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!

Girls of Storm and Shadow

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Natasha Ngan
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Nov. 5, 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

I read and liked Girls of Paper and Fire last year. It was a dark fantasy that featured a queer female protagonist – something you don’t see too much in fantasy. So I was really excited to receive an advance copy of Girls of Storm and Shadow from Hachette.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get on board with this sequel. It felt a bit like a parody of the first book and I felt that Ngan’s writing left a lot to be desired. I’m not sure if maybe she was rushed in writing the second book or whether I got caught up in the hook of the first book and didn’t notice, but I found her writing very lacklustre in this book. I thought it didn’t have a lot of style and the dialogue could have been stronger. The writing was just kind of boring, as was the plot.

In Girls of Storm and Shadow, Lei and Wren have escaped from the King’s Court and are trying to win themselves more allies so that they can finally take down the king once and for all. It’s more of a political book, with our gang of misfits traveling from Court to Court, trying to win favour from other demon clans. Ngan does do some interesting things with her characterization of Lei and Wren towards the end of the book, but I felt it took too long to get there. Lei and Wren are just a happy little couple for most of the book and I’m sorry but, even if it’s a groundbreaking queer relationship, you need tension to keep romantic relationships interesting.

Both the character growth and the plot progression of this book are slow. It reminded me a bit of the second book in the Belles series, because in both these series, I really liked the first book, but found the sequel entirely lacking. Even though we had a roughly outlined plot – get more allies – I felt like the story was just too one dimensional in all aspects. I wanted more depth from the plot, more tension between characters, and more overall nastiness. This was just too vanilla and generic of pretty much any other YA fantasy novel. It no longer has anything to set it apart from the rest of the pack.

My hope is that it’s simply a victim of second book syndrome. I’m sure it can be hard to follow up a successful first book. First books generally read kind of like standalones and it’s not until the 2nd and 3rd books that we actually get into the meat of the story or the saga. I’m hopeful that Ngan has a clear vision of where she wants to take this series, but it didn’t come across in this book and honestly, the whole thing felt like filler. I think it’s easy to fall into that trap when you’re writing a traveling book because everything that happens on the way to the destination can just feel like unnecessary, added drama. I know lots of people read fantasy for the action, but I still want my thinking to be challenged and I expect multi-book series to have much greater depth in the plot. There just wasn’t a whole lot else happening here.

The one part I did like is the slow conflict that starts to wedge its way between Lei and Wren. I think it was too long in coming, but I liked the new darkness in Wren that Ngan introduces. It brought more intrigue to the story and I am interested to see where she may take that in the next book.

Anyways, I hate writing downer reviews like this, especially about a book I was really excited about, but unfortunately it just couldn’t live up to the first book. The story and characters have lots of potential, but I think Ngan needs to put a bit more thought into both her characters and her plot and spend a bit more time honing her writing skills.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ocean Vuong
Genres: Poetry, LGBTQIA+
Pub date: Jun. 2019 (read July 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Ocean Vuong

I was intrigued by this book, but it wasn’t super high up my TBR. However, I loved listening to the author’s voice in the audiobook sample, so I decided to read it. I’m so glad they got the author to narrate this one because I’m not sure anyone else could really have done it justice.

Initially I really liked it. The writing is poetic and it flowed really nicely. The author’s reading is emotional and I enjoyed listening to it, but I must admit, parts of the book were over my head and left me wondering how I should feel about it.

The book is crafted as a letter to the protagonist’s mother. It’s unclear to me whether this book is fiction or non-fiction, so I’d love some insight from other readers if you have it. It certainly read like non-fiction and I internalized it as such, but it could have been fiction.

Initially I liked that it was a letter from son to mother, Little Dog talks about the relationship he had with his mother and how it impacted him emotionally as he grew up. How their Vietnamese past influenced his childhood in America and shaped all of his relationships with his family members.

From there, Vuong moves on to the relationship Little Dog had with his friend Trevor and the struggle of being not only an immigrant, but a confused gay teenager. I found many parts of the story upsetting, but really appreciated their inclusion in the book and thought it brought a great depth to Vuong’s story. However, it did affect my reading of the book as a letter from son to mother. This format worked really well when confronting his childhood demons and the relationship with his family, but I thought the format had less meaning when it got into Little Dog’s exploration of coming to terms with his homosexuality. I don’t have the lived experience to really comment on its effectiveness, but personally I just found the ‘letter to mother’ format lost some of its potency in this part of the book. Just a comment on format, not content.

Mostly I’m left confused on how to rate the book though because parts of it were definitely over my head. I’ve been reading a lot more poetry lately (I used to never read it), but I definitely still struggle with the accessibility of poetry. I want to love it, but I think I just haven’t spent enough time reading poetry to really understand the nuance of it. I really enjoyed the writing, it was flowery, but not overwhelmingly so, but sometimes it’s just so overloaded with metaphors that I kind of missed out on the point. I really liked a lot of this book, but there were definitely some sections where I found myself tuning out.

Overall though, a very thoughtful book and debut for this young author, so well done! I would not be deterred from reading his stuff in the future.

The Great Believers

Rating: .5
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Jun. 2018 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I listened to The Great Believers as an audiobook and I feel like I’ve been working on it for a long time. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, there were parts of the book that I really liked, and other parts that I found kind of boring.

First of all, I will say that the scope of this novel is impressive. Makkai tackles a lot in this book. The main plot of the story (for me anyways), centers on Yale Tishman, who is a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980’s and coming to grips with the HIV/aids crisis completely decimating his entire community. The novel opens with the death of Yale’s friend Nico, which in a round-about way initiates a conversation between Yale and Nico’s great Aunt, Nora, who would like to donate her personal art collection to the university art gallery that Yale works for, which would be a huge acquisition for Yale and the gallery.

At the same time, a second storyline is set in Paris in 2015 as Nico’s sister, Fiona, searches for her adult daughter who she hasn’t seen in 5 years since she disappeared into a cult in America called the Savannah Collective. I would never have thought to pair any of these plotlines together, so I was impressed with Makkai for her creativeness and scope of the book.

That said, I didn’t love all of the plots in this book. I thought some parts were a lot stronger than others and it’s what really drove the rating down for me. I’ve described 3 major things: the HIV/aids crisis in the 1980’s, an art acquisition, and a missing daughter. Yale’s storyline about the HIV/aids crisis was by far my favourite. I’ve been privileged to have not had to give this period in history a whole lot a thought, so it was both sobering and fascinating to read about.

I really liked Yale. I thought he was super relatable and I loved reading about his relationships with all his friends and his perspective on the HIV/aids crisis. I thought his story had a really good balance of history, politics, and emotion. I connected with him a lot and it was devastating to watch his friends die one by one and the government do nothing. Makkai weaves in a lot of social commentary without overpowering her novel with it. This was still very much a novel about characters and relationships, with just the right amount of history and politics.

I thought the art acquisition storyline was mildly interesting. I liked the parallels that Nora drew between the artists she knew in WWI and the war that Yale and his friends were fighting in Chicago. I have never really read anything about the art world, except maybe like, the Da Vinci Code or something (lol), so this was a whole new world for me that was intriguing to learn about.

But Fiona’s story set in 2015 didn’t do much for me and is what really dragged down my rating and enjoyment. I found myself tuning out for entire sections of Fiona’s story and I felt like very little happened in her timeline. It took forever for the story to advance and when I finally realized what the “so what” was of Fiona’s story at the end of the novel, it felt a little anti-climactic. Fiona had a tumultuous relationship with her daughter that was an indirect result of the trauma of losing all her friends in the 1980’s. She talks about how you can’t really describe what it feels like to survive a war that none of your friends make it out of and how that impacts the rest of your life without you even noticing. I thought this was a fascinating topic and I was eager to explore it, but I thought Fiona’s relationship with her daughter was a laboured way of doing it. I liked Fiona, but I just thought the modern day part dragged the book down. I also felt like I didn’t get enough context of Fiona’s relationship with Claire as a young girl and so I didn’t understand why Claire hated Fiona so much

Overall though, I did like the book and I would definitely place it firmly in the category of literary fiction. Makkai writes with depth and I loved the characterization of Yale and all the secondary characters in his timeline. It wasn’t as stand out a book as I was hoping, but I’m definitely glad I read it.

Girls of Paper and Fire

Rating: 
Author: Natasha Ngan
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult, LGBTQIA+
Pub. date: Nov. 6, 2018 (read Sept. 2018)

Okay! I finally have a minute to review this book! I’ve been on vacation for the last two weeks, so I haven’t had a computer to blog from, but I did read 3 books on my vacation and of the 3, this was definitely my favourite!

Special thanks to Hatchette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Girls of Paper and Fire is set in a world that has 3 different castes: paper caste, steel caste, and moon caste. Paper caste are essentially humans and moon caste are essentially demons with strong animal characteristics. Steel falls somewhere in the middle. As you can guess, this world is ruled by the moon caste, who are much stronger than paper caste, who are considered fragile. I will admit that I found the concept a little juvenille at the beginning, mostly because pictured the moon caste as like, these comical Zootopia type characters, and that’s just not very scary, but I ended up getting really into it!

Lei is Paper caste and the book starts with her being stolen away from her home to be one of the Demon King’s Paper Girls. Every year the king selects 8 paper girls to live in the palace as his concubines. Some of the girls are there by choice, others offered up by their families in exchange for good favour from the palace, and then there are some girls like Lei, who are stolen from their homes. Most of the other Paper Girls are excited to take up a life of luxury in the palace, but Lei is terrified of the King and wants nothing more than to return home to her father.

At first I didn’t think the world building had that much depth, but the story was really easy to read and I got into it almost immediately. I didn’t know much about the book going in except that it had some mature themes, was heavily influenced by Asian (specifically Malaysian) culture, and that there were scenes of rape and sexual abuse. I was looking for a real voices, feminist fantasy novel and that is definitely what I got. I did not realize that this book had a queer relationship in it and it was such a thrill to read about! I can’t think of any young adult fantasy books that I’ve read featuring a lesbian romance and it was a wonderful surprise to find one in this book!

The author definitely tackles some heavy topics in this book. I struggle to classify this book as a young adult fantasy book because of the mature themes. The girls are forced to be concubines to the king, who is a violent tyrant and often takes out his anger on them. The story is a great example of how rape is not about sex – but power, the affect it has on women, and taking back some of that power for yourself. I did think the plot was a little superficial, I wish it had a bit more depth, but it was still very different from all the other fantasy I’ve read and I really hope it gets a sequel because I feel like this world has a lot of potential and that Ngan has only scratched the surface.

I love that I’ve been seeing a lot more Asian and African inspired fantasies in the last year or so and that we are getting more diverse voices in literature. I love the escapism of fantasy, but still tackling real life issues that are just as relevant to me in my day to day life. I feel like there are so many awesome female authors out there writing about the struggles that women face in real life every day, and the contrast of writing them in a fantasy world draws more attention to the injustice of it all. Representation is so important.

Overall I was impressed with this book and would definitely recommend, but maybe to more mature readers. My biggest struggle was that the world building seemed on the younger side, while the themes were definitely more mature.