Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

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I loved this book, but it’s such a tricky, contradictory one to recommend. It’s about aliens and demons and curses, but it’s also a grounded, realistic character study. It’s hopeful and comforting, but it also contains abuse, bigotry, and a lot of brutal descriptions of transmisogyny. This disparate parts combine into a heartachingly affective story, but do be prepared to be reading about both the kindness and the cruelty of humanity.

It follows three main characters. Shizuka is a trans teen girl running away from an abusive family, turning to unsafe forms of sex work as well as precarious living situations to get by. Shizuka, aka the “Queen of Hell,” is a world renowned violin teacher. Each of her students has experienced the pinnacle of fame and success–before the all swan-dived into tragic ends. That’s because she made a deal with the devil, and she can only save her soul by securing 7 other souls in her place. She’s had 6 students, and she only has a year to find the 7th, but she’s determined to make sure this last student is the perfect choice. Then there’s Lan, a refugee from another world, fleeing a multi-universe-spanning crisis. She’s arrived at Earth safely with her family, and they are running a donut shop while upgrading their space travelling technology hidden underneath the shop.

The three of them seem to be living in books of different genres, but their lives become intertwined. When Shizuka hears Katrina playing in the park, she immediately recognizes that this is her final student and takes her in. When Shizuka stops in at the donut shop to the use the bathroom, she is immediately stunned by Lan, but doesn’t have time for romance right now. Still, she finds herself back at the donut shop multiple times, and eventually they open up to each other, and they find unexpected support and new perspectives on their situations from the other. (Shizuka is unfazed by the existence of aliens; once you’ve made a deal with the devil, reality seems much more flexible).

While I enjoyed the quiet relationship forming between Lan and Shizuka, it’s very much in the background. This isn’t a romance, and there’s no grand romantic gesture or even much discussion of the nature of their relationship. Despite the sci fi and fantastical elements of this story, it was Katrina who took centre stage for me. As a trans woman of colour (she’s Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican), she faces a hostile world, including from her family. She goes through physical abuse, rape, and is a target for transmisogynistic vitriol online and commonly from strangers in person. It’s relentless.

Katrina finds refuge with Shizuka, who accepts her completely. She is able to have a safe place to stay and practice her passion of playing violin. Shizuka obviously cares a lot about her… but she’s also planning to sell her soul. The chapters count down the months until Shizuka’s deadline, creating a ticking timebomb as Katrina and Shizuka get closer. The most heartbreaking thing is (slight spoiler, fairly early in the book), Katrina is not surprised or even hurt by the idea that she is being taken in just to have her soul sacrificed. Everything has a price, and it is worth it for her. (spoiler ends)

This is also a celebration of music. Violins are described with reverence, including occasional point of view chapters from a gifted luthier who is going through her own struggles of being rejected from the family business and then being the only one left to carry it on. At their best, Katrina and Shizuka’s performances transport listeners to different moment in their lives and the music becomes transcendent. Food is given a similar treatment: originally the donuts are artificially replicated from the former owner’s recipes, but members of Lan’s family begin to find the magic in making them from scratch, and how these simple treats can move people.

An undercurrent of Light From Uncommon Stars is about mortality–which makes sense, considering Shizuka’s predicament. (slight spoiler) Lan is fleeting from the End Plague, which is a kind of destructive nihilism that is said to overtake all societies when they realize that all things will end, including their own existence. Shizuka pushes back at the idea that having knowledge of your own mortality (even on a grand scale) is inherently destructive. (spoiler ends) They find meaning in ephemeral things like music and food, and that this can be enough. There’s also an AI character who considers herself to be Lan’s daughter, while Lan sees her as artificial, and the question of whether she is truly a person becomes life or death.

Despite the high concepts and fantastical elements, this isn’t an action-packed story. It’s character driven. It’s about Katrina finding her place in the world and deciding what she wants to do. It’s about her processing living in a world that is hostile to her, and forming her own sense of identity despite that. She finds meaning in her art, even when that’s recording video game soundtracks and posting them anonymously online. She learns from Shizuka how to find just one friendly face in a crowd while performing. And eventually, she finds her anger and is able to channel it into her art. Then there’s Shizuka, grappling with what she’s done and whether she’s willing to do it again or be pulled into hell in a matter of months. And Lan, who can’t quite convince herself she’s safe, and so is always working, preparing, and keeping ready for the other shoe to drop.

This is gorgeous, multifaceted story that I bounced between wanting to read cover to cover in one sitting and setting aside for weeks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive back into it. While it took me a bit to finish, I’m glad I started the year off with this one. It’s exactly the kind of challenging, hopeful, and unexpected story I want to read a lot more of, and it’s a definite 5 stars.

Content warnings: abuse, homophobia (including f slur), transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm (cutting), suicidal thoughts, r slur [and likely more: please research more content warnings if there’s anything specific you’d like to avoid that I might have missed]

Vic reviews Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

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Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is one of the best books I read in 2021, and it is also one of the weirdest. It centers around three women: Shizuka Satomi (a violin teacher who made a deal with a devil and must deliver seven violin prodigies’ souls in order to save her own), Katrina Nguyen (a transgender teenage girl, wildly talented on the violin and deserving of so much more than she has been given), and Lan Tran (a retired interstellar space captain who runs a donut shop with her four children). When Shizuka discovers Katrina in a park, she immediately knows she has found her final soul, but Shizuka’s growing feelings for Lan may change her perspective on everything.

If you think that summary sounds like a roller coaster, wait until you read the book. At times lighthearted and at others absolutely gutting, it ultimately left me feeling better, which is always how I want to feel at the end of a book. It was just so much fun. Aoki has a very playful writing style that made this book delightful down to its very sentences.

The characters and their relationships were equally enjoyable. I loved Shizuka and Lan’s relationship, loved watching it grow, and Katrina had my heart from page one. I wanted so much better for her, and I was so proud of her as her story continued. The secondary characters, too, made me smile (I particularly liked Aunty Floresta and the twins). Some of them did feel a bit underutilized at times, admittedly, but when my biggest complaint is simply that I wanted to see more of the secondary characters too, I cannot call it a bad thing—not when I loved the primary characters as much as I did.

I will give a warning that this book was at times quite a bit heavier than I anticipated. Katrina’s story in particular takes a painfully real look at her experiences as a young transgender woman of color, including homelessness, abuse, sexual assault, dysphoria, misgendering, transphobia, and racism, even from her own family. None of this is gratuitous, but it is very present, so I definitely recommend taking a look at trigger warnings before picking this one up.

In spite of the darkness, though, the love in this book makes it a definite five stars from me—love of self, love of each other, love of music, love of donuts. Ryka Aoki clearly put a lot of care into this book, and it paid off. This book was an Experience with a capital E, and I mean that in the very best way. I cannot think of another book like it.

Trigger warnings: Abuse (domestic and parental), homophobia, transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, misgendering, gun violence, mentions of war

Maggie reviews Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar

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Stone and Steel is a Black, queer fantasy novella by Eboni Dunbar that follows Aaliyah, General of Titus, as she returns home from conquering the southern lands in the name of the Queen. It should be a time of triumph for her, a homecoming after years of fighting and a reunion with her girlfriend, the Queen. But Aaliyah returns to find that the Queen, rather than fulfilling the promises she made the people and Aaliyah, has followed in the footsteps of the King they deposed and funneled all the kingdom’s money, magic, and power upwards for her own benefit, leaving the people worse off than they were before. Aaliyah has to grapple with her past and present relationships, her duty to the people, and her future path to set things right. I really enjoyed the premise of this novella, and I enjoyed Aaliyah as a character who struggled to chance her own circumstances and who is now struggling to correct her mistakes, but who is incredibly competent at her job and inspires loyalty among her troops. I also always enjoy fantasy where being queer is just a state of being and not one of the problems – sometimes you want to battle homophobia but sometimes you just want to battle the monarchy.

However, this novella is filled with perplexing relationships. Aaliyah rose out of poverty to depose a King and become a great general, and she has a complex web of relationships in both the palace and the streets. Aaliyah had no inkling that her longtime lover, Odessa, would prove to be a terrible queen, even though what we see of her memories makes it seem that she hasn’t changed much from childhood. There is the added difficulty that everyone sees them as sisters for some reason, even though they are not actually related, a detail that seemed added just to give the rest of the characters a chance to react to pseudo-incest. Aaliyah also reconnects with a former lover who is runs a crime syndicate, Mercedes, for help deposing Odessa, who we are introduced to while she is torturing someone. Aaliyah’s background as an orphan and the relationships she made on the streets are built up, but the reveals about her family make these circumstances seem suspect. I feel like additional length would have helped flesh out these relationships and make character motivations clearer, especially giving Aaliyah more depth and giving more emotional weight to the story.

The length also does not help what wants to be a fully fledged elemental magic system but is instead only seen in tantalizing glimpses. The details were good – I love that Stone mages create the city walls, for example. When Odessa and Aaliyah overthrew the old King they changed the ruling element as well as the actual ruler. I would like to see more of the kingdom’s relationships with its neighbors and with its own magic system. Aaliyah is successful as a general in spite of her lack of magic, which is a great detail, and there is the sense that she struggled hard to make herself a success to keep people from looking down on her. I would love to see the dynamics of magic and non-magic users in more detail than a novella permits.

In conclusion, there’s a lot to like about this novella. It’s Black, it’s queer, there’s a lot of tantalizing details. I love a main character who is a woman general and succeeding as someone without magic in a magical world. But the novella length hamstrings it, and there’s a sense that it is trying to cram itself into a box that’s not meant for it. I think I would have preferred this sat in development for a while to cook some more, but if you’re looking for Black queer fantasy, there’s enjoyment to be had and lots of ideas to think about. I would definitely read more from this author in the future.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

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Alejandra Mortiz wants nothing to do with her magic, so she tries to get rid of it, resulting in catastrophe. Putting her trust in a brujo named Nova sends her on the path to nearly losing her family. She must travel to the magical realm of Los Lagos to retrieve them and set everything right. Along the way, she learns not to fear her power and instead embraces it.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this novel is the bisexual representation. Alex’s bisexuality had no influence on the outcome of events or the narrative of the story. As most young adult novels are prone to do, there was a love triangle, but it never played into a drama of having to choose one over the other, of being either-or. It was accepted and no one batted an eye at Alex’s love for her best friend Rishi. It was just as natural as her growing feelings for Nova.

While romance played a small role and was weaved throughout the plot, it never drove the story. If anything, the love for her family was the driving force behind the story. The fact that her family never questioned or made a deal out of Alex having a crush on Rishi was just such a relief to see in a YA novel. Instead, it was mainly about magic and family and the power a girl can have.

Córdova’s cultural heritage also plays a strong role in the story and characters. The Mortiz family has Ecuadorian roots and a family lineage that passes through Puerto Rico (which I greatly appreciated, being Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian myself). The underlying concept of the power of ancestry and how the dead are never truly gone resonates with many Latinx cultures as well.

However, Córdova makes the world her own by creating a magic system based in Deos and Cantos. While it’s all influenced by certain real-life cultural markers, it’s never appropriative. The magic system is also rather easy to follow. She makes it simple to understand that the use of magic always comes with a price, regardless of how it’s used.

The writing at times is clunky and doesn’t always transition flawlessly, but that doesn’t detract you from enjoying the story. It’s overall a fun and exciting start to a fantastic trilogy.

Til reviews Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

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Gearbreakers bounces between high-octane mecha fights, rebellion, intense emotions, and savage banter. It’s a story about a wasteland outside a glittering, high-tech city. It has plot twists and schemes, and characters always willing to break the rules.

And somehow, it manages to be overwhelmingly dull.

The action scenes shine throughout the book. They unfold like sequences in films, tense and easy to imagine in striking visuals. Whether it’s two giant mechas duking it out or a truck full of adrenaline-fueled kids taking down a steelwork god, the battles deliver.

Unfortunately, very little else does. The book leans into a found family dynamic, but those characters are flat, only showing slight variance when it serves the plot. As I write this, having just finished the book, I can’t tell you the difference between Nova and June, or Theo and Arsen. They’re just… there. Their home, the Hallows, is a collection of buildings. It’s got a gate. I couldn’t tell you more. There’s something of a plot, but the one driving it is secondary character Jenny. Gearbreakers falls flat in so many ways.

One of the greatest flaws from which the book suffers is character-centered morality. I found myself genuinely disturbed with the number of times main character Sona kills other Pilots with little sense of remorse. Sona herself is a Pilot, and readers are expected to take at face value that she has a history, a personality, a value. The others don’t. They’re just evil. Similarly, when she arrives at the Gearbreaker compound, only one character remains consistently suspicious of her. He’s meant to seem jealous and hysterical, when having an enemy soldier wandering around the base should put everyone on edge. It asks too much of the reader: despise all other Pilots but support Sona, both without question.

I’m not someone who needs romance to be at the heart of a story. Actually, I prefer when it isn’t. In this book, the romance is mild, yet still so poorly handled. Eris and Sona never really seem like friends, romance is always clearly the endgame even during their contrived “enemies” phase—and Eris still has a boyfriend as she and Sona’s relationship develops. People grow apart and messy timing is often part of life, but rather than address it, the book simply vilifies her boyfriend to get him out of the way. It’s another contrivance and not a good look for a bisexual character to emotionally cheat before coldly kicking out her not-quite-ex boyfriend.

Finally, outside of vocabulary, the worldbuilding is extremely weak. What are the main industries of Godolia, other than war? I don’t know. What do the main characters eat? There’s a reference to popcorn and sweets; besides that, I don’t know. What sorts of religious rituals to mechvespers have? Not only do I not know, this worship of mechas is first mentioned about halfway through the book. It’s not clear how the world came to be this way besides passing references to wars. It’s not always necessary for all of these details to be included, but when I finish a book and realize I don’t know what the main setting is like and can’t quote an expression or unique turn of phrase, I feel somewhat like I’ve wasted my time.

Perhaps most frustrating of all, Zoe Hana Mikuta has talent. There are powerful scenes and moments of true poignancy throughout the book. In one delightfully unsettling scene, Sona thinks of her burning hatred for Godolia but is distracted by almost childlike delight thinking about peach tarts. Scenes like that are powerful and immersive. They’re standouts. They stand out from dullness and repetitiveness. Overall, this is not the book it could have been—and that’s a shame, because it could have been great.

Sam reviews Huntress by Malinda Lo

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Winter is finally here, which means it’s perfect weather for me to re-read Huntress by Malinda Lo again. I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve read this book, but it must be close to a half-dozen—a number that stands out even for me, especially for a YA novel. Which isn’t to say anything bad about young adult literature! As a publishing category, YA is so broad that you can hardly say anything general about it at all. But, more often than not, I find that lesbian young adult novels tend to leave me feeling like there’s just not enough to really sink my teeth into. This is certainly not the case with Huntress, whose slow, detailed, and deeply emotional storytelling pays off in one of my favorite books of all time.

Huntress is the story of Taisin and Kaede, two very different young women who are tasked with saving their kingdom from a slow but devastating disruption to the natural cycles of the world. Taisin is an apprentice sage, whose studious and responsible nature sits at odds with a prodigious magical talent. Kaede, on the other hand, is proactive and down to earth; rather than striving towards an honored place in society like Taisin, she is trying to escape one. Both are well written and incredibly likeable, and almost until the end of the book it’s hard to say which, if either, is the true protagonist. Occasionally the narration will dip into the perspective of other characters for a paragraph or two, which always feels a little jarring, but otherwise the writing in Huntress is phenomenal. Though technically a prequel to Ash, knowledge of Malinda Lo’s debut novel isn’t required, as the story of Huntress is set several centuries earlier. Fans of Ash will find the Kingdom a much more overtly Asian-inspired fantasy realm than before—a welcome change that really helps Huntress come into its own as a novel.

I’ve joked before that the best fantasy books are road novels, and Huntress definitely fills that bill (although it might qualify better as an Otherworld tale in the Arthurian sense, but that’s splitting some very esoteric hairs!). The main characters spend the entire book making a long and perilous journey, and it is the act of travelling that serves as the engine for the story. The book takes its time, lingering by small details and never forgetting the quiet but meaningful moments other novels might rush past. The scenes from Huntress that stick most in my memory are curiously mundane, in the grand scheme of things; dumplings eaten in the rain, archery lessons in the predawn gray outside an inn, a humble feast for a daughter come home. Even the threats and challenges the characters face honor this attention to smaller things—on a quest to save a dying world, danger comes most often in the crossing of rivers, cliffs, and the deep woods. Huntress takes its time, and the book is far better for it.

Above all, however, Huntress is a story about love; the loves society expects us to have, the loves we choose, the ones we deny, and the loves that come unexpected and take us by surprise. The problem of love is raised in the very first chapter, where Taisin, through oracular vision, discovers that in the future she will fall in love with Kaede—a revelation that distresses her greatly, as she has striven long and hard to become a sage, who take vows of celibacy. Kaede, as a noble’s daughter, is expected to marry for politics, but she knows without question that there is no way she could marry any man. Conflicting expectations, desires, fears, and hopes make their relationship layered and interesting. Though it’s certainly no surprise that they fall for each other, the entire process is so carefully slow and naturally developed, I can hardly think of many other books that compare.

Huntress is all at once a rich fantasy novel, an enchanting fairy tale, and a compelling romance in perfect balance. If you haven’t read it yet, I can think of no recommendation I could offer so wholeheartedly and without reservation. So enjoy, keep warm, and I’ll see you again once the days turn back towards the sun.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Nat reviews Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

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A suspenseful tale of vengeful ghosts, family secrets, and self discovery – it’s funny, it’s creepy, there are twists and turns, gods and spirits, and a queer main character who’s just trying to get her shit together. What more can you ask for? 

Jessamyn Teoh is the daughter of immigrant parents, freshly graduated from Harvard with no job prospects and a struggling long distance relationship with her girlfriend. If that wasn’t tough enough, Jess is preparing to return to Malaysia with her very traditional parents, pushing her even farther into the closet. In a roundabout way, this story shapes up to be a coming of age/coming out story of a late bloomer. Our main character is a self described “shut-in with no friends,” and many of her struggles are internal. This is quite fitting when much of the story is about spirits who can literally enter your body to haunt and possess you, and you can have entire conversations without saying a single word aloud. 

Despite the serious nature of bodies controlled by restless spirits and vengeful gods, while grappling with sexuality and life’s purpose, this book had me cackling the entire time. Our plucky protagonist has a dry wit and plenty of snarky commentary, and then there’s her meddlesome aunties and tiresome uncles, who are equal parts amusing and stifling. And that leads us to one of Cho’s most intriguing characters, Ah Ma, Jess’ spirit grandmother. Ah Ma is larger than life, even in death, and never shy about telling you how she really feels.  

As Jess learns of her family secrets, while keeping a few of her own, she also finds her voice and a newfound confidence, as she’s forced to face her darkest fears. While most of us haven’t literally been visited or overtaken by a dead relative’s spirit, many of us do know what it’s like to be haunted by our own private fears or struggle with the concept of home and belonging. 

While at first glance this might appear to be a straightforward supernatural suspense, and an exciting and enjoyable read (and I want to lure you in with that prospect,) also know that Cho is coming at you with a lot of serious material: sexuality, religion, racism, cultural identity, and the struggles of immigrant communities both in the US and abroad. There’s a lot to unpack and consider if you’re up for it.

As for culture, I loved experiencing Malaysia through Jess’ eyes, as she too is a visitor there. I didn’t know much about Malaysia and religions in that region, so I found myself Googling details throughout the reading, from food to dialect. Meanwhile, Jess is navigating her feelings of not belonging to any particular place, but also seeing a side of her parents that she never saw when they lived in the US. And Cho’s use of language and sentence structure throughout the novel is one of the keys to its success, further immersing us in her world. 

It’s really hard to do this story justice because there’s so much going on, but it’s never in a way that feels overwhelming. It might be better described as a journey composed of many side quests that each unlock awareness in our main character. While this isn’t a romance (or even really about Jess’ sexuality), the novel still leaves us with an optimistic ending and a feeling of closure, which in these pandemic times is very much appreciated. Absolutely one of my favorite reads in 2021! 

Content warnings: violence, attempted sexual assault, implied assault/rape

Danika reviews Briar Girls by Rebecca Kim Wells

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This is a YA fantasy book about Lena, a girl who kills everyone she touches. Her parents have been keeping her hidden, moving around a lot whenever things get dicey–Until one day, her mother leaves and never comes back. The witch who cursed Lena is still looking for her, so her father has strict rules to keep her safe. It’s not much of a life. She has no friends and rarely leaves their house.

In their latest move, her father is hired to be the Watcher of a forest called the Silence. People keep getting pulled in by the woods, and if they return, they’re changed, endlessly singing the same song. Her father’s job is to keep people out of the Silence, but when Lena sneaks away one night to take a peek, she finds someone running out of the woods instead.

Miranda is injured and being chased, so Lena and her father take her in. But Miranda is from Gather, a magical city, and she promises that a cure to Lena’s curse could be found there. Miranda will take her there, if Lena agrees to help her find and awake the sleeping princess who is prophesied to bring down their tyrannical government. Lena agrees, escaping her father’s house despite his protestations, and she’s pulled into a world that’s beyond anything she imagined.

Before Miranda, Lena didn’t know magic existed, apart from her curse. Now, she sees apparitions in the woods that try to lead her astray. She stumbles into a complex network of magical allegiances and enemies, Never sure who to trust. Everyone she meets seems to tell her that the other person is a liar and a traitor.

Lena also finds a new understanding of her curse. In this world of blood magic, with enemies chasing her and her life on the line, Killing people with a touch can have its advantages, And Lena begins to grapple with her own power, especially when she’s promised much, much more.

There’s also a romance subplot here, and a classic bisexual love triangle. At first, Lena felt like a helpless character being pulled from one situation to the next. Who she trusted felt arbitrary, and often was just the last person she spoke to. But this fit into the fairy tale aspects of the story: being in dark, magical woods, being lost, and not knowing which magical being to trust.

As she gets used to this world, though, we start to see a different side of Lena, one who is angry and wants to wield power. She’s resentful of the life she’s had and of feeling guilty all the time for her curse. So it’s a bit of a revenge story, and a story about righteous anger.

This really pulled me in, and ends on an epic battle that brings all these disparate story elements and characters together. If you like dark fairy tale reimaginings, definitely give this one a try.

I do want to give a content warning for cutting: this world using blood magic, so it comes up a lot.

Vic reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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Growing up, I devoured books quickly and easily, but by high school, I started to lose interest in the books I found in bookstores or the library, jumping from book to book without finishing a single one.  The problem, I determined, was that I was bored with reading about straight people all the time, and published books, as far as I could tell, were all about straight people.  And then I found a list of YA books featuring LGBT+ characters, and I bought every book on the list, among them Huntress by Malinda Lo. I didn’t end up reading all of the books (genre still matters, among other things, even when LGBT+ books are scarce), but I loved Huntress, enough that it has been the book that, for me, represents the time in my life when I discovered that there actually were books about LGBT+ people, if you knew to look for them.  Fortunately, now it is much easier to find those books, but my fondness for Malinda Lo remains, so when I first heard about Last Night at the Telegraph Club, her name excited me almost as much as the summary (and I love historical fiction, so that is saying something).  Happily, it did not disappoint.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club centers around seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a closeted Chinese lesbian living in San Francisco during the Red Scare.  At school, Lily befriends another girl, Kath, with whom she begins to visit the Telegraph Club, a popular lesbian bar.  As their feelings for each other deepen, Lily also has to contend with both the racism that could see her father deported, though he is legally an American citizen, and the knowledge that if her love for Kath were to be discovered, it would put both of them in danger.

Though Lo keeps this story firmly planted in history, she does so without it ever becoming either too grim or too rose-colored.  The setting is fully realized, with timelines interspersed throughout the sections to further contextualize the events of the novel, and Lo does not shy away from depicting the racism and homophobia that Lily and the people around her face, ranging from microaggressions to being deported or disowned.

Despite all of this, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is full of love and levity.  While it is true that a part of Lily is always disconnected from her environment, as the only lesbian she knows in Chinatown and the only Chinese girl at the Telegraph Club, the love she feels for her home and the freedom she experiences at the Telegraph Club matter just as much as the fear and the pain.  Though Lo makes it clear that it is not easy to be Chinese, a lesbian, or a Chinese lesbian in this time or place, it is not simply a life of prejudice or hiding or suffering.  She presents a multifaceted view of all parts of Lily’s identity, with a strong feeling of community and hope, and it is those aspects that make this novel really shine.

Perhaps what I loved most about this book was the relationship between Lily and Kath.  I found their dynamic to be a breath of fresh air, both in this book specifically as well as in a more general sense.  From the beginning, Lily and Kath clearly enjoy talking to each other.  They ask each other questions about themselves and their interests, and they listen.  As a reader, I never struggled to understand what they liked about each other, which, for me, is what really makes or breaks a romance.  Their bond was real, a genuine connection that grew out of friendship more than anything else.  They were sweet, and they were passionate, and I rooted for their happiness all the way through.

I know I am not the first reviewer to say this, but Last Night at the Telegraph Club is exactly the sort of book I was looking for in high school.  It is a compelling historical fiction novel centered around a protagonist whose story so rarely gets told, but in Lo’s capable hands, no part of this feels unfamiliar.  I was able to both see myself and learn where I did not, and when I finally closed the book, it left me feeling whole in the way that all my favorite books do.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism, racial slurs, misogyny, miscarriage

Danika reviews Crip Kinship: The Disability Justice & Art Activism of Sins Invalid by Shayda Kafai

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My first introduction to disability justice was reading Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, which was one of the most powerful and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, so when I saw that Arsenal Pulp had released another book on disability justice, I knew I had to read it. Disability justice is disability activism that centres queer and trans Black, indigenous, and people of colour. It advocated for leadership from the most impacted, and it views ableism as being interconnected with other systems of oppression, including racism, capitalism, transphobia, anti-fatness, and more.

This is a history of Sins Invalid, a disability justice performance project founded in 2006 in San Francisco. It explains how they got started, but more than just recounting, it explores the ideas behind Sins Invalid and why it became such an important outlet for people. It discusses how the mainstream disability rights movement as well as disability studies as an academic framework centre white disabled activists.

Crip Kinship reclaims beauty and sexuality for queer, trans, disabled POC and Indigenous bodies: “Beauty here becomes the limp, it becomes burned glossy skin, and abundant drool. Beauty becomes Mad minds rapid loving and stimming hands. It is the survival magic of all our bodyminds doing beauty by blurring boundaries.” Sins Invalid is “transgressing the ableist assumptions that disabled bodyminds cannot: we cannot dance, we cannot speak through movement, we cannot express beauty in our bodyminds. Instead, participants learn that these limitations on movement and dance are not necessarily coming from their bodyminds, but rather from ableism’s finite imagination of who can dance and of whose movement is deemed beautiful.”

It outlines a different way of organizing as well as a different lens to examine politics. Politics not as abstract, but as material conditions that are life or death right now, and require support and accessibility. Crip Kinship invites readers to imagine what it would look like if we considered all people’s needs and came up with the solution most accessible to all, knowing that some needs will conflict, and that the process will be messy and need constant re-examining and adaption:

“[Y]ou know you’re doing [Disability Justice] because people will show up late, someone will vomit, someone will have a panic attack, and nothing will happen on time because the ramp is broken on the supposedly ‘accessible’ building … Disability Justice, when it’s really happening, is too messy and wild to really fit into traditional movement and nonprofit industrial complex structures, because out bodies and minds are too wild to fit into those structures.”

This is part history, part manifesto, bringing in so many different voices. I especially liked a chapter that discussed how Sins Invalid reclaims beauty for disabled bodyminds, but also gives space for another disability justice perspective that beauty is an unsalvageable concept based in restriction and oppression, and that it is more freeing to reclaim Ugly as a concept.

If all of these concepts and terms seem overwhelming, they are defined in end notes in the book, which is very helpful.

My only complaint was that I would have liked to see more about the people and relationships behind Sins Invalid: we see a few glimpses of conversations had at the beginning, but most of the focus was on the big picture. I would have liked some behind the scenes of what that messy process of disability justice looks like in practice, with creating this organization and keeping it running all these years. I also wanted more description of the actual performances, because what is included is incredible, but I now see that there are clips to watch for free and some documentaries for purchase on the website, so I look forward to watch those!

In fact, I am left with a long reading (and watching and listening) list of books, articles, podcasts, and videos I noted that I wanted to follow up on, and those are only a few of the resources and references collected in this book. The references given are carefully selected, highlighting disabled queer, trans, BIPOC voices, whether that’s in their published books, personal interviews, blog posts, or other formats. This makes for a great jumping off point to follow up these ideas.

I highly, highly recommend this and Care Work to anyone and everyone. It left me with a lot to think about, and I can’t wait to learn more.