Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Malinda Lo
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, LGBTQIA+
Pub. Date: Jan. 2021 (read Feb. 2022)

This book has it all! A queer young adult, historical romance featuring an Asian-American teenager! I don’t read much YA anymore, but this is exactly the type of book that keeps me reading the genre. It’s a story that’s just as impactful for adults as it is for teenagers and covers a really interesting part of American history that I didn’t really know very much about. I’ve read a few books on Japanese internment camps and anti-Japanese sentiments during and after WWII, but I haven’t read very much about the red-scare, which was about anti-Chinese sentiments during the rise of communism post WWII.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club isn’t really about the red scare, but it does greatly influence the setting of the story. The book centers around 17 year old Lily Hu, a science and space loving teenager working hard to finish school and get into a good university so that she can continue to study science. At the same time, Lily is questioning her burgeoning sexuality when she meets Kath Miller and they discover a common interest in the Telegraph Club, a bar featuring a male impersonator that is heavily frequented by women. It’s the 1950’s, so there’s never a good time to be gay, and Lily’s worries are further exacerbated by the threat of deportation that hangs over every Chinese family due to the paranoia about communism.

I loved the writing in this book and found Lily to be an extremely relatable character. She just wants to be a “good girl” in the eyes of her parents, teachers, and friends, but their view of what is “good” is so narrow and when her friends start dating boys, she is also understandably curious about Kath and the Telegraph Club. She is very nervous and suffers from so much doubt – I felt like I was right there with her. Whether you’re queer or not, I feel like any teenager can relate to Lily’s insecurity as she explores her sexuality and the world suddenly opens up into this even bigger and scarier place. Add in all of the familial and cultural expectations that she also had to contend with, I really empathized with her.

What I think makes this book so unique is that there was no easy solution for Lily. It’s 1954, it’s not like it’s going to suddenly be okay for her to be gay or that she could expect her sexual orientation to be accepted by either her friends or family. There’s a lot of homophobia in the book, which was accurate to the time period. It was heartbreaking to me that all the lesbians in the book pretty much had to come to terms with separating from their friends and family to be with the person they loved. It was impossible to expect that things would turn out well for Lily given the time period and setting, so I really liked how the author chose to end the book as well. It’s hopeful, yet realistic. Definitely recommend this book to everyone!

Breath, Eyes, Memory

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 1994 (read Mar. 2022)

Breath, Eyes, Memory has been on my TBR for a very long time. It’s a modern classic and I finally picked up a copy last year in a second hand bookstore. I put it on my backlist books for this year to finally try and find the motivation to read it.

It blew me away. It was not at all the book I was expecting and I wish I had seen some trigger warnings for it because it is a heavy, emotional book. So TW for rape, sexual assault, eating disorders, and suicide. It was a hard book to read, but I can’t stop thinking about it since I read it and I know it’s a book that will stay with me.

Breath, Eyes, Memory tells the story of Sophie Caco, a young Haitian girl who has grown up with her Aunt while her mother tries to make a living in America. Her mother sends for her at the age of 12 and Sophie leaves behind everything she knows to move to America. I thought it was going to be a straightforward coming-of-age story about immigration, but it was so much more than that. At its core, this is a book about generational trauma.

Sophie grows up in America, but struggles to find herself there. The women in her family have been taught strict ideals about sexual purity that are enforced down from generation to generation. When Sophie has a falling out with her mother, she returns to her homeland to see her Aunt and Grandmother and try to make sense of the trauma that has been passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. At the same time, her mother is grappling with her own childhood trauma and the two women struggle to be there for one another, despite needing each other.

This is Danticat’s debut and she has a simple writing style, but I still found it to be extremely compelling. She doesn’t get caught up in side stories and every idea has its own place and meaning. It’s quite an emotional punch for how short the book is. It’s a very sad story and I ached for each one of the characters; questioning, but understanding how the cycle of violence always repeats itself. I’ve never heard of the kind of purity test that has been inflicted on the women of Haiti and I think it will forever haunt me, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for the girls who experience it. I don’t think I could re-read this book because it is quite upsetting, but I do feel better for having read it.

Great Cicle

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read Feb. 2022 on Audible)

I feel like I have a lot to say about Great Circle, so I will do my best to capture my thoughts on this giant book, keeping in mind that it took me more than a month to read, so some of the early details are already a little fuzzy.

If you’re looking for epic historical fiction, this is definitely it. This book has been calling my name for a while, but I was a little intimidated by it’s 600+ page length. Eventually I decided to buy it on Audible because I’d been flying through my credits faster than I could earn them and thought a 26 hour audiobook would slow me down (I was right).

Great Circle is the comprehensive story of fictional pilot Marian Graves, who grew up in the midwest in the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the dream of one day becoming a pilot. Her life spans prohibition and World War II and she eventually attempts to circumnavigate the globe from pole to pole. In the last leg of her journey she disappears and is never heard from again. In present day, her story inspires a movie and famous actress Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian. The book is predominantly about Marian, but it does switch back and forth from Marian’s to Hadley’s timeline. 

When I say this is a comprehensive look at Marian’s life, I mean it. The book starts by introducing us to her parents before they meet and covers every aspect of her life. She loses her parents as infants and she and her twin brother Jamie grow up in Montana with their Uncle Wallace, who is an artist and an alcoholic. As her twin, Jamie also features heavily in the story and we get to watch the two of them grow up.

From the first time she sees a plane, Marian wants nothing more than to be a pilot. She quits school to save money for flying lessons and her aspirations end up taking her all over the world. I feel like I could expand so much on the plot because it’s so substantial and so much happens between her childhood and her epic journey around the world. but this is meant to be a review rather than a summary so let’s talk about what I did and didn’t like. 

Most importantly, I liked Marian. She is a fascinating character. She is driven by her ambitions, which are so different from many women of the day that I couldn’t help but admire her. She wants nothing more than to be free, but is consistently limited by the constraints of her circumstance and sex. She has a limited moral compass when it comes to the means that will enable her to achieve her desires and she’s prepared to run at life with both arms wide open.

Second, I liked how much history this book covers, from World War I to prohibition, to pioneer Alaska and World War II. It is incredibly ambitious in scope and I really felt like I was living someone’s whole life. Sometimes the plot got a little carried away with too much depth about side characters, but at the same time, it made me feel totally enmeshed in Marian’s world to also be surrounded by the stories of her family.

Finally, I liked a lot of the themes explored. As a female pilot, gender is a key constraint in Marian’s life. Whereas Jamie is free to go off and pursue art and women and build the life he wants, she hits roadblocks and compromises every step in the way. But I loved that while she gives a lot of herself, she was still able to recognize some parts of her life that she would refuse to allow to be transactional. Namely that she did not want children. It’s pretty radical for a woman in the 1930’s to be opposed to having children, but I liked that she was unwilling to compromise this key part of herself and that it’s ultimately what motivates her to pursue a better fortune.

It’s going to sound weird to say, but I loved Barclay McQueen. And by love, I mean I loved the brilliance of Maggie Shipstead in creating a character that I hated so much with every fiber of my being. Barclay was the perfect foil in this story. His wealth and desire and entitlement highlighted everything that was enraging about men and sex in this era (and many era’s thereafter). Because of the structure of the timelines, you ultimately know how the story is going to end from the beginning and you know Marian must eventually rid herself of Barclay, but the satisfaction of her finally taking back control of her life is so freaking cathartic. Yet at the same time, I lamented Barclay because I felt no other character was able to drive the tension and conflict in the story quite as successfully as he did. He’s a character you love to hate and his absence was mildly disappointing in that he is what inspired such strength in Marian’s character. 

Then there’s the journey around the world. There’s a lot that happens with the war in between that I didn’t find particularly compelling, but oh boy, Shipstead had me in Antarctica. Ruth was an interesting character, but I felt that she was more of a stepping stone to introduce Eddie Bloom and how I loved him! I thought Marian was going to break my heart at the end, but it was Eddie who decimated it. He was such a sweet soul and serves to highlight just how unfair the world can be, in more ways than one. We know how this is going to end from the beginning, and yet I’d never really thought to stop and consider the implications, to consider the heartbreak we are barreling towards throughout 600 pages. 

So what didn’t I like? A few things, but mostly the length. I feel this has been a common refrain for me this year. I’m getting to the point where I don’t want to read waffle anymore and I admire an author who is able to be concise. In the case of this book, it wasn’t so much about length as being compelling. In some ways, I think length works for this book. Because it’s so large in scope, length contributes to the feeling of really knowing this person by spending a lot of time with them. My complaint is more that frankly, some of this was really boring. I didn’t even mind that the story starts with a saga about Marian’s parents because it was interesting enough, but we spend a lot of time with Marian learning to fly, Jamie and his art, and a whole lot of nothing about world war II. I just wanted the writing in these sections to be a little tighter. I appreciated Shipstead writing about Marian’s traumas and triumphs because they gave so much depth to her character, but I felt like she needed more secondary characters like Barclay to really drive the story. I felt like the book lost a lot of its tension once Marian goes to Alaska and it didn’t really get it back until near the end of the war. 

The other part I didn’t really like was Hadley. I understand now that I’ve finished the book why Hadley was included, but I didn’t really think her necessary. Honestly, her entire story could have been cut from this book and it wouldn’t have substantially changed anything – I just would have been happier because then it would have been shorter. I wasn’t really interested in Hadley at all and her tie to Marian felt pretty irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. Her story doesn’t really even focus that much on the filming of the movie and I couldn’t bring myself to care about her personal drama – Marian was a more well realized character and I was only interested in spending time in her timeline. 

Overall, it’s all leaving me at a bit of a loss for how to rate the book. What I liked, I loved, and what I didn’t like, I really didn’t like. I’d kind of like to talk about the ending because it was so surprising, but at the same time, I don’t have a lot to say about it. I wanted to love Caleb, but struggled a lot with his character. Marian goes through some pretty traumatic sexual experiences and though I think in some ways, her and Caleb were both victims, I still found it difficult to overlook how he manipulated her when they were young. 

The other thing that was disappointing to me (though I only fault myself for this) was the realization that Marian Graves was not a real person. For some reason I thought this was based on a true story for 95% of the book. It made it easier for me to accept some of the plot decisions because I thought the author was just following the natural trajectory of Marian’s life. Knowing now that the whole thing was fictional – it explains a lot – but I wish the author had made some different choices in the storytelling.

Anyways, I think it’s a solid 3.5 star read. I’m going to rate it up because I thought there were moments where the characterization and writing really shone and I can see why it was shortlisted for the Booker. It wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be though and I think sometimes it did get lost in its “epic” scope, but otherwise, a very compelling read.

The Rose Code

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kate Quinn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Jan. 2022)

The Rose Code was my book club pick for January. I read The Alice Network a few years ago and only half liked it, so I wasn’t super excited to pick this one up, especially given it was 650 pages, but I ended up quite liking it, despite some flaws.

One of the key things I didn’t like about The Alice Network was the modern day storyline – there is no modern day story in The Rose Code and I think this helped with my enjoyment of it. So many historical fiction novels seem to follow the formulaic approach of splitting the story between two timelines and while The Rose code does this to an extent, there’s no present day narrative, which I rarely find adds much to the novel. Instead, The Rose Code focuses most of the narrative during the war, while occasionally jumping forward a few years.

The narrative focuses on 3 female codebreakers working at Bletchley Park. The setting was somewhat familiar to me having watched The Imitation Game, but I felt this provided a much more nuanced approach. Osla and Mab are mysteriously called to Bletchley Park for a job interview and meet on the train. They billet together in the local village where they meet their landlady’s daughter, Beth. It’s never explicitly stated, but the reader can assume Beth lies somewhere on the spectrum and while she doesn’t pick up on a lot of social cues, she is great with puzzles and ends up working at Bletchley Park as well.

This book covers a lot of history. Bletchley Park is credited as being extremely important to the war effort, with hundreds of individuals spread across the campus working on different parts of codebreaking and translation. This is done for the sake of privacy so that no single individual comes to possess too much information. Osla is a wealthy socialite who speaks 3 languages and is in a secret relationship with Prince Philip, who she meets at the start of the war. Mab doesn’t run in the same circles as Osla, but is trying to elevate her position by searching for a wealthy husband. And Beth is just trying to get out from under the shadow of her abusive, god-fearing mother.

Without getting into spoilers, I found the author’s note to be very illuminating. Osla Kendall is based on a real person, Osla Benning (with obvious liberties taken), who was actually Prince Philip’s wartime girlfriend. Mab is completely fictionalized and Beth is an amalgamation of two real female codebreakers. But upon reading the author’s note, I would say that the majority of Quinn’s characters are the amalgamation of a subset of real people. She does a great job at taking as many real aspects from history as she can and incorporating them into her fictional story. I especially liked her inclusion of the mental hospital in this book and think she could have written an entire book just on this topic.

Last year I read Kate Moore’s book, The Woman They Could Not Silence, which is about how many women would often be locked up in mental institutions, not because they were mentally ill, but as a way to oppress or silence them, often at the hands of their husbands, brothers, or fathers. It’s a fascinating subject in itself – had I not read Kate Moore’s book, I might have thought Quinn was including the hospital for dramatic effect, but actually I had no trouble believing this frustrating narrative and I think she did a really good job a capturing the sexism and injustice of it all.

I liked that each of the characters came from a different socio-economic backgrounds – it really gave a good scope of the war and struggles faced. I really liked Mab and thought the inclusion of her love story really well done. Each of the women had their own struggles and challenges, but they were all fully realized characters with a lot of character development.

So what didn’t I like about this book? There were really just 2 things. The first is that the book is far too long. Quinn goes REALLY in depth about codebreaking, and while it is interesting, I didn’t have a lot of context for it and I don’t think she really explained rodding and the bombe machines in a way that I could meaningfully understand how they worked. I found the narrative got a bit repetitive over time and I’m not exaggerating when I say I think she could have cut out at least 200 pages. It felt like there was a lot more filler than there needed to be.

The second thing I didn’t really like was the inclusion of Prince Philip’s relationship with Osla. This is set as the foundation of the entire story, with Quinn counting down the days to the royal wedding while we get flashbacks to the war. I think a lot of people are fascinated to learn that Philip has a wartime girlfriend, but I felt more along the lines of, why wouldn’t he? At the end of the day, the royal wedding and Osla’s relationship don’t actually have that much bearing on the story and I thought it was odd to center the entire narrative around it. For me, the codebreakers were the focal point of the story and I found the royal wedding to be distracting and tangential. I felt like Quinn discovered all these historical figures and just tried to cram as many as she could into one story without thinking critically about whether they belonged there. Or maybe she just thought a story with a byline about Prince Philip would sell, in which case, she’s not wrong because people lap up stories about the royal family.

Overall I just found the story took awhile to get going. I was glued to the page for the entire last third of the book, but it’s a bit of work to get there and I felt weary about it given the length of the book. Shorten this baby a bit and I think it would be even more inviting and accessible to readers. I do appreciate what Quinn has done in telling this story about Bletchley Park though. For a long time Bletchley Park was a hidden part of England’s history, and it’s exciting that the general public now gets the chance to learn about it. So 4 stars from me, which is still a great rating, despite its shortcomings.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2005 (read May 2021)

I didn’t do much reading through summer of 2021 and there are a handful of books that I didn’t review, but I didn’t realize that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was one of them until recently. I swear I can remember writing a review for this one, but I can’t find it anywhere and I’m really disappointed now that I don’t have one. I’m a huge fan of Lisa See and have written lengthy reviews on both The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane and The Island of Sea Women, so I will do my best to review this one as well, keeping in mind it’s been the better part of 6 months since I read it.

Like most of Lisa See’s books, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is historical fiction set in China. See excels at writing about specific parts of women’s culture (tea cakes in The Tea Girl and the Haenyeo in Sea Women), Snow Flower is no exception and focuses on the practice of foot binding and the relationship between two Laotong. I believe Snow Flower was See’s first book that became really popular, so I’ve been itching to go back and read it for a while now. For some reason I always find Lisa See’s books really intimidating to pick up, but they’re always a joy to read!

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan covers a lot of history, primarily focusing on Lily and her Laotong, Snow Flower. A Laotong is basically a lifelong sistership between two girls that are considered to be “old sames”. Most girls will have sisterhood circles with other girls in their village, but few are selected for Laotong matches, so it’s a particularly auspicious pairing that is arranged by a matchmaker. In this case, Lily is a poor girl, but because her foot binding goes so well, she is matched with Snow Flower, who comes from a much wealthier family. This foreshadows a good future for Lily and will allow her to marry up. 

The book starts off as a story about foot binding and evolves into a novel about so much more. But first let’s spend a bit of time talking about foot binding. This is an old Chinese tradition where young girls’ feet are literally broken and reshaped as a symbol of status. The smaller the end result (as was the case with Lily), the higher the status. In this day and age it seems like a barbaric practice that resulted in the deaths of girls who succumbed to infections in the process of binding and left all women with limited mobility later in life. I don’t like to pass judgement on other cultures, but where it becomes frustrating is that women are still meant to perform the majority of household chores while moving around on tiny feet. 

However in Lily’s case, her successful foot binding allowed for her to move up in society. Having a Laotong is another status symbol and because Snow Flower came from a higher class than her, it further elevated her family and she eventually marries well. But like all of Lisa See’s books, the foot binding is really only a backdrop in which to set her characters and this book is primarily about sisterhood. It’s why I keep returning to her books over and over again because she invests so much time in developing the relationships between women and exploring unique aspects of female culture. These girls live in a remote Hunan country and are taught the secret women’s language of Nu Shu, which was a language created by women, for women. The girls learn it from their mothers and write back and forth to one another on their secret fan when they are unable to be together in person.

This is a hard review to write because of the magnitude of history that See covers in just a short 280 page book. Class relationships are a major theme of the book and I love how he explored compassion through Lily and Snow Flower’s social standings. At the start of the book Lily questions much about Snow Flower because she comes from more money than her, but doesn’t understand that Snow Flower’s family is also falling apart and that because of her father’s addiction to opium, they have basically lost everything. Her family clings to the Laotong relationship as a way to maintain their status, while Lily’s family clings to it as a way to elevate their status. While Lily marries up, Snow Flower is forced into the lowest of matches with that of a pig farmer. I loved the exploration of how this influences the relationship between the two women over time and how all consuming and blinding status can be, eventually driving a wedge between the two women later in life.

At the same time, See covers what I believe is the Taiping Rebellion (it’s hard for me to remember now that it was so long ago). The conflict sees the women thrown from their homes and forced to hide in the mountains while millions are murdered in the villages. I wish I could elaborate more on this conflict, but the details are so foggy in my mind – I just bring it up to highlight the scope that See is able to cover in such a short book without the plot ever feeling rushed. It’s what makes her such an accomplished writer. Though she is ambitious, she always keeps her relationships at the center of her writing and I think this is what ties her novels together without making them seem overwhelming. Though she covers a lot, she sticks to her theme of sisterhood. 

Overall it’s a heartbreaking novel that covers the entirety of Lily and Snow Flower’s lives. While a hard read at times, it’s an eye-opening and meaningful one and I definitely recommend! Even after many months, I still had so much to say about this one and her stories always stay with me for years to come afterwards.