. Then my coworker who I’d convinced to read Adaptation and who also loved it said that she hadn’t enjoyed the sequel very much. That made me hesitant to pick up Inheritance; I didn’t want it to dampen my enthusiasm for Adaptation. That’s partly why this review is spoiler-free for Adaptation (and therefore is going to be pretty vague): I wanted other people to have a good sense of the duology as a whole if they had heard similar things about the sequel.

I decided to give myself a little break between Adaptation and Inheritance. I think that was crucial. I was trying to lower my expectations, but it also allowed me to come off the adrenaline buzz that was Adaptation. When I started Inheritance, I had a lot fewer expectations. And from that point, I actually ended up really enjoying Inheritance! I thought it was a fantastic sequel, and the two books together make for a solid duology. It’s true that Inheritance is less action-packed than its predecessor. It’s as if Adaptation spends the entire book raising questions and having all of these dramatic things happen. Inheritance expands on what the consequences of those events are, and if it doesn’t answer all the questions, it at least allows space for them to play out. It’s definitely a different feel from Adaptation, but I think it needed to be. Malinda Lo really followed through on everything that happened in the first book, and it definitely still felt compelling to me.

And then, of course, there’s the love triangle. This is possibly the best treatment of a love triangle of all time. What Lo does with this, and with bits of discussion of sexuality and gender and race, shouldn’t be revolutionary. If you are in any kind of social justice spaces, the ideas she addresses should be pretty basic, but in terms of mainstream media, it’s above and beyond. I was reading a small conversation that discusses gender and thinking (for the only time in the duology) that this was a little slow, but I realized that if I read this as a teenager it would have blown my mind. The idea that nonbinary genders can exist, or alternative relationship structures, or hell, just having the word “bisexual” actually mentioned, is so huge. You don’t see that in YA, not even queer YA. You don’t see it in mainstream books, or TV, or movies, or anything. Because of that, this kind of book could really change a person’s life.

I finished the Adaptation duology just so happy that it exists. Not only that it was a hugely entertaining reading experience, with an amazing plot and well-rounded characters, but because it is a book that addresses sexuality and gender and race but isn’t just about that. It’s a series I can hand to anyone, including people who many not usually pick up books with a queer main character. And it’s shows that queer people continue to have rich lives in addition to being queer. It’s not the only characteristic we have. I really have nothing but praise for this series. Read it, make your friends read it, make your library buy it, give it to your teenage niblings and cousins and kids.

Danika reviews Adaptation by Malinda Lo

Lo_Adaptation_HC_600x900

I read Malinda Lo’s Ash and Huntress in the past, and though I enjoyed them, they didn’t stick out as favourites in my memory. So though Adaptation came out with lots of great reviews, and I picked up a copy soon after it was published, I didn’t actually get around to reading it until a couple days ago, after it was announced that Malinda Lo will be at Leakycon 2014. And I’m so glad I did pick it up, because Adaptation has easily become one of my new go-to books to recommend.

To get a sense of the experience of reading this book, check out the quick review I wrote immediately after finishing it on FY Lesbian Literature, the Lesbrary’s tumblr. Adaptation is just so exciting to read! Usually, I don’t go for plot-driven books as much as I gravitate towards character-based stories. But Adaptation‘s plot had me absolutely hooked. The book begins with Reese, the main character, waiting at an airport for a flight home, when birds begin dropping dead out of the sky. Immediately after, several planes are reported to have crashed because of mass bird strikes. But there’s more: coverage of the plane crashes seems to be disappearing from news sites, and conspiracy theorists begin talking about government involvement and cover-up. Panic spreads, and chaos erupts–including looting. This is all in the first chapter or two. With this abrupt lurch into action, the pace never seems to slow down. The feeling is so tense. I would pause between chapters to curse before jumping back into the story. This sci-fi, conspiracy-theory-laden storyline is something I think will appeal to dystopian fans, though it doesn’t quite fit under that umbrella. It’s definitely the plot that makes this such a memorable read, but it has more going for it as well.

For one thing, there’s the reason it’s on the Lesbrary: it has a bisexual main character! Reese has two love interests in Adaptation: her (male) debate partner that she’s known for years, and a girl she has only just met, but has an immediate attraction to. I wouldn’t call this a love triangle, because the two are never pit against each other. Although part of the tension of this book is emotional drama, it’s never over-the-top or contrived, and it always meshes well with the overall plot. Basically, Reese ponders her feelings during down time, but most of the time she has much more pressing concerns. And each love interest plays a very different role in Reese’s life, so their interactions don’t have the same tone to them.

The characters do feel well-rounded and believable, as well. From her on-again-off-again parents to her black, conspiracy-obsessed, gay best friend, to her Chinese-American debate partner, they all seem like they have their own back stories and motivation, even if they don’t get central stage in the story. I was so interested to pick up a bisexual sci-fi teen book, but this is actually how all books should be written: it’s diverse, but that’s not the whole story. You aren’t expected to pick up this book because it has a bisexual (though she doesn’t–yet?–identify with that term) main character; you’re expected to pick it up because the story will have you racing to get to the end. It feels so natural, which shouldn’t even need to be said.

The only complaint I have about Adaptation is that the third book in the trilogy isn’t out yet. [Editor’s note: This is actually a duology, not a trilogy, though there is also an accompanying novella.] I have ordered the second book and can’t wait to devour it. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough: after finishing it, I still had an adrenaline buzz for hours from how intense this book was. It’s almost embarrassing how into Adaptation I was while reading it. This is definitely one I’ll be pressing into people’s hands and demanding them to read.

Katie Raynes reviews Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash

I’d encountered numerous mentions of Malinda Lo’s Ash, a retelling of Cinderella, long before I bought a copy. It’s always on lists of fantasy fiction with lesbian protagonists and from what I’ve seen, it enjoys a lot of popularity and good reviews. I bought it hoping to find a professional, lush retelling of a fairy tale, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Ash draws inspiration from all sorts of European mythology, particularly stories of the Wild Hunt. The story follows the usual Cinderella plot but is wound through with several sub-stories that added depth and allowed me to empathize more with the characters than I do when I read traditional fairy tales. From the beginning to the end, one of the things that drives Ash is the memory of her deceased mother, and many of the story’s significant mysteries involve her mother both in origin and resolution. In fact, all of the major pieces of the story in Ash are woven together skillfully. There are two people with whom Ash has significant relationships – Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, and the fairy Sidhean. Though the nature of these relationships is very different, they’re intertwined and each relies on the other to hold the plot together.

One of the things that really drew me into the story was the landscape. I tend to fall in love with landscapes in fantasy stories, and sometimes they end up being what brings me back to a book again and again. The settings in Ash were no exception. Much of the story takes place in forests, and they were all vividly realized with vibrant and contrasting details. Among the various settings were the deep, wild northern forests near where Ash grew up; the sunny, Sherwood-like woods where she met with Kaisa; the moonlit and gossamery faery glades that seemed to flicker in and out of reality; the bleak, stone-hard houses where she lived under the oppression of her step-family; and the resplendent garden-ringed palace of the royal family. All of them felt real enough to me that I looked forward to each setting change.

Ash’s relationship with Kaisa was satisfying but uncomplicated; I definitely rooted for Kaisa as Ash’s love interest even though Ash’s relationship with Sidhean could be considered more complex. The normal Cinderella “prince looking for a bride” plot took a backseat to Ash’s developing love for Kaisa and navigation of her bond with Sidhean, and I definitely preferred it that way. The prince was more of a backdrop, a reason for the celebrations at which Ash and Kaisa were able to meet. I felt that the resolution to all of the plot’s mysteries was somewhat sudden and vague, but I cared more about the journey anyway, and the journey was definitely worth it.