Larkie reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

the cover of Passing Strange

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Passing Strange is a novella that feels like it has it all: a bit of mystery, a lot of history, and just a hint of magic. A queer love story set mostly in 1940 San Francisco, the book opens with Helen Young, and elderly woman who has just a few errands to run before her life is over. As she finishes these and her life comes to a close, we drift back to when she was a young woman–and unravel some of the mystery surrounding her final actions.

This novella reads like a love letter to San Francisco, and the setting feels vibrant and clearly well researched. The plot mostly revolves around the romance between two creatives: Haskel, the visual artist who paints covers for pulp novels; and Emily, a singer at the lesbian nightclub Mona’s. They also spend their time in Chinatown, climbing the steep streets of Nob Hill, and visiting the World’s Fair, as Haskel and Emily melt together in a passionate romance. Helen is there too, of course, as are a few other queer women who enjoy throwing dinner parties, but they are all secondary characters to Haskel and Emily’s exploration of the city. While there is a lot of love for San Francisco in the novel, it clearly isn’t perfect, as we still see the prejudices of the time: Mona’s is a lesbian nightclub, sure, but it also acts as a tourist destination, where straight white couples come to be scandalized by the unnatural acts of its target patrons. Similarly, Helen is a lawyer who can’t get clients because she is a Chinese American woman, so she dances with her (beard) husband at the Forbidden City, which plays up American interests in Orientalism. All the characters both rely on and resent the tourists, as well as the stereotypes they have to perform in order to pay rent.

While I did enjoy the romance between Haskel and Emily, I was a little disappointed with how little the side characters are really involved in the story. The book opens with Helen, and she feels like the most interesting character to me, but she mostly spends her time off doing other things while Haskel and Emily go on dates and get to know each other. Then there are Franny and Babs, whose names I can hardly remember as they are only in a few scenes in the book. After such a strong opening with Helen, the ensuing domestic romance felt like a bit of a letdown–again, it was a very nice romance, but I was expecting something grand and mysterious, and I got a fairly standard romance that was like Carol, but set in San Francisco and better.

And then there’s the magic. I have mixed feelings about the magic in this story, and I think the shortness of the novella might influence a lot of it. Franny does fold maps to create shortcuts around the city, but they explain that magic is difficult, and needs to be very precise, like a complex mathematical equation. Magic is only used three times throughout the whole book, and twice are at the very end; the first usage introduces it and allows the characters to discuss it a bit. That makes this book feel less like a fantasy and more like a historical fiction that just has a magical deus ex machina so that the characters can escape the trouble that they got into at the end of the book. Now, given that the magic doers themselves talk about how this isn’t something everyday, and the magic is often small and unnoticeable to anyone not directly involved in it, there really isn’t enough room in a short book like this for there to be a lot of magic. So it does make sense in universe as to why there is so little actual magic use in the book. But I was drawn to this book because of the fantasy elements, and if I didn’t like historical fiction, it would have been a bit of a letdown.

This was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a sapphic historical fiction that is short and sweet, with just a sprinkle of magic. However, I doubt I’ll be revisiting it. I do have a lot more opinions about the ending, so highlight below for spoilers!

I appreciate the open ending, where we don’t actually know whether or not the big magic works (but assume it does). But I have…a lot of questions about even the presumed happy ending. Nitpicky, perhaps, but…what exactly happens when a singer and a visual artist emerge in modern day San Francisco? Where do they stay? How do they afford rent in one of the most expensive places in the country? They don’t even know what a computer is, how are they going to make money and support themselves? I appreciate the sentiment of disappearing into a painting until you can emerge in a more accepting time, but it’s also a more expensive time, and I feel like it would have been easier to just…change their names and move to New York or something.

Nat reviews Chef’s Kiss by Stephanie Shea

the cover of Chef's Kiss

Late last year I started really getting into reading sapphic romance after discovering that a guaranteed happy ending is nothing short of a potent drug. A shot of serotonin right into the veins! As I ventured down the queer romance rabbit hole, I realized that some books are certainly more of a balm than others, and reading Chef’s Kiss was a reminder of why I fell for the genre. While our main characters pull grueling shifts in a Michelin star kitchen, Stephanie Shea’s book provides a heaping serving of your favorite comfort food. 

It’s always fun to read a book set in a city or town you live in and let me tell you, a restaurant romance set in San Francisco was right up my alley. Valentina Rosas is a passionate chef and recent graduate of the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the organization that makes you disappear) who’s just landed a stage, a working interview, at her dream restaurant in the Mission. Through Val’s eyes, we get a glimpse of restaurant life starting from the very unglamourous bottom rung, and I think Shea did a great job of showing the not so shiny side of the industry. The shifts are grueling, the hours brutal and exhausting, even the lowest positions are ridiculously competitive, and some stage positions aren’t even paid.

Shifting perspectives, we get the view from the flip side with renowned Chef Jenn Coleman. A child of a Black mother and Italian father, Jenn knows that it’s hard enough to be a woman in this industry, but as a woman of color? She’s had to work hard to get to the top, and comes across to many as a no nonsense, career first, workaholic. While she has a reputation for being a hardass and a perfectionist, you can see that Coleman uses food as her love language. I really liked that she’s very protective over Val, whose character is Mexican American, and that Shea brings attention to the struggles of women of color in a very white and cis male dominated industry. (Which, to be fair, is like almost every single industry.) I also really enjoyed the inclusion of the Spanish dialogue between Val and her parents! 

While workplace romance is not an uncommon theme, and IRL restaurant hook-ups may be a dime a dozen, the potential for a problematic power dynamic here is something that Shea doesn’t shy away from discussing.  Don’t worry, there’s an HR department to make sure everything’s on the level. This is explored through Chef Coleman’s POV, and we get some mention of the #MeToo movement and the predatory behavior and toxic environment that exists in restaurant culture. 

While Val and Jenn may have their differences, their love of food and community unite them. And, speaking of food, Shea has some fun with her fictional restaurant Gia and its Mexican-Italian fusion menu: spicy enchilada raviolis! spaghetti tacos! taco lasagna! Shea’s romance had all the right ingredients for me: memorable characters, the perfect amount of tension, good pacing, and timely injections of comedic relief, making the title of Chef’s Kiss right on the nose. 

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

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.

Carolina reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

It seems apt to begin 2021, a time of reflection and introspection for many, with a YA novel that feels fresh and timeless at the same time. Malinda Lo’s new novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club echoes with the same beats as my favorite “baby gay” first lesbian novels (e.g. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel), but holds nuance and depth as an exploration of the limitations and restraints of the Eisenhower Era. Malindo Lo explores the role of the “other” in white picket fence McCarthyist America through the eyes of a young girl coming to terms with historical familial trauma, her identity as a Chinese lesbian in society, and future as a woman in a male-dominated field in San Francisco’s post-war Chinatown.

Lily Hu is a “good Chinese girl.” Her father is a reputable family doctor, her mother by his side as a nurse, both parents well-respected members of their tight-knit Chinatown family. There is no room in their community’s embrace for error or deviation, as their neighborhood faces the tides of post-World War II racism and the initial waves of the Red Scare. When Lily discovers an intriguing advertisement for a male impersonator at a local nightclub, The Telegraph Club, she realizes she might not be quite like her cookie-cutter classmates as she once thought.. As the novel progresses, Lily discovers the wonder of the gay underground in The Telegraph Club alongside her close friend, and first love, Kath. Lily must delicately maintain the balance her of double life between Chinatown and The Castro in order to protect her family as they face deportation for supposed Communist ties, and save her new friends, Kath, and herself from the prying eyes of the gay-bashing police.

Last Night at The Telegraph Club has beautiful writing full of detail and care; Lo rebuilds the glitz and glitter of 1950’s era San Francisco before your eyes, situating the reader in the heart of Chinatown alongside the Hu family. The pacing was on the nose for a fast-paced, exciting coming of age novel and I could seldom put the novel down. Malinda Lo celebrates queer friendship and found families in Last Night at The Telegraph Club, one of my favorite themes that is very near and dear to my heart and seldom stressed in novels.

I loved the vignettes between chapters from Lily’s family’s point of view, as it regaled their journey to adulthood as immigrants and children of diaspora as they come to terms with their American surroundings as Chinese outsiders. Lily’s father’s fear of deportation and alienation from his American peers rings true in contemporary America. Personally, I related to Lily’s mother’s fear of being too “Americanized” and distanced from her own culture, as I am the daughter of Cuban immigrants. However, these outside perspectives interrupted Lily’s narrative and felt that they needed more depth in order to remain pertinent to the plot. I also would have preferred some fleshing out of the secondary characters, especially Shirley and Calvin, Lily’s friends who become involved in the Communist Party.

Malinda Lo’s works are already a bookshelf staple for any WLW; Ash and Huntress are often a young gay person’s first book with lesbian characters. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a fitting addition to Lo’s acclaimed literature, a wonderful coming of age novel full of love and heart. I would highly recommend this new novel, in stores and online on January 19, 2021.

Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher and author for the eARC of the novel!

Trigger Warnings: racism, homophobia, police brutality, family trauma, abandonment

Sheila Laroque reviews Music From Another World by Robin Talley

Music From Another World by Robin Talley

Reading this was the comforting visit from a great pal that I was so desperate for this week. This story takes place in 1977; across Orange County and San Francisco. I should disclose that I believe that any way that one consumes books counts as reading, even if more technically you are listening. It all counts as reading to me; and the way that this story was written through a series of letters and diary entries suited an audiobook performance.

It is the story of two Catholic high school girls that are assigned a pen pal assignment over the summer of 1977 California. They discuss their lives, the punk music scene and the state of politics at the time. It was a welcomed break from our current situation, to revisit a time in queer history where the fight for political and civil rights was just coming into the public sphere.

In this YA romance, we can also see just how far we have come. There was also a great deal of time in the middle of the punk scene at the time, which was music that I really enjoyed when I was in high school. Reading this book was one of the highlights of my week, and is an excellent story told with compelling characters. It is well-written and highly enjoyable. If you are looking for a lovely, “get my mind off things” coming of age romance story, this one will stand up for years to come.

Laura reviews Sister Spit edited by Michelle Tea

sisterspitcover1

In the introduction to Sister Spit: Writing, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road, editor Michelle Tea proudly writes that Sister Spit is what she did instead of college. Reading this collection is like digging through a pile of her study group’s crumpled looseleaf notes at the end of the semester. It’s enough to get the gist of the lesbian-feminist-trans-vegan-poet-artist-addict-activist-adventurer curriculum, but by no means will you gain any mastery of it. You’ll just wish you’d enrolled in the classes, then lie awake at night questioning every major life decision you’ve ever made. In a good way. Really.

Sister Spit was formed in 1994, when Tea and Sini Anderson created a girls-only open mic night to get away from the Bukowski-worshipping bros dominating the San Francisco literary scene. Their show ran every Sunday for two straight years before they picked it up and hit the road. Together, Tea and Anderson led a roving band of queer poets and storytellers across the country in couple ramshackle rental vans, stopping in a new city every night to give live performances.

“Most Sister Spit shows are about class,” writes Tea. “About class and being female, or about class and not being female, about being trans, a faggot. There is feminism in everything, a punkness too.” The same gut feeling is also true for the works contained in Sister Spit (the book), and it is a pleasure to read.

Covering 15 years of Sister Spit’s best work, this anthology shows incredible range. The collection starts off strong from the very first piece: “Star,” a violent, bitchy, improper, fabulous poem by Samuel Topiary. A little further in, I loved “Training for Goddesses,” in which the hilarious Kat Marie Yoas describes her experiences at a dominatrix training camp. And “Real Paper Letter” by Tamara Llosa-Sandor was funny and wonderful in a gentler, contemplative sort of way.

My favorite piece of writing in Sister Spit is “High Five for Ram Dass” by Harry Dodge. Consider:

Chuck Mangione, Late Zeppelin and a Streisand are stuffed under the bleachers in a throbbing gyroscopic heap. Late Zeppelin’s head is banging into the aluminum bench at a pace that makes me feel like doing “The Bus Stop.” I watch them for a long minute and the crickets rev up their nighttime calypso. Buttes the color of ash and pumpkin ascend until mercifully, they eclipse the sun. A totally relaxing primal event. I feel looser. The air is soft, exactly the temperature of my skin and fragrant to boot. Orange blossoms. Tuna. Whimpers, screams, yells replace the metallic fuck-gonging and before long the trio emerges into the soft dark night smiling. Stumbling on loose hips.

Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s from a story about formerly feral children resynthesizing into contemporary culture.

Perhaps my least favorite segments in Sister Spit were the ones “from the road.” I found the constant name dropping to be distracting and annoying. Still, I loved reading the tales. I love knowing that these people — interesting, creative, inventive and resourceful as they are — existed and exist. I love that they’ve documented their stories and that I can access them whenever I want. And, okay, “Where Is My Soul?” with Cristy C. Road’s reflections from the road, equal parts inspirational and relatable, are pretty wonderful. “How do you do this?” she asks. “How do you grow so gracefully, achieving levels of confidence and success while maintaining your grit and spirit? Your anger and identity? How do I become Eileen Myles?” Oof. This. Or alternatively, how do I become Michelle Tea?

Sister Spit’s Spring 2013 literary tour begins in just a few short weeks! For a full list of tour stops, check out the City Lights website.